Love, the Internet of Things

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.


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.

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

Little Miss Monogamy

Along came the Internet… 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, 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.)

Get out of my mind

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.

It’s in my blood to leave

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.

Your ideas mean nothing

By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration and the swell of cities represents a sea change in the way we live and interact, and innovation will have to keep up. (I wrote more about it here.) It’s awesome to think about how we might harness the power of sustainability to make our cities cleaner, greener and more efficient, but there’s one problem. The gentrification of our cities is sending the wrong message to the creative class tasked with transforming them.

The message is simple: you don’t matter.

In The New York Times piece, “Where Rent Is Stabilized, Reopening After Storm Is No Certainty,” Elizabeth A. Harris chronicles the hardships of an artist and his wife fighting for their rent-stabilized TriBeCa loft following Hurricane Sandy. They’ve lived there for 45 years. Consider how the word loft has evolved in meaning since lower Manhattan first piqued our interest, then over time became more desirable, more inhabitable, more developed and as a result, out of reach. In the beginning, loft tenants built their spaces from nothing, in some cases installing kitchens and bathrooms where there weren’t any.

The building in question, a victim of structural damage before Sandy hit, was deemed uninhabitable by the city after 28 inches of water damaged it further, prompting the landlord to weigh the cost of repair against its worth—now the source of controversy with a lawsuit to boot. The story calls into question the viability of artistry as a means to make ends meet in the city, and it hints of a time, generations past, when options were more than stocks and creativity was a steel-toed wedge in the door. “But the building also carries signs of the city’s newest reality piled on the floor—paintings rolled up, smudged and molded, ruined by floodwater.”

Between the lines, a telling statement. Gentrification is the homogenization of consumer taste—taste that is seldom adhered to by truly independent artists. Gentrification, by definition, discourages individuality. Despite the jingles and tag lines and anthems that say, “be an individual—consume this product”, there is nothing individual about consuming something (soda, music, clothing, cars, computers) that millions of others consume.

Many artists find consumerism unpalatable for this reason; as creative individuals, they seek the spark of asymmetry—the uniqueness of exploration and discovery that consumerism lacks with its “seek and destroy” sensibility. The brands that break ground on every block—the impetus for said gentrification—are required to master the art of exploitation, on both consumer and labor ends. So prices rise to accommodate supply and demand—or rather, to drive it. Housing seems wise for keeping up.

True, the city’s artistic flair is no longer its sinew. In my relatively short time alive I have seen this city molt and change color several times. But it isn’t business that drives the artists out; it is us—our consumptive habits—our choices. We want so badly to feel unique that digging deeper into our pockets means reaching higher, over the masses, to the trinkets no one else can afford. In lieu of fame (and often as a result of it) displaying our wealth becomes a ticket to individuality, when in fact we are stomping on lives in a race to the top, to the edge of loneliness.

Independent artists then become undervalued, disrespected, forgotten—or worse, seen as enemy combatants, a threat to the status quo, to consumerism itself. In a world where homogeneity is king, individuality seems an innocent bystander to its own demise; but in the end it’s our vicious engagement to be better, stronger, more beautiful and successful than “the other” that may in fact be the cause.

Amidst the retail chains and rising prices, science is a way out—a connection back to the environment, and to our senses—through a conceptual framework of “networks” and “ecosystems”. Life and society are filled with a slew of unique elements that contribute to systems in their own way. It’s essential for urban innovators to mix and match these elements in ways that speak to how we live and interact with one another, recognizing who does what exceptionally well. This is where corporate messaging can help.

Jim Collins, author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, puts it like this: “A hedgehog concept is not a goal to be the best, it is an understanding of what you can be best at.”  In this way, artists make up an integral part of the future city vision, and so we shouldn’t alienate them.

We’ll have to accept the fact that beautifying and making our cities more safe and resilient isn’t about catering to certain groups of people, but rather about being flexible, finding what works, and knowing how each industry and occupation contributes to the whole. This paradigm values coexistence, collaboration, and a greater sense of community, and it makes our future a hell of a lot brighter. I can’t think of a better way to achieve balance than by combining scientific and artistic sensibilities. (A win-win!)

Individuality, creativity, and inquisitiveness are all markers for intelligence and innovation; any collaborative system based on innovation must take all of them into account. Science is taking charge. Now what we need is for science and art to make a home together.

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