The Year at Berkman

As the summer ramps up, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the things that made my year at Berkman. At the risk of turning this into an exercise in namedropping awesomeness, I thought it was worth sharing some of my favorites for posterity, linked where resources and recordings are available.

Defending an Unowned Internet and Intelligence Gathering and the Unowned Internet: In the year after Snowden, we had some very interesting conversations about how we’re supposed to think about the fundamental principles of the internet. Only at Berkman could you have two representatives, John DeLong and Anne Neuberger, from the NSA come to talk with Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Zittrain, and Bruce Schneier in a public forum about their policies and practices in an effort to start an important cultural dialog. While the session was full of careful rhetoric (it was just as informative in what they did say as in what they didn’t), it was an important step towards opening up the conversation.

Conversations: All kinds of people stop through Harvard and drop by Berkman to talk about their work and their latest burning questions about the internet. I got to participate in some of those conversations with Steve Ballmer, Travis Kalanick of Uber, Michael Fertik of Reputation.com, Scott Howe of Acxiom, and Aneesh Chopra. The intersection of industry and academia, of doing and thinking, is strong here, and it’s part of what makes Berkman a special place. These conversations gave me a better impression of what is top of mind in industry, but also exposed the points where my work could shift the conversation. I also learned a lot in presentations from Jillian McLaughlin on inappropriate uses of data broker data for scoring consumer credit risk, and Margot Kaminski on robotic surveillance. Lauren McCarthy's lunch talk made me want to develop my own artistic and technical interventions.

Fellows Hours: Some of my favorite moments came from the conversations in fellows hours. I got to know my colleagues’ interests, and more often got the chance to engage with them about their work. One of my favorite sessions with Kate Darling and Camille François addressed the fuzziness of the definition of robots. David Weinberger led us through the earlier days of blogging, which raised some interesting questions about what it is to develop a voice in the age of Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter. Tim Maly shared some of his work in progress on the ethics of surveillance architectures and got us debating what makes a pair of jeans ethical. Fellows shared their networks and expertise, like the session Bruce Schneier ran on publishing models featuring editors from trade and academic presses who shared details on what they look for in a manuscript (tidbit: even academic publishers aren’t excited to come across the “F word,” ie Foucault). Bruce also ran a great session on Op Ed writing skills, which proved immensely helpful and a bunch of peoplepublishedpieces as a result. Willow Brugh shared her technique and tools for visualization, and helped us think through an idea by fragmenting it visually. Amy Johnson and I also got to run a session on Progress Narratives and Moral Panics, which provided the chance for us to formalize our thinking and offered a new frame for parsing how we talk about technology and change.

Camaraderie: I count many of my fellows as friends. Some clicked instantly, other friendships evolved through accumulated conversations and shared experiences. Over good food and drink, rotating fellows dinners offered the chance to get to know each other better, sometimes through performance as at Tim Davies' Céilidh dinner. And I got to share my not-so-secret love of karaoke at the end of the year at Charlie's Kitchen. Berkman became a supportive community of people I can count on to a read a draft of something I write before I post it, or to talk through a difficult decision and urge me to find my own voice. Parts of my work this year were challenging in unexpected ways, and I'm thankful to have had the support of this inspiring and encouraging group.

Being at Harvard: I really enjoyed returning to Harvard this year. I may be done with my degree, but you can’t take me out of school. I went back to things I wish I had done the first time around as an undergrad, exploring courses in the History of Science and the Science, Technology and Society departments here. These courses had a huge influence on the way I think about current tech issues in a broader historical context and developed some of my constructivist instincts. They also confirmed my staunch devotion to interdisciplinary approaches. I also got to try my hand at teaching a couple guest seminars. There was no shortage of events to attend in the broader Cambridge community, including the Topics in Privacy series, sessions through the KSG like Julia Angwin's book talk, and MIT events like Tarleton Gillespie's CMS/W presentation on algorithms and the production of calculated publics. Having spent some time away, I've come to appreciate that the density and diversity of ideas here is like no place else.

Tech Book Club and Angry Tech Salon: I’ve heard people say that you get out of Berkman as much as you are willing to bring to the table, and I think I hit my stride this spring. Tech Book Club has been going strong each month with a few core members, offering accountability to read books that we have been meaning to get to, and talking about the subjects and about the varied approaches to writing about technical topics. And Tim Maly and I also started Angry Tech Salon, which is developing into something of a space for pairing current events with theory, and seeing what happens as critical conversation unfolds each week.

This is just scratching the surface. There are countless moments that influenced me in smaller, subtler ways, and so many other wonderful events I didn’t made it to. So, consider this a completely subjective and inadequate attempt to express my gratitude for being part of this community this year. I’m looking forward to continuing as a fellow in the coming year!

And with that, I will leave you with my interpretation of a dial-up modem, captured as a contribution to the Peak Fellows Hour scavenger hunt last week. The internet is serious business.