Last Call

Our Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of Mindful Occupation: Rising up Without Burning Out is in full swing.  We have made our financial goal (w00t!), and all additional funds raised will go towards additional printings.  Thanks to everyone who contributed and helped spread the word.  Let’s finish this campaign with a bang. Please share widely:

http://kck.st/yAmbya

A guide for participants in the occupy movement to strengthen our psychic, soulful and heartfelt contributions. #mutualaid #peersupport

Yelling it like it is

Adrianne Jeffries is a journalist on the tech beat who just published a pretty hot story in The Observer detailing how banks are mining social networking data to calculate credit scores. The article, As Banks Start Nosing Around Facebook and Twitter, the Wrong Friends Might Just Sink Your Credit, describes how startups like Credit Karma and Lenddo are convinced that deadbeats flock together, and are harvesting our data-exhaust and feeding it into FICO scores. Having friends who default on their loans may soon negatively impact your credit worthiness.

Following standard journalistic convention, Jeffries contacted privacy experts for their take on the issue. She reached out to Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law professor, social justice advocate, and director of the Software Freedom Law Center. Although Moglen is a vocal defender of personal privacy and liberty, he refused to provide her with the ease-to digest soundbite she came looking for.  Instead, he takes Jeffreies to task for her hypocrisy, accuses her of contributing to the problem she claims she wants to fix, and for failing to fulfill her responsibilities as a professional journalist. Jeffries is stunned by this reaction, and published the complete transcript of her interview with Moglen, even though she did not use any quotes from him in her story.

As I read the transcript of Moglen eviscerating professional journalism, I initially cringed in empathy for the journalist on the receiving end of Moglen’s brilliant tirade. Why would Moglen treat a journalist this way instead of giving her the harmless pull-quote she came looking for?

The easy answer is that Moglen had a bad day, is a fool, or a jerk. However, in my experience, Moglen’s communications are usually purposeful and deliberate (although ‘tender’ is not the first adjective I would associate with him :-) ). I think it is worth giving him the benefit of the doubt, and speculating on possible deliberate motivations for this response. Was Moglen trying out a new media strategy? Was this a calculated publicity stunt? A performative critique of journalistic conventions? How effective was it, for both Jefferie’s career and Moglen’s message?

I think this incident deserves a close study, as it raises and reveals many important meta-questions about the shifting roles of journalism and activism, in addition to exposing the sad disarray of the nascent privacy movement.

On the substantive issues covered in the story, Jeffries did a pretty good job researching the specifics and the underlying issues, and the piece is smart, witty, and provocative — with decent odds of capturing the attention of a few passing of eyeballs. The story conforms to the standards of the genre, and she quotes CEOs, venture capitalists, and a activist/public intellectual, Doug Rushkoff.

The trouble is that over the years there have been countless stories detailing the pressing dangers of corporate surveillance, and the public does not seem to care (many have been covered on this blog, including a story about medication compliance factoring into FICO scores). After decades of trying to educate and advocate journalists and the public about these issues, I can easily imagine Moglen losing patience for the ineffectual conventions of mainstream journalism.

U.S. journalists continue to water down their responsibility for truth-telling, speaking truth to power, and taking responsibility for being agents of change. The stilted genre of fair-and-balanced soundbites is even more absurd in the digital age when stories can be supported by providing long-form context and elaboration. Instead of pandering to the decontextualized soundbite, Moglen responded in a manner that demands all-or-nothing coverage.

Similar to Emily Bell’s analysis of #occupywallstreet’s success, where the protester’s refusal to conform to soundbites and slogans helped them gain mainstream media cycles, Moglen’s response to Jeffries rejected the soundbite and resulted in her publication of their complete interview. For all we know Moglen has responded this way to other journalists, and this is just the first time the interview has been published. But, I think that activists should consider this response and weigh its relative benefits.

Would the privacy movement have gained more any more credibility if Moglen had produced an easily digestible soundbite?  Perhaps, although privacy has proven itself to be such a complex issue that another round of he-said/she-said warnings/reassurances are unlikely to truly educate or persuade.

I think the real challenge posed my Moglen’s response speaks to journalism’s failure to embrace the possibilities of hypertext, and grow beyond the conventions that dead-tree publishing imposed.  Why don’t stories regularly include links to the expert  interviews, in their entirety? Or, if the interview is sloppy or inaccurate, links to the experts relevant work. Moglen has spoken on numerous occasions warning about the dangers of corporate surveillance, an Jeffries easily could have quoted Molgen in her article, and referred readers to talks like Freedom in the Cloud or Navigating the Age of Democratized Media. Her interviews with him should have started with these talks as a baseline, not require him to rehash privacy 101 for the umpteenth time.

The comments to the interview are also rich with perspectives on the responsibilities of journalists, though not many commentators engage in the critique of journalism that Moglen advances.  Jeffries herself often engages, defending her response on the grounds that “The reporter’s responsibility is to report the truth. I’m not an activist or an advocate”, and branding Moglen a “digital vegan”.

The polar extremes portrayed in this exchange indicate just how desperately the privacy movement needs to develop more nuanced models of strategic agency, as “going off the grid”, or giving up and “promiscuously broadcasting” are the only choices most people think are available to them. My research on the The End of Forgetting outlines alternatives that expand our range of choices and might help advance the terms of this debate beyond – unplugging vs. sticking our heads in the sand.

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!

#OccupyAuthority

Mindful Occupation: Part I

On September 17th 2011, sleeping giants stirred as the perception of social and and economic injustice in the US finally crossed a critical threshold. And the people spoke.

During the first week or two of the Occupation of Zuccotti park I was following along closely, but not yet fully engaged or plugged in.  The movement erupted at the beginning of the semester, just as a good friend and I were embarking on a study of digital activism and collective action in the 21st Century. #Occupy quickly became both a primary source and case study as we scrambled to track the tools and tactics that were rapidly deployed.

Within days the movement launched multiple web platforms, was taking online donations, was  broadcasting a 24-hour streaming video, and started publishing a broadsheet newspaper. Protesters were sharing and exchanging citizen-generated-multimedia-speech using services distributed across the internet, and organizing themselves and their expressions around shared tags. The mainstream media disgraced itself as one of the first (genuine) networked-grassroots movement redefined activism by breeding wikis and folksonomies, with  Blue Stockings and Indymedia.

Public Space: The Final Frontier

The protester’s literal occupation of space quickly went metaphorical, as everything from yoga to religion were soon “occupied.” At one point I came across a call to #occupypsychiatry, although no one seemed to know exactly what that meant. By that point many activist groups had descended on the park, and were tabling, distributing pamphlets, and competing to get their messages out while the media’s spotlight was shining brightly in their vicinity.

In the early days of the occupation, while the weather was still mild, Zuccotti was a cross between a party and a seminar. Epic discussions around substantive issues sprung from every flagstone, and the best of Zuccotti suggested what a university could and should be. The occupiers rediscovered public space, and honest-to-goodness publics were formed.

It occurred to me that,  far more important than any message that #occupy might broadcast were the internal dialogues and communications between and among activists. Especially in these early, fragile stages,  teach-ins and skill shares helped forge the alliances and friendships that would propel the movement through the winter and beyond.

One of the nights in the park I found myself in a conversation with someone from the sanitation working group, and was struck by the humility of someone focusing their energy on sustaining the community instead of clamoring to be heard by the rest of the world. Through some of the mad pride networks I am connected to, I    started hearing stories about protester burnout and emotional crisis at the occupations.

Frayed Edges

Given the exacerbating conditions – lack of sleep, poor nutrition, exposure to the elements, and don’t forget the police brutality – it is unsurprising there were many frayed edges amongst the protesters.  Although the movement had scorned resolving conflicts by turning to the criminal justice system, it had not formed an analogous consensus about resolving emotional crises by turning to the psychiatric system. Around the country reports of forced hospitalization (and  medication) emerged, and people kept reaching out for materials that offered alternative perspectives towards handling emotional trauma and navigating crises.

