All posts for category: Guest Editor

Q&A with Ahmed Siddiqui (Startup Weekend)

My name is Tina Santiago, and i’m a hack-a-thon-a-holic.  It’s been 6 weeks since my last hackathon.

Recently, I met up with Ahmed Siddiqui, StartUp Weekend Bay Area Leader by day, kids app developer by night and overall awesome human being all the time.  Here’s a brief Q&A:

Q: What is Startup Weekend?

A: Startup Weekend Bay Area, is an intense 54-hour event, which focuses on building a web or mobile application that could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The weekend brings together developers, designers and entrepreneurs to build applications and develop a commercial case around them. With access to Silicon Valley’s best and brightest innovators, SWBAY offers a unique opportunity to connect and learn from leaders in the tech industry and provides an experiential education process for event participants.

Q: Why do you think the hackathon model for generating new ideas is effective?

A: Hackathons are really interesting because they encourage action.  I think a hackathon is the best type of un-conference that you can have because there is less talk, more action.  A traditional Hackathon starts off with an existing product and then challenges developers to come up with unique uses for that product.  I think it is a fantastic model for really observing what types of things come out of it, but rarely are these products commercially viable because there is too much focus on the hack, and not enough time spent on customer development or the business model.

Q: Why are hackathons a valuable sponsorship opportunity for companies?

A: In the Bay Area, we work closely with our partners such as AT&T, Microsoft, Kno, Grockit, TechShop, Autodesk, and Qualcomm, to put together unique experiences.  Every event has its own flavor, and we work closely with our partners to get the most value for them and our attendees.  A fantastic example is Microsoft, our partner for Mega Startup Weekend.  In this event we invite 300 participants to work in three different tracks.  This year, we chose Mobile, Gaming, and Robotics as our three tracks.  This event was unique because we invited the top engineers from Microsoft to mentor and participate.  We ended up having some businesses built on Microsoft Kinect, Microsoft Windows 8, and on the Microsoft EDDIE Robot.  This was an amazing event that gave our attendees access to bleeding edge technology and mentorship, and it gave Microsoft great exposure to our community of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Q: How does Start Up Weekend continue to support the “winners” after the event?

A: We support our winners and any teams moving forward by providing them extended mentorship opportunities and introductions to potential customers and investors.  More recently, we have been having office hours for teams to come into our San Francisco office and work with us.  With almost 1 event a month, we have built a substantial network of entrepreneurs, developers, designers, mentors, and investors that all help each other.  Startup Weekend isn’t just a weekend event, it is a network and community.

Q: Any other thoughts?

A: I think this movement is wonderful, and proves that the costs of building businesses is going down, and these weekend long events are perfect for testing ideas.  Granted, it is too difficult to build an end-to-end business over a weekend with complete strangers, but I do feel that this is the best possible networking that you can do, especially in a learning environment that Startup Weekend provides.  It is okay to fail, just fail fast!


Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve given up four of my precious weekends to participate in a number of hackathons: Angel Hack at Adobe, Start Up Weekend at the AT&T Foundry, City 2.0 at California College of Arts, and Creative Currency at The Hub SF.

I have only positive things to say about my hackathon experience.  I’ve met some of the most brilliant and creative people in the Bay Area who who share an optimistic, can-do, will-do attitude.  To echo Ahmed, in my experience, hackathons give you a unique opportunity to fail fast, another way to describe accelerated learning. I’ve never learned so much about technology, design and business strategy in such a compressed amount of time. It’s like bootcamp for the brain.

After some reflection, here are a few lessons I took away about from the challenge of working in a boiler room with a group of strangers:

1. Spend time defining the problem.

Framing the problem you’re trying to solve is half the battle. Because each team member has a unique point of view, they may be speaking a different language to interpret the problem at hand.  On top of that, the number of data sets and APIs that are made available can be overwhelming, messy , complex.

This is where the design process becomes so crucial in framing the problem:  unpacking the business goals, the technological constraints and user needs can help to simplify and communicate the complexity.

2. Frame your conversations. 

Often, when friction ensues between team members, it’s because people are speaking in different contexts. It can be very frustrating when one person is generating ideas, while another person is shooting them down like a clay plate. These kinds of conversations can often get heated because of competing agendas, points of view and passions in the room. This is why it’s important to recognize the difference among opinions, ideas and data. In my experience, making collaborative decisions is always best when you can point to data to support the decisions being made.

Establishing the goal of the conversation can really help. For example, if you simply frame your conversations as a ‘brainstorm to generate ideas,’ this can really help to build creative momentum within the group. This is what is called building a divergent context. Of course, at some point, decisions need to be made. Again, it’s important to define this context and frame the conversation as a “convergent” one and point to criteria and data as much as possible to make decisions.

3. Find the right team.

Gathering a multidisciplinary team is key. The best teams are the ones that have a complementary set of skills. Putting a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur in a cooker can have incredible results.

Needless to say, this can also be very challenging since everyone has an opinion and their own point of view. This is where the art of listening and the virtue of patience comes into play. I’ve been surprised and humbled by the amount of insight emerges when you take the time to listen and try to learn a different point of view.

