Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


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!


If you’ve had any contact with the news or the radio- or even newsradio- in the last few months you’ve most likely heard the hoopla surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s controversial decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for young girls in Texas.

Sadly, you’re probably more aware of the controversy as a fulcrum point issue, marking the decline of what was Perry’s initial momentum going into the GOP Presidential Candidate debates, rather than as an issue of public health.

As the HuffPost writes in their coverage, “In the two most recent presidential debates, Perry has had to repeatedly explain and defend the executive order, which he says he signed in order to help prevent girls from developing cervical cancer as a result of contracting the sexually transmitted virus.”

Did you also know, dear reader, that a CDC advisory panel also, just recently, announced that boys ages 11 to 12 also get the shot? Oh yes, “Despite the recent controversy among presidential candidates regarding the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a CDC advisory panel voted (recently) to recommend that boys ages 11 to 12 get the shot.” This announcement garnered way less coverage and generated way less outrage and controversy than when the announcement made was targeted at young girls.

Why?

And why is the CDC Advisory panel only just now getting around to mentioning that, if you’ll allow me, “it takes two to tango?”

Two points before I launch into this whole cluster of issues:

1) Although I can’t really fathom agreeing with Rick Perry on most counts, I do agree with his decision on this matter and I am proud of him for defending it. As the Huffington post mentioned in their coverage, “The Texas law would not have been a pure mandate either… As in Virginia, parents would not have been required to have their daughters vaccinated. The law would have just made the vaccine available and affordable to all girls, insured and uninsured, through the state vaccination program.”

2) Although I am supportive of the incredible progress that has been made with the use of most vaccines, I also understand parental concerns around the manufacture, clinical testing, and business side of the vaccination and pharmaceuticals market, especially as it pertains to the U.S. healthcare model. I believe that questioning the processes and methods of engineering and testing these vaccines is productive and worthwhile. That being said, if I had a kid right now, that kid would receive vaccinations- a lot of them.

I’ll now put all of those opinions aside, because what I really want to get at here are the rhetorical constructions being used to have this conversation by politicians, the media, and the public- whether consciously, or unconsciously.

Before we officially begin, a few figures:

  • HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US
  • 20 million people are affected by it every year
  • At least 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract genital HPV in their lifetimes, often unwittingly because symptoms aren’t always overt (http://theweek.com/article/index/220717/the-controversial-hpv-vaccine-now-for-boys)
  • Condoms alone cannot 100% prevent the spread of HPV, beccause it is transmitted through skin contact
  • The vaccine may prevent cervical cancer in women, and  anal cancer and mouth cancers in boys, as well as prevent the spread of the infection to sexual partners
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women in the world. Almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts are linked to the four strains of HPV that can be prevented with Merck’s Gardasil vaccine or GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)
  • The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, in order to increase the likelihood that they will be vaccinated before having sexual contact. It consists of a series of three injections over a six-month period. Similarly, the hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series that prevents a disease that can be transmitted through blood and sexual fluids. It is is administered at birth, or within a 2 month time frame, and in most states it’s required for entrance into school system (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)

Now that we’re all up to date on the factoids, let’s do some analysis of the language being tossed around. Regrettably, for research purposes, most of this language is coming from one prominent source: Michele Bachmann.

At various points during the seemingly never-ending cycle of GOP Presidential Candidate Debates, Michele Bachmann has used the following language to describe the vaccination mandate:

A “government injection” of a “potentially dangerous drug

“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate,” Bachmann said. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,”

Rick Santorum also chose to weigh in on the vaccine, describing it as:

“having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.”

So…let’s review:

Group A Words:

  • “LITTLE DAUGHTER”
    “LITTLE GIRL”
  • “INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL”

Group B Words:

  •  “INJECTION”
  • “FORCE”
  • “COMPULSION”

Each of these terms is very charged, which is, of course, why they were selected and used in this way.

In the Group A Words, we have “Little girl,” little daughter,” “innocent little girl.” These terms are deeply psychologically embedded for Americans, and connote a strong visual image.

It’s basically this:

Associated terms: cherubic, innocent, helpless, in need of protection.

And then, as a counterpoint to this- placing them alongside terms of force, rape, exploitation and violence such as “force,” “injection,” and “compulsion,” makes the juxtaposition that much more jarring.

It’s the same as saying “stab duckling,” or “sodomize kitten.”

The point is, the language is doing some subconscious, heavy lifting here, and it is further charged by an already traditionally conservative, puritanical American tradition. That we are like this is not news, it is in fact our history as a United States.

That doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened that this very important debate– which should only extend as far as whether the federal or state level has the right to mandate certain healthcare treatments for U.S. citizens– has instead landed us smack in the middle of a firestorm addressing female sexuality, female independence and the archetype of the femme fatale.

NPR asked why there wasn’t nearly the level of attention being paid to the announcement concerning the boys’ vaccine. “’There’s been a surprisingly muted reaction,’ says Dr. Don Dizon, a Brown University oncologist.” Why? “’We tend to believe that girls are chaste and are going to ‘save themselves for marriage.’ But, you know, sexual activity is something that’s almost expected of boys.’”

They even found a seventeen-year-old boy to back up that theory, “Connor Perruccello-McClellan agrees. The idea that teenage girls might have sex is ‘just a touchy issue, a taboo, I guess,’ he says. ‘It’s just not as accepted for girls.’

Wow, Connor…ya think?

As we have already seen (thanks, Salem Witch Trials), females in the United States often have the dubious experience of living through a number of different stages of characterization by the general public and American lore. We begin as “innocent little girls,” but, once sexually active, menstruating, and/or assertive, we become “femme fatales.”

The term femme fatale in modern-day usage is more frequently used to refer to strong, female leads in movies-i.e. women with a penchant for the vindictive. However, according to its original definition, a femme fatale “is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch, or demon.”

Relying heavily on Wikipedia here, “The femme fatale has generated divergent opinions amongst social scholars. Sometimes, the femme fatale is closely tied to fears of female witch and misogyny. Others say Femme fatale “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles,”or “expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.”

However, historically and un-ironically, “the myth of the femme fatale of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis, with classic examples in literature including John KeatsLa Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Well, so isn’t that interesting?

I don’t have space to summarize an excellent article I found in “The Nation” on the topic of Michele Bachmann’s poor fact-checking and poor history, but one of the most important points to make here is that because of the oldest profession in the world, women have historically been most connected with outbreaks of Syphilis. Yet “Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people worldwide in 1999… After decreasing dramatically since the widespread availability of penicillin in 1940s, rates of infection have increased since the turn of the millennium in many countries… This has been attributed partly to unsafe sexual practices among men who have sex with men.” Men who have sex with men.

But it’s nearly impossible to turn the tide of cultural and literary history, and nearly impossible to eradicate archetypes once they exist in our shared cultural stores.

To summarize my point- the HPV vaccination debates are fascinating to me because I see that two completely divergent female rhetorical frames- “the innocent little girl,” and “the femme fatale”- are being called upon, in concert, to rail against these mandates. That is what brings us to this very point in American rhetoric.

There are no such strong literary or cultural archetypes for boys through which to view their plight at being forced to vaccinate. Thus there are no images of young, innocent boys being exploited or abused, no nubile young men who travel the world poisoning their lovers.

HPV vaccine adoption is ultimately failing because it prevents “children” from getting STDs. We have the juxtaposition of “child” with “sexually transmitted disease” here. In the American mindset, those two things are never supposed to be associated. Yet Americans vaccinate their children all the time against Hepatitis B, which is also a multi-dose vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease.

I want to leave you, dear readers, with one closing thought about these vaccines and what they represent, from a USA Today article covering the CDC Advisory Board’s announcement:

“This is cancer, for Pete’s sake,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”


I have recently become obsessed with analytics. I just love the idea of using solid data to make informed choices toward action. It’s the ultimate voyeurism. After all, the internet is a window through which you can peer to monitor other people’s activity. It’s also seductive, instant gratification- I post a document and then check in just an hour later to see how many people have clicked on it, how long they spent reviewing it, where they went after they read it, where they came from before reading it. ..

