Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Finally! Google Begins to Think Big (Big History, That is)

In a keynote address delivered to the Berlin Open Knowledge Festival earlier this year, Googler Eric Hysen set up some big stakes for Google's future: Google, he said, has not yet begun to think big.  To really think big, Google would need to start thinking about history, and to think about infrastructure in particular.

How is it that enormous shifts in economics and politics have been executed in our historical experience?  The industrial revolution and the creation of the modern nation-state both rest upon the building of physical infrastructure, and in particular, upon the building of roads.  If Google wants to really change our reality -- to stand up to promises that the internet can bring transparency to government, that it transform public policy and public health, or that it can actualize democracy through access to information -- then Google would do well to think about how material infrastructure creates revolutions in information, and how the information revolution of our own time is also an infrastructure revolution.  All of these points are picked up by Hysen's keynote.  He gets it: this is not the first time the world has been transformed by laying pipe and getting people together, and we can learn from the past how to do it better and aim for bigger successes than before.

What I hear in Hysen's speech is an important trend in the way certain individuals have begun to understand our world anew, a return to long-term thinking.  That means using history to map out where we are in the present, and to foreground how we might engage vast processes and macroscopic patterns (for instance, actualizing democracy, as Hysen urges Google to do).


Long-term thinking stands out in contrast with many of the ways that policy-makers and consultants urge us to think big, including measuring employment or bottom-line returns on investment -- both important numbers, to be sure, but often one-dimensional measures which in recent decades have served as a distraction from larger goals like political and market participation, income inequality, and ecological sustainability.

The history of long-term thinking, what it consists in, how it went away, and why it's coming back is in fact exactly what I've been writing about for most of this summer, as I've been putting the finishing touches on a new book, The History Manifesto, with my co-author, Harvard professor David Armitage (you can already read the pre-release version online, but you'll miss out on the chapters on inequality, climate change, participation, economists and their data -- so make sure to pre-order your copy of the book).  The way we tell it, our society is in a crisis of short-term thinking where almost no institution from the government to the board room to the NGO thinks on timescales longer than twenty years into the future.  Thinking longer around the bend than that, we argue, has traditionally required engaging experts who think more than twenty years into the past, and that means engaging with history.

Eric Hysen is a member of a new generation of recent college graduates whose questions about the future leave them unsatisfied with one-dimensional measurements.   Individuals like Eric bring questions about the past to bear on speculation about how world-systems change on enormous scales.

Indeed, Hysen is hoping to inaugurate exactly such a pivotal change in the institutions around him.  Hysen's role at Google is to oversee the development of open voting protocols and open government schemes.  His group has established important landmarks for how Google can automate and scale the process of voluntary hacker groups opening up their government's data, including setting up a digital infrastructure for licensing and sharing data across platforms.  "We're not living up to our potential," Hysen states, throwing down the gauntlet.  He looks back three hundred years, and comes up with the turnpike trust revolution of seventeenth-century England, which, as he states, helped to diminish the length of the average Cambridge student's journey to London from two days to seven hours.  To my mind, however, Hysen's talk stops short of its own ambitions, even while it looks in the correct direction.

In one very important detail, Hysen is looking in the wrong place -- or rather, that is to say, in the wrong time.   Hysen's talk explicitly points to the first chapter of the transport revolution, the creation of turnpike trusts by parliament, as an example of how private enterprises working with government support can revolutionize an economic system.  But much of what Hysen is interested in -- the standardization of milestones, the straightening of paths, the leveling of hills and filling in of ditches in order to create flat roads and thus shorter journeys -- was actually part of a slightly later revolution, not the turnpike revolution of 1660-1760, but the interkingdom highway revolution of 1785-1848.  It's that latter revolution that interested me, and I wrote a book about it, setting it out in the history of infrastructure from ancient Persia to the internet.  The interkingdom highway revolution -- not the turnpike trusts -- was the revolution that gave us the modern economy as we know it today.

What separates the two revolutions is a difference in scale that changed everything after in the face of capitalism and what we expected it to do.  In the turnpike revolution, a hundred road startups appeared and improved transportation for a few wealthy individuals, creating a map of affluent towns with cobblestone roads, kicking back the returns to their happy investors.  In the interkingdom highway revolution, those small road startups were bought out and grafted together by a government initiative that had a radical new purpose.  It wouldn't be roads just for the few and wealthy any more.  Now, roads would be built to the poorest communities, the ones that normally couldn't afford to link up with prosperous markets.  Before roads, capitalism was just mercantilism, a trading game for the rich and powerful.  After roads, we expected capitalism to flow horizontally.  A rising tide would float all boats. In many times and places, that miracle of capitalism meant running water, flush toilets, newspapers, and cheap housing for the poor, all delivered through the miracle of free roads, built by someone else, running straight up to the doorstep of every newborn infant in every modern nation.  Without doing anything, without working or deserving it, individuals were born connected.  They could opt out, like Thoreau, moving to the woods, but someone believed that they should have the chance to get to market if they wanted it.  So new-paved roads came to each newborn baby's door, and most of us spend our lives walking on sidewalks and roads built by other people for our enjoyment, without thinking much about how they get us to places where we work and spend and play. Infrastructure is mutual aid, frozen into the form of architecture.  It's the only form of capitalism most of us want any part in.

Consider the implications for Google.  Hysen has smart landmarks -- interoperable data, more regular voluntary hackathon events -- but few of them address this question of reaching people who are on the outside of the normal flow of capitalism.  As a result, Silicon Valley money, whether working in California or Berlin or Bangalore, tends to create a bubble world of privileged software developers creating apps to buy and sell bangles or cars or the best bike routes, mainly catering to other privileged folk of their own race and class.  Like the turnpike trusts of the seventeenth century, they improve a mile or two of road, serving a smooth ride to the the cream of the population.  But for everyone else, life goes on unchanged.


So what if Google took a page from history?  What if Google and the German national government decided that who they really wanted to serve was the slum residents of Dar es Salaam, or the inhabitants of the Zaatari refugee camp, or the citizens of Red Hook, to make sure that they had adequate access to material infrastructure like water-points, toilets, broadband cables and routers, and the tools to govern these systems themselves?  What if they decided, as the designers of the interkingdom highway revolution did, that it was worth a cut to their investors at present to build a larger system, one so different in ambition and scale that it would change everything?  They would be working on creating a state-change in the kind of capitalism and democracy we know today, as different as the world after the transportation revolution was from the world before it.

Google hasn't been in this game, but many ambitious activist groups have been -- ones dedicated to building the digital infrastructure for public participation in places where Google does not yet have a constituency.  These groups -- Geeks Without Bounds, Taarifa, Ushahidi, and Public Lab -- are mainly staffed by coders working for the public good.  Their model is entirely centered on bringing participation to the excluded -- that is, to teaching geeks how to design the infrastructure after listening to the poor neighbors of Dar es Salaam (who are busy, mind you).  The result is some really transformative models of software designed for poor, busy people -- ones that allow folks with cell phones (but no internet) to tell each other when a water point is out of order, and then to pay someone local to repair it, all without the bureaucracy of the World Bank.  Global infrastructure enables a state change in local economies.

However, the efforts here are, much like the era of the Turnpike Trusts, piecemeal.  Coders who really believe that infrastructure brings freedom fly to Dar es Salaam or hang out in Red Hook on the basis of a couple of Knight Foundation grants or World Bank consulting gigs, but they aren't doing it for the money.  They are essentially voluntary and limited by the good will and idealism of a few western college graduates.  As a result, there's a limit to how far they can scale before they run out of funds, time, or enthusiasm, or just need to pay rent or make sure their babies have shoes.  A change of scale tends to happen with institutions like these when information is consolidated and centralized and coordinated.

Here's what I mean by looking backwards to look forwards.  The Big Transport Boom of the eighteenth century depended upon centralizing a vision and then training poor people, lots of them, to make roads for other poor people to get to market.  If they had concentrated only on rich people, it would have failed.

Imagine: if Google decided that it wanted to use its hackathons and intern power to regularly boost the power of these service groups.  Imagine constructing an infrastructure for training and deploying a thousand slum residents to incubate their own neighborhood-accountable projects.  Here's the historical lesson: Poor people build roads for poor people to do other things on.  An institution comes in and makes it scale a hundred thousand times over.  The economy is utterly transformed, a hundred times over.  The lead institution takes an infinitesimal cut on return on investment -- a tiny return, the equivalent of a gasoline tax, not a toll-road return to compensate investors any time within the next twenty years -- and the result is the invention of a new economic system, which pays back all participants on a scale hitherto unfathomable.


The other game that Google hasn't been in is the ownership of material infrastructure.  Eric Hysen rightly suggests that a game-changer would be to move on from apps.  Move from shiny apps to infrastructure and collaboration, he says, for instance more regular hackathons for open government.  It's true, regularizing collaboration would change it.  But there's another lesson of history here -- the importance of the material pipes through which information flows.

In the eighteenth century, those pipes were the roads, which carried state-coaches, which carried mail, parcels, and newspapers, thus generating an information revolution.  In the twenty-first century, those pipes are broadband cable.  Thus far, Google has been content to stand by while Cox and Comcast monopolize broadband across America (practically everywhere except Knoxville, TN and Lafayette, LA) and become pushy in international conversations, thus jeapardizing the relationship of the entire Global South to an open internet.  In practice, the Cox/Comcast monopoly means profits hand-over-fist for those who own the pipes, with almost no incentive to lay new pipes to poor people.  What that means is that there's an upward limit, even with a million Geeks Without Bounds groups in their ilk.  You can design all the software you want, but if there's no hardware to reach the poor, then the poor will still be on dial-up internet in the year 2025.

Fine: Google's is the software biz, not the hardware biz.  But if Google really wants a historical revolution of the kind Hysen describes, they cannot get it without a revolution in three-dimensional infrastructure: pipes, cables, servers, routers.  So consider claims about transformative nature of software initiatives like open government or open health.  Without pipes, the poor will not be downloading open government data in large amounts and doing their own calculations about how government could serve them better.  They might submit their information, but it will still only be a few, affluent, full-time researchers in schools of public health who do the calculations, in 2025 as now.  That's not an information revolution, it's just another notch in the belt of academia.

Google has every reason to want to be the force that creates an infrastructure revolution in our time.  Coordinating a software revolution between many communities using interoperable data is the first step, and the next step is making sure that that software revolution extends into the majority of the world's communities, which are still underserved and unlinked in real terms to anything like capitalism or democracy.  But that infrastructure revolution will be incomplete unless Google, the nations of the world, or the bankers decide to challenge monopoly ownership of the pipes as well. It's time to think big.

PS Many thanks to Evgeny Morozov for pulling me into this conversation

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Can Participatory Mapping Save the Commons?

Hey friends.  I've just published a short article on participatory mapping and the commons -- namely, the idea that participatory maps are already starting to change how we govern land, air, and water in many places, and that they could do more ahead.

Once upon a time, historians say, maps were the major tool for destroying the ancient village commons, and indigenous peoples' common holdings of land in the borders of empire.  But now, the maps is becoming a tool for returning land, air, and water to the public domain.

Want to know more?  check out the story at!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Land, Water, and Participation Restored: A Report on the Work So Far

Two years ago, I argued that little was known about the last century and a half of international movements to reform property law for governing land and water.  Over the period of research supported by a grant at Harvard, I wrote three out of the five chapters for my next manuscript, including chapters on finance capitalism and the rise of the international squatters’ movement, and the rise of participatory mapping.  I presented talks on my research at Harvard’s History Department, Land and Power Conference, Stanford, in Sweden, and at various activist-based conferences.   The research for this project is now complete.  I collected manuscripts at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Land Tenure, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation Archives, and the University of Sussex’s archives on the history of participation, as well as NGOs like the Center for Environmental Studies, Praxis, and the Center for Participatory Research in Asia in New Delhi.  The bulk of the archives I collected have been digitized and I have begun applying my digital toolset to them, with preliminary results in the form of a heat-map of places most frequently mentioned in the newsletters of movements for participatory land use since 1970.  This material together forms a new manuscript, tentatively entitled, The Long Land War, which I expect to publish in 2015, covering legal reform of property law in British Empire between 1865 and 1914; the rise of rent strikes in Ireland and north America between 1871 and 1940; international government and the promulgation of land reform from 1914 to 1972; the rise of ‘informalism’ and encouragement of international squatters’ communities by the World Bank from 1945 to the present; and the birth of a movement for the participatory mapping and governance of land and water, from 1968 till now.

As promised, a great deal of my focus was in pioneering new tactics for digital history, where the historian would work with unprecedented numbers of documents, applying the new tools of digital history to their reading and analysis.  I worked with Matthew Battles at the Harvard Metalab to begin designing the toolkit, and with help from a Google Summer of Code grant, we recruited Christopher Johnson-Roberson to the project as its major developer.  In the summer of 2012, Christopher and I released Paper Machines, a plugin for historians’ archival materials organization database Zotero, which allows scholars to automatically generate timelines, maps, wordclouds, and comparative charts of topic frequency in different collections of text.  It is a machine of unprecedented simplicity for historically analyzing large collections of text.  It has generated a great deal of enthusiasm, at the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as on the twitterverse and blogosphere.  I currently use Paper Machines along with the scholarly database generated by archival research supported by the Milton in my lecture courses and graduate training at Brown University, where the software serves to introduce my students to digital history and to crowdsource the problem of analyzing the data generated by the archives, thus turning my students into collaborators in the creation of new knowledge about the history of property, law, and housing.

