Curiosity, Being Yourself and Being Bad at Things

Recently my friend Nathan sent out a letter, asking a bunch of different people how they stay curious amidst the swarm of obligations and distractions that are life in general (and graduate school in particular).  This question stuck with me, as it’s something I’ve been struggling with since moving from Cambridge to Montreal, and from my masters program at MIT to my doctoral program at McGill.

For me, the question of curiosity comes down to: how do you reject the temptation to just do the thing you’re good at all the time, because you’re good at it and (theoretically) because you like it? I’ve stumbled into a specialty (that I love!) fairly early in the typical grad-career timeline, and I’m pretty good at it. I know I can talk/write intelligently about online activism for hours, and because I’m a smart kid who’s always been a smart kid, I want to spend time doing the thing that I’m good at. But, and here’s the problematic part, I picked my doctoral program in part because it has strengths in areas I’m bad or underprepared in, like theory and things that aren’t the internet.  In fact, the majority of my classes this term were super theory-heavy.

And oh boy, was I bad at them in the beginning. Bad and not happy about it.

Rather than engage directly with the material in front of me, I instead played a game of All Paths Lead to the Internet, using each text as a jumping off point to ramble on about digital culture and social movements and not, you know, Derrida.  Because Derrida was hard, and not only was Derrida hard, but moving to another country had left me tired and homesick most of the time, and all I really wanted to do was retreat into comfortable things, be that writing about the internet or knitting and watching Adventure Time under a pile of blankets.  Halfway through the semester I had some talks with my professors where they called me out on doing this very thing.  One told me I needed to spend more time “thinking about thinking” in graduate school while I had the chance.  Another encouraged me to “dwell in the intellectually uncomfortable places” instead of shying away from them.

So I started consciously trying to access that intellectual space where answers and utility aren’t necessarily important, where being public with your work isn’t the obvious next step. This is different than the intellectual environment of my masters program (which I loved), which emphasized working-in-public and real-world-impact for student projects.  But here, I had to turn off (or at least turn down) that working-in-public drive and allow myself to intellectually nest for a while.

I think a lot of my skill of curiosity, or giving myself permission to be curious, is about turning off the drive to be public or polished. I espouse the “It’s ok to make mistakes!” philosophy of working-in-public, but I also, perhaps paradoxically, never let anything out of my hands unless I’ve worked damn hard at it and it reflects what I want it to reflect about myself.  Curiosity, at least as I’ve been exploring it, is often about pushing into things that aren’t ourselves, or don’t reflect those bits of ourselves that we like best.  I’m working on a paper right now that is a very uncomfortable paper to write, trying to flesh out my concept of “civic fiction” by working through an extremely problematic case study. I doubt I’ll ever publish it. But I do want to eventually publish on “civic fiction,” and I need to do this uncomfortable work first before I can do that public-facing work. If I were still at an institution that placed a high value on working-in-public, I don’t think I could do this uncomfortable work.

This type of intellectual curiosity involves giving yourself permission to not be yourself, and that requires privacy and nesting and closing the door for a little while. This can be in conflict with the type of personal academic branding I and a lot of my peers are involved with.  But to my best work, and to maintain the kind of intellectual curiosity that brought me to academia in the first place, it’s also necessary.

iO9 Essay of the Future of Civil Disobedience!

iO9 just published my essay on what the future of civil disobedience in the online space could look like.  Check it out!

In the offline United States, civil disobedience is widely respected as a valid form of political activism. It also has a widely recognized form. Indelible images of Rosa Parks, lunch counter sit-ins, and street marches from the 1950s and 60s civil rights era established what civil disobedience looked like. Civil disobedience looked like an embattled minority bravely standing up in face of clear injustice. It looked like people taking a stand with their bodies and their identities, and often getting arrested.

This pattern of public, performative defiance of injustice, followed by arrest, has become part of the recognized script for political activism in the United States. It’s how we expect activism to happen: on the streets, in public, where everyone can see your face. Adhering to a recognized script is essential to political activism that is reliant on the attention of the media to be effective.

