Tom Levenson introduces Ta-Nehesi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg , who are in conversation tonight at MIT’s Stata Center on the topic of opinion journalism. The event is hosted by CMS/W, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department, where Coates is a scholar in residence. Both Coates and Hertzberg are giant figures in contemporary journalism, from different professional generations.
Coates begins by admitting that he was burned out at the end of his last semester at MIT, but ended up missing his students a week after he left Cambridge. Teaching writing, he tells us, is deeply different from writing. Once you write well, you write on autopilot. But you can’t teach writing without thinking about the art form. Coates was reminded of this when Hertzberg came to MIT to talk with his students – not only is Hertzberg a master of opinion journalism, but he’s deeply insightful about the process of writing and of constructing complex and subtle arguments.
Coates asks Hertzberg about his process: does he craft individual sentences or whole arguments? Hertzberg confesses to being a difficult writer – he struggles over sentences, particularly the first sentences in a piece. “It’s important to be fresh, to avoid cliches”. And while Hertzberg has roadmaps for his arguments, he explains that he spends a great deal of time crafting each sentence, ensuring the tone and imagery is right to construct the tone and ideas he needs to convey.
Prompted by Coates, Hertzberg identifies Orwell and the Harvard Crimson as his most important writing teachers. He explains that, in writing for the Crimson, your copy was posted into giant comment books where editors ripped the work to pieces. Good pieces were marked “OOTAG” – one of the all time greats – and poor ones marked “PTS” – Pour to sea. All comments were signed – you knew exactly who was savaging you. So Hertzberg’s experience at Harvard came through the practice of newspaper writing, not the classroom. (He tells us that, if there hadn’t been a draft for Vietnam, he’d have dropped out and worked for a local paper, and likely burned out.)
Hertzberg loves the appearance of newspapers – he tells us about a cross-country trip where he bought and saved local papers, documenting the journey one front page at a time. In his work at the Crimson, he loved laying out pages and wonders if he would have become a graphic designer had he chosen a career more deliberately. “That sense of proportion, balance and beauty” informed his work with the New Republic, his concern about how the magazine’s cover appeared and informs his work today.
Coates confesses that his New York literati friends wonder whether people can actually write at MIT, and explains that this is a form of defensiveness from people who can write, but don’t understand math and science. Impressed by the quality of his writing students here, Coates asks Hertzberg whether it’s possible to teach writing. Hertzberg explains that editors – at least the really good ones – are writing teachers. “They show you what’s wrong and you can’t help but learn from that.”
Hertzberg explains that his working method isn’t the only possible way – it’s possible to be a columnist without caring about sentences. He cites Paul Krugman as someone who is less obsessed with craft than with creating lucid, readable arguments. “If you have a great opinion and can express it clearly,” you ma be able to be a great opinion writer without being a great writer. Krugman, Hertzberg argues, has a narrow set of well-developed beliefs and explores them again and again without boring the reader.
There are many ways to report, Hertzberg says: talking with friends, reading online, getting out of the house and experiencing events. He cites Murray Kempton as a columnist who got experienced the world on a bicycle and used that experience to inform his writing. But it’s possible to use any number of methods to build great opinion columns.
Coates notes that Hertzberg writes about once every other week and wonders how he would write if he produced three columns a week. Hertzberg allows as his writing would come to a screetching halt with his suicide. Writing beautiful multiple times a week parallels Michael Jordan’s efforts in basketball. Coates notes that writers feel guilty about being slow writers; Hertzberg notes that Coates has the gift of Sitzfleish, the ability to sit in the chair and produce words.
Blogging is easier than opinion column writing, Coates and Hertzberg argue, because blog posts don’t need to have a shape, while columns need to. As a result, Hertzberg explains, blogging is a recreation. This isn’t to say it’s not worth reading, but that it’s a different pursuit. Hertzberg notes that Coates’s blog serves as a diary on his other writing, giving insight on what he’s developing.
Coates talks about the lowered barriers to writing in public these days. He began writing in public when the New Republic printed an excerpt from The Bell Curve, a notorious exploration of race and achievement in the US. Coates was furious about the piece and notes how hard it was to share his frustation, as a student at Howard University surrounded by brilliant black people, and have that opinion heard. Hertzberg notes that while everyone can have a press now, we don’t all get the fleet of trucks that delivers the papers. “It remains to be seen whether competition, whether this immense supply, will increase the quality of writing.” The proportion of well-informed opinions is clearly smaller than in years past – whether or not the cream will rise to the top is less obvious. And it’s quite obvious that it’s much harder to make a living as a writer.
“Writing is becoming a group activity. It’s something that a large number of people do part time.” Hertzberg explains that writing used to be a living, even if not a great living. Coates wonders whether a Harvard Crimson byline still guarantees future employment in journalism as it used to. Hertzberg explains that the paper is, by choice, far less selective about writers than it used to be, and that this is likely a good thing for the institution.
Hertzberg notes that he spends as much time reading blogs as he does reading newspapers and magazines. He’s bothered that he misses some important stories. (He religiously reads the New York Review of Books, the New Republic and less religiously, the Nation.) “Blogs are addictive. Every hour, you take a little snort of it,” he says.
Coates asks about the importance of writing with conviction: if you don’t believe it, I’m never going to believe it as the reader. And given that there’s so many things you can do other than writing an essay, you’d better grab the reader by the collar and demand attention. Why would someone do something this hard?, he asks Hertzberg. The simple answer: being a newspaperman was the only thing Hertzberger wanted to do.
Hertzberg explains the romance of newspaper journalism, the emotion that led people like Carl Bernstein to work their way up from copy boy to reporter. It’s probably healthier and more professional, he notes, but some of the romance may be gone.
Coates thought Hertzberg must be an effortless writer. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – he keeps an air mattress in his office and usually ends up sleeping in the office at least once, sometimes twice, during a column. But he doesn’t see a correlation between suffering and the quality of his writing, and if he could find a way to work without suffering as badly, he’d gladly claim it.
Tom Levenson offers a first question: Is the degredation of our political culture linked to the status of our opinion writing? Hertzberg notes that it is possible to live in an echo chamber and those echo chambers are likely damaging our politics. But he wonders if things were better in the age of strong gatekeepers. We all live in our own universes, he tells us – the Republicans may live in one of more epistemic closure.
Levenson persists: as a science writer, he’s seen the polling shift on climate change and wonders to what extent that shift (away from a belief in human-influenced climate change) is the responsibility of opinion journalism. Hertzberg notes that the blame is more properly placed on the political system. If we’d not faced filibuster, we’d have had a cap and trade system for carbon emissions. How can we take climate change seriously if our government doesn’t do anything about it? “Our politican institutions can’t give us what we want, and eventually we stop wanting it. We blame the failure on the media,” rather than on the actual machinery of government that is supposed to solve our problems. Hertzberg explains that the filibuster is his “unified field theory” – he writes about it as much as his editors will allow him to.
“The constitution, an incredibly advanced machine for 1789, isn’t working so well. But observing that isn’t as easy as figuring how to fix it.”
Patsy Baudoin asks where the joy is in writing, given how much Hertzberg suffers for his art. He notes that there’s a big pleasure in getting these pieces done, a great deal of pleasure in having the work praised, and little pleasures associated with a well-placed phrase. But those pleasures are counterbalanced by the dread of not finishing the piece.
A questioner notes that while government may be broken, figures like the Koch Brothers have had enormous influence on debates like climate change. He then asks what bloggers and aggregators Hertzberg finds most useful, and what he and Coates think about Greenwald’s writing about Snowden and his new journalistic project. Hertzberg identifies Andrew Sullivan’s blog as his favorite, followed by Coates and Fallows at the Atlantic. Talking Points Memo merits a daily visit, as does the Guardian. In addressing Koch, Hertzberg suggests organizations accept as many gifts as possible, as a theatre paid for by the Koch brothers represents lost opportunity for the right.
In addressing Snowden and Greenwald, Hertzberg thinks of them as inevitable historical figures, genies that cannot be put back into the bottle. We need a polity that does what it’s supposed to do and can live with what these revelations have exposed. He admits this isn’t an answer with great moral clarity, but that he’s still wrestling with these implications.
Coates wonders how journalists who call for Greenwald’s arrest can consider themselves to be journalists. He cites the conversation between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald in the New York Times yesterday and suggests that Greenwald has a tendency to piss people off. In the piece, Greenwald demands Keller to explain why the New York Times’s inconsistency on use of the word “torture” is considered “objective”. That’s a deeply important distinction, and one he is glad Greenwald is demanding be addressed.
In addition to the blogs Hertzberg reads, Coates namechecks Grantland, The Atavist, New York Magazine, and The Toast, a small blog he finds consistently hilarious.
