Previous month:
December 2006
Next month:
February 2007

January 2007

Mutual Inspiration and the Wealth of Networks

Wealthofnetworks I have been very slowly reading and digesting The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler. It is truly a labor of love. The more I read, the more I am convinced that this is book is / will be a significant part of the canon for the paradigm shift represented by Web 2.0. But it is not, by any stretch, an easy read -- I'm averaging around 5 minutes per page ... reminding me of the richness and density of materials I studied when I was a philosophy major at Ripon College (where my page reading rate was often even slower, e.g., for Heidegger and Sartre).

The Wealth of Networks describes how the increasing availability of tools for producing information, knowledge and culture is changing the nature of society. Participation in commons-based peer-production -- and sharing -- is an increasingly important component in the emerging networked information economy, to the point where it offers an alternative to the more traditional market-based proprietary production and transaction models that have characterized industrial society. As we enter the post-industrial era, the physical capital requirements that gave rise to hierarchical organizations of labor are diminished, enabling more people to participate in production -- individually, or through more loosely configured networks -- based on a greater variety of motivations (self-expression, religious or political fervor, hobby, community-seeking) than financial return on investment. Or at least, that's my current take on it, after reading about a third of the book so far.

Last night, as I was reading about Autonomy, Mass Media and Non-Market Information Producers in Chapter 5 (Individual Freedom: Autonomy, Information and Law), I came across a passage describing three hypothetical storytelling societies -- the Reds, the Blues and the Greens (and I'm sure that any allusions to political parties or characterizations is purely coincidental) -- that I found particularly inspiring. First, some background:

Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides which stories to tell.

Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night by simple majority vote.

Every member of the community is eligible to offer him- or herself as that night's storyteller, and every member is eligible to vote.

Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere.

Everyone tells stories.

People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes in very large groups.

Stories in each of these societies play a very important role in understanding and evaluating the world.

They are the way people describe the world as they know it.

They serve as testing grounds to imagine how the world might be, and as a way to work out what is good and desirable and what is bad and undesirable.

This focus on the importance of stories resonated deeply with me, as I increasingly see stories as the primary channel for interrelating with each other. In particular, the emphasis on everyone not just being able to listen to others' stories but to tell their stories is significant. I've often read, thought and written about input, processing and output, and believe that output is crucial for effective processing of input. When I am reading something, an intention to write about it really helps motivate me to understand it more thoroughly, which is one of the many reasons I enjoy the practice of blogging. And, I'm only half way through the book, and I was already concerned that I'd be too overwhelmed by information, knowledge and culture overload by the end to write anything coherent (in a short space). So when I came across the following passage, I decided to post an entry just about this, and not worry (so much) about the bigger picture:

Since the stories play a substantive role in individuals' perceptions of how they might live their lives, that practical difference [between evening-only vs. anytime storytelling] alters the capacity of individual Blues and Greens to perceive a wide and diverse set of options, as well as to exercise control over their perceptions and evaluations of options open for living their lives and to exercise the freedom themselves to be storytellers.


Gertrude [a Green] has many more stories and storytelling settings to choose from, and many more instances where she can offer her own stories to others in her society.

She, and everyone else in her society, can be exposed to a wider variety of conceptions of how life can and ought to be lived.

This wider diversity of perceptions gives her greater choice and increases her ability to compose her own life story out of the more varied materials at her disposal.

She can be more self-authored than either Ron [a Red] or Bob [a Blue].

This diversity replicates, in large measure, the range of perceptions of how one might live a life that can be found among all Greens, precisely because the storytelling customs make every Green a potential storyteller, a potential source of information and inspiration about how one might live one's life. [emphasis mine]

That is, the Green society thrives [in part] through mutual inspiration! Yes! This is what really keeps me coming back to blogging. Although I write my blog primarily for my own benefit (and as I've noted earlier, in a post on unfolding through blogging, I'm increasingly aware that anything I say or write in any medium is primarily, if not solely, for my own benefit), I am always delighted, and often surprised, to discover that, occasionally, something I've written turns out to be of interest, use or perhaps even inspiration for someone else. And, of course, blogging offers a great channel for me to process the inspiration I glean from others' blogs, books and other media. Dan Oestreich's most recent post, about Leading is Not Acting: What Roles Do You Play?, incorporating comments to his blog as well as other bloggers' posts, is an excellent illustration of mutual inspiration in the blogosphere ... and offers some interesting insights into the stories we make up and tell about ourselves.

So this idea of mutual inspiration propelling the blogosphere (if not the entire emerging networked information economy that Benkler writes of) reminded me of mutual information:

In probability theory and information theory, the mutual information, or transinformation, of two random variables is a quantity that measures the mutual dependence of the two variables. [from Wikipedia]

Mutual information statistics underlie many of the relevancy algorithms used in information retrieval and machine learning. As more and more people utilize various dimensions of the architecture of participation represented by Web 2.0, and the notion of a person as a user (consumer) is transformed into the notion of person as a participant (producer and consumer), perhaps these traditional measures of mutual information can be refined to capture and process mutual inspiration, as reflected in the cross-linking conversations that emerge in the blogosphere. I wouldn't be surprised if some elements of inspiration are already included in the information used by search engines, but I suspect there is room for an alternative approach that places greater emphasis on the stories we tell to and about each other.

The Twelve Steps for Technology-Centered Designers

A friend and I were recently discussing the prevalence of technocentric design and thinking in many of the world's leading technology research and development centers, both in industry and academia.  During the course of the conversation, in which we recounted people, places and projects that seemed to reflect an approach that might be characterized as "technology in search of a problem", it struck me that this obsession with technology for technology's sake seems almost like an addiction in some cases. And when I think of addiction, I think of the 12 steps ... and so I decided to have a go at adapting the 12 steps for technology-centered designers.

The Twelve Steps for Technology-Centered Designers

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our users - that our expectations about the utility and usability of our technology had been unreasonable
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our ability to design technology that is both useful and usable
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our work over to the care of our user-centered design processes as we understood user-centered design
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our technology-centered design and development processes
  5. Admitted to our Higher Power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our tecnhnocentric assumptions
  6. Were entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of perspective
  7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our technocentric biases
  8. Made a list of all users our technology had harmed (or not helped), and became willing to make amends to them all
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were developing technology in search of a problem, promptly admitted it
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our users as we understood our users, praying only for knowledge of our users' needs for our technology, and the power for us to design technology to meet those needs
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

A few caveats:

  • I recognize that there are cases where "if you build it, they will come", and that some technology innovations are adapted for uses never envisioned by their designers (whether those designers were using a user-centered or technology-centered approach). The question, for me, is the starting point -- is the technology at least intended to solve a real human problem?
  • The foregoing is not intended to insult or ridicule any person, place or project, but simply to encourage reflection ... and perhaps a bit of fun. The second of Don Miguel Ruiz' four agreements, "don't take anything personally", and the 12-step slogan, "take what you like and leave the rest", are applicable here.
  • Although I feel a closer kinship to user-centered design than technology-centered design, I don't consider myself a particularly strong adherent to the former (I suppose I don't consider myself a particularly strong adherent to any philosophy, religion or political party). For that matter, I don't consider myself much of a designer, technologist or even "user" (which seems to have a rather passive connotation), either. [I'm not sure what this makes me, but I'll leave that for another blog post ...]
  • I don't feel a particularly strong affinity to the 12 steps, either, especially not as they were originally articulated. For one thing, I do not believe that there is any kind of Higher Power that has a "will" for me (or anyone else). For another, I have a problem with the monotheistic anthropomorphic paternalism reflected in the original 12 steps. In an earlier post on self-disclosure, I noted that I consider myself a confirmed non-Catholic, and although I'm warming up to spirituality, I'm still pretty cool toward religion (I recently read in Utne about a related observation made by Paul Hawken: "All ideologies lead to 'isms' and all 'isms' lead to schisms"). Although AA, Al-Anon/Alateen and other 12 step programs purport to be "non-denominational", in my own experience, they are steeped in Christianity, and thus not nearly as open and inclusive as they say they want to be ... so I adapted the original 12 steps to remove these biases. FWIW, here's a version of the original 12 steps that I believe is more open and inclusive:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power as we understood our Higher Power
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
    5. Admitted to our Higher Power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
    7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our shortcomings
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power as we understood our Higher Power, praying only for knowledge of our Higher Power's will for us and the power to carry that out
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

Cyberbullying: Prevalence, Preventability and Politics

Perhaps due, in part, to things I've read, thought and blogged about recently regarding cybershaming and accountability, and the fearful overreactions of parents and other authorities over teens' use of MySpace, I had a more skeptical reaction to a Wall Street Journal article this week on "Schools Act to Short-Circuit Spread of 'Cyberbullying'" than the last time I read, thought and blogged at any length about cyberbullying (nearly 3 years ago!).

