Monday, April 2, 2007

Interview with David Pescovitz [MacTribe]

MacTribe, March 2007 [Links to Part 1 and Part 2]

David Pescovitz is well known as a co-editor of the zine-turned-group-blog BoingBoing. But he is also a research director at the Institute for the Future, a technology think tank in Palo Alto, editor-at-large at MAKE: magazine, and a correspondent to Wired. In this first of a two-part interview, David talks to MacTribe about his work at the Institute for the Future and MAKE: magazine.

MacTribe: Tell me about the Institute for the Future.

David Pescovitz: It's a non-profit think tank in Palo Alto that's been around since the late 60s. It spun out of RAND Corporation where some computer scientists and researchers were doing forecasting work but it was classified. They wanted to take the methodologies they were using and apply them in a more public way. So they formed the Institute. We help companies, governments, foundations, and other organizations think about the long-term future, often five to ten years out, and how developments in technology and culture may impact people's lives. Then based on that foresight they can hopefully make better decisions today.

MT: So there's some corporate responsibility stuff?

DP: We don't have a specific agenda that we're pushing. I'm part of the Technology Horizons Program where we look at everything from info tech all the way to synthetic biology, nanotech, neuro-prosthetics and brain implants, smart drugs, advanced simulations, these kind of things. The Institute also has a Ten-Year Forecast Program Program that focuses on discontinuities not just in tech but also in economics, health, and many other areas. Then we have a Health Horizons Program that focuses on the global health economy, medical technologies, and related societal forces.

MT: How do you come up with your forecasts?

DP: Nobody can predict the future, and we always tell people, "Don't believe anyone who says they can, especially if they're from California." The good news is that you don't have to predict the future. We look for what we call "weak signals." A weak signal could be a business deal; it could be a scientific paper that was published, or some kind of innovation or scientific breakthrough. When you look at these weak signals and combine them together as a complex ecology of interesting points, it's possible to find patterns and intersections and get a sense of where things may be headed. The future is a cone of uncertainty. The close you are, the clearer things are. But the further out you look, the foggier, the more uncertain, the future becomes. So using a variety of methodologies, we try to narrow that cone of uncertainty. So we do interviews, we do expert workshops where we bring in smart people from different fields to think about the future with us—scientists and journalists and researchers—and we read a lot of papers, we do ethnography. Several of my colleagues have spent time in Russia and South America and China hanging out with families and seeing how they use technology and how they live. So if you synthesize all of that together, it's possible to create a forecast, which we define as an "internally consistent, plausible view of what could happen."

MT: So in a strange way it's like informed science fiction?

DP: Science fiction is more like scenario planning, where you make up a very specific story of what could happen. That's one of the things we do but not the only thing. For example, one of my colleagues, Jason Tester, makes artifacts from the future, which are like physical objects that don't yet exist but embody some kind of technological trend. It helps people understand how the technology of the future might impact their lives. The idea really is to get people thinking systematically about the long-range future. I want people to participate in the conversation about the future so that they can help create the future that they want.

MT: Are a lot of corporations your partners?

DP: We have many large companies as our clients, and also governments, and other institutions. Last year, I contributed to a project for the Horizon Scanning Centre of the United Kingdom's Office of Science and Innovation where we took a broad look at how science and technology might progress over the next fifty years. A half-century is a very long time, so that was incredibly challenging and a lot of fun. One of the outcomes is an online forum of 100 outlook pages exploring a wide range of scientific disciplines and technologies, from dark energy to climate change to technologies of cooperation to ecosystem modeling to programmable materials. In December, the forecast forum was opened to the public.

MT: And how have IFTF's predictions held up?

DP: We don't make predictions. We make forecasts.

MT: Right, forecasts.

DP: So we're the only futures organization that actually outlived its forecasts. We've done reasonably well. Some of the founders were actually involved in the ARPANET project that led to the Internet, and developed pioneering teleconferencing systems, and so we were spot on in terms of things like teleconferencing and groupware, which isn't unlike a wiki. One trend we missed was the popularity of SUVs.

