Some thoughts on human experience design

There’s an organization, All Tech Is Human. They’re pretty cool! At Integrity Institute, we’re figuring out how to be good organizational friends with them.

They asked me, and a bunch of other people, to answer some questions about technology and society. I like my answers. Here they are! And here’s the link to the full report. (Uploaded to the Internet Archive instead of Scribd — thanks Mek!)

In it, I try to keep the focus on people and power, rather than “tech”. Also, content moderation won’t save us, care must be taken with organizational design, and a cameo by the English Civil War. Plus — never forget Aaron Swartz. Let me know what you think!

Tell us about your current role:

I run the Integrity Institute. We are a think tank powered by a community of integrity professionals: tech workers who have on-platform experience mitigating the harms that can occur on or be caused by the social internet.

We formed the Integrity Institute to advance the theory and practice of protecting the social internet. We believe in a social internet that helps individuals, societies, and democracies thrive.

We know the systemic causes of problems on the social internet and

how to build platforms that mitigate or avoid them. We confronted issues such as misinformation, hate speech, election interference, and many more from the inside. We have seen successful and unsuccessful attempted solutions.

Our community supports the public, policymakers, academics, journalists, and technology companies themselves as they try to understand best practices and solutions to the challenges posed by social media.

In your opinion, what does a healthy relationship with technology look like?

Technology is a funny old word. We’ve been living with technology for thousands of years. Technology isn’t new; only its manifestation is. What did a healthy relationship to technology look like 50 years ago? 200 years ago?

Writing is a form of technology. Companies are a form of technology. Government is a form of technology. They’re all inventions we created to help humankind. They are marvelously constructive tools that unleash a lot of power, and a lot of potential to alleviate human suffering. Yet, in the wrong hands, they can do correspondingly more damage.

Technology should help individuals, societies, and democracy thrive. But it is a truism to say that technology should serve us, not the other way around. So let’s get a little bit more specific.

A healthy relationship to technology looks like a healthy relationship with powerful people. People, after all, own or control technology. Are they using it for social welfare? Are they using it democratically? Are they using it responsibly? Are they increasing human freedom, or diminishing it?

We will always have technology. Machines and humankind have always coexisted. The real danger is in other humans using those machines for evil (or neglect). Let’s not forget.

What individuals are doing inspiring work toward improving our tech future?

If we lived in a better world, Aaron Swartz would no doubt be on top of my list. Never forget.

If one person’s free speech is another’s harm and content moderation can never be perfect, what will it take to optimize human and algorithmic content moderation for tech users as well as policymakers? What steps are needed for optimal content moderation?

Well, first off, let’s not assume that content moderation is the best tool, here. All communications systems, even ones that have no ranking systems or recommendation algorithms, make implicit or explicit choices about affordances. That is, some behavior is rewarded, and some isn’t. Those choices are embedded in code and design. Things like: “How often can you post before it’s considered spam?” or “Can you direct-message people you haven’t met?” or “is there a reshare button?”

Default social platforms have those settings tuned to maximize engagement and growth — at the expense of quality. Sadly, it turns out, content that has high engagement tends to be, well, bad. The builders of those platforms chose to reward the wrong behavior, and so the wrong behavior runs rampant.

Fixing this can be done through technical tweaks. Things like feature limits, dampers to virality, and so on. But companies must set up internal systems so that engineers that make those changes are rewarded, not punished. If the companies that run platforms changed their internal incentive structures, then many of these problems would go away — before any content moderation would be needed.

We’ll always need some content moderators. But they should be a last resort, not a first line of defense.

How can we share information and best practices so that smaller platforms and startups can create ethical and human-centered systems at the design stage?

Thanks for this softball question! I think we’re doing that pretty well over at the Integrity Institute. We are a home for integrity professionals at all companies. Our first, biggest, and forever project has been building the community of people like us. In that community, people can swap tips, help each other learn best practices, and learn in a safe environment.

Drawing from that community, we brief startups, platforms, and other stakeholders on the emerging knowledge coming out of that community. We’re defining a new field, and it’s quite exciting.

Going more abstract, however, I think the problem is also one of defaults and larger systems. How easy is it for a startup to choose ethics over particularly egregious profits? How long will that startup survive (and how long will the CEO stay in charge)? The same goes for larger companies, of course.

Imagine a world where doing the right thing gets your company out-competed, or you personally fired. Pretty bleak, huh?

We’re trying to fix that, in part by enforcing an integrity Hippocratic oath. This would be a professional oath that all integrity workers swear by — to put the public interest first, to tell the truth, and more. But that’s only one small piece of the puzzle.

