Utne Blogs >

The Periscope
Curing Ignorance Through the Lens

Musical Connections


Two projects redefine the randomness and connectivity that music creates.

Music in the digitized age has altered the way we listen to it. Very often, we can lose ourselves to the tune of almost any recording ever created, however it’s also become a solitary act, as people donning headphones block out opportunities for interaction. However two artists are changing this in their own unique ways. Spotify’s artist-in-residence, Kyle McDonald, developed Serendipity which features a map that flashes the name of a song and its artist along with two seemingly random pinpointed locations. However these points reflect places where Spotify users have started playing the same song within one-tenth of a second of each other. McDonald remarks, “We're connected in more ephemeral ways, and we can extract these relationships with new tools. Even though listening to music can be a very private experience, I wanted to see how often this experience is shared." The map, which can be seen here, is pretty mesmerizing to watch, as geography and musical tastes are united.

The Listening Tree is an installation created by artist George Zisiadis in a Las Vegas courtyard which also incorporates a sense of randomness and connection. The project consists of 15 headphones hanging from tree branches, each programmed with a song, and created with the intention of escaping from the algorithms that digitized music has imposed. Zisiadis says, "You have Spotify, where you're looking up something specific, or Pandora, where you kind of know what you're getting because you're putting a specific genre. But I was really interested in those moments of complete randomness and complete chance, where you have no idea what you're going to get." And even though donning the headphones takes you into a different world, the project encourages social interactions between listeners, some friends, some strangers, as they recommend certain headsets, dance around, and discuss their musical tastes.

Photo by Eric Parker, licensed under Creative Commons.

Multimedia Site Focuses on Climate Disasters


The interactive platform features short films documenting the challenges faced in the wake of calamity.

Film producer Luisa Dantas moved to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to document the stories that were unfolding as rebuilding began. She collected over 1,500 hours of footage, which was made into a documentary called Land of Opportunity. However Dantas saw themes (such as economic collapse, climate change, and urban development) that could be applied to many other places across the U.S. In collaboration with website designers, filmmakers, and community advocates, an experimental multimedia platform (also called Land of Opportunity) was created. Some of the issues the platform covers include economic displacement, participatory budgeting, and gentrification.

The site’s newest component is Katrina/Sandy which features a timeline that follows the phases of both the disasters, from the storms themselves to the aftermaths, recoveries, and the future. Included on the timeline are short films documenting the challenges that individuals and families faced, such as waiting weeks for the power to get turned back on or the bureaucracy in claiming insurance money. Dantas says, “After Katrina, the world was shocked by the devastation, the inequity, and the government’s incompetent response. As documentary media producers, we wondered what we can learn by placing stories and scholarship from Katrina and Sandy side-by-side.” Visitors to the site are also asked to leave comments and submit ideas for effective ways to prevent disasters and when that fails, how to better respond to people’s needs. The website is still in beta but eventually it will be expanded with additional research and reports as well as calls to action.

Photo by Kelly Garbato, licensed under Creative Commons.

App-etite for Transparency


New apps uncover the companies behind the food we're buying.

You might not think of grocery shopping as a political act, but two phone applications want to make the political aspect more visible as we fill up our carts. BuyPartisan is a free app which shows how much a company has donated to political parties. After scanning a product’s barcode, the app displays a breakdown of how much was contributed and by whom within the company (including the CEO, Board of Directors, PACs, and employees). Many barcode scans reveal that companies donate to both parties although usually favoring one at least slightly. Others are more blatantly skewed to one side and at times, products that are marketed one way, actually show contributions in the opposite political direction. Having that transparency at your fingertips is one of the reasons Matthew Colbert, a former Capitol Hill staffer, created the app through his company Spend Consciously. He says, “We're trying to make every day election day for people.” The app covers about 75 percent of the items sold in grocery stores.

Buycott is similar in that it’s also free and also uses barcode scanning. What makes it unique is that users can sign up for campaigns within the app. For instance, if you want to support companies that endorse GMO labeling, you can join that particular group; then when you scan an item, it will tell you if there are any conflicts with the company. If there is a campaign conflict, the app will tell you why. For instance, a scan of Cascadian Farm organic cereal reveals that the company donated over $1.1 million to reject Prop 37 which would have required labeling GMO products. The app includes a number of categories including avoiding certain corporations like Monsanto and Koch Industries and issues like women’s reproductive rights, sweatshop labor, and climate change. Recently, as the Israel-Gaza conflict escalated, Buycott saw a spike in downloads as a campaign to avoid products from Israel was initiated.

Photo by GoOz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Granting Rights to Nonhumans


The case for recognizing animals in the legal realm.

If corporations can be granted personhood, why not animals too? This question arose in Oregon where two cases of animal abuse reached the state's Supreme Court. The first came to the conclusion that in incidents of mistreatment, animals are indeed victims, and like humans, separate counts can be filed for each animal (instead of multiple charges lumped together). This decision ensures individual animals will be legally recognized.

The second Oregon case, brought after a county deputy helped a starving horse, found that a warrant is not needed to protect animals in cases of "exigent circumstance." In other words, law enforcement can intervene in situations where the life of an animal is in imminent danger without getting a warrant first.