The power that platforms like Google Analytics and Omniture offer excites me in ways I shouldn’t even publicize- the possibility that all of that information about online actions and behavior is at my fingertips to exploit in order to be more productive, more effective is intoxicating. This is probably why it’s a good thing that I don’t work in marketing or advertising.

But apparently the harvest, process of sorting, and the exploitation of human information no longer stops with marketers and advertisers- now the government wants in.

According to an article in yesterday’s  NY Times,  “social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones” to predict the future. This is being conducted all in the name of the U.S. Government, or in this case, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity unit of the Office of National Intelligence.

Why? Because  they believe “that these storehouses of ‘big data’will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

Remember our dear friend Michel Foucault who opined on systems of surveillance in modern society? He just rolled over so many times in his grave he’s now a taquito. But putting the panopticon aside for a moment, let us instead turn to “chaos theory” to underline why this whole venture isn’t necessarily a very good idea.

Chaos theory, as a discipline, studies:

“the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.”

The “butterfly effect theory” is basically this:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.  This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Yes, if this is ringing a bell, it’s because you’ve heard of the anecdote the theory is named for, whereby a hurricane’s formation occurred because a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Ridiculous, but it does vividly illustrate the point that the entire globe is a system, and there are infinite factors within that system interacting every day to produce outcomes- and needless to say, these factors are not all diligently recorded in Brooke Shields’ Twitter stream.

Ever since analytics, Facebook, and Twitter broke onto the human information scene, the embedded hubris of men has convinced us that if we’re just smart enough to design a program to parse all of this information, then finally all of our inane yet determined recordings of our daily details will finally mean something– that it will be useful!

Right? Wrong.

The mashed potatoes are just mashed potatoes. If you want to see anything in the figurative mashed potatoes, then see this: the Tower of Babel, people.

“Tower of Babel?” you say? Yes. The Tower of Babel. My favorite of all biblical references ( we all have one, right? Right?).

Need a quick brush-up? OK!

In the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis, ‘a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.’ God came down to see what they did and said: ‘They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.’ So God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel ‘because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.’(Genesis 11:5-8).

In other words, chaos theory’s conclusion that all of the world’s data is basically worthless, unreliable crap aside- this “big data eye in the sky” can and will never be.

First, because, without God’s intervention, we are perfectly great at getting in our own way, thankyouverymuch.

For example, the NY Times article cites IARPA’s claim that “It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.”

About that, the U.S. Government would do well to recall the response to every single privacy change that Facebook has ever made about user data.

Also, the public’s responses to the Patriot Act.

Also, the public response to News Corp’s recent phone hacking scandal.

I could go on. The point is, I don’t think folks will accept the government’s efforts to exploit the aggregation of their online and publicly collected information in order to predict when we might all come down with whooping cough.

Second problematic claim, “It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention.” Errrr…what about all of that human generated information? Isn’t that, um, human intervention?

I recently had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephen J. Dubner- author of Freakonomics and creator or host of every other program, show, or book that came along with it- speak at a conference. He gave an excellent and very compelling lecture on the dangers of relying too much on “self-reported data.”

His point is that, for industries or disciplines where data in large part determines future strategy and action, a little outside consulting and collection is merited. Self-reported data is, by virtue of the fact that humans are involved, problematic when it comes to accuracy.

This means that every tweet, Facebook update and comment flame war on a review site should be read and collected with a massive grain of Kosher salt. It is hard to imagine how the government would calculate this unreliability into its system through error analysis and standard deviation. Suffice it to say, there is still much work to be done on human reported data, sentiment analysis and social statistics before we could get anywhere close to sorting this all out in any meaningful fashion.

Luckily, as the NY Times reports in the article, not everyone is convinced this is even worthwhile:

“”I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,’ said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for ‘flu,’ but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

So, though I myself am drinking the cherry kool aid of acting and strategizing based on the measured results from analytical data, I feel the U.S. Government is seriously overstepping its bounds on this one- both in terms of infringing on other people’s data rights, as well as in terms of outpacing the world’s statistical abilities when applied to cultural data.

Hit me in the comments if you have thoughts of your own on the matter…


I came across a great article from NPR that discusses the role that human evolution plays in fostering tighter and more effective communities. Basically the story poses the question: as we evolve as human beings, do we become more socially-oriented– more other-focused?

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson “evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also on the community level,” and “evolution is among the factors that drive community involvement.”

Prosociality, or prosocialness, is “the scientific term for any other-oriented attitude or behavior.” So the more you consider other people’s feelings, situations or the impact that your actions have on others, the more “prosocial” you are, and the more likely you are to be an active member in supporting a community of people. For example, a locavore, food bank volunteer, employee at the local women’s shelter would be highly prosocial. Someone who worked at pre-2008 Lehman Brothers? Just about at the bottom of the prosocial scale.

David Sloan Wilson decided to conduct an analysis of real-world prosociality in his hometown of Binghamton, NY by asking people the question: “I think it’s important to make my community a better place. Agree or Disagree?” And according to Wilson, those who agree strongly with his statement would be considered highly prosocial.

As a result of this analysis, Wilson distilled eight factors in a community that can enhance prosociality, listed here from the article:

  1. A strong sense of group identity, and a strong sense of what the group is about. If you don’t think of yourself as a group, and if you don’t know what the purpose of the group is, then it’s unlikely to function well as a group.
  2. Proportional costs and benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits. That’s not sustaining over the long term.
  3. Consensus decision-making. People hate being told what to do, but they’ll work hard for a decision that they agree upon.
  4. Monitoring. Most people want to cooperate but there’s always a temptation to slack a little bit. And then a few people are going to actively to game the system. So unless you can monitor good behavior, forget about it.
  5. Graduated sanctions. If somebody does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down. You remind them in a nice and friendly fashion, and that keeps them in solid citizen mode. At the same time, you do need to be prepared to escalate in those rare cases, when necessary.
  6.  A fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it needs to be resolved in a fast and fair fashion, in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.
  7. Autonomy – for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.
  8.  In a large society consisting of many groups, those groups have to be put together using those same principles. That’s called polycentric governance, a very important concept which emerged from political science, but now has a more genuine evolutionary formulation.

I’d like to look a bit closer at these, because they apply very closely to certain important themes in communication studies and communications philosophy. Hidden among these prosociality factors, two very important names leap to mind for me: Geert Hoftsede, and Michel Foucault.

Geert Hofstede, for those who don’t know him, basically invented a system of analyzing differences at the national level behind human interactions, an index of the differences between people from different countries, using four indicators, or what he called “anthropological problem areas”: “ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group, and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy.”

Geert Hofstede

These became the Hofstede dimensions of  national culture: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism versus Collectivism, and Masculinity versus Femininity.

Ok, Jess, why in the hell is this relevant to these factors that enhance prosociality? Well, because Wilson is basically looking at the same thing but on a micro-scale, in smaller communities. Let’s take #1, the need for the group to understand its identity, its raison d’etre. This factor relates directly to what Hofstede termed “uncertainty avoidance,” which “deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.”

On the scale that Hofstede invented, “Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth:  “there can only be one Truth and we have it”. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side.”

In other words, communities that are “uncertainty avoiding” cultures who have an agreement about why they have been formed are more prosocial toward others in their communities, yet Hofstede would argue that “uncertainty avoiding communities,” or more “prosocial communities” are often more hostile and unsocial toward groups not a part of their communities.

Coming to #2, proportional costs and benefits, and relatedly, graduated sanctions, because they both relate to equality, power and punishment, Hoftsede looked carefully at the dimension of “power distance,” or “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” For Hofstede, “power distance” was an index measurement of “inequality defined from below, not from above.”

His research suggested that “ a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders,” which is to say that everyone agreed that there were discrepancies in power. This relates directly to Wilson’s analysis that one important factor of prosociality is “it cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits.” Of course some people cannot do all the work, but Hoftsede argued that every society understood that some people will do more than their fair share of the work, and some will reap greater benefits than others.

Of course, the infamous Michel Foucault factors in here as well, in #2 as well as in #4 (Monitoring)  and #5 (Graduated Sanctions).

Michel Foucault

Foucault, for those who are unfamiliar, was best known for his  studies of modern society and its institutions, namely psychiatry, medicine, human sciences and the prison and punishment systems. In his tome Discipline and Punish, he examined “technologies of punishment,” monarchical punishment, and disciplinary punishment. In the latter, which Foucault determined was the more modern take on societal and systematic punishment, punishment is left to “professionals” (psychologists, programme facilitators, parole officers, etc.) to dole out in a demonstration of their power over the prisoner. Foucault believed that disciplinary punishment led to “self-policing by the populace as opposed to brutal displays of authority from the Monarchical period.” He also retrieved from historical obscurity Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a modern architectural structure for prisons called the Panopticon, in which “a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen,” and “where visibility is a trap.”

#7 brings us back to Hofstede, with its mention of Autonomy. Why is autonomy important to facilitating a prosocial human being? Wilson believe it is because “for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.” Yet Hofstede measured individuality as part of his scale as a contrast with collectivism. He felt that “On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after her/himself and her/his immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” So on that point, again, they differ.

I have prattled on a bit too long on this entry, but the point is that what makes us, as human beings with free will and the ability to operate autonomously and individually, have the seemingly built-in desire to commune with others and cooperate to enhance our own lives? What Wilson was studying in Binghamton, NY is what Hoftsede was examining at the international state level, and what Foucault was looking deeply into at the human soul level. Yet still, we have no definitive answer.

On my end, I just though it was interesting that as each of us grabs hold of new technologies, and read reports of how those technologies are actively distancing us from our ancient proclivity toward social interactions with others, social scientists like Wilson claim that it’s possible we are actually evolving to be more selfless, to be more involved with our own communities.

So what do you think? Are we becoming more prosocial, or less?


OK, stay with me, because this entry will be jam-packed with seemingly unrelated elements, but I promise (hope?) it will all come together in the end.

In today’s NYTimes Thomas Friedman wrote an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao called “Advice for China.” In the open letter, Friedman asserts that Jintao had asked for impressions about what has now been termed the Arab Spring (I wish that I were creative enough to attach a pre-landing page to that link that first asked, “Seriously? You don’t know what this is?” ).

In his column, Friedman reports,

“Our conclusion is that the revolutions in the Arab world contain some important lessons for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, because what this contagion reveals is something very new about of how revolutions unfold in the 21st century and something very old about why they explode.”

As you can imagine, this particular article is chock full of rhetoric about how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are changing the way that revolutions are born, are changing the way revolutionaries connect, etc. Read the article if you want the whole gist.

What stuck out for me in here was:

“The second trend we see in the Arab Spring is a manifestation of ‘Carlson’s Law,’ posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: ‘In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.’ As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.”

As someone who read Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds” and found it to be such a breathtakingly accurate portrait of why social media matters in a modern political context, this paragraph really struck me. I guess I’m wondering if we have, in fact, all agreed that “all the people together are smarter than any one alone.”

Care of noobpreneur.com

I mean, I have personally read enough to be convinced that such a statement is quite accurate, despite my fears of groupthink and a mob mentality, I can see now very real and very tangible examples of why democracy is actually better than any other style of government (note please that I say better, not perfect). But have we all agreed on that?

I’m particularly inclined to believe in democracy as the best-yet model for government not only against the backdrop of what has been happening in the Arab world, but also because I have been reading up on my insects (cue the confused silence of the readers- Really? I thought that was an excellent segue).

