Let’s gather around the “digital hearth”

How Cortico and MIT are using technology to foster community conversations in an age of polarization

by Deb Roy, Russell Stevens, Eugene Yi and Katherine Cramer

Technology has potential to bring us closer together, but we’re experiencing quite the opposite: a world where people are splintered by technology into insular tribes where hateful discourse, false news, and extremism flourish. This problem isn’t just limited to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s also an issue in other forms of mass communication, such as talk radio and cable television.

But we believe we can still bring technology to bear — with very human help — in a more positive way. At Cortico, supported by research from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines (LSM), we’re testing a unique physical-digital network designed to bring local voices and common ground concerns back to the center of a measurably healthier dialogue. In 2019, we’ll be serving communities in Wisconsin and Alabama, joining earlier efforts in New York, to inspire thoughtful local conversations.

A fireplace creates a natural gathering place that brings people together in conversation. We’ve created a “digital hearth” — with state of the art digital innards housed in a hand crafted wood and fabric exterior — a literal and figurative center for local conversations.

In our program, trained facilitators from the local communities, many of them volunteers, will host in-person conversations with ordinary people around those hearths at natural gathering spots, such as libraries and community centers. Each conversation will be recorded in high quality by microphones within the digital hearth, which also features a speaker that the facilitators can use to play snippets from other conversations to cross-pollinate perspectives. Cortico’s technology backbone gathers these recordings, translates the audio to machine-readable text, and builds semantic connections across conversations. Together these will form our Local Voices Network (LVN).

The next step will be making these conversations available to journalists, community leaders, and others to listen deeply to local concerns and better represent their communities. We’ve built another tool that we call Earshot, an AI-powered tool that allows users to search the aggregated LVN conversations, listen to audio snippets, and discover patterns of response. Two other public conversation streams are included in Earshot— locally-relevant tweets and local talk radio. This allows journalists to see what kinds of conversations are bubbling up in community discourse.

In January 2019, in Madison, Wisconsin, we’ll pilot the Local Voice Network in the context of the city’s mayoral race. Several candidates have already pledged to incorporate perspectives from our digital hearth into campaigning, and several Madison news organizations will likely also participate. We’ll have about a dozen digital hearths up and running through the April 2 election.

Meanwhile, in spring 2019 in Alabama, we’ll begin a pilot with local news organizations. Reporters will incorporate conversations they glean from the digital hearth in their day-to-day, week-to-week reporting. We will also be testing the inclusion of conversations from public officials and residents captured in civic venues, such as city council sessions. In doing this, we’re hoping to help reporters to see the gaps between what officials and community members are talking about.

We’ve got big plans for what comes after these pilots. By summer 2019, pending funding, Cortico plans to be in many more states leading into the 2020 election.

At Cortico, we believe that there are no simple technical fixes to the problems of trust and polarization affecting our country. But we also think technology can be harnessed to help. We’re motivated by our hope to reclaim our connections to one another.


Deb Roy is a co-founder of Cortico, Director of the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab, and a member of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy.

Russell Stevens is a co-founder of Cortico and Deployment Lead for the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab.

Eugene Yi is co-founder and President of Cortico, and a Deployment Strategist in the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab.

Katherine Cramer is an advisor to Cortico and a Visiting Professor in the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab.