Introjis: Emoticons for Introverts

February 14, 02015

Continuing the recent theme of bringing emotional richness to social media, FastCo.Exist has details of Introjis, emoticons designed for introverts by designer Rebecca Evie Lynch.

Introjis allow introverted users to express a natural and healthy affinity for solitude or quietude, and wordlessly express the occasional distress or fatigue that comes from being in the crowd too long. They’re an evocative counterpoint to more traditional emojis, which express a different range of emotional temperatures.

The “No to the invitation, but thank you!” Introji


The “I want to leave the party” Introji


The “Let’s sit quietly and do our own thing” Introji



Darwin’s Stickers

February 10, 02015

For the past year, I have been working closely with Jad Abumrad and the team at RadioLab on a fascinating story about Facebook, entitled “The Trust Engineers“.

The story centers on the work of Arturo Bejar, who is one of the technical leaders at the company, and a team of engineers, product developers and external social scientists who collectively operate under the banner of the Compassion Research Group. Together, this team is studying how our ancient human capacities for conflict, compassion, respect, trust, and empathy are expressed by people on Facebook; based on these findings, they’re reworking the service’s interface to encourage more humane relationships among its 1.3 billion users.

In addition to exploring our digital relationships and emotions, the Facebook story also touches on the ways in which our online lives are continuously experimented upon; the new ways social scientists are exploring ancient questions with ‘big data’; and the ethical considerations that such inquiries inevitably raise. Social media is changing social science, and at Facebook, we caught a glimpse of its future.

For space and flow reasons, one particularly intriguing example of this work didn’t get an in-depth airing in the radio piece, and I thought I’d relate it here more fully.

The story actually begins all the way back in 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark treatise, On the Origin on Species. In that book, Darwin famously lays out the argument that species evolve over the course of generations, through the process of natural selection. At the time, most scientists, not to mention most people, were creationists who believed that the great diversity of Life was part of a natural and unchanging order, over which God had given us dominion. Accordingly, Darwin left the natural conclusion of his argument – that human beings evolved via the same mechanism as all other species – largely unstated. (Except, for a single, telling line at end of the book: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”)

Darwin didn’t publish his own fuller views on human evolution until more than a decade later, with two works that came in rapid succession, The Descent of Man (in 1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (in 1872).

In first of these books, Darwin argued, to no one’s surprise, that human beings did indeed evolve from a common hominid ancestor. In the second book, however, he presented an argument not just about the origins of our species, but of our psyches.

His argument spoke to what was, both in Darwin’s time and our own, a commonly held view: that our emotional life – marked by feelings like grief, envy, tenderness, love, guilt, pride, and affirmation – is uniquely human. If our emotions are unprecedented, so the thinking went, then we must be, too.

To debunk this idea, Darwin presented a detailed taxonomy of forty distinct emotions, ranging from “high spirits” such as joy, to the “low” spirits” such as despair, and concluded with the more complex emotions such as shame. Then he painstakingly documented how these emotional expressions have consistent physiological roots. Everywhere, people use the same thirty muscles in our faces to pull our lips up into a smile, knit our forehead into a frown, distort our cheeks into a grimace of psychic pain, bow our heads in supplication, and tilt our necks to signal puzzlement.

Innate experssions from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(CC source: Wikimedia)

Darwin argued that these emotional expressions are not just universal across cultures, but have their roots in purposeful, and similar, animal behaviors across many mammalian species. A Chimpanzee uses similar muscle groups to purse its lips as we do, and often for the same reasons. We’re not as different – or as special – as we might suppose.

Chimpanzee pursing its lips in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(CC source: Wikimedia)

With this argument, Darwin helped advance the field of evolutionary psychology and usher forth the robust scientific study of emotional experience.  His basic thesis has been elaborated, refined, studied and debated ever since.

Researchers subsequently confirmed that human beings in both Western and non-Western societies can indeed consistently recognize a core subset of Darwin’s facial expressions. In 1967, psychologist Paul Ekman, perhaps the most well known contemporary figure in emotions research, went so far as to show these expressions to an isolated community in Papua New Guinea, who had never seen modern movies or television. They were able to identify the expressions without difficulty. Other studies have shown that our autonomic nervous system responds in consistent ways when we see Darwinian expressions of emotion – further evidence that they’re hard-wired into our biology.

Yet critics point out that both the subjective experiences and physical expressions associated with supposedly ‘basic’ emotions can vary widely even within a category. One person might stutter when enraged, while another lets loose an eloquent stream of epithets; one person might blush with quiet pride at an accomplishment, while another roars like an NFL star in the endzone.

