RIP Aaron. You are not alone

The corner of the internet that I hang around in has been mourning all weekend with tributes, eulogies, and heartfelt sharing about the untimely death of Aaron Swartz.

I don’t remember meeting Aaron personally, but I have heard him speak, am friends with many of his friends, and was very aware of his work and activism.

I am furious and sad to hear that he took his own life. I have lost a few friends and relatives to suicide, and years ago wrestled with some of these demons myself. Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about politicizing this moment. There are strong arguments on both sides. Being persecuted by the state is horribly stressful and isolating, and I also feel strongly about many of issues that Aaron advocated for. But, I am concerned about responses that reduce and simplify Aaron’s complex decision. This post about suicide reporting on the internet raises the concern that sensational reporting causes an increase in suicides in the wake of the coverage.

What I want to contribute to this conversation is an important message to any geeks, hackers, or activists that are struggling with isolation, alienation, depression, or even suicidal thoughts. You are not alone. And, sometimes it takes alot of courage to decide to stay alive.

For the past 10 years, radical mental health groups like The Icarus Project have been developing support materials for activists that provide alternative ways of thinking and talking about mental health. Take a peek at their forums, publications, podcasts, documentaries, and more. They have really helped so many people rewrite their own narratives, and connect with others struggling with similar emotions.

In the past year or two especially, I have seen more and more geeks/hackers who are attempting to organize around these issues, eliminate stigma, and provide peer-support outside of the mainstream psychiatric paradigm. Geeks, hackers, and activists are especially suspicious of authority, and habitually question systems of power.  They are justifiably mistrustful of psychiatry, but need a place to turn to for support.

I don’t know the state of all of these projects, but they seem like a good place to pick up the conversation for how can we take better care of each other and provide kind of compassionate support we all need so horrible tragedies like Aaron’s, Ilya’s and countless others can be averted in the future.

  • Blue Hackers is a fledgling community of hackers dealing with depression
  • At HOPE#9 this past summer, there was a 3 hour (!) panel on Geeks and Depression. The notes and slides were posted here.
  • Just last month, at the Chaos Communications Conference (29c3), Violet Blue gave a talk on Hackers as a High-Risk population, and suggested a harm-reduction approach for thinking and talking about these issues.

It feels like there is an important conversation starting to happen here, and not just around free culture and prosecutorial abuse. How can we steer this conversation without reinforcing the stereotypes and stigmas around suicide?

Rainbows have nothing to hide

On my recent journey to the West Bank I learned about a wonderful Muslim holiday called Eid al-Adha.  Eid is a 4 day, family-focused holiday, celebrated with gift-giving and great feasting. The holiday commemorates the binding and non-sacrafice of Ishmael (since, in the Koran, it was Ishmael not Issac who was bound), and the Covenant between Abraham and the Lord.

When I learned about Eid, two questions came to mind:

  1. Why don’t Jews celebrate any holidays commemorating events that occurred in the book of Genesis?  [It is not really surprising that the religion of Moses takes its cue from the book of Exodus, but I found the omission surprising. However, I am not particularly interested in exploring  answers to this question].
  2. Does anyone on this seemingly God forsaken planet remember, never mind commemorate or renew, the covenant between Noah and the Lord?

Remember the story of Noah in the Bible? Though it is taught widely to children everywhere, I’ve been surprised at how the rarely it’s recalled. (Ed. note: In 2014 Darren Aronofsky (!) will be reminding us all how this went down, with Russel Crowe as Noah).

To recap: God commands Noah to build an ark and collect animal couples, 40 days/nights of rain, a raven, three doves, and an olive branch. Remember how it ends? Why are there so many songs about rainbows?

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, 10 and with every living thing that is with you — birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well — all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. 11 I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. 13 I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. 17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” *

Hmm… Sound relevant?

I just finished reading Imperiled Life: Revolution Against a Climate Catastrophe, and I am feeling the urgency of this calling.

I am thinking about starting a campaign that activates the mass communication networks known as organized religions, by short-circuiting the cognitive dissonance between fundamentalism and climate change denial. I want to invoke the Noahide covenant as an on-ramp to help educate religious folks about climate change, in the hopes of transforming their awareness into intention and action. Let’s help God keep his word, and hold up our end of the Rainbow!

