After less than two years, LibriVox is one of the world’s most prolific publishers of audiobooks, on a budget of $0. LibriVox belongs to a global movement that Yaochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production,” projects like free and open source software production (linux, firefox), wikipedia, and seti@home.
The human evolutionary advantage is our ability to process and systematize information. Now, people have more access to information, and a means to exchange and comment and act on it. This gives humans a greater ability to find innovative solutions to problems. Podcasting is the soundtrack (and videotrack) to this revolution.
Photo by Andrea Ross.
Mark Blevis: I’m Mark Blevis.
Bob Goyetche: And I’m Bob Goyetche. This is a special episode on Canadian Podcast Buffet featuring audio from Podcasters Across Borders 2007 just a few weeks ago in Kingston.
Mark Blevis: Podcasters Across Borders 2008 is taking place in Kingston again next year. That’s 2008 from June 20th to 22nd. Stay tuned to the Canadian Podcast Buffet and Podcasters Across Borders for details on registration, accommodations, speaking sessions and good socializing.
Bob Goyetche: This episode is brought to you in part by TD Canada Trust. Stay tuned to the end of the show to see how you can get a free iPod.
Mark Blevis: If you missed PAB2007, you missed a session called “How Podcasting will Save the World”. And what you’re about to hear right now is that session delivered by Hugh McGuire of LibriVox.
Hugh McGuire: So my name is Hugh McGuire. This is the title of my presentation: “How Podcasting Will Save the World”. I started a project called LibriVox; it was August, 2005. So, almost two years ago. And the idea was to try to get in kind of an open source way, get people to record bits of public domain texts and put it up on the internet for free. So instead of having to read a whole book, you would read a bit of a text, a chapter for instance and put that up on the net. And that we would try to collect a library of audio books in the public domain. And since then…so that started with one book and thirteen people in the first few weeks. And we’re now, there’s something like 1,500 people involved in the project. Sean McGaughey is one of our admin guys and we have…we now publish about 50 books a month. So that’s 2 novels everyday roughly. And we’re…I think we’re the biggest, most prolific audio book publisher in the world now.
But I’m not really going to talk much about that, but that’s just a bit of intro. Although I will do…is this going to work…just an audio quiz here. So the audio quiz is: which of these is a professional audio book recording? …Oh s–t…is this going to work if I just plugged it in?…hopefully it works. So that’s one. Okay so that’s the audio quiz and the question is which of those…hang on a second, let me just get the slide show going again…so which of those was a professional audio book recording? And the answer, of course, is none of them. You guys are all podcasters and you know that you don’t have to be a professional to be damned good, so. So LibriVox just started out as a little project. It’s become quite a big project and I feel it was really listening to podcasts that inspired me to start this project. And realizing sort of this idea of distributed media and a lot of the stuff Arthur was talking about this morning was allowing people to do things with audio and just moving audio around.
But I think that podcasting…so LibriVox is kind of part of the podcasting family. And podcasting is part of something bigger which is maybe the open movement. So I think that’s open source, Creative Commons, all this idea that we can open things up and not have everything owned and everything monetary to start with in order to do constructive things. And I have a bit of a theory that this open movement is the evolutionary advantage, or part of what gives humans an evolutionary advantage. So if you look at other animals in the kingdom, for instance, the cheetah. It’s a fast runner and it’s got really sharp teeth for biting things. And the camel doesn’t get thirsty so it can last a long time in the desert and baleen whales are really good at eating plankton and flies can fly. And then you look at humans, right? And we’ve got these really dull knobby teeth and we’re really slow and we’re not good at eating plankton and we get really thirsty all the time. We can fly but we need some assistance. And so, you know, you got to ask like what do we have going for us? And the traditional answer has been intelligence. We’re the most intelligent and all that kind of stuff. But what does that really mean? And my proposal for what intelligence is and what our evolutionary advantage is, is our ability to collect, analyze and remember data and then make decisions in consequence of that data. So it’s the idea of evidence-based thinking that we’re able to abstract out problems and look at different sets of data and say okay, if we do this. then this will be the outcome. And we can abstract over time and space sometimes. We also often don’t use evidence-based thinking and there’s lots of examples of that around as well.
