Category Archives: Business

Fixing Journalism? Two Approaches

Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It turns out that the Internet lowered the cost of delivering information to the point that anyone can play the role of journalism. Anyone. For any reason.

Worse, as the information economy has been increasingly captured by the advertising industry, all other interests have been obliterated. Everything is subordinated to the need to command a large enough audience to generate revenue for advertisers. We now have a word for this, “click bait”.

At the same time, the idea of “mass” media has been replaced with individually filtered channels. It isn’t necessary to serve a least-common-denominator, each person receives a custom stream, potentially different from any other. This has shattered cultural consensus that, for better or worse, was a side-effect of mass media.

These developments have had pernicious effects everywhere, but the destruction of quality (or even mediocre) journalism is particularly damaging to civil society and democratic government.

Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about some new effort to “save” or “reboot” journalism. Shorn of marketing hype, these ideas are basically about money. How can you sustain the activities of journalists or equivalent content creators?

There aren’t many candidate solutions, and they are all pretty much the same ideas as sustained print based journalism.

  1. be a captive propaganda organ
  2. advertising
  3. subscription

Setting aside the “ministry of truth” approach favored by political groups, let’s look at two recent examples of the other approaches.

Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism

One diagnosis of journalism’s malaise is that they need to adapt to the new world of on-line advertising and the accompanying need to “attract eyeballs”. Conventional journalistic organizations must be rebooted for this new world.

There are many versions of this, but one interesting concept comes from “Civil”, which not only aims to fix journalism, but uses trendy blockchain technology to do so.

The goal is “is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. Wow!

One of the key insights in this approach is to view the goal as a global marketplace for journalism, which eschews notions of a special fourth estate with a critical role in democratic self-governance. From this point of view, journalism is one kind of content, and it has to compete in a global marketplace filled with lots of other content.

In one sense, this is essentially conceding defeat. Journalism is over, so we’ll reuse the term for journalism-like content.

Their promised solution sounds too good to be true. Somehow this global, unregulated market will be free of influences, and “self-sustaining” without ads. How will this work?  Magic.

The magic is blockchain based “autonomous” organizations. This technology replaces a conventional organization with code, and, most important, aims to replace the critical functions of journalism with “autonomous” processes—protocols that are not controlled by any person.

So, Civil proposes a suite of processes that they believe replace everything important from conventional journalism,  and avoid costly overheads and intrusive outside interest.

Who are the stakeholders in the journalism game? At the heart, there are journalists (“sellers”) and citizens (“buyers”). There are  funders, owners, advertisers, and sponsors.

But the critical piece that makes it journalism rather than entertainment is quality control, selection of topics, honest investigation, and careful fact checking. In a conventional organization, this role is performed by editorial staff and other managers, who exercise power with judgment.

The ‘Civil’ project eliminates all of these players except the producers and consumers.

Civil aims to create a marketplace model for journalism where citizens and journalists connect around shared interests and standards.

This is both technologically and organizationally identical to many other Internet markets.

The Civil project diagnoses the weakness of this “Amazon” model as being the ease with which “anonymous black hats to cheaply produce and spread fake, malicious content in pursuit of clicks-for-cash ad dollars or nefarious propagandist aims.

Their solution is inspired by Wikipedia, and seeks to “incentivize journalism” while defeating non-journalistic behavior. In their analysis, the way to do this is to create a cryptocurrency and use it to implement micropayments. It’s a bit more complicated than this, because they want to encourage more than just personal payments. They want stable channels of information with strong quality or at least reputation for quality.

Their design has three pieces:

Newsrooms” – “Newsrooms allow citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic. The more citizens, the more funding, the more journalists will be drawn to cover it.”

Stations” – “Stations allow journalists to productize and price their work to their own dedicated audience however they want”

Fact-checking-as-a-service” – this is crowd sourcing of the editorial role.

These ideas are to be implemented with Ethereum-style “smart contracts”, creating protocols for buying and selling content, as well as voting, penalizing ‘inaccuracy’ and other activities.

