What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.

The last time I spoke at Camp, in 2011, it was about hacker and maker spaces. I’ve since moved from focusing on hacker and maker spaces into disaster and humanitarian response. From 2010 to the end of 2014, that was by being a cofounder for a group called Geeks Without Bounds, which still exists and is lovely. I cofounded GWOB because I wanted to see how the values and tools we build can be applied in a wider circumstance than our glorious (nearly) 5k person bubble (that is so tiny). And I carried with me then, as I do now, a belief that being radical shouldn’t just be about critiquing mainstream culture, it should also be about eventually becoming mainstream. Otherwise, why are we doing this? Then, to me, projects fall into two main categories — either a finite effort with a set end and explicit goal which can be achieved (gay marriage!), or something that becomes the equivalent of a municipality, which we believe everyone should have access to on an ongoing basis (the internet!). Both forms are necessary and influence each other, but are very differently shaped.

I moved on from GWOB at the end of last year, because I believe that an organization should be more than the individuals which make it up. I now work with Aspiration, which some of you know, and it’s glorious. We believe that technology should always be in service to nonprofits (and by proxy, their end users). To me, nonprofits are organizations which help us transition away from the political and economic models which we must nonconsensually deal with on a regular basis currently.

With Aspiration, I still work on disaster and humanitarian response, from the attitude of the frontline community as the first responder, an active participant in any given situation. The frontline community are the people we should listen to, design for, and be held accountable to. It is a trend in “official” response to see the frontline community as passive, rather than as active participants in their own lives or rescue. And in response, there are also people who have been violent in these regions, or are corrupt, or are military, and sometimes all of these are true at the same time. I see this as similar to the environment which we, as hackers, operate in. We have end users we should be serving and empowering, and systems with History which we need to account for, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t matter.

I really like a framework for considering all this, called Do No Harm, which is about taking the Hippocratic oath from medicine and bringing it into resource deployment and project design when you have to worry about the social ramifications. As you know, and as peace builders know, you can’t just ignore an adversary. But in peace building, we know that sometimes we have to talk to, or even work with, people who have been awful in the past, and even are awful now. If we don’t, change doesn’t stick, or we create oscillations in the opposite direction. Peace builders have been working in this space since long before the internet existed, and the documentation is generally far better than ours tends to be. Let’s stand on the shoulders of some giants by learning from them. It will save us time.

One quick example: water point mapping in Tanzania while I was with GWOB with a project called Taarifa, (it’s libre source, please contribute). There are water points all over Tanzania, and the people with resources don’t know where most of them are, nor whether they’re working or not. The Ministry of Water, and the World (Fucking) Bank want the ability to know where their resources should be deployed, because as much as they might suck sometimes, they do in fact want people to have access to clean drinking water. And I want people to have a tool to self-organize and take care of their own shit in a way which holds interceding parties accountable. Other people on the Taarifa team have their own motivations as well. Ends up, if you design a project right, these things can look like the same thing, and is strengthened by the variety of viewpoints. This but one place where diversity is a benefit at this scale. So we took a grant (not a loan) from the World Bank, and Taarifa works with the Ministry of Water, and other parts of the Tanzanian government. We reviewed paperwork and assumptions to be sure no organizational or messaging control was given up. We talked (at length) internally about being sure the parameters of the project and the values we each hold were in alignment. And it’s working. The project is scaling up with other funds, from a different gov source this time. There wasn’t the volunteer technical capacity in-country to work on it, so we took funds to support local folk to maintain and expand their own platform while increasing in-country abilities (or just the visibility of those skills to those with resources to support). It’s not something that the people of TZ could have paid for, and it’s something where we found it unethical to wait for volunteer labor.

I want to remind you of my main points, before I pass this on to the other fantastic panelists:

  • I’m not perfect. Neither are any of you. That doesn’t mean we’re worth giving up on. I feel the same way about many organizations, locations (including home – we tend to think of disaster and humanitarian issues as ones which happen far away), and even governments. I will tell you stories about putting various official response groups in touch with each other to perform their mandates, because they didn’t know how (or simply weren’t allowed) to connect with each other. But over beer.
  • We need a pluralistic approach. I don’t expect what I do to work for others or visa versa, but I do think it’s possible for us to learn from each other. The challenges we face are massive, and if seeing a long string of response prototypes have shown me anything, it’s that there’s isn’t such a thing as a silver bullet. Many things in combination are what comprise, and shift, systems.
  • We need to trust people to be able to make their own decisions, rather than being paternalistic. The answer to bad speech isn’t no speech, it’s more speech. It’s the same for this. People are not the naive lambs that we sometimes want to think they are, blind to trust in an organization because a logo appears somewhere. We are not their protectors. We are in the same shit as everyone else, doing the best we can. That is still glorious and worthwhile.

