Where the Internet went Wrong

The Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society had its 25 year reunion this past week. I spent two years with BKC, one as an affiliate and one as a fellow. Between that and being at the Center for Civic Media, I had some of the most stimulating years of my life to date. My understanding of the world and my place in it transformed to something more nuanced but also more powerful. And while I’ve lost touch with some of the folks, many of us still talk.

At the reunion, things were generally framed as past, present, future; with the breakout groups and lunch convenings I loved in my time there. The main thread that came out through most of the conversations, was “what did we get wrong?” Or perhaps in our more gracious moments, “what have we learned?” In that context, there were a few recurring themes in the circles I ran in for the 2 days of the conference:

  • Defending free speech and exclusion of regulating speech didn’t land us where we expected
  • Lack of intersectionality and limiting who has a seat at the table has constrained what we can learn and do
  • Influence in law and regulation not transferring sufficiently to market forces left us with blind spots.
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Recovery Con

I think all of us are worn down at this point.

Inspired somehow this morning by this tweet from Quinn, and this article from Laurie, I realized I wanted to start thinking about how we can make the world better as we move from pandemic and quarantine into whatever comes next.

We’ll have talks.

We’ll have a joy gallery.

We can even have karaoke, even tho it’ll go poorly over video chat.

We’ll have spaces to talk to each other about how hard this is, yes of course, but also what we can dream of coming after.

A lot of it is yet to be figured out. You can help me in doing so by signing up here. It also includes indicating you’re interested in helping to organize, facilitate, give a talk, etc. Charging $5 to be sure people are actually committed, all proceeds will go to groups in need as selected by attendees. Obviously and as always, ping me to have the fee waived.

May 23rd (because let’s be honest, we’re going to be in this for awhile) 9a-1p PT / 12p-4p ET / 5p-9p BT / 7p-11p EAT.

Co-opting and Saturation

I read this study recently, about the inequality of online contributions. You should go read it as well, and then come back here. It’s easy to digest, and a quick read. You can even just skim it.

The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.

I wonder if there are studies on off-line communities, and if they show a similar trend. If you know of any, please post to comments.

Imagine if we could push people up this pyramid. What an incredible world we would live in, were more people to be creators, or at least to actively contribute in some way! Or at the least, we would be less fucked. I sincerely believe many of the problems facing humanity could be addressed if more people took an active role in their lives. Blame my socialist upbringing if you like. It’s why I worked (and continue to work) so hard at Jigsaw – creating an entry-level environment for n00bs to get their hands around a soldering iron before facing what can be rather intimidating robotics and the like. I gave a talk at Berlin-Sides in 2010 about hackerspaces being extroverted, and how it was an absolute necessity. Not for every group, but for at least some. We can’t just serve the people who already know, and request, what they want. We can’t just create a new class of elite. We have to welcome, and actively invite, lurkers to become editors; and editors to become creators. (Or do we? I am sad to question this assumption)

So while this pyramid might hold true for online communities, what about communities which simply do most of their interactions online? Makerspaces have become A Thing. Tech conferences are blowing further and further past their capacities (On what feels beyond an expected progression. I would love actual numbers on this if anyone has them). What is causing this? People wanting to have an active role in their lives? Is consumption finally not enough? Or is it just the new shiny?

Insert plug for the totally rockin’ Brainmeats podcast on Co-Option of Subcultures here. (Download mp3)

Regardless of the reason for the shift, one of the strengths of these movements has been that we all KNOW each other. We’re engaging in things that, while sometimes not inherently dangerous themselves, bring upheaval and unrest. And now that things are gaining traction and the public eye, we’re gaining mass like some sort of burgeoning star. How do we encourage the engagement of more people while not diluting the vision of what we are? As Johannes said at HOPE, “isn’t being elite part of being a hacker”? So how do we balance that necessity and functional form of seclusion with a wider vision of the world? How do we infect memetics without turning into homeopathy? Meaning: how do we actually change larger culture as it gobbles us up, while holding onto our ethos? Becoming diluted will not increase our impact.

