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We are the members of a revolution. It has happened so gradually, and so easily slipped into our everyday lives, that we may not even notice the changes. Over the past two decades, the internet has been transformed from a tool used mainly by research institutes, universities, and government agencies into a global communications network, used by over 1 trillion people worldwide. The future has arrived and we’ve got a lot to say about it.

John Blossom’s new book, Content Nation: Surviving and Thriving as Social Media Changes Our Work, Our Lives, and Our Future, addresses the opportunities and challenges that come with this new global community, and how our participation in this new venture is changing the world we live in, in nearly every facet of our lives.  Blossom’s basic premise is that we are all publishers. If you’ve ever written an email, left a voice message, posted photos to Flickr, shared your thoughts on a weblog, or written a book review on Amazon.com – this means you. The growth of social media has given us a voice, one that can speak to – and influence – others around the globe with the click of a mouse.

And Blossom is not just talking the talk. The book was developed through Blossom’s own Content Nation website, actively seeking member’s feedback and contributions in the development of the book. The result is a fascinating “Live Book”, one that is meant to evolve and adapt as we move further into this new age. This is social media as its finest – using audience participation to create compelling and intriguing dialogues, a mash-up between midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and your high school’s AP Humanities class.  A good time, but with some smarts too.

Wikipedia defines social media as “primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings.” Which, to me, sounds like a pretty bland description of something that is really, really exciting. Using new technology, we are able to engage, respond, and comment about the world around us in amazing and innovative ways. And we are able to collaborate and interact with others who share our interests – whether they are in the neighboring town or a country on the other side of the globe.

Social media’s influence continues to expand, and is now altering the ways in which we view news, access information, and the influence of commercial interests. During the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Newsvine contributor Chris Thomas was able to post up-to-the-minute updates throughout the ordeal, relying on messages and phone calls from his wife and friends on the campus. We no longer have to wait for the evening news to keep informed about events that have national and global ramifications, we just have to wait for the next post.

Social Media Addiction Rap

Blossom uses the above Newsvine example, and many others throughout the book, to deftly illustrate just how widespread the use of social media has become. He has written a book that is understandable to John Q. User, but that will also hold the interest of someone with a tech background. My only problem with the book – and it is a small one, considering the nature of the “Live Book” concept – is the lack of proper editing. So if you’re a stickler for grammar, please consider yourself warned. However, if you should choose to read the book in its paperback format, I’m sure that will have been addressed.

As the executives at Facebook (FB) were reminded last week, Content Nation is not a passive community. When the FB legal team revamped the “Terms of Use” to include ambiguous language regarding their ownership of users’ content, site members rallied, inciting a firestorm of controversy that was reported by every major media outlet in America. Through blog postings, forums, and newly created FB groups, users argued against the new terms, threatening to delete their accounts. Within five days, Facebook recanted.

Such a widespread and instantaneous response would have been impossible just a decade ago. Facebook, a popular social-networking site with over 175 million active users worldwide, is a significant player in this new global community, and one that – after this week, has a new appreciation for the power of the people.

If your home office looks anything like mine, you are probably inundated with electronic devices of all shapes and sizes. Your cell phone, iPod, laptop, digital camera – the list goes on, and so do the cords and transformers to keep the batteries charged. And at some point, you’ve no doubt heard the dreaded beep when your cell phone is about to lose battery in the midst of an important call. If only you had remembered to plug in your phone last night!  Clearly, there has to be a better way than frantically searching for an available outlet – and then remembering you’ve left your charger at home.

Intel wireless poewr demoWell, scientists at Intel, MIT, and other prominent research facilities are working to make the dream of a cordless future a reality. Piggybacking upon discoveries made by some of the most well-known names in electrical engineering – among them Nikola Tesla and James Clerk Maxwell – scientists are hoping to use magnetically coupled resonance to transfer energy without wiresto all your electronic devices, safer and more efficiently than ever before.

But what is this exactly? And how does it work? The MIT researchers are utilizing two copper coils which transmit energy through a magnetic field. One coil, connected to a power source, acts as a sending unit, oscillating at specific MHz frequencies. The second coil is specifically designed to resonate with the magnetic field and acts as a receiver. Unlike other methods of transferring energy, such as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic resonance has little impact on other objects in the area, and does not require a direct line of sight between the coils to work.

So far, the scientists have been limited by the experimental device’s range and energy output, but expect to develop an apparatus that can quickly be adapted for a number of commercial uses.

The benefits of this technology go far beyond convenience, when viewed from an environmental impact standpoint. Today, over 3 billion dry cell batteries are sold in the U.S. alone. And after they’re depleted, all those batteries have to go somewhere. Although some of these batteries can be recycled, or recharged, most are not, instead leeching toxic substances into our air, soil, and water supplies.

