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.]

When Lessig was in Disneyland…

ex10_03-04I had a fun idea for a new Free Culture campaign last spring, but I haven’t gotten around to blogging about it until now.


  • Walt Disney: Let my cartoons go!
  • Jack Valenti: Let my music go!
  • Rupert Murdoch: Let my news go!
  • Steve Jobs: Let my iPhone go!
  • Jeff Bezos: Let my Kindle go!
  • etc, etc.

I know it would be more consistent to substitute ‘our’ for ‘my’, but I really want to evoke the biblical/mythological imagery around freedom and liberation, while simultaneously calling these CEOs out for the pharoahs/slavemasters that they are (we used to have another term for 360 deals…). The campaign simultaneously inverts the framing of copying as piracy, and takes up the mantle of liberators.

As Nina Paley rigorously demonstrates, there are many parallels between the struggles against Human Property and Intellectual Property. Just as we once thought it was morally acceptable to own humans, can we imagine a future where the ownership of ideas is viewed with similar disgust and incredulity? What are the best ways to remind people that Copying is Not Theft?

Anyway, the signal to noise ratio is quite high, and it will definitely
fit on bumper stickers and T-Shirts…

Any graphic designers want to donate some skillz?

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen?

copenhagen_logoIn honor of Blog Action Day I’m posting a round of my favorite posts relating to climate change and sustainable development.

At work, we are also working closely with the Earth Institute, including setting up the learning environment used in the new masters program in Development Practice. I have been collecting some fun links on the program’s community site.

tck, tck, tck….

The Interdisciplinary Kissing Problem

websLast week I participated in the architecture school’s visualization seminar and  was treated to a mind-blowing presentation by Tony Jebara, a Columbia Computer Scientist. Jebara is a young associate professor who researches machine learning, graphs, and visualizations, and is also the chief scientist at CitySense.com. His lab “develops novel algorithms that use data to model complex real-world phenomena and to make accurate predictions about them.” They also work on improving the readability of massive volumes of multi-dimensional data, and are currently focusing on making sense of networks of people and places (take a wild guess who else is interested in their work).

CitySense is an application that runs on mobile devices and from their location data…

…builds a network of real places (like the World Wide Web) and a network of real people (like FaceBook) in order to apply online techniques like smart search, recommendation, collaborative filtering, marketing, user clustering and prediction. Today, Sense Networks tracks almost 10,000,000 mobile phones and location devices through partnerships with carriers, device manufacturers, application developers, taxi fleets, and its own subscribers.

The system attempts to discern friendships as well as an establishment’s clientele based on calculations of user’s physical proximity to each other, combined with a growing semantic understanding of places (e.g. all the Starbucks in the city probably have more in common with each other (in some sense) than they do with their geographical neighbours). According to Jebara, the system is already able to infer the types of people who frequent certain nightclubs—students, hipsters, professionals, bankers, tourists—based purely on an analysis of these overlapping networks of millions of human and non-human actors. The cell phone carriers have also used this kind of analysis to reduce “churn”—if one person leaves the network, the carriers respond rapidly by offering promotions the defector’s close network to seal the leak before the damage spreads.

Incidentally, the matching algorithms that Jebara’s lab uses are the same family of algorithms that “power” google ad words, so at least for the time being, despite the captivating sacred geometry, I am sticking with human recommendations 😉

I left the talk with many questions and reflections:

  • I understand that calculating similarity is the special sauce in any recommendation implementation, but I am somewhat troubled by the conflation of proximity with similarity. Consider the Upper East Side Nanny or the parole officer and the parolee (although hollywood continues to try to convince us of the identity relation between detectives and criminals) – is there something essential being reduced or discarded when we reduce similarity to proximity?

    Is there any room in this model for the “kind” of relationship that motivates the physical proximity? Perhaps something similar to Yahoo/Berkeley TagMaps? Their work requires explicit human input, and is already anticipating feedback effects and users “gaming” the system. Perhaps the network effects CitySense models will disregard much of this “noise,” but, at what social/cultural/political expense?

  • Similarly, I don’t really understand how this algorithm justifies the “distance” calculation. The multi-dimensional spaces they are flattening are incommensurate. Unlike the dimensions of space-time, the spaces described are composed of values, possibly expressing orders of worth in different units that cannot be transformed between each other. What is the Pythagorean theorem really measuring here?
  • How can we do a better job representing more than a 2D scalar representation to users? Provide them with more dials and knobs so they can customize and tune what their view? How can we craft engaging environments that encourage interactive storytelling and help users carve narratives out of databases?

