In December 2015, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure became the subject of fierce controversy. When it was publicly revealed that staffers of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid breached rival Hillary Clinton’s voter data stored in NGP VAN’s VoteBuilder, this infrastructure, normally hidden from view, suddenly became a contested matter of concern. As the Democratic Party closed access to VoteBuilder for a period of time for the Sanders campaign, the candidate’s supporters, competitors to NGP VAN, and journalists publicly debated why the party had such control over voter data and, ultimately, the dangers that such centralization might pose for the party and the democratic process. I have spent the past decade studying platforms such as VoteBuilder. While the incident with Sanders raised a number of important issues, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure, developed in the wake of the 2004 presidential election cycle, is a key reason for its well-documented technological advantages  over its Republican rival that persisted at least through the 2014 midterm elections.

Before I go any further it is worth providing some background context from news reports on the Sanders data breach, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of and have not conducted original research on the incident. From journalistic reports, the basic facts behind the Sanders data breach of NGP VAN’s firewalls between campaigns seem clear enough. By exploiting a vulnerability in the NGP VAN system, staffers on the Sanders campaign pulled multiple lists of voters from the Clinton campaign’s voter data. According to news articles, this included data on things such as strong Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire, 24 lists in all. The DNC responded by temporarily suspending the Sanders campaign’s access to VoteBuilder, in effect preventing staffers from using their voter data less than two months out from the Iowa caucuses.

As Larry Lessig has pointed out, there are legal questions here relating to the actual contract that users of VoteBuilder and the DNC’s data sign that, without direct knowledge of the matter at hand, I am not going to opine on. However, the consensus among practitioners is that Sanders’s staffers knew what they were doing and it was a clear ethical violation of the use of the NGP VAN system (indeed, the campaign’s national data director was summarily fired and the candidate apologized). In the end, the campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC, and the entire matter was resolved in 24-hours with the campaign again gaining access to its voter data after the DNC stated it fulfilled its requests for more information.

What I want to focus on here is the call after the Sanders incident, among some practitioners and firms with a stake in the outcome, to open up the DNC’s voter data so candidates and their campaigns, not the party, own what they use and produce. Part of this response stems from fears over monopoly power. The Democratic Party has built the most powerful political database in the world, and serves as the ‘obligatory passage point’ through which all of its political campaigns must go to gain access to it. Presidential campaigns essentially rent the DNC’s voter file, which is in effect a collection of 51 different state voter files (including Washington D.C.) that states share with the national party and are all hosted in the same database and interface system, VoteBuilder. The Democratic Party contracts with NGP VAN to make the state parties’ voter files accessible to and actionable for campaigns at all levels of office through VoteBuilder. As campaigns use VoteBuilder, they enrich the voter file through all of their canvassing and voter contacts. The voter contact and identification data of campaigns are firewalled from each other during elections. However, after elections, this voter contact and identification work conducted by campaign volunteers and paid staffers goes back to the DNC and the state parties, and is ultimately made available to subsequent Democratic candidates. In this system, campaigns do not own these voter files that they helped to enrich.

The basic architecture of the Democratic Party’s voter data was put in place by Chairman Howard Dean, with VAN gaining the contract to put together VoteBuilder in 2007. The national party provides access to VoteBuilder for its presidential candidates, while state parties determine access for state-level campaigns. As I have previously detailed, this architecture grew out of the party’s experiences during the 2004 cycle, when John Kerry’s multiple state voter files, housed in many vendor systems responsible for providing access to them, crashed in important states. The data was unstandardized across states, vendors had uneven track records, there was little in the way of field tools for accessing voter files, much historical data on voter contact was simply lost, and candidates even had trouble accessing state voter files. During the 2004 cycle, the Democratic Party was significantly behind the Republican Party and its voter database and interface system VoterVault.

Dean and his staff turned the Democratic Party’s data architecture from a mess of often vendor-controlled state voter files into the nationalized system it is today. Dean’s team created a set of agreements between the national and state parties, where the former works to ensure that state parties are fair arbiters of their voter files and make them available to all Democrats in an open primary, and the latter can hold the national party to account for what they do with the data.  Former party staffers argue that because the national party is an outsized player in terms of funding, the national organization has a significant role in making sure state parties are not unfair and can mediate disputes when they arise. That said, disputes between candidates and state parties do occur. For example, the policies of state parties with respect to challengers to incumbents in primaries varies, with states such as Missouri only providing access to VAN for incumbent office holders as the “winner of the last primary.” This policy was recently called into question by an African American state senator who was active in the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown after she sought access to VAN to contest a congressional incumbent. The rationale of the state party is that there needs to be an incentive for incumbents to continue to use the party’s voter data, and ultimately share their voter identification work back with other candidates, or they will view their electoral work across cycles simply as being used against them. What this in effect means is that, in some states, challengers to incumbents cannot access the party’s extensive voter file and the competitive advantages it might entail.

While there is a romantic notion that candidates should be free of parties and just make their own direct appeals to voters, especially among organizations that stand to profit from the decentralization and fragmentation of the party’s data, the Democratic Party’s voter file is an acknowledgment of the fact that American political life is, for worse but mostly for better, organized through parties. The DNC’s voter file architecture is ultimately a distinctly partisan resource, designed to strengthen its candidates’ ability to contest elections by providing them with far more data than they could ever muster on their own in discrete electoral runs, or even through data swaps with allies. As such, it is a tool of the party, not a ‘democratic’ technology in the sense of facilitating the efforts of independent candidates across the ideological spectrum to contest elections or even challenges to Democratic incumbents.

While this might not accord with our deep-seated longings for democratic technologies that will afford things such as more open and participatory elections (although this cycle is certainly testing that normative democratic wish), it does fit with the structure of American democracy, which is organized through parties. Political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued for the “moral distinctiveness of partisanship.” Parties, in Rosenblum’s eyes, are the institutions that define representative democracy. As Rosenblum argues, parties not only organize elections, they define political issues (and the political center), organize intra-party deliberation, are responsible for mobilizing the electorate, and are pluralist in having to negotiate intra-party compromise. Rosenblum, for instance, notes the irony that the celebrated “civil society organization” is the foremost example of political extremism, given that it often pursues single issues at the expense of multi-issue coalitions and tends to be the most uncompromising (single issues candidates would fall into a similar category).

The story of parties in America is long and complicated, but suffice it to say they are central to democratic processes. In an era when there are stark differences between the two parties, voters have clear choices and responsible parties attempt to pursue power through the ballot box. Parties do so, in no small part, through their ability to serve as databases for their candidates. In the process, they often do not fulfill other democratic longings or normative aspirations that the public has for electoral politics. However, parties fulfill their normative democratic role in representative democracy by working to defeat the other side in elections and create governing majorities according to the most advantageous means that they collectively decide upon. Indeed, Rosenblum argues that it is ultimately a good thing that parties have to balance multiple interests within them, lest we empower extremist single-issue candidates or ideological movements that brook no compromise (indeed, the Koch Brothers’ network invested in its own data firm http://www.i-360.com/ precisely to help bend the Republican Party to its ideological will). And, ultimately, a party may decide that protecting incumbents in exchange for them contributing back to a common data pool that candidates at all levels of office may subsequently benefit from should come at the expense of individual candidates’ attempting to access data. We should respect the decisions of parties to judge what is in their collective best interest according to their normative role of, according to Rosenblum, mobilizing citizens, pursuing political power through majorities, and making government work once in office.

One final consideration. There are alternatives to the Democratic Party’s data – although most would argue that they are inferior to the party’s historical data provided through VoteBuilder. There is nothing precluding a candidate that does not want to opt-into this system from relying on third party data firms such as Aristotle, Catalist, and NationBuilder, and taking advantage of any of the commercial customer relationship management platforms available to manage it. And, there is nothing preventing them from purchasing data, generating their own contacts, and then building their own independent operations. But it will never be as powerful as the DNC’s communal and partisan resource, and these candidates will find that even if they gain office, they will diminish the resources available for their partisan and ideological allies to do so as well – in the end, this hurts their ability to enact legislative change.

In essence, the Democratic Party has created a powerful and robust tool that facilitates its efforts to secure political power. And, I believe, in keeping with the normative role of parties in democratic societies, the party should have the ability to control access to it according to their own policies designed to further their governance interests. As a matter of course, these policies and remedies should be transparent and ultimately contestable (which appeared to be part of the issue in the Sanders and Missouri cases), but in the end I believe it is a good thing that as a multi-issue coalition of heterogeneous actors the Democratic Party sets its own policies and procedures for its use as a database.

The buy-in across the Democratic Party network to the party’s voter file and interface system provided by NGP VAN has resulted in a powerful and robust piece of infrastructure that the party’s ecosystem convenes around and that is ultimately enrolled in the pursuit of electoral power. The DNC’s voter file is an asset for the party because of the trust and culture of collaboration and sharing that has grown up around it. As a result of the fact that there is broad buy-in to VoteBuilder, the party’s data is standardized and accrues across election cycles and moves up and down ballot. Democrats in races across all levels of office and election cycles share the data they collect about who their voters are and what they care about. The fact that campaigns have to provide the data they generate through canvasses and contacts back to the party (excluding campaign proprietary data on donors), means that data is a shared asset across the party as a whole. At the same time, there is one system for accessing the voter file, so volunteers without much in the way of technical skills or training in states such as Iowa use it easily from cycle to cycle. Voter modeling flows downward from comparatively well-resourced presidential campaigns to state and even local races. And, the universal buy-in to the party’s data has meant that the expansive, hybrid Democratic network ecosystem of firms and organizations [PDF]  all work from the same basic data infrastructure. These organizations adopt and use the party’s voter file and tools for accessing it  – which facilitates the complementarity of campaign services.

