What the hell even is a “maker?” I made myself a sandwich today for lunch, does that make ME a maker? Well, yes actually. A maker is quite simply defined as anyone who undertakes the project to make something and ends up, well, making something. And yet, the folks who make things have now suddenly been ascribed a new industrial revolution movement, and are touted as the future of entrepreneurship.

(Photo credit: http://flashgamer.com/arduino/comments/maker-faire-oslo)

As former Editor in Chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, became so obsessed about it that he left Wired to pursue it in full, and described it in his book “Makers: The New industrial Revolution.”

“In an age of custom-fabricated, do-it-yourself product design and creation, the collective potential of a million garage tinkerers and enthusiasts is about to be unleashed, driving a resurgence of American manufacturing. A generation of ‘Makers’ using the Web’s innovation model will help drive the next big wave in the global economy, as the new technologies of digital design and rapid prototyping gives everyone the power to invent — creating ‘the long tail of things.’”

A lot of the focus in subsets of the maker movement is on robotics, drones, open source design and 3-D printing- some pretty sexy and disruptive product categories. So it all sounds justifiably exciting and worth paying attention to. What is it, then, about that term “maker” that bugs me but also excites me?

(Photo credit: http://www.houstonmakerfaire.com/)

My theory is its ties to the whole nouveau “back-to-the-land movement,” the hordes of hipsters making everything out of reclaimed wood, and the back-to-the-landers farming their parents’/aunt’s/uncle’s/grandparents’ property in the center of the country with no idea how to do it, and online craft markets like Etsy that hawk felt belts but really do more to supply websites like the now-defunct Regretsy.com (RIP) than they do to spur a new wing of the crafting movement. That is to say, this maker movement in some ways feels trendy, disingenuous and bandwagon-y. But there’s also a central core of people here who are doing great, innovative, exciting and disruptive things that really required the outlet, and that merit serious attention. Makers and their products can be twee and no longer novel, but they can also be admirable in that folks are eschewing intangible technologies and software in many instances, and going back to making things with their hands and/or, occasionally, they are fusing technology and old arts to create something new that is tangible and noteworthy.
I think it’s the tangibility that I really love about it, because I find myself constantly repeating that quote from “Pretty Woman,” [yes, go ahead, insert eye rolling here] in my head where the character of Edward (played by Richard Gere), disillusioned about the nature of his multi-million dollar business comments, “we don’t build anything, we don’t make anything.” I think this scene and these complaints were prescient. OK, that was going a step too far. But I do think that many people of my generation, ye old Gen X/Millennials, are finding that they are dissatisfied not building anything tangible on the job every day. There is a creative outlet itch that only gets scratched when working on a project where, at the end, the product is something useful, or visible, or three dimensional.
I’m thinking more than usual about this entire movement because this year we are considering introducing a new Makerspace at one of our events in January, tying it into the very closely implicated world of supply chain. Part of the motivation here is to integrate a youthful cultural phenomenon that has a significant output our audience needs to be engaged with and aware of, and part is that we’re trying to shake an industry event in its fourth year up a bit by asking the question, “if the definition and requirements of your supply chain changed completely tomorrow- would you be dynamic, responsive and agile enough to adapt to its new reality?”
If you’ve ever successfully incorporated a Makerspace into an event you managed, or saw a Makerspace that was leveraged particularly wonderfully or creatively I would love to hear about it!


My hope is that most of you will have seen Jon Oliver’s recent segment on government surveillance on “Last Week Tonight.” My thanks to my brother John Pettus for making me aware via a post on Facebook, because this is one of the more brilliant works of communication skills I have seen in a while.

If you haven’t seen it, do me a favor and go watch it right now. I’ll wait.

OK, welcome back.

In this post, to fully express my own appreciation of the incredible work of journalism and communication that this piece was, I will break it down element by element. I’m going to do this because I think the work that went into this segment is all the more appreciable if you can see the structure, discipline and rigor behind it, and identify the principles on which it was built. So here we go with the “wizard behind the curtain” analysis.

