Category Archives: Civic Media

Area Comedian Explains Humor to MIT

(blogged by @mstem and @natematias)

Today at the Media Lab, Baratunde Thurston is taking a moment out of Vacation Mode to have a conversation with the Media Lab community. How can we describe Baratunde? His personal website labels him a “politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future.” He was director of digital at The Onion until 2012. His most recent book is How to be Black (2012). He has also started a new company, Cultivated Wit.

Joi Ito hops on stage and tells us about the Media Lab Director’s Fellows program, which aims to make the Media Lab less of a silo and more of a platform, and expand the range of the Lab. People have asked Joi what he’s looking for in a fellow; his answer is that each of them should be wildly different from one another. If you can detect a theme, we’re doing it wrong.

Baratunde is back from his three week, three day vacation from the internet. It was more of a staycation, hanging out in Brooklyn. He’s easing his way back into things.

“Unlike an alien, I wasn’t manufactured. I came from other lives” Baratunde tells us. His grandfather was born into slavery, taught himself to read, and moved the family to Washington DC in the late 19th century, helping build roads in the area. His mother’s mother was a clerk in the US Supreme Court, the first black employee they had.

“My mother was a rabblerouser,” Baratunde says. She was out in the streets, fully down with civil rights, and all over the radio.

“I’ve successfully made a living lying to people, and calling it ‘jokes’”
Across the four generations of his family, Baratunde sees an arc of expression, from a man who taught himself to read in the bonds of slavery, to a woman who entered the halls of power, to a woman who banged on those walls, to Baratunde himself, who plays and redefines those walls.

Baratunde grew up in DC in the 1980s, where his mom foresaw the importance of computers. He was big on taking things apart, and sometimes, putting them back together. Baratunde got into journalism through his college newspaper, and also expressed himself with standup comedy.

As an undergrad at Harvard, Baratunde got the chance to build an 8-bit computer from scratch. “Any time I have to do something hard, I remember, I built a computer out of wires”.

“My areas of most fun over the last few years have been at the intersection of humor, general creativity, and digital technology.”

“The Onion is very specific about who they let into the walls of that kingdom.” After several rounds of interviews and producing his own microsite, he was offered the role of web editor (in addition to the writing position he had applied for).

“We got to pull off a lot of stunts”
There’s a cheap way to express yourself in new formats, Baratunde says. You take what you did in old media, and cut and paste it into the new platform. You take your print headline, and cut and paste it into Twitter with a link. This isn’t real adoption of new platforms. At the Onion, they tried to create stories that carried out a conversation with technology. In the case of “Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face” they actually built the videogame. People played and reviewed it as they would a real game. It turned out to be a stress-relieving experience for people riding the subway. They built a mobile version, but “Apple rejected it, because they’re fascists.”

“I take FourSquare very seriously…I like being Mayor of places”

Baratunde’s company, Cultivated Wit, is inspired by a quote from philosopher/poet/soldier Horace:

“A cultivated wit, one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more competently and vigorously than can severity alone.

Another project, Comedy Hack Day, takes your typical hack day and adds comedians to the mix.

ShoutRoulette, which won the first hack day, lets you find people on the internet you disagree with, and yell at them.

Location-Based Racism is an upcoming app that helps you find stuff you don’t want. It turns out that a lot of physical locations are tagged with the racist experiences people have had at them.

Discussion

“Is comedy a user interface for getting your head around difficult topics?” Joi asks. Baratunde thinks of comedy as a language for translating difficult, awkward, and contentious issues, making them more addressable to people.

“Laughter–that’s magic. It’s emotional and intellectual at the same time.”
Comedy can serve the role of sugar-coated pill, where a community can talk about painful issues like police brutality without feeling so powerless.

Baratunde’s early standup riffed on the news. He literally sat at a desk on stage, where he earnestly tried to inform people. He’s evolved since then.

Joi asks, “It feels like comedy is virality of play. Once you want to learn, there are a lot of tools. Getting kids to play in the first place is sometimes hard. Do you think of comedy as a way to pull people into play?” “I love the idea that there’s more science to art than we’ve detected thus far. But too much science kills the art,” Baratunde says. “I hope robot comedy doesn’t take off too much.” He talks to us about techniques in comedy and the need for the unknowable magic parts of humour. Joi responds, “that’s what chess grandmasters said until they got beaten by computers.”


Baratunde talks about a project, Fox The News, where they took real news stories and made them sound ridiculous. Maybe 30% of what they created was legitimately funny, and 70% of it was nonsense.

Joi asks, are we born funny?
Baratunde offers that it’s 13% genetics and like, 5% diet. But he wasn’t a funny child — he was really earnest and political. He had trouble rooting for the Washington Redskins, knowing that a similar team name about black people would be unconscionable.

Baratunde lists some lazy apps created by developers. Some were a little predictable. Developers created an “annoying girlfriend” app, and a “kick someone in the balls” app. The Sunlight Foundation classed things up when they contributed Lobbyists From Last Night, which tells you what dinners and events people in power enjoyed the night before. Baratunde feels it’s important to bridge the earnest information in the Sunlight Foundation’s APIs with the general voting public, who don’t necessarily seek out that sort of information.

Joi points out that The Onion’s funniest stuff is usually teetering on the edge of social taboo, and asks if we need to be able to poke fun at everything. Baratunde stresses how critical context is: the timing, the speaker, the audience, are all very important factors in the line between ‘funny’ and ‘asshole’. You don’t have to look far to see people who have crossed that line: Rush Limbaugh, stand up comics crassly picking on homeless people. But there are intelligent ways to talk about sensitive topics. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, we can target our own ignorance of Haiti as the butt of our jokes, rather than the victims themselves. Don’t use comedy as an excuse to be mean.

“White people reading How To Be Black in public is my favorite thing. The people who buy the ebooks are just cowards taking public transit.”

Joi asks Baratunde, what do we do about the caring problem, where people just aren’t interested in learning about other places? Can humor connect people and help us care about new things? Comedians are often more approachable than politicians, Baratunde tells us, especially across cultures. He tells us the story of a comedy show he did in Amsterdam among Surimanese immigrants. Cadence, facial expressions, and tone come across even if you don’t understand the words. We can build an empathetic connection across massive language divides.

Joi asks about the idea of user-generated comedy. If it takes lots of practice to be a great writer “are people funnier now because of the Internet?”
There’s now more comedy in the world, just like there are more photos than there has ever been. But per capita? Open question. Twitter has raised the bar for the comedy that’s out there. Comedy’s been disrupted just like music and film. Some of the funniest material originates from amateurs, and agents and bookers are now looking to YouTube and Twitter for new talent.

Sure, there’s a lot of crap. “If I see another portrait video, I’m going to lose my mind. Just turn your phone.”

People on Twitter make the obvious jokes immediately after an event, eliminating some of the low-hanging fruit for comedians. Comedians have to react immediately or raise the bar on their stuff.

The Awkward Black Girl series is an example of someone making a show about their life without waiting for permission from an executive.

Technology is changing how people find and share comedy, Joi acnkowledges. He also points to Damn You, Autocorrect, which offers comedy caused by machinery. How does Baratunde see technology and comedy coming together?

Baratunde says that we can’t easily imagine the future– it just happens. He talks to us about the idea of data comedy– the ability to find absurd patterns in data.

Much of comedy is repetition and playing with patterns, so aggregation of material like Damn You, Autocorrect and Texts From Last Night work.

We can have fun with interfaces, too. Baratunde enjoys the Google Voice text composition field. The character counter lets the user know how many SMSes their message will send, and when you approach three messages, the numerical counter turns to “Really??”

Questions

Fellow fellow Christopher Bevans asks when Baratunde realized that he could integrate all three of his strengths (comedy, media, and technology).

Swine flu.” It was more of a media virus than an actual influenza virus. Baratunde looked to see if anyone else had produced a parody Twitter account, and found only useful, scientific accounts. So he produced a Swine Flu account, and thought of it as an actual character, an off-putting little piggy. Baratunde went all transmedia, with Facebook Pages and voicemail accounts and a full personality for the swine flu.

The Twitter parody account has become a genre of its own. BPGlobalPR, Invisible Obama, and others now spring to life moments after an event or meme starts to take off.

Does internet sharing force you to constantly produce new material?
Standup is far more complicated than people realize. There’s an entire arch, put together over many experiments with what works and what doesn’t. It takes real time to put together a set. Sarah Silverman has spoken about how realtime sharing has broken the comedic process.

Some react by fighting it. The Oprah show confiscates your phones, NBC tape delays the Olympics. But it takes a special kind of

“No one complains about musicians playing the same song a thousand times. They demand it.” They say, “Play the first song that made you popular! The song that makes you sick at night! I don’t want to hear your innovation!”

To comics, the audience demands the opposite: “Don’t do what you’ve perfected! I want to hear the new, unfunny stuff!”

On multiple identities:
People sometime introduce Baratunde with something like, “Now this black guy is going to talk to you for a bit.” But he’s a lot more than a black guy. Just like the bank executives who destroyed the economy are also fathers, and stuff.

“How does race impact the interpretation of your comedy?” Shaka asks. Sometimes there’s a massive gap between what club audiences expect and what Baratunde does. When people see a black guy, people expect to see a criminal — we’ve been programmed to anticipate that. People might expect a rapper or an athlete — does Yoga count? By talking about race, writing the book, and giving a talk at South By Southwest, Baratunde see himself as part of a trend in which the Internet is broadening what’s possible (including people like Kamau Bell).

Baratunde talks about more recent projects, including cultivated wit and comedy hacks. During the last election, he and his colleagues created worked with Fight For the Future on Your Excuse Sucks, a website that tried to use comedy to shame people and undermine people’s excuses to not vote. It provided videos friends could send you in response to specific excuses.

Someone on the internet asks, “How’d that internet vacation go?”
It was wonderful. Baratunde is usually a promoter of constant connectivity, but realized this brings with it a certain baseline level of stress. He rediscovered word of mouth and eye contact. “We have a 3D, HD, large screen window provided by biology.” It was good to reground himself.

Ethan Zuckerman and the Levers of Change

Liveblog of Ethan Zuckerman’s Future of News keynote, composed with Nathan Matias. Errors are likely ours.

The usual conversation about innovation in journalism held by people who work in journalism assumes that there’s one main problem in the space: if we could just work out the revenue issue, we’d be fine forever. But it’s also not the case that cross-subsidies from lighter matter will help us support the journalism we need for people to be effective civic actors.

What if we’ve got the problem wrong? Sometimes the stuff we think we’re good at–producing high quality journalism that helps people figure out what they might do in society–turns out to be stuff we’re not nearly as good at as we thought. This may well be one of the core problems of journalism.

Ethan offers two fairly easy arguments, and a fairly difficult one:

1) journalism matters (goes mostly unchallenged in this room)

2) civics is changing (particularly for younger people and for people who identify with the internet as their native medium)

3) journalism needs to change

Ethan invokes Michael Schudson, and his essay, “Six or Seven Things the News Can Do for Democracy” in the book Why Democracies need an Unlovable Press. Schudson wants us to focus journalism on the hardest problems in democracy, and to use journalism as a way to move forward.

Schudson establihes six or seven functions for news in a democracy:

The professionals are still play a critical role to inform us. We’re all interested in how we get informed by news, and figure out what has happened or not happened. There are reports of police raids of the opposition party’s headquarters during elections in Ghana, but we’re unable to verify if this has actually happened. We rely on journalists to verify, with trusted sources and interviews and eyewitnesses.

For investigations, journalists tend to lean on large organisations, often because it’s an enormous amount of work and requires a lot of legal protection. Hearst once said, “The news is the stuff they don’t want you to print, and the rest is advertising.” Investigations are one of the most difficult, precious things journalists bring to civic dialogue.

Analysis has shifted radically in online, but it actually shifted much earlier. We often decry partisan media, but it’s prevalent because it’s the cheapest television out there. It’s easy film people with a loud mouth, a lot of opinions, and a book to sell. There is no shortage of analysis, an area where citizens can do a great job; talented amateurs can do a much better job than professionals — Nate Silver’s humble origins are a great example of this.

Public Fora is an area where we’d think citizen media would really change things. We can let everyone share their opinion now, and as a result, we’ve stopped reading comments sections. The barrier to entry of sending a letter to the Editor may have served a basic, if minimal, filtering role for constructive thoughts.

Social Empathy is the idea that, in a representative democracy, not everyone is going to have a voice, and not everyone is able to use their voice. We often speak and act on behalf of people who cannot vote, whether because they’re children, or felons, or live other places and are affected by our foreign policy. Social empathy is the role journalism plays to get us to pay attention to people we might not otherwise pay attention to. Documentary film does a wonderful job in this role, but a lot of media has had a difficult time achieving social empathy. The organization Ethan co-founded, Global Voices, attempts to do this by sharing stories written by bloggers around the world.

Mobilization can drive people nuts. Is advocacy journalism journalism? Does solutions journalism undercut the mission of journalism? Schudson reminds us that we hope that every so often the news gets us sufficiently incensed that we decide to do something. That’s more than voting. It involves creating change in whatever form is needed.

If we take change seriously, we need to accept that participatory media is more than participating in making media. With ‘participatory media,’ Ethan’s looking for a term that’s richer than ‘social media.’ Participatory media, for Ethan, is media which supports us in having a voice. Media industry people thought that this was going to be the revolution — that the news would include a much wider set of participants.

The actual transformation has been much greater. Participatory media goes beyond media to involve people taking action, and the role media serves to enable that action. To understand why we might not have the problems with journalism fully worked out, we need to think about the kinds of action that journalism can support.

A potential seventh role for media is to promote representative democracy. The structures we already have at hand in our democracy can be seen as a path towards mobilization.

Civics is changing, Ethan argues. The latest presidential election involved some big changes in American politics. We elected our first lesbian senator, our first buddhist senator, and our first Hindu representative. The US is becoming more diverse, more multicultural, and we’re seeing more faces in politics. If 2008 was about Obama as president and America dealing with those historical wounds, then 2012 was about America dealing with what it means to be a rainbow nation.

