PopTech Blog

Fellows Friday: Recent Tweets We Have Seen and Favorited

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.

Jason Aramburu of @re_char is tweeting from the NE Biochar Symposium today:

re_char tweet

Heather Fleming ( @heatherfleming) is attending the Aspen Design Summit this week (through tomorrow):

Heather Fleming tweet

Ken Banks ( @kiwanja) of @frontlinesms congratulated @Afrigadget (founded by 2008 Fellow Erik Hersman ( @whiteafrican)) and recently contributed to by 2009 Fellow Paula Kahumbu ( @paulakahumbu):

Afrigadget tweet

And we are beginning to see tweets from 2008 Fellow Abby Falik’s ( @abbyfalik) @GlobalCitizenYr Fellows blog:

Global Citizen Year tweet

Follow all the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows on their Twitter list and look for more updates on their work in coming weeks (all 2009 Fellows have their PopTech video presentation up now).

VIDEO: Michael Pollan, Will Allen, and Marije Vogelzang on Edible Futures

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):

For more, there’s a Serious Eats post on recent Pollan news, web video extras from the recent PBS program on Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, and his upcoming speaking schedule.

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:

For more, read Allen’s Good Food Manifesto for America, sign up for a Growing Power 2010 workshop, and follow Growing Power on their blog, Twitter (@growingpower), and Facebook fan page.

Marije Vogelzang demonstrated why eating design experiments from her food lab Proef create provocative, intimate food experiences. Watch her talk below to find out how you might play with your food:

For more, read her book Eat Love, and learn about her “Pasta Sauna” installation last week at the futurist Performa 09 festival and see our “Pasta Sauna” video below:

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—

Noted: Articles, Awards, and News for PopTech Speakers, Fellows

Here are just a few updates we are excited about in the PopTech community in the last few weeks—follow our Twitter account (@poptech), Facebook page, and Delicious bookmarking account for more.

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 Bilton, who spoke at PopTech 2009 about multitasking and media, is joining the NYT “Bits” blog as a lead writer:

“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.”

Linda Raftree is in Mozambique testing the FLAP bag (a PopTech collaborative project with Timbuk2 and Portable Light, FAQ here).

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).

Here’s Eben’s PopTech talk about bio-packaging (and all of the 2009 Fellows’ talks are up in our video section):

Great post from Peter Durand (@alphachimp) on 2009 speaker Jay Rogers of Local Motors to go with Peter’s drawing of the talk:

“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.”

Alphachimp on Local Motors

More of Peter’s 2009 PopTech work on Flickr.

Other updates? Let us know in the comments.

The Slow Movement and Flat Film

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:

Gayeton cover

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.

What next?

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.

Distributing White on White

“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
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 stills
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.

First PopTech 2009 Videos Released: Social Innovation Fellows

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.

You can watch their videos from the 2009 Fellows page (click the link under each project description), from their Vimeo channel, or follow the links below:

Aviva Presser Aiden & Hugo Van Vuuren of Lebônê

Jason Aramburu of re:char

Eben Bayer of Ecovative Design

Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect

Deb Levine of ISIS, Inc.

Derek Lomas of Playpower Foundation

Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic

James O’Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School

Emily Pilloton of Project H Design

Hayat Sindi of Diagnostics For All

Taylor Stuckert & Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County

Nigel Waller of Movirtu

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.

Follow Friday: PopTech Fellows and 2009 Speakers + Vote Vittana!

Congrats to PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Kushal Chakrabarti of Vittana (facilitating education microloans throughout the world) who is in the Huffington Post’s Top Ten for Ultimate Game Changers in Philanthropy.

You can vote for Kushal here.

Kushal Chakrabarti
CC image of Kushal Chakrabarti at PopTech 200 by Kris Krüg.

You can lend money to students right now on the Vittana.org home page.


We also have a few Twitter lists we are developing for our community:

Thank you to everyone who has added @PopTech to their Twitter lists; we appreciate the compliment.

Other Twitter lists you think are useful for social entrepreneurship? Let us know in the comments.

PopTech 2009: Videos and Images

Thank you to everyone for a wonderful PopTech 2009: America Reimagined conference.

Below are videos from the conference; you can find beautiful images of each speaker by Kris Krüg from Thursday and Friday on his personal site.

More images are in the PopTech Flickr account, the PopTech 2009 Flickr set, and the PopTech 2009 Flickr group pool.

