I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb

We are all interconnected and we have responsibility for each other.

I_Am_Because_We_Are_coverThis is the interpretation of the Swahili word, ubuntu, offered near the start of a short, inspiring interview with photographer Betty Press by NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host, Audie Cornish two weeks ago. The interview focused on the incredible photographs celebrating the lives of people in Africa compiled over a 20-year period in a new book by Press, I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. The NPR web page for the segment, A Photographer Changes The Focus In Africa, includes a selection of 7 of the 125 black and white photographs from the book. The images are striking, but given that this was a radio interview - on NPR, no less - I was a bit disappointed that, with the exception of the quote above, the proverbial dimension of African Wisdom was largely omitted from the segment ... and, well, talking about photographs is like writing about music ... which, of course, is like dancing about architecture.

ubuntu_logoAlthough I have never been there, I have been interested in Africa since inadvertently becoming an unofficial spokesperson for Nokia's efforts to empower people in developing regions with mobile technologies at PopTech 2007 (and several subsequent events). And as a technology guy, I have long interpreted ubuntu as a reference to a Debian-derived version of the open-source Linux operating system. I was intrigued, though not entirely surprised, to discover the origin of the term, which does seem well-aligned with the philosophy embodied by this evolving software artifact. So after learning more about the broader - and deeper - interpretation of ubuntu from Betty Press, my appetite was whetted for more examples of proverbial African wisdom to be revealed during the course of the interview.

Unfortunately, there were no further examples of proverbs offered on NPR - during the interview or on its associated web page - and while the book's web site offers a gallery that include additional photos, there are no examples of the proverbs in the book ... although the its proverbial aspects are highlighted in the following endorsement by Joanne Veal Gabbin on the main page:

A wise one said Proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten. Proverbs, like poems, are concise, loaded with metaphors, wisdom, nuance, and the rhythms of life…

At $39.95, this is not an inexpensive book (well, at least, not in my book), and I wasn't sure I wanted to make the investment. As much as I am moved by visual images, words are my primary source of inspiration. The book cover says "Proverbs compiled by Annetta Miller", and so I don't know if the division of labor is, in part, responsible for the primacy of images vs. words in nearly all the marketing materials (I cannot find a web page for Ms. Miller, but her bio suggests she has been involved in compiling other collections of African wisdom).

Having purchased and now received a copy of the book, I can attest to the captivating imagery contained in the photographs. Many of the proverbs of the book reflect wisdom that I've encountered in proverbs arising in American, European and/or Asian cultures - perhaps reflecting the universal nature of many of the most meaningful insights and experiences we share as human beings - but a few stood out as particularly poignant pronouncements of perspicacity. I wanted to help compensate for what I see as a deficit of attention to the proverbial wisdom in the book by sharing a few of my favorites:

The world is a mirror; it looks at you the same way you look at it. [North African proverb]

Our children are living messages sent to a future we may never see. [Nigerian proverb]

What you help a child to love is more important than what you help her to learn. [Sengalese proverb]

If you educate a man you educate an invdividual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation). [Ghanaian proverb]

If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance. [Zimbabwean proverb]

These last two are especially resonant, after having recently attended a David Whyte poetry reading, in which he and representatives of a local organization, Young Women Empowered, shared some proverbial wisdom about the importance of empowering [young] women and for the need for all humans to courageously speak out in the world. Whyte also spoke of embracing different forms of beauty, and the images and words in I Am Because We Are are a powerful illustration of beautiful forms that arise in the people and places of Africa.

Pop!Tech 2007: An Expanded Vocabulary (and Perspective)

Poptechlogo_94px_3 OK, in my last entry on Pop!Tech, I wrote that I would only be posting one more “highlights” entry … but I just had to include one more … in part because I am afraid that however much I might condense my 47 pages of notes (in a Word document), no one will ever have the stamina to read my “detailed” posts – I’m not even sure I’ll have the stamina to compost* them [*compost = compose & post] – especially given the amazing wealth of information and insights offered in the stream of blog posts Ethan Zuckerman wrote during the conference itself (how does he do that?!)  … and also, in part, because I bought a spare battery for my MacBook – a device used by what I estimate to be 75% of the Pop!Tech population – before the trip, so I have some more laptop time on this flight, and I’m so pumped – activated, perhaps – after the conference, I just can’t bring myself to relax and watch the Harry Potter movie.

