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New Media, New Civics? My Bellwether lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institue was kind enough to invite me to give the inaugural lecture in their Bellwether Series. The OII’s director, Professor Helen Margetts, introduced the series explaining that she hoped talks would anticipate what is to come in the space of internet and society… and explained that the word “Bellwether” came from a middle English word for a castrated ram, who was fitted with a bell and made to lead a flock of sheep. That’s pretty ominous compared to my assumption when I was invited, which was that they found someone named Bellwether to sponsor the series. If you are named Bellwether and are looking for something to sponsor, let me please suggest OII.

I took the opportunity to expand some of the thinking I’ve been doing about participatory civics and effective citizenship. Because I don’t always say what I meant to say, here are my notes for the talk with hopes that they reflect what I actually said. I wish I’d been able to blog, as I got excellent questions and would benefit from thinking and working through them as I work through these ideas.

There’s a photo from Tahrir Square that fascinates me. A man stands in the square, surrounded by celebrating protesters. He holds a handwritten sign that says, “Thank you, Facebook.” (Another picture shows him holding a sign in Arabic that says “Thank you, Al Jazeera.”)

For some, this photo was proof positive that the internet had helped oust Mubarak and was showing its power in allowing people to organize for political change. For others, it was evidence that the self-importance of internet advocates had gotten out of hand. After all, the Arab Spring in Egypt had far more to do with economic factors and popular dissatisfaction than with any specific communications technology. This debate between those skeptical of technology’s role in organizing protests and those who see technology as central continues as we consider the protests in Gezi Square (where Twitter publicized protests that Turkish television ignored) and will likely be debated as we come to understand the #EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine. (The fact that the protests are known, in part, by a hashtag suggests the possibility of a digital protest narrative.)

If it’s easy to lampoon the protester in Tahrir for giving too much credit to the internet, it’s easier to parody other, more purely digital forms of activism. Consider the spread of the Human Rights Campaign’s red and pink equals sign, which nearly three million Facebook users adopted as their profile photo after HRC changed their blue and yellow logo to the red and pink one in anticipation of oral arguments in front of the US Supreme Court on California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. As waves of pink and red swept across Facebook and Twitter, more than one wag wondered whether the Supreme Court justices were counting Facebook profile pictures before offering their ruling.

Is the protester in Tahrir deluded when he thanks Facebook for the fall of Mubarak? Do the Facebook supporters of marriage equality imagine that their actions will affect Supreme Court deliberations?

Malcolm Gladwell’s widely circulated critique of social media’s role in the Arab Spring (and, presumably, in later protests like Gezi Park) centers on the idea that “real” activism requires the trust developed from face to face interactions to lead people to risk arrest or assault. Online activism doesn’t involve real risk, and thus isn’t “real”: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.”

(There are other critiques of a narrative of Arab Spring protests that give credit to social media that are more complex and subtle. The observation that a narrative that puts Facebook at the center of the Tunisian or Egyptian struggle implicitly puts Americans at the center of an Arab/African liberation struggle, denying agency to those who actually risked their lives strikes me as related, though harder to dismiss.)

Presumably, Gladwell has even less use for HRC’s Facebook supporters than for those who retweeted bulletins from Tahrir. “Slacktivism”, a term coined in the 1990s, but brought to prominence by internet theorist Evgeny Morozov, posits that online activism may detract from “real”, offline activism by persuading us that we are having an impact even when we’re doing nothing. Slacktivism, Morozov and others suggest, is better understood as fashion or as pack behavior than activism. We might even understand slacktivism as exploitation of the young and impressionable by media-savvy campaigners raising money for their causes, as some critics of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign argued.

These critiques presume that participants in online activism are naïve and deluded. They also presume there is something more effective the online activists could be doing with their attention and energies. In the case of the Human Rights Campaign, presumably, those concerned should have campaigned against Proposition 8 when it was on the ballot in California, or, perhaps, worked to elect a President who would have appointed more liberal Supreme Court justices. In the case of protesters brought into the streets in part via the internet, there tends to be a lionization of some protesters and a blanket condemnation of others. If there’s no other path to social change in a closed society, like pre-revolution Tunisia or Egypt, and if protesters risk arrest or injury, they are celebrated. If there are other paths towards change, as in the US or western Europe, public protest is often dismissed as performance or self-indulgence, as with criticisms of the Occupy and Indignados movements.

I’m interested in understanding online activism in a way that avoids ridiculing a wave of youth engagement without uncritically celebrating it. I believe we’re seeing new forms of civic engagement online and I want to understand them while recognizing their (sometimes crippling) shortcomings. My goal isn’t to advocate for these new forms of civic engagement so much as it is to document what’s happening and understand many young people are drawn to these new forms of engagement. I’d like to understand when these movements, which I’m calling participatory civics, are effective in achieving their goals and why they fall short.

In particular, I’m interested in questioning a narrative that’s gained traction in the US, the idea of a “crisis in civics”. This narrative gained some prominence with Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” which warned that Americans were less likely to join voluntary organizations than in the past, and saw a correlation between declining participation in local organizations and broader civic participation. After leaving the bench, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that young Americans weren’t learning the basics of how their government functioned and called poor grades on standardized civics exams a “crisis”. She responded to the crisis by founding iCivics, a nonprofit that teaches civics through online games.

Are the metrics Putnam and O’Connor choose to measure civic health the right ones? Poor grades on a civics exam are disturbing, but it may be a mistake to conclude that young people aren’t interested in community or public life. Joe Kahne and Cathy Cohen have been surveying American youth about their civic behaviors and see strong evidence of “participatory politics”, the use of digital media to engage in political discussion or share civic media. They suggest we may be missing the picture if we’re considering only traditional measures of civic engagement, like voting rates.

I want to offer a darker suggestion: given the level of disillusionment many Americans feel with the political process, perhaps we shouldn’t expect young people to get involved with traditional politics. On the left, excitement about a presumably progressive African-American president has given way to deep frustration with rising inequality, an unregulated banking system, ongoing military engagements and a culture of pervasive surveillance that’s starting to look like a national post-traumatic stress reaction to the 9/11 attacks. On the right, a prolonged economic depression combined with shifting demographics suggests a government so out of touch with the concerns of “ordinary” Americans that we would be better off without it. And both left and right can share frustration over a nation so polarized that our last two Congresses have been the least productive in recent history. The dominant narrative in US politics is of a government so dysfunctional that it lurches from potential shutdown to potential shutdown. Given the feelings of impotence some senators and congressmen are expressing, it’s hard to argue that young people should feel empowered to make change through the federal government.

I’m reluctant to extend my observations to the UK and the EU as I know so little about politics and public mood in Europe, but I will note an excellent, brief book by Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev: “In Mistrust We Trust”. Krastev examines a wave of popular protests in Europe and concludes that while protests may change governments, they are unlikely to change the underlying economic problems that drive students into the streets. Krastev worries that most European governments are powerless in the face of larger economic forces – Spanish and Greek governments may want to create jobs through government spending, but are forced into austerity by the threat of increasing interest rates. You can elect new governments, you can protests against those in power, he argues, but you’ve got no influence over the economic forces making nations unliveable. Again, it’s hard to posit a view of effective civics that involves influencing a powerless government.

Here’s an ugly, but plausible, explanation for the shifting engagement in civics: It’s not that people aren’t interested in civics. They’re simply not interested in feeling ineffectual or helpless. Ron Fournier, former DC bureau chief of the Associated Press, has been interviewing young Americans about their attitudes towards civics, and concludes that millennials have a deep attraction to service and a deep distaste for politics. (The reasons for this are a little surprising: Fournier notes that many high school students began volunteering as a way of marketing themselves for college admissions and ended up discovering their excitement for service in the process.) This pattern of activism, not politics, holds true in conversations I’ve had with digital activists around the world for a project Center for Civic Media is conducting to document digital activism. We would interview participants in projects that seemed “political” to us as researchers – the people we interviewed were happy to be called activists but strongly resisted the “political” label, seeing politics as something professionalized, captured by powerful forces and entirely outside of their control.

If young people are disenchanted with politics, rightly or wrongly, how do we help them become effective civic actors?

When we teach civics, we usually teach some version of the “informed citizen” paradigm. In this model, your role as a citizen is to understand the political process and the issues of the day and to participate through voting for representatives, voting on legislation through referenda and contacting your representative when you’re concerned about an issue local or global. This model is so deeply ingrained in most modern, liberal democracies that we tend to forget that it’s a fairly recent development. In “The Good Citizen”, Michael Schudson argues that this model of the informed citizen is not the picture of American citizenship the nation’s founders had in mind, and that it’s not necessarily the apotheosis of the democratic state. Competitive elections and secret ballots weren’t part of early American democracy, which functioned more as a system to collectively affirm prominent elites as elected representatives. The party system that replaced early American democracy was less about debating issues than about alliances to parties that functioned as social clubs. It wasn’t until the reforms of the progressive era, in the early 20th century, that the idea that ordinary citizens should be informed about issues and active participants in political debates became a mainstream idea. (Schudson notes that this model often places completely unreasonable demands on citizens, and correlates to a sharp drop in voter participation.)

