If you’ve been to a tech conference in the past five years, there’s a good chance you’ve also been to an “unconference“. Unconferences work to break down the barrier between speakers and audience, inviting all attendees to participate in shaping the program, offering sessions or contributing to the discussion that’s taking place. Done well – Foo Camp, the various Bar Camps, blog unconferences – they’re a great way to tap the expertise of everyone in the room, to ensure that discussions focus on topics people care about. Done badly, they’re chaotic and frustrating, dominated by the loud and self-confident (I’m both, and I’m well-aware that I need to be moderated.)
So I approached Mastermundo, a day-long conference following on the end of PICNIC with some trepidation. The conference organizers were emphatic in making the point that this was an unconventional conference, designed to break the rules of conferences as we knew them. Instead of having a stage, podium and audience, we’d meet in the modern art museum, on a train, in public spaces, moving from Amsterdam to the Hague during the day, with speakers delivering talks to an audience listening on headphones. Not an unconference as I’ve attended them before, but certainly not a conference like PICNIC, with a stage, an audience, the performative act of making your case with your words and a few sides.
What the hell. As it turned out, I was planning on spending my Saturday in Amsterdam visiting the modern art museum and taking a train to the Hague to meet a friend for dinner. Why not attend a conference while I was at it?
Two surprises about Mastermundo. First, I had a great time… and I wasn’t sure I would. Second, it’s really hard for people to break from their scripts, even if you beg them to.
Mastermundo Conference at Stedlijk Museum
At the (temporary location of) the Stedelijk Museum, we were given headsets and told that we could wander anywhere in the gallery while listening to the speakers. The first speaker, a Dutch designer, immediately broke script, asked people to sit near him, so that we could see the images on his laptop screen. When subsequent speakers encouraged attendees to wander through the galleries – showing a fantastic show of contemporary African photography – they were rapidly defeated by the short range of the headphones and the tendency of people to want to see who’s speaking to them. Try as you’d like to break this rule – when someone tells a story, people will sit and listen to her.
And despite promises of breaking all the rules, we eventually found ourselves in a conference room in the Hague, looking at the speaker in the front of the room and watching a slideshow on a giant screen. You may be creative, rebellious Dutch artists, but you are no match for the power of Powerpoint.
I’d chosen to give my talk on the train from Amsterdam to the Hague, figuring this was the only way I’d be guaranteed the opportunity to read my notes. As it turned out, I probably had the most unusual experience of all the speakers. I sat in the front seat of a train car, wedged in next to the equipment necessary to broadcast my voice via FM, looking at the end of the car or out the window. As I delivered my talk, the only person I could see was the technician, who was trying so hard to keep the transmitter attached to its battery that I couldn’t get any emotional feedback from her at all. It felt more like one of the recording sessions I’ve done for reading for the blind than like giving a lecture.
I found the whole experience so strange that when my friend Rafi took my place as the next speaker, I perched myself within his field of vision so that he’d have a face to look at and the reassurance that someone was hearing what he was saying. I don’t know whether this was helpful or simply made him more self-conscious. I simply hope he doesn’t think I’m stalking him.
A few folks seemed to connect well with the talk so I thought I’d share it here, more or less as I delivered it. Envision yourself sitting on a train looking out the window as I read this to you. Or while you’re wandering through a gallery of contemporary African photography. Or don’t. That will work too.
When I was twenty years old, I’d just finished university, and I’d won a scholarship to study in Ghana, West Africa for a year to study Ghanaian music.
I knew more about Ghana than the average American. For four years, I’d studied Ghanaian drumming in university and had worked with some of the best musicians in that country. I’d read books, magazine articles, newspapers, talked to lots of Ghanaians in the US, people who’d travelled there before.
Which basically meant that I knew nothing. As the plane from London descended, I looked out the window expecting to see the bright lights of the city of Accra, one of the largest and most populated cities in West Africa. It took me a moment or two to notice that there weren’t that many lights and that very, very few of them were on top of one another.
In that single moment, I realized that my vision for how I’d be spending this year was entirely wrong. I’d been planning on finding a part of Accra where young urban professionals lived in apartments. I’d get an apartment, make friends with the neighbors and live basically the same way that I would had I left college and moved to Boston or New York.
This, of course, turns out not to be possible. In 1993, it was pretty uncommon to rent an apartment in Ghana with less than 10 years rent in advance. And besides, people didn’t really rent apartments – they lived with their families until they were able to build their own houses. The young, up and coming Ghanaians I wanted to meet were either making their fortunes in the UK or the US, or living with their parents.
I ended up renting an apartment from a guy named Patrick Fiachie. He’d left Ghana for the Soviet Union as a youth, studied at Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow, and eventually sought political asylum in the US, in Minnesota. For twenty years, he worked as a counselor to undergraduate students at a small college in Minnesota… which meant kids like me were very familiar to him, and he was very familiar to me.
