TEDxAustin 2011: Right Now.

Quoting Ray Kurzweil, TEDxAustin co-curator Nancy Giordano opened the day by saying that as humans we’re prepared for linear change but completely unprepared for exponential change. We were certainly unprepared for the full day of potential change she and the TEDxAustin crew assembled in the Austin Music Hall on February 19th: Right Now. Giordano warned us a few times of “intellectual whiplash” when the schedule leaped from one topic to entirely another. She never warned us about “expectation whiplash” though. Right Now was a rollercoaster.

Several people* have pointed out that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Sunny Vanderbeck isn’t after the end of capitalism, just capitalism as we know it. In one giant leap toward fixing it, he takes a long-view that includes responsibility for the world in which business is done over short-term gain. In another, he advises openness. No more relying on sweatshops or sneaky offshore practices. If we make and demand that processes be more transparent, change happens. Change is a contagion. … Ralph Wagner showed us the future of biotechnology, then Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth (Crown, 2009), showed us how it can go horribly, unhealthily wrong. Here’s hoping her contagion catches on. She showed us crazy data on genetic food modification, pesticides, and food allergy and cancer rates in the U. S. versus the rest of the world. These are not a pretty pictures of our country or its policies. …  Runner Gilbert Tuhabonye advised us to do our work with joy. He has done his under many circumstances. He advises joy.

“Language and culture are the software of the 21st century,” proclaimed Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of ComminuCard. Um, I’m no rocket scientist (Acevedo is. No, really.), but I would argue that language and culture were the software of every century prior to the 21st. Software is the software of the 21st century. … Osama Bedier monstertrucked through his Skyped-in presentation with his back thrown out and taught us about the history and presumably the future of payment. By way of comically extended metaphor, he also taught us why the limitations of the Space Shuttle are based on the width of horses asses. It’s a great story, and I won’t give it away here. Gregory Kallenberg illustrated how creative media can bring polarized opinions together with his documentary Haynesville (2009) about a giant natural gas reserve (170 trillion cubic feet or the equivalent of 28 billion barrels of oil) in the backwoods of Louisiana. It’s an amazing story of hope and possibility. … Poet and teacher Joaquin Zihuatanejo brought tears to the eyes and chills to the skin with his starkly told stories and dynamic delivery thereof. If you’ve ever doubted the power of words, look up Zihuatanejo. … After we all got hyped up, Flint Sparks made sure everyone got very relaxed. The bumpers and graphics on the screen between and during the talks were excellent, and I was stoked to see Public School among the credits.

In each of our packets, there was a list of three people TEDxAustin thought we should meet. As most conference-goers know, the sidebar conversations are usually as important as the planned speakers, the serendipity of bumping into the new. As John Maeda once put it, “serendipity comes from differences.” Unfortunately, we tend to seek out similarities, and I found some like-minds in the halls (big ups to Kevin and Paul from M3 Design, Todd the freelance writer, and Travis the designer), but even my micro-experience echoed the larger impression of a bunch of white folks patting themselves on the back. By the end of the day, no one had found the three people on their suggested list.

Gary Thompson has some great ideas about how the internet and the cloud should serve us better, but he’ll have to help Sunny Vanderbeck fix capitalism before he’s likely to be able to implement any of them. Companies still want our information to stay separate because it serves them — and capitalism — that way. … Peter Hall was my favorite speaker by far. He talked about the difference between maps and mappings, and showed lots of great examples. He’s at my own University of Texas at Austin, so look for me to be tracking him down soon. … Lionel Tiger, author of The End of Males (St. Martins Press, 2000) and professor from Rutgers University who coined the term “male bonding,” came to defend the men. He made many interesting points about boys growing up believing they’re just bad girls, but the reason we don’t have men’s studies departments and courses on masculinity is the same reason we don’t have White Entertainment Television: It has always already been that. The study of history up until the last 30 or so years has been the study of men. We’re still doing it wrong, but we’re doing it.

TEDxAustin: Right Now ended with a bit of a whimper and not a bang. Tavo Hellmund was the most “sought-after” speaker of this event, but I couldn’t really figure out why. His talk was on the benefits of bringing a Grand Prix Formula 1 facility not only to the United States but to southeast Travis County, which he’s doing. It seemed antithetical to the piped-in Brené Brown talk we’d just heard. … He and Dustin Haisler should talk about generating interest in their communities. The messenger is the message, Hellmund seemed to be saying. Haisler, who spoke last, has obviously read Clay Shirky’s last book, but not Dan Pink‘s. Harnessing the cognitive surplus to renovate local government looks great on a comment card — it’s like democratizing democracy — but incentivizing it with virtual money doesn’t sound feasible. I don’t want to play Farmville with the players of Farmville, so I hardly want my city government run by them. Incentive comes from within. Engagement starts with the person, not the external rewards.

