Sunday, October 31, 2010

Oil and Water

The BP oil spill is out of the headlines, but not off the radar of international cause groups. The latest initiative comes out of Happiness Brussels, a Brussels-based design and communications studio that has created a pro bono project around the slogan, Oil and Water Don't Mix.

The designers, earlier this fall, scooped up some of the sludge still washing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Louisiana, from the Deepwater Horizon spill and used it to "ink" a limited edition of 200 hand-printed posters featuring the slogan -- and as of today, all posters have sold out. (Designers are considering extending the run and/or designing new posters to continue the global fundraising drive.) All proceeds benefit the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, or, an environmental cleanup group based in Baton Rouge.

The posters are cool, but even cooler is that social media linked this small studio in Brussels to these activists in Baton Rouge to printers in New Orleans to environmentalists all over -- faster than a plane ride to either location. Also significant? The oil is still washing up; the posters are proof positive.

Here's the video on the project:

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life, Edited

We all talk about living with less, but Graham Hill is getting really serious about it. At this past week's PopTech2010 conference in Maine, the Treehugger founder launched Life Edited, a new project that -- over the next year -- will turn his 420-square-foot New York apartment into a crowdsourcing experiment on how to live smarter with less.

"It's about maximizing our enjoyment of small space," Hill told PopTech conferees over the weekend. "It's about reducing our stuff footprint." It's also about finding a way to live happily with far less of everything -- from friends to waste to media to furniture to clothing -- but all with more design. "I believe the skill of the century is editing -- cutting back on space, possessions, media, friends -- because it gives you a lot of mental clarity, a lot more space and a lot more financial flexibility. Less is more."

Hill is asking designers to help him renovate his new Manhattan apartment into "a transformable space furnished only with essentials and digitized media." [Think access to stuff versus ownership of stuff.] Hill said he was inspired during a recent move, when he discovered how much of what he had was useless. The design competition, cosponsored by Green Depot, Cisco Systems, Resource Furniture and others, will award $10,000 for the winning design. For more details, here's Hill:

What can you live without?

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Sunday, October 24, 2010

YouTube Art

The establishment art world has finally acknowledged online video as an art form. Here are six of the 25 YouTube videos chosen from among more than 23,000 submissions from 91 countries for The Guggenheim Museum's first-ever exhibit of online video, YouTube Play: A Biennial of Creative Video. Chief Curator Nancy Spector said the videos represent "the most unique, innovative, groundbreaking video work being created and distributed online during the past two years."

The jury for the Guggenheim-YouTube collaboration included the band Animal Collective, film director Darren Aronofsky and photographer Marilyn Minter. All 25 videos were projected on the outside of the museum in Manhattan Thursday night. [OK Go, known for its inventive music videos, performed live.]

To see more of the Top 25, go here.

What do you think? Let us hear from you.

- Marcia Stepanek

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Twitter Babble

Every year at PopTech, organizers show a selection of short viral videos to mark segment breaks or pull people back into the Camden Opera House auditorium for a new session. Here's one of them, shown today at PopTech2010, that spoofs the official trailer for the film, The Social Network, and skewers Twitter:

What do you think?

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PopTech2010: Machine Politics

Thanks to the convergence of crowdsourcing, social media and social networks, the world is becoming a more responsive place. While we're still experiencing the adolescence of social media, the information systems we're building are starting to get better at taking input from crowds of people and using it to help us mine the data glut for what we, as indviduals, are most likely to want or to need.

Case in point: Google's new Instinct program -- a behavioral prediction feature that is taking the billions of queries we've all typed into its system and is using them to paint a statistical picture of what is our most likely path through this new information landscape. "I can now program my inbox with Instinct or take Pandora's Thumbs feature and tell it I dislike a song and it can respond by giving me a better one," MIT Media Lab's Riley Crane told PopTech2010 conferees today during a segment on social media.

The great irony, of course, is that despite these systems' abilities to be more responsive, none of them can yet solve big social problems that require large-scale collaboration or coordination over time.