Patrick Fiachie, Osu, Accra, Ghana. 1993
Patrick had come home to Accra, and found himself in the business of translating between the realities of Americans who’d come to study in Ghana and Ghanaian realities. He was a bridge figure – he was able to explain to the owner of the building he lived in why it made sense to make foreign visitors pay rent one month at a time… and as a result, the building she’d built as an investment filled up with international scholars who were paying far more rent than Ghanaians would have… despite the fact that I was paying $100 a month for two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom, which had power most of the time, though no running water.
Patrick acted as a bridge in different directions. I mentioned to him one night, as we were playing chess together, that I felt like a stranger in the neighborhood. The kids kept calling me “brofunyo” – white man – even though I stopped in the streets and introduced myself in Ga. A couple days later, I noticed that everything had changed – people were greeting me by name and being much friendlier. I overheard a conversation at a local market stall – a woman said to another market woman, “Oh that white man – he’s uncle Pat’s nephew.”
I didn’t make any sense in the neighborhood until someone had claimed a relationship with me. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t Patrick’s nephew – I’m white, he’s black, we don’t look very much alike. But in introducing me to the neighborhood as his nephew, I became his respobnsibility. If I did something wrong, they could contact Uncle Pat about my behavior. And once I was connected like this, it made sense to treat me differently.
The view from my apartment window, Accra, 1994
It would have been pretty hard to figure all this out without getting on an airplane. I can tell you what it’s like to go from being a stranger, an outsider, to being part of the neighborhood. I can even tell you what it smells like when you get off the airplane, wet earth and burning plastic, but I can’t explain why it’s one of the most wonderful smells in the world, why it brings tears to my eye when I catch a whiff of it.
A few years later, I had the chance to go back to Ghana in some very different circumstances. I’d gotten very lucky in the dotcom boom in the US, and I had some money in the bank. And I wanted to do something to help this nation, which I’d fallen in love with. My bright idea was that Ghana might be able to participate in the same sort of Internet revolution that the US and Europe had been living through. I realized that one of the gaps Ghanaian businesses were dealing with was a skills gap – there were very few people who knew how to design a webpage, set up a database or manage an internet service provider. So I started raising money to bring American and European volunteers to come live and work in Ghana for a few months at a time. We called it Geekcorps because it was a little like the American Peace Corps, except it was staffed with geeks.
This worked out pretty well, actually. There are lots and lots of burnt-out geeks in the world who are excited about the chance to work in Africa. And African businesses are often pretty receptive to the idea of low-cost consulting on technical issues. It worked well enough that we ended up running projects in more than a dozen nations, mostly in Africa. Some succeeded, some failed, but I noticed something in the long run: whether or not a project was successful, it almost always had some sort of transformative effect on the volunteer’s life.
Several of the people we worked with decided to stay in Africa for good. A handful got married to people they met while they were volunteering. A large number changed the direction of their careers and a few are now leading people involved with the world of technology transfer in the developing world. Having the chance not just to visit as a tourist, but to work in countries like Ghana, Rwanda or Mongolia gave them a chance to make connections that ended up changing their lives.
Me. Dzolo-Gbogame, Volta Region, Ghana, 1994.
I don’t run that nonprofit anymore for a very simple reason – it’s really, really expensive to buy airline tickets. Not just the tickets – it’s expensive to get visas, to house people, to make sure they’ve got health insurance and enough money so they eat. But if I could find a way to do it that wouldn’t bankrupt me and destroy the environment, I’d be looking for as many opportunities as possible to take people out of their everyday context and bring them into different parts of the world where they can be helpful. This doesn’t need to cross international borders, by the way – the US is big enough and diverse enough that I’ve seen people get a full dose of cross-cultural contact by going urban to rural or vice versa. But it needs to be for a long time, and it needs to be in the course of doing a project, otherwise you’re a tourist, and it’s hard to connect in that circumstance.
What I’m looking for are the sorts of experiences that forces someone to confront the reality that the way they, personally live, isn’t the only way to live… and that it may not be the best way to live. That’s something easy to understand consciously, but it’s harder to feel. Personally, that feeling wears off for me fairly often – I need to spend a lot of time with people I admire, people who are living very different lives from my own to be reminded that my way of seeing things isn’t the only way.
Basically, what was so great about Geekcorps was that it put me in a position where I could help create xenophiles. Xenophiles are people who are fascinated by the whole world, by things other than their ordinary experience. They’re people who want to connect with people who see the world very differently. Some of these people are born this way, lots more are made – a good recipe for xenophilia is to raise a child in a culture deeply different from that of her parents – people call these kids “third culture kids”. Third culture kids have one foot in each of two cultures – the culture of the country they grew up and the culture of their parents, and as a result they don’t really live in either, but a little bit in both. Some kids hate this – many love it, and they end up bridge figures, natural xenophiles who can help translate cultures for other people. Barack Obama’s one of them.
