Wikimedia chair, lawyer at Creative Commons, tech policy geek, FLOSS advocate, bassoonist, violist, nerd.
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How “Demo-or-Die” Helped My Career

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I left the Media Lab 15 years ago this week. At the time, I never would’ve predicted that I learned one of the most useful skills in my career there: demo-or-die.

(Me debugging an exhibit in 2002)

The culture of “demo-or-die” has been heavily critiqued over the years. In doing so, most folks focus on the words themselves. Sure, the “or-die” piece is definitely an exaggeration, but the important message there is the notion of pressure. But that’s not what most people focus on. They focus on the notion of a “demo.”

To the best that anyone can recall, the root of the term stems back from early days at the Media Lab, most likely because of Nicholas Negroponte’s dismissal of “publish-or-perish” in academia. So the idea was to focus not on writing words but producing artifacts. In mocking what it was that the Media Lab produced, many critics focused on the way in which the Lab had a tendency to create vaporware, performed to visitors through the demo. In 1987, Stewart Brand called this “handwaving.” The historian Molly Steenson has a more nuanced view so I can’t wait to read her upcoming book. But the mockery of the notion of a demo hasn’t died. Given this, it’s not surprising that the current Director (Joi Ito) has pushed people to stop talking about demoing and start thinking about deploying. Hence, “deploy-or-die.”

I would argue that what makes “demo-or-die” so powerful has absolutely nothing to do with the production of a demo. It has to do with the act of doing a demo. And that distinction is important because that’s where the skill development that I relish lies.

When I was at the Lab, we regularly received an onslaught of visitors. I was a part of the “Sociable Media Group,” run by Judith Donath. From our first day in the group, we were trained to be able to tell the story of the Media Lab, the mission of our group, and the goal of everyone’s research projects. Furthermore, we had to actually demo their quasi functioning code and pray that it wouldn’t fall apart in front of an important visitor. We were each assigned a day where we were “on call” to do demos to any surprise visitor. You could expect to have at least one visitor every day, not to mention hundreds of visitors on days that were officially sanctioned as “Sponsor Days.”

The motivations and interests of visitors ranged wildly. You’d have tour groups of VIP prospective students, dignitaries from foreign governments, Hollywood types, school teachers, engineers, and a whole host of different corporate actors. If you were lucky, you knew who was visiting ahead of time. But that was rare. Often, someone would walk in the door with someone else from the Lab and introduce you to someone for whom you’d have to drum up a demo in very short order with limited information. You’d have to quickly discern what this visitor was interested in, figure out which of the team’s research projects would be most likely to appeal, determine how to tell the story of that research in a way that connected to the visitor, and be prepared to field any questions that might emerge. And oy vay could the questions run the gamut.

I *hated* the culture of demo-or-die. I felt like a zoo animal on display for others’ benefit. I hated the emotional work that was needed to manage stupid questions, not to mention the requirement to smile and play nice even when being treated like shit by a visitor. I hated the disruptions and the stressful feeling when a demo collapsed. Drawing on my experience working in fast food, I developed a set of tricks for staying calm. Count how many times a visitor said a certain word. Nod politely while thinking about unicorns. Experiment with the wording of a particular demo to see if I could provoke a reaction. Etc.

When I left the Media Lab, I was ecstatic to never have to do another demo in my life. Except, that’s the funny thing about learning something important… you realize that you are forever changed by the experience.

I no longer produce demos, but as I developed in my career, I realized that “demo-or-die” wasn’t really about the demo itself. At the end of the day, the goal wasn’t to pitch the demo — it was to help the visitor change their perspective of the world through the lens of the demo. In trying to shift their thinking, we had to invite them to see the world differently. The demo was a prop. Everything about what I do as a researcher is rooted in the goal of using empirical work to help challenge people’s assumptions and generate new frames that people can work with. I have to understand where they’re coming from, appreciate their perspective, and then strategically engage them to shift their point of view. Like my days at the Media Lab, I don’t always succeed and it is indeed frustrating, especially because I don’t have a prop that I can rely on when everything goes wrong. But spending two years developing that muscle has been so essential for my work as an ethnographer, researcher, and public speaker.

