A Few Notes on #TtW15

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Photo By Aaron Thompson

I was happy to see Theorizing the Web go so well for so many people. The committee has been getting a lot of positive and constructive feedback and we’re reading all of it. If you feel so moved to write your own reflections on #TtW15 please send them our way. Last year, my post-conference thoughts were all about labor and the dangers of doing what you love. That’s still a problem ––TtW relies almost completely on volunteer labor–– but this year I’m thinking more about the institutions that prop up the typical Hilton-hosted conference model and make it difficult, if not financially impossible, to have more events like Theorizing the Web.

Our pay-what-you-want donation model reflects our commitment to lowering the barriers to participation in theorizing, but it is also indicative of all the little mundane ways that traditional academic institutions and TtW are not compatible. Most institutions have a little bit of money put aside for travel and conference costs, but need proof that the conference asks for a certain amount of money before funds can be approved. Without a posted conference fee many of our attendees (me included) have no mechanism by which to expense the registration cost and thus end up paying their donation out-of-pocket.  By choosing to not demand money from all attendees, we forgo the kind of money that average disciplinary associations receive every year.

Because we work out of unusual places we usually have to install a large, but temporary, internet connection. Internet service providers rarely, if ever, have someone asking to buy a single month’s worth of their biggest commercial line. We’ve tried to buy less (We only use it for one weekend!) but companies selling lots of bandwidth only work in monthly increments. I’m pretty sure we have become notorious to Time Warner Cable installation crews too—as we typically run multiple lines in the same building. Nothing about the conference fits neatly into the forms and procedures of a typical cable customer.

There are really important reasons why, for the last two years, we have opted to put Theorizing the Web in unorthodox locations. The early American university was purposefully isolated- it gave students a space where they were safe to make radical claims and were free from distractions so that they could get work done. If anything has been held over from that early time, it is the isolation that campuses breed. There’s a time and a place for that and TtW isn’t it. We want people to come off of the street, register really fast, and check out what’s happening. Few venues make this serendipity possible, but it is an important feature that we look for in selecting a venue. In the last two years we’ve had lots of people come in, listen for a few minutes and leave. Some stay. The ones that stick around are tremendously important to us.

All of this is to say that Theorizing the Web could actually be even cheaper than it already is, if we weren’t such an anomaly to venues, Internet Service Providers, and employers. TtW comes up against many of the actual and immediate material costs of constructing alternative institutions. There’s nothing quite like TtW but we hope that changes soon. We can’t meet the demand for this sort of project and if there were more organizations like TtW it might be easier for all of us. Until then, feel free to send us your suggestions and recommendations for making TtW16 even better: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/ask

 David is on Twitter

How Databases Will Change the 2016 Presidential Race

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Image Credit

The 2016 presidential race has already started and it’s easy to get caught up in the horserace and forget about all of the technologies and tactics that campaigns employ to get their message out. The 2008 Obama campaign was the first to take full advantage of social media and eight years later these tactics seem to have become the new normal. It is now possible to deliver precisely tailored messages for key demographics and even individuals. American presidential campaigns have never been models of democracy but with the help of private databases and corporate collusion, the 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be a very murky process.

What deserves our immediate attention is what Zeynep Tufekci, in a 2014 First Monday article, calls computational politics. “Internet’s propensity for citizen empowerment is neither unidirectional, nor straightforward.” Warns Tufekci, “The same digital technologies have also given rise to a data–analytic environment that favors the powerful, data–rich incumbents, and the technologically adept, especially in the context of political campaigns.” The use of big data “for conducting outreach, persuasion and mobilization in the service of electing, furthering or opposing a candidate, a policy or legislation” is computational politics.

In the past, campaigns relied on general relationships between demographics and voter behavior and reception to key messaging tactics. Today, instead of focusing in on “white males over the age of 65” a campaign message can be tailored specifically to an individual based on a natural language analysis of Facebook status updates, purchasing history, and other kinds of data. This means that not only are campaigns going to get much more personally persuasive, they are, somewhat paradoxically, going to get much more fractured. The same candidate can present themselves as a job creating capitalist to your slightly left of center dad while touting tough climate change legislation to the college student that has Greenpeace “liked’ on Facebook.

One might be tempted to see this as a more powerful version of what Herman and Chomsky called their “Propaganda Model” in their famous book Manufacturing Consent. Herman and Chomsky argue that instead of being skeptical and adversarial opponents to powerful interests, the media is actually complicit in framing and shaping the news in such a way that it legitimizes the state’s use of violence. “It is much more difficult” they write, “to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.

While this still holds true, social media doesn’t just broadcast information from a few people to a larger audience, it also shapes and mediates our conversations between each other. Tufecki cites studies that concluded Facebook could increase –to a statistically significant degree–voter turnout by showing users a list of their friends that had voted followed by a “go vote!” message. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of a scenario where a similar method is put up for sale as a way to selectively get out the vote for a particular candidate or party.

Even when the candidates don’t have algorithms to hide behind, their teams are adept at controlling the conversation and avoiding important topics. In the debates of the 2012 campaign there was virtually no discussion of drone warfare until the last debate where Romney and Obama agreed that drones were totally awesome. There was also absolutely no discussion of climate change, even though it has been a major debate topic for decades and the problem has only gotten worse. What sorts of topics can we expect to not hear about this campaign season? Will the candidates take strong stands on killer police, NSA spying, or escalating wars in the Middle East? If there isn’t loud and long debates on these subjects we should assume they all agree that these are good things worth keeping around.  Or, at the very least, campaign coordinators have all agreed that the politically viable opinions that secure winning percentages of the population have no bearing on sensible and permanent solutions.

