Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

May 22, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In creativity, education, health, ideas, leadership, social_critique | Comments Off on Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

If you haven’t seen Philip Zimbardo‘s 2008 presentation, The Time Paradox, at California’s Commonwealth Club, do yourself a favor and take the time to watch it now. If you do, you’ll understand why it’s a good idea to stop waiting for your ship to come in…

Zimbardo‘s analysis of how we parse time (how we value it, how we picture it to ourselves, what we tell ourselves about time) obviously provides insights for individuals. But he also has a lot to say about its ability to shape social groups and even economic trends.

Regarding the latter, check out this screen shot, nearly 50 minutes into his talk:


It says:

Current Financial Meltdown on Wall Street and Elsewhere

Is caused by motivated collective GREED that

interferes with wise, future-oriented decisions of

need for reserves and cautious loans and


for short-term present-focused quick gains,

failure to discount future costs against immediate

taste of the $$Marshmallow$$


Zimbardo is talking about present-oriented perceptions of time (centered on immediate gratification), which dominated the time leading to our current economic crisis. For example, in 2002, one in fifty loans were sub-prime; by 2008, it was one in three: that pervasive culture of risk-taking hadn’t been socially acceptable in earlier generations. $$Marshmallow$$ refers to an experiment with children, testing their ability to delay gratification (those who could delay correlated with more socio-economic success as adults while those who couldn’t correlated with riskier behaviors, including drug use, and socio-economic drawbacks). And by “the commons dilemma,” Zimbardo refers to despoliation of a common good (the commons) for individual short-term competitive gain (he specifically refers to the Monterey sardine fishery, now defunct because of over-fishing).

There’s lots more in Zimbardo’s talk (see also The Time Paradox website). From insights regarding how different members within my family perceive time (and what that does to inter-personal dynamics, or to issues relating to attitude, depression, and even energy), to how the place I live in has a different (and often habitually crippling) perception of time and therefore also toward change (which has immense political implications, especially here), Zimbardo’s insights are remarkably rewarding.

Remember the milk (on working at home)

June 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm | In education, health, housekeeping, ideas, just_so, writing | 2 Comments

The other day Philip Greenspun wrote a provocative (that is, a typically iconoclastic) article, Universities and Economic Growth. It’s well-worth reading, so click through and take a look. (h/t @KathySierra)

I just want to use a small passage in that piece as a jumping off point for another observation that’s completely unrelated to Phil’s agenda. (In other words, this is a hijack.)

Apropos of universities, and of how today’s students use them, he wrote:

Focusing on homework has become much tougher. A modern dorm room has a television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games. The students who get the most out of their four years in college are not those who are most able, but rather those with the best study habits.

No company would rely on this system for getting work done, despite the potential savings in having each employee work from home. Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.

It’s that last sentence (“Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.”) that really struck a nerve.

Readers of this blog know that I homeschooled my children. Today, I’m done with that – but until last summer, we were in the thick of it. For eight years, from 2000 until 2008, we – my son, my daughter, and I – worked at home (with field trips thrown in). Toward the end of that period, we did use BC Ministry of Education curricula, so it’s not the case that I had to invent unit studies for high school science or anything. But the homeschool culture (which basically means self-motivated work habits) continued.

That status quo changed last September when my then-17-year-old started his path on the B.Com program at UVic and my then-14-year-old started grade 12 at a neighborhood school (for the exotic experience). This coming September the now 18-year-old will enter his second year at UVic while the now 15-year-old will start her university studies at UBC. (Yes, you read that right, and no, I don’t want to hear any tut-tut-negative comments about radical acceleration. Tell it to someone else.)

About half a dozen years ago the spouse began working from home, too. So here we all were, 24/7/365, working at home – until last September, that is, when the kids went off to school. …Which left us grown-ups to continue the home-work slog.

Now that I’ve had ~10 months to decompress, at least from the intensity of being responsible for the day-to-day education of my children, the statement “Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day” really resonates with me.

People who commute and go to an office think that working at home in fuzzy slippers will be somehow liberating. Well, there’s a flip side to everything. Working at home all the time – not by yourself or just for yourself, but rather as part of a larger entity (say, a homeschooling family or a couple starting a business) – especially if it’s not very remunerative or lucrative (homeschooling is a financial drain, not a generator of income) can be really hard. I suppose it’s different if you make oodles of money and can get away from time to time. But if you don’t and you instead end up with more of the same (working at home), watch out: you can get to feeling stuck, and there’s nothing quite like that kind of stuckness.

