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…My Heart’s in Accra
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Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
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Members, fans and complementary revenue models for the New York Times

November 5, 2013 - 3:46pm

The other day, I had coffee with a friend who works for the New York Times. Early in the conversation, I admitted to him that I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the Times. I love much of the paper’s content (though I share Greenwald’s wish that the Times would call torture “torture”) and find that many of the most interesting stories I read in a week come from the Times. But I am getting really sick of the Times’s efforts to nickle and dime me as a digital subscriber. Despite paying for access to the paper’s excellent content, they somehow make me feel like a piker if I’m not a subscriber to the print edition at nearly a thousand dollars a year.

I can access the Times through MIT, but decided that I read the paper often enough on other devices and outside of MIT’s network that I should become a digital subscriber. For a couple of weeks, I was a satisfied customer, reading far more than my allotment of ten free stories in my browser, and flipping through the paper on my phone when in transit or waiting on lines. But then the Times implemented its new “three articles a day” plan for mobile readers of the paper. My digital subscription – which costs $240 a year – includes a tablet and web version of the newspaper, but getting unlimited access via my phone costs an additional $180 a year.

Because the Times evidently takes its business cues from the widely despised cable TV industry, they like to bundle their content. As a result, the best way to get digital access is to purchase it bundled with the paper edition of the newspaper… which the Times won’t deliver to my rural address. I could also downgrade my bundle from web and iPad to web and phone, but it seems bizarre to me that digital data paid for in one place can’t be used in another.

And so I’ve found myself in the space of Times hacking, looking for ways to get content I want to read for a less exorbitant price than the Times wants to charge. (My current strategies: I am using my web subscription to dump articles to Instapaper, which I then read on my phone. Take that, Big Media!) Here, I join a large cadre of people who proudly post their tips for defrauding the Times so they can continue reading for free.

Let’s compare this situation to another media organization many New York Times readers rely on: public radio. No one writes articles bragging about how they avoided donating to NPR or how they get podcasts for free. In part, that’s because we don’t have to – public radio, for technical and historical reasons associated with the challenge of monetizing broadcast radio, is free by default, supported by voluntary donations. But there’s another reason: people love public radio, want to support it and feel guilty when they don’t.

I don’t intend to argue that the New York Times should become member supported. But I do want to make the case that they would benefit from thinking about the relationship public radio stations and shows have built with their members.

There’s a diagram that often gets drawn on napkins or whiteboards when media people get together: a Pareto, or long-tail curve, where the Y axis represents how engaged with content your readers are, and the X axis represents your reader population. Near the origin of the graph, the curve is very high – those are the small set of users who are deeply engaged with your content. Farther from the origin, as the curve flattens out, we have the majority of readers, who engage with your content occasionally. For the New York Times, it’s key to turn the folks on the left of the graph into subscribers and to make money from the right of the graph through ads. And as we head towards Peak Ad, it’s increasingly important to move readers across the paywall that separates the left and right side of the graph.

Public radio stations, producers and podcasters face a similar graph. In their case, it’s critical to get the left side of the graph to become members or make donations. But instead of dropping a paywall, they use a combination of gratitude and guilt to persuade their most engaged listeners to support their programming. When they do it well, their listeners feel terrific: Ira Glass urges listeners to defray WBEZ’s bandwidth costs for delivering This American Life online, telling us that if we could give more than $5, we’d pay not only our costs but those of listeners who don’t donate. And if we don’t donate? We feel guilty, but not criminal. The New York Times, which reminds me how many of my three free stories I’ve read on my phone, makes me feel like there’s a security guard trailing me to make sure I don’t stuff an extra New York Times article down my pants.

I suspect the business folks at the Times are operating under the assumption that there are only two places to be on their subscriber/revenue curve – you can be a subscriber and pay $300-800 a year, or you can be an outsider and cover a tiny fraction of your free riding with ad views. But there’s another option: the Times could start thinking of its readers in terms of subscribers, fans and passers-by. The Times won’t monetize passers-by, except through ads – these are folks who stumble onto the site occasionally and may not even realize they are reading Times content. That’s frustrating, but that’s how the web works. And the Times should certainly cultivate subscribers and encourage more fans to become subscribers. But they might do a better job of that by courting their fans, instead of locking them out.

Fans could be encouraged to support content on the Times not through a threat of locking them out, but by encouraging them to support the paper, and especially, the parts of the paper they value the most. When I donate to WNYC, I always take the opportunity to tell WNYC that I’m not a customer of the station as a whole, but of On The Media, my favorite outlet for smart media criticism. I have to think that some Times readers would love the opportunity to give to the paper and say, “Please don’t give this to Maureen Dowd. I’m giving in the hope of more Ta-Nehisi Coates op-eds.”

A New York Times that courted its fans would help fans track how much content they access from the Times, and perhaps, from other sources as well. It would take a suggestion from Doc Searls’s ideas about tracking usage of public radio and allowing users to donate to stations or programs that they listen to often. It might recognize that fans of the Times are fans of other publications, like The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor or Planet Money, and band together with some of those other outlets to build a common tracking, membership and recommendations platform. (It would be very interesting for New York Times fans to discover they’re deeply dependent on the site’s content… or that they actually read other sources more than the times.) It could start treating fans who choose to subscribe as members, thanking them for making media accessible to others rather than making it clear that their content is only for those who pay.

Making news accessible for non-readers as well as readers is critical. News organizations have two bottom lines: they need to make enough money to keep the presses running, and they need to have a civic impact, holding the powerful responsible and giving citizens the information they need to participate in a democracy. As ad revenues decline, there’s a tendency for paywalled news sites to provide information only to the small group of people who subscribe to the paper. In the process, it’s possible that newspapers will lose their broader civic impact. If sites could find a way to get support from non-subscribers as fans, they could open their content to a broader audience and have more civic influence.

This would require some serious rethinking for the Times, and it’s quite possible they can support their reporting without making this change in the short term. But if we’re moving to a world where people are less dependent on a single media source, like the Times, and more inclined to pick and choose news from multiple sites, the Times will need to realize that fans can’t pay $300 to each content provider they want to support. Perhaps it’s time for the Times to start embracing and celebrating those fans, instead of alienating them.

Categories: Blog

Ta-Nehesi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT on opinion journalism

October 29, 2013 - 5:25pm

Tom Levenson introduces Ta-Nehesi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg , who are ">in conversation tonight at MIT’s Stata Center on the topic of opinion journalism. The event is hosted by CMS/W, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department, where Coates is a scholar in residence. Both Coates and Hertzberg are giant figures in contemporary journalism, from different professional generations.

Coates begins by admitting that he was burned out at the end of his last semester at MIT, but ended up missing his students a week after he left Cambridge. Teaching writing, he tells us, is deeply different from writing. Once you write well, you write on autopilot. But you can’t teach writing without thinking about the art form. Coates was reminded of this when Hertzberg came to MIT to talk with his students – not only is Hertzberg a master of opinion journalism, but he’s deeply insightful about the process of writing and of constructing complex and subtle arguments.

Coates asks Hertzberg about his process: does he craft individual sentences or whole arguments? Hertzberg confesses to being a difficult writer – he struggles over sentences, particularly the first sentences in a piece. “It’s important to be fresh, to avoid cliches”. And while Hertzberg has roadmaps for his arguments, he explains that he spends a great deal of time crafting each sentence, ensuring the tone and imagery is right to construct the tone and ideas he needs to convey.

Prompted by Coates, Hertzberg identifies Orwell and the Harvard Crimson as his most important writing teachers. He explains that, in writing for the Crimson, your copy was posted into giant comment books where editors ripped the work to pieces. Good pieces were marked “OOTAG” – one of the all time greats – and poor ones marked “PTS” – Pour to sea. All comments were signed – you knew exactly who was savaging you. So Hertzberg’s experience at Harvard came through the practice of newspaper writing, not the classroom. (He tells us that, if there hadn’t been a draft for Vietnam, he’d have dropped out and worked for a local paper, and likely burned out.)

Hertzberg loves the appearance of newspapers – he tells us about a cross-country trip where he bought and saved local papers, documenting the journey one front page at a time. In his work at the Crimson, he loved laying out pages and wonders if he would have become a graphic designer had he chosen a career more deliberately. “That sense of proportion, balance and beauty” informed his work with the New Republic, his concern about how the magazine’s cover appeared and informs his work today.

Coates confesses that his New York literati friends wonder whether people can actually write at MIT, and explains that this is a form of defensiveness from people who can write, but don’t understand math and science. Impressed by the quality of his writing students here, Coates asks Hertzberg whether it’s possible to teach writing. Hertzberg explains that editors – at least the really good ones – are writing teachers. “They show you what’s wrong and you can’t help but learn from that.”

Hertzberg explains that his working method isn’t the only possible way – it’s possible to be a columnist without caring about sentences. He cites Paul Krugman as someone who is less obsessed with craft than with creating lucid, readable arguments. “If you have a great opinion and can express it clearly,” you ma be able to be a great opinion writer without being a great writer. Krugman, Hertzberg argues, has a narrow set of well-developed beliefs and explores them again and again without boring the reader.

There are many ways to report, Hertzberg says: talking with friends, reading online, getting out of the house and experiencing events. He cites Murray Kempton as a columnist who got experienced the world on a bicycle and used that experience to inform his writing. But it’s possible to use any number of methods to build great opinion columns.

Coates notes that Hertzberg writes about once every other week and wonders how he would write if he produced three columns a week. Hertzberg allows as his writing would come to a screetching halt with his suicide. Writing beautiful multiple times a week parallels Michael Jordan’s efforts in basketball. Coates notes that writers feel guilty about being slow writers; Hertzberg notes that Coates has the gift of Sitzfleish, the ability to sit in the chair and produce words.

Blogging is easier than opinion column writing, Coates and Hertzberg argue, because blog posts don’t need to have a shape, while columns need to. As a result, Hertzberg explains, blogging is a recreation. This isn’t to say it’s not worth reading, but that it’s a different pursuit. Hertzberg notes that Coates’s blog serves as a diary on his other writing, giving insight on what he’s developing.

Coates talks about the lowered barriers to writing in public these days. He began writing in public when the New Republic printed an excerpt from The Bell Curve, a notorious exploration of race and achievement in the US. Coates was furious about the piece and notes how hard it was to share his frustation, as a student at Howard University surrounded by brilliant black people, and have that opinion heard. Hertzberg notes that while everyone can have a press now, we don’t all get the fleet of trucks that delivers the papers. “It remains to be seen whether competition, whether this immense supply, will increase the quality of writing.” The proportion of well-informed opinions is clearly smaller than in years past – whether or not the cream will rise to the top is less obvious. And it’s quite obvious that it’s much harder to make a living as a writer.

“Writing is becoming a group activity. It’s something that a large number of people do part time.” Hertzberg explains that writing used to be a living, even if not a great living. Coates wonders whether a Harvard Crimson byline still guarantees future employment in journalism as it used to. Hertzberg explains that the paper is, by choice, far less selective about writers than it used to be, and that this is likely a good thing for the institution.

Hertzberg notes that he spends as much time reading blogs as he does reading newspapers and magazines. He’s bothered that he misses some important stories. (He religiously reads the New York Review of Books, the New Republic and less religiously, the Nation.) “Blogs are addictive. Every hour, you take a little snort of it,” he says.

Coates asks about the importance of writing with conviction: if you don’t believe it, I’m never going to believe it as the reader. And given that there’s so many things you can do other than writing an essay, you’d better grab the reader by the collar and demand attention. Why would someone do something this hard?, he asks Hertzberg. The simple answer: being a newspaperman was the only thing Hertzberger wanted to do.

Hertzberg explains the romance of newspaper journalism, the emotion that led people like Carl Bernstein to work their way up from copy boy to reporter. It’s probably healthier and more professional, he notes, but some of the romance may be gone.

Coates thought Hertzberg must be an effortless writer. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – he keeps an air mattress in his office and usually ends up sleeping in the office at least once, sometimes twice, during a column. But he doesn’t see a correlation between suffering and the quality of his writing, and if he could find a way to work without suffering as badly, he’d gladly claim it.

Tom Levenson offers a first question: Is the degredation of our political culture linked to the status of our opinion writing? Hertzberg notes that it is possible to live in an echo chamber and those echo chambers are likely damaging our politics. But he wonders if things were better in the age of strong gatekeepers. We all live in our own universes, he tells us – the Republicans may live in one of more epistemic closure.

Levenson persists: as a science writer, he’s seen the polling shift on climate change and wonders to what extent that shift (away from a belief in human-influenced climate change) is the responsibility of opinion journalism. Hertzberg notes that the blame is more properly placed on the political system. If we’d not faced filibuster, we’d have had a cap and trade system for carbon emissions. How can we take climate change seriously if our government doesn’t do anything about it? “Our politican institutions can’t give us what we want, and eventually we stop wanting it. We blame the failure on the media,” rather than on the actual machinery of government that is supposed to solve our problems. Hertzberg explains that the filibuster is his “unified field theory” – he writes about it as much as his editors will allow him to.

“The constitution, an incredibly advanced machine for 1789, isn’t working so well. But observing that isn’t as easy as figuring how to fix it.”

Patsy Baudoin asks where the joy is in writing, given how much Hertzberg suffers for his art. He notes that there’s a big pleasure in getting these pieces done, a great deal of pleasure in having the work praised, and little pleasures associated with a well-placed phrase. But those pleasures are counterbalanced by the dread of not finishing the piece.

A questioner notes that while government may be broken, figures like the Koch Brothers have had enormous influence on debates like climate change. He then asks what bloggers and aggregators Hertzberg finds most useful, and what he and Coates think about Greenwald’s writing about Snowden and his new journalistic project. Hertzberg identifies Andrew Sullivan’s blog as his favorite, followed by Coates and Fallows at the Atlantic. Talking Points Memo merits a daily visit, as does the Guardian. In addressing Koch, Hertzberg suggests organizations accept as many gifts as possible, as a theatre paid for by the Koch brothers represents lost opportunity for the right.