We have made videos with highlights of each day along our special 2009 Social Innovation Fellows video and Science Fellows announcement, and we hope you will share these videos widely—each has a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Videos below are in the PopTech Vimeo account and our YouTube account.

First, highlights from Thursday, October 22, 2009, including Erica Williams’s passionate call to see her generation and their political interest as it really is, musician Zee Avi’s bright lyrics, artist Chris Jordan’s stunning photos of plastic inside albatross at Midway Atoll, Mayor John Fetterman on what his town isn’t, and kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin on waves, beads, and the movement of light.

On Thursday, we showed this video of the PopTech 2009 Social Innovation Fellows, who are young leaders with new approaches for social innovation working in for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, nationally and internationally; this year’s class includes Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo Van Vuuren of Lebônê, Jason Aramburu of re:char, Eben Bayer of Ecovative Design, Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, Deb Levine of ISIS, Inc., Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic, James O’Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, Ory Okolloh of Ushahidi, Emily Pilloton of Project H Design, Hayat Sindi of Diagnostics For All, Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County, Nigel Waller of Movirtu.

Highlights from Friday, October 23, 2009 include Dennis Littky on why kids drop out of school, Jay Rogers on building family cars, Rinku Sen on the continuing racial divide, Zoe Keating’s electronic layering of cello, Zach Lieberman on helping a paralyzed man make art, Hayat Sindi with a diagnostic lab on her fingertip, Robert Guest on why America’s greatest strength, and Josh Nesbit on how you can save lives with your old cell phones.

Also on Friday, PopTech announced the Science and Public Leadership Fellows, an intention of developing a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders who embody science as an essential way of thinking, discovering, understanding and deciding. Nominations are open now until April 2010 on a rolling basis, and the formal training component begins in June 2010. (See the science advisors and supporters (Microsoft Research, National Geographic, the National Science Foundation) of the program.)

Finally, these are highlights from Saturday, October 24, 2009, including Michael Pollan on whether a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius, Nick Bilton on what people used to believe about transportation and news, Neri Oxman on an eggshell membrane, Marije Vogelzang on designing playful eating, Naif Al-Mutawa on his goal for The 99 comic series, James Fowler on how and why we are connected, Dean Ornish on changing your genes by changing your lifestyle and walking for three hours a week to grow brain cells, and Zoë Keating, Ruby Jane Smith, Mark O’Connor musically closing the day.

UPDATED: We are posting the below revised Saturday video on Sunday, November 1st.

We look forward to seeing everyone at PopTech 2010!

Let us know your favorite parts of PopTech 2009 and what you would like to see in 2010 in the comments—

James Fowler and the Power of Connections

Scientist James Fowler is a professor at University of California San Diego, where he studies the intersection of social and natural sciences. His most recent book is Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. For years, he has studied the role our real-life networks play in our health outcome.

James Fowler - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME CC image by Kris Krug.

You hear social networks these days and what do you think of? Twitter, Facebook etc. But Fowler is interested in “what became before”.  Part of what makes us human, says Fowler, is that we live in “webs of humanity”. Who are we going to be friends with? Who do we let in and how do they influence us?

The simplest kind of natural network is a pair. Pairs connect to form beautiful webs. How do these networks form? What is their purpose? How do they connect us?

We shape our networks. We chose who we bring into our network. We even choose who within our network we connect with. Some of us want everyone to be friends with each other, others take a George Costanza approach, “We don’t want worlds to collide.”

In establishing a pairing: how many dates does it take to find Mr./Ms. right? Statistically, it would take 6,000 dates. With a network, you are in touch with personal information on a wide range of people. In fact, two out of three people who are married got married to within three degrees of separation.

Fowler is also interested in how these networks affect our lives. Researchers followed people for thirty-two years and asked questions like: where do you live? Who are you friends? They were able to see a vast, interconnected network. For the first time, they got a bird’s eyeview of a real social network. On one case, they studied obesity in Framingham – was it spreading like the flu? They were able to cluster info, size the data points to indicate obesity.

The results were not definitive, and had to account for false positives. These were easy to deal with: compare to results using a simulator. Or maybe people of the same type were choosing to be friends, reflecting a characteristic called homophily (we choose to be friends with people who are like us.) There was an advantage to having thirty-two years worth of data to draw from.

They made a movie visualizing this data, which Church played for the audience. In the clip, there are shifting lines, expanding and disappearing dots representing and tracking marriages, divorces, death. “We are connected in ways that other social species are: school of fish, flocks of birds”.

So to the issue of obesity: can your friends make you fat? It turns out that you are 57% more likely to have fat friends if you yourself enjoy a danish or three once in a while. Spouses and siblings have enormous influence.  But it’s only the truly deep connections that have that influence – you can’t catch obesity from a fat guy on the bus like cooties.

Some people whose friends gain weight stop being friends with them. But data shows that every friend makes you happier regardless of their weight i.e. it is better to have a fat friend than no friend at all. People who ended friendships when their friend gained weight ultimately ended up gaining themselves. A healthier lifestyles means getting friends and family involved. This is critically important if you want to make real change in your life.

Fowler also discussed “emotional stampedes”. Emotional states like happy, unhappy and neutral spread through networks. And, far-away friends affect you as much as people close to you. For instance, even seeing a far-away friend once a year getting fit can inspire you. 

There’s also financial contagion e.g. Northern Rock bank, where there was a run on the bank because everyone thought that everyone else thought the bank was going to fail. Contagion works with voting, too. Person to person effects; voting inspires others in their network to vote.

“Real influence spreads three degrees and no further,” says Fowler. They most affect obesity, smoking, drinking, happiness, altruism, loneliness and depression.  There’s a ripple effect in networks; influence and ties gets weaker the further you go out. They also conducted twin studies: can genes affect people’s social network structure? His research showed that it did.

There are important lessons to take online: social networks affect you in many ways. Is that the end of free will? No. Fowler personally reacted to this new evidence by losing five pounds. This, he feels, will potentially improve his son’s life, his son’s friends lives. By changing his behavior, he wants to take care of friends and family. “If you tell people that they can influence one thousand people, they will change their lives.”

Kacie Kinzer: Tiny Moments with Tiny Robots

Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman and Rachel Barenblat for their amazing live coverage these past two days! Picking up since they had to head south a little early. Safe travels to our PopTech friends!— MRR

“You may have noticed a small, roving, very adorable robot over the past few days,” jokes Andrew Zolli to begin the final session of PopTech. This robot is the work of roboticist Kacie Kinzer, who explains that she’s actually not that interested in robots, she’s more interested in people. Kinzer’s tiny, friendly robots, which she calls tweenbots, traverse cities unaided except for the help of strangers.   

Kacie Kinzer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

CC image from Kris Krug

Kinzer, who lives in NYC, finds it often to be an overwhelming place: filled with “trash and noise and guys with clipboards”. This, she explains, makes it hard to have real moments of interaction and serendipity in the city; the very things that separate humans from robots. Her goal in creating tweenbots is to change the way people experience city on a very small scale, and to encourage them to engage with the city in a different way. In her words, to create “robots that make humans act more like humans.”

Tweenbots got their name both because they travel between spaces, and also because they are between humans and robots and between reality and imagination. “Sam”, the original tweenbot, rolls along in at straight path at a constant speed, proudly bearing a flag that reads “Help me! Trying to get to (a specific place in the city), aim me in the right direction.” His simple, smiling face is apparently quite effective in getting strangers to engage.

Kinzer’s efforts put Sam out in the city in the NE corner and tried to get him to the SE corner while recording what happened. “I quickly learned,” joked Kinzer, “that New Yorkers very rarely suspect they are being watched” so there was no need for hidden cameras, she could just record Sam’s interactions unobtrusively.

A video clip shows a man following Sam along for thirty seconds or so, then decides to help. Passing dogs look slightly confused but enthusiastic. The day that Kinzer shot the video was very hot, causing the rubber tread on the tire came off and Sam to go in circles. A group of seemingly delighted and unrelated men worked together to figure out what had happened and, like an ad hoc pit crew, found the missing tread, replaced it, and set him on his way again.

“You never really know how deep the level of engagement will go,” says Kinzer. A young woman talks to herself as she tries to orient him, triangulating to determine the best way. A street performer inspects him curiously. Throughout the clip, characteristically stern New Yorkers are laughing, helping, participating in this little robot’s journey.

“When I first started the tweenbots,” remarks Kinzer, “I had no idea that a cardboard robot in NYC would provoke such a poignant response.”

Her personal favorite moment from her experiment was when a man carefully turned the robot around, cautioning “You can’t go that way, it’s towards the road.”

“New Yorkers really brought the story to life and taught me about empathy and kindness,” says Kinzer. “Thank you, New York!”