In loving memory of Patrick Fiachie

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

Thank god I found Patrick.

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

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Patrick, in our compound, 1993

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

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

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Patrick and Fortune, probably 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in Personal | 1 Comment

Rooftop solar, and the four levers of social change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code

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


From CleanTechnica

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

Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law

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

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

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

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

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

Norms

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in ideas | 7 Comments

Ben Franklin, the Post Office and the Digital Public Sphere

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.

Posted in ideas, Media | 1 Comment

T. Greg Doucette on false arrest and police brutality

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.

Posted in Human Rights, ideas | 9 Comments

I never went looking for a mentor

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.

Posted in Personal | 9 Comments

Fred Turner: The link from anti-fascist art and the “historical problem” of Facebook

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.

Posted in ideas | 1 Comment

Why is Verizon letting rural broadband decay?

Let me start with an apology: reading other people’s tech support horror stories is less fun than hearing them describe their medical problems or recount their dreams. No one wants to hear them. While this starts as a tech support rant, I promise that it’s a much broader rant, about the state of infrastructure in rural America, the nature of corporate monopoly and the consequences of America’s naive faith in under-regulated markets. And if that sounds as painful as hearing me describe my knee pain, this would be a fine time to click the back button.

I live in a small town in western Massachusetts, and my only option for wired internet access is Verizon’s DSL service. I’ve been a customer for almost a decade and it’s decent much of the time, capable of streaming lores video from Netflix if no one else in the house is using the internet. About two weeks ago, it decayed sharply in quality, and I discovered that my connection was dropping 30-50% of packets. Once my six year old could no longer stream LEGO Ninjago, we’d reached panic time, and I called tech support.

After a few rounds of the usual “Have you tried rebooting the router?”, I got escalated to a team of very high level techies, the Presidential Appeals team, who politely and sympathetically told me the bad news: the problem was Verizon’s, not mine, and they weren’t going to fix it. Verizon had “oversold” the remote office that serviced my corner of town, and I and 208 customers were having the same problem. We were using way more bandwidth than Verizon’s network was providing to that office, saturating the T3 line that served the office, which meant all 209 of us were blocking each others’ packets and degrading each others’ service.

The math is pretty simple: Verizon’s DSL nominally offers up to 3Mbit/sec worth of bandwidth. A T3 provides 45 Mbit/sec of bandwidth, which means the line could accomodate 15 families using bandwidth at the highest possible level, or 30 simultaneous users at Netflix’s recommended broadband speed of 1.5 Mbit/sec. When these DSL networks were built, most people weren’t streaming video for hours at a time – now, we are. And the network simply can’t handle it.

“You guys need an OC3 minimum, and we should give that office an OC12 or OC24 if we were engineering for the future,” my new friend in tech support told me. “But there are no engineering orders to upgrade that line.” He went on to encourage me to complain to Verizon’s management through whatever channels I could. “We know we’re providing you with badly degraded service, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

That made me a little angry. While I’d gotten Verizon to refund my bill for my unusable service, 208 of my neighbors were paying full freight for service Verizon knew was crappy. And while the problem was solvable – install more bandwidth – Verizon had evidently decided that maintaining their infrastructure to support this load wasn’t a priority. So I sent some letters – to my State Senator, to the MassDCT (our telecoms regulator), to the Better Business Bureau, to the regional manager for external relations at Verizon. (All the government officials got back to me within 12 hours, though I never did hear from Verizon’s external relations executives.)

Things got weirder the next day. Another member of the Presidential Appeals team called me, this time for the billing department, and gently, apologetically laid out Verizon’s offer to me. They would be willing to cut my bill and have me as a fractional DSL consumer, with a projected download speed of 1Mbit/sec… or they would terminate my contract. Unfortunately, Verizon could no longer offer me DSL service.


Our local library. And town hall. And dog pound. And most reliable internet service provider.

I’d love to tell you that I told Verizon to pound sand, but as I mentioned, they have a monopoly. I could use an AT&T mobile hotspot, but the bandwidth costs get extreme pretty quickly. I could go back to satellite internet, but I still have nightmares of debugging it ten years ago, using a voltmeter to read line levels while on the phone with Hughes. And at this point, I was parking in the library of the Lanesboro, MA public library to use their lovely open wifi network, which offered a symmetric 5mbit connection, and only had the disadvantage of being four miles drive from my house. I agreed to have Verizon downgrade my service and became a fractional DSL customer.

At a moment when President Obama is promoting rural broadband, Verizon is deciding not to maintain their rural networks and let them degrade. While Republican governor Charlie Baker is investing state money in plans to provide broadband to businesses and homes in my community, Verizon has decided it is profitable to underserve their customers and invite them to quit if they don’t like the situation.

President Obama told an audience in rural Oklahoma that “The Internet is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. You cannot connect with today’s economy without access to the Internet.” Unfortunately, that necessity is not yet one Verizon is required to provide to rural residents. Despite the FCC’s reclassification of broadband internet service as a utility, Verizon is not legally required to offer broadband service to me or my neighbors and can choose to terminate my service, as the representative of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable patiently explained to me. “It’s not like local phone service, which they’re required to provide you with,” she explained.

So why is Verizon turning down my money? Why aren’t they building a network capable of supporting streaming video, Skype, Google Hangout and all the pleasures of modern, wired life? Well, it’s because they’re thinking of the future.

Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications have proposed a merger that would create a massive new cable company. My state senator’s office tells me that the new company has announced plans to offer cable internet service in my town, which would be great… in a few years, if the merger gets approved, and after they build out a network in our huge, sparsely populated town. Verizon knows that their DSL service can’t compete with cable internet, and they’re strategically underinvesting in our community. From a business perspective, it’s a smart thing for them to do – after all, where else am I going to go? How long can I idle my car in the library parking lot before the neighbors complain?

Americans, especially conservatives, like to celebrate the miracle of free market capitalism, the ways in which competition makes businesses more creative, nimble and efficient. But that’s a fairy tale, a story free marketeers tell their children to lull them to sleep. Building out a telecommunications network is extremely expensive, and the last thing companies want to do is find themselves in vigorous competition with another company that’s built out its own expensive network. So cable and telecommunications companies have come to a gentlemen’s agreement that’s good for their bottom lines and terrible for consumers – they politely stay out of each other’s territories, ensuring that connectivity is a monopoly in most markets and a duopoly in a few. Sure, that would be collusion, and the US government has the power to break up certain monopolies… but telecoms have great lobbying teams who’ve convinced legislators and regulators that 4G wireless service, which charges per bit, is a perfectly competitive alternative to unmetered wired broadband service. (Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience makes this argument far better than I ever could.)

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not in most of the world. Most governments realize that the heavy investment in infrastructure leads incumbents to try and protect monopolies, so they require operators to open their networks to competitors at cost. The result is competition, which leads to lower prices and better service. But it’s a carefully regulated market that gets you this competition, not an ideologically pure free one.

So why do Americans put up with internet that’s slower and more expensive than in Europe? Because we buy the lie that government regulation will raise prices and stifle (nonexistent) competition. Because we don’t know how embarrassingly bad American infrastructure is compared to most developed nations, unless we spend a lot of our time travelling. Because we feel politically powerless to change this situation, less able to influence our legislators than megacorporations are.

I think there’s another reason. For most people in the US, telecommunications is getting better. Slowly, expensively it’s getting better – people are cutting cord and cable and moving voice telephony and video viewing onto internet networks as they get access to faster and more reliable bandwidth. But that’s not what’s happening in Western Massachusetts, or in much of rural America. It’s getting worse for us, and right now, it’s very hard to see how it’s going to get better any time soon.

After a half-day outage Tuesday, my connectivity improved when I tested it early Wednesday morning. Perhaps throttling my connection will give me fewer dropped packets and my kid can watch streamed cartoons, pixelated, at 5fps. But now I know what Verizon has planned for me – service that gets worse and worse until I finally give up. Another reason for businesses to move to big cities, ignoring our beautiful landscape and quality of life because they can’t work without connectivity. More reasons for people who grow up in towns to leave the area to seek economic opportunity. More people in cities and suburbs with higher rents and longer commutes and more empty houses in the country.

For perfectly legal business reasons, Verizon has made a business decision that will slowly kill my town. And I’m helping by paying them.


Susan Crawford’s proposed solution to the cable/telephony duopoly is robust municipal broadband projects, as we’ve seen in cities like Santa Monica, CA and Chattanooga, TN. I agree that this is a great idea, and I’d sign up immediately if such service was available in my town. For now, Mass Broadband Institute, our state funded entity focused on rural broadband, has focused first on connectivity to libraries, schools and town buildings… which helps explain the great wifi on offer in the library’s parking lot. They’ve made less progress on home broadband, and lately, there’s been sparring between MBI and WiredWest, a cooperative that wants to build fiber networks in our small towns to solve the last mile problem. Susan is right, as she so often is, but it may be a very long time before the solution she proposes is available for me and my neighbors.


