Free Agent Nation: Will HitchBOT make it? How about the amazing HelpDesk?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Free Agent Nation

Meet HitchBOT video from Ryerson University

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—This week, we’re spanning generations and perspectives in welcoming guest writers Kathy Macdonald and Miles Grofsorean. In this five-part series, they are reporting on some very creative ideas from entrepreneurs. Here is their fifth and final column …

Young entrepreneurs are launching new ideas every day, as we’ve been reporting in this week’s series “Free Agent Nation.” Of course, the “nation” we’re talking about here is bigger than the U.S. Free agents around the world are coming up with fresh solutions to daily problems that span international boundaries.

HIGH TECH: Will HitchBOT make it?

In fact, as we complete our series, one such experiment is crossing North America from the Atlantic shores of Nova Scotia all the way to the Pacific. At least that’s what researchers David Smith (McMaster University) and Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University) are hoping! Every day, this summer, new headlines are popping up as their computer commuter, HitchBOT, tries to reach its goal thousands of kilometers away.

Many of the entrepreneurial ideas we’ve summarized this week try to build relationships between computers and humans. HitchBOT literally tests the strength of this relationship. Smith and Zeller aim to answer the question: “Can people trust robots?” To find the answer they created HitchBOT, an intelligent robot that is hitchhiking across Canada. Equipped with tweeting capabilities, HitchBOT will engage with its drivers during each trip and tweet information about its travels and location so that others can pick him up.

You can watch HitchBOT’s progress at the experiment’s website. (As this column is published, the little guy has made it past Toronto.) You also can learn about HitchBOT in this brief video made by the creators …

AND … LOW TECH: An amazingly cheap Help Desk from India

Americans joke about a simple fact of life today. Often, when we call for help, we’re reaching someone sitting at a Help Desk in India.

While that huge nation is known for its growing high-tech sector, the nation also is trying to help its millions of rural school children, many of whom grow up in harsh conditions. Students sit and write on the floors of dusty rooms—sometimes stirring up dust themselves from dirt floors. A non-profit organization named Aarambh is launching an extremely low-tech solution to improve these schools.

Even better is the fact that this new Help Desk meshes neatly with other cardboard recycling systems! Aarambh simply takes bundles of flattened cardboard boxes, ready for recycling, and turns them into portable book carriers for students can easily unfold into desks. Want to see how this works? Watch the video …

All this week, we’ve been exploring various new ventures that are in part a response to the transformation we are seeing in the economy–more and more people are shifting from finding jobs at well-established companies—to creating their own.

We’ve given examples of at least three types of “answers”: serviceable, seductive and supportive entrepreneurial ventures.

Where this will go is anyone’s guess, but will you be a part of it?

Like these ideas? Will they succeed? You could help to insure success simply by telling friends.

PLEASE, leave a comment below—and share this series with friends by clicking on the blue “f” Facebook icons or the small envelope shaped email icons.

Civil Dialogue: Is it OK to use your cell phone during dinner?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
Girls with cell phones

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When you see civil behavior, what does it look like? How would you define it?

In a recent survey, Americans were asked to define civility in their own words. The most frequent responses were variations of “treat others with respect.” This can take many forms.

How about when someone uses a cell phone during dinner? Almost nine of ten Americans (86%) say that it is uncivil when someone you are eating with is on the phone, according to the Civility in America report. Almost as many agree that it is uncivil behavior when someone talks loudly on a cell phone in public. And, a third of Americans believe these problems will get worse over time.

Turning off you cell phone during dinner with family or friends is an example of what I call civility writ small. It’s a small thing, yet meaningful. Civility writ large is the Belfast Dialogue I talked about on Monday—a formal, facilitator-led dialogue across the political divide. Both levels of civility—small and large—are essential.

Treating others with respect is how we live the core American value of respect for others, one of the 10 core values. It’s the behavior that puts the principle into action. What does this mean, specifically?

My colleague Jane Dutton has written extensively about “respectful engagement” as a way to build high-quality connections. (See her Energize Your Workplace.) These connections are examples of civility writ small—everyday interactions that exhibit civility. One way to do this is by “conveying presence.” This means that you focus your attention on the other person. You can’t do that at dinner while having a cell phone conversation.

Another way is through “communicating affirmation.” Examples are “affirming someone’s situation” (empathizing with another’s situation and expressing it) and “looking for the value in the other.”

The point is that civil dialogue can be big or small. It can occur in everyday interactions, conversations, and meetings.

Do you use your cell phone during dinner?

What examples have you experience of civility writ small?

What about incivility writ small—or large?

Pothole Nation: Symptom of an underlying disease?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
WHO WILL PAY FOR THE REPAIRS? A new Gallup poll says Americans are not inclined to pay through taxes.

WHO WILL PAY FOR THE REPAIRS? A new Gallup poll says Americans are not inclined to pay through taxes.

Our long, brutal winter created a pothole problem.

This week we’ve focused on a wide range of related issues. There are many politicians, policies, special interest groups, and government agencies to blame, as we discussed Monday. We’ve covered how much it costs you in car repair and maintenance, whether legalizing and taxing pot is an answer to the pothole problem, and America’s dismal grades on its Report Card for infrastructure, given by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Today, we conclude by asking: Are potholes a symptom of a bigger problem?

What struck me about the ASCE’s report wasn’t the nation’s near-failing grade. It was the long history of bad grades. Since 1998, the nation has been averaging only Ds.

Potholes are a symptom of a chronic underlying condition. For years we’ve put off maintenance and under-invested in infrastructure. We can’t blame the recent economic recession. We’ve been doing this at least since 1998, which means we do it in economic booms and busts.

Are we reluctant to pay taxes for infrastructure? Some people have called taxes legalized theft, but the analogy crumbles when you think about it. When something is stolen from you, you get nothing in return. When we pay taxes, we get roads, education, defense, and more. Of course, we can quibble about how taxes are used, and whether they are used efficiently. But we do get something in return.

We Americans are allergic to taxes. Consider that now almost half of Americans (49%) say that that middle-income Americans pay too much when it comes to taxes, according to an April 2014 Gallup poll. That’s the highest since 1999. Those who say middle-income Americans pay their “fair share” is down 11 percentage points from last year.

The reality is that taxes have increased—but only for the top earners. Not for the middle class. The chronic problem, then, is that most Americans are unwilling to pay for better roads and infrastructure. Better to keep taxes low. Let the next generation deal with the infrastructure.

Just watch those potholes!

Are potholes a symptom of a bigger problem?

Would you support a tax increase if it was devoted to infrastructure repair and maintenance?

Millennial Adults: Send me a Selfie?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Millennial Adults
Robert Cornelius  self portrait 1838

Photo from the Library of Congress collection.

Would you send me a Selfie? One of those self-portraits you take with your smart phone?

If that question sounds weird to you, you’re not a member of the Millennial generation. In fact, the odder that question sounds, the older you are. And, I admit that it sounds pretty odd to me!

But: Do you know when the very first selfie was taken?

Millennials are digital natives. Computers, the internet, social media, and apps galore are as natural to them as the telephone and typewriter were to their parents. So, it is no surprise that selfies are common among Millennials. Over half (55%) have shared a self-portrait on a social media site, according to the new report from the Pew Research Center.

Members of Generation X are much less likely to share a selfie, even though they are the closest in age to the Millennials. Only one of four (24%) Gen X-ers have shared a selfie, Pew finds. When you get to my generation—the Baby Boomers—hardly anyone has a selfie. Only 9%, according to Pew. And, just 4% of the Silent Generation have shared a picture of themselves on a social media site.

Millennials didn’t invent the selfie, thought they did popularize it. The very first self-portrait with a camera was taken by one Robert Cornelius in 1839, according to the Library of Congress.

Have you posted a selfie on a social media site?

Do you think that Millennials who do so are sharing too much private information?

Would you send us a selfie?

Volunteering: Would you do it in your pajamas?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Volunteering

Many Americans volunteer their time, knowledge, and resources to aid others. We usually think of volunteering as work done “out there”—in the community, schools, hospitals, prisons, churches, and other places.

But have you ever thought of doing volunteer work at home in your pajamas?

As we’ll see today, there’s a movement afoot that lets you do just that. Volunteering is our focus this week, and we’ve considered how helping others can extend your life and make you happier. We’ve discussed religious volunteers in prison, and the wide variation in rates of volunteering across the 50 states.

