Ride Share Profiles II


10 October 2017, UberX.

E. drives a shiny, new looking, red Toyota Camry. I only know the make of the car, because I remember reading it off the Google maps page with my UberX ride information. It’s weird to realize that I can see the route suggested by the app displayed on my own screen while this stranger drives to pick me up. I find myself critiquing the algorithm, because I have my own ingrained routes which offer themselves automatically when I register someone’s location.

He’s not quite my father’s age, but nevertheless, he reminds me that the sharing economy is not, as promised, a source of income for young workers looking to make some extra cash, but a source of income for people of all ages.

It’s nearly eleven in the morning, and he’s driving me to work in downtown Providence. I missed the bus and figured this is what the so-called “sharing economy” was made for: using someone’s side gig to get to my own side gig.

I ask him how he’s doing and he’s cheerful. His radio is tuned to 95.5 FM, which used to be WBRU – Brown University’s student radio station – but was recently sold and now broadcasts Christian rock music. I wonder if it’s a hold over, or if it’s a recent addition to his radio presets.

It turns out he’s from Puerto Rico. He tells me he still has family there, his mother and his brother. I ask how they’re doing and he says they’re fine. The house is made of concrete and withstood the weather, they have water from the ground, and his brother had bought a large generator. They have water and power, so they’re alright, he says. The only problem is food; the supermarkets are only letting people in 10 at a time to avoid mayhem and to ensure that people only take a few of the things they need, rather than everything. If you need batteries, you can only take two packets.

He asks me if I’m going to work, I say that I am, and that I usually take the bus, except that I missed it this morning. He tells me about how he took the bus once, in 1991 with his kids and said “never again.” The next year, 1992, he got a car. I mention that the bus is always crazy, always somebody having some problem on the bus. (The two bus lines which run near my house run between two transit centers and one runs between hospitals. A large portion of the regular riders are people who make use of the city’s human services – you see a lot of colorful characters, and hear a lot of interesting stories.)

E. tells me that he used to ride the train when he lived in New York. Always there were people who would get into fights and cause trouble. If a seat opened up, you’d have to deal with other people who wanted to sit there, regardless that you’d both been waiting for it. He’d often let other people take it, he says, he doesn’t know if the person who was sitting there was sick. Better to avoid the fight and the uncertain cleanliness. He’d wait for the seat to get cold, he says.

I ask him about living in New York; how long did he live there?

He went in 1977, three months before the Blizzard of ’77. He never forgot it, he says. At the time, he’d been living in an illegal basement apartment. There was no door leading to a hallway on the inside, only a door to the outside. When the snow piled up, there was no way for them to get out. The landlady didn’t want to call the cops or the fire department because the apartment itself was illegal. They were stuck there for days, eventually, she did call the fire department. When they showed up, they cut a hole in the floor of the kitchen and pulled everyone out. No more basements apartments after that, he said.

He asked me about my parents, I said that both of my parents had been born here, in Providence, but that my mother’s family was Greek, and my father’s father was Puerto Rican, but grew up in New York, and my father’s mother was from Ohio. So you have Puerto Rican blood, he asks. Yes, I say. But you’ve never been there? No, I tell him, but I’d really like to go sometime.

He tells me that July is the best month to visit Puerto Rico. Every day is a carnival. One day they’ll close one street, the next they’ll close another. It’s the best month to go on vacation. He always tells people to visit Puerto Rico in July. Wait for them to get everything back to normal, and go on vacation in July. I tell him I’ll do that.

I really hope I’ll have the chance to do so.

some thoughts on Catalonia

An intentional complication

There are 4 major areas to consider regarding the current situation in Spain, where the region of Catalonia recently held a referendum on a declaration of independence:

  1. the economic reasons for Spain’s insistence on retaining Catalonia,
  2. the questions arising from a newly independent Catalonia with regards to the European Union, with an eye towards the freedom of movement of goods, people, and money,
  3. the fascist history of the country and, specifically, Catalonia’s still fresh memories of life under Franco, in particular the condemnation of the present Spanish government as fascist without a meditation on the fascist history which continue to resonate in the present,
  4. finally, with the emboldening of racisms across the Western world, immediately embracing ethnonationalist separatist movements seems premature.

