Weekly Skype Text Transcripts

Each week Students and Educators from Iraq and the Western and Eastern United States Meet Online to Converse.  First we were discussing how we might be able to use education to support Human Rights.  Now we are currently in the midst of a Design Exchange Project. The transcripts are found here.

1 Week One, 07.14.10, does anyone have a transcript? I am having technical issues with this one, and will get it up soon!

2-Iraqi_American Conversation 07.21.10

3_Iraqi _ American Conversations Week 3 07.28.10

4_Design Exchange Initial Conversation.08.04.10

5 Media Exchange Week One 08.11.10

6_Design Exchange Project Week Two 08.18.10

7 Desgin Exchange Conversation Week Three 08.25.10 Rhinocort

Iraqi / US Student Conversations Week 3

1.  How might we use the class room and education in general to promote change, freedom of speech and human rights? How has this been done in the past in Iraq? In the US?

2.  Do students feel that they have a responsibility to change the environment around them, and if so, what is the boundary of that environment?  Their class room, university, town, city, country?  Should students be involved in international politics?

3.  Do students make their voices heard in your present or previous school systems?  If so, does it have an impact, and can you list examples of how?  If not, why not, and what changes do you feel must be made so that they would have an impact?  What do you feel must be done for those changes to occur?

4.  If you were to create an ideal student political body, how would it be structured and how would it function? Lozol

Iraqi / US Student Conversations Week 2 Questions

Hello All: The general overarching topic for this week concerns curriculum and pedagogy: about the political nature of what information is taught vs. what is left out, and _how_ things are taught. How do these choices and methods affect the ability to create political change through education?

Some of the suggestions for questions thus far have been:

  • What is the relationship of censorship to curriculum?  Have you ever been part of a school system where particular books, subjects or conversations have been banned or discouraged?
  • How has the internet affected teaching & learning?  How do you feel it has affected morals, maturity, access to information and attention span of students?  Have your teachers incorporated it in interesting ways in their teaching practices?
  • How do you see the effect of democracy on teaching, whether conceptually or practically?
  • How was the Iraq war was spoken about in the class room?  Was it taught?  Referred to?  Ignored?  Was its portrayal in the media analyzed?  What types of sources were used, if any?  Did your teacher make their personal opinion about the war known to the class?
  • Have the subjects of war and terror been introduced in classroom discussion, and if so, how?

Please begin your posts by introducing yourselves with 2 or 3 sentences if you haven’t already.   Please tell us how old you are, what subject you are studying and at what level, what your major interests are, and where you are located.  This will be helpful for everyone to know how we can all work together.

Any other suggestions for questions, the next chat, or anything else are also welcome. Thanks!! Melanie

Here is some background to contextualize the spirit of the first round of questions and dialog:

The classroom is not the world, but the classroom is its own world.

Perhaps you think of politics as a process used only to a select people of power who go to important meetings. In fact, politics is all around you. The governing of our bodies, the establishment and reinforcement of rules, displays of power–all of these concerns occur even in your own classroom. In past or present experiences at your school, where do you feel you have experienced imbalances of power, whether between teacher and student, administration and student, or between groups of students themselves?  How were these power imbalances symbolized? 

Iraqi / US Student Conversations Week 1 Questions

Shape of Change: Iraqi American exchange design project questions

Phase One: Experiences in the class room

Based on experience in he classroom, that might lead to a larger conversation about society. Questions may bring out differences that manifest in culture, language and behavior, so we can talk about power more in terms of power structures rather than political parties.

  1. What is the relationship between teachers and students?
  2. How is power symbolized in the classroom?
  3. What behaviors are encourage or discouraged?
  4. What language is used? Is the language that is used most people’s first language?
  5. What is the relationship among you and your peers?
  6. What are the injustices that you witness on a daily basis in the classroom?

Please post your initial responses on the blog now.

Do not forget to add your contact information to this spreadsheet if you plan to  join us for a Skype conversation Wednesday July 14th: 10am California, 1pm New York, and 8pm Iraq.

Iraqi / US Student Discussion Project Description

Iraq & US student conversation, exchange and design project

To have a conversation about how power and authority might be structured in class rooms, in this case in Iraq and the US.


  • To investigate how education some times involves its own power structures that can reflect cultural norms
  • To promote intercultural understanding
  • To connect groups of groups student activists, so that they might discuss issues of free speech

A.  Conversations

  • As per both groups interests, we might have 3 conversations, one per week, about teaching, curriculum and student activism.
  • This first week we are focusing on Experiences in the Classroom. Please respond to the questions with a blog post as soon as possible.  The first week’s questions are found here:  http://shapeofchange.com/blog/?p=39
  • The basic structure would be to post a list of 3-5 questions at the beginning of the week.  Participants would have one week to post their answers to the word press blog site.
  • Depending on availability, participants would try to log on to skype on Wednesdays starting Wednesday July 14th at 10:00 am California time, 1 pm NYC time, 8:00 pm Iraq time for a 30 – 45 minute conversation of that weeks material.
  • Because of the difficulty some people may have with electricity and logging on to skype, the center of the conversations will be text based.

B.  Design Project
Then, we might do an exchange based design project, based on rules the groups in Iraq and the US would mutually agree on.
Project concept examples:

  1. One idea would be to do something based on the Surrealist’s idea of the Exquisite Corpse, which was a game played on slightly altering text, images or ideas as they passed from person to person.  This might be executed by having all participants in all 3 locations (California, New York and Baghdad) read a single text concerning education, politics or philosophy.  Then, each group would interpret that text in a design project of their choosing.  They would pass their work off to the next group off in the next site, would reinterpret the work according to differences in their site.  The project would end after 3 rounds.
  2. Another idea would be to do something based on humor, which is very difficult to translate.  Perhaps the group in Iraq would find images and texts associated with a transcript from a beloved Iraqi political comedian, whose work they would translate into English (realizing the work might loose much of its humor when translated).  Then perhaps the Americans would try to reinterpret this work according to their local context in NYC, and translate the work into Arabic, etc.

There are many such design projects that are based on education, power, translation, image, site, youth, media and politics.  Ultimately, the project should be decided by the people doing the work, these examples are provided as starting points.

Interview with Steve Kurtz

This conversation took place between Steve Kurtz and Melanie Crean on 06.23.10.

Melanie Crean: I just started recording.

Steve Kurtz: Well, my whole life is recorded. I’m used to cameras and tape recorders and whatever else. As far as free speech goes, I am not sure my case was so precedent-setting. I think mine was part of a long list of free speech cases, from the Palmer Raids to McCarthyism and Cointelpro to the present day. Where it was precedent-setting was in how the federal prosecutors were framing the charge. It would have completely changed contract law. It would have done away with civil law completely, by making any contract dispute potentially a criminal case. The Department of Justice would then have had the discretionary power to make a civil complaint a criminal case any time it wanted to; in other words, they would have had the ultimate tool for selective prosecution. They had never tried to pull that before.

MC: Who brought the civil complaint?

SK: There was never any criminal or civil complaint in my case—that was the crazy thing! Those who I supposedly defrauded didn’t bring any charges, whether civil or criminal. It was the government that brought charges. They were saying, “You broke this civil contract” (the Judge later ruled I didn’t even do that)—“and actually this isn’t a civil dispute but a criminal offense.” This outrageous claim was what was really out of control in my case.

They were doing this for three main reasons. One was to control free speech. Second, it was the birth of Ashcroft’s preemptive justice policy, and for whatever reason the Department of Justice decided that I was the kind of person who might commit a crime against the state sometime in the future, and hence needed to be put in jail immediately. And third, they were trying to intimidate artists, academics, and activists—demographics they viewed as left-leaning and out for trouble. With me, they got all three demographics in one person.

MC: So you mentioned McCarthyism, and I know that there were plenty of literary people and cartoonists that were convicted at that time. Were there any artists or activists over the past 10 or 15 years that had similar charges brought against them?

SK: Not that I know of, but many activists were arrested who were doing what could very easily be considered performance art. Most notably a student who was re-enacting one of the infamous Abu Ghraib Torture scenes was arrested and charged with the very serious felony of creating public emergency. “Disciplining The Avant-Garde, The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble” by Gregory Sholette also chronicles how people were arrested for freedom of expression, and charged for going outside the bounds of what the Bush Government thought was proper speech.

MC: I know it’s very complicated, but could you give a brief summary of the charge that was brought against you so that it can be put in the context of this interview?

SK: The Defense Fund Website goes into detail in the Overview paper by Claire Pentecost, but basically, I was charged with mail and wire fraud. What the government alleged was that one of my colleagues (Bob Ferrell, a professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who served as a consultant on a number of our projects) had sent me some bacteria: two samples of completely harmless Bio Safety Level 1 bacteria. The Department of Justice [DoJ] said that the school had an agreement with the American Type Culture Collection (the distributor) that disallowed the transfer of their products to a third party. The DoJ claimed Bob and I “schemed” to send bacteria to me through the mail, which in turn broke the contract and defrauded the distributor. Because Bob mailed two “fraudulently” acquired samples to me it was two counts of mail fraud. Then he had written me an email saying: “I mailed you the samples.” And I wrote back and said: “Thank you, Bob” and that constituted the two counts of wire fraud.

As it turned out, there was no agreement whatsoever between the University of Pittsburgh and ATCC about sending bacteria back and forth. In fact, according to the University, their position was that anything sent to them, they owned outright. They didn’t even recognize the intellectual property of ATCC.

When you open a package from ATCC there’s a paper, which Bob would have received, with a bunch of liability clauses, some of which say the product can’t be sent to a third party, and others of which say the product can be sent to a third party—in other words it’s self-contradictory. But the point is, a company can’t send someone something after the fact and say: “Now you are bound to a contract.” Yet this was what the government tried to claim, and they further claimed that since Bob was bound to this “contract,” and that since he sent the samples to me, therefore we were guilty of mail fraud. Perhaps you could try to make a contract dispute out of it (which the judge also threw out), but the DoJ was going for broke and trying to make a criminal charge out of it.

An investigative reporter at the end of the case indicated that the prosecuting attorney, William Hochul, might not have even been trying to win this case. Instead, he thought Hochul was actually hoping that he could get me on the witness stand and cross examine me about books that I had written in the hopes that I would incriminate myself in some way. He hoped that I would admit that I was advocating terrorist activity in my books. In this way, they could reinstate a terrorism charge, which is what he really wanted.

MC: So there was an incriminatory aura surrounding the case in the hopes that artists, scientists or researchers might in some ways incriminate themselves. This is disturbing, especially since the charges were eventually dropped. Do you think the case had a chilling effect on artists’ and researchers’ activities that has remained? Do you think the case was in any way a win for the government for this reason?

SK: Yes, they got something out of it. It was a public relations disaster for them, but they didn’t completely lose. I doubt they will ever try it again (especially given the precedent set by the case), but it did put the clamp down. It didn’t work very well with activists—we are used to going to jail and we expect that we are going to have run-ins with disciplinary agencies. It didn’t work that well for artists, either, because what have they got to lose? Nothing really. If an artist gets sent to jail it gives them street credibility.

MC: What about scientists?

SK: Scientists are scared to death. They are completely beholden to their institutions. They are completely reliant on their funding…

MC: Public funding.

SK: For a scientist, if you are put into a situation where you are accused of a felony, you will have problems getting funding. If convicted, you might only be sentenced to probation, but your days as a scientist are over because you will never see another cent of public funding. As we all know, you can’t do serious science without a great deal of money. It scared scientists, and they were watching our case very carefully. It scared them more than the Butler prosecution because this one seemed so frivolous, and it showed how easy it would be for our situation to befall any them. It was a problem because in order to do life science, samples have to be mailed around, often in a casual way. One slip in the paper work and you could be facing jail time.

I had an interesting experience in Austin where I met a molecular biologist who had been a friend of Bob Ferrell for years. I assumed that if our case went to trial, he would serve as an expert witness for us. But he said he wouldn’t do it. I was shocked. I said, “You’re Bob’s friend, you’ve known him for forty years, you came through the ranks together! You’re not going to come to his defense?” He still refused, and I said, “How can you live with yourself?” He said, “I get what you’re saying—’First they came for my friends, and when they came for me there was no one left’ —but I’m not doing it. I’m not jeopardizing my career.”

It had a very strong effect on the sciences.

Apparently the FBI also gave a very serious warning to one of the distributors I used to get various enzymes that I needed for molecular biology. Now they won’t sell to amateurs anymore, only to universities and corporate labs.

MC: The relationship between the legality and issues of free speech is interesting on so many levels. I had also read from your defense website that you were never Mirandized.

SK: That is true, I was never Mirandized. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that you don’t have to be Mirandized anymore. To get your rights you have to say, “I want my rights.” Of course, anyone who has ever been arrested knows you don’t get Mirandized. The police want to coerce you as long as possible and will do almost anything to try to get a confession or to create “evidence” and better link you to a crime. They are not interested in Mirandizing anyone and hardly ever do so unless they absolutely must.

MC: How did it affect your ability to articulate your defense? Did it make a difference?

SK: No, I don’t think it would have. I was arrested on the way to the funeral home to make arrangements for my wife who had died the day before. At that time I was not thinking very clearly to say the least. In terms of trying to figure out my legal options, it really was not working out for me. It wasn’t until the next day that I had a moment of clarity about what I should be doing. In the beginning I just wanted them to let me go so I could finish arranging the funeral. I was talking to them and I should not have been doing that. I didn’t give them any “evidence,” but generally speaking, you never talk to police or an FBI agent or any agent of the law. You never say anything to them for any reason without your lawyer present. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild both have good primers on this—on how to protect yourself if you’re ever arrested.

MC: I read some strange information that they had a warrant to search your house. I don’t know if they got it for legal reasons or if they manipulated facts to get it. The FBI took your files and manuscripts and writing, possibly in hopes of you incriminating yourself. Did they ever give you a complete list of what they had taken from you? Did you even know what they had taken from you? Did you know what you were defending yourself against at the time?

SK: There are disclosure laws. They have to give you a receipt for everything they take. They have to tell you what evidence they are bringing against you in court. Once I won the case they had to give everything back. We got everything back 4 years after they took it.

MC: The manuscripts and years of stolen work seems pretty bad.

SK: It was bad.

MC: I don’t know if you are following this so much, but just recently the Supreme Court has been deciding issues about the First Amendment. Under the PATRIOT Act, how do you feel lfree speech has been affected? What affect do you think it has had on artists?

SK: In June the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 “material support for terrorism” law, which was really enhanced under the PATRIOT Act, could legally prohibit speech and advocacy, even advocacy in support of human rights and international law. Under this interpretation, anti-apartheid and solidarity activists in the 1980s could have been subject to harassment and prosecution. Pure speech advocating lawful, nonviolent activity can now be criminalized. In September the FBI raided homes and issued grand jury subpoenas to anti-war activists in several cities in search of “material support for terrorism” charges, and it appears the witch-hunt is continuing, with the FBI continuing to harass other activists at their homes and workplaces. So while the Obama Administration is not pursuing pre-emptive justice in the same way the Bush Administration did, the Department of Justice has clearly not been de-politicized. This should concern everyone. The fight against authoritarian power is a never-ending one, regardless of who is in office.

MC: Is performance speech? Are their qualitative differences, like I am sitting here at this lunch counter, and with my body I am saying something? Would it be the same if I were speaking? Is it more or less?