Finally, we should be ready to hear a deafening silence when it comes to who actually gets to do the voting once all the campaigning is over. Who is allowed to do the voting gets smaller and smaller every year, thanks to so-called “voter fraud prevention” laws that take wild and wide swipes at voter rolls; knocking out people who should be able to vote. In October of last year, just before the midterm elections, Al-Jazeera reported on massive voter suppression efforts “that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk.”

Much of voter suppression, according to the Al-Jazeera report, is accomplished through the Crosscheck Program. Crosscheck is a database that purports to help election officials see if people have voted more than once by comparing names of registered voters in different districts and states. The system spits out so many false positives that its continued use is an implicit admission of guilt. Moreover, it seems the program’s “lists are heavily weighted with names such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim — ones common among minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”

Regardless of your feelings about whether or not –either through design or consequence of external factors– presidential campaigns are effective political change agents, it is safe to say that many of the databases that are coming online today are not in service of the greater good. They reify power differentials that hide us from candidates’ true intentions and (even worse) our own opinions about those candidates. By taking conversations that should be had in groups and in public, and personalizing them to the point of individual private conversation, we lose a lot of the advantages that come with outnumbering our elected officials. We can’t compare notes or even ask the same questions. We aren’t only battling misinformation, we have to do the hard work of fighting to know what we do not know about our candidates and the issues.

Good Encryption Doesn’t Make Good Government

Image Credit: Kris Krüg
Image Credit: Kris Krüg

When someone starts talking about privacy online, a discussion of encryption is never too far off. Whether it is a relatively old standby like Tor or a much newer and more ambitious effort like Ethereum (more on this later) privacy equals encryption. With the exception of investigative journalism and activist interventions, geeks, hackers, and privacy advocates seem to have nearly universally adopted a “good fences make good neighbors” approach to privacy. This has come at significant costs. The conflation of encryption with privacy mistakes what should be a temporary defensive tactic, for a long term strategy against corporate and government spying. It is time that we discuss a new approach.

The prevailing logic seems sound: runaway government and corporate surveillance is often accomplished through the abuse of pre-existing data or the interception of daily digital life. We may be tracked via geotragged vagueposts about our flaky friends or Kik messages between activists might be intercepted as it goes from sender to receiver. End-to-end encryption is meant to prevent the latter sort of surveillance and is often compared to a paper security envelope: the network only knows the sender and recipient and the content of the data is obscured. There are lots of protocols and technologies that provide end-to-end encryption, the most prevalent being https which verifies the identity of both parties and keeps the digital envelope closed and secure as it traverses the series of tubes. Services like Gmail, Facebook, Twitter all use https and you can tell by looking at the address bar in your browser. Chrome even turns it a happy, reassuring shade of green.

If we were to take the security envelop to its logical conclusion however, the attitudes towards data security would appear preposterous if not deeply insufficient. If the government were opening our snail mail to the same degree they were vacuuming up our digital communications, private citizens’ first inclination might be to spend the extra money on tamper-evident/proof envelopes, but would we really continue to innovate primarily in better envelopes? Would we go on to make a private postal service even if we knew that the government had given itself lawful authority, if not the capacity, to search private as well as publicly conveyed correspondence? Would we continue to pour resources and effort into making a better envelope when the problem was obviously bad government?

There is a sort of digital dualism at play here. While efforts to develop encryption are rarely questioned, I think similar tactics for different problems would be criticized as both a stop-gap measure and overly defensive at a moment that demands an offensive strategy. That is, we should be building the capacity to weather tyranny so that we may fight against it, but creating a new normal of balkanized communication is wrongheaded.

To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be working on encryption while we fight the good fight against privacy invasion. I just don’t want us to mistake a coping strategy for a solution to a big problem. We tend to confuse advancement in encryption technology with social progress in the fight against government overreach. Even the most politically radical Anon, who most certainly is engaged in offensive strategies in every sense of the word, never seems to wish for the day when all of these good fences become unnecessary.

Ethereum, the latest invention to be touted as “artillery in the running battle between technology and governments” bills itself as nothing less than “web 3.0.” Its creators describe it as a total reorganization of how the Internet is run and how data is stored. Using the spare space on personal hard drives and processors, Ethereum offers encrypted, distributed, public and unalterable transaction records for everything from bank transactions to sexts. That means no one is in control of the system so authorities can’t shut it down, nor can data be disappeared or held in private databases.

Anything that, by design, hinders the accumulation of power is a good thing in my book. I like that the technology forces a kind of anarchic or rhizomatic politics.  I tend to think of horizontal organization as running on interpersonal trust, but hackers don’t seem to see it that way. Even when it comes to advertising its decentralized infrastructure, Ethereum and similarly-designed cryptocurrency organizations choose to cast the lack of central authority as “trustless” rather than trustful. It is disturbing to me that a metric for good design is the lack of trust in one-another. That is the sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

Modern hierarchical bureaucracies, as Max Weber observed early in the twentieth century, make it possible to act without interpersonal trust. I know that a doctor I have never met is qualified because she has credentials and licenses from organizations that have knowable and somewhat static requirements. In a sense, we outsource interpersonal trust to large institutions so that we may trust people that we haven’t taken the time to get to know. We might achieve the same thing through aggregating lots of opinions, so long as we trust the aggregator. Once there was even the slightest suspicion that Yelp was in the business of removing bad reviews for a fee, the ratings of independent individuals became suspect.

