Just found the video from my talk at Share in Belgrade (mos def the mos fun I have had at a conference in years).
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May 17, 2012
Just found the video from my talk at Share in Belgrade (mos def the mos fun I have had at a conference in years).
May 05, 2012 0
Thanks to Brian Holmes, I found a quote that more or less sums up my work at MIT. After a few years people started to refer to Computing Culture as "the political group" at the Media Lab. I always had to stifle a laugh, because so much of the work there -- and at MIT as a whole -- was absolutely political. It just tended to support the status quo. Here, then, is the patron saint of my alma mater UCSD (Frankfurt am Pacific):
I emphasize, it is not a question of making the schools and universities, of making the educational system political. The educational system is political already. I need only remind you of the incredible degree to which (I am speaking of the United States) universities are involved in huge research grants (the nature of which you know in many cases) by the government and the various quasi-governmental agencies.
The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy. And in this sense we must meet this society on its own ground of total mobilization. We must confront indoctrination in servitude with indoctrination in freedom. We must each of us generate in ourselves, and try to generate in others, the instinctual need for a life without fear, without brutality, and without stupidity. And we must see that we can generate the instinctual and intellectual revulsion against the values of an affluence which spreads aggressiveness and suppression throughout the world.
Herbert Marcuse, Liberation from the Affluent Society
April 14, 2010 0
Member of the company portrayed in the now famous wikileaks video, including one who rescued the wounded boy, speak out:
Josh's point is correct, that while the soldiers who did this are responsible for their actions, it is far more important to blame the system that interpolates them, since this is just plain normal in contemporary warfare. "I urge you to be slow to judge those who are trapped in these machines and ask yourself if you did or didn’t do anything to create this trap."
"Everyone who has seen this video has several responsibilities. We have a responsibility as American citizens to ask: Does this reflect our values? As we are in other countries claiming to be spreading freedom and democracy, here we see what that looks like. I don't think it takes a lot of imagination to put myself in different country's shoes and understand why I wouldn't interpret things like that, even if they are militarily justifiable, as the spreading of freedom and democracy or as someone trying to help out my own country. And then also on a moral and religious level, as far as my upbringing and education -- I went to a Christian school -- I was never taught that anything like this was wrong, and I was taught that in war people get hurt. I've been writing to the leaders of the Church that I grew up going to about things that troubled me in basic training, and they said you need to have faith. So if our institutions that claim to stand for the conscience, or claim to stand for some morals are excusing this then I think we're in a pretty dark place as a nation."
-- Josh Stieber
January 18, 2010 0
The information activist community has been rushing to respond to the Haitian earthquake. What I find remarkable is the capacity that has been built up in the last few years; from software standards, like the pfif standard generated after Katrina, to early systems like the Ushahidi engine designed during the Kenyan election violence, to larger organizations and resources like the Crisis Commons wiki: and the Crisis Camps.
First on the scene were a variety of technologists who were addressing the problem of people finding -- how to bring separated people back together, both for peace of mind and for social capital. Several sites started offering this service, like the American Red Cross Family Links and the custom-made Haitianquake.com. By Friday, Google stepped in with its offering, and because of their capacity most everyone agreed to standardize around it, even though it lacked some of the functionality of other systems, and had only a few dozen people in its database (compared to Haitianquake's 6000). Similar utilities are still springing up -- the Miami Herald and the New York Times came out with their own -- but developers are lobbying these and other organizations to contain the spread. Silos will only make it more difficult for people to find each other. The tool to use is http://haiticrisis.appspot.com/. Blog it, yo.
Also just launched by Ushahidi, is an effort to create a sort of 911 for Haiti, based on SMS messages. The SMS shortcode 4636 is now live, and messages are being queued. A web interface then allows Creole speaking "dispatchers" -- from anywhere on the Internet -- to take the SMS messages off the queue to organize and tag them. The SEIU, with tens of thousands of Haitian American members, is setting up command centers in four North American cities and its members will be actively dispatching, but any Creole speaking web user can volunteer. Once the messages are coded, they will generate feed outputs that can be used by various organizations (including journalists, humanitarian relief workers, etc.). Messages are just starting to come in: no doubt the biggest problem starting Sunday will be what to do with all the data.
There is now talk of doing a similar "mechanical turk" style translation interface as well, allowing Haitian Americans to act as real-time mediators between aid workers and citizens. Voice systems are requisite in a country with %50 illiteracy, but also significantly harder to create and more computationally demanding.
A list of some of the software initiatives: http://haiti.crisiscommons.org/atrium/home
And organizations: http://haiti-orgs.sahanafoundation.org/prod/or/organisation
November 29, 2009 0
It is an open secret that extrACT is taking longer to finish than we had hoped. Of course, any time one engages with a community it takes double the time that it would take for one to serve their own community, and quadruple the time to serve oneself. It reminds me of when Tad Hirsch, then a grad student finishing his master's thesis, grabbed me by the upper arm and urgently admonished me: "If I ever talk about working with the community again, punch me." It would be so much easier to make du jour web applications that help affluent twentysomethings deal with their affluent twentysomething problems, but it's altogether different when you are dealing with people whose needs go beyond optional.
Anyway, some months ago we were meeting with a group of community organizers and one of them begged us to just release something, no matter how finished it was. We did, and the results were just about what we thought they would -- confusion and despair on the part of a few public early adopters, mixed with gratitude from some others. A few bad experiences and you can really lose your audience. But the community organizer had a point: people affected by natural gas extraction need help, and now. In that spirit, I started thinking about the events they need to document, the problems they need to record, the experiences they need to share. Whereas Landman Report Card is a very sharp and optimized tool, we are losing many other experiences, evidence, and events that should be recorded and turned into action.
Benjamin Mako Hill to the rescue, as always. Mako has been arguing for about a year that 90% of what people use web application frameworks (Django, Rails, Codeigniter) for can be done by a smart wiki. In particular, Semantic Mediawiki, and extension to Wikipedia's MediaWiki engine, allows for forms and structured data. A user can fill out a standard web form, which is then turned into a wiki page. But because the Semantic Mediawiki allows the structuring of that data, the information on that page is now searchable, RSSable (sorry, Bill Safire), and reusable. But moreover, it can be mixed with unstructured data, with images or media, and benefits from all the moderation, rollback, conversation, and other tools that make Wikipedia the powerhouse that it is.
In our case, we want to start with public State data. For now I've started with the State of Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation (hah!) Commission's public database. This database is apparently designed to be as opaque as possible, with much of the data in different parts of the site, unassociated and difficult to find. (Still, it beats some of the other states, like Wyoming.) If we want to augment this database with human an environmental information from the community, we need to make it writable as well as readable. Sounds like a job for a wiki! But first we have to "scrape" the database to get as much information as possible.
Getting a scraper together -- until our excellent syncscraper project is finished -- is made far more easy through the miracle of XPath, in my case through the lxml python module. XPath basically builds a "path" through a web page, like you might see when accessing a file on your hard drive, like
Various tools, like DOMInspector (with XPather) plugin for Firefox or the elegant Xray will let you find the xpath immediately. Of course, it's never that easy. In my case, Colorado was using malformed html that the browser automatically corrected. XPather yielded a correct XPath that was a dead end. After some head scratching, I realized I had to take out all the "TD" elements from whatever it yielded. Then you just have to scrape (python2.5):
import urllib2 from lxml import etree from StringIO import StringIO response = urllib2.urlopen(p["facility_detail_url"]) html = response.read() parser = etree.HTMLParser() tree = etree.parse(StringIO(html), parser) p["html"] = html t = tree.xpath('/html/body/font/table/tr/td/font') lat,lon = t.text.split(":").strip().split("/")
I start with a list of urls (p["facility_detail_url"]), each of which leads to a page of data. This data, automatically generated, has quite a bit of similarity and so it is slightly more easily scraped. After figuring out the xpath to (in this example) the GIS coordinates of a gas facility, I can pull out the latitude and longitude. This last line is repeated until we have all the data that we want.
The next step is to upload to a wikimedia wiki. Luckily, Python has a great library called, unfortunatly, by several names, including PyWikipedia. You can request a page, check if it exists, or write to a page. At that point I can take the scraped data and use it to populate a page for each of the 80,000+ facilities in Colorado. It is just a matter of these calls:
import wikipedia enWikisrcSite = wikipedia.getSite('en', 'testwiki') t = s.substitute(api_number=p['api_number'], type=p['type'], ... date_approved =p['date_approved'],) page = wikipedia.Page(enWikisrcSite, p["api_number"]) page.put(t, comment='Bot: Adding page', watchArticle = None, minorEdit = False) # page.put(newtext, 'Bot: Test')
In my first stab -- about 8 hours of learning lxml and PyWikipedia -- I created a few hundred pages like this: a well in La Plata County. Of course, this code won't run as it is excerpted here, but I'll eventually put it up on our Civic Media repository at codebasehq. The important thing is that you can see that producing a public, writeable face for an otherwise one-directional database is fairly trivial. Creating the right social tools and modes of use to leverage such a two-way database might not be so simple, but I'd argue that it is certainly worth a try.
January 09, 2009
Earlier today I was the victim of a viscous robot attack. It tried to climb up my leg, and in the process destroyed a fairly new pair of pants and broke skin. The irony: This is the pacifist protest robot that I've been working on with a host of excellent undergraduate researchers (UROPs, at MIT) and the crew at La Fabrica de Cosas Bonitas. It's designed to protest intentionally aggressive robots like this thing and this other thing. Acht, that which you oppose you become.
Here are Sam and Victor shortly after their supervisor was mauled. They _claimed_ that they didn't program the behavior intentionally. Sure.
*My wife thinks I shouldn't intentionally misspell words in my blog. She's so olde fashioned.
January 05, 2009 0
I'm having a great time preparing the new Call for Action class with Nadav Ahrony. The first installment will be over IAP, the MIT January unsemester.
CfA is a four day intensive seminar on mobile technologies for activism and social change. It's leading me in a lot of great directions. First, I'm hacking some fun python examples, learning how to access twitter and sms APIs. I've never really had an excuse to do web programming, though I've always known that it's really gratifying because, ultimately, things on the web _work_. Robot programming is about noisy sensors and exploding transistors. Web and graphics programming is for the weak, but it is a nice Club Med to visit.
More importantly, I've been checking out some of the writing by political scientists and sociologists on social change, going much farther back than I had before. Following a tip, I discovered Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, and their relatively sophisticated arguments about "repertoires of collective action". In brief, they argue that there are a limited number of things that we can do to effect social change, things like strikes, demonstrations, petitions.
Tilly noticed that before the 19th Century there was a very different repertoire, from "forced illuminations" (not unlike what Trevor Paglen was doing on the Berkeley campus) to leveling the houses of offensive business owners. One of his major papers is titled "The Food Riot as a form of Political Conflict," but later he even aruges that the word "riot" is probably an unsuitable on in scientific parlance, since it is a pejorative way of describing what, if it were done by the police, would be called a "crackdown" or "sweep".
Tilly's larger thesis, from back in the 1980's, is that the repertoire moved from local actions directed at local agents to more distributed actions focusing on underlying issues. This could be (very) roughly analogized as a move from neighborhoods to networks, the first, biggest example of which was the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
Tilly's work makes it clear that we have very few modes of collective action in our repertoire, and that after the 18th Century we stopped doing local, neighborhood based actions. This has got me wondering: are there contemporary neighborhood-based means of collective action that we're missing? There are a fair number of people thinking about the new networked collective actions, but are new techniques and technologies going to allow for geographically specific ones?