Why did we miss that chance to reflect on this remarkable change? Almost imm after the election, we went straight to the fiscal cliff discussion. Why’s that? We have a very dysfunctional Congress that’s dragging its feet unable to get things done.

Ethan grew up with a different version of democracy, instilled by civic education like Schoolhouse Rock. This model of how a bill becomes a law is wildly outdated, and is probably better described by Senator Bob Graham’s America: The Owner’s Manual. But for this blueprint to work, Congress needs to be interested in passing law and capable of passing law.

If you believe the levers of democracy have basically rusted into place, it’s no longer believable that calling your senator will lead to any change. Ethan isn’t the only crazy person who thinks like this, showing a a slide of the Tea Party, Occupy, Anonymous, and WikiLeaks.

If you look at where politics is going over the last decade or so, many of these movements that have gained momentum were movements that expressed a lack of confidence in Congress’s ability to enact change. The Tea Party and Occupy sees legislative demands as beside the point. Anonymous says that real power is in corporate hands; maybe media power can create more change than political power. Wikileaks, meanwhile, posits that secrets legitimize government, and sharing them can provoke an allergic reaction.

Ethan isn’t convinced that any of these are the right way to create change. But for a lot of people, it’s not convincing to tell them that Congress is going to create change. If you can pass law, it’s probably the best way to get change in an open society because you have the full weight and force of government behind you. But if you’re not in an open society, this is a lousy way to seek change.

Stymied by an obstructed political pathway, people are looking for other pathways to produce change.

One approach is to appeal to authority, or to change that authority. But the human rights, democratisation, and anti-corruption communities in Egypt may have been missing the point. At the end of the day in Egypt, the only authentic change people were hoping for was a change in leadership– one that has been more harrowing and complicated than anyone anticipated.

Attention, and particularly, media attention, is another theory of change. This method is represented well by KONY 2012, for all its strenghts and flaws. Their video destroyed every viral video we’ve known in terms of how quickly it accelerated to a hundred million views. It was nine times the audience of the largest show that week in the Nielsen ratings.

What does 100 million views mean? For the KONY 2012 organizers, it got them exactly what they wanted: a huge amount of media attention, new Senate allies, and a reconfirmed commitment from the Obama Administration to keep advisors on the hunt for Kony. It succeed, although it was simplistic, and left many in Uganda feeling voiceless.

Culture change is another theory of change. Ethan shows us an image of the TV show Cheers. The people at Harvard’s Alcohol Project wanted to get people to start adopting the idea of designated drivers. Instead of making a single episode about designated drivers, they just started dropping it into Cheers. Ethan tells us about a collaboration with Nollywood, Nigerian’s film industry, to get bed nets into films and convince high class people to think that it’s fashionable to sleep under bed nets. The KuweniSerious project in Kenya goes after the culture of political apathy, and reminds Kenyans of their responsibilities.

DIY is another theory of change. Ethan shows us images from Occupy Sandy– people involved in Occupy Wall St who tried to organise relief efforts in Brooklyn and Queens to complement what FEMA was doing. Do-It-Yourself can range from complete lack of faith in government, to augmenting government efforts, to simply wanting to get one’s hands dirty and provide help directly. Ethan shows us a slide from a Russian Fires map, which offered a way to find people in need. It also offered a visual argument against the ineffectiveness of Putin’s policies.

The LowLine is an example of a growing Civic Crowdfunding movement to directly subsidize or fund public goods. One on hand, a lot of public funding should come out of government coffers, but we also don’t want to turn our back on innovative new platforms for citizen engagement around civic projects.

Ethan thinks that the older generation believe mostly in appeals to authority. We understand political change, even if we fail to produce it. But we’re pretty skeptical of these other approaches.

The Center for Civic Media recently hosted Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch. Carroll’s message was that Human Rights watch is looking for the small number of media outlets who can influence the 100 people who can actually create change. If Human Rights Watch can reach the people with sway through NPR, the Financial Times, and other media they read, then we can influence them. It makes terrific sense and it’s a great theory of change. It drove my students nuts; they asked her question after question, saying “we’d like to help, what can we do?” Her eventual response: “if you have a million dollars, we’d take it.”

We need a better answer than that. Journalists do an incredible amount of investigative reporting to expose corruption like that of Teodoro Nguema Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea’s ruler, who was building a giant yacht with a shark tank feature. But no one was there to help Ethan or other outraged readers over the bridge from awareness of corruption to doing anything about it.

Susan Sontag says journalists know how to generate compassion, but compassion is a volatile emotion, and needs to be intelligently channeled. And if we don’t talk about solutions in our journalism, we’re generating strong feelings amongst our readers without helping them do anything about it.

Are America’s youth so addicted to their own sense of power so that newsrooms have to change so the audience has something to do? Ethan argues that this is something enormously old, going back to the Greek notion of civics. Ethan tells us about Isocrates, a “rhetor,” the guy who’s trying to persuade. We are suspicious of him because most of what we hear from him is from Plato, the guy running the rival school at the time. Plato believed that if he had enough time with you, you could become incredibly wise in the true ordering of things, become a philosopher king, and earn the power to run Athens. Isocrates, on the other hand, wanted to train people to be civic actors. At that time, civic action involved the ability to use your voice in the public sphere of the Athenian democracy. He’s viewed as a teacher of speech, when at that time, he was a teacher of participation.

This seems antiquated because the idea of someone standing up in a town meeting seems like it can only happen in a Norman Rockwell painting. Examples of radically participatory democracy are often edge cases, such as Iceland’s crowdsourcing of its new constitution. Whether it’s commenting, organizing, or protesting, the challenge to all of us is to produce effective citizens using media.

Ethan points us to shining examples like Harry Potter Alliance, PolicyMic, OpenIDEO, and Matt Stempeck’s forthcoming Master’s thesis on enabling pro bono skills donations in times of crisis.

Ethan sums up. If journalism matters and civics is changing, what do we need to do? Firstly, we need to find better ways for people to participate. It’s scary and it can go wrong, and we need to figure out how to make it reasonable. Media is an amplifier, and thus a target for manipulation. We need to get smart about how media and influence interact, and how people look to use media as amplifiers, especially in an environment where content is plentiful and attention is scarce.

When we look at a project like the Trayvon Martin case, we’re interested in how the massive amount of attention generated allows activists to latch onto the story for their own purposes. Today’s USA Today is still asking the question, was Trayvon a teen or a troublemaker? Why do we keep falling for these agendas injected by activists?

Secondly, we need to stop thinking that solutions journalism is a descent into rancorous partisanship. At least two things are happening when people pick brands. Sure, people are looking for confirmation of their beliefs. But they’re also excited about taking action. Journalism does this sometimes. When the New York Times reports on Hurricane Sandy, they include things that people can do to help. Where else can we take this model to find ways to mobilise, advocate, and put solutions on the table.

Ultimately, we need to help a next generation, which may not be convinced that social change happens the way we grew up thinking it happens. We need to help them figure out how to do civics in this new space. And I hope you’ll work with us on this.

