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…My Heart’s in Accra
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Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
Updated: 46 min 5 sec ago

I never went looking for a mentor

February 13, 2016 - 10:19am

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.

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.

Categories: Blog

Fred Turner: The link from anti-fascist art and the “historical problem” of Facebook

February 4, 2016 - 4:11pm

Fred Turner, the leading chronicler of the links between the 60s counterculture and the internet revolution, turned his sights to the rise of multimedia in America prior to the 1960s in his recent book The Democratic Surround. On February 4, Turner returned to his hometown and to MIT, where he previously taught, to talk to architecture students about ideas of democracy, interactivity and public space. (I’m a Turner groupie, not an architecture student, so I came as well, along with roughly half of the Center for Civic Media.)

Turner explains that the story he will tell unfolds in building 7 of MIT, many years ago. But he starts the story with the “historical problem” of Facebook. Facebook offers a world in which connecting through a commercial, institutional space is presented as a democratic good. Our relations, connected through devices, is supposed to be a good – how on earth did we come to believe this is true? Oddly the answer comes from World War II and a turn away from centralized communication systems and the sense that these technologies were connected to fascism. That led to the idea that multimedia – sounds and images from all sides – would lead us to an appreciation of democracy and choice. Further, Fred wants to explore how computers got attached to that story, first by Norbert Weiner at MIT.

Turner tells us that we are currently surrounded by screens at all time – our phones, laptops, televisions. They are usually technologies of interpersonal connection. They invite us to create a new polity based on connecting with one another, united by seeking. The images we create for Facebook are the ones we encounter in the commercial sphere. We are being offered a model of democratic politics that is not democratic at all – it is a model based on surveillance and control.

After checking to see that the room is free of “card carrying historians”, turner explains that historian of 20th century America tend to cite Roosevelt as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Their history tends to be a history of political leaders and the social forces they manage. “That boggles my mind,” he explains, since one of the most interesting aspects of the 20th century is media: radio, television, cinema. These are so far from mainstream American history that these historians have their own professional societies. One goal is to return media to the center of studying American history. Another is to historicize media studies.

His book, The Democratic Surround, covers the period from 1937 to 1967, and it’s a prequel to his earlier book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which covers from 1968 to 1993. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner finds the roots of Wired Magazine and digital utopianism in 60s countercultural movements. Completing that history, he wanted to go further back, to the origins of those countercultural movements in reactions to World War II.

In 1938, American intellectuals had a problem. Germany was the center of intellectual culture and music. When Germany turned itself over to the leadership of Adolf Hitler, an obvious madman, people needed to figure out why. A popular explanation given was that Hitler had somehow mastered mass media – newspapers, movies, radio – and figured out how to capture the unconscious allegiance of ordinary Germans. One theory is that Hitler and Goering were literally insane, and that the media was the channel for making their madness communicable. Another theory was that the mass media was profoundly powerful, that the one to many practice of mass media was essentially a fascist model.

Reading old issues of the Sunday Evening Post, Turner was shocked to find FDR described as “the fourth fascist”, alongside Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Why? Because he had managed to capture mass media through his fireside chats and channel American public opinion in support of his policies. By 1941, many Americans feared that mass media could turn people into fascists… and this wasn’t an absurd idea. Father Coughlin had an audience of 3 million, and he used the airwaves to push The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Madison Square Garden in the late 1930s, 22,000 people rallied for fascism, against Judaism, in defense of “Christian America”. Fascism was surprisingly popular with Americans, even Naziism.

Turner invites us to yell out Bogart films – Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre – and notes that none of us mentioned The Black Legion, a 1937 film in which Bogart is a blackshirt fascist who kills his Polish neighbor in the hopes of starting a fascist revolution.

The fear is that mass media creates fascists, either by conveying the insanity of American leaders, or by putting us into masses that all point in the same direction. If we want to confront fascism, how do we do so without turning them into fascists. FDR has an idea – he wants to copy Goebbel’s methods to deprogram Americans. But there’s another group at work – the Committee for National Morale, assembled in 1941, a group of 60 leading social scientists who work together to make propaganda that would promote “democratic character”.

The idea of democratic character ties to the idea that nations have a pre-existing personality that can be triggered by media. Germany’s authoritarian character was triggered by Nazi media. How can America’s fundamental democratic character be triggered by media? And once we trigger this character, how do we “coordinate the intelligences and will” of people? They theorize that they need to build a medium based on “non-hierarchical principals”. They have theories about images for all sides, smoke bombs, spectacles to force individuals to choose and integrate different images.

Fortunately, a bunch of refugees from the Bauhaus were down the street. Turner focuses on Herbert Bayer, whose theory of exhibitions was enormously influential. Bayer challenged the idea that pictures were meant to be held on walls at eye level. Instead, as a gestaltist, Bayer believed that we needed to see images all around ourselves and knit these images into a single experience which helps us integrate our whole self. When Bayer comes to the US fleeing the Nazis, he’s happy to bring this idea to the project of creating the democratic man and pushing against the Nazi regime.

Bayer’s first exhibit in the US was “The Road to Victory”, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. 800,000 people saw the exhibit over 6 weeks, an awfully large number in the context of the population of New York City. It’s clearly a propagandistic, jingoistic exhibit. But the nationalism of the imagery wasn’t what people appreciated – it was the fact that the images were shown at different levels and that the exhibit forced people through a particular path, inviting the viewer to integrate the images as she passed through.

This idea of integrating multiple perspectives is surprisingly influential on cybernetics. Many of the members of the Committee for National Morale participated in the Macy Conferences, bringing social scientists like Margaret Mead into contact with technological thinkers like Norbert Weiner. Weiner believed that we should think of democratic citizens as self-regulating machines, taking in feedback and reacting accordingly. Fascist citizens, on the other hand, can be understood as mechanistic ants. To be fully human is to understand that you are information system seeking information from other information systems.

The democratic surround – these multimedia exhibitions – go out into the world in travelling propaganda expos and through the art world, eventually influencing the 1960s counterculture. In both cases, computation is deeply implicated in the process. Turner shows us “Glimpses of the USA”, an exhibit of US technology in Moscow in 1959. The US Information Agency with large American corporations built a massive exhibition seen by 2 million Soviet citizens. Inside a geodesign dome designed by Buckminster Fuller are seven huge screens designed by Charles and Ray Eames, showing images that move at different rates, designed both to show American abundance, and to give Soviet citizens the chance to choose between images as in Bayer-style exhibits.

In the archives, studying these exhibitions, Turner discovered that USIA’s approach to this exhibit was for the exhibitors to “act like therapists”, understanding the psychological conditions of the Soviet visitors, to attempt an intervention and to evaluate its success. In essence, the Glimpses of the USA exhibit was to surveil and record the mindset of the Soviet Union. A IBM RAMAC Computer answered questions in Russian, and compiled dossiers on what Soviets wanted to know.

Turner juxtaposes these propaganda exhibits against the art world of composers like John Cage. Cage explains 3″44 and the idea that listening to “silence” and environmental sounds is a part of creating an integrated self. It’s widely believed that Cage came to this line of thought through his interest in Eastern religion. But Turner has found evidence that Cage was a profound patriot, who was interested in using percussion and electronic music to help Americans understand the experience of freedom.

We jump forward to 1952 to Black Mountain College, the rural educational retreat where Buckminster Fuller deployed his first dome, and where Cage and others deployed the first “happening”. Someone climbed a ladder and declaimed a poem. A dog ran around. Someone pounded on a piano, and people put teacups on a chair. “That was it. On what planet does that transform art for the next two decades?”

In 1957, Cage goes to New York and teaches the founders of the “happenings” world. In 1966, they hold an exhibition called by a journalist a “be-in”. It was a multimedia, psychedelic environment designed to help you understand yourself as a global citizen. This was the aesthetic of late universal humanism.

Turner explains that this is a world where artists and engineers want to play together. At the Pepsi Pavillion in Osaka in 1970 are cybernetic organisms you can interact with. When you enter, the space is designed to be a three dimensional computational and art experience. The builders of this space are associated with everyone from Cage’s happenings to Bell Labs, all working for Pepsi, who are trying to bring us “the young generation”. It was computer monitored and maintained environment designed to create psychological freedom. You see yourself in the mirrored Mylar ceiling, literally surrounded by reflections of yourself. (“Facebook”, Turner notes.) As you walk across the floor, you trigger different sounds which play to you on a handset. You are part of a cybernetic loop, free to experience the diversity of the national and mechanical world. As Weiner says, “We are but patterns of information in rivers of time.”

You would think there would be a happy end to this story. The people who participated in the be-ins that led to the summer of love were exactly the self-actualized people Margaret Mead and the committee for national morale were trying to create in 1942. But there’s a problem.

In these multimedia exhibitions, you are free to explore, to cluster, to see yourself in the images of very different people. But this whole experience has been intensely curated, and power is being exercised on you via aggregation. And those powerful shaping forces are invisible. “You can shout back at Hermann Göring, but how do you shout back at the exhibition designers?”

And that’s where we are now, Turner explains. We are in a world of personal choice, where reaching out to connect with distant others is, in fact, the tool used to control us.

Some of the questions ask whether Turner is being unfair or unkind in describing Bayer and others as oppressing those who experience their exhibits. Turner explains that we’re too often looking for a bad guy. In this story, we have many people whose intentions are good, who are working on the right issues, and end up creating systems that act counter to what they expected and intended. Asked how artists could avoid being “accidentally oppressive”, Turner points out that the key involves who you collaborate with and how – while the 1960s happenings were run almost exclusively by privileged white men and featured women primarily as objects, Turner asks us to imagine genuine expressions of equal collaboration in a polyracial and feminist society.

Categories: Blog

Why is Verizon letting rural broadband decay?

February 4, 2016 - 4:37am

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:

That is, when @EthanZ writes that rural telecom is "getting worse" that's only true for people who've had it for a long time.

— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016

Many of @EthanZ's 208 fellow rural DSL customers, though, have experienced an improvement from "no broadband" to "shitty broadband."

— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016

Llong-time power users like @EthanZ see a degradation, but shitty broadband is better than none, and those folks see telecom improving.

— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016

This complicates the politics a bit, and makes it harder to generate the outrage that would be needed to force change on monopolies.

— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016

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.

Categories: Blog

Heroin and Hope

February 1, 2016 - 7:11pm

This story is cross-posted on FOLD.cm, where it’s got more links, images and a layout that lets you see what’s behind the links while you read the story. Check it out there, and try FOLD to publish your own stories.

I became a Anthony Bourdain fan when he moved from the printed page to the television screen. I’d enjoyed his snarky, insider view of the NY restaurant scene, but I identified more with his mix of wide-eyed wonder and frustration as he began traveling the world in search of inspiring food and the people and cultures behind it. As his traveling circus has moved from network to network, he and his crew have gotten braver, focusing less on strange food and more on the politics of the places they’re visiting. In his show on Myanmar, the first interview is in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous tea shops. But the interview is with a leading opposition journalist, not a chef or food writer. Bourdain still eats well, but his viewers leave with an impression of a city’s character and politics, not just its flavor profile.

When Bourdain and “Parts Unknown” came to Massachusetts last winter, I was excited. Everyone comes to Boston, but very few TV crews make it out west past 495, the conceptual dividing line between Boston’s suburbs and the rest of the state. One of the promotional shots for the show featured The People’s Pint, one of my favorite bars, in Greenfield MA. So Rachel and I sat down to watch the show a few days before last Christmas, fingers crossed that our friends with restaurants in western MA would be showcased in front of an international audience. And then discovered that the show wasn’t about food, but about heroin.

Bourdain learned to cook in the clam shacks of Provincetown, MA, and the show follows him through the streets of the charming seaport, as he remembers his wild youth and his introduction to drugs, and eventually to heroin. To examine what heroin is doing today, Bourdain visits Franklin County, MA, a corner of western MA that’s wrestling with an opioid epidemic. As Bourdain interviews a former heroin dealer while sitting on a log in the woods, my hopes for seeing favorite restaurants like Hope and Olive featured turned into a fervent prayer that I wouldn’t see anyone I recognized.

Western MA and southern Vermont have become major transit points for heroin moving north from New York City along I-87, I-89 and I-91. Some of it heads to Boston, Portland and Montreal, but enough sticks around to saturate small towns. Some heroin users have never used another illegal drug previously – they got hooked on pharmaceutical opioids prescribed by doctors treating pain and turned to heroin when pharmacies became more careful about releasing Oxycontin and other prescription medications. Others are kids bored with small town life, long winters and collapsing economies. Towns like Bennington, VT – featured by the New York Times in a story about the rural “heroin scourge” – have small police departments that are desperately trying to catch up with the reality of a local drug trade.

