Archive for October, 2012

October 28, 2012

In Praise of Disorientation

A few days ago, I started writing a post called “In praise of disorientation: Wherein our hero goes jogging in a strange city without a smartphone.” It was in response to some of my wanderings in Detroit this week, and my strange but persistent urge to try to do a book tour without digital communications technology of any kind: no cell phone, no GPS, no laptop.


Image Credit: Gus Chan, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 26, 2010


Friday, in Chicago, I went to grab a late lunch and couldn’t find a single place to set down my food in a cavernous Wicker Park coffee shop because every table had sprouted a laptop and a silent person with eyes glowing blue. Momentarily taken aback, I thought to myself that I don’t even remember a time when our community eateries didn’t echo with the clacking of keyboards.

Of course, I’m way too nervous a Nelly to actually try this epic midwest trip without aid of my electronic positioning and communications devices. But I still feel the strongest compulsion to throw all things that beep and blink out the window. It’s not some back-to-the-land impulse. It’s not simply my subtle Luddite leanings.

I miss being disoriented. I miss unplanned excursions. More importantly, I know that, as a human being, I have to force myself to ask people for help, especially strangers.

Then, yesterday, I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and she just crystallized so much of what I wanted to say in language far more elegant than my own. Try this:

The word “lost” comes fromthe Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant business, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so (A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005: page 7).

What do we miss when we are always oriented, never lost?

October 26, 2012

Adventures in Digital Justice, Detroit Edition

I’m thrilled to be on the road touring the US Midwest behind Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and talking to people about digital justice. One of the great things about being on book tour is that I get to spend my off time talking to people who are doing the hard work of creating high-tech equity in communities across the country.

Yesterday, I had the immense pleasure of talking with folks from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. The DDJC is a broad, diverse coalition of community-building, environmental justice, economic justice, arts, media, education and youth organizations with a focus on creating vibrant, healthy digital ecologies for Detroit and beyond.

Their work is based on the simple, revolutionary principle that communication is a fundamental human right, and that we need an alternative politics of technology that focuses on achieving technological justice, not just technology access.

I read DDJC’s Vision and Principles a few months ago, was blown away by the sophistication of their thinking and practice around digital justice, and immediately started talking about their work in my talks and lectures. In a world of technology organizing and policy that focuses only on access–i.e., the Digital Divide–and consumer privacy–i.e., ‘Net Neutrality–DDJC is building practices based on participatory design, common ownership, and healthy communities.

By not prioritizing access to IT as the blackbox solution to our community, social and political struggles, they’ve opened up ways to connect technology to the other social justice issues that impact our lives: environment, food and health; labor, economic inequality and community ownership; feminism, gender identity and reproductive justice; civil rights and immigrant justice.

They are probably best known for their DiscoTechs, or DISCovering TECHnology Fairs, community-building events that are simultaneously pop-up technology schools and grassroots leadership development opportunities. DiscoTechs don’t just teach technology, they help develop a shared set of principles, identify and strengthen existing community resources and networks, provide spaces to tell community stories, and challenge public policy that exploits and attacks poor and working communities and communities of color.

Here’s a video recap of their February 2012 DiscoTech at Mt. Elliot Makerspace. The video is by Patrick Geans-Ali and Imad Hassan.

But that’s not all that DDJC does. In fact, DiscoTechs are just a tiny piece of their work. They’re also involved in Detroit Future Media, which provides media training for the economic and community development of Detroit; Detroit Future Schools, which place visiting artists in classrooms across the city; and Detroit Future Youth, which supports youth social justice organizing.

Illustration of a mesh network from

And there’s still MORE! DDJC has recently been focusing on developing mesh networks, community-owned and powered wireless networks that center around routers on rooftops that act as hubs to facilitate the internet access of their neighbors. More importantly, they make neighborhood INTRAnets possible, which allow neighbors to share important documents and media among themselves. There’s a great description of this amazing work in the Wednesday October 3 issue of Colorlines, from whence I stole the great graphic at left of how mesh networks work.

That’s a whole mountain of social justice! Detroit’s digital future bears some serious watching (and probably even some imitating), if we want to figure out how to create an information age that works for all of us.