The Cambridge Media Lab DiscoTech

This is the “director’s cut” of a shorter article about the Cambridge DiscoTech published in The Dig. Reposted with permission.

You enter the Center for Civic Media through MIT’s fabled Media Lab, its lobby full of prototype future vehicles and artificial limbs. The elevator takes you up through the atrium, surrounded by glass walled labs with names like “Laboratory for the Connected World” and “Viral Spaces”. As you walk back to “Civic”, as it’s called, you encounter a different vibe, a hodgepodge of chairs and couches, and random artifacts like an outsized cowboy hat and a cutout Dr. Who Dalek. Civic’s vibe is not the only difference. While the Media Lab is in many ways an advanced research and development lab for capitalism, the scholars and students of Civic study things like how the Trayvon Martin story moved from social to mainstream media or how Anonymous’s denial-of-service cyber attacks fit into a history of physical denials of service such as boycotts and sit-ins.

The Codesign Studio, a class taught for the last few years by Assistant Professor Sasha Costanza–Chock functions as a critique of the expertise culture of MIT. The Studio’s core premise is collaborative design, that those creating for a community should design in a partnership with that community and should recognize the expertise and knowledge of community members. Collaborative design arose in the United States during 1990s, a response to the time when computers were still relatively rare, but were beginning to be used to define solutions and impose processes for large groups. Viewing these as a technologies of control, the “participatory design movement” strove to democratize these systems, starting with their design.

Chock, along with his teaching team, chose to focus this semester’s Studio on surveillance. While the Media Lab partners with corporations like Panasonic, Samsung, Google and Microsoft, the Studio’s partners represent a very different stratum of society. “Traditional” civil rights groups are present via the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the ACLU, but so are groups representing immigrants, public school students, victims of domestic violence and sex offenders. Each organization’s constituency has, in its own way, become a focus of surveillance. In New York schools, school security is handled by the NYPD, criminalizing misbehavior and creating what the Urban Youth Collaborative calls the school to prison pipeline. The Detention Watch Network focuses on ending mandatory detention of undocumented immigrants, for-profit prisons, and the detention bed quota, the mandate to fill 34,000 beds each night with the undocumented. Citizens United for Rehabilitation of believes that sex offender registries, by combining offenses as divergent as public urination and serial rape, create a class of people who are under life-long surveillance despite a low statistical probability of recidivism. TOR, the software project intended to provide enhanced privacy and security on the Internet, has joined with Transition House, the Cambridge-based domestic violence shelter, to increase awareness of how often victims of domestic violence are targeted for electronic stalking by their abusers. Entire networks of shelters and support groups have had their computers and phones compromised, and the police response is often unhelpful.

If hackathons are old enough to be said to have traditions, Saturday’s event at the Media Lab was non-traditional. In a more usual hackathon, there are introductions, perhaps some brief talks framing the purpose of the hackathon, then people with projects make pitches seeking to recruit other attendees to work on their projects. Then, it’s head-down hacking, sometimes overnight, until time runs out.  A critique of hackathons is that they rarely meet their overt goals and that their true value is in the connections and community they create. This event was structured with that critique in mind, using a DiscoTech (“Discover Technology”) format and being more a community organized workshop/fair than a software-oriented hackathon. After introductions, participants break up into small groups and share stories about how surveillance has affected their lives. This serves as both an ice breaker and brief education. After hearing stories involving racial profiling and surveillance of dissidents, one participant asked to revise his answer that he’d not been affected by surveillance. His job, managing spam for a large email provider, his work was surveillance.

Short talks follow and then lunch. The measure of the approximately forty people who attended is that, in one lunch conversation, two people who had never previously met, compared notes on their last few weeks in Iraq where they had set up hacker and maker spaces, community networks and anti-car bomb community surveillance systems.

Meanwhile, similar events were taking place across the globe. In San Francisco, there was a hackathon focused on making the user interfaces of privacy and security tools more accessible. People in Bangalor, India worked on repurposing old closed circuit surveillance cameras. In Mexico City, participants given color coded ribbons to wear, indicating whether or not they wished to be photographed and were urged not to live tweet or live blog the sessions as some individuals might have specific security concerns. The San Francisco event was part of RightsCon, an annual meeting whose is goal protecting the open internet and the digital rights of its users.

After lunch, Cambridge attendees joined small workshops. One group experimented with facial recognition software and face painting, seeing what sorts of colors and designs worked to fool this increasingly prevalent surveillance tool. Another group held a threat model workshop, allowing people to map their assets, what threats may target those and the risk associated with those threats. This will allow the EFF to make their Surveillance Self Defense web site more approachable.  A third group worked on “IMSEI catchers”, counterfeit cell phone infrastructure that allows governments and cyber-criminals to identify all cell phones in a specific area. The goal for this ACLU project is to find some way to, at least, notify a cell phone user that an IMSEI catcher probed their phone. Another group walked through the Kendall Square area, mapping public surveillance cameras.

