Supporting Feyisa Lilesa, a remarkable athlete and protester

At the end of the Rio Olympic men’s marathon, silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa did something extraordinary, important and dangerous. As he crossed the finish line, he crossed his wrists in front of his forehead in a gesture that’s halfway between “hands up, don’t shoot” and “X marks the spot.”

The gesture is sign of defiance that has become a symbol of Ethiopia’s Oromo rights movement. An unprecedented wave of protests in Ethiopia by Oromo and other ethnic rights groups is rocking Ethiopia, which is one of Africa’s most repressive states. By showing support for the protesters in his native Oromia, Lilesa has brought international attention to a movement that’s been violently suppressed by the government, with over 400 civilians killed.

He has also put himself and his family at risk. Defiance of the Ethiopian government can lead to imprisonment or to death. Ethiopian colleagues of mine at Global Voices served eighteen months in prison for the “crime” of learning about digital security, so they could continue to write online about events in their country. Fearing arrest or worse, Lilesa has decided to remain in Brazil, and may seek asylum there or in the US. A GoFundMe campaign has raised almost $100,000 to contribute to his legal and living expenses. But the real challenge may be reuniting Lilesa with his wife and children, who remain in Ethiopia.

The Olympics have an uneasy relationship with protest. While states threaten boycotts of each others’ games – and occasionally follow through on those threats – athletes who bring politics into the arena have been sharply sanctioned. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters in 1968, both were suspended from the US Olympic team, expelled from the Olympic village and sent home. (Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, who supported their gesture and wore a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity, was not sanctioned, but was shunned by his country’s Olympic committee and never raced again.) While the Olympic movement does not appear to be taking action against Lilesa, unfortunately, that’s likely the least of his problems.

I wrote two weeks ago about my fears that attention to the Olympics and the endless US political campaign would distract people from these protests in Ethiopia. I argued that international attention may help protect the lives of Ethiopian activists, as the government will be forced to face the consequences of how they treat their dissenting citizens. Lilesa has helped ensure that the Olympics would include a healthy dose of Oromo rights. Now it’s time to do our part and ensure that Lilesa and his family don’t pay for his actions with their lives.

I gave to support Feyisa Lilesa’s relocation fund, and encourage you to do so as well. Here’s hoping he can return home someday soon to an Ethiopia that makes space for dissent. Unfortunately, that’s not the Ethiopia the world has now.

Posted in Africa, Human Rights | Leave a comment

When attention matters: Ethiopia crushes dissent in Oromia

As an advocate for Americans to pay more attention to international news, I often get the question, “Why bother? What can I do?”

It’s a good question. Most of the time, there’s very little actionable in international news. Understanding the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff might be useful if you’re an investor in emerging markets, but it’s unlikely that your attention can change the shape of events in Brazil.

That might not be the case in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is Africa’s third most populous nation, and is near the top of the league table in repression as well, with at least ten journalists in prison for exercising their rights to report freely. The former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, ruled from 1995 to his death in 2012, and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, looks awfully secure in his job as the ruling EPRDF and its allies won all 546 parliamentary seats in the last election.

Oromo protesters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

While Ethiopia is populated by dozens of ethnic groups, most senior members of the ruling party are of Tigray origin, a group that represents about 6% of the population, but which led the guerrilla war that defeated the Derg, the communist military junta that ran Ethiopia from 1975 to 1991. Many Oromo (34% of the population) and Amhara (27% of the population) feel marginalized by the Tigrayan government, a situation that has grown more tense as the government has announced plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into traditional Oromo lands and farmers feared their lands would be seized.

Protests have been ongoing since November, but they turned bloody this weekend as the Ethiopian security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds, killing as many as 100. (This, unfortunately, is standard procedure in Ethiopian crowd control – sadly, I’ve been writing about it for more than a decade.) Human Rights Watch reports that up to 400 have been killed by the government and tens of thousands arrested in protests thus far.

Of course, it’s hard to know what’s actually going on in Ethiopia. As protests have heated up, Ethiopia shut down the internet in provinces where people have taken to the streets, hoping to disrupt organizers. (This isn’t hard, as there’s one ISP and one telephone company in Ethiopia.) A shutdown earlier this year, which coincided with protests spreading into the north of the country, was evidently done for the benefit of university students, to keep them from cheating on exams. Given the government’s tendency to arrest reporters or bloggers and imprison them for years (Ethiopian bloggers affiliated with Global Voices were held for 18 months in prison), the exact details of what’s happening in Ethiopia can be very hard to pin down.

So here’s where you ask, “So what? What can I do?”

Well, international opinion actually matters to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a military ally of the United States, and we send nearly a billion dollars in aid, mostly development and food aid per year. Shamefully, Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, home to the African Union. As human rights abuses get out of hand in Ethiopia, the US has limited aid in the past, and the AU occasionally threatens to grow a spine. The UN is now asking to put observers in Ethiopia, which the government is resisting.

The biggest help the world can give the Ethiopian government is ignoring what’s going on. It’s summer, it’s hot, the Olympics are on, and Trump says something insane every other day. There’s not a lot of space in the daily newspaper for a crackdown in Ethiopia. But international attention is one of the few ways to keep Ethiopia’s insanely repressive government in check.

So please follow what’s going on in Ethiopia. We’re writing lots about it on Global Voices. OPride offers moment to moment updates on protests in Oromia. NPR, BBC and Al Jazeera are all actively covering the story, even if most US media has adopted the “all Trump, all the time” format. Reward their stories with your attention, talk about Ethiopia on social media and help other people pay attention to this story. There’s not much you can do to prevent Ethiopia from crushing a rebellion, but you can make it hard for them to do it silently, unwitnessed by the rest of the world.


Global Voices author Endalk is mapping protest deaths in Oromia on this interactive map. Warning, some of the images are disturbing.

Posted in Africa, Global Voices, Human Rights, Media | Leave a comment

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The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?

Note: Shane Snow wrote a long and thoughtful email to me about this post. While we agree to disagree on some substantive issues, primarily our thoughts about the future of VR, we also found quite a bit of common ground. He noted that my essay, while mostly about the ideas, strays into the realm of ad hominem attacks, which wasn’t my intention. I’ve removed one comment which he accurately identified as unfair.

I am deeply grateful to Shane for taking the time to engage with my piece and to make changes to his original essay.

I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform – “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System” – through hatelinking. Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally articulate people were at a loss for words.

With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay, the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.

Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: how do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse? In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?

Obviously, I think this is possible – if really, really hard – or I wouldn’t be teaching at an engineering school. But before considering how we overcome a naïve faith in technology, let’s examine Snow’s suggestion a textbook example of a solution that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand and dangerously wrong.

When smart people get important things really wrong

Though he may be best know as co-founder of content marketing platform “Contently”, Shane Snow describes himself as “journalist, geek and best-selling author”. That last bit comes from his book “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success”, which offers insights on how “innovators and icons” can “rethink convention” and break “rules that are not rules”. That background may help readers understand where Snow is coming from. His blog is filled with plainspoken and often entertaining explanations of complex systems followed by apparently straightforward conclusions – evidently, burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity is a poor idea, so oil companies should be investing in solar energy. Fair enough.

Some of these explorations are more successful than others. In Snow’s essay about prison reform, he identifies violence, and particularly prison rape, as the key problem to be solved, and offers a remedy that he believes will lead to cost savings for taxpayers as well: all prisoners should be incarcerated in solitary confinement, fed only Soylent meal replacement drink through slots in the wall, and all interpersonal interaction and rehabilitative services will be provided in Second Life using the Oculus Rift VR system. Snow’s system eliminates many features of prison life – “cell blocks, prison yards, prison gyms, physical interactions with other prisoners, and so on.” That’s by design, he explains. “Those are all current conventions in prisons, but history is clear: innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.”

An early clue that Snow’s rethinking is problematic is that his proposed solution looks a lot like “administrative segregation“, a technique used in prisons to separate prisoners who might be violent or disruptive from the general population by keeping them in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The main problem with administrative segregation or with the SHU (the “secure housing unit” used in supermax prisons) is that inmates tend to experience serious mental health problems connected to sustained isolation. “Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression,” explains social psychologist Dr. Craig Haney. Shaka Senghor, a writer and activist who was formerly incarcerated for murder, explains that many inmates in solitary confinement have underlying mental health issues, and the isolation damages even the sound of mind. Solitary confinement, he says, is “one of the most barbaric and inumane aspects of our society.”

Due to the psychological effects of being held in isolation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned the use of sustained solitary confinement and called for a ban on solitary confinement for people under 18 years old. Rafael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility has called for architects to stop designing prisons that support solitary confinement as they enable violations of human rights. Snow’s solution may be innovative, but it’s also a large-scale human rights violation.

Snow and supporters might argue that he’s not trying to deprive prisoners of human contact, but give them a new, safer form of contact. But there’s virtually no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to head-mounted virtual reality. Would prisoners be forced to choose between simulator sickness or isolation? What are the long-term effects on vision of immersive VR displays? Will prisoners experience visual exhaustion through vergence-accommodation, a yet-to-be-solved problem of eye and brain strain due to problems focusing on objects that are very nearby but appear to be distant? Furthermore, will contact with humans through virtual worlds mitigate the mental problems prisoners face in isolation or exacerbate them? How do we answer any of these questions ethically, given the restrictions we’ve put on experimenting on prisoners in the wake of Nazi abuse of concentration camp prisoners.

How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?

Make sure you’re solving the right problem.
The day I read Snow’s essay, I happened to be leading a workshop on social change during the Yale Civic Leadership conference. Some of the students I worked with were part of the movement to rename Yale’s Calhoun College, and all were smart, thoughtful, creative and openminded.

The workshop I led encourages thinkers to consider different ways they might make social change, not just through electing good leaders and passing just laws. Our lab examines the idea that changemakers can use different levers of change, including social norms, market forces, and new technologies to influence society, and the workshop I led asks students to propose novel solutions to long-standing problems featuring one of these levers of change. With Snow’s essay in mind, I asked the students to take on the challenge of prison reform.

Oddly, none of their solutions involved virtual reality isolation cells. In fact, most of the solutions they proposed had nothing to do with prisons themselves. Instead, their solutions focused on over-policing of black neighborhoods, America’s aggressive prosecutorial culture that encourages those arrested to plead guilty, legalization of some or all drugs, reform of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, reforming parole and probation to reduce reincarceration for technical offenses, and building robust re-entry programs to help ex-cons find support, housing and gainful employment.

In other words, when Snow focuses on making prison safer and cheaper, he’s working on the wrong problem. Yes, prisons in the US could be safer and cheaper. But the larger problem is that the US incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth – with 5% of the world’s population, we are responsible for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Snow may see his ideas as radical and transformative, but they’re fundamentally conservative – he tinkers with the conditions of confinement without questioning whether incarceration is how our society should solve problems of crime and addiction. As a result, his solutions can only address a facet of the problem, not the deep structural issues that lead to the problem in the first place.

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change. Cheaper, safer prisons make it easier to incarcerate more Americans and avoid addressing fundamental problems of addiction, joblessness, mental illness and structural racism.

Understand that technology is a tool, and not the only tool.

Some of my hate-linking friends began their eye-rolling about Snow’s article with the title, which references two of Silicon Valley’s most hyped technologies. With the current focus on the US as an “innovation economy”, it’s common to read essays predicting the end of a major social problem due to a technical innovation. Bitcoin will end poverty in the developing world by enabling inexpensive money transfers. Wikipedia and One Laptop Per Child will educate the world’s poor without need for teachers or schools. Self driving cars will obviate public transport and reshape American cities.

Evgeny Morozov has offered a sharp and helpful critique to this mode of thinking, which he calls “solutionism”. Solutionism demands that we focus on problems that have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” In his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Morozov savages ideas like Snow’s, whether they are meant as thought experiments or serious policy proposals. (Indeed, one worry I have in writing this essay is taking Snow’s ideas too seriously, as Morozov does with many of the ideas he lambastes in his book.)

The problem with the solutionist critique is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. In fact, technological development is often a key component in solving complex social and political problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.

But it’s rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself. Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale. I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low. But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce, which I can sell to utilities through an online marketplace, because they are legally mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation. And while there are powerful technological, market and legal forces pushing us towards solar energy, the most powerful may be the social, normative pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels, leaving us feeling ike we weren’t doing our part.

My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming US prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-offenders to find support, advice and job opportunities in the outside world. Another looked at the success of Bard College’s remarkable program to help inmates earn BA degrees and wondered whether online learning technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological component – given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can’t ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? Given the rise of big data techniques used for “smart policing”, can we review patterns of policing, identifying and eliminating cases where officers are overfocusing on some communities?

The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social problems, but usually fails to deliver. The problem with Morozov’s critique is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers.

Don’t assume your preferences are universal
Shane Snow introduces his essay on prison reform not with statistics about the ineffectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, but with his fear of being sent to prison. Specifically, he fears prison rape, a serious problem which he radically overestimates: “My fear of prison also stems from the fact that some 21 percent of U.S. prison inmates get raped or coerced into giving sexual favors to terrifying dudes named Igor.” Snow is religious about footnoting his essays, but not as good at reading the sources he cites – the report he uses to justify his fear of “Igor” (parenthetical comment removed – EZ, 6/29/16) indicates that 2.91 of 1000 incarcerated persons experienced sexual violence, or 0.291%, not 21%. Shane has amended his post, and references another study that indicates a higher level of coerced sexual contact in prison.

Perhaps isolation for years at a time, living vicariously through a VR headset while sipping an oat flour smoothie would be preferable to time in the prison yard, mess hall, workshop or classroom for Snow. But there’s no indication that Snow has talked to any current or ex-offenders about their time in prison, and about the ways in which encounters with other prisoners led them to faith, to mentorship or to personal transformation. The people Shane imagines are so scary, so other, that he can’t imagine interacting with them, learning from them, or anything but being violently assaulted by them. No wonder he doesn’t bother to ask what aspects of prison life are most and least livable, which would benefit most from transformation.

Much of my work focuses on how technologies spread across national, religious and cultural borders, and how they are transformed by that spread. Cellphone networks believed that pre-paid scratch cards were an efficient way to sell phone minutes at low cost – until Ugandans started using the scratch off codes to send money via text message in a system called Sente, inventing practical mobile money in the process. Facebook believes its service is best used by real individuals using their real names, and goes to great lengths to remove accounts it believes to be fictional. But when Facebook comes to a country like Myanmar, where it is seen as a news service, not a social networking service, phone shops specializing in setting up accounts using fake names and phone numbers render Facebook’s preferences null and void.

Smart technologists and designers have learned that their preferences are seldom their users’ preferences, and companies like Intel now employ brilliant ethnographers to discover how tools are used by actual users in their homes and offices. Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants and needs. Given that Snow’s understanding of prison life seems to come solely from binge-watching Oz, it’s virtually guaranteed that his proposed solution will fail in unanticipated ways when used by real people.

Am I the right person to solve this problem?
Of the many wise things my Yale students said during our workshop was a student who wondered if he should be participating at all. “I don’t know anything about prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.”

Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem?”

On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarden students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design their own assistive technologies.

But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working closely, iteratively and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it. My colleague Hugh Herr designs cutting-edge prostheses for US veterans who’ve lost legs, and the centerpiece of his lab is a treadmill where amputees test his limbs, giving him and his students feedback about what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change. Without the active collaboration of the people he’s trying to help, he’s unable to make technological advances.

Disability rights activists have demanded “nothing about us without us”, a slogan that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of those intended to benefit from those policies. Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design problem. Codesign is hard and frustrating, but it’s also one of the best ways to ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred solution on a situation.

On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might understand as “Make things better by making better things”. This school of thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for users in developing nations, they’ve become one of the transformative technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too. Many of the technologies we benefit from weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow’s proposal is built in part on this perspective – Soylent was designed for geeks who wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.

I’m not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of “with us” versus “better things”. I’d note that every engineer I’ve ever met believes what she’s building is a better thing. As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other words, they don’t work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are unlikely to be given a choice between Snow’s isolation cells and the prison as it currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.

Am I advocating codesign of prisons with the currently incarcerated? Hell yeah, I am. And with ex-offenders, corrections officers, families of prisoners as well as the experts who design these facilities today. They’re likely to do a better job than smart Yale students, or technology commentators.

The possible utility of beating a dead horse

It is unlikely that anyone is going to invite Shane Snow to redesign a major prison any time soon, so spending more than three thousand words urging you to reject his solution may be a waste of your time and mine. But the mistakes Shane makes are those that engineers make all the time when they turn their energy and creativity to solving pressing and persistent social problems. Looking closely at how Snow’s solutions fall short offers some hope for building better, fairer and saner solutions.

The challenge, unfortunately, is not in offering a critique of how solutions go wrong. Excellent versions of that critique exist, from Morozov’s war on solutionism, to Courtney Martin’s brilliant “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”. If it’s easy to design inappropriate solutions about problems you don’t fully understand, it’s not much harder to criticize the inadequacy of those solutions.

What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.

Three students at the MIT Media Lab taught a course last semester called “Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make”. They point out that the Media Lab prides itself on teaching students how to make anything, and how to turn what you make into a business, but rarely teaches reflection about what we make and what it might mean for society as a whole. My experience with teaching this reflective process to engineers is that it’s both important and potentially paralyzing, that once we understand the incompleteness of technology as a path for solving problems and the ways technological solutions relate to social, market and legal forces, it can be hard to build anything at all.

I’m going to teach a new course this fall, tentatively titled “Technology and Social Change”. It’s going to include an examination of the four levers of social change Larry Lessig suggests in Code and which I’ve been exploring as possible paths to civic engagement. It will include deep methodological dives into codesign, and into using anthropology as tool for understanding user needs. It will look at unintended consequences, cases where technology’s best intentions fail, and cases where careful exploration and preparation led to technosocial systems that make users and communities more powerful than they were before.

I’m “calling my shot” here for two reasons. One, by announcing it publicly, I’m less likely to back out of it, and given how hard these problems are, backing out is a real possibility. And two, if you’ve read this far in this post, you’ve likely thought about this issue and have suggestions for what we should read and what exercises we should try in the course of the class – I hope you might be kind enough to share those with me.

In the end, I’m grateful for Shane Snow’s surreal, Black Mirror vision of the future prison both because it’s a helpful jumping off point for understanding how hard it is to make change well using technology, and because the US prison system is a broken and dysfunctional system in need of change. But we need to find ways to disrupt better, to challenge knowledgeably, to bring the people they hope to benefit into the process. If you can, please help me figure out how we teach these ideas to the smart, creative people I work with who want to change the world and are afraid of breaking it in the process.

Posted in ideas, Media Lab | 33 Comments

From disastrous decisions to decentralization: a mostly spontaneous talk for Data & Society

My friends at Data and Society ran an excellent conference today in NYC. A speaker dropped out at the last minute and I got asked less than 48 hours ago to give a talk… a very specific talk. Here’s what I came up with, more or less.

I’m pinch hitting here, as we had a speaker who couldn’t join us, so I apologize for an unpolished talk without slides. To make my life easier, our friends at Data and Society asked me to tell a story I’ve told before. As I thought about it, I realized I wanted to tell that story very differently. So here’s a story that starts with one of the most embarrassing moments of my professional career and ends up on one of the most experimental and difficult projects I’ve ever worked on. Basically, it’s a story about the gap between ambitions, intentions and the compromises we make to bring ideas to life.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was 23 years old, and somehow was the chief tech guy for Tripod.com, which thought it was a lifestyle site for recent college graduates, but was actually one of the world’s first user-generated content sites. By 1999, we were hosting free webpages for 15 million users, which made us the 8th biggest website in the world. But in 1996, we were trying to figure out how to pay for the massive bandwidth bills we’d suddenly incurred by letting thousands of people publish whatever they wanted on our server.

Advertising was the business model everyone else was using on the internet, and so we joined in – we put banner ads on top of the pages users hosted with our service. Great! Until we got a call from one of our ad sales guys, who giving a demo to the Ford motor company, and found a Ford banner on top of a page enthusiastically and visually celebrating the joys of anal sex. (Lesson one – don’t let ad guys give live demos. Lesson two – don’t ever program a “show me a random page” button, no matter how easy it would be to implement.)

Ford was understandably upset, and so my boss demanded I do something. And while I should have figured out how to minimize the amount of pornography we were hosting on the site, my immediate reaction was to figure out how we could somehow distance ads from user generated content. I designed a navigation window that featured Tripod branding, links to our edited content, and an ad, and used a just invented javascript function, window.open(), to open a new window on top of the browser window the user’s page lived in.

Yes, I invented the pop-up ad. And yes, I’m very, very sorry.

In reflecting on my sins, I’ve publicly decried advertising as the original sin of the web. Not all advertising – I have a soft spot for advertising targeted by user intent, like ads matched to search engine queries. But the ads we use to support the services we use everyday, our social networks and webmail, are almost necessarily going to fail – they’re trying to distract us from seeing our our friends’ baby pictures or hear about the weekend’s debauchery. And so these ads have become deeply surveillant, encouraging us to use whatever data we can glean about the context they’re shown in, and anything we can learn about a user’s demographics, psychographics and behavioral data in the desperate hope that we might click on them. And I fear that the rise of surveillant ads may be slowly training us all to expect to be surveilled at all time, a development that’s dangerous for us as citizens, not just as consumers.

But it’s way too easy to beat up on advertising. It’s a really tough problem to figure out how to support services that require network effects to be effective. Facebook wouldn’t be the useful behemoth it is today if it were a hundredth or a tenth the size. It’s useful because there’s the reasonable assumption that anyone you know will be on the service, even if they use it fairly rarely. it’s the universality that makes it so useful, and universal services require near-zero cost of entry.

Yes, we eventually could have supported Tripod with paid subscriptions… and Facebook could and should offer a non-surveillant, paid service for power users. Gmail should agree not to surveil the email of anyone paying for disk space. YouTube shouldn’t track the users who pay for ad-free RedTube. But there’s got to be a way for me to be findable by my high school friends, even if I don’t want to use the tool everyday. For the activist in Egypt to put up a webpage calling people out into the streets in a way where she doesn’t need to pay with a credit card and reveal her identity. Advertising is problematic solution, and it’s led us some troubling places. But I’m starting to worry about a bigger problem.

The mistake we made with Tripod was deeper than the pop-up ad. In retrospect, I feel like our whole business model – the business model I spent two years persuading my boss to adopt – is starting to destroy the web, this strange and beautiful creature I’ve been in love with for the past 22 years.

What Tripod did was take something that was possible for technically sophisticated users – to put up a webpage – and make it possible for orders of magnitude more users. and that was a good and important thing to do, much as letting people share photos and videos with each other, or send 140 character messages to each other is a Good Thing. But the way we did it sucked. We took the great genius of the web – the idea that everything could live on its own box, but be connected to everything else by the wonder of the hyperlink – and replaced it with a single server, controlled by a single company. This made it vastly easier for someone to put up a webpage without learning how to install apache and to write HTML, but it also meant that we had control over what you wrote. If you wanted to share your enthusiastic love for anal sex, too bad, because Tripod banned almost all nudes, and enforced the ban aggressively, with a combination of automation and human filtering. And so if you find yourself with certain types of speech – wanting to share information on breastfeeding on Facebook, for instance – you’re going to face the complicated reality that our digital public spaces are owned and controlled by corporations that we have little control or influence over.

A few years ago, cyberutopians of my generation, people who weren’t dumb enough to believe that the internet would automatically make the world a better place, but were dumb enough to believe that the values and tendencies of the internet would lead us towards a better world, started to find ourselves in crisis. One of the great hopes we’d had was that the internet inherently fights centralization. That barriers to entry are so low that there will always be competitors, always be options. When Amazon is eating all retail, Facebook all communication, Google all discovery, it’s hard to believe this anymore. And so it’s time to stop being so enthusiastic and uncritical about the internet and to start thinking hard about the downsides of this approach we’ve adopted.

My friend Rebecca MacKinnon encourages us to think of ourselves as citizens, not just as consumers, and to demand basic rights on these platforms. Others have proposed that we start thinking about how we regulate these platforms as if they were utilities, recognizing that they provide essential services and that we need to ensure everyone can access them. I want to suggest something even more radical.

I think the future of the web – the future I want for the web – comes from radical decentralization. The really radical version of Tripod – impossible at that point in time, but maybe possible now – would have been building tools that helped people publish their own content on their own servers they control under their own rules.

Here’s what I’m working on now – in all the classes I teach, students turn in their work on blogs. But I control those blogs, and at the end of the semester, I end up controlling their work. What I want is a system in which students have their own blogs, share the appropriate posts with me for the semester so I can aggregate them into a class site, but they end up owning their words and coming away from their time with a portfolio of work on their sites. This is not a new idea – The University of Mary Washington has a project called A Domain of One’s Own where there are accounts on a shared wordpress install. But I’m trying to solve this problem in a ludicrously convoluted way

I’m trying to build a system where my students use a tool that’s as beautiful and easy as Medium, but stores the data on multiple places all over the web using IPFS, the IP file system. Rather than keeping an index of the students in my classes and where those blogs are located, the system uses the bitcoin blockchain to register contracts about where I can find their writings for class. I’m building this in an insanely complicated way because the same architecture lets me build a distributed but compatible version of Twitter – if I decide I don’t want Twitter having control over my tweets anymore, I can start publishing my own twitter-like feed on a website I control, then register contracts that say that’s where my tweets live. If you use a compatible client, and you decide to follow me on Twitter, your client will check the blockchain to see if I’ve registered a contract to publish my updates off twitter and then subscribe to that RSS feed. If not, it will look for me on Twitter and subscribe to that feed. Basically, I’m trying to build a system with as few centralized points of control as possible, in the hopes of making it both easy for anyone to publish and disseminate information, and difficult for anyone intentionally or inadvertently to act as a censor or gatekeeper.

But it’s really hard. We didn’t design Tripod centrally because we were censorious control freaks. It’s way, way easier to build a single, central database than to distribute a directory of users across a distributed hash table. The sort of system I’m describing is probably 1000 times less efficient than existing centralized systems. That inefficiency has consequences, of cost, and for the environment. And there are enormous problems with managing content in a system like this one – it may not be possible to demand deletion of content in a truly distributed system, so what do we do with truly offensive content, like revenge porn.

And yet, it’s probably what we need to do. Because giving control over public spheres to private companies isn’t just a bad idea for us as citizens – it’s an impossible set of responsibilities for the corporations in question, and they’re already starting to strain under the load. And so we need to start thinking about how we build systems that aren’t just new and innovative, but that are architected in ways that support the generativity and creativity of the web in the long term. This isn’t a brave new world – it’s a rescue mission. It’s a return to the past, to the way the web used to work. And while building a decentralized web didn’t work the first time around, because the easy solutions won out against the right ones, we can do it right now, because we understand the dangers of centralization. We’ve seen how the story plays out.

To be clear, I’m not the only one trying to build these new systems. From the bitcoin libertarians to the openhearted cyberhippies like Brewster Kahle, people are building new ways to publish, discover and pay each other for content in ways that don’t require a gatekeeper standing in the middle of these transactions. But we need a much bigger group of people taking on this challenge, deciding to build a web that works in a way that empowers rather than imprisons us. As you’ve figured out, I’m not very smart – I’m the dumbass that thought that pop-up ads were a good solution to internet pornography. I need you, whether you’re motivated by curiosity, by ideology or by opportunity, to join me and take on this task. It’s hard to do, but it’s also right.

Posted in ideas | 3 Comments

Life, Only Moderately Messed Up, part 2: Getting Help

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post, “Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression” that was widely shared and appreciatively received. This is a somewhat overdue update to that post, and intended very much in the same spirit, both as a way to process some challenging experiences in my life through writing, and as a way to signal to people that I’m someone they can talk with about these issues.

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Writing that post two years ago is one of the most important things I’ve done, because it’s opened conversations with friends, family and students that would not have happened otherwise, allowing people to approach me to talk about depression and allowing me to share my experiences with them and add them to my support structure.

The TL:DR; of that post is as follows:
– I’ve been a high-functioning depressive most of my adult life
– I wanted to come out as someone living with depression so friends would know and help me cope, and so students and others could approach me to talk about these issues
– High functioning depression is hard to recognize because it often isn’t externally visible, leading people to live with it, instead of seeking treatment.

It’s that last point I want to talk about here.

Part of the reason I wrote that post was to make it more likely that I’d seek counseling or try antidepressants the next time I felt moderately depressed. That’s not what happened.

In October of 2015, my wife Rachel told me that she wasn’t happy in our marriage and that we needed to seek counseling. We did, but by late November, it was clear that our problems weren’t easy ones to fix, and that we were in for a rough road ahead. Other factors intervened – my promotion process at MIT took a major step backward, and I started thinking seriously about leaving MIT. I left the board of an NGO I’d spent a huge amount of time and energy advising in a way that was deeply hurtful to me. With these things happening all at once, the days growing shorter and the winds colder, I found myself – almost overnight – in a very dark place.

In my previous post, I wrote, “…I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift.”

This time, and all of a sudden, my depression was life threatening. I started experiencing long bouts of suicidal ideation, detailed thoughts about how I might end my life. I wasn’t especially scared that I was going to act on these impulses, but intense thoughts of suicide are no fun at all, and I recognized that they were a symptom I needed to address before they wore me down and turned into something more dangerous.

And so I got help. My physician got me on an SSRI and, when the first one came with some unpleasant side effects, got me on another one very quickly. A very dear friend, hearing me talk about suicide, gave me the best intervention I could imagine. She told me:

“I love you.
You have been here before and you know you’re not always going to feel this way.
If you decide you need to go, talk to me so that your decision doesn’t end up ruining the lives of the people you love.”

I’m not sure it’s the best generic speech to talk someone off a ledge, but it worked well for me. And, critically, she introduced me to her therapist, who’s the first counselor I have felt understood where I was coming from, that I didn’t want to regress to childhood and heal decades of hurt, but needed some acute, immediate help in coping with the challenges of my life.

I got better quickly. Within a month, I was able to help Rachel through a challenging trip to Texas to visit a sick relative. Within two months, I felt significantly better than I had before my life started to go off the rails in October. By March, I found myself coming to the realization that SSRIs and therapy are probably part of the toolkit – along with walking, weightlifting, and a marvelous circle of friends around the world – that helps me harness my quirky brain (and we ALL have quirky brains) in productive and healthy directions.

I was high functioning before. I am higher functioning now. And that’s important, because life inevitably includes circumstances that are beyond your control.

On April 1st, Rachel asked me for a divorce. We are now in the process of moving her and Drew to a new house and diving our books, our art, and the physical and financial detritus of 23 years together. More importantly, we’re doing so in a way that we hope to break the script of most divorces. We’re committed to staying good friends, to spending time together with our son, and to keeping our many friends in the Berkshires and elsewhere from having to choose between the two of us. We’re trying very hard to stay on the same side, the side that recognizes that people grow and change, and that sometimes you continue to love someone but need not to be partnered with them. It’s hard work, and we don’t always get it right. But I’m starting to have the previously inconceivable thought that there’s life after losing the partner I’ve shared my entire adulthood with, and that the new life that follows divorce could be as wonderful as the life that preceded it.

But here’s the key bit: I would not have been able to handle this divorce if I were still moderately messed up. I would not have the resilience I’ve been able to display, the ability to be kind to someone who’s (understandably, necessarily and unintentionally) hurt me so badly. I would not be able to act with grace, to be the father my son needs me to be, to keep listening to and supporting my students at a time when I need so much support. I would not have survived this transition if I had not – at my darkest moment last year – gotten the help I needed.

And so I have a request. If you read my earlier post on high-functioning depression – two years ago, today or any time in between – and it resonated for you, please get help. Maybe that’s drugs and therapy, which worked for me. Maybe it’s yoga or running or weightlifting. Maybe it’s meditation, or prayer or co-counseling. Maybe it’s a practice of talking with a friend every day about how you’re feeling. What I’m asking is that you don’t continue accepting a reality in which you are high functioning, but far from as whole and resilient as you could be.

I’m asking you not to do what I did for 25 years.

Not just because it’s such a fucking waste of time to lose so many days to that feeling of fighting your way through a vat of molasses to get through the tasks of the day. Not just because being sad and scared and lonely slowly erodes your sense of self and prevents you from seeing yourself as the marvel you are. But because life is going to kick you in the gut sometime, and being able to weather that blow and get up again is hard to do even when you’re whole.

We don’t get to choose what happens to us. We do get to choose how we react to it. And we can choose to prepare ourselves for that kick in the gut, to make sure we’re as strong and graceful as resilient as we are capable of being.

As with my previous post, this isn’t meant as a cry for help – I’m doing pretty well, thanks very much. My family, many of my friends, my students and staff have been wonderful about helping me through this transition… as has my beloved ex, which is something I couldn’t have imagined being part of a divorce. I wanted to share these thoughts because I’m so grateful for the dozens of people who came out of the woodwork to counsel me through my divorce, to tell me that it will get better. I wanted to share with my friends so they know it’s okay to talk to me about what’s going on, that I’m okay – and Rachel’s okay, and Drew too. And I wanted to invite you – whether I know you or not – to reach out if you need someone to talk to about these issues.

Posted in ideas | 6 Comments

Lessons from Letterlocking: a serendipitous academic encounter

Here’s a quick experiment – I’ve been publishing stories on FOLD and replicating the text here on this blog. But FOLD now supports embedding – let’s see how well my blog supports it… Otherwise, please feel free to go read this story on FOLD.cm

Posted in Just for fun, Media | 3 Comments

That’s _Professor_ Bozo to you, Pal

Something odd about teaching at a university – everyone wants to call you Professor, or Doctor. I am always flattered by the upgrade, but I sometimes feel a little miffed. There’s lots of people who teach at universities who haven’t earned the doctorate, and lots of people who teach without being professors: lecturers, research scientists, graduate students. I enjoy telling people that I’m neither a professor or a doctor and that they should call me “Ethan”.

I guess I have one less thing to be miffed about.

MIT announced today that I have been promoted to Associate Professor of the Practice of Media Arts and Sciences, active July 1st. And while I make jokes about it, I’m deeply proud to take on the professor title. I love all facets of my work – the research, the software development, the writing and public speaking, the teaching and the advising – but I am especially proud of the work I’ve done the past five years in the classroom and working one on one with students. Many of my favorite people at the Media Lab hold the Research Scientist title, but I wanted the Professor title so as to recognize how much of my work is about students and their work.

Plus, I’m greying rapidly, and I look good in tweed.

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(Am I looking professorial yet?)

I am deeply grateful to MIT as a whole and to the Media Lab in particular for making it possible to take on this new role. MIT is especially open to recognizing those of us who’ve taken unconventional roles towards academic careers, and I am grateful for their flexibility. I owe special thanks to Pattie Maes, Mitch Resnick, James Paradis and Ed Schiappa, who’ve been tireless advocates on my behalf, to the wonderful reviewers who wrote letters on my behalf, and to Joi Ito, who has supported everything I’ve done and tried to do at the Media Lab. But the biggest thanks are reserved for my students and staff, past and present, who’ve helped me see that teaching is what I should be doing – thank you all more than I can say.

Posted in Personal | 13 Comments

In loving memory of Patrick Fiachie

In the fall of 1993, I was 20 years old. I’d just graduated from college, and had lived most of my life in my parents’ house and in a dorm room. I was extremely ill-prepared to live on my own, never mind to live in an unfamiliar city. And yet, I was headed to Accra, Ghana to start a year as a Fulbright scholar, and as far as I was concerned, to start my life as an adult.

Thank god I found Patrick.

I moved into a two bedroom apartment with another Fulbright scholar and her husband, in a compound where two other Fulbrighters lived above us. We had a gas stove, an electric refrigerator, ceiling fans, and electricity most days. We had plumbing, but no running water. And most importantly, we had Patrick and Fortune.

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Patrick, in our compound, 1993

Patrick Fiachie worked as the building manager for the old lady who owned the compound and its two three story buildings. He was competent and organized, but more importantly for a Ghanaian renting to expatriates, he had lived in the US and understood what foreigners would need to know to live in Accra. Patrick had spent years living in Minnesota, working as a counselor for foreign students attending a liberal arts college (I want to say Macalester, but this was a long time ago and I have forgotten the details.)

Patrick returned to Ghana and shared an apartment in the other building of the compound with Fortune, his wife, who was an extraordinary fixer, fluent in half a dozen languages and capable of striking bargains and making friends in a dozen more. My more ambitious Fulbright colleagues provided full employment for Fortune, traveling with her around the country so she could translate and negotiate while they conducted research. But as far as living in Accra was concerned, it was Patrick’s gentle guidance that prevented my first year in Ghana from being a total catastrophe.

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Patrick and Fortune, probably 2002

The first time Patrick intervened in my life was when I tried to do my own laundry. This task involved hauling buckets of water from the compound’s tap to my second-story apartment, soaping up my clothes in a plastic tub, rinsing and then ironing them dry (because wet clothes attract flies, which lay eggs in them and lead to larvae burrowing into you, which is roughly as gross as it sounds.) It took me half a Saturday to do two week’s laundry, but I felt very independent and self-sufficient indeed. And then Patrick came by and pointed out that whether or not I wanted the pleasure of washing my own clothes, I was taking money out of the pockets of my neighbors by not hiring them to do my laundry. For two dollars a week, I could have my clothes washed, ironed and returned to me, and I’d be viewed as a better neighbor, someone providing work to the community, rather than seen as the crazy white kid who wanted to do his own laundry. I didn’t pick up my iron again that year.

That was how it worked with Patrick. He’d let me screw up, do something culturally inappropriate, then come by for a visit and casually bring up the problem I’d failed to navigate, explaining the key aspect of Ghanaian culture I’d failed to grasp. As we got to know each other better, I noticed that all the interactions in my neighborhood went more smoothly. I overheard a conversation one day between the plantain vendors who set up shop in front of our house. “Why is that brofunyo (white man) always on this street? What does he want?” “Oh, it’s okay. That’s Uncle Pat’s nephew.” And that was it – I was Uncle Pat’s nephew, which meant that if anyone had a problem with me, they could bring it up with Patrick, which made me part of the neighborhood in a way I never could have been had Patrick not vouched for me.

Patrick and I got into the habit of meeting in his apartment to drink akpeteshie (Ghanaian moonshine distilled from palm wine or from sugar cane) with sugar and lime and to play chess. I could usually beat him in the first game, but after a drink or two, he was the stronger player. As he picked off my pawns, I learned more about his path to Minnesota and back to Ghana. Like many brilliant Ghanaians, Patrick had gotten an excellent education in Russia, and had sought his fortune in the US. And he’d done well, before losing much of his money in a series of bad investments. He’d expected to come back to Ghana in triumph, but instead, was nervous about returning to his village in the Volta Region without the wealth that he would need to set his extended family up in style. His work in Accra was plan B or C, a way to use his skills as a bridge figure to build a new career and a way to return home with appropriate stature.