The article alludes to the case of an 8th grade girl, Kylie, who suffered emotional distress over the purported creation of a web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated" by classmates ... a site of which I can find no trace, other than references in other articles (most of which are simply referring to the WSJ article). It goes on to catalog varying degrees of preventative measures considered or enacted by different schools and school districts, and the legal issues surrounding the prospect of schools intervening into affairs that take place, in large part, off campus.

Given my recent [re]priming of the MySpace overreaction, I started wondering how prevalent cyberbullying really is. The first few pages of results returned after googling for "cyberbullying statistics" yielded no results that I would consider statistically valid  An organization named i-Safe has a statistics page claiming that "42% of kids have been bullied while online" and that over half have sent or received mean messages online. Leaving aside the question of where they have drawn the line between receiving mean messages and bullying, I cannot find any information about the methodology by which the statistics were gathered (phrasing of questions, sampling method, numbers of responses, etc.). Another site, by Qing Li at the University of Calgary, provides a surprisingly small amount of methodological information (for an academic institution) -- a survey of "177 grade seven students (80 males and 97 females)" -- before noting that 54% of survey respondents had been bullied and 25% had been cyberbullied. Once again, it's not clear (to me) what bullying (or cyberbullying) means to the surveyor -- or surveyees -- but assuming that cyberbullying is simply the online equivalent of whatever bullying is in the offline world, it is interesting to see that cyberbullying appears far less prevalent than bullying (at least in this limited sample).

There are, of course, numerous articles about cyberbullying, just as there are numerous articles about abuses associated with MySpace. But it is not clear to me in either case that the use of online tools is increasing or even magnifying instances of "bad behavior". I'm not saying that aren't examples of horrendous deeds being accomplished through the use of online tools, it's just not clear how frequent or widespread such instances are.  And if one were to be able to somehow measure the overall frequency and/or severity of bullying (or other forms of abuse) -- combining online and offline incidents -- I wonder whether there really is a significant or demonstrable increase in either dimension.

I also wondered whether online tools might be used to mount more effective responses to bullying -- online or offline -- by offering a platform from which victims can mount defenses, or perhaps even counteroffenses, by shining a light on perpetrators and presenting rebuttals to unfair accusations or attacks ... another example of virtually "shooting back".  Perhaps schools could devote more effort to helping students understand how to utilize the technology more effectively in defending themselves or rallying to the defense of friends who are under fire ... of course, that would require the repeal of DOPA, and that seems like too much of an optimistic stretch of the imagination.

Reflecting further, on the relationship between cybershaming and cyberbullying, it seems like a rather fine line between them ... with the former seeming somehow justified and the latter seeming unjustified (picking on someone who deserves it vs. picking on someone who doesn't deserve it). I started wondering whether Kylie had done anything to incur the cyberwrath of her classmates (I can't find anything that says anything about events leading up to the creation of the purportedly humiliating site) -- I suspect it was a reaction (or overreaction) to something.

Probing a wee bit deeper, I started questioning whether anyone really deserves any kind of shame or bullying, cyber or otherwise. In my most recent post on cybershaming, I noted that my satisfaction in reading about web sites being used to highlight unacceptable (or at least unaccepted) behavior felt rather smug. I felt a twinge of embarrassment in writing [that part of] the post, and I feel it more keenly in this one. Did Kylie really deserve the purported humiliation she was allegedly subjected to? And who am I (or anyone else) to render such judgment?

I've also been noticing a smug satisfaction I've experienced in the increasing shame -- online and offline -- that U.S. President George W. Bush is being subjected to over the devastating consequences of his judgment and actions regarding the Iraq War.  As usual, I could not bring myself to watch or listen to his State of the Union address (though I could watch and listen to a parody); in the snippets I heard on NPR subsequently, he seems to have lost a bit of his hubris, and while I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he actually feels any shame, humiliation, guilt or remorse, I suspect he at least recognizes that, in the eyes of [many] others, he has done wrong. And I feel a sense of guilt over this feeling of smug satisfaction, especially given how many are suffering and dying -- and will likely suffer and die in the future -- in what Senator Harry Reid recently referred to as the worst foreign policy disaster ever.

Bringing the focus back to cyberbullying, I believe the greater transparency afforded by the growing array of easy-to-use online tools will ultimately reduce attacks by children against children, by giving them weapons with which they can fight back ... and, as I've noted before, I hope that adult citizens, inside and outside of government, will also learn how to use these tools to increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the frequency and severity of poor judgments by our leaders.