Good friend, and former Berkshire dweller Prof. Chad Orzel offers a quibble with my analysis:

I think Chad is right when he notes that this complicates the politics – I think many of my neighbors are just grateful to have broadband that doesn’t come from flaky satellite connections. But it’s not quite the fact pattern. Basically, we’ve gone from no wired broadband to shitty broadband to unusably shitty broadband – at 40% packet loss, there’s really nothing you can do using streaming services, Skype or interactive web services – everything times out. For a couple years there, DSL + heavy compression made Netflix a reality. As more of my neighbors have gotten on the bandwagon, it’s just not an option these days, and I’m renewing my Netflix bits by DVD via mail service.

Posted in ideas, Personal | 10 Comments

Heroin and Hope

This story is cross-posted on FOLD.cm, where it’s got more links, images and a layout that lets you see what’s behind the links while you read the story. Check it out there, and try FOLD to publish your own stories.


I became a Anthony Bourdain fan when he moved from the printed page to the television screen. I’d enjoyed his snarky, insider view of the NY restaurant scene, but I identified more with his mix of wide-eyed wonder and frustration as he began traveling the world in search of inspiring food and the people and cultures behind it. As his traveling circus has moved from network to network, he and his crew have gotten braver, focusing less on strange food and more on the politics of the places they’re visiting. In his show on Myanmar, the first interview is in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous tea shops. But the interview is with a leading opposition journalist, not a chef or food writer. Bourdain still eats well, but his viewers leave with an impression of a city’s character and politics, not just its flavor profile.

When Bourdain and “Parts Unknown” came to Massachusetts last winter, I was excited. Everyone comes to Boston, but very few TV crews make it out west past 495, the conceptual dividing line between Boston’s suburbs and the rest of the state. One of the promotional shots for the show featured The People’s Pint, one of my favorite bars, in Greenfield MA. So Rachel and I sat down to watch the show a few days before last Christmas, fingers crossed that our friends with restaurants in western MA would be showcased in front of an international audience. And then discovered that the show wasn’t about food, but about heroin.

Bourdain learned to cook in the clam shacks of Provincetown, MA, and the show follows him through the streets of the charming seaport, as he remembers his wild youth and his introduction to drugs, and eventually to heroin. To examine what heroin is doing today, Bourdain visits Franklin County, MA, a corner of western MA that’s wrestling with an opioid epidemic. As Bourdain interviews a former heroin dealer while sitting on a log in the woods, my hopes for seeing favorite restaurants like Hope and Olive featured turned into a fervent prayer that I wouldn’t see anyone I recognized.

Western MA and southern Vermont have become major transit points for heroin moving north from New York City along I-87, I-89 and I-91. Some of it heads to Boston, Portland and Montreal, but enough sticks around to saturate small towns. Some heroin users have never used another illegal drug previously – they got hooked on pharmaceutical opioids prescribed by doctors treating pain and turned to heroin when pharmacies became more careful about releasing Oxycontin and other prescription medications. Others are kids bored with small town life, long winters and collapsing economies. Towns like Bennington, VT – featured by the New York Times in a story about the rural “heroin scourge” – have small police departments that are desperately trying to catch up with the reality of a local drug trade.

There’s a possible upside to the opioid epidemic, if it’s possible to say such a thing about a tragedy that’s destroying families and killing people. A rural, white drug epidemic might be what finally ends the US’s racist, failed war on drugs.

A recent New York Times article featured Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, MA, a beach town north of Boston, praising his approach to heroin, which keeps addicts out of prison and steers them into treatment programs, locally and nationally. His program, which has inspired dozens of others around the country, is laudable, as are efforts by Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who spent the entirety of his 2014 State of the State message talking about opioids, seeking to reframe the conversation about heroin as one about public health, not about crime. Police officers in our area carry Naloxone, a drug that can often reverse heroin overdoses. Some police departments have unofficial policies that heroin users won’t be arrested, particularly if they are bringing in another user who is overdosing.

In other words, in our corner of New England, we’re starting to see a sane, rational, humane approach by law enforcement to drug addiction. We’re starting to see people realize that drug addiction is a health issue, that prosecuting end users is counterproductive, that treatment is vastly less expensive than incarceration.

It’s about time. And all it took was for our neighbors to become addicts.

The war on drugs has disproportionately been a war on black people. African Americans are 12% of the population of US drug users, but represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those in prison for drug offenses. These numbers didn’t happen by accident – the war on drugs is one of the clearest illustrations of structural racism in action. Mandatory minimum sentences initially prescribed sentences for crack cocaine (disproportionately used by African Americans) at 100 times the severity of sentences for powdered cocaine (disproportionately used by white Americans) – 10 grams of crack led to the same sentence as 1kg of powder, despite the fact that the two are pharmacologically identical. Sentencing reform dropped this disparity to 18 to 1 in 2010, but harsh sentences aren’t the only reason for disparities in prison populations. Overpolicing of communities of color is another reason. Lots of cops on the street lead to lots of arrests for petty drug crimes, which means more people have previous offenses, which means future arrests for minor drug crimes lead to serious time.

