Session One: The Reset Moment

The morning began cold and wet, but the Camden Opera House quickly brightened as attendees for PopTech 2009 arrived to fill it to buzzing capacity. First to take on the big task of getting on the big stage were writer Kurt Andersen, Duke economics professor Dan Ariely, and jazz musician Logan Richardson. Joining them were PopTech Fellow Emily Pilloton of Project H Design.

To open, Logan Richardson played an upbeat and soulful rendition of America the Beautiful on the saxophone. The song set the tone for this year’s theme: America Reimagined. PopTech curator Andrew Zolli then welcomed the crowd with his trademark wit and enthusiasm, and laid out what promises to be an exciting, engaging and inspiring three days in Maine. Zolli also displayed a picture of his new, lovely baby daughter and revealed how becoming a parent has changed him both on a personal level and by helping him to be more expansive in his thinking about the world we’re leaving our children.

The speakers and performers at PopTech this year are examining the questions: Is reinvention possible? What would it look like? Here’s the beginning of this conversation.

Kurt Andersen

Kurt Anderson - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Kurt Andersen was the first to frame a response to this question. He referenced America in the 80’s and its “living large” mentality: bigger cars and bigger houses and more and more consumption. With our emphasis on youth culture and instant gratification, “We took Peter Pan” said Andersen, “a little too seriously.” As a result, our politics have become more impatient, even “brattier”, resulting in shouting matches and poorly-spelled placards waved self-righteously in town hall meetings. Andersen drew a parallel between the Roaring 20’s and the 1980’s and how they share similar political backstories leading up to market crashes.

In the last twenty-five years, we’ve already gone through enormous change: closer to equality for women; more tolerance for gay people; murder rates down. The change that is happening now with old industries dying will give opportunity for newer and smaller enterprises. If Andersen’s cycles predict accurately, people will now pursue work that makes them happy rather than wealthy. People are taking the chance to reinvent themselves since more traditional job paths are failing. Sustainability needs to go beyond environmental and encompass finances, health care, education.

If our story of reinvention is to be written, said Andersen, a big part of it needs to be about embracing the amateur spirit. Amateurs embrace new challenges, don’t worry as much about rules or what people think of them. A happy by-product of the past twenty-five years has been the rise of the amateur, especially on the web. This will be one of things that gets us to a new era, but we will need humility as well as passion and enthusiasm. Andersen himself took a firing fifteen years ago to reinvent himself into who he is now and expressed his hope that the PopTech community will be able do the same from changes that will arise in their lives. 

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, referenced the foolishness of certain actions (e.g. texting while driving), what he calls “small irrationalities” that we do every day. These can lead up to big problems. With our current model of labor, for instance, we reward people with rest. This doesn’t really capture what it is that engages people, what causes them to want to work. The structure of bonuses in similar: it’s assumed that the promise of money will make people work harder. Arielly’s studies have shown that we are not necessarily inspired by more money, as money is both a motivator and a stressor. So what does this mean for Wall Street and our spending patterns in general? And how do successfully map incentive to performance?

Arielly brought his research to some bankers, who identified themselves as “special.” The bankers felt they needed the bonuses and related stress to enable them to excel at their jobs, although they declined to be tested. So Arielly took his research team to study basketball, specifically “clutch players” who are paid millions of dollars to perform in the last five minutes of the game. It turns out that clutch players do perform better, but it’s correlates more with the number of chances they get to practice; since their teammates are more inclined to pass to them (believing them to be better players). Stress without this belief doesn’t cause improvement.  

Then you have a man who smells shoes for a living whom Ariely referenced. He is more motivated by meaning and social forces – is he happy in his job? Andersen’s research shows that the motivators of rest time and money are in fact not effective. As this is the model our free markets are based on, we need to examine what truly makes someone happy at work both for our health and the health of our economy.  

Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Emily Pilloton founded Project H Design in 2008. Currently, about 300 designers from all over the world are working on 22 different projects rooted-in design thinking. Pilloton describes the projects as simple, but the problems they are solving for are quite complex, such as a bag for homeless people that coverts into a hammock. At a Mexican school, they designed new tables that fostered better interaction between students and involved members of the community in their creation and design.

Project H’s ultimate goal is global scalability. They are looking for help in scaling all aspects of the business from the PopTech community.

Watch PopTech streamed live or follow us on Twitter @poptech

Photo credit:Kris Krug

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