Mutual Aid and The Crowd

Months ago, one of my friends at the Naval Defense University sent me an article from Scientific American on how social media is making crowds less predictable. It hit a nerve with me, my response being that “social media makes crowds more predictable to themselves.” The article talks about uprisings in various countries, popular choice, and collective action. It also cites this argument, shoehorning collective action into hierarchical framework, indicative of its missing the point.

Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts conducted large-scale experiments to investigate the effect of the strength of social influence on collective action. People were given a list of previously unknown songs from unknown bands. They listened to the songs and downloaded them if they wanted to. In the independent condition, people did not see other people’s choices. In the social influence condition, people saw how many times each song had been downloaded by others. The collective outcome in the social influence condition was more unequal. That is, popular choices were much more popular under social influence.

Crowds are only less predictable to the outside. They are becoming more predictable to themselves. Not talking about ranking, not talking about decision, simply speaking to awareness and therefore paths to action. This, to me, is related to the core disconnection in disaster response between official response’s view on social media/The Crowd as a resource to be tapped for situational awareness, and the mutual aid of The Crowd as self-organization. Formal organizations tend to think of The Crowd as an input function to their workflows. Their concerns therefore revolve around verifiability, bad actors, and predictability. A manifestation of this are the self-mapped roads in remote places via Open Street Map being grumbled over for not fitting into the data hierarchies of official responders. That is not the point of the maps being built.

These are identity politics on the scale of a community. These are people using a tool to their own ends, to support themselves, to gain better understanding of their world, not as a resource to be tapped. It is a group of people talking to itself. If institutions exist to serve collective purpose, their role here is to provide institutional knowledge (with awareness and self-reflection of bias), guiding frameworks (possibly), and response at scale (upon request). In this way, we can benefit from history and iterative learnings while escaping paternalistic ends.

Which brings us to responsible data practices. If data must be collected on a group of people, either ambiently  through things like the Firehose or directly provided, the output should be useful to those people. This is the difference that makes ethical digital response seeking the integration of multiple datasets to have better situational awareness, and what the NSA does. For instance, if you’re collecting information on homeless shelters and the movements of homeless individuals, the information should be able to be used by those folk to self-organize. Else we’re just recreating the systems we’ve been trying to get away from. We’re even making them more robust with new technologies, the biases hidden away in algorithms.

As a crowd comes to know itself better, the intelligence can becomes an embedded, rather than external, component. We start to see many eyes on the bugs of society.

Happy Birthday Debcha!

I’m about to get on a plane to the West Coast. Three incredible guitar players practice so adeptly nearby that the desk folk have turned the overhead music off – think Triplets of Belleville soundtrack. This morning I kicked off SpaceApps Boston, and then I got to sit for awhile to listen to a great lineup of my friend Deb‘s friends give talks for her birthday. My talk was to draw everyone else’s talk, and then show them at the end. I’d usually post this over on bl00viz, but it’s more personal, and I do try to not cross the streams too much.

Deb was/is a core part of why I now feel so at home in the Boston area. She reminded me that part of having a history with people was building that history with them, inviting me out to dinner parties, talking on Twitter, checking in on text. And always amazing music, Zoe Sighting, Emergency Leroy. Thanks for being persistent proof that people can be amazing, intelligent, kind, calm, and stimulating. Happy Birthday.

A Delayed Healthy America

There’s a lag between policy changes and communal knowledge/action. For example, there’s a sociologically well understood gap in mortality and birth rates. Access to better medical technology and standards of living causing decreased mortality rates (IE, more people living longer). The gap is made by a being lagged by access to and use of birth control (“Wait, I don’t have to have 5 kids in order to have 4 survive to run the whole farm! I can just have 2! Both will survive and, with tech, we can still do well!”) decreasing the birth rate. This results in population booms.

note: *not* drawn by me, for once.

note: *not* drawn by me, for once.

