PopTech Blog

Glowing umbrellas and art without authorship

There is a certain bubbly energy and excitement to improvisational art as opposed to a rehearsed performance. It's why some people might find an untamable solo by John Coltrane more intoxicating than the most flawlessly executed Mozart concerto.

That is the kind of energy that Pilobolus' Itamar Kubovy and the MIT robotics lab's Kyle Gilpin set out to capture with their stunningly beautiful Umbrella Project, conducted at PopTech 2012 in Camden. In addition to the spark of spontaneity, Kubovy and Gilpin wanted to add in group collaboration as an elixir. So the plan included 300 untrained volunteers. Plus a crane. Plus 300 glowing, LED-lit umbrellas. 

A video short exploring the UP project appears below: 

Pilobolus, the venerable performance art company, has been experimenting with unusual collaborations for years. But the UP project, as it is called, brought improvisation, cooperation and technology to a grand scale, and it resulted in a spectacular display. 

Kubovy said the idea was to practice art ownership without authorship. He described the project as functioning with "absolutely no sense of hierarchy other than the one that gets expressed through the well-lubricated functioning of a good group."

PopTech hosted the collaboration, in which Gilpin's robotics lab festooned 300 opaque umbrellas with manually controlled LED lights that could switch to glow with different colors. Around 300 volunteers gathered one evening in Camden's outdoor amphitheater. A crane hovered high above with a live camera that fed to a giant movie-size screen. The screen allowed the participants to see their movements from above and navigate around relative to everybody else: In a crowd of 300 umbrellas, all you can see are the people and umbrellas directly around you. 

Kubovy's colleague, Matt Kent, made suggestions over a loudspeaker, like, "Form into a star." But the directions were always vague, leaving the participants to figure out — collectively — how to navigate into shapes and designs, even spelling the word PopTech in colored umbrellas by looking up at the screen and cooperating. 

The whole experiment was performed at night and set to music, creating a psychedelic feeling. And the excitement of the group grew so much that they burst out into spontaneous cheers and applause when the volunteers succeeded in creating a cohesive shape. If it had been rehearsed, the UP project never would have bubbled with that kind of magic. 

Kubovy, Kent and Gilpin's PopTech 2012 explanation of the project appears below: 

In the 'Maker Movement,' art is all around us

There is a consumer warning label written in bold letters on the package of Makey Makey, one of Jay Silver's (PopTech 2012) inventions. This is what it says: "WARNING: User may start to believe they can change the way the world works. Extended usage may result in creative confidence."

Makey Makey reflects the way Silver sees art everywhere in the world, and the warning label shows how we are all invited to join him.  

Makey Makey allows users to turn everyday objects into touchpads and manipulate programs or web pages. Simply attach Makey Makey's alligator clips to everyday objects and dial up a program on your computer. If you attach Makey Makey’s alligator clips to a bunch of bananas, and you dial up a piano program, all of a sudden you are playing a banana-piano.

A girl using Makey Makey

In his 2012 PopTech talk in Camden, Silver showed video that he had received through the Internet of people using Makey Makey to turn their dogs into musical instruments, play the "Star Spangled Banner" by biting fruit, and turn their house plants into drums. "I don't know these people," Silver says with a mix of bemusement and pride. 

Those people have embraced Silver's fascination with how we arbitrarily assign meaning to objects. Once we disregard these assigned meanings and follow our creativity, the world is suddenly full of art and possibility.

"What is the purpose of things? And who said that that was the purpose of it?" he asked the Camden audience. "And how do we decide what purpose means or who we should listen to when we designate purpose and meaning in life. Where does it come from? And who said so?"

To capture the spirit of what he called the "Maker Movement," Silver showed video of his own infant son's obvious joy and excitement when he first saw and touched snow. "The world that I would like to live in is a world where everybody helps to make it in their own way, so that it is a hodge-podge of different collections of contributions reflecting everyone’s own internal inspirations," Silver said. "Kind of the way nature is, but for humans."

Jay Silver's PopTech talk appears below:

Bellagio/PopTech Fellows nominations open!

PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation are proud to announce the call for nominations for a unique joint Fellows program focused on unconventional collaboration.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program will bring together four to six individuals from diverse backgrounds for a two-week immersion residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center on the shores of Lake Como, Italy.Bellagio campus

This year’s program will focus on building community resilience through the use of data science, visualization, and distributed information technologies. Fellows will explore the extent to which big data and related technology can be used to enhance psychological, social and systemic resilience worldwide. This effort will be creative, interdisciplinary and collaborative – providing an environment where emerging tools, approaches and solutions are viewed as an art as much as a science.

The program is seeking candidates from the fields of data and data visualization, technology, design, art, social and natural sciences, resilience research, and other social domains. A diverse cohort of Fellows will be chosen for their technical and creative excellence and their demonstrated ability to work and think across disciplines.

Candidates may self-nominate or be nominated by someone else. Eligibility details are available on the call for nominations web page.

Know someone who might be a good fit? Nominations will be accepted through March 1, 2013, and can be submitted via the online nomination form

Will art help us harness big data better than we handled big oil?

Big data could be the new big oil. That's the good news — or the bad news, depending on how we manage this vast resource.

Big data is the seemingly ubiquitous term we use to describe the growing ocean of digital information, including the data generated by all of us as we carry out our modern lives. The trail of data produced by our travel, transactions, even our physical locations constantly contributes to this vast, expanding digital reserve. It's a hot topic in business as well as social innovation. 

Jer Thorp (PopTech 2012) has launched The Office For Creative Research. Thorp joins a chorus of data specialists who see the potential for powerful social innovations hidden in that sea of data, but Thorp also sees potential disaster unless we move forward thoughtfully.  

Jer Thorp

That's because the barely tapped potential of big data to make money and change the world in all kinds of ways is considered so powerful that some people have begun to call big data the new big oil. In his 2012 PopTech talk, Thorp says that metaphor may be apt, but that he finds part of that proposition "terrifying."

"We didn’t do very well with oil," Thorp explains, as he shares a frightening set of slides of oil spills, traffic jams and polar bears clinging to shrinking ice flows. 

He is glad that social innovators are exploring ways to aggregate, splice, dice and manipulate some of that data in ways that could help us prevent transmittable diseases, build better cities, and reduce traffic. But what Thorp finds terrifying is that private corporations have mostly led the way in aggressively exploiting big data. He argues that important considerations such as privacy and ethics should not be primarily adjudicated by businesses whose primary interest in big data is to increase profits.  

"I’m really interested in how we can do a better job with data than we did with oil," he explains. Thorp wants to provoke a social consensus on the handling and use of big data, from data ownership to data ethics. 

As an artist, Thorp sees an opportunity to use art derived from big data to move that conversation forward, for "sharing with people and exposing to people what is happening in this data world."

"What is the subjective experience like of living in this world of big data?" he asks. "What is it like to be us living in this ever-more complicated world?"

Thorp's massive, multi-colored, often 3-D pieces depict cell phone calling history over time, peoples' daily travel patterns, Tweets from passengers disembarking from airplanes, or patterns of good-morning Tweets.

The idea is to get people to understand the breadth and potential power of all this data. "Let’s try to not make the same mistakes with this new resource that we have with the last ones," he says. 

Jer Thorp's Camden 2012 talk appears below:



Weighing the destruction of pristine wilderness to make more cans

Icelandic writer and director Andri Magnason (PopTech 2012) comes from a country of pristine rivers, idyllic waterfalls and picturesque fjords. And he has meticulously documented plans by industry and government to squeeze every ounce of energy from frighteningly huge tracts of that largely untouched wilderness.


