In late March 2010, I was seven months into my field work in Mexico City, living on my own in a tiny studio apartment at the back of a garage (an apartment complex’s garage, not a working garage) in the south of the city. Now, Mexico City is the bee’s knees, and I loved my time there. I even have fond memories of that apartment and the people I met there (hi, Evi and Hugo!). But being away from home for that long can wear you down.
One evening I decided to see a solo piano show. I figured it might be a nice way to relieve some of that stress. I didn’t recognize the name of the artist because I didn’t really follow the jazz scene.
It turned out to be a great decision. The show itself was an intimate performance in the wonderful Lunario of the Mexico City National Auditorium (both are fantastic venues — I saw Massive Attack, Franz Ferdinand and the Pet Shop Boys in the Auditorio Nacional and Au Revoir Simone, Bomba Estereo, and I think Hello Seahorse! at the Lunario). It turned out be be exactly what I needed: an evening of mellow and calming tuneage.
But what really made it a memorable evening was when, during one song, I thought I heard a song I recognized, and which sounded a lot like Smells Like Teen Spirit. Because that’s what it was.
The incongruity of hearing a Nirvana song (and Massive Attack’s Teardrop!) at a piano recital buoyed my spirit for days afterwards. I still smile when thinking of my unexpected delight at hearing it. What a fantastic show.
It was only afterwards that I discovered that pop covers are kind of Brad Mehldau’s thing, in addition to being a fantastically talented jazz pianist. I’ve been a fan ever since.
I bring this up today because as of a few hours ago, he has a new album out. Suite: April 2020 is his reaction to the pandemic isolation everyone’s been dealing with. And damned if he didn’t pull the same trick on me again!
It’s been a pretty intense week of writing, revisions and meetings — minor stuff compared to the epic upheavals occurring everywhere, but still stuff that one needs to deal with. Solo piano was exactly what I needed.
Anyway, I gave it a listen, and it’s wonderful. As music does sometimes, it faded into the background. Until, while I was intensely focusing on just the right wording for a paragraph on data governance, I hear a familiar melody…
And it’s Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down. And immediately I’m back in the Lunario in Mexico City, same feeling of unexpected recognition, same wide smile on my face, the same lifting of tension I barely realized I was carrying.
If you like solo piano music, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m not saying that it will automatically make your life better, but I’m also not not saying that it won’t do that. It’s just great.
(You can hear Mehldau’s take on Smells Like Teen Spirit on his 2015 album 10 Years Solo Live, or listen below.)
Since we’re going through what seems to be a world-historic moment, I’m using this space to record my impressions about the current U.S., um, situation. We’ll see how well they’ll age.
If the United States makes it through the next couple of weeks, let alone to November, as a democracy, it will be in large part because the U.S. military refused to go along with Trump’s naked desire to send them into American cities to kill their fellow Americans. Which brings to mind two things.
The last American democratic guardrail?
First, in terms of the norms and institutions that were supposed to safeguard American democracy against Trump, this is really last-line-of-defence stuff. Trump has spent the past four years eviscerating one norm after another, bending the bureaucracy and intelligence agencies to his will to the extent that the Department of Justice now sees itself as Trump’s personal law firm, which is not the way it is supposed to work. By failing to convict him for obvious crimes in January, the Republican-controlled Senate made explicit the previously implicit deal to allow Trump to act with no checks on his increasingly unhinged actions.
But we finally might have discovered the last remaining democratic norm in the United States: the deeply ingrained reluctance of the U.S. military to intervene in domestic politics or to attack American citizens (and thank goodness for it).
The visceral reaction of American military leaders, and the public generally, to Trump’s self-interested military machinations reminds me of the 2017 Alabama Senate election, in which a deep-red state showed that it would rather give a Senate seat to a Democrat than someone accused of multiple instances of sexual assault and child molestation. That election turned out well for supporters of basic human decency and showed that there were some things that even diehard American partisans refuse to excuse.
We’ll see how the next few weeks go for American democracy, but at the moment there seem to be at least two norms that unite an otherwise-polarized country.
