Civic Values in Technology Design: Read Along With Me!

When people in society come together to collectively perform a task — from cleaning up a park to organizing around a cause– the benefits of their cooperation extend far beyond the specific task at hand. People get to know each other, build bonds of trust, argue their understanding of a situation, and often form long-lasting partnerships, organizations, and communities for learning and action. Within cooperative technologies, these civic and community values are not easily computable. As a result, it is easy to pass over these values in favor of improving the performance of a task, increasing the number of petition signatures, or measuring the immediate outcomes of a social action. A core theme of my work at MIT has been to imagine how new kinds of measures more aligned with civic values, community, and social justice might transform our technology designs and our social interactions online. 

(you can read more about civic values in technology design in my HCOMP  ’14 workshop paper with Stuart Geiger and my paper on political and ethical challenges for personal behavior change research with Elena Agapie, Catherine D’Ignazio, and Erhardt Graeff for a CHI ’14 workshop)

International Pillow Fight Day - Copley Square, Boston
International Pillow Fight Day – Copley Square, Boston, photo by Zach Armstrong

Here’s how this question of civic values has played out in my work up to now. The need for a better understanding of community relationships motivated my work on Social Mirror with Gaia Marcus at the RSA. The Sambaza Watts project developed new ways of measuring collective electricity use to foster cooperative micro-entrepreneurship in energy supply. My research on gratitude technologies examines affect, self-efficacy, and reciprocity in peer networks. My best known work examines the representation of women in the media. In most cases, I work together with communities to identify issues that matter to them, develop metrics that help us understand those issues, and then use those metrics as inspiration for technologies that restructure people’s collective experience of that issue.

Over the next four months, I’m going to be reading widely to develop a better understanding of what those civic and community values might be, how they might be measured, and how those efforts can be directed towards the common good through technology in an ethical, just manner. As a PhD student about to take general exams, that will involve reading and summarizing a large amount of scholarly material and then writing three papers, one for each area I’m focusing on (two of them are 24 hour take-home exams). I’m excited to be accompanied in this journey by my advisor Ethan Zuckerman, Benjamin Mako Hill at the University of Washington, and (pending approval by the Media Lab) Mary Gray at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective and Indiana University. If you try to reach me in the Spring of 2015, I’ll be slow to respond and will be declining many legitimate requests. My main priority will be reading and writing, as I prepare for exams.

In this blog post, I outline my reading plan and how you can participate.

General Exams for the Common Good

General exams, quals, and comps are often described as a hermit-like activity where one commits to being anti-social in order to meet the requirements of the degree and emerge, butterfly-like, with a thorough knowledge of one’s field. For me, learning is more social; I need to know that other people care about the work I’m doing, and I need the feedback, debate, and inspiration that comes from learning in community. Like Mako, who published summaries of his generals reading, I’m going to spend the spring contributing Creative Commons article summaries to AcaWiki:

Why Go to the Trouble of Publishing Your Reading Notes?

  • By posting Creative Commons summaries of copyrighted, access-protected papers, I hope to broaden access to the ideas and information found in what I read.
  • I hope that these summaries will be useful to other students and academics as they decide what to read themselves; each summary has a short section for “Theoretical and practical relevance.”
  • I think it’s important to be transparent about the experience of being a gradstudent so less experienced students can learn from each other and give each other helpful feedback. That’s why I do things like post in-progress study designs as I and my colleagues are still working through a project.
  • Finally, there a point to be made about offering value to the public in a manner that respects other scholars.

Ethically Writing About Other Scholars’ Work For a Public Audience

This past summer, a controversy arose over a New Yorker article by Evgeny Morozov that appeared to be based on the work of Eden Medina on Project Cybersyn. In a Facebook post, one researcher criticized him for writing up his generals exam reading as original work. Setting aside the questions of whether Morozov did justice to other researcherswhether it constituted plagiarism (Evgeny has responded in a Tumblr post), and whether the New Yorker’s Critic at Large format dances close to plagiarism, the controversy made me worry: might sharing my own generals reading with an audience be a problem? Was the controversy about the way Morozov went about sharing this work with the public, or was the controversy that he was doing it at all?

The vast majority of my public writing focuses on other peoples’ work. Sometimes this leads to problems. I’ve probably done a poor job of explaining my own work publicly (the intro paragraph is the closest I’ve ever gotten to public statement on my research focus, and I’ve never even written publicly about Sambaza Watts before). More troublingly, people sometimes mistake other people’s ideas for my own. This summer, after I blogged an amazing talk on algorithmic audits by Christian Sandvig (UMich), Karrie Karahalios (UIUC) and Cedric Langbort (UIUC), people mis-attributed the research to me and MIT, even though I listed the bios of the speakers at the top of my talk. Christian was rightly miffed:

Appropriation, misattribution, and hidden labor are major themes in my research, as I carry out data analysis and design technologies that value cooperation over the myth of the individual genius. As write about my general exam reading this Spring, I want to conduct myself with integrity, in a way that is consistent with my values and with my research. Here are some rough ethical principles that I’ll use during this period:

  • Contribute article summaries to AcaWiki that attribute authors: document what I read and learned
  • When writing journalistic articles or blog posts for the public:
    • use the conventions of journalism to attribute sources
    • clearly delineat my ideas or research from those of others
    • link to the pool of AcaWiki summaries when possible
  • When my work overlaps strongly with the research of another scholar (as distinct from quant methods):
    • Email or call them up to find out what they think
    • Offer to collaborate (Swallowing fears and pride is hard, but I have done this twice, and in both cases, it has resulted in exciting projects that neither of us could have imagined alone)
  • Where possible, publish under an open license
  • Try to leave a trail that earlier-stage gradstudents could learn from, in my content and my conduct
  • When saying no to opportunities during this period, remember to redirect opportunities to a diverse community of others
  • Provide channels for suggestions, feedback, and criticism, taking them gracefully

How You Can Participate

If you’re interested to follow me on this journey, here are several ways you can participate:

  • Nominate other readings by adding a comment to this post
  • Discuss my reading on Twitter (follow me at @natematias), where I will occasionally take votes on what I should read next.
  • Follow my contributions to AcaWiki (RSS)
  • Send or order me a copy one of the books on my list. In return, I promise to publish a Creative Commons summary of the book online, or if it’s a statistics book, I’ll post a series of open source examples of the methods described in the book, in R or IPython. Send me a tweet or email if you’re interested.
  • Add your own Literature Review to AcaWiki. (Request an Account here) (this can take a few days)
  • If enough people express interest in the comments, I am willing to hold a Google Hangout workshop on writing reviews of articles for AcaWiki, so I can learn from what others read and write.
  • Be understanding when I say no to things. Thanks!
  • Send me cute cats. It’s going to be a long, hard semester!