Killing technological generativity

If there is one way to kill technology generativity, lock the technology up to such an extent that you can’t even repair it, let alone hack at it to do something new and innovative.

I’ve written about generativity before (in the context of open textbooks). Briefly, generativity is the capacity a system has to be changed and modified by someone other than the original developer to do something new and interesting that the original developer may never have imagined.

As I read this Motherboard article How to Fix Everything, it hit me again just how difficult technology companies make it for their systems to be repairable, much less generative.

“Normally if I purchase a hammer, if the head of the hammer falls off, I’m allowed to repair it and fix it. I can use the hammer again,” Charles Duan, director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, told me. “For a lot of these newer devices, manufacturers want to say ‘We want to be the only ones to repair it’ because they make more profits off the repairs. They’ve found lots and lots of way to do this. Intellectual property law, contracts, end user license agreements, lots and lots of ways to try to make sure you can’t do what you want with your stuff.”

A few weeks ago I came across the story of farmer Matt Reimer and his brilliant robotic hack that turned an old tractor into a remote controlled tractor, saving him time, money, and from sending his old tractor to the landfill. If his tractor was a John Deere tractor, he would not have been able to make these modifications as John Deere makes it impossible to tinker with their tractors.

John Deere told the copyright office that allowing farmers and mechanics to repair their own tractors would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.”

Think about that for a moment – a farmer not allowed to fix his own equipment. If you are from a farming community, you know how ludicrous that sounds.

But beyond the silliness of not being able to repair your own stuff (let alone the terrible environmental consequences of forcing people who use their products to live in an even more disposable society), corporations that lock up their technology send a clear message that the only way innovation can happen is within their narrow confines and vision. It limits the scope of innovation to only what a corporation wants, and only in the ways that serve the corporation.

Because we should all have the ability to turn pop bottles into lights.


Building knowledge tools for the public good

Like many of you, my interest in learning extends beyond the teaching & learning that occurs within formalized educational institutions, which is why I am so interested in Wikipedia. I think Wikipedia is, arguably, the greatest knowledge repository human beings have ever built. Which is why I get so excited when I see projects from academics that make meaningful contributions to Wikipedia. Making Wikipedia better is making the world better by making knowledge more accessible to everyone. Projects like Visualizing Complex Science (found via this Read-only access is not enough blog post on Creative Commons).

The Visualizing Complex Science project was done by Dr. Daniel Mietchen, a Berlin based Researcher & Biophysicist. Dr. Mietchen created a bot that crawls open access science journals looking for multimedia content. When the bot find an image, video or audio clip, it extracts the content & uploads it to the Wikimedia Commons where it can be used by Wikimedia authors to enhance articles.

The bot has uploaded more than 13,000 files to Wikimedia Commons and has been used in more than 135 English Wikipedia articles that together garnered more than three million views.

In addition to the actual project itself, what I find interesting about this project is deconstructing all the conditions that had to exist in order for this project to happen. For me, the recipe for this specific project breaks down to this:

Academic Researcher + Wikipedia + Open Access + hackathon + structured data = jackpot win for human knowledge.

Dissecting this equation a bit, we have an academic researcher who “gets” Wikipedia on a couple of levels. First, he feels it has enough value and importance as a knowledge repository that he is willing to put time into making it better. Second, he understands the technical aspects of the platform well enough that he can build something that massively improves the collection. Finally, he understands that Wikipedia has a massive reach & is a great tool to disseminate complex scientific research in a manner that makes it accessible to everyone. Wikipedia needs more academics like Dr. Mietchen.

Then we have Wikipedia itself, imbued with the value of open on a number of levels. First, open to contributions from anyone. Without allowing anyone to contribute, Dr. Mietchen might very well have had to jump through many bureaucratic layers to make a contribution. Also, those who built the software for Wikipedia made the platform open enough so that people like Dr. Mietchen could build bots capable of doing projects like this.

The next critical piece is Open Access. Without having openly licensed and openly accessible research articles, the bot wouldn’t have any data to mine. And, even if technically it could mine proprietary research journals, they could not legally be shared to the Wikimedia Commons because they would be protected from reuse by copyright.

Now, there are a few things in that equation that seem especially interesting. First, the hackathon. What role did a hackathon have in the success of this project? Well, when you listen to Dr. Mietchen talk about the project, you’ll hear him explain how he was inspired to create the automated Wikipedia bot after attending hackathons and seeing what programmers could do in a short period of time.

The other bit I find interesting is the role that structured data (everybody’s favorite sexy topic) played in making this happen. Without structured metadata explaining to the machines what that content is, whether it is in the correct technical format, and categorizing it correctly in the Wikimedia Commons, the bot just wouldn’t work.


I think it is important to point out that these conditions were not put in place to make this project happened; the project happened because these conditions were already in place. It’s a crucial distinction, and a common story worth repeating when it comes to working with technology. It points to the importance of generativity in both Wikipedia and Open Access.

Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences. Jonathon Zittrain, The Future of the Internet — And How To Stop It 

Both Wikipedia and Open Access have high degrees of generativity. And because of that generativity, Dr. Mietchen was able to build a tool that neither could have anticipated when they were created. I am sure that the architects of both Wikipedia and Open Access hoped that projects like this would happen. But neither knew that they would. Instead, they built in the capacity to enable projects like this to emerge from the community. And, as a result, improve knowledge for all.