Why Our Tech Talk Needs A Values Talk

Black and white photo of 1950s traffic jam

(Or, why we need to remove that elevated freeway to hell paved with “good” tech intentions)

That breathless hyper excitement so often celebrated in talk about technology is not new. Almost 100 years ago (about 3 generations ago) the automobile was the “Big Data” application or fancy wearable of its day. It was a product that was going to liberate people.

As before, so many who claim or are anointed as genius can at the same time be so removed from the impacts they are making. These impacts are often the knowable but less desired or negative side effects hidden from view while the desired outcome is celebrated to the exclusion of the whole impact.

Not so sure about this? Let’s look at this salutary tale about the famous Olivetti toting Italian journalist Indro Montanelli…

“During this time Montanelli conducted his first interview with a celebrity: Henry Ford— who surprised him by admitting he did not have a driver’s license. During the interview, surrounded by American art depicting pastoral and frontier subjects, Ford began to reverentially talk about the Founding Fathers. Looking at the decor, Montanelli astutely asked him how he felt about having destroyed their world. Puzzled, Ford asked what he meant. Undaunted, Montanelli pressed on that the automobile and Ford’s revolutionary assembly line system had forever transformed the country. Ford looked shocked, and Montanelli realized that, like all geniuses, Ford hadn’t had the slightest idea of what he’d really done.”

The road to hell is paved all to often with good intentions. Today, the legacy of Ford and other automakers and their lobbying efforts has come full circle, as Freeway Removal is now one of the leading urban design tactics to help undo the hell that is auto-centered cities. We joke about information “super highways” but the blind techno-determinism is only stronger today than in Ford’s day. Will 3 generations from now see the removal of current celebrated tech? Gov & Commerce Big Data Surveillance Removal projects anyone?

We have to learn from our track record as it stands and move toward wiser more holistic assessments of the value of any given technology. There have been attempts to make this practical. Neil Postman has his set of questions. Postman’s work is also getting resurfaced now in part no doubt because more people are noticing the folly of our tech world’s triumphant exceptionalism. (See this Salon post on Postman, “Meet the man who predicted Fox News, the Internet, Stephen Colbert and reality TV” it’s worth the time.)

Yes, there are always problems with broad indicators and rubrics, they lack important contextual factors for the relativism of reality, but right now we have next to no critical assessment criteria in the way we commonly look at, talk about, and make technology. Maybe we should start with these 6 questions Postman came up with

  1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”
  2. “Whose problem is it?”
  3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?”
  4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?”
  5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?”
  6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”

What other mindful values-based considerations should we regularly ask? Jacques Ellul, another media theorist in the media ecology school of thought, had his more exhaustive (and problematic) 76 Reasonable Questions to Ask About Any Technology. But simple rubrics work better to get the culture change rolling. Look at the Bechdel test for gender bias in entertainment, its assessment has 3 criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Over time Bechdel’s criteria have become more commonly referenced as a popular way to easily talk in part about sexism in media. Bechdel’s comic strip that launched this rubric has one character conclude “Pretty strict, but a good idea.” Think rubrics and tests are too much? Well if you value being mindful in your tech work then that means expending effort in developing skills to regularly step back and see the bigger picture, to get beyond self-absorption, and that’s just what this is about.

(Originally posted on Medium. Traffic jam image via Roger Wilkerson, The Suburban Legend!)

Moscow, Place-full Global City

Paveletsky Rail Terminal, Moscow

It’s 6AM in Moscow, I’m on the street near the Yugo-Zapadnaya metro station, the second to last stop on the southern end of the red line. Staying at Shaninka University for the duration of the Urban Studies mini-course on digital placemaking I was teaching meant getting up early to catch a cab to the Paveletsky Rail Terminal for an early flight home to NYC.

Few people are up at this time here in Moscow. It’s dark, dawn yet to purple the sky. The gratuitously wide streets are all but empty. Hailing a cab now seems like an ill-fated task.

I started to think I made a classic New Yorker travel mistake when weary, being so used to ready cab access. Minutes go by. Train time tables are fuzzily being recalled. Then I hear some chill house music grow louder from behind…

… A cabbie pulls up to the corner near me and asks where I’m going. “Paveletskiy vokzal” I say. 300 rubles extra he says. “Da!”

We’re cruising on what seems like freeway but may be designated an avenue. It’s about 30 minutes to the rail terminal. The house song’s chorus drives on “wide awake, so wide awake….”

The mellow beats feel just right for this moment. I look up how to say “this is a great song”. Which I fail in pronouncing. Over and over. It takes about 5 attempts all but ruining the simple thanks I wanted to give, but he finally hears me and laughs, shows me the app on his smartphone so I can see the track and turns up the music.