But today, civil disobedience often looks very different. Networked technologies mean our opportunities for effective political activism have increased exponentially. Where activists once put their physical bodies on the line to fight for their causes, online activists can engage in digitally-based acts of civl disobedience from their keyboards. There are three major lines along which digitally-based civil disobedience is developing: disruption, information distribution, and infrastructure. Each has its own particular challenges and benefits.

Identity and Presence Online

x-posted to the Civic blog

Last week, I had the honor of speaking on one of the plenary panels at the Media in Transition conference at MIT.  I talked about an idea I’ve been playing with, identity versus presence in the online space. People seemed interested in hearing a little more, so here are my thoughts on the subject right now.

The theme of the conference was public and private media, and there were lots of amazing panels talking about, in one way or another, performances, manifestations, usurpations, and repurposings of identity online.  The presentations were brilliant, but as I’m coming down off of writing my masters thesis on activist DDOS actions (ten days till final submission!), I found myself thinking about the concept of “presence,” and how the online space, and the civic space in general, is and is not structured to allow manifestations of presence over performances of identity.

Collective actions, like marches, sit-ins, occupations, and activist DDOS actions, don’t primarily rely on the discreet, performed identities of participants to be effective. Rather, they rely on manifestations of “presence,” which I’m preliminarily defining as anonymous or named manifestations of individuals or communities without many of the performative or explicative aspects we associate with (online) identity.  Ricardo Dominguez of the the Electronic Disturbance Theater often described their activist DDOS actions with appeals to the concept of an observing group, or as he put it with regard to the toywars action in 1999, “the presence of a global group of people gathered to bear witness to a wrong.“  Activist actions which invite the participation of the public, like marches or petition drives, invite that participation on the level of largely undifferentiated collections of people who are performing one or two functions: witnessing a wrong, standing against injustice, showing interest in a cause or question.  Who these participants are at an individual level is not really relevant to the purpose they serve by being there.  The anonymous vote is similar, the identity of the vote should not be relevant to the fact that they cast a vote (though vote ID laws may be chipping away at this).  It is the manifestation of presence, not identity of the individual participant/voter.

The online space as it has developed, with its current emphasis on constructed/generated profiles, individual-level social networking, and the variety of social rankings that accompany it, is skewed to favor performances of individual identity.  This is useful for many things, and is certainly desirable by the commercial entities which currently dominate that space.  But though it is easy for an individual to create an identity performance online and to engage in a myriad of individual speech acts, it is difficult for that same person to simply add their presence to a online-based collective action (and I thank Biella Coleman for pointing this out in one of her comments on my thesis).  This discourages certain types of civic and activist action online.

I see identity and presence not as oppositional concepts (the title of this blog post notwithstanding), but rather as points on a continuum of ways of being in the world.  Right now I see the emphasis on identity online crowding out presence, though it is there if you look.  Search and popularity algorithms incorporate the presences of millions of users to determine search and “what’s hot now” rankings.  Clicks, views, and likes are manifestations of presence once collected and presented as an artifact’s modifying statistics, though they may be performances of identity for an individual clicker or liker.

I’m left with a giant pile of questions, and few answers.  Is “presence” primarily something that is observed from the outside?  Can the same action be a manifestation of presence AND a performance of identity?  Is there a space for this concept of “presence” on the internet as it currently exists?  How does data privacy and anonymization fit in with “presence”?  How can collective action and other “presence”-based civic activities be enabled online?

What do you all think? If you’ve got questions or comments (or recommended reading!), please leave them in the comments.

Self Promotion Without Guilt!

Last Monday I gave a workshop at the Media Lab Festival of Learning on self promotion and how to do it without feeling totally icky about it.  The workshop went great, and I had lots of requests online and off to share my materials.  So I will!

