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June 2007

iPhone iGloat: Signaling through Signatures

I'm at the Communities & Technologies (C&T2007) conference, continuously partially attending to a stream of traffic on a mailing list ostensibly devoted to the planning of a fast-approaching unconference. Judith Donath gave a fabulous presentation earlier today on applying signaling theory to online social networks. I'll be blogging in much greater length about that soon, but meanwhile, I think it's interesting to see the "signaling" going on in this email stream, as it highlights some of the concepts she was talking about, especially with respect to signaling dynamics, fashion and deception. Of course, much of the signaling is due to Apple's default insertion of "Sent from my iPhone" signatures into email messages, but some of the signaling is taking place outside of those signatures ... and some is taking place in signature "hacks".

[I've edited the stream to remove any personally identifying information, compress the relevant segments, and italicize the signature lines.]

Good question. What's the word? How's the iPhone?
Sent on the TELUS Mobility network with BlackBerry

OMFG! It is far better than I expected. I wasn't even expecting to get one but somehow I ended up handing my credit card to that nice lady.
Sent from my iPhone

Yeah I really like mine - I wish it supported laptop tethering though.

You can register at [URL omitted]!
Sent from my iPhone

I see you're an iPhoner as well! How long did you have to wait? Also how is the edge speed? I'm clocking 115-150 Kbps therebouts.
Sent from my iPhone

Sales End: Ended
Used to say Sales End yesterday and today, no?
Sent from my iPhone

Hehe, I have an iPhone too
Sent from my iPhone

Sent from my iPhone

I don't have one
Sent from my analog phone

I’m going to buy one tomorrow.
Sent from my land line

[Update: Chris Pirillo and his readers/commenters have some interesting things to say about the reasons they are not getting an iPhone]

Africa is the New Black

If I were to highlight one [more] theme that emerged at Foo Camp 2007 (having already noted the themes of passion, privilege, scalability and desirability as well as attention, inattention, appreciation and depreciation), it would be that Africa is the new black, i.e., an area of increasingly popular, perhaps even fashionable, interest. There were three sessions during the weekend explicitly devoted to Africa, and another that is extremely relevant to a continent on which electrical power cannot be taken for granted:

I attended all of these, continuing an inexplicable and nearly inexorable pull I feel toward this area (Rumi's exortation to "let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love" resonates with me ever more strongly ... though I guess I'm not following the silent part so well).

I have never been to Africa, I don't know many people who have even visited there, and the research I do is not any more relevant to Africa than to any other region (in fact, potentially much less so, given the cost consciousness that understandably pervades the region). Still, I have an increasingly strong feeling that there is great potential to do Good - and to do [good] business (not that I would want to suggest there is any necessary contradiction in claiming business is good) - in that region, and that somehow my current position (at Nokia Research Center Palo Alto) may put me in a position to help catalyze efforts in that direction.

Martin Benjamin presented the Kamusi Project (slides), which is building a bilingual dictionary for English and Swahili (a language spoken by 100 million people), which thus far has 70 million entries, 10 million page hits and 600,000 unique visitors per year (though only 10,000 from Africa). Martin emphasized the importance of this project by noting a number of important factors:

  • Language is the key to knowledge – for reading the news, doing your homework, browsing the web
  • Knowledge is the key to prosperity – for getting a job, selling a product, buying a company…
  • Very few Africans can access information technology resources in a language with which they are comfortable
  • IT mastery is a path to prosperity: it works in India (for those who speak English), it works for you (i.e., the fluent English attendees of Foo Camp). How do we make it work in Africa?

When asked about adopting the Wikipedia model, Martin replied that Wikipedia works because it is a police state -  thousands of people watching everyone else - and that Swahili speakers are not online with sufficient numbers, frequencies and durations in order to police each other.


