Networking

Having attended a conference last weekend, I meet a lot of people and had a lot of conversations…and had a lot of conversations about meeting new people.

One thing that kept coming up was people’s dislike of utilitarian networking – the idea that, especially when at a conference, you should talk to specific kinds of people or intentionally work on building certain relationships out of a pure utilitarian desire to leverage that relationship for your own good.

Perhaps I simply haven’t attended enough conferences, but I don’t find this concern very…concerning. To be clear, I do find the very idea of utilitarian networking to be distasteful, but I don’t find networking to be inherently utilitarian.

Or perhaps I’m just not doing it right.

In a previously life, I would go to social events and not talk to anyone. Not necessarily out of distaste for networking, but out of a general malaise about life. Then, some how, at some point along the line, I started talking to people.

And what I found was that people are really interesting.

Every conversation is like a window into a whole other universe of personhood. And the less you know the person, the more there is to learn.

So now when I go to events, I talk to people. As many people as meaningfully possible. Not out of a utilitarian drive to advance myself through connection, but out of a genuine desire to meet and learn from other.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just though that’s what networking is.

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Keeping the Public Sphere Open

Tomorrow I will be participating in a conference on “Keeping the Public Sphere Open” hosted by Northeastern’s NULab for Text Maps and Data. The conference is taking place from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm and is free and open to the public. You may register here.

Here’s the description from the conference website:

On March 24, the NULab will be hosting its first annual conference, showcasing the work of faculty, fellows, alumni, and research collaborators. The conference will include a range of panels and talks, all organized around the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Director of CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). Uta Poiger, Dean of Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor of History, will deliver a welcome message to open the conference.

The conference will feature research from several NULab-supported projects. Ryan Cordell will speak about the Viral Texts project, Sarah Connell will discuss the Women Writers Project, Sarah Payne and William Bond will share the work of the Margaret Fuller Transnational Archive, and Elizabeth Dillon will talk about the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. There will also be talks by NULab faculty: Brooke Foucault Welles will present on networked counterpublics and the #HashtagActivism project; Nick Beauchamp will discuss his research into productive internet discourse, with Ph.D. candidate Sarah Shugars; David Lazer will talk about his work on transforming democracy by strengthening connections between citizens and town halls; David Smith will share research on modeling information cascades and propagating scientific knowledge; John Wihbey will present on the democratic role of news in an age of networks; Élika Ortega will discuss the architectures of print-digital literature; and Dietmar Offenhuber, Alessandra Renzi, and Nathan Felde will share the outcomes of a public event to digitize and tag posters from the Boston Women’s March.

Other talks will include the work of graduate students: Matt Simonson on social networks and cross-ethnic ties in Uganda; and Elizabeth Polcha and Nicole Keller Day on building the Digital Feminist Commons and how feminist humanists approach coding. NULab Fellow alum Jim McGrath (Brown University) will highlight some of the intersections between digital humanities and public humanities in his work at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

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The Internet and Modernity

Reading Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked I was struck by their rebuttal of the argument put forth by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears; an argument which rings throughout the work of Putnam and other scholars: modern individuals are sad, hollow, isolated shells of humanity and modern technologies like the internet is what made this so.

Perhaps I was struck simply because this is an argument I have given so little serious attention. I am way past even considering concerns that video games make you violent, rock n’ roll leads to devil worship, or that the internet has led to the collapse of our civic infrastructure. It is interesting to consider as a factor, perhaps, to scapegoat the internet – to use Rainie and Wellman’s term – strikes me as absurd.

Rainie and Wellman argue that this “fixation on the internet” ignores “nearly a century of research showing that technological changes before the internet – planes, trains, telephones, telegraphs, and cars – neither destroyed relations and communities nor left them alone as remnants locked up in rural and urban villages.”

In defense of the internet, they point to the fact that “when asked, few people say that they, themselves, are living lives of lonely desperation.” And thus they find it wearisome  that “even with these realizations, some people – and commentators – believe that they are the exceptions and that the masses around them are lonely, isolated, and fearful.”

“There is,” they assure us, “no reason to panic.”

Perhaps what is most striking about this debate – internet: friend or foe? – is that the problem isn’t really one of the modern moment; it is more properly a problem of modernity; an era that stretches back as far as one might dare to extend the concepts of modern thought or sensibilities.

In 1854 – which is, if I’m not mistaken, before the widespread popularity of the internet – Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately; because he yearned to escape the crushing speed and pressures of modern life. 1854 modern life that is. As he famously opens Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…

A contemporary Thoreau might say the same about turning of Facebook or sticking with a flip phone; it’s a challenge of modernity not a problem of technology.

