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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

Mixing Stuff Up

Remember mashups? Five years or so ago they were all the rage. At their heart, they provided ways of combining things that already existed to do new things. This is a lazy approach, and one I favour.

One of the key inspirations for me in this idea combinatorial tech, or tech combinatorics, is Jon Udell. His Library Lookup project blew me away in its creativity (the use of bookmarklets, the way the project encouraged you to access one IT service from another, the using of “linked data”, common/core-canonical identifiers to bridge services and leverage or enrich one from another, and so on) and was the spark that fired many of my own doodlings. (Just thinking about it again excites me now…)

As Jon wrote on his blog yesterday (Shiny old tech) (my emphasis):

What does worry me, a bit, is the recent public conversation about ageism in tech. I’m 20 years past the point at which Vinod Khosla would have me fade into the sunset. And I think differently about innovation than Silicon Valley does. I don’t think we lack new ideas. I think we lack creative recombination of proven tech, and the execution and follow-through required to surface its latent value.

Elm City is one example of that. Another is my current project, Thali, Yaron Goland’s bid to create the peer-to-peer web that I’ve long envisioned. Thali is not a new idea. It is a creative recombination of proven tech: Couchbase, mutual SSL authentication, Tor hidden services. To make Thali possible, Yaron is making solid contributions to Thali’s open source foundations. Though younger than me, he is beyond Vinod Khosla’s sell-by date. But he is innovating in a profoundly important way.

Can we draw a clearer distinction between innovation and novelty?

Creative recombination.

I often think of this in terms of appropriation (eg Appropriating Technology, Appropriating IT: innovative uses of emerging technologies or Appropriating IT: Glue Steps).

Or repurposing, a form of reuse that differs from the intended original use.

Openness helps here. Open technologies allow users to innovate without permission. Open licensing is just part of that open technology jigsaw; open standards another; open access and accessibility a third. Open interfaces accessed sideways. And so on.

Looking back over archived blog posts from five, six, seven years ago, the web used to be such fun. An open playground, full of opportunities for creative recombination. Now we have Facebook, where authenticated APIs give you access to local social neighbourhoods, but little more. Now we have Google using link redirection and link pollution at every opportunity. Services once open are closed according to economic imperatives (and maybe scaling issues; maybe some creative recombinations are too costly to support when a network scales). Maybe my memory of a time when the web was more open is a false memory?

Creative recombination, ftw.

PS just spotted this (Walking on custard), via @plymuni. If you don’t see why it’s relevant, you probably don’t get the sense of this post!

Written by Tony Hirst

April 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks Tony. Let’s hope it doesn’t end up being something we only remember from the old days, eh?

    Jon Udell

    April 3, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    • @Jon Agreed! I keep wondering whether scale actually does have a negative influence ito the things service providers feel confident in being able to support? Eg they have to lock down because they have to keep core functionality up? (Good luck with the move, btw..:-)

      Tony Hirst

      April 3, 2014 at 7:55 pm

  2. […] The theory was also one of the things I grasped at this evening to try to help get my head round why the great opportunities for creative play around the technologies being developed by companies such as Google, Amazon and Yahoo five or so years ago don’t seem to be there any more. (See for example this post mourning the loss of a playful web.) […]


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