Working at Nokia on Context, Content and Community

We recently posted an external web page for the Context, Content and Community project I'm working on (and playing with) in collaboration with some of my new colleagues here at Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto. This is, by definition (or at least by name), a rather broad and ambitious undertaking. As we summarize it on the site:

Our project is dedicated to the design, development and deployment of systems to connect individuals with relevant resources in ways that create value for all stakeholders.

As we continue to explore this space, the distinctions between context, content and community seem increasingly blurred (to me). For example, as more aspects of our physical world context(s) can be captured and represented digitally, this becomes yet another dimension of content. As the people formerly-known-as consumers are empowered to [co-]create, organize and share digital content more effectively, communities of shared interests (and shared differences) emerge and grow more naturally. And as these communities form and flourish, they offer a new perspective that can, in turn, affect the contexts within which future content may be collected, shared ...  and, one hopes, better understood.

[Slightly] more detail about the project can be found on our web page (the project only officially started this month). While I am interested -- and will likely, at varying levels, be involved -- in all aspects of the project, I am particularly interested in the part that represents a continuation of a decade-long exploration:

Demonstrate new applications with compelling value propositions for bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between the physical and digital worlds

Although our plans along this dimension are still incubating, the basic idea is to extend the work we [well, different we's at different times and places] have done with using technology to help people relate to and connect with one another by showing elements of people's online representations of self in the physical spaces they share with others (e.g., the Intel proactive display deployment at UbiComp 2003 and in subsequent Interrelativity deployments). The profiles we will be creating and utilizing as part of the Context, Content and Community project will be far richer, and more useful (and hopefully usable) than the special-purpose profiles that were incorporated into the earlier systems, and using mobile phones as digital proxies -- rather than special-purpose RFID tags -- offers a more natural and convenient way of enabling people to reveal more about themselves in an ambient manner.

I'll be writing more about this project as our thoughts, plans and [other] actions evolve. For now, I simply wanted to note that we have "gone public" ... and that we are hiring -- interns and post-docs, as well as full-time research scientists / engineers -- in case anyone reading this has skills, experience and passion for the design, development and deployment of sociotechnical systems that will redefine our perspectives on, and approaches to, connecting people.

Monitoring MySpace: Parental and Political Pacification

The Wall Street Journal reports that News Corp. is planning to offer free software that parents (and others with computer administrator privileges) can use to track the name, age and location provided by any users of that computer who access an account on MySpace. The article reports that "dozens of teens have been molested and some even murdered by people who first contacted them through MySpace, according to law enforcement officials".  In the next paragraph, the article notes that MySpace has 60 million monthly users in the U.S. <sigh> Yet another example of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things.

danah boyd has written extensively about youth, social networking services, and the interactions of the former through the latter. Last May, she (and Henry Jenkins) gave a scathingly insightful critique of the misconceived and misguided Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) -- which, unfortunately, is now law -- and highlighted many of the positive aspects of the use of MySpace by America's youth. In a more recent post -- a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic -- she comments on, and includes some graphs from, an article by Peter Reilly on The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools.

Clearly, "online predators" ought not to be the biggest concern. A recent Pew Internet study reported that 55% of 12-17 year olds are using online social networking services ... and "a few dozen" have been molested?! If we are really serious about reducing the threat of sexual predators, we ought to be mandating the installation and monitoring of nannycams (or, perhaps, daddycams or unclecams), which would have the potential for far greater impact. In fact, I wonder whether MySpace is -- or could be -- used by youth to report on molestation ... yet another twist on cybershaming.

Americans are notoriously ineffective in analyzing statistics and assessing risks, and our government officials are notoriously effective in amplifying risks and imposing policies that seek to "mitigate" risks at costs that far outweigh the cure. The threat by 33 state attorneys general to take legal action against New Corp. over MySpace is not so different from the threat of the Bush Administration to invade Iraq over concerns of weapons of mass destruction. I hope that more reason will prevail in the former than was employed (or attended to) in the latter.

[Update, circa May 2007, posted November 2007]

In helping my daughter with some research for a report on parental fear of MySpace last spring (she chose the topic, not me), I found 33 cases in the past 6 months allegedly involving MySpace in what seems to be the best source for predator crimes involving MySpace (and other online sites), MyCrimeSpace. 30 of them were arrests, which works out to 5 per month (or 60 per year) - and note those are arrests, not convictions (of which I could find only 4 during the 6 month period).

