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Charlie Leadbeater’s Keynote Summary on Cloud Culture: How Cloud Computing Will Change Culture and Politics

Just a few weeks ago, Charlie Leadbeater gave a great keynote speech at the Personal Democracy Forum Europe 09 in Barcelona.

By Liz Azyan , in Interviews , at December 21, 2009 Tags: , ,

Just a few weeks ago, Charlie Leadbeater gave a great keynote speech at the Personal Democracy Forum Europe 09 in Barcelona. I had the pleasure of being in the audience as a Google Fellow at this conference. He talked about the cloud culture and its impact on leadership and politics. This post breaks down and summarizes all the important points he made in that speech.

Micah L. Sifry (@misif) described Charlie Leadbeater (@wethink)  as an…

  • Ideas generator
  • strategic advisor to corporations and governments all over the world
  • Tony Blairs favourite thinker
  • The New York Times voted his idea of the Pro Ams (Amateurs) – Economy as one of the most innovative of the last 10 years
  • He writes for the Financial Times
  • Author of many books, most recently “We Think: The Power of Mass Creativity”
  • He is now working on a report on the concept of cloud culture which is how the web is changing in relationships between the state and citizens worldwide which he is doing for the British Council.

What is Cloud Culture?

Charlie starts off by explaining that “Cloud Culture” is just going from the idea of cloud computing. Where it is an idea that instead of computing having to do with beautiful things that Apple makes for us, its located somewhere up there and we draw it up as we need it. Information and software sort of just floats around and we take it down to multiple devices and we don’t have to carry around USB sticks and things like that and this has all sorts of potential and advantages for cost and specialisation and collaboration and so on and so forth.

Cloud computing definition

Cloud computing is Internet– (“cloud-“) based development and use of computer technology (“computing“).[1] In concept, it is a paradigm shift whereby details are abstracted from the users who no longer need knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them.[2] It typically involves the provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources as a service over the Internet.[3][4]

Introduction to Cloud Trends & Culture Video

Digitized culture

Charlie say that if we were to use the idea of a cloud as a kind of metaphor for culture and how we organize, then you could see how more of our culture can become digital. We’ll have many more digital stores of cultural products of film, image, music and text. Whether its a world of digital library of wikipedia or its the billions of photographs on Facebook.

Culturally rich

So more people than ever will be able to access that, so the opensource movement has this catchphrase which says “Many eyes make bugs shallow”. When in culture, “Many eyes make culture rich”.

The  more an archive is opened up for more points of views and eyes, the more value will be seen in it. This is the lesson of open archives. More people than ever will have tools of creativity and then they add to that. So if you take together bigger stores, more people having access, more tools to create. You get this type of cultural mushroom clouds of kind of artifacts and stuff being created. Often completely fluid kinds of way.

“Twitter is like a cloud machine.”

These leads to 2 different things….

1) What should our goals be?

Charlie: We should have the maximum diversity of kinds of clouds.

2) Karl Popper distinguished between cloud problems and clock problems.

What he meant be that is that there are clock problems that have many moving interconnected parts but if get a clock maker you can make it all work. Cloud problems you have many moving interconnected parts but much more diffused and difficult to work out how they work. Its very difficult to create clouds from scratch. So this is the organizational challenge. If you wanted to create a cloud, how do you go about it, how do you create it? How do know whether a cloud is big or not? How do you know whether its going to carry on in the same shape?

So in a way, clouds are a get metaphor of the type of world we are moving into.

Micah later on moves on from the clock and cloud maker conversation to ask whether Obama was a clock maker or a cloud maker?

Charlie said “Obama is definitely a cloud maker.”

Obama the cloud maker…

Obama is a cloud maker who gets into a kind of clock land where incumbent politics where you kind of have to make things work to deliver stuff so seems to me decision to deploy more troops in Afghanistan is more of a clock problem. He’s had a lot of clock makers working away.  There hasn’t been a lot of transparency and crowd-sourcing on whether or not we should have more troops in Afghanistan.

But Obama’s roots are mainly in cloud land it appears and most of the people who do this well are in a sense community organizers.

The “Towers” – Mark Pesce

Micah also quotes Mark Pesce (@mpesce) who was talking at the Personal Democracy Forum this year (2009) in New York described the cloud being structures of an organization so the hierarchal, top-down organization of the past he refers to as the “Towers”. Policy that comes from above. The media comes from above. A few people decide what those will be and the rest of us consume it. And the cloud that is his favourite example is the wikipedia of a open, very loosely structured organization, it has almost no leadership. It still functions very much like a cloud because its still very difficult to control. Wikileaks is an example of a cloud but its very difficult to control.

