… My heart’s in Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 2016-05-17T21:30:46Z hourly 1 2000-01-01T12:00+00:00 From disastrous decisions to decentralization: a mostly spontaneous talk for Data & Society http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/17/from-disastrous-decisions-to-decentralization-a-mostly-spontaneous-talk-for-data-society/ 2016-05-17T21:30:46Z Continue reading ]]> 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.

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Life, Only Moderately Messed Up, part 2: Getting Help http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/12/life-only-moderately-messed-up-part-2-getting-help/ 2016-05-12T13:03:36Z Continue reading ]]> 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.

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Lessons from Letterlocking: a serendipitous academic encounter http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/lessons-from-letterlocking-a-serendipitous-academic-encounter/ 2016-05-10T19:21:35Z Continue reading ]]> 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

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That’s _Professor_ Bozo to you, Pal http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/thats-_professor_-bozo-to-you-pal/ 2016-05-10T13:01:48Z Continue reading ]]> 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.

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In loving memory of Patrick Fiachie http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/04/03/in-loving-memory-of-patrick-fiachie/ 2016-04-04T02:51:49Z Continue reading ]]> 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.

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Rooftop solar, and the four levers of social change http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/03/25/rooftop-solar-and-the-four-levers-of-social-change/ 2016-03-25T21:22:07Z Continue reading ]]> 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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Ben Franklin, the Post Office and the Digital Public Sphere http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/26/ben-franklin-the-post-office-and-the-digital-public-sphere/ 2016-02-27T02:29:29Z Continue reading ]]> My dear friend danah boyd led a fascinating day-long workshop at Data and Society in New York City today focused on algorithmic governance of the public sphere. I’m still not sure why she asked me to give opening remarks at the event, but I’m flattered she did, and it gave me a chance to dust off one of my favorite historical stories, as well as showing off a precious desktop toy, an action figure of Ben Franklin, given to me by my wife.


If you’re going to have a favorite founding father, Ben Franklin is not a bad choice. He wasn’t just an inventor, a scientist, a printer and a diplomat – he was a hustler. (As the scholar P. Diddy might have put it, he was all about the Benjamin.) Ben was a businessman, an entrepreneur, and he figured out that one of the best ways to have financial and political power in the Colonies was to control the means of communication. The job he held the longest was as postmaster, starting as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and finally getting fired from his position as postmaster general of the Colonies in 1774, when the British finally figured out that he was a revolutionary who could not be trusted.

Being in charge of the postal system had a lot of benefits for Ben. He had ample opportunities to hand out patronage jobs to his friends and family, and he wasn’t shy about using franking privileges to send letters for free. But his real genius was in seeing the synergies between the family business – printing – and the post. Early in his career as a printer, Franklin bumped into one of the major challenges to publishers in the Colonies – if the postmaster didn’t like what you were writing about, you didn’t get to send your paper out to your subscribers. Once Ben had control over the post, he instituted a policy that was both progressive and profitable. Any publisher could distribute his newspaper via the post for a small, predictable, fixed fee.

What resulted from this policy was the emergence of a public sphere in the United States that was very different from the one Habermas describes, but one that was uniquely well suited to the American experiment. It was a distributed public sphere of newspapers and letters. And for a nation that spanned the distance between Boston and Charleston, a virtual, asynchronous public sphere mediated by print made more sense that one that centered around physical coffee houses.

Franklin died in 1790, but physician and revolutionary Benjamin Rush expanded on Franklin’s vision for a post office that would knit the nation together and provide a space for the political discussions necessary for a nation of self-governing citizens to rule themselves. In 1792, Rush authored The Post Office Act, which is one of the subtlest and most surprising pieces of 18th century legislation that you’ve never heard of.

The Post Office Act established the right of the government to control postal routes and gave citizens rights to privacy of their mail – which was deeply undermined by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but hey, who’s counting. But what may be most important about the Post Office Act is that it set up a very powerful cross subsidy. Rather than charging based on weight and distance, as they had before Franklin’s reforms, the US postal system offered tiered service based on the purpose of the speech being exchanged. Exchanging private letters was very costly, while sending newspapers was shockingly cheap: it cost a small fraction of the cost of a private letter to send a newspaper. As a result, newspapers represented 95% of the weight of the mails and 15% of the revenue in 1832. This pricing disparity led to the wonderful phenomenon of cheapskates purchasing newspapers, underlining or pricking holes with a pin under selected words and sending encoded letters home.

The low cost of mailing newspapers as well as the absence of stamp taxes or caution money, which made it incredibly prohibitively expensive to operate a press in England, allowed half of all American households to have a newspaper subscription in 1820, a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in England or France. But the really crazy subsidy was the “exchange copy”. Newspapers could send copies to each other for free, with carriage costs paid by the post office. By 1840, The average newspaper received 4300 exchange copies a year – they were swimming in content, and thanks to extremely loose enforcement of copyright laws, a huge percentage of what appeared in the average newspaper was cut and pasted from other newspapers. This giant exchange of content was subsidized by high rates on those who used the posts for personal and commercial purposes.

This system worked really well, creating a postal service that was fiscally sustainable, and which aspired to universal service. By 1831, three quarters of US government civilian jobs were with the postal service. In an almost literal sense, the early US state was a postal service with a small representative government attached to it. But the postal system was huge because it needed to be – there were 8700 post offices by 1830, including over 400 in Massachusetts alone, which is saying something, as there are only 351 towns in Massachusetts.

I should note here that I don’t really know anything about early American history – I’m cribbing all of this from Paul Starr’s brilliant The Creation of the Media. But it’s a story I teach every year to my students because it helps explain the unique evolution of the public sphere in the US. Our founders built and regulated the postal system in such a way that its function as a sphere of public discourse was primary and its role as a tool for commerce and personal communication was secondary. They took on this massive undertaking explicitly because they believed that to have a self-governing nation, we needed not only representation in Congress, but a public sphere, a space for conversation about what the nation would and could be. And because the US was vast, and because the goal was to expand civic participation far beyond the urban bourgeois (not universal, of course, limited to property-owning white men), it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere.

As we look at the challenge we face today – understanding the influence of algorithms over the public sphere – it’s worth understanding what’s truly novel, and what’s actually got a deep historical basis. The notion of a private, commercial public sphere isn’t a new one. America’s early newspapers had an important civic function, but they were also loaded with advertising – 50-90% of the total content, in the late 18th century, which is why so many of them were called The Advertiser. What is new is our distaste for regulating commercial media. Whether through the subsidies I just described or through explicit mandates like the Fairness Doctrine, we’ve not historically been shy in insisting that the press take on civic functions. The anti-regulatory, corporate libertarian stance, built on the questionable assumptions that any press regulation is a violation of the first amendment and that any regulation of tech-centric industries will retard innovation, would likely have been surprising to our founders.

An increase in inclusivity of the public sphere isn’t new – in England, the press was open only to the wealthy and well-connected, while the situation was radically different in the colonies. And this explosion of media led to problems of information overload. Which means that gatekeeping isn’t new either – those newspapers that sorted through 4300 exchange copies a year to select and reprint content were engaged in curation and gatekeeping. Newspapers sought to give readers what an editor thought they wanted, much as social media algorithms promise to help us cope with the information explosion we face from our friends streams of baby photos. The processes editors have used to filter information were never transparent, hence the enthusiasm of the early 2000s for unfiltered media. What may be new is the pervasiveness of the gatekeeping that algorithms make possible, the invisibility of that filtering and the difficulty of choosing which filters you want shaping your conversation.

Ideological isolation isn’t new either. The press of the 1800s was fiercely opinionated and extremely partisan. In many ways, the Federalist and Republican parties emerged from networks of newspapers that shared ideologically consonant information – rather than a party press, the parties actually emerged from the press. But again, what’s novel now is the lack of transparency – when you read the New York Evening Post in 1801, you knew that Alexander Hamilton had founded it, and you knew it was a Federalist paper. Research by Christian Sandvig and Karrie Karahalios suggests that many users of Facebook don’t know that their friend feed is algorithmically curated, and don’t realize the way it may be shaped by the political leanings of their closest friends.

So I’m not here as a scholar of US press and postal history, or a researcher on algorithmic shaping of the public sphere. I’m here as a funder, as a board member of Open Society Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event. OSF works on a huge range of issues around the world, but a common thread to our work is our interest in the conditions that make it possible to have an open society. We’ve long been convinced that independent journalism is a key enabling factor of an open society, and despite the fact that George Soros is not exactly an active Twitter user, we are deeply committed to the idea that being able to access, publish, curate and share information is also an essential precursor to an open society, and that we should be engaged with battles against state censorship and for a neutral internet.

A little more than a year ago, OSF got together with a handful of other foundations – our co-sponsor MacArthur, the Ford Foundation, Knight, Mozilla – and started talking about the idea that there were problems facing the internet that governments and corporations were unlikely to solve. We started asking whether there was a productive role the foundation and nonprofit community could play in this space, around issues of privacy and surveillance, accessibility and openness, and the ways the internet can function as a networked public sphere. We launched the Netgain challenge last February, designed to solicit ideas on what problems foundations might take on. This summer, we held a deep dive on the question of the pipeline of technical talent into public service careers and have started funding projects focused on identifying, training, connecting and celebrating public interest technologists.

The NetGain Challenge: Ethan Zuckerman from Ford Foundation on Vimeo.

We know that the digital public sphere is important. What we don’t know is what, if anything, we should be doing to ensure that it’s inclusive, generative, more civil… less civil? We know we need to know more, which is why we’re here today.

I want to understand what role algorithms are really playing in this emergent public sphere, and I’m a big fan of entertaining the null hypothesis. I think it’s critical to ask what role algorithms are really playing, and whether – as Etyan Basky and Lada Adamic’s research suggests – that echo chambers are more a product of user’s choices than algorithmic intervention. (I argue in Rewire that while filter bubbles may be real, the power of homophily in constraining your access to information is far more powerful.) We need to situate the power of algorithms in relation to cultural and individual factors.

We need to understand what are potential risks and what are real risks. Much of my current work focuses on the ways making and disseminating media is a way of making social change, especially through attempting to shape and mold social norms. Algorithmic control of the public sphere is a very powerful factor if that’s the theory of change you’re operating within. But the feeling of many of my colleagues in the social change space is that the work we’re doing here today is important because we don’t fully understand what algorithmic control means for the public sphere, which means it’s essential that we study it.

danah and her team have brought together an amazing group of scholars, people doing cutting edge work on understand what algorithmic governance and control might and can mean. What I want to ask you to do is expand out beyond the scholarly questions you’re taking on and enter the realm of policy. As we figure out what algorithms are and aren’t doing to our civic dialog, what would we propose to do? How do we think about engineering a public sphere that’s inclusive, diverse and constructive without damaging freedom of speech, freedom to dissent, freedom to offend. How do we propose shaping engineered systems without damaging the freedom to innovate and create?

I’m finding that many of my questions these days boil down to this one: what do we want citizenship to be? That’s the essential question we need to ask when we consider what we want a public sphere to do – what do we expect of citizens, and what would they – we – need to fully and productively engage in civics. That’s a question our founders were asking almost three hundred years ago when Franklin started turning the posts and print into a public sphere, and it’s the question I hope we’ll take up today.

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T. Greg Doucette on false arrest and police brutality http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/24/t-greg-doucette-on-false-arrest-and-police-brutality/ 2016-02-24T17:19:46Z Continue reading ]]> This post is not from me, but is a remarkable rant from T. Greg Doucette, an attorney in Durham, NC, who took to Twitter to share his experiences defending a young client from charges of reckless driving to endanger, a serious crime in North Carolina. (Greg, if you’re not okay with me collecting these here, let me know and I will take it down.)

I’m sharing it because, as the child of a legal aid defense attorney, I remember growing up with loads of stories like this, and having these stories shape my understanding about law enforcement, criminal justice and power. My father used to frequent courtrooms and offer to defend people facing charges without counsel precisely because stories like this are extremely common.

A couple of things. Greg mentions that this situation is wrong whether you’re Republican, Democrat or undecided, but you may be assuming that he’s a Dem. He’s not – he’s a Republican and a libertarian, and is running for state senate as a Republican.

You may also assume that he’s African American. He’s a white dude, who happened to go to a historically black law school and who runs a law firm with two female lawyers of color. And while he’s getting lots of Twitter love today, he points out that he’s been blogging about these issues for a long time – see this post on prosecuting abusive prosecutors where he features a friend he went to NC State with.

