Last week danah boyd was presented with an EFF award. She gave a great acceptance speech titled Facing the Great Reckoning Head-On, that contains a plethora of quotes to highlight. Exploring how to make sense of the entire context and dynamics, in which the MIT Media Lab scandal of funding from a badly tainted source could take place (which I previously mentioned here, here and here.) So it’s best to just go read the entire thing.

In stark contrast, Lawrence Lessig’s ‘exploration’ makes no sense to me, and comes across as tone deaf, spending hundreds of words putting forward a straw man that if you accept tainted funding it always should be anonymous, while saying he personally wouldn’t accept such funding. That might well be, but has no real bearing on the case. Instead of putting forward how hard it is to raise funding, he could just as well have argued that higher education should be publicly funded, and funded well to avoid situations like at MIT Media Lab. A model that works well around the globe. Lessig wrote a book against corruption, meaning the funding focus of US politics, but doesn’t here call out the private funding of higher education on the same terms, even though the negative consequences are the same.

On the other hand boyd’s speech addresses the multiple layers involved. One’s own role in a specific system, and in a specific institute, how privilege plays out. How the deeply personal, the emotional and the structures and systems we create relate to and mutually impact each other. Acknowledging and sketching out the complexity, and then to seek where meaningful boundaries are is much maturer way to take this on than Lessig’s highlighting a single dimension of a situation which seems minimally pertinent to it, and worse because of its ‘flatness’ is easily perceived to be actively denying the emotional strata involved and in dire need of recognition.

As said go read the entire speech, but I’ll pick out a few quotes nevertheless. They are pertinent to topics I blog about here, such as the recently launched TechPledge, the role of community, the keys to agency, and resonates with my entire take on technology.

The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.

I am here today in-no-small-part because I benefited from the generosity of men who tolerated and, in effect, enabled unethical, immoral, and criminal men. And because of that privilege, I managed to keep moving forward even as the collateral damage of patriarchy stifled the voices of so many others around me.

What’s happening at the Media Lab right now is emblematic of a broader set of issues plaguing the tech industry and society more generally. Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not.

If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process.

…whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance.

“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society…In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.

…accountability without transformation is simply spectacle.

The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.

Human progress needs the the tech sector to be actively reflective, and to continuously scrutinise its ethics, the values and morals actually expressed in behaviour.

I like this notion by Gretchen Rubin of defining an ‘adventure’ for the summer. I try to do one ‘extracurricular’ activity per quarter (e.g. 12 hacks in Q1, or how we used to do a month in another European city each year), but framing it as a seasonal adventure has a more human ring to it. Makes it an epic tale of which you are both the narrator and protagonist.

A season is 13 weeks, and that is a useful time span to plan something for. It is small enough to keep an overview and keep track, and long enough to do something meaningful even with little bits of time. I’ve been doing my own planning in 13 week periods for 6 years now, and name those 13 weeks periods by season (although they actually coincide with quarters).

With Summer almost behind us, what will be my adventure of the Fall?

Liked Reflections on My “Summer of Proust.” (Gretchen Rubin)

Every spring, on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, my sister Elizabeth and I talk about our yearly resolution to "Design your summer." This resolution was originally inspired by this passage from Robertson Davies: Every man makes his own summer. The season has no character of its own, unless one is a farmer with a professional concern for the weather. Circumstances have not allowed me to make a good summer for myself this year…My summer has been overcast by my own heaviness of spirit. I have not had any adventures, and adventures are what make a summer.

Since the summer I am holding three questions that are related. They all concern what role machine learning and AI could fulfil for an individual or an everyday setting. Everyman’s AI, so to speak.

The first question is a basic one, looking at your house, and immediate surroundings:

1: What autonomous things would be useful in the home, or your immediate neighbourhood?

The second question is more group and community oriented one:

2: What use can machine learning have for civic technology (tech that fosters citizen’s ability to do things together, to engage, participate, and foster community)?

The third question is perhaps more a literary one, an invitation to explore, to fantasise:

3 What would an “AI in the wall” of your home be like? What would it do, want to do? What would you have it do?

(I came across an ‘AI in the wall’ in a book once, but it resided in the walls of a pub. Or rather it ran the pub. It being a public place allowed it to interact in many ways in parallel, so as to not get bored)

A full decade ago I heard a very interesting talk by an Elsevier employee who had thought long and hard about ways in which a scientific publisher can be relevant again, since their original function of multiplication and distribution has become completely obsolete. It was a very good talk diving into what a scientist needs from the start till the end of her career, and what type of services Elsevier could offer.

A year later that person didn’t work there anymore and in subsequent years in meetings with e.g. the European Commission all I heard from them was delaying tactics to please let them go on a bit longer without changing, before making open access publishing completely mandatory as well as free availability of any and all publicly funded research.

Since then the Elseviers of this world, and even ‘innovations’ like JSTOR, have betrayed their original purpose of multiplication and distribution exchanging it for an extortionist business model, that not only is a huge financial drag on many universities that have tax money to spend but also completely exclude all scientists around the world that cannot afford the rent-seeking practices of these publishers. They need to go.

Read Elsevier: “It’s illegal to Sci-Hub.” Also Elsevier: “We link to Sci-Hub all the time.” (Boing Boing)

Elsevier: “It’s illegal to Sci-Hub.” Also Elsevier: “We link to Sci-Hub all the time.”

Anil Dash reflects on two decades of blogging.

Some quotes that resonate:

I also do still strongly believe that someone who really has a strong point of view, and substantive insights into their area of interest, can have huge impact just by consistently blogging about that topic. It’s not currently the fashionable way to participate in social media, but the opportunity is still wide open.