Reflections on the power of digital research to extend historical accounts over longer periods of time is now an article coauthored with Harvard historian David Armitage forthcoming in the French journal Annales, to be extended into a book on longue-duree history, forthcoming later this year from Cambridge University Press.  I delivered talks about Paper Machines at the MITH seminars in the digital humanities at the University of Maryland, at the HUMLab digital humanities lab at the Umea University and Gothenberg University in Sweden, at Brown’s Computer Science Department, at Stanford University’s Spatial Humanities Lab, and elsewhere. 

I wrote the grant to support informal visits to colleagues in other fields.  This support proved absolutely essential for continuing conversations across the borders of history and computer science.  

Grants that support informal visits are rare.  But hanging-out money is incredibly precious to the researcher: it means dinners out, lunches plumbing one's RA's for ideas, and trips to see colleagues in other departments on a whim.  Much of the astonishing productivity of the Milton Grant was due to the committee's open-mindedness in supporting such an informal (and ambitious) proposal, one that not only named a dozen archives to visit but also named a dozen digital humanists I wanted to visit just to talk to them.  

As a result of this generous room for informal networking and conversation, the Milton project has also spun off many unforeseen opportunities for research collaboration.  For example, I returned from collecting archival material about the history of participatory mapping in India to meet up with colleagues in engineering, who were immediately enthused about what they heard about participatory maps as tools for democratically governing air, land, and water.  Those conversations have already generated material for a series of collaborative grants to the National Science Foundation, wherein we propose to continue the historical analysis of the successes and failures of the 30-year participatory mapping movement as a way of informing best practices for the use of crowdsourced mapping platforms like Ushahidi or Google Maps for governing urban pollution and land and water use in an era of climate change.  Conversations such as these would have been nearly impossible without the generous support for conversations and meetings provided by the Milton Fund. 

New websites associated with the Milton Fund:

Video associated with the project:
‎ “Can Participatory Maps Save the World?”
“Global Finance and the Rise of an International Squatter Culture,”
“Topic modeling and Paper Machines”:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Silences About Property Law: What are the Digital Humanities FOR?

The history of property ownership as we know it is one of the best-documented subjects in the university, the subject of concentration by economists, historians, law school professors, philosophers, and anthropologists.  It is also a subject with an impressive century-long hole in it, from approximately 1870 to 1980, during which time period a global debate about property ownership happened which almost no one has written about.  It is exactly the sort of subject that digital tools for reading massive archives were built to handle: global, massive, almost entirely uncharted, deeply relevant, and open to debate.

In 1870, a historian named James Godkin inspired a newly phase of political resistance geared at the distribution of land by publishing a new account of Ireland’s struggles against England, The Land-War in Ireland, which framed contemporary struggles in terms of ancient rights to land ownership abrogated by colonizing invaders, who since Spenser’s time had used rent and eviction as the major tools for terrorizing the colonized.   In the generation after Godkin’s book, Irish resistance changed from guerilla struggles to organized rent-strikes that placed land ownership at the center of their work.   The era of the Irish “Land War” had begun.

In the 1880s and 1890s, rent strikes and other rebellions influenced by the Irish spread to Scotland, England, and New York, where organized campaigns against paying rent became the major tool of urban immigrants in protecting their incomes, successful in many areas where unionized labor strikes were still illegal and their gains meager.  More importantly, Godkin had thrown into question the ultimate justice of colonizing powers’ right to land, and made possible the abrogation of claims of property ownership by previously excluded and oppressed citizens, who, in the tradition of the French Revolution, restated their claim to economic and political participation on the basis of universal rights, in this case the right to own property, the right to be free from eviction, typically phrased as “the right of the tiller to the soil.”  Through the popular journalism of the San Francisco-born international political pundit Henry George, previous legal traditions of public property were reworked through a broad challenge to the legacy of empire and class privilege.   In the writings of Fabian socialists like Annie Besant, land reform became canonized into a new agenda for socialism.  In the writings of legal reformers like Frederick Maitland and Paul Vinogradoff, the folk ownership of the land in the middle ages provided a precedent for state collectivization of land in the service of infrastructure and housing for the people.
This robust intellectual foundation provided the basis for national politics around the reform.  By 1914, every political party in Britain supported some version of a land reform agenda in Britain’s Parliament.   In postcolonial Mexico, arguments for land reform echoing the Haitian revolution urged on land reforms capable of reversing imperial concentration of the land into haciendas.  For similar reasons of reversing aristocratic control, the League of  Nations urged land reform upon imperial China in the 1930s.   By 1945, national programs of land management, mortgages, and public housing were on the agenda in every developed nation in the world. By 1946, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization dedicated large portions of its administration to the collection of land tenure policies and statistics from the rest of the world, with the agenda of supplying legal and economic advisors to developing nations seeking to emulate land reform in Europe and America.
The result of so much policy shift was the manufacture, between 1880 and 1980, of masses of documents, historical, legal, and economic, examining the past and future of land reform in every country in the world.  Hundreds of historians, sociologists, anthropologists and economists in Europe and North America took the global history of land as their subject for their dissertation research, assured that their work would find committed readerships in international policy.
Then, precipitously, around 1982, political opinion turned against the land reformers.  The Right, influenced by Milton Friedman, argued that land was just like any other commodity, best left to the market rather than the state.  The American left repeated Richard Hofstadter’s critique of the “Agrarian Myth” in nineteenth-century American; at the heart of their dismissal echoed something like Lenin’s critique of the peasantry – against decades of Latin American and Asian experience – that the revolution would come from city-dwellers, not from peasants, and therefore by union organization, not by land reform or rent strikes.

As a result of this about-face, a devastating silence followed, where barely a historian touched the global century or more of land reform for some thirty years.  A few aging agrarian economists who had spent their lives working in development wrote memorials to land reform, pondering why it went away when it was doing such a good job of distributing incomes.  But most historians pretended to bury the subject, until now.  A few years ago, a few brazen Britons, Paul Readman and Matthew Cragoe, began to unpack the English example and to show that land reform really had mattered.
But no one dared to touch the global question – what was land reform, and what happened to it?  It was a formidable question, for it aims straight at a broad consensus in political science and economic policy that has a stranglehold over world events at the moment, not least the global political stagnation around environmental regulation.
The more we know about land reform, the more we realize that there is abundant political and legal precedence for broadcast regulation of land and water in the service of the people.   Foundations of modern economic consensus begin to fall apart, namely that private property is an unchanging, easily formulated category; that it has ever been so and has always been apparent; that a golden age of pre-welfare-state capitalism existed in the glorious years 1880-1920 that we should turn back to; and that private property and land and water in particular cannot be made into public utilities without destroying the entire market economy.
Pursuing questions such as these is methodologically as well as intellectually difficult.   It is hard for a few historians with to take on a subject whose archives stretch over decades, let alone transnational centuries.  There is far too much paper to read.   And that makes it ideally suited to a methodological innovation at the heart of the American university right now. At the root of the questions of digital methodology – of which tools and data we collect and how – are questions about how we address silences such as these.  If we use digital tools to address long-term questions, we raise the possibility that a mere historian (a humanist mind you, schooled in reading and writing and the digital, not in STEM), can beg to tangle with economists, indeed with a consensus all the way across political policy today.


In the era of big data, we face methodological opportunities for placing the long-term analysts and the short-term analysts in conversation with each other. This is particularly appealing to those of us embarking on a digital turn in which questions of big data and their analysis are at the forefront of our activity.    In an era in which the manipulation of large-scale aggregate data over space and time has become easier than ever, scholars in disciplines with adverse proclivities to short- and long-term storytelling face the option of allowing their data to speak to each other.  The question of long-term or short-term history has a methodological aspect in the digital humanities, and it is this tension that governs the rest of this chapter.
Under the domain of the short in time come the intensive digitization and analysis of a perfect corpus -- the poetry of Gertrude Stein coded for different types of speech acts, the plays of William Shakespeare coded as to the gender of the speaker, maps showing speech acts next to demographics in the pre-Civil War South, county-by-county.   Into this category fall the digital editions favored by the Society for Textual Scholarship and a great deal of beautiful digital cartography. Deep studies informed by many documents, they are short merely in the number of lifetimes under study.
Of the longue-durée type there are far fewer.  There's the theorizing by the occasional maverick like Franco Moretti, whose Maps, Graphs, and Trees forced a hundred studies of the novel over five- and ten-year periods into a synthesis of a hundred years.  There are the trade maps of the long eighteenth-century made by Ben Schmidt.  There are collaborative projects like the Enlightenment of Letters.  We might add N-grams, allowing as they do the imagination to analyze the use of the word "fancy" over three hundred years.  These projects, like those in the first category, are also intensive in terms of corpus, but their analysis tends to be whittled down to one question -- the social network, changes in word frequency, or the shape of geography.
We need to question the prioritization of short-duree over longue durée, to hold up to question the advisor's mandate that narrowing to an appropriate question requires narrowing over time.  Digital methods, with their powers of mass aggregation, raise important questions about how these tools are best put to use -- whether in reading the entire corpus of a single author of a single nation.  Perhaps the frontier of doing history is bigger than any category we yet understand, slipping into questions of comparative empires, comparative debt regimes, comparative social protest methods, stretching across centuries as well as continents.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Cartography of Love: Adventures in Twenty-First Century Bohemia

I got an email this morning from a friend who studies transition towns.  She lives among the permaculture farmers, street medics, and other radicals of Vermont, an idyllic existence from the outside, and she's visiting Paris for a conference this weekend.  On the Champs Elysees, she was having trouble focusing on architectural splendor due to blisters erupting over her shoulders, a "stress rash," she said.  She was stressed out, a "tired radical" of the kind that Weyl described in 1921.  Except that my friend's tiredness revolved not so much around the conferences, international travel, or sheer brunt of protesting against international finance capitalism and its ravages on her community (although I'm sure that those played a role).  Chief on her mind was a subject we'd talked about many times, about how stressful she had found dating.

Two of the most credentialed radicals I've ever met were married early. When I lived at the Harvard Co-op, my room was downstairs for a time from Rick and Jacqui.  Rick and Jacqui were different from the rest of the Co-opers in several respects.  The first was that they were slightly older -- 25ish I think, when the rest of us were 20 to 22.  That meant that they'd traveled slightly more, and taken classes outside of Harvard, and they had nothing but disdain for the watered-down theory and apolitical teaching they found offered on the Harvard schedule of courses; they were there to use the university's support to make films, and they already knew why they were making films and about what.  While we were living together, their first film came out, about families in gangs in New York and gang life as pride and survival in the face of racism rather than as criminality and license.  For all those reasons, they shone out among the other Co-opers; they had a sense of a political economy larger than white privileged feminism, and a sense of how their lives and careers would interface.  It took me another ten years to get anything like that same clarity for myself.

But the second thing that was different about them was their relationship to family.  Their relationship was exceptional in the radical community I knew at that time.  They were married at 25, and they were also the only married couple I knew at Harvard.  As we got older, no one I knew was married by 25, especially among the radicals, so Jacqui and Rick still continued to stand out in my mind (the only Harvard marriages we knew at 25 in my circle were the most tepid, the least political folks who found a spouse much like them and moved back to the suburbs).  The marriage was a source of solidarity, a source of radicalism -- it's been fifteen years, and we haven't been in touch, but I've continued to see Jacqui's name near Rick's on their reports from Iraq for radical news networks, or on publicity about their new documentaries.   What I learned from hanging out with them, as I recall, was that at least some of that solidarity was modeled on family relationships from Rick's parents, who were left, and had several offspring, at least two of whom became radicals in different ways, who stayed in touch with each other, and who seemed to generally support Rick and Jacqui as well.  And Jacqui, when I knew her, described her new family as a safe haven from a world of fundamentalist religion and political conservatism in rural Alberta, where she had grown up.  Marriage, in her case, had meant the possibility of choosing a new family, even through migrations from Canada to Boston and then around the world.  

All of this is an outsider's hazy vision, badly pieced together from stray details, and surely invested with my own idealism.  I have no idea what Rick's relationship to his siblings has been since then, or whether that aura of mutual support continued.  I hope it did.  I should say again -- I never knew them terribly well, and whatever normal vicissitudes relationships or families go through, I can't speak to them.  But it's clear that the marriage and the family did something important for them both, at least for some period of time, and it may well be doing that still for all I know, driving a spear of radical solidarity deep into the future.  At least, according to the Democracy Now website, that's what they're both still doing.

Jacqui and Rick's relationship could not have been more at odds with the radicalism I was learning from Harvard, where there was (as they complained) little political economy, little global politics with a perspective from below, and instead, a great deal of queer and feminist theory that insisted on the oppressive nature of the family and the potential for abuse in any set of relationships.  We read Kristeva and Foucault and Lacan, deconstructed the self, and learned that  multitudinous, polymorphous forms of creativity or demands for freedom were more liable to appear in repetitious repairing and rebonding with strangers.  Nomadism and independence was what was preached among the women who took Women's Studies classes of my generations (yes, and a thousand other feminisms besides, but that's where the real action seemed to be taking place).  Nomadism and independence were what I heard preached in San Francisco when I lived there, at least by the people most eager to talk about the dynamics of sex and dating.  The mantra goes like this: when in doubt, seek sex, nomadism, and independence.  

What we were learning at Harvard, I understand now, was a form of radicalism perfectly well suited to the genesis of certain kinds of bohemia, with a long pedigree stretching back through Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Paris, and London.  It was particularly helpful for certain young men and women trying to shrug off the memory of paternal authority in another world.  The insistence on nomadism, on reconfiguring relationships, on constant travel, was particularly appropriate to young men of means and an experience of outsiderdom, who in the 60s were rejected by their families and found a few institutions around the world offering a happy home.  Those stories of personal liberation come down to us through decades of exploration by people with the means to support numerous households, to support breakups and reconvergences.  Most importantly, they had the time, energy, and income to support mutual exploration with their many partners.  As a life-long public advocate of polyamory once told me, polyamory is probably for the rich.  Working-class friends at Ida in Tennessee would disagree, but they chose a back-to-the-land rejection of consumerism altogether -- utopia, not reform.

