Back From The Microsoft Research 2010 Social Computing Symposium

Note: I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the various presentations that were given at the symposium. If you want to get an idea of what the presentations were about, you can check my tweets from last week or, better yet, go read Elizabeth Goodman’s notes taken during the symposium.

And so I’m back from outer space… no wait, from New York City, where I attended the Microsoft Research 2010 Social Computing Symposium – and then took a couple of days of vacation. As can be expected from a symposium that brings together so many smart folk, there were a lot of interesting ideas presented and discussed during the two and a half days of the symposium.

I want to particularly mention two presentations that I most enjoyed. First, Anil Dash managed to get me all fired up by talking about his efforts over at Expert Labs at trying to bring the joys of social computing and open source collaboration to the US federal government. Whenever I hear this kind of talk, I always immediately wonder if there is anything similar going on for the Canadian government and, if not, what could we do to make it happen.

In my humble opinion, Kevin Slavin of Area/Code had the best presentation, structure-wise. As you know, I’m always looking at how other people do their presentations in the hopes of improving mine. There were a lot of good presentations at SCS, but Kevin’s approach was most inspiring to me.

Kevin began by telling us about the military high tech of between the two world wars, in particular technology that amplified sound to find out if airplanes were coming (this was before radar), illustrated with lots of amusing images of the old technology. He then segued into modern warfare and how stealth airplanes were created to counter radar technology. He then moved on to an anecdote of how he met a mathematician from Russia who worked on the problem of detecting stealth airplanes and how they came up with a solution (don’t use radar, listen for a moving electrical target). He then segued into the actual subject of his talk, how algorithmic trades are now dominating how trading is done on Wall Street – tying it back both to his original story (this type of trade requires computers to “listen” to the ongoing trades) and to stealth airplanes (traders who are trying to hide large trades break it into several small trades just as stealth airplanes work by breaking up radar to make the plane look like it’s a flock of birds). I just love how he was able to take interesting stories that would seem at first glance to have nothing to do with the main proposal of his presentation – basically, how algorithmic trading is having an impact on the city’s architecture – and tie them all neatly together. Very inspiring.

There were a couple of things that I found annoying as well, although I’m an old cynic, so I can’t help but be annoyed by things. For one, the majority of people participating were young successful urban hipsters from rich countries. I was one of the rare exceptions. This meant that there was a heavy bias towards ideas and projects that were created for young successful urban hipsters from rich countries. And while I have no problem per se with people creating software aimed at this particular consumer group, it would have been nice to have a bit of variety, just to remind everyone that no, they are not representative of all the possible clientele. (At least Liz Lawley showed us a video from her ARG project created by an older woman who self-described as not being tech-savvy).

The second thing that annoyed me was a repeated theme of trying to make people conserve energy. I don’t know why this annoyed me so much. I personally think that it’s a noble cause and a good idea, so why did I find myself bristling whenever this was discussed? Well, sometimes because there was a touch of shaming people into saving (oh yeah, that’s a good idea there); sometimes because there was an attempt at turning it into a competition (seriously?). But mostly it’s because there was an unspoken presumption that everybody was on the same page and that people just needed some sort of visual reminder to goad them into the correct behaviour. Or, to put it another way, I felt as though I was being preached to. I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if the message had been something with which the group had not agreed (”sacrifice baby kittens to the Internet Gods! It will make your tubes go faster!”). What happens when you’re trying to convince people who don’t believe in the message that they should be conserving energy? You’re going to need more than fancy pie charts to get them to listen to you.

Also, I would like to apologize to the people of New York City. Before I went there, I was convinced that New Yorkers would be self-centered and unpleasant, unwilling to help strangers (kind of like Parisians – oh snap!). And you know what? I could not have been more wrong! Everywhere that we went, people were nice, friendly, open, and ready to welcome visitors. I was blown away by everyone’s kindness towards strangers. We had a great time, even though I never got to go to the museums. Sigh. Oh well, maybe next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *