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reposted from the critical theory and information studies PhD seminar blog

For the past several months, a network of bay area activists and artists have been staging protests surrounding a fleet of luxury coach buses. These private buses regularly use public bus stops to pick up hi-tech employees from San Francisco and shuttle them to Silicon Valley. The buses are used by a range of tech companies, but the protests have become known as the “Google Bus” protests.

 

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

 

Following the initial protests, local officials were relatively quick to come to an agreement that involved the shuttle companies paying the city a one dollar fee for every time a bus uses a public bus stop. The particular details of this private-bus-on-public-bus-stop situation are somewhat banal, to the extent that most highways and roads in the US, could be described as public infrastructure that supports the use of private automobiles. But such a reading, fails to get to the heart of the matter, nor does it allow one to fully appreciate why the “Google Bus” is a fascinating object to put at the center this discussion.

As a site of protest and class antagonism, the “Google Bus” functions as both a literal expression of privatized infrastructure, and a symbolic expression of economic inequality. Through this lens, the buses should be read as one small part of a complex set of entangled systems, that define the current conditions and flow of urban life. While an account of the these systems would include food, education, healthcare, waste management, water and power, communications, and transportation, it is housing, or housing policy, that is arguably at the center of this discussion. While there are a range of rent control and preservation policies that are unique to San Francisco, the unbridled “success” of the one percent, the suppression of real wages for working and middle class households, and a failure of civic imagination, are national trends, and have directly translated into rising rent and greater precariousness for working people. The average rental costs, for most major US cities, has exceeded the recommended 30% mark of  household income. In Los Angeles, where I’m writing from, the median rent has increased by 25% in the last 12 years, and more than half of the population pays rent that exceed 30% of their income. Across California, roughly 20% of households spend more than 50% of their income on rent.

The architect-artist Teddy Cruz argues that we have entered into an era of “urban crisis,” where most major cities around the world are characterized by dramatic social-economic inequality. In a collaborative lecture with political scientist Fonna Forman, the two argue that historic notions of happiness have directly translated into the design of cities. From Aristotle’s conception that happiness coming from our capacity to collaborate with our peers, to modernist notions of happiness coming from personal pleasure; the urban landscape has shifted from cities that centered around public commons, to enclaves of private space. For Forman and Cruz, this spatial architectural shift, is accompanied by the decline of “civic imagination,” and our sense of social responsibility.

 

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

 

In San Francisco, like many other cities, the social contracts of solidarity have long been broken. Whether it be personal stories of senior citizens and longtime residents being evicted, or the gradual erosion of opportunity for working people, the Google bus protests mark the continuation of working class protest and struggle. While one could situate, some of the more expressive moments of the Google bus protests within a genealogy of activist art, or regional traditions of San Francisco pranksters and interventionists, the critical themes motivating the work has a strong connection to the history of rent strikes. While the labour movement has been largely organized to combat worker exploitation – abolition of child labour, promotion healthier work conditions, fair wages, job security et cetera; residential rent is also one of the major ways wealth is extracted from the working class.

The history and logic of urban life can largely be understood as an expression of class hierarchy and antagonism. The very systems that support and manage urban life, often reinforce the socio-economic divisions of privilege and oppression. Reflecting this structural dynamic, there is a history of socialist and union organized residential rent strikes. In the UK and other social democracies, rent strikes are identified as part of the historic prelude to the formation of publicly owned social housing. In the US, rent strikes played a direct role in the short-term lowering of rents and the promotion of regional rent protection laws.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

 

In the case of the recent bus protests, locating the protests along the transportation system, foregrounds an intuitive understanding that urban life is defined by an assemblage of related systems. When taken to its rational conclusion, one will inevitably arrive at a socio-ecological orientation. That is to say, the accounting of corporate profits, doesn’t acknowledge the true social and environmental costs enabling business as usual to happen. A holistic account of urban life is a prerequisite of a more equitable “civic imagination.”

