“Sometimes giving the right information at the right time can create change,” says Andrew Zolli. “Our next presenter is engaged in a ‘meta-cultural hack.’” Naif Al-Mutawa (Pop!Tech bio; here’s his standard bio) is the creator of THE 99 — the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. (You can download a pdf of The 99: Origins for free here if you’re interested.) Al-Mutawa is speaking as part of the Meaningful Engagements session this afternoon.
Here’s an animated trailer for “The 99: Origins.” This is not the trailer for the forthcoming animated series, which has much higher production values, but that latter trailer doesn’t seem to be online, alas.
“I’m from Kuwait; I’m disappointed, I’m not getting the love for oil in this room,” Al-Mutawa quips, and everyone laughs. He’s father and step-father of seven children, all born in New York. Al-Mutawa’s five boys (and his step-children from his wife’s previous marriage) attend Camp Robin Hood, which is not far from here. His own parents sent him there in 1979. “Back then the best we could do for television in Kuwait was…maybe catching a glimpse of something from Baghdad.” He had no idea what Fantasy Island was; other pop cultural references likewise went over his head. When he got home, he told his parents about his friends: Steinberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. His parents asked, where are they from? Kids at the camp had joked that these were nice Italian names, so that’s what Al-Mutawa told his father!
The next year his parents sent him to a camp in Switzerland — but within a year he was back at Camp Robin Hood. He went there for 10 years, and his sons go there now. “It was there that I started to navigate self and other, how I’m seen, how others see me.” (You can read more of this story in Al-Mutawa’s essay Concentration Camps and Comic Books.)
He graduated from Tufts in 1994 and returned to Kuwait as a writer. A ma theren had just gotten fired from his job because of his religion; the man who fired him was handing out leaflets saying that had he known the man’s religion he would never have hired him to begin with. “My reaction was, what planet had I landed on?!” He wrote a book intended for adults which won an award for children’s literature. A few books did well; but his fourth book was banned. Al-Mutawa found it frustrating dealing with censors. The Soviet Union banned Animal Farm, he said, because they read it and knew what it meant. “In my neck of the desert it was banned because there was a pig on the cover! It’s a different level of censorship.”
He returned to New York, trained in pyschology, and “heard one too many stories of people who’d grown up idolizing their leader as a hero only to grow up and be tortured by him. Imagine that it’s the hero who’s torturing you — the person you’ve been aspiring to become.” Some of his patients there, he said, “were part of the army that invaded my country in 1990.”
After he got his MBA, his sister started bugging him to write for kids again. “For me to go back now, it would have to have the potential of Pokemon,” he said, “or it’s not worth it.” But then it occurred to him that Pokemon was considered non-Islamic in some markets. “Who were these people making these decisions for my children? How disappointed Allah must be.” And then he realized, Allah has 99 attributes, and he could work with that idea in interesting ways. So he ran an idea by his sister, she loved it, he wrote the business plan, and next thing he knew he had investors in 15 countries. Investors in the United States, Mexico, even Beirut — “I think I’m the only Kuwaiti who went into Beirut and came out with money!” This idea is what became The 99.
Superhero stories tend to either come out of the United States or out of Japan, and American superheroes often arise out of a Judeo-Christian mold. Superman’s message comes from another planet, much like Moses in the basket on the Nile. The Bible is the greatest story ever told, and comics repackage those stories in ways that resonate with people. “I told my investors I was going to repackage the Qur’an” — to repurpose it to tell positive, multicultural stories.
“This was going to be [as big as] Superman, or not worth my time and money,” Al-Mutawa says: no shoddy fifth world production for him. He returned to New York to make it happen. “Imagine going to NYC after 9/11 and telling them you wanted to make comics based on Islam.”
From the beginning, the people involved were people who knew Batman and Superman, who were aware of the tradition of great comic books and graphic novels. The premise is, there are 99 characters from 99 countries — this had to be pitched not just to the Middle East, because every year people get censored and he didn’t want to fall prey to that. There’s an American hero, a British hero, a Saudi hero; they work in teams of three because in Islam you don’t leave a boy and a girl alone together. There’s a scholar online, Al-Mutawa tells us, who argues this reflects his secret Trinitarianism — “you believe who you want!”
The cast includes Hadya from Pakistan, Janek from Hungary, Jabbar from Saudi who uses his muscles, Noora from the UAE who “sees the true light” in people (nur means light.) It’s about intercultural dialogue and intercountry connectedness. Mumita is from Portugal, Fattah from Indonesia, Sami from France, Mujiba from Malaysia — she’s the first character who wears hijab. Half the characters are girls but only a handful wear hijab; the idea is, there’s many ways to be the person you want to be. (You can read more about the characters in the series here.)
“Sometimes you work hard but it’s luck getting you where you want to be.” The series was supposed to be covered in the New York Times, and it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen — and then the Danish cartoon controversy erupted and the Times suddenly gave The 99 huge coverage, and Al-Mutawa was terrified! But Islamic newspapers covered the story positively, and it was a huge break for them. They launched their first theme park in Kuwait in March: The 99 Village Theme Park. (Here’s an article about it.)
The idea isn’t to write something which will only be read by Jewish kids or Christian kids or Muslim kids. “On a values level, we are all the same.”
“How do you know that you’ve achieved what’s not a fifth-world production?” Al-Mutawa asks, and then offers an answer: when Obama reached out to the Muslim world, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman reached out to The 99.
He shows a clip from the upcoming animation series, made with Endemol. (Read more about that.) It’s gorgeous and sleek, and I want to watch more of it. The series clearly plays on some of the same themes as stories like The X-Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter — kids coming together to save the world — except that it begins in 13th century Baghdad, with all of the iconography one might expect. The origin myth is that during the fall of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols 500 years ago, 99 magical stones were dipped in the waters of the Tigris as the books of Baghdad were destroyed, and they were infused with the powers of all of that knowledge. Those stones are now being discovered, and transmitting their power to 99 young people, though some are falling into the hands of people whose intentions are evil rather than good. These are classic superhero tropes, recast in a multicultural frame. (I’m pretty sure that’s the same story you’d find in the free pdf download of The 99: Origins — I’ve downloaded that but haven’t had time to read it yet.)
Al-Mutawa leaves us with a question: whose fault is it that deranged lunatics cited JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye when they shot John Lennon and tried to shoot Ronald Reagan? Is it the fault of the book, or of the people who read it? He tells a story about how when he was in college, someone was handing out free food under a big sign that read “Free Falafel,” and “everything was neutral, nothing political,” until a woman came running across the campus and yelled “Falafel? Who’s that?” She’d just come from an Amnesty International meeting and saw the sign through those eyes (she thought Falafel was a political prisoner somewhere)! So next time someone says they’re doing something in the name of their religion, think of what they’re saying, and remember how to read the sign.
