#publicsphere in Wollongong

The third #publicsphere event was held in Wollongong yesterday (with nodes in Melbourne and Brisbane joining in). With all things that involve an open forum and public consultation, there will be some good bits, and some bits that don’t quite do it for you.

In terms of contributions to the debate in the form of a paper or submission, you really can’t go past the Silicon Beach Lifeguard paper, assembled by Elias Bizannes along with a small army of contributors and editors from the SiliconBeach community. Here’s a video of Elias introducing the paper:

In addition to the paper/submission approach of SBA’s Lifeguard paper, there were also a lot of other good presentations.

Silvia Pfeiffer from Vquence gave a fairly sobering analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing the Australia startup sector. While much of it wasn’t new information for those of us who do this stuff every day, Silvia’s presentation did a brilliant job of assembling a plethora of issues into cohesive lists and constructs, and while I knew about the pieces already, the way she put them together certainly had me coming away with a much clearer picture of our situation. Hopefully her slides will be up on her Slideshare account soon.

Another stand-out presentation in my mind came from @nambor (Rob Manson). After getting the undivided attention from everyone in the room in Wollongong thanks to the coolest set of chops in the room, he proceeded to share how the challenge of succeeding has less to do with “supply side” factors than the (neglected) “demand side” factors. He wasn’t talking about economics (specifically): he was talking about success in technology. The basic thesis is that tech types want to keep pushing supply side – concepts like ‘building a better mouse trap’, ‘build it and they will come’, ‘lets keep innovating’ – while the demand side – taking the time to show tech users how their productivity and lives can be improved by new stuff is really poorly done and needs more focus. This principle, which played then into his main thesis of Diffusion is the Innovation, was then expanded upon. Rather than me butchering it, I’ll just embed his presentation here.

The day itself wasn’t all geek, however. Towards the end, we had a great presentation from Tim Parsons present from a creative perspective. As you’d expect from a futurist in the creative space, the presentation was exquisite. The content itself was great for stimulating some ideas and discussion, and I really thought the sentiment that “Online Culture is the Mainstream”, and not something reserved for geeks anymore, was a great observation, and something I really agree with (since now I’ve got mum on Facebook, and my girlfriend blogging). Anyway, the slide deck is at embedded below (it still looks great, but Tim’s passion in delivering it made it 10x better)

There were many other excellent presentations through the course of yesterday that I haven’t got the time or enough good quotes to include here in this post, but the good news is that the Senator’s team will be uploading the video (which was already streamed, but probably needs to be cleaned up a little and spliced into talks) next week. I’ll update this post then with a few links (including a link to me own impromptu talk on Skills, Talent and Education).

Ethics & the end of (media) days

I was lucky enough this week to be a guest of the team from Kells at a lecture they ran in Wollongong, featuring the acclaimed Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre. The morning lecture, which went for about an hour, with more than half an hour of questions and answers was an excellent and by far the most intellectually challenging way I’ve spent a Wednesday morning.

While the concepts of the values and principles framework surrounding ethics – defined, as attributed to Socrates, as “what ought one to do” – is something I’ve read about and studied before, it isn’t until you have someone present the crystalised examples and contexts, from Plato through to Madoff, covering issues from the Trojan Horse through to the Global Financial Crisis, that it really has the penny drop.

Given the event was hosted by a law firm, it was interesting that ABC’s Fora program had recently broadcast a speech from Geoffrey Cousins on moral courage, which started with the challenge that what is legal isn’t necessarily moral (or ethical). For the various people at the event I spoke to, I’ve made things a bit easier and embedded Geoffrey Cousin’s speech below.

But getting back to Simon’s speech from this week, which I had the pleasure of seeing in person and interacting with. Simon raised the issue of what’s “right”, and the challenged the audience to be a little more bold about standing up for what’s right.