An ambitious goal, to be sure, but we live in dire times. I realize that it might sound like there are logical gaps in this chain of reasoning, but I also believe convincing true believers using scientific reasoning is a dead end. I want to craft a hermeneutic argument, clothed in scripture, to convince the religions of the world to care. I want to turn Earth Day into a religious holiday.

And, I think we might be able to realize (and fund) the first stage of this awareness raising effort through merchandising.  I’m imagining rainbow flags, t-shirts, cups, hats, etc, covered with unifying symbol representing the solidarity of world religions. Something along the lines of Coexist, but more encompassing than just the Abrahamic faiths.  Something closer to the opening image on the World Festival app. Maybe something like this:

So, what url do you like best?  sacredrainbows.org, sacredrainbows.net, or sacredrainbows.us?

Quetzalcoatl and Back Again

It’s nice to be on the spring side of the winter solstice. Farewell, Apocalypse. Nice try.

What a year. In 2012 I occupied — Wall Street, Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and my dissertation. I catalyzed the production and distribution of Mindful Occupation, and helped organize the Icarus Project’s NYC 10 year anniversary event and art show.  And, I was privileged to visit the great Mediterranean capitals — Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. All while holding down a full-time job.

Some were not concerned that the world would end on 12/21, but instead, were horrified at the prospect that humanity will continue hurdling forward, business as usual. As many on our planet yearn for unity and the Most Great Peace, and there are hints we might be learning to direct, harness, and measure our collective intentions. But, as mystics have long understood, our collective choices will decide if we converge on a global state of war or peace.

All of my travels this year were transformative and intense, but my October trip to the West Bank was really the culmination of my hero’s journeys. I travelled there for the final stage of the project we began 2 years ago, trying to help Palestinian educators develop their capacity to improve their teaching excellence (Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine, Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data, If I forget you, O Palestine…).

I travelled with my friend and colleague, Mark Phillipson.  Together we delivered a keynote speech at the Palestine Technical University — Kadoorie, in TulKarm, and taught workshops on cutting edge, video-based, teacher training and assessment techniques.  The PTUK team officially opened the Multimedia and Educational Resources Center (MERC), and were raring to go. The MERC center is an impressive accomplishment, but I also experienced great sadness and disappointment at the unsustainability of the development grant. Just as we were finally getting some traction, the funding was finished.  I understood that unsustainability is a common failure of projects like this, but the firsthand experience felt worse than any theoretical critique.

My boss/advisor/mentor, Frank Moretti, was unable to make the trip this Fall, but recorded a video introduction to our keynote that set the stage for the rest of my trip. The introduction started out cordial and friendly, but 3/4 of the way through, Frank lobbed a handgranade was starker and sterner than any Mayan prophesy. He warns that unless educators incorporate the twin themes of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war into every stage of curriculum we are headed for a “collective calamity”:

This warning framed the rest of my trip, and the rest of the year. I’m still unpacking the fallout.

scaling inefficiencies

By Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale OndernemingenLast week I attended an amazing reading and film series group that felt more like a graduate seminar than a meetup. Cáfe de Cleyre has been gathering for 3+ hours weekly, for the past 3 months, and exploring the theme of Direct Action in theory and practice. I attended their ninth gathering where the the group explored mental health as direct action. They screened Crooked Beauty and read excerpts of Mindful Occupation and other Icarus Project publications. The topic was organized independently of anyone directly involved with the Mindful Occupation project, and this was a refreshing reminder of the power of media. I learned that the CdC is run by two primary facilitators, who keep the operation running, and each week’s topic is facilitated by two more people who volunteer to run that week’s conversation. The night I joined, over 25 people attended, and I was very impressed with participant’s commitment and the level of discourse.

The evening’s discussion was inspirational, but in this post I want to focus on the group’s format. On the surface, Cafe de Cleyre looks alot like a traditional reading group.  However, as I was reflecting on the organizing involved to bring this many people together—on an ad-hoc basis—I realized that digital communications play a large role in making assemblies like these possible. As I understand, group attendance varies significantly, week to week, as participants join for the discussions they are interested in. In years past, it was possible to organize a reading group around a particular theme, but the ad-hoc, on-demand spontaneity of this series would be much harder to maintain prior to social networking. For sure, it happened, but the internet has greatly facilitated this.