The danger, as a number of practitioners have suggested, is that with monopoly comes the possibility for suboptimal technologies and stasis. However, the fact that the Democratic Party has been well ahead of its rival with a more fragmented data and analytics ecosystem for nearly a decade suggests that this fear is overblown. Another concern is that the party might behave arbitrarily, such as in the case of the Sanders breach when it appeared the party’s own policies were unclear, but there are a host of normative pressures exerted by the DNC and other party actors and regulative agreements and policies against this (indeed, the Sanders situation was ultimately resolved quickly). As former Clark and Kerry 2004 veteran and director of political data and analytics from 2005-2007 and director of technology from 2009-2011 at the Democratic Party, Josh Hendler argued, “the state parties decided that while they would be giving up some power, they trusted the DNC to be stewards of the data.” In that trust, the Democratic Party as a whole benefits from access to the data generated by their candidates, especially their presidential candidates with their vast mobilization of resources and volunteers to generate voter contacts.

Daniel Kreiss is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kreiss’s research explores the impact of technological change on the public sphere and political practice. Kreiss is the author of Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2016).


Header image credit: Keith Bacongco


Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a huge part of his presidential campaign (Huge). The media quotes from it, his opponents try to score political points by making fun of it, and his fans / supporters constantly engage with its content. @realDonaldTrump is just that: a string of pronouncements that feel very (perhaps even a little too) real. As Britney Summit-Gil wrote back in December: “the beauty of Trump’s tweetability is that his fans don’t really care if he’s manicured or carefully crafted—it’s what they love about him. His tweets read just like his speeches sound. They’re off the cuff, natural, and engaging.”

I want to take a minute to dive into the powerful linguistic work that hides behind Trump’s natural and off the cuff style. Consider the following pair of tweets:

Here Trump’s campaign has attached what linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call “orientational metaphors.” These are very simple but powerful metaphors that help us interpret abstract concepts by embedding them in our embodied existence. “These spatial orientations arise” write Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors we Live By (1980), “from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment.” For example the phrases “over your head” and “behind my back” mean that we either do not understand or have been intentionally left out of something. In the tweets above Trump gets a lot of mileage out of one of the most prominent orientational metaphors: up and down. Up is conscious, happy, healthy, and denotes control or force. Down is sad unconscious, sickly, and might mean one has lost control or lack’s the force to impose their will or is subject to another’s control (e.g. You are under my spell). Jeb is low energy, Rubio is Mr. meltdown. 

These tweets are obviously directed at his competitors, not the public in general, but these tweets say a lot about how Trump wants to be seen and what aspects of our humanity he’s playing off of to garner support. Someone with an eye towards theories of embodiment and the power dynamics around ableist language will already note that this kind of language privileges normative bodies and especially rewards those that are considered traditionally beautiful or otherwise desirable. This is completely true and it shows how far we have to go to dismantle all sorts of structural oppressions. (Let’s not forget all of the moral metaphors wrapped up in light and dark.)

Given all this it makes perfect sense that fascism always relies on plain, straight-forward language and the strict labeling of desirable and undesirable bodies. These two prerequisites are, in fact, one in the same move toward command-and-control power systems. Systems that do not deal in nuance, only brute force. This may also be why, according to the late Umberto Eco, fascism always induces skepticism (if not outright hatred) of academics or intellectual thinking. Do not mistake Trump’s simple language as mere branding, it is a harbinger of things to come.

David is on Twitter.

Image “low energy light bulb” credit: Alexander Ortweiler


I want to share with you a personal story – an experience that I dealt with about four months ago that caused me a great deal of anxiety: I found a flea on my dog.  That’s right a flea; not multiple fleas, a flea.  But I panicked.  I vacuumed everything – couches, throw pillows, mattresses, floors – twice a day, every day for at least three weeks.  I mopped every other day.  I washed everything in the house three times a week.  I bought some of that terrible chemical shampoo and washed my poor pup with it.  I flea combed her three times a day.  I set up flea traps in every room before bed.  I caught three more fleas.  I started having recurring dreams about fleas multiplying on my dog – growing in size as in an arcade game while I tried to knock them out one by one.  My language changed.  I started singing the Pokemon – “Gotta Catch All” song while vacuuming and talking like Ted Cruz, using phrases like “we’ve got to obliterate…,” etc.  My partner was seriously concerned about my sanity.

Now this sort of anxiety is partly personal – an anxiety over microscopic things that have the potential to grow completely out of my control.  But I’m going to argue that there is more to it than that.  I’ve talked to pet owners who – upon spotting fleas – tore apart their houses, spent hundreds of dollars on flea products, set off chemicals in their homes that notably released the same poisonous gases that were instrumental to the India’s Bhopal disaster.  We can’t all be this crazy.

I don’t think we are.

For one, new information systems – PetMD, e-wiki articles, and veterinary forums –  instigate panic while setting impossible standards for care. While supposedly designed to help diagnose and treat our own issues, these are the same links that warn that for every one flea, there are a hundred fleas.  The same links that show images of hundreds of tiny bugs weaving in between a dog’s fur.  The same links that break down the scientific version of the flea life cycle into colloquial terms so that you know how serious the issue is.  The same links that suggest that you throw out carpets and bedding and that you vacuum ferociously several times a day for weeks.  They state at the beginning “Don’t panic!  You can get through this.” and then proceed to list a series of chores that working families cannot possibly get through.  It’s dizzying to click through them.

Now, these arguments seem to substantiate claims that Google has provoked a sort of “cyberchondria” – where Googling to find information about our health problems, pet problems, and house problems leads people to overact – to jump to irrational conclusions.  That the freckle on their finger must be cancer.  Or that the spot on their dog means they need to burn their houses down.  But I find this to be an extremely gendered argument – one that positions information seekers as emotionally-charged and unreasonable – characterized by conceptions of a feminine excessiveness as Luce Irigaray would say.  You see this gendering in the articles that advise against Googling health symptoms – in magazines like Glamour and Women’s Health – articles that disproportionately feature images of anxious women staring at computer screens.   Articles that include statistics such as “one in four British women have misdiagnosed themselves on the Internet.” Such depictions, I believe, stem from a very problematic assumption that women can’t think logically when exposed to provocative information.

New “anxieties of care” are induced, not so much by the sensationalized information in online articles (though this is certainly part of it), nor the raising costs of expert care advice from doctors, vets, exterminators (though is certainly part of it too).  Instead, families today constantly find themselves in information double binds – binds that make it impossible to at once meet new standards of care (house care, pet care, and child care, etc.) and at the same time attend to the grounded knowledge they’ve developed in their experience being caregivers.  Impulsive cleaning, spending, and chemical spraying, in this sense, are not a result of mis-information or falling prey to “cyberchondria” but instead are anxious responses to being embedded in conflicting communication streams – streams mediated by algorithms, science, capital, and gendering.

Double bind theory, proposed by Gregory Bateson, suggests that anxiety can be provoked in situations where an individual must respond to two or more conflicting streams of communication.  For instance, imagine a mother tells her child, “I demand that you disobey me.”  There is no way for the child to attend to both requests.  Today’s parents face the same communicative contradictions when it comes to care.

Take the flea problem for example.  The #1 recommended flea product by veterinarians and many online sources is Advantix II, produced by Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.  Bayer is also acclaimed for a particularly long history of chemical and drug-related corporate injustices, which may not be of particular interest to caregivers until they come across other web articles describing what can happen if you “poison” your dog with toxic chemicals.  Or consider the bug bomb issue.  While many online sources describe it as the only way to ensure that you kill off the bugs in your home – to exterminate them at all stages of the flea life cycle – other articles remind us that such insecticides can cause serious long-term health effects, particularly for young children.  Caregivers know that any product that tells you to cover all of the surfaces in your house and stay away from it with the windows closed for several hours is not the safest choice for the kids and pets.  They see that companies they’ve learned to hate – such as Monsanto – sponsor the top medical/pet advice websites.  And that veterinarians make their living by recommending expensive pharmaceutical products.   And if they’re not going to purchase these products, they better be prepared to clean – every second of every day – for months, which is just not an option for most working families today.

In the midst of such information binds, I found myself searching, relentlessly, for anything rational, anything that didn’t require me to be super-mommy – to pull off the impossible.  But unfortunately, with information infrastructures so heavily mediated today – more information tends to equate to more expectations, while simultaneously exposing more contradictions.  It’s much like Ruth Cowan describes in her book More Work for Mother – how modern labor-saving technologies for the home, such as the vacuum and the washing machine, set new standards for cleanliness, thus creating more work for mothers, not less.  Information infrastructures, designed to help families deal with medical or home issues, have set impossible standards for care.  Digesting this information is an anxiety-ridden experience – one that pushes families to consider how much time they are willing to devote, how much money they are willing to spend, and what toxic chemicals they are willing to expose themselves to.  It’s a gendered experience; women, in particular, are held to higher expectations, while simultaneously, couched as emotionally-charged and overreacting when they respond to them.

Don’t worry parents; you are not alone.  New information systems are making us all a little more anxious – a little more prone to panic.  And it’s not because we’re irrational or foolish.  It’s because we’re embedded in an information infrastructure that’s impossible to move within.   Key to double bind theory, though, is that working the double bind – resisting and weaving your way out of it – leads to emotional growth.  Recognizing how information sources compete – how they are so often shaped by macro-forces that are particularly antagonistic to women – can be the best medicine for dealing with anxieties of care.

Lindsay Poirier is a PhD Student in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  She occasionally Tweets at @lindsaypoirierhttp://lindsaypoirier.com/

Image source credit: Kat Masback


We should be nervous when the most profitable company in the world takes a principled stance against the most powerful government in the world. Apple released a statement today (they call it a “letter” to their customers) which states that the FBI has requested that they provide a backdoor to the iPhone’s operating system and they are refusing to give it to them. This is huge because If there is any sort of consistent observation across decades and genres of social theory it is that as organizations get bigger they tend to treat the rest of the world as a potential threat to their own interests. War criminal and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed it up nicely: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The same can be said for Apple, China, General Motors, Russia, and Amazon. As a company or empire grows its stability relies on more and more factors and so the tendency is to bring those things into the fold either by buying them, colonizing them, or some indiscernible combination of the two. If Apple and the United States federal government are at loggerheads about data privacy it means that something big and fairly stable has ended. When powerful actors disagree, it usually heralds a major shift in one party’s conception of what is politically viable. Is that what just happened?

