Meetings with Remarkable People: Pranav Mistry of MIT Media Lab

This week I interviewed Pranav Mistry onstage at the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma City.   Pranav was catapulted to fame last year by virtue of his talk at TED, titled “The Thrilling Potential of SixthSense Technology.”

His formal title is “research assistant and PhD candidate” in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab.   That title is a spectacular understatement.    It’s like calling Thomas Edison a telegraph operator, or Albert Einstein a patent clerk.
Pranav is a prolific inventor.   His specialty is Continue Reading

Meetings with Remarkable People: Bill Anoatubby, Governor of The Chickasaw Nation

During this week’s Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma City, I met Bill Anoatubby, the Governor of the Chikasaw Nation.  The tribe was one of the leading sponsors of the Forum.

Governor Anoatubby’s role in making the Forum possible was hailed by several civic leaders in OKC.   So I was keenly interested in learning more about him and his achievements.  It’s a remarkable tale. Continue Reading

Welcome to Surveillance Nation: what happens when spy camera data is merged with online profiles

There’s a lively debate underway about the erosion of privacy in digital media, focusing lately on the careless handling of Facebook data by bottom feeder RapLeaf.   This is a useful discussion but it does not address the proliferation of surveillance technologies that now pervade the real world around us.
I’m not referring to your web browsing habits (there is already a multi-billion dollar industry of tracking your online behavior).   I’m talking about your daily activity in the city where you live.
Whether you know it or not, your public life is being converted into somebody else’s digital data.   For control.   For profit.  For entertainment. Continue Reading

Meetings with Remarkable People: My Conversation with Stef Wertheimer in Tel Aviv

While visiting Israel last week for the Journey Conference, I learned about some inspiring developments in the Middle East.  Israel is rocking!

It was an illuminating experience for me.  In the USA, the mainstream media diet includes a steady supply of sensational stories about the Middle East, featuring suicide bombings, terrorism, rocket attacks and reprisals.
So one might arrive in Tel Aviv expecting fear and chaos.  But the reality is Continue Reading

It’s official. I’ve joined the board of Visual DNA!

Today  the UK firm Visual DNA announced that Robert Tercek has joined their Board of Directors.   Here’s the link to the TechCrunch coverage.
For several years, Visual DNA has been developing sophisticated tools for online publishers and advertisers, operating as Imagini Europe.  Now the company is Continue Reading

Are Your Leaders Investing in the Future… or The Past?

While the US government struggles to control spending on 20th-century obligations like an overseas empire and bloated entitlement programs, it may be instructive to consider where other nations invest their money.  

The pragmatic Chinese leadership puts government money to work via investment in 21st-century infrastructure that will accelerate business in the years to come.  Take a look at how Chinese state-of-the-art airports contrast with woeful US airports.   

And don’t forget that, once you exit from the fancy new Chinese airport in Shanghai, you step aboard a futuristic maglev train that whisks visitors into the city at 300mph.    Compare that to the abysmal ground transport services at Washington Dulles Airport provided by monopoly service provider Washington Flyer

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Wakeup Call: Are You Prepared for Post-Prohibition America?

Will California lead the nation in legalizing pot?   A few years ago, this question would have seemed absurd, even unthinkable.

As recently as 2007, federal agents in full body armor and automatic weapons raided Hollywood pot dispensaries.  This action took place within the context of chronic Orange Level Terror Alerts, so the population was already conditioned Continue Reading

Setting the record straight about Professional Coaching

There’s a group of smart entrepreneurs and businessmen in town that I respect quite a lot.  They recently had a big discussion about the value of coaching.  Not professional sports coaching, but career coaching.
Most of the guys responded in a predictable fashion:  they were snide and dismissive about the concept of life coaching.   The most outspoken in the group were quick to cite Continue Reading

Creative Self-Destruction at Humanity+ ?