The two “innovations” here would have to be the “newsroom” and the “fact-checking-as-a-service”. (“Stations” are indistinguishable from many other digital channels, including this blog.)

The Newsroom concept is an interesting take on how journalism is supposed to work. The idea that journalists should cover what “people” want them to cover is, well, problematic. There are lots of things I don’t want to know about (e.g., wars), but I need journalists to tell me about it. The idea that journalistic coverage should be driven by customer demand is pretty poor journalism.

The “Fact-Checking-As-A-Service” is even more problematic. This concept replaces the efforts of editors and quality control staff with an unspecified crowd sourcing. They don’t explain how this might work or even what it does.

First of all, “fact checking” is only the first level of journalistic quality controls. A report can be 100% “accurate” and still mislead by omission or bias. For that matter, much of the “fake news” is based on interpretation and even “alternative facts”. If there are multiple “fact checkers” who give different rulings, how does that help?

Second, actual quality control is far more than just double checking names and dates. Tracking down alleged events and sources isn’t trivial. More important, judging the weight to give various sources is hard. In this, journalists act as trusted sources of information, and we implicitly trust their sources because we trust them. Replacing this chain of trust with a “trustless” system is dubious.

As an aside, I’ll point out that the best journalists are not “incentivized” by money. They are motivated by a desire to be a trusted source of information. And the best of them report on things that no one wants to know about—and they make us care whether we want to or not.  Thus, the incentives of this system are probably misguided from the start.


The bottom line is that “Civil” is almost a caricature of the cryptocurrency culture. They aim to “fix” journalism, but they seem to misunderstand what it is, and misdiagnose its ills. Not surprisingly, the proposed “fix” is problematic, and unlikely to work.

The Conversation

“The Conversation” offers a rather different “fix” for at least part of the same problem. The conversation is a not for profit enterprise, dedicated to promulgating reliable, fact-based information.

Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.”

The Conversation is responding to the challenges described by Civil. They also perceive a disconnect between universities and the public. Universities are repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge is poorly represented in journalism.

The Conversation sees itself as a source of trusted information dedicated to the public good.

In contrast to Civil, The Conversation does not rely on a “market” to “incentivize” their producers. For one thing their writers are already highly motivated. What they do focus on is careful editing, which is not just ”fact checking”, but also helps create clear, understandable information for non-specialists.

Above all, The Conversation is aiming to create trusted and trustworthy information. They enforce strong rules on transparency, including disclosure of financial interests. The authors are not paid in cryptocurrency or anything, and the content is open for anyone to reuse under Creative Commons Attributions-No Derivs (CC BY-ND). This license preserves the attribution and precludes modification of what the author said, which are necessary to maintain both the trust of the readers and the reputation of the writers and editors.

In short,  “We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism.”

The content is not driven by user demand, it is curated by The Conversation. They are looking for people who know a lot about a topic of public interest, who want to inform the public about it.

Authors must agree to “Community Standards”, which amount to straightforward rules of civil discourse: mutual respect, staying on topic, be constructive, be responsible. It is interesting that one of the rules is “Be You”. No anonymous or pseudonymous posts allowed: you must take personal responsibility for what you say.

Articles are “pitched” to the staff, and if selected an editor is assigned to help create the article. The editor is not a “fact checker”, she or he is a co-creator,  charged to help design the article to be valuable for the general audience.

The published article will include the name, qualifications, affiliations, and funding sources of the author. In this, they are taking practices from academic publishing out to general readers.

The content is free for readers, and available for republishing. No one is writing to make money, but there is plenty of reputation on the line.

One reason this works is that the contributors must be affiliated with an academic institution. Aside from filtering out complete fakes and robots, this means that the authors have their own funding, and generally have a mission to publish. The Conversation doesn’t need to “incentivize” with a starvation wage.


Comparison

These two (of many) efforts to “fix journalism” offer an interesting comparison.

Both Civil and The Conversation say that there is a crisis in journalism, and describe the illness in similar terms. But these two projects diagnose the underlying disease rather differently, and therefore prescribe different treatments.