For me, the most interesting part of Schudson’s analysis is his argument that we’ve moved away from the informed citizen model to newer paradigms, a rights-based model of citizenship that seeks change through the court system, and the idea of the “monitorial citizen”, who engages in civics by monitoring governments and other powerful actors. Whether or not these models of citizenship are the right descriptions of our current situation, or whether these are hopeful models (Krastev notes that monitorial citizens may simply discover the powerlessness of their governments, again and again), Schudson’s analysis introduces the idea young people disengaged from traditional politics might not be bad citizens under an old paradigm but good citizens under a new one.

I’ve taken to calling this new model of citizenship “participatory civics”. One of the characteristics of this version of civics is an interest – perhaps a need – for participants to see their impact on the issues they’re trying to influence. Practitioners of participatory civics have grown up on participatory media: they are used to being able to share their perspectives and views with the world, and to seeing their influence in terms of how many people read and share their words. This desire to see participation directly has been most apparent in the online giving space. Projects like Kiva and GlobalGiving allow people to support an individual entrepreneur in the developing world, rather than an organization focused broadly on eliminating poverty. Donors Choose lets donors support a specific project in a specific classroom rather than supporting a whole school or an organization working on educational reform. Kickstarter and Indiegogo let you support a single work by an artist rather than supporting a museum or a dance company, while Spacehive and ask individuals to fund projects that might once have been funded through tax revenues.

The popularity of these platforms with young donors may be pulling money away from traditional arts organizations (a parallel to the argument that online activism is pulling energy away from offline activism), or they may bring new donors into the space. The desire to see a personal influence on events may not be the most efficient path towards change, as not every issue benefits from a social media campaign or crowdfunding – some of the best advocacy is done behind the scenes, in ways where it’s very hard for a supporter to be a participant. And participatory models may not be as fair and inclusive as older models. Some of the debate over “civic crowdfunding” raises questions about whether wealthy, well-wired communities will benefit and poor, less-wired communities will lose out, if the desire to see an impact of your funding means you require to see how funding benefits you and your community, specifically.

Another aspect of participatory civics is that it tends to be driven by specific passions, not by broader adherence to political movements or philosophies. A movement like Invisible Children is hard to pin down in conventional left/right terms. Is it a left-learning human rights movement? A right-leaning, Christian-rooted movement for military intervention? The answer is that it’s neither: it’s an issue that cuts across traditional party lines and creates new and unusual coalitions. We are starting to see some of the same dynamics at work around an emerging coalition opposed to NSA of communications around the globe: left-wing privacy advocates, libertarians, nationalists furious at violations of sovereignty.

This escape from traditional political poles to explore the issues we’re most passionate about is liberating, but it’s worth remembering that passions have a downside. Many analysts of African policy – and more important, many Africans – argued that while arresting Joseph Kony may have been the passion of Invisible Children, it wasn’t a major priority for African development or security. And a public sphere built of passionate, self-interested people will likely have problems coming together to deliberate possible solutions, and may not even be able to agree on what issues are worth considering. I’ll examine this idea, that participatory, passion-driven politics leads to a pointillistic public sphere and how that public sphere might work, near the end of this talk.

I’m not trying to argue for the superiority or inferiority of participatory civics. Instead, I’m trying to acknowledge that this type of civics is on the rise and to see whether we can have a debate about this changing space that doesn’t recapitulate the decade-long “bloggers versus journalists” debate. When blogging came to widespread public attention a decade ago, we heard predictions that loose collectives of bloggers would replace CNN or the New York Times. Those tech enthusiasts sound pretty silly a decade later, but so do those who argued that only trained, experienced journalists could break significant stories. (Paging Glenn Greenwald!) A decade later, we’ve reached a new form of journalism that incorporates aspects of old and new models and has new strengths and weaknesses, a model where newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times have blogs, columns and news stories and where writers may be bloggers one day and reporters the next. I predict similar developments around participatory civics, where it will become the norm, not the exception, for political and activist campaigns to rely on social media, crowdfunding and other digital techniques as well as advertising, lobbying and conventional fundraising.

One of the reasons the conversations about the impacts of participatory media on journalism were so frustrating is that social media is an enormously broad category. It’s hard to make the case that Instagramming your lunch is an act of reportage, though the same photo-sharing technologies were used to report the London underground bombings. Questions about whether participatory media is journalism aren’t well answered by considering what platform was used – it’s more helpful to consider how a medium was used and what it was used for. I suspect the same is true for participatory civics. We need to distinguish between different acts of participatory civics and to judge them, at least in part, on their effectiveness in accomplishing citizen intent.


Here’s a diagram I’ve been using to organize my thinking about participatory civics. “Thick” and “thin”, the horizontal axis, refers to what’s asked of you as a participant in a civic act: do we need your feet or your head? In thin forms of engagement, your job is to show up: to the rally, to sign the petition, to change your profile picture. In thin engagement, someone else, presumably, has done the thinking and concluded that what’s needed to persuade or to make a point is mass participation. In thick engagement, your job is to figure out what needs to be done. Someone organizing a thick campaign knows they have a problem to solve and recruits participants as a way of finding possible solutions, as well as people capable of carrying out those solutions. Much of what occurred in the Occupy camps was thick engagement – Occupiers took responsibility for determining how the camps ran, what issues an Occupy camp focused on and how.

There’s a tendency to dismiss thin engagement as trivial and (sometimes) to celebrate thick engagement. First, it’s worth remembering that thick and thin are a continuum, not a binary. Creating a custom version of the HRW equality campaign logo is marginally thicker than replacing your Facebook icon with HRW’s logo (which is about as thin as you can get). It’s also important to realize that we want and need certain types of engagement to be thin. It’s not supposed to be hard to vote. If you need to brainstorm solutions that allow you to get to the polls and cast your vote – thick voting – that’s probably evidence of voter surpression.

The instrumental pole refers to engagement that has a specific, direct theory of change. To legally recognize equal marriage, I need to pass a law in the next cycle of ballot referenda. To get the law on the ballot requires 50,000 signatures of registered voters. I’m emailing to ask you to volunteer to gather signatures so we can get on the ballot and pass the law. Instrumental engagement usually has a target: a law to pass, a person or entity to persuade. (Instrumental engagement can also target the general public when it’s trying to change norms: we might want to reach everyone with a social marketing campaign if our goal isn’t to pass an equal marriage bill but to persuade people that gay and lesbian marriage is socially acceptable.)

It’s often easy to identify a specific sphere in which instrumental engagement takes place. In the petition example, the campaign is unfolding in the legal sphere: we want to pass a law and we’re using the referendum process to do so. Campaigns that unfold in the legal sphere aren’t always so straightforward – consider the DREAM activists, who are seeking a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented young people brought to the US by their parents when they were children. Many DREAMers didn’t realize they were undocumented until they applied to college and discovered they would need to pay unaffordable out of state tuition. DREAMers have become a rallying point for immigrant rights in the US because they didn’t choose to immigrate to the US, and because they’ve been assimilated by being educated in American high schools.

Despite President Obama’s stated support for special status for DREAMers, Congressional dysfunction makes it very unlikely that DREAMers will be citizens any time soon. So some are choosing to hack the legal system – a group called the DREAM 9 have left the country for Mexico and attempted to re-enter the US and demand asylum, seeking a challenge to their status through the court system rather than the legislative system. They are accompanying this campaign with a documentation campaign using social and traditional media designed to give them some control over the narrative of their campaign, making clear that they’re seeking a solution for all young people in their position, not just individual asylum.

We’re used to seeing activism and civics unfold in the sphere of law. One of the fascinating aspects of participatory civics is that it’s unfolding in other spheres as well. I’ve turned to Lawrence Lessig’s 1999 book Code for a possible map of these spheres. Lessig’s key breakthrough in Code was the idea that technologies were regulated not just by law, but by code, markets and norms. If copyright holders wanted to ensure movies weren’t shared through the internet, they could seek passage and enforcement of laws that equated unauthorized copying with theft. They could also pressure operating system manufacturers to make it difficult or impossible to copy certain types of files on their systems, seeking to regulate through code. (Lessig wrote Code not long after serving as Special Master in United States v. Microsoft, and developed a healthy fear of the power a company like Microsoft had in making behaviors difficult or impossible through code.) Lessig notes that we regulate through norms and markets as well. Copyright holders might work to make copying socially undesirable, terming it piracy. Or they might seek to make copying expensive and purchasing of digital music inexpensive.

