We Can Define the Future We Want

AKA Why Tomorrowland is an underrated film.

Since the election season started last year I’ve been in a constant state of low-idle anxiety and depression punctuated by spikes of “What is the world coming to?” and “Everything is going to be OK!”. Keeping up felt stressful and zoning out felt irresponsible. I was thinking things would have subsided after the general election, but hey what do you know. It hasn’t. ಠ_ಠ

So, this is one of those pithy blog posts where we take a step back and over-analyze a medium – in this case science fiction film – as a signpost of, “WE WERE WARNED”.

Science fiction has always been rich with possible futures for humanity. Some plausible, others far into the realm of the bizarre. One thing all science fiction attempts to do is provide a mirror on humanity and our choices and present possible futures. Most fictional universes, like our own reality, contain the potential for good, but are blocked or marred by some form of evil or wrongness.

So, what does science fiction have to do with our current state? Well, for one if we had all watched Tomorrowland we’d all be more informed and prepared for this crap. 1 Presented as a science fiction film, it provides a dark potential future.

Recently, Lizzie O’Leary from Marketplace interviewed Robert Capps, the Senior Editor at Wired to discuss their recent Sci-fi issue.

Lizzie O’Leary: Many of the visions in here are pretty dark. Why do you think that happened?

Capps: I think there’s a couple of reasons. We started doing this issue a good eight months ago and we actually were approaching writers six months ago. But I think that going back six months we had a very bitter election. We had a mass shooting at a nightclub in Florida. Really, it’s not so much dark, or even pessimism, but uncertainty. There is some warnings of, we should think about how we want to go forward and what we want our society and our planet to look like.

Again, this is what science fiction does best. Presenting us with possible futures – ones with uncertainty, and making us reflect upon the reality we face. That’s where Tomorrowland comes in.

Set in an alternate reality where the brightest minds attempt to make a Utopia for all mankind, things go to pot. The cynical “maybe a good guy at the beginning, but really a bad guy” Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, reveals that an invention has been influencing the thoughts of civilization for the last 50 years – feeding negative thoughts and ideas about the end of the world into the minds of everyone on Earth.

Nix, has a great monologue toward the end of the film,

“Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to… the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because, what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. But, how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because *that* future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! That’s not the monitor’s fault. That’s yours.”

Emphasis mine.

Good science fiction should inspire us. We can use its shiny surface to reflect the future we want.

We have to fight against uncertainty, to not give in. Consuming the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and so much angst everywhere we turn is not healthy for us as individuals. It does not make the uncertain more certain. Action does. I’m encouraged and embolden by the people marching, protesting, calling representatives, donating, and talking about these issues. I hope it continues.

One more bit of appropriate dialog, from again a film I think is undervalued. This time between the protagonist and her father.

Casey Newton: There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?
Eddie Newton: Come on, Casey.
Casey: Okay, fine. Don’t answer.
Eddie: Whichever one you feed.

 


  1. Tomorrowland is not the only or best representation of science fiction warning us of potential follies, but one of the more recent and straightforward examples. While flawed, it is a favorite film of mine. My biggest criticism is that the film supposes that the best people abandon Earth to make a utopia with plans to invite everyone later. That would never work, as many people would feel shunned for not being included in the creation of said utopia. In my opinion, the filmmakers should have framed the creation of Tomorrowland as less of a, “Hey let the smart people figure this out. We’ll call you when it’s ready.”, and more of an inclusive “Everyone can pitch in with their unique skills” sort of message. But I digress.

Outrage and Therapy

Keeping internet communities healthy is the job of the leaders and citizens of those communities.

Without conscious leadership these communities decay and destroy themselves and leach out into the real world where they harm actual individuals and our culture.

Hank Green on communities. I agree with him very much. In the Wikimedia Movement we are getting better at this.

Related, I enjoyed this rather long and nuanced approach to understanding how Wikipedia 1 and mental illness intersect.

To the hardcore editor who becomes enmeshed in the thicket of talk pages, admin noticeboard debates and never-ending arguments about every bit of minutiae ever conceived, it can reveal some of the worst aspects of human behavior, including abuse, harassment, and threats of physical violence. It can be difficult to separate the anonymous keyboard warriors simply amusing themselves by pushing buttons from those who intend to act on threats to harm others, or themselves.

Note: The subtext to the title of this post is an opinion of mine. That some people who lash out and express outrage online often are dealing with issues in their personal lives and their interactions online can complicate that. Success, or lack thereof, in life can make the distance of the Internet a place to take out your anger, reach out to help others, or seek solace among comrades – depending on your health and access.

If you are not feeling well and think you need someone to talk to, please find a mental health professional. It is the best thing you can do – it can literally save your life.


  1. Particularly English

As Those Who Make

It’s not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

– Why I am Not a Maker – Debbie Chachra

I make communities. I do it with other people. It is just as valuable as those who make the architecture, content, documentation, and software that these communities use and support.