But while Greg’s an interesting figure, what’s important about his rant – IMHO – is that he doesn’t address this as a case of a rogue cop potentially ruining a young man’s life. He sees this as a systemic problem, and as a form of police brutality. Greg’s take may focus on this as a manifestation of a greedy and out-of-control state (he is a libertarian, after all), but he’s absolutely right to point out that when court systems are forced to become partially or entirely self-financing, there’s a strong pressure to increase prosecutions, even when those prosecutions are entirely bogus. Even if Greg’s rant ends up somehow leading to the arresting officer being sanctioned or otherwise punished, the problem he identifies is a systemic one – set up a system where courts need to prosecute people to survive and they will prosecute a lot of people.

I was especially struck by Greg’s identification of this arrest as a form of brutality. It’s a form that’s hard for most white people to see – this young man wasn’t beaten up, wasn’t imprisoned, wasn’t shot. But he was terrified. And his encounters with law enforcement going forward will be colored by the knowledge that power can and will be exercised arbitrarily based on his status as a young black male.

When we look at questions like whether predictive policing is fair and ethical, we need to understand that not all encounters between citizens and police are handled in the most ethical and professional manner we’d like to see. Populations that have grown up with a long tradition of being harassed and brutalized by police are understandably concerned about strategies that identify “hot spots” and promise additional “attention” to those areas, which often turn out to be communities of color.

In watching debates about policing after Ferguson, it’s hard not to be struck by the importance that imagery can have in disputes between police and citizens. Without his mother’s photographs, Greg’s client would likely have been convicted based on the officer’s testimony. Without Feidin Santana’s video, we would never have known that Walter Scott was murdered by officer Michael Slager. And so it makes sense that activists – and the President – would push for officer-worn body cameras.

But imagery alone doesn’t change flawed systems – the video of Eric Garner choking to death wasn’t enough to indict the officers who arrested him in Staten Island. Greg Doucette’s story points to the fact that problems with criminal justice in the US are problems of structural injustice and racism, that a system where power is not held accountable will veer towards abuse and where financial incentives to prosecute crimes leads to unjustifiable prosecution. Props to Greg for identifying this as a structural problem and looking for ways to fix it, and to all defense attorneys who work hard, with little recognition, to fight for the rights of their clients in a system that is often biased against them.

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I never went looking for a mentor http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/13/i-never-went-looking-for-a-mentor/ 2016-02-13T18:19:42Z Continue reading ]]> I never went looking for a mentor.

In 1995, I was working as the lead tech guy for an internet startup, Tripod. I spent an inordinate amount of time with the company’s two cofounders, one a recent college grad my age, loaded with charisma and ambition, and the other, a distinguished college professor, a World Bank economist with a desperate desire to leave academia and work in “the real world”. I loved both men and both drove me mad in equal measure, but Dick Sabot, the professor who was my fathers’ age, was the friend I gravitated to.

As chairman of the company, Dick’s responsibilities were wide-ranging and general, but centered on the corporation’s strategy, fundraising and future directions. The company was my life, and I spent countless hours talking with Dick about where we were going and how best to get there. At some point, Dick asked me for help editing a letter to investors, so I could ensure the discussion of technical matters was correct. Gradually, I found myself writing and editing much of Dick’s writing for the company, helping steer the company through countless discussions and arguments with Dick and Bo, his co-founder. I would occasionally joke that I’d taken on an additional job as assistant to the chairman, but mostly I was thrilled at the chance to work on our most important projects and our hardest decisions.

It literally didn’t occur to me that Dick was mentoring me until a year after we sold the company. Dick no longer needed my help understanding the technical aspects of business, which were now part of a vast publicly traded company and well beyond my understanding. And yet we had developed a habit of meeting every week in his living room for breakfast. I would bring muffins and fruit juice and we’d talk about our parent company, the business he wanted to start next, the nonprofit I was starting. He became the chairman of the board of my nonprofit, giving us an excuse for our regular meetings, but our conversations were wide-ranging, about different ways to make the world a better place, about his and my decisions to live in the rural community we both loved, about how to live a good and meaningful life.

Dick, laughing.

Dick, laughing.

My nonprofit bloomed then crashed. His new business grew and then collapsed, first with a heavy snowfall crushing the warehouse where all the inventory was stored, then with embezzlement by his CFO. I washed up on the shores of academe, becoming a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center. As I flirted with returning to school and earning a PhD, Dick made the case that I’d always learn more in the real world than in a classroom.