I bring up this point in direct relation to the conversations swirling in educational technology around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Columbia University is actively experimenting in this area now,  and there are great debates of what MOOCs are, and what, if any, value do they offer.  While access is not an end if of itself, I agree with Anya Kamenetz that, access to knowledge is generally a good thing. To be sure, granting more dominance to already powerful voices threatens diversity, but that is one of the reasons that the evaluation of MOOCs needs to be tempered by genre.

Many of the conversations about MOOCs also stress the efficiencies of scaling.   As a programmer, ‘efficiency’ is often my euphemism for ‘lazy’ (in the best sense), but it is important to point out that scaling isn’t the only way we could decide to leverage technology for learning.

I am reminded of another extreme example of this — May First/People link has recently launched a mentored training program called the People of Color Techie Training Program “for activists of color to become professional-level, politically progressive and movement involved technologists”.  May First is using communications technology to connect remotely with geographically dispersed learners, but in just about every sense, they are using technology to scale down – supporting 1-on-1 direct encounters, instead of the mass broadcast of lectures to 180k students.

Not all progress is driven by maximizing efficiency, and some of the most interesting educational moments happen at the smallest scales.

Hide your kids

 

It’s back to school season, and if you’ve glanced up from your smartphone while walking the streets of New York City, you are sure to have noticed a new campaign that is sweeping the city’s billboards and phone booths.

 

Children’s Mental Health MATTERS

Where Science Meets Hope for Children’s Mental Health

 

Who could possibly object to children’s health and well being?

The Child Mind Institute, whose “Billboard is now at Penn Station!” is a recently founded non-profit “committed to finding more effective treatments for childhood psychiatric and learning disorders, building the science of healthy brain development, and empowering children and their families with help, hope, and answers.”.  According to their website, they don’t accept funding directly from pharmaceutical companies. Anyone want to help me start cross-checking Pharma’s ties to their staff and board?

In a gushing profile of the organization and its founder, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the New York Times reported last summer that they are awash in millions of dollars of funding, have 14 clinicians on staff, and a former editor of the New York magazine is editing their website. Koplewicz is also the go-to doc for helping celebrities and the 1% “manage” their children. The story glosses over Koplewicz’s messy departure from NYU to start the Child Mind Institute.

“[Koplewicz’s] main mission in life, he contended, is to remove any stigma from mental illness among children and teenagers, make it merely something to be managed and overcome as it was with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder before it.” In his critique of Marcia Angell’s two-part series in the New York Review of Books on the epidemic of mental illness Koplewicz stakes out his position clearly: “In the meantime, we have patients, in our case children and adolescents, who desperately need help. These children may be out of control, overwhelmed by anxiety, dangerously aggressive, disorganized in their communication, floundering in school. We need to help them. Medications, often along with behavioral therapy, can have a transformative effect.” These are the symptoms that Koplewicz wants concerned parents to be vigilant about patrolling: Child Mind Institute Symptom Checker.

To me, Koplewicz reads like a raving megalomaniac, and his devotion and conviction are more frightening than the fictitious evil masterminds he claims are posited by Psychiatry’s critics. I get the sense that he genuinely believes his own spin. He worships at the alter of “objectivity”—”We would like to see objective research catch up with the clinical realities but can’t wait until that happens. Furthermore, falling back on pure non-pharmacological treatment is not the better alternative, since these treatments have rarely undergone objective evaluation.”—and the Child Mind Institute is outfitted with “the latest in brain imaging technology”. Koplewicz wields a formidable rhetoric, but is almost a caricature of the scientific realists in the Science Wars.

This post raises more questions than it answers. Who is funding the Child Mind Institute? Why now? How can organizations developing compassionate languages to describe mental diversity and difference, like The Icarus Project, respond to these campaigns? What roles do “objectivity” and “risk aversion” have in shaping the dynamics of this controversy? Should anything be stigmatized?

UPDATE 4/22/2013: I  tweeted about this ages ago, but realized that the following tidbit never made it into this post.

If you visit the wonderful Drug Industry Document Archive and search for ‘Koplewicz’, you will find that he was one of the co-authors on the now infamous Paxil 329 study that cost Glaxo Smith Klein $3 BILLION in settlements in 2012.

The Paxil 329 study tried to cover up the finding that not only does Paxil not work in children, but that it makes them more suicidal than a sugar pill did. The Dept of Justice found the study to be misleading and fraudulent.  I am pretty sure that the study was ghost written, but I think that makes his credibility even worse.