The military decides
The second thing has to do with the role of the military in this conflict. In unstable societies when it’s brought into play, military action or inaction is usually decisive in determining outcomes. This fundamental power of the military is often obscured in stable and (relatively) peaceful countries like Canada, with a long history of civilian command of the military. In such countries issues rarely get to the point where the military feels it is forced to choose between obeying or not obeying civilian orders.
That everyone is paying so much attention to which way the military will swing — will they obey Trump, their civilian Commander in Chief, or will they follow the Constitution? — betrays exactly how weak the U.S. state is at the moment. In an even halfway stable, non-failing state, things would never have gotten this far. We’re so used to thinking of the United States as a stable colossus that it can be hard to see these signs of weakness for what they are.
But they also highlight the enormously high stakes of the current moment. If the military follows the Commander-in-Chief into American streets (well, not follow, because Trump is a coward), all bets are off. Worst-case scenario, it would mean that the U.S. military, the sole holdout against Trumpism, would be under the control of a naked authoritarian (as shown by his actions this week). Such a move could well be the death knell for American democracy.
But if the military refuse to follow Trump’s wishes, and if Republican voters (even a minority of them) give Trump the Roy Moore cold shoulder, then there’s a good chance that Trump will effectively be neutered in his last few months in office.
At least that’s how it seems to me, from my side of the Canada-U.S. border. For what little it’s worth, I’m hopeful that the norm will hold. But there’s no certainty that it will.
One of the most baffling aspects of U.S. politics over the past four years has been the continued and ongoing failure of American professional, media and academic elites to rise to the existential challenge that Donald Trump poses to the United States’ very existence as a democratic republic. As seriously as the United States’ political class takes Trump – and pretty much everyone worth listening to agrees that he’s bad news – one is left with the sense that even after four years of his increasingly unhinged and unshackled behaviour, they’re still not taking him seriously enough.
I’ve had that thought many times over the past four years, but it came to mind again this morning when I came across Ben Mathis-Lilley’s Slate article titled, “Remove Trump now.”
Because Mathis-Lilley is absolutely, 100%, obviously correct. Of course Trump must be removed from office immediately. He is a clear and present danger to the American political and social system and to the international order. Police brutality against blacks long predates Trump, but Trump is obviously making things worse.
And we’re not even talking about how many Americans have died because of his botched handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Until he’s removed from office, the United States will continue to suffer needless deaths from the pandemic and, likely, continued police-on-civilian violence and protests.
What’s striking about Mathis-Lilley’s clear-headedness, though, is how unusual it is to actually read, in a major U.S. publication, a call for Trump’s removal, when it’s so obviously and bleedingly necessary, and has been for years.
Where are the calls for Trump to resign? Where are the calls for Senators and Trump’s Cabinet to do their duty and remove him? Where are the Democrats’ ongoing investigations into every aspect of Trump’s obvious and ongoing criminal behaviour?
I’m not completely sure about why so few influential Americans have not been calling for Trump to resign, although I have a theory that it’s partially explained by demographics. Basically, if you’re white, male, professional and economically secure – and that’s a whole swath of the professional class right there – the more likely you are to see Trump as dangerous, but not as an extraordinary or existential threat. If you’re none of those, you’re closer to the line of fire, which helps to clarify things immensely.
To take a small example, when Run the Jewels released RTJ 3 on Christmas Day 2016, I very briefly wondered how Killer Mike and El-P (and especially Killer Mike) had been able to turn around an album that so ably captured the current mood, since so few people were predicting a Trump victory. Of course, I quickly realized that Mike and El didn’t have to do much themselves to capture the current mood, since Blacks in America were no strangers to the stress that White Americans now felt themselves under. There’s a reason why Charles Blow has been the most stridently anti-Trump New York Times columnist.
The blind spot, in general, runs deep, and every day offers a new example of how badly so many smart Americans are misreading the room. In today’s Globe and Mail, David Shribman (an American who currently teaches at McGill) acts as if the problem with Trump’s reactions to pervasive civil unrest is that he hasn’t heeded the lessons of his predecessors. In other words, he’s offering advice to a president (“These are the low-hanging fruit of the White House history gardens – reading ripe for the picking. Mr. President, gather ye rosebuds of wisdom while ye may.”) when it’s the president that’s inflaming the situation, and has been unceasingly for four years.
