Alain Mabanckou’s “Broken Glass”

The Financial Times has a brief piece on Mabanckou’s latest novel:
Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s second novel to be published in English is written as a torrid stream of consciousness. Its narrator, Broken Glass, is a 64-year-old alcoholic who spends his days in a bar called Credit Gone West in Brazzaville.

The bar’s owner has asked him to write the story of the establishment. The novel purports to be his notebook. Written without a single full stop, it is a fantastical portrait of the hangout’s outlandish customers. They include a printer rendered insane by his wife’s infidelity with his son, an ageing prostitute who challenges men to peeing competitions and a conman who makes money out of fake shamanistic rituals.
Mabanckou, who teaches French literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, packs in an array of literary references. The result is a dizzying combination of erudition, bawdy humour and linguistic effervescence.

ASKIA 2.0: African Science meets Open Innovation

Later this month I’ll be presenting at the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s CODIST (Committee on Development Information Science and Technology) Session on “Scientific Development, Innovation and the Knowledge Economy”. My presentation will address the role of social networks and innovation in science and technology in Africa. Some of the challenges that African scientists face are legacies of colonial era knowledge systems that have emphasized networks between single countries and European/North American donors where much of the knowledge of Africa is archived, that is, outside of Africa. There are also linear innovation systems that create bottlenecks in moving promising scientific advances and technologies from the lab to the market where they may have significant social, economic, environmental benefits. Abdallah Daar and Peter Singer have argued for “convergence platforms” (pdf) to address the problem of linear innovation systems. Furthermore, there are now quite a few insights from failed ICT programs out there that we think the time is ripe to mobilize open innovation platforms and concepts into the African science networks to try to address these problems. The challenge is not just about technological connectivity and creating platforms wired to the lowest common denominator of African connectivity, but rather building platforms on existing infrastructures (where we need to think about “people as infrastructure” too) that are organized around the values of sharing, co-creating, for dynamic, collaborative science and technology systems across the continent. I’ll be taking a look at the multitude of existing science 2.0/open science platforms that have largely arisen in Northern contexts in recent years and strategizing with African colleague on how we can build a Science Commons with Africa using some interesting social networking technologies/mobiles and existing science networks that UN ECA and others have been growing for years. In essence, this is social innovation in the sciences and we think a lot can be done by framing the problem in these terms and deliberately working to move knowledge out of silos and bring together African scientists, technologists, citizen scientists, policy-makers, funders and entrepreneurs with the tools of user-led innovation, open innovation and what I’m calling “recombinant innovation” (ie. juxtaposing disciplines, old/new technologies and social practices) and re-valorizing cooperation in science. What would a Nobel Prize in Science for Africa look like? It wouldn’t be given to an individual, but rather for the most innovative network of practitioners whether scientists, citizen scientists, entrepreneurs and savy funders who brought the right elements in line to make a difference in the lives of millions of Africans, poor and better-off. We’re working on a platform (ASKIA 2.0) that can be the catalyst (the definition of a catalyst is one that sparks off a reaction but doesn’t get consumed in the process) for these types of things to happen more frequently and to scale them up where possible. We’ve already put together a proposal and are looking for funding to launch so if you have any suggestions please contact me here. Below I’ve linked to the draft of the presentation. I’ll be blogging more about the details of how we’re working to rethink innovation systems in the weeks to come.

Canadian-Somali Rapper K’Naan

With a hat tip to Africa is a Country who introduced me to the Somali rapper K’Naan who lives in Canada. Once again we find an interesting melange ranging from reggae (Bob Marley influence), rap and poetry. His aunt is Magool, one of the most famous singers in Somali who performed for one of the largest concerns in Somali history. As with many refugees to North America, he spent some time as a cab driver in NYC. Believe it or not, he taught himselve English basically through rap (listen to the interview below):

check out his music below:

Music post of the week: Kora Jazz Trio

Just noticed this post on Maneno which inspired me to post some of the Kora Jazz Trio’s work here. They’re a group from West Africa (Senegal and Guinea) who fuse West African percussion and the Kora (string instrument constructed from a large gourd) with the improvisational aspects of jazz, or as Christian Pegand describes them, “a dialogue between the griot and the bluenote”.

From analog to digital (network) institutions

Umair Haque has an interesting piece from his blog, Edge Economy that pretty much sums up the state of the art company/institutions at the moment:

“The real problem isn’t stimulus, it’s responsiveness. We’re trapped in a zombieconomy: one full of brain-dead organizations who are about as intelligently responsive as Homer Simpson.

