Archive for ‘politics’

December 11, 2013

Caseworkers vs. Computers

Caseworkers get a bad rap on both sides of the political spectrum.

On one hand, they are unpopular with people who receive public assistance. Recipients and welfare rights advocates accuse them of making judgments based on racial and class bias, treating clients like criminals, and acting as if public assistance dollars are coming out of their own pockets. On the other hand, conservative politicians and critics of social welfare programs suggest that they collude with clients to defraud taxpayers, are inefficient and incompetent, and provide poor customer service.

Part of the biggest bookeeping job in the world: Filing workers' applications for social security account numbers. This photo is in the public domain and is available This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Part of the biggest bookeeping job in the world: Filing workers’ applications for social security account numbers during the New Deal.
This photo is in the public domain and is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Automated eligibility systems –Washington’s ACES, Maryland’s CARES, Texas’ TIERS, Utah’s eRep, the multi-state Benefit Bank, among many others – have real potential to lower barriers to programs, coordinate services, and provide timely and accurate benefits information. In the best-case scenario, they also sidestep the judgment, stigma and routine invasions of privacy that characterize the client-caseworker relationship. Is automated eligibility the answer to some of welfare’s most persistent problems? Should we replace caseworkers with computers?

Indiana’s disastrous 1.4 billion dollar contract with IBM to modernize and privatize their eligibility system illustrates how the hazards of replacing casework with online applications and call centers may outweigh the benefits.

According to former Governor Mitch Daniels, the project was intended to improve access and services for needy, elderly and disabled people while saving taxpayers money by automating—and privatizing—back office work. Central to the plan was replacing face-to-face eligibility determinations performed by Indiana caseworkers with online application processes and call centers staffed by private employees.

Accusations of caseworker fraud, inefficiency, abuse, and “collusion” with clients were key to the Daniels administration’s argument for privatizing Indiana’s eligibility system. Daniels repeatedly called Indiana’s welfare system “broken, wasteful, and fraudulent,” the “worst in the country.” “The system is plagued by high error rates, fraud, wasted dollars, poor conditions for its employees, and very poor service to its clients,” he said in 2006, “We are going to improve all those things through a carefully planned transition [to] the IBM-led coalition.”

But problems with a system that promised more client control, fairer application processes, and more timely decisions were immediately evident. Less than a year after Indiana and IBM signed the contract, the recession, expanded federal eligibility for food stamps, and the 2008 Midwestern floods combined to more than double applications for help, overwhelming technical systems and personnel. Applications and supporting documents routinely went missing, or were damaged by fax transmission and scanning. Phone appointments scheduled to occur within two-hour blocks came hours, even days, late. If applicants were not waiting by the phone when these calls finally came through, they would be deemed “uncooperative” and denied benefits.

Private call center employees were inadequately trained to deal with the scale of human problems they encountered. Performance metrics designed to speed the decision-making process created perverse incentives. To clear backlogs, benefits were terminated for the catchall reason “failure to cooperate:” an applicant missing a phone appointment, failing to call in to a helpline on time, or hanging up after being on call waiting for 30 or 50 minutes.

More than 700,000 Indiana citizens were denied access to needed social services in the first three years of the project:

  • Sheila Purdue was denied Food Stamps and Medicaid when she was unable to complete a telephone interview. Purdue is deaf.
  • A nun’s case was closed for “failure to cooperate” because she did not call in to an interview on a day she was playing the church organ, after repeated attempts to reschedule.
  • An eighty-year-old woman from Terra Haute lost her Medicaid when she failed to call an eligibility hot line while hospitalized for congestive heart failure.

Call center workers were private employees, after all. If applicants felt they were unjustly denied and requested a Fair Hearing, Indiana was obliged to conduct and pay for the legal proceedings, not IBM. In fact, Indiana is now fighting several class action suits that claim that the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) violated federal Food Stamp law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the constitutional right to due process.

“Daniels’ theory was that caseworkers are not important,” Indiana State Representative Matt Pierce suggested in a recent telephone conversation, “But caseworkers try to understand the root causes of problems people are facing, and work with them to stabilize their lives. The Daniels administration just rejected that. Then, it was just an issue of mechanization or automation, and saving a lot of money by getting rid of caseworkers.”

The experiment failed. After just three years, and in the face of a legislative challenge – a Senate bill requiring there to be a state caseworker physically present in all township offices to assist the public in applying for assistance programs – the Daniels Administration broke its contract with IBM and introduced a “hybrid” system that includes both online applications and in-person eligibility determinations. IBM sued Indiana for breach of contract, and last year, the Marion County Court ruled in IBM’s favor. The cost to Indiana taxpayers? More than half a billion dollars.

Similar systems also failed in Florida and Texas in the early 2000s, but it would be a mistake to conclude that these states were the victims of bad design, poorly planned systems full of bugs. The problems with automating eligibility go well beyond technical glitches.

The push to automate intake processes requires computers to do tasks for which they are manifestly unsuited – evaluating the “deservingness” of human beings. In our current political climate, the public assistance system is fixated with gauging applicants’ moral fitness for government aid. Intake processes go far beyond identifying eligibility for programs and then crunching the numbers to determine benefit levels. It’s the conditionality of welfare in the United States – not lack of technical know-how – that makes eligibility automation such a debacle.

If we want to successfully modernize our public assistance programs in the United States, the solution is simple: Stop means-testing welfare programs. The Social Security Administration has successfully automated their eligibility and payment processes, and the system – based on calculating credits, not verifying income or work-readiness – is widely seen as both easy-to-use and efficient. Another solution may lie in unconditional cash transfers. The organization Give Directly connects donors with people in need in Kenya, delivering funds right to their cell phones. The organization’s overhead is less than 8%; 92.6% of money they raise goes directly to people who need it.

Ending hyper-surveillance in the welfare system might be a hard sell, but it is possible. In the meantime, let’s not ask computers to do something that us fallible humans can do so much better: supporting human growth, development, and dreams.

January 16, 2013

Cuomo Criminalizes the Mentally Ill

While I am encouraged by attempts to stem the tide of the epidemic of gun violence in America, and welcome a vigorous conversation about how to support and provide resources for people struggling with mental illness in this country, I am horrified to near-speechlessness by the mental health provisions of the recent gun control legislation passed in New York State.

andrew cuomo evil eyesSenate 2230/Assembly 2388, passed by the NYS Senate and Assembly and signed by Governor Cuomo on January 14th and 15th, includes a provision that requires mandatory reporting by health care professionals — including therapists, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers — of any person who reports thinking about harming themselves or others.

Additionally, implementing this act would require that these individuals be included in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and that law enforcement be authorized to enter the homes of people reported by health care professionals to search for and confiscate weapons.

Read it for yourself:

9.46 Reports of substantial risk or threat of harm by mental health professionals.

The threat of being listed in the mental health equivalent of a sex offender registry and having your home invaded by police will clearly deter people from seeking appropriate care, will further victimize and stigmatize those who struggle with mental health issues, and is a hateful and deeply ignorant act of blatant discrimination.

The law does not give mental health professionals the option or the responsibility to report patients who they believe genuinely pose a threat to themselves or others; that ability and responsibility is already legally codified in inpatient treatment laws in all fifty states. Those laws require that mental health professionals get people who pose a threat to themselves or others in to care.

The new NYS law, instead, mandates that mental health providers report all individuals who think about harming themselves or others to law enforcement and the FBI. It is worth repeating: this is a mandatory reporting law that treats people struggling with mental illness as potential criminals, not as patients, citizens, or human beings.

S. 2230/A. 2388 is only possible in a country that believes that people struggling with routine mental health conditions are, in fact, inhuman and patently dangerous deviants who do not deserve human rights, respect, or empathy.

