Monday, April 30, 2012

Diverted (temporarily) by Buddhist Geeks and Computing

This day has to go into the archives of "sometimes reality is stranger than fiction": in my last post I said I was contemplating writing something speculative about how Buddhism could integrate with computing. It was an exercise in stretching my brain into the "what if" and "why not?" based on the little I know about Buddhism. (and "little" is the operative word here)

Then, this morning, look what landed in my email: The Buddhist Geeks Conference . Wow. Interesting. "aha, Buddhist computing professionals. They must be doing interesting things. Maybe I won't have to do as much speculating as I thought!"

Wanting to share the interesting information, I wrote a tech-savvy Buddhist friend and shared the conference link. That is when I found out things are complicated. Not because doing beneficial things with computing is difficult (heck no) but because of the tension between making money and the intentions behind making that money in a capitalist world. My friend wrote: "...the buddhist geeks are not very popular amongst most Buddhist circles due to the fact that they are all about money and ... There was a blow up on FB, G+, and Twitter a while back". 

The "problem" from some quarters seems to be (and now I'm doing a combination of paraphrasing, informed guesswork, uninformed guesswork and jumping out on a limb) that in much of the Buddhist world, it is considered counterproductive (on multiple levels) to charge money for "things Buddhist". Thus if you visit many Buddhist temples and monasteries, including here in the US, you will find their activities are free, and no one hits you up for "a donation" at the door. Therefore... holding an expensive conference (registration is up to $500) of "Buddhist Geeks" can be perceived as... well... not good. Very not good. Antithetical to Buddhist precepts. To quote my friend again: "...a big blow up on the internet about their intentions a while back. Basically any Buddhist thing that asks for money in return for Dharma [teachings] as their game plan should be avoided..." It's hard to imagine that they wouldn't talk about Dharma at a gathering of Buddhists or Buddhist sympathizers. On the other hand, intention is a big deal in Buddhism as well; the intention behind holding a professional level conference of hi-tech Buddhists could be very good! 

I feel like I'm walking on thin ice by bringing this whole thing up. But I don't want to lose sight of the ideas I started from. 

I wasn't going to suggest anyone has to be a Buddhist. Definitely not. But I was going to take a leap - I was going to speculate about how to integrate Buddhist values into hi-tech corporate America. I was going to point out that Buddhist precepts aren't exactly "out there" (e.g. don't steal, don't kill, don't engage in sexual misconduct, don't lie, don't take intoxicants). I was going to talk about the challenges when the rubber hits the road. 

The rubber hit the road before I had the car door closed. If holding an expensive conference for Buddhist geeks is a "no-no" (I'm not yet ready to take a stance on this...just wondering aloud) yet conferences are a tried and true method of networking and sharing in the tech community... and hi-tech professionals presumably prefer to network and communicate using the mechanisms they use in other aspects of their career... what do we suggest? What are the greater implications of one's stance on the issue?

After running the gamut of thoughts on what to say here, things have changed yet nothing has changed.  Whether you believe the Buddhist Geeks conference is ok or not ok, my intention to stretch our collective minds into considerations of integrating Buddhism and computing remained. A last word on those precepts, in case that part of the conversation made you squirmy: Do we want people in influential and powerful places in corporate America who follow them, whatever their religion or lack thereof? Is there anything truly objectionable about suggesting it is laudable to strive not to  lie, steal, etc? 

Assuming you agree that the answer is "yes we want people like that" how do you think we should get there? That is where I started this conversation: I toss the ball into your court.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gross National Happiness - Putting It First

Synchronicity or coincidence or karma, call it what you will: international examples of computing being adjusted to support societal values (as opposed to the other way around) are presenting themselves.

One of the first cases I ever learned about turned traditional software engineering on its head and inspired me to write my book on socially beneficial computing. The story was about a team of computing professionals from New Zealand and Peru who collaborated on an Andean poverty alleviation project. The way in which they creatively conducted requirements gathering and specification development was a stunning example of respecting traditional cultural values yet raising living standards, addressing environmental problems and seamlessly integrating modern computing technology.

The Peruvian project was a localized example of adaptive software engineering; an article in the most recent Communications of the ACM (CACM)* takes the idea national, discussing how an entire country (Bhutan) is demonstrating that exploitation of people and the environment is not an inevitable result of technological development.

As author Richard Heeks, Director of the Centre for Informatics Development at the University of Manchester (UK) explains, Bhutan is successfully placing "Gross National Happiness" ahead of "Gross National Product". Even though I have just finished reading a book on different economic value systems and even wrote about it (see my last post) it took me a few minutes to wrap my head around this concept (Gross National Happiness? Meaning...?). Fortunately, Heeks anticipates my Western mindset-produced difficulties and starts at the beginning. He discusses the concept of happiness, how it relates to economic development and in particular to 21st Century digital communications.

Putting happiness first is not easy, but it doesn't appear to be any harder than putting other things first (e.g. short term financial profit). It is all about where a society is coming from and what it chooses to encourage and discourage. It doesn't mean a society can't be a vibrant part of the 21st Century global community. Although Heeks only mentions it in passing, perhaps because it would distract from the points he is trying to make, the underpinnings of Bhutan society are Bhuddist (Mahayana, for those familiar with the branches). Heeks avoids a religious discussion and focuses on historical background and current implementation of modern digital technology initiatives.

Whatever your range of interest, there are several truly fascinating aspects to what is happening in modern Bhutan. If you want concrete examples of a growing, competitive society that puts human and environmental welfare first, here they are. If you want to ponder how the Buddhist religion can interact with computing, you have food for thought. (So intriguing; I'm pondering the idea of writing a post on the subject). If you want to learn about a very different model of progress in the developing world, here is your opportunity. Interested in Eastern society and computing beyond what has been written about well known countries such as Japan, China and India? Want some fresh ideas about development (in all its meanings), technological infrastructure, 21st Century global technology? Looking for a research project?

One short article; one small country. A lot of food for thought and ideas about positive directions we can go with computing.

*"Emerging Markets: Information Technology and Gross National Happiness" Communications of the ACM, April 2012, Voll 55, No. 4, pp 24 - 26

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Importance of Integrating the Interdisciplinary

Has it ever occurred to you that the newness of interdisciplinary work, the excitement and the challenges it poses, is unique primarily to the major English-speaking cultures? That what are "aha!" moments to some of us are "you don't say" moments to others of us?

I have been reading "The Seven Cultures of Capitalism" by Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars. Though out for almost 20 years the book is as fresh as if it came out last year, because the way culture shapes perspectives and decision-making remains fairly constant over long periods of time.

The authors posit 7 pairs of opposing terms (e.g. universalism vs. particularism) reflecting values that underly how seven successful capitalist societies function and make decisions. Each society is unique, yet: "Our thesis of economic development is, however, that each value in the pair is crucial to economic success. The capitalistic cultures that succeed in the next [21st] century will be those that overcome their cultural predispositions to favor, for example, individualism at the expense of community, and bring seemingly opposed values into balance" (page 10).

Extrapolating from their focus on economics and social relationships to the realm of computing is not hard. Consider that when we, in our search for knowledge, place emphasis on finding "the truth", "the facts", on breaking things down into their constituent parts to understand how they work, we inevitably specialize. We dive deep in order to make discoveries. We like algorithms, controlled studies, pre-conditions and post-conditions, invariants and formal methods. Science and engineering have made huge strides as a result of our ability to finely analyze details and to think things through sequentially.

Unfortunately, when we hold those preferences, "interdisciplinary" often means "messy": When computer science integrates with art the result resists particularist analysis. Holism rather than deconstruction is needed to understand the synthesis of computer science with biology. No wonder many people in this (United States) society find interdisciplinary work so challenging - we are bucking our culturally ingrained way of viewing the world.

If you interact with other cultures on a regular basis, you may find that sometimes other people are truly puzzled by your world view (One of my favorite constants is: "WHY did your country elect [fill in the name of a president]?"). We can nod our heads over a mutual lack of understanding of political decisions by other countries' citizens, but we have trouble seeing just how deeply our view of "what IS" constrains  what is new and exciting. To some other cultures excitement over interdisciplinary computing might be puzzling simply because synthesis and integration are as ingrained in them as separation and specialization are in us.

I heard someone dismiss interdisciplinary issues as the latest fad. This person opined that if we just ignore calls for (often difficult) interdisciplinary collaboration they will eventually go away. The important question (imo) is not the issue of fad or not fad; the important issue is why interdisciplinary endeavors are getting so much attention and what will happen if we don't succeed in shifting value systems enough to make them work. If we grow cynical, tire of the struggle and fall back against our comfortable disciplinary boundaries, we lose. Why? Things are getting more complex and sophisticated year by year - whether you take a macro or micro view of the world's interactions. People and societies that are truly comfortable with an interdisciplinary perspective will make the greatest discoveries and innovations and move society forward. Others will fall behind. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mobile, NUIs, Research: Yes!

I missed the introduction of the speaker and the first few minutes of the talk because I was waiting in line at the restroom. Walking into the tented area at the UX Speakeasy Conference where she was speaking I hadn't had time to find a seat when I heard something that made my ears perk right up. Something about mental models and how human action is constructed and reconstructed as people come into contact with the physical and digital world.  Taking this reality as the basis of a call for the creation of shape shifting digital content. For those who are interested in learning more about these ideas, a recommendation to read the work of sociologist Lucy Suchman. 

