No One Left Behind

leftbehind

Jonathan Hutson, Talk To Action
The Purpose Driven Life Takers

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission – both a religious mission and a military mission — to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state – especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is “to conduct physical and spiritual warfare”; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice. You have never felt so powerful, so driven by a purpose: you are 13 years old. You are playing a real-time strategy video game whose creators are linked to the empire of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life.

[…]

This game immerses children in present-day New York City — 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).

Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, “Praise the Lord,” as they blow infidels away.

The designers intend this game to become the first dominionist warrior game to break through in the popular culture due to its violent scenarios and realistic graphics, lighting, and sound effects. Its creators expect it to earn a rating of T for Teen. How violent is that? That’s the rating shared by Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell – Chaos Theory, a top selling game in which high-tech gadgets and high-powered weapons – frag grenades, shotguns, assault rifles, and submachine guns — are used to terminate enemies with extreme prejudice.

Could such a violent, dominionist Christian video game really break through to the popular culture? Well, it is based on a series of books that have already set sales records—the blockbuster Left Behind series of 14 novels by writer Jerry B. Jenkins and his visionary collaborator, retired Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye. “We hope teenagers like the game,” Mr. LaHaye told the Los Angeles Times. “Our real goal is to have no one left behind.” […]

Freedom of speech and anti-censorship laws exist in this nation to protect our ability to hold civil discourse—even when it’s in the form of twisted, violent, crusading game narratives aimed at our children and marketed through the tenticles of the mega-church.

The redeeming factor behind the development of this specific game, is that the motive of the religous right is on display for the world to see. Too often their hatred becomes cloaked in motive numbing rhetoric—placating tales of Jesus’ love for all humanity as long as humanity devotes itself to Jesus. Over the past 20 years, such rhetoric has masked their intent, allowing them to gain a strong, political foothold in America—specifically with moderate Christians.

So when the religous right’s arrogance is responsible for removing their own metaphorical hoods, we need to gaze into their hateful, soulless eyes and take detailed notes.

The “Up In Arms” Crowd

It’s interesting to note that historically, church groups have been the most active in denouncing hip-hop music and video games for their violent content, arguing that they influence kids to become violent, misogynistic, or even worse, question authority.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces is scheduled to release in October 2006, just four months away. Where are these vocal groups now? Is “bling” and “bitch” rhetoric more deserving of protest than marketing to children a programmed, interactive virtual reality for cleansing non-Christian people from the face of the earth?

Hillary Clinton railed hard against the Hot Coffee mod, a locked, sex scene found in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (a scene that only a slight percentage of geeks even knew existed) in a move that smelled of pandering to the family values crowd. Where is her outrage?

Tag! We’re It! Part III

I tag like a 15 year-old kid in the South Bronx with a box full of Krylons and a yard full of freshly sandblasted cars.

I tag like I just got jumped by a handful of punks who made the mistake of letting me follow them to their trailer park homes adorned with freshly cleaned aluminum siding.

I tag like I get told who I am, what I’m supposed to believe and how I’m supposed to act on a daily basis.

I go all city, hoping that one day, the vehicles I’ve touched get stitched together to form a complete sentence.

con-men

I tag because I saw you leave your mark and it was dope.

I tag because I know how to freeze, watch TV and (kinda) avoid the kissing bugs.

I tag because the words I drop in time will find a way to form a cohesive rhyme.

I tag because the world may be getting smaller, but it’s damn sure not coming together.

grafitti-truck

I tag your name, your spot, your position, your mood, your frame of mind when it’s too hard for you to see it for yourself.

I tag the expected terms of modern constructs.

I tag the post-modern undercurrents of miscellaneous descriptors.

I tag my tags so that when structure is forged out of chaos, you’ll know how to find me.

I tag so that it’s me you won’t be looking for.

life-is-art

When I tag, I’m regurgitating the meal I’ve caught for the chicks in my roost.

When I tag, I feel one with the universe of the collective unconscious.

When I tag, I can see the pillars of control quaking in their foundation.

When I tag, I experience therefore I understand.

