Amber Case - Get on the Playground
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Amber Case studies the interaction between humans and computers and how technology is changing everyday life. Case is currently a 2021 Mozilla Fellow working on the future of money, alternative business models for the web, and creator compensation. Case is an internationally recognized design advocate and speaker, and the author of four books, including Calm Technology and A Kids Book About Technology. She spent two years as a fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Named one of Inc. Magazine’s 30 under 30 and Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology, Case was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2012 and received the Claude Shannon Innovation Award from Bell Labs. She was also the co-founder and CEO of Geoloqi, a location-based software company acquired by Esri.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: Amber, welcome to the show.
Amber: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.
John: Oh, it's really a pleasure and I should say a little shoutout to Natalie Stewart of General Mills, who many of the listeners would likely know. She introduced us and thank you, Natalie, for the fact that we're doing this podcast today. Amber, I've been really excited to talk to you because you're working in an area that I think is really important, the intersection of food and taste and the chemical senses and web3 and kind of cryptocurrency some of the new web technologies. And so I think it would be a good place to start if you could just kind of take us through your journey into this space. You can start as early back as you like, but just a little bit of your biography so that our listeners can get to know you, please.
Amber: Sure. Well, I grew up in a technical family, as in my parents were blue-collar tech workers. They put the television on the air. And then my grandpa was the head of the Math Department at University of Utah. So he's working on vector graphics and a lot of what became what you would see in Star Wars, all these very early kind of CGI-type things. So growing up like that kind of in a Covid style arrangement, it was very much isolating. It was kind of a hermit. I got really fond of computers, and I had a little tape recorder, so I was always recording stuff on the tape, thinking about the future. And I think the biggest thing for me was that we didn't have the right year of World Book Encyclopedia. This was my only access to information so I was born in 1986. I didn't get access to the web until 1993. So when I first learned to read, the lowest book on the shelf was the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia, which was out of date. And I would read different articles. Okay, this is correct. This is correct. This is correct. But then when I got to the section on the computer, it was totally different because the computer in the book was a PDP eight or a PDP ten, which is a machine that's like the size of a gymnasium. And computers were women, as in they were the ones calculating and inputting data into the computer. And I was very confused because I looked at our little computer, which was an Atari, which just fit on a desktop. And I said, okay, the entry for Redwood Tree hasn't changed since in 26 years or 30 years. By the time I was reading it. But the computer has changed dramatically. And I would talk to my dad about this. I said, well, in 30 years, what is the computer going to look like? And I thought it would fit in the shape in the palm of your hand or it would be on your wrist because as a kid, you look at, like, go, go gadget. Here's a risk computer. Here are these things. You look at the future, you look at the flying car, so this was my first kind of comparison to history. It was like, well, what's possible? I was upset because I couldn't take a lot of pictures with our analog camera because it was expensive to develop a film. And I said, there's got to be a way to have a virtual film. And my dad was like, yes, that's a digital camera. But they cost $25,000. And I said I bet it will cost really cheap in the future. And so I imagine this time in which I would have enough money to buy these things. It's very much like Steve Wozniak, who was the co-founder of Apple Computer. He couldn't buy a computer so he made one and one of his early computers. He worked at IBM at the time which may be a big behemoth. He fit this whole thing into a little briefcase. So I grew up kind of more tech-associated and then it became very obvious that I didn't understand people. Although I'm a supertaster. I smell things really well. I taste things really well. I hear things really well and so I was being kind of devoured by my senses at the same time, you know in the computer world there's not a lot of sensory information in a way. There's kind of like awkward beeps and bloops and kind of benefication of everything, kind of a template itself on Facebook. So when I went to college, my mom's best friend was like you should go to a Liberal arts college, learn how to think, learn something that's hard for you. The opposite of tech. So I went and got a degree in anthropology so I could understand people better, groups, cultures. I realized that these influenced the technology revolution more than the technology itself. We could have all the tech we wanted starting in the 60s, but it didn't mean that people would use it. What made it possible was culture, aesthetics, music, life, silliness, jokes, news. So that's where I came from.
