Can GIS Take Us Through the Fog of War?

Are Gen X leaders uniquely placed to take humanity forward to conquer the twin crises of climate change and inequality? Totally comfortable with technology, they enjoyed childhoods free from the utter domination of the screen and adolescences where many could crack open the box and tinker with the CPU. A Cold War upbringing also meant they were the first to grow up under the black cloud of the certain knowledge that our species has the power to exterminate the entire planet. Political tribalism has weakened, especially for younger generations, thanks both to the incessant neoliberal promotion of individual consumerism and "choice" as well as the obvious wreckage of failed and corrupted ideologies of both left and right. The dominance of Middle Way Baby Boomers is finally starting to recede while the generations born into the Information Age are maturing and ready to realise its potential. Can Gen X "nuke and pave" unique political solutions right for this point in time?

I've been saying one dilemma for the left is that a clear way forward isn't obvious at all. Earlier this year I heard a speaker liken humanity's situation to navigating a fog of war. Leftists, knowing in our bones that a rightwing government obeisant to neoliberal capitalist principles can only mire inequality and social problems more intractably, often fall into the trap of desperately pointing fingers at those problems as well as at the people and ideology we've identified as their sole causation. This behaviour turns a lot of people off. After all, we live in an age when the merest physical ache can be stifled immediately with paracetamol; similarly, we can channel-surf away instantly from any media that might make us feel spiritually uncomfortable. We all live to some degree in our own cozy echo chamber and like it that way.

Besides, children of the 1970s and beyond have all had to grow up with the certain knowledge that the entire world could end anytime. Not for us the comforting notion that we could survive nuclear armageddon by sheltering under our desks at school. But at least as a child of the 1970s or beforehand, we could play in nature, go to a zoo, or watch David Attenborough without having to absorb concurrent dire warnings about another form of impending annihilation.

A relic of my '70s childhood, these signs arrived and penetrated the collective consciousness well before Earth Day and Greenpeace arose to caution about another existential threat.

So I can understand that people are weary of bad news and would prefer to hear an appealing vision for the future. This explains the draw of a new Labour leader in New Zealand who radiates positivity, as well as competence and compassion.

But what is our way forward? Despite its obvious attractions when contrasted with the abject failures of late-stage capitalism, we can't go back in time to 20th century socialism because we can't go back in time. Humanity seems to be on a trajectory of several steps forward in some realms, necessarily accompanied by a few retrograde steps in others. To take an anthropological example, ponder how the advent of agriculture would have led to inexplicable personal differences in material fortune as tribes settled and spread out to farm land that wouldn't have yielded crops uniformly. This situation could never have arisen for a nomadic tribe, and you can picture how the inexplicability would have driven changes in worldview leading eventually to the advent of specialist clergy who devote all working hours to the appeasement both of an unpredictable and inconsistent deity and of any rebellious tendencies in the victims of that deity's capricious and mysteriously patchy generosity. For me this is the human dilemma encapsulated: before it is too late, can we take all our modern tools, technological innovations, and understanding and bring them back full circle to an ancestral place of reverence and respect for nature and the utter inter-reliance we have always had on each other?

My own recent activism at a local level has underscored my view that whatever system we operate, corruption is one of our biggest enemies. Molière is just one great author whose writing conveys that corruption isn't a modern problem. I suspect it is a consequence that arose from living in societies so much larger than the few dozen individuals a tribe of nomads would have comprised. We talk about how modern technology is disrupting our lives and workplaces, yet in very fundamental ways, humanity has yet to adapt to the advent of agriculture. We can appreciate the freedom of anonymity city life provides; we can appreciate the incredible aggregation of resources that took our species to the moon, yet we may never find a replacement for the primal power of shame to moderate behaviour. How do we bring this power to bear on the behaviour of those with enough power and resource to significantly impact and even end the lives of strangers far and near?

I often joke that my generation is tech support. I do feel we overlooked Xers--and I appreciate I am also speaking from my race and social class--came of age at a precious time in history:

  1. We were beneficiaries of civil rights movements that meant we grew up with awareness of and sensitivity to the pain and unfairness of prejudice.
  2. Neoliberal anti-government and anti-regulation discourse had yet to dominate and eventually poison our political life.
  3. We are technologically adept yet somehow got through childhood without a screen in every room to stave off boredom, a childhood in a simpler time before moms and dads morphed into smothering attachment-parenting helicopters abating every potential hazard--and it turns out there were so many back then!

So when I heard the thoughtful nerdy voice of former Maryland governor, mayor of Baltimore, and tragically overshadowed Democratic Presidential contender Martin O'Malley on Radio New Zealand on Monday, I instantly recognised one of my kind. Indeed, he was born in 1963. I was grateful Kathryn Ryan only introduced the mad orange boomer into the discussion late in the piece, for O'Malley's message in his visit to New Zealand was about using technology to better deliver services at the local and regional level. It was a message that injected some hope into my baseline pessimism about the long-term prospects of our species.

The interview came a day after Danyl Mclauchlan's thoughtful meditation about ideology. (<a href="> target="_blank">Communism by stealth: notes on conservatism, neoliberalism, social investment, and a UBI) Mclauchlan comments, "It's hard to live in a capitalist society without contemplating just how insanely inefficient and unfair and wasteful it all is," yet he also provides a compelling example to illustrate how Soviet communism, after overseeing unprecedented economic growth, a sharp increase in life expectancy, and other measures of success in the late 1950s and 1960s, failed to moderate its adherence to ideology. A refusal to use information from the coal face to drive subsequent economic planning resulted in a society that became absurdly inefficient and wasteful in its own way.

Mclauchlan then discussed both UBI and social investment as possible tools on our way forward. He suggests that their right-wing origins should not block our willingness to give these tools a go.

O'Malley politely rejected the left or right spectrum of his "older brothers and sisters", saying, "I represent a new generation of leadership. My approach to government and the things that work is much more entrepreneurial and less ideological." As a political leader, it appears he practices a form of idealistic pragmatism, to borrow a phrase from Jacinda Ardern (born at the border of Generation X and Y/Millennial in 1980). He seems comfortable with the neo-liberal notion of citizens as consumers, but clearly doesn't perceive them as strictly so, using both words almost interchangeably.

What of the problem of corruption? O'Malley provided examples of how Baltimore brought the power of Geographic Information Systems to bear not just on policing, but on the provision of all services and on the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay. In Maryland and in New Zealand, these systems have been used in assessing damage and providing assistance after natural disasters such as the recent Wellington earthquakes. What prevents the spectre of 1984's Big Brother from casting a pall on this ultra-responsive "new way of governing" is that the information must be available for everyone and anyone to access in a transparent and open way. O'Malley believes the sharing of data leads to the breakdown of silos and enhances the ability of citizens to hold politicians accountable. Putting his money where his mouth is, he campaigned on promises to specifically impact on measurable indicators of the city's health or dysfunction. Crime in Baltimore, my hometown, dropped significantly during his mayoralty, which, it must be noted, was not without controversy.

Sharing information so openly is an existential challenge for many in government and industry who are used to guarding their own turf and their proprietary ways of collecting information. Visualise the end of the need for the Official Information Act request. To get there, effective leaders have to play, as O'Malley called it, "politics with a small p," to usher in this profound cultural shift toward transparency.

In New Zealand, from Helen Clark to Gareth Morgan, some insist that elections must be about policy, betraying a certain naïveté about how humans make decisions. The thing is, well-intentioned, well-designed, well-executed policies can still go wrong, so the values underpinning that policy must also be weighed up. The party leader must clearly reflect those values, allowing the electorate to embrace or reject them.

An ideal leader's character should include a careful balance of emotional intelligence, confidence, and flexibility so that they are ready to stay or change the course in real time. This requires a modesty that allows for readily admitting and correcting inevitable mistakes. I am hopeful Ardern will be given the opportunity to fully demonstrate these qualities. Because she's shown some mettle in breaking with a few of her predecessor's views, I won't despair that her campaign can't quite break free of the retrograde influence of Labour's fading Middle Way proponents. Labour's continuing journey out of neoliberalism and boldly into the fog of war has been anything but easy.

Compassion is the other essential ingredient we need in a leader. Ardern's has been beyond dispute for me. Watching the Hui's footage of her welcoming to Parliament former wards of the state who were abused in care brought tears to my eyes and confirmed my first impressions of her.

When it comes to mitigating and slowing down climate change, the younger generations understand there is no more time to lose. As Ardern stated, this is our nuclear-free moment. Humanity needs to marry our modern tools, technological innovations, and understanding with optimism, cooperation, and good faith. How wonderful that the same technology, whose maturation parallels the X generation, might also finally realize Louis Brandeis' 1913 vision of ending the corruption which has hindered us for so long:

If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.

Tech support, take your place in the sun.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.