Media Lab – … My heart’s in Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 Thu, 16 Nov 2017 19:33:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 Who Filters Your News? Why we built gobo.social http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/11/16/who-filters-your-news-why-we-built-gobo-social/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/11/16/who-filters-your-news-why-we-built-gobo-social/#respond Thu, 16 Nov 2017 18:35:46 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5471 Continue reading ]]> Roughly ten years ago, as phones became smartphones and Facebook and Twitter began their rise towards ubiquity, a fundamental social shift took place: the majority of people in the developed world became content creators. The bloggers of the early 2000s were joined by hundreds of millions of people posting videos to YouTube channels, pictures to Instagram, essays to Medium and countless status updates from 140 characters to Facebook wall posts. Before the internet, publishing had been a distinction, with a limited number of people lucky, talented or wealthy enough to share ideas or images with a wide audience. After the rise of social media, publishing became a default, with non-participation the exception.

There’s a problem with this rise in shared self-expression: we’ve all still got a constant and limited amount of attention available. For those creating content, this means the challenge now is not publishing your work, but finding an audience. The problem for those of us in the audience – i.e., all of us – is filtering through the information constantly coming at us.

Before the internet, we relied on newspapers and broadcasters to filter much of our information, choosing curators based on their styles, reputations and biases – did you want a Wall Street Journal or New York Times view of the world? Fox News or NPR? The rise of powerful search engines made it possible to filter information based on our own interests – if you’re interested in sumo wrestling, you can learn whatever Google will show you, even if professional curators don’t see the sport as a priority.

Social media has presented a new problem for filters. The theory behind social media is that we want to pay attention to what our friends and family think is important. In practice, paying attention to everything 500 or 1500 friends are interested in is overwhelming – Robin Dunbar theorizes that people have a hard limit to how many relationships we can cognitively maintain. Twitter solves this problem with a social hack: it’s okay to miss posts on your feed because so many are flowing by… though Twitter now tries to catch you up on important posts if you had the temerity to step away from the service for a few hours.

Facebook and other social media platforms solve the problem a different way: the algorithm. Facebook’s news feed usually differs sharply from a list of the most recent items posted by your friends and pages you follow – instead, it’s been personalized using thousands of factors, meaning you’ll see posts Facebook thinks you’ll want to see from hours or days ago, while you’ll miss some recent posts the algorithm thinks won’t interest you. Research from the labs of Christian Sandvig and Karrie Karahalios suggests that even heavy Facebook users aren’t aware that algorithms shape their use of the service, and that many have experienced anxiety about not receiving responses to posts the algorithm suppressed.

Many of the anxieties about Facebook and other social platforms are really anxieties about filtering. The filter bubble, posited by Eli Pariser, is the idea that our natural tendencies towards homophily get amplified by filters designed to give us what we want, not ideas that challenge us, leading to ideological isolation and polarization. Fake news designed to mislead audiences and garner ad views relies on the fact that Facebook’s algorithms have a difficult time determining whether information is true or not, but can easily see whether information is new and popular, sharing information that’s received strong reactions from previous audiences. When Congress demands action on fake news and Kremlin propaganda, they’re requesting another form of filtering, based on who’s creating content and on whether it’s factually accurate.

Twitter’s problems with trolls, bots, extremists and harassment are filtering problems as well. Prominent users like Lindy West have left the system complaining that Twitter is unwilling to remove serial abusers from the platform, or to give people abused on the service stronger tools to filter out and report abuse. As questions arise about Russian influence on the platform, Twitter may need to aggressively identify and filter out automated accounts which are used to promote pro-Trump or pro-Kremlin hashtags – the Hamilton68 Project focuses on tracking these accounts and understanding their influence as Twitter since the service has not yet filtered them out, either banning them or allowing audiences to block them from their feed.

Why don’t social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter give users powerful tools to filter their own feeds? Right now, the algorithms control what we see, but we can’t control them. As the internet maxim goes, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. Both Twitter and Facebook offer powerful filtering tools that allow advertisers to target exactly who they want their ads to reach. You can pay money and advertise to women of color between 40-60 in Seattle, but you can’t choose to read perspectives from those women. While we’ve seen great innovation from projects like BlockTogether, which lets users who experience harassment share Twitter blocklists, we’ve seen surprisingly little innovation on user-controllable filters from the platforms themselves. And unless we see something like public-service social media platforms, it’s unlikely that we will see platforms give users much more control over what they see.

Algorithmic filters optimize platforms for user retention and engagement, keeping our eyes firmly on the site so that our attention can be sold to advertisers. We thought it was time that we all had a tool that let us filter social media the ways we choose. What if we could choose to challenge ourselves one day, encountering perspectives from outside our normal orbits, and relax another day, filtering for what’s funniest and most viral. So we built Gobo.

What’s Gobo?

Gobo is a social media aggregator with filters you control. You can use Gobo to control what’s edited out of your feed, or configure it to include news and points of view from outside your usual orbit. Gobo aims to be completely transparent, showing you why each post was included in your feed and inviting you to explore what was filtered out by your current filter settings.

To use Gobo, you link your Twitter and Facebook accounts to Gobo and choose a set of news publications that most closely resembles the news you follow online. Gobo retrieves recent posts from these social networks and lets you decide which ones you want to see. Want more posts from women? Adjust a slider to set the gender balance of your feed… or just click on the “mute all men” button and listen to the folks who often get shouted down in online dialogs. Want to broaden the perspectives in your feed? Move the politics slider from “my perspective” to “lots of perspectives” and Gobo introduces news stories from sources you might not otherwise find.

How does it work?

Gobo retrieves posts from people you follow on Twitter and Facebook and analyzes them using simple machine learning-based filters. You can set those filters – seriousness, rudeness, virality, gender and brands – to eliminate some posts from your feed. The “politics” slider works differently, “filtering in”, instead of “filtering out” – if you set the slider towards “lots of perspectives”, our “news echo” algorithm will start adding in posts from media outlets that you likely don’t read every day.

That sounds great! Why isn’t everyone using it?

There are some serious limitations to Gobo at present. It’s slow – we’re generally showing you posts that appeared on Twitter three hours ago. As we refine and scale the tool, we’ll get faster, but right now, Gobo’s a good way to see how algorithms shape your newsfeed, but not a great way to keep up with breaking news.

You’ll also notice that there’s probably a lot less content from Facebook than from Twitter. Facebook allows us to show you posts from public pages, but not from your friends’ individual pages. We’re exploring ways you might be able to feed your whole, unedited Facebook news feed through Gobo, but we’re not there yet.

You may also notice that filters don’t always work the way you’d expect. We’re using off-the-shelf open source machine learning filters – we may end up fine-tuning these over time, but we don’t have the advantage of billions of user sessions to learn from the way Facebook does. It’s also a good reminder that these filters are always probabilistic and inexact – you get to see where our system screws up, unlike with Facebook!

Who built it?

Gobo is a project of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. The idea for the project came from conversations between Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman around decentralized web publishing, leading to the report “Back to the Future: The Decentralized Web”. Rahul Bhargava, Jasmin Rubinovitz and Alexis Hope built the tool itself, with Jasmin focusing on the AI filters, Alexis on the product design and Rahul on integration and deployment.

Our work on Gobo and on decentralized publishing, was made possible by the Knight Foundation, the founding donors behind our Center and supporters of some of our wackiest and most speculative work. We thank them for their trust and support.

Where’s Gobo going in the future?

We want Gobo to be more inclusive, incorporating content from new, decentralized social networks like Mastodon and Steemit, as well as existing networks like Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. We really want to find a way to let users filter their Facebook feeds, as bringing transparency to that process was an inspiration for the process. We’d like to integrate RSS feed reading, possibly turning Gobo into a replacement for the late great Google Reader. And we’d like it to be lots faster. In the long run, we’d love to see Gobo run entirely in the browser so we don’t have central control over what content you’re seeing – an intermediate step may include allowing people to run local Gobo servers ala Mastodon or Diaspora.

