Clay Shirky wrote the other day, in what might be the most-linked item in my voluminous and wide-ranging delicious stream:
When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.
As I’ve come to expect when reading Shirky: yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell people for years. [You know, if that Cassandra chick had been a smarter cookie, maybe set up with some agents or a PR firm or something, I bet she coulda made a fucking Fortuna. [Ba-dump-bump]]
As part of the “guerilla economic development” work I do at our company Vague Innovation, LLC, I spend a lot of time meeting with the nominal movers and shakers of the local business development community: folks from the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, the Ann Arbor SPARK, marketers and Realtors and landlords and bankers and people who publish shiny color magazines have sunny offices in tall buildings.
I hate to stand alone against the stream of bigoted invective I hear from most of my New Economy peers, but people who wear suits and work in offices are good folks. They’re trying their best to help their town and region, their towns’ economies, to identify and shore up the entrepreneurs they recognize as the future of their local worlds.
They’re good people.
That said, a lot of my conversations revolve around the future of these nice folks’ careers. Like all of us, these are plain old human beings armed with the standard human cognitive heuristic toolkit. You know, the same one you have: some stupid mapping of your personal experience onto the whole world, the 5 ± 2 most memorable cultural norms they can bring to memory unconsciously, and the sense of massive importance of all that Received Wisdom they’ve been exposed to in their canalized plummet through life. Just like yours, you know?
As part of my work I keep a foot in both worlds (and a couple of others, too; you don’t want to know how that feels). And so:
- I mention seeing something in the Newspaper the other day, and an up-and-coming local banker doesn’t understand I mean the paper I read, the one that actually talks about local government and salient events, not the sports-filled fishwrap some dude in Grand Rapids deigns to publish. This leads to deep confusion; hijinks ensue and we both part shaking our heads in embarrassed but ominous disbelief.
- As part of a challenge exchange, both the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and a dude for the local “tech development” firm promise to get their folks to edit the appropriate ArborWiki entries… and months later I hear that one of them has “hired a person to do that.”
I could go on. Hell, I did already. But I felt bad.
I deleted them all because they got more egregious and far more embarrassing for the “traditional business” folks as I totted them up. A list of searchable terms (and teachable moments) might do: “coworking”, “commercial insurance”, “business plan”, “admission price”, “intellectual property”, “next Google”, “corporate blog”, “personal brand”, “online marketing”, “open source”, “boot camp”.
Every one of those represents a little checkbox on the octagonal paper titled “Decommissioning Schedule of Battlestar BizDev.” A defaced gravestone in an overgrown family plot on a dirt road somewhere in ten years. A milestone on the road to obsolescence.
[And someday, when whatever is next comes along, the nanobio revolution or whatever, that will make people like you, you old fart, into stupid conservatives who still type into inorganic computers using some kind of “formal language”. And you’ll say you learned business sense the hard way on Facebook and with Google, and you’ll say you’ve looked at the Senso but you can’t figure out why people want to smell crap on other planets all day. And then you can look this blog post up “by Googling” on your stupid octagonal DVD of the “blogosphere” and be reminded: this has all happened before.]
These are good people. They try, really. But they’re crippled by insularity, by the people they hear and choose to listen to, by their distance from the Actual World. Hell, it’s a handful of them that even know the world exists as it does. No sense of the timescale “we” use, or of “our” means of action. A lot of these folks have heard about blogs and Facebook and Twitter now they’ve been in Forbes and NPR and stuff, but they don’t possess the cultural infrastructure with which they can parse what they’re seeing as relevant communication.
At least three people in very nice suits have made in my presence the joke about “Twitter is about what you ate for dinner” in the last month. So there you go. It’s no surprise that these people still aren’t welcome in the “tech community”. Which is sad.
And to be pragmatic about it all, and think about how cities and communities actually work in this capital-driven world we inhabit, kindof stupid: They have all the fucking money.
Ah, well. Cultural diversity gets short shrift these days. On both sides of that particular line: geeks and suits don’t get each other, though they often assume they do. [And Cf. “don’t get me started on the other ones.”]
Which, by a long and ranting road, brings us to our milestone parking spot for the day: Parking Data.
This won’t take nearly as long as the preamble.