Help from Home website

INTRIGUED BY ‘HELP FROM HOME’? Click on this image from the group’s website to learn more.

Volunteering is a time-honored activity, but today technology lets us volunteer in new ways. It’s called “micro-volunteering.” Micro-volunteering, defined by Wikipedia, is “a task done by a volunteer, or a team of volunteers, without payment, either online via an internet-connected device, including smartphones, or offline in small increments of time, usually to benefit a nonprofit organization, charitable organization, or non-governmental organization.”

Help From Home is an example. Their tagline is “Change the World in Just Your Pyjamas.” This site allows you to volunteer “in bite sized chunks, from your own home, on demand and on your own terms.” Their opportunities include a host of “do good actions,” “green actions,” and “advocacy actions.”

Another example is the online volunteering service hosted by the United Nations. Development organizations around the world post volunteering opportunities and individuals select opportunities where they can help. If both parties agree, then the online volunteer provides the needed service, such as translation, writing, design, research, IT development, and more.

Have you heard of micro-volunteering?  

Does micro-volunteering appeal to you?  

Would you volunteer more often if you could do it in your pajamas?  

Common Ground: Wired for democracy?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series American Common Ground
STAY TUNED! One week from today, "United America" is released nationally. You'll hear a lot more next week about how much the OurValues project contributed to this new book.

STAY TUNED! On MONDAY January 27, we are launching “United America.”

Can you recall why we still say “dial” a phone number? If you can, then you’re probably a member of the analog generation, those who grew up with rotary dial phones and roll-down car windows. If you don’t know where “dial” comes from, then you’re a member of the digital generation, accustomed to tapping numbers on a smartphone.

I’m a member of the analog generation, but I happily use all the new digital technologies. My smartphone is a constant companion, though sometimes I leave it home just to relive the freedom of my analog youth. Just how prevalent are smartphones? And, are they good or bad for democracy?

A majority of Americans (56%) now own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center’s compilation of historic milestones. Another 35% own cell phones that aren’t smartphones. Only 9% don’t have cell phones or smartphones. Pew notes that the increase in smartphone ownership cuts across the economic spectrum, though there are still demographic differences.

The widespread adoption of smartphones should be good for democracy. Political scientists argue that the spread of information supports democracy, and smartphones play a key part in that process. Pew also finds that a majority of Americans use the Internet to get their news. But we also know that some people seek sources of information that only reinforce their points of view.

With the official launch of my new book United America on January 27, we used this week to explore several historic milestones in America’s emerging common ground: majorities of Americans now favor legalizing same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, a majority say that MYOB—Mind Your Own Business—should be America’s foreign policy, and a demographic milestone—that the immigrant population has reached a record number.

What does all of this mean? This is a portrait of Americans wanting to flex their own freedoms, and let others flex their freedoms, with limited government interference. It’s also a time when the nation is increasingly diverse, so that eventually no one will command a decisive majority. So, it’s a crucial time to discover what Core Values Americans share and how we can still hold together as a nation.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the effects of these trends?

Do you see new common ground?

Or, new sources of division and discord?

Common Ground: Is Big Brother watching YOU?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series American Common Ground

Big Brother Is Watching You 1984Mass surveillance. Collection of billions of telephone data items. Warrantless wiretaps. Traffic cameras.

What would George Orwell say?

In his ominous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, George Orwell depicted a totalitarian state with total surveillance of its citizens. “Big Brother is watching you” was its motto. We don’t live in a state of total surveillance, but the revelations last year by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency (NSA) had collected billions of telephone records was reason for pause.

Maybe that’s why record numbers of Americans say that the government is a bigger threat than big business or big labor, according to Gallup. The Pew Research Center finds—for the first time—that a majority of Americans felt that the government threatens their personal rights. It’s another historic milestone. And, this was before Snowden made his revelations!

Americans have always preferred a limited government. This preference can be traced back to the nation’s founding. Many political scientists consider it to be a defining characteristic of American society. And, it’s related to the core value of self-reliance—the notion that one can and should rely on oneself.

Do you feel the government is becoming Big Brother?

Are you worried by government surveillance?

Or, do you believe it’s vital for national security?