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Ill Fares the Land book review

Ill Fares the LandIll Fares the Land by Tony Judt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The West has forgotten its hard-won wisdom from the first half of the 20th Century. The political Left lost its way in the heady days of neoliberal economic dogma and assumptions about believing the inexorability of both peace post-Cold War and of globalization in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Meanwhile, the political Right, searching for identity after the Left took over centrist politics, adopted the mantle of nationalism and authoritarianism in response to inequality producing insecurity and political division.

In this brilliant analysis, Tony Judt reminds us why we created social democracies across Europe and North America following the world wars, foregrounding the wisdom of Keynes as a keen observer and architect of early 20th century history, politics, and economics. There are certain things only governments can do: ensure that economic gains do not unfairly accrue to the few (as capitalism is designed to do) and construct and maintain infrastructure and utilities that markets can never get right because they will always be natural monopolies and inefficient when provided equally (e.g. public transportation, the postal service). Social welfare programs ensure a basic human quality of life, which is all the more important when there are major disruptions in the economy (e.g. depressions/recessions, shifts between major industries and employment needs, automation).

When people lose jobs and perceive unequal economic outcomes among their fellow citizens, they get pissed. They feel insecure. They are susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians who promise stability and deflect the blame toward people that don’t look like them. This is how we ended up with fascism, with virulent nationalism that precipitates wars between groups and nation-states.

We were sold lies by neoliberal economists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, who misread history and mistook the postwar stability as inevitable as opposed to carefully constructed to ensure those terrible wars and the social inequality that preceded them would not return. We attacked “socialism” because it was politically convenient during the Cold War era, especially in the United States. It turns out everyone loves the stability of social security and Medicare, but they fail to realize that they are the product of a hard-won negotiation between capitalism (that is always captured by special interests without regulation) and socialism (that tries to blow up everything to create an elusive utopia). The product was social democracy.

Judt argues that the Left needs to be a bit more conservative in defending the value of social democracy and not give in to neoliberal dogmas about economics and the role of government. And we all need to remember that inequality within democracies are the causes of so much social turmoil. Democracy is delicately maintained because we observe a shared responsibility for our collective well-being. When inequality produces insecurity, democracy is easily lost as people pine for authoritarian programs of “law and order” and nationalist calls to fight against “others.”

Identity politics can help us understand the ways inequality plays out and have achieved limited wins for different groups, which feels like the only thing worth fighting for when the political landscape as a whole seems otherwise unresponsive. But it also distracts us from the core questions of what our governments should be doing.

If I could hand out copies of one book to elected officials, it might be this one. Tony Judt writing in 2010 explains how we get to Donald Trump and is prescient about the problems we are facing and what it will take to address them by reclaiming the value of social democracy.

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Civic Education is the Civic Technology We Need Most

This essay was submitted to National Academies’ Idea Competition for Symposium on Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education. You can download a PDF version of this essay here.


Civic technology is an amplifier. It amplifies democracy by applying technology.

Democracy × TechnologyCivic

The technology part of this equation has been doing pretty well. Technology keeps advancing, making certain things easier and more efficient. There are also exciting movements in technology meant to instill public purpose among technologists. Code for America followed by the United States Digital Service and 18F have provided an outlet for technologists eager to build technology that allows governments to be more effective and accountable to citizens. Public Interest Technology, advanced by several prominent foundations, offers a framework for encouraging STEM professionals to engage in politics and policy and more broadly find their bearings by serving the public interest. The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program seeks to enlarge the definition of the competencies STEM graduates need in order to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges. I celebrate these movements and participate in them.

The democracy part of the equation has been struggling. There is low trust in democratic institutions around the world. Surveys show declines in young people believing that living in a democracy is essential.1 civic engagement at all levels of collective governance. Scholars and journalists have given various reasons for civic engagement’s decline: dwindling enrollments in informal organizations like bowling leagues, the rise of cable television and the internet, newfound awareness of corrupt and racist politicians and policies, and hyperpartisan politics touching every issue and locality. As threats to democracy mount, civic education as a component of primary, secondary, and higher education has gone missing in many schools or, where it still exists, represents antiquated notions of democracy and America.

We are failing to appreciate that civic education is our most important civic technology. While technologists working on civic projects often mean well and make helpful contributions, we will never recover our democracy or realize the true potential of civic technology if we don’t revitalize civic education.