I think it is really important to understand these assumptions and possibly play with them. Would it make a difference if users had access to their own raw data, and understood the digital footprints they were leaving?  It seems quite  important that users understand the inner workings of these systems so they can take full advantage of them, and also not be exploited by them.

As Computer Science takes on more of the characteristics of Architecture and Urban Planning, we need to turn to questions of desire, intent, and purpose.

What impacts do we hope that CitySense will have on social life? Not in a naive deterministic sense, but in terms of catalyzing, facilitating, and favoring certain social interactions over others. What kinds of hypotheses about the kinds of impacts a system like this might have on an urban space? Amazingly, these hypotheses might be testable. How might this system be tuned to increase the odds of these outcomes, once we articulate the mission/purpose of the design?

Finally, what about the promise a tool like this might have for improving the public good? At work we are partnering with the Earth Institute, the School of Public Health, and others on third world development projects that might benefit greatly from the application of these visualizations (RapidSMS, a project tracking malnutrition in Africa comes to mind).

How can we work on balancing the organizational digital divide, and get these kinds of tools – the server side, not the client side – beyond the hands of corporations and letter agencies and into the hands of social scientists, architects, journalists, and educators?

Can we mobilize the student labor to benefit the public good?

Mad Men, Women, and Children

This season Fox premiered a new television series called Mental (this post has nothing to do w/ AMC’s fabulous Mad Men):

a medical mystery drama featuring Dr. Jack Gallagher, a radically unorthodox psychiatrist who becomes Director of Mental Health Services at a Los Angeles hospital where he takes on patients battling unknown, misunderstood and often misdiagnosed psychiatric conditions. Dr. Gallagher delves inside their minds to gain a true understanding of who his patients are, allowing him to uncover what might be the key to their long-term recovery.

The show’s format (very) closely resembles the hit TV show House, except that Mental is set in a nuthouse. The show has received lukewarm reviews and mediocre ratings, but very well might get renewed. Mental health consumer advocates like (pharma funded) NAMI have not reached a consensus on how to respond to these pop culture representations, and even the some of the radical Icarus Project’s membership were (initially) impressed by the show’s message.

While this show might seem innocuous, it really deserves a careful, critical analysis. We seem to be approaching a turning point in perceptions around altered states, as powerful marketing forces are hard at work working to remove the stigma around mental “illness”.  Brittany Spears was the unpaid celebrity spokesperson for the normlization of psychiatric crises, but Glenn Close will soon be leading up the BringChange2Mind campaign.  Don’t get me wrong — removing stigma is generally a good thing, but if the stigma is removed in order to increase the legitimacy of pharmaceutical treatments, the message (and outcome) is mixed.  We are all dying, sick and crazy.

I am reminded of a fantastic book I read last year called Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity.  In this work, Joshua Gameson examines hundreds of hours of trashy talk show footage from the 80’s and 90’s – Ricki Lake, Montell Williams, Phil Donaue, Jerry Springer, the works. During the period examined, LGBT guests were featured regularly on these shows, amongst some of the first representations of gay people in mainstream popular culture.

Gameson closely studies the controversy around these appearances. On the one hand, the guests were not always portrayed in the best light (to put it mildly). These shows thrived on sensational confrontations and humiliating storylines. On the other hand, alternative lifestyles were being featured and discussed on national television, and beamed into living rooms across the country. Is there ever such a thing as bad media?

What Gameson teases out of his exhaustive study are the subtle underlying ideologies these encounters embody. While homosexuals were often defended by the talk show audiences, trans and bi guests were often vilified.  He makes a convincing case that these shows endorsed monogamy and static identities, but were decisively hostile towards alternative lifestyles and choices that veered from these mainstream values.

Our critical “Mental” challenge is all about trying to tease out the underlying ideologies and unquestioned assumptions that permeate the storylines in this series. On the face of it, Mental offers a diverse range of voices and perspectives — from financially-motivated hospital administrator, to the confrontational interns, to the purportedly radical director – Mental gives watchers the impression that the mainstream is being represented, and challenged.

