Category Archives: Digital disruption

Unexpected Great Feedback

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.

The blockchain links I read this week

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery
Cryptocurrency Art Gallery

I am interested in blockchain as a distributed way of organizing things through software. I have questions that center around in which situations that distributedness, having a public ledger, and having a permanent ledger is actually useful. Also in general for any defined user group, available blockchains are all global by nature. This takes away any agency that group has concerning ensuring the availability and soundness of the technology they use. This is a threat to a group’s resilience basically (e.g. when a group in northern Poland runs their transactions on something that is dominated by opaque Chinese computing clusters). So I am interested in how to deploy blockchain for a specific group (that can then run their own nodes for the needed calculations.) The potential to subvert a blockchain in such a situation is theoretically bigger, but at the same time it is also more strongly embedded in existing social relationships which provides its own robustness.

Here’s a number of links concerning blockchain I came across and read the past few days:

Explaining blockchain

  • A good read, ‘A Letter to Jamie Dimon‘, which takes as perspective that the distributedness is less effective than centralized solutions but also the key aspect for the intended user groups, as this is the only way to avail themselves of specific affordances. Distributedness is a tool to increase resistance to censorship (also read as ‘access’), and blockchain allows creating fully distributed applications.
  • A talk by Richard Bartlett at Re:Publica Dublin, on whether a blockchain is decentralizing power or not.

The ICO hype is unfolding
ICO, initial coin offerings are campaigns to sell tokens for your specific blockchain application. You can buy them usually only with Bitcoin or Ethereum. What amazes me is how much money (millions) are getting invested in short times (the term vaporware comes to mind), and that minimum investments are often in the 5.000 or 10.000 Euro range.

Examples

New Dutch Government Agreement: What It Says About Open Data

A new government has formed in the Netherlands, after a record 7 months of negotiations following elections last spring. I read the coalition agreement (pdf in Dutch) between the four parties involved to see what, if any, it means for digitisation, transparency, and the use and availability of data in the coming years.

Starting from the principle that openness and transparency in the public sector are important, the agreement states that digitisation is more than a necessity for that, and an opportunity for better public services as well. (p9 Public governance) This translates into plans to further digitise public services, an ‘ambitious’ national digital agenda also for lower level public entities, more findable and accessible open data, and a new look at the stalled Open Government Law with the aim to balance mandatory openness against implementation costs. In addition the agreement calls for more digital access to the collections of museums and archives (p21, Culture), and promises to publish all transport and mobility related government data so it can be reused by vehicles, apps and planners (p41 Transport and Mobility).

It’s good to see that data governance is getting attention, and that it seems to look at data governance from a holistic perspective, taking into account openness, privacy and information security together.
Citizens will have more control over their own personal data that government holds. (p9, Public governance)
The usage and ownership of travel data (think of GPS trackers, RFID travel cards, (autonomous) car sensor data) will be regulated to maintain privacy while also allowing (general) re-use of that data (p41 Transport and Mobility)
Internet of Things is getting attention in terms of aiming for standards, as part of an ‘ambitious’ national cyber-security agenda (p5 Justice and security)

This means a first few steps towards PDM will be taken, and that the ethics of Internet of Things and the role of regulation in acquiring and using sensor data in the public space are on the radar of this government both in maintaining safeguards and enabling new socio-economic value. That is a welcome development.

That socio-economic value however only becomes reality if citizens and companies are able to use the opportunities that open data and digital infrastructure provide. The government agreement promises money in this regard to enable a conducive investment climate as well as a European digital market (p4, p35 Economy). It also allocates funding to increase digital literacy (p11, Education), including for cyber-security awareness (p5 Justice and security), and to stimulate more investigative journalism (p22, Media). The agreement also proposes a new task for the Competition Authority in digital markets, to prevent dominant internet companies blocking new entrants.

Interestingly the agreement makes several references to competition law, or more precisely to strengthening the regulation against government activities competing with private enterprise in areas that are not deemed ‘public interest’. (p9. Public Governance and p36, Economy). This may have consequences for data holding agencies like the Cadastral Office (real estate ownership and transaction data) and Chamber of Commerce (companies register, beneficial ownership data) that currently provide paid for services on top of data they have free access to themselves but charge others for. For a long time already there’s been debate on opening that data up, but maintaining revenue streams for these public bodies has proven more important until now. Should competition law change, that may indeed tip the balance. Until now political will was lacking here.

In summary it looks like this government agreement will result in more open data, and more pressure on local and regional government entities to play their part. It also seems that openness, privacy and security are more seen as one issue of data governance, not as separate or mutually exclusive issues. Thirdly the agreement shows will to also help create the conditions in which that can result in societal value.

Binnenhof
The prime minister’s office, called ‘the little tower’, by Inyucho

More Fun Than Annual Class Trip: Making at School, Some First Observations

In the past weeks I’ve been part of a team working with a class of 10/11 year olds, as an experiment around increasing agency with 21st century digital skills, under the title Impact through Connection. In this I’m partnering with the NHL (university of applied sciences), and the regional Frisian library BSF, with some funding coming from the Dutch Royal Library as part of their Vision Mediasavviness 2016-2018 program. The experiment centered around helping the group to identify communal issues, situations they would like to change, and then to develop ideas and realize them. So that the group ‘gets’ that with various making and other machines and instruments, they have the agency, have the power, to change their surroundings for themselves as a group.

Since January we’ve been meeting with the school’s team, and then weekly 6 times with the class of 22 children. It was loads of fun, not just for the kids involved. The highest compliment we received was that one of them said “this is more fun than the annual school trip”. Another remarked feeling sorry that all other classes had to work, while they were making stuff. We pointed out that they too were working very hard, but differently, and that having fun does not mean you’re not working.

Yesterday we’ve had the final session, ending with presentations of the things they built (such as phone covers for phone-types that aren’t otherwise available, a way to look under water, a class room MP3 player for audiobooks, games, computer controlled door locks, a candy machine, a robot to counteract bullying, websites documenting the process, and a money system for the school).

Afterwards I returned home and jotted down a list of observations to reflect on. We plan to do a similar experiment with a group of adults from the same neighborhood as the school serves, as well as will aim to replicate it for other school classes.

First, for context, the order of the sessions we did.
Session 1: group discussion about the children’s environment, things they would like to change, ideas for making things they had. Resulted in a ‘wall of ideas’, ordered from ‘looks less hard to do’, to ‘looks harder to do’.
Session 2: getting to know maker machines (3d printers, laser cutters, electronics, etc.), by bringing the machines to the class room, and parking the Frysklab Mobile FabLab out front.
Session 3: getting to know programming (using Micro:bits, all the children got one to keep)
Session 4: Diving deeper in to the idea now they have a notion of what is possible with the machines and material available, using a canvas to think about what the idea solves, whom it is for, what part of the idea to zoom in on, and who in their own social network could help them realize it.
Session 5: building prototypes (again with Frysklab parked outside)
Session 6: building prototypes and presenting results

In non-specific order here are some of the raw observations I made in the past weeks, that we can further elaborate and chew on, to create the next iteration of this experiment.

On the process (time, time time!):

  • The school team school was extremely supportive, and the teacher showed enormous flexibility. She rearranged her normal class schedule extensively to ensure we had more time than we thought possible.
  • The process we designed worked, but we could have spent more time and attention to several parts of it.
  • The process worked in the sense that we got everyone to make things, and have them dive deep beyond the initial magic and wow of 3d-printing and laser cutters
  • We asked them to map out the groups they belonged to, and both their own and their classmate’s skills. We spent too little time to do that properly and to use it fruitfully in the process afterwards
  • We didn’t succeed in our original plan to bring the group to defining one or a few projects that were less person and more group focussed (except for the kid that designed a currency system for the school), and then select parts of that on which individuals or small groups could work. It seems we would need to spend more effort in the run-up to the cycle of sessions to do that properly
  • Working with a pool of people with specific domain knowledge that we could bring in when needed worked very well and strengthened the results
  • I used a canvas to help the group get to better defined projects, and while it worked, the steps in filling the canvas could have been better defined. Now some raced ahead, without key information for the next bits, while I worked with others to take the first few steps
  • The overall process hasn’t become clear to the group as a distinct shape, I think. Although that would enable them to design their own projects on their own (more on that later)
  • Having the children present their work to the group at the end was fun, useful and a good way to bring everything together again

