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March 2007

ETech 2007 BoF: How can we support Kathy Sierra (and other women in our "community")?

As I noted in my last post about ETech, amidst the fun and excitement at the conference, I feel angry and sad -- and feeling frustratingly helpless (and even a bit embarrassingly male) -- about the acts of violence that have been perpetrated on Kathy Sierra (who had been the scheduled opening keynote speaker), including vulgar photos and comments posted on various sites intimating [other] harm and death. This morning, I checked danah boyd's blog, and was saddened further -- but, unfortunately, not as surprised as I wish I'd been -- to learn about a similar experience she had years ago.

Last year, I remember reading (and hearing) Liz Lawley and others talking about the relative low proportion of women among the ranks of people speaking at ETech. I've never attended the conference before, but it does seem that there are far more men than women on stage (and in the audience). If the ETech community really wants to offer an environment that is more welcoming and supportive of women, then I'm thinking that maybe this is a good venue in which to hold an open discussion about what happened to Kathy -- and/or other prominent women [bloggers] -- and to see what kinds of actions we might take, individually and collectively, socially and technologically, to support Kathy in this dark period, and help ward off such evil attacks in the future.

I am concerned that in organizing this Birds of a Feature (BoF) session, I may be addressing my own needs (channeling my anger and sadness, and reducing my helplessness) at the expense of exacerbating the challenges faced by Kathy (and/or others). So, if engaging in an open discussion about this issue is not helpful to her (or others), I may cancel the session. But my intuition suggests this could be helpful, and after a quick sanity check with some trusted [women] friends, I've decided to move forward.

So, if you're reading this and you're at ETech, or know someone here at ETech, or want to suggest any issues or perspectives to consider at the session, please post a comment, create a trackback, send an email or otherwise join the discussion. We'll be meeting in Gregory A from 9:00-10:00pm tonight.

[Updates: Tim O'Reilly attended the BoF, and subsequently posted a Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct; Kathy Sierra has posted an update and a joint statement with Chris Locke representing a partial rapprochement.]

ETech 2007: Fun, Games, Magic ... and Intimidation

Etech_logo 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!]

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you

ClearmindwildheartDavid Whyte's poetry and narratives in the 6-CD collection, Clear Mind, Wild Heart: Finding Courage and Clarity through Poetry, continue to inspire me. The title of this post is taken from his poem, Sweet Darkness, in which he writes about darkness, tiredness, belonging, freedom and coming alive.  This past week, I recognized that I have come alive [again] in my work -- a resurgence, of sorts -- and I was reminded of an earlier period in my research career where I felt very much alive ... closely followed by a period of darkness, tiredness and confinement. Before reflecting a bit more on personal (and professional) history, I wanted to include the poem, Sweet Darkness, (found here) for reference.

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
~ David Whyte ~

In the accompanying narrative that Whyte offers to provide some context for the poem, he invokes the spirit of Dante ("in the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood where the way was wholly lost"), and encourages us middle-of-the-roaders to relinquish our clinging to a "climate-controlled existence" and embrace an investigative vulnerability as we cultivate a relationship with the unknown,  with whatever lies over the horizon.

Earlier (in Disc 1, "Our home is so close to us"), Whyte observes that

We're meant to hazard ourselves, to hurt ourselves, to be disappointed, to be on an edge in which you will discover what is you and what is not you.

and later

We naturally gravitate to the corners of creation in which we belong and in which we're supported in doing our work.

Whyte describes poetry as "the art of living at a frontier in life", offering a place of renewal, rediscovery and reimagination. Poetry is as much listening as it is speaking, creating a context in which "you can hear yourself say things you didn't know that you knew." He shares a profound example of this in Sweet Darkness, when he wrote "You must learn one thing..." and wondered, with keen anticipation, just what that one thing would turn out to be.

Further on, Whyte talks about the true nature of humliliation ("to be returned to the ground of your being") and the tendency for many of us to enage in work that we have no affection for, doing it out of our desire for belonging, i.e., doing what we think we should be doing in order to be liked, and often becoming exhausted in the process (reminding me of a recent NPR Talk of the Nation segment on Understanding Burnout, and the high cost of employee disengagement I've written about earlier). A wise Benedictine monk, Brother David, a friend of Whyte's, then shares his insight that

the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness

Whyte concludes the session with the observation that we're all creatures of belonging, and that by articulating all the ways we feel lonely, we're already on the way home ... reflecting insights shared by others regarding the most personal is the most general, and my own sense that by openly sharing our inner secrets, we are better able to connect with others.

