February 2009 Archives

February 21, 2009

Protest in the age of detached involvement

Thursday Iran protest in Union Square in San F...

Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Two discussions, merged into a single blog post:
For modern society, the protest has been diluted to a point where it is rarely effective.

Please read the last sentence again. I have not said that protests are useless, nor have I said that they accomplish nothing. I have merely commented on what their machinations produce. What they produce, I will repeat, is often far less than is what is necessary to effect change.

Why? Because we have forgotten why protest exists and, by extension, have lost the true purpose.

If you ask a modern protester why they are protesting, I expect (perhaps incorrectly) that responses will be variations upon this theme: people need to be made aware of this problem, and if enough people are made aware, change will naturally occur. This response is neither logical nor proven, and the less active the protester, the less likely the change to happen.

Mass numbers prove nothing but solidarity. It does not prove (or improve) competency or the ability to respond. All the third graders in the US may sign a petition to make recess three hours, but they have no ability to change the rules nor do they understand the ramifications or processes for making that change. Solidarity is not enough for change.

Additionally, solidarity requires certain compromises and acceptances in the name of collective strength. We set aside our differences so that we might be a stronger unit than we are individually, but in achieving a single focus we create a single opponent for our common enemy to defend against. Instead of being devoured by a pack of wolves, the adversary need only slay the giant dragon.

And let me assure you, lawmakers, governments and corporate organizations have effective and established weapons for slaying the dragon. This should come as no surprise; centralized power by its very structure must defend itself from rival power-seekers. Which, as much as you'd like to believe otherwise, is exactly what your empowered structure would do once enabled.

But this is where the internet is so wonderful. It gives us the opportunity for loosely organized groups, who can be made aware of what is happening yet work either independently or collectively, as the task permits. A thousand calls to a lawmakers office or $10 from a thousand people to hire the best litigator/lobbyist/celebrity activist to champion their cause and assert their influence, all at literally the the speed of the internet itself.

But as a lover of the internet, I digress. There is more to why protests fail to be effective.

It is because we are lazy. Unbelievably lazy. Lazier than really should be possible, but we have created systems to allow us unprecedented levels of lazy. There is a cost to being able to effectively argue against a law, and we are not interested in paying it. At a much lower cost, we can hire someone to argue for us, or (even cheaper) we can contribute to a "cause" where someone else determines who to hire and how to pay them. We put a check in the mail, get a ribbon magnet in return, and call it a day.

There is a cost to fighting injustice and wrong, but we don't want to be bothered. So we give up responsibilities to an elected group of individuals who can handle them for us. We give them the right to break our laws so that they can maintain peace. And when they misuse their authority we somehow are appalled by their behavior.

Answer this question: What is more appalling? A man, given greater power than the general population, misusing it in an already hostile situation, or dozens of people, watching (recording!) the situation escalate to its fatal conclusion, never once thinking to use their numbers to subdue the situation themselves? The irony is that the time for true protest was brought about by someone calling the authorities and complaining rather than ending the situation themselves. And the tragedy is that the time for true protest was completely lost on the audience, severed in the video above by the closing of the BART doors.

On March 7, 1965, about six hundred people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march centered around voter rights for people of color. When they reached the other side, they found state troopers blocking their path, telling them to return to Selma. As they stood there, news cameras recorded the gas-masked policemen attacking the unarmed, non-combative line of marchers with clubs and tear gas(link to video above). Many were hospitalized, their injuries so severe.

George B. Leonard wrote a powerful recollection in The Nation, which is, unfortunately, not freely available:
We were in our living room in San Francisco watching the 6pm news. I was not aware that at the same moment people all up and down the West Coast were feeling what my wife and I felt, that at various times all over the country that day and up past 11pm Pacific Time that night hundreds of these people would drop whatever they were doing, that some of them would leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, overdraw their checking accounts; board planes, buses, trains, cars; travel thousands of miles with no luggage; get speeding tickets, hitchhike, hire horse drawn wagons; that these people, mostly unknown to one another, would move for a single purpose: to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on television.
When the march was attempted again on March 21, thousands of people from around the country walked with those who had attempted earlier.

You see, my friend, protest is not about awareness; media is about awareness. protest is not about others changing things--it is about you contributing your time, energies and efforts independently because you feel that YOU must change a grave error, whether you feel that your sole contribution can create change or not.

Anything else is just modified whimpering. You are no more a protester than those sheep who didn't bumrush that asshole BART officer who visibly broke the law. And in my opinion, if you're not willing to fight for right than you have no reason to complain; either your battle is on another front, or you are not fighting living at all.

True change is in your hands. Your senses have been dulled, but that does not mean that the power is not still yours to weild. Like others before us, we must come to drop our lives for the sake of others--only then will protest be valuable again. And only then can we truly call ourselves a superior species.

February 9, 2009

A Change I Can Believe In

In my post about the Adaptive Path conference I made reference to my "failures and middling achievments." I'd like to be a little more specific.

Since I started the new job, I've been less successful than I had anticipated. I focused too much on defining myself outside of the shadow of my predecessor. I moved hastily to motivate people and create a third culture of design. I worked hardest at deadline times, waiting for launches to expose flaws that I could mend. In retrospect, these are all things that work well for a freelancer or sole proprietor--when you are the lead--but not at all useful when establishing the relationships that make a team.

What team building requires is must more evolving than immediate; it starts at the familiar and smooths the transitions, and works were everyone feels most comfortable. I assumed that I would either have a team already versed in design or the jurisdiction to establish parameters, and with neither my work suffered dearly. Projects languished where there was an absence of collaboration, and all tasks were equally weighted--and equally demanded.

Managing Design Projects
opened my eyes to my own shortcomings as much as it gave new ideas and strategies. Of particular note:
  • I was not as cognizant of personalities as they relate to team interaction. I must approach people in a way that they feel most comfortable.
  • I failed to create a protocol for task management, as well as a record of goals achieved. I seem to be totally busy, but have shown very little for it.
  • I've not made design and design research plain enough for non-inclined to see value. Without value, there is little incentive to maintain (I also never expected such an aversion to reading! wow!).
But these are all things I can change. I'll just have to start a little deeper, a little slower, and, most likely, with a little less group enthusiasm to use as inertia. I look forward to actually opening the book they gave us, and really setting up a management program based on proven methods. If it's proven and within my power, it's something I can believe in.

February 6, 2009

Managing Design Projects

I've long been a smitten fan of Adaptive Path, both as a beacon in the area of experience and as an ideal working experience. Their conferences and seminars have historically been out of my financial reach, but a one-day conference for under $300 was something absolutely affordable.

My department balked at the expense. Undeterred, I took a business trip for my nearly-dormant personal company, including a meeting with a potential client and lunch with a former one. I also recruited my AWR counterpart, @smellvin, whose department approved his trip. We're splitting the cost of the hotel.

I'm immediately impressed by the genuine approachability of the Adaptive Path team. The fun conversation had with Sarah Nelson in Chicago seemed to extend, uninterrupted, to the other employees who greeted us when we arrived. For people who hold such tremendous influence in their field, it was heartening to find them quite human. Perhaps this is indicative of the San Francisco des/dev community in general.

My initial feeling was that I was in the company of pros. Most people I interacted with were project managers by title, where much of what I do is project management by default. The topics and concepts discussed, however, were enlightening, relevant, and, in many cases very dear--elements of my experience consultancy.

San Francisco, originally uploaded by Leftsider.

In honesty, I found the conference to be extremely frustrating. So much good information was  proffered, and so many real-world examples of implementation sat around the room. It made my failures and middling achievments in my current position all the more grating. But is this dissatisfaction is the energy that will power self-development and the professional improvement I hope to offer my team.

We had an after-event at the very unique Kennedy's Irish Pub and Indian Curry House, an enjoyable time. The whole affair was completely worthwile, especially as I'm quite fond of SF in general. I'll be leaving the overcast 60-degree weather for true east coast winter on Sunday.