I want to challenge you to consider your projects and assumptions, and what it would take to “win.” And how do we transition to that world? We are not Athena out of Zeus’s head, for mythology geeks out there.

I’m so glad we’re having these conversations. We are the ones holding ourselves accountable right now, and we must continue to do so (at the very least – I also think we should be accountable to larger society, but we’re still working the kinks out as we currently can’t trust our governments nor enforcement generally). Please ask the questions which you need to ask — others are asking questions about the domains they care about. I’m too deep in it to always know how to look up.

I’d rather be broken by my friends than by anyone else. By asking questions, we walk. Thank you.

Questions from the audience

There were a few questions I especially want to call out from the audience questions:

  • the age-old BUT THE GOVERNMENT IS EVIL. Which, I think here was phrased as “sure, the open source community is using the government… but (isn’t) the government (/)is using us, too(?)!” here punctuated to make it a question. And it’s true, we are furthering each other’s ends. But I don’t think the government is nefarious on purpose or even well organized enough to know what it’s doing, let alone to act with malicious intent. It’s a long serious of patches, none of which has been particularly systemicly competent. There are individuals and even departments which impinge on human rights, and things are super slow to move. There are also good people doing good things, who are able to entrench awesome stuff, which is then hard to change. Basically, it’s a mess. So… yes? But not with any sort of Plan.
  • “What are funds you’ve turned down?” was an excellent question which got to the idea that the organizations represented on stage decide what needs doing, and only then seeks funding to support it. We don’t alter what we’re up to in order to get funding. We talked about the process of turning down funding by the simple act of not applying to certain organizations. But there are certainly groups I’ve worked with who were uncomfortable taking funds from one org or another, and those wishes were respected. In short, have integrity even when it means you might not eat.
  • “Why are only the US and a couple other governments throwing money at this?” gave me an opportunity to remind folk that The Internet is not The Most Important Thing Ever to most governments or even most people. Much of the time, folk are just trying to get fed and find clean water.
  • “How can we learn from failure?” was a question that emerged during conversation after the panel. It can be difficult to get the essence of lessons while at an on-the-record panel or talk, because of wanting to maintain another party’s dignity or because you’re worried about your job or whatever else. What I’ve seen work well for this are fail sessions which are off the record, in smaller groups, which can then be shared to the larger group. We’ll propose such a session in future. (also, the Engine Room is collecting stories on things like this. If you have such stories, please reach out to them.)

Last night I recovered by floating at Liquidrome with Ben, but the night before was full of dance parties. NOPE’s fog machine had too much fog juice left, and in the act of trying to burn a bunch off, an impromptu dance party started. The fog was so thick inside that even seeing the person next to you was difficult to impossible, and we didn’t have a DJ set up, so Quantum Cypher would quickly swap between devices with queued up songs. From the outside, it looked like a tent full of smoke, with too loud music. But sometimes, a string of people would stumble out, laughing and sweaty from dancing. A few people from outside would see this, and cautiously enter into the tent, fog billowing out the entire time. It was far more fun than anyone expected, and it lasted long into the night.

It is this sort of shared joy which allows us to have these difficult conversations with trust and true examination. Thanks, Camp (thamp).

Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.


My students just gave their final presentations. Their projects are the most important part of this entry, but because of narrative arcs, come last. If you read only one section of this, please read that.

Last summer, I was looking for more paid work. A job posted to some list I’m on, for a Digital Storytelling position at Brown. It didn’t require a degree, surprisingly, and I thought I’d take a shot. I sent some of the digital animation and community work I’m proudest of, and crossed my fingers. They wrote back to tell me it wasn’t exactly digital storytelling, but it was something, and we should chat.

And so I embarked on the rather bizarre adventure of creating a syllabus (so many thanks and props to Jo, Debbie, and Susan in this especially), and of planning my life around being in Providence every Thursday. At least. I do, in theory, live t/here. Each week, I would stay until the last second of the Civic lunch talk, endure the anxiety of attempting to catch a very exact train to Providence (and sometimes pay the cost for the Acela which departed slightly later), walk or cab to the Nightingale Brown House, and teach a class.

Here’s a poor audio & visual recording of my intro on the first day of class.

The students’ voices don’t appear in this, just as the hackpad has been made private, based on the privacy preferences of the students.

There were 12 students, 3 of whom were graduate, 1 of which is a Brown employee, and the rest were undergrads. For a significant portion, this was their final semester of school. We engaged with 4 community partners, and the students were tasked with working on a digital initiative to build community with their partner. In class, we did project checkins and covered readings about aspects of online culture, concerns, and communities such that they could make informed choices in how they built their projects. I primarily stayed away from the lecture format, instead working to facilitate dialogue and interaction skills.

For me, the main challenge was that of power dynamics. In all interactions I have, I attempt to get everyone onto equal footing. This includes not disclosing my affiliations (holy shit, I had to write a bio recently, and apparently I Do Some Things, occasionally with Important Groups) unless I have no other path to legitimacy, enacting skillshares so everyone sees they have something to teach and something to learn, focusing more on group discussion than talking heads, etc. Often, I’m devising ways for technologists to see the life experience their potential end users have as even more important than their technical skills. But as a Professor of Practice, my goal was to impart the skills I have gained in life to a set of students with little to no practical experience in that field (possibly in any field other than academia). As someone who has never taught a course on my own, I also had no practical experience. I set my internal framing to that of continued co-equal space, where we would be learning to teach and learn about this topic together. The students were incredibly gracious in granting me the same respect I showed them, while we all remained pretty humble, figuring it out together.

Our readings tended to have a strong bent toward the internet freedom sector, and a level of distrust in most things corporate and governmental. Because this is the world I inhabit, having this pointed out to me, only weeks into class, was a moment of having a mirror raised. Huh. Also, to meet people who don’t think the internet is both the most potentially amazing thing while also believing it to be covered in spiders was refreshing. Don’t worry, I think I indoctrinated the students with that viewpoint by the end. Muhuhahaha, I can see why teaching is addictive.

The students presented a couple weeks ago, and it honestly made me absurdly proud of them, and of what we had done together. Their presentations needed to include a summary of the partner, the teammates, the project, something that didn’t work, and a handoff plan. Here are their projects:

Museo Areo Solar

Remember that awesome project I loved so much from Lima? Well. One group worked with Tomas and Helga in order to create a cohesive online space for a rather disparate online set of domains. They incorporated automation, so it doesn’t require any upkeep from an individual, and a joining function to induce a sense of ownership.

I’m proudest of this group for venturing into extremely non-traditional space, embracing the chaos with humor and intent, and coming to a cohesive vision. Their handoff plan doesn’t require intervention, and guides people through the nebulousness of participating with MAS.

Providence Athenaeum

A local museum, the Athenaeum holds regular salons. Attendance is solid, but of an admittedly aging crew, and there is a lack of continuence between salons. One group worked with the lead of the museum to craft a space for ongoing conversation across and beyond these events. To bridge between an audience uninterested in adding to an online space, but excited to view, they used a trick of imaged index cards.

I’m proudest of this group for listening so intently to what the audience wanted… and still trying some things out despite dead ends. Their handoff plan includes a person already coming on with Athenaeum.

Urban Pond Procession

Mashapaug Pond has been contaminated for a long time, and UPP started with the recreation of signs warning residents to not swim in or fish from the pond. It continues to be an arts and education group, but had fragmented and unused resources spread across the web. One group focused on creating a curriculum repository for middle school teachers.

I’m proudest of this group for synthesizing such a wide variety of resources, and for their dedication to usability and accessibility. Their handoff plan includes tutorial videos and permeable storage.

John Carter Brown Library

The JCB is a prestigious (and some what stodgy) library with a collection focused on the exploration of the “New” World. Like many libraries, they’re thinking about what it means to be a repository of knowledge and rare books in a digital age, and one team helped them tell stories in online formats.

I’m proudest of this group for the complete and professional product they created. Their handoff plan includes scaling through provided templates. Watch the JCB Facebook group for this content as it is released.

