Disincentives and Disruptive Technology

I’ve been in academia for over two decades, and it’s become increasingly obvious that the structure of the workplace and the rewards structure can act as genuine disincentives to producing disruptive technology.

Particularly in the global health area in which I’m increasingly working — sometimes we can’t pursue solutions that have the potential to really make a change because they’re not “research” in the sense of something a grad student can use to get a PhD or something that is likely to be grant fundable. Sometimes innovations happen by repurposing or remixing old technologies — but those kind of game-changers violate the academic definitions of research.

One one level it’s an argument for academic-industry partnerships. But when you’re talking low-cost solutions, the industrial incentive structure can act as a similar obstacle for innovation. After all, no one wants to undercut their own market.

My book on hackers and makers as sources of innovation is starting to take a closer look at this dynamic, comparing those communities to established institutional structures like universities and large corporations, and contrasting the reward structures to better understand how to cultivate genuinely disruptive solutions.

—more soon


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Accidental lessons

This quarter I taught a graduate class on computer-mediated communication/social computing/virtual environments. It was an evening class, four hours a night once a week.

By the last class everyone was pretty tired. But as we tried to wrap up and not run past our allotted time, I asked the students (as I almost always do, both after individual class sessions and at the end of a term): “What did you learn?”

So this time I asked the question. And one of the students offered a caveat: “In 140 characters or less!”

Yes, Twitter was one of our topics during the term.

Here are some of the lessons my students apparently learned (with attribution when granted):

“Fight the future,” lesson learned by Allen Bathurst. Personally, I think this is just from taking a class with me, and it’s not actually related to the class material.

“Social networking is nothing new.” We spent a lot of time this quarter talking about history. And, in fact, I spent the first class session hauling in some of the early years of my Wired magazine collection to get a sense of how much, and how little, things have changed in 15+ years.

“I feel like we’re all angsty teenagers saying ‘no one understands my problems’ but in reality lots of academic articles have been written about all my problems already.” Nadine Tabing. Is it better or worse to know there is an army of academics researching your anxieties and frustrations with technology?

“Bad solutions to invented problems. How can we do it better?” Allen Bathurst (again). What more can I say?


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This Wednesday I’m giving a talk at Seattle Ignite about those questions of innovation and expertise that I talked about in my last post. I’ve been slowly building momentum for this project — both with the interview-based book, but also the under-the-radar project on my university campus that has been infecting students with a hacker/maker mentality.

After two years in the shadows, we’re slowly coming out and admitting to the larger community what we’ve been up to — building and using 3d printers, making wearable technology, creating how-to videos for the n00biest of n00bs.

I’ve given two smaller talks this fall in semi-public forums, but I’m thinking of this week as Hackademia’s debut. It’s going to be awesome.

The expertise-innovation conflict is something that deserves some attention. I’m not claiming that all invention comes from non-experts; however, there’s something to be said for the creativity of the clueless.

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Innovation and expertise

I spent my summer doing a bunch of things, but the most interesting was research for a book about the conflict between expertise and innovation.

At Toorcon Seattle I gave a brief talk about the book, and I asked the gathered hackers for ideas about projects to cover, people to talk to, places to visit. I also made a stop at Defcon, and a trip to MakerFaire NYC, and I’ve had some fantastic conversations that have reinforced for me the importance of what I’m calling a ‘habit of mind’ shared by the hacking and making communities.

I’ve spent nearly two decades in the world of academia, where expertise is carefully cultivated, assiduously evaluated, and, of course, rewarded. But there are all kinds of innovation happening in other arenas, and over the past five years that’s where my intellectual curiosity increasingly lays.

And that curiosity is beginning to take me in some unexpected directions.

But right now I have a ferry to catch. More later.

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It begins again

I am now prepared, in the abstract, for the start of a school year to resemble the feeling of being hit by a freight train. It still leaves me winded, though. And sometimes a little black and blue.
I am especially excited about this year. I’m wrapping up a bunch of old projects, and concentrating on innovation, expertise, hacking, and making. I’m working with terrific students, and I am building things with brilliant independent tinkerers and researchers, and I can’t wait to see how the next few months unfold.

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My bin Laden story

I have a framed picture in my house with several scraps of paper taped to a brochure from Turkmenistan. People wonder what it is, and I tell them this story.

In late 2000 (the date is key), I was living in Uzbekistan, teaching at a local university on a Fulbright, and beginning a research project on information technology adoption that would last for the next ten years. I wanted to visit some of the neighboring countries, so I emailed the US embassies in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to see if they would host a visiting speaker for any events.

I ended up in Turkmenistan in December 2000, delivering a dizzying array of speeches and workshops over a brief few days. A workshop for students interested in studying abroad to find information online, a workshop for journalists on using Internet resources, a talk to the local Chamber of Commerce, etc. The culminating event was a talk to the computer science students at the local university on the topic of the Internet. At the time there were maybe two or three public places to gain internet access in the capital of Ashgabat. The one independent ISP had been shut down by the government (that’s another story), so the national ISP was the only legal connectivity option and it was notoriously slow and snooped.

In true Soviet fashion, a bunch of non computer science students were shuffled into the lecture hall to make sure the auditorium was full. I gave a talk about the Internet, searching strategies using boolean terms, places to get a free email account, basic html tags, how to make a website on Geocities (and why not to use the blink tag), etc.

At the end of the talk, we had an extended question and answer session for the students. They wrote down questions in Russian, Turkmen or English, and the slips of paper were passed forward. They asked things like “What is your email address?” or “Where can I make a website?” (Other than Geocities, I guess). And then there was the slip of paper written in pretty good but imperfect English that had two questions.

1. How can I protect myself from viruses on the Internet?

2. Are you afraid of bin Laden?

December 2000. I gave some suggestions for #1. And for #2, I read the question back and said, “no.”

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Recreating Email

In my previous post, I wrote a little bit about how technology encodes values. So now I want to rant about the values encoded in email. Email values the always available. It values immediacy of online-ness. It values bulk addressing and archiving. And I blame it for being the major reason everyone runs around these days saying how busy they are.

But of course email isn’t an ‘it.’ It’s a technological system, built by people, and it can be changed! It can! It can have different kinds of functionality. Someone at some point decided email should be able to be formatted like word processors — so now we have bold, italics, etc. So let’s be creative about what’s possible with email — and what we could make impossible if we wanted.

So here’s my proposal: Some email programs let you write an email and then mark it for later delivery. So you can work away in the middle of the night, but tell your server not to send the message just yet. Maybe you want to think it over, maybe you don’t want people to know you were working at 3 am, maybe you don’t want to set precedent for workplace email being sent over the weekend. But wait!! you say. You mean…the workplace could have different expectations?

Heck yes!!!  I say.

But it can’t be a movement of individuals. It needs institutional buy-in.

Here’s how it works: Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.

So email only gets delivered during work hours. But let’s say I have a couple close colleagues with whom I collaborate, and I want to be able to reach them at any time. In order to do that, I have to ask their permission, a kind of friend request. And they have to agree. It’s a two-way handshake, like a pgp key. And it expires quarterly. So just because you give me access to you 24/7, doesn’t mean that will last forever. Every quarter I have to specifically reinvite you and you have to agree. Which means my 24/7 list won’t spiral out of control unless I want it to. If we’re working on a project together and need 24/7 access, when the project is over, I don’t reinvite. Or you don’t accept the invitation. Two-way handshake that expires. Key.

At first there would no doubt be piles of email in everyone’s account at the start of each day. But gradually that will decrease. Just think — all the email that gets generated because of back and forths outside of work hours will gradually ease. And since you know you can only reach people during the workday, people might actually start walking over to someone else’s office/desk. Or picking up the phone. Remember the phone? I loved the phone. So quick and easy to resolve a tricky question over the phone, a little back and forth dialog, you can quickly clarify misunderstandings. Ahh….the phone.

It’s not like we all stay up all night leaving each other voicemails. And yet, we do this without abandon with email. It’s sweet (sort of) that my colleagues are thinking about me at 1 am, but really…it can wait till tomorrow.

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