In addressing Snowden and Greenwald, Hertzberg thinks of them as inevitable historical figures, genies that cannot be put back into the bottle. We need a polity that does what it’s supposed to do and can live with what these revelations have exposed. He admits this isn’t an answer with great moral clarity, but that he’s still wrestling with these implications.

Coates wonders how journalists who call for Greenwald’s arrest can consider themselves to be journalists. He cites the conversation between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald in the New York Times yesterday and suggests that Greenwald has a tendency to piss people off. In the piece, Greenwald demands Keller to explain why the New York Times’s inconsistency on use of the word “torture” is considered “objective”. That’s a deeply important distinction, and one he is glad Greenwald is demanding be addressed.

In addition to the blogs Hertzberg reads, Coates namechecks Grantland, The Atavist, New York Magazine, and The Toast, a small blog he finds consistently hilarious.

A questioner, a science writing grad student, notes that there’s a lot of trash journalism that’s hiding the quality journalism being produced. How do we feature and highlight the best journalism being produced? Hertzberg warns that we shouldn’t glorify the past too much: “Most journalism has always been pretty dreadful. More people have been interested in the contemporary Kim Kardashian than the contemporary Glenn Greenwald or Bill Keller.” He suggests that we’re at a “Gutenberg moment”, wondering when and how journalism will eventually settle. In sheer numbers, he argues, there is more good journalism done than ever, but finding and collating it is a problem.

Another question asks about journalism as a profession. Hertzberg notes that journalism is now both more professional and more compatible with poverty. He suggests that no one go into journalism in a half-hearted way. For Hertzberg, journalism was the path of least resistance – it’s not today.

Tom Friedman at the New York Times, George Will at the Washington Post seem to hold their jobs forever, one questioner observes. Would journalism be healthier with journalistic term limits? Should columnists have the job security that Supreme Court justices have? Coates wonders how much influence columnists actually have on the culture, and suggests that they more often reflect the culture. For Coates, it’s important to write in different ways – the short form of the blog, the long form for The Atlantic, his occasional columns in the New York Times. Each exercises a different set of literary muscles and he suggests it would be better for the writers than for the audiences.

A former student at MIT notes how valuable she found Coates’s writing about the roots of libertarianism as she reacted to the Occupy movement. She wonders whether Coates will piece together his writings in the news into a long form? Coates suggests that this is what he actually does. He uses the blog as a place to develop ideas he builds in longer formats. “It’s a record of me thinking things out. I have no idea what effect I’m going to have on people thinking about Ron Paul… I don’t really write to convince people.” Coates writes by arguing with himself and believes that his strongest work comes from that process of argument, testing out arguments and seeing what works.

A questioner asks Coates: “Who do you read that’s black?” Coates offers Wesley Morris as a regular read, then notes that most of the black writers he focuses on are historians, writing books, not writing magazine articles. (He later namechecks Jamel Bowie and Anna Holmes as black writers doing terrific work in short form.) “The only person I read who does what I do is William Jelani Cobb.” This suggests that we have a real problem with an absence of black authors in magazine writing. “But most of my influences come from books”, Coates explains, noting that James Baldwin is his most powerful influence.

Chris Peterson notes that Coates argued that you need to grab readers by the shirt collar and shake them. How do you do this when you’re working through your ideas and agenda in writing a piece, he asks Hertzberg. Hertzberg notes that he’s lucky – as a New Yorker writer, he doesn’t need to grab people by the lapels. Readers come to you with faith and trust, that your piece will be worth reading. It’s a giant advantage and privilege. Hertzberg is glad that the New Republic is under new management, but wonders whether the magazine is now working too hard to grab the reader’s lapels. These magazines have an intimate relationship with their readers and the journalism Hertzberg admires does less lapel grabbing. On the web, however, you need to do more of that grabbing because there are no blogs that have the reputation for quality that the New Yorker or New Republic has.

A questioner explains that he comes to Coates’s blog again and again not because of the great writing, but the ethical core. Coates notes that there are people who think George Will is a good writer. Coates says bluntly, “He lies,” in his pieces about football and violence and his pieces about climate change. Hertzberg talks about deep and shallow beauty – he enjoys reading some writers because they write beautifully, but argues that they don’t think beautifully.

A questioner asks both whether they read the Huffington Post and what they think of the quality. Hertzberg allows that the question is like referring to the universe and asking what you think of the quality of the stars. It’s vanity publishing writ large, he suggests, and wonders if there’s any way of reading the Huffington Post other than looking at who links to pieces of it. Coates simply doesn’t read it, and notes that HuffPo’s misleading headlines are another form of lying.

A final questioner wonders about the centrality of politics in opinion journalism. Do writers approach more gradual, slow issues more gradually than writing about fast-breaking political stories? Hertzberg argues that culture, ultimately, is more important than politics. But the stakes are higher in writing about politics, as the real-world consequences are great. Art is superior to journalism, and music is the most superior to all, Hertzberg asserts.

Coates agrees – music is superior because it crosses language. But he doesn’t think his process is different in writing politics versus culture, as he’s always trying to figure something out. Sometimes the most popular pieces Coates writes are the ones where he’s dismissing something as ridiculous, but writing those pieces isn’t very satisfying because it doesn’t involve working something out.

Categories: Blog

Zeynep Tufekci on protest movements and capacity problems

October 17, 2013 - 2:56pm

MIT’s Comparative Media Studies hosts a weekly colloquium, and this week’s featured speaker is sociologist and movement theorist, Zeynep Tufekci. Zeynep describes herself as a scholar of social movements and of surveillance, which means this has been an interesting and challenging year. The revelations about the NSA hit the same week as the Gezi protests in Turkey. She explains that it’s hard to do conceptual work in this space because events are changing every few months, making it very hard to extrapolate from years of experience.

Not until protests reached Gezi, Zeynep tells us, did she feel comfortable putting a name on the phenomenon she’s been seeing in her research in the Arab Spring, through Occupy and in the Indignados movement. To explain her theory, she opens her talk with a picture of the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. The picture of Everest, taken a day that four people died on the mountain, shows the profound crowding on the mountain, which made Everest so dangerous as climbers had to wait for others to finish.

Because of technology and sherpas, more people who aren’t great climbers come to Everest. Full service trips (at a $65,000 price point) can get you to base camp and get you much of the way up the mountain, but they cannot prepare people to climb the peak. There’s an uptick in deaths in the 1980s once the basecamps become developed and more people can get to the mountain.

People have proposed putting a ladder at Hillary’s Step, hoping to make things more difficult. But the issue is not the ladders – it’s the fact that it’s very, very hard to climb at altitude. The mountineering community has suggested something else: require people to climb seven other high peaks before they reach Everest.

This is an analogy for internet-enabled activism. In talking about internet and collective action, we tend to talk about ease of coordination and community. Zeynep worries that we’re getting to base camp without developing altitude awareness – in other words, some of the internet’s benefits have significant handicaps as side effects. The result: we see more movements, but they may not have impact or staying power because they come to public attention much earlier in their lives.

She suggests we stop looking so much at outputs of social media fueled protests and start looking instead at their role in capacity building. She recommends that we stop looking at offline/online distinctions and look more at signaling approaches to protests. This requires a game-theoretic framework, and consideration of movement capacities and strategic tensions.

With that as backdrop, she takes us to Gezi Park and Taksim Square, which she suggests we see as analogous to Chelsea or Soho, a neighborhood where people go to party. It’s one of the very rare greenspaces in that part of the city. It was to be replaced with the replica of an Ottoman barracks, which was going to be used as a high-end shopping mall, something that there are many of in Istanbul.

Neighbors of the park held a small protest, probably 30-40 people. But that small protest was met with pepper gas, which is a clear overreaction to a small, peaceful protest. People got upset about the protest and saw it as a personal decision by Erdogan, who seemed to be pushing the development over local wishes and over the wishes of the people of Istanbul.

People took to the streets and to Twitter. Why Twitter? While CNN International was showing protests in Taksim, CNN Turkey was showing a documentary about penguins. Zeynep found this deeply surprising – “We’re not China!” But there are different kinds of censorship, and this was censorship by media conglomerates, which are controlled by people who want government contracts. To curry favor with the government, media tends to self-censor… and if they don’t, they often get phone calls from the government. So Turkey isn’t China, but it’s a bit more like Russia, though with open elections and a more open public sphere. The backdrop for Gezi includes a 11-year single party reign, a polarized nation, an ineffective opposition and an electoral system that makes it hard to start new parties.

These protests in the middle of the city showed the depth of media corruption in Turkey, because social media documented the clashes with the police. Outrage over the police action and media interaction turned into a long-term occupation of Gezi Park. So, Zeynep tells us, she packed up her gear: a helmet, a gas mask, sunscreen, a recorder and a digital camera, all air-gapped from the internet.

Zeynep describes the encampment as Smurf village, a happy and friendly version of “Woodstock meets the Paris commune”, but threatened by Gargamel, the police showing up periodically. Roma ladies who normally sell flowers to tourists were selling Anonymous masks, ski goggles and spray paint. (Who says the developing world needs help with entrepreneurship?, she tell us.)

She walks us through the iconography – #diren (“resist”, or “occupy”), penguins (a reference to CNN showing penguin documentaries rather than clashes.) While the icons imply a common movement, there wasn’t one. She shows us a picture of a Kurdish activist, a far-right activist and an opposition party activist in the same frame, and another picture of macho soccer fans meeting with a local feminist group. Soccer fans traditionally call referees “faggots” in their chants, and the soccer fans protesting wanted to call the police faggots… but got confronted by local gay and lesbian activists who said, “No, we’re the faggots – we’re the guys protesting!” The two groups had a meeting, and the soccer fans ended up chanting “Sexist Erdogan”, newly aware of the members in their community. Zeynep takes pains to explain the heterogeneity of the crowd: a Kurdish activist and a gay rights activist talking about why they hadn’t interacted before.

Despite how much positivity came from these protests, there were real risks – people went to sleep after writing their blood types on their arms. Serious injuries happened every day, from tear gas cannisters and police confrontations.

What did the internet do? It broke media censorship, created a counternarrative, and allowed coordination. To tease CNN, people photoshopped penguins into protest footage, urging CNN Turkey to come to the protests. Humor was a major weapon, drawing attention to the persistent censorship. Zeynep makes the point of how difficult it is to censor in a social media age, pointing to the differences between Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid protests in Tunisia.

Twitter was critical for the Gezi protests, not just for generating a counternarrative, but for protest coordination. For the most part, the internet worked, and local businesses turned on wifi to make it accessible to protesters. Activists called friends who tweeted on their behalf. Erdogan wasn’t going to turn off the internet, Zeynep tells us, because of fear he’d be seen as an autocrat.

Despite all this adhoc coordination, there was no real centralized leadership, and very little delegation of authority. It was extremely unclear what demands were beyond “Don’t raze Gezi Park.” Because there was no need to deal with these thorny questions of representation and delegation to coordinate the protests, the movement did not build a strong leadership culture.

The Gezi protests were brutally dispersed, at which point, protest conversations moved to neighborhood forums, which were also dispersed. While popular, these protests haven’t been able to create structures that engage the government in the long term.

Despite the successes of the protests, Zeynep reminds us that Gezi and the open internet never overwhelmed the state’s capacity to surpress the protests. It simply overwhelmed state capacity to suppress without unwanted side effects of embarrassment, loss of tourism revenues, loss of prestige, loss of being seen as a modern civic space.

To understand these protests, Zeynep turns to Amartya Sen and capacity building, looking at those capacities, not traditional outputs, as the benefits of development. The internet gives us some new capacities, but that may undermine other capacities: we end up at base camp very easily, but we don’t know how to negotiate Hillary’s step. We can carry out the spectacular street protest, but we can’t build a larger movement to topple or challenge a government.

Protests are very good at grabbing attention and putting forth counternarratives. They create bonding between diverse groups. They also signal capacity, but it’s a different capacity than it might have been fifteen years ago. Zeynep tells us that this is not a “cheap talk” argument – protesting isn’t too easy – it’s just that a protest isn’t going to topple the government. This isn’t a slactivism argument either – it’s an argument about capacities. The internet seems to be very good at building a spectacular local optima – a street protest – without forcing deeper capacity development.

In the past, gaining attention meant gaining elite dissent and buy-in. Now, gaining attention may also have a cost – you may or may not have achieved elite buy-in, which means you may gain polarization. Gaining attention on your terms means not gaining the dominant narrative.

Digitally enabled protest allows for much more ability for social interaction amongst the machines. That said, the internet is a homophily machine, and joining a movement can be a step towards a homophilous group. Movements like the Tea Party are thriving in these environments.

Zeynep shows a slide of a gazelle stotting to make her last point. Jumping in the air isn’t a great way to avoid predators – it’s a way to show that you’re really fast and would be hard to catch. But animals that can’t evade predators can also jump. Zeynep warns us that ignoring the March on Washington would have been a mistake, which might have ousted a President, but Gezi was not that sort of protest.

She urges us to consider “network internalities”, development of ties within networks that would allow social networks to become effective actors. Movements get stuck at no, she argues, because they’ve never needed to develop a capacity for representation, and can only coalesce around saying no, not building an affirmative agenda.

Categories: Blog

Google cars versus public transit: the US’s problem with public goods

October 15, 2013 - 2:28pm

I have an excellent job at a great university. I have a home that I love in a community I’ve lived in for two decades where I have deep ties of family and friendship. Unfortunately, that university and that hometown are about 250 kilometers from one another. And so, I’ve become an extreme commuter, traveling three or four hours each way once or twice a week so I can spend time with my students 3-4 days a week and with my wife and young son the rest of the time.

America is a commuter culture. Averaged out over a week, my commute is near the median American experience. Spend forty minutes driving each way to your job and you’ve got a longer commute than I in the weeks I make one trip to Cambridge. But, of course, I don’t get to go home every night. I stay two to three nights a week at a bed and breakfast in Cambridge, where my “ludicrously frequent guest” status gets me a break on a room. I spend less this way than I did my first year at MIT, when I rented an apartment that I never used on weekends or during school vacations.