What works for regulation works for civics and activism as well. As theories of change that focus on law and politics grow more professionalized and less accessible to new civic actors (or as those new participants lose faith in their ability to influence law and politics), we’re seeing innovative strategies that work in the three other spheres.

In response to the Snowden revelations about pervasive NSA surveillance, a group of Icelandic media activists began a project called Mailpile. Mailpile is a new email client, designed from the ground up to make it easy to use PGP encryption to protect your email from being read if intercepted. While there is some belief that the NSA can read some PGP-encrypted email, probably by intercepting the private key and user passphrase on a compromised computer, widespread use of encryption would force the NSA to do vastly more work to analyze the content of mail, and would protect users who the NSA had not explicitly targeted for intense surveillance from having their mail “swept up” in data collection efforts. By writing software to make encryption easy and commonplace, their instrumental strategy seeks change through code. (Code, in Lessig’s usage and mine, includes all technical systems – any technology, design or architecture designed to make some behaviors easy and others hard uses a code theory of change, including LaTour’s door closer.)

Many social media campaigns operate in the space of norms, seeking to change public opinion, as with the Equal Marriage campaign. Some are more targeted than others. Carmen Rios is a young activist based in Washington DC, upset by a disturbing rape case in which teenage girls were sexually abused by high school athletes. She started an online petition campaign, demanding that the largest association of high school sports coaches commit to teaching a curriculum about sexual violence to their athletes as part of their coaching. After collecting 70,000 signatures, she was invited by the coaching organization to meet and has been working with them to develop their intervention, working with a fellow activist who was a successful high school athlete. Rios’s campaign seeks to change two norms – the deep and troubling norms around athletic success and a sense of sexual entitlement, and the norms of where and when sex education is offered in high school – and is a helpful example of thin engagement in an online petition that’s led to real, offline action.

Rising interest in the space of social entrepreneurship shows the popularity of theories of change in the market sphere. My favorite example here is of a young Pakistani woman, who I’m privileged to have a visitor in my lab at MIT. Khalida Brohi is from Balochistan, one of the tribal regions of Pakistan, where cultural practices demand women remain profoundly isolated from society, essentially locked in their houses after they marry lest they be seen by a man other than a family member. Khalida was lucky to be educated in Karachi with the blessing of her father, who defied traditions to ensure his wife and daughters learned to read. When she returned her village for a school holiday and discovered that a childhood friend had been the victim of an honor killing, she began a Facebook campaign against honor killings that gained international attention, but also got her banished from her village. She returned years later with a new idea: she created a company to market the distinctive embroidery made in the Baloch region and invited local women to come for sewing classes and training to take out microloans and start embroidery businesses. The embroidery program created a space where married women could interact with one another, something that hadn’t existed previously in her village, and has become a channel for teaching women to read and write, what Islam does and doesn’t teach about women’s rights as well as how to advocate for their rights within their families. While it’s become increasingly clear to the men in the villages that the program is changing their relationship with their wives, the area is desperately poor and the men need the income the women are generating. Khalida’s work, leveraging market mechanisms to fight for women’s rights and using the internet to find customers and supporters, has now spread to more than 25 villages and she plans to work with 1 million women in the next ten years.

Effective activism is rarely exclusive to one of these spheres. The DREAMers aren’t just challenging immigration legislation in court – they’re trying to win normative battles as well, producing videos where they “come out” as undocumented as a way of making documented people more visible as a step towards social acceptability, much as gay rights activists have used a similar strategy. But thinking in terms of spheres is a helpful way to think about what theory of change underlies an act of instrumental civics.

But how should we think about the Human Rights Campaign’s Equal Marriage icon? If this is a strategy that unfolds in the legal sphere – i.e., if we believe that 2.7 million Facebook icons will influence the decision of a panel of judges – we’re probably being stupid. We might have more of a case if we see this as a campaign about norms. My students Nathan Matias, Molly Sauter and Matt Stempeck made the argument that, since support for gay rights correlates strongly to whether you know gay people in your family or social circle, showing people that they have friends who are supporters of marriage equality might sway public opinion, mainstreaming equal marriage and marginalizing equal marriage opponents.

While I find my students’ argument compelling, I think understanding a campaign like this purely in instrumental terms misses important nuances. The opposite pole from “instrumental” is my model is “voice”, a term adopted from Albert Hirschmann’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”, a short book on economics that has important implications for political theory. Hirschmann sets out to explore a question that’s not well explained by classical economics: how do customers respond to a firm whose goods decrease in quality? Classical economics tells us that customers are rational actors and will leave a firm as soon as another firm offers a better product at the same price. But that’s not what happens: some customers stay with a firm out of loyalty, and some go further and express their concerns to management, hoping the firm will achieve its previous level of quality.

This is an interesting observation for economists, but the implications for politics may be more important. If you’re dissatisfied with your mobile phone company, you can exit and choose another one. But, despite what Americans say when our party loses an election, very few of us pick up and emigrate to Canada. Literal exit is rare in this case, though Krastev argues that many young people are figuratively exiting by disengaging with politics. The alternative is voice, expressing our dissatisfaction with a firm or a nation in the hopes that we can reverse its decline.

Hirschmann considers an instrumental case for voice – if enough of us raise our voices loud enough, we may persuade or mobile phone company or our nation to change its path. But it’s likely that voice is an important path to civic engagement even when we are not directly advocating a policy or norms change.

Voice is often the first step towards engagement in instrumental civics. We use voice to identify with a movement before taking more instrumental steps, whether this involves coming out as a DREAMer, or identifying as an ally by turning our Facebook icon pink. By using voice to affiliate, we identify with a cause and prepare ourselves to take other steps.

Second, voice begets voice. It’s hard to come out as gay – or as undocumented – when you’re the only one in your town or university to do so. When other people talk about a controversial issue, it’s easier to share your voice and experience, as the member of a marginalized group or an ally.

Third, voice sets agenda. One of the great potentials of participatory media is that it allows a large segment of the population to share their perspectives and opinions and, sometimes, find an audience. When an engaged public raises their voices, individually and collectively, on an issue, they signal interest in a topic to professional media outlets, who will often pick up the issue, exposing it to a broader audience. When social media and the professional press discuss an issue, they often introduce the issue to policymakers’ agenda – Invisible Children was successful in doing this with Kony2012, as were activists focused on Darfur a decade ago.

Finally, voice builds movements through synchronization. A symbol, like the HRC’s Equal Marriage symbol, given strength through widespread adoption, can become a rallying point for a movement, bringing together participants working in different spheres around a common narrative.

My sense is that the synchronizing function of voice is critical if we are interested in effective civics, not just participatory civics. While there’s a great deal of raised voices around responses to NSA surveillance, and some exciting legal and technical projects, there’s still need for a common narrative and a broad movement that responds to surveillance. Legal approaches by themselves may fail, as what the NSA did appears to be outside most interpretations of existing US law – stronger laws offer no assurances they will be enforced without sustained public outcry. Projects like Mailpile will only succeed with widespread usage, which requires a shift in norms (encryption by default) and a shift in markets (punishing companies that produce unencrypted, cloud-based email and rewarding those that enable user-friendly end-to-end encryption.

Applying this matrix – thin/thick, instrumental/voice – to case studies of digital activism offers me some hope that we’re experiencing not an exit from civics, but a change in the shape of participation. I predict this change will become mainstream and that debates over whether online activism is slacktivism or meaningful participation will become as uninteresting as debates about whether bloggers are journalists: some blogging is journalism, some online activism is slacktivism. Evaluating the success of any online engagement requires asking what a civic actor hoped to achieve and whether she achieved it. Does a thin engagement take advantage of strength in numbers? Does thick engagement take advantage of the creativity of those involved? Do instrumental approaches have a believable theory of change? Do voice approaches build engagement and grow movements?

While I’m excited to see the diverse ways digital media is being used for civic engagement, I am worried about some of the limits to these techniques. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that the internet has changed politics and activism because the ability to find like-minded people online and to mobilize networks for friends makes rapid group formation incredibly easy. This argument seems to prefigure the Arab Spring and the wave of protests the US, Latin America and Europe have been experiencing, where large movements seem to spring up overnight. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekçi has been trying to figure out why it’s so hard for these popular movements to sustain themselves and turn into effective political movements, observing that the Tahrir youth were pushed aside in the Egyptian polls by the Muslim Brotherhood (and later the army) and that the occupiers of Gezi Park have decamped and formed neighborhood fora that seem unlikely to pressure Erdogan or achieve their political goals. Some protesters are highly successful in marshaling counterpower, ousting a dictator, but they have trouble converting counterpower into governing power.

