An Honest Conversation

A few of my interviews have extolled the values of radical honesty and showing up authentically, as authenticity is one of the few arenas in which mediation and trust-building can thrive. However, doing so depends on everyone being as open, clear, and as vulnerable to each other as they can be, which we know for a number of reasons is especially hard for many of the kids and just as many of the adults to do in schools. A future attempt at honesty:

***

Mr. Xavi honestly never really understood his students the way he wanted to, though he tried each day to connect in whatever way he knew how. Yet, every day was a hard one in which his earnestness to mold young minds was read as exactly that, making him a prime target for those who craved a sense of control. The same was true of Jerome, though his situation made all that much harder by puberty. Every day was a hard one in which his earnestness to be accepted was read as exactly that, making him a prime target for those who craved a sense of control. On this day, Jerome is in 12th grade and Mr. Xavi is his English teacher. All but 2 black students in Jerome’s English class are out of class today for various suspensions, detentions, or other disciplinary actions. The class is otherwise full by the strong attendance of the other students. In English class, a strange conversation about said conditions ensues:

“Jerome, why are you on your phone in the back? This makes me feel blue.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. Today I feel upset because you asked me why I was on my phone, and have not asked the same of any of the other kids in class who are also on their phone.”

“Jerome, today I am feeling red. My mood is green. Today I am frustrated because I am trying to teach, and your phone use is distracting me. Everyone else is on their phone, but I’m talking to you right now.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. My heart is yellow. Today I feel confused because why should my texting keep you from writing on the board when your back is turned anyway?”

“Jerome, today I am feeling red. My mood is green. My feelings are blue. Hearing you say that made me feel sad, frustrated.”

“Mr. Xavi, today I am feeling orange. My mood is black. This interaction makes me feel red. Courtney is still on her phone by the way. Actually, she’s been on her phone all class and my mom just texted me so…”

“Jerome, I understand…”

“Mr. X, I feel blue because you cut me off. This makes my mood burnt mahogany. Can you help me understand why I would feel this way?”

“Jerome, today I feel red, increasingly fiery red. Today I feel disappointed because I feel you are deflecting from the issue at hand, which is increasingly distracting to me and the other students.”

A few other students let out a lazed, mixed cacophony of “mmm”, “ya”. Courtney takes a selfie with the other half of the class, many of whom were prepped to leave an Instagram comment, after having done the same all class period.

“Mr. Xavi, this makes me feel lime green. My heart is yellow. I actually would love to move on from this conversation as my phone was a distraction to me too. I’ve been enjoying your lesson so far.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney interrupts, “Can you take this picture for me?”

Mr. Xavi obliges while continuing to emote with Jerome, though growing exasperated. Today, like every day, was a hard one.

“Jerome, today I feel gray. I am tired. I don’t know why we keep having the same conversation.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney interrupts, “Another please? The angle, though.”

“Mr. Xavi, I understand what you’re saying as I am also tired. I don’t know why we keep having the same conversation.”

“Jerome, thank you for sharing. Today I feel blue, my heart is orange, my future is yellow”

“Mr. Xavi, thank you for sharing. Today I feel black, my heart is blue, my future is white, my insides feel calm. My world is bright.”

“Yes Jerome, your world is bright.”

“Mr. Xavi!”, Courtney yells. “Another please?”

Jerome takes the moment to return a text to his mom. Next to him Courtney adjusts her filter to Aden and thanks Mr. Xavi.

“Thank you, Mr. Xavi, my heart is blue. My insides feel calm. My world is bright.”

 

 

January 1st, 2030

São Paulo, January 1st, 2030.

Another year has gone by. Balance of feelings: frustration, sadness and an everlasting ray of hope. A esperança é a última que morre we say. Today a new president should take office in Brasília. This would have supposed fair elections last year. And four years ago. And four years before that. Instead, Brazil has fallen into the authoritarian populist trap, and we remain stuck with General M. It has now been twelve years since dictatorship-lover Capitan B. democratically took over Palacio do Planalto. Nine years since his opportunistic even-further-right military vice-president arranged his stay in power following the President’s death. How did we get here? It started by approving an act against terrorism, targeting primarily leftist social movements. It was soon used to justify closing the borders during the Venezuelan crisis to stop any “communist militant” from infiltrating soon-to-be-glorious-again Brazil. Then they dismantled the main press conglomerates, because…well, fake news. Then militaries and neo-Pentecostal were “elected” heads of our 27 states, and became the large majority in Congress. Extreme statements and policies progressively discouraged most of foreign investors. Today, our routines involve low paying jobs for the (very) lucky, arbitrary arrests and a few disappearances. Rampant violence. And corruption. Unfortunately, chaos is far from being limited to Brazil. I wonder if Pinker would still call this time as the most peaceful of human history. This past decade singles out for its genocides… Myanmar, Yemen, Venezuela, Honduras, Salvador, DRC, CAR…to name a few. With Europe and North-America completely withdrawing from the 1951 Refugee Convention, emerging economies became the primary destination of cohorts of migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing either violence or starvation. Or both. Statistics still seem unbelievable: the overall number of migrants and refugees has quadrupled over the past 15 years and now represents 40% of the population worldwide.

When we observed this trend years ago, it did seem like an area of opportunity for social good: the number of asylum applications was increasing exponentially and countries were not able to keep up with the demand. Asylum requests’ backlog was growing every month, in Latin America, Africa, Europe, US, Canada and elsewhere. We nearly automatized the assessment process by standardizing Country of Information databases to run a high performance fact-checking algorithm. In addition, our fast track system conceived for ‘easy cases’ allowed applicants from countries with an acknowledged in crisis to have an earlier and shorter interview. Our tool reduced the overall length of the asylum procedure by four. In Brazil and Mexico, our pilot countries, we virtually wiped out the backlog. Over 50% of requests were approved (an increase compared to previous years) and 30% were redirected towards immigration services to apply for another status.

Our pilot standardized Country of Information database was first implemented and used in Brazil, and over the course of a few years, and through a partnership with key European NGOs, it ended up being adopted by nearly 90% of countries. It was hosted in Europe, it was GDPR compliant. How could we have imagined such a high-level behind the scenes agreement between the most powerful to turn this official database into a center of misinformation used to reject nearly all asylum procedures? Any person daring to raise that hypothesis would have been laughed at and accused of childish conspiratorial theories. Combined with the fast-tracking system, which ended up being used to expedite the rejection of the ‘easy cases’, our technology was used as a highly efficient tool to sustain anti-immigration / asylum policies.

Of course, we had initially talked with ethics and legal scholars, migration and refugee specialists and other well-intentioned advisors. Concerns about refugees’ privacy, information (and power) imbalance between asylum seekers and governments, questions about whether it was fair or not to benefit certain nationalities and the consequences for the non-priority cases were raised. We held extensive brainstorm sessions about the potential misuses of our technology. But nobody saw it coming. The problem wasn’t really the technology itself. The truth is that nobody believed that the world would take such a drastic turn to the extreme-right. Nobody believed that international treaties would be so disregarded. Not in the 2030 Agenda era: Sustainable development for all countries, human rights, gender equality, climate change, protection of vulnerable populations… International migration was supposedly a critical concern for the implementation of the SDG Agenda. This year, all countries should have eradicated poverty and inequalities, our cities would be prosperous and breathable, our forests green, and refugees protected. I guess the right to asylum was just the first of the many of our principles to be neglected in governments’ journeys to neo-authoritarianism.

 

Assignment Week 9: IDEO cards

 

I used the “Flow analysis” card to represent the flow of information throughout the asylum procedure in Brazil (see image above). It allowed to map the bottlenecks (and corresponding lengths) in the procedure, the main information products associated with each stage (questionnaires, etc.) and actors involved. The flow diagram was also useful during the interviews, both to explain to interviewees the solutions we are imagining but also to structure the conversation. The next step would be creating the “ideal flow”, incorporating proposed solutions.

