TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
    ( Archive | Contact Bob )
    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >

    (Courtesy of Mark Vanderbeeken, Experientia SpA, Torino)

    Experience Design Websites
    Core 77 Website & Forum
    Business Week|Innovate
    InfoD: Understsanding by Design
    The Wayfinding Place
    Wayfinding Focus
    Design Addict
    L-ARCH (Landscape Architecture Mailing List)
    DUX 2007 Conference
    Digital Thread
    Enmeshed, Digital Arts & New Media
    Ludology (Game Playing Theory)
    Captology, Persuasive Computing
    Space and Culture
    Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces
    timet (acoustical design)
    Steve Portigal, Ethnographer
    Jane McGonigal's Avant Game
    Ted Wells' living : simple
    PingMag (Japan)

    Experience Design Blogs
    Adam Greenfield's Speedbird
    Experience Designer Network (Brian Alger)
    SmartSpace: Annotated Environments (Scott Smith)
    Don Norman
    Doors of Perception (John Thackara)
    Karl Long's Experience Curve
    Work•Play•Experience (Adam Lawrence)
    The David Report (David Carlson)
    Design & Emotion (Marco van Hout)
    Museum 2.0 (Nina Simon)
    B J Fogg
    Lorenzo Brusci (acoustics)
    Cool Town Studios
    Steve Portigal
    Debbie Millman
    MIT Culture Convergence Consortium
    Luke Wroblewski, Functioning Form|Interface Design
    Adam Richardson
    Putting People First (Paul Vanderbeeken/Experientia
    Laws of Simplicity (John Maeda)
    Challis Hodge's UX Blog
    Anne Galloways's Purse Lips Square Jaw
    Bruno Giussani's Lunch over IP
    Jane McGonigal's Avant-Game The Future of Work

    Experience Design Podcasts
    Ted Wells' living : simple Podcast
    Design Matters Podcast, Debbie Millman
    Icon-o-Cast Podcast, Lunar Design

    Experience Design Firms and ED-Oriented Manufacturers
    Barry Howard Limited
    Hilary Cottam
    LRA Worldwide, Inc.
    BRC Imagination Arts
    Stone Mantel
    Experientia s.r.l
    Herman Miller
    Cooper Interactive Design
    Doblin Group
    Fit Associates
    Strategic Horizons LLC (Joe Pine & Jim Gilmore)
    Cheskin Fresh Perspectives

    Education and Advocacy
    Centre for Design Research, Northumbria University (UK)
    Center for Design Research, Stanford University
    International Institute of Information Design (IIID)
    Design Management Institute
    Interaction Institute IVREA
    Design Research Institute (UK)
    UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Design Research
    History of Consciousness, UCSC
    Design News Magazine
    Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD)
    Design Museum London
    Center for Sustainable Design
    Horizon Zero, Digital Arts+Culture in Canada
    Design Council UK
    First Monday

    Total Experience on Technorati
    Technorati Profile

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    Monthly Archives

    February 26, 2006

    February 22, 2006

    Big Changes at experience-design Mecca, Disney Imagineering

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    The departure of Marty Sklar as head of Disney Imagineering, a Mecca of applied experience design, signals the end of an era, writes LA Times staff writer Richard Verrier. In “Disney Legend Steps Down,” Verrier notes that Sklar's exit was precipitated by Disney's acquisition of Pixar and the appointment of Pixar creative chief John Lasseter as chief creative officer of both studios and more importantly, head designer of Disney's theme parks.

    Disney Logo TcPixarlogo

    Sklar, widely regarded as one of Disney's old guard, “was the Jiminy Cricket for the organization,” according to former Disney executive James Cora. Sklar's credited with “Mickey's 10 Commandments” for creating great themed attractions like the new Mission Space.

    Sklar was a jack of all Disney trades: he managed Disney's forays into ship cruises, interactive TV, idealized residential communities, and the redesign of New York's Times Square. He even defended former Disney CEO Michael Eisner when Eisner was under attack by everyone. Sklar's now charged with recruiting new talent and maintaining Disney's institutional memory.

    “Disney CEO Bob Iger got it right,” said one of my friends at Pixar. “He sees where things are headed.” A cryptic comment, indeed.

    It'll be interesting to see how Lasseter and his Pixar team, with a sterling performance in the 2D world of animation, will translate their vision into the 3D world of theme parks where audiences aren't constrained by theater seats or couches, their eyes locked on a flat screen.

    I hope to offer an interview with Lasseter, to see where he's going with this in the future. What do you think?

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Events and Happenings | The Practice of Experience Design

    February 19, 2006

    Designing the Experience of Islam

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Orientalism, the term invented by the late Edward Said and the title of his culminating work of scholarship, anticipated today's almost total breakdown of understanding between the West and “street” Islam, the Islam of the masses in Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia. The problem as Said saw it was an historical tendency on the part of Westerners to romanticize and in some ways infantalize Islamic culture -- “orientalizing” it -- and in the process, giving it a unitary appearance that, up close, is a complete illusion.

    Even before Said wrote, the experience of being Muslim had become so geographically dispersed, diversified, and internally conflicted, no single individual or group could claim sole authority to interpret the Prophet or Islam's essential record of his teachings, the Quran (Koran). Now, with the rise of an “angry” Islam that appears intolerant of everything, including the West but also sizable portions of other Muslims, Said's problematic needs restating: the primary problem now is not the West's ignorance (though that still pertains), but rather mainstream Islam's inability to recognize itself or speak for its interests in a way others can productively respond. So the “street” rules. Burning embassies, stoning dissidents, and ultimately killing those who disagree, however, is not a formula for persuasion: it is an invitation to absolute retribution by the rest of the world.

    The population of self-identified Muslims now exceeds one billion persons spread around the world, but concentrated in the nations of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia, with sizable populations in Western Europe and smaller communities in North America. Like Christianity and Buddhism, which preceded Islam -- a religion with fairly recent origins -- Islam has gone through seismic turmoil resulting in deep internal divisions. The most famous of these schisms is between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, a dispute based (as is so often the case in religious conflicts) on who the true descendants of Mohammed, the original Prophet, might be.

    Be that as it may, Islamic society today projects a collective persona that's always on the defensive. (In this, it's very similar to evangelical and conservative Christian sects that claim a hostile world is out to destroy their repressive Kingdom of God.) It wasn't always so: in it's initial sweep across the Middle East and Spain, Islam founded a “golden age” culture that confidently developed medicine, astronomy, music, architecture, mathematics, theology, and other intellectual streams that led to the Renaissance, humanism, and (in Al-Andalus, known today as Andalucia) remarkable religious tolerance.

    For the next thousand years, there remained Islamic bright spots despite the Mongol depredation and ruinous wars of conquest by the Ottoman Turks. India under the Muslim Mughals was a gem of civilization.

    But now, there is no center to Islam, as Mecca and Baghdad once were. And over the centuries, conservative Muslim clerics have proven the dire enemy of cultural and economic progress. Hand in hand with Western colonialism interests, they've kept Islamic culture largely frozen in the 15th Century, while their resources -- and their most innovative citizens, including tens of thousands of Christians and Jews -- have been exploited by more dynamic societies.

    With most of the West ignorant about Muslim society, and Islamic society itself so fractured as to be unable to speak with a clear voice, the presentation of Islam has been left to extremists in each camp: denigrators in the West and firebrands in the Islamic “street.” What a travesty.

    A culture with a legacy as noble as any is reduced to cartoon caricatures by those who place press freedom above simple respect for other traditions, and Muslims are now known best for violent demonstrations, destruction of property, and people dying for no better reason than to protest cartoons. (Inviting cartoons about the Holocaust, as an Iranian publisher has done, doesn't even the score. It merely distorts the images of Muslims and Jews in each others' eyes, and makes all parties look pathetic in the eyes of the world.)

    This is not how I would design the experience of Islam for my fellow Americans or Westerners anywhere. But it suits the needs of those who benefit by xenophobia, social hysteria, and violent conflict, including the truly powerful (and carefully invisible) economic forces who do best in these situations. This is not a formula for understanding. It is a formula for continuing strife that reminds everyone of the Crusades, another experience contrived for political gain in the name of religious ideals, an experience that resulted only in hatred, human suffering, and lasting hatred.

    Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Odds and Ends: Random Observations

    February 18, 2006

    Mark Hurst: “What Makes a Good Experience”

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Mark Hurst, author of the Good Experience website/blog and host of the Good Experience Live (GEL) conference, in November 2005 blogged two important entries, “The Over Determined Experience” and “Three Strands of Experience.” They're important elements of a theory of experience of design: what makes a good experience.