In the past twenty years, I’ve seen Fortune far more than I’ve seen Patrick. She helped me as I opened a non-profit, Geekcorps, in Accra in 2000. She left Ghana a few years later to live with one of the Fulbrighters who’d shared the compound with us, acting as nanny to her son. I saw Patrick every few visits. He started a pepper farm in the Volta Region (I was an investor) and made it into the city only occasionally. He was working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Jerry Rawlings, his favorite of Ghana’s leaders. When we lived in the same building, I thought of him as superimposed between the US and Ghana, one foot in each country. When I saw him years later, he was very much a Ghanaian farmer, one with an extraordinary education and an amazing life story.

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Patrick, an Ewe, models a Dagara hat. This sort of thing is pretty funny if you’re Ghanaian, and merely charming if you’re not. 1994

Patrick died last weekend. I found out through Facebook, from Fortune who remained married to him even as she lived continents away from him, caring for my friend’s son. I remember a dinner in 1999, when I brought Rachel to meet Patrick and Fortune. They were in dire straits, living in the storage area of a compound in La. Fortune cooked an elaborate, multi-course meal on a single charcoal burner, while Patrick, sitting on a wooden stool in a dusty courtyard, acted as diplomat and mayor, chatting with everyone who passed by, interrogating the young men, chiding them for their lapses in manners, introducing us to the worthies of the community. The strength of his personality and character were entirely undiminished by his material circumstances – everyone who interacted with him understood that they were in the presence of intelligence, wisdom, kindness and the profound power to connect.

I miss Patrick. I’ve missed him for years, wishing that I could go back to the days we played chess and he unpacked my ignorance about Ghana. I wish I could have seen him in Minnesota, explaining the wider world to wide-eyed college kids, much like the wide-eyed college kid I was when I came into his compound.

I am grateful that I had the chance to know him. Rest in peace, Patrick.


Patrick figures prominently in a talk I gave in Amsterdam in 2008. Bonus – in that post, you can see what I looked like in 1994, wearing Ewe kente.

Posted in Personal | 1 Comment

Rooftop solar, and the four levers of social change

I started noticing the solar panels four or five years ago. My neighbors’ barns starting sprouting them, neat black rectangles covering the south-facing roofs. Down by the ski area, already known for being (mostly) powered by a ridge filled with windmills, an unused stretch of meadow was suddenly filled with rows of waist-high panels, mounted on aluminum frames, turned up to catch the sunlight. A brownfield in downtown Pittsfield, the unused greenspace near exits on the Mass Pike, hillsides behind high schools. The panels were growing like mushrooms after a long spring rain.

I started to feel left out. Our house is blessed with a large, south-facing roof that’s visible for miles around, and I started feeling like our asphalt shingles were making a statement: these people aren’t on board with green energy. And so I braced myself to hear about the massive costs of being socially responsible would be. I called Real Goods Solar, who’d put panels on a friend’s roof, and was pleasantly surprised to be quoted a much smaller figure than expected.

I was more pleased, if a little skeptical, about another figure Real Goods quoted me – an estimate that I’d recover the costs of my investment in under five years. Despite our northern latitude and eight months of winter, Massachusetts is a very good place for homeowners to put up solar panels, due to a federal tax break and a pair of state subsidies that offer credits for generating solar power.

And so I borrowed some money, signed a bunch of papers and began the process of waiting… for the building inspector to approve the engineering plans, for the local utility company to approve the interconnection of my new “generation facility” to the grid. The installation itself took less than two days. And despite a typically grey – if unusually warm – winter, I’m starting to see our house producing significant energy. If projections are correct, I should be a net power producer for a few months this summer, sending more energy into the grid that our house consumes.

(It's incredibly cool that I can monitor my array's production from my phone.)

(It’s incredibly cool that I can monitor my array’s production from my phone.)

Since I study social change, I started thinking about what had made it possible for my family to change from consumers to producers of electricity. I’ve been giving a series of lectures that look at the possibility of “effective civics”, taking civic action in the ways that you feel most empowered and effective doing so. I suggest that effective civics sometimes means working to elect a candidate you’re passionate about or lobbying for passage of legislation, but that it often breaks the boundaries of traditional civics and involves nontraditional civic change.

To explain what that sort of change looks like, I often turn to Larry Lessig’s book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, where he explains that there are four ways societies regulate behavior. We pass and enforce laws, making some behaviors illegal and sanctioning lawbreakers. We use markets to make undesirable behaviors expensive (think of the rising price of cigarettes) and desirable ones cheap. We have social norms which we enforce through praising, shaming and shunning that discourage certain behaviors (explicit racism, sexual harassment) and reward others. Lessig argues that code – both computer code and other technical and physical architectures – regulate behavior as well. Think of the governor that keeps a city bus from exceeding a certain speed, or the code that forces your computer to play a DVD (instead of making a copy of it) when you load it into your computer.

These regulatory forces can also be used as levers of social change. While law is a powerful force for social change – the full force of government serves to enforce legal changes – it’s not the only one. Changing attitudes can be as important as changing laws – while it’s critical that LGBTI people can get married, it’s also critical that our norms change so that people aren’t jerks to LGBTI people. Sometimes these alternate levers of change can serve as a shortcut or another option when paths to legal change are blocked. Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance have not led to significant legal change within the US, but citizens frustrated at being surveilled can take steps like using Tor and Signal/Redphone from Open Whisper Systems to make their communications harder to monitor, leveraging a code-based theory of change. And those frustrated by slow progress curbing CO2 emissions can buy an electric car, or put up rooftop solar panels, using markets to signal preferences and take action.

(I’ve written a lot about this “inverted Lessig” framework – this talk at Syracuse is a good introduction if you’d like to hear more.)

I’ve run half a dozen workshops encouraging activists to think about effective forms of social change in terms of these four levers. Each time, someone has raised the key idea that successful activism usually uses a combination of these approaches, if not all four levers. Turns out that’s true for the adoption of rooftop solar as well.

Code

Photovoltaic panels have gotten LOTS better in the last few years, and way, way cheaper. When Jimmy Carter was putting solar panels on the White House in 1979, there’s a reason he chose thermal panels to heat water, not photovoltaics to produce electricity: PV panels cost a small fortune, roughly $40 per watt. Panel prices are now down below $1 per watt, and the least expensive Chinese panels are roughly 50¢ a watt.


From CleanTechnica

These cost savings come from increasing the efficiency of panels while reducing their manufacturing costs. Chinese manufacturers, rewarded with state subsidies, began competing to improve their production of panels, making the wafers thinner, and learning new techniques to make polysilicon, which has decreased in price from $400 per kilogram to $15 between 2004 and today. The other major change has been improvements in installation system – panels now click into speedily assembled aluminum frames, which makes a routine rooftop installation about a quarter of the time it was a decade ago. These technology developments – changes in code – mean that installing rooftop solar is an option for vastly more people than it was even a decade ago.

Markets

Of course, the main thing the technology changes have done is made solar panels cheaper. And that’s not the only market force at work. Installers realized that the upfront cost of rooftop solar was a limiting factor for many homeowners. My system cost about $27,000, a sum I financed by taking out a home equity loan. But that’s not an option for everyone, and a number of creative options have emerged to make solar more accessible.

One option is third-party ownership, in which an energy company installs, maintains and owns the panels on your roof. You enter into a long-term contract with the energy company, which sells you energy from the panels on your roof, usually at a cost lower than the local energy company. There’s no money up front, but you don’t end up owning an asset. The popularity of this model appears to be peaking, but it’s widely agreed that it allowed the rooftop solar market in the US to have 50% year on year growth for much of this decade.

Now installers like Real Goods are offering loan products, letting you finance your solar panels much as you might finance another depreciating asset, like your car. (Unlike your car, most installers guarantee panels for a 30 year lifetime and manage any system repairs without cost to you.)

Two other market factors make rooftop solar attractive, at least in Massachusetts. Net metering means that when my system is producing more power than I can consume, my local utility is required to buy the energy I put onto the grid at the cost I pay as a consumer, not the cost they’d pay an industrial producer. In effect, when the sun is shining brightly, my electric meter runs backwards. I only pay the local provider for the net power I consume – the total power consumed, minus the power I produce. (Net metering is controversial. Critics correctly point out that consumer electricity prices include the costs of the delivery network – when I receive credit for putting electricity onto the grid on sunny days, my non-solar neighbors are covering my network costs. Net metering is a subsidy, something we’ll discuss in the next section on law.)

Net metering is great, but what really makes rooftop solar affordable in Massachusetts is SRECs – solar renewable energy certificates. Each time my system produces a megawatt hour of power, I receive a certificate, suitable for framing… or selling on the SREC market. Sixteen states have a “renewable portfolio standard” that requires utilities to produce a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources, like solar or wind. Virtually all utilities produce less energy than required under RPS, so they’re forced to buy credits on the market from producers like me. At the moment, those credits are selling for around $400, and I expect to produce half a dozen a year, giving me $2400 in income in addition to sharply cutting my utility bills. Add these factors up, and my system should pay for itself in 4-6 years, while I gain the financial benefits from decades more. (The SREC program only generates income for ten years, but the panels are expected to last for 30 years.)

All the companies involved with solar energy are trying to make a buck. But they’re contributing to social change and fighting climate change in the process, using market mechanisms to make change.

Law

While it takes only a few years to recover the costs of a photovoltaic solar system in Massachussets, neighbors ten miles away in Vermont would require 16 years to recover their costs. The laws are different. Until 2015, Vermont had very low renewable energy portfolio standards, which meant they didn’t have SRECs – now they have very high standards, we are likely to see an SREC market soon. Net metering doesn’t work as generously in Vermont as in Massachusetts. These subtle legal differences help explain why friends across the border frequently put in solar hot water systems, but much less often invest in photovoltaics.

Other incentives are based on laws at the federal level. The Energy Star credit, which expires this year, gives 30% of a solar system’s cost off your taxes – not your income, your tax payment. That credit is slated to drop to 10% in 2017, unless it’s renewed… and given Congress’s current dysfunction, that seems unlikely.

The laws that have made solar so attractive in Massachusetts are expiring – the existing supply of SRECs are spoken for, and unless the program is renewed, the economics of solar energy in the state will be sharply different.

Law has been a powerful force prompting adoption of solar in Germany, Spain and parts of the US. Subsidies are now falling, and it’s not clear whether solar will be as attractive in a few years as it is now.

But it wasn’t rational economics made possible by laws designed to challenge climate change that got me to put panels on my roof. It was something far more basic.

Norms

I started this essay by admitting that I put solar panels on my roof out of social pressure. I began worrying that our house – visible from the valley below – was making a statement that we were either insufficiently savvy to have invested in solar energy, or were climate change deniers. My friend Judith Donath explains that fashion is a form of signaling. By wearing the latest fashions – on your body or on your house – you send a variety of signals about who you are, what you value and what you know.

As my neighbors and I put solar panels on our roofs, we are signalling a change in social norms. It’s becoming normal to generate your own power, to make an expensive investment designed to have both an economic and environmental payoff. At this point, we’re likely in the early adopter phase of rooftop solar, or perhaps the early majority. If this curve continues, at some point it will be a statement to not have solar panels on the roof, much as it’s a statement to have remained off Facebook or the Internet as a whole.

Making change through norms has a funny momentum to it. When you make a visible change, you contribute to the likelihood someone else will make the same change. At some point, visible change becomes a downhill battle as others start asking themselves “why not?” instead of “why?”

There are reasonable “why nots” to rooftop solar. For one thing, the tiny plant on my roof is less financially efficient than large solar installations deployed by developers. But critics who describe rooftop solar as a “craze” are missing a key point. Solar is taking off because it’s something an individual can do about climate change. Much as buying a Prius won’t end global warming, my solar installation won’t halt climate change. But I can’t get the US to commit to an enforceable and ambitious target to lower carbon emissions as much as I might hope for one, or build a nationwide carbon market.

Efficacy matters in civics. More to the point, the perception of efficacy matters. I may not be able to persuade myself that influencing Congress on climate change is a good use of my time, but it’s an excellent use of my time to bring up my support for clean energy and my concerns about losing SRECs to my excellent state senator Ben Downing, who chairs the state senate’s committee on telecommunications, energy and utilities. And I’m able to persuade myself that my solar panels will offset enough emissions that I can feel slightly less bad about buying a diesel Jetta. (My intentions were good, I swear.) It’s rare to feel like you can do something unambiguously good for the world – generating solar power is one of those rare cases, thanks in part to these four levers of social change coming together.


I had an excellent experience using Real Goods Solar to install panels on my rooftop. Other than signing a contract and making payments, I did nothing – they took care of all the permitting and interconnection. If you end up using them to install solar at your home and use this link, I will receive credit for referring you.

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