A Letter to School Board Member Norton

December 9th, 2008

One of the most interesting races for me this past election season was that of the four seats available for the San Francisco Board of Education. The voter’s guide put out by the city included profiles of each candidate, and of the fifteen running for office, only seven of them had a website. Six of them were essentially static, electronic versions of standard campaign brochures. The last was that of Rachel Norton, whose site consisted of a frequently-updated blog with comments enabled—and which the candidate actually responded to. Aside from being evidence for a passion in the field, what set this candidate apart from the others for me was her interest in using the web as a way to facilitate two-way communication with her constituents. As the incoming presidential administration has also shown, this is a great way to promote transparency and civic engagement.

After long, drawn-out recounts in what turned out to be a very close race, Norton ultimately won the fourth seat on the board. I’ve always had a lot of reverence for education—something I have my parents to thank for—and apparently I was excited enough about both Norton’s election and some of the recent work of Henry Jenkins that I actually wrote my very first letter to a public official this morning:

Hi Rachel,

Congratulations on getting elected! I just wanted to let you know about something that’s been on my mind lately regarding education. I’m not sure to what extent the Board of Education deals with this sort of thing, but it has to do with what’s called “new media literacies”. There’s a foundation for it here that has more information about it:

http://newmedialiteracies.org/

There’s a video on the front page that explains what it’s about, but I thought you might be particularly interested in it given your recent participation in this “new media landscape”. I’m not sure whether it sounds too radical or not—I don’t have any kids so I don’t know what the current state of education is. As an example, I was disheartened to hear that Wikipedia is shunned in most classrooms across the nation, when it could instead be embraced as an opportunity to contribute to a global community of individuals who are passionate about knowledge and encouraged to question where it comes from and what its point of view is.

What I’m thinking about isn’t the same as “bringing technology into the classroom”—an idea I’ve always personally disliked—but rather encouraging kids to actively participate in society by creating things that help people. For me, the latter has always provided a much more interesting context for learning than, e.g., writing a paper that will only be read by my teacher.

All this is clearly a far cry away from raising standardized test scores, though, so I’m not sure how well it fits into the Board of Education’s agenda, but I hope these thoughts are helpful in some way.

- Atul

The SF Green Festival and >play

November 17th, 2008

This weekend I represented Mozilla at the >play Expo at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Green Festival. This was the first time I’d ever represented Mozilla at a public event, so it was quite a learning experience. It was also fun trying to get an idea of what an individual was interested in and connecting it with something relevant about Mozilla.

The >play Expo

Myk Sets Us Up The BoothAt the >play Expo, Myk Melez, Jay Patel and I were specifically representing Mozilla Labs, and most of the people we spoke to were MBA students or industry professionals. As such, when asked what Labs was, I tended to focus on the concept of innovation—something relevant both to business and Mozilla. In particular, I focused on Labs as a solution to what Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma. I also made sure to bring up the Mozilla community, explaining that all Labs projects were community experiments that anyone could contribute to, and that some of them, such as the Concept Series, were actually experiments in figuring out how to “scale” disruptive innovation within the context of a global community. I also explained that a big part of facilitating community-wide innovation was fostering an attitude that failure is OK—that in fact, it could be said that if none of our experiments failed, we may not be pushing hard enough. (As a side note: despite the fact that all of this has been told to me by other Labs folks, I don’t think that it’s actually been blogged about much, so I’ll probably write more about it soon.)

Almost all of my conversations ultimately resulted in the question of how Mozilla makes money, to which I gave them the standard profit-sharing response. Sometimes this segued into an interesting conversation about what the Mozilla Foundation was, since many people didn’t know that Mozilla was a non-profit at its core.

Aside from that, I also explained what some of the Labs projects were and demoed them. Virtually everyone we met had heard of Firefox, and many of them already used it, but few of them knew about the Foundation or Labs, so it felt good to educate people on these topics.

