History


19
Jan 14

Part 2: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about clemency for Edward Snowden and whether I thought he was a hero.  My main point was that I was grateful to know the information he gave the world, but I felt that fleeing the US was an immoral choice, that whistleblowers who make the decision to “go public” have a responsibility to stand by their decision whatever the consequences.  I said that even if I could understand the choice to run, that that didn’t meet my standard of “hero”.

The post generated a lot of comments, and I’ve been thinking about some of those responses.

First, I have to acknowledge the insensitivity of referring to Chelsea Manning as “he” and by a prior name.  I fully 100% support everyone’s right to define their own identity, and it was thoughtless of me to do otherwise.  I suppose that the name “Bradley Manning” had become somewhat iconic in my own mind and though I was aware of her choice to become known as Chelsea, it was almost as if the whistleblowing icon and the actual person had become separate entities in my brain.

But of course they aren’t separate at all, Chelsea Manning is an actual person, and its exactly these kinds of careless and unthinking errors that expose cisgender privilege and, however unintentionally, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  Many thanks to those who pointed this out and I will be more conscious and thoughtful in the future.

Regarding the discussion about whether or not Snowden is a hero, everyone who commented here or on G+ or other places universally disagreed with my position. I have a lot of respect for the people in my network and when my perspective is completely out of step with the majority view, it definitely gives me pause.  Even more so when virtually everyone thinks I’m wrong.  😉

I think it speaks very highly of the folks who read my blog that though they disagreed with me, passionately even, no one was disrespectful or rude, and I appreciate that. For me, blogging is a form of processing, of trying to think through issues and problems, and I’m always ready to acknowledge that I may be wrong.  The whole point of posting publicly is to get feedback and to have good dialogue with people who are also passionate about the issues I care about, and I’m happiest when we’re really digging into an issue but doing it kindly and civilly with each other.  So thanks to everyone for keeping it cool.

I can’t say that I’ve been completely swayed from my position by the arguments everyone made, but it has made me think more about the complexity of Snowden’s particular situation.  My mother and many others asked if I thought Snowden should have paid with his life for his actions, and the answer is no, I don’t think he deserves to die or spend life in prison for trying to expose the wrongdoing of the NSA.  I also agree that both of those scenarios were plausible outcomes if he had chosen to stay instead of leaving the US, and by that logic, then he would be justified in trying to protect himself from that fate.

Despite that, I still feel resistance to the idea that it is a moral choice to blow the whistle and run.

I may be persuaded that Edward Snowden’s, or to some extent, even Chelsea Manning’s, specific circumstances were extraordinary.  That they were not exposing your run-of-the-mill malfeasance or wrong-doing, but rather they were exposing wrongdoing of such a horrific scale and magnitude, and perpetrated not by some low level official or small corporate concern, but by our own government across many branches and departments, and therefore that deserves some leeway.  I think that’s a fair argument and it’s forced me to reconsider my position.

I would still argue, though, that universalizing Snowden’s decision to flee is ultimately NOT the best outcome – for whistleblowers OR for the society a whistleblower is trying to protect.  In the best of worlds, what should happen is that the whistleblower should be safe, should be protected, should be given safe harbor until the disclosures can be digested and the situation investigated.  Edward Snowden shouldn’t have to flee his own country, rather our government and our society should have better measures in place and better systems to protect those who make the brave choice to expose wrongdoing.  We should be demanding better protections for the Mannings and Snowdens (and Swartzs) of the world.

And I guess that’s where it shakes out for me.  If we universalize Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle and flee, and say that’s ok, then we run a two-fold risk:

1) We open the door for anyone claiming whistleblower status to get a pass whether it’s deserved or not.  I maintain that making a public accusation of wrongdoing carries with it a responsibility to stand behind the claim. We all must have the right to face our accusers, and whistleblowers are not and cannot be exempt from that.  Due process matters, it protects us from unfounded accusations and (in an ideal world) acts as a safeguard against vigilante justice, by the state OR other people.

2) We let ourselves off the hook for failing to provide the protections that legitimate whistleblowers deserve.  While I’ll admit that Snowden likely had little rational choice but to leave, don’t we all agree that he shouldn’t have had to?  I think in some way, blessing Snowden’s decision to flee is a form of ignoring our own complicity in a system that we know is terribly unjust.  Instead of arguing about whether or not he was justified in running, we really should be expending that energy on making it so he doesn’t have to – not just for Snowden, but for all the legitimate whistleblowers out there who don’t have international visibility and media scrutiny to protect them.


That’s where my reasoning is at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll keep thinking on this for some time to come.  Thanks again to everyone who commented, and as always, feel free to disagree!  🙂


7
Jan 14

How Do We “Immunize” Society Against Technology Futures We DON’T Want?

Recently The Guardian published an interesting critique of the TED Talks series by Benjamin Bratton that I’ve been thinking about since I read it.   The piece asks what good does it do for TED to take extremely complex topics and boil them down into 20 minute presentations, which are viewed as infotainment by a certain segment of people, and then not much gets done about the issues being discussed.  I think it’s an interesting critique, and as someone who organizes technology conferences, I often worry that if we all just come and do a lot of talking and not much afterwards, what purpose has the conference really served?  I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

Beyond the critique of TED Talks, however, there were two lines in particular that really struck me:

Because, if a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also serve to amplify what’s broken.

And the concept of not just innovating but also “immunizing” society:

The potential for these technologies are both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and to make them serve good futures, design as “innovation” just isn’t a strong enough idea by itself. We need to talk more about design as “immunisation,” actively preventing certain potential “innovations” that we do not want from happening.

Regarding the exponential effects of Moore’s Law, I’ve written before that I think our public institutions (government, academia, social structures) aren’t just failing to keep pace with changes in technology, but that the technology itself is amplifying their (our) failures.  Wherever a gap existed before the information age, now it’s becoming a gulf (think income disparity, socio-economic mobility, access to real political power).

Whatever minor systemic failures or bureaucratic quagmires that crept in during the industrial age are turning into full-blown catastrophic disasters in the information age. See the US Congress or our public education system for stark examples, both represent not just a failure to adapt to a changing world, but technology is also amplifying the ills inherent in those systems with truly catastrophic results – a congress that has gone from dysfunctional to not functional at all, and a public school system that is failing the very students it was designed to help – the poor, the underserved, the first-generation students.

We talk and read about “disruptive innovation” every day in the tech and business press, but often its in the context of “creative destruction” as some new business model or product displaces an old one, and in general that’s seen as a positive outcome in a “free” market system.  But for public systems and institutions, those public goods that have no profit or market incentive, this amplification of the broken is really very scary to me and I am not at all convinced that privatization of public systems is the answer (which is why I don’t support charter schools or for-profit education businesses, no matter how innovative they promise to be – MOOCx blah blah blah).

The most important things in life can’t be quantified in dollars and we can’t “innovate” a business model or technology solution that changes that basic fact.

So where does that leave us?  I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued by Bratton’s concept of “immunizing” society against the futures we don’t want, and I’m wondering just how we might go about doing that.  Bratton says:

Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.  “Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

.. and I’m inclined to agree.  I think those of us who consider ourselves technology evangelists and futurists need to think long and hard about these questions.

As a practical step, perhaps one way to help “immunize” society against the technology futures we don’t want would be to make sure that every talk we give, every presentation, every slide deck (or Prezi or whatever), every workshop has a section about possible NEGATIVE outcomes of the technology we’re talking about, and what we could or should do to avoid it?  If we’re going to spread the word about new tech, don’t we have a responsibility to also discuss the possible negative effects? Perhaps as conference organizers and workshop planners, we need to include not just positive visioning, activities, and keynotes, but  sessions that specifically talk about the possible negative outcomes?