Q&A:

If the system’s broken, and with Citizens United, corporations own the process, what can we do to fix it? And organizations like MoveOn and Sum of Us are rallying citizens to act as consumers to organize against companies that are still responsive to this pressure?

Ethan: I believe the levers are stuck in place, but not necessarily that we need to go around Congress. Take regulations of corporations. The government has said nope, not going to regulate there. Then you go to the next theory of change, and approach Wal-Mart directly. And organizations like MoveOn are definitely moving into this space, with buycotts and boycotts and the like. But if we’re going to teach people civics now, we have to teach all of the toolkits: how to influence the political process, how to harness attention when you can’t, and how to affect culture or take direct action. A lot of the new interest and new talent happens further down the chain from political legislative change.

Q: If you report, and encourage people to take action after publishing it, aren’t you biased?
Ethan: I don’t buy unbiased. It can be an aspiration to grow towards, but I think when we sit down to watch the news, we’ve already shown our hand in terms of prioritizing which stories are important. That choice, to put Trayvon on the front page today instead of Mali, is bias. I certainly agree that we don’t start with the most divisive, rancorous issues and only talk about one solution, but there is a disconnect between talking about problems and letting people know that there are solutions. I understand this is a controversial thing to say, but I think we need to put that provocation out there if we want readers to be active citizens.

Q: There’s uneven access to media, and people with money, power, and influence.
Ethan: The same analytical rigor a journalists puts into writing a story and framing a problem could be applied to identifying and vetting potential solutions.

Christopher Stone, Open Society Foundation: Are you worried that it’s a very atomized vision of civic engagement that you’re proposing? So many of the examples you like are very Americanized individualistic, and not helping people find the power of the organized collective?
Ethan: We’re seeing a lot more new work around an individual rallying people behind solutions than we are creative work bringing groups and civil society together. Projects like Iceland writing internet constitutions are easy to posit, and hard to carry out. The dream of putting everything on a wiki has proven to be a poor theory of change. I’d like to help organizations and coalitions of organizations work together to manipulate all five levers, not just the traditional lever of legislative political change that’s usually pursued by social change movements.

Q: How does this affect people taking local action?
Ethan: There’s enormously exciting stuff going around on the DIY front, and the person who’s probably most knowledgeable on that front is Christina Xu of the Awesome Foundation. They don’t just make philanthropy more participatory, but also build up an entire network of people working to help build and scale very creative local models. Can a coffeeshop sell special privileges to finance its next patio?

3 Reasons MoveOn Put Members in Charge

MoveOn.org is already one of the more transparent, membership-driven political organizations this world has seen. Their local councils and rolling membership surveys drive the hive’s priorities. This week, Justin Ruben announced that they were going one leap further, and “turning over the keys of our technological toolset to our more than 7 million members, asking them to step up and lead their own campaigns, and putting them squarely in the MoveOn driver’s seat.”

This is big. Here’s why:

Authenticity matters
An employee at a grassroots organization can’t dream up as many actions as millions of members of the public, and the actions they compose won’t be nearly as compelling as true, lived stories. I know: I’ve been that employee. For example, the background story and the timing are two of the absolutely critical factors in a petition gaining traction (or not). Drastically scaling up the number of people who can contribute their story and launch the petition when it’s fresh offers gigantic improvements over the officeworker, knowledgeable though he or she may be.

It activates the long tail of progressives
Judging by public opinion polls, there are many people who share progressive values with MoveOn who don’t often publicly fight for those values. National campaigns often feel forced, or at best, removed from citizens’ day-to-day lives. More campaigns launched by more people who don’t live in DC offer more opportunities to hold our elected officials, institutions, and companies accountable to the values we were taught as children.

Opening up the tools of political action not only allows an organization’s network to take more shots, but the sheer number of shots also allows each action to be more relevant to more lives. I think Change.org really blazed the way, here, and MoveOn is wise to double down on this model. Reaching new swaths of society is also good for membership growth, beyond the absolutely finite number of citizens who are politically active 365 days a year.

Staff shifts to strategically augment the crowd’s firepower
Giving the reins over to members isn’t just crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing traditionally refers to harnessing collective intelligence or coordinating large numbers of small distributed tasks. What we have here is a broadening of organizing leadership, which, in addition to the benefits above, frees the limited number of expert staff up to focus on accelerating actions with traction.

Change.org made their name in petitions, like Care2 before it. Care2 has been around since 1998 and has 21 million members, but hasn’t leveraged their petitions as strategically as Change.org. Change leveraged their core team of online organizers to bring additional firepower and publicity to user-generated petitions. They’re also talented at delivering media attention and highlighting the stories behind the petitions. These key interventions ensure that petitions actually produce change. Signatures in cyberspace won’t do it alone.

Experienced staff are freed up to help retarget petitions to more sensitive targets (more local officials, consumer-facing brands) and strategize on what it will take to effect the change the member seeks. Petitions are often an excuse to generate ‘earned media’ coverage, which contributes a significant amount of the social pressure that eventually produces concrete change (especially from public officials).


MoveOn is different from Change in a couple of important ways. There’s already a functional membership-approval system in place to prevent non-progressive actions from gaining ground in the community, whereas Change has decided to publish anything that Google Adsense would (sorry, Nazis). But Change has also disappointed in connecting petition signers with one another. Even petition organizers have been limited in their ability to reach the people who have signed on to help their cause. Change will never email their entire list, because it doesn’t see itself as an organization so much as a platform. But this horizontal connection between users organizing around the same issue is where real movements are born, and it looks like MoveOn has a much more holistic vision in mind.

Designing the User-Friendly City

What happens when a tech-minded entrepreneur is unexpectedly chosen to lead a big city government bureaucracy? Gabe Klein was an unconventional pick to head the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation when he was hired back in 2008, by then-mayor Adrian Fenty. He’d been a Zipcar executive. He helped found a local boutique food-truck company. He grew up in a Virginia ashram called Yogaville. But he had never worked in government. Over the next 23 months Klein implemented a program of transformative innovation, rapidly rolling out bike-sharing, new bike lanes, streetcar plans and next-generation parking infrastructure. Now Klein is a year-and-a-half into his second unexpected job in government, as the head of Chicago’s Department of Transportation under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Aaron Naparstek rolls the pre-talk film on urban cycling.

Cities are redesigning infrastructure to allow citizens to cycle safely and conveniently. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has put out an Urban Bikeway Design Guide to help urban planners and communities adjust to these infrastructure changes, such as contraflow bike lanes.

Those of us who know and love municipal governments understand that it’s always easiest to change nothing at all. Aaron used to run the famous StreetsBlog, which covers transportation policy around North America. They noticed a handful of transportation officials around the continent working hard to change things, and Aaron sees Gabe Klein as one of these figures.

Klein was Transportation Commissioner in Washington, DC, prior to Chicago, and has also been an executive at gamechanging startup ZipCar. Robin Chase, ZipCar’s co-founder, is here in the audience. The group spent the day checking out the Media Lab’s Changing Places group’s bold transportation inventions.