Over the summer I had been been working towards setting up on-demand  publishing solutions for some of The Icarus Project’s publications. I had spent months trying to track down original indesign files, fonts, and assets, in order to recreate these publications according to the specifications the ondemand publishers mandated.

In early October I attended the provocative Mobility Shifts conferences on digital learning, and attended a workshop on the Booki  software that explained the practice of book sprints. Booki is essentially a wiki platform that was designed to support collaborative book authoring.  The application supports chapters, tables of contents, and pagination, and pumps-out ebooks and print-ready pdfs. [In the course of this project I have learned a lot about digital publishing and the future of open zines, but I'll save those thoughts for another post.]

Another good friend of mine was also in the midst of working on an #Occupy  pamphlet, The 99%’s Guide to the Current Clusterf#*k, and that night something clicked. I imagined working together with radical mental health activist to remix a zine (aka pamphlet) that would present alternative perspectives on activism and mental health.  I got really excited about a concrete way to contribute to the occupation. I bounced the idea off of some friends and we were all really jazzed about the project. That night, Mindful Occupation: Rising up Without Burning Out was conceived.

[to be continued]

If I forget you, O Palestine…

I just returned from the eduventure of a lifetime in Palestine and Israel.  I travelled to the Palestine Technical University of Kadoorie  to consult on a World Bank funded project to help enhance technology education. The details of this project are inspiring and provocative, but before discussing educational technology, media literacy, and capacity building I need to talk about my direct experience of The Occupation.

As I anticipated before the trip, my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was transformed by my first-person experience of the occupation. Within an hour crossing the Kalandia checkpoint into Ramallah, I began to experience a harshness that is almost impossible to capture in a snapshot. Superficially, life in Palestine seems almost normal. Everyone we met was warm and friendly, and I did not encounter extreme third-world poverty. However, during my visit I learned how virtually every aspect of ordinary Palestinian life is occupied.  Electricity, fuel, mobility, connectivity, information, and water are all tightly rationed and controlled by Israel.

Before the trip I had heard about the checkpoints, but it is difficult to capture the feelings of intimidation and harassment until you are stuck in checkpoint-traffic watching a Palestinian adolescent being handcuffed and manhandled on the side of the road. I began to feel the harsh gaze of the guard towers, and the spit-in-the-face of the  Israeli flags, waving  arrogantly.

The most shocking reality I learned about is the Palestinian water situation. Many Palestinians only have running water a few days a week. One quick way to tell the Arab homes apart from the settler’s homes is that the Arab homes have big black water tanks on their roofs to capture water while it is running.  In contrast, the settlers homes have water 24×7, and many have swimming pools and lush lawns.

I kept thinking of this iconic image:

and its visually gripping corollaries:

Comparisons between the occupation and South African apartheid are common, but on this trip I began to relate the struggle to Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and racial profiling and injustice that continue to oppress  US minorities.

I also learned about the regulation of information flows. On an Egged bus in Israel, I had a better connection over free wifi than anywhere in Palestine, including the universities. Palestinian telcom companies are currently forbidden from rolling out 3G networks, building new communication lines between cities is notoriously difficult, someone I met was not allowed to import routers, and Palestine cannot connect directly to the Mediterranean backbone.  [Incidentally, a local group of activists is trying to set up free wifi in Ramallah, but they are being thwarted by Palestinian telcoms!] Like their physical borders, all Internet traffic into and out of Palestine must cross through Israel first.

Serendipitously, Richard Stallman was visiting Palestine while I was there!  Unfortunately, I missed his lectures, but I met up with a few people who saw him speak, and they reported that his  message of freedom and liberation resonated strongly with his audience. I also connected with ma3bar.org – a society for Arab free and open source software, and ArabEyes — an Arabic-FLOSS translation project . I developed fresh insights into the role of free software in resistance and activism — especially as I appreciated the strength of the human networks that power free software, and the relative safety of engaging in this kind of organising (as opposed to being tagged by the authorities as an peace activist). More about this in future posts.

