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I currently have to deal with five hours or so of email a day and each day is packed with meetings, many as short as 15 minutes and 1 hour meetings being booked only in extraordinary circumstances. I have a list of 100 or so names of people that I've promised to meet, many who are very angry because we haven't been able to even book a meeting on my calendar.
I aggressively turn down all kinds of request and am aggressively resigning from boards and other obligations, but each day, I receive a steady flow of meeting requests that I just can't turn down.
I've chosen this path and I'm not complaining about the fact that I'm busy.
My concern at the moment is that the urgency and the rate of inbound email requires that in addition to the 2-3 hours of email in the morning and the 2-3 hours of email in the evening, I must diligently triage email during the day. Right now, depending on how much of my attention is required in a meeting, I keep an eye on my email and direct partial attention to my device and not my meeting. As someone who (ironically) co-teaches a class on awareness, I realize that this is both rude and a very poor way to have an effective meeting. People who know me well have gotten used to it, but for many people, it's disconcerting and disappointing.
I've thought about what I can do about this. The obvious answer is to try to check email between meetings, but that would mean that I would have to reduce the number of meetings since my meetings are so short. I could also ignore more of my email. I'm already unable to respond to many important email requests and reducing my responsiveness in email would also cause harm. At some level this is just a matter of being completely overcommitted, and I am doing my best to try to deal with that, but I was wondering if there might be some clever way to deal with the "partial attention during meetings" problem.
One idea that I had was to schedule several hours of email time during the day interspersed with "no devices / full attention" meeting times. When someone signed up for a meeting, we would ask if they needed full attention and if so, they would end up in the "full attention slot" queue or get booked a month or so out when my next "full attention slot" was available. On the other hand, if all they wanted was for me to be available to provide opinions or make decisions as part of a broader meeting or if the person didn't mind my partial attention during meetings, we could book the meeting in a "partial attention" slot which could be scheduled sooner. I would use un-booked partial attention slots to catch up on email if no one wanted such a slot.
This feels a bit too clever by half and maybe difficult to communicate to a person not familiar with my problem.
The other idea that I had was just to ask at the beginning of a meeting, "do you want this to be a laptops closed meeting or do you mind if I keep my eye on urgent email and triage?" I'm not sure if everyone would ask for my full attention or if I'd have a selection bias where only people confident enough would ask for my full attention and that those people who really needed my attention but were too polite would end up with my partial attention.
Lastly, I could just be a bit more mindful in the meetings and try to read the room better. I am generally pretty good at figuring out when the meeting requires my full attention, but as anyone who has seen someone trying to do this knows, one probably thinks they are doing this better than they actually are and in any case, it appears disrespectful to anyone who isn't used to people in this mode.
Any suggestions? Any thoughts on my crazy ideas? I know many of you will say, "You're just overcommitted. Just say 'no' to more stuff." OK. I will and I am, but I think I will still have some variant of this problem even if I'm just replying to earnest questions from students that I think deserve some sort of response.
The Harvard Book Store hosted a book talk for my co-author Jeff and me to talk about our new book Whiplash. Thanks! It was a great group of people at a great venue. Jeff read a bit from the introduction, we chatted about the process and told some stories about writing the book and then we had a nice conversation with the people who gathered.
Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation threw a book party for my new book Whiplash (Thanks!) and Megan came a bit early so I got a chance to sit down with her and do a Facebook Live. Megan is the former CTO of the United States serving under President Obama. She's an MIT grad, did her thesis work at the Media Lab, is on the corporation board of MIT and the advisory council and visiting committee of the Media Lab. She's also the one who first asked me whether I wanted to be considered for the role of the Director of the Media Lab so I owe a lot to her. I've known Megan for a long time and it was great catching up.
We talked about tech, digital government, inclusion and the opportunities ahead.
I recently co-taught a class that merged content, students and a TA from MIT with a course that Jonathan Zittrain has been teaching for many years called Internet and Society, the Politics and Technologies of control. In addition, there was a program that ran together with it called the Berkman Assembly. It was a really great program and I hope we can do something similar again. There's an article about it on the Harvard Law site.
