This weekend I went to a course at Engineers Without Borders, an organisation for helping engineering students and recent graduates lend assistance in the third world. We built a Hexayurt (a hexagonal shelter), built some furniture, added some solar panels to the Hexayurt’s roof and got some low power computing going inside. It’s actually thrilling watching a computer powered by nothing but the sun. Thrilling in a quiet way; we didn’t light cigars or open champagne – that would be unsustainable – more like the ‘free energy’ frisson you get from wind surfing or sailing.

It’s probably overused, and it’s certainly not particularly beautiful, but the following Thomas Jefferson quote expresses the idea at the heart of all technological utopianism, and, I think, the spirit of the weekend:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

70 years after Thomas Jefferson died the modern standard barer for this concept was born: Buckminster Fuller. In a world of finite resources (‘Spaceship Earth’ as Bucky put it) he believed that the only way to satisfy human wants was to be very smart about how we use our resources. Buckminster Fuller himself contributed some gems to our stock of ideas for making efficient use of the little we have.

Perhaps his two most successful additions were the octet truss and the geodesic dome. The octet truss is a design pattern that we see holding up roofs and the like all around us, while the geodesic dome has become a symbol of modernity.

Vinay Gupta, designer of the Hexayurt, is a child of Buckminster Fuller in two senses. Firstly, he apparently contributed a tiny correction to Bucky’s specification of the geodesic dome after a counter-cultural community invited him to have a look at why their domes always came out a bit wonky. An error in the 4th decimal place of a measurement was the culprit. Geodesic domes are very sensitive to small errors, it’s a testament to their symbolic power that they continue to be built – I’m told they frequently leak if not put together with 4th decimal place accuracy.

Vinay has a more conceptual link with Bucky in the hexayurt project: the desire to share a design idea which makes people’s lives better. Hexayurts are a cunning design pattern which describes a way to take 12 standard 8 x 4 sheets of plywood (or another material) and turn it into a waterproof hut with no waste. It’s a direct response to another draw back with the geodesic dome – manufacturing it from rectangular sheets of timber always wastes at least 20% of the material.

It’s intellectually appealing to come up with a design that requires only 6 cuts to turn 12 standard sheets of timber into a shelter. However, In a third world disaster context, which I think is the primary intend use of the Hexayurt, I’m not sure that this imperative to minimise waste is actually a primary concern. As one of the other participants in the course pointed out to me, in such a scenario there is never any kind of waste – any material not used in the shelter itself would be put to use elsewhere, or burned as fuel.
Perhaps this is one of the potential pitfalls of conceptually beautiful design; it’s easy to fall in love an elegant solution and lose sight of the messiness of the real world. If Buckminster Fuller’s frequent failures can be summarised, this is problem I would point to. I hope the Hexayurt doesn’t inherit this property from its forebares.

Aside from the Yurt itself we built the furniture using a system called Grid Beam, went to a talk about logistics in remote places and learned about thin client computing with Aptivate.

It’s interesting to on reflect how complimentary each of these things is. For example, it’s easy to dismiss (as Bill Gates has) the desire to get computing into developing countries. However, as Thomas Jefferson points out, any vector for ideas can have profound, cost-free impact on standards of living. A great example of this is the Literacy Bridge project in Ghana, which gives users access to information about effective farming techniques. The Hexayurt, as a design pattern, can be spread at any scale for free to anyone who has Internet access. Again, Grid Beam is another “open source” design pattern that can be used by anyone who has a means to find out about it. In both cases the designs are such that it they are agnostic about the material used to make them and can be adapted to suit local needs.

It’s an optimistic picture, and perhaps one that should be tempered with a knowlege of how hard development actually is, and particularly with Africa’s obstinate stagnation despite a surfeit of good intentions.

If the weekend was anything to go by the do it yourself, open source, low energy, sustainable approach has massive appeal in the west – so whatever it’s fate in the developing world at least among nerds their will be lots of home made furniture made in solar powered sheds.

When I try to convince my friends of the merits of some new fangled internet thing, whether it’s about the relevance of Ushadi to international development or the usefulness of AMEE to engineers, I often feel that in their minds I’m being filed away into a particular box.

If you like Twitter, if you see potential for citizens to access government services via the web, if you blog, then you’re a hopeless, unsophisticated optimist who signs up to every passing fad.
On the other hand, nerdom does exactly the same thing right back. If you worry about “Internet addiction”, the breakdown of interpersonal skills, think that crowd sourcing threatens notions of professionalism or can’t see the point of gamification then you’re a luddite that “doesn’t get it”. You’re the kind of sentimentalist who would drag everyone back to the good old days of rationing and coal mining and slum tenements and feudalism.

Those are your choices. Guardian or Daily Mail, bullshitter or tedious reactionary, panglossian optimist or po-faced medievalist. Stephen Fry or Brian Sewell.

Being typecast in this way is annoying; it means that when I try to evince the benefits of some web thing or other anyone skeptical will simply assume that my judgement is hopelessly clouded.

Conversely anyone who raises a legitimate concern will disappear under an avalanche of comments.

Often this binary assumption about people’s psychology distracts from sensible conversation about which of the opportunities the web presents are most valuable to society. It’s from this angle that I consider the following question: does getting your intellectual nourishment from a computer screen reduce your capacity to have complex thoughts or reduce your mental acuity?