Civil is concerned with the financial underpinnings of journalism, and seems to be mainly interested in coverage of current events, especially local events. They seek to use digital technology to create a more efficient, decentralized funding model. Specifically, they use trendy blockchain technology to design “markets” that replace the processes of journalism.

While Civil deploys “disruptive” technology, it’s processes aren’t especially novel, nor even that different from conventional practice. The main novelty is the replacement of editorial decision-making and quality control with market incentives and rather hazy notions of “fact checking as a service”.

The Conversation is concerned with creating better content in ways that are distributed as widely as possible. They are particularly interested in disseminating the deep knowledge accumulated at Universities to the general public.

The Conversation is focused on trusted information. As such, quality control is at the center of the solution, and incentives are aimed to support public interest, not market share.

The Conversation uses digital technology (of course), but musters motivated people from the existing pool of academic researchers who have a desire to support the public good. Authors are not paid, and the content is given away for free. Editors, on the other hand, are paid. If there is a market, it is a reputation economy.

It is notable that The Conversation has been operating for a number of years. No one is getting rich, but there is a lot of solid journalism being made. In that sense, it is a proof by existence.

Civil, on the other hand, is untried as yet. The blockchain technology it aims to use is not only new, it is extremely shaky.


My own view is that Civil’s approach to journalism exhibits fundamental misunderstandings and even a repudiation of what journalism actually used to be. Editors have always been aware of market forces, but are supposed to act as a buffer between producers and raw demand. That is, editors want to foster solid reporting, even if there is no immediate “demand” for it, and they want to report accurately regardless of what the customers want to hear.

Editorial staff does fact checking, but fact checking per se is only the most trivial aspect of quality control. In any case is neither an optional after market service, nor something that you choose to match your own prejudices.

I think that The Conversation’s focus on trust is a great idea, and I’m glad to see it working. On the other hand, The Conversation is focused on a small part of the problem with journalism, which is the poor use of expert knowledge. This problem has been around for decades in the form of anxiety over the challenges of disseminating scientific understandings.

The Conversation works because it uses already existing social mechanisms, specifically, the credentialing and public mission of Universities. These institutions are designed to create trusted information and conduct civil discourse. The Conversation extends the reach of these processes.

However, the entire enterprise of public universities is increasingly threatened by both cultural attack and politically motivated defunding. The Conversation only works if you think that University affiliated experts are trusted sources, and that belief is far from universal. A lot of “fake news” is simply nihilistic denial of expert opinion, and no amount of editing can overcome the will to deny.

The bottom line is that neither of these projects is much of a cure for journalism. The Conversation does a good job, but depends on the fate of academia and rational debate in general. Civil misunderstands journalism, and attempts to fix the problem of trusted information via “trustless” technology and market forces. Whatever Civil is doing, it isn’t good journalism.


  1. Civil Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism.June 20 2017, https://medium.com/@Join_Civil/civil-self-sustaining-journalism-a5caa49005c3
  2. The Converstaion. The Conversation: In-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading academics and researchers. 2017, https://theconversation.com/us.

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

More Blockchain Use Cases

For the past few years, we’ve been hearing about all the amazing things that Nakamotoan blockchains could be used for(e.g.,  [2]). As the technology matures, reality has been sorting out what is likely to work and what isn’t.

This week Jonathan Keane writes about “5 Apps Already Being Built on the Decentralized Web”. Specifically, he’s talking about applications that are using Blockstack which is a software layer that manages cloud storage. Blockchain manages identity and metadata, and all data is encrypted. Essentially, this replaces a conventional database with encrypted records accessed through a decentralized blockchain.

The overall goal of this decentralization is to eliminate censorship (and tax collection). They think that “major internet players wield too much power over users, and this is exactly what Blockstack was created to disrupt.” One founder went so far as to assert that with blockchain technology, it’s not “don’t be evil”, it’s “can’t be evil”.   (Obviously, this is true only for certain values of “evil”.)

