PopTech Blog

Beyond Knowledge

As an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, Michael Wesch says he has a “front row seat" from which to explore and watch the effects of new media on society and culture, and for the past three-and-a-half years, Wesch has been inviting his students to help him analyze the vast social media community.

After trawling through mega-gigs of YouTube content, watching hours of videos and posting videos of their own, Wesch says, he and his students “are finding that the same conditions of ease and anonymity that enable people to get snarky online" can also encourage them to participate in meaningful and collaborative new projects. In fact, says Wesch, YouTube and other social media can mitigate the cultural tension between teens’ conflicting needs for independence and community by offering them “connection without constraints.” What looks like narcissism and individuality is actually a search for identity and recognition, Wesch told PopTech goers last fall. “In a society that doesn’t automatically grant identity and recognition, you have to create your own.”

Mike Wesch at PopTech 2009 on YouTube and the power for new media to transform collective action.

Wesch says he’s hopeful that social media will ease the “narcissistic disengagement” of many young people and encourage them to be more politically and civically engaged. Already, he says, some heroes have emerged—including the anonymous YouTube character who filmed himself giving hugs to strangers in the streets, and One World, the person who wore a Guy Fox mask and used his anonymity as a platform for collaboration, asking people to write messages on the palms of their hands and to hold them up to their Webcams for sharing. Millions of people shared this way, mostly about the need to love one another and to look beyond themselves.

“When I’m using a Webcam,” Wesch explains, “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to it. When you’re Twittering, you’re not talking to me, you’re talking to it. Or when I’m on Facebook, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to it.” The point, says Wesch: When communicating face-to-face, people bring many different versions of themselves into a conversation based on the context of that conversation. “But when you’re sitting in front of a camera, or twittering to hundreds if not thousands of people in a community who you cannot see and who cannot see you, you don’t know who you are talking to or when or in what context, and so [communication via social media is] forcing a kind of context collapse—a deeper level of self-awareness not present in simple, everyday conversation. People can get deeply self-reflective on YouTube and confessional…and reveal things they would otherwise refuse to reveal, even to their family and close friends.”

In talks to PopTech and around the country, Wesch has been urging journalists, business developers, and social media specialists to start thinking of YouTube and other forms of social media as “a new kind of public sphere” where new types of conversations and forms of communication can occur. “We have an opportunity, on YouTube and with other social media, to create a whole new groundwork for the way conversations work – and for the way education works, as well,” Wesch says.

I caught up with Wesch last week to find out what he’s been up to since his talk last fall in Camden. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

At PopTech last fall, you shared some very moving and humorous examples of the many ways social media are changing the ways we consider each other, altering both what we’re willing to communicate and to recognize in ourselves. “If our media are changing, then our conversations are changing,” you said. “And if our conversations are changing, then so, too, are our communities – and ourselves.” What new insights have you been getting from your research?

WESCH: Since PopTech last fall, I have shifted into activist mode. One of the things I am doing is launching a crusade for new media literacy at all levels of education, which largely stems from what you might call the ‘dark side’ idea that I didn’t really get into during my PopTech presentation — yet it strikes me that we’re sort of on this razor’s edge right now, where we have these great possibilities before us but also are facing some downsides. Social media provide great opportunities for new forms of transparency, openness and connection. But they also provide new ways to isolate ourselves, and new ways to deceive each other – as well enable new forms of surveillance and control. Our schools right now are failing in this regard by framing most of what they’re teaching in an old media model. Even while they may embrace technology in the classroom – they bring in computers and so forth – their pedagogy hasn’t really caught up. Since last fall, I’ve been traveling all around, talking to teachers and hearing from people involved in education at all levels. I’m trying to get a more sophisticated media literacy into the curriculum.


Global Heroes

Editor’s note: Today we release a talk from 2009 PopTech speaker Naif Al-Mutawa, the creator of THE 99 – the first comic series to include multicultural superheroes inspired by an Islamic archetype. A clinical psychologist by training, Al-Mutawa is creating new frameworks for confronting stereotypes and extremism through a cast of characters that derive their power from Allah’s 99 attributes.

Storytelling doesn’t have to be digital to catalyze rapid social change. Consider the fastest-selling comic book in the Arab world, called The 99; its cast features 99 superheroes inspired by Islam on a quest to find legendary, mystical Noor Stones needed to save the world. Why 99? All characters are based on the concept of Allah’s 99 attributes, including wisdom and generosity, as taught in the Koran.

