Leatherback sea turtles are tough, but waterborne plastic can kill them. See Turtles, a nonprofit organization, says “hundreds of thousands of sea turtles… die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.” Many of these pieces of plastic come from landfills.

To show passersby how plastic threatens leatherback turtles’ survival, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is getting ready for the Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival next week by making a wire sculpture of a leatherback turtle. I helped to build the turtle’s flippers and head this afternoon today in a back yard in Revere.

Leatherback turtle sculpture
Leatherback turtle sculpture. Photo credit: Matthew Nash.

At the festival, Visitor Services Supervisor Matthew Nash will invite people to pick up plastic trash from the beach and use it to decorate the turtle’s wire structure. At the end of the festival, he expects, the turtle will be covered with pieces of plastic. Each piece of plastic the visitors retrieve will reduce the beach refuse that turtles – or other animals and birds – might ingest.

When they aren’t dining on dangerous plastic debris, leatherback turtles are very tough. Their range extends all the way to northern Canada; they don’t object to cold weather. Their shells are made of flexible pieces which help them decompress when they are surfacing from deep water. A medium-sized leatherback turtle is about six feet long.

This post is inspired by Lee Worden’s article “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now”. Worden says the counterculture of the 1970s gave rise to the movements that have since spawned Google, WikiLeaks and Wired Magazine. Worden describes these movements as both idealist and libertarian.

What do these technology movements believe? Worden identified four central threads.

  1. Belief that access to tools is empowering on its own
  2. Rejection of bureaucratic systems in favor of new options
  3. Creation of flexible social structures to accomplish goals
  4. Idealization of individual freedom
Lava lamp
Like futuristic technology, lava lamps were also idealized in the 1970s.

Peter Taylor, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, has diagrammed the trends in the article.

I’m somewhat critical of the four assumptions above, even though I can see their value.

Does Access to Technology Solve Problems?

Access to tools alone doesn’t create the social outcomes communities may desire. I’ve seen examples of this in the nonprofit world and in K-12 education. If technology isn’t seen as relevant, practical and useful, a community may not respond positively to it.

Sometimes, poorly designed or misapplied technology can be confusing or even destructive. When I was in engineering school, there was a joke circulating which said the Ph.D. exam for mechanical engineers involved being locked in a room with a saber-toothed tiger, a disassembled gun, and a user’s manual written in Swahili. Not every technological solution is a useful one.

Should Crowd-Sourcing Replace Paid Work?

Creating flexible social structures can have both advantages and disadvantages. Many of these organizations rely on volunteer labor. Their volunteers work within structured institutions during the day and then spend their free time on these other projects. One could argue that citizen journalists are not being paid adequately for their time.

To what extent should these modern, flexible technology organizations rely on crowd-sourced, unpaid or underpaid labor? As the worldwide market becomes more competitive, people in technical and creative occupations may find that volunteers are making their jobs obsolete. Fact-checking, a traditional staple of journalism, could be replaced by community-sourced editing.

Should Individual Voices Replace Experts and Organizations?

Technology projects find ways to reward and encourage problem solving and innovation. They reach beyond bureaucracies into the community. Some of these projects are housed within universities. There are many crowd-sourced projects going on today – from gathering science data to fact-checking news articles. The organizers of these projects are often enthusiastic about the value of individual voices.

The shortcomings of overvaluing individual voices already show among bloggers, where a chorus of individual voices can sometimes drown out sources that are more reliable. On the other hand, sometimes projects like Wikipedia can eclipse encyclopedias.

Despite the disadvantages of the idealized, crowd-sourced, egalitarian model of creating technology and content, this approach can be very productive if used skillfully. Google uses this model for much of its work.

What Matters More – Innovation or Community?

As Worden says, this popular online business model “blurs the line between the company and its customers, essentially encouraging customers to create the product, and then selling the customers and their work to each other and keeping the profits.” This model benefits businesses, but doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of the communities around them.

Worden worries about the potential of giving inventors infinite freedom to create products which may be dangerous or poorly designed. He believes community values should come first.

The story of the gun and the saber-toothed tiger shows that sometimes relationships should matter more than technology. If the engineering student focuses on assembling the gun, it’s too late. It’s the student’s ability to calm the tiger that may save the day.

A Harvard researcher’s blog says he’s seeing a curious change among Web-savvy college students in his classes. Instead of delving into the Internet for its own sake, these students use the Web to further their offline adventures. They make chapbooks (and probably zines), engage in knitting and other crafts, and use the Web as a route to offline activities.

In 2008, I made a conscious decision to use the Web strategically. As I spent more time on social media, I found I was losing the sense of creativity that physical activity brings me.

Before 2004, I had physically active jobs. Now, my main commitment after work is to a full schedule of dance classes. I believe active jobs and classes can keep one’s ability to innovate alive.

Intriguing studies hint at the positive value of doodling, which implies that writing by hand may activate different parts of the brain than typing does. The written word doesn’t equal the typed word.

When we spend too much time behind a flat screen, we may lose the ability to solve some kinds of problems. A study of three-dimensional problem solving showed that computer-aided drafting classes didn’t improve community college students’ ability to visualize solutions. The authors recommended bringing three-dimensional demonstrations into the classroom.

Environmentally speaking, time online removes us from the ecosystems that surround us; cell phone apps that simulate global warming don’t solve that problem. It also cuts down our time spent learning basic skills like gardening and cooking.

Internet use also affects our communication and may make it easy to avoid – or categorize and dismiss – unwelcome perspectives. It can create an atmosphere where each of our artistic products are automatically in public space. This may inhibit creativity.

On the other hand, browsing on Stumbleupon helps me synthesize ideas for blog posts like this one. Internet use may make it harder for us to focus and tap into our creative sides, but it also makes it easier for us to create mental categories and mashups in which we file others’ ideas.

Ideally, I’d like to see more people understand that life doesn’t have to revolve around the Web. The online world is an adjunct to the offline one. Active learning, conversation, creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution often live offline. To reduce socially polarized conversations, access innovation, and learn and maintain survival and problem solving skills, sometimes it’s best to unplug ourselves from the digital world for a while.

The phrase “smart grid” might intimidate some audiences. Do we want an intelligent power grid? For some people, the idea might be reminiscent of The Matrix or even 1984. Utility customers may say that futuristic plus costly does not equal appealing.

Defined simply, a smart grid is a modernized, efficient system of power equipment that is responsive to customer energy needs. It’s flexible and decentralized and supports local installations of renewable energy.

A smart grid could reduce power losses due to electrical resistance, but consumer resistance could still pose a problem. Fortunately, one of the main advantages of a smart grid is that it can support local self-sufficiency and sustainable energy choices. It also offers the opportunity to streamline our use of electric power. The cost isn’t trivial, but neither are the benefits. If you’re interested in charging an electric vehicle in your back yard, selling wind power back to your electric company, or saving energy to reduce global warming, the smart grid can be your ally.

Power outlet
The face of the smart grid doesn't have to be forbidding. Credit: somadjinn. Source: Stock.xchng.

It’s important to present smart grid programs as attractive to local stakeholders rather than giving the impression they are a top-down imposition. Smart metering programs have already suffered from a lack of customer-friendly communication. Because some customers believe smart meters benefit utilities more than consumers, programs have met with resistance.

Given the potential savings and autonomy that smart grid technology can provide, it would be disappointing if this technology was portrayed as a burden to utility customers rather than a new and versatile asset.

In 2010 and 2009, I developed two reports on behavior change for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The first report, an overview of advanced metering programs, demonstrated that user-friendly technology can make it easier for homeowners and businesses to save energy. It emphasized technology rather than motivation.

In the second report, I took a more in-depth look at the gears that move behavior change. Why do we choose to save energy?

Many groups rely on environmental and economic motivations to get results. While these benefits do matter to audiences, emphasizing them can lead nonprofits and businesses to overlook the value of social marketing.

If you buy an iPhone, the odds are that you didn’t make that choice to save money. The iPhone may make your life more convenient. It may be fun to use. It might even improve your social life. Motivations like these – the nuts and bolts of social marketing – are absent from many conversations about saving energy.

Audiences who have a DIY ethic may find it satisfying to save energy. However, this group is only part of the population. For the rest of us – the ones who want to be talking with our friends online, checking our calendars, or playing solitaire – saving energy can also be satisfying. But to tap into this potential, we need to move beyond talking about money and the environment. We should ask questions and innovate.

