… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

June 19, 2015

Pattern recognition: racism, gun violence and Dylann Roof

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 4:08 pm

When you read about Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black men and women as they prayed, think about the patterns he represents.

Over the next few days, we’re going to hear about mental illness. We’re going to hear about troubled loners. We’ll hear about a young man’s racist fantasies, so outrageous that he would
celebrate the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. We’ll hear from family, neighbors and high school friends, and the picture that will emerge is of a young man who was strange, disturbed, sick, abnormal. The message will be that the massacre in Charleston was an unpredictable, unavoidable tragedy carried out by an individual madman.

Don’t lose sight of the patterns.

When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it was a hate crime. We know, because Roof told the survivors precisely why he had come to this historic church to commit mass murder: “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” It was an act of domestic terrorism. Roof has reportedly told investigators that he wanted to start a race war with his actions. Shooting nine black people as they prayed was a way to terrorize all black people and to destroy the safety and comfort of what should be the safest of spaces.

Attacking black Americans was also part of a pattern.

The United States is a dangerous place to be a black person. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans are. Hispanic and Asian Americans are less likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Gun violence is a tragedy that disproportionately affects Black Americans.

So is murder. In 2012, blacks represented 13% of the US population and represented 50% of homicide victims. Black men were 8.5 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than white men. Politicians and commentators – notably Rudy Giuliani – are fond of pointing out that most black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. That’s true. But it’s also true that most white men are killed by other white men. Most murder – 78% between 1980-2008 – is committed by someone the victim knew well, a family member, friend or other acquaintance. Given high rates of homophily in American society, it’s not surprising that black people know – and kill – black people and white people know – and kill – white people.

What is surprising is how police handle these murders. In New York City, the “clearance rate” for homicides with white victims is 86%. For homicides with black victims, the rate is 45%. In other words, in the majority of homicide cases where the victim is black, the case is unsolved and the murderer remains on the streets. Yes, investigating homicides of black people is often complicated by a culture that discourages cooperation with the police, the result of decades of mistrust between police and the communities they serve. But they are also the result of police decisions about resource allocation, and a culture of underpolicing black neighborhoods, in which police have demonstrated that they’re more likely to harass individuals at random through racial profiling than they are to investigate serious crimes.

And while we’re talking about the police, let’s remember that at least 101 UNARMED black people were killed by law enforcement in 2014. That includes Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Darrien Hunt, but it includes dozens you probably haven’t heard about, like Justin Griffin, a 25 year old basketball coach who had an argument with a referee – the referee was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and he and another deputy beat Griffin to death. From 2010-2012, teenage black men were 21 times more likely than teenage white men to be killed by police.

We need to learn to see these patterns, some of us more than others. The pattern of police violence against black lives is much easier to see if you’re personally affected by it than if you’re not a member of a targeted community. In that case, it can be hard to see patterns from single incidents. We read about the death of a black man in police custody and are likely to see it as an isolated incident, unless someone points out the larger pattern of undue force applied by police to black suspects.

Thanks to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, we have a narrative – #blacklivesmatter – that helps draw connections between Walter Scott’s death at the hands of the police in North Charleston, and the slaughter of nine of Charleston’s finest citizens at the hands of Dylann Roof. As Cullors has explained, #blacklivesmatter is not just about the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes: “The media really wants to say ‘This happened in Ferugson, this happened in Baltimore, this happened in New York. Are they the same?’ Yes, they’re the same. Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising.”

Cullors talks about a “Black Spring”, a parallel to the Arab Spring, where black people and their allies start uprising and demanding a more just nation. People who knew Roof tell us that he was obsessed with the protests resulting from the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray deaths – a Black Spring is exactly what he appears to have feared the most. Those he killed, notably the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator was a key figure in the fight to bring body cameras to South Carolina police, were precisely the people working to better the lives of the black community – and the community as a whole – in Charleston, SC.

Was Dylann Roof a troubled loner? Yes. But he was also resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above the State Capitol and can’t be taken down or lowered to half mast without approval by the state assembly. To reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for confederate generals. He lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence. Dismissing him as a uniquely sick individual ignores the pattern.

Roof also lives in a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns. Reflecting on the murders in Charleston, President Obama pointed out, “At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – it’s twice as high as in Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency.

Our gun murder rate is off the charts in comparison to high-income nations – to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of Latin America greatly outpace the US in gun murders per capita, but some of our most dangerous cities for gun violence – New Orleans, Detroit – have as high a rate of gun violence as the world’s most dangerous countries.

Not only were Dylann Roof’s crimes part of a pattern of gun violence that’s near-unique to the US, they are part of a pattern of mass shootings. Mother Jones, tracking shootings by single killers in public places in which four or more people were killed, has identified more than 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Like most mass killers, Roof used a handgun, and like the vast majority of mass killers, he obtained his weapon legally.

We have a pattern of mass gun killings in the US, and we have a pattern of doing nothing about them. Two years after the massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT, The New York Times has tracked gun laws passed in the year after the Newtown shootings. 39 laws tightened gun restrictions; 70 loosened them. If the pattern continues, South Carolina – a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun – is more likely to legalize concealed carry without a permit than it is to significant restrictions on handgun ownership.

We didn’t have to wait long to hear the argument that more guns would have saved lives in Charleston. Fox and Friends managed to find a pastor who argued that religious leaders should preach while armed, so that they could defend the flock from attack. NRA Board member Charles Cotton found a way to blame Roof’s crimes on a man he slaughtered, Reverend Pinckney: “he [Rev. Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

American resistance to sane gun control laws is based on fantasy. We fantasize that guns will protect us from being victims of crime. They don’t. Gun owners are five times more likely to be shot than non-owners. Women who live in a house containing one or more guns are 3.4 times more likely to be killed than women who live in gun free homes. For each instance someone used a gun to kill in self defense, more than fifty people were killed with guns. We fantasize that we will stop crimes with guns, if only pastors or teachers or any brave civilian were allowed to carry concealed weapons. We’d do well to remember Joe Zamudio, a bystander at the rally where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot, who had a concealed weapon and narrowly missed killing not the gunman, but the man who wrestled the weapon away from the gunman.

These fantasies keep us from seeing the pattern. We live in a country where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal, or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. People in other countries think we’re crazy. As the Economist wrote today, “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.” These fantasies are constructed and marketed by people who don’t want us to see the pattern, people who believe, sincerely or cynically, that America would be a safer place if everyone was armed.

Here’s why patterns matter. So long as we treat each mass shooting, each black death as an isolated tragedy, there’s nothing we can do. We’re the victim of the law of large numbers, the reality that in any large group of people, there are those that will harm others, abuse positions of power, do crazy and horrific things. Every news report that focuses on Roof’s mental state, that tries to unpack the biography that led him to his crimes is a distraction from these patterns. There’s nothing we can do to bring back the lives of the nine people Roof killed. But there’s work we can do to make sure black lives matter. There’s work we can do to help Americans see our neighbors as people, not targets.