I left TEDxAustin inspired and very glad I managed to slip in, perhaps with a few of my expectations violated. The organizers, curators, participants, and volunteers all deserve massive gratitude and credit for putting this thing together.

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Here’s one of the videos of one of the talks we watched at TEDxAustin. It’s Brené Brown from TEDxHouston 2010, and it’s awesome [runtime: 20:45]!

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* Michael Hardt, Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek, at least.

Hip-hop Then & Now: Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan Come to The University of Texas at Austin

On February 10th, 2011, Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan assembled in the brand new Student Activity Center at The University of Texas campus in Austin. It was an evening comprised of in-depth discussion, astute analysis, and the usual gripes.

If you know me, you know that Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups regardless of genre. Their It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) is not only what I consider the best record ever recorded, but was crucial in my lifelong fandom of Hip-hop (my own first book is named after a Chuck D lyric from the record). Chuck and P.E. were essential to my getting through high school and undergraduate studies.

Common has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard Resurrection (Relativity, 1994) in the early 1990s. Not only was he the first rapper out of Chicago that I heard (peace to E. C. Illa), but he seemed to be keeping the Native Tongues torch burning bright at a time when they were fumbling (no disrespect; they got their grip back). He has taken risks, pushed boundaries, and remained successful where others follow trends or fall off.

Joan Morgan is a bad ass. She’s been doing Hip-hop journalism since before it had a name. Her presence and insights in this talk were invaluable, and I wish we’d had more time to hear from her (I’m hoping to interview her for the site at a later date; fingers crossed). Her angle is vehemently feminist, nuanced with knowledge, and tempered with truth. When Nicki Minaj became the topic of discussion, she was one of the few people I’ve heard speak on the Regis Philbin incident. That story should’ve been in everyone’s face, but it was invariably buried.

If nostalgia is the longing for a past that never existed, then the SAC Ballroom was full of just that. Joan asked if the crowd thought that Hip-hop was better “then” than it is “now,” and most of the hands in the room went up. I find this very troubling. I was one of the few, including our three honored guests, who actually there “then” (I heard students around me say that they didn’t know who Chuck D was until they looked him up after hearing about this event). I continue to argue that Hip-hop is better now. Sure, everything that came out then was that next new shit. The genre was young and finding its way (I would also argue that it still is), so there was plenty that hadn’t been done or heard yet, whereas now those styles have been done and heard. But for every Public Enemy and Common, there was an MC Hammer and a Vanilla Ice. Go back and listen to the average record from 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994 — pick a year: Most of them sound dated and not near as complex and interesting as the worst thing out today. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a whole, Hip-hop is better now. It just is. Thinking that you missed the best of it is problematic on many levels.

Chuck mentioned the fact that fans now have access to the past in a way that the fans of then never did. This is a key insight. Technology curates culture. You cannot assume that the next generation doesn’t know about something from the past. They might not grasp the historical context of say “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Wicked” by Ice Cube, or even “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A., which were uncompromising responses to volatile times in our nation’s history, or to grasp what it was like to hear The Low End Theory, Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — or It Takes a Nation of Millions… for that matter — when they dropped. But you can’t assume they haven’t heard them or seen the videos. It’s all out there.

On the other hand, Common blamed technology for the lack of creativity and “feeling” in current Hip-hop. This argument troubles me as well. It’s a non-argument that leads to an infinite regress. Hip-hop’s detractors claim that sampling — whether with turntables or sequencers — isn’t really making music. They claim that at best it’s lazy and at worst it’s theft. No one at this talk would agree with that, but it’s the same argument. Saying that technology takes away the human element and therefore the feeling of music or that it makes it too easy thereby giving someone an unfair advantage is the same thing as claiming that sampling isn’t a viable way to make music in the first place. It’s all about what you do with it. Heads know better.

These are not new issues, and I was hoping we’d moved past them. Hip-hop — then and now — is still the most interesting thing happening in music. I will always love H. E. R.

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Here’s a handheld video (no cameras were allowed) of the Q&A session with Common, Joan Morgan, and Chuck D in the SAC [runtime: 8:13]:

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Distant Early Warning: Coupland on McLuhan

If I had to pick a patron saint, a hero, or a single intellectual influence for my adult self, it would undoubtedly be Marshall McLuhan. If you’ve spent any time at all reading my work, you’ve seen his name and his ideas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (Atlas & Co., 2010) is the latest biography of the man and differs from previous versions in many ways, not the least of which is the author. Having struggled through several of Douglas Coupland’s novels, I had my reservations about his writing this book. I am glad to say he eloquently quelled most of my concerns.

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

There are several things that people often overlook or misunderstand about McLuhan that Coupland nailed in this book. One was his devout Catholic faith, which rooted his thinking in many ways once he found it, and another was his deep disdain of the media and its attendant technology. In spite of his insight, foresight, and prescience, he hated this stuff. Coupland points out many times that McLuhan wouldn’t have liked our current reliance on technology and connectivity one bit, but he would’ve found it interesting. Another of Coupland’s key insights is that, above all else, McLuhan was an artist, “one who happened to use ideas and words as others might use paint” (p. 16). Seen in this way, a lot of his work might make a hell of a lot more sense to newbies, critics, and haters alike. Like the best artists, he was a pattern perceiver of the highest order.

There’s really no considering this book, its author, or its subject without considering Canada. Yes, Canada, The Great White Wasteland that brought us Rush, hockey, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Justin Bieber, Coupland and McLuhan, as well as the latter’s most obvious forebear, Harold Innis. It’s cold up there, folks — cold and spread out. It makes one appreciate the human element.

“Call it religion or call it optimism,” Coupland writes, “but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals” (p. 165). Or, as McLuhan himself put it, “The user is the content” (Take that, so-called “social media experts”). McLuhan’s consistent focus on the individual is what has kept his ideas fresh in the face of new contrivances.

I know it makes no difference
To what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

My problem with Coupland’s past work has had less to do with his writing ability (he’s an excellent writer) and more to do with his appropriation of Salingerisms, and not even a biography could escape. Coupland alludes to Catcher in the Rye by comparing McLuhan to Holden Caulfield on page 111. It’s an apt comparison, and it characterizes The Mechanical Bride-era McLuhan accurately, but I have to admit being irked at the reference.

With all of that said, You Know Nothing of My Work made me proud (I fancy myself something of a McLuhan scholar, so this is meant as a heartfelt compliment), and it made me cry (Though I already knew the story of McLuhan’s last days, a word-man unable to use words is still one of the saddest things I can imagine). I’d like to think Marshall McLuhan would’ve liked this book. It’s treats him with respect, humility, and humor, and I think it “gets” him. What else could he want from a biography?

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Here is a scene that illustrates the heights of McLuhan’s fame, what Coupland calls “every geek’s dream,” and this book’s namesake: Marshall Mcluhan in Woddy Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) [runtime: 2:43]:

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The Essential Tension of Ideas

One of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas and thereby spurs innovation. Where the car used to provide this mass connection, now it hinders it. Increasingly, our cognitive surplus is sitting traffic.

Ideas are networks, Steven Johnson argues in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Riverhead, 2010). The book takes Florida’s tack, comparing cities to coral reefs in that their structure fosters innovation. Good ideas come from connected collectives, so connectivity is paramount.

Human history in essence is the history of ideas. — H. G. Wells

On the other end of the spectrum, in a recent post about Twitter, David Weinberger writes,

…despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

His description sounds like we’re evening out our representations of our online selves, reconciling them with our IRL selves, initiating a corrective of sorts. Coincidentally, in their sad version of “The SEED Salon,” a recent issue of WIRED had Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss the roots of innovation (by way of plugging their respective new books; here they are discussing same at the New York Public Library). Kelly states,

Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

It sounds as though Weinberger and Kelly are calling for or defending a sort of “infodiversity,” which one would think would be a core tenet of media ecology. As Kelly puts it in What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010), “Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information” (p. 10). He continues in WIRED,

To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

In science, Thomas Kuhn called this idea “the essential tension.” In his book of the same name (University of Chicago Press, 1977), he described it as a tug-of-war between tradition and innovation. Kuhn wrote that this tension is essential, “…because the old must be revalued and reordered when assimilating the new” (p. 227). This is one of those ideas that infects one’s thinking in toto. As soon as I read about the essential tension, I began to see it everywhere — in music, in movies, in art, and indeed, in science. In all of the above, Weinberger, Johnson, and Kelly are all talking about and around this idea, in some instances the innovation side, and in others, the tradition side. We need both.

One cannot learn anything that is more than one step away from what one already knows. Learning progresses one step or level at a time. Johnson explores this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From by evoking Stuart Kauffman‘s “adjacent possible” (a term Johnson uses hundreds of times to great annoyance). The adjacent possible is that next step away. It is why innovation must be rooted in tradition. Go too far out and no one understands you, you are “ahead of your time.” Take the next step into the adjacent possible that no one else saw, and you have innovated. Taken another way, H. G. Wells once said that to write great science fiction, one must adopt a perspective that is two steps away from the current time. Going only one away is too familiar, and three is too far out. As Kelly puts it in the WIRED piece, “Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.” A new technology, literally “the knowledge of a skill,” is–in its very essence–the same thing as a new idea. For instance, Apple’s Newton was too many steps ahead of or away from what was happening at the time of its release. I’m sure you can think of several other examples.

Johnson, who has a knack for having at least one (usually more) infectious idea per book, further addresses the process of innovation with what he calls the “slow hunch.” This is the required incubation period of an innovative idea. The slow hunch often needs to find another hunch in order to come to fruition. That is, one person with an idea often needs to be coupled with another who has an idea so that the two can spur each other into action, beyond the power of either by itself (see the video below for a better explanation). It’s an argument for our increasing connectivity, and a damn good one.

That is not to say that there aren’t and won’t be problems. I think Kevin Kelly lays it out perfectly here:

…[T]here will be problems tomorrow because progress is not utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expending possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now (p. 101).

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Here’s the book trailer for Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From [runtime: 4:07]:

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References:

Florida, R. (2010). The great reset. New York: Harper.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from. New York: Riverhead.

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. New York: Viking.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The essential tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weinberger, D. (2010). “Why it’s good to be boring on the web.” JoHo The Blog.

WIRED. (2010, October) “Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on where ideas come from.” Wired.com.

Obscured by Crowds: Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

In The Young & The Digital (Beacon, 2009), Craig Watkins points out an overlooked irony in our switch from television screens to computer screens: We gather together around the former to watch passively, while we individually engage with the latter to actively connect with each other. This insight forms the core of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010). Shirky argues that the web has finally joined us in a prodigious version of McLuhan’s “global village” or Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere,” wherein everyone online merges into one productive, creative, cooperative, collective consciousness. If that seems a little extreme, so are many of Shirky’s claims. The “cognitive surplus” marks the end of the individual literary mind and the emergence of the Borg-like clouds and crowds of Web 2.0.

Okay, not exactly, but he does argue for the potential of the cognitive collective. So, Wot’s… Uh, the deal?

Is Clay Shirky the new Seth Godin? I’d yet to read anything written by him that didn’t echo things I’d read David Weinberger or Howard Rheingold (or Marshall McLuhan, of course), and I hoped Cognitive Surplus would finally break the streak. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. As Shirky put it in his previous book, Here Comes Everybody (Penguin, 2008), “society doesn’t change when people adopt new tools; it changes when people adopt new behaviors.” This time around he argues that we adopt new behaviors when provided with new opportunities, which, by my estimate, are provided by new tools — especially online.

Steve Jobs once said that the computer and the television would never converge because we choose one when we want to engage and the other when we want to turn off. The problem with Shirky’s claims is that he never mentions this disparity of desire. A large percentage of people, given the opportunity or not, do not want to post things online, create a Facebook profile, or any of a number of other web-enabled sharing activities. For example, I do not like baseball. I don’t like watching it, much less playing it. If all of the sudden baseballs, gloves, and bats were free, and every home were equipped with a baseball diamond, my desire to play baseball would not increase. Most people do not want to comment on blog posts, video clips, or news stories, much less create their own, regardless of the tools or opportunities made available to them. Cognitive surplus or not, its potential is just that without the collective desire to put it into action.

Shirky’s incessant lolcat bashing and his insistence that we care more about “public and civic value” instead comes off as “net” elitism at its worse. The wisdom of crowds, in James Surowieki’s phrase, doesn’t necessarily lead to the greater good, whatever that is. You can’t argue for bringing brains together and then expect them to “do right.” Are lolcats stupid? Probably, but they’re certainly not ushering in the end of Western civilization. It’s still less popular to be smart than it is to be a smartass, but that’s not the end of the world, online or off-. The crowd is as wise as the crowd does. Glorifying it as such, as Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf, 2010), is just plain wrong-headed.

The last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse,” is where Shirky shines though. [Although its namesake echoes a story by Jaron Lanier from a 1998 Wired article about children being smarter and expecting more from technology. Lanier wrote, “My favorite anecdote concerns a three-year-old girl who complained that the TV was broken because all she could do was change channels.” Shirky’s version involves a four-year-old girl digging in the cables behind a TV, “looking for the mouse.”] His ability to condense vast swaths of knowledge into a set of tactics for new media development in this last chapter is stunning compared to the previous 180 pages. Perhaps he is the new Seth Godin afterall.

References:

Lanier, J. (1998, January). “Taking Stock.” Wired, 6.01.

Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin.

Surowieki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor.

Watkins, S. C. (2009). The Young & The Digital. New York: Beacon.