By utilizing wireless power, batteries for these devices can be reduced, or even completely eliminated, reducing the amount of resources needed to manufacture the product (goodbye power cords! weighty transformers!), and producing less waste in the long term.

Additionally, magnetically coupled resonance is a far more efficient way to transfer energy. Because these devices are designed to only interact with each other, far less energy will be needed, lowering our electrical consumption levels and reducing the amount of energy waste we are currently generating.

Wireless Power – eCoupled

Despite the amazing technological advances made in the past couple of decades, we are still tied to the wall. But maybe not for too much longer.

I have had a strong interest in business sustainability for many years and worked to promote sustainable practices while working for the city of Seattle and later running FlexCar.  One of the most interesting books on the subject was Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  It is packed with innovative examples of how modern industry can operate in a sustainable manner, while still producing the goods and services we desire as consumers.  But the true impact of their work really came home to me when I heard Michael Braungart speak in Seattle.  He mixed insights with humor and compassion, and put us, as ordinary consumers, firmly at the center of the whole sustainability movement.  (He hates the word “sustainability” by the way – he believes it sets the bar too low.)

His key concepts included:

  • Move from recycling to design for reuse – nothing should be designed for a single use with its ultimate destination being the landfill
  • Think total cost (price tag + the external costs such as environmental cleanup) when purchasing items
  • We should build products that “plug into” reuse ecosystems – i.e. one business’s waste is another business’s raw material

Most interestingly, however, was Braungart’s belief that the US could reestablish its industrial hegemony, not by following China to make the lowest cost goods, but by educating consumers on the dangers of the toxin loaded goods being developed that way today and offer an alternative.  How important that lesson has recently become as we have had to deal with one instance after another of toxic products, including the recall of 9 million toys in 2007.

Another point – and this is the most hopeful of all.  He encouraged the audience to stop feeling guilty about consuming and taking up space on the planet.  The problem is not consumption per se, but how we produce and consume things.  He pointed to the example of ants, which dominate the insect kingdom like humans dominate the rest of the animal kingdom.  The ant population actually has as much or more biomass than all of humanity.  Yet we don’t consider ants an environmental threat because the waste they produce is completely recycled – no “ant landfills.”   Braungart believes the planet could actually support a considerably larger human population if we redesigned our own production and consumption along sustainable principles.  We could even feel good about conspicuous consumption if everything we consumed was designed to be reused and then reconstituted in another product.

Many environmental groups have cast the debate about sustainability in terms of limiting or eliminating economic growth.  But, as McDonough has argued in his film, The Next Industrial Revolution, it’s not about growth vs. no-growth – it’s how we grow that counts.  He and Braungart have urged environmentalists to go beyond the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – to avoid perpetuating a “cradle to grave” manufacturing model and challenge the belief that human industry must always damage the world.

The Next Industrial Revolution film trailer

The concept of a zero waste industrial ecology could hold the key to our quality of life in the decades ahead.  But it will not happens unless we, as consumers, educate ourselves and then pass on our higher expectations of the organizations that produce the goods and services we consume.

Sometimes, great innovations can spring from attempting to design a complicated product for use by an unsophisticated audience.  For example, not too long ago, the CBS television news magazine 60 Minutes ran a story featuring the work that Nicholas Negroponte is doing with his organization One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Their mission is to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves using an educational computer created for use in developing countries at a cost of $100.

In a talk he gave at the TED seminars, Negroponte outlined the principles that drive his work:

  • Children are our most precious resource.
  • The solution to peace, the environment and poverty is education.
  • Teaching is one way to learn, but not the only way.

As a demonstration of his own commitment to these principles, he stepped down from his chairmanship of the prestigious MIT Media Lab to devote the rest of his life to this work.

The OLPC laptop had to meet a number of engineering and software challenges – e.g. working in remote areas with poor electricity and spotty access to the Internet, as well as begin used by young children with no technology experience.  The laptop is ruggedized for use in rural environments, has built in Wi-Fi capabilities and is designed from the ground up for use by children.  For example, kids can spill liquids on the keyboard without damaging the computer.  You can review the mission, history of the project and progress to date, as well as all the details about the computer on the OLPC website. One interesting aspect of the laptop is that it doubles as an e-book reader. This is important since in many developing countries, it is difficult and expensive to ship textbooks. The OLPC group is teaming up with microchip manufacturing powerhouse Intel to leverage its manufacturing, sales and distribution capabilities and truly allow the project to achieve its global dreams.

Review of the XO computer from One Laptop per Child

The 60 Minutes piece pointed out that the laptops are often used by all members of the child’s family and inspire the parents to keep their children in school. The presence of technology could dramatically alter and improve village life, just as when Muhammad Yunus introduced cells phones into rural areas of Bhangladeshas a new business for village women.

Technology has a way of permeating every corner of human existence. Perhaps this technology will spur the growth of education in remote areas and inspire further efforts to bridge what has been called the “Digital Divide” in both developed as well as emerging nations.