Professor Esther Duflo is a new Macarthur fellow, recognized for her pioneering work in studying a wide set of issues in development economics. Her reseach has looked at the effectiveness of financial remittances (it’s better to send money to grandmothers than grandfathers) and the health issues associated with charcoal stoves. Her weapon of choice is the randomized trial, used extensively in drug discovery research, but rarely applied to the field of development economics.
Her PopTech talk is titled “Creative experimentation and the fight against povery”. She tells us that her goal is to help us think through the impacts of innovation, specifically for the people living on less than a dollar a day, the 25 million children who go unimmunized, the millions who die of preventable diseases. These facts are well known, but they’re so disturbing we generally don’t think about them.
Esther Duflo, photo by Kris Krüg
The tempation is to look for a single, silver bullet to make these problems go away. For some people, it’s foreign aid – Sachs, Bono, Angelina Jolie. Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo argue that aid is the problem and that free markets work. These views compete on the moral high ground, and also on scientific grounds, looking for support for these positions.
It’s not surprising that the scientific facts are in dispute – these problems are extremely complex. There’s a demand for discourse that’s scientifically legitimate and leads to policy prescriptions.
If you want to argue that malaria is important, you can show that countries without malaria are richer. You can also argue that free markets are important, showing that countries with free markets are richer. Is Sri Lanka richer than Bangladesh because of free markets? Or because of the elimination of malaria? Too many things move at the same time.
We cannot identify the secret to ending poverty by comparing the historical experience of hundreds of countries. We need to decompose the problem into lots of small problems. Poverty has many facets – lack of health, lack of education, lack of choice for self-realization. When we focus on these facets, we can look at questions like, “How do we get children to school? How do I get them to learn something?”
You can then identify significant ways to improve the lives of the poor. And then we can run experiments. She quotes Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent exprimentation…”
We, as a community, need to guide policy towards creative experimentation. This means thinking outside the box, but it also means taking rigorous, scientific methods of evaluation and applying them to problems in development.
Economists have a positive tradition – the idea that economic agents are billiard players and econmists are physicists – they can infer the law of physics from looking at the balls, but not interfering. This isn’t a very accurate understanding of economics. We need to understand that people communicate, learn, help each other… and experiment.
Farmers in poor countries know a lot about agriculture, because their lives depend on it. But this makes them very reluctant to experiment, because if you fail, your family dies. You can look at what your neighbors do… but if everyone’s looking, no one is innovating. You need people who are in the business of experimenting and sharing the results of those experiments. Those innovations will never be generated by the market – they will be generated by community effort.
We cannot invent something new without modeling reality. When we do that, we often ignore critical variables. It’s not a reason to do nothing. Everyone gets it wrong – it’s not a reason to avoid acting, but it is a reason for humility and careful evaluation.
It’s not done very often because it’s not particularly easy. If you design a car and no one buys it, you realize your car wasn’t very good. But designing social policy is different. Perhaps we subsidize something, because we believe people need it. People will obtain it because of the subsidy… but that won’t tell us whether the intervention was a good or bad idea. You’re trying to contrast the outcome of people who experienced a policy to what people would otherwise have experienced – you don’t see the counterfactual. Beneficiaries of the program are generally not comparable to others.
What’s the solution? Randomized evaluation. We can introduce new policies by randomly assigning populations into a treatment and comparison group. We can then compare the effectiveness of policies by comparing those two groups.
This isn’t a tool for accountability – it’s not designed to punish people. It’s a tool that helps us figure out what does and doesn’t work. It helps us determine that policies like deworming – which aren’t especially sexy – are extremely effective and worth making policy around. It’s also a tool that tells us how people actually behave so we can design future interventions.
Here are three things which might make a huge difference for the poor. Giving a kilogram of lentils with an immunization raises the rate from 5% to 37% in a poor Indian district. It’s actually cheaper to give out the lentils because it keeps the health workers fully occupied. Informing girls of the relative risks of HIV amount older and younger men reduces risky sexual behavior by 67%, letting girls avoid sex with older men. This compares to no effect in normal HIV education, which simply tells girls that all sexual behavior is risky.
If we’re talking about 1 billion poor people, are we really making progress by distributing lentils and warning girls about sugar daddies? Yes. These aren’t silver bullets. But they’re a strategy for transforming the ways we do development and encouraging innovation. Evaluating smaller ideas may be the way to unlock the “bigger machine”, the complex set of factors that govern developing world economies.
She closes, telling us: I would like to practice a true human science – rigorous, impartial, a science of humans in its imperfections and complexities, humble and humane and generous.
“To complete this trio of investigations into food, we’re going to shift perspective,” says Zolli. Marije Vogelzang “looks with an artist’s eye at what it means to bring mindfulness and artfulness to the act of putting this wonderful stuff into our bodies.”
CC photo by Kris Krüg.
Marije Vogelzang (Pop!Tech bio, homepage) is part of the Edible Futures module. She studied design at Eindhoven Design Academy in Holland, where she went to workshops in ceramics and plastic molding. “In the end, I find myself back in the kitchen — I open my cupboards and say, wow, I have lots of materials here! I see my kitchen tools, these are my workshop tools. Food is a material to work with.”
People think this means she’s a food designer. She wondered: if she would be a food designer, would that imply that she designs food? Food is perfectly designed by nature. Imagine a red cabbage sliced in two: it’s perfect. “I’m more interested in the verb of eating, what food does to your body, what food does to your mind, what food does to people in general.” She wants to apply design ideas and creative thinking to these questions.
She started a company called Proef. They do edible art projects, performance, and installation. Restaurant and food business concepts. Event catering. Consulting for food industry and hospitals. And so on. “I base my work on whether something is an interesting project,” she says.
The first project she did, as a student at the design academy, came when her teacher told her to do something with the color white. In many cultures, white is the color of death. She thought about funeral rituals. “If you’re Dutch and you die, people go to your funeral, they dress in black, they say they’re sorry and drink a cup of coffee and eat a slice of sponge cake and that’s it!” In many cultures there are really rich rituals around funerals and food. “Food is comforting to you. Food is the first thing your mother gives to you, along with her love.”
She wanted to create alternatives for the poor Dutch people who have no rituals! So she collected white foods — not thinking about taste or flavor, just color. She prepared them simply, “respectful to the food itself.” This yields a serene palate. The flavors do well together. (The photograph is beautiful, and also quite serene — a range of white foods arrayed artistically on a white tablecloth. You can see a photo of this same project by scrolling a bit on this page.) She’s replicated this several times, though not for an actual funeral because there’s never been time to prepare it when someone actually dies. “If you know when you’re going to die — some people know that! — call me because I want to do this.”
