Reflective Ways to Engage with Rural USA: A Case with Devon

After 2016 and in the whirlwind that is our current political system, liberal America has gained a new fascination with rural and conservative America, and it can be unproductive. We look at rural America under a microscope, travel through as if we’re in a far away land, and marvel as we observe how culturally different we are from them, how far away we are isolated in the city and in universities, and the poverty that has stricken shrinking spaces as if it wasn’t intentional or a direct product of capitalism and other systems.

However, Devon Shapiro approaches rural America with a more empathetic lens. He explains his reasoning for why he looks to rural and conservative groups, “I’m interested in politics and interested in thinking about what role I can play. At least in my lifetime, the political system feels crazy. What role I might consider playing in that?” And as someone from rural-conservative spaces, what is the best role to play in these spaces?

In an effort to understand his role and participate in the unruly political sphere, Devon went back to where he grew up in a semi-rural town in Ohio to canvas for Danny O’Connor in the special election.

He tells a story of this experience: “I consider myself progressive, I vote for democrats. I met a lot of people that would say, ‘you know what I care about it my children getting good jobs, social security, and you know, whether medicaid and medicare are going to be there.’

And, you know, I’d say, ‘Well, I’ve got a good idea for you, you should vote for Danny O’Connor!’ But they didn’t see it that way.

They weren’t really sure… they’d been republicans their whole lives. A lot of people wanted to talk about 2016, and they would say between those two candidates, this is a direct quote, ‘Do you want me to stab myself or shoot myself?’

I didn’t want them to do either of those things!

And I thought this was kind of this crazy, defeatist, nobody in politics cares about me, has my best interest at heart. Like why is someone so disaffected but can clearly articulate that they care about medicare medicaid social security, things that clearly the democratic party has become their issues.”

While recounting his experiences canvassing, Shapiro referenced The Politics of Resentment, a book by Kathy Cramer discussing the growing urban-rural divide in the US. In the book, Cramer explains a recurring pattern she hears while interviewing and speaking with folks throughout rural Wisconsin. People keep saying, “ I don’t have any evidence, but this is what I think.” This word of mouth reinforces already held beliefs in the communities through echoing feedback loops.

A key question Shapiro grapples with is how do we give those people that data? Or, rather, is thier perhaps lack of interest in data a function of the human condition?

In liberal spaces and especially in academia, we take data, rigorously acquired, to be the word of God. Yet, we forget that in other spaces, in rural and conservative spaces, the word of God is still the word of God, or at least as Devon found, something else reminiscent of it.

While in school, Devon became fascinated by the apparent contradiction that was rural evangelical protestant capitalists. He explains, “if you read the bible, ‘protect thy neighbor,’ like if you had to go from the bible to a government economic system, for sure you would go socialism. The question became, why do people who literally think the bible is the word of god, take it literally, how in the world do they support neoliberal economic policy?”

From this question, we began to dive into “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” an infamous book that found, basically, that rural voters do not vote in their best interest. The author, a journalist, argued that though a democratic candidate will offer agricultural subsidies, the farmer will still vote for the republican.

Devon explained the critique of the author, “You, Mr. journalist, can’t make a value judgement on why someone votes the way they vote. They have things they care about and vote on what they care about. Clearly these people in Kansas care about things that aren’t agriculture subsidies. And clearly you think they should care about the economy or what you care about but they don’t.”

Some of the liberal fascination with rural America is frustrating, for we can use it as a way lump an entire group together and speak of them as if they are all ignorant. ”They don’t look at data? They don’t prioritize economic interests? Not smart.” It can be annoying because we can so easily name their voting habits as a moral failing, an act of ignorance, not a reflection of something else. Therefore, we act as if the voting separation is a result of us (liberal leaning folk) being good and them (conservative or rural) being bad people, not something much more complex and nuanced. We have begun studying these rural spaces and doing the work to understand how different (and similar) they can be from spaces at MIT and in Massachusetts, yet we still offer rural spaces the same language of data assuming it will have the same effects on rural folks as it does with liberal people.

I’m not advocating to not use data. But as Devon questioned whether this was something we should be trying to get rural folks or not, I think we need to reflect and approach rural spaces and people with understanding, respect, and intentionality. To do anything less would be disrespectful to them, but also an absolute disservice to those trying to organize social and political movements against Trump who have potential allies in rural disgruntled communities.