This is not how I would choose to live if I could bend space and time, and I spend a decent amount of time trying to optimise my travel through audiobooks, podcasts, and phone calls made while driving. I also gripe about the commute probably far too often to my friends, who are considerate if not entirely sympathetic. (It’s hard to be sympathetic to a guy who has the job he wants, lives in a beautiful place, and simply has a long drive a few times a week.)

Hearing my predicament, one friend prescribed a solution: “You need a Google self-driving car!” The friend in question is a top programmer for a world-leading game company, and her enthusiasm for a technical solution parallels advice I’ve gotten from my technically oriented friends, who offer cutting edge technology that is either highly unlikely to materially affect my circumstances, or would improve some aspect of my commute rather than change its core nature. (Lots of friends forwarded me Elon Musk’s hyperloop proposal. And lots more have suggested tools I can use on my iPhone so that a synthetic voice will read my students’ assignments aloud while I drive.)

“I don’t want a Google car,” I tell her. “I want a train.”

In much of the world, a train wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to ask for. New England has a population density comparable to parts of Europe where commuting by train is commonplace. I live ten kilometers north of downtown Pittsfield, MA, which lies on a rail line that connects Albany, NY with Boston. There is, in fact, one train per day from Pittsfield to Boston. It takes almost six hours to make a journey that can take me as little as 2.5 hours (if there’s no traffic) to drive, and operates at a time that makes it impossible for me to use it for business travel. I want a European train, a Japanese train, not necessarily a bullet train, but something that could get me from the county seat of Berkshire county to the state capitol in under two hours.

Such a train exists on some of the proposed maps for high speed rail service in New England. But given the current government shutdown, and more broadly, a sense that government services are contracting rather than expanding, it’s very hard to imagine such a line ever being built. In fact, it’s much easier for me to imagine my semi-autonomous car speeding down the Mass Pike as part of a computer-controlled platoon than boarding a train in my little city and disembarking in a bigger one.

There’s something very odd about a world in which it’s easier to imagine a futuristic technology that doesn’t exist outside of lab tests than to envision expansion of a technology that’s in wide use around the world. How did we reach a state in America where highly speculative technologies, backed by private companies, are seen as a plausible future while routine, ordinary technologies backed by governments are seen as unrealistic and impossible?

The irony of the Google car for my circumstances is that it would be inferior in every way to a train. A semi-autonomous car might let me read or relax behind the wheel, but it would be little faster than my existing commute and as sensitive to traffic, which is the main factor that makes some trips 2.5 hours and some 4 hours. Even if my Google car is a gas-sipping Prius or a plug-in hybrid, it will be less energy efficient than a train, which achieves giant economies of scale in fuel usage even at higher speeds than individual vehicles. It keeps me sealed in my private compartment, rather than giving me an opportunity to see friends who make the same trip or meet new people.

There’s a logical response to my whiny demands for an easier commute: if there were a market for such a service, surely such a thing would exist. And if train service can’t be profitably provided between Pittsfield and Boston, why should Massachusetts taxpayers foot the bill for making my life marginally easier?

This line of reasoning became popular in the US during the Reagan/Thatcher revolution and has remained influential ever since. What government services can be privatized should be, and government dollars should go only towards services, like defense, that we can’t pay for in private markets. As the US postal service has reminded us recently, they remain open during the government shutdown because they are mandated by Congress to be revenue neutral. Ditto for Amtrak, which subsidizes money-losing long distance routes with profitable New England services and covers 88% of expenses through revenue, not through government support. Our obsession with privatization is so thorough in the US that we had no meaningful debate in the US about single payer healthcare, a system that would likely be far cheaper and more efficient than the commercial health insurance mandated under the Affordable Care Act – even when governments provide services more efficiently than private markets, the current orthodoxy dictates that private market solutions are the way to go.

The problem with private market solutions is that they often achieve a lower level of efficiency than public solutions. Medicare has tremendous power to negotiate with drug manufacturers, which brings down healthcare costs. Private insurers have less leverage, and we all pay higher prices for drugs as a result, especially those whose healthcare isn’t paid for my a government or private organization and who have no negotiating power. The current system works very well for drug companies, but poorly for anyone who needs and uses healthcare (which is to say, for virtually everyone.)

It’s possible that the same argument applies to transportation, though the argument is less direct. It’s not that a federal or state government can provide train service to western MA at a cost that’s substantially lower than a private company (though they might – Medicare’s aggressive audit process helps keep costs down by minimizing waste.) It’s more that transportation has ancillary financial benefits that are hard for anyone other than a state to claim.

Real estate in Boston is insanely expensive, either to buy or to rent. That’s because lots of people want to live and work in Boston and the supply of real estate is relatively scarce compared to demand. In much of the rest of Massachusetts (let’s say, anywhere west of I-495), jobs are relatively scare and real estate is plentiful. Cities like Worcester, Holyoke, Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield experienced peak population decades ago and have been on the decline ever since. These cities and their surrounding communities are nice places to live, though they suffer from a shrinking population and tax base.

If there were a high-speed rail corridor from Boston to Albany, through Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, we would expect real estate in those cities to become more valuable as people fed up with Boston rents moved to smaller cities and the countryside, using high speed rail to commute to schools and jobs. This would have the salubrious effect of increasing the tax base for the most vulnerable communities in MA, though it might decrease the tax base in the most densely settled parts of Massachusetts. Then again, lowered density might be a good thing – few people stuck on I-90 or I-93 on their way into Boston on a Monday morning think the city and its suburbs works especially well at current density.

This model of rail turning undesirable land into desirable land is basically the model that enabled westward expansion during the 19th century – the US government and rail companies struck a deal that shared ownership of land along the new rail lines. Railroad companies sold land to new immigrants and to those willing to trade urban density for rural opportunity to finance their construction, and the government used revenues from land sales to fill public coffers.

But western MA is not unclaimed land. High speed rail will make some landowners wealthy while leaving others relatively untouched. The only entity that can capture the value generated by an infrastructural improvement like high speed rail is a government – local, state or federal – which can claim a share of those increased property values through taxation. If high speed rail makes it possible to live in Springfield and work in Boston, it might – over time – generate enough traffic to make running the service profitable. In the short term, however, we’d see Springfield better able to pay for schools and public services, a not insignificant development for a community that’s facing severe economic problems.

Who loses? Residents of Boston and surrounding suburbs. We’d expect rents and property values to decrease somewhat as demand lessens. And we’d be generating public debt through a bond issue, much as when citizens throughout Massachusetts subsidized the Big Dig, despite the fact that the massive infrastructure project did little to benefit residents of Pittsfield, on the other side of the state. We would be engaged in a transfer or wealth from the wealthiest part of our state to some of the poorest, hoping that, in the long run, our poorer communities would become more self-sufficient and sustainable, and would do a better job of supporting the state as a whole.

Is such an investment worthwhile? I don’t know – it’s the sort of issue one would expect to debate, trying to determine whether future spending is likely to generate significant enough economic gains that a long term investment is worthwhile. But we seem to be losing the ability to have these long-term debates. Experts warn of crumbling infrastructure throughout the US, as exemplified by broken bridges and collapsing freeways. A quick trip to any city in the Middle East or Asia is a stark reminder of how antiquated most of our public transit systems are, in those places where they exist.

The US has a problem with public goods. After thirty years of hearing that government can do nothing right and that the private sector is inevitably more efficient, my generation and those younger tend not to look towards the government to solve problems. Instead, we look to the private sector, sometimes towards social ventures that promise to turn a profit while doing good, more often towards fast-growth private companies, where we hope their services will make the world a better place. Google can feel like a public good – like a library, it’s free for everyone to use, and it may have social benefits by increasing access to information. But it’s not a public good – we don’t have influence over what services Google does and doesn’t provide, and our investment is an investment of attention as recipients of ads, not taxation.

It’s unthinkable for most Americans to posit a government-built Google, as the French government proposed some years ago. But it’s likely that long established parts of our civic landscape, like libraries and universities, would be similarly unthinkable as public ventures if we were to start them today. (You want to lend intellectual property at zero cost to consumers who might copy and redistribute it, and you’d like local government to pay for it? What sort of socialist are you?!)

This unwillingness to consider the creation of new public goods restricts the solution space we consider. We look for solutions to the crisis in journalism but aren’t willing to consider national license models like the one that supports the BBC, or strong, funded national broadcasters like NHK or Deutsche Welle. We build markets to match consumers with health insurance but won’t consider expanding Medicare into a single-payer health system. We look towards MOOCs and underpaid lecturers rather than considering fundamental reforms to the structure of state universities. We consider a narrow range of options and complain when we find only lousy solutions.

My student Rodrigo Davies has been writing about civic crowdfunding, looking at cases where people join together online and raise money for projects we’d expect a government to otherwise provide. On the one hand, this is an exciting development, allowing neighbors to raise money and turn a vacant lot into a community garden quickly and efficiently. But we’re also starting to see cases where civic crowdfunding challenges services we expect governments to provide, like security. Three comparatively wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland have used crowdfunding to raise money for private security patrols to respond to concerns about crime in their communities. Oakland undoubtably has problems with crime, in part due to significant budget cuts in the past decade that have shrunk the police force.

It’s reasonable that communities that feel threatened would take steps to increase their safety. But if those steps focus only on communities wealthy enough to pay for their own security and don’t consider broader issues of security in the community, they are likely to have corrosive effects in the long term. Oakland as a whole may become more dangerous as select communities become safer. And people paying for private security are likely to feel less obligation to paying for high-quality policing for the city as a whole if they feel that private security is keeping them safe – look at the resentment people without kids and people whose kids are homeschooled or in private school express towards funding public schools.

On the one hand, I appreciate the innovation of crowdfunding, and think it’s done remarkable things for some artists and designers. On the other hand, looking towards crowdfunding to solve civic problems seems like a woefully unimaginative solution to an interesting set of problems. It’s the sort of solution we’d expect at a moment where we’ve given up on the ability to influence our government and demand creative, large-scale solutions to pressing problems, where we look to new technologies for solutions or pool our funds to hire someone to do the work we once expected our governments to do.

Categories: Blog

Jen Pahlka and Clay Shirky at Code for America Summit

October 15, 2013 - 9:57am

I’m at Code for America’s 2013 summit in San Francisco today, an impressive gathering put together by an extremely impressive civic innovation organization. I’m one of the advisors to Code for All, a sister project to Code for America led by Catherine Bracy, old friend from the Berkman Center, and was able to meet the first Code for All partners from Jamaica, Germany and Mexico at CfA’s amazing headquarters yesterday.

Code for America has done something pretty astounding. They’ve found a way to bring geeks into local governments to build innovative new projects in a way that’s fiscally sustainable. They’ve got support from the governments who host these geeks and from the central players in the US tech economy, and they’ve emerged as a central organizing node for the government innovation community.

Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, opens her remarks with the classic Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world” quote, and admits that she never got her degree in anthropology because the classes were too early in the morning. She notes that many people working on civic change feel like they are a small group, though we’re able to come together into a movement today. She hopes that this isn’t a movement of sameness, but of diversity, which sometimes creates conflict and chaos. When we come together, we get new applications and APIs, but more importantly, we get a community and a common mission.

The common beliefs of this group include the idea that government can work of the people, by the people and for the people, even in the 21st century. We have in common the idea that we can do things better together. Code for America welcomes anyone who has these values, and – and here she emphasizes her words very carefully – are doing something. Code for America is a reaction to Tim O’Reilly’s injunction to the tech industry to “work on stuff that matters”. CfA, she tells us, works on the stuff that matters the most.

Jen is supposed to be working as deputy CTO under Todd Park in the White House on a yearlong break from the organization… though she’s on furlough at the moment. She explains her decision to move into government for a year by explaining how inspired she is by people working in government. “In order to honor all of you – all the public servants in government and the fellows to work with them – I felt like I could not pass up this experience.”

Answering the inevitable question: “How’s it going in DC?”, she answers that it’s both deeply rewarding and the hardest thing she’s ever done, including starting Code for America. She offers warm thanks to Bob Sofman and Abhi Nemani who’ve been leading the organization during her year off.

Clay Shirky start his talk at the Code for America summit with some internet history:

Larry Sanger is an epistemologist, hired into one of the few epistemology jobs, working on Nupedia, a new encyclopedia working with experts to build a carefully fact-checked new encyclopedia. Nine months into Nupedia, they’ve created about a dozen articles. Sanger realizes this isn’t working and goes to Jimmy Wales, the guy who hired him, and suggests using Ward Cunningham’s wiki software. Wikipedia is born and the rest is history – in weeks, it outpaces Nupedia and Nupedia rapidly shuts down.

Patrick McConlogue, a New York city entrepreneur who works at Kickass Capital, caught sight of a homeless guy on the streets of New York and proposes teaching him to program as a way of addressing the problem of “the unjustly homeless”. McConlogue never bothered to learn the homeless guy’s name, and the details of the story led to ferocious online criticism of McConlogue’s plans to teach a homeless man to program. In the criticism of McConlogue, Shirky was struck by the idea that tech startups encourage thinking that doesn’t consider limitations and constraints, which might be appropriate for the tech industry, but doesn’t work well in the social change space.

This sounded wrong to Shirky, who started re-reading the comments through this lens, looking both at the criticisms of McConlogue’s idea and the voluminous criticism of Leo, the homeless guy, for being homeless. Matt Yglesias was similarly skeptical, but looked at possible solutions: how do we address homelessness, which begins with looking for ways to create affordable housing. Clay draws a distinction between this sort of helpful criticism – which was very harsh to McConlogue’s approach, but ultimately helpful – and corrosive criticism, which doesn’t make you smarter but just tries to get you to stop looking at the problem.