See also:

Bossewitch, Jonah (2011). Pediatric Bipolar and the Media of Madness “Drugs and Media: New Perspectives On Communication Consumption and Consciousness”, eds. MacDougall, R. C., New York : Continuum: 2011

Special thanks to Dyan Neary for helping out on this post.

Pyramid Schemes

A few months back I visited Cairo and cracked the mysteries of the Pyramids. Or, more accurately, cracked open some exciting new lines of inquiry. I was visiting Egypt for work, but had some time for sight-seeing along the way. I had visited Egypt about 20 years ago (!) but had largely skipped Cairo, and we’ve both changed a bit since then.

The day after we arrived in Cairo we visited the Egyptian Museum. When Frank and I visited Israel we discussed how national museums are often used to assert a national ideology by anchoring it within a particular historical narrative.  Striking insight, especially since Mubarak had recently commissioned his son to begin construction of a new national museum that was in progress when we visited (mid-revolution). The current national museum dates back to British colonial times, and feels like a warehouse. It is filled with countless riches, but it’s really almost impossible to navigate without a guide. I thought it was notable that the museum makes no mention of the Bible or the Exodus, even if it is to point out that there is no historical record of the events described (except for one possible mention of the Israelites, but even that is downplayed).

We had a wonderful tour guide taking us through the museum, and as we travelled through history I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing something important in our interpretation of these artifacts. The patron saint of my PhD program, James Carey, draws an important analytic distinction between communication as ritual, and communication as transmission. While there is no sharp line between these two modalities of communication, it is often helpful to distinguish between the two. So, for example, many of us read the paper ever day as a ritual, more like taking a bath than receiving information.

When we reached Tutankhamun’s treasures it hit me like a ton of limestone bricks. Through their burial rituals, the Egyptians were trying to transmit information, but we were largely interpreting their rites and artifacts as ritual. Having read works like Serpent in the Sky, I have an inkling as to how structures like the Temple of Luxor (and Solomon’s temple, for that matter) were attempts to represent their society’s entire cosmology. What if the Egyptian burial rituals were an attempt to transmit the state of the art of Egyptian knowledge? All of it—astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy/religion/metaphysics?

The first obvious question is the identity of the senders and receivers. If we take their myths at face value, the soul of the king would soon return to the his mummy.  Perhaps he might need a refresher course in Egyptian cosmology after the journey?  Cliff notes, at least? Or, perhaps these burial chambers were intended as time capsules. Messages intended for future generations? Future civilizations? Or, maybe just future generations of Egyptians (their civilization lasted thousands of years). Perhaps these attempts to capture the totality of Egyptian knowledge were like pissing contests between the priests.  How succinctly and elegantly could they represent Egyptian knowledge?

This was my frame of mind during my stay in Cairo and the questions I was mulling over as we visited the pyramids of Giza later that week.

Co(s)mic Interlude

Did you ever hear the one about the pyramids as time machines? It goes something like this:

The pyramids are constructed out of tons of limestone bricks. The molecule that makes up Limestone has two energy states. It’s lower energy state is its equilibrium. However, the molecule can also be excited into its higher energy state. Supposedly, this state could be induced by an acoustic wave at the correct resonant frequency. In the pyramids, this was achieved by a chorus of priests chanting at the appropriate frequencies.

During initiation rites, an initiate stood in the burial chamber of the pyramid while the priests chanted. This excited the limestone molecules. At a precise moment, the priests all stopped chanting, allowing the limestone molecules to collapse back into their lower energy state. This produced a wave of energy, all focused on the burial chamber. The initiate fell into a trance, whereupon they dreamed they travelled to the future.  They remained in this trance indefinitely… that is, until they heard this story!

Ha. Get it?

Space-Time Bouys

The pyramids are massive. Beyond human scale. They made me wonder…

For a while I’ve believed that time travel really must have really picked up on this planet around the invention of photography. For a fairly mundane reason. Your calibrations need to be flippin’ pinpoint. Time traveling can be though of as tele-transporting, through space-time. So, you need to be able to safely and reliably target your destination coordinates.The last thing you want to do when teleporting is materialize in the middle of a rock or a tree or worse. Photographs, when combined with the exact date and time of their exposure, provide such coordinates to future chrono-naughts looking for a safe journey.