Both of these examples are part of a movement to grant more rights to animals which is headed by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The organization is focusing its efforts in New York courts with the first suit brought in December of 2013. The case involves four chimpanzees who are living in captivity. The goal of the ongoing lawsuit is to get the judge to recognize the chimps’ right to bodily liberty and ultimately for them to be sent to a primate sanctuary.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has utilized a myriad of arguments to plead their case. The first is that the chimpanzees are self-aware and highly cognitive. They plan on focusing on animals that fit this description which include apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales. Additionally they have looked to other legal decisions, namely those involving slavery and how individuals who were seen only as property eventually gained full legal rights. Also being examined are ideas like dignity and equality and how they can be applied to animal rights.

Photo by owenbooth, licensed under Creative Commons.

Turning Up the Heat


An initiative utilizing "algorithmic advocacy" wants to bring better winter heating to tenants.

Although the temperature is in the 80’s and 90’s across much of the U.S. today, last winter is still a chilling thought. For renters, wintertime can be especially grueling since temperature controls are often left up to landlords. Some buildings may experience maintenance problems while there are others whose owners have been known to deliberately set their thermostats low in order to save on heating costs, creating indoor conditions ranging from uncomfortable to downright dangerous.

This is especially true in New York City where buildings tend to be older (meaning no central heating and more maintenance issues), the housing market is tricky, and winters are usually biting. While the city requires landlords to heat units to at least 68 degrees from 6am to 10pm during “Heat Season” (October 1 to May 31), the mandate is often broken. In cases where owners are unresponsive, tenants have to manually log indoor and outdoor temperatures and then go to housing court or attempt to get a city inspector to come to their apartment. In just one Manhattan zip code, there were over 28,000 complaints in one year (and there’s over 40 zip codes in Manhattan, not to mention the other four boroughs).

That’s why a new initiative called Heat Seek NYC is raising funds for 1,000 sensors which will automatically read and record temperatures every hour. Using crowdsourced funding, the “civic hacking project” plans on distributing the devices this winter throughout buildings in the city, especially where tenants may have cause for concern and at no cost to them. The data can be sent to an app, accessible to tenants and public advocates, and anonymously linked to the city’s complaint records. The app can also be used by anyone with the device, not just those using it in New York City. The creators of the project hope to use the information gathered in housing court cases and that eventually heating code violations will see a drastic decline. Co-creator William Jeffries notes that the project utilizes "algorithmic advocacy" which he describes as "automating advocacy and using technology to stand up for people."

Photo by Kelle Cruz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Equal Opportunity Employers


New employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and the disabled are seeing success.

It’s hard enough to find a job these days, with some people at an even greater disadvantage. However a couple different businesses have developed unique hiring practices to help those that may have a particularly tough time securing work.

The owners of RedTail Coffee based in Fort Collins, Colorado, decided to hire some of the low-income and homeless people who had moved into a recently built housing development. The housing construction had faced resistance from the local neighborhood, but Seth Kelley, cofounder of the shop, wanted to change the neighborhood’s perception. He says, “It challenges the idea that people who are homeless are lazy or just aren’t working hard enough,” and added that, “It’s been a very positive experience thus far. It’s definitely opening up the eyes of people who live in the area.” Homeless individuals experience greater obstacles in getting hired since most employers require a permanent address and many encounter discrimination.

Another business is Signs, a casual-dining restaurant, which recently opened in Toronto and is staffed by deaf people. The menus have icons for each of the dishes so that customers can learn how to order their food and describe any requests using American Sign Language. The owner of the business, Anjan Manikumar, got the idea for Signs while working at a different restaurant where he met a deaf diner who had to point at the menu to order. The new restaurant gives deaf people the opportunity to work in the service sector and patrons the chance to communicate in a different language.  

Photo by Chris Brown, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Blackfish Backlash


The documentary is negatively impacting ticket sales at SeaWorld.

We recently explained the Participant Index, a ratings scale for documentaries that measures the impact films have on viewers’ lives. One documentary that would likely generate a high score on that Index is Blackfish which chronicles the captivity and training of orcas, detailing incidents of trainer deaths and the shortened lifespans of the whales, specifically at SeaWorld. It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has since aired on CNN.

The film’s after-effects are now being felt in the pockets of SeaWorld investors as shares have dropped a substantial 33 percent this quarter. Initially the company denied the film’s influence on its revenues, attributing it to competition from other amusement parks, but it has now acknowledged the documentary’s impact on their ticket sales.

Blackfish has prompted the introduction of legislation including the Orca Welfare Safety Act which would outlaw the use of whales and dolphins for entertainment purposes, if passed in California. Additionally publicity from the film led to a petition pressuring Southwest Airlines to terminate its partnership with SeaWorld. A recent statement announced the end of their collaboration although it did not specifically cite the petition. Southwest’s three SeaWorld themed planes will be repainted. Backlash has also been felt on social media as thousands of tweets were sent out during the CNN debut. SeaWorld responded by calling the film “propaganda.” Since then, users have continued to tweet to SeaWorld, employing hashtags like #emptythetanks and even creating memes. So far it's clear that the film has resonated strongly with people, however its impact on the lives of the whales remains to be seen.

Photo by Stig Nygaard, licensed under Creative Commons.