That said, the real goal behind Gobo is to open a conversation about who gets to filter what you see on the web. If we prompt a conversation about why platforms don’t give you more control over what you see, we’d be really happy. If Facebook or another platform incorporated ideas from Gobo in their own design, we’d throw a party. We’d even invite you.

Can I help make Gobo better?

Heck yeah. There are bound to be lots of bugs in this prototype. Beyond that, Gobo is an open source project and we’ll be sharing source code on the MIT Media Lab github repository. We’ve designed the prototype to treat ML filters as modules that can be dropped into our processing queue — we’d love ideas of other text or image analysis modules we can introduce as filters for Gobo.

Why the name?

Ever seen a stage production where the lights look like they’re coming through a window, or the leaves of a forest? Those effects are created with gobos, filters cut from sheets of metal and placed in front of a light to shine a particular pattern on a curtain or other surface. We’re theater geeks, and it seemed like the perfect name for a product that lets you experiment with the effects of filters.

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Mastodon is big in Japan. The reason why is… uncomfortable http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/08/18/mastodon-is-big-in-japan-the-reason-why-is-uncomfortable/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/08/18/mastodon-is-big-in-japan-the-reason-why-is-uncomfortable/#comments Fri, 18 Aug 2017 19:58:46 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5445 Continue reading ]]> Remember Mastodon? In April 2017, there was a wave of excitement about Mastodon, a federated social network begun in October 2016 by Eugen Rochko, a 24-year old German software engineer, as an alternative to Twitter. Recent news about CloudFlare’s decision to stop providing services to the Daily Stormer has me thinking about decentralized publishing, one possible response to intermediary censorship. As it turns out, it’s an interesting time to catch up on Mastodon, which has grown in a fascinating, and somewhat troubling, way. (Mastodon is one of the topics of the report Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and I released today, “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web”.)

The enthusiasm earlier this year about Mastodon centered on the idea that the new distributed service could be like Twitter without as much harassment and hate speech. And indeed, using Mastodon is a lot like using Twitter – specifically, using Twitter through the excellent Tweetdeck client, which Rochko admits was his design inspiration – the structure of the service is sharply different from a centralized service like Twitter.

When you access Twitter (or Facebook, for that matter), you’re connecting to one in a cluster of servers owned by a single company, and managed if they were a single, huge server. There’s a single set of rules for acceptable behavior within the community, and a single directory of users – I’m @ethanz on Twitter whether you’re accessing the server from the US, Japan or South Africa.

Mastodon is different. It’s an open source software package that allows anyone with an internet-connected computer to set up an “instance”. The server administrator is responsible for setting and enforcing rules on her instance, and those rules can vary – sharply – from instance to instance. Each server has its own namespace. I’m @ethanz on octodon.social, but if you want to be @ethanz on mastodon.social, no one’s going to stop you. In this sense, Mastodon is less like Facebook and more like email – you can have your own address – and your own acceptable use policies – on one server and still send mail to a user on another server.

To have that ability to share messages with users of other servers, Mastodon has to support “federation”. Federation means that I can follow users on other Mastodon instances – you can have an account on mastodon.xyz and read my posts on octodon.social. It’s a bit more complicated than using a service like Twitter or Facebook, but it has the great advantage that communities of interest can have their own community rules. Don’t want adult content on your server? Fine – don’t allow it. Want to shield your child from adult content? Don’t federate your server with servers that allow NSFW content.

When the geek press began writing about Mastodon in April, the main story was about the community’s explosive growth. Tens of thousands of users joined in April, and some began to speculate that the network could serve as a challenger to Twitter.

It’s hard to say how fast Mastodon is growing, because it’s hard to say how big Mastodon is. The Mastodon Network Monitoring Project does its best to keep up, but servers come online and go down all the time. If you’re running a Mastodon server and don’t register or federate it (perfectly reasonable if you want a community just for people you invite) it won’t register on the project’s dashboard. So we might think of the 1.5 million registered users on ~2400 servers as the network’s minimum size.

Map of Mastodon instances from Mastodon Network Monitoring Project, August 17, 2017

Map those instances, and one thing becomes clear pretty fast: Mastodon is mostly a Japanese phenomenon. The two largest Mastodon instances – pawoo.net and mstdn.jp – have over 100,000 users each, significantly more than mastodon.social, the “mothership” site that Rochko himself administers. Three of the top five Mastodon instances are based in Japan, and the Mastodon monitoring project estimates that 61% of the network’s users are Japanese.

In one sense, this isn’t a surprise. Twitter is massive in Japan, where it has more users than Facebook, and is projected to be used by half of all social network users and a quarter of all internet users this year. But that’s not the whole explanation. Instead, we’ve got to talk about lolicon.

(I’m about to talk about cultural differences and child pornography. This is not a defense of child pornography, but it’s going to discuss the fact that different cultures may have different standards about what imagery is and is not acceptable. If that’s not okay with you, back away now.)

In the US, we have a strong taboo about sexualized imagery of children. People who are interested in sexualized imagery of children – whether it’s explicit photography or idealized drawings – are considered pedophiles, and the material they seek out is termed child pornography. (Let’s ignore for the moment the hypersexualization of tween girls in American popular culture – no one said cultural taboos have to be consistent.)

In Japan, there’s a distinction between 児童ポルノ – child pornography – and ロリコン – “lolicon”, short for “Lolita complex”. Child pornography is illegal in Japan and seeking it out would be deeply socially unacceptable. Lolicon, which includes animated cartoons and 2D drawings of young men and women in a way that is undeniably sexualized, sometimes through explicit depictions of sexual acts, is legal, widespread and significantly accepted. As Matthew Scala writes, “If you like ロリコン then you’re a nerd, but that’s not a big deal. It is legal and popular and sold in bookstores everywhere. I cannot emphasize enough that ロリコン is not only legal but really acceptable in Japan. It’s merely nerdy. On the other hand, if you like 児童ポルノ then you’re an evil sicko monster, and 児童ポルノ is highly illegal.” Or, as a Japanese friend of mine put it, “I think the sort of pedophilia tendency is considered nearly normal and tolerated but they are quite strict about the law around it now – not as strict as the US but realize that some things are illegal. But dreaming about these things isn’t illegal.”

(One more time – I’m not defending lolicon here, just explaining that lolicon is a thing, that it’s popular in Japan, and that this has implications for understanding Mastodon’s growth.)

Twitter’s rules about the acceptability of graphic content are vague – intentionally so. (I wrote the terms of service for Tripod.com, one of the first user generated content sites. When you administer a UGC site, vagueness is your friend.) Twitter’s rules state, “Twitter may allow some forms of graphic content in Tweets marked as sensitive media.” Those guidelines give Twitter’s administrators a great deal of freedom in removing lolicon and banning those who post it. You can still find lolicon on Twitter, but the service has evidently been quite aggressive in removing this sort of imagery. Lolicon fans became refugees. Scala, who wrote a helpful article on the migration of lolicon fans to Mastodon, argues that Japanese users had been looking for a Twitter-like platform where they could share lolicon writing and imagery for some time. They’d used earlier, less-user friendly decentralized social networks, and when Mastodon came around, they flocked to it.

And then Pixiv entered the picture. Pixiv is an enormously popular image archive site in Japan, aimed at artists who create their own drawings – it might be analogous to DeviantArt in the US, but focused on drawings, not photography. Lolicon is wildly popular on Pixiv, as you can tell from one of the signup pages.