Want better clothes? Don’t ask the Gap. Want better software? Don’t ask Microsoft. Want better cars? Don’t ask Detroit. Want better music? Don’t ask record labels. Want better healthcare? Don’t ask big pharma. Want to hold on to your money? Don’t ask a banker. Welcome to economic Bizarro World.

The economy has gone catatonic. Unresponsive corporations are just the tip of the iceberg. Markets can’t allocate. Investors won’t invest. Banks can’t value, or hold onto anything of value. People don’t trust, much less consume. What’s going on? The real problem isn’t how or what we stimulate – but that almost none of our organizations could respond in the first place.

Yesterday’s institutions have left today’s organizations unable to respond to an increasingly turbulent world. What’s responsiveness, and what does it have to do with institutions? Here’s a recent talkI gave discussing net-generation institutions…..Today’s organizations need a responsiveness upgrade. To that end, we need a new kind of stimulus: an institutional stimulus, not just a financial one, that makes our lame, brain-dead, zombified organizations more responsive. Gap, Detroit, Microsoft, big pharma, record labels, banks, evil corporations of the world – hello? Anyone home?

We can stimulate trade from here until Doomsday – but without more responsive organizations, today’s failure to create new industries and renew old ones will simply recur at an accelerating pace.

Money, value, and wealth are an outcome of having responsive organizations in the first place. Yesterday, the Manhattan Project renewed America’s technological base. Today, we need a Manhattan Project to renew our institutional fabric – because yesterday’s rules and principles are limiting the responsiveness of our organizations.

Haque thinks what we need is better contracts and standards, better governance and management. Maybe so, but perhaps the problem is even deeper. If I take this and look at banking and health, I think there is a lot more to this. Brilliant insight into the problem but we could do better in terms of solutions. I still think that there is much we can learn from the P2P, open innovation, cooperation discourse that we’ve merely scratched the surface of in recent years. My challenge in thinking about collaboratories and eco-systems of stakeholders who could create networks to drive disruptive innovation is to develop the tools to make these contracts/relationships flexible yet strong enough to generate the trust to build “organizations without walls”, how to make breakthroughs in a field such as healthcare where secrecy around IP is the norm and to open this up to enable new business models derived from the IP commons. Furthermore, what about an unsustainable market mechanism that works on the basis of the quarter rather than long-term, sustainable health outcomes?

Natalie Jeremijenko: Reframing health & the body

Natalie Jeremijenko (Bio, more) is an artist/engineer whose work explores the relationships that constitute socio-technological change. She’s been recognized as one of the 100 Top Young Innovators by MIT Technology Review. Previous installations have explored everything from ubiquitous computing (“Live Wire”) to “Biotech Hobbyist” that aimed to empower the public to become more involved in doing science and science politics, to work engaged in open source robotics, to the effects of the environment on gene expression through the “One Trees” project.

One of her most recent projects is the “Environmental Health Clinic” introduced here:

She describes the politics of the environmental movement as “suicide environmentalism”, that is, all about doing less water, paper, gas, etc. In contrast she’s interested in “doing good” (yes, we can problematize that one as well!) that examines the “imaginative and playful” things that people can do themselves. One of the key insights she has is we need to interrogate the ‘relationship’ with natural systems more than just think about doing less. Furthermore, much of the environmental movement(s) emphasis has been on global problems and the Environmental Health Clinic is exploring those local interventions that could have the desired impact.

Here is Jeremijenko providing an overview and you can see the types of interventions she ‘prescribes’:

Notice the explicit re-framing of health and the body. Rather than the biomedical body as self-contained, the individual, she’s re-framing the body as an extension into the physical environment and the “re-institutionalizing” of health. External, shared resources, participation, feedback, monitoring technology bureaucrats, reshaping urban environmental eco-systems. Here in “Urban Space Station” deals with hacking the urban environment.

Now, take a look at how we talk about health reform in the US. Does the meaning of health have much to do with how Jeremijenko is framing ‘health’. Rather than dismiss this work as “just art” I think we find some important insights into how people are increasingly thinking about health, their relationships with the body, the body’s relationship with the environment, responsibility, engagement, in sum, the politics of health versus health policy. There are important signals here and we might want to explore the work of other artists, authors, and cultural producers rather than limiting ourselves to the same circular firing squad of health wonks (not to be overly dismissive, that’s not my point here but innovation needs to include concepts and re-framing). Jeremijenko may not provide answers but she does provide a diagnosis or diagnostic platform for thinking otherwise. Bet she won’t win an X-Prize but she may may have more innovative insights than what we’ll find from internally driven health discourses.

Here we have an exchange between Jeremijenko and Lawrence Krauss on science and society issues. Krauss is a proponent of the “public understanding of science” paradigm, otherwise known as PUS (hint, I’m not a fan) versus Jeremijenko’s more politically engaged and democratic approach (my interpretation). If you’re interested in more on her work try here,

Food Safety 2.0: Let’s make food safety transparent

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a friend who mentioned that a food industry expert had shared with him the observation that the food companies that had made impressive steps to improve and upgrade their food safety regimens had not been doing as well in the marketplace due to the costs. My first question was, have they factored in the costs of litigation and food recalls and losses to brand image that the companies with poor food safety regimes have experienced in the peanut butter/salmonella outbreak? If the answer is in favor of rewards to those who cut corners and manufacture products that kill and sicken hundreds, then perhaps we need to have greater transparency in the marketplace and put into practice some tools so that consumers can make good choices. After all, who wants to bury their child for eating a peanut butter sandwich?

As we were talking out loud I realized that the tools are there to address many of the information asymmetries in the market. We have them for lots of companies and sectors already. Why not make a series of tools to make the food system safer? If you’re one of the smart companies that has made an investment in making your products safe it would be a worthwhile investment because your sales go down when the bad guys screw up and give us all diarrhea. Look at the peanut butter manufacturers who don’t have a salmonella issue–their sales are down 12-25% this year. Yep, your shareholders shouldn’t be too happy about what your competitors are doing. And if you’re one of the 200 companies that have had to recall your products with peanuts from the Peanut Butter Corporation of America, you might want to think through what some of the take-aways are, hint, it is not dis-investing in food safety. We don’t like to puke and sit on the toilet for spending money on your products.

So in the name of transparency and free flows of valid information to consumers, here are some things we could do to help the food industry out a bit. We already have Do the Right Thing that enabled consumers to rank company policies. What’s to prevent a “Do the Right” for food safety where companies that post info on their food safety record and practices get scored and ranked much like Digg? When Health and Human Services created the widgets for the FDA recalls back in January-February (I need to go back and dig up the details, later) I recall something like 20 million hits were received in the first week. If you think the public isn’t concerned about food safety, think again. Every year there are over 5,300 deaths due to food poisoning–and that’s just the cases that get recorded on death certificates. How often have you had food poisoning and not gone to a doctor? We’ve seen quite a few visualizations of the financial crisis. What about new visualizations for relative risk of food poisoning with different products and companies? When we can “see” the food safety risks we will begin to reward good behavior. In the food sustainability/fair trade market we’re now seeing mechanisms to assist the consumer in seeing where products come from, the fair trade practices behind the product. Why don’t we have similar systems so people can see who is allowing salmonella or poop to get into their food? If you have a good food safety regimen in place, why not open it up? Maybe we can give you ideas in how to make it even better. The Bush Administration thought they could do policy behind closed doors. The anti-transparency regime brought us the devastation of Katrina and the Iraq War. Obama recognized the value of transparency and openness and we’ve seen quite a shift in how government is opening up. HHS/FDA are at the forefront of using social media in government. Why isn’t the food industry taking advantage of these tools and why are those on good behavior tolerating the negative impact of those who think sitting on the toilet and potentially dying from e. coli or salmonella are tolerable risks associated with eating their foods? Let’s punish the bad guys, reward the good guys. The tools are already here, what would Good Guide look like for food safety?

African music blog post of the day: Konono No. 1

Konono No. 1 is a group originating from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Kongo. They’re absolutely fascinating in that they take found items and likembé wired up to amplifiers and car batteries. Supplies include Super Glue and hubcaps. Most of the bands original band members had died due to the chaos of the Mobutu era and later the civil war but somehow they managed to regroup and become internationally reknown. They’re a great example of informal sector/DIY ethos that innovates on the basis of everyday experience and they don’t need high tech gear to produce a fascinating sound. I saw them once in San Francisco at the exploratorium and was completely blown away.

If you want to learn more check out the Afro-Popstory on Congotronics or this story from the UK Guardian. NPR has a story here.