Instead of handing over our trust to organizations like professional associations, governments, or corporations, hackers would have us move that trust to algorithms, protocols, and block chains. Of course human organizations can be co-opted and corrupted but so can algorithms. Coding is just as much a human (and thus social) endeavour as organizing a government or creating a business. But even if technologies weren’t vulnerable to human faults, our problems do not come from organizations and code working incorrectly. Most of them are doing exactly what they are supposed to do: corporations have fiduciary responsibilities to seek profits above all other things and just as the invention of the train also brings about the invention of the derailment, so too does the invention of the nation state yield war. We don’t need more things that let us go about our lives not trusting. We need to get rid of or deeply reform the institutions that foster distrust and fear.

If we build a world full of trustless technologies what happens when we feel ready to trust again? Even the anarchists who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco organized their militias without officers, salutes, or rank. They recognized that means and ends were deeply intertwined; you don’t get to a vastly better world by reproducing its undesirable elements. I do not know what a more communitarian technology would necessarily look like, but it I know we have to start by changing our ethic first.

 David is on Twitter.

Would if… Nah it’ll never happen.

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I started writing something about funding community media houses using fees extracted from cable companies, something that local governments will have more political leverage to do with this recent FCC ruling, but as I look back at the dissenting opinions from the Republican commissioners, and the palpable fear of claiming anything close to regulation in the final FCC order, I feel pretty deflated. Don’t get me wrong, its good that net neutrality was preserved, but we should also call it what it is: holding ground. This wasn’t a step forward, it was a lot of work and campaigning just to keep a not terrible status quo.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of what I was about to write:

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Chances are you listen to a couple as well. You might also subscribe to some YouTube channels or follow a live stream account. Maybe you read a small circulation magazine. There’s certainly been a lot of ink spilled about the democratizing effects of consumer devices that afford all of this new media and there’s been an equal amount of rigorous research into what sorts of communities they engender: fan groups, social movements, and radical (left and right) political affinities just to name a few. What we don’t talk about very often are the kinds of organizations that make something like Welcome to NightVale or The Ideas Channel possible in the first place. One consequence of that is a serious lack of political imagination with regards to what we should be demanding from the governments and corporations that hold the keys to the server cabinets. There are lots of ways to take this but, in light of the recent FCC ruling on Net Neutrality lets focus on something that seems eminently possible now that wasn’t before: regional networks owned and operated by the communities they are meant to serve.

As cable companies were carving out their markets it became commonplace for local governments to start negotiating for extra goodies in exchange for a place on the telephone pole. Public access television was often the beneficiary of these deals but in the last few decades those deals have extracted fewer resources for the public and public access programming has to compete with hundreds instead of dozens of channels. Then there’s the Internet. It makes little sense to limit your media to a local TV market when you can quickly and easily post a YouTube video. Middle class people might find it easy enough to make media with the tools available but we could certainly do more to provide lending libraries for this sort of thing. It might also be nice to rent space in a real sound studio.

That all seems pretty reasonable, right? I was gonna talk about revitalizing libraries as a place to not only read but also “write” media. I had this great idea for an extended metaphor about “gaining write access” to government-funded media but then I made the mistake of looking over the dissenting opinions to find some kind of counter-intuitive, even-the-Republicans-could-agree sort of argument but the wind was out of my sails. The conversations at the highest level are so cynical that they appear as afterthoughts: like they were written long before an actual decision was even reached. For example, here’s a line from the press release describing the official order:

the Order DOES NOT require broadband providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund under Section 254.

and yet, here is the dissenting opinion from Commissioner Pai:

One avenue for higher bills is the new taxes and fees that will be applied to broadband. Here’s the background. If you look at your phone bill, you’ll see a “Universal Service Fee,” or something like it. These fees—what most Americans would call taxes—are paid by Americans on their telephone service. They funnel about $9 billion each year through the FCC. Consumers haven’t had to pay these taxes on their broadband bills because broadband has never before been a Title II service.
But now it is. And so the Order explicitly opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes. Indeed, it repeatedly states that it is only deferring a decision on new broadband taxes—not prohibiting them.

Obviously there’s a lot of bad faith arguments happening here. Either the FCC as a whole is trying to deflect everyone’s attention from the possibilities of new taxes, or Commissioner Pai is using a tried-and-true mix of slippery slope scare tactics to make people fear the protection of existing broadband regulation. All of this misses the point that broadband should be paying into the Universal Service Fund. That was the fund that redistributed wealth from people that could afford telephones to people that could not afford telephones or lived in regions where it wasn’t profitable to run telephone lines. It was a tremendous revenue generator, modernized many regions that would have otherwise been cut off entirely, and in the long run actually forced Bell to think really long term about infrastructure. This is a good thing that one side is vilifying and the other is desperately, IN ALL CAPS trying to distance itself from.

So I’m not going to do the thing where I describe some really useful public program with the annual operating budget of a HellFire missile and watch it just sit there looking politically untenable. I’m really happy for all the people that see this as a huge win, and it is definitely a good thing that came out of tons of tireless work, but it only take a minor zooming out in scope and time to see that this is a somewhat minor victory. This is making things not actively suck worse. It is creating the potential for possibly better ways of doing things but we need to demand so much more.

Why Do Many Reasonable People Trust Science?

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source

I have a secret to tell all of you: I kind of don’t care about teaching evolution in science classes. Put another way, I’m less than convinced that most people, having learned the story of species differentiation and adaptation, go on to live fuller and more meaningful lives. In fact, the way we teach evolution ­­––with a ferocious attention toward competition and struggle in adverse circumstances–– might be detrimental to the encouragement of healthy and happy communities. I also see little reason to trust the medical community writ-large, and I cringe when a well-meaning environmentalist describes their reaction to impending climate change by listing all of the light bulbs and battery-powered cars they bought. I suppose –given my cynical outlook– that the cover story of this month’s National Geographic is speaking to me when it asks “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Good question: what the hell is wrong with me?

Joel Achenbach, the author of the cover story, assumes that most people doubt science because they either do not understand it, or find a much more compelling explanation for what they see in the world.  Moon landing truthers, anti-vaccination advocates, adherents to intelligent design, and global warming denialists all share misinformation that somehow feels more satisfying because they corroborate foregone conclusions about how the world works. Stanely Kubrick faked the moon landing, for example, because it is easier to believe the government covered something up than accomplished something great. While science literacy goes some way in explaining why less people vaccinate their children and no one cares about the impending heat death of our planet, that is not the only thing going on here.

Science isn’t just a set of facts or a method for arriving at those facts, it’s a collection of institutions, and those institutions haven’t given many people a reason to trust them, let alone go to bat for them when they are embattled. The spoils of science have been severely misallocated and there is little reason to trust, let alone pay attention to, science experts. Austerity has ravaged health services, making relationships with health professionals few and far between. Industrial disasters seem to be increasing in frequency while major scientific breakthroughs and engineering achievements are reserved for those that can afford them. College is less affordable than ever before. The question should not be why do many reasonable people doubt science” it’s the opposite: “why do many reasonable people still believe in science at all?”

Medical science has certainly made lots of breakthroughs, but only a miniscule portion of the global population has benefited from those advances. Climate change might be a looming threat that demands immediate action, but it is hard to care about 50 years from now when you don’t know where tomorrow’s dinner is coming from.

Achenbach chalks up this lack of trust, as an internal battle between what seems intuitively real and what science reveals to be fact. He cites a behavioral study, which “indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely.” The example he gives is so telling of his class position that it is worth a long block quote:

Most of us [make sense of the world] by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer—and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous waste dump, and we assume pollution caused the cancers. Yet just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not still random.

We have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning. Science warns us, however, that we can deceive ourselves. To be confident there’s a causal connection between the dump and the cancers, you need statistical analysis showing that there are many more cancers than would be expected randomly, evidence that the victims were exposed to chemicals from the dump, and evidence that the chemicals really can cause cancer.

Yes, it would be nice to know if the chemicals used in commercial and industrial processes caused cancer. Unfortunately, many of the hazards that we face every day go undetected, especially in under-served communities. If your fire department or school is underfunded, there’s a good chance the EPA is not monitoring your air very well either.  Also, as Candice Lanius wrote last month, demands for statistical proof are not evenly levied across all populations. White and affluent people get their anecdotes taken seriously while the poor and disenfranchised must come up with statistics to corroborate their personal experiences.

Even if we lived in a world where everyone had to prove their position with statistical data, and there were monitoring stations evenly distributed across the country, we would still face the issue of what political sociologists of science call “organized ignorance.” That is, powerful actors like governments and companies make a point to not understand things so that they are difficult or impossible to regulate. Whether it is counting the number of sexual assaults, or the amount of chemicals used in fracking, intentionally not collecting data is a powerful tool. So while I agree with Achenbach that people should base important decisions on sound data, we should also acknowledge that access to data is deeply uneven.

Assuming that access to the Internet is the same as having access to data is like wondering why all of the wires in your house aren’t generating any electricity. If you wanted to know why everyone in your community is getting sick, and all of your searching revealed that the no one even bothered to collect the data, why would you go back to the same sources to know about the origin of the human race? Why would you care what these people have to say about your body if there is a big gray NO DATA polygon over your neighborhood in an air quality map? In many cases, what Achenbach characterizes as a competition between science and misinformation is actually the latter filling a vacuum.

Maybe Achenbach and everyone else that writes about science denialism knows this, and this is why they act so surprised when “well educated and affluent” people stop vaccinating their children. Why would the affluent –the people that science serves best– start questioning the validity of science? After all, it is the poor that were used as guinea pigs for medical research. It was poor southern black people that were mislead into believing they were being treated for a disease, not rich Bay Area yuppies. [1]

I would venture to make an educated, maybe even socially scientific, guess that while the rich can afford to construct purity narratives that put vaccines in the same category as pesticides and preservatives, the rest of us still react positively to the ethics of care that vaccines engender: the common good over profit. It is the kind of care that encouraged Jonas Salk to sell the polio vaccine at cost. Vaccines are one of the few medical technologies that don’t follow the pill-every-day-for-the-rest-of-your-life business model. You aren’t renting your health with a daily supplement; you are doing something to yourself that keeps others safe as well. You take on the pain and burden of getting the shot so that those too weak to take it aren’t put in harm’s way. If you stop thinking of the affluent as the only people capable of making an informed and collective decision, and start thinking of them as selfish actors that can’t imagine their bodies working the same way a poor person’s body works, the education paradox disappears.

The selfishness of the rich is also the unspoken necessary condition for climate change denial. The interests of corporations who have a direct financial interest in the fossil fuel status quo are certainly a big part of the equation, but let’s not forget that those people already experiencing the effects of climate change are those people that have been pushed to the least hospitable parts of the world. Indigenous populations have been at the forefront of climate change activism, much more so than the reticent scientists that are concerned about being marked as political actors. There was little fear of politicization when American scientists were vulnerable to nuclear annihilation but the far-off danger of climate change doesn’t seem to motivate middle-aged scientists. Why, again, should these institutions and the people that work in them, be treated as stewards of truth and trust? Why is it everyone else that should be chastised?

Finally, what did I mean by my first example when I said evolution doesn’t help foster community? What does evolutionary theory have to do with preparing people to be a part of a fulfilling community? Knowing about the slow but steady changes that turned ape-like common ancestors into apes and humans shouldn’t have anything to do with how I get along with my neighbor.

