Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

January 4, 2013

Other Things I Like About Detroit

On my most recent book tour, I spread out my readings so I would have a little extra time in each city to talk with social justice organizations, visit friends, and have some general fun. At each stop, I asked the locals I met, “If you moved away from [insert city name here], and you were back for only one day, what would you do?”

In Detroit, the answer was pretty unanimous: Belle Isle.

Belle Isle is a nearly-1,000 acre park in the middle of the Detroit River. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also responsible for Central Park in NYC. While Belle Isle Park is more than 100 acres larger, its annual budget is a mere $2.8 million — compared to Central Parks $43 million — for all physical upkeep and programs. Unfortunately this means that many of its wonderful resources are unavailable most of the week, or have closed for good: the aquarium, the zoo, the casino.

Following are some pictures of Belle Isle, and other things I like about Detroit.

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a greenhouse and botanical garden covering 13 acres. Designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, it opened in 1904 and is the nation’s oldest conservatory.


Cactus graffiti!

Nancy Brown Peace Carillon

The Nancy Brown Peace Carillon. In 1936—in the midst of the Depression that devastated and impoverished Detroit—Nancy Brown suggested that readers of her column, *Experience,* one of the US’ first personal advice columns, donate their nickels and dimes to build a Peace Carillon on Belle Isle. So many did so that this 850-foot Neo-Gothic tower was built less than 5 years later.


The abandoned Belle Isle Zoo. For more great pictures, see

Wild dog on Belle Isle. While staying in downtown Detroit, near the Woodbridge neighborhood, I went out to the corner store and saw pheasants. Who out there has written interesting stuff about Detroit rewilding? Anyone know?


More things (not on Belle Isle) I Like About Detroit:

The Milner Hotel: One of the few independent hotels left in Detroit’s downtown. Alas, I stayed there in the last week they were open. In October 2012, the hotel closed and is being converted into condos (boo). Opened in 1917 during Detroit’s boom years as part of a national chain, the Milner then advertised itself with the slogan, “A Bed and a Bath for a Buck and a Half.”
More on the closing here:


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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.

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.

March 31, 2012

Three Cheers for Radical Libarians!

About three stops into my spring 2011 book tour, I learned that I could ask, “Where’s my Radical Reference?” and a corner of the room would invariably erupt into waves and laughter. Yesterday, I was sponsored for a talk at Simmons College in Boston by the student group from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the Progressive Librarians Guild. The audience was packed with radical librarians, information warriors, and social justice superstars.

Progressive Librarians, Unite!

To be frank, I was a little nervous. Sometimes folks misread the “access is not the ONLY  answer” argument in Digital Dead End as implying that I think that access is not important. I am particularly concerned that librarians not understand it that way, as I have enormous respect for the difficult and crucial work they do to connect citizens and community members to life-critical information and technology resources.

So let me be perfectly clear: Access to information and technology resources is crucial to participation in the new economy, the democratic practices of our communities, and emerging digital cultural forms. I started my book at the Troy Public Library, and finished it in the West Village branch of the New York Public Library. I count on my local library to fill my insatiable appetite for fiction, my endless need for gardening and home improvement books, even to provide a place to work that’s warm when I can’t quite afford to heat my house. When I am visiting a strange city, I know I can always find the library (it’s usually near city hall, and identified on most tourist maps) for email checking, newspaper scanning, and a place to work that doesn’t require I buy a cup of coffee in order to get the wireless password.

Librarians are clearly on the frontlines of technological access struggles in the Unites States. When funding for community technology centers was zeroed out during the GHW Bush administration, it was obvious that providing community technology capacity would fall on public libraries, many of which were already struggling to meet their patrons’ needs. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, 98.9% of public libraries were providing free computer access. Since the beginning of the internet revolution in the mid-1990s, visits to public libraries have more than doubled, to 1.2 billion annually (ALA 2005). 32% of Americans over 14 years old regularly use public computers or wireless networks in their local public library (ALA 2011).

Imagine my chagrin today, then, when I headed over to the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library to write this blog, and found it CLOSED. All weekend, every weekend. Closed. The writing on the door that said that the library was open from 10-3 on Saturdays was taped over, and the building was dark.

Our dear, departed Sycaway Branch.

It was eerily reminiscent of branch closings in the Troy public library system a few years ago, which prompted Senate “constituent liaison” and Republic Rensselaer county legislator, Bob Mirch, to declare,

If it comes to funding a library or buying a couple of snowplows, the choice is obvious. I mean, I don’t know how much the library gets used, with the Internet and computers nowadays (Chet Hardin, “Book Stupid,” Metroland v 32 n 2, 2009).

Clearly Mirch could use a librarian to help him get his facts straight. Library use has doubled in the last twenty years, Bob. Doubled.

Because I’m employed, mobile, and middle class, I’m here at a cafe drinking a $3 tea and typing away. But what about folks in the neighborhood? Weekend trips to the children’s room? A warm and safe place to pass some time if you are homeless or just need to get out of the house?

Do I have to say it? Libraries are SO IMPORTANT. Funded by billionaire philanthropists of the 20th century or not, they are democracy in action. I’m still awed when I walk out of a library with  a BOOK, that the library has just LOANED me, for FREE. How great is that?

So I want to take a moment to thank the radical librarians, and I think that’s all of you, actually. You’re radical because you work for institutions that provide safe space for community-building of all kinds: book groups, lectures, anime clubs, technology classes, pottery classes, skill shares and trainings. You’re radical because the library is one of the few places in many towns and cities where people actually come together across race, class, and gender. You’re radical because you believe that everyone deserves the resources to educate themselves, to answer their own questions, to learn their own histories, and to speak truth to power.