She’s been asked repeatedly to do a Christmas dinner. “I never wanted to do it,” she says. Christmas is full of clichés; “what can I design?” But she was asked again, and finally acceded. “What is Christmas really about? If you look beside the Christian idea of Christmas, Christmas is about sharing foods together and being connected to each other.” (It’s an intriguing post-religious or post-Christian way of thinking about the holiday, which I suspect a surprising number of Americans share.) She created an installation where everyone is sitting together, and only their faces and hands protrude through the hanging tablecloths which adorn the walls. It served as an equalizer, like wearing a uniform, she says, and by the end of the night people felt connected to each other. And the plates were divided in two; one woman might have melon and someone beside her might have ham, and since those are a classical combination, people would naturally trade halves of their plates and share with one another. The setting fostered play and interaction.
“The food we eat becomes a part of us… It goes home with us.”
Vogelzang did a project on the invitation of the first organic farmer’s market creator in Lebanon. “Recreating food every day is recreating their culture, and since Lebanon has been destroyed by war, this is a valuable thing to do.” He asked her to join the market and do a workshop there. She realized that she knew nothing about Lebanon, aside from war, so she did a project called “Taste of Beirut” in which she began by handing out a questionnaire asking questions like, “What is your first memory having to do with food?” and “what are your memories relating to war and food?” People had varied responses to the first question, but the second question was answered mainly with “bread.” Bread is an important element in Lebanese cuisine.
Vogelzang did a workshop bringing people together from across regions and religions and social backgrounds. She wanted to make bowls with them, bowls made out of bread; “we colored these bowls green with parsley juice,” since parsley is a primary ingredient, “and I asked people to write their positive memories from when they were little into the bowls.” They presented the bowls at the Green Line, which had separated East and West Beirut from one another like the Berlin Wall used to do in Berlin. They made a “green line” of bowls full of positive memories, filled them with Lebanese cheese and yogurt and honey, and invited people to come and eat them. “By eating bowls, we were eating away these negative connotations of the green line, and we were physically sharing each others’ positive food memories of when we were little.” All of the bowls are different; they’re unique, like their makers, like all of us. (Here’s a lovely reflection on the Taste of Beirut project.)
People have to eat something seven times before they come to appreciate a flavor. When Vogelzang’s daughter was a little girl, she didn’t like vegetables — so Vogelzang invited her daughter’s preschool class to come over and shape art out of vegetables using only their teeth. By the end of the adventure, they all ate vegetables!
Food is more than calories; it can make you feel happy or sleepy, it can give you all sorts of experiences. And yet a lot of kids eat unhealthy foods; what do do about that? “I made a series of snacks in all the colors of the rainbow.” Da Vinci said that red is an energetic color and blue relates to relaxation; green makes you rich, yellow makes you have friends, orange makes you happy. She color-coded a series of snacks using Da Vinci’s paradigm. Of course, all were healthy, but she didn’t say that on the labels. Children presented with these foods pick the foods based on their perceptions of these things — which changes the whole conversation: it’s no longer about whether something is healthy or unhealthy, or has positive or negative associations.
Another project she shows us relates to Dutch National tap water. Tap water tastes different in different cities there. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to get tap water from all the 12 capitals in this country together, instead of you traveling to all the cities?” She held a kind of tasting for the tap water from the various cities, setting up twelve stations like the numbers on a clock. “When it comes to wine, we talk about the terroir of the wine — it’s important where the wine comes from. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we did this with water? ’I’m going to eat chicken, I should have some Amsterdam tap water!’” It really does taste different, she says.
Her other projects have included spoons made of sugar for stirring one’s tea, a lollipop shaped like a gun, and a box of candies designed for people who don’t have teeth. She made snacks for the opening of an event for those who had survived WWII, and made small bite-sized hors d’oeuvres of recipes from war survivors, and when people came in they could get a coupon which would get them substitute coffee, and with the coffee they could receive a “ration.” Many people who were there hadn’t tasted these things in 60 years, and it brought up bad memories for them, which was both painful and beautiful. “If you’re a designer and you make things… When you use food as a material for your design, you can come very close to someone, because someone will put your design in their body.”
“This is one of the sessions I’ve been most looking forward to,” says Andrew Zolli, calling it a session of “incredible bounty.” (He adds that he is a “recovering hyperbolic,” given how often he calls things here ‘incredible’ and ‘wonderful’ — though it does seem to me that often as not, sessions here really do fit that bill.) “It’s hard not to use those words when describing the impact that our next presenter has had on the world. Michael Pollan has changed, fundamentally, the way many of us understand what we eat, how it’s made, how it gets to us.” By the way, Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire has been made into a PBS documentary which will air next week, on October 28th at 8pm Eastern, so if you don’t know it, check it out on PBS.
Michael Pollan (Pop!Tech bio) appears as part of the Edible Futures module. “I brought us lunch as we approach the lunch hour,” says Pollan, putting a McDonald’s bag on the podium, “and like Chekhov’s gun on the mantel, we’ll see if it gets eaten.”
A few years ago he set out to conduct an investigation and trace a McDonald’s double quarter-pounder with cheese back to its origins. He bought a steer, Steer #534, in South Dakota and followed him to a feedlot. “I had never been to a feedlot.” If we haven’t been to see one of these, he says, we must go. “It’s one of the most hideous landscapes in the 20th century.” This is where our burgers come from.
But he realized when he was there that he had to go further still. Burgers come from corn and soyfields in the Midwest, where feed is grown. From ther ehe had to go further, to oilfields from the Middle East because feed is grown with petroleum-based pesticides. The burger can be traced all the way there.
The food chain is not only complex but implicated in three of the most serious problems we face: the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. 20% of the fossil fuel we burn in this country goes to feed ourselves, to produce this processed food. Five hundred billion dollars of health care costs go to preventable chronic diseases linked to our diet. And a third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. This is “not a pretty picture or a happy meal.”
But he learned a few things. Any changes we can make to make the food system more sustainable, less reliant on oil and more on sun, will yield impressive dividends in all three of these areas. “I also learned something else very hopeful — that all food, every calorie you have ever eaten, comes ultimately from the sun.” As long as the sun is still shining, theoretically it should be possible to figure out a way to feed ourselves from the sun rather than from those oil fields.
“To understand how we got here, I want to take you back to the past, present, and give you a look at the future of our food system.” Look back to before WWII. We have images of what farming was like back then: these are the images still used to sell food to us today, the small family farms with red roof barns. Now this is just a literary conceit, but it’s how things used to be. “It was a very straightforward solar and human-powered system.” The farmer planted crops, raised livestock, and they contributed to one another’s health. “The line from sun to crops to animals to farmer to us was fairly straight and direct.” It wasn’t terribly productive but it was an ecologically efficient system.
A calorie is a unit of energy. Pre-WWII, a single calorie of food energy introduced into the food system (in the form of diesel, to run tractors) yielded 2 calories of edible food. But this wasn’t productive enough for us after WWII. We had a baby boom, a population that wanted to binge on all of the foods that had been rationed during the war, and we had factories that needed more workers. “We wanted to get more food from fewer farmers. And we figured out how to do it.” We figured out how to take the munitions industry, which relied on ammonium nitrate — you use it for bombs but we decided to use it for fertilizers. We converted nerve gas research into pesticides, and munitions research into fertilizer.
