Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Festival of Learning

Do you see differences in your organization as an opportunity or a problem?

The Media Lab is an antidisciplinary organization packed with inventive doers. We cultivate a positive ethos of creative difference. How do we find strength in what many organizations fear? As a first-year research assistant, I'm still learning our culture. But at last weekend's Festival of Learning, I think I found the answer.

Over two days, the Festival of Learning invited anyone in our buildings to learn, teach, and do things together. It included students, staff and faculty across the Media Lab, Comparative Media Studies, the GAMBIT Game Lab, and MIT's Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

Our wonderfully diverse range of sessions (list here) included Making Mochi, Winter Survival Tips from a New Englander, Media Lab Research Methods 101, How to Release a Free Software / Open Source Project, Cardboard Forts, and hacking a disco office lighting system.

As coordinator of the festival and part of the organizing team, I ran out of exclamation marks very quickly.

Skill-sharing across hundreds of people is a remarkable act of courage and faith for any organization. To faciliate that two-month planning process, we prototyped a LEGO Ideas Board, designed a skill-share web app, and distributed a video trailer through every possible mailing list. I think our personal conversations were the most effective. Face-to-face encouragement is a wonderful way to build everyone's confidence and nurture genuine trust.

The seeds for the Media Lab's Festival of Learning were planted in the orientation weekend that every new Media Lab student experiences. Mitch Resnick asks everyone to write something they can teach onto a whiteboard. After each student chooses what we want to learn, we meet up later for a learning session, report back, and share with each other what we learned. We also reflect as a group on the process of teaching and learning. In this small skill-share, we learn to respect each other for our diversity and to see each other as more than just our research topic.

Many life-defining learning experiences come from unexpected corners—sports, films, toys, music. We expect this for children, but somehow many adults lose the plot, and our passions become private. At the Festival of Learning, Joi Ito taught us about leadership using MMORPGs, Charlie Nesson taught strategic thinking via poker, and Joe Paradiso and Ian Condry led us to explore Japanese culture through Hip Hop and Extreme Rock. Scott Nicholson showed us how to overcome shyness through face painting. Ethan Zuckerman trained us to be CEOs (certified effervescence operators).

At the Festival of Learning, we set out to transform our everyday working space into a place for new possibilities. We turned the atrium into a picnic area. We filled a room with balloons. Media Lab sponsor LEGO donated a suitcase of minifigures, including Lego Friends, for us to design our own characters. On Saturday, a floating shark swam around the festival.

So how can an organization find strength within creative difference? Share our differences with each other. The all-volunteer Festival of Learning was motivated by love, inspiration, and delight. It required a lot of good faith by everyone. I'm delighted to see that faith rewarded by such a wonderful learning experience—a festival that reflects the true strength and diversity of the Media Lab and our neighbor groups at MIT.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The New Deal on Data

Prof. Alex Pentland, MIT Media Lab and IDcubed.org

Science, and the idea of natural law, can help us reinvent our society to be more stable, fair, and efficient. The idea of natural law began in the 1700s, when philosophers realized that the laws of society should be matched to human nature. The founders of the United States believed in natural law, and chose as their model of human nature individuals continually competing for money and seeking power.

But is this really us? Are we doomed to eternal fights for money and dominance? The wars of the last century might suggest so, but that same century saw unprecedented progress in life expectancy, poverty eradication, and political inclusion. So if we aren’t creatures of eternal competition, then what are we?

The scientific evidence is that pre-agricultural societies were egalitarian, supported the weak–and yet were also efficient. However, they were not based on open competition, but instead on private exchanges within social networks. Each person had special skills and information, and these were traded to others for food or favors. You bargained one at a time with the people you trusted, and the influence of the rich and powerful was limited.

So it would appear that philosophers of the 1700s got natural law WRONG. Unbridled competition is not natural law for humans. But as a result of their mistake we have been left with a legacy of unstable banks, unfair governments, and inefficient companies. Instead of unchecked competition, modern science says that human natural law is: trade with the people with whom you have trusted relationships, instead of fighting with faceless organizations or market machinery. So why should you care? We aren’t likely to re-write our government constitutions anytime soon!

But increasingly we are using digital social networks to reinvent our society, and we have the opportunity to build this new society using scientific insights about human nature. We can shape this new digital society around a new, a more accurate version of natural law. By encouraging interactions within trusted relationships rather than promoting unbridled competition, we can create a more fair, stable, and equitable society.

So, how does this work? The key is that individuals have rights in their virtual, digital selves that mirror the rights they have in their physical selves. You should control data that is about you, how it is used, and where it goes. Your interactions should be guided by trusted relationships rather than being subjected to nameless others.

This framework is called the New Deal on Data, and it has surprising mathematical properties. By giving people control of their digital selves, we can build a system that is more stable and more fair than today’s market-based systems. In the past, the costs of communication limited such systems to small scales, such as town-hall meetings. But thanks to the power of modern digital networks, these grassroots systems can now scale to planetary size and still be efficient and innovative.

Imagine user-controlled banking where you could direct your money to community projects that you cared about, and yet still control risk and return. We could fulfill the dreams of micro-credit and community lending, but without sacrificing performance or scale. Or imagine citizen-controlled government where you could direct where your taxes go and shape your local laws. You could achieve the ideals of local governance, but without sacrificing safety, fairness, or efficiency.

So how can the New Deal on Data become real? At the World Economic Forum we have achieved a remarkable consensus among governments, companies, and advocacy groups. This consensus contributed to last week’s announcement declaring the elements of the New Deal as being basic human rights–that is, as being natural law. To help bring the New Deal into everyday life, we at the MIT Media Lab and at IDcubed.org have developed the open-source software and legal frameworks needed to field test the New Deal at sites around the world.

Alex 'Sandy' Pentland is Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and heads the MIT Media Lab's Entrepreneurship Program.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Media Lab is against SOPA and PIPA

As many of you may be aware, there are two bills being considered by the US Congress - the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act - better known as SOPA and PIPA. While the goal to try to minimize the dissemination of copyrighted materials online is laudable, the bills are misguided and dangerous and could damage innovation on the Internet and limit free speech.

A number of organizations have spoken up publicly against the bills and a number of the Media Lab community members, including myself have been actively opposing the bill. Today the Media Lab would like to officially go on the record opposing the bill as well.

We encourage you to learn more about these bills, develop your own opinions and participate in the debate and collective action. It's a critically important moment for internet freedom and these bills could have a very negative repercussions both in the United States and globally.

You can read more about the issue on Ethan Zuckerman's blog and my blog where we have cross-posted a longer post on the topic.