John: Interesting. Similar to Jobs, really. It's very similar. When you look at the history of computing, I'm sure you know this very well. But the people that are at the intersection of social science and technical disciplines are the people who make big advances. Right? Ada Lovelace would be one example. Coming from a literary background, or another one would be Grace Hopper. She's a Math professor, but she had her students create stories to explain theorems. Right? And so then she's trying to figure out how to talk to the computer really knows this history very well were back in those days, computer programming for the guys meant physically rearranging the computer. And so she said, why don't we have a language to talk to the computer? So you have the first computer programmer, right? Being actually, I think there's probably a gender aspect to this, too, in terms of women having maybe a more well-rounded view of the world or something. Where you look at the influence of women over the history of technology has been very positive. And I think that Steve Jobs also coming from Liberal art, he didn't really have the technical background, was someone like yourself, I think, who could understand the culture and the kind of cultural trends. Okay, so from that point forward, how did you come back to technology? So you went to Liberal arts to study anthropology, how did you come back to technology?
Amber: Yes, great question. So when I was kind of running around, I was living very small, as small as possible, because most of the students there had a lot of money. Their parents were paying for college in cash. I was kind of experimenting around. I did a little start-up just to see what was happening. And it was an electric car charging station startup because we found you can't make a car, it's too expensive. It costs just a million dollars for the safety testing. So let's look at building the charging station, because, in 2006, we thought, wow electric cars are going to be really big. They might not be big right now, but in ten years they'll probably start to become pretty large and people will need charging stations. So we built up this little thing. The company is still there. It's called Evercharge. It's a Tesla partner like. It's still around. Hilariously. We predicted it. My friend switched his major from math to economics and he came from an artist background. My other friend came from a technical background, and he changed his major to communication. So we were all majoring in the things we were terrible at so that we could move forward with this tiny start-up. And then along the way, one of the last semesters of Lewis and Clark College, which is the other Liberal arts college other than Reed, that's where Steve Jobs went here in Oregon. It was this kind of interesting thing. This subject called Cyborg anthropology came up, and it was understanding humans and technology, how technology affects culture and I heard that there'd be a lecture on it. So I went to the lecture and they said, well, the lecture is at the end of all these other lectures. So I just sat there diligently through this philosophy symposium, and this woman shows up, and she's dressed in leather. She's kind of like a motorcycle rider punk with bright red hair. She's in her 50s, and she is the Cyborg anthropology professor. It couldn't be more like Sci-Fi. And I said, wow! So I said, this is what I want to do. I have to take my class with you. And she said, yeah, but the prerequisite is quantitative research. I said I'll take both of them at the same time. I don't care. Let me into your class. So she let me in, and we did incredible just our assignments were ridiculous. They were about like gene therapy and social class who can afford to have better genes and so we were writing little science fiction stories on it as ways of templating the future and ways of testing them. I didn't understand a lot of what she was saying. So I would sit there in class and watercolor. I literally brought watercolor supplies to class instead of taking notes painted while I kind of tried to absorb very difficult-to-understand information because you had to understand science, anthropology, technology, history of science, philosophy, it was all merged together. And one of the books that we had was called The Cyborg Handbook and it was a collection of miniature essays about all the different interesting things. And the word Cyborg actually comes from the military-industrial complex. It's from 1960, it is any organism to which external components are added to help them adapt to new environments, as in a person in a spacesuit going to space. And it was created directly for the space program so that you could survive. And so anybody who adds something to themselves is this kind of Cyborg. The next semester, I wrote my thesis, and I asked my professor. I said I don't have the money to go to another country and study the people like traditional anthropologists do. I kind of have a problem with that too, because that assumes that there's a more developed country. When I think indigenous people are the highest developed. They understand. They get it. They've worked with nature for thousands of years. I think we're the ones that are a little confusing. And she said, well, you could study phones. The iPhone had just come out in 2007. And so I was one of the first people to write a research paper on the iPhone and do official research on the phone. And so I wrote my thesis on cell phones and along the way, I found this framework from Xerox Park which