When we tag, anything is possible.

————

Tag! We’re It! Part II
Tag! We’re It!

Tag! We’re It! Part II

A few months back, I stepped out of my dead-bolted existence within the walls of Ameritrade and began to digest the current state of this Web 2.0 explosion; the Semantic Web seems so much closer to fruition than it did just a few years back. Much of the renewed push and entrepreneurial spirit that has driven this industry-wide rebirth of shared data has been driven by our economic recovery from the dot-com crash. That’s a fact, but it’s not a sufficient answer to the focus behind 2.0—something deeper feels at play.

I decided to dig in and head down a rabbit hole of sociological context on a journey for clarity, and what I’ve come to realize isn’t particularly shocking.

dictatorial-democracy

We live in tumultuous times.

The air we breathe is being compromised more and more every day. Poverty around the world is increasing exponentially. Our country is knee deep in another Vietnam, another occupation, another struggle for gaining natural resources at any cost. People are becoming polarized by important and moral, personal and social issues, seemingly on a daily basis.

All of this is occurring during the reign of an administration that has even the staunchest of conservatives questioning whether we, the people, are living within the midst of a dictatorial democracy, rather than a thriving Republic, built on the principles of political discourse, government checks and balances, fiscal responsibility, the separation of church and state and the power of the individual voter.

So where does this leave us as a people?

Personally speaking, I’ve decided to refocus my effort to publish my views, opinions, perspectives, experiences, etc., in an effort to make even the slightest dent in the discourse surrounding our roles as American citizens.

What motivates me? Pick your poison: the War on Terror; the Rove/Plame/Wilson scandal; the Bolton push-through appointment; the Cindy Sheehan vigil. It seems that every day a new flow of bullshit only fuels the righteous indignation I’ve come to hold regarding this administration.

Is it even possible to imagine a more visceral description of an Aristocracy at play?

For me, the complete disregard of the intelligence and voice of the American citizen begins to explain the groundswell of blogging that has occurred over the past four years, specifically the political blogs and mainstream media watchdog sites.

Sure, the potential for capital gains plays a large role in the motivation to advance technology or any other industry. The web, though, is a bit different due to it’s low cost of entry, so I believe that moral conviction plays a role in both driving the evolution of technology and the passion to leverage it to it’s fullest degree.

So what’s the connection between geo-political events, blogging and the tactical fervor of Web 2.0? (social bookmarking, tagging, open source, open content, etc.)

In a nutshell: everything.

Without a true social democracy in the real, we’ve evolved to create one on-line — where boundaries can be broken down, hierarchies can be dissolved, control can be minimized, etc.

I blog in order to get my voice out into the ether of this new social construct; I tag my blog posts to provide context and semantic relationships on numerous levels, yet with a similar purpose:

  1. On the base object level to provide a succinct description of how I perceive this content from a conceptual perspective, perhaps creating a) a greater connection with the reader on a discernible level and b) connections on associative & relational levels with other objects (within my domain and elsewhere)
  2. On the categorization level to establish context within a particularly defined category or across a faceted classification scheme. If I were an actual brand, this would be how I’d ensure my position was reflected within my editorial construct and navigation scheme.
  3. On the retrievable object level to allow for more avenues of findability (four, well-thought descriptive tags exponentially increase the odds of object retrieval rather than none or even one, either in straight queries or in contextual presentation on the base object level)

These are tactical strategies in the information revolution.

The same principles apply to tagging even more granular object such as photographs, video and sound files, as well as the macro-level social bookmarking of URLs. The effort, I believe, is based on the desire of individual voices to be heard amidst the shelling of the mainstream media. While technically speaking, Web 2.0 is about the creation of richly defined object models and attributes — the more good data we entrench within our objects (be it content, files or URLs themselves), the better the chance for a semantic web experience — the movement behind it is much more compelling, much more philosophical in nature.