Working at home isn’t like working in an office that you can leave behind. You don’t have tidy divisions between work and non-work, and sometimes the blurring lines get really blurry.

My dog won’t appreciate being left at home, but maybe I’ll try working in some third places this fall. On the other hand, if I use third places to do more work, it just means that I’m taking my work out of the home and into those other places, too.

My home (and homework) isn’t like a modern dorm room with “television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games” as distractions. Over the last few years, my many home jobs have splintered into many more pieces, to the point that they themselves have become the distractions. In shepherding this machine that is the home and this project that was homeschooling and this partnership with my partner through years of home-work, it seems I have forgotten how to get my own work done.

In fact, I think I’ve forgotten what it was.


Sometimes someone will helpfully ask what I plan to do, now that the kids are heading out. It occurs to me that I have to remember something I forgot, not plan something I don’t know yet.

Drug use as side effect of suppressing innovation and risk-taking?

December 13, 2008 at 12:20 pm | In addiction, comments, creativity, education, ideas, innovation, social_critique | 4 Comments

The other day Rob Randall posted an entry, Amsterdam cracks down on prostitution, cannabis: lessons for Victoria?, on which I left a long comment.

Rob’s post was about how Amsterdam is reconsidering its liberal laws regarding drugs (and prostitution). My comment wasn’t about Amsterdam or about liberalizing drug laws (as such), but more discursive, “thinking-out-loud” about our factory school system, the artificial extension of childhood into late teens, and how we rather systematically suppress creative risk-taking and innovation in young people. I went so far as to suggest that maybe that’s why we have such a big drug-use problem in the first place.

Here’s my comment:

Permissive approaches to what we quaintly used to call “vice” don’t work if there’s a network – an entire ecosystem – of crime behind the behavior. Anyone who tells me that we should just legalize everything, and that this would get rid of the criminal element, is (imo) delusional. For one thing, what’s legal in one jurisdiction (say, Amsterdam) is not going to be universally legal everywhere (say, Afghanistan), which means you can’t get rid of the criminal element.

Further to that, when people compare our current social problems that are caused by interdicted drugs to the organized crime problems we saw during the era of alcohol prohibition, I also think they’re totally mistaken. Why? The two substance categories are apples and oranges – nay, apples and rocks: totally different.

Yes, alcohol can kill, it can derange people’s lives, destroy families, and turn (some) individuals into addicts (alcoholics). But it’s in no way as quickly and massively and universally disruptive and corrosive as cocaine, crack, crystal meth, heroin, and so forth are. Otherwise, every social drinker or everyone accustomed to drinking a glass or two of wine with their dinner would be saddled with the same problems that addicts of those other drugs have.

Yet they aren’t. Why is that? It’s not because alcohol is legal while drugs aren’t. It’s because those drugs really truly are bad for you, they alter your brain chemistry, and there’s no way – except in a ritualistic, quasi-annual or seasonal Saturnalia kind of way (think Mayan ritual) – that they can be integrated into well-functioning social routines. (And, um, the Mayans mixed their rituals with heavy-duty mayhem that no one would really be cool with today…)

So I wish people would stop with the “let’s legalize this and solve the problems that way” BS.

What’s the answer? Everyone keeps coming back to “education”: that if we educate our kids to the dangers of these drugs, they won’t do them.

Yet our kids are doing drugs anyway. So what’s going on? Maybe ‘education’ means a bit more than just warning people about the dangers. Maybe there has to be more authoritative parenting – note: I don’t write (or mean) authoritarian, but authoritative.

What does that mean, from where I’m sitting? Well, a bunch of things. First off, parents should be parents – they should damn well pay attention. For another thing, speaking as a parent, I wouldn’t (and I didn’t) send my kids into the factory school system. Pink Floyd said it best on their album “The Wall”: you’re just another brick in the wall. Schools as they exist today are by and large set up to babysit kids, to get them out of their parents’ hair so that the parents can go to work, and they’re designed like factories, where it’s “one size fits all,” and you’re a cog in the machine. Whatever drive you have to take risks, to be creative, to pursue your own dream (unless it fits in with the system) is drummed out of you by the curricula you’re obliged to follow, with bells that go off every 50 minutes to tell you to move on, irrespective of any desire on your part to continue pursuing a subject you just got interested in. It’s modeled on the factory, and a factory it is. It’s the opposite of a system conducive to innovation and creative risk-taking.

