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Interview: ‘Learning to Code’ in the Nation’s Capital

Professor Daniel Greene on how access to technology came to be seen as the antidote to poverty

MLK Library in downtown Washington, DC. “Wings of Desire,” Flickr | Miki Jourdan

How did schools and libraries come to claim that technology could solve poverty? Why did this belief seem so forceful in the early 2010s? What do we mean when we say kids should have access to technology? Why do we all, in the back of our minds, wonder if what’s really holding us back from that promotion is that we haven’t learned to code, and how did learn to code become code for, well, all of this?

Learn to code is a symptom of what Daniel Greene names the “access doctrine.” Greene, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, published The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, in April 2021. The book is built on fieldwork conducted in Washington, DC libraries, schools, and startups during Obama’s second term. As an institutional ethnographer — what he lightly calls a “practice of deep hanging out” — Greene followed teachers and administrators at a charter school through the course of a school year, library patrons and workers at MLK Library, and employees at the startup InCrowd.

Greene, who was born in DC, calls the book a “love letter” to the city, while also lamenting his findings — what one reviewer named a “slow-motion tragedy.”

That tragedy is the city’s failure to meet the needs of poorer residents, while putting the interests of a new generation of gentrifiers first. Inequality’s not exactly a new issue, but Greene traces its reinscription on our social and physical cityscape through a particularly 21st-century pathway: The uptake of tech — its hardware but also its software, its cultural forms — by public institutions carved up by austerity and desperate to retain relevancy.

DC’s schools and libraries were both significantly reorganized over the first two decades of the new millennium. The story of how the charter movement took over DCPS was well remarked-upon at the time, but we’re now inured to just how dramatic the change was. Libraries, too, were remade — or perhaps more accurately broken down before they built themselves up again — during mid-00s cutbacks that were a reverberation of the infamous DC Control Board. In the wake of these privations, schools and libraries both announced their modernity with a pivot to providing access to technology, in the form of 3-d printers, computers, and yes, coding classes.

Part of the particular trouble with this turn is that we all know that you cannot just walk off the street, into a free coding class, and come out on the other side as a member of the middle class. No one really believes that everything would be fixed if we just “learned to code.” Yet this is such common sense that few people think to challenge it. (There is something of the absurd New Democrat logic of giving people “access to healthcare,” instead of just healthcare, about the whole thing.) As Greene put it for Logic magazine:

Get online, learn to code, secure your future. Both liberal and conservative politicians have repeated that story for decades, updating it for the technology of the day, in an attempt to persuade the public that their individual and collective economic futures depend on their access to the right skills and tools. The narrative is so pervasive that it has become political common sense.

I call that political common sense the “access doctrine.” The access doctrine decrees that the problem of poverty can be solved through the provision of new technologies and technical skills, giving those left out of the information economy the chance to catch up and compete.

Far from treating the library, school and startup as totally separate field sites, Greene’s interest is how the three interact. At this time in the early 2010s, startups like InCrowd were rounding out the city’s first few WeWorks (anyone else rave in the old Wonder Bread building?) on funding from 1776. The influx of mostly-white workers in tech and other high-income sectors led to the adage about “1,000 new Washingtonians a month” and the end of Chocolate City, DC as a majority-Black city. Part of how DC attracted these businesses was through a rigorous regimen of fiscal austerity to overcome the deficits of the ‘90s — which meant cuts to civil services like schools and libraries. To regain credibility, these institutions in turn had to appeal to notions of entrepreneurship, modernity, flexibility and efficiency. This yields the turn towards charter schools but also towards libraries as platforms for the perfect neoliberal subject, the roving, “autodidactic entrepreneur,” as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it.

One of the more poignant visuals Greene relates is being in MLK Library for one of the many “Demo Days” organized by local techies pitching their ideas for the next billion-dollar unicorn. Just across the hall, the homeless patrons he’s gotten to know are still at their computer stalls, perhaps engaged in the improvisatory actions that are none the less entrepreneurial for having no pretensions to Silicon Valley — or perhaps just trying to get by. They are in the same place, but have little to say to one another.

