PopTech Blog

Posts by Ethan Zuckerman

PopTech 2009: Ashley Merryman: Stop praising kids and put them to bed

Editor’s note: In all the excitement of liveblogging PopTech 2009, this post was written and wasn’t published. We apologize for the oversight, and extend our congratulations to Ashley and Po on their book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, being included on SEED Magazine’s “Books to Read (and Give) Now” list published today. Below is Ethan’s liveblogging of Ashley’s PopTech talk; video of her talk will be available in 2010.

Ashley Merryman

has been a litigation attorney, a speechwriter for the Clinton administration and director of a school tutoring project. And she’s a journalist, with work in the Washington Post and the National Catholic Reporter. Two years ago, she began collaborating with journalist Po Bronson on an award-winning series of articles, blogposts and a book titled
Nurture Shock. The series challenges thinking about the best ways to raise and nurture children, challenging preconceptions with emerging science. Andrew Zolli discovered her work through an influential article in New York Magazine.

Merryman tells us that the article she and Po were supposed to write for New York Magazine was on ambition. Interviewing architects and other overachievers, they told her, “I’ve always known I was ambitious – I had two part time jobs when I was two years old!” They embraced the folklore version of ambition.

She wondered, what if they were right? What’s the key to motivating a kid? Her breakthrough was finding, and sharing with Po, a study by Carol Dweck, a social scientist then based at Columbia on the effects of praise and motivation on kids. The study examined a group of randomly assigned fifth graders. They were given an intelligence test. At the end of the test, half were told they’d done really well and were told " you must be really smart." The other set were praised and told, “you must have worked really hard.”

Then the kids were given a choice between two puzzles – an easy and a hard one. The majority of the kids praised for intelligence picked the easy one, while the majority of the ones praised for effort chose the hard one, the one they were told they’d learn from. Kids were then given a hard test, one designed for seventh graders. The kids who had been praised for intelligence were sweating and anxious as they bombed it, while the kids praised for hard work also bombed, but enjoyed the experience. A final test was the same difficulty as the initial test. The kids praised for intelligence had their scores drop 20% from the initial exam. Kids praised for hard work had a 30% increase. This effect was clearly demonstrated and linked to a single sentence of feedback.

Merryman wasn’t excited when she read this study. She was “terrified and angry”. The study was published in 1988. “If I’d known this, I would have done some things differently.” Merryman has been tutoring kids in LA for years, and “knew” that the right thing to do was to praise and reward these kids who’d have tough lives.

Parents believe it’s important to praise children for intelligence. California developed a task force on self-esteem, believing that we can “boost self-esteem and the confidence and intelligence will come along for the ride.” But the academic research is weak. A researcher examined may of the 15,000 studies on self esteem and intelligence conducted since the 1970s. He concluded that only 200 represented real science – the rest had interviewed people with high self estreem, who were happy to tell researchers that they were great people. The other studies asked their roommates and friends. And they concluded that self-esteem does not encourage achievement – it may retard it, because if you tell someone they’re great, they don’t improve.

“Kids wrapped in bubble wrap of praise and support.” But this isn’t always the right thing to do. Kids want people to care about them, not always to praise them.

What can we do? Merryman suggests we focus on a different, but related problem: sleep. 60% of high school students report extreme daytime sleepiness. One third of kids admit to sleeping in class once a week. Technology and media have an effect, but so does school busing – we send kids long distances to school on the 7am bus. As a result, 5% of kids get 8 hours of sleep. And growing teens need 9.25 hours. Below 8 hours of sleep, kids suffer double the mean level of clinical depression. And they perform more poorly – a study that asked kids to get half an hour of sleep less for three nights showed that sixth graders performed as fourth graders based on that very modest change in sleep schedules. On the average, A students get 15 minutes more sleep than B students – “every fifteen minutes counts”.

A study that encouraged college kids to go without sleep discovered that sleep is directly connected to emotion. Sleep deprived kids remembered 80% of depressing words in a list of words to memorize and only 30% of neutral ones. Sleep deprivation hits the memory more heavily than the parts of the brain that govern fight or flight – teen moodiness may actually be sleep deprivation.

Letting kids sleep more can work. Edina, MN moved its start time an hour later – the top 10% of graduating class went up 200 SAT points on a 1600 point scale. Furthermore, students reported that their quality of life improved. In Kentucky, a similar effort led to a major reduction in car accidents. “Sleep is a health issue. We can change kids’ lives – do we have the political force to make it happen?”

Johan Lehrer: Outsider Intelligence

Science writer Jonah Lehrer, the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist tells us about a relatively obscure 1919 essay. The essay was titled “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Europe”, and it was written by Nobel-winning sociologist Thorstein Veblen. A zionist group commissioned the essay, expecting that Veblen would argue that the jews would be even more intellectually productive if given their own, soverign, protected homeland.

But Veblen was a contrarian, and he argued that a Jewish homeland might actually reduce Jewish creativity. Jews as the consummate outsiders, he contended, able to see problems that no one else noticed. If Einstein had been tenured faculty at a university, he wouldn’t have been able to see the theoretical holes he saw as an outsider to the physics establishment, as a patent clerk.

When we’ve got hard problems, we turn them over to experts. That might be the wrong thing to do, Lehrer suggests.

There’s some new research that justifies this approach. An experiment at Indiana University brought in a group students and gave them insight puzzles, which measure divergent thinking and creativity. One was the compound remote associate test. If I give you the words “mile”, “sand”, “age” – what word can be added to all of them to make a valid word or a phrase?

One group was told that the problem came from researchers down the hall. Another was told that it came from a team in Greece. The people told that the problem came from Greece solved 40% more of the puzzles. (The answer is “stone”, by the way.)

How does this work? Well, if you’re standing in a corn field and thinking about corn, you think about the most obvious connotations of corn: the plant, the structure of the ears, the fibers, the stalks. But in Camden, we might think about biofuels, or degradable plastics. The farther we are away, the more our sphere of thinking expands. We go on vacation to avoid thinking about our problems – actually, we should go and meditate on our problems from outside them.

A second experiment on outsiders was conducted by economists at Northwestern Business School. They found two groups of MBA students: students who’d lived more than three months abroad, and those that hadn’t.Those who’d lived abroad solved 20% more of these creativity problems. Living abroad somehow expands our minds – it didn’t matter when they lived abroad, just that they’d had the experience of thinking as an outsider.

Innocentive.com is based around the idea of the intellectual outsider. It’s used by companies like Proctor and Gamble – a company that has more PhDs than MIT – to find solutions to intractable scientific and engineering problems. You’d assume that most people can’t solve the problems that Proctor and Gamble scientists can’t solve. But 33% of all problems posted with associated prizes get solved. If you post an organic chemistry problem, it usually won’t be solved by an organic chemist. It might be solved by a population biologist, someone just on the outside of the domain. There is a virtue in seeing something from the outside.

Lehrer ends on this intriguing idea: “Problems are intractable because we didn’t see them from the outside.”


And that’s it for us, folks. There’s one more session at Pop!Tech, but Rachel and I are hitting the road. It’s been a provocation and a joy – what more can you hope for? Thanks for reading.

Neri Oxman: Design is truly alive

Celebrated designer Neri Oxman wonders what is the origin of form? How do we invent form? Is it a preconcieved image of narrative? Intelligent design? Getting rid of the stone in the way, as Michelangelo speculated?

If form is to follow function, how is that function tested and evaluated?

It has been my assumption that design by shift of perspective may be, perhaps, considered a second nature.

I’ve accumulated a set of design research experiments inspired by nature. Pioneers in this approach are few. Like Buckminster Fuller, they are immense in stature, the form finders of the 1970s. They asked not what an object wants to be, but what a material wants to be. They developed a hands-off spirit towards design which has profound implications for how we make things today, and how we perceive sustainability.

Nature offers not forms, but processes to think about forms – recipes that mix material and form together, relationships from which form emerges. She’s been mapping precedents and procedures, using a method she’s invented called computational form finding. A designer can approach these tools and edit within the set of constraints.

Instead of designing 2D or 3D forms and sending them off for analysis, we invert the process and start from analysis, generating forms from what we learn in the analysis.

Nature is a grand materials engineer – abalone shells are twice as strong as our best ceramics, and spider silk is five times stronger than steel. And nature designs multifunctional structures – our muscles support us mechanically, but also manage and conserve our energy.

But there are things that nature does not do – trees do not grow into the heaven. Why can’t they? Nature didn’t invent pumps – we did and then build the skyscraper. Nature didn’t build wheels – we did and built the factory and the industrial revolution.

Her father, an architect, presented her with an image of the first glass skyscraper – a study in the separation of material from function. It’s her anti-building – the steel is for structure, the glass for environment. With design like this – and with pumps and wheels – there are ways we harm our planet and increase our carbon footprint.

What’s a natural way to design that use and utlilize natural principles and embrace technological advancement? What would nature 2.0 look like? Would we be beating nature? Or designing a sustainable way.

She shows a microscoping photograph of the membrane of an eggshell. It looks like an insulative ceiling panel. She explains that, like many things in nature, it’s made from fibers. It allows heat exchange, and also has profound strength. If you understand this image, she tells us, you’ll understand her entire work.


Neri Oxman, photo by Kris Krüg

She was invited by Paula Antonelli to invite four objects for a show at MOMA – instead, she chose to design four processes. The idea behind this was multifunctionality – the idea that a structure could both support and engage in heat exchange. She shows a printed material, which has white and dark spaces – the black are stiff and supportive, while the white conduct heat.

She shows us a canyon, sculpted by water and wind. She shows a material she’s designed that can be sculpted by a designer with light, to have thickness and translucency, based on what’s needed by the lighting conditions.

Designers might be more like gardeners in the future, selecting for environmental fitness – we recognize that a glass house would work very differently in Iceland than from in the Sahara.

In the late 19th century, Julius Wolfe discovered that bone could create stronger, more calcified structures when put under weight. The bone is doing design and execution at the same time – we don’t do this as designers. Bones lose density in space, gain it during pregnancy – how do we design in the integrated way that our bones grow?

What can design do for science and technology? Using algorithms, we know we can map load. We can map heat and light. What does this mean for the medical industry?

Pain is a personal thing, and difficult to map. And it’s always been poorly treated by Western medicine. Second skin is a process designed to map the pain profile of a particular patient, and then distribute hard and soft materials to match her needs. The patterns are like the spots of a cheetah, but they’re spots of hard and soft, designed in conjunction with a top materials scientist at MIT.

This has led to a glove designed for carpal tunnel sufferers, custom gloves designed for an individual’s particular pathology. Mass-produced braces are too big or too small – by unfolding the skin of your wrist digitally, she reforms the pain profile into a tool that holds and constrains the movement.

Beast was a project to design a customizable chaise lounge – printed from a material that holds itself structurally, while cradling pressure points. It’s like sitting in your acupuncturist or massage therapist, she tells us.

How do we generate a new technology that caters to more sustainable ways of making and doing things? Can we print buildings as if we were 3D printing bones and save 50% of materials? We can. At MIT’s Media Lab, she’s creating something called Variable Process Printing, which allows us to print buildings as if we were printing oysters at a thousand times their scale.

“Design is truly alive because it’s truly, truly relevant… It’s high time we transcend the fallen state of design into a new and exciting paradigm of literally making our future… and it’s happening.”

(Read my notes on an earlier Neri Oxman talk.)

Esther Duflo: Experiments against poverty

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.

Will Allen and the urban farming revolution

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.)

Anthony Doerr: Am I Still Here?

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.

Kyna Leski on creativity

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.

Alec Ross: Technology that empowers, not overpowers

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.

Michael Wesch and taking YouTube seriously

Alto saxophonist and composer Logan Richardson leads off our final day at PopTech 2009, continuing our theme of featuring American music. First breathy and spare, a melody emerges between percussive pulses, then soars through the silence of the Opera House. He punctuates with harmonics, notes that aren’t quite a tone but hover in the silences that follow. It’s sad, lyrical and very lovely, then gains energy and intensity as he walks his horn offstage.



Logan Richardson, photo by Kris Krüg




Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist and professor at Kansas State University. He’s rapidly developing a reputation as an unparalled explainer of cultural – and especially online – phenomena. (I had breakfast with Micah Sifry, one of the organizers of the Personal Democracy Forum conference, and he told me that Wesch was one of only two standing ovations at his recent conference… and it takes some work for an academic to get a standing ovation at an academic conference!)

Wesch starts us back in 1984 with Neil Postman’s examination of Orwell and Huxley’s visions. Orwell had predicted a big brother, police state with banned books. Huxley didn’t worry about banning books – no one would want to read them. Orwell worried about information control, while Huxley worried that we’d drown information in a sea of irrelvance. Postman looked at the world in 1984 and suggested that we were “amusing ourselves to death” and that Huxley was right.

Postman’s analysis was based on media ecology – studying media as an environment. Media are not just tools – they mediate our conversations and dictate who can say what to who. When media changes, our conversations change. Postman was following up on McLuhan – we shape our tools and our tools shape us. McLuhan was worried about television, because it created conversations that were always entertaining (even the serious ones) and punctuated by commercials, controlled by a few speakers. Our culture becomes one of irrelavence and impotence – think about “balloon boy”. McLuhan challenges us – what do you plan to do about the serious challenges in the world. He answers for us, “You plan to do nothing.”

