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Friday, July 28, 2006

"The subway has never looked so appealing."

"The subway has never looked so appealing," writes Luke O'Brien in his recent article, "License Plate Tracking for All." O'Brien is writing about something I've written about before: license plate readers. But, whereas my research on the subject has focused on police deployment, O'Brien has also researched the private applications of the technology. He prognosticates a dystopian world in which the tracking technology, having spread ubiquitously beyond just police departments, logs every move we make and every destination we reach - and all points in between.
In recent years, police around the country have started to use powerful infrared cameras to read plates and catch carjackers and ticket scofflaws. But the technology will soon migrate into the private sector, and morph into a tool for tracking individual motorists' movements, says former policeman Andy Bucholz, who's on the board of Virginia-based G2 Tactics, a manufacturer of the technology.

Bucholz, who designed some of the first mobile license plate reading, or LPR, equipment, gave a presentation at the 2006 National Institute of Justice conference here last week laying out a vision of the future in which LPR does everything from helping insurance companies find missing cars to letting retail chains chart customer migrations. It could also let a nosy citizen with enough cash find out if the mayor is having an affair, he says.

Giant data-tracking firms such as ChoicePoint, Accurint and Acxiom already collect detailed personal and financial information on millions of Americans. Once they discover how lucrative it is to know where a person goes between the supermarket, for example, and the strip club, the LPR industry could explode, says Bucholz.

Private detectives would want the information. So would repo men or bail bondsmen. And the government, which often contracts out personal data collection -- in part, so it doesn't have to deal with Freedom of Information Act requests -- might encourage it.

"I know it sounds really Big Brother," Bucholz says. "But it's going to happen. It's going to get cheaper and cheaper until they slap them up on every taxicab and delivery truck and track where people live." And work. And sleep. And move.
Yes, it does sound very Big Brother. Notice the inevitability with which the designer of the technology treats its implementation, as if he were merely the humble vessel for this natural progression. In many ways he is right - high tech has its own logic, and one tech does tend to presume and predict the next. But Bucholz seems to be engaging in something more - something like a self-absolution for his specific role in bringing this potential monstrosity into our lives. But this really isn't anything new - scientists have generally treated their scientific philosophy as a political shield against any criticism of the applications of their research. Pure science is, well, pure, we are told, and scientists are not to blame.

So, these plate readers, "around the size of a can of tomato sauce, can be mounted on police cruisers and powered by cigarette lighters." They can read far more license plates in an hour than an officer can possibly encounter, and they can be linked to various insurance, law enforcement and - as Bucholz hopes - commercial databases, providing a wealth of data and increased policing power to capitalists, cops and bureaucrats alike. But don't blame the scientists.

According to O'Brien:
The next step is connecting the technology to databases that will tell cops whether a sexual offender has failed to register in the state or is loitering too close to a school, or whether a driver has an outstanding warrant. It could also snag you if you're uninsured, if your license expired last week or even if your library books are overdue.
The last claim may seem ridiculous, but consider that the city of Arlington, VA, has already experimented with expanding its own plate reader database to include unpaid taxes and, yes, library fines.

And this tech is indeed on the verge of exploding. While the private network may be a bit further off, a brief perusal of news.google.com reveals several articles just in the past few days about police departments installing plate readers. For example, John Doherty reports for the Times-Herald Record on police adoption in Newburgh.
Within days, Newburgh city police will have one of the first automated license plate scanners in the area.

The scanner - like a hyper-fast cop typing in all the license plates he passes - promises to catch scofflaws and drivers with lapsed insurance or registrations.

"One of the guys who trained us on it said, 'It's almost not fair to criminals'," said Chief Eric Paolilli.
And, while fund-raising via tickets and fines - always a priority for cities and police departments - certainly benefits from the efficient technology, local authorities nevertheless do anticipate expanding their ability to wage a broader class war on the poor and working class as a result. For example, Newburgh's system was donated to the town under a state grant program intended "as part of Operation Impact, the fledgling program to up law enforcement in high-crime communities." In Indianapolis, Wal-Mart contributed $4000 towards the purchase of a plate reader for the local police.