Consider Dr. Galleger’s establishing introduction:

Establishing Dr. Gallager from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

He certainly seems like an alternative psychiatrist, who will do anything to help his patients. He even goes on to insist that patients participate in the staff meetings:

Medical Deities from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

… a device that disappears immediately after its introduction. It doesn’t even come up in later meetings in this pilot, never mind later in the series. Here is the next meeting, where the shows truer colors begin to shine through – Drugs for life, no hope of a cure, and the problem lies with pharmas old drugs, like Haldol, but their new miracle treatments are a panacea:

He's gonna need drugs from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

The rubber really hits the road in S01E04 (Manic at the Disco) — about a young boy named Conner who is eventually diagnosed with pediatric bipolar.

Elective Mutism, Conduct Disorder from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

The attending staff discuss Conner’s case and authoritatively toss around dozens of diagnoses, never questioning the legitimacy of pediatric bipolar — a diagnoses that is currently hotly debated, and does not (yet) even exist in the DSM!

Conner's Diagnosis from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

“There is no cure, as such”

There is no cure, as such from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

and of course, “you can’t ignore the symptoms.”

You can't ignore the symptoms from Generic Prescriptions on Vimeo.

The decisive “evidence” of a broken brain was a brain scan – a technique which is highly controversial, profiled in the Frontline investigative piece The Medicated Child.

So much for alternative psychiatry.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of treating people instead of bodies, but the psychiatrists on Mental still treat brains instead of minds.

I’m not sure if this kind of publicity is fooling anyone, but I am afraid it is. As folks like smartmeme describe, narratives are often far more persuasive than stats, facts, or logic.

We need to keep a close watch on shows and campaigns like these, that implicitly establish a baseline acceptance of disorders and treatments when there are vibrant alternatives to consider. People cannot make informed choices about their mental health if the questions they are deciding are deceptively framed. Mental is far more insidious than its seemingly innocuous plotlines and banal characters suggest.

[For more critical clips from Mental S01E01 and S01E04 see GenericPrescriptions].

The Remover of Obstacles

Javier TellezOn last weekend’s visit to the Shivananda ashram I chanted away life’s worries while imagining an elephant effortlessly clearing obstacles from its path.

Om gam ganapataye namaha! [*]

The elephants returned this weekend on my visit to Boston. I spent a wonderful afternoon biking around the city, inhaling the streets, waterways, and parks and internalizing its expanse.  I visited the ICA, a great new museum designed by the same crew that just finished New York’s great new High Line park.  The main attraction at the ICA was the Shepard Fairey exhibit, but I was much more drawn to the “Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video”

Does contemporary art have any visible social impact? Film is a way to intervene, fight for something, inform, educate, update knowledge, tell fairy tales, persuade, call attention to problems, critical junctures, etc. [*]

There were only a few video installations, but there was one in particular that really stuck with me for its simplicity and brilliance. Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See (it premiered at the Whitney Biennial ’08, but I missed it) is a reenactment of the ancient parable of the 6 blind wise men and the elephant (various sources).

The parable is a classic, and I even recently encountered a free-software remix – Six Tuxes and the Elephant. But I was really moved by the personal and philosophical perspectives that Tellez’s film captures.  When you actually situate real humans into a living context, something amazing happens.  Their subjectivities spring to life as the magnificent Elephant animates their fears and desires. Most of them had never before touched an elephant (ha!), and the encounter evokes vivid visceral reactions from everybody involved (audience included).

The reintroduction of subjectivity into our theories of everything is a project that will likely extend beyond this century, even if we survive it.  This film manages to  capture the central themes I encountered in Disabilities Studies, and how obnoxious it is to rely on these coarse, crude metaphors without vividly imagining their underlying reality.  It also highlights the myopia of cleaving objective reality from subjective experience.

A reviewer at the Boston Globe shared my enthusiasm for this piece, and their story describes the film in more detail that I do here.  Hopefully we can arrange to screen this doc sometime at DisThis

Faith’s Transmission

Message in a BottleWell, its been 2 months since I participated in MIT’s Media in Transition (MiT6), but the event is still vividly fresh in my mind.

The conference was really amazing. It attracted a really diverse mix of theorists and practitioners, academics and professionals, and folks from many walks of life. This conference I tried to go to talks where I “didn’t belong” – hoping to learn from disciplines I don’t regularly encounter. It was a great strategy, as I often gravitate towards talks that I know something about, wanting to hear the presenter’s take on it, but venturing beyond my usual horizons was much more fun.

Aram Sinnreich and I presented a paper on Strategic Agency in an Age of Limitless Information (abstract, slides), and I am really happy with how things turned out. Hopefully, we’ll work on polishing this paper up to submit to a journal soon, though I don’t really know where we should submit yet.