Call it the Success Paradox.   When an organization reaches a new stage of growth, it may experience cataclysmic internal turmoil.
The Success Paradox happens to startup ventures that lack a cohesive management structure:  when the company makes a growth leap, say, from 25 to 50 employees, or from 100 to 200 employees, the shift always comes with a good deal of attendant trauma.   The camraderie and enthusiasm of the rapid growth phase wanes, replaced by politics, drama, turf wars, infighting, restructuring, disorientation, even disillusionment.   Some people depart for greener pastures, others jockey for position in the new organization, and the rest grumble and return to the engine room.
Sometimes, the organization is damaged by the chaos.  But sometimes, a new and better-structured organization emerges from the chaos.  In other words, the stresses of growth trigger a seismic shift that may cause the whole edifice to tumble down… or end up more stable.
During the past couple of weeks, Humanity + has experiencing something akin to the Success Paradox.   For years, this group has existed as a fanclub for those who support “transhumanism” (which is an inelegant word to describe the extension of human capabilities through technology).     Humanity+ wasn’t very big, it wasn’t particularly ambitious, and it did not have much influence on public policy, academic research, funding, public awareness or any other outside group.   It was not controversial, nor did it achieve any notoriety or acclaim in the outside world.
During the past year, however, the arrival of a new Executive Director, Alex Lightman, injected new energy and greater ambition into the organization. Alex organized two summit events, one in Los Angeles and the other in Cambridge, which gathered leading research scientists together with thinkers from other fields.   Although some of the core scientists were surprised by the introduction of newcomers from outside the domain of science, it was a smart move.  Alex raised the profile of the organization, and thereby brought it to the attention of policy makers, media executives, marketing whizkids, bloggers and others who, in turn, spread the word to their networks.
The timing was good.  Humanity + was bouyed by a rising tide of awareness about the Singularity and the now-daily advances in  the fields of robotics, nanotechnology, anti-aging, cognitive science.    Alex positioned the organization at the forefront of this trend, and as a result, Humanity + suddenly was on the brink of becoming relevant to a much broader group.    Following June’s H+ conference at Harvard University, the group set its sights higher, on matters of public policy, culture & morality, and the issue of managing growing public perception of the radical scientific breakthroughs.
Suddenly, H+ mattered.    Or at least it looked like it had a chance to matter.
And then, just like clockwork, the whole thing exploded.
A few weeks ago, three members of the board of directors abruptly resigned.   Then Alex Lightman resigned from his executive role in order to run for a board seat.   And then, last week,  the Chairman of Board at Humanity + issued a message to members instructing them not to vote for Alex but instead to direct their votes to a slate hand-picked by him.   The jockeying continued over this past weekend.  One board member has nominated her husband for a seat.  Others are calling upon friends from the past to fill the void and return to the familiar past.
Whatever consensus and goodwill existed in June has been dissipated within a few short weeks.   Dark allegations abound about ethical lapses, cronyism, mischief, board-packing.    The current Chairman of the board has suggested that he and other board members will resign en masse if they don’t get their way.
Wallace Stanley Sayre quipped that “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.”   The same can probably be said of politics inside a bubble where geeks posit hypothetical scenarios for human evolution.
The question remains whether this is merely self-inflicted destruction, or possibly creative destruction. Can Humanity+ recover from the conflict?   Or will the organization fall apart?
At the moment, it could go either way.
Half of the candidates are longtime members of the transhumanist movement, including one person who claims to have coined the term (not something I’d want to take credit for, since it is such an ugly phrase… but then again it is better than the alternative, “extropian” .    No surprise that this group had a small following in the early days when it bore that moniker).
Many of these candidates have the very vocal support of some current board members.   Which is no surprise, because they represent voices of the past.  Familiar names and faces who can reliably be counted upon to help the board restore the cosy club of the past.
On the other hand there are some intriguing newcomers who might be able to inject the organization with the DNA to evolve and grow to a new evolutionary niche.   These candidates include legendary publicist Howard Bloom.
What determines the fate of organizations who suffer from the “Success Paradox”?   In my own experience, the key determinant is whether or not the organization is open to change.   Big change.   Not just rearranging the deck chairs, but retooling the entire enterprise on a bigger scale.  Are people in the organization prepared for new roles, a new focus, a new set of priorities, possibly a completely different organization?
The first question to ask is:  is the current leadership even qualified to manage such a massive transformation?
Often what happens in a startup company is that founders exit to make room for professional managers.  Or they accept a subordinate role (in R&D, for instance), relinquishing the top role to a new CEO.   But this requires humility, self awareness and an ego that is under control.  As well as the confidence to turn the controls over to somebody new.
Plus, you will often see an exodus of the “all-purpose” executives who did a little bit of everything:  marketing, product, sales, distribution.    These “general purpose execs” move on to new ventures, making room for specialists.  This is often for the good of the entire organization.
What never seems to work, in my experience, is when a founder or board member attempts to seize control by resisting the new management who have been brought in precisely for the purpose of growing the venture.   The result is almost always destructive, and not in a creative way.     Once an organization commits to growth, you can’t revert back to the cosy past.   You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube.   And you can’t re-bottle the change genie.
For Humanity+,  this election is a question of whether the organization seeks to embrace the future or cling to the past.  New directors with new perspectives could aid the organization by opening doors to new alliances, new partnerships, new constituents and potentially new sources of funding.  H+ is on the verge of becoming relevant to a broader group, and thereby the organization could exert influence far beyond its size, setting forth a rational logic for adopting the new technologies that will guide human evolution.   That’s a exciting mission, and a message that is sorely needed in today’s fractious, polarized political landscape.
For an organization that is so clearly committed to a vision of the future, this decision strikes me as a no-brainer.

Call it the Success Paradox.   When an organization reaches a new stage of growth, it may experience cataclysmic internal turmoil.

The Success Paradox happens to startup ventures that lack a cohesive management structure:  when the company makes a growth leap, say, from 25 to 50 employees, or from 100 to 200 employees, the shift always comes with a good deal of attendant trauma.   The camraderie and enthusiasm of the rapid growth phase wanes, replaced by Continue Reading

Negroponte: physical books “dead” within five years

Bold speculation from MIT Media Lab founder Nick Negroponte at the Techonomy Conference in Lake Tahoe. Citing the rapid decline of film photography and music as precedents, Negroponte speculates that “It’s happening. It is not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years.”

This is a little bolder than my prediction that physical books will be all but finished by 2016. I agree with him.…

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