Last summer I wrote about the reactionary politics of hacking. There I argued that while most hackers (according to their own public pronouncements and the published research on these communities) are somewhere between anarcho-socialist and libertarian in their personal politics, their aggregate effect on the world may be promoting a security state. I wrote:

the hacker and the bureaucrat are polar opposites in terms of means –the former is trickster incarnate while the latter plots along as predictably as humanly possible– but they advocate for similar solutions to difficult problems. Even though the bureaucrat seeks and fosters smooth operation of a system, and hackers are motivated by a goal and are animated by chaotic destruction, they both share a fundamental distrust of humans as political entities. Hackers may embody the opposite of bureaucracy, but they ultimately desire the same thing as bureaucrats: technologies that obviate trust.

Encryption is only as important as one’s belief that there are bad actors waiting in the wings to do harm. The important thing for us to consider here is that both Apple CEO Tim Cook and the whistleblower Edward Snowden both seem to heartily believe that such bad actors are out there and encryption is necessary for digital life. Such uniformity of belief across such a presumably wide political spectrum –from corporate CEO to enemy of the state—has to mean at least one of these three things is true:

  • Encryption is so obviously important that even people with huge ideological disagreements can at least agree that it is necessary.
  • Snowden and Cook are actually not that ideologically different or they are similar in an as-of-yet-undefined political coalition. That is, we might not have a word for the persistent and predictable opinions that Snowden, Cook, and maybe all people in those positions hold. In other words, they look further apart ideologically than they really are because we’re looking at them from the wrong perspective.
  • The United States government is so far afield from what makes for a sane argument about encryption and data privacy that really different people can be on the same opposing side.

I suspect most people would waffle between 1 and 3, and maybe even say that those statements are synonymous: that the government is so greedy for power or narrowly focused on its objectives that it has lost sight of the obvious risks associated with breaking encryption. I tend to believe that 1 and 3 are true today but 2 is most important of all. There is a new political common sense forming and its borders are peculiar. They circumscribe a really broad group of people and interests that all converge on the importance of the individual’s ability to have absolute control of their data within the confines of the laws that do not immediately endanger that data sovereignty. Your data is yours and yours alone with few exceptions.

In most instances the logic above is sound, but if today tells us anything, it is that this logic has been borne out of defensive posturing, not creative thinking about the kind of society we want to live in. The arguments for encryption are being forged in the heat of reaction, not the light of creativity. So while I agree with Apple (and Snowden) in this instance, I worry that we are building a reactionary political program that can be wielded easily by powerful actors, not a radical one that confronts the underlying abuses of power that individuals face on a daily basis. Apple is right that encryption backdoors today mean deeply broken and insecure networks tomorrow, however we should reject the premise that we will always live in a world where this will be the case.

Cook is fond of using home security as a metaphor for data security. In today’s letter he said a backdoor to encryption “would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.” At an electronic privacy conference last fall Cook said something similar: “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.” He concluded by warning that if bad guys “know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.”

It is obviously important that, in the mean time, we have sufficient locks on our doors, but focusing on locking ourselves away seems more in line with an over-stepping government than a free society. If big organizations like governments and corporations only have interests, we should be focused on the project of making it against their interest to want access to our data and our homes. To do so requires radical thinking –by definition, thinking that gets at the root of problems—not reactionary thinking that is characterized by short term, stop-gap measures fueled by fear and anger.

If we look at calls for encryption as reactionary, not progressive or radical, the disagreement between Apple and the government looks much different than how I characterized it in the beginning of this essay. Instead of a foundation-shaking change in how the government operates, we are seeing a reactionary movement that, like many reactionary movements, creates single-issue coalitions. It may have the long-term effect of making us less free, if we are constantly preoccupied with building better locks rather than better communities. Encryption may be tactically useful for preserving individual liberties now, but we should be concerned about where it will leave us in years to come.

David is on Twitter.

Header image by Karol Franks


The last democratic debate was mostly good. Two people, who represent very different visions for the future and strategies for how to arrive at that future, had just about as fair and faithful of a debate as one could expect from a cable news-hosted event. Orbiting this central debate is a swirling mass of half-arguments that has more energy than thought-out direction, made up of a cadre of writers who are lining up against the most tattered and boring of banners: Brocialism versus Lean In Feminism. The corporatized feminism that advocates for equal terms in boardroom competition and the smarmy machismo of socialism made for mansplaining both come out of several bad ideological compromises. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not attempt to move beyond these camps into a more honest discussion.

Lean In Feminism is an ideology that forgoes the more structural critiques of the status quo in favor of a more even footing when it comes to succeeding in the boardrooms of late capitalism. Lean In is the title of a TED talk, a best selling book, and now a non-profit organization created by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s brand of feminism has a lot of supporters but also some prominent critics. Elizabeth Bruenig argued in The New Republic that, “what makes life easier for any given woman high on the corporate ladder, might actually make life harder for women toiling near the bottom rungs.” Bruening points to Sandberg’s insistence that women openly and aggressively negotiate maternity leave but never advocates for a federally mandated universal maternity leave. Generous maternity leave packages for Facebook executives, Bruening shows, may even be in direct conflict with universal maternity leave because such a policy may make companies less interested in crafting their own –and for executives, more lavish– policies.

To define Brocialism one should look no further than a conversation between Laurie Penny and former Socialist Workers’ Party member Richard Seymour. Seymour writes:

My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it.

This class-first arrangement makes it easy (especially for cis white men) to position race, gender, or any other identity as a force for fragmentation and infighting rather than the beginning points of solidarity.

Brocialism and Lean In Feminism have a lot in common. They lack an intersectional analysis of structural oppressions (especially racism), which provides an enticingly straightforward permission to act out their respective programs. They are the kind of stunted progress that reads as “feasible” in national elections. This similarity is crucial because it lies at the heart of the subtle but important difference between what the campaigns say and the surrounding debates they engender: while there are indeed some substantive differences in policy and relevant past behavior between Clinton and Sanders, a vast majority of this election is about strategy, not policy.

Someone who sees hope in a Sanders’ presidency will point toward last month’s Bloomberg profile where Joel Stein makes it clear that Sanders understands that elections are a piece of larger social movements: That an election is merely the opportunity to construct a favorable Overton Window from which good policy can pass through. Clinton supporters will make a much different argument about America’s history and structural favoring of incrementalist change over punctuated, rapid change. Moreover, having a woman in the White House would also be a welcome, long-overdue revolution of a different sort. Just about every article left of center has kept within arms reach of these arguments. And while it is nice to see a popular discussion of strategy, at some level we know that strategy is all these candidates can promise because actual policies are subject to the most reactionary and corrupt Congress in history.

For the first time in a longtime, Democratic primary candidates are running to the left rather than the center, but instead of disagreeing about what candidates should do we are largely focused on how they should attempt to do anything. Even disagreements that are ostensibly about policies—expanding the ACA rather than “Medicare for all”, making colleges tuition-free instead of making sure students are debt-free, and so on—are actually arguments about strategy. They reflect different ways of dealing with Congress and more basic philosophic questions about how government should administer public services. Disagreements about strategy, I would argue, leave far less room for evidentiary claims. Showing how a strategy worked in a particular historical moment can always be nit-picked apart by pointing out contingencies and disagreeing about the past’s applicability to the present. When it comes to strategy it just sort of has to feel right.

Strategy is a difficult topic and one that most media outlets would rather ignore all together. Such a discussion would require we come to terms with the differences between the Obama ’08 candidacy and the last seven years of his presidency: the coordinated assault on Occupy encampments, drone warfare, and the fairly lukewarm reception (at the federal level) of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The frustrations surrounding these topics are then compounded by the fact that Congress would rather take another vote on defunding Planned Parenthood than put together a jobs bill or investigate the obvious and proven problems with local police forces.

Supporters also do not want to talk about strategy. Strategy talk requires that we accept all of the things above as truth and then figure out how to get around them. Ideological differences, on the other hand, are just a matter of positioning candidates in relation to all of these things. You can give Sanders undue credit for the last decades’ social movements or say that drone warfare was the best of many other worse options. While I do not think it is accurate to say Sanders and Clinton are ideological equivalents, I think the gulf between them is somewhat exaggerated. Let’s put it this way: when Sanders first announced his presidential run the New York Times noted that he and Clinton (while she was still a senator) “voted the same 93 percent of the time” but that “[t]he 31 times that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders disagreed happened to be on some the biggest issues of the day, including measures on continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an immigration reform bill and bank bailouts during the depths of the Great Recession.”

While they have substantive differences in foreign policy intervention and banking where Sanders’ is clearly more progressive than Clinton, I would not characterize all of their differences as ones where Sanders voted “to the left” of Clinton. For example, Sanders opposed a 2007 Immigration Reform bill out of fear of wage suppression while Clinton voted for it. Today they have nearly identical immigration platforms. I think that sums up their ideological differences nicely: that most of the time they are the same and when they differ it is usually (but not always) because a bill is not the correct strategy to achieve a shared goal.

Given this new dynamic where progressive strategy masquerading as ideological difference sits at the heart of the primary, media outlets must seek out narratives that sound somewhat familiar but can give shape to this new phenomenon. A whole army of writers have been all too ready to start answering the kinds of questions American leftists never thought would be uttered on television: What does being a socialist mean? How does feminism translate into policy? Are either of these candidates actually emblematic of the –isms that they are associated with?