If you ever watch a show like Doomsday Preppers (On the National Geographic Channel!) you might know where I am going with this. The show tracks families and individuals who are convinced that “life as we know it” will end within their lifetime. They are compelled to act in preparation for what they believe to be the natural state of humanity. The story of how people will react without creature comforts or law enforcement is remarkably similar regardless of whether they are prepping for an Earthquake or a financial collapse: Hobbesian war of all against all. It’s no surprise then, that a typical prepper household has lots of canned food and guns.

How do we get such a uniform story from a wide range of people? Part of the answer is obviously the producers who want to craft a particular story, but there is also a popular notion that, if left to our own devices, humans without government and the threat of violence will compete with each other to the death. There are many different contributors to this myth, but science education is a big one. Many school children would be surprised, for example, to hear that Darwin never wrote the phrase “survival of the fittest.” That phrase actually came form Herbert Spencer, a foundational utilitarian philosopher usually cited by libertarians.

I bring this up because my argument is much more than a “what has science done for me lately” complaint. There are values and perspectives embedded in the work. As Donna Haraway famously said, scientists are not the mere “modest witnesses” they claim to be. Science is a human enterprise that intersects with race, class, and gender power relationships. The work of Darwin and his contemporaries never focused so heavily on competition and dog-eat-dog environments. The naturalist and anarchist scholar Pytor Kropotkin even wrote a book, and had several exchanges with Darwin, about species’ tendency to provide mutual aid in times of scarcity. The downplaying of cooperation and the focus on competition, despite many examples of both, shows the final and most basic reason for doubting science: it doesn’t feel like a tool of liberation anymore.

I would care much more about the teaching of evolution in classrooms if it taught that cooperation and reciprocity, the sorts of things that make strong communities and fulfill lives, were foundational to life itself. I would care more about stopping anti-vaccination movements if I thought anyone other than the most selfish among us were able to believe them. I would do more about climate change if scientists worked to prevent it as much as they work to bring products to market. I would convince people that we actually landed on the moon if I thought there was any political will left in my country to do something that amazing within my lifetime. I doubt science because it doubts us.

David is on Twitter: da_banks

 

[1] Correction: this essay originally stated that people were injected with the syphilis virus. The Tuskegee experiments, in fact, mislead participants into believing they were being treated when they were not.

The Conspicuous Absence of Solidarity

The slain, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha
The slain, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha

My small city of Troy, New York is drawing up a new comprehensive plan. Lots of towns and even universities do this from time to time as a way of coordinating and re-aligning the institutions and organizations into some kind of general direction. These sorts of moments encourage individuals to be reflective as well as divisive. There’s a lot at stake (or at least it feels that way) and people feel the need to protect what they see as threatened by change, or go on the offensive and try to root out what they see as a long-standing problem. More than anything, these sorts of comprehensive planning efforts force us to confront our everyday lives as a set of conditions and decisions that exist outside of our control but are ultimately steerable if enough political will can be leveraged, if enough organizing around a particular issue gets done. Last night, a wide variety of people came together to discuss what they thought was working and what was needed attention in our city.

The person that led this meeting was cordial, professional, and did as good a job as can be expected in her position. There was, however, a moment where a huge oversight felt like it was being brushed under the rug. A friend of mine (who just started this great project) brought up a procedural problem that, from my own experience in urban planning, is pretty common: the team that was putting together the comprehensive plan had lots of plans to meet with established organizations and institutions but had no plan to reach out to unorganized people. That is, those people who are systematically and continually denied access to the time, resources, or cultural capital necessary to form or join organizations. People who are too busy making ends meet, or are overlooked by the majority of their fellow citizens are (unfortunately) in the optimal position to tell planners what the city has over-looked and even what needs to be done to fix what are certainly systemic problems. The meeting facilitator had nothing to say, except that people should encourage friends to attend the scheduled meetings.

This interaction left a really bad taste in my mouth and I don’t think I was alone in that sentiment. This morning, when I read that three young Muslim students were killed (they were so much more than that label, but we also can’t forget that it was that label that led to their killing) by a 40-something white atheist, I couldn’t help but see a distant but deep connection between the deafening silence in the national media, and that meeting facilitator. This silence, the illegibility of the pain and suffering of the disenfranchised, on the part of decision makers and media gatekeepers, creates and sustains injustice.

In comparison to shootings that leave white bodies on the ground, there was a palpable silence in social and print media about the tragic events in Chapel Hill. As I write this there is no #Iam hashtag, no national conversation. It is a blackout with a familiar form; a far too predictable collection of mumbles and qualifications that turn a definitive and calculated hate crime into senseless violence.

Last month Sarah Wanenchak explained,

the problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not, and to use that slogan – and to go no further with the conversation – obscures at least some of the extremely problematic and troubling things that accompany any ideals of free speech in a world in which some people are simply not free, and in which the speech of others produces and reproduces the cultures that keep them that way.

Today we are experiencing the inverse of this argument. Twitter’s trending hashtags suggests that Americans can bring themselves to talk about the #ChapelHIllShooting but they can’t utter their names. They can’t be these people. While it is clear that we don’t need another parade of hoodie-clad white people claiming #IamTrayvon it is striking that there isn’t even an attempt to do so. White America can immediately identify with a racist French satire magazine they’ve never heard of, but can’t possibly stand in solidarity with fellow Americans that also happen to be Muslim.

The straight-forward narrative that makes #JeSuisCharlie so legible to so many people is inaccessible to the marginal. The causes of violence perpetrated by white men is exploded by white supremacist patriarchy’s insistence that each instance of white terror is actually the confluence of psychological illness, the availability of guns, video games, or anything else that doesn’t threaten the racial order or patriarchy head-on.