“We figured out ways to take cheap oil and make farming more productive. But we also needed changes in Washington at the policy level, and we got these most dramatically in the 70s.” Nixon’s agriculture secretary convinced farmers to grow as much of monoculture crops as possible. “Get big, or get out,” he said, and he focused attention on corn and soy.
Understand: this is not the same kind of corn you buy at a farmstand around here in August or September, or the soybeans you get when you buy edamame. They are inedible off the field. They are industrial materials which can be broken down into corn syrup and so forth, but mostly they are feed for animals. “This changed the diversified farming system into something that looked more like a factory,” with inputs of fuel and outputs of monoculture crops which require processing. “We took a natural system and turned it into something which closely resembled a factory.”
And it worked — amazingly well. We got an amazing amount of calories off the land. Before WWII a farmer could feed 20 of us, afterward a farmer could feed 150 people. The benefit to us is that food has gotten a lot cheaper. In 1910 we spent a quarter of our income to feed ourselves; today it’s under 10%. That’s less than anybody who has ever lived and less than anybody anywhere in the world. Today you can walk into a fast food store and for less than you earn at minimum wage in one hour, you can walk out with thousands of “arguably tasty” calories.
But we have to be clear-eyed about the costs. “Cheap food is incredibly expensive.”
The first expense is, in order to grow food this way, we need huge amounts of fossil fuel. That’s what we’ve replaced all that human energy with. “Every step in this process, we’re applying more petroleum to the system.” To grow the food, process it, move the food around. “When you buy sustainable salmon in a restaurant here, from Alaska, the odds are good that it’s been flown to China to be fileted and then flown back here to be eaten by you.” Half the lobster harvested in this state goes up to Canada to be processed, then frozen and sold all over the world. There’s a lot of oil in this system.
Pollan holds up a very fresh double quarter-pounder with cheese, from McDonald’s. “I want to show you how much oil goes into producing this,” he says, opening up a dark plastic water bottle. Oil is in the fertilizer, and in the pesticides. He fills an eight-ounce glass with dark liquid. Then a second one, for the processing and moving around. And a third glass of eight ounces, and then two more ounces in a fourth glass. “26 ounces of oil to produce this burger. It’s kind of disgusting, isn’t it?”
As we gape, he adds, offhand, “—chocolate syrup.” (Ahaha! Well, it’s thick and dark; it makes a fine oil substitute, for visual purposes.) It takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy. We’re losing nine calories for every calorie we yield to eat.
“You know that old saying of grandma’s, that you can pay the grocer or you can pay the doctor? We’ve chosen to pay the doctor.” We’re eating 500 more calories per day than we used to; we’re about 17lbs fatter than we used to be. Two-thirds of us are overweight, one-third of us are obese. One in three people born in 2000 will get type II diabetes, which shortens the lifespan by an average of seven years, which means this generation will be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Four of our top-ten killers are linked to diet. “The health care crisis is a euphemism for problems induced by the American diet.”
And people who are trying to feed themselves on a limited budget have a real problem here. If you’ve seen Food, Inc. you’ve met the Orozco’s of Baldwin, CA. (Pollan shows us a clip from that movie, showing a woman talking about how much money they have to spend on pills for her diabetic husband — more than $100 per pill. “We can pay for his medicine to be healthy, or buying vegetables to be healthy, so which one should we do?”) What a choice to make, between diabetes medication and fresh produce! But in this country, “the rational thing to do is to buy unhealthy calories; we subsidize the calories by subsidizing corn.” Products made with high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated corn oils are the cheap calories.
Go into a supermarket with a dollar, he says, and conduct a treasure hunt for calories to see how many calories you can get for a dollar. You can get 1200 calories of snack foods for that dollar — or 250 calories of broccoli or carrots. “This is the result of the way we subsidize food in this country.”
The third and last cost of the system he wants to address is the cost to our ecosystem. The burger has quite a carbon footprint. Thirteen pounds of carbon into the air, which is the equivalent of burning seven pounds of coal. “I hope I’ve driven home the point that our meat eating is one of the most important contributors we make to climate change. A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius!”
Another source of pollution coming off of this industry is feedlot pollution. Every cow in the feedlot produces as much manure as 20-40 people produce in a single day. 150,000 cows generate as much waste as the 3,000,000 people in Chicago — but the people in Chicago have to treat their waste. But the clean water and air act doesn’t apply to feedlots. So these vast lakes of sewage just sit there, leaking pollution of all kinds into the ecosystems. These feedlots are the biggest source of pollution in the country.
“That’s the bad news, and there’s plenty of it. But I want to talk about some good news” — some farmers he’s had the pleasure of meeting. The first is Joel Salatin, a visionary farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. (You’ll read about him in the Omnivore’s Dilemma.) “This is a post-industrial farm,” based on a sophisticated understanding of plants, animals, and how they interact. Joel grows in a complex polycultural rotation sometimes called permaculture. It’s a largely self-contained system. He grows grassfed cattle and chickens. The cows spend one day in a pasture; then he moves them on to the next pasture, waits three days, and tows in his portable chicken coop. The chickens are free-range; they fan out in the field and make a beeline for the cow patties, because their favorite food — grubs — are in the manure. (As a side note: the CSA to which Ethan and I have belonged for the last fifteen years has been doing this for years. I love watching the eggmobile moving around the farm!)
The chickens, of course, also defecate in the fields — and their manure is fertilizer for grasses, so a few days after they’ve been moved out of the field, the field is fertile again.
“I asked Joel, what kind of farmer are you — a chicken farmer, a beef farmer, a rabbit farmer? He said, I’m a grass farmer. I didn’t get it; we don’t eat grass.” But Salatin explained that grass is the solar collector. The sun feeds the grass; the grass feeds cattle, who can digest it; the cattle feed the chickens; the chickens feed the grasses; and the animals are feeding us. Joel Salatin has 100 acres of grass which yields him 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 25,000 dozen eggs, 20,000 chickens, 1,000 turkeys and 1,000 rabbits. He uses some diesel for his trucks and some corn for his chickens. But for every calorie going into the system, there are hundreds if not thousands coming out.
Another visionary farmer is Will Allen, who we’ll meet later today. “He’s doing an interesting riff on polycultural farming in the cities.” Pay attention to the energy flows in his systems too, Pollan tells us.
“The question is, can you do this on a big scale? Can you do solar farming in the Midwest?” In Argentina there are farms that dwarf ours — 15,000 acres — and they’ve pulled it off. They’ll do eight-eyar rotations: five years of cattle, then plow the pastures and do three years of grain (wheat, sorghum, corn, sunflowers) — and they can do that without any nitrogen fertilizers, because the cattle have fertilized the land, and they can do it without pesticides too.
“I had an epiphany when I was on Joel’s farm.” Joel made Pollan get down on his belly and “meet the grasses,” and explained what was going on under the soil. “I had this revelation about our relationship not just to food but to nature in general.” Most of us have a tragic sense of our relationship with nature: we think it’s a zero-sum game, that in need for us to get what we need, nature must be diminished. “But that may not necessarily be true.”
All plants balance roots and shoots. When they lose leaf mass, they shed a comparable amount of root mass. Those roots are effectively digested by the soil: worms, insects, bacteria, fungi eat them and turn them into new soil. This is how soil is created. “I had no idea,” Pollan tells us. “What that tells me is that the end of a year in a farm like Joel’s, or the ones in Argentina, he has taken all of that food off the land and there is more soil, not less; more biodiversity not less; more fertility, not less. You see? It need not be a zero-sum game as long as the sun shines and we have new energy coming in. That was the most heartening thing I’d learned in 20 years.”
“So how do we get there? That’s the hard question.” How do we change the industrial system? We need new policis. We need to replace the incentives for farmers to grow corn and soy; we need a Food Bill which has the interests of eaters and farmers equally in mind. We need to incentivize farmers to diversify, to use their land the way Joel is doing, to move away from monocultures. “We can do that, but make no mistake, it will take a powerful political movement,” because the agroindustrial complex will fight it.
We need to work, Pollan says, on re-regionalizing the food system. Encourage local food economies to form! This will help us improve access to good food in inner cities and in our “food deserts.” Multicropping and diversification is key, and building markets for local food will help with that.
“We are deeply implicated in this system. We expect food to be fast, cheap, and easy. Unless we make changes in our own behavior, start voting with our forks, this isn’t going to happen.” If we start eating real food again — if we go to the Farmer’s Market instead of the supermarket — this change can happen. “Consumers voting with their forks are creators of these alternative food systems.”
“I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to answer the supposedly complex question of what we should eat if we’re concerned about our health,” Pollan says. “I realized I can boil it all down to 3 sentences, 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s easier said than done, he notes. Increasingly our supermarkets and restaurants are full of substances that “don’t deserve to be dignified” with the word “food.” Focus on quality rather than quantity, he says. And if all of America went meatless one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 20,000,000 cars off the road.
Three other revolutionary things we can do: 1) plant a garden. “If you invest seventy dollars in a home garden you can yield $600 worth of produce in a year.” Organic produce isn’t expensive if you grow it yourself. Our non-productive land could be feeding us and giving us exercise without using fossil fuels at all!
2) Get back in the kitchen and cook. “Corporations…don’t cook very well,” he says — they use too much salt, sugar, and fat. The only way to get control of our diet and our food system back is by cooking again and involving our families in that.
And 3) Eat meals! Eat food at tables with other people! “This doesn’t sound radical, but it has become that.” Twenty percent of our food is eaten in the car, in front of a screen, on the run. “Food isn’t just fuel; it’s about communion,” he says. “Bring back the meal as the sacred communal activity it is.”
“I don’t know what our food system is going to look like in 5-10 years, but I’m confident it’s going to change.” We’re going to run out of cheap oil and probably all oil. We can’t continue to spew greenhouses gases like this. “But as long as we have visionary farmers, we will figrue out how to do this. And as long as the sun still shines, there’s one free lunch in this universe. It’s called photosynthesis. As long as we still have that…” We need to get our industrial system off of oil, he says — “and if one area can be re-solarized, surely it is lunch.”
Will Allen is redefining farming. His farm is a set of greenhouses in a corner of Northwest Milwaukee, walking distance from the city’s largest housing project. His farm doesn’t just feed 10,000 local residents – it’s a source of jobs, of training in polyculture and transformation of waste into food, and a model for the future of urban farming.
Will’s a soft-spoken guy, a former Proctol and Gamble executive, who’s been transformed into a farming innovator. He thanks Michael Pollan for being “the world’s greatest framer” in explaining the global food crisis, and especially in our inner cities. The global migration into cities means we’ve got to figure out how to feed these folks in the future, without totally destroying our environment.
Will Allen, photo by Kris Krüg
Allen’s talk is focused on solutions – how do we bring good food into “food deserts”, places that have been redlined by grocery stores. It’s a social justice issue, not just an health and environmental issue. There are now ten farms in Allen’s project, over 100 acres in the city of Milwaulkee. The farm is located in a food desert – the nearest grocery store is four miles away, and his neighbors, living in housing projects, often don’t have access to transportation.
His solution is to produce food in cities, year-round. In the process, these farms grow communities. The project began in 1993, when Allen bought the last working farm in Milwaulkee. He shows us a photo of local kids in those days – we can tell the photo’s dated, he tells us, because the kids have their pants pulled up.
The farm was built around greenhouses and composting. This moved to aquaponics, growing fish and plants in the same system. The farm produced tilapia, vegetables and also bedding plants that could be used to landscape the community. The youth that got involved with the project ended up bringing in the parents.
By working so closely with the kids, Allen realized that they weren’t learning to read and write. So he began teaching those skills in a farming context, along with dying arts like canning. Some of the students involved came from the juvenile justice community – by planting flowers, they found a way to pay society back. By providing summer jobs, the project helped fight drug dealing… filling vacant lots with flowers had a similar effect.
By 1995, the project made the front page of the Milwaulkee Journal. At this point Allen was working mostly on his own farm, and volunteering in this inner-city farm. The attention turned the project into a movement, a movement he sees aligned with the community supported agriculture movement: Growing Power.
The center Allen has build has a co-op of three hundred farmers who distribute food as far as Chicago, focusing on food deserts.
Growing Power is a multicultural, multigenerational organization. More than 10,000 people a year come to see and tour the facility. And Allen’s trained people in more than 15 countries around the world on the model he’s used to change agriculture and food in his community.
Most communities grow about 1% of their food locally – imagine if we transformed that to 10%. The pushback from industrialized agriculture means we’re doing something right. We’re going to see pushback from groups like Waste Management International as well, which is working hard to rebrand themselves as green. “I go to landfills and the only wildlife I see are seagulls and really big rats.”
The key to farming is soil, transforming waste into soil. This means buying moldy hay from farmers and spoiled fruit from grocery stores, add brewery waste and wood chips and compost the results into rich soil. A four-pallet design using quarter-inch mesh is approved in most urban areas, because they keep out rodents. These designs are important, but we need to scale up, producing thousands and thousands of yards of new soil to replace contaminated soil. Allen’s farm has over 5,000 pounds of worms – when you feed the soil to them, you can create a hundred thousand pounds of worm castings, which he describes as “the best organic fertilizer you can get.” Worms are also a great way to connect with kids, as kids love worms.
“There’s so many bugs in a worm bin, you’re going to find something that you like.”
Worms eat their weight daily, which means you’ve got to feed your worms 5,000 pounds of food daily. A shovelful of worm castings was food waste six months ago, and it’s now more effective than Miracle Gro.
