About mstem

Matt's a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at MIT's Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change. He graduated with high honors from the University of Maryland College Park, where he wrote a thesis on the disruptive role of political blogs in journalism. He went on to join the strategy team at EchoDitto, a boutique consulting firm building cool technology for nonprofits, startups, and socially responsible businesses. Matt went on to direct new media at Americans for Campaign Reform, a bi-partisan grassroots effort, and the New Organizing Institute, where he helped to train the next generation of organizers. For most of this time, he also ran one of the most popular NetSquared groups in the world.

Study Grader

I’m interested in nutrition, and health in general. As a result, I’ve read a lot of really shoddy nutrition and health news over the years. I’ve noticed that the mistakes journalists make usually involve coverage of a single scientific study. For example, correlation is presented as causation, making us all a little dumber. You can see for yourself over at Google News’s Health section, where you can see a variety of takes on the same study results. A study on the mental benefits of expressing one’s feelings inevitably produces the clickbait headline, in one source, that Twitter is better than sex.

What if readers and journalists had a semi-automated grading rubric they could apply to media coverage of medical studies and drug development?

I started looking around, and found that science journalists are concerned with these problems. Veterans like Fiona Fox at the Science Media Centre have even shared some specific red flags for the skeptical observer. I was also fortunate enough to meet with two of our classmates (who also happen to be Knight Science Fellows), Alister Doyle and Helen Shariatmadari, who, in addition to significant personal experience, pointed me to great additional resources:

I’ll also be meeting with science writer Hannah Krakauer tomorrow.

I’m pulling out as many “rules” (in the software sense) as I can from these recommendations, and will then attempt to build a semi-automated grading rubric for these types of articles. It’s important to note that there will still be user involvement in producing the score.

HubSpot's Website Grader
(click image to expand)

I hope to present the results in the spirit of HubSpot‘s Grader.com series of tools for grading website marketing, books, and Twitter authority. The tools themselves vary in utility, but the format of the results embeds an educational layer into the score review (unlike closed-algorithm services like Klout). I am more interested in training journalists and readers to develop a keen eye for the hallmarks of high- or low-quality science reporting than the actual numerical score on a given article. By asking for readers’ involvement in scoring an article, I might be able to augment the automatic grading with human input, but also help teach critical thinking skills.

Down the road, it’d be interesting to incorporate other journalism tools. rbutr integration could allow us to pull from and contribute to crowdsourced rebuttals of misinformation, while Churnalism would let us scan the articles for unhealthy amounts of press release.

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THE INTERNET DIDN’T MAKE TRAYVON NATIONAL NEWS, BUT IT DID SUSTAIN THE STORY

For the Data Journalism assignment, I put my search for Luckiest Town in Massachusetts on hold and trained my sights on a more interesting story:

For weeks, the only Trayvon Martin coverage I saw was on Twitter, where every progressive I knew had shared a link to the Change.org petition. Eventually, I saw more media attention around the story. This led me to form a hypothesis that people talking about the story online, and specifically, linking to the Change.org petition, kept the story alive long enough for the national media to pick up on it.

I looked into all of the data I could find, including some provided by Change.org, and found out that my hypothesis was incorrect. But the story of how Trayvon Martin became national news, weeks after his death, is still a revealing portrait of our media.

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North Korea’s Impending Missile Test: FAQ

What’s the deal?
A couple of weeks ago, North Korea “announced plans to launch an Earth-watching satellite into orbit” using a multi-stage rocket. The announcement triggered international condemnation from the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan, and even China, North Korea’s ally.

Why is it such a big deal?
“Officials in the United States, South Korea, Japan and other nations view the liftoff as a thinly disguised military missile test” (Space.com). The long-range rocket North Korea will test can carry peaceful satellites, but also nuclear warheads. North Korea has nuclear arms, but doesn’t currently have the ability to deliver them to distant targets like the United States. Given the nation’s past volatility and current state of transition following the death of Kim Jong-Il, many are concerned.

When will the launch occur?
“The launch is scheduled to occur between April 12 and 16 to commemorate the centenary of as part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of the late leader Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist state and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather” (Space.com).

This isn’t the first time, is it?
“The United States’ concerns about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability emerged in the 1980s when that country’s nuclear weapons program became apparent.” (Congressional Research Service). Since then, North Korea has attempted a series of failed missile launches, drawing condemnation and additional economic sanctions each time. A 1998 satellite launch failed, with the second stage of the rocket landing just off the coast of Japan. North Korea officials claimed that the satellite successfully played patriotic songs in space.