But we're getting closer, says Crane. Thanks, in part, to social networks like Twitter and Facebook, we now have -- for the first time -- the ability to have and maintain, simultaneously, weak social ties of former coworkers and classmates and other acquaintances. "For years, we've had ways of communicating with strong and weak ties but what we've really seen with Twitter and Facebook is that we have new ways to keep up with our weak ties and this solves a really hard communication problem," Crane says. This new class of weak ties, he says, will become increasingly important as we step up our efforts to organize ourselves around shared context. These weak ties, he argues, form a new social class. Can it be mobilized, locally or nationally or internationally, for social good? To achive political goals? Some argue that in the political arena, the Tea Party movement is an example of weak-tie networks that have been brought together around common goals. [For more on the strength of weak ties, see both Malcolm Gladwell's October 4, 2010 piece in The New Yorker, "Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted" and Jonah Lehrer's rebuttal, "Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution," in Wired. Also see Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone's rebuttal in The Atlantic.]

Not convinced? We're already seeing what's possible, though mostly anecdotally. Patrick Meier, the director of crisis mapping for Ushahidi, told PopTech conferees Friday about an urgent request that had come into Ushahidi from Haiti shortly after the January earthquake. Rescue workers on the ground were scrambling for the GPS coordinates for seven locations in Port au Prince where survivors were known to be trapped beneath fallen buildings. More than 1,000 miles away, in snowy Cambridge, Mass., Meier and one of his grad students got busy and soon were able to find six of the seven coordinates, using Google maps and social networks. But the seventh location remained elusive -- until the grad student tweeted for help. "She sent out her query to her followers and got an answer that the building she was looking for might be owned by the Holiday Inn chain," Crane said Saturday, retelling Meier's story. "She used that data to look for a building with a pool, and using satellite images, she found it. But she still needed to locate the building nearby.

"Then something incredible happened," Crane said. Someone in Brooklyn tweeted that he knew someone who used to work in that hotel and knew the area. Soon, that person was walking Meier and his student through a satellite image of the neighboring streets to help rescuers get the proper coordinates. Said Crane: "Think back 5 years. You wouldn't have been able to do anything like this. We're getting closer to figuring out what it means to start forming spontaneous communicaton networks that act like central nervous systems."

But activists, beware. Thanks to an ever-growing glut of data, we are at once racing to tune out irrelevance and stoke innovation. "If we're not careful in our race for perfect algorithmic relevance," says founder and online organizer Eli Pariser, "we may find ourselves at a loss of brilliant breakthroughs." Pariser told PopTech conferees Saturday that unless we can integrate some form of "curation ethics" into the ways our machines slice and dice the info glut for us, we risk missing need-to-know information that our algorithms may now deem irrelevant. "...This time in the evolution of information systems is really a great time for organizing information but ... innovation requires serendipity. ... An algorithmically curated environment lacks the blind variation needed for creativity. We need media systems that call our attention to what we don't know. If you have perfectly constructed environments, you're going to miss out."

Pariser urged conferees to be vigiliant against over-censorship and hyper-stereotyping by data-vetting machines. "What's creative is something new and useful that you can't come up with through an algorithm or equasion," Pariser said. "We also need to be open to people and systems that can disprove data -- not just to systems that find similarities."

PopTech2010 concludes today. Watch this space for further coverage.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Magdalena Tworkowska for

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PopTech2010: On Marriage

"Marriage was invented to get inlaws," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and the author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage." Coontz told attendees at Friday's 2010 PopTech conference in Maine that marrying for love is a radical idea. Here's the video:

What do you think? Let us hear from you.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

PopTech2010: Noise v Signal

Amid a monster data glut that is expanding exponentially -- by about 1 billion gigabytes every three days, says Google -- it's no wonder it's getting harder to distinguish signal from noise. "So much of innovation relies on our ability to listen, to separate out signal from noise," PopTech curator Andrew Zolli said today at the innovation network's annual conference in Maine. "But it's not just that noise is bad and signals are good. Sometimes the relationship between them can be much more sophisticated." Indeed. "Noise in the System," one of this year's most popular PopTech segments, presented a study of noise and its role in politics, culture, consumerism and nature.

Among the highlights:

* Jad Abumrad, the host of RadioLab on WNYC, says noise is good. He began his presentation by sharing sounds of familiar objects failing -- the heavy bump-and-grind of an Epson printer in failure mode and a CD that starts to hiccup violently mid-Mozart. ["If you've heard Radio Lab," Abumrad says, "you know that I'm obsessed with things breaking down and sliding off the rails. I love the aesthetics of failure."] But when sound is fused with science, he says, noise can be signal. Abumrad likened the sound of our genes making proteins to "the random static of a police radio between transmissions"; he then described how crayfish produce a type of white noise to amplify the barely perceptible sounds of advancing predators who would devour them otherwise. Next, Abumrad played the sound of a monkey's neurons firing while it was playing rock-paper-scissors. At the precise moment the monkey had to make a choice, his neurons made a popping noise that sounded like the rapid-fire beats of a drum -- another example of how biology triggers sounds to guide behavior.

*Amishi Jha, a brain scientist, equates noise to distraction; she teaches "mindfulness" to members of the military, training them how to pay attention to the present moment without judgment or emotion, cultivating a "present moment experience." Her work to improve attention spans, which includes teaching meditation practices to soldiers, is funded by the Department of Defense but also is being used by nurses and physicians and other people in high-stress work situations. "Attention is an amplifier, making sure that what is relevant is high signal and everything else is dulled down," she says. Jha says rising levels of information overload has made "mindfulness" research critical -- and we, as humans, are just starting to grapple with the physical and psychological impacts of the information systems we've created. "There's too much stuff in the world for the brain to be able to process it fully and we're constrained by having only two arms, two eyes, two hands," she said. Today's information explosion will require us to develop new behaviors, she says, simply to overcome the distractions we're creating daily at new speeds.

* Humorist/musician Reggie Watts calls himself a "disinformationist." The Seattle performance artist uses noise to satirize politicians, artists, and intellectuals. At PopTech this year, he mimicked people who use noise to distort the message [or who have their messages involuntarily distorted by invasive technology]. The Brooklyn-based Watts is known for his improvised sets, in which he uses only his voice and a looping machine. "I love to disorient my audiences," Watts says of his off-kilter comedy. Click here for excerpts of his gig at PopTech. Here's another bit from a recent set at LA's UCB comedy club:

* Lisa Gansky, author of the book, The Mesh: Why The Future of Business is Sharing, says household clutter and most other stuff we own is noise. ( See earlier post on CauseGlobal, "The End of Stuff?"] "Because we now have Web tracking tools to locate what we need, when we need them, we no longer have to own things just to have access to them," she said. Tracking takes the friction out of sharing what we used to own with others. Access is 'the new ownership,' Gansky says. "There's a fundamental shift in the relationship we have to the stuff in our lives and we are actually starting to see products and services designed to be shared and experienced rather than owned." Think Zipcar, for starters. Or pop-up stores. Or co-location office spaces. "I started feeling that all the physical stuff in my world started to be noise," Gansky said. "I wanted to give up stuff for experiences. I wanted to get rid of the noise. And now I feel like I'm not alone, like whole generations of people and cultures may well skip over ownership altogether."

* TreeHugger Founder Graham Hill also thinks stuff is mostly noise. He used the PopTech stage to officially launch Life Edited, a new project that -- over the next year -- will turn his own 420-square-foot New York apartment into a crowd-sourced experiment on how to live smarter with less. "It's about maximizing our enjoyment of small spaces" and reducing our "stuff footprint," he said. It's about having less space, less stuff, less waste, less money -- but with more design. To that end, Hill's project features a design contest for "a transformable space furnished only with essentials and digitized media." Think access to stuff versus ownership of stuff. Designers are being urged to create transformable space that can accommodate, for example, a sit-down dinner for 12; private guest spaces; a work area and hideable kitchen. Hill said he was inspired during a recent move, when he discovered how much of what he had was useless. The design competition, cosponsored by Green Depot, Cisco Systems, Resource Furniture and others, will pay $10,000 for the winning design. Other cash prizes also are being offered. For more details, click here.

* An example of noise that IS signal, ok_go delivered at PopTech. Blogger Michelle Riggen-Ransom captured a segment of the group's PopTech performance on her iPhone. Below, see ok_go's latest commercial video:

What's your noise-to-signal ratio? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, Noise Pollution, by Tavik Morgenstern)

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PopTech2010: Exploring Failure

PopTech, the vaunted thoughtfest that annually gathers some of the nation's leading social innovators in the coastal hamlet of Camden, Maine, has kicked off its 2010 conference with a strongly resonant theme in this year of economic uncertainty and political dysfunction: failure and its upside.

Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs, the three-day conference, features more than 50 writers, musicians, scientists, technologists and social advocates and entrepreneurs -- all of whom are leading thinkers on the nature of creative change. The day-long sessions that run through Saturday are designed to explore with several hundred conferees the psychology of failure, the nature of risk and the role of mistakes in discovery. "There's something really remarkably accidental about so many of the discoveries that we make," conference curator and PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli said in opening remarks, which were being livestreamed on the Web. "...But what happens when we don't let failure happen, when we keep systems that are minimally functional in place? What has to die so the right things can live? How do we kill it?"

To underscore the difficulty but importance of answering those questions, Zolli shared the story of a massive failure of a United Nations-led project in the 1950s and '60s to bring clean water to Bangladesh. "[The U.N.] went out and dug 500,000 wells ... but once built, nobody tested them, and it turned out that 40 percent of them were polluted with arsenic, making for the largest mass-poisoning in human history," Zolli said. But it wasn't just the intervention that went awry, he said. The solution -- to test the wells and paint the spigots of clean ones green and polluted ones red -- also failed. What happened? "Almost immediately," Zolli said, "there was the perception in villages with red spigots that because the wells were tainted, the girls were tainted. Suddenly, many of them became unmarriageable and there was a spike in the sex trade." Added Zolli: "We tried to solve the water problem and we created an urban prostitution problem. We did exactly the opposite of what we intended. These kinds of stories sit very heavy in our hearts but they also remind us of the enormous complexity of the problems that we are trying to solve in the world."

Zolli urged social innovators to start thinking about failure, risk-taking, innovation and intervention in much more sophisticated, open and creative ways. The first step, he said, is to spot what doesn't work and get rid of it, quickly, so as to make negative space "for new forms" and "un-obvious connections."

In other highlights from Day One:

*Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error and The Wrong Stuff blog on Slate, said humans are "experts in being wrong." They use language, have tools, have opposable thumbs and get stuff wrong often. We are, Schulz says, like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, forever leaping off cliffs in pursuit of our goals, unaware we're in trouble until it's too late. "We think we're on solid ground," she said, but "more often than not, we deny our mistakes. We get defensive about them. We blame them on other people or we come up with amazing, inventive explanations for why we weren't that wrong after all," Schulz said. She cited a heated argument that a man in her book had with his wife over how many carbohydrates there were in a jar of pickles. The man said he realized he was wrong halfway through the argument. But rather than admit he was wrong, he invented imaginary facts to support his position. "If this is how we behave when we're wrong about really trivial things, you can imagine what happens when we're wrong about things that actually matter," Schulz said -- "like the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction; the safety features on an oil rig; the stability of our housing market; the identity of a murder suspect; the integrity of our money managers; the fidelity of our spouse -- or any of the many beliefs we have that are hugely consequential and which help us to understand ourselves and make sense of the world around us." So how do we get better as a species? The solution, she said, lies outside our inner selves -- in collaboration. "We need to recruit other people" to make sure we're getting things right. "That's why in high-stakes situations, we have safety valves and copilots. That's why open source is a good model for uncovering errors quickly and making corrections, and it's also why democratic cultures do better at preventing and discovering and correcting mistakes," she said. "...We need each other to find our own mistakes and turn them into better ideas, better financial systems, better conferences, better relationships and in the end, maybe a slightly better world."

