PopTech Blog

Posts by Emily Spivack

April Fools' Day special: Your mind's playing tricks on you

Watch this video and keep a silent count of the passes made by the people wearing white shirts. But did you see the gorilla? Did you notice that one person left the frame midway through the video?  How about the fact that the curtain changed color? Yes, your mind is playing tricks on you. "When we're not paying attention to something, it can be as though we're blind to it,"  explained psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chabris. To learn more about why our intuition fails us, watch his presentation at PopTech 2010.

For more mind trick videos appropriate for April Fools' Day, check out The Invisible Gorilla site. And for further details on illusions of memory, knowledge, and confidence, take a gander at The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, a book by Chris Chabris and his colleague Daniel Simon.

6 questions with...Ian Cheney

PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

“What do we lose when we lose the night?” was the question documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney wondered as he began trying to understand light pollution and its impact on individuals, society, wildlife, and the environment. In his film, The City Dark, Cheney interviews a neurologist, historian, astronomist, and criminologist among others to explore the implications of a world where the lights never completely turn off. In the trailer alone, you’ll be lulled by the serene images of night skies and schooled by the handheld shots of the documentary’s interview subjects, In our newest interview series, 6 questions with…, we asked Cheney a handful of questions, mostly about The City Dark, which premiered recently at SXSW.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Well, yesterday I was on a train to DC to show our short film Truck Farm at the Carnegie Institution of Science. I like working on trains, though; maybe the forward motion gives you the illusion of progress even when you're just daydreaming instead of working on some grant proposal or other.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
At first glance, The City Dark is a film about the scourge of light pollution: how excess artificial light causes ecological problems and energy waste, disrupts circadian rhythms, stymies astronomers, and so on. But on another level, it's also about the way in which we risk - as a modern, urban and digital culture - losing the subtler benefits of a connection to the greater universe. When we disconnect ourselves from nature, and from the stars, I think we lose a valuable context and perspective that helps keep us in check as a society. We run the risk of growing chronically short-sighted and self-centered — cultural character traits that lead us to treat our planet and fellow people rather poorly.

I think a lot of our social and environmental problems stem from our inability to understand our place in space. We live on a tiny planet in a sea of stars; we run the risk of squandering what few resources we've been allotted.

MIT's Global Challenge launches

Last night, we stopped by the launch of MIT’s Global Challenge in New York City. At the intersection of “innovation, development, enterprise, action, and service”, the competition is part of MIT’s “celebration of 150 years of service to the world.”

Program Director Lars Torres explained that the Global Challenge came out of the success of MIT’s IDEAS Competition, which has awarded prizes to student teams for outstanding pubic service innovation since 2001.  Global Challenge takes that competition one step further by connecting students, alumni, and faculty via a web-based ‘marketplace’ to identify urgent needs from communities around the globe, addressing those needs through innovation and collaboration, and conducting an annual competition to award up to $25,000 to the best ideas that tackle problems in underserved communities. Read more...

Truly hearing Hackney

In preparation for the upcoming 2012 London Olympic games, Hackney Hear is an interactive GPS-triggered audio tour of London’s East End (host of the 2012 Olympic Games) that can be experienced on a user's iPhone or Android. Capturing the essense and vitality of Hackney, 400 interviews, features, poetry, and music specific to the borough will play depending on one's location. These audio clips, which provide artistic renderings, historical tidbits and introductions to the borough's diverse communities, will be triggered as a user walks through the streets, creating his/her own personal soundscape. It'll be free and ready for prime time in January 2012.

Collaboration alert: Lauren Abramson and Peter Durand sketch out their time together

This past fall, Peter Durand’s graphic facilitation expertise was in full effect as he trained PopTech Social Innovation Fellows to more efficiently convey their organizations' missions.  He particularly struck a chord with Community Conferencing Center Founder and 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Lauren Abramson, who could see the potential value of his particular communication style in relation to her work with the Community Conference Center (CCC), a conflict transformation and community justice organization.  So, recently Abramson invited Durand to Baltimore to graphically record her organization’s 20-hour Facilitator Training.  What came out of their meeting was so much more than either could have anticipated. In a conversation between Abramson and Durand with PopTech sticking its nose in occasionally, we got a first-hand account.

PopTech: Lauren, what were your goals when you asked Peter to join you in Baltimore?

Lauren Abramson: The original goal was to have Peter do his wonderful graphic recording during our 20-hour Community Conferencing Facilitator Training. That way we would have some engaging artwork that documented the concepts we convey during the training.  We figured we could then use that artwork in our training manuals, our ongoing skill-building work, and possibly for a “Community Conferencing Guidebook” that I’m working on writing.


Image-wise: Agricultural patterns from space

Agricultural fields near Perdizes, Minas Gerais, Brazil, are photographed by an Expedition 26 crew member on the International Space Station in February 2011

via The Telegraph

Image: NASA/SPL/Barcroft Media

The future of the book: Authors as Tamagotchis

Author James Warner's darkly humorous prediction of the future of books, publishing, authors and all things literary, which was foretold on McSweeney's last week, is one perspective on The World Rebalancing theme that'll be discussed at PopTech 2011. In 2040, he suggests that authors will become reminiscent of Tamagotchis:

Having determined that what readers want is a "sense of connection," publishers will organize adopt-an-author promotions, repackaging writers along the lines of Webkinz and other imaginary pets. "Feeding" your favorite authors by buying their books will make their online avatars grow less pale and grouchy. If they starve to death on your watch you will lose social networking points.

For more, read Warner's six-decade projection.

Image: Imeleven

Interview: Ned Breslin on World Water Day and long-term water solutions

To celebrate World Water Day, PopTech caught up with Water For People CEO and PopTech speaker Ned Breslin, who was awarded the 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship by the Skoll Foundation this past week.

Water For People (WFP) helps people in developing countries improve quality of life by supporting the development of locally sustainable, long-lasting drinking water resources and sanitation facilities. The organization’s main tenets focus on following through and following up after the water systems have been built; no more abandoned wells and broken water pumps. Breslin framed the mission of WFP’s work during his PopTech talk by asking, "What happens when we leave? What happens when that system has to run for a while? Are the children still smiling? Are the girls back in school? Is water flowing?"

We wanted to see what was on tap (excuse the pun!) for WFP on WWD, how this day can help redefine aid, and what accountability measures WFP holds itself to in developing sustainable water practices.

PopTech: What is Water For People doing for World Water Day?
Ned Breslin: Probably the most significant push we are making on World Water Day is a session in Washington DC on learning and improving programmatic performance [featuring Kate Fogelberg and Susan Davis, Water For People; Marc Manara, Acumen Fund; Marla Smith-Nilson, Water1st; moderated by Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting].  We have been part of a series of meetings over the past seven months that are designed to reinforce solid programmatic work around the world while addressing weaknesses we see on the ground in new ways.  This work has been done in collaboration with the IRC in Holland, GWC and others.  The learning session in DC is a further step along this important path of building on strength and addressing challenges.  A number of organizations will present on their actual experiences so that we can all sit back and see ways in which we can all improve our work.  It should be very exciting.


When failure looks like success: Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy explain

The global effort to bring clean water to Bangladesh appeared to be a huge success—twice. But each time, the success contained the seeds of epic failure. The overarching message? Success requires ongoing vigilance. Don’t assume the mission is accomplished.

In the April 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Vision Statement: When Failure Looks Like Success, PopTech's Andrew Zolli along with Ann Marie Healy unpack the mirage of success associated with a 30+ year project to bring clean water to Bangledesh. In a nutshell: A lack of potable water led to a massive well-building project initiated by UNICEF in the early 1970s - followed by the discovery, in the early 80s, that the water from the wells was causing arsenic poisoning.  A multimillion dollar attempt to fix the wells and educate the public was deemed a success until villagers were unintentionally stigmatized. What can be learned from this utter and repeated failure? Take a closer look at the visualization to get the whole story. 

Image: Harvard Business Review

6 questions with...Adam Harvey

PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

We’re kicking off the series with Adam Harvey, a designer whose work focuses on computational design, human-computer interactions and dreaming up new ways to utilize technology. Harvey went through NYU’s ITP program where his thesis project, CV Dazzle, “a camouflage from computer vision,” uncovers ways to design make-up and style hair to defeat facial recognition software.  Named after a type of camouflage used in WWI, CV Dazzle can interfere with technologies on Facebook, Flickr, and Google’s Picassa that may compromise one’s privacy – while simultaneously providing an outlet to experiment with some fantastical hair and make-up styles.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Hopefully this fly on the wall is not spying on me because counter-surveillance is one of my areas of research. Though, for the past few months I’ve been working on a non-related project. It’s a stethoscope paired with sound recognition, kind of like Shazaam for your heart. If you were here, you probably would have seen me coding Java and drinking Bustello at my studio in the Navy Yard.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
One of my major influences is Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography. I own three copies. Not on purpose though. Two of them were gifts. In her work she dissects our relationship with photography and cameras. It’s an interesting topic that becomes more relevant with every camera sold. Photography has changed a lot since she wrote the book in 1977. Now, over 85% of millennials (age 18-29) own at least one digital camera. I own 14. London has over 500,000 within their ring of steel. As these numbers climb, we will need to learn how to adapt and understand this phenomenon.  I like to think of my work as a continuation of what she started several decades ago, an emerging critical discourse about photography and cameras.