Fast-forwarding to 2003, he plays Dragonstea Din Tei, a Moldovan pop song which made its way from Europe to the anime subculture in Japan and then to the bedroom of a teenage boy in New Jersey. This video – known as the Numa Numa video – may have been seen 600 million times. It’s not a coincidence that YouTube started a few months later. Gary Brolsma, the guy in the video, was the first guy on the dance floor, but countless thousands have followed.



Social media is not controlled by the few, not one way, and has the potential to transform social action. And there’s a lot of it – YouTube gets 20 hours of new video every minute. Across the whole video universe, there are 1 million videos uploaded everyday. Each day, there’s more content than has been professionally created and aired on broadcast.

How are we and our communities changing in this age?

There are 20,000 videos addressed to the YouTube community uploaded every day. Why? Wesch and his students got online and started trying to understand the phenomenon. It’s a community created through webcams and screens – he shows us a young woman talking to a webcam explaining that she’s talking to the cam, not to you – she doesn’t know who you are. It’s awkward to talk to an unknown audience – Wesch shows us his own awkwardness talking to the camera. One student points to the camera and says, “it would be so much better if this thing blinked and smiled.”

The students felt awkward about the ability to watch themselves after the fact. McLuhan talked about the world of instant replay – the replay offers the ability to recall, recognition.

YouTube isn’t always a pleasant place. He quotes Lev Grossman: “Some of the comments on YouTube make you week for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.” Anonymity leads to a particularly hateful dialog. Anonymity plus physical distance and ephemeral dialog can lead to hatred as public performance.

But for others, it can lead towards a freedom to have new kinds of conversations. Sometimes this distance allows us to connect more deeply than ever before – Wesch tells us that the camera allows people to confess things to the camera that they wouldn’t say to their close friends. We see this creating new forms of community and of social understanding.



There’s a hero that emerges for our mediated culture. The guy in question goes by the name “One Man”, and we see a video of him walking around a city carrying a “Free Hugs” sign. Not only do people give him hugs, others take up the sign and start hugging. There have now been thousands of these events held around the world – it’s an example of how new media can faciliate collective action. And, of course, there’s a parody, someone offering Deluxe Hugs for $2.

What do we choose to hold up to these wired cameras? There are messages about loving yourself, loving each other. We shouldn’t see people writing wishes on their hands and holding them up to the camera as blind optimism – people wouldn’t be asking for these things if we had them. The tragedy of our times is that we are more conneced than ever, but we don’t realize it and we don’t live it.

Paul Van Zyl: Why America needs a TRC

Paul Van Zyl was an anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa. When Mandela became president, he became the executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he’s now co-founder and EVP of the International Center for Transitional Justice. He explains that in the four years from Mandela’s release from prison to free elections, an enormous amount of work had to be done. South Africa needed a new constitution, a shared parliament, and, controversially, amnesty for security forces.

Mandela decided that it wouldn’t be possible to end the conflict without such amnesty. But if ordinary people feel their interests are neglected, a peace deal will unravel. And amnesty deals are never popular with torture victims or families of the disappeared.



Paul Van Zyl photo by Kris Krüg

“I supported transition to democratic rule. But I was determined that it would not happen at the expense of victims. If murderers were able to get away with murder, we needed to address the needs of the victims.”

The South African TRC required perpetrators to confes crimes in public, and be cross-examined by the victims. Only if they did so in public would they receive amnesty. There was an element of shaming, the important acknowledgement of the injustices. And critically, it allowed victims to discover the truth about their loved ones.

The public testimony continued almost non-stop for 3 years, dominating the newspapers and nightly television news. It was impossible to ignore. And it started South Africa reimagining itself.

He tells the story of Joyce Ntenkuda and her son Sipiwe (apologies if I have the names wrong. Please use comments to correct.) Sipiwe was a youth organizer, and was detained under apartheir law without trial and without a lawyer. He went into detention “robust and articulate, and came out unable to walk or talk, and almost without hair.” Doctors discovered that he had been poisoned with Thallium while in custody. He began healing from the poisoning, but one day when his mother came to see him in the hospital, he was gone.

Joyce told the commission, “Every time the phone rings, every time I hear the knock on the door, I think Sipiwe is back. But I know in my heart, my son is dead.” She held up a ball of Sipiwe’s hair and told the commission: “This is all I have left of my son. You need to tell me what you did with my son.”

