Mozilla Summit 2010, day 0

Bus, a train, a plain, later, I arrived in Vancouver, B.C., ready to depart for Whistler and look for the answer to one simple question: what does one do at a gathering of 600 people from around the world, all working towards the same vision of the web? The answer became clear as soon as I arrived at the airport. One talks, one befriends, one learns about the fellow geek’s world, and above all, one discusses common ground, whether it be city life, weather, food, or the latest point release of Android. Geeks are people too and today proved no exceptions.

Of course, there are a few things that’s making this particular gathering unique. For example, one of my bus mates was particularly proud of her backpack designed for toting roller skates (just as I am proud of my slim wallet and matching laptop bag and case). Another was proud of weaning himself off the mac to more open linux and Google platforms. There was also fervent discussion of accessibility barriers imposed by IRC but also of the richness of the immediacy enabled by the waves of logins, logouts and rapid, near instant replies. My lunch friend came all the way from India to get a masters degree in software engineering in the bay area, leaving friends and family for a career in quality assurance. At the evening reception, I chatted with engineers on the JavaScript engine and HTML layout, learning about the subtle distinctions between the invariants in both and speculation about the role of C in trashing comprehensibility. These are people that love things to death, but most of all, love code and all the things around it.

The people aren’t the only thing that makes this crowd unique. The crowd itself is unique. As an academic in a field as diverse as HCI, I’m used to conferences with a fairly even balance of men and women. But this is, without a doubt, a gathering of men. The women stand out as rare breeds, something to behold. This line of thought led to discomfort as I realized how easily difference led to objectification. It was only after mentioning this to some of the women that I realized I was in the minority: this disproportion was an everyday fact for the people in the room, and not something so relevant to the topic at hand.

The days to come should prove interesting and revealing. I want to understand what this community values and how they express those values. I want to see how it’s culture breeds its strengths and weaknesses, and its biases. I want to see of what use 4 days in the great north sunshine really means to a group of collaborators already so close in vision and values. Do they really need this to be productive, or is this just to feel human?

halfway home

I’m back in Seoul, with a lot to say, but I won’t say much.

First, let me address the elephant in the room. Hello third world visit epiphany cliche-aphant. How are you today? Yes, I’ve returned from India and I’ve seen a lot of disturbing things. I saw the Muslim slums of Mumbai, naked children running through the streets, tweens selling day old newspapers for a rupee and homeless mothers begging for money with their sick and sleeping children dangling from their arms. People were dirty, water wasn’t potable, wild dogs slept in the street, ignorant and apathetic about the armada of auto-rickshaws swerving around them.

But, I also witnessed human experience of every other kind. I watched Rolex-laden businessmen step over old women laying on the sidewalk in the heat. I saw families of five clinging to a motorcycle and to each other, smiling, laughing, and close in a way I’ve never seen western families. In all of the squalor and dirt and poverty, I saw the exact same kind of joy that those of us in post-industrialized countries seem to struggle to find. I saw nothing about human experience in India that was substantially different from the rest of the world I’ve seen, other than the clothing that people wore and range of their reach into the rest of the world.

Would those children in the slums be any better off with a pair of Nikes and a sterile heated two bedroom condo? Would they laugh any more than I saw them laugh, play any more than I saw them play? There certainly are some absolute improvements that everyone deserves, food, health, shelter, but beyond these Maslows, its difficult for me to think of a legitimate reason why my US lifestyle would bring any more happiness or joy.

Yet as much as I won’t judge the quality of life and the reach of India’s people into the global community, I can’t be impartial. I just spent a week engaging with the academic computer science community in India, forming relationships and watching unfold an incredible attempt at recreating a US style scholarly community. I’m part of this dialogue between India and the western world, helping to propagate my scholarly culture. Whether I pass high-minded judgement on India’s quality of life or not, I’ve now actively engaged in helping India’s academic community mimic and mirror that of other nations, with conferences, posters, panels, and papers, and all their inherent limitations and western bias.

In some ways, I wish India would find its own way of being scholarly. I wish it would establish its own research communities, rather than focusing solely on engaging with those in the US and Europe. I want it to find something compatible with its people and then communicate these ways to the western world. By trying to mimic the rest of the global community’s scholarly practices, it ghettoizes its own efforts. If India invented its own practices around scholarly pursuits, it would be about apples and oranges instead of Honeycrisp and Fuji. For example, instead of trying to have poster sessions (and failing because of the lack of high quality poster printers), what if they drew their posters on whiteboards, chalkboards, or paper? They could find innovative ways of communicating their work, and even find better ways than the western world. If I were India and its academic leaders, I would look at this as an opportunity to innovate and reinvent academic practices, rather than mimic them.

Time to board.

halfway to India

There’s something absurd about this trip to India. The official reason for my trip—to speak at the India Software Engineering Conference—doesn’t seem like reason enough to spend 2 hours at an airport, 11 hours in an airplane, 3 more hours in South Korea, 9 more hours on a plane, 5 hours waiting in Mumbai, then 4 hours driving to Pune. Let alone repeating this journey five days later.

Yet all of the intangible reasons for going far outweigh the inconvenience of all of this lost time and sleep. On my Korean Air flight and here in Incheon, I’m surrounded by what I find to be a beautiful, playful, exciting language. I overheard engineers talking about the parts they’ll oversee the shipping of, old grandmothers returning home to Seoul, and little babies making the journey to and from Asia and the west coast. There’s a fascinating subculture of frequent Asian travelers, particularly those who take the cheaper flights offered by Korean Air, and seeing it throb and pulse is well worth the lost sleep.

In about 12 hours, I’ll be on the other side of planet Earth, driving to the center of the Indian IT industry with a man named Mr. Mahesh, all so I can speak to a room of Indian researchers about some bits I flipped last year.