Have any of these tests proven successful?
A 2006 test saw the missile explode just 40 seconds after liftoff, in the first stage of flight (MSNBC). A 2009 redesign also failed, “about half way through an about 13-minute ascent. This plunged the second and third stages, along with the satellite into the mid-Pacific Ocean” (Space.com).

Are other nations helping North Korea?

A Congressional Research Service report found that “North Korea is believed to have had extensive foreign assistance from China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran throughout the program.” The fear is that advanced technologies from other nations could accelerate North Korea’s progress by allowing the country to leapfrog the usual missile milestones. That said, China has already rebuked North Korea for annoucing this test.

Could a North Korean missile hit the US?

To know this for sure, we would need to analyze the third stage of their missiles, and so far their tests have failed to even reach the third stage.

“Once they are successful with a third stage they would have a missile that could reach the western U.S.,” according to Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee On Intelligence and Risk Assessment

(Space.com).

One report finds that North Korea’s most recent advances “would have the capability to reach the continental United States with a payload of 1 ton or more if North Korea modified it for use as a ballistic missile.”

“Some analysts speculate that a reduced payload configuration could deliver a 200 kg warhead into the U.S. center and a 100 kg warhead to Washington D.C., albeit with poor accuracy.” (Congressional Research Service). The same report notes that sea-launched missiles could also pose a proximity threat to the continental US, but anonymous US officials believe that North Korea does not currently have a submarine capable of transporting such a missile.

What would the damage be?
Nuclear explosions cause intense and varied damage. A nuclear warhead weighing 100 kg has an equivalent yield of 350,000,000 kg (or 350,000 metric tons) of TNT. (Nissani)

Conventional bombs destroy by producing a blast. At their center, they can only reach a maximum temperature of some 5000°C and they emit no ionizing radiation.4 Incendiary bombs destroy and kill by starting fires and by burning people alive, not through blast and ionizing radiation. While nuclear bombs produce far more destructive blasts per unit of weight than conventional bombs, they also produce devastatingly high temperatures (similar to those at the center of the sun) and radiation levels.

(Nissani)

Damage would include an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which could “disable electric power supplies, telephones, telegraphs, radars, radios, computers, and other electronic devices” and “incapacitate or severely cripple a nation’s military and civilian power and communication systems, thereby complicating retaliation and recovery in the affected area.” There would also be intense heat, a fireball, a blast, hurricane-like winds, and invisible but poisonous ionizing radiation.

Will we know when a missile is launched?
The U.S. and Japan were able to easily detect and monitor previous North Korean launches during the countdown stage, by land, sea, and air (Space.com).

Would North Korea actually fire nuclear weapons?
There’s no indication that a launch is imminent, but any uncertainty involving nuclear weapons could have disastrous consequences.

Some experts voice concern over North Korea’s level of military spending in relation to its missile program. North Korea reportedly spends as much as 40 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. North Korea’s apparent willingness to devote such a large portion of its GDP to missiles and weapons of mass destruction could be cause for additional concern when viewed in the light of their alleged cooperation with other countries. Evidence suggests that North Korea has had extensive dealings with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya on ballistic missiles and possibly even nuclear warheads.

(Congressional Research Services)

Is Kim Jong-un a more or less stable leader in dealing with nuclear negotiations?

Immediately following his father’s deaht, there was widespread concern that “the new leader, thought to be in his late 20s, has neither the résumé nor the skills needed to control the country in the rigid manner of his father and grandfather…And his father’s death has put him in charge long before he could gain the allegiance of older officials who could help him maintain power.”
(Washington Post)

The US and other observers were heartened when Kim Jong-un agreed to a food deal after years of stalled talks. In the face of widespread famine, Jong-un agreed to 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for freezing nuclear devlopent and halting long-range missile launches and nuclear tests.

But it’s not clear what role the young leader had in the deal:

“We were sitting across from essentially the same North Korean negotiators who have been at this in some cases for, well, for decades.. . . The way that they presented the issues was quite familiar to us,” said a senior administration official.

(Washington Post)

And the announcement of the missile test immediately following (and negating) the food deal was disconcerting to observers:
“It suggests there’s not quite the unity of command, that the people doing the negotiating on food aid are not the same as those in charge of the missile launches,” Hill said.
(Washington Post)

What’s being done, diplomatically, to prevent North Korea from achieving launch capabilities?

Or perhaps the question should be, “What more can even be done?”

In addition to United Nations Security Council resolutions, the US has imposed many sanctions:

Trade is minimal and mostly limited to food, medicine, and other humanitarian related goods. North Korea has no advantageous trade status and is outright denied certain goods—including luxury goods—and trade financing, primarily due to its proliferation activities.

Foreign aid is minimal and mostly limited to refugees fleeing North Korea; broadcasting into the country; nongovernmental organization programs dedicated to democracy promotion, human rights, and governance; emergency food aid; and aid related to disabling and dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons
program. Arms sales and arms transfers are fully denied.

