Defining(?) Disobedience

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, is fond of saying that you don’t win a Nobel Prize by following the rules.

Until Joi, Reid Hoffman and I started working to craft the Media Lab’s $250,000 Disobedience Award, I hadn’t realized that Joi was speaking literally as well as figuratively. Joi’s quip refers to Dr. Jerome Friedman, the MIT physicist who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that protons had an internal structure, which confirmed the existence of quarks. Friedman defied his advisor’s instructions and continued collecting data from the Stanford Linear Accelerator. As it turns out, the data he’d disobediently collected was what led to his key discovery.

Productive disobedience of the sort that yielded Dr. Friedman’s Nobel is not always easy to find. In Japan, where Joi has lived most of his life, it can be a challenge for people who’ve been taught to comply and obey throughout their academic and professional careers to break away from the expected path. In Silicon Valley, where disruption of existing business models is practiced almost as a religion, it can be difficult to find disobedient minds who consider the deep social consequences of their disruptions.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, encouraged Joi to explore the idea of a Disobedience Award, providing $250,000 to fund an award for responsible, ethical disobedience. Given the opportunity, we knew we’d have a wealth of candidates. What we didn’t realize was how challenging it would be to define responsible and ethical disobedience, and to select a winner for whom the award would be both an appropriate recognition of their work and financial fuel for increased impact.

(Please see Joi and my essay on the Media Lab site about the inaugural Disobedience award winners.)

The Disobedience Award is inspired in part by the MacArthur “genius” grant, which sometimes recognizes a lifetime of achievement, but more often identifies relatively obscure scholars, artists and innovators whose work has the potential to transform the world. We decided to aim in a similar direction: we would accept both expected and unexpected nominees, and one criterion for selection would be whether the recognition our award might confer could transform someone’s life and work. This meant we were looking for people whose disobedience and resistance was ongoing, not purely something in their past.

Unlike the MacArthur grant, where the nomination and selection process is shrouded in secrecy, we wanted to make our process as transparent as possible. In addition to posting a call for nominees, we added a nominator prize, inviting whoever nominated the winner to join us at the Media Lab for the award ceremony. Recognizing the power of networks, our colleague Iyad Rahwan, suggested we use a tactic he’d used to help win DARPA’s Red Balloon challenge — award the nominator of the nominator as well. We encouraged anyone in the world to nominate either a candidate or someone they thought would have great ideas for candidates. We then contacted the nominators and invited them to submit their ideas.

The result? More than 7800 nominations from all over the world, and a major challenge for the selection committee. As the nominations came in, Joi and I recruited a team of twelve judges —
Farai Chideya, George Church, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Jesse Dylan, Jerome Friedman, Marshall Ganz, Andrew “bunnie” Huang, Alaa Murabit, Jamila Raqib, Maria Zuber, and ourselves — all with expertise in areas such as activism, journalism, science and the arts where we expected the most submissions. Our judges are distinguished, smart and very busy; people unlikely to have time to read 7800 applications. So our Disobedience Award team took on the challenge of weeding out duplicates and identifying the strongest 220 candidates.

Joi and I each pledged to read all 220 dossiers the team prepared, but we opened the process to as many of the selection committee as were able to participate. We held each finalist up to our mission to recognize a living person or group who is, or has been, engaged in acts of responsible, principled, ethical disobedience in pursuit of the public good. Not only did this focus the deliberations; it also gave us flexibility and helped us to address concerns in a free and frank way.

Cross-checking our lists, we identified seven finalists who’d been flagged by multiple judges. While there’s a great deal of refinement we hope to do before repeating this process next year, we all agreed we had a very strong set of final nominees for this inaugural award.

Before listing those finalists, it’s worth mentioning who was nominated and didn’t make it to our list. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both nominated dozens of times, and Snowden himself spoke via video link at the conference where we announced the Disobedience Award last year. While no one questioned the impact of their disobedience or the risks each took, none of us felt that the recognition we could add would increase their fame or infamy.

Aaron Swartz was also nominated many times. Joi and I both knew Aaron and hosted a memorial at the Media Lab for him shortly after his death. While an award in Aaron’s memory would have been fitting recognition of Aaron’s principled and disobedient activism, we felt it was important that the award go to a recipient who could leverage both the award and its visibility to advance the issues they work on. While we chose not to award him the award posthumously, I can report that Aaron was very much on my mind as we chose honorees.

Our judges researched and wrote up “cases” for why they believed the seven finalists should receive the award. The best of these cases included arguments both for and against making the award, exploring the question of whose acts best exemplified pro-social disobedience.

Ultimately, we chose two winners of the Disobedience Award — people whose work reflects the hopes that led to the award in the first place: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and medical school professor, and Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor, who first brought attention to the Flint water crisis. Their work combined activist energies with scientific research and made visible a public health crisis involving thousands. Their work has led to criminal involuntary manslaughter charges against Michigan public officials and has placed the issue of urban water quality — and urban infrastructure — at the center of American public debate.