MT: Oh really?

DP: We expected that by now people would have been driving much more fuel-efficient vehicles. Instead the pendulum swung the other way. Maybe it's swinging back.

MT: How long have you been working with the Institute?

DP: I've been working with the Institute in various ways—as an affiliate researcher and now as a part-time research director—for about a year and a half.

MT: That sounds very cool.

DP: It's an amazing job and I feel very fortunate to work with the people I do. It's also similar to journalism in a way. The reason I became a journalist was because there were too many things that interested me to pick one field. And at the Institute, if I'm curious about something or spot an unusual signal of some kind, I can research it and ask the experts to help me understand it. Then I get to do the synthesis to try and figure out what I might mean.

MT: That is fun.

DP: It's sort of like grad school but you get paid for it.

MT: And you don't really have to answer to anybody.

DP: Well we answer to the clients but a lot of the time our forecasts may not necessarily be pleasing to them either. And that's okay. Our aim is to provoke.

MT: So how did you get into working with MAKE: magazine?

DP: MAKE: is a DIY tech projects magazine published by O'Reilly Media. The Editor-in-Chief is Mark Frauenfelder, who is my best friend and my co-editor at BoingBoing. He was involved very early on and then me into the fold. I've been having a great time. And again, the work at MAKE: really is a natural fit with the main thing I've always been interested in, how people can use technology to empower themselves. MAKE: also has threads that lead back to the Whole Earth Review and the 60s counterculture and the personal computer revolution and hacking. It's people taking control of the tools that are around them and making those tools work they way they want. The founder and publisher of MAKE:, Dale Dougherty and I, have become close friends in part because we share this sense of wonder about how the world works. The satisfaction comes from knowing and learning and, of course, doing.

MT: Do you ever try to make some of the stuff?

DP: [laughs] You'd have to ask my wife if I ever succeed. Sadly, I don't have as much time as I would like to make things. My excuse is that I make words. I just have such a huge appreciation for the people who actually are making things.

MT: What are some of the coolest projects you've seen?

DP: Last year in April, we held a big Maker Faire where 20,000 people came to the San Mateo Fairgrounds and more than 150 makers presented their projects. It was really a celebration of DIY and the maker mindset. There were so many projects there that I liked. There was a great one where this recycling group made a supercomputer by networking together a bunch of outdated old PCs and powered the whole thing on a vegetable oil generator they made [EcoGeek link]. We're having another Bay Area Maker Faire in May this year and then one in Austin in November.

MT: That's cool.

DP: Yeah, the Maker Faire is pretty incredible. I have a secret love for robots, and there were a lot of interesting robots attending the Faire. I like it when people convert old junk into robots. We had a project in MAKE: on how to make Mousey the Junkbot, a little mobile robot built from an old computer mouse. [MAKE: editor-in-chief Mark Frauenfelder recently appeared on The Colbert Report and he brought Mousey the Junkbot to show Stephen Colbert. Video here.]

MT: Did you try that one?

DP: No but I plan to when my son's a little older. The fact is that a lot of people who read MAKE: may not necessarily make the projects in it. Many do, but a lot probably don't. I think that reading about how people do things and what astounding projects they've made is inspiring for anything that you do. It's really exciting to see what people are capable of making.

Part 2

David Pescovitz is well known as a co-editor of the zine-turned-group-blog BoingBoing. But he is also a research director at the Institute for the Future, a technology think tank in Palo Alto, editor-at-large at MAKE: magazine, and a correspondent to Wired. In this second of a two-part interview, David talks to MacTribe about his interest in technology, Boing Boing, and the success of Apple.

MacTribe: Where did your interest in technology and its potential to empower people begin?

DP: I was always very interested in science and understanding how the world works. In the very early '80s I got involved in personal computers. I'm sure your audience will appreciate that my first computer—well actually my first computer was a Texas Instruments, they probably don't appreciate that—but for my Bar Mitzvah I got an Apple II. And it didn't do anything interesting when you turned it on; there was just this blinking cursor. So one option was to buy software like games or other programs on a floppy, but those were expensive. Instead, we learned to program in BASIC and made our own games. I think that that something is lost today now that the computers have a curtain hiding the secret codes that make them work.

