Email

In Praise of Email

Remember a decade or two ago when it was our national pastime to complain about email? More recently, as I’ve reassessed this blog, my social media presence, and our centralized digital platforms in general, I’ve come to realize just how much the email system got right, in spite of full inboxes, spam, and security issues. Despite, or perhaps because of, its early inception, email avoided many of the worst aspects of our modern media environment.

Let’s review:

  • Email is radically interoperable and universal.
  • You can have your own email address, using your own domain name, independent of any centralized service, and portable between providers. If you wish, you can also choose an email address at a centralized provider.
  • Regardless of provider, you can easily download all of your email onto your local computer or device. You can locally search your email archive; you are not beholden to any provider’s indexing system.
  • Identity on email is [username] at [domain name] rather than just a username that presumes that you are on a specific site or service. Leaving off the domain or service name prevents interoperability because of potential namespace confusion.
  • There are commonly implemented and generally respected standards and protocols for uploading, downloading, and syncing email between machines that are not under the control of a single entity.
  • Most email systems do not signal to others that you are online, and such signaling is not part of the email protocols themselves.
  • Filtering (e.g., spam filtering) is a separate system, and you can choose different filtering systems. Those filtering systems can do many things, including blocking, muting, suppressing images, sorting, and responding — all at the discretion of the user.
  • Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.
  • The creation of groups (e.g., email listservs) is decentralized and yet effective.
  • You can attach files of any kind to an email, not just an image or video.
  • There are a wide range of clients to compose and read email, with features to match every style of interaction with the email system.
  • You can end-to-end encrypt email.
  • It is possible to have an email environment without distracting ads.

Compare that list with other, newer platforms we use today. I think it looks pretty darn good. Now think about structuring some of those platforms in the same way, and how much better they would be.

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Podcasts

Looking Back at Season 1 of the What’s New Podcast, and Ahead to Season 2

What's New Photo 2

When I arrived at Northeastern University a year ago, I wanted to start a new podcast that highlighted new ideas and discoveries through interviews with a wide range of faculty and researchers. Snell Library has incredible facilities not only for quiet study but also for the production of media and digital scholarship, and so it was natural to use our professional recording studio and the expertise of our staff to create this podcast. The result was What’s New, which wrapped up its first season a couple of months ago.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I had a prior podcast, Digital Campus, which began in 2007, during the first wave of podcasting. Created with my friends at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, it was a roundtable discussion of how digital media and technology were affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Digital Campus lasted through 2015, and built up a nice audience of fellow practitioners in digital humanities, academia, and cultural heritage institutions over those eight years.

With What’s New I wanted to draw on a larger canvas than Digital Campus, and try to reach an even larger audience. This wasn’t purely populist. In part the new podcast was my audio answer to the ongoing question about the social role and value of the academy; to me, that answer is not very complicated, and can be seen just by walking around a campus and talking to people. For the most part, despite all of the criticism and hand-wringing, universities still foster the people, environment, time, and resources to allow us to delve into topics far more deeply than anywhere else, and that process leads to profound, applicable, and enriching ideas in the broadest sense: not only scientific and technical breakthroughs but also a better understanding of ourselves as human beings.

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

Podcasts have generally been more off the cuff than rigorous. Sure, there are now many NPR, BBC, and other podcasts that are professional and well-produced, but a majority of podcasts are still unedited conversations. Sometimes that format can work well — I’m biased, but I think Digital Campus was fun to listen to, in part because we were friends and could joke with each other, or quickly grasp where one of us was going with a topic and then riff off of that.

Before launching, we had a lot of discussions about the structure and tone of What’s New, and settled on a simple half-hour interview format that we thought would go deep enough into a topic but not exhaustively so, and that would not be casual conversation that dragged on for an hour or two. That gave us the opportunity to cover a number of challenging topics and do them justice, while not being exhaustive. We left it to the listener to learn more through links, by reading a related book, etc.

I’m thrilled with how the first season went, audience-wise. Last time I checked we had over 30,000 streams so far, and the weekly numbers continue to grow. I’ve really enjoyed reading articles and books on topics I know nothing about and then having 30 minutes to frame complicated subjects in plainspoken ways, and to ask some probing questions of the guests on the show. It’s allowed me to get to know the incredible faculty at Northeastern, and to promote their work. (At the end of the season, we had a special guest from off campus, and that is likely to happen more in the future.)

If there’s one bit of self-criticism, the format of What’s New, especially within the strictures of a professional recording studio, could occasionally come across as a bit too formal, and so as we think ahead to Season 2, we’re going to sprinkle in some looser elements. We’re changing up the sound design a bit and recording the podcast outside of the studio, potentially with sounds from the field (e.g., within a lab). There will be a new, less ponderous theme song. I think I got better and less stiff as an interviewer as the season went on, but I’ll be working on that too; I have to admit to being used to being the interviewee rather than the interviewer.

For now, it’s a good time to catch up on Season 1 if you haven’t done so already, and subscribe to the podcast (just use one of the links at the top of the What’s New site) for the launch of Season 2 in September. Here are the episodes from Season 1:

1. How We Respond to Disaster – how cities bounce back from natural disasters or terrorism

2. Fake News and the Next Generation – the news consumption habits of young people, and the elusiveness of the truth

3. The Steamship Revolution – the spaceships of the 19th century

4. Enabling Engineering – an incredible group that designs devices for those with physical and cognitive disabilities

5. Inventing Writing – a fascinating story of how the Cherokee language went from oral to written

6. The Secrets of Hollywood Storytelling – a screenwriter and film producer on how movies are written and sonically designed

7. Tracking the Invisible Infrastructure of Our Cities – what you learn when you attach GPS devices to your trash

8. The Algorithms That Shape Our Lives – clever methods reveal how Facebook, Amazon, and other big internet companies work

9. The Hidden Universe of Comics – beyond the superheroes you see at the multiplex

10. Designing for Diversity – how to design digital systems to be more attentive to the true diversity of humanity

11. The Future of Energy – adding solar power to the grid is not so simple

12. Fractivism – how communities are responding to this new energy production method

13. The Evolution of Cities – the collision of people, transportation, and buildings as seen through the eyes of a city planner

14. Privacy in the Facebook Age – or what’s left of it, and whether regulation will help

15. Addressing Neglected Diseases – discovering vaccines and cures for these diseases requires a completely different model

16. Engineering the Future: Boston’s Big Dig – inside one of the biggest engineering projects in history, from its primary engineer and advocate

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Social Media, Twitter

Going Indie on Social Media

Social media is like the weather: everyone likes to complain about it, but nobody does anything to change it. Of course, you can do something about it, and some have — namely, by deleting your social media accounts. But the vast majority of people, even those who see serious flaws with our social media landscape continue to use it, in many cases avidly.

As someone who is naturally social but who has found social media like Twitter increasingly unpleasant and lacking in what drew me to these services in the first place — the ability to meet new and interesting people, encounter and discuss new ideas and digital resources, and make a few bad puns on the side — deletion is not a great option, for a number of reasons.

Some of those reasons are undoubtedly selfish. Having a large number of followers on a social media platform is a kind of super power, as John Gruber has said. With over 18,000 followers, accreted over 10 years on Twitter, I can ask for help or advice and usually get a number of very useful responses, spread the word widely about new projects and initiatives, find new staffers for my organization, and highlight good, innovative work by others.

I will also admit to liking the feeling of ambient humanity online, although the experience of social media in the last two years has tempered that feeling.

So what to do? I’ve tried alternatives to Twitter before, such as App.net, a Twitter clone that launched in 2012. It went nowhere and shut down. I have considered Mastodon, a somewhat better thought-out Twitter replacement that is decentralized — you join an instance of the platform and can even host one yourself, and yet you can connect across these nodes in a very webby way.

Most of these Twitter replacements unfortunately have frictions that slow widespread adoption. It’s often hard to find people to follow, including your friends and colleagues. The technology can be janky, with posts not showing up as quickly as on Twitter. New services are largely populated in the early days by young white dudes (I am fully aware that I am not helping with this diversity problem, although I’m no longer so young). It’s unclear if they’ve truly solved the “I’d rather not be hounded by Nazis” problem, especially since they all have less than a million users, a tiny population in social media terms.

Nevertheless, I’ve continued to prospect for a post-Twitter life over the years, and spurred on by some friends, I think I’ve finally reached a solution that works for me.