So, anyway, I’m going to expend a little more battery power and spend one more post with just a quick list of some of the new terms and concepts that jumped out at me throughout the event (modeled loosely on's Statistically Improbable Phrase feature). Note that these are not intended as a summary of the talks, just some semi-random sparks of surprise intermingled with some terms and concepts that stick out for me.

[Update: in case I never get around to fully composting my own notes, I've decided to add a few more notes to some of the items below - making for quite the rambling rumination - and simply link to Ethan Zuckerman's posts about each of the presenters.]

  • Consumerism at scale (Chris Jordan, artist)
  • Cities as consensual hallucinations (Christian Nold, University College London)
  • The powerful motivating force of a full body experience in seeing an inspiring presentation (which she, perhaps unwittingly, was passing on to me, and perhaps others); "Who am I? A middle-class white girl from Pittsburgh. What can I do?" (Jessica Flannery, co-founder of
  • Affordability is not an economic problem, it’s an engineering and design problem; three key features of the design revolution: affordability, divisibility, expandability; with business as usual, the UN Millennium Goals on hunger and poverty will never be reached, e.g., progress on reducing the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than $1/day over ten years: 44.6% → 44%
    (Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises & D-rev)
  • Making manufacturing like agriculture (Adrian Bowyer, RepRap)
  • When relationships are ambiguous, divergent understanding can be costly; hence indirect speech acts, e.g., “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome”; any maitre 'd can be bribed (Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought)
  • The double tsunami of estrogen & progesterone each month creates 25% fluctuations in brain symapses in teen girl brains; depression is twice as likely in girls as boys after after onset of puberty; the brain area associated with sexual pursuit is 2 - 2.5 times larger in human males then females, even at 8 weeks in the womb (Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain)
  • Right brain aspects are a more fundamental part of what makes us human; democratization of self-realization; three key aspects of modern economies are abundance, Asia and automation; a good speech always has 3 key elements: brevity, levity and repetition; a picture is worth a thousand words, but a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures (Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind)
  • Any life form – human or robotic – must feel and convey emotions, become aware of itself and its environment, and learn and develop over time (Caleb Chung, creator of Pleo)
  • Harvesting power from ambient radio frequency signals (John Shearer, “creative instigator” behind Powercast)
  • What can we do right now with what we already have? create a portable light source that is simple, reliable, durable, lightweight, adaptable, self-sufficient, self-contained and shippable; Challenge: can a project like portable light allow us to look at the cellphone in an entirely new way (Sheila Kennedy, Portable Light)
  • Four features of a potential threat required for our brain to detect them: Personal, Abrupt, Immoral & Now (PAIN); global warming is a threat because it fails to raise the brain’s alarms (Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness)
  • I’m on speaking terms with my inner tortoise; speed yoga, drive-thru funeral; 1-minute bedtime stories (Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness)
  • Contextual storytelling platforms; most audacious (& participatory) experiment at Pop!Tech: show photos and captions, evoke stories from audience (Jonathan Harris, artist & designer)
  • A young girl in South Africa is more likely to be raped than she is likely to learn to read; “There is no evidence HIV is the cause of AIDS” President Thabo Mbeki (2000); literacy & training guidelines don’t connect to reality; prevention messages have no cultural relevance; well-intentioned donors often provide solutions no one wants; 40% of HIV+ patients stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) drugs within 2 years (Zinhle Thabethe & Krista Dong, iTEACH Program) [side note: I find it ironic that Zinhle's talk at last year's Pop!Tech was entitled "We are not the same", given that the dissimilarities in perspectives and approaches expressed in Zinhle and Krista's presentation and those expressed in the following presentation in the session, by Jeff and Paul, were striking]
    [Wow! Katrin Verclas has posted a video interview - taken with a Nokia N95 - on, wherein Zinhle and Krista describe the challenges they face ... and how mobile phones might offer innovative and effective solutions. I'll include a syndicated copy at the bottom. Thanks, Katrin!]
  • How can we understand why people are behaving in ways that will lead to their death? Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Model of Health Behavior; [side note: Louann Brezidine asked a question about why power was not a part of the equation]; using interactive technology to promote HIV treatment adherence (Jeff Fisher & Paul Shuber, University of Connecticut Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention)
  • There are 120,000 kinds of rice, but only 400 breeds of dog; climate change and food security:
    2-3 C degree increase is predicted for 2070-2100 vs. 1900-2000 (Cary Fowler, Global Crop Diversity Trust)
