Personal – … 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 The Four Freedoms, in 2017 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/01/07/the-four-freedoms-in-2017/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/01/07/the-four-freedoms-in-2017/#comments Sat, 07 Jan 2017 23:36:31 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5354 Continue reading ]]> I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.

James Roosevelt, grandson of FDR, speaking at Four Freedoms rally in Pittsfield, MA, January 7, 2017

We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.


When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.

Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.

When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.

Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.

We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.

This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.

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Making space for sadness http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/11/13/making-space-for-sadness/ Sun, 13 Nov 2016 14:53:51 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5338 Continue reading ]]> I hadn’t found space yet to cry this week.

As the election results came in, I was out bowling with my students, and as they got more despondent, I told them ways Clinton might still win. When I woke to a Trump presidency, I knew there would be crying people in my office (I didn’t expect some would be faculty!) and I started sharing my sincere, but carefully chosen, feelings that this was a chance to build a new, stronger progressive, anti-racist movement. I spent Friday in a day-long workshop with Marshall Ganz, working on sharpening my skills so I can be a better leader and a better coach to those I work with. Saturday, I marched with friends in the cold, protesting in a town where almost everyone agrees with us because I thought it was important to show my face, to lend my body to a mass of people standing up and resisting.

I didn’t cry until this morning when a friend posted this Kate MnKinnon Saturday Night Live video.

Yep. That did it. So I’ve spent the last hour in bed sobbing, which I really needed. And once I was ready to stop crying, Dave Chapelle’s monologue was a good way to get up and face the morning.

And so, later today I’m off to London to see friends who’ve been trying to find the way forward after Brexit. On stage Tuesday, we’re going to talk about how the US, the UK and much of the world have gotten to a place where people feel so alienated and mistrustful that they’re willing to try anything in the hopes of seeking a change. We’re going to look for ways that progressives can play defense, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, while looking for ways that massive change could lead to massive growth.

I’m wiping my eyes, packing my bags and getting back to work. However you’re feeling this week, I hope you’re able to do so too.

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That’s _Professor_ Bozo to you, Pal http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/thats-_professor_-bozo-to-you-pal/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/thats-_professor_-bozo-to-you-pal/#comments Tue, 10 May 2016 13:01:48 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5272 Continue reading ]]> Something odd about teaching at a university – everyone wants to call you Professor, or Doctor. I am always flattered by the upgrade, but I sometimes feel a little miffed. There’s lots of people who teach at universities who haven’t earned the doctorate, and lots of people who teach without being professors: lecturers, research scientists, graduate students. I enjoy telling people that I’m neither a professor or a doctor and that they should call me “Ethan”.

I guess I have one less thing to be miffed about.

MIT announced today that I have been promoted to Associate Professor of the Practice of Media Arts and Sciences, active July 1st. And while I make jokes about it, I’m deeply proud to take on the professor title. I love all facets of my work – the research, the software development, the writing and public speaking, the teaching and the advising – but I am especially proud of the work I’ve done the past five years in the classroom and working one on one with students. Many of my favorite people at the Media Lab hold the Research Scientist title, but I wanted the Professor title so as to recognize how much of my work is about students and their work.

Plus, I’m greying rapidly, and I look good in tweed.

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(Am I looking professorial yet?)

I am deeply grateful to MIT as a whole and to the Media Lab in particular for making it possible to take on this new role. MIT is especially open to recognizing those of us who’ve taken unconventional roles towards academic careers, and I am grateful for their flexibility. I owe special thanks to Pattie Maes, Mitch Resnick, James Paradis and Ed Schiappa, who’ve been tireless advocates on my behalf, to the wonderful reviewers who wrote letters on my behalf, and to Joi Ito, who has supported everything I’ve done and tried to do at the Media Lab. But the biggest thanks are reserved for my students and staff, past and present, who’ve helped me see that teaching is what I should be doing – thank you all more than I can say.

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In loving memory of Patrick Fiachie http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/04/03/in-loving-memory-of-patrick-fiachie/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/04/03/in-loving-memory-of-patrick-fiachie/#comments Mon, 04 Apr 2016 02:51:49 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5266 Continue reading ]]> In the fall of 1993, I was 20 years old. I’d just graduated from college, and had lived most of my life in my parents’ house and in a dorm room. I was extremely ill-prepared to live on my own, never mind to live in an unfamiliar city. And yet, I was headed to Accra, Ghana to start a year as a Fulbright scholar, and as far as I was concerned, to start my life as an adult.

Thank god I found Patrick.

I moved into a two bedroom apartment with another Fulbright scholar and her husband, in a compound where two other Fulbrighters lived above us. We had a gas stove, an electric refrigerator, ceiling fans, and electricity most days. We had plumbing, but no running water. And most importantly, we had Patrick and Fortune.

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Patrick, in our compound, 1993

Patrick Fiachie worked as the building manager for the old lady who owned the compound and its two three story buildings. He was competent and organized, but more importantly for a Ghanaian renting to expatriates, he had lived in the US and understood what foreigners would need to know to live in Accra. Patrick had spent years living in Minnesota, working as a counselor for foreign students attending a liberal arts college (I want to say Macalester, but this was a long time ago and I have forgotten the details.)

Patrick returned to Ghana and shared an apartment in the other building of the compound with Fortune, his wife, who was an extraordinary fixer, fluent in half a dozen languages and capable of striking bargains and making friends in a dozen more. My more ambitious Fulbright colleagues provided full employment for Fortune, traveling with her around the country so she could translate and negotiate while they conducted research. But as far as living in Accra was concerned, it was Patrick’s gentle guidance that prevented my first year in Ghana from being a total catastrophe.

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Patrick and Fortune, probably 2002

The first time Patrick intervened in my life was when I tried to do my own laundry. This task involved hauling buckets of water from the compound’s tap to my second-story apartment, soaping up my clothes in a plastic tub, rinsing and then ironing them dry (because wet clothes attract flies, which lay eggs in them and lead to larvae burrowing into you, which is roughly as gross as it sounds.) It took me half a Saturday to do two week’s laundry, but I felt very independent and self-sufficient indeed. And then Patrick came by and pointed out that whether or not I wanted the pleasure of washing my own clothes, I was taking money out of the pockets of my neighbors by not hiring them to do my laundry. For two dollars a week, I could have my clothes washed, ironed and returned to me, and I’d be viewed as a better neighbor, someone providing work to the community, rather than seen as the crazy white kid who wanted to do his own laundry. I didn’t pick up my iron again that year.

That was how it worked with Patrick. He’d let me screw up, do something culturally inappropriate, then come by for a visit and casually bring up the problem I’d failed to navigate, explaining the key aspect of Ghanaian culture I’d failed to grasp. As we got to know each other better, I noticed that all the interactions in my neighborhood went more smoothly. I overheard a conversation one day between the plantain vendors who set up shop in front of our house. “Why is that brofunyo (white man) always on this street? What does he want?” “Oh, it’s okay. That’s Uncle Pat’s nephew.” And that was it – I was Uncle Pat’s nephew, which meant that if anyone had a problem with me, they could bring it up with Patrick, which made me part of the neighborhood in a way I never could have been had Patrick not vouched for me.

Patrick and I got into the habit of meeting in his apartment to drink akpeteshie (Ghanaian moonshine distilled from palm wine or from sugar cane) with sugar and lime and to play chess. I could usually beat him in the first game, but after a drink or two, he was the stronger player. As he picked off my pawns, I learned more about his path to Minnesota and back to Ghana. Like many brilliant Ghanaians, Patrick had gotten an excellent education in Russia, and had sought his fortune in the US. And he’d done well, before losing much of his money in a series of bad investments. He’d expected to come back to Ghana in triumph, but instead, was nervous about returning to his village in the Volta Region without the wealth that he would need to set his extended family up in style. His work in Accra was plan B or C, a way to use his skills as a bridge figure to build a new career and a way to return home with appropriate stature.

In the past twenty years, I’ve seen Fortune far more than I’ve seen Patrick. She helped me as I opened a non-profit, Geekcorps, in Accra in 2000. She left Ghana a few years later to live with one of the Fulbrighters who’d shared the compound with us, acting as nanny to her son. I saw Patrick every few visits. He started a pepper farm in the Volta Region (I was an investor) and made it into the city only occasionally. He was working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Jerry Rawlings, his favorite of Ghana’s leaders. When we lived in the same building, I thought of him as superimposed between the US and Ghana, one foot in each country. When I saw him years later, he was very much a Ghanaian farmer, one with an extraordinary education and an amazing life story.

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Patrick, an Ewe, models a Dagara hat. This sort of thing is pretty funny if you’re Ghanaian, and merely charming if you’re not. 1994

Patrick died last weekend. I found out through Facebook, from Fortune who remained married to him even as she lived continents away from him, caring for my friend’s son. I remember a dinner in 1999, when I brought Rachel to meet Patrick and Fortune. They were in dire straits, living in the storage area of a compound in La. Fortune cooked an elaborate, multi-course meal on a single charcoal burner, while Patrick, sitting on a wooden stool in a dusty courtyard, acted as diplomat and mayor, chatting with everyone who passed by, interrogating the young men, chiding them for their lapses in manners, introducing us to the worthies of the community. The strength of his personality and character were entirely undiminished by his material circumstances – everyone who interacted with him understood that they were in the presence of intelligence, wisdom, kindness and the profound power to connect.

I miss Patrick. I’ve missed him for years, wishing that I could go back to the days we played chess and he unpacked my ignorance about Ghana. I wish I could have seen him in Minnesota, explaining the wider world to wide-eyed college kids, much like the wide-eyed college kid I was when I came into his compound.

I am grateful that I had the chance to know him. Rest in peace, Patrick.


Patrick figures prominently in a talk I gave in Amsterdam in 2008. Bonus – in that post, you can see what I looked like in 1994, wearing Ewe kente.

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I never went looking for a mentor http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/13/i-never-went-looking-for-a-mentor/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/13/i-never-went-looking-for-a-mentor/#comments Sat, 13 Feb 2016 18:19:42 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5246 Continue reading ]]> I never went looking for a mentor.

In 1995, I was working as the lead tech guy for an internet startup, Tripod. I spent an inordinate amount of time with the company’s two cofounders, one a recent college grad my age, loaded with charisma and ambition, and the other, a distinguished college professor, a World Bank economist with a desperate desire to leave academia and work in “the real world”. I loved both men and both drove me mad in equal measure, but Dick Sabot, the professor who was my fathers’ age, was the friend I gravitated to.

As chairman of the company, Dick’s responsibilities were wide-ranging and general, but centered on the corporation’s strategy, fundraising and future directions. The company was my life, and I spent countless hours talking with Dick about where we were going and how best to get there. At some point, Dick asked me for help editing a letter to investors, so I could ensure the discussion of technical matters was correct. Gradually, I found myself writing and editing much of Dick’s writing for the company, helping steer the company through countless discussions and arguments with Dick and Bo, his co-founder. I would occasionally joke that I’d taken on an additional job as assistant to the chairman, but mostly I was thrilled at the chance to work on our most important projects and our hardest decisions.

It literally didn’t occur to me that Dick was mentoring me until a year after we sold the company. Dick no longer needed my help understanding the technical aspects of business, which were now part of a vast publicly traded company and well beyond my understanding. And yet we had developed a habit of meeting every week in his living room for breakfast. I would bring muffins and fruit juice and we’d talk about our parent company, the business he wanted to start next, the nonprofit I was starting. He became the chairman of the board of my nonprofit, giving us an excuse for our regular meetings, but our conversations were wide-ranging, about different ways to make the world a better place, about his and my decisions to live in the rural community we both loved, about how to live a good and meaningful life.

Dick, laughing.

Dick, laughing.

My nonprofit bloomed then crashed. His new business grew and then collapsed, first with a heavy snowfall crushing the warehouse where all the inventory was stored, then with embezzlement by his CFO. I washed up on the shores of academe, becoming a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center. As I flirted with returning to school and earning a PhD, Dick made the case that I’d always learn more in the real world than in a classroom.

And then he died. While Rachel and I drove to his farm to have dinner with Dick and his wife, he had a massive heart attack while working out at the college gym. I’d brought a block of marzipan for him from a trip to Armenia, and I left it with his wife as we hugged, sobbing, in the parking lot of the hospital where he died.

If I was too dense to notice when Dick began mentoring me, I didn’t miss his absence. My work was going well – Rebecca and I had launched Global Voices, I was developing my voice as a writer and learning a new way to shape the world, this time through philanthropy, working with Open Society Foundation. But I found myself second-guessing every decision, wondering how to pick a path to follow without someone older and wiser to talk through my choices with.

My closest friend at the Berkman Center was David Weinberger, a funny, kind and generous writer who’d produced the most cogent book I’d encountered on what the internet was and why it was important, Small Pieces Loosely Joined. We shared drafts of our blog posts and argued about the future of the internet, and when I talked to him, I felt less lost.

And so I asked David whether he would be my mentor. And he said no.

More precisely, he said, “I don’t want to be your mentor. I want to be your peer.”

It was one of the hardest and kindest things anyone has ever said to me. But he was right. And we remain dear friends, reading each other’s work, propping each other up when we face hard moments, offering each other advice and counsel. It’s a very special relationship to me, but it’s different from what Dick and I had, more symmetric and subtle. I learn from David every time I speak with him, but I don’t show up at his house with juice and muffins.

It took me several more years to realize that it was time for me to close the loop. I was teaching at MIT, advising a cadre of brilliant graduate students on their research, when I noticed I was spending at least as much time talking about their aspirations and their fears as I was about their research. I’d assumed that at some future date, when my hair had grown sufficiently grey perhaps, I would magically develop a store of wisdom that I was ready to pass down to the next generation. But I’m still young, still an idiot most of the time, and still desperately trying to grope my way through life, unsure of where I’m ultimately going. But somehow listening to these amazing young people and occasionally offering my thoughts and opinions appeared to be helpful to them, and so I’ve kept doing it.

In the process, I realized that Dick hadn’t started sharing his work with me in a subtle attempt to educate me about business and leadership – he’d asked me to help him write and think because I was good at those things and I helped make his work better. And I don’t advise students because MIT pays me to – I advise students because they’re brilliant and creative and because talking with them makes my thinking sharper and better. And I do it because I care about them and when they succeed, it gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment that I never imagined I could feel about work I hadn’t done with my own hands.

This fall, at a moment where I was feeling particularly dark about my decision to teach at MIT, my students and staff did something marvelous for me: they nominated me for the Martin Luther King Jr. award, MIT’s institute-wide award for leadership. Thanks to their profoundly generous letters of recommendation, I won, and while the handshake from the university president, the check and the trophy were nice, the prize was the pile of recommendation letters my students handed me. I sometimes send students the letters of recommendations I write for them, because I think it’s important to let people know how you really feel. And my students let me know that they valued me as a professor, an advisor, a friend and a mentor.

I never went looking for a mentor. Now I’ve found dozens. Sometimes they’re wise elders whose examples I try to learn from. At least as often, they’re young people whose passion and energy helps maintain my passion and energy. The best part about these young mentors is that I’ve got them fooled – they think I’m mentoring them, when in truth, they’re mentoring me.