My new social media setup is this:

  • Just as I have done with my personal email address, website, and blog, my social media presence will be tied to my own domain: dancohen.org. I’ve chosen social.dancohen.org because it has a nice ring to it and it doesn’t define my social media presence as text, images, or any other single item type. Indeed, it can be all of the above and in the long run replace multiple centralized social media services, including Twitter and Instagram.
  • Even though the root domain is dancohen.org, I can have someone else host my social media, but in an ownership structure I feel good about, and with the possibility of changing that host at any time in the future. I should be fully in charge of my social media, as I am with this blog. My new social domain, social.dancohen.org, thus acts as front end, but just as I’ve changed web hosts and email services over two decades, my addresses for those services have not and will never change. I’m not tied forever to a Gmail address or a service that bonds me to notmywebsite.com/dancohen.
  • I’ve chosen Micro.blog as my new hosted social media platform, because I like how Manton Reece and the early community of users is thoughtful and conservative about features, so as not to replicate the worst of Twitter, Instagram, etc. (See, e.g., this conversation about whether there should be “likes” on the service, and whether they should be public or private, temporary or permanent.) There are also good clients for Micro.blog, including from third-party developers. There are no ads. It has a good clean design that you can change if you like. And you can leave the service with all of your social media at any point for a new host.
  • Micro.blog, in turn, can connect with Twitter, so posts from social.dancohen.org will show up as posts on Twitter, so my followers there can still see what I’m tweeting…or…tooting, about.
  • Although I’ve focused on Twitter in this post, Micro.blog actually has terrific Instagram-like functionality, with none of the annoying algorithmic sorting of your feed and no ads, so I’m moving my photo posting there. (I left Facebook a long time ago, with few repercussions and zero regret.) Instagram does not allow cross-posting from Micro.blog.
  • My domain registrar (Hover) has a great, simple way to connect a subdomain to Micro.blog to create something like social.dancohen.org. This normally involves futzing with a DNS record (which has the geeky and off-putting moniker CNAME). I want my setup to be replicable, and no one should ever have to edit one’s DNS records to create a personal social media hub. Everyone should be able to do this with one click. Get on it, domain registrars.

Here’s my early sense of how this will work:

  • Starting last week, I began making my primary social media posts on social.dancohen.org rather than on Twitter.
  • For the vast majority of people who follow me, they will continue to see my posts on Twitter and interact with them there. Indeed, they probably haven’t even noticed the change unless they looked at my tweets’ metadata, which now includes “via micro.blog”.
  • When necessary, I will interact with replies on Twitter. One downside to my setup is that these Twitter replies do not ping back to social.dancohen.org. Or maybe that’s an upside. Time for me to consider how much humanity I really need to be ambient.

For those who would like to replicate what I’ve done, Micro.blog has good documentation on setting up a personal social media domain like social.dancohen.org, including for the majority of domain registrars who don’t have automated mechanisms, like Hover, for creating a proper DNS CNAME record. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a more sophisticated setup using WordPress, where her posts of the type “micro” are ported to Micro.blog, and then over to Twitter. Chris Aldrich has a longer description about how to structure your WordPress site to be able to do what Kathleen did, separating brief social media posts from longer blog posts that remain on the root domain.

It feels good to have gone back to my blog and now to go indie on my social media as well. I hope my experience prods others to give it a try.

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Archives, Libraries, Museums, Science Fiction

Haunted by the Past

scarif_mansueto

Top: The Scarif Archive in Rogue One / Bottom: Robotic storage facility in the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

Ever since Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor extracted the Death Star plans from a digital repository on the planet Scarif in Rogue One, libraries, archives, and museums have played an important role in tentpole science fiction films. From Luke Skywalker’s library of Jedi wisdom books in The Last Jedi, to Blade Runner 2049’s multiple storage media for DNA sequences, to a fateful scene in an ethnographic museum in Black Panther, the imposing and evocative halls of cultural heritage organizations have been in the foreground of the imagined future.

There have been scattered instances of cultural memory institutions in such films in the past—my colleagues in the library will recall, with some eye-rolling, the librarian Jocasta Nu in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones—but the appearance of these institutions  in recent speculative fiction on the screen seem especially relevant and rich, and central to their plots.

Which begs the question: Why are today’s science fiction films obsessed with libraries, archives, and museums?

The answer of course is rooted in how science fiction has always pursued a heightened understanding of our very real present. At the same time that these movies portray an imagined future, they are also exploring our current anxiety about the past and how it is stored; how we simultaneously wish to leave the past behind, and how it may also be impossible to shake it. They indicate that we live in an age that has an extremely strained relationship with history itself. These films are processing that anxiety on Hollywood’s big screen at a time when our small screens, social media, and browser histories document and preserve so much of we do and say.

Luke Skywalker’s collection of rare books in The Last Jedi neatly captures the tension inherent in these movies. In an egg-shaped stone hut reminiscent of (and indeed filmed in) the rural parts of western Ireland where Christian monasteries were established in the Middle Ages, Luke’s archive of Jedi books represent a profound bond to the traditional wisdom of the Jedi cult. Yet as the movie proceeds, it is clear that these volumes are also a strong link in the chain that holds Luke back. Ultimately his little library is not a source of knowledge, but one of angst. It makes him surly and disassociated from present possibilities, and he must ultimately sever himself from the past that is encapsulated in paper. Burning the books becomes a necessary precursor to his taking action, and to moving to the metaphysical (and more real) plane of the Jedi.

Black Panther uses two characters, rather than one, to embody the tense dynamic between setting history aside and being unable to let it go: the dueling figures of T’Challa (Black Panther) and N’Jadaka (Erik Killmonger). T’Challa understands that black people have been abused and enslaved, globally, for centuries. And yet he imagines a day when Wakanda steps beyond this past, and integrates their society and advanced technology with the outside world that has done so much wrong to them. He is a forward-looking optimist.

N’Jadaka, on the other hand, seethes with anger about the past, and how it is so vividly documented in the halls of cultural heritage institutions. Before he declines into a more monochromatic villain, he experiences frankly justifiable rage at what whites have done with black culture—namely, stolen and stored it like an alien, and lesser, culture, in glass-cased museums. A pivotal scene in one such museum reflects the troubled genesis of institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum, which collected artifacts of non-white culture from the British Empire to be viewed and dissected by professors in Oxford.

In one of the most memorable lines of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the seminal rap album that documents what happened to African slaves and their descendents in the United States, Flava Flav shouts “I got a right to be hostile!” given this terrible history. A poster of that album is on the wall of N’Jadaka’s father’s apartment in Oakland, and it frames, like the glass case in the museum, the young man’s views of the world in which his ancestors have been constantly subjugated.

Blade Runner 2049 is even more unrelentingly pessimistic about the future and its connection to the past. In the movie’s opening, we are told that the documentary evidence of that past has been wiped out in a catastrophic electronic pulse that destroyed digital photographs and electronic records. As we learn, however, not all archives are lost. While personal images and documents that were never printed are gone forever, some plutocratic corporations maintain archival records, and we see several of them in the film: digital media as well as formats encased in glass spheres and more recognizable microfilm. Nevertheless, these archives are imperfect, like so much in the film. Even a leather-bound handwritten book of records in a wasteland orphanage has critical pages ripped out.

Because it is based on the work of Philip K. Dick, who was obsessed with libraries as part of a larger obsession with memory and reality, Blade Runner 2049 ultimately binds not only the past and present together, but the archival and the alive. Humans and replicants, the movie seems to argue, are simply incarnations of archival records, fleshy beings made up of the synthetic or parental DNA that form their core information architecture and the libraries of memories that are either fabricated or lived. This uneasy fusion is at the dark core of the film and its philosophical examination of the permeable boundary between the real and the artificial.

For all of these films, the past constantly threatens to come back to haunt the present. (Just ask those on the Death Star.) In turn, these big-screen portrayals of imagined libraries, archives, and museums should make us reconsider how what we preserve and make accessible reflects—and perhaps determines—who we really are.

 

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Engineering, Podcasts, Transportation

The Big Dig and the Nature of Large Engineering Projects

I was fortunate to sit down for a rare interview with Fred Salvucci on the final episode of this season of the What’s New podcast. Fred is now at MIT, but he is well-known in the Boston area for conceiving and being the champion of a massive engineering project which came to be known as the Big Dig, and which completely transformed the city of Boston for the twenty-first century.

For most of its postwar existence, downtown Boston was split by a giant elevated highway called the Central Artery. The Artery was an artifact common to many cities in twentieth-century America, a terrible byproduct of the car-centric culture and suburbanization that flourished in the 1950s. Elevated roadways were aggressively cut through small-scale livable neighborhoods so that people could get into the city from the suburbs, and so that others could drive through a city without entering its local roadways on their way to distant destinations. Homes were often taken from people to make way for these elevated highways, and the walkability and attractiveness of cities suffered.

The Big Dig not only put the Central Artery underground, but added a massive linear park in the center of Boston, a marquee bridge that aptly reflected the famous Bunker Hill Monument, and another tunnel to Logan Airport. It thus completely reshaped the city and improved not only its transportation, but Boston’s skyline and its ground-level fabric and beauty. It reconnected neighborhoods and people.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Fred spoke to me about how the Big Dig was engineered—it was one of the biggest engineering projects in history, at a cost of $15 billion, through a 400-year-old city ($1 billion just to relocate ancient pipes and wires)—but also how he was able to get so many people on board for such a gigantic project. Indeed, as you’ll hear, Fred saw it more as a political and socio-economic project than a transportation initiative.

Moreover, Fred provides some good thoughts about the future of transportation, including the impact (likely negative, in his view) of self-driving cars, and whether we can ever find the will—and the funds—to do something like the Big Dig again. Do tune in.

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Uncategorized

Launching the Boston Research Center

Boston Bridges

Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

I’m delighted that the news is now out about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation‘s grant to Northeastern University Library to launch the Boston Research Center. The BRC will seek to unify major archival collections related to Boston, hundreds of data sets about the city, digital modes of scholarship, and a wide array of researchers and visualization specialists to offer a seamless environment for studying and displaying Boston’s history and culture. It will be great to work with my colleagues at Northeastern and regional partners to develop this center over the coming years. Having grown up in Boston, and now having returned as an adult, it has a personal significance for me as well.

I’m also excited that the BRC will build upon, and combine, some of the signature strengths of Northeastern that drew me to the university last year. For decades, the library has been assembling and working with local communities to preserve materials and stories related to the city. We now have the archives of a number of local and regional newspapers, and the library has been active in the gathering of oral and documentary histories of nearby communities such as the Lower Roxbury Black History Project. We also have strong connections with other important regional collections and institutions, such the Boston Public Library, the Boston Library Consortium, and data sets produced by Boston’s municipal government and other sources, through our campus’s leadership in BARI.

My friends in digital humanities will know that Northeastern has a world-class array of faculty and researchers doing cutting-edge, interdisciplinary computational analysis. We have the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the Network Science Institute, numerous faculty in our College of Arts, Media, and Design who work on digital storytelling and information design, and the library has its own terrific Digital Scholarship Group and dedicated specialists in GIS and data visualization. We will all be working together, and with many others from beyond the university, to imagine and develop large-scale projects that examine major trends and elements of Boston, such as immigration, neighborhood transformations, economic growth, and environmental changes. There will also be an opportunity for smaller-scale stories to be documented, and of course the BRC itself will be open to anyone who would like to research the city or specific communities. As a place with a long and richly documented history, with a coastal location and educational, scientific, and commercial institutions that have long involved global relationships, the study of Boston also means the study of themes that are broadly important and applicable.

My thanks to the Mellon Foundation for their generous support. It should be fascinating to watch all of this come together—stay tuned.

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Uncategorized

Help Snell Library Help Others

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library, an institution that is designed to help others and to share knowledge, resources, and expertise. Snell Library is a very busy library. Every year, we have two million visits. On some weekdays we receive well over 10,000 visitors, with thousands of them in the building at one time. It’s great to see a library so fully used and appreciated.

Just as important, Snell Library fosters projects that help others in our Boston community and well beyond. Our staff has worked alongside members of the Lower Roxbury community to record, preserve, and curate oral histories of their neighborhood; with other libraries and archives to aggregate and make accessible thousands of documents related to school desegregation in Boston; and with other institutions and people to save the personal stories and images of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

Our library is the home of the archives of a number of Boston newspapers, including the The Boston Phoenix, the Gay Community News, and the East Boston Community News, with more to come. The Digital Scholarship Group housed in the library supports many innovative projects, including the Women Writers Project and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. We have a podcast that explores new ideas and discoveries, and tries to help our audience understand the past, present, and future of our world better.

It’s National Library Week, and today is Northeastern’s Giving Day. So I have a small request of those who read my blog and might appreciate the activities of such a library as Snell: please consider a modest donation to my library to help us help others. And if at least 50 students, parents, or friends donate today—and I’d really love that to be 100, even at $10—I’ll match that with $1,000 of my own. Thank you. 

>> NU Giving Day – Give to the Library <<

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