I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m thinking about and want to keep in mind.


4
Jan 14

Re: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

I was very surprised to read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, less so to read Slate’s piece about why he won’t and shouldn’t get clemency, since it is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which full clemency would be granted by this administration or in this geo-political climate. I expect Snowden to be on the run or in exile likely for the rest of his life.

Without knowing all the details of what he leaked, how he leaked them, and the explanations for his actions afterwards that led him to China and then Russia, I can’t in good conscience call for his clemency either. Even if I acknowledge that his leaks have better informed a critically important debate about the surveillance power of the government and the constitutional balance (or lack thereof) of the NSA’s programs, even if his stated motivations as a whistleblower are 100% true, and even if I acknowledge that, like Bradley Manning, there likely were no “legitimate” paths he could take to take to expose the truth to the public, I still can’t go so far as to say that they deserve clemency because I’m not in a position to have enough information to make a good judgement, and my guess is, if you’re reading this blog, neither do you.

My own (very small, insignificant except to those of us who were affected) experience with being a whistleblower was a wholly terrible and unpleasant experience. Exposing misconduct and bringing to light what (some) people in power do not want revealed is a dangerous undertaking, even when the stakes are much less than national security. It is fraught with difficult ethical and moral decisions about how much information and when to disclose and how to proceed, and at least in my experience, I had absolutely no way to fully appreciate all of the unintended consequences of my actions, and how many other (innocent in the scheme of things) people would be hurt by my choices, no matter how well meaning and good my intentions were when I started.

I’m not comparing myself to Snowden or Manning, of course, the situations were completely different and on a completely different scale of importance, but I can only draw from my own experience. I certainly felt that I had an obligation take responsibility for the fall-out, and I guess that is where my own, however insignificant, experience as a whistleblower leads me to feel critical of both Manning and Snowden’s decisions to hide and run from the path they chose.

Yes, it stinks that whistleblowers are often punished for trying to do the right thing, but if you choose to do battle with the powers-that-be, then you have a responsibility to stand up and say, “Yes, I did this, my conscience demanded I take action to right this wrong, and be damned the consequences to myself.” That is what sacrifice is, that is what a “hero” does, and that is not quite what either Manning or Snowden did. Even if their initial motivations were largely for the right reasons, even if there have been many good things to come of their disclosures, they still failed to see it through by trying to hide from or escape from the consequences of their choices.

What makes that a “wrong” is that all the untold number of (innocent in the scheme of things) people who paid a terrible price for their actions had no choice in the matter. The co-worker who gave Snowden a password because of trust or because he thought Snowden’s request was legitimate as a sysadmin who was later fired. The diplomats or soliders or, heck, full on spies whose careers were destroyed or lives were endangered by Manning’s or Snowden’s disclosures. Those people had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have an opportunity to hide or escape from the fall-out of those decisions, so why should Manning or Snowden?

When you set the ball in motion, you have a responsibility to see it through to the end, no matter how bitter that end may be. To do less may be only human, but it doesn’t meet my standard of “hero”.


5
Oct 13

Fleep’s Reflections on the first annual OpenSimulator Community Conference 2013

Getting ready for OSCC, my avatar in a nice snapshot from Joyce.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Why Anyone Who Cares About the Metaverse Needs to Move Beyond Second Life; Now, Not Later.  The tl;dr version said, “If we want to see the metaverse happen in our lifetime, we need to invest our time, money, creativity, and resources into making it happen. It isn’t going to come from Second Life or Linden Lab, and the metaverse can’t wait.”  Shockingly to me, that post generated over a hundred comments, a bunch of blog posts, and a huge discussion that ultimately had more impact than even the act of writing the post itself.

It was the first time I’d publicly acknowledged my decision to mostly leave Second Life behind, and it may have been the first time I really crystallized even in my own mind why I felt that was the right thing to do.  It was not an easy decision to make, as anyone who has known me in real life or virtually over the last 7 or 8 years can attest.  It’s difficult to walk away from something you’ve made such a deep commitment and investment in, and it took many years and many disappointments, and the terribly hard (and sad) decision to stop organizing the Second Life Community Convention, before I was even capable of stepping back enough to get a little perspective.

I won’t rehash that post here, you should go read it if you’re interested, but by the fall of 2012 I had finally reached the conclusion that the metaverse I wanted to see would not grow out of Second Life.  And I resolved to take my own advice and start finding ways to invest my time and energy into other technologies, platforms, and people who share the same passion and vision for making the metaverse a reality that I have.  I felt the need to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and to not just talk about what we should do differently, but to actually start doing differently.

So that’s the context and history of where I was when a few months later I began to broach the topic of an OpenSimulator focused virtual conference with the board of AvaCon and with members of the Overte team.  The members of AvaCon had been involved with organizing SLCC for many, many years, even before AvaCon itself came into existence, and we had a wealth of experience organizing large scale real and virtual events.  And it seemed to me that the OpenSimulator platform was progressing and maturing in ever faster and more stable iterations over the past few years, so perhaps the time was right for AvaCon to take the energy and experience we’d previously brought to Second Life focused community events and try to offer that to the OpenSimulator community, if there was any interest…

 Organizing people & organizing code aren’t the same thing, but they both have to work really well for a completely virtual conference to be successful.

Now it’s a funny thing when you bring together a group of community builders who tend to be very people focused and a group of programmers and developers who tend to be very code focused.  That isn’t to say that either group didn’t know or care about the other side of the equation, of course we did, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that initially AvaCon and Overte were coming from very different perspectives and cultures and ways of thinking about and doing things, and those first meetings were really all about trying to come to a meeting of the minds about what we hoped to accomplish if we were going to collaborate with one another to organize an event.

The OSCC Conference Planning Team at a meeting on the conference grid.

For any of you who have been working in the metaverse for a while, you know how tentative those first steps of working with a new group of people you’ve never met in-person can be.  Even in real world projects, there’s always that period where the initial enthusiasm for a new project or idea starts to wear off, when you begin to get down into the nitty gritty of making something happen, and suddenly you’re not quite sure if you’re going to be able to pull it off.  And that’s only exacerbated when you’re working with people entirely virtually and you’ve never met face to face and you can’t look into each other’s eyes and read the body language and all the unspoken messages we send.    For all the advancements in virtual world technology we’ve seen come to pass in the last decade, that’s an area where the technology is still woefully, woefully inadequate.

And so it was with Overte and AvaCon.  I wouldn’t say things started off distrustfully, but rather that I think we were just trying to feel each other out, both on an organizational level and on a personal level.  Who were the individual people and what were their motivations and goals?  What kinds of processes did Overte use to get things done and how would that mesh with how we at AvaCon did things?  And we discovered that there were some culture.. clashes, for want of a better word, or maybe just different perspectives and approaches.

Open source projects tend to value action over talk (let me see your code) and the issues being resolved in software development tend to be a little more clear cut. There may be more than one path to reach the desired destination, but something either technically works or it doesn’t – you can either log in or you can’t, the packet got sent or it didn’t – there’s less mushy middle.  And by their very nature, open source software development projects are fairly decentralized and count on individuals taking the initiative to make contributions when and where they can, often asynchronously, and perhaps with little coordination with others beyond some comments in the code.

Conference organizing, on the other hand, is a beast of a very a different nature.  It’s an extremely communication-intensive process that requires much advance planning and centralized decision-making.  The right hand really must know what the left hand is doing, otherwise people get confused and processes get all tangled up and before you know it your event has a bad reputation before it even gets off the ground.  It also involves a lot of softer, mushy, people-n-politics type negotiation that isn’t always as clear cut as solving a technical problem.  What’s fair?  What’s just?  What’s the best way to resolve a dispute?  What are people feeling and what do we want them to feel when they attend the conference?  How do we want people to behave, and what happens if they don’t?  Those things come up when you’re organizing an event with and for many hundreds of people and they involve making intuitive, moral, and ethical decisions as much as process or technical decisions.

For sure, organizing people and organizing code often requires different skill-sets, and in an event like OSCC where we needed both to mesh together well to have a good experience – the grid had to perform well and the people attending needed to know where to go and what to do and how to do it – I think it challenged us all to figure out the best way to make that happen.

How developers & users communicate with each other matters – a lot!

I mention these things not to highlight the differences between AvaCon and Overte.  In fact, I think we all came to very deeply respect each other and the tremendous skills, commitment, and passion everyone contributed to make the event a success.  But rather because I think there’s a nugget of something important in the experience both groups had in learning to work with each other, in learning to respect the strengths and weaknesses of our different approaches for organizing code and organizing people, that is relevant to the broader topic of technology platforms and the communities of developers and users that grow up around them.

The Developer & Open Source track was heavily attended, this image is of Mic Bowman, Justin Clark-Casey, and Crista Lopes talking about the future of the Hypergrid.

There’s often this feeling of disconnect between the developers who write the software and the user communities of any platform you care to think of, that I think has something to do with those different mindsets, different skills, different approaches. And I think there’s some critically important .. ingredient.. in how those groups communicate with each other that makes all the difference between a healthy, growing, vibrant technology or platform, and a technology or platform that has an unhealthy community dynamic, or begins to stagnate, or fails to meet the needs of a critical mass of users.

It has something to do with the people involved being willing or able to negotiate through some of those different approaches, of being willing to have at least a little bit of good faith that the other party has good intentions, of being willing to extend a little trust.  I’m not exactly sure when that got broken in Second Life, but it definitely did, and after that, trying to organize a community event in an atmosphere of anger and distrust and resentment was a stressful, hellish experience, at least for me, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what made things so different.

It wasn’t that the people who presented at SLCC weren’t as knowledgeable or insightful as the presenters at OSCC, they totally were.  It wasn’t that SLCC volunteers didn’t work as crazy hard as the volunteers at OSCC, they totally did.  It wasn’t even that the vast majority of SLCC attendees weren’t as passionate about Second Life as OSCC attendees were about OpenSimulator, they totally are.  But somehow, the communication and dynamic between the developers and the community wasn’t good, and it left an undercurrent running through SLCC that no amount of good organization could overcome.  As I wrote then about SLCC:  “These kinds of community events require many things to be successful – but a company and a community that is actually supportive instead of antagonistic is essential.”

Fortunately, the experience of organizing OSCC was refreshingly different.  I won’t say it was any less stressful on some level, or that it required any less hard work, but the outcome is so amazingly, amazingly different when you have developers who want to brainstorm with users and each other, when you have a community who wants to talk with one another, when people come to the event with the anticipation of sharing, exploring, and networking instead of complaining, griping, and arguing.  There’s just no comparison.  It renewed my faith that there’s something valuable and important in bringing together the people who write the code and the people who use the code that, if done well, can have a tremendously positive impact on not just the technology or platform itself, but in inspiring people to keep trying, to keep creating, and to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

 Conferences can be great catalysts, but only with the right ingredients.

Even though I’ve been organizing conferences for many years, the experience of organizing OSCC helped me better understand what it takes for a conference to be a true catalyst for something beyond the event. Every conference gives you a due date, a framework for a community to focus their energies on a specific goal, and that in and of itself can be an important catalyst.  I think it was in terms of the improvements made to the OpenSimulator software, for example.  The developers and load testers worked week after week to discover the bugs and issues that would cause problems for the conference, and it had to be fixed by x date. All that effort led to over 1000+ code commits to the software that resulted in new features and better overall stability. (Be sure to check out the 0.7.6 Release to get all these great changes on your grid!)

But it takes more than just setting a date and having a goal, and it takes more than just having a good organizational structure or technology platform, too.

I’m absolutely certain that the work we put into the organization of the conference and to making changes to the platform were only the necessary-but-not-sufficient foundation, especially if I think about the differences between OSCC and SLCC.  We used many of the same organizational processes for OSCC that we used for SLCC. The website content was similar.  The schedule was similar.  The track topics were similar.  The technology, obviously, is very similar.  When you get right down to the heart of it, it wasn’t the conference infrastructure or the specific platform that made the difference at all, it was the people. It was every planning committee member, every speaker, every sponsor, every volunteer, every attendee who came to the table with the right attitude.  It was not just those of us doing the organizational work, but every person who put a little bit of their own hard work and passion and creativity into sharing and learning and discussing that made it one of the best conferences I’ve ever helped organize.

We really did have a great team of very dedicated and hardworking volunteer staff, and that definitely made a big difference in how smoothly the conference ran.

It was the very best example of a damned good pot of stone soup.  And it’s those many contributions by many people who are there for the right reasons that is the secret ingredient necessary to turn a conference experience into something transformative.  And in that regard, OSCC exceeded even my most optimistic hopes.

For future events, I want to put more time and effort into figuring out what those right reasons are and how to amplify that message.  Maybe it’s about setting the stage properly (metaphorically speaking, though Crista was right that there’s some element of paying attention to the interaction design that matters, too).  Maybe it’s about managing expectations.   I definitely think there was something about starting a brand new conference that meant people weren’t sure what to expect and that perhaps made them more open to having a positive experience than a conference like SLCC which had been going on for years and at times hadn’t been well managed.  Maybe it had something to do with the way the planning team communicated with the broader community.  Maybe it was just a serendipitous collision of all those things and good timing, I’m not quite sure.

But I think it matters.  I think these kinds of community building experiences and all the conversations they generate and information sharing that happens is critical to the long term goal of not just a better OpenSimulator but a better metaverse experience.

That’s not to say there weren’t things we could have done better, of course we made some mistakes, but in general the conference itself worked.  All those functional things came together; the grid stayed up, we largely stuck to the schedule, the presentations mostly went off without a hitch, and we had a terrific group of volunteers committed to making the event a success.  But it’s those intangible, harder to put your finger on things that really made it memorable, exciting,  and inspiring.

Keeping the momentum between conferences is the real key to making the Metaverse.

That spirit, that willingness to extend a little trust, to contribute to a larger effort, is what it will take for the metaverse to grow into what so many of us want it to be.  We need to keep tweaking our stone soup recipes, and finding ways to bridge those differences in approaches, and adapting the technology, as we did very deliberately with OSCC, to enable the human experiences we want the technology to facilitate.  It doesn’t just require good code or good people, it takes both, and those long, deep conversations, and the patience and perseverance to keep testing, and failing, and trying again, that we must do to keep figuring out new and better ways to translate our human needs and desires into code that better serves us.

The trick for this conference, for OpenSimulator, and for the metaverse at large will be to keep that momentum going.  To not lose touch with each other except at the annual conference, to continue to collaborate with one another, to keep the lines of communication open, to keep sharing and discussing.

How do we keep the momentum going between conferences?
Image:  One of the landing zones at OSCC13, by Zuza Ritt.

As I said to someone recently in an email, if I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that it is so very easy to get lost in the weeds of  your own work and your own projects, but when we’re all doing that, we miss opportunities to collaborate and scale our efforts.  We end up all individually recreating the wheel.  OSCC reaffirmed for me that the value in an open source platform like OpenSimulator isn’t just the difference between the walled garden or not, the ability to archive or save content or not, the availability of this or that feature or not, but rather that the free flowing sharing of ideas and content with the right group of people with the right attitude has the potential to be an exponentially positive catalyst for growth.

That’s the main lesson I took home from OSCC13 and that’s the energy and focus I hope AvaCon will continue to foster as we move forward with our plans to develop better ways to support the people making the metaverse happen.  (Take the survey if you’re interested in providing feedback.)

I know I’ve said it before in other places, but truly, thanks to the team at Overte, to the entire Planning Committee and all the wonderful, wonderful volunteers, to all the load testers, to the student builders, to the OpenSimulator community and the developers who submitted a zillion bug fixes, to the viewer developers, to all the companies and individual people who sponsored the conference, to every single keynote speaker and presenter who gave us so many great things to talk and think about, to every single attendee who came to the conference and had patience and understanding for our imperfections, to everyone involved.  It was truly a community effort that reminded me why I got into doing this conference organizing stuff to begin with.

Thanks for renewing my faith.


16
Oct 12

An Ada Lovelace Day Essay: Why Didn’t They Tell Me a Technical Career is All About Helping People?


Me blowing bubbles on my grandpa’s back steps, age 3 or 4?

. . .

When I was a little girl, back when most girls my age were dreaming of being ballerinas, princesses, or veterinarians (a popular choice in my rural community), I dreamed of being the President of the United States.  I’m not sure when or why I came up with that idea, I just knew I wanted to help people, and in my little girl mind it seemed like the president got to help all kinds of people.

Then one day, I think maybe in 2nd grade or so, we were assigned a class project to draw a picture of our future selves at work in our dream jobs.  I drew a picture of myself in the White House behind a big desk, probably with some rainbows and pink and purple hearts.  Anyway, as we took turns sharing our pictures with the class, it was finally my turn and I was pretty excited that no one else had wanted to be my dream job yet.  So you can imagine how upset I became when a classmate interrupted me to say that could never happen because only boys could be presidents.  I promptly started crying, but it was an angry kind of (embarrassed) crying.  That kid probably unwittingly planted some of the earliest seeds for my lifelong feminism.  I was sure I’d prove him wrong – some day!

. . .

I never made a conscious choice to work in the field of Information Technology.  What started as a student worker position in my university IT department eventually turned into full time job, but even though I was working full time, I spent many years thinking my day job was just a placeholder until I could graduate and get on with my real career. Eventually I realized that the calling for public service I felt from a very young age has been realized by a career in IT, it just took a different path than I expected, and I didn’t think of it that way for so long in part because the narrative society tells us about what it means to work in technical fields is all wrong.

Working in Engineering and Information Technology is all about helping people.  It isn’t some abstract, impersonal problem solving exercise.

I was fortunate to have had early access to a computer and other kinds of technology even as a pretty young girl.  My grandpa was an engineer, and the day he taught me how to load up games on his Commodore 64 was life altering.  Load “*”, 8, 1 became a passport into whole new exciting worlds and I can directly trace my current job right back to that very first experience.  I also knew one of my uncles was a computer programmer, and as I got older, I certainly understood that his job was high paying, challenging, and high status.  Another uncle was an engineer too, and I knew he also had a good paying job and everyone seemed to respect his work and his career.  All these men in my family, who I loved and respected, who seemed to be judged as some of the most successful career-wise in the family, and yet I had absolutely ZERO interest in doing what they did for a living.  Why?  Because it all sounded so darned boring.

My first game addiction, Ultima III Exodus on the Commodore 64.

When I think back to what that young version of me thought of their jobs, I associate all kinds of very dry, abstract concepts and words to their work.  It seemed to involve a lot of math.  It seemed to be about working with tools and machines and metals.  It seemed to have nothing at all to do with other human beings, other people, or about solving the kinds of social problems that I found interesting and compelling as I got older and more conscious of the wider world.  Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that technical fields like engineering and computer science were not only off limits for girls, but they were about inhuman, mechanical things, which I had no interest in anyway!

What’s funny is that you could excuse this misconception from a young girl growing up in the 80s, but it’s a lot harder to understand how I could still think that way even as an adult actually working in an IT job, and even though my mom worked in IT too!  The difference was, my mom’s work stories were always about the people and relationships, so even though she also worked in a technical field I guess I didn’t associate her job in the same way – I thought of her as a people problem solver, not a technical problem solver, and somehow never made the connection between the two.

Connecting the purpose of our work to the tools we use to do it

I think what happened is that the information I absorbed about what it means to work in a technical field was focused on the tools used to do the work, not the purpose of the work.  And frankly, a hammer just isn’t very interesting.  But if you talk about how using a hammer can help you build houses, and building houses helps families have stable, happy homes, then suddenly that inanimate hammer object is placed in a human context that’s tied to something relatable even to the youngest of children.  Focusing on the tools used in technical fields is obviously appealing to some people, but it certainly wasn’t appealing to me.

Because of these misconceptions about IT work, I spent the early part of my career avoiding the more challenging technical aspects of the job.  Partly it was out of fear that I wouldn’t be smart enough to figure it out (girls can’t be system administrators or programmers!), and partly because I was under the mistaken impression that becoming more technically adept would take me further away from the human interaction that I loved most about my job.  It took me years to discover that I was wrong on both counts.  Perhaps if someone had helped me connect the dots, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to discover how thrilling it is create something new that people find useful or valuable, or how wonderful it is to empower others to use technology for their own goals.

Me explaining the architecture of the University of Cincinnati’s OpenSimulator grid.

I think the way we frame the narrative of technology work has a lot to do with why girls and women choose other career paths.  Even today, I doubt many people would associate working in technology with public service, even though in large part, the purpose of our work is about solving human problems, improving living conditions, and making society better. We just don’t talk about it that way.  And we should, because for all the little girls (and boys) who are drawn to the human elements of a particular career, we want them to know that IT and engineering jobs can be very human centered!  Yes the programming and software and protocols are necessary to do the work, but that’s not why we do the work – we do the work to make the world a better, safer, more interesting and beautiful place, just like doctors and veterinarians and ballerinas – and (hopefully) presidents.

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike.

Ada Lovelace is widely held to have been the first computer programmer. Close friends with inventor Charle Babbage, Lovelace was intrigued by his Analytical Engine and in 1842, she translated a description of it by italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood [it] so well”, and this was when she wrote several early ‘computer programs’. Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, her potential tragically unfulfilled.  

Learn more about Ada Lovelace and do your part to support women in science, technology, engineering, and math!


11
Sep 12

A September Eleven Blue Sky

In a moment of tragedy or crisis, it’s strange what single detail stands out most among a thousand details of a scene. Some people remember where they were standing when they saw the towers fall on tv, some remember who they lost that day.

For me, the single detail I remember most is a certain shade of blue sky that I will always think of as September Eleven Blue. As I walked to work after spending hours glued to the television set, my brain was on some strange surreal loop. I kept looking up into the most pristine and sparkling blue sky I’d ever seen and thinking over and over:  How could this happen? How could someone deliberately fly a plane full of people into a building full of people on such a beautiful sunny day? How could this happen?

The horror of it was more than I could fathom, it seemed somehow all the more horrific against that backdrop of happy blue – as if tragedy could only happen when it’s storming outside.

Image courtesy of New York Social Diary, “The Morning of September 11” by Alexandra Lebenthal

I don’t think I’ve ever posted a reflection on that day before, because in the weeks and years that followed, I became exhausted by and to the whole spectacle of 9/11. Instead of engendering feelings of patriotism or love of country, the cheap plastic flags and yellow ribbons pasted on every available surface, car, window, and t-shirt came to feel very cheap indeed – hollow symbols of a feeling of unity that lasted for only a brief millisecond before we turned to, not politics as usual, but far worse, the politics of fear and retribution. I didn’t know then that it would eventually lead to the War on Terror and the War on Iraq and the War on Afghanistan, so many wars on so many things, I just knew that I felt numb and frightened and suddenly very painfully aware of how fragile life is.

I had friends and colleagues who seemed for a while to need to know every gory detail of every victim’s last moments, but I didn’t. I didn’t listen to the last voice mails and the 911 recordings, I didn’t watch the videos of the people jumping, I tried not to imagine what it would have felt like to be in that plane over Pennsylvania, or to be burned alive or buried in the rubble. I couldn’t. For me, the horror of what I already knew was enough and the fascination with the tragic details felt repulsive – I couldn’t understand it. They have a name for that phenomenon now, disaster porn they call it.

To me it just felt somehow.. disrespectful. And something worse, some word I can’t put a name to, that thing that makes us gawk and take some creepy pleasure in seeing other people’s agony. Or maybe using other people’s agony to fuel our own ugly impulses, to go kill whoever was responsible, even if it meant killing hundreds of thousands of other completely innocent people as collateral damage to salve our wounded American soul.

I was afraid, back then, to even say words like these. To not feel a burning patriotic fervor to hunt down the evil-doers in the post-9/11 world was to be a traitor. In the city where I live, conservative, religious, American heartland Cincinnati, Ohio, it was impossible to avoid the forwarded-hundreds-of-times email chain letters (this was before Facebook or Twitter existed) about how we would destroy Osama bin-Ladin and every “towelhead” who got in our way. Jingoism doesn’t begin to describe it, I saw blood lust even in the eyes of my mild mannered office mates. That scared me far more than the terrorists did, far more than whatever horrible thing al-Qaida might have planned. I became afraid of my own countrymen and my own government more than I was afraid of any shadowy enemy in the middle east.

Terror Alert: Orange lasted for years afterwards. And when it was over (is it over? will the wars ever be over?) I felt mostly sadness that all those people died so tragically, and sadness that in their names we destroyed nations and our own civil liberties. That so many of our own young men and women in the military had paid as high a price as the victims of 9/11 in as senseless a tragedy through the War in Iraq.

Another Anniversary, Another Election

As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, another presidential election, I can’t help but think back about that time and how that incident really did change us. How it really did change the trajectory of our nation, our politics, our financial security. For a long time there was that cynical joke about how if you do X, the terrorists win.  I sometimes think, looking back, that the terrorists did win, and win big.  9/11  changed so much about our culture, made us so much more willing to surrender our privacy and our human rights for often just the illusion of security.

One of the things that struck me about the political conventions this year was how little 9/11 was mentioned, how little the history of the last 10 years was discussed beyond the current economic issues and pandering to military voters.  There was little acknowledgement even from the Democrats about the truly brutal, dishonest, and frightening Bush administration.  They didn’t really tell the narrative about exactly how and why the Republican Party led us into disaster and how and why it would be disasterous to put them back in charge of the White House again.  Why didn’t they tell that story more forcefully?

For my part, I felt an enormous amount of rage towards the those who had led us to that precipice.  After spending billions or trillions of dollars in Iraq, after pushing through tax cuts for the wealthy, after de-regulating financial reforms put in place to protect us from another Great Depression, the Republicans marched us to catastrophe.  In US Economic Crisis – “Privatizing Gains, Socializing Losses”, I wrote:

The REPUBLICAN PARTY, representing free-market capitalists, has largely had their way in terms of economic policy, they passed their tax cuts, they gutted many of the laws put in place after the Great Depression, and theysuccessfully protected the profits – the sickeningly vast profits – of a very, very tiny percentage of very, very wealthy Americans. […]

I am angry. Afraid. Worried. The REPUBLICAN PARTY has quite literally wrapped themselves in the American Flag and used every dirty trick in the book to keep the average, church-going American distracted by issues like guns, abortion, and gay marriage so they can rob our country blind. And they seem to be getting away with it.

When does it stop? When does the party of “Country First” actually start putting the country – the whole country, not wealthy investors – first?

It was a welcome relief to me when Obama was elected at the end of that year. Obama’s campaign rhetoric stirred in me some of those patriotic and hopeful passions I remembered from the days before 9/11, when I still believed that reasonable people could find some agreement.  That’s back when I thought most Republicans were conservative like my grandpa, a staunch life-long Republican, who I loved and respected greatly, even as I passionately disagreed with his philosophies about human nature.  Where he and I found common ground, I assumed so would be the case between the Left and the Right.  I thought love of country and the need to help each other in such dire times would bring some kind of relief from the endless political bickering.

But I was disappointed to discover that we were more divided by partisan zealotry than ever before.  Obama’s complete cop-out on a single payer system, or even a public option, for healthcare reform, his wholesale embrace of the Right’s solution did nothing to quell the divide.  Such a pitiful excuse for a “socialist” solution to the healthcare problem was so well spun by the Right that it led to the birth of the Tea Party nutjobs and the “Keep the government out of my Medicare” protests.  Republicans in Congress began their steadfast refusal to do anything but say “no”, be damned the consequences, including the debt ceiling fiasco that actually led to the downgrading of our nation’s credit rating.

These last few years, it has seemed as if all sanity has flown the coop.  One cannot reason with those who are unreasonable, those who do not believe in science, or education, those who would rather scream about God than have any faith in or compassion for each other – those who seem to revel in the disaster porn that our nation has become.  The divide has become such a chasm, I wonder what America they are even living in, because it doesn’t seem like the one I am living in.

The only exception to these political divisions seemed to be the night Osama bin-Ladin was finally killed. I wrote about how it felt to experience that moment with others through Twitter, and just like with 9/11 itself where I could not feel pure hatred and bloodlust, I could not feel pure joy and glee that we killed bin-Ladin, either.  I felt somewhat ashamed of the reactions; disgusted by the calls to literally put bin-Ladin’s head on a spike as if we should engage in some gruesome medieval display of power.  Reflecting back, I wrote:

 By my view, the world really did change on September 11th, and it has been a long, brutal, depressing decade since. Whatever innocent naivete I still held at the wise old age of 25 began to crumble as those towers fell and the 10 years since have held many bitter lessons still. Wars that seem unending and against people and ideologies that are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple narratives about “defeating our enemies”. A decade of absolute fiscal corruption and robbery that would have made the robber barons blush. A political system that seems barely functional on the good days and completely ill equipped to address any of the real issues facing our nation. Catastrophes like Katrina from mother nature, and catastrophes of our own making, leaving people without homes and jobs and even those of us who still have both ever fearful that they could disappear tomorrow.

” A nation that can’t resolve sensibly any issue that matters..”

I’ve been pretty candid about my political views.  I’ve written about why I consider myself a progressive, and about the values and beliefs that guide my political conscience.  I know that other people value other things, have beliefs that are different than mine, and I can accept and understand that.  What I can’t understand, what I can’t accept, is pretending as if this history didn’t happen: Two wars costing trillions of dollars, millions of wounded, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost.  An economic disaster that triggered a global crisis, erased a decade of wealth in the US, and left millions of our own people in desperate straights.  These two things frame the beginning and the end of the last decade of our nation, and both of them happened under the leadership of the Republican Party, and with little to no meaningful dissent from the Democratic Party.

This history leads the partisan part of me to want to ask anyone who’s even considering voting for Mitt Romney – what the heck are you thinking?  Have you completely forgotten that it was a Republican led White House that took us falsely to war in Iraq?  Have you completely forgotten that it was Republican led de-regulation of the financial industry that led us to this depression/recession/whatever mess?  Aren’t you absolutely horrified by the voter suppression, the racism, the insulting belief they should control women’s bodies, the religious zealotry, the anti-science, anti-education, anti-common-freaking-sense craziness of today’s Republican Party?

But make no mistake, that partisan part of me is just as furiously angry with an Obama administration who has not closed Guantanamo Bay, not ended either war, continued and even extended some of the worst parts of the Patriot Act, who completely caved on the Bush era tax cuts, whose administration has not done more to help homeowners and average working people after bailing out big business and big banks, who has not prosecuted those who were responsible for the collapse, or passed any reasonable legislation to stop it from happening again.

Indeed, I am left feeling that, while I’ll be voting for Obama again this election because the lunatic right just isn’t an option, the entire system is so corrupt that a vote for Obama or even a win for Obama is just a degree in difference, not kind.  When Lessig points out that:

A tiny number of Americans — .26 percent — give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don’t exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.

.. what else can a simple working girl like me think but that the whole game is just plain rigged?  When so many pressing issues of our time go unaddressed while we spend billions and billions of dollars and months and months of time on campaigns, not just for president, but for congress and governors and local officials as well, it seems that the entire system is just plain failing us. I feel so frustrated, so distrustful, so dissapointed in what has become of our country since 9/11, that I am paralyzed by it.

Many things have changed since the Twin Towers fell, but eleven years later, I’m still looking up into a September Eleven Blue sky caught in that surreal loop, wondering how all these things could have happened.  Just as I wondered how on earth someone could deliberately fly a plane full of people into a building full of people on a perfectly beautiful sunny day, I wonder what kind of craven souls could deliberately be playing political cat and mouse with each other instead of dealing with the enormous challenges facing our country – or worse, how it has come to be that we the people seemingly have no more power to stop this calamity than we had to stop those towers from falling.

Lessig ends by saying that a nation that can’t resolve sensibly any issue that matters is a nation that will fail.  I’m afraid he’s right.

 


15
Oct 11

Second Life Flashback: Fleep’s First 30 Days

Note:  This article was originally submitted to the Metavese Messenger, a now defunct Second Life newspaper, on November 18, 2005.

Fleep’s first avatar…

The First 30 Days

by Fleep Tuque

In October, a friend of mine posted on her Live Journal asking if anyone had heard of this Second Life thing and I remembered having an account in the beta, but due to lag I didn’t really play with it. Then I came home that evening and saw Second Life profiled in Newsweek magazine and thought, “I should check this out!” And on October 11, 2005, Fleep Tuque was born, in all her Barbie doll body glory.

On the very first day, I spent two hours trying to customize my face so that I didn’t resemble a freak. Then some friendly neighbors took me to a number of interesting places; the Prim Library, a public sandbox, and the Blue Stone theatre. As we settled in to watch a movie, I marveled at the ease with which I was able to view this streaming media in an online environment that looked and felt and sounded just like a theatre.

I work at a large state university in Ohio, teaching faculty how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom. I spend hours on the phone, helping distance learning students watch short video clips from as far away as Germany, and I thought about how sterile and visually unappealing the online format is for those videos when compared with the gorgeous textures and interactive environment that is Second Life. Already I’ve given virtual tours of Second Life to people in my department and it has sparked a new and exciting conversation about the future of distance learning and gaming as an educational tool for our students.

I also purchased one of the first few plots of First Land in Acontia, but within days, the land was snapped up by enterprising young noobs and before I knew it, a large revolving “JESUS IS LORD” sign was floating near my little prefab house and structures dotted the landscape. I had contacted a number of people from my online communities and dragged them over kicking and screaming to come experience this great new thing I had discovered, and together we managed to purchase, finagle and trade up for a sizable chunk of land with which to practice our fledgling building abilities. The Church of Starship, Eschwa Welcome Center, and the Temple of Eschwa now decorate our land, welcoming other new members and residents to explore their creativity.

I’m fascinated by this place. I’m fascinated by the possibilities, by the people, by the creativity I’ve seen, and the enterprising spirit that seems to have taken hold here. I’m also somewhat disappointed to find so much commercialism and pornography. Give people a blank slate, a blank new world in which they can be anything and build anything, and it’s sad to discover how many of them choose to replicate some of the most negative aspects of real life – unequal and demeaning sexual relationships, anything-for-a-buck capitalism, and seemingly endless strip malls and what looks like for all the world to be urban sprawl with little attention paid to creating a peaceful and soothing environment.

Fortunately, I’ve also found places of respite from those aspects of Second Life which seem depressing to me. I stumbled onto the Brainiacs and promptly signed up for the Brainiac Education Exchange Program (BEEP) and took my first scripting lesson. I discovered the memorial for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and was touched by the outpouring of emotion I saw there. And I’ve worked with residents in my sim to form the Acontia Neighborhood Association so that we can collaborate and work with each other to make our little noob sim an interesting and exciting place.

In the future, I plan to learn more about the stories of those residents who have managed to impact the development of this world for all of us, and watch closely as the economy and political activity on Second Life continues to evolve. After only a month, I see potential and promise here and I finally can fly around without banging into walls and landing on my face too often. My next task is to understand the players and people who have shaped Second Life, for better or worse, so look for upcoming profiles of the famous (or infamous) residents who have made their mark in the next issue of the Metaverse Messenger.


3
May 11

Experiencing History Through Twitter and Other Thoughts about the Death of bin Ladin

President and national security team receive updates about the bin Ladin mission.
Image source: White House on Flickr.

I’ve been very surprised about America’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Ladin.

If you had asked me two days ago what I thought people would do if Osama bin Ladin were killed tomorrow, I would have guessed that most Americans wouldn’t care much – that after 10 years of wars, which at this point in the US, mostly only military families and some politicians pay close attention to, and with any sense of unity we felt after 9/11 a faint memory in the bitter and nasty political climate of today, I would have guessed that the average Jane on the street would feel a momentary sense of “finally got him” and that would be the end of it.

I would have been very wrong.  I was really shocked by how emotional people felt. I was shocked by the gleeful and joyous feelings people felt. I didn’t feel joy, I felt.. ok, some faint vindication, triumph over evil and all of that, but mostly I felt terribly sad remembering the horror of what happened on that beautiful blue sky day in September and sadder still at all the death and war and destruction that followed it. Osama bin Ladin was certainly a mass murderer and a zealot and a terrorist – and his death means that he can no longer plan or proselytize or execute any more death and destruction, and for that I _am_ glad. But not joyous.

I also wondered today how much my perception was colored by the experience of learning about it and participating in the immediate reaction on Twitter – which was wildly fast paced and .. words truly fail me. At times it was hysterically funny, the first time you read the “long form death certificate” joke it was funny, by the 50th time not so much. At times it was uncomfortable, or at least I felt uncomfortable with the glee that so many seemed to feel.   And at times it was inspiring, to be part of such an amazingly multi-threaded conversation, with comments whizzing by in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and more, you had a sense that to experience historical events today is somehow different – with Twitter and Facebook and a cell phone in nearly every pocket, it’s not even that news travels fast, but that our reactions to it travel just as quickly.

Image hat tip @mixed_realities, image source @miguelrios (submitted by pleated-jeans).

From speculation to confirmation to reaction in minutes, and your immediate reaction tempered by the hundreds and thousands of others’ reactions erupting simultaneously. The ones cracking jokes, the ones shouting “GO USA!”, I literally saw calls for bin Ladin’s head on a spike on the #tcot hashtag (not surprising), calls to be reflective, reminders that bin Ladin was just one man and al Qaida is more than one man, remembrances of 9/11.. it was crazy! And some of it very discomfiting.

I was heartened to see others in my Twitter stream expressing discomfort with the celebratory tone, even as I felt conflicted about my own feelings. I wrote:

@annehaines I think part of the “celebration” aspect is that these wars have been SO long SO costly SO complex. A simple victory resonates.

@annehaines And US is divided by so many things, when we can feel unified about something, I think it amplifies the emotion.

After reading more about what happened and reading and listening to all of the voices on the net and in my networks, I think that maybe it’s too simplistic to say that Americans were celebrating the death of Osama bin Ladin. Certainly some were, and it really WAS and IS that simple for many, but in some part I think it was an outpouring of pent up emotions that maybe we didn’t even realize we were feeling.

By my view, the world really did change on September 11th, and it has been a long, brutal, depressing decade since. Whatever innocent naivete I still held at the wise old age of 25 began to crumble as those towers fell and the 10 years since have held many bitter lessons still. Wars that seem unending and against people and ideologies that are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple narratives about “defeating our enemies”. A decade of absolute fiscal corruption and robbery that would have made the robber barons blush. A political system that seems barely functional on the good days and completely ill equipped to address any of the real issues facing our nation. Catastrophes like Katrina from mother nature, and catastrophes of our own making, leaving people without homes and jobs and even those of us who still have both ever fearful that they could disappear tomorrow.

There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot to celebrate since September 11th and I think the reaction to bin Ladin’s death was less about dancing on one man’s grave and more about the resonance of a simple, understandable victory against at least some small part of all of the tremendous uncertainty and evil in this world.

And I guess that’s ok, or at least it makes the emotion I saw and sometimes felt a little more understandable.

I think the important thing will be to see if in death, the symbol that bin Ladin became in our minds and in the media can become a symbolic closing of that sad chapter in our history. The Arab Spring certainly gives hope that radicalism will give way to revolution of the kind America’s forefathers would understand, and I hope against all hope that the end of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will come soon.

As for the rest of it, this explosion of pent up emotion and the rush to cheer about SOMETHING after so long a drought of things to cheer about.. well, it’s partly our own doing we’re in this glum mess. Though the world is complex and we have an important role to play in it, I think we really need to spend some time cleaning up our own house and maybe then we’d have truly joyous reasons to celebrate.


13
Apr 10

McLuhan Talks About New Media Creating Tribes 50 Years Before Seth Godin

Check out this video, thanks to @gracemcdunnough for the tip!

Some of this sound familiar?


11
Mar 10

When Game Devs Engineer the Real World – You Brushed Your Teeth, +5 points!

The concept of “Life as a Game” is certainly not a new one, when I was a kid, the game of Life was my favorite board game of all time.  I still remember the thrill of filling up my little car with boy and girl babies I imagined I’d have  at some point in the far off future, or the crushing defeat of bankruptcy, a term I didn’t really understand, but in that context basically meant “Game Over.”  Spin the dial – what does the game of Life bring you next?

And it’s not as if I’m not a big fan of video and online games – I cut my teeth on the Atari 2600/5200, hand drew maps in colored pencil to find Princess Zelda, played Ultima on a Commodore 64, still have an account on the Medievia MUD that goes back to 1994, have an 80 level holy spec priest on WoW (they nerfed holy spec, don’t get me started), and most recently celebrated the completion of my horse stable on Farmville.

I grew up on games – the first generation to grow up playing video games – I was a “Girl Gamer” back when we were a pretty rare breed and I’m still playing now that “gaming” in its various forms is so common that the Pew Research Center reports that, “Game playing is ubiquitous among Americans teenagers. Fully 99% of boys and 94% of girls report playing video games.” They also report, “More than half – 53% – of all American adults play video games of some kind.”

We are increasingly (already?) a nation of gamers.

And yet, despite the fact that virtually all young people game, and over half the adults in the US game, there still appears to be a very finite line between “gaming” and .. everything else.  We still delineate “real life” (RL) as separate from game spaces – even when the space isn’t actually a game space, as in Second Life.  The skepticism and often openly hostile reaction of scorn/pity that Second Life residents get from non-SL peeps is almost remarkable considering that the very people delivering that heaping dish of disdain turn right around and log in to WoW or EVE or Farmville.

Just yesterday, in a debate about a topic wholly unrelated to gaming, someone I was arguing with bolstered his point with the concluding line:

“I think of you as less of a person for using Second Life, and for no other reason.”

Now, to be fair, we were engaged in a sort of theatrical debate where the low blow is not only acceptable but expected, and it was all said in good fun and humor, but.. like with many kinds of humor, it was funny because it had the faint ring of truth.  Many people actually DO think less of me as a person for using Second Life, just as a decade ago they thought less of me as a person for playing EverQuest, just as a decade before that they thought I was not only insane but maybe dangerously insane for talking to strangers on the internet through those weird BBSs and MUDs full of D&D playing soon-to-be-axe-murderers.

Ahhhh how times have changed.  The internet, she vindicated me. And ahhh how times of changed, now half the adults in the US play WoW or some other game and it’s not so crazy anymore.   Alas, I’m still waiting for virtual worlds to vindicate me, but having gone through this combo-pity-scorn routine a few times, I’m not shaken by the current state of attitudes about virtual worlds, augmented reality (why would you want to look at DATA on top of the REAL WORLD on your PHONE, what’s wrong with you?!), or most of the other technologies I use that cause people to look at me askance and with wary eyes. (Twitter????  Whaaa???)

What DOES cause me great concern, however, is that these Ludic Luddites have no clue about what’s coming.

Barry Joseph delivers the SLEDcc 2008 keynote address.

I have to give all due props to colleague Barry Joseph (SL: GlobalKids Bixby) from Global Kids, an organization that does great work with youth in New York City, for introducing me to the concept of a “ludic life” at his keynote address at SLEDcc 2008.

His keynote talk, Living La Vida Ludic: Why Second Life Can’t Tip, is worth watching, and it’s one of those talks that sticks in your mind like a burr, at the time it didn’t quite penetrate (I was one of the conference organizers, so my brain was on 50,000 other things) but it stuck with me, and in the years since, the message he delivered only resonates more strongly with time.

Loosely translated, it’s about living a playful life.  It’s about combining the adventurousness, fun, openness, exploration, and all of the other joyful aspects of our game play into our “real life”.   The central thesis of his keynote was that virtual worlds and other platforms like Second Life can’t and won’t tip, until the broader culture of “living la vida ludic” tips.  One must come before the other, and back in 2008, he made it clear that the title of his talk could be taken in two ways – first, that virtual worlds like Second Life would NEVER tip – or that something was holding Second Life back from tipping into the mainstream.  He left the question about which interpretation was right for the audience to decide, but I thought then as I do now that the answer was the latter.  There are forces at work holding back virtual worlds, Second Life, AND the ability for us to live a ludic life as openly and as joyously as we wish we could.

Those who don’t understand not only feel scorn and pity, they feel fear.

Yes Virginia, NASA scientists say  the earthquake in Chile may actually have knocked the earth's axis.   It's not just your perception, the world has actually shifted.

Yes Virginia, NASA scientists say the earthquake in Chile may actually have knocked the earth's axis. It's not just your perception, the world has actually shifted.

As I said to a good friend of mine the other day, I’m struggling with this.. feeling I have, that all of the meta-narrative that stood at the very foundation of my understanding of the world – how the world works, where it’s going, where I fit into it, what I’m supposed to be doing – the meta-narrative from my childhood seems to not make much sense anymore.

