As I continue to think about how we may be able to really change minds over the long term, I have been regularly struck by just how horrible our society sees being wrong. Apart from a tiny (and privileged) community in the startup world espousing “fail early and often,” being wrong is seen as anathema today. It seems impossible for anyone to change their minds without being ridiculed and embarrassed. And I don’t think this is only for the Big Things nor is it reserved for well-known people.
Until we can de-stigmatize changing one’s mind, we are likely to make very little progress towards ways to actually do so.
As most of us know by now, Republicans in congress recently made it legal for internet service providers (ISPs) to distribute and sell information about us, their customers – including detailed internet usage data – without our permission. Much has been written about the potential dystopian marketing uses of this data, but I have seen little addressing something that could be even more chilling: the use of this data by law enforcement.
There is a recent but deep history of companies providing new data-driven tools to law enforcement. It can be hard to argue with these services on the surface, but repeatedly we have seen abuses which have led some companies to curtail the use of their services by the police. Companies have harvested the public timeline of Twitter, for instance, to provide tools for tracking lawful protestors. Facebook data is available through third parties that allow a level of deep search impossible on the platform itself. And while these services and the use of this data by law enforcement does occasionally result in a feel-good story on the news, the broadening of the use of these tools is concerning.
Thinking specifically about ISP customer data, we know that there will be data of interest to law enforcement. It is, after all, not uncommon for subpoenas and warrants to be issued for this data in certain types of cases. The idea that detailed demographic data coupled with explicit internet usage history could soon be available on every internet subscriber in the country, packaged into a neat, searchable database, must have some members of the authorities salivating. No longer will a case need to be made first, possibly to be backed up with a handful of potentially dubious web searches. Instead, algorithms can easily digest the data as a whole and spit out a list of people who “fit the pattern” of past offenders – maybe this is a list of users visiting known child pornography sites, or maybe it’s a list of us who regularly use encrypted communications, read hardware hacking tutorials, and search for “download Avengers movie” to see which service offers it cheapest.
We have already seen how problematic algorithmic analysis of data sets can be. They are biased, opaque, and lack nuance in their conclusions. Set loose on such a rich data set, it’s not hard to imagine the long list of potential “criminals” that can be manufactured from completely innocent, legal uses of a service they pay for. No warrant will be needed for this data. No oversight required for its use. The data brokers need not even be publicly revealed if their terms of service are properly written. And as laws regarding what is and is not legal or suspicious change, some of this data could damn us well into the future.
Congress has not just handed the marketers of the country with a gift, they have stocked the pond for some very rich fishing expeditions by law enforcement groups throughout the US.
One of the first thoughts I had for a cohesive line of jewelry was political. Not so much on it’s face – on the surface, it was cute even – but it was commenting on something in society very pointedly.* The most recent jewelry I have developed is political not just in its soul, but on its surface as well. See my Resist post for more on those specifics. I have had many other pieces come to mind that incorporate strong social-commentary.
It seems that I may have a specific interest developing.
I have been thinking about some of the ways that political jewelry works and how it plays in society at both the individual and interpersonal levels. While I approached this a bit dubious of the potential for strong impacts (mainly because I was so interested I was sure there was nothing to find) I now believe that there are very real benefits to what jewelry with a political message can do. Below, I’ll speak briefly about some of these. I’m still exploring this line of thought, and will likely be doing so for years to come, so I’m sure there will be future pieces that focus on refinements and deeper thoughts on all of this.
Primarily Personal Benefits:
Expression and Defiance
Right now, every day before I leave my house, I put on one of my Resist lapel pins, buttons, or necklaces. No matter which I choose to wear on a given day, the act of donning that little sliver of speech makes me feel a jolt of energy, of optimism, of strength. I literally feel a little more like I can face each day and do what is required of me when I put on a falsum. Part of it is because I’m declaring to the world that I have feelings on these matters our country is facing. Part is because standing up to authority, even in such a small way, still feels novel or taboo to me and the thrill of doing so is exhilarating. And certainly part of it is reaffirming, every day, that there are actions I can take that will make this world better. There is some piece of fear buried in there as well, because even such a small thing can definitely make one a target.
