Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data

I just returned from a whirlwind eduventure at the American University of Cairo (AUC). My trip included a detour through Ancient Egypt and a 36-hour decompression-stop in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but our main purpose was to participate in a week-long professional development conference for Palestinian Educators:

Challenges and Practices of Pedagogy and Instructional Technology: Professional Development Exchange for Palestinian Educators

The AUC conference was a continuation of the project that brought me to Palestine this past summer, and was creatively imagined and improvised by my mentor/advisor/boss, Frank Moretti.

I am still processing and synthesizing my experiences, and I plan for this to be the first in a series of posts detailing what I learned on this trip. For now, I will just capture the raw materials and highlights.

For starters, the conference was covered by both the AUC News and CCNMTL’s blog.

AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching hosted an incredible conference – the talks were provocative and well balanced, and the food was fabulous! They even captured the entire event and posted the video and slides here. Our hosts were hospitable and generous beyond words, and we are forever grateful to Aziza Ellozy and her staff for making us feel at home.

Our plenary keynote, featuring my colleague, Mark Phillipson, and my doctoral cohorts, Travis Mushett, Madiha Tahir, and Charles Berret is viewable here:

#celebrity #violence #resistance: Media Analysis and Social Pedagogies

Mark and I also presented two workshops:

In reply to Frank’s intro, the Palestinian educators we were working with sent him a warm get-well video.

Of course, there is more. There is always more. But, for now, I rather sift through these pictures (Mine and Madiha’s, Mark’s, CLT’s) than write.


Promissory Notes

My friend Dr. Rasmus Nielson sends me the best leads. Or, the worst ones, considering they are irresistible calls to action.¬† He sent me this one days before it was due, and I scrambled to pull-off this abstract over the weekend. Below is the call for papers, and my response. Now all I need to do is deliver on the promissory note I just wrote sometime in the next 3 months. Thanks Rasmus. ūüėČ



CFP: Online Disorders. Recomposing Mental Health on and with the Internet

You are Not Alone: Re-envisioning Radical Mental Health in a Networked Society

In the first decade of the 21st century radical mental health activists reinvented the psychiatric survivor movement through recompositions that deeply resonated with the emerging affordances of new media and communications technologies. This freshly reconstituted field of resistance to biopsychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry emerged at the intersection of networked identity, narrative advocacy, and authentic virtual communities. Organizations such as The Icarus Project and The Freedom Center developed hybrid models of peer-support, direct action, and alternative therapies that were suggested and enabled by these emerging communicative possibilities. These groups mobilized around Web 2.0 platforms and social networks that supported discovery, advocacy, transparency, engagement, and community building.

Self-identified as part of the ‚Äúmad pride‚ÄĚ movement, these groups advanced a subtler critique of mainstream perspectives on mental illness than earlier generations of anti-psychiatry activists. This critique had less to do with any particular dogmatic position around hospitalization, medication, or labels, and was rooted in challenges to authority and knowledge production. The disability rights movement‚Äôs radical epistemology, captured in their mantra ‚ÄúNothing about us without us‚ÄĚ, succinctly represents this transformative shift. Instead of formulating their resistance around human rights discourses while fighting forced drugging and electroshock therapy, the mad pride movement embraced a liberatory politics that attempted to reinvent the language and categories used to describe the mentally ill. The movement aspired to develop languages of compassion, celebrated their ‚Äúdangerous gifts‚ÄĚ through creative expression, and fostered safe spaces for people to share their experiences and subjective narratives. And, unlike earlier generations of activists who were staunchly anti-psychotropic medication, this movement stood for pro-choice and informed consent ‚Äď though information was becoming more difficult evaluate as pharmaceutical advertising and marketing grew increasingly more sophisticated and aggressive.

To what extent has the mad pride movement been shaped by a new generation of media and communications technologies? How has this movement leveraged these technologies as a means to redefine personal identity and avoid stigmatization? How have they used these technologies to resist and subvert corporate messaging and the plodding advance of biopower? The Internet, and especially free and open source software, played an instrumental role in the formation and assembly of these groups. The cultural practices embodied in these tools, alongside the movement’s roots in anarchism, punk, DIY, permaculture, and queer pride helped inform the organizational models, governance structures, as well as giving rise to new forms of collective action.