The videos for the main plenary events are now up and I am looking forward to clipping the little hand grenades I remember throwing during Q&A.

This panel on Archives and History (my question starts @ 1:35:15) wasn’t the only conversation about archiving, but it was fairly representative of the perspectives. It’s too bad MIT World does not provide me with a mechanism to address a point of time in their videos (like our recently liberated VITAL tool allows), so you’ll have to advance the playhead manually to hear me out. It’s basically a riff on – Why Archive? – The beauty of the Sand Mandala and the effort required to actually delete something….

The conversations were very similar to some that we had back in May ’07 at the Open Content conference, but not I think I can finally articulate what’s been bugging me about these conversations. With the help of Ben and John Durham Peters (we shared a bus ride to/from the conf), I realized that archiving can be thought about as a transmission, for anyone, into the future.

I also realized that ordinarily, when we look to the past, we use history to help us understand ourselves better. The presumption that future generations will actually care about us for our own sake, strikes me as narcissistic (narcissism and new media has surfaced on this blog before).  I imagine they will want to use the messages that we send them to help themselves, understand themselves better.  So, to archive purposefully the question becomes – how can we best help the future?

To the archivists who claim we don’t have any idea what questions the future will be asking, so we better save it all – I think I know what the future will be trying to understand about us.  They will likely be trying to figure out what on earth was distracting us while we let the planet die!  We were busy devoting our resources to saving every last copy of American Idol and Big Brother while Gia screamed in agony for help.

So, how can we increase the signal-to-noise ration of the messages we send into the future?  Without somehow reducing the message to the critically problematic golden record on the voyager spaceship, or its successors?  I guess the Long Now Foundation is thinking along these lines, and I have always envied David Vakoch’s job title (Director of Interstellar Message Composition)…  The conference helped me realize that Vakoch and the Long Now have a really similar task – but I don’t know how many archivists conceive of their task as Intergenerational Message Composition.

Perhaps we need to spend even more time curating?  Indicating in our archives why we think they were worth saving? And what’s the most important message we can send into the future? Not like it matters much longer, as I really do believe we are embarking on The End of Forgetting (see our conf paper for more details).

Shifting frames for a moment, what if the ancients had a really important message to send us? Their Theory of Everything, or the equivalent of E=MC^2.  How would they have attempted to transmit it?

When I discussed these ideas w/ my friend Rasmus he recommended I start up a consulting firm specializing in Future Relations. 😉

Mobile Student Labor

students-on-edge-of-lowAt the beginning of the semester I shopped a class offered in the Columbia CS Dept on mobile computing.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to take the class this semester, but I suppose I can follow along Standford’s version free of charge.

Prof. Nieh was personable, animated, and bright, but the first day of class made me realize the impact CCNMTL has had on me. I doubt I would have made these observations/connections as an undergrad.

First, I was a bit sad that the curriculum did not include even a spoonful of social/cultural context.  The only books on the reading list were SDKs. A little Rhiengold, Shirky, or Zittrain, judiciously applied, could go a long way.

Second, Nieh announced that the entire semester would be organized around projects. That’s a great way to learn, but he also imagined a competition, with the possibility of a venture capitalist evaluating the projects at the end of the semester.

Now, although I am presenting at the Left Forum this weekend, I have nothing against turning a profit (after all, I’m an Alchemist).  But, would it really be too heavy handed to require that students at the university organize their production around the Public Good (and maybe become mobily active)?  What about the needs of the university?  Or even, an Open Source project? 60-80 Columbia CS students (w/ some Masters students) – that’s alot of creative labor power.  And, there is a dire need for applications like this, around the world, and across campus (SIPA, The Earth Institute, Teachers College, the J-School, the libraries are all groups on campus that are investigating mobile apps).

Even if students are required to create something for the public good, at least giving them that option might expose them to a possibility they hadn’t considered. To Prof. Nieh’s credit, he invited me to submit an application idea to the class forum, though I am not sure if any of the students actually followed up on these suggestions.

As I wrote in my email, while VC’s won’t likely chase the students down to invest in these kinds of apps, they might be surprised by the overlapping technical requirements across sectors. And foundations are definitely very interested in innovations in this area right now too.

I am under no delusion that most undergrads could actually complete a useful application in a semester, but a few might. And the opportunity to make a hyper-local useful application (find a book in the library stacks, anyone?) seems promising.  And its getting so easy.