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Two filled out canvases

On our team and the teacher

  • When we look at Making, we see how it is different from what was before, how all of a sudden ‘anyone’ can do things that took specialised machines and factories earlier, and how that changes the dynamics of it all. The children don’t see it that way, because they don’t have that history. Although that history is the source of our own fascination it is not the fascination you can confer to the children, as it is by definition a meaningless comparison to them.
  • Our large pool of people to help out was necessary to be able to provide adequate guidance. Even if adding 5-7 adults to a classroom feels like a lot.
  • More clearly articulating to the group which roles team members help might be helpful (e.g. I don’t know my way around the Frysklab truck, but still got asked a lot by the kids about it. I solved it by saying, I don’t know either, let’s go find out together)
  • The teacher could likely have a more defined role during the sessions (other than trying to keep a semblance of order), maybe also in building the bridges to other parts of the curriculum in the run-up?
  • We had several preparatory meetings with the teacher and others inthe school
  • There’s a lot I can’t do (too little experience with the machines to have internalized all routines, my own thinking is often too little visual and too much textual) It’s partly a pro as well (as it makes it easy for me to led the child lead the thinking proces, as I don’t have answers either)

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At work in the FabLab truck, and 3d printers chugging away

The path the children took

  • Large differences within the group, also in self-image, means very different speeds within the process (‘I don’t think there’s something I am really really good at’)
  • Finding out that the path from your fantasy to making it tangible reality contains disappointments (what is possible, what is realistic within time given, how does a result compare to what you imagined at first), and finding or not finding ways to surmount that disappointment
  • Not everyone was able to visualize from their ideas towards the parts that make up the whole, or different aspects and steps
  • Enormous richness in ideas, but sometimes very narrowly focussed
  • It is very important to build a bridge from the classroom project to at home (“can I take this home” “but this is something I can’t do at home”). Part of the empowerment lies here. (Also as they proudly told and partly mobilized their parents for their ideas as well)
  • They willingly left us their projects so the Frysklab team could show them on a national conference the day after the last session, after promising to return their projects soon

Visible impact and affect during the sessions

  • Really listening to ideas and trying think them through, remembering what they said about it 3 weeks earlier, is a boost in empowerment for the kids in itself
  • Children don’t have as many experience based associations and ‘hooks’ to listen to our stories, so examples are needed
  • Examples from ‘nearby’, such as the kid with a 3d printed hand prosthetic living in the neighbouring province are therefore very valuable. We need to collect many more of them.
  • Such appealing examples may also aid in bringing across the process and thinking model itself better
  • Giving everyone a Micro:bit during the process therefore turned Jeroen into a hero of everyone in the room (loud cheers!)
  • Taking things home is a source of pride
  • Other classes were jealous of this group
  • The group quickly build attachment to the team (where is Ton? Cheers when a team member arrives a bit late)
  • Concepts like ‘prototyping’ are hard, and zooming in on something small and maintaining attention is too

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Some of the created projects

The making itself

  • Robots! At first almost everyone wanted to build robots (to clean their room e.g.)
  • Things for yourself, versus things for the group. As said, before the making we likely need to build a ‘ramp’ towards more communal oriented projects
  • The realization for the chidren that things take time, can be complicated. That it isn’t magic but actual work
  • The dawning notion that programming means cutting everything into tiny ‘stupid’ steps (‘like explaining it to my 3 yr old sibling’)
  • Software is equated to computers and phones. That things that don’t look like computers can be programmed, and that hard- and software are getting merged more and more (cars, IoT, robots) takes time to land
  • Likewise ‘making’ is connected to hardware, objects and software mostly. Creating ‘systems’ or ‘processes’ is a novel concept (except for the currency making project). Challenging systems is like a fish changing the water it swims in.
  • Similarly for most, their actual environment (the street, the neighborhood, city etc, are also like ‘water’ and mostly perceived as immutable. Measuring things in your environment and acting on it was notably absent in the ideas
  • The attention span needed to zoom in on a small part at a deep enough level to be able to apply it is pretty hard to maintain
  • Building websites to document projects is an essential part the children came up with themselves. Needs to become a standard component of the process.