A Wired article in February 2006 on Scenes from the MySpace Backlash   notes that "An August study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated there were about 15,700 statutory rapes reported to law enforcement agencies in the United States in 2000, based on an analysis of data collected by the FBI."
Not all the cases listed on MyCrimeSpace are statutory rape, and if overall rates of statutory rape are declining, that 15,700 figure would be lower for 2007. But 60/15700, or 0.4%, may offer a rough estimate of how many cases involve MySpace or other online social networking services.

Of course, there may be more cases than those listed on MyCrimeSpace, so let's say that maybe up to 1% of statutory rape cases somehow involve MySpace. The aforementioned Pew Interent study released in April 2007 on "Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace" suggests that over half of teens are MySpace users. I don't know how many teens ages 12-17 there are in the U.S., but I think it's safe to say there are at least many tens of millions of them. So, if we have 60 cases - and again, those are arrests, not convictions - among tens of millions of young users, I would estimate the risks to be somewhere on the order of one in a million (0.0001%), and that's probably a very generous upper bound.

I'm not an expert statistician, but even if we grant an order of magnitude of error, this rather cursory analysis suggest that MySpace use is not a significant risk factor in exposing teens to sexual predators. In fact, I would not be surprised if young MySpace users are more likely to be more informed about the risks of molestation and other forms of sexual predation - online or offline - than those who are "protected" from the popular online service by their parents.

Citizen Accountability Projects

Last Friday's Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition included an article by Jennifer Saranow entitled "The Snoop Next Door" that contains a roundup of a number of web sites dedicated to documenting deviancy from social norms, large and small. The title and photos led me to prepare for an alarming expose on the abuses of using the web to highlight transgressions, but I came away thinking that this trend toward capturing and sharing examples of unacceptable behavior on the web is, by and large, a Good Thing. It seems like a conceptual mashup of citizen journalism and whistleblower support organizations such as the Government Accountability Project ... a collection of citizen accountability projects.

With the proliferation of cameraphones, blogs and photo sharing web applications, it has become easier for people to create sites that make it easier for people to post stories and/or upload photos of actions taken by [typically] other people that they don't approve of ... things like bad parking, bad driving, loudly talking on mobile phones, leering, littering or police brutality. And, so, more of these sites are appearing, with varying degrees of specialization, participation, and impact.

The article includes a number of specific stories, but none of them strike me as vigilantism taken too far ... indeed, I found myself feeling a rather smug sense of satisfaction that justice was being rather well served, as I've often felt exasperated by others' inconsiderate driving, parking and talking on mobile phones. Of course, I acknowledge that I, too, have driven, parked or talked loudly without being fully conscious of how my actions might be affecting others. Perhaps I'll see myself (or my license plate) on one of these sites one of these days.

I've written about other episodes of cybershaming before, and I'd heard about some of the stories, groups and web sites noted in the article. There were a few new items of particular interest. One was the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program, wherein anyone can watch webcams along the border and contact authorities to report a crime. 14,000 reports were filed during a month-long trial of the program in November (no mention was made of the number of reports that were either acted upon by law enforcement authorities, nor how many arrests were made). This idea of citizens being given access to cameras is very much in alignment with scenarios envisioned by David Brin in his book Transparent Society nearly 10 years ago (a world filled with surveillance cameras, which can either be monitored by "authorities" or the public) ... but the notion of people being encouraged to turn other people in is reminiscent of futuristic scenarios envisioned by George Orwell in 1984 (a world in which people are encouraged to report transgressions to the Thought Police).

Another item that was news to me was the use of phones and cameras in a football stadium, though with humans very much in the loop:

Since August, spectators at Cincinnati Bengals home games have been able to call 513-381-JERK to complain about rowdy fans. When a call comes in, security zooms in on the area with stadium cameras, confirms there's a problem and dispatches security. Initially, the hotline was receiving more than 100 calls a game, about 75% of which were crank calls. Reports were recently down to about 40 a game, with less than 25% being crank calls.

I found myself wondering what would happen if, rather than showing the alleged transgressors on private video monitors seen only by authorities, the camera images were shown on the large public screens at the stadium. I suspect this may increase rather than decrease rowdy behavior, which may not be perceived as shameful by many members of the audience ... add to that the TV viewership potential, and I think we'd see a marked increase in this sort of thing.

This, in turn, reminds me of the happy slapping phenomenon, where a [typically] young tough walk sup to an unsuspecting stranger and slap that person, while an accomplice captures the event on a cameraphone, and the photo or video is later posted to a web site. I have no idea how prevalent this practice is (though I suspect it is relatively rare), but it seems to be the reverse, or perhaps converse, or at least a perversion, of cybershaming, as it is celebrating shameful behavior.