Last week, I caught up with the creator of The 99, Naif Al-Mutawa, who says he’s been a fan of America’s Marvel comics and The Hardy Boys mysteries since he attended summer camp in New Hampshire as a child.

Al-Mutawa is now 39, a Columbia University Business School graduate and a clinical psychologist. After attending college in the States, he worked as a therapist at Bellevue Hospital’s survivors for political torture program, and decided Muslims needed positive role models. In 2005, he founded Teshkeel Media Group in Kuwait City, where he was born and raised. In July 2007, Teshkeel began publishing The 99 (as well as select, Arabic versions of Spiderman and other Marvel and DC comics) in the United States and across the Middle East.

Cover art by Tom Derenick of the upcoming release of a six-part comic book series with DC Comics — in which The 99’s superheroes team up with Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman to fight evil around the globe.

[Characters in The 99 include Noora the Light, 18, (a former university student in Sharjah—the third-largest emirate in the UAE—who is now “a light to overcome the darkness”); Mumita the Destroyer, 17 (a street-smart runaway teen from the UAE who is being recruited by both the forces of good and evil to fight), and Dr. Ramzi Razem, 35 (a psychologist, historian, and UNESCO official who lives in Paris as a sort-of Arab version of Indiana Jones, hungry to learn more about the Noor stones and to mobilize the 99 for global peace).

There also is Jabbar the Powerful—a 19-year-old whose online profile says he was once “an average Saudi Arabian teen” until he stepped on a land mine and was transformed by hidden gem shards into a “man-mountain, a giant standing over two meters tall and weighing almost 200 kilograms.” The good guys, led by Dr. Ramzi, seek to keep Jabbar out of the control of those who have an extremist agenda. How powerful is Jabbar? If he sneezes, his profile adds, Jabbar “could level a house.”]

Al-Mutawa says he hopes the comic books will spread a moderate, modern image of Islam to the world and create new role models. “The Islamic world has had suicide bombers as heroes and needed new heroes,” Al-Mutawa says.

So far, so good: since their debut in 2006 in Kuwait, The 99 series is being translated into eight languages and sold in more than 20 countries and the first of five planned 99-based theme parks opened in Kuwait in March of last year. Meanwhile, a three-season, animated TV series is in production and Teshkeel Comics just signed a multimillion dollar deal with the global entertainment TV company, Endemol (Big Brother, Deal or No Deal, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), to produce it.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Last April in Washington, President Obama commended The 99 in a speech he gave at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship that sought to welcome new ties between U.S. and Muslim entrepreneurs. He said your comic books “have captured the imaginations of so many young people with superheroes that embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam.” In 2008, Forbes magazine described The 99 as “one of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe.” Yet today, in 2010, in New York City, do you think — or hope — that one of The 99’s magical Noor stones emitting the powers of tolerance and strength will be found somewhere near the proposed Muslim cultural enter and mosque in lower Manhattan?

AL-MUTAWA: Question One: grab the bull by the horns, yes? [laughter]

Indeed. [laughter] But seriously, in your view, what does the current level of controversy here in New York say about the global climate for civic engagement and tolerance – what you’ve been working toward with The 99?

There’s an old Kuwaiti saying that says if you get bit by a snake, you become afraid of rope. And another thing is that one’s body is set up in such a way, that if anything foreign is introduced into it, good or bad, white blood cells attack. That happens, also, in the mind – not just in the body; if a foreign idea comes in, one immediately might try to defend against it, and I think with regard to the proposed cultural center in Manhattan, it’s a very complicated situation. Let me just say that the Imam behind the place is someone for whom I have a lot of respect; he is someone who is a role model for what Imams should be like. It’s very disturbing for me because he is someone who people should be embracing. His work and his words have been twisted. I have heard Imam Faisal say that the United States should be a symbol for what the Muslim countries aspire to, so it’s troubling for me that even somebody who has an interfaith approach is seeing his words being twisted.

So returning to the rope and snake scenario – obviously, I understand that some people who are upset about this project think its construction would be akin to telling the bad guys that we [the good guys] didn’t win but in fact, the bad guys did win and that’s why there’s all this uproar. It really is a very sensitive and a complicated situation.

PopTech Sneak Peek: Register Today!


The PopTech team has been busy putting the final touches on the 2010 PopTech program and we’re simply so excited, we wanted to provide the PopTech community with a “sneak-peek” before our full program announcement next month!

Convening this Oct 20-23, PopTech 2010 will bring together a remarkable network of scientists, technologists, engineers, designers, social innovators, corporate leaders, educators and entrepreneurs for a robust conversation about what it takes to genuinely innovate and create lasting, intentional change. The theme this year, Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs, couldn’t be more timely.

The 2010 lineup hasn’t been fully revealed yet, but here’s a sample of the more than 40 remarkable presenters:

  • Adrian Owen, the neuroscientist who has pioneered a new way to communicate with vegetative patients.
  • Marcia McNutt, the Director of the US Geological Survey, who led the US scientific response to the BP Oil Spill.
  • Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience of failure.
  • Laura Poitras, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker of “The Oath,” which follows the revealing life stories of two members of Al Quaeda.
  • Alan Rabinowitz, the “Indiana Jones” of conservation and a leader in the conservation of big cats.
  • Kathryn Schulz, the bestselling author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.”
  • Elizabeth Dunn, the psychologist who studies the surprising truths about what makes us happy.

This isn’t your usual schmoozefest. It’s visionary people. A beautiful, intimate setting. Authentic dialogue. Deep inspiration. A real community. Ideas that will change your perspective, and maybe your life. And most importantly, connections that lead to real outcomes and real action.

Tickets are $3000, and supply is scarce – sign up today at http://poptech.org/poptech_2010.

This Week in PopTech: Microforestry, Mockumentary and Money


  • Last week marked the opening of Studio H, the core educational initiative of Project H Design, a nonprofit design organization founded by 2009 PopTech Fellow Emily Pilloton to mobilize innovative product design for social good.
  • Recent photos from Carolyn Porco Imaging Science Team on the Cassini mission to Saturn include stunning shots of Saturn’s moons, Epimetheus, Tethys and Dione.
  • The microforestry organization KOMAZA has a beautiful video that shows how a half-acre tree farm can change a woman’s life in rural Kenya. KOMAZA founder and 2008 Social Innovation Fellow Tevis Howard partners with poor families to plant high-profit commercial tree farms that generate life-changing income and help preserve indigenous biodiversity.
  • What we’re watching: The Majestic Plastic Bag – A Mockumentary by Heal the Bay, narrated by a straight-faced, fully emoting Jeremy Irons, tracks the tenacious migration of a plastic bag from a grocery store parking lot to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • What we’re reading: The new “Money and Mission” blog from PopTech board member and Nonprofit Finance Fund CEO, Clara Miller.
  • Failure quote of the week: “There is no failure for the man who realizes his power, who never knows when he is beaten; there is no failure for the determined endeavor; the unconquerable will. There is no failure for the man who gets up every time he falls, who rebounds like a rubber ball, who persists when everyone else gives up, who pushes on when everyone else turns back.” – Orison Swett Marden

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This Week in PopTech: Sustainable Development, Aquaponics and Speaking Human

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • This week PopTech contributor Joshua J. Friedman interviewed Water For People’s Ned Breslin about why it’s important to shift from short-term to long-term thinking — and move from charity work to sustainable development.
  • Designer and typographer Marian Bantjes has designed the wildest graphically enhanced sailboat we’ve ever seen. You might remember the special poster Marian created for the attendees of our 2008 conference, which was inspired by the theme, ”Scarcity and Abundance.”
  • Our pals at Ushahidi announced a free “Ushahidi in the Cloud” for non-techies called Crowdmap.
  • Friend of PopTech and designer Joey Roth has a great new poster out — are you a Charlatan, Martyr or Hustler?
  • Failure quote of the week: ""Hint: there is no category of: ‘does risky exploration, never fails.’" – Seth Godin

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Learning from the Water Crisis of Our Making

The world is facing a water and sanitation crisis, but not the one you think. True, nearly 900 million people lack clean water and 2.5 billion lack a safe toilet, but perhaps the greater tragedy is that decades of efforts by philanthropists and NGOs have been pursued in such a short-sighted way that today many of the poorest regions of the world are littered with broken hand pumps and failed latrines—an enduring reminder of promise unfulfilled. Of the 600,000 to 800,000 hand pumps installed in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years, approximately one third fail prematurely, according to the International Water and Sanitation Centre in the Netherlands, a total failed investment of more than $1 billion.