Those answering with earnestness about specific policies or political theories have an unenviable task ahead of them because while they may have nuanced and well-thought-out arguments they are unavoidably associated with the immensely condescending missives from Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and hordes of Bernie Bros. Whereas Clinton relies on named elites to browbeat dissenters Sanders can count on thousands of nobodies to show up in twitter feeds and Facebook comment threads. One substantive difference here is that Clinton welcomes (and defends) Steinem and Albright while Sanders has recently told BernieBros “we don’t want that crap.”

Candidates’ public relationship to their most unsavory supporters, in the final analysis, is less important than the campaigns’ own strategies for producing supporters in the first place. Both seem ideally suited for attracting Lean In Feminists and Brocialists. Sydette Harry offers a compelling look at how the Hillary campaign, through its sloganeering, set itself up to gather uncritical fans of the Lean In variety since day one:

The conflation of being “Ready for Hillary” with feminist allegiance brings the worst problems of political fandom, racism, and poor civic awareness to the forefront. Secretary Clinton is portrayed as a fulfillment of a progressive checklist or schedule rather than an individual candidate.

Citizens have interests that they seek to fulfill through organizing together and selecting representatives, whereas fans have a kind of unconditional allegiance to a fairly static brand or personality. While Clinton is offered up as the kind of candidate that checks off all the right boxes for liberal progressivism, Sanders maintains a sort of monopoly on the citizen that wishes to live in something beyond capitalism and express that wish in a vote.

If a Clinton supporter is a Patriots fan, then a Sanders supporter is an American soccer fan that puts up with FIFA. They try to ignore the fact that he’s running within the Democratic Party and that he does not hold the kind of foreign policy positions that would comport with the level of isolationism that is typical of countries governed by democratic socialists. Sanders, like many Republican candidates, is casting himself as an outsider, which gives cynics permission to call themselves potential voters.

Amanda Hess recently wrote about Sanders’ supporters as having fan-like qualities as well. But while Harry demonstrates that Clintonian fandom is a way to hide “white feminism’s anti-black bias”, Hess argues that the Bernie Bro (a subset of the brocialist if we are keeping taxonomic score) is just like any fan sufficiently blinded by their excitement:

Everything that Bernie Bros have been accused of doing is something I’ve seen from One Directioners on Twitter—a group so displeased by an article I wrote three years ago that they invited me to sit on a chair upholstered with glass shards.

Hess ends her piece with a bit of advice that the Sanders campaign gave to their supporters on Reddit, which may also be instructive for the Left more generally: that the tendency to show devotion to a cause by first and foremost “delivering the sickest burns” to opponents is not the way to win people to your side.

Brocialism and Lean In Feminism are better understood as a kind of fandom than an ideology, although I think they are both. In other words, people who might accurately be branded a Brocialist or a Lean In Feminist may hold their views honestly and strongly (and would probably prefer to be called socialists and feminists, respectively), but much of their behavior is better understood from a fan studies perspective than any sort of political ideology. Fans make worlds out of superficial differences and build arguments to defend their beloved idea rather than use argumentation to arrive at some desirable end. Just as there is no conceivable argument in the world that could convince me that Star Wars is better than Star Trek, I am extremely skeptical of the possibility that Roqaya Chamseddine could convince Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, or Sady Doyle that Hillary Clinton is the wrong choice for the Democrats. Valenti, Marcotte, and Doyle are fans, just as Cedric Johnson will continue to defend Sanders in the face of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thorough rebuttals.

Herein lies the rub: I suspect most of the people writing about Sanders, Clinton, and the election in general, know that they are talking about (and sometimes, to) fans. And if they are talking about and to fans, they know that what they say will do little more than excite one side and infuriate the other and no genuine exchange of ideas will take place. With the exception of Harry, Hess, and a few others, the media has done more to reinforce the fan dynamic than try to draw us out into a more civic conversation. The way most arguments are structured in this election cycle one must either be a fan or some strange undecided beast that is equal parts ill-informed fence sitter and ineffectual elite.

Correcting this problem is not simple. Writers have been reinforcing the behavior they critique for a long time. Derrida lamented a similar dynamic in the French press around the turn of the new millennium:

Each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader. The mass production that today inundate the press and publishing houses do not form their readers; they presuppose in a phantasmic and rudimentary fashion a reader who has already been programmed. They thus end up preformatting this very mediocre addressee whom they had postulated in advance.

Derrida is describing the way authors order their audiences into Brocialists and Lean In Feminists, by assuming that the people they disagree with are from one of these two camps. By attacking fans for not being citizens, we encourage people to act like fans so that they might be included in the conversation at all. Perhaps it is the fate of cities that foster intellectual and economic power to eventually manufacture the thing that it set out to lampoon and deconstruct in the first place. I hope we can break out of that cycle and start imagining new kinds of audiences. Coates and Chamseddine may be our only leading lights in this regard because they focus on arguing for or against issues rather than candidates. To the degree that they engage with fans, they do so as a means of further articulating an argument beyond any single candidate or election. More generally though, we need to foster audiences that cleave along new and more interesting lines of argument rather than these tired and pedantic ones that encourage us to dig in our heals and spout talking points. We’re better than that. Leave the bad faith arguments to the politicians.

David is on Twitter.

Header image source.


By now I think most people know what happened in Flint, Michigan. An unelected “emergency manager” –appointed and reporting directly to Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder– switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit municipal water to untreated Flint River water. The river water had a higher salinity than Detroit’s water which caused metalic pipes to corrode and leach toxic levels of lead into an entire city’s water supply. This happened back in 2013 and it is still an unresolved problem. The solution for Flint is straightforward: replace all the pipes and provide the kind of lifetime care needed for children and other vulnerable populations that have irreprable neurological damage from lead poisoning. What is less straightforward is how to prevent these kinds of problems from happening in the future. Because while this happened under a terrible governance structure, similar ongoing disasters are occurring in places that still have some form of elected, local governance still in tact. This is as much a problem of science and technology as it is an issue of governance and accountability. What is to be done?

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist who was one of the loudest whistle blowers regarding the Flint water crisis had a refreshingly blunt response to this problem when he was interviewed in the Chronicle:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.

He goes on to note that the government agencies that would normally fund scientists’ research into the problem were, themselves, the problem which makes it nearly impossible for any scientist to do life-saving work if they have any desire to be employed the next day or funded next year.

This dynamic has been a known problem among science and technology studies scholars for a long time but little structural change has been accomplished. If any long-lasting good can come from the Flint water crisis, it may be a significant change in how science is funded in this country. Back in 2014 I had an essay that ran in Tikkun Magazine suggested one possible solution to a problem like Flint. I’ll conclude this short essay by block quoting that proposed solution:

The New Deal programs that started life as direct assistance to the poor but have since morphed into command-and-control structures (some privatized) that do more to monitor and sanction people than feed and house them should be left to wither on the vine. Leftists can ill afford to spend the money and effort in reforming these social and technological systems. In their place we must form networks of locally run organizations that treat people with dignity and respect.

The beginning of this process might look like the block grants to state and local governments that were popular under Carter but disappeared under Reagan and never came back. Large sums of money must be remitted directly to communities without unfunded mandates for metrics and sampling. The measure of success should begin and end with the communities that receive the money: it requires a massive amount of trust. The sort of trust that can only come from treating fellow citizens like compassionate and loving whole persons. For this to succeed where it is needed the most, large leftist organizations must identify and federate with organizations doing good work in more conservative regions of the country. This process starts with basic resource assessments and a revitalization of civic institutions in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana; Immokalee, Florida; and countless other towns and cities ravaged by capitalism.

Free education should be available to all, but nothing changes if newly minted experts continue to work for malevolent corporations and/or detached universities. Therefore, in addition to providing no-strings-attached block grants, the government should pay an array of experts to put themselves up for hire by communities to help solve problems in a collaborative and deliberative way. Imagine a clearinghouse of sociologists, water chemists, lawyers, economists, and geologists all fully paid by the federal government and willing work with a community to solve problems identified by its residents.

David is on twitter.

Image source: NBC News.

Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, consisting of 75,000 cable ties combined in a beautiful 3D network, somehow resembling neural net of the brain. Credit
Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, made up of 75,000 cable ties combined to resemble the human brain. Source


Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 14:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want


You sick fuck why did you do that?


Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea


sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 13:14:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

i know it hurts and i’m so sorry. i love you i love you i love you. but i know this is what its gonna take. we’re not wrong. if it makes you feel any better (i know it won’t) my shoulder hurts like a son of a bitch. i had no idea… i don’t think something healed quite right. maybe nerve damage. i’m typing this lying on the floor in my apartment. my lower back hurts something fierce too. looks like i’m literally gonna take this lying down. hope the cops that find me are feeling their own injuries. i bet every cop out there has a torn rotator cuff and one tumor for every bullet in the chamber by now. haha. i love you and will miss you so much. -s


Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 11:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Just thought I should let you know.. I checked the news and it doesn’t look like they found you yet. Fuck this hurts. It came backk 20 min ago. Its faded a little and I found some stuff in my desk that’s really old and dry but is taking the edge off. Either they’ve gotten worse or I just forgot what they felt like. Staring at this screen is helping a little but maybe that’s just because i’m distracted. Everything is blurry..

I guess I understand why you did it but I don’t know if I can forgive you. You wouldn’t have done this if you’d seen my mother in that bed. All those tubes and machines. Getting rid of this network isn’t going to mean less machines I can tell you that.