A similarly-shaped delay is likely to happen in the new access to health care via reasonable insurance in America. People will be so caught up in the generations-held mentality of “just tough through it, not worth the cost of a medical visit” that they won’t go into much-needed (and now affordable!) checkups and treatments. This is a social and mental hurdle, no longer a policy or access one. Which means you have to do it yourself, and encourage the people around you do do the same. Which is to say, just go to the doctor. You can, now. Do it for Annie.

10 Years Later, My Soul Still Flinches

I was recently triggered by a dear friend. He had no way of knowing – I don’t talk about these things, and on the rare occurrence that it comes up in any context, I take care of it myself. But we’ve been close for awhile now, and he deserved some sort of understanding as to why I nearly walked out, no reasons, to clear my head and calm my breathing.

My tendency is to not talk about things until I have both a clear understanding and a clear action to take. If understanding is all that is needed, I sometimes keep that to myself, unless it benefits everyone to express it. Mind you, with a high emotional metabolism, these processes can take from minutes to hours – rarely on the scale of a full or multiple days. But I suppose it’s important to talk about abuse, especially as someone who apparently seems functional.

Corey used to leave me places. We lived in a bad neighborhood in Suffolk, and I was new to the area, and I worked doubles at an Applebees a few miles from home. The one time I tried to walk home late at night, a car stopped to proposition me, and became quite angry when I didn’t accede. I was 19 at the time. I didn’t have a phone – we only had one, and Corey had taken it, but wasn’t answering. Being that poor also meant I didn’t have cab fare, there were no buses, and my new coworkers were uncaring. I didn’t have my car – he had taken that, too. To do… something.. while I worked and he didn’t. After that, even when I couldn’t get ahold of him, I would wait at the restaurant, sometimes for a couple hours, until he would come to get me. He would then “tease” me for how often I had called or texted him.

When I would insist on taking my car with me, it became an argument about trust. Why didn’t I trust him to have the car? It was just going to sit in the parking lot all day, whereas he could use it. Didn’t I trust him to come get me? Did that mean I didn’t trust him at all in anything else? I was a horrible person! He was simply absent minded. My lack of trust was undermining the relationship.

Later, things slowly escalated. We would get into regular yelling matches. He broke his hand from punching the floor when I stated my intentions of leaving, permanently and immediately. I drove him to the hospital instead of driving myself to my cousin’s, crying because I knew the ensuing hospital bills would threaten the move back to Indiana so I could return to school (my parents’ sneaky trick to get me back into a social safety net). I still don’t know the laws about physical abuse if you hit back. It wasn’t pretty. And always the underlying thread of distrust. Any fight always came back down to my not trusting him. I finally left him after 2 and a half years, discovering that the problem was not my lack of trust but his untrustworthiness. We still had to live together for awhile, again from his financial insolvency. There was a final morning with him not letting me leave the house, my finally calling the cops as he slammed doors back shut and then stood in front of my car.

Recovery takes time, and I’m still not done with it. I reflect less often, but more publicly. But it’s important to know that even badasses like me have baggage. So do others.

  • 2007 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/129303.html
  • 2008 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/167449.html
    • http://willowperson.livejournal.com/186020.html
  • 2009 : http://willowperson.livejournal.com/197463.html
  • 2010 : http://blog.bl00cyb.org/2010/09/diaf/
  • 2013 : http://brainmeats.net/ep8-social-scripts-for-abuse

When an ex-lover in Seattle had pulled my motorcycle battery to get his own going, I lost my shit. In his  excitement over mechanical triumph, he tossed his feature phone towards me to gain my attention while stopped on the curb. He had just removed both the ability to communicate and my transportation. Of course he had no idea why this would be so bad. Nor could he, until I expressed it.

The thing that makes emotional abuse difficult to overcome is that erosion in the baseline of trust. The initial giving of trust is still pretty easy to me, it’s the response to being in an iffy situation and determining how to navigate it. My attempts to vocalize about being uncomfortable in the past meant all the structure of the relationship was torn away (not by me, I know that now). So my knee-jerk response to situations now is that of having to choose to quietly deal with the feelings that I’m having, or having trust itself questioned. My heart doesn’t understand there can be an third option between stoicism and complete tear down. And I like the trust established with the Boston Sweetie (who I’ll note wanted to be called the Boston Strangler here, that is how awesome he is).

