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Hugo Barra and America’s Technology Blind Spot

Hugo Barra is a long-time veteran of the technology industry. Raised in Brazil, he came to MIT in 1996 and completed B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in computer science and electrical engineering before joining wireless software company Lobby7. From there, he joined Nuance Communications and later, Google, working on the Android team, where he rose to Vice President of Android Product Management, becoming one of the public faces of the company, introducing new phones and software to audiences at trade shows.

Most people, even those who follow tech closely, didn’t know who Barra was until he announced in August of last year that he was leaving Google for Xiaomi, a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones. The departure of a non-Chinese Google executive for a Chinese company was surprising enough to merit coverage throughout the tech press and in the Guardian, where Charles Arthur saw the move as a coup for Xiaomi and reason to ask questions about Google’s strategic leadership around Android.

Stories about Barra’s job change took on a tabloid quality when writers began speculating that his real reason for leaving Google was a romantic rivalry. Business Insider reported that Barra had been involved with a Google Glass product manager, Amanda Rosenberg, who was now dating Sergey Brin, and Sydney’s Morning Herald reported that Barra’s departure from Google was a “collateral casualty” of the complicated love life of Google’s founder.

After all, a star executive at America’s most-admired company would never leave for a Chinese phone company because he saw opportunity there. Putting the Pacific between you and a vengeful software billionaire is one of the few logical explanations for an American to want to work in China.

Barra patiently explained to reporters that he’d come to Xiaomei to work with Bin Lin, the head of Xiaomi, who had been the head of Google’s mobile engineering unit in China. While he was at Google, Barra was impressed with the ways Lin’s team had extended and modified Android, and frequently brought Xiaomi products to the Android team to show off their functionality.

Barra re-entered the tech press limelight in December when he spoke at Le Web in Paris. His speech was, unsurprisingly, a celebration of the new corporation he joined. But it was, more broadly, a education for European and US techies on the wonders of the Chinese technology industry. Business Insider’s crib of his talk makes Barra sound like a latter-day Marco Polo, returning to Venice with tales of 600 million internet users, 15% annual growth rates and billion dollar IPOs.


Hugo Barra at his favorite dumpling joint in Beijing

On the rare occasions American geeks think about the internet in China, they tend to think about the Great Firewall and the 50 Cent Party. This focus on censorship – which is an important fact of life on the Chinese internet – tends to blind Americans to the creativity and vitality of the Chinese internet. (This 2010 article by David Talbot for Technology Review, China’s Internet Paradox, explores this idea in depth.) As a result, we are surprised to learn that China’s most popular social networking site, QZone, has over 600 million users. That Jingdong, an Amazon-like online store offers three hour delivery in major Chinese cities. That tools like WeChat and MoMo offer functionality that’s surprisingly different from social networking models offered by most American and European social networking tools.

I used the story of Barra and his reports from China to open a recent talk on Rewire at Harvard’s Coop. Our surprise that there’s a thriving and interesting tech industry in China strikes me as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, the ways in which we are insulated from information from places that are culturally distant, even if we’re tightly tied to those nations in terms of migration and trade.

I give dozens of examples in Rewire of ways in which barriers of language, culture and interest keep us from learning about what’s happening in other parts of the world. But the lack of knowledge of Chinese internet tools is a wonderful example I wish I’d included. QZone, with over 600 million users, is represented in the English-language Wikipedia with a 3k stub, while Twitter, with a slightly smaller userbase, has a massive, 140kb article whose table of contents is longer than the QZone entry.

When I speak about Rewire, I try to explain why I think it’s important that increased internet connectivity doesn’t inevitably lead to increased interest in or understanding of other cultures. I talk about the challenge of solving massive international problems like global warming without international cooperation, or the missed opportunities to think creatively by maximizing cognitive diversity and approaching problems from different points of view.

But Hugo Barra’s story offers a much more straightforward motivation: there’s a ton of opportunity in China’s tech industry and Americans and Europeans will be shut out of that opportunity if they’re not aware of what’s going on. Americans may not be especially interested in building tools for Chinese users, but Chinese companies are looking aggressively at overseas markets. Xiaomi recruited Barra precisely because they are excited about expanding beyond manufacturing phones for Chinese markets.

There’s a massive information asymmetry because the US and China right now. Teams of volunteer translators work to render US and European political and tech media into Chinese – one community, Yeeyan, features more than 100,000 registered translators. Other teams work to subtitle US television programming in Chinese within 12 hours of broadcast. Information in the other direction is brokered by small, underfunded, hardworking projects like Tea Leaf Nation, which provide great translation and contextualization of Chinese stories for the small audiences interested in them.

Perhaps Barra’s celebration of Chinese internet culture will inspire others to follow his lead and work with Chinese technology companies. Perhaps others will learn what’s exciting about the tech industry in Brazil or Kenya. At the very least, Barra’s story might remind us that there’s a huge world out there we don’t hear enough about and that it takes work on our part to learn more.


