technology and social goods

In general I’m a skeptical techno-utopianist. It was a phase I and a lot of other folks went through during the Clinton Boom, but I think most techies are over it now. In general there’s been a fascinating shift from a general libertarian-bordering-on-anarchist gestalt to a center-left or very left approach. I still haven’t seen any quantitative data on this, but watching the changes in the tenor of conversations on slashdot and other techie sites over the past few years illustrates it clearly.
Techies understand first-hand the need for society to invest in itself. Most of what we do every day simply wouldn’t exist without that investment. They’re still powerfully libertarian on social issues; they find the bizarre sexual- and bodily- control impulses (from the drug war to gay marriage to abortion) of the right utterly repulsive. They’re pro-small business and largely in favor of public spending on everything from public transit to open source software.
I no longer personally believe that working in the technology industry alone is a sufficient positive contribution to society. I strongly believe that everyone in a democracy ought to be involved in the broader aspects of our society. No exceptions. But I do still believe in technology as a force for moving society forward at least occasionally.
The recent wide adoption of earth browsers seems to be a breakthrough for just that. Wednesday’s story from the Chronicle is a good start:

But for environmentalists, Google Earth has turned out to be much more than another gee-whiz software development. Instead, it’s starting to look like a killer app that could change the power balance between grassroots environmentalists and their adversaries.

There’s a little techno-utopianism here, for sure. But if you’ve got a new-ish computer and haven’t seen them, try both the outstanding Rachel Moore logging visualization and the Sierra Club ANWR one. Visualizations have a way of drawing people in and creating experiences, and as such they have a way of going beyond just the presentation of information. There’s even a new partnership forming to examine exactly these issues.
The Chron article touches a bit on the use of this technology for planning. One of the numerous problems with what the Governor proposed this weeks is that building lots of roads generates exactly the wrong kind of growth. The kind of pavement based growth is exactly the kind of growth that many Californians spend enormous quantities of energy fighting in their local communities. Of the more than $200 billion he proposed, not a dime was for urban transit systems.
The positive alternative is smart growth and community-based planning. This is the new California Dream. We want to live in walkable, safe, efficient, participatory and transit-served communities. Visualizations like the kind that Google Earth provides can play a role in creating these communities. But we need forward-looking political leadership to get there, too.
I’ve put some further ruminations on this convergence of the research field I’ve worked in for most of my career and the political system in the extended entry. Click for more…

My research focus has always been on visualization, and to my ongoing amazement, I’ve been able to swerve back and forth between academia and private companies and maintain that focus in all but one of the six jobs I’ve had since leaving school. But my interest in it goes back a lot farther than that: when I was seven or eight I started out programming with “turtle graphics” in LOGO. I was very much a product of the Seymour Papert school of getting kids into technology.
Slightly later, while using the 300 baud modem to connect to some of the dozens of local BBSes in the Washington DC area, I remember clearly dreaming that someday all those BBSes would be connected together via faster communications links. I was dreaming about the internet while it was being built.
Despite the unbelievable opportunities I had at a technology focused high school and later at David Taylor Research Center, I lost the visualization trail a bit in high school and got a bit more interested in hardware, with one exception: I remember playing with the first 3D features of AutoCAD. That experience, in turn, led the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at Virginia to hire me for an urban visualzation project that a landscape architect there was working on.
My focus since then, starting in around 1996, has been on spatial hypermedia. I’m mostly interested in visualizing relationships – if you’ve seen the names and spokes tool that Alice runs on her laptop in The L-Word, you know what I’m talking about. (I couldn’t find a good screen shot of it, but you can see it in the background of this wallpaper). I’m drawn to this because it seems like there is – in some very broad sense – a political aspect to it. It’s the visual representation of this line of John Muir‘s: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This principle of interdependence is one of the core foundations of progressivism.
This point of this bread-crumb trail through my career is that there’s a sort of convergence coming together. This is the first time I’ve had occasion to write about technology qua technology on any of the political sites I favor, let alone because of the wide adoption of a visualization system. It’s exciting to see this.