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Why is Verizon letting rural broadband decay? http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/04/why-is-verizon-letting-rural-broadband-decay/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/04/why-is-verizon-letting-rural-broadband-decay/#comments Thu, 04 Feb 2016 12:37:06 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5234 Continue reading ]]> Let me start with an apology: reading other people’s tech support horror stories is less fun than hearing them describe their medical problems or recount their dreams. No one wants to hear them. While this starts as a tech support rant, I promise that it’s a much broader rant, about the state of infrastructure in rural America, the nature of corporate monopoly and the consequences of America’s naive faith in under-regulated markets. And if that sounds as painful as hearing me describe my knee pain, this would be a fine time to click the back button.

I live in a small town in western Massachusetts, and my only option for wired internet access is Verizon’s DSL service. I’ve been a customer for almost a decade and it’s decent much of the time, capable of streaming lores video from Netflix if no one else in the house is using the internet. About two weeks ago, it decayed sharply in quality, and I discovered that my connection was dropping 30-50% of packets. Once my six year old could no longer stream LEGO Ninjago, we’d reached panic time, and I called tech support.

After a few rounds of the usual “Have you tried rebooting the router?”, I got escalated to a team of very high level techies, the Presidential Appeals team, who politely and sympathetically told me the bad news: the problem was Verizon’s, not mine, and they weren’t going to fix it. Verizon had “oversold” the remote office that serviced my corner of town, and I and 208 customers were having the same problem. We were using way more bandwidth than Verizon’s network was providing to that office, saturating the T3 line that served the office, which meant all 209 of us were blocking each others’ packets and degrading each others’ service.

The math is pretty simple: Verizon’s DSL nominally offers up to 3Mbit/sec worth of bandwidth. A T3 provides 45 Mbit/sec of bandwidth, which means the line could accomodate 15 families using bandwidth at the highest possible level, or 30 simultaneous users at Netflix’s recommended broadband speed of 1.5 Mbit/sec. When these DSL networks were built, most people weren’t streaming video for hours at a time – now, we are. And the network simply can’t handle it.

“You guys need an OC3 minimum, and we should give that office an OC12 or OC24 if we were engineering for the future,” my new friend in tech support told me. “But there are no engineering orders to upgrade that line.” He went on to encourage me to complain to Verizon’s management through whatever channels I could. “We know we’re providing you with badly degraded service, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

That made me a little angry. While I’d gotten Verizon to refund my bill for my unusable service, 208 of my neighbors were paying full freight for service Verizon knew was crappy. And while the problem was solvable – install more bandwidth – Verizon had evidently decided that maintaining their infrastructure to support this load wasn’t a priority. So I sent some letters – to my State Senator, to the MassDCT (our telecoms regulator), to the Better Business Bureau, to the regional manager for external relations at Verizon. (All the government officials got back to me within 12 hours, though I never did hear from Verizon’s external relations executives.)

Things got weirder the next day. Another member of the Presidential Appeals team called me, this time for the billing department, and gently, apologetically laid out Verizon’s offer to me. They would be willing to cut my bill and have me as a fractional DSL consumer, with a projected download speed of 1Mbit/sec… or they would terminate my contract. Unfortunately, Verizon could no longer offer me DSL service.


Our local library. And town hall. And dog pound. And most reliable internet service provider.

I’d love to tell you that I told Verizon to pound sand, but as I mentioned, they have a monopoly. I could use an AT&T mobile hotspot, but the bandwidth costs get extreme pretty quickly. I could go back to satellite internet, but I still have nightmares of debugging it ten years ago, using a voltmeter to read line levels while on the phone with Hughes. And at this point, I was parking in the library of the Lanesboro, MA public library to use their lovely open wifi network, which offered a symmetric 5mbit connection, and only had the disadvantage of being four miles drive from my house. I agreed to have Verizon downgrade my service and became a fractional DSL customer.

At a moment when President Obama is promoting rural broadband, Verizon is deciding not to maintain their rural networks and let them degrade. While Republican governor Charlie Baker is investing state money in plans to provide broadband to businesses and homes in my community, Verizon has decided it is profitable to underserve their customers and invite them to quit if they don’t like the situation.

President Obama told an audience in rural Oklahoma that “The Internet is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. You cannot connect with today’s economy without access to the Internet.” Unfortunately, that necessity is not yet one Verizon is required to provide to rural residents. Despite the FCC’s reclassification of broadband internet service as a utility, Verizon is not legally required to offer broadband service to me or my neighbors and can choose to terminate my service, as the representative of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable patiently explained to me. “It’s not like local phone service, which they’re required to provide you with,” she explained.

So why is Verizon turning down my money? Why aren’t they building a network capable of supporting streaming video, Skype, Google Hangout and all the pleasures of modern, wired life? Well, it’s because they’re thinking of the future.

Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications have proposed a merger that would create a massive new cable company. My state senator’s office tells me that the new company has announced plans to offer cable internet service in my town, which would be great… in a few years, if the merger gets approved, and after they build out a network in our huge, sparsely populated town. Verizon knows that their DSL service can’t compete with cable internet, and they’re strategically underinvesting in our community. From a business perspective, it’s a smart thing for them to do – after all, where else am I going to go? How long can I idle my car in the library parking lot before the neighbors complain?

Americans, especially conservatives, like to celebrate the miracle of free market capitalism, the ways in which competition makes businesses more creative, nimble and efficient. But that’s a fairy tale, a story free marketeers tell their children to lull them to sleep. Building out a telecommunications network is extremely expensive, and the last thing companies want to do is find themselves in vigorous competition with another company that’s built out its own expensive network. So cable and telecommunications companies have come to a gentlemen’s agreement that’s good for their bottom lines and terrible for consumers – they politely stay out of each other’s territories, ensuring that connectivity is a monopoly in most markets and a duopoly in a few. Sure, that would be collusion, and the US government has the power to break up certain monopolies… but telecoms have great lobbying teams who’ve convinced legislators and regulators that 4G wireless service, which charges per bit, is a perfectly competitive alternative to unmetered wired broadband service. (Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience makes this argument far better than I ever could.)

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not in most of the world. Most governments realize that the heavy investment in infrastructure leads incumbents to try and protect monopolies, so they require operators to open their networks to competitors at cost. The result is competition, which leads to lower prices and better service. But it’s a carefully regulated market that gets you this competition, not an ideologically pure free one.

So why do Americans put up with internet that’s slower and more expensive than in Europe? Because we buy the lie that government regulation will raise prices and stifle (nonexistent) competition. Because we don’t know how embarrassingly bad American infrastructure is compared to most developed nations, unless we spend a lot of our time travelling. Because we feel politically powerless to change this situation, less able to influence our legislators than megacorporations are.

I think there’s another reason. For most people in the US, telecommunications is getting better. Slowly, expensively it’s getting better – people are cutting cord and cable and moving voice telephony and video viewing onto internet networks as they get access to faster and more reliable bandwidth. But that’s not what’s happening in Western Massachusetts, or in much of rural America. It’s getting worse for us, and right now, it’s very hard to see how it’s going to get better any time soon.

After a half-day outage Tuesday, my connectivity improved when I tested it early Wednesday morning. Perhaps throttling my connection will give me fewer dropped packets and my kid can watch streamed cartoons, pixelated, at 5fps. But now I know what Verizon has planned for me – service that gets worse and worse until I finally give up. Another reason for businesses to move to big cities, ignoring our beautiful landscape and quality of life because they can’t work without connectivity. More reasons for people who grow up in towns to leave the area to seek economic opportunity. More people in cities and suburbs with higher rents and longer commutes and more empty houses in the country.

For perfectly legal business reasons, Verizon has made a business decision that will slowly kill my town. And I’m helping by paying them.


Susan Crawford’s proposed solution to the cable/telephony duopoly is robust municipal broadband projects, as we’ve seen in cities like Santa Monica, CA and Chattanooga, TN. I agree that this is a great idea, and I’d sign up immediately if such service was available in my town. For now, Mass Broadband Institute, our state funded entity focused on rural broadband, has focused first on connectivity to libraries, schools and town buildings… which helps explain the great wifi on offer in the library’s parking lot. They’ve made less progress on home broadband, and lately, there’s been sparring between MBI and WiredWest, a cooperative that wants to build fiber networks in our small towns to solve the last mile problem. Susan is right, as she so often is, but it may be a very long time before the solution she proposes is available for me and my neighbors.


Good friend, and former Berkshire dweller Prof. Chad Orzel offers a quibble with my analysis:

I think Chad is right when he notes that this complicates the politics – I think many of my neighbors are just grateful to have broadband that doesn’t come from flaky satellite connections. But it’s not quite the fact pattern. Basically, we’ve gone from no wired broadband to shitty broadband to unusably shitty broadband – at 40% packet loss, there’s really nothing you can do using streaming services, Skype or interactive web services – everything times out. For a couple years there, DSL + heavy compression made Netflix a reality. As more of my neighbors have gotten on the bandwagon, it’s just not an option these days, and I’m renewing my Netflix bits by DVD via mail service.

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Update, or a missing person report http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/01/31/update-or-a-missing-person-report/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/01/31/update-or-a-missing-person-report/#comments Sun, 31 Jan 2016 18:42:31 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5224 Continue reading ]]> I just received a kind inquiry via email from a reader who wondered what had happened to this blog.

It’s a fair question.

It’s been a challenging few months, professionally and personally, and I’ve been less productive than I would have liked. I’ve also found that I’ve written much less since I started teaching at MIT. I’m a slow writer – posts here that aren’t transcriptions of other people’s talks are usually the result of a couple hours research and 3-4 hours writing… and there just aren’t a lot of days in my calendar that have 4-6 free hours available. I miss being able to write as much as I used to, but I’m enjoying other aspects of my life: teaching, advising, collaborating with students and staff.

So here’s the plan going forward: I’ve got a bunch of pieces I hope to write in the next few weeks. Most will be published in three places – here, on FOLD.cm (where they’ll have bonus images and links) and on Medium, using IFTTT to syndicate my RSS feed to my Medium account. (Hat tip to Dave Winer for tipping me off to this trick – a good recipe exists here – and for putting forth the argument that everyone should have multiple places to publish their content, rather than locking themselves into a single platform.