I scrambled for my program - who was this speaker? I was excited: I knew what this conversation meant. ("Yes!" "She gets it! Yes!") I was hearing a fellow researcher! From that moment forward I maintained a sensory laser focus on Rachel Hinman.
Rachel spoke about the necessity and inevitability of a transition from GUIs to NUIs (Natural User Interfaces).  About how mobile devices are driving a major paradigm shift in society's expectations of technology, necessitating that developers and designers alter their mental models. 

"Pages and screens are not our design material. Content is now our design material"

On the nature of constant change, its fluidity and the implications for good UX (User Experience) design: 

"Digital content needs to be like water".

Evocative statements such as these lead to fascinating speculation. For example, a chicken and egg question regarding our needs from technology and the capability of technology. Which came first - new technology or new expectations? i.e. Did the introduction of mobile devices initiate massive changes in what we want, require, expect from technology,  or did growing expectations about the place of technology in society lead to the ubiquity of mobile devices? 

Either side of the question can be argued. The answer is not as important in this case (imo) as asking the question and doing the research to understand it. Digging into the question makes it abundantly clear just how inter-related technology and human experience are. Here is an example, inspired by Rachel's ideas: Rachel said that GUI programs are dying under their own weight. Do you agree? Why? What does it mean to be a heavy program anyway? What programs or apps or interfaces come to mind? Why do they support or not support the claim? If, as Rachel next pointed out, mobile brings the age of the NUI interface - why is this so? Why mobile? What is so different about mobile? What does NUI bring to a mobile device? Alternatively, what does mobile bring to a NUI? How do we know we are designing in the right direction? (What does it mean to be in the right direction?)

Questions, questions questions. Questions like these can lead to innovative and ultimately productive research and design. Inventions. They can lead to devices that will sense your intent and reconfigure themselves in response (we return to Rachel's call for shape shifting content). Big changes, and yes there are challenges. Paradigm shifts and mental model reconfiguration can be scary because we have to toss out much that is familiar. Arguably, we are there now. "We are stuck in a NUI-GUI canyon right now...NUI development can feel anchorless for the designer".

Where will insight and answers to these complex questions and challenges come from? From rigorous applied research. My favorite moment of the entire conference came when, spontaneously, Rachel said "For those who think research labs are a waste - suck it!".  I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank You. :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

What Helps People Share in a Meaningful Way?

Why do we share? What are our motivations for sharing? We hear a lot these days about the downside of sharing: Facebook posts can cause you to lose a job or interview; video streaming that globalizes the worst impulses of bigotry and prejudice, spur of the moment emails haunt someone for ever (and ever)...there are justifiable reasons to be wary of sharing.

You can argue we share too much. Perhaps we do. On the other hand, 21st Century computing technology allows us to share in wonderful everyday ways. We keep in touch with a colleague and his children on their Fulbright in Zambia, we receive photos from a relative who lives 1000 miles away, an elderly neighbor can download otherwise inaccessible newspapers to her tablet. Mundane? Maybe. Maybe not.

When was the last time you thought about the everyday ways you share and why you share?

Have you ever thought about why we share so much?

To share is to be human. Angel Anderson, a speaker at the UX Speakeasy Conference Saturday, knows quite well why we share and she shared the psycho-social motivations with her audience. I suspect one of the reasons people enjoyed her talk so much was that Angel bridged the human and the technological in a solid, thorough, in-depth manner and she was upbeat. Upbeat and engaging, in spite of fighting laryngitis and having to make good friends on stage with a bottle of red cough syrup.

Did you know, for example, that most of our sharing has positive evolutionary motivations behind it? We share to get things in return (reciprocation), to feel good, to feel validated (we can't survive without healthy egos), and for relationship building. We are a social species and we need our communities and our relationships with one another. We need them just as much today as we did 200,000 years ago.

Complaining can be a constructive form of sharing. After listening to Angel discuss this point, I was able to tune in to a great example that presented itself this morning. My yoga teacher told our class about the constructive outcomes that can be achieved when a student complains about an injury or a fear. When a student says "I have a weak shoulder" "I often hyper-extend my knees"  "I'm absolutely terrified of falling on my head", the teacher can offer physical adjustments, alternative poses, physical and psychological support. As a result, the student learns to stop torquing on her joints and doesn't fall on his head. These complaints present opportunities that must be voiced to come to fruition.

Angel shared additional in-depth insight into the motivations behind sharing, with the take home point that we need to understand these motivations so we can create great tools for sharing. Yes, "great". Angel used that word with gusto. Understanding the psychology of motivation lets the creator think about the types of relationships they want to foster with their app/tool/device/service. It is all about social landscapes.

Angel echoed the message of earlier speakers when she said that User Experience (UX) work is in an Age of Enlightenment. It has never been easier, deeper and faster to share - such an opportunity for creating meaningful interactions between people!

Ask yourself: "what helps people share in a meaningful way?"