Something that characterizes everyone I've met in my year at the Center for Future Civic Media is a visceral frustration with tools and schemes that chip away at community ties or shut down communication between friends and neighbors---contrasted with an earnest desire to use technology to engender trust, heal rifts, and collectively build a better future. For every soul-crushing "See Something, Say Something" campaign, someone's working on a Hero Reports to counteract it.
On this, the eighth anniversary of 9/11, it's worth reflecting on this frustration and this desire to reestablish trust.
My in-laws are New Yorkers, and for many years my father-in-law worked in the World Trade Center. He was further uptown that morning, but, when the attacks happened, he made his way downtown to search for his nephew---who at that moment was escaping the WTC subway station through train tunnels. He was on the last train to leave before the towers fell. Together they walked up Manhattan island. They crossed a bridge into Brooklyn, turned back a moment, and recognized that their lives and their city were irreparably different.
So if anyone should want their government to guarantee safety at any cost, it's New Yorkers like them.
But as these eight years have gone by (admittedly perhaps because of a lack of new attacks), they have come to resent the breakdown in community particularly in contrast to the camaraderie felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, camaraderie despite fear of that next attack that we were all sure was coming. Sadly, it's human nature, and in the nature of government, to be influenced more by fear than by trust, and it's an old story. To act with perfect rationality in the wake of 9/11 would have been like Achilles not flipping out after Hector slays Patroclus. But Achilles, distraught, is who led us in our day to confused wars, sacrificed liberties, and, worst, a loss of trust in one another.
On this anniversary, I look with quite a bit of pride at our Center's long list of impressive projects in the context of reanimating that trust. It's the practice at MIT that we develop technologies to address really specific puzzles, but each of those technologies can be and are expanded to other contexts, ones that build up relationships between and within geographic communities:
- The aforementioned Hero Reports helps people praise acts of civic courage before they're forgotten.
- Extract organizes landowners---both urban and rural---so that they can represent their best interests to oil and gas companies.
- The technology behind VirtualGaza, though focused on Palestinians, can be adapted to help communities in the midst of crisis when mapping and storytelling is most critical.
- Newer projects, like Between the Bars, exemplify how a narrow cause---building a system that allows prisoners to blog---establishes a template for mutually beneficial relationships between groups that are usually adversarial.
- And even ostensibly geek-centric work, like GoodApp, a cloud-computing environment to collaboratively develop web applications, means that a tool now exists for anyone---citizen, company, government---to build and share code, easily and transparently.
None of those projects works without a high level of trust, even between complete strangers. It's not a naive trust. Not one, childishly, where you renounce responsibility. It's one where you respect your neighbor, acknowledge his or her worth and talents, and know that you're stronger together than apart.
It's the lesson we learned eight years ago, and it's one to which the Center stays true.