This year’s choice of venue for the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers — San Francisco — provided relatively easy access to a brain trust that is increasingly important to the content production community: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley.
One standing room only session, “Learning from Silicon Valley: How to Boost Your Creativity,” brought two denizens from the high tech hub on board, to share their approaches to creativity and productivity, and offer glimpses into potential futures.
On hand were Obi Felten, part of the team from X (formerly Google X), which is the division of the ever-expanding tech giant’s parent company, Alphabet, responsible for such early-stage projects — or “moonshots” as they call such things over there — as self-driving cars, Google Glass and Project Loon (more on that later). She also has a title that would take up the bulk of a business card: “head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world.”
Also presenting was Jane McGonigal (pictured), a renowned game designer, author (Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World) and current director of game research and development at the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future. Her game, SuperBetter, has been used by those dealing with traumatic brain injury, anxiety and depression as part of their recovery processes.
Below, some takeaways from the discussion:
Put the emphasis on “failing gracefully on the path to success”
X’s Felten said that in order for her company to develop their “moonshot” technologies, team members have to become well acquainted with the possibility and probability of failure in order to decide which projects to keep working on, and which to abandon. Thus, she said it was necessary to reframe the experience, “from failing fast to learning fast.”
She cited the team’s experience in developing the much-hyped Google Glass several years back. In 2013, prototypes were tested by “real people” outside of the company, and while the capabilities of “smart glasses,” including a built-in camera and the ability to access the Internet via voice command and touchpad, were deemed “nice to have” by the “Glass Explorers,” they weren’t seen as “need to haves.”
However, users from the B2B sector found aspects of it incredibly useful, and this past July, an “Enterprise Edition” was developed.
“Now it’s rising like a Phoenix from the ashes,” said Felten of the resurrected Glass.
Set “kill criteria” up front
What would make you shut your own project down? What would be the point where, after all the mental and physical toil, you kick it to the curb? It’s a good idea to decide upon that point early and stick to it, but to also be realistic about how many iterations a truly ambitious idea might need in order to work.
Felten discussed X’s Project Loon, an R&D project with the aim of bringing Internet access to rural and remote areas, and the approximately five billion people who have no access to the ‘Net. The project sends high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere to create an aerial wireless network, and has had several successful tests, including its most recent mission — delivering Internet access to some 100,000 individuals in hurricane-pummeled Puerto Rico. But before that happened, the X team had to arrive at the right material and design for the balloons. Myriad designs were tested, and many failed, but at an early enough stage to warrant further investigation.
“Creativity and innovation are really messy,” said Felten. “The key is learning how to deal with that messiness.”
“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
In her presentation, McGonigal used “Dator’s Law” from futurist Jim Dator to encourage delegates to “think about the future differently.” From a neurological standpoint, if you think about your 2027 self, it’s as if you’re thinking about a stranger, or a fiction — your medial pre-frontal cortex, which is part of the brain’s default mode network that deals with self-referential mental activity, fires up less when you think about your future self than when you think about your current self and its concerns.
“You can connect more to your future self by thinking about the future differently,” she advised. Using “first person thinking,” or facts such as how old you’ll be or how old your children will be in 2027, “connects you to your future self.”
To present one vision of the future, McGonigal showed a video “documentary” from the Institute of the Future, shot in the year 2027, depicting a new social network that gave users the ability to actually feel each other’s feelings. While VR is often called an “empathy machine” by its proponents, this fictional tech had users attach electrode-bearing headgear in order to have the feelings of others “beamed” into their brains.
At the end of the clip, when asked who in attendance felt uncomfortable about this possible future, the majority of delegates raised their hands. Interestingly, said McGonigal, younger people who have seen the video, and who have grown up in the social media era, are more welcoming of the idea.
The next edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers will take place in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia.