What happens when mistrust wins – my speech at the Colombian national journalism prize

I spent yesterday in Bogota, Colombia, as the invited guest of the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar, offering a speech on the future of civics and the future of journalism. It’s a wonderful event – roughly 1100 people came to celebrate Colombia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer prize. I had a great time meeting the amazing Colombian journalists who served as the jury for the award as well as the team behind the event.

cwx3m_aw8aavd8d

My friends on the jury pointed out something that they found amazing – this year’s winners offered stories about the environment, gay adoption, teenage parties, sexual identity… and almost nothing about the country’s 52 year long civil war. As one of my friends put it, “Maybe we can now focus on the problems any normal nation has.” Fingers crossed that, despite the no vote on the peace deal with the FARC, this positive trend continues.

Here’s what I shared with the audience in Bogota:

I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a deep change that I think is occurring in the world we share. Since I’m a professor at MIT, you are probably expecting me to tell you about a technological shift – the rise of synthetic biology or of quantum computing. But please don’t worry – I don’t understand that stuff either. Instead, I’m here as a journalist and a publisher, and I want to talk about a social and political shift I’m seeing in my lab and in my reporting work. It’s a shift that helps explain what’s happened in recent events both in Colombia and in the US. And it’s a shift that’s changing what it means to be a journalist and what our industry needs to do.

I was last in Bogota in August, just three months ago. Talking to friends and colleagues, I felt the great hope many people had that the 52 year civil war might be coming to an end, that the amazing transformation of cities like Bogota and Medellin would become what Colombia was known for globally, instead of years of violence. I also got the strong sense that peace was hard, that achieving a solution that Colombians thought was fair and just was going to require much more than an agreement and a referendum.

In the wake of the vote on October 2, Colombia looks like a nation divided, with 49.8% voting sí and 50.2% voting no. I want to suggest that Colombia is divided in a much more serious way, between 62% who didn’t vote and 38% who did. The group that won in the referendum was not Uribe supporters, not those who wanted to see more FARC leaders prosecuted. Those who won the vote were the 62% who had so little faith in the democratic process that they didn’t vote.

It’s very fashionable to beat up on the people who didn’t vote – they were too lazy, they weren’t educated enough about the issues, it was raining and they didn’t care enough about their civic duty to go out and get wet. I want to suggest that it’s dangerous to dismiss this group as lazy or uneducated.

Let me give you an example from the United States. In our elections, we see a great difference in turnout between old people and young people – retired people vote at almost twice the rate of people in their twenties. People read these statistics and declare that we have a crisis in civics! Young people are so selfish, so obsessed with their phones and music and media that they aren’t paying any attention to the world around them.

But there’s other data that contradicts this. Young people in America are volunteering at higher rates than they ever have. Huge percentages of people are active online in political discussions about racism and about sexual harassment, writing online and sharing stories of their experiences. Most of my students aren’t going into politics or into government service, but they are starting businesses that have the twin goals of making money and of making social change, building products and services around alternative energy and organic farming. They may not be voting, but they are profoundly active in their communities and in civic life.

So what’s going on here? This isn’t a crisis in civics, it’s a crisis in confidence, specifically a crisis in confidence in institutions.

The Gallup Research survey asks Americans the same question every year: do you have confidence that the government will do the right thing all or most of the time? In 1964, 71% of people said yes, they had confidence in the government. Last year, the answer was 13%. And who can blame them? The US congress passes fewer laws than ever, there’s less compromise between our two parties, and it’s so difficult to accomplish everything that the government periodically shuts down, and is in danger of defaulting on its debt, not because we are out of money, but because we can’t agree to sign the check.

But Americans aren’t just losing confidence in government – the same survey asks about confidence in other institutions: the church, banks, big business, universities, the health care system, the police. In the US, confidence is down in every large institution with the exception of the military.

So I have some bad news – mistrust is on the rise around the world, not just in the US. The research firm Eurobarometer looks at these same questions of trust in institutions around the world, and they find that trust is diminishing in most democracies. There’s two places trust is increasing – the most successful democracies in Scandinavia and Northern Europe and in autocratic states, like China and the United Arab Emirates.

What happens at times of high mistrust? People stop participating in the political process. If you don’t trust that the government can or will carry out the will of the people, why bother to vote? Why run for office or support the campaigns of those who do? Elections continue, but the people who are elected know that they lack a strong mandate – they were elected by a plurality of voters, and they know the majority may not support anything they do. The people who continue to participate are those most passionate… and most extreme. We end up with paralysis, because the most passionate participants are not willing to compromise. And this paralysis leads to more disengagement from voters – they were worried that government couldn’t accomplish anything, and this paralysis simply proves they were right.

When we lose confidence in institutions, we tend to transfer our trust to individuals. In the US, that’s leading to one of the strangest elections in history, where a man with no experience governing, a history of business failures and a track record of offending nearly everyone in our country stands a chance of becoming our president. But mistrust in institutions doesn’t have to lead to demagoguery. It can lead to all new ways for citizens to participate in civic life.

Around the world, I am seeing citizens look for ways to make change outside the political system. My students don’t want to go into government, but they do want to go into business. Last week, I met with two students from India who’ve invented a pollution control device that filters particles out of exhaust. You can attach it to a car, a generator, a motorbike, and not only does it reduce your emissions, but their technology can turn those particles into ink. So you can drive your car or run your generator, and fill the toner cartridge for your laser printer at the same time. They’re convinced that they can help people make money and reduce emissions at the same time, and they might be right.

Making change through technology and markets is a great way for individuals to try to make change when they lose faith in their ability to pass laws. But perhaps the most powerful way people can make change is by trying to shape social norms, the unwritten rules of how we interact with each other in society. In the US, you may know, we’re having very serious problems with African Americans being killed by police. This isn’t a problem of law: it’s illegal for the police to kill someone unless their lives are at risk. It’s a problem of social norms: due to America’s tragic racial history, many white people perceive young black men to be dangerous. Ending the violence means changing this deep-seated perception.

Activists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement have used social media to call attention to this crisis of police violence – they’ve demanded the news media do a better job of covering cases where black people are killed by police by making victims famous. Our lab did a study of these efforts and found there were ten times as many stories about black victims of police violence after the movement started than before it began.

This form of social change is uncomfortable for us as journalists. For one thing, the press is an institution that’s subject to almost as much mistrust as government. And now activists are telling us that we’re not doing our jobs right, that we need to cover this story and not that one. They are telling us that we’re not always living up to our own ethical standards, that our reporting sometimes makes complicated situations more confusing.

I want to invite you to look at the situation a different way. Activists have realized that making media is a way of making change. What they’ve realized is what we do as journalists is powerful, and that they can do this work, too. We have a natural tendency to defend our territory, to complain about these interlopers invading our profession as we struggle to keep doing the important work we do. But I believe that they way forward is to cooperate with people who are making media to make change. I believe activists and citizens can make news that is fair and trustworthy, and that we can learn new lessons from them as well.

My friend Michael Schudson has an essay called “Six or Seven Things News Can Do For Democracy”. Some of what he asks the press to do is familiar to us – to inform, investigate and analyze the events that take place in the world around us. These are tasks everyone who proudly calls themselves a journalist knows how to do well, and we can help citizens learn to do this work as well.

But Schudson asks the news to do things we’re less comfortable with. He argues that it’s news’s job to make us empathize with stories of people who are unfamiliar to us. That the news needs to provide a public space for discussion of the issues of the day. That sometimes the job of news is to empower people to mobilize and take political action. Some of these are places where we can learn lessons from activists, from citizen journalists, from people who are using the media to make change and to feel powerful even when they feel deeply disempowered by the institutions around them.

Schudson ends his essay by suggesting that news can help people understand and appreciate our democratic system and how it works. Here I want to suggest that our job isn’t to explain how we think democracy is supposed to work, or how democracy used to work. Our job is to help people understand how democracy works – and doesn’t work – now.

Often, people are right to be mistrustful of institutions – our job is to discover and reveal institutions that are broken or corrupt. But we cannot stop there, or we leave our readers informed but disempowered. We have to help citizens – our readers – understand how they, personally, can make change in the world, at the ballot box, as consumers, as entrepreneurs, through social media, through technology. We have to document where the levers of power are in society today and help people learn how to move them.

Maybe it’s not fair to put this challenge on the media, an institution that’s going through its own struggles to be financially sustainable. But I believe the answer to our future as an industry begins with ensuring we are relevant as a civic actor. And the brilliance and bravery of the journalists in Colombia we are honoring today and who have done groundbreaking work through years past gives me great confidence that you are all up to the task. Thanks for listening to me and thank you for the work you do.