One of several English language signup screens for Pixiv

In April 2017, Pixiv began hosting a Mastodon instance – Pawoo.net – that quickly became the most popular Mastodon server in the world. If you have a Pixiv account, it’s a single click to establish a Pawoo.net account. And if you monitor the feed on pawoo.net, you’ll see that a great deal of content features lolicon, much of it behind content warning tags. In response to the growth of pawoo.net, a number of large, predominantly North American/European Mastodon servers stopped federating posts from the Japanese site, as they were uncomfortable with lolicon appearing as part of their feed. Scala reports that Rochko modified the database on mastodon.social to make it possible to “silence” pawoo.net, so that posts only appear if you explicitly choose to subscribe to users of that server.

Needless to say, not every Mastodon administrator is excited that the protocol is being used to harbor lolicon. The terms of service for mastodon.cloud – the fifth largest Mastodon instance, and the largest based in the US – now explicitly prohibit “lolicon, immoral and indecent child pics”.

Community guidelines for mastodon.cloud, August 17, 2017

I started down the path to lolicon because I wanted to answer a simple question: was Mastodon growing as fast as it was back in April, and if so, why wasn’t I seeing more friends on the service? The answer seems to be that Mastodon continues to grow, but a major engine of its growth is Japanese erotica. And while I can see the headlines now – “Japanese Child Porn Powers Decentralized Publishing” – let’s be clear: this is exactly what decentralized publishing is good for.

The appeal of decentralized publishing is that it makes it possible to create online communities that operate under all sorts of different rulesets. If Twitter doesn’t find lolicon acceptable, lolicon fans can create their own online community with their own rules.

This is a hot topic at the moment. In the wake of neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, many internet intermediaries – companies and entities that provide services necessary to find, publish and protect online content – have chosen to stop providing services to white nationalist organizations. Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a company that provides scaling services for websites, wrote an especially blunt and honest post about his decision to remove the Daily Stormer from his servers, while simultaneously explaining that he personally had far too much power to control what content could be booted from the internet. “I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.”

Human rights activists have been worried about intermediary censorship for a long time – I wrote a chapter on the topic for the 2010 book Access Controlled. Decentralized publishing solves some of the problems of intermediary censorship, but not all. As white supremacists are booted from platforms like Twitter and Reddit, they may well seek out decentralized platforms where they set their own rules. (Many have migrated to a platform called Gab, which is not decentralized, but has a set of community guidelines that welcome racist, nationalist speech.) Intermediaries like Domain Name Registrars and Content Delivery Networks may still refuse them service, but neo-Nazis on their own Mastodon server won’t be worried that they’ll be kicked off Twitter, like the Lolicon fans were.

The point of decentralized publishing is not censorship resistance – decentralization provides a little resilience to intermediary censorship, but not a lot. Instead, decentralization is important because it allows a community to run under its own rules. One of the challenges for Mastodon is to demonstrate that there are reasons beyond lolicon to run a community under your own rules. This is analogous to a problem Tor faces. People undeniably use Tor to do terrible things online, publishing and accessing hateful content. But Tor is an essential tool for journalists, whistleblowers and activists. It’s a constant struggle for Tor to recruit “everyday” users of Tor, who use the service to evade commercial surveillance. Those users provide valuable “cover traffic”, making it harder to identify whistleblowers who use the service, and political air cover for those who would seek to ban the tool so they can combat child pornography and other illegal content.

Fortunately, there are communities that would greatly benefit from Mastodon: people who’ve grown sick of sexism and harassment on Twitter, but still want the brief, lightweight interaction the site is so good at providing. One of the mysteries of Mastodon is that while many instances were started precisely to provide these alternative spaces, they’ve not grown nearly as fast as those providing space for a subculture banned from Twitter. The Mastodon story so far suggests that sticks may be more powerful than carrots.

While I suspect some advocates for distributed publishing will be disappointed that Mastodon’s growth is so closely tied to controversial content, it’s worth remembering that controversial content has long been a driver of innovations in communications technology – pornography arguably was an engine that drove the adoption of cable television, the VCR and, perhaps, broadband internet. Beyond porn, the internet has always provided spaces for content that wasn’t widely acceptable. When it was difficult to find information and LGBTQ lifestyles in rural communities, the internet became a lifeline for queer teens. Distributed social networks are a likely space for conversations about ideas and topics too sensitive to be accepted on centralized social networks, and it’s likely that some of the topics explored will be ones that become more socially acceptable over time.

Our team at the MIT Media Lab – Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and myself – are releasing a new report today on distributed publishing, titled “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web” We end up speculating that the main barriers to adoption of decentralized platforms aren’t technical, but around usability. Most distributed publishing tools are simply too complex for most users to adopt. Mastodon may have overcome that problem, borrowing design ideas from a successful commercial product. But the example of lolicon may challenge our theories in two directions. One, if you’re unable to share content on the sites you’re used to using – Twitter, in this case – you may be more willing to adopt a new tool, even if its interface is initially unfamiliar. Second, an additional barrier to adoption for decentralized publishing may be that its first large userbase is a population that cannot use centralized social networks. Any stigma associated with this community may make it harder for users with other interests to adopt these new tools.

Mastodon is big in Japan… at least, in one subculture. Whether that bodes well or ill for widespread adoption of the platform more globally is something we’ll be watching closely as we work to understand the future of distributed publishing.

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The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck? http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/06/22/the-worst-thing-i-read-this-year-and-what-it-taught-me-or-can-we-design-sociotechnical-systems-that-dont-suck/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/06/22/the-worst-thing-i-read-this-year-and-what-it-taught-me-or-can-we-design-sociotechnical-systems-that-dont-suck/#comments Wed, 22 Jun 2016 14:33:24 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5284 Continue reading ]]> Note: Shane Snow wrote a long and thoughtful email to me about this post. While we agree to disagree on some substantive issues, primarily our thoughts about the future of VR, we also found quite a bit of common ground. He noted that my essay, while mostly about the ideas, strays into the realm of ad hominem attacks, which wasn’t my intention. I’ve removed one comment which he accurately identified as unfair.

I am deeply grateful to Shane for taking the time to engage with my piece and to make changes to his original essay.

I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform – “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System” – through hatelinking. Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally articulate people were at a loss for words.

With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay, the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.

Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: how do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse? In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?

Obviously, I think this is possible – if really, really hard – or I wouldn’t be teaching at an engineering school. But before considering how we overcome a naïve faith in technology, let’s examine Snow’s suggestion a textbook example of a solution that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand and dangerously wrong.

When smart people get important things really wrong

Though he may be best know as co-founder of content marketing platform “Contently”, Shane Snow describes himself as “journalist, geek and best-selling author”. That last bit comes from his book “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success”, which offers insights on how “innovators and icons” can “rethink convention” and break “rules that are not rules”. That background may help readers understand where Snow is coming from. His blog is filled with plainspoken and often entertaining explanations of complex systems followed by apparently straightforward conclusions – evidently, burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity is a poor idea, so oil companies should be investing in solar energy. Fair enough.

Some of these explorations are more successful than others. In Snow’s essay about prison reform, he identifies violence, and particularly prison rape, as the key problem to be solved, and offers a remedy that he believes will lead to cost savings for taxpayers as well: all prisoners should be incarcerated in solitary confinement, fed only Soylent meal replacement drink through slots in the wall, and all interpersonal interaction and rehabilitative services will be provided in Second Life using the Oculus Rift VR system. Snow’s system eliminates many features of prison life – “cell blocks, prison yards, prison gyms, physical interactions with other prisoners, and so on.” That’s by design, he explains. “Those are all current conventions in prisons, but history is clear: innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.”

An early clue that Snow’s rethinking is problematic is that his proposed solution looks a lot like “administrative segregation“, a technique used in prisons to separate prisoners who might be violent or disruptive from the general population by keeping them in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The main problem with administrative segregation or with the SHU (the “secure housing unit” used in supermax prisons) is that inmates tend to experience serious mental health problems connected to sustained isolation. “Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression,” explains social psychologist Dr. Craig Haney. Shaka Senghor, a writer and activist who was formerly incarcerated for murder, explains that many inmates in solitary confinement have underlying mental health issues, and the isolation damages even the sound of mind. Solitary confinement, he says, is “one of the most barbaric and inumane aspects of our society.”

Due to the psychological effects of being held in isolation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned the use of sustained solitary confinement and called for a ban on solitary confinement for people under 18 years old. Rafael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility has called for architects to stop designing prisons that support solitary confinement as they enable violations of human rights. Snow’s solution may be innovative, but it’s also a large-scale human rights violation.

Snow and supporters might argue that he’s not trying to deprive prisoners of human contact, but give them a new, safer form of contact. But there’s virtually no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to head-mounted virtual reality. Would prisoners be forced to choose between simulator sickness or isolation? What are the long-term effects on vision of immersive VR displays? Will prisoners experience visual exhaustion through vergence-accommodation, a yet-to-be-solved problem of eye and brain strain due to problems focusing on objects that are very nearby but appear to be distant? Furthermore, will contact with humans through virtual worlds mitigate the mental problems prisoners face in isolation or exacerbate them? How do we answer any of these questions ethically, given the restrictions we’ve put on experimenting on prisoners in the wake of Nazi abuse of concentration camp prisoners.

How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?

Make sure you’re solving the right problem.
The day I read Snow’s essay, I happened to be leading a workshop on social change during the Yale Civic Leadership conference. Some of the students I worked with were part of the movement to rename Yale’s Calhoun College, and all were smart, thoughtful, creative and openminded.

The workshop I led encourages thinkers to consider different ways they might make social change, not just through electing good leaders and passing just laws. Our lab examines the idea that changemakers can use different levers of change, including social norms, market forces, and new technologies to influence society, and the workshop I led asks students to propose novel solutions to long-standing problems featuring one of these levers of change. With Snow’s essay in mind, I asked the students to take on the challenge of prison reform.

Oddly, none of their solutions involved virtual reality isolation cells. In fact, most of the solutions they proposed had nothing to do with prisons themselves. Instead, their solutions focused on over-policing of black neighborhoods, America’s aggressive prosecutorial culture that encourages those arrested to plead guilty, legalization of some or all drugs, reform of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, reforming parole and probation to reduce reincarceration for technical offenses, and building robust re-entry programs to help ex-cons find support, housing and gainful employment.

In other words, when Snow focuses on making prison safer and cheaper, he’s working on the wrong problem. Yes, prisons in the US could be safer and cheaper. But the larger problem is that the US incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth – with 5% of the world’s population, we are responsible for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Snow may see his ideas as radical and transformative, but they’re fundamentally conservative – he tinkers with the conditions of confinement without questioning whether incarceration is how our society should solve problems of crime and addiction. As a result, his solutions can only address a facet of the problem, not the deep structural issues that lead to the problem in the first place.

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change. Cheaper, safer prisons make it easier to incarcerate more Americans and avoid addressing fundamental problems of addiction, joblessness, mental illness and structural racism.

Understand that technology is a tool, and not the only tool.

Some of my hate-linking friends began their eye-rolling about Snow’s article with the title, which references two of Silicon Valley’s most hyped technologies. With the current focus on the US as an “innovation economy”, it’s common to read essays predicting the end of a major social problem due to a technical innovation. Bitcoin will end poverty in the developing world by enabling inexpensive money transfers. Wikipedia and One Laptop Per Child will educate the world’s poor without need for teachers or schools. Self driving cars will obviate public transport and reshape American cities.

Evgeny Morozov has offered a sharp and helpful critique to this mode of thinking, which he calls “solutionism”. Solutionism demands that we focus on problems that have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” In his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Morozov savages ideas like Snow’s, whether they are meant as thought experiments or serious policy proposals. (Indeed, one worry I have in writing this essay is taking Snow’s ideas too seriously, as Morozov does with many of the ideas he lambastes in his book.)

The problem with the solutionist critique is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. In fact, technological development is often a key component in solving complex social and political problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.

But it’s rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself. Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale. I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low. But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce, which I can sell to utilities through an online marketplace, because they are legally mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation. And while there are powerful technological, market and legal forces pushing us towards solar energy, the most powerful may be the social, normative pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels, leaving us feeling ike we weren’t doing our part.

My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming US prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-offenders to find support, advice and job opportunities in the outside world. Another looked at the success of Bard College’s remarkable program to help inmates earn BA degrees and wondered whether online learning technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological component – given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can’t ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? Given the rise of big data techniques used for “smart policing”, can we review patterns of policing, identifying and eliminating cases where officers are overfocusing on some communities?

The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social problems, but usually fails to deliver. The problem with Morozov’s critique is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers.

Don’t assume your preferences are universal
Shane Snow introduces his essay on prison reform not with statistics about the ineffectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, but with his fear of being sent to prison. Specifically, he fears prison rape, a serious problem which he radically overestimates: “My fear of prison also stems from the fact that some 21 percent of U.S. prison inmates get raped or coerced into giving sexual favors to terrifying dudes named Igor.” Snow is religious about footnoting his essays, but not as good at reading the sources he cites – the report he uses to justify his fear of “Igor” (parenthetical comment removed – EZ, 6/29/16) indicates that 2.91 of 1000 incarcerated persons experienced sexual violence, or 0.291%, not 21%. Shane has amended his post, and references another study that indicates a higher level of coerced sexual contact in prison.

Perhaps isolation for years at a time, living vicariously through a VR headset while sipping an oat flour smoothie would be preferable to time in the prison yard, mess hall, workshop or classroom for Snow. But there’s no indication that Snow has talked to any current or ex-offenders about their time in prison, and about the ways in which encounters with other prisoners led them to faith, to mentorship or to personal transformation. The people Shane imagines are so scary, so other, that he can’t imagine interacting with them, learning from them, or anything but being violently assaulted by them. No wonder he doesn’t bother to ask what aspects of prison life are most and least livable, which would benefit most from transformation.

Much of my work focuses on how technologies spread across national, religious and cultural borders, and how they are transformed by that spread. Cellphone networks believed that pre-paid scratch cards were an efficient way to sell phone minutes at low cost – until Ugandans started using the scratch off codes to send money via text message in a system called Sente, inventing practical mobile money in the process. Facebook believes its service is best used by real individuals using their real names, and goes to great lengths to remove accounts it believes to be fictional. But when Facebook comes to a country like Myanmar, where it is seen as a news service, not a social networking service, phone shops specializing in setting up accounts using fake names and phone numbers render Facebook’s preferences null and void.

Smart technologists and designers have learned that their preferences are seldom their users’ preferences, and companies like Intel now employ brilliant ethnographers to discover how tools are used by actual users in their homes and offices. Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants and needs. Given that Snow’s understanding of prison life seems to come solely from binge-watching Oz, it’s virtually guaranteed that his proposed solution will fail in unanticipated ways when used by real people.

Am I the right person to solve this problem?
Of the many wise things my Yale students said during our workshop was a student who wondered if he should be participating at all. “I don’t know anything about prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.”

Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem?”

On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarden students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design their own assistive technologies.

But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working closely, iteratively and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it. My colleague Hugh Herr designs cutting-edge prostheses for US veterans who’ve lost legs, and the centerpiece of his lab is a treadmill where amputees test his limbs, giving him and his students feedback about what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change. Without the active collaboration of the people he’s trying to help, he’s unable to make technological advances.

Disability rights activists have demanded “nothing about us without us”, a slogan that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of those intended to benefit from those policies. Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design problem. Codesign is hard and frustrating, but it’s also one of the best ways to ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred solution on a situation.

On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might understand as “Make things better by making better things”. This school of thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for users in developing nations, they’ve become one of the transformative technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too. Many of the technologies we benefit from weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow’s proposal is built in part on this perspective – Soylent was designed for geeks who wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.

I’m not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of “with us” versus “better things”. I’d note that every engineer I’ve ever met believes what she’s building is a better thing. As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other words, they don’t work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are unlikely to be given a choice between Snow’s isolation cells and the prison as it currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.

Am I advocating codesign of prisons with the currently incarcerated? Hell yeah, I am. And with ex-offenders, corrections officers, families of prisoners as well as the experts who design these facilities today. They’re likely to do a better job than smart Yale students, or technology commentators.

The possible utility of beating a dead horse

It is unlikely that anyone is going to invite Shane Snow to redesign a major prison any time soon, so spending more than three thousand words urging you to reject his solution may be a waste of your time and mine. But the mistakes Shane makes are those that engineers make all the time when they turn their energy and creativity to solving pressing and persistent social problems. Looking closely at how Snow’s solutions fall short offers some hope for building better, fairer and saner solutions.

The challenge, unfortunately, is not in offering a critique of how solutions go wrong. Excellent versions of that critique exist, from Morozov’s war on solutionism, to Courtney Martin’s brilliant “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”. If it’s easy to design inappropriate solutions about problems you don’t fully understand, it’s not much harder to criticize the inadequacy of those solutions.

What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.

Three students at the MIT Media Lab taught a course last semester called “Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make”. They point out that the Media Lab prides itself on teaching students how to make anything, and how to turn what you make into a business, but rarely teaches reflection about what we make and what it might mean for society as a whole. My experience with teaching this reflective process to engineers is that it’s both important and potentially paralyzing, that once we understand the incompleteness of technology as a path for solving problems and the ways technological solutions relate to social, market and legal forces, it can be hard to build anything at all.

I’m going to teach a new course this fall, tentatively titled “Technology and Social Change”. It’s going to include an examination of the four levers of social change Larry Lessig suggests in Code and which I’ve been exploring as possible paths to civic engagement. It will include deep methodological dives into codesign, and into using anthropology as tool for understanding user needs. It will look at unintended consequences, cases where technology’s best intentions fail, and cases where careful exploration and preparation led to technosocial systems that make users and communities more powerful than they were before.

I’m “calling my shot” here for two reasons. One, by announcing it publicly, I’m less likely to back out of it, and given how hard these problems are, backing out is a real possibility. And two, if you’ve read this far in this post, you’ve likely thought about this issue and have suggestions for what we should read and what exercises we should try in the course of the class – I hope you might be kind enough to share those with me.

In the end, I’m grateful for Shane Snow’s surreal, Black Mirror vision of the future prison both because it’s a helpful jumping off point for understanding how hard it is to make change well using technology, and because the US prison system is a broken and dysfunctional system in need of change. But we need to find ways to disrupt better, to challenge knowledgeably, to bring the people they hope to benefit into the process. If you can, please help me figure out how we teach these ideas to the smart, creative people I work with who want to change the world and are afraid of breaking it in the process.

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http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/06/22/the-worst-thing-i-read-this-year-and-what-it-taught-me-or-can-we-design-sociotechnical-systems-that-dont-suck/feed/ 37
Jonathan Zittrain at Freedom to Innovate http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/10/13/jonathan-zittrain-and-star-simpson-at-freedom-to-innovate/ Wed, 14 Oct 2015 02:23:50 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5146 Continue reading ]]> This past weekend, with support from the Ford Foundation, EFF and the MIT Media Lab, Center for Civic Media held a two day conference on the Freedom to Innovate. The first day featured experts on cyberlaw, activists and students who’d experienced legal challenges to their freedom to innovate. Sunday’s sessions included a brainstorm led by Cory Doctorow on imagining a world without DRM, and an EFF-led workshop on student activism around technology issues.

I was MC for the meeting on Saturday, and have only partial notes. I hope to post some impressions from these other sessions once I have more time to digest, but I’ll begin by posting my notes from opening talks by Jonathan Zittrain and Star Simpson.


I asked Jonathan Zittrain to give an opening keynote on the Freedom to Innovate because he’s one of the world’s leading thinkers about technical, legal and normative barriers to innovation. His book, “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It”, introduces the idea of generativity, the capacity of a system to enable users to invent and create new technologies.

JZ’s talk was titled “Freedom to Innovate, Beyond the Trenches”, and began with the technologies of, and before, his childhood: computers built from kits, PCs that you could take apart and reassemble, and operating systems that – whether or not they were free software – were rewritable and modifiable. (Waxing lyrical about MS-DOS, JZ notes that the blinking cursor was “an invitation to create: you could rewrite MS-DOS in MS-DOS.”) The PC and MS-DOS were “generative”, in JZ’s language – they don’t have a fixed set of uses, but are expandable and extendable to solve new problems. (To illustrate the expandability of PC hardware, JZ shows off the PC EZ bake oven… which might also function as a helpful heatsink.)


Jonathan Zittrain, and a PC EZ Bake oven

There are three freedoms that characterize this moment in tech history, Zittrain tells us. People are free to create new technologies. They’re free to adapt existing technologies to new purposes, to “tinker around the edges”. And they’re free to join and contribute to communities of like-minded actors. He explains that the next step after building your Heathkit H8 PC was to join a group of hobbyists who’d figured out how to program the machines – learning from others through apprenticeship was core to this moment in tech history.

When Stephen King published “Riding the Bullet” in 2000 – “a story so bad he couldn’t bring himself to publish it in print” – JZ argues that he ushered in a new era of technological creativity. The story was the first widely available commercial e-book, using digital rights management technology, and despite its low price ($2.50, and distributed free by Amazon and Barnes and Noble), folks at MIT hacked to copy protection to see if they could. “I see those MIT hackers as the leading drop on the crest of the wave of content, from people tinkering in the ham radio world to tinkering in the world of commerce.”

As more media went digital, this tinkering went mainstream. Audio Grabber was a piece of PC software that let users “rip” audio from CDs using a CD-ROM player, and make copies. For the audio industry, this was a step too far, a way in which tinkering escaped the hacker community and entered into mainstream parlance.

The music industry’s responses to copying CDs added a new freedom to the freedoms to create, to tinker and to connect with a community: the freedom to liberate. If content was tied up in a bad DRM system, you should be free to find a way to liberate it from those constraints.

Prior to CD ripping, the music industry looked for ways to deal with the “digital threat”. The Audio Home Recording Act – created to govern DAT tapes – sought to ensure that even if copies of digital materials could be made, that copies could not be made of copies. And when copies were made, fees would be charged to users through a fee on blank media and put into a fund that would help artists who might be harmed by this new technology. As JZ explained the intricacies of the AHRA, he noted, “If you’re already getting sleepy, that’s the point.” These agreements weren’t trying to protect user rights, or involve users in any way – they were negotiated between big parties with opposing interests – content creators and technology manufacturers – and were about dividing the spoils. When existing actors encountered the PC, they looked for ways to “make the PC safe for the CD”, to turn the PC into something as simple as an appliance, like a CD player. Audiograbber turned this equation on its head and demonstrated that users would look for ways to liberate their content and use them in other contexts.

As the audio industry sought to cope with audio ripping and the rise of devices like the Rio MP3 player, they began to engage in behavior that resembled hacking. People who purchased certain Sony CDs – The Invisible Invasion, Suspicious Activity?, Healthy in Paranoid Times – found that these CDs had autoexec files that installed rootkits on their PCs. Sony evidently wanted to monitor all actions these users were taking, tracking what content they were playing and trying to determine the origins of all the files on their systems.

People were widely outraged by Sony’s actions, suggesting that ripping of CDs by an individual felt like less of a transgression than systemic hacking by a corporation. Sony’s transgressions suggests another right we might support under the freedom to innovate: the freedom to audit, to understand what the systems we use are doing to our computers and with our information. “We need toe ability ot look it and to say that something isn’t right.”

Five aspects of the Freedom to Innovate

  • Freedom to create new technologies
  • Freedom to tinker with existing technologies
  • Freedom to connect with communities of interest
  • Freedom to liberate content for additional uses
  • Freedom to audit existing systems

These rights – to create, to modify, to join communities, to liberate and to audit technologies, are all deeply complicated by DMCA 1201, a section of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which shifts responsibility around the freedom to tinker with existing systems. Previously, if you altered a technology, your legal liability came from infringing a copyright by distributed cracked material. But under section 1201, simply circumventing copy-protection mechanisms is enough to face prosecution or liability. This shift puts legitimate security researchers, like Ed Felten – now Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer – who took the Secure Digital Music Initiative up on their challenge to remove watermarks from their sound recordings, and ended up threatening Felten with prosecution under section 1201.

The only ways around 1201, Zittrain tells us, are exemptions, like an explicit exemption that allows librarians to defeat copy protection so they can make the decision as to whether they want to acquire a copy of a work. “This has probably never been invoked,” Zittrain speculates. “It’s basically there to let librarians feel a little better about the law.”

“Why should this zone be one of cat and mouse?” asks Zittrain. The industry releases something and hopes the community won’t hack it. The community creates something new and wonders whether they’re going to be prosecuted over it. “There ought to be a way to have fair use without hacking to get it,” Zittrain argues. “And the best you’re ever going to get with litigating under 1201 is that you’ll get permission to hack into something like Facebook for a specific set of good reasons… now good luck hacking in!”

“Why shouldn’t the cat and mouse make peace? Why shouldn’t Facebook be required to make accessible data for certain types of research so we can understand what’s going on in the world?”

The recent discovery that Volkswagen had taught their cars to lie about admissions raises questions about the dangers of this cat and mouse game. But there’s a tension as well – we want to get into the circuit boards, review the code and figure out what the VW is and isn’t doing. But at the same time, we live in a society that is extremely paranoid about security (as we learned with Ahmed Mohamed’s clock) – will we want to drive our cars after hacking into them to review their emissions?

(Zittrain suggests that there may be some technologies where DRM is desirable to prohibit tinkering, like with CT scanners. Cory Doctorow, in the audience, argues that for that argument to hold, DRM would need to work, which it never does, and needs to be auditable because there’s no security through obscurity.)

As we head towards the Internet of Things, we’re going to fight over models for how objects talk to the internet. Will the internet of the Internet of Things be the real internet, where anything can talk to anything, and it’s up to the thing to figure out if it wants to listen. Or should it be a closed, corporate net where objects only talk to their vendors. We’ll end up resolving this against a backdrop of legal liability, a world in which things sometimes go feral. Who’s responsible when your Phillips tuneable bulb is reprogrammed to burn down your house? Amazon recently announced their platform for the internet of things, a framework that fills a genuine need, the ability to constrain what can talk to what. But Amazon is going to charge for this privilege, raising questions about whether we want to hand this responsibility to commercial entities.

When we think about the generative, blinking cursor, Zittrain tells us, MIT and other academic institutions created this environment and this paradigm. And universities have a huge role to
play in defending and promoting freedom to tinker and freedom to innovate. “I feat that this mission has been forgotten, and that people like Peter Thiel, who are encouraging people to innovate outside the university, are helping this be forgotten.” We don’t want these institutions to be oracular, to predict the future of the devices we can use and how we interact with them. But we do want them to be “productively non-neutral”. We need universities to be opinionated about the freedom to innovate and the freedom to create the future.

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The death of Tidbit and why it matters http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/05/28/the-death-of-tidbit-and-why-it-matters/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/05/28/the-death-of-tidbit-and-why-it-matters/#comments Thu, 28 May 2015 18:57:35 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5080 Continue reading ]]> The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs announced today that they had settled their complaint with the developers of “Tidbit”, a prototype piece of software developed by four MIT undergraduates as part of a hackathon. It’s about time. New Jersey made a boneheaded decisions to subpoena these students, and got what they deserved after wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money: nothing.

Oh, the release from the state makes it sound like they’ve made a major step forward in consumer protection. But it’s worth unpacking what the Tidbit developers did, what they didn’t do, why New Jersey pursued the case, and why this matters, even though the case has now been settled.

What was Tidbit?

Tidbit was a prototype system and a thought experiment, designed to challenge the dominant model of supporting content providers online: targeted advertising. Instead of trying to capture your attention with an ad, with resulting revenue supporting the content provider, Tidbit captured spare cycles of your CPU and used them to mine bitcoins. While reading a story, your CPU would become part of the global pool of computers running SHA256 double round hash verification processes to verify and maintain the global transaction ledger, the blockchain, that makes bitcoin a non-duplicative currency. Close the window and you’d stop mining.

Would it have worked? Maybe not – mining bitcoins in the browser isn’t a very efficient process. (If you want to try it, read this article from Quartz, which includes a browser-based ap that allows you to mine. In the unlikely event that you mined a bitcoin, I suspect Quartz would own it through much the process Jeremy Rubin and his colleagues were proposing.) But it’s a very cool challenge to existing, problematic models that monetize your attention. In his blog post explaining the aftermath of the NJ subpoena, Jeremy explains that there were VCs interested in the idea and willing to fund further developments. Or perhaps Tidbit would have turned into a payment system using dedicated hardware, he speculates. We can’t know because the New Jersey subpoena led the students to stop all work on the project.

What Tidbit wasn’t was a system that hijacked people’s computers and forced them to mine bitcoins. The code Jeremy and colleagues released was a proof of concept which was not capable of actually mining bitcoins. New Jersey alleges that the Tidbit code was found running on three websites registered in New Jersey – Jeremy and his counsel note that the Tidbit code could not actually mine bitcoins, and was available online briefly. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where Tidbit’s code was downloaded and modified to hijack people’s computers, but it’s hard to see how that modified code could be blamed on Jeremy and his team.

So why did New Jersey take action against a student project?

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, insisting that his intention was not to stifle innovation, offered this reason for issuing the subpoena: “No website should tap into a person’s computer processing power without clearly notifying the person and giving them the chance to opt out – for example, by staying away from that website.”

It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which unethical website operators run Tidbit-like scripts to hijack unsuspecting browsers into giving up CPU cycles. You don’t have to imagine – it happened. New Jersey prosecuted E-Sports Entertainment, which used malicious code to hijack 14,00 computers and use them to mine bitcoins. The company settled with the state for $1 million dollars. It’s possible that New Jersey thought Tidbit was heading down the same path and saw a chance to carry out a similar prosecution.

But there’s no evidence that the Tidbit team intended to hijack anyone’s system. In fact, the acting director of New Jersey’s consumer affairs director states clearly, in his press release about the settlement, “We do not believe Tidbit was created for the purpose of invading privacy.” (Indeed, New Jersey’s concerns seem to be about user autonomy.) Still, New Jersey subpoenaed the Tidbit team, and suggested that Rubin and others might face charges under the state’s Computer Related Offenses Act and Consumer Fraud Act, evidently because they believed “This potentially invasive software raised significant questions about user privacy and the ability to gain access to and potentially damage privately owned computers without the owners’ knowledge and consent.” Further, the press release states, “A New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs investigation has found that, despite initial assertions by Tidbit’s developer, the software was used to gain access to computers owned by persons in New Jersey, without the computer owners’ knowledge or consent.” Rubin, in his post about the settlement, insists that a five minute inspection of his code by a competent investigator, would have determined that his code could not have been used in this way.

What happened once the subpoena was issued?

Faced with the possibility of serious fraud charges, Rubin and his team stopped working on the project and sought support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Hanni Fakhoury led Tidbit’s defense. Fakhoury’s argument centered on the idea that the New Jersey AG was engaged in jurisdictional overreach, seeking information on a Massachusetts-based project based on the assertion that the tool had been downloaded and (mis)used in New Jersey. MIT faculty, graduate students and administration wrote to the New Jersey Attorney General raising concerns about the ways the New Jersey subpoena could harm innovation on university campuses around the country.

Judge Gary Furnari of the Essex County Superior Court declined the EFF’s motion to quash the subpoena, but expressed strong reservations and “serious concerns” that the state’s actions might discourage the development of new technologies. Judge Furnari expressed his opinion that
it appeared “the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose” and had no inherent malicious intent.

Perhaps the judge’s caution led New Jersey to settle with Rubin and his colleagues. Despite the triumphal language of the New Jersey AG’s press release, Rubin and his team admitted no wrongdoing, paid no fine, and released a minimum of information (a total of two domain names). Basically, the settlement binds the students to obey the law, at the risk of a significant financial penalty… the situation they, and all other citizens, faced before New Jersey issued this subpoena.

Why does this matter?

First, it matters because Rubin and his colleagues went through a terrible experience. Once the team faced possible legal action, investors backed away from the project and the students were no longer willing to work on the project, fearing further complications. In addition to working through MIT’s notoriously demanding undergraduate curriculum, the students spent their “free time” working with the EFF and other lawyers, worried that their work on Tidbit would lead to fines and fraud charges. Their reward for thinking outside the box was a year-long trip through a Kafka-esque bureaucratic morass.

Second, it matters because New Jersey’s actions have likely chilled development along the lines Tidbit was exploring. Whether or not browser-based bitcoin mining was a viable replacement for advertising-supported content, New Jersey sent a signal that they might lash out at any technology that attempted to enlist a user’s machine in mining, even if the user consented to the exchange. Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s insistence that New Jersey is not trying to hobble innovation cannot be taken seriously, as the direct result of the state’s overreach was the death of the Tidbit project and the clear sign to other innovators that this line of thought was a dangerous one to follow.

Third, the Tidbit case matters because it revealed a situation most universities are ill-prepared to handle: the moment when an innovative project puts students into serious legal trouble. Much of our federal and state legislation around computer crime is so badly written and vague that any number of student projects could conceivably lead to criminal charges. My students routinely scrape websites to collect analyzable data sets – as we learned at tragic cost in the case of Aaron Swartz, an overzealous prosecutor can argue that this sort of data collection is theft on a massive scale.

What should universities do?

What should a university do if a project like Tidbit were created as a class project? (Tidbit was created at a non-MIT hackathon by MIT students.) What are the responsibilities of faculty and administrators if students get into legal trouble in the course of their educational work? Rubin sought the EFF’s support with guidance from the MIT general counsel, as the counsel represents the Institute, not students or faculty at the university. Colleagues and I were concerned that MIT had no direct way to support students in situations like Jeremy’s and brought our concerns to President Reif. He responded quickly and the Institute is working towards creating a new set of legal resources for students around the freedom to innovate. (I’ve been involved with the process, and can report that there’s been a great deal of progress, which I hope will be announced soon.)

Other universities need to start building strategies to defend their students… and soon. The combination of badly written computer crime laws and the spread of entrepreneurial culture to campuses suggests that more students will put forward ideas that lead towards legal challenges. Whether these are ideas designed to be explored solely within the classroom, or in the entrepreneurial/VC/startup space, I think it’s important for academic advisors to think about how we can protect and advise students on the legal challenges that may arise. As someone who teaches and advises students, I don’t want to encourage students to climb high without a legal safety net.

Furthermore, universities need to take the lead in protecting the freedom to innovate and combatting overbroad laws like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and New Jersey’s Computer Related Offenses Act. As we encourage students to invent and create, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are operating in a legal environment that encourages creativity rather than shutting down promising lines of research before their impact is clear. We’re convening a discussion at MIT on this topic on October 10th and 11th, 2015. If you want to take part, please let me know via email or via the comment section of the blog.


For further reading on the Tidbit case, please see:

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Introducing FOLD, a new tool (and a new model?) for storytelling http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/04/22/introducing-fold-a-new-tool-and-a-new-model-for-storytelling/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/04/22/introducing-fold-a-new-tool-and-a-new-model-for-storytelling/#comments Wed, 22 Apr 2015 12:00:11 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5070 Continue reading ]]> This morning, Center for Civic Media at MIT is releasing a new publishing platform, FOLD. Alexis Hope (a Masters student in my lab) and Kevin Hu began working on FOLD when they were students in my class News and Participatory Media. The class asks students to take on a reporting task each week, using existing tools or building new ones to solve a particular challenge. FOLD was Alexis and Kevin’s solution to a challenge I put forward around writing “explainers”, articles designed to provide content for stories that give incremental updates to a larger story (and to develop an appetite for those stories based on deeper understanding of their significance.)

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

FOLD Authoring preview from Alexis Hope on Vimeo.

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 1.11.58 PM

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

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

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

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


Glyph from Savannah Niles’s story about Cuba

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

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

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The Civic Statuary Project http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/04/14/the-civic-statuary-project/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/04/14/the-civic-statuary-project/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2015 17:28:42 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5064 Continue reading ]]> The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.

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

beatingrhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

snowden projection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

savannah from Ethan Zuckerman on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/02/11/helping-launch-the-netgain-challenge/ Wed, 11 Feb 2015 18:28:24 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5037 Continue reading ]]> This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:


45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.


Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.

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Partners In Health at the MIT Media Lab – design challenges around Ebola http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/11/20/partners-in-health-at-the-mit-media-lab-design-challenges-around-ebola/ Fri, 21 Nov 2014 00:04:28 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4984 Continue reading ]]> Today’s Media Lab Conversations involves Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Megan Murray from Partners in Health with Joi Ito and David Sengeh from the Media Lab. The topic is understanding Ebola, and we’re learning about the disease to see if there’s anything the Media Lab can do to help organizations like Partners in Health combat the spread of the disease.

Ophelia Dahl, the executive director, of Partners in Health begins by noting that when she began her work in Haiti decades ago, audiences were less welcoming and receptive to these issues. With Paul Farmer, the organization was designed to respond to situations like the one in Haiti, where there was a complete dearth of health services available.

Partners in Health is not a disaster relief organization. While it addresses the everyday disaster of poverty, which has massive health impacts, and while they are often critical first responders to natural disasters, they are structured very differently. Because they work in countries like Haiti over long periods of time, they had doctors, platforms and a supply chain already in place. “We focus on systems,” she explained, which made them particularly well suited to help with Ebola. The organization has a home in Boston and partners closely with local academic institutions to train and prepare medical researchers and professionals to understand these complex health situations.

Dahl reminds us that Ebola is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that we’ve seen several outbreaks over the years. None of those outbreaks killed more than a few hundred people. This outbreak, starting in Guinea and spreading into Liberia, Sierra Leone has killed at least 8,000 people, and likely many more. A hallmark of this disease is that it spreads from patients to caregivers, and as people in rural areas have moved to urban areas to seek care, it’s moved into large cities.

There’s a tendency to think of Ebola as a death sentence. The high fatality rate – almost 70% – has an underlying cause: the weak, and now collapsed, healthcare system in these countries. Our collective failure to treat patients explains the death rate. Patients who contracted Ebola in the US have all survived – this is a disease that can be survived with proper medical care. That proper treatment is not complicated. It’s about staying hydrated and managing electrolytes. Most critical is good nursing care.