The San Francisco Green Festival

The Firefox BoothThis was the more fun of the two, largely because it seemed rife with idealists who either hadn’t heard of Firefox or didn’t know that it was backed by a non-profit foundation (and that its for-profit subsidiaries were wholly-owned and had no investors). I wasn’t there for very long—only an hour and a half at the tail end of the festival—but I’m pretty sure that I turned at least two people on to Firefox who had never heard of it, and that felt really good.

Most of my conversations with people included some sort of abbreviated form of my What Mozilla Means to Me blog post, which was very well received. In particular, given the context of the Green Festival, I tried relating the Mozilla Manifesto’s view of the Internet to the way that many environmentalists viewed the environment: as a public asset and a public benefit, and—in the words of one person I talked to—”something that needs to be saved”.

One frequent question asked of me was “how is Mozilla green?”, to which I had to respond honestly that I didn’t know, mostly because I didn’t actually know what the word “green” meant. I told them that I did read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, and that the history of the word “organic” did resonate with me. The origin of the organic movement from the 1940′s to the 1960′s, as explained by Pollan, was something that featured a heavy focus on community and genuine social relationships between producer and consumer—concepts that Mozilla shares, but that have since been excised from the word’s meaning since it was embraced by capitalism over the past few decades. While the word has recently been used for marketing Firefox, it’s a term that I’ve heard used informally to describe the bottom-up, participatory approach that we try to foster when developing experiments in Labs.

After explaining these things, the people I talked to—at the very least—seemed to walk away with a much better impression of Mozilla. It was particularly exciting to talk to folks who hadn’t heard of Firefox, because when I talked about how all of these “organic” ideals fostered more secure, more responsive, and more user-respecting software like Firefox and its addons, they really seemed to get it.

My First Ambulate-For-a-Cause

July 21st, 2008

Yesterday I participated in the San Francisco AIDS Walk with two Mozilla interns.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the concept of walks/runs-for-a-cause because at a surface level, the energy an individual spends running or walking doesn’t directly contribute to the actual cause they’re ambulating for. Ultimately, it seems like it’s a transaction for one’s time and energy in exchange for a cause’s publicity: rather than simply donating a few dollars to a cause, ambulating for the cause is indicative of the sacrifice of one’s time in the name of a cause (which can be more valuable than money, depending on the individual). On the micro level, this can result in additional revenue for the cause as friends and family of the individual pledge money in recognition of that sacrifice. On the macro level, the collective behavior of so many people doing this at once creates significant publicity for the cause, which raises awareness for it and consequently leads to more revenue.

It’s no surprise that corporations have an incentive to ride this wave by “donating” money and human resources in exchange for publicity and associating their brand with the cause in the minds of consumers. For the vast majority of companies that I don’t care about, I tend to perceive this as the coldly calculated move I just described it as: The Gap, Blockbuster, McDonald’s, Williams-Sonoma, Wachovia, and a number of other corporations helped sponsor the event, their employees wearing t-shirts saying things like “[Company Name] Cares!”. Such things elicited a gag response from me. I don’t think that this actually damaged my perception of the companies in question—their behavior is entirely rational and has good consequences—but it doesn’t particularly improve my perception of the companies, either. I’d like to say that this is because I only want to associate qualities like compassion and benevolence with actual human beings that I know personally and trust.

Things aren’t that simple, of course. Pixar was there, and I couldn’t help but cheer them on, as they’re one of the few corporations that I have a particularly positive impression of, and consequently mentally anthropomorphize into an awesome person rather than the usual faceless machination. My two companions were wearing Firefox swag and got a few cheers as well, which was nice.

Still, there was something odd about the whole event. Some American Idol people sang a song at the opening ceremony and some famous people emcee’d it as though they were hosting the Oscars, which added to the uneasy feeling that this was a publicity stunt rather than an authentic experience. In the end, I suppose it was a bit of both, but what made it really worthwhile was exploring Golden Gate Park and hanging out with my fellow Mozillians.