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Clay Shirky is crazy about Ushahidi. He thinks the crowdsource crisis tool is the perfect technology for demonstrating cognitive surplus in action –the positive power of what people can do with their free time and how it benefits society. But what other technology does Shirky rate and what’s his advice to local entrepreneurs Memeburn spoke to the best selling author on the line from New York.
“In terms of technology, obviously the most exciting thing is what is going on with the mobile phone, that is the transformative technology,” Shirky said from New York. “I do a class in conjunction with UNICEF and one of the design principles of the class is that you can do anything you like on the internet, you can imagine a tool that uses the internet in any way you like, but the end user only can only be assumed to have the Nokia 1100 in their hand. What’s really remarkable is that in many cases the social design principles that we have learned from the web can translate to the mobile phone.”
Shirky related the tale of fishermen in Kenya who use mobile phones to add efficiency to what they do and to earn more money.
“I like the smartphone as much as the next guy, but in the social market increasing the number of people that are connected has a bigger effect on the environment than increasing the way the most advanced users are connected. I think a lot of the surprises are going to come from outside of the US because our mobile phone infrastructure is so abysmal, and because we are in a world where the idea is that the smart phone is the design platform,” Shirky said, adding that the big “freak outs” are going to come from places like Africa which gave birth to Ushahidi and where large numbers of people with commodity hardware are connected, rather than places where small numbers of advanced hardware are connected.
The man who has become one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the economic and social effects of social networks was reluctant to offer locals start-up advice.
“I don’t want to be that white guy sitting in the canyons and lecturing kids on what they should be doing. With that caveat I will say I don’t know where the jobs will manifest themselves, or the work will manifest itself. In the beginning of other media, right when the opportunity breaks, the people who get jobs are generalists.”
Shirky said that it is only when mediums mature that specialisation sets in.
“So what I will say in the beginning is this: figure how to get Asterisk running, which is the open source telephone switching network that also works on the web, then get FrontlineSMS or RapidSMS running.
“These are the kinds of tools that are used to build things like Ushahidi on top of. Then do just anything, design a service that does anything, even if it just calls people back when they call or lets users set the time of day for a call back. Have the experience of building a simple service, even if it does nothing that people directly need. Figure out how to get the phone in its simplest form working — whether it is leaving a voice message, making an actual phone call, punching the buttons, using, sending an SMS or leaving an email answer when you record a phone message. Anyone who has built a service — however simple — featuring these simple things is streets ahead of what people are thinking about right now.”
Shirky said that the experience of making a service do what you want to do would be a powerful first entry step for young people wanting to get into business using social networks.
How did Shirky get into the game? The answer is that there was not great plan, and it was quite by accident.
“I would love to tell you some story of a master plan, but there is no master plan that can make anything that chaotic look sensible.”
Shirky was running a theatre company staging non-fiction documentaries and was struggling to source specific material when his mother told him about the internet. “She said it was like a giant electronic library, and I said ‘OK mom, I’ll check it out.’ When I got there I thought this isn’t like a library at all, this is like the weirdest thing I have ever seen.”
Shirky’s hobby became exploring the internet: “When you are in the theatre you have a lot of time on your hands. I think it was a summer during which I was unemployed.” Within six months, Shirky was studying the internet as if it was a half time job. “I wasn’t getting paid to do this so I’d had to either call myself an addict or try and quit using it or try to make a living which is what I did.” Little did he know that he would move on to become one of the foremost authorities on the anthropology of social technologies and networks.