It’s a system that’s designed to kill whatever entrepreneurial or innovative spark you have, and it typically channels all your adolescent desire for proving yourself and for taking risks into the most inane and puerile (immature) behaviors of the peer group.

I’ve been reading and thinking about innovation (Canada hasn’t been particularly welcoming or conducive to innovation, by the way, as we don’t celebrate risk-taking here). I’m also thinking about how the drive to innovate, to undertake (i.e., entrepreneurialism), and to take risks is tied to biology and age: in the Renaissance, 14-year-olds (if they were born into the right families) ran city-states (Florence, eg.) or became apprentices so that by the time they were 18 or 19 they were called “masters.” (This was true for boys. Girls’ options were extremely limited: they undertook motherhood, an option tied solely to biology but not skill or inclination, and one that can gravely limit all other options, especially when embarked on so young. Luckily, we don’t encourage that any more, but there are still “buts”…)

Today, we extend childhood – which is just another way of killing or subduing or controlling the natural instinct to take risks. Hell, if having sex and procreating isn’t the ultimate risk, risking your very self to keep the species going, what is? And what’s typically of interest to many young people? If they’re sexually active, they’re not doing it to bug their parents, they’re doing it because it’s bred in the bone, it’s in the DNA: you have to do it (or at least have your attention aroused by it), it’s a drive, regardless of how much you think about it. (Of course, extensive or excessive cerebration has an effect on the drives, as the Surrealists well understood – which comes out in many of their visual works.)

I have to wonder whether drug use isn’t a by-product (so to speak) of the factory school system, which (imo) tends to throttle the natural (and good) inclinations of adolescents to take risks, to innovate, to undertake (entrepreneurialism). Put a couple of hundred frustrated teens into a factory, er, excuse me, school, and add some heavy dollops of crappy absentee parenting and a home-life where no one is paying attention to anything (it has to be said: parents have a lot to answer for!), and bingo-presto, you have a setting for a nihilistic peer culture whose creativity is thwarted, and which too often doesn’t have mature outlets for risk-taking. (And remember, I’m arguing that risk-taking, contrary to some research on the teenage brain, isn’t a medical condition or a question of incomplete neurological development: I’m arguing that it’s part of our DNA, and essential for an entrepreneurial and innovative and creative culture. But we deny it.) In a “perfect storm” type scenario (absent parents, no proper outlets for creativity, immature peer group, bad role models/no leadership models), those kids will do drugs, whether legal or illegal. They will seek them out, explore them, pour their energies into them.

After all, their own parents have been doping them up since they were babies, often with Ritalin or other behavior-modifying junk. So why shouldn’t they try some little extras to help them get through the asininity of their extended, risk-free/ un-innovative, endless childhoods?

In other words, I’m arguing that substance abuse and a badly suited education system (the factory model, based on 19th and early 20th century Fordist & Taylorist principles) and the suppression of (as well as the absence of a proper object and outlet for) innovation/ creative risk-taking / independent thinking must be thought of as pieces of the same puzzle. That’s something that should be tackled at social policy level (see also Judy Estrin‘s new book, Closing the Innovation Gap.)

I’m also arguing that the other big piece in that puzzle is absentee – or outright bad – parenting, which is relatively new as a mass phenomenon insofar as it has been created by recent generations who are themselves the product of an education system that’s outdated/ innovation-killing (or, worse, who are themselves drug-users), and who most certainly are boxed into the at least partially absent parent role if they’re trying to make their career mark, or just working as much as they can to keep up with …well, with keeping up (whatever that means in each case – in many cases, basic means: keeping a roof over one’s head and food on the table).

Everything is an ecosystem, a web.  You can’t tinker with stuff in isolation and expect to avoid consequences along the way.  This makes me think that the much-lauded concept of a track (career track, education track, policy track, etc.) is as artificial or outdated as other mechanical (factory model based) ways of thinking.  You can’t put careers on tracks or put kids on tracks or put your life on tracks or put social policy on tracks/ fast track policy without accounting in some way for the effects “your” tracks have on the ecosystem overall.  It’s not “isolatable” in the bigger sense, which means we need to keep big- and small-picture views in focus.