What makes YOU optimistic that we, as a society, can build a tech future aligned with our human values?

In 1649, the people of England put their king on trial, found him guilty of “unlimited and tyrannical power,” and cut off his head. I imagine this came as quite a shock to him. More interestingly, perhaps, I imagine that it came as a shock to the people themselves.

In extraordinary times, people — human beings — can come together to do things that seemed impossible, unthinkable, even sacrilegious just a few days before.

Within living memory in this country, schoolchildren were drilled to dive under desks due to threats of global nuclear Armageddon. Things must have seemed terrible. Yet, those children grew up, bore children, and made a gamble that the future would indeed be worth passing on to them. I think they were right.

We live in interesting times. That’s not necessarily a great thing: boring, stable, peaceful times have a lot going for them. It doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice, though. In interesting times, conditions can change quickly. Old ideas are shown to be hollow and toothless. Old institutions are exposed as rotten. The new world struggles to be born.

I look around and I see immense possibilities all around me. It could go very badly. We could absolutely come out of this worse than we came in. Anyone — any future — can come out on top. So, why not us? Why not team human?


We need new, defiant holidays

(Co-written with a friend who wishes to remain anonymous)

Remember Jeffrey Epstein? A child rapist who built up a conspiracy of blackmail and exploitation that ensnared elites of many countries, parties, and industries. For a while, his empire — and his accomplices — were the most important story in the world. Then he died, and suddenly no one was talking about him any more. Not just in the media — our friends, normal people, etc, just collectively stopped discussing it. His collaborators (some named!) are still out there, free.


We need practices to remember things, otherwise they’ll fall out of thoughts. This is true for learning and retaining facts in a tactical way (with spaced repetition, anki methods, etc), and also true for remembering big, inconvenient truths in a strategic way.

It is particularly important to remember things that reflect the culture of elite impunity all around us. How the powerful break the law and get away with it over and over again.

Here are some examples:

  • The Great Recession was not only caused by fraud, it was accelerated by fraud. Not only did the banksters get off the hook legally — the banks (and corporations as random as McDonalds) got bailed out. Post-crisis, corporations and banks were even bigger and more monopolistic.
  • Epstein, and how his collaborators (powerful, named people!) are still at large.
  • Edward Snowden revealed massive, illegal, and scary expansions of the police state. Elite politicians of both parties (with some infuriating examples and noble exceptions) condemned him as a leaker at best and traitor (or spy) at worst.
  • The Panama Papers revealed how pretty much all the rich people in one hemisphere were breaking the law to hide their money from taxation. The person who revealed it all was killed by a hit squad.
  • And, of course, Aaron Swartz was killed by a combination of MIT, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz, and Steven Heymann.

We can add more to this list, of course. Bush and friends knowingly lied to get us into a war, illegally spied on pretty much every US citizen, and then congress gave everyone involved retroactive immunity without even an investigation. COINTELPRO happened. The architect of Iran/Contra is a fox news hero. Everything regard how black people are treated in america. Enron did a sort of 2008 crisis but for energy. Eugene Debs was jailed for opposing WWI. Etc.

How can we remember this? How can we make sure that our children remember this, and keep the rage fostered in their hearts? Not just the rage, but the story. The names, the addresses. The people responsible, and the system that let them get away with it.

We can remember things

Hm… If only there was a model of a way that we could institutionalize memory. Oh wait! There is!

Holidays are a technology humans have developed to fulfill certain purposes. The purpose of a holiday is to transmit, across centuries, the significance of an event and the takeaways from it. Holidays are a way you make sure that you never forget.

How can we make sure that our children remember this, and keep the rage fostered in their hearts?

You could make an argument (though it’d be a pretty poor one) that a religion is at its core, spaced repetition of ideas at the cadence of days, months, and years. And a holiday is the main tool to do so.

Any community can do this, however; just maintain your principles through spaced repetition of stories, so there are opportunities for adults to consistently hone their attention for similar processes happening in the news or the trends in their social environment.

Holidays are for memories: The Jewish Experience

One of us (Sahar) is jewish. The other isn’t. <Anonymous collaborator>’s experience with observing jewish traditions has been enlightening. In his words:

Look at the resilience of the jewish people despite oppression, millenia of diaspora, etc. They maintain a cultural core through memory. While every religion has this, Judaism is an interesting example because it’s an example of how a community defined itself, in part, by remembering its enemies. (I’m particularly inspired by Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists.)

I find that as an “American”, whatever that means, my friends and neighbors easily forget who our enemies are, and how to defend ourselves against them. Sometimes these enemies are circumstances, or systems, or classes of people.

Sometimes, however, these enemies are individuals. With names. And addresses.

Take Ghislaine Maxwell. She should be crucified in Times Square. In a just world, we would find the people who collaborated with Jeffrey Epstein in every way. We should name them, and, if we can’t legally destroy them, we can at least remember.

I find that as an “American”, whatever that means, my friends and neighbors easily forget who our enemies are, and how to defend ourselves against them.

Jewish holidays are good at remembering enemies. They’re also good at being trans-generational. There’s a ramp-up of participation over the course of someone’s upbringing. Let’s take the example of Purim:

A child might engage with Purim by laughing at the idea of eating cookies called “haman’s ears”. They might listen for his name during the ritualistic reading of the story of Purim, so that they find the opportunity to boo loudly and play with their noisemakers. As they age, however, they will engage more and more with the actual story, such that hopefully by teenagedom, they can be alert to parallels to bilious kings, evil government officials, incitement and antisemitism, in their environment today.

We can learn from this!

A proposal: holidays to remember modern-day evildoers

As we covered earlier, there are moments in our lifetime of colossal elite impunity and abuse of power. Abuse, that is, that has still gone unaddressed. What if we created holidays to remember them?

We could use tools from the toolbox of successful jewish days of remembrance. Food. Games. Ritual. The oral recitation of text.

Here’s an example idea for a to-be-titled “Financial Crash and Bailout Remembrance Day”

For food:

Just as banksters chopped up subprime mortgages and, using CDOs, called them AAA bonds, so too we will chop up sausages, mix them up, put them in bowls, and then eat them. But not before we solemnly point to the bowls of sausage and say in unison: “This is a steak”

Just as the banksters stole from actual people with fraudulent documents, and then later stole from the public with bailouts, so too shall the children of the household be able to eat anything they want on this day. Any child can write some words on a piece of paper, saying a variation of “this is mine now,” and handing it to their elders in exchange for their food. (The older the child, the more complex the sentence/paragraph should be)

For games:

Just as the financial crash was fueled by an elaborate game of handing toxic debt to unwitting participants by a game of hot potato, let us remember by way of a game modeled on musical chairs. Let the rules include mechanics like: participants can stay in the game by taking “high-interest loans”, or: participants can agree to “bail out everyone”, but one arbitrary participant gets orders of magnitude more points than others each time a bailout happens.

Let us remember that Principal + Interest is greater than the Principal.

For ritual:

Just as lives and livelihoods were senselessly lost, so too shall we waste things that are precious to us. Let there be a layered cake. Let all make the cake together. Let it be decorated and nice. No one gets to eat the cake, at any time. All they can do is take slices and throw them at each other (or in the garbage).

For recitation of text:

Let there be a spoken-out-loud reading of key texts. These texts should explain the crash, and point fingers at those people and institutions responsible. These might include: the repeal of Glass–Steagall during the Clinton administration. The heads of major banks. Mitch McConnell. Hank Paulson. Larry Summers. 

Exact texts TBD

Conclusion, caveats, and next steps:

This is, of course, just an example.

We could have come up with other ones. Say, “Epstein International Ring of Blackmail and child rape” day, or “Every rich person is breaking tax law in Panama” day.

We can also come up with different and better rituals, or choose the texts. These sorts of details are important, and we’d love to collaborate with you on them. But the proposal is just meant to sketch out the concept.

We also aren’t aiming to be perfectly clear or accurate about the causes and evils of the 2008 crash in this proposal. More informed people would have a lot to add. Again, this is an example meant to spur discussion.

Lastly, in addition to jewish ritual, we were partially inspired by Aaron Swartz Day, in case it wasn’t clear.

Intrigued? Let’s make this happen for real.

Update: Now this is a slideshow


I’m still mad about Aaron

A bunch of us are reading David Graeber’s Debt. In the course of preparing for our upcoming discussion, I started re-reading that amazing resource: Crooked Timber.

That reminded me that Aaron Swartz wrote a couple guest posts on Crooked Timber. I reread one of his essays. Then another. Then more. You can guess what happened next. DANG. What an amazing writer. What a thinker.

There’s no one I’ve met in my life that I was so sure would change the course of history. No one I’ve met that was so obviously, even qualitatively, smarter than me. For a while, it felt like every big project I joined, or every cool thing I tried, he was there first, and happened to (sometimes co-)found it.

I think about Aaron all the time. Even now, years later.

For a long time, he was my role model: clear moral compass, brilliant, a tech genius but at the same time rooted in movement work and so much more than “the computer guy”.

It’s weird when your role model used to be your boss, is the brother of a friend, the ex of your boss. It’s weird to have this role model be a real person.

I was so angry when he died. I went on, well, a rampage, for the next few years. I never forgave Obama, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz, Steve Heymann, MIT, and the Democratic Party in general. I talked about it as part of my personal life story on dates, organizing 1-1’s, etc. I grew close to the angry wing of the radical left. I traveled the country. I took jobs based on what I felt he would have wanted me to do. When I played role-playing games, I would make a character named “Aharon Schahor” to try to process things.

I still get angry about his death. I still tell people about it. I still tell people about how important he was to me. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers who happen catch me in a particular mood.

Once, to my horror and embarrassment, I realized that one of those strangers was his brother. Oops! Sorry Noah. I seriously didn’t know.

Sidebar — Babbling about Aaron helped a friend introduce me to Mek, though, so overall the “talk about your feelings” seems to be working for me.

I’m still mad.

PS — And of course, Chris Dodd, that scumbag, the villain in the SOPA/PIPA fight that Aaron won for us; Chris Dodd, who flat out lied about his revolving door plans; Christopher J “Waitress Sandwich” Dodd — that’s the guy that Biden is tapping to lead his VP search.


The Aaron I knew

I didn’t know Aaron too well in person – I don’t want to pretend we were best buddies or anything. Still, he knew my name enough to connect it to my face, and we moved in more than one of the same circles. I looked up to him.

I’ve known about Aaron for a long time. How could I not? I was there when he rewrote Reddit, over six years ago. I was a fan of Lawrence Lessig – Lessig was a fan (and mentor) of Aaron.

We first actually met through the PCCC – a new grassroots organizing outfit he co-founded with two others. I heard about the PCCC through my blogging life, but I decided I wanted to join up because Aaron was a co-founder. I was on the team when there were just 5 of us. I finally met Aaron at a retreat the PCCC held at the end of May. He didn’t say much at first (the night before when we were just hanging out). I mostly talked to his friend, Quinn Norton. She was full of interesting tales (the history of coffee! Breaking into buildings in San Francisco!) and just a really cool gal.

So exciting! I hung out with him, my friend Yale (who is a tech person similarly awed by Aaron), and Aaron’s brother Ben Swartz, who also went to Brandeis.

From time to time I would run into him at conferences. We’d exchange a few words. I asked him to be on the advisory board of my startup – he said first I had to “show him something impressive”. I never got the chance to do that.

But I think I knew Aaron best through his writing. It’s how so many of us can feel a close connection to him. His blogging wasn’t self-indulgent and vain. It was red-hot but cooly-considered thought. It was brilliant tempered with empathy and wisdom.

I bet I’ll refer to his writing for years to come.

Aaron was pretty much who I aspired to be. Tech-savvy but not bound by that culture. Progressive but not captured by the professional left. A fellow-traveler to many. A generous spirit. Always trying to figure out exactly how the world worked, then sharing what he found.

I’ll miss him so much.



Dear Diary,

Aaron Swartz is dead but the world continues in its banality. Instagram photos on my feed. People pimping their articles. Don’t they know that Aaron is dead?

What the hell.

Aaron and I (and others) once hung out at Brandeis. We were watching the news reports of a petition delivery he did in Boston in support of something to do with appointing a Senator after Ted Kennedy died. Four or five of us, in a cramped dorm room at the Brandeis castle.

Aaron was also one of my bosses at the PCCC, though I only got to see him a few times in that capacity. He was obviously, well, everyone uses the world brilliant because it’s true. We’d have a discussion that was going in all different directions, and time and time again Aaron would ask a simple, insightful question that got right to the heart of the matter. It was a joy to work with him.

Aaron had reason to visit Brandeis – his brother Ben studied there as well. I’ll never forget that he was at my commencement for my MA (he was at commencement for Ben’s Bachelors’). About ten people ahead of me alphabetically didn’t up for their degrees, so I ended up hamming to the crowd and making several false starts on stage, etc. He sent me a tweet: “Very colorful. Congratulations.”

The rest I know about Aaron, I know from his public life. His wonderful blog posts. His instapaper shares. The projects he was working on. All that gave you a wonderful, oddly intimate look at the “public” Aaron. The Aaron I briefly met in person – he lived up to his legend. So sad he’s gone.