Joho the Blog » politics

December 2, 2014

Micah Sifry: Why the Net’s effect on politics has disappointed us

This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry’s book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event. It was created collaboratively by Erhardt Graeff, , Nathan Matias, Sands Fish, Dalia Othman, Mayte Schomburg, and David Larochelle. and me. It’s also posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog, from whom I have stolen this html-ized version. I have done a tiny bit of cleanup, and inserted a few comments in brackets…

Micah Sifry at Berkman Center

Micah Sifry is the co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, Kate Krontiris (today’s moderator) met him a few years back and asked him what an online Civic Hall would look like. Now “Civic Hall” will be opening soon in NYC in January as a brick and mortar institution.

Kate Krontiris: Why did you write this book? What case studies or sparks made you think there’s something to write about here?

Micah Sifry: I had a persistent editor at a small publishing house (OR Books). Great people to work for. The impetus for the book was the sense after ten years of long engagement observation in the the tech politics scene in the USA and a little abroad, through PDF conferences and blogging at techpresident, I finally got my head around what was bothering me. I thought I could lay out what I wanted to say about the hopes and aspirations for the internet, and what did and did not happen. Starting point was 10 years ago with explosion of civic participation around Howard Dean campaign. What we thought would happen, what has happened, and what we can do to shift the course.

The disruptive moment is over. [It certainly seems like it. But disruptive moments are like the Spanish Inquisition.] The expectation that reducing the barrier to entry would lead to a democratization of power has not been fulfilled. We need to distinguish what the internet seems to be good for in the political arena for small -d democratization and what it is not. My book focuses on two areas: (1) the changes in the political campaigning space in how they use tech, data analytics and their supporters, and how the role of the citizen in influencing the process has shrunk rather than increased. (2) How advocacy orgs have also adapted to mass connectivity and mass participation, largely by using Big Data, analytics, A/B testing, etc., to extract some value but not to empower people in any quantifiable way

We have not changed the political operating system in any major way or the way we expected. The percentage of money coming from small donors is essentially constant from 2004 to 2012, without even considering the superpacs enabled by the Citizens United case. We thought that the number of small donors would explode, but today we are seeing that most of the money is coming from large donors.

So there’s a lot of soul searching to be done by the tech community.

Also: there’s the problem of the attention economy and the perverse effect that we have made self expression so easy, but we have not made the listening function work at a pace that keeps up with all the expression.

Kate reads an excerpt from Page 48:

The result is a body politic that has grown more and more distorted. It has a gigantic mouth and two huge fists, left and right, that spend most of their time swinging at each other. Its heart still beats strong, and often it races in response to emotional events. But its ears and eyes are deafened and blinded by all the noise and flash; its stomach only rarely gets to digest anything; and its leg muscles are atrophying from lack of use.

Present Shock” by Douglas Rushkoff crystalized this: The future is here and it’s broken the present. We’re losing our collective attention, which is what we need for political action. Each advocacy group may get your attention, but that collectively pollutes the commons. The only things that seem to interrupt that are hugely emotional spectacles and giant crises like hurricanes cutting off NYC’s power.

Silver lining: We’re a little more resilient in response to crises. And I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the internet is bad. I love the internet as much as I hate the internet now.

Kate: In the book, you make the observations:
1. The effective use of tech is no longer a low barrier. You need money and power to wield these tools well.
2. The Net’s better at gathering Stop energy than Go energy.
3. We don’t have very good tools for doing things together.

Can you talk a little bit more about your chapter on big data? You talk about Obama being the most technological president. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Micah: I wanted to put to rest the question: What happened after 2008? Why didn’t Obama come to DC with his list of millions of energized supporters? They trained tens of thousands of organizers in a rigorous way. Why didn’t that go forward? Why was it so easily smothered?

The answer is only in part due to Obama. We now know he is nowhere near the community organizer he was portrayed as. He’s a technocrat and very cautious politician. You can blame Rahm Emanuel and the other people around him but he’s the one who picked ‘em. The question is: Why didn’t the base fight that?

I think the answer is that the tools the Obama campaign used were not designed to make it easy for the base to organize itself. There was a time in 2008 when Obama signalled he was going to shift his position on the FISA wiretapping bill. A group formed on MyBarackObama and swelled to 20,000 people, the largest group there. It forced Obama to deal with it and issue a statement saying, “I heard you, but here’s what I believe,” followed by his advisors spending three hours liveblogging…and the issue went away. The question is why we let that happen.

When Obama came in, there was no transition plan for the base. We can’t just blame the top. We have to asked ourselves why Americans don’t have a stronger tradition of assertion. In my book, I don’t spend enough time exploring where that culture comes from: lack of history, forgetting that politicians need to be held accountable, very weak local communal organization. So I’m not sure this generalizes to other countries. E.g., Spain has a stronger tradition of local self-organization. The Podemos party is using Reddit and Loomio to do face-to-face organizing, showing that other paths are possible. There was a moment when the Obama team reached out to the supporters and there was a high response and support them and many of them expressed their interest in running for local office, but nothing happened. A lot of people didn’t take matters into their own hands because of deep cultural issues. I think of this as “learned deference.”

Also, a failure of leadership. The history of the Democratic party is that there’s a moment when the people try to keep the pressure on, and then they lose. E.g., Clinton and Labor.

Kate: We’ll get to a moment of optimism, but not yet.

Micah: Yochai Benkler read the manuscript, didn’t find much to disagree with, and said that afterwards he felt like crawling under a rock. [There’s your cover blurb, Micah!]

Kate: Let’s talk about another force shaping the body politic: big technology companies are another group affecting these efforts. What role do you see these companies playing now and what do you think these companies can do to more positively promote civic life?

Micah: The people inside the companies think they’re benign. They have very little self-awareness of the possibility that the effect of what they’ve created could be dangerous. I’ve been banging on Facebook for years to get them to open up and tell us more about the experiments they’ve done where they tweak the news feed or put the “megaphone” to encourage people to vote. In 2012, in the 10 weeks before the election, they pushed hard news to the top of the feed of two million users. If your friend shared a link to a news story, they would put those articles at the very top. They then went back and surveyed that group. The self-reported results of the survey were that people who saw the news higher up reported that they were significantly more likely to vote and pay attention to government. They were planning to publish an academic paper about the results and the issue with academic papers is that we’ll get to see the results and learn from them years after the event.

News publishers are afraid to question the power of social media platforms. The power of these platforms is enormous and we have to take their word on their experiments. There needs to be independent auditing of Facebook algorithms by other qualified technologists, so that if Facebook says it does something in a neutral and random way, we can see if it was actually neutral and random. It’s good when companies do things like encouraging people to be organ donors, but as they have a drive to maximize profits, it will be important to watch the effect they have on society.

We have to be concerned that so much of our public discourse occurs on private platforms. Why should an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t want to be on Facebook be forced to be a member of Facebook in order to participate in a town hall with their member of Congress? If Walmart were hosting town hall meetings and required people to have Walmart cards to participate, we would be up in arms. Why do congress-people do that with Facebook?

Another piece of important work for us is building the public internet. The government should be doing this, but isn’t. You can get a permit for a meeting in a public park, but you can’t congregate on a government website. I can’t get an email address from the Post Office. We’ve allowed too much thinking about what a public internet should look like fall under the carpet.

We can distinguish among the platforms. Twitter is a better platform than Facebook for enabling public discourse on a topic. But that is about to change, as they start diddling with their platform and you’ll see less of what you want to see and more of what they want you to see.

Kate: So you’re interested not only in the algorithm and its transparency, but also about the kind of platform on which we might have public discussion?

Micah: Yes, we need to have public platforms. Our communication is happening on private connections. The US has twice tried to deal with crises in public infrastructure. Access to clean water in NYC in the 1800s when there was a cholera epidemic from drinking water polluted with sewage. Moms and dads bought water sources in upstate New York and built aqueducts to bring it into the city. And that’s when it became the premier metropolis in the United States.

Second there was the provision of a telephone dial tone. Today, public broadband is the dial tone of the twentieth century: that is another aspect of building the public infrastructure and Internet that we need.

Micah: We should also talk about Stop/Go. The Wealth of Networks is a bible to me, as I expect it is to lots of people in this room. I agree that the networked public sphere is a better public sphere than the mass media public sphere. But there is a flaw in the examples Benkler puts in the Wealth of Networks. The cases, where the public has a greater interest than moneyed actors, whether it’s Diebold having flaws in their electronic ballot machines; or the Sinclair Network trying to put out partisan videos right before an election, and a civic network organizes and protests, and Sinclair withdraws them; or SOPA/PIPA is another example, where Hollywood overreaches and the Internet public, with the help of large companies rises to oppose the legislation…

What do these cases have in common? An outrageous action. People know what they want to stop Diebold, Sinclair, SOPA/PIPA, stop Wikileaks from being taken off the Web.

The Internet is very good at “stop moments” but not “go” moments.

What tool would you use to enable a consensus to form among a group of people if you’re working on the Web and there isn’t an existing consensus? A wiki? When Wikipedia decided to go dark in support of the SOPA/PIPA protest, they used Jimmy Wales’ Talk page. Try to read it. It’s 55 screens long on my laptop. There’s no way that people read all that. You might say it was sufficient because people came to agreement, but, it’s not at all clear to me that the minority voices came to agreement.

The most painful example: Egypt. There was consensus for the Stop: to get Mubarak out of office. But when they briefly had an opening to create a new government, they failed. They fractured. We have a disease of too much ease in expressing yourself and not enough listening and coming to agreement.

Kate: Is there fundamental clash between Internet organizing and community organizing?