In the presence of the pyramids it dawned on me that there is another solution to this safety equation: Hold your spatial coordinates fixed!  This would work best if you could build a structure that would be around for thousands of years, so you could be sure your point of arrival/departure would be around on both ends of your trip. The pyramid’s burial chambers pretty much fit this bill (modulo the irregularities of the earth’s orbit, the motion of our galaxy, etc. Quantum entanglement to the rescue?).

Could the pyramids satisfy these constraints? Maybe. This hypothesis could go a long way towards explaining the “curse of the mummies“. Could King Tut’s burial chamber be one of the last operational teleportation chambers? 3D printers designed to reconstruct information beamed from somewhen else (after all, the necessary atoms are sure to be in place for the reconstruction)?  Or, would the Egyptian pyramids merely decorative cribs of the original Atlantean devices, and were never fully operational?

All this suggests that Moses was a sleeper agent who infiltrated the Egyptian priesthood to liberate their most well-guarded secrets. Of course, the evidence of his handiwork is mapped out clearly in the blueprints of the tabernacle.

In Dec 2012 our sun will align with the black hole at the center of the milky way (or, will it?). A pretty good spatial-temporal landmark, if I were navigating. Whenever.

Forthcoming: The End of Forgetting

In Spring ’05 I took a class with Eben Moglen on the privacy, anonymity, and surveillance beat. The experience changed my life and with tons of support from my teachers and cohorts, I have been working on these ideas ever since.

A few years ago I joined forces with Prof. Aram Sinnreich, after a great conversation at a free culture salon. Together we reframed and refined the work, and co-presented it at Media in Transition 6 in Spring ’09.

We rinsed, lathered, and repeated our revisions, and just learned that our paper, The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the Panopticon will be published in an upcoming issue of New Media & Society.

Damn. Scholarly communication is slow, but occasionally fulfilling.

Aram will also be presenting our work at this year’s International Communications Association conference.  Sadly, I can’t make it, but if you are near Phoenix this weekend, stop by Camelback A at noon on Sunday!

7337 WikiLeaks, ICTs, and the Shifting Global Public Sphere

Sunday, 12:00-13:15, Camelback A

Global Communication and Social Change, #ica_gcsc  Communication and Technology, #ica_cat

A Theoretical Model for the Wikileaks Phenomenon (Top Paper, Also Featured in Virtual Conference) Rebeca Agneta Pop, U of Oklahoma, USA

Transcending Boundaries? WikiLeaks and a Transborder Public Sphere Edgar C. Simpson, Ohio U, USA

WikiLeaks and Freedom of Expression: Perspectives Voiced via the International Press Iveta Imre, U of Tennessee, USA
Ivanka Radovic, U of Tennessee, USA
Catherine A. Luther, U of Tennessee, USA

The End of Forgetting: Strategic Agency Beyond the Panopticon

Jonah Bossewitch, Columbia U, USA
Aram A. Sinnreich, Rutgers SC and I, USA

 

#OccupyAPA: Mad Power, Mad Pride, Mad Action

 

Last weekend I went down to Philly to Occupy the American Psychiatric Association’s yearly conference (#OccupyAPA). I joined the protests on Saturday, attended the APA on Sunday, and participated in the Radical Caucus, hosted by a group of psychiatrists attending the conference on Sunday night. The weekend was overflowing with information and emotion, and I when I finishing unpacking it all I might just have a dissertation (or, at least a fat chapter).

This year’s APA was especially controversial since the DSM5 is scheduled to be published in 2013. Over a decade in production, and already delayed more than once, the DSM5 is, in a word, disastrous. Many psychiatrists, including the lead author of DMS-IV, have spoken out vehemently against both the processes and outcomes of DSM5.

[CALL TO ACTION: The final round of public comments on DSM5 is now open, until June 15th, 2012.]

The controversies around DSM-5 coupled with the energy of Occupy Wall Street, brought activists and the media out in force. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page story on the protests (Former patients protest psychiatric convention), New Scientist covered the protests alongside their DSM coverage (Label jars not people), The Grey Lady covered and opined the DSM disaster (though not the protests), the BBC was filming, NPR was recording, and at least 2 documentary film crews (Cause of Death: Unknown), and a multitude of citizen journalists captured and reported on the actions.

Saturday morning kicked off at Quaker Friend’s Center, with a powerful lineup of psychiatric survivors firing up the protesters with speeches, songs, and changes. Hundreds of protestors marched through the streets of Philly to the main convention center, many wearing psychopharmacomania t-shirts, and holding creatively maladjusted signs.