I have not yet heard of an incident where the victim of happy slapping pulls out a cameraphone to capture (and post a photo) of the perpetrators, but that would be an interesting twist on Steve Mann's rather futuristic notion of shooting back. An even more interesting (and inspiring) twist is anti-slapping, in which random acts of kindness, rather than violence, are captured by camera[phone] and posted to a web site.

Finally, I'll note one more interesting and inspiring example of using cameras and the web to promote accountability (and transparency): a video of a campaign speech by Virginia Senator George Allen, in which his attempt to shame the man filming his speech, whom he called "Macaca" (a derogatory term), backfired. It's all the more ironic, as he starts off his speech by saying "My friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas, and it's important that we motivate and inspire people for something" and then, in the very next sentence, uses a negative, destructive word to refer to the videographer. Although this was not the only, nor necessarily the most important, issue in the campaign, Allen was, ultimately, held accountable, and lost the election. I hope we will see more of these kinds of citizen accountability projects in the future.

[Update, 2007-01-24: Ben sent me a link to Sunlight Labs, which has produced (and provided access to) a collection of government accountability mashups, in service to its goal "to prototype tech ideas to improve government transparency and political influence disclosure".]

Self-Reflection vs. Self-Expression

How does technology’s facilitation of self-expression, instant communication and constant connectivity affect our inclination and ability to think for ourselves, assume personal responsibility and unite for social action? Sherry Turkle explores these and other questions in an interview with Liz Else published in a September 2006 New Scientist article entitled "Living Online: I'll Have to Ask My Friends" ([also] available online here), republished in the current issue of Utne Reader as “Our Blackberries, Ourselves” (where I read it), and not to be confused with, but very much in alignment with, "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" by Christine Rosen, published in the Summer 2004 issue of The New Atlantis.

According to Turkle, the increasing prevalence of talk culture, wherein "people share the feeling to see if they have the feeling", comes at the expense of introspection and probing more deeply into complex thoughts and emotions. Questioning society's tendency toward breathless techno-enthusiasm, with the increasing means available to quickly communicate our state, she champions self-reflection: "having an emotion, experiencing it, taking one's time to think it through and understand it, but only sometimes electing to share it."

The first thing that occurred to me upon reading this short, but inspiring, article, was "Wow, I can't wait to blog about this!" ... whereupon I realized that, in my haste to express myself (or what my self had read), I was not taking the time to reflect further upon these ideas.  So I decided to stop, look [within], and listen. And what came up? Well, mostly other stuff I've read.

Stuff like Kathy Sierra's blog post on The Dumbness of Crowds, where, in expressing her reflections on James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, she notes

Art isn't made by committee.

Great design isn't made by consensus.

True wisdom isn't captured from a crowd.

Referring to Surowiecki's talk at eTech 2005, she notes that

According to Surowiecki, even just sharing too much of your own specialized knowledge with others in the group is enough to taint the wisdom and dumb-down the group.

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

I suspect that it is, in part, due to the process of self-reflection that these individual differences arise ... although if this individual knowledge is never expressed (through actions, if not through words), then it doesn't do anyone much good.

Reflecting further, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's distinctions between Mavens (people who know a lot), Connectors (people who know a lot of people), and Salesmen (people who can persuade a lot of people) in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. At first, I was thinking that Connectors and Salesmen tend to veer more toward expression than reflection, whereas Mavens may tend more toward reflection, but a quick review of the book reveals that Gladwell claims that "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know", so that even they have a pronounced tendency toward self-expression.

I am still reflecting on (and expressing) elements of Living Without A Goal. James Ogilvy also has insights to share on the [precious] self:

The self is a process of reflection, one that lacks a substantial, originary core. ... Hegel put it this way: "Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that, it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or 'recognized'". More simply, there is a certain Tinkerbell effect for self-consciousness. You remember Peter Pan's little sidekick whose life and light threatened to flicker out unless the audience clapped. We're all a little like that.

... self-love must finally spread itself across the social pattern of reflections that constitute the self. When privacy goes public you see the self as a pattern of relations of mutual recognition. The celebration of self becomes a song for the ears of the other, not for the sake of self-aggrandizement but for the benefit of shared acts of artful self-creation.

So, perhaps self-reflection and self-expression are more closely related than Turkle makes them out to be.