4. Be prepared to be unprepared.

No matter how much research you do before the event, you’ll never be prepared. That’s because you don’t know what will emerge. The hackathon experience invites serendipity and it’s best to be open to spontaneity and welcome new ideas.

5. Work backwards.

No matter how many sticky notes and white board scribbles you generate, it really means nothing until you have a story you can weave through. Before starting anything, it’s important to imagine the form of your story and output and develop a roadmap on how to get there. This is crucial for a weekend long event when time is of the essence.

I’m proud to say that my partner in crime, Patrick Keenan and I came out winners in two out of the for four. [Insert shameless plug] Thanks the GAFFTA Creative Currency hackathon, we’re continuing on with our project called SQFT, an online platform for pop up shops to find short term leases.

Special thanks to Startup Weekend and all the other amazing hackathon organizers for their amazing work in creating opportunity for new ideas.


From Pulp to Silicon






The ancient Greeks wrote textbooks as an instructional tool for teachers.  Since then, the book has been burned, praised, protected, worshiped, and even feared. For hundreds of years, the book represented the voice of “the expert”, implying that knowledge should transfered from one authoritative source to the layman.  The print publishers of today, such as Pearsons or Oxford Press, continue to hold this editorial and distribution control over how educational tools are written and disseminated.

[Enter the Internet]

This model is old school.  Paper textbooks are a vestige of a lingering industrial age.

In the same breath, I can download a lecture from iTunes U, I can download a book onto my Kindle at a click of a button, I can read the latest New York Times article on my iphone on my way to work. Amazon, Google and Apple have disrupted the publication industry by creating a more accessible network of electronic books. Gone are the days of the educated elite.

Are eBooks any different from Paper books?

There’s been huge buzz about the advent of e-authorship platforms, such as iBooks Author, Push Pop Press and Inklingwith claims that these platforms will ‘transform’ education. However, unless ebook publishers truly take advantage of their digital platforms, interactive books will be no different from those smelly dog-eared textbooks we once knew.  Most of the textbooks that have been published so far, such as Al Gore’s Our Choice  and E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth  are certainly superior in content and design.  However, I hate to say it, but they are sprinkled with gimmicky interactions.

Cool, there are zoomable maps,  moving DNA molecules. a short video of a farmer. Is that really changing the way I learn and engage with this content?

These books are beautiful in their own right.  But how can we address the fact that this is just a microprocessor pretending to be a set of pages?  How can we create more meaningful learning experiences?

It is my belief that electronic textbooks will be truly disruptive when we start to understand how interactive platforms enable experiential learning.

Cognitive Scientists claim that we only retain

10% from reading
20% from seeing
30% from hearing 
50% from seeing and hearing
80% from doing
90% from teaching

These need not be exclusive, at least not anymore. The truly transformative interactive experiences will integrate these various forms of learning.

Four Principles on How to Make an Awesome eBook:

1. Don’t add gimmicky interactions for the sake of gimmicky interactions
Make sure your interactions are engaging and meaningful.  Interaction can be fun and engaging and that’s a great hook. But go beyond that. Think about how interaction will enhance the learning experience of your user.  Perhaps it’s an interactive case study, a thought experiment or a math problem. Whatever it is, design your interaction with a purpose.

2. Use Game Mechanics.
Provide instant feedback, create levels of expertise and make it fun!  Codecademy does any amazing job of this. They teach non-coders how to code in an easy, straight forward and effective way by rewarding their users with leveling up and badges.

3. Make learning social.
Encourage collaboration and conversation, both online and offline.   Your user will retain more information if they talk and ‘teach’ others.  Creating a forum for discussion, inquiry and exploration can help to socializing learning between and among peers.

4. Connect to the internet.
Link up and link often.  The web is gold mine of a diversity of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  Encourage your users to think critically about the information you’re presenting them by linking them to the network of perspectives.

With that, go forth and design a game-changing book!


Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and User Experience Designer.  In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Geneva.  She is currently working as a UX Designer for Hot Studio in San Francisco.


For the Love of the Code

I first met Ben at Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission a couple of months ago.  Our paths crossed through SkillShare — I was meant to coach Ben through his presentation for Toronto’s upcoming FITC event on how Flash Developers can transition over to C++.

I’m pretty sure I learned more from him than he did from me.

Ben McChesney is 23 years old. Like most people in the Bay Area, he worked a day job to pay the bills, but hacked the night away to pursue his true passion: building shiny and fun interactive installations.  With the introduction of the Microsoft Kinect sensor, his focus has shifted from a flash web developer towards creating physical experiences, using Open Frameworks. After only 18 months on the market, the Kinect hack has spread like wild fire, attracting artists and programmers alike, to create new interactive experiences.

Kinect for Film Storytelling by James George, explores the notion of “re-photography”, in which otherwise frozen moments in time may be visualized from new points of view.

Unnamed Sculpture is a piece that used a Kinect to record body movements and was then later put through a 3D softeware program.