Posted in ideas | 5 Comments

This crazy election: Denial of Service attacks on Democracy

Reading Facebook before bed last night, amidst the Halloween costumes and candy haul photos, I saw this headline: “How to choose between the most corrupt, least popular candidates of all time”. Given that I’m researching a book on mistrust and its effects on politics and civic life, this seemed like something worth reading.

relevant-to-my-interests

Alas, instead of examining the peculiarities that have led us to an election between two candidates that might have otherwise been unelectable, the article is a humor piece. It offers “offensive and misdemeanors” for each candidate and advises you to use your own moral compass to make the choice. For Clinton, it lists “Poor email server management”. For Trump, there’s a list of 230 sins. I made it through about 90 before falling asleep.

So… I voted for Clinton. I did so because I think Trump is an especially hideous human being, and voting for Clinton lets me vote against him twice (denying him my vote, and voting for the candidate most likely to beat him, instead of for Stein, Johnson or my favorite, Vermin Supreme.) And while I feel great about voting for our first female president, I voted for Clinton with some misgivings. I’m not thrilled about how little access she’s given the press through formal press conferences. I’d like to understand her relationship with Wall Street better and how this might affect support for the sorts of consumer protections Elizabeth Warren has fought so hard for. And I’m really pissed off about the ways in which the Clinton Foundation appeared to use access to the State Department to raise money.

Weirdly enough, despite 18 months of non-stop election coverage, I feel like these stories are somewhat undercovered. But it’s not actually coverage – it’s a shortage of attention. While there’s been good reporting on them, these stories haven’t taken over the news cycle in the way we would expect them to. There’s three reasons for this, and none are that the mainstream media is in the tank for Clinton.

First, the sheer amount of shit and scandal that Donald Trump generates every time he opens his mouth has overwhelmed the mainstream press to the point where it’s surprisingly difficult to pay attention to any specific piece of it. Scandals that would sink another candidate – a personal foundation that doesn’t actually give any money, for one – simply become part of the noise and the haze.

Just today, the New York Times is reporting that Trump used tax avoidance strategies that have subsequently been ruled improper, and were deeply dodgy when he engaged in them. Slate reports on speculation from the computer security community that a server run by the Trump Organization may have had secret communications with a server owned by a bank connected to Russian oligarchs, raising the possibility of a secret email channel between the Trump campaign and Russian groups. (There’s good arguments that the evidence discovered isn’t a smoking gun, but evidence that email is weird and wonky.) And while Democrats wonder why James Comey chose Friday to reopen an investigation of the Clinton email scandal based on emails found in an investigation of Anthony Weiner’s solicitation of a 15-year old girl (if you wrote this stuff for telenovelas, you’d get fired), Mother Jones wonders whether there’s video evidence of Donald Trump at a Russian orgy that gives the FSB leverage over Trump in a kompromat operation.

The sheer flood of craziness makes it hard to focus on any single issue. If this is the result of brilliant oppo research from the Clinton campaign, they should just fucking stop already. A Trump orgy tape, or Trump saying the “n-word” (the other rumored November surprise), isn’t going to persuade undecided voters (though it might contribute to the collective demoralization of staunch Republicans and keep them from the polls.) But the flood of negativity is also giving ammunition for those who support Trump because they believe our electoral system and media are rigged and that he faces a massive political and media conspiracy that’s keeping him from the presidency.

The sheer volume of Trump scandals means that journalists have to answer questions about false balance and equivalency when they look into Clinton scandals. Report on concerns about the Clinton Foundation and you face reasonable questions about whether the sins of the Clinton Foundation are as rotten as those of the Trump Foundation, or whether influence peddling rises to the same level of importance as sexual harassment.

Report on Clinton missteps and you also run the danger of being lumped in with the vast right wing conspiracy that’s been generating “Hillary is the Devil” stories since the late 1990s. These stories have reached truly astounding levels of complexity and paranoia – Google “Clinton Death Count” for a quick dive into the world where the Clintons have ruthlessly killed dozens of friends and associates who’ve had the misfortune to cross their paths. When you report on a “legitimate” Clinton scandal, you run the risk of being considered one of those who believes Hillary strangled Vince Foster with her bare hands to satiate her naked blood lust, and you know the story you’re publishing gives more ammunition for those who blame Clinton for everything from Benghazi to the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7.

hillary-clinton-enemies-database1-457x500

With the death of Blackberry, Clinton has moved to Apple products and is worried that the phone jack leaves her vulnerable to FBI tapping. So she pressured Tim Cook into a product change he knew would tank the business so she could protect her nefarious communications. (I just made that up, but I expect to see it on Infowars by this evening.)

The net result of this batshit crazy election cycle is a Distributed Denial of Service attack on democracy. Like a webserver brought to its figurative knees by an endless flood of malformed requests, we are beginning to melt down under the avalanche of craziness. We’re left with the impression that this is an election between the possibly shady but unfairly attacked versus the truly unhinged… or between the thoroughly corrupt insider whos managed to undermine both government and the media versus the rough, offensive and often outrageous outsider who’s the only man she couldn’t bring down. We can’t move beyond those impressions because we are drowning in controversies and conspiracies, with very little help in understanding which matter and which we should take seriously.

That’s not good for us in the long run. I anticipate that Clinton will win the election, not in a landslide, but in a surprisingly close race. Almost immediately after taking office, she will be impeached, both because it’s a great way for the right to slow down any policy steps she might take (“Obviously, we can’t consider a candidate for the Supreme Court while the President is being impeached!”) and because there’s tons of data from Wikileaks and elsewhere that raises uncomfortable questions about the Clintons’ foundation and her service as secretary of state. Given the increasing polarization and paralysis of the government combined with the three ring circus of impeachment, the Hillary Clinton presidency will be historically unproductive, giving the Republicans a great chance to reposition themselves as the party of revolution, promising to blow up a broken system and replace it with something new that works. And this time around, they probably won’t nominate a serial molester who dodges taxes.

We need an oppositional press that vets candidates before we get this far in an election cycle. We needed investigations of Trump and Clinton’s foundations many months before the election. And we need new strategies, both as press and as voters, for navigating political cycles in which information is in surplus and attention is scarce.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-4-29-19-pm

Posted in ideas, Media | 1 Comment

Dumpsterfire 2016: What To Do When You Have No Idea What To Do

After the last presidential debate, I wrote on Twitter that the whole experience had left me wanting to take a shower… in sulfuric acid. Looking for an anger beyond fear, anger and despair, I made four donations – to a US NGO, an international NGO, a progressive candidate for the US House of Representatives, and a libertarian Republican candidate for the North Carolina state senate. I wrote about my decision to do this on Twitter and Facebook, urging my readers to find a way to do something that made them feel positive and affirmative about this increasingly terrifying and alienating election cycle.

A smart, considerate friend who is deeply informed about North Carolina politics took me to task for my support of Greg Doucette, the Republican I’d given the princely sum of $50 to. Doucette, she explained, is challenging a Democrat with a record she sees as admirable. Beyond that, the North Carolina GOP, as a whole, is taking terrible steps to limit the rights of transgender people. How could I provide any support to such a horrific party?

I’m not sure she’s right, nor am I sure she’s wrong. I was frustrated that my gesture towards personal friendship and bipartisanship suddenly put me in a position to justify the collective actions of a party I’d never vote for. And I felt embarrassed that I’d made a simple, quick personal gesture without consideration of the larger political implications, or without educating myself about Doucette’s opponent in his race.

I had some of the same feelings again today. In response to the horrific firebombing of a GOP field office in North Carolina, a group of progressive and democratic friends raised over $13,000 to help rebuild that space. On a mailing list that these friends and I frequent, a debate is now raging about whether this lovely gesture just creates fungible funding for the GOP, who almost certainly have insurance, and who will use this gift of progressive money to further conservative agendas. Again, I feel lousy – even though I wasn’t quick enough to join the campaign, which raised the money in 40 minutes! – and I wonder whether there’s any way to make even a symbolic kind action at this angry, bitter and partisan moment.

I decided that I’m going to try to shape my thinking with three rules to help me make decisions on questions like this over the next few weeks.

Action over inaction
My deepest fear over the 2016 election is not of revolution or armed uprising by angry Trump supporters, but merely a continuation of the long, slow process of disengagement with civics and politics as a whole. I’ve been writing and speaking for months now about my sense that the dominant trend in politics globally is mistrust of institutions, and that mistrust leads naturally to disengagement and a sense of disempowerment. Because the default is inaction, engagement over disengagement is a good rule to try and follow.

It should go without saying – though, this crazy year, nothing goes without saying – that I am advocating non-violent action, whether that’s protest, volunteering, canvassing, donating, making media, etc. It should also go without saying that informed, careful, considerate action is better than thoughtless, spontaneous action without considering the consequences. But it’s easy to fall into a cycle of critique that leads to paralysis.

foolsandfanatics

People over party
I desperately want Donald Trump to lose this upcoming election. And I believe Hillary Clinton will be an excellent president. But I’m deeply frustrated that our political system gave us two candidates who are so widely disliked, guaranteeing a best case scenario in which a Clinton presidency is dogged at every turn by an angry, recalcitrant Republican house. I’m sick to my stomach thinking of another four years of paralysis, and frustrated that I have no answer for friends who wonder when will be the election cycle that we break out of a two party system and consider a wider range of alternatives.

I’ve voted Democrat all my life (with the notable exception of supporting William Weld over John Silber in 1990), but have always tried to understand the positions my Republican friends have taken. A foundational experience for me was visiting a Republican friend who’d been named chief of staff for Kansas senator (now governor) Sam Brownback in his new office in the Capitol. I intended for us to have a friendly visit, crack a few political jokes at each other’s expense and move on. Instead, my friend said, “Do we have any business to discuss?” I laughed and asked what issues Sam Brownback and I might possibly have common ground on. My friend immediately came up with two – increasing H1-B visas for high-skilled immigrants, and seeking increased funding to protect against violence in Central Africa. It was an amazing lesson that people can find things to agree on even when parties can’t.

I supported Greg Doucette because he’s a decent human being who shares many of my positions and values, especially around issues of criminal justice. But I supported him also because he’s running as a Republican, and I was thrilled to see an opportunity where I could support someone on “the other team”. Even if Clinton wins in a landslide, at least 40% of the US voting public is going to feel frustrated and alienated. I believe that building ties with people of like minds and good hearts across the aisle is work worth doing and has importance far beyond whoever wins or loses individual seats in this election.

Kindness over everything else
If you are a sentient being, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, this has been a tough election cycle. Many of my conservative friends are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, and some are growing frustrated that their failure to support Hillary Clinton has lumped them into a basket of deplorables. Many of my progressive friends are angry at being told to support Clinton less apocalypse occur. Many women who are survivors of sexual abuse are triggered by Trump’s persistent and casual misogyny and bullying. African American friends are still reeling in anger from the continued stream of unarmed black men and women killed by police.

This is an ugly moment in time. Being kind to one another is one of the few things that’s unambiguously the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean just being courteous and polite. It means actually stopping to try and understand why people hold the beliefs they do. This excellent piece – provocatively named “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” – is a good start, at least as regards understanding why people in rural areas of the US are feeling so forgotten and disrespected.

It’s also possible that kindness is the single most important and powerful thing you can do to make change in the world. Consider the story of Derek Black, who inherited a leadership role in the White Nationalist movement from his father, the founder of the Stormfront message board community. A fellow student at New College in Sarasota, Florida reached out to Black, inviting him to an interfaith shabbat dinner, not to confront him about his beliefs, but simply to reach out and include him. This kindness proved transformative – at great cost to his relationships with his family, Black has forsaken white nationalism.

Kindness works. I’m less sure that anything else does.

Posted in ideas | Comments Off on Dumpsterfire 2016: What To Do When You Have No Idea What To Do

Going Solo – On hating and accepting change

I have not been writing much about my divorce on this blog – I’ve kept most of that discussion on Facebook. I thought this post, wrestling not only with the divorce, but unwanted change more generally, might be helpful for a broader audience.


I have been coming to grips with the uncomfortable realization that I am a conservative.

Not a political conservative – if anything, this election is hardening my identity as a progressive insurrectionist. Not a social conservative – that the world around me is more colorful, diverse and fluid by the day is a major source of joy. Personally conservative.

I don’t like change. I’d go as far as to say that I hate it.

I live in the same house I bought almost twenty years ago. It’s painted the same color it was then. It’s in, more or less, the only town I’ve lived in as an adult, the town I moved to for college twenty seven years ago. I’ve had the same damned non-hairstyle since I was sixteen.