The protest culminated in a label rip, staged outside of the main convention center (The Alchemist makes an appearance at 2:25, warning that psychiatry is a threat to itself and to others).:

The Icarus Project represented, and we were thrilled to distribute physical copies of the eagerly anticipated Mindful Occupation to protestors, psychiatrists, and the media.

The protests were a rush, but for me, the surprise thrill was gaining admission to the APA conference itself on Sunday. I attended a few talks and a poster session, irrefutably detailing and confirming my research and predictions. Then I hit paydirt. The vendor exhibition hall. HOLY FUCK. Highlights included:

Future Blockbuster? Anti-psychotic action in 3D:

A live psychiatrist, hired by AstraZeneka, delivering their powerpoint presentation (she only squirmed a little when I asked her if this was the drug that killed 3-year old Rebecca Reilly):

and devices that only psychiatry can dream up uses for:


 

 

 

 

 

 

The Radical Caucus deserves a follow-up post of of its own. For starters, Brad Lewis’ brilliant breakdown seamlessly applies the hard-fought lessons of academic theory to the trenches of emotionally-loaded, real-life conflict. I have much more to say about this meeting, but first I need to track down who swallowed the comment that I posted in response to Brad’s post ;-).

For now, I’ll leave you with a teaser for next year’s APA: “Pursuing Wellness Across the Lifespan” – I guess that covers kids, the elderly, vets, prisoners, pregnant women, and whoever else is ensnared by DSM-5’s diagnostic nets (including the appendix).

Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine

“Education is the unfinished business of the revolution.”
Malak Zaalouk, Director of the Middle East Institute of Higher Education

On my recent trip to Cairo I spent a week at the American University of Cairo participating in a week-long professional development conference for Palestinian educators. The conference included educators from five different Palestinian universities—many of whom were meeting for the first time in Cairo, despite working and living in the same city.

The experience brought me back to last summer’s visit to Palestine, which I wrote about here. Interacting with my Palestinian colleagues in a (relatively) free country was stimulating and engaging, but I was haunted by thoughts of the oppressive conditions back home they would soon return to.

The conference was organized around establishing centers for academic excellence with a focus on the role of new media in supporting teaching and learning. My Columbia cohorts and I presented a keynote on Media Analysis and Social Pedagogy (Frank’s intro, Part 1, Part 2), and throughout the week we discussed the interplay between technical and pedagogical innovation.

The elephant in the room was the desperate condition of basic telecommunications infrastructure in Palestineit’s difficult building a curriculum around blogs or wikis when Palestinian connectivity in the West Bank is notoriously unreliableeven when it works, it’s slower than dial-up. The real tragedy is this digital divide is artificially manufactured and brutally enforced. Last summer I had a better connection over complementary wifi on an Israeli Egged bus than at the Palestinian University PTUK.

When I visited Palestine I experienced the reality of the occupation first hand. I have written about how so many aspects of lifefuel, electricity, food, water, mobility, connectivityare regulated and controlled. As I learned last summer, the Israeli government forbids Palestinian telecom from developing 3G networks, prevents the Palestinian Authority from laying fiber between cities or connecting directly to the Mediterranean backbone, and businesses have a very difficult time importing routers. At the same time, the Palestinian activists who are trying to develop free municipal wifi in Ramallah are being thwarted, but not by the Israeli government. They are facing staunch opposition from Palestinian Telecom corporations.

I have come to realize that the forces of the Occupation are on a collision course with Capitalism. There is simply too much damn money to be made on data plans and broadband. I also believe the Israeli government has read The Net Delusion, and are arrogant enough to think that they can control the situation by surveilling it. The IDF is agressively targeting media networks. Ultimately, I think they will allow this infrastructure to be built, making it all-but-inevitable that better ICT infrastructure is coming to Palestine. The questions are: What will the Palestinians do with it when it arrives? Can government surviellance contain the power redistribution that networked organizing tantalizingly promises?

One of the key themes of our keynote at AUC was the importance of developing meaningful superstructures on top of technical infrastructure. At the conference we explored ways in which educational technology could be combined with teaching strategies to support peer-to-peer learning,  the flattening of traditional classroom hierarchies, the displacement of conventional teacher-student power relations, and authentic learning activities. Of course, educational technology alone won’t bring these outcomes. In many situations educational technology serves to perpetuate and reinforce the status quo.

