Karen: Invisible Threads are the Strongest Ties

Karen_Feature Image_Landscape WITH LOGO

In the design of systems it is often what we cannot see that is the most valuable. In our emotional design as people it is the trillions of molecules that inform our feelings about who we connect to and why. In the design of our workplaces and social gatherings it is the air of culture that floats around us forged through our interpretation of conversations and side glances. And in the social design of digital, mobile and wearable technologies it is our web of data and its DNA that is the strongest tie. It is also the most profitable. 

It is our web of data, that while we cannot see it, it is there. And it lives as we live and also long after we do. We are wedded to it and it weds us to many of the systems we float through and play with. The data helps to create those systems in a symbiotic relationship that keeps us socially, personally and psychologically stuck. A system where we are “sometimes” asked to provide data openly in order to participate (“Sign in” and “Accept Cookies”), but not always (“Cross-device Tracking“) and it can be helishly difficult once you do have an account to unsubscribe or request account deletion (“Delete me”).

These are systems that live between devices (“All of them”), in which occurs an on-going dialogue of server-client interaction. A dialogue where we are rarely in the conversation but are most certainly the topic of it. And all the while, the system collects, stores and with human interpretation applied … profiles and segments us in different ways and for different reasons.

People — like me (and unlike me), use the science of data, of language, of statistics, of socio-psychology and technology and the art of human-centered design to gather data and information. Data such as — what people do, why, who they talk to and are connected with, where they go, how healthy they are, who they voted for or didn’t, who are their friends and much much more. Some claim their intent is ‘to learn and understand you’ or ‘to tailor services to you’ and then the data collected is used to profile you behaviorally, psychologically and personally. And in this act judgements are made about you.

For what some consider “clever systems”, systems like those we see portrayed in films like Her, your profile is created over time as the system learns about you, and the system experience changes dynamically as you change. It is personalized it to you. Through the experience of each interaction we become seduced not just by the ease and convenience, but by what some people call “good design” — design that feels intimate, and personal, sometimes social and increasingly very very human. Design we come to trust and enjoy as well as design that may evoke in us, a state of flow — a state that social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says is the secret to happiness.

In all of this, “we” play a role in the design of these systems. Not just the data scientists, the tech developers or UX designers and artists … but all of us — everyday people. Our world is shaped by our participation in it. Willingly or not, we play a part, a character up on stage by sharing of who we are, what we feel, do and believe and who we give ourselves, our data and our DNA access to. To many organizations we are walking talking data factories, ”we” are the ’unpaid labourers’ of sites like Facebook, Google as well as lifestyle and fitness apps and many others.

Knowingly or not we share parts of our story publicly nearly every moment of everyday. From the Fitbit on your wrist tracking your bio-metrics (“My heart rate is …”), to the cell phone in your hand and its plethora of apps as an extension of yourself (“I am so lost without it”), especially for some teenagers (“I’d rather give up my kidney than my phone”), to the searches you do with Google for the things most personal and secret to you (“No one knows what I Google … right?”) and the social media profiles you update and respond to every minute of everyday  (“… cause I am afraid of missing out”). Increasingly, through all this I find myself wondering — where do I end and where does my data begin? (“It is my data, right?”) and who has access to it (“My data is safe, right?”).

We are living in a sticky world and we stuck in a web of data — mine, yours and everyone else’s, personal and impersonal, big and small, current and out of date. This is a web where to interact, to connect, to communicate, to respond and to receive a human-like experience … we are seduced to give more of ourselves and often to people we do not even know — total strangers.

We play within a web of systems designed for us to leave a trail of data breadcrumbs behind us. Data that from the smallest molecule to the biggest of data set is …

… the currency of now, to be sold, shared, hacked up and you and your friends — profiled.
… used in different ways by different parties and for many different reasons — for the greater good and not.
… a liquid living pulse that flows through your networks veins, keeping you alive online, telling a story about you, a story you are forever wedded to.