Drawn notes by Willow Brugh

Chicago hasn’t grown in a decade. The city’s known for pizza, hot sausages, and transportation. At the turn of the 20th century, the city had an entire industry of bicycle producers. The wealthy rode bikes. Street cars were popular, as they were in other American cities, until the 1950’s. General Motors conspired to purchase and eliminate this public transportation to help sell bus engines. This left an entire group of urban dwellers with no way to get around. Buses were introduced, but still have all kinds of downsides. Klein shows us some trolleyporn.

Chicago today is the freight rail hub of North America, the only dual-hub airport in the nation, 24-hour transit services (the El), and a strong bike network.

But the city also competes for worst regional auto congestion. A freight train can get from Long Beach, CA to Chicago in two days, and then take another two days to get through Chicago. Like other American cities, Chicago faces obesity challenges and a drop in pedestrians. CDOT has a budget of $800 million, which is used not just on fun new bike lanes, but also paving and tree planting and viaducts. The department also owns the subway, although it’s operated by CTA.

With Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Klein set some ambitious goals to expand transportation options in the major categories. Klein started in the bike industry, and then fell in love with ZipCar as he saw people using and loving the service. Mayor Fenty invited him to run DDOT, where his business experience and ignorance of government bureaucracy proved valuable in their own ways.

In DC, Klein created not just a government plan, which tend to gather dust on shelves, but also an agenda for enacting the changes. The plan took 8 months, and the execution 16 months. In two years, they rolled out Capital Bikeshare, still the largest bikeshare system in the US. Klein’s proud of the fact that the system is profitable. It made $300,000 in its first year and is on-track to pay back the initial investment made by federal and city transportation innovation funds. He considers this a transit system like any other — a modal system that moves people, without the hurdles of unions or fuel costs. And it inspires – people around the country still write him about the system.

Capital Bikeshare is an example of thinking creatively to get around the status quo. Rather than add yet more buses, the city tried new solutions within the existing parameters. Installing bike lanes on Pennsylvania Ave was a particularly rewarding coup. Our streets are still wide enough to accommodate the streetcars that once

DC used realistic parking pricing as a congestion strategy. The traditional quarter-fueled parking meters were replaced with smart — and pricier — meters that allowed people to pay with phones and credit cards. Parking revenues went up 400%.


Technology
Smartphones provide us better data and communication, resulting in better decisions. The world’s changing, and we need to be smarter to populate the Earth at the same rates. Car ownership and use is down among the young. Generation Y and retiring Baby Boomers alike are returning to cities, where ownership is less desirable than access. Fewer young people are getting cars or even licenses.

Klein sees a lot of potential for cities in the next ten years. Digital Public Way links real-time mobile information with public way assets. People with high-quality information on their phones can make smart decisions about how to get places.

Robust multimodal hubs allow bike, car, bus, and rail options. In DC, Klein sees increases in population of 10% and reduction in car registrations by 5% as realistic. New options like Carshare, P2P, Rideshare, and jitney (shared taxis) expand our thinking. Neighborhood tree adoption frees the city from sending people around to water plants.

Klein estimates that restoring streetcars in DC would have cost 11.6 billion in 2010. He sees this as unrealistic, but hopes for a combination of a streetcar system with rapid bus transit.

Modular vehicles like the CityCar let people who want to stay in the city use a vehicle appropriate for that lifestyle.


In Chicago
Safety’s an important issue for inclusion and a robust environment for people to live, work, and play. Put simply, a dangerous city will not attract people. There were 32,000 road fatalities in Chicago last year. Klein sees a combination of analysis, engineering, and education as a solution.

Regional traffic fatalities are down, which Klein attributes to trends like automated enforcement and ever-increasing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, forcing motorists to change their behavior.

Over 130,000 car crashes per year in Chicago create a ripple effect of costs in terms of human life, police time, insurance rates, and so on. Enacting automated speed enforcement was politically volatile, but is proven to work.

When there’s too much space for cars in a city, cars speed. Klein sees a link between auto crashes and bicycle crashes. From 2005-2010, there’s been a 45% increase in cycle commuters with a simultaneous

Klein sees the daily accident reports, and is astounded that killing someone in a crosswalk with your car isn’t punished unless you happen to be drunk. If you want to murder someone, this is a pretty clear loophole. We lose more people on the road than any of the wars we’re fighting, or most other causes.

Sweden (and now Chicago) are working to change people’s acceptance of dangerous behavior. Citizen opinion has already changed in Chicago around regulating taxi drivers’ aggressive habits. The DOT has tested running over pedestrian crash dummies, and found a pretty big difference between getting hit at 20 MPH and 40 MPH.

The department is also testing 20 or so speeding treatments around schools. Safety zone stencils, speed feedback signs, speed cameras, countdown timers, and high visibility crosswalks are physical changes that may change driver behavior.

Education happens with thousands of safety ambassadors, including school volunteers and Schwinn-sponsored bike camps for kids.

Pedestrians are an important part of the equation. The department measures numerous metrics and have adopted Sweden’s Vision Zero Initiative to aim for a goal of zero pedestrian deaths by 2020. Klein doesn’t see the point in aiming for anything less.


Transportation includes renewal. Many cities are letting maintenance go to skimp on tight budgets, but this ends up costing more in the long-term. Road cracks are sealed in cold cities like Boston and Chicago, adding 3-5 years to the life of the road. Chicago has rebuilt Wacker Drive, a two-level street, to be far more pedestrian-friendly. Some of the city’s subway stations are over a century old. They’re making the stations beautiful, functional, and interesting.


The ultimate goal is to provide citizens with layers of options, depending on the distance of their trip. Walking, biking, and transit can all work, at varying distances. The city’s designing a Complete Streets policy, designing for everyone from 8-80. Klein sees the lack of public feedback loop as one reason that initial public excitement around multiple-use roads sputters out by the time the government delivers something that looks like a highway.


There’s not much space in cities, so all of the modes of transport need to be able to coexist. The key to doing this is slowing down the speed of car traffic. The ideal is downtown Amsterdam, where there might be 8 lanes of transportation, only one of which is automobiles.

Protected bike lanes help cyclists avoid getting doored, but also give pedestrians a shorter distance to cross before the light changes on them. Staggered traffic lights give pedestrians and cyclists a few second head start on automobiles, increasing cyclist compliance with lights. Spoke lines are major cycling routes into the downtown core.

Sandra Richter asks about whether the department has considered adaptive streets, where space is dynamically repurposed based on time of day and other needs. The Fulton Market area is a prime area for this, where delivery trucks need to come in from 5am-2pm, but pedestrians could take over to dine in the late afternoons and early evenings.

New types of vehicles are further stretching use cases. Italian scooters have become more popular. Bike lanes get re-used by rollerbladers and joggers.

The department investigated the neighborhood-friendly Play Streets, started in New York, and found that there’s already an ordinance on the books from 1923.

Bike sharing launches in Chicago in Spring 2012. It’s not the Holy Grail, Klein says, but it’s pretty darn close. Klein has little patience for sitting on hands. If we know younger populations are using more flexible, healthier transportation options, the government should be out ahead facilitating this trend.