I know you do bacterial releases in your work. Performance and speech are often grouped together under freedom of expression, but are there important differences between them that people tend to overlook?

SK: I look at it from a semiotic perspective. I see performance as being a subcategory of speech. The thread that ties them all together, whether images or sounds or spoken words, is that they are all coded textualities. If you are in that realm you are in the realm of speech. Those are speech acts.

MC: Do you think your work has changed in a way that it wouldn’t have if this experience had not happened?

SK: No, it hasn’t. Critical Art Ensemble’s work is very forcefully anti-authoritarian and anti-majoritarian power. That has never changed. After I got arrested we were even more emphatic. We knew people were watching us and that we were role models. Even though the role was forced on us and my whole life was on camera, we felt we had now, more than ever, to walk it like we talk it. We had to show that we would not be intimidated and that we would continue exactly as we always had, regardless of the pressure that was put on us. The projects that the FBI were so keen to confiscate, we just remade.

Conversations on Change

Conversations on Change
Friday, April 23, 2010 – 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Parsons The New School for Design
25 East 13th St., 2nd floor, NYC
Admission is FREE

For Conversations on Change, scholars and practitioners from the fields of art, science and religion discuss commonalities and differences amongst their views of political change. The discussion series is part of Melanie Crean’s The Shape of Change, a series of projects that examine our nation’s evolving concept of change, seeking to countermand the empty political brand the term was reduced to in recent elections. Ms. Crean is a full time faculty member in Parson’s School of Art Media and Technology. The three participants include:

A A Bronson is an artist and healer. Co-founder of the influential collaborative General Idea, Bronson is currently the President of Printed Matter, Inc. in NewYork City, and Artistic Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

Alaa Majeed, an Iraqi journalist and activist who has worked with the Committee to Protect Journalists documenting press freedom violations. Alaa has recently resettled in the States, so has an interesting approach to reform and political change.

Sensei Jules Shuzen Harris is a Zen Soto priest. The Sensei has been a practicing Buddhist priest for over 25 years, and he is also a psychotherapist and 4th-degree Dan Black Belt in Laido (the art of drawing and cutting with a samurai sword) and Kendo (Japanese fencing).

For more information, please see: http://shapeofchange.com/blog

If you are not able to join us in person, log on to:

Presented as part of the Vera List Center’s 2009/2010 program theme “Speculating on Change.”

Interview with Sean Gourley

This between Melanie Crean and mathematician Sean Gourley was conducted for Where We Are Now Magazine in October.

The Shape of Change

October 16th, 2009
By Melanie Crean and Sean Gourley

This conversation took place between Melanie Crean and Sean Gourley via email during the month of September 2009. Their discussion focused on notions of change as a physical, political and cultural phenomenon whose nature and impact, though sometimes measurable and predicable, still cannot be strictly defined. Crean is an artist and teacher, living in Brooklyn and teaching at Parsons The New School for Design. Gourley is a mathematician, political advisor, and current TED fellow who lives in San Francisco.

Melanie Crean: I am currently working a project called The Shape of Change, an online database of American and Iraqi perceptions of change to be used by artists and activists as the basis of art works and discussion. To begin our conversation, I would like to ask how you define change over time? How do you see it manifest in the world around you? How do you address it in your own work?

For me, the word change, as with any signifier in language, is tightly bound to its cultural context. To state the obvious: the meaning of change itself seems to be changing, in fact quite rapidly emptying itself of meaning. Recently, there has been a strange unspoken international agreement on change; it has become a self-replicating brand. In the last U.S. election, for instance, it was deliberately undefined. Used by both parties, the word appeared in information visualizations in the New York Times and you could see how often both parties used the term at their national conventions. But neither party defined it; it was deliberately left to loosely encompass whatever the listener considered desirable. Though deliberate ambiguity is a time-honored tradition in politics, I feel it has been noteworthy recently because the more powerful the “brand”of change becomes the more meaningless it seems to become.

The Shape of Change project brings up several questions: why and how does the nature of change change? Is it a predictable pendulum (change-stasis-change-stasis), or are there more complicating factors at work? How can it be quantified? Can it be predicted? And, if so, can change be seen to be at all fixed?

Sean Gourley: For me change is defined by “something being different.” In general, as time moves forward, something is always different. But then time is defined by difference. Time and change are inextricably linked. Change cannot happen without time moving, and time cannot happen without change. The very way we measure time is defined by the changing position (vibration) of Caesium atoms within our atomic clocks.

So your question, how do you define change over time almost answers itself. And yet even with all this change some things remain constant. The laws of physics remain the same, unchanged in the short term. The rules that govern the vibration of the Caesium atom, or the rotation of the earth around the sun, remain constant while the objects they act on change. In many ways too, change is dependent on the observer. Dependent on what is being measured. Hold a ball above your head and then drop it. The ball has changed position, but it is still the same ball. If you ignore its position relative to the earth it has not changed. But if position is important to you, then change has occurred.

From a personal perspective, I see change around me everywhere I look. From the people moving on the street, to the traffic lights flashing from red to green. And yet there is something constant. When viewed from a distance, people seem to move in a predictable fashion, every day exhibiting the same general behavior. The light changing from red to green every ninety seconds. Many of the rules that bring about change themselves remain constant. The interesting question then becomes, is something that is changing in a predictable way still changing?

I look at change in my work from the perspective of measurement. Measurement reveals change. We cannot know if change has occurred if we cannot measure it. This has been one of the difficult elements in the study of conflict, as conflict by its very nature is difficult to measure. Yet we can measure some variables, including the way people are dying, the type of attacks that are occurring, the size of the attacks and how all of these variables change through time. We even measure popular words that are used to describe wars like Iraq and see how these change with time – from WMDs to Shock & Awe, to quagmire and civil war. Yet, for Iraq, throughout all of the war, the laws that underlie the conflict seem to remain constant. The laws that govern how people die are predictable and defined by mathematical equations that we see repeated in war zones around the world. One person dies and for them and their family this is a massive change. The world for their relatives changes beyond belief. Yet as we step away from the case of the individual, we see that their death is part of a broader pattern that is repeated in wars around the world. A pattern that has not changed because of their death.

Economic indicators can be a driver of conflict. The unemployment rate amongst fighting age males is a significant predictor of future violence in a region. Increase this variable and probabilistically speaking you move a step closer to war. The link between financial markets and conflict is perhaps even stronger. An oil pipeline is blown up and the price of oil futures increases. The first plane is flown into the World Trade Center and within minutes large amounts of cash are moved to the Swiss franc.

Iraq is different now than it was in 2003 when the invasion occurred – it has changed. But is it better or worse, is America better or worse? Was the invasion good for some people? – yes. Was it bad for others? – yes. In many ways, this speaks to the ambiguity of change, of how our understanding of change depends on who you are and what you are measuring. It is difficult to say for any type of change, that the world is better or worse. When we drop a ball from above our heads, the world has changed but is it better or worse?

MC: Depending on the perspective of the observer, change is also valued differently. As a follow up to a question in your last email, I’d like to ask you now: How does change constitute a central challenge for the economy? How might American corporations have been better prepared for change? How might they incorporate some of those strategies now, in the midst of current economic restructuring? And to follow something that you wrote, how might our current economic situation both drive or respond to political conflict?

SG: With regard to American corporations being better prepared for change, it requires one of two things. Either a better ability to see where the world is heading (i.e. what is change going to look like), or being more flexible in their organizational culture so that they can respond to change.