More notes on Brandon Rosario, school reaction, and media fall-out

April 27, 2008 at 12:06 pm | In education, media, newspapers, victoria | 7 Comments

Doc Searls added to the threads on Brandon Rosario’s performance with the wonderfully titled entry, Think softly and punish a big schtick. We know where the soft thinking is…

Doc found a bonus link, Meet Brandon Rosario by Red Tory, a local blogger I hadn’t seen before. (His profile picture is of Francis Urquhart, or “FU,” as he was known to staffers, of House of Cards — a very funny BBC series worth watching.)

Red Tory’s comments board includes an extended discussion of the effect of Brandon’s remark about the physical attributes of a particular teacher. I added a comment to my own April 24 Brandon Rosario entry, partly in response to some of the Belmont students who expressed ambivalence about the “rack” remark. The teacher could use any fall-out that might occur as a teaching opportunity (teachable moment).

There have been a couple of follow-up reports — if one can call them that — in the mainstream media. They’re really laughable — except for the fact that the pot they’re stirring is the pot of stupidity. To see them all, please go to the Facebook group page, Support Brandon Rosario’s fight for Free Speech. There you’ll find not only all the relevant media items (including tv clips), but also the voice of the students and other youth themselves.

The main thing that comes through in those voices is this: Fuck the media.

Every single person on the Facebook comments board is upset by the way the mainstream media are blowing this thing up, and turning it every which way, to create a sensation. Of course the media always manage to find fools to do their bidding — case in point, the class-A fool (a professor of rhetoric) featured on A-Channel’s second report who calls Brandon’s performance totally inappropriate. Professor?

The really “totally inappropriate” thing here is just how incredibly stupid the media assume people are.

They’re digging their own grave, and as far as I’m concerned they can’t fall into it quickly enough.

File under: Shameless reposting of a locally reported story

April 24, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In authenticity, education, local_not_global, times_colonist, victoria | 13 Comments

An article in our local paper just caught my eye: Belmont student’s edgy speech sparks complaints, by Louise Dickson. Now we all know that the official paper never does what the bloggers do (ow!, where’s my tongue? heck, I think I dislodged it!), and naturally all headlines are to be taken at face value …sure. But as the Times-Colonist is not the National Enquirer, I had to click through on this one because there had to be some kind of story there.

Apparently, a smart, creative 17-year old named Brandon Rosario, full of all the usual energy that comes with that age, competed at one of our area schools, Belmont High School, for the post of class valedictorian. A day later, Brandon Rosario was called to the vice-principal’s office — and yowza, one has to wonder if VPs don’t have enough to do these days.

His speech had become an object of inquiry: was the boy giving offense? Could someone — anyone? — be offended …by his humour?

Thank gods for Youtube, because of course his speech is viewable here: Valedictorian Nominee — Brandon Rosario, so you can decide for yourself.

(An aside: I went to see a play called The Violet Hour at the Belfry Theatre last week; one of its many facets is that it’s about an early 20th century publisher who, together with his assistant, is given books from the future to read — courtesy of a strange machine that arrives uninvited. At some point in the play, the publisher and his assistant begin to “assume” the manners and speech of the future, often stopping themselves self-consciously to wonder, “where did that come from?” The best example is when the assistant gives a little speech about being “offended,” which he announces is the highest form of late 20th-century moral outrage…)

So Brandon Rosario was called to the vice-principal’s office because …why?

“As I understand it, [his speech] had racial slurs and some homophobic type of conversation,” Warder said. “And the school is investigating whether or not there needs to be discipline.”

“Some of it is biting. It’s attacking,” Brandon said. “I don’t think people understand satire these days. But investigating? Like I’m a serial killer or something?”

In his speech, Brandon tells his classmates he doesn’t have much going for him in pursuit of the valedictorian nomination. [Times-Colonist article]

I’m guessing the paper printed this good story to stir the pot — there are more people out there than not who will side with Brandon. The question is whether the conversation will do anything to rein in the sort of over-cautiousness exemplified by “managers” or “rulers” of voices-within-the-box.

Seriously, at this point I think prison inmates have more rights to, and expectation of, free speech than school pupils do — perhaps because it’s at least publicly acknowledged that the former are in jail, while we pretend the latter are free.

Update: Be sure to view the Facebook Group, Support Brandon Rosario’s fight for Free Speech.

“Creepy treehouse”

April 18, 2008 at 11:35 pm | In authenticity, education, media | Comments Off on “Creepy treehouse”

I think the phrase “creepy treehouse” needs more traction, which is why I’m blogging it.

Read about it on Flexknowlogy.  Here’s a brief excerpt, but you must click through and read the whole entry by Jared Stein.  It’s excellent!

creepy treehouse
see also creepy treehouse effect
n. A place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids.

Example: “Kids … can see a [creepy treehouse] a mile away and generally do a good job in avoiding them.” John Krutsch in Are You Building a Creepy Treehouse?”

n. Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

Such institutional environments are often seen as more artificial in their construction and usage, and typically compete with pre-existing systems, environments, or applications. creepy treehouses also have an aspect of closed-ness, where activity within is hidden from the outside world, and may not be easily transferred from the environment by the participants.

n. Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it’s [sic] closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution.

n. A situation in which an authority figure or an institutional power forces those below him/her into social or quasi-social situations.

With respect to education, Utah Valley University student Tyrel Kelsey describes, “creepy treehouse is what a professor can create by requiring his students to interact with him on a medium other than the class room tools. [E.g.] requiring students to follow him/her on peer networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook.”

adj. Repulsiveness arising from institutional mimicry or emulation of pre-existing community-driven environments or systems.

Example: “Blackboard Sync is soooo creepy treehouse.” Marc Hugentobler

In the field of educational technology a creepy treehouse is an institutionally controlled technology/tool that emulates or mimics pre-existing technologies or tools that may already be in use by the learners, or by learners’ peer groups. Though such systems may be seen as innovative or problem-solving to the institution, they may repulse some users who see them as infringement on the sanctity of their peer groups, or as having the potential for institutional violations of their privacy, liberty, ownership, or creativity. Some users may simply object to the influence of the institution.

I’ve been observing this phenomena increasingly, as instructors push down hot Web 2.0 technologies, while students push back with vocal objections or passive resistance. I call this the creepy treehouse effect.

Oh, this is very very good.  Do read the whole thing.  Hat-tip to Netwoman for “creepy treehouse” — thanks!

Ubiquitous Place(s)

June 21, 2007 at 1:21 am | In education, futurismo, links, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read many interesting things about “the local,” a topos (literally!) that’s being mined in the wake of our lengthy infatuation / fascination with “the global.” I suppose it’s about time — maybe you can’t be general without being specific, and vice versa.

Trendwatching kicked things off in early June with its Still Made Here post. All urbanists who want vibrant communities, take note of what Trendwatching says here:

A third, ongoing driver behind (STILL) MADE HERE is the importance of community, especially because to many consumers, ‘global’ has come to represent faceless, rootless mega-corporations and supranational bodies, headed up by money grabbing executives whose golden parachutes seem to grow with the degree of incompetence they’ve let loose on employees and other stakeholders. Far from being chauvinistic nationalist movements, (STILL) MADE HERE and (STILL) SOLD HERE will increasingly be about supporting one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one’s region, to regain a sense of place and belonging and to safeguard future access to the special and original, vs. the bland, the global and the commoditized.

Trendwatching‘s entry was immediately picked up and commented on over at CEOs for Cities as well as by Brendan, who writes the Where blog. In fact, he spun that theme into several blog posts: (Still) Made Here: Eco and Ethics on June 5; (Still) Made Here: Story and Status on June 6; and (Still) Made Here: Support on June 11. As Brendan points out in his June 5 entry:

one of the great challenges that central cities face is how to market themselves. Die-hard urbanites and suburbanites aside, what can make the difference between city and suburb for many consumers looking to rent or buy a home in hyper-mobile metropolitan regions is the perceived “authenticity” of a neighborhood. This term means different things to different people, but in this case it usually refers to a high level of historic building stock, independent business, quality public space — factors that create that ephemeral phenomenon we call “a sense of place.”

It’s clear that one very important emerging theme in the quest to defne the local is the problem of authenticity, which is of course an ideologically loaded term. For someone like me, spoon-fed on Frankfurt School theory (ok, ok, so I was holding the spoon and feeding myself…), there’s a tendency to have a kneejerk reaction against authenticity. We know, you see, that there is no “real” thing, that authenticity is a construction. And this is literally true. Reality is highly debatable, whereas ideology is rock solid to the core.

