Tech, Ethics, The Human Spirit, and The Common Good
Pop Tech 2014
Thursday, October 30, 2014 8:58 AM
The Pop Tech conference in Camden, now in its 18th year, has an almost cult-like following among those who live and work in the hi-tech world or on its digitally influenced borders. People come from around the world to hear ideas from some of the top names in the digital culture revolution. Even with tickets going for up to $2,000, Pop Tech sells out.
Alex Ross, a senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said social-media-inspired rebellions still need defined leadership and governance. (Photos by POP Tech)
Speakers at the 2014 Pop Tech conference, which was held in Camden October 23 to 25, focused less on new gadgets and more on people who are using technology creatively, their personal stories, and the limitations of tech tools and their potential uses for the common good.
Pop Tech speakers presenting new ideas or innovative use of technology while weaving in themes of facing individual challenges and overcoming personal adversity are familiar to followers of TED Talks online. Many Pop Tech speakers are TED Talk alumni.
Those who come to Pop Tech get to meet, mingle, and share their ideas with their heroes in the tech-driven social sphere. Some of the 600 people who attend come from corporate bunkers like Microsoft and Apple, others are solo entrepreneurs, thinkers, and writers, still others are university researchers - and, this year, even a surfer whose goal is to surf the biggest waves in the world, made the speaker list.
Clearly, though, many are big names who may have started out as rebels and are now recognizable as experts in the tech world, such as John Maeda, the host of the 2014 conference. Maeda, former head of research at the MIT media lab, former president of Rhode Island School of Design, and now in-house design guru for a high-profile Silicon Valley venture capital firm that looks for entrepreneurs ready to build the next Google, wasn't alone in thinking and talking about how to continue fostering an outsider approach from inside a maturing high-tech power structure.
Tech as a Political Tool in the 2014 Election: David D. Burstein
As a teenager, in 2007 and 2008, David Burstein registered over 25,000 new voters in 35 states. Now Burstein heads Run For America, an organization he started two years ago that recruits non-partisan candidates for political office in districts where data analysis shows discontented voters want a candidate whose primary mission is to serve the public, regardless of party affiliation.
Only 40 percent of the American voting public are likely to be partisan or solidly ideological, according to Burstein's research, leaving 60 percent of American voters cynical about the impact of their votes and unwilling to turn out to vote under the current system.
"We have ceded control to those who have made it broken. That's why we have mediocre politicians," said Burstein. "That's why we have three convicted criminals running for office this November and that's why they are likely to win."
We can't continue to ignore government, said Burstein. We need to fix it and we need to do it by electing candidates whose primary mission is to make the country better.
"We want vision, not controlled damage," he said.
Run For America used data analysis to determine which voting districts in the country had a majority of people that wanted smart, innovative, energetic, and non-dogmatic candidates to run for office.
"It's the Money Ball approach," Burstein said, referring to the movie starring Brad Pitt that illustrated the computer data-analysis used by the Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane to recruit baseball players who would most likely be successful, even if they did not appear to be stars to the establishment. After determining 30 voting districts across the U.S., Run For America recruited Democratic, Republican, and independent candidates.
"In 2016, we have 12 candidates running for Congress," said Burstein, who said the new age of political entrepreneurship is just beginning.
The Limits of Tech as a Political Tool in the Middle East: Alex Ross
Alex Ross, who worked as a senior advisor for the State Department under Hillary Clinton, said the massive shift in geopolitical power that is happening right now is not so much geographic as it is a shift from traditional top-down forms of power, such as that found in nation states and large media outlets, to fragmented power where citizens have the ability to organize rebellions with their cell phones, as was done in the Middle East uprisings and in the Occupy Movement.
"It is never easier than now to start a rebellion," said Ross.
But rebellions triggered through social media have not necessarily led to positive change that benefits the population at large, said Ross, largely because the rebellions lacked leaders. In Egypt, for example, there was no Nelson Mandela, as in South Africa, or Lech Walesa, as in Poland, to lead the establishment of new and more democratic structures of governance, he said. Instead, the rebellions in the Middle East inspired by social media within the past five years have led to political voids that allowed power to become consolidated in the hands of a few, resulting in the establishment of harsher regimes than those they replaced.
Domestic rebellions also have fallen flat, he said.
"The Occupy Movement turned into a moment," said Ross. "They had no institutional structure to propel them forward and didn't allow leaders to evolve. In contrast, the Tea Party has backed the Republican Party and mainstreamed the extreme."
Ross identified four necessary components for a rebellion to transform into lasting change: leadership and the establishment of institutions; a goal and vision of what the new reality will look like after the old paradigm is overthrown; relinquishing top-down control in the new era of fragmented control; and the audacity to implement institutional change, not just brandish the idea of change as a slogan.
Women are key to that change, said Ross, and a hoped-for future must include them in all economic and political efforts and at every level of authority, not just because it is the equitable thing to do, but because it will have strong, measurable impacts on economic growth.
Ross pointed to a Goldman Sachs study showing that removing barriers to women at all levels in the workforce would raise the U.S. GDP by 9 percent, the GDP in the Eurozone by 14 percent, and would increase per capita income in Asia by 14 percent by 2020.
