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The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.


Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.


Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.


“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.

afrika-bambaataa-gallery-5
From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.


While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.


For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.


How do you write a biography about collaboration?

A friend recently posted a video on Facebook, a 1997 news story from ABC’s Nightline about Tripod, the social media company I helped build in Williamstown MA from 1994-1999. The video sparked a wave of reactions in me: nostalgia for those past days, pride in the accomplishments of the friends I’ve kept up with, regret for losing touch with others, and bafflement that I would choose to wear flannel and overalls to show off our company to the world. (Perhaps my favorite moment in watching the video was discovering that we’d been interviewed by Deborah Amos, NPR’s Middle East reporter, who has subsequently become a respected friend.)

I’m not proud of all of the emotions that I experienced traveling 17 years into the past. Seeing Bo Peabody, our co-founder and CEO, skateboard into the office and declare that we sold “eyeballs” gave me a wash of anger, envy and frustration that characterized much of my time at the company. Bo playing CEO – something he did splendidly – was often intolerable to me when I was in my twenties, and surprisingly uncomfortable for me to watch in my forties.

Like many companies, Tripod was run by a team of executives who worked closely together – Tripod was somewhat pioneering in that our executives were mostly in their mid-twenties, often working our first serious jobs. (I realize that all promising tech companies now recruit VPs from middle school and issue them standard-order Zuckerberg hoodies in kids sizes, but this was still pretty radical in 1997.) Our company succeeded to the extent it did (never profitable, but sold at a good price for our investors, and still survives as a service almost twenty years later) because we had a small, close-knit team of smart people with complementary skills, (One of those people now directs product design at Facebook. Another became chief marketing officer for Adap.tv and Rubicon, two pioneers in online advertising.)

I saw the team, its strengths and weaknesses as core to Tripod’s success. But whenever a journalist did a news story, it became the story of Bo, the founder, the solitary entrepreneurial genius who’d built our company.

I hated this. I thought it misrepresented our company, disrespected not only the contributions of the management team but the work done by the 60 smart people who built our products and served our users. Hearing me rant about this one too many times, Kara Berklich, our head of marketing pulled me aside and explained that the visionary CEO was a necessary social construct. With Bo as the single protagonist of our corporate story, we were far more marketable than a complex story with half a dozen key figures and a cast of thousands. When you’re selling a news story, it’s easier to pitch House than Game of Thrones.

Bo, to his great credit, understood that it was his job to play this role and was good about separating the character and the reality – his reflections on Tripod, Lucky or Smart?, make clear that Bo knew he was lucky enough to assemble a smart team and smart enough to let the team make the important decisions. Having taken on that visible visionary role at nonprofit organizations, I also now understand how often that job sucks, how being the avatar for a vast project forces you to try and manifest qualities that the company has and which you, personally, lack.

I was thinking of this ancient history last week as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. (In defense of my choice of beach reading – I read several better books on paper that week. But Audible’s selections are a lot more limited, and I wanted something to “read” as I walked on the beach.) Isaacson’s biography, written with Jobs’s cooperation and hundreds of interviews with Jobs, his family, friends and colleagues, is an enjoyable and uncomfortable read. I found it enjoyable because it’s another personal time machine of sorts – reading it, I remember my first time using Apple products, from the venerable Apple II through the laptops and phones I use today. It’s uncomfortable because it becomes increasingly clear that Steve Jobs was an angry, manipulative asshole who slashed and burned his way through the lives of most people he encountered.

Sue Halpern reviewed Isaacson’s book for NYRB and does a better job than I could ever hope to, raising uncomfortable questions about Jobs’s attempts to be both corporate and counterculture, reminding us that Apple’s “Designed in California” is made possible by being “Assembled in China” under often troubling circumstances. My favorite of her observations is that Isaacson manages both to canonize Jobs while revealing his most damning flaws: “.. it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.” Jobs saw himself as an artist, Isaacson reminds us, and artistic geniuses are often too strange and pure to peacefully coexist with us lesser mortals.

When Jobs chose Isaacson to write his biography, it’s fair to assume he was aware of the author’s previous subjects: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. The first two are routinely cited as exemplars of genius, and Kissinger may have his own dark claims to genius. It’s not hard to read Jobs’s selection of Isaacson as a way of inserting himself into the Pantheon.