Just as the Executive Order from the Trump Administration calling for a travel ban from seven Muslim countries was playing out, I was meeting with Jonathan so I asked him to do a Facebook Live with me to talk about the Internet, politics and protests.
Apologies for the audio quality and sync problems.
I first met Jamila when she and her associate Alia reached out to us after we posted a video on Civil Disobedience inspired by and citing Gene Sharp. Jamila is the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution that Gene Sharp founded to focus on understanding and spreading his methods for non-violent action. We had a conversation about this with Tenzin Priyadarshi - the video is here (Sorry about the poor audio quality).
After talking to Jamila some more, it was clear that she inspired many of us and we could learn a lot from her. In addition, it seemed that many of our technologies could be useful for her in her works so I invited her to join the Lab initially as a research affiliate.
I recently invited Steven Johnson, author if Emergence and Tom Malone, the Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence to join a conversation about Emergence over Authority, one of the principles in our new book Whiplash. This was part of a series of experiments that we are conducting in the Facebook group for the book. We used a software system call Soapbox.tv to stream the video to Facebook Live.
Andre and Karthik were both took the Principles in Awareness class that Tenzin Priyadarshi and I taught twice over the last few years. They both independently became interested in connecting the idea of non-duality and artificial intelligence. We'd been Slacking and chatting and thinking about the topic so I invited Andre over for lunch the other day and Skyped Karthik in from India and did a Facebook Live about the topic.
The next step is to write up a short post about the idea. :-)
Karole describes herself as a former "punk ballerina" and through dance and movement is able to connect so many interesting ideas and worlds. She's already started to actively collaborate with a number of people at the Lab. In this conversation we discuss some of those collaborations as well as some new ideas.
Edge Question 2017 : What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know? A: Neurodiversity23 January, by Joi[ —]
John Brockman's EDGE asks a tough question every year. For 2017 the question was "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know?" My answer was:
Humans have diversity in neurological conditions. While some, such as autism are considered disabilities, many argue that they are the result of normal variations in the human genome. The neurodiversity movement is an international civil rights movement that argues that autism shouldn't be "cured" and that it is an authentic form of human diversity that should be protected.
In the early 1900s eugenics and the sterilization of people considered genetically inferior were scientifically sanctioned ideas, with outspoken advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill and US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The horror of the Holocaust, inspired by the eugenics movement, demonstrated the danger and devastation these programs can exact when put into practice.
Temple Grandin, an outspoken spokesperson for autism and neurodiversity argues that Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the "autistic spectrum" if they had been alive today. She also believes that autism has long contributed to human development and that "without autism traits we might still be living in caves." Today, non-neurotypical children often suffer through a remedial programs in the traditional educational system only to be discovered to be geniuses later. Many of these kids end up at MIT and other research institutes.
With the discovery of CRISPR the possibility of editing the human genome at scale has suddenly become feasible. The initial applications that are being developed involve the "fixing" of genetic mutations that cause debilitating diseases, but they are also taking us down a path with the potential to eliminate not only autism but much of the diversity that makes human society flourish. Our understanding of the human genome is rudimentary enough that it will be some time before we are able to enact complex changes that involve things like intelligence or personality, but it's a slippery slope. I saw a business plan a few years ago that argued that autism was just "errors" in the genome that could be identified and "corrected" in the manner of "de-noising" a grainy photograph or audio recording.
Clearly some children born with autism are in states that require intervention and have debilitating issues. However, our attempts to "cure" autism, either through remediation or eventually through genetic engineering, could result in the eradication of a neurological diversity that drives scholarship, innovation, arts and many of the essential elements of a healthy society.
We know that diversity is essential for healthy ecosystems. We see how agricultural monocultures have created fragile and unsustainable systems.
My concern is that even if we figure out and understand that neurological diversity is essential for our society, I worry that we will develop the tools for designing away any risky traits that deviate from the norm, and that given a choice, people will tend to opt for a neuro-typical child.
As we march down the path of genetic engineering to eliminate disabilities and disease, it's important to be aware that this path, while more scientifically sophisticated, has been followed before with unintended and possibly irreversible consequences and side-effects.
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