    Mark's empiricism is in keeping with his personal focus on the real-world and day-to-day -- but his ideas are broad enough to be of interest to anyone wondering what really goes on when an experience is designed. The comments on Mark's blog that his readers have posted are rich in good ideas.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design | Theories of Experience | Websites, Blogs, and Podcasts

    February 16, 2006

    The Future Internet Experience: Spy vs. Spy?

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    “National security” is a phrase as malleable as it is powerful, capable of justifying virtually any domestic repression. The future of the Internet is now staked on the pyre of national security, just waiting for a torch to be thrown. The U.S. and Chinese governments are only too eager to oblige.

    The crackdown by the U.S. Congress on American-based Internet companies doing business in China, for allegedly abetting the arrest of Chinese dissidents, contrasts strikingly with the same Congress' supine acquiesence to the U.S. Bush Administration's recent request for search-engine records from the very same companies. The two positions are absolutely contradictory.

    Eager to breach their citizens' personal privacy online, both governments -- the Chinese and our own -- are demanding, with force of law, all significant online vendors to surrender their users' search records. (What happened to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act? Obsolete?) It's really no surprise that American corporations -- supposed paragons of the “new libertarianism,” like Yahoo!, AOL, and Microsoft -- are disposed to do so. (Google hoovers in ambiguity.) They're used to gathering and sharing personal information, often without their customers' knowledge. It's part of their business models. In fact, this is true of most ecommerce companies.

    But now it's all out there, for everyone to see. For anyone who's been the subject of covert surveillance (as I have in a bogus, Ed Meese-engineered sting conducted purely for political purposes), the prospect of the all-pervasive Internet transformed into a machine for spying is chilling. Especially because so many individuals naively believe the corporations' "do your own thing" propaganda, neglecting the fact that, as Pierre de Vries reminds us (see Feb. 4 entry), their records endure forever.

    The future of the Internet experience, despite the good efforts of groups like the Electronic Freedom Foundation, looks like it's going to be straight out of George Orwell's 1984. The designers of this online spookiness, public and private alike, have a lot to answer for. Of course, there is no accountability for their systematic perversion of the Internet as an engine of liberty. By the time we're all feeling icky-sticky with suspicion, knowledgeable that we're being looked in on, all the time, the game will be over. It would be poetic justice for Internet use to decline as people feel more and more invaded and manipulated.

    BTW: Congress is ready to pass the Patriot Act into perpetuity. I'm sure there's a Chinese version.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary

    February 15, 2006

    The Penumbra Effect: Designing the Bird-Flu Crisis Experience

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    A cosmic irony: in our technological, networked global society, the most immediate danger is migrating birds. The implacable avian or “bird” flu -- influenza virus A, subtype H5N1 -- has flapped its way from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and most recently, Africa, where containment is virtually impossible. Next stop, the New World!

    Roast Ducks

    Because Nature is the provocateur, we're in deep trouble. People-made environmental threats, like pumping fluorocarbons into the air, belching billions of barrels of chemical waste into the rivers and oceans, or polluting the land with plastic, can be dealt with by changing our behavior. There is no way to curb sick birds in flight, other than to kill them.

    There aren't enough hunters to carry out this grisly task, so in a short time, bird flu will be everywhere. Every bird, wild and domestic, will be suspect. To play it safe, millions of birds will be slaughtered; the process has already begun.

    If bird flu makes a tran-species leap and begins to infect human beings, it will become a pandemic, a global illness afflicting every society, from which no one is safe; everyone is vulnerable. Whole societies shudder at the pandemic's impact. Our fragile global economy may take serious hits from the next pandemic that it may not survive.

    Before a pandemic actually strikes, people may start acting differently when they think it's coming. Or not.

    Some fortify themselves and their communities against the disease, undertake domestic public health initiatives (like those recommended by the World Health Organization), and give aid to already afflicted communities with the aim of curtailing the pandemic before it gains velocity.

    Others run scared. Overcome by fear, they fold up emotionally: give up on the future, become increasingly insular and reclusive, and simply shut down, economically and socially.

    The great majority of us do neither. We don't prepare and we don't despair. We acknowledge and move on. We do what we always have done. That's where most of us are at the moment, almost everywhere in the world. The popular experience of the bird flu is that it isn't yet a crisis; if and when it becomes one, we can deal with it. Life goes on, ooh-blah-dee....

    This is the Penumbra Effect and it varies from culture to culture. We don't perceive the crisis per se: we perceive the social reaction. The Penumbra Effect is the result , in the face of a potential crisis, of interactions among sources of information and our perceptions, cognitions, and behavior. Synergetic, the Penumbra Effect can catalyze a successful response to a crisis; or it can transform a mild crisis into a major crisis, and a major crisis into a catastrophe.

