Category Archives: academic musings

What I’ve been up to (Status presentation to Network of Excellence Working Groups – Torino, Sept 2012)

I’m in Torino, Italy for a project meeting of the Standards, Regulation and Governance working group of the European Network of Excellence on Internet Science. We were asked to highlight what we’ve been working on as part of the project, and so I came up with a few highlights of the things I’ve done and will keep on doing as part of the project.

1. Open Internet

a. I’ve given a series of talks on the notion of the ‘open internet’ and how the architecture and standards of mobile devices differs.

b. I’m going to be working more on this in the next year or so, focusing on the social significance of differing standards for mobile and ‘wired’ internet access technologies.

2. Standards and Legal Frameworks for Open Hardware

a. In March, I presented a summary of a few different legal approaches to open hardware, at the Open Rights Group’s OrgCon, as part of a discussion with legal expert Andrew Katz. There is audio here, as part of documentation taken by spaceBench.

b. I’m taking an updated version of the discussion document/presentation to the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki.

c. I published a paper in Media, Culture and Society (ironically, a closed source journal; the next one will be open source, I promise):

Democratizing production through open source knowledge: from open software to open hardware

which looks at how commercial success is one of the ways that the impact of open source software is considered (here’s one of many examples)

The paper is based on some in-depth work with the Open Hardware and Design Alliance (here we are in Bergen, Norway running a workshop)

I’ll be continuing to work on updating the list of relevant standards, situating the debates within the current literature on standards.

3. Internet Activism

a. I’m working on a paper attempting to assess the impact of online activism against the SOPA/PIPA laws, looking at how the language used in mass media illustrates the influence of the campaigns.

b. This paper follows on from a paper on WikiLeaks I presented last year, a version of which appears in a nice book edited by Ian Brown called Research Handbook on Governance of the Internet.

4. Baby H!

I’m still on maternity leave until November, but after that will be concentrating even harder on these big questions. . . .

Disruptive Creativity: Applying David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting to teaching

A long time ago I promised David Gauntlett that I would review his latest book, Making is Connecting. It is in many ways an excellent book, and one that I was very glad to read as it treats the question of creativity with the focus I think that it deserves.

Essentially, the book invites us to focus on making as opposed to consuming, and it links the expansion of interactive Web technologies to a reinvigoration of making culture.

I’ve had the book long enough that it’s wended its way into my thinking. So this review is going to talk about how I tried to use some of the ideas of the in a ‘critical making’ workshop I ran with the lovely Aleks Krotoski. We worked with students in my postgrad Digital Media Futures course to investigate making as a way of thinking. The goal: to “build Google” and distill a few weeks of heavy theoretical thinking on the role of technology, behavior, and expectations about social media.

Why Making? Craft history

David’s book starts by situating ‘making’ as part of the counterculture – pointing out how the arts and crafts movement in US in 1960s was connected with radical resistance against commercialization. Craft and handmade in general are connected to mindfulness and also to claiming power in “doing” and not just in consuming. This history connects with ideas about self-sufficiency and community living. My parents, for exampe, were enthusiastic home bakers, home renovators and gardeners – representing their generation’s interest in escaping mainstream consumption. But it’s important to note that this subcultural interest in ‘making’ positioned craft and homemade stuff in a very particular gender and class context. For a very long time, ‘making’ work was women’s work or working men’s work – and not something considered very valuable. This doesn’t come across in David’s book, which is a pity, because perceptions about making are still linked up with gender and class. When I work with electronics hackers, I meet mostly men, with lots of formal education. This is a different demographic and culture than the knitters whose online network at David describes.

Feminine vs Masculine making?

The book moves on from the culture of making to a discussion of the new opportunities for making provided by more inexpensive electronics and more interactive media, both in terms of sharing media and in terms of building online community: he is particularly taken by YouTube as an example of a platform for both creativity and engagement, inviting people “to add data as files, comments, tags and links between people” (p. 89). For my students, though, this kind of making was pretty alien. Among my class, very few people described themselves as makers – before writing on our class wiki, only a handful had ever posted online anything that they had made or created, with the exception of status updates (and sometimes Twitter messages). This is a somewhat sobering tempering of David’s optimism about digital creativity as a positive force for social change.

Is Creativity Enough?  Teaching “thinking differently”

One of the central pillars of David’s argument is that creativity is best defined as doing something that is novel in the world, and which produces joy in the do-er. The creation of this joy is part of what makes creativity – especially shared creativity, potentially transformative. David argues that by learning to create things with other people we can create a society in which we are better at sharing what we know, respecting what others know, and feeling that we can change things.

