ETech 2007: Fun, Games, Magic ... and Intimidation
March 28, 2007
I'm attending my first Emerging Technologies Conference (ETech) this week, and have attended a number of interesting and engaging talks by a number of interesting and engaging people. The themes that seem to be emerging thus far are the use of technology for fun and games, and creating a sense of magic ... though, unfortunately, some of this magic can be very dark, taking the form of misogynistic intimidation, including death threats. I'll start with the darkness and move toward the light.
There were three conferences I wanted to attend this week (ETech, the [first] International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, and Digital Signage). The tipping point for my decision to attend ETech was the half-day tutorial and opening keynote that were to be given by Kathy Sierra, who, as I've noted often before, is my favorite blogger in the blogosphere (and was the first person I said I wanted to meet when I first joined 43people). When I arrived Sunday evening, I was disappointed to learn that Kathy would not be presenting due to "unavoidable circumstances". On Monday, I read Kathy's most recent -- and perhaps last -- blog post, and was angry and sad to learn about the breadth and depth of intimidation she had been subjected to, during the week preceding ETech, including vulgar photos and comments posted on various sites intimating [other] harm and death. I don't understand why anyone would want to attack such a wise, warm and wonderful woman in such violent ways, but I certainly understand her decision to cancel all her plans ... and I wish her all the best in facing this new challenge.
[I'm finding it hard to go on with this post, given the powerful emotions stirred up by the acts described in Kathy's post, but I will press on, if only for the practice of blogotherapy.]
Another woman I'd wanted to meet was Amy Jo Kim, Creative Director at Shufflebrain, whose slide deck on Putting the Fun in Functional, from the tutorial she gave at eTech 2006 (that I read about at we-make-money-not-art) is probably the single most frequently forwarded reference I've sent around to people in the past year (though I've only referenced it once in a previous blog post, on game-like behavior in Digg). Despite having read through the slides many times before, I wanted to attend her tutorial at ETech 2007, to hear what she had to say directly ... and I was pleased to see how she has augmented the five [original] essential components from game mechanics to creating engaging (and addictive) games -- collecting, earning points, feedback, exchanges and customization -- with three new elements from social media -- content-sharing, accessible tech and syndication. Other new items (for me) were the notion of schedules of reinforcement (fixed/variable interval/ratio), social points (awarded by other members of an online community), and parallel leaderboards (to help disincentivize gaming the system (in undesirable ways (from the system designer's perspective))).
Monday evening, Tim O'Reilly was promoting the notion of hackers as business innovators, noting that successful hackers are doing what they do for fun (intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations), and that the recently established O'Reilly venture fund only invests in entrepreneurs who are having fun. [Harking back to an earlier rumination on making meaning vs. making money, perhaps Tim is proposing making merriment vs. making money.]
Other future trends that Tim pointed to were
- the increasing ease of hacking / fabricating physical (vs. virtual or software) objects, including exemplars such as ZeroPrestige (open source hardware), Chumby (hackable clock radios), Made-In-China (where one can assemble Linux-like distributions of motorcycles) and Threadless (users vote on t-shirt designs before they are physically produced -- enabling the right amount of the right product at the right time)
- the increasing control users will have over the collection and use ("conspicuous exposure") of their [attention] data, e.g., AttentionTrust, Twitter, Facebook Mini-Feeds, Jaiku, and AttentiveTV (?)
- the convergence of Web 2.0 and Wall Street, where "data is the Intel inside" in both realms; an example of Web 2.0 applied to markets can be seen in TradeStation (actually mentioned today in a panel) and Inkling Markets (founded by two of my former colleagues from Accenture Technology Labs)
Art Benjamin was up next, beguiling us with his mathemagical prowess, squaring 4-digit numbers in real-time, memorizing 16-digit numbers (using phonetic codes) and producing 16-cell magic squares in a matter of seconds. Interestingly, Art is an auditory learner (vs. a visual learner), and believes that most of his talent -- and anyone's talent -- can be attributed to dedication and practice (or, as Art put it, "a misspent youth"). This reminded me of an observation Doug Rushkoff made in his book, Get Back In The Box: Innovation from the Inside Out:
What [Alexander] Mackendrick meant to communicate, in so many words, was that if you don't love enough the particulars of the experience of what you do to devour the tangible details, or if you don't care enough about your work to find out everything there is to know, then you'll never be able to get into it, and you'll never come up with anything original. ... How do we translate this focus on process to an entire business, or even a major corporation? It's as easy as it is consuming: by discovering what it is about what we do that genuinely fascinates us, and then going as deep into that joy of investigation, commitment and process as we can stand.
Jane McGonigal regaled us with the theory, practice and prospects for Alternate Reality Gaming, depicting a vision of technologists becoming happiness hackers in exploring a new science of happiness, where quality of life is the primary metric, positive psychology is the primary influence on design, and the widespread expectation is that companies will contribute to the bottom line of increasing real happiness [see Jane's blog post, slides & other happiness hacking resources]. She differentiated 3 realms of happiness -- pleasure, engagement and meaning -- and provided an excellent set of references (going far beyond some of the sources I'd explored in a post on the art, science, business and politics of happiness). She offered glimpses from some of her experiments with alternate reality gaming, including the Ministry of Reshelving, Cruel 2 B Kind, Tombstone Hold 'Em and I Love Bees, concluding her presentation with a call to action for ETechies to invest in understanding and innovating happiness, and make technology feel good, do good and expose good ... and an open invitation to participate in her next alternate reality game, World Without Oil, premiering April 30 in San Francisco.
Adam Greenfield presented some alternate views on magic, raising a number of issues pointing to potential problems in adopting the magical meme of the conference (Arther C. Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Adam claims that magic can have a disempowering impact on users (bringing to mind some of Yvonne Rogers' criticisms of "calm technology" at UbiComp 2006, an event where Adam's book Everywhere was referenced in several talks), and, riffing on another meme of Clarke (his book Childhood's End), asserted that magic is for children. Interestingly, given Jane's earlier talk, I was thinking that the somewhat childlike playfulness encouraged by Jane's appropriation of ubiquitous computing technologies for pervasive gaming is / would be a Good Thing, but in raising this question during the Q&A, Adam did not appear to think so. I think I'll try to get them together sometime during the conference for a discussion, as I believe their ultimate aims are quite similar. [Update: I never got them together at the conference, but it looks like they, and others, have been discussing this on Adam's blog ... and it appears I may have perceived more commonality than they do.]
Scott Berkun spoke of the Myths of Innovation, sharing a new word for the day -- chronocentrism (the belief that there has never been a time like the present) -- and one of the most inspiring quotes I heard today, principles articulated by William McKnight, former 3M Chairman, in 1948:
As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.
Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.
Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it's essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.
This seems like an interesting blend of Chaordic Leadership Principles and the Love and Logic approach to parenting ... and I suspect that creating a safe and supportive place for taking risks is essential for the effective nurturing of both children and researchers ... and rather than ruminate further on the distinctions between those two groups, I think I'll apply some self-nurturing and get some sleep so I'll be more alert and receptive to the proceedings of Day 2 of ETech. [I hope Kathy will also be able to get some sleep!]