There’s a possible upside to the opioid epidemic, if it’s possible to say such a thing about a tragedy that’s destroying families and killing people. A rural, white drug epidemic might be what finally ends the US’s racist, failed war on drugs.

A recent New York Times article featured Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, MA, a beach town north of Boston, praising his approach to heroin, which keeps addicts out of prison and steers them into treatment programs, locally and nationally. His program, which has inspired dozens of others around the country, is laudable, as are efforts by Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who spent the entirety of his 2014 State of the State message talking about opioids, seeking to reframe the conversation about heroin as one about public health, not about crime. Police officers in our area carry Naloxone, a drug that can often reverse heroin overdoses. Some police departments have unofficial policies that heroin users won’t be arrested, particularly if they are bringing in another user who is overdosing.

In other words, in our corner of New England, we’re starting to see a sane, rational, humane approach by law enforcement to drug addiction. We’re starting to see people realize that drug addiction is a health issue, that prosecuting end users is counterproductive, that treatment is vastly less expensive than incarceration.

It’s about time. And all it took was for our neighbors to become addicts.

The war on drugs has disproportionately been a war on black people. African Americans are 12% of the population of US drug users, but represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those in prison for drug offenses. These numbers didn’t happen by accident – the war on drugs is one of the clearest illustrations of structural racism in action. Mandatory minimum sentences initially prescribed sentences for crack cocaine (disproportionately used by African Americans) at 100 times the severity of sentences for powdered cocaine (disproportionately used by white Americans) – 10 grams of crack led to the same sentence as 1kg of powder, despite the fact that the two are pharmacologically identical. Sentencing reform dropped this disparity to 18 to 1 in 2010, but harsh sentences aren’t the only reason for disparities in prison populations. Overpolicing of communities of color is another reason. Lots of cops on the street lead to lots of arrests for petty drug crimes, which means more people have previous offenses, which means future arrests for minor drug crimes lead to serious time.

So when white police officers suddenly realize that the war on drugs isn’t working because white people are dying, it’s easy to understand why people of color might find these displays of compassion somewhat frustrating.

It’s astounding how easy it is for law enforcement to have compassion for white drug addicts. https://t.co/slrssP6Sfp

— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) January 24, 2016

My guess is that the shift in law enforcement attitudes isn’t purely racial, but also tribal. The communities where these policy changes are taking place are often small towns where police officers are literally arresting neighbors and their kids. Mayors and police chiefs in these towns talk about how difficult it was to arrest their kid’s childhood friend or classmate. My guess is that the realization that your child could be next – a realization that comes from seeing a problem as one that affects your tribe – goes a long way towards building compassion.

In this sense, we may be seeing a moment with drug abuse in the US that’s not unlike a national shift around equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. For civil rights advocates, the incredible speed at which a majority of Americans accepted equal marriage stands in sharp contrast to the centuries-long struggle for the legalization of interracial marriage. One theory that has been offered for the difference in pace is that gays and lesbians appear to be evenly distributed throughout the US population, which means that most families – even Dick Cheney’s – have a homosexual somewhere in their family tree, while interracial marriage in a majority white country is disproportionately common in communities of color. Perhaps the discovery that drug addiction affects white and black, rural and urban is what we need to finally turn our national discourse on drugs from one about crime into one about health.

My hope for this moment in time is that families who’ve gone through the trauma of losing a loved one to opioid overdose will see themselves as part of a national movement to reform our nation’s broken drug policies. My hope is that the police chiefs and political leaders who are helping Vermont and Massachusetts cope with heroin abuse will help colleagues throughout the country realize that the drug war is a destructive and broken strategy. And my hope is that the sense of “we’re in this together” that communities are manifesting in response to the opioid epidemic is one that could extend beyond rural white communities and represent a new approach to tackling not just drug addiction but problems of poverty, health, and structural racism.

Hope alone won’t make change. But hope, in tandem with anger at the unfairness of a drug war that has decimated communities and ruined lives, might be enough to finally end the war on drug users and build a compassionate response to addiction.

Categories: Blog

Update, or a missing person report

January 31, 2016 - 10:42am

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.

Categories: Blog

Urgent: Reports that Bassel Khartabil has been sentenced to death

November 13, 2015 - 6:39am

Bassel Khartabil, a leading figure in the Syrian Open Source software community, has been imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012, accused of “harming state security”. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his immediate release.

Khartabil’s wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, has recently been contacted by insiders in the Assad government and told that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death. (English translation/comments on Noura’s Facebook post, which is in Arabic.) It is impossible to confirm these rumors, but this is deeply disturbing news for friends of Bassel and defenders of freedom of expression anywhere.

The Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, has released a statement demanding that the Syrian government alert Bassel’s family to his whereabouts and exercise clemency in his case. We at the MIT Media Lab join this call, and urge the internet community to exercise whatever pressure we can on the Syrian government to make Bassel’s whereabouts known and release him from detention.

On October 22, the MIT Media Lab invited Bassel Khartabil to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media, to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. We continue to hope that Bassel will be able to take his position at the Media Lab, and we desperately hope the rumors of his death sentence are untrue.

We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel’s arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.

-Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab (post on Joi’s blog)
-Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

Categories: Blog

Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust

October 19, 2015 - 6:32am

The fine folks at Syracuse University’s Humanities Center invited me to deliver the keynote address in their annual symposium series, this year focused on “Networks”. Here are the notes and slides from my talk, with the somewhat weighty title, “Insurrectionist Civics and Digital Activism in the Age of Mistrust.”

About six weeks ago, I was in Accra, Ghana, one of my favorite cities in the world. I was meeting with a group of bloggers and social media users, because that’s what I do – I study digital media in the developing world, and specifically the ways people use media to make change. So I was thrilled with the guy in the red hat – Efo Dela – told me that he was one of the organizers of Ghana’s Dumsor protests.

Dumsor is Twi for “on/off” and that’s what’s been happening to the electric power in Ghana for the last year or so – it keeps going on and off, turning off for 12, 24, 36 hours at a time. In part this is happening because of climate change – there’s very litte rain so there’s not enough water in Lake Volta to provide hydropower.

But it’s also because Ghana’s no longer a desperately poor country, and these days, there are lots of people with air conditioning and television in a city like Accra, and they’re as pissed off as you and I would be if the power kept going off, especially because it’s 95F and humid in Accra much of the time.

Efo helped organize and promote a march of 5000 people from the outskirts of the city into the area around the capital, which got a lot of attention, because protests of that scale are very unusual in Ghana. Knowing that he’s a big figure on Ghanaian twitter, I asked him whether a lot of people in Ghana used the internet for political organizing, as he’d done. He immediately corrected me, saying, “Whoa, man, I’m not political.”

There’s a lot of places where I work where activists tell you that they’re not political, because to be seen as political is to risk your life. But Ghana’s not one of those nations – it’s a stable democracy that routinely scores higher on indexes of press freedom than the US.

So Efo wasn’t afraid of being arrested.

He was afraid that everyone else in the room would think he was an idiot.

Efo explained to me that Ghanaians are so frustrated with politics that within his generation of young, internet-savvy guys, no one wanted to be associated with either of Ghana’s major political parties. In fact, the easiest way to lose credibility in the Ghanaian internet community was for someone to declare you a member of the NPP or the NDC, the two major political parties, because at that point, anything you say is assumed to be said purely to score political points. To keep the online audience he currently reaches and to be effective at mobilizing people, Efo can’t even be seen being too friendly with politicians or prominent members of either party – he avoids even being in the same photographs with people who are closely associated with either major party.

As I listened to Efo explain his anti-politics to me, I was reminded of other conversations I’ve had in the past few years. Friends in Nigeria who took to the streets to protest that country’s removal of a fuel subsidy, which ended up raising prices on transportation and food, causing hardship for most ordinary Nigerians. Activists in Pakistan and India who collect information on corruption, reporting police or customs officials who ask for bribes, or taxi drivers who cheat passengers, using crowdmapping to document these patterns. Friends in Russia who use the internet to collect resources for people affected by natural disasters and provide relief that the government should be, but isn’t providing. What these movements have in common is the youth of their organizers, their use of digital media to organize and promote, and an insistence by their organizers that these efforts are not political.

You may have noticed that we’ve entered our 20-month long election process here in the US, and the front runners – at least in terms of pundit attention – are people who aren’t politicians – Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina – or who are at least very unusual politicians, like socialist Vermont representative Bernie Sanders. For many years, voters have been telling pollsters that they’re sick of politics – perhaps this is a year that people start voting that way as well.

If you happen to be running for office, this does seem like a wise time not to be a politician. When Gallup asked Americans in late 2014 about whether they would rate the honesty and ethical standards of a given profession as high or very high, politicians came out lower than used car salespeople and ad executives. (People who teach at colleges and universities come out at 53% in a poll in 2012, which leaves us well behind doctors and nurses, but better than lawyers.)

I teach civics, so you’re probably expecting me to tell you that this is a national crisis, that we need to figure out how to revitalize a generation of voters so that we don’t lose all that’s miraculous about American democracy, so we can strengthen what’s best in our political system and help emerging democracies in Ghana, Nigeria, India and everywhere else in the world that’s experiencing a crisis in democratic faith.

Unfortunately, I’m not that guy.

Actually, I’m having my own crisis of democratic faith at the moment. As we head into the 2016 elections, I’m having real trouble getting excited. Three years after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, we seem no closer to passing significant gun control legislation. We’re seeing unmistakeable signs that our climate is changing, but few signs that our legislators see this as a problem, never mind one that we could and should address.

I have enormous respect and fondness for friends like Eric Liu who are working to revitalize American democracy, appealing to our sense of patriotism and asking us to be part of the change we want to see in the world. I want them to succeed. But I’m starting to think that what’s going on in the US right now requires a different approach. I think we’re at a moment of very high mistrust, not just in government, but in large, powerful institutions as a whole. And I think if we want to revive our civic life, we need to think about a vision of civics that’s appropriate for an age of widespread mistrust.

Pew Research Center compiled dozens of polls to show the decline of American’s trust in government over the past few decades. In 1964, 77% of people told pollsters that they trusted the government in Washington all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to less than 20%. And while it’s rebounded slightly since that low point, I would point out that the only time in my life that a majority of Americans said they trusted the government was just before we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.

What’s interesting – and disturbing – is that Americans are losing faith not just in government, but in a wider set of institutions of public life. Gallup regularly polls Americans on their confidence in fifteen institutions. Over the past four decades, trust has increased in only two of those institutions: the military, and small business. For other institutions, trust has decreased, or collapsed. In 1975, 80% of respondents trusted medical system “a great deal or quite a lot” – by 2014, that figure is down to 37%. While no institution fares worse than Congress, down from 42% in 1973 to 8% now, it hasn’t been a good few decades for banks, big corporations, newspapers, television news, public schools or organized religion.

This rising tide of mistrust isn’t limited to the United States. Public relations firm Edelman conducts similar polls in countries around the world, asking about trust in a broad set of institutions and finds that trust is shrinking in most European nations. Where trust remains high is in a set of nations that includes successful autocracies like UAE, Singapore and China, countries that have made an implicit deal with their citizens that economic advancement will come at the expense of constraints on democratic participation.

It’s not hard to think about why levels of trust are lower in 2015 than they were in 1965. Richard Nixon’s criminal misconduct and impeachment was deeply corrosive to Americans’ faith and confidence in the presidency, specifically, and government more broadly.

The long reigns of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s were another blow to confidence in government, as our most prominent political figures told us time and again that government couldn’t do anything right and that only the private sector could be counted on not to screw up important projects.

And in the spirit of bipartisanship and fairness, I’ll note that we could argue that Clinton’s extramarital affair and the ensuing impeachment didn’t do much to increase American’s confidence in their government or the people who led it.

More recently, we have evidence that our government isn’t capable of taking on really big challenges, like protecting the residents of New Orleans from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding. Our catastrophic failure to protect people in the path of the storm and the flooding that followed suggested that the wealthiest nation in the world was surprisingly incompetent and powerless.

For those who’ve maintained faith that markets can save us if no other institutions can, the financial crisis of 2007-8 should give pause. Our most powerful financial institutions look shaky and fragile, and surprisingly dependent on government intervention to stay afloat.

The changing shape of media over the past forty years has a role in the rise of mistrust as well. Woodward and Bernstein showed us that the press was capable of exposing abuses at the highest levels of power, and encouraged a wave of investigative journalism aimed at exposing corruption in powerful institutions. The rise of the web has meant that you don’t need a powerful media organization to raise powerful questions through the media. The ability for people to publish and debate online has given us the revelations from Wikileaks and from Edward Snowden. But we’ve also seen the rise of a culture where everything’s up for debate, where the idea that the American president is a “secret Muslim” is debated for years online and off.