But now I have space again to ask questions and think through things safely, I don’t have to have a rational reason for feeling the way I feel. Maybe someday I get to be rational about all this again. Maybe. In the meantime, I just have to accept that the people around me might actually want to help, not take my need for help as a personal affront. All I have to do is be brave enough to explain what’s going on in the tumult of feels, even if it doesn’t yet make sense. Especially if it doesn’t yet make sense.

It’s important to know that even the ability to speaking about the abuse is what is ripped away. This is why it is difficult to speak out. The podcast, listed above, has some pretty heart-felt conversation from a variety of people in it. Worth checking out. And speak out. It helps. Even a decade later.

A Week of User Rights and the Tools to Support

What a crazy week. This has mostly been typed on a plane back to Boston, where I get to be for a few days before heading to DC and then home to visit. When I landed to SF a week ago, I had plans to see friends, to lounge a bit, to enjoy a city I love so much. Instead, and just as happily, it was a whirlwind of jam-packed braining and action around user rights and the methods and tools to support those rights.

Countersurveillance DiscoTechs

With the Codesign Studio I TA with the Media Lab, a series of Discovery Technology (DiscoTech) Workshops were put on. The ones in Bangalore, Ramallah, Mexico City, Boston, and San Francisco were all inspiring. You can see more about the projects, art, and progress over on our hackpad. Some examples were stories from Venezuelan activists, face painting to deter facial recognition (so hard!), long-time surveillance on poor communities in America, and spoofing DNA.

And seriously. Take a few minutes to go through the partner pages for this. Need a bit of morning outrage? Think everything’s going pretty ok in the world? Nope!

UI/UX for Crypto Tools Hackathon

The second usability hackathon with OpenITP went incredibly well, and repped as the San Francisco DiscoTech as well as its own thing.

It was utterly luxurious to work on large team of people. Ciprian had logistics covered, solidly. Gus knew the projects inside and out. Bex had notes and tone in beautiful competence. Anytime I would think “oh, we should..” it was already in progress. All I had to do was herd the kittens, which was absurdly fun.

RightsCon

It was really nice to completely surrounded by the people I usually see when we all jam into the one or two sessions at any tech or policy event which involve both. But that overlap was the whole conference, so we were able to dive in much deeper, see more nuance, and see next steps. I learned about funder motives, and the initiatives which backed tech in atrocity prevention/detection/accountability, and about many many tools used to amplify the voices of marginalized people. I drew a lot, and I hugged even more.

VizNotes

Full set on bl00viz.

Typed Notes!

I typed notes for two interactive sessions for sake of formatting. One was a review of the the UI/UX hackathon the weekend before, the other was stories from the field and suggestions for how to be better trainers. Those can be found over on the Civic blog.

Responsible Data Forum

Thursday I trekked out to Oakland to participate in Engine Room‘s Responsible Data Forum, as hosted by the inspirational Aspiration Tech. Again, I was spoiled by being surrounded by an impressively diverse set of people interested in the same fulcrum of concern and change. We skeletoned out plans for checklists before collecting data, and workflows that include project death, and illustrated how data moves through a company. We talked hosting and coercion resistant design and informed consent. We also talked about context-based privacy in disasters. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of the day.

The Architects of Houses

My most recent hex tattoo says “throw away the scabbard”. The full meaning is that when the time comes to fight, you draw your sword and throw the scabbard away. Because you either face a foe you are unlikely to beat, or that you will not be forgiven, or that there is no going back. It’s also a quote attributed to Stonewall Jackson. Who was a right git. But the quote is thus both a reminder that I get to make a choice, once, to draw my sword; as well as that those I rally against have conviction to rival my own (as well as some things to say that I do believe in).

It’s a manifestation and reminder of the ongoing battle within myself between the desire to fix what we’ve got, and the desire to build something alternative and independent while tearing down the current structures. I mean this for education, for economies, for law, and for societies. It’s a constant balance, and one I’m lucky to be surrounded by individuals and groups in both extremes as well as others also balancing. What I hope for are more people I can share nuanced views with – there are a few, but it’s been an alienating experience to examine possibility between these two worlds. I hope this post can help open up that conversation. And I truly feel that, with enough understanding and allies, it will be possible to both do damage control with the current system by creating where we want to be – either with existing or with new.

Here’s the main strain between the two sides for me :

The master’s tools will never dismantle
the master’s house. – Audre Lorde

At the same time, those who are harmed most in
tumultuous times are those already most at risk.

Scaling is hard, and we have a responsibility to the people who already exist on the planet in whatever actions we take to make a better world. Is the suffering caused by the current set-up greater or lesser than the process of shifting to a less damaging system?

One of the reasons I sit in this balance is because of my work with Geeks Without Bounds on humanitarian and disaster response work. I see how amazing groups of people can be if you just get out of their way. Social media in response is not about a curated format for intake for FEMA or OEM or even Red Cross. It’s about a group of people (in this case, in an affected area) that already know how to talk to each other, and who know what they need, finding a new audience of people who want to help them. It’s about mutual aid. But FEMA and OEM and Red Cross have a place in this system, as experts and as providers of specific and prolific resources. And that sort of interaction needs people like me, at least right now, who can talk to both sides about how to get what they need and how to avoid being trampled on.

That bridging requires a lot of talking and trust building. Neither of these sides is especially fond of the other – the formal out of confusion and fear, and the informal from righteous indignation and historical awareness (caveat caveat caveat on both parts – most individuals I’ve met do not fit these descriptions, but as collectively held viewpoints, it holds depressingly true). On rare occasion, such as in response, both sides end up being both hard-pressed but hopeful, forgetting to be wary.

Running with these rare moments has changed things. But it requires being open to possibility, trusting in good will, and standing strong with your source and vision. It requires seeing what people want to offer, and what is non-negotiable. And it does require the understanding that at any point, this balance might change. While I might trust some of the people within it, I do not trust The System, while it sure can be useful.

So when a chance to possibly tweak a part of our executive branch came up recently, but in a way that is daunting and consuming, it caused a lot of internal angst. Here’s a 5-minute explanation, to be watched before the rest of the post is read:

Yes, their goal is that of recruitment. But this is where shared vision can come into play – the world where any of the folk I love and trust would be willing to recruit to this group is also a world in which external oversight is fully supported and embraced. Hopefully, it’s a world in which such a group wouldn’t even be needed. And I’m willing to work towards that world with many people. Our inputs and outputs may be different, but it all starts to look the same the further towards our core it goes.

But! Even if the gents we are entertaining the thought of talking to might have the best of intentions at heart, and a vested interested in making it work out well for all parties involved, it might not be safe to do so. Even if they work to protect a spark of understanding and collaboration, to fan it towards making their organization one worth working for, anyone else from within that organization might ensure information from interaction snaps into the proscribed uses – that of targeting and undermining dissidents. The whole path and system of interaction is not safe, the architecture is lacking for intentional systems shift. Which means the tiny, squishy people not protected by that system will be severely damaged, and in a way that continues allowing the current track of harm. No martyrdom here will work.

That is why so many things have been allowed to get so messed up. There’s no self-referential nor -checking mechanism for our systems. There’s no pause [wait, are we sure this is where we want to be?] function. And that is simply ridiculous. Ridiculous because it is simple, and it makes everything better and easier, regardless of where you’re wanting to go.

So what’s to be done? I can do small things, and so can you. Make sure the organizations you associate with, the social interactions you are a part of, and even your self have self-checking mechanisms. Meditate. Do not-project-focused gatherings where folk say, without fear of firing or abandonment, how they think things are going overall. Where you don’t have direct influence to make such things happen, find allies and work towards it together. And if you have the chance to talk to someone from the Other Side, be sure they can actually follow through on what they’re going for. Help them understand why it’s vital, and help get there, if you can.

So much love to all the folk who listened to me parse through this incessantly for the better part of a few weeks. Their hearts and minds are folded into this world view, and I could not be the person I am without them. You know who you are.