After leaving Ameritrade in April, I spent a month digesting Noam Chomsky‘s Understanding Power, which introduced me to the specifics of his propaganda model thesis, which I fully digested by watching the documentary Manufacturing Consent. Recently, Dave Sifry (CEO, Technorati) posted a graph on the Technorati Blog displaying the impact that blogs are making within the once dominated realm of entrenched, funded, mainstream media.

I’m only guessing that if Chomsky has studied the progression of the web, he’s smiling up in Cambridge right about now.

The legitimization of the individual (creative and political) perspective is being sustained in the 21st century by the conviction of the blogosphere, passionate focus on the possibilities of 2.0 revenue models and domains, such as Technorati, taking a leadership position. The concept of social dialog, networking and organization and the elemental foundation of capitalism are beginning to shift in exciting ways.

Imagine a near future where:

  • Individual perspectives can be made more readily sustainable through a common revenue model, reversing the big money/power structure of publication and media saturation? How would that impact the politics of our nation? Our wage labor practices?
  • Algorithms and interfaces allow for rich, precise retrievals of topical queries, with just as precisely retrieved contextual objects presented within a usable format, based on better clustering techniques and taking richer and more valuable attributes into account? How would this impact the way we learn and connect to one another?
  • Information domains allow topically defined objects to be rolled up into navigable concepts by users instead of predefined categories by information architects? How could this seamlessly raise the bar for common folk in their efforts to research online? To manage information across numerous domains?
  • Mainstream media articles and blog posts are presented on the same level (query or article), ensuring checks and balances of mis/disinformation, without a partisan bias? How important is it for check and balances to be rooted within the last bastion of traditional governmental checks and balances—the media?

And the great thing is that we’re not too far away from this revolutionary existence.

Blogs are beginning to bridge the social and communication gaps between nations. My peers are thinking differently when developing this medium, even in traditional business development circumstances. The tactical approach to producing, managing, sharing, finding and using information objects — defined from the bottom up — is finally getting it’s due.

Yes, these are tumultuous times, but they’re exciting as well.

No Resume, No Problem

(originally uploaded by Original Sin)
(originally uploaded by Original Sin)

Back in 1999, I found myself living in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, working in an area tagged as Silicon Village. Yes, it was a little premature, just like its cousin Silicon Forest in Portland and its big brother, Silicon Alley in NYC, but the dot-com era was booming and the entrepreneurial spirit had caught both Williamstown and North Adams square in the heart.

It was an exciting time.

Tripod (the company I joined) had just been purchased by Lycos (or as the long-timers liked to refer to them; the Death Star) for more than $50 million dollars. The young, personal web site building company and online community had made it to the big time; now one more trophy brand in Bob Davis‘ portal empire.

But Tripod didn’t start off as a personal publishing website; they flicked on the converted cable factory lights with the intent to provide advice for college students and post-graduates in print and on the internet, while the resume engine and online community all came later. DeWitt Clinton, a Williams student and Tripod programming intern in 1996 tells it like this:

In the beginning—and this tension carried on for years—Tripod was a content company that just happened to use the Internet. (Recall that they also had a magazine and a book published.) Thanks to some clever people like Jeff Vander Clute and Nate Kurz, a few useful ‘Tools For Life’ such as the Resume Builder, were built. These applications were an interesting synthesis of ideas from the designer(s), editors and programmers.

I would definitely say that Bo (Peabody) was in a position of watching what everyone came up with, rather than intentionally leading them there, saying as much in his recent book. The homepage builder was just one of these organic and surprising inventions.

So what happened? How did the tipping point occur within Tripod itself? When did management decide to move forward and focus on personal publishing and online communities? DeWitt adds more color from an outside, post-acquisition perspective:

The traffic generated by the home pages earned them an acquisition, not the editorial content. See the Geocities acquisition just a few months later for evidence.

Bo Peabody, Dick Sabot and Ethan Zuckerman hired some super smart developers to get their original concepts online. They built the first online resume engine and created a place for community to form the first iteration of Tripod.com. But a crazy thing was happening—people weren’t using their product the way they had envisioned. People were more intent on building their own web pages with the resume builder.

Damn these people!

