Popping the Bubble on Tech Utopians and the Law of Amplification

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

New Orleans    Every once in a blue moon there is a piercing needle that bursts the bubble of hucksterism, no matter how well-intentioned, and brings its wild claims based on hope and hustle down to the hard ground of reality. In this case, the sound of the pop is louder because the sharp points are delivered from an insider, Kentaro Toyama, a tech company veteran with the years in grade and degrees to prove it, in his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Right from the title, I knew this was a book worth reading, and Toyama delivered time and time again. Spoiler’s alert: it’s one thing when working stiff organizers points out that the tech emperors of our times are naked as the day is long, day in, day out, but when it’s the geek speaking the heresy to comrades in wealth and power, its rich with the flavor of truth and justice.

The backstory on Toyama is that he started on the path of Silicon Valley privilege with the degrees from Harvard and Yale and the big job at Microsoft and all was going swell. Then he was recruited to go with a respected and senior colleague to open up the Microsoft research center in Bengaluru. They did this and that, and he was responsible for some bit of gee whiz niftiness, but there was a problem. Rather than being the usual LED screen potted plant, he had tried teaching calculus in Ghana before going total geek, and though he didn’t go native in India, he did actually visit the schools where they were working and take a good look. Worse for many other sacred cows of international development and research from microfinance to high flying randomistas, like the widely touted Poverty Lab, who argue for data and metrics as the benchmarks for all development work, he actually went into the field, met the folks, and dug deeper, and despite preambles full of praise for the big whoops, his bubble bursting is categorical and indisputable.

Not because Toyama and Geek Heresy are on a mission of destruction and global depression, but because he is a realist unable to become a true believer of the utopian claims of the modern day tech babblers. He just can’t help saying what he’s seen on the ground. He argues for what he calls the Law of Amplification as an antidote to the utopian claims. In plain English, his law holds that nothing will change just because of technology if the necessary support system of people, training, resources, and infrastructure are not in place to take advantage of the technology. To organizers on the ground, this is so obvious that it should be gospel, but from the partnership of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is so powerfully steering the hype machine, that it’s hard not to drink their Kool-Aid.

Toyama has spit it out though. His examples are endless, but time and time they are of the kind that gently points out that cars are great inventions, but without roads, gas, or people who are taught how to drive, they really won’t get you too far. Tools are really just tools, no matter how high faluting. We all know this, but still have to sometimes catch ourselves and stop from nodding about the outrageous claims for computers, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all of which are wonderful, but none of which can change the world without “amplification,” roads, gas, drivers and the like. Microfinance, as we have pointed out repeatedly is not the silver bullet to end poverty, and Toyama is devastating on this as well. He also takes down the data freaks and randomistas worshipping at the altar of testing and metrics, by reminding that the local partners with years of experience, staffing, resources, and pure and simple competency essentially have their fingers weighing heavily on every measuring scale. He introduces another law, the Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules, which heartbreakingly points out that “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” which before any of you jump off the cliff is a helpful reminder that because something works well locally or in one context, does not mean that it will automatically work well when scaled up in others. Wisely, Toyama also pops the pretense of philanthropists who claim one-and-done to a grant as if that ensures success rather than failure as it goes to scale.

As an organizer often in the field, whether India, Kenya, Houston, or Little Rock, who sits side-by-side with brilliant, caring, courageous organizers trying to “amplify” their ability to make the computer a tool, rather than a paperweight, access the internet despite the cost, technical, and training barriers, and do simple research, organizing math, and other tasks for our members, it was great to be Toyama’s partner page to page with the truth that you find under your feet, no matter the sugar plums being fed daily to your brain.

There’s no substitute for doing the real work. Praise be to the heretics, like Toyama, who can speak truth to tech power, and who, wonderfully, still believe in and are committed to social change. Don’t let his voice be unheard!

Hand Collecting Dues is Very Difficult, Payroll Deductions Matter

fraternity-collection-agency-320x179Frankfurt      The latest word from insiders and lobbyists in Austin is that for the minute the bill to block all payroll deductions for public employees is bottled up in committee.Of course it could change in an instant.   The latest word from Baton Rouge has two bills that might have been primarily directed at teachers but seem to include all public  employees steaming ahead towards potential passage.   The rightwing, Republican assault on unions is in full flower.   Where right-to-work bills are not flourishing, either statewide or county by county in Kentucky or almost city by city in Illinois, and blocking all payroll deductions are not in vogue with Republican controlled legislatures, eliminating prevailing wages is also on the docket in a handful of states as well.

These issues matter.   Sure some can pay by bank draft, and that’s how all of our Texas and Arkansas members in Local 100 United Labor Unions are now being enrolled along with their payroll deduction, but it’s still harder, which is the point of the legislation after all.

I’m in route to Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad on my annual visit to India to spend time on the ground with ACORN’s organizers.   We have a lot to celebrate in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.   Our union of hawkers and other street sellers now has enrolled 35,000 members, 29000 of those in the last year.   It takes the breath away and speaks to the immense talent and hard work of Suresh Kadashan,   ACORN’s organizer there.

The problem for this visit though is how to more successfully solve the problem of collecting dues from our members so that we can grow to the next level and deepen the organization.  We are organizing informal workers without employers, so there is no possibility of any payroll deduction, because there is no payroll.   Our members live by their labor on a daily basis.   Our dues rate is deliberately set low, less than a dollar per month, but the trick is how to collect it from members in scores of markets and hundreds of streets in a half dozen cities in several states.

The organizing was done by hard working committees at the each market fanning out and enrolling the members with the organizer bouncing from place to place, training, coordinating, advising, and always moving the organization forward.   Practically speaking though the organizer cannot be the dues collector; there’s not enough time or space for one person to be routed to 35,000 every month.  As fast as the organization has grown since my last visit a year ago, there’s also not enough trust, market-to-market, baked into individual leaders to convince the members to cough up their hard earned rupees for dues, nor in the main are there bank accounts that might be drafted on the daily exchanges of hawkers in their all-cash business.   Construction trades for a century or more used hiring halls to control the flow of labor and handle dues collection, monitor work sites, and create jobs, but informal work needs no hiring hall.    It’s a job that requires hustling and with hawkers it’s largely stationery.   In fact our biggest campaigns revolve around protecting market locations and viability.

If it’s not hard enough to organize unions in the first place and get to scale and density in the second place so the union has real power, now we have the problem of sustainability. We have our work cut out for us!


My Liftin’ Days Are Done ( Boilermakers Lament ) by  Rusty Rivets

Post-Ferguson: It’s Not the Tactics, It’s the Troops

713Highway Blocked

Boston highway blocking

New Orleans     Historians, celebrities, names in the news, and old warriors of the civil rights movements are being put in the uncomfortable position of being asked by the press as so-called opinion leaders to comment on everything from the movie, Selma, to the tactics of protestors in the post-Ferguson moment of pushback and leap forward for more racial equality and rights.  A lot of the talk seems fuddy-duddy and old fashion as too many try to both line up with the drive to end injustice but shrink from the tactics, often seeming to channel school marms and old aunts.

Street blocking has been a favorite tactic of current protestors with dramatic impact.  In Oakland several weeks ago the interstate along the east Bay was blocked for hours attracting wild publicity.  More recently several dozen protestors chained themselves to 1200 pound concrete barrels and blocked a highway coming into Boston for hours there as well.  There are reports of “speaking truth to power” actions where protestors interrupt lunches in restaurants with largely white clientele to demand that they deal with the issues.

All of this invariably leads to the general wet noodling by outsiders that adopt the standard line that they agree with the goals, but abhor the tactics.

David J. Garrow, the award winning and great historian of the civil rights movement is a good example of a less than helpful tendency to scold and deprecate.  Saying to the Times:


…the impromptu protests that had erupted in recent months were not comparable to the strategies used by civil rights groups of the 1960s, which had clear goals such as winning the right to vote or the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter. “You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational,” Mr. Garrow said of the new waves of protests. “There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?” Mr. Garrow compared the protesters to those of Occupy Wall Street. “Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?” Mr. Garrow said. “Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I’m aware of.”


Even Rev. Al Sharpton, who knows something about protesting, took some shots by saying of the protests,


“I think some of them are absolutely what we need,” he said. Of others, he said: “I think some of them are hustling the media, they have no real following, no real intent, and they may not be around in four months.”

Rev. Sharpton knows something about working the media, and part of the tactical dilemma faced by today’s civil rights protestors, just as by others 50 years ago, is how to get enough attention to convert the protest to pressure.

From an organizing perspective the tactics don’t seem problematic to me.  The fact that the actions are small and broadcast a limited base is what worries me.  You can’t make change without troops, and putting lots of people in motion, and the choice of tactics in some of the more dramatic actions has been more about a vanguard leading, than building a movement for change.  A movement for change can’t crystallize around folks watching YouTube videos of other people engaging risk and taking action.  Unless this generation of organizers and activists starts assembling tactics that allow broad engagement and participation, the naysayer army is always mobilized and will drown them out and beat them down.  If we look small, we quickly become irrelevant.  Organizers can’t allow that to happen on campaigns of this importance.

Kentucky’s Big Sandy Coal Fired Power Plant Brings Memories of Arkansas White Bluff Fight

New Orleans    A picture in the Times of “Big Sandy,” the 1100 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Eastern Kentucky being shutdown finally over the next three years by the giant utility company, American Electric Power, brought back memories of a great fight 40 years ago in and around Pine Bluff, Arkansas where what is now Entergy and then was the Arkansas Power & Light (APL) Company was trying to build a similar mega-plant at White Bluff on the Arkansas River.  This was ACORN’s first campaign that broke nationally in 1972 and propelled the organization from an interesting community organizing experiment in a state most people had to look on the map to locate to something that folks could see had potential and range on a larger scale.

In dealing with the issue of the proposed plant construction we were worried about the increase cost on the rate base for our lower income, working consumers who were fighting off various utility increases almost as a daily matter in the early 1970’s, but to go toe-to-toe with APL we had to move strategically and tactically on a number of different fronts and that meant organizing farmers on both sides of the river that were downwind of the plant on one side and their biggest investors at super elite Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton on the other hand.   This whole fight would take a lot longer to tell than time or space allows today, so back to “Big Sandy.”

The company public relations flacks didn’t care if we moved their investors particularly though a mention on the front page of Arkansas Gazette and picked up by the New York Times didn’t make them very happy.  This was going to be decided by the elected members of the Arkansas Public Services Commission, so they felt if they could convince the farmers to be happy about all of this, they were good to go.  They hatched up a brilliant idea.  They would invited some of the leaders of the ACORN Protect Our Land Association to fly on a small charter plane over to Kentucky for the day and look at a similar (though smaller) coal fired plant there so they would know how great it would all be.  The company’s argument in those days before climate change and globe warming were much understood was that the sulfur emissions from the plant would be “free fertilizer” for the farmers soy beans, rice, and cotton, and therefore a bargain too good to beat.

Early in the morning a handful of APL executives, farmers, and me crawled into a plane for the quick trip to Kentucky.  We didn’t know exactly where we were going until the last minute, but we knew we would be looking at a coal-fired plant.  In those unimaginable days before the internet, it took some real skill to do a lot of the campaign based research that evened the odds on some of these campaigns.  Our research director was a young (hell we were all young!) Harvard student taking a year off from school, Steve Kest, who managed to piece together some information on the various plants in Kentucky and, very importantly, some records from that state and the feds on citations that Big Sandy had earned for pollution.  Couple that with the fact that the coal was mined locally straight out of some of the horror of Muhlenberg County, well known in song and legend for labor fights and environmental devastation, and the farmers and I had all the ammunition we needed to turn APL’s junket into a disaster for their proposals and catch them flatfooted.  Reporters were on the plane and in addition to our press releases we were able to feed them facts on top of facts about the problems that came with Big Sandy.  Big Sandy was something for sure, but it was scary in size and scale which also increased our credibility.

At the end of the day we beat the plant back without beating the plant.  White Bluff originally proposed as the largest coal-fired plant in the world requiring transport of coal in 100-car trains from the Powder River Basin deposits in Wyoming (we beat back a slurry line!), ended up about half that size.  We didn’t win scrubbers which experts around the world argued were needed to offset the pollution, but we did win some modifications that did a good piece of the work.

It is amazing that 40 years later Big Sandy was still belching its way around Kentucky.  The Times reported that the retrofit was too dear for AEP to finance despite its captive minds and pro-coal backers in Kentucky.  The Sierra Club reports that the number of coal-fired plants has dropped over the last dozen years from 522 to 395 or so.

ACORN may have been ahead of its time 40 years ago in Arkansas, but there’s still a lot left to do.  The fact that the internet has made the information more available would have made Steve’s job easier back then, but it’s still all about organizations with people and power in fighting and winning on this front and so many others.

Gunning for the Teachers and Their Unions

map of union strength according to Thomas Fordham Institute

New Orleans   Even as all of us hit the dawn patrol to vote and get out the vote on the US-Election Day, it is sobering to see that the rightwing forces are amassing at the border, regardless of the outcome today, in order to carry the fight into state legislatures around critical issues, like education, primarily by targeting unions.  I downloaded the 400-page report (mostly charts) produced by the Thomas Fordham Institute and funded and assisted by various conservative outfits which sought to measure the variable strength of teachers’ unions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Institute claimed that its purpose was to get to the heart of whether or not unions were really the obstacles to education reform in states and districts around the country.  They claimed the report was data-driven along more than 30 categories of comparison.  Truthfully as frightening as it was to behold, it was also compelling in its comprehensive inspection of education based unions.  The Institute’s conclusions were mundane, though interestingly they were probably surprised to find such a weak correlation between union strength state-to-state and the progress or lack of it on their criteria for educational reform.  They figured out that collective bargaining laws are important as is the right to strike, and that money and resources make huge differences.  They also found that on the state level outsiders thought unions were significant in the educational reform debate in 20 states, but only the key player in two states.  Like I said, there were occasional pearls to be found in this pig pen.

What was most fascinating to me about this entire avalanche of “data” was the way education, which has always been the most local of all political and community institutions, has now almost totally become a battleground at the state level.  Certainly, the way my own state of Louisiana totally usurped the local elected school board is a daily insult here, but this is also the legacy of the Bush II program of leaving children behind and empowering the states to determine how to lower the boom on school systems.  Looking at unions, it seems where unions have understood their fights to be at the legislatures rather than local school board; they have been at significant advantages in dealing with this devolution of resources and power.

Hawaii is an excellent example where this is a statewide union (NEA) with a statewide collective bargaining agreement, rather than a local one, is the strongest because clearly they are always “bargaining” with the state legislature.   Florida’s weakness was a surprise but spoke to the same phenomena.  Florida is rare in the South because there is a collective bargaining law with mandatory provisions, including checkoff, and there is an enormous union there because of the effective merger of AFT and NEA in that state.

It reveals starkly that part of the issue that underlies the Fordham numbers is the residue of fundamentally different organizing strategies by the NEA and the AFT, which have ironically left them – and us – in this perilous situation.   AFT for decades successfully ran an organizing program based on only working in cities with school districts which were large enough that they employed at least 200 to 250 teachers, which they thought sufficient to support a “stand alone” local union in that district.   NEA on the other had organized teachers in districts regardless of their size and had often emerged into collective bargaining after decades as a statewide, lobbying-based, professional association of teachers and sometimes, as in the Southern states, a batch of principals, administrators, and random educational personnel.

The Fordham Institute was clearly perplexed why you would have strong union involve at the state level in places like Alabama in the South, Montana and North Dakota in the West, Washington on the Pacific Coast where NEA also dominates, and obviously Hawaii.  They want to see one clear pattern based on the kind of urban wars where the battle cries have been the loudest in places like New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago.  Unfortunately for them and maybe for the rest of us, none of this is simple, because the union strength may be most noticeable in the urban areas where AFT has been strongest, but the fights have shifted to the states where NEA is in the best position to protect its members even though they might in other ways seem relatively weaker.

Both were great organizing strategies and build unions for teachers with millions of members in one of the greatest organizing successes of our generations, but politically, unless there is a way to play catch-up and reconcile the interests and objectives of both the cities and the unions, it leaves us poorly positioned to defend against the frontal assault coming at the state level and in the legislatures in place after place.

Peer Power, Crowd Sourcing, and Fixing Cities

New Orleans   The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board broke up about 10-feet of the sidewalk in front of my house to do something with their pipes six months ago.  Three months ago a truck with two of their workers parked in front of the house and looked at it without getting out of the pickup.  I asked if there was a plan or a timetable to comeback and finish the job by repairing the sidewalk.  Oh, yes, they replied.  We’re making sure it’s on the list now!  Living in the broke-ass City of New Orleans, I’m pretty relaxed about the sidewalk.  I only really remember the problem every time I mow the yard and the pebbles come firing back at my legs.  If I could choose, I would have some of the potholes that almost swallow my truck fixed elsewhere, but of course that’s a different city entity with different funding sources….

In the spirit of neo-liberalism, transferring the responsibilities for common issues to regular citizens rather than public authorities, I constantly read of these magical solutions brought to us by either the internet or….each other?  Some of it sounds great and in fact would be a real contribution.  We were big fans of what crowd sourcing might do in the Korogochu slum in Nairobi if we could have figured out a way to get text messages on cell phones to alert people about crime and security issues in the community and pressure police for action.  The lack of confidence in the police acting and technical problems stalled that notion, though it still seemed promising.

Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, an op-ed book promotion by Steven Johnson touted “peer power.”  He told of an organization in New Haven, Connecticut called SeeClickFix, where “ordinary citizens” have reported “potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti.”  He claimed that “city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.”  Interesting, but is reporting really the problem or is the real problem the actual fixing?  Having worked in organizing communities for decades, I’m really pretty sure it’s the fixing part of the equation where we stumble.  Cities may prefer getting a message via the internet rather than a screaming rant from an unhappy taxpayer or worse a group of neighbors showing up at City Hall or Public Works, but all of this ignores the real problem by promoting something that is nowhere near a solution.

Even better or worse, Johnson celebrated something called “neighbor.ly” which had created a classic neo-liberal “solution” and created a “Kickstarter-style platform where people can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities:  bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.”  Well, at least they weren’t funding basic city services on a voluntary basis, but neither are these kinds of initiatives creating public consensus on quality of life issues.  Instead they are creating a facility for self-funding separate projects not based on community decision making but on self-certified and resourced groups.  Tending a community garden may be one thing, but why aren’t bike racks and playground swings pure-and-simple public goods and therefore public responsibilities?

Where Johnson was right was in promoting “participatory budgeting” based on the Porto Alegre, Brazil model, but that’s a whole different situation where a municipal budget is cobbled together in a city over a million people with an elaborate – and equitable – system of full citizen participation to make decisions about how to spend their public dollars in the best way.  Not surprisingly the access to potable water and building adequate sewer systems increased dramatically once the ruling municipal party, the PT or Workers’ Party, instituted this process.

Porto Alegre is a model for real citizen empowerment, not the replacement of public functions by private citizens.  We need to not be confused.  Apples are not oranges anywhere in the world, and the right and the neo-liberal advocates should not be allowed to hide their efforts to push public responsibilities onto private citizens by conflating real power with an artificial substitute.