For me, anything to do with self, reflection and expression immediately evokes Dan Oestreich, and his Unfolding Leadership Blog, in which every entry has elements of all three. In a recent comment on one of my blog entries (on Work, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure), Dan observed that "the one who waits for you, the one you yearn for is none other than yourSelf", leading me to wonder who or what is this "self" that is reflecting or expressing or yearning? And who or what is the object of its reflection, or the audience for its expression? In his most recent blog entry, Going In, Dan expresses his reflections on "the 'beingless being' at the center of Self", inviting us to "Rest then, at the center, and learn to receive what insight may come."

Ah, receiving! That's what has been missing from all of this. I have often reflected upon (and sometimes expressed) the notion, or perhaps model, of input, processing and output, as applied to the self. If self-reflection is "processing" and self-expression is "output", the dimension of "input" needs to be accounted for. But what suffix can we affix to "self" to express this concept of accepting input? Self-reception? Self-acceptance?  Self-perception? Self-impression? In any case, the issue I raised in my earlier "IPO" model is still a quandary (for me): how does one allocate time and other resources among these three dimensions?

Returning to the interview with Turkle, I often wonder about claims regarding social or cultural trends. Has self-reflection really decreased? How would one measure this phenomenon? I do agree that the mechanisms for self-expression have become more widely available (and used), but it is not at all clear to me that this has come at the expense of self-reflection. Indeed, if Ogilvy is correct in his analysis, the proliferation of platforms for easy self-expression may well be essential for achieving greater levels of self-reflection. As time spent on the Internet overtakes time spent watching TV, and a greater proportion of Internet time is spent creating, not just consuming content, I think we are in a stronger position to achieve a greater sense of responsibility and community (two concerns that Turkle raises).

Perhaps I should think more and write less. But I think that blogging is different than the other socio-technical practices that Turkle is highlighting as mechanisms to "quickly communicate a state" (e.g., instant messaging, "check-in" cell calls and emoticon graphics) at the expense of "open[ing] a dialogue about complexity of feeling". Indeed, writing this blog entry has not been quick, and I'm not sure it communicates any particular state (save, perhaps, for a state of confusion). I find that the practice of blogging, by forcing me to be [more] explicit, helps me gain greater clarity about issues (self-reflection through self-expression?) ... and that through comments and trackbacks occasionally contributed by others, it opens up a dialogue that ultimately helps me achieve a deeper and/or broader understanding.

Continue reading "Self-Reflection vs. Self-Expression" »

Walking the Dog: Alone or Together?

JoJo is a great dog -- very friendly and generally well-behaved. I really enjoy walking her -- by myself -- as she stays fairly close, listens well and responds almost instantly to commands (except when swimming after ducks). The only time she is ever on a leash is when there are park rangers or other law enforcement officials nearby who might issue tickets or fines for our reckless disregard for posted ordinances (I mean, come on, those signs are meant for other dogs ... and I've seen many dogs on leashes that were less well-controlled than JoJo off a leash).


I could go on at greater length about how wonderful JoJo is, but that's not why I decided to post an entry about her. What prompted me to share a photo and some text is that just before leaving for a long walk in the neighborhood today, Amy looked over and said, "If you can wait 10 minutes, I'll go with you...", and then when she looked up and saw my rather unenthusiastic facial expression, sighed and said "Never mind, go ahead."

Although Amy and I enjoy each other's company, enjoy the dog and enjoy going for walks together, when the three of us go out for a walk, I find it very stressful. The dog wanders much farther away, and does not listen nor respond to commands nearly as well and when she is only with me. We've had a number of neighbors remark that JoJo seems like two different dogs, depending on whether I'm walking with her or Amy is. And unfortunately, when both Amy and I are walking JoJo, the dog operates under Amy's rules of engagement.

I have experimented with different approaches to managing the stress. I've tried to assert Joe's rules of engagement, but this requires frequent and repetitive commands, and I feel like I'm spending most of my time shouting to / at the dog (which is not much fun for any of us). I've tried to remain completely detached, and let Amy assume full "control" of the dog, but inevitably the dog moves so far out of my comfort zone (e.g., crossing to another side of the street or wandering up to a neighbor's house) that I intervene.

Amy walks the dog more often than I do, especially now that I'm away Monday thru Friday nearly every week (doing the long commute to Palo Alto since joining Nokia Research Center), and as far as I can tell, JoJo has not caused or experienced any significant harm during all of these walks under Amy's rules of engagement. It's not that I don't trust Amy's judgment -- indeed, I often trust her judgment more than my own. And she is a much more effective caregiver to other living things (especially children, animals and plants) than I am [aside: she has sometimes accused me of applying my dog training philosophy to child rearing, but that would be another entire post].