According to the Times-Herald article, "Police plan to load the laptop with information on parolees and probationers, and then cruise areas where those offenders are not supposed to be."

Will the Green Scare list be uploaded, too? What about the No-Fly List?

One interesting phenomenon this technology seems to have revealed to the police is just how common law-breaking is in this country. According to Nik Bonopartis' piece in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Monday, July 24th, ("Devices help nab violators"):
Early test runs through the Poughkeepsie area have turned up a surprising number of hits on the system, police officials say.

It's a time-saving tool, but it also may give police a better idea of how many drivers are behind the wheel with bad registrations, invalid licenses, fake plates and other infractions.

"This just shows how big that number is, because that's most of your hits," city Chief Ronald Knapp said. "And as you're driving down the street, that's what's coming up."
Taking this week's award for stating the obvious, Knapp continued, "It's just incredible the way the technology is going." Poughkeepsie's two plate readers were paid for by Operation Impact, New York's technophiliac "comprehensive crime fighting program designed to achieve sustained, long term crime reduction across the state." That's code for arresting more poor people which, incidentally, expands the database and triggers more arrests in a dangerous cycle of data collection and policing.

"Who knows -- (it) could be the next iPod," said Officer Todd Burris when the Indianapolis Star asked him about the future spread of the technology.

Of course, anarchists wouldn't surprised that so many people so regularly break the law, with many of the infractions deriving simply from the eternal problem of living a common sense life in a highly rule-oriented society that doesn't tend to offer many exceptions to the poor and working classes (the rich, however, are another story). However, it does beg the question of just what such technology will do to the world view and underlying logic of police officers once nearly everyone becomes transformed in their eyes into lawbreakers? Certainly the project of policing a society with both widespread, accurate surveillance and such widespread subversion of the law does suggest a high degree of ambition and indeed, confidence, on the part of law enforcement, law-makers and bureaucrats.

Another question: is such a contradiction tenable for long? Which will give first - the enforcement or the lawbreaking? Perhaps the missing link is the officer herself, who will probably do as she always has and simply disregard the vast majority of crimes in order to focus on policing the poor, people of color and political dissenters. But, as policing technology increasingly becomes both automated and ubiquitous, this traditional human element may play less and less of a role. Can a society exist that enforces every law? If even only against the poor? This remains to be seen.

On a positive note, however, such a society would destroy once and for all the myth that free markets have anything to do with any other kind of freedom, as the techno-capitalist system, finally omniscient and omnipresent, watches, counts and tracks everyone and everything in a way that the communists and fascists only dreamed about. That is, unless, such a system undermines itself, self-destructing under the weight of its own contradictions, finally opening the way for anarchy. One can hope.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Giving the finger to the boss: Workers stop fingerprint time clocks!

It's not all bad news on the high-tech class war battlefield these days. While most American workers have not yet formed a clear set of politics with regard to technology in the work place and it's oppressive character, some bright spots have appeared on the horizon lately.

Rich Lord writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 2037 and 2719 battle to stop the imposition of fingerprint-scanning time clocks in their workplace. After an arbitrator awarded more than $30,000 in back pay to a falsely terminated public works sweeper operator in a dispute over alleged absenteeism, the City of Pittsburgh sought to replace the old time clock system, which relied on workers writing in their own hours, with a $70,000 fingerprint scanning time clock.

Managers hoped that the new system would "would prevent [attendance disputes] from occurring again," meaning it would successfully undermine democratic worker autonomy and solidarity on the job floor and transfer power over hours and wages to the manager's office. Likewise, the bosses probably hoped that the new control over the time clock would also give them the added bonus of weeding out militant workers, as indicated by the fact that the reinstated worker, Mallory Craig, had a history of filing "frequent grievances, typically more than one a year."

Writing about a week earlier in the same publication, Lord quoted Public Works Director Guy Costa saying, "Someone may come in and sign in for their buddy, and their buddy might come in 10 or 15 minutes later." It's easy to see how that kind of worker solidarity is a threat to management. Further, under the current system, since workers could write in their own start time, they could manipulate the time sheets directly through the mere stroke of a pen.

