The Personal Supporter Revolution

“Explain to me simply,
What it is
you want.”
he asked.

“I want people to have
not just personal computers,
but also personal supporters.”
I responded.

“I promise you,
just as we ask ourselves now
how did we live
without personal computers,
there will come a day,
when we will ask ourselves
how did we live
without personal supporters?”
I continued.

Vision

A vision
is supposed to be
unclear.

Gaze upon a mountain
far ahead
in the distance.

How much detail
do you see?

How much difference
will be there
between our vision of the mountain
and the mountain
when we arrive
at the top?

Our vision
becomes clearer
as we get closer.

Rejected Commencement Speech

I’d like to share with you something I wrote back in 2011.

I was in the 3rd year of my research into the creative process I only knew to call “making art.” I had such strong feelings about my research that I felt compelled to share some of those feelings with my fellow graduates.

Unfortunately, my speech didn’t get picked.

What I did not know at the time was that the insights I gathered in art school would end up resonating most deeply with founders and CEOs. That the struggles I experienced in what I thought of as “making art,” would prove valuable those who “build companies.”

Enjoy!

 


 

Dear graduating class of 2011,

Let’s all take a moment to remember a few years back in time, back to your first week of classes at RISD. With that memory in mind, let me share with you a story from that week.

It was 8 o’ clock in the morning.

I was on the 2nd floor of ProvWash Foundation classroom looking around, nervous. I was surrounded by a group of freshmen students 12 years my junior. I knew them by reputation. Rumor had it that they drew amazingly realistic bicycles. I imagined their sketchbooks being filled with beautiful drawings freshly rendered just moments before coming to class. I wondered what my skills were. Just a year ago, I didn’t know how to draw. As a matter of fact, I still didn’t.

I was telling myself that the nine years I spent as a “professional” was going to help me get through this class, when the instructor gathered us at the front of the classroom to show us how to fold a piece of paper.

It looked easy.

I was feeling confident, until she turned to us and asked us to go fold our own.

“Fold our own what?” I wondered.

It was one of those tasks that could either seem completely self-explanatory, or completely… not. Anxiety struck, but I reminded myself that I had anticipated this. This was that art school “creativity” thing of which I had been forewarned.

Back at my desk, I reached for my post-it notes to sketch my ideas out. I sketched, sketched, and sketched some more in search of a design I liked. But, after a couple of hours, I ran out of ideas. Feeling anxious, I decided to skip lunch, to think of what to sketch. I brainstormed with more post-it notes, mind maps, and employed all the “professional methods” I had amassed over the years.

Time kept passing, with nary a hint of what I should fold. It was already 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was starving. All that professional experience I was counting on seemed almost too cruel for not extending a helping hand.

In a moment of desperation, I decided to look around at what others were doing. I noticed a girl in the corner, who seemed very much focused on folding her paper. Curious to find out her vision, I left my desk for her’s. Even from afar, I could see a mountain of folded objects atop her desk.

As I moved in closer, I got excited to get a better look. But then when I finally got close enough, I noticed that none of the objects seemed particularly interesting.

“This is it?” I thought to myself, disappointed. “Why does she look so confident?” I wondered.

“Hey, what are you making?” I asked.

An answer came back.

“I don’t know.”

The answer echoed in my ears. I… don’t… know. Just three simple words.

“What are these other ones?” I asked again.

“I don’t know… I’m just trying stuff out,” she responded.

She didn’t know? How could she not know? How could her hands be moving when she didn’t know what she’s doing? How could she decide where to fold and in what direction? How could she anticipate what kind of effect a fold could have on her subsequent folds? How could she have folded a mountain of objects without knowing?

Then… it hit me like a ton of bricks. This… was youth. This… was what it meant to have a beginner’s mindset. This was what it meant to follow your heart. To be yourself. It was courage.

Never mind my lack of drawing skills. Courage was what I truly lacked. What I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life was hide behind existing knowledge, formalized methods, and a fancy job title. I was a mere shadow of who I was, a bad imitation, at best, of a closed-minded, arrogant, dogmatic, adult stupefied by his own experience. I had never, in my adult life, felt like such a failure.

Even as I stand here now, after 3 hard years of graduate school, the lesson I learned in that classroom still seems highly relevant.

During the final semester, I was reminded over and over again, that the real challenge of graduate school, and, perhaps more so the world I am about to re-enter, is not to achieve success, gain recognition, or even to blow people’s minds with amazing work… Instead, it is to have the courage to not let anyone convince me that I am crazy. That just because I do not know exactly where I’m going, just because I do not have a clear vision, just because I cannot articulate what it is that I’m interested in, it does not mean that I am lost.

Do I feel confident that I will be able to do this?

No.

As a matter of fact, this is the least confident I have ever been. But no matter the situation, I somehow feel comfortable admitting my own feelings of cowardice, imperfections, and inadequacies. Maybe this is a cheap shot at sympathy or perhaps a way of comforting myself into thinking that things can only get better from here on.

Or perhaps this means that it matters less whether I’m confident or not. Because as I stand here, what I cannot stop thinking about is the fact that I have met fellow students and mentors here at RISD, who have demonstrated immense patience with me, who have encouraged me in ways I had never been, who have willingly spent time out of their own precious lives to engage in dialogue with me. And it is their confidence in me that gives me tremendous hope, that perhaps I am not crazy, and neither are you.

Dear graduating class of 2011, as one of my personal heroes once said.

You know very well who you are. Don’t let’em hold you down. Reach for the Stars.

Thank you.

Conversation: Language & Vision

On May 14, 2011 at 9:46 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the third story of the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making surrounding my experience with poster design. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance.

 

anson: I have always pondered whether it is possible for those born blind, deaf, and mute, to think or dream of abstract concepts that they have never encountered.

Whenever I have to process complex thoughts, I hear a voice inside my head, speaking a language with grammar that helps me understand and sort things out. How about babies? Having yet to acquire a language, how do they think properly? Do they just act on their instincts and feelings? What about grown-ups who do not have the ability to put thoughts together into sentences with proper grammar?

Some say that language is the key to our ability to process abstract thought and hence develop intelligence. I think there are many who are mentally and physically disabled, but can still think and understand things like other people. Language seems to be able to boost our ability to organize thoughts and abstract ideas, but it seems like we, humans, have a much more basic way of perceiving, feeling, and understanding the world around us, a fundamental layer of communication beneath our language that everyone has the innate ability to access. I am obviously speaking of what I do not understand, but maybe someone who does can shed light on these issues.

slim: I don’t know, either. But it occurs to me that there may be a set of perceptual triggers that encapsulate the fundamental and primitive qualities of perception, probably pre-language with the potential to be widely shared. Why couldn’t we imagine an interaction paradigm based exclusively on those triggers? After that is established, one could layer the symbolic and gestural semantics on top of it as needed.

joonkoo: These questions are very much related to the origin of knowledge, and the nature vs. nurture debate. I’m a blank slate when it comes to language, but I can point you to a few studies in the domain of vision and number processing. Just be aware that I may be over-generalizing.

The human visual cortex29   is organized in a category-selective manner. For example, the lateral part of the occipital cortex is activated when a person is viewing living things in general. On the other hand, the medial part of the cortex is activated when viewing non-living things. This category-specific organization can be driven by experience over development but it can also be somewhat hard-wired. One study looked at the patterns of neural activity in congenitally30 blind subjects, and they showed the same kind of neural activation patterns in response to these categories of objects even when they were presented auditorily. This study suggests that our visual experience is not necessarily the only critical factor that gives rise to the functional organization of our brain — at least in that context.

slim: When you say living vs. non-living, is a plant living or non-living? Is this related to how autistic people behave differently in relation to non-living vs. living things?

joonkoo: I don’t recall exactly how they categorized living vs. non-living in their study, but one thing I do think is true is that living vs. non-living is probably just one of many ways that things in the nature can naturally divide into, probably confounded with many other ways of categorizing things. For example, it may well be natural vs. man-made things that the brain really cares about. To me, the precise categorization of these things aren’t really important. What’s more interesting is that the visual cortex does not necessarily require visual input for its functional organization.

slim: If the visual cortex doesn’t require visual input for its function, it sounds like that would be a rather remarkable statement when it comes to our categorization of cortices into visual vs. others, no? Am I understanding this correctly?

joonkoo: Not exactly. Here’s another way to think about it. In normal development, the visual cortex is designed to process visual sensory information — based on the anatomical fact. But it’s used differently when it lacks visual input for any unexpected reason. What’s interesting is that even if the visual cortex is putatively31 doing something different in these congenitally blind people, there seems to be a set of universal principles that govern the functional organization of the visual cortex.

When these participants hear a living thing, for example, they have to bring up some mental image of that thing, which is probably not visual imagery, yet their visual cortex works the same way as it does on a participant.

slim: Oh, whoa .

So what you’re saying is that when blind people hear something, it triggers a mental image in their head, which uses the visual cortex, although the imagery they bring up is not visual?

joonkoo: Yes, my guess is that it’s probably a mixture of auditory and other multimodal imagery. But yes, their visual cortex works similarly to that of other subjects considered to be normal.

I guess this can be said as a form of plasticity. But I think this is much more profound than plasticity within a domain or modality (e.g., after losing a finger, the motor cortex that has been associated with that finger is now used for other fingers).

slim: When you say plasticity, I’m guessing it is a situation where a certain part of your body takes on a different role when what it was originally associated with is no longer available?

joonkoo: Yes. Evidence for brain plasticity is very cool.

To Anson’s point, however, this isn’t to say that the experience of abstract or symbolic thought is unimportant. Perhaps a more relevant story comes from a study that investigates number sense in native Amazonians,32 who lack the words for numbers. Through the use of numeric symbols, we have little problem expressing arbitrary quantity. On the other hand, Amazonians have only one, two, and many. Given this, they are pretty good at approximate arithmetic, even with numbers far beyond their naming range, but their performance on exact arithmetic tasks was poor. In fact, they failed to understand that n + 1 is an immediate successor of n.

anson: Would a relevant topic be why the Golden Ratio33 is universally pleasing to the eyes? It seems to indicate that there’s something common to human perception.

joonkoo: Yes, the Golden Ratio is interesting! In fact, there seem to be a lot of links between the biological system and math. One thing that I am more familiar with is the Power Law34 and γ, the Euler constant.35

Many of the psychophysical models are based on this constant and the natural log, and I would love to understand this more as well.

The definition of γ seems to be quite similar to neuronal firing patterns (e.g., long-term potentiation), and I speculate that all these fancy mathematics such as  γ, π, the Golden Ratio, may be driven by some of our intrinsic biological properties. I’m talking too much about things that I don’t fully understand. This should be a question for a computational biologist.

———-

29 The back area of the brain concerned with vision makes up the entire occipital lobe and the posterior parts of the temporal and parietal lobes. The visual cortex, also called the striate cortex, is on the medial side of the occipital lobe and is surrounded by the secondary visual area. This area is sensitive to the position and orientation of edges, the direction and speed of movement of objects in the visual field, and stereoscopic depth, brightness, and color; these aspects combine to produce visual perception. It is at this level that the impulses from the separate eyes meet at common cortical neurons, or nerve cells, so that when the discharges in single cortical neurons are recorded, it is usual to find that they respond to light falling in one or the other eye. It is probable that when the retinal messages have reached this level of the central nervous system, and not before, the human subject becomes aware of the visual stimulus, since destruction of the area causes absolute blindness in man. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online: 1 2)

30 Existing or dating from one’s birth, belonging to one from birth, born with one. (OED Online)

31 That is commonly believed to be such; reputed, supposed; imagined; postulated, hypothetical. (OED Online)

32 CNRS and INSERM researchers (Pierre Pica, Cathy Lemer, Véronique Izard and Stanislas Dehaene) studied the example of the Mundurucus Indians from Brazilian Amazonia, whose vocabulary includes number words only up to four or five. Tests performed over several months among this population show that the Mundurucus cannot readily perform “simple” mathematical operations with exact quantities, but their ability to use approximate numbers is comparable to our own.

This research, published in the October 15, 2004, issue of the journal Science, suggests that the human species’ capacity for approximate arithmetic is independent of language, whereas precise computation seems to be part of the technological inventions that vary largely from one population to the next. (“Cognition and Arithmetic Capability”)

33 Also known as the golden section, golden mean, or divine proportion, in mathematics, the irrational number (1 + √5)/2, often denoted by the Greek letters τ or ϕ, and approximately equal to 1.618. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

34 Van Mersbergen, Audrey M., “Rhetorical Prototypes in Architecture: Measuring the Acropolis with a Philosophical Polemic”, Communication Quarterly,
Vol. 46 No. 2, 1998, pp 194–213. A relationship between two quantities such that the magnitude of one is proportional to a fixed power of the magnitude of the other. (OED Online)

35 The constant that is the limit of the sum 1 + ½ + … + 1/ n − log n as n tends to infinity, approximately equal to 0.577215665 (it is not yet known whether this number is rational or irrational). (OED Online)