Ned Breslin, the CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, caused a stir in January when he published a critique of water and sanitation development practices titled “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy.” Breslin argues that donors, NGOs, and local governments are letting down the people they serve by refusing to properly evaluate their work and confront past mistakes.

“Africa, Asia and Latin America have become wastelands for broken water and sanitation infrastructure,” Breslin writes. “Go to schools throughout developing countries and you will often find a broken hand pump around the corner, or a disused latrine that filled years ago. Sector agencies intuitively know this but the general public is shielded from these hard truths as perceptions of failure could threaten ‘the cause’ of reaching the unserved. Poor people do not benefit from this disingenuity.”

The pump pictured above was not maintained by the NGO that installed it nor was a successful plan made for it to be maintained by residents. In order to access water, the residents broke through the top (called the cement apron) and now adults and children alike dangerously hover over the edge to dip in their jugs. Image by Julia Lewis, courtesy of Water for People.

For water and sanitation development projects to have a chance of succeeding, Breslin says, the sector must move from short-term to long-term thinking, from charity work to sustainable development. Local governments must invest their own money in development projects to create a sense of ownership. Philanthropists must form more substantial relationships with development agencies and apply their business expertise when choosing and monitoring the projects. Above all, organizations must honestly evaluate their projects over time.

I interviewed Breslin over e-mail about his ideas and how they are being received in development circles.

How did you decide to write your article?

I lived and worked in Africa for close to 20 years and spent well over half my time there rehabilitating failed water projects and poorly designed sanitation initiatives. People received clean water, celebrations ensued, photos were taken, and then the NGO or volunteer group would return to the U.S. or Europe and never learn that the project they had installed failed. I have a good friend whose child died because, after first tasting clean water when weaned from his mother’s breast, his body could not cope when the water supply broke and the family returned to the polluted source they had hoped was abandoned forever.

So I decided to write this piece because I believe the water and sanitation sector has misdiagnosed the challenge. Yes, there are hundreds of millions, even billions of people who do not have clean water, but this is also because we as a sector have not done particularly well at providing lasting solutions. We constantly see the pictures of women or girls scooping water from a muddy puddle, but what we don’t see is that they often walked past broken hand pumps and taps to get to that puddle. This is not acceptable, and is lost on the public and philanthropists who are being fed a somewhat inaccurate story of the crisis.

The real crisis is that the investments we have made in water and sanitation have not succeeded in transforming lives through sustained water supply and sanitation services. And, sadly, poor people around the world will not benefit from new campaigns or larger amounts of aid until we acknowledge that hard reality and take meaningful steps to change the way we work.

This Week in PopTech: Radical Innovation, 100 Hammers and Inception


  • Our friends at Project M have a new project called 100 Hammers, a collaborative effort inspired by Maine artist David McLaughlin, a locally known craftsman and collector who passed away in early May of 2010. David spent his life inspiring others not just through his art but through his passion to see new life in otherwise unwanted materials. The M’ers gathered 100 second-hand hammers with the intention of keeping David’s dream alive by passing the hammers along to people who could give them a life they otherwise wouldn’t have had, creating a new and unique history for each hammer.
  • Social Innovation faculty member John Balen, a General Partner at Canaan Partners and a board member at numerous early-stage firms (including Blurb and ID Analytics), tells us about pitching a VC.
  • 2009 PopTech speaker Jonah Lehrer explores the The Neuroscience of Inception. (About this post – Jonah says the entire post is a spoiler. Stop reading if you have not seen Inception, because 1) It will reveal major plot points and 2) It will make no sense.)
  • Failure quote of the week: “If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments.” -Peter Norvig

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Using Contests to Drive Radical Innovation

Last week, the X PRIZE Foundation announced a $1.4 million contest for new technologies to clean up ocean oil spills. The competition was spurred, in part, by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which has become one of the largest oil spills in history.

