erhardt | MIT Center for Civic Media

Recent blog posts by erhardt

Civic Fiction: The Real Insidiousness of A Gay Girl in Damascus according to Molly Sauter

At Theorizing the Web this year, MIT Center for Civic Media alum Molly Sauter delivered a powerful paper on the idea of "civic fiction" using the the case of A Gay Girl in Damascus (about how a white American man created a compelling fake lesbian Syrian blogger named Amina during the height of the Syrian resistance) to show how a fictional narrative co-constructed by a culturally homogenous author and audience (in this case Western) can do problematic political work by amplifying an Orientalist narrative. The result is a feedback loop through a media ecosystem that thinks its functioning as a bridge between narratives but is actually serving as a insidious mirror.

Her concepts of "civic fiction" and the "mirror figure" are important new constructs for civic media to wrestle with. At the Center for Civic Media, our standard "demo" slides feature an image of Mike Daisey holding an iPad with the caption "exaggeration and distortion," which we use as an example of ways we need to be skeptical about the way media is used for civic and activist purposes. In Daisey's case, his source was actually theater, but it was dropped into a news context—a situation he's reflected on with respect to how truth is negotiated with the audience.* Often we think about these not as fictions but little distortions that add up to propaganda in some cases. What's new about the Amina hoax in the case Molly presents is the possibility that we will all be in on it, unwittingly or not—our biases confirmed. And we won't be able to fact-check our way out of one of these feedback loops because the truth is inaccessible in a place like Syria. What if This American Life couldn't do the background research and produce a completely separate episode to retract Mike Daisey's "creative" version of the truth?

Below are my notes from Molly's talk, and you can also watch her deliver it thanks to the livestream capture. 

Strike Debt and the Moral Argument for Debt Resistance

Liveblog of Civic Media Lunch w/ Ann Larson and Aaron Smith, two of the organizers of Strike Debt. Blogged by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava.

Nice to be here on May Day, May 1st—international worker's day, starts Ann Larson before she starts their argument: Debt resistance is well-suited as a political tactic. Debt is not autonomous, it exist as part of an economic and political system. A recent study that claims the US is an oligarchy, not a participatory democracy. How do we begin to change that dynamic, how do we begin to develop counterpower?

Ann and Aaron Smith are here to introduce a bit of background, talk about how Strike Debt got to where it is, focusing on student debt as an illustrative example. Then they'll share some of their projects and interventions: Debt Assemblies, Rolling Jubilee, and the Debt Resisters Operations Manual.

Notes on Monitory Democracy and a Networked Civil Society

Schudson's The Good Citizen

Ethan and I have been exploring the concept of monitorial citizenship in the pursuit of a definition or roadmap for "effective citizenship." We are working on related projects trying to operationalize Michael Schudson's idea of monitorial citizenship from his book The Good Citizen, but using slightly different definitions. Ethan's project Promise Tracker, being developed by several of our colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, thinks of monitorial citizenship as the responsibility of citizens "to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave." My master's thesis project Action Path thinks of monitorial citizenship more like Jane Jacobs idea of "eyes on the street," whereby average citizens are being civic and gathering useful information in aggregate by simply "watching their kids, keeping abreast of important consumer recalls, noting how weather affects the cost of groceries or their ability to check in on family members' safety."

Both of us may be thinking of monitorial citizens in different ways than Schudson and other scholars use the term. Marc Hooghe, in a paper reacting to Schudson called "Does the 'Monitorial Citizen' Exist?" [paywalled] looks for citizens who are critical non-participants in political life, but care deeply about social issues.

This week Ethan and I read a couple of papers as part of our ongoing conversation of monitorial citizenship. Schudson, himself, kindly pointed us to an essay by John Keane, unpacking monitory democracy as a new vision of "democracy in our times." Ethan has also been eager to dive into a prescient manuscript by David Ronfeldt, which proposes a framework for societal evolution wherein networks represent the latest organization form necessary for the success of advanced societies.

The following are our thoughts on these two pieces... 

Thinking about Design with Geo-fences

Here at the Center for Civic Media, we're exploring the use of smartphone apps for civic engagement. I'm really excited about using geo-fences for civic engagement; my project Action Path uses them to trigger push notifications about opportunities to participate as you walk down the street. But it's still an open question: What constitutes good uses and good design for geo-fences?

Nathan Matias and I ran a workshop on March 14, 2014 at MIT exploring this question with other students interested in using geo-fences in mobile design. The following are our notes and takeaways.

The What and Why of Geo-fences
First off, it's important to differentiate geo-fencing from geo-location and geo-awareness. Here are some definitions:

  • Geo-location: identifying the real-world location of a user with GPS, Wi-Fi, and other sensors
  • Geo-fencing: taking an action when a user enters or exits a geographic area
  • Geo-awareness: customizing and localizing the user experience based on rough approximation of user location, often used in browsers

Since geofencing is focused on action, not all location-based mobile experiences require it. Many designs can and should avoid the messiness of using geo-fencing by relying on basic geolocation services.

Geofence Example
Entering and exiting a geo-fence

Good, or common, uses of geo-fencing include: location tracking of objects and users, lifehacking, games (in the form of run-arounds, check-ins), and hyper-local ads and offers. Apps that are obvious employers of geo-fences include: foursquare (check-in reminders), ChildrenTracker (alerts for parents when kids are home or at school), and Field Trip (notifications about places to see around a community). However, there are some clever, non-obvious uses of geo-fences like Google Keep, which allows you to set location-based reminders for notes to self (lifehacking) and Pandora's radio app, which sends hyper-local ads to you as you walk-about, most notably McDonald's.

Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement

This is the talk I delivered for the "Civic Media Geography: Experiments In Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Accountability" panel I organized at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship: Eleventh Annual Conference in Citizenship Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI on March 21, 2014.

Today, I'm going to talk about a tool I'm building. It's a smartphone app called Action Path. But it hasn't been deployed yet, so I can't tell you how it's revolutionized civic learning or engagement. But I can tell you about my motivation for building it. Specifically, I want to talk about the theories of citizenship which inspire me and what I see as currently missing in the landscape of approaches to civic technology, and even civic engagement more broadly.