I get why Joi reframed it as “deploy-or-die.” When it comes to actually building systems, impact is everything. But I really hope that the fundamental practice of “demo-or-die” isn’t gone. Those of us who build systems or generate knowledge day in and day out often have too little experience explaining ourselves to the wide array of folks who showed up to visit the Media Lab. It’s easy to explain what you do to people who share your ideas, values, and goals. It’s a lot harder to explain your contributions to those who live in other worlds. Impact isn’t just about deploying a system; it’s about understanding how that system or idea will be used. And that requires being able to explain your thinking to anyone at any moment. And that’s the skill that I learned from the “demo-or-die” culture.

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mindspillage
11 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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truffledmadness: montanabohemian: etave: thebaconsandwichofregr...

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truffledmadness:

montanabohemian:

etave:

thebaconsandwichofregret:

weepingdildo:

Send me to Mars with party supplies before next august 5th

No guys you don’t understand.

The soil testing equipment on Curiosity makes a buzzing noise and the pitch of the noise changes depending on what part of an experiment Curiosity is performing, this is the way Curiosity sings to itself.

So some of the finest minds currently alive decided to take incredibly expensive important scientific equipment and mess with it until they worked out how to move in just the right way to sing Happy Birthday, then someone made a cake on Curiosity’s birthday and took it into Mission control so that a room full of brilliant scientists and engineers could throw a birthday party for a non-autonomous robot 225 million kilometres away and listen to it sing the first ever song sung on Mars*, which was Happy Birthday.

This isn’t a sad story, this a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things. We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the star to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That’s not sad, that’s awesome.

*this is different from the first song ever played on mars (Reach For The Stars by Will.I.Am) which happened the year before, singing is different from playing

People are lovely.

This a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things. We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the star to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

WE TAUGHT IT HOW TO SING.

JUST BECAUSE WE COULD.


Happy August 5, everyone.

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mindspillage
12 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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prokopetz: Of all the skills that futurists predicted would become valuable in the era of constant...

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prokopetz:

Of all the skills that futurists predicted would become valuable in the era of constant communication, I don’t think anybody saw “conversational multithreading” coming.

No, I don’t mean holding multiple conversations with different people at the same time. I mean holding two or more completely separate conversations with the same person, via the same medium, at the same time.

Like when you’re texting, and the person on the other end asks you a question, then mentally eight-tracks and asks a different, unrelated question before you’ve finished keying in your response to the first one. So you answer the first question, and a conversation based on that answer ensues; then you answer the second question, and a totally different conversation based on that answer ensues, and now you’re having two separate conversations with the same person at the same time, and have to keep track of which responses pertain to which conversation purely from context.

Sometimes I wonder what the generational cutoff for that seeming unusual is - I didn’t pick up the skill until I was like thirty, so there’s always that undercurrent of generational novelty there.

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mindspillage
13 days ago
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I love carrying on conversations this way.

In 7th grade I used to sit near three other people where we would be passing notes to each other rapid-fire all through class, different conversation on each piece of paper and sometimes more than one, usually one piece of paper in each person's hand at any one time. (This was in English class, and we were really good at English and really bored.)

This was great preparation for when I would later find IRC.
Mountain View, California
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just-shower-thoughts: A vanilla soy latte is a type of 3-bean soup.

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just-shower-thoughts:

A vanilla soy latte is a type of 3-bean soup.

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mindspillage
17 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble.

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First, read this update that CNN’s Brian Stelter included in his nightly newsletter this week:

In the past 24 hours…

 — President Trump went after two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, with “fake news” tweets.

— The White House told reporters they could cover Trump’s first re-election fundraiser, but then made an abrupt change, “closing the event to media in a break from past precedent.”

— The W.H. prohibited TV cameras at the daily press briefing again.

— The president posted James O’Keefe‘s anti-CNN videos on his official @realDonaldTrump Instagram page, promoting the videos to millions of followers.

— Trump allies in the media continued to attack. O’Keefe’s videos were a top story again on Fox News, with Tucker Carlson at 8pm, “The Five” at 9pm, and Sean Hannity at 10pm all leading with it

— The W.H. confirmed that Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in aren’t planning to hold a joint news conference when Moon is here on Friday. Joint pressers are customary when heads of state are visiting. But the W.H. didn’t schedule one when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited on Monday, either.

The Pentagon gave a non-answer when asked why Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to travel this week without the usual contingent of TV journalists.

— Journalists were told to leave a Justice Department event marking Pride month, which was taking place in an area normally open to press.

Now add to Stelter’s list these items…

* The damaging retraction by CNN of a wayward report about the Russia investigation that led to the resignation of three top journalists at the network. We still don’t know what was wrong with it; we just know that it did not pass through CNN’s checks and balances.

* Politico’s report that “Donald Trump and his allies believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media… Some Trump allies suggested that the recent misstep at CNN is enough to justify drastic changes to how the White House deals with the press, including moving reporters out of the West Wing entirely.”

* Trump’s spectacularly hateful and misogynist tweets about MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “the latest of a string of escalating attacks by the president on the national news media.”

* The recommendation by Mike Allen of Axios.com — the most insidery of all Washington journalists — to “stop going to the White House press briefings.”

* Josh Marshall’s analysis that, though the press has shown courage and enterprise in standing up to Trump, “trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior” is a futile game. Marshall points to “Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance.”

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

With all that as provocation, I want to pull the camera back a bit, and offer these thoughts: Why is this happening?

We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties.

Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond. The substitution of depth (of attachment) for breadth (of appeal) is confusing and disorienting to those who believe in consensus politics. This includes many of our most prominent journalists. They are stunned and confused by this exchange.

Among the consequences is that persuasion drops out of the calculus of success, meaning: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him. This is abnormal behavior in an American president. Common expectations for the occupant of the White House simply assume that a case will be made for why the country as a whole should support the person in power. Sitting on high, the press is accustomed to judging how strong or weak that case for support is. Opinion polls provide the proof, especially the president’s approval rating. But if strength of attachment matters more than breadth of appeal, then approval ratings are a misleading metric.

But it’s worse than that. Once you remove persuasion from the equation many things tumble out of place. Plausibility itself becomes superfluous. Adjusting the claims of the White House to any common measure of reality breaks down as a discipline. What matters is the strength of the bond with core supporters, not the ability of the Administration to answer questions, parry doubts, or mount a convincing case for its program. This is one reason that lying has become a White House routine.

And this is why the daily briefing is in such trouble. The whole premise of that event is that the White House ought to make a credible show before reporters because reporters are a rough proxy for the unconvinced. But what if the people in power don’t care to convince the unconvinced? And what if reporters are seen, not as any sort of proxy for the voting public, but as avatars of an elite that has already been put down by the prior year’s election returns?

The field of possibilities widens. Once persuasion drops out of the calculus, journalists seem less threatening as judges and more useful as foils. Peering out over the assembled press corps, the White House briefer has a choice of convenient hate objects. Shall it be Glenn Thrush or Jon Karl today… April Ryan or Hallie Jackson? Those called upon may think themselves empowered to put tough questions to the people in charge, but if the people in charge care only about the reactions of core supporters their task is all too simple: put down the liberal media. An easy win. And the one campaign promise the president seems able to keep.

The whole premise of the daily briefing is that the White House has to grapple with tough questions. That is the test. But what if the White House cares not if it fails this test? More access, more toughness, and more on-camera briefings are no answer to that. This is where we stand today. The Trump government isn’t trying to persuade its doubters. There is no form of toughness that can redress this fact. Forget the briefing. It is already gone. A dead form, killed by the president’s approach to politics. It doesn’t even go out to the country in the way a normal White House communique would. It runs through the press to the president’s core supporters in a kind of closed loop.

Time to start planning for unforeseen events. When all forms of access and all avenues for questioning are choked off, journalism can still thrive. But it needs to become smarter. This is why I have been saying since January: send the interns. Redirect your most experienced people to outside-in reporting. They cannot visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. And it has to stop volunteering as a hate object.

UPDATE July 1: A reporter in the current White House briefing room responds to what I wrote here, saying he respects the argument but disagrees. He defends the briefing and the importance of being there in the White House. Read what Hunter Walker of Yahoo News has to say. Bonus: The CBC in Canada covers this post.

The post Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble. appeared first on PressThink.

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mindspillage
25 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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A collection of free coloring books from libraries and museums

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Library Coloring Books

Library Coloring Books

Library Coloring Books

Library Coloring Books

A bunch of libraries and museums have banded together for the Color Our Collections campaign, offering up free coloring books that let you color artworks from their collections. Participating institutions include the NYPL, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Smithsonian, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford.

Tags: books   libraries   museums
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mindspillage
31 days ago
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Mountain View, California
ashaw
31 days ago
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