These are a series of spitball thoughts, I do not seek to present myself as an authority on the subject. Nor do I want to appear for or against Catalan independence. Ultimately, I believe many of my points might be justifiably used to support the arguement for independence. Equally, however, a geopolitically conservative and globalist thread in some of my points will be of little interest to certain progressive groups, and the hard left anti-imperialists who see globalism as a direct descendent and scion of colonial imperialism. (A position I am not, strictly speaking, willing to refute.)

1. Wealth and federalism

Spain, like most nations, is made up of regions with their own local governments and governance. Along with the political distinctions, these states create economic zones, which in turn feed into a larger national economy, with some wealth redistribution happening courtesy of the national government.

Barcelona and Catalonia more generally are among the few regions in the Spanish economy which are flourishing, despite the economic crisis which developed in Europe after the 2008 US financial crash. That prosperity is a strong motivator for the national government of Spain to maintain a hold on the region. Spain continuese to be strapped for cash, even having put into effect the austerity measures and the economic restructuring demanded by international creditors.

It bears remembering that the issue of Catalan independence, while not entirely new, did not have anything nearing its current prominence before the economic crash. It was only as the screws were put on and Spain began to feel the crush of its debt that Catalonia started its legislative saber rattling and invigorated the call for independence.

2. European Unity and the economy

The biggest question regarding secession from a European nation is how the new border and the new government will be integrated (or not) into the European project. Regardless of whether Europe welcomes a newly independent Catalonia into the European Union or not, that accession will have to be negotiated (or renegotiated, depending on your perspective). One can only presume that the Spanish representation in the European government will do their utmost to make life difficult for the new nation. It is unclear if they are likely to have allies who fear similar sucessions within their borders. (With Britain making its own European exit, the Spaniards are down an anti-Independence ally.)

Most importantly, Catalan independence means more uncertainty for the European Union, an already struggling and beleagured project. Until the details of Catalonia’s status within the bloc are worked out, there will be many people in limbo; European citizens who live and/or work in Barcelona or the region, who may or may not be allowed to remain. The fate of Spanish citizens who wish to retain that status yet continue live and work in Catalonia will also need to be negotiated.

Ultimately, Europe has created a region of porous borders which has greatly benefited workers who are able to travel across national boundaries in search of work. Additionally, as we are learning from Brexit, the porous borders of the EU have built an interconnected and interdependent infrastructure system. Renegotiating those contracts creates seemingly impossible quandaries in which the average citizen is left uncertain as to their future.

(New borders and new governments mean that all of the agreements and systems which undergird modern life will need to be examined and repartitioned to meet the requirements of the new government, and the limits of the new borders. This is an unenviable position to leave anyone; I invite you to explore the questions that Brexit has raised for the shared power grids bridging the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)

3. History (Fascism)

Reaching back into the misty past and the heyday of the Spanish empire is superfluous for understanding the roots of this conflict. The most pressing history is that of the 20th century. It is a history which is still vivid in the minds of Catalans.

Under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Catalonia was violently repressed, and much was done to strip them of their cultural and linguistic identity. An acquaintance told the story of how after Franco’s death in 1975 and the return to democratic governance, she had to put in the paper work for an official name change, so that her government documents would reflect the name her parents gave her, a Catalan name, which she was prohibited from carrying under the Franco regime. Her experience was not unique.

Many people who have visited Barcelona are familiar with the habit of Catalans to prefer English over Spanish when encountering someone who does not speak Catalan. Use of the language was banned under Franco, and these little “regional quirks” are the markers of the scars the fascist regime left on the people.

I am uninterested in defending the actions of the Spanish government. The choices they have made are abominable, in addition to making the government look terrible.

The vivid memory of fascism should have served as a reminder for the Spanish government to avoid violent suppression and the suspension of Catalonia’s limited independence. Nevertheless, those outside the country should be careful of invoking the imagery unless they are prepared to hold up the current government against past fascist regimes. Though the actions of the Spanish government are reprehensible, they have not reached the heights of dictatorship. We must urge them to remember their own history, and the respect they owe their Catalan bretheren, and furthermore, we must hope they have learned something from dealing with the Basque Separatist movement.

4. Ethnonationalism

Much of the Western world is preparing to do battle with nationalists of a variety of sorts. Ethnonationalists pose a unique quandary for those who seek equality. Self-determination is a noble goal, but it can create as many problems as it might purport to solve.

Thankfully, Catalonia is positioned in such a way to avoid the quandaries which have plagued the self-determination of the Jewish people. Hopefully, if they do achieve independence, the freedom of movement within Europe will been maintained even across these new borders and there will be no need for the “bloodless genocides” which plagued the establishment of a Greek nation-state and Turkey which saw the exchange of Greek Muslims and Greek Orthodox Turks. We can only hope that prosperity will forestall the possibility which resulted in the Bosnian genocide, and the continued unease in the region. Perhaps it we will avoid armed conflict, but the possibility of avoiding all political tension is a fantasy.

The consolidation of ethnic identities into nation states has left a number of wounds in the developed world. They are implictly tied to the history of empire, colonialism, and imperialism. There are no good answers, never mind any easy ones.

Personally, I have ever stronger reservations about the logic of ethnonationalist self determination. Mostly because it feels like an excuse for those who have to abandon those who have not, and those who have not to justify power moves which lead to greater pain down the line. Here I undoubtedly split with any anti-globalists, who see porous borders and rampant capitalist internationalism as the great evils plaguing all nations and peoples. Nevertheless, I stand with those who see globalization as a reality with which must contend and should make our decisions with an eye towards justice and equality when it comes to crossing borders and making opportunities for all people on our planet. Ethnonationalism seems to invite divisiveness and trouble.

Speech and Life: thoughts on security in the Internet age

reading: the Hill

The recent terror attacks in London are disturbing and dreadful crimes. But hearing that British PM Theresa May feels that there appropriate response is greater regulation of the Internet makes me worry about where this well-meaning concern (or misplaced hysteria) will lead us.
This past semester I read Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0, for my class, “Media, Technology, and Culture” (for an overview of the book’s basic argument checkout my podcast). Towards the end of the book – in the section where he examines “latent ambiguities” where code and law either don’t quite meet or leave some room for interpretation – he says of the United States:

We have exported to the world, through the architecture of the Internet, a First Amendment more extreme in code than our own First Amendment in law.

(p. 257)

As the global society attempts to manage a world where extremism and linked violent action become more prevalent and more visible, we must realize that it is the legacy of the First Amendment and of American democratic values that allow it. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined into the current structure of the internet in a way it would be impossible (certainly for equal reach) to achieve in “real life”.

There is a lot to be said for making the gap between legal speech and the speech that is possible on the Internet. In recent years, we have had a crash course in the negative outcomes that complete freedom can generate. From Gamergate and doxxing, to the radicalization of men and women by neo-Nazi ideologues and extremist jihadi ideologies. The links between the things we read and see and what we do are becoming starkly visible.

But does that linkage justify a limiting of free speech by government and corporate/commercial entities?

The most obvious question is: how does one determine what constitutes an extremist ideology?

It might seem easy to say it’s to cut down on neo-Nazi rhetoric or propaganda from the Islamic State. But where do radical Leftists and Libertarians who argue for the toppling of the State fall? How do we decide what counts as “humor” and what constitutes a real threat? (see: Kathy Griffin) If we’re seeking to destroy propaganda or misinformation, which debates remain open and which are closed? The Holocaust? Global warming?

It is never easy to walk the line between liberty and security. In today’s world, one which feels ever more dangerous, we in the West are hardpressed to choose between our way of life, and the lives of our fellow citizens. 

All arguments for liberty are “slippery slope” arguments, and as such I wish to avoid them. All I can hope is that we seriously consider whose interests are best met through regulation of our online speech.

The Panopticon Writings: democratic surveillance

Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection House plan, later known as the Panopticon Inspection House, and ultimately merely as the Panopticon was primed, through its meticulous planning and relegation to the imaginary, to transform into metaphor. In our evermore connected and documented way of life, it has only grown in both power and popularity in the imaginations of those who worry about surveillance. But that metaphor is a boogeyman, a monster under the bed, because it fails to preserve a few crucial elements of Bentham’s original vision. Those omitted details are the one’s which transform the Inspection House from a regime of surveillance into a radical democratization of power through visibility.
Bentham’s Inspection House operates on the premise that visibility constitutes a form of coersive power. He envisions a re/formative setting where, through the expectation of constant surveillance, those placed under inspection (be they prisoners or school children) modify their behavior to align with societal norms. Simultaneously, he envisioned a system whereby the jailer would be rendered as visible to society as those in the cells of the Inspection House are to him. He presents two forms of visibility in his letters to which the manager of the Panopticon would be subject; one direct, and the other indirect.

The first – the direct – form of visibility emerges through what one might imagine as “drop-in” visits. However, rather than limiting them to some form of official inspection, he presents a radical vision of openness regarding public buildings. He declares that the doors of the Inspection House should be open

“as […] the doors of all public establishments ought to be, […] to the body of the curious at large – the great open committee of the tribunal of the world.” 1

Here he is imagining a world where anyone can satisfy their curiosity about the treatment of the prisoners by visiting the prison, with no need for any reason, justification, or permission other than that curiosity. The scope of the statement is telling, because its implications extend beyond Bentham’s imagined establishment to the operation of all public institutions. While he acknowledges that the doors of public institutions are rarely found as inviting as he describes, he makes his implicit criticism explicit. He continues:

And who ever objects to such publicity, where it is practicable, but those whose motives for objection afford the strongest reasons for it? 2

Declaring that those in public office who wish to avoid visibility have something to hide is a bold declaration of a well-known truth.

Bentham’s second – indirect – form of visibility is through documentation. He states that the person contracted to operate the Inspection House, in return for all profit to be gained through its operation, should maintain and publish a full account of the prison’s operation.

I will then require him to disclose, and even to print and publish his accounts – the whole process and detail of his management – the whole history of the prison. 3

This publication is also to be available to all who desire to read it. This indirect form of visibility adds to the pressure for conformity to standards. Bentham also sees a productive outcome to this record keeping, for those unmoved by the moral argument. If full and complete records are kept, even a failed Inspection House becomes an opportunity for knowledge

From the information thus got from him, I derive this advantage. In the case of his ill success, I see the causes of it, and not only I, but every body else that pleases, may see the cause of it… 4

This, he explains, means that future ventures on the Inspection House model will have the chance to see and avoid the failures which beset their predecessors.

He makes two further demands on the warden which would be revolutionary in any prison system. The first is the existence of a ledger which documents all instances of punishment – not unreasonable, and a rule broadly applied. What is more telling is his vision for its usage.

A correction-book might be kept, in which every instance of chastisement, with the cause for which it was administered upon record: any the slightest act of punishment not entered to be considered as a lawless injury. 5

In the contemporary moment, when we are embroiled in a national debate regarding the use of force by law enforcement officers and other members of the security apparatus, the classification of violence on incarcerated and condemned bodies by agents of the state as illegal violence because of its indefinable or absent justification is truly radical.

His other requirement is a punitive measure to ensure the well-being of the prisoners. He says,

I would make him pay so much for ever one that died, without troubling myself whether any care of his could have kept the man alive. 6

He acknowledges that some of that cost would be covered in the original contract between the state and the private contractor running the prison. Nevertheless, this kind of broadly applied punitive measure is one which demands careful consideration. It declares, without exception, that all lives are valuable, and underwrites that assertion with a monetary value. Perhaps a distasteful premise, but one which might have enough sway to produce real change in the treatment of persons deemed inconsequential or less valuable in some social environments or interactions with the state.

At this juncture I invite you to imagine a prison whose doors are open, that “the great open committee of the tribunal of the world” may evaluate the treatment of its prisoners. One whose books and ledgers, the histories of an institution, are available to that same “body of the curious at large.” This is a vision where the state security apparatus watches its citizens, but where they watch back. In a world that recognizes the coersive power of visibility, looking upwards, demanding and seeking visibility of our public institutions is a radical democratic act. One which Jeremy Bentham was always pointing out to us.

  1. Bentham, J. The Panopticon Writings. Verso: London. 1995. p. 47-8. Letter IX 
  2. p. 48 
  3. p. 52. Letter IX 
  4. p. 53 
  5. p. 64. Letter XII 
  6. ibid

Is 80% “good enough”? Thoughts on Internet Penetration is Franklin County

Yesterday in the car, driving along Route 47, my friend said, “Wow, Sunderland really is just a lot of land.”

As a student at a large state university, it is strange to think about my current home as being “rural”. Nevertheless, that is exactly what it is, don’t let the pizza place or the laundromat fool you. The stretch of land between routes 116 and 47 is farmland, when it’s been cultivated or put to use at all.

The definition is elusive for the reason that many things are in New England, unless you’re overlooking the ocean; it’s hard to see much of anything at all with all the hills and trees interrupting your vision. The university helps hide it as well. The migrant population of tens of thousands of young bodies is reason enough for a reasonably extensive public transit system and provides more than enough indenture to build and maintain any number of housing complexes, which cause little related businesses to sprout up to attend to the needs they create (like pizza and laundry).

Without thinking about the landscape at all I’ve been contemplating what it means to be a rural area. In a fit of frustration about the cost of our telecoms utilities, I started looking to see if there were alternatives to our current subscription.

In the process, I visited BroadbandNow, a site which bills itself as a consumer interest group, looking to provide information on the services and available to a person in every county in every state in the US. Of the three options in Franklin County, in Western MA, only  one provider achieves the minimum download speed necessary for “broadband internet”. The FCC has set “broadband” speed as a minimum of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) download speed and a 3 Mbps upload speed. Xfinity by Comcast is your only choice if you want broadband internet. Their promotional first year rate is approximately $35/mo. if you keep their service for over a year, it goes up to nearly $90/mo.

comcast pricing-Recovered
Graphic displaying promotional vs. actual internet subscription rates from Comcast.

The thing that got me stuck on this issue is from the little factoids that run along the side of the BroadbandNow website when you look up a particular region. There’s a little box there that reads, “Approximately 5,000 people in Franklin County don’t have access to any wired internet.” It’s unclear if the other number, 14,000, which is the number of people who don’t have access to internet with a speed of 25 Mbps or higher, is inclusive of the 5,000 who don’t have any wired internet at all. To a degree, I’m not entirely sure that it matters. What I can tell you, from looking at the maps of “underserved” or “unserved” towns, is that Wendell, MA, 33 minutes away from the University by car, has no cable or DSL at all. Leverett, 13 minutes away, and Shutesbury, 19 minutes away, have only partial DSL, and no cable internet at all.

If you overlay the maps of the underserved towns, over the map of wireless broadband access, you’ll see that most of Franklin County only has mobile wireless.

I don’t know for absolutely sure, but I imagine that this is what it means to feel left out of the political conversation. The Internet was supposed to be the wave of the future; this was going to connect everyone to everyone else, make us all equals in a massive interconnected conversation. But, in this, as in most things, it seems that some are more connected, and more equal, than others.