My wife, the remarkable Velveteen Rabbi, just announced her 10 year blogiversary, a decade since her first post about her journeys in spirituality, from a layperson who thought, read and spoke about liberal judaism and social change, to rabbinic student, to ordained congregational rabbi. Along the way she’s shared reflections, poetry, liturgy, scriptural interpretation, and a great deal of personal information about what she’s experiencing and wrestling with, including a miscarriage, a birth, parenthood, and her engagement with issues personal and political. It’s a remarkable document, one I congratulate her for building and maintaining, and urge others to read.
When Rachel tweeted that this was her 10th anniversary, I realized that it meant that I’d missed my anniversary, as I began blogging before she did. My blog started slowly. In late 2002, I met Dave Winer, who was setting up a blogging server at the Berkman Center. I started a blog and put up a test post, then forgot about it. I returned some months later when the blog post was one of the leading Google results for me, and realized that I needed to put some content on the damned thing. My blog initially whined that I had been “guilted by Google” into blogging, but I quickly got the hang of things and started blogging about African politics and what I was learning about media attention and agenda setting.
In November 2003, I moved off of Berkman’s blogging platform and onto WordPress. My first few posts are lost to history, destroyed with a Berkman server move, but I’ve got everything I published on my own site starting on November 9, 2003. Two posts from that first month are particularly interesting. On November 10th 2003, I wrote about the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and a refugee situation described by a UN official as “worse than Iraq”. Ironically, the most visited blogpost I’ve ever written also addresses Joseph Kony and his army, when I argued that a focus on fighting the LRA in 2012 was misplaced and that Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign demanded scrutiny and reflection.
If that post shows that some issues stick around for years, another post just demonstrates how slow I am. On November 26, 2003, I wrote about a lecture I gave at Harvard Law School about Sean McBride and the UNESCO movement for a New World Information and Communication Order, an idea that is pretty central to Rewire, and a helpful reminder that I was working on that damned book a full decade ago.
I knew I’ve been blogging less in recent years, but realizing I’d missed my blogiversary sent me to the database to see just how sharp the dropoff had been. Here’s what I found:
The data is messy because my blogging has always been inconsistent. I enjoy blogging conferences and speeches, and the peaks on this graph represent conference blogging, usually the TED or Pop!Tech conference where I blog dozens of talks in the course of three or four days. But ignoring the peaks, I hit my blogging stride somewhere in 2005 and between then and 2008, averaged about a post a day. I began having serious eye problems in 2008 and had multiple surgeries, two of which show up as low points in terms of blog postings.
I assumed that I’d started blogging less when I became a Twitter user, but the data doesn’t bear that out. I joined Twitter in March 2007, when my blogging was at its peak. More likely is that my blogging fell off when I stopped posting bookmarks from Delicious as blogposts, which I did in September 2011. I thought my lessened blogging might correlate to becoming a father, but while there’s a dip when Drew was born, I rebounded quickly. Writing a book is more clearly correlated – I signed the contract for Rewire in January 2011, but I’d worked on a proposal for at least a year before that, and my blogging took a dive in 2010 and has never really recovered.
For me, the most striking correlation in this graph is the sharp fall in blogging that takes place in June 2011. Before then, I wrote at least ten mosts a month unless I was in the hospital or tending a newborn. Since June 2011, when I began working at MIT, I’ve never written more than ten posts a month.
This is not to say that MIT is responsible for making me a bad blogger. Working is responsible for making me a bad blogger. Prior to my time at MIT, I worked part-time at Berkman as a researcher, and spent the rest of my time as a board member, social entrepreneur, blogger and public speaker. Since the summer of 2011, I’ve had wonderful new uses of my time – advising students, new lines of research – and less wonderful uses of my time – performance appraisals, grant reporting.
I don’t regret the move. Running a research center has been an amazing opportunity and has taught me tons. But this graph helps me understand why I’ve felt something missing from my life. This blog has always been a place to toy with ideas, to work things out, to figure out what I’m interested in. I hope I can change my life and make more time for it in the coming year.
Hal Abelson’s report on MIT’s actions around Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was released last week. I was on vacation and offline – I returned home Sunday and read the report and some of the responses to it.
