Harvey Milk, community development and the digital balance sheet

For a very long time now, I’ve been inspired by the story of Harvey Milk, his serial failed campaigns for public office and his final, triumphant election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. (If you’re my age, or you’ve seen Jeff Spicoli’s wonderful portrayal of him in the eponymous feature film, you know what happens next: I refuse to use the word “tragedy” because of its implication that hubris called down what happened, and not a hate-driven murderer.)

What’s always been most impressive to me is the way Harvey nurtured a community through successive stages of self-consciousness, collective awareness, and conscious agency. It wasn’t just a matter of coming along (or out) in the right place, at the right time, though few of us will ever be lucky enough to have skills and potentials so ideally suited to our historical moment. It was sweat equity.

He built his constituency painstakingly, one engagement at a time. The late Randy Shilts, in his detailed history The Mayor of Castro Street, emphasizes that the eventual electoral success was built on a foundation of coalition-building maneuvers, like the early collaboration with the Teamsters on a strike against Coors Beer (thus securing the allegiance of ethnic and blue-collar voters who would not naturally have considered voting for an openly gay man) and the organization of the first Castro Street Fair (1974).

It’s always been clear to me that these engagements themselves grew out of Harvey’s situation — his sitedness — in the Castro. Harvey’s storefront base of operations, Castro Camera, served the community as drop-in center, political clubhouse and all-purpose social hub, which made it the nexus and catchment basin of multiple social networks. He made himself into a local character, turning nod-line encounters into conversations, and conversations into opportunities to press his case, epitomizing Jane Jacobs’ dictum that the “trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.” Together, man and site comprised a notably effective intelligence collection and influence network, founded on street-level interaction.

All of this, of course, led me to wonder how one might go about building a contemporary equivalent. Putting aside for a second — understanding full well that truly, it cannot be put aside, that it was the very crux of the matter — the sense of urgency and personal existential threat his community lived under, how would you develop a Milkian enmeshment in a given place and its affairs today?

You would have to start, I figure, by considering the technosocial balance sheet, all of the things that have changed since the mid-1970s in the way people use their tools to communicate, construct their sense of themselves and organize themselves into larger collectivities:

– In the liability column, the practical difficulty-verging-on-impossibility, given their immersion in a world of texts and earbuds, of communicating with anybody on the street anymore. The mutual paranoia, hostility, risk-aversiveness and sense of stranger-danger we seem to have nurtured in our public spaces. The splintered nature of attention, the shattering of the public sphere into ever-smaller clades.

– On the other side of the ledger, the undeniable smart-mobby power of texting, Facebook, Meetup, and Twitter, especially when instantiated on mobile devices, as demonstrated in the Green, Orange and People Power II revolutions, even to a lesser extent the US Presidential election of 2008. The sense crystallizing around Foursquare and Gowalla that social services in general won’t really come into their own until they reckon with real-world locations. (My own conviction is that even so, they won’t produce anything particularly interesting until they come up with some construction richer than “venues,” but the direction is clear.) Everyblock, which in a single service gives you an unbelievably useful dashboard to place.

There’s no question that you can rapidly develop and then maintain an impressive, even godlike awareness of the things going on in a given neighborhood using these tools, even in the absence of richly braided interpersonal contacts. You can keep a weather eye on tides of concern as they sweep over a place, infer issues of interest from fact patterns revealed by data analysis. What does this suggest for politicians specifically?

The conclusion I draw from datapoints like Andrew Rasiej’s brave, unsuccessful candidacy for New York City Public Advocate (2005) is that the latter set of tools aren’t likely to be decisive in and of themselves. Rasiej ran a quasi-guerrilla campaign, notable for its reliance on what are still comparatively cutting-edge techniques of audience building and message dissemination, and garnered a disappointing outcome. (Then again, Harvey ran for public office on three separate occasions before securing his seat on the Board of Supes; maybe Andrew’s got an election or two left in him.)