And then he died. While Rachel and I drove to his farm to have dinner with Dick and his wife, he had a massive heart attack while working out at the college gym. I’d brought a block of marzipan for him from a trip to Armenia, and I left it with his wife as we hugged, sobbing, in the parking lot of the hospital where he died.

If I was too dense to notice when Dick began mentoring me, I didn’t miss his absence. My work was going well – Rebecca and I had launched Global Voices, I was developing my voice as a writer and learning a new way to shape the world, this time through philanthropy, working with Open Society Foundation. But I found myself second-guessing every decision, wondering how to pick a path to follow without someone older and wiser to talk through my choices with.

My closest friend at the Berkman Center was David Weinberger, a funny, kind and generous writer who’d produced the most cogent book I’d encountered on what the internet was and why it was important, Small Pieces Loosely Joined. We shared drafts of our blog posts and argued about the future of the internet, and when I talked to him, I felt less lost.

And so I asked David whether he would be my mentor. And he said no.

More precisely, he said, “I don’t want to be your mentor. I want to be your peer.”

It was one of the hardest and kindest things anyone has ever said to me. But he was right. And we remain dear friends, reading each other’s work, propping each other up when we face hard moments, offering each other advice and counsel. It’s a very special relationship to me, but it’s different from what Dick and I had, more symmetric and subtle. I learn from David every time I speak with him, but I don’t show up at his house with juice and muffins.

It took me several more years to realize that it was time for me to close the loop. I was teaching at MIT, advising a cadre of brilliant graduate students on their research, when I noticed I was spending at least as much time talking about their aspirations and their fears as I was about their research. I’d assumed that at some future date, when my hair had grown sufficiently grey perhaps, I would magically develop a store of wisdom that I was ready to pass down to the next generation. But I’m still young, still an idiot most of the time, and still desperately trying to grope my way through life, unsure of where I’m ultimately going. But somehow listening to these amazing young people and occasionally offering my thoughts and opinions appeared to be helpful to them, and so I’ve kept doing it.

In the process, I realized that Dick hadn’t started sharing his work with me in a subtle attempt to educate me about business and leadership – he’d asked me to help him write and think because I was good at those things and I helped make his work better. And I don’t advise students because MIT pays me to – I advise students because they’re brilliant and creative and because talking with them makes my thinking sharper and better. And I do it because I care about them and when they succeed, it gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment that I never imagined I could feel about work I hadn’t done with my own hands.

This fall, at a moment where I was feeling particularly dark about my decision to teach at MIT, my students and staff did something marvelous for me: they nominated me for the Martin Luther King Jr. award, MIT’s institute-wide award for leadership. Thanks to their profoundly generous letters of recommendation, I won, and while the handshake from the university president, the check and the trophy were nice, the prize was the pile of recommendation letters my students handed me. I sometimes send students the letters of recommendations I write for them, because I think it’s important to let people know how you really feel. And my students let me know that they valued me as a professor, an advisor, a friend and a mentor.

I never went looking for a mentor. Now I’ve found dozens. Sometimes they’re wise elders whose examples I try to learn from. At least as often, they’re young people whose passion and energy helps maintain my passion and energy. The best part about these young mentors is that I’ve got them fooled – they think I’m mentoring them, when in truth, they’re mentoring me.

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Fred Turner: The link from anti-fascist art and the “historical problem” of Facebook http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/04/fred-turner-the-link-from-anti-fascist-art-and-the-historical-problem-of-facebook/ 2016-02-05T00:11:45Z Continue reading ]]> Fred Turner, the leading chronicler of the links between the 60s counterculture and the internet revolution, turned his sights to the rise of multimedia in America prior to the 1960s in his recent book The Democratic Surround. On February 4, Turner returned to his hometown and to MIT, where he previously taught, to talk to architecture students about ideas of democracy, interactivity and public space. (I’m a Turner groupie, not an architecture student, so I came as well, along with roughly half of the Center for Civic Media.)

Turner explains that the story he will tell unfolds in building 7 of MIT, many years ago. But he starts the story with the “historical problem” of Facebook. Facebook offers a world in which connecting through a commercial, institutional space is presented as a democratic good. Our relations, connected through devices, is supposed to be a good – how on earth did we come to believe this is true? Oddly the answer comes from World War II and a turn away from centralized communication systems and the sense that these technologies were connected to fascism. That led to the idea that multimedia – sounds and images from all sides – would lead us to an appreciation of democracy and choice. Further, Fred wants to explore how computers got attached to that story, first by Norbert Weiner at MIT.

Turner tells us that we are currently surrounded by screens at all time – our phones, laptops, televisions. They are usually technologies of interpersonal connection. They invite us to create a new polity based on connecting with one another, united by seeking. The images we create for Facebook are the ones we encounter in the commercial sphere. We are being offered a model of democratic politics that is not democratic at all – it is a model based on surveillance and control.

After checking to see that the room is free of “card carrying historians”, turner explains that historian of 20th century America tend to cite Roosevelt as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Their history tends to be a history of political leaders and the social forces they manage. “That boggles my mind,” he explains, since one of the most interesting aspects of the 20th century is media: radio, television, cinema. These are so far from mainstream American history that these historians have their own professional societies. One goal is to return media to the center of studying American history. Another is to historicize media studies.

His book, The Democratic Surround, covers the period from 1937 to 1967, and it’s a prequel to his earlier book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which covers from 1968 to 1993. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner finds the roots of Wired Magazine and digital utopianism in 60s countercultural movements. Completing that history, he wanted to go further back, to the origins of those countercultural movements in reactions to World War II.

In 1938, American intellectuals had a problem. Germany was the center of intellectual culture and music. When Germany turned itself over to the leadership of Adolf Hitler, an obvious madman, people needed to figure out why. A popular explanation given was that Hitler had somehow mastered mass media – newspapers, movies, radio – and figured out how to capture the unconscious allegiance of ordinary Germans. One theory is that Hitler and Goering were literally insane, and that the media was the channel for making their madness communicable. Another theory was that the mass media was profoundly powerful, that the one to many practice of mass media was essentially a fascist model.

Reading old issues of the Sunday Evening Post, Turner was shocked to find FDR described as “the fourth fascist”, alongside Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Why? Because he had managed to capture mass media through his fireside chats and channel American public opinion in support of his policies. By 1941, many Americans feared that mass media could turn people into fascists… and this wasn’t an absurd idea. Father Coughlin had an audience of 3 million, and he used the airwaves to push The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Madison Square Garden in the late 1930s, 22,000 people rallied for fascism, against Judaism, in defense of “Christian America”. Fascism was surprisingly popular with Americans, even Naziism.

Turner invites us to yell out Bogart films – Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre – and notes that none of us mentioned The Black Legion, a 1937 film in which Bogart is a blackshirt fascist who kills his Polish neighbor in the hopes of starting a fascist revolution.

The fear is that mass media creates fascists, either by conveying the insanity of American leaders, or by putting us into masses that all point in the same direction. If we want to confront fascism, how do we do so without turning them into fascists. FDR has an idea – he wants to copy Goebbel’s methods to deprogram Americans. But there’s another group at work – the Committee for National Morale, assembled in 1941, a group of 60 leading social scientists who work together to make propaganda that would promote “democratic character”.

The idea of democratic character ties to the idea that nations have a pre-existing personality that can be triggered by media. Germany’s authoritarian character was triggered by Nazi media. How can America’s fundamental democratic character be triggered by media? And once we trigger this character, how do we “coordinate the intelligences and will” of people? They theorize that they need to build a medium based on “non-hierarchical principals”. They have theories about images for all sides, smoke bombs, spectacles to force individuals to choose and integrate different images.

Fortunately, a bunch of refugees from the Bauhaus were down the street. Turner focuses on Herbert Bayer, whose theory of exhibitions was enormously influential. Bayer challenged the idea that pictures were meant to be held on walls at eye level. Instead, as a gestaltist, Bayer believed that we needed to see images all around ourselves and knit these images into a single experience which helps us integrate our whole self. When Bayer comes to the US fleeing the Nazis, he’s happy to bring this idea to the project of creating the democratic man and pushing against the Nazi regime.

Bayer’s first exhibit in the US was “The Road to Victory”, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. 800,000 people saw the exhibit over 6 weeks, an awfully large number in the context of the population of New York City. It’s clearly a propagandistic, jingoistic exhibit. But the nationalism of the imagery wasn’t what people appreciated – it was the fact that the images were shown at different levels and that the exhibit forced people through a particular path, inviting the viewer to integrate the images as she passed through.

