economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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I’m cross-posting this, which I also put on the San Francisco Critical Mass blog page.


June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

June 2013 Critical Mass on Larkin in Civic Center.

It’s the last Friday of July, 2013, and of course San Francisco’s Critical Mass will be rolling around 6:30 or so from Justin “Pee-Wee” Herman Plaza, as it has for the past 20 and a half years. I’m not going today, but it’s not because I don’t generally still show up and usually enjoy myself, but because I’m doing something else at the same time that I bought tickets for.

As it happens this is the same week that Joe Eskenazi’s article “Critical Mass Goes Round and Round” appeared in the SF Weakly. I’ve had a few friends wonder what my take on it is, since he attempts to summarize the political impact of 20 years of Critical Mass in the context of bicycling politics and city transit priorities more generally. I’m also quoted in the piece a few times, a product of an hour I spent speaking with Joe a month ago or so.

Another "circling up" at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

Another “circling up” at Mission and South Van Ness in June 2013.

I don’t love having a complex set of ideas and experiences reduced to a few out-of-context soundbites that just serve to reinforce my apparent disconnectedness from what matters in terms of the realpolitik of San Francisco. But that’s what mainstream journalism, even or especially in an alt-weekly, will do. Overall I don’t think he did a bad job of capturing the current malaise that besets Critical Mass (a malaise that is only visible to those of us who have long harbored more ambitious hopes for radical social change), and I think he was spot-on in highlighting the severe limits of the narrow corporatist agenda of the SF Bicycle Coalition, both in terms of its self-proclaimed successes and in terms of the actual state of things on the ground in San Francisco for bicyclists.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Parents still bring kids to the ride regularly.

Critical Mass, of course, is not an organization, and thus has no agenda, and never did. One of the originating impulses for it was the experience many of us had of so commonly being treated as second-class citizens on the roads by motorists and by the shape of the infrastructure itself. Eskenazi suggests that our early years’ “success” was to insinuate into the DNA of the city’s people the awareness that cyclists are here and deserve accommodation. I think that’s basically true. But for me, Critical Mass was always about a lot more than mere bicycling. As he rather drippingly notes, I lament that the SFBC and its gov’t allies “have no particular problem with wage labor,” and they are narrowly focused on simply “getting more people on bicycles.” Bicycling is great for all kinds of intrinsic reasons, but bicycling per se is simply not enough.

Indeed, the bicycle for me was always a transportation choice that was obviously superior to other choices, but insofar as we gathered en (Critical M)asse, it quickly became obvious that much more is at stake. Our paucity of public space and opportunity to gather and meet and discuss anything publicly without being subjected to the endless imperative to buy something immediately rose to the foreground as an important element of why Critical Mass mattered.

Fell street in June 2013

Fell street in June 2013

In our book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” we gathered essays from two dozen contributors spread across the world’s cities showing how Critical Mass spread far and wide and repeatedly changed those cities where it appeared in similar ways. As Eskenazi notes, I wrote in my opening essay in that volume that I’d seen a kind of “life cycle” of Critical Mass in different places, usually involving the hopeful, utopian, and open-ended experience that has captivated so many of us lasting about 5 years, give or take. After that the animating spirits of that “golden era” often turn to other ways to pursue their hopes and goals, whether by launching more mainstream advocacy organizations, turning to other activities entirely such as urban agriculture or free software (just as often, of course, activists from those arenas had joined with other cyclists to spur on Critical Mass from its inception, whether in Brazil or Mexico or Italy or Hungary), or beginning DIY skill-sharing “bike kitchens.”

The spate of horizontalist social movements that are continuing to erupt suddenly across the planet, most recently in Brazil, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Egypt, often find Critical Mass cyclists at the heart of those upheavals. This is not to credit CM with being the necessary precursor or essential causal agent, just to note that our shared experiences in making Critical Mass in over 400 cities around the world during the last two decades has already profoundly affected how we think about and engage in politics, civil society, urban planning, and much more. More »

Spook Governments, Networked Movements, Shifting Subjectivities

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter's Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing...