In the mean time, here’s a piece I wrote recently for The Guardian on advertising and surveillance. And if you really miss me, here’s a brief interview I did with the Beta Boston section of the Boston Globe, talking about my media diet and about the writing cabin I’ve been building.

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Three selfies, and two appreciations of fellow travellers http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/12/02/three-selfies-and-two-appreciations-of-fellow-travellers/ Tue, 02 Dec 2014 21:31:27 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4990 Continue reading ]]> I took the fall semester off from teaching, which is a good thing, as I’ve been traveling far more than is healthy, mostly to give talks. I was in Sao Paulo last week talking about Brazil role as a center for democratic innovation, and hope to post either notes or a video of that talk soon. But here are two others that are already online and that I’m proud of:


“Journalism after Snowden: Normalizing Surveillance”

The estimable Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center is editing a volume of essays about how the documents revealed by Edward Snowden have changed journalism as we know it. Most of the participants in the project are, like Emily, long-time newsroom veterans with smart things to say about journalism’s future. Since the last newsroom I worked in was that of the Lewisboro Ledger in 1989, I thought it would be wise if I played towards my strengths and talked about advertising, surveillance and the idea that a public sphere that monitors our every movement is corrosive to the notion of citizenship.

I leaned heavily on a paper by Kevin Haggerty and Richard Erickson, “The Surveillant Assemblage”, which in turn leans on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to offer a view of surveillance that’s pervasive to the point of inescapability – thanks to Kate Crawford for pointing me to this paper. The question I ended up asking in the talk was whether organizations like newspapers (and, pointedly, The Guardian, where Emily is a board member) had a responsibility to try to create surveillance-free civic spaces. Fun questions – I don’t have the answers, but I was happy to have the chance to explore these ideas.


“Digital Cosmopolitans”, my Google Books talk

This other talk covers material that’s familiar to folks that regularly read this blog. It was my contribution to the Talks at Google series, speaking about “Digital Cosmopolitans”, née “Rewire”, now out in paperback. I have had the hilarious misfortune to be touring the book at the same time that Amanda Palmer is touring her excellent The Art of Asking – I gave a reading at Porter Square books the evening after her book launched and spoke to an extremely small, though enthusiastic crowd. Now I discover I’m following her at Google as well. No worries – she’s awesome, and next time I will ask her if I can simply refer to her as my opening act.

Anyway, Google are great hosts, and this is one of the better version of the Rewire/Digital Cosmopolitans book talk, so if you haven’t heard me try to summarize the book in half an hour, here’s your chance.

I’ve been doing some cool radio interviews lately as well. Benjamen Walker’s awesome “Theory of Everything” Podcast is doing a series called “The Dislike Club”, which basically features people who think about the internet realizing that we’re really pissed off about the current state of things online. In the second episode, I get to talk about my confession and penance regarding my role in bringing the pop-up ad to life – it’s a good conversation.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/178538675″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Keep your eyes open for Gimlet Media’s new Reply All podcast – it’s a relaunched version of the excellent TL:DR, which spun out of On the Media. I’m likely on an upcoming episode, offering my same lame apologies for making the internet a worse place.


Even declaring this as a selfie, I’m not super comfortable with a post that just lists talks I’ve given lately. So two other talks to point to:

Willow Brugh has been working on question of “weaponized social”, the ways that online spaces for deliberation and debate are too often turning into spaces of personal threat. She’s working on face to face meetups to explore the idea and its consequences, and is bringing it into unexpected contexts, like a gathering of female programmers and computer enthusiasts in Kenya, hosted by the remarkable Akirachix. Check out her presentation, and a broader conversation about tech and gender in Kenya, above.

Micah Sifry has a terrific new book out, which I hope to be reviewing next week. In the meantime, my students blogged his talk today at Berkman (which I missed because I’m in Budapest.) Micah is deeply passionate about the ways the internet could be used for social and political change, and honest about the ways in which internet enthusiasts have thus far fallen short. His book, The Big Disconnect, is well worth your time. More about it next week.

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Williams Convocation Address: “Bibliolarceny and the Size of the Universe” http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/09/21/williams-convocation-address-bibliolarceny-and-the-size-of-the-universe/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/09/21/williams-convocation-address-bibliolarceny-and-the-size-of-the-universe/#comments Sun, 21 Sep 2014 11:47:16 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4961 Continue reading ]]> My alma mater, Williams College, begins the academic year with a convocation, a ceremony for seniors, faculty and a small number of alumni who are being honored with the college’s Bicentennial medal, an award for “distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor”. I was honored to be one of those medal recipients this year, and the college asked me to address the students. My remarks follow below. (Should you want to see me deliver the address, here’s the YouTube video.)

If the job of a commencement address is to offer students thoughts on how to exit college and enter the world, a convocation address can urge students to make the best of their remaining time in college. I wanted to try to connect my time at Williams more than twenty years ago to my professional life, to talk about the college’s new library and connect the year’s academic theme – The Book, Unbound – to my own work.

I’m posting the speech here at the request of a few faculty and students who were kind enough to ask. It may not make a ton of sense to my regular readers, who don’t know about the rivalry between Williams and Amherst, two fine colleges in Western Massachusetts that have lots of similarities and a long-standing rivalry. I’m not above playing to the hometown crowd, so most of the laugh lines here are digs at Amherst and Lord Jeffrey Amherst, British Army commander and all-around nasty piece of work.