Cross-Cultural Comparisons

In order to test some basic assumptions on the systems of political representation and get a deeper understanding of the role of “culture” in democracy I utilized IDEO’s ‘Cross-Cultural Comparisons’ framework.

I engaged a friend, that had lived in the US briefly, but had only ever voted in elections in another country (Pakistan) to try, and draw out similarities and differences in the democratic systems that ostensibly share the same overarching ideals.

The most recent national election in Pakistan was held only a few months ago in July. My friend took part as both a voter and an independent observer at a polling station on behalf of a non-profit organization.

Cultural

Some core functional differences were the most immediately obvious and had a direct impact on the cultural “performance” of elections. The two most prominent factors that contributed to this were automatic voter registration and election day being a declared national holiday.

The fact that election day is a holiday and effectively open to all adults who decide to show up, helps create a festive, carnival-like atmosphere at most polling locations. Many families or groups of friends come to polling stations together, driven by a mix of civic responsibility and the chance to have a fun day out. Street vendors set up shop to serve refreshments close by as people line up and even political parties themselves take advantage of this atmosphere. While not allowed inside polling location, many parties set up booths outside to serve refreshments of their own, get some last-minute campaigning in and distribute party SWAG.

Another side of the equation is the differing level of trust in the system. By and large, election officers and the process of tabulating votes is not considered to be easily corruptible in the US (although the recent midterms might hint at the beginnings of this assumption no longer being considered sacrosanct). In Pakistan, however, the losing party questioning the validity of the elections and accusing the winning party of “rigging” is an enduring tradition in of itself.

To this end, each polling booth has a strong presence of official, independent and party affiliated observers that attempt to ensure that nothing suspect takes place. This also includes the legally mandated presence of military personnel for security and monitoring.

In terms of substantive differences there appears to far less emphasis on ideological voting than in the US. Although the parliamentary system means the leader of each party is not on every ballot, most votes represent preferences for party leadership. However, most major parties do not truly campaign on the basis of valued based “liberal” or “conservative” agendas comparable to the US. Voting decisions and political public discourse is tied less to ideological positions, and more to practical, policy or reputational considerations (with some exceptions).

Symbolic

Elections in Pakistan are also, in the quite literal sense, reliant on symbols to communicate meaning. The ballot is populated with both the names of each candidate and a symbol that represents their political party.

The party symbol is one of the most critical, and unifying, aspects of political messaging. It often represents the way a party would like to be identified. The previous incumbent party, the PML-N, for instance, uses the symbol of a tiger. The PTI, the winner of the current election and party of the former cricket legend Imran Khan, uses a cricket bat. The symbols are also deeply embedded into party rhetoric and material, such as banners and advertisements. For instance, the third major party, the PPP-P, that uses an arrow as its symbol, has used an original theme song at its rallies for the last 30 years that loosely translates to “an arrow to the heart”.

One of the most universal symbols circulating around election time is the “inked thumb”. Votes are registered by inking a thumb impression on a form, marking the thumbnail with a permanent marker, and then stamping a name and party symbol on a ballot. The inked thumb acts as a symbol of the act of voting and elections in general, and plays the role of a very visceral “I Voted” sticker. In the age of social media, election day sees a wave of people sharing pictures of their inked or marked thumb one they’ve voted.

Technology

Another interesting aspect of this elections was the role of technology. The government had announced the use of a new live vote tabulation system for this election that would display results live as they came in from each polling station. However, the system crashed midway through election day and results stopped being reported for several hours. This fueled a flurry of conspiracy theories that the results were being manipulated. This episode, and the subsequent reaction demonstrated how technology can often reduce trust, rather than increase it, if it is perceived to be too much of a black box, which is important to keep in mind when designing any solution.

Dystopia of demonstration against nuclear power plant

Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, Tokyo had been through many demonstrations against the nuclear power plants. Participants claimed that all nuclear power plants to shut down immediately. Some experts pointed out that many participants were extremely emotional and involved in loud voices, resulting in opinions without proper understanding of nuclear power. Regardless whether the general public support or not, experts believed that they should have their own opinions, and this could be achieved by considering it through discussions from young age.

After a while, MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology), introduced new education system which spare more time for elementary students to learn social problem in discussion style but not Japanese traditional one-way lecture style to encourage students ponder them and cultivate their own opinions. Key factor of this education system is that MEXT does not give any instruction teachers for leading students to a designated answer as it gives an impression that the discussion is merely farce and not neutral.

Some of teachers, however, have a resolution to be against nuclear power, and believe that all nuclear power plants should be shut down as soon as possible as they are the very vice. They consider people accepting nuclear power as those brainwashed by the Japanese government and danger for all human beings. To change the power balance, the teachers planed a curriculum to induce students to end up with the idea on the nuclear power, which is totally similar to their opinions.

In 2025, another nuclear disaster happened in Shizuoka, a small town 200 km west to Tokyo. In opposition to the reaction in 2011, people are calmer and more rational about the incidents than that in 2011. On the other hand, there are extremely radical people who make a hate speech on radioactive contaminations. They are youth who learned in classed manipulated by the teacher who are strongly against nuclear disaster. The youth raised their voice with shouting how dangerous radiation is, and people should not eat any foods from around Shizuoka even though the government investigations guarantees their securities. They go to more extreme and insists that people who live near the area should be isolated as they might be contaminated from radiation. The mood starts perpetuating that supporters of nuclear power is obsolete, conservative and opposed to international standard. People in favor of nuclear power hesitate to make a comment positive or even neutral to nuclear power to avoid being considered self-interested.

Six months after the disaster in Shizuoka, the anti-nuclear power activists’ voices are getting louder and louder. They can do anything in order to close nuclear power plants. If there are not energy enough to supply for some areas, they build hydropower plants, wind power plants or something by forcing out residents or harm their health. Nobody can make any comments to doubt this movements as they are afraid of stepping out of line. Free discussions eventually end up with no discussion.

Observing the movement and presence in Lobby 10

In my project to learn more about the way movement can be used to enable vulnerability and convey embodied knowledge, I knew it would be important to better understand how students move and carry themselves through a public space (and how that differs based on gender identity). To do so, I conducted a fly-on-the-wall observations for approximately 30 minutes (from 10:10-10:42pm) in the lobby of Building 10 last week.

Heading into the observation, I had a few questions:  how do male and female-presenting people carry themselves— are there differences? How do they move through space? How much space do they tend to take up? How do they physically notice and react to things?

I was first aware of the time and space that I was conducting the observation. Lobby 10 is not a space that invites people to linger or convene. While it is far more open than the infinite corridor around it, it is often passed through without second thought by students. It is enough of a landmark that it could serve as a meeting point, but late at night, it is primarily a place that students tended to pass through on their way to Barker Library or to the Student Center before the restaurants and convenience store closed.

As I sat on a bench near one of the ends of Lobby 10, I observed two trends stuck out to me. One was where people looked as they walked through the space.  Most people looked at their phone. But for those who weren’t, I noticed a slight divergence between men and women. Men were much more likely to make eye contact with me than women. Once our eyes met, the male pedestrians tended to have one of two reactions- to quickly look away (before potentially looking back) or to hold eye contact in a way that generally seemed menacing or confrontational. While these two trends repeated themselves again and again, one man looked above me, so as to keep me in his peripheral vision without directly looking at me. On the other hand, only one woman made eye contact with me; others did not look in my direction. They generally kept their focus to the path ahead of them.