A 2014 study of engineering students by sociologist Erin Cech finds evidence that the culture of engineering seems to weaken students’ beliefs in their professional.2 In 2020, a cascade of headlines points to ways digital technologies are threatening justice, privacy, and democracy, and the political battles over COVID-19 have exposed deep mistrust of experts in science and medicine. Between now and 2040, our need for civic-minded STEM graduates will only grow.

We need a civic professionalism movement anchored in transformative civic education curricula built inseparably into every undergraduate STEM program.

A revitalized civic education acknowledges fundamental shifts in society and democratic practice and expands its definition of where democracy starts—not with voting but with citizen cooperation. Civic education begins in childhood, but STEM professionals also need educational experiences that help them recognize their profound roles and responsibilities as citizens. We need to entwine technical literacy and civic literacy. We need civic professionals in STEM, who think first as citizens, practice their profession in deeply democratic ways, and build civic technology as expressions of the identities they have developed through years of civic education.

Democratic educator Harry Boyte has written and advocated for constructing professional identities like the “citizen engineer,” an engineer who acknowledges the public dimensions of their work, not separating their citizen identity from their engineer identity.3 Democratic theorist Albert Dzur gives us the idea of “democratic professionalism” as power sharing.4 Civic professionals embrace multiple forms of expertise, complementing their specialized skills with the unique experiences of fellow citizens to solve difficult problems. These open and accountable collaborations build public trust in professionals through mutual respect and shared struggle.

Civic professionals must also learn to embrace the political dimensions of their work, acknowledging the ways that technical work is always situated in particular contexts and depends on certain structures and policies that serve some ideas, people, and outcomes well and others poorly. Cech’s research with higher education professional Heidi Sherick has found depoliticization of work to be one of the problematic pillars of engineering culture.5 Science and engineering are not cleanly separable from the rest of society. That mindset robs our democracy of STEM’s public purpose and accountability. Instead, civic professionals should aspire toward what Boyte calls “public work,” committing to models of co-creation, joint problem solving, and shared ownership.6 Public work binds us together in our shared citizenship and represents the foundational elements of democracy as a project of collective governance.

Education scholar Carolin Kreber envisions forging civic professional identities through transformative experiences in undergraduate education.7 A transformative STEM civic education is action-oriented and community-engaged, forcing us to challenge and revise our assumptions, values, and identities. It asks students to practice their profession in partnership with the public at the beginning of their training. Working with citizens outside of the classroom helps cultivate civic-mindedness. A civic professional’s new competencies include being able to frame a complex problem in partnership with community members who may not possess technical knowledge but whose lived experiences lead to the right questions and priorities necessary to setting a research and design agenda.

This is the future of STEM education our world needs most, reclaiming the public purpose of higher education and rebuilding trust in professions. During the next 20 years, society will continue to ask STEM graduates and the technology they create to solve its thorniest challenges. We need civic professionals in STEM who understand and identify with a much deeper sense of their public purpose, who are prepared to amplify our collective effort as citizens.

  1. Foa, Roberto Stefan, and Yascha Mounk. 2017. “The Signs of Deconsolidation.” Journal of Democracy​ 28 (1): 5–16.
  2. Cech, Erin A. 2014. “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?” Science, Technology, & Human Values​ 39 (1): 42–72.
  3. Boyte, Harry. 2008. The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make A Difference​. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
  4. Dzur, Albert W. 2010. Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice.University Park, PA: Penn State University Press. Dzur, Albert. 2018. Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Cech, Erin A., and Heidi M. Sherick. 2015. “Depoliticization and the Structure of Engineering Education.” In ​International Perspectives on Engineering Education: Engineering Education and Practice in Context, Volume 1​, edited by Steen Hyldgaard Christensen, Christelle Didier, Andrew Jamison, Martin Meganck, Carl Mitcham, and Byron Newberry, 203–16. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  6. Boyte, Harry. 2004. Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Kreber, Carolin. 2016. Educating for Civic-Mindedness.New York: Routledge.

Race After Technology book review

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin delivers a powerful synthesis of STS and critical race theory. She diagnoses a series of problems plaguing the creation and effect of design and technology, drawing throughlines from historical through contemporary examples. If pressed for time, the lengthy introduction chapter summarizes her core argument both about the existence of the “New Jim Code” and need for abolitionist tools to dismantle it and the need for analyses and lens like she offers in this book that bring together STS and critical race theory.

She offers us four dimensions to the New Jim Code: engineered inequity, default discrimination, coded exposure, and technological benevolence/beneficence, each of which is described in Chapters 1-4, respectively. As she summarizes on page 47 of the Introduction: 1) “engineered inequity explicitly works to amplify social hierarchies that are based on race, class, and gender and how the debate regarding ‘racist robots’ is framed in popular discourse”; 2) “default discrimination grows out of design processes that ignore social cleavages” and when “tech developers do not attend to the social and historical context of their work”; 3) coded exposure is about the ways that technologies enable differential visibility and surveillance that often fall along racial lines; and 4) technological benevolence interrogates the problematic efforts and claims of “tech products and services that offer fixes for social bias.”

In her last chapter, Benjamin tries to imagine what an abolitionist toolkit would require to address the New Jim Code. As primarily a book of theoretical synthesis, her toolkit leans heavily on other frameworks like the Design Justice principles and the recommendations Virginia Eubanks articulates in her essential book Automating Inequality, also it celebrates the work of those developing approaches for auditing technology like algorithms. The key work done by the last chapter though is articulating the need for new “social imaginaries.” Building on the work of Black science fiction writers, Black new feminist theory, and the prophetic speech tradition integral to the Civil Rights Movement (think “I have a dream”), Benjamin’s call for abolitionist and liberatory design and technology is one of narrative. What is the future we want to live in and how do we describe it to ourselves and those around us? How do we see ourselves bringing that future into being? How do we dramatically redefine or expand our efforts of inclusion in design practices and the expansion of who is called a “designer” to those situated in society in ways and with expertise not usually invited explicitly or implicitly into design?

While this is definitely a scholarly manuscript, it reads easily and quickly for social theory. If you are working in the areas of UX design/research, AI, tech ethics, tech criticism, technology and politics, or race and technology, this is going to be essential reading. I expect to be recommending this to my engineering students for years to come.

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Designing Social Impact Metrics for Civic Technology

Designing Social Impact Metrics for Civic Technology

by Alisa Zomer, Erhardt Graeff, and Kelly Zhang

Bringing together partners from the US (POPVOX) and South Africa (Grassroot), we tested a new format to co-develop metrics and civic technology in an iterative design process.

This year’s largest civic technology gathering of practitioners and researchers (#TICTeC) took a hard look at the state of civic technology (i.e. Are we now in the fourth wave? Is it a sea change movement or has civic tech lost its relevance?). Focusing on questions of measuring impact, our team, including Erhardt Graeff from Olin College and Alisa Zomer and Kelly Zhang from MIT GOV/LAB, put together a design sprint workshop with partners POPVOX (U.S) and Grassroot (South Africa). The aim of our session was to kick-start an iterative design process to integrate social impact metrics into platform design from the very beginning, not as afterthought.

What does this mean in practice?

Erhardt Graeff at TICTeC 2019
Erhardt Graeff at TICTeC 2019.

As Erhardt discussed in recent work, impact for civic technology is often measured using basic descriptive data from the platform itself, including number of users, repeat users, time spent on the platform, etc.; however, these engagement metrics mostly fail to speak to the social impact goals at the heart of civic technology. In some cases, surveys are conducted where users rate their experiences on a platform, which can be helpful for troubleshooting user experience design problems. But answering the real question of social impact (i.e. has the platform changed outcomes, either beliefs or behavior) demands a different kind of metric.

In our workshop, we introduced an approach that starts by articulating what change you want to see—do you want to empower ordinary citizens to take a particular action (e.g., petition, protest, vote)? Or, do you want to see local government have a specific response (e.g., budget allocation, new legislation, improved service provision)?

Depending on the intended change, there is often relevant research to help in the design process. A wealth of research exists on what incentivizes or prevents citizens from engaging with their government, how to build strong grassroots movements, and also what barriers or opportunities present on the government side. Building on this knowledge, our goal is to bridge theory with design in a way that aligns with achieving and measuring social impact.  

For POPVOX, a platform to improve dialogue between citizens and government in the US, they ask: How might we measure participants’ understanding of government processes, comfort engaging, and sense that their voice matters? One approach taken by Erhardt previously is to measure perceived political efficacy (or the belief that you can influence or affect political change) in his work with SeeClickFix. He adapted a number of oft-used national survey questions for internal and external political efficacy to examine the context of city residents requesting their local governments fix the things they care about, finding correlations between government responsiveness on the platform and active users’ perceptions that their local governments were listening to them.