Humanitarian Technology Festival

I came on with Aspiration back in January as the Community Leadership Strategist, to merge the work I’ve been doing in the humanitarian and disaster response space with Aspiration’s practices and team. It’s been a *blast* so far, and continues to be.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last 5 years has been about what social justice looks like when we’re doing response, with a focus on technology (as that opens up paths to conversations we otherwise quit having). With Geeks Without Bounds, we did hackathons all over the world, including Random Hacks of Kindness and SpaceApps Challenge. I’ve been a coordinator for the Digital Humanitarian Network, keynoted the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, was invited to the White House to talk about Sandy response, facilitated the first hackathon IN (not just for) Haiti, etc etc etc. I’ve also had a huge organizational crush on Aspiration since my first DevSummit in 2013, attending as many Aspiration-connected events as possible. When I was able to join Team Aspiration, I was overjoyed — even while much of the work I’ve continued to do on response had already existed, it’s been a slow shift to get those previously-defined objects to be a bit more Aspiraiton-shaped.

The Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge May 9+10 is the first event that is both committed to response and framed on Aspiration ethos. I am SO EXCITED about this it hurts. Let me explain why.

The very way we deliver aid perpetuates the need for more aid, both for fast- and slow-onset disasters (or “extreme events” or “humanitarian issues” or “earthquake” or “famines” or whatever you’d like to say). When people need lodging after a hurricane, they’re either told to evacuate and/or they’re put into temporary homes, away from neighbors and family. There is little impetus to return and rebuild both social and tangible structures. People are uprooted, and must start from scratch. When, instead, we see that people don’t just need lodging but in fact need social fabric, responders (and the technologies used for response) can focus on how to maintain family and neighborhood ties. People are then less stressed as well as being more likely to take their own actions to return and rebuild.

For humanitarian aid, this is even more paternalistic and stratifying… while not actually “fixing” any of the things it aims to. Aid is primarily about making the giver feel better. But like Tom’s Shoes picking up on the “buy one, give one” idea that OLPC actually handled with cultural grace and systems thinking, instead Tom’s put some people out of work while trying to provide something THEY thought others needed. Even if it had been delivered in a less-jerky way, aid often ends up with locations dependant on that aid, rather than internally strengthened. This is one way we keep extracting resources out of other places without actually contributing to those locations. See also this bit of the paper I’m still working on. This allows the worst parts of globalization (erasure of cultures, consolodation of wealth, etc) to continue.

Some might say “fine, let them fend for themselves,” but that’s not ok either. When we don’t have to look at our neighbors (when we build walled housing complexes, or segregated schools), we can ignore how bad things are for them. And that’s also not an acceptable answer.

What we need are ways to listen to what people can offer, and what they need, under the assumptions that we are equals. This is why I’m so excited to see how the participatory methods I associate so strongly with Aspiration come to bear on this space. Just do a search-and-replace for “Nonprofits” to “Affected Communities” on our Manifesto and Participant Guidelines. People in these fragile situations are NOT a population to playtest new tools. Not only do failures have a larger impact in these spaces, but to think of another location and its people as “demo” space is undignified and unjust. We need better ways (not just better tools) for life EVERYWHERE, and to assume that we WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)-o’s have all the answers is downright arrogant. By instead, as we do at Aspiration events, speaking to each other in easy-to-understand language, under the assumption that everyone is bringing something meaningful to the table, and that together we’ll figure it out; we can shift not only how we do response, but the after-effects of that response.

I’m especially excited to speak to people about distributed response, and how the tools we build for ourselves can be welcoming to others using as well. Check out NYCprepared and Taarifa to see what this can look like.

Dealing with Having Money

Towards the end of December 2014, with a very probable full-time gig with Aspiration (which I continue to adore) on the horizon, I realized that I would (for the first time in my life) have slightly more money than I needed to live off of. Rather than expand into the space via my consumption (ok, I’ve done a little of that, too), I wrote to the Berkman list asking for help in investment or saving.

After years of living by the skin of my teeth, it seems I’m about to have steady employment. I don’t know how to invest or save money, and I generally think capitalism is pretty evil. However, I do need to survive in the long run in the world we’ve got. Does anyone on this list have advice on 1) who I can talk to about this (I am _clueless_), 2) how to do this as someone who cares about disinvestment from petrol, promoting social justice, smashing the patriarchy and maybe the state, etc?

