2017 Outro — Mike Gurstein + Benevolent Tech + Thankful I Was Wrong

I’ve already written about my main event of 2017.

My daughter was diagnosed with a non-cancerous tumour. The experience turned my interest in openness into a more personal commitment to the work. But the story I wrote earlier this year ends on a cleaner note than what happened next. Following surgery, the mass under my daughter’s eye grew back.

She’s in her seventh month of weekly chemotherapy, which as I learnt, can be used for non-cancerous growths too. It’s a process that may go on for two years. For me, there is a mix of gratitude, guilt, pain, and hope involved in frequenting the cancer floor at Sick Kids hospital, and being in the hospital period. But hope is a big one. One thing I think often when I’m there is something I heard once, and have no idea about attribution — we didn’t come this far to come this far.

2017 saw no shortage of the tales of Internet trouble. The dopamine references, the attention economy, surveillance, robots, the data and the backlashes, AI and algorithms, power and politics and access. A strong tendency to all things dystopian. I chimed in, I’m part of it.

Near the end of the year, Michael Gurstein died. Michael was a pioneer in thinking about technology and social justice. His 2015 words are with me as we head into a year where talk of digital literacy is on the rise. I think he’d be glad to see the conversation shifting from access to the Internet to effective use of the Internet. One of Mike’s major contributions in the field of community informatics was to talk about effective use, to push beyond having the internet and into using it. This post, “Why I’m Giving Up on the Digital Divide” is a must-read. I’m not giving you the best bits here and if you don’t have much time ditch me and read him instead. From the post:

“So please, can we once and for all drop the Digital Divide posturing and either address the real issues of social justice that are emerging in, on and through the Internet or be transparent with the obvious reality that the Internet overlords and their academic, technical community and civil society hirelings want nothing more in their various gatherings and pronouncements, than to get on with the business of figuring out how to make the rich richer and the rest of us grin and bear it while thanking the 1% for the privilege.”

The dystopian tales about data, surveillance, control, and corruption — Michael wrote on them frequently. These narratives picking up speed in popular culture reveal two things to me. The first is that we’re getting closer to the issues we need to reckon with, and that it’s not too late. The second is that we’ve culturally accepted a dangerous myth.

That myth is that the tech we use as individual consumers is what tech means. In 2018 let’s stop talking about Silicon Valley as tech and start talking about Silicon Valley as business.

Tech, as science, includes a list of constantly astounding things we can use in many civic contexts and applications, health care included. Tech is connected to and part of a long tradition of open science. This is important to build into the core of work on digital literacy. Digital literacy cannot become shorthand for employment skills. There is too much more that it means — politically, artistically, socially, culturally, and scientifically.

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We have a great shot at reclaiming the narrative around tech by doing this. Using tech to help rebuild institutions and organizations and solve problems that seem impossible but aren’t. This includes work with the private sector, always has always will, but in ways that government well defines and manages. The environment is one area I think a lot about. So are unions and non-profits. And government, as always, in the context of how tech can support public service delivery. Tech is not as important as funding what needs to be funded, listening to those that know about the earth, or outlawing what needs to be outlawed, but it’s important and holds great potential all the same.

To that end, a note about open data, and how it connects to these themes and this work. I began working with open data because it presented an appealing opportunity to support better public conversation, consultation, and ultimately, policy and democracy. I still believe that. The more we can all see the same information about hard decisions the more we can participate in making them and accepting them.

But sometime in October I had one of those nights where I went from lying down to sitting up ramrod straight and realizing I totally missed something. In three years of open data work, I missed a big thing.

The commercial application of open data was always there. The transit apps, the civic tech. A range of great businesses and new services slowly emerging. This is good stuff. No problem.

But this year I started to see the Internet of Things come online with a smart city project being proposed here in Toronto. It has me thinking much harder about the commercial impact of data, and the policies and laws we’ll need to make sure that our data is managed in a way that benefits the people and systems that generate it — we the people of our cities and our government.

I was wrong in this piece I wrote in that I suggested we should make open data a law not a policy. I’m grateful for our government and public service that we haven’t rushed in. You were right Frank D’Onofrio. Need to think about this all more, and think about it together.

I’ll end on an upswing and with a book recommendation — Futurability by Franco “Bifo” Berardi got me thinking. One thing that’s stuck with me from his book is basically that the technology community leaves the factory with the means of production in its head. Yeah I know there’s still hardware but you know what I mean. Something to think on. See you next year. Feeling good about it.

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