Scholarship such as Eyal Wiezman’s Hollow Land and Helga Souri’s work attempt to describe the Palestinian experience of the occupation, but the situation is so complex and hyper-mediated I recommend that anyone who wants to learn more should visit the West Bank themselves (special thanks to Dalia Otham for the conversations and introducing me to this work). Anyone with the smallest compassionate bone in their body will undoubtedly sympathize with with the Palestinian cause.

There is so much more to write. The specifics of our educational technology workshops, travelling and working with my advisor and a fabulous team from TC , the hospitality of our hosts at PTUK, the amazing sweet deserts, my tour of the graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall,  the culture shock of leaving the West Bank and visiting my sister (and my four amazing nephews and brother-in-law) on a zionist kibbutz, the Israeli friends and family I connected with across the ideological spectrum, my visit to Sheva Chaya’s mystical glass blowing studio/gallery, diving an underwater museum in Caesarea, whitewater rafting down the Jordan with my nephews,  and Mushon’s personal guided tour (complete with analysis!) of the incredible housing protests erupting across Israel.

To be continued…

Mobility Shifts: teaching & learning w/ video

Michael Preston and I have co-authored a chapter— Teaching and Learning with Video Annotations —for the recently released anthology, Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy. This chapter recapitulates the history of multimedia annotation projects at CCNMTL, focusing especially on the pedagogies and learning outcomes that have motivated much of my work at CCNMTL work over the years. We discuss curricular activities which have stimulated the development of our VITAL and MediaThread multimedia analysis environments.

Learning Through Digital Media was edited by New School Professor Trebor Scholz in preparation for the upcoming Mobility Shifts: An International Future of Learning Summit (Call for Workshops: submissions due by July 1). The peer-reviewed book contains a series of practical applications of digital media to formal and informal learning situations, with a focus on teaching techniques across a range of services and tools. The “ambition of this collection is to discover how to use digital media for learning on campus and off. It offers a rich selection of methodologies, social practices, and hands-on assignments by leading educators who acknowledge the opportunities created by the confluence of mobile technologies, the World Wide Web, film, video games, TV, comics, and software while also acknowledging recurring challenges.”

Trebor throws a great conference. Mobility Shifts is part of a bi-annual conference series on Digital Politics.  The conference topic ’09 was digital labor, and in ’13 it will be about digital activism. Trebor is truly a performance artist when it comes to organizing conferences. He works really hard to get people talking to each other before the conference starts, so that when people arrive they are already in the middle of a conversation.  For the Internet as Playground and Factory he produced a series of short videos introducing participants to each other (mine is here).  This year he published a peer-reviewed anthology, available in a variety of formats, including hardcopy, PDF, ebook, and web-based.

Learning Through Digital Media was published in March 2011 by the Institute of Distributed Creativity under a creative-commons license (CC-BY).

That way madness lies

Bossewitch, J. (2010). Pediatric Bipolar and the Media of Madness. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(3), 254-268. doi: 10.1891/1559-4343.12.3.254

I am finally published in a peer-reviewed journal! Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry (available for purchase here – but my cut is exactly 0%). I wasn’t expecting much, and it’s mildly anti-climactic, but I have heard from a few people I never would have communicated with otherwise, and worked really hard to polish up this paper. Anyway, now its traditionally citable, which still means something (for the next few years, at least).

This paper is at least 2 years in the making.  It began when Rasmus Nielsen forwarded me a call for papers about drugs as a form of media for NCA ’09, and I participated in a panel  organised by Robert MacDougall (my slides). Around the same time as NCA, I also attended ICSPP and had the pleasure of meeting James Tucker and Peter Breggin. This meeting eventually led to my submission to EHPP – a journal that typically publishes articles by and for psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.  I was thrilled to help bring a dash of media and communications theory/research to that audience. Special thanks to Annie Robinson, Sascha Scatter, Bonfire Madigan, Brad Lewis, Biella Coleman, Philip Dawdy, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Julia Sonnevend, Ben Peters, and the Icarus Project for ideas, inspiration, and edits.

I have also reworked the main arguments in this essay into a chapter in the upcoming: Drugs & Media: New Perspectives on Communication, Consumption and Consciousness (edited by Robert C. MacDougall). I even worked on a McLuhanesque Tetrad around Prodromal diganoses (a.k.a. Psychotic Risk Syndrome).

Unfortunately, I was unable to convince Springer to go open access with my paper, but I tried and was able to deposit an open-access pre-print in the Columbia institutional repository, and also have a pre-print available here. If enough people make noise about open access, I hope the editors and publishers will eventually start to get the idea.

The issues raised in this paper are beginning to percolate into the mainstream. Last month Harpers published a (flawed) long  piece on predictive diagnoses: Which way madness lies: Can psychosis be prevented? Wired just ran a great piece on the backlash against DSM5, especially Psychotic Risk Syndrome, by one of the DSM IV contributors: Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness. A good friend of mine from the Journalism school also just produced an investigative short-documentary on antipsychotics use among foster home children that just aired this weekend on PBS: The Watch List: The medication of foster children.

Finally, Crooked Beauty is coming to town next month for the 3rd  annual Reelabilities Film Fest – c’mon out to the launch party or one of the screenings:

Thursday 02/03/2011 1:00pm JCC of Mid-Westchester
Friday 02/04/2011 1:30pm Bellevue Hospital Center
Friday 02/04/2011 6:00pm New York City College of Technology
Saturday 02/05/2011 7:00pm The JCC in Manhattan
Monday 02/07/2011 6:30pm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Tuesday 02/08/2011 7:00pm JCC of Staten Island

It’s going to be a great year.

Memory Leaks

12-01-10wikiFD
WWIII – A TV guerrilla war with no division between civil and military fronts.

- Marshall McLuhan *


As you enjoy the Wikileaks reality show circus, please remember to support to the Bradley Manning defense fund.

This week’s drama has been riveting and surreal. For years I have been describing the era we are embarking on as the End of Forgetting, and imagining the repercussions of this transformation on the fabric of social life. But my relationship with this saga goes well beyond the theoretical and is much more personal.

In December 2006post-Diebold memos and, synchronously, within weeks prior to Wikileaks’ launchI began researching the ZyprexaKills campaign (slides), a whistleblowing action implicating the drug company Eli Lilly which soon became the EFF’s first wiki case. That case was a significant milestone in life. The experience was a crash course in First Amendment Law, exposed me to the hybrid dynamics of new and traditional media, prepared me for epocal epistemic shifts, and confirmed the power of my information flow models.  On the ZyprexaKills case no one wanted to be forgotten more than the anonymous John Doe, and Eli Lilly undoubtedly wishes the world would forget that they marketed Zyprexa off-label to children and the elderly, even though their executives knew Zyprexa causes diabetes.

Which brings us to today. I am amazed at the wide speculation across the mainstream press around Assange’s motives when his own writings are widely available. Apparently, we are still transitioning to the age of  Scientific Journalism Assange dreams about. Bloggers and tweeters have finally helped  mainstream news outlets pick up the story–as Todd Gitlin writes, we should “Credit him with a theory”.

The potential fallout of the leaks goes well beyond the substantive contents of any particular document. To understand the potential impact of this communication its important to consider the different types of messages conveyed to various receivers. Some commentators, like Umberto Eco, have taken up the message of the medium itselfWhat do leaks of this type communicate? Beyond any specific cable or document, what messages do the leaks send, and to whom?

I don’t think the Wikileaks collaborators have much faith in the US political processes.  Like the Tea Party, I imagine they aim to usurp the agenda and change the language of the conversation itself.  I doubt they are overly preoccupied with any particular exchange.

Some have alleged a preventative coup against Hillary, but I think we need to read this in a more global context. Beyond the narrow lens of partisan, or even geo-politics, there cultural and ideological battles are raging. Wikileaks’ actions model and embody the maturing, politically conscious, hacker ethicand their actions alter people’s conception of the real and the possible. Their actions are floating and actualizing crucial thought experiments just in time for the showdowns around net neutrality, kill switches, and the future of journalism and the Internet.

All the more reason why They have to try to make an example here. Is the US Govt already caught in a chinese finger trap?

Whatever the outcome, at least its different. Last week’s media-policy talks at the Columbia J-school (Wu/John and Copps) articulated the historic challenges we face at this critical juncture in order to avoid the fate of all previous media revolutions. At this point I’m willing to try just about anything that might snap us out of the repetition compulsion of the 20th century. But, I like backgammon better than chess ;-)

BTW – I love that my fact that my idea for this post’s image had already been drawn, and was discoverable within 10 second search. Long live the open, neutral, unkill-switchable,  World Wide Web!

Ongoing collection of my favorite Wikileaks coverage here.

Pick a world… any world…

abandon_despairLast week I attended the second half of the US Social Forum – not exactly a conference, but more of a convergence or a process, where 20,000 people gathered in Detroit to build coalitions, alliances, and movements. The World Social Forum began as a response to the World Economic Forum – Why should the power elite be the only ones planning humanity’s future?!?

The USSF web site and the People’s Media Center (made possible by some righteous radical techies, the Design Action Collective, riseup.net, and May First/People Link) should give you a flavor of what the event was all about. But, be aware that the streaming video and social media barely scratches the surface of the experience.

The forum is organized around 2-hour long workshops, and over 100, 4-hour long People’s Movement Assembly’s.  The sessions were in depth and quite intensive. The format is designed to encourage small group interactions and for people to connect and get to know each other.

The assemblies were geared around crafting resolutions and actions – I attended parts of the transformative justice and healing PMA, and it was really well facilitated. During the closing ceremony the assemblies synthesized their resolutions, scheduled actions, and asked for commitments of solidarity around their issues.  I don’t think that this forum represents the Left’s answer to the Tea Party, but I did gain a much better appreciation for the scope of issues comprising The Agenda(s). And, considering that anyone passionate about an issue was welcome to participate, the assemblies offered an authentic glimpse into everyone’s priorities. It felt like a determined effort to take things into account, and put them in order.

Here are some of the resolutions that emerged from the Progressive Techie Congress Principles and the Transformative Justice and Healing assembly.

Collective Liberation and Radical Mental Health

The main draw for me to the conference were the Icarus Project workshops and the convergence of Icaristas, in person. We took over and transformed a house in a Detroit suburb, and mad dreaming and plotting ensued. The place was quickly transformed into a safe space for people to brilliantly  navigate the madness of the forums, and it was quite amazing to spend quality time, face to face, with friends and allies. I gravitated to the heath tracks, taking up issue of self-care, mutual aid, and wellness.  I also caught some great music, ate some amazing homemade food (and not bombs), visited some incredible collective living spaces, and was pretty inspired by everyone who cared and showed up.

This Icarus workshop I attended (there was another that I missed, plus a screening of Crooked Beauty) was eagerly anticipated and well attended – the participants were open and receptive to the core messages, and there was a palpable desire to embrace these issues locally. The session leaders shared their personal stories and modeled peer-support as we broke into groups (photos, highlight reel to be posted shortly). People shared details of their individual and organizational neuro-diversity and how dysfunctional feedback loops undermine many organizing efforts. The relationship between personal and collective liberation emerged from the workshop and will travel far beyond Detroit’s (shrinking) city limits.

Detroit is pretty beat up – we stayed two blocks away from a refinery that belched flames into the night sky – but there are some wonderful people and projects that were really cool to experience. It’s also the only city I have ever been to that has a monument to organized labor.

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolutionEmma Goldman, Radical Feminist

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 – information 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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