If it’s hard to see patterns, it’s really hard to see how they intersect. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other, that understanding the challenges black women face involves considering not just racism and sexism, but the intersections of the two. The killings in Charleston are the product of intersectionality as well, of a society where racial hatred makes it possible for a young man to want to kill black people and where the ready available of weapons makes it possible for him to kill a lot of black people. America’s obsession with guns is a big part of what makes this nation so dangerous for black people. America’s endemic racism is a big part of what makes American buy, own and lobby for guns, to protect ourselves from an “other” that we fear.

Jon Stewart did a wise thing in reacting to the shootings in Charleston – he admitted that there were simply no jokes that could be made. But he also articulated a sense of hopelessness that’s easy to feel, and hard to fight: “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.”

We’ve got to do better than that.

Help people see these patterns. When you talk about Dylann Roof, don’t talk about a sick. sad young man. Talk about the lines that link Charleston to Ferguson and Charleston to Newtown. Rail at the confederate flag flying over South Carolina, but rail at the less obvious ways we disrespect black lives – over-incarceration, underinvestment in education, the disappearance of economic mobility and the rise of economic inequality – that prevent black people in America from having a fair chance. Understand that fighting gun violence is a way to fight racism. Help build a narrative to understand and combat gun violence in America the way that #blacklivesmatter helps us work for a Black Spring.

Mourn, but act. Support the people working at the intersection of these patterns, as the Brady Center is in campaigning against “bad apple” gun dealers, the 5% of dealers responsible for selling guns used in 90% of crimes. Look for new patterns, like the emergence of anti-government “Patriot” groups, heavily armed and often racially motivated, whose actions get far less media attention than protests against police violence.

We can’t bring back the nine people Dylann Roof killed. But we can and we must work to fight the patterns that make these killings possible.

June 15, 2015

Listening Machines, and the whether, when and how of new technologies

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 6:46 pm

One of my great pleasures in life is attending conferences on fields I’m intrigued by, but know nothing about. (A second pleasure is writing about these events.) So when my friend Kate Crawford invited me to a daylong “Listening Machine Summit” this past Friday, I could hardly refuse.

What’s a listening machine? The example of everyone’s lips was Hello Barbie, a version of the impossibly proportioned doll that will listen to your child speak and respond in kind:

…a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: “Welcome to New York, Barbie.”

The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: “I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?”

Barbie accomplishes this magic by recording your child’s question, uploading it to a speech recognition server, identifying a recognizable keyword (“New York”) and offering an appropriate synthesized response. The company behind Barbie’s newfound voice, ToyTalk, uses your child’s utterance to help tune their speech recognition, likely storing the voice file for future use.

And that’s the trick with listening systems. If you can imagine reasons why you might not want Mattel maintaining a record of things your child says while talking to his or her doll, you should be able to imagine the possible harms that could come from use, abuse or interrogation of other listening systems. (“Siri, this is the police. Give us the last hundred searches Mr. Zuckerman asked you to conduct on Google. Has he ever searched for bomb making instructions?”)

As one of the speakers put it (we’re under Chatham House rules, so I can’t tell you who ), listening machines trigger all three aspects of the surveillance holy trinity: they’re pervasive, starting to appear in all aspects of our lives; they’re persistent, capable of keeping records of what we’ve said indefinitely, and they process the data they collect, seeking to understand what people are saying and acting on what they’re able to understand. To reduce the creepy nature of their surveillant behavior, listening systems are often embedded in devices designed to be charming, cute and delightful: toys, robots and smooth-voiced personal assistants.

Proponents of listening systems see them as a major way technology integrates itself more deeply into our lives, making it routine for computers to become our helpers, playmates and confidants. A video of a robot designed to be a shared household companion sparked a great deal of debate, both about whether we would want to interact with a robot in the ways proposed by the product’s designers, and how a sufficiently powerful companion robot should behave. If a robot observes spousal abuse, should it call the police? If the robot is designed to be friend and confidant to everyone in the house, but was paid for by the mother, should we expect it to rat out one of the kids for smoking marijuana? (Underlying these questions is the assumption that the robot will inevitably be smart enough to understand and interpret complex phenomena. One of our best speakers made the case that robots are very far from having this level of understanding, but that well-designed robots were systems designed to deceive us into believing that they had these deeper levels of understanding.)

Despite the helpful provocations offered by real and proposed consumer products, the questions I found most interesting focused on being unwittingly and unwillingly surveilled by listening machines. What happens when systems like ShotSpotter, currently designed to identify shots fired in a city, begins dispatching police to other events, like a rowdy pool party (just to pick a timely example)? Workers in call centers already have their interactions recorded for review by their supervisors – what happens when Uber drivers and other members of the 1099 economy are required to record their interactions with customers for possible review? (A friend points out that many already do as a way of defending themselves from possible firing in light of bad reviews.) It’s one thing to choose to invite listening machines into your life, confiding in Siri or a cuddly robot companion, and something entirely different to be listened to by machines installed by your employer or by local law enforcement.

A representative of one of the US’s consumer regulatory agencies gave an excellent talk in which she outlined some of the existing laws and principles that could potentially be used to regulate listening machines in the future. While the US does not have comprehensive privacy legislation in the way many European nations do, there are sector-specific laws that can protect against abusive listening machines: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPA and others. She noted that electronic surveillance systems had been the subject of two regulatory actions in the US, where FTC protections against “unfair and deceptive acts in commerce” led to action against the Aaron’s rent to own chain, which installed privacy-violating software in the laptops they rented out, capturing images of anyone in front of the camera. The FTC argued that this was a real and concrete harm to consumers with no offsetting benefits, and “>Aaron’s settled, disabling the software.

I found the idea that existing regulations and longstanding ideas of fairness could provide a framework for regulating listening machines fascinating, but I’m not sure I buy it. Outside of the enforcement context, I wonder whether these ideas provide a robust enough framework for thinking about future regulation of listening systems, because I’m not sure anyone understands the implications of these systems well enough to anticipate possible futures for them. A day thinking about eavesdropping dolls and personal assistants that can turn state’s evidence left me confident only that I don’t think anyone has thought enough about the implications of these systems to posit possible, desirable futures for their use.


Dr. Doolittle meets the Pushmi-Pullyu

Over the past thirty or more years, we’ve seen a particular Pushmi-Pullyu pattern of technology regulation. Companies invent new technologies and bring them to market. Consumers occasionally react, and if sufficient numbers react loudly enough, government regulators investigate and mandate changes. There’s a sense that this is the correct process, that more aggressive regulation would crush innovation before inventors could show us the benefits of their new ideas.

But this is a model in which regulation is a very modest counterweight to market forces. So long as a product is on the market, it’s engaged in persuading people that a new type of behavior is the new normal. When Apple brough Siri to market, it engaged in a multi-front campaign to persuade people that they should regularly speak to a computer to make appointments, order dinner, check traffic conditions and seek advice. Apple was able to lower barriers to adoption by making the product a pre-installed part of their very popular phone, making it available for free, and heavily advertising the new functionality. Even the wave of jokes about the limits to Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and feature films that seek to complicate our relationships with digital entities serve the purpose of calcifying “the new normal” – people talk to their phones and share sensitive information with them, and that’s just the way things are now.

Perhaps at some point, we’ll see a lawsuit challenging Apple’s use of Siri data. Perhaps Apple will offer different financing packages for a future iCar with lending rates determined by a personality profile generated, in part, by a purchaser’s interactions with Siri. Empowered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, regulators might get involved and demand that credit decisions be made only using transparently disclosed, challengeable fiscal data, not correlations between one’s taste in takeout food and creditworthiness. Fine. But in the ensuing years, Apple has already won – we’re talking to our phones, sharing our lives, generating terabytes of data in the process.

The problem with this approach to regulation is that we rarely, if ever, have a conversation about the technological world we’d like to have. Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (We’ve got smart policy people in the room, and they’ve got suggestions, including “robot privilege” which behaves like attorney/client privilege, prohibitions against letting law enforcement lure robots into making you testify, in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reform of the “third party directive”.)

These questions, a friend points out, aren’t regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when and how those products should come to market. If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA’s expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we’re seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.

There’s encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don’t want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part – DNA’s self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.)

By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea – the gene drive – is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It’s possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn’t pass on malaria, or that simply couldn’t reproduce, ending the species as a whole.

Who gets to make these decisions? The good news is that there’s both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to scientists who are researching gene drive, trying to make it possible, who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when and how the technology should come into play.

We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world, a better tradition of talking through the whether, when and hows of technologies like listening machines. I’m grateful to Microsoft Research and the New York Times for hosting this conversation and hope it might be a first step towards more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but what’s desirable.


Note – I edited my blog post at 5:57PM to change the wording in two paragraphs, based on corrections from a speaker at the event.

May 5, 2015

Re:publica Keynote: The System is Broken – That’s the Good News

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 10:23 am

I’m at the wonderful Re:publica conference for a single day, racing home to teach tomorrow… and thus far I’ve given a keynote and done over 12 interviews, so I haven’t gotten the whole feel of the conference yet. Still, it’s one of the most wonderful and high energy venues I’ve ever spoken at, and I’m having a great time.

My talk this morning focused on civics in the age of mistrust. The organizers (wisely?) put a different title on it, but the audience clearly got the core idea: we’re at a moment in time where mistrust in institutions is at a very high level, and any approaches to revitalizing public life or fixing civics needs to start from understanding mistrust and harnessing it productive.

At some point soon, I hope to annotate my speakers notes, likely on FOLD. But here are the rough ones now, for those who missed the talk, or for those who are interested and want to know what I meant to say.


I want to begin my talk by showing you a christmas gift I received in 2012 from my friend, journalist Quinn Norton.

quinnsbrick

I received the postcard a few weeks after she published an essay that was both brilliant and troubling. It was titled “Don’t Vote” and it was, in part, an apology to her great-grandmother, who had marched in the streets to demand women’s right to vote, the right Quinn was now urging us to stop exercising. She writes “I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.”

Quinn is opting out of voting not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge and frustration: with gerrymandering, with legalized corruption, and with her growing sense of impotence at changing these problems through the ballot box. She closes the essay by urging us to “let your body be your ballot” – to make change in how you act in the world, what you stand for, for how the organizations you work with or companies you work for treat people.

Her postcard is a much simpler statement: it’s an elegant essay reduced to a cartoon. The picture is of a brick with a logo that’s unmistakeable to any American voter – it’s the sticker you receive when you vote. It’s like the ash they smear on your forehead on ash wednesday – visible, public evidence that you’ve done your civic duty. The postcard is a cartoon, not a concrete suggestion: it’s not an encouragement to riot so much as it is a reminder that participating in a system that’s badly broken is an endorsement of it

Quinn wrote her essay after spending much of a year reporting on Occupy, while embedded within the movement, visiting 14 of the camps, and wrote a moving eulogy for Occupy in Wired. In her reporting, she is clear that she was in, but not part of, Occupy, covering it as press and treating it with the seriousness that it deserved, as clear evidence of people dissatisfied with how systems are working and looking for ways to change them, or replace them with something different.

I pinned Quinn’s brick above my desk so that I would look at it every day.
represented a tension between two sorts of civic engagement that I have been losing faith in: electoral, representative democracy and public protest.

I’m certainly not the only one losing faith in democracy’s ability to make change. We are seeing falling voting rates in the United States, with 2014 registering the lowest turnout in history for a US congressional election.

And the US is not alone. 2014 also saw the lowest turnout for an EU parliamentary election, and while EP elections always have lower turnout than national elections in Europe, both have been trending down in Europe since 1979, much as they have been in the US.

Lots of reasons have been offered for why participation in voting is decreasing. Many of these explanations blame the ignorance or laziness of voters: if only we weren’t so distracted by our phones and the internet, if only we weren’t so lazy, we’d take part in our critical civic duty. But this argument misses the critical fact that while participation in elections is shrinking, we’re experiencing a golden age of protest. And say what you will about people who take to the streets to protest their government, they may be many things, but they’re not lazy.

Protests are an essential part of democracy. They can be deeply effective as a way of demanding immediate change from those who are in power. Last week, my country watched people come out into the streets in Baltimore, NYC, Boston to protest death of Freddie Gray, a young man fatally injured after he was arrested by local police. After a week of protests, six police officers are now facing murder and manslaughter charges. Certainly doesn’t always work, but it can be powerful in forcing institutions to do the right thing

Protest gets more complicated when you’re not protesting a single incident and demanding a response, but protesting against a larger system that’s broken.

2011 was a pivotal year for protest with the arab spring protests, a wave of popular protests legitimately seeking to change oppressive governments. They’ve had a mixed outcome, as governments have gotten better at fending them off. The current tally gives us one clear success (Tunisia), three civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen), violent repression (Bahrain, Sudan), and the deeply complicated case of Egypt, where a successful revolution led to election of Islamist government, popular protests led to a military coup.

We’ve learned that protests are good at counterpower, at ousting a surprised and unaware government, but that protests have a much harder time building governments than toppling them. Even though it’s philosophically more easy to be excited about protests leading to revolution in monarchies than in democracies, by the middle of 2011, democratic movements in Europe, North and South America had picked up the spirit of the Arab Spring and turned it into an anti-politics movement – protesting against repressive and disempowering systems, not against singular injustices.

In Spain, the Indignados movement brought people into the streets, starting on May 15, 2011. Activists protested unemployment brought on by austerity policies, lack of opportunities for young people, and a general sense that Spain was being run on behalf of a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary citizens. While the movements in the streets ended within a year, some supporters of the movement have build the political party Podemos, which is the second largest in Spain by number of members, but finished 4th in recent elections with only 8% of the vote.

The Occupy movement, began in NYC on September 17, 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The movement focused on inequality, financial corruption, housing and college debt burdens, and had some measurable successes on local scales, fighting eviction and buying back outstanding debt. It has brought discussions of inequality into the political dialog in the US, and has helped establish a template for protest globally, with movements like Occupy Central in Hong Kong adopting tactics and rhetoric… but even its most ardent supporters will concede that the movement has not led to major changes to the US political or economic system.

These protest movements throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it’s hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place. This may point to a paradox of these broad, anti-political protests in democracies. Unless you’re going to overthrow a democratically elected government, the likely outcome of a protest is that you’re going to get invited into government to try to fix things. And as activists throughout history have figured out, fixing the problems of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a lot harder than motivating people to protest against them.

I want to offer two other reasons to be skeptical of systemic change through protests.

Zeynep Tufekci is a brilliant scholar of social change and of protest. She conducted fieldwork focused on the Gezi Park protests, which brought at least 3.5 million Turks into the streets of 90 Turkish cities from May to August of 2013. Zeynep reports that the rallies featured an incredibly diverse group of protesters – from ultranationalists to gay and lesbian rights activists – and that they fell apart very quickly. While they were dramatic, they were also incredibly ineffective. The one shared objective of the movement – ousting Erdoğan – failed utterly, as Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 without need for a run-off.

Why? Zeynep argues that it’s much, much easier to bring people out to protest than in years before – you can organize on Facebook, report on Twitter, livestream on UStream and now on Periscope. Combine all these channels for mobilization with a message behind the protests that was maximally inclusive – quoting a poem by Rumi, the movement’s motto was “Sen de gel” – You come, too! But in years past, took months of organizing behind the scenes to bring 50,000 people in the streets. Bringing 50,000 meant that you’d held meetings with different groups and made deals and compromises to find a common agenda. Now you can bring out 50,000 people by announcing what you’re against and inviting people to join you. But when the authorities crack down, or when it comes to turn from mobilization to making demands and setting an agenda, movements split and dissipate much more easily – and political leaders know this, and are less threatened by a million in the streets today than they were by 50k a decade ago. What we may be building in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, Zeynep warns, is a form of protest that can mobilize but can’t set an agenda or build a movement.

If that sounds like bad news, here’s some worse news from another scholar, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He worries that even if protests like the Indignados or Occupy succeed in ousting a government, much of what protesters are asking for is not possible. “Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.” When Indignados grows into Podemos, Krastev predicts that it’s going to be very hard for them to truly reverse policies on austerity – global financial markets are unlikely to let them do so, punish them by making it impossibly expensive to borrow

Krastev offers the example of how Italy finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – wasn’t through popular protest, but through the bond market – the bond market priced italian debt at 6.5%, and Berlusconi resigned, leaving Mario Monti to put austerity measures in place. You may have been glad to see Berlusconi go, but don’t mistake this as a popular revolt that kicked him out – it was a revolt by global lenders, and basically set the tone for what the market would allow an Italian leader to do. As Krastev puts it, “Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market” – we’ve got an interesting test of whether this theory is right with Syriza, a left-wing party rooted in anti-austerity protests now in power, and facing possible default and exit from the Eurozone this month. What Krastev is saying is really chilling – we can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the right things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want.

If you’re feeling depressed at this point in the talk, that’s a good thing – it means you’re listening. But it also means that you may be looking for a new way forward, a third path between elections and protest. And for a lot of people – particularly for people like those in this room – we’ve hoped the way forward is through technology, through the mobile phone and the internet and the ways they might make engaging with society more fair, more participatory, make governments more responsive and closer to the will of the people.

I’m part of the first generation to use and build the world wide web – I dropped out of graduate school in 1994 to help found one of the world’s first social media companies. Like a lot of people who were working on the internet in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t there for the money, because frankly, no one was making money online at that point. I was there because people believed that the internet was going to change the world.

We believed that the internet was going to oust powerful companies that dominated markets with monopolies and make it impossible for other monopolies to take their place, because it was so easy to create new businesses online that no one would ever control the whole market for something as essential as search or online messaging.

We believed that the internet routes around censorship and that publishing online would allow people to speak freely, that censoring the internet was like nailing gelatin to the wall, as President Clinton once said, and that when countries like China encountered the internet, their governments would fall as people learned how they were controlled and manipulated.

We believed that the internet would let people interact with each other in new and honest ways, because no one knew who we were online. In a space where no one knew whether you were male or female, black or white, European or African, we would overcome the prejudices of the offline world and have conversations that were fully inclusive of all perspectives.

We believed that governments didn’t care what happened online, that they weren’t paying attention to it, and that if they were, the internet was far too vast to monitor all of it, and that even if they did, the companies we were using to communicate would protect our privacy, and that we could use unbreakable encryption to protect anything that truly needed to be secret.

In other words, we believed a lot of dumb stuff

It turns out that the internet doesn’t magically make the world a better place. We’re starting to wake up to that now – when the inventor of the World Wide Web launches a campaign to build “the web we want”, a web that’s very different from the one we’ve all built over the last twenty five years, it’s a pretty clear sign that this remarkable technology alone doesn’t transform the world in the ways we might hope

Of all the missed opportunities and wrong turns, the most disappointing may be the way the internet has failed to transform politics and government.

Some hoped that the internet would transform elections, making it easier for exciting new and unknown candidates to build a political base and take power. It works, sometimes – I had lunch yesterday with my favorite German politician, Malte Spitz of the Green Party, and it’s hard to imagine him getting elected without the internet. But it turns out that existing political parties have gotten very good at using the internet to raise money and disseminate propaganda, and to target advertising to persuade us how to vote for candidates who aren’t using the internet to solicit ideas and input.

We hoped that by demanding transparency, we would expose waste and corruption and make government more responsive and efficient. But it turns out that it’s a long path from releasing data sets to exposing systemic flaws in governance, and that it’s a task that requires not just coders, but journalists, artists, storytellers and activists. Even when we’re confronted with a trove of secrets, leaked diplomatic and intelligence documents, it takes enormous work to turn leaks into revelations and into actions. Transparency is a neccesary but not sufficient requirement for change.

We hoped that we as citizens might take on the work of actually crafting and shaping legislation, stepping back from the compromise that is representative democracy to participating directly in writing the laws that govern our societies. And while we’ve had precious few successes, it’s worth celebrating those victories we have, like the Marco Civil Do Internet in Brazil, written not only by professionals, but by a thousands citizens. Ronaldo Lemos and his colleagues at the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio are releasing a new platform, Plataforma Brasiliana, which will make it easier to collectively author legislation, but questions remain: yes, surpremely geeky Brasilians were willing to take time to author laws about the internet, but will anyone show up to write better tax policy?

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is one of the smartest people thinking about the internet and politics, and he’s recently published a brave and terrific book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). It’s brave because Micah thoroughly acknowledges that we haven’t gotten what we wanted from twenty years of bringing the internet to politics – indeed, in the US, our politics on a federal level are far worse than they were two decades ago. Fixing this is going to require us to build some tools that are very, very difficult to build. We need to solve the hardest problem in politics – how do you let people deliberate at scale, so that people can work together to build movements, to advocate for issues, to work together with elected officials to bring new solutions into the world. And he’s hopeful that people may be starting to build these tools, looking to people like Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which is building Democracy OS, a set of tools that let citizens vote on policy proposals and work with legislators in the Net Party to promote new legislation.

I think Micah’s right that we need new tools. But I think the problem is even deeper than he imagines. When you ask Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, 24% answer yes. That’s down from 77% in 1964. For my entire lifetime, there’s been only one moment when a majority of the American people trusted the government to do the right thing… and that’s the moment George W. Bush was leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq.

But it’s not just confidence in government that’s dropping in the US – it’s trust in institutions of all kinds. From the 1960s to now, Americans tell you that they have less trust in newspapers, in churches, in non-profit organizations, in corporations, in banks, in the medical establishment. The only institutions where trust is increasing in my country are in the military and the police (though trust in the police is changing very quickly right now.)

I don’t have data at the same granularity for European nations as I do for the US, and I don’t want to make the mistake of treating European nations as a group, but I want to note that one survey sees several European nations has having a bigger problem with institutional mistrust than the US. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is built annually by asking 1000 citizens in each of 33 nations questions about whether they trust the government, NGOs, business and the media. They found that trust is at an all time low, and that Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have a lower level of trust in institutions than we are experiencing in the US.

I don’t know what’s causing this increase in mistrust in the US and Europe – I don’t think it’s a single thing, but a combination of factors. Inequality is on the rise, globally, as Thomas Piketty has been telling us, and it’s easy for trust to decline when we feel like very few people are getting rich and we’re getting poorer – whether we blame government, corporations or banks, we lose trust in those institutions. Transparency, for all its benefits, means that we know more about the failings of institutions, about corruption or just sheer incompetence – it’s hard to learn about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and come out with trust intact in the global financial system and those responsible for regulating it. The professionalization of politics has something to do with mistrust – once we start seeing politicians as a different class of people rather than as people like us, representing our interests, we don’t trust them to have our best interests at heart. I think mistrust can come from a sense of powerlessness – if governments and corporations and the media can’t rally together and make real progress on a critical issue like global warming, are they really as powerful as we think they are?

I fear that mistrust has something to do with globalization, and increasing diversity in our societies. Mistrust began to rise in the US during the reforms of the civil rights era that began ensuring equal rights for African-American citizens… and it’s possible that people started trusting governments and universities less when they were providing services not just to people like them, but to people of other ethnic or national backgrounds. This might be a way to think about euroskepticism and rising nationalism, as some people mistrust institutions that are redistributing wealth across the continent to people they identify as “other”

Political scientist and economists are generally pretty scared of mistrust. There’s a low level of mistrust that you need to have a liberal democracy function: the legislative, executive and judicial branches all look at each other with a low-level of mistrust so that they’re able to act as checks and balances to each other. But high levels of mistrust end up being corrosive. If people don’t trust banks, they don’t deposit money and eventually the bank can’t make loans. If people don’t trust governments, they don’t pay taxes and the government can do less and less. Institutional mistrust is corrosive in large doses – it leads to societies where we interact and trade only with people we trust deeply, like family or tribe.

Many of my friends around the world who are trying to revitalize interest in civics are working to increase the trust in institutions. Whether they’re encouraging people to monitor elections, releasing government data sets or helping cities find and fill potholes, they’re working to lower the cost of civic participation and give people a better chance to have a positive experience with the institutions they’re affected by. I think this work is important and admirable, but I also think it’s not nearly enough to tackle the problems we face today.

The radical idea I want to put forward is that we can’t reverse the rise of mistrust. Instead, we’ve got to figure out how to channel it productively. We have to start treating mistrust, our deep skepticism of the institutions in our lives and in our communities into a civic asset.

I’m seeing at least three different ways people are learning to harness mistrust. In our research at Center for Civic Media, we’re seeing a great deal of civic activism that’s unfolding outside of government institutions. People who have a high degree of frustration and mistrust, but who are finding ways to make change outside of winning elections and passing laws.

In his book Code, Lawrence Lessig observed that there are at least four ways we regulate behavior in our societies. We pass and enforce laws to prohibit certain behaviors; we use markets to make some behaviors expensive and others cheap; we use code and other architectures to make some behaviors technically possible or impossible; and we use norms to make some behaviors socially desirable and others taboo. When we lose faith in some kinds of institutions, say in governments’ abilities to pass and enforce good laws, we see people channeling their desire for change towards code, towards markets and towards norms.

I’d like to see European governments take action to prevent the massive violations of privacy we’ve seen committed by the NSA, but I have very little faith that the American government will make significant changes to prevent the sorts of violations revealed by Edward Snowden. And since I don’t have very much faith in my government to make these changes, it’s exciting to see projects putting their faith in code to make surveillance far more difficult by making use of strong encryption routine. Mailpile, Mailvelope, Tor, Whisper Systems, The Guardian Project – these are all people channeling their frustration and mistrust into making change through code.

I’d like an international binding carbon tax, but it’s hard to have faith that the UN and other international institutions will find balance between countries like China and India, that want to give billions of citizens a better lifestyle, fossil fuel producing nations, and nations like mine where a remarkable percentage of people aren’t convinced that human beings have a role in causing climate change. But even if I’m skeptical of governments and international institutions, I can look to the market, to companies like Tesla, trying to build beautiful and exciting electric cars, and to entrepreneurs around the world working to make solar power not only the most sensible way to produce power, but the cheapest.

Many of the hardest problems we face worldwide are problems of human rights, of protecting the rights of minorities from the actions of majorities. It’s critically important that we legislate to protect the rights of all people, but it’s not enough when we lose trust in the institutions designated to protect those rights, as is happening with Americans and our police forces today. Protecting the rights of minorities, whether it’s African Americans in my country, or the Roma in Europe, requires us to change norms, to address our basic beliefs. Around the world, we’re seeing people working to change norms by making media and building movements – the #blacklivesmatter movement has created a narrative that is forcing American law enforcement to face that they’ve got a real and persistent problem with racial bias and may be the first step towards making real change.

So one way to harness mistrust is to try new theories of change, to look for ways we can make change through markets, code and norms. Another way to harness this mistrust is to become engaged, careful critics of the institutions we mistrust.

Luigi Reggi was working for the Italian government, building a massive open data system so that people could see where EU funds were being spent in his community. He built a gorgeous open data portal, but found that not only did most people ignore the data he worked to present, but they also had a general sense that Italy wasn’t getting its money’s worth from these EU projects. So, working outside the government, he started something new. Monithon is a project that invites people to monitor an EU funded community project, to ask hard questions about whether the project ever got completed, whether it’s working well or at all, whether the project meets a community’s needs. Their biggest partner is Libera, a group that works to identify and resist the role of the mafia in Italy, and they’re mobilizing not just seasoned activists to monitor the effectiveness of EU projects around Italy, but high school students, who are now taking on evaluating these projects in their community as a hands-on lesson in citizenship.

I call this idea “monitorial citizenship”, and my students and I have been working on ways we can make it work at scale, inviting thousands of people to take on the task of monitoring their government not just as a one-time thing, but as essential and important a task of citizenship as voting. We’ve launched a project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the mayor, Fernando Haddad, started his term by publishing 100 concrete promises – I’ll put this many streetlamps in this neighborhood, build this many new low-income housing units. He held elections for over 1000 citizen monitors whose job it is to see that the mayor lives up to these goals. And we’ve built a tool that lets citizens meet and decide what infrastructures they want to monitor in their communities – schools, playgrounds, sidewalks – and quickly build a survey that anyone with a smartphone can take. The data they collect – the photos, GPS locations, questions they answer – get posted to a shared map which can be shared with the government or with the press, or used by the community to self-organize and take on these challenges directly. We launched it three weeks ago in Sao Paulo and it’s popular enough that we’ve expanded projects into nine Brazilian cities, working with neighborhood and community groups.

Here’s the interesting thing about monitorial citizenship – sometimes you find that your mistrust of institutions is deserved, and you’ve got data to back up your suspicions. And sometimes you discover that the people who represent you are doing a better job than you’d imagined. It’s a model that can turn mistrust into advocacy for change or can lessen mistrust, and it works as well if you’re auditing the promises a company, a university or a government makes.

Some of the most exciting mistrust-fueled work I’m seeing looks at the idea that we could eliminate institutions altogether, building systems designed from the ground up to be decentralized. One of the first times I was in Berlin, more than ten years ago, I watched the folks from Freifunk build a mesh network that spanned the entire city, a network with no single point of failure and no single internet service provider in charge of it. This same impulse, to build systems that have no center, is what’s animating the interest in Bitcoin, a currency that doesn’t force us to trust central banks or currency policies, whose faith is in algorithms and distributed computation, not in the institutions that failed so badly in 2007.

These three approaches – building new institutions, becoming engaged critics of the institutions we’ve got, and looking for ways to build a post-institutional world – all have their flaws. We need the new decentralized systems we build to work as well as the institutions we are replacing, and when Mt. Gox disappears with our money, we’re reminded what a hard task this is. Monitorial citizenship can lead to more responsible institutions, but not to structural change. When we build new companies, codebases and movements, we’ve got to be sure these new institutions we’re creating stay closer to our values than those we mistrust now, and that they’re worthy of the trust of generations to come.

What these approaches have in common is this: instead of letting mistrust of the institutions we have leave us sidelined and ineffective, these approaches make us powerful. Because this is the middle path between the ballot box and the brick – it’s taking the dangerous and corrosive mistrust we now face and using it to build the institutions we deserve. This is the challenge of our generation, to build a better world than the one we inherited, one that’s fairer, more just, one that’s worthy of our trust.

Thank you.

April 22, 2015

Introducing FOLD, a new tool (and a new model?) for storytelling

Filed under: ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 8:00 am

This morning, Center for Civic Media at MIT is releasing a new publishing platform, FOLD. Alexis Hope (a Masters student in my lab) and Kevin Hu began working on FOLD when they were students in my class News and Participatory Media. The class asks students to take on a reporting task each week, using existing tools or building new ones to solve a particular challenge. FOLD was Alexis and Kevin’s solution to a challenge I put forward around writing “explainers”, articles designed to provide content for stories that give incremental updates to a larger story (and to develop an appetite for those stories based on deeper understanding of their significance.)

Alexis and Kevin took seriously an idea I put forward in the class – the idea of explainers with an accordion structure, capable of shrinking or expanding to meet a reader’s need for background information. Alexis and Kevin built a story that could compress into a list of half a dozen sentences, inflate to a six-paragraph essay, or expand further into a rich multimedia essay with maps, images and videos appearing alongside the text. The class loved the idea, and Alexis decided to take on developing the platform as her Masters thesis. Kevin continued collaborating with her while pursuing a different project for his thesis, and Joe Goldbeck joined the team as a lead developer.

FOLD Authoring preview from Alexis Hope on Vimeo.

What’s emerged after a year’s work is fascinating and full-featured tool that allows for a novel method of storytelling. Stories on FOLD have a trunk and leaves. The trunk is text, with a novel form of hyperlinks – instead of linking out, they link to cards that appear to the right of the trunk and show images, videos, maps, data visualizations. They can also contain other text or links to the web. This has the effect of encouraging massive linking within stories – rather than a link potentially leading someone away from your webpage, it builds a stronger and richer story on the site.

While I’ve had the pleasure of advising Alexis on her thesis, FOLD is emphatically not my project – had you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that the last thing the world needs is a new content management system. But it’s been fascinating to try writing on FOLD and discovering the ways in which it’s a tool I’ve wanted and needed for years. I often write posts with hyperlinks every other sentence and trust my readers to check those links to understand the whole story… while realizing, of course, that very few do. FOLD brings those references to the front, capturing some of your attention in your peripheral visionas you read the core, trunk text. It’s incredibly easy to add media to a story in FOLD, and I find that when I write on the platform, I’m far more likely to include rich imagery and video, which makes my stories visualizable and understandable in a very different way than blog posts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 1.11.58 PM

Alexis, Kevin and Joe are launching FOLD without a clear business model. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we know what FOLD is good for yet, and I think that’s exciting. It’s possible that FOLD becomes an alternative to platforms like Medium, a place that encourages people to write beautifully on a beautiful platform. Perhaps it becomes something like WordPress, which hosts content for millions of people as well as maintaining an incredibly robust platform for independent publishers. (Not only are we releasing FOLD as a platform, but as an open source codebase.) Maybe it’s a tool for a radically new form of writing, perhaps stronger for literary than journalistic writing. Maybe some of the ideas of the platform are adopted into other systems and the influence of Alexis, Kevin and Joe’s thinking spreads that way. We don’t know, and that’s exciting.

For me, personally, I’ve loved the experience of seeing something cool and potentially influential coming out of our lab that wasn’t my idea and which I’ve helped guide, but emphatically haven’t built. This feels like a shift in how I’m trying to work in the world, and one I’m starting to get comfortable with.

Like many people of my generation, I’ve changed jobs several times in the past twenty years. Rather than switching firms, I’ve also shifted careers, moving from a dotcom startup to founding an international volunteering agency, to academic research (and co-founding another NGO) and finally, at age 39, to teaching at the graduate level at MIT.

When you change careers, some skills transfer, and some don’t. The shift from research to teaching was far sharper than I’d expected. There’s an unkind saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’d offer a rewrite: “Teaching well forces you to stop doing things, and focus on helping others do things.” I build less, and write less, than before I came to MIT. But I coach more, listen more, and I’m starting to love the experience of watching projects I help advise coming to life.


Glyph from Savannah Niles’s story about Cuba

One of the most beautiful stories I’ve seen produced with FOLD is “What You Need to Know About the Cuban Thaw”, written by Savannah Niles (also for my News and Participatory Media class.) The story is illustrated with animated, looping GIFs, produced with a tool Savannah has been building for her thesis called Glyph. I’m one of the readers on Savannah’s thesis, and while I’ve thought these images were very beautiful, I didn’t understand what they were for until I saw them in this story. They add a sense of motion and life to stories without interrupting the reading experience as videos end up doing. This experience of supporting work I don’t understand and then discovering why it’s important – with Glyph, with FOLD, with dozens of projects around the Media Lab and in my broader work on Civic Media – is one of the most exciting experiences of my career.

I hope you’ll give FOLD a try and help us figure out what it’s for. Let us know what works, what doesn’t, what you want and where you think the project should go.

April 14, 2015

The Civic Statuary Project

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 1:28 pm

The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.

A month ago, student activist Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement on the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. Subsequent protests against the statue including wrapping it in black plastic, smearing it with paint and covering it with graffiti. When the statue was pulled down, protesters beat it with belts and chains as it was hauled away.

beatingrhodes

Protests against the Rhodes statue received widespread support online, spawning the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and inspiring other attacks on statues throughout South Africa. Statues of Queen Victoria and George V have been splashed with paint in Point Elizabeth and Durban. Statues of Afrikaner leaders and Boer War generals have been targeted as well. The attack that’s received the most international attention was a defacement of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg, part of a protest that argued that the revered activist had worked with the British colonial government in South Africa to promote segregation.

Statues are one of the oldest forms of figurative art, dating back at least to 40,000 BCE with the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were memorialized with Sphinxes, massive limestone statues that dominated the landscape – we might think of these as the first civic sculptures, public art designed to honor religious and political leaders. Fifteen hundred years later, Greek sculptors- who had previously portrayed mythological figures – began honoring political leaders in bronze and marble.

Statues erected for civic reasons are also torn down for civic reasons. Seven days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, General Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III that had been erected in 1770 in Bowling Green, a small greenspace at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The decision to tear the statue down was practical as well as symbolic – the two tons of lead in the statue were turned into 42,000 musket balls for the use of revolutionary soliders. Statues of leaders who’ve been ousted are often torn down, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with the help of conquering armies.

US marines pull down a statue of saddam hussein on
Statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, torn down by the US marines.

It’s not only political leaders whose statues fall. In the wake of revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Penn Statue football coaches, a statue of Joe Paterno was removed by the university. The decision to remove the Paterno statue has been controversial, and a crowdfunding campaign has raised funds for a new Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, two miles from the university campus.

While statues are one of the oldest forms of civic artwork and technology (their only rival for age is the cave painting), they still gain attention when people erect them today… especially when they are erected without permission. On April 6th, a small group of artists placed a bronze-colored bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a pedestal in Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. By mid-afternoon, the bust had been covered with tarpaulins, and later that day, it was removed entirely. The bust took over six months to construct, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and deploy.

snowden projection

Frustrated by the brief lifespan of the Snowden statue, The Illuminator Art Collective – a group of artists not related to the original sculptors – projected a hologram-like image of Snowden on a cloud of smoke behind the pillar. The Snowden projection is part of a tradition of artistic intervention that has used projection to create provocative art in public spaces. Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has used projections to bring statues “to life”, turning static war memorials into active spaces for the discussion of war and peace.

(Projection is a powerful tactic for civic activism – see Hologramas Por La Libertad, which is using projections of street protests against the side of the Spanish parliament to make a point about new laws that strongly restrict public protest. But this is a story about statues, not projections, so we’ll honor the effort and move on.)

A few days before the Snowden statue and projection, we found ourselves discussing civic statues in our lab, Center for Civic Media. The issue came up not because we were having a deep discussion about the nature of statuary, but because we moved a worktable revealing an open area that might students and I thought might be perfect for a statue. We began talking about the idea of a statue that could be rapidly deployed, which could change to honor different people at different times, and which would inspire discussion about why someone was being honored as a civic hero.

We built a prototype civic statue using an old projector and a sheet of optical rear projection acrylite. (The Media Lab is the sort of place where sheets of acrylite are just kicking around and folks like Dan Novy are generous enough to lend them out.) For our demo, I decided we would honor Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s election commission, which had just conducted a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair in which the incumbent president was defeated. Nigerians on all sides of the political spectrum honored Jega’s role in administering a fair election, and “Jega” began to emerge as slang for being chill, calm and avoiding conflict: “20 people showed up for dinner at his house unexpectedly, but he was totally Jega about it and sent out for chicken.”

This week is the Media Lab member week, where sponsors come to visit our labs and see our projects. We decided to rapidly prototype the statue so we could show it off, with some simple design constraints:

– It should be quickly deployable, easy to set up and move
– It should be relatively inexpensive (our target is a standalone programmable statue that costs under $500)
– It shouldn’t require a specialized photo shoot – it should use available imagery
– It should prompt discussion within the group hosting the statue about who should be honored and how

As we thought about who to honor, I came across this tweet from my friend Liz Henry:

As it turns out, that brave and awesome man was Feidin Santana, a 23-year old Dominican immigrant who heard Walter Scott being tazed and captured footage of his shooting by police officer Michael Slager. As with Prof. Jega, we found an image online, masked it and added text to form a plaque. Savannah Niles, who is working on a project to build smoothly looping animated GIFs that she calls Glyphs, went a step further and built a statue of Santana that moves, subtly.

savannah from Ethan Zuckerman on Vimeo.

Niles explains what a Glyph is, showing the statue of Feidin Santana

Our prototype raises as many questions as it answers. Some are practical: Should this be a single unit, perhaps using a mirror to bounce the projection onto the screen? Will this work only in dim, interior spaces? Others focus on the community aspects: How do we decide who to honor? We held a brief email exchange about who we might feature, and quickly realized that there’s a real problem when people disagree about who should be honored. We’re working on a system that will allow people to propose candidates and select people to be honored by acclaim, rather than by fiat, which is how we selected Prof. Jega, Feidin Santana and feminist scholar and activist Anita Sarkeesian as our first three honorees.

As we work on this project in the long term, I’m interested in taking on a richer and deeper set of questions: What are statues for in a digital age? Is the rapid deployment and impermanence of these statues a feature or a bug? Can new types of statues help challenge long-standing gender and racial disparities in who we honor?

The civic statuary project is an experiment, and we may or may not continue it beyond showcasing it at this members’ meeting. But this question of how societies honor their civic heroes is a rich one, and I hope this experiment – and this blog post – opens conversations about who and how we memorialize.

January 9, 2015

Honor every death: Paying attention to terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,Human Rights,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 11:26 pm

This has been an ugly week.

On Wednesday, two Islamic extremists assassinated 12 people in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The next day, a police officer was killed by a pair of gunmen in another corner of Paris in an apparently related incident. Today, French authorities faced hostage crises at a kosher supermarket in the city, and at a printing plant outside the city. By the end of the week, the death toll was up to twenty – 17 victims and 3 perpetrators – in an tragic week people are starting to call France’s 9/11.

The violence in Paris demands – and has received – widespread media attention. But it has overshadowed some of the other events of an ugly, dispiriting week.

On Tuesday morning, a homemade explosive blew up outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP, one of the US’s leading civil rights organizations. The bombing – which the FBI has declared deliberateevoked memories of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, where activists were the victims of bomb attacks. The NAACP bombing received little mainstream media attention, leading to a twitter campaign demanding coverage of the attack, and sparking discussion about a media tendency to dismiss white terrorists as disturbed, lone-wolf individuals, while seeing other terrorists as representing their race or religion.


Sally Kohn’s tweet from December 21, 2014 is as appropriate now as it was then.

It’s understandable that the tragedy in Paris overshadowed coverage of the NAACP bombing. But it’s harder to explain the scant media attention to another horrific act of terrorism: Boko Haram’s attack on the town of Baga.

Baga is on the border between Nigeria and Chad and has been a key battleground between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces over the few years. In April 2013, the Nigerian army, pursuing Boko Haram killed almost two hundred civilians and burned a substantial portion of the town, leading villagers to flee into the bush. On Saturday, January 3, 2015, Boko Haram seized a military base in Baga, and began launching attacks on townspeople. At least 7,000 refugees have fled into Chad and Niger.

It will likely be weeks until there’s a confirmed death toll from Baga, but Amnesty International’s Nigeria expert believes there may be as many as two thousand dead. The town has apparently been razed to the ground, as http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-wn-boko-haram-baga-20150109-story.html#page=1>Boko Haram forces looted, then burned, houses. Since 2011, Boko Haram has killed 16,000 Nigerians, 11,000 in the past year.

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.03.32 PM

If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.09.55 PM

My Nigerian friends have commented that the Baga story is not getting much play in Nigerian media either, and the statistics bear that claim out. Orange represents “Charlie Hebdo”, blue represents “Baga” as above, but now we’re looking at a collection of Nigerian newspapers, radio, television and social media. Baga peaks two days after the military base fell, and coverage of the Paris massacre has been stronger the past three days than coverage of the larger domestic tragedy.

Some commentators note that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathies to the French government, but not to the people of Borno State killed by Boko Haram. Facing re-election in five weeks, Jonathan is understandably wary of discussing Boko Haram, as it reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management and that his government has been unable to subdue the terror group. Jonathan has claimed that a multinational force was combatting Boko Haram, but military sources claim that Nigerois, Chadian and Cameroonian troops have deserted the cause.

I was struck by how little attention the Baga massacre was receiving and tweeted about it earlier today. People have offered helpful speculation on why this is the case. Some theories my correspondents have suggested:

– The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were journalists, and journalists take special care to cover journalist deaths. (I wish this were true. But the alarmingly common killing of journalists in the Philippines suggests that some journalist deaths are more newsworthy than others.)

– Baga is hard to get to, while Paris is a global media city. Easier access equals more coverage. (Certainly true, and certainly important, but given the death toll in Baga, you might expect at least one global news crew to try to reach the scene. AP’s dateline is from Yola, almost 600km away. Reuters is reporting from Bauchi, a similar distance away.)

– Racism. We care more about the white people killed in France than about black people killed in Nigeria. Or, phrased differently, “a hierarchy of death“, in which some deaths always merit more attention than others.

I think this last theory is on the right track, but I think it’s more complex than just racism (though I believe race plays a significant factor.) When I teach “agenda setting” and “news values” (the ways in which some events become news and some don’t), I turn to a 50 year old paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, “The Structure of Foreign News”. Galtung and Ruge propose a set of twelve principals that they use to explain how events are seen as newsworthy. Four of their rules help me understand the disparities in coverage between the attacks in Paris and in Baga.

Meaningfulness: The central metaphor of Galtung and Ruge’s paper is a shortwave radio – of all the signals we tune into on the radio dial, we are most likely to tune into those that have meaning for us, say a human voice speaking in a language we understand. Meaningfulness includes cultural proximity: we are more likely to pay attention to events that affect people who live lives similar to our own. It’s hard for most of us to imagine living in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad and being forced to flee a rebel army. It’s easier to imagine masked gunmen entering our workplace (especially for Americans, where workplace shootings have become tragically common.) Once we’ve placed ourselves in the shoes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the police protecting them, or the grocery shoppers, the story becomes personally relevant.

Consonance: While news is usually a surprise – a natural disaster, an unanticipated death – Galtung and Ruge argue that we like our surprises to be consonant with narratives we already know and understand. The attack on a major city by violent extremists is a tragically familiar one over the past decade, a story that feels like a continuation of attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Boston.

Unambiguity: We like stories that are easy to understand and interpret – nuanced and complex events are harder to cover than unambiguous ones. A brutal attack by a group opposed to western education and most traces of modernity seems unambiguous, until one reads about the abuses the Nigerian army has committed in combatting Boko Haram. There have been two massacres in Baga in the past two years – the 2013 Baga massacre occurred when Nigerian soldiers burned the village, seeking revenge for military officers killed by Boko Haram, killing almost 200 civilians. Were residents of Baga providing support and shelter for Boko Haram in 2013? Why did those same residents become targets for Boko Haram in 2015? These sorts of questions make the massacre in Baga a hard story to understand and a harder one to tell.

Stories about people: Stories need heroes and villains. Coverage of the Paris attacks has focused on Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and his willingness to “die standing than live on my knees”, and the long histories of the radicalization of Cherif and Said Kouachi. In Baga, we know neither the names or the stories of the victims or the attackers – it is possible that the attack was led by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, but no one has confirmed, and stories tend to focus on Boko Haram as a mass, rather than on the individual leaders of the movement.

The one campaign that has successfully called international attention to Boko Haram’s abuses is the Chibok Girls campaign, which demanded international attention for 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, in southern Borno state. The parents of the abducted girls have made countless media appearances, reminding Nigerian and global audiences of their absence.

If Galtung and Ruge’s principles hold, we shouldn’t expect attention to the Baga massacre to increase in the next few days. It’s too distant, physically and culturally, too complex and devoid of the personal narratives journalists use to draw audiences to complex stories. But it’s critically important that we understand what happened in Baga, not just to understand the challenges Nigeria faces from Boko Haram, but to understand who religious extremism affects.


Retweeted for illustrative purposes. Fuck Rupert Murdoch.

The brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s staff reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative, in which Western secular values (freedom of expression, humor, critique) are inexorably threatened by fundamentalist religious values. (Teju Cole provocatively notes that the secular West has rarely been as skeptical and rational as it congratulates itself for being.) The implications of this clash of civilizations narrative are predictable and dire: commenters demand that moderate Muslims explicitly dissociate themselves from horrific criminal acts, implying that those who don’t endorse terrorism; right wing politicians suggest closing borders and deporting Muslims; Muslims face revenge attacks.

Violence from Islamic extremism is a real and frightening problem. So, for that matter, is extremist violence associated with other religions. (See Myanmar for evidence that Buddhists can be violent extremists, or review the 2002 riots in Gujarat for an introduction to Hindu extremism. Or consider Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose Christian fundamentalism is as foreign and offensive to most Christians as Al Qaeda’s theology is to most Muslims.) But the majority of the victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims. According to a 2011 report from the US National Counter Terrorism Center “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” In other words, attacks like the one in Baga, where extremists killed their co-religionists are far more common than attacks like the ones in Paris, where extremists targeted people of other faiths.

Following the “clash of civilization” narrative leads to demonization of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Understanding that terror disproportionately impacts Muslims makes it clear that terrorism is a tactic, a political and military strategy, not a feature of Islam or any other religion. By mourning the dead both in Paris and Baga, we take a step towards understanding that the enemy is extremism, not Islam.

December 8, 2014

Pronoia, beautiful inefficiency, and an artwork built for one

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 9:23 pm

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.

November 6, 2014

Sasha Costanza Chock on Immigrant Rights and Transmedia Organizing

Filed under: CFCM,Human Rights,ideas,Media,Media Lab,newcivics — Ethan @ 7:43 pm

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.

October 6, 2014

Helen Nissenbaum on Ad Nauseum, resistance through obfuscation, and weapons of the weak

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 6:00 pm

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?

September 21, 2014

Williams Convocation Address: “Bibliolarceny and the Size of the Universe”

Filed under: ideas,Personal — Ethan @ 7:47 am

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.

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