The educational foundation relies on carefully designed contests to drive breakthrough innovation. It builds on the success of the Ansari X PRIZE, a competition modeled after early 20th century aviation prizes and one that spurred the development of commercial space flight. (Founder Peter Diamandis spoke at PopTech in 2005. His talk can be found here.) The prize model rests on the assumption that carefully-designed contests can promote paradigm-shifting innovation, namely in exploration (space and ocean), energy and the environment, life sciences, and education and global development. Three competitions currently underway focus on dramatically improving vehicle fuel efficiency, finding cheaper and faster ways to sequence the human genome, and building lunar landers that are able to transmit images and data back to the Earth.

As part of its Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, PopTech is exploring how competitions might spur the development of greener materials. PopTech recently caught up with Erika Wagner, Executive Director of the X PRIZE Lab @ MIT, a partnership between the university and the X PRIZE Foundation, to talk about the relationship between competitions and innovation.

The X PRIZE focuses on “prize philanthropy.” What is that and why is it important?
We offer prizes for achievements. This focuses the field on a very specific objective based on what we believe will catalyze the industry.

If you look at the amount of money that VCs have sunk into really hot fields, a $10 million prize would be a drop in the bucket. We’re looking for market failure. In the case of space flight, it was because you had a government monopoly. So some might say it was a failure of imagination. In the auto industry, you’ve got the oligopoly of the big automakers. In the genomics space, there were a lot of small labs that were pushing boundaries, but they were not necessarily working toward the rapid deployment of personalized medicine.

“We look for problems where a $10 million award will be disruptive to an industry, and even society.”

The Ansari X PRIZE demonstrated that a $10 million purse could generate $100 million in research and development and a follow-on market of well over $1 billion. As soon as you offer a prize, it says to the world that somebody believes that this challenge is worthy of real investment.

It’s also why prizes tend to attract outsiders. The GM Volt and the Nissan Leaf are not competing in the [Progressive Automotive] X PRIZE. There’s nothing in it for them to win, and everything in it for them to lose going up against the small players. It’s really an opportunity for every other inventor that has a transformative idea but has trouble getting heard in the marketplace. It’s mavericks like Burt Rutan [who won the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004] and West Philly high school kids. They have been running a high-efficiency auto program, out of their shop class basically. They were one of the top 21 teams in our Auto X PRIZE.

This Week in PopTech: Ecomaterials, Grasshoppers and Caterpillars


  • This week we released Kurt Andersen’s talk on renewing America, accompanied by an interview with Kurt in which he explores the concept of failure as it relates to the insect world: “For some people, it will take hitting bottom to behave like the ant instead of the grasshopper. Some people are just naturally virtuous ants, sure. But it’s a lot more fun to be a grasshopper and dance and play and sing until winter comes and you have no choice but to figure out a way to get inside.”
  • The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has selected Lincoln Schatz’s 2008 commission for Esquire magazine, Portrait of the 21st Century, for inclusion in their collection.

We’re Hiring!

Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

Available positions:

  • Web Designer / Developer
  • Evangelist / Blogger In Chief
  • Media and Marketing Associate
  • Director of Operations
  • Executive Assistant


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PopTech Network and new Low-Impact Materials

Last week, PopTech convened a PopTech Lab at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in the New Research Building of Harvard Medical School in Boston. The three day PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab kicked off our long-term commitment to fostering breakthroughs in next-generation, ‘ultra-green’ ecological materials and industrial processes, and discerning new pathways to accelerating their widespread adoption.

PopTech Concierge Keryn Gottshalk greets Lab participant Anil Netravali, Professor of Fiber Science, Cornell College of Human Ecology. Photography by John Santerre.

PopTech Labs are a yearlong, open, collaborative investigation of a critical area of disruptive innovation in a domain of vital importance to business, society and the planet, such as water, energy, materials and health. Each PopTech Lab harnesses our ability to bring together a network of innovators and decision-makers, brilliant and unconventional, to explore new ideas and identify areas for collaboration in a crucial field and to find new ways to accelerate change. We rigorously map the issues, challenges and opportunities around a specific area of future change, and identify new incentives to unlock further innovation. The resulting recommendations are used to guide further development and are shared with the larger PopTech community and the world at the following year’s conference.

Lab participants going through an introductory exercise led by creative guru Peter Durand. Photography by John Santerre.

The Ecomaterials Innovation Lab brought together a network of eminent and emerging leaders in material science, sustainability, corporate leadership, design, academia, and policy circles. We began the program focused on getting to know one another and exploring the current landscape, system conditions and impediments surrounding the adoption of ecological materials.