Tufekçi offers an analogy to explain what she thinks is going on. In the past decades, it’s become much easier to summit Mt. Everest – packaged trips promise to help non-elite climbers summit Everest supported by sherpas, oxygen, etc. While more people are summiting Everest, more are also dying – if something goes wrong, non-elite climbers are less able to rescue themselves and others on the mountain. In this analogy, social media is a sherpa, an oxygen tank for protest. In the past, bringing 50,000 people out for a protest required months or years of planning and negotiation between different interest groups. When those groups took to the streets, they represented the hard work necessary to build coalitions, and their presence was a signal to authorities that they faced well-organized, deep resistance. Gezi Park, Tukekçi argues, brought together a coalition that had no common issues other than frustration with Erdogan – nationalists, Kurds, Allawi, gay and lesbian Turks – and, because it brought them together so quickly and with little compromise, the coalition was unstable.

The problem of bringing protesters together into deliberation is a special case of a general problem: if civics is driven by passionate participation, how do we create a deliberative public space? Most democratic theories of politics rely on public deliberation as a path towards public input into processes of governance. The problem with participatory civics is not the absence of paths towards public input – it’s the overabundance. If I’m passionate about UN intervention in the Central African Republic and you’re concerned with legalizing raw milk sales in your town, we can both share our views and rally our forces, but it could be very challenging to get me to listen to you, or vice versa.

This isn’t a new problem, of course. When Walter Lippmann questioned the idea of an informed, engaged public in Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, arguing that the public was more likely to be manipulated by self-interested elites, he was eluding, in part, to these issues. Average citizens, Lippmann proposed, were unlikely to know what was important enough to deliberate, and unlikely to have the information to engage in those deliberations – instead, they are more likely to be incensed and roused by issues marketed to them. John Dewey’s proposed solution in The Public and Its Problems is a free and informative press. A truly free press resists manipulation and creates informed citizens capable of deliberation. But Dewey’s optimism offers little to address problems of attention and agenda-setting, and the challenge of helping a passionate and participatory public choose the issues to deliberate.

Writing at the beginning of the participatory revolution in journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer the idea of the “interlocking public”. They hope that a press that’s professional and amateur, digital and analog, can solve this problem. Looking for information on the Central African Republic, I will encounter something on raw milk, and vice versa. If I don’t, you can advocate for raw milk and tell me why it’s important and I can explain why I care about the Central African Republic, and why you should, too. It’s an encouraging vision, but my inner Lippmann wonders whether we’re heading into a public sphere where those loudest and most effective in advocating for their causes set the agenda for those who are quieter. Perhaps we will see voice become exit: in participating to further our passions, we exit from deliberation and from other discourses we are less interested in. Perhaps this pointillist public sphere will come into focus and remain unfocused at others.

I don’t want to end my thinking at this level of abstraction because this question of how we teach civics to people who’ve grown up with the internet is an utterly practical one. I am lucky enough to work regularly with activists who work online and who organize young people around important issues. One of these people is Andrew Slack, head of a group called The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses themes from pop culture to introduce young people to civic participation and activism. They’ve launched a campaign around The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins, which are garnering attention through a series of four Hollywood movies. The books portray a post-apocalypse nation where residents of rural districts are dominated by a wealthy urban elite. The HPA’s campaign, We Are the Districts, links the film to income inequality in America and in the world and invites fans to take arms against inequality in the ways Katniss Everdeen takes arms against a corrupt government.

Right now the campaign is quite thin, and focused on voice – HPA invites you to video yourself giving a three-fingered salute, a gesture of resistance in the books and films. But Andrew and his colleagues are building a very clever marketing campaign, and they are profoundly aware that they need to help their young participants move to thicker, more instrumental forms of civics. So I leave you with a question: Civics is changing. How do we help the young people inspired by The Hunger Games use digital tools to become participatory, passionate and effective civic actors?

Kate Darling on Robot Ethics

Kate Darling (@grok_) offers a talk to the Berkman Center that’s so popular, the talk needs to be moved from Berkman to Wasserstein Hall, where almost a hundred people come for lunch and her ideas on robot ethics. Kate is a legal scholar completing her PhD during a Berkman fellowship (and a residence in my lab at the Media Lab), but tells us that these ideas are pretty disconnected from the doctoral dissertation she’s about to defend on copyright. She’s often asked why she’s chosen to work on these issues – the simple answer is “Nobody else is”. There’s a small handful of “experts” working on robots and ethics, and she feels an obligation to step up to the plate and become genuinely knowledgeable about these issues.

Robots are moving into transportation, education, care for the elderly and medicine, beyond manufacturing where they have been for years. She is concerned that our law may not yet have a space for the issues raised by the spread of robots, and hopes that we can participate in the construction of a space of robotics law, following on the healthy and creative space of cyberlaw.

She begins with a general overview of robot ethics. One key area is safety and liability – who is responsible for dysfunction and damage in these complex systems where there’s a long chain from coder to the execution of the system. It sounds fanciful, but people are now trying to figure out how to program ethics into these systems, particularly around autonomous weapons like drones.

Privacy is an area that creates visceral responses in the robotics space – Kate suggests that talking about robots and privacy may be a way to open some of the discussions about the hard issues raised by NSA surveillance. But Kate’s current focus is on social robots, and specifically on the tendency to project human qualities on robots. She references Sherry Turkle‘s observation that people bond with objects in a surprisingly strong way. There are perhaps three reasons for this: physicality (we bond more strongly with the real world than with the screen), perceived autonomous action (we see the Roomba moving around on its own, and we tend to name it and feel bad when it gets stuck in the curtains), anthropomorphism (robots targeted to mimic expressions we associate with states of minds and feelings.)

Humans bond with robots in surprising ways – soldiers honor robots with medals, demand that robots be repaired instead of being replaced, and demand funerals when they are destroyed. She tells us about a mine-defusing robot that looked like a stick insect. It lost one of six legs each time it exploded a mine. The colonel in charge of the exercise called it off on the grounds that a robot reduced to two or three legs was “inhumane”.

Kate shows her Pleo dinosaur, named for Yochai Benkler. The robot was inspiration from an experiment she ran at a workshop with legal scholars where she encouraged participants to bond with these robots, then to destroy one. Participants were horrified, and it took threats to destroy all robots to get the group to destroy one of the six. She observes that we respond to social cues from lifelike machines, even if we know they are not real.

Kate encourages workshop participants to kill a robot. Murderer.

So why does this matter? People are going to keep creating these sorts of robots, if only because toy companies like to make money. And if we have a deep tendency to bond with these robots, we may need to discuss the idea of instituting protections for social robots. We protect animals, Kate explains. We argue that it’s because they feel pain and have rights. But it’s also because we bond with them and we see an attack on an animal as an attack on the people who are bonded with and value that animal.

Kate notes that we have complicated social rules for how we treat animals. We eat cows, but not horses, because they’re horses. But Europeans (though not the British) are happy to eat horses. Perhaps the uncertainty about rights for robots suggests a similar cultural challenge: are there cultures that care for robots and cultures that don’t. This may change, Kate argues, as we have more lifelike robots in our lives. Parts of society – children, the elderly, may have difficulty distinguishing between live and lifelike. In cases where people have bonded with lifelike robots, are we comfortable with people abusing these robots? Is abusing a robot someone cares about, and may not be able to distinguish from a living creature, a form of abuse if it hurts the human emotionally?

She notes that Kant offered a reason to be concerned about animal abuse: “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.” Some states look at reports of animal abuse and conduct investigations of child abuse when there’s been a report of animal abuse in a household because they worry that the issues are correlated. Is robot abuse something we should consider as evidence of more serious underlying social or psychological issues?

Kate closes by suggesting that we need more experimental work on how human/robot bonding takes place. She suggests that this work is almost necessarily interdisciplinary, bringing together legal scholars, ethicists and roboticists. And she hopes that Cambridge, a space that brings these fields together in physical space, could be a space where these conversations take place.

Jessa Lingel of MSR asks whether an argument for protecting robots might extend to labor protections for robots. “I’m not sure I buy your arguments, but if so, perhaps we should also unionize robots?” Kate argues that we should grant rights according to needs and that there’s no evidence that robots mind working long hours. Jessa suggests that the argument for labor rights might parallel the Kantian argument – if we want people to treat laborers well, maybe we need to treat our laboring robots well.