1942 Albert Camus wrote of the absurd tragedy of Sisyphus, that Greek hero who was condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” Camus, too, points to the challenge of modernity: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

From this perspective, the internet and other technologies have given us increased distraction; increased refuge from the crushing reality of the emptiness that is life.  Which is not to say without these technologies our burden would be relieved; no, we would simply find other ways of burying the truth, of hiding from the void.

The problem, then – if, indeed, there is a problem at all – cannot be laid at the feed of the internet or of specific online platforms. The challenge is much deeper and much more mundane. It is not a challenge of how we live in an ever connected world, it is a fundamental challenge of modern life: how do we live an average, daily life knowing everything that we deeply know?

How, in the words of modern youth, do we even?

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Aggregated Injustice

I ran across a colorfully titled Mother Jones article which documents “a brief history of men getting credit for women’s accomplishments.” As promised by the subtitle, the article is written to do just that, presenting a series of poignant vignettes from the Paleolithic era to the present.

The entries range from enraging:

1843: Mathematician Ada Lovelace shows how Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (a theoretical computer) could be induced to perform complex math. Her contribution, considered the first software, was dismissed by many male historians: “It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic-­depressive with the most amazing delusions.”

To frustratingly understandable:

1840s: …Mary Ann Evans later writes Middlemarch as George Eliot, probably to avoid “being treated as ‘just’ a female writer,” one expert notes.

The piece also captures the uniquely terrible discrimination faced by African American women:

1888: Ellen Eglin sells the rights to the clothes wringer she invented to an agent. The invention brings “great financial success” to the buyer, who paid her $18. “If it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer,” she explains.

But while this article does an excellent job of encapsulating the gender discrimination which has gone on since nearly the dawn of time, it doesn’t quite capture the aggregated effects of such discrimination.

Consider Michael Spence’s economic model of gender-based pay disparity: imagine an employee pool in which people have two observable characteristics: sex and education. An employer assigns each employee to a higher or lower wage by inferring the unobserved characteristic of productivity. Assume also that gender and productivity are perfectly uncorrelated.

Intuitively, this should mean that gender and pay will also be uncorrelated, however Spence’s game-theoretic model reveals that after initial rounds of hiring, the employer will begin to associate higher levels of education with higher levels of productivity. More precisely, because an employer’s opinions are conditioned on gender as well as education, “if at some point in time men and women are not investing in education in the same ways, then the returns to education for men and women will be different in the next round.”

In other words, Spence finds that there are numerous system equilibria and, given differing initial investments in education, the pay schedules for men and women will settle into different equilibrium states.

While the correlation between education and productivity presents a simple toy model, the “signaling” generated by actual success would presumably create an even stronger effect.

That is, men taking credit for women’s inventions, insights, and effort is not just damaging to the person whose ideas are stolen – it is damaging more broadly to people who are identified as women. It weakens women’s equilibrium for signaling success – an effect, again, felt even more strongly by women of color.

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Snow Days

Snow days can cause chaos insofar as everything that was scheduled for a snow day needs to be rescheduled for a subsequent day; perhaps even the immediately following day – thus cramming two days of work into one.

Which is surprising, perhaps, because the snow day itself had no shortage of work either.

But somehow time just got all messed up; after a snow day things just don’t quite occur in the right order any more.

But I appreciate snow days as a humbling experience – they come as a reminder that sometimes even the most pressing meetings can still survive being postponed for a day.

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Seven Countries

On Friday, President Trump signed an Executive Order targeting immigrants and refugees from 7 majority Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The order has been met with strong protests, questions about it’s legality, and numerous horror stories about children detained in isolation and Iraqi interpreters – who risked their lives and the lives of their families in service to our country – being barred entry.

I’ve been trying to figure out where that list of seven countries comes from. As it turns out, this is not a particularly easy task.

The Executive Order does not refer to the countries directly. Rather, it reads:

I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,

INA refers to the Immigration and Nationality Act which was originally created in 1952, though it has been amended several times since then. As the INA website explains:

Although it stands alone as a body of law, the Act is also contained in the United States Code (U.S.C.). The code is a collection of all the laws of the United States…When browsing the INA or other statutes you will often see reference to the U.S. Code citation…Although it is correct to refer to a specific section by either its INA citation or its U.S. code, the INA citation is more commonly used.

So, when the Executive Order refers to “217(a)(12) of the INA” and “8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12),” those are two citations for the same thing, both included for completeness.