He is the problem. He has been the problem. He will continue to be the problem. Offering advice to Trump is a nonsensical strategy and a waste of time. It’s also the kind of advice you only offer if you don’t fully grasp the true danger of the situation.
In contrast, Gary Mason, also writing today, has the advantage of foreign eyes. He sees clearly that “Mr. Trump is a divider, not a healer. … With a long, hot summer still ahead, and an unstable bigot in charge, the country is entering times more perilous than I can remember.” That’s just about right.
So what are you going to do?
There’s a defeatist and somewhat smug cynicism to the four mantras that excuse all action to deal with the root of the problem. The Republicans control the Senate, and they won’t go against Trump’s base, so impeachment’s off the table. He’s surrounded by sycophants and relatives who would never turn on him. Plus, the House tried impeachment already and it didn’t work (see excuse #1). And – my favourite – Americans can throw him out in the election, five months from now (plus two more months during which time he’ll still be in power).
Leave aside the damage that an increasingly desperate Trump can do in seven months. These are cynical reasons because they pretend a political wisdom they don’t possess, the wisdom of the pundit that treats politics like a game played under the disinterested gaze of those for whom these events lack any significant weight.
They miss two crucial facts about politics, and what it means to be a citizen. The first is that everything can be bought into play. In politics, supposed inevitabilities are not laws of nature. Pressure can be brought to bear to change outcomes. Every one of those four excuses can be changed through the application of political pressure. And despite all its flaws, the U.S. political system is just about the most amenable in the world to political change.
In the quest to seem wise in the ways of the world, many observers have forgotten the second fact about politics and protests generally, which is that you don’t protest because you know you’re going to win, but because it’s the right thing to do. You do it because an injustice is taking place, and you have an obligation to do your best to remedy it. You do it to be able to keep your self-respect. You do it because it is how you stand up for your values.
Do you want to avoid normalizing Trump? Well, this is exactly how to do it: By refusing for an instant to accept that he is in any way qualified, capable or legitimately entitled (due to his numerous crimes and violations of his presidential oath) to be the U.S. president. Demand his resignation ceaselessly. Insist that those with the power to remove him do their jobs.
The United States is in an epic moment that will be recounted for generations, not just by historians, but by playwrights and storytellers. The Trump administration will get its Shakespearean measure of justice in the fullness of time. And while Shakespeare 2256 is writing his play about a fool king and the downfall of a once-proud country, people are going to look back at this moment and wonder why Americans were so complacent.
Time to #OccupyDC
As a Canadian and sometimes-scholar of U.S. politics, I usually focus on how U.S. policies affect Canada and global politics. It’s bloodless sport for a foreigner to point out the many, many, many foibles in U.S. politics when you don’t have any direct skin in the game. But I also live in the country next door, and Canada is the country most likely to bear the brunt if events go completely pear-shaped.
So take this advice, from a not-disinterested observer, for what it’s worth. Academics, op ed columnists, pundits, everyone with a platform: Please start demanding Trump’s resignation or his removal, not so much because you can make it happen now, but to create the conditions that can make it happen, and so you don’t come off too badly in the eyes of history and your children. Because it’s the only thing that will end your current nightmare and allow you to deal with the other ongoing nightmares like climate change, police brutality, income inequality, and so on.
Everyone else: Again, this is a suggestion from a White Canadian guy, so take it for what it’s worth, but channeling the current protests into a March on the White House could be a useful way to move from protest toward action. Call it #OccupyDC. It’s the perfect time for a long-term protest. The weather’s great, the economy’s shut down, and students (the engine of so much social change) will be doing their classes online in the Fall.
Surround the White House. Come up with a short list of, say, five demands (Demand #1: Trump’s resignation.), and stay there until they’re met. If you can’t make it to the White House, target every non-Romney Republican in the same way. Change the political facts.
That’s a big ask, and its success is far from guaranteed. But so long as Trump is in power, things will only get worse.
