1. Money Matters. Or Not.

    Last week, my wife and I organised the second edition of the Brussels Meetup on Complementary Currencies. It’s a fascinating subject. As a short and simplistic primer, just think of a complementary currency as a combination of:

    1. a specific community;
    2. a means of exchange;
    3. a need that is not addressed by the official currency;
    4. some abundant resource.

    The latter is the most interesting in my opinion: to cut a long story short, currency thinkers have analysed that recent events in the financial sphere have been caused by the combination of our current monetary system’s infinite growth hypotheses on the one hand and the accelerating depletion of our planet’s natural resources on the other hand. Historically, our economies have been built on the model of the Gold Rush: is has been designed to structure society around the appropriation of some key, readily available by-products of our planet’s geology by a lucky few, and the necessity to organise the rest of society in a way that guarantees some apparent public order. Our current economic system is predatory by nature.

    Alternative currencies offer an opportunity for mankind to create prosperity out of abundant resources that we are slowly coming to identify as equally important to our well-being (if not a lot more) than petrol, cheap labor and earth metals. They mostly come in the form of information and they are a proxy to such invaluable items like friendship, love and good health, technology and culture, ideas and education.

    Our connected and mobile devices are pointing us to new kinds of such resources every day. The combination of the URL, “Unified Resource Locator” and HTTP, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol”, make up for a very powerful way to give access to and/or exchange these resources between the members of existing or emerging communities. “Monetization” is the process by which digital entrepreneurs find ways to incentivise those exchanges and tie them up to the traditional money system.

    But sometimes monetization is not possible. I am of the opinion that all truly alternative currency systems are signalling the presence of a new kind of resource that is fundamentally not translatable to dollars or euros. That’s where it gets liberating: everything doesn’t absolutely need to benefit the bottom line. 

    I believe that, for good or bad reasons, and at least until the current financial system is fixed, it is very likely that you and I will end up using a handful of complementary currencies alongside our familiar paper money and credit cards. I say “for good or bad reasons” because the things we are most likely to use complementary currencies for belong to those areas of the economy that are generally perceived as “loss-generating”. I’m talking about health, solidarity, culture and education.

    In today’s world, access to these fundamental pillars of a well-functioning society is not allowed to an increasing number of people. Not because of a formal interdiction but because of the overarching urgency to earn a minimum amount of a currency that has been designed to be in short supply. As a result, we are wasting the most precious and yet the most abundant of all resources: human creativity.

    Smartphones and Tablets are immensely popular because they provide momentary escapes off the treadmill and into a world of wonderful promises: there’s an app for a free education, better health, access to countless books and videos,… And all this wonderful gadgetry is cheap, so cheap in fact that, thanks to Moore’s law, its commercial value literally tends to zero.

    All this activity can certainly sound a bit vain. The opposite is true: we are collectively re-inventing the very foundations of our society. A new economy is shaping up, one that exists in a global mind that stems from the daily choices of countless individuals, and yet has an existence of its own. At this point in time, it still lacks a consciousness but we, as a species, are working on it. Big Data, the Quantified Self Movement and Complementary Currencies research all are self reflexive efforts that aim at reconciling the community with the individual, the universal with the specific and vice-versa.

    Rooted in a technology that only gets cheaper and more accessible to all and tapping on the infinite power of our imagination while constantly reflecting on our collective creations and willing to be fully aware of their consequences, we are on the brink of the invention of an economy whose foundations are at the exact opposite of our current monetary system.

  2. The secret technology for absolute mind control

    I have been following Prof. Pierre Lévy’s work for about 20 years now and I just ordered his latest book: The Semantic Sphere: Computation, Cognition and Information Economy; I can’t wait to have it in my hands. Pierre is the Chair of Research for Collective Intelligence at the University of Ottawa. He wrote numerous books on computers and their impact on human cognition and culture.  As an (Human) Intelligence Technology, Prof. Levy places the invention of the computer in a long lineage of other such technologies, starting with hieroglyphs, then the alphabet, much later the movable type. For Prof Levy, while computer theory will likely not change very much – computers will only get much more powerful – there is however a huge theoretical work to be done on the next evolution of Intelligence Technologies that they will finally enable. His last book, on which he has been working relentlessly for the best of 10 years, is an attempt to sketch the broad strokes of this extraordinary endeavor. There is another book coming next, however – which will try to describe a concrete attempt at the construction of such a technology: IEML. In 2009, I was lucky enough to work with Prof. Pierre Levy (and even produce a minor contribution to the project), which gave me the opportunity to gain some insight as of the potentially incredibly disruptive potential of this formidable invention.

    IEML is a universal language. Although it is possible to translate pretty much any English sentence in IEML,  it is not meant to be used as a language for human-to-human communication. IEML is a language of computable concepts. There is a base IEML dictionary that is very carefully constructed, and starting there, you should be able to express any imaginable concept, possibly creating new IEML words of your own. The IEML dictionary (or, I should say, IEML dictionaries, because you can theoretically have many of them), is a network of interrelated concepts where every node or word or sentence receives its meaning from the nodes it is related to. Now, and here is where things get interesting, all these relationships are mathematically computable. What it means is that IEML makes it possible to make computations on meaning.

    From the very beginning, Fluxtream was conceived in part as a way to experiment with IEML’s core concepts. Since IEML’s technology is not yet mature enough to be incorporated into a real product, all we can do is create an experience that is at least suggestive of what would be achieved if we could use the “real thing”.

    Fluxtream is an ideal testbed for IEML for multiple reasons:

    • If you’re using Fluxtream, it’s because you are interested to know the story behind the raw data, what it means;
    • when we become aware of our behavior, we are unlocking our power to act on it; that is the single most compelling incentive for users to annotate their data on a daily basis - and IEML can do nothing for you if you don’t annotate something with it
    • Fluxtream represents a slew of data streams that together describe human behavior in an extremely detailed and vivid way. A great deal of what constitutes the “human experience” can be deduced just by looking at Fluxtream’s data streams with the right interpretation key

    We are currently working on a set of features to help you categorize your daily actions. First we will let you create events of your own so you can describe what you were doing at some point during the day. Then we will let you define goals, both long-term and short-term — short-term goals contribute to long-term goals. We will let you associate goals with a choice of “conceptual maps” with percentages. A conceptual map is a set of concepts, like:

    • family / work / leisure
    • health / money / relationships / love / spirituality
    • earth / water / fire / air

    For example you could create a long-term goal of doing more sport, which is 100% health related, and a “Find a Yoga class” goal that would be (for you) associated 80% with health and 20% with spirituality. When you have created some goals, you are able to associate any event in Fluxtream – including events that you have created yourself – with these goals. We are now able to give you back some extremely interesting information about your behavior:

    • how much time are you spending on different goals
    • what’s the percentage breakdown of your activities in terms of the initial “conceptual maps”
    • what are your “most popular” goals of the day/week/month

    How is that related to IEML? First there’s the initial impulse: you gave some simple meaning (‘this’ is related to ‘that’) to a dead piece of data. With that, Fluxtream can automatically compute some other, more general, meaning that you can learn from.

    Of course, when we will be able to use IEML, the interpretation possibilities will be virtually infinite. In the silicon brains of our next-gen AI-powered friends, our most minute actions will not only make sense in the constrained economy of our private, self-absorbed whereabouts; they will automatically be linked to the most advanced concepts and theories in medicine, behavioral theory or philosophy. IEML will offer us a clear path to go from the former to the latter.

  3. 4 Unknown Aspects of the Quantified Self Movement

    The Quantified Self is, yes, a Movement. QS Meetups pop up everywhere in the world. There are already 45 Meetups worldwide, (22 in the US, 12 in Europe, then Tokyo, Beirut, Sydney, Rio,…). Yet QS is still very hard to explain to non-initiates.

    Problem is, “Quantified Self” is a vastly misleading label; by no way is it a description of the movement’s true meaning. I will hereunder expose 4 hidden aspects of what the Movement is really about.

    Epistemology - QS is citizen science. It encourages experimentation, abductive reasoning and peer review at the most basic level. Everyone becomes a highly complex sensor on a global mesh. It is an opportunity to uncover knowledge in a way that has never been seen before.

    Society - experiments in QS are only instrumental to well-being, not to power or money. Also, it is very humbling to think of yourself as a laboratory rat.

    Religion/Spirituality - In today’s world, science and technology can be threatening at times. QS is a way to reconcile with these wrathful gods. At the personal level, self-quantification is a commitment to let go of one’s personal judgments and interpretations and to faithfully record information on a contiuous basis. It’s a behavior that can be linked to prayer. The meetups is where proper hermeneutics is performed and where a sense of community is achieved, along with a proper ritual and a code of conducts.

    Politics - Quantified Self suggests a rather egoistic endeavour. The opposite is true: Quantified Self is nothing without the Meetups. There, private experiences become an opportunity for the public to question their validity, to reject or embrace their outcomes. It is the most basic form of democracy, based on science and on experiences that are (mostly) of direct interest to one’s well-being. No ideology, only practical, applicable and useful science.

  4. Opening Up

    With the advent of cloud technologies, Open Source sounds a bit passé. The promise of Open Source is pervasiveness of ideas; the promise of the Cloud is to create pervasive experiences. Most people like experiences better than ideas. We love both.

    Running a web application is hard. Software is just one aspect of it. The rest is performance, security, upgrades management… lots of operational chores. As an application grows more popular, those aspects tend to become prevalent. After a while, it becomes difficult to draw a line between the core software and the rest of what makes up a global, highly available and distributed application. Facebook or Google cannot be open sourced.

    Given Fluxtream is dealing with extremely private and sensitive data, we feel like it is not possible for us to follow Facebook’s model of a completely walled garden: people should be able to conduct experiences with our software in their private cloud, on their own servers, or even on their local machine.

    Fluxtream.com remains our mission number one: to provide the best lifelogging experience around to everyone with a web browser; no compiler, no debugger, no bash scripting required.

    Fluxtream.com’s goal is to be a cloud’s first-class citizen. As such, it will provide both a client-side javascript widget framework and a push API centered around user behavior. We believe in the emergence of an ecosystem of cloud-based services that will leverage personal data to help individuals become healthier and happier, learn new skills, develop consuming habits that are environment-friendly, etc.

    However, for those of you who would like their own instance of fluxtream, we will soon provide a Community Edition (CE) that you will be able to download and run where ever you like. You will be able to clone the source on github and hack it, too. Fluxtream CE uses totally commonplace technologies and frameworks: java, spring framework, JPA, jQuery,… so the majority of you should feel right at home.

    Fluxtream CE is the stripped down, open source, easy-to-build, easy-to-deploy  version of fluxtream.com. It is a testament to our dedication to an open web and to the free circulation of ideas.