Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Notes from (Mind) Camp

Hello Mother, Hello Father...greetings from (er, following) Mind Camp...

Yes, I was also a Mind Camp 1.0 attendee and participant. Several have already provided some nice summaries of the event (search for mindcamp1.0 tags at del.icio.us or technorati) so I won't dwell too much on them. It did intrigue me however that there seemed to be a great deal of folks interested in this broader notion of "community" or overall common good, through tech. If anything, that right there is worth the notion of holing up in an office building with 150 strangers for 24 hrs.

The first session I attended was on a discussion on the role of location based technology and community. Specifically, Kevin Moore from Microsoft wanted to know how to find interesting people with similar interests in a given area. Understandably, dodgeball, plazes, tribe, upcoming, tagging and city specific sites like Seattlest cropped up. The discussion then flowed to topics of data control, privacy, but also to what end do we want to use this information. Is it just for pure pleasure? Is it to help us have a better sense of who's around us by having a pseudo-bumper sticker of our interests and the like? Perhaps it's more purposeful than any of that by driving a community-driven marketplace for civic good, or combating our social dis-ease with one another. Or maybe, it's really a combination of all of this and other things not discussed like Playtime Inc or unimagined. At any rate, after the 45 minute session, I was intrigued at the possibilities for the rest of the event.

Later in the day, I pulled together a discussion on the role of game play, civics and technology. We started off the event with a round of Massively Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling just to get the energy flowing. What ensued after was a discussion that looked at flashmob-like events, the role of authenticity of message, organizations vs communities, reputation, surprise, play shifting expectations, and finding bridgers to connect otherwise unjoined networks...you know, just a few minor topics ;-)

Another session of note was Shelly Farnham's presentation on collaboration in the Katrina aftermath. Formerly of Microsoft Research, Shelly discussed the impact of Groove and the humanitarian relief efforts that followed Katrina in New Orleans. Some of the points focused on the intersection of the ad hoc and official relief groups, collaboration (or lack there of), and the *BIG* role of social capital were of special interest to me. The social capital aspect struck a chord with me; that people literally called those they personally knew for assistance to get something done was both exciting and sad at the same time. It's great that people connected with one another to get the assistance they needed. It's sad that the system failed to such an extent that people were left to fend for themselves. The question of how can technology help amplify the social networks of people with the end goal of assistance is a fabulous research direction. The role of helping to ensure those with limited social networks can also be effective is another key area in my book. Whether it's from the view point of those who need assistance and ensuring that they have the same opportunities and benefits as those with vast social networks, or whether it's from the standpoint of a relief worker who is new to the scene and needs to get something done...leveraging social networks for all is extremely important.

The other session that underscored community and the common good was wifi as a potential democratizing element. Korby Parnell and Jennifer Batten(?) talked of the possibilities of rolling out wifi in cities, partnering with libraries to essentially free information and overall help bridge the digital divide by making information and access more widely accessible. First, I love the concept, and I would personally like to have wifi wherever I go. I also love the intent of freeing more information, and helping people by getting information out there. However, I do not agree that these acts in and of themselves will make the divide disappear though. To me, providing the tools like wifi and access to solve social problems such as the digital divide is like saying providing a hammer and building materials will solve homelessness. Social problems facing our society, while they can certainly benefit from technology, cannot be solved by tech alone. Systematic issues as Nancy White raised, or the human factors as Liz Lawley pointed out, must be accounted for and built into the overall solution if we are to make headway on a rather complex social issue. I was a bit surprised at the level of defensiveness of some in the room at the notion that tech alone can't solve it, though at the same time, if one's experience is living proof of the bootstrap model, I can see how one might feel attacked by such an idea. Ultimately though, I was pleased that people are wanting to work towards solutions such as this. I am glad to know that there is this notion of common good and helping others in an increasingly fragmented world.

Aside from those sessions, it seemed others had this notion of connecting with others and helping people. For example, it was great to hear that folks like Kuang Chen and Alice Lin are also interested in using tech to help others in ways similar to NPower Seattle or OneNW. Through countless discussions with folks, it seems clear to me that there is this hunger for connection, for utilizing tech knowledge and expertise to help others, and simply put – community.

Overall it was a great conference. I liked the whole open space notion of it – you really get what you put into it. I met some wonderful people, and learned (unfortunately, after the fact) of more folks I'd like to talk with in greater detail. Thanks to the lock picking folks too -- great session. Now where do I get a kit? ;-) Anyway, I look forward to the next Mind Camp!

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