I’m honored and thrilled to be with you today for the Williams 2014 Convocation, for the dedication of the extraordinary and beautiful new Sawyer Library, and for this year’s conversation about “The Book, Unbound”. Given the circumstances, I’ve been thinking back to one of my favorite Williams origin stories. You know it, I’m sure: how in September 1821, Zephaniah Swift Moore, the second President of Williams College, skulked out of town in the dead of night, leaving the wilderness of western Massachusetts to build Amherst in the tamer lands of the Pioneer Valley, taking with him not only 15 students but key volumes from the Williams College library.

It’s a fantastic story, just the sort of thing to justify our centuries-old rivalry with our neighbors to the east. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Yes, President Moore left, and yes, fifteen students left with him. And there’s a lack of clarity about where the 700 books that constituted Amherst’s original library came from. But there’s no evidence that Amherst’s library was seeded with purloined volumes, only records of votes by student societies not to move libraries along with the students who left the college.

It’s possible the story began as an excuse for the poor quality of the Williams library in the 1800s. In 1821, the library wouldn’t have been that hard to steal – at that point, Williams had two buildings, two professors, two tutors and 1400 volumes, ot a huge expansion from the school’s original library, 360 volumes in a bookcase in West College. And students complained bitterly of the quality of those books, most of which were dusty theological texts – if you wanted to read non religious literature at Williams for much of 1800s, you would do better to turn to student-run literary and scientific societies.

It’s likely that the legend is much more recent, probably forming in early 1960s. In an essay about the legend, Dustin Griffin points out that early histories of the college discuss President Moore’s departure and rivalries with Amherst, but not the story of the books, and that the story of the books wasn’t one his contemporaries knew in the early 1960s. But by the mid 1960s, there’s record of John Chandler, then dean of the faculty, visiting Amherst’s new library in 1965 cracking a joke about coming to take our books back. When I was here in the early 1990s, the theft of Williams’s library was presented as fact, a simple explanation for the inherent moral superiority of our institution over our rival… which was helpful, as many of us had applied to Amherst as well and needed solid grounding for our contempt.

So we have a myth that’s fairly recent, but which has some powerful explanatory properties and enduring power. It’s worth picking at the myth and asking what it says about us as a culture that this is one of our origin stories, an explanation for our place in the world.

When I’ve heard the story, the theft of the books is always presented as the final straw: Yes, Amherst took our president and took our students. But can you believe they had the nerve to take our books! Bibliolarceny is somehow a more serious crime than other forms of theft – not, perhaps, as serious as proposing the extermination of native Americans with smallpox blankets, but worthy of special consideration nevertheless.

Books have a special, symbolic meaning in our culture. The burning of books – whether by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad in the 9th century, the burning of “degenerate texts” by the Nazis in the 1930s or American extremists burning the Quran today – isn’t just about the destruction of an object. It’s the symbolic destruction of a people, a culture and a way of thinking. Whether we’re banning books from library shelves, burning them or stealing them, we’re talking about shrinking the universe of cultural possibilities, limiting the number of different ways we can look at the world through the eyes of the authors.

I think that’s why this story has special significance in the context of a college. Even before 1965, when this story gained its currency, college was a place to expand your worldview. The process of packing up, leaving your hometown and going to live with a new set of people is constructed not just to give you access to a different set of teachers, but to a different and broader set of friends and influences. In 1965, when this myth took root, colleges themselves were shifting. In 1964, the civil rights act mandated access to public schools for African Americans and for women. Williams became coeducational in 1970. When this myth arose, we were right on the cusp of the college experience changing: from one which exposed students to a world of mostly white men, to one which served as a bridge to a much wider, multicultural international world. Against that backdrop of the widening world, we have a story about part of a college’s community giving up, finding the challenge of building a community out in the wilds to be too difficult, and shrinking the horizons of those who stayed by taking their books.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about this story is that I wonder whether it has as much currency now as it did in the 60s, or even in the 90s. We’re at a very different moment in our relationship with books, our relationship with information, than we were even twenty years ago. The story of the stolen books is a story from the days of scarce information. Now most of us feel like we’re inundated with information, possibly drowning in it. How do we think about losing part of our library when we have an apparent infinity of information online?

I published a book last summer, Rewire, that looked at the question of how having access to an abundance of global information is changing what we know about the world. I had been a cyberutopian, someone who believed that the internet was going to make the world a smaller, more connected and more understanding place. This seemed pretty obvious to me – it used to be really hard to get news from Sub Saharan Africa or Central Asia – now you can read a Nigerian newspaper online or make a Skype call to Kazakhstan.

But a strange thing has happened as we’ve gotten access to more information from around the world – most of us are choosing to encounter less of it. We have to make thousands of decisions a day about whether we read a story about Ebola, a tweet from Ferguson, or a Facebook update from a high school classmate. In aggregate, most of us are getting much less international news than we did in an era of the daily newspaper and three television stations.