But so, I believe that our human evolutionary advantage is our ability to manage data and data being temperature, time, distance, weight, speed, volume, all this kind of stuff that we use to build things and make things and solve problems. But data is also…you could consider it, you know, public domain text is a kind of data, maps, photos, ice core measurements, traffic reports, epidemiological studies, Canadian Podcast Buffet episode number 26. These are all types of data. And the way we use data is to do things with it so you could call data management things like agriculture, like we plant on the third day of the full moon. And cooking, we add two grams of salt. And making clothing and buildings and laws and even podcasting is kind of a way that you manage data. So what is an evolutionary advantage then? And my proposal is, that it’s an ability to solve problems that could kill us all. Or, for brevity, just the ability to solve problems.
And here’s another theory is that societies, as a whole, are most healthy and stable when they are best able to solve new problems. So as new problems come up, we’re able to solve it. And I started thinking about all this looking at how LibriVox evolved. Because it was an open project we…dealing with 10 people sending in audio files is really easy to manage. But when it started growing and all of a sudden there were 100 files coming in every few days. And then, now there’s probably thousands of files coming in every day. It got really complex. And the way we dealt with that was by opening up the process and saying okay, who can help us do this? And people just came along and found solutions to how to solve these problems. So it was really neat. You know, when I started, I knew very little about all the stuff we do…I actually still know very little about it but…people out there in the internet’s are helping to solve this problem of how we manage all this data coming in, all the audio books, and then what we do with it. So my proposal is that societies are most healthy and stable when they’re able to solve problems. And probably if you look over the history of the human race, democracy, while it’s got lots of problems, has been the form of human society that is best able to deal with problems.
And some of the ideals that underpin democracy are free speech, free press, transparent government, rule of law, public education and free markets. And you could consider that the basis of democracy then is to open up data to many people and let them make decisions based on access to that data. So in a way, democracy success is a function of access to data. And the proposal again is that opening data to more people means more problems can get solved and it means a more stable, successful and healthy society. So here’s…this is my really fancy graphic. I’m pretty talented with this stuff so. You have…I meant to put arrows on the things between data and bureaucracy as well, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that so. So you kind of have government in the corner and policies, the government policies in the middle and people sort of influence government and government implements policies which affect people. And then below, the way we’ve traditionally run our societies for many of our big problems is you have data in the middle down there and the bureaucracy that implements policies based on the data. And it kind of goes back between the government. But there’s not really a direct connection between people and data. And then you could also do something similar for how companies operate as well.
So, here’s another quiz: which of these two resources has…I actually want a show of hands… which of these two has better information, so more trustworthy information? Wikipedia or Britannica? So hands up for Wikipedia…oh…hands up for Britannica…oh wow…you guys are far too internet savvy I guess. Anyway, I was hoping you were all going to say that’s it much more trustworthy on Britannica and then I would have my joke at the end. But anyway, who’s used Britannica recently? And who’s used Wikipedia recently? Okay, so now imagine that you had all put up your hands to say that Britannica is better information right? So the question, which is more useful, Britannica or Wikipedia? And clearly the answer, just by a show of hands here of who’s using it is Wikipedia is much more useful. So while professionals might be better at doing things, I would argue that amateurs are often more useful because there’s a lot more access, is that a question back there?
Sonya: I just want to make a quick comment about the whole Wikipedia thing. I love Wikipedia. It’s such a great place to start your research, to get a good general idea. But I’ve, on a past show I’ve had to work for, I’ve had to go and fact check a lot of the details in Wikipedia. And it’s not a good place for details. It’s great for general resource, to get a sense of what’s out there. But for details, do not trust it and do not use it verbatim.