As people moved from workshop to workshop, the day wound down slowly. Video hangouts were held with some of the other events, and as the sun set, a day of countersurveillance work came to a close.

PARTI: A tangle of Vines

Our original design featured a single 22″ Android-based touch screen with a front facing camera. Running only a browser, a web app would control the playing of video and capturing of images. Progress had, however, stalled as we worked through the requirements for moving the images off the device and displaying them.

At that moment in the project, two things happened. First, we received feedback that having people draw something and take its picture wasn’t an interesting or rich interaction. Second, the idea was introduced  that we should use Twitter’s Vine to capture short 6-second videos and that we should move to two tablets running Vine. This was seemed clearly richer and aligned with Urbano’s interest in stop motion animation. It solved our “move the images off the device” problem because that’s what the Vine App does. We validated that Urbano’s students were excited about Vine, decided that “two tablets running Vine”, was simpler than a continued software development effort that could be supported by only one team member, and moved ahead.

Project managers talk of scope, time, and resources, describing them as a triangle, where one cannot be changed without affecting the others. The CoDesign Studio course operates with an unchangeable deadline, thus, time is fixed. Resources, beyond the $1000 budget, are largely team members time. MIT students available time is highly constrained. Time from our project partner is equally, but differently, constrained. In an iterative design process, changes in each design should have less and less impact on scope. While that might be true at the macro level, it didn’t prove to be true on the micro level.

“Two tablets running Vine” has two fundamental assumptions behind it:

  1. Tablets are commodities and, at some rough level, are largely feature equivalent.
  2. Vine, as a social network service, is ubiquitous because that’s what social networks do to achieve maximal network effects.

In the case of Vine, both these assumptions turn out to be false. The only tablets on which Vine is available are Kindle Fires. It seems reasonable to infer that Amazon, seeking to differentiate its offerings, exclusively licensed Vine and that Twitter, in its IPO stage, valued revenue the revenue of a licensing deal over a larger tablet user base.

Our Kindle choice was further constrained by our budget. The only Kindle we could afford . Because our tablet choice was constrained, we didn’t look at features or configurations, thus missed that the last generation Kindle Fires only had a forward facing camera.

We had originally planned a telescoping arm for the recording tablet but, when the choice of arm was rejected for quality reasons, we went with flat, titlable mounting but that proved problematic for actually shooting Vines. Pointing downward made it easier to manipulate props for stop motion animation, but impossible to see what was being shot and awkward to control the start/stop function of Vine. We considered, then rejected the use of a mirror to allow viewing the display side of the Kindle. We settled on creating a small “stage” in front of the PARTI, mounting the recording tablet at the botton of the suitcase, creating felt props for people to use.

While videos are richer than still pictures, we still wanted to make PARTI more versatile than just Vine. With various aggregation technologies, there should be no reason tweets, Instagrams, or other media with the correct hash tag couldn’t be shown by the display tablet. Again, we were assuming ubiquity. We iterated through a number of display choices, discovering one really powerful jQuery plugin that lets you build a network “wall” of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, etc. This was our provisional choice, as it can easily be configured to display a constantly changing gallery of social media. But, it turned out, not Vine. Indeed, Vines can only be viewed easily within the Vine app. They may be shared to your Twitter stream, and displayed with a Twitter app or Twitter’s embedding tools, but the videos render as a link. Vine is a walled garden with nary a tendril growing through. There are sites that advertise themselves as Vine scrapers, but issues like R-rated advertising make them inappropriate.

We had, without realizing the implications, taken an implementation based on open web technologies, and moved to an implementation the features of which would be limited by what commercial software vendors would allow. We looked at various options for other social media platforms. We considered Instagram videos, but there’s no native Instagram client on the Kindle and displays were static and unengaging. As we tried to mix and match social media platforms, input and display technologies, we found ourselves considering options with wildly different implementation scopes. We were asking questions about products that were not answered in the commercial products scant documentation. Products needed to be downloaded and tested. While we wanted a way for people using their social media platform of choice and their own devices to be able to contribute, we discovered, by a process of elimination that, if we wanted to accept and display Vines, would could only display Vines. If we wanted to use other social media, we could not display Vines.

Thus. PARTI’s technical implementation will be two Kindle Fire Tablets running the Vine app, one to shoot short videos on the “stage” in front of the PARTI, the other to display a hashtag-based stream of Vines. Others may contribute by using their own devices to create Vines with the hashtag #UrbanoPARTI.