Freeing Ourselves Through Network Ownership

This post is cross-posted at Civic Media + Tactical Design in Contested Spaces

Saturday afternoon I attended the Activist Demo Day at Eyebeam, along with other students in my Civic Media and Tactical Design class. A good number of people crammed into half of a gallery to talk about how technology can aid the goals of community organizers and activists in many ways. Some of what I saw was the application of existing tools for those goals, such as the General Assembly’s Tech Ops use of RSS aggregators and a “wishes” and “gifts” to allocate information and resources. There was also MyI,

a collaborative-collective front page based on the concept that the accumulation of constantly updating unedited images from a multitude of viewpoints more accurately depicts contemporary society and events. An app that allows users to instantaneously upload media from handheld devices to the Internet, MyI builds on the use of ubiquitous photography in modern technology as a key motivator and communicator for activism and information.

There were also some fairly innovative ideas. Protesting robots, essentially very low-tech sign holders and bullhorn mounts actually seemed to have some really interesting thought behind them. After all, how would you feel if you saw a little robot hoisting a sign at you? It reminded me of IAA’s Little Brother, something that’s over a decade old and I still haven’t seen used or mentioned anywhere.

I won’t go over everything, but I really wanted to see something that wasn’t essentially a “activist alternative” to an existing commercial tool or product. The Free Network Foundation had it.

So, there are several ideas going on here – free access, greater privacy, local data, and privately owned networks. This mesh topographical hardware has some pretty interesting applications if you think about it in the global terms FNF does – I asked Wilder about the range of the devices. One tower covered Zucotti/Liberty park, and they got up to a half mile in Dallas, but with multiple towers and more height, you could get a “bigger” networks across a larger physical area. And the signal can be boosted some as well. My idea (which he had thought about before and got pretty excited over) was to send the whole thing up in a tethered balloon, and provide access to a rural area where there’s a greater digital divide. There are some strict rules about the use of such balloons, but my guess is you could send out a signal pretty far with one less than 500 feet up, and others would just make it even better. The applications would be interesting – each unit costs $1300, and it wouldn’t take much to provide superb access for an entire remote community, so long as the unit’s global connection was stable. The main thought behind this was that “networks owned by the people make us free.” I could see the logic in that, even if I didn’t understand all the technology they were using to make it possible.

There was a high degree of civic ethic and practicality among the people at Activist Demo Day. I was struck by the thought that when society collapses (as most of us present are presumably motivated by the belief our culture is fundamentally unsustainable), these people are ready to pick up the pieces and rebuild. There is also this weird dichotomy between the reality of New York as the global center of capitalism, and activists living and breathing that culture while searching for an effective anti-capitalist dialect that doesn’t sound ridiculous or hypocritical. During the panel mini-debates emerged about things like Facebook, Twitter and the high tech tools we take for granted in a developed society, and how to reproduce those commercial mediums with tactical, pro-social intentions.

The crux of that nervous indecision came in the form of a question by Taeyoon Choi, a fellow at Eyebeam who also ran the robots. He asked, “Can we have democracy without money or capitalism?” One person commented on currency as technology itself, and a need to develop a better alternative. The unanswered questions of heterodox economics also had a lesser-acknowledged parallel which still had to be addressed: the problem of public opinion (“can we have democracy period”) and the issues general assemblies are confronted with in situations like the All-City Student Occupation or those discussed here. It’s helpful to go back to John Dewey’s The Public and it’s Problems:

The essential need, in other words, is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public. We have asserted that this improvement depends essentially upon freeing and perfecting the process of inquiry and of dissemination of their conclusions. Inquiry, indeed, is a work which devolves the experts. But their expertness is not shown in framing and executing policies, but in discovering and making known the facts upon which the former depend. They are technical experts in the sense that scientific investigators and artists manifest expertise. It is not necessary that many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns. (208-209)

Before we know whether or not we can have democracy, it will take the ideas and tools offered by these activists to create the necessary forum to discover an answer. What they’re building is a new infrastructure for “debate, discussion and persuasion” that the public desperately needs.