Bo and company had a choice to make; either stick to their origin vision or evolve to support the needs and desires of their members, moving Tripod towards focusing on homepage building tools.

They made the only choice they could.

In 1997, before revenue models other than advertising came to fruition, stickiness determined the value of most companies. Bo and Dick saw the synthesis of member desires and a business opportunity, usefulness and viability. It was a no brainer. Publishing became the new focus.

The Lycos Years

By the time I came on board, Bob Davis had just scooped up Tripod and Bo was serving his commitment to Lycos, wandering the halls at odd hours. “Corporate refocus” was quickening its pace.

The first driver I encountered was the order to cut out community all together and focus solely on developing a suite of personal publishing tools—the new name of our group within the Lycos domain: Personal Publishing.

I noticed that the move ostracized many of the original Tripod folk who had joined the company because of the possibilities of online community, as well as a bunch of members that chose Tripod for similar reasons. But the numbers proved that people wanted to build their own web sites, so culture shifted and we continued our focused on building tools.

Goodbye community, goodbye resume building.

We needed to visualize the current experience in a tangible format, so we could determine where we were going to snip and cut sections and features. After putting together a precise map of page sequencing and explicit sections, I walked into the office of my design director to get his opinion. The direction given to him was crystal clear, so he studied my map for a few seconds, found where the “build” and “community” sections bordered one another, and proceeded to literally rip the map in half on that line.

No questions asked; no questions necessary.

Moving Towards Closing Shop

It took me about a year into my stint at Tripod/Lycos to start to question where we were heading as a scooped up start-up. After months of working on creating useful publishing tools in the context of the times, the projects being assigned began to feel superfluous, such as creating Hello Kitty skins for the Angelfire publishing tool UI. We all began wondering what would’ve happened at Tripod if they hadn’t been sold to Lycos; if the founders were still in charge, still listening to their members with room to innovate.

Maybe Technorati would be serving the world of “Tripoders” today, rather than “Bloggers.”

As things would have it, Lycos prepared to close our Silicon Village web factory for the Terra merger. I wanted no part of working in Waltham, Mass, so I moved down to Brooklyn and picked up a dotcom consulting gig. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was better than Hello Kitty.

Jeff Veen’s post the other day regarding the genesis of flickr placed me in this Silicon Village time capsule. His description of their roots reminded me about choices and their consequences—good, bad or indifferent.

There’s no “right way” to create a viable, useful product; no methodology that is absolutely sound or fool proof. The best you can hope for—as Bo so eloquently points out in Lucky or Smart?—is that if you subjugate your ego often enough, and live your life accordingly, options will be presented to you in a manner that you can act upon with intelligence, vigor and respect.

That advice should be the first amendment for both creating useful products and collaborating with smart people, as in both cases, consistently relying on ones self-referential perspective is rarely ever a spot on decision.

Viva la flickr! Viva la Tripod!

Even Jackson Pollock Had A Method

pollock

Designers are held to a double-standard, especially those of us who design for the interactive medium.

The stereotype of a designer is that he or she is self-referential with their design approach. Businesses cringe when faced with the prospect of bringing in a new designer to a product team. I mean, come on, all designers are “shiny-shiny” types, looking for that Golden Pencil or Webby Award, right?

Product management talk about wanting designers who have a rationale before suggesting a change to an interface behavioral pattern or a different approach to existing design patterns, which is understood. We’re designers, not artists. Designers should have a process that substantiates their output; a smart, talented, non self-referential designer, able to take both the domain and its particular users into account when designing interfaces.

Fair enough.

So designers expose their craft and processes to businesses and product teams in order to show that they get it. Seasoned designers are able to have a conversation about a business model; they can talk shop with engineers; they can subjugate their own preferences in order to understand the needs of the end user and the possibilities that lie beyond the present user experience.

The aforementioned approaches aren’t optional to practice the craft; these are the multi-disciplinary skill-sets required for the role.

“Innovation comes from rapid iterations of features” they say. “Okay” the designer adds, “Let’s just make sure we’re focusing on the right features, useful to actual people.”

Product management doubles down on their roadmap, project managers steel up, developers get frustrated, cats sleep with dogs, etc.

