Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.

Love,
/J

“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

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.

The People’s Drones

In May ’06 I visited New York’s annual Fleet Week and personally met a few drones who were sleeping below the flight deck of a U.S. warship. In the 5 years since, “unmanned aerial vehicles” have reproduced explosively, and are rapidly changing the parameters of war and American foreign policy.

Glenn Greenwald describes the “Drone Mentality” that renders victims invisible and enables risk-free aggression and violence. Public anti-drone outcries are spreading, though media coverage of the effects of U.S. drone attacks is glaringly absent. My friend Madiha Tahir has been reporting and researching these attacks in Pakistan and the accounts she has gathered are quite horrifying.

But the U.S military isn’t the only outfit with access to these technologies. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (!) is using a drone to capture footage (and who knows what else), and Polish protesters in Warsaw used a drone to capture footage of riot police attacking them. Last year some hobbyists buzzed the Statue of Liberty with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and didn’t even get fined.

Drone technology is advancing very rapidly, though to the average observer the technology might not look that much different from 70’s-era remote control planes. Most of the advancements are happening in software, which is invisible to the casual observer, and also more difficult to prevent from proliferating.

If you haven’t seen any of the amazing footage of quadcopters in action, take a peek. These machines are much simpler to pilot and steer than a helicopter, and are quite inexpensive. There are quad-rotor open-source hardware/software projects, like the aeroquad (complete kits $1.5k), and the high-end is quite affordable (< $10k) for news companies and local police departments.

At the moment, the regulations around flying these drones is ambiguous. But the FAA is currently reviewing regulations, and a government agency predicts there will be over 15,000 civilian drones operating in U.S. airspace by 2018.

Drones are already in use patrolling the US/Mexican border, and the Department of Homeland Security is helping local law enforcement agencies obtain them. When I saw the video of the Polish protesters (via @MutualArising), I began wondering why local news companies were still flying manned traffic and news copters, and then I ran across the story (via @jonathanstray) about Murdoch’s drones.

From my limited research, I believe that non-commercial hobbyists are allowed to fly these vehicles below 400ft. I propose that Occupy Wall Street should fly drones at every protest, to counter Mayor Bloomberg’s egregious attempts to suppress journalistic coverage of the protests.

It seems clear that a robotic arms-race is underway, and my friend Peter Asaro, a robo-ethicist who serves on the international committee for robot arms control (icrac), worries about an arms race where everyone from drug cartels to the paparazzi all begin abusing drones. I remember Eben Moglen predicting that it won’t be long before every self-respecting dictator has full regiment of killer robots. Unlike human police, robots aren’t likely to hesitate when ordered to fire upon civilians.

The right to bear robots?

I am not convinced that drone-control is the best response to the asymmetrical power drones deliver (at least when it comes to surveillance drones, not armed drones).  I think they best way to counterbalance this power is with  open-source drones.  The people’s drones.

Update: As per @MutualArising‘s comment below,  OccupyDrones has taken off!

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 – 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.

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.

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.]

Selling shovels to News diggers

Mad Scientist's UnionI had a fun idea tonight (patent pending) that occurred to me after reading about the Newspaper’s accelerating collapse, the Talking Point Memo’s membership experiment, and the recent report on reconstructing journalism.

I can’t recall ever reading about or debating my new journalistic business model, and I’m not sure if its crazy, brilliant, or evil.

Has anyone ever thought about charging newsreaders to express themselves?

Micropayments for comments, not content?

Seriously, how wild would that be.  Pay to comment. Maybe pay to vote, rate, like/dislike. You could even sell different priced foods for people to throw at the journalists (and at other users), provoking foodfights in the newsroom. People would pay to mad men themselves, if you allow them to customize their avatars so they could rant in style.

Now, I recognize it might sound like a step backwards, or slightly anti-democratic, but not long ago there was no commenting at all.  And folks can pick themselves up and have a conversation anywhere on the Internet if they want to. But, you are offering the readers the spotlight of attention… kinda like, advertising!  The dating sites have finely tuned the market dynamics of charging users to communicate. Would these comment stamps reduce or increase the spam?

Maybe the scales are all wrong – it’s probably something like 1% of readers that ever participate, but if fashion (and flickr and  Second Life) is any indication, people dispose plenty of their income expressing themselves in public.

So, Mr. Murdoch, tear down this firewall.  Everyone knows the real money comes from the souvenir and concession stands. It’s better than free.

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