College To Careers

I had the joy of visiting my hometown of Logansport, Indiana recently. In fact, I’m still sitting at the kitchen table, under skylights. Might have just finished dancing like a muppet with my father to adamant piano music. I came primarily to see my parents, but also to see how my aunt is settling into Grandma’s old house, and how the forrest of magical privilege1 is growing. My mother also asked me to speak to the Rotary club. Which is amazing. As you may know, I see service, especially to one’s less-well-off origins, as an important component of maintaining the social fabric.

Which of course meant I couldn’t just talk to Rotary. I also reached out to the high school principal. Could I come and speak to some classes? Some perusal of the high school schedule later, I had some classes picked out. I’d present to the Advanced Placement Speech Class and all of the 8th graders at one of the two middle schools.

First, I landed from Ireland via Chicago2, hugged my parents, took my melatonin, and passed out. I woke in the morning, nervous but excited to head to the high school. I remembered the route from my house, driving my mother’s car like ye olde days.

I sometimes have these dreams where I’m back in high school, and I’m running late. Never naked, I suppose because I don’t care, but often late. Well. That actually happened. I arrived into the parking lot, a full 20 minutes before the class started, to an email that said “Hope you’re ok, sad to miss you in class.” Dear timezones. Dear, dear timezones. Drat.

Rotary was another matter. We ate, I caught up with friends’ parents, I talked about technology and collaboration and disaster response. The response was “we’re still not quite sure what you do, but we’re impressed!” Sigh. I must get better at this! I rewrote the presentation, laid it out differently, and prepared myself for the next day, with 6 rounds of 8th graders in a class called College to Careers.

Then, I took questions. Any question. One class was stuck on “hacking,” one on “celebrities,” but nearly all the questions were good ones. Once it became clear that I mean “any question,” more interesting ones started coming. “Why is your hair blue?” – because it’s supposed to be. “Why do you wear a tie?” – because it looks good. “What’s the worst place you’ve ever been?” – looking for invisible populations in Far Rockaway that we knew would freeze to death because they were scared to be seen. “What’s your favorite color?” – grey. “50 Shades of Grey?” – terrible fanfic of a terrible book. “Twilight?” – yup. *Gasp*

Each class had its own flavor. A blind kid was incredibly adept at translating into “kid speak.” Another, pink hair and poised nature, wanted to know where I went shopping. Two kids and I riffed about motorcycles, and how they were terrifically dangerous and here’s my scar but of course I still have one, but wait until you know how to sit still before you think about getting one yourself. And the instructor was incredibly gracious about me essentially telling kids who had signed up to a class for clear purpose and direction that I was still winging it (and loving it).

It was a great opportunity, and I’m glad to have a better understanding of what I do. Maybe other people will now, too. At least 120 kids out there are thinking that “hack” might not be a bad word.

1. My parents have taken to buying lots on their block that tend to be held by negligent landlords, tearing down the house, and planting trees. While this is a rather strange form of gentrification, as you can still easily get a house in any area of my hometown for under $30,000, I don’t feel so bad about it.
2. The first flight Diggz and I have ever been on together in 3 years of traveling!


Yesterday held many gems, and one of my favorites was seeing Charlie defend his dissertation (he would prefer it be called “defenestration“). He’s built an incredible tool called InterTwinkles, an online tool for non-hierarchical, consensus-oriented decision making.

Non-hierarchical, participatory, consensus-based decision making has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. The traditional techniques of formal consensus, however, are limited to face-to-face meetings, which can limit organizations’ capacity due to their time and cost. InterTwinkles is a set of integrated but composable online tools designed to assist small and medium-sized groups in engaging in formal group decision making processes online. In this thesis, Charlie DeTar presents a thorough investigation of the ethical and practical motivations for consensus decision making, and relates these to concerns of control and autonomy in the design of online systems. He describes the participatory and iterative design process for building an online platform for consensus, with particular attention to the practical constraints of real-world groups with mixed technical aptitude. He presents the results of a three month field trial with six cooperative groups in the Boston area, and evaluates the results through the lens of adaptive structuration theory, with particular attention on the fit between the ethical motivations and performance outcomes.

It also generated one of the better #vizthink outputs I think I’ve done in awhile. A big part of being able to do that is based all of the wonderful conversations Charlie and I have shared over the past few months. He’s always been generous with his time and his brains.

Keep an eye out for his future work, try out InterTwinkles in your housing co-op or other affinity-based consensus group. While I (and the rest of the Media Lab) will miss Charlie dearly, Montana calls him to new adventures (and to his awesome partner!).

Becoming Structured

Feeding off the Pixels and Paintbrushes blog entry. Interested in that transition space between the analog and the digital. It’s funny, liminal has long been my favorite word, rivaled only recently by penumbral. More and more, I get to look at and live in that space. But now I see it more as the space of transition, not just as space between/at the edge.

