Transcription: Jessamyn West, In The Weeds
an interview with Erica DaCosta for Speech Week on WGDR
This is a transcription of an interview I did with Erica DaCosta for her radio show In The Weeds for Speech Week at WGDR
Erica DaCosta: Welcome to In the Weeds. Today we have Jessamyn West, who is a freelance librarian and technologist who lives and works here in Vermont, and works on big-picture issues in technology and librarianship which take her all over the country and abroad. She thinks and writes and speaks about the digital divide, the open access movement, and library freedom and privacy. So thank you so much for being here today, Jessamyn.
Jessamyn West: Thanks for having me.
EDC: So I wonder if you’d like to offer a little more detail, correction, expansion, about the way I just described your work, and also if you wouldn’t mind talking a little bit about what you’re working on right now that interests you the most.
JW: Well that sounds mostly, mostly right. Basically I’m kind of a library person, meaning I have a library degree but I don’t work in a library. Not like a physical brick and mortar library. I work for the Internet Archive and do their Open Library Project — we lend e-books all over the world. And there’s a bunch of different things going on, but the thing that’s going on today, couple things. One we’ve got an interesting free speech issue at the Archive that I mentioned earlier and that I could talk about, figuring out, hey, if you’re super committed to free speech and someone puts a link to ISIS’s recruitment video on their user page, how much is that a thing or not. And then the other thing is it’s Wikipedia’s fifteenth birthday party this week. And I’m on the advisory board to the board of directors of the Wikimedia Foundation; one of the ways they’re celebrating is this cute little project called #1Lib1Ref, they want every librarian in the world, or however many we can get, to add one citation to help make Wikipedia better.
EDC: Awesome. So, library freedom. I was interested especially in what your thoughts and work has been around issues of responding to information requests such as national security letters, administrative subpoenas, that type of thing. And also what your thoughts are about specific tools that can thwart surveillance from intelligence agencies, dragnets. There’s a difference obviously between implementing these kinds of tools in a public library and in your private home….
JW: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that. Because I just finished writing an article — one of the things I do it write an article for Computers in Libraries magazine, which is kind of an adorably titled magazine that shows librarians how to do computery things. And the article that I wrote was about HTTPS, like secure webpages. And so many people don’t know, but they might, that in the library world we’re very committed to patron privacy. Which means you check out a book from your public library here in town, that information is between you and your librarian, period. And they won’t turn over that information without a court order and even if there’s a court order they will fight to keep your information private.
But, we’re not as great at dealing with our patrons’ digital interactions. We’re not as great at making sure their web transactions are secure, we’re not as great at making sure their wifi transactions are secure, that they can browse the internet securely. And so there’s this awesome project called the Library Freedom Project, which is all about raising awareness about that issue, number one, but number two actually giving libraries the tools that they need in order to do this. I mean we’re a democracy and so part of that is that everybody is equal to every other person. And you deserve, you know, the same rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, that kind of thing, as everybody else gets. But in reality we’re a very tiered system where people who are more rich or more powerful have access to more and better services, more and better access to things, to tools, to jobs — as well, to obscure stuff like privacy.
So you can surf the web at home, for instance, and use whatever tools you want, whereas if you’re somebody who’s using the public library computers, which are often people who are— I mean, lots of people use the library computers but people who have to use the library computers may not have other options and we should be respecting their privacy as much as anybody else. And it means they’ll have to use the library computer for potentially transmitting personal information like dealing with healthcare, dealing with the government, your private and personal emails. Like I have the luxury as a privileged person of, if I don’t want to, never using someone else’s computer for my personal private business. Many people don’t have that luxury and as libraries we are run by the public and run for the public we should be providing people the same level of privacy they could get if they were managing this in their own homes.
EDC: Right, right. Interesting. Let me go back to something you mentioned just before we were talking about this. It was about an issue that had come up with your work at Open Library. First of all, what is Open Library?
JW: Well, Open Library is sort of a big project. The Internet Archive, first of all, you may know them because they do the Wayback Machine. You can find a copy of any page on the internet that they’ve scanned historically. So if I want to look at what my blog looked like in 2001, I could find it. Adorable. But they’re also big free culture advocates and they try to get lots and lots of content online and available.