Some of my frustration stems from the condescending tone that some folks in white, liberal, northern spaces can take towards those in rural, conservative spaces. We often hear how these folks dehumanize others, are racist, and are ignorant. Perhaps this is true about some, but it is also true about people in liberal cities. Boston can judge those in the south for being explicitly racist, but those in the north are covertly so, segregating cities, participating in harsh crime laws, all under the guise of being allies, and then judge rural communities for voting based on their values rather than data. Post Trump election, spaces in the urban north observe these rural spaces under a microscope and wonder why they don’t think in the right way. Yet, they have honesty and transparency about their values and act in line with them, a trait that not all liberal spaces carry.

For these white liberal people, I believe as a first step, it can be helpful to break down the assumption that the way people in liberal spaces think is the right way. I think understanding and respecting the ethic and approach of rural and conservative America is a second step. Devon finished with a simple summary I valued: “[I’m] fascinated by this apparent contradiction. These people don’t think the way I think they should think, but they aren’t dumb. There is a logic to it. And I might disagree with that logic, but it is about appreciating that and understanding that.” Of course, we shouldn’t accept racist and dehumanizing views. Yet, understanding why they hold these views can help inform next actions and steps to create positive change within rural spaces.

Restorative Justice and Circle: An Explainer

In response to the United States’ crises of mass incarceration, the “school to prison pipeline,” and the racial disparities that can lead to incarceration, many teachers, academics, and activists are calling for alternative systems of discipline, or alternative systems of addressing harm in the classroom. In that effort, “Restorative Justice” (RJ) has become a popular topic that continues to pop up in legislation, experiments and programs in schools, and within prisons. But you may wonder, what does RJ entail? And how is it different than our current justice system?

In this explainer, I’ll show the difference between retributive (or punitive) and restorative justice, how restorative justice is practiced, as well as its limitations, reach, and impact globally.

A Brief History

At the core of their values, the United States, most Western nations, and victims of colonization and invasion define justice as retributive and punitive. To reach justice, punishment must be administered to the offender. “An eye for an eye” is the mantra of retribution, not a warning against it.

However, it has not always been this way globally. The indigenous peoples of North and south America, Africa, and beyond (evidence of practices reminiscent of Circle are found even in some european indigenous communities remains) respond to  harm done within their communities through restoration, not necessarily retribution, through community dialogue and discussion, one practice of which we call Circle.

The Circle practice the groups in Boston practice is most similar to the Plains Peoples of North America. In the 1990s, in response to experiencing their own incarceration crisis created by the Canadian people, First Nation communities sought alternatives to the punitive justice system of Canada that was disproportionately incarcerating Native people, and brought forward Restorative Justice and Circle practices.

What is the difference between retributive and restorative justice?

Adapted from Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association

Fundamentally, the difference between a retribution (or punitive) and restoration model is where our community puts the focus after harm has been caused. After some harm in retributive justice, the emphasis of the responding party is placed on the perpetrator: what rule did they break? How do we punish them?

The response focuses on establishing blame and making the community prove the harm happened. Justice then is achieved in the familiar model of trial by jury, establishment of guilt, and then delivering the proper punishment that’s gravity, it seems to those delivering it, fits the crime.

In restorative justice, on the other hand, the person or group responsible for responding will focus on the survivor of the harm and all those affected: what do they need? What does their family need? What will help them overcome this challenge or harm?

Restorative justice does not see harm as simply broken rules, but people hurt and relationships damaged. It inherently looks at the community and the impact of the harm more holistically, where punitive justice can look at only two actors. After understanding the needs of the person harmed, justice is not necessarily sought through proving the person committed the crime, but rather through community dialogue, understanding, and reparation.

Then, justice is seen to be achieved when 1) people take responsibility for their actions,  2) people’s needs are met, or 3) healing of individuals and relationships occurs.

After a more punitive response, it is difficult to attain full acceptance back into one’s family, school, or community without a stigmatized label attached. One mission of restorative responses is to maximize the possibility of full acceptance without that label and with healing for all parties involved.

What does this look like?

