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How do you respond to an article that carries the seeds of its own negation? Blakemore is excited, but it seems the excitement comes from spending too much time with people with technology tools and a story to sell.

This entire article read like a promotional brochure because:

– the GPS mapping companies with a vested interest in promoting their projects and products are repeatedly mentioned in the article.

– the owners / employees of those companies are the only voices we get to hear.

– the technology is placed at center stage, manufacturing that most perfect of TED-elusions i.e that technology overcomes politics, policies, interests, governance, history and the agency of people itself.

This latter point is critical: what the article veils is the ordinary and lets-get-our-hands-dirty work that people who need to confront the local government, demand action and change, and improve their lives, still have to do. the GIS products mentioned here actually only enable them to do this better, but they do not create their ability to do it at all. In fact, that the local communities are in fact engaged in demanding rights and services from the city, state and federal governments is nothing new, and in fact, had the writer bothered to look carefully, one of the most obvious things that she would have seen in such deprived and marginalised areas. there are dozens of groups and community activists fighting to improve conditions, and to push back an exploitative and indifferent city government. this is true across slums around the globe.

These new tools are useful, and they can be very helpful, but only if there are existing movements, organisations and groups already occupied in achieving the ‘betterment’ situation they are working towards. the tools simply are tools, they are not creators of new human reality or realisation. they complement, and make more effective, the argument of the weak against the indifference of the state. this latter fact i can believe. but, simply putting facts to maps isn’t that interesting because it ignore something called reality. As Lanier has often argued, data isn’t even reality. The article itself steps over itself, though never letting a realisation ruin a good copy, when it just overtly points out:

“In 2006, a University of Kansas project called México Indígena met with the ire of Mexican indigenous organizations. The project’s goal was to use participatory mapping to understand public land ownership within native communities, but questions over the true purpose of the data collection and objections to its partial funding by the U.S. military turned the project into a lightning rod. Accusations of “geopiracy” indicated just how sensitive mapping—which can disrupt the balance of power and expose groups to legal proceedings and scrutiny—can be.

And then there’s the issue of bias and accuracy. When humans initiate mapping projects, says Sterling, they superimpose their personal agendas onto those maps—whether or not they are professional cartographers. Citizen-driven mapping projects might miss data points that would be considered in larger, more comprehensive initiatives with access to more expensive equipment and more professional resources.

Yes, its called politics and conflicts of interests. It’s why we have government and democratic structures. however, what about the bias in citizen data collection? Do we think that people in slums do not have a politics, or interests, or conflicts, or desires, or schemes, or do we imagine them – as this article attempts to do – as innocent, victims, and merely looking for the good? This is an untenable manufacturing of reality. Slums are as teeming with political games, place, interests, conflicts, schemes, profits, and initiatives as any other areas of city government. They are highly contested areas fraught with powerful political, financial and economic interests, and fully tied into the vision and plans of the central authorities. Governments, and particularly city governments, are deeply involved in the situation inside slums, and we would be wrong to imagine them as ignored or isolated.

Regardless, this brings me back to my original point: tools, useful, yes, but only as tools. This Smithsonian article tries to flip reality, suggesting that tools are what is important, and people merely have to enter data, and press return, and lo behold…clean water!!! All the references in the article are to other promotional articles by the very companies selling us these solutions. Quite bizarre! Our obsession – our ideology in fact, that technology trumps politics is a consequence of our exhaustion with politics. The fraying American political landscape – now reduced to corrupt and corporatised Senate and Congress, and Talking Head President, has pushed a certain class of person to hide behind the false promise of ‘innovation’ and ‘technical’ solutions. This is of course Morozov’s argument, so I will say no more.

morozov