BROOKE GLADSTONE: If colors were musical notes, this is how painting would sound.
MAN: This is the sound of red paint.
[SOUNDS] This is the sound of yellow paint.
[SOUNDS] This is the sound of violet.
[SOUNDS] This is the sound of green.
[SOUNDS] And blue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was just one of dozens of school projects of what may be the nation’s coolest science/art fair, New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, sometimes described as the “Center for the Recently Possible.” Here, using the latest tools, the students are building stairways to cyberspace. And with each successive class bringing the real and virtual worlds closer and closer together, NYU’s two-year program turns out crops of theorists, programmers and artists intent on better living through computer science.
ADI MAROM: My name is Adi Marom, and my project is Short++. And I was always the shortest kid in the class, and I decided to come up with a solution to solve this problem. So basically these are elevator shoes that I control with an iPhone application. So whenever I want to be tall, I just press a button and I change my height.
MUSTAFA BAGDATLI: I am Mustafa Bagdatli, and this is my project. It’s called Poker Face. It’s a personal mood coach. I'm using two different sensors. One of them is a heart rate monitor and the other one is galvanic skin response, which is on my wrist. So these are detecting the changes in my mood, and if there’s anything changing, it’s changing the color of the screen in here. So you know how I'm feeling by just looking at the color. Also, it’s vibrating, so I'm able to see if there’s any change in my mood. So if I was about to say something mean to someone, and if I was angry, and I feel like it’s vibrating, so I can stop myself and not say it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So for people who have impulse issues, they can see exactly when trouble is brewing before it starts.
MUSTAFA BAGDATLI: Exactly. I mean, that was my inspiration, actually. I, I needed to stop myself somehow, and I start building this. Also, I have a visualization, so you can just go through your day and see the pictures and the sensor graphics and then identify what’s changing your mood. You can see the people in the pictures, and if they're affecting you, you can ignore them in your life. The other thing that you can see in this application, this is my Google calendar. And, for example, Sunday, May 2nd, you can see I’m having a breakfast, I’m okay. But when I came to ITP – that was before my thesis presentation – I was really nervous, and it’s all the way up. So I, I feel like this is pretty accurate to see all this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So right now, is your monitor on?
MUSTAFA BAGDATLI: Yeah, it is on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It goes from a slightly rose color to a slightly white-ish color?
MUSTAFA BAGDATLI: White, the, the pure color, that means that I'm calm. But a little pinkish color, that means I'm a little excited, I guess. And in, in this situation, I'm assuming that I'm a little excited ‘cause I did this show and I’m done with school so, you know, I'm having fun in here.
[MUSICAL TONES/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But taken together, the students’ projects extend far beyond themselves. They've taken on and intend to conquer a world crammed with unsorted, unfiltered, unmanageable info bits. You want to know what the world cares about and when it cares about it? With technology that can collate and correlate Internet searches and media coverage, the Zeitgeist can be read with the same precision as Mustafa’s heart rate.
ZOE FRAADE-BLANAR: My name is Zoe Fraade-Blanar, and this is a project called Current. And Current is basically a meme tracker. It’s going through what is it that America has been interested in, in the last 24 hours. So, for example, starting about one o'clock, everyone really wanted to know about Lena Horne’s death. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there’s layers upon layers. Like, this is the epidermis. But what’s the significance of the little orange circles, the medium-sized pink circles, the big green circles, and so on?
ZOE FRAADE-BLANAR: Each of these circles is a news item. So every time you see a circle inside this information stream, that’s a successful news item. That’s a time when someone wrote an article and it created interest or it piggybacked off of interest. Every time that we see some circles outside, it was unable to fertilize a meme. They were unsuccessful new stories. So, for example, “Gulf Winds Turn against BP”: no one cares anymore. It’s, it’s over. There is no interest. I watched that meme go by days ago. The color of the meme is linked to how saturated with news that meme is. So if you’re a journalist, you want the lightest color memes, the memes that no other journalist has thought to cover yet. On the other hand, if you have a huge meme, very dark colored, like Alicia Etheridge, don't bother covering this meme. It’s already saturated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I see. So this is potentially a guide for journalists looking for hot stories that haven't yet achieved saturation.
ZOE FRAADE-BLANAR: Very much so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any qualms about this technique and what its impact might be on media coverage? For instance, if somebody says, well, they shouldn't be covering the new nominee for the Supreme Court because it’s already saturated, would that prevent people from maybe finding out important news that just hasn't made it on the board?
ZOE FRAADE-BLANAR: On the contrary, I think actually what this would help news media to do is to choose which topics that are sensational they can cover to get the most amount of traffic, and that’s going to free up time and resources for more important coverage. If instead of covering every celebrity scandal you just cover the one that’s going to get you that same amount of people, think about how many people could be covering Greece. It’s not your percent of soft news that goes up, it’s just the quality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky has a threefold role in the Interactive Telecommunications Program. He helps run the mechanics of the students’ theses, the final projects I've been walking through. He teaches the Theory and Practice of Social Media. And recently he’s helped to launch a partnership with UNICEF, in which students work on projects that involve social media for development organizations. Currently, he’s excited about an application that’s deceptively simple and obvious, and yet never employed before, to save families.