We can learn a lot from insurgencies about how to create organizations that can navigate changing environments. Insurgent forces have to operate in constantly changing landscapes, both militarily and politically. They do this by creating hundreds of groups that continually mutate their strategies until a successful one is found. The unsuccessful strategies are then replaced as the groups fail to survive and the successful groups grow stronger. This process allows an exploration of a constantly changing space, it allows the insurgency to quickly find new ways to operate in the changed environment. Being allowed to fail is an important part of dealing with change. Implementing some of the organizational characteristics of an insurgency might help large corporations successfully navigate this changing landscape.

MC: We have been speaking about the psychological underpinnings of change as related to the structure of financial organizations. For people to adopt change, it seems they must both accept its potential benefits (or at least its inevitability), in addition to being able to envision living, working, or operating differently. The ability to envision change is a necessity that cannot be understated.

One exercise that beginning designers often do to test the usability of a proposed design is to construct something called a “value fiction,” to imagine an environmental situation very different from their own, possibly with different social and technological norms, to consider how their design might perform in this “extreme” situation. It’s surprising how difficult this exercise is, simply because people have been compelled to behave the way current social customs, prevalent technology and interactive interfaces have structured their thoughts and actions. In short, it is very difficult to conceive of true change. When asked, many students begin with proposing that the new design be smaller, faster, and easier to use for its current function, sort of the “predictable change” that you referred to. Considering an entirely new way of using a particular device, or working, or thinking, often takes a bit of unlearning.

So I would like to ask: What kind of creative approach or thought process is required by all architects of the future, whether involved in the fields of design, science, education, politics or economics? What kind of methodologies are helpful to promote unfettered thinking?

SG: For the “architects of the future,” I think they first have to develop a good ability to look backwards. But to look backwards over a long enough timescale so that they can get a good sampling of “unexpected” events! For something that is unexpected may well have just faded from memory.

Another methodology is the random mutation of ideas within a fitness landscape. This is done constantly as part of nature’s evolutionary process, and we can do a good job of simulating it in computers to solve new types of problems. In applying it to the technique of unfettered thinking, one should take an idea that you already hold and understand the core concepts that go into this idea. Then randomly change one of the inputs and see how the idea changes. So instead of trying to guess the future, you simply accept a random input and then see what happens to your theories and ideas.

Of course some things are more likely than others. So a third concept that is very important is to understand probability (what is the likelihood of something happening) and risk (what are the consequences). Probability can be determined both empirically (I have seen the ball fall to the ground 1,000 times therefore I believe there is a good chance it will happen this time) and theoretically (I know that gravity acts on all objects and as such the ball will fall to the ground). Probability also allows us to imagine different futures simultaneously. Schroedinger’s Cat is a well known example in quantum mechanics. For as the world exists today there is a future where the cat is alive, and a future where the cat is dead. But for now the cat is both dead and alive and I can only know the probability that one of these worlds will exist in the future.

MC: Your last email about system-based thinking reminded me of a recent talk by Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO), on occasion of his new book about designing for change. He spoke about the commonality of convergent thinking, taking a set of available choices, implementing the best choice and optimizing the results. The problem with this method is of course that if everyone else is working with the same set of choices, they will come up with similar answers, and progress will remain static. To create innovation, you would need to change the entire set of options, or basically redefine the system. In the commercial world, if a company is making money by doing the same thing, what would their financial incentive be for investing in redefinition?

SG: In short, there is no incentive to change what you are doing if you are making money: You are wildly profitable and all the senior decision makers have nice bonuses coming in. Taking risks becomes less attractive as you have more to lose. Management has to sign off on everything in order for it to be approved and you start attracting a different group of people to come and work for you – employees who want a safe paycheck and a stable environment. The classic examples of these dynamics are found in Silicon Valley, where the more established tech companies have steady income streams. But they also have large R&D divisions to try and stay ahead of all the new startups trying to take their business as the technology evolves.

MC: You mentioned insurgent power structures being based on evolutionary models, mutating until they succeed, or being allowed to fail. In our political system, maintaining power means avoiding failure at all cost. If both our political and our financial systems are not designed to facilitate change, where does this leave us? Organizations will eventually fail if they refuse to adapt. But what of predicting the fall of powerful nations?

