Doctorow on the politics of technology choices

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to write blog posts like this. Cross-posted below.

I just read a great piece by author/activist Cory Doctorow on what he calls “Techno-Optimism” in Locus Magazine. He addresses a question that is often confronted by those of us who aspire to somehow use technology as a tool for social change: does the tool matter, or just the results? For example, if it’s easier to reach your target audience of young people who care about software freedom via Facebook, does the end justify the means? Or should we hold ourselves to a more idealistic standard and use an open source tool that lacks the critical mass of users?

In other words:

As a techno-optimist, I was heartened to see the role that networked technologies played in aiding activists in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other middle-eastern autocracies to coordinate with one another. But as a techno-pessimist, I was horrified to see activists making use of unsecured unfit systems like Facebook, which make it trivial for authorities to snoop on and unpick the structure of activist organizations.

Doctorow concludes:

The trick for technology activists is to help activists who use technology to appreciate the hidden risks and help them find or make better tools. That is, to be pessimists and optimists: without expert collaboration, activists might put themselves at risk with poor technology choices; with collaboration, activists can use technology to outmaneuver autocrats, totalitarians, and thugs.

As I like to say: the path IS the destination. How you get there is every bit as important as where you go. I already use a lot of open source software such as Drupal (this site’s platform), Firefox and Thunderbird (which I couldn’t work without), and Ubuntu (on my personal computers at home). I’m going to redouble my efforts to support software and systems that themselves support my own (and HASTAC’s) values of freedom, democracy, and security.

Read the full article at

Delivering more than an RFP

site map v1

I feel a little like I just gave birth to another baby, but thank goodness it took less than 9 months to gestate and was a lot less painful to deliver!

Less than one year after starting my job at HASTAC and then immediately overseeing the re-launch of, I realized that our site would have to be re-built entirely from scratch. I spent this summer working with my colleagues to create a clearer vision and a plan for a complete overhaul of the site. Here’s the request for proposals: I’m really proud of this document as it shows a solid foundation, a forward-thinking vision, and a practical strategy for how to make best use of our great ideas, the Drupal platform, and a brilliant and engaged community of members.

HASTAC Director Cathy Davidson is a deep and complex thinker. Here’s some of what she had to say about the RFP on her blog today:

If you are not a programmer but are interested in how you build up a successful virtual organization, a network of networks, the rfp is a lot more interesting than you might think. It’s not just about half a million page views a year (although we’re proud enough of that!), it is about how a distributed, collaborative team converges into a virtual site and ends up with a whole greater than the sum of many, many, MANY disparate parts. VC’s out there, listen up! There are lessons here.

Ruby’s method was fascinating. I’ve been involved with building three previous websites and no one has organized our group meetings towards the rfp conceptually before. I was skeptical at first, although I loved the conversations we generated from talking about what we envisioned for HASTAC and how we saw the website as the one portal through which you could extend outward through the network, and reach inward too, bringing what ever you and your institution had to offer back to the site where it would likely receive more attention than it could on its own.

It turned out (I’m not sure we would have found this out any other way) that we all possessed different kinds of gifts when asked to conceptualize a virtual network. Fiona Barnett, Director of the HASTAC Scholars, turns out to be a genius at formulating precise kinds of audiences and how they might or might not be best represented or welcomed to the site (yes, we’ve always known Fiona’s a genius but this was yet another manifestation). I tend to be a “both/and” kinda gal, so found myself over and over saying, well, it’s one kind of Venn diagram if you think about it this way, but it’s this other kind when you think . . . This can make developers crazy but Ruby somehow managed to capture the key point that we need FLEXIBILITY AND SIMPLICITY more than anything else.

So that’s the process on the way to Ruby’s eloquent, elegant, and detailed rfp.


Now that I’ve crossed that finish line, I’m going on vacation with my family for two weeks. When I get back I’ll be gearing up for the next race: actually managing the creation of our new web site.

UPDATE: Download the RFP as a PDF (5 MB).

Incompetence defined?

I’m removing any identifying information (at least for now) to protect the guilty, but I just need to vent about what a frustrating experience I am having with one of the many people that is working on one of the many Drupal sites that I am currently responsible for. I have been asking for RSS feeds to be enabled for months. I recently got a message saying that this was done and to view an example post on the test site. Below is the actual reply that I had to write in response.

____, this does not work at all. For example, on the link you sent, the RSS icon links the ENTIRE SITE’S BLOG feed instead of the feed for THAT POST, and if you go to that blogger’s archive, there are two feed icons (one next to each blog entry) linking to the feed for the ENTIRE SITE’S FORUMS, when that page should have ONE icon at the bottom with a link to THAT BLOGGER’s feed.

All I want it to do is the default Drupal behavior!

Sometimes I’m amazed that I even have words to explain that I want X to function as X. How am I even explaining this to someone who gets paid to make web sites?