This was met with an outpouring of advice (and some fascinating discussion about monopolies, silicon valley, investment, etc, which I won’t get into right now), which I’ve distilled here as best I can for a wider audience. Caveat that I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and I look forward to making further edits (with credit!) based on feedback. I’d like to specifically thank Brian Keegan and Tom Stites for their amazing overviews and deep investment (ha!) in the topic; Andy Ellis for sitting on the phone with me; and Hasit Shah, Emy Tseng, and Amanda Page for their distilled wisdom and links.

Apparently, socially responsible investing is something tons of smart people have already put a lot of thought into. Hooray! Less work for me! One basic thing to consider is the level of granularity and control you want to personally have — stocks, bonds, and companies are the more granular. Preset choices, such as through funds, are easier to manage, and you can still have some selection-level control. It’s also suggested “to (1) diversify so that all your eggs aren’t in one basket and (2) keep investment costs low so that your returns aren’t eaten up by paying other people to manage your money.” Amanda pointed out that tutorials exist on the websites of Vanguard, Fidelity, and TIAA-Creff, and more.

One suggested thing external to investment is to just have charitable petty cash on hand – like Awesome Foundation – just giving directly to charities without ending up on their lists of People to Pester.


The easiest (and seemingly least risky) thing to do is to set up an Individual Retirement Account, or IRA. My bank had a special portal just for this, and it took about 10 minutes. You can set aside $5,500/year in this, and apparently it does nice things to your taxes.

Things to be aware of, when dealing with the risk of investment:

  • A healthy approach seems to be thinkng “I’ve lost the money” the moment you give it. Like covering a friend for lunch — it’s nice to be giving money to something it’s nice to spend money on, but will also enjoy the reciprocal motion if it happens.
  • Via Andy, “always ask yourself, ‘is this too good to be true, and why do I have this opportunity?'”
  • “The investment world is a peppered with people and institutions devoted to fleecing the public, usually in entirely legal ways, so beware.” – Tom
  • REITs are generally considered unsavory.

Suggested groups to check out:

  • Calvert Foundation is a community investment fund – as in, you’re loaning money to communities so they can improve themselves. This was recommended by Tom and stands out to me the most as a meaningful investment.
  • Global Alliance for Banking on Values. One thing that stood out to me from this group was their goal to “promote a positive, viable alternative to the current financial system.” While it’s not possible to interact with this group directly, it seems like a good roster to select a bank from, if you are opening a new account of various sorts.
  • Social Equity Group. If you need/want to talk to a financial planner, this is one group worth thinking about. Another group is from Start Investing Responsibly.
  • The Forum for Sustainable and Resonsible Investment. USSIF seems to be setting up a whole ecosystem of investors, businesses, community funds, etc.

Interesting reading:

Institutions also provide various forms of guidance based on their respective moral frameworks:

In Summary…

There is no direct path from index funds, which by their nature cannot exclude any particular companies, to customary approaches to socially responsible investing, which insists on excluding the worst actors. Socially screened funds charge way bigger fees than index funds — they’ve got to pay people to assess companies and exclude the worst — so one approach is to use index funds and take the money saved by not paying high fees and put it in community investment vehicles offered through the nonprofit Calvert Foundation. Using socially screened funds may help you feel virtuous, but community investment funds can actively make people’s lives better. – Tom

Based on all this, (for as long as it’s possible,) I’ll be putting the suggested $5,500 in my IRA each year, and putting the bit extra into the Calvert Foundation through one of their suggested advisers. Next, I need to figure out what state I actually exist in, if that even matters. Emails are out, we’ll see how it goes.

Tell me your stories, thoughts, etc.

Liminal Transport

One used to pick me up from the airport, on whatever motorcycle was working, my hip-shaped leathers on under his, a matryoshka doll of care. We’d each have a backpack, holding on tight for safety and because it was the thing to do.

Another still does sometimes, eye-corners crinkling, the easiest silence. The city always appearing around the same bend, a skyline of calm.

Wedged in the front of a bicycle’s cargo bucket, luggage on my lap, while one took us to a front-yard farm to play ukulele music.

Another took pictures as I rode off, capturing our overlapping liminal spaces.

One with temporal and signal precision to arrival doors and green lights, dive bombing down hills and through streets. Rapid-fire catch-up on passions and focus.

A surprise-pile of people under bags in a backseat, through the deserted streets and crunching deep snow of some city. A warm greeting after a stressful time.

One took my 10+hours off-zone self to a warm bed and a shower in their profane and sacred home.

Finding the metal angler fish to get to the private plane, to be taken to find a car covered in floppy disks stashed away in a parking lot, followed by blissful water and the first time we slept intertwined.

In the backseat, a tiny person knitting, another devising experiments to make explosions scientific. Me not holding your hand.

One dropped me off at an airport on one side of the country, and weeks later retrieved me from somewhere else, that same smile and hatchback somehow transported. Now accompanied by a very polite dog and a growing history.

When one held the art between us, wind rushing past, uncertain if the high was from the bike or from the fear.

I took the train from the plane, and another handed me a heavily caffeinated drink and a helmet.

From the backseat, staring at the headlong scar from home to departure, through radiation-thinned hair, a freckled abyss.

But usually it’s gruff drivers, or confusing transit, and I’m not sure I’m thrilled by the adventure any longer.

Life, Distributed

Most of my work focuses these days on social justice in networks. Distributed response is this – how do we perform mutual aid in times of extreme events? Weaponized Social is sort of this (hey, did you know we’re doing one in Nairobi? Also in San Francisco?), of the role of an individual and a group in a networked culture. Networked Mortality is about how we deal with death in a networked age, how a distributed group copes with the loss of one of its members. I gave a talk at Arse Elektronika years ago about PostGeographic Sexuality — what it was like to be partnered with people when encounters are instance-based, rather than cycle-based.

The whole thing a little bit ago with the manic episode pointed at something else glaring in my life which needs to be explicitly coped with in a new way: pattern detection. While I could just take medication to create hard-borders around my affect, I’d rather at least attempt meditation practices to cope. But the interim is potentially dangerous – what if my unpracticed mind isn’t able to do it, or (worse yet) fails to catch that it’s not working? A person with a more standard life might ask a neighbor or partner to look out for them, but that’s not much of an option for me. How am I, who at my most stationary still spends half of each week for 3 weeks a month Providence and the other half in Camberville, and one week a month in the Bay Area; supposed to benefit from people who care for me noticing my unhealthy patterns? How is anyone supposed to notice a pattern with me?

So I’ve started to do this intentionally, similarly to all of the other exercises. A small group of people, who do see me more often (and regularly) than most, have been put in touch with each other with the explicit purpose to check with each other if I seem to be going off the rails in any way. I’ve caved and purchased a fitbit (an evil step sibling to the Pebble of which I’m quite fond), so the Warning Signs (excess coffee, extended sleep deprivation, etc) can be noticed by other people. A tiny web of friendly surveillance. I don’t yet know how it will go, but I do find it highly amusing that Distributed Life is present even here.

I’ve detailed out my process, in case anyone is interested in replicating it.
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A Thousand Tiny Loops

We get a thousand tiny checks a day that keep us from being jerks to each other. Someone grimacing at the joke you’re about to make, blog entries from Captain Awkward, twinkles and blocks at a meeting. Some of these are empathetic – knowing how you feel when someone looks at their phone when you are talking might deter you from doing the same to someone else. Some are explicit – mailing list rules you agree to when signing up. Generally, there’s little chance of you doing something super awful if you’re surrounded by good people, and invested in learning about the world and your role in it. This is part of how we society. This is part of why and how we social movement.

encountering people and other interactions with social contracts make path-finding easier.

encountering people and other interactions with social contracts make path-finding easier.


When those checks aren’t working

Given my incredibly limited understanding of the autism spectrum, it seems that some of these feedback loops simply aren’t able to be processed by some folk. But there is a thing which I do know about where the ability to care about the check-back, adjusting part of the feedback loop breaks down. Let me take you into the brain of a manic person. IE, me.

Being hypo-manic (slightly manic most of the time) is like having a super power. I have a ridiculous amount of energy and drive. I will joyfully get things done that many might find insurmountably daunting. My response to chaotic no-win scenarios is to role my sleeves up and get going. I tend to think, that in one week: giving a talk, teaching a class, moderating a multi-hour discussion, spending time with people I love, and still pulling 40 hours of standard work of all sorts of rad projects and foundation-building is maybe not actually as productive as I would have liked to have been.