On Futures, Ignorance and Innovation: Helga Nowotny

The issue of the “future” has come to the forefront of late with the spectacular collapse of the banking system and the inability of journalists, economists and policy-makers to foresee the collapse. By now most of you have come across Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s very interesting views articulated in “The Black Swan” (more here). If you’re interested in a more philosophical and less testosterone driven analysis of how we can think about the future, science and innovation take a look at Helga Nowotny’s work.0262141035-medium

Helga Nowotny has written a fascinating philosophical reflection on innovation and its relationship with the future and curiosity entitled “Insatiable Curiosity. Innovation is a Fragile Future”. Let me begin by saying that I’ve been very interested in Paul Rabinow’s engagement with systems theorist Niklas Luhmann for the past several years. In “Marking Time” Rabinow writes about Luhmann’s essay “Describing the Future” which asks, “what form the future is being given today as well as what forms predictions about it take, in a society that understands itself to be ever-accelerating.” Luhmann observes that we are encountering an ever growing number of prognosticators, prophets and futurologists but he has difficulty in taking them seriously because we have little sense of what an invisible future would look like in the present. He uses the well-known cases of the CIA missing the end of the Cold War and Bill Gates’ missing the rise of the internet as a case in point.41nx2d2xall_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_ The dustbin of recent history is rather full of more recent examples from the past year so clearly there is something going on (or wrong) with how we are thinking about the future and the forms that it takes in the present. The social authority of experts rests increasingly on their ability to see the future despite the failures at understanding how it appears now. Therefore what has taken the place of authority is the “politics of understanding” that seeks to create reference points. In this way political actors and coalitions can set them aside to renegotiate–they’re in constant movement and decline over time. This, Rabinow explains, is why we return to the prognosticators even though they’ve been wrong–they help to frame the discussion (this helped me understand the use of maps of the future and organizations such as IFTF (one of my previous employers)–cartography is a technology for creating reference points). So, in the present we tend towards seeing the future in terms of probabilities–a two-sided future that sees something as more or less probable or improbable with a distribution spanning everything that is possible (Rabinow p. 60). Furthermore, this demands a quick prognosis and one that can be quickly adjusted to changing realities or simply forgotten. Rabinow terms this “provisional” foresight which demands experts who cannot really answer questions outside of a mode that always leads back to a question of uncertainty.

Rabinow responds to this situation through Luhmann’s essay “The Ecology of Ignorance”. We live in a situation of systemic ignorance, and some of this ignorance is produced knowingly. In fact we have a word for the production of ignorance, “agnotology” (see the recent book on how expert knowledges willfully produce ignorance). 0804759014. But saying that we have an ecology of ignorance does not mean that we can easily map out the white spaces. The tendency to try to fill these spaces in is mostly about the desire to communicate, to create the reference points, to be forced into taking a position. Increasingly the form of the communication is about ethics requiring ethical experts espousing core values of autonomy or dignity (which are not of great value in answering the questions and providing the level of certainty required).

Rabinow and Luhmann provide an interesting context for thinking about Nowotny’s work on curiosity, innovation and the future. Nowotny begins with an anecdote of how the future is signed in American Sign Language vs. African Sign Language (I’m assuming this is South African Sign Language). In the American SL the sign points forward, in Africa the sign points backwards. The logic of the African sign is that what lies in front of us is the past because only it is already known. The future lies where we cannot see it–behind us or around us (p.1). The future cannot be equated with the new and the new is discovered or recognizable by how it is different from the past. Nowotny argues that our desire to control the future is driven by a desire to protect what we have already achieved but the fascination with the new is driven by curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown. We’re constantly reminded of the utopian futures (typically through the techno-utopian flavor of futurology) and fears of the future (witness the collapsitarian trend at the moment) and it is the tension between the two that makes it difficult to conceive of the future.

Nowotny sees our ability to conceive the future as one that draws upon both knowledge and imagination, seriousness and play, science and irony; and the ability to reflect on power relations and institutions. Here is where innovation enters the picture. Innovation is “the new that promises a future”; it promises new experiences and recognizes that failure is always present. Today we increasingly see the privatization of science on one hand, and the ever growing demand from civil society to have a voice in scientific agendas. In other words, privatization and democratization and the two most important forces driving the scientific discourse that, in turn, drive the rise of scientific citizenship.

Nowotny then discusses the role of symbolic technologies in structuring our experience. These are the mental representations that have unleashed creative potentials in societies throughout history from music to art to philosophy. These are the cultural practices that enable us to think abstractly and produce material tools that change our environments. While much has been written on new communication technologies and their economic effects, far less is written about their effects on the brain and the meaning of innovation. In other words, what do these mean for ‘curiosity’ and how we think about the future. We find that the new is often controversial (ag-biotech, stem cells, etc.) and too frequently we resort to the use of nature and the boundary between nature and culture as a rather conservative way to mediate these conflicts. Science was originally thought of as this apolitical arbiter of conflict but since World War II it has lost ground. And so has the nation-state. Society is becoming more pluralistic. Nowotny argues that a basic consensus around these issues may be found by accepting openness toward the future if we view society as a laboratory seeking the public good (with limitations, of course) and we’ll need to create new public spaces to negotiate the meanings of innovation, futures. She ends with the following, “Nature knows no future tense and yet it constantly provides for the emergence of the new”. The cultural resource of ambivalence that contains both a yes and a no, is what is needed.

