Monthly Archives: September 2015


I had the opportunity today to hear a talk by Steve Lohr, New York Times technology reporter and author of the recent book, Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else.

Lohr said that “big data” is more than just a large collection of digital information, it’s a philosophical framework – a way of approaching the world. Big data, he said, allows people to see patterns in the world and to make better sense of the world around them.

Ultimately, he argued, big data is a revolution in decision-making.

This revolution can have many positive implications, making our lives simpler, faster, and better.

For example, according to Lohr, in 1880 the U.S. census took eight years to conduct. While the population swelled in 1890, this census took only a few weeks to complete. The difference was due to a technological innovation: the creation of a machine-readable punch card by a company that later became IBM.

Of course there are also possible pitfalls – one can imagine using big data to determine who gets a loan going terribly wrong. And, yes, this is something that “data science lenders” do, claiming that their methodology is more accurate than more traditional approaches.

Lohr was somewhat weary of these big data, automated, decision making processes, arguing that when data is used to make decisions affecting people’s lives, that process needs to be transparent.

But, he was more casual about the change than I might have thought. Perhaps it’s because he has covered technology’s evolution for nearly a decade, but – he was somewhat skeptical of concerns about privacy and the de-humanization of our lives.

Technology evolves and our mores will evolve with it, he seemed to say.

Lohr commented that when the handheld Kodak camera was originally introduced, it was seen as a invasion of privacy. Banned from beaches and the Washington monument, it was seen as a danger, a possible corrupting force.

Until privacy expectations evolved to meet the new technology.

Perhaps it is just nostalgia that makes us fear this brave new world.

It’s an interesting argument, and I think it’s good to be skeptical of our instinctual reactions to things. But pointing to the mistakes of our past fears seems insufficient – perhaps we should be more concerned with privacy, but have simply become slowly accustomed to not having it.

That could be a natural evolution, or it could be a slow degradation – with serious and lasting consequences.


Community and Family

My mother, an avid genealogist, was recently telling me just how homogeneous people used to be in many US cities.

I’d had a general sense that European-settled communities used to be more the same, with occasional waves of immigrants slowly being integrated into the society, but my mother pointed out a detail I’d previously overlooked.

Many small towns were also small families.

Especially as the United States was being settled, many communities were large enough to have a diverse gene pool, but small enough that marrying a cousin was common. In some communities, people weren’t even always aware of how closely they and their spouse were actually related.

Before you think about this too much – just reflect on the consequences: a dispute in the community became a dispute in the family; a fracture in the family became a fracture in the community.

These identities of family and community were far more intimately linked then I’d previously thought of — and probably more intimately linked than I’d like to think!


Possible Research Questions

One of my current tasks is to sharpen the theoretical questions I am interested in exploring through my doctoral work.

While I am thankfully still some time away from having to select a dissertation topic, the process of thinking through and refining my interests will help me identify possible research projects and help guide me as I select from a seeming infinite array of classes, readings, and activities.

So what are the theoretical questions I am interested in exploring? Well, since “ALL OF THEM” doesn’t seem to be a productive answer in this regard, I will attempt to articulate a somewhat more narrow scope.

Broadly, I am interested in civil society – and I am convinced that network approaches can bring value to our understanding. To be perfectly clear, I’m not referring solely to the understanding of academics, but of all of us individual, people who are living in communities.

That is, while network science can certainly be used to help political scientists better model the societies they study, I am more deeply interested in the civic studies question: what should we do?

There are many ways I can envision network science contributing to our collective attempts to answer this question.

First, on a broad scale, I think network analysis can help us more accurately conceive of the communities of which we are a part. I live in a very engaged community with a robust level of social capital, and yet I am also very close friends with some people who I barely see in person. Is one these settings more accurately a “community”? How should I make sense of my place in each of them?

I am particularly interested in trying to capture “layers” of community. If I were to do a power analysis in my local, geographic community I would find many individuals and institutions I could have direct interaction with. I could imagine multiple ways for my own voice and agency to have a real impact on policy or the culture of my community.

But if I were to do a similar analysis at a national or perhaps international scale, I would quickly find myself feeling powerless. Can I change international law? Perhaps some individuals are positioned to do so, but I most certainly am not.

In such a setting, then, I am left little but a foolish choice between inaction and the vain hope that my representatives will represent me, that my voice among thousands will carry some weight.

I’d previously seen this as an argument for more local engagement. Why shout in the wind of national politics when real work can be done at the local level?

But I wonder now if this is simply a false dichotomy. We envision local work and national work, and perhaps other scales of regional work or international work as well. We treat our communities as tiers – scaled up versus hyperlocal.

But what if there’s a better way to think of it? A better way to conceive of our multiple communities, overlapping, intersecting, complex and ever changing. What might that look like?

A second area of interest is around interactions within a given community. While the first set of questions struggles with how we might define the borders of a single community, the second explores what we do once we know what “we” means.

More explicitly, this area centers around questions of dialogue and deliberation. What does “good” dialogue look like? How are ideas exchanged and opinions altered? Using strategies of epistemic network analysis one might even ask questions such as, what does a “good” deliberator look like? What does a good moderator look like? Is there a way of thinking that can categorized as “good” deliberative thinking?

Finally, I’m very interested in applying network science to better understanding the network of ideas and morals held by an individual. This line of thinking can be closely tied to questions of deliberation – asking what idea structure a person ought to have in order to be a “good” deliberator.

But there are other ways to take this question as well – are there features of an individual’s moral network which are better or worse than others? If so, what ought a good person’s moral network look like? What network characteristic should we each seek to cultivate?


These are not entirely disparate questions, but they do each take the confluence of civics and networks in different ways. I’m not sure where the next five years will lead me, but I look forward to delving in!


Modeling Networks of Individuals and Institutions

One of the topics that I’m interested in as I delve into my Ph.D. program involves using networks to model a community’s interactions. A critical first question in this process is simply: what is a community network a network of?

Social network analysis and it’s face-to-face equivalent focus on networks of individuals. Each person is a node in the network, linked to the individuals they know or communicate with. This is a robust and helpful way of looking at communities.

It allows for mapping information flows and exploring community dynamics. Do most people know most other people? Are there segments of the community that are isolated from each other, like cliques in the high school cafeteria? How diverse is the average person’s network?

These are valuable ways of looking at a community, but this approach doesn’t tell the full story.

There is also great work being done looking at the network of institutions within a community. Can the characters of a community’s institutional network predict how well that community will fare during an economic crisis?

This approach is often not devoid of interest in the individual – asking, too, questions of how strong institutional networks can build social capital, benefiting the community as a whole as well as the individuals who comprise it.

Again, this is a valuable approach that can yield many interesting and helpful results.

But somehow, I find myself unsatisfied with either approach.

Communities are complex systems of individuals and institutions. An institution may be comprised of individuals, but it’s ultimate character is more than the sum of its parts: individuals can change institutions and institutions can change individuals.

And there may be yet more factors that influence how communities function: policies, norms, historical sensibilities, regional or even international networks.

So for now, the question I’m pondering is this: what would a detailed, robust, network model of a community look like? What are its nodes and connections, and is there some fundamental unit which could be used to model all these complex layers together?


The Midnight Drink of Paul Revere

I recently went on a walking tour of Boston’s North End. The dense, historically Italian community is on some of the oldest land in Boston.

Like many coastal cities in the U.S., the Boston we now know is mostly landfill. It used to be practically an island, connected to the mainland only by a narrow peninsula.

Silversmith and agitator Paul Revere was one of many notable residents of the North End, and it was from here he took is famous “midnight ride” – first taking a boat to Charlestown, then riding up the Mystic through Somerville, Medford, and on to Lexington.

But on this walking tour I was told a detail of that ride I hadn’t heard before. Revere and his companion, William Dawes Jr., were arrested before they made it to Concord because they stopped to have a beer.

Now, of course I had to look into a salacious comment like that.

I’m afraid I haven’t found as much clarity on the subject as I would like, but this is what I know:

On the night of April 18, 1775, British troops set out to arrest patriots Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were staying in Lexington at the home of Reverend Jonas Clarke. Revere and Dawes set out to warn them and raise an alarm, Revere taking the now-famous northern route and Dawes taking a southern route through the “Boston Neck” (now Roxbury).

After arriving in Lexington, Revere and Dawes were joined by a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott, and the three decided to carry on to Concord where arms and munitions were stored.

This is where things get particularly fuzzy.

On the road to Concord, the three were confronted by British soldiers. Prescott either evaded capture or very quickly escaped. Dawes also seems to have escaped after Prescott, leaving only Revere captured. He seems to have been released sometime the next day.

But what was that about a beer?

According to some accounts, before heading on to Concord Revere and friends stopped at a tavern to  “refreshid” himself. This “refreshid” can indeed be found in a letter from Revere recounting the experience.

While I was originally told, though, that he was arrested while having a beer – it does seem that the arrest came slightly thereafter.

And it was almost certainly an ale that Revere “refreshid” himself with. After all, drinking was quite common in colonial times, with many believing ale could make you healthy while (contaminated) water had the effect of making you sick.

So all this leaves only one question: if Revere, Dawes, and Prescott were all participants in this midnight ride, why does Revere get all the glory?

Published in 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” is what made that rider famous than the others. The poem, you may know, is “less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it.”

With the goal of of support the Abolitionist cause, Longfellow choose Revere as the rider to highlight for one simple reason: his name rhymed better.


Reflections on Public Life and a Long Vacation

It’s been 25 days since my last blog post.

The break was intentional as I transitioned from my full time job of nearly eight years to becoming a full time student. In that three and half weeks I have lived un-publicly: I have said many goodbyes, relaxed on the Cape, read several books, done some significant cleaning, and explored the history of Boston’s North End.

It was remarkable to have so much time with so little responsibility. I got to truly relax and reset before beginning this next chapter of my life.

But I noticed something interesting as the end of my limbo neared: I was anxious about the prospect of regularly writing publicly again.

I kept finding myself wondering what topics I should write about, especially as I only half-followed the news. I kept finding myself wondering why I should even write publicly at all – an arguably presumptuous, egotistical move.

I started thinking that I wouldn’t blog on my promised restart date after all. Maybe I’d give myself another week to get settled into school. Then I could take the time to think of a worthwhile topic, I could find some commentary worthy of the public sphere.

But, of course, that’s the myth of public life: that it should be a place only for perfection, a space only for experts. That the rest of us, with our half-thoughts and individual perspectives should stick to the shadows, leaving our representatives to the public work.

When I started my vacation, my mind was exploding with possible blog post topics. Everything I read, every interaction I had – I looked for the public value in those private moments.

I left myself cryptic notes, “Voice – to broad public v. within institutions? Role of social media?” That idea seemed really important two weeks ago.

But as I got further and further away from public writing, I stopped thinking about public life all together. My private reflections remained private, and I thought less and less about their value to the public sphere.

I’ve no interest in leading a celebrity life – my private moments splashed all over the public domain. But at the same time I am a citizen, with an obligation to public participation , public deliberation, and, indeed, some measure of public life.

So I am back to blogging today, September 8, the day I said I would get back to it. I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to write, and I’m far from certain that my perspective holds much value.

But I will continue to write publicly, I’ll continue to think publicly, and, of course, I’ll continue to work publicly, side by side with all of you.

Because if there’s one thing I know, it is this: there is much work to be done.