Discursive Engineering

Mapwashing or civic design? Flooding the Insta-zone; and much more.


This is civic tech: Congrats to our friends at Purpose, which has just been acquired by the Capgemini Group and will continue to function as an independently run Public Benefit Corporation as it enters its second decade. Its founder Jeremy Heimans will continue to serve as CEO and Chairman and the rest of Purpose’s leadership team—partners Jessy Tolkan, Anne Keenan, Dan Shannon, and Simon Goff—along with CFO Jon Damon and Chief of Staff Claire Harman, will remain at the helm.

Here’s New School professor Shannon Mattern in Places Journal dissecting the effort by Sidewalk Toronto (a division of Alphabet/Google, to include the public in its planning for the city’s waterfront:

Civic design tools such as participatory maps and community engagement apps help keep urban data and oversight powers in public hands. Yet those same tools can be co-opted by savvy tech developers who have mastered the techniques of discursive engineering. “Participation” is now deployed as part of a public performance wherein the aesthetics of collaboration signify democratic process, without always providing the real thing. A disingenuous use of maps, apps, and other tools of participatory planning — call it mapwashing — threatens to undermine the democratizing, even radical potential of civic design. Against this backdrop, the very meaning of “participation” is changing. Many of us live in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, haloed by a swarm of satellites, pinned in by huge repositories of proprietary geodata, tracked by devices that constantly ping our locations to sentinels in the cloud. The old tools of participatory design, like the survey and the map, have little value where automated data extraction feeds directly into algorithmic urban engineering. If urban design can be automated, if cities can be made responsive to real-time data collected from environments and inhabitants without their explicit consent, how meaningful is our participation?

Tech and politics: The Jupiter-sized gas giant that is the Mike Bloomberg presidential campaign is flooding the zone on Instagram, hiring many “influencers” with huge followings, as Taylor Lorenz reports for The New York Times. In addition, as Rebecca Ruiz also reports for the Times, the Bloomberg campaign is spending profligately, offering entry-level field organizers $6,000 per month (double the average) and opening field offices as far away as the US Virgin Islands.

While Big Tech has fretted over Senator Elizabeth Warren’s frequent criticisms, it has mistakenly ignored Senator Bernie Sanders, who has many of the same policy views as Warren regarding tech, Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode.

A new MIT study explains why Voatz, an online voting app that claims its blockchain tech makes it secure, is anything but, Matthew Rosenberg reports for The New York Times.

Here’s how Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff worked a backchannel connection to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to successfully pitch the president on a trillion-tree planting initiative that was originally dreamed up by former VP Al Gore, courtesy of Lisa Friedman reporting for The New York Times. “Trees are the ultimate bipartisan issue,” Benioff commented. “Everyone is pro-tree.” Or so they think!

Deep reading: If you are a Ph.D. student looking for raw material for your dissertation, consider making a dive into the huge pile of oral and written evidence collected by the UK House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee this past fall. Everyone from Avaaz to the “Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising” to mySociety, the Oxford Internet Institute and Facebook have submitted material.

People are still wondering if blockchain technology is actually really vital for anything, the BBC’s Chris Baraniuk reports. He cites its use by Maersk in a new system for tracking customs documentation on goods being shipped internationally, and its use tracking real estate sales in Sweden, and an experiment with online voting in Thailand. “These are thought-provoking ventures, though a debate remains as to whether blockchain is absolutely necessary for any of them,” Baraniuk writes. No kidding!

Life in Facebookistan: Judd Legum of PopularInfo reports that the company’s much-touted third-party fact-checking program is as thin as a silicon microchip. Over the course of January, its partners conducted a total of 302 fact checks on content, but as Legum notes, “Facebook has more than 200 million users in the United States, posting millions of pieces of content every day. The reality is that almost nothing on Facebook is fact-checked.”

Life not inside Facebookistan: The Irish Data Protection Commission, who are effectively the main data cops for the EU, heard just over a week ago from Facebook Ireland that it was planning to roll out a new Dating feature within a few days. So, concerned that no information was provided by the company “in relation to the Data Protection Impact Assessment…. “authorised officers of the DPC conducted an inspection at Facebook Ireland Limited’s offices in Dublin on Monday last, 10 February and gathered documentation.” The commission now says, “Facebook Ireland informed us last night that they have postponed the roll-out of this feature.”

End times: Combine Valentine’s Day and a neural network, and you get some very strange results, courtesy of Janelle Shane.

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