was a very early research center in Palo Alto, California. They created the graphic user interface that Steve Jobs famously came in and stole so that we can have both the Apple operating system, the visual interface, and Windows. This is what everybody used. There are a lot more inventions. And I thought, what else is in there that hasn't been taken out? So I started looking into it, and there was this thing called Calm technology, starting in 1989 through the early 90s. And they said, as technology advances, the scarce resource won't be technology anymore. It'll be really cheap. The scarcest resource will be our attention. And how technology works with or breaks our attention will make or break that technology. And so it becomes so important to design for attention and understand whether somebody is ready for the technology or how to have somebody attuned to something in their environment like in a car. You pay attention to the road mostly, and everything else in the car, from the foot pedal to the shifting stick to the rearview mirror, are all something you can do either by glancing back and forth or by using a different appendage. Arms or legs. Whereas most of what's happened with mobile phones is you pay all of your attention to the device. And that's why we get into such car accidents when we use the phone. So there was this new way of understanding attention and then also time and I think the big core concept in time that I learned is that the Greeks had these two words for time. One was Kronos's time, a very industrial time. You have a meeting from 08:00 a.m. - 09:00 a.m. Here are the objects. You're counting. You're looking at the clock. And maybe this is an unmemorable time. It's very machine-oriented. But then the opposite is Cairo's time. And Cairo's time is like watching a baby's first steps, falling in love, looking at a sunset, listening to your favorite song dissolving into time. You don't notice time and that is human time. And that our best technology opens up our lives for more of that human time. Instead of forcing us to babysit the technology, it gives us information, makes the invisible visible so that we can understand the status. So errors aren't as gruesome. I read these papers that were written in the 90s. They are classics. You can read them today, and they read just like today's technology. And then I realized that one of the founders of this framework called technology had died. And I just kind of cried because it was so elegant and beautiful and I said, well, I'm going to help bring this to the next generation of the Internet of things. And now increasingly, kind of the crypto space which is all about your attention and FOMO, the amygdala in your head that's causing you to panic. And like, that kind of mode. How do you kind of have self-regulation, not just with a good user interface, but within yourself so that you can make good decisions, move forward, and not get like, your attention extraordinarily distributed? And this is the kind of the thing that I'm wrestling with along with how do you switch economic models so that there's a way to, let's say, bank with a tree which is kind of a larger concept. It's like right now, a tree is worth more on the flatbed of a truck going to the paper mill than it is in the ground. But how do you swap economic models and realize something for what it is and allow people to have investment returns on regenerative agriculture and things like that? So those are kind of the larger concepts that I'm thinking about now. But it's always for me, I do the same thing every single time I find something that people have forgotten because it's in the wrong era. I try to like, let's say, midwife it into the next era and try to make it clear and I don't really care whether I'm attributed. Most importantly, it's like there are some ideas and frameworks that when you encounter them cause you to relax instead of getting stressed out. And I think that most technology is the same. Human universals don't change so if we can look at technology universals alongside human universals, we can build technology and systems that last for multiple decades. Kind of like cobalt that was created.
John: Yeah, Grace Hopper.
Amber: Grace Hopper made this amazing language that still most ATMs and airplane schedulers use because it was made during an era during World War II in which things could not fail where millions of people would die. Whereas when we make modern Web systems and they fail, we kind of laugh, oh, no, there's the failure on Twitter. Oh, no, the thing is down. Oh, no AWS is down. Oh, well, sorry, but if our life is dependent on it and our lives increasingly are dependent on it, we need to have more respect. We need to have like an electrician. If we look at how electricity was invented and spread throughout, like at least the United States, it was let's electrify everything. We know that it's dangerous, let's put in systems to make it safe so it doesn't burn your house down. And let's respect it. We know that we're working on something dangerous. You have to have an electrician's license, and we're going to have pride in our work. This is blue-collar tech. Whereas if we had built electricity like we built WiFi, the lights in your house would always be going off. Oh, sorry, the electricity is down. We barely notice it yet. How we build our infrastructure now is that things are down a lot. It's not as robust and resilient, and we can't go into the next generation of the world that way, especially if we're going to go into the future of crypto.