One of the best gags in Archer comes from an early first-season episode, in which the team is assigned to prevent someone from blowing up the inaugural flight of a helium-powered rigid airship. Throughout the episode, our titular hero proves incapable of telling the difference between helium, a completely safe inert gas, and hydrogen (think: Hindenburg). Finally, exasperated fellow agent Lana Kane snaps, “What about that are you still not getting?” To which Archer replies, “Well, obviously the core concept.”
That episode came to mind when reading the Toronto Star editorial board’s and Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn’s mournful obituaries for what they saw as a tragically lost development opportunity. In their telling Sidewalk Labs was done in by ignorant activists and foolish privacy zealots who couldn’t see the bigger picture. They bemoan this grand “lost opportunity” (in the words of the Star editorial) for innovative urban development. The tone and content of both articles – as well as an earlier editorial criticizing Ontario Premier Doug Ford for criticizing Quayside – is basically, sure there were problems with it, but some of their ideas would’ve worked out. And now we’re going to be stuck with the status quo of ugly condos or – heaven forfend! – a Ferris wheel.
Cohn’s oped and the Star’s editorial position suggest a particular view of the world, one in which “innovation” is a product you can buy off the shelf, and in which Quayside is best understood as a normal a physical urban development project. While Quayside’s physical-infrastructure aspects were important (obviously), particularly for Torontonians, they were not the main problems with this project. Nor were they the most important part of the project.
I think The Star’s blind spot is shared by a lot of people and policymakers who don’t deal directly with intellectual property and data, so I’m going to do my best to lay out the source of this misunderstanding as I see it.
The Core Concept
Here’s an example that I hope will highlight to Cohn and The Star what’s changed in the past two decades. When the 407 electronic toll highway was built in the late 1990s, the data its sensors collected was seen as a means to an end: identifying drivers so they could be appropriately billed. In 2020, the equation is reversed: The building of infrastructure is now the means to the end of collecting data, which is now seen as economically valuable in its own right. Projects like the Quayside plans are all about the data collection, as well as the intellectual property and standards that Sidewalk Labs was hoping they could produce in Quayside.
In other words, it’s no longer 1999. Most of the cheerleading for Quayside seemed not to see how projects like these have changed: they focused on the timber skyscrapers, not the sensors, standards and intellectual property.
Quayside was a Toronto Project with National and International Implications
Let me be blunt: If the Quayside proposal had been just another urban-development project, nobody outside of Toronto would have had any reason to care about it. If it turned out to be a mistake, Quayside would have been about as troubling as if Waterfront Toronto had decided to build a Ferris wheel on its land. Which is to say, Torontonians would be stuck with an eyesore and a lost opportunity for something better (unless you like Ferris wheels), but life would continue on elsewhere in the country, with the added bonus that Calgarians and Haligonians would have one more thing about Toronto to mock.
But the proposed Quayside project was not a Ferris wheel. Quayside mattered not because it was a terrible urban-development project, but because it was an exercise in designing data-collection standards and promoting a particular vision of digital economic development. The problem here is two-fold: first, that Quayside would have given the opportunity for Google to drive Canadian economic policy to a disproportionate degree; and, second, it would have allowed Waterfront Toronto (and, really, Google) to become a de facto data-standards-setter for the country.
This is where it’s important to understand that “innovation” isn’t something that you buy. Innovation is something that governments create the conditions for. Innovation happens all the time, but it’s the underlying rules that determine what type of innovative activities occur, and whose interests they serve. That’s what was at stake here.
Quayside was all about determining what these rules were going to be, who was going to set them, and in whose interest. This matters because all regulatory frameworks are not created equal.
Google – let’s not be so naïve as to pretend that Sidewalk Labs is anything other than a wholly controlled Google play – has a particular business model based on the ubiquitous surveillance of everything at all times. The criticisms of this model have become commonplace; my main point here is that allowing Google to set up an urban innovation hub in the Eastern Waterfront would have placed enormous pressure on the federal and Ontario governments to become champions of the Google business model.
Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto were always up front about wanting to get into the smart city market. If they had been successful, the project would have been Canada’s de facto national champion in that market. As a result, governments would have been under excruciating pressure to adapt Canadian data and economic policy to serve Google’s ends, even if these ends were not in the interests of the wider economy or citizens’ basic rights. The debate we need to have on this issue would have been settled by facts on the ground.
