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Transformational Technology Conference and the Future of Human Well Being

I may live in an off the grid cabin the the wilderness of Oregon but once in a while I venture out for a little dose of technology, new ideas and social interaction. This weekend I’m in the Bay Area for a conference called TransTech which is “wiring humanity for future” by highlighting technologies and companies that are helping us increase our mental and physical health, improve our overall well-being and connect us more deeply with ourselves, others and the planet. Besides two days of inspiring programming, there’s an expo room that has booth after booth of products that seem like they hopped right out of a utopic sci-fi movie. Products that remind you to breathe more deeply, light therapy visors, heart rate variability monitors that help you get into a flow state, lucid dream activators and other sleep aids, and more than a few VR mediation experiences that promise deeper relaxation and improved focus, these are just a few of the real life products on display.
This morning’s opening talk, presented by Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen, was about creating a wearable, low cost way of seeing into our bodies that is a billion times higher resolution than MRI and has the potential to be cheap enough to be packaged into a consumer level device. The resolution is so high in fact that it can monitor chemical processes within our brains, including the levels of dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin and others that underly our emotions. OpnWatr.io is the company that is producing the technology and is led by Dr. Jepsen, former head of Facebook’s VR devision. OpnWtr employs near infrared light and LCDs worn near the skin to emit, receive and reconstruct scattered light with the use of well established holographic technology. Besides diagnosis and monitoring of all sorts of diseases and chronic conditions, such as clinical depression and Alzheimer’s, the technology could eventually even be used in non medical applications such as producing words and imagery directly from our thoughts. While OpnWatr’s technology is still some years away, it’s coming. In fact there’s already a developer’s kit in the works.
Every year we carry more sensors, more powerful computers and are producing an increasing deluge of personal data. While our digitally connected world has evolved at a rapid rate, our primate brains just simply haven’t been able to keep up. And it’s stressing us out, big time. Anxiety and depression rates are on the rise across the planet. The paradox is that with each app upgrade that promises to make us more connected, we are feeling more *disconnected*, even if we can’t quite figure out why or from what. Most people, besides those few who are are fully aware either through a gift of nature or practice of discipline, are still limited in our ability to deal with the growing onslaught of stimulation and distraction. While the term ‘mindfulness’ is beginning to appear with more societal prevalence, most humans are still primarily led by reactive impulse, survival mechanisms that are a relic of an old world. If humanity is to move beyond a culture rooted in fear and scarcity, and into a world that fosters self-actualization on a grand scale then technology will continue to play an important role in augmenting our existing senses. While the tools are constantly changing, this is nothing new. The most intuitive among us have always felt called to develop and deploy technologies that help us expand our consciousness. In Buddha’s time, his mediation teachings were the cutting edge, and continue to play an important role in our conscious advancement. It’s the experience age, and the ability to have your mind blown wide open has never been more accessible. But integrating these enlightening experiences into our daily lives is where our personal and collective work really lies. Well designed technological systems, systems that combine the best of the old with the best of the new, have the potential to upgrade our humanity in a huge way.
There are already products and services that are beginning to help us maintain and improve our health and well-being, as well as more effectively deal with the stresses and complexity of our modern world. But beyond mere survival and fulfillment of our basic human needs, beyond even the lofty be state of self-actualization, lies a future in which we may experience the oft omitted summit of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-transcendence. Some privileged individuals might have felt brief glimpses of this state through a variety of profound experiences, but what does the world look, and more importantly what does it *feel* like when these experiences and technologies are available to all? We can only begin to imagine.

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Inauguration Day and The Century of the Self

“The original idea had been that the liberation of the self would create a new kind of people, free of social constraint. That radical change had happened but while the new beings felt liberated, they had become increasingly dependent for their identity on business. The corporations realized that it was in their interest to encourage people to feel like they were unique individuals and then offer them ways to express that individuality. The world in which people felt that they were rebelling against conformity was no longer a threat to business but had become its greatest opportunity.”… “If politics is also Freudian, i.e. if it’s a matter of politicians appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that businesses appeal to then why not let businesses do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business after all is in the business of responding to those feelings.”

— The Century of Self, 2002

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On this memorable day I’m curious about how we strike the right balance with our egos. After all, they can be used as a powerful driving force but left unchecked it can easily run rampant. In some ways it can be viewed as a formless and highly virulent parasite, intent on establishing itself through growing its collection of material objects, reputation and power.

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Can Langton Labs Host a Memorable Halloween Party? When Pigs Fly!

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What do you get what you cross Halloween and a house full of creative (and wonderfully eccentric) scientists. The most bizarrely memorable Halloween ever at Langton Labs in SOMA, SF. First of all the kitchen table had been transformed into a dissection station and microscope viewing area. There was something truly magical about watching a zombified doctor dissect a heart and describe all of the roles each part plays. There was also of course also frogs, eyeballs and fetal pigs – if the heart wasn’t entertaining enough.

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Various animals stood in jars of formaldehyde, whose bodies and even bones, had been made transparent by a special technique. There were also drawing pads on the table in case you got a sudden impulse to be creative.

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But the real piece de resistance was a young pig, with attached wings, realized by the impossibly unique and talented Jane Partensky (with the surgical assistance of Will Oberlin). The final incarnation of this mythological beast hung from the ceiling, above the dancing crowd, lit from below with an eery yellow lamp.

So can Langton Labs host a memorable Halloween party? You can almost see the pig mouthing: “You’re god damn right they can!”

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Mixing Up Bizarre Binaries at Syyn Labs

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A home made glowing liquid. Not safe to drink. At all.

So people often cock their heads and ask “So, what exactly is Syyn Labs?”. Besides the odd spelling the entire organization is odd, and by ‘odd’, I mean quite unprecedented. Hence it is often challenging for outsiders to categorize. In fact, it’s even hard for insiders to categorize, but as the as the Founder and Cruise Director it’s my job to define our mission and to lead us to prosperous new territory. So let me give it a shot:

Syyn Labs is a magical place, full of strange beings who seemed to have been extruded through a character mash-up machine. It’s a land where scientists believe they’re artists, where artists suddenly have the skills or programming and where engineers debate on design philosophy. But this was no random manifestation. Years prior to moving to LA, back in 2002 at Rhode Island School of Design, with impotent foam models of supposed high tech products, I had seen my own short comings clearly. “I wish I had my own R&D group” was my lame retort, as my glued-on buttons fell off in the middle of my project review.

And so, born in the abundant serendiptity of the monthly Mindshare LA, Syyn Labs (ne: Mindshare Labs), began as an informal gathering of creative, but technically gifted characters. Each area of expertise began to be filled, coding, hacking, construction, engineering, applied physics – the team’s technical skills far surpassed anything I could have ever dreamt up and as I led the group in design style brainstorming sessions, the excitement was palpable. Soon I even brought an old RISD friend into the mix, to help me balance things out.

Again, while I’m aware of what I’m good at, I’m also keenly aware of what I’m not good at. In fact, knowing what I’m not good at is one of the things I’m best at. And so, in mid 2009, seeing the limitations of both my time and business experience, I brought in the venerable Adam Sadowsky to lead the charge in turning Syyn Labs into a real business. After officially incorporating Syyn Labs, LLC, and proving his logistical might during early 2010’s OK Go RGM success, Adam has lead the team into profitability and helped attract and win projects that ultimately have allowed us to move into an exciting new home 🙂

And as we define our path, we all know that this is just the start of the fun, and a preview of what we’re capable of. As for defining our mission: Are we educating the public, or playing with them? Are we creating art, or showcasing science? Are we a bunch of friends having fun, or employees in a profitable business? Well, who’s to say that we can’t be doing all of them at the same time?

Read more about the team here…

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A big day of shooting for a client at the new Syyn Labs HQ.

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Sam Harris Talk at the CalTech Skeptic Society

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Excerpt from the Skeptic Society event page:
“SAM HARRIS’S FIRST BOOK, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people — from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists — agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors. In this explosive new book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.”

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Brain Scanning for Cash

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One good perk about having a job where you can set your own hours is that you can submit yourself for scientific experimentation without having to answer to anyone but the benefits don’t stop there! In most cases they’ll actually pay you, and in this study my hourly wage was even more than I make at Syyn Labs and Mindshare LA! And finally, the really big perk is that since this study, which centered around implicit decision making (which translated to following dots around a screen ad nauseum), had me answering questions from within a fMRI machine – I got a free brain scan out of it!

Besides a dramatically oversized ‘awesome lobe’, I’m in the clear and in the green!

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