SemanticMap, The Next Step In Public Information and Navigation On The Go is is a Digital signage prototype featuring proximity detection, face recognition and gesture interaction technologies developed in Microsoft Research Asia.

Puppet Parade is an interactive installation by Emily Gobeille and Theo Watson of Design I/O that allows children to use their arms to puppeteer larger than life creatures projected on the wall in front of them.

And of course, CFC Media Lab’s own Heart of Stars

A playspace where users become 3d avatars made of points of light. Created as an exploratory installation, this prototype seeds future iterations as a commercial game or practical tool.

And the list goes on.

For artists like Ben, there is no shortage of inspiring work that comes out of the Open Frameworks community.

“After attending a few meet ups, posting a few pieces of my work on my blog and putting together a kinect reel, I ended up at a start up called Helios Interactive. What’s been really exciting is to see my passion projects turn into my actual job…and to be able to push and set boundaries of where…this has real world applications”

Helios Interactive focuses on larger scale commercial trade shows and events.  Examples of their work include Bally’s Total Fitness and Cannes International Film Festival.

Ben gives credit to the Open Frameworks community for helping him find his dream job.

 “Open Framworks is based on the open source movement, which is built on a culture of gifting ideas…the community is made up of about 300 or so ‘hard core’ geniuses that spend hours of their brain power on developing code… and giving it away for free.”

If I were to draw a venn diagram of Ben, it would like like this:

What fascinates me about Ben is that he comfortably straddles two worlds: the not-for-profit-keep-it-real world of Open Frameworks community and the for-profit-real-world of commerce.  What’s even more fascinating is the approach that Microsoft has taken in supporting and incubating hacker efforts.  According to  NPR, Microsoft says the more hacking, the better.

The big guys are starting to take notice of the Bens in the world. They are starting to recognize a new generation coming into the work force. One that embraces openness and creativity, while being grounded in ‘real-world’ application. The Kinect is not only a tool to build shiny and fun interactive installations, a it’s a metaphor for what’s yet to come.

If you have tickets, check out Ben’s talk at FITC on Monday April 23 @10:00am. If you don’t have a ticket yet, get one. And make sure to follow him at @bendesigning


Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and UX Designer.  In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Geneva.  She is currently working as a UX Designer for Hot Studio in San Francisco.

#18DaysInEgypt — A Crowd Sourced Documentary

18DaysInEgypt is a revolutionary platform that captures moments in time and weaves them into a fabric of stories.

I often have to remind myself how mind blowing it is to have Gigabites of information available to me at the click of a button, or the touch of a screen. I can look up the weather in Papa New Guinea. I can navigate the town that my Mom grew up in. I can order a custom made umbrella from a factory in China. But how do we make sense of this information and build meaning upon it? Your favorite 140 characters are only compelling because of a deeper, human context.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jigar Mehta, a UC Berkeley J-School grad and one of the master minds behind #18DaysInEgypt.  Over a year ago, Mehta and his team immersed themselves in the events that took place during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. They decided they were going to make a documentary film. Of course, they had no idea they were actually embarking on building one of the world’s first crowd sourced documentary platforms.

On the February 10, 2011, the 17th day of the revolution, there were rumors suggesting that Mubarak would step down. Tahir Square was filled with hope, optimism, and hundreds of thousands of mobile phones.  Armed with their hand held devices, the Egyptian people were eager to witness and capture this historical moment.

Although Mubarak didn’t resign that day, Jigar Mehta saw the potential to tell a story like its never been told before.

Originally, we were gonna make a more traditional, linear documentary film,” says Jigar, “but we started to ask questions like, how would we let people know we wanted to make a film? How are we gonna cut the trailer? And more importantly, how do we get people to contribute?”

These questions inspired creativity in the team. They would have to discover a way to tell a collective story by coalescing multiple perspectives into compelling narratives.

The technology was certainly in their favor. Jigar explains,

The mobile phone is a way to capture the most personalized experiences.  It’s dynamic and changes based on where you are. Documentary film makers should look at this trend as an opportunity” launched only a few weeks ago. Unlike the arab spring, this project has been premeditated and offers a reflective lens on the ground breaking events that happens in Egypt. It’s an online platform that allows users to build narratives from the tweets, photos and videos that were tagged #18daysinegypt. Although most of the ‘streams’ were captured during the 18 days, more and more content is coming from rebuilding projects of today.  This innovative platform is not just a tool for telling stories that happened in January 2011.  It’s a tool for telling stories of hopes and dreams for the future of Egypt.

*Images borrowed from Politico.comCodenametech


Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and UX Designer.  In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA from the University of Geneva.  She is currently living and working in San Francisco, California.

‘Do No Evil’ Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

‘Be Excellent’ is more like it.  Or so says the loose collective of San Francisco-based hackers who run Noisebridge – a co-working space like no other.

Noisebridge is an art & technology membership organisation run on a pay-what-you-can-but-if-you-can’t-pay-that’s-okay-too business model. Anyone who buzzes in is allowed in. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The unassuming basement, located in the Mission District in San Francisco has a solder station, 3D printer and lazer engraver. There’s plenty of space to build, prototype, or hack whatever your heart desires. With free flowing WiFi, shared desk space and a full functioning kitchen, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave.

At Noisebridge, all decisions are made through consensus, based on the principles of ‘do-ocracy’.  Yup, it’s exactly what you think it is:  If you want something done, do it.  Let me paint you a picture of how this translates. I interviewed a number of “members” of this space, whom I will keep anonymous for the sake of their reputation – a currency equivalent to the Kuwaiti Dinar.

Because Noisebridge is a space for everyone, almost everyone drops by. The most recent incident worth gossiping about, is that there have been a number of homeless people dropping in and have started using the space to sleep, eat and store food.  Some members complained of security issues.  Others complained about a disturbance of the creative hacker energy of the space. Other members argue that these people should be welcome to stay on the basis that there’s a hacker in all of us.

One member had his own opinion. He practiced the principle of do-ocracy and ripped off the buzzer from the front door.   This, of course, sparked a saga of a discussion on their online wiki.  Philosophical arguments and bantering currently fill the forum on who should be allowed in and howThe most viable solution so far is to hack up a mobile app which can unlock the door using a daily pin code. Not a bad solution for a collective, especially because they can likely develop it overnight.

Why is this relevant to New Media? 

Noisebridge is a living example of a culture primed for innovation.

It takes a certain level of risk tolerance to be able to deal with the unknown.  Working on things that have never been done before is messy.  Working with people that you’ve never worked with before is messy. Very messy. Building a culture of radical creativity and innovation requires a certain level of confidence and trust in the community that builds it.  The limit at which we can push the boundaries of technology and creativity is bound by the constraints that we place on ourselves: the way we organise our ideas, how we make decisions, how we execute.  A community of innovators will only thrive when we start to become aware of these shared assumptions and how they shape our creative spaces.

‘Being excellent’ as a guiding principle seems to be a pretty good start.  Kudos to Noisebridge for taking the leap.

Tina Santiago is a researcher, interactive producer and UX Designer.   In the last 9 years, she’s worked in Toronto, Geneva, and London in interactive media, design and sustainable business.  She hold a BSc in Cognitive Psychology from McMaster University and an MBA in International Organizations from the University of Geneva.  She is currently living in San Francisco, California.  @tinasantiago | 


Introducing Our New Guest Editor: Christina (Tina) Santiago

Spring is in the air and we have a few changes to announce with <stabletalk>. Our new guest editor will be the lovely Christina Santiago (aka, Tina). She was previously the Interactive Program Manager here at the lab and she recently finished her MBA in Geneva. She now resides in lovely San Francisco where she is working in the start-up tech space. As our new guest editor she will be writing about the start-up/digital media communities, and she will essentially be our voice in the valley sharing with us a birds-eye view from the start-up capital.

We also want to send a very special thank you to Trevor Haldenby, our out-going first Guest Editor. Over the past year he wrote some amazing pieces covering a wide range of subject expertise in digital media. Trevor’s contributions have made <stabletalk> an interesting and insightful destination for sharing ideas on digital culture. We wish Trevor all the best as he finishes his thesis, creative projects and of course pending nuptials.

The next few months with Tina promises to be very exciting, and we look forward to hearing insights from the SF beat. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newly redesigned weekly newsletter to get these blog posts sent directly to your inbox!


Warm regards,
CFC Media Lab

100% Organic Content

When I started my guest editorship of this blog almost a year ago, it was with a question about the relationship between tools and creations. Will new ways of doing things affect what it is that we do? To try and flesh out my feelings on that question, I’ve peeked into a number of fields where innovation is intense; from documentary filmmaking to game design, architecture to (my) marriage.

But there’s one branching network of innovation that interests me so much that it’s found a home in the roots of a number of projects I’m working on. It’s the realm of biotechnology, and the disruptions it could bring to the stories we tell and how we tell them are significant.

In his book Sketching User ExperiencesBill Buxton includes a number of figures exploring the ways in which various technologies have evolved: from university or military research projects, into skunkworks industrial concerns, then into consumer products and (sometimes) multi-billion dollar success stories. From the mouse to advanced gesture recognition to the Internet itself, numerous information technologies widespread today took twenty or thirty years to make any inroads in the mass market, and have enjoyed lifespans as long as the average human’s. While it’s possible we’re projecting our mortal uneasiness on to our digital creations, the more obvious implication (that Buxton also arrives at) is that getting things “right”, or even “OK”, takes an awfully long time.

See how long it’s taken the Human Genome Project and its forebears to gain steam? See how long it took gesture-based interface technology? See bright things in your future / bloodstream?

From Bill Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences, all rights reserved

If we keep this lag time in technological adoption in mind, perhaps looking to the nearest experimental physics laboratory for design inspiration isn’t the way to go… instead, we should be looking to the steaming pot of technological innovations from the last forty years, and trying to figure out what is right on the brink of boiling.