The world seems off kilter.  It’s changing so quickly, I don’t know anyone who feels like they can keep up with the pace of change.  And so many major systems that underpin our society and culture appear to be, frankly, broken.  On the rocks.  Our government. Our banking and finance system. Our ecosystems.  Our healthcare system.  Our system of education.  None of these systems and institutions appear to be meeting the needs of our society as we experience it TODAY.  They all seem to be failing us.

Why?  It’s a no brainer, of course, and not an original thought at all.  It’s simple – the systems and institutions built to address the needs of a pre-digital-society don’t work to address the needs of a society that can get, transmit, and transform information as quickly as we can today.

And boy is that causing a lot of fear.

I feel it, don’t you?

Fortunately, the nation’s best teachers have some advice

(well, mostly the nation’s best male teachers, but that topic is for another post)

Chris Lehman at TEDxNYED explaining that changing education necessarily means changing the world. Photo credit WayneKLin.

The rousing chorus of last week’s TEDxNYED conference, where superstar educators from K-12 and higher ed like Larry Lessig, Henry Jenkins, George Siemens, Mike Wesch, Amy Bruckman, Dan Meyers, and others converged, is that the education system is not only broken – it’s getting worse. They blasted out  conversation starters about why and how and what needs to change in the US (educational system).

Perhaps most importantly, the subtext of the conference was that the issues teachers and educators are facing aren’t just confined to the “educational system” – as if it’s some discrete thing disconnected from the society and culture at large – and indeed, as George Siemens said, considering that society dumps every ill and issue at the doorstep of education to solve, it’s amazing the system functions as well as it does.  But take out the word “education” from these TEDxNYED Talks, and they are talking about what society at large needs to do to adapt to our changing circumstances.  (The videos aren’t up yet, but they’ll be available on YouTube soon.)

At least for the purposes of this post, I think the first important piece of advice came from Michael Wesch.  Which is simply this:

When a game changing technology enters a society or culture, you don’t have the option to opt-out.  It changes everything.

All those Ludic Luddites, who fear the technology, avoid the technology, feel that the current systems of getting things done would work just fine if only they could better regulate, standardize, and enforce them, are just plain wrong.  The world has shifted and there’s no turning back now.

What does this have to do with gaming?

Slide from Dan Meyers' talk at TEDxNYED - quests anyone? Photo credit kjarrett.

Well, I’m getting round to that.

As I watched these presentations and suggestions from teachers about ways to improve (society) education, I couldn’t help but see game elements – and the ludic life – infused throughout their talks.

When Dan Meyer talked about changing math curriculum to stop asking kids to give the answers, but instead help them figure out what the important questions are, it looked like creating good game quests to me.

When Lessig and Jenkins talked about mashup culture and how destructive it is to limit the creativity unleashed when you put tools in the hands of individuals, it reminded me an awful lot of how content gets created in virtual worlds like Second Life and OpenSim.

Or what about this quote from George Siemens’ presentation:

George Siemens at TEDxNYED. Image credit WayneKLin.

The solutions we need to address societies biggest problems – (global) warming, population growth, poverty – will be found through serendipity, through chaotic connections, through unexpected connections. Complex networks with mesh-like cross-disciplinary interactions provide the needed cognitive capacity to address these problems.

Sounds like the serendipitous, chaotic, and unexpected connections you form in WoW, or EVE, or any other game world, and “mesh-like cross-disciplinary interactions” is just fancy talk for good class balance.  Can’t have too many tanks and not enough healers or the whole thing comes crashing down.

Ok.  And one more, also from George:

The big battles of history around democracy, individual rights, fairness, and equality are now being fought in the digital world. Technology is philosophy. Technology is ideology. The choices programmers make in software, or legislators make in copyright, give boundaries to permissible connection.

This is, of course, the perennial battle between the game players and the game gods. Except wait, what?  The whole story of the birth of the US is all about us being our own game gods.  Hm.

In any case, the point here is, I think the Ludic Life is starting to tip.

We haven’t hit it just quite yet, but the elements of game play that Barry talked about in 2008 are starting to show up in the oddest of places.  The World Bank is funding an Alternative/Augmented Reality Game called EVOKE that has thousands of people, from school kids to adults, and from all over the world, playing a “game” that promises to teach us how to address major global issues and respond to global crisis.  Oh, and you might win scholarships, grants, or seed funding from the World Bank if you have a good idea.  Put that on your resume!

While Facebook and other social networks like Twitter have been the talk of the town, a recent NPR story cited research showing that more people play Farmville than use Twitter.  And it isn’t your kid playing, it’s your mom.  The average Farmville player is a 43 year old woman, and there are 80 million people playing.  80 MILLION.

Smartphone apps like Foursquare and GoWalla are turning our real lives into games, too.   I’m now the proud “Mayor” of Queen Mary’s Family Restaurant, where my mom and I go have breakfast on Sunday mornings.  I had to edge out some other fella who got there before me.

So, what’s bad about that?  Isn’t this a GOOD thing?

Well, yes and no.

Many thanks to my good friend and neighbor in Chilbo, Roland Legrand (SL: Olando7 Decosta), for the post on his Mixed Realities blog that brought the video below to my attention.   Check this out:


What happens when game devs (working for corporations?) become our primary social engineers instead of the nominally elected politicians?

Naturally,  I’m interested in the ways that game mechanics, game culture, game concepts, and game design filter out and influence RL.  And though I work in higher education, my undergrad degree is in Political Science and my not-so-secret passion is sort of the nexus where the emerging metaverse and game culture is changing “real life” society and culture, which of course includes education but goes beyond edu, too.

I know I’m not the first guild master to think that herding this bunch of cats is way more complicated than many RL jobs, or to realize the skills I learned adventuring with my guildies often had applicability to real life situations. I’d like to think I learned something about teamwork, diplomacy, compromise, and all sorts of organizational, strategic, tactical, and political skills through my journeys in worlds that only exist in bits and bytes.

Generally speaking, my career, my work, this blog, everything I’ve been doing for the last 10 years is about bringing this technology to people who don’t have it/know about it/use it yet.

But watching that video gives me the willies.

First, because I don’t think it is as far off in time as some think it might be.  Second, because I don’t think it’s that far fetched in terms of what could actually come to pass.  And third, because I’ve been a lowly peon player in the game god universes/metaverses for a really really long time.  On an old BBS I’m still using, I’m one of the “moderators”.  And you know what we say?  This ain’t a democracy.  Don’t like our rules, don’t play.

Furthermore, my post the other day about Stickybits demonstrates just how quickly the barriers to privacy are falling.  I posted that barcode just to figure out how the service worked, and before I knew it, I was collecting the home addresses of my blog readers without even realizing what I’d done.

Want me to know your home address?  Go ahead, download the app to your smartphone and scan that barcode.  I’ll get an email within a minute or so letting me know you scanned it, and where you were on the planet when you did, right down to the address and a lovely Google Map pinpointing your exact geo-location.

And I guess I should award you 5 points if you scan it.  Redeemable for..  I don’t know what yet.  An hour long private tour of Second Life, I guess.

And now I’ve broken the #1 rule of the 140 character metaverse, which is to make a really really long post and get to the end and not have any answers.

I don’t know exactly what train we’re on here, but the train seems to be moving ever faster and faster.  And I worry more and more about who’s driving the train, and I have a sort of sick feeling that about half of the passengers have no clue that they are even on THIS train – I think they think they’re on a different train entirely, and that they’re driving it.  But they aren’t.

I dunno.

As much as I love gaming, and I do love it, I’m not so sure I want Crest giving me points for brushing my teeth.  I think I’ll have to come back to this.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and if you have any thoughts, I’m all ears.