Notes from the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference

On May 22 – 25 I attended the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference (EMWCon) in New York City. It’s a continuation of the similarly named SMWCon, but with a strong emphasis on all flavors of MediaWiki and how it is used in organizations large and small. I was able attend in my capacity as a staff member of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), but have had a personal interest in the MediaWiki community for a few years now. I thought it would be helpful to write down a few notes on my experiences and share those with folks within the Wikimedia movement.

At the conference I learned how folks are using MediaWiki, what difficulties they face in their use, and their concerns for the future of the platform. 1

Quick Take Aways

A few large points that struck me as worth mentioning.

  • There are many people using MediaWiki in interesting and unique ways. This is the 4th MediaWiki-focused event I’ve attended in the last two years and at each one I’ve discovered new uses in new industries. This time around? Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, a large banking company, and a large oil company all use MediaWiki in some capacity to help document and share knowledge within their organizations. This is on top of groups like Circ du Soleil, MITRE, NATO, and NASA that I was already aware of. I was also impressed by the half a dozen independent developers who support organizations in using MediaWiki. Some folks have smaller organizations with smaller wikis – which is impressive. It’s even crazier to think that this bit of open-source software can be used inside so many large, well-known, organizations – often to great success.
  • Users of MediaWiki – specifically those that write their own code – want acknowledgment. They want to know that the folks who are pointing MediaWiki toward its future are aware of these diverse use cases and keep that in mind when making decisions that would impact non-WMF-supported use.
  • They also want to know what the WMF’s plans are. They want to be reassured – and to be able to reassure others within their organizations, that MediaWiki will be around. A simple, high-level roadmap would do wonders here. There is a large ask of the foundation to make a decision on what sort of support will be offered – even if the answer is an uncomfortable “nothing” it would be better than the current strain of “Eh, we really don’t know.” At one point during the conference I made the joke that the WMF had ‘cookie licked’ MediaWiki. :p
  • I had one attendee, a long-time MediaWiki admin and community member, ask me, “Am I a volunteer? A contributor?” This is from someone whose organization has no less than 14 extensions on MediaWiki.org and who has contributed code to the core development of MediaWiki. They were not certain if their contributions were as valued given that what they work on has a much larger impact on third-party users than Wikimedia projects. People within the MediaWiki community want equal treatment and respect as developer contributors.
  • Lastly, the WMF should consider the impact this community has had in the development of MediaWiki as a popular and healthy open-source software. There is an incredible financial worth in the patches and extensions contributed by third parties. I mean, to be frank, we have people working at NASA and MITRE (among others) sharing their work with the MediaWiki community. The time and talent alone is something that should be considered a strength within our community.

MWF?

Another topic that has been gaining steam recently in the MediaWiki community is the idea of a “MediaWiki Foundation”. A non-profit organization that focuses on the core development of MediaWiki as an open-source software project – influenced by all parties equally. I think it’s going to happen in some capacity.

Generally speaking the MediaWiki community agrees it won’t be the big, giant, dramatic change like moving all of MediaWiki ownership out of the WMF.

Instead the focus will be on small deliverables. Right now the MediaWiki Stakeholder’s user group is looking for a small task on the wishlist, funding (passing a hat around!) and working to show that something was accomplished. Then, after being able to show their work, approach the WMF with a request for some of their time to discuss how they could work together. If you’re interested in following along, check out the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ wiki and the #mwstake room in the Wikimedia Phabricator.

A Real Community

While some wikis are internal and not public, the folks at the conference freely shared their experiences and knowledge for others to benefit from. One attendee described the community and our relationship with one another in an interesting way. We’re not competing with each other to ‘build the best wiki’ but we are competing together against closed, propriatrty systems of knowledge management that permeate organizations across industries. These systems have an antiquated model of documenting and sharing knowledge that is antithesis to truly sharing information to empower members of the org. For example, SharePoint sets permissions to be closed by default. You have to know the information exists, somewhere in the laybranith of SharePoint sites, before you can request access to it!

I think that this event acknowledges that we come together freely to share across industries and uses. It is endemic of having a natural community – not one forced out of branding, marketing, or sales departments within a for-profit organization.

Wikipedians in our midst

While the conference was focused on MediaWiki use outside of Wikimedia projects, attendees did have an opportunity to get to know more about the Wikimedia world and meet folks who are involved in related projects. One of our hosts, Pharos, is a long-time editor on English Wikipedia, president of the NYC chapter, and was a Wikipedian-in-residence at the Guggenheim Museum.

At the end of the first day the NYC chapter brought pizza and people together to talk about what they had been working on. I met no less than 3 individuals involved in Afrocrowd.org, a Wikipedia project I had never heard of until this event!

I also met a long-time MediaWikian, Frank Taylor, who was interested in the work the WMF was doing around emerging communities. He even offered to put the folks at the foundation working on this outreach in contact with folks he has worked with in Central and South America. Which is a kind and unexpected example of the communities sharing interests!