One of my initial criticisms of this position was that it seemed both too general and fuzzy (doing nice things makes the world a better place) and that it didn’t very clearly specify how the collective transformation of society could be linked to the expression of individual creativity. After all, Garnet Hertz’s work on DIY cultures has identified that a strong current of ‘hedonistic DIY’ in which people make things for fun and to scratch their own itches, not necessarily as forms of social intervention.

So when Aleks and I were coming up with our workshop activitiy project, we wanted to use a period of controlled (classroom-based) making as a form of practiced thinking, to see how students responded to the idea of making and sharing. This was especially important since students weren’t accustomed to making things themselves, or sharing them with others.

These are some of the photographs that Aleks took of the resulting “Googles”.


One thing I noticed about the process was that my students, who are highly driven sorts, spent a lot of time just playing around with the objects they used – folding paper, fiddling with PlayDoh, attaching elastic bands to things. While they did this they talked about what they were doing and, more loosely, about some of the ideas they had. One group accidentally spilled an entire container of glitter over their creation, and had to rush to create a rationale for its appearance in their ‘finished’ product – which I think is a great reflection of how the academic research process often works.

Another thing I noticed is that more than the other activities that I contrived to do in the course (seminar discussions, activities, report-backs) this activity let me hear more ideas from more people. I’ll certainly think about how to use making again as a way of engaging people who don’t always speak in public. This was a surprise to me and a good example of David’s argument that making things gives people a capacity to express their ideas and to feel that they are being heard.

The workshop, and the book, still leave me with some questions that are again mostly related to David’s eternal optimism. In the face of economic instability, environmental devastation (and the rest) is creativity enough? Or, put another way, what’s the link between collective and expressive creative endeavors and the other kinds of collective endeavors we now see as resisting neoliberalism? Obviously we are not going to knit our way out of a financial crisis.

Too Rosy For Creativity?

One drawback to the book was, I thought, that it might have come across as too positive and thus, superficial.  It’s an accessible book, but it still attempts to seriously engage with the history and future of ‘making’ culture. Its blindspots are, to a large extent, a result of the overwhelming optimism that David brings to this discussion.  He’s optimistic that making culture can bring people together, he’s optimistic that the technical capacity built by the Web can help to do this, and he even argues that the culture of making and connecting can challenge neoliberal market-based society by giving us other ways of relating to each other. From a teaching and learning perspective, it’s true that ‘making’ creates a different environment, where people talk and experiment and enjoy putting together pieces.  But one thing I noticed about our workshop was that the process of making was actually a very strong (and somewhat pessimistic) critique  of the digital environment. The “Googles” that the students built reflected their concerns about divides of access, knowledge of how to use new media, and passivity on the part of users of the services. So physical making was a good way of thinking about the constraints and complexities of digital making, which David also mentions in his book, in a chapter about how critical perspectives on the digital world are always caught between excessive optimism, and the fear of technological determinism.

One of my research and teaching goals is to understand how we can use critique to design a better set of futures. And while I may not be as optimistic as David about digital creativitity, I share his committment to a way of thinking, and connecting, through making.

#FAIL – investigating failure at the ISDT summer school

I’m here in lovely Porto, Portugal, as faculty at the annual Gary Chapman International School on Digital Transformation, run by the University of Texas at Austin. The week’s summer school discusses the relationships between media technologies and social transformation. For my contribution this morning, I decided to focus on the concept of failure in community technology projects. There is a summary here, or read on below.

Community tech projects are often set up as alternatives to the increasingly corporatized and enclosed internet, either as modes of providing alternative access to the internet in areas where it is not available, or as alternative intranets to connect communities to themselves. They have a variety of different expectations that can be attached to them, including expected augmentations of:

Citizen Engagement
Alternative Technology
Policy Challenge/New modes of Governance
Enterprise and business

But most of these projects fail. So what can we learn from this?

First, that many of our existing frameworks for failure are pretty boring. For the most part, innovation literature considers failure in terms of how useful it can be for progress. Either something fails, and we can dismiss it, or it provides some new idea that allows for future innovation. There are several frameworks for this, including the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ where something new disrupts the status quo, or the idea of paradigm shift, where a failure in one system introduces a new mode of thinking.

But this linear idea about failure doesn’t do much. In reality, things aren’t so transparent. Some things fail in ways that actually have more impact than if they had succeeded.  Case in point: community wireless networks often started out hoping to bridge the digital divide. But many of them contributed more by reforming radio spectrum laws.

I decided to come up with a new taxonomy for these kinds of opaque, rather than transparent, failures. I thought that it should include not just the stated goals of projects, but the unstated goals as well. In addition – I thought about short term and long term outcomes, policy implications (intended or not), structures of participation (elite, grassroots, techie, scale), technological imperative, civic/community/noncommercial implications. I asked the ISDT group to brainstorm a variety of failures to think about how they fit into that taxonomy. Some of the projects cited (and debated) were: Haystack, One Laptop Per Child, Red Hat, Mozilla, and community projects ranging from community food banks to global mobilization movements.

Failure needs to be redefined.  It’s not always a total #FAIL. We can learn from failure. A project that has “failed” many can lead to new design methods. We need to learn from designers and think about how to iterate projects, but also how to consider the effective (and affective) use of technology – and who gains power from technology projects.



“It is a new story, there was never one quite like it before” Moments in Media History

This week, I have learned effective means of  encoding criticisms of repressive governments, as well as how to distribute these messages in a distributed, non-hierarchical way that avoids the original source being located.  I have also become enlightened about the potential of individual citizens to transform a new technology into an alternative channel of communication, in contravention of local laws.  Finally, I’ve been reminded of the gap between the visions of the high-tech industry produced during economic bubbles, and the realities that they present for consumers.

All in a week’s work for a scholar of contemporary social media?  No, this week I’m reading communications history, which is my favorite way to reflect on the significance of changes to mediations of society, past and present.  The first example above is useful for thinking about what’s new about WikiLeaks and participatory media:  as Robert Darnton describes, when the Parisians of the Ancien Regime were forbidden to publish newspapers or anything containing news of the king, they created novels and songs that buried the un-knowable knowledge in rhyme and anagrams.  Because the songs changed every time someone sang them, the police were never able to find the “original” songwriter.  Instead they found a web of relationships that they tracked through tiny scraps of paper. (Note to student readers – we’ll discuss this next week.  Hopefully no spoilers here)

And lest we become too excited about the “single person organizations” facilitated by participatory culture and open-source, Susan Douglas reminds us of the popular furore about the “radio boys” in the first decade of the 20th century, when young men (note, never women, and see some of Susan’s later work) built their own crystal radio sets and formed an international brotherhood that also helped them to gain jobs and legitimacy in the new industrial economy – but also resulted in them breaking, and then changing, wireless transmission laws.  She also describes how the radio industry itself was a product of boom and bust, much like the Wi-Fi networking boom of the early 2000s.  Throughout the history of radio in America is a familiar narrative about innovation, progress, and American values.  There’s also a strong sub-plot in which the same rugged individualist inventors seek monopoly control, and the people struggle for rights to the airwaves.

Now I’m not saying that there’s nothing new under the sun.  As I wrote last time, some of the key things that has changed since the Ancien Regime and even since America in the 1900s are the structures of power.  18th century Paris was slowly industrializing but still shaking off feudal relationships and the chains of absolute monarchy.  19th century America invented broadcasting – and with it, the “mass public” of undifferentiated consumers as well as the monopoly communications companies that served them, and made money from connecting content and carriage.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every story is simultaneously an old story and a new story.  We keep remaking the world. Industrial and post-industrial human societies have amazingly persistent narratives of technological progress as positive, and individual innovation as the motor of that progress.  But beyond, and under these narratives are our sometimes scurrilous means of making do, speaking truth to power, putting status in the system, whatever you like. These small actions make changes:  they become part of the bigger stories.  And in order to see them, we have to be able to see both forward, and back.

* the title quotation is from Harper’s Weekly, January 30, 1909, and quoted in the always-excellent Inventing American Broadcasting by Susan Douglas (1987, p. 200)

Mass Media Parasite. WikiLeaks and New Media Power

Everyone, including Umberto Eco, has now weighed in on the impact of Wikileaks.  Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have advanced a set of hypotheses about WikiLeaks.  Aaron Bady has identified the cybernetic obsessions of Julian Assange.  Blogs, newspapers, and the beloved BBC are licking their chops talking about new media and the seemingly unstoppable drip of scandals and secrets over the internet, and the counterattacks depriving WikiLeaks of hosting, funding, and Julian Assange’s freedom.  But I think that the narrative thus far has focused too much on the dichotomy between new media openness and the enclosure of old media, state power, and secrecy.  There’s actually something else happening – a shift in power that depends on new media power’s parasitism on mass media.

Through the summer, internet scholars, security specialists and hacktivists gleefully discussed the tidbits of scandal and deluges of data that WikiLeaks released.  This ranged from Sarah Palin’s e-mail to thousands of pages on the US involvement in Afghanistan.  As others, including Julian Assange himself have identified, the goal of WikiLeaks was partly to open up the information structures of conspiracies, to defang ministries of secrets by revealing their secrets to all.  This goal, and its execution, is an exquisite representation of the distributed nature of power in a network society.  Power cannot be exerted only from above: someone can glean information, post it to a wiki, and *presto* the information is openly available, undermining state power and revealing its illegitimacy.  This is WikiLeaks reconfiguring media power – and redefining media democracy.

Beginning in July, there were attempts to undermine the effectiveness of this counterpower.  One of the features of distributed forms of power is that it is difficult to censor them using strategies designed for broadcast or more centralized forms of distributing information.  As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, when such conventional strategies fail, the strategy is often to take out the individuals – since even though communication networks can be self-healing, individuals who hold important positions in small organizations are not.

But this week’s events, which have escalated far enough that WikiLeaks is the top evening news story, reveal something interesting about why this exercise of new media power is so effective:  it is a parasite on the mass media, and through the mass media, it blows open many of the power structures established around both information (as Assange points out) but also communication.

Whereas in July the leaked information about Afghanistan was so voluminous that only a few media stories broke, this month’s leaked cables were sent out to selected media sources including the Guardian, Das Spiegel and Libération, creating dozens of headlines and well-written primary sources that trained investigative journalists have been investigating.

The mass media then, has been the host for the WikiLeaks parasite, which, like a virus, is transforming the building blocks of the media organism.  The journalists salivate at the leaks, and publicize them.  This keeps the new media power in the mass media sphere, while simultaneously discrediting them. As Aaron Bady writes,

The way most journalists “expose” secrets as a professional practice — to the extent that they do — is just as narrowly selfish: because they publicize privacy only when there is profit to be made in doing so, they keep their eyes on the valuable muck they are raking, and learn to pledge their future professional existence on a continuing and steady flow of it. In muck they trust.

WikiLeaks, as long as it slowly drips muck towards mass media journalists, is the parasite living on the host.  But it is also making the host change its shape.  It is making the mass media ask, even as it publishes the WikiLeaks cables, what journalists should do.

More importantly, the WikiLeaks story, with the help of the mass media press, is revealing that the relationship between new media and mass media (not to mention diplomacy) has entered a new phase.  Perhaps the release of the cables will indeed destroy the “invisible government” of corrupt secrecy, as Assange wanted.  But it cannot do this without the mass media.

I am not alone in thinking that this week, and this case, will likely define a key moment in the future history of media, information, and democracy.

The Real Contribution of Sharing Culture

A historian from the future is perusing my library shelf.  She leafs through some books, scrolls through some PDFs.  Hm, she thinks “they were really obsessed with sharing.  Here’s a study of how sharing software code changed the software industry.  Here’s a book about how sharing wireless networks led to new ways of providing communications access.  And here’s a whole folder full of articles and books about the culture of the time, describing people sharing images, and ideas, more quickly and more easily than they could have before.  But I don’t understand – what was so important about that kind of sharing?  It’s fine to share media that are stored in a format that makes them instantly reproducible at extremely low cost, but how did this change their cuture?”

My imagined future historian is struggling with determining how the low-barrier to entry sharing that is so central to digital culture might have broader and more distributed cultural effects.  Sharing software code is easy: it can be duplicated perfectly and used over and over.  There’s a magic to this kind of sharing – everyone can use the information, without diminishing the original source.  But using this kind of sharing as a model for digital cultre is perhaps risky.  Sometimes there are physical barriers, as in the case of wireless – it’s easy to share connectivity, but it’s harder to do in a way that doesn’t diminish the amount of bandwidth.  Sharing culture (videos, images, ideas) has happened forever.  The difference now is that ideas in the form of data are much more easily available, and easy to manipulate.

So far, our historian concludes that the success  sharing is intrinsically related to the properties of digital data; either its reproducability or the low barriers to participation that plentiful data provide.  But she observes something else – that we are fascinated by the culture of sharing even when it doesn’t have anything to do with these properties.  When the barriers are high, and the objects physical.  That explains this recent report by Latitude Research, which investigates whether sharing online makes people more likely to share offline.  They conclude that online sharing does inspire people to share offline – citing examples such as Freecycle, which I’ve used to give away various cumbersome household objects.  They also argue that people are willing to share “office space, travel accommodations, textbooks, kids clothes, parking spaces, garden plots, private planes, camera lenses, luxury handbags, boats, household items, and more“.  It’s not just stuff that we feel we want to share – it’s knowledge as well.  My research on community wireless revealed that wireless groups can be incubators for policy change and knowledge exchange, even when they don’t succeed at connecting their communities.

But, my historian asks, “what’s distinctive about this, now?  People have shared forever.  Digital culture does not inspire us to lend our neighbour a drill.”  She goes to the park, sits down and thinks about what happened in (our) time:  Global restructuring of capital kept people in work, made cities more cosmopolitan, and changed the likelihood of meeting one’s neighbours.  Formal education systems became more rigorous.  Major financial institutions failed.  Across all of this continued the practices that were first associated with digital media.  It almost began to seem as if digital media made sharing possible.

It hasn’t, of course.  An economy based on shared code has emerged because of the properties of code, the norms surrounding its production, and the cultural shift that our historian is investigating.  But one of the things that she’s observing is that these norms, and this culture, are powerful, and impacting a set of things from “open” movements to “open source hardware” to “coworking” and “hacklabs” that are not exactly new but which have a new cultural inflection.  In investigating the opportunities and limits of these norms and culture, she has more than enough to work on.  Doesn’t she?

“You Can’t Tweet That!” Personal Branding and Public Intellectuals

Lewis Gordon at Truthout argues that the market model of academia has killed the public intellectual.  He argues that market pressures, including heavy competition for limited jobs, and the focus on professional academics as masters of technical and textual knowledge has forced public intellectuals into creating the equivalent of academic literature reviews every time they want to talk about major issues of public interest.  He contrasts this market-driven logic with some of the public intellectuals of the past, who rejected the spoils of faculty positions and prestigious prizes.  He writes:

For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

A key pillar of this argument is a critique of fame – or, at the very least, the commoditization of academic fame.  In my office today there was much discussion of how we young academics are expected to maintain a personal brand.  Every tweet, every blog post could be read by future employers or future students, and all must be kept consistent, in content and style, with what we are expected to produce as knowledge workers.  And as social media is time-sensitive, the brand must be maintained at all times.  The reward for maintaining this image is an academic job, as Gordon points out, but it is also fame within the social media sphere.

This is a double-edged sword for anyone who (like me) has aspirations as a public intellectual.  On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, many factors combine to limit the number of academic posts.  With more competition, productivity becomes important.  So turn off Twitter and stop reading blogs.  Write that article, and ignore the Party on the Internet. But leaving aside the perilous labour conditions and the market-driven environment that might await once one gets the academic post, there’s also the immediate question of how much to engage with the flow of debate rushing through the social media sphere.  To catch the stream, one must maintain a different sort of personal brand – one that depends on constant and high quality participation.

I disagree with Gordon’s claim that it’s essentially impossible to be a true public intellectual under current market conditions.  I think it is possible, but it comes with a heavy pressure of time and participation that doesn’t seem to be well understood or supported by the academy.  How do others negotiate the different demands of academic and advocacy social media worlds?  What goes on the Twitter stream, and what stays off?

Quantifying everything: Wolfram alpha and algorithms

Wolfram Alpha is pretty great:  you type in a problem and it finds a solution.  It does this by transforming the natural language problem into computational elements and entries in its curated data set, and then running the computations.  Ta-Daa!  The solution appears, provided that the problem includes elements that are 1. reducible to computation and 2. include elements that are in the database.  Improving on 2. is easy enough, the argument goes:  simply add more things into the database.  If you want to calculate the likelihood that a word will occur in a Yeats poem, simply add more Yeats poems to the database and eventually you’ll get a meaningful result.

It’s principle 1. that’s potentially more problematic.  It raises the question about the extent to which all knowledge can be quantified.  In other words, it doesn’t explain why the repetition of words in a Yeats poem might be important.

Ahh, you say.  But that’s not science!  True, science is about quantifiablity.  But it is also about inquiry, about determining how to ask questions that are verifiable.  And it is about applying those questions generatively in order to develop new knowledge.  Wolfram Alpha’s founder has written about a new kind of science, which is based on simple rules that can be embodied in computer programs. I’m ready to be convinced, but I’m concerned that the Age of the Algorithm could mean the end of the Age of Inquiry.

My most memorable university exam included a question which asked me to differentiate special relativity from general relativity, and to explain how Einstein developed one from another.  I attempted to get Wolfram Alpha to compute this, but the closest result I got was this.  So far, inquiry is safe.

Civil liberties in the network society

In yesterday’s post I reflected on how battles for civil liberties were ways for people with less power to try and gain more power.  This is a fairly mainstream sociological perspective on power and the reasons that people engage in collective action. Today I’m going to ask how this changes in a network society.  The theorist of social movements Alberto Melucci writes in his book Challenging Codes that, “a social movement is an actor engaged in a conflict directly or indirectly affecting the distribution of power within a society.”  But I’d like to know:  is there some finite amount of power?  If so, where are the places where it is most concentrated?  What are today’s most significant struggles?

If we think of our society as being characterized by 1.  relationships structured by/through networked forms and networked infrastructures and 2. the high value placed on information, then it is easier to see why today’s struggles over power involve things like media reform and privacy.  Colin Bennett (among other privacy advocates) looks at how privacy is framed as a civil liberties issue.  He writes in The Privacy Advocates that “the protection of privacy has always featured prominently within the agendas of civil liberties organizations, historically concerned with the legitimate boundaries between the individual and state and with the protection of citizens from abuses of power” (p. 35).  One limitation of this perspective, as Bennet notes, is that it focuses on individual rights rather than collective (civil) rights.  We could imagine this perspective as a shield preventing the powerful state from abusing the powerless individual.

Maybe its possible to think of the individual – or the collective – as having power that can be disruptive.  Manuel Castells argues that any exercise of power also produces “counter-power.”  Any oppression produces resistance.  For example, the consolidation of global capital and information that the internet made possible was balanced out by the development of new social movements that opposed that power using the tools provided (the internet, global interaction).  Now that more of society can be thought of as working like a network, this power/counterpower relationship is developing.  Some of the important questions are:  who figures out how networks of influence and networks of infrastructure are going to operate?  Who makes the rules?

Developing counter-power that restructures how networks work is a good way of framing why media reform has become a big issue — and even why technical standards and protocols are becoming objects of political discussion.  But one of the big challenges of understanding power – and civil liberties – in a network society is actually determining where counterpower or resistance should be directed.  Castells claims that a pressing question is: “against whom do I revolt”?

This is exactly why issues of privacy and media reform are becoming more thorny.  It’s not simply a question of shielding individuals from the burly oppression of the state.  Many forms of power are ways of controlling our uncertainty about the world, and even a surveillance state can do that (the argument for surveillance cameras is often that they make people safer, as everyone is being watched).  It’s a question of determining *where* abuses of power come from -in the multi-layered networks of infrastructure, content, finance, and politics – and *how* to use the same networks to disconnect or route around those abuses.

Would you go to jail for your rights?

I went to the British Library on Saturday to see the exhibit “Taking Liberties:  The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights.” Beginning with the Magna Carta (on display!) it showed how unstable British politics have been, and for how long.

I was fascinated by the section on the long struggle to give women the vote.  The movement started in the 1860s, but the exhibit claimed that it didn’t have much success until after the First World War – women over 30 got the vote 1920, and women over 21 in 1928.  The Suffragettes were more organized, and more radical than I thought.  They blew up post boxes, stages rallies in the street, and accumulated criminal records.  In fact, so many of them went to jail in the 1890s and 1900s, and then went on hunger strikes in order to be released, that the government passed a new law.  The “Cat and Mouse” law permitted the government to release a woman after a hunger strike and then rearrest her as soon as she had gained enough weight not to die in jail.

It seems unimaginable now that the suffrage activists would have to go to such lengths to prove that women should be allowed the same democratic rights as men.  But female suffrage was very threatening to the moral and social order of the times.  If women were willing to blow up mailboxes in order to get the right to vote, who knows who they might vote for if they got the chance?

The exhibit was a good reminder that freedoms and rights are often grudgingly given by those with more power to those with less.  Those with less  are often called to put their beliefs on the line.  I started to ask myself, “would I be willing to go to jail for my rights?”  If ever my right to vote were revoked, I would like to belive I would.

Democracy (especially in Britain) sometimes seems wounded and tepid – with too much balancing to truly bring change.  But another amazing event of this week proves that it can still work.  Obama’s inauguration, and the vision of millions of people on Washington’s mall, suggest that people with less power, working together, can still shift the heavy machinery of government.    But we all need to be willing to push.