Micah: We have to change the toolset. We need easy to use tools that replicate the processes that community organizers use, to avoid privileging face to face; not everyone can get to a community meeting at night.

Loomio has a great opportunity to fix this gap. This is a tool that was written by folks in New Zealand who participated first hand in the occupy protests in Wellington. They realized that the consensus-based decision-making broke down when scaling in space or time.

The problem with Loomio is that it works well if you are already part of a bounded group. If the group feels like they have a common purpose they are bound to, then Loomio works great for them. We haven’t solved the problem of getting people to that point of common purpose. It may be unsolvable.

Kate: In the last chapter you reflect on the Snowden moment and what it means for us. You are by nature hopeful and optimistic, yet this book suggests that we shouldn’t be optimistic. Is that right? When you finished writing it did you think there are reasons to be hopeful?

Micah: I’m hopeful constitutionally for lots of different reasons. But I think seeing things clearly is the starting point for acting in better ways. Maybe I’ve cleared some cobwebs. That’s the prerequisite for taking better action going forward: understanding what has happened before.

Lots of complicated thoughts about the Snowden affair. The constitutional optimist in me is with Cory Doctorow who says the moment of peak apathy by privacy and surveillance is over. We’re seeing some changes in tech. E.g., WhatsApp adopted privacy encryption for 100s of millions of users. It’s a reason for optimism that some companies are opting for privacy as default.

We have a political sickness. I don’t know a single Congressperson who’s called for clemency for Snowden. There’s been political pressure for reform, but that’s been blocked. But there will be more.

I had lunch with Ben Wizner [twitter: benwizner, who is Snowden’s ACLU lawyer. First off, Snowden’s film may be nominated for an Oscar and will be on HBO which will give millions a chance to learn more about him. Second, Snowden is incredibly popular among people. He articulates what the Internet should be in a way that many young people recognize. The fact that 3-4M people have told the FCC that they want Net Neutrality is a pretty big deal; I’m surprised this issue is even still alive.

On the other hand, we’re creatures of convenience. Yesterday I gave a talk at Nicco Mele‘s class at the Harvard JFK school. I said to the students, “You know, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” People’s eyes light up and say, “I never thought of that!” On the other hand, people may not want to know they are the product. That might be when the scales fall from people’s eyes. I expect to see more clashes along these battle lines.

I have one request to make: We need to stop referring to “privacy policies.” I’m on the board of Consumer Reports and I’ve been urging them to adopt this change.

It’s not privacy if they have your data. It’s fine if you want to give that away, but don’t refer to it as privacy.

I write something called First POST, which you can all subscribe to; it’s free. And when I go to put that together, every day I see where someone is doing something good with the internet.

Kate: Thanks. I feel better.

Micah: Don’t feel too much better.

Micah Sifry at the Berkman Center

Halley Suitt: What should those policies be called?

Micah: Daily usage policies

David Larochelle: At the beginning you talked about filtering out Citizens United when comparing then to now. Maybe without the Net things would be much worse than they are now.

Micah: If you look at political contributions, the percentage of money going from small donors (Anyone who gives less than $200 is considered a small donor) has gone from 8-10% in House races and from 12-14% in Senate races since 2004 to 2012. There are a handful of candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, who have amassed a serious war chest from small donations. They’re just a few, not enough to say that the operating system of politics has changed. The most depressing statistic of all is that if the barrier to participation in politics has been lowered by the Internet, why are 4-10 races per state unopposed? People don’t bother because they know the incumbent is going to win. The problem is gerrymandering, pork, learned deference, corrupt local power structures — many other things than technology go into the lack of society opening up in the way we hoped.

Let me give a silver lining, because I see so many grim faces. The one change I would credit to the open media system the Net has enabled is the rise of women and minorities into parity. We’re living through a calamitous moment when you think about how gender and race are emerging online and demanding parity. The idea that Bill Cosby could be taken down after decades of successfully suppressing rape allegations— his defense just shattered. Every day, another bastion of male power starts to crumble, like the fraternity system. Women are 51% of the population and not 51% of the power, but open media is enabling an assertion. This is not without horrible misogyny, harassment and attacks on women in response, but this is a rising force that is actually getting stronger with each battle.

David Weinberger: I love the book, and I love you. I have two reactions to the book. I am totally depressed by it. I was an optimist and something of a techno-determinist. But I think there is something optimistic in what David Larochelle just said. When I was a lad and you wanted to get information from your congressperson, you had to go and get a one-page mimeographed copy of their position paper, on maybe a dozen topics. Our ability to get information now is amazing. There is a bigger change than we could have anticipated in how we engage in politics. On the other hand, nothing has changed as you pointed out; the money has made things worse. So there are forces outside of technology (as you say). Technology is not enough to overcome these powers. In the longer game though I still have hope.