Now, Section 217 of the INA deals with “Visa Waiver Program for Certain Visitors” and 217(a) reads:

(a) ESTABLISHMENT OF PROGRAM.-The Attorney General and the Secretary of State are authorized to establish a program (hereinafter in this section referred to as the “program”) under which the requirement of paragraph (7)(B)(i)(II) of section 212(a) may be waived by the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, and in accordance with this section, in the case of an alien who meets the following requirements:

Bullet points (1) – (11) then list the requirements for “aliens” receiving a waiver.

Now, I’m no legal scholar, but there is no bullet point 12.

The text for the INA is hosted by the Department for Homeland Security, and the text for the related United States Code, 8 U.S.C. 1187, is hosted by the U.S. Government Publishing Office. Neither website includes a point 12. So I could tell you about 217(a)(11) of the INA and 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(11), but I can’t tell you about the law referenced in President Trump’s Executive Order: section 217(a)(12) of the INA or 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).

So where does that list of 7 countries come from?

I assumed I must be going about this all wrong, and that someone else had figured it all out already.

I looked at the New York Times helpful annotation of the Executive Order. Following the paragraph referencing section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), the New York Times annotates:

The countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

But where does that list of 7 countries come from?

President Trump has argued that his order is not substantially different from measures taken by President Obama (Fact Check: False). The list of countries may have come from President Obama, however, as CNN indicates:

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law a measure placing limited restrictions on certain travelers who had visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011. Two months later, the Obama administration added Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the list, in what it called an effort to address “the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters.”

This implies that the list of affected countries can be found in two press releases from the Department of Homeland Security, the first from January 21, 2016 reads:

The United States today began implementing changes under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (the Act). U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day and is committed to facilitating legitimate travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection. Under the Act, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):

  • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).
  • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

The second release from February 18, 2016 then adds Libya, Somalia, and Yemen as “countries of concern.”

Now, Politifact has a great comparison between President Obama’s and President Trump’s policies…but I’m still unclear on how the 2016 list of countries ended up in President Trump’s Executive Order. And what is the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 anyway?

I’m glad you asked.

The official Congressional website indicates the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 as coming from H.R.158: An act to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide enhanced security measures for the visa waiver program, and for other purposes.

This act was approved by the house and voted into law as part of an appropriations act (HR 2029).

Now, this bill includes:

(SEC. 3) Section 217(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187(a)), as amended by this Act, is further amended by adding at the end the following: (12) NOT PRESENT IN IRAQ, SYRIA, OR ANY OTHER COUNTRY OR AREA OF CONCERN.

…in a country that is designated by the Secretary of State under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979 (50 U.S.C. 2405) (as continued in effect under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.)), section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2780), section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2371), or any other provision of law, as a country, the government of which has repeatedly provided support of acts of international terrorism;

None of that is particularly helpful, though again the related Homeland Security press release identifies the affected countries as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria, with Libya, Somalia, and Yemen added a month later.

Now, while I still don’t understand why there isn’t a section 217(a)(12) of the INA, it’s important to note that this list of countries was affected by a visa waiver program. As the DHS release clarifies:

These individuals will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates. For those who need a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to process applications on an expedited basis.

And it goes on – as HR 158 does – to clarify that the change will not effect foreign nationals who were in the named countries “in order to perform military service in the armed forces of a program country.”

So those Iraqi interpreters?

Yeah, we should let them in.

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Our Secrets

“None of is us perfect, and each one of us has their own secrets, no doubt. None of is is flawless…but we are sane fanatics of reality living in a treadmill of good compromises.” That is what Comrade Pánczél tells István Balla Bán to get him to spy on his best friend; to get him to give the government incriminating evidence on his friend in exchange for keeping his own dark secret private. None of us is perfect.

This scene comes from a play I saw last night: Our Secrets, by Hungarian actor, playwright, and director Béla Pintér. It’s about government surveillance and control in Communist Hungary, a topic which seemed particularly timely as our own country – which has been no stranger to mass surveillance efforts – prepares to transfer power to a strongly nationalist leader.

There are shows through the weekend at the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston’s Theater district. I highly recommend you get tickets and go. Spoilers below.

The story focuses on a group of Hungarian folk-music performers. As the play synopsis describes, “Communist Hungary’s dictatorship labeled the cultural acts and their corresponding community events throughout the country as either ‘banned,’ ‘tolerated,’ or ‘supported.’ The folk music scene was labeled ‘supported’ by the authoritarian government, therefore becoming a supposedly safe space for anti-Communist organizers to operate clandestinely, with little government oversight or interference to disrupt communications.”

The staging of the show fully incorporates the role of music in the era, with a giant reel-to-reel playing in the background and the musicians/cast members playing on the sides of the stage.

The story explores the individual tragedies of its characters and “exposes the hypocrisy and violence of the Communist regime, which infiltrated every corner of society to stamp out any whiff of dissent and by any means necessary.”

István Balla Bán and his friend Imre Tatár are both great folk performers. And while Tatár’s girlfriend is zealously pro-Communist, he secretly works as the editor for the underground, ant-Communist magazine, The Iron Curtain. Balla Bán is a pedophile and when the government finds out they offer him a deal: inform on your friend or go to jail. None of us is perfect.

The whole show is fantastic, but perhaps the most startling moment – though undertoned in it’s drama – is when the government turns Balla Bán. They bring him in and Comrade Pánczél asks him to spy. Balla Bán refuses. Comrade Pánczél excuses himself for a moment.

Then out of nowhere another folk-dancer friend comes in. It’s disorienting at first – what is that person doing here? The friend reveals that he’s been working with the government the whole time; that he placed bugs in people’s apartments and therefore recorded Balla Bán confiding in his therapist. The government knows everything because they already have informers.

It reminded me of that moment in 1984 when heroes Winston Smith and Julia seem like they’re going to escape control of the Thought Police, only to discover that the shop keeper who was helping them was actually a Thought Police agent. The whole world gets turned upside down.

And this, perhaps, is the most insidious thing about this kind of government surveillance; about a regime’s domineering demand for control. It’s not just that the possibility of dissent carries grave punishment. It’s that anyone may be turned against you; even your closest friends.

In part, it is this ability to isolate which gives a regime it’s power: if you can’t trust your neighbors; if you have no one in whom to confide, if at any moment your very thoughts could be used against you – organized resistance becomes impossible.

Yet I can’t help but think of the saying: they tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.

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The White Moderate

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today I wanted to share one of my favorite passages from Dr. King. It’s from a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, as Dr. King reflects upon the motivation for his work. He calls out the ‘white moderate’ – that person who “constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”

The white moderate is the greatest stumbling block of justice.

All of us in social justice work are all too familiar with the wide range of views and opinions on what actions are right and what actions are effective. These disagreements are good and healthy and productive. But those of us with positions of relatively more power – us white activists in particular – need to be mindful not to become just another white moderate; to never “paternalistically believe he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

The full passage is below:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

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The Knowledge Economy and (Ab)use of Symbols

I’m taking a Network Economics class this semester, and we’ve reasonably begun by reading The Use Knowledge in Society – in which Hayek addresses the economic problem of information scarcity.

The economic problem faced by society, Hayek argues, is that “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” That is, the problem is “how to secure the best use of resources known to any members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.”

Hayek, of course, sees this problem as one which is best solved by the free market – by decentralization of economic decisions. On its face, his argument makes a lot of sense: “If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We can’t expect that this problem will be solved by first communicated all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some process of decentralization.”

There is a lot of Hayek’s argument that I agree with. In the civic space, we often talk about the danger of expertise – technical knowledge is valuable and important, but reducing a community problem to a technocratic solution overlooks the expertise of the people themselves. No expert, no matter how well educated, can parachute into a community they know nothing about and successfully solve it’s problems without engaging community solutions.

But I don’t follow Hayek’s jump – just because a purely technocratic solution is clearly bad it does not necessarily follow that a purely populist solution is therefore good.

Hayek praises the pricing system of the open market as a mechanistic marvel – as an emergent behavior which continually tends towards the equilibrium of an instantaneous time and context. In other words, pricing becomes a tool for coordination, a “mechanism for communicating information.” It operates as “a kind of symbol” ensuring that “only the most essential information is passed on and only to those concerned.”

This is a inspiring description of market pricing, but it obscures the problems with such an approach – namely, it is unclear just how much people know and how much of that information is accurate.

Hayek’s invocation of ‘symbols’ immediately makes me think of Lippmann’s work – symbols can be powerful tools for coordination, but they are also props for propaganda and manipulation.

John Dewey describes the positive impact of symbols, writing, “Events cannot be passed from one to another, but meanings may be shared by means of signs. Wants and impulses are then attached to common meanings. They are thereby transformed into desires and purposes, which, since they implicate a common or mutually understood meaning, present new ties, converting a joint activity into a community of interest and endeavor. Thus there is generated what, metaphorically, may be termed a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individuals in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned.”

The problem, as Lippmann points out, is that elites are too easily able to manipulate those signs and symbols – to manufacture a shared experience and expectation which comes, not truly from the knowledge possessed by individuals, but which are myths designed solely to fulfill elite’s goals.

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