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Presenting results

Other circumstantial elements

  • Searching online for examples and useful material (like code snippets) can be a stronger part of the process (as answer to the frequent question “but how can I do that?”). Means paying attention to searching skills.
  • The mentioned websites can contribute to that by collecting links to resources etc.
  • Data collections didn’t play a role (likely as there were no ‘sensing’ projects), but could be a resource in other iterations
  • E-mail is not available to all children (not allowed to, don’t want to give out their parents e-mail), but often needed to register for online coding and making tools, or to create a website. Providing throw-away e-mails, like I personally do with 33Mail, is something to add to our toolkit.

20170313_124310
Gathering the group for the final group picture

(more pics here in this Dutch language posting by the Frisian library and Frysklab team)

New Experiment: Working on Agency in a School Class

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014

On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency

Earlier this year I wrote a 1st posting of 3 about Agency, and I started with describing how a key affordance is the distributedness that internet and digitisation brings. A key affordance we don’t really fully use or realize yet.
I am convinced that embracing distributed technology and distributed methods and processes allows for an enormous increase in agency. A slightly different agency though: networked agency.

Lack of agency as poverty and powerlesness
Many people currently feel deprived of agency or even powerless in the face of the fall-out of issues originating in systems or institutions over which they have no influence. Things like the financial system and pensions, climate change impact, affordable urban housing, technology pushing the less skilled out of jobs etc. Many vaguely feel there are many things wrong or close to failing, but without an apparant personal path of action in the face of it.

In response to this feeling of being powerless or without any options to act, there is fertile ground for reactionary and populist movements, that promise a lot but are as always incapable of delivering at best and a downright con or powerplay at worst. Lashing out that way at least brings a temporary emotional relief, but beyond that is only making things worse.

In that sense creating agency is the primary radical political standpoint one can take.
Lack of agency I view as a form of poverty. It has never been easier to create contacts outside of your regular environment, it has never been easier to tap into knowledge from elsewhere. There are all kinds of technologies, initiatives and emerging groups that can provide new agency, based on those new connections and knowledge resources. But they’re often invisible, have a barrier to entry, or don’t know how to scale. It means that many suffering from agency poverty actually have a variety of options at their fingertips, but without realizing it, or without the resources (albeit time, tools, or money) to embrace it. That makes us poor, and poor people make poor choices, because other pathways are unattainable. We’re thirsty for agency, and luckily that agency is within our grasp.

Agency in the networked age is different in two ways
The agency within our grasp is however slightly different in two ways from what I think agency looked like before.

Different in what the relevant unit of agency is
The first way in which it is different is what the relevant unit of agency is.
Agency in our networked age, enabling us to confront the complexity of the issues we face, isn’t just individual agency, nor does it mean mass political mobilisation to change our institutions. Agency in a distributed and networked complex world comes from the combination of individuals and the social contexts and groupings they are part of, their meaningful relations in a context.

It sees both groups and small scale networks as well as each individual that is a node in them as the relevant units to look at. Individuals can’t address complexity, mass movements can’t address it either. But you and I within the context of our meaningful relationships around us can. Not: how can I improve my quality of life? Not: how can I change city government to improve my neighborhood? But: what can I do with my neighbours to improve my neighborhood, and through that my own quality of life?
There are many contexts imaginable where this notion of me & my relevant group simultaneously as the appropiate unit of scale to look at agency exists:

  • Me and my colleagues, me and my team
  • Me and my remote colleagues
  • Me on my street, on my block
  • Me in my part of town
  • Me and the association I am a member of
  • Me and the local exchange trading group
  • Me and my production coop
  • Me and my trading or buying coop
  • Me and my peer network(s)
  • Me and my coworking space
  • Me in an event space
  • Me and my home
  • Me in my car on the road
  • Me traveling multi-modal
  • Me and my communities of interest
  • Me and my nuclear family
  • Me and my extended (geographically distributed) family
  • Me and my dearest
  • Me and my closest friends

agency comes from both the individual and immediate group level (photo JD Hancock, CC-BY)

For each of these social contexts you can think about which impact on which issues is of value, what can be done to create that impact in a way that is ‘local’ to you and the specific social context concerned.