So when white police officers suddenly realize that the war on drugs isn’t working because white people are dying, it’s easy to understand why people of color might find these displays of compassion somewhat frustrating.

My guess is that the shift in law enforcement attitudes isn’t purely racial, but also tribal. The communities where these policy changes are taking place are often small towns where police officers are literally arresting neighbors and their kids. Mayors and police chiefs in these towns talk about how difficult it was to arrest their kid’s childhood friend or classmate. My guess is that the realization that your child could be next – a realization that comes from seeing a problem as one that affects your tribe – goes a long way towards building compassion.

In this sense, we may be seeing a moment with drug abuse in the US that’s not unlike a national shift around equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. For civil rights advocates, the incredible speed at which a majority of Americans accepted equal marriage stands in sharp contrast to the centuries-long struggle for the legalization of interracial marriage. One theory that has been offered for the difference in pace is that gays and lesbians appear to be evenly distributed throughout the US population, which means that most families – even Dick Cheney’s – have a homosexual somewhere in their family tree, while interracial marriage in a majority white country is disproportionately common in communities of color. Perhaps the discovery that drug addiction affects white and black, rural and urban is what we need to finally turn our national discourse on drugs from one about crime into one about health.

My hope for this moment in time is that families who’ve gone through the trauma of losing a loved one to opioid overdose will see themselves as part of a national movement to reform our nation’s broken drug policies. My hope is that the police chiefs and political leaders who are helping Vermont and Massachusetts cope with heroin abuse will help colleagues throughout the country realize that the drug war is a destructive and broken strategy. And my hope is that the sense of “we’re in this together” that communities are manifesting in response to the opioid epidemic is one that could extend beyond rural white communities and represent a new approach to tackling not just drug addiction but problems of poverty, health, and structural racism.

Hope alone won’t make change. But hope, in tandem with anger at the unfairness of a drug war that has decimated communities and ruined lives, might be enough to finally end the war on drug users and build a compassionate response to addiction.

Posted in Human Rights, ideas | 1 Comment

Update, or a missing person report

I just received a kind inquiry via email from a reader who wondered what had happened to this blog.

It’s a fair question.

It’s been a challenging few months, professionally and personally, and I’ve been less productive than I would have liked. I’ve also found that I’ve written much less since I started teaching at MIT. I’m a slow writer – posts here that aren’t transcriptions of other people’s talks are usually the result of a couple hours research and 3-4 hours writing… and there just aren’t a lot of days in my calendar that have 4-6 free hours available. I miss being able to write as much as I used to, but I’m enjoying other aspects of my life: teaching, advising, collaborating with students and staff.

So here’s the plan going forward: I’ve got a bunch of pieces I hope to write in the next few weeks. Most will be published in three places – here, on FOLD.cm (where they’ll have bonus images and links) and on Medium, using IFTTT to syndicate my RSS feed to my Medium account. (Hat tip to Dave Winer for tipping me off to this trick – a good recipe exists here – and for putting forth the argument that everyone should have multiple places to publish their content, rather than locking themselves into a single platform.

In the mean time, here’s a piece I wrote recently for The Guardian on advertising and surveillance. And if you really miss me, here’s a brief interview I did with the Beta Boston section of the Boston Globe, talking about my media diet and about the writing cabin I’ve been building.

Posted in Personal | 1 Comment

Urgent: Reports that Bassel Khartabil has been sentenced to death

Bassel Khartabil, a leading figure in the Syrian Open Source software community, has been imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012, accused of “harming state security”. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his immediate release.

Bassel

Khartabil’s wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, has recently been contacted by insiders in the Assad government and told that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death. (English translation/comments on Noura’s Facebook post, which is in Arabic.) It is impossible to confirm these rumors, but this is deeply disturbing news for friends of Bassel and defenders of freedom of expression anywhere.

The Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, has released a statement demanding that the Syrian government alert Bassel’s family to his whereabouts and exercise clemency in his case. We at the MIT Media Lab join this call, and urge the internet community to exercise whatever pressure we can on the Syrian government to make Bassel’s whereabouts known and release him from detention.

On October 22, the MIT Media Lab invited Bassel Khartabil to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media, to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. We continue to hope that Bassel will be able to take his position at the Media Lab, and we desperately hope the rumors of his death sentence are untrue.

We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel’s arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.

-Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab (post on Joi’s blog)
-Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

Posted in ideas | 2 Comments