A couple of weeks ago, I attended the third Tech City International Women’s Day. It was a great evening, mingling with makers, authors and entrepreneurs including projects like Tara Binns (a book by Lisa Rajan and Eerika Omiyale that actually has female role models, unlike the so many that are written with boys in mind), Tampon Club, Civic Shop, Project Blush by Microsoft Research, Pacif-i by Blue Maestro, ethical fashion retailer Birdsong and many others. I was interviewed for the showcase video for the event (below), and more than anything else it gives you a sense of the vibrancy that diversity brings to technology. Really glad I went; great job organising by Alex, Ana and Becky.
Matt Locke and the Storythings team are making things difficult for themselves with each year that they organise The Story. This year’s conference, on Friday, was the best yet, so I can only wonder how they can improve on the line-up next year.
Television executive Gary Carter made me think about how the internet is impacting his industry with his tales of Big Brother Africa, but his remarks on the changing times stuck with me: a decade or so ago, TV broadcasting depended on shooting as little as you could to get a good quality product, but the advent of digital technology meant dramatically reduced costs, leading to reality shows like Big Brother with their 24/7 cameras actually being possible. Obviously it took off and people started becoming famous as the spotlight could shine on stories most of us had only heard of and not seen till then. It’s almost closed the loop now – the quality of reality TV is compromised because of the ease with which anyone anywhere can and often is filmed (even if there is no point to it). He ended on an encouraging note about what else might be possible if we choose to exploit the medium intelligently again – Woody Allen doesn’t need to be constrained by the boundaries of traditional broadcast TV when he makes the series Amazon has just commissioned him for, for example.
Having just watched both series of Orange Is The New Black, being introduced to Clean Break’s work was particularly interesting for me. They are a theatre company set up in 1979 by women prisoners that not only brings female prisoners’ stories to the stage but provides them training and education to develop their personal, social and professional skills. What the group is doing is very inspiring – the ‘redemptive power of storytelling’ isn’t often discussed in this literal a manner and it was worth listening to.
Kati London’s work was both amusing and made it evident how data and play can make interacting with our urban environment easier. Here are some of the projects she talked about: HereHereNYC (cartoons created from actual data about the city), Botanicalls (plants getting an amusing personality and talking through a robotic voice, this project was in 2011 or so but reminded me immediately of the Parrot Pot covered at CES this year), Code of Everand (teaching 9-13 year olds about traffic rules through an MMOG) and Sharkrunners (an online role-playing game incorporating actual shark movement data).
Alexa Clay spoke about her upcoming book with Kyra Maya Phillips, the Misfit Economy. It speaks to the work of intrapreneurs, jugaad and the informal economy, and I’ll look out for it when it’s published. It’s also being made into a film – watch the trailer here. And in one of the most amusing and yet thought-provoking actions I’ve seen lately, she dressed as an Amish woman and went to tech conferences as the Amish Futurist.
One of the best phrases I heard on Friday was by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez as he described the philosophical nature of his work: ‘future finds of a bygone era’. His Tumblr Algopop is very New Aesthetique (New Aesthetic-ic?). And the Disarming Corruptor project he won a Prix Arts Electronica Award of Distinction for is so meta it kind of blew my mind: it is a free software application that helps people to circumvent file-sharing restrictions. More from the project page: ‘Inspired by encryption rotor machines such as the infamous Enigma Machine, the application runs an algorithm that is used to both corrupt STL files into a visually-illegible state by glitching and rotating the 3D mesh, and to allow a recipient to reverse the effect to restore it back to its original form.’
Simon Munnery‘s was the talk I laughed most at, fully living up to his reputation as a comedian. His use of existing technology (linking back in a way to what Gary Carter referred to) was quite smart: he wasn’t on stage, instead projecting his face on to a screen using his laptop camera.
I can still hear Nelly Ben Hayoun’s wonderful French accent ringing in my ears. Her film Disaster Playground, based on re-enactments of crisis situations for the public, is set to premiere at SXSW 2015. But also: the International Space Orchestra! Her work is a mix of film and critical thinking, and she minced no words when she said ‘LA (Hollywood) producers don’t really get critical thinking.’
Philip Hunt’s narration of the creative process behind Lost and Found and the challenges in its production conveyed the sense that the journey to making it was the journey of the maturity of filmmaking itself.
George Oates re-engineered Grimm’s Fairy Tales by replacing the male characters with female (I think she called it the ‘gender flip zeitgeist’). I also learnt about seejane.org, which is a good tool for my Ada’s List toolkit. Loved the passion with which she asked everyone to rally around and support female gamers who are having a tough time with the vile residuals of the internet right now.
Like many others no doubt, I find James Bridle‘s work incredibly inspiring. He spoke about his Render Search project, where he is seeking to identify people who appear in stock images used (mostly) by real estate developers – it took him all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico! Lots of things to think about but I noted down one particular thing he said: ‘when you want to understand the internet, you don’t do it to understand complex systems, you do it to understand politics and history.’
Which is really what events like The Story are all about, in a sense.
Anna Rafferty, the MC for the day, summed it up well:
I love the #story2015; it reminds me how bloody ace humans can be. Clever, creative, barmy, witty & wise, not just swine like the news says.
— Anna Rafferty (@raffers) February 20, 2015
I saw this (incredibly rapidly delivered!) talk by author and entrepreneur Mark Stevenson at Meaning 2014 and thought it was a really good summary of some of the issues already affecting business and the world at large, and how it will change us in the future. A lot of this I was already familiar with, some less so, but nevertheless it was fascinating to listen to. Especially interesting if you’re keen on complex systems and responsive organisations.
I’m speaking at The Money on November 17th, and in the run-up to the event, the organisers – Storythings – asked me a few interesting questions about culture and financing.
I spoke at the Geek Girl Meetup conference last weekend. It was more of a general riffing along the lines of ‘pay more attention to how and why you use technology’.
What is technology? We’ve always had it and we know how it changes, and with it how we progress as human beings.
When I was asked to speak at today’s conference, the work of one of my favourite writers came to mind. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and the former publisher of the Whole Earth Review spoke in his most recent book What Technology Wants about the technium – ‘a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us’. It’s a brilliant book that traces the history of technology, of us as people and how we’ve interacted with various kinds of technology. He says we create our own problems because of our interaction with some form of technology – going back to the wheel (think cars, then accidents, the awareness technology to alert us and so on). So we have a choice between the two and as humans, we tend to go with solutions which tip the overall balance in favour of progress over time. I tend to agree with this.
In as much as there are people who complain about attention deficit disorder and the like, and yes that, and trolls, are real problems, I’m confident that we’ll rise above it in the long run. 4chan probably isn’t going to be shut down any time soon, even if the Emma Watson story was a hoax, but the sheer number of people – men, women, media outlets even – who are rising up against people who troll talented women writers, gamers, celebrities is rising – that’s why I’m optimistic.
I think it is incumbent upon us all now more than ever to be mindful of technology even as we use it. It is very easy to get lost in the flow of doing things – of checking email, stalking people on Facebook, announcing things on Twitter, communicating with your team on Slack. It’s important to stop and take stock every now and then about the relationship we have with technology and what it is doing for us that makes us better. Because that is the ultimate goal, right? It can be small things. When I realised that having my mobile phone next to my pillow was affecting my quality of sleep, I created a self-imposed rule to never bring it in to the bedroom at night. It’s been 2 years now and it’s working pretty well. Of course I wish I had that level of control in other areas of my life, but – small steps, as I said!
DO YOU NEED THIS?
Ask yourselves this, when you get excited by that latest piece of gadgetry: DO YOU NEED THIS?
Do you really need that connected watch? The Apple Watch has surprised many people’s expectations of the technology that can be packed in to a watch. I’m not enamoured by it at all, even if it is a really good piece of design. I got the Pebble, I got a Nooka, I have a Fuelband – they’re all great in different ways but none have lasted a few months of use because all I really need is a very basic device to tell the time! In short, it isn’t for me.
And do YOU need this is very different from do THEY need this, they being an alternate group of people who in all likelihood live very different lives from you. This is where technology can make a tremendous impact on the lives of people who do not have the same access to resources that you might. Project Mudra is a great example of this: it is a Braille dicta-teacher built using Raspberry Pi and Arduino by a couple of Indian students. Existing resources apparently assume previous knowledge of Braille, and this teaches Braille by voice, thereby bridging a gap that was previously unaddressed.
DO YOU NEED THIS, HERE?
The next thing I think is important for us to consider is what technology means to us in our specific situation. Do we need our washing machines to message us when the laundry is done? Consider Cloudwash, a prototype for a connected washing machine which is pretty amazing from a tech POV. I can see some use, personally, for it in some parts of the world – in New York when I lived in a building where the laundry room was in the basement I could have certainly used that for example. But in London most flats and houses have their own washing machines, so I don’t see the value here.
Do we need fire alarms to be more sensible (Nest), for a way of going through the barriers that doesn’t involve rummaging in a bag for a wallet that has your Oyster card (Fin)? Yes, I can see uses for all those things, as a Londoner.
And of course one basic thing that still hasn’t been sorted yet: for self-service machines in the supermarket to be more intelligent (unidentified item in the baggage area)!
But in a different context, these pretty cool things are probably not much use at all.
But every time I go back to India to visit family, I realise how pointless all those developments would be in that environment. No tube barriers, no fire alarms in the house. Connectivity isn‘t as robust on average so that’s a priority instead. So no market for Nests and Fins – not a viable one yet anyway. But people have mobiles. Everyone does, pretty much – people in rural areas have mobiles where they might not have a TV or the internet. So mobiles are sorting out problems – from cutting out middlemen (M-Farm, Sokotext) to providing solar energy where electricity doesn’t exist (M-Kopa Solar) to allowing refugees to text back their needs to the WFP (Geopoll) to even monitoring foetal heart beats in local hospitals (Winsenga).
Scanadu is making diagnosis of diseases almost magical, if you ask me – when I first show this video to people they laugh – but if you think about it, holding something up against parts of your body to figure out what’s wrong with you is quite a natural behaviour (holding your hand against your forehead to check for fever, holding thermometer in mouth and so on) so holding a device against, say, an arm rash isn’t that strange from a behavioural point of view. Still, there’s something about making people perform the role usually performed by doctors and nurses that makes them laugh – uncomfortably, it would be seem. So it isn’t going to be mainstream soon – and it is going to rub up against regulations, so those problems will have to be sorted out. Are the inventors going to be held liable if something goes terribly wrong when someone uses it wrongly, for example? There are societal constraints that need to be considered even if technology itself – the ability to actually build this – is not a problem at all. That’s where a lot of innovation stalls, actually. It stalls because people don’t correctly pinpoint what kind of constraint they’re up against, and therefore what they need to overcome.
DO YOU NEED THIS, HERE, NOW?
And some things will probably never really have a role to play – let’s be honest!
I will leave you with a few thoughts on what I think is one of the most important ways technology has certainly changed my life over the last few years. Over a decade ago I did my Master’s dissertation on social capital, the benefits that derive from interaction and cooperation with and between groups. Things have changed vastly since the 1970’s when Robert Putnam wrote his seminal Bowling Alone. He claimed that technology and mass media were passive entertainment channels that encouraged the creation of narrow focus groups that never branch out.
But subsequent research proves that ubiquitous technology brokered by the internet is actually good for social interaction. Technology has supercharged the creation of social capital today like never before. And it makes it easier to tap into skills, get advice, feel part of a community even if you don’t have one physically near where you work or live.
Ada’s List, where over 700 women in tech now participate online sharing thoughts all the time, asking questions, helping other women get jobs, learn about new projects and tools and getting more visibility for all of us, is one such community and it is amazing to see the different nodes of this network grow stronger by being a part of it. I invite all of you women in tech to join in.
Find your community, and grow.
Long overdue – here’s what I said at the Dots innovation conference in early September.
A decade or so ago, I was a brand ambassador for Nike in Asia-Pacific. I had the chance to visit their stores in Australia on the one hand, a beautiful country with long coastlines and plenty of space, and go on runs with the local staff and understand what running and training meant to them. On the other, I needed to bring this spirit of sport to the stores in India, located in big and small towns in overcrowded cities, where sports shoes, so to speak, meant ‘casual shoes’. I started taking the shop assistants out on runs on those crowded roads, early in the mornings before the store officially opened, getting them to understand what the shoes they were meant to sell really were for. As you can imagine, it was not an easy task. They probably really really disliked me to start but in a few months they got why I was asking them to do it.
The reason I mention this is because over the last few years, I’ve been reminded time and time again how different different parts of the world are in reality and why those differences matter. Sitting in London, my team regularly encourage planners to think outside the London bubble.
Forcing ourselves to think outside the usual boundaries can shift our thinking in some pretty important ways. Consider some of the most popular books around creativity and innovation by people like Jonah Lehrer and Steven Johnson (for example). The people who read it, ‘us’, start sounding a lot like each other as a result. You know the examples they (and we) often quote, 3M, Nike+, Apple, Instagram, Airbnb – you know the pattern.
There’s a great Salon article from last year that puts it really well. Because we essentially read the same things, quote the same things, our ideas and thinking are often a bit too similar for comfort.
So, to help us move out of this cycle of creativity, so to speak, let’s look to other parts of the world, where things are changing pretty fast. Let’s start with Asia and Africa. Back in 2009, the web was already showing signs of rapid adoption there, but companies were struggling with profitability. Fast forward 5 years and there’s been a huge change, because there has also been a huge change in the socio-cultural make-up and the technological maturity of many of the countries in the East. A New York Times article in 2009 actually quotes a YouTube manager who said that people accessing YouTube in Asia were ‘eating up the bandwidth’ and they might need to consider significantly cutting access because they weren’t making enough money from them.
But a few years on that’s all changed. Not only has the momentum of growth continued, there is now a significant revenue upside as well – driven of course, as it is here, by advertising. The biggest reason of course is that Asia and Africa are probably the biggest adopters of mobile technology over the last few years, and that is only poised to grow, year-on-year.
And technology is the focus for governments in these regions as well.
So, there’s a huge opportunity in these parts of the world that a majority of companies, whether it’s a Unilever, Procter & Gamble or even an Airbnb, Uber or Facebook are scrambling over themselves to capitalise on. I can see some of you thinking: that’s not a good thing, right? In parts of the world where there are huge problems: poverty, illiteracy, lack of proper drinking water and toilets, do companies really need to focus on advertising? I’m not saying this isn’t a problem – it is. But the answer to that is to make marketing an enabler, a social tool instead of a marketing one.
The World Food Programme started using a mobile SMS service called Geopoll in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently to get refugees to tell them what their needs were. They had good take-up but saw participation falling off after a few weeks – enquiry resulted in them learning that it was because the phones couldn’t be charged properly as access to electricity was patchy. So the WFP set up solar charging stations, free for people they were working with and at a cost to others – and poll participation went up again.
Nathan Eagle, an MIT researcher who is now the CEO of a company called Jana, previously called Txteagle, has a research agenda in the field of engineering social systems: generating actionable insights from big data that can be used to improve the lives of people from whom this data is generated. Jana rewards people with free airtime in return for certain actions like completing a market research survey, or listening to a message. They work with 70 global operators and have compensated nearly 3.5 billion people so far. Global institutions like the UN, Danone, General Mills, Unilever, Coke and Microsoft are all using Jana to better understand people in emerging economies. One of the most interesting stories about its inception is when they gave nurses in Kenya phones to text information about blood supply in their hospitals. The story is similar to the WFP one – people stopped sending responses after a while, because the texts came out of their data plan and they couldn’t afford it. So a credit to their accounts sorted the problem – and that’s how Jana was born.
So constraints are not a bad thing. They give you focus and a challenge. And more interestingly, they accelerate the creation of new products and funding models. The missed call phenomenon is something I’ve spoken about before. Valerie Wagoner realised its prevalence when she was living in India – the fact that people call friends or family and hang up before they pick up, indicating they’d like to be called back. Out of that insight was born a startup that has had over 416 million interactions with customers so far, and brands like Oreo, Disney, Nivea, Colgate and Greenpeace have all used them to reach their audiences – and they are now expanding from India to South East Asia. Pakistan has a startup called Flashcall that does the same thing, again with a market in the hundreds of millions.
PHD’s India office worked on the Kan Khajura Tesan campaign last year based on the same insight, to much success.
Colgate did a similar thing in Myanmar, when they made use of their vast distribution network by re-purposing packaging and attaching mobile content to them, so to speak. Children in villages across the country were taught by teachers who rang a mobile number and got access to teaching material that accompanied the posters on the inside of Colgate’s packaging.
And giving something back is something that is being actively explored in the US and UK, if you consider the gradual rise of permission-based marketing and vendor relationship management – as opposed to managing the customer, the customers manage the vendor, so to speak. As with the examples I’ve just mentioned in other parts of the world, who are all doing the same thing but in a different way.
There’s a book called ‘To See Ourselves’ by Chinese academics Zhongdang Pan, Steven Chaffee, Godwin Chu and Yanan Chu from 1994 that compares traditional American values to Chinese values, and they posit that US culture values the individual’s personality, whereas Chinese culture values a person’s duty to family, state and clan. An analysis of advertising messages in these two countries then showed that this was reflected: American ads are largely about enjoyment, individualism, economy, while Chinese ads focus on family, technology and tradition. So though the Chinese government itself leaves much to be desired, perhaps there is something in looking to the East for inspiration.
A Sri Lankan professor, Shelton Gunaratne, has written a book on the press, called the Dao of the Press, where he quotes a lot from the Tao of Pooh, talking about things journalists can learn from Eastern philosophy. It’s quite fascinating – a bit confusing in parts, as a lot of philosophy is, but interesting. I think this one quote from the Tao of Pooh is particularly important for us all to remember in the context of learning from different cultures and working on solving different kinds of problems: spend the time we have wisely – and use technology, which we have lots of access to, much more wisely than we currently are.
As Noah Brier says, advertising is not a tax for being unremarkable. He was talking about media in general and social content in particular. Advertising – always existed and will continue to. Even in the olden times, in countries like Nigeria, there were people who went out into the streets and announced new products. In India at election time, you still have jeeps with political parties yelling propaganda out as they drive past local neighbourhoods. TV ads will continue to exist, even good old print will, in some form. But what we do with advertising doesn’t need to be unremarkable, especially with the access we have to technology that our predecessors didn’t.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is familiar to most of you, but here it is updated for the modern era with wifi as a basic requirement! (I didn’t scribble that on by the way).
As I was writing this talk, it struck me that a lot of the solutions I come across that aren’t familiar have parallels with Maslow’s old hierarchy. If you interpret the physiological level – we’re talking about things like food, health – and today, connectivity. Up Energy is a company in Africa that finances, builds, and supports distribution channels for products such as high efficiency cookstoves, water purification technologies, and solar lights using carbon crediting mechanisms. Project Isizwe, a consortium of technology providers and others is looking at providing free wi-fi there the way Facebook, Samsung and others are looking to with internet.org. On the corporate side, Pampers in the Philippines basically bought a vacant radio frequency, branded it, and made it a utility for mums who needed white noise to make their kids sleep. Remember the white noise apps that you may have seen mums here use – I’ve seen some of my friends who are mums use it – aren’t easily accessible there with data issues.
When you go to the esteem and belonging sections in Maslow’s pyramid, think of entertainment and education, both of which give people self-esteem and a sense of belonging. A startup called Sterio.me also in Africa is helping teachers connect with students on the mobile – they upload lessons and quizzes, and kids take them directly on the mobile, with teachers getting access to analytics. Unilever and Colgate’s examples that I mentioned earlier would fall in this category as well. And finally when you get to the top of the pyramid, self-actualisation, problem-solving, think of brands like Warby Parker and Toms that give one to someone in need when one is sold in a developed market, and a project like Cora, crowdfunded through Plum Alley, that sends a month’s worth of organic cotton supplies for a girl’s period to someone living in poverty in India when one is bought in America. I interpret that as asset provision. I don’t see this as a pyramid necessarily, but different ways of coming up with products and businesses that make a difference.
By connecting the dots between things happening around us, we can help people and start developing business models that work, while all the while learning. Without learning, there is no real progress.
Thank you to Neil Perkin for inviting me to speak, and Antony Mayfield, Ruth Oliver, Maddy Wood and the entire Brilliant Noise team for a great conference.
DConstruct is always my day for sitting back, listening and absorbing. Here are a few things I noted down/remember from the day:
Warren Ellis’ talk was hard work to listen to but it was beautifully written and a great history lesson; I noted down his phrase ‘too weird and woo-woo for these unironic normcore times’!
Georgina Voss on ‘reproductive vapourware‘ – crazy gynaecological apparatus from back in the day.
Clare Reddington: ‘A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’ – Patrick Geddes, 1904. 2.8 Hours Later looks both crazy and fun. 2014’s Playable City winner, Shadowing, launches 11th September in Bristol – share your chalkifications on the Guardian Witness app. A quote on how the designers of the project wanted Shadowing to be ‘more like a chalkboard than a game’, which I thought was nice. Also, I completely missed the NYC Subway Signs experiment last year, that was neat!
Aaron Straup Cope on how the internet gives us a memory: ‘The ability to see into the future and into the past has not been available to most people’, and therefore how the power to recall something, to revisit it at a time and place of one’s own choosing (blogs, for example) significantly shifts the power dynamic. It is also really useful ‘in order to understand one’s own interests’. (This is why I blog even if it is sporadic!). Another thing he said that made so much sense to me: how today people are involved in ‘creating things with the intention to remember’ – I’m looking at you, Facebook – they aren’t always in the moment. Also very memorable: ‘think about what you think, know and do not just in terms of what you do but how it lasts over time.’
Brian Suda: The new digital rules – NPR on when to wish someone a happy birthday. The internet of things – ‘things imply stuff, a very first world problem’. Developing countries might not have ‘things’ and often don’t have the internet so it’s an unfair proposition at the moment – that was interesting.
Mandy Brown gave a passionate talk on how the web is unequal, a reflection of society – hence harassment etc.
— Hans Gerwitz (@gerwitz) September 5, 2014
#dconstruct “Meritocracy: A myth which exists to comfort those of us more comfortable than others”
— James Mayes (@James_Mayes) September 5, 2014
Tom Scott’s talk on our future in 2030 is here.
Sadly I missed the talks by Tom Scott, Anab Jain on the Valley of the Meatpuppets and Cory Doctorow but I hear they were great – I’ll catch up on those when the videos are released.
It’s going to take some time to assimilate thoughts from DConstruct – food for the mind, difficult to digest in parts but important to consume.