To see some more pics from the day, check out my photoset, and if you’d like to hear a little bit of that panel discussion (the audio was really bad as a warning) check out the following soundcloud uploads.

Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Swallow Pr, 1954.

Media Literacy: All things to all men

I recently got the opportunity to co-teach a class for this semester on Media Literacy with Youth Rights Media, a non-profit in New Haven, CT. I have to admit I didn’t fully understand their mission for a while; as I understood it, it was an after-school program designed to teach kids media production and civic advocacy. It goes a bit beyond that, but all the ideas flow very nicely together. Here’s one of their projects (they usually produce one documentary each year).

Youth Rights Media was founded in 2000 by a pair of Yale law students and an American studies student, who were looking for a way to educated teens on their rights for encounters with the police. You see, New Haven has a rather ugly history of racial profiling,  and minority teens faced the problems of

[Connecticut’s] spending on incarceration, the racial disproportionately in its juvenile and criminal justice system, and the percentage of youth incarcerated in adult facilities.

Over time, they’ve addressed other issues, all while teaching how to analyze, encourage and facilitate these discussions in the community. So, YRM is about empowerment, providing young people with the understanding and ability to express issues which affect them directly, especially when they’re used to not having a say. Media literacy is major part of this; public discourse and “common knowledge” is shaped by media products in a technologically mediated society. These products are the work of enterprising corporations and (occasionally) public-interest groups, all of which have various agendas, which sometimes satisfy the revenue driven interests of said corporations (think the NRA and it’s ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council).

Media studies and media literacy are complementary topics – literacy is a basic skill which is bolstered by further study. To digest and produce messages, we have to have an understanding of the medium. There are numerous working definitions for media literacy. The Center for Media Literacy has one which emphasizes the educational aspects:

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

I think I’ve mentioned NAMLE‘s definition before, it’s a little more rigorous:

– Media refers to all electronic or digital means and print or artistic visuals used to transmit messages.
– Literacy is the ability to encode and decode symbols and to synthesize and analyze messages.
–  Media literacy is the ability to encode and decode the symbols transmitted via media and the ability to synthesize, analyze and produce mediated messages.
–  Media education is the study of media, including ‘hands on’ experiences and media production.
–  Media literacy education is the educational field dedicated to teaching the skills associated with media literacy.

Media literacy as a grade-school curriculum or even a discipline is far less popular in the US than it is in other English-speaking countries, an irony only highlighted when you realize the US media industry has the largest reach (with an incredibly homogenous concentration of ownership) and that other countries began their media literacy programs as a way to combat that foreign influence. In fact, it raises the curious question of why? Especially in a country where the media industry comprises “20,620 companies generating $95.4 billion in revenues in 2010” in film and music alone, notwithstanding the journalism, publishing, communications, advertising, and public relations industries, all multi-billion dollar industries in their own right.

Ultimately, media literacy provides necessary critical thinking skills to help youth and other citizens become more engaged audiences who can more skillfully mediate the impact of messages, the intentions of a producer, and the agenda of any cultural elite, who have always had those resources on hand for whatever aims they desire. It also alerts youth and citizens to their abilities in engaging new media and production tools to promote personal, community, and civic goals to potential audiences. I believe training others in media literacy is about as altruistic as you can get, because it’s one of the most useful and relevant forms of education for today.

My own classes at The New School start up again tomorrow, I’m especially excited that I’ll be taking Nitin Sawhney‘s Civic Media & Tactile Design course, which deals with participatory culture and DIY media in the interests of social change, much in line with the ideas behind YRM.

Kubey, R. “Obstacles to the Development of Media Education in the United States.” Journal of Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 58–69.

End of the Semester Thoughts

Well, it’s only a few days after being done with finals, and I’m still recuperating. My first semester at the New School was really great – I was fortunate to be in a unique place in a unique time, and it’s something I’ll always be fortunate to be able to look back at.

Being a married, commuting student, who travels in for class from out of state each day you’re in the city, really divorces you from the much of the social life and circles that spring up in a university environment. I’ll regret not being a part of things more and missing out on those peer interactions. At the same time, you’re on the periphery of what other people are doing, which puts you in this unique position of observation – like the prospect-refuge principle of design, you don’t feel so much shut out as you feel on the tip of the mountain surrounding the valley, looking down on both sides.

I am glad I never got involved in the All-Student Occupation – I “watched” it happen by observing the social media of friends and acquaintances who were there, or had visited, heard about it second hand, but by the time I finally made it to the study space and Keller Gallery, everyone was gone and everything was cleaned up, save for one lone art school undergrad who was “occupying” the lobby for the last three weeks of school (read: cramming for finals in public). The reason I’m glad for that, is because there was always an undercurrent of concern over “purity” resonating in the accounts of people who had visited. Many felt unwelcome, and a recent article in the New School Free Press revealed that there was in fact, an “inner circle” who had continuously sabotaged the open and democratic process of the general assembly. Perhaps these were altermodernists to the extreme, the sort of people who told Emma Goldman that free speech is a “bourgeoisie superstition” and would have found a friend in Stalin.

There is a need, in any political mediation, to weigh the power of the participants against their ability to fulfill their role. It’s one of Aristotle’s judgements for fair democracy – people need to have not just the freedom, but the ability to reasonably articulate their ideas for the process to be fair. In an ideal debate, the good ideas win out on their merits – that’s the illusion of the “marketplace of ideas.” Unfortunately, much of the world is run by people who recognize (or imagine) the danger people pose to themselves when they are inadequately prepared or able to participate in the process.

In the grander scope of things, I was at Democracy Now! from September to November, during which time I was able to see OWS go down. I would have liked to blog about it more, but between classes, work, the internship, and commuting, I felt there were enough ideas out there at the present without adding my own to the mix.

Now as the winter sets in, I’m looking forward to a few weeks I can catch up on reading, get some things done that I’ve neglected, and start planning for next year. At first there was some panic (no more school! what do I do?) but I quickly realized that even if I spent my time doing nothing, it would be nice change of pace – and that it wouldn’t last forever anyway.

Registration Woes And Limited Seating

This is just a quick post because I’m frustrated with my school’s registration process. It uses the Banner system, which I guess is somewhat common to universities. It’s tiered so that people with X amount of credits start on different dates – graduating seniors get first pick of classes as an undergrad.

For graduate students, this makes a little less sense, especially when we don’t use track systems (there is one track in my degree program, everything else is electives. Also, since we need 39 credits to graduate, it means we spend only about 2 years. That’s 4 semesters, unless we drag it out. The first semester we all pretty much take the same 3 courses, but when it’s time to register for the second one, we don’t officially have enough credits yet to register for a seat in a class head of anyone else.

And classes are small – The New School has a top ranking in this aspect. Which is cool, but if it means there are only 15 chairs in a class I want to take, because it is applicable and relevant to my studies, I can’t really afford to miss out just because I tried registering at 9:20 AM and not 9:00 on the day students with 0-8.99 credits were allowed to sign up.

Students come to a program for various reasons, especially one as diverse as the Media Studies MA. If you’re here for Media Management, you might not care about the mandatory lit review in one of our (few) required courses. I see it as an opportunity, I can’t waste that time by just doing the assignment so that it’s completed. I could use a lit review. Similarly, if you’re just taking a course for some extra credits, you’re effectively stealing the seat of someone who might find that class a lot more relevant than you do. None of us want to take forever to graduate, but all of us want to get what we came for.

With that in mind, this registration system seems ill-suited to putting students where they should be. Maybe we should have something like run off voting? That way, people have a better shot at getting where they want to be, and not just into any old empty seat.

UPDATE: I was told by a classmate a few days later that he experienced the same thing, but had talked to the professor who said they were going to add more seats. I sent an email off about it (had met with him previously, so had other things I needed to tell him) and found out they added 5 more seats that night. I noticed during the day the class didn’t fill up very quickly – it seems that if people don’t get in between 9-10, most assume they won’t get in at all. I would have normally emailed directly after that, but I didn’t – I’m not sure why, but it seems I wasn’t the only one.