So there are these great ideas of other ways to know justice, but it is unclear how to execute them. Luckily, groups like the Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the Harvard Divinity School Religion and Practices of Peace program, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, and many others nationwide offer trainings on Restorative Justice Practices, some of which I was lucky enough to attend! And in those trainings, my fellow classmates and I learned to keep Circle.

To begin, there are multiple kinds of Circles, including those to simply build community and trust, and those to address harm. Each Circle is unique and must be adapted and edited to meet the needs of the situation and the group. *As a disclaimer, this is not an endorsement to practice harm Circles, and you should not without training.*

Circle is the process that facilitates community dialogue and understanding that enables  reparations and healing for justice to be reached in a restorative way. To do this, a keeper (or facilitator, the words are used interchangeably), speaks with all parties affected individually. While speaking with the parties (and identifying that no further harm or violence will come from the circle, that the parties all acknowledge wrongdoing in some way, and that all parties are willing to be there), she invites them to circle.

With a group of ideally about 15 sitting in a circle with no tables between them, and a centerpiece (often a circular cloth, a plant, some water, a candle, and rocks to represent earth), the keeper will open the circle. To ceremonially begin sets the tone of the space, grounds the group, and puts the participants into the Circle mindset.

Then, the Circle begins. If is the group’s first circle, they collectively decide on values and guidelines for how the circle goes. The facilitator will then start with prompts she asks the group. She can start and answer the prompt herself, setting the tone for Circle, or pass along the talking piece for someone else to start first. Each Circle has a talking piece, an object that grants the holder the ability to speak. While someone has the talking piece, everyone else listens. This enables each person to feel as if they have a voice that is valued, and that they have the ear of their community who will listen to and absorb their stories and concerns.  

Sometimes (quite frequently), holding the Circle, hearing the person who caused harm admit to causing that harm in front of the community, can be enough for the person who was harmed and their people to be satisfied and require no further action. Other times, the group will come to the conclusion that more action is needed, more Circles must be had, or reparations beyond dialogue are necessary to enable healing.

But aren’t there limits?

When I first began engaging in the restorative justice space, I always believed there to be limits. I would think, “I couldn’t get in a room and hold Circle with someone who killed someone I loved” or “sexual abuse and sexual assault are beyond restoration.” I knew this process was not for all crimes.

However, Sujatha Baliga, the Executive Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice (a national innovation and research center focused on justice reform) has built her career on the foundation that there are no limits for the types of acts that can be forgiven, from abuse to murder.  

She tells her own story of experiencing relentless sexual abuse as a young person, moving through life carrying and motivated by a deep anger, and how she experienced transformation through forgiveness in this interview. Initially motivated to lock away all sexual abusers, now she advocates for and deeply believes in the power of restorative justice, Circle, and forgiveness to heal those who have been harmed and those who have harmed.

However, addressing a different restriction, there are limits to what one person can hold. It could be incredibly taxing and emotionally damaging to the facilitator or keeper to listen to trauma and pain on one-on-one discussions over and over. Yet, in Circle, the facilitator is decentralized, and the trauma, pain, and harm expressed is not held by one person, but by the group. This decentralized group listening removes the bulk of the burden from the keeper, and distributes it throughout the Circle in a way that enables healing for all through listening, empathy, and support as well as a strengthened bond through intimate experience shared openly.

Are there other applications?

Circle does not need to be only held when harm occurs. For example, in this video shown at RJOY’s training, you can see after harm, a young man uses Circle to re-enter school. In another shown by Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the process builds community and trust between participants and acts as a apparatus of support. Circle has been even practices among youth as young as kindergarten. The goal is not only alternative forms of justice, but also to enable social emotional learning in students and develop trust and support within a community.

Does it really work?

Yes! New Zealand has found success implementing restorative justice in their juvenile justice system, completely transforming the process, dropping their youth incarceration from over 6000 children and young people yearly to less than 2000. While the US government did not find large reductions in recidivism or expulsion, individual schools have found success with Circle and RJ practice, almost completely eliminating expulsion and greatly reducing suspension rates.

But why does it matter?

As the inspiration for this explainer touches on, the criminal justice system in the United States is horrific, dehumanizing, and racist among many other things. It is unbelievable an institution like this exists and that we stand for it (until I remember the crimes we commit daily, the water in Flint, children in cages, etc…). As we push forward with a retributive justice model as a society, we perpetuate that dehumanization of incarcerated folks, which because of racial disparities as Michelle Alexander explains, ends up looking a lot like a thinly veiled re-incarnation of slavery.