And so, inspired by all of this, I decided to start writing, albeit more prosaically than poetically, wondering what, exactly I would say ... how I would say it ... and how deep I would be willing to delve into some of the shadows of my past. I'll start with some recent events, and revisit a few related events in the more distant past -- and the feelings and judgments they evoke[d] in me.

This past week was a particularly wholehearted nd exhilarating week for me, with a number of engaging meetings with interesting people, and culminating in a personal peak around an internal presentation (at Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto) I gave on the past, present and future of proactive displays. In preparing and presenting the slides, I felt more alive than I have in quite some time ... and was offered an opportunity to reflect back upon a period where I experienced a spiritually deadening blockage in my work.

At the outset of the last episode of my assumption of the role of a researcher, I felt very much alive. I had joined a new research lab, I was co-chairing CSCW 2002 (with my dear friend, Elizabeth Churchill), and I would soon be chairing UbiComp 2003 (with lots of help from another good friend, Dave McDonald). In between, I was co-creating a research agenda that would align my passion for using technology to help people relate to one another with my role as conference chair. With the help of Dave, three fabulous interns (David Nguyen, Al "Mamun" Rashid and Suzi Soroczak), and a host of other supporting actors, we designed, developed, deployed and evaluated a suite of three proactive display applications at UbiComp 2003. Our primary goal was to foster a greater sense of community among attendees by sensing people near large displays and showing content relating to those people on the displays. While we encountered challenges of various kinds before, during and after the event, and everything did not go as planned (as anyone who has deployed large-scale sociotechnical interventions "in the wild" can probably relate to), I felt that the project was largely successful, and on the Wednesday night at the end of the conference, I felt like I was at the pinnacle of my career ... and I suppose the next few days, weeks and months only reinforced the perception that that night did, in fact, represent a peak.

I took a much-needed vacation the following Thursday, and when I came in on Friday, I had a meeting with the [now former] lab director and [now former] co-director in which I was told, in effect, that I -- or at least, my work -- wasn't good enough. My approach to research was judged unacceptable, and the work was not well-enough aligned with one of two recently annointed projects, and the goal of the director was to subsume all the research in the lab under these two projects. The proactive display project was cancelled, effectively immediately (to this day, there is no reference to the work on the web site of the lab), and I was told to work on another application, involving the creation and use of place tokens in blogs, that had been largely defined by a [then former] colleague who had left the lab, and that would align with one of the two approved projects. Unfortunately, I didn't believe in the value of the application --  or the project -- and the more I researched it, the less compelling I found the value proposition(s).

The six months following my "success" at UbiComp 2003 was the most soul squelching period of my professional life, as I continued to work on my assigned project, and I finally decided that what I really wanted to do was realign with my heartfelt mission and renew my pursuit of the proactive display agenda, of which I felt we'd only scratched the surface. Although the director would not agree to support the work, I was allocated a grace period in which to explore whether / where / how that work might be supported elsewhere in the firm, or outside of the firm. Unfortunately, while many people were supportive of the idea, no one was willing to allocate "head count" to support me in pursuing the idea. I decided the only way to realize my dream was to create a firm, Interrelativity, Inc., to support its development (with key development support provided by Khai Truong at the outset).

As I've written before, I felt very much alive in my entrepreneurial period, which was filled with fabulous rewards in nearly every dimension ... except the financial one. So, when I joined Nokia last fall, I hoped to achieve a more comprehensive spectrum of fulfillment (pursuing work aligned with my mission ... while getting paid). After six months of devoting much of my time and effort to playing a supporting role with respect to what I would characterize as cultural and organizational development, the presentation last week marked the first time I'd publicly articulated the research (and/or development) agenda to which I aspire, with the help -- and within the framework -- of the Context, Content and Community team.

Listening to Whyte's second CD ("In the middle of the road of our lives") on Friday evening -- for at least the fifth time (I've listened to all the CDs many times) -- it dawned on me that the work I am doing and the people I am working with are helping to bring me alive [again], and that my idealistic initial intuition about belonging -- in a firm whose mantra is "connecting people", a lab dedicated to inventing the future mobile Internet experience, and a team whose mission is to create large scale experimental systems for large scale social change -- increasingly appears to be grounded in reality. In writing this, I am aware that I had similar perceptions and judgments at this stage in my last research position, but I will continue to hope there are some key differences in me (now) and / or the new[er] lab that will enable me to enjoy some time in the light ... and to help me / us bring light to others.

On Virginity, Vulnerability and Vaccines

Last night, I discovered of The Virginity Project (via Shel Israel's blog), a book project in which Kate Monroe is compiling a list of stories about how, when and why people lost their virginity. On the drive in this morning, I heard a segment on NPR's Morning Edition entitled "Young People and Sex: Parents, Can We Talk?" by Johanna Greenberg of Blunt Youth Radio. It turns out -- surprise, surprise -- that the parents of most of teens [that Johanna interviewed] have never said anything about sex to their kids, and of the few that had, it was mostly focused on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, or the risks of [unintended] pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The preceding NPR segment was on one such STD, human papillomavirus ("Detecting High-Risk HPV in Older Women"), and an earlier segment on local NPR affiliate KQED, in the locally produced series, Perspectives (I think), was an opinion piece by another young woman, Alana Germany, about The HPV Vaccine (Gardasil), focusing on the social and economic issues surrounding its availability, and the political issues surrounding the proposed school attendance requirement for the vaccine in California middle schools. Reading Kate Monroe's most recent post, "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ...", she writes about her motivation behind pursuing this project, and in so doing, exhibits great openness and vulnerability (reminiscent of Shel and Robert Scoble's openness in Naked Conversations):

I, like most human beings, am innately insecure. There are questions that I need to ask - but I don’t think I am the only one who wants to know the answers. I want to know what other people really felt about having sex for the first time. Not the version that we tell our friends around the pub table but the no holds barred version. The reality, the joy, the pain, the sheer physical sensation of allowing somebody so close for the very first time. And if we take a step further toward truth, how does this one-off experience compare to our present arrangement? How good have we got? ... We all want to know that we are improving and we all want to know that we are normal.

Upon further reflection, I see vulnerability and sexual intimacy as deeply intertwined, and one's first sexual experience -- the loss of virginity -- as among the most vulnerable. [It's interesting that virginity is always lost ... what is gained?] I feel very fortunate that my first sexual experience (er, with someone else) was very positive, but I've often wondered about others' first experiences. I suspect it is generally, and perhaps drastically, different for men and women, but the only person I've ever spoken with about first experiences is Amy (and we did have different experiences of our first sexual encounters). I felt very vulnerable that first time, not really knowing quite how to proceed (although I was later told that my lack of experience was not apparent at the time), and feeling great fear and joy simultaneously. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I still often feel fear before, during and after a sexual encounter, and for similar reasons -- does she want to? am I being too selfish? am I doing it right? was it good for her? Fortunately, I also still [often] feel great joy, too. Johanna Greenberg's recommendation was that parents should talk more openly with their kids about their feelings and values regarding sex (wow, talk about vulnerability!). Amy has been more forthright with our kids in talking about sexual matters, which is ironic, as I generally like to think of myself as so open and communicative. Given that my 15 year-old daughter sometimes reads (and comments on) my blog, I suppose this post may represent some kind of potential opening. My feelings about sex in my own experience are often conflicted, and they become all the more so when I project them onto anyone else ... especially if that someone else is, in a significant respect, the outcome of a sexual encounter (i.e., my daughter (or son)). I already mentioned my experience of the fear and joy of sex. As for values, I value honesty and trust in all my relationships, and I believe these qualities are all the more important the more intimate the relationship ... and the more intimate the exchange. Over the weekend, I watched the movie Munich; in one scene, one of the Mossad agents is found in naked and dead in his hotel bed, after having last been seen heading in the direction of an attractive and flirtatious woman in the hotel bar. I was thinking "What was he thinking?" (he was part of a team had been involved in several assassinations, and must have known that they, in turn, were likely targets). How can such a person -- or at least a person in that role -- trust anyone, much less leave himself as vulnerable as one becomes during sexually intimate encounters (or, at least, as vulnerable as I become ... but I probably wouldn't cut it as an assassin, anyhow). Turning to the third "V", the HPV vaccine (Gardasil), I am glad that the vaccine is available, but I'm not convinced that requiring it to be administered to all students is the best policy. It seems to me that other vaccines required for school attendance are for diseases that can be transmitted through casual contact, or simple proximity. While I hear and read that casual relationships (or "friends with benefits") is on the rise, reports of any kind of sexual activities -- especially among youth -- are often greatly exaggerated, on an individual and/or aggregated basis. Taking measures to prevent the transmission of disease to others who are simply in the same room on a daily basis seems like a reasonable precaution. Mandating such measures to prevent transmission that requires a great deal more, er, engagement, seems overreaching. So I don't support mandatory vaccinations, but I am totally in favor of making [other] more casual or incidental prophylactics more widely available ... especially among youth ... who are, after all, especially vulnerable.