"There is no program anywhere that creates those kinds of changes," said Ross. "We need to put aside our naked self interest to empower women from an economic point of view," he said.Big Tech as Big Brother: Anil Dash
Social media is so embedded in modern culture that it inevitably shapes it - a phenomenon that has largely been ignored within an industry more interested in creating new things than reflecting on the impacts, according to Anil Dash, the developer of ThinkUp, a new app that digs behind the surface of social networks. Dash, who was in on the early development of social media, says developers have tended to be self-congratulatory and divorced from ethics.
"Among developers, it's been: Now we can post cat videos on YouTube. Thank me later," said Dash.
It's time to mature, he said. We should be thinking about the impacts of social media on the person, the culture, and what we need to change within the tech community itself to strengthen civil society.
"Most of us in this room will spend about three years of our lives with our thumbs on the glass of our phones," said Dash. We know what Google and Facebook get out of that in terms of selling advertising, but what do we get?
"What is meaningful about all the time we spend online?"
That is not just a personal question of whether our time is well spent, he said. It is also a question of what we will accept as a society, including restrictions on personal freedoms and the rise of e-corporate influence in the public sphere.
The Terms of Service e-contract used when signing up for online sites, for example, is ripe for reform, said Dash, since hardly anyone reads it and it consolidates power in the hands of Big Tech.
Furthermore, the majority of conversations today are going through the mediation of a small handful of giant tech companies who can delete, delay, or slow communication for any reason at all and we currently have no recourse and no appeal, said Dash.
Shouldn't we be challenging the power of these monopolies and create some public space in the social media landscape? Consider, said Dash, the current practice of the government use of Facebook and Twitter during disasters to communicate with the public about the delivery of emergency and other supplies.
"Online, we only have these spaces owned by private companies. We don't have public parks," said Dash. "It can't be the only way we have public discourse."
Another consideration is who builds tech tools, makes the design decisions, and profits from them.
"The statistics are actually pretty alarming. Within the tech industry, the people who actually make the products and determine the culture of the company [are similar to] Twitter, where 90 percent of the employees are men," said Dash.
California, the hot bed of Tech, has a population that is 40 percent Latino, he said, and about 14 percent of the U.S. population is African-American, but within tech companies only two percent of employees are from those demographics.
"And this is at the same time that tech companies are crowing about how high the adoption of smartphones is by minority populations," said Dash.
The implications are that the systematic exclusion of minorities and women in creating social-media tools impacts the culture.
"So it is inevitable that in a YouTube video . . . you will start to see strings of racist comments and people will say, 'That's just how YouTube is,' or you'll see systematic harassment on Twitter. Right now, there is a group of misogynist gamers who are trying to chase women out of their little clubhouse."
"And there is no recourse because most of the people affected don't have a seat at the table to help create these technologies," said Dash.
"What I am asking all of us in the tech industry to do, is hold Tech accountable," he said. "An industry can't be built on violating civil liberties; they start to look a lot less like innovators and a lot more like robber barons."
It's not too late to change this, said Dash, but we need to take action even while we are still trying to understand the role of the tech industry in defining our institutions.
"Believe me, tech is going to be considered the fifth branch," said Dash. "We need the checks and balances so the tech industry can be used for good."
We need to say to Big Tech: I expect you to live up to your obligations commensurate with the incredible rewards you've been given, said Dash.
And all of us that are shaping and shaped by the new technology should get together, said Dash, and say to ourselves and each other: 'We need to do better.'
"If you want to change the world, change the world," said Dash. "Don't wait. There's an urgency."
Saying NO to Steve Jobs: Bob Sabiston
Bob Sabiston may be the only person on the planet who turned down job offers from Steve Jobs three times over the course of 15 years - once to slack off to Texas with no income and no friends to work on a cartoon for grown-ups that he had little hope of selling. Turning Jobs down, Sabiston told the POP Tech audience, was instigated by a fear of being consumed by the big Pixar machine, dominated by Jobs. He doesn't regret going his own way to found the Flat Black Films and develop software used in "RoadHead," "Waking Life," "A Scanner Darkly," and other animated films. He is also the creator of Inchworm Animation for the Nintendo DSi and is working on new art software for the Nintendo 3DS.
His talk at Pop Tech offers the surprise ending of how, today, Sabiston ended up working for Jobs after his death - as a developer of Headspace and Voxel apps for iOS.
Violence as a Design Problem at MoMA: Paola Antonelli
Design is everywhere, Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli told the Pop Tech audience.
"Design is not all pretty," said Antonelli. "A museum should encourage public discussion of important ideas using design and art."
To that end, Anotnelli pushes the limits of what MoMA considers acceptable as art. Many of her ideas never make it past the gatekeepers as a result, said Antonelli. The Design and Violence exhibition curated by Antonelli did (designandviolence.moma.org). The exhibit explores violence over the past 13 years since the September 11 attacks.
Objects imbued with meaning include a black Toyota four-wheel-drive that represents the rebel militia to villagers in Sierra Leone, an AK-47 with obvious connotations, and an image of a lush rose, its pink petals sewn shut at the peak of flowering to represent female genital mutilation.