When we’re faced with a wealth of choices, we tend to opt for the familiar, for what we already know to be important. It’s a basic human tendency to pay more attention to members of “our tribe” than people we’ve never met and don’t have a reason to care about. This was a fine coping strategy for a world of disconnected villages, the world almost everyone lived in 500 years ago, but it’s deeply maladaptive for the connected world we live in today. We may not know anyone in Liberia, but it’s a pretty short plane flight from Monrovia to New York – problems that were distant have a way of become our problems very quickly.

Much of my work at MIT looks at questions of how we maintain a broad view of the world when we’re faced with an avalanche of information. It’s directly parallel to the problems librarians have today now that the problem isn’t expanding from 360 volumes to 1400 – the problem is engineering serendipity. It’s making the library – or, in my case, the internet – both a place where you can take a deep dive into a subject you care about, and also a place where you can discover something unexpected and life changing.

One of the things I’ve learned in my research is that it’s much easier to pay attention to people than to places. If there’s someone you care about who’s from Haiti, if you’ve had the chance to travel there and meet people from Haiti, you’ll watch the news differently. You’ll have a connection to that place, a context for a story you hear. The events will be more real to you because Haiti is more real to you through the people you know there.

For ten years, I’ve been helping run a website called Global Voices, which uses citizen media – blogposts, YouTube videos, tweets – to bring readers news from around the globe. The reason we use citizen media is that it gives you a connection to ordinary people writing online as well as to the events they’re describing. For our readers and our community, the Arab Spring wasn’t just the story about a political upheaval – it was the story of our friends who were in the streets, in and out of prison and then in and out of the new governments.

I started working on Global Voices because I wanted to read more news about sub-Saharan Africa in the newspaper. That’s because I spent five years in Ghana helping Ghanaians build internet service providers and other technology businesses. And I started doing that because I spent a year in Ghana on a Fulbright grant studying xylophone music. What got me interested in that was Sandra Burton, who I believe should be considered a national treasure as well as one of our colleges’ greatest heroes. Along with Gary Sojkowski and the late Ernest Brown, Sandra founded Kusika, the African dance ensemble, which was the center of my community when I was at Williams. The strange and wonderful path my life has taken, from starting an early web company to building internet businesses in Africa to working with media activists and journalists around the world, to teaching at MIT leads directly back to the dance studio and to the computer labs, to the professors and students who were passionate about a world wide enough to include both Africa and the internet.

The next time you visit Sawyer Library, I’d ask you to think about the ways in which it’s carefully curated, designed to make it possible to get lost productively, to discover something unexpected but wonderful. Possibly the only thing at Williams more carefully curated is the class you are a part of. We’ve got an almost infinite capacity to put information on shelves physically or virtually, but the opportunity to be in this place, with these people for four years is decidedly finite. I’m grateful for the effort that went into giving me a universe of a couple thousands people who challenged me and invited me to discover new ways of looking at the world.

This is something the college does very consciously, for the simple reason that who we know is going to help determine who we are. I don’t mean this in the narrow sense that, if the person sitting next to you founds the next Facebook, maybe you’ll get some stock options. I mean it in a much broader sense: that who you know, who you care about tends to determine how you view the world, what you pay attention to, and ultimately will shape your path through the world.

Like the library, like the internet, the class of 2015 is too big to know. But if the challenge of a really great library is not just to explore what you already know, what you already care about, the challenge is the same, to challenge yourself to expand your picture of the world by expanding who you know and who and what you care about.

Here’s what Zephiniah Swift Moore took from Williams when he left for Amherst: he took 15 students, 20% of the student body. We can think of those mythical stolen books as shrinking the universe, what we could learn from those volumes. But we should think of losing those students in the same way, as losing the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes.

We’re always going to have to make choices about who we know, what we read, what we care about. We never get to read every book, even when there are only 360 on the shelves, and we’re never going to know the people around us as well as they deserve to be known. But we can make decisions to choose a wider world. In ways I never expected, Williams launched me into a world that’s wider than I had imagined. I am eternally grateful for this and I hope the same for you.


Writing this address was a great chance to read up on the early history of Williams and its library. Here are some of the sources I benefited from:

Dustin Griffin (Williams ’65) wrote a terrific essay, “The Theft of the Williams Library”, which I drew from heavily. I’m especially grateful to Griffin for the term “bibliolarceny”.

Steve Satullo (Williams ’69) has been researching the history of Williams libraries as the college has built and moved Sawyer library. His essays have been very helpful for understanding the early days of the Williams library and its shortcomings.

In understanding the state of Williams College and the reasons Zephaniah Swift Moore and others believed it was important to move Williams from the wilderness toward the more settled Pioneer Valley, the 1895 “A History of Amherst College” by William S. Tyler is very helpful.

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Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/07/08/life-only-moderately-messed-up-understanding-high-functioning-depression/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2014/07/08/life-only-moderately-messed-up-understanding-high-functioning-depression/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:55:59 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=4896 Continue reading ]]> My wife is one of the bravest people I know.

Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.

Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.

Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.

(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)

In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.

I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.

I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.

But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013’s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014’s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.

Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.

These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.

My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.

I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)

There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)

But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.

I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped. My friend Ed Platt notes, in a thoughtful blog post, that this probably isn’t an appropriate option for people with serious alcohol problems.)

As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)

So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”

It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.

So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)

I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.

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