There’s also a lot of daylight between getting a single person elected, no matter how emblematic of their constituency they may feel themselves to be, and mobilizing an entire community in the name of its own ongoing empowerment. I would like to believe that this can be done affirmatively, in the absence of some perceived external threat, but history (and my recent observations of the Tea Party) suggest that nothing fuses a disparate assembly into a politically effective whole like fear of the other. Perhaps the Coffee Party can do better — but reflect that they, too, are founded in negation.

The only thing that’s relatively clear to me in all of this is that anyone wanting to catalyze a community and channel its aspirations in these days is going to have trouble doing it the way Harvey did: at retail, as it were, stacked up one investment at a time. By the same token, though, they’ll have a spread of one-to-many tools of awesome power available to them — and for free, too! As powerful as these may be, they can’t be used willy-nilly: spamming potential constituents isn’t going to get you anywhere, nor is anyone much going to sign on to a campaign just because it’s all high-tech and buzzword-compliant.

What’s more likely to be pivotal is the canny use of the latter to leverage the former: ensuring that every casual contact goes into a database, every issue raised by a constituent (or inferred from a pattern of facts on the ground) is captured and tracked, everything that shows up in the gillnet of your feeds is exploited for its propaganda or organizational value.

And I keep coming back to situatedness, something a whole lot of the people I know got to spend some time thinking about this last volcano weekend. What does it mean to be in place, to draw your identity from an investment in locale? I can’t imagine that this is anything but crucial; if every Castro needs a Harvey Milk, every Harvey Milk needs a Castro Camera. A robust fan page on Facebook goes a long way toward replicating the functions of such a base, and indeed does a whole lot of things it can’t. But from what I can see, it cannot function adequately as a substitute for that base. Showing up is still half the battle.

In the end, of course, none of what made Harvey who he was is at all replicable. Would-be students can certainly draw inspiration and energy from his struggle, even a few canny, practical lessons. Thus far, anyway, our era of networked digital communications seems to be awaiting his equivalent — or maybe the message is that we’re all his equivalent, waiting for the moment our ten thousand tweets and status updates are sintered into a coherent voice.

14 responses to “Harvey Milk, community development and the digital balance sheet”

  1. Liz Buckley says :

    The transformation of our society resulting from computer technologies meshing with street life is explained to me by Howard T Odum’s work on the evolution of self-organizing open systems and energenics. Is the energy of someone’s street life feeding their facebook page or is the energy they put into their facebook page feeding their life on the streets? It is a simple input output ratio. As I fill out an on-line form to participate in a community ’pick-up’ soccer game I think about the mean basketball I played as a 10 year old, the hours spent standing on the side, fetching the ball, sneaking a shot until finally I got in and then the play. The result of Odum’s ratio is called ‘transformity’ and it is a measure of hierarchy. The form is filled out – energy in –I wonder what I will get out of the game.

  2. Bill Cunningham says :

    “The only thing that’s relatively clear to me in all of this is that anyone wanting to catalyze a community and channel its aspirations in these days is going to have trouble doing it the way Harvey did: at retail, as it were, stacked up one investment at a time.”

    I disagree – I think this is the only way to do this. canny use of tools will get you exactly nowhere, unless you are widely recognized within a community as a legitimate voice.

    A lot of what I see in people trying to use web tools to effect change strike me as lacking precisely this retail investment. They are anonymous internet voices of no notable accomplishment.

    Legitimacy cannot be built solely online. You have to actually do things in the physical world first, and become known for doing them. This reputation can only be built retail, bricks and mortar, in the physical world. Once you have that, you can use online tools to take it wholesale.

    You can’t START online. Nobody is anybody if they are only online.

  3. Liz Buckley says :

    The way I look at this was inspired by a day I had to myself in San Franciso last summer when I wandered into the Conservatory at Golden Gate Park and got lost in the Cloud Forest room. Now there is a system that can be an allegory for the energenics between people, the city and the data clouds.