Simon related a story of how an Australian organisation committed to tackling child abuse thought they would get a better response from politicians, the media and broader society by commissioning a study into the economic effects of child sexual abuse, measured in lost productivity and the costs of treatment. Simon challenged us to be bold enough to declare that stopping child sexual abuse doesn’t need any further justification than that it isn’t right.

So how do we know what’s right? Simon covered three different tests: two old, one relatively new.

  • The first old test is the golden rule: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. A pretty simple test, but with a subtle change of “do unto others before they do unto you”, things change pretty significantly.
  • The other older rule comes from St Augustine(?) and basically says to just ask your conscience. Of course, this depends on your upbringing to an extent, and puts into relief the importance of bring great parents.
  • The third rule is known in some places – particularly the US – as the sunshine test, where you only do something if you’d be happy for it to be on the front page of the newspaper or if your mum was to know about it in full.

Most people are aware that traditional media is facing some pretty tough choices. The day before the Ethics lecture, one of Australia’s key media companies, Fairfax, reported a massive loss of A$380M for the 2008-09 financial year. With the transition of the high-margin classified business to online environments, and the GFC and digital advertising blowing away a lot of display advertising, there are serious threats to the media and its important role in public interest and discourse.

I’m generally a fan of the concepts behind more participative, citizen journalism and the ability of the online environment to give people a voice. However, thinking about the three guidelines that help people facing ethical and moral dilemmas to decide on what is the right thing to do, it is that third aspect that would appear to have the strongest effect on behaviour, particularly since we can’t rely on the Law to guide ethical decision making.

If in 20 years the media has been scattered and decentalised, will we loose an important decision making tool and ethical compass?

Some light shines inside the Evil Fruit: now appears to be lying and rotten

News broke over the weekend (Australian time) covering the formal responses to the FCC’s questions of Apple, AT&T and Google regarding the recent Google Voice debacle.

Michael Arrington has written a really good piece on the responses of Apple, and he makes a compelling case that Apple are lying.

While shining some light on the Evil Fruit and showing up how pathetic and biased many of the Apple apologists and Fan Bois really are is great to see, I’m concerned that there isn’t enough attention being paid to the real issue here: that Apple’s App Store shouldn’t be the only place you can legally install applications from.

Lets hope that the FCC and digerati focus on this issue when Apple back-flips and is forced to allow the Google Voice Application into the iTunes store. Allowing Apple to retain and control this walled garden is bad for consumers, bad for the industry and ecosystem, and shows Apple to be a much bigger threat to competition – particularly if they use the iPhone model for their tablet play – than Microsoft has ever been.

Enough of Ozcar already

While it might be compelling political theatre for the hungry Canberra media gallery, a studio audience at Q&A last week made it clear – enough with Ozcar already.

Compared to the debate over the Emissions Trading Scheme, the (frankly separate, and first) debate over the targets we should be setting to reduce greenhouse gasses, the $300Bn of spending going into “stimulus” across our economy which my generation, and my children’s generation, and possibly more, will be paying off, this is a distraction.

Enough already.

Apple: the "evil fruit"

There’s finally been a lot more people – influential people – waking up to the reality of what Apple has become: more evil, monopolistic and selfish than almost anyone else in the technology business. The fact their products are pretty and the company was once the underdog is no longer enough to cover over the fact that their behaviour unfairly screws their users time and time again for the benefit of Apple’s bottom line.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for many people was the news the Apple had rejected the official Google Voice application from the App Store, and it then proceeded to remove two other applications for using Google Voice that had been previously approved. There was – finally – uproar, and I’m really glad to see it.

I was interested to read Jason Calacanis’ strongly worded “calling out” of Apple in “The Case Against Apple – in Five Parts” from earlier today. Instead of just ranting at Apple for their very very bad behaviour, Jason also tries to justify the business case for Apple changing their ways and not screwing and controlling their customers so much. I’m not sure the case needs a whole lot of justification, but you’ve got to admire his efforts.

A few days before Jason’s post, my friend Michael Arrington announced he was Qutting the iPhone. In explaining his reasons, Mike says “…I choose to work with the company that isn’t forcing me to do things their way”, and he chooses Google over Apple. His approach is entirely pragmatic, but it also helps that he’s on the right side of the moral and emotional debate on all of this.

One thing that has always bothered me is the number of Mac Fan-boys in the technology industry. They like to beat up Microsoft as the evil empire, and see purchasing a Mac as an act of defiance. Many of these people are also passionate about open-source, and see Microsoft as the enemy in this regard. Now, I’m no Microsoft defender, but don’t these bone-heads appreciate that the Mac and the iPhone use a lot of open source software under the hood, and then proceed to wrap the products – particularly the iPhone/iPod and iTunes stack – into a walled garden which is more monopolistic than Microsoft and Windows have ever been? Surely this is the definition of “closed”?

As if to demonstrate just how one-eyed many in technology circles are, when news of the rejection and deletion were first announced, people assumed it was AT&T who were at fault: surely Apple, the perfect dictatorship, would never do this? It might turn out that it was AT&T – thankfully, the FCC is investigating – but regardless of whether it was Apple or AT&T calling the shots, I think the real problem is Apple being able to tell users what they can and can’t do with a piece of hardware they’ve purchased and own.

Apple should have the right to choose which applications to ‘stock’ in its store, and they should have the right to decide that almost without recourse, just like a vendor at the corner store should be able to choose what products to carry. The problem isn’t the approval process: the problem is that users should have the right to install applications on products they’ve purchased without needing to hack in, something Apple is trying to have made into a crime based on bullshit reasoning they should be ashamed of.

My moment of “wow, you guys really, really suck” was crystalised when I was travelling with my girlfriend in New York last year. I was using my laptop to charge her iPhone, and it asked if I wanted to upgrade to the newest firmware. I said OK, but then it didn’t work, and the phone needed a hard reset. My girl was pretty understanding considering she’s just lost all of her contacts and SMS messages, but the frustrating bit was that the apps she’d previously bought were wiped. By doing the hard reset while being attached to my computer, the iPhone had associated itself with my iTunes account. No problem, I thought: when we first got the iPhone, we signed into the iTunes store via the iPhone (no laptop or iTunes). I just needed to find that screen again, sign out from  my account, and she could sign in as hers. After searching for ages, and having a trip to see the very pretty Apple store near Central Park on our walking tourist agenda anyway, I figured we’d ask one of the geniuses for help. When we got there, I was amazed to be told the menu option I couldn’t find is deliberately hidden from the user, and the only way to change the iPhone to her account was to plug it into her laptop: which was at home, back in Australia, where we wouldn’t be returning for 2 more weeks! And the reason for deliberately hiding a menu/feature that I knew existed on the phone? It’s a “security feature”. Bullshit. It’s there so Apple can continue to screw and control its users and wring out every last cent from them.

Still, even a week ago and just after the Google Voice debacle broke, when I was doing some training with people from a company brave enough to make their motto “Don’t be Evil”, the topic of Apple came up, and I mentioned that I thought they were “evil”. The person I was speaking to couldn’t believe what I was saying, and that surely I meant the other guy, and that Apple is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, this attitude is all too prevalent in technology circles, but then it takes time for people’s attitudes to change.

Even so, there are people out there deliberately and consciously doing the ostrich. I read a post tonight (via Techmeme) from a guy who argued against Jason Calacanis’ post after proudly disclosing he hadn’t even read the post. Weird: you normally only see that kind of deliberate ignorance on matters of religion.

So, what’s my problem with these fan-boys, choosing to stay ignorant and fighting the battles of the early 1990’s? If it were people just choosing to remain ignorant fan-boys I wouldn’t care as much, but these are often the people who family members and friends turn to for technology advice. That’s the real problem, and until the mainstream press start paying attention and asking questions – like why can’t I sync my music I’ve paid for to a Palm Pre from iTunes – people are just going to get more and more screwed by an increasingly more powerful and despotic Apple.