    How we experience a potential crisis, a condition that by definition we haven't experienced before (any of us, experts or laypersons), determines how we respond. This experience is designed through the cumulative interactions of speakers, writers, media professionals, politicians, health professionals, corporations, governments, NGOs, and the public. But no one is designing the interactions to produce positive, proactive results.

    Our experience of the bird flu crisis is the ultimate in poorly designed experiences. The popular press sporadically highlights infestations in places seemingly out of sight and mind: rural Turkey, jungle Nigeria, the vast eastern spaces of China. It tells us just enough to make us think we know about the threat of pandemic, when of course we don't. (An exception is the BBC.) Politicians -- including President Bush in the U.S. -- assure us that everything's being taken care of, again providing partial information. (UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is not so sure -- and Annan's been correct more often than Bush for the last six years, since Bush became President.)

    On the other side of perception, public health professionals tell us that while the situation may not be critical, it needs tending, now. (But their megaphones tend to be smaller.) It's a confusing melange of opinions.

    The public health professionals are swimming upstream against powerful heuristics: the “availability” bias that discounts unimaginable future dangers and the “peak-end rule” that magnifies past successes in overcoming crises. No one wants to imagine ten, twenty, or thirty percent of the people they know as ghosts (least of all, him- or herself)! I've had that experience. When I heard the news from Nigeria, where bird flu most recently alighted, the details of my day receded and one of three persons I encountered became flimsy -- a kind of reverse Sixth Sense.

    I can't find the resources online to build a Flu-Danger Awareness movement. Sure, information about the potential pandemic is available online; so is information about the Oscars and 40,000 great recipes. Perhaps there are chat rooms I haven't heard about, where proactive individuals are making plans to salvage our global society. I don't think so.

    We're in an informational limbo: we know just enough to appreciate the collective dimension of our dilemma. But we're constrained from collectively preparing for the worst, because we're unable to pool our responses except through distilled channels like the news. Experience designers who are busy building better websites and shopping-mall exhibitions might consider how well received their work will be after pandemic sweeps across an unprepared world.

    Failure to get the message right in 1918, when the last flu pandemic struck, resulted in millions of deaths in the United States. Maybe this time, experience designers can do better, helping us to understand and sensible react to our predicament. But who will make that happen?

    Comments (3) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Commentary

    February 11, 2006

    February 9, 2006

    On the Bus in L.A.

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Too frequently daily experiences, though significant, are taken for granted or ignored by those subject to them, especially if they don't possess the power to make changes. A case in point: the bus.

    Since moving back to L.A., my hometown, I've become something of a public transportation nut. In part, it's because L.A.'s traffic congestion is chronic; in part, because a consulting client has a solution that requires my being familiar with L.A.'s transportation environment.

    L.A.'s not very different from most larger American cities in terms of its transportation problems. Metro is the amalgamated county-wide entity recently created to provide answers.

    Today I got to ride Metro's Limited 333, a bus that makes the long trip from Santa Monica, on the coast, to downtown L.A., about 15 miles away, through some of the poorer parts of town. (My destination was USC, almost at the end of the line.)

    The Local 333My 333 was a rickety bus from the mid-90s, absent the niceties of more modern buses. It was so old, in fact, that it was noncompliant with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), so that the lone wheelchair passenger had to enter on a hand-slung ramp laid to the rear door. Passengers had to get out of the way for his wheelchair to be strapped safely in place.

    My mid-morning commute downtown was bumpy and noisy, but otherwise unremarkable.

    My afternoon commute, at end of the working day, was something else. The 333 travels through ethnic neighborhoods in which the lower-working class (including L.A.'s many undocumented workers) lives. The bus was packed, like no other bus I've ridden in L.A. ever! The passengers were overwhelmingly Latino, African-American, and elderly Asians; I was one of only two white people onboard. Even the driver was Latino, which makes sense. At least the Spanish speakers on board could get their questions answered....

    So here we were, on one of metropolitan L.A.'s longest bus rides, on the best-utilized bus I've ridden, and the bus was a piece of junk. Fortunately, the air-conditioner worked, sort of. Not a very good experience for those on board, nor a very good advertisement for public transportation generally.