To critics, this variability suggests that emotions are as much cultural signals as they are biological ones. To stereotype for a moment (for rhetorical purposes only – no letters, please!): is the Southern Italian, who wildly gesticulates with his hands as he talks, really using the same innate, emotional vocabulary as the famously stoic Swede? Is the facially impassive, but verbally expressive Japanese businessman really wired the same way as the ironic Brooklyn hipster? Doesn’t this variety suggest that our emotional lives are substantially, if not entirely, a matter of culture?

And, if that’s the case, why should it matter that everyone in the world can associate a smile with happiness, if people in your particular society don’t actually make a habit of smiling when they’re happy?

Here, we return to Facebook, and to the work of the Compassion Research Group. One of its leading members is the Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who co-directs that university’s aptly-named Greater Good Science Center. A former student and colleague of Ekman, Keltner’s research explores the roots of human goodness, particularly compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and how they are communicated through means of gestures, touch and expression.

During their work together, Arturo Bejar approached Keltner with an intriguing proposition: would he be interested in using what had been gleaned in the scientific study of emotions to design a ‘sticker pack’ for Facebook?

Stickers are widely-used animated icons (often of the human face or common objects) used to add expressiveness to otherwise bland text chats – think of them as more sophisticated versions of emoticons, like the “:-)”smiley face that some of us embed in our emails. Here was a chance to use Darwin’s insights to enhance the emotional content the online communications of millions of people around the world.

So Keltner turned to Matt Jones, an animator at Pixar Studios (yes, that Pixar) and gave him the job of designing 51 animated faces, mostly derived from Darwin’s original emotional taxonomy. The full list included admiration, affirmation, anger, anxiety, astonishment, awe, boredom, confusion, contemplation, contempt, contentment, coyness, curiosity, desire, determination, devotion, disagreement, disgust, embarrassment, enthusiasm, fear, gratitude, grief, guilt, happiness, high spirits, horror, ill temperment, indignant, interest, joy, laughter, love, maternal love, negation, obstinateness, pain, perplexity, pride, rage, relief, resignation, romantic love, sadness, shame, sneering, sulkiness, surprise, sympathy, terror, and weakness.

Early studies for Matt Jones’ Darwinian Facebook stickers.
(Source: Dacher Keltner)

To succeed online, Jones’ sticker designs would have to consistently communicate these emotions without benefit of a label, and in very different parts of the world. End-users would have to be able to look at the sticker for ‘happiness’ or ‘maternal love’ and identify it as such. To ensure the stickers performed as expected, Keltner and his colleagues took Jones’s prototype designs and independently tested them with research subjects in two very different societies: the United States and China.

Overall, both the Chinese and American subjects had roughly the same accuracy, correctly identifying 42 of the 51 distinct emotions presented. Cultural differences did appear: the Chinese were better able to recognize negative emotions, while the Americans were better able to identify positive ones. Yet Jones’ designs universally communicated the most extensively-researched emotions like anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and happiness, as well as more recently-studied ones like embarrassment, pride, desire, and love – and even a few emotions that hadn’t been studied before, like contemplation, coyness, astonishment, boredom, and perplexity.

With these results in hand, Keltner and his colleagues turned Jones’ now-tested illustrations over to Facebook’s designers, who used the best performing ones to create a new sticker pack called Finch, named after the finches Darwin had famously encountered in the Galapagos Islands. Finch contains sixteen cross-culturally tested animations of emotions based on Jones’ original designs.

Final versions of the Finch stickers
(Source: Dacher Keltner)

As the stickers were made available on Facebook, downloaded and then used in chats by millions of users around the world, the Compassion Research team could now look at how they were being used – not by specific users, but in the aggregate. How much ‘love’ was being expressed with the stickers in each country? Or ‘anger’? Or ‘sympathy’? Did different cultures vary in terms of the types of emotional stickers they use? Over time, the researchers realized they could use such analysis to take the emotional temperature of a sizeable portion of the planet.

Clear patterns emerged in the data. Italians, South Africans, Russians and Brazilians had ‘Cultures of Love’ – sending lots of amorous stickers. The U.S. and Canada were similar in most of their usage patterns – though the Canadians were vastly more ‘sympathetic’, while the Americans were ‘sadder’. And the use of ‘deadpan’ stickers predominated across North Africa and the Middle East.

Cultures of Sadness – geographical distribution of the use of the ‘sad’ Finch sticker on Facebook (Source: Dacher Keltner)

The picture got even more interesting when the researchers correlated the usage of the Finch stickers with other social indicators. Countries that expressed the most ‘awe’ online gave more to charity offline. And countries that expressed the most ‘happiness’ were not actually the happiest in real life. Instead, it was the countries that used the widest array of stickers that that did better on various measures of societal health, well-being – even longevity. “It’s not about being the happiest,” Keltner told me, “it’s about being the most emotionally diverse.”