Michel Foucault on polemics

In light of the use of polemics in the debates over philanthrocapitalism that I’ve written about in the last few days, I thought some snippets from Michel Foucault’s interview, “The Masked Philosopher” and this interview with Paul Rabinow might be interesting in light of the above debate but also in relationship to the many “debates” we’re seeing these days on the market, blame, politics, etc. These interviews were from nearly a quarter century ago but have not lost their relevance:

The Masked Philosopher:
“C.D. Do you think intellectuals today talk too much? That they encumber what they say with a lot of stuff, much of it irrelevant to what they really have to say? FOUCAULT The word intellectual strikes me as odd. Personally, I’ve never met any intellectuals. I’ve met people who write novels, others who treat the sick. People who work in economics and others who write electronic music. I’ve met people who teach, people who paint, and people of whom I have never really understood what they do. But intellectuals, never. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of people who talk about “the intellectual.” And, listening to them, I’ve got some idea of what such an animal could be. It’s not difficult – he’s quite personified. He’s guilty about pretty well everything: about speaking out and about keeping silent, about doing nothing and about getting involved in everything . . . In short, the intellectual is raw material for a verdict, a sentence, a condemnation, an exclusion . . . I don’t find that intellectuals talk too much, since for me they don’t exist. But I do find that more and more is being said about intellectuals, and I don’t find it very reassuring. I have an unfortunate habit. When people speak about this or that, I try to imagine what the result would be if translated into reality. When they “criticize” someone, when they “denounce” his ideas, when they “condemn” what he writes, I imagine them in the ideal situation in which they would have complete power over him. I take the words they use – demolish, destroy, reduce to silence, bury – and see what the effect would be if they were taken literally. And I catch a glimpse of the radiant city in which the intellectual would be in prison or, if he were also a theoretician, hanged, of course. We don’t, it’s true, live under a regime in which intellectuals are sent to the ricefields. But have you heard of a certain Toni Negri? [1] Isn’t he in prison simply for being an intellectual?”

“What we are suffering from is not a void, but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. There is an overabundance of things to be known: fundamental, terrible, wonderful, funny, insignificant, and crucial at the same time. And there is an enormous curiosity, a need, a desire to know. People are always complaining that the mass media stuff one’s head with people. There is a certain misanthropy in this idea. On the contrary, I believe that people react; the more one convinces them, the more they question things. The mind isn’t made of soft wax. It’s a reactive substance. And the desire to know more, and to know it more deeply and to know other things increases as one tries to stuff peoples’ heads. If you accept that and if you add that there’s a whole host of people being trained in the universities and elsewhere who could act as intermediaries between this mass of things and this thirst for knowledge, you will soon come to the conclusion that student unemployment is the most absurd thing imaginable. The problem is to multiply the channels, the bridges, the means of information, the radio and television networks, the newspapers. Curiousity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes “care”; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental. I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means; the desire is there; there is an infinity of things to know; the people capable of doing such work exist. So what is our problem? Too little: channels of communication that are too narrow, almost monopolistic, inadequate. We mustn’t adopt a protectionist attitude, to stop “bad” information from invading and stifling the “good.” We must rather increase the possibility for movement backwards and forwards.”

“What is philosophy if not a way of reflecting, not so much on what is true and what is false, as on our relationship to truth? People sometimes complain that there is no dominant philosophy in France. So much the better for that! There is no sovereign philosophy, it’s true, but a philosophy or rather philosophy in activity. The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusions, one detaches oneself from whatis accepted as true and seeks other rules — that is philosophy. The displacement and transformation of frameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work that has been done to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than what one is — that, too, is philosophy. From this point of view, the last thirty years or so have been a period of intense philosophical activity. The interaction between analysis, research, “learned” or “theoretical” criticism, and changes in behavior, in people’sreal conduct, their way of being, their relation to themselves and to others has been constant and considerable. I was saying just now that philosophy was a way of reflecting on our relationship to truth. It should also be added that it is a way of interrogating ourselves: if this is the relationship that we have with truth, how must we behave? I believe that a considerable and varied amount of work has been done and is still being done that alters both our relation to truth and our way of behaving.”

From “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations:

“Paul Rabinow: Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics ?

Michel Foucault: I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”