  • One out of 5 Africans is Nigerian; Nigerian satellites will provide tele-everything, e.g., tele-medicine, tele-education, etc. (Robert Boroffice, Nigerian Space Agency)
  • 45% of global oil has already been consumed; 90% of oil is consumed for transportation; how long can mobility = freedom? China’s one-child policy will leave 40M men with no potential wives by 2050 (Chris Luebkeman, Drivers Of Change)
  • Oceans comprise 99% of the earth, from a 3D perspective; "we've declared war on the fish, and we've won"; sharks have declined 95% in 10 years in Northeast Atlantic and will become extinct in our lifetime; bottom trawling removes 98% of the coral on the ocean floor; "Fatality is the sum of our dismissals" (Claire Nouvian, BLOOM Association)
  • The sea has an inverted food pyramid compared to land animals (Eric Sala, UCSD)
  • There are no more groundfish – or ground fishermen – between Camden and Canada (Ted Ames, Local Fisheries Knowledge project)
  • The skin is a human sensory homunculus; nurturing (touch and warmth) is more important than nourishment (milk) to baby monkeys; humans are self-decorating apes who have been highlighting features, especially those that are sexually attractive, for over 5000 years; stripped of our skin, we really are all alike (Nina Jablonski, author of Skin: A Natural History)
  • Anyone can fly - it all depends on how you define the temporality; being lost is really where it’s at; anthropology of the stunt; de-familiarization; trying to bring the turbulence of the world inside (Elizabeth Streb, Extreme Action Activist)
  • Living a skater ethos with a representational disability, representation of projected narrative, disability-based utilitarianism, counter-transference, peripheral fluctuation, inverse peripheral fluctuation; underlying sociology of public space (Bill Shannon, extreme laid-back skater, choreographer and dancer)
  • Founded first not-for-profit pharmaceutical company in the US; developing drugs for invisible, voiceless people; created a drug to treat Kala-azur, which kills 1M invisible, voiceless people a year, that costs $10 vs. $300; a proof of concept that we can use the world’s most advanced technologies to benefit humanity; how you work is just as important as what you do; the how will determine the magnitude of your impact; we can only break silos by putting yourself in places you’re so uncomfortable you can barely stand it; If you know more can be done, how can you not do it? You have to begin with very human actions, if you want to end with a very human impact (Victoria Hale, Institute for OneWorld Health)
  • Synthetic biology, open-source biology, radical affordability, radical social change; 1-3M people die every year of Malaria; 90% are children; 300-500M are currently infected; malaria reduces GDP of afflicted countries by up 50% (Jay Keasling, Keasling Laboratory / Amyris Biotechnologies)
  • If you want to find and follow your passions, you have to take some risks at some point (John Legend, musician, Show Me Campaign)
  • Islam hasn’t changed; what has changed is that it has become visible in the west (John Esposito, Georgetown University) [side note: Ethan posted a single entry about the moderator and the following three speakers in this session]
  • In the Arab world, you can say anything you want about the Arab world, just not about your own country; Google Earth is banned in Bahrain, after it showed that 60-70% of the land in Bahrain is controlled by the King; it is also banned in Tunisia, after it revealed the locations of secret prisons  (Daoud Kuttab, Arab Media Internet Network)
  • I’ve spent half my life as a non-Muslim, half my life as a Muslim: I’m part of the “we” for both halves; things done in the name of democracy – not in my name; things done in the name of Islam – not in my name (Sarah Joseph, Emel magazine)
  • On July 11, 1995, 80,000 Muslims were killed in one day; we understand better than anyone in the world what it means to be under attack by terrorists; you have a surplus in technology products, we have a surplus in spiritual products, so we should do an exchange; biggest problem is Max Weber’s concept of charisma - "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities"; let us fight for the Holy Peace, not the Holy War (Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia)
  • The key to confronting terrorism is to prevent failed states, by increasing health care, reducing poverty and instituting the rule of law (Charles Swift, former USN Lt. Cmdr who sued his commander-in-chief and won the acquittal of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver)
  • Women are bellwethers for the health of society; war has two sides, the front line, dominated by men, guns, tanks, etc., and the backline, the purview of women trying to keep life going in the midst of war; the Iraq war is like waking someone up after a coma after 35 years, and asking them what kind of democracy do you want to have (vs. what do you want to eat)? in 1994, 500,000 women were raped in 100 days in Rwanda, which now has a legislature with 49% women (Zainab Salbi, Women for Women International)
  • Green jobs, not jails; green-collared jobs; fight poverty and pollution at the same time; Is this new green wave going to lift all boats, or are we going to have eco-apartheid? Is there a way to connect the work that most needs doing with the people who most need work? (Van Jones, Green For All)
  • What sets Americans apart from the rest of the world is their frequent use of “sorry” and “thank you” (Mustafa Ceric, over lunch)
  • Thank you. I’m sorry for what we’re doing in Iraq (what I wish I’d said, over lunch)

Throughout the conference, I was repeatedly reminded of two books I’ve read – and blogged about – Blessed Unrest and Stumbling on Happiness. Many aspects of Paul Hawken’s insights into the problems of environmental, social, economic and political justice – and the mostly small, local solutions to them – were broadened and/or deepened by several of the speakers. Many of the insights offered by Dan Gilbert - who was at the conference - into how and why we remember the past and project it into the future help illuminate the challenges we face – individually and collectively – in achieving positive human impact. Both of these books, along with The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, would provide very helpful background material for anyone wanting to better understand issues raised throughout the conference.


I'm going to [re-]close this post with a Rumi poem shared by Zainab Salbi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.

One more thing: here's the syndicated copy of Katrin Verclas' video interview of Zinhle Thabethe and Krista Dong (from I mentioned above:

Universal, Empowerment, Partnership (Pop!Tech 2007 pre-conference session)

Poptechlogo_94px Michele Bowman, the host for our Pop!Tech pre-conference Wednesday afternoon session on "The Future of Mobility", started off the session by inviting each of the 40 attendees - and the three panelists -  to introduce themselves by stating their names followed by up to three words (a "three word introduction" of sorts). It was a nice balance of inviting a small amount of initial participation from a large number of people right at the outset, and the words people chose were illuminating (and often rather humorous: I remember "jetlagged" as being among the most frequently used terms). Anyhow, my three words were "universal, empowerment, partnership" ... primarily because they seemed to be the themes that were most prevalent in [my conception of] the short talk I was giving there on "Empowering People through Mobile Technologies in Developing Regions".

Katrin Verclas, of, was the first speaker, and she provided a broad overview of the ways that mobile technologies are being used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to empower people in developing regions to achieve greater political, social, economic and/or environmental justice - a sort of mobile window into some of the types of activities that Paul Hawken champions in his book Blessed Unrest (and catalogs at Nathan Eagle, a Research Scientist from MIT who has visiting appointments at a number of African universities, talked about his Entrepreneurial Programming and Research On Mobiles (EPROM) initiative, in which he is teaching computer science students in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia how to program mobile phones - the only computing platform many of them (and their friends and families) are likely to have access to, emphasizing the indigenous entrepreneurial (vs. non-profit) prospects for mobile technologies for empowering people in developing regions.

I attempted to bridge the gap between the NGO and entrepreneurial / academic approaches represented by Katrin and Nathan, presenting a whirlwind overview of some of the ways that Nokia has been facilitating empowerment - through partnerships and provisioning of assistance in the form of Nokia devices (e.g., phones and networking equipment) and the involvement Nokia people with ethnography, design, engineering and other sociotechnical skills - in developing regions around the world. A recurring theme in all of our work is partnership - with NGOs, governmental organizations, multinational companies, local entrepreneurs, and, of course, professors (such as Nathan) and students from a variety of academic institutions.

[Katrin, Nathan and I have posted our slides on Slideshare (tag: poptech2007), and I hope Nathan will upload his there once he's done with his current round of travels. Katrin has also posted an entry on the session at I'll embed mine below.]

As I'd noted in my blog post on Blessed Unrest, I was excited about the opportunity to present - especially at a venue like Pop!Tech, and along with speakers like Katrin and Nathan who have done so much in this area - and yet I was feeling a bit self-conscious that I haven't [yet] done much more than talk and/or write about the challenges faced by people in developing regions, and the other people who are rising to help meet those challenges (fortunately, including a number of other people at Nokia, for whom I was simply serving as a spokesperson). I'm hoping that by continuing to follow this relatively new personal opening to opportunities for empowering people in developing regions (catalyzed by a number of sessions on Africa at Foo Camp this summer), I'll eventually be in a position to do more than talk and write about these opportunities.