Inexpensive systems allow Allen to raise Lake Perch and tilapia in conjunction with other crops. The fish eat black soldier fly larvae, which are extremely high in protein – this leads towards increased sustainability in the operation, and Allen tells us that he can build acquaculture systems for $5,000 as opposed to commercial systems that cost twenty times as much.
The farm can produce products at $5 a square foot, $200,000 an acre. Growing high revenue products like sprouts, it can be as high as $1.2 million an acre. This is critical, because we’re losing agricultural land. So we need vertical farms, farms that grow products on multiple levels within a greenhouse. By focusing on foods that are nutrient-rich, we’re turning the clock back to the 1950s, when food was better for us.
While solar energy is helping Allen with electricity, he’s now experimenting with anaerobic digesters. Food waste is turned into acetic acid. Using bacteria that can process it into methane, the digester is able to produce power and sell it back to the grid. The next step is using agricultural waste from animals like heirloom turkeys. Allen tells us that one of the most properous forms of urban farming is beekeeping – projects in Chicago are helping ex-offenders make money through honey production.
Allen could clearly talk all day – he mentions projects with autistic children, blind kids, ethnic immigrant senior citizens. He shows us how the mayor of Milwaukee built a garden at City Hall, how Rockwell Automation created a farmstand for their employees, how a graveyard gained a market garden, a ballfield turned into a community farm. His slide deck is 565 slides long… and it’s clear that his passion and creativity are equally unlimited. “Every generation needs to be part of this revolution.”
(Allen gets a standing ovation, the first one today.)
Fiction writer and memoirist Anthony Doerr dedicates his essay, “”http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4234/“>Am I Still Here?” to all of us in the balcony with laptops open. The story is about his evil twin, Z, who watches the online world while Anthony encounters the real world:
Last week I flew into central Idaho on a ten-seat Britten-Norman Islander to spend five days in the wilderness. The plane’s engines throbbed exactly like a heartbeat. The sky was a depthless blue. Little white clouds were reefed on the horizon. Slowly, steadily, the airplane pulled us farther and farther from the gravel airstrip where we started, over the Tangled Mountains and the Tangled Lakes, big aquamarine lozenges gleaming in basins, flanked by huge, shattered faces of granite, a hundred miles from anything, and the ridgelines scrolling beneath my window were steadily lulling me into an intoxication, a daze—the splendor of all this!—and then Z tapped me (metaphorically) on the (metaphorical) shoulder.
Hey, he said. You haven’t checked your e-mail today.
The compulsion to check email is shameful, distracting, embarrasing, It’s asking the world, “Am I still here?”
Information is what the evil twin needs to thrive: “Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine.” Each bit of information injects dopamine into a neural pathway and strenghens a reward pathway. “I’m weak, hisses Z. I’m hungry. I need to see a picture of Joe Biden.”
Anthony Doerr, photo by Kris Krüg
Coming back from those five days in the mountains, Z feasts on a flood of unread mail, reassurance that we are, in fact, still there. But in the mountains, Shoshone pictographs tell stories we’ve forgotten, or never knew, how to read. “Whatever they once meant, they mean something else now. They mean memories are fragile, beliefs are tenuous, contexts are temporary. They mean nothing is stable—not mountains, not species, not cultures, not e-mail. The only quantities that ultimately persist are gravity and mystery.”
Z hates to vegetate, to just be. But that’s what his four year old son wants him to do, to be dazzled by the clouds, the light, the leg of a grasshopper. Am I still here?
All I have to do is look into the eyes of my children, walking beside me through the evening.
Yes, Daddy, their eyes say.
Of course you’re here, Daddy. You’re right here.
UPDATED: Editor’s note: Kyna Leski has posted on her talk on the 3six0 blog.
Kyna Leski, an architect and art professor at RISD, gave her students a painting by Paul Klee – asked them to build a third dimension to the painting. One student assigned height to rectangles based on color, and built a complex object. He’d somehow osmotically absorbed the work of Klee and created an object that refracted the morning light to recreate the Klee painting.
The creative process makes me think that I am an atheist, and that I am not.
We become mystified by words like creative ability, talent or genius. These are different intelligences. Artistic sensibility is a keen intelectual perception. It’s on the cusp between percept and concept. It comes from the latin root that means “to gather”. I reckon, I get it, I gather, I see…
If we’re asked to hold a sheet of paper, we grasp it between a thumb and forefinger. There’s a lot of intelligence in this simple gesture – we’re creating a cantilever and introducing dimension to the paper.
A medium is something that goes between and connections. When we choose materials and processes, they go between the questions that we’re asking. The friction in a thread and a magnet might capture the tension between living and working in a single space. These material geometries do not need translation. But metrics are needed to translate these things up in scale.
Kyna Leski, photo by Kris Krüg
Finding, forming materials can be thought of as “material reasoning”. The word material comes from the word for mother, mater; the word for pattern from pater or father. Matrix comes from the word from womb. The matrix is where pattern and material are married. It is a generative order that holds the whole.
The sketch of a design for a chapel, starting with a church’s need to grow and breathe also starts with a trapezoidal footprint. We kept putting on a spire, and it kept getting knocked off. The word “spire” comes from spirit – inspire, spiral. We found that if we squared the walls to the trapezoidal plan, the building took on a spiral shape, looking as if the building is exhaling.
Creativity is not in knowledge, like we might get from a search engine – it’s about discovery, finding yourself somewhere in the unknown. The first studio class at RISD is designed to remove foundations, not put students on firm footing. Students look at cellular strucutres, to build a set of joints – critical for architects, the articulated meetings. Students make matrices which have distinct behaviors, a product of the articulation of the joints. In the process, they create a ground, or perhaps a raft, of their own, without room for previous baggage.
A creative work coheres by recognizing connections – coherence gathered and meaning made.
Nicholas Felton (Pop!Tech bio) “has been deeply categorizing his own life,” says Andrew Zolli. “We started a conversation not only about his work but about how we react to all of these messages. We decided to work together on an interesting project, involving Nick’s work, looking at the impact of these messages on our conversation — which I’m excited for you to hear about.”
“I’ve become fairly well known for the Feltron Personal Annual Report,” Felton explains. (Find it at Feltron.com.) In 2005 he summarized his year in this document which appeared online — where he’d gone, some of the food he’d eaten, the music he’d listened to. For some reason it traveled well beyond those circles; design bloggers were entertained, stock brokers found it amusing. The following year he created a print version, and started working harder at documentation. In 2007 he printed 2000 copies and found an audience willing to purchase it.
All the streets he’d traveled down in New York (taxi routes and so forth), eating and drinking and dining: all of these things are mapped-out. The report became increasingly elaborate in 2008: he chronicled everywhere he’d traveled that year. “My primary interest in 2008 was determining how far I’d traveled” — walking, flights, a stray hayride, chairlifts (up and down.) “This has become increasingly popular,” and it’s since turned into a web application, Daytum.com.