  4. AG says :

    Bill, I can only argue from personal experience here — and admittedly, I’m neither an elected official nor particularly situated.

    But I did start online. All I had at the beginning was v-2.org, and some not particularly rigorous rants. And that seems to have been enough to catalyze a succession of real-world engagements, over what is now a ten-year span. I have this in common with a lot of people of that first Webby generation, most of them better known than I am; most of the people who established personal brands (if you’ll excuse the expression) online in the pre-blog era have been able to leverage that attention in interesting ways. And some of these ways have turned out to involve dispositions of people and things in space and time, which is my definition of actuality.

    I’m not trying to be snarky, simply noting that (in my experience, anyway, and in the domains of practice and action to which I happen to be most regularly exposed), legitimacy can and very frequently has been built solely online.

    Where you’re correct is that none of the people involved has yet been elected to any position even as consequential as vice deputy dogcatcher of Dogfart County…but it doesn’t feel like an a-priori impossibility to me.

  5. AG says :

    What’s an “energenics,” Liz?

  6. Liz Buckley says :

    Energenics – A transformational operation that increases or decreases personal energy taking place within a system where energy is a relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and its perceived intensity or strength and only exists in the imagination of the person or persons in the system.

    Here is an example. I move into a kitchen and there is no place to hang a kitchen towel so I put a nail in just the right place, and now I can hang my kitchen towel there. It is a transformational operation when the next person is in that kitchen, they won’t even have to even think about it, they will have an increase of personal energy. But if there is a plastic paper towel holder perfectly placed but I don’t use paper towels, it is a transformational operation that decreased my energy, just because I can’t imagine using paper towels. Human energy is stored in the place and transferred to me by both the physical and the perceived and only in my imagination.

    Or I am in NYC and going prom dress shopping and I have the ‘fashionista’s 2010 map’ on my iphone but my daughter hates all the dresses, she can’t imagine wearing any of them, but found a store she loves, adds that to the map and her friend goes the next day. It was a transformational operation that had physical and perceived strength that only existed in the imagination of some 15 year old – or many 15 year olds.

    Or it is the first day of high school 5 kids hit it off and start to walk home but the sidewalk gets narrow and 1 kid has to walk in the back, but she calls her other friend on her cell phone and she meets up with the group and they split into threes and become life long friends.

    Human energy put into human designed places and human energy put into human designed knowledge bases and being recycled in a totally manmade world resulting in more human energy . It’s not like some trees are involved and are growing on their own and changing the landscape, it is all manmade and the only thing growing and changing are the people.

  7. AG says :

    Is this a vocabulary you’ve developed yourself? I like the idea, but to be honest I find the language a little overwrought, and unnecessarily pseudoscientific. (You know I tend to use a vocabulary of “affordances” and “constraints,” which has its own problems but is at least fairly conventional.)

    I do really like this notion you’ve captured, though, of things we do in a given environment that wind up having unpredictable, cascading effects on the way other people use that same space in the future. I might try and express that idea in the vocabulary I have ready to hand.

  8. Liz Buckley says :

    Yes, cascading effects, but when the data structures are tied to city infrastructure then it might be more predictable or at least intentional (maybe all the lights will turn green automatically when the presidents motorcade goes through town, and change if an ambulance has to cross without a person doing anything.)

    I put the definition together based on stuff I had been putting together about what I thought the next age, the one after the post-modern age, could be called, the age of energenics. It is what I think is going on.

  9. AG says :

    What kind of audience would this be for? Academic? Professional? General-interest?

  10. Liz Buckley says :

    This would be for a professional audience; authors, artists, song writers, dancers, architects, planners, teachers, social workers, engineers, librarians.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  3. Wat we in deze digitale tijden van Harvey Milk kunnen leren | Dutchproblogger.nl - 5 February 2011

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