Hope thiss made it to you ok. I know your good at getting text through. Hell if you can get a piece of paper half way across a continent you can probably get some bits out there. I’ll visit you if Apothecary or my head lets me. Love you so much in spite of yourself

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea



sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 9:04:55.9

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

you might be right but i still believe in what we did. this is for the greater good, i know it. Wish I could hear your voice but they’ve already shut off every voice app i have. love -s



Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 8:50:07.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Jesus Christ Sarah what have you done? Do you really think “we’re going to experience it together?” I still forget sometimes how young you are and what you haven’t experienced. all the violence is hidden behind walls and asterisks for you isn’t it? The rich will keep healthy while the rest of us suffer for what you’ve done. Thats the way these sorts of things always go. You used to be able to see the pain in people’s eyes. Used to see what poverty did to people. How it physically beat you down and changed you. Now it’s all hidden. Maybe you did show us that. But at what cost Sarah? Who are you to make that decision for everyone? To just turn off something that has benefited billions of people for nearly a decade? I did check my Apothecary profile and sure enough I’ll probably get one of those old headaches sometime today or tomorrow. They seem to be fairly regular. I will always love you but god damnit you had no right. No right.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea



sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 7:35:45.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

i hope you read this before 9 today. look i know we disagree about pain management stuff but i don’t think you know how much i care about this. i went to the open house last night but i went to do something kind of drastic. there’s a couple of us and we really think this is the best way to go. nothing is going to get done about these poisons unless we feel the effects of them. all of us. the network will experience a cascade failure in about an hour and a half when the server resets. all of the tumors all of the nerve damage, we’re going to experience it together and hopefully get through it together.

the other message you got was one of billions. i added a quick note to yours but everyone with an active apothecary account just got their own information too. we found a way to dump the confidential database through the share function.

i wish i could tell you this in person, or at least on paper, but this is the only way i can right now. they have weird names for everything in the confidential db but its pretty straight-forward: conditional activators are what’s causing the pain that the apothecary device suppresses. i looked it up and i think cyclohexa-1,3,5-triene is benzene. it gets in your blood. the estimated service span is how long they predict you will live. the numbers go years months and days. i’m so sorry i really wish i could be there with you. wish we could have done this somewhere closer. but it had to be done soon, before stuff gets even worse.

i should tell you i also did this because i want a little magic in the world. that’s weird to say isn’t it? but i dunno, there used to be a time when bad knees told the weather and back aches were massaged away by lovers. i want to experience that, maybe just for a little while. i want to feel something painful in my body and not know why. i want to feel the relief when it goes away on its own. because i took care of myself. because my body healed itself the way it is supposed to. that’s the way we’re supposed to live. not like this.

hope you find some place comfortable to lie down. those headaches only came about twice a month right? who knows maybe you have a week or so before you feel anything. check your apothecary profile while it is still up and see when your last headache was reported. kyle reminded all of us before we set out last night that apothecary is fully insured… you know what that means. i probably won’t see you again. we couldn’t figure out how to mask our entry point to the network so i’m expecting some angry visitors in riot gear in a couple of hours. i’m sorry and i love you. -s



Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks

11/26/2063 01:42:00

THE ROMANTICS Just Shared a Health Stat with You!

OrgKey: g4gsu45TRUST77sdg


THE ROMANTICS wanted to show you the progress she’s made in the following:

PATIENT: Langson, Douglas

CONDITIONAL ACTIVATORS: Cyclohexa-1,3,5-triene

SUPPRESSORS: cytochrome P450 2E1 compiler




will send another message soon. love you.



Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 14:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Have fun tonight! I hear those parties can be really raucous. Brilliant marketing when you think about it: get the young ones to party hard in a geo-fenced Complete Care package so when they leave the party the next morning they think long and hard about spending the extra money to never feel a hangover again. I was always an ecstasy and weed man myself… You feel really drained in the morning but at least you don’t want to claw your eyes out.

I’m sorry, I know you don’t like to hear about an old man’s escapades. But sometimes it seems as though I have to describe parties the way I have to describe the taste of tuna or full highways. Its funny, you think those things will be around forever, if not grow bigger. As if, one day, adolescence will end at midlife crises and each highway will be seven lanes of stop and go. But people your age are so stern. You seem to think just because we can manage our pain we’ve lost some kind of grand perspective. I’d say its almost the opposite– none of you expect anything to last! You’d be nostalgic for tomorrow’s breakfast if I described it to you well enough.

And I really can’t believe you’ve never known the joys of eating tuna from a metallic pouch. It sounds ridiculous but it was really remarkable when you think about it. There’d be a news story now or then that mentioned mercury and of course pregnant women weren’t supposed to eat it but you could pick it up at the register next to batteries and candy bars! It was everywhere and somehow I guess that made it feel like it was, I dunno, beyond safe. We liked to call things “too big to fail” back in the day. I guess it was kind of like that. Or at least we hoped it was.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea



sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 14:06:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

omg angry aches! i couldn’t even talk to you when you had your headaches. you were like a different person! so mean! and yeah i know it’s good that people don’t waste away trying to poison tumors and stuff but it totally lets governments take their time on the plastics sequestering. in some places its even voluntary. you know i’m not cool with officers coming into homes and shit but pvc is everywhere and i don’t trust people to know what needs to be taken away. and private dumps not doing anything about their plastic is just nuts. and of course no one is taking it seriously when all we can track is the average life span. i don’t buy the whole “client confidentiality” thing. there’s nothing wrong with just saying how many people died from what disease. they have that information, its how they can turn off pain in the first place!

today i saw someone fall out of a chair right in the middle of eating a sandwich. they were screaming about how much their body hurt all over. their friend didn’t even touch them. they just grabbed their phone and altered their friend’s apothecary account status. doesn’t that creep you out?! that we don’t comfort bodies anymore, we just change some settings?

i get that the olds need some relief but i’m sill unconvinced that a global proprietary data network is really the only way to solve it. there were some really promising old-school pharma trials back in the 20s that i read about. seems like some funding could go to that instead of all these subsidies to apothecary. but maybe i’ll be convinced. i’m actually gonna go to one of those fancy-pants open houses of theirs this evening to meet kyle. I want to try out can<>free on this ankle. -s



Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 13:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want


You screamed and screamed about that broken shoulder. I bet you would have signed up for Apothecary in an instant if you could have back then! And yeah, older people like me would be in a world of pain without their services. The way I see it, pain management networks don’t get in the way of the plastics sequestering projects and maybe no one is living to 85 or 90 the way my parents did but I remember stories of people living the whole last decade of their lives in beds and on dozens of medications that’d make Apothecary look like a basic media stream subscription. Why not put the mute button on the joint pain? I’m okay with trading 20 years of my life so long as all 60 years are good ones. I certainly don’t miss those headaches I used to get. What did you call them? Angry Aches?

And “watered down” seems a little disingenuous don’t you think? We’re codifying what my generation did and why not. You Romantics always think we’re taking something away from you! All you’re missing are confusing medical bills and people complaining about gluten. Oh, and some really great parties.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea



sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 12:44:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

she did always have a hard time getting over stuff. its like she’s not even paying attention to her own ridic headlines about those “innovative” states offering indefinite unions alongside marriage contracts. how can you be pissed about a divorce and love the idea of watered-down marriage contracts?!?!?!?

anyway, i know you worry but these companies are so stupid! like, i get that without apothecary i would have had probably three or four surgeries by now and that would have sucked but that’s what doing dangerous things is about. sometimes you lose big time! when I broke my collar bone and apothecary service wasn’t in montana yet it hurt a lot but i kinda learned something from it…? i dunno. it all just seems so unnatural now. like we’re living with too few consequences, disconnected from our own bodies. i know there’s all those people your age with dioxin poisoning but shouldn’t we be getting rid of all that plastic stuff instead of paying some company to monitor our bodies and change what we feel? i don’t want to check a profile anymore. maybe those magazines are right and my generation is too romantic for its own good! will keep an eye on those estimated pain averages. -s



Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 11:38:52.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want


Ha! That might be my favorite yet! You should really keep your medical history clean though. Would if something happened to you? Do you want an EMT going through your phone looking for your conditions to find a bunch of jokes or life saving information? You’ll be lying on the pavement bleeding and they won’t know your median brain swelling figures. You’d probably think that was funny though, wouldn’t you?

In all seriousness, hope your ankle gets better. I did get your letter (I opened it near a trash can that had what must have been a two-day old chicken sandwich so I wasn’t smelling much else, sorry) and I distinctly remember those vivid photos you sent me. Your ankle looks like a freakin’ bag of plums. Yuck. Take good care of yourself, remember to check your profile. Read today that you should really ease up after you average 30 network connections. And you thought my “stop at 45!” was draconian!

Just saw your mother at the work lounge on Pearl. She seemed happy up until the part where she saw me! We’re gonna be just fine though. I think the hardest part is going to be seeing someone that looks so much like my daughter staring at me with contempt. You were so quick to find better targets for your distain than dear old dad.


Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea



sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 11:19:20.7

ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

can you believe this kitsch horseshit? I told you that clinic that lets you edit your own patient notes would result in some primo lulz tho.

how are you doing btw? did you get my letter? i know you think it costs a lot to go pick up a real piece of paper from fedex but trust me its worth it. you can almost smell the person that sent it. its really cool.

in it you’ll see some printed out photos of my most recent roller derby trophy. haha, i’m really thinking of getting six free months of pain relief on this thing. its just easier than telling a pharmacist that you actually want acetaminophen. you used to be able to just buy that anywhere, right? you lived in a better time!





Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks

11/21/2073 5:15:00

Claim The Life You Want

OrgKey: g4gsu45TRUST77sdg




In only ten short years our team and Founding Allies have changed the lives of billions of people. Together we enable people to live full lives for as long as nature will let them. It has been tremendously rewarding work and we are humbled by the messages we receive day in and day out telling us how children who would have spent short lives in beds were given the opportunity to live the life of a child. New, life-extending medications are coming out every day and together we can achieve something that the human race has sought since the first harvest: a long and pain-free life.


Today we are contacting you because of a new service we are offering that we call CAN<>FREE. After a full six months of research, development, and human-equivalent testing we have extended our patented chronic pain neutralization technology to muscular tissues in the knee all the way down to your smallest extensor digitorum brevis muscles. We heard from your dedicated clinic specialist that just four months ago your $hit kicker needed attention due to a repeat stress injury caused by kicking the greed out of old money fascists. CAN<>FREE might be able to help you.


As an existing member, your National Health Credit Account covers the first six months of a CAN<>FREE subscription. On the seventh month we will add this new product to your existing rolling allowance so you can pay at your convenience!*


Apothecary is dedicated to eliminating pain and discomfort for the billions of people that suffer from undiagnosed environmental disorders, syndromes, and repetitive stress injuries. We have already prevented nearly a quarter of a trillion micro-surgeries to date with just one simple implantable device. No more knives, no more complicated medications with side-effects. Just pain-free living.


Message us today on any major platform and a specialist will activate CAN<>FREE on your account. You could be living pain-free in as little as two hours. So go ahead and Claim The Life You Want.


-Your Friends at Apothecary


*National data rates apply. First 100gb at $0.25 and $5.00 per 1,000 connections. Federal reporting requirements require us to disclose the following: We send balance sheets to collections and enforcement bureaus after an unpaid balance of $10,000 or more is sustained for six months or balance reaches $100,000, whichever comes first. Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks Incorporated is licensed and insured for capital punishment penalties and is a member of the Bonds & Parole Providers LLC.


Even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest boosters will cop to the fact that they think technology can solve social problems and that big decisions should be left to meritocracy, not democracy. More subtly, it really does seem we are much more comfortable talking about new inventions more than new governmental structures. We’ve seen self driving cars and pocketable computers go from science fiction to everyday annoyance within less than a decade and yet when was the last time you heard of a revolutionary new democratic decision-making tool? The Shakers of 19th century New England operated on consensus so General Assemblies don’t count.

So-prevalent-they-are-invisible suppositions are rarely young and this one can be traced back to Plato who famously called for philosopher kings. The more modern vision of the technocratic ideal starts to reveal itself during the French revolution. It’s also easy to put the Republican primary in this tradition, where political acumen is less favorable than business experience. Here is Langdon Winner, in his 1977 book Autonomous Technology talking about the origins of technocratic western thought:

In many instances utopian and historical speculations have been combined. The demise of a political system is seen as an opportunity for the building of a technological society ruled by a technically competetnt aristocracy. This was the outlook of Henri Comte de Saint-Simon at a time when the ancien regime was being dismantled and a new system constsructed in its place. Saint Simon’s criticism of the French Revoltuion was that its efforts were overly poltical and did not take into account the realities of the new mode of social organization taking shape at the same time. “The men who brought about the Revoltuion,” he observed, “the men who directed it, and the men who, since 1789 and up to the present day, have guided the nation, have committed a great political mistake. They have all sought to improve the governmental machine, wehreas the y should have subordinated it and put administration in the first place.” True progress was located in the development of the new instruments of technology and techniques of governmental administration. This required, Saint-Simon argued, a system of expert management by industrialists, scientists, and technicians.
The precise form of the proposed government was one that now seems very traditional indeed. Saint-Simon placed the members of his technical elite in a parliment with three houses: the Chamber of Inventions, The Chambers of Review, and Chamber of Deputies. The Chamboer of Inventions, composed of two hundred engineers and a scattering of poets, painters, architects, and musicians, would decide the basic plan for all of France. The Chamber of Review, made up of mathematicians and pure scientists, would judge programs devised by the Chamber of Inventions and serve as a control over its policies. Completing the arrangement of checks and balances, the Chamber of Deputies, composed of practicing industrialists, would serve as an executive body to implent the plan. Notably absent from Saint-Simon’s scheme is any trace of equality or electoral democracy. The members of the parliment were to be chosen according to professional competence alone and not elected by the populace at large. The ascendance of scientific and industrial classes could take place only at the expense of a total neutralization of the political role of the majority of men and women, benighted souls, who did not possess higher knowledge and skill. “A scientist, my friends, is a man who predicts,” Saint-Simon announces. “It is because science has the means of prediction that it is useful, and makes scientists superior to all other men.”
Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control As A Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


In the past few years, a subgenre of curiously self-referential feature stories and opinion pieces has begun to appear in many prominent magazines and newspapers. The articles belonging to this subgenre all respond to the same phenomenon – the emergence of natural language generation (NLG) software that has been composing news articles, quarterly earnings reports, and sports play-by-plays – but what they really have in common is a question on the part of the writer: “Am I doing anything that an algorithm couldn’t be doing just as well?” In some instances, titles like “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?” and “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?” place the author’s uniqueness in question from the outset; sometimes the authors of these pieces also force their readers to wonder whether the text they are reading was written by human or machine. In a New York Times Sunday Review essay from last year, for instance, Shelley Podolny subjects her readers to a mini-Turing Test, presenting two descriptions of a sporting event, one written by a software program and one written by a human, and asking us to guess which is which. (On the Times website, readers can complete an interactive quiz in which they deduce whether a series of passages were composed by automated or human authors.)

The two major companies involved in the development of algorithmic writing, Automated Insights and Narrative Science, have been around since 2007 and 2010, respectively. Narrative Science’s flagship software product is called Quill, while Automated Insights’s is called Wordsmith: quaint, artisanal names for software that seems to complete the long process that has severed the act of writing from the human hand over the past century and a half. The two companies initially developed their programs to convert sports statistics into narrative texts, but quickly began offering similar services to companies and later started expanding into data-driven areas of journalism. Such data-based reporting is what NLG software does well: it translates numerical representations of information into language-based representations of the same information. And while NLG programs have existed for several decades, they were mostly limited to producing terse reports on a limited range of subjects, like weather events and seismic activity. According to Larry Birnbaum, one of Quill’s architects, “Computers have known how to write in English for years. The reason they haven’t done so in the past is they had nothing to say, lacking access to a sufficient volume of information.”

As Birnbaum explains it, the new natural language generation software has been made possible – or rather, necessary – by the advent of Big Data. The prior limitations on the topics software programs could write about are disappearing, as all realms of human activity become subject to data processing. Joe Fassler notes in The Atlantic that “the underlying logic that drives [algorithmic writing] – scan a data set, detect significance, and tell a story based on facts – is powerful and vastly applicable. Wherever there is data . . . software can generate a prose analysis that’s robust, reliable, and readable.” Hence, automated journalism will continue to expand into less obviously data-driven realms of reporting as new sources of data become available for processing. Meanwhile, the Associated Press and Forbes, to name a few, are already publishing thousands of software-written articles.

Business and technology reporters were the first to cover the new startups shortly after their appearance, and technology critics soon followed up with articles attempting to gauge the implications of robo-writing. Self-appointed scourge of Silicon Valley Evgeny Morozov was onto the story back in 2012 with a Slate essay entitled “A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!”; Google-booster Steven Levy published an enthusiastic profile of Narrative Science at Wired a few weeks later. It did not take long for journalists to start publishing their anxious reflections on yet another trend destined to deprive them of their jobs. And unlike, say, the decline of advertising revenue, this is not a contingent threat but one that strikes at the core of what writers do, converting their hard-acquired skills into instant formulas. Nevertheless, most published responses to algorithmic text generation, whether critical, anxious, or enthusiastic, present writing as only one technological activity among many for which the direct intervention of a human operator seems to be becoming obsolete. Once this assumption is granted, the discussion becomes subsumed into existing debates about automation: can computers do everything humans can do, or are there limits? Who will lose their jobs? What adverse social consequences might result? By most accounts, then, the automation of writing differs from the automation of aviation or medical diagnosis in the details, but not in its essence.

Yet historically and culturally, writing is not one human activity among many, but one with a uniquely ambivalent place in the history of ideas about technology. Podolny, writing in the New York Times, relies upon the longstanding view of writing as a uniquely human capacity when she asserts that the new algorithmic writing forces us ask: “What does ‘human’ even mean?” But she does not acknowledge that writing has long had the paradoxical status of being regarded both as a manifestation of inalienable human attributes, and as a technological prosthesis radically alien to, and separable from, the human person.

This paradoxical status has occasioned a series of famous intellectual scandals, of which Plato’s critique of writing in the dialogue Phaedrus is the locus classicus. For Podolny, computerized writing forces us to reconsider the definition of the human; for Plato, it was writing itself that threatened to undermine the human subject of knowledge by outsourcing its most fundamental attribute – what he describes as “the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows” – to an uncanny simulacrum that “you’d think was speaking” yet remains “solemnly silent.” Fassler, writing in the Atlantic, finds the “eerily humanlike cadence” of Narrative Science’s products unsettling; Plato noted a similar eeriness in the way in which written texts mimic the flow of live human speech, yet stand at a disembodied remove from their origin. French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s project of “grammatology” traced the continuation of Plato’s polemic against the subversive power of writing throughout Western philosophy and literature. Western metaphysics, Derrida claims, has been constitutively phonocentric, locating truth and authenticity in the voice and regarding the written word as a degraded, mindless simulacrum of speech. While one hears echoes of Plato in recent articles that describe the “humanlike” qualities of algorithmically generated texts as “eerie” or “creepy,” what is lost is a sense that writing was already, for millennia, a distressing site of the technological uncanny.

Precisely because of writing’s status as a decentering, destabilizing supplement to human subjectivity, the post-structuralist thinkers of the heroic age of literary theory took the declaration of the autonomy of writing as the starting point for a dismantling of the modern bourgeois myth of Man. Hence we find Roland Barthes, in his polemical essay “The Death of the Author,” affirming precisely what Plato feared: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where the subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” He goes on: “to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality . . . to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me’.” For Barthes and his successors, writing already forces the radical questioning of human essence that recent observers have linked to the impact of algorithmic text generation.