When uprisings occur, when people that are systematically denied the preconditions of solidarity ––the ability to continually meet each-other unharassed, a common language, the material support to mobilize against one’s oppressors–– find them through perseverance and creativity, the invisible background radiation that maintains their oppression suddenly becomes opaque and solid. The sustained and largely invisible strategies of hegemony are temporarily traded in for the tactics of swift and immediate police violence. To those not paying attention it might seem to come out of nowhere, but for everyone else it is utterly predictable.

Hashtags, civil society organizations, third places, and all the other intangibles that make up a “community” are privileges for the disenfranchised. We typically think of the local bar or a knitting circle as places of repose and entertainment but they are actually deeply important organizational forces that connect individuals to mechanisms of power. They are the places where shared challenges are identified, and proposed solutions are crafted. They also provide space for mental health and stability. Even the most dedicated and vigilant activist needs a home to come back to, a place where they don’t need to defend their beliefs or even their own identity.

How is it anything more than laughable that an otherwise reasonable person could believe that this shooting had more to do with a parking space than skin color and religion? How could it be that there is not only silence but active efforts to complicate and explain away something as utterly predictable as white man plays God? Any single instance of white supremacy, whether it is this shooting or the maintenance of de facto segregation in my city, is over-determined. There are dozens of “just so” arguments that stand ready to supplant a direct identification of racial violence at work. White supremacy itself is a coward who hides behind historic contingencies.

Confronting hegemonic violence requires organizing and broad-based solidarity. That seems beyond debate, but what that looks like and how it behaves is still unclear. We are going to have more of the awkward, infuriating, and contentious problems like the ones Jenny Davis experienced on her own campus last week. Attention needs to be paid to who is speaking, what their standpoint is, and whether or not the same old people are looking for attention or if they are willing to step back and let others take the stage. How do movements negotiate uneasy alliances like the ones forged last December between liberal anti-consumerist activists and the more radical #BlackLivesMatter insurgents. How do social media actors like livestreamers scale up and navigate attention topographies without inadvertently stealing the spotlight? For now it is enough to keep these questions and concerns in the back of our minds but the answers need to come sooner rather than later.


David is on Twitter

The Tyranny of Small Town Internet

The Albany New York Town Hall
The Albany New York Town Hall

 

It is certainly good news that the Obama Administration has come out strong for net neutrality. The President recently made an announcement that his office would help promote local broadband competition as part of a broader effort to improve the country’s data infrastructure. More specifically, the federal government plans to help municipalities develop their own data networks, fight state laws that prevent municipal governments from offering public broadband options, and help small businesses compete in local markets with companies like Verizon and Time Warner. The chairman of the FCC followed suit by announcing (in WIRED Magazine…?) yesterday that he would be circulating a proposal to apply Title II to telecom companies and mobile phone carriers, effectively making it illegal to throttle connections based on what sorts of services you are connecting to. This is all good news but I’m also hesitant to trust local authorities with my internet connection. Aren’t these the same governments that defend murderous police forces and cooperated with the federal government to shut down political dissent? Why should these organizations control the network? While I am definitely not a fan of huge telecom corporations, I don’t trust my local government either. 

I don’t mean to rain on the parade of those (many of which I know personally) who have fought long and hard for this victory. The people at the forefront of the net neutrality debate generally see these recent events as a good thing and, for the most part, I tend to agree. Having the option to choose from multiple Internet Service Providers, including public ones that do not have to turn a profit, will most certainly bring down the cost and maybe even increase the quality of service. And, if there were something seriously wrong with the quality of my connection, I would much rather try to fight city hall than spend a day lost in a Time Warner phone tree.

When local governments decide to invest in infrastructure they not only increase the standard of living for their residents, they also tend to save lots of money. I grew up in Broward County Florida where they just recently completed their own fiber optic backbone which cost $2.5 million to build but will save them nearly $800,000 a year in leasing fees they used to pay to a private company. This is actually a fairly old strategy. The city I live in now (Troy, New York) decided decades ago that it would build a reservoir for municipal water. It works so well that the city actually turns a profit by selling their water to nearby municipalities who never bothered to think that far ahead. Another nearby town has a small hydroelectric dam that supplies the town with cheap and clean electricity. And of course there’s the United States Postal Service, something that would be making a healthy profit if Congress didn’t sabotage them. This stuff isn’t hard and it isn’t new, but there are some unique aspects of broadband that deserve attention, especially now.

Entrusting the Internet to municipalities seems particularly nerve-wracking given their outright hostile response to protests against their police departments. If public officials are willing to make excuses for murder, it stands to reason they might be willing to shut down the network that helps organize the public’s response. In 2011 BART officials shut down cell phone service in their stations during a protest and, in so doing, inadvertently gave us a preview of what municipally owned internet could look like. Even Troy has had its own share of systematic police terror. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that city officials in my town or yours, would take it upon themselves to shut down the network in the face of protest.

The Internet is equal parts public utility infrastructure, postal service, and free press. It can’t be governed like water, but it certainly shouldn’t be privately sold like cable television either. The old offices and bureaucracies of the 20th century are ill equipped to democratically manage something like the Internet. For-profit companies will inevitably look to give you the least amount of service for the most money, and have no interest in the sort of redistributive justice that public services should provide. That is a straightforward inevitability that does not change with the size of the company. Governments should be the institutions that manage our public goods but, at least right now, they have not proven themselves to be worthy of our trust. What is desperately needed now, and it must be sooner rather than later, is creative approaches to governance. There has to be a firewall (pun intended) between governing bodies and the stewards of the network.

