"extraordinary disobedience for the benefit of society"
March 15, 2017 2:38 PM   Subscribe

The MIT Media Lab is seeking "both expected and unexpected nominees" for its first Disobedience Award. The award will carry USD$250,000 and reward "action that seeks to change society in positive ways" via disobedience consistent with principles such as "non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions". The request for nominees (deadline: May 1st) comes with a 4min27sec video and a timeline of some historical role models in disobedience, such as Mary Edwards Walker and Sitting Bull.

Briefly discussed, and a few potential nominees mentioned, in a politics thread last week.

The prize was initially announced in July 2016 by Joi Ito, Director of the Lab.
posted by brainwane (26 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Specifically, we’d like to call out action that seeks to change society in positive ways and is consistent with a set of key principles. These principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The rest of the principles in the set are being held back to increase the sense of mystery, I guess?
posted by RogerB at 2:43 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Too late for Aaron Swartz.
posted by Malla at 2:54 PM on March 15, 2017 [36 favorites]

aha malla got to it before i did. this seems kind of insincere and creepy.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 2:58 PM on March 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree, this makes my stomach hurt. RIP Aaron Swartz.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:10 PM on March 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Too late for Aaron Swartz.

Joi Ito is of course very smart, etc. but the way he describes this award—just look at the nomination web page, and the pretty timeline, and how it frames the concept of disobedience—I don't see how this can be coherent for social purposes. Civil disobedience is a kind of violence, violence in the Zizekian sense, so when you stipulate non-violence as a condition of the reward you end up being the definer and arbiter of meanings of behaviors. This is a bit like in Silicon Valley where they've worshipped "disruptive technology", here they want "disobedient service/leadership" which can and should be explicated as a contradiction, that should be revealing about the MIT Media Lab's role that they leave unexamined in their public speech such as this.

MIT of course has had a history of encouraging iconoclasm and dissent for the social good. But it would be a great wrong to do a sanitized version of it. And that starts with how they begin to talk about this stuff.
posted by polymodus at 3:23 PM on March 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

Cool. Limited as this is, if nothing else it signals that resistance should be valued and held up right now.

I just nominated Black Lives Matter although I think they're probably too organizationally distributed to be able to win one prize...

Also hoping for Chelsea Manning, Chelsea Manning, Chelsea Manning!!!
posted by latkes at 3:34 PM on March 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah and maybe I should go back and nominate Standing Rock protesters: if anyone emblemizes the fight to save our very survival as a species, it's the people putting their lives on the line to slow climate change right now.
posted by latkes at 3:36 PM on March 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

Kim Davis! Thanks for bringing a divided America together, MIT.

(Just to be clear, Kim Davis isn't mentioned in any of the links; I'm just mentioning her hypothetically.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:55 PM on March 15, 2017

I just nominated Black Lives Matter although I think they're probably too organizationally distributed to be able to win one prize...

Its three founders can either come together or send a representative to receive the award, I think.

Bree Newsome would make a good nominee as well.
posted by tobascodagama at 4:50 PM on March 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Malla, polymodus: as a PhD candidate at the Media Lab who came in at the same time as Joi and my advisor Ethan Zuckerman – e.g. roughly 7-8 months after Aaron's arrest, I think I can say that we all feel that sense of too late. If we had been there at the time, might we have been able to do something more?

MIT and the Media Lab do have a history of creative dissent. I still remember hearing second-hand stories about the late Seymour Papert (who was an anti-Apartheid activist) feeling like he knew he had found a home during his first days at MIT when he encountered Marvin Minsky and Noam Chomsky joining students in trying to force open an administrator's door as part of a Vietnam War protest.

I'm not part of the disobedience prize team, but I do think that research groups like the Center for Civic Media (where I'm a student), projects like the new law clinic, and the disobedience prize are some of the ways that some of us at MIT are working to keep that tradition alive.

To do that well, we need people to encourage, question, and critique that work. So thanks for having this conversation. The more you remind MIT from the outside that we shouldn't allow a disobedience prize to be too sanitized, the better chance we have of reminding MIT of that from the inside.
posted by honest knave at 5:12 PM on March 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

It's a good idea, but I think the most important rebels (like the best journalists) are always hated by the majority in their own time. Anyone popular enough to win an award probably isn't the iconoclast who deserves it most.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:23 PM on March 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Of course you can only receive the award for disobedience if you obey their strict guidelines. This is what postmodern performance art is all about!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 5:26 PM on March 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

hi honest knave! appreciate you sharing your perspective.

from where i sit - i left my west coast liberal arts college in '06 and don't know much about east coast university culture - MIT's institutional culture seems to encourage "creative dissent" and playfulness on the one hand - stuff like university pranks, Star's arrest at the airport -- and on the other hand, there's aaron swartz, Boston Dynamics, the many decades long association of the university with military & weapons research.... and this totally unfounded sense i have that MIT students are sorta apolitical. company men!

i know the school is super huge so this is probably an incomplete perspective, but i guess like... how right on am i on thoughts above?

more directed question: to whom are ito's communications directed? the whole prize comes off as weird and dickish to someone who's a total outsider, but i also recognize as some rando in a basement in oregon i'm not the target audience here. who is expected to be looking at this stuff?
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 5:31 PM on March 15, 2017

and this totally unfounded sense i have that MIT students are sorta apolitical

This is actually pretty accurate. Or was.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:10 PM on March 15, 2017

Civil disobedience is a kind of violence, violence in the Zizekian sense,

So violence not in the sense that anyone actually uses the word.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:41 PM on March 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

so they are giving you an award for obeying their version of disobedience. I feel like escher could have a field day with a visual representation.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 10:21 PM on March 15, 2017

i know the school is super huge so this is probably an incomplete perspective, but i guess like... how right on am i on thoughts above?