Conclusion

I encourage folks to attend future EMWCons (and SMWCons). They are a great opportunity to learn and share with one another, to create relationships beyond Talk pages, and to grow an already impressive community. In particular I would like to invite the following groups.

  • WMF staff who work on MediaWiki core development, planning, and developer relations.
  • People who use MediaWiki – or are interested in using a wiki!
  • People who want to encourage open-source software and free knowledge – even when the knowledge is shared not among the entirety of humanity. There is a very real halo effect in people using MediaWiki. The philosophy of the wiki changes organizations approach to sharing and working together. It breeds familiarity with many aspects of the wider Wikimedia movement. I know I’m only a factor of one, but my Wikimedia contributions are born out of the use of MediaWiki within a ‘closed’ organization. 2

See also


  1. Some may object to the word “platform”, but for many people using MediaWiki inside organizations, it truly is the foundation on which all of their process and strategy sit.

  2. Heck, my professional career as the ‘wiki guy’ has lead to my current role at the WMF!

Surveillance Self-Defense 101 Notes

On Friday I attended a free workshop at SLU Law hosted by the National Lawyers Guild – St. Louis Chapter and the Electronic Frontier Foundation titled Surveillance Self-Defense 101: A CLE Workshop for Lawyers, Students & Activists. It was a pretty cool event and I learned a lot about not only how to keep oneself secure when it comes to surveillance, but also some of the issues and concerns activists and lawyers face when working with complex technology and law.

Here are a few of my notes. These are a bit ramble-ly, but I hope useful for anyone who couldn’t attend or a refresher for those that did.

Three rules of security.

1. No such thing as total security – just shades of more or less secure

2. We didn’t ‘go dark’. We were dark for many years, until folks started using technology they thought was secure, but wasn’t. Our ‘going dark’ is just returning to a state prior. Encryption, as a form of security, is one way we ‘go back’.

Security vs convince vs money – if you have more money you can pay someone to make something that is convenient AND secure. Less money often means less security at the cost of convince.

Https was an example that was secure, but not convenient and it cost money. Newer programs help to make the net secure, convent, and inexpensive.

3. Think about security as understanding your weakest link in a circle of security. You can have secure independent systems, but the weakest tool/service/avenue can undo all of that.

You might not have anything to hide, but those you work for (clients) or with (peers) might. Making yourself vulnerable puts them at risk. you can become the weakest link.

“Threat Models” can be grouped into three general types – personal, political, legal.

Personal – how our personal life is interacting with the world. Using personal email addresses for affairs(!) or political activism. Overlapping your personal and other areas of your life puts your assets at risk!

Again, look back to the weakest link. Who might be acting against you? What might they do if they can connect your personal life with your activist/professional/legal, etc.?

Example: Twitter accounts – influential accounts like FEMA, could have a higher threat model than say an individual, given that access to their account could cause serious damage – like a large-spread panic (Emergency flood warning for New York City!)

Assets – what do you have to protect? Rosters, client lists, strategy documents, SSN of family, medical history, finances, etc.

Federal government can’t keep the addresses of CIA agents secret – for 6 months the Chinese government infiltrated the portion of the government in charge of personnel records.

What we know of the NSA is only the tip of the iceberg – what Snowden revealed 3 years ago is only a small part of their capabilities.

Subversion (especially with minorities) by governments of communities (threats or promises (green cards)).

Not just federal, but local as well. Stingray devices – we only knew because someone who was being prosecuted found references in court documents. License plate readers and intersection light cameras as other venues of surveillance.

The fight against surveillance is at multiple levels (just like the focus – dragnet, targeted, on the street)

Street – cameras on street corners – fight with a local ordinance

Alderpeople have a discretionary budget where these street cameras are coming from!

Local – police department license plate readers – fight with laws, protest

Federal – ??? [I was sucked into an interesting story and didn’t take good notes here.]

Facial recognition does a poor job on darker skinned people – resulting in more false positives! Look for research this summer coming from Georgetown.

[We then broke into small groups and talked about our threat levels and assets]

Workshop questions

These are questions to ask yourself when determining your threat models for the various tools, software, services, hardware, you use and the data and information contained within.

  • What are your assets?
  • What do you need to protect?
  • What are in your communications?
  • What are the threats to those assets?
  • Who would want it?
  • How bad would that be (if they got access)?
  • How badly do they want it?
  • How high on the dial do you need to wrap your security?

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https://theintercept.com/2016/02/12/not-so-securus-lawyers-speak-out-about-massive-hack-of-prisoners-phone-records/

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Tools

Signal for Mobile messaging – encryption from end-to-end. Can be your default txt app on Android.

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[I was able to ask a question to the hosts.]

Media, both fictional like TV shows and movies, and uh, factual like news reporting often poorly conveys the nuance of technology – especially around hacking, encryption, privacy etc.

What recommendations do you have in combating this skewed interpretations of reality?

[The answer was to advocate knowledge to people you work with, help educate others, and keep learning and sharing your knowledge.]