There already exist a myriad of public-private partnerships and community-led broadband initiatives but as far as I know, none of them have really thought deeply about making network administration a democratic process. We need citizen oversight boards and very clear laws about who can and cannot give orders to the people that run and maintain the network. There could even be citizen-run broadband networks where decisions about everything from pay rates to capped speeds are debated and decided upon through an online decision-making system. There has got to be as many ways of governing networks, as there are networks to be governed.

Whatever institution ends up holding the keys to the DNS server cabinets, lets at least try to make them organizations that foster exciting and interesting debate and media creation. At present, too many cities and towns don’t have public access media, Public access television is usually laughed at as hokey or poor quality but the future of public media doesn’t have to be that way. Every city in the United States could have well-appointed production studios open to the public and probably for less money than it cost to establish public libraries a hundred years ago.

I want better broadband, and I want the network to be democratically owned and operated.  I’m happy about the direction we’re going in, but we need to be careful we don’t run from one problem to another. We need to think about the state of our democratic institutions and how much we can really trust them to be the stewards of our digital commons. It is a false dichotomy to assume that we have to either stick with our present oligarchy or hand over that power to municipal governments and smaller for-profit enterprises. There has got to be more participatory and democratic organizational forms out there and now is exactly the time to start building them.

David is on Twitter: @da_banks

 

We Are More Than Our Brains

an outline of a human head and a brain inside of it made from neon lights.
image source.

NPR launched a new show this month called Invisibilia that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” The show’s hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller are great personalities and the show is beautifully edited in a way that doesn’t reach the Reggie Watts-esque soundscape of Radiolab nor does it stick closely to the dry public radio persona that has been lampooned countless times. I was, however, really disappointed when I learned that the huge topics under investigation in this show would only be understood through “psychological and brain science.” There are a lot of different disciplines that can be brought to bear on huge topics like “ideas” so why are we getting another show that confuses humans for brains?

There’s no doubt in my mind that psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology have a lot to teach us about ourselves, but these disciplines are over-represented in our popular science media landscape. Wasn’t Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, and the typical selection of science news coverage enough? Not to mention the growing number of TV shows that filter psychology through the genre filters of crime dramas and medical procedurals? Sociologists, anthropologists, and… hell even political scientists have equally important and empirically valid interpretations of the world but I can’t seem to find any of them represented in my podcast queue.

The blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of Spegel, Miller, or any other reporter. The “softer” social sciences, admittedly, do a crappy job of conveying our discoveries in a publicly accessible way. I really enjoy the topics in my subfield of Science and Technology Studies but I’ll admit that the New Books in STS podcast is pretty dry. In general, our books appeal to each-other and rarely help people outside of the discipline. There’s lots of unnecessary jargon and intentional obfuscation in social theory literature, but that’s starting to change. There are tons of really smart people who can give unique and cogent insights that go beyond how our brains are “wired” and what we’re “instinctually” meant to say, do, and (yes, even) think.

This might all sound self-serving, coming from an editor of a website that runs social science commentary and analysis for a public audience, but I also wouldn’t have chosen the field that I’m in if I didn’t think it had something immediately relevant to everyone else in the world. I wouldn’t choose a discipline that ranks 145 out of 232 for “highest paying advanced degree” if I didn’t think the work was important. (For example, sociology might help explain why 232 out of 232 is  a master’s degree in “early childhood education.”)

Invisibilia, like most NPR shows, has a theme for each episode. Its second episode was on fear but opted to focus on snakes and rejection instead of the sorts of fears that seem much more relevant to the the current political climate. To spend an hour talking about fear, but not once consider how it might intersect with race and institutional authority, comes off as agonizingly apolitical.

I was hopeful at the beginning of the episode when they spoke to Roger Hart, an environmental psychologist who discovered that even in places where crime rates and the built environment did not change, children were given far less areas to play due to increased perceptions of danger. They started talking about media’s ability to amplify and distort the presence or likelihood of certain dangers ––over-covering dramatic tragedies like school shootings at the expense of stories about historically low crime rates–– but this was only the ten minute lead-up to nearly 50 minutes of stories featuring interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, the guy that invented “rejection therapy”, and even a herpetologists that studies snakes.

Certainly there’s no guarantee that if you bring sociologists and anthropologists onto your program you’ll get a rich discussion of intersectional politics. They will however, challenge the widely held notion that brain chemistry holds all of the secrets to the human condition. Society is more than the sum of its human actors. There are phenomena that are only observable across time or in large groups. There are seemingly universal properties of human existence that are actually just a few decades old and aren’t true across all people all of the time. There are even hidden assumptions within the often-cited hard sciences that are worth exploring and questioning.

And perhaps it is this attention to hidden assumptions that make it more difficult to invite sociologists and anthropologists onto shows like Invisibilia. As clickbait headlines seem to indicate, audiences think they love having their “minds blown” by things that they “would never see coming” but the truth of the matter is that we like to have our hopes and assumptions validated by external authority. A lot of social science is about confirming hard truths about the pervasiveness of white supremacy or the small degree to which one’s life is really of their own making. If we ever do end up on the phone or in the studio, what we have to say will complicate the narrative. That’s sort of our job.

Ever since humans descended from the trees and formed bands, something other than evolution and brain science has been at play. The stuff that makes cultures, societies, friendships, one night stands, wars, music, and tweets are not simple replacements for the lions that used to be our predators or the fellow proto-humans that looks healthy enough to reproduce with. There is something so much more than that going on. We ignore this at our peril because the moment we think the world as it is, is the world that always has been, is the moment we lose our imagination to create a vastly better world than the one we have now.