Peter Miller’s “Smart Swarm,” is a great book for any communication or ‘wisdom of crowds’ geek. The book is sub-titled, “What ants, bees, fish, and smart swarms can teach us about communication, organization, and decision-making” and boy has it been teaching me a few things.

So far I’ve read about the fascinating networks and collaborative processes which exist inherently within colonies of bees, ants and termites. Difficult tasks such as locating new shelter, finding and foraging for food, and building a geometrically (and one might even say architecturally) complex living vessel are undertaken and achieved on a daily basis by insects to whom we ascribe the smallest of intellectual abilities. These insects all have different ways of building consensus about the best way to proceed. Bees have a special “figure 8” dance that they do in sequences at particular angles to ostensibly vote with a dancing fervor for their particular choice for the next nesting area. Ants leave scent trails behind them when striking out for food and the scent grows strong as more and more ants follow the same trail, collecting food and bringing it back to the rest of the colony.

“The Smart Swarm” basically goes to some lengths to offer a window onto how specific populations of insects and animals can offer clues as to how consensus and productivity may be alternatively achieved. The problem with humans, it would often seem, is that we have these big brains and these big mouths. Both of those things often get in the way of us agreeing, and on getting things done.

Care of brainz.org

The principle behind all of these comparisons between insects and humans is the study of biomimicry, which, as Wikipedia describes, is “the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.” For example, velcro is one of biomimicry’s earliest and most infamous products. [Would anyone like to go down the rabbit hole with me on this: please provide any comments or feedback on how you think biomimicry is generally regarded as a cool, smart-people thing, but anthropomorphism is generally considered to be the realm of lunatics and cat ladies.]

For communication geeks who love to examine how different groups of people can get together to solve big problems, this stuff is gold. If you’re a real biomimicry zealot, the amazing and tantalizing fact of it is that nature holds all of the answers to our problems already, as long as you’re ready to go out and closely watch it play out. Which brings me back to this notion of the democratization of information, which Cesar Alierta writes about in Chapter 1.4 of the Global Information Technology Report.

In the chapter, Alierta focuses mainly on ICT as the platform which brings about the democratization of information. But in reality, if you follow biomimicologists(?) like Miller, information is already everywhere around us, in nature, just waiting to be plucked and used to solve problems. Alierta refers to the so-called “Solow Paradox,” which asserts that “there is a lag between investing in or deploying ICT and the generation of positive effects on productivity.” And he goes on to say “no less important (than ICT to productivity gains) is the extent to which the impact of new technologies in the social sphere benefits the entire economy.”

But as most of us know, the investment in resources such as ICT is often a top-down decision, so naturally, if Friedman’s assessment is to be believed, that “innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb” we’re constantly giving the purse strings and the power to invest in better innovation to the wrong folks.

A hive of bees leaves the decision of where to locate the next hive squarely in the capable hands (wings?) of drone worker bees to go out in search of suitable locations and come back and perform a vigorous dance for the location of their choice until a decision is made through consensus. A colony of ants puts the decision for where and how to find food for the colony solidly in the hands of its forager ants, and as they forge new trails and leave their scents behind, more and more ants find and retrace those steps, making the scent stronger and stronger and creating consensus in that fashion. The difference is, these are largely decentralized systems of building consensus, making decisions, and acting in favor of the greater good.

Which all brings me back to Friedman’s assessment of the use of social networking and messaging platforms during the incredible revolutions of the Arab Spring! As Alierta writes in Chapter 1.4 of the Global information technology Report, “technological change has not led to a progressive isolation of the individual. Instead, technology is facilitating the emergence of how forms of interaction- among individuals, groups, and companies- creating a new kind of cooperative that overcomes limitations of space, time and place.”

In other words, the Arab Spring was inevitable both from the technological and biological standpoint. The accelerated adoption of mass communication technologies in the Arab world coupled with a new awareness of the fact that what had been done and how it had been done had been harming a greater community of people than had been felt before access to these ICT were available made the hive revolt against its nasty queens in favor of what is believe to be a system for the greater good- that is, a system closer to democracy.

Gee, I hope Hu Jintao reads my blog, too.