  1. Oliver introduces the topic- government surveillance. Pretty self explanatory.
    1. Oliver acknowledges the relative boredom and unpopularity of this topic among American audience, (inserts a joke about being more interested in whether cell phones give you cancer, and whether goldfish suffer from depression.)
  2. Oliver details why it’s important- he contextualizes the topic in current events
    1. Patriot Act reauthorization and its controversial civil liberties provisions, (inserts a joke about Justin Long’s birthday)
  3. He provides a more in-depth discussion of the surveillance programs on the table, (inserts a joke about Russian boy band)
    1. He explains that Section 215 allows the U.S. government to require businesses to hand over “any tangible thing” relevant to a government investigation to protect against international terrorism, (inserts an analogy/joke about teenage use of cars)
  4. He then digs further into government’s use of Section 215 regarding surveillance of phone records and calls, (inserts a joke about Aunt Cheryl)
    1. He plays Obama’s defense of Section 215 being leveraged to monitor US phone calls, (inserts a joke about pathetic guy calling his ex)
  5. Oliver now contextualizes the Patriot Act in the post 9/11 intelligence era, its re-authorization history, the complete lack of examination and news coverage from the past, and inserts a joke about hiding important information in phone calls between parents and children
    1. He introduces the optimistic assertion that Edward Snowden brought a greater emphasis on examination of the Patriot Act and all of its sketchy provisions when he released classified information to the press about NSA domestic surveillance programs, sets up intentionally false argument that “this all ended after Edward Snowden” in June 2013, and inserts joke about ineptitude of NSA and 20 year olds being able to steal its information
    2. Introduces an evaluation of Snowden’s logic in only releasing the information to the press, and Snowden’s assertion that he wants the press to decide what should be published, tees up the problem with that theory with examples of journalistic ineptitude, improper redaction of classified and relevant information to overseas intelligence operations
  6. Now Oliver moves to reiterate the flimsy argument he has built up to this point, which he is about to knock down, that now that we have had access to the Snowden information, we can no longer plead ignorance of these provisions, and inserts SeaWorld joke about Shamu
    1. He introduces the topic of public’s action on this information in light of the post-Snowden era, covers Pew report claiming half of Americans are not really concerned or not concerned at all about government surveillance
    2. He introduces the theory that this information is not based on a well-informed populace, and tees up video interviews proving that few Americans, if any, know who Edward Snowden is. The videos show Americans conflating Snowden with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. He inserts a joke about Julian Assange, Cumberbatch playing him in film- declares Assange “unCumberbatchable” which is significant because he seems to be aiming to render Snowden more likeable than Assange, and to distinguish him from Assange, who has proven to be widely unpopular to the public at large
  7. He once again returns to the beginning, resets the topic for the audience, and acknowledges that it is hard to wrap your head around all of the surveillance programs on the table, and the dilemma of wanting perfect privacy and perfect safety/security. Here he inserts a falcon and vole joke, having your cake and eating it too, to illustrate the point.
    1. He mentions the NSA’s defense that a court has to approve all surveillance programs before they go into effect, then adds the caveat that in 34 years, the court has approved over 35,000 applications and only rejected 12. Inserts Robert Durst joke.
  8. He tees up a discussion of where the limits should be, using Section 215 as an illustrative point. Introduces the fact that there is widespread agreement that Section 215 should be revised, even by the author of Section 215. Lewis Carroll Disneyland teacups ride joke.
    1. He informs us that the NSA has said that number of terror plots that Section 215 has helped to interrupt is 1.
    2. Argues that if we let 215 get renewed, we are in trouble because it is “the canary in the coal mine” relative to all of the troubling provisions rolled up into the Patriot Act, and argues that the public has done a pathetic job of discussing it. He here inserts an MSNBC clip of news anchor interrupting a congresswoman arguing for the revision of Section 215 in order to deliver breaking Justin Bieber news.
  9. He introduces his Snowden interview by arguing that the best person with whom to discuss the current state of discussions and dialogue about government surveillance would be Edward Snowden, but mentions how difficult that would be to pull off. Then announces he traveled to Russia to do just that, and what follows is travel, Russian cultural humor, and Oliver playing around with the possibility that Snowden won’t and shouldn’t show up to the interview, briefly mentioning the overt dangers and tribulations of arranging the interview and choosing to conduct it in the first place

And then Snowden shows up and things begin to get really interesting in the dialogue, because now Oliver doesn’t have to word things rhetorically, and he suddenly has another personality to build the outraged humor onto, but it is hard to anticipate how Snowden will respond to his prodding and light antagonism in the name of comedy.

