July 12, 2011

Liberation Technology Tour

My book launch at the fabulous Market Block Books in Troy

I’ve been lucky to spend much of the spring and early summer touring in support of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. It’s an especially exciting time to be thinking and talking about the relationship between technology and social justice. The questions asked by audiences from Concord, NH to New York City to Philadelphia made it clear that, despite differences in race, gender and class, many of us are curious and concerned about the impact of technology on social, political and economic inequities. I was asked tough, insightful questions: Does the Arab Spring prove that social media can create radical political change? How does technology affect workers in the sagging American economy? Can we use new IT tools to increase governmental transparency and accountability?

Great line up at Bluestockings in NYC

What truly stood out for me, though, was the extraordinary on-the-ground work being done by social justice organizations in the cities that I visited. In Montréal, my event at the Concordia Community Solidarity Co-op Bookstore was supported by both the Concordia Women’s Studies Student Association and the wonderful Simone de Beauvoir Institute, which is dedicated to exploring feminism as a tool for understanding social justice and fighting for social change. While in Canada, I was hosted by the delightful Christina Haralanova, who co-authored the WITT training toolkit, Strategic ICT for the Empowerment of Women, and introduced me to Montréal’s hackerspace, Foulab, which teaches people to repurpose and redesign everything from wearable electronics to analog robots to mustard.

One of the friendliest rooms on the tour - Red Emma's in Baltimore

In Baltimore, my event at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse was co-sponsored by Hollaback! Baltimore, a brash and refreshingly witty group dedicated to using online tools to end street harassment of women and girls. In Washington DC, my event at Busboys and Poets was sponsored by DC Jobs with Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and Teaching for Change. I stayed a few extra days in DC to undertake a “social justice tour” of my own, meeting with members of a number of community organizations. Though I learned from all the people I met, the highlight was undoubtedly my visit to ONE DC, whose steadfast commitment to shared leadership and healing in the midst of difficult struggles for housing and economic justice astonished and inspired me.

Though my book offers some uncomfortable truths about the “real world of IT” in the lives of poor and working-class women and families, my intention has always been to highlight popular technology — approaches that help all people develop critical technological citizenship and engage with technology as a site of political struggle.. We can make an extraordinary impact on the inequities of the information age when we think, and practice, technological development and social justice together.What my tour proved to me is that liberation technologies are possible; in fact, they are everywhere you look.


If you’d like to hear audio of my book event at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, you can access it here: http://www.redemmas.org/books/127/.

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 http://omgthe90s.tumblr.com/; 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.

April 21, 2011

The High-Tech Equity Agenda, Part 1…

One of the things that audience members at readings and events for Digital Dead End seem most eager to know is what they can do. If technology isn’t the solution to our social justice struggles, what is?

The women in the YWCA of Troy-Cohoes community had amazing insights into the structural nature of high-tech inequality, and offered innovative solutions. In their spirit, I offer a nine-point plan, what I call the “High-Tech Equity Agenda,” in the last chapter of the book.

In the next few weeks, I’ll offer some key point from the agenda. In light of recent events, I’ll start with the top:

Point 1: Protect Workers in the Lower Tier of the High-Tech Economy

The information economy is a bifurcated economy. While we have a tendency to think about the new economy as being made up primarily of creative and knowledge-based jobs, most of the economic growth from the high-tech economic development is in the service sector.

We can use the Capital Region of New York, where I live, as an example. Between 2001, the peak of the regional economic development scheme known as “Tech Valley,” to 2008, the beginning of the recession, we saw a growth pattern that is distinct to the information economy.

Attempting to replace the collapsing manufacturing and construction sectors, which lost nearly 5000 jobs in those seven years, regional chambers of commerce and municipal government officials aggressively courted high-tech industries: chip fabrication, biotech, nanotech, media, creative and financial businesses.

They had some success. There was growth in “top-tier” information economy occupations. While there were losses in the NAICS industry classification “Information,” which includes publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications and internet service providers, the area added jobs in financial activities and professional and business services. These well-paid, education-dependent occupational categories grew by 3387 jobs, about 500 jobs per year.

But the most exponential growth was the service sector—education and health services, leisure and hospitality, and other services—which grew by more than 12,300 jobs. That’s nearly 2,000 jobs per year added in low-wage, high-volatility, insecure and difficult industries like retail, healthcare, education, and food service. Most of the workers in these classifications make close to minimum wage, and few have access to health insurance, pensions, paid sick leave, and other employment protections and benefits. 78% of job growth in Tech Valley is in the service industry.

The most rapid job growth between 2001 and 2008 was in the lowest-paid NAICS classification, “Leisure and Hospitality.” The Capital Region gained 4282 jobs in this category, a growth of 14.7%. The average weekly wage for these workers is $262 (in 2000 dollars), and the category has the slowest wage growth of nearly any category, only 5.4% in those seven years.

If nearly 80% of the job growth in the new economy is in these low-paying and insecure occupations, any attempt to create high-tech equity must include protections for vulnerable workers. Work in the information economy—in both the high-tech and the service sectors—tends to be less reliable and lacks institutions for effectively organizing on workers’ behalf. The increasingly anti-union political climate is, thus, especially dangerous for information economy workers.

Though service occupations have presented especially difficult challenges to collective bargaining, impressive gains have been made in the past decade. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest-growing union in North America, boasts more than 2 million members who provide for America’s health care, public services, and property services needs. SEIU is also the country’s most diverse union: 56 percent of SEIU members are women, 40 percent are people of color, and SEIU represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

So one thing you can do to fight for social justice in the information age? Sign on to the Employee Free Choice Act, support attempts to protect employees’ rights to collective bargaining in your state, and never cross a picket line.

April 18, 2011

If Technology Is Not the Answer, What Is?

My very bright grad student, Megan Rolfe, recently forwarded me a link to Kentaro Toyama’s provocative article, “Technology Is Not the Answer,” in the March issue of The Atlantic. I’m intrigued by his experience, and sympathetic to his point that technology serves as an amplifier of underlying values and social structures.

In fact, I was trying to make much the same point when I wrote about the use of new information technologies in the social service system in my book, Digital Dead End. Information technology could certainly serve to connect poor and working families to community resources, make the process of applying for benefits more transparent, and ease caseworkers’ cumbersome paperwork to free them up to spend more time with clients. But under the new, hyper-punitive regime of post-1996 public assistance, it largely serves to proliferate sanctions and intensify surveillance.

Similarly, the information economy, rather than leveling economic and political economies (as Thomas Friedman et al. might argue), can amplify historic inequalities while adding a bruising shot of new insecurity and rapid change, a phenomenon I call “volatile continuity” in my book. So rather than creating sweeping social change, new technologies often magnify underlying social arrangements. Rather than sweeping away old power relations like a digital Noah’s flood, new ITs act like Hurricane Katrina, following existing socio-economic cleavages with devastating effects for those living in valleys of poverty and inequality.

This brings me to the thing I like most about Toyama’s brief piece: a simple chart that traces the rates of poverty in the United States against a time line of major innovations in communications technologies such as the internet, the personal computer, and the world wide web. No big surprises here, but the image is incredibly effective for breaking through some of our more magical thinking about technology and social justice.

Graph of Poverty in the US and Technological Innovation

I start to get frustrated with Toyama’s argument when he starts to talk solutions — for him, the focus should be on (individual) human intent and capacity, on virtue. If what he means is that we in the US need to realign our political and economic practice with our national values of liberty, justice, equality, and democracy, I agree. I think Mark Robert Rank, in his book One Nation, Underprivileged, makes a compelling argument that this kind of realignment is necessary if we are ever to take the epidemic levels of poverty in our country seriously.

Explaining that technology is just one thing we put undue faith in, Toyama coins the acronym TIPS — technology, institutions, policies and systems — to describe what he considers the most visible parts of cultural change. The real iceberg, he claims, is the invisible but more significant bulk of “individual and societal intent and capacity.” I got Marxist base/superstructure flashbacks when I read this, but in reverse.

As I’ve traveled throughout the northeast on my Spring book tour, audience members have asked again and again for specific solutions to the wide variety of social, economic and political problems Digital Dead End describes. So I respect Toyama’s attempt to look beyond the tools to the problems that underlie high-tech inequity. But solutions to the pressing social justice issues of the information age must be systematic and structural, not just individual and organizational.

I’m not sure “virtue” is a good platform for systemic social change. So in the next few weeks, I’ll tell you what I see as the “real iceberg” under the social, political and economic challenges faced by the United States. And I’ll provide some solutions and suggestions for how we go about creating an information age that works for everyone.

Stay tuned…

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.

January 19, 2011

Shortwave New Year

I’m going to out myself as an actual geek here and admit that I love shortwave radio.

Shortwave Radio

Our Grundig

My honey and I have a Grundig S350, and since we weren’t up to huge New Year’s festivities this year, we tuned in to hear the year turn, around the world, via shortwave. We opened the first bottle of champagne as Big Ben rang in London, then we tried to track the midnight line as it moved west – Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru.

Didn’t have a lot of luck DXing, so we listened to Radio Habana Cuba most of the night. The DJ mixed stories about the 30th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion with son, rumba, cuban jazz, and reggaeton while we drank Auld Lang cocktails and traded resolutions.

Shortwave sets are cheap and widely available just about everywhere in the world. A low power, low cost, difficult to censor medium, it is incredibly popular in developing countries and under repressive regimes. Shortwave is more like the internet than the internet.

Shortwave frequencies can reach just about anywhere on earth because they are short waves (hence the name) and ultra bouncy. They just zing off the ionosphere and POW! You’re listening to China, or Radio Oman, or Brother Stair from Walterboro, South Carolina. To listen, it’s best to be in a clear area — the woods, a mountaintop — and to wait until night.

Shortwave is a medium of secret confidences. It feels like eavesdropping. It’s an intimate, clandestine thrill. You can listen in to your neighbors, to far-flung countries, to the universe itself. That computer voice reciting a sequence numbers? Spies use those to decode messages, still. That regular clicking sound? It’s not a clock – it’s a quasar, the most energetic object in the universe. That fuzz and hiss? That sound like popcorn? Could be an ATM down the block, could be a solar flare.

Here are some good shortwave links, if you’re interested:
A Shortwave New Year’s Celebration Around the World (http://www.pateplumaradio.com/genbroad/newyears.html)
Shortwave Central (http://mt-shortwave.blogspot.com/)
Guide to Shortwave Radio stations (http://www.shortwaveradio.com/)

January 5, 2011

High-Tech Mega-Incentives and the State of New York State

What price do New Yorkers pay for high-tech jobs?

I listened to Andrew Cuomo deliver his first State of the State speech on the radio this afternoon. Though it was admirably public and occasionally downright rousing, the speech—perhaps like Cuomo’s political agenda itself—came across as schizophrenic, at least to this listener.

Cuomo seems to be trying to balance contradictory impulses – (purported) fiscal conservatism and (alleged) political progressivism. On one hand, he committed to a broad spectrum of laudable social justice goals: green jobs, minority and woman-owned businesses, reformed juvenile justice facilities, marriage equality and urban green markets.

Kings of Industry! Andrew Cuomo needs your help!

On the other hand, he squarely placed responsibility for the past and future success of New York State in the hands of industry. Cuomo exclaimed that a vibrant private sector is what made our state great and declared that under his governorship, New York will once again be “business-friendly.”

If there was one message that Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Dean Skelos—uncomfortably sharing their first stage—all agreed on, it was “Less government, more jobs.”

I find this sentiment baffling. Why do political leaders on both sides of the aisle insist that the best way to add jobs to the economy is to, in Skelos’ words, “Empower business to succeed, and then get out of the way,” when taxpayers often pay an enormous price for jobs created in the private sector?

In my book, I talk about the price we pay, as community members and workers, for high-tech economic development. I write at length about the costs of high-tech growth: environmental degradation, increasing social inequality, political disenfranchisement, and amplified economic vulnerability for poor and working-class women and families.

For today, we’ll ignore more abstract costs to focus on direct taxpayer contributions to the “innovation economy,” the sector praised by Sheldon Silver as the solution to New York State’s unemployment woes. Let’s take just one example: the $4.2 billion semiconductor manufacturing plant being built in Malta, NY. Over the next 15 years, GlobalFoundries will receive $1.37 billion in financial incentives from the state to complete this project, including a $665 million capital grant and $700 million in Empire Zone credits (Pinho 2009).

In return, GlobalFoundries promises the state of New York 1,400 new permanent semiconductor manufacturing jobs, 5,000 permanent “indirect” jobs, 1,600 temporary construction jobs, and 2,700 temporary construction-related jobs.

So let’s do the math.

$1.37 billion in cash incentives and uncollected tax revenues


Permanent Employment:
1,400 new semiconductor manufacturing jobs
5,000 projected* indirect jobs
= 6,400 permanent jobs

2-Year Construction Phase Employment:
1,600 construction jobs
2,700 projected* construction-related jobs
=10,700 total jobs.


Cost to New Yorkers:
$978,571 per manufacturing job
$214,063 per projected permanent job
$128,037 per projected job (of any kind)

The 1.37 billion dollar taxpayer price tag does not include infrastructure investments in the Luther Forest Technology Campus, where the plant is being built. Nor does it include funding of research centers at local colleges and universities (such as Albany NanoTech) or the cost of educational undertakings to train workers for chip fabrication facilities.

What’s more, these numbers don’t say nearly enough about the quality or wages of the jobs GlobalFoundries has promised to create. They expect the plant to have an $88 million annual payroll when at full production, an average wage of around $66,000 for full time workers, and that “indirect” jobs will have an average salary of $40,400** (GlobalFoundries 2009).

It is well-documented that information economies are bifurcated, or two-tiered, with a small percentage of jobs going to highly-educated “knowledge” workers and a much larger percentage of jobs being created in the service economy that supports those workers. So, very conservatively, let’s estimate that 1/2 of the indirect jobs promised by GlobalFoundries will go to workers in the traditionally low-paying service industries.

Based on this estimate, New York taxpayers are paying $128,037 each for 10,700 jobs, even though 6,800 of those jobs (64%) will only last two years and/or will pay below a self-sufficiency wage. So if we count only decent jobs–those that last more than two years and pay above a poverty wage–New Yorkers are paying $351,000 a pop!

Incentives for business in New York State have become so expansive that the media invented a new name for them: Mega-Incentives. Mega-incentives beg big questions. In the drumbeat of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” why aren’t we talking about good jobs, jobs that can lift New York families out of poverty? And, for that matter, what would that 10 billion dollar budget gap everyone screamed about during the State of the State Address look like with all the ill-considered business incentives removed?

In these financially austere times, maybe we should consider taking high-tech industry off welfare.

* All of these job numbers are projected by GlobalFoundries. As no one else has thought to check their numbers, I guess we’ll just take their word for it.

** The average salary for indirect jobs will put many workers below the threshold of economic self-sufficiency in Saratoga County. For example, in 2010, the self-sufficiency wage for one working adult with a pre-school-aged child was $41,812, while the self-sufficiency wage for one working adult with an infant and a pre-schooler was $54,604 (Pearce 2010).

GlobalFoundries 2009. “GLOBALFOUNDRIES Breaks Ground on World’s Most Advanced Semiconductor Foundry,“ July 24, 2009 Press Release, available at: http://www.globalfoundries.com/newsroom/2009/20090724.aspx. Accessed Jan 5, 2011.

Pearce, Diana. 2010. “Self-Sufficiency Wage for Saratoga County, NY, 2010.” Available online at: http://www.nyscommunityaction.org/SelfSuffStandardFiles2010/CountyStats/NY10_Final_All_70_Families_Table_Saratoga.pdf. Accessed January 5, 2011.

Pinho, Rute. 2009. “Comparison of Tax Incentives for Manufacturers in New York and Connecticut.” Document 2009-R-0425, State of Connecticut General Assembly. Available online at: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2009/rpt/2009-R-0425.htm Accessed January 5, 2011.