SG: There will always be change. What is somewhat under our control is how frequently this change happens. But that control of frequency comes at the expense of having any control over the size of the change when it does happen. Think of it like an earthquake: There is constant pressure buildup between the earth’s tectonic plates – they push together and store energy. This energy can be released in lots of very frequent short bursts, or it can be stable for decades with nothing happening until one day it all falls apart.

With companies, the smaller the company is the more likely it is to fail, this is not due to an inability to change but instead it is because of an inability to control their environment. The larger the company you are the more power you have to control your environment, the less likely you are to fail. And because you are large you can put off having to confront change for a long time (it took record labels the best part of a decade before they were willing to accept digital music as a revenue stream at which point they were beaten out of the game by a computer company called Apple).

Should a government or nation then, instead of trying to control everything and stop the small changes, actually encourage change to occur? Would this provide more stability at the expense of total control? The analogy of forest fire policies comes to mind. It was deemed that forest fires were inherently bad and they should be stopped at all costs. A lot of money was put into this project and for the most part it worked very well. But when a fire did happen, it was massively destructive as all the old dead timber that would previously have burned in the smaller fires is stockpiled as fuel waiting to burn.

But then if you had power (or money) would you, too, try everything to protect it? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, the need to let some fires burn in order to save the forest in the long run. Can we predict the fall of powerful nations? Given enough data I think we could get fairly close. We already know some of the main predictors of conflict.

MC: If you could somehow give change some visual form, what would it look like?

SG: For me, the way that I visualize change is to go to the beach and watch the waves moving towards the shore breaking as they come to land. For me, waves represent many of the elements of change. No two waves are ever the same, yet every wave is in a sense the same wave. The place where they will break is determined by the sand or coral underneath the water, yet the waves act together to change this over time. They are also a product of a larger system of tides and the movement of the moon. And their very shape is dictated by a combination of gravity and electrical charge of hydrogen atoms. You also get to see the tipping point of change – before the wave breaks, the water is calm and the wave reveals itself as a simple vertical displacement of water. But just a few short seconds after this, the water turns white and violent as the wave crashes over the sandbar. This change is predictable, which is why we can surf – but it is always changing and never the same. And change, like the wave, is nothing more than the simple transference of energy from one particle to another.

Melanie Crean
Melanie Crean is an artist and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. She is an Assistant Professor of Media Design at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, teaching production and theory based classes in experimental time based work, mobile media and gaming. As the former Director of Production at Eyebeam (eyebeam.org), she founded and managed a cooperative studio that supported the creation of socially based media, working with new forms of moving image, sound, public art and open source software. Previously, Melanie worked at the MTV Digital Television Lab, managing a team of artists while designing special effects, performance animation, motion capture and speech recognition systems. She produced documentaries in Nepal, India and the United States, on subjects that include women trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS along trucking routes in South Asia. Melanie received a BA in semiotics and film production from Brown University, and a MFA in computer art from the School of Visual Arts. Crean has received fellowships and commissions from Art in General, the Bronx Arts Council, Harvestworks, NYFA, NYSCA, Rhizome and Creative Time.

Sean Gourley
Sean Gourley is a mathematician, political advisor and current TED fellow. He is originally from New Zealand where he ran for national elected office and helped start New Zealand’s first nanotech company. Gourley studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he received a PhD for his research on the mathematical patterns that underlie modern war. This research has taken him all over the world from the Pentagon, to the United Nations and Iraq. Previously Gourley worked at NASA on self-repairing nano-circuits and is a two-time New Zealand track and field champion. Now based in San Francisco, Gourley splits his time between mathematical research and his venture capital backed startup Younoodle.com.

An ongoing project, consisting of interviews with writers, artists, theorists and other practitioners who discuss how speech can be modified over time: politicized, branded, historicized, documented, sexualized; and how this in turn affects its potential to create cultural change.