  1. Beginning of Snowden interview
    1. Oliver starts by asking Snowden if he misses the US to outright establish Snowden’s patriotism and intelligence simultaneously by asking about hot pockets, Florida, and truck nuts. This is an intentional choice to allow Snowden to elaborate on his unique brand of patriotism, measure it out loud for the audience, but also distinguish for the audience that Snowden isn’t a jingoistic maniac. Oliver also chooses to leverage some Daily-Show and Stephen Colbert-like jokes about what most Americans regard as national treasures, such as hot pockets and truck nuts.
    2. Next he asks Snowden, why did you do this? Once again, to help establish his motives. Snowden here affirms that this was about daylighting what he regarded as troubling issues with the NSA’s surveillance programs against Americans.
    3. Then Oliver allows Snowden to offer his unedited opinion of why the NSA’s programs are nefarious, dangerous, and destructive to American liberty.
    4. Oliver next stops to distinguish between issues of domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance, and establishes that Americans don’t care about foreign surveillance, and provokes Snowden to finally agree with him.
    5. Allows Snowden to tell us whether he considered the dangers of releasing these documents to the public via journalists, during which Edward Snowden mentions that “he’s not handling anything any more,” which seems like something he has been coached by his legal team to assert at any chance he gets.
  2. Oliver returns to the questionable credibility of the journalists, returns to the redacted slide fiasco, to which Snowden argues, “in journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made” and then continues to ascribe this principle more largely to the risks of freedom in general.
  3. When Oliver takes the opportunity to distinguish between journalists acting in “bad faith” and what he regards as their plain “incompetence,” Snowden counters that as long as you’re free, you’ll never be living completely without risks. This is beautiful dialogue that allows Oliver to simultaneously spear modern journalists for their lack of basic skills with widespread media, acknowledge the segment of the population who view Snowden as little more than a reckless and naive hazard to national security, but also allows Snowden to bolster his own argument that there were always going to be mistakes made, and risks to releasing these documents, but that the perils to American liberties are far greater and worth the risks. It’s a jumble of complex points, but comes across and finishes simply- which I think is beautiful.
  4. Here, next, Snowden walks right into a pretty overbuilt and grandiose account of how many Americans are reacting to to the released information and to what he did, and Oliver stops him to inform him that no one knows who he is, shows him the blunt video clips of Americans who dont know his name, and inserts a joke that he is likely welcome to return to the US as a result. This is also complicatedly beautiful. You can see that Snowden has been largely left alone to generate vast and uncompromising accounts of his own heroism, and that he is susceptible to these narratives, but Oliver brings it crashing down with some really tough reality.
  1. Snowden then reiterates why he did what he did, in the context of the American people and their right to know and understand that they are being surveilled
  2. Snowden admits it is tough to conceptualize and understand the issues, Oliver makes an analogy about the IT guy in the office
  3. Snowden acknowledges that we need to figure out how to translate important topics into everyday terminology and terms for Americans

And here is where I just can’t say enough about the analysis, and the communication skills utilized in this particular segment, despite how crude and crass the analogy’s subject is:

  1. Oliver introduces the concept of naked pictures of Americans being passed around inside the NSA and how important “dick pics” are to Americans. In essence, he introduces the possibility of an NSA “dick pic program” as the “line in the sand” for the Americans. He then backs up his argument with taped interviews with the same folks who failed to identify Edward Snowden, and who now display anger and outrage at the idea of the NSA having access to their “dick pics.”
    1. Moving forward, now Oliver compels Snowden to break down, using only the NSA’s access to collecting and circulating dick pics as the significant unit of surveillance, whether Americans should or would be upset about each particular surveillance program the NSA is running
    2. This segment is so relatable, so well illustrated in Snowden’s accounts, mostly because Oliver shuts him down a few times when he strays from the “dick pick program” topic and insists that he focus solely on the dick pic unit in the context of each surveillance program
    3. Once Snowden gets the hang of this, it is mesmerizing. You can almost hear the world click into place. Everything can be framed in the context of this one unit of surveillance- the “dick pic”- in a way that is utterly relatable for a modern TV audience. It is so intelligent and simultaneously absurd, it is maybe one of the greatest pieces of modern art I have yet seen.
  2. In the end, Oliver asks Snowden whether Americans should change their behavior to accommodate this new era and the modern surveillance society, to which Snowden answers, adamantly, “no” and then reiterates that Americans should have the right to express themselves freely and without concern that they are constantly being monitored and recorded by their own government. Cue the applause.

So, in summary, why do I think this segment is a work of genius?

Because it clearly and uncharitably attacks our preconceived notions and refuses to remain at a higher, more generalized and rhetorical level of discourse about these themes of surveillance, security, privacy, liberty the way so many media outlets in our public sphere often do. It digs into the details, the historical context, the previous failures, the clumsy mistakes, the unchecked autonomy of government agencies, and the troubling apathy and ill-informed nature of the American public. The segment they designed and constructed attacks what the informed “Last Week Tonight” audience wants to assume about the large American audience, and lets them know in no uncertain terms that they should not assume as much. It brings to light the deep and nefarious nature of our government’s moves to watch us all in the post 9/11 era which now must be reviewed and curtailed. And it does all of this in the most humorous, and well organized way that it possibly can, by defining the unit of surveillance that we all care most about as the “dick pic,” which, though crass, is undeniably compelling as a unit of significance for anything in the modern era.

