I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.
Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.
Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…
…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.
There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?
So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.
Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.
During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.
Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.
After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”
ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.
JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.
ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.
JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…
ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.
JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?
ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.
JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?
ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.
JG: And these devices can be used to track people.
ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…
JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?
ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.
JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.
ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.
JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…
ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.
JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…
ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.
JG: The future of journalism?
ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.
JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?
ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.
JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?
ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.
JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?
ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.
JG: Why are you supporting Obama?
ES: I like having a smart president.
JG: Is Romney not smart?
ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.
Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?
A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]
A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.
JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.
ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.
Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.
ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.
Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.
ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.
Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?
ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or...]
Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?
ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.
JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…
ES: …The evidence is on my side!
JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.
David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.
ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.
Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?
ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…
He points to a problem in how we’ve thought about design, trained designers, and have practiced design. The great thing about designing simple products is that you can know almost everything about them: who made them, who they’re for, how they were produced, etc. But as products get more complicated, it gets harder even for a team of designers to really understand what’s going on. They get so complicated that there are lots of places design can fail.
When we go out to urban planning , that becomes even more obvious, he says. He shows Union Sq. when it was designed and how wildly NYC has grown around it. Or, at the Courtyard Marriott chain, every element of the user’s experience has been thought through. He shows a script that specifies every interaction. But you can’t anticipate everything. E.g., JetBlue is one of the best designed customer experiences and even they got it wrong a couple of winters ago.
What’s going on? It’s all about complexity. Henri Poincaré in the 19th century tried to solve the three body problem that had been set by the French govt as an open source competition. HP couldn’t solve it. It sounds like a simple problem, but it’s very hard. [BTW, there's a fascinating history of three French aristocrats hand-computing the movement of Halley's Comet, which depended on calculating the gravitational influences of multiple bodies. Can't find the ref at the moment]
Our basic ideas about design have been based on Newton, says Tim. Design assumes the ability to predict the future based on the present. We need to think more like Darwin: design as an evolutionary process. Design is more about emergence, never finished.
He presents a few principles of Darwinian design that he’s been exploring.
1. Design behaviors, not objects — the behaviors that come from our interactions with objects. If you’ve traveled on the high speed trains in Europe, there are signs urging men to be more accurate when peeing. But at Schiphol Airport, they print a fly at the right spot in the urinal; men became 80% more accurate. That’s designing behavior; the actual object doesn’t matter.
2. Design for information flow. Nicholas Christakis has looked at how networks affect behavior. Tesco uses its loyalty card — which cost them 20% of their margins — to increase sales.
3. Faster iteration = faster evolution. Viruses evolve faster than we do because they iterate faster than we do. E.g., State Farm tried out a new idea how to build relationships with the new generation. They built one storefront for this, and learned from it. “Launch to learn.”
4. Use selective emergence. This intrigues him, alathough he doesn’t know how useful it will be in design. Rather than random mutations, you choose what might be interesting and design things that get us there through many iterations. I.e., genetic algorithms. E.g., the Strandbeest walks along beaches with a hip joint unlike any in nature because the artist used genetic algorithms.
5. Take an experimental approach. I.e., testing hypotheses. Cf. Eric Ries, the Lean Startup (build, measure, learn). E.g., Ideo.org has been working on sanitation in Ghana. Where you can’t dig septic pits, Ideo has been experimenting with low cost receptacle toilets (with bio-digesters). But people didn’t want to pay for the service. So, they gave some to families and went away for three days. All the families changed their minds and said they are willing to pay for the service (which is provided by a local franchise).
6. Focus on simple rules. This comes from emergence theory. E.g., complex bird flocking patterns are based on simple rules. [Canonical example: Termite mounds.] E.g., Bi-Rite stores in SF uses simple rules: If an employee is within 10′ of a customer, you look the customer in the eye. If within 4′, you talk with them. This creates a wonderful service experience.
7. Design is never done. E.g., World of Warcraft is constantly being designed by its players.
8. The power of purpose. This creates the self-governance these complex environments succeed. Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are examples. Companies are experimenting with new ways of thinking about their business and products. E.g., Patagonia tells you not to buy its products because it also wants to preserve the environment.
The prototypical design artefact is a blue print. Once you created the blue print, the design was done. It was the instruction set for someone to make it. That’s how we think about design: finish and done. What replaces it: Code. It might be DNA (and Tim has people researching this), but more often it’s programming code. It’s an instruction set that can continue to evolve.
JF: You embody your principles. The rules are differen from a prior version. [ACK! Crash. Missed about 2 minutes]
TB: We’ve just finished designing the prototype experience for the new health care exchanges. It will affect how people choose which health care insurance to choose. Today it’s done with paper. Under the new health care laws, lots of people will get to make these choices. We worked with the CA Healthcare Foundation to prototype the user experience. What are the key pieces are parts? How can we keep the choices reasonably simple? Then each state will use this a platform to develop their own.
JF: And the govt had the wit to come to you to do this?
TB: The CA Health Care Foundation…
JF: What are the barriers? Does it cost more to do it your way?
TB: It’s often less costly. Most often they don’t have a good understanding of what their customers go through. When a health care org comes to us, relatively frequently we find out that a senior exec had to go through the health care experience. It’s true of all organizations. We don’t ask the right questions. The urgency to change is not there, and the resistance to change is always huge.
JF: Has the TSA come to you?
TB: Yes, but … well, we learned a lot. In the previous admin, we worked with them to find areas of change. Although going through the scanners has to improve, a lot of it has to do with the behavior of the people. They looked at a training program that was intended to take away some of the rule-based system they used. The more rules you apply, the less sensitive the system is. You need to give the people in that system much more independence to make judgments.
JF: Who do you hire?
TB: We look for a wide range of people. Many disciplines. We look for deep skills, and for empathy. It’s hard to solve problems for others without that. Also, most of what we do is too complex for individuals, so we work in teams, and thus people need an enthusiasm for empathy.
JF: Any unusual interview techniques?
TB: We put people into a situation in which they’re practicing design. E.g., intern program. Also, competitions. And we use Open Ideo as a way of seeing how people work.
JF: Beyond the toilet, what else are you doing for “design for poverty.”
TB: I got excited when I saw the opportunities for design in some social design work. At Open Ideo we’re working on clean water, early ed programs, etc. Ideo.org is a non-profit org. We want it to be sustainable and scalable so we look for external funding for it.
JF: How do you approach environmental sustainability?
TB: We try to build that into every project. Every project affects the environment. We try to bring sustainable thinking around systems, materials, energy flows, etc.
JF: What projects are you proudest of?
TB: The work we do in health care, including with Kaiser Permanente. Also, consumer-facing, post-crash financial services. PNC digital wallet. “Keep the change.” Etc. This is not an area where design has had much to do.
TB: For physical objects, it peaked maybe 20-30 years ago (with Apple as an exception). But we’re in ascendance for behavior-based designed. We get 25,000 apps a year for 100 openings. We’re a 600-person company. Etsy, Kickstarter, sw designed better than ever before…great things are happening. Soon if not already the number of digital designers will be greater than all other designers combined.
Q & A
Q: Your principles are so close to Buckminister Fuller’s [says the guy from the Fuller institute]. But the boundary between social and evolutionary systems is illusory.
TB: Yes, Fuller figured this out a long time ago. We’re perhaps resurrecting ideas, as every generation does. Design has operated as a priesthood for too long. When I started, I was only interested in how beautiful something is. That’s so much simpler. Opening design up to many more will convince us all that we’re all part of this big design ecosystem and have a responsibility to be thoughtful about the contributions we’re making to the world around us. I hope professional designers learn to enable that, more than controlling it. The B School at Stanford is introducing non-designers to design, which is great.
Q: What can we do to simplify the rules?
TB: The unstated bit of my thesis is that you still have to stop and design something. We develop an idea, perhaps more through iteration. That process doesn’t change. For rebuilding a complex system, maybe big data will help us to see patterns that allow us to understand what we’re designing’s complex effects…but I don’t think we’re there yet. We should be thinking about the hooks we’re building in. I’m big into APIs that allow other people to build with what you’ve built.
Q: Is it training or DNA that determines a good employee for you?
TB: Both. We hire people straight out of grad school because they’re moldable. We hire older people, but it’s harder for them to adapt. I don’t have much control as CEO. The future of all businesses is to have cultures that are a s self-governing as possible. That’s much more resilient and agile than cultures built on inflexible rule sets.
Q: I chair a land conservancy. We create parks in urban areas. Does Ideo have much experience in designing to create behaviors that will get people to use parks? What’s your view of the state of park design?
TB: We don’t have a lot of expertise in designing anything because we like designing everything. The High Line and the West Side park in NYC are remarkable examples. Projects like that show that parks can be remarkable assets to the city. We’re working with High Line on the third phase of that project. NYC’s life expectancy has gone up 3 yrs. Two explanations: People are closer to health facilities, and people walk more.
Q: What are the logistics of running a decentralized org? Mentoring? Sharing a vision?
TB: Purpose creates a sense of direction, so we talk about why the heck we’re doing what we’re doing. We think we should measure everything we do based on the impact it has on the word. We’ve done an occasionally decent job of mentoring; that can be a problem with a decentralized org. It’s a tension. Most of our employees probably want more mentoring, but we also want autonomy. We are not big believers in warehousing knowledge. Designers hate reusing other people’s ideas. It’s much better to have knowledge systems that inspire people to think in new ways. So we’re a storytelling culture. It’s a bit of an obsession of ours. If you do a piece of work, your job is to have some stories to tell about it. That’s more effective than big reports that live in a database somewhere.
(JF calls for all remaining questions)
Q: My group works with at-risk youth. Education is increasingly standards based, but your work is collaborative.
Q: How do you look at chaos? People in open markets are open and affectionate. In corporate controlled spaces, people shut down.
Q: Does form drive function or vice versa?
Q: Apple is a closed system. Google wants more control. Open vs. controlled systems?
TB: 1. University ed is not always the best way to teach entrepreneurship. Apprenticeships are interesting. 2. Great markets are vibrant, but not chaotic. I take clients to the Ferry building to point out all the interrelated pieces that make that such a great experience. It’s not top down, but you can see the patterns and use them as inspiration. 3. Form follow function? Hard to kick that notion because I believe in beautiful engineering, but most things we’re designing today have hundreds of functions, so you can’t get a single form for it. 4. I love closed systems but I think they’re inevitably part of an open system. IOS is part of an open system of everything else that I do with it. We need both. [At last! Something I disagree with! Sort of! :)]
[Fantastic. I've been a huge fan of Ideo's work, and Ideo's organizational ethos, and Tim Brown, for a long time. So I felt particularly narcissistic as I heard this talk through Cluetrain and Too Big to Know lenses. Substitute "knowledge" for "design" and you get a lot of the ideas in 2b2k. To hear them coming from Tim Brown, who is a personal idol of mine, was a self-centered thrill.]