Costas hopes that the expensive new system will pay for itself by wringing from the workers increased productivity and eliminating what he views as overpayment. According to Costas, "If they come to work late or leave early, they're going to see a reduction in their pay." Unsurprisingly, the fingerprint surveillance is planned only for the city's blue collar workers; there is no plan to fingerprint or set up a similar system for the city's white collar managers.

But, fortunately, the workers and their union have not allowed this attack on their power to pass without challenge. Control over the time clock not only represents an important front in the battle between bosses and workers but, practically speaking, it can amount to a payraise workers extract from the boss against his or her will. According to Lord:
"I consider this very, very intrusive, a personal violation, if you will," said Eric Momberger, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals 2037 and 2719. "We're going to try to stop this."
The union also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the state Labor Relations Board. The Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee also filed a grievance against the city, claiming that the city cannot change the conditions of work without first notifying and bargaining with them.

Strangely, the resistance from workers has some support on the city council.
"Fingerprinting, I think, is beyond what we need," said city Councilman Jeffrey Koch, who was an acting foreman under Mr. Costa prior to his election in March. "If people are leaving early, and that's your reason for the time clocks, then where's your supervision?"
If workers successfully prevent the installation of the new system, the city will be stuck not only with the bill but also with the system which, unless workers remain vigilant, might reappear on another job site in the future.

But Pittsburgh workers can take some reassurance from their comrades in New Zealand, where supermarket employees early in July forced their bosses at the Motueka New World grocery to abandon a plan to force workers to utilize a fingerprint scanning time clock. Over the last few weeks, managers at the supermarket chain had collected fingerprints from the majority of its employees, hoping to force compliance with the new system at all the chains stores.

Citing the familiar mantra of techno-class war, a spokesperson for Foodstuffs, the umbrella company touted the efficiencies such a system derives for managers, including preventing workers clocking in and out for each other. But, one worker refused to participate in the system. Keely-Anne Robinson, a part-time shelf stacker "complained that the fingerprinting system was introduced without any staff consultation or assurances that their fingerprints would be used solely for clocking in."

In fact, according to an article in the New Zealand Herald, "Supermarket manager Bruce Miller had told staff they had to supply their fingerprints in order to be clocked in and out, suggesting they would not otherwise be paid, Close Up reported."

In the face of that coercion, Robinson responded, "I think they've taken advantage of a small chain of people, people that really need their jobs. I think they've taken advantage of them and just ushered them in like a whole bunch of sheep because they won't say anything."

In response to the pressure from workers and negative publicity, however, managers were forced to back down, allowing Robinson and others to log in and out with a PIN number instead of a finger scan, preserving autonomy and some workers power over the machine and, thus management. Most importantly, a precendent has now been set for future challenges to technology at work, offering the chance of developing a critical, broader view of the class war nature of technology at the point of production. All hope is not lost after all.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Two views: transgender and immigrant

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an interesting take on the debate raging within academia about women's aptitude, role, participation and success within scientific fields of study.
Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers' assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

That's because Barres used to be a woman himself.
As the debate on women in science heats up again, Barres took the opportunity to share the perspective on the issue that his unique status as transgendered affords him. Many of his observations translate, as would be expected, far beyond the world of science.
After he undertook a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," he wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."
The article continues:
Barres said he has realized from personal experience that many men are not conscious of the privileges that come with being male, which leaves them unable to countenance talk of glass ceilings and discrimination.

In an interview, Nancy Andreasen, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Iowa, agreed with Barres. She said it took her a long time to convince her husband that he actually got more respect when he approached an airline ticket counter than she did. When she stopped sending out research articles under her full name and used the initials N.C. Andreasen instead, she said, the acceptance rate for her publications soared.
That such attitudes within science prevail should come as no surprise, given the sexist nature of society as a whole, but it sure ought to give us pause the next time we hear some scientist - male or female - lecture us about the infallible and self-correcting nature of science. Science, it turns out, is just as open to manipulation and the influence of personal and social biases, discriminations and hierarchies as anything else.

Meanwhile, Northeastern Pennsylvania's Times Leader online reports on the concerns of one Latino resident of Hazleton, which just passed a strict anti-immigration law. According to an article posted on the Muslim American Society's webpage,
The city council of Hazleton, a former coal-mining town of some 31,000 people, late on Thursday passed a measure that will deny a business permit to anyone hiring illegal immigrants.

It also imposes a $1,000 fine on any landlord who rents to illegal immigrants, and establishes English as the town's official language.

The ordinance states that illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, imposes a financial burden on hospitals and reduces the quality of other public services in the town.

Hazleton boomed under a wave of Eastern European immigrants in the late 1800s, and has experienced a surge of Hispanic immigration in recent years.

The townspeople are suffering from "the debilitating effects on their economic and social well being imposed by the influx of illegal aliens," the regulation says, and the city has the authority to punish those who aid illegal aliens.
In the Times Leader article, Rudy Espinal, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic asks the question that the anti-immigration folks hate to answer.
“I’m legal, but how will the cashier know I’m legal? Do I look legal? Should she ask for my green card? Should people start carrying their green cards in their wallet? What about people who are American citizens and don’t have green cards? How are they going to prove that they’re citizens?”
In the United States, stretching back from slavery and the Chinese Exclusion Act until today, citizenship has always been code for "white." No white people were stopped under the Fugitive Slave Act and forced to defend their citizenship, but even free Blacks in the North routinely had to prove their free status or risk deportation South. In fact, catching and returning escaped slaves was one of the main roles of early police forces in the North. Thus, the enforcement of rights based on citizenship is defacto a defense of white privilege and an attack on people of color.

Espinal continues,
Some illegal immigrants have children born in Hazleton. Will families split up if those parents want their children to stay here, both because it’s the only home the children know and because the children might have more opportunities here in the long run? If so, will the children go to foster care?

What if illegal immigrants evade detection? Will a business that employs or does business with them have to shut down? Espinal sees a scenario in which other legal workers, including non-Latinos, could be out of work as a result of an employer’s licensing penalty.

If the city, trying to avoid such situations, makes concessions and exceptions, it will open up accusations of special treatment and raise questions about the purpose of the ordinance itself, he said.

Officials in surrounding Hazle Township, which houses numerous industrial plants and warehouses, followed Hazleton’s lead by approving an ordinance that denies a business occupancy permit or contractor’s license – or renewals for at least two years – to companies that hire illegal immigrants.

“I don’t know how this will be implemented, but I hope a big plant won’t get shut down because of this because we all suffer when 500 people have to go on unemployment at one time, including the people who were born here.”

He also wonders about people who are only an appointment away from securing legal residency. Will they be treated the same?

“Some would say it’s black and white. The illegal is a criminal and that’s it. We should hang him. But what if someone has been here 10 years and has accomplished a way of life, trying to do good things in the community? Maybe that’s not so bad.”
Another Pennsylvania newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, reported on the enforcement of the measure, signed into law just this week by the town's mayor, Lou Barletta.
The city's Code Enforcement Department will implement the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a law passed by the City Council on Thursday that fines landlords $1,000 per day for each illegal immigrant living on their properties. It takes effect in two months.

"Do I have confidence that employees of the city of Hazleton will be able to implement this policy in a way that makes sense? Absolutely not," said Lee Llambelis, legal director of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Llambelis said her organization will file a lawsuit that will claim the ordinance violates the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration.

"We very much expect there to be similar cookie-cutter ordinances popping up all over the country," she said. "We will start in Hazleton but are prepared to litigate them nationally."
In fact, as we have seen here in Arizona, states, counties and cities are stepping into the vacuum created by inaction on immigration at the national level, and it is at the local level where white supremacist anti-immigration movements have strongest influence. The one thing keeping national immigration legislation in check at the Federal level is the split within the capitalist class around the usefulness of cheap labor and the danger of a populist white supremacist revolt from their own ranks below. The spread of these ordinances at the local level is more evidence that this white supremacist, populist movement is gaining strength.
"It's looking like we're going to see a tidal wave of local governments stepping up to the plate on handling illegal immigration on the local level," said Joseph Turner, who proposed an ordinance similar to Hazleton's in San Bernardino, Calif. "And I believe it's going to put enormous pressure on the federal government to finally act."

Arizona, Colorado and California are among the states that have acted unilaterally to control undocumented immigration, said Gabriel Escobar. He co-authored a national survey of Hispanics released Thursday that found most believe the national immigration-policy debate has increased discrimination.

"What people are realizing, and what Hazleton and other communities like Hazleton are a sign of, is that even though this is entirely a federal responsibility, the effects of immigration are felt most acutely on the local level," said Escobar, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

The vote in Hazleton will alienate the influx of thousands of Hispanic residents whose arrival has revitalized the town, said Lazaro Fuentes, board chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Lehigh Valley, an organization of about 200 businesses 35 miles southeast of Hazleton.

"This is politicization of a hot topic right now, and enforcing it is about as enforceable as the fact that you leave your house without $2 in your pocket and you can be arrested for vagrancy," he said.
Time will tell whether such laws are enforceable or not, but American history has seen mass deportations and internments before - and, of course, the prison system currently houses more than two million mostly people of color already - so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we will see such policies return or expand. More likely, however, the issue will continue to fuel the growth of the reactionary, white supremacist right - movements that have frequently proven themselves quick and dangerous when it comes to taking action in defense white skin privilege. With the American system rooted in white supremacy, it will surely respond sympathetically to their demands, if only to placate them and preserve elite power.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Scanner Doctorly

From the AP business desk:
In a new test program, Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey plans to implant patients suffering from chronic diseases with a microchip that will give emergency room staff access to their medical information and help avoid costly or serious medical errors, the insurer said on Friday.
The company hopes to implant RFID chips into the arms of 280 regularly returning patients so that doctors can identify and retrieve medical information from them even if they are unconscious. Participation is free, and doctors will implant the chip above the elbow on the right arm. The hope is that the information will help reduce medication errors or incorrect diagnoses. Of course, the information retrieved still has to be accurate for that to happen. Or one has to have had access to a doctor so that good medical records exist at all.

Allison Burke, writing for the Ledger Online, paints a nightmare scenario for us:
Someone calls 911. You hear sirens and see lights. The seconds tick by too quickly.

After an interminable time, you arrive at the emergency room.

But there's a problem. No one knows who you are. You try to tell them, but you can't speak. Who knows how long it might be before you get help?

Unfortunately, this situation is all too common. Patients are admitted to the emergency room every day without identification, without which they cannot be helped.
Technology boosters generally like to paint horrific scenarios in order to scare us into accepting their specialized and often less than benevolent "help." In fact, Verichip spokeswoman Nicole Philbin really let's us have it with the scare tactics. Of course, her company provides the chip. According to the article:
"Sometimes people don't think about that," she said. "Verichip gives them peace of mind that, if they're unconscious, they'll be taken care of. And even if they're not unconscious, it saves time."And time is of the essence in the emergency room. An estimated 98,000 people die in the hospital each year, just waiting to be identified and to receive treatment, Philbin said.
But, when the reporter interviews emergency room doctor Steven Yucht, he doesn't respond with the same urgency. He says,
"We have (John Doe patients) all the time. Usually the only reason (patients have no ID) is because they're nefarious, involved in drugs or something illegal, and so they're not carrying their IDs. But if grandma comes from the nursing home, we may not have her name, but we can figure it out pretty quick and get her medical attention."
When Burke does allow RFID critics to speak, she allows Verichip to pooh-pooh the concerns with a tactic standard in the pro-tech inventory, saying, essentially, that other technologies have already eroded the rights or freedoms that critics want to defend, so we ought to have no worries about the new system.
"Verichip is not a tracking device," she said.