(Congressional Research Services)

As one scholar said, “Even if North Korea is to go on launching its missile or satellite, there aren’t any more measures for the international community to take…All possible sanctions have already been imposed.” And another: “The main option now is probably to go to the U.N. Security Council and argue that this is a violation of security resolutions on North Korea. But you may see resistance from China and possibly Russia on that.” (Washington Post).

Preceding the current negotiations are decades of stalled efforts and violated agreements to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal.

The US has announced that they will suspend food deliveries if North Korea violates their end of the bargain (Voice of America). North Korea considers their satellite launch peaceful, and not in violation of the agreement.

What will the US do in response?
In addition to scrapping the recent food deal, this launch will likely damage recently-thawing relations between the US and North Korea. Worth keeping in mind is that “U.S. policy toward North Korea, expressed both unilaterally and in the United States’ position in multilateral fora, is further complicated by other considerations—not the least of which include relations with other states in the region, security responsibilities with South Korea, trade with China, a determination to keep key stakeholders engaged in nonproliferation efforts in both North Korea and elsewhere, and finding the means to balance all U.S. foreign policy and national security interests in a meaningful way.” (Congressional Research Services)

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Copywriters are Not Always Scientists

This week’s Participatory News assignment is to fact-check a dubious claim found out in the wild.

I enjoy skimming Men’s Health magazine each month. It combines useful nutritional information, workout plans, and the occasional life advice about topics like careers and personal finance. More than anything, the ever-present photos of salmon and blueberries remind me to buy and eat such foods.

The publication is guilty, however, of a classic media tactic: They publish an incredibly short summary of a recent study, and then tack on their own advice on how to work the findings into your life. To be fair, I’ve seen many newspapers and magazines use this formula. It’s the natural result of cramming science journalism into 2 sentence blurbs. But there are a few big problems with this format.

First, a single study is rarely, if ever, enough evidence to warrant a change in behavior. Anyone who’s ever read surprising results in a study and then outright laughed upon getting to the Methodology section understands why. Many studies are conducted on twenty graduate students, or actual lab rats, or the design of the study is clearly biased towards the eventual results. I’m not the kind of guy who reads studies for fun, but these problems are fairly obvious when you read the original paper. It’s one reason scientists wait until there is clear agreement across a variety of research before advising action. It’s also why they always seem to conclude a study with the line “Further studies are needed” (besides the fact that “further funding is needed”). As one example, the very study we’ll be looking at substantiates its claims regarding what men and women seek in a mate only after finding consensus among “studies that have spanned 20 years and often include international datasets with sample sizes in the tens of thousands.” When a magazine summarizes a single study in a single sentence, we aren’t provided nearly enough context to think critically about how the results were achieved. We’re just told to believe them.

Even lazy science journalism serves a purpose. The publishers take a dense academic study and make it accessible for a mass audience. And perhaps by interpreting the results into actionable advice, they believe they’re helping the lay reader. What they’re often doing, however, is making unsubstantiated claims on the back of a scientific study (itself of varying quality and methodology). By including their own advice in the same small paragraph as the peer-reviewed study, the publication encourages its reader to extend the scientific study’s credibility to the copywriter’s tidbit.

This is all fine and good when we’re talking about new strategies for bigger biceps. The advice regarding how to interact with women, however, borders between wildly misogynist and downright hilarious. We could probably solve overpopulation if every man did what Men’s Health says to do, and every woman behaved as Cosmo advises. I’ve known how silly these prescriptions were since, oh, puberty, but I thought I would take the opportunity of this week’s fact-checking assignment to look into some of the advice and see what the studies referenced actually found.

The magazine has a regular feature dedicated to relations with women, titled SEX BULLETIN (to be fair, there are also more thoughtful, longer pieces about women). Five findings are presented on one page:

Men's Health Sex Bulletin

  1. “The Last Longer Jab”…”An injection of hyaluronic acid gel in the head of your penis” may delay premature ejaculation “by about 6 minutes.”
  2. “Women fake orgasm to keep men from straying”…”That phony “O” may be her attempt to show she’s committed and reduce the chance that you’ll cheat”…”Other ways she reels you in: flirting with guys in front of you and calling at unexpected times.”
  3. Three percent of women say using lube makes them feel inadequate.
  4. “Women are less likely to regret random hookups if the sex was satisfying.” (This advice may be provided to obscure the well-documented research establishing that in general, women are more sociosexually restricted, or less desirous of casual sex than men (Schmitt, David P., 2005)).
  5. And lastly, the one fact I might reasonably be able to check:

Wanted: Self-Made Millionaire

Ninety percent of women prefer a long-term partner who earned his money rather than inherited it. “Women associate self-earned wealth with reliability, self-sufficiency, intelligence,” says study author Peter Jonason, Ph.D. If you have family money, play up your generosity– say, donate to charity. That shows you don’t take wealth for granted. (emphasis mine)

The study referenced provides a quote from its author, and no other identifying information. We’re lucky. In other examples, the factoid in question is followed by vague statements like “according to Japanese research.”