These cultures of practice could spread further and faster if the Palestinians learn from our blunders, and create Freedom in their Cloud.  As this infrastructure is imagined and built , there is an opportunity to leap-frog over our mistakes and develop an distributed network architecture, instead of the centralized architecture we have fallen for. Imagine a Palestinian mesh-based cloud, running peer-to-peer social networking services. Such a vision is not a pipe dream, in the age of the Freedom Box, Mondonet, and Diaspora.

Short of fulfilling this dream entirely, it would be tremendous for Palestinian educators to develop their own, local, free/libre, educational software services instead of relying exclusively on free-of-charge centralized corporate solutions—like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—that render their students into products.

Over the week of the conference, as I learned more about the situation at my colleague’s universities, I realized that few of the eleven universities in the West Bank would have the necessary resources to adequately support a new-media teaching and learning center. A well functioning center needs to staff systems administrators, programmers, designers, and video specialists to support the needs of the educational technologists, and in turn, the faculty and students. However, while no single university could support a center like this, I began to wonder how the Palestinian universities might coordinate and pool their resources. Establishing an single independent institution (likely a technical NGO) that services all of the Universities in Palestine, and perhaps even all of the schools in Palestine, might be the next obvious step in the educational capacity-building project that I have been involved with.

I have encountered a similar model elsewhere. Groundwire (formerly One NorthWest) is a US non-profit that  was launched with the intention of exclusively servicing environmental organizations in the Pacific North-West. A similar kind of organization could be established in Palestine to service the educational sector with educational technology solutions. An institution like this could function of a hub, mediating interactions between different Palestinian Universities, sharing successes and failures, while continually building local institutional knowledge.

Unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, this effort would be conceived from the start with training, support, and local engagement. It’s all about developing cultures of practice, and sustainable models for the deployment of infrastructure and superstructure.

Will the immanent Palestinian networks lead to greater freedom?  Maybe. Perhaps with enough will, determination, and work. The iron is hot.

Jonah and the Cetacea

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Cairo, with a 36-hour stopover in Istanbul on the way home. While there, I learned something wonderful about the meaning of my name that continues to make me smile.

While I am not a strict Nominative Determinist, I do take Plato’s Cratylus dialogue more seriously than most. I love learning new names, and often ask people what their names mean. Perhaps this fascination stems from the fact that my ambivalent parents gave me 5 (!) names, not including my surname, and my godfather gave me one more after I injured my back.  I have spent a great deal of time contemplating names and attempting to integrate mine into a coherent identity.

Growing up I was always the only ‘Jonah’ I knew. In the 90’s the name gained popularity, but I still reflexively turn everytime I hear it (I can only imagine that Johns and Michaels learn to tune these out).

The Old Testament’s Book of Jonah is a fabulous story. I’ve studied it closely and continue to find gems of wisdom and mystical insights. I have always appreciated that Jonah was: 1) One of the few (only?) prophets in the Old Testament sent to help the gentiles. 2) One of the only prophets in the Old Testament that anyone ever listened to!  In the closing coda, a mysterious “gourd” casts a shadow over Jonah’s mind (what kind of plant was this magical qiyqayown?), leading him to a transcendental experience in the desert where he learned to appreciate the universal nature of humanity. Great stuff – succinct, but it packs a punch.

For a while I have known that Jonah the prophet was called Yunus (يونس) in the Qur’an. Jonah’s story in the Qur’an is quite similar to the Old Testament, though much shorter  (in the Qur’an Jonah is close friends with Jinns ;-)).  In Hebrew Jonah (יוֹנָה) means ‘dove’.  Noah sent out 3 Jonahs to see if the flood waters had receded. But, to the best of my knowledge, Yunus does not mean anything special in Arabic. In Istanbul I learned that in Turkish, Yunus means dolphin.

What a trip. In the past, in order to read the story of Jonah literally, I used to have to postulate UFOs or Yellow Submarines. I wasn’t quite as skeptical as this critic, but the story never added up on the plane of mundane reality.

What if Jonah was saved by a dolphin(s)? Instead of being swallowed by a ‘Big Fish’, he could have been engulfed by a pod of dolphins. Sailors being saved by dolphins was a common motif in the ancient world. For example, Telemachus, son of Ulysses, was saved by dolphins, and to this day, we continue to confirm reports of humans saved by dolphins.

Doves and Dolphins. What a name.

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