Time and time again, when I sit down and play this “Where’s Waldo” game, what I can’t help but getting excited about biotech – design and engineering endeavours bringing living systems and advanced information technology together. I’m certainly not alone – a 2005 report by the US National Science Foundation highlighted the ways in which so-called NanoBioInfoCogno revolutions could transform the world’s industries and societies rather extensively. There’s even an essay by Newt Gingrich sandwiched in the middle, if you’re feeling naughty.

What door do experience designers use to enter this party? Aren't soft skills a critical part of this convergence?

But while the technical breakthroughs and complex technical underpinnings of those transformations are exciting, what I find most interesting are the questions to do with products and services. And not just the economic and business model questions – the experience design questions, as well. What new stories will NBIC innovations allow us to tell? With what new tools will we weave them? Will contemporary models of interaction apply between form and content, or will we witness the mass emergence of invasive species and new food chains in our media ecology?

Should society take the red pill, or the blue pill?

In design fiction, the practice of creating artifacts and experiences from future hypothetical scenarios, biotechnology already runs rampant. Particularly in science fiction cinema and literature, it’s hard to put down your glass without spilling someone else’s cocktail of personalized medicine (with a wetware wedge). Paul Di Filippo refers to the domain as RiboFunk in his writing. Inception, The Matrix, A Scanner Darkly, Children of Men... these films and many more all have their narratives woven finely through a lattice of biotechnological products. In gaming the situation is similar, from Assassin’s Creed to Deus Ex (both intellectual properties developed in Canada… perhaps this is our thing?) Björk’s collaboration with Scott Snibbe, Biophilia, is an interesting new kind of cellular entertainment in a number of senses. The subject matter is even beginning to pervade the meatspace… I’m in the midst of building out an experience called ZED – it’s a transmedia biotech role-playing adventure that will unfold across Toronto over the next eight months, letting audiences take serious bites out of a story exploring the darker sides of our potential future.

If these are the stories exploring a world of ubiquitous biotechnology, what new tools might emerge to tell them? Some say those tools are technological – Rohit Talwar of the foresight consultancy Fast Future suggests that by administering narcotics and nootropics activated by electromagnetic stimulation, the DJ’s of the future could take us into personally curated altered states… with the requisite $20 cover, of course. The BioArt work of Steve Kurtz famously (and disturbingly) landed him an audience with threats of bioterrorism charges, setting an intimidating precedent for the use of living materials and systems in artwork exploring our relationship with technology. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the MakerBot Replicator of 2024… there’s nothing like printing a custom OLED slime mold  and enjoying interactive TV on all the walls (and ceilings) of your house.

On the other hand, perhaps the tools that most directly steer our relationship with biotechnology in the future will be our values. People have been using “organic biotech” drawn (and sometimes domesticated) from nature for the purpose of inducing altered states of awareness and interaction with information for thousands of years. The posthumanist movement adheres to the value of updating our neurological firmware for better adaptability to change, and on the conceptual level, it’s difficult to identify significant distance between their philosophy and that of an experienced shaman, or field ethnobotanist. That said, if the form of our future content creation suites is to resemble a patch, tab, or injection; we’ve got some serious social issues to address… at the speed of technological innovation.

When it comes to biotechnology, industrially or socially, there is very little that isn’t still up in the air. The industry is only now becoming profitable; and in the coming years leaders, policy-makers, and just about everyone else will face numerous opportunities to interrogate emerging technologies and make decisions about their use. But as the DIYBio movement also surges, traditional stakeholders from industry and the media alike run the risk of being overwhelmed by a rogue wave of indie biotech experience designers. This is important to keep in mind – as a civilization we aren’t always very good at cross-generational and open-minded discourse on ethnopharmacology, as Richard Branson has been pointing out quite frequently of late.

Generally not a great thing to see at a biotechnology convention.

Of all the ways to think about what could result from the rapid adoption of biotechnology into niches currently filled by established material and information technologies, the use of stories strikes me as the most interesting. Films, games, and other narrative media act like mirrors trained on our social values and behaviours as much as bacterial growth on the surface of new gear. There was an issue of HorizonZero in 2005 that really got me thinking about how we treat this topic, it’s still a great read.

While biotech may ultimately be responsible for reshaping how we tell stories and design experiences, I think it’s just as likely that the ways we reflect on biotechnological themes and subject matter today will shape the form these disruptive and revolutionary industries eventually take. The best way to consider the relationship between form and content is as a feedback loop: it’s never too late to get in early, and no matter how far you push the boundaries, you’ll never be done.

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | |

Happy Winternet

Photo courtesy of Adam Foster on Flickr

With the seasonal holidays upon us – from the Solstice to Christmas, Hanukkah to Kwanzaa – I set out to write a post exploring what these darkest of days in the Northern Hemisphere mean to me as an individual with technology on the brain. What I learned is that the holidays, for all of their affiliations with altruistic acts of kindness, are about as digital as the special effects dominating each December’s blockbuster cinematic offering. Focusing in on the systems and assorted trappings associated with the Christmas holiday I celebrate each year, it’s rather difficult indeed to separate the mistletoe from the machine.