Pathological Soothsayers

halloween-straight-jacketA recent post at Furious Seasons on the spooky future of psychiatry prompted me to dig a little deeper into the origins of prodromal diagnoses.

A prodrome is “a symptom or group of symptoms that appears shortly before an acute attack of illness. The term comes from a Greek word that means “running ahead of.”” A spooky emerging trend in clinical psychiatry is the appropriation of this concept under the paradigm of “early intervention in psychosis” for “at risk” patients. Psychiatrists are preventively diagnosing mental illness and treating people prior to them exhibiting any behavioral symptoms.

Earlier diagnosis and early intervention. The past decade has witnessed a surge of progress in identifying individuals at high risk for psychosis or mood disorders. The “prodrome” has become a fertile area of research, with a focus on early “treatment” even before the clinical syndrome of schizophrenia or mania appears. The goal is to try to delay, modify, or ameliorate incipient serious mental illness by using both pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.(“Psychiatry’s Future is Here“)

Instinctively, preventative health care seems like a good thing. Western medicine is often criticized for primarily responding to acute crises, instead of proactively promoting health and well-being. However, the reductionist flattening of minds into brains leads to categorical errors which pervert the Hippocratic principle to “do no harm”. Applying the medical paradigm of treating risks (instead of disorders) to mental conditions stretches the dangerously elastic diagnostic net beyond the breaking point.

Analogies between mental conditions and diseases of the body, such as the measles or heart failure, are often the point of departure for proponents of prodromal treatment. However, this rhetorical sleight of hand disguises many relevant disanalogies.  The pathologization of diverse mental states remains controversial, unlike life threatening viruses or organ failures. Furthermore, there is currently no casual theory explaining why some people’s psychological experiences degenerate into crisis. Arguably, there can never be such a theory until we make significant progress towards resolving the mind/body problem, (a.k.a. the “hard problem” of consciousness). Without a causal theory explaining the transitions between mental states, all prodromal diagnoses of mental conditions are necessarily speculative correlations.

The roots of prodromal diagnosis of mental conditions can be traced back to work on the prodromal identification of schizophrenia.

What is needed is not the early diagnosis of schizophrenia, but the diagnosis of pre-psychotic schizophrenia. We must learn to recognize that state of mind which will develop into schizophrenia unless appropriate measures are taken to prevent deterioration.[*]

However, the identification of reliable predictors of schizophrenia has proven to be notoriously difficult and conceptually slippery:

Identifying symptoms or signs that reliably predict onset would obviously aid attempts to prevent mental disorders. Such specific predictors do not currently exist. In fact, one could argue that if any such risk factors were identified they would be conceptualized as early phenomena of the disorder itself… The nonspecific nature of these common features is notable. [*]

The Diganostic Statistical Manual is the psychiatric bible, effectively the working definition of insanity. The clinical gaze embodied in its pages is rooted in behaviorism – the symptoms it defines are all observable behaviors. The trend towards prodromal mental diagnoses is frightening precisely because it cedes even more power to an already cold and inhumane apparatus, which fails to listen to the voices of the people it claims to treat. The risks of preemptive discipline and prescriptive moral judgment reek of rhymes with eugenics, and are simply too great and horrifying for this practice to continue. Patients are being indicted on the basis of hereditary factors, thought crimes, and innocuous deviant behavior.

Furthermore, the psychopharmacological treatments prescribed for these prodromal diagnoses are physically dangerous and psychologically damaging.  The atypical anti-psychotics that are often prescribed in these circumstances have been linked to excessive weight gain, metabolic disorders, and diabetes. The stigma attached to these diagnoses is also emotionally threatening. Advertising campaigns such as the award winning “Prescribe Early” poster have heightened the pressure to preventively prescribe dangerous medication, before it is too late. Children and teens often traverse defiant emotional terrain on their journey of self-discovery and becoming. Adult disapproval towards behaviors (smoking, drinking, inappropriateness, and irritability) and appearances (fashion, body piercings, hair style) has increasingly taken the form of chemical discipline,[*] with psychiatry’s permission and blessing.

That future of psychiatry is quite disturbed. Prodromal treatment is the latest progression in an ever constricting system of control. Preventative psychiatric treatment hints at forms of control that resonate with fears of omniscient surveillance, and we can begin to glimpse how grotesque these practices will become in an era of electronic medical records. Pathologizing the neurologically diverse is bad enough. Extending this attitude (and treatment) to those at risk of being neurologically diverse is downright evil.

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