It’s my theory that xenophiles are going to be very powerful in the future. We’re living in a world that the pro-globalization folks refer to as “flat”. That’s bullshit, obviously. The world is flat as far as stuff is concerned. In my hometown of 3000 people, I can get water from Fiji and fish from Chile, but I’m not going to encounter any Fijians or Chileans. I’m not even likely to encounter information from those countries, news, opinion or cultural influences like films or TV… not unless I very actively go looking for it. So the world’s flat in terms of stuff, but not in terms of human interaction. It’s flat, but in the least important ways – in the ways that matter, in the ways that would allow us to connect with people from other cultures, allow us to share ideas and solve problems together, the world is disconnected. It’s lumpy.
Xenophiles are good at making connections in this lumpy world. It’s a good idea to have them if you’re trying to do business in another country – some of the people who are making lots of money in this economy are people from developing nations who study in Europe or America and then return home. They can bridge between cultures in a way that helps them make smart economic decisions. They’re even more important if you’re concerned with security or with diplomacy, because their ability to cross cultures makes it far more likely that they can collaborate and create solutions with people from other cultures.
So here’s the question I’m interested now: how do we build real, productive connections with people across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries… without putting people on airplanes? Or trains? How do we efficiently manufacture xenophiles?
And since you guys can’t answer, I’ll go ahead and offer one solution that works really well – intermarriage. If you fall in love with someone from a very different culture, you’ve got a strong incentive to connect with that person’s family, learn their culture, change your perspectives. And while I’ve thought about this, it’s even harder to figure out a scheme to make intermarriage mandatory on a massive scale than it is to figure out how to put a substantial fraction of the world’s population on airplanes.
I’d been hoping the internet could be a solution to these problems. After all, it’s now possible to read the newspapers in another country, to read the blogs of people who live in these countries and hear what they’re thinking about. We can go to flickr and see the photos that people take, we can surf youtube and watch the videos that are making people laugh in other countries. Shouldn’t this help us connect with people around the world?
That’s what I thought a few years ago. I helped start a website called Global Voices, which is basically a site designed to help you find citizen media from other countries, especially the developing world. Want to know what people in China are talking about online? We filter through thousands of Chinese blogs, try to find the conversations that are interesting, translate them into English… and then into over a dozen other languages. If you read the site, you’ll end up getting a much better sense for what the hot topics are in other parts of the world… and you may find yourself emotionaly invested in someone else’s blog, and by extension in their life and ideas.
But you probably won’t. That’s one of the biggest things we’ve discovered with the project – it’s hard to care, even if you want to. I can point you to a lively conversation taking place in another corner of the blogosphere and even if you can read the language, you’re probably not going to connect with the conversation. You don’t have the context. And beyond that, you don’t have any connection to the people or events involved.
It’s not your fault. Human beings are tribal by nature. There’s a sociological phenomenon called “homophily” – it’s the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Let people organize themselves and people will form into groups, usually by race, nationality, religion, level of education. In the US, there’s a lot of mobility – people move all the time – and we’re starting to see this happen politically – Bill Bishop calls it “The Big Sort”. It ends up meaning that left-leaning people live with other leftists, conservatives with other conservatives and we’ll each understand less about each other. We do this with information as well. If information affects people like us, we pay attention to it – if not, we’re almost hard-wired not to care.
It turns out that there’s an art to getting people to care. It’s about telling stories, stories that introduce us to people we care about, whose pasts we speculate about, whose future we worry about. Most of the world’s problems can’t be summed up by a single story about a single person… but unless you can attach a story to a problem, it’s likely that you won’t get anyone to pay attention to the larger problem. The problem with this art is that it can turn into a trick. The trick works by oversimplifying, turning stories into good versus evil, black and white. If we tell the story and lose the subtlety, at a certain point we’re lying.
We’ve got the infrastructure that makes it possible to connect to one another, to tell stories to one another, to share films and family photos and things that make us laugh or cry with people anywhere in the world. And so far, we’re pretty bad at using it. At the worst, we use it to hurt each other – think of the guy in Lagos who wants to rip you off while promising you millions of dollars… or the guy in London who makes sport out of humiliating and punishing him.
So here’s where I’m asking for help – we need bridge figures, people who can help build connections between cultures. We need xenophiles, people who are interested in the whole world and in building conversations that break out of the homophily trap. We need tools that let us use this infrastructure to connect. Help me figure out how to bridge people and how to build these tools.