In the fall and winter of 2013, the writer Rick Moody experienced a set of events designed to change his life. His priest gave him a book, apparently written decades ago (though actually specially crafted just for him), to read with his daughter. It told the story of a secret room, and soon afterwards, Moody was led by friends to his own secret room, a disused hardware store in Brooklyn, where he encountered objects that evoked moments in his life and in the book. Music he encountered in the secret room reoccurred, when the artists orchestrating these events picked Moody up in New York City, flew him to Regina and drove him to an isolated prairie, where he sat in a pavilion made of hay bales and a cellist performed the composition he had previously heard. As the piece escalated, hundreds of performers followed Moody moved through New York, dancing on subway platforms and surrounding him as costumed fools in Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons. A photo of Moody surrounded by his hundred fools suggests a moment of transcendent bliss.
Moody was the “participant” in a performance titled “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, created by Odyssey Works, which “makes large scale, durational, interdisciplinary performances customized for one-person audiences.” The company has been making work since 2002, but as less than two dozen people have served as the audiences for these works, it’s not surprising you may not have heard of them. Writing about the company’s work in 2012, Chris Colin wrote about the “beautiful inefficiency” of this method of working, the absurd and beautiful idea of an immense effort deployed to create an emotional response in a single person.
Odyssey Works is not alone in crafting experiences designed for a single person. Colin offers some reference points for contextualizing works like “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”: the immersive theatre experiences of Punchdrunk, the producers of “Sleep No More“; works like “You Me Bum Bum Train” that puts a single audience member at the center of a set of scenes in the work. A set of films called “Experiment Ensam” (Experiment Alone) takes experiences normally experienced in a large group – a comedy club, a karaoke bar – and recreates them for a single person. Recently, Experiment Ensam produced a Bob Dylan concert for a single fan, a brief set with Dylan and his touring band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The performance was filmed with eight cameras and will be released on YouTube later this month, raising questions about whether the audience was Swedish TV personality Fredrik Wikingsson, who attended the concert, or those of us who will watch it online.
These acts of personalized theatre don’t always go well. Jorge Just produced a memorable story for This American Life about Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based troupe that creates theatrical moments in everyday life. (One of their recurrent projects is the “No Pants Subway Ride”, where subways slowly fill up with passengers who are unremarkable but for the fact that they’ve forgotten their pants.) In the “mission” TAL examines, Improv Everywhere tried to give an unknown indie rock band their best gig ever, recruiting an audience to learn their songs, sing along with the performance and shout out requests for the band’s songs. After the initial elation of playing for a large crowd wore off, the members of the band felt like they had been the butt of an elaborate joke, laughed at by the Improv performers and made fun of online. The tension between Improv Everywhere’s good intentions and the damage it caused the band makes Just’s story striking and poignant. Theatre for one is hard to do well.
Odyssey Works may surprise their participants, but it certainly isn’t ambushing them. Participants are selected through a detailed application process, which begins with an online application that asks about a person’s favorite places in her city of residence and her experiences with pieces of art. The company interviews family and friends, both to recruit them into building the experience for the participant, but also to understand what she is likely to be moved or effected by. In preparing “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, the producers read all of Moody’s books, interviewed thirty of his family and friends, and visited him several times before designing the work.
Abraham Burickson, co-founder of Odyssey Works, explains the logic behind this process: it’s about discovering the ideal audience for a piece of art. Artists hope their work moves the audience, but it’s a frustratingly inexact process. Armed with a deep understanding of the participant, the company deploys imagery and ideas designed to evoke a more powerful response than they would in an audience as a whole. “Art that affects you — in any medium — is very specific to you. It’s as if you have a set of subjective protein receptors in your creative-appreciation mind, and the piece is so perfectly engineered to your subjectivity that it can break you open for meaning to flood in. We wanted to see if we could achieve that by crafting an experience that would affect someone even more deeply than a randomly arrived-at occurrence might.”
This working method could be deeply creepy if it weren’t so carefully and lovingly done. Part of experiencing one of these artworks is realizing you’ve been under surveillance for months in advance and that hundreds of people have learned intimate details of your life in order to present this experience to you. In a sense, this is what web advertisers and other purveyors of personalization promise. In this case, it’s done poetically and beautifully. In that sense, it reminds me of Yuletide, in which thousands of authors write custom fan fiction stories carefully tailored for the recipient as an especially personal version of “secret Santa”. Because the Odyssey Works pieces are so immersive, Burickson explains that they tend to create a sense of “pronoia”, an irrational belief that the world is conspiring to do wonderful things on your behalf.
For reasons I cannot explain, the images crafted for Moody – particularly that of a cellist performing a composition in a prairie outside Regina, Saskatchewan – are some of the most moving I’ve recently encountered. They make me wonder about the mechanics of this method – am I responding to imagery that Moody and I happen to share? (I resonate with the prairie, but not the idea of the Cloister, the secret room Moody explores, which seems designed to connect with Moody’s Catholic background and doesn’t trigger a similar receptor in me, a fundamentalist Unitarian.) Or are Burickson and colleagues creating powerful images, inspired by Moody, but elegantly crafted to connect with a wide range of receptive audiences? By identifying an image that resonates profoundly for Moody, are they inadvertently creating deeply potent ideas that would resonate for anyone who encountered them?
Since reading about Odyssey Works, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea. I don’t actually want to be a participant in one of these pieces – it’s overwhelming to think about accepting a gift of that magnitude. Instead, I want to understand what Odyssey Works created and what Moody experienced, to the point where I’m thinking about approaching magazine editors to pitch the story so I’d have the chance to interview Moody, Burickson and his collaborators.
