Vegas Lingers

This is Vegas

It’s easy to overlook them. The Skinner-box button-pushers, watching the wheels roll and roll. Surrounded by a ‘paradise’ that still leaves them wanting — and thinking they’ll find it like this.

Vegas was a mixed bag. I guess I’d always seen so many glamorous photos and film shots, even the ones that tried to be ‘gritty’ still managed to put a sort of mythic gleam over everything.

But it’s not mythic. It’s plastic. It’s the progeny of a one-night stand between the Magic Kingdom and TGI Friday’s. Inescapable throngs of flip-flopped, booze-soaked denizens, eyes bugged wide by the promise of … what? I’m not even sure. Entertainment, certainly, but another flavor invades the way saccharine crowds and leaves a film over any other flavor. Luxury, perhaps. Richness of the kind that first comes to mind when someone says “rich”: Trumpism mixed with Hollywood ersatz.

I don’t mean to be so down on it. Really. I’m a big fan of decadent, crazy, outrageous kitsch. But this somehow was so overwhelming, it wasn’t even kitsch. (Definitely not camp.) Now I understand why U2 filmed the video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” here so many years ago — and that was before it was injected with virtual-reality steroids.

The conference was terrific (except for having trouble escaping the waves of noise and humanity to have a decent conversation). I’m amazed the team made it come together as well as they did given the circumstances.

Fortunately, most of the time was much happier than I’m letting on here. Check out my iasummit2007 Flickr stream.

For the record: I know plenty of people enjoy Vegas a great deal, and they have fun gambling and seeing shows and everything, and I think that’s actually really great. Some of my family enjoy doing it from time to time, and they seem to always come back smiling. I think it just hit me in a strange way on this trip — but I’m always like that; if there’s a silver lining I’ll find a cloud. I just can’t help noticing the souls that seem to be a little lost, a little vacant behind the marquee-reflecting eyes. But hey, that’s just me.

The Incredible Power of the "Side Project"

Colleague Michael Magoolaghan passed along a link to the transcript of Tim Berners-Lee’s testimony before Congress.

Hearing on the “Digital Future of the United States: Part I — The Future of the World Wide Web”

It’s fascinating reading, and extremely quotable. But one part that really struck me is in the first paragraphs (emphasis added):

To introduce myself, I should mention that I studied Physics at Oxford, but on graduating discovered the new world of microprocessors and joined the electronics and computer science industry for several years. In 1980, I worked on a contract at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, and wrote for my own benefit a simple program for tracking the various parts of the project using linked note cards. In 1984 I returned to CERN for ten years, during which time I found the need for a universal information system, and developed the World Wide Web as a side project in 1990.

While TBL didn’t invent the Internet entirely, his bit of brilliance made it relevant for the masses. Even though that wasn’t his intention right off the bat, it became so as he realized the implications of what he’d done.

But let’s look at the three bits in bold:

  1. He started studying Physics, then decided to follow a side interest in microprocessors.
  2. He created an e-notecard system for himself, on the side of (and to help with) what he was contracted to do at CERN.
  3. He developed a universal version of his notecard system so everyone could share and link together, as a side project in 1990.

Imagine the world impact of those three “side projects”?

This really begs the question for any organization. Does it give its members the leeway for “side” interests? Are they considered inefficient, or just odd?

It’s not that every person is going to invent another Web. It’s more that the few people who might do something like that get trampled before they get started, and that the slightly larger group of people who might do something merely impressive are trampled in the same way.

There was a time when amateurs were the experts — they were the ones who dabbled and learned and communicated in excited screeds and philosophical societies. They were “blessed” to have the time and money to do as they pleased, and the intellectual curiosity to dig in and dirty their hands with figuring out the world.

