This post is part of a series featuring interviews with some of the
fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as
"Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds,
interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.
Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting
fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on
our fellowships page.
Berkman fellow, researcher, strategist, and facilitator focusing on civic life in America interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Kayla Booth @katekrontiris
You have a myriad of questions and research interests. What was your research trajectory?
My mom is a fact checker and my dad is a scientist, so I think I was born to be curious about the world. I majored in sociology in college, studying ethnography under Herbert Gans, who is most famous for his work on so-called “urban renewal” in the early 1960s. My first ethnographies were about musicians in the New York City subways and about women who conducted naked protests against the Iraq war. More recently, I have studied Tunisian society after the 2010-2011 revolution, the administration of elections in America, and Americans’ complex relationship with civic duty. At this point, I care about ensuring that my research is applied to solving one of the biggest challenges I think we face in the United States: everyday Americans having greater ownership over the public decision-making that governs their lives. I am working with lots of great organizations to design technologies, services, policies, programs, or even physical spaces that can help solve this problem.
What are the biggest shifts in the questions or themes that drive your research?
Four Christmases ago, my father offered me a gift unlike anything I have ever received from him: a nine-page letter containing reflections on the social transformation left incomplete by his baby-boomer generation, with individualized ideas for how his three daughters might remedy those failings.
To me, he wrote about the future of “our political problem-solving ability” and the failure of today’s elected representatives to “vigorously execute the duty to educate the public from [the] politician’s pulpit, repeatedly and on every occasion for engagement, on the proper role and function of government.” A man of few words, my dad had filled these pages with all of his most ardent hopes for our common future, seeing in his own daughters the most direct path of influence over that future. A sort of “call to service,” this letter impressed upon me, with the love only a father can give, my own role in improving American democracy.
As I have gotten older, it has hit home for me how important it is for the American people to be more involved in public problem-solving. We all know that public trust in government is at record lows, and in some respects, with good reason. In recent research, I have observed that people are largely unable to distinguish the authority, presence, and resources of government in their daily lives. I think most people in America feel disconnected from public decision-making mechanisms, not really realizing or feeling like they are a part of those process. Without their involvement, however, our democracy will continue to be captured by a small minority of vested interests. I view my research as a way of fighting against this problem.
You were in Brazil working on a three-week Global Policy Fellowship with the Institute for Technology and Society. What were your main takeaways?
I spent three weeks learning about the recently-enacted Marco Civil da Internet, legislation that articulates important elements of how the country will regulate privacy, freedom of expression, net neutrality, and a host of other Internet and society issues. ITS Rio staff shepherded the bill, so they have a unique perspective on how this law came to fruition. (They are also a member of Berkman’s Network of Internet & Society Centers.)
In addition to a set of town hall meetings around the country, this government-civil society collaborative deployed a tool unprecedented in Brazilian lawmaking, but appropriate for the topic: an online platform for interested parties to submit their comments, suggestions, ideas, and concerns. The response from interested parties was significant, and over the course of the next few years, the country managed to pass Internet legislation that is globally viewed as a kind of gold standard.
The final law was approved in April of this year, but many important issues still need to be clarified. Brazil’s definition of net neutrality and guidelines for which agency will oversee its implementation remain unspecified. The retention of data (for what purposes, on what grounds, and with what mechanisms) and key aspects of copyright law also need to be clarified. With elections upcoming, the country waits to see how these major, complicated legal issues will be resolved.
What strikes me most about this case is not actually what it accomplished – there is widespread acknowledgment that the Marco Civil is incomplete – but rather the process by which it was developed. We heard time and again that this inclusive, responsive, transparent, and digital process was just as important, if not more important, than the outcomes. We also heard widespread desire to repurpose the same process on other policy issues.
I am not convinced that an online platform is necessarily the best tool for soliciting representative public opinion on public problems (internet penetration in Brazil is about 67 percent), and we must be careful not to design participation mechanisms that suit only those people who are most likely to engage. But compared to the US lawmaking context, I have to wonder: if our mechanisms for public problem-solving looked more like that of the Marco CiviI, might citizens more meaningfully utilize our opportunities to influence policy?
You’ve outlined two projects you anticipate working on at the Berkman Center. The first is about 21st century girlhood. What led you to this topic?
A good friend of mine leads programming for the YWCA of NYC, and she asked for my feedback on some new girls and technology programs they were considering. We realized that we did not know enough about girls today, and asked the question: “Who is the 21st century girl?” This led to an awesome convening in NYC earlier this summer, among 200 women and girls of all backgrounds, races, and ages. We facilitated collaborative workshops that ultimately resulted in a policy agenda for girls in New York City, about which I’m tremendously excited.
As a researcher, I want to dig deeper. Obviously, girlhood in America is a many-faceted experience, but I’m interested in understanding something about girls’ aspirations, interests, constraints, and ambitions today. Ultimately, I want to understand how the technology-embedded social and economic institutions that structure their lives can nurture them to be their best selves.
The second project explores Americans and their awareness of the government’s presence and role in their lives. Can you talk a bit about this?
With research support from Google, I have spent the last few months traveling around the country to visit everyday Americans in their homes, shadow them at their jobs, and attend their houses of worship, in order to discern what motivates them to do things that are civic.
In over 100 in-depth conversations with people in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, and Boston, I have asked participants the same question: Can you tell me the last time you had an interaction with government?
This question stumps people. They often pause for a considerable think, and find themselves at a loss to come up with any examples. For those who do, invariably, the answer returns: “does _____ count?” Do the police count? Do parking tickets count? Does my health insurance count?
In essence, people are asking if they have correctly identified what government is. These are people who took public transportation earlier that day to get to work, or whose kids are completing third grade. While the answers to other questions surface a variety of complicated trends about Americans’ relationship with civic duty – as one might expect from a country as colorful and many-minded as the United States – the responses to this one question are unitary. I found this astounding.
It would seem that Americans do not confidently know how to recognize our government in our daily lives. It is possible that this is a problem of the counterfactual – in other words, that so much of the business of government is preventing many small disasters that, when effectively averted, go unrecognized (think: ensuring food standards in your favorite takeout joint down the street).
Another possibility is that people – as much market actors as they are civic actors – see and value the consumer services or products they acquire when they pay for them, an event that happens multiple times per day (in the grocery store, at the movies, in the hair salon). We also “pay” for government services and experiences, but we do it in a lump sum, usually once per year, in a very painful experience wrought with the anxiety of “will I get a return or will I owe money?” The experience is not so much about gain of critical services for society, but rather about loss of hard-earned income. We are not regularly reminded that we have invested in a larger system.
These are merely initial hypotheses, however. In my tenure as a Berkman Fellow, I want to answer two questions:
Why are we Americans so poor at identifying the presence of government in our daily lives?
What might we do to make government’s role and function visible to its residents?