Reimagining cities from the internet up
Daniel L. Doctoroff
40528

Thanks, Daniel, for a comprehensive restatement of the currently popular tropes regarding urban and regional policy and development. In keeping with our times, technology is their central prop, with the actors remaining unidentified, hidden away in City Hall or the County Building, behind the FCC’s porticos, or in a civic-tech highrise in NYC or an eco-palace in Silicon Valley.

We need to hear more championing for a public, civic-society role from Sidewalk and similar benevolent institutions (like the Benton Foundation). Not only professional elites and the usual business and academic interests, but also the communities, “the grassroots,” the people who live in cities and regions and who give them life, must become involved in policymaking that affects the very way they and we perceive our world, our places in it, and how we can improve ourselves and where we live, work, learn, and play.

This need could not be more urgent than it is at this precise moment, as in America (as elsewhere) forces hostile to urban values and their inhabitants occupy high seats of power, with all the apparatus of the modern state necessary to put the screws to cities and the people who live in them. The assault in fact has already begun. No technology known will stop them. Only people can do that.

I’ve been in this business for awhile. In 1977, while a TV major at UCLA and a member of the nonprofit L.A. Public Access Project, whose mission was incorporating citizens into the operation of the local cable TV operation, in my prescient but little read Municipal Control of Cable Communications (Praeger), I argued for public ownership of cable systems. I subsequently helped organize and was then appointed to Los Angeles’ Citizens Advisory Board on Cable Television. It also called for democratizing the City’s jigsaw pattern of cable-TV startups, but failed because the City had not gotten the public’s interest (I fear deliberately, in response to lobbying from AT&T).

After a Fulbright year abroad teaching info-policy forensics in Denmark and studying the value of then-new cellular telephony to transborder, collaborative communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle, I was recruited as the California Legislatures’s first policy advisor on forthcoming information technology, telecom, and development issues. That work culminated in our state’s policy to legislatively undergird Silicon Valley’s development. My colleagues and I then worked to coalesce the nascent e-commerce industry in the Bay Area and anchored it there. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams (requiring many adjustments to the region, still being tweaked).

We also passed California’s Moore Universal Telephone Service Act (named for Gwen Moore, the L.A. assembly member and my boss, who championed the law). Our coalition, with statewide grassroots involvement, defied the Reagan Administration and the national telco’s to get the law enacted). For nearly 35 years it’s ensured equitable access to economic telecom services (now including cellular and broadband) for all Californians, for small businesses as well as large, and for rural dwellers as well as urbanites. Funds are set aside each year for upgrades to libraries and schools telecom systems and to support formal public participation in state telecom policymaking.

None of these things would have happened without an informed and active grassroots, which we cultivated assiduously, statewide as well as locally, via the press and the nation’s first legislative BBS system — often in the face of out-of-state opposition and even subversion. (The antagonistic Reagan Administration didn’t always play fair and square. Thank goodness for the US Constitution, the even more protective California Constitution, and the courts.)

Real change is more about changing people than swapping technological fixes. It’d be great to read about how average folk, smartened up and made aware, are becoming involved with policy at the intersection of urbanism, community, and technology in ways less paternal and more participatory.

My current work toward this end is discussed in my Medium article, “The Import of Open in the Civil and Civic Spheres: An Open-Ended Question,” published a year ago as part of a series on openness edited by my colleagues at Malmö University’s MEDEA Program, https://medium.com/the-politics-practices-and-poetics-of-openness/the-import-of-open-in-the-civil-and-civic-spheres-an-open-ended-question-a7b1782e5f18#.xcoxfracw . Others now are marching in this parade; it’s our collective hope that many more will follow.