So I was asked to be part of a panel on smart cities and environmental justice. I normally do not love being part of any given panel; just let me do a research presentation (which I will also probably dislike doing, just because I hate talking in front of people), but whatever. The autism means I have bad social cue reading so I don’t know on a panel when I’ve annoyed people, talked too much, seemed surly rather than just uncomfortable, etc, and the whole time feels awful. I should say no to these things.
I brought what I think is the most important question about sensors and information, and that is: the future of work. Being unemployed in a world without social safety nets is a health issue, and economic justice is, for me at the heart of environmental justice. The audience was interested. One person said that driverless tech, according to his mentor, was going to be good for truck drivers/bus drivers because there is always a shortage (I have trouble believing this; I really can’t think of many capital investments made that don’t in some way substitute for labor. You may make individual truckers better off and more productive, but as a group, I don’t see this, but I hope he’s right and I’m wrong.” The discussion seemed to be taking off, and then:
Old White Dude (OWD) chimed in and did that thing they do: “well, let’s just get back to the topic at hand. The future of work, the macroeconomy. This is a panel about Smart Cities. Planners are so ambitious that we get too broad.”
Now, I am sure OWD thought he was being kindly, but it was patronizing, and I just didn’t know how to respond right way. I struggled, and continued on, and at one point just outright asked the question: “why did people want me on this panel if we *don’t* want to take on broad issues like justice?” Yes, I can program and do math and did one of the first machine learning papers in planning. I’m technically competent. But that stuff? I feel the same way about that stuff as I do my pencils. They are tools. And of course our tools are important, but they aren’t more important than the social constructs we make. WE make.
Here’s the bottom line. Yeah, we could use environmental sensors to improve environmental justice but please let’s not act like measurements are the issue with environmental justice.
It’s exactly this “let’s talk about the tech and nothing else” stuff that leads us into trouble with justice. We have to start with justice and work outward, not the other way around. Geographer Julian Agyemon refers to “joined up thinking” as being able to avoid that tendency to pretend like our actions in one domain *don’t* have consequences in another that allows injustices to propagate.
So I left the thing confused and annoyed with myself and the OWDs on the panel, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I always say yes to the “planning and tech” anything because I want to keep fighting for space for women on that stage, but perhaps we have now reached a point where, unlike a few years ago, there are plenty of women with better social skills than I have can occupy that spot and deal with a) less angst and b) less disruption and c) less later self-recrimination than I cause or get.
Because in the end, I’m just not sure anybody got anything out of that discussion with my disruptive presence there. Maybe OWD was right and I was wrong. Things might have gone a bit better if OWD had tried “let’s focus more on these justice issues specifically on smart city censors, so we can go deeper.” But just like I don’t have all the answers, OWDs don’t, either.
If people wanted to have a discussion about how you can use sensors to turn on street lights! Oh my! Then jeez Louise don’t ask me to be on the damn panel. Capitalism won’t be satisfied until we have technology for anything and everything—that ’s the benefits from the structure as well as the cost.
HOWEVER I also feel like I have to a duty to point out that there are people out there marketing facial recognition software to identify if somebody “looks gay” or not. How wonderful, say the marketers. We can target a demographic! How wonderful, say Russian surveillance officers. I wonder why.
Stupid autism. I think I’m done doing these roundtables as I don’t know how to manage the flow of ideas.