We should also be clear about the nature and riskiness of this bet. One of the biggest knocks against Sidewalk Labs, which that The Star never took seriously, is that Google has no experience in this field. Much is made – including by Cohn – of Google’s outsized stature in the digital economy, and pretty much every Quayside cheerleader treated Google’s involvement as a sure bet. But in reality Google is a newcomer to the smart-city market. Companies like IBM have a by-now decade-plus head start on them, to say nothing of decades of experience dealing with governments as clients. There’s a reason why IBM’s forays into the smart-city market haven’t made the same waves as Google’s.
One of the main things Sidewalk Labs wanted to do with Quayside was to create smart-city-related standards. Standards, by definition, are the rules that others have to follow. But you can be sure that other companies and organizations are not just waiting around for Google to show us the way; they’re trying to come up with standards of their own.
And Google could easily lose this battle. Remember Google Plus? Google Reader? This is not a company with a record of sticking with money-losing investments, whatever they claim.
In other words, Waterfront Toronto was not creating the conditions for “innovation,” or buying “innovation.” This tiny land-development agency, isolated from direct political influence, was tying a not-insignificant part of the Canadian economy to Google’s mast, gambling that Google’s standards would emerge victorious on the global market.
I’m not sure that’s a bet I would feel comfortable making.
For many of the same reasons, and since Canada’s data-governance frameworks are woefully out of date, the Quayside project ran the very real risk of giving effective Canada-wide data-standards-setting power to a land-development agency located in one city, isolated from political influence and with no experience in or mandate to deal with these issues.
Google itself would have had a de facto strong voice in this debate, thanks to Quayside. Waterfront Toronto did manage to wrest from Sidewalk Labs a promise that it would not lobby Canadian governments on data-governance issues. But Sidewalk Labs wouldn’t have needed to lobby directly if: a) its interests were aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s; b) other branches of Google could make the case; and c) Canadian policymakers could see what’s needed to make its bet on the smart-city market pay off.
DSAP’s Fraught Future
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Waterfront Toronto, a land developer, should not be in the business of setting data standards. Putting aside the – to me decisive – issue of the legitimacy of placing such an agency in this role, there’s the issue of competence. Waterfront Toronto’s expertise lies almost exclusively within its part-time, volunteer Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Such a panel is no substitute for in-house expertise.
What’s more, beyond the fact that it is a volunteer, part-time panel, members run the risk of conflicts of interest in designing new projects, be they directly in the form of business interests that might benefit from future involvement on digital-innovation projects, or indirectly through the receipt of industry-based research funding. (This is why you need civil servants working on these issues.) This is not to say that DSAP should not be involved with Waterfront Toronto, but it would work best as a check on actual in-house expertise. It can’t be Waterfront Toronto’s digital-policy arm.
I hope that both Waterfront Toronto and DSAP seriously consider these issues as they decide what to do next with Quayside.
Dazzled by Data
I’m not going to deal much with the other questionable parts of The Star and Cohn’s analyses, except to say that they failed to pay serious attention to both the woeful inadequacies in Sidewalk Labs’ plan and Waterfront Toronto’s back-to-front governance failures. Cohn writes:
Some (but by no means all) urban planners were dismissive of Sidewalk Labs, lampooning its lack of experience in construction and real estate development (just like the smart money mocked Google and Yahoo a generation ago when the Yellow Pages seemed unbeatable).
Nothing like deploying vague generalities to dismiss concrete criticisms.
And on governance, maybe The Star could explain why, exactly, they proved so keen to sign on to a plan that was gutted in October and reduced to a list of various technologies in February, all without Waterfront Toronto or Sidewalk Labs having done any substantive economic, environmental or social assessment on the amended report.
I think these opinions are likewise grounded in the incorrect assumption that this was primarily a physical urban-development project, mixed in with an unstated belief that big data is the answer to all our problems and that tech companies can do magic.
Hatred of Toronto’s developmental status quo is completely understandable, but why would anyone think that a search-engine/advertising company (whose product, BTW, is much closer to the Yellow Pages than it is to urban planning) could plan a city? What about this am I still not getting?
