Inventing a Better Future

Not many people can say that they’ve stepped foot inside the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But for our graduate class of sixteen, last Friday, this was a rare privilege.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the MIT Media Lab, it’s an interdisciplinary research laboratory up near Boston (a.k.a. college town, where the average person’s age is 21 years old). The lab is like a real-world Willy Wonka’s Factory—a magical place where all sorts of experiments are conducted, with the aim of reinventing our future. Unlike other science laboratories, researchers are given full rein to explore what fascinates them, and their projects, sitting in intersection of technology, multimedia and design, are as outrageous as these scientists can imagine them to be. Students and researchers come from all sorts of backgrounds and fields: engineering, computer science, physics, education, music, and more.

Inside the laboratory’s clean white spaces with top-to-bottom glass walls, you will find a biomechatronics group that makes bionic limbs for amputees. You’ll meet researchers who have coded a bot to crawl the Internet and develop an algorithm that can artificially simulate the process by which humans learn language. You’ll sit through a demonstration of the work of a scientist who has outfitted the entire building with sensors, letting workers stroll into their rooms and have the lights automatically turn on and the temperature regulated according to their preference. The building also tracks staff members’ movements so that when, for instance, an individual approaches an interactive display in the lobby, it flashes their identity on the screen. It can even trace the movement of crowds throughout time, so a researcher can figure out when a large event has taken place. The lab plays host to numerous other secret projects that look towards how we can integrate tech into our future.

If there’s one place to make you rue the day you chose your career path and make you wish earnestly that you could be a scientist instead, this may be the one.

On the other hand, our trip to the MIT Media Lab served as plain reminder to me about everything I love covering in my field: the marriage of science and technology giving rise to innovation, innovation changing the lives of people, and this change being driven by clever folks letting their imaginations run loose.

If I can’t be a scientist, there is nothing else I would rather be than the journalist who writes about science. It doesn’t seem like a bad route to me at all.

A Proposal

It is difficult to identify significant holes in the coverage of tech, especially since the very essence of the subject lends itself to quick and near-instant reporting. In tech journalism, it is the fleet-footed who succeed. If you are the first source to break a piece of news, you get linked to and subsequently receive all the incoming links from the audiences of different sites—which translate into precious hits. You can also get syndicated as the main source on Techmeme (an aggregator site), establishing credibility by having others acknowledge that your reporting is the best version out of many others.

Since tech coverage is so dynamic and never at rest, it seemed particularly challenging to figure out a specific area where reporting can be improved. But with a long view on the topic, you don’t end up having to look too hard.

It’s people in tech that often go unnoticed.

Certainly, the most popular figures of the industry are written about. Extensively, even. Who hasn’t read something on the life and influence of Steve Jobs? Heard about Bill Gates and the rise (and plateau) of Microsoft? Admired the leap taken by Sergey Brin and Larry Page when they founded Google while they were students at Stanford University?

But these notable individuals are the famous ones, the ones sitting on millions of dollars for inventions adopted by the masses. What about the legions of innovators working on their apps, 3D printers, kinetic sculptures, and robots? Only a handful of news outlets are telling their story.

I propose that in the same way that tech news covers the famous gadget conferences—the International Consumer Electronics Show, Mobile World Congress, and CTIA The Wireless Association, among others—tech should also pay attention to the hackathons, the maker faires, open source and DIY gatherings, the code camps.

For instance, EHSM (Exceptionally Hard & Soft Meeting) is about to be held in Berlin, from December 28-30, 2012. It’s a coming together of the forerunners of the DIY movement, like the guy who built a nuclear fusion reactor in his basement when he was 17 years old or the inventor of the AlphaSphere, a spherical and tactile interface for music performance and production.

Maker Faires are held all over the country, with flagship maker faires held annually in San Mateo, California, Detroit and New York City. The New York Maker Faire is also known as “World Maker Faire.” It’s backed by Make Magazine, and some projects shown off at these fairs include Bre Pettis’s 3-D printer, the Makerbot, and the $35 barebones computer, Raspberry Pi.

Or how about tech reporters dropping in on and covering hackathons, which encompasses a vibrant community of programmers collaborating intensively on software projects? The group doesn’t just include coders, but also graphic designers, UI experience designers, project managers and more. Major cities are likely to host several of these a year. Here in New York, one of the biggest organized efforts is a group called Hack NY.

I propose that more coverage of people who are extremely passionate about tech improves the status quo of tech coverage. Most people get the wrong idea about this realm—they think of hackers as devious, loner types knocking down firewalls, cracking passwords, and gaining access to secure system networks that hold our valuable information. But tech is so much more than about the technical; it is a highly creative endeavor. A concerted effort to humanize tech might overturn this assumption.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Data Visualization in Tech

There are many useful—and beautiful—data visualization sets in tech. Let me introduce you to some.

1. “Technology Footprint: Starting Up in New York” by The New York Times

Have you ever wondered where the tech hot zones are in Manhattan? Did you know that Twitter, Facebook and Google all have headquarters in the Big Apple? In November of last year, the New York Times published this handy map of Silicon Alley—the city’s answer to Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. The push for New York to be a new hotbed for incubating startups is still in full swing, and apart from the big names, you can see where nascent tech companies are setting up shop.

2. “Envisioning Emerging Technology for 2012 and Beyond” by Envisioning Tech

This beautiful infographic highlights what we can expect to be the significant strides in innovation from now until the year 2040. The graphic is separated into categories and includes fields such as artificial intelligence, sensors, robotics, materials, energy, space, and many more.

The project, compiled by Michell Zappa of the tech forecasting firm Envisioning Technologies, aims to help audiences get a visual sense of incoming innovations and take a long view to see their potential impact. The website version also provides an interactive experience, letting users point at an item to see a longer description of each development from the different fields. The potential impact of each technology is represented by the size of the nodes.

Here are some of the advancements Zappa predicts:

  • 2018: Self-driving cars
  • 2019: Space tourism
  • 2026: Domestic robots
  • 2033: Remote presence
  • 2035: Human missions to Mars

3. “Mapping How Viral Photos Spread” by Stamen Design

Likes and comments are one thing, but they don’t track how a really great link is shared through the networked world of Facebook. Stamen Design, a design and technology studio based in San Francisco, recognized this, and came up with this stunning animation to show how a link can spread virally.

Hit play, and you’ll see how one source creates tendrils and winds around the space. There’s a quick eruption at the beginning, then the vines reach around and curl off into different groups. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.

How Tech Covered the Elections

The U.S. presidential election is finally over, and President Barack Obama has been elected to serve a second term as the leader of the free world. When an event as momentous for the world as this transpires, even the realm of tech cannot help but participate in the commentary.

Indeed, tech outlets came up to bat. For all the hand-wringing that’s supposed to be going on in journalism, tech is certainly one beat that’s got a good grasp on what it means to cover news as it breaks, and even put a creative spin on technically unrelated—though still universally meaningful—events such as the 2012 Presidential Elections. Examining a few outlets’ coverage of the elections last night can give us an idea of how these outlets cover “tech news for humans” on a regular, day-to-day basis.

Right away, TechCrunch (and it’s worth noting, other outlets as well) had a piece on what Obama’s victory means for tech. The article outlines the President’s technology agenda, including what tech-savvy folk can look forward to in the next four years with Obama at the helm. It’s an arguably an obvious article, but nonetheless an important one as technologists are directly reminded how this election affects them and their interests.

TechCrunch also kept its pulse on the smaller pieces of news, popping them as soon as they emerged. It reported on how Obama’s tweet—a photo of him and his wife hugging with the description “four more years”—rapidly became the most retweeted tweet of all time (600K retweets at last count). It noted how Obama sent out an email announcing his win to millions of supporters, even before he went onstage to give his acceptance speech.

There was once a time when the public had to gather in front of a television screen (or wait for a newspaper the next morning, if you didn’t have a TV set) to hear about current events. Today, this is no longer the case, and I think we’re in an ever better position for it. The media might appear to be expressing endless distress about how information is disseminated to the masses, but I suspect that no one actually wants to go back to the way things were.

It was refreshing to see TechCrunch situate the dramatic effect of technology in context:

“The 2012 election was a whole different ballgame thanks to technology. We gathered together on the second screen through the debates, polls, and the election itself today.