The problem with cloud culture in relation to leadership and politics

One of the issues is how on earth then do you want to create  a cloud because you have a cause to promote something, how do you do that? And therein you get into the heart of the problem with leadership and politics which is buy in large, politicians like to claim that they are doing things for people. And often doing things to people. But hope to claim they do things for people and hoping people will reward them.

But the problem is if you tell a politician that you are going to give stuff away and create a platform and see what people will do with it, how will the politicians be able to take credit for it when they have their press-conference? Politicians who are in power,  need to take credit so they can say I did this and I’ve delivered it to you. So this is the problem. There is something about the nature of leadership about these things that you have to be comfortable with giving stuff away and being able to let people create with it and not take credit for it. It takes a type of leadership where a politician are constitutionally in many ways unable to grasp.

Obama was Dean done right!?!

Structured participation in Obama’s campaign

Micah argued that in Obama’s campaign, there was a structured participation in which they enabled brilliantly because they had a goal which was to win an election and not just to make a lot of noise.  So what they recognized was to be a mass participation in politics in a scale that we had not seen before in the US because the internet makes it easier because a lot of people wanted change and so they smartly created structures channeling that energy into the campaign whether it was to raise money or collect volunteers and to channel to skim off the most talented people and train them to be more formal organizers but the myth is people were controlled from below.

David Plouffe’s “The Audacity to Win”

Micah also mentioned David Plouffe’s new book (campaign manager) “The Audacity to win” which described there were 4 people on the top made the decisions so participation was open at the bottom and some tasks were shared in new ways which is different from the way politicians do things but not all.

The forms of collaboration that take place in science

Charlie made some interesting references to looking at cloud culture from a science point of view, quoting Caroline Wagner who wrote the book “The new invisible college” which is about international virtual collaboration in science and she distinguishes very different ways in which science now collaborates, there is sort of large scale, multidisciplinary kind of collaboration centered on single resources like the large hydro collider, sizemology and things that are concentrated on SARS or bird flu. So you look at science and the kind of clouds science is creating their multiple, depending on the tasks they face.

What we need to think is what we need to create in other aspects of our culture

Its important to think of the diversity of forms of collaboration that might be passing, might actually be completely permanent and many things in between. Obama is probably just one model and in very different political circumstances here, that model might not work or at least the elements of it may work.

Micah asks: How are we going to pay for important public goals such as investigative journalism?

  1. Charlie says the first thing, is its a very important debate, how we fund creative activities and culturally vital activities producing high quality product in a world where the cost of copying is virtually zero and its free. This is a really big issue and we will be tackling this for the next 20 years. So the first thing to say is its a big issue.
  2. The second thing is beware of completely false kind of golden eras of the past. The idea that political journalist in the westminster lobby do any investigative reporting of politics at all is a complete nonsense. The lobby in westminster which is the political core of journalist or newspapers who swarm around the Prime Minister, their dealt a daily dose of briefings by number 10. There are fed stories by Ministers to promote their careers. The problem with newspapers is they haven’t done enough of investigative journalism. They forgot and stopped doing that 20 years ago. The trouble with newspapers is once you get to page 4, there’s nothing in them.  And actually when you add it up, there’s a bit of blogging which you call commentary and then there’s some news you’ve already heard. And they’re not actually adding any value so as societies, we need ways to fund people who will do work in the political sphere who will hold power to account. Newspapers are the only way or even the best way to do that. The concern is about where we will generate the kind of substance and skills for that to happen.  So one can be excited but anxious. Charlie adds that its wrong to be complete utopian and imagine it will all sort itself out. We have an opportunity but now its getting real.  The Guardian is laying off 10% of its staff. Many newspapers are going to retract in trench. The new models will probably reward brands very strongly. You’ll find television becoming increasingly dominated by what the brands will pay for in terms of content.  They won’t pay for investigative journalism brands. We probably won’t know what subscription models will work. People will pay for some things and not others. There’s a huge amount of turmoil and still I think a lot of risk.

What are the challenges to this more generative, transparent cloud culture?

Charlie: I think its very important as you said in the beginning about your comments about freedom, that we realize that we’ve been presented with something that could easily go away. And why could it go away? Let’s just think 4 reasons.