John: Yeah. Okay, I have so many things I want to talk to you about, and actually, we don't have a ton of time left, so do you want to make sure you get to the dinner DAO? It does seem to me a lot. Okay, there's a bunch of things here, Amber. You just said enough for like, five podcasts. One is, of course, Bitcoin is, to my mind a very important technology for restoring human time. Because I think part of why we have to spin the hamster wheel so fast is because we have this world economy that's dependent on growth, and that's really a function of the money supply. And in my opinion, it's corruption and technology should be making our lives easier. We should have to work less and less, but instead, we're happy to work more and more just keep the hamster wheel spinning. I don't know if you have strong opinions on Bitcoin versus other cryptocurrencies or not, but the proof of work concept, I think, is, okay, we could talk all day. Let's talk a little bit about the dinner dial though. I really want to make sure we get to that topic. So could you please tell everybody about the dinner DAO? How did you get involved in it? What it is? What is a DAO? I don't know how we're going to get this done in twelve minutes, but if you could do your best.
Amber: Oh, yeah.
John: See, we're on the wrong time. We need to be on human time rather than, what is it, Kronos versus?
Amber: Yeah, Kronos versus Cairo's time.
John: I wish we were on Cairo's time. Okay, well, maybe for the next one. Yeah, okay. But anyway, please.
Amber: Okay, so fundamentally, if you're a kid and you encounter a playground you play. Everybody comes up with a lava monster game. You're playing all over the place, running all over the place. And in doing so, when you get hurt, when you fall, you're not getting too hurt. It's not a catastrophic failure because it's a playground. It's designed to maybe you scrape your knee, maybe you break your arm. But these are all restorable human conditions. So on a playground, this is what you do. You play around. Now, imagine when we look at the kind of the Web 2.0 world. It's built-in in a very serious way. There's like kind of these catastrophic failures and now what a lot of people are doing is they're looking at like Web3 and NFTs, and they're saying, oh, my gosh, people are buying these stupid pictures. This is awful and ugly. But what they are missing is that Web3 is literally in the playground stage. And it's really good to have a playground where people are buying weird-looking pictures and JPEGs apes and crypto punks. It's that play that actually people buying NFTs are self-funding. They're acting like a little tiny venture capitalist self-funding system, bootstrapping it, and they're also exposed to the failures and the failures are kind of funny. And so if you look at it more as a playground, people are falling down. Stuff is happening. When we have made enough of the learnings to bootstrap a safer system, then we'll start to see more people building a stronger system. This is kind of a different perspective than we expect. Something new cannot be super serious and just to look at how when the iPhone came out, one of the best apps for the iPhone when it came out was the Fart app. You press a button to make a fart sound. We all laugh about it. We can talk about it over dinner. But what we don't realize is that every time you talk about the Fart app over dinner or you see it on TV, right? When that iPhone came out, it tells every 13 and 14-year-old kid ever that you can make an app. Not only that, you can make it in four lines of code and you can release it in the store. What else could you do? Oh, I can do this. What else could I do? It's an open-ended question. It's an open-ended kind of challenge, and it means that all these kids can play around with it. Now, I've met a lot of the people that saw that Fart app. They work at very large companies. They're some of the best app developers out there because they started by playing. And so when I look at what's going on here, there's this new concept that keeps getting thrown around. It's called a DAO. It's called a decentralized autonomous organization now. When I first heard this, I was like what the heck is that? The first one didn't do so well, but it was kind of hilarious. But what does it mean? It means, well, almost everybody knows about an LLC. You have a multimember LLC. You give people shares, and then it allows you to vote, right? So say we're going to put together a multi-person LLC, we're going to buy this restaurant, and then we kind of have voting power. Right? The two-thirds owners are going to vote on whether we reduce the LLC, whether we buy a new fryer, all of these things. Right? So decentralized autonomous organization is very similar to that. You have your members, you give them tokens instead of shares, and then you have a shared treasury. That's kind of a virtual shared treasury that has crypto in it, and they can make decisions on what to do with the money or what to do next. Now, that's a lot for the average person to deal with. The average person doesn't have an LLC. The average person in the past in a small community or town would do local governance. They would be involved with let's put the street light in. But I would say that a lot of governance which is taught as this boring, horrible thing in school to kids, it's not fun in your community. It's been taken away from you because all of the city hall-type meetings are at six in the morning or 03:00 P.M... If you have a regular job, you can't attend those. If you're recovering from a night shift in food service, you can't attend it.