MT: When did you first go online?

DP: Once I got a modem in 1983, I became active on computer bulletin board systems and the weird information I could find there, mostly silly pirate and anarchist cookbook type stuff. In high school, I was also involved in 'zines and the punk scene. Then in college, I began writing about music and the counterculture. Around the time that I graduated, I became aware of a movement in San Francisco emerging at the intersection of counterculture and personal computers and drugs and music and young people empowering themselves with technology. I was already fascinated with San Francisco's history of avant garde art and industrial culture, so news of the emerging cyberculture was like a magnet and it brought me out here.

MT: Is that what you envisioned getting into as a kid?

DP: When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an engineer and go to MIT. For whatever reason, I blew off math in high school and my interests shifted. But I don't really have any regrets. Engineers often spend five or ten years on one or two problems and I think that would drive me crazy. I get to hop from one thing to the next at a moment's notice, following my curiosity wherever it takes me.

MT: I feel like the intellectuals in the Bay Area here are really the technology geeks and thinkers, whereas on the east coast the intellectuals are all about more “traditional” intellectual interests.

DP: There's definitely a culture of technological creativity, innovation, and experimentation in San Francisco. I think it survives whether the technology economy is bubbling or not. Money comes, money goes, but people continue to do “strange things with electricity," as the Dorkbot slogan goes. So the Bay Area is a fantastic place for someone like me who is constantly seeking novelty.

MT: That's why I like writing. You also don't have to commit to something for five years and see it fail but you do get to be a sort of participatory observer.

DP: Honestly, I don't even really like to write. I think I'm okay at it, but I much prefer to go out and meet people and learn interesting things from them. Of course, at some point I have to sit down and actually write about what I've learned. But I suppose that's also a good thing to do because if people hopefully read what I've written then I've done my part in sharing the knowledge too.

MT: Since you've been an Apple fan since the very beginning, how do you feel Apple's sudden success in the last couple years?

DP: I've been using an Apple since '82 so I literally grew up with them. In fact, when I still had my Texas Instruments computer, I drew an Apple logo on an index card and taped it to the top. I think it's amazing how successful Apple has become by paying attention to things like design and aesthetics, which other companies didn't seem to be caring much about. My friend Doug Rushkoff talks about the fact that advertising in the traditional sense doesn't work anymore because we're all clued in on the ways that companies try to coerce us. The only way you can really advertise a product is by making the product itself an advertisement for itself. I think that Apple does that extremely well.

MT: Are you going to get an iPhone?

DP: My Treo screen just cracked and June can't get here soon enough for me.

MT: What makes people so insanely passionate about their Macs?

DP: I wouldn't say I'm insanely passionate about Apple, but I do like most of their products. For me, the computer is just a tool, and the tool that I happen to like is made by this particular company. But I don't identify myself by the brand of computer that I use. I think that the Apple fan, literally someone who is fanatical about the company, really isn't that different from someone who is incredibly passionate about the car she drives or the brand of clothes that he wears. The brand becomes part of their identity. It embodies their lifestyle. What's more interesting to me is what people make with their tools, and Macs allow you to make a lot of very interesting things. That’s not to say that Apple isn’t without its problems,
particularly around their copy protection strategy in iTunes. However I was delighted to hear that Steve Jobs recently seems to be changing his, er, tune on DRM.

MT: I think the difference between somebody who's really fanatical about a brand of car and someone who's really fanatical about a brand of computer is that it's actually the thing that they're fanatical about that connects them to the place where they can be fanatical.

DP: That's a great insight. Is there a comparable fanaticism surrounding Windows?

MT: I haven't seen it but people claim it exists.

DP: You'd have to look at our stats, but I think around a quarter of our readers use Macintosh. [He's right about the stats, 23.8% of Boing Boing's visitors are on Macs.]

MT: Speaking of Boing Boing… how did it come about?