Another phenomenon that I observed was the way people would physically lean towards or away from others when they were walking in a group. When a two or three people were walking together (and there were never more than groups of three during my period of observation), women were more likely than men to physically turn their bodies to slightly face the person they were speaking to. Pairs of men would often walk parallel to one another, looking straight ahead even as they held a conversation. On the other hand, women seemed to lean in or tilt their shoulders to connect with the person they were speaking to. There were a few men who did this with other men, but this was much less common. This seems like a sign of attentiveness and vulnerability.

Their platform

“Can you help me out one second?” asked Jason leaning back in his chair in the almost empty newsroom.

“Something’s not working.”

“I said something is not working,” he repeated but this time loud enough to cut through the noise cancelling in his web producer’s headset.

“Huh…?” she said removing the ear muffs while swirling in her chair.

“The story won’t publish. The Platform says it’s violating the policies on accuracy.”

“Oh, let me see…”

Miriam quickly tapped through the slides on Jason’s monitor.

“You need to add another source. After the whole fake news brouhaha, they insist we source experts on both sides on any subject.”

“God…! Nobody in their right mind can argue that climate change isn’t happening.”

Miriam shrugged, and turned back to her own monitors: “Platform policy, man…”

“I miss the good old days,” replied Jason, mostly to himself.

His and most other news company had moved their publication onto the biggest social media platforms. Frustrated and tired of playing catch up they had given up on running their own websites and apps.

Gone where the days were they wrote bug reports and tickets that we rarely done by the overburdened development department that struggled to keep up with the latest personal data regulation and the ever changing in app browsing that broke the presentation of their stories.

The big platforms provided all of that, but much smoother, better and an audience. And it was free.

All of the news company’s developers and most of the technical people had been let go and replaced with cheaper “content producers” that could reach a wider audience through social media than they would ever be able to on their own platform.

And with no website to build for the editorial developers were also let go. Most were picked up by the platforms.

“This is not the only opinion on the matter,” Jason typed into his last slide before adding the extra source.

Then he just sat for a bit. Sighed and pressed “Publish”.

The rise of the TechniK-crats

It’s the year 3100. Climate change, political wars, and human greed would have led to the ultimate demise of Earth if not for the rise of the TechniKs-crats. Disillusioned by centuries of political incompetence, the TechniKs-crats came to power almost 300 years ago in a final bid to save the human species from themselves. Brandishing their rhetoric of TechniK-capitalism – a political order that heralds technology as the savior of human ills –  they established the New Earth.

Under the new political order, entertainment is a means of livelihood for 99.9% of the New Earth’s population. Citizens live to entertain and entertain to live. This rhetoric pervades every aspect of life; from social interactions to political structures, the TechniKs-crats track their citizens entertain-o-meter via a gut-inserted electronic pill (i.e. The Pill) implanted at birth. Citizens are required to clock 8 hours of entertainment each day. Failure to do so would activate The Pill’s shock waves, keeping citizens awake and alert all night long.

With the rise of the TechniK-crats, prisons and jails gave way to The Library. Located in every district, The Library institutionalizes citizens who deviate from the philosophies of the New Earth. Here, punishment, unlike in the distant past, is no longer solitary but public and social; prisoners are put on display for social entertainment and public shaming. Citizens’ failure to meet their daily quota of 8 hours of entertainment (and many do, as happiness, joy, and laughter are scarce under the Technik-crats) pay a small fee to visit The Library each day.

In The Library, punishment and torture are gamified. Citizens select their prisoner of choice from a database categorized by crime, age, gender, and ethnicity. Once selected, citizens are brought into a windowless white room where their prisoner of choice is housed in a glass cage. Citizens enter the minds of these prisoners via a virtual portal. Once in their minds, citizens gain access to the deepest, darkest parts of their soul, free to exploit their consciousness and memories however they wish to do so. Outside, these scenes are projected on the walls of The Library to satisfy the cheap thrills of passersby seeking to add extra minutes to their daily entertainment quota.

While citizens experience the psyche of the prisoners through a virtual world, these events have visceral ramifications on the prisoners. If citizens choose to revisit the “crimes” of these prisoners for public shaming or physical torture, these events are experienced by the prisoners in real-time. Beyond curbing physical liberty, the TechniK-crats intentionally designed a system of punishment to severely limit mental and emotional freedom. Prisoners, once institutionalized in The Library, are vaccinated with an anti-death elixir; they are held as prisoners, of the New Earth and their bodies, forever. Meanwhile, pain – physical, mental, emotional – lives on and on and on….

How a Misguided Attempt to Prevent Disaster Created, Instead, a Much Worse Disaster

(Sarah+Adiel)

Everything seemed fine when plans for a new disaster relief program in Puerto Rico were first released, but that’s how these stories always go. The two students masterminding the endeavor came from the renowned institution of MIT, both were being trained as architects, and everyone thought they would be prepared for the task.

The project began with a simple data analysis of tree damage during Hurricane Maria. The island’s foliage had, under the force heavy wind and water, been responsible for much of the damage to homes and property of Puerto Ricans. The rainforests were ravaged by the storms, and the trees posed threats to not only the people of Puerto Rico, but also to its wildlife. The hurricane was able to uproot the forests and leverage the mass of hundred-year-old trees against those living on the island. The trees were marked as a threat, and the MIT students proposed a project that would reduce that threat.

Little did they know, their mitigation strategy, cutting down trees to minimize damage from flying debris, would cause large scale psychological damage to the people of the island. The previous hurricane, like most others, had destroyed most of the islands tree coverage. The image of bare street, debris, was a well known trigger for the survivors. Cutting down what little green that still remained, only worsened the existing psychological condition. The naked streets were a constant reminder of the severity of the islands present situation. The loss of their homes had driven away each any every bird. The island was now naked, and uncomfortably silent.

The mitigation plans had been backed by concrete science. But what was misunderstood, was that this “science” was just one perspective on a larger interconnected system. While trees, and debris in general, could become projectile, and cause damage during hurricane events, they also helped to stabilize the soil, slow down landslides, control flooding, and provide habitats for wildlife. First, there was a drastic reduction of the wildlife population, as animals were forced to compete for shelter in rocks and human-made structures. Tourist began booking vacations to other islands…ones with shade. Complaints of sunburn became common. Local farming became impossible without the shade of the trees, and Puerto Rico became even more reliant on imports. Slowly, with the removal of all of the island’s trees, soil began eroding with each consecutive rainfall, sinking to the bottom of the sea. The island was slowly becoming flatter. Puerto Ricans began moving away, until today, we have no record of anyone still remaining on the island.

Then, just this morning, hurricane Tim had hit as a Category 5! And the island…if you could call what was left an island…was washed away entirely.

 

PRAVDA – AI Accountability Dystopia

PRAVDA

“James, you must press the button now.” CRUX’s raspy voice says on his ear piece.

In front of him, his index finger lies on top of the button. James doesn’t really know what to do now. Part of him says to believe in the command he has received. But it just doesn’t feel right.

Feelings are not allowed. He learned that on his first day of training. It was then that his instructor explained to him that there was no reason to have feelings in his position. They would just stand in his way of making concrete, rational choices. James vividly remembers the crispy sound of the word rational when the instructor said it, because of his slow pronunciation.

CRUX says it again. He is supposed to press the button, he knows it. Time seems to move slowly, dragging on as his mind races.

When in training, he was always trying to do his best. Not that it was very hard, everyone seemed to do really well, because the job is incredibly easy (and plain boring most of the time, he ponders). But he learned quickly to scan through all the symbols, images, mappings and text in his visor screen. On his ear piece CRUX’s monotone voice would point him to the most crucial aspects of the analysis, and walk him through to a conclusion.

He always felt they were working together. CRUX was always able to find patterns, inconsistencies, and directions in the data. He was the human, though, he beared the consequences of the decisions they made. That’s why, although his position was really boring most of the time, he felt useful. He was the safeguard, the human component.