The Platonic ideal of self promotion is something along the lines of Austin Kleon‘s “Do good work and share it with people.” But I think a lot of the time people view “self promotion” or people who are seen to be good self promoters with a mix of admiration and squicky distaste.  It just feels so awkwardly self-centered to talk about your work and how awesome it is (even if it is TOTALLY AWESOME).  Maybe this is because as a culture we discourage people from declaring their own awesomeness independent of outside confirmation. Maybe it is because people (especially women) are socialized away from drawing attention to ourselves and our own achievements.  Maybe it’s because we don’t think our work is that interesting or useful, and don’t understand why people would want to hear about it in the first place.  Or maybe it’s because we don’t think we should be speaking publicly about something unless we know EVERYTHING about it because if we don’t know EVERYTHING about it we’re obviously not experts and only experts get to speak in public about things, right?  Or maybe it’s a totally different reason.

Whatever the reason is, the result is that horrible squirmy feeling in your guts whenever someone gives you a compliment, that stops your from posting that story or applying to that program or talking to that Kickass Person Whose Work You Admire or something.  It is getting in your way. It is Impeding Your Awesome. So I’m going to offer you some tips on how to defeat the squirmy guilty feeling, and some strategies you can use to share your work with the world.

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Aaron Swartz 1986-2013

I am very angry right now.

I’ve talked about Aaron’s case before, how it represents (represented) an obscene overreach on the part of a government pushing an agenda of systematic control over the internet and information technology. How it reflected a popular paranoia of the technologically gifted that you can see promoted in any film about “hackers” made in the last 30 years. I should have been louder.

I didn’t know Aaron. I dearly wish I had.  Those who did know him are broken-hearted and upset and angry and far more eloquent than me.  You should read what they have to say. I have linked to a few below, but there are so many more.

And you should be angry, too.  You should tell people that what happened, this case, was wrong. You should believe that we can do so much fucking better.

Larry Lessig’s Prosecutor as bully
Cory Doctorow’s RIP Aaron Swartz
Alex Stamos’s The truth about Aaron Swartz’s ‘Crimes’
danah boyd’s Processing the loss of Aaron Swartz
Ethan Zuckerman’s Goodbye Aaron
Quinn Norton’s My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved

Old Year, New Year

There has been a lot in 2012.  A lot of travel, a lot of working, a lot of personal changes.  Though the year didn’t start off great, it has gotten progressively better.  I discovered that I have truly amazing group of friends who are brilliant and wonderful and supportive and kind, and who are there for me despite my very poor asking-for-help skills.  I also gained a lot of personal confidence in my work this year, which is mostly thanks to my awesome colleagues and mentors at the Center for Civic Media, Comparative Media Studies, and the Berkman Center.  It’s been an honor to be a part of these research communities for the past year, and I’ll be very sad to leave them next fall.

For those who like their “This Is The Year That Was” Reviews in list form, you can find that under the cut. And for everyone reading along at home, I hope your 2012 was also filled with good discoveries and happy realizations.  I hope your new year is filled with good food and kind faces, that you find something and learn something, that you share something and make something, and that if you discover you need help, you also discover your world is filled with friends who can.

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29c3!

The Congress Center in Hamburg all dressed up for 29c3

29c3 is wrapping up. I had a really excellent time here, and had once of the best speaker experiences I’ve had at a hacker con.  As usual, the hallway track was fantastic: I got to hang out with the “friends I only see at cons” crowd, and meet some awesome new people.

My talk on the ethical analysis of activist DDOS actions in now online (and please do stay for the question session, this was a highly informed and enthusiastic audience who had great input).  The other talks I saw were all fantastic. I highly recommend watching them if you have the time. You can find all 111 (!!) hours of talks here.

This con was entirely run by a volunteer contingent of “Angels.” They did a brilliant job.  And Hamburg is a great town! I’m very glad to have gotten to visit and participate in 29c3.  Next stop, Switzerland!