It’s as if Burickson and his colleagues have created a work just for me, not a performance, but an impossibly fertile idea of making art that expands beyond the edges of the page and into every aspect of a viewer’s life. For all I know, the few articles I’ve read are part of an elaborate fiction designed to evoke a particular set of reactions in me as part of a carefully crafted artwork I did not consent to, but am enjoying nevertheless.
In 1994, when I was still pretending to be an artist, my art school roommates and I began designing an elaborate, multi-website fantasy, something that would later be described as an alternate reality game. (One of my roommates was filmmaker Jackie Goss, and we were extending a film she’d made about young women growing antlers.) We never progressed beyond sketches, in part because we never could figure out who we wanted to discover these sites and what we hoped they’d make of them. Twenty years later, there’s something lovely about discovering the same idea, done so well and towards such a beautiful goal.
Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.
His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements
Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.
On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.
More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for migrant workers, reviewing labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.
Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.
To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.
Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.
Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.
Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.
It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.
The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.
What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.
The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.
Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.
The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.
In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.
This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.
Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.
The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.
Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.
Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.
Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.
In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.
In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.
He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.
FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.
There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.
Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.
Sasha invites Sofia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.
Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.
Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sofia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.
A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.
Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sofia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.
Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.
Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sofia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.
A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.
Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sofia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.
Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum is one of the leading thinkers about the ethical issues we face in digital spaces. Her work on privacy as “contextual integrity” is one of the most tools for understanding why some online actions taken by companies and individuals feel deeply transgressive while others seem normal – we expect online systems to respect norms of privacy appropriate for the context we are interacting in, and we are often surprised and dismayed when those norms are violated. At least as fascinating, for me at least, Nissenbaum doesn’t just write books and articles – she writes code, in collaboration with a team of longtime collaborators, which brings her strategies for intervention into the world, where others can adopt them, test them out, critique or improve them.
Professor Nissenbaum spoke at MIT last Thursday about a new line of inquiry, the idea of obfuscation as a form of resistance to “data tyranny”. She is working on a book with Finn Brunton on the topic and, to my delight, more software that puts forward obfuscation as a strategy for resistance to surveillance.
Her talk begins by considering PETs – privacy enhancing technologies – building on definitions put forth by Aleecia McDonald. In reacting to “unjust and uncomfortable data collection”, we wish to resist but we do not have the capacity within the systems themselves. We can create privacy enhancing tools as a mode of self-help, and tools that leverage obfuscation fit within the larger frame of PETs, self-help and resistance.
She defines “data tyranny” drawing on work by Michael Walzer, whose work focuses on approaches to ethics in practice: “You are tyrannized to the extent that you can be controlled by the arbitrary decision of others.” Obfuscation, Nissenbaum tells us, fights against this tyranny.
Using her framework of privacy as contextual integrity, from Privacy in Context (2010), she explains that privacy is not complete control of our personal information, nor is it perfect secrecy. Instead, it is “appropriate information flow that is consistent with ideal informational norms.” This contextual understanding is key, she explains, “I don’t believe that a right to privacy is a right to control information about oneself, or that any spread of information is wrong.” What’s wrong is when this flow of information is inconsistent with our expectations given the context. Sharing information about what books we’re searching for with the librarian we asked for help doesn’t mean we’ve consented to share that information with a marketer looking to target advertisements to us – we expect one sort of sharing in that context and are right to feel misused when those norms are bent or broken.
Different privacy enhancing technologies use different strategies. One project Nissenbaum has collaborated on uses cryptography to facilitate resistance. Cryptagram (think Instagram plus crypto) allows you to publish password-protected photos on online social media. The photos appear as a black and white bitmap, unless you have the password (and the Cryptagram Chrome plugin installed). By encrypting the photos (with AES, and rendering the output as a JPEG), you gain finer control over Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings, and you prevent whoever is hosting your media from attempting to identify faces in photos, or building a more detailed profile of you using information gleaned from the images.
Other PETs use data obfuscation as their core tool of resistance. Nissenbaum defines obfuscation as “The production, inclusion, addition or communication of misleading, ambiguous, or false data in an effort to evade, distract or confuse data gatherers or diminish the reliability (and value) of data aggregations.” In other words, obfuscation doesn’t make data unreadable, it hides it in a crowd.
Good luck finding Waldo now.
TrackMeNot is a project Nissenbaum began in 2006 in collaboration with Daniel Howe and Vincent Toubiana. It was a reaction to a Department of Justice subpoena that sought search query data from Google as a way of documenting online child pornography, as well as the deanonymization of an AOL data set, suggesting that individuals could be personally identified on the basis of their search queries. “The notion that all searches were being stored and held felt shocking at the time,” Nissenbaum explained. “Perhaps we all take it for granted now.”
Her friends in computer science departments told her “there’s nothing you can do about it”, as Google is unlikely to change their policies about logging search requests. So she and her colleagues developed TrackMeNot, which sends a large number of fake search queries to a search engine, along with the valid query, then automatically sorts through the results the engine sends back, presenting only the valid query. The tool works within Firefox, and she reports that roughly 40,000 users use it regularly. You can watch what queries the tool is sending out, or choose your own RSS feed to generate queries from. (From the presentation, it looks like, by default, the tool is subscribing to a newspaper, chopping articles into n-grams and sending random n-grams to Google or other engines as “cover traffic”.)
The tool has prompted many reactions, including objects that TrackMeNot doesn’t work or is unethical. Security experts have suggested to her that search engines may be able to sort out the chaff from the wheat, filtering aside her fake queries. The questions about the ethics of obfuscation are at least as interesting to Nissenbaum as a philosopher.
