Mentor Speak: Brenda Laurel

June 22, 2012 1:00 pm

Brenda Laurel photoBrenda Laurel, legendary designer, researcher and writer, is helping shape hearts and minds of Mix & Stir’s entrepreneurs. We chatted at 35,000 ft. on the way to Atlanta.

Brenda, you’re a Silicon Valley design pioneer with more perspective than most. What industry changes have most surprised you?

What’s most surprised me was the web. I’m sure that many folks take it for granted that it was “natural evolution” for the web to appear. But when I first started working in Silicon Valley, it was the days of “standards committees” who were in charge of plotting the development of various key protocols and technical developments. Tech companies sent representatives to standard committees where they would debate – slowly and deliberately – how a thing should be constructed, standardized, used. These were cumbersome entities – often with subsurface competitive agendas – that were unlikely to permit anything as free-flowing as the web.

What allowed the web to happen is the tremendous ability of technology to support emergence. If standards committees had tried to design the web, they would still be working on it. Instead, it emerged naturally and quickly, fueled by human ingenuity both from users and entrepreneurs. For example, the development of search engines was a key entrepreneurial ingredient, and later, the rise of social networks owed a lot to users and developers who paid attention to them. For example, “Habitat” was a game that came out of Lucasfilm in the late-80s. Habitat was embodied characters with speech bubbles. Sort of a mix of social network and multiplayer game. You can draw a line from the emergence of Habitat and other early social networks all the way to FaceBook.

If you were a 20-something entrepreneur with a passion for change, where would you apply your energies? What partnerships would you seek out?

To me, the health of the planet trumps all, but there are many ways to participate: the sustainability movement, social entrepreneurship, information literacy, improved agricultural methods, creation of sensor networks – all are important and can work.

I’m particularly interested in Sean White’s work in distributed sensor networks and Deborah Estrin’s work in participatory sensing – using the eyes, ears and consciousness of people to collect data about the planet and share it through the internet. This approach has great promise to make the large view visible to us. It also can serve one day as a unifying platform, bringing together organizations like NOAA, Surfriders Foundation, National Geographic and other so that the movement strengthen models and create impacts. I see it as similar to citizen journalism or distributed computing power that is being applied to problems to big to solve by any other means (protein folding, SETI, epidemiology). Once this catches on, our awareness is bound to change and our behavior will follow suit.

I know you have a personal passion for the resonance and relevance of natural interfaces. Can you explain why you think this is important for the technology industry to understand?

It’s kind of philosophical. Look back to Copernicus or Galileo – their inventions are now celebrated and seen as extensions of human capability. But something happened in last 50 years of computing to change that. Now our response to invention is often more fear-based. We worry “what if computer’s take over?” I think of this as the “other-ing” of technology – we’ve tried to divorce ourselves from it.

But our tools are us. They are extrusions of our minds and our bodies. Generally, they do what we design them to do. If you say you’re afraid technology will allow children to see the wrong things on web, well, it’s not technology’s fault there are “wrong” things on the web that are accessible to children, its our fault. If you call it a “tech problem,” its hard to solve because you can blame something that has no agency.

I think a lot of invention – as well as ethical responsibility – is being stifled by this kind of fear and “othering.” To the extent that we can design applications and interfaces that allow us to collaborate with tech as an extension of ourselves it lets us do bold things and it allows us to look at the consequences of what we do. Again, like the sensor networks, this perspective can create a change of consciousness.

Strangely, we are as “othered” from nature as we are from technology these days. The more we can find ways to engage people in nature, to connect them with it, the more we’ll be motivated to improve the health of the planet and enhance engagement in science. There’s a few notable examples popping up like Star Walk that lets you explore the universe through your iPhone or iPad. Another good example is Smart Gardener, a web application that looks deeply at plants and the environment, then uses that information to help people create better food gardens. As we make urban gardening normative we change culture. I’m all in favor of ideas and methods that make fast, effective changes in the way we view and care for ourselves, our communities and our planet.




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