MSNBC commentator Christopher Hayes offers helpful vocabulary to understand this moment in his book “Twilight of the Elites”. Hayes suggests that the most significant divide in US politics today is not between left and right but between “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist” approaches to civic life. Institutionalists believe we need to strengthen and rebuild the institutions that have brought us this far, while insurrectionists want to overthrow the power of those institutions and either build new ones in their place, or see whether we’re able to exist without these sorts of institutions.

It’s not hard to see examples of insurrectionism in contemporary politics. Hayes identifies the Tea Party as the locus of insurrectionism in the Republican Party. As we’re seeing with the challenge of finding a Speaker of the House, those who would rather shut down the US government than compromise on Planned Parenthood or Obamacare are surprisingly powerful, in part because many really do want to shut down the government. But insurrectionists include those on the left who aren’t willing to line up behind Hillary Clinton because they’re not convinced that beating the Republicans would be a real victory if it leaves us with four or eight more years of partisanship and gridlock.

But there’s evidence of insurrectionism outside of politics as well. At MIT, we’re in the midst of an entrepreneurship craze – you may be experiencing this at Syracuse as well. The coolest thing you can do as a college student is graduate – or leave before you graduate – and found a startup. The lamest thing you can do is join a large, established company – and large, established companies no longer mean IBM or Bank of America, they include Google. There’s a strong sense that the way in which you can leave your mark on the universe is not through existing, powerful institutions but through small, nimble structures that haven’t yet had time to become calcified and bureaucratic.

So insurrectionism looks like more fun than institutionalism, and I’ve already made it clear that sympathetic to the insurrectionist stance, at least for the purposes of this talk. But there’s an open question for insurrectionism and civics: Can insurrectionists make meaningful, lasting social change?

My choice of images here suggests that I think the answer is yes, but I want to complicate that story. The image is from the March on Washington, one of the high points of the US civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. led over a quarter million Americans to Washington to demand an end to segregation and discrimination, and in the following years, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But for the March on Washington to be effective, Reverend King and the rest of the movement had to influence a government that was capable of passing these powerful and sweeping laws. I don’t have confidence that a march on Washington could have this effect today, that our Congress could pass reforms on this scale. And if we can’t march on Washington, where do we march?

The model pursued by the civil rights movement is one we still use today: elect the right people to office, and influence them so that they take action on the issues you care about. In other words, our power as citizens comes from influencing the institutions that govern our country. The NRA are institutionalists when they work to influence legislators to oppose any gun control, and the Human Rights Campaign are institutionalists when they work to bring equal marriage to the Supreme Court. Despite radically different points of view, their core methods are similar, and they both depend on confidence in these core civic institutions.

But change is lots harder for insurrectionists. If we decide that Congress no longer represents the will of the people – because members are so beholden to donors, because representatives now have to speak for 700,000 people rather than the 30,000 they spoke for when we founded the nation, because partisanship is so high that very little legislation gets passed, then any strategy that involves Congress – whether it’s elections, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins, or even marches – can’t accomplish major change.

And so, often, insurgents are revolutionaries. They have lost confidence in the possibility of making change through any existing institutions, so they wanted to smash them all and start again. That’s what we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan, countries where cartoonish dictators had ruled for years and where every institution of the public and private sector was part of an unjust system. And when people rose up against those governments, we tended to root for the revolutionaries, because it seemed absurd and impossible that these corrupt institutions could be reformed or changed.

But it hasn’t gone so well for the countries of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where activists launched the revolution that spread throughout the region, civil society leaders received the Nobel Prize for the simple reason that theirs is the only nation that had a revolution and didn’t descend into anarchy. The successful revolution in Libya and the failed one in Syria have both turned into bloodbaths. In Egypt, we discovered an uncomfortable truth of revolutions – if you topple a powerful authority, the likely outcome is that whoever was next most powerful and organized will take power: in Egypt, it was first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the army, an institution that has demonstrated that it’s capable of the indignities and cruelties of the Mubarak regime.

Revolutions where we replace existing flawed institutions with new, different institutions are exceedingly rare. That’s one way to understand the Occupy movement. The goal of Occupy wasn’t to oust a president or a mayor, but to change the way our society organizes and governs itself. That’s a tall order – many people involved with Occupy would argue that the movement had difficulty governing itself within encampments, never mind scaling the model of General Assembly to govern a city or a nation.

If we’re skeptical that we can make change within institutions, if we’re worried that many revolutions seem to lead to more harm than good, what’s left to try?

I’m seeing lots of examples of a third way, a form of civics that starts with a simple question: “What’s the most effective way I can be a civic actor?”

In 1999, professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a book called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. It was a seminal book in the field of cyberlaw, but turns out to be very handy for activists as well. Lessig wanted to explain how societies regulate behaviors. We use law to make some behaviors legal or illegal. But we also use markets to make some undesirable behaviors expensive – think of taxes on cigarettes. We use norms to regulate: no one enforces a law that says we walk on the right side of the sidewalk or a staircase, but most people do. One of Lessig’s key contributions of the book is pointing out that code – as well as architectures of the physical world – can make certain behaviors possible or impossible. Put a CD into your laptop, and your operating system will probably offer to make a copy of the disc and store it on your hard drive. Put in a DVD, and it will allow you to watch the movie, but not copy it. Code makes one behavior – ripping a CD – easy, while making ripping a DVD hard.

These methods of regulating rarely exist in isolation – we usually use a mix of law, code, norms and markets to shape behaviors. But understanding these as four particular ways to influence human behavior is helpful.

I find Lessig’s four methods of regulation especially helpful for activists. I think of the four forms of regulation as levers an activist might try to move. And when one of those levers is stuck, it’s often a good idea to pull on the other three levers. If you’re frustrated by your personal inability to make change through law – the essence of institutionalist activism – either because you think our institutions or broken, or you despair at your personal ability to change them, you’ve got at least three other ways to try to change the world.

I’m deeply frustrated – ashamed, really – by US government surveillance of domestic and international users of the internet by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden and the journalists who worked with him. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that either President Obama or this Congress will make more than cursory changes to our surveillance apparatus… and I’m not sure how I’d even verify that these changes took place, given the NSA’s track record of lying to Congress.

So it’s gratifying to see a wave of activism that focuses on building tools to make communications unreadable even by intelligence agencies – Signal, Mailvelope, PGP and Tor. This software is challenging to build, and it can be complicated to be involved with these projects – friends who work developing open source security software tell me that they have a very hard time flying in the United States due to frequent supplemental screenings. But the adoption of this software as it becomes more user friendly shows the potential to make change in an area where change sometimes looks impossible.

So maybe surveillance doesn’t have you worried. Climate change should. But it’s been fascinating to watch entrepreneurs look for ways to make money and make change around alternative energy, from the boom in home solar installations, and the adoption of wind turbines as alternative revenue stream for farmers in rural areas. Most visible may be Elon Musk’s ambitions for Tesla motors, where he’s trying to build the world’s most desirable car that just happens to be battery powered. It’s worth examining whether these strategies are really routing around mistrusted institutions – Musk is seeking some massive subsidies to build his plants, and I’d be a lot less likely to put solar panels on my roof without a tax break. But these are definitely efforts that try to make change one consumer at a time rather than one law at a time using the power of markets to make change at scale.

The years since Trayvon Martin’s death have made clear that the US is not the post-racial paradise some had hoped for after President Obama’s election. And the death of Michael Brown was a reminder that black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. The #blacklivesmatter movement wants to pass laws, but its leaders also recognize that disproportionate violence against black people isn’t going to be ended just by passing laws or putting cameras on every police officer – it was already illegal for Michael Slager to kill Walter Scott. We need to change the norms of our society so that black men and boys aren’t automatically viewed as potential threats.

There’s a tendency to dismiss online activism as slacktivism or clicktivism – and no doubt some is. But online activism can be very powerful as well, particularly when it comes to shaping norms.

#iftheygunnedmedown was a campaign to call attention to the images used to portray Michael Brown after his death. Media outlets found Brown’s Facebook account and chose a picture where Brown was photographed from below, giving prominence to his height. Media outlet The Root found another Facebook photo in which Brown looks much less intimidating, and juxtaposed the two, asking “If they gunned me down, what picture would they use”, pointing out that how news media portrays a victim has influence on whether we see that victim as innocent or culpable. The campaign quickly became participatory with African Americans selecting pictures from their Facebook accounts that portrayed them at their most and least “acceptable”.

And like all online campaigns, it went a bit off the rails as white teenagers saw the hashtag as a great excuse to post pictures of themselves drunk at parties or behaving badly. But most contributions stayed within the spirit of the original, and soon there was a Tumblr featuring contributions.

Within three days, the New York Times had featured the #iftheygunnedmedown campaign and discussed the significance of the imagery used to portray Michael Brown. Many newspapers changed the image they used to depict Brown, and the imagine initially critiqued became hard to find online. It’s a long road from changing photo choice to eliminating racism, but #iftheygunnedmedown is evidence that online campaigns can shape media more broadly, and perhaps shape norms.

But here’s an uncomfortable truth for insurrectionists: if you’re effective in building a new system that changes the world, you probably become an institution in the process. If your solar panel company finds itself selling millions and transforming the climate, pretty soon you’ve become the electric company.

Some of the most ambitious experiments in insurrectionism are trying to build a world without institutions at all, where we’ve structurally worked our way around centralized points of control. Bitcoin is the most visible example, a currency that needs no central bank, no support from a world government to maintain it. Its architecture depends on the cooperation of thousands of people and their computers but promises resistance to the attempts of a small group to seize control over it – though there are concerns that Bitcoin may already be vulnerable to central control by unions of bitcoin miners. Some of the most ambitious promoters of bitcoin hope that these distributed architectures could provide a powerful new way to govern legal contracts, eliminating the need for branches of government and judiciary… but there real questions about whether it can even scale to be a currency that people use broadly.

Maybe you buy my argument that there are ways to be effective outside of existing institutions, maybe not. But there’s another problem we all have to cope with when we consider the future of civics. Whatever problems you or I have with institutions of democracy, they’re designed at their base to be deeply equal for their participants. The beauty of the democratic election is that each of us has a single vote, that whether you’re richer, or more famous, or have a better job, we’ve got the same opportunity to influence an election. In theory.

In theory, democracy works because each single person has one vote and all those votes are equal in the eyes of the law. But equality is not equity, and that’s an important distinction to understand for anyone working on social change. Equality implies that everyone has an equal change to participate, but doesn’t recognize that an equal chance may not lead to equal participation. Equity recognizes that playing fields aren’t level, that people may need disproportionate amounts of help to have equitable participation.

Last year, a law went into effect in Alabama that required a photo ID – usually a driver’s license – to vote. This month, Alabama announced they were closing 31 DMV offices across the state, including every one in counties where the population is 75% black. Black and white people have an equal right to vote in Alabama, but voting in Alabama is likely to be deeply inequitable.

The Voting Rights Act, one of the laws that the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march fought for, prevented states with history of voting discrimination from making changes to voting laws that were likely to increase inequity. But in 2013, the Supreme Court found in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder that this requirement to consider the effects on equity when changing voting laws was unconstitutional. After 50 years of legal protection for equity in voting, we’re likely to see some deeply inequitable voting outcomes in the next few years, a reminder of how important equity has been towards democratic practice and how hard the US has worked to put it in place.

Despite the infuriating case in Alabama, legal institutions are often a powerful tool for equity. And equity is a problem for the theories of change I’ve been celebrating here tonight. You’re a lot more likely to change the world with code if you’re a great programmer. You’re more likely to change the world by building a new company if you’ve got millions to invest. Equity even comes into play around norms based activism – you’ve got far more power to shape norms if you’re a celebrity, or if you wield a great deal of influence online.

How will we know if these changes to Alabama law exclude African Americans? We’ll monitor and see whether fewer Black people vote in 2016 than voted in 2012. Equity is about outcomes – we can’t just look the laws because it’s possible to have equal rights under the law and inequitable opportunity to exercise those rights. We need to monitor the equitability of other activism we undertake, including activism around norms using digital tools. Is online activism more powerful for #blacklivesmatter than for established politicians, brands and other incumbent powers?

“Monitoring” sounds passive, but it’s not – it’s a model for channeling mistrust to hold institutions responsible, whether they’re the institutions we’ve come to mistrust or the new ones we’re building today. When the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, CA in the late 1960s, they were an organization focused on combatting police brutality. They would follow police patrol cars and when officers got out to make an arrest, the Panthers – armed, openly carrying weapons they were licensed to own – would observe the arrest from a distance, making it clear to officers that they would intervene if they felt the person arresting was being harassed or abused, a practice they called “Policing the Police”.

Monitoring the police remains a critical feature of democracy. We know of the murder of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer because Feidin Santana was brave enough to film and share the video of his death. Now we’re seeing movements like Copwatch that train citizens on their rights in taping arrests. And monitorial citizenship happens through more formal ways, like civilian oversight boards that have the right to investigate police shootings.

Monitorial Citizenship is a powerful way of holding institutions responsible that benefits from technology because it allows many people working together to monitor situations that would be hard for any one individual to see. One project our lab is working on in Brazil is called Monitorando a Cidade – it invites neighborhood groups to select issues in their community to monitor and gives them crowdsourcing tools that let them map problems in their community and advocate for change.

I want to bring you back to Efo Dela, my Ghanaian friend who’s not political, despite organizing protest marches. If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have – that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, I’m with you – but I challenge you to find ways you can make change through code, through markets, through norms, through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build.

The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way.

I think we have an amazing opportunity to harness the mistrust many of us are feeling and turn it into real change. That’s the challenge I’m working on and the challenge I’d ask you to join me in working on.

Categories: Blog

Star Simpson at Freedom to Innovate

October 14, 2015 - 5:16am

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.

The “second act” of our conference introduced two speakers who experienced situations where their innovations and creativity led to encounters with law enforcement while they were students at MIT. The first speaker in this section was Star Simpson. I asked her how she wanted to be introduced – as a programmer, a hacker, a maker? Her response, “None of those. Please just tell them I was a student at MIT from 2006-2010.”

Star told us that she grew up in Hawaii, with parents who ran a two-person jewelry business. “I wasn’t surrounded by much technology.” But she quickly discovered that she loved to learn by doing and that despite growing up in paradise, she wanted to go out into the bigger world.

When she was eight, she learned about MIT – she looked it up on the internet – and “found a promise – out there was a place where if you wanted to learn the technical skills to change the world, you could, and MIT was that place.” In high school, Star sought out projects that would help her develop her technical skills. She worked on building one of the world’s largest wifi networks, and worked with what was then emerging software with the Hawaiian name of “wiki”. “I couldn’t believe it when I was invited to join people here in Cambridge – I wanted nothing more than to join in building the future.”


Star Simpson, photo by Jeff Lieberman

Star explained that her generation might not have been promised flying cars, as Peter Thiel has suggested, as wearable electronics, 3D printers, and shared information on the internet. Those are fields where she wanted to get her hands dirty, and shortly after arriving on campus, she came across a small student group called MITERS (the MIT Electronic Research Society). MITERS, Star explained, is centered around a machine shop, and everyone is welcome as long as they want to learn how to turn ideas into prototypes. “It’s one of the few places on campus that keeps alive the spirit of Building 20”, a wartime temporary building intended to house physicists for four years as they developed tech the US would need to win the war. Fundamental breakthroughs in radiation and microwave research occurred in that famously poorly built building (it stood for 55 years, not the four it had been intended for.) MITERS began in Building 20 and now is located in a small building north of campus, but Star sees the organization as retaining the spirit of its famously creative origin.

Every semester, the MIT Media Lab hires dozens of UROPs – undergraduate researchers – who build much of the technology the lab is known for. Working with a graduate student, they built a garment that sensed posture using low-cost accelerometers. “We were building something that no one else in the world had – there were no fitness trackers, no wearables.” She wanted something of her own that had the same sense of invention to it, “a garment that would change as I, as an EE student, learned to do bigger and better things, help me take advantage of the community I was part of, help me learn from my peers. What I wanted was to become a walking open hardware circuit wiki, where anyone could participate and build something cool.”

She went about building that, attaching a breadboard – a platform for prototyping electronics –
to a sweatshirt she could wear every day. She wore it around for a week and “found out what it was like to be popular, at least at MIT. People would tell me how cool it was,” and she found the groundswell of positivity surprising and gratifying. She had “grand visions for the project – I thought friends might help me become a walking low-power FM station.” Then she would change her mind and think about building a circuit to display information about the weather. “After
about a week on campus wearing the breadboard, I discovered that like most wikis, people looked but didn’t participate.”

So Star decided to create something as a simple demonstration project. “I took a break after my intro circuits class – which, incidentally, had cut out its practical circuit building lab piece – and went up to MITER, where I arranged 13 LEDs into a star and attached them to the breadboard.” The star, a reference to her name, served as a good conversation starter, and made it safer for her to bike at night. And for Star, it was a tangible realization of MIT’s motto, “Mens et Manus” – mind and hands – “It’s not enough to think up an idea – you must be able to practically effect it.”

“I’m not here because everyone loved my sweatshirt and because you can now buy it at the GAP,” Star continued. “What I didn’t see was the project through the eyes of people traumatized and looking for terrorists. I didn’t see my project through the eyes of someone who’s let their life be defined by fear.” As a person of color from Hawaii, Star told us, she looked like everyone else on the island she grew up on, but was unprepared for the idea that her ethnicity could contribute to being perceived as a security threat.

After a week of wearing the LED-enhanced sweatshirt, Star told us she stayed up until 6am to finish problem sets, then decided to meet her boyfriend, who was arriving at Logan on a redeye. She slept for an hour and then decided to meet him at baggage claim. “Never have my plans gone so awry.” It turned out that her boyfriend hadn’t expected her to come to Logan to meet him and had already left. So she wandered around the airport, attracting attention from people who worked there and worried about the electronics attached to her chest. Someone at the airport called the police.

“The police arrived brandishing more guns than I had seen in my life,” she recalled. But Star is clear that the Boston PD reacted responsibly, and that she owes her life to their careful response. “I was told, after the fact, that I had been in the sights of a sniper. But the sniper realized that I was walking away from the airport, not to it, which wasn’t typical behavior for a terrorist.”

Star notes that, at the time she was arrested, you could legally have 11 pounds of ammunition in your luggage at baggage claim. “I had 13 LEDs.” The police restrained her and questioned her on the traffic island outside the airport, quickly determining that she was harmless. But she explained that the police were concerned about wrongful arrest laws – if she had been arrested wrongfully, she could sue. So they went ahead and pressed charges, even though it was clear that she posed no threat.

“MIT elected to issue a statement about what I had done, at a point where even the police didn’t have the facts.” The statement told the press that MIT believed Star’s actions were reckless and created cause for concern. “I will never know why MIT decided to make that statement.”

Star spent the rest of her sophomore year attending court dates. She was eventually charged with “possession of a hoax device”, an object that appeared to be “an infernal machine”. The charges eventually turned into a charge of disorderly conduct. “They needed to prove that I intended to cause alarm, which I certainly didn’t.” The threat of a prison sentence hung over her time at MIT. “I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the situation. I approached professors to see if I could finish my problem sets via correspondence.” She paused. “I was 19.”

“MIT’s statement really shaped how people perceived what happened,” Star tells us. Cycling in Boston, she would encounter people who were overtly hostile to her. A man in Copley Square attempted to push her off her bicycle, saying that she was stupid and should have done time. “He had the full weight of MIT’s words behind him.”

“It has been eight years since the arrest. My life has never been the same. I will never know what might have been.”

Star tells us that one of the most surprising outcomes is discovering just how many engineers have had a parallel experience. “Building something that’s provocative to others may just be a right of passage for engineers.” She hopes that her experiences were not meaningless, that other people who want to explore and tinker will get better protections from the institutions designed to support and nurture them.

“I have to wonder, too, what MIT has learned from this,” Star asked. “My advisor, Hal Abelson, supported me through my case, and only a few years later, would write a report about Aaron Swartz’s case. I was disappointed to learn that what MIT learned from my case is that they should say nothing at all.” Star continued, “It is clear that MIT’s choice did more harm than good… I do not believe that no action as a policy is the right policy.”

Star tells a story from MIT’s history, of a student who pulled a “hack” at the Harvard/Yale football game, a frequent site for MIT pranks. The goal of the hack was to cause a balloon with MIT’s name on it to emerge from the middle of the field during the game. To pull off the hack, the individual needed to wear a trenchcoat filled with batteries, to power the pump. He was caught by police and questioned. A dean from MIT showed up at the police station to support the student… also wearing a trenchcoat filled with batteries. The dean explained to the police, “All Tech men wear batteries,” challenging the idea that a coat filled with batteries should be cause for suspicion. (see note)

“That’s so different from the MIT I see today.”

Star thanked us, as organizers of the Freedom to Innovate conference and activists who’ve pushed for a clinic at MIT and BU that will protect student innovators. “Right now, you can build amazing things at the Media Lab, but it’s not clear whether you’ll have support if you bring them outside of these walls,” Star explains, pointing to Joi Ito’s strong support for student innovators at his time leading the Media Lab. “Instead of MIT attempting to preseve its reputation by distancing itself from creative members, I would like to see MIT using the full weight of its name to tell the world what it means to be an engineer.”

Star received a standing ovation when she completed her remarks. In the question and answer period that followed, students at the conference asked what she was doing now, whether she completed her education at MIT, whether she’s continued working on technology projects. Her simple answer: “No.” In other words, the experience she had is one that will take a long time to digest, and one that has left her far from the path she set out for at age 8.

(Note: As with many stories of famous MIT hacks, there’s distance between mythos and recorded history. According to Night Work, by institute historian T.F. Peterson, the battery story hails back to 1948, where MIT students had placed primer cord on the Harvard football field, planning to use dry cell batteries to ignite the primer cord and burn the letters into the field. One was caught, because he was wearing a heavy coat concealing the batteries on a warm day. In Peterson’s account, the dean did not intervene, but students wore coats with batteries for the following week in solidarity, saying “all Tech men wear batteries, just in case.”

Star’s version of the story – which I’d heard as well – is wonderful in that it’s great to imagine the administration defending hacking in this way. But the historical story has some resonance as well – more solidarity would have helped both Jeremy and Star, even if there was less institutional response than we would hope for.)

Categories: Blog

Jonathan Zittrain at Freedom to Innovate

October 13, 2015 - 7:23pm

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.

The Internet of Cranes, wherein Amazon monitors/monetizes when my crane talks to my laundry machine. –@zittrain #f2i pic.twitter.com/vOMRVG4JZX

— Erhardt Graeff (@erhardt) October 10, 2015

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.

Categories: Blog

Lessig 2016: A radical institutionalist runs for President

September 4, 2015 - 2:36pm

My friend Lawrence Lessig is exploring a run for president. His first step was to ask individuals to pledge towards a $1m war chest before Labor Day, agreeing to enter the Democratic primary if he received enough support. As of this evening, over 7000 donors have pledged over $860,000, and it looks likely that Lessig will become a candidate in three days.

I’m one of those 7000 donors who is encouraging him to run. But supporting Lessig’s campaign is different from supporting Sanders or Clinton, (or Bush or Trump, for that matter), and I’m supporting his cause for different reasons than I’d support any of theirs.

If Lessig is elected, he does not plan to serve his term as President – instead, if elected, he would stay in office long enough to pass a package of voting and campaign finance reforms, then resign, leaving his vice-president (possibly Bernie Sanders, possibly Elizabeth Warren) in charge. His reforms, contained in the Citizen Equality Act 2017, would require public funding of Presidential and Congressional campaigns, seek anti-gerrymandering reforms like Single Transferable Voting, and strengthen laws against voter suppression, like the Voting Rights Act.

Lessig calls this a referendum presidency. In other words, he’s not asking people to vote on him as a potential president, but to use the presidential election as a referendum on campaign finance reform. If Lessig won the presidency, he would have a strong mandate to advocate for this legislation in Congress, and perhaps Congress would finally act on meaningful electoral reform once they saw a majority (or plurality, or plurality of electors, given our nation’s baffling electoral college system) supporting these reforms. This referendum strategy is consistent with an argument he’s offered in his last three books: campaign finance is more important than all other political issues, as we can’t make progress on other issues until we fix the laws that have turned the US from a democracy into an oligarchy.

I don’t think Lessig is going to win. He’s late to a race in which Clinton has a strong team, fundraising and endorsements in place, and where Sanders is already doing well in channeling the left of the party into a protest vote – splitting a liberal electorate with Sanders is an unlikely primary strategy. While I do think that there’s a large number of people on both the left and the right who see money in politics as a critical problem to solve, I think those who’ve aligned with Trump because they believe him to be beholden to no one will have a hard time switching their allegiance to a liberal Harvard professor. (It’s interesting to read Lessig on Trump, who Lessig concedes is a far more influential speaker on campaign finance reform at the moment than he is.)

It’s also reasonable to observe that even if Lessig did win, he’s still unlikely to accomplish what he wants. He would likely face a Republican-dominated Congress which would oppose a set of reforms that would disproportionately damage Republican’s chances in Congress. (Gerrymandering has disproportionately benefitted Republicans in Congress, and the voter suppression he’s fighting largely impacts groups that tend to vote Democratic. Both parties have some candidates with heavy SuperPAC support and others with primarily small donor support.)