Keane gives an optimistic view of this technology which has attracted some investment and has a number of applications cooking. His list gives us another reading on where blockchain technology may actually be used.


OpenBazaar

This system is actually operating. It is a clone of Silk Road and other market places, which provides wide open market for anything. Openbazaar actually only uses one part of OpenStack, though who knows. This is a classic Nakamotoan use case, making the world safe for money laundering and illicit commerce. How this isn’t “evil”, I don’t really see.

Casa

Casa aims to be a clone of AirBnB, paid via Bitcoin. It’s not clear what the business model is, exactly, but they aim to compete on price: blockchain is cheaper than corporate servers. Whether they can catch up to AirBnB’s massive user base remains to be seen. Customers care about convenience, not back end processes, so who knows? And how many people want to be paid in Bitcoin?  Do people really want a less regulated AirBnB?

We’ll see.

Afia

Afia is said to be another entry in the growing field of portable health records. The idea is to hold your own records securely encrypted, and, presumably, provide them to other digital systems such as providers and insurance companies. The goal is to reduce the risk when third parties hold personal data.

Regardless of the blockchain technology, this idea depends on those third parties participating in the scheme. I.e., they must not hold records of you, and they must accept your records from you. This requires quite a bit of trust, and a ton of social engineering. We’ll see.

Guild

Guild is a clone of medium, yet another blockchain based blogging platform. The idea apparently is that the Internet isn’t unfettered enough, what is needed is the ability for anyone to post anything they want. Blockchain technology assures that people can post anonymously, and there is no way to block or delete content.

In the forty years of the Internet, we have run this experiment many times. It never works. In fact, this approach has reduced the Internet to a near useless patchwork of junk information, slander, and propaganda.  This is certain to encourage and sustain ‘evil’.

Ongaku Ryoho

Ongaku Ryoho is a clone of music streaming apps. The music (however obtained) is encrypted in your cloud storage, metadata is managed with the blockchain. This replicates the servers of a streaming app with a decentralized system.

The economic case is to cut out the middle man, to let artists publish directly to consumers. It’s not clear, but it’s probable that it will be difficult to enforce copyrights and licenses on the content. It will be difficult to “take down” pirated material, once it is in the system.

This could potentially work pretty well, because music consumers are pretty motivated to get their music, and everyone hates the music industry. Everything depends on whether they can get content, and that will depend on how good a deal this is for artists. If artists’ rights are protected, it will work, if not, it will just be another pirate kingdom.


“Disruption” But Not Especially Innovative

Overall, these coming-real-soon-now applications may “disrupt” current Internet businesses, but they are certainly not especially innovative. The innovations are mostly in the back end processing, which users neither see nor care about. Will this be enough to successfully overtake existing companies? I doubt it, but much depends on the details of the user experience.

Some of the ideas are banking on the dubious proposition that people want a less controlled Internet. There are certainly people who grate under the ability of big companies to censor them, turn over data to the government, or get hacked. But most people really wish for a much more filtered experience (which is part of why Facebook succeeds). So it isn’t clear that these apps will have anything other than a niche appeal.


  1. Jonathan Keane, Blockstack Today: 5 Apps Already Being Built on the Decentralized Web. Coindesk.September 2 2017, https://www.coindesk.com/building-blockstack-five-firms-show-us-just-platform-capable/
  2. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.

 

Crytptocurrency Thursday

What Shall We Teach The Next Generation of Gig Workers

In this age of the Gig Economy, what will happen to our children? Much of what passes for “work force readiness” is alarmingly backward looking. Pretending that kids in high school today will employed in retail, manufacturing, or transportation seems naïve. Worse, teaching how to be a good “employee” seems to be all the wrong skills for a freelancer.

Assuming that the opportunities of the future are going to be freelance contracts, independent start ups, and coworking synergy, what should we be teaching kids?

With these questions in my head, I was interested to read Jeriann Ireland this week, on “Preparing children for the freelance economy” [1]. Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she has the perspective of a parent who is a freelance worker.

