We can only go forwards

I was talking to my partner the other day about how unlikely it would be for us to have children, and the tremendous sacrifices it would take on both our parts to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. One thing that kept coming up was the extreme difficulty it would be to raise a child away from screens and algorithmic content, when both of us are hopeless addicts ourselves. To us, and I think to most people, it’s a given that providing children with access to screens would be severely unhealthy for their developing brains, in some unique way. And that if you can raise a kid into their early teens without too much exposure to screens, your job is done.

But recently, I’ve been reading some stuff that challenges the “unique” bit, which really upsets this whole entire narrative.

Before the internet we had television sets. They came in the 50s and proliferated in our homes and by the 90s the average American was spending 6 hours a day in front of their sets. Descriptions of television and the culture around it at this time paints a fascinating picture that is very similar to how we think of internet culture today – cynical, ironic, self-referential to the point of blindness to the real, hyperreal.

pov: David Foster Wallace tells you to touch grass (1990)

It’s honestly kind of weird that I forgot about this, considering how much anti-tv stuff was drilled into me throughout elementary school. People were banging on about this a lot back in the day! But maybe it’s not that weird, since it’s been like 12 years since the first iPhone was released and then the internet sort of ate the world.

What does it mean to say that the irony poisoning isn’t new? That we’re three generations removed from a culture untouched by screens and mass media?

I think, first and foremost, it means that there’s no pure world, no strongtime that we can return to by logging off and touching grass. Not any longer.

It also means that every aspect of our lives and culture have been shaped by it. Depriving a child of a tablet might be in some ways akin to not teaching them how to read. I’m honestly not sure if there’s any real way of opting out of this culture, besides joining the Amish. If you’re not down for a life of churning butter and sexual repression, the only way forward is to make new theory and new strategies for the new world that we live in.

So this brings me to this recent piece that I can’t stop thinking about: Michael Cuenco’s “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology” for Palladium Mag.

I think it’s a super insightful piece, that also doubles as a great survey of the media studies field, which first established in the 70s to critique television culture. I tried to find an excerpt but it’s such a weird, expansive piece that it’s really not possible. So instead here’s a brief summary of one section:

Modern humans interact with content by way of a never ending stream of articles, takes, and countertakes. Issues never feel solved, they only disappear from the timeline due to waning interest in due time. Reflecting this, there’s now a societal disinterest in reaching any sort of closure, and maybe even the feeling that the desire to have closure is somehow juvenile or naive. We should categorize this type of media interaction as having something closer to an oral nature rather than a literate one because of a lack of clear sequence, structure, or hierarchy in the information.

In oral structures, when we interact with new content, we can form associations between them and older stuff that we’ve seen pretty easily, but it’s much more difficult to form conclusions, to reach definitive endings. In this world it becomes increasingly difficult to think in terms of linearity, in terms of doing something and getting somewhere, to produce programs and manifestos and five-year plans.

Literate—but non-liberal—China has a goal: national rejuvenation by 2049. This is a concrete master plan bounded by a progressive notion of time, with numbered steps and specific metrics, and the planners are concerned with the reshaping of space.

Meanwhile, post-literate America has no long-term goals. Identity-slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police” may sound like goals, but they are in fact what McLuhan called “mythical environments,” which “live beyond time and space” and are therefore untethered to concrete linear action in the physical world. By when exactly is America supposed to be great again? Are there any metrics to help us determine if it is on track to becoming great? How precisely do we defund the police? What happens after?

One important thing to note is that the authors are actually quite ambivalent to this shift, from the literate to the post-literate. Sure, Cuenco seems to say, there’ll be growing pains as we make the switch in our epistemology, but can we really say that we’ll be worse off afterwards?

Of course, being a literate troglodyte in this “post-literate” world, my response to the question is an unequivocal yes. It seems objectively terrible, and what’s worse is how much I recognized my own style of thinking reflected in the description of oral culture, since I’ve been terminally online since I was twelve, and a pretty hopeless tv addict before that.

In adolescence, I began to see issues in hues of grey instead of black and white, and to see societal problems as parts of an ever-shifting ecosystem, paralyzingly wicked and complex instead of anything a single person could affect. Throughout high school and most of university I cultivated and refined this way of thinking. I think the pendulum is now starting to swing in the other direction. I want to develop my ability to think linearly. (I don’t think I’m like, abjectly terrible at this, but I think I could be better.)

So I’ve been taking time to read books again, lots of them, sequentially, from start to finish. I’ve started volunteering, and then working full-time for grassroots mutual aid organizations that do things right now, instead of returning to the public service policy positions I interned for, where my job was to analyze consideration after consideration for policies that might launch 10 years later. (This is important work, but I don’t think it’s the work for me any longer.) I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing, because blog posts need beginnings and middles and ends.

And I go on regular walks, and although I don’t touch the grass, I admire the wildflowers.

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Books for Autistic People

So like I said in the last Articles of Interest post, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I’ve spent the last few months reading books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living with neurotypicals.

So I read around a dozen books in total. I intended to write a short and sweet review paragraph for each, but some of them said some really useful things so I took notes, and then that became a whole thing. In order to not clog up my blog, I’m going to turn this post into more of a directory – click through to read an excerpt, my review, and a summary of useful concepts for my more extensive reviews.

In order of reading:

A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Sarah Hendrickx

Nonviolent Communication, 2nd ed. – Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate – Cynthia Kim

Other books I’ve read but weren’t interesting enough to merit a full review

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I’m insufferable, here is a quote from my boi michel foucault that aptly summarizes the underlying sentiment of the books that I liked the best:

The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people… Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behaviour.

In other words, having trouble coping with the rhythms and patterns specific to our society doesn’t mean that you’re defective as a human being. It means that society has not cared to make in itself a place in itself for you, because sometimes society flat sucks.

This is disability activism in a nutshell, and a good lens for self compassion. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that.

Major kudos to the r/aspergirls wiki, where I sourced many of these books. And once again a huge thanks to @mykola for writing the twitter thread that started it all.

It has also occurred to me during this binge that there are probably decent guidebooks for people who are neurodiverse in other ways as well, and I should probably hunt them down and give them a read. With decent curation, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to discover universal human experiences that I don’t have (perma). Further reviews possibly to come.