The secret to creating online community - and defeating trolls - is surprisingly simple. Listen to my podcast interview with Ken Freedman and Liz Berg from WFMU, the free-form radio station that has created a worldwide fan base through its radically innovative approach to radio.

You're invited: I'll be hosting the first Skeptech at WFMU this Wednesday, May 24, in Jersey City:
Sign up to attend (tickets almost sold out!) ... or watch the livestream starting 7pm Eastern on May 24.
Skeptech speaker list, venue, and all event details
My column that launched Skeptech

Subscribe to the Creative Good podcast:
Subscribe in iTunes
RSS feed

(Update: Watch the livestream of Skeptech on Wednesday, May 24, starting 7pm Eastern.)

Friends, we need to talk. About tech.

There's a problem brewing in digital technology. You're probably aware of it - the problem is big, it's systemic, and it's growing. We can name some of its aspects: Surveillance. Manipulation. Addiction. General creepiness.

I've been watching these issues grow and develop for a decade. Ten years ago, seeing people suffering under email overload, I published Bit Literacy - hoping to teach people crucial skills, seeing as tech companies weren't doing the job. But it got worse: the tech industry has found ways to lock users in, launch and promote addictive tools, and build surveillance systems that track users' private communications and actions, often without users' knowledge or consent. It's a totally different world from when I started Creative Good in 1997, naively optimistic about the internet's potential to improve the world.

The emerging tech reality has been hard to ignore while running my Gel conference in recent years, trying to spotlight innovations that I'm excited about. The early years of Gel were highlighted by the first-ever stage presentations of Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Duck Duck Go, and others - great projects benefiting the world - but in recent years it's been harder to find similarly inspiring projects. My customer experience consulting at Creative Good, as well, has felt pressure to become analytics- and algorithm-based, rather than human-based. (I wrote about this in January.) My most recent book, Customers Included, makes the case for good qualitative thinking, and basic human respect for users, but both ideas increasingly seem out-of-step with our new tech reality. So I feel the need to take action.

The world deserves better technology. You deserve better. And goodness knows, we've been promised better from the tech industry. So today, I'm going to do something about it: I'm launching a new project called Skeptech.

Skeptech will be a platform to...
question today's digital technology,
explore how it operates, often to users' detriment, and
discover ways that all of us - product teams and users, too - can create and use better technology that works toward users' long-term benefit.

In particular, I want to spotlight people and projects that are doing things right, proving the viability of a different approach:
people (thinkers, writers, innovators, and product teams) that deserve more exposure for the good work they're doing
tools (apps, sites, communities, even games) that create genuinely good experiences - they do exist! - and
media (books, podcasts, feeds, and articles) that are worth paying attention to, as this is a broad, deep, and swiftly developing issue.

Skeptech kicks off in two weeks with our first gathering: on the evening of Wednesday, May 24, both in person (update: sold out) and via livestream (starting 7pm Eastern on Wed May 24). Skeptech will feature these speakers: Douglas Rushkoff, Natasha Dow Schüll, Vicki Boykis, Liz Berg, and Ken Freedman - and myself as host. (See all Skeptech info.) We'll also include Q&A for attendees to contribute. Skeptech is the Gel conference for this spring - like a mini-Gel evening event! - so I hope you'll join us.

Our friends at WFMU, the freeform radio station run by Skeptech speakers Ken Freedman and Liz Berg, are providing the venue and the livestream. The whole event is a benefit for WFMU, so in addition to the ticket revenue going to the station, I hope livestream viewers will donate to WFMU as well. (Just click "pledge now" on the event page or the livestream page.)

But now I have to ask. Are you with me? Skeptech is an experiment, and it will depend on the community to succeed: Are you on board?

If so, here's what you can do right now:

1. Spread the word about Skeptech: copy and paste this into your Twitter/Facebook/favorite social media account:

Tech got creepy, so @markhurst launched Skeptech:

2. Watch the Skeptech livestream (from 7pm to 9pm Eastern), via the livestream page. More info at the Skeptech site:

3. Subscribe to my email newsletter and/or my Twitter feed. (There are also Skeptech Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook feeds.)

4. Let me know your thoughts: Ideas, suggestions, comments? You can email me or post a comment below.

I appreciate your support - and I hope that, through Skeptech, we can change things for the better. -Mark Hurst

New podcast episode: I spoke with siblings Noah Scalin and Mica Scalin about how a creative practice can improve your life (and your social media feed).