"The average person's cell phone has GPS tracking ability. You can find out more from someone who carries a cell phone than (someone who is implanted with) Verichip."
And that's a real problem. Technological "progress" is not up for debate. When potential downsides are discussed at all, which is rare, they are generally immediately dismissed. The thought that an unaccountable system of surveillance, dependent on specialization, bureaucratization and potentially mandatory participation might be a bad idea is off the table, and the next time another intrusive technology comes along, we'll all be told that it isn't so bad because we already lost those freedoms with the Verichip. That's progress.

In the end, Doctor Yucht puts it this way, hardly a political critique of technology, but it's all we get: "(Verichip is) something helpful for those who have the money to buy peace of mind with the unrealistic ideal that it's going to be used the way (they) expect it to."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A few views from Iraq

Salon.com reports that the US military appears to have routinely utilized the kidnapping and detention of the innocent relatives of Iraqis it sought to question or capture as a way to pressure them to reveal information or turn themselves in.
It now appears that kidnapping, scarcely covered by the media, and absent in the major military investigations of detainee abuse, may have been systematically employed by U.S. troops. Salon has obtained Army documents that show several cases where U.S. forces abducted terror suspects’ families. After he was thrown in prison, Cpl. Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader at Abu Ghraib, told investigators the military routinely kidnapped family members to force suspects to turn themselves in.
The article relates one particular incident:
In a hearing before Shays' Government Reform subcommittee last February, Provance testified that the Army had retaliated against him. Provance also made the disturbing allegation that interrogators broke an Iraqi general, Hamid Zabar, by imprisoning and abusing his frail 16-year-old son. Waxman was shocked. "Do you think this practice was repeated with other children?" he asked Provance. "I don't see why it would not have been, sir," Provance replied.

Zabar's son had been apprehended with his father and held at Abu Ghraib, though the boy hadn't done anything wrong. "He was useless," Provance said about the boy in a phone interview with Salon from Heidelberg, Germany, where he is still in the Army. "He was of no intelligence value."

But, Provance said, interrogators grew frustrated when the boy's father, Zabar, wouldn't talk, despite a 14-hour interrogation. So they stripped Zabar's son naked and doused him with mud and water. They put him in the open back of a truck and drove around in the frigid January night air until the boy began to freeze. Zabar was then made to look at his suffering son.

"During the interrogation, they could not get him to talk," Provance recalled. "They said, 'OK, we are going to let you see your son.' They allow him to see his son in this shivering, freezing, naked state," Provance said. "That just totally broke his heart and that is when he said, 'I'll tell you what you want to know.'"
Such detentions and torture appear to have become routine.

Meanwhile, Times of London correspondent James Hider reports on the ongoing and escalating chaos in an ominously titled piece, "Baghdad starts to collapse as its people flee a life of death". Hider describes the exodus of Baghdad residents from the city, as they desperately seek to escape, focusing on the stories of regular Iraqis.
Ali phoned me on Tuesday night, about 10.30pm. There were cars full of gunmen prowling his mixed neighbourhood, he said. He and his neighbours were frantically exchanging information, trying to identify the gunmen.

Were they the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia blamed for drilling holes in their victims’ eyes and limbs before executing them by the dozen? Or were they Sunni insurgents hunting down Shias to avenge last Sunday’s massacre, when Shia gunmen rampaged through an area called Jihad, pulling people from their cars and homes and shooting them in the streets?

Ali has a surname that could easily pass for Shia. His brother-in-law has an unmistakably Sunni name. They agreed that if they could determine that the gunmen were Shia, Ali would answer the door. If they were Sunnis, his brother-in-law would go.

Whoever didn’t answer the door would hide in the dog kennel on the roof.

Their Plan B was simpler: to dash 50 yards to their neighbours’ house — home to a dozen brothers. All Iraqi homes are awash with guns for self-defence in these merciless times. Together they would shoot it out with the gunmen — one of a dozen unsung Alamos now being fought nightly on Iraq’s blacked-out streets.

“We just have to wait and see what our fate is,” Ali told me. It was the first time in three years of bombs, battles and kidnappings that I had heard this stocky, very physical young man sounding scared, but there was nothing I could do to help.
He goes on to describe the mounting spiral of violence in the city, that now terrifies even residents already grown used to regular violence with its ferocity and randomness:
West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ethnic cleansing.

Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighbourhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.

Hundreds — Sunni and Shia — are abandoning their homes. My driver said all his neighbours had now fled, their abandoned houses bullet-pocked and locked up. On a nearby mosque, competing Sunni and Shiite graffiti had been scrawled on the walls.

A senior nurse at Yarmouk hospital on the fringes of west Baghdad’s war zone said that he was close to being overwhelmed. “On Tuesday we received 35 bodies in one day, 16 from Al-Furat district alone. All of them were killed execution-style,” he said. “I thought it was the end of the city. I packed my bags at once and got ready to leave because they could storm the hospital at any moment.”

In just 24 hours before noon yesterday, as parliament convened for another emergency session, 87 bodies were brought to Baghdad city morgue, 63 of them unidentified. Since Sunday’s massacre in Jihad, more than 160 people have been killed, making a total of at least 1,600 since Iraq’s Government of national unity came to power six weeks ago. Another 2,500 have been wounded.
The country continues to lurch towards civil war as the US, having set it off with its 2003 invasion, now stands helpless to stop it. The new government's plan to clamp down on violence by flooding the streets with security (including 8000 US troops patrolling Baghdad) and offering amnesty has completely failed, and Jim Mannion, writing for the AFP, reported Friday that the surge in sectarian violence has effectively scuttled any US plans for troop withdrawals any time soon.

General George Casey, in a recent interview, seemed to confirm that Al-Qaeda in Iraq's strategy of setting off sectarian violence has succeeded. "What we are seeing now as a counter to that are death squads primarily by Shia extremist groups that are retaliating against civilians. And so you have both sides now attacking civilians." More troops may have to shift to the area around Baghdad, he suggested, although the numbers have already swelled from 40,000 to 55,000 in recent weeks - over a third of all US forces in the country - and that still has not stemmed the killing.

Meanwhile, Kim Gamel, writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, describes the conditions for Iraqis who choose to work with the US Military.
The 33-year-old Iraqi is among thousands who resort to disguises and subterfuges, who endure white-knuckle commutes through potentially lethal roadblocks, just to make a living.

George is the name he got from his American employer. To reveal his real one could be his death.

"It's bad to lie to people, but the situation is very bad," he says. "I don't want to lose my head."

His wife has tried to persuade him to quit, but he stays on the job because he feels his work - helping the Americans to avoid language misunderstandings - is important. Besides, his salary of $900 to $1,050 is about 10 times the monthly average.

For the young woman who calls herself Ismaeel, her father's name, even a minor inconvenience can be a big one. Like the time the helicopter flying her back to Baghdad from an out-of-town job was late. Her family thought she worked for an Internet cafe. How would she explain the delay?

"It's not a normal life," she said. "It's a very hard situation we suffer from. I hope it will pass and everything will be fine. We'll see."
Gamel reports on the complex variety of deceptions Iraqis - not just those who work for the US - utilize everyday just to get by in a city divided along ethnic lines. Fake ID's that disguise one's Sunni or Shia religion or real name are becoming increasingly common. Identity has become a matter of life or death throughout the city.

AP writer Bassem Mroue reports on one such area of Baghdad, the Sadr slum, dominated by the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
As a car enters the Shiite district of Sadr City, a group of men step from the curb and flag down the vehicle. "Who are you and where are you going?" one of them demands.

All is well after passengers produce papers, not from the government but from the office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "We are sorry," one man says. "May God be with you."

Al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, keeps a sharp eye out for strangers in the teeming Baghdad district, home to 2.5 million people, as well as other Shiite areas across the country.

By day, militiamen in Sadr City keep weapons out of sight. By night, they set up checkpoints, where they search cars and examine IDs to guard against would-be suicide bombers and other Sunni Arab militants.
However, even though militias like the Madhi Army have been, like the US Army, unable to stop the violence (partly because, like the US Army, they engage in and provoke it themselves), residents have come to see them as vital to their protection and, indeed, survival.

