Sep 22 2011

Journalism for makers

I find myself wondering what it would take to fix the global financial system, but most financial journalism doesn’t help me to answer this question. Something seems wrong here. The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them. It’s not a journalism for the people who will put together the next generation of civic institutions.

My friend Maha Atal – whose profile of incoming IMF chief Christine Lagarde recently graced the cover of Forbes – tells me there are two histories of financial journalism, two types that have been practiced since the dawn of newsprint. One tradition began with lists of market prices and insurance rates and evolved into the financial data services and newswires we have today, a journalism of utility for people who want to make money. The other tradition she called “muckraking,” a journalism which interests itself in shady deals, insider trading, and undue influence. It looks for hypocrisy and offenses against the interests of the broader public.

Service to the status quo, and zealous suspicion of power. Are these really the only two stands that a journalist can take? When I imagine the global financial system improving, actually improving in the sense of changing in a way that makes the lives of very many people better — say, becoming less prone to the sort of systemic collapse that puts tens of millions out of work — I don’t see it much assisted by either of these approaches to reporting, necessary though they might be.

The financial system is just that: a system, sprawling, messy, very complex, built of people and laws and machines. It serves a great many ends, both humane and monstrously avaricious. It won’t be much improved by forcing a few traders to resign in disgrace, or focusing public fury on the bonuses of bank executives (which, obscene though they may be, remain just a drop in the bucket.) It seems rather that improvement will require international agreement on arcane solutions both political and technical, things like risk models, capital reserve requirements, and trading platforms. This is regulation both in the sense of law and in the sense of code-as-law, because software is a deep part of the infrastructure of modern finance. Markets don’t just happen; they are human desires channeled by what we have agreed to allow, and by what our technology has been built to support. Markets are designed things.

So maybe what we need are designers. Geeks who like to understand very complex systems, and tinker with them. I want to borrow from the culture of “makers,” because maker culture plants a flag on this idea. It draws on the hacker tradition of technical mastery, the DIY aesthetic perfected by the punks, and the best disruptive tendencies of global counter-culture. It lives in online forums and nerdy meetups and on the dingy couches of hack spaces. This is the chaotic ecosystem that powers Silicon Valley, and I bet it’s the secret ingredient that government planners miss when they build huge technology parks that end up empty.

But most of all, makers are deeply participatory. Where the political activist sees persuasion as the ultimate goal, the maker wants to personally rewire the system. This requires a deep love of the inner workings of things, the finicky, empirical details of how the real world is put together. A maker combines the democratic instinct with the technologist’s hands-on ability. And increasingly, makers are directing their attention to social problems. Efforts such as crisis mapping and Code For America and the whole information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) movement are evidence of this. Maker language has recently been spotted at the White House and the United Nations.

The global financial system is just the sort of complex, intricate, part technical and part social system that makers would love, if only they could open it up and look inside. There are textbooks, but you can’t learn how the world actually works from textbooks. What would it take to open the global financial system to independent minds? Because it will be these independent minds — smart, deeply informed, creative — who will pore over the arcania of today in order to conceive of the better worlds to come.

Consider the latest draft of the Basel III standards for international banking. Who reads such dense and technical stuff? The professional regulator is obliged to sit at their desk and study this document. The financier wants only to understand how these rules will make or cost them money. The muckraker might ask who is making the rules and why. Another journalist will look for headlines of broad interest, but almost certainly won’t have the technical background to trace the subtle implications. But a maker would read these standards because they are changes in the operating system of global finance. And of these, it might be the maker, the specialized outsider, who is most qualified to understand the detailed, systemic effects on everyone else. The systems that underlie finance have become so fast and so complex that we don’t really understand the interactions. The people who know it best are mostly too busy making money to explain it to the rest of us. The public interest is in dire need of geeks who are not on the payroll.

There is a journalism to be done here, but it’s not the journalism of making people money, penning morality tales, or interesting articles in the Sunday paper. It’s a techno-social investigative journalism for those who have chosen to use their specialized knowledge in the interests of the rest of us. It’s a journalism that generalist reporters may be ill equipped to do.

We already have models for this. Dowser.org practices “solutions journalism,” writing about how best to solve societal problems. I appreciate that, but I don’t think they’ve conceived of their audience as the policy and technology geeks who will one day flesh out and implement those solutions. The contemporary science journalism ecosystem might be a better example. There are science reporters at news organizations, but the best science reporting now tends to come from elsewhere. Science, like finance, is absurdly specialized, and so its chronicling has been taken over by networks of specialists — very often scientists themselves, the ones who have learned to write. Science blogging is thriving. Its audience is the general public, yes, but also other scientists, because it’s the real thing. Even better, science writing exists in a web of knowledge: you can follow the links and go arbitrarily deep into the original research papers. And if you still have questions, the experts are already active online. Compare this to the experience of reading an economics article in the paper.

We don’t have much truly excellent journalism on deep, intricate topics, issues with enormous technical and institutional complexity. There’s some, but it’s mostly in trade publications with little sense of the social good, or tucked away in expensive journals which speak to us in grown-up tones and don’t know how to listen for the questions of the uninitiated. And yet our world abounds in complex problems! Sustainability, climate change, and energy production. Security, justice, and the delicate tradeoffs of civic freedoms. Health care for the individual, and for entire countries. The policies of government from the international to the municipal. And governments themselves, in all their gruesome operational detail. These things are not toys. But when journalists write about such issues, they satisfy themselves with discovering some flavor of corruption, or they end up removing so much of the substance that readers cannot hope to make a meaningful contribution. Perhaps this is because it has always been assumed that there is no audience for wonkish depth. And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps there won’t ever be a “mainstream” audience for this type of reporting, because the journalism of makers is directed to those who have some strange, burning desire to know the gory details, and are willing to invest years of their life acquiring background knowledge and building relationships. Can we not help these people? Could we encourage more of them to exist, if we served them better?

This is a departure from the broadcast-era idea of “the public.” It gives up on the romantic notion of great common narratives and tries instead to serve particular pieces of the vast mosaic of communities that comprise a society. But we are learning that when done well, this kind of deep, specialist journalism can strike surprising chords in a global population that is more educated than it has ever been. And the internet is very, very good at routing niche information to communities of interest. We have the data to show this. As Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal put it, “I love analytics because I owe them my ability to write weird stories on the Internet.”

Where is the journalism for the idealist doer with a burning curiosity? I don’t think we have much right now, but we can imagine what it could be. The journalism of makers aligns itself with the tiny hotbeds of knowledge and practice where great things emerge, the nascent communities of change. Its aim is a deep understanding of the complex systems of the real world, so that plans for a better world may constructed one piece at a time by people who really know what they’re talking about. It never takes itself too seriously, because it knows that play is necessary for exploration and that a better understanding will come along tomorrow. It serves the talent pools that give rise to the people who are going to do the work of bringing us a potentially better world — regardless of where in society these people may be found, and whether or not they are already within existing systems of power. This is a theory of civic participation based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future. Maybe that’s every bit as important as informing voters or getting politicians fired.

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Jul 22 2009

Making Things out of Fire

Last week I helped to crew a large piece of fire art called 2πr at The Crucible‘s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland. G4 TV did a segment on the show, and that’s me in the spiffy black coat, trying to come up with equally spiffy comebacks over the WHUMP! of our sixteen flame geysers.

All of the art at the festival is what might be called “home made.” It more or less has to be, because there isn’t really a category for “consumer fire art.” Every piece at the festival was there by the love and ingenuity of its inventor-artist-builders. This is fun, but it might also represent an important do-it-yourself philosophy, a technological anti-consumerism.

Just to be clear, I did not conceive, design, or build 2πr. That honor belongs to Nicole Aptekar, Reed Kennedy, and Mella Piercey. But I work with them as a member of the Oakland arts collective Interpretive Arson, and I’ve been involved in making or running a number of different arty, firey projects (such as the infamous Dance Dance Immolation). Judging by the huge number of other projects at the Fire Arts Festival, and the even more widespread attendance at the annual Maker Faire DIY technology expositions, I am far from unique in my geeky, makey proclivities.

If technology is one of the major sources of power in the world, then it is vital that we make it democratic. Technology demands specialized knowledge and experience; it is usually seen as something belonging to an elite or privileged cadre, something not the concern of the average citizen. In reality, technology is easier to learn about than it has ever been, stupendously hackable, reasonably cheap, and lends itself to entire subcultures of experimentation and play. And I think we really want and need our modern citizens to play with and learn about technology. Although technology has not universally been a blessing, ignorance of powerful things is far more dangerous than their knowledge.

Is throwing huge plumes of fire into the night a part of this? Most certainly yes! When I’m not just going WHEEEE! I see at least three interesting lessons in the tale of the Fire Arts Festival:

First, fire art is is real technology. It requires computers and software, pushes the limits of DIY manufacturing techniques, and must be designed and constructed with real engineering, because compressed flammable gasses are none too forgiving of sloppiness.

Second, the very notion of do-it-yourself fire art for public consumption can challenge the way we think about safety, responsibility, and risk. In the first world in general and in the litigious United States in particular — a country which suffers not only from an overdeveloped sense of tort law but also from  liability concerns arising from lack of universal health care — we tend to believe that it is someone else’s job to keep us safe. To a certain degree this is true, and that’s why certification and regulation and signs that warn us about high voltage can be a good idea. But ultimately the responsibilities and tradeoffs of safety and risk must be personal, and the process of designing and building a fire toy for the general public to play with makes this stunningly clear. Likewise, the act of playing with someone else’s dangerous game can lead you to think carefully about why you should believe that this or any other activity is safe — and whether it’s ok anyway. Like traveling to a different country where the citizens have made strikingly different risk tradeoffs (and you can ride on top of the trains), interacting with dangerous art pushes us outside of known territory, forcing us to become aware of the millions of safety choices that have already been made for us.

Finally, art is an end in itself. I once heard a critic of 60′s counterculture quip, “is face painting and free dope the best that they can offer?” I think this critic lived a joyless life. Yes, the democratization of technology is an important effect of “maker” culture. But that’s not why we do it.

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