Or so it would be easy to assume. Greene’s genius is in tying these stories together, insisting that even in a segregated city, the halves contend with one another, influence one another. Power, whether you prefer its Marxian or Foucaldian theorization, exists only in circulation.

While Greene is clear that we see versions of the access doctrine around the world, it’s clear that DC has a special place in this story. The access doctrine also has explanatory power in the story of how DC went from Barry to Bowser. As a site of internal colonialism, DC was particularly subject to the fiscal pressures by which high finance brought to heel aspirational Black politicians and their middle-class constituencies. The access doctrine is part of how politicians repackaged the city for a wave of white people moving to work in new, high-wage sectors like technology. (It’s a really great contribution to an overall understanding of how the New Democrats transformed the party, in the words of Lily Geismer, from emphasizing justice or fairness to promising only opportunity.)

I spoke with Greene about his fieldwork, how libraries and schools have fared through COVID, and his hopes for what can come next.

MLK Library at night. (Flickr | Thomas Hawk)

How did you get into this project?

The Promise of Access ended up being a book about why we think we need to solve poverty with technology and how that becomes part of the common sense of these institutions. But it started out as a more boring project about comparing different sides of the digital divide.

I came to these institutions with a plan but ended up telling a much bigger and deeper story than I expected.

I was a former social worker. I knew these places were important. When I started hanging out more in them, especially in the library, it became clear that this idea of a gulf between rich and poor, skilled and unskilled, was a story that these institutions had to tell in order to figure out what their job was in the 21st century.

The institutions that either prepare people for the labor market or take care of them when they’re out of it — those are the places that are trying to connect workers into this grander story of development, where you have a set of tools that slides from the rich to the poor, from white folks to Black folks, so that people who are on the other side of the divide can survive.

But through my research it becomes very clear that people aren’t living in two different worlds. It’s just one Washington, DC. It became very important to me to instead of telling a story of people living in two different worlds and trying to carry folks from one side to another, to say what is the relationship between these two groups over time? How are those relationships held together and stabilized by these really important places?

The goal there is to really do enough participant-observation to be hanging out and watching things but also to make you part of the community, that you get to understand what holds that community together. It’s going to the library every day, going to the school for an entire school year, interviewing 70 or 80 people but doing so in a way that focuses on the things that hold them together.

By calling this an institutional ethnography, what I’m trying to say is that the action for me is really about the library, the school and the startup as different parts of the local economy, and of local politics, rather than necessarily the people in them.

There’s just one Washington, DC and we’re all interrelated within it.

These institutions have different political and economic functions. But they all kind of feed off each other insofar as the startup has become the model for how cultural institutions are supposed to act these days.

I am told every day at the university to be more entrepreneurial. The way that often manifests is in these agile management practices that are, or lean management practices, that are very much prototyped at startups. The 24/7 work culture is a calling card of startups, where they really do work 20 hours a day.

Now we’re all on call 24/7 with Slack and so on.

Techies in DC would do their big demos at MLK Library because it was the only cheap space that could fit a couple hundred people. After a few years maybe, they started to have kids, moved up in management, got involved in politics, whether that’s ANCs, school boards, BIDs or whatever.

Meanwhile, kids that don’t have a computer at home go directly to the library. And librarians come to give instruction and training to people at different schools.

These places are connected.

The same people who do funding for schools like Gates Foundation do it for libraries, and as with schools they have certain expectations and restrictions for what comes with that money.

Startups, schools and libraries are connected by these circuits of people and resources and ideas and that makes it a much bigger story about how we think about this problem of poverty in the 21st century.

It would be easy to have an idea of the startup as an ideal type. Is it really just a one-way relationship or interaction? I notice you said circuit. What if any influences are going the other way?

The book is not about the federal city. I wanted to talk about DC without Congress as a city, just like we can talk about New York City without Wall Street.

But there were some important ways in the time I was studying that Obama’s Education Department, in particular, generated a lot of tech entrepreneurs. They left the department and went into startup land with this experience, and most importantly, with this rolodex of superintendents and such they can call about their charter, or their testing software or whatever.

That kind of stuff became extremely important. They end up acting as bridges between the sectors. At the climax of the book, I try to pay attention to these people and organizations that connect these different worlds. There’s a historically specific thing there about Obama’s ed department — but it’s also ongoing institutions like TFA and Broad Center, which tie the business world to the education world. The top three education officials in DC are all brood institute alums, and that’s not really unusual for a big city.

In some way DC was the leader in that charge. When Michelle Rhee was on the cover of TIME taking apart Washington, DC’s public schools, firing teachers and closing schools en masse, you start seeing these pushes for impact investing, running schools like businesses. Those experimental methods are exported to charter schools. Through people who sit on boards, it can also filter to other kinds of cultural organizations like libraries.

This had a devastating impact on the Black middle class in DC. Because we didn’t have a proper public university until the late seventies when UDC was founded, teaching masters were the biggest trained pathway to the middle class for Black DC, through Federal City College for example. So Rhee’s attack on teachers was correctly perceived as a direct assault on the Black middle class in DC, and that led to her direct downfall — though her second in command remained up there longer.

What is the relationship of austerity to the access doctrine?

The access doctrine does not become attractive to these institutions unless they feel under stress.

The whole argument I’m making is not that any of us is tricked or fooled into thinking learning to code will solve the unemployment crisis. Rather, that is a story that places like schools and libraries, as well as universities, social work and other institutions, must tell in order to relieve pressure on them. These pressures could be budgetary, but they can also relate to reduced legitimacy — who needs the library if you have Wikipedia?

It can also be stress from competing demands. When other welfare state institutions are closed, that’s what leads to the pressure of a teacher having to be to be counselor, cop, nutritionist, and social worker all at once.

And then they’re looking for models of success. Which means they’re looking for ideas about how to simplify.

It’s not just an ideology that springs forth but demands historiography. How did they come to turn to tech for that model of success?

For a million different reasons, the wheels fall off the bus in the 70s and cities in the United States that were previously distinct parts of the national value chain — this city makes that kind of stuff, this city makes this kind of stuff — they’re all put together into the national economy.

With the bankruptcy of NYC [in 1975], cities are pitted against one another for a limited pool of international capital investment. Cities are desperate for investment and their job become competing with one another for that investment. They clear people and spaces that would otherwise challenge that investment. David Harvey calls this entrepreneurial urbanism — they’re all competing to have the next headquarters or whatever — and in some ways tech is just the latest version of that.

This often manifests politically is in explicitly racist terms. After urban manufacturing and other urban jobs in general depart in 70s and 80s, whites flee to the suburbs, downtowns are emptied out, and we get racist tough on crime nonsense. Failing city fortunes then often leave white politicians in statehouses — or DC’s case, Congress — to remove democratic control from cities and take it to a higher level. This happened in Detroit and New York, where it wasn’t Albany but banks running things.

And we have the Control Board.

This happened in DC in the 90s in the same way other cities had their finances taken over.

One of the ways this manifested was in DC Public Libraries. DC libraries in 1975 had fewer libraries, maybe 20 to today’s 27. But it actually had far more employees.

So when the city was in the deepest part of its austerity crisis in the late 90s and early 00s, there was a serious structural deficit that manifested itself in the severe understaffing of city agencies like DCPS and DCPL. Beyond staffing, the most visible sign of this is what I open one chapter with: DCPL computers in 2004 went down for a month.

In the mind of legislators and Mayor Anthony Williams, this was the same kind of problem as too many homeless people in the libraries, not enough collections, not enough innovations. They needed to upgrade things to make them more attractive.

Investment mindset.

DC starts encouraging what we now call gentrification. In large part the book is about how the things we call gentrification and economic development — which are just words for “competing for different rich people to put their headquarters or home here” — that also requires a change in what we call social reproduction, in the places that don’t make stuff but people. We also need to change our schools, our libraries, stuff like that.