Which he then put on repeat, for the whole ride. (Try that while reading this post.) I did not mind one bit. Trance states can be good at times. Reflecting on who I’ve just met, got to know, and where I’ve been.

“Wide awake, so wide awake…”

So much of Moscow *is* Moscow. In our era of rabid neoliberal globalization, so many parts of cities are becoming placeless, filled with the architecture of non-places. Not so much in Moscow. This place-full quality is profoundly energizing to me in any city where its identity never dulls you to sleep.

What was this Colombian-Norwegian-American New Yorker doing enjoying some Moscow DJ remix of Dutch nu disco with ambient British vocals? He was saying goodbye to this power city. For now. Wide awake in the sense of what is useful in his practice, what matters to people here, how similar these needs are to people in any city, and what was unique. The main factor now so clear to me: the different definition people have about what “the government” means more so than what being a “citizen” means. The zest for deep inquiry and deep humor. That too. So refreshing in cultures with widely practiced values for intellectual inquiry. More of that needed. “I’m gonna live my life the way that I want it…”

Dawn. That creamy orange light filled the train as coffee was being carted around to everyone. Silver Birch trees are sailing by. Soon I wouldn’t be in this city with so much creative energy. My life. My experiences. My destiny colliding with other destinies. My second Moscow visit and time with urban designers, artists, civic change agents, and curious citizens only furthered my anthropological sense about the brewing generational shift and energy here. So much energy, here, in New York, in many cities, is trapped under the weight of elder regimes built on yesterday’s failed answers. “Nothing you can do will break me down again. So wide awake, I’m so wide awake.”

It’s intercultural exchange like this that fuels my hope and love for life, putting apathy at bay even if it’s always offering that tempting blue pill. The inspirations were so mutual. I continue to argue that some of the exciting new forms of positive post-capitalist/post-communist self-governance will emerge here in the Central and Eastern European context. My generational peers are observant. They see the collapsing paradigms all around but also feel the emerging global pulse, the one that is people-powered but locally grounded.
Since back in NYC I’ve been thinking often of Saskia Sassen’s power-provoking, humanizing, formulation of Global cities, which raise more questions than solutions. Great stuff does that. So I’ll leave her words to close this post.


“The emphasis on the transnational and hyper mobile character of capital has contributed to a sense of powerlessness among local actors… But an analysis that emphasizes place suggests that the new global grid of strategic sites is a terrain for politics and engagement.”

“Recovering place means recovering the multiplicity of presences in this landscape. The large city of today has emerged as a strategic site for a whole range of new types of operations––political, economic, “cultural,” subjective. It is one of the nexi where the formation of new claims, by both the powerful and the disadvantaged, materializes and assumes concrete forms.”

Saskia Sassen. “The Global City, Introducing a concept.” (2005)

Wide awake now?

(Image: Paveletsky Rail Terminal, Moscow)


Scene from the Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts (Late-12th Century). Kyoto Museum.

Unskillful human nature can be like a hungry ghost, a being always looking to what is next or lamenting what was. A being not present enough to say, enough.

The hungry ghost is a metaphor in Buddhism often depicted as a gnarled sickly creature with a very thin throat and full belly. It’s a metaphor about when we foolishly attempt to satisfy our desires without realizing that it’s an endless task. How may illusions does it take to feel satisfied once and for all? Like any addict, the answer is at least: one more, that next great illusion.

In today’s context we must also think about our information diets, which Clay Johnson has written much about (check out his book.) Social media and other digital networks, as extensions of humanity’s social nature, amplifies almost all human trappings and inspirations. This media saturation was initially embraced like a new toy at your 5 year old birthday, and then discarded. Many of us now need to detox or drop out on sabbaticals or entirely, until… We often swing between these extremes. Neither offering much solace if the focus is on stuff, or lack of stuff.

Can we learn to say enough with this focus on our objects, goals, feelings, all the stuff? Can we make tech that helps tame human nature instead of playing to its base hungry ghost modes as if that is the only “real” nature we have?

The way around this to me is about shifting focus to our collective reality, to our inter-relationships with each other and our world. Let this happen in whatever way that feels right as long as it’s authentic, as long as you can really show up in the relationship. Not in your head. We are far too addicted to our self. To ideas. So much so that we can’t even see what is going on right in front of us. So many are feeling what you are feeling in any given moment, you are never alone. Let’s learn to feed on this sense of solidarity. Self-satisfactions, and self-lacerations, are like trolls. Don’t feed them.


30 days of blogging note: after my last post, written while sick, I finished my work in Moscow and traveled home to Brooklyn and promptly allowed myself to be fully sick. Personal resilience is an issue especially in socially engaged work. I’m actually working on app that touches on this. So I took the time to just be as I was, a healing and sleep needing person. I’ll now resume this challenge, with an added focus on personal resilience topics. You must work from where you are. Where else are you?

(Image: Scene from the Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts (Late-12th Century). Kyoto Museum.)

Dark Light, A Solar Eclipse Writing Month

I’ve been here in Moscow teaching a mini-course on digital placemaking and wise city methods, a project one year in the planning.

Today, it’s the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere, students at a university here look up through compact discs to see the eclipse, a coincidence with the Spring equinox not seen since 1681 CE.

In the midst of our globalization conflicts, both macro and regional I can’t think of a better metaphor for the desire to see reality amidst so many years of obscured half-truths, about empires, about nations, about “mother lands”… all week I have been pointing to Shakespeare’s quote “what is the city but the people” but perhaps I have been missing the larger point… what is our world about but its people.

Here in Russia, or in Colombia, or in Czech Republic, Latvia, Denmark, and in the US all I keep hearing from my generations and younger generations is this strong desire and demand to make a better world, an almost mystical recognition that whatever our parents’ generations created, bless them, is sadly so far from what is actually needed to make a world where we can all best be together.

And being together is not also meant to be some globalized homogenous bland meaningless material reality, but something bolder, something more idiosyncratic, and regionally unique, with friction, with sharp edges and soft arms depending on who and how you enter. Your AMEX black platinum card will not provide “total access”, you will either be real or not, you will be seen for what you are, or are not, you will need to make time for other realities, it may not fit within your schedule. You will be okay with this. Because again you have been reminded that this life, all life, is not about, you. Eclipse. Leave your ego out for a few minutes each day.

This post begins 30 days of blogging, inspired by Emily Jacobi’s lunar posting cycle ending on this day. Light is felt everywhere even when your eyes are closed, we are all dreaming together…

Yesterday’s Trickle-Down Hype Is Today’s Post-Capitalist Meme

Speaking truth to power is a brave thing in any era, in any moment.

Trickle-down theory. Critiques of this neoliberal belief, its ironic usage, once a slam relegated to smaller progressive and academic circles now seems to be growing as a default critique. Meme-worthy even. We are moving beyond questioning the myth of trickle-down assumptions, now distrusting it by *default* for the scam that it is.

More people, feminist women writers especially, noted below, are making erudite clarifications around this worn out Regan-era trope.

Our contemporary lifeworld is heavily colonized by neoliberal consumerist cultural assumptions. Assumptions that remove us from ourselves. Assumptions that remove us from those we are together with as we move about our cities and neighborhoods. Decolonizing this is a huge task; the connection to sexism and other forms of oppression, of reducing life to transactional relations, users using users, is no coincidence.

That’s why it’s damn exciting to see these recent awakened punchy posts… needed in all our informal and formal organizing efforts now more than ever.

  1. Laurenellen McCann‘s Sept. 30 post:
    • “we have an imperative to identify the real people and communities our work is seeking to impact and to ensure that we are not acting on their behalf, but working together with them (as part of “them”) from day one.”
  2. Sarah Jaffe‘s Oct. 17 post:
    • “Neoliberal feminism is a feminism that ignores class as a determining issue in women’s lives. It presumes, as Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in [a 2012] article on her personal website, that giving power to some women will automatically wind up trickling if not power, than at least some lifestyle improvements down to women with less power.”
  3. Sarah Lacy‘s Oct. 22 post: The horrific trickle down of Asshole culture: Why I’ve just deleted Uber from my phone
    • “You can certainly invest based only on the place you expect to find maximum return. That’s your job and your prerogative. But when it comes to the mounting misogyny in the tech world, you can’t sit on stage at industry events and say you care deeply about the state of women in the startup world and silently support assholes like these.”

This is all part of a continuum, seeing these three posts within less than a month just triggered my pattern detector this morning. Have you seen other recent posts playing with this same meme? Share’m on twitter with this not often used but existing hashtag: #trickledownmyth

Moving from Transactional to Intentional Cultures

surveillance camera and U.S. flag pole

The Preface Story…

And The Post:

When teachers and students are seen as sellers and consumers that’s transactional culture.

When the people in local government and in a city are seen as service providers and consumers, that’s transactional culture.

In the U.S. since the Reaganite 1980s the U.S. became a largely transactional culture. Today the language of much innovation, design thinking, service design, etc. is still thoroughly colonized with this hyper-corporate transactional hollowed out reduction.

Intentional communities care about broader and deeper impacts in the way our short brilliant lives are lived. The Net and a desire to renew local and longer lasting values is allowing the deliberative space and speed to spread a renewal of more intentional community living. From the rise of Meetup groups and Twitter leading to the addition of the words meetup and tweetup to the Oxford English dictionary, to collectives united by all sorts of shared values, to hyper local community groups, and more… the pattern isn’t just about making, hacking, or meeting up… more deeply it’s about an explicit awareness of intention.

Any sort of viable future for everyone will not be centered on efficient transactional cultures, so if you start noticing this in your work and conversations speak up and turn to those you’re with and ask, how can we find and meet the deeper intentions people have about life today and in the future? How can we organize and work on *that*?

(Photo: Park surveillance camera, McGolrick park, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, 2014)

Know Your Watershed, Mapping Rivers, Mapping Our Commons

Mississippi river upstream sources
Part of my childhood was spent living just a mile from the Mississippi up around Minneapolis.  Screenshot from the US National Atlas Streamer Map

Fresh water is more valuable than oil because humanity can live without one of these. There’s something about mapping water, about mapping rivers, that resonates so well with our online hyper connected lives. Maybe it’s because we take water for granted almost as much as we take all of our social connectedness for granted.

Maps used to be very powerful during the so-called age of discovery when sailing ship design and technology was considered to be cutting edge, when surveying the world was celebrated as a great human achievement even though the purpose was largely focused on exploitation of people and their lands. Mapping then was a tool for innovations in what is possible by regimes focused on greed.

"Americae Nova Tabula" by Hondius in 1640.
Americae Nova Tabula” created by Hondius 11 human generations ago  (in 1640)

In today’s geospatial digital mapping the question we should be asking is, as with any technology, who is making it and for whom? As with the Internet itself much of the mapping technology has come from military usage, and much of the power in mapping today is held by the credit card and banking systems that are tracking our spending in great detail to optimize methods for encouraging further spending and debt. So many of these maps are made by the already very powerful for the increasingly more powerful.

Hudson river upstream sources
I live in NYC, along the estuary portion of the Hudson river. NYC’s water source is under threat of fracking. Screenshot from the US National Atlas Streamer Map

This is why it’s refreshing to see maps like this National Atlas Streamer Map created by the National Geospatial Program of the U.S. Geological Survey that provide some service for all of those organizing to protect freshwater for future generations by fighting the selling off of land rights for fracking, and fighting against policies that enable land usage for industrial petrochemical farming and its toxic effects on our world. It’s maps like these that we should be most excited about that should be celebrated, maps like these can better help preserve and protect the commons that we all share. Check it out, pick a place in the US that you know and care for and look at all of the rivers connection.

Google Maps don’t convey, to humans, that cities are made of neighborhoods. These handmade maps do.

Photo & Map of Portland by Archie Archambault.

Via Slate: Circular city maps: Archie Archambault designs minimalist city maps printed on a 19th-Century letterpress.

Embrace The Mayoral Shift, The Two Decade Old NYC Tech Boom Has Always Been About Bottom-Up Tech Diffusion & Urbanization

Photo via de Blasio’s facebook page

Like the right-wing myth of the broken windows theory, some people who make the FUD-inducing pro-Bloomberg warnings that the NYC tech industry should be wary of not having a cheerleader in mayor-elect de Blasio basically ignore the general social & tech paradigm shifts going on: in this case, since the 1990s, the move to a mostly urban digital networked world.

NYC as a global capital has the tech industry it does because it is famously a socially dense heterogeneous human network, a center of culture, media, and finance. NYC’s tech success is not a result of being governed by Bloomberg, an oligarch, the 13th richest person in the world, and the 7th richest person in the US.

New York’s digital boom coincided with Giuliani’s term and he didn’t claim credit for the force of history but Bloomberg jumped on the bandwagon and with a few welcome tokens tech-washed his way into it according to some ahistorical eyes. Bloomberg didn’t invent the boom and it’s happening regardless of who is in office.

Aside from the global paradigm shift’s fueling by government funded programs that created protocols like IP, TCP, HTTP, and crucial private sector hardware innovations, the real credit goes to NYC’s existing urban culture and architecture that is social by nature of its active free expression, density, mass transit and walkabilty, and the industries already present.

Tech is an easy and important bandwagon for politicians to jump on, just ask Al Gore. All elected officials would be welcomed to support the tech paradigm shift and more importantly guide the wise use of technology in our society… after all we still face the choice of creating a closed libertarian hell or an Open socially responsible tech enabled world.

The various NYC tech subcultures need to talk more about tech ethics, about the value of digital and public commons, about privacy, about enabling more bottom-up civic participation, and about the requisite universal Net access for a 21st Century democracy. With his progressive-tilted ethics de Balsio is oriented more closely to these ideals than we have seen in decades.

How tech diffuses, for who, for what, is largely up to us, emerging from our values and practices. Take this time to reflect on what we’ve considered normal. If you think it’s about the mayor then you’ve been too accustomed to the top-down technocratic culture of the past 20 years of NYC mayorship. In a markedly more open administration NYC is what we demand and organize for. There’s wider input-ouput bandwidth in the system. More nodes in the system are included in the calculations.

NYC is us. Let’s move on. Let’s push the new administration on socially responsible tech policy, that would be truly innovative.