The federal government is just beginning to use social media to talk to citizens. What’s needed now, says Web entrepreneur Anil Dash, is a way for government to use social media to listen.
Anil Dash at Web 2.0 Expo, photo by James Duncan Davidson and courtesy O’Reilly Media and TechWeb.
Expert Labs—one of the more intriguing ideas to emerge from this past week’s Web 2.0 Expo in Manhattan—is a new nonprofit that will seek to bridge that gap. Its mission is to use the Web and expert online communities to crowdsource solutions to social problems that state or federal lawmakers either cannot or will not devise by themselves: Dash, a co-founder of Six Apart, was tapped to lead the new effort, a joint project of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the MacArthur Foundation.
Dash says he sees Expert Labs as a way to make sure the smartest people (whether or not they’ve been elected) are always, at least virtually, in the room. “If we can bring the right resources to bear and sufficient numbers of the right experts to help solve our social problems, there really is an order of magnitude increase in the types of problems we’re going to be able to solve,” Dash told Web 2.0 conferees while unveiling the project during a keynote address.
Dash says he is clear that more brains are required in Washington. “No matter how smart the policymakers are in our government—there are many brilliant, passionate people in government—there’s always going to be more experts outside the Beltway,” Dash said. He also says he’s seeking to crowdsource innovation because in Washington, there’s often a lack of quality deliberation. “The tactics [government has used so far] have been holding a closed-door meeting with a half-dozen people for an hour and saying, ‘Well, we’ve talked to the industry experts and now we know how to make good policy,’” Dash said. “But you and I know the Web has changed the way that works. If I can ask my friends on Twitter what pair of headphones I should buy; if I can ask as a business person on Facebook, ‘What’s your response as a consumer of our product?’ then why shouldn’t the government be able to ask those same kinds of questions when shaping policy?”
Since it was unveiled November 18, the project has been getting mixed reviews, the most favorable from the Gov 2.0 crowd, which sees Expert Labs as a way to invite more input into the governmental process. But “smarter” doesn’t always mean inclusive. And if Dash’s effort is mostly aimed at tapping AAAS’s 2,000-plus members, what about the wisdom of the larger crowd? If the expertise being tapped by Expert Labs is limited to the 161-year-old AAAS, what’s to differentiate Expert Labs from any other higher-profile, closed-loop lobbying group in Washington trying to use social media to boost the clout of its members on Capitol Hill?
Further, crowdsourcing headphone recommendations is hardly the same as asking your company’s expert policy group or private engineering create-your-own-social-network service Ning for detailed solutions to the nation’s failing healthcare system, or for the best ways to wind down the war in Afghanistan without creating whole new sets of security threats and political minefields at home and abroad. Indeed, governing is inherently more complex than product innovation; smart isn’t always fact-based, nor wise—nor governable. And to be sure, scientific expertise can inform policy but leadership has always been far more of an art than a science.
Indeed, what’s most intriguing about Dash’s initiative is that it’s an ambitious, well-intentioned effort, one of many, that is seeking to invent new ways to use the Web to boost citizen participation, chiefly from highly specialized communities that haven’t always been tapped for their knowledge. Viva the experiment; after the last eight years, Washington can do with a more enlightened government. But beware the Web’s power, at least in these early days of Gov 2.0, to reward meritocracy and technological prowess at the risk of overlooking those without or less wired. Democracy has always, in theory, sought to raise all boats. Here’s hoping Dash’s experiment—and others like it using social media—also will raise tough questions about elitism and exclusivity, the kind that all of us living in democratic societies will, at some point, have to resolve.
Editor’s note: PopTech staff Coco Rojas gives an update on the FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) solar bag project and who is helping us test it right now below—FLAP is a collaborative effort from PopTech, Timbuk2, and Portable Light Project. You can find out more about the project’s history and field work on the FLAP FAQ page (including how to order the bag) and join the FLAP project on our community site, the Hub.
FLAP received a tremendous response at the PopTech 2009 conference, and we are incredibly grateful to all the PopTech’ers who offered to help field test the bag. (Let us know in the comments or tweet @poptech if you would like to help too.)
We will continue to post findings and footage on this blog and on our Web site. For those of you would like to get more involved in the project, you can visit PopTech’s FLAP project page on the PopTech Hub, our social network and collaboration space.
I’ll see you there!
This week, President Obama has spoken in China about openness and human rights, world leaders are meeting in Rome to talk about world hunger and food security, and it is Global Entrepreneurship Week, so we are releasing three PopTech 2009 talks on truth, politics and the art of diplomacy.
Below, Paul van Zyl makes the case for an American Truth Commission, Senior Advisor on Innovation Alec Ross argues for an overhaul of U.S. diplomacy, and Erica Williams tells how the younger generations participate in politics.
All three ask us to consider how we shape the future of the American political process. (We hope you will watch and share these videos widely.)
Download the .pdf transcript of Paul’s talk
Check the upcoming ICTJ event calendar
Read Ethan Zuckerman’s live blog post on Paul’s talk at PopTech 2009
Follow Alec (@alecjross) on Twitter
Listen to the November 9th Business Week podcast with Alec, How Can Government Spark Innovation?
Find out how to start and grow a social enterprise in this Stanford Social Innovation Review podcast
Learn more about Campus Progress and their work
Read this Christian Science Monitor article about Millenial Generation values from May 2009
Thoughts? Let us know in the comments—
Upon the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city of Berlin has launched a remarkable “living” online memorial: the Berlin Twitter Wall.
Using the hashtag #fotw, people can share their thoughts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall and tell the world “which walls still have to come down to make our world a better place.” The Web site scrolls messages along a backdrop of the East Side Gallery, a famous stretch of the wall still standing and painted with murals. By clicking "stop" and "play", older tweets are shown. A click on the cameras up on the wall displays a selection of the domino-artwork that fell in a symbolic act on November 9th 2009 at the "Fest der Freiheit" (festival of freedom) at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
I love how the Berlin Twitter Wall intersects history and real-time action, memory and instant gratification, gravitas with graffiti, concrete architecture and virtual realm – and make all of that open and social.
Our group of 2008 and 2009 Social Innovation Fellows is incredibly active—and they often work together and link to each other’s work.
Some of our favorite tweets from them in the past few days are below; you can follow them on Twitter on the PopTech SI Fellows List.
We are delighted to post the delicious videos from the PopTech 2009: Edible Futures session today (you can see all the 2009 Social Innovation Fellow videos in last week’s post). We hope you will embed these videos and share them with your friends.
Michael Pollan spoke the gospel of sustainable food at PopTech and you can watch as he gives new statistics on the current state of our industrial food system and why we need to share meals around the same table (special thanks to Duarte Design who worked closely with Michael to bring this presentation to life):
Will Allen showed new techniques in urban farming and how his organization, Growing Power, is using aquaponics and vermicomposting to grow new soil. Watch his video below to find out why worms are our friends:
Look for another batch of videos soon from PopTech 2009, and let us know what you think about Michael, Will, and Marije’s presentations in the comments—
For PopTechers in the New York area, there’s a PopTech NYC meetup organized by Alex Ivey next Thursday, November 19th at 7pm: details and RSVP. Please join us if you’re in town.
“Nick, who has worked for years on various technology projects at The Times, has been on leave to write a book about the future of media, technology and storytelling. He returns to us more passionate than ever about multimedia journalism, so expect to see some experiments here on Bits in the coming months.”
Here’s her first post on the reaction in Mozambique (and we’ll have more FLAP updates in a post next week):
“I asked, how much would it be worth to someone to be able to have light in the evening and to charge a phone? How much do people spend normally to charge a phone? “Well,” Badru explained, “you have to send your phone somewhere to get it charged, or you have to go pay 10 metacais a day (around $0.30), and then sit around and wait for it to charge up.” So you end up spending about 300 metacais a month to keep a phone charged here.”
2009 Fellow Eben Bayer’s company Ecovative Design “ecocradle” won the Opportunity Green OG25 competition and the “ecocradle” is featured as one of 100 top innovations in the December issue of Popular Science (look for the “mushroom styrofoam” header in the article).