In California, many have been quick to present a supply-and-demand analysis of the “rental crisis,” but a free-market approach is not going to resolve the layered problems we face. For one, there is little incentive for for-profit real-estate developers and landlords to undo the very market conditions that are creating substantial profits. Nationally, the US federal government should make considerable investments in affordable housing, to be released as regional grants. Regionally, the combination of a affordable housing trusts, that would keep large collections of housing stock outside of the market, along with universal rent control, and the creation of rent-to-own policies, or the expansion of subsidized mortgages for the remaining private housing stock, are a few possibilities for addressing the issue of affordable housing.

I want to conclude this text, by directing our attention to the “Freedom Budget,” a comprehensive proposal written by civil rights and labour activists in 1965. The “Freedom Budget” summarized its goals with the following list:

1) the abolition of poverty
2) guaranteed full employment
3) full production and high economic growth
4) adequate minimum wages
5) farm income parity
6) guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
7) a decent home for every American family
8) modern health services for all
9) full educational opportunity for all
10) updated social security and welfare programs
11) and equitable tax and money policies

 

References

Dewan, Shaila. “In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Freedom Budget.” – Social Justice Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/Freedom_Budget#The_Budget.27s_Proposals

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.

“High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC.” High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

KPCC in Los Angeles, produced an interactive map illustrating the rental costs and income ratio for the greater LA region. http://projects.scpr.org/static/longreads/high-rent-few-options/

“How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) | TechCrunch.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. An overview of the regional dynamics and history of San Francisco’s housing crisis. http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Nichols, John. The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011. Print.

“The Urbanization of Happiness and the Decline of Civic Imagination with Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. Lecture about the history of happiness and urbanization https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK33-qDLCow

“Why the Private Market Can Never Solve SF’s Housing Crisis – 48 Hills.” 48 Hills. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

SF housing crisis and affordable housing alternatives. http://48hillsonline.org/2014/04/14/private-market-can-never-solve-sfs-housing-crisis/

 

Excerpts from the original text. Click on the title below to find the original essay by Ramesh Srinivasan.

Local-Global: Reconciling Mismatched Ontologies in Development Information Systems

Abstract

‏This paper extends pre-existing digital divide conceptualizations to further investigate the important issue of mismatches between the ontologies of state-created information systems and local, community preferences. We argue that the reconciliation of these diverse logics and framings is critical for the effective engagement with communities as well as formulation and implementation of development policies around information systems. We suggest several paths toward overcoming mismatched ontologies that would enable communities to be directly involved and productively engaged in developing shared ontologies. These mechanisms would also help policymakers to avoid ‘information loss’ of ontology mismatches while preserving their ability to develop scalable, comparative perspectives to guide policies.

1. Introduction

“Waterlogging” is a perennial complaint in cities in Karnataka, India. A few hours of rain can turn a dry street to a rushing torrent, while a burst pipe or a blocked drain can turn a pedestrian crossing into a treacherous lake. Local newspapers are full of photos, bus stops and public places full of discussion. Yet city data on public grievances contains no record of “waterlogging” – instead there are recorded incidents of storm drains in need of desilting, storm drains in need of repair, leaking pipes, choked underground drains. These are the categories that citizens can choose from to report the puddles – which may very well look the same regardless of origin – via cities’ Public Grievance and Redressal Systems. [65]

Communities may in fact form and self-define around shared ontologies, constructed and re-constructed fluidly [50] through shared social and cultural activities and the ever-changing lived experiences of their members. Our use of ontology does not imply a reified nor exoticized model of ‘pastness’ or ‘locality’ that ignores flows of interaction that shape communities over time [2], but merely implies a distinction between groups’ mental maps of their surroundings.
The information loss between communities’ and states’ ontologies, on the other hand, is likely to be greater. The state ‘meta ontology’ sheds much of the local context in order to ensure tractable management for policy purposes including, especially, taxation, defense, provision of infrastructure and services, and economic management.[68,1,46]

Mismatched ontologies contribute to: (a) ineffective delivery of information services to communities; (b) insufficient participation and interaction with local communities; and importantly, and (c) ‘information loss’ that affects states’ abilities to effectively deliver goods, services, and development-supporting interventions.

2. The power of ontologies, the problem of information loss

The problem is especially pervasive for economic development policy, in which states’ goals are (at least normatively) defined in terms of individuals’ utility, or sense of wellbeing. Some of the most prominent formulations of “development” measure progress in terms of achievements that only make sense with reference to individuals’ or communities’ ontologies.

Censuses often group individuals as employed or unemployed, there is no reason that they could not also include categories for happily employed and unhappily employed as well. Governments often base the relations in their ontologies on those derived by the scientific method; there is no reason that they could not also incorporate folkloric relations that guide community perceptions.

The limitations on how much information can feasibly be aggregated through group decision making to determine social choices have been formally and extensively explored in social choice theory. [3, 5]

Every explicit effort to document a territory, such as a census, is based on particular claims of how a community is to be measured, how the boundaries of a community are to be determined, what counts as an activity, and how these collected data points are to be connected and compared. [61, 55] These claims may be motivated by politics [43, 31] or determined by administrative and technological feasibility of data collection, storage, and retrieval.

Researchers and citizens are less able to challenge the meta ontology when they cannot model and demonstrate the validity of local restrictions, practices, events, and entities according to community ontologies. States’ dominant position in the supply of data will likely change over time as the costs of collection, compilation, storage, and dissemination of community-produced data continue to decline. But even then, states’ authority may privilege conclusions drawn from “official” versus non-state produced data.

This discussion, therefore, leaves us with some important questions concerning the extent to which data models and sociotechnical systems optimize between local sustainability and cross-community scaleability? Or, is there a way in which community activities can be viewed and monitored from the birds-eye by the states while still preserving the local nuances?

3. Bridging local and global

We close this paper by reflecting on several ways in which information loss can be reduced. This section offers three possibilities, each the basis of ongoing research:

1) Developing collaborative and inclusive ontologies. Systems that engage communities to dynamically model their relationship to the information they are provided, around local categories, and fluid relationships between these, have been used sustainably and innovatively in cross-cultural local community contexts [e.g; 34, 45, 37]

2) Harnessing technology to ensure more effective dissemination of existing information in a form that enables communities to engage with and reorganize data in accordance with local ontologies.

3) Rethinking policymaking to decentralize more decision making to subnational and local governments that may operate on ‘less-meta’ ontologies that lose less information relative to community ontologies.

3.1. Collaborative and inclusive ontologies

Fluid ontologies, in their most localized form, involve content creators and multiple stakeholders in the direct crafting of categories and data representations so as to ensure that the information they interact so as to ensure that information is presented, retrieved, preserved, and shared around relevant categorical and relational attributes that are sensible to the community in particular [50].

We believe that these creative and local uses of tagging, rating, and other types of Web 2.0 technologies present powerful opportunities to adapt and edit a meta ontology and reconcile it with local practices.

3.2. Improved and interactive dissemination

Technology is also important for ensuring that information dissemination is as flexible as possible, so that communities can interact with the data stored in meta-ontologies in the manner that they see fit.

3.3. Institutional design

Policy decentralization can mitigate information loss by empowering decisionmakers with ‘less meta’ ontologies to respond to community needs.

….dark side, however, in that it can allow locally powerful groups to unduly influence policies in their favor rather than the community interest. [Grindle])

3. Conclusions

We have argued that information loss due to mismatch between community ontologies and the meta ontologies that states act upon has serious consequences for the efficacy of state policies, especially those aimed at accelerating development.

We are not the first to point out the defects of centralized planning and the hubris of states.

The paper does offer a new perspective on this long-recognized problem, however, by re- conceptualizing information loss as a kind of communication failure that can be increasingly mitigated through technology as well as addressed through institutional redesign.

Normative considerations, aside, progress in reducing information loss ultimately comes down to understanding the positive political economy of states’ efforts to form, maintain, and rely on data organized in meta ontologies as the basis for action. What are states’ incentives to adopt recommendations such as those mentioned above, and can they find a point of reconciliation with community-driven, local ontologies? This remains the key question.