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Utopian Entrepreneur

Author: Brenda Laurel
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: May 2002

 REVIEW 1: Rita Lauria
 REVIEW 2: Geert Lovink
 REVIEW 3: Leslie Regan Shade

For those of us who work transdisciplinarily, Brenda Laurel's proffered concept of transmedia in her new Utopian Entrepreneur seems natural and familiar. Yet, what some of those working in the area of interactive media have sensed and already know in terms of a refinement that describes a transdisciplinary perspective, contemporary educational institutions have yet to grasp. At their best, educational institutions install interdisciplinary programs to try to make sense of the shift in the whole psychic and social complex occurring as an effect of a changing media environment. Such programs usually mandate core courses to be taken in each of the disciplines relevant to the program.

Such interdisciplinary programs seek to reestablish connections deconstructed as a result of what philosopher of technology Carl Mitchum calls the great decontextualizing process of the modern project. Modern technologies, he writes, assertively aided in the fragmentation and separation of the social and cultural unity into autonomous, social institutions. Yet what we see today as a result of a changing media environment described by convergence has yet to be fully comprehended and integrated as a worldview, notwithstanding the admirable attempts of interdisciplinary constructs.

According to Mitchum, with the development of a "global-electro-media infrastructure" we are entering a new phase of technology characterized by the construction of a virtual common culture in which all the autonomous realms of society and culture are being linked, networked, interconnected, and interrelated in ways that mimic traditional culture [1]. Brenda Laurel, by virtue of her more than two decades of work in the interactive media world, understands this to mean what she describes as the building of a transmedia culture. By its very nature, this transmedia culture compels a transdisiplinary rather than an interdisciplinary approach.

What is transdisciplinary work? Transdisciplinary work signifies being able to work across contexts, or disciplines. By its very nature, transdisciplinary work must work from foundational principles that can apply cross-contextually. When we seek to find out cross-cultural similarities, we seek to find those human traits that can be found throughout the human population regardless of culture. The smile, signifying some form of contentment, is one such cross-cultural trait we find in all humans from early childhood on.

Transdisiplinary work aims to distill fundamental principles that recur on different levels of complexity in different ways but express similarly. An objective of transdisciplinary work is not only to site the elements of similarity towards distilling foundational principles, but also to design and to propagate a methodology that can support this approach. Laurel engages in transdisciplinary work in her recent Utopian Entrepreneur, reciting a short list of seven design principles for core content of transmedia:

    1. Think in transmedia terms from the beginning;
    2. Build worlds, not just stories;
    3. Create a foundational narrative;
    4. Provide for rituals;
    5. Support community formation;
    6. Give people roles and ways to create personal identities; and
    7. Build scenarios to explore situated contexts (85-86).

Brenda Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur can be seen as a primer of lessons learned, a 'design affair' that relates the trials and tribulations of humanistic values-driven work, and in so doing, embeds a sense of values into the work. This affair extends beyond that of essay writing to a more intimate relation of synergies from team collaboration, a collaboration that constructs a whole and suggests extended authorship.

Utopian Entrepreneur launches MIT Press' new Mediawork Pamphlet series. Self-described as a hybrid work, the Mediawork series intends to engage the senses through the use of visual and textural forms. What I first noticed when I pulled the book from inside its mailer was the feel of its cover. It sent me to reflecting upon the potential of full immersive virtual reality (VR) media to engage thought and to evoke emotion.

The various virtual reality media are defined by their enabling characteristics and associated different experiences. These experiences have to do with three factors: the varying degrees of interactivity; the power of the graphic visualization; and the degree of haptic feedback. Haptic relates to the senses of touch and feel. Only the haptic system is capable of direct action, in contrast to the senses of hearing and sight.

Although the form chosen for Utopian Entrepreneur was not an electronic, interactive virtuality, immediate engagement occurred as I took the pocket-sized book out of its mailing envelope. Utopian Entrepreneur burst into iridescence as the sun hit it. Reminiscent somewhat of those little holographic-type greeting cards, the texture and design of the cover refracted the sunlight into a rainbow-like spectrum. Not only pretty to the eye, it's grooved texture felt good to the touch. Peter Lunenfield, the editorial director, calls the products of this book series "theoretical fetish objects."

In line with the style of Laurel's writing, book designer Denise Gonzales Crisp creates in Utopian Entrepreneur what McLuhan described as high-definition engagement. Very little is left to the imagination for completion. A danger does exist in shutting down casual participation from hotting up the visual sense. A barrage of black and white graphically designed images fills the pages, graphically designed, I believe, to suggest the pixilated display of a computer screen. Yet, Crisp counters this high definition design with the use of a few techniques to construct not only the structure of the content, but also its dynamics and feel, thus inviting participation.