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter’s Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing…

Everyone is chiming in on the Ed Snowden/NSA story. It’s great that Snowden has released all this information, just like it was great that Wikileaks released all those diplomatic cables, and great that Bradley Manning (evidently) leaked it to Wikileaks in the first place. We need to honor and defend these people, who are acting on behalf of a much greater cause than personal gain or fame. They are one important wing of the general delegitimizing of the United States and the neoliberal imperial project that the U.S. has pushed so hard for the past four decades.

But I’ve been surprised that the response to the NSA gathering everyone’s phone calls and emails has been so narrowly focused on the ostensible violation of personal privacy. The real issue is not the privacy of your personal communication. The NSA program is the government’s attempt to get a handle on networked uprisings, not so they can pre-empt them (though of course they’d like to), but to respond them as quickly as possible as they unfold. The goal of gathering all this meta-data is to be able to identify where the “hubs” are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.

Sociologist Manuel Castells’ latest book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press: 2012) reaches for a much less academic and more popular tone than he usually does. He examines the new social movements that erupted since 2011, giving a helpful summary of the course of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and the U.S., going behind the simplistic claims of a “twitter” or “social media revolution.” He shows how the presence of those technologies was important and indispensable for the development of these movements, but that it was the synergy between social media and actually existing networks, combining in public squares and camps, that took things to a new level. Elsewhere, Rodrigo Nunes wrote last summer on Mute Magazine’s web site a smart analysis of the organizational forms that emerged during 2011 and subsequently, arguing that the generally weak connections that prevail on social media could amalgamate into something greater:

under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

We can see how the NSA spying program is geared to penetrating these new, not-really-spontaneous organizational forms that emerge on an adhoc basis and don’t seem to produce lasting institutional forms (at least not yet). Without the familiar unions or political parties as targets for infiltration and manipulation, the spooks in charge of imperial “peace” have been scrambling to head off the mysterious new ways people are figuring out to radically challenge the way life is shaped. Here’s Nunes again:

If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it "Gezi Gardens" in solidarity with the Turks... they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12... other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it “Gezi Gardens” in solidarity with the Turks… they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12… other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

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Gregory Stuart Williamson

Greg Williamson, burning the candle at both ends... pretty typical of him!

Greg Williamson, burning the candle at both ends… pretty typical of him!

Gregory Stuart Williamson, an unsung hero and longtime collaborator, died suddenly last week, apparently of a blood clot and stroke, while standing at a supermarket. He was not even 60 yet.

I want to take a moment to remember and honor Greg. I spent 17 years in close collaboration with him, and I don’t think anyone I ever worked with was as reliable, as diligent, as uncompromising, and as generous as Greg Williamson. He was also legendarily stubborn, curmudgeonly, and had a temper that had to be experienced to be believed. And if you were his friend, as I am proud to say I was for many years, you definitely experienced it!

But if there was ever anyone with a prickly outside and big soft inside, it was Greg Williamson. He was smart, critical, often sarcastic, and frequently hilarious. We had one of those office art Xerox signs on the wall for many years that said “The beatings will continue until morale improves” with the addition of an ‘s’ to morale, since Greg’s name in Processed World was Primitivo Morales. We would roll our eyes when he would launch on one of his oft-repeated aphorisms, like “The People United, Will Never Split a Pizza!” But now we’ll never hear it again.

Passing the pipe, the cheshire grin emerging from the sweet cloud of smoke...

Passing the pipe, the cheshire grin emerging from the sweet cloud of smoke…

It is said about some people that they would give you the shirt off their back. Greg was such a person. He worked as a programmer for many years, usually getting a decent salary but he went through his money as fast as he got it, and partly it was because he was damned generous. He came across the Bay (bitching about BART nearly every day) at his own expense, entering with two six-packs, a couple of bags of chips, and a pipe that was soon being passed around with the best quality pot available. More »

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