Promise Tracker and Monitorial Citizenship

It’s not obvious from looking at me, but while I’m American, I’m deeply partisan towards the nation of Ghana. I moved to Accra, Ghana in 1993 to study xylophone music, and I’ve traveled back to the country almost every year since 2000. I ran a nonprofit organization in Ghana from 1999-2004 and I now work closely with a Ghanaian journalism nonprofit. This dual allegiance is a good thing: I have two teams to root for in the upcoming World Cup (unfortunately, they’ll see each other in the first round), and I take disproportionate pride in Ghana’s economic and political success over the past two decades.

Ghana has a lot to be proud of, in political terms. After almost twenty years of rule by a man who took power through a coup, Ghana democratically elected a President from the opposition NPP party in 2000. After eight years of his rule, they elected a President from the NDC, which had ruled for the previous decades. Political scientists call this a “double alternation”, and it’s considered the gold standard for stability in a democracy, evidence that an electoral system is free and fair enough that either of two major parties can win an election. Due to its clean elections and history of stability, demonstrated when the death of President Atta Mills in office led to a seamless transition to his vice-president John Mahama, Ghana has become the exemplar for democratic transition in West Africa. Ghanaian politicians and NGOs are now working to export models and best practices from Ghana to the region and the continent.

But there’s something uncomfortable about Ghana’s elections. Many of the politicians from the NPP party come from a single ethnic group, the Akan or Ashanti, and their close allies. The NDC has a broader ethnic base of support, but the Ewe are particularly powerful within the party. You can see these alliances in a map of electoral results – the NPP candidate won in the Ashanti and Eastern regions, the home of the Akan, while the NDC won elsewhere, but dominated in the Volta region, where the Ewe hail from. Some critics worry that Ghana’s free and fair elections may be masking elections that are less about political issues and more about ethnic allegiances.

Economist Paul Collier warns of this problem in his book “Wars, Guns and Votes”, He warns that we may be seeing a lot of elections in the developing world that are free, fair and bad. They are free and fair because we’ve gotten very good at monitoring elections for obvious signs of rigging and fraud, but they’re bad because they are decided for reasons other than political issues. In bad elections, Collier argues, people vote for a candidate because they expect some personal financial gain (a job, a handout) or because they see an electoral victory as a victory for their tribe or group. A good election is one in which people vote for a candidate because they expect he or she will make positive policy changes, benefiting a broader community and the nation as a whole.

Free, fair and bad elections happen because it’s hard to hold politicians accountable. We elect politicians because we share their aspirations and visions, but we also elect them because we hope they will ensure that tax dollars are distributed fairly and ensure that our communities benefit from those investments in schools, hospitals, roads and other essential infrastructures. But in many countries, it’s very hard to find out whether our politicians are doing a good or poor job.

Sometimes politicians don’t do a good job because they are corrupt, more interested in their personal gain than serving their communities. In most cases, politicians work hard and their shortcomings are the result of being constrained by finances, thwarted by bureaucracy or otherwise held in check. If we had better ways of tracking what governments do in their communities and documenting the progress of taxpayer-funded projects, we would have far more information we could use to hold our politicians accountable, to re-elect the best and oust the worst. This means a strong, free press is important, as are efforts at government transparency, and systems to ensure access to government information, like freedom of information laws.

In other words, if we want strong, responsive democracies, we can’t just fix electoral systems – we have to fix monitorial systems. And we can’t just establish a culture of clean elections, as Ghana has done – we need a culture of monitorial citizenship.

The idea of monitorial citizenship is one I’ve borrowed from journalism scholar Michael Schudson. Schudson argues that we often understand democracy in terms of “informed citizenship” – our job as citizens is to be informed about the issues and to vote, then let our elected representatives do their jobs. This model became popular in the United States during the progressive era of the early 20th century, and Schudson worries that the model may be out of date, not accurately representing how most people participate in democracies today. One of the models Schudson suggests to describe our current reality is monitorial democracy, where a responsibility as citizens is to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave. The press is a powerful actor in monitorial democracies, as demonstrated during the Watergate scandal and the end of the Nixon presidency in the US. And new media may broaden the potential for monitorial democracy, allowing vastly more citizens to watch, document and share their reports.

This year, my students and I have been experimenting with projects that connect monitorial democracy with the mobile phone. We’ve conducted small experiments locally, monitoring the on-time performance of subway trains and wait times in post offices, and examined what sorts of infrastructures in our local community are built and maintained by different government and private sector actors. And now we’re heading to Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, Brazil for the next round of our experiments.

We’ll work with community organizations in neighborhoods in both cities to identify promises local governments have made that citizens see as high importance. We’ll work with these volunteers to map a few, carefully chosen, infrastructures in their communities and to track the status of those infrastructures over time. And we’ll work with the community to figure out how we should reward governments that live up to their promises and challenge governments that fall short… all within the course of two three-day, student led workshops. (!?!)

Our core insight – that citizens can use mobile phones to document infrastructure and monitor government performance – is not a new one. We are inspired by a number of exciting projects that have demonstrated the potential and pitfalls of citizen monitoring and documentation, notably:

- Map Kibera, which has demonstrated the importance of mapping squatter cities and informal settlements to show both the deficiencies and the vitality of infrastructure in those communities

- Ushahidi, which shows that mobile phones combined with mapping can help individuals work together to map crises and opportunities with little central planning

- Fix My Street and related projects, which have helped citizens see governments as service providers, responsible for maintaining infrastructures, and capable of providing customer service to citizens

- Safecast, which has encouraged Japanese citizens to monitor radiation levels in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, helping create data sets citizens can use to lobby the government for better cleanup plans and responses

- The Earth Institute’s collaboration with the Government of Nigeria, to use citizen enumerators, armed with mobile phones, to monitor schools, hospitals and other government-procured infrastructure to establish the country’s progress towards meeting Millenium Development goals

We hope to learn from these projects and push our work in a slightly different direction. Our system, Promise Tracker, starts from promises government officials (local, state and federal) have made to a community, and then helps communities track progress made on those promises by monitoring infrastructures like power grids, roads, schools and hospitals. The use case for Promise Tracker is simple: if the mayor of a city makes an electoral promise that roads in a neighborhood will be paved during her time in office, Promise Tracker helps the local community collect data on the condition of the roads and monitor progress made on the promise over time. If the mayor meets her goal, Promise Tracker offers proof generated by the community that’s benefitted. If the government is in danger of falling short, Promise Tracker offers an open, freely shared data set that citizens and officials can use to consult on solving the problem.

It’s this idea of tracking promises that has led us to Brazil. I spoke about the Promise Tracker idea at the Media Lab’s fall sponsors meeting and had two transformative conversations with Brazilians who heard me speak. One conversation was with Oded Grajew, a celebrated Brazilian social entrepreneur and innovator, one of the founders of the World Social Forum, and founder of Rede Nossa Sao Paulo, “Our Sao Paulo Network”, a network of community organizations dedicated to transforming and improving that remarkable city. One of Grajew’s many achievements is a successful campaign to get the city of São Paulo to change its constitution and require the mayor to publish campaign promises, allowing citizens to monitor the government’s progress. Grajew invited my students to São Paulo to meet with his organization and see whether the tools we’re building could help his organization keep a close eye on the government’s performance.

The second conversation was more surprising: it was with the government of the state of Minas Gerais, specifically from Andre Barrence, CEO at the Office for Strategic Priorities, who is in charge of innovation in government and the private sector. Minas Gerais is a sponsor of the Media Lab and has been looking for partnerships where Media Lab students and faculty can work with residents of Belo Horizonte and other Minas Gerais communities. It’s not easy for a government to volunteer to open itself to citizen monitoring, and it’s a great credit to the innovative leaders in the Minas Gerais government that they’ve been working hard to find community organizations we can partner with to monitor the government’s progress and enter into a partnership to celebrate successes and work to fix potential failures.

In our workshops in Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, my students – Jude Mwenda, Alexis Hope, Chelsea Barbaras, Heather Craig and Alex Gonçalves – will work with community leaders to understand what promises politicians have made to the community, to identify promises the community is most concerned about, and to identify promises we can evaluate my monitoring infrastructure over time. We’re using codesign methods promoted by our friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock, trying to ensure that what we monitor is what the community cares about, and that we build the tools with the community, who will be responsible for using them over the next few months or years. Our short-term goal is to collect data on a couple of infrastructures in a community, leverage some of Rahul Bhargava’s work on community data visualization to help our partners present data, and to open a conversation with local authorities about tracking an infrastructure over time.

Our long-term ambitions are broader. We hope to build a tool that communities can customize to their own needs and campaigns, but which centers on the idea that mobile phones can collect photographic data, cryptographically stamp it with location information and a timestamp, and release it to public repositories under a CC0 license. We hope we’ll see groups around the world use the tool to track everything from road and power grid condition to air and water quality, integrating low-cost sensors into the system and asking citizens to engage in environmental data collection as well as civic monitoring.

The key idea behind the project is a simple one: civic engagement is too important to be something we do only at elections.

I’ve been writing and speaking about the recognition that many people feel alienated from existing political processes and like there’s no good path for them to engage in decisionmaking about their communities. This alienation leads to disengagement, and can lead to more dramatic forms of dissent, including public protest. The work I’m trying to do on effective citizenship focuses on the idea that we need to engage in citizenship more than once every four years… and also more often than we take to the streets in protest. It’s my hope that helping people monitor powerful institutions and evaluate the successes and setbacks of their elected representatives will be a way people can engage in citizenship every day.