David is on Twitter: @da_banks

#OpCharlieHebdo is a Terrible Idea

Pe

On January 9th, people donning the symbols of Anonymous promised a “massive reaction” to the shooting deaths of over a dozen people in Paris. Posted to YouTube and Pastebin under the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo, Anonymous proclaimed, “It’s obvious that some people don’t want, in a free world, this sacrosanct right to express in any way one’s opinions. Anonymous has always fought for the freedom of speech, and will never let this right besmirched [sic] by obscurantism and mysticism.” Obviously what happened in Paris was a despicable act and I have little sympathy for the perpetrators but their actions weren’t random. What happened in Paris is the beginning of a fight between fanatics who hold polar opposite views on free speech and the battle lines being drawn are dangerously close to the ones that outline the War on Terror. 

Fanaticism isn’t inherently a bad thing. Slavery abolitionists, according to the late Joel Olson, readily self-identified as extremists and fanatics. He defines fanaticism as,

the unconventional, extraordinary political mobilization of the refusal to compromise.  Fanaticism is an approach to politics, driven by an ardent devotion to a cause, that seeks to draw clear lines between friends and enemies in order to mobilize friends and moderates in the service of that cause.  It is willing to use direct action or other unconventional means to achieve this.

The world would probably be a better place if we had more people willing to claim fanatical beliefs over things like restorative justice, a universal basic income, or ending rape culture. Unfortunately, the far right has used fanaticism to a much greater effect, having achieving tangible goals like the closure of abortion clinics and austerity.

I don’t know what’s in individual Anon’s hearts but I think it is safe to say, without putting a large group of people into too small of a box, that people who are attracted to Anonymous are deeply committed to a radically strong interpretation of the right to free speech. It is probably the only thing that both favorable and critical accounts of the hacker collective agree on: that above all things Anons respect the ability of individuals to say whatever they want and hold nothing sacred.

There are however, lots of people who hold particular images and ideas to be very sacred. Most of those people probably saw that Charlie Hebdo published and chalked it up to the rest of the background racism and Islamaphobia that has become their everyday life. A small minority of that minority did not and thought those people should be severely punished. Nothing excuses mass murder but we should also recognize that so-called terrorists and the free speech fanaticism of Anonymous are the opposite poles of the same spectrum. Just because our secular sensibilities might make one end of the spectrum feel familiar, doesn’t mean one is more benevolent than the other.

I am not optimistic about the decision to use Anonymous tactics in this scenario. The people that are gearing up for #OpCharlieHebdo might not be affiliated in any way with past campaigns against Scientology or Steubenville rapists, so looking to the past for indications of what they will do in the future is, admittedly, a shaky proposition. On the other hand,  there is enough commonality and overlap between operations  that something approaching a modus operandi becomes visible. I don’t think anyone takes up the Guy Fawkes mask so they can have a reasonable conversation with someone they disagree with. Internal conversations within the group are probably made in good faith but an Anonymous operation is an adversarial process with a defined outsider.

Unlike previous battles that defined western governments as enemies to free speech, this operation seems to jibe nicely with powerful state actors. It certainly seems like an inviting environment for people that equate the Islamic faith with violence. It is a fanaticism that is willingly blind to the ways Charlie Hebdo has contributed to real, present, and deadly Islamophobia. By design Anonymous’ free speech fanaticism has to reject arguments like the one Sarah Wanenchak made on Sunday: “The problem with Je suis Charlie is that not everyone can be Charlie.

Now you might say, “yeah but Jihadists murder people and Anons just bring down websites.” Certainly Jihad is more militant than Anonymous, but that distinction is fuzzy for as long as Anonymous’ attention and U.S. foreign policy are pointed in the same direction. Anonymous tactics have been used against western intelligence agencies with great effect in the past, so one is left to imagine what kind of hurt they could put on less powerful organizations. If hackers started fighting under the cover of, or to make way for, C.I.A drones, how much moral high ground can they take?

Regardless of how you answer that question one thing is unmistakably clear: radical free speech activists who don’t seem to understand or care about the ways structural oppression intersects with the right to publish or say whatever you want, think they have found their ideological opposite in so-called islamic extremists. Anonymous is an international movement but that doesn’t mean you automatically get a wide variety of opinions on the subject of free speech. In this particular battle, where the friends and enemies of Anonymous line up a little too neatly with western states’ foreign policy, there’s just too much potential for collateral damage.

David is on Twitter.

 

Neither Here Nor There

image credit
image credit

Just seven days in and 2015 has already given us two tough events to deal with: the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado Springs, Colorado and a shooting in Paris that seems to have targeted the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Out of what seems to be sheer luck, no one was killed in Colorado but 12 people are reported dead from the shooting in Paris. Both events are tragic, scary, and infuriating, but only one seems to be getting front page mainstream news attention.

The contours and character of the media coverage are depressingly predictable. The 40-something white man that set off the bomb is not immediately connected to any kind of organization bigger than himself. The shooter is a terrorist. The explosion was “small.”

Then there are the things that are a few scrolls down, if they’re there at all. Like the vigil in Iran for the slain writers, or the fact that the police officer that was shot to death was muslim. (Thanks to Ayesha Siddiqi for culling those two facts from twitter and retweeting them.)

There’s so much to be said, and perhaps now is more a time of mourning and anger,  but let’s also keep focus on how these stories are constructed and how they are placed within larger stories about “the clash of civilizations” and “racial tensions.” Just because the aspiring killer failed in the construction of his bomb does not make his actions any less hate-filled, dangerous, or worthy of our concern. And, as Laci Green tweeted, “though nobody was physically hurt, bombs are threatening & inflict psychological destruction/fear on communities.

Most importantly, we have to insist that people recognize the criss-crossing lines of power and force that connect these two events. They happened on different continents, to people that have probably never met one-another, but they are still the latest instantiations of interconnected oppression and structural violence that manifests itself in disturbing and strange ways.

David is on Twitter.