Micah: I still have hope too. The optimist in me is amazed that the week SOPA/PIPA happened there had been almost no mainstream media coverage, but the Pew survey of what people were paying attention to that week showed that old people were paying attention to the cruise ship that sunk but young people were paying attention to the SOPA/PIPA issue.

David W: Not just that they were paying attention but the depth of understanding that they had about this issue was so much more than they would have had before this new technology existed.

Micah: We may be at the extreme end of arc here and might unlearn some bad behaviors. We are constantly attracted by what the next spectacle is that attracts our attention. I hope that by pointing that out we might collectively decide to stop doing it. We still have way more good stuff to look at that might keeps us sitting still. Clay Shirky says we don’t have info overload, we have filter failure. He’s hopeful that our filters will get better and better and get pure signal. Nicholas Carr says that we in fact have filter success, not filter failure, because we are getting fed the good stuff — the algorithms are working in our Facebook feed—and we are getting too much of it.

The best example I have in my book is on SeeClickFix. SeeClickFix fascinates me a lot; it’s based in New Haven, CT. It’s basically 3-1-1 + location + phone. It started when Ben Berkowitz wanted to report something to city hall. This started when it became easy to put things on Google Maps. He and some friends spent a weekend hacking together a way to post a report to a map and allow comments on it for others to participate.

City hall started to get emails from people putting up issues on SeeClickFix and asking for service. And the city ran with it rather than ignoring those emails. SeeClickFix is now operating at scale in New Haven. They have 17,000+ registered users from a population of about 140,000. This is altering how the city works there. In the book, I write about a report a lady submitted about a stray dog (see the excerpt on TechPresident).

This is an example of local civic life being enacted….

Kate: what you call thick engagement..

Micah: … Thick engagement means to me more than click and sharing, but rather knowing each other and having a sense of obligation. [Micah tells an anecdote about SeeClickFix being used to enable neighbors to watch out for one another.]

SeeClickFix has created an augmented reality that makes things better for everyday life (read Micah’s post on SeeClickFix from June). New Haven’s municipal website gives real estate for a live feed of recent reports from SeeClickFix. By the way, SeeClickFix is a for-profit. It begins to knit together the opportunity for greater civic action. E.g., food deserts, intersections where lots of people have been hit by cars.

So I think there’s a way to design for thick engagement that improves people’s lives. But it can also be used in a Big Brother way. E.g., Waze is giving its traffic data to civic managers in Rio de Janeiro, but the drivers don’t have any sense that they are contributing their data. SeeClickFix enables people to share a common location to form interest groups. Waze did that in Europe, but not once it was bought by Google.

Richard Parker: I hear you talking about pessimism and I think about starting Mother Jones 40 yrs ago: Nixon, Vietnam, etc. And I’m not as pessimistic as you are. I’d like to see this discussion become part of a larger public discussion. Thomas Piketty has begun this conversation. Big Data frightens more people than it encourages them. The environment has become a mobilizing issue. The discussion of tech if nested within the wider environment might bring more empowerment.

Micah: Richard, I think that first of all the shiny optimism about tech is losing some of its sheen. The conversation around inequality and the degree to which the Silicon Valley version of how the tech economy is working is finally on the table. There are conflicting goals: there are a lot of us fighting for expanded broadband access because the way the economy works now you can’t even apply for a job without wifi. There’s a lot of boostering going on about how important it is to open up free or low-cost access, but we have to skate past the question whether the Net is empowering those without power or entrenching those with power already. I don’t feel like that discussion is being engaged all that well right now.

On the other hand, I think there is a cultural desire for magical power that tech still embodies for people. It’s like secular religion. When Apple introduced the iPad that moment got more international attention than Obama’s first State of the Union speech which was probably a more important event. That’s part of why every day we share these amazing examples of altruism or collective action that the Internet enables and helps us discover, and that’s a good thing. We have the capacity to do self-organized, non-market-based collective action at world scale. We’re not doing it yet, but it’s a potential yet to be realized and could be a very very very powerful thing.

Felipe Heusser: I agree that when you look at a significant portion of Internet users as a herd, there are reasons to be pessimistic. What is the role that you assign to smaller intermediaries: companies, organizers, NGOs? Rather than arriving at consensus around something, what about smaller groups that push for more specific issues? In our work on civic technology, we got lobby legislation passed after a big campaign — our tenth campaign. Over time, we’re getting better at politics, using tech tools to create awareness, while also playing the field of lobbying. When we used both elements, we were able to get legislation passed. Might organizing institutions be getting better at the Internet and Internet organizers be getting better at politics?

Micah: I think what you were asking was in reference to the American political context. I don’t know how you guys managed to pass that strong legislation in Chile. What I would say about that is you always get a moment of transition wherein there is an opportunity to make change. The longer the government is in power, the harder it is to make changes. Obama was great on transparency on his first day in office, but the longer he’s in office, the worse he gets about it. You have to use that window.

