ETech 2007, Part 2: People, Power, Patterns and Practices
April 03, 2007
I find it challenging to summarize my impressions of ETech 2007 in a single phrase (or a "one thing" that was most interesting, a question I often ask others returning from a conference). I already wrote about the themes of fun, games and magic at ETech, and Tim O'Reilly's recent post on a Call for a Blogger's Code of Conduct addresses some of the intimidation issues that arose during the conference. In this post, I'll focus on the ideas of people, power, patterns and practices that emerged over the course of the last two days of the event.
Mike Kuniavsky spoke of "The Coming Age of Magic" [slides], in which he depicted trends in computing costs that are leading to greater capabilities to embed computing elements in things that are not traditionally thought of as computers, which in turn, is leading to more animism, metaphor and automation. One of the interesting insights Mike shared was that it is not just the ability to embed computation in objects, but the ability to embed knowledge in objects (and thus create, modify and use knowledge in new ways), that will be an important source of new powers in the coming age of ubiquitous computing. Mike's views contrast with Adam Greenfield's warnings the previous day of the potential for human disempowerment through ubiquitous computing technologies. I believe that the key difference lies in how much technologies are designed (or co-opted) to do for us on our behalf rather than at our behest, reminiscent of some interesting distinctions Yvonne Rogers raised in a paper challenging Mark Weiser's Vision at UbiComp 2006 (and in which she invoked Adam Greenfield's book, Everywhere).
In keeping with the magical theme, danah boyd presented "Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life", in which she observed that in the world of Harry Potter, wizards are trying to make the world a better place for everyone (wizards and muggles -- people who don't have magic -- alike). danah asked us to consider what are the spells we cast on one another, cast on society, and what are the spells others cast on us (bringing to mind the recent attacks on a good wizard in the blogosphere, as well as Don Miguel Ruiz' exhortation in his first agreement to "be impeccable with your word(s)"). Noting that people are the "backside" of the magic of Web 2.0 (contrasting with, or perhaps complementing, the view that "Data is the 'Intel Inside' for Web 2.0" espoused by others at ETech), danah shared some insights from her research into how young people are weaving Web 2.0 technologies into their everyday lives. She distinguished four stages in web use: identity formation and role-seeking (youth, teens, college students), integration and coupling (20-somethings), societal contribution (professional life), and reflection and storytelling (retirement). She noted that Web 2.0 introduces four key elements -- persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences -- with [still] largely unknown consequences. Noting that "all the rules about privacy are changing" (suggesting [to me] that Web 2.0 is an example of what James Carse calls an infinite game), danah concluded with a call to action: "How do we make a community that we can love being a part of?"
Raph Koster described many dimensions of "The Core of Fun" [slides] ... in fact, too many to enumerate here (many details can be found in his book, and associate web site, on The Theory of Fun). So instead, I'll highlight some interesting connections that emerged for me during his talk. Raph noted "fun fundamentally comes from learning, and failure is very important" (related to the the art of making mistakes wakefully), "as soon as you give someone a ladder to climb, they’re going to climb it" (reminding me of Stephen R. Covey's metaphor of climbing the ladder of success, only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall), "[game] outcomes have to be highly visible" (related to Carse's notions of property and titles), "bottomfeeding [low-risk activity for high-reward] is bad for fun", and the goal of a good game is "to get users riding right at the edge of what they think they can do" (reflecting the importance of playing the edge in any practice). Combined with earlier talks by Amy Jo Kim and Jane McGonigal, and some earlier ruminations of my own on the pervasiveness of games, I started wondering how Raph's notions of the Core of Fun might apply to the game of employment ... but I'll leave further speculation on that topic for another time.
Speaking of employment, and [large] employers, Chad Dickerson shared some experiences from Yahoo! Hack Day, in which the goal was to hack software, hardware, and, to a certain extent, a large company (or, at least, it's culture). Mixing the wisdom of Eric Raymond ("every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch"), Wynton Marsalis ("don’t bullshit, just play") and Kraftwerk ("it’s more fun to compute"), Chad and his colleagues instituted Open Hack Day, a 24-hour event with three rules: build something in 24 hours (no Powerpoint), present it to everyone at the end of the day (90 seconds), and no prior review of projects (anything goes). The goals were to generate more excitement and engagement between Yahoo! and its customers and/or future employees (of course, everyone's a customer), and Chad said they gained more of everything than they expected (including being spoofed in a puppet video created by musician / hacker Beck, who provided [some of] the entertainment).
Matt Webb presented "From Pixels to Plastics" [slides], introducing the notion of Gen C: communities, connected (socially and electronically), creative, controlling and complexity, and wondering aloud how we should design for such a group. He proposed, essentially, the widgetization of everything, in order to provide platform(s) on which to build products and services for Gen C, and the use of what he called experimental observation, that treats experience itself as a design surface, as a design tool. He showed a Japanese video about folding a tshirt as an example of how the experience of observing the unfolding of an experience can be relaxing, meditative and even fun (he also said he feels a similar enchantment watching code compile … and at this point, I was reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s experimental observations in Miracle of Mindfulness, in which he notes how the simple act of mindfully washing dishes can be similarly relaxing, meditative and enjoyable). Among the various intriguing examples of things that aren't good for anything above and beyond the experience is Otoizm, which is sort of like a tamagotchi that plugs into an MP3 player, and grows based on your music (it even has lovegety-like functionality built in). Another is the Availabot, a push puppet connected to a computer via USB that physically represents the availability of an IM buddy (reminiscent of some of the phidgets that Saul Greenberg and his colleagues have developed).
Joshua Schachter shared "Lessons Learned in Scaling and Building Social Systems" (e.g., del.icio.us), in which he offered some insights into and experiences with tags, scale, slop, reappropriation, RSS, infection, language (the subtle but important difference between labeling a checkbox “do not share” and “private”), identity & reputation, fidelity (preserve plausible deniability), spam & abuse (gaming), visualization, aesthetics & morals (pretty URLs, “delete” really means delete), the methodology of creativity (design for yourself), motivations, user testing, measure & record. Several of the things Joshua shared were very much aligned with Amy Jo Kim’s earlier presentation on game mechanics (e.g., “any time you put numbers on the screen, people are going to try to make them go up”), and I got to wondering if del.icio.us is less of a “game” than, say, Digg, YouTube or Twitter (the three primary case studies covered in Amy Jo's tutorial) … and whether this is by design.
Quinn Norton shared some examples of – and insights into – body hacking, which she defined as "acting on yourself, with or without assistance, to enhance the function of your body or your perceptions", and in keeping with other forms of hacking, noted that body hacking is [simply?] another form of volition: the freedom to enact your will upon a system. One of the penetrating questions she asked was “Where does treatment end and enhancement begin?”, noting that the medical community has to pathologize the thing that changes in order for "treating" it to become acceptable practice (e.g.., the [acceptable] use of antidepressants required pathologizing grief, stomach staples required pathologizing obesity, leading one to wonder about the pathologization that is implicit or explicit in a variety of procedures and medicines to impart “sexual super powers”, e.g., boob jobs, gender reassignment, sex enhancer drugs and even IUDs ... or whether pathologization of aging will be required for approval of drugs intended to mimic the effects of calorie restriction ... although I suppose the effects of aging may well be pathological). Questioning the arbitrary line between acceptable enhancement and unfair advantage, Quinn cited a Slate article on “If steroids are cheating, why isn’t Lasik?” … leading me to reflect on the notion of cheating in general, which seems to be becoming more acceptable, and even expected, in society (e.g., game cheats).
Speaking of acceptability and society, I neglected to mention the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Awards on Tuesday night in my earlier post on ETech. Initially, I was a bit dismayed to learn that I had to pay $35 above and beyond the conference registration fee in order to attend, but it was well worth the donation to hear the contributions – and acceptance speeches – of Bruce Schneier, Yochai Benkler and Cory Doctorow. The debate between Mark Cuban, the owner of HDNet, and Fred von Lohmann, EFF's senior IP attorney, about "Copyright, YouTube, and the future of Web 2.0", was worthwhile, but Cory's acceptance speech really stood out ... in fact, it was so moving that I decided to join the EFF … and christen my MacBook Pro cover with its first sticker: an EFF decal (obviously, with my previously pristine Mac, I'm not -- or, at least, wasn't -- one of the cool kids at ETech ... maybe this is the start of a new phase :-) ).
And speaking of cool kids at ETech, I started noticing early on during the conference that some people were wearing ID badges that had names other than the names I typically associate with those people (Marty Graham, as Michael Adams, posting as Dylan Tweney, also wrote about this in Wired ... and just like Marty/Michael/Dylan, I, too, was finally invited to swap [on the last day], ending up with Matt Biddulph's tag). I also noticed early on that the door attendants would periodically walk down the aisles during some talks and look for ID badges among the people already seated (and listening to a presentation ... er, or blogging, chatting, emailing or otherwise engaged in the digital world ... after all this was ETech). I was wondering whether this ID swapping meme was a reaction to this rather vigilant checking of IDs, or simply part of the fun, games and magic that pervaded much of the conference. We had similar episodes of people swapping (or stealing) RFID tags during our proactive display deployment at UbiComp 2003, which resulted in some interesting actions, interactions and reactions when the displays would show profile information associated with people other than the people wearing the tags. We didn't have any such displays at ETech 2007, but I do wonder what kinds of gaming behaviors might arise in the context of a deployment among such a group of hackers ... perhaps we can arrange to deploy some next generation proactive displays at next year's ETech.