Taking a closer look at the study referenced, the results come from a sample size of 145 women. More importantly, the abstract concludes that “In sum, financial security appears to have minimal effects and associations on mating psychology despite the paramount role that sociocultural psychologists argue it has” (Jonason, ix). So, the study’s author is actually arguing the exact opposite of Men’s Health selective quotations: Financial security was found to have less of a role than has traditionally been argued.

I wasn’t able to find any scholarly work regarding Men’s Health‘s advice that men should make up for inherited wealth (and a lack of reliability, self-sufficiency, and intelligence) by donating to charity and then telling women about it. Perhaps we can design such a study. Just don’t ask to see the methodology.

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Better Know a Classmate: Eugene Wu

At only 26 years of age, Eugene Wu is already an expert in the design of computer databases. He’s a fifth-year PhD student at MIT’s world-renowned Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Wu has published sixteen scholarly pieces (the first in 2004, when he was only 18), and has balanced his academic study with internships at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and IBM.

Yet Wu didn’t start using computers in any serious capacity until he took a computer class in high school. Computers weren’t easily accessible, outside of basic word processing and the occasional educational game in an elementary school classroom. Wu’s story underscores the power of advanced educational opportunities, and the long-term ramifications of these encounters early in a career.

Wu has wisely used his summers to advance his education and career. When he was still in high school in Berkeley, California, Wu spent his summers taking college classes at nearby UC Berkeley. By the time he graduated, he had finished the pre-requisites for Computer Science, which allowed him to get a running start his freshman year of college.

The summer after his freshman year also proved to be a pivotal time. After being turned down by Microsoft and a couple of other computer scientists he sought to work with, a Teaching Assistant from one of his classes recruited him to work on a database project. The project proved very successful, and spawned most of his following undergraduate research.

He’s a Teacher

Wu has rounded out his scholarship by actively teaching others. After finishing his Master’s degree, Wu traveled to the Middle East to coach Israeli and Palestinian students in a program called Middle East Education through Technology (MEET). He mentored teams of high school seniors as they worked together on technology projects. Wu’s also taught a course on introduction to Java, which is now listed in MIT’s Open Courseware. He also created a course on Data Literacy, which ended up training biologists, doctors, and other professionals across disciplines to better understand their professions’ data.

He’s an Athlete

In addition to his graduate and teaching work, Wu also appears to have a life outside of the academy. He’s traveled the West Coast playing in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, and designed the jersey for MIT’s Ultimate team, the Grim Beavers.

He’s a Developer

For an earlier assignment in his Participatory News course, Wu built a Chrome browser extension called IdeaPrint to track his media diet, as measured by the major websites he visited most. Offline, though, he admits that he primarily reads comics, not books. His preferred genres are Japanese and Chinese manga and graphic novels. In the face of his workload, Wu struggles to keep up with popular culture and world news.

He’s an Artist

The comic books inform Wu’s artistic side. When he’s not using people to crowdsource database queries, he’s drawing. A housemate, who asked to remain anonymous because she lives with Wu, remarked that he has a talent for drawing and noticing the details: “Like, he’ll draw a monster and name it “Gregory” and everybody will be like “YES, that is a GREGORY.” Wu’s illustrations have been commissioned by a group at the Media Lab, for which he was compensated with an Xbox 360 and several videogames.

Other students at MIT admire Wu’s combination of technical and artistic talents. Classmate Travis Rich remembers being impressed by Wu’s sketchbook illustrations, only to walk into a Python course and find that Wu was the instructor. “He’s like Brad Pitt,” says Rich. “He’s got it all.”

He’s an Eater

“Every time he eats food, it looks like he’s never eaten before in his life,” says Wu’s anonymous housemate. “A lot of people call him Kobayashi. His favorite item is this green chopper thing that chops up onions by putting it underneath the thing and then pumping vigorously. He made me by one too because there was a buy one get one free deal.”

What Else Will He Be?

For someone with so much under his belt already, Wu’s not entirely sure what the future holds in store. His experience has informed the parameters for his next moves, though. He’d prefer to work in a consumer-facing organization rather than academia, and his experience with the giants of the internet has inspired him to work at a smaller organization. He’s considering possibilities involving the news and media worlds, either in the form of startup or nonprofit.

