Twenty sixteen: the year of Trump; the first swing of a wrecking ball that could demolish the liberal world order. It was also the year we discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest star. Might not be too early to start saving for the trip.
In January, I hosted a meeting on Video & the Commons, with the goals of 1) accelerating technical development on collaborative video editing systems and 2) creating more incentives for public media producers and universities to contribute open video to public interest projects like Wikipedia. You can read about it here.
In February, I headed to San Francisco to help articulate the foundational issues in Mozilla’s advocacy platform. Looking forward to seeing where the Internet Health Report goes from here.
From March through May, I departed for a teaching sabbatical at NYU Shanghai, the first American degree-granting university in China. Leaving personal electronics behind and brushing up on broken Mandarin, I had a fascinating experience seeing the 21st century through the eyes of my students—some international, some Chinese. My course was called “Unmanned Aerial Storytelling,” and covered the basics of consumer drone photography and producing short documentary films with drones.
While in China, I had the opportunity to travel to Shenzhen for the first time, where I chanced upon a half dozen DJI employees in an expat bar. DJI is the world’s leading consumer drone manufacturer, one of the first wave of innovative Chinese tech companies selling to an international market, and a major sponsor of the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference I produced in 2013. The world is small. We discussed how DJI’s product development and marketing approach differs from some of its Western competitors, like 3DRobotics and Parrot.
It was clear then that DJI was eating 3DR’s lunch; to me there was something (microcosmic? ironic? symbolic?) in this. The most palpable sensation in today’s China is velocity. Here is a country that pulled a billion people out of poverty in a single generation. New hardware products can make their way from a whiteboard sketch to production to sidewalk seller in a matter of weeks. People of all ages are generally more optimistic than their counterparts in the West. Perhaps that’s because they have greater confidence that they and their children will be better off in their lifetimes. The rising populism in Western democracies suggests that many here feel the opposite. Either way, things like the Donald Trump “China” supercut were like catnip to my students.
Near the end of my short time in China, things got interesting for a foreigner in the NGO space. China passed an anti-foreign NGO law. On China’s first National Security Education Day, authorities distributed cute cartoons explaining that handsome foreigners might actually be spies. And the father of China’s Great Firewall was forced to use a VPN during a public lecture. Living in China at this time was a fascinating opportunity and offered some fresh perspective on how to think about global impact.
In May, some big and positive changes. Seeking a new challenge, I accepted a position at the International Rescue Committee as Director of Development for R&D and Innovation. IRC is an old and storied organization; founded at the request of none other than Einstein, it’s been responding to complex humanitarian crises for over 80 years. The cool thing about the modern IRC is how it thinks about innovation and the changing role of crisis response organizations. My mission at IRC is exactly where I want to be—at the intersection of fundraising and innovation—and it’s a serious privilege to contribute to refugees and forced migration at this moment. In a stroke of good timing, Camille was finally cleared for relocation and we moved to New York more permanently.
June was all about learning the ropes at IRC: a big culture change and transition. In July, I started writing grant proposals. My first niece was born to great fanfare in the Moskowitz clan. I built a home PC to experiment with VR and photogrammetry. I started to feel some dread about the prospect of a Trump presidency, playing witness to a dark and militant national convention, and—with a bunch of co-schemers—I began to germinate an idea for a next-gen media literacy program.
In August, we moved into a perfect new place at the intersection of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. We took a short break to France to start clearing out our old place.
In September, I celebrated a birthday milestone, saw IRC in action for the first time in Seattle, and helped launch the Airbel Center at 92Y. I kicked off the first edition of my Hacking Political Rhetoric course at ITP, which put an open video spin on Neil Postman’s 1985 prophesies and facilitated the rebirth of Popcorn Maker.
In October, we closed the first major gift to support the Airbel Center, a $10m pledge to establish a five-year research and innovation partnership in NYC.
November was suddenly apocalyptic, with pantsuit nation obliterated at the Javits Center. The rest of the month was a genuine haze, with every waking morning a reminder that the unthinkable had come to pass. I retreated with loved ones into escapist back doors, binging on deep sea nature documentaries and utopian sci-fi. But the sun kept rising, and I took steps to restore sanity and a sense of agency. Subscribed to the print edition of the New York Times. Set up recurring auto-donations to ACLU. Tried to make out the way forward. I found unexpected solace in the story of Andy Grove, the late co-founder of Intel, a survivor of the Nazis and the Red Army, who was resettled in the United States by IRC in 1957. This man single-handedly shaped Silicon Valley, created vast prosperity, and laid the groundwork for all the benefits of the internet world—and he was a refugee. Somehow I feel we will be challenged to honor his legacy.
December, some semblance of resolve, through a hazy cloud of hot takes about fake news, post-truth politics, Russian election meddling, normalization, and the idea that Trump would hand the State Department to ExxonMobil, Labor to Carl’s Jr. and SBA to WWE. The real tragedy of this carnival-atop-the-swamp is that it was accompanied by more immediate signs of the apocalypse, like what was playing out in Aleppo.
I ended the year with family and loved ones, thankful again for our blessings and the privileged vantage from which we see the zeitgeist, and hoping for the best.
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You’re currently reading “Ben’s 2016,” an entry on Ben's blog.
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