Screenshots from Marci Harris’s presentation on POPVOX’s platform
Screenshots from Marci Harris’s presentation on POPVOX’s platform.

Grassroot, which provides low-tech, low-cost tools for grassroots organizers working primarily with low income groups in South Africa, posed the following: How might we measure the ways in which social movement organizations grow and build capacity? Their main design constraints include a consistently unresponsive government and social movement organizations that have strong initial momentum but then steeply decline.

Screenshots from Luke Jordan’s presentation on Grassroot’s platform
Screenshots from Luke Jordan’s presentation on Grassroot’s platform.

Dividing into small groups, we tackled these design prompts to come up with relevant and feasible metrics, explain why they matter, and what data would be needed to measure them.

Sprinting for impact

Design sprinting in 70 minutes is not for the faint of heart, but we forewarned participants and the end results were a good start to a longer process. For Grassroot, some of the suggestions included looking at leadership development within organizations over time, assessing media visibility as a proxy for reach outside the movement, and measuring interactions between organizers across multiple policy issues. For POPVOX, suggestions included design features that notified citizens when officials read comments in order to build in some measure or response and trust-building.

In the coming months, both teams plan to move these pilots forward, building on the outcomes of the TICTeC workshop.

Workshop descriptions and slides available online. For more information, contact the MIT GOV/LAB at mitgovlab@mit.edu or Erhardt Graeff at erhardt@erhardtgraeff.com.

All event photos from Brian David Films

This report is cross-posted at the MIT GOV/LAB blog.

Emergent Strategy book review

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing WorldsEmergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a powerful book. Though still young, adrienne maree brown has evidently lived many lifetimes at the vanguard of contemporary social movements. And she has earned a lot of wisdom through tough trials, a world of mentors, and deep reflection and practice.

Part call to action, part self-help book, part memoir, part transformative justice toolkit, Emergent Strategy is as intersectional in its genre and dimensions as it is in its politics. And these overlapping qualities embrace the concept of “emergence” at the heart of its narrative.

brown quotes leadership guru Nick Obolensky’s definition, “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” She combines this concept and the underlying examples of emergence and chaos theory from nature with stories of movement building and her own deep study of Octavia Butler’s science fiction. Butler demonstrates for brown a way to use “visionary fiction” to articulate a vision of the world in which we practice a strategy for survival that is radically inclusive, democratic, and cooperative, counter to the hierarchical, competitive, and militaristic articulations of post-apocalyptic societies that generally dominate such literature.

Sharing the stories of her own work as executive director of Ruckus Society, facilitator and organizational change strategist, doula, and dear friend and sister, brown illustrates the principles and protocols of emergent strategy: fractals (the relationship between small and large), intentional adaption (how we change), interdependence and decentralization (who we are and how we share), nonlinear and iterative (the pace and pathways of change), resilience (how we recover and transform), and creating more possibilities (how we move towards life). Having shared an early version of the book with colleagues, mentors, and friends, brown incorporates their wisdom and stories offered in response, which serves to strengthen and underline her arguments for how the personal and community capacities for emergent strategy can make the difference between growing movements and stifling them.

While there are several “how-to” sections to the book that offer specific “spells” for personal growth or tools for facilitation, Emergent Strategy is much more than a how-to guide and deserves to be read as a series of meditations. Really, this is a book about developing a visionary orientation. How can you change how you see the world and help those around you change how they see it? How can you build the relationships that make it possible for us to live and work together toward a better future? How can you be honest, humble, and willing to keep learning and practicing?

Too often activists and organizers are looking for tactics, when they need to be developing strategy. At the heart of organizing is the use of relationship-building to develop the capacity of individuals and communities to find a common ground strategy and make change when the moment demands it. The messy process that births a social movement is emergent strategy. While there has been a lot of terrific scholarship on social movements like the Civil Rights Movement, it’s still incredibly hard to put a finger on what makes something like that work—there is so much complexity. But our capacity to respond and iterate through that complex landscape and handle the chaos of real humans working at massive scales are skills we can develop intentionally. And perhaps the best starting point will be brown’s book—a must read for students of civic and political engagement.

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