Obfuscation, she tells us, is everywhere. It’s simply the strategy of hiding in plain sight. She quotes G.K. Chesterton, from The Innocence of Father Brown: “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”
With Finn Branton, she has been investigating historical and natural examples of leaf hiding and forest growing strategies. Some are easy to understand: if you don’t want your purchases tracked by your local supermarket, you can swap loyalty cards with a friend, obfuscating both your profiles. Others are more technically complicated. During the second World War, bomber pilots began releasing black paper backed with aluminum foil before releasing their payloads. The reflective paper obscured their signal on radar, showing dozens or hundreds of targets instead of the single plane, making it possible for bombers to evade interception.
Programmers and hardware engineers routinely obfuscate code to make it difficult to replicate their work. (As someone who has managed programmers for two decades, I think unintentional obfuscation is at least as common as intentional…) But some of the best examples of obfuscation are less technical in nature. Consider the Craigslist robber, who robbed a bank in Monroe, Washington in 2008, and got away by fading into a crowd. He’d put an ad on Craigslist, asking road maintenance workers to show up for a job interview by asking them to dress in a blue shirt, yellow vests, safety goggles, a respirator mask. A dozen showed up, and the robber – also wearing the outfit – was able to get away.
Nature obfuscates as well. The orb spider, who needs her web out in the open to catch prey, needs to avoid becoming prey herself. She builds a target of dirt, grass and other material in the web, exactly the size of the spider, hoping to lure wasps to attack the diversion instead of her.
Does obfuscation work? Is it ethical? Should it be banned? Examples like the orb spider suggest that it’s a natural strategy for self-preservation. But examples like Uber’s technique of calling Gett and Lyft drivers for rides, standing them up and then calling to recruit them, which Nissenbaum cites as another example of obfuscation, raise uncomfortable questions.
“What does it mean to ask ‘Does it work?'” asks Nissenbaum. “Works for what? There is no universally externalizable criterion we can ask for whether obfuscation works.” Obfuscation could work to buy time, or to provide plausible deniability. It could provide cover, foil profiling, elude surveillance, express a protest or subvert a system. Obfuscation that works for one or more criteria may fail for others.
The EFF, she tells us, has been a sometimes fierce critic of TrackMeNot, perhaps due to their ongoing support for Tor, which Nissenbaum makes clear she admires and supports. She concedes that TrackMeNot is not a tool for hiding your identity as Tor is, and notes that they’ve not yet decided to block third-party cookies with TrackMeNot, a key step to providing identity protection. But TrackMeNot is working under a different threat model – it seeks to obfuscate your search profile, not disguise your identity.
She and Brunton are working on a taxonomy of obfuscation, based on what a technique seeks to accomplish. Radar chaff and the Craigslist robber are examples of obfuscation to buy time, while loyalty card swapping, Tor relays and TrackMeNot seek to provide plausible deniability. Other projects obfuscate to provide cover, to elude surveillance or as a form of protest, as in the apocryphal story of the King of Denmark wearing a yellow Star of David and ordering his subjects to do so as well to obscure the identity of Jewish Danes.
For Nissenbaum, obfuscation is a “weapon of the weak” against data tyranny. She takes the term “weapon of the weak” from anarchist political scholar James C. Scott, who used the term to explain how peasants in Malaysia resist authority when they have insufficient resources to start a rebellion. Obfuscatory measures may be a “weak weapon of the weak”, vulnerable to attack. But these methods need to be considered in circumstantial ways, specific to the problem we are trying to solve.
“You’re an individual interacting with a search engine”, Nissenbaum tells us, “and you feel it’s wrong that your intellectual pursuit, your search engine use, should be profiled by search engines any more than we should be tracked in libraries.” The search engines keep telling you “we’re going to improve the experience for you”. How do we resist? “You can plead with the search engine, or plead with the government. But the one window we have into the search engine is our queries.” We can influence search engines this way “because we are not able to impose our will through other ways.”
This tactic of obfuscation as the weapon of the weak is one she’s bringing into a new space with a new project, Ad Nauseum, developed with Daniel Howe and Mushon Zer-Aviv. The purpose of Ad Nauseum is pretty straightforward: it clicks on all the ads you encounter. It’s built on top of Adblock Plus, but in addition to blocking ads, it registered a click on each one, and also collects the ads for you, so you can see them as a mosaic and better understand what the internet thinks of you.
Again, Nissenbaum asks us to consider strategies of obfuscation as having many strategies towards many ends. These strategies differ in terms of the source of obfuscation, the amount and type of noise in the system, whether targets are selective or general, whether the approach is stealthy or bald-faced, who benefits from the obfuscation and the resources of who you are trying to hide from. Ad Nauseum is bald-faced, general, personal in source (though it benefits from cooperation with others) and is taking on an adversary that is less powerful than the NSA, but perhaps not much less powerful.
Aside from questions of whether this will work, Nissenbaum asks if this is ethical. Objections include that it’s deceptive, that it wastes resources, damages the system, and enables free riding on the backs of your peers. In an ethical analysis, she reminds us, ends matter, and here the ends are just: eluding profiling and surveillance, preserving ideal information norms. This is different from robbing a bank, destroying a rival, or escaping a predator.
But means matter too. Ethicists ask if means are proportionate. If there is harm that comes from obfuscation, can another method work as well? In this case, that other method can be hard to see. Opting out hasn’t worked, as the Do Not Track effort collapsed. Transparency is a false solution, as companies already flood us with data about how they’re using our data, leading us to accept policies we don’t and can’t read. Should we shape corporate best practice? That’s simply asking the fox to guard the henhouse. And changing laws could take years if it ever succeeds.
