Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are We Still Here?

Last week in Maine, at PopTech's annual thinkfest, America Reimagined, writer Anthony Doerr read aloud an essay he wrote for the January/February 2009 issue of Orion Magazine called Am I Still Here?—about our always-on, Web-centric world. Neither too sentimental nor apocalyptic, it's a pitch-perfect reflection of this moment in our culture; Doerr got a standing ovation.

[Go ahead. Take the five minutes away from your BlackBerry to read it. Guaranteed it will free up some time for you later.] Here's the text of it, from his reading:

I HARBOR A DARK TWIN INSIDE. He’s a sun-starved, ropy bastard and he lives somewhere north of my heart. Every day he gets a little stronger. He’s a weed, he’s a creeper; he’s a series of thickening wires inside my skull.

Call him Z. I like weather; Z survives in spite of it. I like skiing; Z likes surfing the web. I like looking at trees; Z likes reading news feeds. I pull weeds in the garden; Z whispers in my ear about climate change, nuclear proliferation, ballooning health-insurance premiums.

Last week I flew into central Idaho on a ten-seat Britten-Norman Islander to spend five days in the wilderness. The plane’s engines throbbed exactly like a heartbeat. The sky was a depthless blue. Little white clouds were reefed on the horizon. Slowly, steadily, the airplane pulled us farther and farther from the gravel airstrip where we started, over the Tangled Mountains and the Tangled Lakes, big aquamarine lozenges gleaming in basins, flanked by huge, shattered faces of granite, a hundred miles from anything, and the ridgelines scrolling beneath my window were steadily lulling me into an intoxication, a daze—the splendor of all this!—and then Z tapped me (metaphorically) on the (metaphorical) shoulder.

Hey, he said. You haven’t checked your e-mail today.

“I THINK,” Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking,” “that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Ha! Four hours! Clearly Thoreau did not own a BlackBerry.

Yesterday—and this is embarrassing—I checked my e-mail before leaving for work and after I got to work, and I checked it every now and then during the day at work, and, after bicycling home from work, a total distance of two miles, I checked my e-mail again. Just in case a few e-mails flew over my head through the rain while I pedaled home.

It’s disconcerting, it’s shameful. I tell myself: e-mail is work-related. E-mail is work-related and anything work-related is family-related, right? Because work makes money and money feeds the family. Money justifies all. Doesn’t it?

What my evil twin Z knows, and what I am loath to articulate, to even contemplate, is that checking e-mail or tinkering around on Facebook or reading snippets about Politician A on Blog B is not about making money at all but about asking the world a very urgent question.

That question is this: Am I still here?

Each time Z makes me guide the little mouse cursor to the Send & Receive button, he’s hollering into the impossibly complex snarl of underground and aboveground fiber linking every computer to every other: Am I part of this? Am I still here?

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Eddie Sloan re: Enlarge Your Penis 3+ Inches (100% GUARANTEED). You’re a part of it.

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Mark J. Silverman from legal, you’re here. Now forward me that memo.

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Matt Torrington from requisitions. You’re here all right, right here in last place in our football pool.

Since purchasing a little glassy machine called an iPhone, I’ve started checking e-mail in classrooms and in coffee shops. I’ve read news articles at stoplights, at my sons’ swimming lessons, at restaurants, and yes, once or twice in the bathroom while I peed.

Tap, tap, tap. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Paul Krugman, baseball scores, tide tables,, Immanuel Kant, blender-eats-camcorder, the tour schedule has changed, click here to watch a venomous snail paralyze a goldfish. Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine. I can stand in a river with my little sons beside me pitching pebbles into a deep, brilliant green pool with a flight of geese flapping along overhead and the autumn sun transforming the cottonwoods into an absolute frenzy of color—each leaf a shining, blessed fountain of light—and Z will start whispering in my ear about oil prices, presidential politics, the NFL.

What, Z wants to know, are we missing right now?

Addiction, neurologists say, changes the physical shape of our brains. Each time old Z finds another text message, another headline, another update, my brain injects a little dopamine into a reward pathway.

“You’ve got mail!” squeals the computer and—whoosh!—here comes a shot of dopamine.

I feel stronger, says Z.

Five minutes pass, the dopamine fades.

I’m weak, hisses Z. I’m hungry. I need to see a picture of Joe Biden.

WHAT IF, while you read the last few paragraphs, something in the world has changed? What if, during the past five minutes, someone, somewhere, sent you a text? Shouldn’t you go and check?

Being addicted to the wired universe might be perfectly healthy, of course, and it’s certainly defensible beneath the triumvirate of technology, curiosity, and progress. I’m the first to admit that there’s something enchanting and invigorating about my computer. There’s magic in reading a note from a friend in Rome and clicking through Halloween pictures from New Jersey and verifying John Steinbeck’s birth date in two clicks. The Internet is indeed its own strange, blessed fountain of light.

But sometimes I think Z’s demand to feel connected is tilting us both toward derangement, especially when we rise together at three a.m. and stare for a half hour into the black vacuum of the backyard and drink a glass of milk in the doorway of the kitchen before walking over to the computer and waking it up and finding out that while we sweated and twisted in the bedsheets, BeachReady Body had been preparing a totally unique and groundbreaking Body Transformation Formula for us, as well as for Leslie in New Mexico and Ben in Des Moines.

“We fall in love, we drink hard, we run to and fro upon the earth like frightened sheep,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “And now you are to ask yourself if, when all is done, you would not have been better to sit by the fire at home, and be happy thinking.”
Do we like sitting by the fire?

We do.

Does it make us happy to think? It does. For a while. But pretty soon don’t we start worrying, now that we’ve stepped away from the world, that the world is slipping past without us? Don’t we wonder, when we come back, Am I still here?

Oh, the strange mix of revulsion and pleasure Z and I felt when we returned from five days under the sky in the middle of Idaho and watched the e-mail counter piling up: 21, 32, 58, 74 e-mails! Z has 74 e-mails! Z is indeed part of it all! Z was missed! Z exists!

We’re not the first to wonder about all this, Z and I, not the first to sense that maybe our shared life is rushing by too quickly, too feverishly. We’re not the first to feel as if we are scrambling to make our voices heard against an infinite and obliterating silence.

During the five days Z and I spent in the mountains, we saw lots of Shoshone pictographs, paintings made in caves mostly, and under overhangs: finger-painted elk and owls and dogs and triangle-bodied hunters with bows. Many of the pictographs in that area include hash marks, like rows of fence posts scratched downhill, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what these marks originally meant. Maybe they were offerings to the spirit world, or tallies of successful hunts, or records of vision quests. Maybe they were the consequence of someone sitting beside a fire and thinking happily away.

Whatever they once meant, they mean something else now. They mean memories are fragile, beliefs are tenuous, contexts are temporary. They mean nothing is stable—not mountains, not species, not cultures, not e-mail. The only quantities that ultimately persist are gravity and mystery. Uproar, as Keats said, is our only music.

What did I do today that will still retain its original meaning two hundred years from now? Might it be better, and more lasting, merely to walk home right now, and open the backyard gate, and lie down in the grass?