So why do I have such a problem about walking the dog with her? Is it a boundary issue? A control issue? A righteousness issue (my way is the right way)? A perception issue (e.g., what will others think of me based on the behavior of my dog)? Some combination of all of these? Something else entirely?

The problem has increased as my time at home has decreased -- time spent together (walking the dog or doing other things) is more at a premium than ever before. I would like to just let go of my hangup(s), but I have not yet been able to maintain my equilibrium under any of the approaches I've tried. So, despite my angst when Amy asked about accompanying JoJo and me today, and her [slight?] dejection when it became clear that, no, I did not want her company on the walk, I decided to walk the dog alone ... again ... naturally [with a nod to Gilbert O'Sullivan].

Work, Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure

I blogged a bit about Living Without A Goal recently and went down a path I didn't originally anticipate, focusing on utility and value and appreciation in life. I'd intended to say more about James Ogilvy's views on work, but once I was plumbing the depths of what makes life meaningful, valuable and worthwhile, I wasn't in the mood to write [more] about work.

I suppose this may be an example of what poet David Whyte calls investigative vulnerability, a term he attributes the term to Dante. An example he shares (on Disc 2 of his Clear Mind, Wild Heart audiobook) is when he was composing the poem Sweet Darkness, he wrote the line "You must learn one thing..." and felt tremendous excitement and anticipation to discover what he would actually write next ... which turned out to be "the world was made to be free in" ... although I think the more poignant revelation comes a few lines later: "anyone and anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you" ... a sentiment very closely aligned to ideas expressed more prosaically by James Ogilvy.

And coming back to Ogilvy, in his book on Living Without a Goal, he notes that

[T]he worthiest works of all often reflect an artful creativity that looks more like play than work.

Unlike my resistance to his rejection of being useful to others as a worthy Goal, this notion of work as play is something I embrace wholeheartedly (and even practice occasionally). Work that is intrinsically motivating is indistinguishable from play, and work that is solely or primarily motivated by extrinsic incentives (money, titles, prestige, manager approval) can never be as ultimately satisfying and fulfilling.

Writing this now, I'm drawn back to the issue of [work] being useful to others. When I am playing, do I care whether or how my play affects others, or do I play with reckless abandon? Am I goal-oriented in my play, or do I play just for the fun of it? It seems indulgent, even extravagant, and downright risky, in applying this attitude [explicitly and openly] to work ... but I know from past experience that there also risks in not following my heart, working on things that have been assigned to me that I do not see as intrinsically worthwhile, and feeling the energy draining out of my body day in and day out.

Ogilvy notes these (and other) risks:

Creativity relies less on goal-directed labor than on a subtle mix of discipline and play. The artist suffers under an imperative to delight, an obligation to bask in pleasure. Someone must scout those frontiers of bliss and discover the pitfalls. There are risks. It is not an accident that artists suffer accidents. It is the nature of the case that they take risks. But if one must take risks, what better place than in pleasure's paradise?

A little further on, he presages Web 2.0:

people who explore the outer reaches of human delight, then learn how to bottle and sell some of their ecstasy, end up being far more successful than the drudges who are convinced of their duty to defer gratification forever

He then contrasts this approach to the typical process by which research is "managed" (!), especially within large organizations:

Just look at the administration of big science -- planned creativity -- and then look at its track record for innovation. On a dollar-per-dollar basis, big science doesn't do as well as the less bureaucratized passion of garage inventors.

At budget time each year I would be asked what I planned to do the following year and what it would cost. It always seemed to me that I was being asked what I planned to discover ... It was as if the only time genuine discovery would be allowed would be during the month or so of the budget cycle.

Having been working at Nokia Research Center for three months now, I'm struck by a curious tension: the organization is the most process-oriented I've ever encountered, and [yet] it also emphasizes the importance of taking risks more than any organization I've been a part of. NRC Palo Alto, the newest facility (and the one where I work), is experimenting on a number of dimensions, organizationally and with respect to research trajectories. Thus far, I've experienced a great deal of liberty and happiness in my time there, and have enjoyed both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Popping up a level (or two), I'm reminded of some ruminations that occurred to me while listening to another audiobook, The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide by Rick Jarow. What would life be like if everyone only worked on things that were intrinsically meaningful to them? What kinds of work would we see more of, or less of? What kinds (and sizes) of organizations would we see? What would the world be like if everyone followed Rumi's prescription:

Let yourself be drawn by the silent pull of what you really love.