We need something like the NRA for the internet. People need to believe that the internet is a fundamental part of their identity like owning a gun. We need internet lover’s leagues. This is one of the unfinished moves in our emerging political process as more people express their desire for an open internet. [This is a remaining strand of optimism in Micah’s thought: Getting more people on line, especially those with less power, and good things will happen.] Those people are out there they are just not organized. And there are members of congress that probably know that they have constituents that care about the internet. I tried to convince Google to mobilize the 2-3M people they had on their SOPA/PIPA list, but no.

Tim Davies: in the case of See Click Fix, the state is collaborating with the public. In other cases like OpenCorporates, we see civic technologies as a balance to power, providing open data so essential to a civic infrastructure. What key civic infrastructures are needed, in addition to public space and broadband?

Micah: I’m intrigued by the Indieweb movement, the idea that we can own our own stake and claim to a piece of cyberspace. As people think about themselves not wanting to be products, the answer is to think about how to be an owner of your own space online. There are many ways to do that- maybe the library that trains students on how to do research could also train them how to be your own person online.

I should really talk about Civic Hall. It’s basically PDF all year round. We are trying to create a space where people like NGOs, activist, and technologists can get together and experiment. We have a space opening next month in the heart of Silicon Alley that will hold about 150 people.

Mayte Schomburg: Although Internet conversations can reveal to us what the public is passionate about, government doesn’t always pick up on the conversation. The system is very self-referential and does not have the incentive to pick up on what is politically relevant. In our small NGO in Germany (Publixphere.net), we’re working on non-partisan spaces for deliberation around politics. Originally, we were thinking that this should be provided by the state. However, in Germany, we have a lack of trust of the people in politics who we are trying to reach, so as things stand at the moment we don’t even accept state funding. Institutions have been slow to catch up to movements. We realized that the government wasn’t going to do it, and that it’s now too late for them to have the legitimacy to create public space. If someone were to create public Internet for political discussion in the US, would the government be the right entity to create this?

Micah: I kind of like Germany at the moment having twice seen the horror of what can happen with big data. The Germans are most attuned to those issues. I like that GErmans have sufficient distrust of the state to form alternative ways to do what you are describing. For me, the state is the option of last resort. I would like something independent that is then supported by government.

In order to make the connection to enable political discourse, I think it’s important that governments create processes to open two-way channels. The head of the rules committee of the Utah House of Representatives opened up a space for comments online to share. People keep trying to open things up to a group of people not bound by common purpose, it fails. Richard Durbin tried this too until the graduate student working for him went back to school. But when people who have power make the efforts, there is a possibility.

Be the first to comment »

November 29, 2014

Before Facebook, there was DeanSpace

Here’s a four-minute video from July 13, 2003, of Zack Rosen describing the social networking tool he and his group were building for the Howard Dean campaign. DeanSpace let Dean supporters connect with one another on topics, form groups, and organize action. This was before Facebook, remember.

This comes from Lisa Rein’s archive. I’m sorry to say that I’ve lost touch with Lisa, so I hope she’s ok with my uploading this to YouTube. The talk itself was part of iLaw 2003, an event put on every couple of years or so by the Berkman Center and Harvard Law.

(I think that’s Aaron Swartz sitting in front.)

1 Comment »

September 13, 2014

Something positive about Ronald Reagan

On Christopher Lydon‘s excellent Radio Open Source program, I heard him interview the historian Rick Perlstein about his book The Invisible Bridge. Kissinger tells it in his memoir.

When Kissinger was in the White House, he had to call Reagan, whom he despised. This was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the course of the conversation he said that the Egyptians were claiming to be shooting down an absurd number of Israeli planes. Everyone knew they were lying, but the White House wasn’t sure how to counter the propaganda.

Ronald Reagan immediately said, “Well, Henry, announce that the US will replace every downed Israeli plane, one for one.”

Yes, Ronald Reagan had a brilliant idea.

Tomorrow: You won’t believe what Sarah Palin told the Dalai Lama that changed his life forever.

Be the first to comment »

July 26, 2014

Municipal nets, municipal electric power, and learning from history

The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.

Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”

Scan of 1906 Moody's

Click image to enlarge

The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.

In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:

First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.

Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.

Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success

Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.

Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.

6 Comments »

July 24, 2014

Michelle Obama on working parents

In case anyone has forgotten what honesty sounds like:

Be the first to comment »

June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to “small pieces loosely joined.”] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis – such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that “did” HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

Be the first to comment »

February 3, 2014

The awesomeness of songify

The latest from the Schmoyoho Bros is awesome in every direction. I love it as political satire, but I think it’s pretty great just as a piece of music. And then keep in mind that the Gregory Brothers (the family behind the pseudonym) have pretty much invented a new form of music and satire, just as Reddit invented a new form of journalism with the AMA. The pace of invention of new rhetorical forms is itself awesome.

Awesome.

Be the first to comment »

October 1, 2013

[berkman] Molly Crabapple on art when images are ubiquitous

I’m at a Berkman lunch where Molly Crabapple [twitter:MollyCrabapple] is giving a talk titled “Art in the Age of the Ubiquitous Image.” Tim Maly introduces Molly as a “hustler,” in the good sense. After Occupy, she “hustled her way” into Gitmo. She and Tim were “Artists are the most lucky little foofoos in the world. We spent a century excusing every drpravity if with ‘But we’re an artist.’ …The best individual

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by telling us about the only two people who have ever gotten angry at her drawing their picture. First was a religious person in Morocco. She wanted to distinguish herself from the culturally arrogant tourists, so she’d sit on a sidewalk and draw. She made friends, except for one guy who looked at the drawing pad and tore it to pieces. The second was a NYC police officer. She was sitting in a court with Matt Taibbi and watching poor people being shaken down for offenses such as riding a bike on a bicycle. A court officer saw her drawing him and said that anyone looking at him is “asking for trouble.” “Drawing can mock power,” she says.

She says she’s an artist in the old sense: She puts paint on a surface until it looks cool. She also does illustrated journalism. She shows drawings from Zuccotti Park during Occupy. She used her sketchbook to show that people were not in fact “dirty hippies.” She went to Athens to show what life as like with the rise of fascism during the Eurozone crisis. At Guantanamo, she drew happy faces on the guards because you’re not allowed to draw their faces. If she’s censored, she wants to show the censorship.

When she was young, she longed for the days when artists dominated image-making. Before cameras, artists drew whatever needed reproduction. She shows a plate from Goya’s The Disasters of War to show how art can editorialize in a way that photos can’t. Drawings can show the truth of what happened.

Another example from the Paris Commune: a woman guarding a hotel. Otto Dix’s drawing of a veteran with skin grafts shows “only the essential, not the extraneous. Even fashion was the domain of artists before photo. E.g., Kenneth Black’s drawings.

Otto Dix skin graft

But photography has an advantage in that we assume what we see is true. E.g., Goya’s execution painting never actually happened. But now everyone has camera phones, and every is being surveilled. There are more images now than ever before in human history. Where does that leave art?

Goya: Disasters of War

There are two symbols of global rebellion: the Guy Fawkes masks and arms outstretched holding camera phones. When a kid got beaten up, a crowd of peers formed with their camera phones out. “You will become an Internet meme,” they were saying. Camera phones make people accountable. The Net takes every image that has resonance and spits it back out transformed. Officer Pike, who pepper-sprayed protesters at UC Davis, has become an Internet meme.

Pike as meme

The flip side is that the government now can view us unceasingly. Soon the line between what we’re viewing and how they’re viewing us is blurred: the gov’t views us through our phones by which we view our world. Some of the coolest art plays with this. E.g., William Betts does paintings based on CCTV stills.

Williams Betts. Thanks, WB!

But as photography becomes ubiquitous, our faith in its truth is chipping away. E.g., Kerry used a photo of wrapped bodies to justify a strike on Syria, but it was taken in 2002 in Iraq. Photos are not the truth and they never were. And even when photos are indisputable, it’s not enough. Police still get away with murder. The videography is less important than the power structure.

We live in a world where everything is captured, so what’s the point of my drawing things? What possible significance can it be? “Or am I just picking scabs? It’s just my personal compulsion?”

Art has always absorbed new tech: Big canvases during the Renaissance, use of the camera obscura. She shows a drawing of the Golden Dawn fascists being confronted by local shop owners. For the drawing, she took many many photos, they looked online to find more posters, and you end up with a drawing that’s a collage. You never now have trouble figuring out what thnigs look like. “Even that is a gigantic change brought by the Internet.”

 Molly Crabapple Golden Dawn

One of her projects last name was “Shell Game“: taking the Occupy protest and Arab Spring and retelling massive “alter pieces” for them, votives. But when she was drawing them, she wasn’t just drawing what was in her head. She was researching them the way journalists do. She interviewed people. E.g., a Tunisian blogging collective told her that the term “Jasmine REvolution” as “hideous Western branding” and please don’t use it.

Molly Crabapple Shell Game example

She shows a Rembrandt drawing of Haksen the elephant. IT was the first time people had seen it. Now, the image of elephants has become ubiquitous.

Her friend Paul Mason when toOccupy Gezi. He took photos. She drew them, but only after crowdsourcing the translation of signs on Twitter.

Molly Crabapple occupy gez

Guantanamo is simultaneously the most private and the most surveilled. Every cell has a camera checked every 3 mins. Even the location of the cameras is secret; if she drew them, the sketch would be confiscated. She spent 2 wks there on 2 differenttrips. “What became important to me was to draw the censorship.” She wasn’t allowed to draw anyone’s faces, even though their identities are well known. So she had to scratch out the prisoner’s faces. [The face-blocked prisoner drawings are amazing.] She also isn’t allowed to draw anything that would give a sense of the layout of the camp. The Opsec briefing tells you the only three angles you’re allowed to draw from.

Molly Crabapple guantanamo

She shows a drawing from life of the Chelsea Manning verdict.

There are other reasons people might not want to be drawn. She shows a drawing of Syntagma protesters with prominent facial scars, so she drew him holding his logo over his face. She shows a drawing of Maxence Valade who had an eye shot out. He let her draw him.

There are places where there are just no cameras. She was jailed for 11 hours during Occupy. It was incredibly boring. She drew pictures in a styrofoam cup and tried to commit the cell to memory. When released, she drew it.

Joe Sacco has drawn images of Palestinians being interrogated. “Artists can take memories and make them real.”

Access can be taken from us. The Internet can be shut off. They can take your camera phone. But drawing cannot be stopped. E.g., David Choe was in solitary for a while. He had nothing to do but draw. He drew with soy sauce and his own urine.

“The art of drawing something sets it apart.” She shows the official Red Cross photo of Hisham Sliti in Gitmo and then her drawing. “I wanted to set him apart. I want you to remember who he is.”

“We need the chaos of multiplicity. We need raw data. We need everything. But we also need the singular. And that’s what artists do. We need people who can be stealthy and subtle, and can go where photographs cannot.” Visual art has no pretense of objectivity. “Images have power.” An illustrator in Syria had his hands broken. “Images get past fatigue. Images get past the raw edges of your heart.”

Q&A

Q: You’re comparing image production before the flood of images and now. How about how crowds are pulling from the flood now?

A: Artists are always of their age. I use the Internet as an artist, but also to look for steak in the morning to eat. We dive into the multiplicity, pull out the singular, and then that’s pulled back into the crowd.

Q: The Guy Fawkes mask comes from V for Vendetta. The image is owned by Warner Bros.

A: And there’s also the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic subversive whose politics none of us would find inspiring. Then there were the folk festivals. Then V for Vendetta, retaking the mask as a symbol of rebellion, but more as a carton symbol. Then you have 4chan and Anonymous bringing it back to its original meaning of rebellion.

Q: How do your images find a way through all of that. You talk about using the network as a repository of possible influence, as an expanded canon of images one might interact with. Once an image is produced, how does it find its life in the world?

When Occupy Wall St. hit, it had no images. I did a vampire squid. It showed up on protest signs. Schlocky t-shirts were selling it. The image had a life. She also did a free Pussy riot poster. A week alter there was an Al Jazeera news piece saying “Some people will make money on anything,” focusing on Russian t-shirt makers making unauthorized copies. Madonna tweeted it, and Time said she made it. Memes show up in burlesque shows. Many bad tattoos based on her art. (“That always hurts and artist.”) “The network eats all.”

Molly Crabapple vampire quid

Q: Do you get criticism from journalists for not being fact-check-able?

A: I work with fact-checkers when facts are involved. When I can’t take photos, I hew as closely to reality as I can. But there’s always an editorial slant to any photo or drawing. E.g., the photo of the Vietnamese police officer executing a suspect has an emotion.

Q: Who are you drawing your political art for?

A: One of my problems with political art is that it draws on the same canon: Soviet, black and red. Very cool. But people know immediately if it’s for them. I want to make art for people who don’t think political aesthetics is for them. Maybe they relate more to fairy tales, or…

Q: Has the nature of cooptation change? What’s the difference between an image being made commercial and an image becoming a meme?

A: In some ways I think it’s cooptation. If someone used my Pussy Riot illustration to advertise their t-shirt shop, with tags like “glam,” yeah, that’s cooptation. Political campaigns do this, as when musicians objected to their songs being used to introduce Sarah Palin. You should fight back against that, but it happens because the world is intensely interconnected.

Q: In the 19th century there was an exhibition of dioramas. The Beehive Collective is doing something similar. Do they understand the diorama? Can we revivify it?

A: The Beehive Collective does this incredibly detailed, gigantic pen and ink drawings of subjects like strip mining, environmental policy, etc. The topics are very complex. They go to the local areas and revise and revise their thing until the locals think it’s a truthful representation. They are telling very complicated stories without depending on language or literacy. It’s an intensely important thing to do.

Beehive Collective

Q: Do you do that consciously with some of your larger displays?

A: Yes. I always try to get beyond language. One of my first jobs was as house artist at a swanky club. That was my lockpick. Art is totally a lockpick.

Q: What’s been most jarring or unexpected for you?

A: Guantanamo is the most bizarre and jarring place I’ve ever been to. It’s a cheerful American town with a Macdonald’s and karaoke bar, next to a super-max prison dedicated to guarding 169 middle age guys most of whom have been cleared. There’s a pantomime of security there. Everything says that you’re about very dangerous people, but it’s a small American town.

Q: So it’s like North Korea.

A: Exactly.

Q: The network mainly displays images at 19″ maximum usually, but you draw much bigger than that.

A: I want to do art that’s really big. It affects you differently. It surrounds you. It’s a dominating relationship. But it doesn’t reproduce on line. Diego Rivera was much more known in his time, but now Frieda Kahlo is. That’s because you have to go to a Rivera to see it in real life, but Kahlo reproduces well on a smaller screen. So, how do you take really really big life and give it a digital life that’s somewhat as interesting as real life is.

Q: Panorama stitchers? Microsoft has one that lets you zoom in or out. E.g., the AIDS quilt. Cf. gigapans.

Q: What does the physicality of the drawing do for you.

A: There’s an egomaniacal bit of artists. When I make a large painting, I feel like I’m falling into them. My next project is going to be a show of large paintings about hackers. I want to do a 20-foot wide painting. It’d be bullshit to do something on the network and not have it be on the network.

There are things you can’t see online. I use zinc white, which is toxic, but it’s super transparent, warm white. It doesn’t reproduce in photos. There’s a lot of art you can’t get from photos or on the Internet. We forget that there are all sorts of things you have to be there to see.

Q: The way that experience gets remediated and ported back out to the Internet, it can underscore that they can’t be reproduced on a mobile device.

Q: There are places you can’t bring cameras onto. E.g., courtrooms.

A: I don’t know what they don’t allow cameras. It seems like a rule from wayback when camera flashes made smoke. I know that with the KSM courtroom, they didn’t want any of their cameras shown, or the doors, or the faces. It would have been impossible to get photos there. I think it’s misguided but I also sort of like it because it allows one place where my people can king.

Q: Do you ever encounter people who area trying to learn to draw so they can get around censorship and share emotions?

A: Prison art. I profiled a Gitmo prisoner who learned to draw for that reason.

Q: Dr. Sketchy?

A: Dr. Sketchy is my alternative drawing class done in a bar with drag queens and models, done in a subversive way. I want people to learn to look without asking for permission. Artists are the creepiest people around [laughter]. Drawing is a way that I was allowed to look, where looking wasn’t taken as an invitation but as something else.

Q: Susan Sontag says that people thought that showing violence would lead to peace, but that images of violence in fact can provoke more violence.

A: That happens when pictures of atrocities can spur revenge. But drawings can also get past people’s defenses. But maybe I’m just being hopeful.

[Great and very special presentation. Thanks, Molly!

2 Comments »

August 1, 2013

Progressivism implies we’re never done

Now, as part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to treat the child as a boy. Thus does an entire institution find itself compelled to accept the cultural left’s moral categories and priorities. This is why the Times labels transgender “the next civil rights frontier.” There’s always one, isn’t there?

This is from Ron Dreher’s post at The American Conservative about “Progressivism’s Next Battle.”

But what interests me is his comment, “There’s always one, isn’t there?” You can practically hear the sigh.

Well, yes, Ron, there is always one. Progressives are progressive because we believe in progress, and we believe in progress because — generalizing, of course — we believe three basic things.

First, human understanding is conditioned by history, culture, language. We are products of our times.

Second, our understanding tends towards some serious errors. For example, we tend to prefer the company of — and to trust — people who are like us. Worse, we go seriously wrong in judging the relevant ways people are like us, giving far too much weight to differences that make no real difference.

Third, we humans are capable of learning. When it comes to policies and institutions, the great lesson that we keep learning and need to keep learning is that few of the differences actually matter. Put positively, we need to keep learning that people are actually more like us than we thought. The great progressive impulse is to find more and more common humanity, and to adjust our policies around that truth. (And, as an aside that I both believe, and I hope Ron Dreher will find annoying: Nope, it doesn’t end with humans. We need to stop torturing and killing animals because we like the way they taste.)

So, yes, there always is a next frontier. But it’s not because progressives are sneaky land grabbers who are never satisfied. It’s because we are committed to the endless process of discovering our common humanity, and thus becoming fully human.

I’m ok with that.

2 Comments »

June 21, 2013

How I supported the NRA this afternoon

I just got a phone call from a firm getting paid to do a survey for the NRA. They’re calling patriotic gun rights supporters in Massachusetts. Would I be willing to listen to a message from Wayne LaPierre (the NRA leader) and answer a few questions?

“Sure,” I said.

Wayne then told me that the government wants to take all our guns from us and “refuses to catch the bad guys.” Because if there’s one credible criticism about Obama, it’s that he’s not going far enough in trying to catch bad guys.

After the message, a live human asked me if I agreed with Wayne LaPierre.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“Thank you very much,” the guy said as he was about to hang up.

“You’re hanging up on me because I disagree? That’s how you do a survey? That’s completely corrupt.”

“Ok, fine, you want to answer the questions, I’ll be happy to ask them.”

The questions were both of the “Did you know that Obama is on record saying…” sort. One was about banning all guns. The other was about taxing guns.

I answered truthfully “No” to both.

So, in the end, the NRA won.

1 Comment »

Next Page »