May 4, 2015

Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)

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Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

April 25, 2015

Seeing Like A State (into the Future of War)

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For over a decade, the non-state actor has held the world captive. Non-state actors can take many forms. Militant groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels have risen to power in fragile states though rarely — if ever — with the intent to replace the role of state. They have generally pursued other interests. Some urban and conflict experts predicted that the erosion of the state by non-state actors will set the path for future wars. But at some point, state-like forms of organization are prone to emerge as these groups conquer larger territories and appropriate capital to such a degree that they must now take responsibility in generating new capital. The specific intent to formulate and replace the state will emerge out of sheer necessity. There is no other path for the non-state actor once the state has eroded.

Perhaps while the late 90s and early 2000s were the era of the non-state actor, the world is now witnessing the emergence of new state models in which geography is secondary to technology and the traditionally disruptive elements of governance such as religion and migration will serve as the corner stones. The components often ignored by governments as valuable, such as the activities informal economies and social relations, are the key components of a new political order. The new state is the government of outliers. ISIS might have territorial control to assert power, but it acquired this territory by distributed networks of information and people.


Three Observations on the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

1. The Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL/IS  - daeish- controls more land than the government of the UK.

2. Tens of thousands of people have migrated from around the world to join Daeish which also uses mass migration (from Libya to EU) as a threatening tactic.

3. Daeish generates at least 90,000 (perhaps even more than 200,000) social media impressions each day.

Indicators of A Changing Conflict Landscape
History is saturated with case studies of large, formal states invading and fighting fragmented assemblages and non-state, militant social groups. It never goes well. States struggle to construct an asymmetrical fighting force to engage non-state actors, and non-state engagement never permit a clear resolution. There is no one to sign a peace treaty or to surrender on behalf of all actors. There is insufficient coordination, authority, and agreement by non-state actors to conclude war with tidy endings. These systems are resilient because they are distributed.

Notably, ISIS is not an accident. It is a strategically planned institution that builds that leverages distributed networks to establish social capacity. Recently Der Speigal uncovered a collection of documents highlighting the explicit planning of ISIS by a former Iraqi Air Force Officer. This new state was not founded on Islamic values, but on identifying and structuring informal social relationships into concrete forms of land ownership and occupancy.

The founding of ISIS began with opening non-profits in targeted locations, collecting information on local families, and building small organizations than could integrate themselves into the local fabric. Alienated youth and foreigners were specifically targeted for recruitment and militarization. By building the organization into the society, traditional community assets — such as the influence of important families — could be undermined through subterfuge.


Like A State
In its formation, ISIS may have relied upon different social elements than one would expect necessary to construct a state such as a formal constitution or codified rule of law. But notably, to appropriate the concepts of James Scott in “Seeing like a state,” ISIS has from the outset used all of the same strategies and methods of a typical, planned, and ordered society.

ISIS leverages relationships, assumptions of Islam, and private details for citizens, but at its core, ISIS is an “administrative ordering” of society. Whereas most western societies rely upon empiricism and technology to guide the organization and production of knowledge, ISIS promotes a message of religion to do the same, but in contrast mobilizes its own identity as the underpinning of social order (like a cult). This isn’t exactly high modernism (as Scott asserts), but perhaps could be considered something akin to high medievalism.

ISIS is an authoritarian state that coerces and manipulates civil society. According to normative conceptions of state building, marginal members of society must be organized into to the state, and here within ISIS, we see the state goes beyond organizing its margins so as to make them central. Alienated youth around the world are the core soldiers of ISIS.

