Book Review – Cyburbia (or a history of Cybernetics and Cyberspace)


I have to admit that picking up Cyburbia was a bit of a random act – and I almost didn’t. But if you can get past the title and bizzare introduction, this book turns out to be a rather dense, but interesting history of our online society and cybernetics.

Norbert Wiener, the originator of cybernetics, is a constant feature through the book along with a cast of other familiar people, places and online things. The famous Ebbsfleet United crowd management experiment even gets a mention.

Once you are past the introduction, the books works through a logical sequence of chapters titled The Loop, The Peer, The Tie, The Network Effect, Peer Pressure, Non-Linear, Multiplicity, Feedback and Network Failure.

As I said at the begining this book is pretty dense, so its hard to pin point a particular insight or seminal moment. As a result, I think its fair to say that there aren’t a lot of answers in this book, although the general tone is both a little sceptical whilst also being ultimately optimistic. The author, James Harkin, eventually manages to pull together his thesis into a satisfatory conclusion at the end of the book.

Its worth considering that cybernetics has its origins in Wiener’s attempts to create a better anti-aircraft gun, through the use of feedback loops. However, human-computer interaction has evolved to become much more importand and influential. Harkin’s writes in his final few pages that:


The system is certainly self-steering and running on autopilot, but only because it has us as its automations, darting around through information clouds in response to an endless stream of instruction and feedback.

Part of his point here, I think, is that we shouldn’t forget that both the message AND the medium are important. Of course, what we shouldn’t underestimate is the value of the message these new Web mediums create.

He also makes some good arguments about the strenghts, weaknesses, oppourtunties and threats of the weak ties that the Web medium enables.

I wouldn’t make this my first or only book on this topic, but I found it provided me with another perspective on the history of technology in society. As someone once said (or something similar), a nation without a history is like a man without a memory. And in the respect, Harkin has added a little more richness for me to that history.

Book Review: Gamestorming


Gamestorming is a playbook of games for helping people to deal with achieving fuzzy goals. These are mostly workshop techniques, although some of the games in the playbook can be used by individuals. You could certainly use the core theories behind Game Storming to help bring some creativity and innovation to your own thought process.

So what makes Game Storming different from any other workshop facilitator’s guide?

The authors, Dave Gray and James Macanufo, who are from from XPLANE (Dave is the founder and chairman of the company, which is now part of the Dachis Group family along with Headshift), and Sunni Brown are all what might be described as visual thinkers. There is a strong emphasis on employing visual language and ‘sketching’ is one of their ten essentials of gamestorming. I would actually say it is a central theme and the other essentials really hang off it or provide context for employing visual thinking.

To this end, ten pages of the book in chapter 3 are devoted to specifically encouraging you to pick up a pen and paper. Personally, I think its all about confidence – a client recently commissioned a graphic designer to convert a one page sketch I made to explain a complex idea into a graphic to explain their vision. So if you don’t consider yourself much of an artist or a visual thinker, don’t be put off. In the end its less about artistic skill and more about getting out from behind PowerPoint and using simple tools like pens, paper, dot stickers, and post notes to encourage engagement and creativity.

Gamestorming comes in two parts – theory and the playbook of over 80 games that you can game storm with. The theory part is covered in the first three chapters and the final chapter (a case study). Next comes the playbook itself, but I strongly suggest you hold off diving into that detail until you have read the first three chapters. The reason I say this, is that on a face of it – when you look at the individual games – is that its unlikely you will appreciate why a particular game has been selected for a particular chapter in the playbook.

So while I’ve talked about the importance of visual thinking, the point that games and play are not the the same is something that is also addressed at the beginning of the book. The authors explain these basic components that separate games from play:

  1. Game space.
  2. Boundaries.
  3. Rules for interaction.
  4. Artefacts.
  5. Goal.

Understanding these components we can then understand the importance of game design and fitting activities into a open, explore and close model. If you still has questions about the putting these concepts into practice, then the case study in the final chapter helps to pull all this theory together. This approach probably isn’t a new to some trainers and workshop facilitators, however while the book avoids getting into academic theory it still manages to explain the logic behind the approach so you can appreciate why this structure is important.

This is a really smart book. Buy it and it will come in handy for that next workshop you need to run. Just don’t forget to leave PowerPoint behind and bring pens and paper instead!

BTW There is a Website to support the book and the concept of gamestorming, at You might also like to look at Change By Design, which I reviewed back in June.

Creating Social Value: social innovation driving social change – Oct 27th


I’ll be presenting at a special seminar next week for the University of Wollongong’s SInet, along side Cheryl Kernot (UNSW) and Helen Hasan (UoW).

The Social Innovation Network (SInet) brings together researchers from many discipline to investigate the development of new concepts, strategies and tools that empower individuals, communities, profit and non-profit organisations and the government to improve quality of life where quality of life means material standard of living as well as personal well-being in terms of health and environment and social harmony.

If work is social again, what should I be doing with these new social work tools?

Things To Do

  • Narrate your work. Talk both about work in progress (the projects you’re in the middle of, how they’re coming, what you’re learning, and so on), and finished goods (the projects, reports, presentations, etc. you’ve executed). This lets others discover what you know and what you’re good at. It also makes you easier to find, and so increases the chances you can be a helpful colleague to someone. Finally, it builds your personal reputation and ‘brand.’
  • Point to others’ work, and provide commentary on it. When you come across something noteworthy, point to it and discuss why you think it’s important. Chances are others would like to know about it. And include a link to the original source; people love links.
  • Comment and discuss. Post comments to others’ blogs, join the conversations taking place on forums, and keep the social media discussions lively. Doing so will let others hear your voice, and also make them more likely to participate themselves.
  • Ask and answer questions. Don’t just broadcast what you know; also broadcast your ignorance from time to time. Let the crowd help you if you’re stuck. Most people and organizations are very pleasantly surprised by the amount of altruism unlocked by Enterprise 2.0.
  • Vote, like, give kudos, etc. Lots of social software platforms these days have tools for voting or signaling that you like something. Use them; they help provide structure to the community as a whole and let people know where the good stuff and real experts are. They also make you more popular.
  • Talk about social stuff going on at the company. Give a recap of the softball game, talk about plans for the holiday party, show how close the group is to its fundraising goal, and so on. Organizations are social places, and I think it’s a shortsighted shame when E2.0 platforms are all business, all the time. However, it’s often a good idea to give non-work stuff its own dedicated place on the platform so that people can avoid it if they want to.

I often equate introducing enterprise social software as like moving from individual offices to open plan. Its not just about changes to the physical space, but also the changes to workplace social norms that go with it.

As part of that process some people are going to say, I like the idea of a more social computing workspace…

…but what should I actually do in it?

Andrew McAfee does a nice of job of covering some do’s, don’ts and also the grey areas. Focusing on the do’s (see above) I think its all about positive, useful communication. But this doesn’t mean it has to be all work work work.

As for the don’t, here is another physical workspace habit we don’t want to bring into the online social workspace.