And this web of data, is rarely yours to own, to access, to be creative with and especially for some data — the data we might want to erase —- “it is very complicated to delete it.”

These are some of the reasons I got involved and started collaborating in 2012 with artists, Blast Theory and National Theatre Wales on the creative work, Karen. With this project I wanted to explore in a creative, artistic and personal way the relationships we have with our data, our identity, who we are willing to share it with and how especially how design of the system plays a role in our willingness to share, knowingly or not.

Karen: An app that pscyhologically profiles you as you play.

Or does she?


Karen is a new work by Blast Theory, developed in partnership with National Theatre Wales. Co-commissioned by The Space and 539 Kickstarter backers. Karen has been developed with support from the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham and in collaboration with Dr Kelly Page.

You can learn more about Karen from the different partners: Blast TheoryThe Space and National Theatre Wales. You can also visit the Karen research blog and follow #karenismylifecoach on Twitter.

Considered Quietness

Last year I picked up a smallish blue book from a pile on a table in Powells Bookshop in Chicago. Its title was  Men Explain Things to Me by writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit. The cover jumped out at me from the table filled with books piled two and three high, their covers a pool of images, patterns and font styles swimming together. The cover of white font on a blue background was loud in its simplicity, and surprisingly quiet in its need for a fan fare of attention.

Attention I happily gave it.

Intrigued I picked it up, scanned through its first few pages and then read its back cover. After handing the book over the counter to be scanned and money exchanged, I slid it into my bag for later reading. And by later I mean 15 minutes later. I started reading Men Explain Things to Me in the car on the way home. Flicking the pages I nodded as I felt myself slipping into Rebecca’s world and smiled as I saw moments in her story related in ways to some of my own.

Page after page, essay after essay, I devoured it in hours. I read the first few essays in the car, interrupted only by my husband asking me to read a section after I’d commented to myself, ‘Oh, that is so true.’ So engrossed I had forgotten that he was also interested in the books contents. I shared the passage and we discussed it. Both agreeing and disagreeing with how people not only see things, but experience them differently.

I continued reading it surrounded by quiet on the couch after dinner and finished it as I lay in bed later that night.

In short, I loved it.

I loved the prose and the science. And importantly I felt in some ways I too had lived the books central premise, Men Explain Things to Me. In formal meetings and informal conversations, I had been that female sitting there nodding, being interrupted, feeling frustrated and often lost at not understanding when and how I could use my voice. It took me years out of graduate school to really start to find my voice and when I did, I then made a very conscious decision as to when I would really use it, with whom and why.

A person’s voice is precious, unique and not everyone is deserving of its power.

A person’s voice is constantly evolving and needing of time and support to be crafted and shared.

A person’s voice needs quietness around it for its integrity to be truly considered.

Lying there in the dark that night, her little blue book resting on my bed side table, I closed my eyes and promised myself that I would read it again. But on a second reading I’d take more time to really consider it.

It was a few weeks before I came back to it and it was no longer on my bedside table. I had moved the book to the desk in my home study. I’d placed it next to my iMac in readiness for the day I’d read it again, and as a daily reminder that one day I would.

When I did pick it up it was after a very busy period of work and transition. A period that had me interacting daily with a number of consultants, clients of various ages and flying to and from workshops across the country. Sitting in the airport departure lounges in Atlanta, Washington DC and Chicago, quietly observing those around me I reflected on my learning these past few months.

Learning from the work undertaken, how my colleagues and I interacted and quietly observing the people in the everyday around me — at the airport, on the train and at the many restaurants. Landing in Chicago I felt a need to revisit Rebecca’s writing and perhaps to consider it a little differently.

This time I refrained from devouring it. I instead hovered over every sentence and ever paragraph. I found quiet moments in which I could really consider how Rebecca weaved story and science and how essay after essay flowed in a seamless stream of consciousness. Her writing, her wit and her insight it was clear I admired. Some of her assertions about the differences between how ‘some’ men and ‘some’ women — and it is some, not all — communicate, share and interact with each other I also agreed with. Some I also disagreed.

On my second reading of her words, however, I did something differently.

This time I found myself replacing the word men with the word people.

This time I mentally changed the title to People Explain Things to Me. 

As I flicked through the pages and read her essays a second time, I found myself thinking of examples in my own life, and from observing the interaction of others going on around me wherein one person — male and female — eagerly step into the role of explaining things to people. Be it on Facebook, Twitter, in a coffee shop, on the train or over the dinner table.

There are many people who find meaning and purpose in explaining things that do not necessarily need to be explained. And many companies who make money off repeating it, live tweeting it and calling it news.

I began to consider if we can actually group this practice of ‘explaining to’ as purely a male to female practice. In addition to men, I also know of strong, dominant and vocal women who also explain things to people. Both to men and to women. Albeit that is from living in a society where many of our models of communication have long been founded in the practice of masculine models of working and learning in our halls of academe.

I wanted instead to consider this as a practice of people.

A practice wherein one person lectures, stands up on stage as expert, somewhat oblivious to the experience, knowledge and ideas of those around them, and holds the room. If in a small group setting this person always dominates the conversation, and instinctively interrupts people in order to regain the stage where they are most at home. And when a person nods their head in agreement or replies, “Yes, I understand,” their voice is seen as an affirmation of all that is being explained to them. Not stopping to breathe nor to listen to the quiet voices with invisible hands being raised around them, people who explain things to people simply move on.

Consider your own interactions with family and friends, or work colleagues?

Who often sits quietly listening, their own silence not heard?

Who bounces around the room, explaining their opinions and experiences with everyone — tweeting it, posting it, never taking a breath?

And who rarely considers the ways of others especially those more quiet than themselves, as just different?

And who does?

Take a quiet moment and consider if everyone is explaining to everyone, creating a melting pot of noise.

Take a quiet moment and consider, are you? 

As I considered this notion deeply for myself as well as in observing those around me I wondered if in our modern society we have a crisis in the practice of considered quietness.

A crisis of its absence in the ways we work, learn and live.

A crisis in valuing the time it takes to deeply consider, to contemplate and to learn, as well as to appreciate the white space.

A crisis where every moment is filled with people explaining something to you, sharing something with you, where every piece of communication sent to you is not truly for you or about you, where our communication is conditioned not by our mindfulness of the thinking of others, but by our selfish need for an audience. And an audience now.

An audience whose speed of attention and social affirmation we have become addicted to in our own selfish search for meaning, and to matter. And if we click off, walk away or close the door we fear … we might miss out.

A crisis where we, people, have forgotten the value of considered quietness as a very mindful and active way to participate in the world. 

“SShhhhhhhhh. I’m thinking.”

Digging Deeper for Youth Locally

Snow had begun to lightly fall as I walked out my front door this evening. It was 6:05PM and the meeting was due to start at 6:30PM. The walk is not far from my house. Down my street for 2 minutes, then across the railway tracks that lead into Chicago and out to Auroa. After brisk walk north I arrive at 27th Street in all of 15 minutes. Along the way I pull the cords on the hood of my down jacket tighter to seal it around the woolen beanie I had slipped on over my head. Turning west along 27th I soon arrive at the offices of Youth Crossroads (YC) Inc., a local non-profit organization who has been serving youth and their families from Berwyn, Cicero, Forest View, Lyons, and Stickney in Illinois for the last 40 years.

Why am I here? Why did I log out of my computer at 5:45PM, taking a break from my writing, grab my iPad and my journal (yes I still carry both) and dig deep to make the short walk on a cold November evening?

One the surface I was invited to.
More deeply I wanted to.

In June this year I was talking with Jeff Janda from the local Park Districts where I live in Illinois. He mentioned that he and David Terrazino, the Executive Director from YC were putting together a group to develop a Youth Survey so local community organizations could learn more about what youth in Berwyn want. I happily agreed to assist. It was through this initiative that I got to know David, and some of his team at YC. The more we met to discuss and design the survey, the more I learned about their programs, and the more I wanted to be involved. Why?

On the surface I believe that the voice of youth matter.
More deeply I know we adults are often too busy talking to listen.

While working on the youth survey an opportunity came up for YC to apply for a state grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services. A grant that would help to fund the organizations Youth Leadership Program (YLP) for another nine months. It would be used to pay staffing costs, cover program overheads and pay for some much needed new technology. After working on the application and meeting the states one month deadline, David invited me to attend the next board meeting and to consider joining the board as a member.

On the surface I was flattered by his invitation.
More deeply I was moved by the responsibility I knew that would come with it.

For as long as I can remember I have worked with nonprofit organizations in one capacity or another. I started as a young child helping my mother deliver meals on wheels to the elderly residents in the small country town in Australia where we lived. I’ll always remember one gentleman. He was a veteran like my father but much older. When we’d drop off his meal, waiting at the door to be allowed into his house, he’d exchange the hospital container in our hands for a small bag of sweets that were shaped like teeth. My sisters and I would thank him and watch as he smiled showing a grin with gaps where some of his teeth had once been. My sisters and I would spend the rest of the drive around town eating the sweets while being reminded by our mother that we were the only people he and the other elderly people would probably see all day.

So the seed was planted and while I have travelled much of my adult life, I have always held a place in my schedule for nonprofits who are working to make our world a better place. They are the true social businesses that could do well to remind many other businesses what a social good, a social service and being truly social is all about. My organizations of choice have always been arts groups and educational teams offering learning opportunities. And out of all my work over the years, working with nonprofits has always been the most rewarding. Why?

On the surface they give and given and ask little.
More deeply they value people and the ideals they are working for.

Now if there is anything my childhood and parents in Australia have and continue to show me. That my education and work with young people in universities has taught me. And my research has helped me to see more clearly is that when we talk of changing the world for the better, changing the system to be more equitable, providing opportunities for those who most need them and helping young people to forge their own path … that the best place where we can start, sign up, log on, turn up and fight for … is in our own backyards. It within our own community groups and throughout our local neighborhoods. Why?

On the surface this is the community physically closest to us.
More deeply this is the community who we can impact the most.

When large national financial institutions are faulting on their commitment to consumers; multinational companies are moving opportunities and resources offshore; colleges and universities are charging ever more for an education and our governments keep fighting, it is in our homes and the neighborhoods around them that we can draw solace and where we can work to make significant change especially for our youth. When young people are encouraged and supported to have a voice at home, in school and across their own community, by their own community, it impacts them significantly in how they use their voice to be anywhere in the world.

For me it is here in my own backyard that I feel a true sense of the community many people often talk about as missing in our ever connected, albeit digitally, of times. It is also here that I am witness to acts of empathy and collaboration that many design firms insist we need more of. I see it in the young people on the 311 bus making their way to or from school happily chatting, taking selfies and sharing homework notes. It is in the local supermarket, Familia Fresh that I overhear conversations as people bump into friends and share stories with each other. It is living in a neighborhood where in the winter we shovel each others footpaths and in the summer, spring and autumn mow each others lawns. It is in the hundreds of activities organized by parents, teachers and members of local organizations who come together to raise money, raise awareness and do good locally. Why?

On the surface they are of the community for whom they serve.
More deeply they fear if they don’t support their own community who will.

As I sat in on my first YC board meeting tonight. As I listened to a review of the executive directors report for the month, the review of program activity and project summaries. As I made a note on my iPad about the forthcoming fundraising events — one of the boards more important and the organizations most needed activities, I welcomed the opportunity to join. I enjoyed listening to this small group of local people who without doubt are passionately dedicated to improving the lives of young people here and throughout our neighboring cities.