Media Lab is kind of its own thing, culturally, it's pretty distinct in certain ways from the rest of MIT and arguably more culturally connected to the software-business world than the academic world. Ito himself isn't an academic in the usual sense — he doesn't do research and has no advanced degree. Basically this is best thought of as coming from the academic wing of Silicon Valley rather than from "MIT."
posted by RogerB at 11:02 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

If it's more related to Silicon Valley, then that's really interesting to me that this award exists considering how the tech companies are being complicit and even affirming current Trump policies. Kind of confounding...
posted by yueliang at 1:45 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

yueliang, which tech companies do you have in mind? My impression was that tech companies were among the most prominent critics of Trumpism (at least on the immigration stuff). It's quite possible that I missed a memo - there's a lot to keep up with.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:49 AM on March 16, 2017

It is a good idea and maybe can spur people on who continue to do things like this everyday of their lives. Maybe not on a grand scale, but it starts with the individual and with simple acts of resistance sans showboating.
posted by DJZouke at 5:40 AM on March 16, 2017

escape from the potato planet - most of the big SV players have lined up to kiss the ring -- peter thiel is a big SV funder dude and a big trump supporter, thiel sits on facebook's board and has been used by zuckerberg as an example of "diversity", bunch of dumb shit all over HN, ycombinator, etc

also it's still rich as fuck coming from the "academic wing" of silicon valley
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 8:46 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

On Aaron: I knew Aaron Swartz and I miss him. In 2013, MIT conducted and released a report: "MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz" which has some stuff I didn't know before the report -- "In brief, among our more significant findings are the following" in the Introduction is a useful summary.

The report also includes several questions that it encourages MIT's leaders and community to consider, including:

"Should MIT increase its efforts to bring its considerable technical expertise and leadership to bear on the study of legal, policy, and societal impact of information and communications technology?" and "How can MIT draw lessons for its hacker culture from this experience?" In further discussion of that latter point: "How can we prevent a robust hacking tradition from becoming a casualty of the Aaron Swartz tragedy? Is MIT doing enough to help students when their investigations lead them into confrontations with powerful authorities or existing law?" and more related questions.

So, my take is that the deliberate public celebration of disobedience in this award is consciously answering this question in the light of Aaron Swartz's legacy.

On complicity: yes, the US tech industry is complicit in a whole lot of bullshit including some of the mechanisms of government surveillance. We have a history of turning the lucre we're ashamed of into awards to try to expiate that shame. Seems like a reasonable idea.

Ito said: "This award is a work in progress, which will be further defined during and after the event" and I'm willing to trust him on that -- if a nominator makes an argument for a nominee who doesn't fit the criteria they initially stated, I'm willing to believe they'd take it seriously.
posted by brainwane at 9:11 AM on March 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

And continuing that thought, on sanitization and "disobedience but only within these parameters": I feel conflicted about this. I have no affiliation with MIT but sometimes I run or publicize things. Let's say you are a research lab and you genuinely want to celebrate and encourage resistance to systems that are causing harm. Let's say you already have a multipronged approach, including funding research, mentoring specific activists as researchers, making free tools and educational materials available online, and stuff like that, and maybe you make some changes in those processes to increase how likely it is that you're encouraging disobedience for the benefit of society, but that isn't really apparent to the world outside your doors in the near term and the effects take a while to percolate out.

An award can get publicity for the idea that this is a thing to celebrate, can help one specific person or group keep going and make a big difference to them, can maybe bring attention to a list of finalists and help their work get more coverage, can ensure the award administrators and the judging committee and the reporters covering the award spend time thinking about the importance of disobedience, and can cause a bunch of people to think "hmm, who should I nominate?" and write a couple paragraphs about why their disobedience is good and award-worthy. That last bit -- getting people to put down their thoughts -- also solidifies the nominators' commitment to respecting and rewarding disobedience. So, all awards are simplistic judgments, but if the problem is that we need to balance the scales a bit, maybe it'll help anyway.

But how do you convey who this isn't for, and how do you get across what you are open to, including the possibility that as you get the first set of nominees you'll realize that your initial criteria need to change? What wording do you use? Maybe this is such a slippery and still-in-process concept, and the readers come from so many contexts, that there's no wording that actually gets this across as reliably as one would like. Or maybe an award is just not a tool that will usefully address the problem its founders are working on.

On Trump: the funder for this prize is Reid Hoffman, who in September 2016 pledged to donate a bunch of money to veterans' groups if Trump would release his tax returns, and who that month was specifically mentioned in a business piece in the New York Times: "Unlike many of his peers, Mr. Hoffman has taken to publicly denouncing Mr. Trump."

(Don't want this to 100% derail into a politics thread, but I figure this fact is relevant to yueliang's confoundment & nixon's meatloaf's response.)
posted by brainwane at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

this is also interesting and helpful context, brainwane.

the thing that seems insincere and hinky about an award as attempt to expiate shame (good turn of phrase btw) is that there are tons of people and orgs trying to hustle in their own communities to make shit happen, and i feel like thos people and orgs are less likely to have the bandwidth and cultural context to go for an award like this -- like i would wonder if the award is more likely going to go to someone or some org that is already plugged in to tech inflected academe world. why not just fund some struggling BLM or other movementy stuff around boston? or did the funder give money to the lab and then the lab has to figure out how to redistribute it in some ethical way?

i guess i am surprised at all the middlemen
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 10:51 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I personally plan on disobeying the same way I always have- standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves, playing loud punk music, and calling people out on their shit. I don't need a prize for that, and while I see this as well intentioned, you don't make Che Guevera out of people who have something to lose.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 9:14 PM on March 16, 2017

I nominate 2600, the Hacker Quarterly. https://www.2600.com/
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:40 PM on March 20, 2017

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