The intent behind crafting an interface is to create a representational model that reflects, as close as possible, the end user’s mental model regarding their goals, desires, and ability to use technology; successful interface design and ux isn’t about deploying an implementation model.

– Me

So why is the method of getting to the interface so disconcerting?

Designers create user archetype(s) and scenarios to represent the potential user base and their needs and desires in a product. If the synthesized findings confirm the company’s vision—from c-level to product owners—they can then be translated by the design team into interactions in the interface to either support or change user behavior.

This is how refined, holistic user interfaces are created across a single product, an entire domain, and even into external product and brand communication. Design a cross-functional, collaborative process which may or may not impact the core hypothesis behind a product’s position, but definitely will improve the user experience of the product itself.

If my non-designer colleagues in this field believe that experience design begins and ends at the interface level, where it gets pretty, then I guess I understand the hesitation to leverage our methods.

Maybe us designers should “just get drunk and throw paint on the canvas.”

The CLIENT Is The Bottom Line

collaboration

In an industry such as online brokerage, one would assume that the client would always be at the center of focus. And while most of the time that is the case—firms do create products and services that respond to client needs in order to grow their business—the underlying focus on the bottom line of a publicly traded company often demands executive attention, which can obscure best practice methodology, client initiatives and how to make innovation a reality due to the pressures and expectations of The Street.

Therein lies the problem: Only a sustained and coordinated focus on understanding client goals, needs, desires, etc. can innovate in a manner that is useful to clients.

Collaboration

If clients can recognize the value proposition of an offering, firms will find clientele. That’s an understandable equation. But the daily costs of doing business can drive internal decisions that affect the quality and focus of a product, let alone how teams work together. Why change how an organization works when the sausages have been made the same for as long as we can remember?

Without a charge from executives, management tends to gravitate towards less external collaboration and less spending, rather than re-investing within their tribes of the organization. Whether such decisions lead to multi-tasking employees or avoiding methodological advances, working within conservatively defined parameters lessens risk in the short-term.

So how can a business operate in a manner that supports clients goals at a desirable investment level without risking management positions by putting the business in a tenuous position in the process?

The glue is the simple concept of collaboration.

Harder Than It Sounds

For the sake of simplicity, imagine a company divided into four primary units:

  • Business
  • Design
  • Technology
  • Marketing

In this simple example, nothing could be accomplished with quality, speed or at reduced costs without close collaboration.

  • Marketing and Design need to share quantitative and qualitative research (respectively) to assist the Business in developing an explicit understanding of client needs. These qualified findings can then be prioritized by Business and Technology in terms of viability and feasibility (respectively)
  • Business, Design and Technology must collaborate during all phases of product design in order for goal-directed and innovative experiences to become a reality. This collaboration is always crucial, but even more so when first (or speed) to market is the goal
  • Marketing must be looped into all Design points to ensure that brand communication meets brand experience. Marketing plans can then be created to introduce the client experience to the market in proper fashion

Yes, this is oversimplified, but the point is that successful product teams aren’t led by management that hunkers down, walling off their teams and agendas from other groups. There will always be office politics, no matter the domain, but when conceiving, designing, developing and launching interactive products, collaboration is essential to the success of not only the product, but the overarching brand.

The current buzz within the walls of Ameritrade has shifted from constantly touting our top operating margin in the industry to making transparent a commitment to designing an organization around the needs of our clients, while keeping that industry leading operating margin.

After a major merger (Datek Online), we’ve slowly grown in the direction of living and breathing the above degree of collaboration over the past few years, as Design has become an understandable entity, rather than the black box that development once considered us to be.

Keeping a competitive edge in this industry and on The Street is a tricky business. Producing killer products for clients can be made a lot simpler.

Art Prophesying Reality?

three-days-of-condor

It was around 1989 when I read Six Days of the Condor; a perfect story for an 18 year-old male, chock full of deceit, murder, paranoia, sex, intrigue and spies. For some reason—possibly my attention span at the time—the end of the book threw me for a loop. So tonight, I kicked back with my Netflix choice of the week and watched the film adaptation: Three Days of the Condor.