So this thing happens, where we have formal structures, and the informal takes up the space between. As in the previous entry, each of these has its purpose and strengths and weaknesses.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

As a reference, let’s take the limited work I’ve done with Occupy Relief efforts. I act as human API – if you need something from a formalized organization, including them getting out of the way, let me know. Then there are posts like this one, which is totally legit. But it puts me in a strange place of saying “I stand with you politically, but if you want this taken care of logistically, then let’s do that.” Something that keeps me in the relief space is how stark a relief differences are thrown into1. The choices that have to be made, and what is considered important when, and what cultural artifacts are created by those choices. A big part of how adaptable and powerful Occupy is, is based upon their NOT being defined nor legible. More and more I wonder how to make groups like FEMA legible to Occupy, rather than the other way round.

Reading Seeing Like A State, if you can’t tell. So very good. And then, I got to see Douglas Rushkoff speak about his new book, Present Shock. I think a HUGE part of these ideas overlap.

He equated the quest for the upper right quadrant in Capitalism with the Singularity as an example of existing world views being applied to new ways of considering the future. Rushkoff also brought up the feminist media theory of storylines and plots of male vs female orgasm – one is a single escalation and then easy bell curve down. The other being complex, multi-apex, etc. The only way we’ve known for things to be predictable is with the storyline we could track – the male orgasm model2.

Now we have the ability to see, track, understand the complexity of “actual” life3 through big data4 in a way that understands as it emerges, rather than forces adherence to a predictable, and thereby incomplete, model. And instead we are applying the same two-dimensional, simplistic pattern to it, and cutting off the long tails of a bell curve we’ve forced everything into. We’re bringing the legal system of documents and MAYBE spreadsheets to a database and RDF world5. We are not allowing ourselves the nuance of the paintbrush, digitized through the use of high-density pixels. We’re making ourselves bland and bucketed instead. A low-res snapshot of culture, of which the mere act of capturing makes us fulfill it more closely. Through quantified self and things like Prism, we’re stealing our own souls, at least as things are set up now6.

And this is why I’m doing the research I am. I’m tired of us lugging our unexamined baggage into the future we’re building. In the past, institutions were where knowledge was stored. Now it’s stored in us, in a sharable and duplicatable way. Seeing Rushkoff was inspiring, because he noted that yes, it’s difficult to exist in the crevices, but it’s also totally worthwhile. Video and audio are up already on the Berkman site.


It’s the trying to fit new things into old methods. We have to be willing to embrace some unpredictability in order for the lives of others to be more predictable to themselves. Crowds becoming “less predictable” to an outside view, but they’re becoming more self-determining. Let go of the reins and let it guide itself. Isn’t that the point of having power? To push it outwards?

1. See why penumbral is a favorite word?
2. Sidenote that I just tried to find links to the academic background on this, but guess how useful the internet is for THAT.
3. Or at least a closer approximation than we’ve had in the past.
4. Which would be the crowning, and crowing, triumph of Sociology.
5. And the database model isn’t The Best, it’s just “better” than what we’ve had before, in that it’s more self-defining and adaptable.
6. Damn kids get off my keyboard.

Conflict Engagement

Recently I predictably found myself careening towards the 520 by way of 5, my nose in a book, much like the rest of the passengers aboard. During a moment of looking up from my book – to see the sky, which looks remarkably like this some days (tho not that day), or to prevent car sickness, or whatever – I noticed something odd at the front of the bus. Someone standing by the driver, in that hunched way that usually means aggression but can also mean trouble keeping your balance while standing in a bus that’s moving down a highway at more than 50mph. I looked around. Being towards the back half of an accordion bus means there were plenty of people closer – surely if there was something wrong, one of them would have stepped up. Based on their body language, though, most were actually absorbed in their media. Some of that focus was obviously intentional, rather than on whatever was going on at the front. Not a good sign.

bus layout-1

I packed all my stuff away, put my phone and my wallet into my pockets. Asked the person next to me to watch my stuff, and walked towards the front. Walked past maybe 20 people, a few of whom looked up at me while I went by – we’re on an express route, and didn’t have a stop for a ways.

“How’s it going?” I asked, looking at the driver in the mirror.

“It’s.. ok,” he said, making eye contact.

The older, swaying man scoffed, turned to me, and said, “why, what would you do about it?”

“Whatever necessary to return the driver the attention he needs to keep us safe” I responded.

It then became an act of distracting him away from the driver, without having him escalate towards me, while our steersman got us to the next stop safely. The man experiencing angst had missed his stop (a significant thing on an express route), and the driver had not let him off at a non-stop area. Because of safety, and consistency, and because infrastructure does indeed have to adhere to The Rules. But I didn’t ask him about that (he was wrong, and would not have been persuaded otherwise. If he had valid concerns I would have focused on that, and proper channels to deal with complaints), I only kept reminding him that we were ON A BUS ON THE HIGHWAY AND HE WAS DISTRACTING THE DRIVER. I focused on the lives, in a very immediate and pressing way, which were at risk because of this distraction, not his behavior or what had triggered it. Focused only on potential outcome of his current approach. It mostly worked. He tried insults about my hair (heard it), my gender presentation (yawn), his physical superiority (just try). When we had arrived at our stop and he had been booted, I checked in with the driver – does he need my contact in case there is a report? Did he need anything else? – and then returned to my seat. Seething. Why is it an appallingly normal situation that, of all the people in an area, conflict resolution lands on the shoulders of myself and those I keep the company of? I nearly (nearly) had a “sheeple!” moment. And then I took a deep breath and drew a chart instead.

conflict engagement

Physical harm based on proximity to incidence. Of course this graph is subjective.



I started to think about why people don’t engage in situations like these. Things like Diffusion of Responsibility have been studied at great length in the past – the same reason asking someone to watch my bag for me is successful is also why individuals don’t step up to help an individual when a large group is present. See the obligatory reference to Bystander Effect and Kitty Genovese (case taken with grain of salt, but Bystander Effect is well established). But I would hope that the people I associate with would actively dislike being a bystander, and are simply lacking the understanding of how to engage.

Here’s a quick run-down on how I engage with conflict. The base assumption being that you HAVE to, as you’ll be the only one. (Except for when you’re not, and the beauty of a group of strangers coming together around a pressing issue is beautiful. You will be supported, and supporting someone else. Just because one person has stepped up doesn’t mean you shouldn’t as well.) First, you have to assess the situation. These are generalities and non-linear.

  • Assess what is going on, severity, is this for you or “official” response, etc. Who is most at risk? Are you protecting or breaking things up?
  • What is the end goal?
  • Where can you help, if you can? If you can’t help, what needs to happen to assist the situation?
  • What sort of engagement can you do, and what is the backup plan if it escalates past that?

Now that you know vaguely what you’re dealing with and what your limits are, it’s time to engage. Certainly contextual to danger you’re not prepared to deal with.

  • Check in, usually via eye contact. Do this with the person who is least in control. Also do this with the person in the most control to see if they’re of the persuading type. Ask each how they are doing.
  • No matter what insults are thrown, or arguments are made, stick to what your goal is. It can be hard to be rational in these situations, and easy to get pulled into the energy. Stick to your mental guns.
  • If needed, enlist someone nearby to call authority figures. You need your attention where it is, and hopefully this means you’ve pulled at least one person out of by-stander headspace into up-stander headspace.
  • Oftentimes, just being called on being inappropriate it enough to get an individual or group to desist.

Me, personally, I’m pretty ok with getting into a fist fight so long as I am fairly certain there aren’t any weapons around. While getting hit sucks, the mere willingness to put yourself at that risk deescalates most situations. Think of it like poker, and you’re calling a bluff – but you have to be willing to take the hit if you’re wrong. Here is why I think it’s imperative to take responsibility in these situations, broken down in chart format:

conflict grid

This is important to me because, honestly, sometimes I need backup too. I’m reminded of sitting on the BART, headed to the airport, when two guys came and sat in the seats near me. There was the pretty standard come-ons, accompanied by aggressive body language, clearly trying to box me into the seat. I did my usual progression: first good natured “sorry, not interested, and did you know your approach is kind of awkward?” followed by “not even cute. Piss off.” They even pushed it to the point of dead-on eye lock with “Look. Either persuade me you don’t have balls, or I’m going to remove them.” They got off at the next stop, muttering between themselves. While their actions were appalling, what I found so much more awful were that when I had tried to make eye contact with the other people on the car, of whom there were plenty, no one would. And while I can take care of myself, the thought of someone who is less willing to cause lots of damage (even if losing) seeking help and not getting it makes me feel utterly disgusted.

Our system is incredibly flawed in how we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. I am not disputing that. But equally (or more) dangerous is a lack of taking bystanders to task. And to that end, I want you to listen to the most recent Brainmeats! podcast on Social Scripts for Abuse, and think about how we can fix this. What role does a community play around bad actors? That community can be social or geographic. As always, it starts with you. Stand up. I hope this has given the beginning structures on which to engage.

Safe space (online and off) isn’t just about policies and retributions, it’s about how we as individuals encourage, expect, and enforce it. It’s not about ego (either it getting bruised if you fail, or bolstered if you don’t), it’s about being able to exist.