Often an afterthought, juvenile justice in the US looks similarly dismal. The School to Prison Pipeline becomes more deeply ingrained into our society, it is essential to re-assess the values that define the systems we build, and search for and implement other, equitable, restorative-over-punitive systems to transform our justice system, to remember that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Information from Living Justice Press, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Shifting Strategies of White Supremacists

In a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that white supremacist propaganda has increased 182% since 2017. Historically, these groups have targeted college campuses, but the rate increased only 9%. Off campus tactics, however, increased almost 7 times.

ADL’s interactive heat map

How has it increased over time?

WaPo and Mass Shootings

Example of map from PRI

Attempt 1:

Well, Butter My Biscuit! Baking good biscuits knows no geographic bounds

American biscuits are known for their simple ingredients, humble origins, and delicious buttery flavor. Contrary to some opinions, they can be made anywhere in the US with enough attention paid to process and basic, not-so-special ingredients.

The hot topic of 2018 (discourse on which triggered by a well intentioned Atlantic article) was the flour used to make the biscuits. True to their low maintenance form, biscuits quire a low-protein more-refined flour: all purpose flour, the most accessible throughout the US. This flour enables a flaky, crumbly texture, closer to a pastry or croissant (optionally made with pastry flour) rather than gluten-full bread (bread flour). For a more delicate texture (but not necessarily more delicious or authentic), you could mix the AP flour with pastry flour.

Next, cold ingredients are key, especially the butter. If the butter is not icy cold, it will combine completely with the other ingredients, and an over mixed dough will lose the flakiness and lightness moisture and fat pockets provide.

Finally, one must not work the dough for more than 10-20 turns. Too much more would melt the butter, over mix, build too much gluten, and toughen up the dough. Rather, once the dough is mixed enough so there are little flour pockets but there are still clear little chunks of butter, roll out the dough and cut out circles using a jar lid or glass. Place on a lightly buttered pan and bake!

As an eager and experimental baker, I love a good baking challenge. So when Amanda Mull of the Atlantic wrote the article that inspired this piece, “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits,” I had to test to see if her claims were true. Was most of America terrible at making biscuits? Was I not up to the challenge?

I tested her hypothesis. On first try, my biscuits were terrible and I subscribed to her statement that White Lily flour, not available in most of the US, was key. Upon a second attempt and some follow up research inspired by this NPR article, found her claims to be false.

Tess Rothstein & People Protected’s Protest

Early last Friday, a sunny morning, a truck fatally struck Tess Rothstein on Howard Street in San Francisco on her commute to work. A bystander who witnessed the event explained that as Rothstein rode along the parallel-parked cars along the strip, a door opens unexpectedly. As she dodges the car door, she swerved into the truck’s path. Within two hours, a group gathered in memoriam and in advocacy.

Any city cyclist knows the dangers that come along with cycling when they feel the first multi-ton bus fly by and test their balance. But in San Francisco, crashes are prevalent and can be deadly. Howard Street alone, in the blocks without protected bike lanes, has claimed 8 lives.

Source: https://ourbikes.org/

Outraged, San Francisco cyclists have formed advocacy groups. One of the most successful, People Protected, just two months before this crash celebrated a major win illustrated in newly opened protected bike lanes on Valencia and Howard Street. With the victory of that project, bike lanes started on 6th street. Rothstein was struck only two blocks before, on 4th.

Within two hours, People Protected gathered at the spot of Rothstein’s death in memoriam of her life and in protest to be sure she did not “die in vain.”

Protestors lined up a few feet from the parallel parked cars. With cars whizzing by, these advocates acted as human barriers between cyclists and the vehicles of the busy street. The group gathered 3 times throughout the day, with the support of local media and politicians.

Other advocacy groups such as Our Bikes further guided the way for cyclists and concerned political participants throughout San Francisco to act in dissent against anti-bike policies. An instagram post highlights a call to action.

The group offers further instruction on their website, offering a template for individually crafted, personal emails to the Mayor and members of the MTA Board. So far, over 1,000 emails have been sent from their page. A few sample emails offered by the site are here:

“To Mayor Breed and the San Francisco MTA Board,

Last year New York City installed more than 25 miles of protected bike lanes. This year they’re planning to install more than 30 miles. How many miles are you going to install this year?

Had you completed the protected bike lane on Howard to Embarcadero—or at a minimum, 4th Street—Tess Rothstein would be alive today. We need to be proactive in the installation of protected bike lane infrastructure to reach our Vision Zero target of zero fatalities by 2024.

Finish the protected bike lane on Howard by the end of March.

Thanks,”

“Dear Mayor Breed, Board of Supervisors and SFMTA,

Tess Rothstein was killed this week after a driver opened their door into her path, forcing her under a truck which ran her over.

A protected bike lane on Howard would have saved her life.

We need the SFMTA to be proactive and install protected bike lanes on every stretch of the high injury network by the end of this year.

Other cities have taken swift action and expanding their protected bike lane networks rapidly. Why does the SFMTA under Ed Reiskin’s leadership only install protected bike lanes after someone is killed? That is not leadership.

Extend the protected bike lane on Howard to 3th Street within the next 21 days and to the Embarcadero by the end of 2019. These deaths cannot continue in our city.

Thank you.”

Outraged bikers from many groups cycled in and out of the protest, including Janice Li of the San Francisco Bike Coalition who stated, “If we keep designing streets for fast moving cars and don’t acknowledge that there is so many people walking and biking on our streets today, people will die.”

However, issue driven groups were not the only supportive attendees. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s spokesperson, Paul Rose, attended as well: “SFMTA’s confirmed Howard is one of the most dangerous streets for cyclists in San Francisco and are looking into making changes.”

He attempts to explain a bit how: “The mayor issued a directive on Wednesday that the MTA should move quickly with projects to increase safety around the city on our high injury network. So we are certainly doing that. This will be on of the areas we are exploring options to get those improvements in by this year.”

The Board of Supervisors representative from the district of the crash, Matt Haney, paid respects and expressed grief and a great sense of urgency: “This is the second fatal crash that we’ve seen on our streets this week… And, so this is one of the most urgent crises that we face in our city.”

Finally, San Francisco Mayor, London Breed, also visited the site. She reiterated that the city plans to improve safety, “but while we wait for these capital improvements, we need to make short-term safety enhancements, which I have instructed the SFMTA to do without delay.”

The city sees this is a problem, and each group has expressed commitment to action. Citizens were in peaceful protest, politicians promised to make political changes, and in the spirit of SF and Silicon Valley, techie cyclists advertised their cyclist apps.

Applications like Blocked show where bike lanes are currently blocked by construction in the city. Some visualizations show the most dangerous and at-risk crash sites of the city. Others like Bikesy simply route a rider on a bike-safe route to their destination in an attempt to promote ease and safety of bike travel. And throughout most of these advocacy group sites, there are seemingly endless tools, workshops, maps, among other resources and projects to help the average cyclist.

Although this issue affects SF particularly hard, many cities are grappling with the same issues. Coalitions of safe-biking advocates have formed throughout the US, including D.C., New Orleans, Cambridge, Hawaii, and Philadelphia, as well as National  Lobby Groups with local chapters.

Personally, the initial fear instilled in me by the first bus that passed too closely has been enough to end my bike-to-work days. But so many of my friends have been “tapped” by cars, and a few seriously hit. One told of a time just outside our space at the Media Lab where he was hit at the intersection. He fell off his bike, his wheel was completely bent, the driver of the car was flustered, fearful, and angry, and all he could think about was that he could have died.

Stories like my friends are frightening, and stories like Tess’s are tragedies. However, I feel hopeful and inspired by the response of those in San Francisco, and hope the outcry of protests and groups like these ensure that safety measures are put in this city and many others across the US and beyond to protect people like Tess.

AI Can’t Fix This: Discourse on Campus

by Edward Burnell & Maggie Hughes

Photo by Husayn Karimi

“Our discussion tonight is really about power and the way it operates through technology in the modern world. A question of who decides what tech looks like in modern society. The answer is not ‘we the people’” said Kade Crockford in her introductory remarks at the AI Can’t Fix It teach-in organized by MIT students to protest MIT’s new Stephen Schwarzman College of Computation.

Striving to be “an educational event aimed towards a broader political purpose” (in the words of undergraduate and opening speaker Fiona Chen), the teach-in looked to both critique the college’s stated goals of being a center for ethical AI research and to “provide a vision for what the College of Computation should look like”. The catalyst for the teach-in was Henry Kissinger’s invitation to speak at the February 28th conference being held to celebrate the College. His invitation to talk about AI ethics was held up by teach-in organizers as clear indication that MIT administrator’s claims of addressing ethical and social concerns with the college of computation were “vacuous”.


Panelists also raised other concerns: Elena Sobrino, a graduate student, brought up the MIT endowment investment in the prison industry; Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor, the concern that “the choice of how to pursue science is being controlled by money … [it] distorts our knowledge search”; Alex Acuñas talked about his indirect encounter with Stephen Schwarzman’s company Blackstone, who provided the majority of funding opposing a California ballot proposition for rent control Alex was organizing in support of; Rodrigo Ochigame discussed MIT’s involvement with a Brazilian coup as part of the same American foreign policy culture as Kissinger.

Students, activists, fellows, and professors alike had dissent they craved to voice. In a field so new, students don’t trust any of the institutions telling them what path to walk. They navigate for themselves, for there is no trail paved, and the traditional trail guides, the leaders in the field, are suspect, engulfed by “a neoliberal tyranny that pits us against one another for profit.”

Of course, universities can be a space for finding one’s own way. But much more is at stake than an undergraduate’s summer internship or a job offer. Crockford put it well: “It is rarefied air that people here breath. People working on these technologies, they are very complex, and most people have no idea what youre talking about which creates a very dangerous situation for democracy and freedom.”

This information asymmetry creates a funnel, wherein lawmakers defer all decision making and power to universities and corporations who then dictate how technology should be developed and how information should be shared.

The panel discussion ended promptly at 7:30, having only had time for a few questions from the audience. Many students lingered, and a feeling of excitement or maybe confusion lingered with them. Some were looking to dive more deeply into the issues raised, and many wanted a more in-depth discussion of AI research and development.

Many attendees of AI Can’t Fix IT had come feeling that these conversations needed to be had. “As soon as MIT made the announcement [of the College] I was distraught, confused”, said an undergraduate studying cognitive science. “This was going to be just another conversation [university administrators] had amongst themselves.” But while a number of perspectives were brought up during the event, she noted that “no people who currently study AI” spoke, and felt that the people who didn’t already know any of the panelists’ perspectives weren’t in the room. Similar sentiments were expressed by an undergraduate in the Comparative Media Studies program, who wasn’t opposed to the discussion of American imperialism (“I know who Kissinger is, but I didn’t know he was part of this [College of Computation conference].”) but had anticipated “getting to dig more deeply” into AI technologies.

When asked, some students felt unfulfilled. A graduate student from the Media Lab said “They kept speaking as if they were going to tell us what steps to take next. But I still don’t know what to do”, and others expressed a panic, or a need to take action without an avenue in which to do so, though there had been some discussion about how to consider working or organizing within tech companies.

Another Media Lab student explained it was unclear whether he should go to the tech company he planned to after graduation, if he should dismantle it from the inside, or if he should reject the offer as an act of protest. Yet, students shared that even if they knew the strategy, it would be easy to act only “if we didn’t feel so powerless” and incapable of solidarity against companies like Facebook and Google.

And what happens if the protest works, another student wondered. “So what if Kissinger doesn’t speak? They just get another puppet?”

Although critiques were plentiful, the energy in the air was riveting. With every radical claim, each hot take, the crowd cheered. Every seat was full, the floor overflowing with students packed shoulder to shoulder, many taking notes, eyes locked on the panelists, leaning into every word.

It was truly empowering to witness organizing on MIT’s campus. One international student, coming from a liberal arts college, expressed surprise and glee at knowing that groups like this were actually forming and organizing. “I never looked for them, I didn’t think it was possible at MIT for people to organize. I didn’t know people cared.”

Yet, like many movements today that are treading in these deeply consequential waters and navigating through unmarked paths, there is mass outrage, but it is unclear how to next act.

As Crockford noted, the information disparities in this digital age are stark, and this information asymmetry is a direct threat to democracy. Yet, it is clear that students of MIT are in a unique position of power. Now is the time to redistribute the wealth of knowledge we hoard, understand the impact of the technology we produce, question the justice of our productions, recognize the harm the institution directly causes, and build off of the momentum of activists growing on campus.

A feed which was broadcast live from the teach-in can be found on the Facebook event.

Mag’s Media Diary

While exploring ways to log my media intake, I played with a few ideas of visual representation. Perhaps collection of photographs of every piece of media I consumed, or short, 1 second videos. Quickly overwhelmed by the vast amount of media consumed, with 30 new videos and photos over the course of just a few hours, I decided too comprehensive a log would prove unmanageable and unsustainable for the week. In an effort to simplify, I began exploring the idea of graphically portraying that intake. While beginning some graph development, I checked my second most used app behind gmail, Google Calendar.

What a simple design. What clean colors. What a nice way to map how I distribute my time.

And so I began to log my media intake on the calendar. Again, the media log quickly overcame me and my calendar began to flood and overwhelm, so I decided to stick with the structure but move away from the platform. And voila, a visualization was born!

I intended to show one orientation of the image to be portrait and the visualization to scroll and allow the user to hover over each block. I used Adobe XD and was struggling to get the sample video to upload to WordPress. In the meantime, I’ve shown the still shots with the image in landscape.

The x axis is time, the y axis my attention. For each section, my attention is distributed between 1. people and human interaction (white) 2. Spotify, music, and podcasts (green) 3. ads (yellow) 4. entertainment, such as a Cherry Glazer concert or Brooklyn Nine-Nine (blue/purple) 5. class lectures, videos, and workshops (teal) 6. Instagram and Reddit (red) 7. work media such as readings for courses, research, and media content I produce (pink). For many chunks of time, my attention is split between people and media, or Spotify and readings.

Blacked out to see the contrast in media versus non media attention, overall you can see about 50% of my time is devoted to media intake, be it the only thing holding my attention or just music running in the background. A dip in media consumption over the weekend in the middle of the graph comes from a visit to a friend’s family in Western Mass. During that time, spent little to no time consuming media until, only chatting, playing games, and watching a little brother’s basketball tournament until the All Star game that night. I included an all day workshop on Saturday, the two teal half tall chunks, where we needed to both read and consume content produced by community organizers, but also engage with people consistently throughout the day.

Work
Fun

Finally, I separated out work from fun. Instagram, Reddit, Spotify, Podcasts, and some news fell into my entertainment or fun graph, the second of this set. While the blue shows concerts and tv shows and is somewhat irregular, taking up almost all of my attention at one time for an extended period of time somewhat irregularly, the green of music and podcasts and the red of instagram and reddit were regular and somewhat constant throughout my week, but took up much less attention space. I get my news sometimes through podcasts, but often spend little time diving into it.

Something that was difficult to track was non-work article consumption. I read news articles and watch videos, but for quite short periods of time regularly and often. I am not a news junky, but get updates from the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, and a few other news outlets. While some articles I will read, I rarely anymore spend extended time on the sites themselves or sifting through stories.

Work was much more difficult to separate out. In classes and research, I read many stories and news stories for work and research, but that have an entertaining quality to them. It was a much more difficult to make labels for the work, and different media started clumping together to form just two groups: out of class work and in class work.

A few takeaways: I listen to podcasts or music frequently throughout the day as background or while doing other work. I have worried I spent too much time on social media apps and entertainment and have put an effort to calm it down, but see the cycle of low work, high work that naturally occurs throughout the week and weekend and find it healthier than I anticipated. I am a bit surprised about how little news I consume. Because the articles I read in work are old but politically minded, it often feels as if I am in touch with what is going on in the world currently. Many of the meme accounts, instagram accounts, and subreddits I follow are feminist, socialist, political, etc. and touch on a lot of news. But I do not go on NYT or WaPo like I used to. I believe it is pretty intentional, but I wonder if it is helpful or constructive to the public sphere.

Shorthand

Shorthand is a platform that enables simple yet stunning visual storytelling for journalists, artists, statisticians, and any storyteller looking to explore dynamic digital means of telling their tales. In a time when empathy and compassion often feel scarce, storytelling with tools like Shorthand re-engage the emotion of an often jaded audience through paced, intentional, and visually dynamic storytelling.

Over the course of my time in academia, I have become quite in touch with how little I know. Everyday, actually, the pool of knowledge, the bank of content of which I am aware I need to learn gets bigger and bigger. So, naturally, I try to absorb as much knowledge as I can just to combat the growth of that pool of uncertainty, but the rate of understanding is always slower than the rate It feels like a sprint, one where I can see the end, but the faster I go, the farther away the end gets. It is an absolute race to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.

In that spirit of panic learning, I have become an avid speed-reader. I remember having a deep pride in my ability to speed read, to skim, to find the gold nuggets of information in a sea of text at school. The structure of the piece? I know it like the back of my hand and could find the heart of it blindfolded. Anecdotes? Fables? Stories? Merely obstacles on my mission to dig up the seed of ground-truth planted and hidden deep within the essays of the old men of antiquity.

But with so much practice in my race for information consumption, out of repetition, habit, and training, I have a really hard time not speed reading.

My group, the Lab for Social Machines, is working on a project called the Local Voices Network. It is constituted of a “unique physical-digital network designed to bring under-heard community voices, perspectives and stories to the center of a healthier public dialogue.” In short, we have a lot of audio of people telling stories from their lives. As a part of my research, I’ve been reading the transcripts of these people’s stories. Some are deeply personal, raw, and emotional. Yet, while reading, I’ve found myself flying through them, zooming through the details, feeling little empathy or any emotion at all, only looking at it through an academic lens racing to find the key nuggets of information. And what a disrespect and disservice to those storytellers.

I’ve found now, that when I listen to the audio of those stories, slow down, hear them word for word, hear the emotion in their voice, do I feel some emotional tug.

I believe that is a key problem with media consumption in American democracy today: often, we feel little empathy, no compassion, and no emotion when we read or see stories that should be truly moving.

Of course, how the story is told plays a primary role in the consumer’s interpretation and the emotion they feel. However, I believe the medium is also key.

In order to feel more empathy and compassion when taking in stories, I’ve tried to give more attention to the emotionally stirring mediums. I’ve found them to be longform, often audio or video based, more based in detail, characters and humans, images, key moments, and so on. In these formats, we humanize the people in the story, feel their pain, visualize their circumstances, feel the emotion in the voice of the speaker, and empathize.

In my experience, I have found it to be more rare for text based stories to offer that same punch, both due to my incessant speed reading and the sometimes one-dimensional nature of the text I read (often news, often academic, and often cold).

Getting to the Point…

Shorthand enables text based stories to  paces the reader and allows for easy, efficient, but stunning and deeply impactful visual storytelling. The visual storytelling of Shorthand allows artists, data visualizationists(?), storytellers, journalists, scientists, and whoever to collaborate on teams to tell a story that engages the reader. This collaboration enables illustration, photography, video, and data visualization to be enhanced by beautiful  and informative language, and enriches traditional text-based stories, pushing them into a second or third dimension of communication.

The slow and intentional spacing of a story segmented not by paragraphs but by the consumer’s scroll rate allow for the writer to place emphasis on a single moment, a single image, a single line of text in a way reminiscent of  to oral storytellers when they hit the climax, a moment of suspense, or a key moment of loss.

No longer can you zoom through a moment, zoom through a visualization, take only what you want to from the peice. Rather, the  writer has a bit more control over what moments stick out in your mind as important, influential, and meaningful.

I’ve attached examples of stories that use illustration to promote empathy and emotion in stories whos punch can be diluted by news outlets, stories that break down data visualizations into more consumable packages, moments where Shorthand has been used for advocacy, and a visual artist who has incorporated Shorthand into their art to create an array of stunning self portraits.

Finally, Shorthand is incredibly easy to use. I’ve linked one I’ve created about croissants here that took me less than 10 minutes. They offer extensive tips on general storytelling and how to use their tool on their page, The Craft, that is useful for those who use the platform as well as for those who choose not to. The platform is not free (but offers a free 30 day trial if you want to check it out).

Overall, I would highly recommend this tool and other tools and media like it to re-engage emotionally distant or jaded audiences to reinvigorate and bring passion, emotion, compassion, empathy etc. back to what can sometimes feel like a dying or apathetic democracy.