Klein considers Jeffery Jump the first step towards enacting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). A central bus lane loop hopes to improve bus speed from 3-5 MPH to about 12 MPH. The vast majority of downtown road space goes to a very small minority of citizens in private cars, while the many people taking the bus receive very little of this space.

Connecting transportation corridors is another priority. The Western / Ashland BRT would connect two corridors representing 25% of Chicagoans, and likely lead to economic development. This return on investment helps drive support for transportation improvements higher up in the city government.

The city’s new Morgan Street CTA station is a gem. The Chicago Riverwalk is another beautiful public space, a promenade for education and retail. A public theater and other people spaces are popular.

Chicago’s rendition of the High Line is the Bloomingdale Trail, which is out in the neighborhoods between Humboldt Park and Bucktown. Many of these projects have been on the drawing board for 12 years and benefit from Klein and Emanuel’s impatience with shelved ideas. They were able to identify over $30 million in federal funding to subsidize the project.

Klein credits the Sharing Economy as a cultural driver of many flexible transportation trends. Gen Xers, in particular, have adopted these trends, from AirBnb to ZipCar.

CDOT is being proactive about providing information and making datasets available to civic hackers.

The department is also building the densest network of quick charging electric vehicle stations in the world. They also lead the country in permeable asphalt, which allows runoff water to reach water tables below. The Cermak Blue Island sustainable streetscape is a pilot example.

Lastly, the department ensures that all public way infrastructure, from trash collection to bikeshare, is digitally open for hacking and interoperability.


Q&A
How do you phase and integrate projects, when there are so many of them?
Lining up funding and approvals is essential, so that plans don’t sit on the shelf.

What’s your relationship with other city departments? Does the Fire Department push back against narrower streets and raised crosswalks?
First responders can definitely put a kink in your plans, particularly if they have influence with the Mayor. You need to be really collaborative, and do a lot of outreach. The NACTO summit included first responders and state officials. Comparing your city to New York is also an effective way to trigger hometown pride.

Everyone thinks their transportation solution is the Holy Grail. What’s your department’s view?
Until you integrate all of these solutions, you need to support all of them as much as possible. We support Peer to Peer companies, multiple car-sharing companies, and other private sector options. Over time, you see merging. By 2018, you’ll see some major changes out there.

Political Tech vs. Civic Tech

The campaign post-mortems are pouring in, unveiling the computer magic behind the Obama campaign. We should probably be thankful that the conversation has evolved from 2004-2008’s obsession with social media into a newfound lay interest in data aggregation and empirically valid testing. I’m learning a lot reading these articles.

This stuff is cool, but the Holy Grail Subject Line is not why we got into this work in the first place. Tom Steinberg has responded with an inspiring post encouraging the talent behind campaign tech to consider building civic technologies. Tom outlines some really important (and thus far unfulfilled) goals for civic tech to aspire to, including:

  1. These tools, apps, platforms, whatever, need to scale way beyond even the most popular instances we have today to be considered worthy of actually reshaping society and impacting all of those millions of people in society who have never heard the phrase “Gov 2.0”.
  2. We should attempt to produce tech that creates transformative change at the seismic level of so many internet-driven disintermediators, from TripAdvisor to eBay. This means creating new possibilities and patterns of behavior so profound, we can’t even return to the Old Way of doing things.

I agree with Tom that it’d be good for the world if some of the campaign ninjas become improved democracy ninjas (barring the obvious counterargument that elections have very real results). There’s also the argument that these ninjas achieve similar ends when they open source tools built with the investments generated by the “vast amounts of cold hard cash” generated by US presidential elections. These tools, like improved election day reporting on the Ushahidi platform, could be and probably will be redeployed for general civic use.

I’m confused, though, when Tom’s argument focuses on the simple fact that, in a campaign, you have opposition working against you and your team. Many of the voter outreach tools the Obama campaign built this cycle will live on in various incarnations, including some version of trickle down or transfer to the opposition’s side. The rival campaigns’ technological contributions worked to dilute one another’s chances of winning the election, but I don’t see a strong argument that their tech cancels out the other team’s contributions or general progress.

TripAdvisor and its ilk made the customer stronger in their relationship with hotels, but the battle is hardly over. The many services and products we rate and review are learning to game these systems, whether by creating bots, paying people on Mechanical Turk, or just providing better customer service at key moments (which is clearly a win of some sort for the customer). There’s far more money involved in hospitality industry booking than there was in the entire US Presidential race, and it, too, is a technological arms race.

Partisan tech might drive competition in the election season, but in general, I feel that the left-right political divide weakens the political tech industry by cutting the potential market in half. I’ve always had the impression that one factor causing innovation in political technology to lag significantly behind the commercial technology industry is potential market value. Political campaign tech is a subcategory of the much larger tech industry, and was until recent years, a sleepy backwater of the tech industry. The fact that the market for campaign technologies and its suppliers is, in many places, split in half by the non-economic force of partisanship only contributed to the lack of real investment that drives commercial tech. This split also, in my opinion, allowed some mediocre consultants and products to maintain market dominance where, in a more competitive market, they would have been unseated. Experienced political technologists on the left and right can likely point to tools or people on the other side they’d love to have access to for their campaign.

There are probably many other reasons that campaign tech traditionally lags behind commercial tech, like a political campaign culture that for far too long saw developers as IT managers here to fix your printer, and boom and bust election cycles. And Obama’s tech team, in 2008 and 2012, has clearly made huge strides in changing this reality. But otherwise, I think partisanship’s division of market value is at least a factor. Why else would social change companies like NationBuilder and Change.org risk their roots as generally progressive firms, and frankly, certain large-but-partisan clients, to pursue a much larger, richer global market far outside of US politics? And isn’t this how they’ll scale to the levels Tom challenges them to?

I’ll now await pushback from much more experienced political technologists.

Has politics gone Peer 2 Peer? #P2Ppol

Written by @mstem & @natematias with help from our peers. See also Ethan Zuckerman’s take on the event.

It’s Election Eve here at the MIT Media Lab, and we have a well-stocked panel of political observers (“The Harvard Law Faculty Lounge is a very lonely place tonight,” says Aaron). The MIT Center for Civic Media and Department of Urban Planning are hosting a conversation with Steven Johnson, author of “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked World.” Moderated by Aaron Naparstek, visiting scholar at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the conversation also features Harvard Law School’s Yochai Benkler, Susan Crawford and Lawrence Lessig, who spoke at the Media Lab earlier this year. Most of them have books for sale.

photo by Michael Suen

The theme of the night is moving beyond the left-right divide in US politics. We begin with Steven Johnson, who, in addition to publishing several books, is involved with Outside.in, a hyperlocal startup recently acquired by AOL. His most recent work features a series of stories with a shared set of values and even political world views. In his book Emergence, Johnson wove together ants, neuroscience, cities, and software to illustrate systems that thrive without traditional hierarchical control structures. Towards the end, he cited the anti-WTO protest movements of the late 1990’s, but it was not an inherently political book. At least, until Johnson found some guy blogging about the political implications of the book. That guy was current Media Lab Director Joi Ito.

Over the decade that followed, Johnson found more and more people inspired and animated by the spirit that built the Internet. The tools and strategies that helped build Wikipedia and open source communities were being reapplied outside the technical arena.

We’ve agreed as a society that there are a few basic coherent ways to organize human beings. We rely on the market and the state, despite individual variations across these institutions. These twin poles set up our basic framework for society. Inspired by Benkler’s thinking on peer production, Johnson argues that there’s an additional structure to society, the peer network, that does not borrow from the state or the market.

Peer networks involve a decentralized, free exchange of ideas, usually with a diverse range of perspectives inside the network. The idea is that “the Internet is the role model.” In the past, the ideas behind peer networks could have been derided as communal hippie utopian dreams. But the Internet has served as a powerful example that this method of organizing people can actually be much more effective than traditional approaches. Johnson mentions examples from Kickstarter, which expects to raise more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the local civic space, SeeClickFix and Neighborland allow citizens to not just surface problems, but also suggest solutions. Citizens organized against New York City officials’ abuse of parking privileges by crowdsourcing photos of their transgressions, resulting in new policies.

Municipal 311 systems offer a compelling window into communities. Citizens can call in for information about recycling, to complain about noise, and other daily needs, in over 180 languages. Over 100 million calls later, New York’s 311 system tied high-end hotel chains in customer service surveys. A key feature, Johnson says, is that the service is two-way. The city repurposes citizens’ calls as data to create a dashboard, deputizing every individual as a sensor in their network.

The Maple Syrup Incident in New York triggered fears of biochemical attacks. Residents called 311 to complain that “It smells like breakfast in Chelsea.” For years, no one could figure out the source of the smell. But when city officials compared 311 calls and prevailing wind conditions, they were able to pinpoint the source: a flavor plant in New Jersey. It turns out they could have also asked Jay Leno.

The 311 system was not built to identify maple syrup mysteries, but it is a flexible network structure that allows us to adjust to new conditions. The system is distributed, decentralized, and diverse, unlike top-down governance. And it doesn’t rely on clear economic incentives as the market might predict.

How do we describe this emerging class of projects and actors? “Peer progressives” is a term Johnson has coined to describe them. They believe in progress, and use new tools and strategies to achieve it. As a descriptor, ‘Peer’ works on the civic level (“a jury of our peers”) as well as the technical level (peer-to-peer networks).

A peer network is not halfway between the market and the state; it is its own entity. We rely on peer networks more than ever, and there’s something oddly optimistic about recognizing their presence in our lives.


Yochai Benkler says that we’re in a new era which is in search of a new idea of organisation. We’ve already tried rationalization, where we seek to improve society through rational organization. We started with the state, and moved on to the self-interested rational individual acting based on market incentives. Benkler argues that the height of the market-based incentive is not Reagan and Thatcher, but actually Clinton and Blair’s acceptance of the argument. By 2008, Benkler says, we’ve recognized that relying on the market to solve everything is a mistake. By this point, we have the lived experience of networked individuals working together in collaborations to create things from the very structure of the Internet to the things we rely on in our daily lives. And this discipline is couched not in the language of utopian communes, but cutting edge technology and emerging research fields.

Benkler cautions that those of us who have already “bought in” need to ask ourselves something. We might think that Kickstarter giving away more than the National Endowment for the Arts is great, but then you see how much Kiva is giving. Grameen Bank is massive, and it just does work primarily in Bangaladesh and then you look at Hurricane Sandy and ask what’s happening. We are not measuring many things in the social realm and many forms of volunteerism may go unnoticed. But Occupy Sandy is real work that’s happening, and Ushahidi mapping is really happening. How do we compare the relative proportion of that work between that and what FEMA is doing, or what the insurance market is doing?

If we’re going to understand this next stage of our political life, we need to figure out how these new structures are going to interact with the government. 311 is a great example of that cooperation, because it opens the state up. But in some cases projects like recovery.gov push back on the state. It’s important to find ways to plug these new structures into older ones.

Politics is more open to these new structures because they fundamentally rely on information, Benkler says. Basic questions of how we structure education, disaster management, and other state roles will require a lot of work as we attempt to build a social alternative to the market-based solutions we relied on just 12 years ago.


Susan Crawford notes that often visionaries describe things that happen in the past. And here we are describing what mainstream progressivism was at the turn of the century. She turns to a personal story about her grandfather in New Jersey, who felt negative towards unions for standing in the way of development.

Mainstream progressivism has recognized the importance of the role of the state plus technology. We can work together to solve some problems, but not all problems. The key thing according to Crawford is that we don’t abandon government agencies but use technology to improve them. The kickstarter example is showing a way of improving the NEA, not demonstrating that the NEA is When it comes to wire and dirt, and the ability to control a connection to the house or raise prices, that power hasn’t gone We don’t abandon the NEA because Kickstarter has inspired a new way; we make them better.

Monopolies still exist on the market side, even if the internet allows each of us to publish our own blog. The wires we transmit information over might be owned by one large company. Crawford argues that we cannot simply accept our current party structure, or our current market-state arrangement. We should take Johnson’s book as inspiration to mobilize.


Lawrence Lessig admits that he’s often the pessimist in the room, but found hope in Johnson’s book because it offers clear challenges to work on? In a few decades, we might sit on the same stage and celebrate that this happened, but right now, relative to the political landscape we have today, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll change the system.

The SOPA PIPA debate was a powerful example of peer organizing. A lobby that was one of the most powerful in Washington saw its agenda defeated. A bipartisan movement that had been knit together for a year exploded onto the scene and stopped it. The victory led to some observers’ belief that we’d finally built the one button we need to press to fix things in Washington.

We are fighting forces that are command forces, that have deep pockets. These forces flourish by getting people to hate the other side. And they’re very effective in achieving their objectives pushing this dynamic.

What is the inspiration to overcome these forces in a “peer progressive” model? It’s not clear to Lessig that the incentive exists to mobilize a peer to peer network counterforce. He was dispirited when

Lessig describes one of his e-books that outlines the emergence of read-write culture that returns us to a culture that existed prior to the 20th century. This is what we are seeing in the context of politics too. But this will not be a simple button push to get there. Lessig doesn’t want to be too pessimistic but still does not see a way forward to counter the forces of money, lobbies, and hate.


Johnson has been trying to look at failure points for the existing systems (market & state). He is concerned about the capacity for the bottom-up systems for long-term goals like urban planning. Can peer to peer networks plan for 5-, 10-, 100-year plans? He has not seen examples of this. Perhaps central planning is still the answer in these cases.

Benkler responds that it depends on how close you want planning and authority to reside. If we rely on decentralized thinking for long-term planning — the problem is bridging between planning and action. Now we are in the battle of connecting these two things. Planning is already being done in a decentralized way by universities, people in think tanks, and so on.

Lessig pushes back on Benkler, but says we’ve totally failed to deliver on those plans on the issue of climate change, for example. There has been no mention of this issue whatsoever in the current election.

