Willow BCivics in an age of mistrust and decentralization
For the January salon at NECSI, Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff led a discussion and workshop on civics in a distributed society. Both are at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, Ethan as director and Erhardt as a PhD researcher. We explored how people in with influence/power/money try to create change in the world, how those affected by those changes view and respond to those attempts and changes, and also what we would do as people of influence/power/money.
Many people want to change the world.Leverage through money or power
Democracy as it tends to be generally practiced is the act of selecting people for positions of power, and then pressuring them through petitions, protests, and letters. Ethan remarks that this is a remarkably impoverished view. We interact with governance and our social systems also based on what we buy (and don’t buy), where we live, how we speak. Regardless, our trust is low, and not just in government , but in institutions as well; and not just in the US, but all over the world. This distrust comes from many sources — leaders who insist government is useless while diminishing funding to the point it can’t be effective, an unfettered (and high-velocity, highly-connected) press, visibly lacking integrity.
But what about individuals and foundations with large amounts of wealth who also hope to act in the public interest, who aren’t elected, and aren’t subject to public opinion in the same ways? They might invest in think tanks, in market-based interventions (like Tesla), in campaigns to affect public opinion to place pressure on courts and elected officials.
Regardless of if an individual came to have influence through an electoral process or through having access to wealth, Lawrence Lessig provides a framework in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace on which most (if not all) change is attempted.
Laws are explicit, and created and enforced through governance systems.
Norms are implicit social expectations, enforced through social pressure and assumptions based on media and other environmental factors.
Markets shape behavior by making some actions more or less expensive financially or time-wise.
It’s possible to track enforcement of laws. A market-based intervention is either successful in the market or fails out. Architecture demands use and maintenance, but use implies success (except for those pesky hackers and other reappropriators). Ethan and Erhardt primarily focus on changing norms. These are also arguably the most difficult to know if your hoped-for-change is occurring, as norms are implicit, rather than explicit. At the Center for Civic Media, we think about the attention economy, and so one way of seeing shifts in norms is by tracking how the media talks about and shows topics. Media Cloud is a tool for gathering media sources, creating visualizations, and comparing various topics. For instance, Erhardt showed a shift in the media conversation around Trayvon Martin (highly recommended reading - w).
In short, creating change is hard, even if you’ve got money and/or power.
Here’s the video from our salon:
More on the topic of civics in a distributed society from Ethan’s post about his keynote at Syracuse University’s Humanities annual symposium on Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust (highly recommended reading, and most of the images on this blog comes from the associated slide deck- w).
How would YOU create change?
With this framing, this question was posited to the salon attendees. Erhardt facilitated an interactive workshop he’d designed. “So let’s say you have 10 million dollars. Powerball hooray! What would you do, to deal with climate change? Fund think tanks and organizations? Fund advocacy groups / passing laws? Fund research? Create tech to do things we can’t otherwise do?” The room divided into 4 groups, and then picked one of Lessig’s 4 means of interventions.
First, what would you focus on doing?
The markets group suggested moving businesses from current energy consumption modes to “greener” methods. Architecture focused on triggers against bad behavior, as well as visualizations about industry consumption and pollution automatically sent to surrounding populations. The norms group suggested outright bribing of COP representatives to sign binding agreements which countries would then have to adhere to.
Erhardt then asked the groups how they would know that their initiative was working. The architecture group spoke of running similar experiments with sensor networks in two cities - one with the information visible to the population, and the other where it wasn’t. Pushback was that it’s considered unethical to collect data without letting the participants view it, and that there are many confounding factors at play with your N is 2. The law group focused on microgrids, and passing legislation which required a shift to modernized infrastructure. Pushback was around sufficient infrastructure for the change to take place. The markets group spent their cool 10mil on shifting ALL transport systems to bicycles, and norms created individual carbon-based emission scores which reminded yours truly of buycott.
To shift the world, even with massive funding and assumed power, is difficult to do. All of the posited interventions at the salon were pilot/demo level. To know you’re succeeding in any way is also difficult. Empathy was certainly built for those who have money and power, and who still aren’t wildly successful at changing the world. Perhaps a few “why don’t you just…” phrases were put to rest. At the same time, as individual citizens, we saw how much of a role we have to play in societal shifts — perhaps more effectively in our distributed and connected networks.
Christopher Wong on previous work X for PTO - you could at least upload suggestions to a machine-readable db. That would be searchable by everyone (given that currently found p.a. isn't always searchable by new patent agents)
X was improving on the EFS design for 3d party submissions: (title 8)
used to need to have a 'confirmation #' that noone remembers
concise description of relevance: in 250 chars (now up to 1k, plus PDF)
you can't write about whether target is patentable (e.g., this tech shouldn't be patentable; genes shouldn't be) - they will send back for amendment, ignore rest.
Didn't want to launch, bc it would be different.
a. One thing (a cleaner way to submit prior art) doesn't need PTO input to do it.
b. A non-patent lit db wouldn't be used w/o their support. At least it would need to have an API that the next-gen PTO setup could access.
JM - could get a net of entities to apply pressure to the Office
} knowledge db. public disclosure db. structure, timestamps, public searchable
) invalidation using the above.
) submission fluidity using the above. [when you want to submit to the PTO]
) script-writing and extraction ('soft knowledge') - glue b/t less structured repos: sw hubs, mailing lists, red boards.
) campaigns: a/b tests of comms? form letters to send the PTO, ...
Options for Moz: ask engs to monitor filings and file against them. file actively agains bad subs. have topical db.
Pitch to other partners: how to help them contribute?
+ integrate w existing workflows. make this a clean way to disclose.
+ talk about db quality, human curation and classification
Danelle thinking about hackathon for other patent issues// come up with 3-4 issues to resolve. then dev rollout plans. tried this w/ data@M, helped create initiatives.
Framing: 'public disclosure' site. also, protecting rights/agency of original author
Politics: internally building 'Patents End-to-End' suite of tools. to emerge by 2020. Listen closely to CTO's office.
Check boxes people use to evaluate of things have been 'published'.