Professorship

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.
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Expressions and Understanding


We have such an investment in the written word in our world right now. And it’s beautiful. Uses different parts of the brain at the same time, allows for storage of thought to be passed down and through and re-examined and loved through time. I love the written word.

But I am also dyslexic. I love books, but I hate reading – I feel like an idiot. I have to read each sentence twice (at least), at the same pace that I’d read aloud. I still don’t always understand what I’m reading – not the concept, mind you, simply the written words which are used to express it. I know the deep knowledge represented on each page, and yet I dredge through it like a 7 year old, frustrated by the time it takes to get through the simplest components. Still. At 30.

Listen – I ingest information best audibly, loving stories read aloud, going through most of my online reading through text-to-speech (thanks, Quinn), and learning best from the lecture, not the readings. Because of this, my writing cadence matches my speaking cadence nearly exactly – mainly because there were years where I would record myself speaking, and then transcribe it. It wasn’t writing. I don’t know how to write. I know how to speak. But that dyslexia isn’t just in reading, it’s in general language processing, and that includes the spoken word. Which means I miss chunks sometimes – able to hear beyond the normal audio range, but the content simply doesn’t land at times.

When I started drawing, 4 years ago, it helped me link together what I was hearing, with what I knew, in a way I could see how it all connected. No more missing gaps. There was something new that was coming out in this way of understanding and expressing the ideas that were already being expressed verbally or textually. It seemed that I like to ingest information audibly, but process and re-state visually. And try this out – I can make a proportional sculpture, because it feels right, while my stick figures are disproportional in order to indicate movement, and because I can’t get two dimensions to be technically correct. Each method lossy in its own way.

At Wikimania, I’ve been surrounded by incredible, intelligent people… all of whom place a huge value in cataloging, expressing, and defending through the written word. They use copyright to protect copy. It’s been like visiting an alien world I know I can never emigrate to, where my methods of expression are valued but not import-able. Something you’d see in a museum, but never purchase a gift for your loved one as you exit through the shop.

Understand this: When Tricia gave her talk at Berkman, she had visual cues, she delivered verbally, on a subject she had written about, and I expressed that visually. Each of these is a different expression of the same idea. It is not the same expression re-done verbatim (ha!) in another format. I don’t want to listen to a re-reading of the transcript of the audio. I want to listen to the writing on the subject she did. These are different aspects of the same knowledge set.

Another example: when the always fantastic RadioLab did a particularly stunning episode on color, there was a bit on the visual capabilities of the Mantis Shrimp. While a diagram of the eye’s capability can be drawn and compared (see diagram), and what happens with that extra perception vectors can be described in text, it was the choral rendition of complexity of vision that made what was actually going on readily understandable to we who have 3 vectors in our eyes.

Coding and software, and more recently the opening up of fabrication technologies, are about more people being able to express themselves in a way that is best for them, and that also means people who ingest information in those formats have a better chance to understand more of the world. The more vectors we have of expressing, the more vectors we have of understanding. And isn’t that what being human is about?

If that’s not enough, consider this: one of the things about code is that it has opened the doors for some to income and prestige that otherwise would have been closed. It broke down entrances to what “legitimate expression” is. When we stick to only the knowledge expressions and storage we understand, those who are best able to use those (i.e., those who have already been in long practice) will continue to benefit. And now, so many other things are possible to digitize, to pass on and posterityze. Why remain so hyper-focused on the written word?

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History

I care less about “accessibility” as “bringing ‘disabled’ people into a world as ‘able’ people experience it,” and more into “everyone having the best opportunity to express themselves, and to be understood.”

Things to Care About

GWOB’s IndieGoGo

Geeks Without Bounds, the thing I’ve given my life to over the past 3 years, has launched a fundraiser to hire a fundraiser. It’s all in the video, but it basically boils down to this: the internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, but it isn’t. People with technical skillsets need a way to help other people. We bridge that gap. Go help us grow. There are only a couple days left to contribute in this way.

Moonlet

All over the place, the internet is showing itself as what it is – not only owned by private interests, but also tracked. We’re building a prototype template of group-held servers for people who don’t know how to run their own servers. Email, Calendar to start, all sorts of other goodies as it builds. Join in the first round to help us build the future we were supposed to have, and to keep your data.. yours.

Moonlet will be a small scale personal cloud services collective. Our goal is to pool together about 20-40 peoples’ resources to pay for the hosting and sysadmin time necessary to replace most or all of the cloud services we use with ones we can trust.

Our goals are:

  • To offer cloud-replacement services at a reasonable price to members
  • Security and privacy are primary priorities
  • Ensure a useable and well-integrated solution that replicates the hassle-free convenience of the better existing cloud services
  • Document the process clearly so other people can replicate the experience

NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge

Some mornings, I wake up and watch the NASA/Sagan YouTube series. It gives me hope and peace to remember what humanity is capable of. All the shit we do to each other, rather than focusing our efforts of banding together to overcome the natural obstacles around us, is trumped when Us/Them mentality replaces the “Them” of other people with the “Them” of the unknown. NASA represents that. They’re also a manifestation of a gov org trying to do it right – massively pooled resources to conduct collaborative exploration turned atrociously bureaucratic. They’ve started releasing datasets, opening up their processes, engaging the public, etc. And now they have a grand challenge around finding asteroids. I’ll probably post more on this one later, but check it out now.

The Ethics of Ethical Review

My lit review is coming to an end. My beautiful, ingest knowledge constantly, lit review. I’ve read more books1 in the past two months than in the last two years combined. Having space to sit and read is an amazing thing. The most spoiled, as it were. But the time of ingesting existing information is coming to a close, and the time to start interviews is approaching. And that means ethical review of my process.

The Institutional Review Board exists for good reason. We’ve done some awful shit to each other in the name of science. IRB is there to be sure human subjects are treated with dignity and in a safe manner. It is also required by many institutions to embark upon research, to get funding, and to be published. IRB has a section on its form to indicate institutional affiliation – a section which, if left blank, doesn’t allow you to submit the form. Both academic institutions and the IRB are predicated by the other.

This set up makes it nigh impossible to do “legitimate” research involving humans in the academic context2. I find this morally reproachable. I think anyone should have the opportunity to do research, so long as they do so ethically3. So what’s a robot to do?

I’m looking at having an Informal Review Board, comprised of respected folk around the area of my research, to still assess and push back on the ethics of my study. The questions around IRB are good ones – potential harm to participants, benefits, complications, etc. I would still structure around those, and publish my responses to those questions to the internet and to participants. The people on the board would be putting their own names behind the work I’m doing, which adds in a layer of accountability of me to them, and them to the world.

If I were only to go this route, the costs would be that I wouldn’t have my research explicitly tied to Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab, tho I as an individual would be. I wouldn’t be able to publish via MIT’s press. The research wouldn’t show up in academic journals. IE, it wouldn’t have the easy notoriety boost up of academic affiliation with such a respected institution. My access to get funding would also be drastically reduced.

The cost of success of the Informal approach gaining legitimacy (regardless of how the research is taken), is informal review becoming a thing which can be done. And what if someone puts people in harm’s way because their board wasn’t as rigorous as an institution which can be held accountable via traditional means? IE, someone doing research on a vulnerable population accidentally pushes personally identifying information out with their results. How would that person be held accountable?

The cost of not taking this approach is being complicit in an institutional system which locks out citizens from the process of research and contribution. And I think that is worse than the other potential costs. But I have to see what the folk who would be on my Informal Review Board say. I’m still looking for someone who is willing to push back on me, constructively but aggressively, who is also willing to be on such a board.

The balance to be had, and thanks to Mako for talking through this with me, is to do both at the same time. This would lay the path for the institutionally unaffiliated while also making use of a solid resource of COUHES (MIT’s IRB), addressing my deepest concern. To mitigate the potential harms of this approach gaining traction in worrisome ways, I’ll be working with the engine room to examine the process itself. And the issues of not having access to institutional credibility and funding will be alleviated by taking the formal route as well. Sure, it’s more work, but I think it’s worth it. I’ll publish my responses and process here in fairly short order.

1a. Book List:

  • Thinking in Systems – to gain a shared language with systems thinkers
  • The Fifth Discipline – to expand on that language, gain antedotes
  • Protocol (How Control Exists After Decentralization) – about new social structures and expectations
  • Revolutions in Reverse – what winning looks like, group creation and unification
  • Take Back the Land – internal conflict and societal skewing
  • The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It – costs and benefits of generative systems 
  • Poor People’s Movements – costs and benefits of scaling up

1b. Theses

2. Sure, you can work with a non-academic research lab, but even that is based upon affiliation with a formal organization, with its own expectations.

3. “Ethically” of course being a contextual term, but still one worth striving towards while also examining on a regular basis.

World Maker Faire

Maker Faires always make me happy. The passion inspired among geeks when you say “Look! Look at this thing I have done!” is like Christmas always should have been. It’s also affirming to all of the effort it takes to operate the brass tacks of maker and hacker spaces. You see the people who have toiled oer their projects for weeks finally show the finished product with a flourish and an adoring audience. The hours of effort, the stress of paying the bills on the space, the stupid drama that inevitably must be mucked through when eccentric people are brought together… that all fades away in the face of joy, collaboration, and SCIENCE.

I had the honor of moderating a panel at Maker Faire NYC. Leigh Honeywell, James Carlson, Jordan Bunker, Christina Pei, Eric Michaud, and Psytek joined me as panelists. We talked about what makes spaces sustainable – everything boiled down to money and community. Make sure people are happy and communicating, and make sure your bills are paid. That’s it. We all had different ways of doing that, with meetings and accounting methods, and making sure the passion remains.

We also talked a lot about education, and the impact that these spaces can and already have on our educational systems and communities. We talked about charter schools, project-based credit, passion-based learning, and inter-generational teaching. Change is in the air. And we’re making it.