Yet as media theorist Friedrich Kittler has argued, technological shifts in the practice of writing helped make the theoretical revolution declared by Barthes more plausible. In Kittler’s account, the early modern Europe dominated by alphabetic literacy – what Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy – accorded to the handwritten word much of the metaphysical prestige reserved by Plato for the voice. For centuries, handwritten script was the visible trace of the soul, its “energetic and ideally uninterrupted flow” validating the presence and wholeness of a self: “the alphabetized individual had his ‘appearance and externality’ in this continuous flow of ink or letters.” For Kittler, the self-confident individual, who emerged out of the Enlightenment endowed with a rich sense of “interiority” (Innerlichkeit), found substantiation in script, which accorded to the ineffable self a material being communicable to the outer world by means of the hand.

The crisis of this well-defined individual, Kittler claims, emerged in tandem with the first technology that inserted a complex mechanism between the human producer of text and its product: the typewriter. Unlike the printing press, which only intervened in the distribution of already composed texts, the typewriter situated itself at a text’s point of production. As Kittler writes, “[i]n standardized texts, paper and body, writing and soul fall apart. Typewriters do not store individuals; their letters do not communicate a beyond . . . Standardized letters were no longer to transmit . . . inner forms, but rather a new and elegant tautology of technicians.” For Kittler, then, the typewriter’s mechanization of literary production, which “undermines Man’s delusion of possessing a ‘quality’ like ‘consciousness’” is a prerequisite for anti-humanist celebrations of writing, like that of Barthes, and also for the modern avant-garde project of “automatic writing,” which was supposed to release literature from the bourgeois expectations of sense and meaning. Kittler derives his argument in part from Martin Heidegger (a key influence on post-structuralism), who asserted that the typewriter had “transform[ed] . . . the relation of Being to man.” As Heidegger explains this transformation: “[t]he typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man’s experiencing this withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.”

If the written word could be separated from the human hand, it could also be dissociated from the human mind – thus revealing, perhaps, that it always was so, much as Plato suspected. In this sense, for blogger Sam Kriss, the recent triumph of machine language completes the avant-garde and post-structuralist agendas. Kriss writes: “Machine language inhabits a pure textuality, in which the sense-making function of language, if it appears at all, is subservient to its general function as data, as text . . . Value comes from penetrative reach, not any kind of hermeneutic potentiality.” Yet at the same time, machine language renders the avant-garde obsolete by confirming that writing was always already automatic writing: “machine language is essential . . . It’s not a deviation or a disfigurement, it is language itself, in its most elemental form. Its decoding and imitation is a stripping away. The association of machine language with actual machines is purely contingent; it just so happened that computers and computer networks are what we invented to make the central truth of language reveal itself. As Gertrude Stein showed, it can be done without them.” The mechanistic fulfillment of Plato’s prophecy reveals that what Plato called the “living, breathing discourse of the man who knows” was always illusory. For Kriss, therefore, machine language is a restoration of the long sought-after Ursprache, the “language of God”: as he wryly declares, “celestial speech, the original language in the Garden of Eden, where words correspond to things exactly under the holy semiotic of the Lord, was composed of free screensavers, sales patter for impotence pills, and dubious offers from Nigerian princes.”

Kriss’s parodic theology of writing echoes the theological terms of the polemic on writing that began with Plato. For Barthes, as for Derrida and for the surrealists who pioneered automatic writing as an avant-garde practice, the death of the author was closely linked to the Nietzschean “death of God”: the liberation of writing from the conscious human subject was also, as Barthes proclaimed, a liberation from the understanding of the text as “a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God).” It is surprising, then, that while algorithmic writing seems to demote what Kriss calls the “sense-making function of language” to a vanishingly insignificant role, NLG software’s creators and promoters account for its impact in terms that suggest the exact opposite. Here, for example, is Narrative Science’s description of Quill: “Every data-set, every database, every spreadsheet has a story to tell . . . Our advanced NLG platform, Quill, analyzes data from disparate sources, understands what is important to the end user and then automatically generates perfectly written narratives to convey meaning from the data for any audience, at unlimited scale.” It goes on: “There is a clear and immediate opportunity to bridge the gap between data and the people who need to understand it. That bridge is the power of a story. A story explains data, making it more understandable, meaningful and actionable.” Automated Insights’s slogan is in the same spirit: “Let your data tell its story.” “A line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning” would appear to be precisely the product on offer.

We must keep in mind, however, that the possible implications of available technologies of writing are one thing, while the dominant ideological construction of those technologies is another. For Plato, handwritten script threatened to undermine the self-contained autonomy of human consciousness, yet within the ideological framework of the Gutenberg Galaxy, as Kittler reveals, handwritten script was an essential attribute of human consciousness. The same technology that once seemed to threaten human essence ultimately came to ratify it; what Derrida called “logocentrism” can equally repudiate writing or fetishize it. It is therefore not inconsistent with Kriss’s conclusions that the developers of NLG software explain its significance in terms that suggest not the final eclipse of the “Author-God,” but the emergence of a new theology of writing and a new ideology of authorship, the creation of mechanisms to fix and constrain meaning, and the reinforcement of the reader’s passive status as receiver of that meaning. Such paradoxes, as this brief account has suggested, haunt the history of ideas about writing from the outset.

Algorithmic writing, then, is not only writing untethered from the Author-God of old, but also writing in the service of the alleged neutrality and omniscience of Big Data. In this sense it does indeed, to borrow Kittler’s phrase, “communicate a beyond.” This “beyond” is not the ineffable interiority of the “Author-God,” but what Will Davies has called the “Data Sublime”: expanding realm of digital information that produces awe and exceeds human comprehension through its sheer vastness and the forbidding opacity of its zeros and ones. Algorithmically generated text is the handwriting of this new God and a locus of His revealed Word. Its architects are not Kabbalistic theologians, but positivistic Protestant ones: for them, language is, or should be, a pellucid medium of unambiguous, univalent facts, optimized and customized for the “end user’s’’ maximally efficient access. Claude Lévi-Strauss, another key figure in the intellectual history of the scandal of writing, asserted that the emergence and spread of alphabetic writing “seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment.” The real question raised by algorithmic writing is not, as some observers have claimed, what “the human” now means, but what new God or gods we are being asked to serve.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.    


“Aren’t you glad you’re not there right now?” This is, if personal experience is any indication, the state-mandated response Floridians must give to anyone that claims to be visiting from anything north of the state line. It doesn’t matter the context —a bartender on Hollywood beach, an emergency room physician in North Miami— they are all very happy that you found your way to Florida this winter. The phrase has a wide range of registers though, that go from outright smugness to a thinly veiled request to validate one’s decision to settle down in 2,300 square feet of something called Flamingo Palisades. “Please,” they seem to say, “tell me this is as good as it gets.”

I grew up just north of Miami and even though I have little desire to live on whatever is left of it after the seas rise to their predicted heights, I value the perspective it has given me. Florida sensitizes you to the effort humans put in to turning spaces into places. Florida’s economy is based on the constant re-invention of its own brand, always changing for different demographics and markets. Florida’s cities are the sociocultural equivalents of GMO corn: equal parts science and marketing, growing out of an artificial substrate of designer chemicals and excrement. They are bland and immensely profitable by design. They don’t conform to existing economies of scale, they make their own.

The Sunbelt, that stretch of Post World War II development that became desirable for modern, full-time habitation only after the advent of the air conditioner, isn’t so much a geographic feature as it is an historic anomaly. It is undergirded by cheap fossil fuels, leisure time, a guaranteed (for some) retirement age, and modern architecture. The winters are warm and prices for goods are generally kept at a libertarian low but the car-based transportation system doesn’t really let most people enjoy either of these qualities. Most of your time is spent burning expensive gas in an air-conditioned Hyundai on a gridlocked highway.

Living in one’s car, albeit among a very different set of conditions, was the focus of a recent essay in Fusion by Malcolm Harris. In exploring his titular question “Where Should a Good Millennial Live?,” he reveals that some of the more trendy alternative housing options pitched to younger generations are substantial reductions in the quality of life: houses not much bigger than a box truck or actually living in a box truck in the parking lot of your employer, are being marketed to young adults as the American Dream of the 21st Century. In addition to living in tiny houses and cars, Millennials are also being encouraged to rehab the leftovers of the post-industrial economy. If you’re not willing to live in something impossibly small, you can always own lots of property laced with lead and asbestos.

Unlike tiny houses or a truck in the parking lot however, the Rustbelt may hold some liberatory potential. Before we get to that though, I would like to sort out all of the promises and fanfare that has surrounded Rustbelt living and describe why the most publicized reasons for moving to the Rustbelt are not what makes it so interesting.

If the Sunbelt represents the promise of a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of dedication to corporate life, then the Rustbelt –the region that has suffered a half-century of depression since the fallout of American industry—represents the recent erasure of work/play divide that previous generations had enjoyed. Instead of buying into the scientifically pre-manufactured paradise of the Sunbelt, The Rustbelt offers an experience akin to Burning Man: the place is kind of boring if no one participates in the construction of shared community spaces. Work is a prerequisite for play. One must take on enormous risk and debt to make a burned-out building a home or chic bar and only after all of that work can anyone begin to play. The “Rustbelt Chic” boosters cast this dynamic as the latest incarnation of the American dream. It’s a place where authenticity is as plentiful as the brick and anyone with the right coffee house theme can plant a solid, tattooed foothold in the middle class. The latest generation’s middle class will be rusty or it will be bullshit.

The Rustbelt and the Sunbelt are not so much opposites as matching ventricles in a continental cultural pulmonary system. One exists as a foil of the other, but their differences are only skin deep. The two belts are counter-posed in a way that completely ignores the actual movement of people and their money. One is not winning out over the other, there is no mass exodus and under present conditions one is not significantly more “sustainable” to live in than the other.