DP: Boing Boing is the blog that I co-edit with Mark Frauenfelder, Xeni Jardin, and Cory Doctorow. John Battelle is our band manager. Mark and his wife Carla Sinclair started bOING bOING as a print zine in the late 1980s. It was a photocopied zine about fringe culture, underground art, pranks, and that sort of thing. When I was in college, I absolutely loved bOING bOING. Then, shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1993 to attend grad school at Berkeley, I started writing for Wired. That was around the third or fourth issue of Wired, I think. Mark was working at Wired and I introduced myself to him right away, bOING bOING had an office downstairs from Wired that it shared with a couple of other magazines. Mark brought me down to meet Carla and we became fast friends. They assigned me an article about the revival of Goth for the next issue of bOING bOING and then I became a contributing editor. Mark also created a Boing Boing Web site where we posted some archived articles and other random stuff. I worked on a few issues after that but it had become such a hassle to deal with distributors who owed you like $10 or whatever that Mark and Carla decided not to do the print edition any longer. So we started posting articles online that we wanted to write but couldn't find a home for anywhere else. For example, I wrote an article about people who drilled holes in their heads to achieve enlightenment.

MT: How did it become a proper blog?

DP: When Blogger was first developed, Mark tried it out for an article he was writing and converted Boing Boing to a blog. This was in January of 2000 and he started blogging pretty regularly, just very short descriptions of links he found interesting. When Mark went on vacation, he asked Cory Doctorow, whose science fiction he liked, to be the guest blogger. Cory stayed on and then I started blogging too but not nearly as often as those guys. We also had guest bloggers, including Xeni. Our readers liked her posts so much that we just asked her to be a permanent fixture. What's amazing is that at its biggest, bOING bOING the print 'zine was probably read by maybe 20,000 people, and now more than a million folks read the site every day. So Boing Boing is the overnight success that took almost twenty years. I like to imagine what it would be like if all the Boing Boing readers lived in one place. It'd probably be a very surreal city.

MT: And a little scary, for sure.

DP: But we all have our different reasons and mindsets about posting. For me, Boing Boing is like a cabinet of curiosities. Those were the predecessors to modern day museums. In the Victorian era, people would have these cabinets or even entire rooms devoted to unusual, natural, and man-made artifacts that they collected—strange coral formations, two-headed animals in jars, exotic weapons, weird plants, scientific specimens, that sort of thing. I love that whole mindset because it's really about appreciating the wonder of the world. So Boing Boing is like a cabinet of curiosity for me. I put things in it that I come across or that our readers are kind enough to share with me. I collect them there, on Boing Boing.

MT: Do you guys all sort through the submissions yourselves?

DP: Yes, the submissions go to all of us. And we get hundreds every day.

MT: Do you talk about who's going to post what?

DP: This surprises some people but we almost never talk about what we're going to post. In fact, we almost never have meetings of any kind. I think we've all been in the same room maybe five times. Ever. And we've probably been on the phone all together less than a dozen times. So the conversations between us on email are very rarely about editorial. They're more about formatting issues, technical glitches, or whether we want to accept a particular advertiser, but never about editorial plans.

MT: And you've never blogged the same thing?

DP: Oh yeah, we've blogged the same things many times. And then one person will notice it and say, "Hey, so and so already blogged that an hour ago," and then you just take it down.

MT: But you all do sort of have your own beats, right?

DP: Again, beats have never ever been discussed. We just have our own interests that we pursue and you can watch them change over time by looking at what we post. Of course, there are some obvious themes that are ongoing like Cory's copy-fight activism and Disney, Mark's interest in mid-century illustration and animation, Xeni's interest in technology in developing nations and alternative sex practices, and I'm obviously deep into weird science and strange phenomenon. And, um, Bigfoot. What I think is amazing is that there are so many people who share at least some of those interests with us. Not very long ago, it was tough if you didn't live in a huge metropolitan city to find people who shared some of the strange or obscure interests that you might have. A journalist once asked Timothy Leary what people should do after they "turn on." Tim said, "Find the others." Boing Boing helps me do that.

— Jess Hemerly, 2007

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