But wait a moment, step back. Is it not “real,” after all, to have some sense of attachment to place? And are you a total moron if you don’t subscribe entirely to living the digital life, online, globally, 24/7, and instead persist in the “delusion” of place?

Well, no. You’re not. If you’re twenty years old, you can perhaps live globally, deny the local (and real). But at some point your cells catch up with the rest of you, …and let’s face it, even if you’re twenty right now, ten years from now you’ll be at least twenty-three. Maybe even older, if you haven’t made enough money.

(Facing up to place — and even authenticity — is something that people have to do when they grow up. It’s a quality that’s often lacking where I live, professional cynicism too often determining not just the order of the day, but hearts and minds, too. But that’s a local aside, not necessarily understood by readers not immersed in this local situation. Or perhaps they do…?)

The theme of authenticity feeds into what we tell ourselves about a place, or in other words, its stories. Again quoting from Brendan (June 6):

City neighborhoods are already status symbols in most places. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, you can identify yourself as being from The Valley, Hollywood, or Watts and get completely different reactions. By associating ourselves with a certain place, we are associating ourselves with the cultural story that has been created about that place, and that cultural story is the quality that will allow a place to overcome its challenges. To increase investment in a community, neighborhoods can focus on the most exceptional aspects of their local culture (which can be just about anything) in order to craft a favorable cultural story. And in a society where “individuality is the new religion” (credit TW) it seems that marketing a neighborhood’s most unconventional aspects would be the best way to go about promoting it.

The cynic raises her head: marketing? Telling stories in order to “brand” a place, because brand viability translates into place vibrancy?

Well, yes again, boys and girls. But before we go off in a sulk, let’s think about the alternatives. Who gets to tell the story? Do you want to remain silent, just because the marketers are coming in with their lubricants, penetrating all your holy of holies? Remember, we are grown-ups now and don’t need to pretend. If you don’t take control of the story, “they” will. “They” might not be local, but “you” are. So speak up.

Here’s an article from FastCompany, the May 2007 issue: Who Do You Love? The appeal — and risks — of authenticity. Its author, Bill Breen, writes:

In an increasingly shiny, fabricated world of spun messages and concocted experiences–where nearly everything we encounter is created for consumption–elevating a brand above the fray requires an uncommon mix of creativity and discipline. And nowhere do you see the challenge more starkly illustrated than in the quest for authenticity. “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged,” notes John Grant in The New Marketing Manifesto. Or as Seth Godin quips in Permission Marketing: “If you can fake authenticity, the rest will take care of itself.”

Overloaded by sales pitches, consumers are gravitating toward brands that they sense are true and genuine. Hunger for the authentic is all around us. You can see it in the way millions are drawn to mission-driven products like organic foods. It’s there in the sex-without-guilt way people respond to the footloose joy of BMW’s Mini. You see it in the tribes of “i-centered” buyers who value individuality and independence–and whom Apple has so cleverly cultivated through its iMacs and iPods.

What does it take to be authentic in marketing? According to Breen, 1.A sense of place; 2.A strong point of view; 3.Serving a larger purpose; and 4.Integrity. Re. number 1, he quotes Steve McCallion of Ziba, a Portland, OR design consultancy: “Authenticity comes from a place we can connect with… A place with a story.”

The theme is echoed in many other articles: Arlene Gould, Request for Proposal: Can designers save our cities? Building and landscape architects, along with industrial, interior, and graphic designers and artists can all play a pivotal role (Feb. 27, 2007), writes:

Most of our cities are led by utilitarian bureaucrats rather than design thinkers. We can also lay some of the blame at the feet of a design community whose members have failed to deliver a consolidated protest against the lack of representation of their profession at city hall, or the mean-spirited RFPs that don’t allow the scope, time or money designers need to deliver breakthrough results.

Design works on a grand scale, but its most profound benefits are experienced on a human level: beauty, accessibility, functionality and cohesiveness, to name a few. Our cities are missing design-led innovation in the public realm. A growing number of Canadian buildings are energy-efficient and environmentally designed. But when it comes to public space, we are still design-deprived. Most of our major cities lack the infrastructure and master plans that would inspire and enable design-led change at every level.