“Press the button now”. It’s horrifying, he thinks. He can’t believe that he’s about to do it. Why? What for? He knows it can’t be undone once he presses it. But CRUX’s harsh-sounding voice insists. “James, you must press the button now.”

CRUX’s decisions, he learned during training, are made through evidence-based mathematically-sourced statistically-efficient JQuiL-approved and seal-stamped accountability, ethics and transparency. He, himself, had to spend many days to understand the basics of the way the system works: complex formulas, democratic societal input, non-Evolutionary Key Bindings. It was complex, layered, and hard-to-grasp.

Now, his visor indicates the situation is critical. Written in bold letters on his screen it says: PRESS THE BUTTON. James knows it’s all on him now. How could it be that this could be the right thing to do? No matter what he saw or heard, he knew it was impossible. But the system ordered him to. He knows the system is not only precise, but absolutely trustworthy. It has been tested and reviewed by the brightest, most inquisitive minds.

But deep down he knows it can’t be right. It just doesn’t make sense, no matter how he looks at it. Why should he, the safeguard, bow to something he doesn’t agree with? But CRUX has never been wrong, he knows that too. It was created to be as close as possible to perfection. He can’t say the same about himself. Could it be that he has gone mad? Could it be he has simply missed something, he was not updated on new policies? Could it be he just doesn’t get it?

He knows the consequences are devastating if he doesn’t press the button. Is he willing to trust his defective self that much? Right now, he doesn’t now. Words flash on his visor, CRUX’s voice insist: “You must do it. Accept the truth.” His finger gets heavier and heavier, and he can feel the cold button on his index finger. He doesn’t know the truth. He must press the button.

And so he does.

 

 

Reflection and Consequence Mitigation Strategy 

In the story, I wanted to reflect on AI making a decision that we disagree. In the story, James is put against CRUX (the AI). He is just there as a safeguard, he is liable to the consequences and so must make sure that they are well-thought and correct. But, as we get to see, he is not permitted to disagree because he is a human, and his “knowledge“ is considered inferior to that of the machine (epistemic injustice). I was also considering what happens when accountability becomes a stamp that can put in products: CRUX is reliable and trustworthy, so it cannot make mistakes or errors. But that completely breaks when James’ (correctly or not) disagrees with the “objective” analysis of the machine.

I think this exercise on thinking about this dystopia where automated decision making defines very important things, and humans are used just as impotent safeguards, makes me consider that the framing of AI accountability could be hijacked to create things that are not accountable at all. The idea that we need to have more ethical machines can be taken at face value and not consider the systemic construction of the machine, our intrinsic knowledges as humans, and how it is ultimately impossible to create something that is “the truth”.

There is also a consideration about how transparency may not really mean very much in this context. Although James knows the basics of how the machine works, and the machine even walks him through the decision, he can’t really go through it the same way as the machine can. The machine’s transparency also becomes one of the reasons why he trusts it.

I think what this story tells me is that I’m afraid that AI accountability, ethics, transparency, all of that can be coopted to privilege the machine itself and its decisions, instead of making us more critical/conscious of it. I think that one of the main mitigation strategies for this is really understanding that we also need to question “the truth” of the machine, its epistemological basis, and not give power to the idea that we can just “fix” the bias that we spot on machines and that is it, we are done. There is no seal of approval for accountability.

The unruly and strange administration

The faraway land of the Unruly and Strange Administration (U.S.A) had long been known amongst the members of its galaxy for its unruly and strange administrative policies. 5000 years ago, a senile but well-loved ruler of the nation took it upon himself to rewrite the constitutional laws that had governed his country for millennia. Inspired by the ancient Broadway show Hamilton, he decided to institute his own system of voting democracy in his country. “Our nation will be the freest democracy that has ever lived!”, he declared. Due to his professed enthusiasm for fun and enjoyment, he decided that all parties should be led by people who were popular and could put on a good comedic show for his citizens when the nation was met with dire situations like famine or the mythical economic recession of 2008. What better way was there to make sure his citizens were happy, he thought, than to ensure that the leader of the U.S.A. would always be a professional jokester — a clown, one might say? He knew that a good leader needed to be able to make his people laugh. Upon feebly muttering the words “democracy”, “clown”, and “none of this will affect me anyways” to his scribe, the old ruler rolled over and died.

The people of the U.S.A. were devastated by this turn of events and saw to it that their beloved ruler would go down in history, and that nothing he said would ever be questioned or rewritten. For centuries, they continued to elect the sons and grandsons of their beloved old ruler, priding themselves on not only their individual loyalty but the loyalty of the entire nation to the legacy of this man who had changed their lives. With each generation, the sons became funnier and funnier, coming up with innovative and fresh jokes such as “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Knock knock, who’s there?”. To compensate for the lengthy time they spent laughing at their leaders’ jokes, the citizens of the U.S.A. worked harder and harder each day during their working hours to make sure they could support their families as well as the national leader’s comedic pursuits. The U.S.A made a name for itself as one that upheld its original naming, and the other leaders of the galactic planets looked on with equal amounts of amusement and bewilderment.

However, this happy state could not last forever, and slowly the sons of the original leader of the U.S.A became less popular with the citizens of the country due to the strange and whimsical policies the leaders were implementing. The streets started to become filled with whisperings of the possibility of electing new leaders. Young people with big dreams started to get a twinkle in their eyes, thinking that maybe they too could train for a career in comedy and government and become head of the freest democracy in the galaxy. When the administration heard these rumblings of revolt, they knew they had to do everything they could in the two years before the next election to stay in power. After all, every leader in the nation’s history had maintained power until they retired from old age. It would be unforgivably embarrassing for the current leader to lose power due to a vote.

When it came time for the election, the administration was ready to make sure nothing would go wrong. Of course, they loved democracy and giving everyone a chance to vote. The only thing they were doing was making sure that some people had an easier time than others voting — but no one was being actively stopped. They purchased new high-tech voting machines that only listed one ballot option until the user entered a secret password. They instituted a new policy where voters had to pay $5 to unlock other candidate options once those options were revealed. And in exchange for signing lifetime contract working overtime shifts in government administration, voters could purchase a lifetime option to vote for other candidates. “We believe in fairness and democracy,” the leaders said. “We just believe that you have to work hard to get the things you love.”

With every subsequent election, the leaders implemented new measures to keep their family in power. The results of the elections always turned out to be 51%-49% in their favor, forcing them to stay on their toes to think of new creative solutions to their problem. When voters in certain areas all decided to combine forces and vote against the leadership, they built 10ft high walls in their neighborhoods to split them up and group them with status quo supporters. They also made sure to monitor when their dissidents were busy working and only opened the polls at that time. Sometimes all of this still didn’t work out in their favor, so the leadership decided to throw these particularly annoying people in prison instead.

The people finally decided to put their feet down and create a project to stop this from happening. They phoned and interviewed people who had been trying to stop all of this voter suppression from happening for centuries and learned from their advice. They decided that they needed to split up their forces because the country was simply too big for all of them to tackle at once, and they needed to reach as many citizens and legislators as possible. After they split up, they started getting to work. In each of their individual communities, the organizers started hosting sessions in community centers where they distributed new and easily accessible ID cards to dissident voters, and they introduced ballots to try to get some of the millions of dissidents who had been locked up out of prison.

The ID card programs were extremely successful and the voter registration rate grew tremendously, setting a new record of citizen engagement that had never been seen again since the passing of the original ruler of the U.S.A. But close to the presidential election day, the organizers woke up to terrible news. They had mistyped one of the names on the ID cards, and the administration had quickly snatched up the misprinted card and spread its photo as well as the names of the organizers across the entire galaxy. “They are trying to ruin democracy,” the leaders said. The organizers were called fraudsters and decried for attempting to create a legion of voters using fake IDs to overturn the government. They were named enemies of democracy and all the ballots that they had worked hard to introduce in their communities were annulled immediately.

Perhaps the worst outcome of it all was that everyone who had signed petitions to get the ballots to be passed and every single citizen who had registered for an ID card through the organizers’ community sessions was immediately identifiable by the leadership as potential dissidents. People who did not already have access to ID cards before the programs were generally poor and enemies of the leadership, so it was easy for administrators to make this kind of distinction. All organizers and voters who had been exposed as enemies of democracy were thrown in prison and put to work there to revitalize the economy and teach them a lesson about trying to obstruct the will of the people.

“It’s all just a big joke,” said the president. “Those people didn’t matter anyways.” He pointed to the incredible economic growth that had happened since prison labor had begun to be used to produce basic necessities. All the remaining citizens laughed along at the unruly and strange way that their beloved president had managed to save the day again.

The End of US Dominance: How a Hackathon Brought a Superpower to its Knees

Slumped over on the couch in his dusty living room, Ethan thought longingly of the days where Americans still had a safety net. He remembered an uncle who had run into some trouble after being laid off from his job after the 2008 financial crisis, but he got by on food stamps until companies started hiring again. That reality seemed like a distant past with the current regime dismantling every service the government used to offer. He didn’t mind it at first – the lack of government oversight in every part of his life seemed nice. Lower taxes, less forms to fill out, no more big brother watching you at every step. But slowly, the lack of government oversight made companies start to go rogue. They started cheating customers, colluding and raising prices, and the economy rapidly deteriorated as the outside world shunned American companies and jobs started disappearing. Now here he was, without a job and wondering where his next meal would come from.

Ethan started thinking back to how all this started, if he could’ve done anything to prevent it. It seemed like such an innocent idea at the time – a hackathon to help solve gerrymandering. They brought in the brightest minds and civic leaders from MIT, Harvard and DC to try and solve the ever-present problem of gerrymandering. People were more motivated than ever before after seeing the 2018 midterms where the Democrats won the popular vote in the house by 7 points, yet didn’t gain anywhere near the proportion of seats that represents that population. Out of that hackathon, 2 CSAIL students and a political scientist wrote the first version of what would eventually become Aequitas, the software that caused this whole mess. He wondered for a minute how they felt today, knowing that their project ended up bringing the US to its knees and destroying the lives of millions of people. He remembered the first time he saw the software in action. The two students and the political scientist had continued working on the project after the hackathon and eventually spun it into a startup. They came by the Media Lab one day to give a talk, giving a great example of how an interdisciplinary approach can create new value. The software seemed simple enough, taking in mountains of demographic and past election data, creating different district lines and running it through tens of thousands of simulated elections to ensure that the district lines were fair. It finally seemed like the answer we could present to the courts, a scientific way to ensure and measure fairness when redistricting in 2020.

In some ways, that employee that stole the code was smarter than all of us. None of us saw the potential of the software to be used for the exact opposite of what it was meant to do, but he did. He saw that the algorithm was so powerful that he could use it to figure out how to draw district lines so that even 10-15% of a state could win the majority of their delegates. He knew that if he could deploy it in the right places this could finally give him the America he always dreamed of.

Nobody really knows what happened for the few months after he stole the code. Who he took that software to, how long it took them to perfect it. All we know is that somehow it made its way to the anarchist party in Pennsylvania, and while the rest of the country was using the software to create fair districts they figured out how to use it to steal 11 of the 18 house seats in Pennsylvania. Some of the news outlets picked it up, noticing how a bunch of “Independents” managed to suddenly win 11 seats within the same district. The country was too excited by Aequitas though, we had finally had a fair election in over half the states that had adopted the software to draw their district lines. Nobody noticed that in Pennsylvania, a small group of people was slowly staging a coup. It wasn’t long before they took over the state government of Pennsylvania, and once they had that foothold they started to send their people to other states they thought were vulnerable. In some ways, it was ironically impressive that a group that so vehemently believed that a central government shouldn’t exist was able to run so efficiently. In 2022, Ethan remembered the majority in something like 14 states. Or maybe it was 15. Who cares though, Ethan thought. By the time the presidential election in 2024 came around, it was already too late.

They took 305 of the 435 seats in the House that year, and they finally had enough power to start dismantling the Federal government. That president didn’t have a speck of scandal on her, the country was still prioritizing morality and character in a president after the debacle of President Trump. It only took two months for the first impeachment resolution to pass in the house. Then when the Senate hearings didn’t produce anything (as expected, Ethan scoffed), the second impeachment came out. Then the third and the fourth until it was clear that the House was holding the president hostage until she quit. It wasn’t clear at that time why they were trying to remove her since the Vice President would just continue the Democratic Party’s policies, but the public would soon find out. After she refused to yield even after the fifth impeachment hearing, the House started blackmailing the cabinet members. They knew while they couldn’t remove the president, they had enough power to ruin every cabinet member’s life. So we didn’t hear anything for a few months, and then it all happened so suddenly. Ethan remembered walking into the common space in the Media Lab and seeing tens of students glued to the screen, listening to the Vice President with all the cabinet members behind him saying that they were invoking the 25th Amendment. They didn’t think the president was fit to lead the country anymore, and after months of trying to remedy the situation they had no other choice. He remembered being confused but thinking at that time that if all the cabinet members agreed there must be something that provoked it. There was only a year left till the next election anyway, so the Vice President would probably just keep the country functioning until the next president was able to come in.

Of course, that’s not what happened. The Vice President was part of the anarchists all along. They had convinced an upstanding public servant like Cory Booker that government was no longer needed, and that only he had the power to implement the change that America so desperately needed. With the President and the House in their power, the dominos started falling. Agency after agency was disbanded, and every executive order was more militant than the last. They declared a state of emergency for no reason, suspended the 2024 presidential election and nothing has changed since. Six years have gone by, and the country is a shell of its former self. Half the country is unemployed, there’s barely enough food to go around and almost every country has refused to take any more refugees from the US. To think, all of this started with a simple hackathon and a piece of software. Maybe we should have realized that a little voter suppression with gerrymandering wasn’t the end of the world, especially if we knew what would happen when we tried to finally fix it.

Nutrition Justice – Three Design Methods Applied

Shadowing: For nine hours, I accompanied an African American community leader and urgan gardener in LA, as he held meetings with neighbors, planted in his garden, and held more meetings with sponsors, well-wishers, and potential investors. It was interesting to learn that despite high unemployment rates in his community, he could not find gardeners to train because of a gardening mindset problem. African Americans in his neighborhood equate gardening with slavery, so they want nothing to do with it even if it promises economic opportunity and self-sufficiency. This community leader has the tough task of changing mindsets and subsequently running an educational campaign on the benefits of being a gardener and growing one’s own food.

Foreign Correspondent: I interviewed a local urban gardener and community leader in Lagos, Nigeria to understand their needs and challenges. I anticipated comparing it to the needs of other urban gardeners in the US. The urban gardener confirm that while some irrigation tools were expensive to acquire, they had all they needed to grow food locally – seeds, land, demand from customers and local labor. What they lacked was a technology platform to facilitate connections from gardener to customer at scale. What we take for granted in the West – a simply created Wix website, turns out to still be a challenge in the Global South.

Five Whys: When visiting the community leader of a successful art program in Boston, I asked her five whys in four areas:

  • Why did you decide on an art program instead of STEM?
  • Why did you select this community in Boston?
  • Why did you decide to focus on youth?
  • Why do the youth keep returning?

The take-aways were illuminating: neighborhoods are smaller than we imagine and are defined by the residents, who communicate with and are close – personally and proximity – to certain streets. Locally-drawn lines (think zip codes and subdivisions) do not help to understand what constitutes community closeness.

How Nutrition Justice Becomes Fatal

We already know how the story of the Green Revolution evolves. Norman Ernest Borlaug, the American agronomist and humanitarian, who led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production gave us accessibility of wheat and saved over a billion lives. What we also know if that it has not eradicated hunger and has brought forth a variety of problems including dependence on fertilizers, desertification and soil degradation, monoculture, food waste, and the associated effects of water waste (aquifer depletions and chemically-affected soils). Why not find another way to feed our growing population without harming our environment? How harmful can growing small portions of food in your backyard and sharing the excess with your neighbors? It worked for us during both world wars.

It seems to make sense as a solution with benefits that are the opposite of every side effect of the Green Revolution. Growing a small selection of a variety of culinary herbs, fruits and vegetables at home, which can feed your family is the opposite of monoculture, water waste (66% less water than lawn needs), requires no fertilizer to destroy soil and reduce produce quality, and alleviates the pressure of growing large of food to sell. But what if I live in Ohio and want to consume mangoes? What if I live in a landlocked state or country and want to enjoy consuming lobsters? What if cicadas, drought, or other natural disasters threaten our organic raised beds? What if geo-engineering produces so much monoxide that it wipes out our crops? Since we are aware of the risks of currently known agricultural, political, social, and geopolitical concerns of today (and at the time of victory gardens), we will explore the social challenges of an unforeseen catastrophe in the context of geoengineering.

Climate engineering, mostly known as geoengineering, aims to manipulate the global temperature by changing solar radiation or atmospheric carbon concentrations, i.e., by modifying the Earth’s albedo. It is the engineering of our climate to infuse certain gases into the atmosphere to encourage precipitation and several environmental outcomes caused by climate change including combating drought, and floods. The social science behind the effects of geoengineering on agriculture needs more supporting research. Here’s the social challenge: At least two billion people have backyard gardens by 2030 globally, eat hyper-locally, and nutrition justice is achieved. Hunger is reduced to a whooping 2%, people are self-sufficient (food-wise), and food is seen as a basic right. What potential agricultural disasters and socioeconomic costs would result from geoengineering over Africa? On the agricultural front, all food gardens are destroyed due to chemicals in the atmosphere. Given our current penchant for garden to table experiences, most Africans only have two weeks of food stored inside the home. Governments call for halting of the geoengineering activity and ask for food donations from other continents. Since monoculture is long dead, every other continent only has two weeks of food storage. First, theft, unrest, and occur during the first four weeks, then the effects of widespread hunger – wars, intense famines and deaths begin to occur in subsequent months. Could a continent be wiped out due to a short-sighted view of sustainable nutrition justice?

Where did we go wrong? Perhaps industrial agriculture – and wheat and corn – is not as terrible as we assumed. Perhaps the solution to creating sustainable diets for all and achieving nutrition justice involves a mixture of both monoculture and permaculture (producing a natural variety of produce in a given locale) in a sustainable ratio. It is clear that policymakers need to construct a decision-making framework based on their ethical, political, and economic principles on local food production, food storage, and of course, geoengineering. Finally, researchers must provide insight into future global food governance structures, given all of the principles and pathways available for sustainable development in the context of nutrition justice.

Fiction and Mitigation Strategy

Note: I wrote one 2 page document that combines both anticipation of negative outcomes as well as a description for how to mitigate the disasters.

Following the insights of my “comparative and historical analysis” of how both Harvard and Stanford, the most wealthy schools in America, have designed and staged their interventions on the rape crisis at their universities. Through these interviews, I realized that many solutions already exist, and that the most valuable ground to break is in cultural interventions. As many have pointed out, this problem is so intense because our culture puts a ton of emphasis on sex and marriage, yet we do not provide the educational resources for most people to understand how to navigate this terrain of historical conditioning that is ripe with gender inequalities. As a result most people employ outdated or deeply misguided behavior “scripts” that hurt themselves and others. Both Stanford and Harvard have been ramping up their educational interventions to address the social aspect, but these efforts are brand new and are still being finessed. Both employ an intersectional “ecosystem” of identities approach that encourage perspective taking and cognitive mapping in order to help cis-gender men understand how the socialization of their identity harms both them and others. The education also works to make individuals aware of the social scripts they adopt. For example, the “hook up” script which is a goal-oriented script that prioritizes male pleasure. As Moira Weigel has pointed out, a particularly salient and toxic aspect of our culture has been to historically depict heteronormative relationships as “the battle of the sexes as a kind of market competition, where women barter sex for love and men do the opposite. In this exchange, not only is dating work for women and recreation for men. Desire itself is a liability. If a seller knows you want to buy, he knows you can get more”(254). Therefore, my intervention is targeting “the dating market” as a site in which to diffuse cultural “re-programming and education” in order to break down these scripts that the market place operates on, thus turning it in on itself.
There are many ways in which this could go wrong; the extreme versions also give insight into how the intervention may go wrong in more subtle ways. The first that comes to mind is that in infusing cultural education into the dating market place, men who identify as “Incels” (involuntary celibates) may be either inflamed by the idea that people might dare to threaten the revenge fantasy that their entire lives operate on. According to Wikipedia, incels are mostly white, male and heterosexual; their discussions with each other online are often characterized by resentment, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, misogyny, racism, and a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people. This subculture group has already committed at least 4 mass murders than have resulted in 45 deaths. In a solution gone wrong, the educational platform would flare up the negativity of the incels by leading them to believe that the educational messages that plea for men to think critically about their identities is just another way in which others are oppressing them; which in a worse case scenario, could result in violence against the groups I am trying to protect. While this is an extreme case, there’s a less extreme version that also would be a bad outcome: if men are made to think that they are to blame for their social conditioning to the degree that they become so entrenched with self-hatred that they are unable to change, and thus end up exacerbating the problem. The incels show us that masculinity is a very fragile thing. On one hand, how our culture codes masculinity creates problems for everyone. And yet being emasculated is also a traumatic thing for many men. As a mitigation strategy, I would suggest that these educational tools be developed collaboratively with men who once operated on these scripts, and have been “converted” through the existing educational systems at Harvard and Stanford. These men are easy to identify: they have a role at each school that deals expressly with these men. I spoke with the woman at Harvard in depth about this role. She said that the emotional labor of having to sit through the process with men as they process and come to understand how their social conditioning they have been operating on is flawed because it harms others. A mitigation strategy would be to develop the educational tools to market to these men in a way that incentivizes them to learn how to disassemble their own identity without the identity flaring up and being threatened by the process. Another mitigation strategy would be to employ humans or have very intelligent bots who could perform the same role as I described; these bots or humans would act as emotional support for men grappling with their identities and ask the right questions to get them to self reflect.
Another disaster would be to inflame the anger of women and non-gender conforming identities in the non-privileged position against men and other identities who oppress them. This seems pretty unlikely, given that I can’t think of a single historical example of “women committing violence against men because they realized how oppressed they are,” but I won’t rule it out as a possibility. This would theoretically flip the gender binary of privilege and power on its head, allowing women to group together and dismantle men in anger. Even as I type this, I wonder if that’s what the #metoo and #timesup movements are about: women realizing that our culture has gaslit us to believe that we are nothing more than a body for male pleasure, an object in the field, incapable of subjectivity and taking sudden and extreme revenge in order to restore justice. Realizing that they have been gaslit by social messaging to relinquish any agency that they do have must be very difficult—even as someone raised on feminist literature and theory, I still fall into depression about it sometimes. In my own, more begin case as an example, even having women fall depressed at realizing how much of their lives and identities are built on a sort of self-repression, self-denial, and self-hatred would also be a net-negative because it would lead to resignation rather than empowerment. As a mitigation strategy, I would want to work with women to figure out what messages empower them: it may be a better move then for both men and women to avoid going into the history of how they are currently being conditioned and the implications on their present lives, and instead just intervene in the same way that one might “upgrade to a nicer model of car”—using this capitalist logic might be helpful to motivate people to learn self-empowerment and self-awareness and reflexivity as skills they believe will help them perform better on that market… when actually, they are skills that help them to dismantle the negative impact of the market and gender privilege on their lives.
Finally, the last area is that I see how it is tempting to want to focus my intervention on heteronormative scripts because I have personal awareness as a cis-gender straight white female to understand how these works. But as many of the people at Stanford and Harvard have pointed out, these issues effect the non-gender conforming communities as well. For that reason, I’d need to do a lot of research and collaborative design work to understand how identities harm these individuals as well. Intersectional feminism would say that a good solution would be to map all the identities and study how they interact a little bit more; and perhaps that is the use case for AI here… maybe using AI, we can see how an individual enacts their identities in chats with romantic partners, and then offer strategic educational interventions to help them with that particular aspect of that identity. For example, maybe AI can tell if a the identity in the privileged position who has trained to be assertive asks the same question four times in a row to a non-privileged person; this effectively is a sort of violence against that person even though on the surface asking the same question four times in a row doesn’t seem “that bad”. The AI could then target them with an intervention about rethinking the trait of being “assertive” so they can understand how in some cases it may help them, and in other cases it may hurt them. Using Ai then would allow the platform to give more nuanced educational interventions that are specific to how a person enacts their identities.

Breathless politics

There had been a war. Yet, it was a war that nobody could remember. The story line was clear, details less so.

In science departments, I mean, philosophy of science departments, which started to grow in universities all over the world, perhaps around 2020, the inquiry for the true nature of The Truth was discussed in great detail. The political climate was fed up with lies which led to the widespread diagnosis: Relativism and so-called freedom of speech was the core problem of the 21st century’s surge in apparent veracious laxity. The UNCLEAR (United Nations’ Commission for Linguistic Evolution and Attitude Robotics) was to provide the final answer in 2050 about the real nature of The Truth. They did. They also, however, provided an answer explaining the incomputational side of it. Sidestepping that impractical detail, they were otherwise ready to code the long awaited MICDROP (Major Interface of Communication for Dream Observation and Policing). In other words, the solution to the biggest political threat of our time: Communicative falsity. The coding was sincere and its implementation ingenious. Since 2050 was a time that had made the cyborg-human dichotomy meaningless, all humans were then able to be reconfigured by the language of code.

Yet, when the implementation was activated, silence entered the world. For the first time, only birds tweeted along with the sound of wheeled rubber friction. No conversations, no dialogue, no chatter. The human voice had been reprogrammed only to align with the true nature of The Truth, to be the mirror of nature, as a philosopher once wrote. That same philosopher warned against the idea that any such mirror was linguistically possible. And, in truth, it wasn’t.

It was clear that it had to be reprogrammed. After all, it was not writing that was abandoned, only the human voice who spoke untruthfully. So it could easily be recoded. And it was. They invented a piece of code that, through a micro-electrical redirection of the vocal cords, universally could to translate human thoughts into sequences of sound that corresponded to the true nature of The Truth.

A new phase of human culture began. The language of this piece of code had to be deciphered and studied. The relation between human thoughts and their apparently true sounds – yet completely unknown to the human race – was to be understood. But it was impossible. Private emotions never have suited the crudeness of general labels – the so-called public language. Millions and millions of new words came to the fore – and nobody understood each other. The same thought produced different sounds throughout the day. Not even objects – a lamp, a fountain, the sky – were linguistically static. The program failed. Humans were now reduced to animals or less – they could not hold on to their own reality.

Another program, CONSTANT (Communicative Objectivity and Natural Stability Transmission of Answers, Notions and Thoughts), was put forward. It deleted the piece of code that secured the veracity of statements, and instead, more moderately, translated irrational speech into rational speech. As an autocorrect of speech, human rationality prevailed and many emotional arguments were crushed under the paradigm of code. People disagreed, but did so rationally. It was wonderful. Humans finally reached their goal.

After only a couple of days, fine arts began to disappear along with many other irrational domains of human culture. Entertainment, for example, was eradicated. But the public sphere was adjusted rationally by the code’s qualification, and the suppression of emotions made the political climate resemble the harvesting fields of the moon. Nourishing. Yet in vacuum.

The Plan that Goes Wrong

An organization called Male@MIT is founded to provide support for male-identifying students in professional, academic, and social settings. The executive board of the organization aims to host numerous workshops and events for males of different ethnicity and cultures, males from LGBTQ+ community, and males from traditionally masculine or feminine sports. As they try to cater events to numerous subgroups, Male@MIT applies for substantial funding from MIT. This causes a backlash from students and organizations who argue it is not fair to reduce budget for other student groups to provide funding for a group—male—that already benefits much as a social class and experiences many systematic advantages.

The members of the organization tries to defend the purpose of the organization by emphasizing how different subgroups of male gender students have different experience regarding their gender identity, masculinity, social expectations, etc. However, many students continue to argue that such issues can be addressed within cultural and social groups already present on campus. For example, a Hispanic cultural group can host an event regarding how they deal with masculinity in the context of their own culture, norms in American society and on campus, instead of relying on an external event hosted by external board members of another organization who do not fully understand what issues are the most relevant and prevalent to Hispanic male students.

As the debate grows and spreads throughout the campus, there are further objection and hostility from around the campus. Students label Male@MIT as “epitome of first world problem.” Publicity emails are followed by long threads of hate mails and event locations are sabotaged. The members of the organization and students who attend the events are accused of whining about smallest inconveniences while being completely ignorant of many privileges they hold, and their names are called out in public.

Quickly, male students from minor communities, such as minor ethnicity and LGBTQ+, stop being involved in the organization and its events. The organization does not provide strong enough of a support, and it is not worth facing the general hatred associated with the organization. This decrease in diversity further perpetuates criticism against the organization failing to truly embrace and support oppressed and underprivileged male students.

Most active voices from both sides—advocating the existence of Male@MIT and protesting it—are strongly emotional and come from personal and vulnerable experiences. Both sides are unwilling to listen to the other side, and every opposition and disagreement is taken harshly and as a personal attack.

Moreover, the tension spreads to outside the context of Male@MIT and to general student body. Every action and conflict is framed in gender binary context and gender discrimination. Different gender identities are overlooked. More importantly, complex intersection and relationship between gender and other components such as race, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, social class, religious affiliation, ability, etc. are ignored. Everyone is accused of either being the oppressor or playing the victim based on their binary gender identity. People deeply involved in the conversation continuously feel hurt and angry, while many others are exasperated by unending conflict and want to leave the entire conversation regarding gender identity and discrimination.

Over time, gender identity and discrimination becomes a taboo topic, since it causes flame war and heated argument the moment it is brought up. Students find small, homogeneous groups they can belong in without conflict and primarily reside there. There is barely any interaction or exchange between different communities. The gap in people’s level of awareness increases, and people become unaware of how they can simultaneously experience more privileges in some aspect while facing more discrimination in other areas, instead of being strictly in one group.

Interviews (last week)

(apologies for the late post! Adiel and I each thought the other had posted this last week, and realized this week that neither of us had posted it at all…)

We currently have several interviews scheduled, so this post will focus on our first completed interview, which insightful and helpful as we expand our knowledge on our particular topic.

Our project interests, broadly, include probing the organizational aspects of disaster relief (and preparedness) with a particular interest in how communities are involved in these efforts. We are starting by looking at the perceived needs and systemic structures from both the perspectives of the community and from those of the experts/agencies working to provide aid.

With our interview work, we are trying to get a better understanding of this very complex network of systems from as many perspectives as possible, with the hope that we can then find a space–even a small space–within which to intervene.

Our first interview was with David Moses of MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. For those who are unfamiliar with the work of the Lab, “The Urban Risk Lab at MIT develops methods, prototypes and technologies to embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase the resilience of local communities. Operating at the intersection of ecology and infrastructure, rural and urban, research and action; the Urban Risk Lab is an interdisciplinary organization of researchers and designers.”

A few key takeaways:

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. That is, natural occurring phenomena amplify, to the extreme, existing issues, social vulnerabilities, and inequalities. The reference to a “natural disaster” as a term, and concept, works to belittle human agency to make a change.

We learned that the emergency timeline often works as a system of phases. Response, stabilization, recovery, and mitigation. Response is what you might think of when you consider agencies like FEMA or the Red Cross. The later stages, recovery for example, are the messier periods, involving greater strategic organization.

The Risk Lab offers a great example of design working as a conduit between the top down and the bottom up. They work closely with emergency managers, learning how these other experts have established mechanisms to respond to hazards, while also conducting field work and working directly with the victims. Their focus is in systemic changes, designing for long term impacts that can strengthen resiliency, better equipping communities to handle the next disaster that may come their way.

When I asked David how the lab engages with the communities of people who are vulnerable, or may have already experienced a tragic event, he responded simply but clearly,

“We go talk to people.”

When referencing a single project the lab was working on, he mentioned talking to over 150 different people.

Ideo Method: 5 Why’s

Adiel and I have been working together to consider the topic of disaster relief, with a focus so far on Puerto Rico, but an intent to extend our scope to New Orleans (with some related scheduled interviews). In this comparison, we hope to uncover some of the nuances and specificity related to culture, politics, economics, and other broad systems and relationships related to a place that are exacerbated by disaster.

We practiced Ideo’s suggested “5 Why’s” in an interview with Carlos, a Masters of Architecture Candidate at MIT, born and raised in Puerto Rico, and now studying in here in Cambridge. The questions are often simple and seemingly obvious, so we preface this with an acknowledgement of the possible offense that such an oversimplification can bring. Still, the reductive and obvious questions, when compiled, do expose the complexity of systemic issues surrounding the disaster, and how inextricable these issues are from the history and memory of the island.

 

Here is a summarized breakdown of the questions and responses:

S: Why do you think Hurricane Maria was so devastating to Puerto Rico?

C: No one in anyone’s lifetime had seen anything like this. We had seen hurricanes, but there was never something so big–a Category 5. And it went through the entire center of the island, diagonally. It was completely without precedent. Not even in my grandparent’s lifetime. There was a fading collective memory of what these hurricanes are capable of. There was an immediate hysteria–supermarkets were empty–and in Puerto Rico, where all things were imported, the supermarkets only last a week. No one was ready.

S: Recognizing that this is a broader human question, and that it does not need to necessarily be specific to Puerto Rico, why do you think no one was ready for this?

C: It is a broader question, but I think this is culturally specific to Puerto Rico, too. We were not ready because of our authorities, and what our authorities do. We can’t expect people to consider these things on their own accord. People have other things they are worrying about. But we can’t forget about them, either. Hurricanes are not the 100 year flood. This one was maybe a 100 year flood. But still, even those happen.

S: Why do you think the authorities were not preparing people?

C: There’s an economic crisis. Everything that goes into preparing for a disaster costs money. The hurricanes feel intangible. Also, to what extent to politicians care? They are also entrapped in the same culture. It is hard to consider hurricanes when there are also other things to consider–making new jobs, for instance. There are so many other concerns.

S: Recognizing this is a very complicated question, why is Puerto Rico dealing with an economic crisis?

C: It is a really complicated question. A lot relates to our relationship with the US. We rely on it for some many things. Puerto Rico was a manufacturing economy–that collapsed when big companies at home left for abroad. Pharmaceuticals found it was cheaper to produce elsewhere. There were also–and I’m not completely sure about how this works–weird bonds. Foreign investors would buy bonds in Puerto Rico for high profit to them, but would bring huge debt to us. Also, the Fiscal Control Board oversees the financial power of the governor. There’s no autonomy, no say in our own foreign policy. And the Board, appointed by Congress, controls our spending, setting a high percentage of government to go toward paying off an unpayable debt.

S: Why is Puerto Rico in this relationship with the US?

C: It comes back to the Spanish American War in 1898. Puerto Rico was about to be an independent state. But then the US invaded Puerto Rico right when the Spanish would have freed us. It became a territory. It helped the geopolitical strategies of the US. It had a good position; it was a gateway to the Caribbean and a good military post. Then, in the 1940s or 50s the UN was pressuring the US because the US still had colonies when no one else did, so the US had to legalize it. They gave Puerto Ricans citizenship and labeled us as a “Commonwealth.” But that didn’t do anything for Puerto Rico. The governor only has control over local or trivial issues. And now we owe the US money.

 

This process, in some senses, brought what we had expected: the “why’s” exposed broader oppressive systems (economic, political, historical) that are, in many ways, responsible for the response to the disaster. Yet this, I think, comes with less clarity than the transcription suggests, because what is not mentioned are interviews we have done which differ in their responses to similar questions. While these differences are not drastic, they do (rightly, we think) suggest that the linear thinking of the five consecutive “why’s” is also reductive–that this cannot be clearly traced to just one historical condition, but that these “why’s” present one of many possible paths that could have been followed by this interview. We intend for this to suggest the depth of the issue of post-disaster relief in Puerto Rico while not defining it, and not yet beginning to uncover the breadth.

IDEA method “Foreign Correspondents”

The foreign correspondent method unveiled that several issues relating to how Journalists and Developers work together in newsrooms are international. For this I interviewed editorial people that work closely with tech people plus one developer in USA, Canada, United Kingdom and Norway. Many of their take-aways align with my own experiences in Denmark.

  1. There is great potential. Developers bring both new tools to the newsroom but also other viewpoints that can help create better Journalism.
  2. Journalists and developers often have a poor understanding of what the other group does. The interviewed journalists and editorial leaders feel a strong need for the groups to learn from each other. They recommend working closer, embedding developers in newsrooms or employing “translators” to help the communication.
  3. Editorial especially have a lack of knowledge of how long something will take to build. Developers feel that expectations are often unrealistic.
  4. The relationship between editorial and product is more strained than between journalists and developers in a newsroom setting. The lack of understanding seems greater.
  5. Developers need to be put into the mix earlier and be part of the central decisions. They need to be respected as just as creative as journalists. But the business seems to be moving in the right direction on this issue.

IDEO Methods for Climate Change

After reviewing the IDEO method cards, there are a few that I would like to incorporate into my project:

  • Foreign Correspondents: because climate change is a global issue, it is important to include diverse, international views. In addition, knowing more about how other countries tackle climate change will help broaden the ideas that I have for solutions here in the US.
  • Historical Analysis: one of the biggest issues for climate change today is large corporations. I’d like to take time to understand how and why these corporations came to have so much power. This knowledge will enable me to make smart decisions so that the companies are not threatened, but still help to tackle climate change.
  • Long-Range forecasts: this will be necessary for all of the ideas that I propose. Climate change will not be solved immediately, thus it is imperative that the solutions have the right long-term effects in order to truly solve the issue.
  • Role-Playing: though I don’t have a team, I think it would be an interesting challenge to try and put myself in the shoes of those on the other side (the large coal companies, the nonbelievers, etc.). This will help me develop solutions that can reach everyone.
  • Cross-Cultural Comparisons: similar to foreign correspondents, understanding how different cultures view climate change will help generate better solutions that are inclusive.