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you were dazzled? When was the last time you lay down on a block of granite and fell asleep beneath the sky? Our few remaining pockets of unconnected, unwired time—walks, airplane trips, camp-outs, reading a novel on a beach—are dwindling fast. And yet: The Earth is 4.5 billion years old! There are at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy! What could be wrong with shutting down the computer some afternoon and sauntering for four hours through the woods and over the hills and fields?
“Dad!” calls my four-year-old son, Owen. He runs inside; his hands are cupped; his eyes are wide open.

“I found a grasshopper leg!” He flexes it back and forth; he wants to know if he can keep it.

I throw my phone onto the couch. I lift my son into my lap.

“When I am in the country,” wrote the old English critic William Hazlitt, “I wish to vegetate like the country.”

Z hates vegetating. Z wants LinkedIn, Twitter, Google. Z wants me to pick up my phone and finish reading my e-mail. Instead I take my sons on a walk. Clouds are blowing into the valley, big and dark and full of shoulders, and the light is low and golden. The sage, blooming in the gulch beneath our house, billows and shines.

We try to be quiet; we try to be diligent; we try to breathe.

Am I still here?

All I have to do is look into the eyes of my children, walking beside me through the evening.

Yes, Daddy, their eyes say.

Of course you’re here, Daddy. You’re right here.


(Anthony Doerr's essay appears here with permission)
(Photo of Dorset countryside, top, by Black Beck Photographic)

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

America, Reimagined: Conflict

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

Some sessions at America Reimagined, this year's PopTech conference [which ended last night], focused on the themes of racial and class conflict in the United States. Several speakers offered some new thinking about how these tensions are shaping the idea of America at home and abroad—and urged new ways to ease them.

Paul van Zyl, an anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa and Nelson Mandela's executive secretary of the famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, urged conferees to help work for the creation of a similar body in America. "America cannot re-imagine itself unless it undertakes a proper reckoning with this dark chapter in its recent past," van Zyl said, referring to the Bush Administration's use of torture as part of its war on terrorism. "A new America must confront this dark chapter openly and publicly ... and give victims a chance to testify and allow the American people to hear a firsthand, unvarnished account of the crimes committed in their name."

The South African TRC required perpetrators to confess to their crimes in public and take questions from the victims of their aggression. van Zyl said that such a process was critical to the transition to democratic rule in which those in power would be accountable to citizens. Yet many Americans, "fearing the specter of a ticking nuclear bomb in a major U.S. city somewhere," appear to have a kind of "national ambivalence" to holding Americans similarly accountable, he said. "America needs a process of publicly repudiating torture—not just because [torture] is wrong, but because once you've opened the Pandora's box of state-sanctioned brutality, the violence and the degradation that follow are seldom confined to your enemies, alone," he said. van Zyl, who now works as EVP of the International Center for Transitional Justice, said:

"Why stop at torture? What about a person who you suspect has raped and may rape again? Why not murder suspects? Why not suspected pedophiles, or arsonists? Once you start justifying torture either morally or legally, it will start to infect your law enforcement community and your criminal justice system. The number of innocent people who are tortured will skyrocket and the country's legal and moral foundations will crumble."

van Zyl said former Vice President Dick Cheney admitted to authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture—and now justifies it as being both legal and moral. "Dick Cheney has defended torture in ways that would make dictators blush," van Zyl said. Imagine if every country that believes it is facing an existential threat engaged in this behavior? "...All the human rights progress we've made since WWII," he said, "would be erased in the face of the war on terror."

Among other presentations on racial and ethnic conflict:

* Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center, an organization that fights for racial justice, said that most people have no idea how racism works structurally, so our notions about a "post-racial America"—one in which race is no longer significant or important— are premature and incomplete. People don't want to be racist, she told conferees, but diversity isn't enough to fell racism. Racial justice, she says, is more than simply getting the right mix of people into the same room. Sen, the author of The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, said racism will ease only if there is also racial equity in the distribution of dollars. "Diversity has not led to to racial equity in the way philanthropic dollars are distributed," she said. "Philanthropy has become more diverse in the past 40 years but only .03 percent of private philanthropic dollars go to black communities." The problem with the concept of a "post-racial America," she said, is that it's based on a very limited definition of racism as being "individual, intentional, and explicit." Racism, Sen says, runs much deeper, and urged conferees to support organizations that promote fair wages and integration in all types of jobs, to break patterns of racial hierarchy that, for example, can lead restaurants to put only white men in the most visible positions "at the front of the house" and immigrants of color into the less visible positions in the back, where they make much less money. "Racial justice is at the core of a compassionate, inclusive and effective society," says Sen, who moved with her family to the States from India when she was five years old. "...We're not there yet."

* Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Schools [called by the The New Yorker last May "the first charter group in the country to seize a high school in a hostile takeover"] has opened 17 charter high schools in the past decade in some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles, as well as one school in the Bronx. Green Dot takes kids from what Barr calls the "dropout factories" of public education—those who test far below grade level—and ends up sending nearly 80 percent of them off to college. Barr, who co-founded Rock the Vote and worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, told PopTech conferees [he was only half-joking] that the way to turn around our broken public school system is to outlaw private schools. "What would happen if Bill Gates had to send his kids to public school?" Barr quipped. "He'd go to McKinsey [Consulting] and demand that they turn this stuff around." Barr retold the story about how he and Green Dot took over Locke High School in Watts, the tough neighborhood dominated by the Bloods and Crips gangs: When case-study writers from the Harvard Business School asked Barr to describe the inspiration behind Green Dot's model, he didn't cite other schools; he named the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Every city has a Locke High School, he said. "Until we fix this, there's no widespread American financial recovery," Barr told PopTech attendees, and urged them to support politicians who are able to challenge their own preconceptions about race—politicians "who actually know that black and brown kids can learn." You don't need rich parents to get a good education, he said. You need committed, engaged parents and politicians who accept responsibility for turning the nation's high schools around.

* Ceasefire Chicago was founded by Gary Slutkin [PopTech2008] and trains former gang members, who know Chicago's gang culture inside and out, as "Violence Interrupters"—and then hires them to jump into high-risk conflicts and cool things down to prevent more shootings. Slutkin considers violence much like a disease; he believes epidemiological research can help people understand how it spreads—as well as how it might be treated. Results have been mixed so far: A U.S. Department of Justice survey says that CeaseFire has decreased violence radically in the places it serves; a 2007 story in the
Chicago Sun-Times, meanwhile, quoted independent data compiled by Northeastern Illinois University saying that "in some of CeaseFire's targeted areas, violence has increased." Last spring, CeaseFire spent three months interviewing people in high-crime neighborhoods "and heard over and over again that "there's no good news in our communities," says Amanda Geppert, who works with Slutkin. Gossip and rumors spread through these neighborhoods like wildfire, she said. Residents say they feel isolated in their homes and ignored—and always vulnerable to the crossfire. So video artist and photographer Lincoln Schatz, working in collaboration with Geppert, have created Cure Violence, a multimedia effort launched Friday by CeaseFire at PopTech to recreate a civic space—but online—to help communities reach across the boundaries that divide them to start talking about common problems. "We go out with cameras and ask two questions—what's causing the violence and how do we stop it?" says Schatz. Later this month, Cure Violence will start working with 3,000 kids in the Chicago public school system to reshape the conversation about race and gang violence; students will use simple social media to document their own stories about the violence on the Cure Violence site, which exists in beta here but won't be formally launched for another 6-7 months as the team works with students to build content.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

America, Reimagined: Food

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

Food journalist and activist Michael Pollan, the author of the Botany of Desire (which has been made into a PBS documentary and will air on October 28th at 8p EST), urged PopTech 2009 conferees this morning to consider that our food chain is "deeply implicated" in the three biggest problems of our time —the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. Twenty percent of the fossil fuel we burn in America, he said, is used to feed ourselves; $500 billion in health care costs are used to treat diseases linked to the American diet, and one-third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. "This is not a good picture nor a very happy meal," he said. "If we can get the food system to become less reliant on oil and more dependent on the sun, we can help to solve all three of these problems."

To be sure, our current food production system is the most productive in the world, Pollan said: pre-WWII, a single farmer could feed 20 people. Post-war, that same farmer could feed 150. Similarly, in 1910, Americans spent a quarter of their incomes to feed themselves and their families. Today, it's less than 10 percent—less than anywhere else in the world. But Pollan says all of this cheap food has come at a cost, and rattled off some statistics. Americans are eating 500 more calories than they used to and are about 17 pounds fatter, on average. One-third of them are obese, and one in three people born in 2000 will get type II diabetes, which can cut as much as seven years off the average life span. "This generation, the one born in 2000, will be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents," he said.

But there are bright spots. Pollan referred to Joel Salatin, a visionary farmer in Virginia who is managing what Pollan called a "post-industrial farm" that's based on a sophisticated understanding of how plants, animals and weather interact and uses a complex rotation system for the plants and animals that creates a localized food chain wherein each member of that chain plays a valuable role for the others. "The sun feeds the grass, the grass feeds the cattle, who can digest it; the cattle feed the chickens; the chickens feed the grasses and the animals are feeding us," Pollan says. "...For every calorie going into the system, there are hundreds, if not thousands, coming out."

Pollan called for new legislative and regulatory policies "which have the interests of eaters and farmers equally in mind" and called for a wide-scale movement to fight agri-business interests that make money from the present system. "We (as individuals) are deeply implicated in this system," he said. "We expect food to be fast, cheap, and easy. Unless we make changes in our own behavior and start voting with our forks, this isn't going to happen."

In the meantime, Pollan said, Americans can do three additional things to help change the system: First, plant a garden. ["If you invest $70 in a home garden you can yield $600 worth of produce per year," he says.] Second, get back in the kitchen and cook. Gain control of the food you eat by making it yourself and involving your families. And third? Stop eating in front of the television and the computer and inside your car. "Food isn't fuel, it's about communion," he said, and Americans should work harder to "bring back the meal as the sacred communal activity that it is."

"I don't know what our food system is going to look like in 5-10 years," Pollan said, "but I'm confident it's going to change. What we have right now is unsustainable."

--By Marcia Stepanek

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America, Reimagined: Social Media

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

YouTube contains a lot of irrelevant content: according to cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, some 20 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube every minute; he says 493,714 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, on average—plus 1 million more to other sites. "We, as amateurs, upload more video content than any of the major networks combined in a single month," Wesch told attendees of PopTech's 2009 conference, America Reimagined, about how major forces are reshaping the idea of America at home and abroad. [Wesch said that in the brief history of social media, New Jersey teen Gary Brolsma was "the first on the dance floor" of the viral video phenomenon with his July 2006 “Numa Numa” Webcam clip, which shows Brolsma lip-synching a Moldovan pop song that made its way from Europe and then to Japan before finding its way to the States and Brolsma’s desktop (see below). That was two months before the launch of YouTube. Now, says Wesch, thousands are uploading videos, “doing the Net’s version of the macarena.”]

So how is this signficant? Collectively, Wesch says, all of this new Web video content represents a new language and form of cultural literacy, a new type of communication comprised of shared images and intensely personal revelations that can be used to connect people in new ways —and, perhaps, even get them to care more about each other. “[YouTube] is a whole new landscape of social media that we need to understand because it is about social networks, not the masses,” says Wesch, a professor of new media at Kansas State University. “Social media matter because they have the potential to transform individual pursuits into collective action.”

One hint of how YouTube is changing us, Wesch said, can be found in the fact that there are more than a million videos on YouTube addressed specifically to the YouTube community, itself—a community created by people speaking entirely through Webcams and computer screens to strangers, about whom they have no knowledge nor conversational context. Says Wesch:

"At first, you get nervous [filming yourself] but then there's this kind of context collapse, and then suddenly you have every possible context collapsing in on itself and it's hard to know what to say. Yet what's really interesting is that people get more nervous about how they occur to themselves than to others. That's why people get the most nervous: [video] replay offers a deeper level of awareness than the first play [as 1960s-era media analyst Marshall McLuhan said it would when he spoke of re-cognition.] ...And it's not just the content maker that is affected by this new medium; it's also the watcher."

For some people, Wesch says, the anonymity of the YouTube audience can offer a kind of freedom to engage in new kinds of conversations and the distance needed to connect more deeply. [Wesch says the camera allows people to confess things to a Webcam that they would never think of sharing with close friends or family members; Wesch thinks this kind of communication might lead to new forms of community and social understanding.] Case in point: A video called The Message (below). It was made by a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who uses his anonymity as a platform for collaboration. He asked people to write messages on the palms of their hands and to hold them up to their Webcams for sharing; he posted a compilation on YouTube. Millions of people shared this way, Wesch said, mostly about the need to love one another and to look beyond themselves:

“This was the first time in history that humans have been wired up with all of these cameras, sharing messages about loving yourself and each other,” Wesch said. “…Someday, we may look back on this and see that moment when we connected all these cameras in this way. But when we do, I hope this will not come off as blind optimism because people would not be writing these things on their hands if these things existed. They wouldn't need to say it if they did.” Wesch says he sees this video, instead, as being “emblematic of the tragedy of our times—that we are more connected than ever but don’t really know it and don’t truly live it.”

[For more on Wesch, see “Speaking YouTube”—part of Cause Global’s coverage of Wesch’s presentation to the Personal Democracy Forum earlier this year in New York.]

Among other social media presentations at PopTech 2009:

* Nick Bilton, whose job it is at The New York Times to “explore and test technologies that could become commonplace” years from now, told conferees what seems obvious—that “everything about the news is changing.” But Bilton suggests that it’s not because newspapers are folding, but because of the way we share, absorb and manipulate information. Bilton, author of the upcoming book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works, told conferees that multi-tasking doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s getting from well-being experts. Our brains are adapting—or will, he says—to ever-greater and varied amounts of media stimuli. Proof? Brodmann’s Area 10 is the name scientsists have given to that spot in the brain that regulates how many things we can comprehend simultaneously. The good news? As humans confront ever-larger amounts of information to process, this area of the brain is getting larger. "With the next generation, a lot of scientists believe this area is going to start working faster and faster,” Bilton says, allowing a leap in human productivity. [Bilton also referred to a study showing that Net savvy people's brains light up twice as much while they're Web-surfing. "There is a new type of comprehension at work here," Bilton says. As for newspapers, Bilton said, “the relevance of news is changing.” When Ted Kennedy died, Bilton said, it wasn’t news to him. It didn’t mean anything. But the shooting near his house in Brooklyn? “That was news to me, but not to you—unless you live where I live,” he said. The point: As the Internet tears down geographical boundaries, news is paradoxically becoming more relevant depending on how local it is geographically. "Local" also now means relationship-proximate: Bilton told of a friend who borrowed his laptop to check the "news"—meaning Facebook. “Our concept of trust is changing,” he said. “We trust the (news) media 29 percent and we trust our friends and family 90 percent.” And one last point? Mobile phones are expanding our notions of civic space, and now it's becoming everyone's civic duty to report the news. “Can you imagine all the stories we'd hear if 9/11 happened today?” Bilton said. “Social media would have changed the whole way we would have heard those stories" and our experience of the news.

*Alec Ross, a senior social media/technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told conferees about the Obama Administration's 21st Century Statecraft initiative, which is all about using social media to help nation states and leaders empower—rather than overpower—their citizens and each other. “If you think of the last eight years of American foreign policy, it was about overpowering others in the world,” Ross said. “[We want] to go beyond engaging government-to-government and to connect with people more directly.” For the first time in decades, he said, the White House connected with the Iranian people, an initiative “made possible by technology, by a [social media] toolbox that exists today and did not 10 years ago. …If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t make a ride; he would have just tweeted and the lantern hangers would’ve retweeted.” Ross said he is launching a new social media initiative with Mexican drug-trafficking authorities that aims to engage citizens in their war on drugs. “I was just in Mexico last week, and the big problem there with drug-related violence is that nobody will inform on the people responsible; all informants end up getting shot in the head,” Ross told conferees. “So I went [to Mexico] and took some of my crazy innovator friends there with me, and we met with NGOs and with Carlos Slim and we came up with a little system where people are able to email or text gang activity. Their personal emails are anonymized so there isn’t the possibility of retaliation, and so information can get up on a Web site so the government can respond more quickly, and then keep people informed about what’s happening [in their fight against drugs.] Everyone can get involved without fear of retaliation. This is just Chapter One of how we can use technology in statecraft.”

* James Fowler, the author of the recent book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
, told conferees that humans—like birds and schools of fish—also tend to act in communities of purpose and suggested that online social networks will amplify these natural social tendencies.
Humans have always lived in “webs of humanity," Fowler said, and within these Webs, such physical traits as obesity and behaviors such as smoking tend to spread like viruses. In other words, there is a kind of swarm mentality in social networks, and those people closest to us can affect our behaviors more than we might like to admit. “We [as humans] are connected in ways that other social species are: [we tend to behave collectively, as do] schools of fish, flocks of birds,’” Fowler said. For example, you’re 57 percent more likely to have overweight friends if you, yourself, are overweight. Fowler also described the phenomenon of “emotional stampedes”—how emotional states of happiness or depression can spread through social networks, as well. He also spoke of “financial contagions”—such as the 2007 run on England's Northern Rock Bank, “when everyone thought he bank was going to fail.” Contagion works with voting, too. But most significantly? This kind of swarm behavior spreads as far as three degrees of separation but no further, he says; the influence of the network gets weaker the more distant in personal relationship-connection you are to its center. Fowler’s take on it all? The upside. He recently lost five pounds, he said, to influence those he loves to do the same. “Just think of it,” Fowler said. “By changing your own behavior you truly can change the behavior of others.” Social media, he says, can help humans influence their communities at new levels of impact.

—By Marcia Stepanek

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

America, Reimagined

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

PopTech, the vaunted thoughtfest that annually gathers some of the world’s leading social innovators in the coastal hamlet of Camden, Maine, kicked off its 2009 conference today with an uncharacteristically unglobal theme: America and the challenges it faces domestically at the start of the new century.

America Reimagined
, the three-day conference features more than 50 artists, writers, musicians, technologists, and social entrepreneurs—all of whom are creating or leading bold new civic, economic, technological and cultural initiatives in the United States. The day-long sessions that run through Saturday are designed to explore how major forces are reshaping the idea of America, its government's contract with its citizens, its brand, and its role in the world. “The thing about the kinds of moments we are living in right now is that they are often filled with conflicting and confusing signals,” conference curator Andrew Zolli said in opening remarks. "Is this a moment of new engagement and activism and an era of populist movements … or are we living in a kleptocracy, a moment where our systems are so perverted that they are fundamentally incapable of reform? Is it possible for us as a country, economically and technologically, politically and culturally, to reinvent ourselves?”

Radio host
Kurt Andersen, the author of Reset, a book about America’s uncertain future, was the first to consider the question, describing the last 25 years of American life as years in which Americans have been "guilty of magical thinking"—living too large, defining success as "more of everything, instantly" and behaving, more or less, like spoiled children oblivious to their impact on the world. ["We took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan's lyrics too seriously," he said. "We committed to never growing up and we didn't. I mean, when did adults start celebrating Halloween? When did people over 12 begin eating ice cream with mashed up cookie dough in it? When did adults start wearing blue jeans and sneakers all the time and watching cartoons?"] Most decades end after a decade, Andersen said, but the 1980s—until last year's financial meltdown—"just kept going, and kept going, and kept going."

The point: America has always moved back and forth between economic booms and busts and between the right and left politically. But this moment in time is different, Andersen says. "It's a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict."

But Andersen is optimistic. He said the current economic crisis "is actually a great opportunity for reinvention and for getting ourselves as individuals and as a nation back on track." If reinvention is to occur, however, it will be catalyzed not by today’s present leaders as much as by the amateurs in society, young people and "new-thinking baby boomers" in the grassroots—people unafraid to take risks, think creatively, and see the world through the lens of possibility.

He called for a revival of "good old-fashioned American realism and pragmatism" to realign our behavior to progress. "This isn't the end of the world," Andersen said. "But the '80s are over. I'd like to think we're just waking up."

Among other highlights so far:

* Braddock, Pa. Mayor
John Fetterman described his efforts to pump new life into his 142-year-old town, the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and now one of America's most devastated Rust Belt cities. In the 1950s, Braddock—only about 10 miles from Pittsburgh—was a thriving suburban metropolis of 20,000 with a density similar to that of Brooklyn; today, the population has hollowed out to under 3,000. Where once, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, there were 30 tailors, 25 shoe stores, 14 jewelers, 51 barbers and 53 restaurants, today there are none. But Fetterman, a hulking, six-foot-eight Harvard Kennedy School graduate, is leading efforts to creatively reinvent the community, working with remaining residents to convert abandoned spaces into artists studios and a community center. He helped a local mason build a brick oven pizza kitchen out of fallen debris from a neighborhood building; he purchased an old millworker’s row house with $7,000 of his own money and converted it into a foster home for abandoned children. An old Catholic middle school is now a studio and gallery for local artists; residents are preparing to welcome a film crew that will start shooting the movie version of writer Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, using Braddock’s forlorn streets as a backdrop. (“Even Hollywood knows where to find good post-apocalyptic America,” Fetterman quipped.) Fetterman is used to fighting the odds. (He moved to Braddock in 2001 to work on an Americorps project and ended up running for mayor four years later, winning office by a single vote.) But he is also clear that his struggle to reimagine Braddock is just getting started. He told conferees he “felt a bit like Obama must have when he got the Nobel Prize”—undeserving of public attention for his vision while the reality of his work has yet to materialize more fully. Indeed, Fetterman almost canceled his Poptech session: earlier this week, Braddock’s last large employer, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), said it would be shutting down operations and moving some six miles up the road, to neighboring Monroeville. “This isn’t like a Lifetime Original movie, you know—something that has a guaranteed happy ending,” said Fetterman, who just made the cover of the magazine's November "Brave Thinkers" issue that hits the stands this week. "I don't yet have the answer. We're definitely still experimental."

* Erica Williams, a Washington, D.C.-based activist working to help broaden the civic engagement of her peers, urged the mostly over-30 PopTech crowd to put away their stereotypes of her generation. "Call us what you will, the MTV generation, Millennials, the 'us' generation," she said, "but we are not bored or disinterested; our world view is different." At some 300 million strong, she said, "millennials have the opportunity to re-brand civic engagement" and reinvent politics. "My generation doesn't like traditional politics," she told conferees. "We are the most ethnically diverse generation that America has ever had. We are post-racial We cam up at a time with 9-11, fighting two wars and a gap between the haves and have-nots that we haven't see since since the Gilded Age—and a "me" generation that was many of our parents. So we distrust politics as usual. It hasn't worked. When asked if the 22 million young people who helped elect President Obama would be disillusioned if he fails to deliver on his most important promises, Williams said it will be problematic. But mostly, she said, her generation will always work beyond the traditional avenues to get things done, even it it means bypassing candidates who don't deliver and mobilizing young people directly. "We are re-branding what it means to be politically engaged," she said.

* Chris Jordan, a photographer, spoke about what Zolli called "America's reset moment"—the moment in the country's political and social transition when activists of all stripes are bringing the invisible to light—in this case, the impact and aftermath of America's wasteful habits abroad. Jordan used the PopTech stage to unveil his latest project, Midway: Message from the Gyre, a series of photographs that he shot just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral in the North Pacific. The images are striking—decaying carcasses of albatross chicks that had been fed a diet of human trash from polluted ocean waters, the plastic that had killed them still intact in the place where their stomachs had been. Jordan says the chicks die young, from the toxins in the plastic or from choking on the refuse that had been mistaken for food. "We have this enormous, frightening problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and scientists are just starting to understand the effect it is having in the marine and wildlife environments," Jordan told conferees.

* Malaysian singer/songwriter Zee Avi, discovered on Twitter, performed several songs she wrote, her fresh lyrics and full-sounding acoustic guitar underscoring the influence that American popular culture has had on the rest of the world. At one point during her performance, PopTech attendee and Personal Democracy Forum cofounder Micah Sifry tweeted favorably: "Zee Avi, Malaysian singer, sounds like she's from Northampton, Mass. Is world getting too small?"

PopTech continues through Saturday, with talks about reinvention from prventive health expert Dean Ornish, food journalist Michael Pollan, Twestival cofounder Amanda Rose, writer Anthony Doerr and social media philosopher Michael Wesch, among many others. Watch this space for more highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dolphin Hunting

The Cove, the award-winning documentary about covert dolphin hunting in Japan, makes its debut this week at the Tokyo International Film Festival. At a private screening I attended last night in Manhattan for Japanese filmakers, writers and environmental advocates (a gathering hosted by documentary film producer Kaoru Wang), one of the producers told us that she expects the film will trigger much controversy in Japan. Click here for the trailer.

Controversy over dolphin hunts in Japan is not new. Here's my story on the practice, "Uproar Over Dolphin Slaughter," which ran on Page One of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, December 23, 1990. At the time, I was Hearst Newspapers' Asia bureau chief, based in Tokyo. [The Examiner is no longer owned by Hearst and stories published before 2005 are not accessible by link, so I've copied the article here from the tearsheet.] My piece, which I also produced for National Public Radio at the time, does not defend the practice but explains how villagers view the practices and why Japanese government subsidies had been encouraging the hunts. Here is that account, in full, with the original subtitles:

By Marcia Stepanek
MIIRAKU, Goto Islands — Time moves slowly here; traditions die hard.
For as long as most villagers can remember, fishermen have been butchering dolphins on the sprawling white sands of the harbor.
In 1949, on a grassy hilltop above the beach, four fishermen erected a chest-high marble stump, a Shinto shrine to the souls of the dolphins they had slaughtered below.
Last month, after 582 dolphins died on the beach, a small ceremony was held at the shrine. A burnt candle still rests against the side facing the harbor. "The dolphins cry, you know, when you kill them," says villager Ichiro Itaya. "But it is us or it is them."
That last time the dolphins came to this secluded fishing village off the southern tip of Japan, some were tied with rope to immobilize their fins before slaughter; others were clubbed, then butchered.
Dozens were hoisted onto car roofs and driven home by villagers. Those thought to be ill were buried in a yard-deep trench on the beach. Children were warned not to walk there in bare feet "because they might get cut on the bones," said villager Toshii Awaii. But that last time the dolphins came to Miiraku, they also brought international controversy, shattering what had been for generations a gentle obscurity.
Even now, more than a month after the beaching, sharp criticism by British, American and Japanese conservationists about the incident continues, prompting some Japanese leaders to complain of renewed Japan-bashing.
British tabloids, one of which renamed Miiraku's harbor "Blood Lust Bay," continue to write about the dolphins. One London weekly accused villagers of being "barbarians" and "killers" who "eat the animal's heart raw...and use its dorsal fin as a sex potion, despite worldwide protests."
And since the incident, an embarrassed Japanese government—which awards bounties for dolphins hunted here—has been scrambling to explain what happened amid growing accusations of a cover-up.
Matter of Survival
For generations of villagers, hunting dolphins has been a matter of survival.
During World War II and for years afterward, dolphins were food for Miiraku and other remote Goto Island villages on the East China Sea. "Food shortages from the war made it difficult," Itaya recalls. "Dolphins were our only source of protein." Now, Miiraku fishermen compete with the dolphins, and the mammals are no longer welcome. "No one hunts them anymore for food," says villager Awaii, 56, a fish buyer. "Now they are pests and will eat anything in sight. When dolphins come, you cannot fish if they are in the harbor." Even without the dolphins, fishing here is difficult. Before dawn at the local fish market, 65-year-old fish buyer Miyako Awanohara is bent over a pile of wriggling skipjack, wielding a bloody fish hook like a baton. She laments the village's shrinking supply of fish.
Dwindling Population
"The catch is half of what it used to be 20 years ago," she says, using her hook to separate fish by type into small piles. "The fish are smaller now, and thinner."
Awanohara blames the weather. Deputy Mayor Yoshishige Yokoyama says Miiraku's simple skiffs and handmade nets have become obsolete, no match for the high-tech trawlers that sweep coastal waters with sonar and drift nets. Strict rules limiting territory now keep Miiraku's fishermen close to the shore; some fish cannot reproduce as fast as they are caught by offshore trawlers. Yokoyama says Miiraku, too, is getting smaller. More than 15,000 people lived here 15 years ago. Now, more than half of the town's 4,973 people are older than 40, about twice the national average, and 99.3 percent of village revenue is provided by the government. "It is not longer honorable to be a fisherman here," says 25-year-old delivery truck driver Iwasaki Katsumore, one fisherman's son who stayed behind. Says Yokoyama, "No one here is optimistic about the future."
Miiraku fishermen suspected there would be trouble the night of November 1.
For days, their handmade nets, positioned at the mouth of the harbor, had come up empty. A typical morning catch included several dozen squid and skipjack. Now there was almost nothing. The next day, as they headed back to port, the fishermen saw the reason. Fins, hundreds of them, were plying the waves off the harbor.
Fishermen's Cooperative Union representative Yasuhiko Kamakura says word traveled fast. Some fishermen took their boats out to the harbor. On the beach, a "dolphin union" organized years ago to distribute dolphin meat to the villagers, gathered on the beach to start digging a trench in the sand for the dolphins they saw in the harbor.
"Fishermen were concerned about the damage to the nets," Kamakura recalled. "We tried to make them go away" from the area in the harbor where fishermen had set their nets. "Fishermen felt they must protect themselves," he said.
Scene of Slaughter
By morning, there were 582 dolphins on the beach—enough, Kamakura said, to make the mile-wide stretch of white sand look as if it were covered by black coats, laid arm-to-arm, as if out to dry. Over the next 24 hours, 90 dolphins were buried with earth-moving equipment, Kamakura said. Others were clubbed and slaughtered. Several hundred were sent home with villagers, some of whom transported whole dolphins tied to the roofs of their cars. "Some were still alive," Kamakura said. "If they cannot die themselves, we deal with them, and we may bury many of them."
Once inside the harbor, he said, dolphins cannot be chased back to the ocean. The shoal is shallow and the dolphins "lose their navigational ability there." In the harbor, Kamakura says, the dolphins are as good as dead. Says fish buyer Awaii: "It is local custom. Nothing unusual happened here."
The Mystery
But how the dolphins got from the bay into the shallow shoal area of the harbor remains a mystery. Miiraku fishermen tell conflicting stories. Some says the dolphins were chased onto the shoal. Others say fishermen sought to chase them back toward the ocean. Still others, like Kamakura, say the dolphins scattered in both directions.
For weeks, the Japanese government insisted the dolphins beached themselves, committing "mass suicide." Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe said some fishermen, in an effort to chase dolphins out of the bay, may have chased them into the harbor. Watanabe denies any "preconceived plot" to kill the dolphins.
Doubts Expressed
Many remain dubious. Japan's leading news service, Kyodo Tsushin, sent a reporter from its Nagasaki bureau to cover the beaching and stands by its account that some fishermen attempted to chase dolphins into the harbor. Naoko Kakuta of Greenpeace-Japan says natural strandings of dolphins are rare. A beaching of one to four dolphins would not be unusual, she said.
"Hundreds of stranded ones like the 582 in this case would be very rare if it happened naturally," she says, adding that in this case, people were in the harbor, in boats, "chasing the dolphins around, so it is very difficult to see the situation as a totally natural stranding."
Last week, Toru Ishihara, the former chief of the Goto Island Ocean Fisheries Control Committee, an arm of the Nagasaki prefectural government, said, "It is a fact that the fishermen drove the dolphins ashore...Unless we admit that and start explaining why hunting is necessary, we will be considered barbarians every time we hunt."
Dolphin Bounty
For the last three years, the Nagasaki prefectural government has been awarding Miiraku fishermen a bounty of $38 for each dolphin they hunt and slaughter. Masahiro Iwasaki, supervisor of the fisheries division of the Nagasaki prefectural government,s aid Miiraku fishermen seldom make claims. In 1989, the village received about $2,300 for hunting 60 dolphins. Before November's incident, authorities had awarded $923 dollars for 24 dolphins captured and killed in the village this year.
Watanabe says Nagasaki officials have been advised against paying bounties to Miiraku for the November beaching, for fear that foreign critics "misunderstand" the intent of the bounty system, which is unique to Nagasaki prefecture in southern Japan. Iwasaki says bounties are awarded "to help protect the local Miiraku fisheries industry." Watanabe says that "if there is a real need for a bounty, it should be paid. but this time, there was such an international outcry against the dolphins...that concern about the image of the prefecture was taken into account."Kamakura said villagers sought $20,300 for the time and effort it took to "clean up the beach." Last week, the bounties were denied.
Too Many Dead
At Isekiji's tavern, a sake and yakotori bar on a hill above the Miiraku harbor, patrons say they don't understand why the beaching caused such an uproar. "It is strange that (the dolphins) should become a topic of discussion like this," says Itaya, who runs the bar with his wife, Misako.

From the shrine above the harbor, Kamakura voices similar thoughts to an American visitor. "Take a look," Kamakura advises. Against an afternoon sky, Miiraku glows pink and orange against the clouds and is awash with sound—the faint squeals of sea gulls and school children, the muted hum of voices, boat engines and small cargo hoists. "I want people to come up here and see for themselves that we are not what they call us in the foreign press," he says, squinting against a cold wind. "Six hundred dolphins is too many dead. We want them to sleep now, eternally, in peace."

(Photo: A still from The Cove, courtesy Diamond Films)

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hot Streak

For Blog Action Day this year [the theme is climate change], we thought we'd share a quick, drive-by list of some new social media plays and other offbeat-but-hot bits on the subject:

* Dear Old People Who Run the World, a post by Umair Haque, who writes the Edge Economy blog for Harvard Business Publishing (Awesomeness Manifesto). Haque, a brand advisor and writer, has some thoughts on what he calls "Generation M" [for movement]. Haque begins his rant, reposted by GOOD magazine, with the title of his piece, "Dear Old People," and takes it from there:

"My generation would like to break up with you. Every day, I see a widening gap in how you and we understand the world—and what we want from it. I think we have some irreconcilable differences..."

* Rabbi Julian Sinclair's lovely piece on finding green in Harlem, from the Jewish Climate Initiative's Climate of Change blog, posted here.

* The International Advertising Association's "Hopenhagen" campaign/social video series, chiefly its map showing some 77,000 people's hopes plotted on an interactive world map. Each person who signs the Hopehagen campaign's UN Climate petition describes what most gives them hope in everyday life, and it's weirdly spiritual.

* Data rock star Hans Rosling's lecture on climate change. Which country in the world emits the most carbon dioxide per person? [Think per capita energy use here, folks.] Watch Rosling's dynamic data defeat some myths with facts and tout some novel theories, here.

* Climatelab, a wiki about collaborative problem-solving on the environment.

* Debategraph's social engagement map on climate change, here.

* Cartoonist Lynda Barry's concern about wind farms—she calls them "the SUV of renewable energy"—is excerpted here from Being Undigital, Cause Global's recent interview with Barry during the CUSP conference in Chicago last month:

"...It sounds crazy, but if you live downwind from one of these wind farms, it can sound sometimes like a train coming through your house. Other times, it can be quiet. These wind turbines—they call them 'turbans' in Wisconsin—are huge. Frequently, when that blade passes the tower, you can get a low-frequency thump that you can feel in your body—exactly what happens when a car goes by that is playing loud music but all you hear is the bass because the walls of the car stops the high frequency sounds. Another problem is shadow flicker. These things are 40 stories tall, and the blades are 13 stories each, so when the sun is behind it, it throws a shadow a half-mile long and it can cover your entire home in every window of your house if you’re living next to one of these turbines. The flashing shadows can be so violent, it’s like a strobe light, and for some people it makes them very sick.

There’s one woman I interviewed who is a cardiac nurse and she says when shadow flicker starts, she either has to leave her house or she goes into the bathroom, the only room in her house to escape without windows. I’ve interviewed people from 20 households now, and I’m following what scientists studying the problem are finding out about the affects of sleep deprivation. It’s becoming a problem all over the country and there is incredible pressure being put on people not to talk about it. I’ve been called everything from a wind-hater to a 'wind jihadist.' Wind power definitely has a place if it is sited correctly but people need to understand it’s kind of the SUV of renewable energy. It’s big industrial, and it impacts wildlife and alters mountaintop terrains and requires back-up energy, such as coal power, to operate. All sorts of progress is being made in solar and biomass; I think we should have a mix..."

Not up to your ears in climate change yet? The day is still young. If you have 10 minutes more and wish for more provocation, don't miss environmental writer Bill McKibben's piece for Orion magazine called Beyond Radical, suggesting "what conservatives could bring to the climate conversation."

Send us your favorite examples and rants and we'll post them.

(Illustration, from Hopenhagen campaign, IAA)
(Photograph of New York City roof garden courtesy of Treehugger)

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Social Enterprise Elitism

There's a growing debate in the social enterprise world, not only about who's a social entrepreneur but about who's being left out of the club.

True, the exceptions and misconceptions abound, but the debate settles around two main points -- that unless you're a Caucasian and unless you're an MBA, it's tougher to get support for your good work trying to start a social enterprise.

Is that fair? Consider the arguments. The first point being raised by some across the sector is that MBAs seem to be preferred by social ventures and the foundations willing to fund aspiring social entrepreneurs. Employers, the argument goes, also seem to prefer MBAs, but the truth is that not everyone who can make a difference or start a social enterprise can afford business school—nor think they should have to get an MBA in order to get funding to develop their ideas. "I have no MBA nor do I want one," says Martin Montero, the founder of Austin Social Innovation Fund. Montero tweeted me the other day in response to one of my queries about a story in today's Wall Street Journal Online that cites the surge of interest by business school students in "socially-responsible money-making." The article also notes how business schools are being pushed to create a whole host of courses and study tracks to help MBA students sort out the best way to build companies that both make money and help to solve social problems. Montero and others, including a number of Justmeans community members who messaged me earlier this week, said the fuss over socially-minded MBAs tends to leave out a great deal of people who are not in business school but who already have been making a big difference in the sector. " We most definitely need more non-MBA social entrepreneurs," Montero wrote.

A second point I keep hearing is that the developing world is, more or less, being left out of the conversation. community member Gerard Ww, in a comment responding to my introductory column as social enterprise editor of Justmeans, said that "no company, organization, or individuals (seems) willing to really get their hands truly dirty side-by-side with us (those people at the bottom of the pyramid) while trying to help the BoP!" Describing himself as one of the billions at the bottom of the pyramid, he said that "we are never included in the [potential] interventions; it's always the so-called academics and 'successful' business persons who dictate terms and conditions. Too few of us will ever be helped by the continued exclusion, but who else knows the conditions [at the bottom of the pyramid] better" than the people who live there?

Gerard isn't the only person posing the question. Rod Schwartz, CEO of ClearlySo, an online marketplace that aims to raise the visibility of social businesses, sparked a lively debate earlier this year when he posed on the SocialEdge blog the following question: "Are the only innovations in social entrepreneurship Anglo-Saxon?" Schwartz had asked the same question at the 2009 Skoll World Forum, which I also attended, asking fellow conferees what they thought of the fact that a majority of the speakers and panelists were Caucasian. Ashni Mohnot, who joins me as a contributing blogger at PopTech, wrote on that site this past summer that "many of the top socially entrepreneurial organizations work in international development, building products, services and social capital to improve lives at the base of the pyramid, yet they are often based in the UK or the US with founders and CEOs hailing from the Western world." She cited D.light Design, FORGE, FaceAids, and Kiva as some examples of social ventures that develop their products by native Westerners or those educated in the West. Mohnot wrote that while these social ventures "subsequently engage locals in pilots, distribution or marketing, the initial product design is often the sole realm of the US arm."

To be sure, it's not true that all social innovators have MBAs and that they're all "Anglo-Saxon" as Schwartz put it. But the debate continues over what some see as troubling trends in this new field of social enterprise.

What do you think? Do you perceive yourself to be in what Mohnot called an elite "social entrepreneur's club?" Or is the debate unfair or misinformed? Does it raise some important or long-ignored issues that should continue to be discussed across the sector?

—By Marcia Stepanek

(This was first posted on and reposts here with permission)

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The economy yawns but social innovators persist. Here are three catalysts under the age of 30 who we at Cause Global have met in the past month. All three bear watching over the next year:

Ariel Zylbersztejn, 28, founded and runs Cinepop, a company that projects movies onto inflatable screens and shows them free in poor rural communities. Zylbersztejn said he started Cinepop four years ago because some 90 percent of the people in Mexico can't afford to buy movie tickets. His first corporate sponsor was Act II, the microwaveable popcorn company; he has since linked up with micro-credit agencies and social welfare groups, as well as dozens of small and medium-sized businesses across Mexico which will pay him to score a table in an "opportunity tent" that Cinepop sets up in rural neighborhoods for a week before each screening. "Each showing is a way to promote social programs, like free medical consultation or employment training," Zylbersztejn says.

Some 350,000 people have watched movies on his screens so far this year. His goal is to reach 1 million people by the end of 2010 and 5 million people by 2015—as well as take the Cinepop model to Brazil, India, China and other countries. And down the road? Zylbersztejn, a film school graduate, wants to make movies of his own, to raise awareness of "real people with real problems," he says. "Am I a social entrepreneur?" he shakes his head. "In Mexico, nobody knows what that is."

Another young social innovator to watch is Emily Pilloton, 27, founder and executive director of Project H Design, a social nonprofit that creates problem-solving designs to empower individuals, communities and local economies in need. Pilloton said at last month's CUSP conference in Chicago that she came up with the idea for Project H while she was living with her parents and had only about $1,000 to her name, as well as "a laundry list of people I was going to prove wrong about consumption-driven design."

Over the past 18 months, Project H has collected $46,000 in donations averaging $43 each, which are being used to support nine chapters, six in the United States and 3 internationally, and engage 300 designers working on 22 projects. One, called Learning Landscape, helps students and teachers in Uganda, North Carolina and the Dominican Republic to "play" their way to better math scores. The simple, $500 playground installations are comprised of 25 reclaimed tires "that you bury halfway in the ground in a grid and base learning games on," Pilloton says. A student favorite? "Match Me" -- a game in which students line up in 2 teams, one on each side of the playground; teachers call out math questions and the first student to sit on a tire numbered with the correct answer wins. Pilloton is working with the Palo-Alto-based design firm, nonobject, to develop an off-the-shelf retail and tabletop version that would be available to teachers anywhere.

