Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:


I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

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

Fighting

I spent yesterday morning drinking amazing coffee out of a sparkle cup, sitting at kitchen table with a Pirate Parliamentarian. We talked about motorcycles (he’s getting ready to ride along the coast of Italy for the weekend), the SOPA/PIPA blackout (it hadn’t started yet, as it was still pre-midnight in America), and me moving to Berlin. Oh man, do I want to. I mean, as much as I care to move anywhere besides Seattle. And then the nail in the coffin – if I only have bases from which I travel, why not just add Berlin into the mix of those bases? Seattle and Berlin. As the plane comes in over these fair cities, I look down and think “I could stay here.”

And then the SOPA blackout unfolded, and I saw my friends laugh and pontificate and fight. Seeing @herderpepedia did it for me the most – the people for whom information has been democratized to such a degree that they don’t even think about it, how they freak out when their oxygen is removed. It made me think about the fights my parents have been a part of, and what sorts of impacts were made. Dad as one of the main organizers against the Vietnam “War.” Mom fighting for feminism. Both fighting for Unions, and Sex Ed in schools, and for alien rights. They did huge, amazing things in Ann Arbor and in Chicago. And then, when those fights were “won,” they went back to the town my father grew up in and are still fighting there. Often for the same things, the news that those fights had been won never reached these “pockets” which are actually most of America.

I began to wonder where I would be most useful in life. Is it better to do great things with the choir, or teach the people who don’t get it yet? The hacker scene in Berlin is amazing. They have a fucking Pirate Party, for fuck’s sake. They have a massive hackerspace community. They have grass-roots ISPs and are actively working on getting Satellites into space so everyone can have free internet. I have dreams here about a (not so strange) future where Berliners wage information wars against other countries while the city is bombed for ensuring everyone has a voice. (I’m wary of using the term “information war” here, as communication is both a human right but also a political act. Bombing is certainly an act of war.) I would do great things here, be amongst amazing people, and completely fail to reach all but the most involved. Sure, our combined impact might create ripples that reach far and wide. But I’m wary of the assumption that things will “get there” without direct involvement.

So I’m going to continue what I do, for now, traveling and evangelizing and throwing my brain and my charm at a Past that is Broken, dragging the Future kicking and screaming into the fray. But later in life. When there are people who are crazier and more energentic and smarter than I am… then I will move to a tiny town (maybe the same one I grew up in – the same place my father was raised and he and my mother live now) and become a teacher. Corrupt the children. Teach them that It Gets Better, because they will make it Better.

Now, let’s extrapolate this idea a bit more. What about organizations? What about groups of people that are from The Past, who are Fat Cats, who are disconnected from reality and humanity? Are they worth talking to, or do we distain them, leave them to wither and die in the dregs of their own morals? Do we talk to them, influence them, bring the Future with open hands and hearts to them? We forget, in our Bubbles of Awesome, that many folk listen to what is said by these (non-awesome-kind-of) Dinosaur Leaders. If we can influence them, we do create ripple effects. Gaining status and the trust associated with it, and Having Things to Say means you are listened to, not just by your own choir. And isn’t that the point?

Think about this in regards to SOPA, and Dan talking to Congress. Think about this in terms of Telecomix talking to Guttenberg. Think about this in regards to DARPA wanting to fund hackerspace projects. These lines are blurry, but it is irresponsible of us to simply take the people who already “get it” and leave the rest in the cold. That is intellectual class war. It is also a more standard class war, as it assumes access to computers, an environment which encourages breaking and learning, and the free time to participate in this culture. No one knows you’re a dog on the internet, but you have to 1) have a computer 2) know how to type 3) know how to get on a social platform 4) know how to not be a dog.

I end this entry sitting with my laptop, listening to music from a member of my Post Geographic Tribe. Stickers are strewn across the floor, shadows are cast on the walls, and tomorrow is full of adventure. Selfishly, I know I’ll enjoy this fight, whether or not we win. But I hope we do. Are you fighting?