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Chris Csikszentmihayli and a complex vision of citizen media

Chris Csikszentmihayli opens the morning’s session at MIT’s Knight News Challenge conference with an overview of his view of the world – “It’s my view from MIT – MIT wouldn’t endorse it, they’ve been quite specific about that,” he quips, a reference to the university’s unfortunate decision not to grant him tenure. Chris is now focusing on managing the Center for Future Civic Media, and outlines one of the most exciting projects, ExtrAct. The project calls attention to the process of natural gas extraction via fracturing, a process that exposes millions of rural Americans to incredibly toxic chemicals. ExtrAct tries not just to document the practices of fracturing, but to help rural, poor, highly disconnected people organize, get media attention and fight some of the harmful effects of these practices.

What do we, as a society want, Chris wonders. A free and just society. Journalism, openness and transparency and democracy have all emerged as means to that end. Technology, leveraged correctly, can sometimes be a means to that end. Sometimes technology is the enemy of a free and just society. Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Some scholars have suggested that tools control what we can do. Yochai Benkler proposes that it’s not just about the tools, but about how we use them. Bruno Latour suggests that “technology is society made durable.”

Last night’s talk, Chris summarizes, was the “rending of garments” about the death of the daily newspaper. He points out that newspapers put another group out of work, “people so dedicated to their work that they took oaths of celibacy.” (He resists the inevitable geek puns.) The press put the monks out of work. But technology isn’t evenly distributed – head to a city in the developing world and you’ll find scribes, often organized around the post office so they can help illiterate people write letters. (I’ve seen scribes in cybercafes in Kigali…) The Media Lab, Chris tells us, makes its money from fear, taking funds fro sponsors who are slowly going out of business, like the recording industry. The implication, I think, is that documenting these changes – and demonstrating their inevitability – is a useful service for helping corporations accept and cope with this change.

To frame the ideas of user innovation and open source software, Chris shows us how “diff” and patching works – the ability to compare two files on a computer system and send the changes between the two. This is the fundamental idea behind the improvability of open source software, and underlies versioning systems like Subversion and Mercurial.

User-driven innovation, as described by Eric Von Hippel, involves motives other than making a profit – users who improve products often just want a specific functionality available to the world. They don’t need to sell it, just to have it be usable. Open source projects are political spaces – they’re like community organizing projects. They need to be optimized to allow lightweight participation and contribution. He shows the structure of Linux versus Mozilla – as Mozilla moved from a commercial product into a community one, the structure had to change so that people could add code without having to learn about thousands of dependencies.

What tools allow uprisings to take place? Chris is interested in SMS and its role in organizing protests in places like the Philippines. “Governments would love it if these tools weren’t around” – that’s why they shut down SMS during elections. But other tools end up being useful, even if they’re less obvious. Planespotting websites allowed researchers to break the CIA torture flights story – the data was never intended to study torture, but it proved useful for another, critical purpose. This leads Chris to emphasize the importance of laws and practices that ensure an open and free press in a digital age. This might mean supporting Open Street Maps instead of Google Maps, so the maps are reusable and reproducible. It might mean supporting edge figures like Richard Stallman – who Chris analogizes to Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, killed in the early 1800s for his support in print for abolition.

Chris closes his talk with remarks on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote not just political philosphy but “bodice-ripper novels”. These novels allowed individuals to “live in the skin of others”, experience the empathy that comes from living for a while as a servant or a noble. The daily paper, he believes, can give a sense of community empathy, the ability to live another’s experience through storytelling. That’s something we need to preserve and cultivate as we move into a digital future.

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