These are intriguing correlations – and so far, they’re just that. We have to be careful not to over-extrapolate, or conflate the measure of the thing for the thing being measured. Clicking on a sticker to express a belly laugh is not quite the same thing as having an actual belly laugh. And while there are now more Facebook users than Catholics worldwide, there are still more people who’ve never been online than have ever been on Facebook. (One wonders how their inclusion would skew the data.)

Still, this is clearly the beginning of a unprecedented social science revolution, one that will reveal previously impossible assessments of the global psyche, and perhaps shift the dialogue about the relationship between nature and culture. And one wonders what else might consistently correlate with our global emotional weathermap. The stock market, maybe? Or social revolution? Or world peace?

How does that make you feel?



Geothermal vents in Iceland

When Cleantech meets Cryptocurrency

February 9, 02015

During periods of relative calm, objective observation of the world is hard enough; foresight, even harder. During times of great change, clarity can be impossible.

Yet occasionally an encounter will reveal, sometimes just for a moment, the usually invisible systems and activities that comprise the global order – the “emergent now” that pulses just out of view. And it’s usually stranger than we would have otherwise imagined.

I had just such a moment recently in Iceland, where I had a chance to sit down with several of the country’s leading clean-tech and data center experts.

Iceland famously generates vast amounts of ultra-green electricity – about seventeen terawatt hours’ worth every year. Twenty five percent of this capacity is geothermal in origin, and the rest comes from hydrothermal, making Iceland’s one of the cleanest economies in the world. This abundance has attracted energy-intensive industries (including highly controversial aluminum smelters) as well as clean-tech startups like Carbon Recycling, a company that fuses waste CO2 and hydrogen to produce “synthetic methanol”, which is exported to the Netherlands and blended with gasoline. Electricity is so cheap in Iceland (about a third of the cost in the U.S) plans are even being developed to export it to Europe via undersea cable.

Perhaps the buzziest of the industries that have been borne of Iceland’s energy independence is the green datacenter sector. The business pitch, made by local players like Verne Global, and Advania, is simple: in Iceland, data centers are cheaper to run from an electrical perspective and cheaper to cool from a geographical perspective – a double win.

Iceland’s remoteness makes it an inappropriate choice for certain datacenter applications like high-frequency Wall Street trading, where milliseconds matter and the computers have to be as close to the action as possible. But for slower applications, where cost and computing matter more than connectivity, Iceland is ideal.

One such “perfect” application is Bitcoin mining, and the country’s datacenters have attracted a lot of it. A year ago, the NYTimes’ Nathaniel Popper profiled Emmanuel Abiodun, a British entrepreneur who has established a multimillion-dollar bitcoin-mining operation called CloudHashing within a major Icelandic datacenter; Cloudhashing leases its specializing mining equipment to others.

This is presumably a tougher sell now that Bitcoins are worth closer to $200 apiece rather than the almost $1200 they commanded in late 2013. Even so, the lower cost of electricity in Iceland makes it possible to run these machines more efficiently, and presumably, make Bitcoin mining profitable at lower costs than elsewhere.

As I was preparing for my own walking tour of one of these ultra-secure facilities (the head of security pleasantly marched me through no less than nine physical security systems) one local tech-sector leader told me that most of the customers for these Bitcoin mining contracts are Chinese, and that, at its peak, demand was so high that an astounding eight percent of all Bitcoin mining worldwide was thought to be happening in Iceland.

Let’s take a moment to visualize and appreciate the resulting set of connected facts:

On an island in the North Atlantic, leagues below the surface, subterranean veins of liquid rock well upward through primordial vents, whereupon they make contact with equally ancient aquifers, producing steam that is artfully siphoned off and passed through turbines, which, when spun up, produce bountiful, carbon-free electricity.

This great stream of benign electrons – a true social good if ever there was one – is then passed onward, by means of cables, to some of the most esoteric, purpose-built computers ever assembled. These machines patiently wade through a truly psyche-shattering number of useless calculations, each one a discarded digital lottery ticket. Ever-more rarely, one of them strikes algorithmic gold. In an instant, the winning computation is transmuted into units of cryptocurrency, and on the other side of the planet, a Chinese hedge fund collects a small reward.

This is how the world works now: the geophysical system connects to the computational system, which links to the financial system, which shapes the geopolitical system, and round and round we go. Speculators from an ascendant, and nominally Communist 21st-century world power quietly leverage the entrepreneurial efforts of a citizen from a former 19th-century world power, to harness a market opportunity made possible by the unique ecological properties of an independent small state. These dependencies-at-a-distance make for strange bedfellows, for sure, but their larger consequences are not as neatly categorized: in times of relative stability, such interdependence likely improves resilience and reduces risk; in periods of complicated change, such connections likely amplify fragility and disruption.