She varies size and type of font to direct the mind's eye while pacing its thought processes. Main points are highlighted in this fashion, reminiscent of The Cyborg Handbook. Crisp notes in her 'Designer's Note' at the end of the book that indeed the "pocketable insight" of a small book parallels her interest in "speaking to individual readers directly through design." She references two other "small (in size) books in which form plays a significant role: John Berger's Ways of Seeing, and Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, designed by Quentin Fiore" (114).

Utopian Entrepreneur is a tight package in which Laurel restates many of her values recited in past works and offers lesson learned from her mistakes in design, team development and collaboration, and now business. In the beginning of the book I sensed a sort of sadness, probably more a sense of exhaustion from being beaten up by the "barracuda" world of business in which her recent Purple Moon venture strived for more than three years. Before venturing into the marketplace, an additional three and a half years were spent doing foundational research, design, and project management.

Purple Moon made interactive media for preadolescent girls. It invented a narrative world and cast of characters aimed at doing "positive work for girls in the context of popular culture." Who these young girls become depends, Laurel says, "a great deal on how they mange their transit through the narrows of girlhood" (3).

Eight CD-ROM games, an award winning Web site, and $40 million dollars later, Purple Moon was closed down by investors. Mattel acquired its characters and properties, and nobody made a dime. Yet, although the business never made it to "the big IPO or a lavish acquisition," Laurel says the company claimed the "high moral ground, offering diversity, personal relevance, and respect for girls as its central values" (3-4). One of the perversities, she remarks, of dot-capitalism is that if Purple Moon had not actually made any real products that went on real shelves in real stores, she might be "post-economic" today (5).

In investment terms, Laurel says, the "embarrassing detail" of making an actual product rather than spinning straw into gold, was a real mistake. It kept the company from passing for a dot-com in the venture community. While the dot-coms "wild" valuations made some of her younger friends millionaires, the valuation of Purple Moon could never exceed some small multiple of revenues because they "actually had revenue" (5). Nevertheless the story of Purple Moon was, as Laurel sees it, "the crucible" that forged her outlook on the "responsibilities of creative individuals to their cultures" (6).

Laurel says that in the twenty-first century, design innovators also must become economic innovators, embedding their wisdom into a "new economy" that must confront issues of politics and ethics and cease placing public benefit against private gain. Utopian entrepreneurs, she says, "manifest a different ethic simply through the force of their choices and actions. They insist that the practices and outcomes of the businesses they build be harmonious with the public good, even when it's perfectly legal and often more profitable to do otherwise" (7). Yes, she says, socially positive creators are held to a higher standard.

Laurel continues, as she has over her career, to inject humanistic values into her work. She believes that culture work is a more appropriate description for the work she does. Doing culture work requires research and relies on an understanding of perception, cognition, and how people construct meaning. Utopian Entrepreneur is a call to action, invoking Enlightenment principles as the basis of its humanistic work.

An avowed humanist, Gene Roddenberry used to tell me stories about the exploits of his younger days. Of course being the great storyteller he was, he told many stories, which were most of the time funny as hell. He also told me about his origins from a particular Scottish clan and the pattern of their kilt. He said there are more forms of truth and beauty than we understand. Eventually we will come to understand that it is not sameness that defines our humanity, but our infinite diversity.

Gene thought he could make a difference. Although he never saw residuals from the original Star Trek series, we laughingly shared together one day the deeper meaning of the realization of his $1 million plus a year salary for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He had turned his humanistic work into the value it deserved despite the realities of the market economy.

Laurel echoes Gene's sentiment in her design perspective. "Creating the affordances for people to construct their own identities and communities is key to successful culture work," she points out. Supporting personalization is a "powerful and graceful way to acknowledge and celebrate difference" (51). She calls for a return to humanistic values in order to validate our ability to create a better future and to offer an ethical ground and methodology for setting about it.

Technology is not our greatest danger, Laurel says. She believes the stories of our times pose the greatest threat. Change the stories, she says, and you change how people live.

Brenda Laurel believes we have learned to be good consumers, but not good citizens. Our children and our democracy face deterioration if education and political participation continue their decline. When people are not well informed, she says, they could very well wake up one day only to find their government and their lives gone.