Open Library is a specific subproject of theirs that tries to have a webpage for every book. And by every book they mean like every single book. So like not just Alice in Wonderland but like the 200 editions of Alice in Wonderland. Ultimately that is what they’d like. Because libraries have this information. We have records for these items. And the Internet Archive is sort of waiting for the day when the world changes enough that we can actually provide the digital content of all this stuff. So we have a lot of public domain books. A million public domain books that you can have.
EDC: And does this include self-published stuff?
JW: Yeah, self-published stuff as well. If you’ve written your own book, you can put in online at Open Library and somebody can read it online using our BookReader, they can download a PDF of it, they can search the text of it. It’s very very helpful.
EDC: The size of this project just sounds unbelievable.
JW: It’s epic. And I’m mostly kind of the low-end support nerd. Although I have a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, mostly I’m answering people’s questions, because what we also do is lend ebooks. So we take a lot of books that are in copyright but that we have scanned because we also provide scanned copies of book to the print-disabled, which is a thing you get to do legally. Legally you can scan a brand-new book, make it available to the print-disabled, you have violated no laws.
We take older books, and older like 40s, 50s, 60s, books that are likely orphan works, meaning the copyright status is completely unknown, family history type of stuff, high use to a small, small number of people. Kids’ books from like the 1980s. Eh. And we make them available. We lend them. So you have to use digital rights management, which is super irritating but we deal with it. And anybody in the world can get a free account and we will lend them from our lending library of about a quarter million books. It’s cool. It’s a cool project. Confusing, but cool. And I’m the person who answers your email, probably, if you email with a question.
EDC: So you had an issue come up in which you noticed an Arabic book, and -
JW: Yeah, which in and of itself is no big deal. You know, in our dream world we have people sharing content from everywhere. In fact there’s a lot of call for, for instance, Bibles in African languages. Because there are missionaries there who want to spread the good word and don’t have the content to be able to do that, and we have some of that stuff. It’s not in copyright, it’s awesome. So we noticed that there were some users who were adding a bunch of Arabic books. Great! We are super into it. And our BookReader, the thing that you can read a book on online, it actually works with, you know, text that goes right to left, it actually works with books that go right to left, so you can actually read it the way you would read an actual Arabic book, not a mushed into, you have to flip the pages the wrong way kind of situation. And so that was all fine, and so we were like, oh this is great, someone’s adding a bunch of new books.
But then somebody who reads Arabic, which is not me — like I kind of threw some stuff at Google translate and was like, ah, it looks like something self-published, I don’t know what it is — noticed that the user’s profile page had a link on it that went to, as near as we could tell, ISIS recruitment videos. You know, the official site for ISIS recruitment. And I don’t even — that’s a little outside of my wheelhouse, so I’m taking it on faith that what these people in our organization said was true. And so I was like, well, that’s kind of weird, I’m not sure how I feel about that actually. And so I talked to my boss. Because there’s certain things, if you’re in a kind of free culture situation, you’ve really got to ask somebody who’s a little more in charge at the organization. I’m like, what do you think about this. And she’s like, well, for right now, you know, I mean we’’ll keep an eye on it, but for right now, hey, free speech. Link to another website, free speech. Not our thing.”
And I’m not even sure how I personally feel about it. I mean this all happened literally in the last 24 hours, so there’s no other story there. We’re just not sure, because some of the volunteers who work in our project, because like any project this relies on volunteers to help do things, they feel weird about it. And I don’t blame them. And yet, you know, trying to figure out how to balance your values with your real-world situations that you’re confronting and things that may have repercussions that are kind of a bigger deal that just somebody’s feelings got hurt. So we’re in the process of thinking about it and it’s been a really interesting week at the Open Library from my perspective.
EDC: I mean I imagine that there are books in the quarter million that you’ve collected so far at Open Library that are sort of Nazi-inspired or,
JW: Mein Kampf is very popular, actually.
EDC: I mean it’s not as if Nazism has gone away completely.
