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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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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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What’s New, Episode 14: Privacy in the Facebook Age

On the latest What’s New Podcast from Northeastern University Library, I interview Woody Hartzog, who has a new book just out this week from Harvard University Press entitled Privacy’s Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies. We had a wide-ranging discussion over a half-hour, including whether (and if so, how) Facebook should be regulated by the government, how new listening devices like the Amazon Echo should be designed (and regulated), and how new European laws that go into effect in May 2018 may (or may not) affect the online landscape and privacy in the U.S.

Woody provides a plainspoken introduction to all of these complicated issues, with some truly helpful parallels to ethical and legal frameworks in other fields (such as accounting, medicine, and legal practice), and so I strongly recommend a listen to the episode if you would like to get up to speed on this important aspect of our contemporary digital lives. Given Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony today in front of Congress, it’s especially timely.

[Subscribe to What’s New on iTunes or Google Play]

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The Post-Coding Generation?

When I was in sixth grade our class got an Apple ][ and I fell in love for the first time. The green phosphorescence of the screen and the way text commands would lead to other text instantly appearing was magical. The true occult realm could be evoked by moving beyond the command line and into assembly language, with mysterious hexidecimal pairs producing swirling lines and shapes on the screen. It was enthralling, and led to my interest in programming at an early age. I now have an almost identical Apple ][ in the corner of my office as a totem from that time.

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Of course, very few people learn assembly language anymore, and for good reason. The history of computing is the history of successive generations of coders moving up the technical stack, from low-level languages like assembly to higher languages that put all of the rudimentary calculations behind a curtain.

I’ve been thinking about this coding escalator recently because of my kids and the still-vibrant “learn to code” movement. My kids are in their early teens and I can say as a proud parent that they are very good at all of the skills needed to be great programmers. They also go to a public school that was the archrival of the public school I went to—in the Boston-area math league. The school is filled with similar kids, sons and daughters of highly educated people, many of whom work in technical and scientific fields, or at one of Boston’s many universities.

Yet I would characterize the general interest of my kids’ generation in coding as being lukewarm. They get it, they see the power of programming, and yet they are much more interested in the creativity that can occur on top of the technical stack. I suppose we should not be surprised. They are the first generation whose interactions with computers were with devices that do not have a command line—that is, with smartphones and tablets. So naturally they are drawn to the higher-level aspects of computing, which doesn’t seem like computing at all to my generation. While some may roll their eyes at Apple adding an “Everyone Can Create” initiative this week as a counterpart to “Everyone Can Code,” my kids thought this was a truly interesting development.

To be sure, those who know how to code, and code well, will always be able to shape computer platforms and apps in powerful ways, just as those who understand what’s under the hood of their car can maximize its performance. The skills one learns in programming are broadly applicable, and under the right circumstances coding can stir the imagination about what is possible in the digital realm. But most of us just want to drive, even in a suboptimal automobile, and get somewhere for some other reason, and many “learn to code” programs are frankly not especially imaginative.

In Digital History, Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote that although they are both noble professions, “historians planning a digital project should think like architects, not like plumbers.” I suspect my kids’ generation may see coding as plumbing, and would prefer to work on the design of the overall house. I’m not sure that we have fully accounted for this next generation’s shift yet, or have even come to realize that at some point the coding escalator would reach the top, and those on it would step off.

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Revisiting Mills Kelly’s “Lying About the Past” 10 Years Later

If timing is everything, history professor Mills Kelly didn’t have such great timing for his infamous course “Lying About the Past.” Taught at George Mason University for the first time in 2008, and then again in 2012—both, notably, election years, although now seemingly from a distant era of democracy—the course stirred enormous controversy and then was never taught again in the face of institutional and external objections. Some of those objections understandably remain, but “Lying About the Past” now seems incredibly prescient and relevant.

Unlike other history courses, “Lying About the Past” did not focus on truths about the past, but on historical hoaxes. As a historian of Eastern Europe, Kelly knew a thing or two about how governments and other organizations can shape public opinion through the careful crafting of false, but quite believable, information. Also a digital historian, Kelly understood how modern tools like Photoshop could give even a college student the ability to create historical fakes, and then to disseminate those fakes widely online.

In 2008, students in the course collaborated on a fabricated pirate, Edward Owens, who supposedly roamed the high (or low) seas of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s. (In a bit of genius marketing, they called him “The Last American Pirate.”) In 2012, the class made a previously unknown New York City serial killer materialize out of “recently found” newspaper articles and other documents.

It was less the intellectual focus of the course, which was really about the nature of historical truth and the importance of careful research, than the dissemination of the hoaxes themselves that got Kelly and his classes in trouble. In perhaps an impolitic move, the students ended up adding and modifying articles on Wikipedia, and as YouTube recently discovered, you don’t mess with Wikipedia. Although much of the course was dedicated to the ethics of historical fakes, for many who looked at “Lying About the Past,” the public activities of the students crossed an ethical line.

But as we have learned over the last two years, the mechanisms of dissemination are just as important as the fake information being disseminated. A decade ago, Kelly’s students were exploring what became the dark arts of Russian trolls, putting their hoaxes on Twitter and Reddit and seeing the reactive behaviors of gullible forums. They learned a great deal about the circulation of information, especially when bits of fake history and forged documents align with political and cultural communities.

As Yoni Appelbaum, a fellow historian, assessed the outcome of “Lying About the Past” more generously than the pundits who piled on once the course circulated on cable TV:

If there’s a simple lesson in all of this, it’s that hoaxes tend to thrive in communities which exhibit high levels of trust. But on the Internet, where identities are malleable and uncertain, we all might be well advised to err on the side of skepticism.

History unfortunately shows that erring on the side of skepticism has not exactly been a widespread human trait. Indeed, “Lying About the Past” showed the opposite: that those who know just enough history to make plausible, but false, variations in its record, and then know how to push those fakes to the right circles, have the chance to alter history itself.

Maybe it’s a good time to teach some version of “Lying About the Past” again.

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Age of Asymmetries

Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother traces the fight between hacker teens and an overactive surveillance state emboldened by a terrorist attack in San Francisco. The novel details in great depth the digital tools of the hackers, especially the asymmetry of contemporary cryptography. Simply put, today’s encryption is based on mathematical functions that are really easy in one direction—multiplying two prime numbers to get a large number—and really hard in the opposite direction—figuring out the two prime numbers that were multiplied together to get that large number.

Doctorow’s speculative future also contains asymmetries that are more familiar to us. Terrorist attacks are, alas, all too easy to perpetrate and hard to prevent. On the internet, it is easy to be loud and to troll and to disseminate hate, and hard to counteract those forces and to more quietly forge bonds.

The mathematics of cryptography are immutable. There will always be an asymmetry between that which is easy and that which is hard. It is how we address the addressable asymmetries of our age, how we rebalance the unbalanced, that will determine what our future actually looks like.

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Irrationality and Human-Computer Interaction

When the New York Times let it be known that their election-night meter—that dial displaying the real-time odds of a Democratic or Republican win—would return for Georgia’s 6th congressional district runoff after its notorious November 2016 debut, you could almost hear a million stiff drinks being poured. Enabled by the live streaming of precinct-by-precinct election data, the dial twitches left and right, pauses, and then spasms into another movement. It’s a jittery addition to our news landscape and the source of countless nightmares, at least for Democrats.

We want to look away, and yet we stare at the meter for hours, hoping, praying. So much so that, perhaps late at night, we might even believe that our intensity and our increasingly firm grip on our iPhones might affect the outcome, ever so slightly.

Which is silly, right?

*          *          *

Thirty years ago I opened a bluish-gray metal door and entered a strange laboratory that no longer exists. Inside was a tattered fabric couch, which faced what can only be described as the biggest pachinko machine you’ve ever seen, as large as a giant flat-screen TV. Behind a transparent Plexiglas front was an array of wooden pegs. At the top were hundreds of black rubber balls, held back by a central gate. At the bottom were vertical slots.

A young guy—like me, a college student—sat on the couch in a sweatshirt and jeans. He was staring intently at the machine. So intently that I just froze, not wanting to get in the way of his staring contest with the giant pinball machine.

He leaned in. Then the balls started releasing from the top at a measured pace and they chaotically bounced around and down the wall, hitting peg after peg until they dropped into one of the columns at the bottom. A few minutes later, those hundreds of rubber balls had formed a perfectly symmetrical bell curve in the columns.

The guy punched the couch and looked dispirited.

I unfroze and asked him the only phrase I could summon: “Uh, what’s going on?”

“I was trying to get the balls to shift to the left.”

“With what?”

With my mind.”

*          *          *

This was my first encounter with the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, or PEAR. PEAR’s stated mission was to pursue an “experimental agenda of studying the interaction of human consciousness with sensitive physical devices, systems, and processes,” but that prosaic academic verbiage cloaked a far cooler description: PEAR was on the hunt for the Force.

This was clearly bananas, and also totally enthralling for a nerdy kid who grew up on Star Wars. I needed to know more. Fortunately that opportunity presented itself through a new course at the university: “Human-Computer Interaction.” I’m not sure I fully understood what it was about before I signed up for it.

The course was team-taught by prominent faculty in computer science, psychology, and engineering. One of the professors was George Miller, a founder of cognitive psychology, who was the first to note that the human mind was only capable of storing seven-digit numbers (plus or minus two digits). And it included engineering professor Robert Jahn, who had founded PEAR and had rather different notions of our mental capacity.

*          *          *

One of the perks of being a student in Human-Computer Interaction was that you were not only welcome to stop by the PEAR lab, but you could also engage in the experiments yourself. You would just sign up for a slot and head to the basement of the engineering quad, where you would eventually find the bluish-gray door.

By the late 1980s, PEAR had naturally started to focus on whether our minds could alter the behavior of a specific, increasingly ubiquitous machine in our lives: the computer. Jahn and PEAR’s co-founder, Brenda Dunne, set up several rooms with computers and shoebox-sized machines with computer chips in them that generated random numbers on old-school red LED screens. Out of the box snaked a cord with a button at the end.

You would book your room, take a seat, turn on the random-number generator, and flip on the PC sitting next to it. Once the PC booted up, you would type in a code—as part of the study, no proper names were used—to log each experiment. Then the shoebox would start showing numbers ranging from 0.00 to 2.00 so quickly that the red LED became a blur. You would click on the button to stop the digits, and then that number was recorded by the computer.

The goal was to try to stop the rapidly rotating numbers on a number over 1.00, to push the average up as far as possible. Over dozens of turns the computer’s monitor showed how far that average diverged from 1.00.

That’s a clinical description of the experiment. In practice, it was a half-hour of tense facial expressions and sweating, a strange feeling of brow-beating a shoebox with an LED, and some cursing when you got several sub-1.00 numbers in a row. It was human-computer interaction at its most emotional.

Jahn and Dunne kept the master log of the codes and the graphs. There were rumors that some of the codes—some of the people those codes represented—had discernable, repeatable effects on the random numbers. Over many experiments, they were able to make the average rise, ever so slightly but enough to be statistically significant.

In other words, there were Jedis in our midst.

Unfortunately, over several experiments—and a sore thumb from clicking on the button with increasing pressure and frustration—I had no luck affecting the random numbers. I stared at the graph without blinking, hoping to shift the trend line upwards with each additional stop. But I ended up right in the middle, as if I had flipped a coin a thousand times and gotten 500 heads and 500 tails. Average.

*          *          *

Jahn and Dunne unsurprisingly faced sustained criticism and even some heckling, on campus and beyond. When PEAR closed in 2007, all the post-mortems dutifully mentioned the editor of a journal who said he could accept a paper from the lab “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.” It’s a good line, and it’s tempting to make even more fun of PEAR these many years later.

The same year that PEAR closed its doors, the iPhone was released, and with it a new way of holding and touching and communicating with a computer. We now stare intently at these devices for hours a day, and much of that interaction is—let’s admit it—not entirely rational.

We see those three gray dots in a speech bubble and deeply yearn for a good response. We open the stocks app and, in the few seconds it takes to update, pray for green rather than red numbers. We go to the New York Times on election eve and see that meter showing live results, and more than anything we want to shift it to the left with our minds.

When asked by what mechanism the mind might be able to affect a computer, Jahn and Dunne hypothesized that perhaps there was something like an invisible Venn diagram, whereby the ghost in the machine and the ghost in ourselves overlapped ever so slightly. A permeability between silicon and carbon. An occult interface through which we could ever so slightly change the processes of the machine itself and what it displays to us seconds later.

A silly hypothesis, perhaps. But we often act like it is all too real.

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