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What Can a Body Do? book review

What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built WorldWhat Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World by Sara Hendren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: The author is a friend and a colleague. I have known her and her work for 10+ years. As part of the Awesome Foundation in Boston I helped select her Accessible Icon Project to receive a $1000 grant to print and distribute its graffiti stickers.

Though I know the author personally and have been excited for her fully realized thesis on disability and design, I am confident in saying this book deserves 5 stars for the last chapter alone. Hendren’s reflection on how she came to appreciate “crip time” as the parent of a son with Down syndrome is profoundly moving and insightful. The chapter is anchored by her honest retelling of the difficulty of shifting her mindset and moving past the dehumanizing and stigmatizing industrial age narratives of productivity, efficiency, and ordinality of people, by which medical professionals and many in society view her son. By connecting with a wider community of people with disabilities and those who love and respect them, she slowly refines a lens on the world that offers a better narrative, a society in which we choose humanity, dignity, and interdependency—a world we could build together.

The introduction to What Can a Body Do? sets the themes for the book—forcing us to rethink our conceptions of disability and people with disabilities and consider the innovative energy they have always brought to the world and how our world has been made better by it. When we understand that all technology is actually assistive technology and all bodies are different, we free ourselves from many limiting beliefs about what design is and should do. We also appreciate the beauty possible in all expressions of life and that we are all deserving of spaces and things that allow us to express ourselves.

I related to this book even though I am someone dripping with privilege and ability. White, male, cisgender, cissexual, able-bodied, and able-minded, I have few attributes that would be described as disability. My tallness is usually understood as a particularly desirable trait. But that does not mean that technology and the built world are necessarily friendly to me. This book gave me some language and perspective to make sense of my own experience. My body is not average. Fixed seats on buses and airplanes can be painfully uncomfortable to me. In fact, I am asked to pay more to find a seat that fits me on a flight. When bodies defy the narrow boundaries of “normal,” outliers like me can sometimes seek (or pay for) “accommodation” or they might be left out.

Mass production, just like the mass housing of people with disabilities to provide specialized medical care, is a modern phenomenon. We used to tailor clothing, furniture, spaces, and understood the members of our family with disabilities as family members, different like everyone was different. It took (and continues to take) disability-rights activists to shame us as a society into seeing the dehumanizing and disempowering ways we had built the world, assuming those with bodies and minds outside of the statistical average were not really a part of our world. In the process, these activists have given us curb cuts for parents with strollers and older people. They gave us spaces and mobility options reserved for people with disabilities, so that they can easily access public and private places through close parking spaces, ramps, and elevators. We all benefit from these features.

Through chapters challenging our preconceived notions about limbs, chairs, rooms, streets, and clocks, Sara Hendren provides a tour through the built world and we meet people who have met the challenges posed by a world not designed for them through invention, grace, and prophetic visions of what we could be and do together. I strongly recommend this book to my colleagues in the design and engineering fields but also to many interested in civics and democracy. The questions the author poses are about what we should value, how we should see ourselves in the world, how we should relate to one another, and how we define diversity, inclusion, and community.

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Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone book review

Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss it When It's GoneDemocracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the companion book to Astra Taylor’s excellent documentary What is Democracy? Many of the interviews, historical references, and scenes are fleshed out here and organized around a more pointed argument than the documentary offers. Where the film pursues curiosity about the true meaning of democracy and how it is meant to function through the lenses of historical definitions and contemporary history, Taylor’s book explores many of the tensions inherent to democracy to help us understand its fragility as a concept and practice and warn us that we are at risk of losing the bits of democracy we have established in modern times.

Democracy’s contradictions and tensions, especially its modern coevolution with capitalism, allow it to be exploited easily in ways that undermine its own ideals. Its strength and weakness is its fluidity. Most importantly, it is dependent on a shared belief of its citizens that this is how we want to govern ourselves, and a commitment to collaborate together to preserve it. This all makes democracy rare and precious and, as I said, fragile.

Taylor marshals a wide range of philosophy, literature, history, and contemporary commentary to present her case. The book is erudite and insightful in the juxtapositions in provides, like the movies Taylor makes as a skilled documentarian. At times, though, it feels a bit thrown together and winding. Being organized around themes, means it often lacks the compelling, cohesive narrative that makes you want to keep reading past the parts that don’t grab you as strongly. The book seems little confused about what it wants to be—straddling the line between an academic volume and a popular press book—but not quite succeeding as either. The book would have benefited from an edit developing stronger storytelling at the book and chapter levels to structure its narrative.

I still think Taylor’s contribution here as an amateur democratic theorist and observer of contemporary society is impressive. Right now, we are all looking for some guidance on how to make sense of democracy, and I think Taylor’s book will be instructive for many, especially in helping make sense of why democracy is not “the end of history,” but is rather an unlikely dance we have found ourselves in. And if we don’t pay attention and work together, “we’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

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Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America book review

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What did the “Old Left,” what Rorty calls the “reformist Left,” ever achieve? A lot, according to Richard Rorty in this set of lectures and notes.

The New Left, which Rorty calls the “cultural Left” is now the dominant form of Leftist politics in the United States, ascendant since the 1960s. Rorty, argues that they have largely forgotten their history, rather ironically, as they complain that every system is broken and that we don’t deserve the patriotic hopefulness that the U.S. traditionally inspires. With the decline of the Soviet Union and Marxism as a useful theory of history, this leaves the Left without a hopeful, unifying narrative—a vision. Multiculturalism, the dominant Leftist social theory and goal in the 1990s, is inherently divisive.

Rorty concedes that there has been value in the cultural Left, pointing a finger at the US’s history of (and ongoing) oppression against different groups. He can enumerate the cultural Left victories through identity politics that have produced dramatic increases in social acceptance of marginalized people and an unearthing of their histories and experiences for the public. However, writing in 1997, he sees all of these victories as evanescent without a willingness to work on reform: enacting laws and policies (that often require compromise) to secure good outcomes for people.

Rorty has little time for Marxist theories here. There is not a coming revolution by the working class (what is the working class now anyway?) because the relationships between capitalists and corporations and communities and people have been thoroughly transformed by globalization. We need the government more than ever to step in regulate the economy. We need reform and we need the recreate the alliance between the cultural Left and reformist Left to achieve it.

Both traditions agree that the work of the country is unfinished, that the United States and democracy is an ongoing project which we must continue to make progress on to realize better quality of life for all. Conservatives fought against all of the social democratic work achieved by the reformist Left under presidents like FDR and LBJ. These policies weren’t perfect and racism undermined the access to key resources and services, but the core vision was a decent one and deserving our efforts politically to expand them.

My favorite part of this book is Rorty’s deep love of the writing of Walt Whitman and John Dewey and their hopeful narratives of America. Rorty laments the abandonment of these narratives of “social hope” on the Left since the 1960s. The Left needs to be a politics of hope and needs to return to its pragmatic roots of labor organizing and power-building at all levels of society. The Left cannot simply focus on the abstract virtues of a progressive culture, retiring into academic enclaves and only turning out to the street to protest. The Left must commit to building electoral power and propose hopeful policies on every socioeconomic issue. Only then can we achieve our country.

I would imagine that Rorty (the Rorty I infer from this book) would be energized after Biden’s election. The rhetorical work of the Obama campaign emphasizing hope and building a broad coalition would have been exactly what he would have wanted. But then the campaign withered away rather than creating the kind of ongoing organizing effort it could have achieved at local, state, and national levels. Trump, which Rorty seems to have been predicted in these lectures, was allowed to become president because of the lack of the narrative of hope and an effort among the political class of the Left (Democrats) to move to the center further dividing the Leftist coalition and imploding the narrative of progress. Biden might represent a good bridge between the reformist Left and cultural Left if they can meet there through the work of figures like AOC and Stacy Abrams and willingness of leaders like Pelosi and Schumer and organizers like Color of Change to prevent another populist demagogue from selling false hope from the Right.

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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.