EDC: And I’m sure there’s plenty of other examples of books
JW: How not to be gay books. Those drive me crazy. A whole bunch of things. I mean librarians are always like, “We have something in our library to offend everyone!” and it’s true but challenging, especially when users are self-publishing, because your print books in your library are nominally filtered through someone who selected them. And theoretically you’re supposed to have a diverse range of viewpoints, which doesn’t necessarily mean all viewpoints, but at least they’re books that are worthwhile. Like maybe they have a noxious topic but good writing, or something like that.
So it’s been interesting looking at people’s self-published stuff and trying to figure out where the line’s drawn. We have a no porn line. But what’s pornography? You know, I’m here looking at the Miller decision like I’m not really sure about that either. A lot of times what we wind up doing, which is hilarious, is sort of like sending the link up [on Slack] and saying “Do you guys think this is porn or not?” And then me and my three closest colleagues look at, you know, disgusting pornography. I like pornography and some of this stuff is like urghhhh. And this is mostly textual pornography — pictorial is not what we do and so easy to — I think you can upload it to the Archive, definitely can’t upload it to Open Library. But you know if you just kind of do a lot of fanfic, come put your stuff on Open Library and you can read it in a book and that’ll be cool, as long as it doesn’t cross a line. But that line is unclear. And a lot of times requires human judgment which drives internet people crazy. Because they’re like “Where’s the rule? Show me where the rule is!”
EDC: Some things just can’t be quantified. As much as we want them to be. But it’s so interesting that you could put sort of Nazi propaganda, ISIS propaganda, but you can’t put pornography. That’s really interesting.
JW: I have always thought that’s really interesting. And I think that had more to do — and I don’t know, actually, but I think it has more to do with sort of our partners and our founders and stuff like that. And it may also be that I’m interpreting the pornography thing too broadly. And what they mean is no Hustler magazine, but they, you know, these odd, I mean I can’t even start talking about them — you know, these odd books that people have written that are just raunchy, but they’re raunchy in a text way. Maybe that’s okay, you know? So again, we’re always learning basically.
EDC: So let me just revisit. The mission of Open Library is to make everything available?
JW: In our dream future. Like we have a utopic future vision where everything is available. Right now we’re hampered by the very real limitations of copyright law in this country. And the way digital rights management generally works. And our own ability to scan and upload content as quickly as possible by robots. Because every time you put a human in the equation, suddenly your project doesn’t scale super well. And so it’s a balancing act with us. But that’s the lofty goal.
EDC: So I started this show a few months ago, and on my very first show I dedicated, in part, anyway, to Aaron Swartz. I found him and all of the projects he was involved in just to be incredibly interesting and inspiring and his activism and his willingness to put himself on the line. So I wanted to ask you about him but also about an issue related to library freedom which is open access. And I’m going to, since it’s not very long, I’m going to read his Guerrilla Access, Open Access Manifesto.
Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost. This is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something we’ve already been doing: we can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have been: trading passwords
with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. The politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take the stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerrilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?
Aaron Swartz, July 2008.
And I think he was probably about 22, 23 at the time.
JW: If even, yeah.
EDC: So, Aaron Swartz and the Open Access movement. And what are our rights to information? Do we have any rights to information?
JW: Well, a lot of this gets — I mean, I should say, I’m on board. I’m a librarian who’s been sharing this stuff with my friends, and you’re welcome to call me a pirate, I guess. But, you know, we like to talk about it like “the gray market”. There’s a lot of different ways I think we can open up access, and we can open up sharing. And some of that is just what we call discovery. So for instance, you know, the government makes a thing, they publish a report, they take a picture — those things belong to us, the American people. They’re ours. But, it’s one thing to say those things belong to you, it’s quite another to make them available, to make them findable, to make them accessible to the various kind of people who want to have access to them.
So it’s been interesting watching this administration, who I believe is actually much more interested in sharing than any previous administration, and watching them do things like taking the White House photo pictures and putting them on Flickr with no copyright restrictions. So if you want to get a picture of that little boy, you know, patting Obama’s head and going like, “he’s got hair like mine” and what a big deal that is — you can. Because those belong to us. Because we’re America.