Future plans could involve Wu’s desire to improve the news media, and could specifically address reader and producer biases. Wu’s concerned that context is often missing in individual news pieces, where one data point is presented without the related trends and information. As a human, he says, we should really only have to read one or two articles per day, he says, rather than an entire Twitter stream.

But Most Importantly, Is He a Robot, Pirate, or Ninja?

“Robots are kind of clunky, you don’t want to go with that,” Wu says. “Pirates are out of date, and they don’t really have any abilities, other than like, being dirty and shooting guns, right? Ninjas require actual skill.”

 

 

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Lawrence Lessig Needs Your Help Awakening a Sleeping Giant

Lawrence Lessig sees the American people, enthroned as sovereign of the nation by the United States Constitution, as a sleeping giant. It’s OK to sleep; in general, we’d all rather focus on things other than politics. But there are times when our political system is so broken, we must awaken and flex the powers granted to us by our Constitution. Lessig argues that now is one of those times.

Republic, Lost

The first event in the spring Media Lab Conversations Series featured a conversation between Media Lab Director Joi Ito and lawyer, professor, author, and reformer Lawrence Lessig. Joi and Larry met in Japan in 2002, and their paths crossed a number of times over the following years as each took on campaigns for creative culture and against state corruption.

Lessig most recently shifted to focus entirely on fighting corruption, despite his fame in intellectual property. He begins his talk with an apology for distracting us from our research. In an ideal world, he says, it’d be absurd for us to sit and listen to him. What’s happening here at the Media Lab is some of the most inspiring, creative work there is, and it’s absurd we should have to take time away from these pursuits to listen to a talk about politics.

But he’s here to recruit us, to distract us from our machines for a moment, because it’s critical that people like us pay attention and contribute to the solution of an extraordinary problem. Every 100 years or so, society finds itself at a point where even the geniuses are forced to confront the messy world of politics. In Europe, the physicists working on atomic power and other wonders had to stop their work and confront fascism. Lessig says we’re at a similar place now, where the scientists must look up from our pure research and take action.

Rootstrikers
Lessig leads with this Thoreau quote that inspired the name of his Rootstrikers campaign:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.

Even further back in time, Benjamin Franklin wrote a clause outlawing gifts to officials, with fear of a potential dependency between the officials and the gift-givers.

Yet in July of last year, Rasmussen reported that 46% of Americans believe Congress is corrupt. The institution isn’t filled with Rod Blagojeviches. It’s filled with people who came to Washington for a public purpose. Nixon said he wasn’t a crook, and so does Congress.

The framers of the Constitution gave us a republic, by which they meant a representative democracy, with a branch of government dependent upon the people alone. The model described in the Constitution places the people as the marionette, pulling the strings of Congress.

And yet it’s the campaign funders pulling the strings. Members of Congress spend between 30-70% of their time raising money to get back into Congress, or to get their party back in power. They develop a sixth sense, as any of us would, of what will raise money, not on important issues 1 through 10, but on issues 11 through 1,000, where a questionable position will draw less attention.

The Funders are Not the People
0.26% of Americans donate to political campaigns
0.05% max out their FEC limit
0.0000063% of Americans gave 80% of the SuperPAC money so far in this election.

This is corruption. It’s not the corruption of cash in brown paper bags, or of Rod Blagojevich selling access. It’s corruption of dependence, and a corruption of the framers’ intent that the Congress be dependent on the people.

Political scientists have trouble estimating the effect of money on policy, which people like former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith spin to suggest that there is no evidence of corruption. A lack of evidence does not suggest an absence of evidence, however.

Ask the public. Across party lines, Americans believe that money buys results in Congress (71-81%). ABC has recently found that 9% of Americans approve of Congress. More Americans supported the British Crown at the time of the American Revolution.

Rock the Vote has found that youth voting rates in 2010 were deflated by the expectation that a vote isn’t enough to make a difference in a corrupt system. The same reason is given by voters of all age groups. Regardless of the issue, from healthcare to global warming to financial reform, reform is essential. The system of government where the funders control Congress will systematically block change as long as it’s in place.

Lessig knows what rational creatures he’s speaking to at MIT. He beseeches us to realize that our current political system will block reason within the halls of Congress, no matter the issue. We are the 1% of people whose very occupation is the pursuit of reason, and we get to spend all day finding the right answer. When you recognize the privilege of living life in terms of doing what makes sense, and realize that our government never gets to ask that question, “What makes sense?”, you realize the responsibility you have to change the system.

Congress is fundamentally corrupt and they are responsible for that corruption.

So what do we do?