We have a bunch of parking structures here in Ann Arbor. The Downtown Development Authority contracts with a commercial firm called Republic Parking to manage them, and parking is a huge source of income. The DDA also gets taxes from new buildings, as I understand it, and manages liquor licenses and oversees new developments and stuff. There’s more involved: it’s complicated and political.
[As a symptom of my own increasing frustration with culture clash here: If you’re a geek? And you self-identify as an Interwebz-using computery person? And you’re thinking or saying that politics or business practice is “unnecessarily complicated” or “opaque” or “useless”? That sounds to me like you’re one of those assholes who say they “don’t get math” as an excuse for not paying attention to it. Business practice and the law and local government infrastructure are complicated because they deal with real-world public-good complexity, dumb-ass. I don’t care if you run some kind of “alternative community” or you’re Lord High King Open-source Maven or a Libertarian Fundamentalist or whatever: don’t dismiss “politics” or marketing or these other people’s culture as trivial just because you’re not familiar with it. It really undermines the argument you’re “smart” whenever you do that in public. And when you do it in “private”, thinking somebody like me isn’t there as well, it makes me treat you like the child you are.
Or, shorter: Don’t diss “the Man”, monkey-boy. We’re all man.]
If you’re tired by now, here’s a timeline of what happened.
Some time back, the DDA started putting counters on the parking structures, and around that time they started publishing online feeds that updated as the numbers of cars parked in the structures changed.
This was cool and geeky. We want a cool and geeky town, and this was a good step. +2 points for transparency, and for actually experimenting.
Then some folks I know, including these guys and Ed Vielmetti, did what good modern Internet culture people do: they created a handy open source software package that took the public data and repurposed it into a free way to use your phone to call a number and find out how many spots are available.
This was cool and geeky. We want a cool and geeky town, and this was a good step. +5 points for mashups, repurposing public domain data, open source, and some others.
Then the geek points added up to the point that the Ann Arbor News wrote a cover story about the mashup.
This was cool and geeky. We want a cool and geeky town, and this was an unusual good step from a typically clueless newspaper (Cf. “fish-wrap”, above). +2 points for cultural crossover to the MSM, and promoting the local geek culture to a mainstream audience.
Cue fan. Cue shit.
Apparently this is where the DDA first heard of the cool, geeky thing that had happened as a consequence of their publication of the data. As far as I can tell, they reacted just like anybody in the 1970s would have done: they noticed belatedly that their cultural role as gatekeeper was being undermined, and so they shut down the phone service access to the numbers.
This was neither cool, nor geeky. Burn –10 points for reinforcing stereotypes on both sides of that goddamned line I mention above, and throw in an extra –10 points for the ongoing online shitstorm of bad publicity and even newspaper publicity this is building into.
And here we are, today.
We’ve got people who are core members of the geek community up in arms about it. Folks are stepping around the stupid and ineffectual blockade the DDA started off with. They’re writing open letters that smack of outright political threat. They’re bringing in the big guns from outside town. They’re submitting FOIA requests for the numbers.
It was a simple little thing. A triviality, really. Susan Pollay’s email clearly misses the fact that this was an experiment, the very sort of thing that the phrase economic development means today in this agalmic open-source world.
But it brings the two cultures together in what are probably the worst possible circumstances: The old-skool scarcity-driven infrastructure probably didn’t know these people even existed. Or if they did, they had wildly inappropriate expectations about demographics and values and potential impact on the status quo. And the scarcity-avoiding geek culture that didn’t until until now give a damn about what “suits” did is now suddenly swinging the full measure of its attention to bear on this affront, and they’re processing it on fucking Internet timescales, without old-skool handicaps like “business hours” or “weekends” or “face to face meetings”.
To any of us who are watching with one foot on either side of this line, this is quickly turning into what you might call “spectacle”. No joke: hairs standing up on my arms as this little fooferaw started to come into focus. This (to paraphrase what the cool kids say) is what we call the fire we brought you long ago.
I wrote an email to a colleague from the Chamber of Commerce Friday, as soon as this dynamic became obvious to me. A heads up, mainly, since he’s not directly involved.
For a few weeks now (non-Internet time, remember?) he and I have been talking about what the Chamber and the old-skool infrastructure might able to offer “the 1099 community” or the “independents” or the “Not An Employee crowd” in the coming months. Admittedly we’ve spent a vast proportion of our meetings trying to reconcile our dramatically different assumptions about work and community, and last week we were just getting to a place where we could say stuff that didn’t make the other one smirk or look confused.
[Though he made that confused face when I mentioned glibly the bit about tearing down the hideous mid-century bank building at the center of town and getting a Town Square back. I’ll win that bet, too, by the way.]
He’s framing what he sees as the future role for the Chamber in the coming decades in terms like expansion and cultural adaptation so that it can cope with the different lifestyles “we” NAE folks represent. He’s trying to help, and to make what has traditionally been perceived as a useful and necessary business support infrastructure available to more people who need help. Maybe he doesn’t see 100% that they don’t need that help, but he’s trying. He wants to help out and reach over the line for the sake of the city, the region… and to some extent to drag his organization into the 20th century [sic].
In our conversations I find that I’m framing what I see as the future role of the Chamber using concepts I’ve mentioned here already: as a safe decommissioning, as an opportunity for outreach between cultures that are fundamentally irreconcilable, as a model of what to do and what not to do in a nonoverlapping organization… and frankly because I like people and also money, and there must be some way of ameliorating the damage this whole thing will cause in the next decade (Cf. bank tear-down).
But I look at that list of benefits, and I realize that neither I, nor any of the people I know, want any of those “benefits”. But just like my friend in the Chamber, I also want to help the city… so it doesn’t end up abandoned when us New Economy people just leave in disgust. And the region… because I want there to be trains and convention centers and some non-provincial buildings built, and fuck “human scale” I want to see the bleeding edge of posthuman scale. And to some extent to drag out the useful salvage from the wreck of his organization and set it up and dust it off and introduce it to the 21st century [sic].
And in that email I sent last week, in which I explained briefly what I’ve said here in this rambling blog post, I pointed out that this little parking fiasco has something to do with the balance he perceived between our different views of the local landscape.
I said to my friend two things, and I hope I’ve set this up so they might make sense when I repeat them here in public:
(1) That it will probably seem from “his side”, among the suits and hallways in which people come and go according to agenda and business hours and rely on telephone conversations, that nothing much has happened. Some extra phone calls to the DDA maybe, some annoyance felt as this pissant internet crowd throw their weight around and complain about something this trivial. That in the long term this tempest in a molehill will look like it blew over and disappeared, and then “his” folks can get back to business as usual. Or maybe that things will get smoothed over, and the data will be free and things will get all geeky and fun again and all the frowns will turn upside down.
…but also, independent of how it plays out on his side: (2) When we look back years later, this will be the week we say the ground shifted. Or if we don’t identify this exact “triviality” as the turning point, then it’ll be one of the seventeen cued up and waiting in the wings.
Last week it was a decent and smart thing, an appropriate use of his time, for my friend to be paying attention to his goal of “outreach to the independent tech community”. It was good that he was musing about how the two cultures might mutually adapt to fit together for one another’s benefit.
Today, though, a switch is thrown: it’s now possible—no, it’s now the most likely outcome—that folks from the Chamber of Commerce will be watching in a year, or two, or five as all the businesses rush to join something else. Some other organization, not the “answer” to them because it won’t be set up in response to the Chamber or the SPARK or the DDA. Something new that just doesn’t give a damn about any of that old junk, or even recognize its existence.
An orthogonal institution.
Because of this fiasco about the parking, or maybe because of any one of the seventeen other accidental clashes that could function just like this, whatever rises up will not look at all like a partnership founded on principles of outreach and mutual support.
It won’t be founded on anywhere near the kind of cooperation it might have been.
The New Thing is not fully formed yet. It shambles on towards its Bethlehem, independent of what’s happening under its feet. But its eyes are open briefly, and today it’s paying attention to the friendly, helpful people in the suits who only want to help. And I suspect what’s moving though its collective mind are appraisals, a kind of sizing up that should make the friendly business development old-skool institutions pause. A look that increasingly feels like a brief consideration for salvage, of food value. Not a spirit of friendly symbiosis, but a glance that takes in all the hinges, all the convenient places for a pry bar to lodge.
I suspect these things happen too fast to respond to, when you insist on keeping your eyes to the path you started on, when you listen to the cues you’ve learned long ago.
And to be frank, maybe that’s best for everybody.