Three words: Rent. it. now.

It was made 28 years ago, yet the plot line has come to life in eerie fashion over the last few years. I don’t want to ruin the movie for you, so if you are going to rent it, don’t read on.

Condor (played by Robert Redford) is a spy, and per chance, misses a hit on his office that leaves the all seven of his colleagues executed. After some brilliant screenwriting, we come to find out that one of his previous reports sent off to Langley hit a nerve within a secret faction of the CIA that just happened to be playing war games concerning the overthrow of an unstable regime in the Middle East in order to gain control of oil reserves.

Sure, the US has been meddling with numerous foreign spots in the Middle East over the past 50 years to keep a stranglehold on power, but shivers the size of nine inch nails traveled down my spine just the same.

The rogue CIA unit ordered the execution of the entire office after reading Condor’s spot-on investigative report, so he does the only thing he can and goes off the grid to plan his next steps. After outwitting numerous suits over the course of the film, he ends up confronting the CIA Director directly in front of the New York Times office in Manhattan.

After a quick verbal sparring over the morality of what our government was doing, Condor tells the Director that the story is out and the Times will be publishing it all. The film ends with the CIA Director asking Condor,

“What if they don’t print it, then where will you go?”

Redford’s face drops a bit as the last frame freezes on him.

Does Our Press Get Squeezed?

Forget the uncanny plot line that syncs up with the recent activity in Iraq and the coincidence of the NYC CIA office being found within the WTC. It’s eerie to experience this 70s flick being so prescient, but I’m more interested with the final jab.

I often wonder how free the press is in our capitalistic society, where over the years the fourth branch has moved away from reporting and more toward media. Our government has indoctrinated us to speak harshly against news practices around the world, especially during the eighties during the heart of the Cold War (when I was an impressionable teenager); the old “look, over there!” trick has build a sycophantic capitalist society of productive worker bees at home, much less apt to question authority or the authenticity of “news” when delivered.

Here’s something to ponder: Did you know that congress is on the verge of passing unprecedented legislation that allows media entities to merge with minimal to no limitations? Can you imagine what this could mean in an Orwellian novel? Or in this actual capitalist society where one individual, such as a Bill Gates, has more wealth than the bottom 45 percent of American households combined?

A less competitive press = a singular perspective.

  • Advertising revenue begins to drive the editorial premise and impedes journalistic objectivity
  • Agendas are deployed and met
  • A top down, targeted media push (via news, marketing, advertising, programming, etc.) becomes the mainstay of communication operations

Our society has evolved from watching the news on TV at 6 and 11 (1970’s) to digesting news 24 hours a day on TV, radio, and the internet (1990’s) to having access to hundreds of thousands of individual perspectives of news events blasting on blogs (present). With all this newfound decentralized access we should feel both informed and empowered, right?

That’s what they want us to think.

For even the most invested netizen, information technology is still a hindrance when trying to decipher noise from news, and fiction from fact. Simple to use, individually operated publishing channels are now available to the masses through blogging, but actual reach to the mainstream, less tech savvy, older audiences is minimal at best as information is still presented in a hard-to-access online ecosystem.

I can imagine the power elite in media and government thinking something along the lines of:

Let the bottom feeders play with their toys—be it bloggers publishing opinions based on theory or fact—no one will be able to tell the difference. It’ll be our facts that they base their opinion upon. And the noise in the sheer amount of opinions projected outwards will make all opinions null and void.

Our organized, top-down messaging is so strong via advertising, marketing, media, etc., that the bottom-up representation of the people will become lost in the noise of the the mainstream media, as well as in it’s own scattered presentation.

We’ll then use their information as data to feed our strategic messaging and market right back to them.

Americans have turned into thought veal over the past twenty-years. We’ve been tenderized perfectly to be devoured oh-so-nicely in a propaganda system that is set up to succeed only if the masses over-consume everything from food to entertainment to material goods to political punditry.

This is the boogie man that lives under my bed.