What these analyses miss is that Lessig often wins by losing. Despite lambasting himself for losing Eldred vs. Ashcroft, Lessig’s failure to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act became a rallying point for the anti-copyright movement, helping build Creative Commons as credible alternative to a system determined to keep works out of the public domain. Lessig was dismissed as special master from United States v. Microsoft after the software giant claimed Lessig was biased against him, but the experience helped shape Lessig’s masterful and influential book, Code… and the case was ultimately decided in ways consistent with Lessig’s arguments. Some of Lessig’s recent losses are harder to parse: the $10m Mayday PAC raised and spent without tipping a single 2014 congressional race might be read as evidence that the influence of money in politics is not as simple as buying elections by raising soft money. Or it might have been a win in drawing attention to the cause, yielding a New York Times front page profile, a New Yorker story, Washington post articles and a great deal of public debate on the topic.

Seen in that light, Lessig’s once again in a good position to win by losing, so long as his referendum attracts sufficient attention. Were Lessig to pass the threshold to participate in the Democratic Party’s six debates, he’d have an unprecedented stage to make his case, and it’s possible he could get a commitment from Sanders or Clinton to make his reforms a central priority. Even if he achieves a level of visibility where his possible inclusion in the debates is discussed, the unusual nature of his candidacy suggests coverage would focus less on personality and electability than on his issues. And the unexpected success of Zephyr Teachout, Lessig’s close friend and now head of the Mayday PAC, who captured 34% of the vote in the New York State gubernatorial election suggests that frustrated progressives may be willing to support campaigns that raise issues, even if they don’t win offices.

I respect and admire Lessig deeply, and support the reforms he wants to make. I think his strategy to “hack” the election and turn it into a referendum just might work, and that even if it fails, it could have an enormous positive effect on the 2016 elections.

But that’s not why I pledged to Lessig’s campaign. I pledged because I’m becoming an insurrectionist, and I wish I could still be an institutionalist.

Chris Hayes, MSNBC host and author of “The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy”, offers institutionalism and insurrectionism as a new duality to help explain American politics. Institutionalists (on the left and on the right) see the challenges faced by our country as challenges of reforming and strengthening the institutions we depend on: Congress, the courts, the tax code, immigration enforcement, banks. Insurrectionists have lost faith in one or more of these institutions, and no longer believe they can be saved. Instead, insurrectionists want to overturn these institutions and replace them with something that works better.

Those lining up to seek the election of candidates on the left and right are institutionalists – they see control of the Presidency and of Congress as critically important, as these are the institutions that govern our nation. Insurrectionists, from the Tea Party to Occupy, are often unconvinced that it matters who’s running these institutions, since the institutions are so broken that it’s very hard to use them to make meaningful change. Insurrectionism helps explain both a Tea Party insistence that professional politicians cannot solve America’s problems, as they are too much part and parcel of existing broken institutions, and Occupiers’ insistence that they did not have a package of political demands to present, but rather a different way of organizing a society.

Historically, insurrectionists have preached revolution. But it’s harder to make a case for revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring, where most revolutions left their societies wracked by conflict, or dominated by the strongest institution remaining once the government was toppled. (In Egypt, the government gave way to the institution of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the institution of the military.) Fortunately, we’re seeing the emergence of effective insurrectionism, ways in which people who’ve given up on institutions are making change by building new technologies to fight climate change and by building movements to challenge social norms.

I’m fascinated by these new directions and have been writing and speaking about effective insurrectionism. But these ways of changing the world for the better would work a hell of a lot more smoothly if we had functional institutions working towards the same goals.

Lessig is a radical institutionalist. He’s trying something deeply unconventional, but the goal is not to overturn the institutions of American democracy, but to fix them. This approach can look crazy to most of the institutionalists because it’s so far outside the realm of established behavior, where predictable candidates run for office, and engage in the “art of the possible” once they’re elected. It looks doomed to many of the insurrectionists – we don’t believe Congress will let Lessig make the changes he wants even if he receives the majority of the popular vote.

And while it might be both crazy and doomed, it’s also the most hopeful and least cynical idea of this campaign season. While I’m calculating ways Lessig can win by losing, I believe that Lessig believes that the majority of Americans both hate the way our system currently works and believe it can be fixed. I believe that Lessig believes that we can cross boundaries of party and ideology to fix a problem that’s paralyzing our most critical government institutions and keeping America from meeting the needs of all her people.

I believe that’s a hope worth investing in.

Categories: Blog

Renormalizing hitchhiking

September 2, 2015 - 1:39pm

I’m publishing lots of my new writing on other platforms as well as here. It’s a good chance to reach larger audiences, and often to see how my writing benefits from editing. Inevitably, whatever I submit ends up shorter after an editor works with it – often that leads to stronger work, but it sometimes means that something I loved ends up cut. So I’m using the blog to publish the original pieces, which I sometimes think of as the extended dance remixes (rather than the director’s cut). So here’s a longer version of “Could the Sharing Economy Bring Back Hitchhiking?” published on The Conversation yesterday, and now on Fair Observer and Gizmodo AU.

On August 1st, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000km across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story, a chance for commentators to reflect on the Philadelphia’s public image, to muse about human empathy for robots and, of course, to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking. As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”

At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking.

I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school. I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was seven miles drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated – a half hour drive from my girlfriend (now my wife), and 45 minutes from Troy, NY, the county seat and home to Rensselaer Polytechnic, the school I would soon withdraw from.

Anyone hitchhiking during the upstate NY winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark. I began to discover that some of my neighbors didn’t have cars or couldn’t afford to keep theirs on the road, and so relied on rides to Troy for groceries or essential medical services. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community, getting a better sense of where I lived, and doing a good deed.

It’s something I continue doing now on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; the state of manufacturing where we live, which employers fire workers before employees are eligible for benefits and who helps blue-collar workers build careers; what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area. I’ve had a lot of good conversations and a fair share of stilted ones. But I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered. No one has attempted to take my keys, phone or money, soiled my car, made sexual advances or even complained about what was on the radio.

(Let me pause for a moment so I can acknowledge the privileged position that I hold to be able to offer these rides. I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating, wealthy enough that I can afford whatever extra fuel an extra passenger costs, secure enough in my employment that I can take a few minutes to drop someone at a destination. I live in a safe place. I’m not arguing that everyone should pick up hitchhikers, just explaining why I do and why I wish more people who are similarly privileged would do so.)

Hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of American men hitchhiked from their hometowns to the bases where they shipped off to war – picking up hitchhikers was a patriotic duty. But this began to change in the 1950s, and by the mid-1970s, hitchhiking was nearly extinct.

Historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed. As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger. Advertisements like the one above connected hitchhiking with Communism, and given J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction both to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.

A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – claimed to have killed more than 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers. While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic. But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in de-normalizing hitchhiking.

Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy”, we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers. When “ridesharing” service Lyft launched in 2012, it encouraged passengers to exchange a fist bump with their driver, and to sit in the front seat, making Lyft more like hitchhiking for a fee than taking a taxi, distinguishing it from Uber. (By late 2014, Lyft had phased out the fist bump and the front seat, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t such a bad idea to look like the clone of a business valued at $50 billion.)

Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious startup companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor”. But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking. Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road and to reduce solo rides with its Uber pool service. Lyft no longer advertises itself as “your friend with a car”, but it offers a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other, positioning a ride as a way to make a new friendship. Ridesharing companies want the benefits of social practices like hitchhiking – they just want us to pay for them, and take a cut of the revenues.

Behind the “sharing economy” is massive effort to reshape social norms around trust, work, ownership and personal space. Most of us are used to entering a car driven by a stranger – a taxi – but sleeping in the spare bedroom or couch of a stranger is less familiar, and deeply uncomfortable for some. The front page of AirBnB’s website features a video designed to address these concerns on an emotional level. A baby in a diaper walks down a sunlight hallway while a woman’s voice asks, “Is man kind? Are we good? Go see.” The service’s tagline – “Belong Anywhere” – is a direct response to the anxiety many of us would feel about sleeping in a stranger’s house: “No, this isn’t transgressive – you belong anywhere.”

In a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, why are women willing to let strange men sleep in their spare bedroom? Why are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?

One possible reason for this increase in trust is the technology that enables it. Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer to peer marketplaces. Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host, they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system: passengers won’t ride with you, owners won’t rent to you. With economic consequences attached to reputation systems, there are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape) the other party in the transaction.

In theory. In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. The reciprocal rating systems have a strong social pressure towards positive ratings – because ratings are public, there’s a strong tendency towards both collusion and towards revenge. Either passenger and driver give each other top marks, or if you rate a driver unfavorably, she is likely to rate you poorly as a passenger. The net effect, as Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible, providing no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants. It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.

If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance. Rapists don’t attack everyone they meet. And the real disincentive against attacking a passenger in your car or a guest in your house is not the danger to your online reputation but the legal and moral consequences of your actions.

A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems. Last year, Wired writer Jason Tanz interviewed freelance yoga teacher and Lyft driver Cindy Manit for an article about trust in the sharing economy. Asked whether she was scared to pick up riders, she explained, “It’s not just some person from off the street”, distinguishing smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters from the hitchhiking riffraff. While technological assurances, like the connection to a Facebook account and the guarantee of a payment via credit card offer one level of reassurance, the economic, technical and social barriers to using the service offer another assurance, that the user likely belongs to a middle to high economic class. By contrast, in my experience, people hitchhiking are not doing so as a hip alternative to Uber – they often have no other economically viable way to get from point A to point B.

Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB are multilayered and complicated. Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person. In contrast, Law professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias. Using data from Airbnb in New York City, Harvard Business School professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals. It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.

Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy. The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote is, ultimately, true. In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported. But the US population in 1978 was 222.6 million, versus 318.9 million now. Bureau of Justice statistics paint the picture of nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now 3x less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.

Our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world, which is part of why activities like hitchhiking still seem so transgressive. 68% of Americans polled by Gallup believed that crime was on the rise in the US, though only 48% believed crime in their local area was worsening. The picture that emerges is one where many Americans perceive the world as a dangerous, crime-ridden place even if they’ve not personally experienced crime in their communities, an image reinforced by media coverage of incidents of violent crime that don’t talk about larger, statistical trends.

There are technological reasons as well to believe hitchhiking is safer now than in the 1970s. 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911 if a driver or passenger becomes threatening, something that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s. The 64% of American adults with smartphones could take a picture of the driver (a possible disincentive against sexual assault) or look up a driver’s license plate to ensure there’s not an active bulletin about a stolen vehicle or a fleeing criminal.

But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior. And while AirBnB has the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking.


Graphic and slogans credited to Dennis Nyhagen,for The Stephanie Miller Show in 2004, reproduced by Al Haug

That’s a missed opportunity. Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection, or are simply using it as a marketing strategy, realizing that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans, for a ride or just for a conversation, is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division. Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face. Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that social serendipity is too important a task to hope that sharing economy startups will accomplish it as a side benefit.

—-

For further reading:

A helpful Reddit thread on the death of hitchhiking in the US

An excellent piece by Molly Osberg on the history and stigmatization of hitchhiking

Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road, which is remarkably pro-hitchhiking despite a focus on the connection between interstate highways and serial killers in America

Categories: Blog

Future of News: The View from Accra

August 28, 2015 - 2:16am

I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.

Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.


Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.

First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.

We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.

Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.

The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.

Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.

So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.

Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.

I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.

A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in january of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.

What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?

To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.

Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.

To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.

Categories: Blog

Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

August 24, 2015 - 7:33am

I head to one of my favorite cities, Accra, later this week, to participate in a conference on “The Future of News” and to attend a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO that trains journalists in computer-assisted reporting, and operates Accra’s New Media Hub.

In preparation for the conference, The Daily Graphic – Ghana’s leading daily newspaper – asked me to write about Ghana and the contemporary media environment. My piece ran in the paper today, and follows below in a slightly different form. It’s written for a Ghanaian audience, so please assume that the references you don’t get are ones Ghanaians will understand.

Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find Ghana online. Take #233moments as an example. At 2:33pm each afternoon, a handful of Ghanaians share a photo of what they’re up to on Twitter, a glimpse of daily life, marked with the “hashtag” #233moments so those in the know can find them. From church posters to the backs of tro-tros, from business conferences to roadside sellers, from beach resorts to lazy lunches (especially on “WaakyeWednesday”, when it’s customary to post from your favorite chop bar), #233moments celebrates what’s colorful, wonderful and unique about this remarkable nation, and shares it with anyone willing to hear. Follow the tag, as I do, and you’ll have visibility into a fascinating and diverse nation.