    A RapidI couldn't help but think about those beautiful new European buses that the Metro purchased and was running on the higher-income routes. Some, the “Rapids,” are even equipped with radio transmitters to trip the traffic lights in their favor. But these buses, which run all day, are nearly empty except during rush hours.

    You can imagine some clever planner at Metro HQ -- or the politicians who control Metro's budget, the more powerful of whom represent higher-income neighborhoods -- thinking, “If we offer the better buses to the higher-income drivers, we'll get them out of their luxury cars and SUVs and onto our buses.” They're right on one count: riding those buses is truly a pleasure. But they underestimate the desire not to mingle of those who self-segregate themselves in their cars. So, more empty buses and more bad impressions about public transportation.

    If it would serve the people who ride transit now with better buses, Metro would score on three counts: it would give the growing number of lower-class people who power L.A.'s labor-intensive economy respite while traveling to and from work, making them more productive; it would demonstrate that bus riding can be pleasurable; and it just might recapture a sizable fraction of the public funds it invested in the beautiful, empty buses now available to a population that could care less.

    There were some upsides to riding an old bus with lower-class passengers. There was no “Captivate Network” (no doubt, a play on “captive audience”) video screen displaying trivia and an occasional, annoying, and irrelevant advertisement. My co-riders were awfully polite. No one was playing an iPod at top volume, the tinny sound bothering nearby passengers. Mothers kept their children in check. And the young men and women on the bus unfailingly gave their seats to more elderly and child-caring riders. (I did, too.)

    When will real attention be paid to the experience of riding a bus in L.A.? Or anywhere else in the U.S., where this type of in-you-face, clThings to Comeass-discriminating disregard has become rampant? Our progressive new (Latino) mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, wants to revitalize L.A., in part by solving the transportation conundrum. He also wants to level the income playing field. Redesigning the Metro experience would be a good place to start.

    Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary

    February 6, 2006

    February 5, 2006

    February 4, 2006

    February 2, 2006

    Show and Tell: Meaningful business meeting environments.

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Let me tell you about the worst and best of meeting environments, so that you can consider your own.

    Last week I attended a public meeting sponsored by a large local government, all about technology and innovation. The networking that occurred was valuable and the program, interesting.

    But the meeting room! We were lodged at the end of the floor -- the entire end of the floor, the office building was partly vacant -- with six rows of fold-up chairs spanning the length of the room. Thus the space was a long rectangle, with podium and flipcharts in front of the lengthy rows. Because of construction, participants registered in a cloak room and entered through the hallway for the restrooms. Once they encountered the forest of chairs, fully occupied on our end, most stopped dead, right in front of displays at the side of the room. Few participants thought about circling back and entering the opposite hallway and thus reaching vacant seats that existed on the other side of the room. Neither had the organizers, apparently.

    The lighting through walls of window was glaring. The speakers occasionally stayed behind the podium, but mostly they sacrificed the mike and audibility for intimacy with the front rows of listeners. The flipcharts were promisingly original; but when mixed with PowerPoint slides, the combination was truly mind-numbing. The room was half empty before the morning break.

    The government agency and private sponsors spent good money and created this experience? So often it goes!

    At the other extreme was a glitzed up dot-com office I once occupied, where the noise and confusion negated any communications that might have usefully occurred in the arbitrarily laid-out open space. Unfortunately, with the easing of the financial crisis, such expensive excuses for "working places" may be coming back into favor. Hope not.

    The best meeting environment I've experienced -- and one I've been intending to replicate, if I can find an executive open to thinking about office space (a task usually relegated to office managers) -- was that created by the Institute for Systems Studies (ISS) at the National University of Singapore. It was on the next-to-the-top floor of a new campus office building. (The top floor was reserved for the Faculty Bar, which gave ISS staff a certain advantage.) It combined planning with serendipity to support a continuing discourse, highly creative, yet intellectually rigorous and technically. Let me describe it for you.

    The ISS occupied the entire floor. Offices with windows lined each length of the floor. Each office had a ceiling and a door (no cubicles here). Offices were traditional, walls filled with shelves. Each desk had with a desktop or laptop computer connected to a broadband network. (This was before wireless was big.) Building lighting was flourescent, but in most offices ceiling lights were kept off in favor of mutable window lighting with incandescent lights.

    Between the offices and the center of the space, staff had lined up tall filing cabinets and other office furniture (shelves, storage spaces, etc.) to form a high wall. This created two walkways, each running length of a row of offices. This barrier held down ambient noise from the center space and provided privacy for the office holders. At strategic distances, there were spaces in the walls of cabinets that allowed people to pass between the two hallways and the center space defined by the walls.