It could very well be that we’re in the midst of a similar rush of amateur dabbling. Just think of all the millionaires who are now figuring out things like AIDS, malaria and space flight. Or the empowerment people have to just go and remix and remake their worlds. There’s an excellent O’Reilly Conference keynote I wish I’d seen, but the pdf of the slides gives a decent accounting. Here’s an abstract:

Rules for Remixing; Rael Dornfest & Tim O’Reilly

Citizen engineers are throwing their warranties to the wind, hacking their TiVos, Xboxes, and home networks. Wily geeks are jacking Jetsons-like technology into their cars for music, movies, geolocation, and internet connectivity on the road. E-commerce and network service giants like Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and Google are decoupling, opening, and syndicating their services, then realizing and sharing the network effects. Professional musicians and weekend DJs are serving up custom mixes on the dance floor. Operating system and software application makers are tearing down the arbitrary walls they’ve built, turning the monolithic PC into a box of loosely coupled component parts and services. The massive IT infrastructure of the ’90s is giving way to what analyst Doc Searls calls “do-it-yourself IT.
We see all of this as a reflection of the same trend: the mass amateurization of technology, or, as Fast Company put it, “the amateur revolution.” And it’s these hacks, tweaks, re-combinations, and shaping of the future we’re exploring in this year’s Emerging Technology Conference theme: Remix.

I saw Mark Frauenfelder on Colbert Report last night, talking about Make Magazine and the very things mentioned in the abstract above. Colbert marveled at the ingenuity, and I wondered how many people watching would think to themselves: “Hey, yeah! Why not just take things apart and change them to the way I want them???”

It’s on the rise, isn’t it? Wow. Another sea change, and I’m not even 40. What a time to be alive.

All hail side projects and passionate tangents. Long may they reign.

But for now… I gotta get back to work.

YouTube – Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

This video is amazing. I’m not sure how to describe it. Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing said this about it:

“Web 2.0… the Machine is Us/ing Us,” is deeply moving and incredibly smart. The creator is Michael Wesch, an assistant Cultural Anthropology Prof at Kansas State U, and he has strung together a bunch of animations, text, and screenshots in order to tell the story of “Web 2.0” — and why it matters, and how it’s changing the world. This is as starry-eyed as techno-optimism gets, and it might just choke you up a little, if you care about this stuff.

YouTube – Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

Innovation: Groups, Individuals & Perception

For a year or so now, “innovation” has been bobbing around at the very top of the memepool. Everybody wants to bottle the stuff and mix it into their corporate water supplies.

I’ve been on the bandwagon too, I confess. It fascinates me — where do ideas come from and how do they end up seeing the light of day? How does an idea become relevant and actionable?

There’s a recent commercial for Fedex where a group of pensive executives are sitting around a conference table, their salt-and-pepper haired and square-jawed CEO (I assume) sitting at the head of the group and a weak-chinned, rumpled and dorky underling sitting next to him. The CEO asks how they can cut costs (I’m paraphrasing) and the little younger dorky guy recommends one of Fedex’s new services. He’s ignored. But then the CEO says exactly the same thing, and everybody nods in agreement and congratulates him on his genius.

The whole setup is a big cliche. We’ve seen it time and again in sitcoms and elsewhere. But what makes this rendition different is how it points out the difference in delivery and context.

In looking for a transcript of this thing, I found another blog that summarizes it nicely, so I’ll point to it and quote here.

The group loudly concurs as the camera moves to the face of the worker who proposed the idea in the first place. Perplexed, he declares, “You just said what I just said only you did this,” as he mimics his boss’s hand motions.
The boss looks not at him, but straight ahead, and says, “No, I did this,” as he repeats his hand motion. The group of sycophants proclaims, “Bingo, Got it, Great.” The camera captures the contributor, who has a sour grimace on his face.

(Thanks Joanne Cini for the handy recap.)

What it also captures is the reaction of an older colleague sitting next to the grimacing dorky guy who gives a little nod to him that shows a mixture of pity, complicity in what just happened, and a sort of weariness that seems to say, “yeah, see? that’s how it works young fella.”

It’s a particularly insightful bit of comedy. It lampoons the fact that so much of how ideas happen in a group environment depends on context, delivery, and perception (and here I’m going to pick on business, but it happens everywhere in slightly different flavors). Dork-guy not only doesn’t get the language that’s being used (physical and tonal), but doesn’t “see” it well enough to even be able to imitate it correctly. He doesn’t have the literacy in that language that the others in the room do, and feels suddenly as if he’s surrounded by aliens. Of course, they all perceive him as alien (or just clueless) as well.

I know I’m reading a lot into this slight character, but I can’t help it. By the way, I’m not trying to insult him by calling him dork-guy — it’s just the way he’s set up in the commercial; I think the dork in all of us identify with him. I definitely do.

In fact, I know from personal experience that, in dork-guy’s internal value matrix, none of the posturing means a hill of beans. He and his friends probably make fun of people who put so much weight on external signals — they think of it as a shallow veneer. Like most nerdy people, the assumption is that your gestures, haircut or tone of voice doesn’t affect whether you win the chess match or not. But in the corporate game of social capital, “presence” is an essential part of winning.

Ok, so back to innovation. There’s a tension among those who talk and think about innovation between Collective Intelligence (CI) and Individual Genius (IG). To some degree there are those who favor one over the other, but I think most people who think seriously about innovation and try to do anything about it struggle with the tension within themselves. How do we create the right conditions for CI and IG to work in synergy?

The Collective Intelligence side has lots of things in its favor, especially lately. With so many collective, emergent activities happening on the Web, people now have the tools to tap into CI like never before — when else in history did we have the ability for people all over the world to collaborate almost instantaneously in rapid conversation, discussion and idea-vetting? Open Source philosophy and the “Wisdom of Crowds” have really found their moment in our culture.

I’m a big believer too, frankly. I’m not an especially rabid social constructivist, but I’m certainly a convert. Innovation (outside of the occasional bit that’s just for an individual privately) derives its value from communal context. And most innovations that we encounter daily were, in one way or another, vetted, refined and amplified by collaboration.

Still, I also realize that the Eureka Moments don’t happen in multiple minds all at once. There’s usually someone who blurts out the Eureka thought that catalyzes a whole new conversation from that “so perfect it should’ve been obvious” insight. Sometimes, of course, an individual can’t find anyone who hears and understands the Eureka thought, and their Individual Genius goes on its lonely course until either they do find the right context that “gets” their idea or it just never goes anywhere.

This tension betwen IG and CI is rich for discussion and theorizing, but I’m not going to do much of that here. It’s all just a very long setup for me to write down something that was on my mind today.

In order for individuals to care enough to have their Eureka thoughts, they have to be in a fertile, receptive environment that encourages that mindset. People new to a company often have a lot of that passion, but it can be drained away long before their 401k matching is vested. But is what these people are after personal glory? Well, yeah, that’s part of it. But they also want to be the person who thought of the thing that changed everybody’s lives for the better. They want to be able to walk around and see the results of that idea. Both of these incentives are crucial, and they’re both important ingredients in the feed and care of the delicate balance that brings forth innovation.

Take the Fedex commercial from above. The guy had the idea and he’ll see it executed. Why wouldn’t he be gratified to see the savings in the company’s bottom line and to see people happier? Because that’s only part of his incentive. The other part is for his boss, at the quarterly budget meeting, to look over and say “X over there had a great idea to use this service, and look what it saved us; everybody give a round of applause to X!” A bonus or promotion wouldn’t hurt either, but public acknowledgement of an idea’s origins goes a very very long way.

I’ve worked in a number of different business and academic environments, and they vary widely in how they handle this bit of etiquette. And it is a kind of etiquette. It’s not much different from what I did above, where I thanked the source of the text I quoted. Maybe it’s my academic experience that drilled this into me, but it’s just the right thing to do to acknowledge your sources.

In some of my employment situations, I’ve been in meetings where an idea I’ve been evangelizing for months finally emerges from the lips of one of my superiors, and it’s stated as if it just came to them out of the blue. Maybe I’m naive, but I usually assume the person just didn’t remember they’d heard it first from me. But even if that’s the case, it’s a failure of leadership. (I’ve heard it done not just to my ideas but to others’ too. I also fully acknowledge I could be just as guilty of this as anyone, because I’m relatively absent-minded, but I consciously work to be sure I point out how anything I do was supported or enhanced by others.) It’s a well-known strategy to subliminally get a boss to think something is his or her own idea in order to make sure it happens, but if that strategy is the rule rather than the exception, it’s a strong indicator of an unhealthy place for ideas and innovation (not to mention people).

But the Fedex commercial does bring a harsh lesson to bear — a lesson I still struggle with learning. No matter how good an idea is, it’s only as effective as the manner in which it’s communicated. Sometimes you have no control over this; it’s just built into the wiring. In the (admittedly exaggerated, but not very much) situation in the Fedex commercial, it’s obvious that most of the dork-guy’s problem is he works in a codependent culture full of sycophants who mollycoddle a narcissistic boss.

But perhaps as much as half of dork-guy’s problem is that he’s dork-guy. It’s possible that there are some idyllic work environments where everyone respects and celebrates the contributions of everyone else, no matter what their personal quirks. But chances are it’s either a Kindergarten classroom or a non-profit organization. And I happen to be a big fan of both! I’m just saying, I’m learning that if you want to play in certain environments, you have to play by their rules, both written and unwritten. And I think we all know that the ratio of unwritten-to-written is something like ten-to-one.

In dork-guy’s company, sitting up straight, having a good haircut and a pressed shirt mean a lot. But what means even more is saying what you have to say with confidence, and an air of calm inevitability. Granted, his boss probably would still steal the idea, but his colleagues will start thinking of him as a leader and, over time, maybe he’ll manage to claw his way higher up the ladder. I’m not celebrating this worldview, by the way. But I’m not condemning it either. It just is. (There is much written hither and yon about how gender and ethnicity complicate things even further; speaking with confidence as a woman can come off negatively in some environments, and for some cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it would be very rude. Whole books cover this better than I can here, but it’s worth mentioning.)

Well, it may be a common reality, but it certainly isn’t the best way to get innovation out of a community of coworkers. In environments like that, great ideas flower in spite of where they are, not because of it. The sad thing is, too many workplaces assume that “oh we had four great ideas happen last year, so we must have an excellent environment for innovation,” not realizing that they’re killing off hundreds of possibly better seedlings in the process.

I’ve managed smaller teams on occasion, sometimes officially and sometimes not, but I haven’t been responsible for whole departments or large teams. Managing people isn’t easy. It’s damn hard. It’s easy for me to sit at my laptop and second-guess other people with responsibilities I’ve never shared. That said, sometimes I’m amazed at how ignorant and self-destructive as a group some management teams can be. They can talk about innovation or quality or whatever buzzword du jour, and they can institute all sorts of new activities, pronouncements and processes to further said buzzword, but not do anything about the major rifts in their own ranks that painfully hinder their workers from collaborating or sharing knowledge; they reinforce (either on purpose or unwittingly) cultural norms that alienate the eccentric-but-talented and give comfort to the bland-but-mediocre. They crow about thinking outside the box, while perpetuating a hierarchical corporate system that’s one of the most primitive boxes around.

Ok, that last bit was a rant. Mea Culpa.

My personal take-away from all this hand-wringing? I can’t blame the ‘system’ or ‘the man’ for anything until I’ve done an honest job of playing by the un/written rules of my environment. It’s either that, or play a new game. To me, it’s an interesting challenge if I look at it that way; otherwise it’s just disheartening. I figure either I’ll succeed or I’ll get so tired of beating myself against the cubicle partitions, I’ll give up and find a new game to play.

Still, eventually? It’d be great to change the environment itself. Maybe I should go stand in front of my bathroom mirror and practice saying that with authority? First, I have to starch my shirts.

Flash

Just one more Sunday with my daughter, dwindling now. Another week of work and daycamp, then a return drive to NC on Saturday, and our month together for 2006 will be over.

This time it went so fast. That’s a cliche, I know. But it did.

At the amusement park last week, kids lined up to ride the big swing ride over and over again. Parents tired of riding it with them, as I did, and so we all stood and watched, our necks crooked upward at our children flung in the wide circle. The sun was starting to drop, and some of us had cameras out trying to pluck images of our children from the screaming, sweaty orbiting ring, one frame at a time.

Cameras flashed. Parents yelled up “yes, I see you! hang on!” Then another flash. And we all had that frozen smile on our faces, the one where the mouth is all joy and wonderment, but the eyes behind the cameras say “I will keep this moment, this moment will never change” (flash) “stop” (flash) “yes, stop there and there” (flash) “and that moment, that smile, I’ll keep that one” (flash) “and that one too! oh god so many look at them pass, too fast” (flash) “too fast, too fast.”