Building on Scott’s concepts, we can make some assumptions about the future of ISIS:
  1. If ISIS continues to expand using a local grass roots model of expansion, so as to always give the impression that its territorial control emerged locally, it will persevere.
  2. As long as ISIS continues to localize and centralize the peripheral actors to function at its core, it will continue to advance rapidly.
  3. As long as ISIS lacks a state-like objective — such as agricultural productivity — it will not be crippled by the necessity to build robust institutions. Note that in the 1990s, the Taliban was able to rise to become a government by means of informal channels, but it struggled to operate as a state (at least in the way most nation states are measured externally).
Long Term Horizons
In general, an organized military is designed to engage in state-to-state classical warfare. With the rise of the non-state actor, there have been attempts to transform military organizational structure into agile units, relying extensively on special forces and similar specialists, to engage distributed actors. This strategic shift to agile teams has given States the ability to win battles but not to win wars.
States, in contrast to insurgencies, are conquerable. A state can be engaged symmetrically, it can be modeled, and it can be undermined. In consequence, perhaps the key to defeating ISIS is to wait for it to grow up.

Maybe the most efficient way to defeat ISIS, unfortunately, is to waif for it to mature. This sounds counterintuitive because a more stable ISIS means it will have more robust supply chains, resilient command structures, and organizational capacity. It is risky. But as a state, it is also aligned to the capacities of global militaries. When the US invaded Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein, it was able to take control of the entire country within only 6 weeks. The bigger problem is then what? 

Themes of Future Wars
Future conflicts will be distributed systems (like today's global war on terror), but concentrated foremost where digital urban infrastructure spatially correlates with vast gaps in wealth and hindrances to social mobility.  This exemplified by the strategic locations in which ISIS was able to gain a foothold, as social capital provided local leverage while technological connectivity provided a unique mix of autonomy and organizational structure. By slamming these two oppositional forces into the same space, we can identify immense pressures on a digital urban interface.

The significance of in geography in has forever been proportionate to the ability or inability to communicate, operate, and interact across distance.  For example, Genghis Khan was successful because he used a system of fires to distribute messages vast distances very quickly.  Or in more recent decades he US military has struggled to supply fuel to FOBs in challenging terrain, whereas the cost of fuel distribution is generally far higher than the value of the fuel itself.

Likewise the creation of the internet has revolutionized economies who no longer need to focus on industry or exports, but rather can focus on pure brainpower (such as found in India's thriving BPO industry).  For centuries whoever held Afghanistan controlled the world because it was the link between the East and West, but today it doesn't matter because we can send an email from one side to another. Everyday, the role of physical geography grows smaller.

Regarding the development of conflict, distribution of small groups will initially be affected by physical geography, but it becomes secondary to the virtual geography. If the process of actor clustering and distribution is fast enough, the physical geography melts away to leave intact high-speed, highly-connected, sprawling digital networks of semi-autonomous groups (like ISIS). The resulting threat levels are relative to the organizational capability of the group to manage these networks. Some will succeed and many will not. If you start a terrorist group, make sure to have a strong IT support team.

Predicting The Location of Future Conflicts
I suspect that in 30 years, a city like Lagos, Nairobi, or Mexico City is more likely to confront a civil war than Mogadishu. The physical terrain is completely irrelevant to the location of the conflict, thus Syria is the preview of future wars. Syria was by all means a nice country with decent infrastructure and extreme polarities between classes, though enveloped by an oppressive government. It had the right mix of technological capacity, social tension, and political corruption/ineptitude to ferment into blazing war. Syria will not end soon.

A key component of what I describe — but easily overshadowed — is that the physical distribution of the advanced communication technology is essential to undermine the value of geography. There is a strange interaction here… build a robust IT infrastructure and the typical concerns of physical geography (roads, industry, mountains) fade away. Yet this robust the IT infrastructure but be locally integrated, because if the virtual geography is inaccessible to economies of scale, the more you will find non-state actors will emerge, distribute, and virtually cluster.