There’s a long thread on intellectual property and robots. One question asks whether we can demand open source robots to ask for local control rather than centralizing control. Another asks about the implications of self-driving cars and the ability to review algorithms for responsibility in the case of an accident. I ask a pointed question about whether, if the Pentagon begins advertising ethical drones that check to see whether there’s a child nearby before we bomb a suspected terrorist, will we be able to review the ethics code? Kate notes that a lot of her answers to these questions are, “Yes, that’s a good question – someone should be working on this!”

Andy Sellars of Digital Media Law Project asks Kate to confront her roboexceptionalism. He admits that he can’t make the leap from the Pleo to his dog, and can’t see any technology on the horizon that would really blur that line for him. Her Pleo experiment could be replicated with stuffed animals – would we worry as much about people torturing stuffed animals? Kate cites Sherry Turkle, who has found evidence that children do distinguish between robots and stuffed animals. More personally, she tells a story about a woman who told her, “I wouldn’t have any problem torturing a robot – does that make me a bad person?” Kate’s answer, for better or for worse, is yes.

Tim Davies of the Berkman Center offers the idea that Kate’s arguments for robot ethics is virtue ethics: ethics is the character we have as people. Law generally operates in the space of consequentialist ethics: it’s illegal because of the consequences of behavior, not its reflection on your calendar. He wonders whether we can move from language of anthropomorphism around robots and talk about simulation. There are legal cases where simulation of harm is something we consider to be problematic, for instance, simulated images of child abuse.

Boris Anthony of Nokia and Ivan Sigal of Global Voices (okay, let’s be honest – they’re both from Global Voices) both ask about cultural conceptions of robots through science fiction – Boris references Japanese anime and suggests that Japanese notions of privacy may be very different from American notions; Ivan references Philip K. Dick. Kate notes that, in scifi, lots of questions focus on the inherent qualities of robots. “Almost Human”, a near-future show that posits robots that have near-human emotions, is interesting, but not very practical – we’re not going to have those robots any time soon. Issues of projection are going to happen far sooner. In the story that becomes Blade Runner, the hero falls in love with a robot who can’t love him back, and he loves her despite that reality – that’s a narrative that had to be blurred out in the Hollywood version because it’s a very complex question for a mainstream movie.

Chris Peterson opens his remarks by noting that he spent most of his teenage years blowing up furbies in the woods. “Was I a sociopath, a teenager in New Hampshire, or are the two indistinguishable?” Kate, whose Center for Civic Media portrait, features her holding a flayed Furby shell absolves Chris: “Furbies are fucking annoying.” Chris’s actual question focuses on the historical example of European courts putting inanimate objects on trial, citing a case where a Brazilian colonial court put a termite colony on trial for destroying a church (and the judge awarded wood to the termites who had been wronged in the construction.) Should emergent, autonomous actors that have potentials not intended by designers have legal responsibilities. “Should the high frequency trading algorithm that causes harm be put to death? Do we distinguish between authors and their systems in the legal system?” Kate suggests that we may have a social contract that allows the vengeance of destroying a robot that we think has wronged people, but notes that we also try to protect very young people from legal consequences.

Remembering Aaron: activism and the effective citizen

This morning, I gave a speech to a gathering of public media executives from around the world, Public Broadcasters International. This evening, I will open a hackathon at the MIT Media Lab in memory of Aaron Swartz. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to talk about the same ideas to the two groups. Here’s the talk I gave this morning, which opened and closed with a remembrance of Aaron as an exemplar of multifaceted, effective citizenship. (It got both enthusiastic and angry reactions, including legendary documentarian Ric Burns taking the stage to proclaim himself the anti-Zuckerman. Which is great, as I’ve always wanted a nemesis.)

Today would have been Aaron Swartz’s 27th birthday. Early this year, the programmer, organizer and activist hanged himself, likely because he was overwhelmed by the aggressive prosecution he was facing. Federal prosecutor Stephen Heymann considered Aaron’s activism around opening scholarly research to be a felony and wanted to be sure Aaron faced prison time. Regrettably, my employer, MIT, did very little to block this prosecution, and there is an ongoing debate about MIT’s culpability in Aaron’s death that my students and I are deeply involved in. Representativs Zoe Lofgren and Ron Wyden have proposed reforms to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under the title of “Aaron’s Law” and others are pushing for more comprehensive reforms.

But that’s not what people will be talking about at MIT later today. People will be mourning Aaron and discussing the circumstances of his death, but more will be looking to Aaron’s life as an inspiration. We’ll be hosting one of dozens of hackathons that will take place around the globe in Aaron’s memory. In Bangalore, Brisbane, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Boston, young people – many of them designers and computer programmers, but not all – will get together and talk about what they can do to make the world better. Some will write code that helps scholars share their work under open access licenses. Others will organize campaigns to expose corporate money in politics or challenge restrictions to free speech online. Still others will work on systems like Strongbox, designed to allow whistleblowers and leakers to share critical information while retaining their anonymity.

What the people who come to these hackathons have in common is this: they believe they can change the world, in ways both big and small. Aaron’s memory is a rallying point for them because Aaron dedicated so much of his brief life to seeking ways he could be effective, to have an impact. I knew Aaron well enough to understand some of his frustrations, and I know he was obsessed with the idea of being effective as a citizen, with making sure that the efforts he undertook to change the world had real, measurable, positive impacts.

There’s a good deal of talk about “the crisis in civics” in the United States, the idea that young people are too selfish and self-absorbed to be bothered to inform themselves about political issues or to vote. And there’s some data to support this: young people vote at a much lower rate than people a generation older, and few young people list a career in public service as one of their aspirations. But movements like Occupy, Los Indignados, the Arab Spring and Gezi protests, all of which had strong youth contingents or were youth organized, contradicts the idea that young people are disengaged. I don’t think we’re seeing civic indifference – I think we are watching the shape of civics change.

Consider Carmen Rios, 22 year old member of SPARK, a group that trains students in activism. Rios was angered by the Steubenville, Ohio rape case and was looking for ways to address concerns that high school athletic culture was breeding a sense of entitlement and domination that could lead to rape. Worked with a Colby College football player to demand that the National Federation of State High School Associations, a national association of coaches, offer resources on sexual assault prevention to coaches. 70k petition signatures, and the organization got on the phone to SPARK activists to implement a plan

Or meet Khalida Brohi. When she was just a teenager, her best friend was killed – an honor killing – because she wanted to marry a man she loved instead of consenting to an arranged marriage. To help young women in her native Balochistan gain independence, she launched Sughar Centers, a set of community centers where women came to practice embroidery and produce handicrafts for sale on international markets, putting money into family budgets. With earning power, the women are gaining more power and independence within their households. And when they are at the Sughar Centers, the women take literacy classes and talk about what roles they want to have in their communities.

Other inspiring activists work with code, not with thread. In reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, a group of Icelandic media activists began writing Mailpile, a new email client designed to make the powerful PGP encryption protocol usable by the average Internet user. Smári McCarthy, who is in charge of the project’s security, is well-known to the Internet security community as one of the activists behind IMMI, an ambitious project to give Iceland the world’s strongest legal environment for press freedom and to export this model to other countries. With Smári’s involvement and the urgent need for an alternative to mail systems like Gmail, Mailpile raised a $163,000 development budget from online donations within 5 weeks.

Not all young activists have turned away from politics and the legal system to seek change. Some are trying to hack law as effectively as the Mailpile team are hacking code. DREAM activists are young people, born in other countries but brought to America as children and raised in the United States. Many did not know that they were undocumented immigrants until they graduated high school and applied to college, where they faced massive tuition bills because they are not legal residents of the states where they live. The DREAM nine are activists who self-deported to Mexico and then sought asylum in the United States as a way of calling attention to the hundreds of thousands of young people facing the same predicament. They are using the legal system’s asylum process to challenge the broader policy environment while making their struggle public as a way to challenge existing stereotypes of the undocumented.

Effective citizens are multifaceted and multitalented. They recognize that there are many paths towards social change and that we might have to walk multiple paths simultaneously. The most effective citizens have a more complete toolbelt than most of us have – they understand that they may need different techniques at different points in their struggle, sometimes building businesses, other times building popular social movements. When facing complex challenges, like a US surveillance state that’s spun out of control, they may need to figure out how to use all these tools at the same time, a challenge that’s akin to playing chess on four boards simultaneously. Effective citizens are quickly learning that they need to work together, to build movements, so that someone who knows how write a tool to encrypt email can work with someone to pass legislation to protect email from surveillance and a group that can help the general public understand why encryption is important.

Thus far, I’ve cited five remarkable individuals and groups – surely this level of engaged citizenship isn’t something we can expect from everyone?