The most notorious of connections between the winter holidays and technology are, blissfully, already nearly a month behind us. Black Friday and the following Cyber Monday, some of the most significant days of the year for the technology-infatuated, are attached to more than one quarter of the personal spending that takes place in the United States each year. How much of that spending is allotted to game consoles, iPads, and DIY kits for 3D printers remains a mystery to me, but after scoping out PDF flyers for ThinkGeek, Amazon, and the Apple Store it’s hard to deny the weekend’s economic significance. These days, trumpeting the arrival of the holidays a month before Christmas is hardly extreme – if you’re a Snoopy fan from my generation or younger, you may not even see the irony in It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown‘s shopping centre, decked out with holly by early April. The phenomenon of Christmas Creep appears to be gaining steam.

But the holidays aren’t (supposed to be) all about mindless shopping. Just as growing numbers of businesses are trying to find ways to measure the positive social impact of their innovations, growing numbers of consumers are turning to alternative giving approaches; and personalized donations to not-for-profit organizations, charities, and aggregators like CanadaHelps. It’s not hard to imagine a future where contributions to the Salvation Army are offered by dinging one’s phone against a ubiquitous (PRODUCT) RED bell, completing a transaction through the postmodern miracle of near-field computing.

In the meantime, we have a rather serious holiday reality to face in my household… and it has to do with the coniferous “plant” inhabiting our living room. While life cycle assessments of artificial trees from the Pearl River Delta versus the kind taking up over 120 square kilometres of Ontario’s bucolic landscape do seem to indicate that a PVC tree is a more ecologically responsible choice than a farmed Douglas Fir, it takes about 20 years for the plastic version to break even. New fads from fiber-optics to holographic mylar branch treatments complicate any analysis of what is presently the planet’s first human-made invasive species, but perhaps the Christmas tree’s future is bright. A global team of researchers published a report earlier this month suggesting the feasibility of an artificial leaf that could be twice as good at doing photosynthesis as what you’ve been slinging from your eavestroughs and bagging for the last two months. Who will need giftcards or presents when the seasonal decor of Canada’s snowed-in homes can scrub carbon dioxide out of the air as fast as a tropical rainforest?

As cultures have hybridized and local economies globalized over the past few hundred years, one of the touchiest issues raised has been how to refer to the diversity of world holidays celebrated during our winter months. The city of Birmingham proposed “Winterval” for a few years, one of the writers of Seinfeld introduced us to the concept of “Festivus”, and affiliates of the Pastafarian movement (praise be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendages) have settled on the to-the-point “HOLIDAY.” But for a secular and technology-loving guy like me, none of these titles really fit the bill.

In hopes that a look at the winter holidays through the lens of personal technology would inspire me to come up with a new name, away to the Windows (I mean, Mac OS) I flew like a Flash (I mean, HTML5 canvas). What I learned stunned me: Did you know that the first public client-server communication over the Internet was conducted on December 25th, 1990? That makes this Christmas the World Wide Web’s 21st birthday… perhaps it should be the one cracking open the rum and egg nog, not me. But the connections don’t end there – Claude Chappe, creator of a semaphore system referred to as the first “mechanical Internet”, was born on the 25th of this month in 1763. 180 years later, so was Rick Berman, (notorious) producer of  Star Trek series that inspired so many in terms of gadgetry. The same date marks the birth of Clara Barton, a patent clerk responsible for the organization of the American Red Cross. If the contemporary holiday season is characterized by contrasts between economic, technological, and altruistic factors, then I think these achievements and figures are as relevant as any historical precedent or astrological phenomena.

Since I was a child, I’ve been told that the real value of the holidays is an opportunity to step back and consider the opportunities I have, and how to pay the benefits I enjoy forward to others. Perhaps the world’s technology conglomerates, bestowed with so much opportunity and wealth, could take such a philosophy to heart. Rather than soaking up the revenues of yet another Cyber Monday, imagine a holiday when the largest tech innovators practiced a unique version of “alternative giving”, donating one or two of their most closely-held patents to the public domain each year.

Until then, I’ll continue to practice a modified version of a childhood Christmas ritual… leaving a plate of $10 and $20 bills out with a glass of milk for Jimmy Wales, and the rest of the elves at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Thanks for reading, have a Happy Winternet! If tossing CFC Media Lab staff at various flimsy structures for kicks is more your thing, then check out Angry Elves, the Lab’s tongue-in-cheek gift to you this holiday season!

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing his MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | |



Two months ago, and after years of what some have called hyper-careful consideration, I proposed to my girlfriend. While I’d like to say that I’ve been caught up in a rose-coloured world of emotional contemplation since then, as you might have guessed, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about technology.

How does the gear we use to underpin the most sacred and emotionally charged moments of our lives wind up impacting the experience? What new tools might help us visualize and conceptualize not only “the big day” itself, but the weeks beforehand and the decades on the other side? From invitations to receiving lines, many aspects of the experience ahead of my fiancee and I stand to be influenced significantly by technological tools.

Let’s start with the question itself. While it seems like a big enough moment on its own, my marriage proposal was actually a reflection of years of thought and deliberation. After I’d picked out a ring (and learned everything I could from the Blue Nile iOS app), I faced the challenge of trying to represent all of the thought I’d put into the topic in a clean and concise manner. I’ve got quite a reputation as a head-in-the-clouds rambler, so I chose to lean on a method gleaned from my ongoing studies in strategic foresight to seal the deal. (Note: if you have a reputation as a head-in-the-clouds rambler, articulating your marriage proposal in the language of scenario-driven matrices may not be a welcome breakthrough) By mapping our visions of life together on to four quadrants of a matrix, I felt I’d set the table for a “Yes!” without confusing my fiancee much more than I usually do. However, worried about the reaction that my presentation of marriage-as-learning-organization might elicit, I decided to ground things firmly in humanity by planting my proposal as a typically gangly foresight acronym within the exercise. Let’s just say that she was just as thrilled by the W.I.L.L.U. approach to lifestyle strategic planning as I had hoped.

With a ring on my partner’s finger and family members across the globe notified efficiently and economically through VOIP and videochat, we faced that moment of peril that all young couples encounter – updating our social media statuses. What hashtag would we use to loose news of our decision upon our networks? After a full day of stressing over the issue (having decided that buying URL’s for our names and +1‘ing each other was a bit geeky) we decided to lean on Facebook as our platform of choice. We figured that changing our relationship status would send a big enough ripple out to girlfriends and old buddies hunched over emotional seismographs that we could avoid information architecting a complex online campaign entirely. Fifteen minutes, a few hundred comments, and 50% of our iPhone batteries later, this suspicion was confirmed. I have a feeling that Facebook routes upper-echelon upward changes in relationship status to the top of everyone’s news feed, but I haven’t had enough of a peek behind their algorithmic curtain to be sure.

We were so caught up in the deafeningly positive response to our status change that it wasn’t until weeks later that we realized that there were a number of people on the other side of the digital divide that we’d excluded from our news entirely. Some of my oldest friends, who use social media to push information but not to consume it, didn’t find out for weeks that I’d finally popped the question. As news of major life decisions goes increasingly electronic, will those with less than monogamous relationships with one or more social networks be cast further and further out of the loop?

Even with all the uncertainty and informality associated with online communication, when the time comes to request the presence of our best and dearest at the main event, we’re probably going to keep it digital. Invitations are an expensive and time-consuming part of the wedding planning process, and while I’d like to toss the contract to some talented artist I find on Etsy or Kickstarter, I’m more likely to try and micromanage the process myself on Eventbrite. It goes without saying that this is a debatable time-saver – paper choices and recursive enveloping decisions may be replaced with new concerns ranging from email analytics to browser compatibility. It had never occurred to me that the Flash vs HTML5 debate might hit quite so close to home.

Once all of our guests have fished our invitation from their junkmail folder, and provided their blessing by whitelisting our address, the question of what to do with their online avatars arises. The latest fad at conferences and seminars is to plaster the venue with projected Twitter walls, enabling guests to liveblog proceedings and point out factual errors in presentations… but I’m not sure that I want to wedge a similar technology into my wedding. Just imagining “Did u know that @trevver was 2 nervous to follow up for a #seconddate?” forty feet wide above our head table is enough to make me uneasy.

But the logistical questions around technology at our wedding don’t end there. Should we have a second ceremony in Second Life to accommodate members of the wedding party who couldn’t use Kayak to book a flight in time? Will guests be interested in contributing to a tag cloud, or a data visualization project hosted by Hans Rosling, and dedicated to linking the events of our relationship with global birthrates and economic crises? Are people building apps for their wedding itinerary, and if so, should we scope Playbook development into our project plan given RIM’s recent financial performance?

Even our clothes and accessories won’t exist outside of technological consideration – nothing says “I do” like a ring with a built-in USB flash drive, or a dress featuring LED’s that fade in and out in relation to our accelerating heartbeats. Wearable technology could become the next big thing under the altar, just as branching interactive cinematic experiences might begin to replace the photo slideshows of yore. Judging by the number of embarrassing videos of yours truly stored on my fiancee’s smartphone, I could be in real trouble.

While there aren’t very many things in my life that exist outside of some technological context, I assumed very briefly that the ceremony of marriage might be one of them. It’s been fascinating in these last several weeks to think about how weddings, among the most deeply human events of our lives, are shaped profoundly by technology… right up until the moment where we say “iDo.”

Languages and their SQLs

Languages are the vessels of culture and history. Unfortunately, many of them are also going extinct at an alarming rate. As English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and a handful of other languages dominate the globe, ancient tongues are often unable to compete for a userbase of fluent speakers; leaving them vulnerable to some of the same selective pressures that might unseat the inhabitants of an ecological system.

The organization Ethnologue estimates that there are approximately 6,900 languages in use today across the globe. Many scholars argue that the actual number could be much smaller than that, given that many languages are closely related to one another, and are spoken fluently by very few people. Michael Krauss (a linguist and language documentation advocate) and UNESCO estimate that up to 80% of global languages are at risk of extinction in the next 50-100 years.

Patricia Ryan on what we miss when we insist on English.

But while the languages we humans have spoken for thousands of years are experiencing a global crisis not unlike the one facing most of our mammalian cousins, there is one linguistic taxon that is experiencing a period of growth and prosperity – computer languages.

In the same period of time that most of the world’s languages have become classified as endangered, more than 8,000 computer languages have come into existence. The exact number is difficult to determine, though the Programming Language Popularity project and Transparent Language Popularity Index are attempting an index. Many computer languages are close cousins, and a few dominate the landscape on the shoulders of others, but it’s interesting to note that as we move towards a real-world environment of linguistic homogeneity, we’re experiencing an explosion in virtual linguistic diversity.

From a great history of computer languages in Wired, at the DigiBarn

But for me, here’s where things get puzzling. While I’m an English speaker (the so-called language of the Internet), an elder digital native (an evolution of Mark Prensky’s term), and a creative type when it comes to all things technological, I don’t speak a single programming language – certainly not anything like Glagol, anyway. How could this be? How could someone raised on computers, employed and engaged in the interactive industry, and pretty geeky by many standards, not be able to program?

I said that I can’t program… but depending on your definition of the term, that’s not entirely accurate. SQL is not a language I speak (how many programmers do “speak” in their tongue?), though I do read and write HTML, and I have been known to dabble in simple JavaScript. I’ve never written a graphics driver, but I do muck around with some frequency in software suites like Max/MSP and Quartz Composer. My introduction to “app development” was with HyperCard, and Macromedia Director, not Objective C.

If computer literacy is defined as familiarity; perhaps acquired through rote learning, with a set of specific tasks and workflows; and computer fluency is defined as the ability to apply advanced concepts about the functionality of a computer and its languages to the solution of problems; then I have a real problem when it comes to classifying myself. I’ve always felt comfortable in front of a computer, particularly when I don’t know exactly how to approach the problem before me, or where an application of critical design thinking is just the ticket to help identify a solution. You could say that I’m conceptually high-functioning, and essentially literate, but can one be classified as fluent without a mastery of the basic skills underpinning the whole Wizard of Oz show?

The tools that I learned to “program” interactive experiences on were tremendously eye-opening, but rather limited when it came to compatibility. Flash and Director relied on proprietary plug-ins to play back content from a CD-ROM, or (gasp!) in a browser window. At the same time, the HTML standard managed by the World Wide Web Consortium promised increased compatibility… but fewer flashy features. No tweening, translucency, or motion graphics for you, open standards zealots.

The Wilderness Downtown: Digital Natives' Citizen Kane.

HTML5, the most recent version of the W3C’s standard, is bringing much of the glitz of Flash and Director back into the browser… and in a way that ensures broad compatibility without the restrictions of proprietary technology. If you’ve seen Arcade Fire and Google (and Chris Milk’s) collaboration, The Wilderness Downtown, you’ve got a good idea of what HTML5 enables. That said, I suspect that most people are familiar with HTML5 and its potential only because of Apple’s famous decision to “ban” (the oft-delayed and resource-flogging) Flash from its iOS devices.

Perhaps designed to cater to people like me (high-functioning conceptual creatives who flunked out of math class), a new and interesting generation of production tools is emerging that promises to address issues of compatibility and ease-of-use simultaneously.

Applications like Tumult’s Hype (and Adobe’s Edge) are offering the ability to author slick HTML5 experiences through an accessible interface… it’s what iWeb probably should have been on day one (and probably will be within the next few years) – a web-app creator for the rest of us.

Macromedia's Director vs. Tumult's Hype... interaction design for the rest of us?

While these tools are incredible, offering users with an understanding of design patterns rather than code the ability to churn out new content and product, they’re troubling in that they rely on increased computer literacy without offering much in the way of enhancing fluency. They offer enormous numbers of people previously not capable of authoring interactive content experiences the opportunity to do so, with the caveat that they need not learn much about what’s under the hood in the process.

What might the long-term effects be of offering users a language of concepts and design patterns without an underlying vocabulary? Must all designers, programmers, or architects be linguists in order to produce meaningful and innovative work? What connections might exist between computer literacy and fluency, and the bigger social picture? In the United States, the level of a person’s functional literacy can be roughly correlated with income level and risks associated with committing a crime. Are technophiles like me, managing high-level semantic fluency with few syntactic skills, an at-risk group for media piracy or affiliation with Anonymous?

In the real world, we are witnessing a struggle to preserve languages in the face of an almost virally expansive linguistic homogeneity. What makes us think that the emergence of a dominant digital language (even if it’s an open standard) will enable an equitable representation of ideas, views, and other information in its realm? Perhaps the legacy of projects like the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta will be to digitize languages on the brink of extinction today… so that their unique attributes might be analyzed and adopted into the computer languages of tomorrow.

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing his MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | |