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That Which We've Lost Was Already Gone

Fifteen years ago I helped to found Blue Oxen Associates, a sort of think tank in the realm of high performance collaboration. Our thinking, later described as The Blue Oxen Way, was heavily based in the work of Doug Engelbart, his ideas of augmentation, and the idea that the computer is a tool for collaboration.

We had a launch party in San Francisco to share our plans and get the ball rolling. On the plane ride there I wrote the quoted text below. I was trying to get my mind in the right state to express some of the "why" behind what we were doing.

Looking back on it now is stark. The problems it discusses are larger, and many of the hopes are buried by the size of the new reality. But something lingers.

I've copied it in full below, but interspersed the paragraphs with some modern commentary.

We live in a time when the decisions of our governments are made outside any appreciation for reasoned and reasonable consensus. Information is delivered to us, packaged, shiny, and full of persuasive power but often lacking in the awareness of past, present and future required to make wise, lasting and honorable decisions.

If, in 2003, this was a five worth of badness on a scale to ten, now, in 2017, we're somewhere far in excess of 100. Today we exchange acknowledged lies with aplomb.

I am tired of this. I'm tired of feeling powerless and listening to my self, my friends and my colleagues, filled with good ideas, swing in and out of a lonely and ineffectual desperation.

This has changed. The desperation is no longer so lonely. I can go to the echo chambers on twitter and facebook and find confederates, in their legions. The ideas remain good, and they too are legion. Effectiveness is mixed.

While it took me some time realize it, helping to start Blue Oxen is my small way of saying I've had enough, it's time to do something. I'm here to suggest that we can make the better world we believe is possible: one where people truly communicate and communicate truly, one where ideas are shared, one where the goodness that is our nature is allowed to emerge, in concert with one another, our neighbors down the street and our neighbors around the world.

Blue Oxen failed to sustain itself; asinine, mundane crap like money intruded. Eugene (my partner in the venture) has carried on working on collaboration, explicity, with Faster Than 20. I've done a variety of things, but in all those things there's been a recurring theme of enabling and enhancing true communication where ideas are shared and collaboratively evaluated.

I want Blue Oxen to catch and enhance the building wave of people who have acknowledged that sharing ideas, openly and frankly, is a creative force for improving the world and for motivating action. I seek not a free marketplace of ideas, but a free community of people collaborating to create and refine new thought.

We've created a world where sharing any kind of information is a breeze. We can now manipulate election results. That is not, not even close, the creation and refinement of thought. The hoped for transcendent, utopic, dialectical synthesis sees some success in small communities but at large, he (it's usually he) who shouts loudest wins.

Collaboration is a fully buzzword compliant term these days yet it is still an undefined discipline. Eugene and I connected over a casually tossed phrase that I made in response to the question of what is augmentation for. I said, "To make me less dumb." It's now several months later and while I still believe this is an important aspect of what collaboration is for, my close association with Eugene and the members of our first collaboratory and the looser collaboration with disparate voices discovered by the simple act of making some noise has revealed a larger focus: Less dumbness emerges from open communication.

This is still true: If you want to be less dumb, compare and contrast your experiences with other people. If you want to reach the most people (beyond those in your immediate moment of sharing), do that communicating with persistent media.

When the internet reached the public, it was hailed as a compelling democratizing force. The power of personal publishing was going to alter the face of society. It didn't quite happen like that. I remember being disillusioned as the significance of my own web server faded in the face of the shine, the gloss and the money of centralized media.

Heh. This is worse.

We are, today, thanks to motivated and idealistic people, in a new phase of enthusiasm. Systems such as weblogs and wikis and the developing genre of social software are birthing dynamic social networks that produce new understandings. In and of themselves these tools are nothing, it is the people who use them and what they do with them that matters. People are exploring, communicating, generating and accepting feedback; using their freedom to generate more freedom.

Whither wikis and weblogs, my friends?

I want Blue Oxen to be an experimental gardener in this realm. Our task is to participate in the discovery, engenderment, development, evolution and facilitation of the patterns of behavior and process—and the tools the patterns use—that bring the ecology of collaborative evolution we need as a society. Our challenge is to see that the communication facilitated by collaborative systems continues, stays open, and creates artifacts that are accessible and reusable by others. Openness leads to shared and knowledgeable understanding, shared understanding leads to shared goals. Goals lead to motivation and motivation leads to action. Let's do what we can.

This work is happening, and the work continues. The challenge is greater.

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