Last time, I wrote about a great series I came across, called Keywords for the Age of Austerity. Tired of hearing about “innovation”? Exhausted by being called a “stakeholder”? The U.S. is a country whose academic and business institutions are increasingly overrun by buzzwords that reflect the nation’s growing gap between haves and have nots. The city I lived in for seven years, Chicago, nicely encapsulates this intersection of neoliberal economics and fanciful language.
Despite having far fewer people than either Los Angeles or New York City, Chicago is the murder capital of America. Its North and South Sides are segregated almost perfectly along racial lines. It is run by a mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who grew up in the suburbs, made his career in D.C., then returned to the Midwest to take advantage of Chicago’s enormous cultural amenities. As Illinois’ largest city continues to struggle with unemployment, racial divides, and inequality, Emanuel has played the part of a latter-day Nero.
Instead of playing the Roman emperor’s violin, though, he has tapped away at “engagement” of the people who live there. He has, for example, sunk his energies into institutions such as the Department of Innovation and Technology, producing remarkably empty statements such as (emphasis mine):
“An open and transparent administration makes it easier for residents to hold their government accountable, but it also serves as a platform for innovative tools that improve the lives of all residents,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “By making this data available to residents and developers, we are better able to promote civic engagement, while continuing to strengthen transportation options and pedestrian activity in Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
The bolded words are either ones that J. P. Leary has identified as part of his series, or ones that I think fit the mold:
Open and platform: “Open” and “platform,” as employed by today’s elite, both stem from the enormous influence of tech thinkfluencer (I use that term derisively) Tim O’Reilly and his promotion of concepts like “open source” software and “government-as-a-platform.” The usage of these words has similar effects to the current overuse of “stakeholders” (students and copywriters love that they now have a synonym for “people”) in that it creates a false sense of shared opportunity. Being able to check (some) government activities for malfeasance, like being able to vet software for bugs, is marketed as tantamount to having an active role in policy creation. “Platform” has the ring of empowerment (think Neil Kinnock’s speech that Joe Biden later plagiarized), but it also recalls operating systems like Windows or Linux distributions, which respectively represent quasi-authoritarian/private club-style design (what O’Reilly et al would call “closed source”) and “openness” to a limited number of mostly male individuals in positions to not only review but also add to the project (“open source”). It’s autocracy and oligarchy, respectively.
Innovative: “Innovation” is not an egalitarian concept. It usually applies to white collar professions and activities that involve “technology” (itself a keyword worthy of a future entry from Leary). Rahm’s Chicago is no exception to the rule. The above initiative with DOIT was about the release of “technology data sets,” naturally. Dumping information on the public is a good way to pay lip service to “openness,” but a poor one of actually cultivating democracy. The same inequality that “innovation” hints at in its preference for white collar activities over blue collar ones (“innovative” would never be applied to something like finding a way to effectively deal with Chicago’s potholes) makes it so that many citizens simply don’t have time to comb through massive data sets. I mean, would you read a 10,000 word email I sent to you out of nowhere? Data pollution, as I’ll start calling this technique, is also remarkably cynical: It assumes that the best way to approach a city’s core issues (like transportation) is by theoretically giving every man, woman and child the ability to be a DIY hero, finding discrepancies or points of interests in data as if they were reviewing the Linux kernel for bugs. Individualism – like the “Yankee ingenuity” myth that underpins “innovation” as a concept – is prioritized over civic involvement.
Accountable: Schools, teachers, non-executive workers, and sometimes soldiers (well, David Petraeus at least) are held “accountable” for what they do. Education really is the best example here, since for the past 30 years it has been run into the ground by profit-seeking test companies, non-expert consultants (i.e., many of them have never even been teachers), and neoliberal of all stripes anxious about losing out to Japan, China, whoever. “Teaching the test” (i.e., focusing largely or exclusively on subject matter that will be assessed on a standardized test) has ruined the freedom of teaching in many public schools in the U.S. However, “accountability” and its variants have very different meanings for the working class and the elite. While the former are under the never-ending pressure of being held up to some arbitrary standard, the latter are free to use “accountability” as a guard against regulation or real scrutiny. The implication is basically: You don’t have to regulate us or question our motives or vote us out in a recall election – we’re holding ourselves accountable, by doing things like releasing this pile of transportation data!
Engagement: “Engagement” is something of a paradox, since it aspires to the community-building of a town hall or community meeting while pushing the idea of highly individualized, stratified conversations that take place largely over channels like Twitter or through meaningless formalities like letters to mayor, in which one side holds all the power. Moreover, the word is now synonymous with simply informing the public what is going on or allowing them a level of token participation. It’s hard to know what real “engagement” would look like for Chicago: Maybe the citizenry banding together to get more cars off the road and push for a 24/7 CTA service, rather than being saddled with “transportation data sets” that are the equivalent of an over-ambitious homework assignment.
It’s remarkable how powerful language is. At a time when liberal arts programs are frowned upon for their lack of utility in a humorless job market, it seems that only English majors or people who are broadly read can actually cut through the fluffy words peddled by elites, who think of themselves as hardheaded realists steering us toward endless innovation.