Given my lived preferences, it appears that I would be happiest if everything in my immediate personal life could stay the same forever.

That, of course, isn’t an option.

solosquaredherocup_final

Earlier today, my wife of seventeen years and I divorced in a ceremony she designed. It began with a blessing over wine in the battered, tarnished cup someone had given us at our wedding, engraved with the date. My beloved ex took the wine blessed in that cup, poured it into two red plastic Solo cups, and we each drank from our own. As the wine moved from a beloved relic into the table settings for a game of beer pong, I couldn’t help seeing this as a downgrade of a life together into two uncertain, lesser futures.

Which is, of course, wrong. Our lives are both already changing in ways that are healthy, unexpected and often delightful. I just need to get over hating the process.

What I’m learning – slowly, awkwardly, painfully – is that the changes I fear and dread have often already happened. By the time Rachel was ready to tell me she needed to end our relationship, it had changed a long time ago. We had stopped being the center of each other’s personal universes, had disengaged from the others passion and work, had begun sharing and confiding in other friends. My instinct was to fight these changes, to try and bring things back to the comfortable stability we had once enjoyed. I am grateful that Rachel fought to embrace the change, to step into the unknown, believing that things could be different and better.

My reaction to the end of my marriage with Rachel was to frantically reach out to old friends and demand they reassure me that they still loved me and that our relationship would never change. Some did. Some didn’t. In a few cases, friends took the opportunity to point out that we weren’t as close as we had been, that our friendship had already changed, or even ended, sometimes years before. They are right, too, and the onus is on me to discover what those friendships might be now, and what new spaces may have opened in my life as other friends have departed.

The problem with hating change is that it doesn’t stop it from happening. It just assures that change will happen to you, rather than allowing you to choose to make a change.

I am slowly learning to see the upside of my old nemesis. Some of what’s happened to me in the past year has been unbelievably wonderful. Those marvelous parts happened when, faced with a change that was already underway, I made a choice and made a change. My challenge now is to overcome my instinctive fear, this desire for everything to remain static and comfortable – despite its imperfections – and learn to love the changes. They’re coming anyway.

Posted in ideas | 3 Comments

Massive National Prison Strike! Maybe. We don’t know. That’s a problem.

Yesterday, prisoners around the US began a strike protesting unpaid, underpaid and forced labor. Maybe. We think.

Led by prisoners in Alabama and Texas, incarcerated activists planned a nationwide labor strike yesterday, with prisoners refusing to report for jobs essential to run the prison, as well as for jobs for companies who contract jobs to prison labor. Scheduled for the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, organizers announced that this would be the largest prison protest in US history.

Was it? I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does.


Image from Sofie Louise Dam’s brilliant cartoon briefing on the strikes

It’s hard to tell what’s going on inside US prisons. While prisoners can reach out to reporters using the same channels they can use to contact friends or family members, journalists have very limited rights of access to prisons, and it would be challenging for an intrepid reporter to identify and contact inmates in prisons across a state, for instance, to determine where protests took place. Wardens have a great deal of discretion about answering reporters’ inquiries and can choose not to comment citing security concerns. Reporters who want to know what’s going on inside a prison sometimes resort to extraordinary measures, like becoming a prison guard to gain access. (Shane Bauer’s article on private prison company CCA is excellent, but the technique he used was not a new one – Ted Conover’s 2000 book Newjack is a masterpiece of the genre.)

Because it’s so hard to report from prison – and, frankly, because news consumers haven’t demonstrated much demand for stories about prison conditions – very few media outlets have dedicated prison reporters. One expert estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen dedicated prisons reporters across the US, an insane number given that 2.4m Americans are incarcerated, roughly 1% of the nation’s population.

So what happened yesterday?

Prisoners associated with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), in cooperation with the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement, the Free Alabama Movement and others announced a coordinated strike on September 9th. While different movements have different demands, a common thread is opposition to unpaid and underpaid labor. Nearly 900,000 inmates work within US prisons. Some produce goods for sale by corporations, a process called “insourcing”, but most work in the prison laundry, kitchens and janitorial services, keeping prisons running. Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the indispensable Prison Legal News observes that, “If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse.”