Isaacson is happy to assist. The book was rushed into print when Jobs died, and Isaacson wrote a coda, excerpted in the New York Times, to cover Jobs’s death, funeral and legacy. In the New York Times excerpt, Isaacson makes clear that he saw Jobs as a genius, even if he wasn’t always conventionally smart. It was Jobs’s ingenuity and creativity, his ability to see a brilliant technical idea and turn it into something that consumers wanted that characterized his genius, Isaacson argues. One of the major themes of the book is the intersection of the sciences and the humanities – Jobs saw himself as standing at that crossroads, using his acutely honed sense of taste to predict the technical future and inspire the technicians to invent it.

This unusual form of genius, if that’s what it was, makes Jobs a particularly accessible role model for the tech industry. Many people who work on technology for a living are not Wozniak-level programmers. We flatter ourselves that we can contribute to the industry by helping those more gifted at writing code understand the needs of users, the importance of usability, the applicability of technical breakthroughts to unexpected new markets. Perhaps, like Steve, we can “put a dent in the universe” by connecting someone’s technical innovations with new markets.

wwsjd

People who can bridge between engineers and end users are important, necessary and often hard to find. It’s harder than it might appear to build these bridges in ways that respect and appreciate all those involved in building and marketing new technologies. In finding ways to bridge constructively and respectfully, Jobs is a lousy role model much of the time. The answer to “What Would Steve Jobs Do” is often “bully someone” or “throw a tantrum”. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to emulate Jobs’s less attractive personality traits than it is to replicate his design sensibilities.

Taking a break from Isaacson’s book, I read a thoughtful essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a preview of his new book, Powers of Two. Shenk argues that the myth of the solitary genius has dominated much of our thinking about creativity and obscures the fact that many people we know as geniuses worked in pairs or in larger teams. Shenk is particularly interested in creative pairings, pointing out that Einstein worked through the theory of relativity with Michele Besso, that Picasso invented Cubism with Georges Braque and that Dr. Martin Luther King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy and others.

There’s a way to read Isaacson’s biography in support of Shenk’s argument. Jobs was most productive as a serial collaborator, and was often disastrously unsuccessful when he wasn’t challenged by a strong partner or a team he respected. Jobs built Apple Computer on the brilliance of Steve Wozniak’s Apple computer, led Pixar to dominance over Disney’s animation business by hitching his star to filmmaker John Lasseter, and reinvented Apple as a music and phone company by partnering closely with Jony Ive. (Search for any of these men and you’ll find a wealth of articles and books declaring them geniuses.) Jobs has been good about crediting these collaborators and, occasionally, teams of collaborators – he saw the Macintosh as a team effort and honored team members at subsequent Apple product launches until his death.

When he didn’t have a strong collaborator or team, Jobs was often lost, as he was when Woz disengaged from Apple after the Apple II, when Jobs founded Next, or during the years Jobs dumped tens of millions into Pixar as a technology company, before Lasseter’s films demonstrating Pixar hardware took the company out of obscurity. In retrospect, this is obvious – Jobs didn’t write code or build prototypes. Instead, he shaped and guided the work that others did, making it better. Without a worthy collaborator, Jobs’s deeply impressive skillset was insufficient and often irrelevant.

It doesn’t lessen Jobs to recognize that creative genius comes from collaboration. Letting go of the idea that Shakespeare was a solitary genius writing masterworks in an attic without outside input and accepting that he was a member of a popular theatre company, incorporating the influences and feedback of other writers and actors into his creations makes him more fascinating to me, not less. Since we don’t have much access to the historical details of Shakespeare’s life, it’s easier to see these collaborative dynamics in modern biographies. Jobs may be one of the best examples of the collaborative genius idea, as the solitary genius narrative simply makes no sense in considering his history. We can imagine Shakespeare alone in a garrett or Einstein puzzling out equations alone at a blackboard, but Jobs alone is just an angry vegan too picky about design to furnish his own mansion.

In writing a biography, it’s natural to lionize the protagonist, if only to explain why she or he merited the author’s attention. Isaacson is better than some in featuring Jobs’s collaborators and influences, but the form ultimately dictates that the book is about a single individual, not pairs and teams of collaborators. The narrative arc is that of Jobs’s life, not the life of the companies he built, the products they created or the industries they influenced.

How do we tell the stories of partnerships and collaborations? Shenk’s book promises to tell the stories of creative pairings, both visible ones like Lennon and McCartney and invisible ones like that of Vladimir and Vera Nabokov. But his essay hints at the intriguing problem of telling stories of more complex collaborations, like the one I experienced at Tripod. How do we tell a story about creativity and collaboration at Wikipedia that doesn’t become a biography of Jimmy Wales? Is there a story about Linux that’s not a portrait of Linus Torvalds, an examination of Free Software that isn’t a character sketch of Richard Stallman? Not only are humans creatures who think in terms of stories, we are social beings, which means there is nothing we are so attuned to as the life stories of successful people.

Nathan Matias, a brilliant poet, literary scholar and software developer (who happens to be my doctoral student) has been working on better systems to acknowledge and credit the dozens of collaborators he’s worked with on his various projects. His personal website features almost a hundred collaborators – clicking on the icon for any of us reveals projects we’ve worked on with Nathan. It’s a first step towards a broader effort at designing acknowledgement on the web, and a key part of Nathan’s research on collaboration that leverages cultural and cognitive diversity. If we want to encourage diverse collaboration (and the end of Rewire makes a case for why we need to do so), we need to figure out how to recognize and celebrate people who work as creative teams, not just those who demand to be celebrated as geniuses.

Steve Jobs changed the world, or at least some highly visible corners of it. The story of his life, his successes and his failures is an important one for anyone who designs products and tools for large audiences. It would be a shame if the message we took from Isaacson’s book were that success comes from arrogance, self-certainty and cruelty. Until someone discovers a better way to write biographies of collaboration, that’s a message many readers will take away.


When Being Happy is Political

The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.


Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.


The original “Happy” video

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.

There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.


Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”

Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.


“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)


The original “Empire State of Mind”


“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”

The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.


Lazy Munzie


Lazy Ramadi

The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)


Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.


Dig Grave Style

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.


Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.

We Are Happy From front page

We Are Happy From front page

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.


The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.


Happy in Tehran

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”


The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.


Monithon and Monitorial Citizenship in Italy

Three years into my time at MIT, I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, something that was a near-daily habit for me during the years I was at Berkman. For me, blogging is a fairly selfish activity. If I write something helpful for you, that’s a happy accident. I write because it allows me to get ideas straight in my head, and because it helps me find other people working on similar problems.

In “The Power of Pull”, John Hagel and John Seely Brown argue that in information-saturated societies, one way to navigate information overload is to pull resources and people towards you, announcing the connections you need and drawing them towards you. It sounds both new-agey and privileged, and it’s a strategy that is surely easier to implement if you are in a position of power and authority where you can expect to be heard when you ask for help. But it’s also a strategy that often works, and in surprising and unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of monitorial citizenship and the work my students and I are doing on the topic in Brazil, where we are prototyping our Promise Tracker tool. Luigi Reggi, co-founder of Monithon, an Italian citizen monitoring project, read the article and contacted me, and two weeks ago, we met in Perugia, where we were both attending the International Journalism Festival.

The Monithon team shows off their website in a cafe in Perugia

The Monithon team shows off their website in a cafe in Perugia

The name “Monithon” is a contraction of “Monitoring Marathon”, a working method Reggi and colleagues were demonstrating in Perugia. They’d assembled a small group of concerned citizens and taught them how to identify a local project supported through EU funds and how to evaluate its success. In Perugia, the team examined a web portal that allowed citizens to compare the performance of local internet service providers. While the tool worked reasonably well, fewer than a hundred people had used it in the year it was online, leading the monitors to conclude that it was a partial success, at best, as a use of EU funds. They posted a detailed report, which included suggestions for ways the project could be improved. The report is accessible on the Monithon site and linked to an map of the country (made using Ushahidi), which shows all completed monitoring efforts.

Reggi and colleagues found the project in Perugia through OpenCoesione, a government-initiated open data portal that (quite beautifully) visualizes spending of €99 billion on over 700,000 projects in Italy. Reggi works for the ministry of development and cohesion, which oversees these funds, and while he believes every country will end up building transparency sites like OpenCoesione, he also believes that open data is not enough. With a small team of dedicated volunteers, entirely outside of his time working for the government, Reggi is building a method that will allow citizens to evaluate each of the projects paid for with EU funds.

Open Cohesion website

Open Cohesion website

Some of the projects are carried out by the Monithon core team. Two team members from Bari have been monitoring projects associated with a new train that connects the center city and the airport, identifying issues with the train’s timetable that makes it difficult for commuters to use. Other projects are carried out by established citizen groups, like Libera, a national anti-Mafia association, who became Monithon’s partner in Naples, focusing their monitoring on the rehabilitation of seized Mafia properties. In Palermo, an existing group of transport activists are using the Monithon methodology, while in Calabria and Tornio, new groups have formed to begin monitoring projects using the Monithon method.

This is one of the similarities I see between the work Monithon is doing and work we’re hoping to do in São Paulo: partnership with existing civic groups. Our partner in São Paulo on Promise Tracker is Rede Nossa São Paulo, a network of existing citizen organizations who focus on tackling a wide range of local civic issues. We believe citizens will be most effective in monitoring issues they already care and know about, so we’re trying to help existing citizen groups find promises Mayor Haddad has made that are in their areas of interest and expertise, hoping we’ll identify groups eventually willing to take on the government’s 123 promises.

Monithon map of completed projects, and the Umarell

Monithon map of completed projects, and the Umarell

Another alignment is around the concept of monitory citizenship. The Monithon team is shaping their work around the broader idea of monitoring as a form of participatory citizenship. Their logo features an Umarell, an affectionate term from Bologna to describe older men who spend their time watching – and commenting on – public works and other activities in their communities. Embracing the idea of the good-natured, loveable busybody, part of Monithon’s goal is to train new generations of monitors, more digitally-connected than the umarells, but motivated by the same mix of curiosity and public interest.

The ministry of development and cohesion is helping bring new monitors into the mix through the Open Cohesion School (A Scuola di OpenCoesione), which offers five lessons on monitoring projects using the open data released by Reggi’s ministry. Using resources from the school school and through Monithon, Reggi and colleagues are now working with 17 year old high school students to identify and monitor local projects, contributing to the data set and helping the students understand the processes behind the EU funds, their dispersal and their impacts on local communities. High school students are often a major part of the teams who show up at “open data days”, which have drawn as many as 250 to come work together on monitoring projects.

I think the decision to work with high school students is a stroke of genius, and hope that funders will take note and support this aspect of the work in particular. (For now, the project is completely volunteer-driven and has no financial support. Reggi jokes that he may try to support it by selling t-shirts or other umarell-branded merchandise.) Part of my interest in this space is around a question my colleague Erhardt Graeff is interested in: how should we teach civics in a digital age to high school students? Teaching them to identify government projects in their communities and evaluate their success looks like a pretty good start.

I also suspect that a surprising outcome of these monitoring efforts may be increased enthusiasm for EU spending. It’s easy to condemn government spending in the abstract – it’s possible that examining projects and finding them sometimes flawed, but well intended, may lead to more nuanced debate about EU cohesion funds and support for the European Parliament more broadly.

Antonella Napolitano interviewed me and Reggi about Monithon in Perugia, and rightly asked whether citizen monitoring is becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Reggi was clear that it’s not yet – the people involved with Monithon are clearly civics geeks and the folks they’ve been able to bring into the cause. But it’s possible that the Monithon method could bring hundreds or thousands more volunteers to the table.

As I learn more about the citizen monitoring space, I’m finding other inspiring projects like Social Cops, an Indian social monitoring project, that’s brought thousands of participants into projects like monitoring garbage pickup using mobile phones. While Monithon focuses on single projects and on suggesting solutions to imperfect projects, Social Cops leverages network effects, using hundreds or thousands of reports to identify systems that aren’t working well and demanding accountability. I suspect there’s a sweet spot for projects that both leverages networks and asks people to solve problems, not just collect data.


Brief glimpses of other lives

It’s nearing a year since my book, Rewire, was published. I’m thrilled that some critics have liked it, and that it’s had some recognition, notably from the lovely folks at Zocalo, who are hosting me at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art this evening to speak about the book. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking about Rewire with Italian journalists and activists at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where friends Luca diBiase and Jillian York were kind enough to share the stage with me and discuss the potentials and limitations of digital cosmopolitanism and the ways in which the internet does and doesn’t connect our conversations.

Follow Bias
Follow Bias

The most satisfying outcome of the book, though, has been working with colleagues to build new tools that might help us break out of our cognitive bubbles and experience a wider world. Last year, Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavitz developed a tool called Follow Bias that examines who you follow on Twitter and offers a simple overview in terms of men, women and brand and bots. If, like me, you discover you’re following a lot more men than women, Follow Bias can act as an encouragement to broaden your horizons and find new, remarkable women to follow.

I showed the tool to Hanan Meguid, an Egyptian tech entrepreneur, the other day and she immediately tweeted me to alert me that she was a remarkable woman I should be following. And now I am.

Follow Bias includes a basic recommendation engine, suggesting women other users recommend I follow, and alerting me that I’d need to follow 93 women to raise my personal statistics by 5%. It’s not hard to imagine a version of the tool that’s expanded so it helps you see and address geographic or other biases in who you’re paying attention to on Twitter.

Catherine d’Ignazio’s Terra Incognita tracks geography, not gender. If you’re a lucky alpha tester of the tool, Terra Incognita lives in your Chrome browser and keeps track of what news stories you read and what cities are mentioned in them. When you open a new tab in Chrome, you’re greeted with the map of a city you’ve not read about and suggestions for articles you might read about the city. There’s a game layer to the system – you can gain credit for reading the most articles about a city, or for suggesting the best reading for that city.

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Part of the challenge of building Terra Incognita has been finding appropriate, engaging readings associated with a thousand global cities. (Each UN member nation is represented by at least one city, even if it’s tiny. After that, the list includes cities with urban populations of over 100,000 or so.) It’s one thing to catch a glimpse of a city on a map, and something significantly more complicated to find a reading that offers an introduction to what makes a city unique and worth knowing about.

Since Catherine began working on this project, my attention has been drawn to projects that give you a glimpse of what life looks like in an unfamiliar part of the world. Part of what makes Terra Incognita such a beautiful system is that (once you’ve installed it), it offers you a glimpse of somewhere unfamiliar every time you open a web browser. These invitations to wander, I think, are all too absent from a vision of the Internet that’s often obsessed with efficiency, with giving you exactly what you want, when you want it.

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My friend Kevin Slavin and his students have been working on a poetic and beautiful project based around the idea of multiple, sustained glimpses of another person’s life. 20 Day Stranger is a mobile phone application that matches you with a geographically different stranger. For twenty days, you and your partner catch glimpses of each other’s life, photos selected from Flickr and Foursquare that illustrate places you’ve been near, without revealing your exact location. The ap tells your partner when you’re moving or still to provide context, but offers no interaction with your partner until the end of the 20 days, at which point you have an opportunity to send a single message. Kevin’s partner on the project is the Dalai Lama Center on Ethics and Transformative Values, suggesting that there’s a deep significance to watching – and, perhaps, caring – about someone from afar.

The notion of offering a glimpse into another part of the world is not a new one: “video wormholes” are continually open videoconferencing channels that attempt to link distant offices or workspaces, allowing casual interaction between people who work together but would rarely meet in the halls. There’s one in the corner of MIT’s State Center, connecting a lunchroom there to one at Stanford. I’d love to do a project that connects similar but distant locations across languages and cultures – a KFC in Canton, Ohio with one in Guangzhou. But I suspect some of the most effective tools for unexpected encounters with a wide world are inadvertent.

I heard about Larry Larson’s 4’33” ap on TLDR, On the Media’s short-form net culture podcast. (I’ve been publicly revealed as a podcast addict this week, so there’s no reason to keep hiding my habit.) 4’33”, of course, is John Cage’s most famous composition, a piece of music where the sound is the “silence” of the performance venue, which is far from silent (as all spaces are.) The 4’33” ap invites users to record a performance of 4’33” in their own space and upload the results.

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A map of 4’33” silences. No silence in Africa? Or no one willing to pay $0.99 for silence?

The 4’33” ap site features a map of recordings, each a 4’33” snippet of silence… which often turns out to be the fascinating and intricate background noise from a different corner of the world. (You need to purchase the $0.99 ap to enjoy the silence. Yes, it was all I ever wanted, all I ever needed.) It feels a bit odd to assemble a playlist of silences, but the net effect is a much quieter version of exploring We Are Happy From, the remarkable collection of georemixes of Pharrell’s “Happy”.

I’m a country mouse: the only city I’ve ever lived in is Accra, and that was twenty years ago. I’ve never developed the big city habits of averting my eyes from an unblinded window. When I stay in big city highrises, I inadvertently end up staring into other people’s living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. I think we need ways to catch glimpses of each others’ lives, locally and around the world, that somehow balance the power of serendipitous connection and protection from the creepiness of voyeurism. I’m glad smart people are working on the problem.


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