I certainly see why Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called it a whitewash. For those hoping that Abelson and his colleagues would identify faults in MIT’s behavior and take responsibility for inaction, the report is deeply disappointing. One of the strongest statements in the report makes in conclusion is, ultimately, quite weak:
“…let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. The report includes an entire section (Part IV) on opportunities MIT missed, places where MIT could have intervened and might have helped prevent a tragedy. While the report correctly notes that we can’t know how things would have turned out had MIT responded to Robert Swartz’s repeated requests for the Institute to make a statement similar to the one JSTOR made, it’s clear that MIT didn’t just miss an opportunity – it consciously and repeatedly decided not to take any actions that would have helped Aaron Swartz make a successful defense while cooperating fully with requests from prosecutors.
As such, I don’t think the report is a “whitewash”. I don’t think Abelson is trying to conceal details that cast MIT in a bad light – it’s hard to read the report without being deeply disappointed with how MIT makes decisions. By my reading, the report documents a troubling culture of leadership at the university, one where adherence to the (ultimately flawed) idea of “neutrality” overrides making a nuanced decision about how to respond to aggressive prosecution under a poorly written law.
There’s lots I’m angry about with the report. It ends with questions for the MIT community to consider, rather than recommendations. This isn’t the fault of Abelson and colleagues, but the ambit given Abelson by MIT’s President, Rafael Reif. While the report makes clear that MIT cooperated more thoroughly with prosecutors than with Aaron’s defense (and carefully explains why MIT’s “neutral” stance ends up favoring the side that had more power in the equation), it doesn’t lay blame on MIT’s general counsel or any other individuals for MIT’s failure of leadership.
For me, the biggest disappointment is a refrain throughout the report that blames the MIT community for failing to draw more attention to Swartz’s prosecution. In Part V, the authors note, “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”
It’s certainly true that there was more anger and attention in the wake of Aaron’s suicide than there was during the indictment and period leading towards trial. But it’s not true that the community was unaware of Aaron’s plight. As the report documents, Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, asked MIT’s leadership to see if Aaron’s case could be settled as a “family matter” within the MIT community. Two other faculty members spoke to the administration and Robert Swartz, who works for the Media Lab, approached MIT multiple times, seeking a statement that MIT did not believe Swartz should be prosecuted for his actions.
There are reasons why those of us who were aware of Aaron’s case didn’t lobby MIT more loudly. As the report notes, just following the statement about “scant attention”: “Those most familiar with Aaron Swartz and the issues that greatly concerned him were divided in their views of the propriety of his action downloading JSTOR files, and fearful of harming his situation by taking public or private stands.” This fear was compounded by the fact that it was very difficult for Aaron and those closest to him to talk about the case without creating communications that could be subpoenaed by the prosecutor, which led him to discuss the case with very few people. Also, as the report reveals, an early attempt to draw action to the case online led to an angry reaction from prosecutor Steve Heymann. Given that Aaron and his team were seeking a plea deal with a prosecutor who already escalating charges against Aaron, it’s understandable that people were worried about harming Aaron’s situation by making noise.
Blaming the MIT community’s lack for response for MIT’s studied inaction is, for me, is an embarrassing evasion of responsibility, an admission that MIT was less interested in doing the right thing than in avoiding the sort of negative publicity it faced when it failed to support Star Simpson when she faced prosecution for wearing an LED-enhanced hoodie to Logan Airport.
It’s helpful to understand why MIT’s leadership did what it did. It’s understandable that, before they knew who was accessing JSTOR that they sought help from the Cambridge PD, which ended up bringing the Secret Service into the case. But for well over a year, MIT knew that its network had been accessed by a committed activist who was most likely making a political statement, not attempting to sell JSTOR to the highest bidder. They were extensively lobbied by a long-time employee who made a simple request for MIT to make a statement similar to the statement JSTOR made. They heard from MIT professors and from scholars outside the community, yet they clung to a stance of neutrality that, as Abelson’s report notes, systematically favored the prosecution over the defense.
The New York Times reports that MIT was “cleared” of wrongdoing in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death. I think the report presents MIT with two equally serious charges: a failure to act ethically, and a failure to show compassion. According to Abelson’s report, MIT’s president, chancellor and Office of the General Counsel did the minimum – and sometimes less than the minimum, when they failed to respond to defense subpoenas – in allowing Aaron Swartz and his team to mount a defense. In the process, they ignored the pleas of a long-time colleague who was desperately working to defend his son.
MIT has a different president than it did for most of the Swartz case, and the ball is now in President Reif’s court to change a culture that was unwilling to take moral leadership in the case of Aaron’s prosecution. For those of us who are outraged by the inaction of MIT’s leadership in this case, we face Albert Hirschman’s famous choice: exit or voice. My friend Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner when he was arrested, recently tweeted: “I will never work with MIT, I will never attend events at MIT, I will never support MIT’s work, and I hope dearly that my MIT friends leave.”
I would hope that there’s another option: making clear that members of MIT’s community believe that MIT has responsibilities beyond “neutral” compliance, and working to change the culture that so badly failed Aaron. Evidently, it’s up to the MIT community – and the broader internet community – to make sure this report isn’t the final word on MIT’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and to ensure that Abelson’s questions in the report do not remain unanswered. I hope that President Reif’s promise to engage with Abelson’s questions leads to real change in an institution that has much to answer for, and I plan to push as hard as I can from the inside to ensure that MIT’s response to Aaron’s death does not end with this report.
I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, taking a break from a long stretch of writing and talking about Rewire and related issues. I should be back online around August 10. In the unlikely event you find yourself missing me, here’s the video of a talk and discussion I had about Rewire at Harvard’s Berkman Center last month.
And if you’re in need of more reading material, check out an important new paper from Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts and other friends at the Berkman Center. The paper uses Media Cloud to analyse the conversation online around SOPA/PIPA and understand agenda-setting, framing and relationships that influenced the debate. My students and I are finishing up a parallel paper at Center for Civic Media using some of the same techniques, and some new techniques, to examine the online debates that helped lead to George Zimmerman’s arrest, which we hope to have out in early fall.
Hope you’re having a great summer.
Rewire officially launched Monday, and I’ve had the chance to do a couple of radio interviews about the book, with Anthony Brooks at Radio Boston and with Brian Lehrer on his show on WNYC. I had great fun with both radio hosts, and was reminded of how grateful I am for public radio, which is often the best forum for people to talk about books and big ideas to a broad audience. The recording of my WBUR appearance is here, and my WNYC appearance is here.
Two of the web’s best loved and best read sites have been kind enough to feature excerpts from the book this week. Slate is running an excerpt from the book’s opening chapter, “Connection, Infection, Inspiration”, which looks at whether cyberutopianism is such a bad thing. (To echo a conversation I had with Ian Bogost on Twitter, cyberutopianism is certainly an unhelpful word, and not what I really want to defend. I’m arguing more for awareness of the strengths and limits of our tools, and for the belief that we can make better tools.) Quartz is running an excerpt from chapter 5, “Found in Translation”, which looks at how the web has become massively multilingual. I’m grateful to both for being kind enough to feature the book.
The Berkman Center is hosting the formal launch of Rewire this coming Tuesday night, June 25, at Wasserstein Hall on the Harvard Law School campus. I’ll talk about some of the core ideas of the book and three friend who’ve been kind enough to read what I’ve written will offer reactions: David Weinberger, Judith Donath and Ann Marie Lipinski. If you’re in Cambridge, please come… and if you are coming, please RSVP, as space is limited. If you’re not able to come, I’ll be talking about some of the same ideas I shared earlier this month at Personal Democracy Forum – video of my talk at PDF is here.
- I am not doing a formal book tour for Rewire. Instead, I’m doing lots of radio and podcast appearances. If you have a podcast on related topics and want to do a skype interview, let me know. Ditto if you have a radio show. But I am also open to giving talks and readings in person. I’m using a new platform called Togather. Basically, the idea is this: if you want to host a book talk and have me attend, you can propose a talk on Togather. If we can make it work – i.e., if I’m available and if you can promise a certain number of books sold or RSVPs – I am open to either appearing in person or via Skype. I’m much more likely to accept invitations in the MA/Vermont/Upstate New York area, as well as NYC, Boston, Philly or DC, that elsewhere, but I am always happy to Skype. If you’re at all interested, learn more at my Togather page.
Thanks for tolerating my relentless self-promotion, and if you’ve bought the book (or just read a friend’s copy), thanks so much.
Cultural critic David Rieff uses my new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmpolitans in the Age of Connection, as a jumping off point for a screed against “techno-utopians” – and, near as I can tell, the very idea of progress – in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. I’m a little surprised that Rieff has grouped me with thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, as I’m far more skeptical of technological potential than he. Then again, it would be very hard to recognize my positions from Rieff’s portrayal of my book.
It’s a bit frustrating that Foreign Policy is releasing this essay (they’ve made it clear that it’s not a book review) six weeks before my book is in print. Unfortunately, you can’t yet read my book and see the wide gap between what I actually say and Rieff’s portrayal of my positions. FP gave me a very brief window to respond to Rieff, and that response runs in their current issue.
If you’d like a better introduction to my work than Rieff offers, Publishers Weekly was kind enough to review my book here. I’m looking forward to other reviews and reactions in the coming weeks.