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Today is officially one month since we proposed the idea for a new tool for conversation and collaboration (Junto: Discussing Ideas Worth Spreading). Energy has been building over the weeks, and people around the world have been stepping forward to help make this thing happen. Last Wednesday, I met and with an assistant professor of media design at Parsons who expressed interest in helping on the front end of the project. (Parsons, a leading art and design college, is one of eight sister schools that make up The New School.) We met last week on Wednesday to discuss a prototype, and by Friday the first version was up. I just want to say a quick public “thank you” to Dave Carroll and Parsons for hosting this prototype while we work on how to scale it globally.

Quick Background

I’m currently completing graduate research at The New School in NYC in their Media Studies program, with a focus on media theory and digital ethnography. When I was originally pondering where to do graduate work, the New School piqued my interest. It has a rich history and a reputation for housing avant-garde, free thinking intellectuals. But, what sealed the deal for me was finding out that futurist Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock) taught the first university futures course in the U.S. at the New School back in 1966. As a budding futurist myself, I thought this must be a sign.

So, it only seems appropriate now that Junto, an application for forward-thinking intelligent dialogue and collaboration should be born here!

It also makes perfect sense in terms of the school’s initiative to break down silos and unify as a collaborative university. Many institutions are in trouble, as their bureaucracies and fear of openness prevent them from seeing the long view of “competition through collaboration,” and they are losing relevance, as talented individuals choose to pursue their studies elsewhere. In the past few days, faculty support for this free platform has been coming in across divisions. Not only does it have the potential to be an excellent collaborative tool for the professors and administration, but it could serve as a bridge linking students that are currently existing mainly within their own division. The call for interdisciplinary study and sharing in general has become more pressing than ever, and the gains from doing so are clear. This example in itself, with a connection between myself within the Media Studies department and Dave within Parsons is a testament to the value of aligning around a shared vision.

The “Business Model”

This is the foundation for this to “work”: The platform itself has to be free. It is intended to become a 3D conversation landscape, like a commons. Value is co-created by what people can do while using the platform, but the platform itself must remain pure and non-commercialized. The entire idea is based on a foundation of trust, openness, shared values, ethics, and the collaborative spirit – which, in my opinion, is not something to be monetized. It is a public, and should remain a neutral zone. (This model is similar to the FCC established rules of amateur radio – non-commercial and decent communication required – except it is not using a limited frequency spectrum.)

Unlike other social networks that don’t state an intended purpose, or who change their financial models on you midstream after you’ve put in the time and effort to build a community, or who continually violate your trust and privacy by changing the rules without permission – this platform is different. It is intended from the outset for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge so that new ideas and knowledge can be built. Interactions and exchanges are available to be shared by the public so that we can experience mutual benefit from the results of cocreation and synchronicity.

I suggest that the benefit of usage will outweigh the cost of contributing server support. I would also imagine that universities and institutions around the world who are committed to positive change, learning, and growth will find it makes sense to be a part of this mission. Eventually, server support could be completely distributed, and maybe one day when the energy crisis is solved, be taken off the grid completely.

Our Responsibility

I said this during my presentation at the Social Business Edge conference on Monday, but it bears repeating:

Technology is the tool, not the builder. We are the builders.

Technology is not going to save us, we can only save ourselves. And as many intelligent people are aware, we already have the resources needed to alleviate the world’s big problems, they’re just misallocated. And we already have the solutions to solve the problems, they’re just behind silos or aching to cross-pollinate with ideas across fields.

As a generalist, I pay attention to what’s going on in many different sectors and industries, and it seems to me that many people are saying the exact same thing, just packaged for their audience. Many people are calling for change, but the methods to get there are often more of the same. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps the modern day equivalent is Obama’s quote of “lipstick on a pig.”

If there are so many organizations committed to change, why aren’t things changing?

Perhaps we need to rethink what collaboration means, and redefine the most effective avenue to getting there. I’m not suggesting we scrap everything we have – not at all. But I do think there can be another channel that can operate in parallel to the current system. It doesn’t have to be one or the other – we need both. While institutional initiatives have their merit, of course, I am continually stunned by the speed and agility of a distributed network of passionate, committed people to take a concept from idea to action.

What if we would start doing this on a global scale? Instead of wishing ourselves into a better future, what about a truly innovative proposal for getting things done?

Project Overview

I’ve written a few updates already, in the Junto is Born! post and the Open Letter to Tim Berners-Lee,  but here is a general overview of what we’re thinking about:

  • Bandwidth Challenges

The big issue we’ve been discussing around the growth of the platform is the availability of bandwidth. To be scalable, it’s going to require the ability to have live, real-time video and audio for all users, anywhere.

A recent email suggested our university might have a better solution:

We have Internet 2 (the ultra high speed Internet just for universities) but we currently don’t use it for anything. The best angle we have to win the interest of the bureaucracy is to frame this as a potential use of Internet 2 and the role of Universities to build the next Internet experience. According to my source, there’s been discussion of getting rid of it, despite the fact that we only pay $10k per year which is an astonishing bargain considering the potential we could offer the world.

Another email suggested we are capable of achieving an “infinite amount of bandwidth” by using an OC3 (fiber-optic line), which is supposedly the equivalent to about 100 T1 lines.