In most states and in federal prisons, inmates are paid a small fraction of the minimum wage for their work. In Texas and Arkansas, they are not paid at all. Activists point out that forced labor for unfair or no wages is tantamount to slavery. And while good students of American history know that the 13th amendment abolished slavery, not everyone knows that slavery continued to be permitted “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. In her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that after slavery was abolished, southern states began aggressively arresting and imprisoning African Americans, then leasing convicts as hired labor to the plantation owners who previously kept slaves. Since the start of the war on drugs, the US prison population has quadrupled, and African-Americans have been disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes. Much as Jim Crow and convict leasing reproduced much of the control structures of slavery, the war on drugs, Alexander and others argue, is producing a system that looks like contemporary slavery.

Organizers called on inmates to refuse to report to work, hoping to paralyze prison operations and force guards to take on essential jobs. It’s unclear how many inmates were willing to risk punishment and retribution by participating. Some facilities may have preemptively locked down their facilities to prevent strikes from occurring. Holmes Correctional facility in Florida announced a lockdown after a reported riot the day before the general strike. Subsequently, two other Florida facilities have been in lockdown starting during the strike, and others report “disturbances”. The spokesperson for the Florida prison system reported that Friday’s disruptions included everything from a few inmates failing to report for work to “major” revolts.

Ar Holman Prison in Alabama, where some of the movement organizers are based, prison authorities report that 45 prisoners refused to work on Friday. IWOC, the organizers of the strike, report that South Carolina prisoners have issued a list of demands before they return to work and that as many as 30 prisoners are striking. Perry Correctional Institution in Greenville, SC is reported to be on lockdown in response to the protests. Some of the news reported on the IWOC feed is less optimistic – they report the few prisoners who’ve decided to strike in North Carolina are outnumbered by those who did not participate.

And that’s basically what we know.

It’s possible that the protests have been disappointingly small. It’s exceedingly hard to organize a nationwide movement given the barriers to communication prisoners face. Wired published an intriguing article on the role of social media in organizing the strike, but no one should conclude that inmates with smuggled mobile phones have the level of internet access protesters in Tahrir had, for example. (Still, the Free Alabama Movement manages to maintain a YouTube presence with videos filmed from inside prison.) It’s also possible that the protests are more widespread that we know. That’s what IWOC organizers predicted, suggesting that it will be at least a week before we know what actually happened on the 9th. It’s likely that many protesters will be cut off from mail and phone, unable to report on what’s going on within their prisons.

I’ve been writing lately about situations in which readers can have power by calling attention to events in the world. This is one of those situations. If the prison strike becomes a nationwide story, it’s likely that some wardens will be more cautious than they otherwise would in taking punitive action against strike participants. And while it’s hard for anyone to report on conditions in prisons, large media organizations like the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and others may be able to reach out to existing contacts and provide a more detailed view of events – and none of those three have done significant reporting on this strike thus far. Especially if you are a subscriber or supporter, this would be an excellent time to write a note to the public editor asking for close coverage to this topic.

Perhaps the call for the nation’s largest prison strike has failed. Or perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a long action that will change incarceration as we know it. It’s a problem that we don’t – and can’t – know. A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people, and right now, we don’t know.


Here are some of the resources I’m leaning on to follow the strike. Isabelle Nastasia is keeping a list of reports on strike actions at Mask Magazine. IWOC’s Facebook page is sharing reports as they come in from individual prisons.

There’s been some exemplary work done reporting on the strike ahead of time. The American Prospect published my single favorite text piece… though it’s from 2014… and The Nib features Sofie Louise Dam’s graphic briefing on the strike, which is a must-read.

Posted in ideas | Comments Off on Massive National Prison Strike! Maybe. We don’t know. That’s a problem.

Supporting Feyisa Lilesa, a remarkable athlete and protester

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Africa, Human Rights | Comments Off on Supporting Feyisa Lilesa, a remarkable athlete and protester

When attention matters: Ethiopia crushes dissent in Oromia

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

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

That might not be the case in Ethiopia.

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

Oromo protesters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in Africa, Global Voices, Human Rights, Media | 1 Comment

Protected: The village of peace… and of coca leaves

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Posted in ideas | Comments Off on Protected: The village of peace… and of coca leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When smart people get important things really wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The possible utility of beating a dead horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ideas, Media Lab | 37 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ideas | 4 Comments