Although I began editing audio files in 2007, I’m just starting my first foray into video editing and production.

Like professional ice skating, video production looks easier than it is. Since I’m comfortable with electronics and have done sound engineering for a few radio shows, I can adapt to the technology. But I’m still learning the planning and storytelling skills that are essential for producing quality multimedia.

Making multimedia is like assembling a collage. The storytelling aspect of multimedia preparation is similar to the process of writing an in-depth news story, but requires extensive planning.

If you’re interested in gaining experience with video and audio storytelling, I recommend these courses from News University:

Five Steps to Multimedia Storytelling

Video Storytelling for the Web

Writing for the Ear

Telling Stories with Sound

Reporting across Platforms

Since taking these online courses, I’ve completed a video production training at a local community access TV station. This weekend, I recorded a short video at the Waterfire festival in Providence. I plan to edit it using the 30-day free trial of Camtasia.

The total cost of all of this training has been under $50.

Where in the world are our cell phones going? It shouldn’t be as difficult to answer this question as it is to find Carmen Sandiego.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab produced an award-winning Trash Track website which shows that it does take some sleuthing to find the final resting places of our waste. Here’s their video which excavates the fate of garbage from Seattle. While viewing this, remember that this video covers a limited time period; in 20 years, these batteries and cell phones may migrate elsewhere.

Because we live in a closed ecological system, what we have on this planet stays here (unless we send it out to orbit in space). And, one way or another, our garbage will be reused.

Like petroleum, which is made of compressed swamp residue – imagine the Everglades being buried for thousands of years – yesterday’s trash will become tomorrow’s treasure…. or, at least, tomorrow’s fast food packaging.

Our descendants will work with whatever we make – wherever we leave it for them. Think of it as a partly recyclable, sometimes toxic inheritance. This is one reason that I write about DIY.

Even sea animals may live inside bottles or reuse bits of glass. The video below shows that some of them already do.

After writing the post “Subverting the Plastic Bottle” a few months ago, I began thinking about recycled art. I left the art show at the Peabody Essex Museum with an idea: if I did start making art again, I would use recycled materials.

Before studying mass communication, I had physically active jobs for around eight years. So I knew from experience that metal was my favorite medium. At first, when I started thinking about potential projects, I wanted to learn blacksmithing. But then I looked in my tool box and realized that I had everything I needed for making jewelry, except for the soldering and forging equipment.

That’s how my “remixed jewelry” project was born. I may think of a better name for it if I decide to sell any pieces. So far, I’m collecting contributions from friends – earrings without mates, broken necklaces, and other things – and “remixing” them by combining them with disassembled necklaces from a local thrift store.

This month, I used my recent research on environmental outreach and media campaigns to put together a 15-minute workshop for the Urban Homesteaders’ League, a local group which is very interested in healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

The workshop, “A Recipe for Eco-Friendly Habits,” will be at the market stand at Union Square in Somerville at 10 AM. This is the first time I’ve designed an interactive workshop on this topic for a community group. I am interested in offering other workshops like this in the future.

The research project which inspired me to develop this idea will also be presented at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change Conference in California later this year.

Trash Menagerie, a show in the Art and Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum, uses recycled materials to tell the story of our view of objects and our choices about what is disposable. If we saw these objects differently, what would happen?

The artists bring this question to life in many different media. On walking into the exhibit, I was confronted by a green-eyed dragon made of bundt cake pans and bicycle brakes. Each section of a pan was part of its body; each brake had become a leg. I can imagine how much welding it took to get that right.

Behind the dragon, visitors meet a pair of mechanical insects – built from drafting tools and sewing machine parts – and their sister sculpture, a squid made of small electronics.

Mechanical stinger insect from the Peabody Essex Museum

Ironic uses of plastic are a central theme of the exhibit. A shimmering trout turns out to be a composite of layered plastic. An ethereal crowd of hovering jellyfish and other sea creatures reveal their past lives as plastic soda bottles.

A statement by Nnenna Okore, the artist who rolled magazines into a roving band of large spiders, says that seeing poverty in Africa gave her a different perspective on what reused materials are worth.

Seeing ways to reuse everyday items we throw away – magazine covers, plastic bottles, newspapers – is a creative act. When we reframe what a plastic bottle means to us, that’s when the sea creatures start emerging. Literally.