Reformers, whether in the media or academia or politics or science, seem largely to choose pair-bonding.  There's a geographical dimension to that choice.  In professional circles -- say left professional circles like tenure-track academia, where plenty of us are married and have left leanings -- plenty of people talk about pair-bonding, planning cohousing movements together, or introducing young single people who want to change the world with someone else by their side.  All of those conversations go on in professional circles, but they can be very hard to get to from the Bohemian art-and-protest scenes of Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, or New York. Plenty of people in radical worlds pair-bond and have children, but then they tend to move to a place with cheaper rent, like Portland or Philadelphia.  All of which increases the perception that radicals in Brooklyn and San Francisco must choose nomadism and independence over family.

In Boston and Chicago I found entire ghettos of lonelyhearts queer folk, single straight women, and single straight hipster men, many of them with dedicated activist projects and deep streaks of radicalism.  Most of them were too tired, after running whatever marches or food justice initiatives or cyberjournalism, to handle more than one lover at a time.  When I lived in San Francisco, I found myself in a world of smart, middle-class women with activist tendencies and radical ideas, who entered relationship after relationship, looking for some stability, only to be preached to again and again, by an articulate minority, about the sovereign value of nomadism and independence, which had come to stand in for radicalism itself. Many of my single women and men friends in these cities complained incessantly about wanting to be with someone, and dated frequently, often using the internet.  And a good many of them felt bad about themselves for not being nomadic and independent, or for wondering about the end of their fertility if they were women.  

The "feeling bad" here bothers me, because we've created a dynamic in which the high premium paid to sexual or gender radicalism in conversation promotes extra emotional labor for merely feministic men and women radicals of a different sort.  I'm struck by the numbers of radical friends who second-guess themselves when they start to think about the solidarities they need to be happy in life, including someone loving at their side.  In my experience, living with Zach has boosted my abilities to think about the future, to plan, to do my work, to write, to hang out with friends, or anything else, just because I have a partner around who's there, with me, to explore what it means to be human in rest and labor.     

The mantra of self-work, independence, and nomadism through multiple, changing partnerships works deep magic for some people.  But it's a mantra: it's recited again and again in some cities, in some parts of Bohemia, and ignored entirely in others.  At Burning Man there are so many workshops on polyamory and polyamorous marriages and so few meet-and-greets for young radicals trying to pair-bond and create radical change together (because that would be so counter-revolutionary?).  These days, one wouldn't expect anything else.  In these conversations, radicalism and solidarity are sometimes confused with nomadism and independence, as if having multiple lovers were a precondition of doing radical work battling Wall Street or racism or global political economy. So when we talk as if pair-bonding is anti-radical, we add a great deal of emotional labor to the plates of radical activists that might otherwise be filled with a very different genre of conversation, one that insisted that relationship give comfort, relaxation, and solidarity to activists who are often doing other things than talking about sex, for example making international documentaries about political economy.  

These days I find myself thinking about Jacqui and Rick and other kinds of mantras that I might offer to a younger version of myself.  I might tell her:  Humans need other humans.  When in doubt, seek out the relationships -- friendships, love relationships, and homes -- where you feel most comfortable, most welcome, most easily able to talk, and keep returning there.  Find people who aren't afraid of family as a word, and talk to them about the kinds of families they'd like to see, which because they're your friends, will probably also be families of kindness, justice, solidarity, and political awareness.  

Humans do need other humans.  We like talking in the morning about what the plan for the rest of our day looks like.  We like talking in the evening about where we went, what we did, and what we thought about it.  We're designed to tell and listen to stories, to relate to each other over time, to build up trust and respect for each other in a way that is deeply relaxing to the entire system.  In broken and oppressive relationships, we can't relax into the delights of mutual respect or regular storytelling.  But without relationships at all, we can become exhausted by the very process of searching for a place to share stories.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Upcoming Talk at Brown

Jo Guldi "Can Participatory Maps Save the World?" 

November 7, 2013 • 5:30 p.m.
This talk will audit the experience of appropriate technology and map-making in particular back as far as 1968, when maps were first trumpeted as a way to overturn lines of class and culture, and up to 2013, when lightweight Indian startups promise to deliver infrastructure for cities like Bangalore and Kibera that lack the centralized bureaucracy to manage water and sanitation in traditional ways. This event is free and open to the public.
Rockefeller Library, Digital Scholarship Lab, 1st Floor.

Youtube recording:
Jo Guldi: Can Participatory Maps Save the World?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Upcoming Talks! Can Participatory Maps Save the World? Maps Before and After the Smartphone: A Global History, 1968-2013

I'm showing up at Stanford Oct 24 to present a talk called "Can Participatory Maps Save the World?", an audit of the successes and failures of crowdsourced maps and appropriate technology between 1968, when Marxist development officers started using participatory maps to help villages in India manage their water.

I'd love it if you could come, bring folks, and share the announcement!  Hope to see you soon!

"Can Participatory Maps Save the World? Maps Before and After the Smartphone: A Global History, 1968-2013"
Thursday, October 24, 2013, 4:15pm, Lane History Corner (Building 250, room 303), Stanford University

"Introducing Paper Machines"
Friday, October 25, 2013, 12pm, Lane History Corner (Bldg 250, Room 307), Stanford University
A talk on Paper Machines, my digital toolkit for analyzing large corpora of digitized texts. The organizers have asked for RSVPs as lunch will be served.

"Can Participatory Maps Save the World? Maps Before and After the Smartphone: A Global History, 1968-2013"
Thursday, November 7, Time TBA, Rockefeller Library, Brown University

"Can Participatory Maps Save the World? Maps Before and After the Smartphone: A Global History, 1968-2013"

A talk by Jo Guldi, Asst Prof. of History, Brown University

Since 2006, the New York Times has boasted that participatory technology is on the cusp of solving  the problem of access to city government.  Questions about the allocation of infrastructure, the riddles of which have been one of the primary stamps of the failures of the infrastructure state since the eighteenth century.  

In these debates, technology often appears as the magic cure for these problems, promising to deliver democratic consensus into the process of infrastructure building promises to correct nothing less than the problems defined by Timothy Mitchell as the "rule of experts," the inherently hierarchical structure of decision-making that has governed civil engineering and urban planning projects since the invention of those professions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  But what works?  And what fails?  Can maps actually reverse dramatic failures of participation, and dissolve the barriers of privilege between rich and poor?

