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The Limits of the Virtual

The Limits of the Virtual

It often seems that nearly everything can be done and done better (or at least facilitated) online. But some activities (like this conference) remain resolutely non-virtual. What are the limits of the digital in products, services, the workplace, and business in general? What about human relations, communications, education and training, or science and medicine?
Read the full transcript below. (Transcript by Realtime Transcription.)
Kirkpatrick: So Arianna Huffington recently was talking about, that it's a paradox of the age that we live in a virtual society, but connecting with real human beings is really the highest priority. I think it goes back to Tom Malone's point earlier.
Anyway, we agree. Obviously, we put on conferences where, in a virtual age, for people who are total believers in technology's transformative potential, we should come together and actually do things face to face.
So this next session is exploring that kind of idea, the limits of the virtual. It's going to be moderated by a very good friend of Techonomy, long-time techonomist Gary Bolles. So, Gary, take it away. Thank you.
Bolles: Thank you, David.


Thank you optimists. All right.
First, I want to thank Simone and David for giving me such a fascinating and eclectic set of speakers for this session. And the time slot. Here we are at the end of the day, so I know that all of you are either highly fascinated and engaged and waiting for us to sort of wrap up a lot of the themes and issues of today, or your hunger has overtaken you and we look like a large buffet of hors d'oeuvres in your hallucinations. So we hope it's going to be the former one and we're going to be able to have a stimulating conversation.
So the framing that Simone and David gave us, I'm just going to repeat, even though you can see this in your app. What are the limits of digital and product services, the workplace, and in business? Human relations, communications, education, training, science, medicine. So I want to thank them for giving us a very small subject to cover. We will be announcing the conference that we're all starting right now to cover these over the next couple of days.
So, while I realize that finding somebody, a counter-perspective to the relentless positive attitude towards technology at a conference like Techonomy is a little challenging; like finding a Puritan at the Playboy Mansion. But I'm going to hope that we're going to find that sort of counter-view in each of you and explore some of the positives, but also some of the potential challenges of the virtual.
And I'd ask each of my speakers to be able to help us understand it from their perspective.
I actually want to start off with Cory. Cory is the VP of engineering at Facebook. I think I annoyed him by pushing on some of these negative aspects when we were talking on the phone. So I made a great career move by having a powerful executive at a company that has a billion of us as users by getting on the wrong side. But I just wanted to give you a chance, Cory, because you were really involved early on in Second Life, which is sort of—think of the spectrum of the virtual from maybe texting somebody to all the way of having a full-on avatar in a completely virtual world. Second Life was certainly that.
How many of you have ever been on Second Life? Good number of people. That's great.
Ondrejka: Wow!
Bolles: That's wonderful. I want to—since you were, obviously, immersed in that arena, how digital or virtual do you think of yourself personally as being?
Is there a percentage of the sort of information entertainment you take in virtually versus in the analog world; or how do you think of that balance in your life?
Ondrejka: So I don't actually think about that balance very much. I think about media, I think about connections, I think about doing work. I think what you're describing are different channels and different tools for staying connected with my friends, my day-to-day life.
So, obviously, anybody who is in the Valley is off several standard deviations into the more technologically connected because that's a basic part of how I do my job every day. Right? I'm connected to a large workforce, I'm connecting to a large group of friends and colleagues who are, you know, both in the Valley and also scattered. Those who are farther away, like today is Veteran's Day. I was in the Navy, because when you look at me, you think Navy.

[ Laughter ]

I know. I get that all the time.
Bolles: It's the earrings.
Ondrejka: Exactly. The good old pirate days. These are friends of mine that we've been friends for 20-plus years, and we've been on very divergent career paths, those who stayed in and those who didn't.
Tools like Facebook are how I stay connected to these people. So that when I do get to cross paths with them physically, I'm already up to speed on what's going on, and I know where they are in their lives and I know what's going on. So Facebook is just a tool, but it's for doing all the things that make us very human. It just happens to be a particularly good tool at that.
Bolles: So the challenge is, if you go back and you look at sort of the—just the sheer amount of communication that we're making, there was a researcher years ago that talked about the strength of weak ties; and that there's only a certain number of people that we tended to know in society.
We had deep relationships and maybe a small number of weak relationships. But now social media lets us have a tremendous number of very weak relationships. What are the ramifications of that? What are the positives and then potentially some of the challenges?
Ondrejka: Well, I think there are a few different pieces of that. At some point during this conversation someone was going to reference Dunbar's number, so I'll just take that one for all of you.
So Dunbar talked about relationships between primates, something that shows up over and over again as about 150 as being the limits of bands, of groups. You see this over and over again. A reasonably open question in the research of how people connect electronically and through other technologically mediated connections, does Dunbar's number apply, and exactly how does it apply?
So I think, one, there is an assumption that it would apply in the same way that is one that we're still in the process of testing. So let's sort of set that aside for a moment.
In the real world we have wildly variant connections between people. We have our friends, we have our acquaintances, and I think especially with acquaintances at a distance, those are weak ties anyway. And what technology lets us do is make those weak ties a little bit stronger and more useful. I think that's incredibly useful.
All the way on the other side, if you talk about, you know, the people who are closest to me, you know, my family, my best friends, technology is a key part of those connections as well. So again, I really view this as a tool. And I think if we were to go back through time and read news stories as the telephone was rolling out, we would be having a very similar discussion about how the telephone was going to just be the—demolish face-to-face meetings.
And I think we've seen this certainly with communication tech, as different communication technologies have rolled out. Over and over again we ask questions about what does this do to us as a society, as a community, to have different tools to stay connected to each other?
So obviously, and we talked about this previously, as parents, it means we better be involved and understand the communication technologies involved. Like it's probably helpful that I know what FaceTime is when my daughter asks to use FaceTime to do homework with her friends, and she's 10. All right?
And so, you know, I think there are questions there for all of us in terms of, are we aware of these changing technologies and are we aware of how our kids are going to use them? But the neat part about so much of this tech coming to us through phones is, this isn't like 20 years ago, where the tech was the personal computer, which broadly split into the very narrow subset of people who were using, you know, personal computers. And there were children who were seeing them in school and most people were like, why would I ever need a computer?
We heard today there are 1.9 billion smartphones in the world. If we look out over the next several years, we're going to bring 3 billion more people online. This is a ubiquitous technology. So unlike a lot of parenting moments in the past, where it was this weird tech that your kids were using, and if we go back, radio was this, television was this. Like this is not a new transition.
But what we see is that this one is a little bit different because we're all using phones all the time, and our kids may be using them in new and interesting ways that we aren't as familiar with. But at least we have some sense of what the technology can do because we're all using them every day also.
Bolles: So I want to come back to the issue of kids' and parents' perspective a little bit. Paul, I want to ask you, so you come at this from a neuroscience standpoint. And some of the things that Cory is talking about in terms of this ubiquitous access, having the phones with us all the time. There is an article in the most recent New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov is talking about “Two Cheers for Boredom.” He's basically saying we're constantly gorging at this information table. We have this onslaught of information, of connections information from people as we continually get our Facebook updates. He likens it to empty calories, that it's like a constant diet of cotton candy. How do you think about that in terms of the way our brains work, how we're managing this information flow, and some of the things that you think are some of the potential effects of that?
Zak: So we've run experiments on this. I want to make an argument for middle ground. It's not always in person or always virtual. As Cory said, we're connected all the time. Even before we had computers, we had all of those connections. So we've done experiments and looked at what happens to the brain when we use social media. We've shown that of any type, including Tweeting, Facebook, people's brains release oxytocin. This chemical makes us trust others, makes us care about others. Our brains are processing that flickering image as if I'm sitting, talking to you in person. So I don't think there's a hard line in the brain between that.
So we've explored some other ways of configuring, for example, offices that might facilitate that. Recently with Herman Miller, one of the sponsors here, we do something called their living office. So taking sort of a coffee bar, the world's coolest coffee bar, wireless everywhere, it's got people moving around, and then taking blood and measuring heart rate, respiration from like 150 of their employees while they did real work tasks in that space versus a closed space, we find that mood is better. When I have people milling around me when I have noise, I'm more productive, I solve problems better, I recover from stress better. Which is real interesting, because we sort of need the people around us, we need that noise, it's kind of nice.
I'm sure almost everyone in the audience would say, yeah, I work in a coffee shop sometimes. Sometimes I don't want to be at home. I just want to have some noise around me and that coffee machine going and whatever is going on. Somehow we need that connection. So if it's not virtual or in person, it's a blending.
Bolles: Right. So speaking of a blend, I think you've got such a fascinating trajectory. I would love for you to first tell people, maybe the one or two people who haven't used Paperless Post in the audience, what is it you do and sort of a brief trajectory of the company, but then talk a little bit about that balance between the virtual and the real and then what you folks offer.
Hirschfeld: So there are a couple ways that we balance the virtual and the real. One is that the company that we started was taking the idea of, you know, basically we looked at all these types of communications, business communications and, you know, IMing and new types of communication that—you know, pretty much everything was going online, except there was some really very culturally sort of like important types of communication, like people sending their wedding invitations, for example, that just hadn't.
And five years ago when I would talk to people, that just seemed like that just wouldn't happen. But it seems like it—that they would say that, because the post office obviously wasn't going to always be what it was, and it just doesn't make sense to communicate over distance when—you know, have it take a month when it could take two seconds.
So we basically created this product that looked exactly like the product that people are used to when they use creating stationery or—we went very much to the far end of the spectrum of being formal and ceremonial, and it was very contrary in our industry. People did not know why people would care about that online. But mainstream consumers understood that basically they wanted the same kind of, you know, fidelity of experience and self expression that they got from paper, but just to communicate online.
So anyway, we built this company. We sent over 100 million invitations. And they became very important life, like events around people's weddings, also holiday cards. And very quickly people wanted to be using it for thank you notes and greeting cards. So we basically two—a year ago, actually—we started printing as well. So that's the first way that we, you know, sort of spanned digital and physical. And we did that because basically that was our biggest user request.
And so it was interesting to—and it used our core competency, so it made sense, like design and the design tool. So obviously it is different than when you go to a brick-and-mortar store and design the invitation with someone. But we are delivering physical pieces of mail to people. And so that's one way in which we're spanning the two of them. And I can talk about that.
The other is that we're a digital product, bringing people together physically in the real world. That's why the data we have is interesting, because it's actually important social data. It's implicit. Not explicit. You don't actually friend somebody and go to their wedding. We know that. So that's the other way we span the virtual and the digital.
Bolles: Part of what's fascinating to me is it's almost the boomerang effect. You take something that existed in the real world, you made it virtual, you got information from your customers. Part of which says, “No, we want to go back to something I can touch.” But you've got so much more information now because you were digital. Because you have this direct communication with them, and your customers are telling you that they want this thing.
I think Tara was talking about this earlier, about fidelity as well. There's a quality level. One of the things I think you mentioned when we were talking on the phone is that at least in your space, the bar has been raised.
So a virtual thing, yeah, we can send anybody an email message. But if I've got something I can touch, you're saying something, when you care enough to send the very best. I actually have something I can see. So you learn that in the interaction with your customers.
Hirschfeld: Yeah. Basically what we found, the online communication, what we started out doing, which is still our core competency and main focus, which is self expression online and being able to bring that type of important social messaging to the Web, that that actually—the spectrum continues to paper. So like it's more—there's more gravitas with paper, and what the version online has allowed paper to become means—basically paper means more than what it meant before. To send a paper invitation to somebody for whatever it is, whatever occasion it is, is making a statement, and it's just an interesting—it's interesting to think about these—we were talking earlier about products that, where the physicality of it was just an encoding mechanism. Is that what you said? Basically the whole purpose of the product could be achieved virtually. And thinking about that, like an invitation versus a taco. You know, a taco has value physically.
Bolles: It doesn't scream when you care to send the very best. But—
Hirschfeld: Right. Exactly. Anyway, it's been interesting to see that basically now the core of our revenue and climbing is from paper. Obviously it's a higher-priced line item. But it's because they are—and they are actually—60 percent of our users are asking for paper. So it actually really does have a place in this world; it's just a different place than it did before.
People like it for the archival quality of it and the statement of it. And to send an invitation is one thing digitally versus in paper. But to send a holiday card, we've noticed people do that in paper. Like 85 percent of the people do that in paper, because the physical piece of paper could then go on their mantle, and that means something to them. So it's taking a look at something that's existed for centuries that pretty much everybody does at a certain time in their life, certain times in their life, and sort of deconstructs what we really need to be doing in paper and what we don't.
Bolles: So you would argue that this—so the insight that you get from the digital that then tell you what to do in the real world.
You know Kickstarter campaigns. You have the pebble. You put it out there, what would you want? Oh, I'll go build that. So it allows us to be able to actually make things better in the real world because we have that information.
So, Vish, I want to turn to some of your perspective. You spent a lot of time in the enterprise, and you've seen some of the march of the use of technology in the enterprise. What are some of the places that, you know, virtual, interaction and access to information is just knocking the cover off the ball, and where are some places where there are limitations, where there's still a ton of work to go, or where it shouldn't go?
Nandlall: I think one of the interesting things we talk a little bit about, how you can have digital proxies for different things? Even though it has a physical presence in the real world, I think that's one of the areas that I think is becoming pretty intriguing from an enterprise perspective is that there's this information economy or information supply chain that's being created with enterprise goods. Whether it's Nike who has wellness applications associated with their sneakers. They have this digital footprint online capability that they can enrich the user experience with. Similarly, we're seeing more and more digital processes becoming integrated with the edge of the enterprise.
Bolles: What do you mean by the edge?
Nandlall: If I look at what is an enterprise edge in a historical context, it's my CRM, it's my ERP, and that's the edge—
Bolles: Customer facing information, you mean?
Nandlall: Exactly. So today that boundary is becoming much more blurry. Because now I can take an external business process and integrate it with the enterprise and create a larger information supply chain that's going to augment things. For instance, as the salesperson, you spend a lot of time on the phone talking to customers and you want to be able to log those conversations and be able to search those conversations meaningfully and be able to document a particular sales process, which is a pretty typical workflow for an enterprise salesperson.
Today that happens very manually. I make a call, I log that call to CRM. Why couldn't those two processes be integrated? That is logged, I link, search that voice, create different types of search objects now that I can pull out with some amount of relevance later to be able to find out whether a supplier committed to fixing a particular bug in two weeks versus three weeks. So that documentation trail and seamlessness of the enterprise process is really important.
So I think there is a tremendous amount of productivity gain that can be had from this new invisible economy, this new information supply chain that's being created. I think, you know, maybe the more darker side of it is, you know, is it actually lending itself to lowering costs in an enterprise? And what is the friction point for that to become adopted?
And I do think that, you know, today we're not seeing that. At least as a percentage of GDP. If you look up productivity gains, it's not materially apparent. We are sitting at around 2 percent, let's say, from 1995 to now. It's not fantastic improvements. It's not like during the building of the railroads where there was fantastic improvements in productivity. We're not seeing that.
I think some of the reasons why, if I look at a particular enterprise, you know, CIO has a certain amount of authority in terms of how all these different capabilities are going to enable business to my business units. But if I take a look at this permeable nature of the enterprise edge and the way a business unit now can go to Amazon and create shadow IT, it creates complexity now in that enterprise. Because there's not one central authority saying, here is the entitlements and the permissions and the identity, it's a bunch of different business units being very chaotic. And to be able to create and scale that complexity fairly significantly because the friction to take an enterprise application and putting it in the cloud, for instance, is very low.
So I think that's created complexity, and it's created some of the multipliers that we've seen in enterprise IT investments that hasn't paced some of the productivity gains that we would have expected.
Bolles: Sorry to ask you to define the terms, but John Hagel from the Deloitte Center for the Edge is here, which actually, I guess is an oxymoron, center for the edge, but I want to make sure we're treating the phrase "edge" correctly.
Maybe this is just for any of you guys. But the challenge potentially, it sounds like, if GDP has not really significantly gone through a tear and we're coming on 20 years of the Web pretty soon, I guess just about now, so is it just we overhyped it? Did we overthink what the Internet was going to be able to deliver?
I started a magazine called Interactive Week back in 1994. We were constant cheerleaders for how we thought the Internet was going to transform everything. Yet it sounds like from an economical standpoint, it's actually been a mixed bag. We have not had that massive change and uptake in employment, and we certainly haven't seen a massive change in GDP.
Zak: I think the numbers are a little unusual because we're seeing an enterprise size getting smaller and smaller, more people working from home, more private contractors. So I think some of the employment numbers don't reflect that, and we're seeing this interconnectedness. We were joking backstage that we're going to become cyborgs. But we actually all are. We all connect to each other all the time, we always have as part of our human nature. And I think if the technology is allowing us to do that where we're easily at lower cost at longer distance, but the same thing is happening where I still want to connect to the folks around us. That's why we're here. Why did you all fly here? Because you wanted to see those people in person. So I think part of that is why design environments are a little more consistent with our human nature and allow us to interact in ways that are much more interesting. We can be creative. We can get the emotions. You can do it on Facebook. You can do it on Skype, but in person, that bandwidth is so much bigger.
Ondrejka: To build on what Paul said, and I think John, who is in the audience, can actually talk to this better than I could. But, like, where is the value going? Because one of the really obvious things if you look back over the last 20 years, we went through a decade of closed desktops and completely centralized IT control where the consumer tech was moving incredibly quickly and a great deal of enterprise technology was not moving as fast, or at least was moving in very different—sort of a different pacing, like the total rate of progress might have been okay, but it was much more sort of one step at a time.
And, of course, very few or at least fewer large companies are now in sort of lockdown IT modes. There's a lot more “bring your own device,” “bring your own phone.” Of course you can't ask anybody at this point to give up their iPhone or their Android phone because it's such an important part of their lives.
So in some ways, the last 20 years may be getting us to a kickoff point. Certainly if we look at bringing the rest of the world online, we're going to go from the 2 billion people who have data connections, the 2 billion people who have access to the Internet through a terrestrial connection, they are the 5 billion feature phones, you know, that used to be smartphones, but are now feature phones, because phones have gotten better, who don't have persistent data connections. They tend to have voice and SMS, but they aren't as connected to the Net as all of us are really used to being.
And fundamentally, and you know, I actually would really be curious of Vish's thoughts on this, because this is one of the great places where we are at the limits of the virtual, because it is the physical limitations of how are we going to get data connections into markets that don't have those data connections yet? What are the limitations of devices? What are the limitations of technology involved there?
And like anything that happens at the edge or where there are currently limits, this should be the most exciting thing from an economic business standpoint. Because 3 billion, 4 billion, 5 billion more customers, that should be interesting to everyone, and what are we going to need to do to make that happen?
Nandlall: I think that's a great point, because I think we're at this period in time where we might see some really staggering acceleration. And to me, it's—the virtual economy is going to be on a collision course with network effects, which has never really happened before.
As you proliferate these connections and reduce the friction of some of these interactions, I think you can get something that parallels perhaps what we have seen on Facebook, what happened with Amazon, what happened to Google in the actual economy from an enterprise perspective. When that happens, I think it will be a tsunami, it will be a big bow wave of change. The question is, where are we on that scale and when is that going to happen, and what is that tipping point for the network effects to take off?
I do think that there is friction points. I think there's a natural gravity as things kind of start to spread out that creates friction. To me, it's like if I look at the sand dunes in the desert, has this angle of repose around 30 degrees, it's because it's a combination of the wind coming in, piling on, and collapsing under the weight of gravity. So gravity and the wind combine to create this perfect angle of 30 degrees for what the slope of the sand dune should be.
If I look at the same thing from a global perspective, I think there's a natural gravity, whether it's regulation, whether it's privacy, whether it's all these different things that are creating a drag effect on these things to multiply. So the question is, is how are those forces going to all combine to create this network effect which I'm expecting, and how is that going to play out over the next 10 years?
Bolles: Obviously people and the technology are relatively optimists. So far, I'm doing a very poor job of explaining some of the potential downsides.
But, Alexa, I just want to ask you, one of the things Paul was talking about—even though we have a lot of digital communication, we actually want to come to these events, we want to interact with each other personally. Do you think what you've seen in terms of first people sending their communications to each other digitally through Paperless Post and then wanting something physical, do you think all that virtual interaction drives the need for more things that are physical? Or what is the connection between them?
Hirschfeld: Uh, I think that—no, I think that this desire—these desires have always been here, and the question—now that people have the choice of media, the choice of media just shows, you know, what they need in certain situations. I think that it's kind of shocking how often people don't want—I mean, it's shocking, yet perfectly obvious, why people don't want to use paper as much as they did. Yeah.
But what is really interesting is that the—so, you know, it's cool how much trust people put in our product that they go and put 200 of the most important people in their life and say—you ask them, “What are the most important messages,” whatever that is, and they get responses back from people all over the world within seconds. That's a very big, interesting, and emotional rush, which happened before, but over a longer time frame and less efficiently.
And yeah, I mean that's really interesting. The fact that that information now exists anywhere centrally—I mean, exists lots of places, but for us we have this—now it's like 40 million unique people that are in this network that, you know, a lot of whom have received a lot of things that are like this all because we were paid for a long time and now we're premium, there really are very important moments in people's lives. It's really interesting to see maps of that kind of social data.
Bolles: Right. Right.
So I want to come back to—first I'm going to open up the questions to the audience in just a second. So please wait for a mic.
I want to come back to Cory. You have mentioned kids, which is top of mind for me. I have a 17-year-old digital native. He would spend a significant portion of his days playing video games. But actually, there's a lot of context switching going on. He's also Skyping with his friends, and he's also checking his Facebook. There's a lot of different things that they're doing that is not just that single digital activity, but they are interacting with their friends and they're also doing these activities in a digital world.
It's a big challenge to try to keep the context right for a kid to help him understand maybe you should just turn the damned thing off and get outside and interact with your friends in the real world. You are a parent. How do you think about that?
Ondrejka: So I think, first, I wish the lights were up because I would be curious. How many people did homework with the TV on? Anybody who doesn't put their hand up is lying or not paying attention to us. Which is fine too. Look, when I was doing homework, the TV was on, or the radio was on, and I was on the phone, and I was doing homework except when I was actually reading something else that was more interesting than homework. So, you know, to some degree, this is not—again, not a new trend.
I think an interesting question is, fundamentally, is growing up with multimodal communication changing our capacity to multitask? One of the great studies you look at repeatedly is we keep studying whether people can multitask well. And, of course, what you keep finding is people don't multitask well at all. And even people who think they are good at multitasking are lousy at multitasking. It's the best possible way to destroy productivity.
The reality is when you're 14 and on the phone and watching TV and doing homework, to some degree none of those are really requiring the kind of—none of those are rocket surgery. So if you are distracted, that's okay. I hope we keep studying to see whether the kids who grow up with—my daughter is 10. She's got access to all this and has had access to all of it. I will be curious to see, and I hope we do longitudinal studies to see whether these groups are any better. Certainly we've seen with players at video games, it turns out there are a bunch of spatial reasoning activities that video games train you at. You're much better at chunking. Chunking is—so when we look at groups, can we rapidly estimate how many people are out there? And the way we do this is we kind of group like groups of five, groups of five, groups of five. It turns out if you play a lot of video games, you're much better at chunking than the average person. There are other similar experiments that have been run.
It wouldn't surprise me if we discovered other pieces that come along from having text, having video, having all of these available on the same device. All right. Because you have a tablet and you have a phone, and they can do all of these things.
The piece that I don't think has changed for any of us as parents, and I don't think that we would disagree about this at all, is that you have a choice as a parent of how involved you are with what your kids are doing, and I would no longer let my daughter stop going to bed at night, which would be her choice, because she feels sleep is for the weak, and this is her goal in life is to not sleep. Which is real terrible, because after one night of this, she is difficult.
So, you know. So guess what? There is a bedtime, no matter how much she fights on this. And she would also play Minecraft all of her waking moments and not sleep. So she would have more time to play Minecraft. In a very similar vein, I'm not just going to let her play Minecraft all day long. And I'll go do the research that looks at how much game playing is healthy for kids. What you find is there's a lot of data that suggests that under an hour a day for kids tends to be fine, and way more than that probably isn't.
So the data is out there. Going back to my first point, though, I don't think the tech is as foreign to us as parents as some of the tech was to my parents. My parents were a little bit baffled or a lot baffled by a personal computer. Right? They didn't have—sort of intuitive sense of its capabilities. I have a decent intuitive sense for what a tablet or a phone can do.
Bolles: I've never actually seen a rocket surgeon before, but that's an interesting mash-up. I'll have to check that out later.
Ondrejka: It requires very careful attention.
Bolles: Good mash-up. Vish, what were you going to say?
Nandlall: Building on that same thought, I always look at what my kid can do. You know, he's 4 years old and he can use an iPad and he can swipe on. He has a tremendous amount of power at his fingertips that I probably wasn't able to wield at his age. But he also has a very commanding authority around abstractions. And he can abstract things and wield those abstractions much easier than I can.
What I've known as almost a power law in our industry is, once you're able to extract things. I do it as a network infrastructure provider, we abstract our network and make it very simple for people to consume, and that creates the scaffolding of capability that vastly outpaces what I was doing at a fundamental level.
Basically, it's like I can invent DNA, but he's putting it together and creating creatures. What is the power that he's able to wield with that? I can't almost conceive of it, and he's going to go on to do greater and greater things, so am I limiting him by providing some amount of morality that, say you can't watch TV or you shouldn't be playing all these games or you shouldn't be buying those badges from that game that you're downloading from Apple iTunes. Whatever it is, are those things going to empower him at a later date? And I don't know what the unintended consequences of those are going to be, good or bad.
So it is kind of one of those philosophical things. Of course, you shouldn't philosophize with your children, because that's not a great way to rear them. But in some ways I do kind of consider it an experiment, and I want to see what's going to happen.
Bolles: One of the worst things you can do is judge other people's parenting. But I'm going to go ahead and do that. I was using the example of I was out getting takeout the other night. I think I told a couple of you.
There were two mothers, which could have been fathers just as easily, and two toddlers in highchairs. Sans technology the mothers would have had to be interacting with the kids and playing with them, maybe they're playing with each other. Instead, they were each on an iPad.
And I guarantee you, those kids didn't know what planet they were on. But the mothers had blissful silence so they could talk between themselves. And sure, parents have done that. My parents plunked me in front of a TV in the '50s, and look how I turned out. It's only going to lead to bad things.
But the question for and the challenge for a parent is, well, you do have a morality. You do have a perspective. And to give the kids enough of a structure to let them understand they need to be intelligent consumers of media, intelligent consumers of information, and when it's right to be interacting directly, and when it's maybe okay that some of it is interpolated by technology. Agree or—
Hirschfeld: Yeah, I think you can sort of simplify it and ask, is the thing that your child is doing, is it having net positive effects on your child, or not? I mean, I think obsessively and addictively looking at what other people are doing on their winter vacation, and what people you don't even know are doing on their winter vacation, people you don't even know—that probably isn't very good for somebody's sense of self, in thinking about how—it's not really very respectful of one's own life.
But somebody who is playing games and actually really good at those games, let's say, and maybe has a team of five other people and maybe they are in a town in northern India. I actually know somebody like this that I work with, and through this experience is actually gaining a lot of confidence, and in the end it's a net positive effect on that person. I think you can assess it that way, too.
Also, you can probably think about what those types of behaviors would be not online, and then you're more familiar with making value judgments like that.
Bolles: Right. I'm going to have to grudgingly agree with you. Because I watched my son. He was the kind of kid who was not a sports kid. He was definitely an imaginative play kid, and the alpha jocks over here on this side of the playground, knocking balls against each other and bumping chests and that sort of thing.
But then when he got online and he could play some of the group games, he became the leader. He became the one directing them to do things, because he found a safe environment where he got the rules but didn't have the physical capability in the real world to do it. So I agree, there can be—and the impact on his self-esteem was great.
So, again, in the right context it can be positive. I keep thinking I'll look to see if we have anybody raising a hand.
There is one right here.
Smolens: Hi. Michael Smolens, Dotsub.
Arguably, the Massive Open Online Courses, the MOOCs, have taken something and exploded it to tens of millions of people around the world that are virtually trying to receive knowledge or education. And the results, the very, very early results that are in are the completion rates of the courses are extremely low. And a very interesting phenomenon, which is sort of consistent with what you're saying, a lot of the original MOOC providers are trying to provide online groups for discussion, and they haven't proved satisfactory yet.
So what's happening, primarily through Meetup, is people in various countries and cities are creating very small Meetup groups, so that when they're taking the same courses, they can meet up at a local bar in the Czech Republic and talk about that specific course.
So talk about how, when you talk about, I don't know what's going on in the brain, but in terms of learning and education and the ability to assimilate knowledge, people are finding that they need to have a physical interaction with other people that maximizes it. Because they're trying to have the virtual interaction, and it's not working anywhere near as well as having that physical interaction.
Zak: We want to do a MOOC, and we put it on hold because we're trying to get that right mix, actually. So part of this, I think, is the sort of TEDification of how do you transmit difficult information and make it fun and make it interesting. But the word in English for "learn" actually comes from the root word, "to show." So I think the best learning is experiential. That could be discussing it, it could be doing it in a laboratory.
For teaching neuroscience, there's got to be a real physical component to that. So I think that's a great point. Having people meet in a physical location, talking about it, they can self-organize. They don't need me to do that. But actually encouraging them to do that, I think enriches the experience.
So just like the last session. We're not providing information. We should be providing experience, and that experience should be really compelling, interesting. It's kind of edu-tainment, but really a chance to explore. And to the extent that all of these virtual tools let us explore more deeply and explore as groups, I think that experience is much richer.
Nandlall: Just to build on that, because I think this is one of those really amazing beachheads. If we can crack the code on it, it will be historic. The reason why is, in the vast span of time and industry, the two areas that really haven't gotten much productivity gains are healthcare and education.
The question is, why has that been? There's all this cost indices and all these economic theories that say why. But fundamentally, if you could apply MOOCs as a way to disrupt the way you teach people, the rate at which people learn, it would be a terrific beachhead. It would be just a signature piece that says, we can actually get productivity gains in service areas like healthcare and education, and that could really transform, I think, society.
So I think it's something to watch. If we can get that right, it will be historic.
Bolles: One of the challenges of MOOC may just be the M part, the massive part. We may need to take it down to personal level to get the learning. There is a question over here. Stewart?
Brand: Question for Corey.
Bolles: Stewart, could you just identify yourself? I'm sure everybody knows you.
Brand: Stewart Brand.
Cory, Facebook is in your nice big new building. You guys clump people more than most companies. You do your hack-a-thons, feature a lot of people in one space at one time and you also put out a great social software. I start wondering what collaborative software does Facebook use, apart from being in one place at one time?
Ondrejka: So we use Facebook itself quite a bit. We are probably the world experts of using Facebook as a professional tool, and many features that have gone into Facebook over the years have actually been to make us better at building Facebook.
So we use that a lot. You know, we do co-locate people, co-locate people quite a bit. We have more engineering in one place and more product development in one place than is the norm for tech companies in the Valley these days. And actually, if you were to come into our offices, you were describing the perfect coffee shop. You know, our workspaces are somewhere between a perfect coffee shop and a call center. I say that because our desk density is actually higher than most call centers, which is unusual because you get a lot of cross talk and you get a lot of just general noise, which ends up being something that at first feels like a challenge until you get used to working in it.
Then you realize that the way Facebook works is it is fundamentally a pull communication culture. We are not a broadcast culture. You go seek out information and you go find it. So our goal is how do we make hallway conversations scale. The easiest tool is actually smashing people together.
The next step after that is actually using Facebook and Facebook Groups and Facebook Messenger constantly as tools. And I don't think we are currently using any non-Facebook tools significantly. But we are constantly pushing the edges of what Facebook itself can do to share information, everything from videos to text to carrying on most actual design discussions, either in messenger threads or in groups rather than in email.
In fact, in a lot of ways email is sort of the, you know, you don't really need a response; you just kind of want it to be archived communication tool of choice.
Bolles: So with just a little over a minute left on the clock, I want to take my final trump card out of some of the down sides or limitations of technology and talk about privacy just really quickly.
I've continually missed this trend. I've just assumed that your people are going to be up in arms about the loss of privacy. It seems to have never happened. It seems that people never really get upset about it.
Do you see a loss of privacy with so much of our communication going online? And does it matter?
Hirschfeld: I think that that's kind of a big question. Yeah, there's a loss of privacy, but I think some places people want privacy. Some places they are actually looking for a megaphone.
So I think that as long as people have control over it. I think that it's really frustrating when you have basically something you wanted to keep private that was blasted on a megaphone.
Bolles:  Right. But at least in the past, if I wrote an analog letter, the likelihood that it's going to be plastered on the front page of tomorrow's paper is pretty low. If I do it digitally, if I send an email message, chances are really high. So basically because so much of my life is digital, I have far more information widely available. Right?
Zak: But we've aware of that, I think. We've always watched each other. We're very social creatures. Now we just have to be a little more thoughtful about everything going out. I think that's okay. I think it's a big shift.
Again, I think it's that merging. I think we're seeing a blend in there. So maybe the key word from today's session is "blend." It's a blend.
Bolles: Okay. On that note, we're going to blend ourselves with the evening dinner period. So thank you all for your time. Thank you, panelists.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you.


Cory Ondrejka

Vice President, Engineering, Facebook

Paul J. Zak

Professor of Economics, Psychology & Management and Founding Director, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, Claremont Graduate University

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