If we’re going to change the jobs in a city, we have to change the people in a city — in the time I was studying, DC went from majority Black to plurality Black. DC is no longer Chocolate City. So these structural deficits in city budgets, in city politics lead to changes in those institutions that are supposed to make these workers and produce citizens.

Understanding the access doctrine, it seems like there’s an offloading of social reproduction from public services, to like, you have access to this computer. Instead of school teaching you to code, you’re going to the library to learn to code.

It’s worse than that. Who would know best what employees need to do to succeed in their company? You would figure employers — management. That’s what they always say when we try to raise their taxes — “if you do this, we won’t be able to invest in our workforce.”

But as best we can tell, the time companies spend on training has gone through the floor in the last thirty years. We see that especially in the promotion cycle. The way to get a promotion these days is not to stay at a firm and get a steady promotion every couple years. The way to get a promotion is to leave.

The training burden was offloaded to schools, universities, and to a lesser extent libraries, institutions which are not suited for that job. You can’t adjust to every skill demand in the market at that speed as a school, university or library — they’re supposed to be around for centuries, not quarters.

The burden is now on individuals, who have to seek out these resources to prove they are an employable commodity, willing to start at any job tomorrow.

What has it been like watching the pandemic, with its devastating impacts on inequality? Schools and libraries have both been prominent, maybe to different ends.

It was a horrible couple of years, especially 2020, for homeless folks. The crisis has really revealed this core contradiction in these sites of social reproduction, which is that we absolutely must have them to continue functioning as a normal society. But on the other hand, they don’t make money and so they’re unprofitable dead weight. All kinds of fights come out of that contradiction.

Libraries have really stepped up. Because we do not have a functioning public health system in the U.S., a lot of that burden of education, distribution, straight shelter, has fallen on libraries. They have done an incredible job doing that. Whether or not that should be their job is a different question.

Schools show that conflict playing out a different way. The childcare function of school was removed and because of that, you see parents, especially middle-class people who work from home, get to see what the educational content is in school. They’ve never had to think about that before because they were only thinking of the childcare component. They saw that public space coming into the private space of the home and — encouraged by the astroturfing yahoos at the Heritage Foundation and wherever else — resisted, and effectively tried to put the private rule of the home onto the public space of the schools.

We can really think about someone like Youngkin, Abbott or DeSantis as trying to make every school a homeschool, as far as parents trying to privatize these public goods and put them in the rule of white Christian family. Eventually they would privatize them in the financial sense and eventually have not state-provided schools but these different competing portfolio offerings.

That can feel very far afield from the very centrist boosting of something like charter schools where DC really was an innovator — but it’s just two different wings of the same project. At the end of the day the charter school argument is that a) schools are competing, b) success is measured in test scores c) the most successful firms/schools will rise to the top and then d) we will then generalize that to the rest of the population.

That has never been what actually happened. We’ve just had a million different experiments that can be chosen from by the people with the necessary literacy, free time and finances. Navigating the school lottery to figure out where you want your kid to go is hard, and our system is relatively transparent compared to many cities.

The ground for someone like a Glenn Youngkin was laid by Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. They can’t make those moves otherwise. Parents aren’t activists in the same way unless you put them through that stuff.

What do you want to see going forward for these people, these institutions?

We should see these places as sites of struggle, because they belong to us. I’m hopeful we can join the charge led by teachers, especially in 2018, and take that seriously. We live in a very segregated country — in some ways residentially just as segregated as the fifties and sixties — and there are very few places where people can get together and talk about politics in public. Schools and libraries are exceptional treasures, where you can have cross-race, cross-generational contact, cross-class, contact in a way that simply isn’t possible anywhere else. And we really need to preserve that because people who are very different from one another, who have different needs, can in those places learn how their different struggles intersect and how they need each other and can support each other.

Learn more about Daniel Greene’s work. Order The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope from MIT Press.

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Connecting Washingtonians to their city, to their communities, and to one another.

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