A questioner, a science writing grad student, notes that there’s a lot of trash journalism that’s hiding the quality journalism being produced. How do we feature and highlight the best journalism being produced? Hertzberg warns that we shouldn’t glorify the past too much: “Most journalism has always been pretty dreadful. More people have been interested in the contemporary Kim Kardashian than the contemporary Glenn Greenwald or Bill Keller.” He suggests that we’re at a “Gutenberg moment”, wondering when and how journalism will eventually settle. In sheer numbers, he argues, there is more good journalism done than ever, but finding and collating it is a problem.
Another question asks about journalism as a profession. Hertzberg notes that journalism is now both more professional and more compatible with poverty. He suggests that no one go into journalism in a half-hearted way. For Hertzberg, journalism was the path of least resistance – it’s not today.
Tom Friedman at the New York Times, George Will at the Washington Post seem to hold their jobs forever, one questioner observes. Would journalism be healthier with journalistic term limits? Should columnists have the job security that Supreme Court justices have? Coates wonders how much influence columnists actually have on the culture, and suggests that they more often reflect the culture. For Coates, it’s important to write in different ways – the short form of the blog, the long form for The Atlantic, his occasional columns in the New York Times. Each exercises a different set of literary muscles and he suggests it would be better for the writers than for the audiences.
A former student at MIT notes how valuable she found Coates’s writing about the roots of libertarianism as she reacted to the Occupy movement. She wonders whether Coates will piece together his writings in the news into a long form? Coates suggests that this is what he actually does. He uses the blog as a place to develop ideas he builds in longer formats. “It’s a record of me thinking things out. I have no idea what effect I’m going to have on people thinking about Ron Paul… I don’t really write to convince people.” Coates writes by arguing with himself and believes that his strongest work comes from that process of argument, testing out arguments and seeing what works.
A questioner asks Coates: “Who do you read that’s black?” Coates offers Wesley Morris as a regular read, then notes that most of the black writers he focuses on are historians, writing books, not writing magazine articles. (He later namechecks Jamel Bowie and Anna Holmes as black writers doing terrific work in short form.) “The only person I read who does what I do is William Jelani Cobb.” This suggests that we have a real problem with an absence of black authors in magazine writing. “But most of my influences come from books”, Coates explains, noting that James Baldwin is his most powerful influence.
Chris Peterson notes that Coates argued that you need to grab readers by the shirt collar and shake them. How do you do this when you’re working through your ideas and agenda in writing a piece, he asks Hertzberg. Hertzberg notes that he’s lucky – as a New Yorker writer, he doesn’t need to grab people by the lapels. Readers come to you with faith and trust, that your piece will be worth reading. It’s a giant advantage and privilege. Hertzberg is glad that the New Republic is under new management, but wonders whether the magazine is now working too hard to grab the reader’s lapels. These magazines have an intimate relationship with their readers and the journalism Hertzberg admires does less lapel grabbing. On the web, however, you need to do more of that grabbing because there are no blogs that have the reputation for quality that the New Yorker or New Republic has.
A questioner explains that he comes to Coates’s blog again and again not because of the great writing, but the ethical core. Coates notes that there are people who think George Will is a good writer. Coates says bluntly, “He lies,” in his pieces about football and violence and his pieces about climate change. Hertzberg talks about deep and shallow beauty – he enjoys reading some writers because they write beautifully, but argues that they don’t think beautifully.
A questioner asks both whether they read the Huffington Post and what they think of the quality. Hertzberg allows that the question is like referring to the universe and asking what you think of the quality of the stars. It’s vanity publishing writ large, he suggests, and wonders if there’s any way of reading the Huffington Post other than looking at who links to pieces of it. Coates simply doesn’t read it, and notes that HuffPo’s misleading headlines are another form of lying.
A final questioner wonders about the centrality of politics in opinion journalism. Do writers approach more gradual, slow issues more gradually than writing about fast-breaking political stories? Hertzberg argues that culture, ultimately, is more important than politics. But the stakes are higher in writing about politics, as the real-world consequences are great. Art is superior to journalism, and music is the most superior to all, Hertzberg asserts.
Coates agrees – music is superior because it crosses language. But he doesn’t think his process is different in writing politics versus culture, as he’s always trying to figure something out. Sometimes the most popular pieces Coates writes are the ones where he’s dismissing something as ridiculous, but writing those pieces isn’t very satisfying because it doesn’t involve working something out.
There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.
Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.
The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.
It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.
For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?
To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.
Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.
Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning
But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.
Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.
During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)
So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.
I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.
I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.
That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.
That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.
It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.
While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)
And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?
Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?
It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)
If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”
I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)
Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre
The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.
Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.
But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)
I’m in Dakar, Senegal this week for a meeting of Open Society Foundation’s Global Board, along with the boards of our four African foundations (East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, South Africa). The formal meetings begin today, but for the past two days, we’ve been visiting grantees and projects in Senegal, including an ambitious election-monitoring project called “The Situation Room” and a set of projects underway across the country.
Yesterday, I visited a group called Y’en a Marre, a truly impressive collective of rappers and journalists who have turned their frustration with Senegal’s development and politics into mobilization of the nation’s youth. They claim responsibility for mobilizing 300,000 young voters, a massive number in a country of fewer than 13 million citizens. We heard from three of the group’s founders both about their work to register and turn out young voters, and their efforts to hold the new Senegalese government accountable to their campaign promises.
After their formal presentation, I got the chance to talk with Thiat, one of the most influential rappers on Senegal’s music scene. (I’d been told by fans of Senegalese hiphop to look for tracks by “Junior”. I asked Thiat and his friends about whether they recorded with this guy, Junior, and one of Thiat’s crew just pointed a finger towards him. “Thiat” means “Junior” in Wolof, and he explained – bluntly, if immodestly – that he would draw at least twice as many youth to a concert as Senegalese stars known in the west like Darra J.) I’d been impressed by Thiat’s passion about social issues, and I learned that his musical impact may be as impressive – Y’en a Marre is planning collaborations with M1 of Dead Prez, Talib Kweli and, possibly, Mos Def. Thiat hopes that Kweli and M1 will be willing to offer verses in Wolof, while Thiat and his crew will offer English verses.
There’s some information on Y’en a Marre’s musical and social impact online in English – a good story in the New York Times, and an excellent, in-depth piece in Africa is a Country. I was happy to see an article on the French-language Wikipedia, but sad that there wasn’t one in English. So I banged one out, and the text I posted last night follows below. Please feel free to fix it up if you have a chance.
“Y’en a Marre” (“Fed Up”) is a group of Senegalese rappers and journalists, created in January 2011, to protest ineffective government and register youth to vote. They are credited with helping to mobilize Senegal’s youth vote and oust incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, though the group claims no affiliation with Macky Sall, Senegal’s current president, or with any political party.
The group was founded by rappers Fou Malade (“Crazy Sick Guy”, real name: Malal Talla), Thiat (“Junior”, real name: Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré), Kilifeu (real name: Mbess Seck. Both Thiat and Kilifeu are from celebrated rap crew “Keur Gui of Kaolack”) and journalists Sheikh Fadel Barro, Aliou Sane and Denise Sow. The movement was originally started in reaction to Dakar’s frequent power cuts, but the group quickly concluded that they were “fed up” with an array of problems in Senegalese society.
Through recordings, rallies and a network of hundreds of regional affiliates, called “the spirit of Y’en a Marre”, the group advocates for youth to embrace a new type of thinking and living termed “The New Type of Senegalese” or NTS. In late 2011, the collective released a compilation titled “Y’en A Marre”, from which the single “Faux! Pas Forcé” emerged as a rallying cry for youth frustrated with President Wade and his son and presumed successor. They followed with a single, “Doggali” (“Let’s finish”), which advocated for cleansing the coutry of Wade and son.
The group and their members campaigned door to door to register young Senegalese to vote and claim that more than 300,000 voters were registered with Y’en a Marre’s assistance and urging. On February 16, 2012, three of the group’s founders were arrested for helping to organize a sit-in at Dakar’s Obelisk Square. Despite arrests, the group continued to organize protests up until the election that unseated Wade.
Despite reaching the goal of ousting Wade, Y’en a Marre remains active, hosting meetings and shows, urging the new government to implement promised reforms, including reforms of land ownership, a key issue for Senegal’s rural poor.
Y’en a Marre is particularly significant in Senegalese politics, because in his 2000 campaign, Abdoulaye Wade prominently featured the support of Senegalese rappers as a way of connecting with young voters. 12 years later, Y’en a Marre demonstrated that Senegal’s youth were not unquestioningly loyal to Wade and were searching for a leader who could credibly promise reform.
Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.
Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana
Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.
Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.
Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.
Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.
This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.
Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.
When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.
Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.
Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on match.com, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.
Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”
Other blocks are more explicit. Plentyoffish.com, a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.
Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:
From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”
Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.
She leaves the group with a series of questions:
- How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
- How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
- When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?
These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.
I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.
I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.
Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.
It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?