Dahl recently returned from West Africa where she talked to several survivors of Ebola. The survivors were young, had been in good health before the disease, and probably survived due to luck and their strength, not because they received especially good care. Many of these survivors had been caretakers to their families, and watched family members die before they contracted the disease. Hiring these survivors is key to Partners in Health’s strategy. Not only will they have immunities and a deep understanding of the virus, but creating strong healthcare jobs for these survivors is a way to combat the stigma of the disease.

The system that is weak and has collapsed means that more people are dying from the systemic effects of Ebola on the healthcare system, not from the disease directly. There’s not a single place open for women to deliver their children when a country is facing a crisis like this. Countries face a massive set of problems in the wake of Ebola since there’s not a functioning maternal health system, an emergency medical system or really any community care at this point. The resilience of health systems in the face of emergency, like the marathon bombings in Boston, is radically different than the situation on the ground in West Africa.

Dahl shows us a treatment center in tents, and a teaching hospital – Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais – a hospital Partners in Health helped build in only three years. Linking these treatment centers to these teaching hospitals is a key step we need to take.

She shows us the gear healthcare workers are wearing – it looks like foul-weather gear worn on a ship, and features three pairs of gloves. Imagine finding a vein in a dehydrated patient with those gloves on, sweating – finding better personal protective gear is one of the first steps that needs to be taken.

Dr. Megan Murray, of Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Partners in Health, explains that the disease is so new to the medical community that people are still working out the proper treatment protocols. In these countries, what’s emerging is a three-tiered system of care. Countries are building tent-based Ebola treatment units, often in major cities, where labs can test samples and perform diagnosis. These centers are expensive to set up, and they’re often far from the communities where patients live.

The second tier of support is community care centers, places where patients are isolated from their communities so they don’t inflect their caregivers. Unfortunately, these have been really bad places, places where people go to and die – they have operational and image problem if they want to serve the populations they seek to help. At an even more grassroots level, community health leaders are working on screening and contact tracking, helping identify the people who are likely to have the disease for treatment at ETUs and CCCs. In terms of innovation, Partners in Health is looking for innovation in diagnostics and treatment at the ETU and CCC level, and in epidemeology and vaccines at the community level.

The fatality rate on Ebola, between 50-70%, is more fatal than anything else we’ve seen in the public health sector. The challenge is improving those rates in the ETUs and CCCs while maintaining personal protection for the caregivers. The care isn’t that hard – it’s about providing IV fluids. But it’s hard to get caregivers to safely put in an IV line, and when people become delirious, it’s hard to get people to stop pulling out those IV lines. Centers end up trying to care using oral rehydration salts, but Ebola patients can lose 10 liters of fluid a day, and that cannot be replaced with oral rehydration.

One path towards technological innovation would be finding better ways to track fluid and electrolyte status. That generally involves frequent blood draws, which puts healthcare workers at risk. One possibility is using a transdermal microneedle sensor, which was initially designed by a US scientist to monitor dehydration in athletes. The inventor has been completely willing to deploy it in new contexts, and Dr. Murray sees this as a great example of moving useful technology into a new context.

Another problem is ensuring dignity and comfort by allowing access to relatives. This is a problem that’s especially acute in treating children. Most children under 12 who’ve contracted the disease have died. It’s very challenging to convince people to pass their sick children off to people in space suits to go off and die. As a result, people hide from the ETUs and CCCs. We need better tools, possibly digital tools, to let parents and children connect.

It’s critical for Partners in Health to ensure rapid learning by optimizing data collection and management tools, Dr. Murray explains. We need to capture all the information from these cases, but it’s incredibly hard to build data collection tools that work with three pairs of gloves on. Right now, systems rely on holding up pieces of paper to windows for transcription – voice activated systems would be a strong step forward.

Stopping the disease will ultimately require accurate and early diagnosis. “If we could diagnose in the field before it was symptomatic, we could stop the epidemic.” Dr. Murray lists some promising directions: immuno-assays using antigen capture and antibodies, tests of nucleic acid amplification, viral culturing, and novel methods, like a single particle interferometric reflectance imaging sensor. Right now, current tests require lab facilities, take 2-6 hours, and might need more blood than you can get from a fingerstick. We need something that requires a finger prick and can be processed at peripheral sites.

There are promising new drugs and vaccine candidates. Three vaccines are in testing – two are single dose, another is double dose and may provide stronger protecting. New treatment protocols include ZMAPP, a cocktail of 3 monoclonal antibodies, originally engineered in tobacco, and being produced now in yeast. One possible treatment is a drug for flu, currently stockpiled in Japan, which has gone through safety and tolerability trials, and can now go into efficacy trials. Most other candidates have not yet been tested for safety and tolerability.

One promising development are BSL4 labs – biocontainment labs – built in shipping containers and delivered on tractor trailers. Unfortunately, most of the roads in rural areas cannot accomodate those trucks, and it can take 13 hours on terrible roads to travel from peripheral sites to a city.

Until we’re at a vaccine – and especially, an aerosol vaccine which wouldn’t require needle sticks – Partners in Health is looking to build a flexible data base and IT platform that captures knowledge, to build a network of partners in industry, research and funding agencies, and to support local research infrastructure through training.

Joi introduces into the conversation the idea that popular response in the US to Ebola has been to suggest locking down our borders. Instead, we need more volunteers to come into these countries and lend a hand. Dahl tells us that more than 1000 people have volunteered to come to West Africa, despite the fact that quarantines mean this could be a 6-10 week commitment. Locking down borders is making it harder for nurses, logisticians and lab workers to volunteer.

David Sengeh suggests we need to think beyond the immediate problems of the disease and into the broader issues that countries like Sierra Leone face. He notes that Sierra Leone has a population where 70% of citizens are under 30, and where young people already have a challenge accessing a quality education. Add to this the closure of schools and Sierra Leonean youth are facing a future that’s short on opportunity. David shows us a video made by a teenager from Sierra Leone that addresses discrimination and ostracizing that often happens to Ebola survivors. Helping people make media and address these prejudices is a key strategy.

We end up in a discussion between the audience and the stage about whether the Media Lab could be a collaborator with Partners in Health on addressing issues around Ebola. Joi pointed out that the lab is trying hard to work on codesign strategies, where we don’t design technology and drop it into communities, hoping it will work, but work with communities to identify problems and design solutions. It’s possible that the Media Lab might work to support hackathons and other efforts in Liberia or Sierra Leone, or that nurses and other health workers who’ve worked in the field could work with the Lab on issues like cooling systems for personal protection equipment or non-invasive blood drawing techniques. Mask fogging, one of the most serious problems with protective equipment, is a problem Joi identifies as well-known to the SCUBA community, and he wonders whether techniques from that world could work for Ebola protection.

The challenge, Dahl reminds us, is not just innovation, but deployment. One of the major tools used to combat Ebola is chlorine bleach, which is used to sterilize surfaces and people who’ve taken off their protective equipment. Someone had the bright idea of dyeing the bleach solution pink, so that people could see where they’d bleached off and where they hadn’t reached. Solving these problems is a first step – getting them widely adopted in the field is the key to saving lives.


The crew at Civic has a great liveblog of the event – check it out!

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Sasha Costanza Chock on Immigrant Rights and Transmedia Organizing http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/11/06/sasha-costanza-chock-on-immigrant-rights-and-transmedia-organizing/ Thu, 06 Nov 2014 23:43:37 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4974 Continue reading ]]> Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.

His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements

Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.

On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.

More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for migrant workers, reviewing labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.

Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.

To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.

Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.

Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.

Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.

It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.

The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.

What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.

The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.

Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.

The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.

In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.

This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.

Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.

The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.

Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.

Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.

Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.

In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.

In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.

He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.

FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.

There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.

Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.

Sasha invites Sofia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.

Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.

Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sofia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.

A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.

Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sofia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.

Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.

Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sofia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.

A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.

Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sofia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.

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