In exploring waste, free ride, pollution, damage or subversion, Nissenbaum tells us, you must ask “What are you wasting? Who’s free riding? What are you polluting? Whose costs, whose risks, whose benefits should we consider.” Is polluting the stream of information sent to advertisers somehow worse that polluting my ability to read online without being polluted by surveillance?
Big data shifts risks around, Nissenbaum tells us. As an advertiser, I want to spend my ad money wisely. Tracking users shifts my risk in buying ads. The cost is backend collection of data, which places people at risk: think of recent revelations from Home Depot about stolen credit card information. Databases that are collected for the public good, for reasons like preventing terrorism, may expose individuals to even greater risk. We need a conversation about whether there are greater goods to protect than just keeping ourselves free of terrorism.
We can understand weapons of the weak, Nissenbaum tells us, by understanding threat models. We need to study the science, engineering and statistical capabilities of these businesses. In the process we discover “enabling execution vectors”, ways we can attack these systems through hackable standards, open protocols, and open access to systems. And we need to ensure that our ability to use these weapons of the weak is not quashed by enforceable terms of service that simply prevent their use. Without having access to the inner machination of systems, Nissenbaum argues, these weapons may be all we have.
An exceedingly lively conversation followed this talk. I was the moderator of that conversation, and so I have no good record of what transpired, but I’ll use this space – where I usually discuss Q&A – to share some of my own questions for Professor Nissenbaum.
One question begins by asking “What’s the theory of change for the project?” If the goal us to collapse the ad industry as we know it, I am skeptical of the project’s success at scale. Clicking ads is an extremely unusual behavior for human websurfers – clickthrough on banner ads is a tiny fraction of one percent for most users. Clicking on lots of ads is, however, frequent behavior for a clickfraud bot, a tool that’s part of a strategy in which a person hosts ads on their site, then unleashes a program to click on those ads, giving micropayments to person for each ad clicked. Essentially, it defrauds advertisers to reward a content provider. Clickfraud bots are really common, and most ad networks are pretty good at not paying for fraudulent clicks. This leads me to conclude that much of what Ad Nauseum does will be filtered out by ad networks and not counted as clicks.
This is a good outcome, Nissenbaum argues – you’ve disguised your human behavior as bot behavior and encouraged ad networks to remove you from their system. But it’s worth thinking about the costs. If I am a content provider, attracting human users who look like bots has two costs. One, I get no revenue from them as ad providers filter out their clicks. Two, I may well lose advertisers as they decide to move from my bot-riddled site and to sites that have a higher proportion of “human” readers. She’s shifted the cost from the reader to the content host rather than crashing the system. (Offering this scenario to Nissenbaum, using myself as an example of a content provider, and positing a Global Voices that was supported by advertising, I spun a case of our poor nonprofit going under thanks to her tool. In response, she quipped “Serves you right for working with those tracking-centric companies.” I’m looking forward to a more nuanced answer if she agrees with the premise of my critique.)
If the theory of change for the project is sparking a discussion about the ethics of advertising systems – a topic I am passionate about – rather than crashing the ad economy as we know it, I’m far more sympathetic. To me, Ad Nauseum does a great job of provoking conversations about the bargain of attention – and surveillance – for free content and services. I just don’t see it as an especially effective weapon for bringing those systems to their knees.
My other question centers on the idea that this technique is a “weapon of the weak”. To put it bluntly, a tenured professor at a prestigious university is nowhere near as disenfranchised as the peasants Scott is writing about. This isn’t a criticism that Nissenbaum is disrespecting the oppression of those worse off than she is, or a complaint about making a false comparison between two very different types of oppression. Instead, it’s a question about the current state of the political process in the United States. When a learned, powerful and enfranchised person feels like she’s powerless to change the regulation of technology, something is deeply messed up. Why does the regulation of technology turn the otherwise powerful into the weak? (Or is this perception of weakness the symbol of a broader alienation from politics and other forms of civic engagement?)
I’ve been advocating a theory of civic efficacy that considers at least four possible levers of change: seeking change through laws, through markets, through shaping social norms or through code. Using this framework, we could consider passing laws to ensure that the FTC protects user privacy on online systems. Or we could try to start companies that promise not to use user data (DuckDuckGo, Pinboard) and try to ensure they outcompete their competitors. We could try to shape corporate norms, seeking acknowledgement that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.
If Nissenbaum’s solution were likely to crash advertising as we know it, it might be superior to any of these other theories of change. If it is, instead, a creative protest that obscures an individual’s data and makes a statement at the cost of damaging online publishers, it raises the question of whether these means are justifiable or others bear closer consideration.
I tend to share Nissenbaum’s sense that advocating for regulation in this space is likely to be futile. I have more hopes for the market-based and norms-based theories – I support Rebecca MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights project because it seeks to make visible companies that protect digital rights and allows users to reward their good behavior.
But I raise the issue of weapons of the weak because I suspect Nissenbaum is right – I have a hard time imagining a successful campaign to defend online privacy against advertisers. If she’s right that many of us hate and resent the surveillance that accompanies an ad-supported internet, what’s so wrong in our political system that we feel powerless to change these policies through conventional channels?
My alma mater, Williams College, begins the academic year with a convocation, a ceremony for seniors, faculty and a small number of alumni who are being honored with the college’s Bicentennial medal, an award for “distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor”. I was honored to be one of those medal recipients this year, and the college asked me to address the students. My remarks follow below. (Should you want to see me deliver the address, here’s the YouTube video.)
If the job of a commencement address is to offer students thoughts on how to exit college and enter the world, a convocation address can urge students to make the best of their remaining time in college. I wanted to try to connect my time at Williams more than twenty years ago to my professional life, to talk about the college’s new library and connect the year’s academic theme – The Book, Unbound – to my own work.
