Monday, May 3, 2010

My Metaphysical Crisis of Foo

I just had the pleasure of attending Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp East (twitter: #fooeast) over the weekend at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development (NERD) campus. The event-meeting-happening-whatever was a really fascinating mixing chamber of people who are doer-thinkers. The venue and the atmosphere promoted a beneficial suspension-of-belief that one could associate revolutionary cancer management with open source software with real-world social conditioning. It is a gathering that buoys the notion of the connected, socially-aware uber-technologist in ascendancy.

My sense is that at the core of every Foo Camp participant is a strong belief that innovative management of systems can generate beneficial human solutions. Social behavior becomes a function of system inputs. More feedback, more information, better design = better social behavior. The goal of many at Foo Camp is constructing better analytical frameworks to drive social solutions. As a former (future?) community development person I must admit that I naturally suspect this line of thinking. However, as a proto-technologist I understand its power to build new options for policymakers and community developers.

I don’t say this with any trace of disparaging the concept; technologist doer-thinkers have much to offer to help solve the problems that have bedeviled policy-makers and social scientists alike. However, in many ways I was surprised – again, not pleasantly or negatively – that there was not as much focus on what the consumer needs or wants. I probably would guess that derives from the deep tech nature of many of the participants. There were people who design consumer-side solutions, but even then they were ‘immigrants’ from the tech side.

For me personally, this was refreshing, as well as challenging. Rather than re-imagining the 2.0 of government, education or health care, I thought about solutions to community-identified systems failure. Rather than large-scale, I went small-scale, iterative, accretion of solution as change. This presented a new set of problems for me.

It has led to a bit of a post-Foo metaphysical crisis…Am I doing what really matters? Is my work amounting to managing somebody else's process, or fulfilling my own passionate mission? Or, flippantly, am I a cog in a beneficial machine or just a cog?

Before I get to that, here is a quick two-hour postmortem list of the ‘surface value’ of attending Foo:

  • Ideas & being connected to ideas…the general fuzzy warmth that you get in your second week of graduate school, but this experience is with people who actually act;
  • Having your eyes opened…to what you don’t know, what you should know and the desire to know more.
  • The allure of new relationships…perhaps the most obvious, but also the most beneficial/nefarious at the same time. Beneficial, because I know more smart people who can get me out of intellectual jams, but nefarious because you could easily see yourself slipping into the comfort of a closed loop chumminess of interesting ideas.

There is one other surface value and I would characterize as the triviality of the ‘side project.’ (I suspect that this is probably more about me than about Foo Camp.) I walked away from the experience filled with a range of little projects that would be interesting to me, maybe beneficial (or maybe not, hence the nature of vanity), but generally would be done to please myself. They amount to hobby, but here are the ones that I would want to do:

  • Based on a session led by Tom Coates re-read William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and update his observations by attaching cheap sensors to everything movable and trying to infer a social graph from use patterns.
  • After a talk with Matthew Bernius graph changes to the editorial policies at specific news outlets against the introduction of new technologies.
  • Also from my talk with Matthew, but also influenced by the thoughts of Patrick Meier, use Clay Shirkey’s “algorithmic authority” (which I will have to actually read…), create an interactive tool to help journalists (and users) visualize objectivity.
  • Put on a one-day discussion on the proper use of data visualization as central driver and construct, rather than an ancillary product, in both journalism and creative narrative.
  • Construct a project to test the applicability of user interface and website accessibility design to reforming urban environments.

While these projects would be fun and potentially interesting they really don’t drive a central purpose to one’s life, the mission that one is on to improve the world. Attending Foo did something to surface a very old question I referred to above; namely am I making a difference or just solving problems?

There is great allure in the solving of problems. They are immediate, they are definable and you generally can get a sense if you can shout out victory or groan in defeat. However, without some motivating narrative that aims those solutions to the heart of a bigger mission, they often become an end to themselves. This is all a bit banal, but the solution of problems may pay your mortgage, but at some point you figure they don’t matter very much without a meaning or north star.

Many logical and rational things tie you to a career of just solving the immediate. While we can insert the words family, age, society, culture; they all boil down to how willing you are to accept risk. And this is perhaps one of the more insidious things about Foo; in that space and time risk simply does not exist. The imagined future is possible and in many ways seems totally probable.

The personal challenge for me is how to sustain the values that brought me to this point in my career. The fundamental goal that drives me is utilizing media and technology to solve human-scale problems. Without speaking about public broadcasting or specific organizations, Foo has continued to demonstrate that real change is really happening. How can I be a part of it? How can I incorporate that change in the work that I do? Do I have anything to offer that work?

There is a saying that has been haunting me lately: “happiness is only achieved when your ability is only limited by the extent of your knowledge.” Foo Camp expanded and extended my knowledge.

Now what?


Kif said...

Rob. That's some good reflecting there. Thanks for sharing. I especially like the paragraph that includes this passage

"...However, without some motivating narrative that aims those solutions to the heart of a bigger mission, they often become an end to themselves..."

WAY back when I was living in Santa Cruz and working graphic design (cutting edge techno land at the time) and CDROMs came out, I can't tell you the number of presentations I sat through that led with the premise that the very nature of this technology was going to lead to widespread community change. There was an implicit connection built between 1) I have a new technology 2) I need some way of describing my giddyness over how cool this technology is 3) I have some ideas about how that technology might be beneficial to the world 4) I can get others giddy about my technology by telling them the technology WILL deliver these benefits. 5) the technology actually will deliver the benefits.

Fast forward 20 some odd years. I think it's debatable whether CDROMs have brought us into a utopian wonderland. But certainly there has been much good that has come from tech in those years. I'm ambivalent in the true sense of the word about the validity of these linkages. However, I am really tired of the tech leading the charge, because as you note, without some motivating narrative (or as we in the nonprofit sector call it "mission statement") it's easy to get distracted solving little problems that are neat, but not ultimately useful in a large-scale way.

Thanks for getting me to think outside my box for a moment and keep it coming.

Anonymous said...

Your writing about aligning your work with your core purpose resonates deeply for me.

As a fellow public media-ite, who's worked at a national organization, let me just say that I felt the same disconnect you describe when I was inside that organization. I felt like a cog. I WAS a cog. A creative cog, perhaps, but one who was ultimately replaceable. And in a big org, a certain amount of time inevitably goes to process and "meta" stuff of the org that has nothing to do with serving people.

It sounds to me like you want to be producing. Like you want to be closer to making stuff that has a real effect on people. I don't think anyone would suggest CPB is the best place to be for someone with those impulses.

Rob Bole said...

Anonymous - first of all, I am pretty much sure I would be a terrible producer.

However, I would disagree with your premise that CPB is not a good place for people who want to make change. In fact, after spending nearly nine years in media creating change for communities, I made a positive, specific decision to move to CPB to move up the stream to help think about how to build policy and funding to enable change to happen on the ground. I am very happy with that decision. This is a good place to work at a meta-level, to potentially help shuttle trans-formative change in the public media system.

There is always a struggle of conscious/conscientious people to check their gut to see if they are doing what the can and should do to make a difference. That is a struggle every person faces and it is a good struggle.

More fundamentally, is a question how you incorporate mission into your everyday actions and if one has the strength of purpose to take personal and professional risks in pursuit of that mission.

And in that CPB, PBS, NPR and others are no different than One Economy or Habitat for Humanity for that matter. While we do run the risk of being to far back from the audience/real-life (as in "public media does not take place in my office"), this is a personal issue - my metaphysical issue - than an issue with an organization.

I just wanted to make that clear.