Yesterday, the first full day of Pop!Tech, was filled with inspiring speakers and stories of people who are empowering people in the developing world (about which I'll post more in a separate entry). It was so inspiring, in fact, that I decided to cancel my plans to leave early and attend another conference, which is more relevant to my current focus of research (similar to the gravity pull toward a session on Africa I felt at the Communities and Technologies 2007 conference). Today promises more inspiring talks as well ... it may take me a while to properly (or even improperly) digest them, but I'll post more in the near future.

[Full disclosure: Nokia (my employer) was a sponsor of the conference, providing financial support for the conference, giving away N95 mobile phones to conference speakers and attendees of this session, making another set of N95s available as “loaners”, offering a special channel on our recently released MOSH mobile content sharing web service for the conference, and encouraging people to use the N95s to conduct "The Nokia Interview" – videotaping another participant answering one of a set of suggested suggestions, or discussing any other topic of interest or relevance to the Pop!Tech community.]

Communities & Technologies Conference (C&T 2007): Socializing and Sociologizing on the Web

The 3rd International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2007) – or cct2007, on Flickr and Slideshare – was held at Michigan State University two weeks ago. [Update: proceedings are now online.] Among the high order bits for me were the growing trend in analyzing data from normal use of large-scale social networking services (vs. designing and testing much smaller but more specialized and heavily instrumented systems used in contrived tasks), the [at times] painful recognition that I’m not really a social scientist (and probably can’t even play one on TV), and further confirmation that Africa is the new black.

Marc Smith (Microsoft Research) opened the conference with a Thursday evening keynote, signaling (and providing evidence) that the Internet is a sociologist’s playground, reviewing some of the work that he and his colleagues at the Community Technologies group have done over the years. Marc claimed that the collection of thread-o-spheres (e.g., postings on Usenet) was [still] much larger than the blogosphere, which may be true (I did not write down the number of Usenet postings Marc provided), but his estimate of 2 million active blogs contrasts sharply with figures from Technorati in the most recent State of the Live Web report, which puts that number at 70 million, growing at 120,000 per day, and generating 1.5 million posts per day. He showed some cool visualizations of newsgroup participation developed in the Netscan project, which help to graphically differentiate among answer people, question people and flame warriors, and discussed aspects of the AURA project, which uses a Windows Mobile device to scan and digitally annotate objects in the physical world.

I always enjoy Marc’s talks, and, as usual, he contributed to the expansion of my Amazon wish list, recommending books I [now] want to read, such as The Evolution of Cooperation (Robert Axelrod), Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Actions (Elinor Ostrom); I feel like I’m making progress, though, in that I’m currently reading one of the books he recommended – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman) – and  another – The Hidden Dimension (Edwin Hall) – was already on my list. Interestingly, when he asked how many in the audience had Windows Mobile phones – offering free lens attachments for them to use AURA – only a handful of people raised their hands … and I would estimate the proportion of Windows PCs (vs. Macs) I saw at the conference to be at most 25% (of course with all the fashion[able] signaling on, through and about iPhones, Microsoft clearly isn’t the only technology company whose dominance is being challenged by Apple).

Friday morning opened with another engaging keynote, this time by Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda and Jeff "Hemos" Bates, co-founders of Slashdot, on The Life, Times and Tribulations of Slashdot. Rob talks really fast, which reflects his programming style (I’m not a good programmer, but I’m a fast programmer … demonstrated, in part, by his complete rewrite of the system using mod_perl and MySQL – which he strongly prefers over Postgres – over a period of 10 days in 1999), and so he and Jeff covered a lot of ground (10 years) in a short period (1 hour). Their shared Midwest ethic (or Dutch frugality) was evident in the burn rate they described to prospective investors in 1999 – we need to eat and pay rent – and Rob’s gloat quote my day job is cooler than yours highlights important distinctions between the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations that often differentiate entrepreneurs from employees. Other irreverent and notable quotes include all web statistics are lies, all the real work [in advertising] is done by people who have no idea what they’re doing, Twitter is the Rubik’s Cube of Web 2.0 and give people numbers and they turn it into a game (reflecting other observations about the pervasiveness of games). In the latter context, they noted that all users are playing to win – whether their intentions are positive or negative – so it’s important to know their motivations and resources, and figure out the best tools to channel their energies. Noting that tiny minorities (1-2%) can manipulate a large, heterogeneous group rather easily, they defended their form of representative democracy (via karma) as a way to avoid lowest common denomination, and argued that radical transparency is not always a Good Thing. In addition to learning about their insights and experiences, I also added a number of terms to my vocabulary - webhead diversification, master-master replication, Daddypants systems of moderation, crapflooding and karma whoring - and I will strive to eliminate the use of using "here" as anchor text in all future blog posts.

