A hackivist’s call for a culture of engagement

Shava Nerad

By Shava Nerad

[Editor’s note: Last week, the Guardian reached out to a number of experts and technologists to gauge reactions on revelations of the massive National Security Agency spying program that recently came to light. Shava Nerad, who started her career as a software engineer and was previously involved with the Tor Project, which offers online anonymity in web browsing, has also been engaged in various forms of political activism. Nerad submitted comments via email in response to the Bay Guardian’s request for an interview. We've published an edited version of her thoughts here.]

My dad worked with MLK and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] every summer of the early/mid 60s -- and the FBI knew who he had lunch with every day of those summers -- this stuff isn't really that new, it's just automated. I got to go from "We Shall Overcome" to making sure that the Tor Project could get US nonprofit status, a good foundation of funding, a great reputation internationally, and become infrastructural for free press, free speech, and free expression on the net.

I come from a family of old style liberals from a time before the 60s, when intellectual liberals were in the military, in finance, in civil service and all parts of civic life. We moderated all parts of American society. After the 60s, to a large extent, it became uncool for liberals and intellectuals (even non-hippie types) to go into these Establishment pastimes, especially the volunteer or low paying scutwork that keeps this country running. So after half a century, what are we seeing? Largely unmoderated by liberal intellectual thought, with two generations of kids who don't even know how to go to a public meeting or why or how politics actually works at most levels in this country, we are a goddamn mess.

I have a son in the military, and I have friends in the [Department of Homeland Security], law enforcement, a friend who's a retired CIA analyst. But many of my friends consider me an outspoken lefty liberal (I don't) because I am a Democratic Party activist, a strong civil libertarian, a union member ... and a sort of hippie chick.

I love this wonderful flawed country. I want to tell every one of my folks here, get out of your ergonomic chairs … and get involved. Congress' approval rating is up two percent since March to fifteen percent -- and they won't fix the USA PATRIOT Act because they aren't a bit afraid of your disapproval!  In fact, if you say you disapprove, they will make googly eyes at you, and say "Oooooo TERRORISTS!!!" and expect you to back down and shut up -- and unfortunately they are probably right.

If we are the engineers and the scientists, the innovators and the entrepreneurs -- can't we find the best way to fix our culture of engagement?  Make our culture a culture where the makers learn applied civics and share their successes on social networking?

Many of us who are "hactivists" are post-conventional thinkers, if you are familiar with that concept. Most of us do not believe that the system is irrevocably broken -- we are not revolutionaries or traitors or terrorists. This is why we are making moves that are aimed toward waking up the public, not blowing them up.  If that isn't clear enough, I can't see what would be -- we certainly have ample examples of violence in the world. We are sending signals that say, "Please, see that everything is not exactly as you have been told. You are citizens of a Republic. Take the reins and bring it back to rights. Your rights."

Civil disobedients, whistleblowers, leakers, facilitators like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, William Binney, Nicholas Merrill, Jake Appelbaum and more -- these people should be honored rather than vilified as people who were willing to risk everything they had in order to send up a distress signal to the nation to say, "All is not right."

But if every person of good character left all the military, law enforcement, DHS, government -- then we would be a mess. Not everyone can leave. Someone has to break ranks, betray unit cohesion, take these risks, and risk being branded as a traitor even (and all of those men have been by some people).  

The American public has to wake up and understand that all is not right BECAUSE IT IS NOT.  DHS cannot fix the USA PATRIOT Act. Congress won't fix it so long as the people moan about it on blogs and don't insist that action be taken.

I have spoken to people in DHS since 9/11 who have been waiting to exhale for over a decade. Do you understand the situation that many in the career diplomatic services believed that they were in during [George W. Bush’s]'s administration? That they were hanging on by their fingernails, as professional diplomats and civil servants? 

Well, oddly, when Obama came in, State gave a great many of these people an opportunity to exhale. But … oddly, the new boss, and the Congress just piled on more of the same. No reprieve.

So we have the State Department declaring Internet Freedom and distributing Tor overseas, and Prism turned inward at our own people?  What sense does this make?  Praising the Arab Spring, and chasing American citizens with drones?  

The nation is sleeping or ostriching, and I'm sorry, but the press is sleeping or at the least, distracted by survivability issues. We need to turn this into a great and heroic national adventure story, or it's going to turn into a national tragedy.


Shava Nerad writes: "If we are the engineers and the scientists, the innovators and the entrepreneurs -- can't we find the best way to fix our culture of engagement? Make our culture a culture where the makers learn applied civics and share their successes on social networking?"

I would dearly love to discover how to do that. It is not hard to think of good ways to improve our increasingly erratic and dysfunctional culture, but solutions on paper (or on blogs or posted in conversations on social networking) may be little more than our own personal versions of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

What I have no idea how to do is 1) explain 21st Century ideas to the general public, 2) convince apathetic or disillusioned skeptics that there are better ideas worth considering, or 3) nudge the body politic in a Bokononic direction.

Our modern day "culture of engagement" appears to be largely a culture of mutually disagreeable engagement, where thoroughly disagreeable characters in politics engage in thoroughly disagreeable tactics to produce a thoroughly shreklisch and banal political drama sufficient to make one's eyes bleed and one's head asplode.

Must one engage in personally dangerous civil disobedience to make a just-barely-noticeable ripple on the public dialogue?

Recently, on my own personal Facebook page, I remarked, "I have it on good authority that if the NSA were reading everything I've ever written on the Internet, they would still have no idea what the devil I'm talking about 99.9% of the time." That candid comment received a record number of "Likes" (41 at latest count), confirming my suspicion that even my closest associates on Facebook have a devil of a time apprehending my thoughts about how to fix our woefully broken system.

I confess that I am utterly baffleplexed by the intractability of the problem of fixing the system before it descends into epic failure.

~Barry Kort

Note: While Shava Nerad and I have never met face to face, we have been corresponding amiably with each other on the Google+ social networking site.

Posted by Barry Kort on Jun. 21, 2013 @ 1:17 am

Perhaps a way to grow our collective intelligence is to make sharing part of learning.

I call this Socially Responsible Learning.

If each learner's process of learning involves making, sharing and linking a presentation or representation of the knowledge acquired, we can collaboratively build a global resource of learning materials -- at Wikipedia scale.

Here is an example of a building block in this structure (note the links at the end): http://slidespeech.com/s/6apQGuqUen/?autoplay=true

Posted by John Graves on Jun. 21, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

I actually am in the process of working on a social app for civic organizing called the Blue Rose Movement, which I hope will catalyze some multi- and non-partisan tilting at the current windmills. I met with a friend of mine with a long history in social networking, and I'm taking my plans to the ACM CFP2013 conference next week to brainstorm them out further, see if I can get some collaborative and/or funding nibbles.

Part of the work will be based on turning a longer form class I've been teaching at MIT's Educational Studies Program and elsewhere for years into shorter Kahn Adademy style modules or games -- https://intersect.com/stories/1ztV3jfl1kPR

The work is politically neutral -- it works for conservative, liberal, left, right, libertarian, anarchist, what have you. It's structural. I'm hoping we can create a social environment that turns civic participation into a sort of more Maker-oriented environment, where the stuff that has tended to be handed down by apostolic succession is out in the open available to anyone who wishes to learn, not just the folks in one part or another, where politics is more of an open RvR transparent community than segregated camps and even campaigns are discussing issues in debates in the open and with civility.

We know a great deal more about building forums that do decent moderating with persistent identity and reputation these days -- and yes, I do believe in persistent identity if not real names for civic forums!

We can produce as an organization or as members of the community news articles with attached competing action lists. (Sausage making recipes? :)

As the community grows even those who don't participate in their communities will see their friends participating, and the successes of others will serve to mend a lot of patent distrust and injury in the social contract -- people will see how things can actually _work_ even if they aren't the ones doing the work.

There's a great deal more to the environment that's in embryo, but I can't sketch it all out here. But probably, we should talk more! :)

Posted by Shava Nerad on Jun. 21, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

One consideration is to allow individual participants the ability to "block" or at least "ignore" other members in the groups. As we see here, some posters have agendas that are at odds with a stated group's purpose, while other posters can't refrain from either replying to many comments or their comments are so hateful and/or condescending they suck the life out of the people in the group more committed to building bridges instead of burning bridges. And regardless of the group, some posters tend to lecture others and often use authoritarianism language. These types of posters are very toxic to any sort of community building or consensus process. Facebook allows users to defriend people who become boors or who just can't ever shut-up. The room brightens immediately when they're finally gone.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 21, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

I ignore people and posts I don't like all the time. It's a simple mental act.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 11:08 am

& social networking? This is your idea of community activisim? Well, if Steven is still around, tell him that the writings on the wall. The paper has obviously been coopted by Todd Vogt bots in a neobliberal takeover. All I got to say is, bye bye BG.

Posted by Not-bot out on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 10:54 am

From my perception, I wish more young people were involved in activism. If anti-censorship and internet activism is to going to become an important aspect of shaping America, I think that it need to reach more than it currently has. I have been following the Occupy Wall Street Movement for a few years and enjoy to read about the various conquests in which Anonymous has undertaken. I recently expressed my support of Anonymous and people such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to a group of my friends. However, the majority of my friends had no knowledge of who Anonymous was and knew fairly little about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. They could not see why Bradley and Edward risked their lives and comfort to leak information. I must admit that I'm currently in high school so the USA Patriot Act and the NSA spying scandal is not common topic that is discussed. But,the future generation should be more informed than this and I personally plan to spread the word among my peers.

Posted by Skipper on Jun. 08, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

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