mediocre oblige

March 16, 2018

Civic tech, or at least my work in it, is largely about helping other people or improving some aspect of society for the public. It has not been about technologists using their technical skills and social power to advance their own material interests.

Such movements, of course, exist – the free software movement and the electronic civil liberties are two clear examples. However, the civic technologist labors for somebody else, or for everybody else, which is about the same thing.

This dislocation has a few sources.

One, a political program of empowering technologists, as a group, is not inspiring. As a group of workers, technologists are among the highest paid and highest status. From the outside, they are not the group I would prioritize to provide additional power and privileges. So, just as a matter of Darwinian selection, civic technologists argue that their work is for someone else. Arguments to justify government spending on open data, or grant funding for a civic tech project are made in terms of the benefit to some other public. People who don’t make these types of arguments don’t survive in civic tech, (not that many people do regardless). Please note that I am not saying these arguments are disingenuous.

Second, many of the technologists in civic tech are well aware how much better they have things than almost everyone else. They understand that they enjoy their position because of their command of a set of technical skills and capacities that are socially powerful. If they lent some of these special powers for good, that would be good. Many people come to civic tech with this redistributional mindset, a kind of noblesse oblige or maybe médiocre oblige.

This mindset sensitizes the technologist to their privileges, the often vast gulfs between status and material comfort between technologists and our neighbors. Insofar, as technologists are predominantly male, white, straight, and otherwise socially normative, these examinations and privileges can be far reaching indeed. In attending to inequity, the civic technologist often looks for opportunities to help close this gap. This typically turns into the idea of helping other people do better, instead of lowering the technologists own social position.

Third, as is probably true of most Americans, the people who are civic technologists don’t think of their own problems as public problems.

Let me make this a bit more concrete. I have a young son, less than two years old, and I live in a large American city. I’d like my son to go to a school that he enjoys and helps him flourish. Figuring out if that can happen for him in the public schools of Chicago is a source of concern, anxiety, and much, much, much discussion with friends who also have small children. In these discussions, we talk about we can do as families – move to a neighborhood with a school with a good reputation, try to navigate the selective enrollment process, or consider private schools.

We don’t talk about organizing together to demand that every school in Chicago is wonderful. It’s not because that seems like an large and indefinite amount of work. The strategy just doesn’t come up. For us, getting a good education for our children is each family’s responsibility, not a public responsibility.

This lack of imagination is the difference between privilege and power.

I would like to live in a school district where the decision of where to send you kid was of absolutely no consequence, because all the schools would good. And not for equity, for my own self interest.

I would like to move into any apartment or house and not worry that it was poisoning my child. And not for equity, but for my own self interest.

As a South Sider, I would like it if the Metra Electric District had regular, frequent service and not just at rush hour. And not for equity, but for my own self interest.

What would happen if civic technologists looked to their own lives and thought about their problems as public? It is certainly true that if we are concerned with equity, we will recognize that solving some of our problems would bring harm to people more oppressed than us. However, for many problems, we might actually recognize the other not as someone for us to aid, but someone to struggle with.

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