I’m posting the speech here at the request of a few faculty and students who were kind enough to ask. It may not make a ton of sense to my regular readers, who don’t know about the rivalry between Williams and Amherst, two fine colleges in Western Massachusetts that have lots of similarities and a long-standing rivalry. I’m not above playing to the hometown crowd, so most of the laugh lines here are digs at Amherst and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, British Army commander and all-around nasty piece of work.
I’m honored and thrilled to be with you today for the Williams 2014 Convocation, for the dedication of the extraordinary and beautiful new Sawyer Library, and for this year’s conversation about “The Book, Unbound”. Given the circumstances, I’ve been thinking back to one of my favorite Williams origin stories. You know it, I’m sure: how in September 1821, Zephaniah Swift Moore, the second President of Williams College, skulked out of town in the dead of night, leaving the wilderness of western Massachusetts to build Amherst in the tamer lands of the Pioneer Valley, taking with him not only 15 students but key volumes from the Williams College library.
It’s a fantastic story, just the sort of thing to justify our centuries-old rivalry with our neighbors to the east. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Yes, President Moore left, and yes, fifteen students left with him. And there’s a lack of clarity about where the 700 books that constituted Amherst’s original library came from. But there’s no evidence that Amherst’s library was seeded with purloined volumes, only records of votes by student societies not to move libraries along with the students who left the college.
It’s possible the story began as an excuse for the poor quality of the Williams library in the 1800s. In 1821, the library wouldn’t have been that hard to steal – at that point, Williams had two buildings, two professors, two tutors and 1400 volumes, ot a huge expansion from the school’s original library, 360 volumes in a bookcase in West College. And students complained bitterly of the quality of those books, most of which were dusty theological texts – if you wanted to read non religious literature at Williams for much of 1800s, you would do better to turn to student-run literary and scientific societies.
It’s likely that the legend is much more recent, probably forming in early 1960s. In an essay about the legend, Dustin Griffin points out that early histories of the college discuss President Moore’s departure and rivalries with Amherst, but not the story of the books, and that the story of the books wasn’t one his contemporaries knew in the early 1960s. But by the mid 1960s, there’s record of John Chandler, then dean of the faculty, visiting Amherst’s new library in 1965 cracking a joke about coming to take our books back. When I was here in the early 1990s, the theft of Williams’s library was presented as fact, a simple explanation for the inherent moral superiority of our institution over our rival… which was helpful, as many of us had applied to Amherst as well and needed solid grounding for our contempt.
So we have a myth that’s fairly recent, but which has some powerful explanatory properties and enduring power. It’s worth picking at the myth and asking what it says about us as a culture that this is one of our origin stories, an explanation for our place in the world.
When I’ve heard the story, the theft of the books is always presented as the final straw: Yes, Amherst took our president and took our students. But can you believe they had the nerve to take our books! Bibliolarceny is somehow a more serious crime than other forms of theft – not, perhaps, as serious as proposing the extermination of native Americans with smallpox blankets, but worthy of special consideration nevertheless.
Books have a special, symbolic meaning in our culture. The burning of books – whether by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad in the 9th century, the burning of “degenerate texts” by the Nazis in the 1930s or American extremists burning the Quran today – isn’t just about the destruction of an object. It’s the symbolic destruction of a people, a culture and a way of thinking. Whether we’re banning books from library shelves, burning them or stealing them, we’re talking about shrinking the universe of cultural possibilities, limiting the number of different ways we can look at the world through the eyes of the authors.
I think that’s why this story has special significance in the context of a college. Even before 1965, when this story gained its currency, college was a place to expand your worldview. The process of packing up, leaving your hometown and going to live with a new set of people is constructed not just to give you access to a different set of teachers, but to a different and broader set of friends and influences. In 1965, when this myth took root, colleges themselves were shifting. In 1964, the civil rights act mandated access to public schools for African Americans and for women. Williams became coeducational in 1970. When this myth arose, we were right on the cusp of the college experience changing: from one which exposed students to a world of mostly white men, to one which served as a bridge to a much wider, multicultural international world. Against that backdrop of the widening world, we have a story about part of a college’s community giving up, finding the challenge of building a community out in the wilds to be too difficult, and shrinking the horizons of those who stayed by taking their books.
One of the reasons I wanted to think about this story is that I wonder whether it has as much currency now as it did in the 60s, or even in the 90s. We’re at a very different moment in our relationship with books, our relationship with information, than we were even twenty years ago. The story of the stolen books is a story from the days of scarce information. Now most of us feel like we’re inundated with information, possibly drowning in it. How do we think about losing part of our library when we have an apparent infinity of information online?
I published a book last summer, Rewire, that looked at the question of how having access to an abundance of global information is changing what we know about the world. I had been a cyberutopian, someone who believed that the internet was going to make the world a smaller, more connected and more understanding place. This seemed pretty obvious to me – it used to be really hard to get news from Sub Saharan Africa or Central Asia – now you can read a Nigerian newspaper online or make a Skype call to Kazakhstan.
But a strange thing has happened as we’ve gotten access to more information from around the world – most of us are choosing to encounter less of it. We have to make thousands of decisions a day about whether we read a story about Ebola, a tweet from Ferguson, or a Facebook update from a high school classmate. In aggregate, most of us are getting much less international news than we did in an era of the daily newspaper and three television stations.
When we’re faced with a wealth of choices, we tend to opt for the familiar, for what we already know to be important. It’s a basic human tendency to pay more attention to members of “our tribe” than people we’ve never met and don’t have a reason to care about. This was a fine coping strategy for a world of disconnected villages, the world almost everyone lived in 500 years ago, but it’s deeply maladaptive for the connected world we live in today. We may not know anyone in Liberia, but it’s a pretty short plane flight from Monrovia to New York – problems that were distant have a way of become our problems very quickly.
Much of my work at MIT looks at questions of how we maintain a broad view of the world when we’re faced with an avalanche of information. It’s directly parallel to the problems librarians have today now that the problem isn’t expanding from 360 volumes to 1400 – the problem is engineering serendipity. It’s making the library – or, in my case, the internet – both a place where you can take a deep dive into a subject you care about, and also a place where you can discover something unexpected and life changing.
One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.
For ten years, I’ve been helping run a website called Global Voices, which uses citizen media – blogposts, YouTube videos, tweets – to bring readers news from around the globe. The reason we use citizen media is that it gives you a connection to ordinary people writing online as well as to the events they’re describing. For our readers and our community, the Arab Spring wasn’t just the story about a political upheaval – it was the story of our friends who were in the streets, in and out of prison and then in and out of the new governments.
I started working on Global Voices because I wanted to read more news about sub-Saharan Africa in the newspaper. That’s because I spent five years in Ghana helping Ghanaians build internet service providers and other technology businesses. And I started doing that because I spent a year in Ghana on a Fulbright grant studying xylophone music. What got me interested in that was Sandra Burton, who I believe should be considered a national treasure as well as one of our colleges’ greatest heroes. Along with Gary Sojkowski and the late Ernest Brown, Sandra founded Kusika, the African dance ensemble, which was the center of my community when I was at Williams. The strange and wonderful path my life has taken, from starting an early web company to building internet businesses in Africa to working with media activists and journalists around the world, to teaching at MIT leads directly back to the dance studio and to the computer labs, to the professors and students who were passionate about a world wide enough to include both Africa and the internet.
The next time you visit Sawyer Library, I’d ask you to think about the ways in which it’s carefully curated, designed to make it possible to get lost productively, to discover something unexpected but wonderful. Possibly the only thing at Williams more carefully curated is the class you are a part of. We’ve got an almost infinite capacity to put information on shelves physically or virtually, but the opportunity to be in this place, with these people for four years is decidedly finite. I’m grateful for the effort that went into giving me a universe of a couple thousands people who challenged me and invited me to discover new ways of looking at the world.
This is something the college does very consciously, for the simple reason that who we know is going to help determine who we are. I don’t mean this in the narrow sense that, if the person sitting next to you founds the next Facebook, maybe you’ll get some stock options. I mean it in a much broader sense: that who you know, who you care about tends to determine how you view the world, what you pay attention to, and ultimately will shape your path through the world.
Like the library, like the internet, the class of 2015 is too big to know. But if the challenge of a really great library is not just to explore what you already know, what you already care about, the challenge is the same, to challenge yourself to expand your picture of the world by expanding who you know and who and what you care about.
Here’s what Zephiniah Swift Moore took from Williams when he left for Amherst: he took 15 students, 20% of the student body. We can think of those mythical stolen books as shrinking the universe, what we could learn from those volumes. But we should think of losing those students in the same way, as losing the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes.
We’re always going to have to make choices about who we know, what we read, what we care about. We never get to read every book, even when there are only 360 on the shelves, and we’re never going to know the people around us as well as they deserve to be known. But we can make decisions to choose a wider world. In ways I never expected, Williams launched me into a world that’s wider than I had imagined. I am eternally grateful for this and I hope the same for you.
Writing this address was a great chance to read up on the early history of Williams and its library. Here are some of the sources I benefited from:
Dustin Griffin (Williams ’65) wrote a terrific essay, “The Theft of the Williams Library”, which I drew from heavily. I’m especially grateful to Griffin for the term “bibliolarceny”.
Steve Satullo (Williams ’69) has been researching the history of Williams libraries as the college has built and moved Sawyer library. His essays have been very helpful for understanding the early days of the Williams library and its shortcomings.
In understanding the state of Williams College and the reasons Zephaniah Swift Moore and others believed it was important to move Williams from the wilderness toward the more settled Pioneer Valley, the 1895 “A History of Amherst College” by William S. Tyler is very helpful.
I spoke this morning at the tenth incarnation of BIF, Business Innovation Factory, an annual conference in Providence, RI that focuses on storytelling. It’s got a lot less product promotion and self-celebration than many conferences on innovation, and more personal stories, which is why I always enjoy attending. So I thought I’d share a personal story that I’m still digesting and the questions it raises for me. If it reads a little differently from most of my writing, the context helps explain why.
About a month ago, I wrote an article about a simple idea. I asked whether anyone really believed that advertising should be the main way we supported content and services on the internet. Given how poorly banner advertising on the web worksGiven that nobody likes banner ads, and given that the current system puts users under surveillance, which in turn seems to inure us to government surveillance, I wondered whether there might be a better way.
Initially, the piece did what I hoped for – it sparked a lively conversation about business models for the web, particularly about business models for news. My friend Jeff Jarvis, whose faith in Google inspires envy in leaders of the Catholic Church, reassured me that once advertising got a little better, I’d like the ads I was reading online, really! I heard pitches for ethical advertising, for different approaches to subscriptions and to micropayments. I’d gotten something off my chest, had sparked a good conversation and was learning from the responses. As a blogger and a media scholar, life was good.
But something unexpected happened halfway through my day in the sun. For a brief and uncomfortable time, I became the most hated man on the internet. Here’s how that happened.
In writing about advertising, I wanted to talk about mistakes we’d made collectively, as an industry, not just beat up on Mark Zuckerberg or any other individual. So I took responsibility for my own small contribution to making the world an ugly, ad-filled place. I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that almost twenty year ago, I invented the pop-up ad.
My intentions were good. (Please stop throwing things at the stage.) I was part of the team that started Tripod.com, an early webpage hosting company. My popup put an ad in a separate window from a user’s webpage, which was a way of distancing an advertiser from user generated content, reassuring advertisers that they wouldn’t actually be on the same page as a paranoid essay about government conspiracies or a collection of nude images. I thought it was a pretty good solution. I’m really, really sorry.
My editor at the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance, is a lot smarter about her readers I am. She knew that this admission, which I hid as a parenthetical comment, would be far more interesting to most readers than a 3000 word essay on advertising and a culture of surveillance. She did a brief interview with me about the process of creating the ad and wrote a 300 word story titled “The First Pop Up Ad”
And then things got weird.
Yes, that’s Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien making fun of me. And yes, that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened tome.
Adrienne’s Atlantic piece, lightly rewritten, appeared in about forty news outlets over the next 24 hours. I got loads of interview requests and I did one of them before realizing that this was a very bad idea, and that even normally staid news outlets like the BBC would be far more interested in my “confession” than in the broader argument about advertising and surveillance. And then the emails and the tweets started to come in, first cursing me out in English, and then in Turkish, Portuguese, Chinese and Croatian as the story spread globally.
Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, we would all be famous for 15 minutes. There’s another possibility: on the internet, we will all be intensely loathed for about 15 seconds.
Let me just pause for a moment and mention that my no good, very bad day on the internet is approximately equivalent to what many of my friends refer to as “Friday”. Which is to say, if you are an opinionated woman who writes online, you likely face ugly, misogynistic bullshit on a daily basis significantly more acute that the tongue in cheek death threats I received once this story took off. I don’t in any way mean to compare the mild abuse I faced at a moment of extreme visibility to the sorts or routine, everyday harassment many smart women face for merely expressing themselves online.
That said, I do now understand why someone would choose to go offline rather than wallow in hostility. I ended up taking a week entirely offline while things blew over, until only one in five emails was a death threat.
Of all the tweets hoping for my swift and painful demise, I was particularly struck by one written by a user in southeast Asia, whose tweet read, more or less: “@ethanz I do not accept your apology. This is your Frankenstein monster. You made it, you should kill it.”
I really liked this tweet. There’s something refreshingly simple about the idea that someone – one guy – could be responsible for things in the world that are badly broken. And once we find that guy, we can either string him up or demand that he fix it. It’s the inverse of the great man theory of history, where we declare Edison the great man who commercialized electricity and brought about the modern world, cutting out Tesla, Westinghouse and hundreds of others. This is the rat bastard theory of history, where if only that one SOB hadn’t put pop up ads on user homepages, the world would be a slightly pleasanter place.
The rat bastard theory is helpful because it gives you a single, concrete individual to hate. Back in my darkest, saddest days, when I used to use Windows, I really enjoyed hating Bill Gates, despite the fact that my anger was clearly misplaced. It’s clear that there were all sorts of design decisions that made Windows agonizing to use in the late 1990s, not an evil plan from Bill Gates, who has turned out to be a pretty terrific guy. But it’s a lot easier to see the rat bastard than to see the whole problem.
The problem with the internet in the late 1990s is that we wanted it to be available to everybody in the world. That’s partially because it seemed like the fair thing to do, and partially because we genuinely loved the web and wanted to evangelize for it globally. But most people didn’t know why the web was cool, why they’d want to build a homepage or send status updates to friends, so they weren’t about to pay us to use it. And so we ended up with the only business model we could think of – broadcast advertising. You’ll get our services for free, and we’ll demand some of your attention to sell to advertisers in exchange. Basically, we didn’t know how to pay for the internet for everyone, so we decided to make the internet work the way broadcast television worked.
We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.
But there are people imagining something very different. Maceij Ceglowski, whose brilliant talk got me thinking about the broken state of the web, has built a bookmarking service called pinboard that’s really cheap – about $5 – but not free. He did it because he imagined something different, not a site to sell to another company, but a service he wanted to have available to the world that’s been profitable since the day he started it. WhatsApp is a wildly popular messaging service that charges users $0.99 a year, and had over 400 million users before Facebook bought it, an amazing example that people are willing to pay for tools they need and use. I just learned about a social network called Connect Fireside that’s designed for the mobile phone and optimized for sharing photos with your family and close friends, not with the whole world. It’s not cheap – it’s $20 a month right now – and who knows if it will survive, but it’s exciting to see someone build something based on a different set of assumptions.
Once you get rid of those assumptions – everything is free, the user is the product being sold to advertisers, and the goal is to be a venture-backed billion dollar business – and lots of things are possible. My friends in Kenya got sick of losing internet connectivity every time the power went off, so they went onto Kickstarter and funded BRCK, which is a portable internet router for the developing world that relies on the mobile phone network. The people who paid for it were people who wanted and needed the device, so were willing to pay for it to be built – crowdfunding, as a model, asks that you give up the assumption that people have to instantly receive the things they buy. Turns out that sometimes we’re willing to pay for something in the hope that it might come to pass, someday.
Turns out we’re also willing to pay for things because we love them and we want them to exist. I’ve become a massive fan of a deeply strange podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which might be described as a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Twilight Zone. The podcast is free, but listeners are encouraged to donate $5 a month, and many do… Many more come to live shows, buy tickets and merchandise, which has allowed the creators to expand the podcast, bringing in new actors and musicians, launch a 16 city tour of Europe and write a book about the Night Vale universe. Putting something beautiful and strange out into the world and hoping people will love it is not the most reliable business model, but it sometimes turns out to be viable.
Remember my friend on Twitter who wanted me to kill Frankenstein’s monster? He got part of it wrong in assuming that I’m the rat bastard solely responsible for the situation we’re in today. But he got part of it right. He’s right that people like me can and should be trying to fix things.
The things that are broken about the internet today – and there are a lot of them – are the product of design decisions that fallible, mortal human beings have made over the past twenty years. Twenty years is not a long time. I have t-shirts older than the world wide web. The web wasn’t built by enlightened geniuses whose trains of thought we could never comprehend – it was built by idiots like me, doing the best we could at the time. It’s possible to look at every technical and design decision that’s led to where we are today and make different choices than the people who made those bad choices.
There’s a lot of things I don’t like about how the web works today. I don’t like that our attention is constantly for sale. I don’t like that public sharing is the default. I don’t like that the web never forgets. I think the always on, inescapable nature of the web is proving really exhausting for us as human beings. And I’m scared that the new public spaces, the places where we come together to debate the future, are owned and controlled by a few massive companies that have enormous potential power over what we’re able to discuss online.
But the mistake would be to assume that these shortcomings are inevitable, that they are simply natural consequences of how people interact online. The mistake is to stop questioning the assumptions about how the world worlds, to stop imagining ways things could be different and better.
I should probably mention that this is not a talk about internet business models.
Actually, it’s a talk about civics.
If you think the web is broken – and I do – you should take a look at American democracy. Here’s another case where fallible humans made design decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time and now have had some clearly disastrous consequences. Sure, having professional representatives deliberate together and govern a nation is a pretty cool hack when the dominant governance technology of the time is feudalism. One person, one vote elections – once we finally got around to fully implementing it? Cool idea. Freedom of speech for individuals as well as organizations? Seems pretty important for the rest of the system to work.
Put these things together and we’ve somehow ended up with a system where the Democratic Congressional Committee recommends to new congresspeople that they spend 4-5 hours a day raising money, and only 3-4 hours meeting with constituents or working to craft legislation. It’s a system that constituents hate – it’s part of the reason Congress has a single-digit approval rating – and Congresspeople hate, too, which is why some incumbents are choosing to leave office. But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened, to trace the decisions that brought us to a deeply undesirable place. We can invoke the rat bastard theory and blame Chief Justice John Roberts for Citizens United decision, but we’re following the same fallacy – this is a failure of imagination, not the failure of any one person (or even five supreme court justices)
It’s possible to imagine something very different. Larry Lessig is working very hard to bring a new model to life, where every voter gets $50 of government funds to give to politicians who can use the money to campaign. To imagine that model, you have to give up a bunch of assumptions: that you have a right to spend money to influence politics; that governments should try to do less, not more. And you have to be ready to cope with all the unintended consequences of the new system as well, of people selling their government funds to politicians through brokers, of social media becoming an endless campaign battle ground.
We need a ton more of this, people questioning assumptions that representation makes more sense than direct democracy, that decisions at the federal level are more important than those locally, that money is convertible into power. We need lots of Lessigs taking on these sorts of imaginative experiments, because most of them are going to fail.
Here are two really big assumptions I want to question:
– that participating in representative democracy is the core act of what it means to be a good citizen
– and that everyone is going to participate in our democracy in more or less the same way
You know what it means to be a good citizen – you’re supposed to read the newspaper and keep up on events locally and globally, and vote every two years and maybe call your congressman if something really pisses you off. And you probably know that this isn’t going to make very much of a difference. And that your congressperson is heading into a paralyzed institution that’s rarely able to pass legislation.
So let’s question the assumption that fixing Congress – or even more ambitiously, fixing politics – is the most important part of fixing citizenship. In the 50s and 60s, people figured out that, when you’re prevented from voting by law, public protests – marches, sit ins, boycotts – are a critical part of citizenship. As Congress starting passing civil rights legislation, activists learned that lawsuits were a critical tool to ensure that laws applied to everyone and enforced fairly. We rarely think of suing the government as a way to be a good citizen, but it’s been critical in building the rights-based society we have today.
There are at least three ways I think people can be civically active even if they’re frustrated with paralysis in politics. Make media. When people saw tanks in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to counter peaceful protests, they made media and started a conversation about the militarization of America’s police forces. When they saw a newspaper picture of Michael Brown looking threatening, they started tweeting #iftheyshotmedown, asking whether the media were being fair in their choice of picture to portray the victim of a police shooting. Media is how we understand the world, and we can shape our public conversation by building civic media.
Make new things. I’m deeply frustrated that my government is surveilling my communications and those of millions of others worldwide, and I’m angry that so little legislative action has been taken in the wake of Ed Snowden’s revelations. But I’m really happy that software developers like Tor, Mailpile, Redphone and Mailvelope are working to make it easy to encrypt email and phonecalls and make it harder for anyone to surveil our communications. Make businesses. I’m concerned about climate change, I want to see a carbon tax, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see Tesla making electric cars that are sexy and for people as broke as me, excited that I drove here in a diesel car that gets almost fifty miles to the gallon. Building businesses that do well while doing good is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in civics today.
Here’s what’s tricky about expanding civics to include making media, making code and making money: it’s not a level playing field. Voting is something everyone can do – right now, making code or making media is easier for some people than others. We’re going to need to think hard about how we prepare the next generation of citizens for a world where their power comes not just from voting but from making, and where someone’s civics unfolds in the marketplace while someone else’s unfolds in Congress.
If you want to overcome failures of imagination – accepting that the web or our politics are inescapably broken – you’ve got to try something new. You’re probably going to fail. And when you do, I recommend that you try again. But first I recommend that you apologize. It feels really good. I’m sorry, and thank you for listening.