The stiletto of this persistent silver lining is that it also means, occasionally, feedback loops quit being as such during severe manic episodes. Social understandings I’ve agreed to, upheld, even helped create just… quit mattering. Explicit agreements are left to the wayside in enthusiasm to enact SOMETHING WHICH IS GOING TO BE TOTALLY AMAZING. Everything is going to be fine! The people I have those agreements with will understand this change in plan! Have some faith in me, while I trample your ability to be a consenting adult in this situation! In short, my brain’s connection between action and consequence (not just to me, but to anyone involved) is broken.

the only thing that matters during a manic episode is that thing you've decided you want to do.

the only thing that matters during a manic episode is that thing you’ve decided you want to do.

I’ve experienced a grand total of 2 episodes severe enough to merit people calling me out in ways I couldn’t ignore in that state, and the subsequent depressive crash while I figure out what to do about still being a person of integrity even when I am not myself is pretty fucking mind-melting as well. Which is where I am right now.

The fallout

After the episode collapses, the fallout is the most sickening experience in the world. People and projects I love have been exposed to injury by the same mechanism which I advocate for the hardest otherwise — our ability and desire to build greater things together than we could on our own.

To see an episode after it has passed is to be alienated from one’s self. To lack any connection, empathy, or understanding for who I was in a moment (or moments); in the same way my other-self had lacked any connection, empathy, or understanding for those I cared about in those moments. Of course I know better. I not only try to demonstrate how people can Suck Less, I try to provide scaffolding for such as well. How could I have done this thing that I help others know not to do?

Despite that disconnect, I’ve still found it vital to be accountable to my actions. “It wasn’t me” isn’t an excuse I wish to explore. It was me, some strange, terrifying part of myself that I don’t understand and that I’d rather didn’t show up at all. I can only hope that owning up to these glitches in my brain-system can rebuild the trust I destroy in those moments. I feel like I’m picking up the pieces after a destructive family member I can’t help but love has wrecked havoc across a project I love. “That was not ok,” other people say. “I know,” I respond. Because I do.

This is a process

Selfishly, I want us to figure out how to deal with people like me. People committed to causes, with (hopefully meaningful) things to offer on a pretty solid ongoing basis. But people who also cannot be 100% trusted all of the time.

Yes, I see someone about this. Yes, I sometimes take things to help regulate it. But I’m more interested in society’s take, as always. We’re starting to have dialogues about depression – how to signal it, how to take care of ourselves and others, etc… and we need to keep figuring those things out. I’d like this to get figured out, too.

None of us is perfect. None of us should be. Dealing with our flaws in healthy ways is yet one more way we build futures better than our selves. 

Distributed and Digital Disaster Response

Been working the new job with Aspiration in SF (while I still live in Providence and Cambridge), which is outstanding. Also been working on a paper about the topic I’m focused on with Aspiration, of how we perform mutual aid, at scale, specifically in disaster response and humanitarian aid. It calls for what we’d call a “mixed-mode system” in Complexity Science. I gave a talk at Berkman Center yesterday on the topic, and they’ve already got the video live. I had a great time! Thanks to everyone for coming out and sharing your brains with me.

NECSI Salon: First Day Celebration

NECSI’s action-based 4th Wednesday Salon focused on First Day. This is an event which provides the resources, framing, and impetus to take personal responsibility for community health. It is not a fix-all, but is it an important, missing piece in the US health care debate, and a fulcrum for connected shifts to a healthier society.

On Wednesday, March 11th, we will hear talks from Deb Roy from the MIT Media Lab, Devin Belkind from OccupySandy, and Sam Klein from Wikimedia on Distributed Organizations. Register here.

First Day is about taking personal responsibility for your own wellbeing at personal and global level. Inspired from the idea of regeneration and new year resolutions, First Day wants to create a community level engagement at a personal level and community level.


Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

We assumed those attending would be both in a position to, and have a desire to, act. The Wednesday before had provided space for folk to ramp up to this state, including review of readings about a similar Wal-Mart initative. We were additionally inspired by Boston’s own First Night and City Awake.

After very short reminders of what we were there to accomplish for the day, each person introduced themselves and what they were interested in specific to First Day. From these, we pulled out a few break-out sessions tasked with creating an actionable list or guidelines for organizers to work with. The overarching points we ended with were an appreciation of the need of safe space for people to ask questions which might otherwise be taboo (especially around health), comfort in complex problems having interventions (especially with a light hearted attitude!), an appreciation for existing cultural events (Days of the Dead as well as Chinese, Tibetian, and Indian celebrations of new cycles and health), and holistic approaches to mental and physical health.

Slightly curated notes follow: Continue reading