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Joan Rivers said it best when she joked about being shown pics of other people’s ugly kids. Selfies, well, they might be about narcissism but there’s a lot of loneliness out there, and studies show that oversharing via social networks makes lonely people feel more connected. The more selfies, the lonelier the person. Narcissism seems a typical sign of insecurity anyway. We all get a good selfie in now and then, but there’s a line between normative behavior and mental aberration. It’s just creepy to see a person, pretty or not, post so many selfies, day after day after day. God I hope they don’t post my selfies when they find my phone.

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First, a big thanks to my new followers! If you’re in the North I hope your summer was a blast. If you’re in the South, I’m jealous. (I love the seasons but hate saying goodbye to summer.) It makes me feel good to connect with people out there writing, creating, exploring—questioning their world, looking for answers in new ways.

I’m enrolled in The Age of Sustainable Development with Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs, which started last week. The course looks at the interdisciplinary field of sustainable development, which draws on developments in social, policy and physical sciences.

Sustainable development is the most urgent challenge facing humanity. The fundamental question is how the world economy can continue to develop in a way that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The course offers a broad overview of the key challenges and potential solutions to achieve sustainable development in the 21st century (syllabus).

The course excites me for two reasons. First, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are revolutionizing higher education, and I enjoy seeing this new mode of learning take shape. If you’re familiar with some of my work you’ll know that remote learning and collaboration are big interests of mine, so I’ll probably write more about MOOCs as I get deeper into this new experience.

(This aggregated MOOC list gives an idea of what’s on offer across the interwebs, including the course I’m taking.)

So far I’ve watched an hour’s worth of lecture, spread out over five manageable chunks, which follows the conventions of a textbook—chapters, subheadings, intermittent quizzes that promote engagement. The videos are nicely edited. If you’re into documentaries like I am, you’ll love this format. I downloaded the main texts and started the reading assignments, which are manageable. The first Google Hangout on 9/11 had thousands of participants from all over the world. During the live session, Sachs gave a course primer and took questions. My first question followed a blog I drafted last week on data and cities:

By 2050 2/3 of the global population will live in cities. Are ‘data ethics’ an important part of ensuring resilience + sustainability for our cities long term, + what is the global #susdev community doing right now to advance the ‘ethical data’ agenda?

The chat window is character limited, which encourages brevity (hence the + signs). Sachs didn’t get to my question this session but we’ll see about next time! This is Coursera’s second offering of The Age of Sustainable Development. It’s about 5-10 hours of work per week. Syllabus info here. Students are using the #susdev hashtag to connect on Twitter. My blog on data and cities will be out soon.

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When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a communications consultant, they ask me to be more specific, and understandably so. I help brands I care about communicate the messages they care about, which can be hard to conceptualize.

I craft messages for science, tech, global philanthropy and civil society, which all surprisingly share a great deal in common. The unifying theme, and what keeps me going, is the “functional ecosystem” principle—that all parts, large and small, make vital contributions to the whole, and work together to preserve order and maintain balance.

Sometimes a force comes along that throws it all off. Like the Internet.

The last 15 years of hyperconnectivity have uprooted major industries—from music, newspapers and publishing, to (more recently) education and manufacturing. Jeremy Rifkin penned this op-ed that begins a dialogue on how a global sharing economy might work. Turns out in the future we’ll have things but share a lot more. How civilized.

This might seem like old news, but this sharing economy will change—is changing—everything about the way we produce and consume, and how we make ends meet; and to Rifkin, civil society is crucial to the sharing economy because the future of supply and demand is based on access, not ownership. The 1% must be furious.

What makes the social commons more relevant today is that we are constructing an Internet of Things infrastructure that optimizes collaboration, universal access and inclusion, all of which are critical to the creation of social capital and the ushering in of a sharing economy. The Internet of Things is a game-changing platform that enables an emerging collaborative commons to flourish alongside the capitalist market.

Global philanthropy is an essential resource for civil society, in that it provides a framework for creating best practices and mobilizing efforts across vast and diverse networks, where connections are normally sparse; and it facilitates cross-sector partnerships where synergies can form, bringing together small and large actors to author innovative solutions together.

The science that comes to mind here—something I think can help philanthropy reach its potential—is a basic concept that will drive collaboration and this new economy Rifkin is talking about: emergence.

For consumer technology, or “pop tech”, emergence refers to a product or method, a “game-changer”, that has serious disruptive potential for the industry. In biology emergence is the process by which an intelligence or organism becomes more complex with time. This follows “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, which also applies to protocell behavior, AI and other phenomena.

For global philanthropy, emergence is applied in several ways, one of which describes rising economies—the emerging BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China (or “BRICS” when including South Africa), which mirrors the “disruptive” behavior of emerging technologies. Another has to do with how strategic philanthropy can respond to rapidly changing realities. The third application, and this is where it gets interesting, has to do with intelligence. This is happening now in the sector—the converging of philanthropic networks to achieve a new level of intelligence, become more integrated and informed, more fluid, and unified in vision.

An “increasingly interdependent, collaborative, global commons”, as Rifkin puts it, can certainly benefit from future lessons learned by these networks. Global actors are collaborating in new ways, forging partnerships to better inform their work to strengthen civil society, making cities more resilient and communities more connected and self sufficient. The perfect breeding ground for intelligence.