Chapters of Project H Design also have collaborated with LA's homeless and delivered Hippo Rollers to Africa (cutting production costs of the water-transport devices in half). "We devise systems, not stuff; we work with, not for," she says. "I started this with no particular business plan in mind but I believe that design can change the world," she says. "The need will shape the business." Indeed, Pilloton, author of the just-released book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, said she hopes to launch Studio H next fall, a design/build program to teach creative problem-solving and building skills through community engagement projects.

Sarah Evans is another young social innovator to watch. What we like most about her social venture is that it involves a paradigm-shifting use of of social capital—in this case, the 30,000 people who follow her on Twitter—to create a new type of company. Her firm, Sevans Strategy, helps causes in need of rapid action. Last summer, when a financially beleaguered Elgin, Ill. crisis hotline came to her for help, Evans mobilized her network to raise $30,000 in 12 hours -- and $164,000 in two weeks -- to save the center. "I donated my network, but I am also creating a new model for business," she told me at CUSP. "Social media isn't about having a Facebook page. That's just noise. The real promise of social media is being able to mobilize networks to execute. Social capital for good—and for hire—represents the next wave of new businesses."

Follow or ignore the debate over whether President Obama deserves his Nobel Peace Prize—that's your call. But it's really good to know that people are working in the trenches to make the world a better place, regardless of what happens in Washington.

By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, Hanging by $100;

(This article was first posted on

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Machine Rule

In his just-released book, Delete, author Viktor Mayer-Schonberger explores the surprising phenomenon of perfect recall in the digital age and makes a strong case for reintroducing the capacity to forget.

To be sure, Mayer-Schonberger isn't suggesting that all of the bits and bytes about us be subject to erasure. But he is one of the first privacy advocates to assert that "the balance between what we remember and what we forget has been unsettled" by the always-on, data-hungry machines we have created to help us keep track of each other. But much information, Mayer-Schonberger asserts, is better left ungathered—or, at the very least, allowed to escape digital eternity. "We need to be able to delete," he says. Part of being human is to consistently re-contextualize the past as it relates to the present; machines rob us of that choice.

Cause Global caught up with Mayer-Schonberger recently to talk about how unbridled digital recall is reshaping society and human behavior. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

A number of books have been published recently about the limitations of human memory, including Total Recall: How the E-memory Revolution will Change Everything by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. But you argue in your book, Delete, that the capacity to forget serves a human purpose and must be integrated into our data-rich culture. You say our personal freedoms are at risk.

I’ve been interested in privacy for better part of the last two decades, and have been working on both sides of the Atlantic on information privacy issues. Privacy always has been dear to me, and this culture's perfect recall problem became clear to me when I started thinking about our digital world’s ability to record a lot more data than the analog world. The threat that eminates from this problem is not just of a privacy nature, but there is another type of danger that is at least as threatening and as problematic. Humans yearn to remember, although they mostly forget. We've developed tools to lighten this biological limitation, like books and videos, to help us remember things and they've proven to be extremely helpful to us. But until a few decades ago, these tools did not unsettle the balance between remembering and forgetting. To remember was the exception; to forget, the default. In the digital age, this balance has been altered fundamentally. Today, forgetting has become costly and difficult, while remembering is inexpensive and easy. With the help of digital tools we—individually and as a society—have begun to unlearn forgetting, to erase from our daily practices one of the most fundamental behavioral mechanisms of humankind.

We're forgetting how to forget?

It’s becoming real for most of us extremely quickly. Maybe 20 years ago or so, if a politician made a gaffe on live TV, it was played over and over again and we laughed and it ruined a political career. These days, it's not just public officials who might experience this. It's pretty much everybody now. Just consider this: in 2007, two out of three young Americans created or uploaded digital content onto the Internet or to some social networking site. So two out of three people partook in the weaving of this thick digital blanket and this, for many, was able to impede or destroy our careers. You have more and more of these examples coming up as YouTube and many other portals function as hubs, where you can upload everybody else's information, gaffes and outtakes and laugh about them. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard of
the South Korean person who has been laughed at and criticized hundreds of thousands of times online because her dog pooped on the subway and it was recorded on YouTube.

This kind of permanent memory will lead to bullying?

It has already for some people, but more troubling is how the fear of such behaviors might be influencing large numbers of people in society. It would be horrible if we were to stop expressing ourselves because we start fearing that 20 years from now, or sooner, our utterances will be held against us. What does this do to free speech? Our democracy, our nation, our culture, will be much poorer and much more impoverished. So I'm suggesting that we create new legal and social tools not to encourage self-censorship, but instead create ways of choosing how long we want to preserve the information we put online. Inherent in this, of course, is an acknowledgment that some kinds of information loses validity over time, and therefore it needs to be discarded—or labeled, at least, as being past its expiry date.

This suggests that the facts don't always serve us. Why is the capacity to forget an advantage?

Researchers have found that perfect human memory is actually not an advantage but a disadvantage, because it disables people from deciding, over time, to move on. Perfect recall locks and anchors everything that has ever happened to the present. People who cannot forget feel they are always tethered to the past; they remember all of the wrong decisions they made in the past, which makes them afraid to decide in the present. Perfect digital memory, then, not only creates a power imbalance between the past and the present but impedes on our ability to decide and act quickly in the present.

Further, it's about information control. Perfect digital recall gives us no choice or control over how accessible our information is, or how long-lived it is in the public sphere. Much of what is online about us at any given time is accessible to anyone, will live forever, and occur out of context. In the past, we could control who 'saw' us and when and under what circumstances. We had a better chance of being able to explain.

Moreover, human remembering has not been a process of mechanistically retrieving facts from our past, but rather, as Daniel Schacter so eloquently argued, the constant reconstruction of our past based on the present. In other words, the past as we remember it is constantly evolving. The past captured in digital memory is constant, frozen in time. It is likely these two visions will clash, yet neither is an accurate and complete depiction of what or who we are.

What can we do about it?

It’s a collective action problem; my 'expiration date' proposal is meant to say there is a way we can start to introduce some selective forgetting into our digital world. We can start a movement by introducing new technologies. A number of companies, from Microsoft to, all offer the ability to forget, to allow expiration dates on certain kinds of data. In fact, Yahoo and Microsoft have announced they will delete some things after nine months so they will have selective forgetting implemented.

Have you gotten any pushback on the book?

Most pushback has come from people who run the large search engines. Others, of course, have said it is ridiculous not to be able to delete. Other pushback comes from people who accuse me of wanting to destroy archives and libraries. That is not at all what I want to do. I don't want forced forgetting. I want us, as a society and as individuals, to be able to choose what to remember. If nothing is done—if the status quo persists—we will lose a lot of the democratic and open, robust debate we have in society. That would be horrible. Equally horrible would be a world in which we become so locked to the past that we become frozen in the present, afraid to take risks and innovate, and to simply live for the moment.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo, top, by Peeter Viisimaa for
(Photo, middle, of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, courtesy of Princeton Press)

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