Felton worked with Rob Deeming and Ken Reisman on a project called What we are saying. (Ken has created pluribo.com, which looks at Amazon reviews of products and summarizes them into something short and digestible.) The three of them decided to look at America over the course of a single week: July 27 through August 3, 2009. They analyzed NYTimes front pages, analyzing the Times and other sources for keywords. (Looking at a set of screencaps of those front pages, the prevalence of health care headlines is particularly noticeable.)
They looked at both user-generated content and media sources. For media sources, they used Daylife headlines (9000 headlines from major media); for user-generated content, at Twitter and at an aggregator of blogs and NYTimes comments.
Volume analysis: there is a limit to how many conversations can coexist. “There’s a limit to human interest and human conversation,” Felton says. Talk about health care outweighed talk about food during this week — 23% of the conversations were about health care, while only 22% of conversations were about food. “If we bundle these into media sources and user sources, there’s a disparity” — in the media, 12% was about food, while in user sources, 33% of conversation was about food. This applies to health care as well: 19% of media sources, and 27% of user sources, were talking about health and health care. On the user side of things, people are talking about a wider range of topics, while on the media side it tends to be more of an echo chamber.
The data also allowed the researchers to measure keywords and emoticons. 73% of all of the items they looked at were considered positive, which says something about how we weigh negative sentiment.
During this week, economic concerns outweighed all other issues. Health care was the greatest topic of conversation, but the economy was what people felt most negative about — and innovation was what people felt most positive about. They also looked at media sources and their biases; user sources tended to be more positive than media sources did. Interestingly, New York Times articles were 9% more negative than average sentiments tended to be.
“Finally, we can look at the terms being used,” Felton says. “In the energy topic, the top three terms are ‘green,’ ‘solar,’ and ‘oil.’” In the conversation about innovation, we speak in terms of computers and internet; ‘Microsoft’ was the #1 term found, with ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ coming behind. So people aren’t talking about other forms of innovation in other ways.
Returning to the dominant conversation about health and health care: the conversation used six of the same terms across all points of view. Regardless of what side of the debate people were on, they were using the same words. The top five words during that week were: ‘people,’ ‘reform,’ ‘green,’ ‘schools,’ and ‘Obama,’ showing perhaps that there’s a strong interest in hope and in change.
Alec Ross is Senior Adviser on Innovation to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He formerly helped launch the nonprofit One Economy, a group dedicated to closing the digital divide for social causes, and brought his expertise with new media to the Obama campaign.
A couple of days ago, we were introduced to an Australian choreographer – Zolli introduced him as having come furthest to the conference. Alec explains that, as someone coming from the federal government, he may have conceptually come furthest to this conference, and wonders if appearing on this stage, not wearing a suit, will precipitate a drug test on Monday.
“I’m here not to introduce a breakthrough innovation or take a bow, but to share chapter one, page one of how I and other colleagues are reimagining America, specifically in terms of its relationship and role in the wider world,” he tells us. “It was tough to be an American the last five or six years of the Bush administration and travel abroad.” It’s time for a reboot, a reimagining of how we engage in the wider world.
The new frame for this thinking is 21st century statecraft. It’s made possible both by the election of Barack Obama. But it’s also made possible by a tin toy maker in Togo. He shows us a beautiful set of tin scultpures made by a craftsman in a Togolese village, brought to him by a dear friend who travels frequently to Togo. The craftsman told the woman, “You come to me every few months and buy whatever I have on offer. If you just had a smartphone, like me, you could send me an email with a request for what I could make for you.”
Alec Ross, photo by Kris Krüg
We need technology that’s empowering, not overpowering. How do we migrate America’s foreign policy, understanding that power is the currency in Washington. The connection between power and information is longstanding – that’s how the Catholic church maintained spiritual and political hegemony for centuries. It wasn’t until the printing press and its miniaturization that power devolved to individuals, leading to the Protestant Reformation. After the Catholic Church lost political hegemony, we saw the formation of small nation states, and the emergence of early modern-day diplomacy.
Diplomacy is largely done government to goverment, white guys in white shirts with red ties to other white guys in white shirts with red ties. In the Obama administration, we want to go beyond communicating government to govermnent. There’s nothing to keep us from going into the Oval Office and having the president address Iranians and Farsi speakers directly. For the first time in years, America was talking to Iran… and it went viral very quickly.
“If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t have made a midnight ride – he would have tweeted. And the lantern hangers would be retweeters.”
Obama’s speech in Egypt wasn’t just to students in Cairo or Egyptian politicians – he was speaking to Muslim youth all over the world.
Eastern Congo is truly one of the toughest places on the planet – per capita GDP is $184, and sexual violence is at unprecedented levels. “But when I got off the UN plane in Goma, my Blackberry lit up with three wireless networks. There were more 3G networks in Goma than in Camden, Maine.” Two sectors of the economy are thriving in the eastern DRC – beer and mobile phones. How can we use the widespread access to mobile telephony to empower, not overpower.
Alec wonders how we could work with entrepreneurs and Pop!Tech fellows to create economic self-sufficiency in developing nations. Mobile banking is not an American innovation – its roots are primarily in Kenya. We need to scale programs like mobile banking in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are no basic financial services in these communities – the best thing the US could do is bring mobile banking to these communities. “This is truly 21st century statecraft.”
Much of the sexual violence against women was taking place due to lack of situational awareness. Violence takes place when women leave refugee camps to get food or firewood. The UN peacekeepers keep pretty good track of bad guys… but they’re not communicating this information to the refugees. They aren’t taking advantage of our connectedness, not sharing this information with camp administrators, who have cellphones and could take advantage of this information. “If all you do is take the information about where the drunk, high bad guys are and blast it out as a SMS, women when they leave the camps will go north, not south.”
In Mexico last week, Ross learned that no one will inform on drug violence because they’re terrified of being shot in retaliation. We came up with something very straightforward – a system through which people can email or text gang activity to a central website. It will be scrubbed and anonymized, then sent to a website where everyone can see reported activity. And the government has agreed that they will respond swiftly to these reports and post their responses online.
This is chapter one, page one in thinking about how we can use technology in our statecraft. Alec invites us to connect and engage as they write the second page.
“He’s a deep thinker about the future of media,” says Andrew Zolli. “We thought it would be potentially worthwhile for you to see just how far we’ve come, in terms of the media and the internet, so we’d like to show you an actual early report from the early 1980s — one of the first experiments in the space.”
We’re shown a video in which a news reporter posits that someday we might sit down to read our morning paper on the computer — “it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem,” the anchorwoman says, and the whole room laughs. We see someone dialing an old-fashioned rotary telephone hooked up to a modem, and the voiceover explains how the newspaper (without pictures, ads, or comics) can be sent through the phone lines into someone’s television set! “We’re not in it to make money,” says someone from the SF Chronicle (which draws some knowing laughter from the room.)
