And it’s not just this blog.
I am adopting my friend and colleague, Sam Popowich’s, practice of regular writing as a form of thinking clearly through issues, which I hope will help me work toward synthesizing my ideas into research articles in the coming months. However, the very act of writing this post has taken me weeks and I feel less confident about it than ever before.
For now, I am spending time reflecting on my increasing sense of burn-out with the civic technology community, or at the very least, with the concept of civic tech as performed by citizen volunteers. For the past 5 years, I have been a co-organizer for a civic technology group called Beta City YEG. (Except for the year I was in Toronto, where I had the privilege to work with Bianca Wylie and Andi Argast on the ODI Toronto node, but David Rauch, my Beta City partner-in-crime ran the group without me and updated me on the state of affairs in YEG). Started as a response to a gap in the local technology scene, as well as the desire to build a community of like-minded individuals, we have been facilitators of conversations, creators of projects, and prototypers of solutions for city problems. Hosted under the StartupEdmonton umbrella, this meetup has taken me to places I never thought it would. Although I have met some incredible people, appeared in newspapers and on TV for projects we undertook, and learned a lot about community organizing, I find myself no longer supporting the values of the “Civic Tech” movement. By this I mean the neoliberal framing of innovation as carried out by individuals outside of government departments, which is then used to improve city life and save the government money.
In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as a theory “of political and economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (2011, p.2). In this sense, neoliberalism becomes an ethic, a “social good maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions” and seeking to bring “all human action into the domain of the market” (p. 3). And so it is with volunteer labour, framed as social entrepreneurship guided by the logic of market exchange, creating value for the city while also bolstering the skill sets of the volunteers, in order to become ever more competitive in the technology economy. While it is true that projects delivered by civic tech groups like ours do in fact save governments money, rarely is the question posed as to why money must be saved in the first place, or why tsocial benefits must be optimized, or why there is poverty in the richest province in the Canada at all.
The title of this post is also how I feel about Beta City in the recent years. To say I am ambivalent about my commitments is to say the very least. On the one hand, I find myself resisting the thing I am supposed to champion. On the other hand, I feel a great sense of responsibility to the community, to people I have met, to the relationships I have fostered, to Startup, to Edmonton as a place where I live. I now have the critical lens to understand the dissonance I am feeling, though this sense of duality likely began to emerge from the founding of the group. In all media stories as well as in all projects documented on the website, our work has always been framed as citizens solving problems themselves using technology, through sheer will, hard work, and ingenuity. Partnering with skilled and dedicated community members, we have been able to put forward applications, walking tours, oral history collections, maps, and data sets that truly made a difference in people’s lives. The people with whom I worked have been nothing short of amazing, the Edmontonians we met shared their lives with us, and the public servants inherently driven by the idea of civil service. However, the necessity of existence of groups like ours in the context of a wealthy city was rarely put into question. After all, if this work is so valuable and important to city life, why cannot it be undertaken by the municipality?
Furthermore, the “energetic tech-oriented individuals taking solutions into their own hands” narrative is the classic neoliberal ideology, the same one that puts the onus back on the individual who points out social problems in Canadian society: what have YOU done to help? How many databases did YOU build to help the city? This is exactly the reason I feel so torn about the group 5 years in. As a “progressive” civically-engaged tech person, I must ask the same question as Lenin, What is to be done? And, indeed, not much can be done on an individual level. Poverty will continue to exist, social programs will continue to be underfunded, and data scientists will continue to burn out, having gone through their own personal hype cycle (though I feel like instead of the plateau of productivity, I will remain in the desert of alienation).
And yet, perhaps there is a creek of hope somewhere beyond the horizon. Once again, Zizek has prepared a perfect sandwich of clarity and sass in his latest work, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight (2018). Much like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is able to capture the public imagination by daring to speak about the possible and forming a positive vision of the American experience, Zizek too pierces through the same smug cynicism that I have had hurled at me in the beautiful wood-beamed lofts of Startup (“Ugh, young lady, don’t you know how the world REALLY functions?!”). Thus, he explains “the supreme irony” of contemporary age: “as it functions today, ideology appears as its exact opposite, as a radical critique of ideological utopias. The predominant ideology now is not a positive vision of some utopian future but a cynical resignation, an acceptance of how ‘the world really is,’ accompanied by a warning that if we want to change it too much, only totalitarian horror will ensue. Every vision of another world is dismissed as ideology” (p.211). According to Zizek and Badiou, though we live in a society that pretends that freedoms are unlimited, access to ideas is unfettered, and neutrality is the space any thinking person occupies, in fact, “the main function of ideological censorship today is not to crush actual resistance – that is the job of repressive state apparatuses – but to crush hope, immediately to denounce every critical project as opening a path at the end of which is something like a gulag” (p. 211).
Having managed the egos of men for 5 years, laboured affectively, and made little progress in gender diversity of the local civic technology community, I am preparing to walk away from this project. However, I remain naive in believing that this is not all there is. I remain committed to the idea of meaningful inefficiency of civic tech, in the value of such endeavour beyond exchange, in a society that will not need a civic tech to offload labour onto its citizens in order to test innovation before subsuming it into techno-managerial processes of city operations. A utopia is possible, but it requires collective action.
I will have to elaborate on this vision in a future post, if I ever work up the emotional and mental energy for it.