This idea of integrating multiple perspectives is surprisingly influential on cybernetics. Many of the members of the Committee for National Morale participated in the Macy Conferences, bringing social scientists like Margaret Mead into contact with technological thinkers like Norbert Weiner. Weiner believed that we should think of democratic citizens as self-regulating machines, taking in feedback and reacting accordingly. Fascist citizens, on the other hand, can be understood as mechanistic ants. To be fully human is to understand that you are information system seeking information from other information systems.

The democratic surround – these multimedia exhibitions – go out into the world in travelling propaganda expos and through the art world, eventually influencing the 1960s counterculture. In both cases, computation is deeply implicated in the process. Turner shows us “Glimpses of the USA”, an exhibit of US technology in Moscow in 1959. The US Information Agency with large American corporations built a massive exhibition seen by 2 million Soviet citizens. Inside a geodesign dome designed by Buckminster Fuller are seven huge screens designed by Charles and Ray Eames, showing images that move at different rates, designed both to show American abundance, and to give Soviet citizens the chance to choose between images as in Bayer-style exhibits.

In the archives, studying these exhibitions, Turner discovered that USIA’s approach to this exhibit was for the exhibitors to “act like therapists”, understanding the psychological conditions of the Soviet visitors, to attempt an intervention and to evaluate its success. In essence, the Glimpses of the USA exhibit was to surveil and record the mindset of the Soviet Union. A IBM RAMAC Computer answered questions in Russian, and compiled dossiers on what Soviets wanted to know.

Turner juxtaposes these propaganda exhibits against the art world of composers like John Cage. Cage explains 3″44 and the idea that listening to “silence” and environmental sounds is a part of creating an integrated self. It’s widely believed that Cage came to this line of thought through his interest in Eastern religion. But Turner has found evidence that Cage was a profound patriot, who was interested in using percussion and electronic music to help Americans understand the experience of freedom.

We jump forward to 1952 to Black Mountain College, the rural educational retreat where Buckminster Fuller deployed his first dome, and where Cage and others deployed the first “happening”. Someone climbed a ladder and declaimed a poem. A dog ran around. Someone pounded on a piano, and people put teacups on a chair. “That was it. On what planet does that transform art for the next two decades?”

In 1957, Cage goes to New York and teaches the founders of the “happenings” world. In 1966, they hold an exhibition called by a journalist a “be-in”. It was a multimedia, psychedelic environment designed to help you understand yourself as a global citizen. This was the aesthetic of late universal humanism.

Turner explains that this is a world where artists and engineers want to play together. At the Pepsi Pavillion in Osaka in 1970 are cybernetic organisms you can interact with. When you enter, the space is designed to be a three dimensional computational and art experience. The builders of this space are associated with everyone from Cage’s happenings to Bell Labs, all working for Pepsi, who are trying to bring us “the young generation”. It was computer monitored and maintained environment designed to create psychological freedom. You see yourself in the mirrored Mylar ceiling, literally surrounded by reflections of yourself. (“Facebook”, Turner notes.) As you walk across the floor, you trigger different sounds which play to you on a handset. You are part of a cybernetic loop, free to experience the diversity of the national and mechanical world. As Weiner says, “We are but patterns of information in rivers of time.”

You would think there would be a happy end to this story. The people who participated in the be-ins that led to the summer of love were exactly the self-actualized people Margaret Mead and the committee for national morale were trying to create in 1942. But there’s a problem.

In these multimedia exhibitions, you are free to explore, to cluster, to see yourself in the images of very different people. But this whole experience has been intensely curated, and power is being exercised on you via aggregation. And those powerful shaping forces are invisible. “You can shout back at Hermann Göring, but how do you shout back at the exhibition designers?”

And that’s where we are now, Turner explains. We are in a world of personal choice, where reaching out to connect with distant others is, in fact, the tool used to control us.


Some of the questions ask whether Turner is being unfair or unkind in describing Bayer and others as oppressing those who experience their exhibits. Turner explains that we’re too often looking for a bad guy. In this story, we have many people whose intentions are good, who are working on the right issues, and end up creating systems that act counter to what they expected and intended. Asked how artists could avoid being “accidentally oppressive”, Turner points out that the key involves who you collaborate with and how – while the 1960s happenings were run almost exclusively by privileged white men and featured women primarily as objects, Turner asks us to imagine genuine expressions of equal collaboration in a polyracial and feminist society.

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