It may all be anecdotal at this point, but I’m over the idea that my feelings are unique to myself. They may be far from universal, but I’m not a special snowflake.
Supporting a Cause
By buying a piece of jewelry that advocates for a cause, a purchaser explicitly and implicitly supports that cause. This can be the primary reason for many kinds of purchases. When a product becomes, intentionally or otherwise, associated with a cause, it can be the cause that people are supporting with their cash more than even the desire to own the product. With something like jewelry and other durable goods, the remembrance of that initial support is rekindled every time the purchaser experiences that object. I don’t think this feeling of self-affirmation should be underemphasized. While it would be simplistic to call this selfish behavior, it is important to understand that there is a significant personal gain associated with the purchase and wearing of political jewelry. With jewelry in particular, this personal reward seems important.
Finding a Voice and Acceptance
Certainly every artist I know wants to create in a way that resonates, attracts, and speaks to at least some others. While this can, and often is, a purely aesthetic attraction, it is not limited to that. Political jewelry has the opportunity to appeal to wearers both on an aesthetic and activist level. Many items that classify as non-essential likely fall into this category. (Branded apparel, art objects, stickers, etc.) The idea that something resonates with a large crowd brings value to both the creator and the consumer. In cases, it can be the driving force behind the artist’s energy. Without the possibility of such a payoff, some artists surely would pursue different directions in life. But without art that resonates with them, many consumers would not pursue the world of artistic or designed products at all.
Primarily Interpersonal Benefits:
To use the language of online advertisers, wearing political jewelry can help surface content relevant to viewer’s interests. When someone sees another wearing an intriguing piece of jewelry that is either enigmatic or obviously aligned with particular views, the likelihood of a personal interaction between the viewer and the wearer likely increases. This can lead to viewers being introduced to new causes, new voices, and new perspectives. The wearer can similarly be exposed. In the most excellent circumstances, the two can both find new connections and friends.
Certainly I have had this experience multiple times of late due to my daily wear of the falsum jewelry.
Like it or not, we currently live in a capitalistic society. My personal beliefs on capitalism are complex, but we have a very deeply entrenched set of rules for how things are to be rewarded in our society. Part of that includes the exchange of money for just about everything. I think it’s easy to criticize creators for “capitalizing” on hard or tragic events, and surely it happens in inappropriate ways all the time. But apart from independant wealth, a creator has got to eat and, ideally, money for that food comes from selling the creator’s works. It always seems harder when there is a cause involved, especially one as big as the direction of the worlds most powerful country in the years and decades to come. But profiting off one’s creative work is an integral part of how our society currently works. I work really hard to be fair-to-generous when selling my political work, as do many others. People do tacky things sometimes, though.
Solidarity & Conformity
I’ve thought about this deeply and I think it’s best summarized simply. People are more likely to act when they know that they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings. Symbols, as potentially expressed in political jewelry, broadcast the wearer’s beliefs on certain subjects. The idea that others around you share similar thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. It gives us permission to believe the things we believe. It gives us strength to act. This, I think, is possibly the most important part of political jewelry. Wearing it and sharing it gives us strength. Strength makes it possible to act. Only action leads to change.
Additionally, when someone who is out of the loop sees the appearance of a new symbol or motif, whether they know what it means or not, it can put pressure on them to find out what it means and there is a certain social pressure toward believing the same concepts that is exerted.
These aspects and the way they interact are the most interesting concepts of the bunch to me and the one I’ve thought most about. Expect more on this soon.
Surely there are other ways that political jewelry plays with our psyches and societies, but I think this list is enough to convince me to embrace it further. I think that there is a lot of jewelry, a lot of messages, and a lot of study packed into this concept.
* I’m being cagey here only because, after years, I’m in active development on this and talking about current projects in specifics somehow lets the magic out for me. I’ll try to remember to link this post to the project announcement when it eventually comes.
I’ve been thinking about things that we as small groups and individuals can do to temper and eventually turn the frightening political front that the US (and, indeed, others) are seeing at this moment. We know that media plays an outsized role, even compared to the recent past, in the general thoughts and feelings of much of the country and the world. Media companies are corporations, first and foremost (some exceptions exist) and are interested primarily in a continued, profitable existence. With the extreme changes in the media landscape over the last two decades, this is not a certainty for most media corporations and, therefore, they have become much more risk-averse than in the past. This can translate into business strategies much more focused on attracting and maintaining audiences than in reporting fair and accurate news. You can’t be the only outlet not reporting on the scandal of the day lest you loose eyeballs and, therefore, revenue.
However, media – primarily video content – is not about to lose its influence in our daily lives. What I think that we as concerned individuals must do is device new ways to have media work for us, and to spread the messages we feel are important rather than leaving that choice up to profit-motivated newsrooms.
You have likely heard of a “CSA” before – usually meaning “Community Supported Agriculture” but expanded to include “Aquaculture,” and, particularly relevant to this concept, “Art.” In my community, I can participate in a Community Supported Art group which allows about 150-200 people each quarter to pay into a pool which is then distributed among a juried group of local artists, each of whom must create an art object for each of the supporters. I think we can look to this model for inspiration in getting small, targeted bits of media in front of the people who most need to hear our messages.
This is, on the surface, a simple concept:
I envision a group who evaluates submissions from the community on a variety of criteria and then manages the running of the submissions in appropriate targeted groups on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. Supporters pay into the pool on a regular basis (similar to Patreon) and receive updates about which ads were run and potentially engagement reports from interactions with those ads. I would hope that such situations were able to provide some compensation and/or production assistance to those creating the media content as necessary and possible.
In short, we as regular individuals could come together to put small-creator-made ads in front of hundreds of thousands of people who need to hear from anyone outside their echo chamber. We would, in effect, open up those chambers and inject our own little bit of reverb into the echoes.
There are some potential pitfalls. Any tool can be used for good and evil, and there is great potential for harmful mis-use of this concept. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t already happening. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a group running ads targeting LGBT+ youth with messages encouraging self-harm, or one offering assistance to undocumented immigrants which actually handed over their information to authorities. But, while tempting, it doesn’t help to try to keep tactics secret. When used openly, everyone can better understand how they work and can use them, and devise antidotes to them, more effectively.
For my case, I would want to see ads that humanize those who are under the heaviest persecution at the moment and make it difficult for far-right conservatives to other them. I would support messages of unity and warmth, but also a lot of messages of facts – the kinds of facts that make strong conservatives question the stories we are getting from our current administration. (Honest, creative presentation of those facts are key to encourage the necessary engagement.)
I would not personally support groups running aggressive messaging that is more likely to cause a backlash effect than a critical evaluation of beliefs. But that is a choice, not a requirement for such a thing. It makes me wonder whether contributors should have a say in which ads are run and whether voting on a juried selection may be feasible.
The media is a weapon at this point, and I see no way to stuff it back in the bottle, so let’s at least make things as even as we can.
I am really impressed and proud of Lyft this morning. A private company, one that has potentially much to lose under a Trump administration, has sent and email to (all?) customers denouncing the ethically bankrupt actions of Trump with his recent immediate ban on refugees. It’s a deplorable move, and one that embarrasses me as an American. I really think we need many, many more companies to start stepping up and denouncing these actions. After all, corporations are people too, and it seems the only ones the administration will listen to. (The email came with announcement of a generous donation to the ACLU too!)
Defending Our Values
We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe.
This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.
We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other – and together, continue proving the power of community.
John & Logan
Nicely done, Lyft. I hope you inspire others.
[UPDATE: Apple too: http://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/28/tim-cook-on-immigration-order/]