“In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in the position of having to play detective” —Walter Benjamin 1938
In the research on media effects, one of the most fully developed findings is what is known as the “mean world syndrome.” Research finds that the average citizen grossly over-estimates how dangerous her neighborhood is because she reads the newspaper and assumes that the crime reports are actually a sample of the whole and thus amplifies them accordingly. In practice, a higher portion of violent crimes get reported than most people assume, although there are statistical biases as a result of the under-representation of crimes based on the race and class of the victims.
A larger problem is created by the over-representation of crime and the under-represented of everyday acts of kindness and generosity. The news often shows us people acting at their very worst without allowing us to see those moments where people help each other out. How might this under-reporting of good deeds also contribute to the mean world syndrome?
This is a question which is guiding a new research initiative being launched by Alyssa Wright, an MIT Media Lab student who is affiliated with the Center for Future Civic Media. The center is a collaboration between the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program and has been funded by the Knight Foundation. As one of the co-Directors of the Center, I’ve listened to lots and lots of proposals for projects that might enhance civic engagement and community consciousness, some good, some bad.
Alyssa’s project, Hero Reports, is among one of the very best I’ve heard. It’s practical enough that she’s already begun to implement it in New York City. It’s provocative enough that it’s already begun to attract media interest. It was featured several weeks ago on <a
href=”http://www.thetakeaway.org/archives/2008/06/25/3″>WNYC The Takeaway. And it is suggestive enough that it has generated great conversations with everyone I’ve mentioned it to.
Wright says the project was inspired by New York’s “See Something, Say Something” Campaign in the wake of 9/11. The campaign sought to solicit everyday citizens in New York City to be on the look out for suspicious activity. They became, in effect, agents in the war on terror. Maybe playing this role left them feeling more in control over their situation. Or perhaps, the act of performing this role left them in a permenant state of alert and anxiety, depending on your perspective. Given how broad the mandate is, it is no surprise that the city received many many reports. One recent advertisement boasted that the government had received 1944 such reports. The New York Times found, however, that very few of these reports resulted in arrests and that the bulk of the reports were directed at brown people whose suspicious activity mostly consisted of being brown in public.
Often, we see what we are looking for and our cultural biases literally color what we see. A campaign that invites us to look for suspicious behavior forces us to scrutinize our neighbors for signs and symptoms of terroristic activity. So, Wright wants us to reverse our lens and look for people who are doing things that are socially constructive. She wants us to find evidence of the good conduct that surrounds us all the time and bring it to greater public attention – the person who goes out of their way to help someone else, the people who intervene to stop a domestic dispute or a violent act, the people who give up their seats on the subway to accommodate a passenger with special needs, the person who cares enough to contribute to the homeless or give directions to someone who seems lost.
She is collecting these reports via her website and she’s investigating news reports of everyday heroicism that she reads in the newspaper trying to flesh out a portrait of the ways that her fellow New Yorkers are making life better within their communities. She is also deploying state of the art mapping tools to construct accounts of “everyday heroicism” in different neighborhoods, hoping that they can be read alongside maps which show crime rates and other negative factors, to give us a fuller sense of the places where we live.
Ideally, such maps can become a source of local pride as people work to improve the perceptions of their communities by doing good deeds.
What follows are some of Wright’s reflections about the project:
Hero Reports was inspired by the “See Something, Say Something” Campaign in NYC. What disturbed you about that campaign and how do you see Hero Reports as responding to that concern?
Alyssa Wright: I was in New York on 9/11, and I was very scared. In its wake, I saw myself start to evaluate safety with different checklists. And it’s still “different” than it was before. Just today, I was on a subway car and there were all these men with luggage. The trigger goes up. “Why are there so many attended packages on the train?” but then I pieced together another, probably more likely, story. It’s the end of a 4th of July weekend and a lot of people travel at the end of a 4th of July weekend. And oh right. I’m on the subway
that goes to the airport. It’s all about context but after 9/11 and after the anthrax scare in particular, the only context I absorbed was fear.
What got me thinking about a project, were 3 rather contemporaneous events:
1) How people responded to cherry blossoms. When I walked around with cherry blossoms, I was under the radar. I was a girl, white, wearing makeup. And yet I was walking around with a backpack that looked like a weapon. People didn’t “see something” let alone “say something.”
2) I went to Madrid and learned about March 11 bombings. And I rode their metro. And guess what. They still had cans to throw away garbage (the MTA got rid of most garbage cans, the few remaining are supposedly “bomb proof”) AND they weren’t surrounded by instructions to say something. I’m not sure when it happened, but I left that trip CONVINCED that because of its history, Spain can recognize the encroaching signs of facism.
But then there’s 3) —> the follow-up in the See Something series. “Last Year, 1,944 New Yorkers Saw Something and Said Something.” I can’t recall the first time I saw the initial ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign, but I do recall the first 1,944. It was a bus. And as I watched it go by, I turned and said something to the effect of: “What the f—- is that? What the hell does that number mean?”
And that’s when things became a bit comical. Like the farce was over. I mean, are we supposed to be impressed by that number?
These three combined with another lesson from Cherry Blossoms, the power of the Iraq Body Count (IBC) database. I am forever in debt to Hamit Dardagan who started keeping count of news reports. Now that was a number I wanted to see. And that was a number that gave context. They took what already existed and aggregated. Together these left-to-the-archives reports found new “life.” A life whose range included my exploding backpack and a Bush speech citing IBC as his body count reference.
I see Hero Reports akin to IBC. Essentially Hero Reports starts with collecting what already exists — the stories of everyday heroes. That aggregation holds the possibility of for social change, and the seeds for many other projects. Artistic, academic, political, economic.
But back to my thoughts about See Something: The campaign makes me feel caught in the role of civilian detective. In its most dramatic version, they tell me I can be a hero no different than the army solider, engaging with the monster on the ground. But even as I reject that version, my vision and behavior is effected. I’m caught in a dichotomy. Having grown up in the ’80s, all of this feels soooooooo much like the war on drugs.
I believe that the MTA had best intentions. If there was ever a time when New Yorkers needed to know that they had agency in the city’s security — that they weren’t helpless — it was after 9/11. Whether intentional or not, the campaign has nonetheless been proven ineffective and most activism done in response has been critical in nature. Its important to have critical work, it has a strong place in the dialog. But because this is a formula that we have been doing for much longer than the war on terror, we also need to build another formula. So Hero Reports offers an alternative approach.
You’ve used the suggestive phrase, “Everyday Acts of Courage,” to describe what
you hope to find through your project. Give us a sense of what you mean by this concept?
Wright: Everyone can be a hero — cape and all. At its beginning, I was very much inspired by the battles of Terrifca and Fantistico, dueling real life superhero and villain, that roam the streets of New York. They were not waiting around in silence or stirring in anger. They were taking matters into their own hands, and bringing the extravagance of camp into a dialog with the civilian detectives.
In my opinion, the term “hero” has been co-opted by institutions like Hollywood and the government. The firefighter is the hero. Iron Man is the hero. Because these her stories are so enrolling, the everyday person does not need to be heroic. Our myths set it up so that its a loss and not a gain, to get involved. Our misinterpretations of equity (e.g., should I help the old lady across the street, or will she be offended), our laws (e.g., the Seinfeld Good Samaritan Law) and our technologies (e.g., the iPod) create an attention span where we select not to see others. And if we do see, we decide it is someone else’s responsibility to help in an accident, someone else job to put out the fire; someone else’s good nature to return the wallet.
We are constantly trained not to get involved, and this is gendered and classed in particular ways. And we continue to build systems that support this lack of involvement. It helps explain, why I find myself pissed off at people — and at myself — all the time. Why the hell does this man need to spread his knees three feet wide while we’re all packed in like sardines? Why the hell does this woman on crutches have to stand against a pole? And why doesn’t anyone say anything? Why don’t I say? And why when I saw an accident on 14th street, why was my instinct not to help?
Hero Reports proposes to value the opposite.
What is a Hero Map? What do you see as the value of mapping where “everyday acts of courage” occurs?
Wright: In its present iteration, a Hero Map is the positioning of a Hero Report to a GPS location, and correspondingly a neighborhood. This mapping gives the heroic moment a collective memory, which in turns gives the Hero Report political and economic weight.
Typically an heroic moment, particularly an everyday heroism, has a very narrow frame. These moments are not connected to each other, but appear as disconnected blips on the radar. When they do appear, the attention is on the self and the individual. What did it take for said person to take that risk? Would I do the same? It does not reflect other cultural factors like race, gender, and class. This focus on the individual stops any possibility of these moments gaining a larger perspective, and cultural impact. By aggregating them, and mapping them, we give the heroic moment weight. This weight can be placed back onto a community, a cultural bias, and a neighborhood.
For instance, consider the power of the Hero Map in how we evaluate real estate. In the search for a home (aka apartment) one might look at crime rates, school systems, transportation access AND hero statistics. How would this inclusion change our priorities? And our economy? The perspective fits into a more general trend of aggregating neighborhood specific, qualitative data. Rottenneighbors’ search for local dirt is directly relates to potential power of Hero Reports. But also sites like Outside.In and Everyblock illustrate this trend of filtering importance through geography. It’s as if ranking systems are no longer as useful.
You are hoping to present 1944 reports of civic heroism to the transit authority. What’s the significant of that number and how far along are you towards meeting that goal?
Wright: The significance of this number is still being investigated by conspiracy theorists. The MTA claims that 1,944 New Yorkers Saw Something, and Said Something. It’s an objectless number that can easily translate into racialized forms of perception. But this objectless number, also makes it useless. And comical. What does 1,944 number mean? In a city of 8 million?
I’m fascinated by the number’s lack of context, its classified nature, its broadcasting with pride and perhaps most circuitously its connections to D-Day. (Read here the letter Eisenhower wrote to the troops.)
Because of this fascination, one goal of Hero Reports is to collect the same number of reports into a book and present it to the mayor. How such a book will be curated/edited
is still unclear, but at its heart, it would be a transparent narrative of security.
We are 300 into this goal number, but much more are needed, before we being to edit. (And editing here being akin to what the MTA did. About 4000 New Yorkers actually said something.)
What is the most interesting story you’ve received so far? What kinds of incidents are you hearing about the most?
Wright: Actually, I find what I’m hearing the most to be the most interesting. A LOT of things happen with taxi drivers. This is significant because the majority of taxi drivers are the skin color (brown) most targeted by this campaign. That means, that while only brown people were arrested in this See Something campaign, brown people are the city’s most consistent heroes. This reinterpretation of a community bias I extremely powerful.
Another recurring theme is “proof” that a personal hero story wasn’t as impossible as it seemed. From my personal archives, there are two examples of this.
The first is a story about the stones of my engagement ring falling out and the women who dropped on their knees to help find it. For me, this incredible moment is re-enacted with <a
href=”http://web.media.mit.edu/~alyssa/NYC/stats.php?id=136″>a story from taxi driver and his finding of a passenger’s ring.
The second is when on a cold winter night transfer, an out of service train gave myself and a friend a subway ride home. This illegal moment of courage was verified when a transit worker told me of the time when he was out of uniform, and a train picked him up (not written up yet). He concludes with: “See! We’re not so mean. We’re people too.”
Besides the patterns, there are some amazing stories. A number of the more dramatic are covered in the press, and I’ve taken the content from such news articles. The latest in this category is someone giving birth on a subway platform. Here, the media did cover how strangers came together to make it happen. (Though I suppose something would have happened regardless) Most times, however, the media coverage of these dramatic stories neglect the heroes. For instance, the other week there was a pitbull attack. When I interviewed him, the man had a story about police incompetence and expressed amazement towards a neighborhood. When this man screamed “Help!” it wasn’t a Kitty Genovese moment. People came pouring out of their home to help. “And Louis was amazing.” Now there’s no mention of Louis in the news coverage. Louis doesn’t sell.
Part of Hero Reports is to spin Louis’s story so that he sells. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. That’s what Hollywood does, when Hollywood does it well. It is at the heart of novels, theater and comedy.
Its about the framing. Tackling how this sort of everyday heroism can sell is the challenge of Hero Reports. (“Sell” here not being synonymous with “make money,” but rather sell meaning, create cultural weight and urgency.) Hero Reports is more likely to fail than succeed. But personally I think technologists (especially at the Lab) should be taking on such challenges and such risk. We’re so afraid it’s not going to work, that we don’t play with failure. And when it comes down to it, not only do most things not work, but by not tackling these questions we contribute to this society of suspicion and isolation.