It is almost like the story is too good to fact-check. I would like to dispense, right up front, with the idea that, all else being equal, storing your stuff and your body in Pittsburgh or Schenectady is fundamentally and empirically better than keeping it all in San Diego or Orlando. Writers like Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler have made their living articulating the metrics and intangible benefits of eschewing the Sunbelt’s suburban sprawl and learning from the Rustbelt’s exemplary walkable downtowns. Those that are concerned about the environmental impacts of suburban sprawl see a move back to the Rustbelt as a good thing. Higher densities mean more people living in walkable neighborhoods, that are much more compatible with mass transit. While it is widely recognized that urban density is one of the best ways to reduce per capita carbon, making people live closer to one-another under global capitalism just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. No amount of trolley cars or wide sidewalks will make capitalism compatible with the Earth’s biome. All of the gains also remain theoretical, as cash-strapped municipalities are incapable of building public transit worth choosing to ride and private companies are too distracted by self-driving cars and rocket ships.

But even if Rustbelt living were as green as the boosters say it is, it wouldn’t really matter since Florida is about to overtake New York as the third most-populated state (thanks to retiring baby boomers) and Rustbelt cities, as a whole, are still shrinking according to 2011 census bureau numbers compiled by the Wall Street Journal. Even if you look at people aged 20-35 who moved to and from larger Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, there are marginally more Millennials leaving than arriving. So where is the idea of a Rustbelt Renaissance coming from and whom does it affect? Who benefits? Who loses?

Part of the answer comes from the renaissance’s inverse relationship to Ruin Porn; a genre of photography that portrays abandoned buildings and interiors as modern ruins. The photos are intriguing to look at because, as Sarah Wanenchak observes,

…the construction of the unruined past becomes the imagining of the ruined future. Ruins serve as a kind of spatial memento mori for people embedded in a culture marked by production and consumption (and prosumption) of the new and by the invisibility of the discarded: They are gentle reminders of our own transience.

To arrest or even rebuild the ruined is a deep commitment to abating the contradictions of capitalism. It can reaffirm the idea that the market is self-correcting: That if entire cities have been laid waste by one form of production, it is only a matter of time before that very tragedy can produce its own kind of value. Or, as John Patrick Leary writes in Guernica,

Detroit [as a city in and of itself, as well as a metonym for the rest of the Rustbelt] figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the one-hundred-dollar house and community garden of their dreams.

Perhaps then, much of the Rustbelt Renaissance can be written off as feel-good consumerism. Opening up a coffee shop in the San Francisco or Austin is just a business. Opening it up in Cleveland is a righteous calling or, at the very least, you’re making sure these beautiful Queen Annes don’t go to waste.

Rustbelt cities’ own municipal governments are more than happy to help bohemians exchange their liberal guilt and student loans for a business owner’s pragmatic realism and delicious, delicious property taxes. Planning departments realize that the key to a bustling downtown is harnessing the gentrification power of the college-educated Millennial precariat. The biggest problem since the Great Recession however, is that the traditional first wave gentrifiers (e.g. artists and students) can barely afford to do the dirty work anymore. A $20,000 brownstone is no longer a blank canvas for 20-something young couples. Student loan debt, uncertain job prospects, and well-earned skepticism of homeownership in general has forced local municipalities to get creative in their efforts to use the young to clear out the forgotten. Niagara Falls, New York for example is now offering to pay off student loans if young creative types will rent or buy homes in their “revitalized” downtown. Business improvement districts and residential revitalization zones in thousands of small and midsize pre-World War II towns are also looking to parlay student loans into business loans and mortgages. An organization in Detroit is teaching carpentry and construction skills to “at risk” youth but it is not their parents that get to live in those homes a la Habitat For Humanity. Instead, they are given away to writers.

Dayton, St. Louis, and Pittsburg are opting to do something decidedly un-American in this day and age—advertising themselves and even offering grants and loans to immigrants who move into abandoned city centers. It’s an incredibly sardonic twist on the American dream: untouched land and major cities are for rich people so we’ll give you this rotted-out husk of a downtown to make-do with.

City governments are relying on the young and freshly immigrated to not only rebuild the physical infrastructure necessary for capitalist production, but to package up whatever bits of local culture they can find and sell it on the market. Despite developers’ and city governments’ rhetoric of discovery and frontiersmanship, these cities are not empty. Indeed, the wilderness metaphors might be too apt, given the aforementioned government programs that will probably displace people of color by giving land to whites. Those who have stayed in these towns and cities have been stewarding a local culture that is ripe for the picking. The culture of a place is one of the few things left in late capitalism that can still be monopolized by wealthy capitalists and subsequently rented out to people who want that Sunbelt-style branded living arrangement. David Harvey, in his latest book Rebel Cities describes the process:

“…monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive and local initiatives— indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production.

The truly innovative and unique atmospheres expertly curated by transplanted artists or carefully maintained and riffed on by third generation natives are more valuable than gold. The contradiction of valuing uniqueness so that it may be turned into a globally accessible commodity is at the heart of the Rustbelt Renaissance. The very idea that there is some single entity called “The Rustbelt” belies an underlying desire to market a kind of aesthetic. That aesthetic might not be uniform the way cul-de-sacs in Tucson look exactly like cul-de-sacs in Pompano Beach, but it is definitely “a thing.” A new sort of civic engagement made of equal parts burner radical self-reliance and color-blind gentrification are what’s going to make Niagara Falls cool again. Or, at least that’s what the city governments are counting on.

The Rustbelt’s future —using the urban precariat to produce monopoly rent by instituting and funding permanent burner encampments— cannot possibly be more economically or environmentally sustainable than building brand new subdivisions on drained swamp. At best it is a marginally more sustainable arrangement of the same old consumerism. As Leary puts it, “If Detroit is really so full of possibilities, why do so many of the possibilities so closely resemble a cut-rate version of what western Brooklyn already looks like?” The Rustbelt does have possibilities —perhaps more than most regions of North America for reasons I will outline shortly— but those potentialities do not rely solely in brownstones or buffalo wings. The promise of the Rustbelt comes from the scale of its existing physical plant and the lack of trust in municipal government.

Anarchists have long been interested in the material requisites for social justice. Or, phrased as a question: What material conditions make a vastly better world possible? Some of the earliest city planners like Ebenezer Howard, considered themselves anarchists and saw what they were doing as inventing built environments that could support equality. Howard realized that settlements of about 30,000 were the perfect size to efficiently produce food from a hinterland and distribute it to industrial communities. Given that most of the Rustbelt was built before refrigeration, they are still the best positioned to establish local food production at the scale of the city. While some of the more well-known cities are too large, most of the Rustbelt is comprised of towns of about the right size. Each town is also small enough that a group of no less than a dozen people could influence thousands.

Mid-sized towns are the perfect proving ground for a diversity of political tactics. David Graeber, in his 2009 ethnography of direct action communities, outlines the challenge facing most radicals:

A revolutionary strategy based on direct action can only succeed if the principles of direct action become institutionalized. Temporary bubbles of autonomy must gradually turn into permanent, free communities. However, in order to do so, those communities cannot exist in total isolation; neither can they have a purely confrontational relation with everyone around them. They have to have some way to engage with larger economic, social, or political systems that surround them.

Whereas in a big city a temporary bubble of autonomy —the bike shop, the squat— can hide in the anonymity of the masses, a politically minded collective in a medium-size city can be seen and heard by huge swaths of the community. Radical collectives are typically faced with the choice of adopting either total isolation or pure confrontation with the larger political apparatus but at these scales many more strategies are practical.

Rebuilding cities without gentrifying them generally means doing it outside of land markets to the extent possible. It means decoupling the real estate market from any increase in the livability of the neighborhood. Quite often, living one’s politics and being a good neighbor are at odds with one-another but in the case of the Rustbelt, they might be quite complimentary. Land banks, alternative currencies, and municipalized city services are all doable (and indeed have been done) in these towns.

Hannah Dobbz, writing about squatters across North America noticed something unique about Rustbelt squats. Even though vacant properties are abundant and therefore cheap, few squatters bother to get the official title to the property. “[Rustbelt squatters] seem more interested rehabbing their houses and riding them out as long as they will stay standing—since sometimes it is likely that their squats would collapse before they are evicted anyway.” These places are also uniquely off-grid, having their own water catchment and heating systems. While some squats will be left to fall apart, many are stabilized and improved.

Each mid-size city and town that comprises the Rustbelt is an opportunity to think deeply and radically about new modes of governance. The Brookings Institute reported in 2011 that over the course of the last decade concentrated poverty nearly doubled in the Midwest portions of the Rustbelt. As the situation gets more desperate, people are willing to try or support a wider range of governance structures. The authoritarian strains of American political culture have already discovered this and have been implementing stricter control mechanisms for years. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder is able to single-handedly suspend elected leaders in cities and towns and replace them with “emergency mangers” answerable only to him. As a result, over half of black Michiganders currently live under and unelected official. Flint has declared a state of emergency since their governor-appointed manager switched their water supply to saltier river water, resulting in corrosion of the city’s lead-soldiered pipes, which then leached into the water supply.

If government has given up on maintaining even the faintest semblance of democracy (representative or otherwise) it is the perfect time to establish radical alternatives. Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociologist of social movements at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview with Joshua Stephens noted that the Arab Spring was able to spread so quickly because of “an increased disjuncture between society and state.” Mutual aid networks that developed over forty years provided for the daily needs of the lower and middle classes. This exists partially in the American Rustbelt but there needs to be more.

Movements need a home turf. They need a place that is both a literal retreat away from their adversaries and an actually existing example of their politics at work. The Rustbelt provides a confluence of ideal conditions that, given enough attention, could provide a safe place for building a post-capitalist movement. The crucial ingredient is solidarity with those that have lived in these towns during the lean years and building new institutions for distributing the successes. This is possible, probably more so than anywhere else on the continent, because of the scale and current political climate. If done right we could build a movement that is adaptable enough to grow roots in Youngstown but still thrive in the artificial substrate of the Sunbelt.

David is on twitter.