Clay notes that he’s lived through two sorting out times: the question of whether the web would be important, and questions of whether social media would spread. In these periods of sorting out, technology looks like a solution in search of a problem, because at that point it is. Over time, we find answers to the question – will it work? will it scale – and it ultimately does. Clay suggests that we’re now at that point with civic media. We need to listen to the helpful critics, and we need to stop listening to the corrosive ones so we can keep moving forward.

“If you want to feel like a genius, go to a place where people are doing something new and predict that they’ll fail. You’ll almost always get it right. It’s a cheap high.” There’s a great deal of space between “nothing will work” and “almost nothing will work”. The easiest problems to take on, Clay tells us, are pure technical problems where you just need information. It’s not an accident that applications to report potholes are the great success story in this space – there’s no pothole lobby. Potholes are projects and they have solutions.

One step up from technical problems are managerial problems. In starting a bike sharing program in New York, the organizers posted a map and asked people to request bike stations. The resulting map, where everyone requested a station outside their homes, was a rhetorical document that helped build support for the program. Managerial problems don’t just solve technical problems – they have to do with building support and constituencies for solutions. And then there are political problems.

It is not possible to imagine a city without prostitutes, Clay tells us. People don’t agree what the goal is when they address prostitution. Some people want sex work to stop and some people want it to be a better job. At the political level, you’re not dealing with problems – you’re dealing with dilemmas and you only have tradeoffs, not solutions.

When people want to distract you, Clay tells us, they tell you the problem you’re working on is not the real problem. “Don’t work on potholes – work on traffic flow citywide.” Work at that scale and you’ll get criticized for not working on something concrete and achievable because you can always find a way to criticize a project’s scale.

Clay urges us to understand that the most important resource we’ve got is our own ability to change our minds. As he got on the plane to come to San Francisco, he learned that Leo, the homeless guy with the javascript books, got arrested for sleeping in the park. McConlogue saw that Leo had been arrested and has tried to bail them out of jail. Clay argues that McConlogue has turned from someone who characterizes people as “justly homeless” to someone who tries to bail a homeless man out of jail. Whether or not he will end up being a fairy godfather to Leo, or forgetting about this project soon, McConlogue would not have learned what he’s learned without starting with the wrong idea and testing it in the world.

The possibility of learning as you go is the potential of the people in this room, Clay tells us. We can’t find major solutions by planning better or by starting an endless series of unconferences and hackathons: hackathons don’t produce running code, but better understanding of problems and better social capital. In the internet community, we’ve all thought through Nupedia and we think we understand how it ground to a halt through bureaucracy. But many of us fail to understand that the people who made Nupedia fail were the people who make Wikipedia succeed, the same folks who’d been building Nupedia. Wikipedia was a plan B.

When you build a prototype, you’re building up your understanding of the process. When you build a prototype, you’re not solving the client’s problem – you’re often showing show the client that they don’t understand the problem, as people often don’t tell you what they need until you can show them something that is concretely wrong. If we can commit to working on problems before discovering at first that we’re wrong, we can take on the most challenging problems that face us.

Categories: Blog

Saving the News with Advocacy Journalism: ten minutes with the Nieman Foundation

September 28, 2013 - 7:17am

It’s the 75th anniversary of the Nieman Foundation, and the Harvard-based program is bringing back generations of its fellows, mid-career journalists brought to Cambridge to study for a year, back to honor and celebrate the institution. One of the events on the program is the “Ninety Minute Nieman”, where organizers have invited a set of Cambridge-based professors to offer a taste of what happens in their classes in 10 minutes each. (7 professors, 10 minute lectures + the inevitable shuffling of papers = a 90 minute Nieman.)

I’m lucky enough to be one of those presenters. My friends at Nieman encouraged me to be provocative, as that’s the role I seem to have every year when I come and talk to new Nieman fellows. As someone with no experience in conventional newsrooms (save the summer I was the sports reporter for the Lewisboro Ledger at age 16) and as the co-founder of a global citizen media project, I tend to embody the anxieties and fears some mid-career journalists hold when they spend a year considering the future of their profession.

So why fight it? I decided to use my time on stage to make an argument I passionately believe: that journalism needs to help people be effective and engaged civic actors, and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t expect to survive financially or in terms of influence. In the event that I’m struck by a flying shoe thrown by a journalist or editor in the audience and laid low, I’ve posted the text of what I hope to say.

I teach a class at MIT’s Media Lab called “News and Participatory Media” that’s become popular with Nieman scholars. I designed it as a class for engineers and software developers – the sorts of folks we expect to find at the Media Lab – with the goal of exposing them to different reporting problems so they understand some of the challenges journalists face, before working to build new tools for use in traditional and non-traditional newsrooms. Nieman fellows find it interesting, I think, because it exposes them both to different ways to think about reporting, and to students who think about news very differently. This leads to some interesting collaborations: a business reporter for one of Nigeria’s most prominent newspapers sought out one of my doctoral students for help scraping UK property databases to identify assets owned by kleptocratic Nigerian governors. We have a pretty good time.

Because the class includes reporters, who tend to be very passionate about the future of journalism, and geeks, who tend to be very passionate about social media and pretty skeptical about the current state of journalism, we have some interesting arguments over the course of a semester. I enjoy stoking these arguments, so I often bring in provocations to get us started. Which led me to bring in a remarkable column from Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli.

Dobelli was pitching a new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly” – which purports to use neuroscientific and cognitive science research to explain why it’s so hard to think clearly, and thinking as clearly as I can muster, I can’t recommend the book. But there’s one section, which was excerpted in The Guardian, titled “News is Bad for You” that’s a very worthwhile read. Dobelli claims that he gave up reading news four years ago and is a happier man for it: he describes news as a drug, a time-wasting habit that gives us the brief sense that we’re doing something productive and positive, but actually breaks our focus and distracts us while failing to explain the world in deep and meaningful ways or give us anything we, as readers, can do about what we read.

I figured this would spark a great conversation in our class: who would rise to defend the importance of staying informed in order to be an effective civic actor? To my great surprise, most of the class – the hacks and the hackers – were in agreement that Dobelli was more right than wrong. In part, this is because we all agreed that there’s a lot of badly written news out there – news that provides little background or context – and several of Dobelli’s critiques call out decontextualized, shallow. But the idea that had the most resonance for the class, and for me, was this: news is seldom connected to decisions we have to make as individuals, and that consuming news about situations we can’t influence will ultimately instill a sense of learned helplessness.

This is a particularly tricky argument for me, as my schtick for the past decade has been to argue that Americans need more information about the rest of the world. I just wrote a book that makes the case that we should rewire both news and social media to help us get a more cosmopolitan view of the world, so we can find connection and inspiration and solve global problems. But Dobelli has a point: the stories I’ve been trying to get Americans to pay attention to through Global Voices – repression and rebellion in Sudan, revolution in Tunisia, the rise of an African middle class – aren’t stories where readers have much agency. And part of the reason it’s so damned hard to get people to pay attention to events and voices that are geographically far away is that people rightly ask, “Why does this matter to me? Is this going to change how I work? How I shop? Even how I vote?” And the answer is, “probably not”.

I thought of Dobelli’s questions this summer, when I read Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen. Schudson argues that the expectation for what a good citizen of America does has changed as our country has changed. In the post-independence period, the good citizen elected voted to elect the worthiest members of society to represent them – it was democracy by assent, largely noncompetitive. In the 19th century, good citizens were members of political parties not because of ideology, but largely because of personal and professional ties, and those parties, while competitive, competed on personality and organization, not on issues

Citizenship as many of us think about it is a product of the progressive era, Schudson argues. To overcome the party machines, progressives promoted the model of the informed citizen model, where muckraking newspapers uncovered malfeasance, where newspapers and magazines informed citizens on the issues of the day, where informed voters didn’t just elect representatives but voted directly on legislation through the ballot initiative process.

Schudson has at least two issues with the model of the informed citizen – he thinks it’s aspirational at best and farcical at worst, and he thinks its time passed somewhere around the 1960s. It’s impossible for a citizen to be informed on the range of issues that affect society – here he’s echoing some of Walter Lippman’s concerns from “Public Opinion” – and that’s not how the vast majority of us vote. And, he argues, since the 1960s, civic engagement that’s focused on making lasting change has focused on the courts, not on the ballot box – we’ve got a model of citizenship where lawsuits to establish rights and regulatory agencies that protect them are where much of the work of citizenship gets done

What I find helpful about Schudson’s argument is not his vision of rights-based citizenship, but the idea that the shape of citizenship can change over time. I think we’re experiencing one of those changes – I think we’re seeing a new form of civics that focuses on agency, on participation, and on trying to make an impact even at a very small scale.

It’s a version of citizenship that’s suspicious of opaque systems and institutions and is highly focused on seeing where effort and money goes – think of Kiva, which encourages people to loan money directly to developing world entrepreneurs, or Donors Choose, where people give to specific schools in need. Think of crowdfunding, where people support individual pieces of art they want to see made, rather than supporting arts institutions. Think of people who are politically engaged in campaigns on single issues – to arrest George Zimmerman or Joseph Kony – rather than to elect a party or a person. This is a version of citizenship that’s highly personal, highly decentralized, pointillist rather that sweeping in scope. It’s a vision of citizenship consistent with the changes we’ve seen with media, where everyone is creating media, whether it’s a Facebook update for friends or a blogpost that acts as an oped.

And just as we’ve discovered how difficult it is to navigate news and media in this space – how do we triangulate reports on Twitter and Facebook and government statements in a crisis like the Westgate mall attacks, especially when it turns out that official government sources are often less accurate than citizen sources – we’re discovering that it’s really hard to navigate this civic space. When tens of millions of American teens suddenly start demanding that the US put military forces in Uganda to arrest a warlord in the Central Africa Republic, do we treat this as a teen fad or as a serious policy concern? Do we use this as a chance to bring Ugandan voices into the dialog, or do we focus on the personal story of Jason Russell and his nervous breakdown? The KONY 2012 campaign gained an enormous amount of attention and, for a few weeks, shifted public debate – we need help figuring out whether it had impact, a question we should be asking both of campaigns that seek change by marshaling attention, and of journalism as a whole: what’s the civic impact?

This is a place where the news can help. We’re seeing a generation that’s not apathetic – they’re desperate to have impact. When we see them shying away from party politics, it’s not because they’re selfish or self-obsessed, it’s because they have a very hard time seeing how writing to their congressperson is going to change anything when congress lurches from shutdown to shutdown and passes historically few laws. People want to have impact, and the news can help.

We can help people understand where and how they can have impact. We can build on what David Bornstein is calling solutions journalism, featuring not just problems but the people and organizations trying to solve them – and we can do this in a way that probes at whether the solutions are as good as promised. We can link news stories to groups and campaigns trying to address the issues in those stories, as the Christian Science Monitor is doing in partnership with Shoutabout on their DC Decoder section. When we report on a crisis like Superstorm Sandy, we’re unafraid to drive readers to the Red Cross to help out – when my publication Global Voices reports on Kenya, we can point to ways people can help in the wake of the Westgate shooting, whether that’s to groups providing assistance to families, or to civil rights organizations now organizing to protect Kenya’s Somali population against an inevitable backlash.

What we cannot do is keep reporting news that keeps our readers informed but ineffective. There’s just too much else for them to pay attention to, whether it’s entertainment content or self-reinforcing, comfortable, partisan opinion. We’re losing the news not just because the financial models have changed, but because the civic models have changed. I doubt there’s a person in this room who got into the business for the money – everyone I know is motivated by a vision of public service. I worry that we’re failing to do public service because the way the public participates has changed. If we’re stuck in a paradigm where we inform citizens, then declare our work done, we’re failing in our public service duties.

By now, there’s any number of people in the audience waiting to ask the question, “Isn’t this advocacy journalism?” Since our forum doesn’t let you ask questions, let me go ahead and answer that for you: hell yes. And we should get used to it, because we’re all already doing advocacy journalism. Now that it’s incredibly easy to produce and disseminate information, what’s scarce is attention. Whenever we make a news judgement to put a story on our front page or deep inside our papers or sites, when we decide to cover a story in Malawi or in Mattapan, we’re doing advocacy journalism. We’re a part of a complicated ecosystem where everyone – activists promoting a cause, companies promoting a product, reporters delivering news – are competing for attention, and news organizations are very powerful actors within that system.

We’re advocating for the idea that what we’re covering is worth someone’s attention, and is worth more attention that something we’ve chosen not to cover. What Laura and Chris Amico have done with Homicide Watch is advocacy journalism at its very best – they advocate for the idea that everyone killed in DC or Chicago deserves to be reported on, whether they were black or white, rich or poor. When Godwin Nnanna reports on Nigerian governors buying mansions in Mayfair with money looted from Nigeria’s treasury, he’s committing advocacy journalism, just as he should, demanding that kleptocrats be held responsible for their crimes. When the Guardian puts Glen Greenwald on the front page, asking hard questions about government surveillance gone mad, it’s most certainly advocacy journalism and it’s advocacy journalism that we need if we want journalism to survive in the face of unconstitutional actions that changed forever our ability to assure sources that their identities will remain confidential and that they can talk to the press without fear of losing their jobs.

The problem isn’t journalism that advocates – it’s journalism that advocates a sadly limited set of options: vote for this guy or for that guy. We need journalism that helps us understand how we can participate and be effective, whether it’s through an election, a petition, a boycott, a new business model or technology. We need to ask whether our stories are teaching our readers to be helpless, or helping them become effective citizens.

My goal in teaching is to help my students see things from a different perspective, whether or not they end up agreeing with me – I aim to provoke more than persuade and hope I’ve done the former if not the latter. Please keep sending me Niemans.

Categories: Blog

Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

September 25, 2013 - 4:06pm

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…

Categories: Blog

What We Watch: a new tool for watching how popular videos spread online

September 23, 2013 - 10:03am

More than a billion people a month visit YouTube to watch videos.

Sometimes, those billion people watch the same video. More often, they don’t.

YouTube shares information about what videos are popular in different cities and different countries, and for the US, offers a tool to see what videos are popular with different age groups and genders.