Nicole Elison presented "Deceptive Self-Presentation in Online Dating Profiles", [the paper in the online proceedings is titled "Small, Strategic and Frequent: The True Extent and Nature of Misrepresentation in Online Dating Profiles"] detailing an experiment in which participants in an online dating service were interviewed and measured to determine how well their cyberspace profiles matched their meatspace selves. Given that [heterosexual] women tend to prefer tall, wealthy men and [heterosexual] men tend to prefer young, slender women, they expected to find discrepancies that matched these idealized profiles. They did find some evidence for the hypothesized deception strategy of frequent, subtle and strategically placed lies, claiming that men were more likely to lie about their height and socioeconomic status, and women were more likely to lie about their weight (but not their age) … although a questioner from the audience claimed that people tend to end each day about one inch shorter than they start each day, and suggested that the threshold (0.5) applied for lying about height may be too narrow.

Meg Cramer (Northwestern University), in her talk on Everything in Moderation: The Effects of Adult Moderators in Online Youth Communities, noted that parents, teachers and other authorities often express concerns about youth at risk (of at least being un[der]productive) in the ways in which they spend their time online, and conducted experiments with the  Junior Summit online community to see how different levels of adult moderation (low, medium, high) affected participation in the community. She and her colleagues discovered that higher levels of adult moderation correlated with smaller numbers of generally more respectful messages. I suspect that adult moderation in a broader online community, such as MySpace, would have a similar effect … in part due to what I expect would be a mass exodus of the participants. Given Robert Epstein’s recent [controversial] book, The Case Against Adolescence, it would be interesting to investigate any differences in the effects of adult supervision on youth communities vs. adult mature non-youth other, less demographically-focused communities (which, given Marc Smith’s earlier talk, often include people who regularly engage in rather sophomoric behavior).

Moira Burke (CMU) investigated the influence of styles of expressions in her presentation on Introductions and Requests: Rhetorical Strategies that Elicit Response in Online Communities. In a series of studies, she and her colleagues found evidence that the use of I statements and asking [very specifically] for what you want were more likely to elicit responses to introductions and questions than other styles of expression in online communities (confirming the wisdom of communication strategies modeled in [my experience of] twelve-step programs and the Mankind Project). She has been applying these findings in the development of an application that will offer feedback to a prospective poster on the likelihood that a message being composed will receive a response; I think such a tool for pre-screening email messages could provide a huge boost to productivity in the workplace.

Scott Golder (HP Labs) and his colleagues looked at Rhythms of Social Interaction: Messaging within a Massive Online Network, analyzing usage patterns among 4.2 million Facebook users from 500 schools who exchanged 284 million messages and 709 million pokes over a 26 month period. Given the transitory nature of the college experience, they investigated both friendship and communication patterns among the users, or more specifically – noting the small overlap between Facebook friends and friends one might invite to one’s wedding – Facebook friending patterns and messaging patterns. Friending patterns seem to be close to the magic Dunbar number of 150 (median: 144; mean: 179), although friend whoring leads to some extreme cases, e.g., 11 users have more than 10,000 friends. Messaging within Facebook was less prevalent than friending, with a mean of 77 messages per user among the sample group. Only 15% of friends exchange messages through Facebook, although 90% of the overall message traffic occurs between friends, and very little of this traffic occurs in the mornings. This research adds to other quantitative studies done by the researchers at MSU and elsewhere; I hope that we will see some complementary qualitative studies to help us better understand the intentions and experiences of [small samples of] Facebook users … er, preferably, more active users than this user. [Oops, this may be a near violation of my vow not to use "here" as an anchor text...]

Anatoliy Gruzd (UIUC) presented "A Noun Phrase Analysis Tool for Mining Online Community Conversations", which, unlike many open source NLP toolkits (NLTK, LingPipe, MII NLP Toolkit or OpenNLP), does not require much knowledge of computational linguistics or programming expertise. After motivating the importance of developing automated mechanisms to make sense of the exponentially increasing amount of digital information – 70% of which will be user-generated, and most of it will be text-based (according to an IDC report) – Anatoliy demonstrated the Internet Community Text Analyzer tool to annotate sample texts on the web, to bootstrap a machine learning system, that can be used to extract representative excerpts (noun phrases) from other web documents. It’s been a long time since I’ve dabbled in natural language processing, machine learning and information extraction; but even then, noun phrase extraction was one of the few areas in which semi-automated systems could achieve high performance. It will be interesting to see whether / how such methods can help users deal with user-generated information overload.