This was my third DEFCON. Saw old friends, actually went to a few talks, and got into bed before 3a both nights (no lie!). This year was massive – over 10 thousand people. And we talked a lot, in continuation of HOPE, about what to do when your community gets huge. We’ve been way past Dunbar’s number for awhile now, but still broke into manageable group sizes. But now… there’s a worry, just like at Congress… what is “too big”?

Something I’d like to see: specialized, smaller conferences happening in tandem across a city. See the tracks that interest you, speak to the people who share your background. But at night, visit the people you know well and share what you’ve learned. You likely already work closely with friends who share your interests. Now see what patterns exist across interests.
Another thing I’d like to draw on: there are now more medical journal articles coming out than anyone could ever read, for many individual fields, and still have time to work. So what’s started happening is there will be academics who just read a bunch of those papers and pull out the meta aspects of them. Then practicing folk read those meta articles.

A small group of friends and myself hope to try out these methods next year in July. I’ll post about it soonish.

One of my favorite things is to meet someone who is inspired, brilliant, driven.. and realize that we have no overlap. That we aren’t going to be working together. I love that because there are so many things that need to be worked on, and I am but one person. That someone I can grow to trust, and who I respect, is working on one of those myriad aspects gives me a bit more hope for the world. We can continue to break down silos through communication, sharing, and transparency. We can balance that with diving deep into our specialized areas.

When conversing about all this with a dear friend, this was their response:

Profitable problems will always explode with magic-seekers. Computer hacking is now a profitable problem, and participation is accordingly weird.

There will always be too many interesting problems in the world and never enough people connecting to solve those problems. Valuing hacks over hackers helps, as does creating opportunities to gain social status by teaching others. I’m not worried about losing a unified vision because I don’t think there should be one. As for maintaining a community, decentralized networks of curious and creative people scale well. – Kaleen

HOPE and Awesummit

Spent the last three weeks away from Seattle – about a week on Playa, a week in NYC, a week in Boston. Was constantly surrounded by people I respect immensely and with whom I can’t wait to have continued interactions.

HOPE was incredible. I gave a talk with Diggz on Geeks Without Bounds. I sat on a panel about DARPA funding education and hackerspace programs. No chairs were thrown. It was pretty bitchin’. Saw the Byzantium project, and drank mate, and sipped whiskey with the No Starch Press folk. Went out for beers with an eclectic group of hackers and artists, talked about the future we were building, the holes that still exist, and how we might be less wrong.

I was blown away by the gender ratios (still not close to half, but far better, especially with the speaker line-up), and that the vibe was a bit less awkward and certainly less sexually charged than most of the other events I’ve been to. And the level of respect with which people approached each other in calling out inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and differences of opinion was phenomenal.

Exploried an old power plant with Borgatti. Nearly got caught. Knelt in the dark, breathing quietly, covered in brick dust and mud, and waited for people to pass by. Played Cards Against Humanity with some of my favorite humanitarians. Spent time with my Sunday Boyfriend and met his new cat. Made my way to Boston. Played in the park in bare feet, with a flask of whiskey, in the torrential downpour of heat finally breaking. Sat on a sea wall and ate breakfast, loosing track of time and wading back, coffee in hand and boots over my shoulder.

Went to the #awesummit, saw what opt-in taxes might look like. People who understand they are a part of a larger whole – giving their excess to things which don’t just entertain them, but also enhance the rest of their community.

It was *so cool* to sit in a room with people whose shred ideologies are so meta we often lacked the language and pattern recognition to pin it down. That we couldn’t say all the projects we supported were even the same sort. That the trustees were not all of a similar demographic, background, what have you. Not even our giving patterns were the same. Only one thing was shared – the word “awesome,” and the aspect of sharing, of facing outwards. To have a group of people that varied come together to talk about what we *were*, if anything, and what that *meant*, if we were something or if we weren’t. It was wonderful. There were a few moments of tension, mostly around the idea of trademark. It reminded me a lot of the conversations in hackerspaces. What do we all share, when we are so fiercely grass roots? What does it mean to share a vision but not a praxis? What is the value of making ourselves legible to the rest of society, or is that something we should actively avoid?

And my drawings ended up on the MIT Civic Media blog, which is kind of amazing.

All that was topped off by a dinosaur-themed party with cookie checks and cake. Saw massive ink pipes and the three-story press at the Boston Globe, bifurcated paper and quixotic diagrams. A private tour with a new friend through back doors and stalled robots and stressed editors. Taking the green line back to my dear college friend’s home, walking the last mile slightly buzzed, T-Rex balloon bouncing, happy.

Continued conversations around what comes Next, what are we building, how are we helping each other. I continue to be in constant awe of the amazing folk around me, humbled that they invite me into their community and projects. And to return to Seattle, to smiles and mangos and all of the hackathon planning ever.

UK Passport Control

I maybe love my traveling life a bit too much.

Woke up at 0Dark:Thirty Friday morning to be in a cab to TXL by 06:00. Had already packed my bag. <3 to the Hacker Hostel. Got to the airport. They patted me down. Dumped out my bag. I removed the blade from my boot knife (box cutter ftw) and explained the CCCamp R0ket badge. They put my stuff through again, had me walk through the thing again. Took me to a side room to open up all my electronics and wipe them down with their fancy bomb towels. Sent me through again. At least the lady patting me down was attractive. A bit gruff though.
Customs in London. Passport, ticket, that little piece of paper that says who your contact is and where you’re staying (mine: London Hackerspace, woods).
“How long are you here for?”
“5 days.”
“What are you here for?”
“About what?”
“Uhh.. how humanity is fucked but the stories we can tell to build better culture”
“..Kay. Who puts it on?”
“Uncivilization / Dark Mountain / New Public Thinking”
“And where are you staying?”
“In a tent.”
“In the woods. Somewhere near London. I think. Dunno yet. Internet will tell me.”
“And Monday night?”
“Dunno yet. I think someone is hosting me, likely in my e-mail, I can pull up the info.”
“Are you traveling with anyone?”
“Not yet.”
“Do you have any paperwork? Tickets?”
“Can’t stand the stuff.”
“Do you have your ticket to return home?”
*Show her my flight info as an event on my phone*
“To Berlin. What are you doing there?”
“Staying one more night before going to Burning Man.”
“And before?”
“More camping. That time with hackers.”
“Between that and this I was working in a flat in some neighborhood I can’t pronounce.”
“Working? You don’t have a work visa.”
“No, telecommuting for work in the US.”
“What do you do?”
“I link up hacker communities to humanitarian organizations.”

Tiny Stories from DEFCON

Feeling at home. Looking like a badass.

Pausing conversations about individuals as mathematical constructs to hop over a bar railing to hug on Sirus.

Getting all the knots in my back worked out by a masseuse at the Paloalto party and then dancing my toes bloody to the Crystal Fucking Method playing Depeche Mode and a slew of other amazing songs. People making a variety of hearts on their phones to wave at Ken and Scott, and them playing too (mine was drawn on a whiteboard program, theirs was scrolling bit hearts).

Talking to Dan outside, drinking beer in the dry heat. Self-care while traveling, the community of distributed Tribe, and geek social responsibility.

Waking up at the castles, wandering out into the main room. Some people are drinking coffee. Some are drinking beer. Some are drinking both. There are people in swimming trunks and people in ties and people trying to find their pants. And a group of hackers sitting around, watching TV. I went over to mock them – the conversations to be had are far too fantastic to be watching TV. Ends up they were watching Modern Marvels on milk. MILK. So I sat down and joined them. It was fascinating. And you know what? They filter milk through a series of tubes.

Walking to the No More Cheap Bugs party after dim sum with the best-damn dressed group in the place. ElevatorCon (fit as many people as possible into an elevator, bounce gently). Balcony pool, Keith on decks, dance dance dance with people who are fast becoming one more Tribe. I am so spoiled.

And we still have tonight and tomorrow.