Toward the end of the hour a second session was started (this was, technically, a joint session), with Colin Bulthaup showing and telling about the Pull-Cord Generator (PCG) he and his colleagues at Potenco have developed to enable people to use human power to generate electricity to power other objects. Colin noted that 2 billion people worldwide have no power (a disproportionate number of whom live in Africa, where 90% of the population has reliable cellular coverage, but only 10% has reliable electricity coverage), and many of these powerless people use kerosene for lighting - which is inefficient, ineffective, expensive and leads to health problems. He then demonstrated his generator, which, after one minute of pulling on the rip cord, generates enough power for the following:

  • 25 minutes of mobile phone use
  • 60 minutes of indoor lighting (LED)
  • 230 minutes of iPod Shuffle play
  • 45 minutes of Nintendo DS play

His session topic was entitled "Human Power" but by the end, I was thinking more in terms of "Human Empowerment".

Scott Hanselman and Evan (Rabble) Henshaw-Plath led a discussion on mobile phones in Africa, a highly participatory session in which many people shared insights and experiences with both problems and [mobile] solutions. Among the solutions mentioned that are or may be applicable to the problems faced in Africa are:

  • Google's Voice Local Search (GOOG411)
  • A web service which accepts queries for words (and phrases?) via SMS, and receive a callback with the wikipedia entry for that word / phrase (which could then be held up to a microphone so that the entry could be heard by an entire class)
  • Mobile4Good (M4G), a Vodafone social franchise project for delivering health, employment and community information via SMS (deployed in Kenya)
  • MSRIndia SMS Toolkit, an SMS service that runs on a [Windows] PC
  • An open source Mobile Toolkit in a box (under development) to be shipped out to NGOs all over Africa
  • Engineers Without Borders, linking engineers with problems in disadvantaged communities
  • Digital Freedom Exposition, showcasing free and open source software in the developing world
  • Voices in Your Hand, [including?] a Philips-sponsored project in Brazil

I also heard about some Nokia anthropologist studying SMS use in Africa, that a quick search suggests is Jan Chipchase's recent report on Shared Phone Practices [clearly, I have some "local" (institutional) homework to do, regarding Nokia's efforts in Africa].

Last, but certainly not least, of the presentations was Joel Selanikio's session on IT and Public Health in Africa and other developing regions, highlighting the information deficit problems that pervade such regions, and severely diminish the prospects for providing effective health care awareness. Noting that only epidemiologists have, at most, 10% of the data that they need to identify and develop solutions for health problems, and 90% of this data is on paper (converting to digital form can take 1-2 years), Joel talked about a tool, EpiSurveyor, that enables a mobile device to be used in the collection of critical health data, which now provides a monthly flow of information from outlying clinics in Kenya. Joel also mentioned that he was working with someone at Nokia (more homework for me).

These three sessions, coupled with numerous informal discussions with other Foo Campers, suggests that the time is ripe for tapping into some of the sociotechnical energy in Silicon Valley (and multi-national companies with a presence there) to develop a more concerted effort to aid the developing world. I've started to formulate a scheme for some kind of two-day symposium this fall that would combine sessions on problems faced by Africa (by those who know them first-hand) with potential technology-enabled solutions to those problems (by those who know the technologies first-hand). I haven't gotten very far in the planning yet, but the spirit is strong ... even if the mind can't quite explain it (yet).

Meanwhile, I welcome any additional input about people, projects and/or organizations that are related to any of this.

[Update: thanks to some early feedback, I now realize that I omitted a few additional items of related work that I already know of; and, perhaps more importantly, didn't really provide much substance for my choice of a rather provocative title. I'll try to address these below.]

Last fall, one of my former colleagues, Charlie Perkins, now a Research Fellow at Nokia Siemens Networks, gave an internal presentation on some of his experiences during a recent tour of Africa, emphasizing a variety of opportunities offered through potential collaborations with local organizations there such as the Meraka Institute

Nathan Eagle, an MIT Research Scientist who is also Visiting Professor at University of Nairobi and Adjunct Professor at GSTIT in Ethiopia, visited our lab a few months ago, and gave an inspiring talk on his work in Kenya on the EPROM (Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles) program, which is promoting and supporting the development of applications, research and educational courses based on mobile phones for (and by) people in developing countries.