If the problem is systemic, and not just a matter of some corrupt people, then the solution is to give Congress a way to fund their campaigns without Faust. They need a way to behave that doesn’t involve selling the country’s future each financial quarter.

Citizen Funded Campaigns
Should citizens fund our campaigns? Or should foreign nationals and corporations fund our campaigns? The Constitution is pretty clear about how it feels about the latter arrangement.

As of now, a miniscule percentage of Americans privately funds our campaigns. While the framers of our Constitution worked extremely hard to make all voters equal on Election Day, our current system allows the tiniest slice of the wealthiest among us to gain the most influence.

One alternative is government-funded elections, where the government dispenses funds. But people complain that their money is used to subsidize speech they don’t believe in. And, like other government funding systems, it becomes bloated.

Lessig proposes a mix between private and government funding. It’s a mix we see in some states, where small donations are amplified by public matching funds. Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have such systems in place.

In 2010, the House came close to passing the Fair Elections Now Act. Lessig proposes what he calls the Grant & Franklin plan. It’s based on the fact that each of us contributes at least $50 (the bill featuring Ulysses S. Grant) to the federal treasury. If we rebated that $50 in form of a democracy voucher, candidates could run entirely on these funds. We could match democracy vouchers with another $50 (making it $100, featuring Benjamin Franklin).

This would amount to a campaign funding system funded with $7 billion, multiple times the $1.8 billion spent in private donations in 2010. Such a plan would remove a source of incessant cynicism.

Would that be enough, given the SuperPACs out there?
No. We’ve entered the age of the SuperPAC, with the Tony Soprano model of influence. Evan Bayh, retired Senator from Indiana, described the impact of the Citizens United case:

Every incumbent is now terrified that, 30 days before their election, some Super PAC will come in and drop millions of dollars in advertising against them.

Candidates feel that they need some form of Super PAC insurance, so that when a (money) bomb is dropped on one side, another (money) bomb gets dropped to neutralize it. You get insurance by paying premiums in advance. Super PACs have succeeded in aligning votes with mere promises of insurance – they actually call members of Congress with scripts saying things like “We need you to support us 80% of the time for us to support you.”

A plan like Lessig’s wouldn’t ban independent political expenditures, but it would limit them within 90 days of an election. If we had these two features, it’d make trust in our institutions possible again.

But is all of this possible? It’s easy to see a problem, and not so difficult to see a solution, but can be quite difficult to enact a solution.

Congressman Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, described Capitol Hill as “a farm league for K Street.” Many in Congress are focused on their lives after government, as lobbyists. Fifty percent of the Senate and forty-two percent of the House left to become lobbyists and cash in on their contacts and experience.

Insiders vs. Outsiders
One Way Forward, by Lawrence LessigLessig just published One Way Forward to chart the course ahead. He sees the primary divide in American politics not between left and right, but between inside and outside. Outsiders have become so disgusted with how things are, they’ve put aside their lives for a moment to try and find an answer. The year 1998 saw Americans rally behind MoveOn.org. In 2009, the Tea Party took the spotlight, followed by Occupy in 2011.

These waves are building over time. The challenge, Lessig argues, is for these waves to have some awareness of their combined potential, of their latent power. Right now, they’re extremely passionate, but also polarized. We should look at each of these waves and see the cross-partisan potential they have to move and act together, even if right now there’s very low recognition of that potential. That’s what we need to change.

This giant — the people — is sleeping most of the time. It must be awakened. Think of the Allied Forces against Naziism. We must stand on common ground, not because we have a common end, but to recognize the common enemy of corruption.

Lessig doesn’t try to predict the complete arch of this movement. But we do need to engage more ordinary citizens in the practice of teaching. Rootstrikers.org is recruiting citizens who will teach fellow citizens about the connection between the things they care about and the root of it, corruption. If Thoreau’s math found that there are 1,000 striking at the branches for every 1 hitting the root, we’ll need 311,000 teachers for all 3.11 million Americans. That’s their goal.

There’s corruption happening around the world, and around the world, people are rising up in fury against it. Starting this week, Lessig’s asking people to pledge to end corruption, and to specify how they’ll do so. The branding resembles the various Creative Commons licenses.

We Are All Enablers
Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph HazelwoodLessig plays the audio from the Exxon Valdez’s return transmission alerting the dispatcher of the collision and ensuing oil leak. It’s clear to everyone listening that the pilot is intoxicated. The captain escaped conviction, but there’s little doubt to observers that he was drunk.

There was no doubt, however, that he had a problem with alcohol. His own mother testified, and there are records of his license being revoked for DUIs. At the time he capsized a supertanker, he was not allowed to drive a VW Beetle on the highway. But consider everyone else around him: all the people who did nothing while a drunk was driving a supertanker. We are those people.

We have many problems today. And yet our institutions are distracted, too busy to focus. And so are we, too busy doing the real work that produces value and contributes to the world, too busy to focus on this critical problem and give it the serious attention it needs. So who’s to blame?

It’s too easy to point to the evil people. They have their share of responsibility. It’s the good people, the decent people, the most privileged, who have the obligation to fix this. Corruption is permitted by the passivity of the privileged.

A republic depends on the people alone. We have lost our republic, and it’s time for all of us to act to get it back.

Q&A
Joi points out that the Media Lab is focused on future impact, but also on building stuff that will be immediately useful, as with the Center for Civic Media. With Creative Commons licenses, Lessig built a technical solution that scaled one solution to the widespread problem of traditional copyright’s chokehold. Yet with reform, Lessig’s been writing books and giving talks. What’s the scaleable solution?

“I discover a new limit almost every single day,” Lessig admits. He sees his role as seeding ideas and infecting communities to leverage their own recognition to solve the problem. We can’t choose not to engage in the political system. There are hugely important problems, that, unless the government engages in a serious way, are going to screw us. He admits that it’s enormously frustrating to be researching at the coolest place in the world and be told you need to divert your attention to get America to fix its government…but it’s what we need to do.

Ian Condry asks how we can better model participatory democracy.
Lessig sees a realistic democracy as one where things basically function, and citizens can sleep most of the time, and pay attention when things break down. Things have broken down. It’s completely rational to be ignorant about government right now, because it gives you frustration, and you’d rather spend time with your kids. If we can change the system to give us some faith that democracy is functioning, more people would participate.

People look back to our founding and say, “They were all basically the same white guy.” But we forget: they were radically different people. There were people in that room who believed in slavery, and people who believed that slavery was the moral abomination of the age. They were able to bracket that debate long enough to produce a constitution. We don’t have to draft a constitution — we just have to tweak it a small bit.

How do you actually get the Constitution amended in this environment?
The Constitution provides two paths: Congress proposes an Amendment (every existing Amendment has been ratified this way). Or, if it turns out that Congress itself is the problem, the Constitution allows for a constitutional convention to be held by the states. This almost occurred when Americans were organizing to force elections for Senate seats, but Congress stopped the convention movement by caving to the demands for an elected Senate. Lessig’s OK with organizing a convention movement to the point that Congress must give into the pressure to diffuse it.

Asked about the likelihood of achieving such reform, Lessig asks us to imagine a doctor has just told you that your son has terminal brain cancer. Would you do nothing? Or, would you fight like hell, despite the odds, to do everything possible? When you love something, you fight regardless of rationality. Patriotism is a useful motivator here. We need to find a way to motivate people to act, even assuming it’s impossible, because we have no choice. We can’t being to address the problems we need to address unless we do. You’re only a citizen? That’s all we need. Only a citizen.

What’s the role for the coders of America?
They can enable an infrastructure to rally and organize people effectively to surpass the power on the other side. This is a problem we can only fix in this period of technological transition. The 20th century model of informing and directing people is currently broken, and we can take advantage of this fact. If you’re Tim Wu, you think the current system will soon be co-opted by the powers that be. But even if he’s correct, we have five years before that mold is set. We need more and better tools to topple corruption. So yeah, we need code, the right kind of code, code that thinks about waking the giant up and helping the giant recognize that it has a left and a right hand, and has to learn how to walk, and has to act in a rational way, not just crazy, as waking giants frequently act when they first wake up [think French Revolution].

With regards to visualizing networks and data, Lessig recommends Super Crunchers.

Asked about transparency, Lessig critiques “naked transparency,” where people believe that transparency alone will lead to change. Of course we want to see the bad stuff that’s happening, but we also want to stop the bad stuff from happening. If you only achieve the former, you actually dissuade more people from having anything to do with politics.

Christopher Fry argues, “You need people in the government who are well motivated, and you need a good process for them to follow. If you don’t have both, you won’t succeed. We have neither in DC right now.”

Lessig responds that there isn’t just one problem to fix. There are forty. We’re filtering for a special kind of person when we consider the amount of work required to fundraise at the amounts they’re fundraising at. Is that the sort of person you want at the lever? But when you’re dealing with an alcoholic, you need to solve the alcoholism first. Pick your issue. We will not solve it under this system. Global warming. Healthcare. Broadband. Reagan passed the biggest reform of US tax code through Congress by striking a deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats in an environment that’s entirely unfathomable today.

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Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media and former New Media Director of Americans for Campaign Reform, where he worked in a broad coalition with Rootstrikers.

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What goes into, comes out of my brain?