CLAY SHIRKY: The application’s called RapidFTR, and FTR is the development community’s acronym for Family Tracing and Reunification. When a disaster strikes, whether it’s an earthquake or a civil war, it’s really in the few hours to few days after the disaster, after the separation, that is really the golden hour. That’s the time at which you could intervene and reunite these families. And yet, the current system for managing that involves, I kid you not, loading carbon paper onto planes and flying it there. And the students said, it doesn't have to be this way. So they've designed a system – it works on mobile phones, it works on laptops, it works on netbooks – which makes it simpler to take a child’s picture, record their information and simultaneously send it to the local office, send it to the national office, send it to the international office, whereas before with paper it had to go in several steps, and just speed up the information- gathering part of family tracing and reunification. And UNICEF looked at that in December, when they came to critique the class, and they said, this is very interesting, thank you so much. But there was a sense of oh, someday we could have something like this. Then they catch a guy trying to leave Haiti with several dozen five, six, seven-year-old girls, and suddenly the bias went to, can we have this now. Jorge, the student whose thesis it is, said, I'll sign up for that. And Jorge now runs a global team of developers. There are 30 people working on this project worldwide, even before he graduates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: ITP is now in its 31st year.
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, obviously, it well predates the kind of potential of new media that we've seen in the last 15 years. How has it changed while you've been here?
CLAY SHIRKY: The thing that made the place what it was, in 1979, in the founding year, was Red Burns, our founder and still director saw the handicam and public access cable television, and she said, this is it, media’s getting democratized, the number of inputs are expanding, the number of outputs are expanding. And she got the theory right, but it turned out that the handicam and public access television didn't have the practical effect on the world. And she made an incredibly fateful choice that has, I think, ramified to this day, which is, we don't care what technology it is, what we're interested in is the expanding range of the possible. So what’s changed in the 10 years I've been here is that there was a kind of Web and screen-based world of people doing animations, 3-D, some of the nascent social networking stuff, and there were these people down the hall working on little chips and sensors and actuators, the sort of physical computing, wearable computing stuff. And those two realms were basically separate, and now I'm seeing them join up in front of my eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is the future, though, isn't it? I mean, we get closer and closer to that technology and that technology becomes inseparable from ourselves.
CLAY SHIRKY: No, that’s right, both the number and proximity of chips around us is continuing to grow. I mean, the whole conversation about digital convergence and we'd all have one device, do you know anybody who owns one device? I mean, it was clear that the devices were coming together, but they weren't converging. They were mating. Right? And there were lots more of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've always been a believer in the one-screen theory.
CLAY SHIRKY: Do you know anybody who has fewer screens now than they used to? I mean, I do an exercise with my students at the beginning of class where we take every CPU in the room and we just pile it up on a table, every computer, every noise-canceling headphone, every digital watch, every iPad, every phone. And it is a stack of technology, layers deep. And I point out to people that in the developed world, we are living in a CPUs-per-person world, and try to get them to realize that in the developing world, the people for whom we are trying to make appropriate technology, they are in a people-per-CPU world. But I think the CPUs-per-person curve is going to continue to rise in the west for the foreseeable future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That sounds horrible. I mean, just carrying around a huge bag of a bunch of a little things?
CLAY SHIRKY: The things get smaller and smaller all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
CLAY SHIRKY: Eventually they're going to go into the back of your neck and you won't notice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re just going to wear them all, and that-
[BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CLAY SHIRKY: Wearing them is the second-to-last step. Embedding them is the last step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a matter of fact, you have a, A great example of that here, Poker Face.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right, the thing Mustafa’s working on is the idea that anything you make measurable you make controllable to some degree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he created essentially his own biofeedback system.
CLAY SHIRKY: Did he tell you what happened in his thesis presentation? He got up and the thing is bright red because, of course, he’s got stage fright. This little device he’s wearing is showing everybody else his heart rate is through the roof, he’s really nervous, he’s sweating, all of these kinds of things you can measure off the body. And he goes along and he’s giving his presentation and telling us what he does, and he says something funny, and everybody laughs. And, as often happens, when the laugh breaks the ice, he relaxes, and immediately the little screen flicks down a dial. We didn't just see him relax, see his face. We also saw the biomechanical measurements say Mustafa is now more relaxed.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] So it was so good that it was working in a feedback loop during his presentation, as he was talking about the device.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How does the Zeitgeist of the ITP change from year to year or over the course of a decade?
CLAY SHIRKY: Well, the interesting thing is over the course of the decade you really see the Zeitgeist because all the students leave. Anything that stays the same across those groups is really part of the environment, not just part of what the students brought in. So this fusion of the virtual and the real, treating the internet not as an alternative to real life but as an augmentation of it, that is absolutely part of the Zeitgeist. That keeps getting deeper and deeper. We see an increasing push towards taking large data sets and visualizing them servicing a lot of tacit information. Sometimes that information is, it’s your heartbeat, sometimes that information is, here’s what Google says about the news landscape, whereas here’s what The New York Times says about the news landscape. And I think across a number of these projects that idea of finding that tacit information, whether it’s communally held, whether it’s held in a database, whether it’s held in the body, and turning it into something you can look at or listen to and react to, is a big part of the recent theme of taking advantage of something we can know that we didn't used to know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is certainly just the explorer’s impulse. There’s a mountain there. Let's see what’s on the other side.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But then there’s the question of why, aside from just a desire to explore, why these tools, why this knowledge? Is there some sort of broader goal, or is that sort of along the lines of why were we born?