NASA, all the stuff, the pictures that they take. Those belong to us. But maybe you can’t find them. And so watching people make, like Aaron was saying, secret databases — which are actually legal to have — but make them discoverable and findable. And then there’s also gray area stuff. You know, if you’re an author, and you make the thing, frequently, it depends, you have the copyright to that thing. And you maybe let your publisher use it for reasons, but it’s also worth understanding exactly what your rights are, advocating for more rights, and using those rights up to or possibly beyond the legal limit of the thing.
So, you know, I was saying I write for Computers in Libraries, they hold my copyright or I make an agreement with them that they have exclusive use for — I don’t even know what it is, three months? Six months? I should be pushing and publishing everything that I write for them myself after the rights revert to me. Or maybe earlier. Authors should be able to advocate for self-archiving of all of the content that they create themselves. You should always be able to make your own copy. You make a copy of, you know, a DVD that you’re allowed. You’re allowed to have a self-archived copy of software, you’re allowed to have a self-archived copy of DVD. Let’s push the limit on that. Let’s see if we can’t share that self-archived copy we have, see what the tolerances are.
Like I totally understand businesses who don’t want you running a side business selling the stuff they’re trying to sell, but what about sharing the stuff that we should be able to share? The world of ebooks is a mess. Because print books have laws enshrined in copyright law that lets libraries share them. That lets you, the person who bought them, do whatever you want with them. Right of first sale. Huge thing. Libraries being able to lend. Huge thing. Teachers being able to share copyrighted material for educational purposes. Totally makes sense with my class at VTC. How does it make sense with a massive online class? How do you work that? Who is responsible for that? Let’s figure out ways to share better and effectively and more.
This also leads into one of my other hobbyhorses, which is a lot of people don’t know that the Library of Congress runs the copyright office. There’s lots of people in business who would really like the copyright office, which essentially is a license to print money in a lot of ways, not being part of the library because the library’s like “sharing”, and the copyright office is like “less sharing”. Sharing restrictions. And don’t get me wrong. I think people who create content should be able to earn money from that content, I just think there should be limitations. The old copyright law where copyright expired seemed like a decent middle ground between “blehh, everything should be free” and artists being able to — creators, any kind of people being able to get money from their work. And the copyright office and the copyright law in this country is where a lot of that gets determined and gets shaken out. As well as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is big overarching changes to copyright law that happened recently that makes laws about what we can and can’t do with copyright digitally.
The Librarian of Congress gets to change and make exceptions to DMCA. So like if your car engine light, check engine light is on, you could go to a mechanic who could plug in a thing that could tell you, “Oh, that means this”, but legally maybe you’re not allowed to know what your car’s computer thinks. DMCA exceptions made by the Librarian of Congress, a position currently open, could change that. Did change that, in fact, with regard to car computers. And give you access to things that maybe the law had previously not given access to you. The right to jailbreak your phone. The right to get into your car’s computer. The right to, if you’re print disabled, have a book read to you through your Kindle, for example. Huge. Big things. And we should be jumping up and down about this, not being like, “Oh yeah, that’s a thing….” people in sharing professions.
EDC: And the rights to sort of fiddle with your own devices, that has recently been given back to us. Is that what you’re saying?
JW:Some rights have. Every year, every three years the Librarian of Congress gets to just issue a list of exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And they have to renew the ones they’ve already given, and they can make new ones. So the right to jailbreak your phone was given the last go-round and re-upped this go-round. Maybe, depending on who the Librarian of Congress is in two and half years, you won’t be able to jailbreak your phone anymore. Unlikely. Let’s be honest. Unlikely. But, you know, there was a time where if you were jailbreaking your phone technically that was a criminal act. Realistically were you going to go to jail? Not really. But you know, it’s kind of like how they got Al Capone on tax evasion. They’ll find any way to kind of mess with you if you cross various lines. And now the lines are so confusing for a lot of people. I mean I mostly get them but a lot of people mostly don’t. They’re not even sure, and so they err on the side of, “I’m just not going to mess with it. Because I don’t want to break the rules.”
EDC: Cory Doctorow wrote a really interesting piece just a couple of weeks ago for one of the British papers, the Guardian or something, about the advent of driverless cars and the software involved in that.
JW: I am making a face here. [ed note: about software, not Cory 😊]
EDC: Is it going to be accessible to the driver and if it’s not who is making extremely crucial decision, for example, even though these things are unlikely, they will happen. You know, you have a school bus full of children and if your car makes X move it’s going to hurt them, but save you.
EDC: So who’s making those decisions when they’re creating the code for these cars, and do you as the owner have the right to change that code?
JW: And do you have access to those decisions? I mean I think we’re entering a really interesting time. I mean I think for a lot of people this was made a lot clearer just looking at the wacky Volkswagen diesel thing. Oh, hey, people just decided, you know, a couple nefarious people decided to make Volkswagen look better by messing with their computers and making the cars look like they had hit these amazing emissions standards that they actually hadn’t hit. And that didn’t even have like a personal safety issue, it was just like, “Oh, you thought you were being cooler to the environment than you are. Sorry.”
Having cars have to make difficult decisions — and I’m not one of those like “RRRRrrrr, computers are ruining the world” I don’t think it’s inevitable, but human decisions are going into technological — I think we see it in the military, but the military’s a little closer to the vest with how their drones and their remote operating things work. But with an automobile that I’m in, I would certainly — you know, it’s like my GPS. You poke some buttons and the GPS tells you how to get there. But I have values that may be different from the GPS’s values. They may think I want to save gas, or save time, or avoid tolls, and I want to drive along the river. And not only is that not a thing I get, I can’t even take apart my GPS to make it do that. It’s possible I could get an Android tool that would enable me to get under the hood and have access to that. But I think the freedom to tinker, which is what a lot of people call that right, is becoming more important as more and more of our tools require tinkerability to be able to customize them the way we want them.
EDC: So I wanted to at least touch briefly on the most recent version of the Cyber Information Security Act. And just to remind everyone what this bill entails, in part, the main provisions of the bill make it easier for companies to share personal information with the government, especially in cases of cybersecurity threats, without requiring such information sharing. The bill creates a system for federal agencies to receive threat information from private companies. The bill does not provide legal immunity from privacy and anti-trust laws to the companies which provide such information. That’s kind of interesting. With respect to privacy the bill includes provisions for preventing the act of sharing data known to be both personally identifiable and irrelevant to cybersecurity. I mean, how do you determine that?
JW: And who determines it?
EDC: Right. And personal information which does not get removed during the sharing procedure can be used in a variety of ways. These shared cyberthreat indicators can be used to prosecute cybercrimes but may also be used as evidence for crimes involving physical force.
JW: Don’t trust it. I mean, part of it is looking at other laws that we have and so, oh, great “We’re going to totally eradicate your personal information. You can super trust us, we are the government.” And I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with — I’m pretty sure no one is familiar with the work of Carl Malamud, who works for a company called Public Resource, which is basically just him, and he’s like a super, super information-sharing dude.
EDC: He was in the documentary, right?
JW: Yeah. He wants to make the laws — among other projects — the laws of all the states public so you don’t have to pay for Westlaw access, you just have access to your own laws. Because they’re public and we own them. He’s a tireless crusader for a lot of this stuff. And so there’s a lot of things like, you know, corporations need to file tax forms with the IRS, nonprofits for instance. Some of that stuff after the personal identifying information is removed, are made publicly available. But publicly available ehh, not in a super useful way. And so part of Carl’s deal is this discovery thing. Let’s make everybody have access to it. Let’s make it keyword searchable. Let’s let people download these huge data dumps of — I think it’s 990 forms? But this is again outside of my wheelhouse. And all the personal information is supposed to be out of it.
What he was finding while going through these forms is that tons of people’s names and Social Security numbers were in there. And so he couldn’t in good faith release these documents, because it’s got people’s — because he knows. And the IRS released these documents. And so he’s been on this crusade to be like “Come on, IRS, whatever your tool is it’s not working.” And again, the IRS, overworked and underpaid, like everybody. I mean this is part of the strategy, right. These are parts of the elements of control. You keep everybody — this is why businesses are always psyched when unemployment is so high, right? You keep people worried about their own nonsense, and you never get to the higher level -
EDC: You insist government doesn’t work, and then you do everything in your power to make sure that it doesn’t work.
JW: …that is can’t fix itself. Yeah. So Carl has been trying to get the IRS to find ways of actually redacting people’s private information. I believe in the meantime he’s just doing it himself and then making this stuff available. But it’s hard for those of us who are free culture sunshine advocates because more information for everybody — you know, with enough eyes all bugs are shallow is sort of the way that tech goes. Like, if you can figure out how the self driving car’s software works, you can suggest improvements in addition to pointing out pressure points.
That said, when it’s human beings’ private information you’ve got a completely different set of concerns. And what we’re finding is that private and personally identifying information overlaps so much with the proprietary technology of these systems, it’s getting harder and harder to extract them, to keep people’s information secure. And, you know, corporations are not in the privacy business, even though they may be hampered by privacy laws in this country. They also have responsibility to their shareholders.
Chomsky talks about this a lot. He’s like, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the way the system, once created and set in motion, operates. You don’t have to have a conspiracy to say that maximizing value for your shareholders necessarily results in an oppressed underclass of people for whom their surplus value goes to those shareholders. I’m not like a Marxist, it’s just how it works, I don’t care. It’s how money works. So, you know, corporations don’t have to be evil, they just wind up being non-beneficial, and then bad stuff happens. So I have a lot of issues with these laws, and our elected representatives don’t necessarily understand them, and they have lobbyists who write laws for them, sometimes. Not always, sometimes. More than never, which is how often a lobbyist should be writing a law. And so I think we have a right to be concerned and I’m really happy there are people paying attention.
EDC: And do you think there’s a way to repeal this now that it’s been passed? There was a sequence of similar bills that were introduced over the last number of years that were defeated, and this one is the first one that’s been passed in a while.
JW: It’s a little out of my wheelhouse. The last time I was paying a lot of attention was, like, worrying about Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, worrying about the gag orders inherent in the USA Patriot Act, worrying about the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Which is weird, because the Children’s Internet Protection Act passed, you know, you get e-rate money you have to filter, censor, library computers. But it’s been really interesting seeing how libraries have worked around it. Seeing how a lot of libraries have or have not been negatively impacted.
So I think what we do now is we start measuring outcomes fast, and figuring out if there’s negative outcomes. Because it’s one thing to be like, “Whoa, this is going to be terrible for everybody”. It’s quite another thing to show, “Look, it’s actually terrible for everybody”. Like I had bad feelings about Vermont Health Connect before it even started, but I was also a decently friendly feedback loop “Hey, you know, I work in user experience and I really think a login button would help people have a better experience with your website…” But they did — you know, I got a little traction, I got a little listened to, so that when I reported bugs I felt like there was somebody there who was actually paying attention.
I think angry activists have a place also. I feel like we need a lot of different kinds of people to have an active response to this now that it’s out in the wild, so that we can figure out what needs to happen. I mean frankly I’m interested in what happens in the next election cycle, to see who we’ve got in positions of power. To see what their view of this — you know, a Sanders administration would be very different than another Bush administration would be very different than a, you know, a Cruz administration or, god only knows. I’m not even saying the T-word because I’m not even, I’m just — I honestly don’t think that kind of craziness is possible.
But who’s in charge is going to also help decide what our response is going to be. But I think it’s nice that there are teams of coordinated activists who can now have private conversations about these things using some of these privacy tools which can help combat, you know, nonsense legislation like this that we then just have to fight against. I mean I really think the media is sort of hand in hand — because the media doesn’t always understand technology either, mainstream media — creating fearful opponents so that people feel that stuff like this solves a problem, as opposed to just creates one.
EDC: So I wanted to ask you a perhaps too-philosophical question, but I thought it might be fun to sort of get extremely abstract -
JW: Invisibility or flight? That’s what I always ask my people when I start out a talk, just to get them kind of like, what?
EDC: And that is -
JW: I’m an invisibility person, incidentally.
EDC: A question about the nature of information itself. I noticed that you said when you did a Reddit Q&A
JW: Oh yeah, my Reddit AMA. That was really fun.
EDC: You talked about a commitment to information. And I know that has a very sort of concrete meat and potato aspect to it, but it also has a very abstract, highly, even theoretical aspect. And James Gleick wrote a book about information, I don’t know if you -
JW: I’m partway through it on my Kindle. I’m finding it a little complicated. I saw James Gleick talk and it’s interesting, he has a very specific perspective, about that stuff. Not necessarily a bad one, just very specific, so it’s interesting reading him.
EDC: And his notion of information almost crosses a boundary into the mystical or something. This is a quote from the introduction to his book that’s titled “The Information”.
We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle. It pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge. Information theory began as a bridge from mathematics to electrical engineering and from there to computing. What English speakers call ‘computer science’ Europeans have known as informatique. Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level — an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being.
‘The information circle becomes the unit of life,’ says Werner Loewenstein after thirty years spent studying intercellular communication. He reminds us that information means something deeper now: ‘It connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.’
JW: What? I mean, yes, I think the idea of, hey, it turns out a lot of different pedagogies and different studies have, you know, the transmission, the reception, and the evaluation of message units. I mean this is sort of what memes are all about, right? It’s an idea that just kind of zips around and means different things to different people, gets a certain level of uptake and a certain level of engagement. I think it’s a little overly simple, only in that it then makes it seem like, well, what can you do, it’s in the air. You know, like sourdough. You just leave something out and you wind up with microorganisms.
I think that makes it seem like this is a thing that you can’t control. Or that control of information, or controlling the pathways of information — like maybe there’s ultimately nothing you could do, and information is a river and all you can do is kind of affect the flow, but I think you can affect the flow and I think it’s also worth thinking about why you might want to.
EDC: Okay, so I guess the last thing I would ask you is just briefly about moss.
JW: Moss, like moss that grows on the — what is it, the north side, the south side of the trees? I can’t even remember.
EDC: So you are a moss enthusiast. And where did that come from?
JW: You know, I spend a lot of time on the internet. I spend a lot of time typing, and reading, and by a glowing screen. And I don’t know if it found me or I found it but I kind of decided I needed a hobby that was a nurturing hobby that wasn’t food and that wasn’t exercise. Like I have my own decent relationships with food and exercise but it needed to be something else. It needed to be something where I couldn’t really be super goal-oriented and it got me out in the woods. Because I really think that’s my best perspective-shifter. Go out in the woods. But it was hard to go out in the woods with no goal whatsoever. Which means, you know, I’m a terrible person.
So I started creating these moss terrariums, which is my sort of official hobby. Because people ask, and you’re like, well, I build moss terrariums. So I’ll go out in the woods either where I am or where I’m traveling. Because the thing about moss is you can put it in a ziplock with a paper towel and it’s good until you get home. And you can put it in a jar with some rocks and some Spanish moss and a little activated charcoal and you have a little green thing that stays green in your Vermont apartment all winter with very little attention. Because I’m the — I’m not super good with plants. But moss doesn’t care if you put it in a jar and screw on the lid and go away for three months. It literally doesn’t care.
My dad used to be a bonsai guy. You know, you get a bunch of tiny plants and fuss with them all the time and you buy little things for them. I’m not really much of a shopper, so I clean out a peanut butter jar that I ate the peanut butter out of and put some rocks that I got from the driveway, and Spanish moss I do pay for, and then go into the woods. And then come back out with a little bit of moss and put it in a little jar and that’s my thing.
EDC: That’s very cool and I’ve never heard of a moss collecting before.
JW: Mossarium. Bryologists. Bryologists are the people who study them for science, and the mossariums are the little terrariums with moss. They’re super fun, and I made a little website called mossarium.com, where you can learn how to do it yourself. That’s my only pitch.
EDC: So I’m going to take a look at mosses now. So thank you so much. I’m honored you came in to talk to me.
JW: This was really fun. I would do it again. It was great to get a chance to do this.
EDC: Okay. Well, Thank you Jessamyn West.