And there you have it, my rhetorical analysis of Jon Oliver’s Surveillance segment. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Mark Zuckerberg thinks he should read more books (https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10101828640656261) and (http://www.wired.com/2015/01/mark-zuckerberg-book-club/) and he has made that his New Year’s Resolution for 2015- he will read a new book every two weeks. And I have to admit, after a day of facing the internet, social media, my smartphone, my office phone, and every other iteration of screen imaginable, I’m pretty pro-books at the end of the day too.

But here’s the thing, Zuckerberg said, “I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

And this on its own is an interesting statement from the man who invented a whole new platform for human engagement with the universe, usually in a terse, poorly composed, un-reviewed, multi-media, heavily internet-influenced, referential and visually distracting manner. For Zuck to acknowledge that internet literacy, being on top of the latest instagrams, status updates, and tweet-reading alone don’t help one to necessarily broaden and deepen their own intellect- well, it’s kind of a big deal. It’s a bit of a line in the sand. And I like it.

However, and I find interestingly, Zuck didn’t specify HOW he will be ingesting the books. Will he be reading them via a variety of online/downloadable media, or the old fashioned paper format way? There is a difference. And the difference matters. And we are only just beginning to scrape the surface of looking at how the interface of screens impacts our retention, our emotion, our engagement with the content we are reading.

As the sister of a man who manages a very popular little independent bookstore in San Francisco (whoop whoop Books Inc. on Chestnut Street!), I’d like to think that we are all reading more, but lately I feel more compelled to pose the question of whether what really matters is not THAT we are reading more, but WHAT we are reading and HOW we are reading it. See this study if you want to learn more about this type of research: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/09/10/younger-americans-and-public-libraries/

And the same apparently is being implied when it comes to taking notes and studying them- early studies and research indicate that doing it “ye olde fashioned way” with pen and paper and hand helps us to retain more of the content than the act of typing does.

But then we come to this issue of more and intellectually superiority and canonization. Stay with me here. By canonization, I am not intending any religious interpretation of the word. I’m merely intending to bring up the fact that some of us get to claim we are smarter and have better taste and we get to claim what is worth reading and what is not. And, well, that gets pretty tricky.

The other night I saw the film “Birdman.” Highly recommend it. So weird and different and interesting. And boy I love Michael Keaton. Always have. Glad to see him back. Anyhow, there’s this great scene in the film where Keaton’s character gets in the face of this legendary, reputedly indestructible and all-powerful theater critic and they have this outstanding dialogue in a bar about whether she gets to judge him for being a former movie star and trying to break into theater. I loved it because it touched on the central hatred that anyone in art or creative work has about critics, whose sole job it is to judge them and then publish that judgment for others to use to, in exchange, judge them. That scene really hit me. And Keaton has this one incredible line that really caps off the whole interchange between them- where he tells the critic, “None of it costs you anything. You risk nothing.” We love to hate critics because this is what they do. They impose their allegedly more developed, informed and well-rounded opinions upon us of what is good, what is worthwhile, what is quality without putting really any skin in the game. There’s a convenient little rebuttle to that here in the Chicago Tribune, but in reality, that’s a pretty hard argument to argue with.

What’s my point? My point, I think, is that criticizing and judging others for their creative choices and how they choose to spend their time is a waste of time. I will always be glad to know that people are reading, including Zuck, no matter what they choose to read and how they choose to read it. I want people to consume the creative works of others. I want people to listen to music, even if I don’t enjoy what they’re listening to. I want people to go to the theater, even if I hate the play. I want people to go to the ballet, even though it bores me to tears. And I want them to extend the same courtesy to me.

Frankly I am flabbergasted that “the average American, in 2013 read one book a month, according to the Pew Research Center.” Seriously, think about that! 12 books in a year? Sounds like an overestimation for most people I know, unless somehow magazines, comic books, cereal boxes, and/or poems are counting as books these days.

Anyhow, I hope your 2015 is off to a great start, even if it’s not off to as great a start as Zuck’s. Let’s all plan to create, consume, and converse more this year.

I recently responded to a post by a friend of mine on Facebook and some of the others participating in the conversation asked me to post this more publicly so it could be shared. So I’ve done so here.

My thoughts were in response to my friend’s alarm at how many long-loved merchants, music venues, residents, and overall San Francisco authentic businesses seem to be closing or getting kicked out due to outrageously increased rents, Ellis Act evictions, and a desire to consume the scarce and valuable property that San Francisco has on offer within its 7×7 miles. My friend’s latest missive was in reaction to the news that much-loved music venue, the Elbo Room, was due to shutter its doors: http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/6154-update-whats-going-on-with-the-elbo-room

Here is his post:

“So…I should or should not freak out?
Hopefully historical property status can be secured for this gem of a place. I’ve spent two birthdays here, and paid tribute to James Brown (with scores of other San Franciscans) through a jammin dance party the night he passed away.