  1. First is governments are increasingly getting to grips with it and understanding how to stop clouds forming, bring clouds down, or most effectively of all, infiltrate clouds. So James Boyle argument in the public domain I think is a really interesting argument which is the more this stuff feeds into our lives, the more people who will want to control it will also need to feed into our lives. So you find much more diffuse sensors of censorship and self-censorship. So you find the blogging army in China. So censorship and government action is crucial. I think its fair to say that I am ashamed that a labour government has chosen this 3 strike rule and cut people off from the ISPs for file sharing without in the slightest bit thinking that the big story is the freedom of the internet and its impact on democracy around the world and if western governments do that, they are just giving an excuse to authoritarian regimes to use that to say they’ll clamp down. It really distresses me and apart of the problem that an apparently progressive government from the left fails to see the big progressive opportunity in this technology globally. So that’s a big thing.
  2. All the issues of old media and copyright that the more you get this freedom, the more you’ll find people like Murdoch and others try to kind of clamp it down and basically if you want to control one piece of information in this economy now, you have to control all the links that that piece of information and that person have to everyone else. You’ve got to control all the links in the network so you end up with almost complete control and the denial of the peer-to-peer stuff.
  3. We don’t want a sky full of cloud branded Google. We don’t want to hand control to a set of technology companies who will then find net neutrality has gone out the window. And its a bit like ringing AT&T and use the telephone to order a pizza and find out AT&T have  preferential deal with Dominos and you end up with Dominos and getting the independent pizza company down the road is impossible because you’ve put them on hold for 3 mins. So that’s a problem.
  4. And the final thing is we’ll possibly just cock it up. That’s the big problem. We’ll just mess it up, we just won’t take this opporunity because we won’t understand, we won’t have the capacity, we won’t have the imagination, we won’t find the business model to really invest in it. And that remains I think something that is untested and I don’t know a media organization that apart from Google and Glastonbury that has a secure business model. And even YouTube losing 470 million dollars a year. We’re in sort of economic fantasy land still it seems to me and no ones quite worked out how all this stuff is going to get paid for.

Micah: Is it just going to be a generation before we can see new leadership that will actually act in an open networked way or do you see some signs of people really willing to change for the good?

Charlie: Well first thing to say is that one of the things that strikes me in Europe is just how different political cultures are in Europe? If you just think about those issues relationships between politicians, citizens and government.


  • Northern tip of Europe, you have kind of authoritarian social networks working in Putin’s Russia.
  • You have the pirate party in Sweden.
  • You have Finland which is the Finnish public service broadcaster who is about to distribute its iPlayer so that anyone can embed it on any site. So anyone can become a broadcaster of content.
  • Estonia is the most advanced possibly in the world for e-government led by some of the guys who were involved in the formation of Skype where cabinet decisions are reported as they’re made. And I ask him what impact of all the openness that had on politics in Estonia and he said it just speeded up the fight. So its had no impact really on how they conduct politics.
  • And in Denmark, remarkably, 90% of Danes get an email from the government saying “We estimate your tax to be this, do you think that’s right?” Click this box, and they say yes and that’s they’re tax done. So 90% of Danes don’t fill out a tax form, they accept electronic estimation of tax by the government.

Charlie: Every country is different…

So what you have to do is take all this stuff that we’re talking about and insert it into these very different context in relationship with citizen, state and trust. In Denmark its going to be so different from Spain or Italy where the Prime minister controls the television stations. The hope is that there will be generational change. There may be younger politicians who are much more adept at it.

In the UK, Charlie says the Tories have made a real effort to engage with their staff to do it seriously. He’s not sure whether that’s really paid dividends for it. Charlie sees much more of it at a much more local level, at what you might not call politics but civic engagement. One example is a local Lib Dem councillor communicating with citizens through Facebook, that’s just a very intelligent localized way of doing it.

Darlington town in the North East, there is something called the Town Crier which is a website for people to debate the future of Darlington. Its basically being run by the British National Party, which is the fascists party and they have absolutely dominated town politics by a small number of them using it. So you see a whole diversity of people but the imagination will come from outside of politics. It will come from civic campaigns, causes, social enterprise, other people. Its unlikely to come within the mainstream parties. And I don’t even see yet  anyone really changing within that mainstream, Charlie personally doesn’t see an Obama moment really in British politics. But thinks there will be ever greater pressure from outside politics to campaign organize and raise money, get attention in  new ways that challenge formal politics.

Micah: Job of early adopters

Keep finding the good examples because we’re  in a shift that is as big as the printing press or the automobile. Henry Ford used to say “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would’ve just said faster horses.” So if you ask today, what do you want the internet to do to improve politics and democracy. Its hard to imagine because there so many possibilities available and they’re being tested in different places. The opportunity that the PDF conference community overall is to surface all the good examples.