I met a guy selling parrots in traffic around the Airport. You can buy almost anything in Accra traffic #233moments pic.twitter.com/kMYmKnhGeh

— Efo Dela (@Amegaxi) June 30, 2015


A sample #233moment

It wasn’t always so easy to learn about Ghana.

When I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993, as a student at Legon, I knew virtually nothing about the country that would be my home for the next year. While I had studied with Ghanaian musicians in the United States, I knew almost nothing of Ghana’s politics, history or daily life. My ignorance wasn’t unusual for an American – we hear very little about sub-Saharan Africa in the news, and when we do hear about Africa, we hear a relentless litany of bad news.

Twenty two years later, Ghana is a very different place. It’s the region’s poster child for democratic elections, an emerging economic powerhouse, but also a nation where unequal development and divides between rich and poor are showing strains in the social fabric (not to mention strains on the electric grid).

Some of the nation’s most dramatic transformations are in the world of news and media. Walking in Osu, where I lived in 1994, every radio was tuned to GBC, for the simple reason that there was nothing else to tune to! The explosion of radio journalism, talk radio, new glossy magazines and newspapers as well as digital services delivering news to our phones have led to a diverse and open media environment that Reporters Without Borders classifies as more free than the press in my country, the US, or the press in the UK.

Yet the rest of the world still doesn’t hear much about Ghana.

My research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focuses on global media coverage. Our system, called Media Cloud, collect stories from half a million publications from all over the world so we can understand what topics, what people and what nations are capturing the attention of the press. I checked our database this year to find out how many times Ghana had been mentioned in the US’s 25 largest media outlets, in comparison to two nations with similar population: Taiwan and Australia. Taiwan appeared almost three times as often as Ghana, while Australia was mentioned almost thirty times as often.

And when Americans read about Ghana, we mostly read about football. American media’s interest in Ghana peaked during the semifinal match in Malabo, when Ghana’s fans were attacked by their hosts in Equatorial Guinea. The tragic explosion at the Circle GOIL station received only a third as many stories as the semifinal victory.

To be clear, this isn’t Ghana’s fault. The US has a massive blind spot about the African continent, despite having a president with deep roots in Kenya, and increasing trade with the continent. The long legacy of slavery and the racism it has engendered in American society also helps explain why very few African nations receive much notice in the American press.

But this disparity in attention is one Ghanaians should take seriously, as it has implications for investment, for trade, and for tourism. Investors who can’t find Ghana on a map are unlikely to buy bonds or invest in startup companies. Travelers who don’t know about Ghana’s music, food, culture, color, castles and beaches won’t schedule holidays here.

Ghana’s comparative invisibility is an American problem – my countrymen are the ones missing out, choosing to live in a narrower world – but it’s a problem ordinary Ghanaians could help solve. The rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other tools – mean that anyone who is online, or has a sufficiently powerful phone, can be a publisher. We’re used to using Facebook to stay in touch with schoolmates, or using Twitter to share stories and tell jokes. But these tools can also be a powerful way to challenge the way Ghana is understood by the rest of the globe.

But when people use social media to offer their own narratives and perspectives, does anyone listen? Slowly but surely, the world is starting to. When President Obama visited Kenya, CNN reported on the dangers of the visit, characterizing Kenya as “terror hotbed”. Kenyans took to Twitter to complain, using the hashtag #someonetellCNN: “#someonetellCNN the Hotbed of Terrorism is the fastest growing economy in the world”; “#SomeoneTellCNN that we now have @AlJazeera for reliable news. @CNNAfrica @CNN is so last century…” Tony Maddox, CNN’s managing director, eventually flew to Nairobi to apologize and admit the network should have handled the story differently.

Challenging media coverage directly can work. The “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, a reaction to the alarming trend of unarmed black people killed by US police, has used social media to demand coverage of protests and to challenge how media has portrayed police killings. When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, many newspapers and television stations portrayed him using a photo that made the 18 year old look taller and older than he actually was, instead of another readily available photo, where his age was more apparent. Black activists began posting pairs of photos to Facebook, asking “If they gunned me down, which photo would the media use”, showing two photos of themselves taken from Facebook, one showing them in a positive light, another in a more negative light. The activists called attention to the fact that the images we choose have political significance and weight – in choosing a photo where Brown looked threatening, the media was siding with the police. The campaign was successful – the troublesome photo of Brown disappeared from most newspapers, and the other photo was widely circulated.

Social media gives Ghana a chance to talk back to the rest of the world. And Ghana has a great deal to talk about: the nation is facing the opportunities and challenges associated with becoming a middle-income nation. It’s never been easier for people to write about these issues online, using free blogging sites like Medium.com, or connecting with sites like Fair Observer, or my organization Global Voices, who are always looking for new perspectives from the African continent.

Ghanaians are never shy with their opinions in drinking spots, in shared taxis and tro-tros, on talk radio. Maybe it’s time that Ghanaians start sharing their perspectives with the world as a whole. Perhaps a few more #233moments, shared with the rest of the world, can help Americans and others see Ghana, and Africa as a whole, in a clearer light.

Categories: Blog

Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action

July 23, 2015 - 11:25am

Yes, it’s international press day here on my old, creaky blog. Friends at Süddeutsch Zeitung asked whether I could turn my Re:publica Keynote on mistrust and civics into a newspaper op-ed. Here’s what I came up with, which ran in yesterday’s newspaper.

On Monday, British comedian Simon Brodkin pelted outgoing FIFA leader Sep Blatter with a stack of dollar bills as Blatter spoke at a press conference. Brodkin’s dollar shower expressed the boundless anger football fans feel about the corruption within football’s world governing body.

When Swiss police arrested senior leaders of FIFA at a posh hotel in Zurich in late May, football fans around the world were shocked. Unfortunately, very few were shocked to learn of corruption in the world governing body of football. Instead, they were surprised that the leaders of an institution with a long reputation for malfeasance might be held responsible for their misdeeds.

This misplaced surprise is characteristic of the current popular mood in many nations. We are so accustomed to news of institutions acting incompetently or unethically that we are less surprised by their misbehavior then that such misbehavior has consequences. Whether we consider the disastrous failures of the US and UK in Iraq from 2003 to the present, the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 or the discovery of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, it’s easy to understand why there is pervasive mistrust in many institutions: governments, big business, churches and the press have failed us time and again.

In the US, mistrust in government has deepened over the past 50 years, with 24% of Americans now reporting that they trust their government all or most of the time, down from 77% in 1964. But it’s not only government that Americans mistrust: polls show a steady decline in trust in corporations, banks, newspapers, universities, nonprofit organizations and churches. The only institutions that Americans trust more than they did a generation ago are the military and the police. And while specifics of mistrust differ between the US and Europe, the general pattern is similar. Public relations firm Edelman surveys a thousand citizens in 33 nations each year to build a “trust barometer”, measuring public trust in government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media. According to their survey Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have lower levels of institutional trust than the United States.

One predictable consequence of mistrust in institutions is a decrease in participation. Fewer than 37% of eligible US voters participated in the 2014 Congressional election. Participation in European parliamentary and national elections across Europe is higher than the US’s dismal rates, but has steadily declined since 1979, with turnout for the 2014 European parliamentary elections dropping below 43%. It’s a mistake to blame low turnout on distracted or disinterested voters, when a better explanation exists: why vote if you don’t believe the US congress or European Parliament is capable of making meaningful change in the world?

In his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes suggests that the political tension of our time is not between left and right, but between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe we can fix the world’s problems by strengthening and revitalizing the institutions we have. Insurrectionists believe we need to abandon these broken institutions we have and replace them with new, less corrupted ones, or with nothing at all. The institutionalists show up to vote in elections, but they’re being crowded out by the insurrectionists, who take to the streets to protest, or more worryingly, disengage entirely from civic life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that insurrectionists will grow up, stop protesting and start voting. But we may have reached a tipping point where the cultural zeitgeist favors insurrection. My students at MIT don’t want to work for banks, for Google or for universities – they want to build startups that disrupt banks, Google and universities.

The future of democracy depends on finding effective ways for people who mistrust institutions to make change in their communities, their nations and the world as a whole. The real danger is not that our broken institutions are toppled by a wave of digital disruption, but that a generation disengages from politics and civics as a whole.

It’s time to stop criticizing youth for their failure to vote and time to start celebrating the ways insurrectionists are actually trying to change the world. Those who mistrust institutions aren’t just ignoring them. Some are building new systems designed to make existing institutions obsolete. Others are becoming the fiercest and most engaged critics of of our institutions, while the most radical are building new systems that resist centralization and concentration of power.

Those outraged by government and corporate complicity in surveillance of the internet have the option of lobbying their governments to forbid these violations of privacy, or building and spreading tools that make it vastly harder for US and European governments to read our mail and track our online behavior. We need both better laws and better tools. But we must recognize that the programmers who build systems like Tor, PGP and Textsecure are engaged in civics as surely as anyone crafting a party’s political platform. The same goes for entrepreneurs building better electric cars, rather than fighting to legislate carbon taxes. As people lose faith in institutions, they seek change less through passing and enforcing laws, and more through building new technologies and businesses whose adoption has the same benefits as wisely crafted and enforced laws.

“Monitorial citizens” are activists whose work focuses on watching and critiquing the work conducted by institutions. The young Italians behind Monithon.it, a project that invites citizens to visit, investigate and review projects paid for with European cohesion funds are monitorial citizens. So are the civilians who review complaints against the police, holding commanders accountable for mistreatment of the citizens. The rise of new tools and techniques, including video sharing and crowdsourced reporting, are helping mitigate the power imbalances between established institutions and the citizens who want to hold them accountable.

Some of the most radical thinking about a post-institutional future comes from proponents of systems like bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to free its users from trusting in central banks and the governments that back them. Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, from mesh networks that provide internet connectivity without a central internet service provider, or Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box“, a system for serving webpages that mirrors content around the internet, rather than centralizing it on a single server. But decentralization is a difficult technical problem. Technical systems like Google and Facebook have become powerful institutions not just due to the ambitions of their founders, but from the difficulty of building search engines and social networks in a decentralized way.

Could citizen monitors of FIFA have kept Qatar from hosting the 2022 World Cup? Would decentralized social networks have resisted NSA surveillance? Maybe so, maybe not. But the citizens finding ways to challenge institutions and engage in politics through other means are the ones to watch in this age of mistrust.

Categories: Blog

Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet

July 23, 2015 - 10:10am

I was asked by an editor at RBC, one of Russia’s best respected independent news organizations, to offer my thoughts on the Russian/US infowar. It was a great chance to think about Adrian Chen’s provocative tale about Russia’s Internet Research Agency (a topic that Global Voices RuNet Echo has done a terrific job of covering) and broader questions about skepticism, mistrust and who benefits from doubt. The piece ran on RBC today in Russian, but my English language text follows below.

In early June, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story by investigative reporter Adrian Chen about a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, reported to have close ties with Vladimir Putin. In the article, Chen interviewed Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistle blower who is suing the Internet Research Agency, her former employer, in hopes of shutting down their operations of posting pro-Kremlin comments on social media sites in English and Russian.

Until Chen’s story, many American readers had never heard of paid Russian propagandists writing online. But followers of the RuNet, Russia’s online spaces, have seen the Russian internet as one of the world’s most fiercely contested online spaces. In 2011, internet researchers in the US and Canada published a book, “Access Contested”, which suggested that battles over online spaces were progressing from censorship – preventing the posting of controversial content or preventing a nation’s citizens from reading that content – to a more complex model of contestation, where governments used a wide range of methods to disrupt dialog online: harassing users with frivolous lawsuits, rendering sites unavailable via denial of service attacks, and flooding comment threads. While these tactics have become popular worldwide, anywhere governments wish to disrupt online speech, many of them were pioneered in Russian cyberspace. My coauthors and I documented some of these early attacks, including attacks on Novaya Gazeta, in a 2010 study published by the Berkman Center at Harvard University.

What was surprising about Chen’s story was not that people were producing pro-government comments in Russian, but that this same Internet Research Agency appeared to be responsible for a set of fabricated news stories, released in English and intended to mislead US audiences. These stories have fascinated and baffled American media scholars. They are complex hoaxes, involving dozens of social media accounts, fake websites and fake YouTube videos, all towards the apparent goal of making American social media users believe that a chemical plant in Louisiana had been attacked by ISIS terrorists, or that there had been an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. These hoaxes were not successful in fooling many people for very long – they were quickly dismissed after mainstream news reports made clear that these tragedies had not occurred.

These hoaxes suggest an interesting new chapter in the ongoing infowar between the US and Russia. The goal of the infowar may no longer be to promote or discredit either the Kremlin or the White House. The goal may be to destroy trust in the internet, in social media and in news.

