Friday, May 30, 2008

Applied Humanities

When Tad Hirsch opened his talk by describing design as "applied humanities," he was guaranteed a warm reception at the UCSB Social Computing Workshop. As a specialist in tactical media, Hirsch has done important work in "activist infrastructure" by using mobile phones and site-specific sensors. His most recent project, Dialup Radio, provides links and a demo number to hear "freedom phone" broadcasts in Zimbabwe that connect citizens anonymously to news sources and sites of grassroots organizing. He also developed Speakeasy, which is designed to link new immigrants in a Chinatown community to multilingual volunteers with social service expertise to whom calls can be routed. Hirsch said that he was drawn to mobile phone networks because he thought that they offered a "ubiquitous kind of accessibility" that provided more "opportunities for shared projects," although they were too frequently underused for this purpose. Hirsch is part of the Zones of Emergency project at MIT that also includes VP friend Trebor Scholz, and his other projects range from the whimsy of Tripwire, which consists of monitoring devices for aircraft noise that are disguised as coconuts, to the gravitas of an unnamed 2004 project that caused him to be served with a subpoena.

Hirsch described himself as committed to "promoting social change through a particular form of collective action." In some important ways, he said, "all computing is social," and this fact is demonstrated in the "hows and whys of technology." As an example, Hirsch pointed to the work of fellow participant and UC Irvine graduate student Brian Rajski who is writing a dissertation about social computing the the mainframe Cold War era. As he said "notions of collaboration and communication and community are intertwined with the history of computing," because "early computing systems were dependent on sharing." According to Hirsch, the contemporary incarnation of these practices also "increases the number and the frequency of social contacts," particularly now that they are "evolving to include more than text."

He also noted the "proliferation of free and open source software tools," such as Drupal, that provide "novel applications or sites for collaboration," particularly now that blogging software and content-management can be combined. From Hirsch we learned about Crabgrass, a social networking web application for movements working for social justice, and about Yahoo's Fire Eagle service in which the user can choose to share location information with the API, although "location-awareness still largely a dream." He discussed the sharing potential of "sensorware" as well, such as the Cambridge Mobile Urban Sensing project in which individuals can monitor air quality and potentially other information about the local environment. He also praised free and open data visualization tools through which "random groups of people are creating new data sets," such as Many Eyes.

Hirsch emphasized that it was important not to neglect "traditional kinds of advocacy" in pursuit of techophilic coolware. For example, he pointed to the online medical community PatientsLikeMe, where those with the same condition can upload and share their own data, from symptoms to medications in order to find common "points of advocacy" for new kinds of treatments and clinical trials, just as AIDS activists had done in earlier decades.

Of course, he conceded that these kinds of project face "fundamental challenges" based on privacy, security, and history, because they potentially place a participant at risk. In political hot spots, dissidents can face dire consequences for breaking unjust laws, and patients could be manipulated by pharmaceutical companies posing as peers. Hirsch closed with some basic questions: "What are the rules of engagement? How can these processes be manipulated?"

If Hirsch argued that all computing was social, Peter Kollock countered that the crash seemed to show that computing was still actually insufficiently social. In his remarks, he looked back to the one billion dollars invested in what was breezily called "B2B," an attempt to build online markets for the wholesale industry, which Kollock called an "an astonishing disaster," because "they didn’t realize that it was an exercise in social computing" and could only see the process as an exercise in efficiency. In their naive model of the market, online exchanges would "reduce marketplace friction for both buyers and sellers," as one chart showed. However, by "wanting to make it all about price" they coded "behavioral realities" out of the interface and compounded their errors with 1) a failure to model and 2) a failure to harvest extant social wisdom in existing systems, which people were not aware of if they weren’t traders. For example, they couldn't see "favors as risk management device" or the reality that commodities weren't really commodities that could be aggregated, because even gasoline was "modified and had flavors" and had geographical considerations to manage. He pointed to the wisdom of Valdis Krebs of and Matthew Mahoney of SocialText as better contemporary models that avoided the mistakes of the earlier B2B approach.

These presentations stimulated a lot of conversation about emergent behavior. Alan Liu asked, "Are these kinds of consequences predictable?" Liu pointed to the work of Paul Strassman and its willingness to acknowledge that some things are formalizable and some are not, and therefore it was important to accept the necessity of inefficiency, particularly if there were behind-the-scenes activities that were making the system work. To follow this point, Larry Sanger emphasized the importance of recognizing the distinction between collaboration and aggregation.

There was also a lot of talk about improvisation and the importance of flexibility, particularly in virtual environments. As Liu pointed out, IBM found itself surprised by what people did in their office space in Second Life , and that in the university virtual worlds create needs for new kinds of pedagogical rules. "Do hands have to be raised?" "Should flying be forbidden?" Liu argued that these questions about authority meant that "by definition it is going to be emergent." Furthermore, as others pointed out, "some groups desire to be loosely confederated" and that "optimization" may not be "really what people want." In closing, medievalist Carol Pasternack reminded the group that the old dichotomy between determinism and free will was still relevant in the current world of social computing.

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