I’m writing this post while enroute to Belo Horizonte, and I’ll share a report on what happened in our workshops and how this idea has changed as I fly home. I’ll also add more links once I have better connectivity. The really good stuff will likely come from the trip report my students put together – I’ll share that as soon as they share it with me.


“Audio Never Goes Viral”… and maybe that’s a good thing

Stan Alcorn, a producer for WNYC (one of the leading lights of public radio in the US), has an excellent essay on Digg.com titled “Why Audio Never Goes Viral”.

The title comes from a post on Transom.org, the community newspaper of the Amerian public radio community, by Nate DiMeo. DiMeo is a brilliant freelance producer and the creator of “The Memory Palace”, a beautiful and bittersweet podcast about history and storytelling. At the end of an essay about the podcast and the financial struggles to support it, DiMeo offers this observation:

Audio never goes viral.

There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

You can tell how maddening this is for DiMeo and for many other people creating innovative and important audio. We are in the midst of a moment of extreme creativity in the world of audio production. Podcasting has made it reasonably easy for a competent producer to share original audio with an audience of potentially millions, but generally, dozens, of listeners. Some of these podcasts are finding audiences on public radio through new distributors, like the Public Radio Exchange. But many aren’t. And while there are numerous stories of people who’ve become briefly, sometimes uncomfortably, famous through viral videos (a conference, ROFLCon, exists solely to examine the phenomenon of internet famous), there are very few examples of internet memes that are audio-only.

Alcorn examines this phenomenon structurally, considering the weaknesses in the audio ecosystem that make audio less likely to spread online than text or video. Audio is often something we encounter when we’re doing something else – driving, walking, working with our hands, cooking dinner. As a result, we’re less likely to remember to share that experience online. When we do share, we’re thwarted by the fact that audio is difficult to embed, tied up in different proprietary players. Unlike text, audio is hard to skim. And the “tastemakers” who are in the business of amplifying viral content don’t have a good source for potentially viral audio to audition and spread.

All these are good points. But I wonder if Alcorn and DiMeo are limiting the conversation by focusing on “going viral”. For DiMeo, the failure of audio to go viral is part of a larger phenomenon, that high-quality audio storytelling doesn’t receive the audience it deserves and that the small size of the audience means that it’s exceedingly hard to make a living. DiMeo, in his Transom piece, explains that he’s had book offers that didn’t pan out because he is insufficiently famous – “going viral”, which is a form of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) fame is something that would be deeply helpful to his career.

But “going viral” is a phenomenon built on passing on content that requires little investment by the viewer. It takes a few seconds to realize that something interesting is going on in the “Harlem Shake”, and if that’s your thing, you might spend a few minutes more finding different versions of the video, perhaps going further to read critiques of the video or the appropriation of the song and dance. But the whole experience is no more than a glance.

Glance-based media is perfect for a world where we’re inundated with choices and forced to make up our mind very quickly. But, as Alcorn argues, it’s hard to glance at audio – by its very definition, audio takes time.

But that may be why audio is so important in a viral age.

The first assignment I ask my students in News and Participatory Media to complete is a media diary, tracking everything they read, watch and listen to over the course of a week. It’s a helpful assignment, shocking the career journalists into the realization that most college students never read print media. I ask students to track not only what mediums they encounter, but what kinds of stories, and to think about whether they were following up on existing interests or learning about new topics.

What’s been most surprising to me is that many participants list radio or podcasts where they get the most international news, and where they get the most unexpected and surprising news over the course of the week. Often, this is because people are listening when they’re doing other tasks. While DiMeo is concerned that it’s harder to get audiences to choose to listen rather than choose to watch or read, I’m seeing evidence that audio is most powerful when choice is not involved.

If you’re working with your hands or driving, there’s a high switching cost involved with being selective about radio or podcast programming – I have to be really uninterested in an NPR story to start searching around the airwaves for an alternative when I’m driving. As a result, I listen to far more stories on subjects I have no explicit interest in on the radio, and often, I discover that I’m interested in a topic I previously knew nothing about.

Radio is a serendipity engine precisely because it downplays choice. Had I turned off Morning Edition when I got bored with a story about the US auto industry, I never would have heard the story about the Ukranian protests that I hadn’t known I was interested in. Viral videos work because I choose to watch and choose to forward – radio works because I don’t choose, and because I’m rewarded for my lack of choice.

When I wrote about serendipity in Rewire, my friend David Weinberger wondered whether serendipity was simply a function of good writing: you end up reading lots of articles on topics you’re not explicitly interested in when you read The New Yorker or Granta. You’ve made the choice of the publication, but not of the content, and you’re along for the ride based on the quality of the writing. I think podcasts are like that – I frequently have no interest in the topics Roman Mars explores on 99% Invisible, but I value his storytelling, and I’m along for the ride.

I don’t think Nate DiMeo wants to be viral – I think he wants to be heard. There’s a need for media that creates serendipity, even if that need isn’t well understood and is far from well met by the market. Alcorn is right that we need to consider the environment for sharing audio, but I think we’d benefit from examining the ways people share long-form readings, a closer analogy to podcasts in the great battle for attention. Audio content would benefit greatly from Instapaper’s “read later” functionality, and from a Longreads that compiled great stories from live radio and podcasts for those who’ve got time to explore.

We need to find better ways of supporting long form media, media that encourages serendipity, media that asks that you give up some choice in exchange for unexpected discovery. We need ways for producers like DiMeo to find audiences who can support their work. But I would hate to see audio producers give up what they do well in search of virality. At its best, audio has a way of blindsiding you, of helping you discover that you are deeply invested in a story you thought you were only half listening to, of changing your life in a small, subtle way by introducing a stray and unexpected thought.

I read Alcorn’s piece in a burger joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night, on Instapaper, on my phone. Walking back to the hotel, I decided to catch up on Nate DiMeo’s work on The Memory Palace and turned to an old episode on my phone, “Heard Once”. I’d heard it once before, but again, walking by the water with the wind whipping my scarf around, I was blindsided again. It’s a story about Jenny Lind, a musician I have never given more than a moment’s thought to, but the story is about so much more.

It’s eight minutes. It may never go viral, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Please listen and see if it changes your life in a small way.


Data and its Discontents – notes and reflections from a panel at Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium

As I’ve mentioned in years past, Microsoft Research’s Social Computing Symposium is my favorite conference to attend, mostly because it’s a chance to catch up with dozens of people I love and don’t get to see every day. I wasn’t able to blog the whole conference, in part because I was moderating a session, but I wanted to post my notes on the event to share these conversations more widely. I’ve added some of my thoughts at the end as well. Many thanks to Microsoft Research for running this event and to all participants in the panel.


The session is titled “Data and its Discontents”, and it was curated by RIT’s Liz Lawley and MSR/NYU’s danah boyd. They decided not to focus on “big data” – the theme of virtually every conference these days – but data through different lenses: art and creative practice, an ethical perspective, a rights perspective and through a speculative perspective.

The opening speaker is professor and artist Golan Levin (@golan), who’s based at CMU. He’s spent the last year working on an open hardware project, so he’s exploring other work, not his own. His exploration is motivated by a tweet from @danmcquillan: “in the longer term, the snowden revelations will counter the breathless enthusiasm for #bigdata in gov, academia, humanitarian NGOs by showing that massive, passive data collection inevitably feeds the predictive algorithms of cybernetic social control”

Levin offers the idea of “the quantified selfie” and suggests we consider it as a form of post-Snowden portraiture. In a new landscape defined by drones, data centers and secret rendition, can these portraits jolt us into new understanding, or give us some comfort by letting us laugh at the situation we are encountering? He shows us John Lennon’s FBI file, and a self-portrait Lennon drew and argues that they are the same thing, “two different GUIs for a single database query.”

Artist Nick Felton is blurring the line between data portrait and portrait by offering data-driven annual reports of his life, analyzing his personal data for the year: every street he walked down in NYC, every plant killed. In honor of the Snowden revelations, he is preparing a 2014 edition that examines the uneasy relationship between data and metadata.

A more confrontational artwork comes from Julian Oliver and Danja Vasilev, called The Man in Grey. Two figures in grey suits carry mirrored briefcases. The suitcases are “man in the middle suitcases”, sniffing packets from local wireless and displaying what they find on the suitcase monitors. The artwork makes visible a form of surveillance that’s possible (and, as Kate Crawford will later explain, commercializable.)

If the ethical issues associated with street-based surveillance don’t give you some pause, consider Kyle McDonald, a Brooklyn-based new media artist who pushes the legal questions around these issues even further. He became interested in the inadvertent expressions he made when he used the computer. Seeking more imagery, he installed monitoring software on all computers in the Apple stores he could reach in New York City, and captured a single frame each minute (only when someone was staring at the screen), uploading it to Tumblr. The images reveal some of the stress and anxiety many of us face when we stare into the screen of a computer – McDonald’s photos reveal expressions from empty to confused, unhappy and unsure.

Apple was pretty unhappy with McDonald’s project, and he was forced to de-install the software, and is not able to show the photos he captured – instead, he shows watercolor versions of the images. But Levin notes that such surveillance isn’t hard to accomplish, and that the project “pushed the legal boundaries of public photography”.