* Kevin Starr, founder and director of the Mulago Foundation, built upon Schulz' presentation, saying the nonprofit advocacy community tends to delude itself over its impact on social problem-solving. [Overly wordy, self-important and confusing mission statements, he said, are one symptom of this behavior.] Starr, who coaches nonprofits on how to be more effective, said he uses three questions to determine whether a nonprofit is up to the job. Do its leaders know clearly what it is trying to accomplish? "If you could only measure one thing to know if you fulfilled your mission, what would it be?" Starr asked. Do nonprofits measure the right things to determine success and do they measure them well enough? "Measuring well means taking an honest stab at understanding what change you're creating," he said. Is it needed? Does it work like it is supposed to? Will it get to those who need it and enough of those who do? Will people use it immediately? Starr then named three high-profile, nonprofit failures: One Laptop Per Child, the Lifestraw and PlayPumps. In the case of the laptops, Starr said, each was made well enough but ended up costing families living on $2 a day an estimated $400 each. "If you're a $2-a-day family, are you really going to let your kid take the most expensive thing in the household to school every day?" he asked conferees. "This was nuts," he said -- and not needed. "Where we work, there's not a digital divide," he said. "There's a pencil divide. Schools are falling down and teachers don't show up." In the case of the Lifestraw, Starr said, the device proved to be an excellent water filter but it cost too much and took too long to use, discouraging widespread adoption by villagers. The one study available on usage rates showed that only 13 percent of the people even claimed that they ever used it, Starr said. The third project, PlayPumps -- a simple merry-go-round that doubled as a water pump to bring clean water into villages across Africa -- also missed the mark, Starr said. "This was so seductive and so wrong," he said. "Twenty million dollars later, the party's over and we still don't have any idea of how many of these things are still spinning," he said. "A lot of them broke down and there were some areas where kids would have had to push this for more than 24 hours a day to keep the water tank full" and that wasn't happening. "We have depressing footage of women trudging in a circle," Starr said. "This was a bad idea." Starr said in each case, do-gooders were oblivious to on-the-ground challenges to actual usage. Accurate impact measurement, early on, could have averted some of the problems, he said. "We need to do a lot more of that."

* Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, said a lot of nonprofits and NGOs and other development agencies aren't just wrong about the impact they're having. They will also try to mislead donors about their effectiveness. "Many will tell you that everything is good" after you donate money to clean water projects in Africa, regardless of what's really happening on the ground, Breslin said. "They'll show you happy kids drinking clean water, laughing," he said. "They'll tell you everything is good. They'll give you a report and a picture. They'll say, 'Here are receipts that prove we spent your money well.' .. But the problem? What happens when we foreigners leave, when the new water system has to run for a while? Is the system still working over time? Are girls who had to carry water from the river all day now attending school, instead? Is water still flowing?" More often than not, Breslin said, families that had been helped with new wells now need to go back to rivers to get their water, thanks to a proliferation of broken well heads and pumps. "...Sustainability to our organization is not how many hand pumps you put in, nor how many beneficiaries we helped last year, nor how many microfinace loans we make," he told conferees. "It is this: is the water still flowing? Africa is littered with broken technology, broken dreams and broken promises. We've got to turn that around and move to different outcomes." Want to change the world? "Push the nonprofit sector and NGOs to do better," Breslin said.

PopTech continues through the weekend; Cause Global is attending and providing coverage. Watch this space for updates.

--Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, Uncertainty, by Tavik Morgenstern)

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The End of Stuff?

Is technology making us less anxious to own stuff? Lisa Gansky, author of the book, The Mesh: Why The Future of Business is Sharing, says yes. Speaking to this year's PopTech conference on new ideas in social change, technology and innovation, Gansky says new Web tools and remote sensors can help us track the real-time location of physical objects. That makes it less necessary for us to own them, Gansky says. As long as we can access stuff when we want it, she says, the more comfortable we are with the idea of living "less large."

Bottom line? Access is 'the new ownership,' she says. "There's a fundamental shift in the relationship we have to the stuff in our lives," Gansky told PopTech conferees gathered at a restored, 19th century opera house in the picturesque seaside village of Camden, Maine. Gansky defines "the mesh" as a thicket of relationships and connections enabling new way of doing business. The mobile Web, she says, gives people the ability to get more of what they want, exactly when they want it and at less cost to themselves and to the planet. "We are actually starting to see products and services designed to be shared and experienced rather than owned," she says.

Among such products is Zipcar, a car-sharing service. "The key ingredient, the perfect storm of meshiness, are mobile devices and social networks and physical goods," Gansky says. "We can locate each other in time and space now, in real time. If we can track goods, it takes the friction out of sharing."

Gansky said the concept came to her when she began to feel like she had too many things. "I started feeling that the stuff in my world started to be noise. I wanted to give up stuff for experiences, to music and film that I could enjoy without owning it. And now I feel like I'm not alone, like whole generations of people and cultures may well skip over ownership altogether."

For more on the Mesh, go to PopTech continues through Saturday.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Lisa Gansky for The Mesh)

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Monday, October 4, 2010


Can't be in San Francisco this week for SOCAP 10?
Here's a livestream of some of the sessions:

Watch live streaming video from socap10 at