Hugh McGuire: Right. Good. So that’s kind of my take on Wikipedia as well, is that it’s a really wonderful tool and it’s very useful. But probably for trustworthiness, Britannica’s going to be a lot better, in my opinion. Right. So, we’ll start again. While professionals, as Sonya say’s, might be better; amateurs might be more useful sometimes.
So I have a gloomy proposition that there’s a great book that came out by Thomas Homer-Dixon who’s a U of T professor called “The Upside of Down”. And it’s kind of a gloomy prediction on the universe. And he kind of finishes on a slightly happy note. But he’s talking about some of the major challenges faced. And it’s always nice when you read a book and you realize how smart the author is because he writes about things that you were thinking about. And you think “wow, what a bright guy he is”. So anyway, some of the things, some of these big problems that we have facing the human race, things like climate change, peak oil, over population, bird flu’s and epidemics, Aids, etc., etc. There’s all sorts of problems out there that we’re facing. And the traditional approach that we’ve taken to many big problems in the world, and this is an idealized version of course, but what we do is we sort of…and this is particularly in democracies, but the people say to the governments this is a big problem. So if you take climate change, for instance, everyone’s getting all excited about climate change these days. So the government is starting to act on it. The government, you know, collects its data, it analyzes its data, and then based on that, it implements policies and laws to solve problems or try to, anyway. And in this way governments are kind of professional problem solvers for big societal problems. But we’ve seen with open source movement, free software, distributed media, blogs and podcasting and Wikipedia and LibriVox etc., that while those professional problem solvers might be better, maybe at doing it, amateurs might be more useful at solving problems.
And so the call there, in a way is to try to get…and this is sort of a whole discussion on itself… but to get governments to start giving us the data that they collect with our tax money and let the network effect of the internet go to work on those data sets to find solutions to problems. And I don’t really have any specifics about what that might mean or what it would look like, but I’m certain that if we get more access to health data and more access to environmental data and all this kind of thing, there would be all sorts of innovative solutions that could be found by this great group of keen people.
So this is a bit of a tribute to Julien Smith, who’s taught me that I need to be a bit more hip and sort of appeal to the younger audience so. So old school that’s with a “k” instead of the traditional “ch”. I don’t know if it’s in Podictionary. But anyway the old school thinking about this movement is that it was about the tools, right? The free software, open source movement, kind of said don’t block us from being able to make tools. And that got applied also into information, so you had blogs and podcasting. And then as well, got applied to properties so you have Creative Commons and public domain and other things like that. And so I’m proposing that a new school that all of us who’ve been kind of looking at this movement for the past few years, that we start thinking about using these tools and the methodologies and info distribution and all that to solve real problems, rather than making better browsers or whatever it is that we’re doing. But, again, to solve the problems, we need the data.
So I’m going to bring it back now to podcasting. And podcasting is a great way to distribute data. And that’s really abstract data, but I mean data in the sense of information, context, all this stuff that humans use to make decisions about how to solve problems…which can help us solve problems…And at the last podcast conference, this was particularly pushed by our own Bob. The question that everyone asked was “how do I monetize my podcast” right? It wasn’t pushed by Bob, of course. We just had a funny discussion about it in the car on the way back. So it’s kind of this mindset that a lot of us have who are working in podcasting, around podcasting is, is how do we monetize this? And I think there’s nothing wrong specifically with wanting to monetize anything. But I kind of think it’s maybe the wrong question. And that the question should be “how can podcasting, or my skills as a podcaster, help solve problems?” So what can we be doing as podcasters to be doing interesting things?
And I just have two examples of two podcasts that I don’t really listen to all that much, but I just love what they’re doing. And it’s Jim Mills, who’s around somewhere here. And I forget the name of the law podcast. But his podcast, what he does is he gets law professors to sit down, two or three expert law professors, to sit down and have a discussion about really technical legal issues, but as they apply to the real world. So he’s taking information that is very specialized in the academic setting and trying to push that out into society as a whole. And to me, it’s a wonderful example of the power of podcasting that we haven’t…I still feel we haven’t really touched on enough as a movement is, is trying to get more and more interesting information out to the people who…I mean the people as the ether, I guess, who make decisions.
And Whitney Hoffman also has a new podcast she’s just started. She got hired by her hospital in her area to do a podcast for Obgyn. That’s gynaecologists and obstetricians. The residents of that program, I believe. So it’s kind of an educational podcast in that area. And these are two really specific examples where podcasting and kind of the skills that all of us have, are being used to address real problems. So in one case, it’s getting law out, law issues out to the greater public to understand. And in the other case, it’s education for doctors. Both worthy causes, so.
So, I think that’s…I’d just like to put that out to you guys that you guys all know of problems in your life, in your communities. And if you find ways to solve problems and find ways to use podcasting to address problems that you see in your world, I think that that the monetization side sort of comes out of that, right? Like you do your podcast about hip hop or music marketing or whatever it is which might be specific. But you may have a lot of skills to help push information out around the world. So the question is: will podcasting save the world? And probably not. But it might help anyway. And that’s my URL.
Bob Goyetche: Thanks Hugh, wow, that’s loud.
Hugh McGuire: And I guess…I don’t know if I have any answers…but I guess discussion or questions or…
Bob Goyetche: Any specific questions on saving the world with podcasts? Oh, we’ve got one over here.
John Meadows: Hi, it’s John Meadows, Smoky Times. I think the point about not getting hung up on monetizing is a really key fundamental point. It’s almost the difference between, you know, podcasters…if we use unconventional technology to do conventional things, I think it’s a lot more interesting to do to take unconventional technology and start doing unconventional things.
Hugh McGuire: Yeah, again, I mean I think what happens, it turns out that probably a lot of people don’t want to listen to the stuff that we’re making, right? So, you know, to hope that we’re going to get millions of listeners. I mean I have a blog and I get maybe 30 readers a day, you know, and I’m happy to keep doing it for whatever reason. But I think the…and yet the skills that I have in blogging or podcasting or whatever are applicable for other things. So I think that’s maybe a way to look at a lot of those issues.
Bob Goyetche: Anyone else. I think I’ll just leave a mike with you Charles.
Charles Hodgson: I was just going to say when you recognize someone you’re reading as being so smart because they’re writing about what you’re thinking about, thank you. That’s what I heard when you were saying that. I recognize some of the thoughts. You’re so smart.
Mark Blevis: Charles is the new Jay.
Hugh McGuire: Charles is…
Bob Goyetche: Jay for 2000…there’s a hand over there. Next week on Jerry…
Kathi Simmons: Thanks, Kathi. Hugh, I love the idea about us trying to get data to try and solve the problems or at least help. But how would you propose that we go about coaxing the government to give us access to the data?
Hugh McGuire: Well I think it’s…there’s a blog, for instance, in the UK started by The Guardian Technology Section called www.freeourdata.co.uk I guess. So, I mean, it’s all these things are really slow processes. And I think that people in government are, some of them are aware that this is a good idea. I mean, in the old days, they did give the data away for free. But now, just a little example of this. I am involved actually in a group that’s discussing this called www.civicaccess.ca which is now a Wiki filled with porn spam. But it’s also a mailing list, a discussion list. So people, you know, people are starting to think about this. But just an example of what I’m talking about. We wanted to do a democracy website to help, you know, promote democratic engagement. And we wanted to get the data set that matches your postal code with your electoral riding, right? So people could type in a postal code and find what electoral riding they’re in. And this is used on www.parliament.ca and on www.electionscanada.ca and www.statscan.ca and various other places. So we contacted these people, and they said “oh, contact Stats Can”. And we did and it was going to cost $9,000.00 to get this data set, which is, you know, it’s so obviously public data that we should have access to for free. And yet we can’t get it. And when you get it, it’s in this really ridiculous licensing scheme where you’re not really allowed to distribute it in certain ways. So I think it’s just a matter of starting to clamber about this stuff. And it’s the way any political movement sort of gets moving, it’s just people pushing it.