Different in how agency is constituted based on type of impact
Impact can come in different shades and varieties, and that is the second way in which my working definition of agency is different. Impact can be the result of striking power, where you and your social context create something constructively. Impact can take the form of resilience, where you and your social context find ways to mitigate the fall-out of events or emergencies propagating from beyond that social context. Impact can be agility, where you and your social context are able to detect, assess and anticipate emerging change and respond to it.

So agency becomes the aggregate of striking power, resilience and agility that you and your social context individually and collectively can deliver to yourself, by making use of the potential that distributedness and being networked creates.
Whether that is to strengthen local community, acting locally on global concerns, increasing resilience, leverage and share group assets, cooperatively create infrastructure, create mutual support structures, scaffold new systems, shield against broken or failing systems, in short build your own distributed and networked living.

Designing for agency
For each of those contexts and desired impacts you can think about and design the (virtual and real) spaces you need to create, the value you seek, the levels of engagement you can/should accommodate, the balancing of safety and excitement you desire, the balance you need between local network density and long distance connections for exposure to other knowledge and perspectives, the ways you want to increase the likelihood of serendipity or make space for multiple parallel experimenting, the way you deal with evolution in the social context concerned, and the rhythms you keep and facilitate.

The tools that enable agency
To be able to organize and mobilise for this, we need to tap into two types of enabling technology, that help us embrace the distributedness and connectedness I described in part 1. The ‘techie’ technology, which is comprised of hard- and software tools, and the ‘soft’ technology which consists of social processes, methods and attitudes.
What types of technologies fit that description, and what those technologies need to be like to have low enough adoption thresholds to be conducive to increased agency, is the topic of part 3.

Building an IoT Infrastructure for My City

Earlier this year a group of Internet of Things enthusiasts in a month or so launched an open communication infrastructure across the entire city of Amsterdam, enabling anyone to let their IoT devices communicate. Without the need for 4G, Wifi or BT connections, it uses LoRaWan, which allows low bandwith but long range traffic, at low energy usage levels. They call it The Things Network.

Currently The Things Network is running a Kickstarter campaign to bring LoRaWan devices into the hands of more people, and thus create IoT infrastructure in more cities. The gateways on offer cost about 20% of what similar devices cost, and this is a great opportunity to implement a solid city wide infrastructure at very low cost. With an old fraternity friend, Ian Kennedy, we are now looking to create such an infrastructure for my hometown Enschede.

The Things Network from Soda Content on Vimeo.

Enschede is a town of about 160.000 people, and covering the city will require 3 or 4 gateways, to which nodes and devices can connect to communicate. Both Ian and I ordered a gateway through the Kickstarter campaign, and are now looking to connect to more people locally with an interest in IoT. Ideally one or two others will also fund a gateway, ensuring city wide coverage. The coverage between the two of us is shown in the image at the top, and as you can see especially the southern suburbs still need coverage. We will likely also reach out to companies and the city government to see who else is interested in experimenting with this new infrastructure. As delivery of the devices is scheduled for late spring next year, still a long time away, we have plenty of time to get the ball rolling before that.

Interested in making Enschede IoT ready? Join the newly created mailing list Things Enschede (running on my own mail server), and/or help create the infrastructure by adding hardware through the TheThingsNetwork Kickstarter campaign. We will aim to organize a meet-up in November to get local conversations going.

If there are a few others willing to join us, we will certainly add Enschede to the growing list of cities in the The Things Network community. UPDATE: Others are indeed also active, and have been arranging gateways too. That ensures we will have enough hardware to get city wide coverage up and running. Meanwhile a local Enschede community page has been opened, but not yet filled.

Estonian E-Residency Granted

Ten days after I applied for e-residency in Estonia, I tonight received a message from the Estonian police and border guard that my e-residency has been granted. That is much quicker than I had expected. So now I will be waiting to hear when my Estonian ID card has arrived at the embassy in The Hague, so I can pick it up!

eidok
The e-mail saying e-residency has been granted

See my earlier posting “I applied for Estonian e-residency” for more info on why it is important, what it is, and how it works.