Gary Marsden, a Professor of Computer Science from the University of Cape Town, gave a CHI 2007 Social Impact Award talk, which I missed, but he was kind enough to visit our lab the day after the conference and share some of his insights into experiences with and opportunities for applying HCI techniques to develop contextually useful mobile applications and services that benefit people in the developing world (he also visited Google, after which they uploaded a video of his talk on "Mobile HCI in Africa"). In his blog post about CHI 2007, Gary mentioned a CHI workshop on User Centered Design and International Development and noted that "Developing World Interaction Design is now on the global radar"  ... so I'm not the only one talking about the trend.

Returning to the trend[iness] of Africa as a focus area for sociotechnically inclined people and organizations in the so-called developed world, I used the phrase "the new black" to signal - perhaps somewhat provocatively - its fashionability. However, simply being fashionable does not necessarily mean that it is superficial or shallow, nor that it will be short-lived. I believe the problems in Africa are deep, and even though I may be a bit behind the fashion curve in recognizing these problems, I hope the growing awareness (by me and others) will be matched by a commitment to solve those problems that is sustainable over the long-term.

[Update, 2007-07-15: BoingBoing posted an excerpt from an op-ed article in today's Washington Post entitled "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa", by Uzodinma Iweala, the Nigerian author of "Beasts of No Nation", in which he comments on the negative reactions he and other Africans often feel toward celebrities - and others - rallying to the cause (cause celebre) of 'saving' Africa, ending with the following plea:

I hope people will realize Africa doesn't want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.]

Attention and Inattention ... Appreciation and Depreciation

One of the Foo Camp 2007 sessions I most enjoyed was on the topic of Attention and Inattention, led by Kathy Sierra, Linda Stone and Dan Russell. One of the most surprising aspects of Foo Camp (for me) was that when I expressed appreciation to a couple of people I greatly admire for the inspiration they have [unknowingly] offered me, they seemed surprised at receiving such explicit acknowledgment of their impact. I started reflecting on the potential linkages between attention and appreciation ... and inattention and, well, depreciation. But first, a bit more about the session.

Linda defined continuous partial attention as doing two or more things simultaneously that require cognition, arguing that this is not a disorder (as it sometimes appear to us old fogies) but an attention strategy. She said that what most characterizes people who were successful in adopting a CPA strategy is their breathing patterns - they are better able to maintain mindfulness amid the multiple competing objects of attention. Linda mentioned that Liz Lawley is studying the use of Twitter, and is seeing two general patterns emerging: grandstanding and continuous partial friendship.

Dan presented an analysis of the attention patterns of Don Norman's assistant, Michele, differentiated 5 steps involved in attention switching (realization, saving state, selecting new task, switching attention, performing new tasks), and presented some simulations whose results suggest that the only variable that significantly affects the costs of interruptions is the variation in length of the interrupting task (consistency being less costly than high levels of variation).

Kathy - who, as I've noted before, is (was? (will again be? (!))) one of my favorite bloggers - led us on a tour of what was (for me) a trip down memory lane, revisiting some of the fabulous insights she has shared about fine-grained treats = user happiness (in which she described how clicker training for horses suggests that intermittent, variable rewards are more effective than regular rewards ... and helps explain the addictive experiences of email, blogs, Twitter, etc.),

the myth of "keeping up" (noting that you can't keep up, but neither can anyone else),

and the Asymptotic Twitter curve

Kathy concluded by raising the issue of how all of this affects our ability to develop expertise, noting that the difference between real experts and non-experts seem to be more dependent upon genetic predispositions on the ability (or willingness?) to focus than on any other particular ability, very much in alignment with observations made by Art Benjamin at ETech 2007 on the importance of dedication and practice (or, as he put it, "misspent youth"), and Doug Rushkoff on "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."

Blaine Cook, one of the principals behind Twitter, happened to be attending the session. He argued that, despite the potential for interruption and distraction, Twitter offers ambient intimacy, enabling friends to stay in touch in a lightweight manner. Blaine claimed that most Twitter users are "old" (i.e., over 30), and [afterward in the hallway] that even he prefers the IM-style use (on a computer) than the SMS-style use (on a mobile phone) - I have to admit that the SMS "alerts" I receive from Twitter friends do not seem terribly "ambient", and that I hve not tried the computer-based version.