There is also a lesson here about what happens when a resource is made cheaply and abundantly: namely, people feel comfortable “wasting” it. In the dark winters of centuries’ past, whole Icelandic families might huddle around a small fire for warmth. Now, the heat of a single rack of Bitcoin-mining computers, performing many billions of calculations a second, make it warm to the touch.


Image: Detail, View from a Train #3,

Norwegian Slow

June 13, 02014

On a trip to Oslo this spring, I was introduced to a fascinating, genuinely countercultural phenomenon: “Slow TV“, in which mundane events, some lasting days, are broadcast in their entirety, unedited and in real-time.

Slow TV got its start in Norway in 2009, when the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK televised a six-and-a-half-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen (available in its entirety here). To almost everyone’s surprise, more than one in five people in the country tuned in for at least some of it.

That success was followed in 2011 by a five-day long piece of footage of a ship making its way up the Norwegian coastline (available in full here).  Then twelve hours of watching a log burn. Then eighteen hours of salmon swimming upstream. Recently, NRK broadcast a 9-hour “National Knitting Evening“, which featured a team trying, paradoxically, to beat a world speed record in taking wool “from sheep to sweater” – a record held by the Australians. The Norwegians failed in their attempt – but in a country of four million people, 1.3 million of them watched at least four hours of a broadcast which included four hours of discussion and eight and half hours of “long, quiet sequences of knitting and spinning”. (A two-hour excerpt is available here.) This was followed by The Piip-Show, a three-month experiment in which you could follow the lives of birds in a feeder internally decorated to look like a coffee bar. Slow TV has even inspired at least one parody – a local radio station streamed real-time footage of an abandoned porcelain toilet left by the side of the road, though in a violation of the form, it remained there for less than an hour and half before being picked up.

Why on Earth would any of this succeed? The Norwegians who told me about the Slow TV movement expressed considerable pride in its existence. One woman in her 20’s told me, “Everything moves so fast now, going slow is the new punk.” Another told me that the absence of a narrative allowed her to look – really look – at what she was seeing on the screen – and to notice details she would have otherwise missed. And middle-aged man told me he found the broadcasts comforting, and that he and his mother had watched a bit together, talking about life while the train’s gentle rumbling filled her small parlor, then fell into an easy silence for a bit, while looking out the virtual window – in other words, what people on trains actually do.

Image Source: Detail, Image from Dove 2, 4-26-13, Planet Labs, Inc.

Taking the Pulse of the Planet

March 9, 02014

If you could take a picture of the whole world every day, what could you see?

It’s a simple question, with a fantastical, almost childlike premise. Now, a remarkable startup, Planet Labs, is working to answer it.

The brainchild of three visionary ex-NASA scientists and technologists (Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler, and Chris Boshuizen), PlanetLabs is launching the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history. It has just deployed its first ‘flock’ of 28 such devices, each the size of a shoebox, from the International Space Station. Together, these microsatellites will deliver a composite picture of most of planet Earth, at a 3-to-5-meter/pixel resolution. With the vagaries of weather, a complete picture of the planet, sans-clouds, will emerge every few weeks. (The average image in Google Earth, by comparison, is 36 months old.)

The first ‘flock’ of Planet Labs satellites being released into orbit at the ISS.

Up till now, getting your hands on up-to-date, high resolution imagery of any particular location from space has been a time consuming and expensive proposition, one largely reserved for big military, governmental and commercial customers.  The focus was at the very high-end of spatial resolution (sub meter per pixel). In a classic example of Schumpeterian disruptive innovation, however, Planet Labs will now provide slightly lower-resolution, but much more frequent and accessible imagery to a much larger pool of constituencies and customers.

In that wider set of hands, Planet Labs’ data will enhance consumer Internet mapping services, enrich supply-chain monitoring and improve precision agriculture. It will also transform the way we approach global challenges like climate monitoring, environmental compliance, public health, and disaster recovery, to name just a few.

This isn’t just about having another tool for addressing our grand challenges, however. It’s also about changing us. Making the whole planet accessible will help us see and understand how our planet works, how others live upon it, and how we’re all connected – which is the first step toward greater stewardship, empathy and engagement.

Some of the first “Doves” being prepped for orbit.

It’s not just Planet Lab’s imagery that’s disruptive – it’s also the way the company’s “Doves” (as they call their satellites) are designed and built. The company has deeply embraced agile development thinking – adopting a rapid, iterative, modular and inexpensive approach to spacecraft design. Where a traditional spacecraft might take years to plan and build, Planet Labs can assemble Doves in a matter of weeks. This highly efficient, swarming approach to design and innovation ensures that the company can continuously upgrade and improve, in much the same way that apps and websites are. (n.b. This cinches it – if you can do Agile in space, you can do it anywhere.)

Planet Labs is not only bringing a new product, but a new ethos to space. I’m thrilled to be advising the company and working with them closely in the months to come.