So what are the important points?

It is interesting that her first point is “boundaries”, i.e., life-work boundaries. This is a critical challenge for freelance workers, but she makes the interesting point that children need to understand the boundaries, too. (Hoping that cats will respect boundaries is beyond reason.) She says that a parent must “set examples of positive boundary setting”, including family-only times (no calls or email).

One side effect of this is that it sets an example of work ethic. Seeing that mom and dad have to spend time, work hard, and meet responsibilities can be an amazing lesson—and one that kids might not see when parents work in an office.

The second point is teaching business skills. (Ick!)

It’s never a good idea to force your child into anything, but if they show passion for a certain activity, get them thinking about how they could monetize it.

The third point is educating about finances. Whether connected to work or not, kids need to learn and practice handling money, planning budgets, and ideas about saving, borrowing, and investment. Freelancers have to learn this stuff, and are in a good position to teach by example.


Sensei Jeriann seems to be speaking from experience, and makes sense. Not that I’m seeing any thing “disruptive” or rocket scientific here.

It is kind of a cool to flip the difficult challenges of working at home with kids, and turn that into an opportunity for home schooling by example. I can’t think of anything that is likely to prepare a kid for “the workforce” as much as seeing parents work.

I’ll add another topic that might be worth thinking about: collaboration.

Successful business and freelancing require working with other people, sharing and contributing to the group.  Again, work at home parents have an opportunity to show how this works by example. For example, explain that the reason you need to finish this task today, is because your collaborators need it so they can do their thing. And explain that you are working with “Alice” and “Bob”, who are really smart so together you all can be great. And that is why you need to talk on the phone to them today, so we can all be great together. Etc.


Finally, I’m a bit worried about the “business skills” part of the lessons. I’m not saying it isn’t important and useful, but my own view is that once you know the word “monetize”, childhood is over! :-(.

Yes, everyone has to grow up eventually and learn about “monetizing” their time and passion. But I hate to see them grow up too soon!


  1. Jeriann Ireland, Preparing children for the freelance economy, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/09/01/preparing-children-for-the-freelance-economy/

100% Renewable Energy Worldwide?

Following up on a highly controversial 2015 article which made a case that the US could convert to 100% renewable energy by 2050 [2, 4, 5], the same Stanford led group has assembled a “roadmap” for 139 countries to go renewable [3].

The new work works through country by country, to show that power production can be 80% converted to “wind, water, and sunlight (WWS)” by 2030, and 100% by 2050. The argument is based on publicly available data from the International Energy Agency, and their estimates of plausible conversion scenarios.

Basically, the study works out for each country and each category of generation, what can be generated. The headline result is that is all cases, there is enough potential that 100% of the power supply could come from wind, water, and sunlight.

The “roadmap” part of the story is some broadbrush calculations of the rate of installation of new technologies. The headline here is that it’s clearly possible to deploy the needed equipment.

The article sketches important reasons why this would be worth doing. Phasing out carbon emissions would be a good idea (at least for everyone except the oil and coal business), and these technologies are generally better for public health. They also find lots of jobs and other economic benefits, including stable energy prices (these technologies do not use fuels).

The controversy over the earlier work focused on the operational question of supply and demand matching. Many of these resources (notable sunlight) are variable, which means that they are not necessarily available when power is needed. The 2017 roadmap doesn’t really deal with these issues, it is all about aggregate supply.  The controversy remains, though the bulk of this article won’t be disputed on those grounds.

In a sense, this study is nothing new. The article cites a dozen other studies, and there are plenty of other versions of this same argument. This particular study is notable for the uniform methodology and global coverage.

There are a lot of technical assumptions under the cover of the headline numbers, and I am in no position to evaluate them. (From past experience, there will be detailed critiques soon enough.) But even if these estimates are off by, say, 50% (or maybe only half implemented), that’s still a huge deal. 50% renewable by 2050 would be a huge impact, and probably would reach a tipping point where the new technologies (e.g., electric vehicles) simply push out older technologies.

Of course, there is a big difference between “feasible” and “actually trying to do it”. In this case, there are political and social barriers to such a roadmap. If nothing else, the beneficiaries (the general public and the planet) do not control the decision making of the implementers (companies and agencies). And in the case of the US, the ruling party is in the thrall of both anti-science ideologues and the coal industry. Adoption of WWS will have strong headwinds for the foreseeable future.

However, this study, with its fellows, make the case that this is possible and probably a good idea. You might argue whether WWS is the best thing to do or not, but I don’t think you can’t really say that it would be impossible to go renewable.


  1. Charles Q. Choi, A Road Map to 100 Percent Renewable Energy in 139 Countries by 2050, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise. 2017. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/renewables/100-percent-renewable-energy-for-139-countries-by-2050
  2. Christopher T. M. Clack, Staffan A. Qvist, Jay Apt, Morgan Bazilian, Adam R. Brandt, Ken Caldeira, Steven J. Davis, Victor Diakov, Mark A. Handschy, Paul D. H. Hines, Paulina Jaramillo, Daniel M. Kammen, Jane C. S. Long, M. Granger Morgan, Adam Reed, Varun Sivaram, James Sweeney, George R. Tynan, David G. Victor, John P. Weyant, and Jay F. Whitacre, Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (26):6722-6727, June 27, 2017 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/6722.abstract
  3. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Zack A. F. Bauer, Savannah C. Goodman, William E. Chapman, Mary A. Cameron, Cedric Bozonnat, Liat Chobadi, Hailey A. Clonts, Peter Enevoldsen, Jenny R. Erwin, Simone N. Fobi, Owen K. Goldstrom, Eleanor M. Hennessy, Jingyi Liu, Jonathan Lo, Clayton B. Meyer, Sean B. Morris, Kevin R. Moy, Patrick L. O’Neill, Ivalin Petkov, Stephanie Redfern, Robin Schucker, Michael A. Sontag, Jingfan Wang, Eric Weiner, and Alexander S. Yachanin, 100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World. Joule,August 23 2017.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.07.005
  4. Mark Z., Jacobson. Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, and Bethany A. Frew, Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (49):15060-15065, December 8, 2015 2015. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15060.abstract
  5. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, and Bethany A. Frew, The United States can keep the grid stable at low cost with 100% clean, renewable energy in all sectors despite inaccurate claims. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (26):E5021-E5023, June 27, 2017 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/E5021.short

 

Remote Fun Park On The Moon?

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing, it is clear that humans have pulled back from space exploration and from science in general. NASA’s budget has steadily declined, dedicated scientists politically suppressed and much of the space program has calcified into a jobs program.

What can be done?

Toys! Theme parks!

There is a lot of interest these days in sending swarms of small robots to the moon. Perhaps inspired by ubiquitous remote piloted drones, why not remote operate a moon rover?  And why can’t anybody drive one, with a game controller?

The Lunatix company is proposing to sell moon-rover-driving as a game. Earth bound computer games would be linked to the lander, and could purchase driving time. Kind of like consumer drones, except on the moon [3].

The lander might have a small science payload, but mainly it is dedicated to the commercial use. (There would be merchandise and other associated sales, as well.)

This seems relatively straightforward technically. There are some tricky bits, such as linking a consumer via the Internet to an uplink to the moon. Safely linking. Securely linking. (Hint: space communications are expensive and rare, and generally not connected to the public.)

I have no idea about the commercial case. Space projects are obscenely expensive, but getting cheaper. At something like 25 Euros per minute, it seems to me that driving time would be pretty damn expensive, at least for peasants like me. But who knows? My intuitions about business plans are often wrong.

Evan Ackerman points out that this purely commercial project raises legal questions. The moon is more or less under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, as defined by treaties among nations. There seems to be no specific framework for commercial exploitation of the moon, though there will surely need to be one soon.

Aside from the equity issues about sucking money out of the lunar commons (the moon is the common heritage of all human kind), there may be environmental and other regulatory issues.

I note that a company slogan is “Leave Your Mark on the Moon!”  The users will leave behind tracks, indelible tracks, visible from Earth.  This will surely have consequences.

How happy are we going to be when the moon is covered with tread marks? Do you want to see rude graffiti defacing the surface? How will we feel about a giant cola ad written in the dust? How will Earthly strongmen react to uncensored political messages, indelibly written on the moon?

The company proposal seems to wave its hands at the legal problems and doesn’t even list any legal issues under “Risks”. That may be optimistic.

In the end, it is quite possible that money will talk. As Ackerman puts it, despite his own misgivings, “If this is the best way to get robots to the moon, then so be it”.

While there’s a small section in the Lunatix executive summary on “Legal Framework,” there are few specifics about whether or not the United Nations would approve something like this. Lunatix seems to suggest that its use case is covered under “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” but I’m not so sure. It may be that no framework exists yet (either for or against), and my gut reaction that commercializing the moon in this way somehow cheapens it is probably just me being old and grumpy. If this is the best way to get robots to the moon, then so be it.” (From Ackerman [1])

I have my doubts about this concept. We’ll see.

But the general idea that some kind of entertainment business might be one of the earliest commercial successes for space seems to be plausible. Many important technologies started out as entertainment, or were driven by markets for entertainment [2].

For example, the Internet was designed for military and scientific applications, but the earliest commercial successes were music theft, games, and pornography, which drove markets for servers, GPUs and broadband, among other things. Today’s cord cutters are simply taking advantage of the second and third generation of these technologies. And, just as the Internet has never been comfortable with the fact that it is a great mechanism for delivering pornography, space entertainment may not turn out quite as imagined.

 


  1. Evan Ackerman, How Much Would You Pay to Drive a Jumping Robot on the Moon?, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/how-much-would-you-pay-to-drive-a-jumping-robot-on-the-moon
  2. Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, New York, Riverhead Books, 2016.
  3. Space Tech, Luniatix. Graz University of Technology Institute of Communication Networks and Satellite Communications, 2017. https://www.tugraz.at/fileadmin/user_upload/tugrazInternal/Studium/Studienangebot/Universitaere_Weiterbildung/SpaceTech/Fallstudienprojekt_ST14.pdf

 

 

Space Saturday

What is Coworking? It Can Be Rural

Coworking is generally associated with urban or suburban settings, serving dense populations of independent workers and start ups.

What about rural areas, with much lower population densities, and correspondingly sparser social networks?

It is certainly possible to do digital work anywhere, including out in the country. Many rural areas have technical infrastructure to support remote working, and talented workers. However, in there are fewer people overall, and therefore fewer workers. In addition, many workers migrate to commercial centers.

So, can coworking succeed in a rural area?


Tim Ford blogs about Cohoots Coworking in rural Australia. Cohoots is located in a small town in a rural area, so it has been a struggle to get enough members to pay the bills.

The facility itself is conventional; featuring desks, networking, and events. But they advertise that if you “scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some magic”. These “magical” features includes the memorable tag, “Members Who Want To Be Here”, i.e., a community of like-minded workers.

Ford is clear that the emphasis and the value added is community. Given the small population (and lack of competition), they have found little point in advertising ‘we have the best space’. Instead, they take what he calls an “inside out” approach. Community is not something that happens inside the coworking space, it connects out into the whole region.


I think this workspace is another example of how flexible and diverse coworking is. The physical and social setting is quite different from urban centers, but there is still entrepreneurship and community happening.

To my mind, this reflects the most important features of coworking. The space itself can be in the Bronx, Santa Clara, or Castlemaine, Victoria; and it can look and feel a lot of ways. What matters in every case is the presence of a thriving community; a group of people with shared interests meeting face-to-face, helping each other.

I’ll also note that this space almost certainly would not exist without the leadership cadre, who are all worked up about coworking and community. You can have the coolest office space in the world, but nothing will happen without community leaders.


Clearly, finances and low population are a challenge for any rural business, not just coworking. However, rural areas have some distinct advantages.

