Coding “IRL” (In Real Life); Democratic Design for Civic Tech and Civic Media

Thomas_Paine_rev1_with_caption.jpg“People in civic tech didn’t go through the hurdles of face-to-face civic life…We need to think about design,” said Tiago Carneiro Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank’s Digital Engagement Unit, during a recent panel discussion entitled The Ethics of Democracy Entrepreneurship.  The event was hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard.

Serious Thinking about Democratic Design

Peixoto wasn’t talking about design details – he was talking about fundamental institutional design in its full political-economic context.  The term democratic design crystalized the topic of the panel.  Such thinking represents important progress in the development of civic tech and civic media.

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Is Persuasion Science is Getting Dangerously Ahead of Political Science?


Sad fact:  the wrong politics can get you killed in many places in the world.  Sam Ford, Vice President at Univison’s Fusion Media Group  and Head of the Group’s Center for Innovation and Engagement mentioned at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology presentation recently that he was surprised to find that so many of the reporters at Univision and Fusion had been personally threatened with guns.  Ford seemed confident that the unabashedly political agenda of his company will produce good outcomes but I left the presentation wondering whether academic media studies are looking at the political applications of their work through too rosy a lens

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“Innovation” and “Engagement”: Experiments with What Industry Buzzwords Can Mean in Practice was the title of the colloquium held under the auspices of the Comparative Media Studies|Writing program at MIT of which Ford is an alum (link to podcast).  Univision’s Fusion Media Group (not the Saudi mall branding company with the same name) is a portfolio of media companies which includes Fusion, Univision Digital, Univision Music, The Root, Flama, The Onion, A.V. Club, Clickhole, Starwipe, El Rey  and as of August 2016, what is left of Gawker Media.

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Blank Lives Matter! D’you Got a Problem with That?

Are you willing to test yourself?  Before you read any further, perform the following thought experiment:  Relax.  Take a deep breath.  Now gently and slowly, in your mind, substitute a series of ethnic groups for the “blank” in “Blank Lives Matter.”  For example, “Irish Lives Matter, Italian Lives Matter, Puerto Rican Lives Matter, Mexican Lives Matter, African-American Lives Matter,” etc.

Feel your emotional response to your words representing each ethnic group as you do this.  If you are like me, you experience at least a slight variation with each substitution.  Don’t judge or explain – just observe.

Now try religions and denominations, “Christian Lives Matter, Catholic Lives Matter, Jewish Lives Matter, Hindu Lives Matter, Muslim Lives Matter,” etc.”  Try sexual orientation, “Gay Lives Matter, Straight Lives Matter, Lesbian Lives Matter,” etc.  Try colors and shades, “White Lives Matter, Red Lives Matter, Yellow Lives Matter, Light Lives Matter, Dark Lives Matter,” etc.  You can try it with any categorical series that might relate to having a life.

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Why We Need “NOVpartisan” Instead of “Nonpartisan” Civic Media

Franklin_with_caption.pngThe truth is not getting play in our media according to New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg.  An increasingly partisan press is the culprit, he charges in an Independence Day column.  Dangerous political outcomes are afoot.  But do we really think conventional “nonpartisan” journalism can shift the balance toward truth?

If truth is losing out to falsehood we need stronger stuff on the side of truth.  That is why I assert we need “novpartisan” journalism produced on a new kind of media platform.  The need is urgent.  Some of the same technologies that make a new platform possible can be deployed to promote falsehood.

I coin the term novpartisan to signify a novel, alternative way of producing civic content but also novel way of being part of a party.  Novpartisan is “partisan” not by blindly adhering to an external party, faction, cause, or person. Novpartisan is partisan in the sense that it develops and cultivates common interests in civic action among its participating audience members.  The audience itself becomes a party or a better informed faction of a larger party.

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Peter Thiel is Wasting His "Washingtons"

So…I am not saying that Hulk Hogan didn’t have a case against Gawker but there are much better uses of the 10 million “Washingtons” Peter Thiel invested to punish Gawker.  More generally, Thiel and other Tech Billionaires are getting poor returns on the millions they are putting into philanthropic, social, and political investments because they are nibbling around the edges of the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that it sucks to be an active citizen.  You can focus in one area for a lifetime and with a little luck and talent make a real difference but meanwhile twenty other things you really care about are going to hell.  Reliable civic information is incredibly hard to come by, organizing is the task of Sisyphus, and meanwhile you’ve got a life to lead, family, a job, and many other things to do in your waking hours besides go to fruitless meetings.

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The Use of Technology for the Public Good

civictechven.pngA little blue birdie told me about a very worthwhile post by Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology on Microsofts’ Technology and Civic Engagement Team.  The post, Towards a Taxonomy of Civic Technology attempts to define the field, categorize its functions, discuss ways participants in the field may work together, and finally looks at ways to view the true meaning of the field.  He invites thoughts, reactions and contributions, which I offer below with deep appreciation.

Civic Tech is Taking Off

“The field of civic technology is poised to take off,”  Stempeck writes.  He sees a convergence of trends bringing the field to “an inflection point.”  He and and his collaborators Micah Sifry, co-founder the long-running Personal Democracy Forum conference and Civic Hall, and  Erin Simpson, Program Director of Civic Hall Labs, organized the taxonomy to attract more participation to the field move resources in productive directions and crucially, to understand impacts.  He published the post on the day of their joint presentation at The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference.

 

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Three Quick Lessons from the Facebook Trending Flap

While you’ve been taking a short breather from all-Trump-all-the-Time, Facebook’s trending bias has become “news.”  Apparently Facebook’s contract workers responsible for “curating” (a word I’ve always thought sounded more appropriate for meat preservation) the Facebook trending feature have been accused of deliberately or unconsciously favoring “liberal” over “conservative” content.  Senator Thune of South Dakota has called for an investigation.  You can take three lessons from the flap.  The third, about the freedom of the press, is most vital.

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The Future of Civic Tech is in…(Guesswhat)…Civics

arrows-w-symbols.pngIf Civic Tech excites you, you would have loved the recent Roundtable on the Future of Technology and Democracy. The Roundtable took place at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The Roundtable was an indication that Civic Tech is becoming more citizen-centric and less tech-centric. Civic means “relating to citizenship or being a citizen.” The dictionary definition of civics is “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.”

 

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Why Are We Listening to Political “Flat Earthers?”

Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map_edit.jpgOne-dimensional left-right views of politics are no more accurate or useful to navigation than a map of the flat earth surrounded by angels.  The main purpose of common political labels is to claim “us vs. them” which is why simple labels are so often used.

Today, we use Einstein’s multi-dimensional physics to derive physical position in GPS systems but persist in the one-dimensional political classifications arising from the habitual seating choices of members of the French National Assembly of 1789.  Even then, observers noted a second dimension, front and back which denoted a degree of engagement with prevailing views on either side.

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You Do Believe In Democracy, Don’t You?

Acquiescence to the candidacy of Donald Trump in the name of “democracy” is sloppy thinking

Simplistic and unrealistic beliefs in democracy can get people killed.  Bad things can happen when well-meaning people misapply good ideas.  Ross Douthat says, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that Americans, including our “officially neutral press…speak and think in the language of Democracy without appreciating the deeper wisdom of the American system.”

“You do believe in democracy, don’t you?” was a question Paul Wolfowitz, then US Deputy Secretary of Defense, posed to Paul Bremer, before he became head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq according to Neil Swidey’s recent Boston Globe profile of  Bremer.  Bremer later concluded that Wolfowitz wanted to be sure Bremer was not “infected” by the State Department’s “defeatist” thinking that democracy is not possible in the Middle East.  Wolfowitz's slack triumphalism turned out to be more dangerous.

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People are (Political) Party Animals

rainbow-kaleidoscope-2.jpgPolitical parties are in constant flux because people are political-economic beasts, seemingly genetically encoded to seek advantageous allies in their “pursuit of happiness.”  The combinations are endless. Our powers of social intuition seem highly evolved toward political-economic ends. Our brains may have evolved to handle the constantly changing possibilities of social cooperation.

The equilibrium of political-economics is momentary, like that of prices within economics.  Our economic tendencies toward cycles of boom and bust, are mirrored by our political tendencies, with often more deeply disastrous results in the political realm since destructive force is a factor in political economics.

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Your Ground Game: Leadership Lessons from an “Epic Fail”

20160108_Apology.jpgThe recent “epic fail” of the Boston Globe’s ground game holds valuable leadership lessons.  Apparently, nobody at the Globe verified the readiness of the replacement distribution vendor ACI Media Group before ditching the old vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment on December 27.

ACI did not have enough drivers and did not have efficient delivery routes mapped out.  The route problem discouraged drivers, paid by the piece.  When the drivers found the routes didn’t pay much, some quit, deepening the crisis.  Despite the efforts of Globe employees, who rallied to help deliver papers, many readers did not get papers or got them late.  Finally, the Globe rehired Publishers Circulation Fulfillment for distribution in about half the territory.  PCF, which also delivers The Boston Herald, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other papers in the area, will restart with the Globe January 11 and is undoubtedly scrambling to unscramble the mess in their own operation, caused by loss of drivers and reconfiguration of routes that came with the Globe’s departure.

The Globe’s owner, billionaire owner John Henry, issued an apology to readersJanuary 6.  Henry appears to be disciplined, systematic manager.  He made his money in formulaic commodity trading.  He adopted Bill James' “Moneyball” tactics to help improve the performance of the Boston Red Sox, one of several sports teams which he owns or has interests in.  He is probably studying what he can learn from this fiasco.

Some ground game lessons are:

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How to Beat Moral Fanaticism: Fight from Higher Ground

arrows-red.pngDavid Brooks sounded the alarm, in a NYT editorial about The Age of Small Terror yesterday.   He writes about the creeping specter of “small terror” nibbling away at the classical, enlightenment liberal foundations of our civilization.  But he does not rally us to our most powerful belief.

Brooks calls for an “intellectual counter attack.”  He cautions that, “This can’t be done by repeating bromides about free choice and the natural harmony among peoples.”

You can’t beat moral fanaticism with weak tea moral relativism,” he insists, “You can only beat it with commitment pluralism.”  Committed involvement in multiple civic groups and a variety of personal pursuits, results, according to Brooks, in a balancing and moderating effect.

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Why We Need to Watch Our Words

arrows-w-words.pngWords have consequences.  Words are important because they influence beliefs.  Beliefs are a primary force in political economics.  Beliefs influence action.  People act according to their understanding of what has been; what should have been; what is; what can be; and what should be; and why in each instance.

People act according to their interests; not in the narrow sense of economic interest and certainly not in the even narrower sense of rationally determined economic interest but in the broad sense of what they are interested in, consciously and unconsciously.

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Homeland Hack

A great little “Homeland Hack” made the NYT this morning.  Arabic readers watching an episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” might have been able to discern criticism of the show in the graffiti decorating a set that was supposed to look like a Syrian refugee camp. “Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh,” ”Homeland is NOT a series,” “Homeland is racist” and ”#blacklivesmatter” were among the spray painted slogans behind the actors.

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Simple Steps to Diversify Your Support

KJenkins_1.jpgIf you want broad social change, you have to gain broad support.  At the “New England Bike-Walk Summit” I attended recently, Karen Jenkins, board chair of the League of American Bicyclists, offered advice to bike advocates about how to attract support from people not like themselves.  The audience, as far as I could see, was entirely Caucasian.  Ms. Jenkins, a person of color who likes to bike, has long been active in bicycle clubs and bicycle advocacy.

 

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Why Media Can’t Keep The Wolff From Their Door

Howlsnow.jpgCheap advertising is really what is killing old-model media businesses not  “free content on the Internet” as so many claim.  Media maven Michael Wolff understands that the best way to track the industry is to follow the money.

“Advertising Is Dead, It's Not Coming Back...” was the subject line in an email from Linked -in Pulse that pulled me into the Wolff pack.  “Ya and pigs fly,” I thought as I (predictably) took the bait.  What I found was Wolff’s more innocuously titled but powerful article: The End of Advertising As We Know It.

Wolff been everywhere recently, feeding click bait and sound bites to hungry reporters and commentators.  He has made himself 

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News Start-ups Flaming Out; The Business of Moving Minds

“1 of 4 news start-ups flamed out” was the subject line of one my three daily emails from Bo Sacks, which turned out to be a Newsosaur blog by Alan Mutter.  Mutter found that one of every four of the 141 news ventures listed in an online directory published by the Columbia Journalism Review since 2010 appear to have failed.  He searched for every site listed in the CJR list and counted the number that either were defunct or had not posted any new content since 2014.  

The failure count looks low, given the utter naïveté of many of these enterprises.  Even the ones that are touted as “successful" such as the Texas Tribune look like a very modest factor or passing stage in the evolution of civic media, although they offer important lessons.

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Who Is a Scientist?

Benjamin_Franklin_1767.jpg“I am not a scientist.” is the inane refrain of politicians who want to dodge evidence of human influence on global warming.  But how do we tell who is a scientist?  Those who claim to be scientists and get their papers published in Science aren’t necessarily any more scientific than our pandering politicians, as the case of Micheal LaCour and his published research on gay marriage opinion seems to indicate.  The case became a national story when the New York Times put it on the front page and stirred up a discussion about the making a splash in academia, also reported as front page news by the NYT.

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The Billion Dollar Question: Is the Answer Nextdoor?

Nextdoor-App-Store.pngThe Civic Info Sector took a leap forward this month with the announcement of $110 million in new funding assembled by Nextdoor, a local networking site founded by three experienced, well connected former Epinion/Shopping.com executives in 2010. Nextdoor has now raised a total of $210.2 Million from a long (and not entirely consistent among stories) list of investors reported by Techcrunch and their Crunchbase site.

The latest round implies a $1.1 Billion valuation according to the NYT story picked up by Mashable.  That ain’t bad considering that, according Nextdoor’s website, “Nextdoor does not currently generate revenue… Long term, our goal is to figure out a way to generate revenue that provides value to our users as well as to Nextdoor.” 

 

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