We were interested in seeing what videos were popular in different countries, and especially, what videos were popular in more than one country. For the past six months, we’ve gathered data from YouTube to understand What We Watch. The videos we feature are videos that appear on YouTube’s Trends dashboard. These are the videos trending in any of 61 countries – they are not necessarily the most popular of all time, or even most popular that month, but they are receiving a lot of attention in a short period of time. (Gilad Lotan’s explanation of trending topics on Twitter is useful for understanding that distinction.)

What We Watch is a browser for popular YouTube videos, built by Ed Platt, Rahul Bhargava and Ethan Zuckerman at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. (Rahul did data acquisition, Ed did visualization and Ethan waved his hands and requested features inappropriately late in the design process.)

Click on a country, and you’ll get a list of videos that have trended in that country, and a map that shows other countries that watch the same videos. Click a tab, and you can see videos popular just in that country, and not in other countries. Click on a second country, and you’ll see what top videos the countries have in common. Click a video itself, and you’ll get the video itself and a map of the countries where it was popular.

The results are often surprising. The US has more trending videos in common with Germany and the Netherlands than with near neighbors Canada and Mexico. One of the US’s top videos is a Punjabi music video that’s also got an audience in India and Germany. And a 90 second ad for Google Hangouts is surprisingly popular around the world… though hasn’t trended in the US, it’s apparent target market.

While What We Watch is a fun way to navigate the wealth of content available on YouTube, there are serious research questions behind the project as well. In Rewire, I argue that a network that connects computers throughout the globe doesn’t guarantee that content – like videos – will spread across borders of language, culture and nation. Some of what we’re finding on What We Watch supports that contention, and some challenges it.

The music video for “Roar” by Katy Perry offers evidence that some videos find truly global audiences – the video is has trended from Peru to the Philippines, and one of the top videos in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Other videos find regional, but not global audiences – take P-Square’s “Personally”, which was in the top 10 in Nigeria for 17% of dates we tracked, and is popular in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal… but no where outside of sub-Saharan Africa. And some videos never leave home: Brazil’s top trending video, a humorous ad for a phone company that requires no translation, doesn’t show up on the top charts for any other country.

I’ve been deeply influenced by Pippa Norris’s work on the spread of culture and values across national borders, specifically her book “Cosmopolitan Communications” with Ronald Inglehart. They argue that people tend to overestimate the Katy Perry effect in which US culture sweeps the globe, leveling everything in its path. In some cases, people encounter another culture and reject it violently (the Taliban model), shape it and incorporate it into a new hybrid (the curry model) or simply decide it’s not for them (the firewall theory.) We see evidence for three of the four in our data – it’s hard to see the Taliban model because violent rejection would likely mean banning YouTube, which gives us no data to measure.

We also get some hints on what countries have videos in common. Language matters: countries in Latin America tend to have videos in common with other Spanish-speaking countries. But Brazil and Portugal don’t share much content (and Brazil’s viewing habits have little overlap with anyone, offering another theory: if you have a big enough domestic internet, you may develop your own, insular internet culture, as in Japan as well.)

We got very interested in countries that share content with lots of other countries. To identify these countries, we used a metric called “betweenness centrality“. Imagine the countries as nodes on a graph, connected by links that represent videos in common. If you calculate paths from each node of the graph to each other, nodes that many paths move through have high betweenness centrality – they are bridges through the network.

The countries with highest betweenness centrality are United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Both have lots of weak ties to other countries, which means they may act as cultural bridges between unconnected countries – we can imagine a video popular in India making its way to Yemen through the United Arab Emirates. It’s interesting to note that Singapore and UAE both have massive populations of expatriates and “guest workers” (over 90% of the population in UAE and over 40% in Singapore). Culture travels with people, and it’s no surprise that Indians in the UAE would want to watch videos from home, or that Poles living in the UK mean there are Polish-language videos in the UK’s top ten.

What we don’t know yet is whether videos spread through the networks: i.e., does a video made in India spread to Yemen through UAE, for example? To test that, we’ll need to watch how a popular video spreads over time, and, ideally, we’d want to know where a video originates. That’s harder than you might think. We’ve looked at the possibility of hand-coding the videos as to their nation of origin, so we can see whether a UK video might appear on the charts first in Australia or Poland. But we’re flummoxed by the fact that many of the popular videos aren’t easily pinned down to one nation or another – take this ad, popular in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s a Nike ad about street soccer, which suggests we should attribute it to the US, where the company is based… but the ad’s in Russian, clearly aimed at urban audiences in Eastern Europe and not for a US market. Do we code it as US, Russian or global?

And then, of course, there’s this ad for Google Hangouts. It’s a sweet and sappy 90 second story about a girl who moves to the big city and stays in touch with her dad via Hangouts. The accents are American and it appears to be an ad designed for the US market, but it has trended around the world, including in many countries with high rates of emigration for work or education. Google may have wanted to encourage American twenty-somethings to connect with their parents, but the message seems to resonate for people around the world.

Please experiment with What We Watch and let us know what you think – you can post comments here about anything interesting you discover, or research questions you think we should ask. The code and data behind the system is available on GitHub should you wish to build your own, or to see what we did. One caution for researchers – we are not showing videos that have been taken down by Google, for copyright or other reasons. In some cases, this means we’re removing many videos from top lists. We hope, in the long run, to show the metadata of those videos, but for now, they’re just not in the set, which means the data is not entirely representative of what we’ve collected.

Categories: Blog

Citizen science versus NIMBY?

August 29, 2013 - 11:36am

There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.

Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.

The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.

It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.

For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?

To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.

Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.


Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning

But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.

Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.

During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)

So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.

I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.

I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.

That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.

That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.

It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.

While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)

And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?

Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?

It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)

If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”

Categories: Blog, Homepage

The “good citizen” and the effective citizen

August 19, 2013 - 1:34pm

With Rewire out in the world, I’ve had some time this August to think about some of the big questions behind our work at Center for Civic Media, specifically the questions I started to bring up at this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference: How do we teach civics to a generation that is “born digital“? Are we experiencing a “new civics”, a crisis in civics, or just an opportunistic rebranding of old problems in new digital bottles? My reading this summer hasn’t given me answers, but has sharpened some of the questions.

Earlier this summer, I was invited by the Mobilizing Ideas blog to react to Biella Coleman’s excellent book, “Coding Freedom“. In my response, I noted that Coleman’s ethnography of hacker culture makes clear her hacker friends aren’t the stereotypical geeks, surgically attached to their computers, sequestered in their parents’ basement – they go to conventions, write poetry, and engage in political protest, as well as writing code.

The sort of hackers Biella documents engage in politics, and when they do, they’ve got multiple tools they can use. They organize political campaigns and lobby congresspeople, as Yochai Benkler and colleagues so aptly documented in this recent paper on resistance to SOPA/PIPA. They can write code that makes a new behaviors possible, like Miro, written by the Participatory Culture Foundation, which makes peer to peer filesharing and search easier and more user-friedly. They protest artistically, as with Seth Schoen’s DeCSS haiku (which prominently features in Biella’s writing.)

Hackers engage in instrumental activism, seeking change by challenging unjust laws. They engage in voice-based activism, articulating their frustration and dissent from systems they either cannot or are not willing to exit. But hackers aren’t merely competent activists in Biella’s account – they are able to engage in civics in a more broad way than most citizens. In addition to traditional channels for civic engagement, they can engage by creating code, giving them a more varied repertoire of civic techniques than non-coders have. (We might make the same argument for artists, who may be more effective in spreading their voices than those of us with less artistic talent.)

I’ve been thinking about Biella’s hackers in the context of some ideas from Michael Schudson. Schudson is a brilliant thinker about the relationship between media and civic engagement, the question that currently shapes my work at the Center for Civic Media. In his book “The Good Citizen”, and this 1999 lecture, Schudson challenges the idea that a good American citizen is one who carefully informs herself about politicians, their positions and the issues of an election. Schudson argues that this is an unrealistic expectation for citizens, pointing to the absurdity of 200 page Voter’s Guides to Elections that, he argues, nobody reads. (I know for a fact that danah boyd not only reads them, but holds parties to get people to read them with her.) But he also argues that this model of the “informed citizen” is only one model of American citizenship the republic has experienced since its foundation.

In “The Good Citizen”, Schudson explores four models of citizenship the US has passed through in the last two centuries and change. When the nation was founded, citizenship was restricted to a small group of property-owning white men, and elections didn’t focus on issues, but elected men of high status and character, who went on to deliberate in Congress with similar social elites. In the age of party politics, Schudson argues, politics was a carnival, with votes based on personal loyalties and social alliances, not on consideration of the issues.

Not until the Progressive reformers attacked corruption in the party system (an attack which included support for prohibition of alcohol, as party bosses were often tavern owners and the ability to supply voters with drink was a key political technique) did the notion of the informed voter come into play. Progressives, through adoption of the secret ballot, the introduction of referenda and the rise of muckraking investigative journalism, shifted responsibility for politics from a small group of elites and party bosses, to the general public. Schudson observes that the general public hasn’t been especially excited by this shift – participation in elections fell sharply during the progressive era and has been below 50% of eligible voters since.

Now, Schudson argues, we are living in an era where change through elections is less important than change through the courts, an age that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Informed citizens are important, but their power to make change comes from suing as much as it comes from voting, and activists and lawyers who understand how to challenge constitutionality through the court system are far more powerful than the average citizen.

While he’s critical of the informed citizen model as unrealistic, Schudson is not arguing for the superiority of the rights-based model, or for a return to party bosses. He’s pointing out that America has experienced different visions of what constitutes “the good citizen” and that these visions can change over time.

That’s helpful context for understanding Biella’s hackers. We may be experiencing a shift in citizenship where the idea of the informed citizen no longer applies well to the contemporary political climate. The entrenched gridlock of Congress, the power of incumbency and the geographic polarization of the US make it difficult to argue that making an informed decision about voting for one’s representative in Congress is the most effective way to have a voice in political dialogs.

Instead, we’re seeing activists, particularly young activists, taking on issues through viral video campaigns, consumer activism, civic crowdfunding, and other forms of civic engagement that operate outside traditional political channels. Lance Bennett suggests that we might see these new activists as self-actualizing citizens, focused on methods of civic participation that allow them to see impacts quickly and clearly, rather than following older prescriptions of participation through the informed citizen model.

Biella’s hackers are exemplars of self-actualizing citizens, using code as one of their paths towards self-actualization, alongside traditional political organizing and lobbying. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, a book deeply popular with the hackers Biella studies, offers the possibility that these are only two of four paths towards civic engagement and change.

Lessig’s book is written as a warning about possible constraints to the open internet. While many contemporary scholars warned that the lawless internet would come under control of national and local governments, Lessig warned that it would also be regulated through code, which would make some behaviors difficult or impossible to accomplish online. Lessig outlines four ways complex systems tend to be regulated:

- By laws, created and enforced by governments, which prohibit certain behaviors
- By norms, which are created by or emerge from societies, which favor certain behaviors over others
- By markets, regulated and unregulated by laws, which make certain behaviors cheap and others expensive
- By code and other architectures, which make some behaviors difficult and others easy to accomplish

These four methods of regulation are also ways in which activists and other engaged citizens can participate in civics. Citizens frustrated and angered by NSA surveillance of domestic communications, for example, could lobby Congress to hold hearings on whether the NSA has overstepped its bounds, or whether FISA courts are providing sufficient oversight of government surveillance requests. Civic coders could build tools that make use of PGP encryption easier to protect the privacy of emails. Citizens could punish companies that have complied with surveillance requests and reward those who are moving servers outside of the US to make them more surveillance resistant. And people could begin using Tor and PGP routinely, to influence norms of behavior around encryption and make the NSA’s techniques significantly less effective.

These methods are often applied to non-technical issues as well. Social entrepreneurship uses market mechanisms to seek change, paying farmers a fair wage for their coffee, for instance, by buying from collectives rather than from exploitative wholesalers. Social media campaigns focus on harnessing attention and changing norms, bringing underreported issues to wider audiences. Using code to make government more transparent or more effective is a popular, if possibly overhyped, approach to social change. These models may represent a complement to the informed citizen and rights-based citizenship models Schudson examines, representing new civic capabilities in addition to the capability of influencing laws and governments.

Mastering these four capabilities is a tall order for any civic participant, but some activists are trying. Julian Assange has technical skills, as well as a deep understanding of media, which has allowed him to cooperate and compete for attention in working to change norms around secrecy and whistleblowing. His long run from prosecution has sharpened his understanding of legal systems, and, until the financial “blockade” against Wikileaks, he seemed to be doing reasonably well raising money for his project. (My friend Sasa Vucinic, involved with anti-Milosevic radio station B92 and founder of the Media Development Loan Fund, argues that the key to running a successful anti-government newspaper is to get the funding model right and build a sustainable media outlet.) Edward Snowden has proved extremely technically savvy, legally astute and has had an excellent relationship with the global press, essential to gain a wide audience for his revelations.

Schudson’s portrait of citizenship through the ages focuses on the behavior of large groups of citizens. Assange and Snowden are too idiosyncratic to serve as exemplars of a new class of digitally engaged citizens, promoting a new vision of citizenship. But they demonstrate what a highly competent, multifaceted civic participant might look like and I suspect that we will see more citizens leveraging the full suite of tools that Lessig’s structures of regulation point to.

A challenge for those of us who see the shape of civics changing is how we prepare people to participate in civics where the skills required are so diverse. If it’s difficult to expect citizens to be informed voters, as Schudson argues, it’s very difficult to expect them to be coders, entrepreneurs, lawyers and media influencers. We might hope, as Dewey does, that diverse interests will lead to an interlocking public – I care about surveillance and work to change norms, while you write code, and our friend tackles another challenge through social entrepreneurship. Or it may push us back to a democracy enhanced by expertise, as Walter Lippmann suggests, with citizens throwing fiscal and moral support to organizations that lobby for laws, write code, build just markets and influence public debate, leveraging the expertise and skill of those who dedicate their talents to one or more of these facets of citizenship.

I shared a draft of this post with Erhardt Graeff, who pointed out an inherent tension between ideas of the competent and effective citizen and the “good” citizen. The “good” citizens, in Schudson’s exploration, are those who participated in the system of the times, whether or not we see those systems as laudable in retrospect. A particularly cynical version of this idea would posit that today’s “good citizen” is a predictably partisan consumer, deviating as little as possible from the demographic predictions and models built by pollsters and data analysts to ensure that our candidates are correctly marketed to us. Highly participatory and effective citizens would challenge this sort of model, and it’s certainly possible that a democracy composed purely of Assanges and Snowdens would have a hard time functioning.

Erhardt points out that Lessig has been an activist throughout his career, and that his vision of regulation in Code is one consonant with the effective citizen. But can democracy work if all citizens are effective at promoting and campaigning for their own issues? Have we seen evidence of a society with high, effective engagement and with the other characteristics we expect of a democracy? Should a group like Center for Civic Media be working on thinking through models of effective citizenship or considering the larger question of what a large group of effective, engaged citizens could mean for contemporary visions of democracy?

Categories: Blog

Charlie DeTar dissertation defense: Intertwinkles and digital tools for consensus decisionmaking

August 8, 2013 - 8:27pm

Charlie DeTar defended his doctoral dissertation this afternoon at the MIT Media Lab. Charlie is a student in Chris Schmandt’s Mobility and Speech group, but has also been an active member of my group, Center for Civic Media, where he’s done very important work including Between the Bars, a platform that allows inmates in some US prisons to blog via the postal service. Charlie is an incredibly thoughtful guy, who takes the time to read deeply and develop nuanced understanding of issues before he builds new technologies.

His work on his doctoral thesis reflects this thoughtfulness – in building “Intertwinkles“, a platform to assist in consensus decisionmaking, Charlie conducted a deep dive into the nature of democracy, decisionmaking, group behavior and technology to assist group decisionmaking. His talk today outlined that work as context for his intervention.

Willow Brugh attended the talk and her visualization of Charlie’s remarks is below. My notes follow below her illustration.

Charlie’s remarks start with the question: “How much democracy do you have left?”

He shows a photo series of people holding papers with X marks on them – the marks represent the number of presidential elections the person expects to have left. The message – we don’t have very much democracy, if democracy means voting every four years. “Most of us wouldn’t volunteer to be governed by kings or dictators,” Charlie offers, but we face lots of non-democratic rule in real life: bosses, landlords, banks, other powerful institutions we have little influence over.

High profile, democratically-governed activist organizations tend to have short lifespans. Even long-lasting movements like Occupy tend to be relatively short lived. But collectives and cooperatives use highly participatory methods and many have been in existence for decades. Twinkles – the practice of waving your fingers to show approval, non-verbally, for a statement – is a practice that originated in the 1970s and thrives today within collectives and cooperatives. But the in-person nature of collective and cooperative governance can be slow, expensive and draining. Charlie’s core research question is whether we can design online tools for democratic consultation which result in more just and effective organizations.

To answer this question, Charlie has build a set of tools to support consensus decision-making processes, documenting the participatory design process used to develop the tools and evaluated these tools in their use by real-world groups. He’s also done deep investigative work exploring the history of non-hierarchicalism, consensus, and decisionmaking with computers.

Non-hierarchicalism looks like a simple concept at first glance – it represents forms of governance that are decentralized, flat, leaderless, or horizontal. But questions immediately arise: are facilitators imposing a covert hierarchy?

Charlie suggests we consider decentralization, using a definition from Yochai Benkler: in decentralized systems, many agents work coherently despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people participating in decisionmaking. While the number of people does not decrease, most decentralized systems require some centralization, as Charlie discusses by examining multiple models. The blogging platform WordPress is decentralized because you can download, customize and run the code, effectively becoming a chapter or franchise for WordPress. With Wikipedia, different sets of people work on different problems, editing different articles, in what can be thought of as a subsidiary model. In BitTorrent, rather than decentralizing resources, the founders have declare a protocol that determines how we interact, enabling decentralization through federation.

Each decentralization has a corresponding centralization:
- Bittorrent decentralizes servers via a centralized protocol
- WordPress decentralizes hosting via a centralized codebase
- Wikipedia decentralizes editors through a centralized database and policies
- Consensus decentralizes authority through centralizing procedures

Consensus decisionmaking is a field of governance, Charlie tells us, that works to avoid three tyrannies:

- The tyranny of the majority, when the mob beats you up
- The tyranny of the minority, where small group prevent functioning or dominate decisionmaking
- The tyranny of structurelessness, where elimination of overt structure leads to covert structure via dominant personalities, racism, sexism and other forms of dominance.

Consensus decisionmaking is the process of consulting stakeholders in a way that seeks to avoid these tyrannies. Charlie outlines seven forms of consensus, including corporate, scientific, standards, consociationalism (power-sharing), mob, assembly, focusing specifically on affinity consensus, groups of people who’ve chosen to work together on problems of common interest. He offers a matrix for how each form of consensus handles open membership, egalitarianism, formal process, and the binding nature of decisions. For instance, a corporate department that practices consensus decisionmaking still has a boss, and may not always make binding decisions. Not all groups are open – if I want to participate in the decisionmaking of Charlie’s housing cooperative, I’m going to be refused admission.

In the process of building Intertwinkles, Charlie has developed a long list of protocols that people use to enable consensus decisionmaking, including various facilitation tools, meeting phases, hand signals, roles and formats. Intertwinkles implements several of these protocols in an online environment.

To understand the history of digital tools to assist with decisionmaking, Charlie takes us back to J.C.R. Licklidder, who talked about decisionmaking with computers as early as 1962. Douglas Englebart, whose “mother of all demos” introduced many of the ideas that have dominated the next 50 years of computing, began developing methods of computer-aided decisionmaking in the late 1960s. The field was formalized as “group decision support systems”, generating a huge amount of scholarship around three systems, generally dedicated computing systems installed in “decision-support rooms” at corporations and universities. While these systems were very engineering-heavy, they often used very similar techniques to those used in consensus-oriented groups. However, it is difficult to extrapolate from the scholarship, because the vast majority of studies used artificial, composed groups, not groups with existing histories and patterns. Most were face to face and most were one-shot experiments. These methodological limitations make it hard to extrapolate to understand the utility of these tools for affinity groups, which have important existing relationships, group histories and policies.

Charlie notes that these early group decisionmaking support tools tended to provide all services – including email – to their users, because they were huge, expensive systems that often represented an organization’s first exposure to digital communication. Now systems are smaller and decentralized, including tools like Doodle (used for meeting scheduling) and Loomio, a new system designed to support discussion of proposals in forums and voting on those proposals.

While these systems are promising, Charlie hopes we can do more. He notes that Joseph McGrath put forward a helpful typology of group tasks in his 1984 book, Groups, Interaction and Performance. Ideally, we’d want a system that helps groups engage in each of these tasks – generating ideas, generating plans, executing tasks, etc.

Intertwinkles began as a participatory design project with Boston cooperative housing groups. Charlie recruited six houses from 29 collective and cooperative housing groups and hired three research assistants who were “native participants”, residents in the houses. 45 people participated, overall.

The groups he worked with were involved throughout a field trial process, from pre-interviews to help understand how groups made decision, through an extensive training session on the tools and for 8-10 weeks of usage, as Charlie and his team iterated to improve the tools with feedback from users. The process involved both the creation of new tools and a pair of games designed to inspire conversation and reflection on group dynamics, Flame War (which models decisionmaking over email) and Moontalk (a realtime game that models limited communication channels). More information on both games is available on the Intertwinkles site.

Charlie offers brief overviews of three tools. Dotstorm is based around sticky note brainstorming, and supports visual thinkers through stickies with drawings and with photos taken through laptops or other devices. The system supports real-time collaboration and sharing of ideas and runs on any contemporary web browser. Resolve supports a rolling proposal process, which allows one member of a group to propose an idea and others to expand, refine or block it, eventually voting on accepting it. The system maintains a rich history of a proposal and uses a notification system to keep participants involved in the process, but lets participants use email as their channel for free-form discussion. Points of Unity is a tool designed to help come up with a short list of values or statements that a group agrees with, which many groups find useful as a mutually agreed-upon common ground.

Many of the features of Intertwinkles are platform features shared across tools. There’s a group-centric sharing model that gives people access to documents and resources once they join the group. Membership is reciprocal (like membership in Facebook) and overlapping (you are friends with everyone in the group), a model that Charlie hasn’t seen in Facebook, Twitter or other systems. Everything is shared publicly for discrete periods of time, which lowers the barrier to entry to the system, but then reverts documents to private to avoid spam, etc. Users can take actions on behalf of other members of the group, recognizing that not everyone is active online constantly. There is rich, semantic event reporting, which allows for a “quantified group” analysis, understanding and describing a group’s behavior in quantifiable terms about participation. Intertwinkles is built on a plug-in architecture. Core services handle search, authentication, twinkles, events, notices, groups – other features plug into those core services, which makes it possible to develop radically new tools without building up the other essential components.

For the system to work, Charlie believes that participants need extensive training. What’s key is getting to the point where everyone is confident that everyone else is comfortable with the tools. To remind collectives of the tool, Charlie distributed a colorful pillow, a Twinkle Plush Star, as “an ambient reminder of the system and its uses.”

Five of the six groups used the tool, completing 66 processes and making 2155 unique edits and visits. One group didn’t use Intertwinkles beyond training, and one reported neutral to negative experiences, while the other four groups had generally positive reactions. Charlie measured the participation of each cooperative member with the system because he worried there might be uneven participation. His analysis suggests quite even participation, similar to what you might get face to face.

In examining how collectives used the system, Charlie reminds us of the idea of “technology in action”, proposed by proponents of structuration theory. This theory suggests that designers build tools for certain tasks, but the tools get used for whatever tasks a group wants to carry out, which leads to unexpected outcomes, sometimes contrary to designer’s intentions. Charlie makes his intentions clear: he wanted to make non-participation apparent, to increase awareness of conflict, to make group processes explicit, and to handle facilitation “out of band”.

He sees a correlation in satisfaction with the tool and group structure. Groups that had more confrontive approaches to decisionaking and more formal approaches to decisionmaking had better results with the tools. The group that was least satisfied tends to be avoidant of conflict and privileges action over speaking. A group that found the tools most useful makes participation in house meetings mandatory, has explicit channels for communication on conflict, and extensive house norms. This highly structured group was able to take advantage of the system in ways less structured groups did not.

Charlie sees room to improve the tools: more work on in-band facilitation, in-band training,instrumenting the platform for online learning, and building an ecosystem of developers. He plans to continue working on the tool and already sees possible alliances to build the platform in conjunction with others building tools for group decisionmaking. But he also sees value in the theoretical approach, suggesting that design research is powerful as a form of sociology and a potential quantitative and qualitative method for studying group behavior.

Categories: Blog

On MIT’s report on Aaron Swartz’s prosecution

August 6, 2013 - 6:43pm

Hal Abelson’s report on MIT’s actions around Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was released last week. I was on vacation and offline – I returned home Sunday and read the report and some of the responses to it.

I certainly see why Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called it a whitewash. For those hoping that Abelson and his colleagues would identify faults in MIT’s behavior and take responsibility for inaction, the report is deeply disappointing. One of the strongest statements in the report makes in conclusion is, ultimately, quite weak:

“…let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. The report includes an entire section (Part IV) on opportunities MIT missed, places where MIT could have intervened and might have helped prevent a tragedy. While the report correctly notes that we can’t know how things would have turned out had MIT responded to Robert Swartz’s repeated requests for the Institute to make a statement similar to the one JSTOR made, it’s clear that MIT didn’t just miss an opportunity – it consciously and repeatedly decided not to take any actions that would have helped Aaron Swartz make a successful defense while cooperating fully with requests from prosecutors.

As such, I don’t think the report is a “whitewash”. I don’t think Abelson is trying to conceal details that cast MIT in a bad light – it’s hard to read the report without being deeply disappointed with how MIT makes decisions. By my reading, the report documents a troubling culture of leadership at the university, one where adherence to the (ultimately flawed) idea of “neutrality” overrides making a nuanced decision about how to respond to aggressive prosecution under a poorly written law.

There’s lots I’m angry about with the report. It ends with questions for the MIT community to consider, rather than recommendations. This isn’t the fault of Abelson and colleagues, but the ambit given Abelson by MIT’s President, Rafael Reif. While the report makes clear that MIT cooperated more thoroughly with prosecutors than with Aaron’s defense (and carefully explains why MIT’s “neutral” stance ends up favoring the side that had more power in the equation), it doesn’t lay blame on MIT’s general counsel or any other individuals for MIT’s failure of leadership.

For me, the biggest disappointment is a refrain throughout the report that blames the MIT community for failing to draw more attention to Swartz’s prosecution. In Part V, the authors note, “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”

It’s certainly true that there was more anger and attention in the wake of Aaron’s suicide than there was during the indictment and period leading towards trial. But it’s not true that the community was unaware of Aaron’s plight. As the report documents, Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, asked MIT’s leadership to see if Aaron’s case could be settled as a “family matter” within the MIT community. Two other faculty members spoke to the administration and Robert Swartz, who works for the Media Lab, approached MIT multiple times, seeking a statement that MIT did not believe Swartz should be prosecuted for his actions.

There are reasons why those of us who were aware of Aaron’s case didn’t lobby MIT more loudly. As the report notes, just following the statement about “scant attention”: “Those most familiar with Aaron Swartz and the issues that greatly concerned him were divided in their views of the propriety of his action downloading JSTOR files, and fearful of harming his situation by taking public or private stands.” This fear was compounded by the fact that it was very difficult for Aaron and those closest to him to talk about the case without creating communications that could be subpoenaed by the prosecutor, which led him to discuss the case with very few people. Also, as the report reveals, an early attempt to draw action to the case online led to an angry reaction from prosecutor Steve Heymann. Given that Aaron and his team were seeking a plea deal with a prosecutor who already escalating charges against Aaron, it’s understandable that people were worried about harming Aaron’s situation by making noise.