In terms of global development and peace-building there is huge potential here. But as Heather Grady (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) pointed out last week, matching strategies and combining resources won’t come easy, and first we’ll need to adjust our deep-set definition of reciprocity. Still, organizations coming together from all parts of the world, offering up their unique insights, is what we need to lay the groundwork for a new era for emergent philanthropy.

Thankfully, the physics of connectivity will, if we let it, do most of the heavy lifting. Once again, tech at work. Thank you in advance, Internet of Things. Turns out you’ll be shaking things up for the better.

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Science imagery is powerful and it’s gaining in popularity with designers and musicians. Organic movement and symmetry drive the natural world (think emergent flocking behavior patterns of birds, or snowflakes, or the many types of tears).

I recently wrote about how science and art should make a home together. The video for Max Cooper’s “Micron”, animated by Dmitry Zakharov, is a great example. The delicate, deliberate fractal movement of plastic bodies set to electronic riffs and sustained bass—like the blood that flows inside of us, like oil inside the Earth—movement, intelligence, life. Zakharov:

Life comes into being, blooms and vanishes. And where all life is built of smaller parts that form a living whole, in this video I created fractals of human body parts that are born, bloom to form a larger, more coherent whole, then die. They’re abstracted hands, ears, and faces similar to Max’s earlier ‘positive mutation’ visuals – tying a minimalist look in with abstracted shapes. Max often works with ideas around the aesthetics of science, and I wanted to connect the scientific idea of fractals to the experience of life itself.

Max Cooper’s “Micron”, video by Dmitry Zakharov.

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Has social media sparked a resurgence of ‘free love’ in the West? Don’t judge too fast; this isn’t about whoring around (not that there’s anything wrong with it, but that’s what Tinder and Grindr are for). Instead imagine Match.com, Plenty of Fish or (dare I say) Christian Mingle—for triads. I mean, look around. Having a serious long-term relationship with multiple lovers isn’t so taboo after all.

For this piece from The Atlantic, Olga Khazan sat with a number of triads to figure out what spreading the love beyond ‘just the one’ is all about. Spoiler: they all make a pretty good case for it. Researchers put the number of polyamorous relationships in the U.S. at anywhere between half a million and 5 percent of all adults (about 12 million people). A sizable subset, although knowledge is limited. But:

The nascent research that does exist suggests these modern polyamorous relationships can be just as functional—and sometimes even more so—than traditional monogamous pairings.

Which got me thinking about how the medium might affect the development of intimacy amongst two or more people (or between one person and two or more people) over a given period of time, and how prolonged remote intimacy might affect the basic tenets of romance, like views on trust and exclusivity. New York already has its first polyamory-only building. Who knows, we might even see a “triad” box in the next census. (Pens ready.)

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Now with one billion users worldwide, Facebook is in a prime position to play God with those who choose to use the service every day. In January 2012 Facebook manipulated the emotions of more than half a million people in the name of ‘research’.

For the ‘emotional manipulation’ Facebook study, half of the subjects’ feeds consisted of ‘negative’ posts, while the other half was fed ’positive’ posts. Facebook then monitored them to see if their life outlook had changed based on the curated info. Whether or not you feel this undermines the already waning integrity of the social network, it’s clear now more than ever that Facebookers are little more than products—churning out heaps of data on the daily that are sold and used to calculate how best to manipulate the soul on the other end of the screen.

Adam Kramer, the FB data scientist who executed the study in 2012, says the idea was to see if an onslaught of negative information would cause people to leave or avoid the site.

Kashmir Hill (Forbes) puts ‘research’ in quotes like I do, suggesting that Facebook somehow skirted the standard ‘human subject’ rule used in science experiments. The social network’s data policy took advantage of a conveniently trusting constituency, all to run psychological tests, cloaked in consent forms. A bit disconcerting to consider how in a worst-case scenario the clinically depressed might fare, let alone the idea of Facebook engineers telling us what info is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ within our chosen social sphere. Kramer:

The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out. At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.

Facebook users are products, and for Facebook to profit it needs a full shelf. Maybe our social web overlords will one day learn from this virtual Gulag and see that, in the end, Facebook was the reason we all left Facebook.

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We love our planet but we’re not meant to stay. Which is why I’m thinking about messages that prepare us to leave. Our jobs, relationships, toxic family members, our homes, the planet.

“It’s in my blood to leave. I was born to leave. And I will never stop leaving, to make sure that no matter what I leave behind I will never be left with regrets.” Andy Bothwell, musician

Vimeo teamed up with Charles Schwab and asked Vimeo creators to explore how leaving can lead to positive change. Vimeo calls the results “touching, inspiring, and funny—it’s entertainment that won’t soon leave your memory”. Watch this “meditation on leaving, told through the experiences of Astronautalis, a touring musician who has been on the road playing 200+ shows a year for the last decade”, starring Andy Bothwell and directed by Isaac Gale, and think for a minute about what leaving means to you.

Watch Vimeo’s series of films about positive change, “Why I Left”, and follow on Twitter with #OwnYourTomorrow.

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