Amber: So what I was thinking of and what my friend Austin Robbie, who created Dinner DAO thought of is how do you make something that's silly? That in doing so allows people to understand and practice a DAO in a playful way that isn't like governance is taught in class because we've had this thing where we've forgotten how to do governance. We've forgotten how to be at a community level where we are either really individualistic or we watch global politics. But how do we do something in the middle? How do we do something small? What's the minimum variable DAO and so he created Dinner DAO and Dinner DAO was literally, let's have a dinner party with eight people. Eight people buy a little ticket. It's your season pass. A season is three months. You get three dinners. It was $300. But you buy it as an NFT instead of like an Eventbrite pass. It's pretty much the same thing and then you prove that you're part of it because you have the little NFT in your virtual wallet and that allows you access to the little communication channel. Discord is what we use. A lot of people use it. And then within that, the members vote on where to go for dinner, and if there's extra funds leftover, what to do with the funds? You can donate them to charity, for instance. Now, it becomes interesting because some people don't know how to use a wallet or buy an NFT. So the other community members, if they want somebody to join the dinner DAO, they sit down with them and they help them out as a hand-holding. It's enjoyable, right? It's community-run. And then you have the dinner, we just had one last night and we all talked about what we did. We all hang out and everybody was like, oh, I'm dealing with this issue or like, I can't figure out what to use for this. But we're all growing together on this playground because we're playing on the playground once a month, eight of us, and we're learning together. To learn in a group of eight versus learning alone in a corner, being overwhelmed means when you're on the playground, you're digesting your metabolism rate is digesting the monkey bars. Over the next month, you see your older brother and the monkey bars. I want to do that and each day you're trying to get further and further. At the end of the month, you can do all the monkey bars by the end of a couple of months. But because you have your group with you, it's much more likely to like, we have resources with each other. Right? And I think that we're not even used to doing that, especially as Americans who are taught to be individualists. And so that's why dinner DAO is what it is. Practice governance, practice voting, practice being together in a group. I get to practice managing a treasury, which I was not really interested in as a kid. All the stuff that I thought was dumb as a kid, I'm now into because it's a game, it's playful, it's silly. What's the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is maybe I don't manage the money really well and I'm on the hook for what it is. Well, then I get to learn. Is it a large amount of money? No, it's not too bad. If I went to the larger organization and said, oh, I screwed it up, I need some help. There could be a vote on whether the organization could help me. Right? Again, it's this, like learning by Osmosis friendly container. It's the shallow end of the swimming pool. But you bet within like six months or a year, we're all going to be able to do deeper, more intense projects that have greater stakes because we have the training wheels. And if you don't have a thing like that, if you say if you go to a restaurant, be like, hey, you should have a DAO, it's like, no, have a couple of dinners, like hang out. So that's why we made it.