The cost of living is generally lower, and the lifestyle can be attractive. A small town already is a community and a regional center of social networking, so a coworking space fits naturally into the historic cultural patterns.

One of the best things about rural coworking is that it offers opportunities for people, especially young people, who want to stay home. Digital networks make it possible for kids to have a career without splitting for the city. Coworking, in turn, can be the social infrastructure that is a “respite from our isolation” (to quote Zachary Klaas [2]).

One thing that won’t work is a ginormous space like many operations are developing.  Think small and intimate, not large and generic.

But I’m sure that competent local leadership will understand this necessity well enough.


  1. Tim Ford, Rural Coworking – Our Journey, in Cohoots Blog. 2017. http://www.cohoots.info/rural-coworking-our-journey/
  2. Zachary R., Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

 

What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Shock Report: “Smart Contracts” Are Subject To Interpretation

To hear enthusiasts for “Smart Contracts”, they are magic. The meaning of the contract is enshrined in code, and executed by computers. Cryptographic signatures and blockchain protocols assure that the contract is executed correctly and honestly. Once written, no human intervention is needed or, indeed, possible.

Entire businesses are created on this basis, so called Distributed Autonomous Organizations. Once created, these DAOs chunk along mechanically, executing business “autonomously”. No one disagrees about the results, mistakes and conflict are not possible.

This is better than magic. It’s the magic of capitalism raised to the power of magic!

What could possibly go wrong?

In the very drafty basement of this castle in the air lies the claim that these executable contracts are not only always and completely correct, but also accurately and unambiguously express the intentions of the humans involved.

The former would be an historic first in the history of software, and the latter would be an historic first in the history of human thought.

You don’t have to take my word for it.

This month, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) issued a whitepaper, “Smart Contracts and Distributed Ledger – A Legal Perspective” [1]

The ISDA is a group that publishes standards for contract language for derivative contracts. These people define what “is” is, and what “means” means.

With all the nitter-natter about doing derivatives trading using executable “contracts” on a blockchain, the ISDA has taken up the question of just hos “contract-y” these so-called contracts may be.

The report is rather long and dry, and generally extremely well thought out.

The key point probably is:

Certain operational clauses within legal contracts lend themselves to being automated. Other non-operational clauses – for instance, the governing law of a contract – are less susceptible to being expressed in machine-readable code. Some legal clauses are subjective or require interpretation, which also creates challenges.” (p. 3)

Basically, some “smart contracts” are simple bits of code that do something. But an actual derivative contract has a lot more in it that “operational” clauses, and you can’t leave them out. Furthermore, it’s those “non-operational” parts that are the subject of interpretation and dispute. Very few law suits are about account numbers or dollar amounts, they are always about whether and how rules apply.

The bottom line is that “smart contracts” will be subject to interpretation and dispute, period. The question is how to make them work well.

It is important to note that the ISDA report is talking about contracts in the legal sense of the word, an agreement recognized by law. While enthusiastic techies may imagine that they can declare their code to be outside any conventional legal system, it is generally the case that judges will decide what they have jurisdiction over. Code that isn’t recognized in a jurisdiction is probably not a contract in that jurisdiction, no matter how cunning it is.

Which means that the ISDA’s opinion is relevant, to say the least.

The “non-operational” language includes common phrases such as “good faith”, and “ordinary practice”. The report points out that these terms are intended to be subject to interpretation, if only because it is never possible to state all possible future conditions. They also point out that these terms may be interpreted differently by different authorities, which is why it is important to specify which authority will rule.

The report suggests hybrid contracts, part of which are machine executable, and part of which are interpreted by humans. This will require standardization of executable contract code, so the contracts will work everywhere. In short, the report concludes that ISDA has a critical role to play.


  1. International Swaps and Derivatives Association, Smart Contracts and Distributed Ledger – A Legal Perspective. 2017. http://www2.isda.org/attachment/OTU3MQ==/Smart%20Contracts%20and%20Distributed%20Ledger%20%20A%20Legal%20Perspective.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday