Weekly Churn 005: Public Policy and Innovation

Ahoy! This is the Weekly Churn, where every Sunday I post about what I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about over the previous week.

If you follow me on social media you might have heard some of this before. There’s this company called “Alphabet” that Google created, a kind of umbrella corporation to house all of its different experiments and subsidiaries without overtly drawing a line between those entities and Google’s worsening international reputation. Or at least I think that’s what it’s for; maybe it’s a tax thing, I don’t know. Anyway, one of those Google sister companies is called Sidewalk Labs. They are in the smart city business, and are looking to develop “Quayside,” which is part of Toronto’s eastern waterfront. There are a lot of problems with Sidewalk coming to town; some are related to consultation and democratic practice, some are related to trust and reputation issues. There are a bunch of things. Bianca Wylie has delineated them far better than I can, and her work is a good place to get yourself up to speed. This post and the others that will follow owe a huge debt to the many citizens, activists, experts, and public intellectuals who have been speaking out about the project from the beginning,1 particularly Bianca Wylie, Saadia Muzaffar, Molly Sauter, Nasma Ahmed, Milan Gokhale, John Lorinc, and of course Adam Greenfield. I’ll include a brief “recommended reading” list at the bottom of this post, with more to come in future posts.

I want to come at this from a slightly different angle, because I think I’m more skeptical of the “smart city” concept in general than some of Sidewalk’s other critics. I attended the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression’s Whose Data and Whose City? panel discussion back in January. It was a good panel, and I learned a lot. But one thing that’s stuck with me is when one of the panelists—I don’t remember the exact words and I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact time of this exchange in the video, and the details are fuzzy—said something like “we want to make it clear we aren’t against progress,” and an audience member objected, and yelled out his objection: he was very much against progress, and we should be too. You could almost feel the audience cringe with sympathetic embarrassment, like someone had brought up wind turbine syndrome. I’ve been turning that exchange over and over in my mind for nearly three months now, and I think I’ve finally figured out why I can’t let go of it. We don’t use the word “progress” very much anymore. The word we use in its place is “innovation.”

The first thing you need to understand is that “innovation” isn’t a value-neutral term, and I don’t think it has much place in public policy discussions. The word as we currently use it is jargon from the business world, and it comes with a lot of baggage. It originally had very negative connotations, but in the early part of the twentieth century capitalists started using it to mean “bringing new products to market,” and that’s still basically at the heart of what it means today, although now with more positive connotations. Any time we frame a discussion using a term like “innovation” we are not only framing it in economic terms, but in terms specifically meant for describing the relationship between private enterprise and markets.

Economic Science Fictions cover Why is that a problem? There are too many reasons to list in this post, but I’ll give you two: first, governments and businesses have dramatically different purposes and mandates, and second, using language specific to business in a public policy discussion is a kind of conceptual capture not entirely unlike, say, stuffing the CRTC full of former telecom executives. Words are sites of power; who we let define them, and how, will not just shape what we have to say about an issue, it will shape what we are capable of saying about an issue. “Innovation” isn’t just business jargon, in the last twenty years it has become an explicitly neoliberal term closely tied to techno-libertarian thought. In tech circles it’s a bit like “disruption,” but it doesn’t yet leave a nasty taste in your mouth. Here is what William Davies had to say about neoliberalism in his introduction to Economic Science Fictions (2018):

By imposing a permanent framework of competition and calculation, neoliberalism establishes a system in which political choices are radically constrained, while entrepreneurial, financial, and consumer choices are vastly expanded.

Using the language of neoliberalism cedes significant conceptual space to its priorities, and an essential neoliberal project is weakening governments and their ability to intervene effectively when business plans are contrary to the public good. Neoliberalism limits our political choices, and language is a big part of how it does that.

Related to that, and relevant to Google/Sidewalk Labs’ presence in Toronto, is the issue of corporate power, discussed in Laura Horn’s essay “Future Incorporated?” Horn is interested in why so many science fictional futures feature dystopian corporate hegemonies, and what this means for our understanding of current political and economic possibilities. Her conclusions can shed some light on why projects like Quayside end up with the vendor being asked to make the rules around things like data governance. The entire essay is worth reading, but I’m going to quote extensively from a section called “The Social Fiction of the Corporation,” as I think it gets to the heart of what I want to talk about.2

The power of transnational business is such that governments tend to portray corporate interests as synonymous with broader societal interests. The very idea of the corporation has become common sense in the contemporary perception of how production and consumption should and could be organised; it is difficult even to imagine alternatives. And yet, at the end of the day the corporation is nothing more than an enduring social fiction, an entity entirely constituted upon legal structures that has taken on layers of meaning much beyond the initial social innovation of separating investment and liability.

There have been only a few discussions—and the CFE video I link to above is one of them—where the role of the state or the people in the redevelopment of Quayside or similar “smart city” projects is envisioned as being much beyond on that of client or regulator. It is somehow nearly always assumed that the state cannot be an actor in these matters, only either a facilitator or antagonist for the actions of business interests, who themselves are, or must be, responding to the desires of the population as expressed by the market. Questions about which people express their desires through the market, why corporations are the appropriate actors to respond to these specific desires, or if the market is even the best tool for this task aren’t often asked, but they are important ones.

Workers or employees do not feature in this dominant image of the corporation. Neither does the state, other than as regulator and enabler for a business environment; a corollary of corporate power is the many ways in which corporations and governments interact in the dismantling of corporate oversight. This significant expansion of corporate rights over the last decades is a concomitant development to this; the impersonal ‘legal fiction’ has now acquired far-reaching corporate personhood, and an international investor-state dispute settlement system arbitrates the rights of corporations when states implement inconvenient policies that might limit corporate profits.

The conversation about the Sidewalk Labs/Quayside project has the spectre of Dan Doctoroff’s time as deputy mayor of New York looming over it, and if David Madden and Peter Marcuse’s In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis or Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood are to be believed, that time was characterized by extreme gentrification and the wholesale transfer of public assets to private/corporate interests. What Doctoroff is most likely great at is manipulating state power to conflate corporate interests with public interests. I don’t find that encouraging at all, and as Nasma Ahmed expertly pointed out in the CFE video above, Sidewalk Labs’ presence in Toronto probably isn’t a win for labour or labour rights, particularly for the city’s racialized citizens. Toronto is an admirably diverse city, but racial justice is nowhere near being a solved problem here, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the exacerbation of class conflict that comes with gentrification can cut even deeper along racial lines than it already does in less diverse communities. There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that Quayside is a community open and available to everyone, and the language of “innovation” encourages us to look at colourful mockups of the future while marginalized or vulnerable members of our community are left behind, to consider potential benefits while ignoring actual harm. Building a neighbourhood is work, and who is invited or even allowed to be involved in that work is every bit as important as what work needs to be done. So is the question of who gets to do which parts.

It has become almost impossible not to interact with corporations in one way or another in contemporary capitalism, even just at the basic level of everyday processes of consumption. This renders the acute feeling of powerlessness in the face of corporate power all the more pressing.

[…]

With corporations seemingly all-encompassing, and the state at best arm’s length, or at worst ‘captured’ by corporate interests, the possibilities for social change, for contestation and resistance of corporate power are often seem as limited even by activists.

Neoliberalism constrains political choices while expanding economic concerns, especially as expressed by corporate power, to all areas of life. These constraints mostly aren’t legal or physical, although they can certainly cross over into those domains: they are conceptual, psychological, ideological. Defining the terms of public discourse, particularly around policy matters, is part of how these constraints are achieved. Even people who think deeply and with great care about these issues,3 activists and experts and others like them, find their thoughts and expressions channeled into the smooth grooves worn by business jargon and corporate-captured public discourse. It becomes difficult to conceive of collective action outside of corporate structures. Laura Horn believes that collective action outside those structures is still possible, even necessary, and so do I. There are historical success stories, of course—the very weekend itself—but closer to home I am reminded of my dad’s struggle to receive his benefits as an injured worker. He fought for a long time for a just result, but he when formed a support group to share what he’d learned about the system with others, injured workers in my hometown were able to support each other and victories became, if not routine, then at least more common. They moved a system that was stacked against them to achieve just results. It took courage, but not only courage: it took solidarity.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here: this post wasn’t so much about the Quayside project itself as about my dislike of how difficult the ubiquity of certain rhetoric has made it to speak resistance to this project and others like it. A citizen’s group called Block Sidewalk has been formed, if you’d like to know more.

I’ll likely have more, and more organized, things to say about Sidewalk Labs, the Quayside project, and smart cities in general in a later post. Most of this was written while I was up until nearly four in the morning stressing about my father’s heart problems, watching Miss Congeniality, and obsessively tweaking the Sunday lineup for my fantasy baseball team. It takes a toll.

Here’s my initial recommended reading list:

I’m going to see about setting up a proper newsletter thing for next week. The posts will still be available on the blog, they’ll just also go directly to your inbox, if that’s what you’re into. We’ll see what happens.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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