This talk will audit the experience of appropriate technology and map-making in particular back as far as 1968, when maps were first trumpeted as a way to overturn lines of class and culture, and up to 2013, when lightweight Indian startups promise to deliver infrastructure for cities like Bangalore and Kibera that lack the centralized bureaucracy to manage water and sanitation in traditional ways.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How Information Won’t (and Will) Save the Climate: The Perspective of History

Each profession has its approaches to climate change: scientists ponder why, despite the marshaling of data, nothing has been done, their arguments subjected to public doubt and legislative apathy.  Economists and political scientists mull over "tit for tat" strategies and "free rider problems," tinkering towards some hypothetical consensus that would persuade all constituents, industrialists, consumers, poor countries, and rich ones, to implement solutions for dealing with climate change.  Meanwhile, historians look backwards and wonder: will more data actually do anything?  Is it actually in the power of tinkering legislators to reframe climate initiatives in some perfectly persuadable language?  Made skeptical by their knowledge of failures past, historians question the collection of data, reformist legislation, market solutions, and mass mobilization as equally impotent against the problem of climate change.

Stories about reform movements past give us reason to pause.  Three generations ago, historians like Oliver Macdonaugh thought that merely amassing more data could solve any problem and they talked about the successive reform movements of the nineteenth century -- getting the children out of the mines, increasing literacy, combatting alcohol, legislating workmen's compensation -- as a history of data-gathering in the service of progress.  Now, we have become more wary.  It seems as if too much data-gathering by experts may itself obscure the issue: we write about "information overload" that afflicted botanists in the early renaissance and geographers in late Victorian empire.  We write about "unintended consequences" of "expert rule," for instance when British engineers on the Suez canal dismantled local systems of water management and so accidentally initiated the massive spread of malaria.  Our understandings of the urgency of climate change issues come at the tail end of a long list of late twentieth-century failures of reform movements -- including the never-adopted human rights campaigns of the 1970s, the Green Revolution with its failed promises for international food security, and indeed projects of world governance and the role of the United Nations in general.  Twentieth-century organs of government have been, it seems, particularly awful at getting things done at a global scale. Historians agree: climate change is not unique, not merely a difficult intellectual problem, not simply another issue requiring more data.  If history is any rule, the news is bad: no magical groundswell is coming in politics to destabilize the status quo, for the overwhelming reform movements characteristic of the nineteenth century are a thing of the past, coopted by party politics and back room deals.  No amount of data accumulation by scientists will change how business is transacted, as data accumulated by science is just as likely to be used by big business for greenwashing or to limit returns.  A swarming of business solutions through tax incentive programs will create low-emission zones of clean air for the rich, while dirty forms of manufacturing and energy production are shipped offshore, and carbon levels continue to rise, imperiling our collective future.

But historians make a habit of thinking about drastic changes in the institutions of governance, of the kind signaled by transitions out of feudalism.  Climate governance of the kind imagined by environmentalists -- gigaton solutions, geoengineering, massive transformation of transportation -- is similarly an alternative paradigm of collective care for land, water, and air as a commons.  It requires new institutions and new forms of governance, ones likely resembling the common-property institutions described by Elinor Ostrom in her latitudinal survey of successful fisheries, forestry management programs, cooperative housing associations, and grazing commons around the world. 

The nearest historical precedent for such a shift towards communal management in the modern world comes from the late-nineteenth century land reform movements that gave us a wholesale plan of collectivizing the urban environment.  Reformers pioneered the creation of public utilities, rent control, public parks and playgrounds, allotment gardens, and public housing.  They argued for the opening up of private foot-paths to the public. Once forgotten, these movements are again attracting scholarly attention, for in their ambitions of equitably distributing the management of land and water, our ancestral movements resemble those among environmentalists today.  

Then, as now, environmental crises were linked to an overwhelming array of interconnected problems, patched over by interim work of part-time reformers, wealthy patrons, and corporate do-gooders.  At the end of the nineteenth century, concern over interwoven problems of urban cities -- unemployment, overcrowding, public health, and poverty -- generated the invention of new forms of governance for the collective management of the urban environment.  At the heart of these transformations were new interpretations of law, city and regional government, and the visualization of data.  Likewise, ahead for today's environmentalists are transformations of law, regional and international government, and the instrumentalization of data, capable of responding to already-visible groundswell movements demanding change.

Data is essential to this horizon, as is the creation of a data architecture that enables institutions capable of democratic rule.  In economists' speak, these institutions highlight the externalities involved with our collective dependence on the vast, difficult-to-measure benefits of the ecosystem.  The laws that Ostrom discovered replace a law of short-sighted protection of single-owner property -- the kind of logic that creates what Garrett Hardin called the "tragedy of the commons" -- with the collective monitoring of common-pool resources, a kind of decentralized panopticon where participants monitor their collective resources as well as each other, thus prohibiting resource exhaustion. 

History tells us a great deal about attempts to reinstate commons and their successes and failures.  Debates about climate change and the administration of forests as commons began in the late 1970s and 80s, when Ostrom was first collecting her case-studies and indigenous people around the globe began well-orchestrated protests against their deracination from the land. At the same time, radical development economists began to theorize how to reinstate the commons, renew local institutions, and turn forests and aquifers over from civil engineers to local, democratic bodies.

The major tool developed by these movements for renewing the commons were a new kind of map: a crowd-sourced map made by a dozen or a hundred participants, which allowed participants to synthesize information about the way they related to the environment: where in the village they lived, how they used water, whether they had access to existing institutions around them.  Organizers would descend on a village, summon the children, elders, women, and extremely poor, and spend a day with the community talking and drawing maps of the village on the ground.  They reversed the paradigm of colonial governance: instead of the expert surveyor and civil engineer mapping the ground to administer it from afar, now the people in the village created a map for themselves which would serve as the basis for community conversations about how best to reorganize the governance of land and water.

Today, similar crowd-sourced maps have been deployed to create a groundswell of community-originated information about pollution, sanitation, and responsibility.  In Kerala, India, high-school students map flower and frog species on a google-based map, charting biodiversity in relationship to excreta dumped into the lake by tourist boats.  The maps point to those responsible, and have enabled successful lawsuits.  In Tamil Nadu, mapping has helped farmers target tanneries whose effluents were polluting the aquifer.  In the Philippines and Thailand and Canada, groundswell indigenous movements armed with GIS have crowd-sourced folk knowledge about territory to create multi-authored maps that stand, in court, as proof of the tribe's claim to an ancestral property rights on the land.  The crowd-sourced map has become a tool of community administration of ecology, facilitating the targeting of irresponsible behavior, the identification of a geographically-based collection of stakeholders, serving to mobilize them with the power of graphic visualization and offering a form of political and legal testimony deeply persuasive to the judges and officials who see it. 

This summer, I visited a dozen nonprofits involved with mapping water management, fisheries, forests, irrigation works, small farmers, transport, and city waste across India, some of them thirty years old, some armed with smart phones and GIS.  They are all doing good work, and many of them are remarkably successful in terms of organizing local political campaigns and lobbying city government.
We found two problems.  One was a lack of ambition to scale.  The historic initiatives were village-based, with few ambitions to go further.  Now, empowered by modern GIS tools, the Gandhigram Rural institute is embarking on a project to map 10,000 water-bodies in Tamil Nadu, and ATREE is mapping the 5th largest lake in India.  These initiatives highlight the possibility of undertaking large-scale projects with these techniques, but no one thinks larger than the size of an Indian state - at the level of the nation or beyond.  It is an information architecture problem: the creation of a crowd-sourced map capable of enabling political movements at larger and larger levels, contextualizing local and state action within a global framework. 

The second problem was a questionable commitment to democracy.  What we found in India was a disconnect between the older generation of participatory mappers, fiercely dedicated to equal distribution of economic benefits, and the newer generation of internet-focussed mappers.  On the one hand are individuals now in their 60s or older who spend their youth with squatters, mapping their residences in the Bombay slums so as to petition local government to turn over property rights, or working with indigenous tribes in the mountains to force the government to recognize their occupancy.  Their commitments to democratic processes are unfailing; they know volumes about incorporating women and working-class people into a mapping session, producing a new consensus about administration within a village, or organizing a new institution to administer water or pollution on the level of a watershed.  On the other hand are a new generation of Stanford-and MIT-educated CS or business majors, returning to India with the promise of Google Maps and venture capital behind them.  They too hear the promise of rich data about the environment to adjudicate complex questions like the availability of water.  But they know almost nothing about the previous generation's work.  Their training in economics leads them to optimism about how the market's invisible hand will allocate water to the very poor.  The tools they design are tools for enabling cell-phone users equal opportunity to purchase water.  More rarely do they think about learning from India's political maps in the 1980s, and creating a smart-phone app that would enable Americans to map their involvement in the globe's dirtiest supply-chains. 

Both of these, the problems of scale and of democracy, are issues of information architecture.  They can be solved with the power of visualizations driven towards political organization.  But mapping and code by themselves are not enough.  Climate change demands the creation of new institutions of governance that follow Ostrom's paradigm of the commons, with its understanding of collective responsibilities. These institutions must be democratic, and served by an information architecture stamped with participation.  

For this to happen, the mapping, code, and data collection must be allied to a sense of memory: both memory of the reasons why expert rule in the past has gone so wrong, and memory of the amazing potential that maps have had when allied to grassroots organizations among indigenous people around the world.  For those reasons, scientists, coders, and entrepreneurs can help, but they need the power of memory, the service of historians.  Memory is necessary, in order that we keep sight of and overcome the reasons why environmentalism has thus far failed: the risks of information overload, the corruption of privilege, and the inefficacy of expertise.  Memory of the powers of information to unite communities, the importance of democracy, and the successes of institutional reform before us can thereafter be our guide.

(at the NSF-funded UC Davis workshop on Climate Change and Governance, Lake Tahoe) 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Riddle of Kerala: How radicals secured water rights where capitalists have failed

In Kerala, there are standing ruins of state-organized production cooperatives for local handicrafts and terra-cotta tile and coir, once organized with a vision of deploying newly-Independent India's richest resource, labor, in the form of that most free and egalitarian and beneficiary of institutions, the worker-owned cooperative.  The cooperatives are rotting now, their letters faded, hidden behind chained fences, their long modernist horizontals in reinforced concrete besmirched by lacrimal black stains of mildew weeping down the facade.

The ruins are victims, my local friends tell me, of Kerala's success.  A program of mass education was begun in the early twentieth century here by Kerala's benevolent ruling elite. After Independence in 1947, the freely-elected communist party, the world's first, continued the tradition of strong local schools, and began touting another problem: the "unemployed literate," found everywhere in Kerala.  Free-wheeling capitalism does not necessarily reward virtue; it employs the poor only where wages are smallest and restrictions the least, and leaves the learned behind unless they take the initiative to make their own future.  So the Keralans did just that.  Worker-owned cooperatives sprung up, organizing local production into units that generalized profits to the workers themselves.  Then famine hit in the 1970s, and Kerala's new cooperatives were too poor to generalize profits.  So Kerala turned to that other tool for generalizing wealth implemented by left-wing governments across India and South America in the 1970s, land reform.  

The sweeping Keralan land reforms were a more progressive measure than those executed in Mexico in the 1910s or Peru in the 1960s.  Rather than concentrating on the breakup of traditional feudal land-holdings, Kerala broke up all concentrations of land, even some considered merely middling or grand only by local standards.  This "land ceiling" created a province of smallholder farmers.

Land ceilings in other parts of India were ringed with corruption and left behind a legacy of resentment.  Elites with large estates transferred the land before its seizure into the names of cousins, while Americans muttered about how such dispersals were stymying the progress of Green-Revolution-style industrialized agriculture.  

But in Kerala, dispersed land-holding combined with high rates of education prompted an economic miracle.  Within a generation, Keralans became among the richest of the Indian provinces.  They joined the service sector, sending legion nurses to work in Dubai.  The worker-owned cooperatives of yore have been updated, transferred away from the main road.  They still sell homespun silk and matted coir for the roofs of traditional houseboats .  But now Kerala's major net export is labor: it sends highly-educated labor to other parts of the world, importing workers from other parts of India to run its booming construction industry. 

It's routine for economists to dismiss the history of land reform as a failure, pointing to corrupt militarized land distribution under dictatorships like Peru and Ethiopia at the same time.  Democratic land reform, however, has a historic record linked to economic development and education. 

The longer legacy of Kerala's democratic project remains in its success with providing water to a majority of its people.  With its history of democratic experimentation, Kerala has become the site of some of the most successful experiments in mass water provision in all of India.

One such experiment is Mazhapolima, a north-Kerala-based consultancy to the district collectorate of Thrissur, whose name means, "the richness of water."  Mazhapolima is the project of Jos Raphael, an LSE-educated PhD in Development Studies, who concentrates on "water literacy" classes where he preaches the benefits of recharging groundwater through connecting the traditional open dug wells, found in every plot in Kerala, to rainwater catchment roof systems, arrays of tarp and pvc pipe that local plumbers install for around $60 a house.  

Another such experiment is a groundswell political organizing effort for lake-water management at Vembanad Lake organized by Dr. Priyan Rajan, a biologist and native Keralan at ATREE foundation in Bangalore.  The Vembanad Project has successfully organized fishermen, clam-collectors and farmers to organize a new, democratic entity for governing salinity and pollution in their lake.  Now, with the help of the Delhi Institute for Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), they're looking into systems of sand filtering for water appropriate for mass, decentralized adaptation across south Kerala.

Rainwater catchment experimentation is nothing new to India, where investigating indigenous techniques of rainwater harvesting and water recharge has been a national agenda since the 1980s.  Kerala's experiments, however, are stamped with the democratic imprint of its long experiment with communist and socialist politics.  By contrast, in Rajasthan, Tarun Bharat Singh's experiments with water harvesting commandeered the unpaid labor of landless peoples to dig wells.  In some cases, charismatic leaders hinted that the poor would have access to water after the wells were dug.  It didn't work out that way.  The wells became the property of local elites, and the poor, for their labor were promised seasonal jobs in lieu of water.  Insecure water rights were a product of being nomadic workers, with no rights on the land.  The ordinary burdens of itinerant labor worsened in the case of water.  

Kerala's experiments with water have been more democratic.  Because of the land reform, even poor Keralans whose landholding is the size of a single bedroom, have rights of access to groundwater through their ownership of land.  Unlike in other parts of India, where the poor are dependent upon public wells or enormously overwhelmed public utilities, the poor in Kerala have private water rights, made secure by the egalitarian redistribution of private rights to land under a communist government in the 1970s.  Land reform did for Kerala what decades of water-pump-distribution and charismatic organization could not do for other regions in India: land reform secured the people's rights to the water below the surfaces they walked.  

Moreover, the distribution tradition in politics continues to insure that Kerala's experiments with water harvesting reach the region's poor. Kerala's socialist government continues to take seriously its mandate to participation in land and water.  At the moment, that's done by the government delivering clean drinking water by truck and by boat to Kerala's many remote residents, an expensive and unsustainable stop-gap expression of a government convicted of its responsibility to provide water to all its citizens.  In embracing the mandate of land and water for the people, Kerala stands apart from other districts in India, including the slums of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, where the poor have to purchase water delivery by truck from private vendors.  But the land and water mandate also means that Kerala is dedicated to exploring other avenues of water provision.  

An unintended consequence of land reform has been another form of water security as well, one linked to buying power.  Economic success means water dominance, the net importing of products of water farming elsewhere.  One of the most fertile regions in India, Keralans have themselves largely left agricultural production behind, becoming importers of mangos and coconuts from drier and rockier Tamil Nadu.   With broadcast economical success as the result of decentralized development and land reform, a majority of Keralans can afford to import their water in the form of mangos and melons from far away.  

With its inheritance of systems of rights securing the power of people over their land and water, Kerala's radical traditions have succeeded around water security where capitalists have failed.  

That connection between land reform and economic development is the hinge of a moral paradox.  In some sense, Kerala's progressive image is falling victim to its own success.   Birth rates have fallen, in keeping with economic development in many places, even as Kerala's educated worker-citizens migrated around the world to high-placed jobs in medicine and research.  Fisherfolk, farmers, and migrant construction laborers remain.  But will future generations be able to benefit from earlier land reform?  The answer is unclear.  In a booming market, land prices for the many broken-up smallholder plots have escalated.  Kerala is becoming a province of rich, secure retirees, occupying sumptuous new houses, boasting carved teak brackets in the traditional style of temples.  Around Lake Vembanad, some of the most expensive resorts and spas in all of India have risen up, their soaring buildings dwarfing nearby temples.  The success of education and land reform has meant development, and development, to a large degree, works against the decentralizing effect of land reforms. Land, in Kerala, has become expensive as a measure of success, and no one speaks of breaking up such precious land again with another land reform.  

There's a paradox here that's emblematic of the experience of democratic legislation in land around the world.  In nineteenth-century western Massachusetts, transcendentalists decided to pursue a policy of welfare-for-the-poor, education, and agrarian development that froze the place in time.  Later, Community Land Trusts set aside large plots of the region for cross-class housing development, securing the houses against higher property taxes and insuring the continued ability to thrive of the people who lived there.  Rather than pursuing industrial development at scale, it gradually improved its nineteenth-century clock towers and eighteenth-century white-washed church steeples.  Those from poor families who stayed continued to thrive.   Land prices rose around them, but western Massachusetts stayed stuck in time.  Outsiders could only move in at great expense.  

Are examples like Kerala and western Massachusetts examples of success?  They insured the development, education, and welfare of a generation of their own poor with greater success than regions characterized by rampant industrialization and exploitation.  In the end, they close their doors to outsiders; the land becomes too expensive.  Land reform is a victory for economic development, but is it a victory for moral welfare?  That question remains open.  On the other hand, the question of land illuminates the problem of water.  There are unintended consequences to an egalitarian ethos, a democratic attitude towards land and water, which are vital for us to learn about in a coming age of water scarcity.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Chennai Walkabout

Mapping produces unintended consequences. We go out mapping with some volunteers, undergraduate majors in social work and economics from a local women's college, who are fulfilling a credit requirement of work with a local foundation as part of their course. They're tired from an intense day of mapping the day before.

Today, we're counting shopfronts and apartment buildings, trying to get a rough count of how many residences are in an area so that they can make some informed assertions about community composting, waste collection, and water management. Matching the Google satellite views with houses on the ground, one of the researchers notice that the streets in the image don't line up with the streets on the ground. We do a little bit of detective work and realize that a dead-end has been filled in by a new building with a dress shop, and a through-street became a dead end when a new house was constructed. They interview the neighbors. Who remembers when these buildings went up?

Chennai has no mechanisms for overseeing the basics of community control of its streets. There is no centralized office capable of taking in the wealth of information generated by a rapidly expanding city. If Transparent Chennai becomes the arbiter of information for the city, then the NGO stands to replace many of the traditional functions of city government. Would volunteers be numerous or rigorous or committed enough for tasks as diverse as counting the census, or watching houses? Will Transparent Chennai be replaced by private city accounting firms, watching over water points and manholes? We spend the evening talking about the future of government, wondering what the experience of other mappers will tell us about their successes.

Volunteers go into the ward for 2-8 hrs every day. The 8 hr days are exhausting in Chennai's damp heat: three hours from 8 to 11 in the morning, a break for lunch, another three hours in the afternoon, and two more after a break in the evening.

The paper maps are printouts of satellite photography available via Google Maps. The volunteers draw directly onto the maps, noting uncollected garbage, water points, toilets, the number of dwellings on every building on a street, or shop fronts. They've conducted "walkability" surveys of neighborhoods in Chennai, where sidewalks are broken and huge holes gape into unsculpted pits of mud beneath, where loose electric wires hang from the trees above, where scooters and cars parked on the sidewalk force pedestrians to walk in the busy carriageway, facing down auto-rickshaws and scooters and busses flying by a few inches away. They note the speed of vehicles, the number of obstructions, the materials used in making sidewalks, the condition of the walking path, amenities such as seating, trashcans, and toilets, parking on the sidewalks, crossing points, and so on. They map the distance that people are walking to cross the road. They mark trees, storm water drainage, the number of driveways, manholes, utility boxes -- which in Chennai are in the middle of the sidewalk. Their questions are ultimately urban planner questions. Paper maps are then inputted to ArcGIS.

That morning at the office, the staff of researchers and activists have questions about the scale of mapping appropriate to different kinds of political action. When are paper maps appropriate, and when is GIS appropriate? When is it enough to map water for the neighborhood, and what sorts of questions require them to map the whole of Chennai, or the region, or indeed India, to draw together the sort of argument they need? They are in the process of matching technology to larger questions.

These are exactly the sorts of problems that the next generation of infrastructure will have to answer, questions about mobilizing political will, using information to do so, and the appropriate scale for working in such a way as to include all the constituents of a community. (Photo credit and further reading: "Civic Sens(E)itivity" by Zara Khan and Tanya Thomas.