Notably infrastructure distribution does not exist in a vacuum, but is determined by the logistical advantages/disadvantages of geography, which will also impose a degree of irregularity on the time-scale of the distribution. For example, with only one horrendous road linking Mombasa to Burundi, the distribution of mobile phones, towers, and routers is hindered. They become concentrated in Nairobi and Kampala. The virtual geography only leaks into the hinterlands. In the meanwhile, extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity are also found in Nairobi and Kampala. Consequently we see an emergence of conflict within the urban centers, but as the IT infrastructure expands to supersede wealth and geography gaps, the volatility of the conflict actors is reduced. A big question is ‘can the skills to leverage the technology for social mobility expand at the same rate as the physical infrastructure?’ Obviously not — and the grounds for militarization emerge.

Demand for Proactive Socio-technical Alignments
ISIS is a socio-technical response to problems of governance, capitalism, and cultural alienation. It is possible to defeat ISIS by permitting it to mature into a formal State, and thus it takes on the tropes that make states sluggish. But for now, while it remains agile and distributed — disconnected from the geography which it dominates — it will continue to thrive.

The most important question is not how to defeat ISIS, rather the biggest question is how to prevent the next iteration. It might sound simplistic, but education is the critical piece of the puzzle. High technology infrastructures are permeating the globe at a faster rate than people can learn to utilize them for social mobility. While the issue of militarization is more complex than social mobility and alienation, these are well known components of the mix than can be better accommodated. Notably these alignments need to come from both supply and demand sides of the equation. People need to be educated to better use and integrate with new technology, but new technologies must be designed with the responsibility to better and integrate within society and social context. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, one country has already taken measures to do this.

March 11, 2015

Final Post to Humanitarian Space

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In 2004 I started writing this blog as an art student as a way to document observations, showcase my portfolio, and promote upcoming exhibitions.  Three years later, when my personal life goals shifted toward social problem solving, I used that blog to document my experiences in refugee camp design and social research.  The names changed many times, from Current Residence, to MyEarthPrint and Reconstruction Planning.  In 2010 that blog became The Humanitarian Space.

Thanks to you, this blog has been visited by
enough people to sell out Madison Square
Gardens in NYC over 17 times!
Since then I have had the fortune to write for over 300,000 readers.  The blog has captured the interest of federal and city governments, politicians, think tanks, NGOs, students, professionals around the world.  I have received hundreds of emails from readers and have had the opportunity to work on some of the most amazing projects in the world.

I am grateful.

However, it is time to move on.  At least for awhile.  If you read the last post, you will note that my motivation and goals have shifted. While I remain committed to utilizing diverse methods and interdisciplinary design toward reducing poverty and suffering in the world, it is time I now do this by other means.  The strength of my career has been founded on a willingness to take on great risks and immerse myself into the problems. It was thrilling but is not personally sustainable.

Perhaps one day I will pick up where this blog left off.  I have no intention to delete it.  Perhaps I'll start a new one.

Whatever happens, I'll post it here.


Thank you for all the reading, questions, and support over the years.  And good luck to all of you in your own endeavors.

- Mitch

February 25, 2015

The Fatigue of the 9/11 Generation and the Rise of ISIS

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Perhaps every generation has their moment in which the ideological terrain abruptly shifts, and tomorrow feels different than yesterday. Growing up my parents would occasionally describe the JFK assassination with precise clarity. When Challenger exploded I was unaware of the disaster on the television several feet away because I was too young to notice but it certainly affected others.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was 19, in college and helping my professor dispose of used plaster from a sculpture class. Someone shouted, we went into the hallway and watched the next plane hit the second tower on the television.  It was difficult to understand.  

Weeks prior I had purchased a ticket to soon fly to New York and it was with hesitation that I boarded the plane in late September. The flight was nearly empty. Two hours later we passed over the city and I could see the smoldering debris of the World Trade Center below. Walking the streets, the city was quiet and the air tasted like burnt dust. I intentionally wanted to avoid lower Manhattan, but walking around late at night, I got lost and searching for a subway entrance, I wandered into ground zero.  Smoke rose from the ruins while workers combed the rubble.

Ten years later I was living in Afghanistan, teaching at a university, advising ngos and city governments, and traveling to other conflicted states to work on similar problems of urban conflict and reconstruction. By that time I had already lived elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. I could speak a couple different languages in multiple dialects. Everyday I tackled issues of youth militarization, forced displacement, and extreme poverty. I did my best to apply the mundane insights of urban planning and design to the world's most challenging problems. 

My friends were no different. We all studied foreign languages and earned multiple degrees in middle eastern studies, economics, law, social sciences, and history. Some of us joined the military, some of us worked alongside it, and others moved into humanitarian relief and development. We found no reason to fear Islam or those different ourselves but discovered the joy of difference and we indulged those cultural identities to inform our own. Regardless of what we chose or discovered, we all left our homes to travel and live in foreign communities to understand the root causes of terrorism, hoping to unravel the strands and in some way lessen the brutal consequences of global market failures. We all sought an understanding.

Some of us took additional steps to plant ourselves into the center of these problems so as to be truly effective.  We spent years without consistent access to running water, working toilets, or proper heat in the winter. We experienced deep trembling fear as bombs exploded in eyesight.  We laid on the floor as bullets ricocheted and spent days locked in steel paneled rooms. We found these moments both terrifying and addicting because those places and people that once constituted home now felt boring and static. In contrast, we were on the edge of living. Between the hardest moments we indulged in ridiculous parties with contraband booze to blow off steam and make ourselves feel like normal human beings. On occasion we fled to an exotic beach to spend our hard earned money on any distraction that will make us feel reconnected to the world we once knew. We pushed every moment to the threshold of human experience.

Our lives were saturated but not sustainable. We found ourselves increasingly estranged from our families who were incapable of understanding our lifestyles. We found ourselves alienated among everyone but each other and new relationships became challenging as we quickly brushed off anyone that didn't measure up to our unique expectations. Most people do not.  In the meanwhile the pools of money have dried in many hotspots, leading to less jobs, less people, and less parties. The risks seem less manageable.

One by one we have found ways to cope and change. Most of us have quit our jobs and perhaps found another place to live. Some of us spent too much time in the deep and our choices have made us unemployable in our own professions. If you spent five years in Iraq and try to find a new life in Washington DC, you will be surprised to find yourself overlooked. Some of us are so deep that we have dropped the career goals but have remained in Kabul or Baghdad or Peshawar because we now feel that we belong there.  A few of us have managed to better adjust than others, but none of us have gone back to the homes where we started, or want to.  We have instead found relief in making a home somewhere else. Some of us are working as english teachers in Qatar. Others have returned to school for PhDs and many are struggling to make a decision. Some of us run successful consulting companies. But none of us have a desk job. 

We have changed our paths not from lack of caring. Watching the rise of the Islamic State on television we are stricken with deep fear and worry. These problems are not distant, but are connected to our lives and are personal. We believe in a moral imperative that something must be done because we know what happens, how it happens, and the imminent future if nothing is done. Because we actually know the problems, we are also the most afraid.

But we are the 9/11 Generation and we are exhausted. We will not likely be a remembered generation for our efforts and our losses. People will accuse us of being colonialists rather than empathizers and technicians. While rightly we honor the sacrifices of soldiers there will be no monument for my friends who died working as teachers. We do not have an Allen Ginsberg to write about us or a Jimi Hendrix to rewrite our anthems. We listen to the same outdated Katy Perry songs and read the same terrible airport novels as everyone else.

And now as we step out of one life and into another, we watch the rise of ISIS on television and we despair.  Having dedicated over a decade to these same problems, we understand where it comes from and how it functions. We know the history of caliphates and modern jihadism. We understand what the guy is saying on the radio before the translator chimes in with a softer version. But this doesn't feel like our war. We are not rushing to confront it because we have already given ourselves. We are uncertain if we can give more. We are uncertain if there is anything else left to give.