Sunday, February 5, 2017

Cosmopolitan Cities Versus a Tribal Nation

Boston protests against Trump's immigration ban, January 2017.
It was not so long ago, or so it seems, that the likes of IBM and Cisco Systems were promoting their big data capabilities and the impact that they were having and could have on cities and large systems. There was something vaguely utopian about the potential of the ideas about the data and statistics that marked the life of a city, the world or the environment that could be compiled to adapt large systems to meld themselves to the collective will of a community, or at least time the traffic signals and bus schedules in a manner that reduced one's hair-pulling and steering wheel pounding in traffic. There was talk about, an aspiration for, evidence-based decision-making, but that has been pushed aside in this paroxysm of alternative fact and decision-based evidence-making. Those reasonable days of data, coherence and, perhaps, promise should not feel so long ago.

There is a sense that in America (and other countries where a tribalist impulse has taken hold with such appalling virulence) that the interest in data has waned and that it has even come to be distrusted. Whatever truth or reality there may be in the information that each other us willing offers via the countless tethers we have lashed between our smart phones and the myriad networks or algorithms we have plugged ourselves into, people are misplacing the compromise to their privacy on such things as their search for public transit arrivals, while disregarding more invasive and obvious assaults on their freedom, privacy or even economic well-being or accepting them as a key to achieving security.  Such a cognitive gap is one example of the emergence of half-baked ideas, ill-formed argument and outright bullshit that define discourse at this moment. In the face of that, it is hard to believe and delusional to hope that facts and rational argument would become central to dialogue anytime soon. The thrall of mythology about the United States has prompted many to discard the facts about America in favour of narratives that are familiar and comfortable thanks to good branding or sheer repetition -- despite the gross inaccuracies -- in a time of uncertainty.

The pendulum swing from fact and data to impulse and appetite as motivations in government is startling but that may actually be a matter of a shift in lens rather than reality. IBM and Cisco were not promoting their capacities to bring data into the service of a nation, but rather a city. The distinctions between city and nation ought to be considered carefully, especially at a time when the term "sanctuary city" carries the optimism and sense of responsibility that nation fails to possess right now. Nation is a far more emotional, perhaps even primitive, term in light of the anxieties and misplaced expectations Americans seem to be attaching to their nation at this time. The governance of the nation is a greater challenge, not simply because of the size and complexity but because the "leaders" choose to ensconce themselves in distant self-interested Washington and away from the communities they purportedly were elected by. It seems the elected officials are in the Capitol to misbehave as they wish, distant from their voters and serving a different combination of constituents. Decisions in favours of relaxed gun control, loosened financial regulations and other winks at special interests who will promptly grease the palms of the elected indicate a different set of principles guide those elected to Washington.

To take a closer look at the city, there are the simple logistics of city councillors going back to their homes at the end of the day and being more in touch with their voters. Beyond that is the capability of a city to become cosmopolitan, which few nations, especially not those the geographic breadth of the United States, can attain. There is a sophistication and an awareness that comes with share city space and having life paths that intersect with those who are, individually, well beyond or well behind our point in life. It is in the cities, not in a nation, that newcomers eke out their daily lives and strive for the goals they hope to achieve for their children. It is on city streets and in restaurants that people overhear different tongues and accents, not to mention the story of struggle and courage that are the result of a newcomer's hope and perseverance. The ongoing exchange of glances and narratives that occurs in the streets of a city is what imparts a nation its potential and it is the reserve of empathy that has accumulated in the cities that prompted protests to occur in airports on the last Saturday night of January in 2017.

It is the precise, informed, thoughtful and nuanced compassion of the cities that will eventually carry the day as the United States goes through this adolescent stretch of wanting to have its way regardless of the facts and the ultimate consequences of having the rules, benefits or grand bullshit narrative that it choose at this time. It is the calm, rational awareness of the cities that will restore moderacy to the United States.