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Activism, art and future civic media

Chris Csikszentmihalyi is an artist and provocateur as well as a programmer, inventor and professor. The projects he’s most excited about within MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media focus on the interface between political action, art, journalism and technology. He offers the observation that “all technology is politics”, and suggests that one of the best ways to do art, as in journalism, is to follow the money.

His framing talk invokes Manuel Castells, suggesting that people live within two spaces: the space of flows and the space of places. People think of themselves as living in places, but they’re affected by the flows of powerful forces. The architecture of flows, Chris suggests, can be visualized like a rhizome – a plant that shares a root structure, but where the visible manifestations pop up all over the place.

To illustrate his thinking about these ideas, he tells us about a Civic Media project called extrACT, which focuses on health issues surrounding extractive industries in the mountain West. Many homeowners are discovering serious health effects from living near refineries or gas wells – Chris describes the situation as “Love Canal thousands of times over”. extrACT is attempting to unite and mobilize people in these areas through sharing information and enabling collective action. One website, DrillWell, is a mashup of health complaints associated with energy extraction in the west, using data from the state of Colorado and overlaying it on Google Maps. Another site, called “The Landman Report Card” is an information sharing mechanism on “landmen”, people who buy the mineral rights of landowners and sell them to energy companies – some landmen have systematic ethical problems, and the site helps users share information on landmen with poor histories.

Many of the projects featured in this session take an artistic approach to political issues:

Heroreports is a project by Alyssa Wright designed to balance New York City’s “See Something, Say Something” program. So far, 1,944 New Yorkers have reported “suspicious activity” to the authorities – these reports have resulted disproportiately in the arrests of men of color, especially Muslim men, and have not led to thwarting any terrorist attacks. Her response is to encourage people to report everyday acts of heroism, helping balance a campaign that helps create a climate of fear with one that helps create a climate of hope.

– Leonardo Bonanni’s project, Sourcemap, began with an attempt to figure out “What’s in my laptop?” The project tries to make it easier for people to research the origins of industrial products, figuring out the likely sources of components and parts, and helping people understand the environmental impact of the products they use.

Projects from outside the Center for Future Civic Media also have an activist tone to them.

Freedom Fone is a project from Kubatana, the amazing Zimbabwean civil society organization which has given voice to hundreds of people within the Zimbabwean NGO sector and population at large in online spaces. Using Tad Hirsch’s Dialup Radio software, Freedom Fone provides an alternative media space to the propoganda-filled newspapers and radio stations in Zimbabwe.

– Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock project is an outgrowth of the celebrated Chicago Crime map. Using both public records and user-generated content, each block of a city has its own webpage and RSS feed with hyperlocal media.

2 thoughts on “Activism, art and future civic media”

  1. Pingback: Today In eAction News // 06.13.08 | Make Something Happen

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