Watch the 2012 PopTech Fellows on stage

A highlight of PopTech’s fall conference is when each PopTech Social Innovation and Science Fellow takes the stage in Camden to showcase his or her own work. The raw ingenuity is on full display: reducing malaria by rendering mosquitos infertile, storing digital data in DNA, untangling the evolutionary tree of life, dispatching drones to deliver medicine, and creating nimble new companies with millions of employees but zero managers.

Those presentations are now available online.

Regardless of the caliber of these eye-popping breakthroughs, it is a huge leap to move a fledgling effort into a program that might help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges. And these kinds of visionaries too often labor in relative isolation, without the benefit of a network of experts and supporters who can help equip an innovator with the skills and connections critical for making that great leap.

PopTech’s Fellows programs provide multifaceted training from a network of established leaders with broad experience ranging from building effective organizations to fundraising to communications the very skills required to launch innovations to the next level. The nucleus of the Fellows program is the unique opportunity to connect with like-minded peers and enjoy one-on-one access to experienced mentors.

Enjoy their Camden presentations and keep an eye on PopTech as we follow their adventures.

C.J. Huff and Vicki Arroyo on weather disasters

It's hard for most of us to understand diasaster and resiliency quite the way C.J. Huff (PopTech 2012) does. He is the superintendent of Joplin Schools. He was also on the job on May 22, 2011, when the infamous tornado ripped through his home town. At PopTech 2012 Huff recently discussed the compelling resiliency in Joplin that followed the apocolyptic disaster. Some of those lessons seem particularly relevant in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. "It is about tapping into the time, talent and treasure of our community," he said while describing Joplin's model for rapid, healthy recovery.

Huff was joined on stage by Vicki Arroyo (PopTech 2012), the executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center of Georgetown University Law Center. Arroyo  studies how cities can better design and maintain infrastructure to withstand weather-related catastrophes, another pertinent topic following Sandy.

And in a recent interview with PopTech, Arroyo highlighted a major question lingering in Sandy's wake. Why are there so many more weather-related disasters these days? “Can we please talk about what is happening?” Arroyo asked.

Arroyo told PopTech that she hopes Sandy will finally catalyze honest talk about the real problem. “More scientists are feeling comfortable that we are seeing more super storms that are very consistent with climate change. It is just happening sooner than we expected.”

Photo: NASAThat trend seems to make irrelevant the bickering about whether a single storm is attributable to global warming.  “When you heat something up, you’ve got more energy,” she said about increasing ocean temperatures. “I think we really have a wake up call here,” Arroyo said about Sandy. “We are living in a different world. We have got to get serious about reducing our emissions.”

Maybe that reality is starting to sink in. “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters after Sandy brought New York City to its knees. “Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality.”

Reality: Last year the United States suffered through more than a dozen weather disasters like floods, hurricanes and tornadoes that each did over a billion dollars in damage -- more than occurred during the entire 1980s, according to Arroyo.

It’s also getting harder and harder to deny why all this is happening. We had better start dealing with reality, or there will be far too many people who need Huff's advice.

Huff's PopTech's presentation is here:


Arroyo's recent PopTech presentation appears below:

Photo: NASA

C.J. Huff on resilience in the aftermath of the unthinkable

C.J. Huff is the superintendent of Joplin, Mo. schools who led his district of thousands of employees and students through the recovery effort that followed the infamous Joplin tornado. “We had children in the rubble...and there is no worse feeling in the world,” he said about the moments after the storm. “I can tell you, at this time in my life, I had 7,747 kids that I was responsible for, and I could only account for my two children.”

Glowing umbrellas at PopTech 2012

Social media is buzzing about the performance group Pilobolus' project in a Camden amphitheater last night involving PopTech folks, Camden residents, and glowing umbrellas.

David DeSteno pries open the science behind human compassion


David DeSteno directs the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University where his research is pulling back the curtain to reveal some of the mechanics that drive human compassion. “It is not the severity or the objective facts of a disaster that motivate us to feel compassion and to help. It is whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.”