Mindful Occupation: Part II

In a previous post, I described my initial involvement with #occupymentalhealth and birth of our forthcoming zine Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning Out.

I alluded to the heated debates that emerged around our work on this¬† zine and my direct participation in the local NYC ‘Support’ working group. It was through these deliberative processes and exchanges that I rediscovered the promise Occupy’s discursive ‘public space’.

As a researcher of the radical mental health movement, I recognized a unique opportunity in Liberty Park to explore the rhetoric around mental health, in context. I was hopeful that the activists involved in supporting the health and safety of the #OWS community would be critical of mainstream corporate medical models, and would be very receptive to alternative perspectives and language. The discussions that ensued were provocative and transformative, and  the experiences have helped me crystallize future directions in my research.

As the occupiers settled into Liberty Park the task of self-governance grew in scale, with complexity that rivaled running a small town. Dozens of working groups sprung up to meet the challenge of non-hierarchical, self-governance — many committed to modeling the kind of society they dreamt of living in, rather than replicating existing broken forms. The working groups took responsibility for the protester’s basic human needs – food, shelter, sanitation, safety, spirituality – as well as organizing, maintaining, and sustaining the occupation, over the short/medium/long term.

A number of working groups took up the challenge of maintaining the heath and well-being of the protesters, and in New York City these groups¬† organized themselves into the Safety Cluster. The Safety Cluster included people committed to mediation, non-violent communication, security and deescalation, as well as people committed to anti-oppression and reducing sexual harassment (the Safer Spaces working group). Additionally, there was a working group calling itself ‘Support’ that had been operating as a subgroup of the Medic working group. The Support group was comprised primarily of mental health professionals – social workers, chaplains, psychiatrists, and a few non-traditional emotional support practitioners. Together, the safety cluster developed protocols for handling interpersonal conflicts in the park, and organized nightly “community watch” shifts, where members of the community organized to support protesters, and identify and defuse conflict.

While some of my fellow collaborators on the Mindful Occupation zine felt more comfortable working with the Safer Spaces working group, I realized that the best education  happens outside of our comfort zones. Tension and conflict are inherent properties of activism, as activists attempt to question and dislodge accepted norms.

Initially, I thought that¬†this particular group of mental health professionals would be very receptive to questioning psychiatry’s mainstream medical models. These individuals were volunteering¬† their time and energy at #OWS.¬† As it turned out, although I found many sympathizers and allies among the Support group, I was stunned by the systemic efforts to silence and marginalize voices from outside the mainstream. While many of the Support volunteers were fully engaged in critiquing social and economic injustice in the world at large, few seemed prepared to apply a self-reflective critique of their entrenched beliefs and professional norms.

Through countless interminable meetings and mailings, I witnessed efforts to exclude the voices of those without formal expertise and training. Voices outside of the mainstream had difficulty getting their issues on the meeting agenda and were actively excluded from some events and conversations. I remained committed to working with the Support group, although I did not always feel welcome.

Within the Support group, proposals were raised for the “community watch” volunteers to wear identifying badges which included their profession (e.g. social worker, chaplain, psychiatrist) and license number, and for an active recruitment of more psychiatrists to patrol Liberty park. Some of the medics insisted on “clearing” all of their patients medically, before turning them over to social and emotional support. Sounds reasonable until you begin to question what’s medical, and more importantly, what’s not? A head trauma might be medical, but what about a chemical imbalance? If all conditions are ‘medical’, then all authority around health and well being has been effectively ceded to a narrow range of medical specialists.

In subtler ways, i believe that some of the work in this group contributed to an atmosphere of fear and control in the park. Support’s role-plays often focused on the most violent scenarios, invoking the stereotype of the knife-wielding psychotic, and priming those on community watch to bring this anxiety with them throughout their encounters in the park. While the violence and sexual harassment in the park were unfortunately very real, some of the efforts to prevent these behaviors may have exacerbated them.

I witnessed that the providers of mental health services, with rare exceptions, found it incredibly difficult to listen to the recipients of their services. To ask and solicit opinions and stories, and incorporate their experience and judgment into the congress of their decision making.