Kathi Simmons: Okay thanks.
Bob Goyetche: There’s another one over here.
Beth: Hi, I’m Beth. My cousin Norman Yen is a limnologist. And once a year, there’s a group of scientists that come together from all over the world and they share their data. And they’ve just put up a website. And I was thinking at the next break, I would give them a call and find out what that was. But he’s very, very committed to that. And I know a lot of scientists are.
Hugh McGuire: Yeah, there’s…in the scientific community, there’s a lot of movements. There’s actually a Canadian site called www.openmedicine.ca. So it’s a referee journal, medical journal. And it’s open and online, so it’s not the expensive journal that is, you know, I don’t know what the costs are for medical journals. But they’re thousands of dollars generally to get subscriptions. So there’s kind of, in academia, there’s this idea that this is a good thing, sharing knowledge, you know. But governments are slow and cobwebby.
Bob Goyetche: And now, because Jay can’t let himself be outdone by Charles.
Jay Moonah: So you all now…I can’t remember, I’ve lost track. Actually just to that, I was actually just having a conversation with somebody the other day on the marketing side. And I want to seed an idea because I know there’s some influential people in the sort of marketing and advertising world in the room, that wouldn’t it be great if rather than paying for like freaking idiotic comp score data in that world, that if all the people who run big websites that are commercial in nature, just shared their server logs, and aggregated all the data and then just shared it all. I mean, we’re all competing on the same data anyway. Why should we have to pay thousands of dollars for it?
Hugh McGuire: Right. And the thing that’s kind of funny about all this is that everyone says, oh, you know, this is a business or whatever. But it turns out that when you open…it’s sort have been shown that when you start opening this stuff up, actually more innovative business gets built on top of it. So when we’ve got this artificial blockage, and I think copyright is a good example of that in the music business as well. But for smaller bands, they’re finding giving their stuff away is helping them rather than hurting them.
Bob Goyetche: Okay, we have a last question here from Neil.
Neil: Neil Gorman from Ology. And one of the things that I…when you were saying something, an idea kind of came into my head. And when Jay said kind of seed the idea, I think that’s kind of what I’m trying to do too. I work in Social Services. I work in a Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Clinic, working with 38 male adolescent drug addicts. And one of the things I notice is that people in Social Services are very inner-conestic and very anti-technology a lot of the times. And I also come to things like this where everybody’s pro-technology and let’s get together and come up with new ideas and try new things and experiment, experiment, experiment. What would be great is if there was something like bar camp, but for Social Workers. Or bar camp, but for, I don’t know, dentists or something like that. Where people could get together and they’re in the helping professions. Their job is to get people who are having some kind of problem, whether it be dental problems or health problems or mental problems or whatever, and let’s talk about ways that we can use technology to communicate better with each other. Let’s talk about ways we can use technology to help the people we are actually trying to help. And if you take this innovative kind of force which is so pervasive in all of technological culture and kind of plugged it into other cultures where it’s really absent, I think you could come up with some really great things. And I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about, Hugh. Kind of taking that idea, that ethos of innovate, and putting it in places where it really needs to be more.
Hugh McGuire: Yeah, I think it’s a really good point about the sort of non-profit or the social service kind of sector and technology that really doesn’t get along very well. And a lot of like open source geeks kind of say, you know, you guys should all be using whatever. Or, you know, it’s really easy, you just have to, you know, mess with your config logs and it will all sort itself out or whatever. And it’s a problem because those people tend to be not paid all that well and are really busy trying to do the stuff they’re doing. So they don’t want to become Linux geeks in order to do the stuff. So I think, and on podcasting distributed media, you know, you look around the room and there’s all sorts of people who know how to do podcasting. So, there’s a knowledge sharing that I think we ought to be doing, so.
Bob Goyetche: Thanks Hugh. Great topic, great talk.
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