After 6 years in prison, how internet has changed

In 2008 Hossein Derakhshan (nick: Hoder) went to prison in Iran on a 19.5 year sentence for blogging. I met him once in Vienna in 2003 where he spoke about the emerging Iranian blogosphere, and the guide he wrote for Iranian bloggers to get started. Over the years he became known as the Iranian ‘blogfather’.

He was pardoned late last year and after 6 years of being locked up and not having internet access he returns to find the ‘net changed. When he went behind bars, blogging was a phenomenon, now it’s the FB’s of this world that set the tone.

“Writing online hasn’t changed much per se, but reading, and the process to get to be read has”. Hyperlinking to eachother to weave a conversation has been taken over by an algorithm creating your timeline for you. Hyperlinking as social currency has disappeared, and if you’re not shown in the timeline, your writings don’t exist.

He sees a change to the visual too. “The Internet-book has become the internet-tv.” Facebook “is not the future of the web, it’s the future of the tv.” “A great loss in terms of intellectual potential and diversity.”

All has become entertainment “up to the point where Iran doesn’t even feel the need to block some social networking sites anymore.”

Update: I see the French article I link to at the top derives from a Medium longread by Hoder himself. Read it in full “The Web We Have To Save

No Place to Hide and Our Apathy

A number of weeks ago I read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide in which he describes his and Edward Snowden’s personal experiences around, as well as the scope and depth of government surveillance disclosed by, the major NSA leak that has been rightly on our front pages for a full year now. What struck me after reading it is the curious gap between the personal impact and sense of enormousness of it all that Greenwald describes, and the blandness with which a lot of the factual material struck me personally. Somehow the emotional response to ‘they see everything’ is missing when you have no real clue as to who ‘they’ are, or what ‘everything’ really means, until e.g. your partner gets stopped at an airport because of it. Which in turn means that it will not trigger a lot of action for lack of short enough feedback loops. Yet, the precise point of leaking actual material and not just describing what is going on, is to trigger such a response.

Witchhunt Snowden
Witch hunt Snowden, part of a ‘walk‘ in Berlin I came across last May

The shocking bits of the NSA story to me are 1) the generic nature of capturing any and all data, 2) that it is mostly about economic advantage and only notionally about national security, 3) the callousness with which the overall internet infrastructure is purposefully weakened for all to gain what can only be a temporary information advantage, 4) the systemic lack of oversight in an opaque-by-design legal framework and a complicit tech-industry. They are shocking however on non-emotional abstract levels.

I can emphatize with the growing sense of excitement, anger and dismay that Snowden and Greenwald describe, but the factual material does not have that same emotional impact on me when it is presented to me, not having made that journey. Mostly because the really important part is of a statistical nature: the NSA is tapping into everything all the time, but that is hard to grasp or translate to my personally felt context. Whereas the singular stories on the NSA’s capabilities that do trigger emotions if I project them on my own situation, are predominantly about situations where someone is specifically targeted, which I’d say is the regular description of espionage and not the thing to be concerned about.

I had the same with several Wikileaks stories, and reading accounts from those that were part of it: if you’re in it, discovering it, building the narrative, it is emotionally way more important and exciting than when you only see the finished result, regardless of the injustice exposed. My wife gets bored easily with my university fraternity stories for much the same reason (as they can’t really be boring, can they?). It is also why the German Chancellor is livid about her own phone being tapped, but not about 85 million German citizens being tapped: the small and personal trumps the enormous but general.

This is not to say I haven’t responded in practice: I have changed my on-line toolset and processes, and stopped using various US based data services such as Dropbox and Amazon’s Elastic Cloud where I was a paying customer, in favor of using European based and owned, alternatives. Those are all rational responses though, and are actually saving me money as well as making me generally safer online even disregarding the surveillance question. While the NSA leaks fed my existing unarticulated uneasiness concerning online security, it was spotting specific steps within my own sphere of influence that led me to act this spring, unrelated to the NSA leaks.

How do you make the abstract a personal emotion that triggers responses? Because responses to the NSA-leaks are certainly needed. How do you make systemic absurdity emotionally tangible? Vonnegut, Kafka, and Orwell come to mind but that type of literary processing is far removed from acting or working change in the here and now. Art can be a powerful way to tap into emotional responses though, and there are likely other ways. More on that in a next posting.