You can hear more about Cuomo’s worst idea yet on the website for the Brian Lehrer show. You can read a particularly compelling response from the mental health advocacy community — and support their efforts — at the website for the Mental Health Association in New York State.

January 8, 2013

Poverty & High-Tech Billionaires

This winter finds me wrapped in a scarf of Dr. Who-ish proportions and immersed in archival research for my next book, The Digital Poorhouse: Computers, Public Services and American Citizenship. This month, I am looking into the design and implementation of the Welfare Management System (WMS) in New York State in the 1970s and 80s. This system is still used to manage case files and calculate eligibility for a wide variety of public assistance programs — including Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), housing assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or Foodstamps), and many more — for hundreds of thousands of families in New York.

While digging through the files at the wonderful New York State Library and Archives, I came across a 1973 Village Voice article that claims governmental malfeasance in rewarding a contract to computerize welfare and Medicaid, and introduces a surprising to new player in this fascinating story: H. Ross Perot.

Image Credit: Allan Warren through Wikipedia Commons

H. Ross Perot photographed by Allan Warren

Mr. Perot is most famous for his third party, self-funded runs for the presidency of the United States in 1992 and 1996, on a platform that included eliminating the Federal deficit in five years, reducing the size of government, cutting government spending on the military and entitlement programs, and instituting electronic town halls. Turns out, through his companies Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Perot Systems, he made a significant portion of his immense fortune–he is the 101st richest person in the United States, according to Fortune Magazine–by computerizing public assistance and government healthcare programs.

Here are some outtakes from Phil Tracy’s July 12, 1973 article about Perot’s dealings with then-New York Governer Nelson Rockefeller, “The Poverty Billionaire Comes Calling on Rocky:”

[There is a] scandal shaping up over the awarding of a $30 million welfare and Medicaid computer contract, the largest contract of its kind ever awarded by a state…Governor Rockefeller personally intervened on behalf of computer tycoon H. Ross Perot in order to keep him in contention for a contract to automate and administer the state’s $3.7 billion welfare and Medicaid operation. Originally, nine firms had submitted bids for a $40,000 contract to study current welfare and Medicaid payment systems around the state and propose an automated computerized model, which the companies would then run themslves. Five firms were selected, based on their presentations.  H. Ross Perot’s firm, Electronic Data Systems, was not one of the five….Perot immediately contacted the Governor, and on February 9 the Governor, Perot, and Social Services Commissioner Abe Lavine met together to discuss the matter. As a result of that meeting, Perot’s firm was reinstated in the bidding. The number of companies eventually awarded the $40,000 was cut from five to three and Perot’s firm was one of those selected.

Tracy’s article goes on to discuss some of the trouble that EDS, which had been cashing in on government contracts to automate the governments social assistance and medical programs since 1966, had already gotten into:

Ross Perot’s track record had got to be one of the muddiest around. For example, Perot’s $20 million annual contract with the State of California for running that state’s Medicare and Medi-Cal [systems] has been under investigation for the last two years…It has been charged that EDS at one point was running a 13 per cent error rate in its determination of reasonable charges…[In addition, a series of legislative hearings into federal health programs between 1970 and 1972 found]:

  • that in 1970, EDS cleared up a backlog of some 150,000 claims against the State of Iowa’s Medicare system simply by removing all of the computer safeguards and and approving all the claims…
  • that a 1970 HEW investigation [found] that EDS was inflating its workload for various Medicare contracts…resulting in over-charges…in excess of $1 million.
  • that a 1971 survey of nine states whose Medicare contracts were being processed by Electronic Data Services showed a consistent pattern of increased costs whenever EDS took over the operation…
  • that the same survey showed that cost dropped when the non-EDS firm’s computer programs were introduced…
  • that in June 1972 the Social Security Administration was forced to begin action to recover some $300,000 paid to Perot under EDS’s New York State Medicare contract for operating a computer that had yet to be installed…
  • that in several states EDS was earning excessive profits on its contracts sometimes going as high as 100 per cent.

Poverty Billionaire - Village Voice (1973)It amazes me how this 1973 tale so clearly anticipates stories ripped right from today’s headlines. Compare the EDS case to the struggle between the state of Indiana and IBM over the contract to computerize their welfare intake, for example. In 1973, EDS was accused of running an unacceptably high error rate, price gouging, and clearing cases in bulk without actually processing them. In 2010, the state of Indiana sued IBM for faileding to fulfill its $1.37 billion contract to privatize eligibility intake for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare benefits by accusing them of…well…running an unacceptably high error rate, price gouging, and clearing cases in bulk without actually processing them.

The only major difference? In the 1970s, EDS cleared those Medicaid cases by indiscriminately approving them. In 2010, IBM did it by unjustly denying poor and working people life-saving assistance, both in individual cases and in bulk.

As reported by Mary Beth Schneider and Bill Ruthhart in the May 14, 2010 issue of the Indianapolis Star, one woman was cut off from Medicaid for missing her appointment with her caseworker — because she was hospitalized with terminal cancer. Welfare benefits were denied to a deaf deaf person — because she couldn’t do a phone interview. And Indiana charged in their lawsuit that when “IBM Coalition workers” — the call center employees who replaced Indiana’s frontline caseworkers — got behind in processing applications, “they would often recommend denial of an application to make their timeliness numbers look better, but then would tell the applicant to appeal the decision.”

We always hear about fraud in the welfare and Medicare/Medicaid systems, and low-income mothers face sanction, deprivation and jail sentences if they are caught fudging the numbers. So why has no one called H. Ross Perot and IBM CEO Virginia M. Rometty welfare cheats?

September 21, 2012

Welfare Internet

I’ve been thinking about technology policy in the United States in light of Mitt Romney’s May 17, 2012 comments that nearly half of United States citizens “are dependent upon government, believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing…pay no income tax…[and can] never [be] convince[d]…to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

I’ll leave debunking the myths about poor and working people that Romney was relying on–and perpetuating–to others (for example, try Haroon Siddique or Michael Cooper on the taxes that are indeed paid by poor and working people). But I will take the opportunity to look at the ways that technology policy and reporting often make the same kind of false and damaging suppositions about people struggling to meet their basic needs, suppositions that misrepresent the reality of working people’s lives, intelligence, desires and opportunities.

 There has been a disturbing recent trend of describing universal access programs as “welfarist.” For example, I recently visited Champaign and Urbana, Illinois, whose UC2B project promises to connect 2,500 households in underserved neighborhoods to a fiber-optic big broadband network for free. While I was there, the Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the local university, ran an article about the project in which a community member described the project as “welfare Internet,” arguing that public tax dollars, through a federal grant, are being used unfairly to serve primarily poor and working-class households.

 Or take the recent New York Times article about Google’s attempts to interest poor and working-class residents of Kansas City, MO–particularly in African-American neighborhoods–to sign up in advance for their $70-120/month high-speed broadband service. When some community members balked at signing up and putting $10 down for an unclear deal that might cost big bucks in the future, journalist John Eligon argued that the primary struggle for Google was “convincing residents of the importance of Internet access — to apply for jobs, do research, take classes and get information on government services,” as if residents simply didn’t understand why the internet is significant.

Assessments such as these are often couched in patronizing faux-concern about the lurking dangers of high-tech tools and networks for those unable to afford them on the open market.* For example, a recent New York Times article, “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era,” argued that children of parents who do not have a college degree are exposed to 1.5 more hours of media per day through televisions, computers and other gadgets than the children of parents with a college degree. Despite the fact that both groups of children used their high-tech tools primarily to watch videos, play games and connect to social media sites, the article decried a new and growing “time wasting gap,” suggesting that poor and working-class children are using internet technologies to avoid homework, stay up too late, and mortgage their futures to the momentary pleasures of the now. Sound familiar? This is as opposed to, for example, imagining that poor and working kids might lack access to the kinds of after school sports and enrichment activities widely available to children of the professional middle and owning classes, and therefore spend a little more time watching TV and scanning Facebook.