“We need to make cars that people deeply desire. We need to make cool cars, cars people really want. We don’t need incentives – we need cool cars.”
More of Peter’s 2009 PopTech work on Flickr.
Other updates? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s note: Carl Honoré spoke about the Slow Movement at PopTech 2007—watch his talk for more background on how slow creates meaning and happiness.
I first knew Douglas Gayeton as the creator of Molotov Alva, the digital avatar who explored the meaning of life in Second Life. Now, some three years later, Gayeton is pushing the boundaries of multimedia and interactivity once more, but this time in a distinctly un-digital context. With SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, his first book, Gayeton introduces the people of Pistoia and their progressively rare, digitally unfettered way of life in rural Italy—which emerged from a year Gayeton spent five years ago in Pistoia. But Slow also marks the debut of a new and richly engaging, journalistic form of remix storytelling—a kind that merges the organic and synthetic and turns a photographic moment of time into an image that contains a fuller story.
Using what he calls “flat film” techniques, Gayeton layers most of his portraits of Pistoia with his own, handwritten notes, anecdotes, recipes, quotes, and historical facts, bringing context and color to each. Each image from his time in Pistoia is actually comprised of multiple photographs taken over the course of time, from 10 minutes to several hours.
Gayeton explains his technique:
I caught up with Gayeton during a book-signing for Slow in New York earlier this week. Here’s an edited version of my interview with him:
What was the genesis for Slow and for the flat film technique you used to make it?
It was really something that happened by chance. I began to make photographs of the people in my town and the first few of them were for PBS, which ended up on a Web project that PBS did that won a Webby a few years ago. And after I did the first four of them for PBS, I kept on going. The basic principles that I used for the photographs were born out of the fact that I’m a filmmaker and not a photographer. What you do as a filmmaker is tell stories – stories that have beginnings and middles and ends.
I was never really attracted to photography because photography is, really, just a moment in time that is frozen and I wanted to get so much more into a photograph. I also felt the mechanism of the photograph, the camera, was too small to capture all that I could see when I saw the world in front of me. So I approached this project interested in two things at the same time: one, trying to introduce time into a photograph, and two, trying to find a way to express something as visually vast as the world that I would see before my eyes.
The first time I tried to put that theory into practice, I found myself at a Sunday lunch in Pistoia; I took about 500 photographs during the course of a three-hour lunch, and afterwards, I looked at all of the people who had been there, the matriarch of the family and her children. And for each person, I found a photograph that captured my memory of them during lunch that day and then took each of those photos and combined them to make a simple photograph, one that ended up being three feet long and two feet tall. And I then began to write on top of it, the most memorable things they had said that day.
I was drawn to a lot of narrative strategies that are employed in pre-Renaissance art, the idea of the saint having rays of light coming out of his head or the stigmata, the blood lines coming out of the palms of someone’s hands, or the date of the saints’ birth being written across his chest. So I took all of these narrative notions I’d seen in pre-Renaissance art and I applied them to the photograph. And when I was done, I looked at the photograph and I thought that this would be the way you could actually create a film in the course of a photograph. I think this is a way to graphically represent three hours in the course of the life of a family on a Sunday afternoon.
What happened next?
After I did the first photograph, I realized I had processed a way to introduce a filmmaker’s story into a single image and from that, my journey began, really, in earnest. For the next five years, I continued to document the people of this town. Initially, I was just writing their stories (but then) one of the people I’d photographed used an old Tuscan saying to describe the narrative they were reading in the finished piece and I realized this Tuscan saying perfectly described the photograph that I’d made with them. And from that moment on, every photograph in the book has a large caption written across it which is an old Tuscan saying — and which, when translated, explains what you’re looking at. At the heart of this approach is a desire to tell people’s stories in their own words and to decode what you’re seeing in an image. I think these Tuscan sayings bring it all together.
You mention your inspiration from pre-Renaissance art but this work also has a feeling of multimedia, of links and of meta-data available in a single view. Did you have Internet technology in mind when you worked on this format?
Sadly, I’m not very technical person. I wish I were more technical, because the work would certainly have taken another interesting direction, perhaps. But one of the things about the work from the very, very beginning was that all the writing was done on layers of Plexiglas that would be placed in front of the image, three layers, so that when you’d actually look at the photographs, all the words would seem to be floating in space. I used that approach because I am really interested in the relationship between different ideas and to create this movement from one idea to another.
That sense of spatiality is also the hallmark of hybrid storytelling that we see in new media, where a narrative has a beginning, middle, and end but is deconstructed by the new media maker and left to the audience to piece it together. In a way, these photographs function the same way. There’s no correct order to them in a linear sense but collectively, all of the stories and anecdotal data in these images, collectively tell a story. You have an experiential relationship with the photograph because you are putting that information together in a different way than might someone else who would look at the same photograph.
Why this town?
I was living there at end of 90s. I bought a place there and restored it and then continued to live there for the next five years. When I moved there, I didn’t know anyone in the town but by the end of my time there, I was really integrated and very much a part of the community.
You mention in the book that this is a way of life that is fading.
There’s this fear that there is a lot of peasant knowledge around the world, not only in Italy. Certainly, this is not just an Italian story or a Tuscan story but a story we are witnessing around the world. It’s the idea that there are certain cultural aspects of lives that are under assault; that are disappearing as people lead increasingly urban or industrial lives, and as they become distanced from their agrarian roots. And so certainly there is a theme that runs through the book, this idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is in danger of being lost, possibly forever.
But at the same time, a reviewer recently commented that this book is about the lost arts. Actually, though, it’s really a book of the almost lost arts, because I think what we are witnessing now is that people are returning and reclaiming the knowledge that’s been lost. It’s definitely the case in the United States. We live in a country primarily of immigrants. In my case, my mother came from Spain and on my father’s side, my grandparents came from Italy, and there was a great fundamental need to assimilate, to become part of the American culture, and that meant leaving the language and leaving all of the cultural touch points behind. So I didn’t find myself being raised as a person with strong connections to Spain or to connections to my family in Italy because there was such a strong desire to become part of this new country.
So the result of this was that I was completely cut off from the cultural traditions of my family. So for me, the book gave me an ability to reclaim what had been lost. What I’m seeing as I travel with this book across the country is that my story is not unique. I think people all over feel a disconnection from their culture that is their past and now understand the importance of reconnecting to it – and not only to the culture of their past but to the culture all around them. I think people want now to be more connected to the land, to the food chain, to the things from which they are increasingly divorced as they live increasingly urban lifestyles.
You have expressed great interest in the Slow Food movement. Is that where the title of this book originated?
The book began as an exploration of what the slow food movement meant. The movement began in 1980s, in Rome, after McDonald’s put in its first restaurant right near the Spanish Steps in Rome. And Italians, rightfully so, realized they were now under cultural assault, that the introduction of American fast food culture in Italy could be disastrous to the national identity. So the slow food movement was an attempt to protect a lot of aspects of indigenous culture tied to food and now it’s a movement in more than 100 countries around the world. It has also taken hold in the United States, primarily with Alice Waters as its major spokesperson.
This past year, slow food had its first really big event, Slow Food Nation, in San Francisco. Its founders gathered 50 or 60 of the photographs in this book and showed them there. Alice Waters wrote the introduction to this book and the founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, wrote the preface.
I’ve always been interested in merging the organic and synthetic and that’s always been my greatest interest and I will continue trying to find more ways to bring those two together. I’m very interested in areas of sustainability and my next book will be a continuation of the themes of Slow and the lexicon of sustainability.
“A country Road. A Tree. Evening. [wow.episode.01]” is the first installment of Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s new video project called White on White. It is six minutes long and is the fifth multiple published by Compound Editions in New York. White on White promises to be a protean experiment in the distribution of digital and video art.
Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” Original music by Lumendog.
If you have ever seen an exhibition of digital or video art, you may have asked yourself how the artist is able to make a living. Digital video is completely ubiquitous today. So when a video artist produces a video, which obviously costs a bit to put together, is full of rich references and would probably not fair very well in a regular movie theater due to its overall experimental look, how do they sell their work?
The answer more often than not is editions. If an art collector wants to buy a video piece, they usually buy an edition of it, complete with monitor, DVD player and a copy of the film, it is then accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist and the gallery representing him or her. This mode of distribution has been used by artists since the mid-sixties when video artists were able to start regularly selling their work.
Eve Sussman’s new video project is a variation on this model for digital distribution. She is distributing her project as an installed video on the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet. What makes this model unique is that in many ways it is embracing the ubiquitous nature of video by distributing it on a hand-held device. It is also turning the collector into a co-producer because once they have bought an edition of White on White, not only can they download the future installments as they are released, but they are building the pool from which the videos are funded.
The first installment was released as an edition of 100, the first 50 of which have already sold out. It looks as if Sussman and Compund Edition’s model has some wings. It is not that Sussman is the first artist to distribute her work on portable digital devices; other artists have put out similar editions. It is that she chose the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet because of what it can do, and that there are more installments of White on White forthcoming that is noteworthy as a distribution model.
Sussman decided on using the ARCHOS 5 after quite a bit of looking. Of the many different distribution formats, very few have the high-fidelity audio/ video or Internet capability of the ARCHOS 5. At first glance her edition mimics the way albums are released as special edition iPods. What is different here is that Apple will market a product, the iPod in this instance, by using musicians and bands as an advertisement for the product. Sussman is using the media tablet because it can do what she wants it to do for her. It is simply the best distribution model for her project.
Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, A selection of stills from “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.”
As a work of art, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” is a futurist fantasy, taking a serious note from the way old Soviet films visualized a utopian future. The video is set about six years in the future in a metropolis reminiscent of many generic fictional future cities. It is called A-City, and it provides a blank slate for Sussman to deliver a film noir storyline, incorporating styles from cinéma vérité and early horror movies, all with that unmistakable sense of video art appropriation.
The usage of things and ideas becomes one of the key elements in thinking about this work. The project is filled with referential material, and most of the imagery is familiar in that it is playing with tropes from other genres. For example, Sussman’s title, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” is the stage description from Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot.” Since about the last two years of the Bush administration, Beckett’s work has been seriously reconsidered in several different formats.
Another example is the title for the whole on-going project, White on White. Sussman and the Rufus Corporation are referencing the painting by Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, which was a painting of a white square on a white background. Malevich was making his Suprematist compositions during the same time period in the early Soviet days when movies like Aelita: Queen of Mars were being made, the 1910s and 1920s.
Perhaps it is the revitalization of words like ‘socialism’ or Marxism’ as pejoratives since the last presidential election in 2008 that has made more people use those terms again, or at the very least take another look at that revolutionary Russian culture from a century ago. These references all feed into an overwhelming sense of retro-futurism in much of our cultural thinking now. Old visions of the future seem to come across as predictions we missed out on, even though some of our technological advances far surpassed the imagination. Think of how much our society currently resembles Walt Disney’s original vision of Epcot.
Distributing a video edition on the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet is one of the ways that Sussman is re-examining our usage of technology for artistic distribution. It has added an interactive component that is deviating from the definition of art all together. If you purchased her edition, there is nothing stopping you from using the media tablet as if you had bought it for personal use—it still plays other videos or music, it still connects online. It is simply a matter of aesthetic predilection where one draws the line as a work of art.
For more of Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s work, you can view a trailer here.
In our first batch of video releases from PopTech 2009: America Reimagined, we are excited to share the fine presentations of the 2009 Social Innovation Fellows from October 22nd and 23, 2009, when they captivated a packed Camden Opera House and global live stream audience.
During the days leading up to the PopTech 2009 conference, this extraordinary group of Fellows and their faculty met at a retreat center in Maine. For more on their week, see previous blog entries on their introductions to each other and what they learned. The Fellows and faculty will continue to be in touch as they begin to apply the week’s lessons to their work.
Meet all the Fellows in this video—and then learn more about each organization’s work in their individual PopTech presentations below.
Congratulations to our 2009 Social Innovation Fellows!
All video is released with Creative Commons Noncommercial-Attribution-ShareAlike license—and we hope you will embed and share these videos widely to help the Fellows continue their work.