Blaming the MIT community’s lack for response for MIT’s studied inaction is, for me, is an embarrassing evasion of responsibility, an admission that MIT was less interested in doing the right thing than in avoiding the sort of negative publicity it faced when it failed to support Star Simpson when she faced prosecution for wearing an LED-enhanced hoodie to Logan Airport.

It’s helpful to understand why MIT’s leadership did what it did. It’s understandable that, before they knew who was accessing JSTOR that they sought help from the Cambridge PD, which ended up bringing the Secret Service into the case. But for well over a year, MIT knew that its network had been accessed by a committed activist who was most likely making a political statement, not attempting to sell JSTOR to the highest bidder. They were extensively lobbied by a long-time employee who made a simple request for MIT to make a statement similar to the statement JSTOR made. They heard from MIT professors and from scholars outside the community, yet they clung to a stance of neutrality that, as Abelson’s report notes, systematically favored the prosecution over the defense.

The New York Times reports that MIT was “cleared” of wrongdoing in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death. I think the report presents MIT with two equally serious charges: a failure to act ethically, and a failure to show compassion. According to Abelson’s report, MIT’s president, chancellor and Office of the General Counsel did the minimum – and sometimes less than the minimum, when they failed to respond to defense subpoenas – in allowing Aaron Swartz and his team to mount a defense. In the process, they ignored the pleas of a long-time colleague who was desperately working to defend his son.

MIT has a different president than it did for most of the Swartz case, and the ball is now in President Reif’s court to change a culture that was unwilling to take moral leadership in the case of Aaron’s prosecution. For those of us who are outraged by the inaction of MIT’s leadership in this case, we face Albert Hirschman’s famous choice: exit or voice. My friend Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner when he was arrested, recently tweeted: “I will never work with MIT, I will never attend events at MIT, I will never support MIT’s work, and I hope dearly that my MIT friends leave.”

I would hope that there’s another option: making clear that members of MIT’s community believe that MIT has responsibilities beyond “neutral” compliance, and working to change the culture that so badly failed Aaron. Evidently, it’s up to the MIT community – and the broader internet community – to make sure this report isn’t the final word on MIT’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and to ensure that Abelson’s questions in the report do not remain unanswered. I hope that President Reif’s promise to engage with Abelson’s questions leads to real change in an institution that has much to answer for, and I plan to push as hard as I can from the inside to ensure that MIT’s response to Aaron’s death does not end with this report.

Categories: Blog

See you in a couple of weeks

July 27, 2013 - 9:27am

I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, taking a break from a long stretch of writing and talking about Rewire and related issues. I should be back online around August 10. In the unlikely event you find yourself missing me, here’s the video of a talk and discussion I had about Rewire at Harvard’s Berkman Center last month.

And if you’re in need of more reading material, check out an important new paper from Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts and other friends at the Berkman Center. The paper uses Media Cloud to analyse the conversation online around SOPA/PIPA and understand agenda-setting, framing and relationships that influenced the debate. My students and I are finishing up a parallel paper at Center for Civic Media using some of the same techniques, and some new techniques, to examine the online debates that helped lead to George Zimmerman’s arrest, which we hope to have out in early fall.

Hope you’re having a great summer.

Categories: Blog

Surveillance, sousveillance and PRISM – an op-ed for Die Zeit

July 10, 2013 - 4:16pm

Friends at Die Zeit, who heard me speak at a panel about “Cameras Everywhere” at Personal Democracy Forum, asked me to write an op-ed for their newspaper. That piece ran today, translated into German. Here’s the English version I wrote just before the “Restore the 4th” protests in Washington DC and elsewhere.

Revelations about the extent of the US government’s surveillance of digital media has triggered a range of reactions around the world. In the world outside the US, citizens and their governments are rightly furious that the National Security Agency is systematically monitoring communications on some of the world’s most widely used communications platforms. That the US apparently spies on its closest allies in EU offices merely adds insult to injury.

The reaction within the US to these revelations has been disappointingly subdued. Civil libertarians and advocates for free speech online are struggling to productively channel their anger and are planning a major protest in Washington DC on July 4. But more widespread responses include a nodding acceptance of any invasion of privacy in exchange for prevention of terrorist violence, and a cynical, world-weary insistence that no one should be surprised that all digital networks are monitored both by corporations and by governments.

As a frustrated advocate for unfettered online speech, I find myself looking for ways to help my fellow Americans understand the significance of pervasive online surveillance. Unlike in Germany, where memories of the Stasi trigger an instinctive resistance to being watched, surveillance in the US has often focused on marginal political groups, which allows many Americans to assume that surveillance doesn’t affect them personally. This search for ways to make surveillance more apparent has led me to the work of Dr. Steve Mann and his work on “sousveillance”.

Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto, and an innovator in the world of wearable computers. In 1981, as a student at MIT, he created the first generation of EyeTap, a head mounted camera that recorded what the wearer saw and presented a computer-enhanced view of the scene. More than thirty years before Google Glass, Mann began living life while wearing a camera, recording all that he encountered, an experience that’s given him some deep insights into watching and being watched.

Mann coined the term “sousveillance” – watching from below – as an alternative to “surveillance” – watching from above. In surveillance, powerful institutions control the behavior of individuals by watching them or threatening to watch them, as in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. In sousveillance, individuals invert the paradigm by turning their cameras on institutions, promising to document and share misbehavior and malfeasance with a potentially global audience through digital networks.

One effect of sousveillance is to provoke conversations about what it means to be watched. Even when surveillance is visible, as in the CCTV cameras that loom over many of our city streets, most of us tend to ignore the unseen watchers who monitor us. But when someone points a camera at us – particularly a camera mounted on their eyeglasses – we react, often with anger or dismay. Mann, who wears his EyeTap permanently attached to his head, was assaulted in a McDonalds in Paris by employees who were upset that he was taking pictures and who sought to force him to remove the camera.

We may need similar provocations to trigger our reactions to online surveillance. “Creepy”, a program by Ioannis Kakavas, can track an individual’s movements on a map through her postings on social media services. While Creepy was intended as an activist project, commercial programs use similar techniques. A controversial iPhone application, Girls Around Me, mines data on Foursquare to alert men looking for dates to locations in their cities where many women have checked in. Angry reactions to these programs, as well as reports of bars preemptively banning patrons from wearing Google Glass suggest that Mann’s idea of making surveillance both personal and visible may be a first step in provoking a discussion about what types of watching are appropriate and inappropriate.

There’s a second aspect of sousveillance that’s worth exploring: the idea that individuals may be able to keep the powerful in check by documenting misbehavior. While this idea can seem hopelessly naïve when confronted with systems as massive and pervasive as PRISM, it’s worth exploring cases where watching from below has helped fight abuses of power. Morgan Tsvangirai’s appointment as prime minister of Zimbabwe in 2009 was a direct result of his party’s technique of photographing voting tallies at each polling station, enabling a parallel tabulation of votes. Confronted with evidence that Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe in the first round, Mugabe’s government was unable to rig the election and was forced into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.

More recently, activists in the Occupy Movement have used livestreaming of video as a technique to document their protests and police violence against protesters. Dozens of cameras captured footage of Lt. John Pike attacking seated protesters with pepper spray at a peaceful Occupy protest at UC Davis. The widely documented incident led to the UC Davis police chief and two officers being suspended and to Lt. Pike losing his job, and created one of the most powerful images of the power asymmetries the Occupy movement sought to confront.

Pervasive cameras can document the inner workings of institutions as well as abuses of power. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered a major campaign setback when video showed him dismissing 47% of the American electorate as unlikely to vote for him because they “believe they are victims” and are dependent on government services. The video, secretly shot by Scott Prouty at a fundraising event, was posted online and widely distributed by Democratic activists, who saw the video as evidence that Romney was out of touch with the electorate.

Most recently, sousveillance has shown its power in documenting protest movements in Turkey and Brazil that were initially ignored by mainstream media. In Turkey, CNN famously showed a documentary about penguins rather than footage from Gezi Park, leading protesters to make signs that show penguins wearing gas masks, protesting both the government’s use of tear gas and the media’s silence about the protests. In the absence of broadcast media attention, the protesters used their own documentation to find audiences online, spreading protests from those in the park to those who witnessed online and began protests in their corners of the country.

The Obama administration seems unlikely to shift policy on online surveillance without widespread and sustained popular outcry. As activists seek to trigger that outcry, we may need to make surveillance far more visible so it can become far more controversial.

Categories: Blog

Facebook, Reddit and what “social media” means

July 8, 2013 - 2:04pm

I have a brief piece on The Atlantic’s website today that contrasts Facebook and Reddit in terms of how they build online communities and direct their users to new content. I argue that Reddit, with the assumption of anonymity and an organization around topics and sections has some resemblance to the Internet of the 1980 and 90s, while Facebook has changed the shape of internet communities, demanding real-name registration and building online social networks that mirror our offline networks. By paying attention to social media communities that work along the Reddit model as well as those that follow the Facebook model, I hope that people can increase their cognitive diversity and expose themselves to a wider range of ideas, opinions and perspectives.

My friend Anthea Watson Strong pointed out on Twitter that Reddit is an odd example to use when talking about cognitive diversity. It has a reputation for being white, male, young and American… and that reputation is not unjustified. (This study of US Reddit users by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project suggests that the audience is broader and larger than we might think – in particular, I was surprised to see the large reach with Latino youth.) In Rewire, I spend a decent amount of time beating myself up for my Reddit habit, pointing to my tendency to return to the site as an example of seeking out familiar, comfortable voices rather than seeking diversity.

So why the praise for Reddit? I’m not trying to argue that Reddit is superior to Facebook, or that Reddit is the solution to problems of increasing cognitive diversity. But Reddit is a good example of a site that’s reached a large audience by using a different model of community than Facebook’s model of real-name, real-world network community. Other examples include Twitter (which features asymmetric following, no assumption of real name, and support for topic-based organization through lists), and Wikipedia (which features communities based around common practice and collaboration and a citizenship model for participation).

My argument isn’t even against Facebook’s ordering of community, though I think it reinforces homophily effects that plague offline communities. It’s for people building new internet tools to consider the idea that there are multiple ways of building an online community, and that different communities have different strengths and weaknesses. The people you meet by exploring a common topic is different than the group of people you meet by migrating your offline social network online. I worry that when we talk about “social media”, we talk too much about networks that work like Facebook and not enough about networks that work like Reddit or like Wikipedia. In particular, I see a lot of tools that are using social networks to customize search and use only a narrow definition of social network to look for recommendations and inspirations.

Commenting on my piece, David Aron Levine notes, “This article by @EthanZ on Reddit highlights as much a latent demand for something more as it does Reddit”. Yep – that’s right. I like Reddit and use it (as a lurker, as my dismal karma numbers will show), but what I’d really like to see is a wave of new communities organized around different ideas of what it means to be social. Some might connect people around topics of common interest, as Reddit does. Others might bring people together around a common project, as Wikipedia does. I’d particularly like to see – or perhaps build – a community that helps people discover each other via a common interest but emphasizes connecting people who would be highly unlikely to meet in the physical world, or who come from very different backgrounds.

Would love your thoughts on who’s doing good work defining online community in terms other than “people I know in the physical world” and how these communities can help people discover information online.

Categories: Blog

Me and my metadata – thoughts on online surveillance

July 3, 2013 - 3:05pm

The NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked have sparked a debate within the US about surveillance. While Americans understood that the US government was likely intercepting telephone and social media data from terrorism suspects, it’s been an uncomfortable discovery that the US collected massive sets of email and telephone data from Americans and non-Americans who aren’t suspected of any crimes. These revelations add context to other discoveries of surveillance in post 9-11 America, including the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which scans the outside of all paper mail sent in the US and stores it for later analysis. (The Smoking Gun reported on the program early last month – I hadn’t heard of it until the Times report today.)

The Obama administration and supporters have responded to criticism of these programs by assuring Americans that the information collected is “metadata”, information on who is talking to whom, not the substance of conversations. As Senator Dianne Feinstein put it, “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.” By analyzing the metadata, officials claim, they can identify potential suspects then seek judicial permission to access the content directly. Nothing to worry about. You’re not being spied on by your government – they’re just monitoring the metadata.

Of course, that’s a naïve and oversimplified view of metadata, which turns out to be a surprisingly rich source of information on who people are, who they know and what they do. Congress has historically recognized that metadata is important and deserves protection – while the Supreme Court ruled in Smith vs. Maryland that phone numbers dialed should not be expected to be private information, as they are exposed to the phone company, Congress put restrictions on the use of “pen registers”, devices that can track what calls are made and received by a phone, requiring law enforcement to go to court to institute such tracking. The same logic in Smith vs. Maryland applies to the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program – since information on envelopes is visible to the public, or at least to mail carriers, it’s monitorable and storable, even without “mail covers“, US Postal Service administrative orders used to trace mail coming to criminal suspects. And, perhaps, the policymakers who approved NSA’s surveillance projects would argue that the logic applies to email headers as well.

Put aside for the moment the question of whether monitoring metadata is reading public information or is more analogous to a pen register. There’s a scale issue that comes into play here. One major constraint on pen registers and mail covers historically has been the sheer amount of data they generate. Potential overreach by law enforcement is held in check by two factors – the need to get court or administrative approval to trace metadata, and the ability to process said metadata. As a result, USPS insiders report that it processes about 15,000 – 20,000 mail covers a year related to crime, and as security researcher Chris Soghoian discovered, internet and telecommunications companies charge law enforcement agencies for pen registers, putting some practical limits on their use.