I find the idea that poor and working people lack an understanding of the importance of the internet, don’t deserve access, and misuse it when they do manage to get their hands on it deeply insulting. I hear in these stories disturbing echoes of the crudest cliches about the supposed ignorance, laziness and backwardness of people who struggle to meet their basic needs.

There are other factors at play in the complicated relationship between technology and working people, factors that rarely get any attention in the mainstream media. For example,

— The consequences of data profiling, data mining and privacy intrusions are significantly more severe for working people and other marginalized groups (see Seeta Gangadharan’s “Digital Inclusion and Data Profiling“)

— Working people, women and men of color tend to disproportionately experience the more negative uses of technology in the workplace, in their neighborhoods and in their interactions with government (see my book Digital Dead End)

— Poor and working folks tend to know a market lock when they see one. Their experience with predatory lending, pay-as-you-go phones, rent to own agreements, payday loans, and other scams has taught them that the “Buy now, Pay later” approach–of Google Fiber, for example–is rarely a good deal for them (see Gary Rivlin’s terrific Broke, USA).

It might be easier for the media and policy-makers to draw on common stereotypes to posit that poor and working people don’t understand technology, are afraid of it, and won’t put it to good use anyway. But it is remarkable to me that a country so plagued with class inequality still looks for behavioral and individual explanations of the desperate poverty so many Americans experience. The kinds of assertions I cataloged above rely on a presumption that simply isn’t true: that poverty in the richest country in the world is an aberration, experience by a damaged and suspect few.

As Mark Rank has shown in his superb One Nation, Underprivileged, poverty is not the minority experience in the US — the majority of us will face it at some point in our lives. Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans will live at least one year of their lives under the official poverty line ($11,170 a year for a single individual in 2012). Sixty-five percent (65%) of all Americans will at some point live in a household that receives means-tested welfare benefits, including SNAP/Foodstamps, SSI, Medicaid, AFDC, etc.

When we recreate myths about economic inequality–and the people who experience poverty–in our technology policy and reporting, we do all Americans a disservice. How would our policy be different if we understood communication–as facilitated by high-tech devices–as a fundamental human right central to the health and vigorous democratic functioning of our communities? What if the answer to “who deserves the internet?” was all of us?

* A significant number of people in the US cannot afford to pay for internet service, which is not surprising when you take into account the fact that, according to David Cay Johnson’s new book The Fine Print, Americans pay 38 times what the Japanese pay for internet service per bit of data moved, and that we pay more for internet connections that are ranked 29th in the world in terms of speed, behind Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldavia.

June 15, 2012

Stop. Frisk. Double-Click.

The amazing organizing and coalition-building going on around stop and frisk policies in New York City inspired me to write “Stop. Frisk. Double-Click.” for the MIT Press Blog yesterday.

Stop and frisk is a controversial policy where officers detain and search people based on subjective evaluations of public behavior: furtive movements, “casing” a location, and bulges in clothing. The number of stop and frisks has increased by 704% over the last decade: from 97,296 stops in 2002 to 684,724 in 2011. According to New York Civil Liberties Union, there have been 4,356,927 stops during the Bloomberg administration alone.

Some facts from the ACLU’s stop and frisk campaign:

  • Though stop and frisks are ostensibly about controlling gun violence, in only 1.9% of cases does a frisk turn up a weapon.
  • 88% percent of people stopped in 2011 were guilty of no crime.
  • 87% percent of people stopped in 2011 were Black and Latino, and the majority of people detained are young men.

Stop and frisk raises important questions about how we want law enforcement to work, and who pays the price for  “zero-tolerance” approaches to crime. But part of the problem is CompStat, a system of law enforcement management and record keeping pioneered in New York City in the mid-1990s.

Public services — such as law enforcement, education, healthcare and public assistance — are increasingly being computerized. Automatic speeding tickets come in the mail. Doctors lug laptops into the exam room. Mostly we talk about whether these innovations work; sometimes we wonder about their impacts on privacy and confidentiality. But are these the wrong questions?

I write in the article,

At the heart of the matter is the quality of our citizenship, the nature of our relationship with the state and its representatives. Fact is, we are governed by systems like CompStat. They set the rules of engagement between us and the bureaucracies that maintain order, distribute resources, and shape our communities.

I’m just starting a new book, tentatively titled Disconnect: How Computers are Transforming Public Services, where I’ll look into these issues in depth. So tell me your story! How are computers changing your relationship with the police, your teachers, elected officials, your doctor? If you work in public and human services, how have the new technologies changed the nature of your job?

Comment here, or email me at virginia [at]!

May 28, 2011

eG8 Sausage Party

Is it too old-school Women’s Studies professor-y of me to point out that the eG8 — the “historic conference on the internet and the future of the digital ecosystem” that preceded the 37th annual G20/G8 summit in France — was a total sausage party?

Of 109 speakers, 10 were women. Yep. That’s a whopping 9%.

The eG8, thus, is about half as democratically representative as the US Congress, not exactly a bastion of populism or the most woman-friendly institution. (Of 100 US Senators, 17 are women. Of 435 US Representatives, 76 are women…we’re roughly 17% of each house.)

The gap between male and female use of the internet has narrowed to almost nothing in the last decade. Worldwide, 53% of internet users are male while 47% are female.

But when we throw the big parties, the ones intended to introduce internet entrepreneurs to the leaders of nations to carefully-chosen representatives of civil society, the demographics (and thus the perspectives) are still fatally skewed. When the powerful try to set the democratic agenda for the information age, women are absent from the table.

Seriously. Take a look at the speakers for the eG8 and tell me: Do you really want these guys defining democracy for the digital age?

eG8 Sausage Party

eG8 sausage party participants, clockwise, starting from top left: Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO Facebook; John Donahoe, President & CEO eBay Inc.; Tony Wang, General Manager of European operations, Twitter; Esther Dyson, Chairman of EDventure Holdings; Arthur Sulzberger, Chairman The New York Times Company; Olivier Roussat, CEO, Bouygues Telecom; Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication; Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO News Corporation; Eric Schmidt; Executive Chairman Google Inc.; Eric Besson, France’s Minister for Industry, Energy and the Digital Economy - France

I can’t think of a G20/G8 meeting, electronic or otherwise, without thinking of the 1999 Seattle protests against that year’s WTO ministerial conference. Among the rallying cries of the Battle in Seattle, which launched the Independent Media Center movement worldwide and brought US social movements into alignment with global movement building institutions like the World Social Forum, was: “This is what democracy looks like!

Is the eG8 what eDemocracy looks like? (If so, EGADS!) Or, is the eG8 an elite gathering just waiting for its own Seattle-inspired counter movement?

What would a battle against the eG8 look like?

Battle in Seattle

Images of the 1999 "Battle in Seattle" protests against the WTO. Credits, clockwise, starting from top left: Unknown, image found at; IndyMedia Ireland ; Al Crespo, University of Washington Digital Collections; Harley Soltes/The Seattle Times.

Its goals will be bigger and better than net neutrality, freedom, and privacy, I hope. Those are such myopic and depressingly incomplete hopes for social justice in the information age. The protests would have to represent all the constituencies of the 1999 protests—national and international NGOs, environmental groups, labor unions, student groups, anarchists, religious groups—and then some. The institutions and long-term movements that grew out of the protests would have to be broadly inclusive, both demographically and procedurally.

eG8 protesters like Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig and La Quadrature du Net could inform this movement, but it would have to go far beyond their frameworks and agendas.

So, here are some questions for the as-yet-nascent movement against the eG8. We could call it “The Fight for High-Tech Rights” or “The Tête-à-tête for the Internet.”

Will we…
…Protect the workers in the high-tech economy?

…Make the rich and powerful “transparent” and “accountable,” not just pedestrians, welfare recipients and online consumers?

…Respect and include all kinds of knowledge and experience, not just that of bureaucrats, engineers and CEOs?

…Focus on using high-tech tools to protect human rights—including the rights to health, education, living wage jobs and basic social protections—as set out by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

…Safeguard physical places—both environmentally and culturally—that provide us sanctuary and a sense of home in our increasingly disconnected world?

Any fight for social justice in the information age is incomplete if it represents only the privileged few, if it stops at the boundary of our shared material world, or if it sees justice only as individual liberties.

The eG8 is worse than a sausage party. It’s a self-congratulatory love fest between CEOs, government functionaries and a few token representatives of the “rest of us,” dressed up as revolution, freedom and radical democracy.

The eG8 needs to be Seattle-d. Let’s get to work.

January 26, 2011

A Sputnik moment?

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection…The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world… This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum.

Last night, President Obama offered a State of the Union Address that reprised one of his favorite themes — the pathway to renewed American greatness lies in improved science and technology. I have a lot to say about the Address, and I’ll explore President Obama’s 5-point plan — Fostering innovation, Improving education, Rebuilding infrastructure, Reducing barriers to business investment, and Closing deficit by freezing government spending — over the next few days.

But this morning, my mind keeps circling back to the contention that innovations in science and technology will pull the US out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I am particularly struck by President Obama’s assertion that this is a “Sputnik moment.”

The current historical moment is very, very different from the one in which Sputnik was launched. The Soviets fired Sputnik in 1957, an extremely prosperous year for the United States: production, employment, and income attained record levels. The unemployment rate hovered around 4%. Inequality was the social norm: women and men of color had been forced back to the “normalcy” of second-class citizenship after gains made during WWII were rolled back by the politics of fear and a culture of conformity.

Today, while Wall Street profits and payoffs may be skyrocketing once again, most of us are facing lower incomes and more employment insecurity. We have an official unemployment rate of around 9.4%, but if you count those who are employed part-time but looking for full-time work, or who have become dispirited and given up looking altogether, the rate is closer to 17%. And those of us who benefited from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s are certainly not going back to 1950s “normalcy” without a fight.

So why see this as a similar historical moment? Why the blind hope that a rocket or a computer or a nanobot can fix all of the nation’s troubles? The idea that science and technology will magically solve our problems sometime in the future is dangerous, because it keeps us from dealing with the very real economic, social, and political challenges we face in the now.

In my book, I wrote about the kind of dissociative thinking we can get caught in when we decide that science and technology will magically save us:

The continued emphasis on the development of science and technology as the route to greater prosperity and equality for all Americans is a familiar but dangerously underexamined species of magical thinking.

In psychology, magical thinking is the belief that merely thinking about an event in the external world can cause it to occur, a delusion often present in very young children and schizophrenics. Many of us in the United States have engaged in a massive, collective, consensual hallucination about the power of technology, particularly information technology (IT), to “level the playing field,” create broad-based economic and social equality, and nurture transparency and accountability in democratic governance.

This magical thinking has its root in an incomplete picture of the impacts of IT and technology-driven economic development schemes in our communities, a myopia shaped by race, class, and gender inequality. This shortsightedness in turn skews our policy responses to issues of high-tech equity and, in many cases, creates policies and institutions that deepen inequality rather than alleviate it.

We need to expand and clarify our vision of equity in an information age. Massive investment in science and technology without simultaneous investment in a more just society is an investment in increasing political and economic inequality. If robust democracy, broadly shared prosperity, human rights, and equity are important to us as a society, we must reject our magical thinking and look with clear and courageous eyes at the real world of IT, our shared technological present.