    The center space was the charm, what made it work. Beanbags, comfortable chairs, and small tables were arranged the full length of the center space, in clusters that were adjustable in size simply by moving things around. Here, intense conversation was the rule, even loud conversation. It was where ideas were worked out and collaboration managed. Down the center of the clusters, running the entire length of the center space, was the "Rabbit Run." On the Run, a person could walk (or run, as the name suggests) from cluster to cluster, spanning incredible intellectual domains with each cluster. Lighting of the center space was totally ad hoc: table lamps, standing lamps, halogens clipped to the cabinet walls, and so forth. Presentations were on laptops and notepads, with books and models readily available.

    The center space was completely maleable, continuously reinvented to serve the needs of its inhabitants. Meetings here defined the environment, not the other way around. The experience for ISS people was entirely self-designed.

    ISS's record speaks for the quality of the space it inhabits. I'm sure the ISS location has undergone change since my visit in the late 90s; perhaps I won't recognize it the next time I'm there. That would be too bad, since it would signal the triumph of convention and inadequacy over value. Certainly, the ISS floor as I experienced it cost less than a traditional office environment.

    Good meetings are the machinery for doing good business. The environments we create in which to hold our meetings determine how good our meetings will be, and in no small way, how successful are the businesses we run.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: ED Projects of Note

    Peddling paranoia: the poisoning of public places.

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    Even a city park can become a place for peddling paranoia. I was enjoying the rare daytime company of my partner, Cherie, and her daughter, Savanna, at a small local park in a wealthy part of town -- well-populated by stay-at-home moms and their playful kids -- when a petition gatherer intruded on the happy scene. A mother herself, she was hawking an initiative to place a law on the books that would extend the circumferences around schools, parks, and libraries in which released sex criminals may not live. The existing circumferences were too small, she argued: "Just look on the Web," she said, "there are 'blue zones' where child molesters live, everywhere!"

    I shooed her away. The petitioner's larger circles would effectively have prohibited released criminals, who have done their time and often submitted to therapies including chemical castration to overcome their tendencies, from living anywhere in the city. There is a bigger problem, however, of which the petitioner and her many pages of signatories apparently were unaware (or maybe, too aware): most sex crimes occur in the family. They're not committed by anonymous strangers lurking in cars with candy or on the Internet. They're committed by nuclear and extended family members. I learned this living with a psychologist whose clients were predominantly abused women and children. Subsequently, I gathered research that verified our experience. Nearly 45% of all young girls in the USA, if the statistics and practitioners' anecdotal experienced are to be believed, have been "molested" -- at home.

    You might think otherwise, given the enormous hype now associated with Internet sex by the Bush Administration. But this sort of paranoia peddling now infects every public place from the smallest to the largest. One day it's child abuse in the parks; the next it's alleged terrorists planning Superbowl havoc (requiring 10,000-plus law enforcers to prevent); and the next it's bird flu circumnavigating the globe, threatening to make every place of public gathering anathema. Even the networks in which we live virtually, our computers and cellphones, are no longer safe from invasive, secretive spyware propagated as a "service."

    The trouble with these intrusions is that (1) they ruin the ambience for which the public places were created in the first place, often turning environments of calm and respite into exactly their opposites; (2) they deflect public attention from the true problems that should be occupying that part of our minds dedicated to solutions, making things better; and (3) like the little boy crying wolf, they eventually desensitize us to problems that need solving. Instead of polluting our parks with sexual propaganda, people out to protect children should be addressing abuse in the home, where most occurs. Instead of turning sporting events into security exercises (not that they shouldn't be safe), sponsors and hosts might spend more time inculcating a sense of pride and respect for the accomplishments of the players and their fans. Rather than creating a general alarm about coming pandemics, champions of public health should be fostering the political will to get lazy or incompetent politicians to allocate resources to stem the tide of sickness -- at the source if possible, at home if necessary.

    Instead, on TV, the Internet, and in the parks, sensation and alarmism are the rule. The worse, the better. It almost makes one want to become a hermit just to reduce the opportunities others have for disrupting one's judgment, balance, and ability to act in the world. We may be a genetically fearful species, but that's no excuse for being fearful ourselves. Every time we indulge in this poison, we generate more paranoid archetypes to pass along to our children and our children's children: the worst abuse of all.

    Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Commentary