John: Well, that is perfect because that accords really well with what we often tell our clients about new technologies. You have to start playing with them, right? You have to play. And I really like the communal aspect, the fact you have a manageable size group get together. Now, are there lots of different cities now that have this dinner DAO, which are the cities?
Amber: Yeah, actually, let me open the discord channel where everybody communicates on the dinner DAO and I'm going to go to a little group called dinner DAO and within this little group, there are a bunch of different things. So right now there's two in New York, there's two in Los Angeles, and there's one in Portland. And that's kind of what we could sustain for the first season. But the other cool thing about seasons is that each season you can try a different technology, you can get more people in, you can make learning, and you don't have to expand all at once. So let's say instead we said, we're going to have a million people in dinner DAO. We're going to have the dying token, and we're going to take over the world. You bet there's going to be a catastrophic failure somewhere that nobody intended. Just kind of like Fire Festival. Like, you never do that. I always have people watch startup.com when they're doing a start-up, especially if you're from an agency. You don't really know how to build a product because you haven't had to sustain anything over time and make it better. I try to tell people, like, how do you think the toilet was invented or the doorknob was invented? Looking at the history of really mundane objects that we use every day that are ubiquitous, we don't notice them anymore. They're so smooth. But think about how they were developed and how much time it took. You want to have something developed, like a glacier carving a Valley over ten years. That's very strong versus like a bunch of deli friends stream. That's what it feels like a lot. We have these big plans. No, no, no. We have the smallest plan, and the smallest plan is going to slowly grow, create roots, and displace some things over time. But because it's so slow, no one cares. No one sees it coming. I just like that kind of system because you can actually make something real, that's memorable that people can rely on. And I really prefer that kind of software development. Considering software is invisible and you can't even see it is a better way to go. Now, that's hard when someone comes out of Stanford and they have a lot of cool ideas. It doesn't mean they can't be radical but you should be able to play with the weird stuff and then make it stable and still flexible and adaptable to the longer-term stuff so that people can have something in their lives that's just reliable. Right? Safety, reliable, a little bit more variety, but not too much and I think in our lives, we kind of have that. We have our favorite restaurant. We have our favorite city. We have our favorite airline. And why do we like it? Well, because there's reliability, first off. And second, there's either a sense of like Virgin Airlines, it's like, wow, this is nice and cozy. I feel like I belong or like the restaurant where there's the same person there every time. And then from that stable footing, we can explore different stuff. That's so important.
John: No, this is really deep, very deep, Amber because I feel like there's a human element to Web3 that's coming back right these communities being organized organically. I really like what you said about COBOL and how solid that language is and now there's a solidity that's coming with the programming and Web3, I think it's great. And I wish that we had more time to talk today. Maybe we can do a follow-up. I actually would like to do a deeper dive on many of these topics with you but how can people get in touch with you or someone's inspired now, they want to learn more or they like to connect with you?
Amber: Sure the best way to do it is to go on Twitter. I'm @caseorganic on Twitter. You can always send me a note on LinkedIn if you want. I think it'd be so fun to do another podcast and kind of follow up on different things. I really like it if no one's attending one of these on conferences. It's a neat format where the people who attend set the schedule instead of the schedule being set ahead of time and it's really good for talking about emerging topics that haven't been figured out quite yet where many people in a conference session figure out something together and provide different perspectives. So I'm going to do another little conference. It's just going to be on one topic which is the future of water which touches everything. Like everything in our lives is water. In that kind of system, you have just unpredictable things that can happen that allows I really like group level communication where you're just kind of figuring things out together and it's kind of egoless. You don't know whether you're right or not but it doesn't matter. You're just moving together towards something. Yes, people can contact me like that. Also, one note you can go to calmtech.com where I've archived a bunch of papers from people who no longer are alive anymore to make sure that you can read their ideas for the future.
John: Okay, we'll put all those links in the show notes. So, Amber, this has been a complete pleasure. Thank you very much for being on the show today.
John: Okay, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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