The Invisible Divide Between Rich and Poor

This morning NPR did a story on a General Motors’ employee benefit program. It turns out that GM provides many of its white collar workers with company cars and free gas. This is not such a shock for a car company, but this program is now being seen in a post-bailout frame, alongside the overblown controversy around AIG’s corporate bonuses.

The narrative that has emerged in the media in regard to these stories is a kind of “gotcha journalism” that focuses on trying to point out any corporate excess from companies that received bailout money. The logic presumes that companies who come begging the American people for a handout should not be squandering their dough. And on those points, I tend to agree. But I worry that the novelty of this kind of journalism will soon wear off and when it does, there will be a more important story that goes left untold. Continue reading

Fostering a Food Revolution

Ever since seeing the incredible momentum that gathered behind the effort to get the Obama’s to plant a garden in the White House lawn, I have been wanting to jot down some thoughts about this effort. However, this is one of those cases where procrastination actually pays off, because while I dawdled, Tom Philpott jotted. He has a post over at Grist.org that hits the nail on the head.

Go read it here: Food, class, and the new, new agrarianism

In general, the post actually focuses more on the coverage of the new garden at the White House, than on the garden itself. Of particular concern is the issue of class. These are some of the points that stood out for me.

Continue reading

On Not Resisting the Kindle

Or “How I learned to stop worrying and love the screen.”

In the March 2nd edition of The Atlantic Sven Birkerts laments the way that the Kindle and other new technologies are eroding “a certain kind of cultural understanding.” This is not the first time Birkerts has made this appeal. His best known book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, is an expanded version of this argument. The Kindle is just a convenient and timely vehicle for his longstanding critique of literacy in our digital age.

Birkerts’ reference to Gutenberg in the title of his book is fitting. As I read his article, I couldn’t help but thinking of a story Clay Shirky tells in his book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes about the scribes – an elite group of literate monks – whose job it was, for many centuries, to hand-copy books. That is, until the 1400’s when Gutenberg came along. “Suddenly,” writes Josh Benton, describing the scene, “scribes were no longer a necessary link between knowledge and learner.” And as the printing press spread across Europe, the scribes sounded remarkably like Birkerts, warning of all that we will lose if we allow technology to reshape reading. Continue reading

Rilke on Love and Work

Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Data is not the Same as Information

At the beginning of the year Micah Sifry, the man behind TechPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum, wrote an extended article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “A See-Through Society.” The article strikes a hopeful note as it outlines the various ways that the web is helping to make our government more transparent. Sifry writes, “We are heading toward a world in which one-click universal disclosure, real-time reporting by both professionals and amateurs, dazzling data visualizations that tell compelling new stories, and the people’s ability to watch their government from below (what the French call sousveillance) are becoming commonplace.”

Sifry lauds the efforts of cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington DC who have led the way in opening up the data they collect to citizens who are willing and interested enough to dig into it, chop it up, reorganize it, and use it to tell us something new about the places we live. He also points out independent projects like PublicMarkup, iLive.at and EveryBlock that are sparking a “revolution in participation” where people “talk, share, and talk back online,” engaging their local governments in new ways.

There are many aspects of Sifry’s article that I think are spot-on. There is no doubt that the incredible flood of data we are witnessing, and the innovative ways that individuals, non-profits and companies are using that data, are opening up government in important ways. However, if we are really concerned about communities and individuals getting the information they need to participate in our democracy, then we have to ask if transparency is the same thing as clarity, if seeing necessarily means understanding, and if data, even when organized and visualized in powerful ways, the same as information.
Continue reading

The Best We Can Do is Listen

As usual I am about a month behind in my reading, and so am just now getting through the December edition of Orion Magazine. There are a few fantastic articles in it (as usual) but one focuses on an art exhibit called Human/Nature and has some great quotes. Read the whole areticle here: Human/Nature. And subscribe to Orion here.

“The only thing we have to protect nature with is culture,” Wendell Berry has observed. And yet, nature is a particularly human idea. Culture is how we come to it.

In 1944, Richard Wright wrote in American Hunger, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” So it is, perhaps, with art-making, with the work of conservation, with the act of simply getting by—consciously and with integrity—in this uneven world that is our heritage. We hope for echoes. We hunger for recognition and response. This is what the artists of Human/Nature have done in concert. They have made soundings in eight different places in eight wildly different ways, and they are tracing them home. The best we can do is listen.

A Simple Turn of Phrase

As you know, if you have been reading this blog recently, we have been discussing the role of language in making change. To put it simply, words are powerful (and it is not just us old English majors who think so). However, even those of us who think about these issues regularly, too often focus on the big picture at the expense of considering the mundane, everyday language we use. While we study Obama’s speeches we forget to think about how we talk to our neighbors.

In the world of meeting facilitation there is a common tool – most people who have been a part of big meetings recently have probably heard of it – the “parking lot.” The idea is that when good (or particularly thorny) issues arise in the course of a meeting that demand follow-up or are perhaps outside the scope of the task at hand, you put them in the “parking lot” and come back to them later.

I was at a meeting recently and as the facilitator was going through the agenda, she pointed to a big piece of butcher block paper hung up at the back of the room and said that was the “bike rack.” People in the room chuckled at that, and I admit that I at first thought in a somewhat snide way “Haha, they are so clever.” However, the more I thought about that turn of phrase – replacing parking lots with bike racks – the more I cam to think of it as a brilliant, simple revision of our everyday language. Continue reading