It’s saddening to see neighborhood cornerstones disappearing, and this goes beyond this one bar. With The Lex and Ellis Act evictions and countless other examples of displacement happening in The City, where will it end? At what point does a place lose so much character, lose so many of the things, the residents, the people that made it unique and special in the first place, before it becomes just like any other?

When our friends cannot afford to live here, to love here, to continue to learn here, what can people do? What can WE do? What does this neighborhood or this city need? I can’t just sit by while my community gets priced out. We must take further action-and if nothing else, holding our leaders accountable for what is going on is a good start.”

Here is my response to his post, for what it’s worth:

“I admit that things seem pretty rough to us, and lots of favorites and traditions in San Francisco seem to be making way for new, trendy, and downright trite “flash in the pan” businesses or tasteless housing developments. I have had this argument with myself about a hundred times in the last three years, specifically.

I think this outlook and feeling we’re having is the convergence of a few different factors- 1, the city is changing, materially, at the fastest rate of nearly every city in the U.S. and reflecting the most dramatic of American levels of socio-economic inequality. 2, our often “golden” childhood memories are often very much tied to specific places, and we are getting to the age where many of the places we spent time in or patronized as kids are closing either because of owner changeover (retirement, the next generation didn’t want to run the business), or because they have been priced out of the current market.
The man in my life really loves to remind me all the time that ‘history is a dialectic’- and I think the development of San Francisco through time is a true reflection of that. Over the course of my life many of my relatives (and Herb Caen, may he RIP) have told me that San Francisco just isn’t even a shadow of the city they knew back in the 30s, the 50s, or the 60s. This being because during each era it earned itself a reputation for being great in a distinctly different way than, say, 10 to 30 years prior. The city that welcomed the gold rush, that embodied the bawdy barbary coast wasn’t the same as the city that rebuilt itself after a massive earthquake, nor was the city that served as the HQ for the beats and the summer of love the same city as it was when we were growing up in the 80s and experienced the Loma Prieta. This current era can be frustrating and dismaying with occasional bouts of dread that this time we’ve really done it, and there’s no turning back toward charm or uniqueness. But it’s also worth remembering that the San Francisco of now is the emerald city in an industry and region that is known across the globe as a center of innovation, social justice, technology, youthful optimism and invincibility, and yes, money.
It is always worth fighting for those who don’t have any fight left in them, and always worth being the voice for those who are voiceless- but it is also worth considering that some of these feelings may derive from the fact that we are part of an aging population of San Francisco’s sons and daughters who are most afraid of our own mortality, and there not being any trace in the future of the things our memories have really loved holding on to.
There’s no “it’s going to be OK” tied to this really long diatribe, because each of us will digest the changes differently, and each of us will fight differently to either stay in SF or go, but I thought I’d at least share my own thoughts on the matter.
In closing, and really, in summary: Go GIANTS, Go 9ers, and this- www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1b8AhIsSYQ

Music video by Starship performing We Built This City. (C) 1985 Sony Music Entertainment

When you think about it, you really have to give Starbuck’s a hell of a lot of credit, whether you like their coffee and their business practices or not. Here’s why: Starbuck’s could easily fall down on the job, lean back a bit and sail on their complete global dominance in the coffee and café market, but they’re not. Case in point: their latest pumpkin spice latte campaign.

Laugh if you will, but my best friend from high school and I have this tradition of alerting each other when the first pumpkin spice lattes hit Starbuck’s. I think we’ve been doing this since we were 15. And what’s funny is, we’re not alone in this. This has become an annual tradition for people all around the world.

And this year’s campaign to promote the PSL’s official arrival is some of the most creative marketing I’ve seen in a while.

Here’s how it works:

On Twitter, I saw that Starbuck’s had promoted the Pumpkin Spice Latte account, @TheRealPSL.

No, I am not a follower of Starbuck’s OR the Pumpkin Spice Latte account on Twitter, but I saw the (paid) promotion in my Twitter feed:




Instantly, I thought about my friend and sent this to her in an email, feeling that sense of fun over our inside joke and the excitement that our favorite little commercial harbinger of Fall had arrived. Then I looked closer, and clicked on the link in the tweet. It brought me to the landing page for their campaign:


On the landing page you are told to solve a riddle relating to fall, and once you solve the riddle, you are given a secret code.

You are then told to bring this into a barista at your local Starbuck’s to unlock the PSL for everyone in that specific location, officially unleashing “fall’s favorite beverage.”


So, let’s go back and take some account of what’s happened just in the course of my following through with these steps, and let’s assume I go to the closest Starbuck’s and hand them this code.

This campaign has combined elements of social (Twitter), mobile (on my phone), gamification (solving riddles, getting there first), physical brick-and-mortar sales (bring the code to your closest/local store), has turned a product into an event, has combated the threat of a stale menu (promotion of a new, seasonally available item) and brand fatigue (so you don’t have to order the same vanilla latte yet again), and promotes values of community (you’re doing this for the people at your local Starbuck’s) and that ever-elusive aura of seasonality (only available in the Fall, a sign that Autumn has arrived) at the same time.

It’s relatively simple in execution, doesn’t require a lot of effort, but is seamless in its experience. It’s an excellent example of how companies can tie social promotion and social communities to web campaigns, and then to in-store sales or physical events. Quite an elegant and effective design, and a great example to anyone in marketing.

Thought it was worth sharing.



Coming out of my self-imposed blackout period. Apologies for being gone so long. Wasn’t feeling all that inspired by the general topics that were out there, but I’ve finally found a few that got my gears twisting again.

So today, let’s talk about this recent phenomenon of “triggering” and requested “trigger warnings.”

According to an excellent Guardian article on the movement, “Triggering” is a phrase you might see in the comments section of an online article that addresses racism, rape, war, anorexia or any number of subjects about which a discussion may not leave the reader with a care-free, fuzzy sort of feeling. It’s a phrase that’s been requested this semester by a number of college students to be applied to classic books — The Great Gatsby (for misogyny and violence), Huck Finn (for racism), Things Fall Apart (for colonialism and religious persecution), Mrs. Dalloway (for suicide), Shakespeare (for … you name it). These students are asking for what essentially constitute red-flag alerts to be placed, in some cases, upon the literature itself, or, at least, in class syllabuses, and invoked prior to lectures.”

Now, this brings a few thoughts to mind.

1)      A digital native generation that is entering or currently in college is essentially requesting that its required reading be thoroughly tagged with metadata. Not all that surprising, in theory.

2)      This must be the most massively traumatized generation in history, and all before they have reached college age no less, otherwise why is this happening?

3)      What type of current college student experiences trauma triggered by fictionalized accounts of “colonialism?”

Before I get web-slapped for being insensitive to those who have experience severe, deep, or even shallow trauma- allow me to assure you dear readers that I am not without a soul, and I am not without empathy. I am terribly sorry that people experience pain in their lifetimes. I am sorry that most often it is inflicted completely without any reason or cause. I understand that some of this trauma is so bone-shakingly deep that medication and years of therapy only scratch the surface of the underlying fear or suffering that pools in the soul of its sufferers like a dark, swelling ocean with no horizon.

But I have to say I don’t believe that never addressing, acknowledging, or facing the elements in life that may ever remind you of the trauma or the perpetrator is the solution to managing it. Here I’d like to insert an analogy: antibacterial hand soap. No, no, stick with me here. I promise there will be dividends…

The United States fears germs, bacteria and sickness in a very real way. And so we were ready pawns when the soap and personal hygiene industry began to flood the market with the daddy of all soaps- “antibacterial”- presented as the solution to killing all the tiny creepy crawlies we couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet and yet. As it turns out, antibacterial hand soap may also kill good bacteria, and reduce our body’s innate ability to fight off germs and viruses. In fact, the proliferation of triclosan, a leading ingredient in over 75% of antibacterial hand soaps might be a contributing factor in the rise of “antibiotic resistant superbugs” to such an extent that the FDA has issued an order for further investigation into whether it should be allowed in consumer products, and Minnesota has voted to ban it outright.

What does this longwinded analogy have to do with these proposed trigger warnings on literature?

Self-censorship, or insisting everyone else in the world draw a wide circle around anything remotely related to your trauma, or trying to eliminate all signs or reminders of that trauma in your life is like bathing in antibacterial hand soap. By avoiding the trauma itself, or using a carefully constructed virtual reality of “all happiness- no trouble” all the time people empower the trauma that ails them, converting it into a super-trauma that is apt to rear its ugly head at any moment. “The push for trigger warnings surely comes from a good place, but it’s nonetheless troubling” says the Guardian article. Yes, like antibacterial hand soap. In theory, all good. In reality, not so good. When you block your body’s ability to handle and build up a resistance to what is reaching out to ail you, essentially you’re disabling yourself.