Karsten Wolf (U. Bremen) explored highly, er, engaged players of World of Warcraft in his talk with the strategically question marked title "Communities of Practice in MMORPGs: An Entry Point into Addiction?" World of Warcraft currently has 8 million subscribers, nearly 10% (!) of whom are, on average, online at any given time. Analysis of 1102 responses to a survey of German players (93% of whom were men) revealed a variety of goals and aspirations for playing WoW. Those who aspire to community tend to find it, often while playing fewer hours per week then the hard core gamers, who tended to aspire to knowledge and/or reputation, and they also tend to find what they are looking for, but tend to play longer (and longer) and are [thus] more prone to develop symptoms of addiction (loss of control, withdrawal, [obsessive] mental focus, tolerance, negative consequences for work performance, negative consequences for social life) … they also have a lower tolerance for lurkers. He concluded that WoW appears to be designed to be played 40+ hours per week (I’m not sure whether he would claim it was designed for addiction (perhaps all games are)). Reflecting on some recent thoughts and discussions about passion and addiction, in which I started questioning whether passion is [always] a Good thing, I’m wondering whether addiction is always a Bad thing … and wondering how many Great things were accomplished without a level of engagement that might be viewed [by some] as an addiction.

The last event of the day was a panel on "Connected Lives: ICTs in Everyday Life" composed of Barry Wellman and some of his current and former students. It diverged considerably from my own conception of a panel, which typically includes a variety of people with divergent backgrounds and views. This group was looking at a variety of phenomena relating to online community, but there was not much divergence. I’ll just mention a bit about the people and the high order bits I took away. Bernie Hogan talked about Internet use differences between rural and urban populations (major difference is that rural folks use the Internet less for work); Anabel Quan-Haase explored  the differences between local and distant social ties among students (I remember wondering about how Skype has affected this); Helen Wang presented some results from the World Internet Project sponsored by the Center for Digital Future, concluding that using the Internet has virtually no negative effects on personal relationships (my wife may dispute that claim, given her husband’s addiction devotion to blogging, her daughter’s devotion to MySpace and her son’s dvotion to Runescape).

Saturday began with a presentation by Matthew Wong and Andrew Clement (University of Toronto) on Sharing Wireless Internet in Urban Neighbourhoods. Near the outset, the audience was asked who had ever opened up their laptop looking for an open wireless access point, hoping to connect to the Internet, and nearly everyone raised their hand. I was so eager to find out how many in the audience opened up their access points to others, I nearly shouted out the question myself, but I behaved (but still wonder how many hands would have stayed up). A short time later, I received partial satisfaction: a survey reported in the paper (and presentation) revealed that 65% of respondents who use other people’s signals (access points) without permission feel little guilt, whereas 55% of respondents feel at least a little angry about people using their signals without permission. I'm not sure exactly how to calculate the hypocrisy quotient in this data, but it would have been fun to find out how it compared to the hypocrisy quotient among the attendees of the conference. Fears over open WiFi  are widespread, at least in the press, and I think it would be interesting to investigate regional differences (the survey was of Toronto residents, and I was reminded of Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, in which he discovered that a large proportion of residents in Toronto do not lock their front doors).

[Judith Donath gave such an inspiring keynote in the next session that I'm going to post a separate blog entry about it. [Update: I've posted my notes on Judith's talk about signals, truth & design.]]

Anita Blanchard (UNC, Charlotte) presented "Technology and Community Behavior in Online Environments: A Work in Progress", in which she and her colleague are studying the correlation between technical features of four different online communities devoted to parenting (BabyCenter, CharlotteMommies, Phantom Scribbler and AskDrSears) and the participant behaviors and outcomes observed in those communities. She offered some engaging examples of the ways that participants present themselves in those communities - via usernames and/or signatures - and how those presentations of selves change over time, e.g., "X’s mommy" (substitute children's names for X), imakemilkwhatsyoursuperpower (my favorite), humanoven (pregnant woman), newmommy, mothersuperior, queenmother. I don't remember if they had reached any conclusions about technical features and behaviors and outcomes, but I wonder whether / how causality will be determined, i.e., do the behaviors and outcomes emerge because of the technical features, or do people choose communities with certain technical features because they desire certain behaviors and outcomes? In any case, I'll look forward to future reports on this work.

