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!


Remembering Elena Hanggi, Jack Lavey, and the Wilbur Mills Expressway Fight

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers.Rep National Convene Dallas, Republicans in 1984.

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers. Republican  National Convention Dallas  in 1984.

New Orleans  The obituary for Elena Hanggi Giddings said so little that it was almost hard for me to believe that this was the same woman I knew so well and so long.  Her stint as chair of the regional advisory board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Dallas was acknowledged, along with her graduation from law school, her four daughters, and her grandchildren.  Not that these brief notes weren’t true, but they were really mere footnotes to the real courage and accomplishment of this woman.  She never practiced law, and her time with the Federal Home Loan folks came as a result of her having been the third national president of ACORN in the 1980s and the last from Arkansas where she served several terms before joining the staff with the Institute for Social Justice, where she specialized in training other grassroots elected leaders within the organization. 

            Elena was beloved by ACORN members and the reason was always clear.  Her story was so many of their stories, and she told it well and from the heart. She painted the story of her life as that of a silent, housewife, whose only opinions were those expressed at her own kitchen table, until two things happened almost at the same time.  First, she was doorknocked by an ACORN organizer named Barbara Friedman, over and over again, until she was literally pried out of kitchen to a meeting of the newly formed ACORN community organization in her neighborhood, and worked up the courage in a cold sweat and total panic, to say something at the meeting about what concerned her and was shocked to find her own voice and the support of her neighbors.  Secondly, the plans of politicos and real estate moguls to divide the city, racially and economically, with an expressway in order to cut 3 minutes of commuting time to the western suburbs where they wanted to make their fortunes would run right through her family home not far from McArthur Park and right smack in the path of the expressway, which meant that her new found voice suddenly had to reach the level of a battle cry. 

            In a sadly, tragic coincidence Elena, one of the lead plaintiffs along with ACORN in the suit we finally filed to contest the inadequacy of the environmental statement for the highway and its failure to seriously consider other options, passed away at 72, a week after our lawyer in the Mills case, the great Little Rock labor and civil rights attorney and my longtime friend and comrade, Jack Lavey at 81.  His obituary, not surprisingly, was well written by Ernie Dumas, the former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette in those days and weekly columnist still for the Arkansas Times, so I can add little to that save, “amen.”  Even in Little Rock, it is probably less ironic that simply a continuing statement of fact that a peoples’ leader’s passing should be barely noted next to that of a practicing lawyer of the bar.

            Nonetheless, as critical as a lawyer’s skill, and Jack’s was far reaching, and as deep as his commitment to social justice, and my debts will never be fully paid to him, because he never said, “no,” to any request for help or representation or advice that I ever made to him, it is the courage of an Elena Hanggi and so many leaders that emerge like her, and the unfathomable depth of her will and the magical power of silenced voices that rise with work, discipline, and magic to break the bonds of silence and roar with anger, accepting the call to change everything in their lives in order to fight with their people for justice. 

            I watched Elena find her voice and a lifetime cause.  I watched her not back down to police in Chicago at a national march and find herself hauled away to jail.  I watched people rise to their feet when she gave the call to action to thousands with rage and tears in her voice.  I witnessed both her pride and terror when she and other leaders were arrested for holding signs in a Congressional hearing and faced jail for the protest.  I sat over many years at her kitchen table myself, and I knew her family, her hopes, dreams, fears, and struggle as a person, a woman, and a worker to find her true self and live past the limits caging her. 

            There are no replacements for leaders like Elena and peoples’ servants like Jack, but for their sakes, as long as the fight for justice, freedom, and equality is waged, it is all of our jobs to continue in the struggle and to help find others to follow in their footsteps.  We owe it to them.  We owe it to ourselves.         


Movements Take Infrastructure, Not Simply Communication

getting_in_car_jpgDelhi   Maybe someone out there is hearing our tired, old, boring message:  organizing takes hard work!  Yes, I’ve said it now, but it was never a secret despite the flutter of excitement about the mirage of so-called Twitter and Facebook “revolutions.

            In two very interesting pieces, one “After the Protests” by Zeynep Tufekci in the Times and “Does a Growing Youth Population Fuel Political Unrest” in the Guardian by Patrick Kingsley, very different perspectives converge on the conclusion that, if you want change, the anger matters, but it has to be matched with the work.

            Tufekci confronts directly the confusion the means, specifically the excitement about the tools of social media, being insufficient to achieve the ends.  Essentially, they can communicate, but they can’t organize.  He cites the sudden uprising of 100,000 people in Istanbul recently to protest the death of a 15-year old hit by a tear gas canister in protests last year around the square.   They came, they marched, and then, it was over.  Or as he correctly observes:

Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.  This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

            After noting the lack of change that protest movements from those in Turkey to Occupy Wall Street to the now mourned Egyptian revolution and the huge, but ultimately ineffective actions against austerity mounted by the Indignados in Spain, he reminds people about the infrastructure it took to organize something more sustained like the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.

            Kingsley’s point comes from another direction.  He sees a wide generational gap between the huge, majority young populations in many developing countries in Africa, whether Egypt, Yemen, or Nigeria, and Latin America, yet wonders essentially why there isn’t more action.  He sees the anger, but wonders whether it is about finding a place or about change.  Without exactly saying so, he wonders if this is about middle-class entitlements and grievances, or about something different.

            Both are raising important, “about time” kind of questions that need to be part of the debate everywhere that people have who care about justice and equality.  There are no simple answers, and you certainly won’t get them here.  All of these movements were courageous, inspired, and people gave everything they could to make them happen and win when the opportunity arose.  Nonetheless, it also does seem obvious no matter which way you look at the question, there are no short cuts to social change:  you have to do the organizing work.


Scotland’s Activists Call in the Daddy of Them All

WADE Rathke from the USA is a one-off.  Original has to be his epithet.

A community organiser, a self-appointed role he adopted at nineteen years old, today and 40 years later he is helping ordinary people to change swathes of societies the world over.  
Founder of ACORN International, this unique individual focuses on what he calls ‘citizen wealth’ with an astounding optimism and immediacy that works for, and often achieves, transformational results.  He never doubts any citizen’s capacity to make a difference, despite the battle scars earned along the way. “The fight for change is progress itself,” he told the Network.
Activists in Scotland, no matter what their campaign, can learn from this experienced veteran who advocates less talk, more listening, direct action and being clear about the issues as key components for kick-starting change.
ACORN is the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now. Wade resigned from that board in 2008 after 38 years as a founding member.  He is now ‘chief organizer’ for ACORN International, built on similar lines.  His latest book Citizen Wealth:  Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, documents his journey with enthralling stories.
Rathke is known globally as the premier organizer of low and medium income labour and community groups and an inspiration to change makers who recognise that “a personal problem becomes a political issue”.  It was on an ACORN project in Chicago that Barrack Obama cut his political teeth, a process he proudly documents in his biographies and has since staunchly defended against sometimes vicious attacks.
                                                      Sharing the story
IN May 2013 Wade Rathke visited Scotland for the first time in his long career.  He was invited and hosted by several organisers of Edinburgh Private Tenants Action Group (Eptag).  The enterprising, entrepreneurial young people who have founded this already influential organisation set up a day-school workshop in Edinburgh University’s Teviot building.  It was well attended by committed activists from Glasgow, Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland.
The goal was to seriously consider starting another ‘affiliate’ or outpost of ACORN International.  The buzz in the room became palpable as Wade’s direct style identified doable campaigns, an organising committee, weekly meetings and achievable goals.  He clearly enjoyed moving away from “litanies of despair” to tongue-in-cheek reminders that “community organisers don’t stutter”.   He engaged keenly with his audience and you could see the light of vision in his eye.
Since 2008 Rathke has travelled globally to help ordinary people do extraordinary things.  Canada, Peru, South Korea, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Kenya and Mexico are some of the affiliates of the global group mushrooming globally at grassroots level. Ordinary people are learning how to organise and mobilize.  Their mentor focuses on pragmatism, encouraging ‘winnable’ campaigns that drive people out of a sense of political hopelessness into a can-do state of mind.
“Justice is just-us” said Wade whose blog at chieforganizer.org daily records, probes and supports the struggles that working people face against minimum wage abuse, inequality and injustice both in his home state of Louisiana (rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), across the United States and the world over.

“Individuals alone don’t have the capacity for resolving long-standing grievances,” he said.  “The process is messy, it’s difficult and it can be a fight.  You need to identify and organise your constituencies, you need strong organisations to achieve the change you believe must happen to protect and empower ordinary people.”
                                                 Expect to pay up front
UNIQUE to ACORN is the payment of ‘dues’ or membership fees, a concept that Wade says does not initially sit comfortably in some cultures, but creates a strong and vital sense of  accountability.  This fundamental principle is crucial to project success, and ironically, he notes, it is the lower income members amongst diverse constituencies who pay most willingly.  At the same time, it is more often the organisers who stumble over asking.
“The key issue is the asking, not the getting,” says Wade.  “Often it’s the organisers who need to change their approach as lower income people find it incredible that anyone else would fund their fight for change.  They expect to pay dues and it is the poorest who pay most consistently and continuously.
“But with those fees comes a ‘testing’ from the members as they decide if you are making their case.  You should expect that testing, another reason to set winnable goals that are achievable within a reasonable time-frame.  Members will gauge success and develop confidence with that good feeling from wins, even though those achievements are small and incremental. ”
At the peak of its success ACORN had 500,000 members, all paying dues, and subsidiary partners amounting to 168 corporations within the “family”.   “We got big,” says Wade, “Perhaps too big and it became more difficult to manage such a big organisation.”  He admits that he has learned from some of the past experiences.   “ACORN International is built out of the US experience,” he says.
He looks back to Little Rock Arkansas in May 1970 where the National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO) had sent him as an organizer.  It was here that ACORN began and his first campaign was to help welfare recipients gain their basic needs.  It was the starting point from which all the rest has unfolded.   As a young man already dedicated to ‘Adequate Income Now’ he knew that “people have to come together to generate change” and that mantra still drives him today.  He emphasizes the importance and power of “playing in teams” referring to Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book of the last decade on this subject, listed below.
Our society can learn a lot from all of this in the fluid state of change that is Scotland today.  This article only scratches the surface of the achievements in the life and times of the political force that is Wade Rathke.  Further investigation may take your own activism to new and better levels.  To learn more, follow the links below.

Atlantic Philanthropies Repurposing Could Create Huge Progressive Resource Problem

Atlantic Philanthropies President resigns

Atlantic Philanthropies President resigns

New Orleans In trying to resituate organizing on more sustainable ground around the world, I don’t keep up with foundations and so-called philanthropy much anymore, except as an occasional curiosity a lot like people might watch unreality shows like “lives of the rich and famous.” Nonetheless the sudden announced departure of the well regarded Gara LaMarche and the likely repurposing of Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, his most recent employer, over the last week is a tree falling in the forest that could create a huge clear cut in the growth of the progressive forces at this critical crossroads.

During LaMarche’s term at Atlantic in recent years the foundation was fueling the immigration reform efforts for example to the tune of between $5 and $6 million per year, therefore bearing no small amount of the weight for the success and failure of that movement.  In the 2008 election cycle Atlantic’s investments in voter engagement and civic participation were huge through a variety of vehicles allowing 501c4 activity.  LaMarche’s farewell letter celebrates AP’s work in the healthcare reform effort as the domestic touchstone of accomplishment from his term, though arguably no one knows better than LaMarche how swallow that accomplishment is today, unless we double down now and over the next several years.

Certainly Atlantic is dedicated to a final payout strategy of all resources over the next five years and was always a brilliant moth flying towards the flame in philanthropy, but its role in the “here and now” of capacity building for these huge campaigns was inarguably dramatic regardless of its short lifespan.  The sudden, unexpected departure of LaMarche raises huge fears that the redirection of Atlantic could leave progressive engagement, advocacy, and campaign efforts unprepared and outgunned even as these fights have moved into critical, defensive postures looking for opportunities to reassert.

Continue reading