But the NSA surveillance of email and phone networks, and the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program have no such limits. While it’s likely quite expensive to scan all US mail, once you’ve committed to doing so, it’s comparatively cheap to store that information and analyze it at later dates, as investigators evidently did to arrest Shannon Richardson for sending ricin to President Obama and New York City mayor Bloomberg. And, since the costs of NSA surveillance are evidently borne primarily by internet and telephony companies, it’s downright cheap to keep metadata on email and phone calls. All the postal mail, email and phone calls.

It’s also much, much cheaper to analyze this data than in years past. The current frenzy for “big data” and “data science” has called attention to techniques that allow analysts to pull subtle patterns out of data – a New York Times story that suggests that retailer Target was able to identify pregnant customers based on their purchasing behavior (unscented lotion!) and target ad flyers to them gives a sense for the commercial applications of these techniques.

Sociologist Kieran Healy shows another set of applications of these techniques, using a much smaller, historical data set. He looks at a small number of 18th century colonists and the societies in Boston they were members of to identify Paul Revere as a key bridge tie between different organizations. In Healy’s brilliant piece, he writes in the voice of a junior analyst reporting his findings to superiors in the British government, and suggests that his superiors consider investigating Revere as a traitor. He closes with this winning line: “…if a mere scribe such as I — one who knows nearly nothing — can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.”

If you are a member of a secret organization planning overthrow of the government, you’ve probably already thought hard about what your metadata might reveal. But if you’re an average citizen with “nothing to hide”, it may be less obvious why your metadata may not be something you are comfortable sharing. After all, Frank Rich recently proclaimed that “privacy jumped the shark in America long ago” and that we are all members of “the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude.” Lured by reality television and social networks, we all want to be watched and have therefore have given up our distaste for surveillance.

I think it’s possible to be both a heavy user of social media, and concerned about the security of your metadata. It simply requires understanding that, for many of us, social media is a performance. When I share links on Twitter, I’m aware that I’m constructing an image to my followers as someone who’s interested in certain topics and disinterested in others. I don’t share every article that I read, both because I suspect not all are interesting to my followers and also because I don’t really want my professional community to know just how much mental energy I spend worrying about who the Green Bay Packers will field at running back in the coming season.

This may not be how you use social media, but it probably should be. As danah boyd and others have pointed out, youth have had to figure out how to navigate a world in which their interpersonal and social interactions are archived, searchable and persist long enough to present a problem in adulthood – as a result, they’re continually engaged in “identity performance”, as well as in developing codes and other ways to speak on social networks to defy monitoring.

By contrast, most of us aren’t maintaining a persistent, public performance when we’re using telephones or email. (For an example of what this might feel like, consider this story from This American Life, where lawyers who work with Guantanamo detainees talk about how having the US government monitor their personal phone calls changes their behavior.) Our metadata can reveal things we may not want to share with others, or may not know ourselves.

As it happens, I have a pretty good sense for what my email metadata might tell an investigator. This fall, I co-taught a class with Cesar Hidalgo, Catherine Havasi and Sep Kamvar at the Media Lab titled “Big Data”. Two of the students who took the class, Daniel Smilkov and Deepak Jagdish, worked on a project called Immersion which uses Gmail metadata to map someone’s social network. I’m one of about 500 alpha testers of the software, developed by Cesar, Daniel and Deepak, and have been one of the poster boys for the project as it’s been on display at the Media Lab, as I’ve got the largest network of Gmail contacts of anyone who’s used the system. (This isn’t because I’m especially popular, I suspect. Most of my MIT colleagues use mit.edu addresses. As someone new to MIT, who maintains a number of different affiliations, I have been a heavy Gmail user.)

Here’s what my metadata looks like:

The largest node in the graph, the person I exchange the most email with, is my wife, Rachel. I find this reassuring, but Daniel and Deepak have told me that people’s romantic partners are rarely their largest node. Because I travel a lot, Rachel and I have a heavily email-dependent relationship, but many people’s romantic relationships are conducted mostly face to face and don’t show up clearly in metadata. But the prominence of Rachel in the graph is, for me, a reminder that one of the reasons we might be concerned about metadata is that it shows strong relationships, whether those relationships are widely known or are secret.

The other large nodes on the graph are associated with specific clusters. Rebecca is my co-founder at Global Voices and Ivan and Georgia run the organization day-to-day – they dominate the green cluster, which includes key people in that organization. Hal is my chief collaborator at the Berkman Center, and Colin is my boss – they dominate the orange cluster, which includes fellow Berkman folks as well as a number of prominent internet law and policy folks who work closely with the Center. Lorrie is assistant director at Center for Civic Media and is the person I work with most closely at MIT – the red cluster represents the people I work with at the Media Lab.

Anyone who knows me reasonably well could have guessed at the existence of these ties. But there’s other information in the graph that’s more complicated and potentially more sensitive. My primary Media Lab collaborators are my students and staff – Cesar is the only Media Lab node who’s not affiliated with Civic who shows up on my network, which suggests that I’m collaborating less with my Media Lab colleagues than I might hope to be. One might read into my relationships with the students I advise based on the email volume I exchange with them – I’d suggest that the patterns have something to do with our preferred channels of communication, but it certainly shows who’s demanding and receiving attention via email. In other words, absence from a social network map is at least as revealing as presence on it.

Another sensitive piece of information comes from how Immersion draws and codes clusters. Immersion’s algorithm is sensitive to who you include on the same email. Global Voices emails include Ivan, Georgia, Rebecca and others – people who I email when I email those three get placed in the same cluster. People who exist as bridges between clusters are particularly interesting, as they are people who appear in multiple roles in your social network. Joi Ito appears on my graph twice (as “Joi” and “Joichi”) because he uses multiple email addresses, but in either role, he’s a bridge between my MIT existence, my Global Voices existence and my Berkman life, which reflects my long and multi-faceted relationship with him. But he’s colored red, as a Media Lab person, whereas other bridge figures like danah boyd show up as blue, as they have close relationships with Rachel as well. In other words, I have important, long-standing, multifaceted relationships with both danah and Joi, but danah is part of my family life as well, while Joi is not.

My point here isn’t to elucidate all the peculiarities of my social network (indeed, analyzing these diagrams is a bit like analyzing your dreams – fascinating to you, but off-putting to everyone else). It’s to make the case that this metadata paints a very revealing portrait of oneself. And while there’s currently a waiting list to use Immersion, this is data that’s accessible to NSA analysts and to the marketing teams at Google. That makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me want to have a public conversation about what’s okay and what’s not okay to track.

While popular outcry over revelations about the NSA has been somewhat muted so far, it’s possible that widespread protests planned for July 4th will spark more dialog about what represents unconstitutional surveillance. Here’s hoping that conversation will take a close look at metadata and ask hard questions about whether or not this is information we are willing to share with governments and corporations, or whether we need to regulate and limit this power to monitor as we’ve historically done in the United States. Restore the Fourth.

For another example of what metadata may reveal, see Malte Spitz’s phone records. As I discuss in “Rewire”, Spitz sued his mobile phone provider to obtain his records, then worked with Zeit Online to build a visualization of his movements based purely on that set of data.

Categories: Blog

Tracing Brazil’s Guy Fawkes Masks

July 2, 2013 - 11:25am

Early this morning, Reddit user “SlartiBartRelative” posted a photo, with the headline “The icon of anti-capitalism, mass-produced”. The post received thousands of upvotes and generated a long comment thread, though the most highly-rated comment argued “Those masks have nothing to do with anti-capitalism… like at all”. Other commentators note that Anonymous, which has famously adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, is anti-corruption or anti-tyranny, which may sometimes manifest itself as anti-corporatism, which can look a lot like anti-capitalism. (There’s also a helpful discourse on the historical Guy Fawkes. Yay, Reddit comment threads!)

I saw the image as it started appearing on Twitter, usually with a comment about irony or despair that a protest symbol was mass-produced under less-than-salubrious conditions:

There’s been a good bit written about the Guy Fawkes mask. Friend and colleague Molly Sauter has the definitive article, tracing the mask from Alan Moore’s comic book, back to Catholic revolutionaries, then forward through Epic Fail Guy, 4chan, Anon and to Occupy. But she doesn’t dwell at length on anti-capitalism, focusing more on masks, anonymity and collective identity. Leo Benedictus, writing in The Guardian, explores the irony that the mask, created for the movie version of “V for Vendetta”, provides licensing revenue to Warner Bros.

Later this morning, Business Insider published an article that borrows heavily from an article by Fabricio Provenzano for Extra Online, a Brazilian newspaper published by the massive Organizações Globo media group. Provenzano’s article, published ten days ago, suggests that the manufacturers are selling directly to protesters, with individuals coming to the factory to pick up hundreds of masks at a time, orders that are significantly larger than those made by wholesalers or distributors. The article doesn’t address the issue of licensing, but suggests that the factory is used to producing mass runs of masks for Carnival, and has also received designs for masks that parody Brazilian politicians, likely also for use in protests as well as in Carnival processions.

The impression I took from Provenzano’s article wasn’t that the factory, run by a mask company called Condal, was particularly badly run or exploitative – Provenzano was interested in the sudden surge of interest in the design. And I would be stunned if Condal were an official licensee of Warner Bros – I think it’s unlikely that money paid for thee masks is going into the pocket of a Hollywood studio as Condal seems to borrow heavily from the global entertainment industry in its mask design.

The photo of workers making Guy Fawkes masks is something of a Rorschach test. If you’re primed to see the exploitative nature of global capitalism when you see people making a plastic mask, it’s there in the image. if you’re looking for the global spread of a protest movement, it’s there too, with a Brazilian factory making a local knock-off of a global icon to cash in on a national protest.

Because the internet is a copying machine, it’s very bad at context. It’s easier to encounter the image of masks being manufactured devoid of accompanying details than it is to find the story behind the images. And given our tendency to ignore information in languages we don’t read, it’s easy to see how the masks come detached from their accompanying story. For me, the image is more powerful with context behind it. It’s possible to reflect on the irony of a Hollywood prop becoming an activist trope, the tensions between mass-production and anonymity and the individuality of one’s identity and grievance, the tensions between local and global, Warner Bros and Condal, intellectual property and piracy, all in the same image.

If you’d like a Condal-made Guy Fawkes mask, it’s available here – scroll down and look for item 101. It’s near the troll-face mask, which could also come in handy.

Categories: Blog

The price of life on Florida’s Death Row

June 21, 2013 - 2:35pm

The world is slowly moving to abolish the death penalty. Around the world, 140 countries have either abolished the punishment in law or in practice, not executing a prisoner in the past ten years. The majority of US states still permit the death penalty, but the total people sentenced to death in 2012 dropped below 100 for the first time since the late 1970s, and executions are slowing as well.

But not in Florida. The State of Florida has an unusual approach to the death penalty. They are the only state where a simple majority on a jury can vote to sentence a person to death. (In most states, unanimous agreement is required.) And they lead the nation in exonerations, where lawyers and activists uncover evidence that someone sentenced to death is innocent, according to an editorial in the Tampa Bay Times. (The figures in the editorial come from the Death Penalty Information Center, which lists 142 exonerations, with 24 from Florida.) In other words, Florida sentences a lot of people to death, and they seem to get it wrong quite often.

This situation is about to get worse. Emily Bazelon wrote a powerful article for Slate examining Florida’s new law, the “Timely Justice Act”, which requires the governor to sign death warrants within 30 days of an inmate’s final appeal, and requires the state to execute the condemned within 180 days of that warrant. That’s a lot quicker than executions are generally carried out. Inmates remain on death row in Florida for 13.2 years on average, less that the nationwide average of 14.8 years.

What’s the rush? The purpose of the bill, sponsors say, is to ensure that executions are carried out in a timely fashion, to increase public confidence in the judicial system. One of the sponsors of the bill, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz quipped, “Only God can judge. But we sure can set up the meeting.” But, as Bazelon points out, Florida’s death penalty system is so flawed that it often requires years to uncover evidence that would exonerate a death row inmate.

There’s a brutal logic behind Florida’s bill. The Death Penalty Information Center calculates that it costs Florida $51 million a year more than holding them for life, given the extra costs of extra security and maintenance costs for death row facilities. Shorter stays on death row equal lower costs – the only downside is the likelihood of killing people who might well be found innocent with years to explore their cases.

Consider the case of Clement Aguirre, on death row in Florida since 2006 for the 2004 murders of a mother and daughter found dead in their trailer home. DNA evidence obtained by the Innocence Project in 2011 strongly suggests that Aguirre is innocent of the murders, and he is still fighting to overturn his conviction.

Fixing Florida’s criminal justice system requires more than building opposition to the death penalty or funding reviews of death penalty cases through the Innocence Project. It requires providing high quality public defenders to those accused of crimes. Bazelon reports that Florida’s death penalty defenders are some of the worst in the nation, and have allowed clients to go to death row without ever meeting them or responding to their letters.

Unfortunately, this means spending more money on criminal justice, not less. Organizations like Gideon’s Promise are helping young lawyers become public defenders and trying to improve the profession. One modest saving grace in Florida’s atrocious law is modest funding for public defense in northern Florida, but it’s far less support than the state needs to ensure that people facing the death penalty get a fair trial.

I had a conversation the other day with advisors to Northeastern University’s NuLawLab, which is dedicated to the idea of providing affordable legal services to all 7 billion people on the planet. One of the advisors expressed interest in the idea that new data sets could help make the case that failing to provide people with adequate representation has higher costs than representing them well – i.e., someone who might have fought for their home with legal counsel ends up creating societal costs through needing housing assistance. I’m supportive of the concept, but I worry that such an economic analysis needs to incorporate human rights. It’s cheaper for Florida to fail to represent indigent defendants and rapidly push them to execution than it is to represent them well and give time for the Innocence Project and others to try to establish their innocence. The only cost is the lives of people unlucky enough to be innocent but convicted of murder in Florida.

I encountered Bazelon’s story through This American Life, which ran an excellent set of short, timely stories around the theme, “This Week”. I’m normally grumpy when TAL denies me the long-form stories I so love, but grateful they featured this story.

Categories: Blog

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