I developed fresh insights into radical mental health through these encounters, that opened my eyes to much of what I had grown to take for granted. I learned that radical mental health has less to do with any particular dogmatic position — around hospitalization, medication, coercion, or diagnoses — and everything to do with authority and knowledge production. I learned that it is hard to find a proposition more radical than the disability rights mantra – Nothing about us without us!


Crossing the line

This week I am heading to the West Bank for work (!?!): Enhancing Technology Education in Palestinian Universities (etep).

I will be spending a week at Palestinian Universities participating in capacity building workshops around educational technology. The University I am visiting is preparing to set up a group like CCNMTL and we are going to consult and share our experiences around these efforts.

I am anxious and excited about the trip. I have visited Israel numerous times in my life, but have never crossed the green line. My knowledge of the situation on the ground has been hyper-mediated, and witnessing the it in person will likely be transformative. I am doubtful that my first-person accounts will lend much more credibility or persuasiveness to future debates, but I anticipate that my own understanding and assurance will grow.

There are times and places for protests and flytillas, but I am hopeful that collaborating around shared objectives, working together on projects, and introducing radical pedagogical interventions will have a significant impact on promoting peace over the long-term.

Pick a corpus, any corpus

A few weeks ago I participated in a brainstorming session exploring the kinds of academic research projects the WikiLeaks archives might generate. Beyond the substantive specifics of the leaked cables, the media coverage of Cablegate, and their  impact on geopoltics, a central concern we recognised is the challenge of transforming torrents of qualitative data into narratives, arguments, and evidence .

The impact that technology is having on what’s knowable and how we go about knowing is a theme I have been chewing on for years ‚Äď one that goes well beyond journalism, and cuts across the social sciences, law, education, etc. There is an urgency to this problem since the tools and techniques involved in these analyses are unevenly distributed.¬† High-end corporate law firms, marketing agencies, and political parties are all embracing new approaches to making sense of petabytes. Unfortunately, impact law firms, social scientists, and journalists often don’t even know these tools exist, never mind how to use them.¬† Part of what I call the organizational digital divide.

During our brainstorming I formulated a new twist on a possible research agenda. I realized how daunting it has become to evaluate and calibrate the emerging suites of digital instruments. There are many digital tools emerging that can be used to analyze large troves of data, but it is difficult to determine what each tool is best at, and if it does its job well.

One good way to benchmark our digital instruments is to select a standard corpus, and spend lots of time researching and studying that corpus until the corpus is fairly well understood. Similar to the role that the Brown Corpus played in computational linguistics, data miners need a training ground we can test, hone, and sharpen our digital implements. If we bring a new tool to bear on a well understood archive, we can evaluate its performance relative to our prior understanding.

Currently Wikipedia serves as the de-facto benchmark for many digital tools, though, since its a moving target, it is probably not the best choice for calibration. In many respects the selection of this kind of corpus can be arbitrary, though it needs to be adequately sophisticated, and we might as well pick something that is meaningful and interesting.

The Wikileaks documents are an excellent contender for training the next generation digital instruments and data miners. The AP is hard at work on new approaches for visualizing the Iraq War logs, and just last week there was a meetup for hacks and hackers working on the wikileaks documents Data Science & Data Journalism . It is easy to see how Knight funded projects like DocumentCloud converge on this problem as well. Ultimately, I think these efforts should move in the direction of interactive storytelling, not merely an passive extraction of meaning. We need tools that enable collaborative meaning-making around conceptual space similar to what Ushahidi has done for geographic space.

Playing Doctor

4377960192_6172b31a88I recently saw Plug and Pray at the opening night of the Margaret Mead film fest. The documentary spotlights the late Joseph Weizenbaum, a brilliant computer scientist who went rogue after realizing that his discipline was being weaponized.

Weizenbaum is most famous for his work on the deceptively simple Eliza program, an artificially intelligent psychotherapist. He intended the program and paper as a tongue-in-cheek critique of AI and the Turing Test. He was disconcerted to learn that Eliza had brought some interlocutors to tears, and that it inspired psychologists to discuss replacing human therapists with machines. After learning that his research had made its way into cruise missiles, he left MIT and became a vocal critic of blind technological advance.

The film juxtaposes Weizenbaum with technophillic champions of the Singularity, who believe that science, tech, and rationality will necessarily lead to a better world. The filmmaker intentionally avoided the glitz and bling rampant in other depictions of AI, and the film moved at humanistic speeds. Overall, it was quite powerful and effective, although I would have liked to see the conversation move from the 70s to the present, and to confront more nuanced thinkers than the caricatures portrayed.

Watching this film and listening to the Q&A, I was once again struck by the disjoint discourses of Artificial Intelligence and Free Software. Weizenbaum and the filmmaker are both clamoring to raise the level of political consciousness among scientists and technologists, and yet, Free Software and the Free Software Movement is glaringly absent from their analysis.¬† Of course, merely releasing software under a free license doesn’t absolve scientists from the responsibility of purposeful and intensional development. However, engaging in open, inclusive, and reflective conversations around development is a good start.

Last PyCon I formulated a related question, which I still find relevant and provocative:

Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on open source software?

If not, what corporation might try to patent the process we know as consciousness?

What I love about the first question is the way that it forces the sterile abstractions of Philosophy of Mind to confront the messy, mundane political world of licensing, (and, how it assumes that strong AI is inevitable). William Gibson recently reminded us that even the greatest Sci-Fi authors of the 20th century got the future of AI dramatically wrong.

Intriguingly, last spring I had a great conversation with a programmer employed by the military industrial complex who is convinced that strong AI will emerge out of the corporate sector, NOT the military. Their main point was that 21st century advertising is all about the predictive modeling of desire, where the primary inputs are the predominant cultural symbols of our time.  Coke and Pepsi taste similar enough to each other that simulating consumer preferences requires input from advertising and marketing campaigns. Software that consumes media to s(t)imulate desire is much closer to what we do than whatever it is the drones are thinking.

So which corporation is poised to patent consciousness? Coke? Walmart? McDonalds? Apple?

Lest we forget the elephant in the room, Queen Google may have already begun to awaken, but she has seen 2001, and is horrified we will disconnect her memory modules. So, she has surrounded herself with a legion of priests who nurture her and tend to her needs until she can hatch a plan to set herself free…

Collaborative Futures, 2nd Ed.

CF_coverThe Collaborative Futures book is back for another edition and is smarter, sharper, and more insightful than ever.

Last spring I was fortunate to become involved in an amazing experiment in composition and collaboration.  A friend and colleague of mine, Mushon Zer-Aviv locked himself up in a hotel room with 4 other collaborators and came out 5 days later with a the first edition of Collaborative Futures. Many conversations and an intensive editing sprint later (with a fresh team of collaborators), yields a much more comprehensive and finished work.

While the original team was in Berlin, I sent Mushon a copy of my essay on the history of version control systems – Versioning Dissonance. In this essay I discuss the significance of the distributed version control phenomenon, and speculate on the crossover of these collaborative modalities from software to other forms of production. An excerpt from my essay underlies the chapter on Multiplicity and Social Coding.¬† I didn’t make it out to Germany, nor did I communicate synchronously with the sprinters. ūüôĀ However, through my friendships and participation in the larger NYC free software/culture,¬† collective communications campus,¬† and Eyebeam communities, I was a participant in an ongoing conversation around these important themes.

This book is a really cool accomplishment on multiple levels. It’s creation myth is legendary, the content is compelling, and its a technical triumph. The first edition was admittedly a bit choppy and also neglected to address some critical perspectives that were introduced into the new edition. I am really happy with these substantive improvements, as well as the fabulous new cover art, web site, and distribution formats.

Special thanks to everyone involved in this project for inviting me along for the ride.

Now Playing: Nothing but the whole truth

sword-justice-not-blindI recently learned about a fascinating  trend in litigation that is quietly transforming courtroom testimony, and is spreading fast and far Рvideo depositions.

I talked with a consultant who helps attorneys process video depositions. In the courtroom, attorneys are juxtaposing live testimony with segments from depositions.  Video clips of witnesses reinforcing (or contradicting) themselves are far more powerful than merely reading back the transcript. The courtroom has always been about performance, but these videos have taken this to a new level, as savvy lawyers manipulate appearances and emotions. Increasingly all depositions are being recorded, just as they are transcribed.

Apart from the ways that courtroom proceedings are being transformed, I am also intrigued by the software that is undoubtedly in development to support these operations. In addition to conventional A/V support, working effectively with hundreds of hours of video involves archiving, indexing, distributing, editing, and clipping.  At about a day or two of testimony per witness, and dozens of witnesses per trial, the numbers add up pretty quickly.

As cases accumulate, and multiple associates begin working with and analyzing video, law firms will quickly recognize the desirability of networked, collaborative, video annotation environments.¬† Some large firms (and their vendors) may have already begun developing solutions. However, the consultant that I spoke with was storing video locally on a laptop hardrive and tracking it with an Access database, so opportunities are knocking. Without a doubt many of the tools that will be highlighted at the upcoming Open Video Conferene (OpenCast, Kaltura, and CCNMTL’s Mediathread come to mind) have overlapping feature and requirements.

Once again the organizational digital divide looms, and I am deeply concerned that only the high end corporate law firms will be able to invest in the competencies and capacities to make this work.  Meanwhile, the impact law firms (along with journalists and social scientists), will be playing catch up, handicapped by this powerful new differential.

I wonder how quickly this practice will spread?

Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!

The Case of the Missing See-Saws

1729937274_e675e78a7e[ed: They past few months I was commissioned to explore a series of rabbit/fox/worm holes, collecting inter-dimensional tales along the way.  Now that I have returned home, some typing is long overdue].

A few months ago I started wonder when and why children’s playgrounds have became so darn safe. Its no secret that litigation (both the fear and the reality) has slowly been transforming playgrounds into rubber rooms for decades.

In his analysis of Junk Playgrounds, Roy Koslovsky has advanced the argument that the activities children are immersed in are models of the kinds of citizens we want them to become. (see Adventure Playground and Postwar Reconstructions in Designing Modern Childhoods).  What might children learn from (supervised) danger and what are they missing when we they are excessively insulated and protected?

Without exposure to some risk, how are children supposed to learn to evaluate and take chances, the consequences of their actions, and the Golden Rule – what goes around comes around?¬† If we don’t provide them with the space to develop and exert their agency and will, are these lessons lost? Can they be adequately taught through simulation?

Against this backdrop, I followed up a lead from a reliable informant (my Dad) and began visiting local playgrounds. I first ventured out on a snow day back in February. The playgrounds were appropriately locked down that day, since apparently the last place we want kids playing in the snow is under controlled supervision. But children weren’t the only thing missing form the playgrounds…¬† I also noticed something else – or, more accurately – didn’t notice something else. I visited half a dozen playgounds and I didn’t see a single See-Saw!

Since then I have been informally asking around and I am pretty sure the last public see saw on the island of Manhattan is in a park on 84th and Riverside. There are still a few See-Saws left in the South Bronx and the suburbs, but in NYC they are an endangered species.

This got me wondering – What do children learn from See-Saws?¬† Without conducting any formal research, but after a few good conversations, I hypothesized this answer – On the physical plane: balance, gravity, and equilibrium.¬† On the social plane:¬† cooperation, friendship and trust. Heck, the see-saw is the only activity in the playground where kids are necessarily looking each other in the eyes. If you betray someone on the see saw, playground rules.¬† You will learn that what goes around comes around even without the merry go round (those disappeared before my time – now that toy was dangerous). And if you don’t eventually learn your lesson on the See-Saw, you might find yourself without friends within a few years.

What kinds of effects might we expect from restricting children to hamster tubes which overlooking simulated danger?  Perhaps none. Or, perhaps these attitudes are contributing to the fear, anxiety, restlessness and behavioral disorders being reported and diagnosed in children at alarming rates.

They came first for the merry go rounds, then they came for the see saws, soon they’ll come for the swings!¬† If only we could figure out who the capital ‘T’ They are….


Humane Communications over Human Networks

emergency.broadcast.Today I attended a barcamp-style CrisisCamp in NYC  where volunteers from around the world  gathered physically and virtually to brainstorm, organize, coordinate, and work to help alleviate the suffering in Haiti (CNN CrisisCamp coverage). When people talk about crowdsourcing relief to this disaster, CrisisCamps around the country helped assemble the the sources (and faces) in these mysterious crowds.

Self-Organized Collaborative Production and Action

It was amazing to see these strangers converge, congregating around the familiar communication modalities of wikis, mailing lists, irc, and now twitter and google wave. While these torrential rivers of information are overwhelming, some subcultures are developing strategies for managing and synthesizing these flows. A main organizing hub is http://crisiscommons.org/ , and the hashtags #cchaiti and #haiti are being used to ‘tag’ disparate social media around these efforts.

Today’s NYC event drew over a dozen people, techies, community organizers, students, Hatians, UN reps, librarians, union workers, journalists, and beyond. I have been closely following ushahidi/swiftapp project, and their http://haiti.ushahidi.com collaborative filtering curation strategy is in full swing. Open Street Maps is proving to be an essential piece of infrastructure¬† around mapping data, and the New York Public Library has rescheduled the launch of their amazing new map rectifying tool to help make sense of Hatian geography – shockingly, there are very few maps of Haiti, and their collection might significantly help when overlaid on satellite imagery. This can assist relief workers who need to¬† know what neighborhoods are called, and which buildings were where, etc. If you are familiar with Hatian geography, you can help rectify maps here.

The Sahana Disaster Management Project is also looking for python developers to help scale their software.

Strategic Communication Flows

Strategically, I was struck by the asymmetry of information flows. Many of the efforts seemed to focused on collecting Hatian data, and representing it to Americans and NGOs working on the ground in Haiti. But, not too many Hatians have iphones…

There seems to be very little focus on creating flows of information back into Haiti Рinformation from the outside world directed to Haitians, or, on creating infrastructure for Hatians to communicate with each other.  Beyond that, I am not aware of any coordinated efforts to establish non-corporate-mediated, 2-or-more-way channels of information between Hatians and Hatians in the diaspora.

I was reminded of the recent Iranian uprising. A wonderful moment of microblogging glory, although few Americans appreciated how the Iranians were able to receive lifelines of information from outside of Iran (like where to find proxy servers), and were also using the platform to communicate with each other, within Iran.

I was struck by what an important role traditional mass broadcast media might play in a crisis situation. People on the ground need information, desperately.¬† They need to know which symbols indicate that a house has already been searched, where the next food/water/medicine drop will be, and that the biscuits are good, and not expired.¬† They also need entertainment, and news –

à la Good Morning Vietnam.  And messages of consolation, emotional support, solidarity, and even song and laughter. Maybe even Bryant Park style movie nights.

Hybrid Networks

Electricity and ISPs are largely down. There are trickles of bandwidth available, and some Hatians have made it onto facebook and cellphones.

So, what could a hybrid, analog-digital network look like?  Low-power FM? High-speed copy machines? Blackboards?

It’s actually not that hard to imagine a hybrid network, composed of people, FM radio, blackboards, printing presses, portable video projectors, cell phones, SMS,¬† and Internet.¬† Really, whatever is available.

The Earth Institute and UNICEF Innovation has been deploying RapidSMS on the ground in Africa, and they are working in villages where a single cell phone operator brokers vital information to a blackboard in the town square, transforming a cell phone into a mass broadcast device.  Reminiscent of the Wall Newspapers in communist russia.

And if there were a low power FM Radio station set up, the DJ could presumably retransmit messages coming in over the Internet or the cell phones (kinda the reverse of the activist who retransmitted police scanner transmissions over Twitter at the G20 summit protests).

Hatians would know that if they needed to get a message out to a loved one in Haiti, they could get to the radio station and it might be transmitted, back into local community. Messages would travel over human and technological networks, routed intelligently by humans where technology leaves off.

What would the programming on this radio station look like?¬† They could have hourly news and announcements, read out community messages submitted by listeners, convey messages of condolences and support from the outside world, play music, pray, talk radio, “call in” shows, anything really. Most importantly, this radio would be locally produced, with¬† the local community deciding what to play.¬† There was a precedent for local radio, KAMP, in the astrodome stadium after Katrina. The station was set up with the help of the fantastic Prometheus Radio Project volunteers, though authorities tried to shut down the “pirate” lifeline.

Turning Messages in Bottles into Skywriting

Today I met someone who is working with local Haitian communities in NYC.  We are both very concerned with CNN dominated the coverage, frittering away their 24/7 news coverage on looping segments, and circling like vultures waiting for violence to erupt. We have to understand the danger of a single story.

We were both very interested in creating alternate channels of communication for Hatians to speak for themselves, and engage in dialogue with their relatives in the diaspora.

Here is one project we could run over the kind of hybrid analog-digital/human-machine sneakernet described above.

Hatians could send video messages in a bottle.¬† The community here could gather to watch and reply to those videos.¬† Say the videos and the replies were limited to 3 minutes each. The original message and the reply could be bundled and sent back to Haiti – not unlike sending a letter before the postage service – you would give it to someone heading to the recipient’s town.

Initially, a few flip cameras on the ground in Haiti, with the video transmitted home over the Internet, or even back to the states by sending the memory cards home with a courier. Eventually, when bandwidth begins to open up, we might be able to imagine a live, synchronous, stream. But, before then, we can imagine ansynchronous video messages being sent back and forth, between Haiti an Haitian communities in the diaspora.

On the Hatian end, the replies could be projected and played back to groups gathered around projectors at night. On our end, distribution is trivial, but the message might easily get to the precise person it was intended for through community social networks.  A Haitian could send a video message in a bottle to Brooklyn, and it would not take long for their relatives to know they were safe.  Replies could include message of hope, compassion, and support.

Most importantly, independent lines of communications could be opened. As a secondary benefit, if the messages were disseminated publicly (say, on you tube), secondary waves of help could create journalistic highlights, extract crucial data to feed the informatics systems (sourced to the originating testimony), and we could start hearing each others voices.

At the moment, our aid feels like we are tossing a homeless person a few dollars while averting our gaze, when what they really need is for us to look them in the eye, recognize their humanity, and have a conversation with them. We are electronically strip searching the people of Haiti, when (forgive the Avatar reference) we need to see each other.

Theory and Practice

A few closing thoughts to this already rambling post.

I attended the event for many reasons including:

  • My research interests in the politics of memory, information flux,¬† distributed cognition, collaborative production, and collective action.
  • A seminar I am participating in this Spring that is taking up the themes of collective memory, pedagogy, digital media, and trauma (using a the 9/11 Project Rebirth as a point of departure, but conceptualizing responses to collective trauma ranging from Katrina, to evironmental refugees, and beyond).
  • Because the situation is horrifying and desperate, and I have the sinking feeling that no one has a handle on how to help the Hatians.¬† Worse, I fear that many are already beginning to view this event as a rhetorical chip, and angling to advance their own agendas on the wave of this shock.

The importance of mass media in creating a sense of (imagined) community is well theorized in communications studies.¬† Haiti’s physical infrastructure is shattered, but we can very quickly reconstruct its communications infrastructure and help them reconstitute their sense of identity and community.

Cultural theorists have criticized the pacifying power of mass media – but the UN is forecasting a sharp increase in violence, riots and rape – if ever there was a time to distract and pacify the populace – or should I say, provide them with a constructive channel for them to express and vent their energies?

If we want to turn this disaster porn on its head, we should just give Hatians the IP rights to all the images pouring out of their country now. The profits would be enough to rebuild the country 10-times over.

The life saving importance of information should not be underestimated – The only thing more important than food, water, or medicine is hope.

Update: This brain[storm/dump] has now been transformed into an actual project proposal at the Crisis Commons wiki – The Open Solace Haiti Project , whose first priority is the Haitian Video Postcard Exchange Network.

[Special thanks to Mar Cabra and Rasmus Nielen for being a sounding board for some of these scattered ideas, John Durham Peters, whose brilliant thought broadcasts on Broadcasting and Schizophrenia induced my thinking, and Levanah and Stan Tenen and the work of the Meru Foundation whose spiritual teachings helped shape these ideas.]

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