The most eloquent dismissal of this idea that I’ve heard is from an LSE podcast. Jonathan Douglas, director of The National Literacy Trust frames the debate in terms of a dynamic understanding of what it is to be literate. As examples, he points out that Socrates hated the idea of writing, and thought of it as “killing words”. For Socrates, the only way to be literate was to participate in discussion, not to read it secondhand.

In antiquity, it was most common for reading to be out loud, and the ability to clearly orate a text was a critical aspect of literacy. Now moving your lips as you read is a sign of stupidity.

To quote Jonathan Douglass “Technology is driving a massive change in reading, from personal to social and interactive”. He notes that the concept of authority and critical skills are now part of the core skills that you need to access ideas, so that to be literate in the most modern sense is to understand the provenance of Wikipedia articles and to treat the information appropriately.

None of this means that reading on the web is more or less able to convey complex ideas, or to be valued any more or less than books.

Books, however, have a particular fetishised status which many people can’t get over. For a long time they have been the primary means for getting access to ideas, and so they have come to be seen as the only (serious) means for accessing ideas. They no longer have this special status and we need to bear in mind that books are just containers – it’s their payload that really matters. The most important thing is for concepts to be imparted, not the means by which it is done.

Collecting books, which can absolutely see the appeal of, is really a kind of cargo cult. Having the first edition doesn’t change the knowledge contained within the book, it represents a kind of faith the physical object rather than the words within. This is the cult of books, and while understandable, it’s not a sound basis for ignoring other media.

I’ve seen representatives of the Campaign for Real Eduction in TV interviews criticising the idea that a school might buy laptops on the basis that they should really buy books. Susan Greenfield, an Oxford Neuroscientist, has suggested all kinds of problems that might be caused by a failure to spend enough time with books, always gathering attention from the popular press but never supporting her ideas with any evidence.

I think this notion of changing literacy is very helpful in explaining to skeptics the potential of the web to provide a whole new way to access intellectual thought. It couldn’t be more apposite that I discovered it by listening to a podcast from an event that I would otherwise never have found out about.

It’s not a sop to short attention spans, or “dumbing down”, to express information in format other than extended prose. One of my favorite examples is Hyperphysics, which shows the central concepts of physics in relation to each other. It’s not a linear text book, but I don’t think anyone can accuse it of dumbing physics down.

Most excitingly, there is an opportunity to throw open the doors to academia, with lectures and talks available as podcasts, professors keeping blogs and course notes appearing online – this is a genuine opportunity to let learning that was once confined to institutions out of it’s cage. It would be foolish to pass this up simply because of a dogmatic allegiance to binding our knowledge into volumes and lodging them at the British Library.

This Wednesday I went to a London Web event to hear venture capitalist and ex-Goldman Sachs employee John Frankel talk about “Using VC Funds To Change The World”. I took it to be implicit in the title that it referred to changing the world for the better. I think what it actually referred to was changing the world by making a lot of money for yourself, and, if you are lucky, John Frankel.

Two topics particularly caught my attention. Firstly the way the dialogue between audience and speaker dwelt on why Europe couldn’t produce Startups like “the Valley”, echo ing Eric Schmidts’ comments later in the week to the Edinburgh TV festival. My natural response is to feel that there are few circumstances where aiming to be more like the US is a useful policy.  Calling Old Street Silicone Roundabout is symbolic of a naff, and hopeless, attempt to ape America. Anyway, I think that observation sets the context for what I felt was the most salient point of the evening.

A lot of questions were asked about what qualities Mr Frankel looked for in a startup, questions he was clearly used to fielding. Taking the liberty of summarising him, he wanted to invest in a future monopoly like Google or Facebook. Though expressed in many different ways, the idea was that he would put his money in services that could hold society to ransom by using their scale to ensure that they have no competitors.

In too many places to list, I’ve heard the San Francisco originated cyberculture of the web is one of Doing No Evil and being generally lovely. You might think I’m naive to believe this stuff, but actually I kind of do. Whilst I’m not saying that I think Google and Facebook are run for the good of the world, Google.org exists, Bill Gates is the biggest philanthropist in history and Mark Zuckerberg has signed a pledge to give at least half his wealth away. I’d also point to the fact that Google, Yahoo and Facebook have been prepared to open source all kinds of things, in many instances where they stood little to gain. These firms seem distinct from the gray homogeneity of normal capitalism. Just look at how frivolous their names and logos are: Yahoo! insists on an exclamation mark while Google’s logo was designed by a friend of the founders and is, by any normal standard, terrible. Facebook is not a name that a marketing department would come up with.

I strongly got the impression that this is not the MO of the next wave of startups – they are funded by former Goldman Sachs wonks with a view to earning money by exploiting consumers using their monopoly powers. Startups will not be sparked from an exciting PhD paper or from a dorm in a university – they will be the spawn of business plans and spreadsheets and market research.

For reasons I don’t fully understand the web seems to make monopolies easier to build, which is incredibly bad news for everyone except their owners. And now I realise there is a whole world of funding for anyone who wants to seize that opportunity. Inevitable perhaps, but normally when I go to a talk about the web it will be about (perhaps overblown) claims that the Internet will make everyone’s lives better, especially poor people, especially in developing countries. This talk was exactly the opposite.