All posts in digital culture

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Trailer for an informative and timely documentary about online privacy, a project by Demand Progress. Check it out and take action.

Happy 4th of July! Now Stop Watching Us.

Taiwanese animation about Prism, Stop Watching Us, and an NSA octopus.

Orwell vs. Kafka: Against nothing-to-hide

In debates about the need to protect privacy, the most common response from people is, “Well, I have nothing to hide.”

Daniel J. Solove in The Chronicle of Higher Education unpacks this reply and provides nuanced arguments about why the usual back-and-forth on privacy is missing a key point.

Solove argues that usually, when people describe the abuses of personal data, they refer to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel describes a harrowing totalitarian government that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. Yet when faced with a Big Brother situation, many citizens may not be troubled by severe government monitoring. Especially if that information is seen as trivial, such as the hotels they stay at, the books they own, or the kind of beverages they drink.

Instead of Orwell, Solove recommends the metaphor from Franz Kafka’s The Trial:

Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The Solove concludes that the real concern is not necessarily the collection of data, but the processing of it.

Legal and policy solutions focus too much on the problems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t adequately addressing the Kafkaesque problems—those of information processing. The difficulty is that commentators are trying to conceive of the problems caused by databases in terms of surveillance when, in fact, those problems are different.

The individual, living in our contemporary all-too-real Trial, is frustrated by a system in which they feel helpless and powerless. It’s not about inhibiting behavior through monitoring, but rather the denial of participation in data processing.

Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts.

It’s a great read.

Berlin’s Media Art Community: A Female Perspective

Last month I was kindly invited by Supermarkt’s founder and curator, Ela Kagel, to speak about my perspective as a woman in Berlin’s media + tech scene. We were asked to share our influences, mentors and key life moments that shaped who we are.

The talk was part of an event called Berlin’s Media Art Community: A Female Perspective with ten female speakers.

Despite this large female contingent, and in a city where the workforce is generally evenly distributed, it is at odds that the theoretical discourse on media art and net activism, executive roles and directorships, as well panelists and participants at events and festivals, are still male-dominated. In a forward-thinking city like Berlin, this ongoing gap should be addressed so that the wider fields of media arts and activism are fully inclusive of the multitude of female skills and viewpoints on offer.

I quite enjoyed hearing the journeys of the fellow speakers, as well as the lively discussion afterwards. (What does feminism mean today? Is gender equality about an attitude or are there systemic forces that need changing? And “If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution!”)

In particular, it was interesting to reflect and share what moments I found pivotal in my life and to learn about the motivations in other women’s lives.

Here are the slides and notes from my talk.


We were asked to discuss what motivates us, who supported us and what were decisive moments in our career. I suppose like most journeys, mine started before my adult career. For me, the most influential activity growing up was playing soccer

From age 5 til now, I played a lot of soccer. And it’s biggest lessons to me were 1) team work and 2) confidence. Team work was hugely important in the adult world, and soccer helped you understand how each person plays their role, and how it comes together to something greater than it’s individual parts.

Soccer gave me that collaborative, psychological framework — and also physical confidence. A lot of young women have body issues. But what I loved about sports was how it made you feel confident and powerful in your body. Soccer showed me another kind of aesthetic. One that emphasized athleticism, strength and its own kind of sexiness.

This is Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal in the Women’s World Cup in 1999. There’s a beauty in her confidence, in her joy and accomplishment. Watching this moment live on TV made me want to be like her, to celebrate with her + her team.

So as I grew up, I kept playing. Even when I was the only woman on the team. I learned not to question why I was there. I learned that if I wanted to play, I had to be confident in who I was and that I belong on the field just as much as the guys.

Liberal Arts

Beyond just playing, I learned about encouraging other women to get on the field, and to celebrate them when they did well. I attended Mt. Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college in New England. It focuses on a generalist’s education, on interdisciplinary thinking. And socially, it really taught me about being supportive and inclusive.

It was a bit over the top, but the women there were so committed to helping each other. At every public event or class, you’d have someone shout “Go, girl!” and cheer each other. Of course there was competition, but the goal was not to discredit or undermine other women, but to celebrate each other’s successes. If felt like if we supported one another, there would be more successful women in the world. And that means there will be a better, more equal society.

Academically, at college there was one professor who was particularly inspiring. Prof. Hartley taught a survey course on the Great Books, reading things like Dante, Plato, and Descartes. We live in an era where the Western Canon is heavily criticized but the original works are seldom ever read. Prof. Hartley encouraged us to read the source material, to build up an historical foundation that we could respond to — and to understand how these thinkers shaped our world today.

The Great Books show us that we’re not the first generation to face deep change — be it technological, social or otherwise. And reading these books, freely and uninhibitedly, should not only be a right, but an intellectual need for humankind. And having access to source material is essential for our education, discourse and self-improvement.

Free Culture

From there, ideologically, it was an easy step to understand why Free Culture is necessary. Around the time I graduated, Lawrence Lessig, prof. at Standford, founded the non-profit Creative Commons. It’s a movement dedicated to making cultural works more accessible, more reusable with legal tools. Lessig was a philosophical mentor. And his arguments about Free Culture won me over so I began working for his organization, Creative Commons.

Working at CC was a huge opportunity to meet a tribe. A globally distributed group of people fighting for the same cause. A tribe that understood the value of collaboration and access to knowledge. But nevertheless, then as now, I would often find myself the only woman in the room.

That’s why I appreciate efforts like tonight’s event. Let’s get more women on the field and encourage them to keep playing. Let’s celebrate their successes together.

And especially here in Berlin, with people like you, we can make shape the world to our values. More free, more open, more participatory. More equal. I’m looking forward to learning from you all tonight and seeing what we can grow together. Thanks for listening!

A Mindcraft Roller Coaster

Pretty impressive Beetlejuice roller coaster in Mindcraft. How many hours do you think it took to build it?

Harlem Shake: The Mozilla Edition

Because it’s never to late to jump on a meme wagon:

from the Reps Training Days in Athens.

Gangnam Gif

Because I should post something for this week’s Iron Blogger, but am a bit brain-dead from traveling:

If you want to sing and along.

Poetic Descriptive Camera

Sometimes half the fun of hatching an idea is thinking through all the silly things you’d do, even if you’re ultimately too lazy to dig in and actually do it.

In this spirit, I’d like to share a hack to playfully disrupt the Descriptive Camera, a project by ITP’s Matt Richardson.

@fascinated, @ProfessorPerl and I planned…but didn’t execute…our poetic intervention. But nevertheless, it’s fun to share the idea even if we didn’t do it.

Descriptive Camera

Matt Richardson’s Descriptive Camera looks like a regular camera. But rather than producing an image of the subject, the camera outputs a text description of metadata describing what’s in the scene.

Richardson’s project highlights an important hang up around information retrieval for images. Most metadata about photos focuses on where the images were taken, with what kind of camera, etc., but very little information is available about what’s actually in the photo. If we had more text descriptions of content, it would be much easier to search and parse images.

As Richardson points out, technology at the moment doesn’t offer affordable solutions for routinely-produced text descriptions yet.

(Although I did find an impressive example of a supermarket scanner that recognizes objects by their visible characteristics.)

Mechanical Turk

Alas, until that edgy Japanese technology is pervasive and recognizes objects beyond bananas and beer, we have to rely on human intelligence to provide text descriptions of photos.

The Descriptive Camera uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to process images into text. After the camera takes a photo, it sends the image to Mechanical Turk. Then a task is offered up to people who pseudonymously agree to write a short description of the photo in exchange for a few cents.

| |  Corner of a wood floored   | |
| |   room with a tool chest,   | |
| |  bike, stack of books, box  | |
| |  leaning against the wall,  | |
| |   an open door with a bag   | |
| |  hanging off the doorknob,  | |
| |     and a pair of closed    | |
| |  double doors with cables   | |
| |   hanging on the handles.   | |
| ------------------------------- |
|                                 |
|                                 |

Poetic Camera

But what if instead of these prosaic descriptions, you had poets writing responses on Mechanical Turk?

How fun would it be to gather some critical theorists, some real wordsmiths deep in the aesthetics of description, to sit on the other end of a Turk request.

They would pen beautiful, imaginative texts describing broom closets and discarded toolboxes.

What would it look like to have all these high-brow writers churned through a “dehumanizing” platform such as Mechanical Turk? A service of menial tasks that are cheaper for humans to do instead of machines.

What role would poetry play, and what would the words look like being printed out of that camera, conveying the sense of a human being on the other end, communicating with you.

| | To ponder workmanships      | |
| | In crayon or in wool,       | |
| | With “This was last         | |
| | her fingers did,”           | |
| | Industrious until           | |
| | The thimble weighed heavy,  | |
| | The stitches stopped,       | |
| | And was put among the dust  | |
| | Upon the closet shelves.    | |
| ------------------------------- |
|                                 |
|                                 |

Images: “Descriptive Camera” by Matt Richardson

A Learning Network for Berlin

There’s a long road ahead to bring Europe’s “start-up darling” Berlin up to par with learning & and the web. Digital literacy and simple computational competencies are often lacking; and there’s no indication yet that Berlin schools will step to fill the gap.*

There’s an important “out of school” role to play with Berlin’s tech-savvy communities and hackerspaces, together with an existing network of media centers and educational activists.


To get closer to a vision of what this could look like, 10 educators, tech community members, and activists met on Wednesday at St. Oberholz for a community brainstorm.

The goal: to map current digital literacy needs & offerings in the city, and to scope possible next steps for a learning network in Berlin.

Connected Learning

One of theories of change driving this discussion is connected learning.

Pioneered by UC Irvine researcher Mimi Ito and the MacArthur Foundation, connected learning is about re-imagining education in the information age. It leverages today’s technologies to meet youth at their interests and passions, realized through hands-on production, shared purpose and open networks.

I personally find this model very promising, as it centers on:

  • actively producing, creating, experimenting and designing
  • valuing the interests of young people to steer their learning
  • cross-generational collaboration
  • harnessing peer culture
  • linking the school, home and local community in an open network
  • and honoring academic achievements.

While the steps we are taking now are small, there are a number of successful learning networks to draw inspiration and mentoring from. Among them Hive NYC and Hive Chicago, as well other models at work in Pittsburgh and other cities.

Berlin: a network for making & learning together

What could such a network look like in Berlin?


  • Visit the Pergamon Museum and get an introduction to new methods in archeology and how to scan for objects underground.
  • After unearthing a digital file of a buried statue from the museum’s learning center, you head to Open Design City, where you pick up the basics of 3D scanning and printing. You print off a copy of the statue based on the museum’s files.
  • Your class had a workshop earlier that year in the Wikimedia Germany community space. So you know the basics of wiki-editing and online research. After digging through articles, you pull up an ancient inscription to go with your statue.
  • Go around the corner to lasernlasern, who helps you etch the inscription into the statue using lasers.
  • You’re really proud of what you made and want to tell the world. The nearest media learning center is a few minutes away. You bring your statue and some photos, and a volunteer helps you set up a blog and a gallery.
  • They tell you about Coder Dojo, a youth-led initiative to learn code, which has it’s first event in Berlin next week. You sign up, eager to make a game about hunting statues and cracking ancient codes.


Needs & Offerings

At the meet-up, we mapped what we already have to offer and what we need.

It was exciting to see that collectively, we have more to offer than we have needs. Lots of important skills at the table (teaching web development, film-making, media theories, entrepreneurship, and more), as well as connections to subject-matter experts, a nation-wide network of education activists, meeting spaces, hardware, time, and even small funding to get started.

The full list is here, and please feel free to add if you something to offer to the network.


Next steps

We decided we needed to test our thinking by running an event.

An event is a concrete way to 1) try out partnerships, 2) gauge local interest, 3) experiment with the curriculum, and 4) have fun.

Together with Fabian, I’m drafting a lightweight scaffolding for a youth pop-up event this summer. Chris Lawrence from Hive NYC has written an excellent piece about how to run one of these events, from which we’ll certainly borrow many ideas.

If you’re interested in:

  • Hosting a learning/hacking station (1-3hr, fun small activity that teaches a skill)
  • Offering a space (large, open space holding 50-100 participants)
  • Volunteering (the more, the merrier!)
  • Recruiting young people (We’re old. Where do we find young people in Berlin?)
  • Spreading the word

Then please join us on June 20 for a planning meeting. Location & time to be determined.

You can follow #hiveberlin for updates and also ping me (@thornet) and Fabian (@fabianmu) with ideas & questions.


Vending Machines of the Future

coke vending machine

No trip to Japan would be complete without a report about their vending machines from the future.

A few years back, when I traveled to Japan for the first time, friends put me on scouting missions:

“Find the robotic vending machine that follows you around Shibuya!”

“Find the SMART car vending machine!”

“Find the umbrella / necktie / lobster / underwear vending machine!”

To varying degrees of success, those were hunted down pretty easily (although I regret never seeing the robotic Coke machine).

This time around, we had our quest to find the facial-recognition vending machines.

facial-recognition vending machine

The machines, developed by a subsidy of the train company JR East Co., analyze your facial features to determine your age and gender and recommend a drink accordingly. They also change recommendations to match time of day and temperature. It uses algorithms such as men prefer canned coffee and women like slightly sweeter drinks.

Sales from these machines have tripled in comparison to regular machines.

The photo is of Peter, disapproving of the machine’s recommended energy drinks, since he in fact wanted an orange juice.

A near-perfect future. ^^

Image: Japan Vending Machine Free Drinks / CC BY-SA 2.0