My name is Michelle Kessler, and I’m the editor-in-chief of Qualcomm Spark. First, we want to thank Charlie DeTar, J. Nathan Matias and the MIT Media Lab for participating in our most recent video, “Hackathons: Tech’s Answer to Big Problems.” Also, thanks to Charlie for giving us the opportunity to respond to his comments and ideas.
The goal of our video was to shine a light on this phenomenon: Hackathons have transcended the world of technology, and are being employed for everything from voter rights to disaster relief. They provide a methodology for addressing problems that may seem insurmountable to everyday citizens. Where existing systems fail, hackathons can create a new path toward a successful outcome.
Qualcomm, a company known for their manufacture of semiconductors, stopped by the Center for Civic Media a few weeks ago to interview people about hackathons. Today, they released the video, which features Nathan Matias and I:
Thankfully, all of the words that I say on the screen in the video are words that I actually said. But the edit and framing message that they present is literally the opposite of what I said in the interview.
I've been working on online tools for consensus for the last 2 years. Here's what motivates me to work on this.
1. The water heater
For my first five years in Boston, I lived in a housing co-op in Dorchester. It's a classic Boston triple-decker, which the 13 residents own collectively. That means that we didn't have a landlord, but we were in charge of the mortgage, maintenance, utilities, and everything else. The house operated by consensus, and all decisions happened at weekly house meetings.
At one point, one of the three water heaters that serviced the house died, which left our main kitchen without any hot water. One of the residents (a well meaning, competent, and all around good person) took on the task of fixing this, and called up a plumber for an emergency job. The plumber charged us the emergency rate; almost $2000 to install a new water heater, very similar to this model here, which rings in at $358 at Home Depot:
In an insightful essay at the New Republic, Evgeny Morozov raises a powerful critique of what he describes as "Internet-centrism" in Steven Johnson's 2012 book Future Perfect. Morozov identifies in Johnson's book a strain of popular rhetoric which holds that the Internet is a model of decentralization, horizontalism, and leaderlessness, and that the world would be improved by applying these features to other domains.
While most of the essay is spot-on, I'd like to complicate and dig a little more into the role of leadership in horizontal decision making and organizing within activist movements, one of the subjects of Morozov's critique.
One of the formative moments of my youth came from a town hall meeting with Hatch's colleague, senator Bob Bennett, on the topic of wilderness protection of federal land in Utah. I had come to the meeting with a petition of around 1000 signatures that I had gathered at my high school supporting wilderness, which he derisively dismissed as a "push poll", and said things to the effect that "I'm elected to do what I want, not what the polls say."
He then brought out a floor chart, with two images of the Escalante River in Utah, one from the mid 70's and one from the mid 90's. The older picture was barren of vegetation, the recent picture was lush and green, and he asserted "This is what 20 years of non-wilderness management can do. We don't need wilderness."