Next. Agenda Item VII. My appointment to the board. Do I have questions for them? Do they of me? We chat and I leave the room so they can discuss and vote in private. David appears at the conference room door after 5 minutes and invites me back in. As I sit back in my seat Steven, the chair of the meeting invites me to join the board of directors. Do I accept?

On the surface I do.
More deeply I already long had.

YC’s mission is to “act in the best interest of youth, guiding them through life’s challenges, and inspiring them to discover new opportunities for personal development, healthy relationships, and positive community involvement.” They are working hard to change not just the life of one young person; they are doing everything they can to serve the lives of thousands of young people across the Western suburbs of Chicago. This is an area underfunded and under represented in different ways. It is an area no different to others across the state and the country in the dreams, hopes and aspirations of its young people.

It is here that the words of Mary Mcleod Bethune perhaps are most fitting. Words that capture why many people, myself included, value the development of young people in our local communities and across our worlds so much so we join boards of organizations and dig deep to help to raise funds to pay for the programs which serve them.

We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices to that we may direct their power toward good ends.
— Mary Mcleod Bethune.


Youth Crossroads

Youth Crossroads, Inc. (YC) is a non-profit community-based organization whose mission is to act in the best interest of youth, guiding them through life’s challenges, and inspiring them to discover new opportunities for personal development, healthy relationships, and positive community involvement.

Since 1974, YC has assisted tens of thousands of youth and their families from the Berwyn, Cicero, Stickney, Forest View, and Lyons, Illinois communities. We collaborate extensively with local school districts, government agencies, police departments, and other human service organizations to provide youth and family counseling services, crisis intervention for runaway and locked-out youth, school/community-based trauma response and prevention programs, after-school enrichment programs, and youth leadership development services. All YC services are provided at no cost to youth and families and are bi-cultural, bi-lingual English/Spanish.

How to Schedule Your Day as a Creative | YouTube

We are all creative and we all need creative time. The difficulty is knowing how to manage your time and the expectations of others for creativity.

Creativity takes courage.
— Henri Matisse

Terry Tempest Williams: On Writing as an Act of Living | Brevity


Terry Tempest Williams is one of my most admired writers. Her essay Why I Write, inspired me to revisit and reflect on my own inner reasons as to Why I write. It has taken me many years to find the balance between my adult academic voice and the creative voice I loved so much as a child. To negotiate the tensions and the slipperiness between scientific fact, and creative nonfiction. This is something, I think I will always be negotiating.

Terry’s words are helping me to do this.

Inspired by her craft, I now use her essay in my management classes to help young people not only to improve their writing, but to start to unpick their inner most thoughts as to “why I create”. By getting in touch with our why, to lay it bare, to pull it open and mediate in its inner most crevices and to not let it go, helps a creative soul to not lose their way in this often complex and creatively unforgiving world we live.

Today I read a recent interview with Terry about her memoir, When Women Were Birds, published in Brevity. As I read half way down the page, I came to stop at her discussion on listening and its difference to hearing. Her words are poetic. They are also much need in this world where many of us have stopped listening with our entire selves, and reflecting. Or maybe, we have never learnt how.

Here is an extract from her interview,

You were listening to your mother through the empty pages. Can you define this type of listening?

Recently in The New York Times there was an article discussing the differences between “hearing” and “listening.” Listening engages the entire body and enlivens the brain. We are more creative and energized when we truly listen with our whole being. To simply hear something is to have it register as a noise without delineation. To hear something asks very little of us. To listen places our entire being on notice. We are aroused with a desire and capacity to learn something new and as a result, we have the capacity to change, evolve.

via On Writing as an Act of Living: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams | Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.

Image source: Brooks, Elbridge Streeter (1897) The Century Book of the American Revolution. Century Co.: New York.