Well, maybe it should be. What these examples have in common is that they’ve moved beyond a vision of civics that centers on being informed and voting. Michael Schudson’s excellent 1998 book “The Good Citizen” argues that our vision of what it means to be a good citizen changes over time – analyzing the US, he sees four different models of citizenship that we’ve passed through over the years. He suggests that the model we often think of ourselves as embedded within – the informed citizen model – is a product of the progressive era, and may have lost its potency in the 1960s when effective citizenship moved into the courts, where people fought for rights through litigation. Our current picture of citizenship might be best described as “monitorial citizenship”, where our role as citizens is to keep track of powerful institutions like governments and corporations and to hold them to account when they violate citizen or consumer rights.

I think Schudson is important not because I think his vision of contemporary citizenship is the right one – monitorial citizenship doesn’t leave much room for citizens to create new forms of change. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that citizenship can – and is – changing. In looking at citizenship, activism and protest around the world, I see three themes that cut across many of the countries and communities I’m watching:

Citizenship is participatory.

The generation that’s grown up with the internet has a strong desire to see their mark upon the world. This may be a result of growing up in an interactive media environment where socializing involves making your mark on the internet. I see a lot of young people who are frustrated by political processes that don’t leave room for individual input. “If there’s nothing I can do to help, why are you telling me about this problem?” I think the rise of attention philanthropy, where people try to help a cause by calling attention to it via social media reflects this tendency – young people know how to create and spread media, and they can do so in ways that leverage their creative individuality.

I think the rise of platforms that invite people to give money to specific projects, to support individuals with microloans or with contributions to their artistic endeavors are a piece of the same impulse to see your positive effect on the world. The emergence of civic crowdfunding, where members of a community contribute to a project that we would normally think of as a public good seems like the logical extension of this line of thought, in both its positive and negative manifestations. It’s great that people want to have a hand in social change, but we may not want a world where social services go to those best able to pay for them or best organized to make them happen.

Citizenship is passionate.

With the rise of the internet, we’ve experienced an incredible rise in choice. We have access to news from all over the world, we have more movies at our fingertips than could fit in any video store. We can learn about virtually any topic (or write our own encyclopedia entry about it, if we choose.) And we are free to pursue our passions, whether they are shared by our friends and neighbors or not, because there’s certain to be someone out there that shares our dedication to the cause.

When I think of passionate citizenship, I mean to emphasize the negative sense of the term as well as the positive. Jason Russell’s passion about children affected by war in northern Uganda led him to build Invisible Children, an organization that came to widespread attention with their Kony 2012 campaign… which, in turn, ignited the passions of millions of people who heard about the Lord’s Resistance Army for the first time. Critics – myself included – argued that capturing Joseph Kony wasn’t an appropriate priority for US policy in Central Africa. But that’s the challenge with a politics of passion. Russell followed his passions and channeled the passions of others – it’s a challenge for the rest of us to figure out how to have a dialog with passionate, well-meaning people that can examine the assumptions behind those passions and seek a way forward as a society and a government.

Citizenship is pointillist.

When civics is about people following their passions, it’s hard to have a dialog in the public sphere. The issue you are passionate about and want to debate may not be one I find remotely interesting. How do we come together and find solutions through conversation and compromise if we can’t agree on what issues are the key ones society faces? Bill Kovachs and Tom Rosensteil posit the idea of the “interlocking public”, the idea that my interest in West Africa gets communicated to my friends and family, who become informed on issues there through me, and my father’s interest in prison reform means that I’m somewhat knowledgeable about that subject. We follow our passions, become knowledgeable and inform one another, allowing us to debate complex issues as a public.

There’s another possibility, though, which is that publics come together in opposition, but not in creative cooperation. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observes that protests in Taksim Square over the proposed paving of Gezi Park brought together Kurdish separatists, Turkish nationalists and gay and lesbian activists, a group who would otherwise be extremely unlikely to interact with one another. Such groups were able to unite in their frustration with and opposition to Tayyip Erdogan, but had a difficult time cooperating on a broader vision of a reformed Turkey. As with the Tahrir Square protests, it was easier to come together in opposition than in cooperation, and there are open questions about how coalitions and cooperation emerges in the face of pointillistic civic engagement.

I offer this vision of civics not because I think it’s fairer, more successful or more participatory than conventional views of civics – I am deeply concerned about some aspects of this vision, including the challenge of creating a public dialog from a diverse set of passionate perspectives. I offer this more as description than prescription, a reflection of what I am seeing in working with with digital activists in the US and around the world.

But I do think civics is changing in the ways I describe, and I think media should consider what role it can and should have facing this new form of civic practice.

If we believe that civics is participatory, we need to move beyond a model where journalism informs us and makes us better voters to a model where journalism helps us get involved with issues we care about. I worry that we often report stories in a way that readers feel helpless and disempowered. The news tells us that injustice and tragedy are taking place but offers little insight on how we could help make things better. It’s easy to understand why news can lead some to a pattern of learned helplessness, a sense that they are powerless to affect circumstances locally or globally.

There are creative projects proposed to help us move from information to engagement. Shoutabout pairs news stories with ways to get engaged with an issue, often showing petitions to sign or organizations to support on multiple sides of an issue. PBS is working with Shoutabout, as is Christian Science Monitor. In most cases, they are pushing readers and viewers to fairly thin modes of engagement, but it’s a start, and a recognition that news organizations can do more than identify problems.

I see David Bornstein’s Solutions Journalism Network as a fellow traveller, featuring people and organizations in their coverage who’ve found novel solutions to complex social problems. We need journalists to do this work, identifying solutions and evaluating their effectiveness.

At a recent conference in Berlin, I was introduced to the work of Ulrik Haagerup, who is leading the Danish Broadcasting Corporation towards something he calls “constructive journalism“. Reporters on the network aren’t able to report on an issue, like the overuse of antibiotics in the dairy industry, without finding alternatives, a farm that produces milk commercially without using antibiotics. It’s not possible to report every story this way, but it’s a fantastic challenge to think about reporting in a way that helps people move beyond problems to solutions.

More than linking individual stories to specific campaigns for change, I hope that journalists can think about the different paths through which people are seeking change. There’s a tendency to overfocus on where we think news will be made: in Congress and parliaments, in announcements from big companies. It’s easier to report on an election or a government shutdown than on slow, gradual changes like the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, or a move in scholarly publishing towards open access models. For people to take the steps to be effective citizens, they need help seeing the effects they are having on the world.

I opened this talk by remembering Aaron and will close the same way. I miss Aaron, but I see him in the students I teach and in the activists I worth with. I think he would be happy to be remembered with hackathons, with people embracing the idea that they can make the world a better place and that they, as individuals, can help bring about change. I want to build a world where people like Aaron can be effective, can help change the world, and I want your help. Thanks for listening.

  • Zeynep Tufekci on protest movements and capacity problems

    MIT’s Comparative Media Studies hosts a weekly colloquium, and this week’s featured speaker is sociologist and movement theorist, Zeynep Tufekci. Zeynep describes herself as a scholar of social movements and of surveillance, which means this has been an interesting and challenging year. The revelations about the NSA hit the same week as the Gezi protests in Turkey. She explains that it’s hard to do conceptual work in this space because events are changing every few months, making it very hard to extrapolate from years of experience.

    Not until protests reached Gezi, Zeynep tells us, did she feel comfortable putting a name on the phenomenon she’s been seeing in her research in the Arab Spring, through Occupy and in the Indignados movement. To explain her theory, she opens her talk with a picture of the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. The picture of Everest, taken a day that four people died on the mountain, shows the profound crowding on the mountain, which made Everest so dangerous as climbers had to wait for others to finish.

    Because of technology and sherpas, more people who aren’t great climbers come to Everest. Full service trips (at a $65,000 price point) can get you to base camp and get you much of the way up the mountain, but they cannot prepare people to climb the peak. There’s an uptick in deaths in the 1980s once the basecamps become developed and more people can get to the mountain.

    People have proposed putting a ladder at Hillary’s Step, hoping to make things more difficult. But the issue is not the ladders – it’s the fact that it’s very, very hard to climb at altitude. The mountineering community has suggested something else: require people to climb seven other high peaks before they reach Everest.

    This is an analogy for internet-enabled activism. In talking about internet and collective action, we tend to talk about ease of coordination and community. Zeynep worries that we’re getting to base camp without developing altitude awareness – in other words, some of the internet’s benefits have significant handicaps as side effects. The result: we see more movements, but they may not have impact or staying power because they come to public attention much earlier in their lives.

    She suggests we stop looking so much at outputs of social media fueled protests and start looking instead at their role in capacity building. She recommends that we stop looking at offline/online distinctions and look more at signaling approaches to protests. This requires a game-theoretic framework, and consideration of movement capacities and strategic tensions.

    With that as backdrop, she takes us to Gezi Park and Taksim Square, which she suggests we see as analogous to Chelsea or Soho, a neighborhood where people go to party. It’s one of the very rare greenspaces in that part of the city. It was to be replaced with the replica of an Ottoman barracks, which was going to be used as a high-end shopping mall, something that there are many of in Istanbul.

    Neighbors of the park held a small protest, probably 30-40 people. But that small protest was met with pepper gas, which is a clear overreaction to a small, peaceful protest. People got upset about the protest and saw it as a personal decision by Erdogan, who seemed to be pushing the development over local wishes and over the wishes of the people of Istanbul.

    People took to the streets and to Twitter. Why Twitter? While CNN International was showing protests in Taksim, CNN Turkey was showing a documentary about penguins. Zeynep found this deeply surprising – “We’re not China!” But there are different kinds of censorship, and this was censorship by media conglomerates, which are controlled by people who want government contracts. To curry favor with the government, media tends to self-censor… and if they don’t, they often get phone calls from the government. So Turkey isn’t China, but it’s a bit more like Russia, though with open elections and a more open public sphere. The backdrop for Gezi includes a 11-year single party reign, a polarized nation, an ineffective opposition and an electoral system that makes it hard to start new parties.

    These protests in the middle of the city showed the depth of media corruption in Turkey, because social media documented the clashes with the police. Outrage over the police action and media interaction turned into a long-term occupation of Gezi Park. So, Zeynep tells us, she packed up her gear: a helmet, a gas mask, sunscreen, a recorder and a digital camera, all air-gapped from the internet.

    Zeynep describes the encampment as Smurf village, a happy and friendly version of “Woodstock meets the Paris commune”, but threatened by Gargamel, the police showing up periodically. Roma ladies who normally sell flowers to tourists were selling Anonymous masks, ski goggles and spray paint. (Who says the developing world needs help with entrepreneurship?, she tell us.)

    She walks us through the iconography – #diren (“resist”, or “occupy”), penguins (a reference to CNN showing penguin documentaries rather than clashes.) While the icons imply a common movement, there wasn’t one. She shows us a picture of a Kurdish activist, a far-right activist and an opposition party activist in the same frame, and another picture of macho soccer fans meeting with a local feminist group. Soccer fans traditionally call referees “faggots” in their chants, and the soccer fans protesting wanted to call the police faggots… but got confronted by local gay and lesbian activists who said, “No, we’re the faggots – we’re the guys protesting!” The two groups had a meeting, and the soccer fans ended up chanting “Sexist Erdogan”, newly aware of the members in their community. Zeynep takes pains to explain the heterogeneity of the crowd: a Kurdish activist and a gay rights activist talking about why they hadn’t interacted before.

    Despite how much positivity came from these protests, there were real risks – people went to sleep after writing their blood types on their arms. Serious injuries happened every day, from tear gas cannisters and police confrontations.

    What did the internet do? It broke media censorship, created a counternarrative, and allowed coordination. To tease CNN, people photoshopped penguins into protest footage, urging CNN Turkey to come to the protests. Humor was a major weapon, drawing attention to the persistent censorship. Zeynep makes the point of how difficult it is to censor in a social media age, pointing to the differences between Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid protests in Tunisia.

    Twitter was critical for the Gezi protests, not just for generating a counternarrative, but for protest coordination. For the most part, the internet worked, and local businesses turned on wifi to make it accessible to protesters. Activists called friends who tweeted on their behalf. Erdogan wasn’t going to turn off the internet, Zeynep tells us, because of fear he’d be seen as an autocrat.

    Despite all this adhoc coordination, there was no real centralized leadership, and very little delegation of authority. It was extremely unclear what demands were beyond “Don’t raze Gezi Park.” Because there was no need to deal with these thorny questions of representation and delegation to coordinate the protests, the movement did not build a strong leadership culture.

    The Gezi protests were brutally dispersed, at which point, protest conversations moved to neighborhood forums, which were also dispersed. While popular, these protests haven’t been able to create structures that engage the government in the long term.

    Despite the successes of the protests, Zeynep reminds us that Gezi and the open internet never overwhelmed the state’s capacity to surpress the protests. It simply overwhelmed state capacity to suppress without unwanted side effects of embarrassment, loss of tourism revenues, loss of prestige, loss of being seen as a modern civic space.

    To understand these protests, Zeynep turns to Amartya Sen and capacity building, looking at those capacities, not traditional outputs, as the benefits of development. The internet gives us some new capacities, but that may undermine other capacities: we end up at base camp very easily, but we don’t know how to negotiate Hillary’s step. We can carry out the spectacular street protest, but we can’t build a larger movement to topple or challenge a government.

    Protests are very good at grabbing attention and putting forth counternarratives. They create bonding between diverse groups. They also signal capacity, but it’s a different capacity than it might have been fifteen years ago. Zeynep tells us that this is not a “cheap talk” argument – protesting isn’t too easy – it’s just that a protest isn’t going to topple the government. This isn’t a slactivism argument either – it’s an argument about capacities. The internet seems to be very good at building a spectacular local optima – a street protest – without forcing deeper capacity development.

    In the past, gaining attention meant gaining elite dissent and buy-in. Now, gaining attention may also have a cost – you may or may not have achieved elite buy-in, which means you may gain polarization. Gaining attention on your terms means not gaining the dominant narrative.

    Digitally enabled protest allows for much more ability for social interaction amongst the machines. That said, the internet is a homophily machine, and joining a movement can be a step towards a homophilous group. Movements like the Tea Party are thriving in these environments.

    Zeynep shows a slide of a gazelle stotting to make her last point. Jumping in the air isn’t a great way to avoid predators – it’s a way to show that you’re really fast and would be hard to catch. But animals that can’t evade predators can also jump. Zeynep warns us that ignoring the March on Washington would have been a mistake, which might have ousted a President, but Gezi was not that sort of protest.

    She urges us to consider “network internalities”, development of ties within networks that would allow social networks to become effective actors. Movements get stuck at no, she argues, because they’ve never needed to develop a capacity for representation, and can only coalesce around saying no, not building an affirmative agenda.

    Google cars versus public transit: the US’s problem with public goods

    I have an excellent job at a great university. I have a home that I love in a community I’ve lived in for two decades where I have deep ties of family and friendship. Unfortunately, that university and that hometown are about 250 kilometers from one another. And so, I’ve become an extreme commuter, traveling three or four hours each way once or twice a week so I can spend time with my students 3-4 days a week and with my wife and young son the rest of the time.

    America is a commuter culture. Averaged out over a week, my commute is near the median American experience. Spend forty minutes driving each way to your job and you’ve got a longer commute than I in the weeks I make one trip to Cambridge. But, of course, I don’t get to go home every night. I stay two to three nights a week at a bed and breakfast in Cambridge, where my “ludicrously frequent guest” status gets me a break on a room. I spend less this way than I did my first year at MIT, when I rented an apartment that I never used on weekends or during school vacations.

    This is not how I would choose to live if I could bend space and time, and I spend a decent amount of time trying to optimise my travel through audiobooks, podcasts, and phone calls made while driving. I also gripe about the commute probably far too often to my friends, who are considerate if not entirely sympathetic. (It’s hard to be sympathetic to a guy who has the job he wants, lives in a beautiful place, and simply has a long drive a few times a week.)

    Hearing my predicament, one friend prescribed a solution: “You need a Google self-driving car!” The friend in question is a top programmer for a world-leading game company, and her enthusiasm for a technical solution parallels advice I’ve gotten from my technically oriented friends, who offer cutting edge technology that is either highly unlikely to materially affect my circumstances, or would improve some aspect of my commute rather than change its core nature. (Lots of friends forwarded me Elon Musk’s hyperloop proposal. And lots more have suggested tools I can use on my iPhone so that a synthetic voice will read my students’ assignments aloud while I drive.)

    “I don’t want a Google car,” I tell her. “I want a train.”

    In much of the world, a train wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to ask for. New England has a population density comparable to parts of Europe where commuting by train is commonplace. I live ten kilometers north of downtown Pittsfield, MA, which lies on a rail line that connects Albany, NY with Boston. There is, in fact, one train per day from Pittsfield to Boston. It takes almost six hours to make a journey that can take me as little as 2.5 hours (if there’s no traffic) to drive, and operates at a time that makes it impossible for me to use it for business travel. I want a European train, a Japanese train, not necessarily a bullet train, but something that could get me from the county seat of Berkshire county to the state capitol in under two hours.

    Such a train exists on some of the proposed maps for high speed rail service in New England. But given the current government shutdown, and more broadly, a sense that government services are contracting rather than expanding, it’s very hard to imagine such a line ever being built. In fact, it’s much easier for me to imagine my semi-autonomous car speeding down the Mass Pike as part of a computer-controlled platoon than boarding a train in my little city and disembarking in a bigger one.

    There’s something very odd about a world in which it’s easier to imagine a futuristic technology that doesn’t exist outside of lab tests than to envision expansion of a technology that’s in wide use around the world. How did we reach a state in America where highly speculative technologies, backed by private companies, are seen as a plausible future while routine, ordinary technologies backed by governments are seen as unrealistic and impossible?

    The irony of the Google car for my circumstances is that it would be inferior in every way to a train. A semi-autonomous car might let me read or relax behind the wheel, but it would be little faster than my existing commute and as sensitive to traffic, which is the main factor that makes some trips 2.5 hours and some 4 hours. Even if my Google car is a gas-sipping Prius or a plug-in hybrid, it will be less energy efficient than a train, which achieves giant economies of scale in fuel usage even at higher speeds than individual vehicles. It keeps me sealed in my private compartment, rather than giving me an opportunity to see friends who make the same trip or meet new people.

    There’s a logical response to my whiny demands for an easier commute: if there were a market for such a service, surely such a thing would exist. And if train service can’t be profitably provided between Pittsfield and Boston, why should Massachusetts taxpayers foot the bill for making my life marginally easier?

    This line of reasoning became popular in the US during the Reagan/Thatcher revolution and has remained influential ever since. What government services can be privatized should be, and government dollars should go only towards services, like defense, that we can’t pay for in private markets. As the US postal service has reminded us recently, they remain open during the government shutdown because they are mandated by Congress to be revenue neutral. Ditto for Amtrak, which subsidizes money-losing long distance routes with profitable New England services and covers 88% of expenses through revenue, not through government support. Our obsession with privatization is so thorough in the US that we had no meaningful debate in the US about single payer healthcare, a system that would likely be far cheaper and more efficient than the commercial health insurance mandated under the Affordable Care Act – even when governments provide services more efficiently than private markets, the current orthodoxy dictates that private market solutions are the way to go.

    The problem with private market solutions is that they often achieve a lower level of efficiency than public solutions. Medicare has tremendous power to negotiate with drug manufacturers, which brings down healthcare costs. Private insurers have less leverage, and we all pay higher prices for drugs as a result, especially those whose healthcare isn’t paid for my a government or private organization and who have no negotiating power. The current system works very well for drug companies, but poorly for anyone who needs and uses healthcare (which is to say, for virtually everyone.)

    It’s possible that the same argument applies to transportation, though the argument is less direct. It’s not that a federal or state government can provide train service to western MA at a cost that’s substantially lower than a private company (though they might – Medicare’s aggressive audit process helps keep costs down by minimizing waste.) It’s more that transportation has ancillary financial benefits that are hard for anyone other than a state to claim.

    Real estate in Boston is insanely expensive, either to buy or to rent. That’s because lots of people want to live and work in Boston and the supply of real estate is relatively scarce compared to demand. In much of the rest of Massachusetts (let’s say, anywhere west of I-495), jobs are relatively scare and real estate is plentiful. Cities like Worcester, Holyoke, Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield experienced peak population decades ago and have been on the decline ever since. These cities and their surrounding communities are nice places to live, though they suffer from a shrinking population and tax base.

    If there were a high-speed rail corridor from Boston to Albany, through Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, we would expect real estate in those cities to become more valuable as people fed up with Boston rents moved to smaller cities and the countryside, using high speed rail to commute to schools and jobs. This would have the salubrious effect of increasing the tax base for the most vulnerable communities in MA, though it might decrease the tax base in the most densely settled parts of Massachusetts. Then again, lowered density might be a good thing – few people stuck on I-90 or I-93 on their way into Boston on a Monday morning think the city and its suburbs works especially well at current density.

    This model of rail turning undesirable land into desirable land is basically the model that enabled westward expansion during the 19th century – the US government and rail companies struck a deal that shared ownership of land along the new rail lines. Railroad companies sold land to new immigrants and to those willing to trade urban density for rural opportunity to finance their construction, and the government used revenues from land sales to fill public coffers.

    But western MA is not unclaimed land. High speed rail will make some landowners wealthy while leaving others relatively untouched. The only entity that can capture the value generated by an infrastructural improvement like high speed rail is a government – local, state or federal – which can claim a share of those increased property values through taxation. If high speed rail makes it possible to live in Springfield and work in Boston, it might – over time – generate enough traffic to make running the service profitable. In the short term, however, we’d see Springfield better able to pay for schools and public services, a not insignificant development for a community that’s facing severe economic problems.

    Who loses? Residents of Boston and surrounding suburbs. We’d expect rents and property values to decrease somewhat as demand lessens. And we’d be generating public debt through a bond issue, much as when citizens throughout Massachusetts subsidized the Big Dig, despite the fact that the massive infrastructure project did little to benefit residents of Pittsfield, on the other side of the state. We would be engaged in a transfer or wealth from the wealthiest part of our state to some of the poorest, hoping that, in the long run, our poorer communities would become more self-sufficient and sustainable, and would do a better job of supporting the state as a whole.

    Is such an investment worthwhile? I don’t know – it’s the sort of issue one would expect to debate, trying to determine whether future spending is likely to generate significant enough economic gains that a long term investment is worthwhile. But we seem to be losing the ability to have these long-term debates. Experts warn of crumbling infrastructure throughout the US, as exemplified by broken bridges and collapsing freeways. A quick trip to any city in the Middle East or Asia is a stark reminder of how antiquated most of our public transit systems are, in those places where they exist.

    The US has a problem with public goods. After thirty years of hearing that government can do nothing right and that the private sector is inevitably more efficient, my generation and those younger tend not to look towards the government to solve problems. Instead, we look to the private sector, sometimes towards social ventures that promise to turn a profit while doing good, more often towards fast-growth private companies, where we hope their services will make the world a better place. Google can feel like a public good – like a library, it’s free for everyone to use, and it may have social benefits by increasing access to information. But it’s not a public good – we don’t have influence over what services Google does and doesn’t provide, and our investment is an investment of attention as recipients of ads, not taxation.

    It’s unthinkable for most Americans to posit a government-built Google, as the French government proposed some years ago. But it’s likely that long established parts of our civic landscape, like libraries and universities, would be similarly unthinkable as public ventures if we were to start them today. (You want to lend intellectual property at zero cost to consumers who might copy and redistribute it, and you’d like local government to pay for it? What sort of socialist are you?!)

    This unwillingness to consider the creation of new public goods restricts the solution space we consider. We look for solutions to the crisis in journalism but aren’t willing to consider national license models like the one that supports the BBC, or strong, funded national broadcasters like NHK or Deutsche Welle. We build markets to match consumers with health insurance but won’t consider expanding Medicare into a single-payer health system. We look towards MOOCs and underpaid lecturers rather than considering fundamental reforms to the structure of state universities. We consider a narrow range of options and complain when we find only lousy solutions.

    My student Rodrigo Davies has been writing about civic crowdfunding, looking at cases where people join together online and raise money for projects we’d expect a government to otherwise provide. On the one hand, this is an exciting development, allowing neighbors to raise money and turn a vacant lot into a community garden quickly and efficiently. But we’re also starting to see cases where civic crowdfunding challenges services we expect governments to provide, like security. Three comparatively wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland have used crowdfunding to raise money for private security patrols to respond to concerns about crime in their communities. Oakland undoubtably has problems with crime, in part due to significant budget cuts in the past decade that have shrunk the police force.

    It’s reasonable that communities that feel threatened would take steps to increase their safety. But if those steps focus only on communities wealthy enough to pay for their own security and don’t consider broader issues of security in the community, they are likely to have corrosive effects in the long term. Oakland as a whole may become more dangerous as select communities become safer. And people paying for private security are likely to feel less obligation to paying for high-quality policing for the city as a whole if they feel that private security is keeping them safe – look at the resentment people without kids and people whose kids are homeschooled or in private school express towards funding public schools.

    On the one hand, I appreciate the innovation of crowdfunding, and think it’s done remarkable things for some artists and designers. On the other hand, looking towards crowdfunding to solve civic problems seems like a woefully unimaginative solution to an interesting set of problems. It’s the sort of solution we’d expect at a moment where we’ve given up on the ability to influence our government and demand creative, large-scale solutions to pressing problems, where we look to new technologies for solutions or pool our funds to hire someone to do the work we once expected our governments to do.

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