She has 5 suggestions for using design to enrich the fabric of our cities: 1. Use designers to work on sidewalks, which are the arteries of the urban space; 2. Use designers for graphic and visual communications, to tell our stories, “to create cognitive maps that would connect with various target audiences, and illustrate our cities’ unique personalities.” 3. Use designers to “mend a city’s severed connection with nature” (urban ecology).  4.Use design to improve accessibility; and 5. Use design for the arts: “Our arts communities could mine the talents of designers to energize their spaces and promote their work. Currently, artistic outfits often treat designers like second-class suppliers due to budget constraints, and designers end up offering their services pro bono or for a cut price due to budget constraints.”

The arts, local artists and designers, are asked to step up to the plate to infuse a place with local brand identity: a vibrant arts community gives a place a sense of …well, of place. (See this Ontario example as well as this Vancouver example.)

As fate — er, I mean markets — would have it, the local-tied-inextricably-to-the-authentic at some point becomes …ubiquitous (which is a problem not of real places, since they cannot yet be in two spots at the same time). Ubiquity is of course both Scylla and Charybdis for authenticity and branding. We’re describing the problem of the local outlet — a coffee shop, say — that grows popular and opens more stores. At first, the growth is in the community, then it’s regional, next national, and before you know it, bada-bing: global (eg. Starbucks), at which point it’s difficult to associate “authenticity” with the brand. Since the “lurch” toward ubiquity is usually quite slow, it takes a long long while for the authenticity glow to wear off, of course.

But consider that our technologies will make ubiquity occur much faster. Which might be where the play (if it can be called that) of markets and playing with shit and making money and all that gets overtaken by the seriousness of saving the planet, that decidedly singular local bugger we all live on. Before you know it, we’re talking about having a Workshop on Ubiquitous Sustainability: Technologies for Green Values, which will be held on September 16/07 in Innsbruck, Austria, in conjunction with the 9th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp 2007).

Say what??! Yes, it’s a strange world.

From the UbiComp website: “Ubiquitous Computing refers to the trend that we as humans interact no longer with one computer at a time, but rather with a dynamic set of small networked computers, often invisible and embodied in everyday objects in the environment.” This refers to RFIDs and GIS and mobile technologies which will enable references to the local even as they identify us utterly and totally globally.

The Ubiquitous Sustainability webpage describes that workshop’s overview as follows:

This workshop will explore how Ubicomp research can intersect with values and practices linked to environmental sustainability. Growing concerns about resource depletion, global warming, and environmental degradation have led increasing numbers of people to reconsider their actions and the impact they have on the planet. This upswing in public interest in making positive change for the environment has substantial implications for how the Ubicomp community frames and executes the design of technologies in realms as diverse as energy conservation, healthcare, home systems monitoring and automation, environmental monitoring, community planning, and social networking. The goals of the workshop are to gain an understanding of emerging practices in which technologies align with emerging environmental values, and to distill a set of challenges for the Ubicomp community that are synchronous with those developments.

I think what this means is that we will continue to engage in a balancing act between the local and “authentic” on the one hand, and global hypermarkets and technologies on the other. Being alive and creative in the spaces informed by those tensions is what will shape us and our societies.

Graduate, v. or n.

May 26, 2007 at 1:10 am | In education, ideas, just_so, offspring | Comments Off on Graduate, v. or n.

Jay Parini, in his article The Model Graduation Speaker, writes that he tends to cry at weddings and graduations, “though rarely at funerals.” Well, I graduated into some BS today, and what he wrote very nearly made me cry, even as it worked to repair reality. Especially that last bit:

For the most part, I think it’s good when scholars — or “public intellectuals” — give the graduation speech. Scholarship and the acquisition of knowledge are the point of academic villages. We should celebrate those who have lived their lives accordingly, putting aside the pursuit of great wealth or power. A graduation speaker is, implicitly, a model for the students to emulate, admire, acknowledge as good. If the speaker has done nothing but accumulate wealth at the expense of the community or become a “personality” in the media, that is not enough. I always find it discouraging when well-known people who mirror the worst values in society are given honorary degrees. There should be honor in honorary degrees. And the person chosen to speak to graduates should understand that he or she has 15 or 20 minutes to talk frankly about life as he or she sees it, asking important questions. What are lessons in the art of life? What does the effort to acquire an education mean? What obligations and responsibilities come with that amazing privilege — one that so many in the audience will take for granted, but which most people in the world will never experience?

Oh well. It’s not something that’s anything some people I’ve encountered will ever understand.

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