We had not initially intended to offer honorable mention prizes, but our finalists were so strong, we asked Reid to offer additional funding. We were then able to award $10,000 each to James Hansen, an environmental science professor and advocate for intervention to combat climate change; The Water Protectors of Standing Rock, an historic gathering of tribes, allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline; and
Freedom University Georgia, a project to provide free college classes to undocumented students in Georgia who are charged out-of-state tuition to attend state schools.


The debates about who deserved recognition and who the committee did not agree to honor help illustrate how complex the concept of disobedience actually is.

Dr. Hansen’s nomination sparked debate about whether the award was exclusively for those in the midst of their life’s work, or whether it could honor a career well spent. At 76 years old, Hansen is widely recognized as a pioneer of climate change research. But he is less known than non-scholars who’ve worked on raising climate awareness. As well, he embodies disobedience within an institution. Hansen did much of his work while employed by NASA, facing substantial pushback as he made bold, data-backed predictions about climate change. So, to highlight those within powerful institutions standing up for what’s right in defiance of pressure, the committee decided it was important to honor his many contributions.

The Water Protectors of Standing Rock raised a set of issues we simply hadn’t considered: How do you properly honor a movement? This is a collaboration of Native Americans who organized a prayer camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline: Phyllis Young, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Jasilyn Charger, and Joseph White Eyes. Their efforts, supported by Sioux and Lakota elders, were joined by thousands of veterans, activists, and others. The Standing Rock nominations—as well as dozens for individuals and groups connected to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, and for LGBTQ activists—reminded us that disobedience can be a team sport, that we can stand up as a group to pressure that might crush us as individuals.

Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes on Sundays, was founded by professors at the University of Georgia who were outraged that undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools. Students in the program have gone on to universities in other states where laws are more flexible and just. In honoring Freedom University and its founders—Professors Betina Kaplan, Lorgia García Peña, Pamela Voekel, and Bethany Moreton—we hope to learn from their model and to challenge ourselves about how best to consider similar programs in our communities.

Perhaps most important is understanding the complexities involved in why we chose not to honor the remaining three finalists.

Alexandra Elbakyan is a Kazakhstani graduate student who has deeply challenged the scholarly publishing industry by using academic credentials to “unlock” millions of copyrighted research papers. Depending on who you ask, she is either bravely challenging a model of scientific publishing that leaves millions of researchers in poor countries without access to scholarship, or she’s irresponsibly destroying a critical component of academic research without considering the consequences. Our debate opened questions about why defiance is appropriate. Most of the committee was sympathetic to the aims of SciHub, but less so to the Library Genesis (LibGen), a subsequent project that has sought to open up a wider range of books as part of a broader attempt to make information free. Many committee members felt that Elbakyan had identified a situation worthy of defiance in the world of making research papers available to international scholars, but weren’t willing to accept the idea that making all books free was a worthy goal.

While we tried to build a diverse, international group of judges, our finalists were primarily people who work on issues well known and understood within the US. We had many nominees who, like Rafael Marques de Morais, do risky and important work in closed societies around the globe. I consider it a shortcoming of our process that we didn’t work harder to honor nominees working on issues our committee didn’t understand as well as issues like climate change or undocumented people. On the other hand, we had a rich discussion of the dangers of recognizing that some disobedience is more “comfortable” for the committee than others — one committee member made the argument that we wouldn’t want to honor Ai Wei Wei, because it’s easy and popular for a mostly American committee to show opposition to censorship and control of speech in China. Understanding how to honor and showcase disobedience in countries we know less about than the US or China will be an ongoing question for us as we revise and improve our process.

No issue challenged our committee as much as the question of honoring Omar Barghouti and the BDS movement. Those who favored recognizing his activism noted that BDS is the main non-violent movement to end Israeli occupation of Palestine, with the goal of creating a democratic Palestinian state, and is having great success putting pressure on the Israeli government. Given the apparent intractability of the Israel/Palestine situation, BDS offers hope that an international campaign like the one that challenged apartheid in South Africa could lead to change in Israel. Those who opposed honoring BDS pointed primarily to one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign: a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli artists, writers and scholars. For many members of the committee, an academic boycott was simply a non-starter — the free flow of ideas across borders is a fundamental principle of academia, and the idea of excluding Israeli academics instead of interacting with them was unacceptable.

Our award winners reflect the hopes that led to the award in the first place. Doctors Hanna-Attisha and Edwards are scientists who became activists, using rigorous research to investigate the concerns of citizens in Flint, Michigan and unravel a mystery that many in positions of power would have preferred to keep under wraps. Both faced harassment and ridicule for their work and risked academic sanction for defying conventions of peer review, as they sought to bring attention to Flint’s water crisis before more people were affected. Their work shows that science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest.

As the first Disobedience Award, this year’s committee recognizes that we must refine our process, but we are proud of the results. Our discussions sparked deep conversation and — at times — disagreement on how best to organize and award such a public prize. But seldom are we given the opportunity at this scale to witness and congratulate such selflessness and dedication. It was a hopeful experience, one that challenges us, especially those in academia, to use our powers for good.

Also published on Medium.

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