“This is only the first step in newspapers over computer,” says the voiceover — someday, he predicts, we might get all of our news via computer! “It takes over two hours to receive the entire text edition of the paper,” adds the anchorwoman. Ah, the 1980s.
“I own a home computer,” says Bilton, by way of beginning, and assures us that what he’s going to say is his own work, not the views of the Times. Five things to know about him: first, he works for the Times, doing research visualization. (He’s a Design Integration Editor and User Interface Specialist & Lead Researcher at the New York Times; his job is “exploring and testing technologies that could become commonplace” years from now.)
The Times wanted to look at who was coming to the Times website and where they were coming from. (Home computers, mobile devices…) He shows a moving image of dots lighting up all over the map: morning on the East Coast, then morning on the West Coast, etc. They’ve also been doing a lot of work lately on “Newspaper 2.0,” trying to figure out what the future of newspaper is going to be: everything from the Kindle to flexible devices with digital ink.
“Another concept we’ve pushed a lot is this idea of smart content,” he says. A newspaper is dumb content; it doesn’t know what you’ve read or what your preferences are. A digital source can become intelligent. Imagine that you go to the Times website and read a story on Iraq; when you open up the paper on your mobile phone, the phone should be smart enough not to show you that same story.
A second thing to know about Bilton: he teaches at NYU/ITP. He tries to teach his students that no matter what device or project is involved, it’s all about storytelling. He’ll be teaching a new course in the spring on “telling stories with sensors, data and humans.”
Third thing to know: he co-founded NYCResistor, a hacker collective in downtown Brooklyn. “We do a lot of hardware hacking, build robots, geek out like you wouldn’t believe.” They use open-source hardware and they teach classes in the community.
Fourth thing to know about Bilton is what he’s here to talk about today: he’s writing a book about his work. The book was originally called Byte. Snack. Meal. The new business of storytelling, but the publisher was worried people would think it was a food book! So the new title is I live in the future and here’s how it works. About his vision of where media, tech, devices and so forth are going.
And the fifth thing to know about him is “I have ADD. Really, really bad.” (He shows us report cards from his childhood in England, proving that his mind has always wandered.) “This has been helpful later in life! I’m good at multitasking and doing a lot of different things!”
We keep hearing that multitasking is bad, he points out — that our brains can’t do it, that society is going to change for the worse. A book recently cam out arguing that it’s going to put us back into the Dark Ages. But our brains multitask all the time. “Right now I’m breathing, I’m thinking about my next slide and my last slide, I’m wondering why I didn’t go to the bathroom earlier.” But there are limitations. We can’t read two books at once.
Brodmann’s Area 10 is an area in the brain, the border between the two different things one can’t do simultaneously. “With the next generation, a lot of scientists believe that this area is going to start working faster and faster” — it allows us to oscillate between two things at once. Bilton mentions technochondria, fear of new technology. When the railroad first came into being, people believed that you could asphyxiate and die if you went 20 miles an hour, and if you went 40 miles an hour your bones would explode. “We make these dumb assumptions all the time!”
We are multitasking, Bilton says. “I want to look at why we’re doing it.” One reason is the interfaces we’ve built. When you get a text, your phone vibrates, or beeps, or a window pops up. “It works too well; it’s jarring.” Another reason is that we have a tremendous amount of media to consume. So we simultaneously consume it.
To explain how we got here, go back to before the printing press. No one read. People stood around in bars or on soapboxes. The largest library in Europe had 122 books. “Along comes the printing press.” Which didn’t change everything; it changed a little bit, slowly. Gutenberg’s Bible was 2 volumes of 50 pounds each. “It’s like computers 50 years ago. You couldn’t carry it around, lay in the park and enjoy it.” Aldus Manutis in 1502 said, “why don’t we make these things smaller, so we can put them in our pockets? That’s how we got the mobile book, equivalent of the mobile phone. That’s when people started to read.”
And then along came the radio. “We put our books down, put our newspapers down, and would sit in the living room.” And radio became successful, and we start to see the first signs of multitasking; we don’t have enough time in the day to listen to shows and to read books and newspapers, so we do them at the same time. Same thing happens with television — and then the radio moves into the car, and we’re multitasking even there. Now we’re liable to be on our laptops, writing email, texting, tweeting, watching tv, and playing Nintento at the same time!
Our brains are adapting. “This is not evolution,” he assures us. Evolution doesn’t happen this fast. Maryanne Wolf has written, “After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read.” And yet we do. There’s a study that came out in Nature in 2009; a gentleman wanted to understand why people read and what happens in our brains when we do. They found a group of people in South America who are literate, and found new parts of their brain that grew and existed after they had done reading. “So our brains are still learning.”
Another study shows net naive people and net savvy people, reading a book and surfing the web, and the net savvy people’s brains light up twice as much as do the net naive people’s when they’re surfing the web. There’s a new kind of comprehension at work. Yet another study shows that playing Tetris increases attention, hand-eye coordination, working memory, visual and spatial problem solving. “Internet and games are a new form of narrative we’re learning how to do.”
What does this mean for newspapers? “We talk about business models,” Bilton says, “but that’s getting ahead of what we really should be talking about — that everything about news is changing.” The devices we access news on are changing. Now we read the news on mobile phones or computers. “I have a different psychological experience with that device, and I’m going to have that same psychological experience with that news, too.”
“The relevance of news is changing.” When Teddy Kennedy died, he says, “that wasn’t news to me.” It didn’t mean anything to Bilton, but to a lot of people it did. “There was a shooting across the street from my house: that was news to me, but not to you, unless you live where I live.” Our concepts of news are changing. By the same token: if someone in my friends network gets in a car accident? That’s news to me. Bilton tells a story about a friend borrowing his cmoputer to check “the news” — meaning Facebook.
“We used to buy newspapers based on the location where we live; now we can get news from anywhere. Our concept of trust is changing. We trust the news media 29 percent and we trust our friends and family 90 percent.”
Go back to the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, in New Amsterdam. The last page was left blank because people were encourage to write back, pass the paper along to someone else, and thereby be part of the conversation. Over time, news became a big business, and people were shut out of the conversation except for Letters to the Editor. “But now, we all have a printing press,” Bilton says, showing an image of people holding up mobile phones. “It’s changing everything, swinging the pendulum back to the middle.”
“We have a social responsibility to report news. I don’t think it should be left just to the news organizations or just to the people.” The next generation is growing up in a world where all they do is take pictures, comment, upload videos; this is the world that they live in!
The editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal said recently that there are two kinds of people, consumers and aggregators. But for our generation, that’s inaccurate. Today we consume, report, aggregate; we do everything. We all tell stories. “Imagine if 9/11 happened today: the stories, the photos, the tweets? It would have changed the entire news experience.” Society is changing, Bilton says, “but I think it’s for the better.”