Mentioned in this episode...
Creative Sprint, the new book by Noah and Mica Scalin
Skull-A-Day Noah's blog with his skull creations
Noah Scalin at Gel 2009, speaking about his Skull-A-Day project

I was inspired by Noah and Mica to start a creative sprint of my own - see also the @skeptech Instagram feed for 30 days of Skeptech images.

Finally, come to Skeptech! Wednesday, May 24, 2017 in the NYC area - we'll also have a livestream, for the first time.

To subscribe to the podcast:
Subscribe in iTunes
RSS feed

The principles of "customers included" design are strongly evident at a unique restaurant in New York City. Listen to my new podcast episode as I interview Sam Lipp, Director of Operations at Union Square Cafe and Daily Provisions, to discuss how a beloved New York City restaurant continues to deliver hospitality to its guests, having moved to a new location a few months ago after 30 years in its original space.

Mentioned in this episode...
Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer
Customers Included, my 2015 book about designing products and services (and restaurants) with customers in mind
Bit Literacy, my first book, celebrating its 10-year anniversary, solving email overload for tens of thousands of readers

To subscribe to the podcast:
Subscribe in iTunes
RSS feed

Have you heard any of these lately? "Fail fast." "Always make new mistakes." "Ready, fire, aim." There's a certain brand of innovation that praises failure, attempts to launch something as soon as possible, and is skeptical of advance planning. This works pretty well for small-scale apps and experimental launches, but it's not a good idea for larger projects that really need to succeed.

Case in point is the U.S./Mexico border wall, which is back in the news. There's a huge amount of money at stake, and the project will almost certainly fail. I know this because I wrote a book, in part, on the last time the U.S. government pursued a "fail fast" approach on the border.

About ten years ago the U.S. tried innovating along the US/Mexico border with, not quite a wall, but a series of sensor towers - a few dozen spread across 50 miles - listening for crossing attempts. Once installed, it immediately became clear that the system didn't work. As I wrote in Customers Included:

"The sensors, which had been promised to detect people from miles away, would instead mistake windblown leaves, or even raindrops, for humans. There were more problems in the Border Patrol vehicles, which had been outfitted with laptops for agents to access the sensor data. The laptops, not equipped to work in the dusty environment of the desert, were prone to breakdowns - and even when they were working, Border Patrol agents had difficulty using them while driving on rough terrain."

The project, which cost taxpayers about a billion dollars, raised the obvious question: why didn't anyone find out what Border Patrol agents wanted, before building a system for them to use? This was, in fact, exactly the question that "60 Minutes" posed to the head of the project, near the end of its ill-fated run. Again, from my book:

The TV program ‘60 Minutes’ sent host Steve Kroft to Arizona to interview the head of SBInet, a man named Mark Borkowski. What followed was a surprisingly frank assessment from a government official:

Kroft: I’m just kind of amazed that they’re building this, what’s gonna be a multi-billion dollar system for the Border Patrol, and nobody asked the Border Patrol what they needed or wanted, or what would be helpful . . . that’s a pretty big mistake.

Borkowski: It’s a huge mistake, it’s a huge mistake.

There was one positive outcome of this misadventure: a rare moment of bipartisan agreement in Congress! Both sides of the aisle came together to agree, unequivocally, that this border project was a total waste of taxpayer money. (Senator John McCain called it "a complete failure.")

While it was nice to see bipartisan agreement, there's a larger lesson here about innovation: throwing money at a problem, while ignoring the people affected by the project, is a guaranteed failure. It appears, as the new border wall project takes shape, that the U.S. hasn't learned that lesson. (The government has posted an RFP for designs, due later this month: see the announcement and view some early reactions from architects. Here in New York, artists are building a #wallthatunites.)

The only difference this time around is scale. Last time we wasted a billion dollars. According to the New York Times and NPR, the new border wall is estimated to cost taxpayers over $20 billion.

For those teams that believe they must always "fail fast," the border wall provides a good counterexample. To put it mildly, launching a $20 billion idea without including users along the way is a bad idea. Taxpayers will not be happy to see their money - and that of future generations, to pay off the debt incurred - spent this way.

So the next time someone on your team points at a cluster of Post-It notes and says, "Let's launch it! Let's fail fast," just remember that there is another way. Spend a little time gaining some user insight - finding out what your users want - and then launch something that might actually succeed. What a radical idea! (And really, read the book.)