The last parallel paper session represented a dilemma for me: one track, on Social Networks, Communities, and Technologies, was very closely related to my current research; the other track, on Communities, Technologies and Bridging Social and Economic Divides, was more closely related to my inexplicable but inexhorably increasing interest in Africa ... and so [of course] I chose the latter.

Liezl Lambrecht Coetzee (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa) started the session with a spirited presentation on "World Wide Webs: Crossing the Digital Divide through Promotion of Public Access" [slides], in which she noted that the Web transcends territorial boundaries, but not economic and class boundaries: North America has 5% of the world's population, but 60% of the world's Internet users; Africa has 14% of the world's population, but only 3% of the world's Interet users (other gaps were also highlighted). Liezl reviewed the progress of the Cape Access Project, begun in July 2002, installing 36 computers in 6 public librarires, and expanded to all 98 libaries in 2006. The 100,000 users (restricted to 45 minutes / day quotas) use the computers to access information, create businesses, find jobs, communicate with relatives/friends, connect with global networks (especially women seeking out battered woman organizations) and provide public input through online surveys. After enumerating the 12 primary factors influencing real access (which involve political, economic and social dimensions at least as much, if not more than, technical issues), she ended with highlights from the Smart Cape Story competition; one of the stories, entitled Dreams are good things, included a segment where the storyteller reported I can now give expression to so much of what is within me. This was a goosebump moment for me, bringing to mind (and heart) some earlier ruminations on unfolding radiance, and helped me begin to unravel the mysterious pull Africa has on me. A Nokia phone was offered as a prize to the winner of the competition, providing yet another inkling that Nokia is a natural benefactor - and beneficiary - of helping to develop the developing world.

Venkata Ratnadeep Suri (Indiana University) talked about "Lateral Connectivity in Development Projects: Correcting the Long-Distance Bias", questioning the conventional wisdom - a metropolitan or long distance bias - that the best use of connectivity for rural environments is to link them with urban areas, and arguing instead for a Prioritization of the Lateral, in which rural autonomy can be preserved by pooling lateral resources to create regional commonwealth. Ratnadeep presented three case studies offering examples of lateral connectivity: Nemonet, connecting 7 rural schools in Missouri; Chancay-Huaral Agricultural Information Network, connecting 17 water management boards in Chancay Huaral Valley of Peru (also mentioned in a BBC report and Howard Rheingold's article on Farmers, Phones and Markets: Mobile Technology In Rural Development) and the Tanami Network, a video satellite telecom network connecting four remote Warlpiri Aborigine provinces to support daily activities such as rituals, ceremonies and classes.

Kylie Peppler (UCLA) shared experiences with High Tech Programmers in Low-income Communities: Creating a Computer Culture in a Community Technology Center, highlighting the use and impacts of the new media-rich programming language and environment, Scratch (that, synchronistically, my colleague Pertti Huuskonen had shown me just before I left for the conference). Scratch was adding a new dimension to promoting the goal of technology fluency as expressed by the National Research Council -  the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate information (rather than simply to comprehend it)" - in a computer clubhouse in South Los Angeles. One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation (for me) was the notion of "mentor as muse": 36 liberal arts majors / education minors (27 female, 9 male) were assigned as mentors to the [younger] students in the clubhouse, and adopted the strategy of in which the roles of mentor and mentee shifted rather fluidly, with the clubhouse members mentoring the mentors, demonstrating the value of a listen and participate (vs. command and control) paradigm in learning (and life).

The conference concluded with yet another panel that didn't seem like a panel, offering a whirlwind tour of lots of projects on collecting and analyzing lots of data. Among the projects covered were the Internet Archive, SIDGrid, the National Science Foundation's Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI) Initiative, the Structure of Population, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH), the Genetic Association Information Network (GAIN), and perhaps others - I was already suffering from information (and inspiration) overload (and perhaps discontinuous partial inattention) at that point, and so my notes are rather sketchy. In any case, it looks like there will be plenty more data for socializing and sociologizing about at future Communities & Technologies conferences.

[John Kuner has also posted some interesting notes from the conference]

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.]