Yes, maintaining a sustained online identity and presence is an opportunity, as it provides agency. The open web is an open invitation to do so, but it takes time to blog. Time that will not immediately result in dopamine triggering likes and retweets, so you will need to find the motivation for keeping up blogging elsewhere, likely within yourself. Even if you don’t have ‘substantive insights’ in your areas of interest but still consistently blog, there will be impact. I once had a client who hired me after reading my blog archives and realising from its tone and content I would bring the right attitude and outlook to the project. Over time any blog is a body of work.

If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.

Platforms have always maintained they are just platforms, and not responsible for its content. That argument has been severely eroded by the platforms itself, because their adtech business models depend on engagement, and so they introduced addictive design patterns and algorithms that decide what you see, based on likelihood of sparking engagement (usually outrage, as it works so well). A platform that decides what you see in order to sell more ads, makes conscious editorial decisions, and is no longer a platform. Roads and their maintainers generally aren’t responsible for the conduct of drivers, but in this case the roads over time have been deliberately increasingly designed to make you speed, reward repeat offenders by reserving the fast lane for them, and road maintainers get paid by car repair shops based on a metric of a steady rise in car crashes so road rage gets encouraged to raise revenue. It’s why federation of very distributed nodes is important to me, it strongly reduces amplification of the things that we’ve come to loathe on the platforms. That e.g. Gab, having been deplatformed, moved to federated servers is a good thing. Now anyone can round around it as damage, and its content doesn’t get the amplification and recognition by being on general platforms, it otherwise would. I am the only one on my website. I am the only one on my Mastodon server. At that level moderation is extremely easy, while it doesn’t reduce my interactions in any way.

I’m not someone who thinks there was a “good old days”; social media has always been too exclusionary, and too dependent on systems and infrastructures that replicate the injustices of society as a whole. It is possible, though, to make new systems that are a little more equitable, and I still haven’t given up on that hope at all.

Me neither, there’s huge potential for increasing agency, especially for groups in specific contexts and around specific issues. A networked agency emerging from lowering technology and process thresholds. It means taking ourselves as the starting point, not the platform or its business model.

Bonus pic: my friend Paolo blogging, 13 years ago in June 2006.

blogging
image by Paolo Valdemarin, license CC BY-NC-ND

Blogging usually doesn’t involve a pipe, sitting outside, prosecco, or a sea view from the Ligurian coast. Blogging is totally mundane, this the exception. It might be a good addictive design pattern for blogging though 😉

Read 20 Years of Blogging: What I’ve Learned (Anil Dash)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of this blog. I thought the best way to observe the milestone, and to try to pass along some of the benefits I’ve gained from keeping a presence online all these years, would be to share some of the most important things I’ve learned since I started this site.

Brakman poem
A poem by Willem Brakman on the university’s steps: philosphy makes sense, science explains. But art shows, shows what it can’t say.

I facilitated two unconferences this week, on Monday and Thursday. The Industrial Design professorate at the Saxion University for Applied Sciences in Enschede celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Karin van Beurden who has been leading the professorate from the start wanted to have a celebratory event. Not to look back, but to look forward to the next 15 years. She also wanted to do it in a slightly unconventional way. Karin participated in one of our birthday unconferences, and asked me to help her shape the event. In the past 2 months, Karin, her colleague Nienke and I collaborated on this. It was unconventional in the eyes of the university’s board, as well as for the network Karin invited. So we had some explaining and managing of expectations to do in the run-up to the event.

When the professorate started, the theme of Karin’s inaugural speech was how “oysters turn their irritants into pearls”. Now after 15 years it was time to not just look at the pearls created during that period, but mostly at what the pearls of the future would be and thus the issues of today. Under this broad theme some 50 people participated in the unconference, and it was a pleasure to facilitate the process.

After opening up the space, making everyone feel at ease and explaining the process, we created a program for the afternoon in BarCamp style, listing 15 sessions across four spaces, in a 2 hour program.

the program on a whiteboard

What followed (the way I experienced it) was a carroussel of amazing stories, ranging from financing challenges for research projects, enabling alternative energy provision discussion, the psychological impact of turning breast prostheses from a medically framed issue into a fashion issue, and the use of 3d printing to reduce time needed in operation rooms. Afterwards we had a pleasant bbq and further conversations nearby, and during the train ride back I had further good conversation with one of the participants. It was a pleasant day to be back in Enschede.

FabLab Session
One of the sessions, in the FabLab space
A session in the FabLab Enschede space

Discussing the energy grid
Using pluggable hexagons to discuss energy grid issues

Medical 3d prints
3d printed elements for bone reconstruction

What stood out for me was how various participants encountering the format for the first time, immediately realised its potential for their own work. The university’s chair mentioned how she would like to do this with her board to more freely explore issues and options for the university. A professor remarked how it might be a good way to have better, more varied project evaluation sessions with students in his courses. Also, judging by the conversations I had, we succeeded apparently in creating a space and set-up that felt safe for a range of very personal stories and details to be shared.

20190627_205326
As I had a few minutes before my train left, I got to visit our favourite ice cream parlor in Enschede, our home town until 2 years ago. We haven’t found a comparably good ice cream vendor in Amersfoort.

(At CaL earlier this month in Canada, someone asked me if I did unconference facilitation as work. I said no, but then realised I had two events lined up this week putting the lie to that ‘no’. This week E suggested we might start offering training on how to host and facilitate an unconference.)