Crawford argues that the enormous civic energy that has been generated to assist government has failed to actually change peoples’ lives, because it is not adequately connected to the levers of power. The connection between the civic app hackers and the technophobe elected officials and policymakers is weak. She’s concerned that there will be a bust in the energy going into improving governance when it fails to have the desired impact.

Lessig points to the wave of appointees and staff who came to DC with the Obama administration in 2009, only to see their hopes smashed upon the shores of bureaucracy.

Benkler says that what they are disagreeing about is the politics question, not whether planning is already being done in a peer-to-peer decentralized way. The question in his mind about SOPA-PIPA is whether it’s an outlier, because it was mainly organized by a generation who grew up on the Internet with ideals of free culture. He thinks it is too soon to tell. It’s unclear how to repeat that experience with a different issue. Benkler mentions the Trayvon Martin controversy mapping from the Center for Civic Media and how they found a different set of stories emerging from that case.


Johnson points out that “the button” of networked activism is often a manifestation of opposition rather than a positive, generative initiative. That’s why he focused on Kickstarter in the book — it’s about actually getting stuff done. We need to find positive initiatives like participatory budgeting that we can build around peer networks. Perhaps if people see that participatory local government works, they might become more excited about peer organising online.

Crawford raises the bar: Could we build the Hoover Dam? Stephen thinks that big industrial things are hard to do. But the decision to build those things could be made.

Naparstek asks, “Is the peer network fundamentally good? Is there a peer conservativism?” Lessig responds that he thinks the Tea Party was a peer network. Although he doesn’t like what they did, they did describe themselves as an open source movement: tea party patriots who organised themselves with technology and thought of themselves as a bottom-up movement. That’s why he thinks so much is at stake.

That’s a good peer network, Benkler says. It’s an example of a group of people who feels their views weren’t taken into account by government and try to bring those views into a major political party. Bad networks are oligarchical networks of stifling power, or mobs.

Johnson says that the main difference in the “new” peer to peer networks is that they are “diverse” in a way that goes beyond the multiculturalism from the 80’s. He claims that diverse groups can make better decisions that non-diverse groups, in the long run.

Our media is becoming more fragmented, so we see more instances of crazy people with soapboxes who didn’t have them before. But most of us agree that diversifying the ability to publish and be heard is a net gain for society. It’s not a far stretch from the experiment of democracy, where crazy people were given the vote, but the net effect was a crowd intelligence.


Amy Robinson, who works for Sebastian Seung’s crowdsource science program (we wrote about it here), asks how we can share innovations that individuals develop to participate in a particular crowd. People in TED and TEDx are doing much more than just organizing events, but it’s hard for them to share what they learn from that experience.

Johnson responds that when these networks work and encourage participation – how can we learn from those successes? In the case of Wikipedia, it is extraordinary that so many people are willing to contribute even though there is no reputation system or way of getting “credit” for your contribution. One powerful thing is the way that Wikipedia uses stubs – which say “there isn’t an entry here for this but there should be”. This creates a signaling mechanism in the network. Some people might be good at pointing out the problem and others at fixing it.

Lessig mentions the example of TEDx. The way the communities form to listen to these events is powerful and interesting. The brand let go in order to enable this. There’s a local TEDxBeaconSt who’s interested in figuring this out and brings people together to do this. Will the bottom-up innovation continue to be endorsed by the top-down?

Benkler thinks there’s an exploding field in cooperative human systems. For example, here in the Media Lab many of us are studying behaviour on Wikipedia or Scratch, and other cooperative platforms. He asserts that we’re at the beginning of a social science revolution in understanding how peer cooperation works.

Johnson claims that the Internet is a force for good because it enables creativity and experimentation. He alludes to Cognitive Surplus, this playground where we can let a thousand flowers bloom. The net’s experimental quality is one of its greatest affordances.

Occupy Sandy is working with Recovers.org and 350.org, but the pages aren’t well interlinked. And what about the economics?

Crawford states that although she loves technology, one of the greatest problems in America right now is inequality. She worries that we are speaking mostly to ourselves. What is happening right now in the Far Rockaways? How can we bring everyone to the conversation?

Benkler acknowledges that there are several volunteer donation sites and a quick read of these materials is hard. This is the class of problems where we’ve had the opposition between government response versus state/local control or versus giving it away to the market to handle. There are boundaries to how far you can scale a mutualist system before it encounters tension with the state. Johnson notes that he thought about including a section about anarchism but ultimately decided against it.

Johnson notes that the tech sector in the US is unrivaledly awesome and everyone agrees with that. Why? Those structures were organized in a peer-to-peer way. They had wealth-sharing structures and thus were more egalitarian. They ended up distributing the wealth they created more equally than their predecessors. This became a positive feedback loop. There is a strong economic incentive for companies to organize in a peer-to-peer way.

Chris Peterson: We’ve used the word “peer” a lot today. We’ve celebrated how “peers” can provide useful, decentralized, distributed feedback to the government, questioned whether “peers” will be necessarily progressive or possibly conservative and how to manage or appreciate those dynamics, and so forth.

It occurs to me that, as Stephen himself said, that we thought we resolved these questions 200 years ago with democratic theory. In fact, with all of the issues we’ve talked about today, it seems like we could simply substitute “democratic” in for “peer” and they would have been substantively the same. Had the Founders been writing today, they might have debated whether ordinary people could solve Climate Change through democracy as well.

So why are we drawing this distinction between “peer networks” and “democracy”? Aren’t they the same mechanisms under different names? And if they are, could it be because while we love the idea and ideals of democracy, we’ve lost faith in the institutions democracy has actually produced, and so we are casting about for another, different word to describe the same fundamental dynamics, a word or a frame not yet sullied by the inconveniences of lived experience?

Stephen responds that democracy has more or less become synonymous with representative democracy. And that’s not how Linux is made. Wikipedia isn’t a bunch of people elected to be elite encyclopedists. Lessig thinks that democracy is too tightly associated with professionals. One of the hardest things in front of us is the need to revise amateur politics: people who are involved because they have a love for service and being citizens. The distinction between professionals and amateurs has blown up in many other areas. We often are more excited about amateur cultural producers online than professional cultural producers. Might the same thing happen to politics? The term “peer” expresses that enthusiasm in ways that the term democracy can no longer express.

Benkler points out that there’s a problem with our use of the term of democratization. The state requires a certain amount of power, and democracy is a way of directing that state. Peer production focuses on the capacity to act together in the world independent of the state.


Naparstek asks the speakers to sum up the conversation with new ideas for the future of peer progressivism.

Lessig argues for publicly funded campaigns. We’ve concentrated the funding of elections into the tiniest fraction of the 1%, just as in the 19th century we concentrated voting privileges into the tiniest fraction of the 1%. We need to democratize the funding of elections the way we democratized voting itself.

Johnson argues that the solution isn’t to ask the state to fund all campaigns, but to diversify the funding pool with private and state support. “That’s the kind of thing we should build buttons for.”

Crawford says that she doesn’t see the state or the market going away. What we might be better off working on is how individuals can feel a greater sense of agency and autonomy within these systems.