CLAY SHIRKY: We would never ask that question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I would never propose that you pose these questions to your students.
CLAY SHIRKY: Oh, okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a horribly disabling question.
CLAY SHIRKY: It’s very – yes, yes, and that’s why. Now, amongst the faculty we - of course, we, we look at these things and we examine what’s going on. I mean, one of the great themes that came out of here in the, you know, in the early part of the decade was this idea of the cityscape and social life as game board, whether it was Fiasco or Dodgeball or these kinds of services, essentially annotating your social life and telling you where your friends and their friends were. It was a – you know, it’s essentially, socially a way to see through walls. Now, amongst the faculty we recognize when a theme has arrived when independently in four or five different classes students suddenly start working on urban service design, in one way or another. And then we start recruiting people and we start making it a more formal part of the organization. The net result of that – it’s very sad [LAUGHS] is that the year after a student graduates is generally the ideal year for them to have arrived, because we've watched them, learned from them and made the program fit their interests better than it did when they got there. So we're always – what the faculty knows about the Zeitgeist is always a trailing indicator of where the students are at any given moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you ever read Katherine Hayles’ article on modes of cognition, hyper-attention versus deep attention?
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She was one of the clearest to say that a lot of the pedagogical biases towards deep attention may just simply be a remnant, and that you can't assume that the fact that you scoot over the Web, as opposed to stay with a novel for a really long time, means that something has been lost, rather than simply you have –
CLAY SHIRKY: So traded off for -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly, there’s something about skipping across the Web -
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes, yes, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and bumping into people, even if you are, like me, utterly untechnical.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I just wonder whether over the course of the ten years you see any global move towards a different kind of creativity?
CLAY SHIRKY: I think the biggest single change I've seen in the students is in the direction of collaboration. Ten years ago, when I came here, most of the biggest rooms were computer labs, and the lounge, what’s behind us over here, was mainly the waiting room for you to get access to the computer. And then it turned out that when we emptied out the space, the students would colonize it and start doing more collaborative work. And so, the amount of lateral learning – right, people having a question about a physical computing project or a video project or what have you, and not coming to us but going down the hall to their more knowledgeable peers, has gone through the roof since I've been here, and the number of collaborative projects, the number of projects that have two and three students working on them. And that’s been a function, I think, partly of opening up the space just to allow for the collaboration, and it’s been partly that the cultural norms around sharing, particularly in technology, have slowly permeated the general consciousness. What started with open-source software 24 years ago, you know, the idea that things should be shareable and interfaces should be open to other kinds of uses, has now reappeared in the guise of, of, you know, collaborative work. When students show up here, we say to them in their fall semester, you have to sit in a room in a plenary conversation, which - which Red Burns, our founder, runs, in which a different person is going to get up every week and present their work, so that your class can synchronize around a set of conversations, because somebody who’s adept at creating video and someone who’s adept at creating tools that make video interactive can make a more interesting project together than either of them could make by themselves. This is one of my great complaints about the rise of the novel as the sacred kind of western art, as the one shining example of sterling product of single mind. It became sacred only when it became challenged, right? All of these concerns about the novel really only arose when collaborative modes of production started putting themselves forward as an interesting alternative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So people who despair about the future of education in the digital age, these threats to old modes of creativity, basically it’s not a cliff we're jumping off out there; it’s just a new future.
CLAY SHIRKY: Yeah, from my point of view, education’s always a set of tradeoffs, right? There’s different equilibrium states. You get one thing out of quiet contemplation. You get other things out of noisy collaboration. You know, you need a mix. We're leaving a world where quiet contemplation was the norm. I deal with 25-year-olds and 30-year-olds all the time, and I'm not at all worried. The future they are pursuing, it makes me want to eat my Wheaties to live as long as I can, to see what they make because they're such extraordinary people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Clay.
CLAY SHIRKY: You’re very welcome, Brooke. Thanks very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky is an author, consultant and teacher in NYU’s Graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, or ITP, which held its 2010 Spring Show this week.
ALEXANDER KAUFFMANN: Okay, so my name is Alexander Kauffmann. My thesis project was called Value Propositions. The idea was if people aren't willing to spend money on content online, why is that? And let's try to get at that answer slightly obliquely, by getting them to expend other types of value. So ValetWall basically demands that you talk to my grandma for 15 minutes on the phone, and then it allows you to access content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how could you create content that would make it worthwhile for someone to talk to your grandmother – I'm sure she’s a lovely woman – for 15 minutes?
ALEXANDER KAUFFMAN: It’s never worthwhile to talk to my grandmother [LAUGHS] for 15 minutes. And that’s the point.