And this is all tangentially related to this phenomenon of helicopter parenting and over-protective parenting. Oh yes it is. How else to explain this generation of children who are reaching adulthood with no capacity to defend themselves from the pain that life can (does) bring? If parents have been preventing their kids from ever making mistakes, getting hurt, getting dirty, or relieving them of the burden of having to pull themselves out of a period of discomfort, sadness, or frustration, then those kids have developed absolutely no capacity to work through adult and life setbacks of any variety.

Listen- I don’t have kids, but I do have a life. That said, I understand the sentiment behind wanting to protect my someday-children from any pain, but I do not understand the desire to prevent my children from actually experiencing life. From actually living and experiencing life. Life is often pain, life is often disappointment, life is often loneliness, and heartache, and trauma. Life must be lived, and living is often the act of working through pain.

It’s ironic, I just finished reading a novel suggested to me by a friend called “The Sparrow.” If these students had their way, this book’s cover would be slapped full of trigger warning metadata like religion, rape, aliens, cultural inequity. And there are horrifying events at the center of this book which are difficult to read about. But the very principle at the core center of this book is that when something terrible happens you have to face it and talk about that very thing to acknowledge that it happened, to face its effects on you, in order to release its hold on your past. At times the whole book reads like a parable for the power of confession, but it also intricately illustrates the pain of having to go through the process of discussing a trauma. And for that, the book is pretty effective.

All of which brings me back full circle- because the first thing I thought when I read about these requests for “trigger warnings” was the recent study conducted by the New School in NYC which received wide media attention, that “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” That, in fact, reading about other people going through emotional experiences helps to develop our own brains’ ability to process, file, and produce appropriate reactions and interactions to emotional situations. In essence, it helps our EQ, our emotional intelligence quotient, which can play a huge role in our success in life.

All of which the Guardian article on this subject states very well in its last paragraph: “In The Giver, the main character finds there is something more important than a society that’s free from pain. It’s a society in which we feel. That, of course, is the intention of art itself: it’s not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.” Bingo.

For more reading on these “triggers” and their “warnings:”






For more reading on literary fiction as an empathy-builder:






For more reading on Antibacterial Hand Soap:




Infographics- A Muse We Can Use

There’s a lot of talk these days about the value or opportunity represented by the new movement toward informational design, or data visualization; that is, the visual representation of data in an effort to elicit a bigger impact. The most basic every day example used to be taking data from a table in a spreadsheet and converting it into a graph to make the trends inherent in the data more meaningful on a meta level.

Internet pundits, social media evangelists, educators, and modern day doomsday theorists are all offering their own reasons for why informational design is important, but the generally accepted, underlying argument goes something like this: there’s too much information available to us all these days. Therefore, our ability to invest attention in data has declined even as the rates of information available to us have increased. This leads everyone to believe that if we convert information into images, we can more easily consume, digest and use that information. In other words, we need to dumb down the data with pictures and bright colors and arrows in order to comprehend it all.

(Care of http://www.customermagnetism.com/seoblog/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/infographicmarketing1.png)

We can blame the recently meteoric rise of infographic popularity on a few likely sources: it’s an election year, a chance to inform and educate the American people on issues that run the gamut, but in a digestible, simplified way that they can take straight to the polls. For most broadcasters, pollsters, PACs and lobbyists, that means stunning visuals and new media toys. On the tech trends side, blame the sale of social photo app Instagram to Facebook for an unheard of sum earlier this year, or the fact that visual scrapbook site Pinterest hit 10 million monthly unique visitors faster than any other social platform in history. If you look at all of this from a very shallow level, the sign seems to point (with a big red, shiny, pulsating arrow) toward a need to make everything visual.

(Care of http://tctechcrunch2011.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/pinterest-blow-dryer-done-52.png?w=540)

As with most new media movements and trends, I recommend slipping one toe very carefully into the waters here. I think there is merit to making some data more visual. There are thousands of examples where informational design is transcendent and deeply effective. However, as if often the case with the execution of a newly trendy web phenomenon, there are more than twice as many examples of infographic abuse (bless you, Tumblr, you’re always there for me).

(Care of http://terribleinfographics.tumblr.com/image/9965956069)

So when I saw NYTimes food writer Mark Bittman getting in on the infographic action I approached his take with some skepticism. And yet, and yet, (and here’s where we relate back to the fact that this is an election year and I’ve done my share of political studying) Bittman did something novel here.

Bittman approached the topics of food labels in a recent column in an interesting way, especially for Californians who, in November, will vote on whether to require any food made with genetically modified material to be explicitly labeled as such. In his post, Bittman designed his own recommendation for what the future of food labels should look like in the U.S.

Image(Care of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/opinion/sunday/bittman-my-dream-food-label.html)

In my humble opinion (as a person with absolutely no design background) I think this is a really good start for a simplified look at food labels.  I worry about “foodness” and “welfare” as names for those values, I don’t think Bittman has done a great job with naming on those.  That said, I think he hits on the right measurements, as what most folks do want to know about their food is a) if it’s good for them and has nutrients, b) if it contains unprocessed, whole foods, and c) what its relative impact on the environment is. I also think the color coding system is a great way of distilling the info down for those who just want a very general guidance for their purchases.

All that said, whether or not I agree with his proposal, I love this example of data design because it represents a visualization that people would be using to make decisions every single day, and because it’s important to get these things right since they will impact everyone in California (and possibly, some day, everyone in the U.S.). Given nutrition data’s links to helping to stem the tide of the obesity epidemic we currently face in the U.S., getting this labeling design right has the potential to be one of the most important health initiatives that our generation faces. And that’s when infographics and data design become invaluable for policy and life choices that we make day in and day out.

What do you think of Bittman’s proposed design for food labeling? Too much data? Wrong data? Not well designed?


Aside  —  Posted: October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Klout Comes Out

Posted: August 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Ah, Klout. My personal vicissitude on your legitimacy knows no bounds. If you’re unfamiliar, Klout is a site that calculates your overall social influence score. In its own terms, “People have always had the power to influence others, and that power is being democratized with new social media tools. Klout’s mission is to provide insights into everyone’s influence.”

ImageWhich, you know, works in the beginning because frankly who ISN’T narcissistic enough to want to know how they measure up against everyone else? Klout’s appeal acts upon the same impulse that inspires us to “Google ourselves,” or to constantly update Facebook or Instagram with new and fabulous pictures of our selves and our lives. It’s the basic human desire for amplified attention- ego.

When I first heard about Klout my initial reaction was one that I find quite common for tech startups. Sort of a “well, isn’t that an interesting concept (that no one will ever pick up on)”. To be honest, I have been miserably wrong on that front before. I thought that about Twitter. Boy was I wrong on that one.

Right away, I thought to myself that Klout was/is a pretty interesting proposition, at least academically, on a few different levels:

1) The gall required to introduce a new “score” into our lives that will assess how powerful we are. I mean, really, think about it: How many different numbers can we really each be weighed against? Tax bracket, credit score, Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts, Twitter followers, etc. To introduce a whole new metric that will encapsulate our worth to society takes some cojones. Klout came in swinging and made a strong argument that their score was not only powerful, it was accurate and useful for evaluating people.

2) Klout capitalizes on social graph theory which assesses interactions and relative positioning of nodes (people) in networks and attempts to assign a value to our networked interactions for commercial benefit.  But Klout was initially only measuring the relative values of our networked connections on social, web-based networks, which can be inherently artificial.
But then I came upon an article in Wired that began by positing a future in which each of us will have to proffer our Klout scores as part of the standard candidate evaluation when applying for a job. In other words, how influential we are in Klout’s eyes could help determine how hirable we are. I felt that was a frightening proposition, but in the end it’s neither here nor there because the Wired article ended by concluding that, in general, most people feel that one correlation still holds true: the higher the Klout score, the more unbearable the person.

At that point, I thought we could all rest easily and watch Klout disappear down the startup drain while we get on with our lives. However, now Klout has changed how it calculates its score to include aspects of our offline lives in their influence scores. As a recent Mashable article pointed out,

“Klout also now takes into account more of your real-world influence, and takes into account how important you are at your company -– the CEO will earn more Klout than the mail guy –- and if you’re important enough to have your own Wikipedia page. ‘We had to figure out how to balance the real-world influence with the online influence,’ says (Klout CEO Joe) Fernandez. ‘We still lean more toward the online influence but now your real-world influence is coming more and more into play.’”

ImageSo now Klout is not only measuring how few people actually listen to or care about a word I say online, but they’re also realizing that my official work title isn’t very awe-inspiring. The hits just keep on coming.

More specifically, “We went from about 100 variables that we were looking at to over 400,” Joe Fernandez, founder and CEO of Klout told Mashable. “We’re looking at a bunch of new stuff.”

That Mashable article lists that “The service is looking at 12 billion data points per day across the seven social networks it looks at — 12 times more than it did previously.” So you’d think that everyone Klout scores may have been artificially inflated before, and as a result of that, after this new change our scores may all take a hit.

Not so. Mine increased 10 points out of nowhere. Can’t account for that at all, but then my math skills have never been overly strong. I guess we’ll just have to see how this develops! In the mean time, go out there, make friends, and above all- INFLUENCE PEOPLE.

In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.