She got an answer from the security forces. They had conspired to have him killed to prevent the lawsuit that would have arisen from his testimony against the security forces. They took him from the hospital, shot him in his head, burned him on a pyre, and dumped the ashes in the river. “We couldn’t bring him back, but we could finally give him a decent burial with his mother there.”

He shows us a brief video from the TRC. An older man, Ernst Machaus, describes the torture he survived. He – and Desmond Tutu, chairing the TRC – are reduced to tears.

Michael Ignatieff quipped, “Truth commissions never recover the truth – they just narrow the range of permissable lies.” In South Africa, most white political leaders try to run from these crimes. People like deKlerk termed them as acts of bad apples, not the results of policy decisions. “But the mountains of evidence reveal that DeKlerk’s account was an impermissable lie.” The brutality was too widespread, too systematic to be anything other than government policy."

Truth and reconciliation commissions help us move from knowledge to acknowledgement. It’s one thing to know that crimes occured, and something else to acknowledge they were wrongful and agree never to do them again. White South Africans benefitted from Apartheid, and turned their eyes from the crimes of the regime. As one black activist told him, “Whites wanted to eat roast lamb every night, but never wanted to see the blood and guts.” The TRC forced white South Africab to “demolish the wall of denial between their prosperity and crimes committed in their names.”

This, however, is a talk about the US. Van Zyl asks us to consider the national debate about torture in the war on terror. He admits he’s an outsider, but he’s got an interest in the topic. “I have two sons born in Brooklyn, who have American passports. This torture was done in their names.”

“There’s something medieval, shameful, criminal about torture.” As such, most political leaders have developed systems of coded instructions that allow them plausible deniability. Van Zyl tells us that he’s come to believe that you never have to issue written instructions – you simply need to create the following conditions:

- deny habeus corpus
- dehumanize the detainees, portray them as extremist fanatics
- place interrogators under enormous pressure to get information fast
- ensure no one is held accountable. If there is accountability, blame a few bad apples.

These conditions apply in a few dictatorships… and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. What’s remarkable is that US officials issued written instructions to authorize torture by stripping legal protections and by defining torture out of existence.

The former vice President admitted to authorizing waterboarding and other torture. Leaders like PW Botha and others were known to condone torture. But Cheney has sought to justify torture as legal and moral. “Dick Cheney has defended torture in ways that would make dictators blush.”

Far more troubling, he’s argued that waterboarding and torture are justifiable and those who oppose them are putting America at risk. Imagine if every country that believes they’re facing existential threat engaged in this behavior. “All the human rights progress we’ve made since WWII would be erased in the face of the war on terror.”

Obama was right to ban torture and seek a solution to Guantanamo. But, disturbingly, Obama’s ban doesn’t appear to have unwavering support, and another terrorist attack could lead to restoration of the old policy.

“So American needs a truth commission – a proper reckoning of this dark chapter in our recent past. A new America must confront this dark chapter openly and publicly.” We need to hear first-hand, unvarnished accounts of the crimes committed in our name. Only then can we say that we will never justify and condone torture and never do this again.

But the national mood sounds more like this: “We’re a nation that used to torture. We don’t do it anymore.” We won’t investigate or prosecute for fear that it will be divisive, and we can’t say for sure that we won’t torture again.

Van Zyl says, “this ational ambivilence that worries me most.” It feels like this opposition could fall with the spectre of a ticking US bomb in a US city. It shouldn’t.

- Torture is unreliable, and doesn’t reveal as much information as traditional interrogation. “Don’t take my word for it, ask the FBI.”

- Evidence extracted by torture can’t be used in civilized legal systems. One of the problems with prosecuting Guantanamo detainees who may be guilty is that evidence was revealed under torture.

- Torture gives a rallying point and a defense for bad people.

- When do you stop? Do you torture to prevent a murder? A rape? Arson? A suspected pedophile?

“Torture infects law enforcement and the criminal justice system – the country’s legal and moral foundation begins to crumble.” It makes justice systems too lazy to find and stop terror plots through investigation and intelligence.

To close, he quotes Karl Jaspers, writing about German guilt about the holocaust. There is metaphysical guilt, guilt we feel when we fail to protect persecution of others. This guilt is an abstract concept can be the difference between life and death. It’s a form of enlightened self-interest, Van Zyl tells us. “We need repudiation of torture not just because it’s wrong, but because once you’ve opened the Pandora’s box, the violence and degradation are seldom confined to your enemies alone.”