Doctoroff’s letter has all the markings of an exercise in saving face, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s been clear for a while now that this project was being maintained by a combination of bureaucratic inertia and the extent to which both organizations had bet the farm on this obviously flawed project. Which isn’t to say that its collapse was foreordained; personally, I figured they’d get something, no matter how unwieldy, across the finish line (see: face-saving).
What’s less forgivable is the failure to learn from these mistakes. Dr. Tusikov, I and many, many others identified these issues very early on. But instead of listening to people who actually knew what they were talking about, instead of following fundamental good governance principles, Waterfront Toronto at every turn obfuscated, deflected and denied. I’ve detailed numerous examples over fifty-plus posts, totalling over 100,000 words, but just to remind you, here are a few greatest hits:
Claiming a children’s day camp as a form of public consultation.
Months after the (secret) Framework Agreement had been signed, appointing a part-time, volunteer Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to provide a sheen of legitimacy to an agency with no digital expertise. And then failing to give them the time to do their analyses – not that a part-time panel can make up in any way for the absence of skilled in-house analysts.
Holding a whirlwind July 2019 “consultation” on the 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan, before anybody – including its own analysts – had fully digested this monstrosity.
Reducing the consultations to the status of a sideshow by issuing its own demands (the real demands) before even collating the responses.
The October 31, 2019, agreement with Sidewalk Labs, which picked-and-chose a list of technologies from the MIDP, called it a plan, and claimed that they had amended the MIDP, without releasing an amended text. Or a (non-existent, or at least inconsequential) revised economic, social or environmental analysis.
And the original sin, in the RFP, engaging in a co-governance venture in the first place, then claiming, upon the release of the MIDP, that Waterfront Toronto was now supervising Sidewalk Labs (despite the governing Plan Development Agreement stating they were in a joint relationship), and then, post-October 2019, they were back to working together again.
The tragedy is that the lessons that Dr. Tusikov and I (with an assist from Dr. Zachary Spicer) point out were obvious a few months into the project. This project should have been shut down the moment former Waterfront CEO Will Fleissig was shown the door in July 2018. Because of Waterfront Toronto’s … hubris? ignorance? arrogance? … everyone who correctly saw the Quayside disaster for what it was has had to spend the last two years playing defence instead of using our skills to promote positive change.
Waterfront Toronto needs to go under the microscope
The three levels of government responsible for Waterfront Toronto need to undertake a serious investigation into every aspect of what can only be seen as a colossal governance failure on its part. The Auditor General of Ontario has pointed out substantial structural flaws, and the extent to which it has engaged in stringing the public along in this process should be very concerning to anyone interested in good governance.
But now that it’s over, hopefully Sidewalk Labs’ departure will allow the people who have devoted so much time to this project to go and build something positive, rather than spending our time trying to avert disaster.
It’s somewhat ironic that the two events that most set this endgame into motion were the election of Waterfront Toronto nemesis Doug Ford (which led to the shaking up of Waterfront Toronto’s Board) and a global coronavirus pandemic. But, of course, it wouldn’t have gotten to this point without the hard work of many activists, most notably Bianca Wylie and the #BlockSidewalk coalition. As Dr. Tusikov and I point out in The Conversation, the Quayside project had implications that reached far beyond Toronto; for that reason alone, Wylie and #BlockSidewalk’s activism should be mentioned in the same breath as the activists, including Jane Jacobs, who thwarted the Spadina Expressway in the late 1960s.
While the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and its members ran the real risk of being co-opted by Waterfront Toronto, potentially endangering their own reputations, their critiques were invaluable in giving reporters an “official” voice to quote in their stories. After all, it’s much harder to dismiss criticisms coming from inside the house. In the business community, Jim Balsillie is another person who has done more than his fair share to highlight the myriad problems with this project.
Edited to add: And I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the principled resignations of Julie Di Lorenzo (from Waterfront Toronto’s Board), and Saadia Muzaffar and John Ruffolo (from the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel). The pressure to go along to get along should never be underestimated: It takes courage to stand up for your principles in the face of wrongdoing.
Finally, shout-out also to the handful of academics who did their jobs in critiquing an obvious flawed project, even when it seemed like we were rolling a boulder up a hill. This is what we get paid for.