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)

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…

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.