For decades, nations have worked to produce news that reflects their specific point of view. The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuban audiences), Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa (for Arabic-speaking audiences), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, which includes Radio Svoboda, aimed at Russian audiences. Defenders of these projects see them as providing objective news reporting in countries where press freedom is constrained. Others – including some US legislators – see these stations as pro-US propaganda. Until 2013, Voice of America was banned from broadcasting in the US because Congress believed that these broadcasts, played in the US, would function as pro-government propaganda. In recent years, BBG has broadened its remit beyond broadcasting, and proposed spending $12.5 million in 2016 to support internet anti-censorship technologies, intended to allow citizens of countries that censor the internet to access blocked content.

It should not have been a surprise that Russia would take to international broadcasting to promote a national agenda, joining stated sponsored channels France24 (France), CCTV (China), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). These channels have experimented with different mixes of news reporting and public diplomacy, sometimes coming under fire for compromising journalistic standards in favor of national interests.

Russia Today (RT) has taken some unusual and surprising approaches in deploying this tool of soft power. The network promotes a view of Russia as defender of the principle of international sovereignty in the face of relentless US-led globalization, a viewpoint that turns not only protests in Armenia into a US-led grab for power, but the arrest of FIFA officials for corruption into a plot to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. While Al Jazeera, in particular, has worked hard to gain respect as a journalistic outlet rather than a government mouthpiece, Russia Today seems content to take an explicitly pro-Russian, anti-US stance.

And then there’s the weird stuff. As Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds has observed, Russia Today seems to be trying to cultivate a US audience of conspiracy theorists. Yablokov notes that one of the first stories RT ran after launching RT America in 2010 was titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job”. The idea that the US government killed over 3000 of its own citizens, including 500 police officers and firefighters, as a pretext to invade Iraq, is deeply offensive to most Americans, and unlikely to win RT a broad US audience. But as Yablokov notes, that may not be the point.

There’s a long history in American politics of conspiracy theories gaining wide audiences. Historian Richard Hofstadter identified this in 1964 as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a tendency for those who feel alienated and dispossessed to see America as controlled by a secret cabal. Knowing that it is unlikely to persuade the majority of Americans to see their government as a global hegemon and Russia as the tireless defender of sovereign nations, perhaps RT is appealing to those who are predisposed to “Question More”, as the network’s slogan suggests. While that approach won’t work for most Americans, it may work for the 19% of Americans who believe the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that a Russian focus on conspiracy theories, especially about outside agitation in creating “color revolutions” is consistent with Russia’s preferred framing of the world – sovereignty versus agitation – rather than the US’s preferred framing – democracy versus authoritarianism. Brian Whitmore, a senior correspondent for RL/RFE, argues that conspiracy theories suggest a government incapable of taking citizen movements seriouslydocumented attempts by the government of Azerbaijan to portray the internet as a dangerous and lawless space, linking internet usage to sexual abuse of children, trafficking of women, breakdowns of marriages and mental illness. The campaign has been quite successful, keeping 86% of Azeri women offline, and helping ensure that internet penetration in Azerbaijan has stayed far behind of its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia. Turkish media scholar Zeynep Tufekci suggests that Erdogan’s government has deployed similar tactics in Turkey, working to demonize social media in the hopes of keeping his large support base off these networks, which are heavily used by opposition organizers.

Raising doubt in online media as a whole might help explain why a Russian firm would start easily dismissed rumors on American social networks. The net effect of these rumors has been to remind American Internet users that everything they read online should be doubted before being vetted and verified. And RT’s main brand message is that Americans shouldn’t trust their government or their media, as both are hiding the “other side” of the narrative, and the secrets behind far-reaching conspiracies.

But the question remains: who benefits from doubt?

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have a possible answer. Their book “Merchants of Doubt” looks at techniques used by energy industry lobbyists in the US to create uncertainty and doubt about climate change. They trace these techniques back to the tobacco industry, which used similar tactics for decades to prevent tobacco from being regulated as a drug. Their key weapon was doubt. Tobacco companies sponsored legitimate medical research on other causes for cancer and heart disease. The net result was that they kept alive the appearance of a debate about whether tobacco use was the primary cause of lung cancer for far longer than there was an actual scientific debate. Similarly, climate scientists sponsored by energy companies insist that there is a diversity of opinion about humans’ role in creating climate change, relying on the media’s tendency to tell both sides of a story and keep a “debate” alive years beyond when it would otherwise be settled.

Who benefits from doubt? Ask instead who benefits from stasis. So long as there was doubt that cigarettes caused cancer, regulators were less willing to label packages, restrict their sales or ban them altogether. So long as there is doubt about humanity’s role in climate change, governments are less likely to pass carbon taxes, ban the burning of coal or subsidize the shift to renewable energy. It’s not necessary to persuade people that cigarettes are safe to smoke or that we can burn coal indefinitely without raising global temperatures – it’s enough to raise sufficient doubt to lead to paralysis.

Stasis benefits the Russian state. People baffled by claims and counterclaims over whether Russian troops are in Ukraine or whether the US toppled the Yanukovych government are less likely to demand NATO military intervention in Crimea. Russian citizens who wonder whether Alexei Navalny is an embezzeler are less likely to support his candidacy. Internet users who doubt whatever they see online are less likely to use social media to organize and topple those who are currently in power.

It’s expensive to persuade someone to believe something that isn’t true. Persuading someone that _nothing_ is true, that every “fact” represents a hidden agenda, is a far more efficient way to paralyze citizens and keep them from acting. It’s a dark art, one with a long past in Russia and in the US, and one we’re now living with online.

Categories: Blog

Instaserfs: Precarious Employment in the New – and Old – Economy

July 20, 2015 - 5:56pm

(This summer, I’m going to publish some of my work on FOLD, the beautiful platform my student Alexis Hope is building. There’s a graphically enhanced version of this story there.)

Benjamen Walker makes some of the best radio around. (Okay, it’s mostly digitally-delivered audio storytelling these days, but who’s counting?) His finest work tends to come out in series of podcasts, exploring a complex issue through interviews and stories that unfold over two or more sequential weekly episodes.

The most recently concluded series is called “Instaserfs” and it focuses on the “sharing economy”, aka “the 1099″ economy, the “gig economy” or as Ben offers, “the demand economy” or “the exploitation economy”. Struck by the ability to outsource virtually any task, Benjamen hires San Francisco native Andrew Callaway to make three episodes of his podcast as an “Instapodder”. The working method? Andrew’s task is to take on as many sharing economy jobs as he can and to report Benjamen about the experience, and whether he can pay his San Francisco rent with the money he earns. (Spoiler alert: he can’t.)

There’s no shortage of articles out there with titles like “I spent a week as a Lyft driver/ Taskrabbit/ Instacart shopper“, so this experiment is hardly original. But following along as a listener as Andrew goes through the process of deciding where to work, becoming a contractor, trying out the work arrangement and hearing the frustrations and small joys makes for some excellent listening. We get a taste of the horribly repetitive onboarding sessions, where the main point is to ensure the contractor knows that the company absolutely, positively won’t be responsible for anything bad that happens. We learn about the unpredictability of earning on the platforms, the radical difference between a good day and a bad day as a Lyft driver. We get a sense that some of these platforms treat their workers well – Taskrabbit and Wash.io are ones Andrew expresses particular fondness for – though even good platforms change the rules of the game, and these changes always make things harder for the contractor. We learn that an alarming number of San Franciscans pay a sharp premium to have Chipotle burritos delivered to them.

Ben and Andrew identify the ways that these services create a conceptual gap between the haves and have nots, those who can afford a $9 delivery charge for a burrito, and those who wait in line to earn their share of the delivery fee. Losing that collective experience of waiting in line, the leveling effect of shared inconvenience, Andrew speculates, is making the wealthy into nastier people… and the behavior of some of the oafish tech bros he encounters as a Lyft driver makes the case that these services are somehow unhealthy for society as a whole.

There’s utility in this insight, and in the shame that Andrew sees in the wash.io users, who seem embarrassed that they’re paying people to do their laundry. Outsourcing your routine tasks to a poorly-paid contractor is good for efficiency, but likely bad for something else. And some of the services Andrew works for seem designed to create class warfare. In the third episode, Andrew begins working for ManServants, a company whose core premise is so uncomfortable, I spent an enjoyable hour trying to determine whether the company is real or a splendid art piece. (Yes, it’s a service to let women rent well-dressed men, at $125 per hour, to act as “personal photographer, bartender, bodyguard, and butler all in one.” Yes, it appears to be real – Lane Moore tried it out and wrote about it for Cosmo – and doesn’t appear to be stripper rental in disguise.) But the main point of Instaserfs, for me at least, was not that rising inequity is turning America into Downton Abbey, but how badly the service economy is stacked against its participants.

Near the end of the second episode, as Andrew settles into his new lifestyle, he begins interviewing other 1099 workers. Andrew confesses to a driver for Luxe, a company that provides valet parking services, that he’s terrified to try working for the company out of fear of damaging a client’s car. The Luxe driver tells him that he’s right to be worried – he dinged a client’s truck the other day and is now on the hook for the damages. Luxe insures customer’s vehicles, but contractors are liable to pay the $500 deductible if they damage the car. The Luxe contractor explains that the company will deduct the deductible from his paycheck automatically and break it up over the course of months, if need be.

Given the modest amounts these jobs pay, a $500 payment is a major, potentially crippling, setback (something that wouldn’t have been clear to me, had I not listened to two episodes of Andrew figuring out whether his jobs had paid enough to cover gasoline for his car.) This practice of limiting liability and transferring it to the “contractor” is routine for this emerging industry, and seems like the core sin of this business model. Yes, the work and pay are unpredictable, the workplace rules arbitrary and sometimes demeaning. But a job where it’s common to end up owing the employer more than when you started working sounds like something out of the days of the company store.

Benjamen and Andrew have fun exploring this question of capital and of risk. Andrew can’t get a job as an Uber driver because of a dent in his bumper, which will cost thousands to fix, and Benjamen is unwilling (and probably unable as a podcast producer) to invest that capital in Andrew’s “business”. Later, ManServants cuts Andrew off until he can upgrade his shoes, which don’t meet their high standards – in this case, Benjamen is willing to dip into his own funds in the hopes of obtaining tape of Andrew on the job. Benjamen interviewed Mansur Nurullah, a San Francisco grad student and cabbie, who became an Uber driver when the startup disrupted the taxi business to the point where he could no longer profitably drive a cab. Nurallah needed a car to become an Uber driver, but balked when the company steered him towards a 27% interest auto loan. (Uber’s lending partner, Santander, is under investigation for predatory lending. And Uber loans explicitly prohibit the vehicles purchased this way from being used for personal use… or for a competing service.)

The capital’s all yours to provide, and the risk is all yours to assume. Benjamen and Andrew never discuss whether the podcast will pay legal fees if Andrew’s arrested for solicitation while working his Manservants gig. But the rules within the 1099 economy are well established: if you park illegally while making a delivery for Postmates, the fine is yours to pay. Andrew shares a great exchange he has with his Postmates dispatcher as they try to calculate the smallest parking ticket he could risk to make an order. (Dispatch suggests he park in a driveway, because it will take longer for the homeowner to call the police or a tow truck, but makes clear that he can’t offer advice, as it’s the driver’s problem, not the company’s.)

Contractors provide the capital and assume the risk, while the companies collect the profits and the investments. But that’s not the core insight of Instaserfs – it’s that this blatantly unfair arrangement isn’t news to most working people.

Andrew interviews Brooklyn, a Taskrabbit worker and advocate for the sharing economy, who tells him she left a six figure job to have more control, freedom and flexibility. He’s hired Brooklyn to help him make a viral video protesting the 1099 economy. Instead, she sets him straight. As they talk, Andrew realizes, “What I find horrible about the sharing economy is what most Americans have been dealing with in the workplace for decades.” And Brooklyn replies, “Welcome to life. As a black, gay female, I have been dealing with this since I was born.”

Uncertain work hours, unpredictable income, onerous workplace rules, no benefits and zero job security? That’s a reality of the American workplace that Barbara Ehrenreich documented in Nickeled and Dimed, which Benjamen evokes in Instaserfs, hoping to extend her critiques to this proposed future. But if the working conditions and uncertainty of the 1099 economy aren’t new, the aspirational tone is. For the most part, low wage jobs don’t ask you to consider yourself an entrepreneur. They have their own ways of transferring cost and risk to you, but at least they don’t transfer blame. When you fail as a low wage worker, you fail because you’re living in a country that doesn’t mandate a living wage, and until recently, didn’t provide basic universal healthcare. Slowly, all too slowly, Americans are waking up to the reality that the deck is stacked against the working poor, that paying rent would require 80-120 hours a week of minimum wage work in most states.

But in the 1099 economy, you’re an entrepreneur. Your success or failure depends on your skill, your hustle and your drive. That company offering predatory loans and flooding the streets with drivers competing for your passengers is valued at $50 billion (larger than 80% of the top 500 S&P companies) and will be the hottest IPO in years when it inevitably goes public.

Instaserfs is the tale of two well-educated white guys discovering what people with fewer advantages have knows for decades: the game is rigged. Fortunately, Andrew is not going to be a Wash.io delivery man for much longer – he’s a talented video producer whose skills should lead him to a less precarious freelance existence. The question is whether listeners to this excellent series will see the connections between the new exploitation economy and the old exploitation economy, and work towards a future of work where fewer people can rent manservants at $125 an hour, and fewer people need new shoes to work those servant jobs.

Categories: Blog

Protected: Pattern recognition: racism, gun violence and Dylann Roof

June 19, 2015 - 1:08pm

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Categories: Blog

Listening Machines, and the whether, when and how of new technologies

June 15, 2015 - 3:46pm

One of my great pleasures in life is attending conferences on fields I’m intrigued by, but know nothing about. (A second pleasure is writing about these events.) So when my friend Kate Crawford invited me to a daylong “Listening Machine Summit” this past Friday, I could hardly refuse.

What’s a listening machine? The example of everyone’s lips was Hello Barbie, a version of the impossibly proportioned doll that will listen to your child speak and respond in kind:

…a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: “Welcome to New York, Barbie.”

The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: “I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?”

Barbie accomplishes this magic by recording your child’s question, uploading it to a speech recognition server, identifying a recognizable keyword (“New York”) and offering an appropriate synthesized response. The company behind Barbie’s newfound voice, ToyTalk, uses your child’s utterance to help tune their speech recognition, likely storing the voice file for future use.

And that’s the trick with listening systems. If you can imagine reasons why you might not want Mattel maintaining a record of things your child says while talking to his or her doll, you should be able to imagine the possible harms that could come from use, abuse or interrogation of other listening systems. (“Siri, this is the police. Give us the last hundred searches Mr. Zuckerman asked you to conduct on Google. Has he ever searched for bomb making instructions?”)

As one of the speakers put it (we’re under Chatham House rules, so I can’t tell you who ), listening machines trigger all three aspects of the surveillance holy trinity: they’re pervasive, starting to appear in all aspects of our lives; they’re persistent, capable of keeping records of what we’ve said indefinitely, and they process the data they collect, seeking to understand what people are saying and acting on what they’re able to understand. To reduce the creepy nature of their surveillant behavior, listening systems are often embedded in devices designed to be charming, cute and delightful: toys, robots and smooth-voiced personal assistants.

Proponents of listening systems see them as a major way technology integrates itself more deeply into our lives, making it routine for computers to become our helpers, playmates and confidants. A video of a robot designed to be a shared household companion sparked a great deal of debate, both about whether we would want to interact with a robot in the ways proposed by the product’s designers, and how a sufficiently powerful companion robot should behave. If a robot observes spousal abuse, should it call the police? If the robot is designed to be friend and confidant to everyone in the house, but was paid for by the mother, should we expect it to rat out one of the kids for smoking marijuana? (Underlying these questions is the assumption that the robot will inevitably be smart enough to understand and interpret complex phenomena. One of our best speakers made the case that robots are very far from having this level of understanding, but that well-designed robots were systems designed to deceive us into believing that they had these deeper levels of understanding.)

Despite the helpful provocations offered by real and proposed consumer products, the questions I found most interesting focused on being unwittingly and unwillingly surveilled by listening machines. What happens when systems like ShotSpotter, currently designed to identify shots fired in a city, begins dispatching police to other events, like a rowdy pool party (just to pick a timely example)? Workers in call centers already have their interactions recorded for review by their supervisors – what happens when Uber drivers and other members of the 1099 economy are required to record their interactions with customers for possible review? (A friend points out that many already do as a way of defending themselves from possible firing in light of bad reviews.) It’s one thing to choose to invite listening machines into your life, confiding in Siri or a cuddly robot companion, and something entirely different to be listened to by machines installed by your employer or by local law enforcement.

A representative of one of the US’s consumer regulatory agencies gave an excellent talk in which she outlined some of the existing laws and principles that could potentially be used to regulate listening machines in the future. While the US does not have comprehensive privacy legislation in the way many European nations do, there are sector-specific laws that can protect against abusive listening machines: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPA and others. She noted that electronic surveillance systems had been the subject of two regulatory actions in the US, where FTC protections against “unfair and deceptive acts in commerce” led to action against the Aaron’s rent to own chain, which installed privacy-violating software in the laptops they rented out, capturing images of anyone in front of the camera. FTC argued that this was a real and concrete harm to consumers with no offsetting benefits, and “>Aaron’s settled, disabling the software.

I found the idea that existing regulations and longstanding ideas of fairness could provide a framework for regulating listening machines fascinating, not because I disagree, but because I’m not sure anyone understands the implications of these systems well enough to anticipate possible futures for them. A day thinking about eavesdropping dolls and personal assistants that can turn state’s evidence left me confident only that I don’t think anyone has thought enough about the implications of these systems to posit possible, desirable futures for their use.


Dr. Doolittle meets the Pushmi-Pullyu

Over the past thirty or more years, we’ve seen a particular Pushmi-Pullyu pattern of technology regulation. Companies invent new technologies and bring them to market. Consumers occasionally react, and if sufficient numbers react loudly enough, government regulators investigate and mandate changes. There’s a sense that this is the correct process, that more aggressive regulation would crush innovation before inventors could show us the benefits of their new ideas.

But this is a model in which regulation is a very modest counterweight to market forces. So long as a product is on the market, it’s engaged in persuading people that a new type of behavior is the new normal. When Apple brough Siri to market, it engaged in a multi-front campaign to persuade people that they should regularly speak to a computer to make appointments, order dinner, check traffic conditions and seek advice. Apple was able to lower barriers to adoption by making the product a pre-installed part of their very popular phone, making it available for free, and heavily advertising the new functionality. Even the wave of jokes about the limits to Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and feature films that seek to complicate our relationships with digital entities serve the purpose of calcifying “the new normal” – people talk to their phones and share sensitive information with them, and that’s just the way things are now.

Perhaps at some point, we’ll see a lawsuit challenging Apple’s use of Siri data. Perhaps Apple will offer different financing packages for a future iCar with lending rates determined by a personality profile generated, in part, by a purchaser’s interactions with Siri. Empowered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, regulators might get involved and demand that credit decisions be made only using transparently disclosed, challengeable fiscal data, not correlations between one’s taste in takeout food and creditworthiness. Fine. But in the ensuing years, Apple has already won – we’re talking to our phones, sharing our lives, generating terabytes of data in the process.

The problem with this approach to regulation is that we rarely, if ever, have a conversation about the technological world we’d like to have. Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (We’ve got smart policy people in the room, and they’ve got suggestions, including “robot privilege” which behaves like attorney/client privilege, prohibitions against letting law enforcement lure robots into making you testify, in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reform of the “third party directive”.)

These questions, a friend points out, aren’t regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when and how those products should come to market. If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA’s expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we’re seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.

There’s encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don’t want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part – DNA’s self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.)

By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea – the gene drive – is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It’s possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn’t pass on malaria, or that simply couldn’t reproduce, ending the species as a whole.

Who gets to make these decisions? The good news is that there’s both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to scientists who are researching gene drive, trying to make it possible, who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when and how the technology should come into play.

We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world, a better tradition of talking through the whether, when and hows of technologies like listening machines. I’m grateful to Microsoft Research and the New York Times for hosting this conversation and hope it might be a first step towards more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but what’s desirable.

Note – I edited my blog post at 5:57PM to change the wording in two paragraphs, based on corrections from a speaker at the event.

Categories: Blog

Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.)

June 11, 2015 - 1:45pm

Hey guys, Mystery Show is the new Serial!

Well, sorta. Not quite. Actually, it’s almost the antidote to Serial. But in a way that acknowledges the awesomeness of both shows.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a long commute, a serious walking habit, and an apparently endless need for distraction. The list varies, but heavy rotation currently includes Reply All, Love and Radio, StartUp, Song Exploder, the memory palace, Welcome to Night Vale, Theory of Everything, 99% Percent Invisible, The Moth, On the Media, This American Life, and Story Collider. All of which ended up taking a back seat when new episodes of Serial came out.

You remember Serial, right? The podcast by Sarah Koenig that spun out of This American Life, the one so popular that Slate ran its own podcast commenting on each episode? Serial brought podcasts to a much wider audience (specifically, the NPR listening audience) and helped demonstrate that podcasts didn’t need to resemble existing radio shows, but could tell very different types of stories.

I was thoroughly addicted to Serial until it became clear that we weren’t going to get the satisfying resolution we were looking forward to, a convincing explanation of Hae Min Lee’s final hours, giving us clarity as to whether Adnan Syed was a victim of terrible injustice, or whether he was a phenomenal liar. I still think the show was a brilliant example of storytelling, and I think Koenig took an amazing risk in telling a story without knowing how it ended. But I ended up feeling both disappointed and vaguely creeped out as it became clear that Koenig’s reporting wasn’t going to clear Syed of a crime. Instead, we were exhuming the worst days of people’s lives as a form of entertainment and contemplation, not righting a wrong or solving a mystery.

And despite the feeling that we were intruding where we shouldn’t, I listened to the end, fascinated. And I think the meta-lesson Serial told about the perils of investigative reporting, of digging deep and not being able to unearth Truth are invaluable. But Serial left me feeling implicated in a project I’m not entirely comfortable with.

So now here’s Starlee Kine, who like Koenig has featured prominently on This American Life (Koenig was a staff producer for TAL, and Serial is an official TAL spin-off, while Kine was a frequent guest producer on the show, and Mystery Show is unaffiliated with TAL) with another podcast about mysteries. And that’s roughly where the similarities end.

The mysteries explored by Koenig in the first season of Serial were as important as they get, matters of life and death. Those explored by Kine on Mystery Show couldn’t be more trivial. The three episodes thus far have explored a video store that unexpectedly closed, a novel that might have been read by Britney Spears, and a lost belt buckle. With the stakes so laughably low, Kine sets up a fascinating storytelling problem: how does she get listeners to care about mysteries so banal that the parties to the mystery barely even care?

The answer is that Kine is an otherworldly interviewer, capable of drawing people down conversational paths they never expected to tread. After all, this is a woman who persuaded Phil Collins to help her write a love song about breaking up with her boyfriend. She’s got chops. In early episodes of Mystery Show, Starlee gets a bar owner talking about Fellini films and his fear of love, and turns an informational phonecall with a Ticketmaster customer service representative into a counseling session, helping him recover his self confidence. If I saw Kine at a cocktail party, I would run in the opposite direction, afraid that I’d immediately reveal my deepest hopes and fears, then hear them a week later in my headphones, over a bed of tastefully twee indie pop.

It’s the third episode of Mystery Show that’s got me hooked. It’s the story of a belt buckle, found in a ditch, inscribed to “Hans Jordi”, from “Bill Six”. And lest you worry that Kine will leave you hanging, by the end of the episode, I promise that you’ll know who those people are and why a simple story of lost and found stopped me in my tracks with its emotional weight.

This is a remarkable moment for “radio”, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm. Podcasting appears to have found a business model, and with phones increasingly integrated with other devices, like cars and home audio systems, there’s a large and growing audience for time-shiftable audio content. What’s great is that despite the fact that audiences are large and growing, the field seems to be getting weirder and more adventurous, rather than safer and more dull.

Take The Truth, part of the Radiotopia family of storytelling podcasts. Jonathan Mitchell makes “audio movies”, contemporary radio dramas that use all the affordances of audio, not just the human voice, to tell powerful and profound stories. It’s not my everyday listening because I find so many of the stories so affecting that they’re often disorienting. For example, “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” is probably the best thing I’ve heard this year, but so powerful that I’m reluctant to play it for some of my favorite people… and I can’t even craft a proper trigger warning without giving away the best part of the story.

When Chris Anderson and other prophets of the long tail predicted the future of cultural products online, there was a lot of talk about finding markets for the previously obscure. What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least, was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio. It’s as well produced (sometimes ludicrously better produced, in the case of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder), more intellectually challenging and at least as likely to spark conversation around the proverbial watercooler (or, these days, on Twitter.)

Turns out that there was a massive backlog of talented radio producers who couldn’t get their content on the air. Turns out that some producers who were often on the national stage, like Koenig and Kine, had ideas big enough to be successful shows. Turns out that this is a very exciting moment for those of us with time to listen and ears to hear.

Categories: Blog

The death of Tidbit and why it matters

May 28, 2015 - 11:57am

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:

Categories: Blog

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