I don’t understand all of this exactly, but it seems to imply that the bandwidth challenge is solvable.

  • Open Source Telepresence

The other serendipitous recent news came two days ago: Cisco confirms open source Telepresence. This is perfect timing. According to the article, “the TIP code will go under Apache license on July 1, at Sourceforge,” giving us just about two months to get people on board with this and start developing the platform so we can integrate with the telepresence system when it’s released. In the meantime, we can experiment with effective group dynamics in these large scale collaborations. The technology is there, what’s needed is some social engineering.

  • Data Visualization

This is a huge component of what we want to integrate as the platform evolves. The big picture is for real-time speech to data visualization capabilities, so that one could literally talk and then concepts would be generated before them. This would be particularly advantageous for scientists, mathematicians and physicists developing models for nanotechnology. For the rest of us, it would enable us to “see” what each other is talking about, watch patterns pop, and create an environment where new insights can emerge.

Though we’re not quite there yet, I was intrigued by Gary Flake’s recent TED Talk revealing Microsoft Pivot. Pivot looks like a tool that would be very useful within the ebiidii platform. Check out the video to see the potential of this:

  • Real-Time Collaboration

Another collaborator has been speaking with Prezi about developing a real-time collaborative version of their application. It’s still too early for any commitment, but they’ve expressed interest in seeing where things may go. If not Prezi, we will find something else, but we definitely want features for real-time collaborative presentations, mindmaps/concept maps, and a whiteboard. We’ve also been looking at Compendium for this.

  • Open Source Code Repository

As we’re playing with the prototype, we’d like to also get a source code repository set up so we can start building.

Slideshow: Drupalcon keynote by Tim O’Reilly: Open Source and Open Data in the Age of the Cloud

  • Sentiment Analysis, Emotional/Intuitive Tagging, Metadata, Social Impact

I’m not quite up to speed on all the dimensions of this to be able to explain it clearly, as our focus has been on getting a stable discussion platform running first. But, this is the main topic of in #junto sessions so far. [We’ve also been talking about the need for a Junto Calendar page, where people can list sessions they’re planning on having so others can plan ahead and join in. In the meantime, our sessions have been rather impromptu, but we’re tagging it with the #junto hashtag.]

We’re looking at Storygarden, a “web-based tool for gathering and analyzing a large number of stories contributed by the public. The content of the stories, along with some associated survey questions, are processed in an automated semantic computing process for an immediate, interactive display for the lay public, and in a more thorough manual process for expert analysis.” We haven’t had a chance yet to see how this tool might be integrated, but have definitely been talking about a way to visually see what the main points and sentiments around an idea are, so if this particular tool is unavailable, we will find one that is.

We’re also looking at a symbol based emotional tagging language and an Artificial Intuition system.

Many big thinkers have been posting their work on some of the potential implications and longer term impacts of these social technologies on SpaceCollective, which is being sent to the Polytopia project, in case you’d like to read up on the theoretical/philosophical aspects. Other organizations thinking about this are Fibreculture, institute of network cultures, nettime, and more links provided here by the Institute for Distributed Creativity.

  • Next Steps

I just received an invitation by Tim O’Reilly to attend Foo Camp in June, so I’m excited to share this project with more people and see who else is interested in collaborating. I’m also hoping that other progressive universities (i.e. MIT, Stanford) will join in and contribute server space to keep this alive, so that it eventually snowballs into a bigger global effort. I also ran into someone at Monday’s conference who supposedly has access to an open source community that may be enticed to help. Other than that, I’m looking at other organizations and groups who would seem to naturally be aligned with this vision, such as the Open Metaverse Foundation, P2P Foundation, Wikimedia Foundation, Aspen Institute, Skoll Foundation, Macarthur Foundation, Buckminster Fuller Institute, Acceleration Studies Foundation, The Forward Foundation, Institute for the Future, and other futurist think tanks and initiatives.

It’s exciting to watch this unfold, and it seems to only be a matter of time before it all comes together. It’s already happening. It’s just a matter of how quickly we’ll assemble the pieces so that we have a way to connect with each other in a productive, effective way, and an ability to be as real with each other as possible in a mediated space.

Radical? Sure. Necessary? Probably. Game Changer? I’d like to find out.

Would you?


Storygarden developed by Dave Snowden (@snowded), Jon Husband (@jonhusband), and others

zoacode symbol language – Ishan Shapiro (@notthisbody)

Syntience, Artificial Intuition – Michael Gusek (@mgusek555)

@jeff_dickey @VenessaMiemis I like the idea of DVCS; Bazaar & Mercurial are great. I still use SVN. (TOOLS!) http://j.mp/czhCGc http://j.mp/cUAqha #junto

@jeff_dickey @VenessaMiemis Git > SVN if your team is as the Linux kernel jocks. Beyond that, it’s all attitude, pretense, and howlingly immature tools.

@Visionscaper @VenessaMiemis If you’re going completely open source sourceforge.net provides free version control (SVN) hosting http://bit.ly/czbuDG

@alecperkins @VenessaMiemis free hosting for open source projects that use Git ver control: http://github.com (git > svn)http://whygitisbetterthanx.com/

alecperkins @VenessaMiemis GitHub emphasizes social coding and acts like a social network for coders and the projects themselves.