A piece that pushes those boundaries even further is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions”. The artist collects detritus from public places that could contain traces of DNA – cigarette stubs, chewing gum, pubic hairs from the seats of public toilets – and scans the DNA to measure 50 markers associated with physical appearance. Based on these markers, she constructs 3D models of the people she’s “encountered” this way. The portraits are less literal than McDonald’s, but transgressive in their own way, built from information inadvertently left behind.

And that’s the point, Levin argues – “These inadvertent, careless biometric traces and our constructed identities are creating entries in a database whose scope is breathtaking.” None of the art Levin features in his talk was made post-Snowden – surveillance is a theme many artists engage with – but they take on an especially sinister character when we consider the mass surveillance thats become routine in America, as revealed by Edward Snowden.


Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) is a professor based at Microsoft Research and MIT’s Center for Civic Media. She’s a media theorist who’s written provocatively about changing notions of adulthood, about gender and mobile technologies, about media and social change, and she’s now working on an examination of the promises, problems and ethics around “big data”. She notes that danah asked speakers on the panel to be provocative, so she offers a barnburner of a talk, titled “Big Data and the City: Ethics, Resistance and Desire”

Her tour of big data starts in the nation of Andorra, a tiny nation in the Pyrenees that’s been facing hard times in the European economic crisis. The government decided to try a novel approach to economic recovery: they decided to gather and sell the data of their citizens, including bus and taxi data, credit card usage data and anonymized telephony metadata. The package of data and the opportunity to study Andorrans is being marketed as a “real-world, living lab”, opening the possibility of a “smart nation” that’s even more ambitious than plans for smart cities.

These labs, Kate tells us, are being established around the world, and according to their marketing brochures, they look remarkably similar no matter where they are located. “There’s always a glowing city skyline, then shots of attractive urbanites making coffee and riding bikes.” But behind the scenes, there’s a different image: a dashboard, usually a map, that’s a metaphor for the central controller – a government agency? a retailer? – to examine the data. You leave a data trail, and someone else gathers and analyzes it. What we’re seeing, Kate offers, is the wholesale selling of data-based city management.

This form of pervasive data collection raises questions of the line between stalking and marketing. Turnstile, a corporation that has set up hundreds of sensors in Toronto – gathers the wifi signals of passing devices, mostly laptops and phones. If you have wifi enabled on your phone, you are traceable as a unique identifier, and if you sign onto Turnstile’s free wifi access points, the system will link your device to your realworld ID via social media, if possible. You don’t agree to this release of data – Turnstile simply collects it. They’re using it to provide behavioral data to customers – an Asian restaurant discovers that many of their customers like to go to the gym, so they create a workout t-shirt to market to their customers. This leads Kate to offer a slide of a man wearing a t-shirt that reads “My life is tracked 24/7 by marketers and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

Often this pervasive tracking is justified in terms of predictive policing, improving traffic flow, and generally improving life in cities. But she wonders what kind of ethical framework comes with these designs. What happens if we can be tracked offline as easily as we are online? How do we choose to opt out of this pervasive tracking? She notes that the shift towards pervasive tracking is happening out of sight of the less-privileged – some of the people affected by these shifts may be wholly unaware they are taking place.

Behind these systems is the belief that more data leads us to more control. She notes that Adam Greenfield, author of “Against the Smart City”, argues that the idea of the smart city is a manifestation of nervousness about the unpredictability of urbanity itself. The big data city is, ultimately, afraid of risk and afraid of cities.

When people react to these shifts by arguing for rights to privacy, Kate warns that we need to move beyond an analysis that’s so individualistic. The affects are systemic and societal, not just personal, and we need to consider implications for the broader systems. Not only do these systems violate reasonable expectations of privacy and control of personal data – “this would never get past an IRB – human data is taken without consent, with no sense of how long it will be held and no information on how to control your data” – it has a deeper, more corrosive effect on societies.

She quotes James Bridle, creator of the site-specific artwork “Under the Shadow of the Drone“, who notes one difficulty of combatting surveillance: “Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it and are powerless to change it”. Quoting De Certeau’s “Walking in the City, she sees the “transparency” of big data as “an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities…”

Faced with this implacable light, we can design technologies to minimize our exposure. We can use pervasive, strong cryptography; we can design geolocation blockers. We can opt out or, as Evgeny Morozov suggests, participate in “information boycotts”. But while this is fine for certain elites, Kate postulates, it’s not possible for everyone, all the time. In the smart city, you are still being tracked and observed unless you are taking extraordinary measures.

What does resistance look like to these systems when opt-in and opt-out blur? Citing Bruce Schneier, Kate suggests that we need to analyze these systems not in terms of individual technologies, but in terms of their synergistic effects. It’s not Facebook ad targeting or facial recognition or drones we need to worry about – it’s the behaviors that emerge when those technologies can work together.

What do we lose when we lose a space without surveillance. Hannah Arendt warned of the danger to the human condition from the illumination of private space, noting “there are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene.”

Kate offers desire lines, the unpredictable shortcuts that emerge in public spaces, as a challenge to the smart city. We need a reflective urban unplanning, an understanding of the organic ways in how cities should work, the anarchy of the everyday. This is a vision of cities that values improvisation versus rigidity, communities versus institutions. In the process, we need to imagine a different ethical model of the urban, a model that allows us to change our minds and opt for something different altogether. We need a model that allows us to reshape, to make shortcuts and desire lines. We need a city that lets us choose, or we will be forever followed by whoever is most powerful.

—-

Mark Latonero of USC Annenberg offers a possible counterweight and challenge to Kate’s concerns about big data. Latonero works at the intersection of data, tech and human rights, focusing on human trafficking. Human trafficking is common, and in severe cases, is a gross violation of human rights, sometimes involving indentured servitude or forced sex. It doesn’t have to involve transportation – he reminds us that human trafficking happens if someone is held against their will in Manhattan – and involves men, women, girls and boys.

His work has focused on human trafficking on girls and boys under 18 in the sex trade, a space where intervention is especially important as victims often experience severe psychological and physical trauma. (The children involved are also below the age of consent, which makes it easier in ethical terms – there are no considerations of whether a victim voluntarily chose to become a sex worker.)

Both victims and exploiters are using digital media, Mark tells us, if only mobile phones to stay in touch with family members. As a result, there are digital traces of trafficking behavior. Mark and colleagues are working to collect and analyze this data, including facial recognition as well as algorithmic pattern identification that could indicate situations of abuse. “It’s hard not to feel optimistic that this work could save a human life.”

But this work forces us to consider not only the promises of data and human rights, but the quagmires. This sort of work draws upon a kind of surveillance, and this kind of watching that’s intended for a social good that raises concerns about trust and control. “Gathering data in aggregate helps us monitor for human rights abuses, but intervention involves identifying and locating someone – a victim, or a perpetrator,” he explains. “Inevitably, there is a point where someone’s identity is revealed.” The question the human rights community has to constantly ask is “Is this worth it?”

Human rights work always involves data: data about humans, both about individual humans and aggregate data and statistics about groups of humans. At best, it’s a careful process relying on judgement calls made by human rights professionals. It’s worth asking whether it’s a process big data companies could help with. As we ask about the involvement of big data companies, we should ask about the balance between civil liberties risks and human rights benefits.

Despite those questions, the human rights community is moving head first into these spaces. Google Ideas, Palantir and Salesforce are assisting international human trafficking hotlines, analyzing massive data sets for patterns of behavior, hot spots where trafficking may be common. But all the questions we wrestle with when we consider big data – what are the biases in the data set? Whose privacy are we compromising and what are the consequences? – need to be considered in this space as well.

“Big data can provide answers, but not always the right ones,” Mark offers. One of the major issues for the collaboration between data scientists and human rights professionals is the need to work through issues of false positives and false negatives. Until we have a clearer sense of how we navigate these practical and ethical issues, it’s hard to know how to value initiatives like “data philanthropy”, where the private sector offers to share data for development or for protection of human rights.

There’s a growing community of data researchers who are able to bear witness to human rights violations. He shares Kate’s desire for an ethical framework, a way of balancing the risks and benefits. Is the appropriate model adopted from corporate social responsibility, which is primarily self-regulatory? Is it a more traditionally regulated model, based on pressure from NGOs, consumers and others? He references the “Necessary and Proportionate” document drafted by activists to demand limits to surveillance. If we could move towards an aspirational set of international principles on the use of big data to help human rights, we’d find ourselves in a proactive space, not playing catch up.


The session’s final speaker is Ramez Naam, a former Microsoft engineer who’s become a science fiction author. His talk, “Big Data 7000″ offers two predictions: big data will be big, and will cause big problems. The net effect is about the who, not the what, he offers. It’s about who has access to these technologies, who sets the policies for their use.

Ramez shows a snippet of DNA base pairs, a string of ATCGs on a screen. “This is someone’s genome, probably Craig Ventner’s, and as promised, once we sequenced the genome, we ended all health problems, cracked ageing and conquered disease.” It turns out that genes are absurdly complex – they turn each other on and off in complex and unpredictable ways. “We can barely grok the behavior of half a dozen genes as a network.” To really understand the linkages between genes and disease, we’d need to collect lots more genetic data. Fortunately, the cost of gene sequencing is dropping much faster than Moore’s law, and there’s now the long-promised $1000 gene sequencer. But to really understand genes and disease, we’d need to collect behavioral and trait data about people whose genomes were sequenced – what was the person like, what diseases did they suffer, did they have high blood pressure, what was their IQ?

Personal monitoring tools like Fitbit generate lots of individual value, and potentially lots of societal value, by helping us understand what behavioral and diet interventions are most helpful. Will you get fitter on the paleo diet? Or will red meat kill you? Our data about behavior and health is so sparse that we don’t know which is true, despite one third of health spending on weigh loss and fitness programs and tools.

Is Nest a $3 billion distraction for Google? Or the first step towards the Google-powered smart electrical grid. Enormous financial and environmental benefits could come from a smart grid – if we could manipulate electrical usage we might be able to take thousands of “peaker” plants, plants that run for only a few hours a day, offline.

Given the field, we can imagine situations where more data would be helpful. Education? Sure – if we had more rigorous understandings of what teaching techniques work and fail, what makes a good teacher and a poor one, could we potentially transform that critical field?

Ramez pivots to the problems. There will be accidental disclosures of data. He suggests we look at two stories with Target, one where they accidentally revealed a daughter’s pregnancy to a distraught father by sending her coupons for baby supplies, and the recent leak where Target lost 70 million credit card numbers (including mine.) It could have been worse, and it probably will, Ramez argues. It could have been data about where you go, your SMS messages, your email – they will inevitably be released.

Anonymization of data sets doesn’t really work, he reminds us. Chevron recently lost a massive lawsuit in Ecuador and has sued to identify the activists who sought charges against the company. It’s very scary to consider what might happen to those activists, Ramez tells us.

“The NSA is not the worst abuse of surveillance we’ve seen,” he points out. J. Edgar Hoover bugged Martin Luther King Jr’s hotel rooms with the approval of JFK and RFK, who were worried that MLK was a communist sympathizer. In the process, Hoover discovered that MLK was having an affair, and sent threatening letters to him promising to reveal the secret if MLK didn’t commit suicide. This is heinous abuse, on a scale that’s not been revealed in recent revelations. But if the current abuses are significantly more minor, the scale is massive, with millions of individuals potentially at risk of blackmail.

Still, what’s critical to consider is not the what, but the who. There are checks and balances between we the people, corporations, government. There are conflicts between all of these. We vote within a democracy, Ramez argues, and we can vote with our feet and with our dollars. Sometimes corporations and governments are in collusion – sometimes they’re in conflict. Sometimes government does the right thing, as with the Church Committee, which investigated intelligence activities and helped curb abuses. We may need to consider the legacy of the Committee closely as we examine the current situation with the NSA.

There’s some hope. Ramez reminds us that “leaking is asymmetric.” As a result, conspiracies are hard, because it’s hard to keep secrets. “If you’re doing something heinous, it’s going to get out,” he says, and that’s a check.

His talk is called Big Data 7000 and he closes by imagining big data 7 millennia ago, showing an image of a clay tablet covered with cuneiform. “When the Sumerians began writing in linear A – that was a dystopian period of big data.” Writing wasn’t empowering to the little people, Ramez tells us – the use of written language created top-heavy, oppressive civilizations. It’s the model Orwell had in mind when he wrote 1984. That image of the control of technology in one mighty hand, not distributed, is at the root of our technological fears.

But technology can be liberating – the rise of the printing press put technology into many hands, allowing for the spread of subversive ideas including civil rights . The future of the net, he hopes, is in from big data as something in the hands of the very few to data in the hands of the very many.


Hi, Ethan here again.

What I really appreciated about this panel was a move beyond rhetoric about big data that is purely at the extremes: Big data is the solution to all of life’s mysteries! Big data is an inevitable path to totalitarianism! What’s complicated about big data is that there’s both hype and hope, reasons to fear and reasons to celebrate.

The tensions Mark Latonero identifies between wanting surveillance to protect against human rights abuses, and wanting to protect human rights from surveillance are ones that every responsible big data scientist needs to be exploring. I was surprised to find, both at this event and in a recent series of conversations at Open Society Foundation, that these are tensions the human rights community is addressing head on, in part due to enthusiasm for the idea that better documentation of human rights abuses could lead to better interventions and prosecutions.

The smartest phrase I’ve heard about big data and ethics comes from my friend Sunil Abraham of the Bangalore Center of Internet and Society, who was involved with those conversations at OSF. He offers this formulation: “The more powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be subject to. The less powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be protected from.” In other words, it’s reasonable to both demand transparency from elected officials and financial institutions, while working to protect ordinary consumers or, especially, the vulnerable poor. Kate Crawford echoed this concern, tweeting a story by Virginia Eubanks that makes the case that surveillance is currently separate and unequal, more focused on welfare recipients and the working poor than on more privileged Americans.

There’s no shortcut to the hard conversation we need to have about big data and ethics, but the insights of these four scholars and those they cite is a great first step towards a richer, more nuanced and smarter conversation.


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 Neighbor.ly 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.

*Matrix

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?


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