The Conversations Network

26 June, 2006

IT Conversations is kind of like NPR for the web. They provide original interviews as well as audio recordings of conference presentations and panels on a diverse range of subjects of interest to technology enthusiasts. I've been a fan of the site for a long time. Awhile back, I even compiled a list of some of my favorite IT Conversations shows.

Like NPR, IT Conversations is listener supported. Which means that, in addition to a ton of great free and public-minded content, they provide one of public radio's most powerful products: guilt. At the start of each mp3, Doug Kaye, the site's founder, comes on to remind you that IT Conversations only survives because of listener donations and that, as a non-subscriber, you are a worthless parasite.

Recently these pleas for funding changed. Kaye started pitching The Conversations Network. The Conversations Network's website describes it as "a non-profit online publisher of recordings of spoken-word events" and IT Conversations as simply its first channel. It's starting to look like Kaye is really taking up the task of creating a new public radio system for the internet age, rather than simply a public-interest audio site for nerds. And the recent premiere of TCN's second channel, Social Innovation Conversations, confirms that impression. SIC, picks up and extends a theme that ran through many IT Conversations programs: innovative uses of technology, business, and social organization to attempt to solve the large-scale problems of the world: global warming, third-world poverty, etc.

The advent of Social Innovations Conversations finally pushed my guilt meter far enough into the red that I could no longer help myself from becoming a paying member of TCN. I just finished the process of starting a Basic Level subscription for $5 per month, and in oder to encourage you to possibly do likewise, I've compiled another set of my favorite recent shows, this time from both Conversations Network channels:

Globeshakers -- Dean Kamen
Despite the misfortune of being best known for his only real failure, the Segway Human Transporter, Kamen's inventions, including an external automatic pancreas and a sophisticated indoor mobility device, have made real differences in many parts of medical practice. This interview delves into Kamen's current attempts to improve the world on a grand scale: FIRST, his program to make science and technology as attractive to US teens as sports and entertainment, and his attempts to develop decentralized, cheap, and widely available sources of electricity and clean water for the third world.
Peter Diamandis -- The X Prize
The X Prize offered $10 million to the first private company which was able to launch a human-carrying vehicle into space and in the process launched an entire private space flight and development industry designed to bring about all those middle-of-the-twentieth-century dreams about mundane space travel and suburban communities on alien worlds. Diamandas also discussed the prospect of using prizes like this to solve the world's more intractable problems like sustainable energy and universal health care. The best part is the new sport he's working on founding: airborne rocket-car racing!
David Bornstein -- How To Change The World
Bornstein is one of the world's foremost experts on "social entrepreneurship", the process by wish people who want to see large scale improvements to the world harness market forces and individual human ingenuity to acheive them. He studied the Gramin Bank, which provides micro-loans of ten and 25 dollars to small Indian farmers and villages so they can buy a donkey or a generator or start a local cell phone distributorship.
Alex Lindsay -- The Next Generation of Digital Craftsmen
Lindsay is the founder of the Pixel Corps, a kind of internationally socially
conscious media-workers guild modeled on the organization of the organizations formed by 16th century skilled laborers. He makes a coherent, believable, and optimistic account of the future of the globalization of high skill media labor.
Drew Endy -- Open Source Biology
A fascinating look at the IP and access issues starting to come up in biological engineering, which is, apparently, getting to the point where the tools are cheap and the methods simple enough that anyone could do their own genetic engineering if only the basic building blocks of life hadn't already been patented.
Rob Curley -- The Newspaper in an Online World
Rob Curley is a caffeine-fueled firebrand of online newspaper revolution. In this talk he explains how he helped transform the sleepy Lawrence Journal-World into a cutting-edge interactive community-driven local-obsessed multi-media juggernaut. From covering local little league teams like they were the New York Yankees to forcing political candidates into direct online chats with their constituents, Curley uses the best of internet publishing technology to fulfill the long-standing missions of local journalism.
Don Gould -- Pure Water 4 All
It's hard to put my finger on exactly what was so exciting about this conversation. It's about a clay water filter designed to be built, distributed, and sold locally in poor countries around the world to prevent water-borne diseases. There's something about the elegance of the whole project: from its low tech but extraordinarily sophisticated engineering to its brilliant bottom-up distribution methodology, every part of it is incredibly carefully considered, even beautiful. It approaches a problem which often attracts abstract, utopian, and ultimately temporary solutions (poverty-based health issues in the poorest parts of the world) with an idea that is concrete, natural, and organic.
Jamais Cascio -- The Participatory Panopticon
Exciting and scary talk about how ubiquitous recording technologies like cameraphones and other "personal memory management" aids, which appeal to our desire to document and perfectly recall all of our experiences, will gradually evolve into a restricting universal observation system that penetrates even into our own memories and most private moments. Cascio descibes this dis/u-topia as evolving gradually not via top-down imposition by some Big Brother, but step-by-step through our own choices.

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