December 21, 2008 0
Baydan has received orders for 300,000 pairs of the shoes since the attack, more than four times the number his company sold each year since the model was introduced in 1999. The company plans to employ 100 more staff to meet demand, he said.
“Model 271” is exported to markets including Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Customers in Iraq ordered 120,000 pairs this week and some Iraqis offered to set up distribution companies for the shoe, Baydan said.
August 10, 2007 0
Republished from Good Magazine, Provocations issue, August 2007
Among the many changes in U.S. policy after 9/11 was one that went unnoticed by everyone except a few geeks: The military quietly reversed its longstanding position on the role of robots in battlefields, and now embraces the idea of autonomous killing machines. There was no outcry from the academics who study robotics—indeed, with few exceptions they lined up to help, developing new technologies for intelligent navigation, locomotion, and coordination. At my own institute, an enormous space is being out-fitted to coordinate robotic flying, swimming, and marching units in preparation for some future Normandy.
It’s not as if we haven’t all seen the movies where robots slaughter their makers with tireless accuracy. That particular dystopia has been well advertised for about 100 years. So why aren’t the scientists who are involved in this research publicly dissenting, warning the public about the dangers of killer robots? It wasn’t always such a complacent profession.
In the tumultuous late 1960s, many engineers questioned their own roles in producing materials for the Cold War. A forthcoming book by the historian Matthew Wisnioski demonstrates that these activists-engineers had mixed destinies (some dropped engineering altogether for organic farming) but that some successfully pushed their institutions to conduct research that didn’t center on killing humans.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of social and political activism in the cubicles of today’s military contractors. Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered how technologies like napalm or mustard gas were developed, you need look no further than the ethos of contemporary robotics research. Engineering is the plain, reliable, and boring cousin to science, and has been ignored by progressives who don’t think about designing technologies that further their goals. That’s unfortunate, because the work of engineers—nearly everything that you can touch or that you use—profoundly affects all of our lives.
Most engineers would deny that their work is sociopolitical. But the fruits of engineering, from the ink in this magazine to your car, are nearly always conceived, built, and sold by commercial enterprises to consumers, companies, or governments. How is that not social? And somehow the ways that resources are allocated and the decisions about which of society’s requirements deserve a technology aren’t thought to be political. Progressives have ceded the physical world to “markets” and technocratic experts—never a good strategy. Technology has become a democracy-free zone.
Why aren’t scientists warning the public about robots?
How can we reimagine more democratic technologies? To start, change must happen from inside the domain. By the time lawyers and politicians are involved, design decisions have already been made. Progressives need to get involved in research, design, and production. Engineering schools are more socially and politically conservative than other schools, in addition to being enclaves of a culture that loves big guns and fast cars. Students and professors must work to reformulate how engineering is conceived and taught, and the canon needs to be razed and rebuilt.
But even the best engineers can’t design progressive change if they work for a regressive multinational corporation. Luckily, the open-source movement offers an alternative model. Open sourcing allows individuals across the world to collaborate on, for example, developing groundbreaking software—competitive with that of any corporation precisely because the completed software is sharable and rewriteable. As the open-source movement matures, the number of projects with a progressive political bent (or even ones designed for direct action) will multiply. Scientists, already experimenting with open-source journals, are scheming ways to begin collaboratively designing cheaper medicines and healthcare technologies.
Every product is sold with the promise of making a consumer’s life easier; we need to understand whether that ease is built on disempowering community, family, or the environment. Social dimensions need to join the list of considerations that go into the design specification of every product. Engineers need to determine whether a product abets democracy or totalitarianism, whether it treats its user as a worker or as a human being.
But such changes will only take place if we work to connect models of a just society to specific technical directions. And if we find more progressives who aren’t afraid of a little math.
|© 2012 Christopher P. Csikszentmihalyi - About Csikszentmihalyi - Computing Culture|