Social media isn’t just for campaigning or communicating with the tech-savvy audience anymore. It has become possibly the most vivid and persuasive way candidates interact with their supporters. And now email has become so ubiquitous that it can deliver messages of the greatest importance, like accepting the presidency of the United States of America.

…Technology lets us know more about those we elect, so we can make better decisions about whether to re-elect them.”

For more thought-provoking analysis by the outlet, TechCrunch’s commentary on The New York Times election statistician Nate Silver’s success is worth looking into. It questions whether it would be better for television networks to replace their pundits with competitor statisticians, but points out that mathematicians’ complex models are not easily understood by a general audience, and may not be sustainable.

One tech outlet whose coverage disappointed me slightly, however, was Engadget. The blog is an entrenched publication in tech, though they were conspicuously quiet about election coverage, preferring to stick to hard gadget news. I understand that they may not feel the elections was within their scope, but to ignore the event outright seemed problematic.

As elections night wore on, I kept one eye on Buzzfeed Tech for quick bites of commentary on the outcome. Not only were its posts hilariously entertaining, it actually traced the trajectory of the event in a way that made you reflect on how people thought about this year’s elections. Here are some choice articles Buzzfeed published: 37 People Who Say They’re Moving To Australia If Obama Wins. 17 People Talking About Assassinating The President. Obama’s Final Campaign Stop: Reddit. What I appreciate about Buzzfeed is how they are totally transparent about the mix of viral posts and honest (and caustic) tech commentary that they publish.

There’s no denying that at this point, tech outlets must participate discussions that impact the world. After all, tech is intimately entwined with the platforms people use to break news today (Twitter, Facebook, email, and other social media). If humans never had an inclination towards tech, we would have never had access to these new and more direct avenues of sharing news either.

Hello world!

Hello, world! Sure, I’ll keep that introduction. It’s as trite as an initial salutation can be, but still obligatory for a first post. In this blog, I’ll be talking about tech. It’s an area I’m comfortable covering, totally within my realm—especially having covered it my entire reporting life. But instead of writing news about the emergence of product after product—as is the coverage style in many news outlets—I will be focusing on the big tech trends and issues, and how they affect real people. So: tech developments that are increasingly affecting a wide swath of people (voice recognition and augmented reality, for instance), as well as innovations, startups and tech culture.

There are already many sources who get tech right. Buzzfeed Tech is excellent, for one. (Their mantra, “tech for humans,” is quite aligned with my interest.) Gizmodo‘s got their head screwed on right, too. TechCrunch is great for learning about new startups and innovations, and Wired is amazing for tech culture. If you’re interested in someone to follow on Twitter, Mat Honan and Matt Buchanan are active tweeters and amazing writers. John Gruber and Robert Scoble are both well-established figures to follow in the tech world.

People are still pretty skeptical about tech impacting their lives. They call themselves old and tired and say they can’t adapt to new platforms anymore, can’t get past regular pen and paper. But I would argue that when we harness the power of tech, we can get so much more accomplished than we would have before our networked world. For example: In the time I’ve put this blog up, I’ve gotten stranded in North Carolina with three other girls during a Science Writers Conference. My classmates and I were dumbfounded when we found out there would be a 44-hour wait time on the American Airlines customer service line before we would be connected to a real person on the other end. So I fired up FastCustomer app, and had it wait on the phone for me. My phone rang when there was an actual human being to talk to.

Meanwhile, I’ve been tracking Sandy on Google’s Crisis Response Center—which looked at the hurricane’s progress along its path via webcams, as well as emergency resources nearby. My classmates and I hit up a bar yesterday night, and watched NYC get razed to the ground on CNN on mute. But I was following a faster source: Twitter, which showed me a video of the exploding transformer on the Lower East Side before it was broadcast on television. If I hadn’t had the TV up in front of me at all, I could still find out what was going on.

My classmates and I have been itching to get back to New York. (I think it’s inherent in journalists to yearn to be part of the action.) But it’s all right—we’ll be back soon. Upon waking this morning, my TripIt app alerted me that my flight was still on track and that I should check in. We chose the window seat online so we could get an aerial view of the city flying in. I’ll see you soon, NY.