This brings me back (or gives me an excuse to return to) the connection between attention and appreciation. Sending out a Twitter message demands (or, at least, requests) attention, without supplying attention - "hey, everyone, here's what I'm doing / thinking / feeling" vs. "hey, everyone, what are you doing?".  Twitter posts may encourage others to [then] post whatever they are doing / thinking / feeling in response to receiving such messages - and I sometimes get the sense that posts i receive were triggered by unseen [by me] posts received by other senders - but this almost seems more like distributed inattention than distributed attention. Perhaps I simply don't have enough [Twitter] friends, but I just don't feel much appreciation for Twitter ... and don't feel much appreciation through others' use of Twitter.

I'll use this last observation as a pretext to return to the topic of appreciation.  Merriam-Webster defines appreciation as the recognition of value or the expression of admiration, approval, or gratitude. Someone broadcasting a message to a group of which I'm a part does not seem to confer much value upon me as an individual. If anything it seems to confer value upon the sender rather than the receiver. As Liz Goodman noted, in reaction to one usage scenario of Twittering to stay connected to one's mother: "Don't you have time to call your mom?" [Disclaimer: I'm not so good about calling my mom, so I'm not pointing any fingers (that I'm not pointing at myself).]

It seems to me that Twitter, and other conduits of continuous partial attention, convey, at best, sporadic partial appreciation; receiving Twitter messages makes me feel about as special as receiving any other form of broadcast media. After the Foo Camp session, I had a look at Blaine's Twitter stream, which ooks pretty interesting, and suspect that a browser-based presentation modality may reduce the intrusiveness (with respect to the SMS "alerts"), and offer a broader framework in which to appreciate another person's context. But I think it still pales in comparison to a specifically targeted email, phone call, IM or other communication act. Streams of Twitter messages tend to depreciate [my feeling of] connections with others. I guess I'm more interested in quality than quantity of connections ... but perhaps that's simply a symptom of my advancing age ... and increasingly "distributed" attention.

Passion, Privilege, Scalability ... and Desirability

Yesterday morning I woke up with a flash of inspiration about a topic I wanted do discuss with other Foo Campers. It’s a topic I’ve ruminated about before, in the context of work, pleasure and the pursuit of happiness, and it seemed especially relevant here: what if everyone followed their passions?

Here's the description I posted on the big board (and on the Foo Calendar):

What if everyone followed their passions, liked what they did and did what they liked? I suspect Foo Camp represents an unusually high proportion of people who are following this trajectory. Are we a privileged class? How generalizable is this formula? How would the world change if everyone acted this way? Could the world move in this direction?

Among the topics I'd hoped to explore was whether the empowerment that is increasingly being realized by people who can develop code in developed countries can be exported to people with less developed technical sophistication in less developed countries ... that is, does the pursuit of passion scale, or is it likely to remain the purview of a privileged few?

This may be more the norm than the exception at Foo Camp, but the discussion evolved in a way I never anticipated, and by the end of the session, I'd shifted my focus of attention from ability to desirability of exporting empowerment to pursue passions ... not unlike my shift in perspective regarding the desirability of exporting democracy.

We started out by talking about how people have fun ([re]visiting a theme that Tim O'Reilly - and others - emphasized throughout ETech 2007), distinguishing between solo pursuits and those that involve other people (distributed passion), and noting the challenges of maintaining passion in an institutional context, especially as one "progresses" up the ranks. Perhaps the Peter Principle - emphasizing the tendency of people in a hierarchical organization to be promoted to their level of incompetence - is really more about passion than about competence - that people are promoted to levels or roles for which they feel little or no passion ... which may help explain the lack of positivity in the workplace ... which often leads to widespread (and costly) employee disengagement.

Eric Hodel shared the story of Espresso Vivace, which was co-founded by a Boeing engineer who decided, in mid-career, to indulge his passion for coffee. I have no idea whether the co-founder had reached a level of disengagement (or incompetence) in his previous career trajectory, but from all reports, he is enjoying very high levels of engagement and competence in roasting great coffee (to the benefit of many of his customers).

Turning toward the topic of exporting, or at least promoting, passionate engagement, Dale Dougherty raised the question of whether I was assuming that, say, farmers in developing countries weren't passionate about their work, or were less passionate than, say, hackers in more developed countries ... and I guess I was. He then noted that people often find a way to connect with (and through?) their work, and I agree that jobs often "grow" on people. Dan Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, observed the human brain's penchant for I might call pervasive postrationalization, i.e., being able to rationalize all choices and actions after the fact(s). This is all well and good, but I'm not sure that rationalization is a Good Thing ... or that all things that grow on (or in) people are positive.

BJ Fogg shared his experience with a summer job dealing with medical records on microfiche. The co-workers for whom this type of job was their career spent most of their time talking about upcoming or past trips (typically to Vegas), suggesting that their passions were pursued in other places. He also noted Rick Warren's passion for (and book on) the Purpose Driven Life, whose success in igniting passion in others is [becoming] legendary, as it feeds many (most?) people's desire to have a mission in life ... though I've recently started questioning grand Missions and Purposes, and opening to the possibility of living without a Goal.

Gina Trapani observed that passion is something you do because you can't not do it, and suggested that sometimes (often?), the association of a paycheck with a pursuit tends to diminish the passion ... highlighting the tension between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations ... and leading me to ponder what proportion of Foo Campers derive their income from anything resembling a regular paycheck. She also mentioned a documentary, Riding Giants, that chronicles, among other things, a kind of post-partum depression that often sets in after a big-wave surfers achieve a peak experience (not unlike some of her feelings after finishing a writing or programming project), highlighting the darker side of pursuing passion ... and setting us on a course in which my conviction on the primacy of passion started unraveling ...

Rich Gibson (who offered the coolest, and perhaps most apt, affiliation description I heard at Foo Camp: "unfunded thinktank") chimed in on the notion that passion is not necessarily a good thing, suggesting that sometimes it’s like an affliction we have. BJ noted the high or buzz that often accompanies peaks of passion, raising the question of whether passion is [like] an addiction. Dale likened it more to the flow state, which includes a very high level of engagement, rather than an addiction or affliction (per se) ... but it was too late (for me) ... I was already starting to question the Goodness of passion.

At this point, I decided to look up the definition of passion in Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: pas·sion
Pronunciation: 'pa-sh&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin passion-, passio suffering, being acted upon, from Latin pati to suffer  -- more at PATIENT
1 often capitalized a : the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death b : an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
2 obsolete : SUFFERING
3 : the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces
4 a (1) : EMOTION   <his ruling passion is greed>  (2)  plural : the emotions as distinguished from reason b : intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction c : an outbreak of anger
5 a : ardent affection  : LOVE b : a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept c : sexual desire d : an object of desire or deep interest
- pas·sion·less   /-l&s/ adjective
synonyms PASSION, FERVOR, ARDOR, ENTHUSIASM, ZEAL mean intense emotion compelling action. PASSION applies to an emotion that is deeply stirring or ungovernable   <was a slave to his passions>. FERVOR implies a warm and steady emotion   <read the poem aloud with great fervor>. ARDOR suggests warm and excited feeling likely to be fitful or short-lived   <the ardor of their honeymoon soon faded>. ENTHUSIASM applies to lively or eager interest in or admiration for a proposal, cause, or activity   <never showed much enthusiasm for sports>. ZEAL implies energetic and unflagging pursuit of an aim or devotion to a cause   <preaches with fanatical zeal>. synonym see in addition FEELING

This reminded me of some earlier thoughts about work, play and suffering, and prompted me to wonder aloud about whether passion is a Good Thing that I / we ought to wish on anyone else.

Beth Kolko -- who is studying how independent people use social networks to provide support for their passions (or at least, professions) outside of an institutional context (during her 18-month sabbatical (in which she is free to pursue her passions)) -- wryly noted that it really doesn't matter whether it is good or bad, that since having a passion for something means you can't not do it, I (we?) don't really have a choice.