Considering these issues in terms of agency, Laurel says, may be a positive approach to solving them. Being able, she says, to see the effects of our actions gives us the sense of personal power that we hunger for, especially the young. She suggests that one of the most highly leveraged actions we can take with our growing technological power is to improve our ability to simulate complexity.

Following in the tradition of Douglas Englebart and others, Laurel believes that by augmenting our intelligence with simulations that help us to visualize causality and evaluate options, we will be able to make better judgments when problem solving. The ability to create and test models of system dynamics makes us better thinkers, she thinks.

Laurel suggests that the creation of interactive simulations of complex systems "is one of the most highly leveraged goals we can achieve with our burgeoning technological power" (69). This belief reiterates the underlying intention of the vision of those who propelled the construction of our emerging media environment. Their intention was to develop computational communication media for intelligence augmentation. The goal was to get to a better and changed way of thinking. Their vision, compelled by this intention, set in place the policy and funding to support a visionary research agenda for the creation of our current computational media [2]. That time, referred to as the "golden age of research support," was the decade of the 1960s.

Support for science and technology research through the Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA), predecessor of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA), then enjoyed a prominence that has never again been matched. Part of ARPA's philosophy aimed at radical change rather than incremental improvement. To support this objective, an innovative management style was given the freedom to shape a larger vision through a coherent research program. This management style relied on internal reviews rather than on a peer-reviewed process, long-term funding to foster technologies, disciplines, and institutions rather than on a shortened time horizon aimed at bringing work to application, and a short chain of command that necessitated a very few in the review and approval of a project proposal. Red tape was kept to a minimum and project proposals were turned around quickly, frequently with long-term funding [3].

Laurel points out that even though current models are failing, it makes no sense to "pull the plug on innovation." With the closing of Interval, out of which spun her Purple Moon, with the breakup that orphaned AT&T labs, and with the "for sale" sign on Xerox PARC, Laurel wonders how long it's going to take for industry to realize the fundamental importance of innovative research and to think more than six months out. When "the models start to fail," she says, "the first funding cuts hit the researchers, creatives, and far-out thinkers. It's an automatic reflex . . . but short-changing research always turns out to have been the wrong idea" (38).

She realizes that the problem with venture funding is its fundamental shortsightedness, which does not seek to support the kind of long-term research that spawns new industries. She quotes computer pioneer Alan Kay who echoed McLuhan's sentiment that the best way to control change is to stay ahead of it. Kay said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it" (38). It should be the task of utopian entrepreneurs, Laurel says, to discover uses for simulation that can be made into successful businesses in the near future.

In this light, Laurel offers rules of thumb for doing business. She notes that she came about these rules not only by doing things right, but also by "blowing it." The first rule is to act like a leader. As the creative lead, the inventor, or simply the person with the great idea, you must act like a leader. Do not surrender to the approval of your colleagues through egalitarianism.

Trust yourself. Give yourself credit for knowing and trusting your judgment. Lack of confidence is your worst enemy. Be the vision keeper. Only do what your heart can support. Your job is to keep the vision clear, compelling, and understood by all the players so that they are fully convinced of its value.

You are not the CEO. Unless you are experienced in this domain, leave the role to somebody who is good at it. Make sure the CEO has time to run the company. The company's daily operations will suffer if the CEO has to devote a lot of time to tasks like fund-raising, which should be shouldered by the Chairperson and other officers. Make sure these others can help with these time consuming efforts.

Insist on being a member of your Board of Directors. You need to know what is going on. Make sure your presence is represented on the Board. Many decisions are made "off-the-record" with investors. Being on the Board ensures your ability to ask questions, participate in decisions, raise issues, and vote.

Your Board must be active business partners. Because Board meetings are where the important decisions are made, make sure your members have the "energy, experience, skills, wisdom, and mindshare" to contribute.

Understand the economy of your business. To whom does your product or service have value and who is willing to pay for it and how?

Be a realist. Be clear-minded about how long it will actually take to be profitable. Seek long-term commitment from investors to ensure it.

Avoid an adversarial relationship between Marketing and Product Development. Clear, explicit processes for assigning responsibility, authority, and accountability to decision-makers avoids over reliance on consensus decision-making, which can paralyze a small company.

Finally, live healthy; work healthy. People need relaxation, exercise, sleep and personal time. Allowing for anything less damages human potential and jeopardizes the entire enterprise (See 87-90).

What I found to be one of the most compelling of Laurel's lessons learned was her brief primer on research as practice. She offers four tricks for good design research, premised upon the dictum that "good research is never done" (41). After all, she says, some aspects, especially of people, change all the time.

Noting that doing the research and paying attention to the findings increases the odds of success by illuminating the space of possibility and focusing of creative energies, Laurel says that the first trick for good design research is to define your research goal appropriately. If your goal starts with the words "To prove that" you have already biased your research by foreseeing its conclusion. Recast that goal into a statement that begins with "To find out."

The second trick is to go deep into the work, even with a small sample. Laurel supports qualitative research to support large-scale quantitative studies. She feels quantitative studies can be best used as brackets to help guide you at the outset in choosing specific research directions. Qualitative studies extend quantitative studies to find out what people's lives are really about. Ethnographic work, field observations, and in-depth interviews lend insight into their actual lives.

Laurel says she learned to use the "photo audit" as an effective qualitative research technique. They gave kids disposable cameras to photograph aspects of their lives. The pictures, she says, gave them "priceless views into the private worlds and experiences of our audience" (43).

Transforming your research findings into design principles makes your findings "actionable." Laurel believes that "'findings'" are not actionable until they are transformed into statements about how to do things in particular contexts." She offers the example that "People like new challenges" translates into design rules like "Provide multiple levels of complexity in game-play," or "Build in a progression of play patterns" (43). This third trick transforms the findings into statements that can be applied in particular contexts.

Finally, pay attention to what you have learned, she says, even if your personal taste does not match what you have learned or the "prevailing truisms" about your audience. Although it is hard to avoid designing according to one's predispositions, the trick is to make the design true to the research findings without abandoning those ideals (43).

Laurel also injects a little lesson on research ethics in this her most recent work. The success of a project, no matter how it starts up, she says, depends upon how values are applied. An honest researcher must check their assumptions at the door and resist the temptation to interpret in terms of their own experience and values. The utopian researcher and entrepreneur will use what they find out about people to give them something nourishing back. This is where "you reclaim the values you checked at the door" (45).

Purple Moon went into their research and work with the intent, Laurel says, of doing good work for girls rather than preying on their insecurities as fashion and cosmetic companies often do in their product designs and marketing approach. The aim was to combine the research findings with their values to enable the distillation of better design principles that could guide their creative work while retaining the integrity of both.

Laurel emphasizes that risk equals reward. Culture workers are often marginalized, she says, for having humanistic goals. But she acknowledges that people who tend to succeed are extremely tough-minded:

    If you have the knowledge, self-discipline, and commitment to pursue socially positive ideals through strenuously realistic means; if you have the chutzpah to promote change at the level of popular culture; then you are a hell of a lot more valuable than any self-indulgent "creative" or dot-com carpetbagger (31).

Brenda Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur is a primer of the lessons she has learned over a lifetime. Her attitude and style are as they have been over the period of her public work. Brenda embraces a set of ethical principles, funded by the distilled wisdom of the Enlightenment. She makes no apologies for this approach, which transcends post-modern obscurities to paint a different moral landscape. These core set of values come through loud and clear in her writing and support her creative work as well as her business judgments and decisions.

She began her essay wondering if invoking the Enlightenment at the dawn of the twenty-first century may not be a bit retro. She ends her story, answering her query:

    The Enlightenment humanists' core values and methods were at odds with both the institutions of power and the "popular culture" or street wisdom of their time. By bravely deploying their contemporary mass media, the Encylopaedists brought around profound changes in institutions, cultural practices, arts, sciences, and philosophy, which continue to frame our lives today (103).

Using the computer as a character worthy of myth, Laurel advocates activating what she calls the culture-technology circuit to change both the technology and the ethos of computing, that is, to do culture work. Framing her aim within this myth, Laurel does what she has done throughout much of her past work. She recognizes and proclaims that "We can manifest a different future, and we must" (103).

1. See Carl Mitcham (1996). "Notes Toward a Philosophy of Meta-Technology." Techné, 1, nos. 1 and 2. Digital Library and Archives. [On-line] http://borg.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v1_n1n2/mitcham.html (20 October 2001).

2. See Rita Lauria (Winter, 2001). "In Love with Our Technology: Virtual Reality (VR), A Brief Intellectual History of the Idea of Virtuality and the Emergence of a Media Environment." Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Technologies.

3. See Chapter 4, Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research (1999). (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press) [On-line] http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/far/notice.html (20 October 2001).

Rita Lauria:
Rita Lauria currently teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the Department of Communication. She is a Research Associate of the Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Labs of Michigan and Ohio State Universities and under the direction of Frank Biocca. Her research program is Virtuality and Presence of Mind in Virtual Environments. 

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