Last Wednesday, immediately prior to attending an event on media diets, we presented a week’s compilation of our own media diets. The day’s scheduled events were rather meta with regards to conscious information consumption, and this turned out to be, in many ways, a theme of my diet.

Not counting this assignment, other meta media experiences included:

  • Watching The Matrix with a comedic audio track overlay
  • A Twitter feed following over 1,600 people and organizations, many of them political operatives operating in and around the day’s headlines
  • Watching Saturday Night Live lampoon the week’s news
  • A substantial period of time attending classes on particpatory news and social television habits

My Media Diet

As you can see in the chart above, I aggregated the elements of my media diet into five categories (left to right):

Traditional news consisted of news websites and print magazine subscriptions:

Relaxation and entertainment included reading blogs, listening to music during workouts, and watching streaming TV shows on Hulu:

Creative production included writing, notetaking, creating graphics, and giving a presentation:creative production diet

Focused learning included conducting research, learning to code, watching tutorials, and listening to lectures:

Social intelligence included Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, instant messaging, and extended face-to-face conversations:

Lean-Forward Information Consumer
I’ve long been an early adopter and devoted Lifehacker reader. I install and try out most of the programs, plugins, apps, and web services that cross my path. I’ve chosen lean-forward interaction over lean-back entertainment since I’ve had access to a modem. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to strike a balance between the potential of digital media and the warmth and history of analog media. And yet there were still a number of surprises gained from obsessively tracking my habits for a week.

Protect Time to Create
Arguably the most disruptive feature of participatory media is that it asks us to write information as well as read it. If consuming media is like consuming food, the metaphor extends to suggest that we consider the creation of media to be a form of exercise. Writing, coding, filming, and otherwise producing original content requires us to flex our creative muscles in a different way, similar to the shift between passively learning a field and actively teaching it to another person.

I was pleased to see how much time I spent actively creating content over the course of the week. My first semester at the Media Lab made it quite clear that it was possible to spend most of one’s time attending really interesting panels and classes, and reading an endless supply of academic literature, organizational reports, and course readings, all at the expense of producing any original work oneself. The limits imposed by time regularly force a decision between the immediate benefits of listening to someone much smarter than myself, and the longer-term journey to build my own skills and enunciate my own thoughts. I credit my group’s encouragement (and occasional mandate) to blog frequently.

Status Update as Atomic Unit of News?
Melissa Mayer of Google defended Google News’s aggregation of content by pointing out that the article has become the atomic unit of the news. Looking over my RescueTime reports, it became clear that sitting down with even an article or full blog post has become a somewhat rare experience during the week. Most of my dedicated news-reading time came during the weekend, like other leisure activities. The many interesting links Twitter tempts me with throughout my work day are bookmarked with a ReadItLater extension, and then automagically whisked away to wait for me on my Kindle, thanks to a recipe over at ifttt.

This is not to say that I am not aware of the news during the week. I spend most of my days actively plugged into what’s happening, but this information comes to me via Twitter, Facebook, and status messages on Gchat. It’s been written elsewhere, but the combination of real news and social intelligence is a killer combination, one that routinely crowns Twitter my most-consulted news medium. And, if awareness of the top Google Trends is an indication, these sources effectively keep me informed.

Absolute Time vs. Interrupted Time
For the value it provides as a social utility, Facebook really doesn’t take up much of my time each day (only Pages viewed8-10 minutes a day, spread out over more visits than I’d like to admit). That said, it was clear in my diary that tracking with tools like RescueTime won’t measure the true distraction of applications like Twitter and Facebook, or the time spent on my phone. The total amount of time spent on these social networks is relatively low, but quick consultations ensure they influence large blocks of time throughout the day.

One way Twitter influences my day more than the accumulated minutes suggest is in its role as provider of clickworthy links. Both RescueTime and my browser history show a large sample of quick hit webpages where I spend under a minute. This is common behavior for users across the web, but I was a bit surprised at just how many pages (over 2,400) I navigated through in a week.

Conversation as Information Medium
email dietEthan hinted that, if we took our media diet tracking far enough, we might begin to consider conversations as a form of media. I decided to go with it, because despite the success of social media platforms, we still receive much of our intelligence in regular conversations with other human beings. I already knew, thanks to Fitbit, that weekends are much healthier for me, as I walk and sleep more. Tracking my media diet showed me that weekends are also healthier for my social soul, as I spent much more time in face-to-face conversations.

Lastly, my email inbox was an interesting source of information. A small army of Gmail filters protects my actual inbox, but I still pick up a fair amount of news about political and social campaigns from a wide range of newsletters and listservs. As a result, I currently receive over 14 times more email than I send.

Bar chart color scheme by The Cooler shared under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Icons by The Noun Project shared under Creative Commons BY 3.0 license.

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