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Meet members of the 2013-2014 Berkman Community: Kate Darling, Hasit Shah, Dalia Othman, and J. Nathan Matias

This week we are featuring four interviews with 2013-2014 Berkman Fellows as part of an ongoing series showcasing individuals in the Berkman community. Conducted by our 2013 summer Berkterns, the mini-series highlights the unique and multidisciplinary group of people within the Berkman community exploring the many dimensions of cyberspace. This week features Kate Darling’s fascination with robot identities, Hasit Shah’s examination of digital media in India, Dalia Othman’s interest in the impact of the virtual world in the Middle East, and J. Nathan Matias’ all around excitement about collaboration.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center’s community in 2014-2015? We are currently accepting fellowship applications - read more here.

Interview with Kate Darling

Berkman Fellow and Intellectual Property Researcher at MIT Media Lab | @grok_

interviewed in summer 2013 by Berkterns Megan Larcom and Evrim Camuz

Who is your favorite robot, or what is your favorite robot? That is the question.

The latter is grammatically correct, but that doesn’t stop Kate Darling from exploring the who, e.g. robots’ social identities and their related complexities.

Her favorite robot is Tofu, a dancing owl, located at the MIT Media Lab. Convenient for this short narrative, Kate has worked there since 2011 as a Research Specialist for all things IP. She will continue to work at the Media Lab, however, her 2013-2014 Berkman fellowship will allow her to take a new intellectual path, one that has been forming since nooking up with sci-fi books as a kid.

Kate sees a gap of inquiry between law and robotics. Her robot hobby is thus evolving to fill that gap. She has identified three specific areas where study is needed, and will explore some combination thereof while at Berkman. First, Kate may tackle a Berkman favorite — privacy! As technology more seamlessly and ubiquitously blends into our everyday life and beings, the number of data receptors (is that a term? it should be!) that we interact with increases. What laws and norms will protect privacy in this changing environment? Second, as technology becomes increasingly autonomous, Kate questions liability and responsibility. Where should responsibility be assigned when things go wrong and are we assigning liability to minimize harm? Last, Kate will address the social and ethical issues which arise if robots become part of, rather than tools for, society. If you haven’t checked out her playful piece on if robots should have legal rights, well, you’re missing out.

-----Megan Larcom (@mlarcs) and Evrim Camuz (@EvrimCamuz), fellow robot enthusiasts and Berkterns, interviewed Kate Darling on July 24, 2013. They agree with Kate’s observation that people who don’t like cookies don’t have a soul.

Interview with Hasit Shah

Nieman-Berkman fellow


interviewed in summer 2013 by Berktern Priya Kumar

Opportunity. Growth. Innovation. These words permeate conversations featured in BBC’s The Indian Dream series, which profiles people who have emigrated from the West to India. But Hasit Shah, who worked on the series, calls the mantra that success awaits those who flock to India “overstated,” particularly in the digital media space.

Shah, a senior broadcast journalist with BBC News, joins the Berkman community this fall as a Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation. He plans to study, “the problems, the barriers, the challenges people are going to face and do face when they try to do business in India, particularly in digital media,” he said in an interview.

Digital media in India lacks a sustainable revenue model, functioning mostly on venture capital or support from large conglomerates that make their money elsewhere, Shah said. Similar business concerns plague media organizations in the West, but India must simultaneously expand Internet access and answer demand for more digital content. Almost 13 percent of Indians have Internet access compared to 81 percent in the United States and 87 percent in the United Kingdom, according to the International Telecommunication Union’s latest statistics.

Shah, who has spent his entire career with the BBC, relishes stories. “My philosophy on journalism is, never look at big themes,” he said. “What some people do - and I argue about this in newsrooms all the time - is look for narratives that fit a theme. Corruption, or malnutrition, for example. I never do that. I look for interesting stories from which you can extrapolate something much broader.”

Early in his career, Shah covered stories in French-speaking countries before shifting to the region of his roots. Shah grew up in London immersed in his family’s Indian culture. His grandmothers lived nearby; he learned Gujrati before any other language (and begrudgingly attended Gujrati classes on Sundays); he ate Indian food.

Shah first traveled to India around age 22, though he didn’t return to cover it as a journalist until about five years later. “I was really interested in the country and I’d heard so much about it,” Shah said. “If you live in a stable, rich country like the UK, there are only so many things that you can cover that are really interesting. I wanted to see the extremes of life, and I think India’s a place where I can do that alongside learning about my own background.”

Interview with Dalia Othman

Berkman Fellow | @DaliaOthman

interviewed in summer 2013 by Berterns Dana Walters and Evrim Camuz

If Dalia Othman were alone on a desert island, she wouldn’t even need three things. Just two: the Internet and a swiss army knife. The latter object is a practical survival matter. But the first is a fundamental way of life. Having studied how technology and digital media have intersected with the Middle East life and its politics, and especially, Palestine, Dalia would be lost without that virtual world that has had such an impact on our physical reality.

While Dalia now lives in Ramallah and is of Palestinian origin, she has lived all over the world. Born in Cyprus, she has lived and studied in New York City, Jordan, and Egypt as well. The Internet, in a way, provides that connection--both to friends and news of international importance--over the vast distance of networks she has established all over the world. (In 2011,Dalia attempted to do the thing all of us have done… deactivate her Facebook. The experiment ended after 48 hours. She describes herself as a “news junkie” that uses Facebook both to aggregate news of the world and news of her friends.)

Dalia first became interested in media during high school. When she was a junior in high school, the second Intifada had begun and she realized how media could be such a powerful tool for Palestinians to both tell their own story and express themselves to the world, hopefully producing a change for the better. In 2007, she noticed the instrumental use of digital media in the uprising in Burma. By the time of the so-named “Twitter” revolution in Iran, Dalia had already applied to grad school and knew where her focus lay. Since then, the power of digital media--for both her and the Middle East--has been prevalent. With the Arab Spring, she realized, “I’m basically looking at the right thing in the right region.”

Dalia’s interests have led her to a successful career teaching in various universities in the United States and Palestine, where questions about history and the present plague her--in a gratifying way. Technology, which transforms so rapidly everyday, is a wealthy platform upon which to think about how history is informing the present. For instance, she brings up Edward Snowden and his “bit” of information rollicking the world.

Dalia will be present at the Berkman Center for the 2013-2014 year, studying the intersection of digital media and the Middle East, and questions around activism and socio-political thought. She admits that joining the Berkman community has been a dream of hers for years. Part of what draws her to Berkman is the feeling that she will be amongst friends, those who understand the power of digital tools and what they stand for. These friends, to her, are the “greats,” whose works she has read and studied at university. Berkman will connect her to a pool of knowledge that she hopes will stretch her horizons, bringing what has largely been a very deep focus on Palestine for her toward perhaps more of a global context.

----- Dana Walters and Evrim Camuz interviewed Dalia Othman by skype on July 25, 2013.

Interview with J. Nathan Matias

Berkman Fellow and PhD student at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media | @natematias

interviewed by in summer 2013 by Berkterns Dana Walters and Megan Larcom

J. Nathan Matias calls himself an “intentional polymath.” He dabbles--or intensely exercises a curiosity--in almost everything it seems. His CV ranges from work in the arts to education to software to diversity awareness to engineering “social processes.” This means any description of his work will ultimately fall short.

Naturally, we wanted to know, then, if there was something that tied it all together. Some theme or cohesive pattern to the madness (read: genius). The themes floated about included big (Big) issues cooperation, collaboration, acknowledgment. In short, Nathan is trying to make the (digital) world a better place, trying to introduce more kindness and awareness into our Internet selves.

Currently, Nathan is a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media. His master’s work—inspired by adviser Ethan Zuckerman’s focus on awareness across diversity—centered on gender and awareness of female marginalization in media and on the Internet. As part of a suite of tools to understand and rectify the imbalanced representation of gender, he developed a tool called FollowBias that allows the user to see a breakdown of his or her twitter feed by gender. It changes the mindless orientation of clicking “follow” on twitter into a more conscientious exercise. In conjunction, PassingOn calls itself “an app for cooperating on equality,” trying to fix the gender balance and representation of women in Internet biographies and in mainstream media obituaries through both a visual display of the descriptions of women and the tools to introduce more information about women into spheres like Wikipedia. PassingOn, like many of Nathan's projects, hinged on collaboration. MIT undergraduate Sophie Diehl began the construction of the tool as a summer project under Nathan's supervision and it sprouted from there.

Nathan says that his PhD thesis will focus on cooperation across diversity.

In tackling these big themes, Nathan struggles with the concept of “success,” or knowing that a project has done its job. In the startup world, before graduate school, it was easy, he says. Measuring success merely meant, was it making money? or was it serving the customers’ needs? In the university setting, goals pull you in different directions, he says. There is publishing, of course, but at the Media Lab, goals can be broader. Nathan seeks to answer the questions, “Is this something where I’m developing ideas that will be useful for others who like to think and write?” and “Am I fostering a conversation that brings together people who don’t already work together?” Again, Nathan focuses on the possibilities of collaboration, and fostering collaboration with digital tools. Nathan spent the summer in Seattle working at Microsoft Research, where it was his job to write things like this. Looking toward the fall and the Berkman Center, he explained he was most looking forward to joining the Berkman community for the possibilities of collaborating with the many minds that inhabit this space.

----- Dana Walters and Megan Larcom interviewed J. Nathan Matias via skype on July 30, 2013. It was a very fruitful collaboration, resulting in this blog post and a 30 minute audio file.

This post is part of a current series of interviews with members of the Berkman Community. Previous entries: Jeff Young and Sonia Livingstone; Shane Greenstein, Niva Elkin-Koren, and Amy Johnson.

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