An al-Sadr senior aid puts it this way, perhaps a little disingenously: "We hope the day will come when Iraqi forces are strong enough to be in charge of security. Then, we will be happy to see the Mahdi Army merged into the military and security forces."

Meanwhile, the violence continues to worsen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The age of omniscient capitalism

I stumbled upon an article on RFID Journal today that offers further examples of the way RFID will be used to discipline and further exploit workers on the job. Jonathan Collins wrote last month about the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport's use of RFID-enabled cell phones in the management and distribution of work.

The system tracks the workers for more 'efficient' assignment of work tasks. Previous to the new system, workers had been checking in manually via non-RFID cell phones with a call center that regulated the jobs, with a certain amount of flexibility, since the workers were responsible for checking in themselves.
"We didn't used to know exactly where ground staff were when it came to assigning new tasks," says Jari Viitanen, VP of business development at Northport. "They could be calling from anywhere, so assigning tasks was not based on their location."
But, thanks to the new RFID technology, management is cracking down on worker autonomy.
According to Northport, the system streamlines the allocation, workflow and reporting of passenger-services, baggage-handling and check-in tasks by providing a way for the airport work-management system to use data on the exact location of ground staff after they complete each task.
Here's how it works:
Holding the telephone's RFID reader within 10 centimeters of a location tag triggers the phone to transmit the ID numbers of the phone and tag automatically. This informs the airport work-management system of that person's location and availability for another task. This real-time data enables the Northport work-management system to determine which staff members are closest to the sites of remaining tasks, thereby saving time and creating efficiency in the work scheduling.

Work assignments are then transmitted automatically to the phone and appear on its screen. With the previous system, personnel would have to call in and wait, or browse multiple voice menus to learn their next task. Now, a worker presents an existing RFID-enabled identity card into the handset used for that shift, and the phone's RFID interrogator reads the tag on the card and logs the employee in.
The airport is currently using about 70 handsets and has slightly more RFID-reading stations, but management hopes to expand the program to include more ground staff, which would involve 110 more units.

This reminded me of another story that I read on the same site not long ago. The company responsible for managing the London subway has RFID tagged the cars and cruelly uses the technology to extract more work from the cleaning workers who tend to the vehicles.
"The third party we pay to clean the trains has a work order to carry out, and we were not confident that they were doing so," says Martyn Capes, technical asset manager at Tube Lines. "We know how long its takes to carry out the work order properly, and RFID gave us a way to track exactly when cleaning work began and finished."

The same RFID inlays have been sandwiched within one window of each passenger car so that the cleaning process inside the cars can also be tracked. Tube Lines has tagged 172 passenger cars and engines as part of the trial. The cleaning staff is employing some of the 242 Symbol Technologies MC9000 mobile computers already in use at Tube Lines, fitted with RFID reader modules for the trial.

Tube Lines' cleaning staff is required to carry out a number of tasks in each car. A list of the required duties is automatically uploaded to each cleaner's handheld computer. When a cleaner completes a task indicated on the computer, he or she marks it off as being finished. Once all tasks have been carried out, the worker places the computer within a few inches of the RFID tag in the window to signal the car has been cleaned. That RFID read also provides a trigger for the handheld computer to upload its cleaning data over a wireless LAN covering the train depot. This informs Tube Line's back-office systems that the car has been cleaned.

"Using handhelds and RFID has transformed a 13-step process of getting work carried out to just two steps, and a 10-day paper-based system into real-time notification of completed work," says Capes.
But, disgruntled workers won't be able to make up for the speed-up, loss of freedom and increased exploitation by taking home company property. Management plans on RFID tagging "maintenance equipment and tools to manage its inventory and working practices more efficiently." Look for them to pop up everywhere. "[A]n RFID tag costs just pennies," points out technical asset manager Martyn Capesat.

In a recent Globe and Mail article on RFID and business, capitalists and managers practically drooled at the possibilities the technology affords them.
"We call it the Internet of things," said Art Smith, chief executive officer of EPCglobal Canada, a Toronto-based electronics standards organization that hopes to see all RFID systems integrated into a massive worldwide network one day. "This technology allows you to re-engineer how you do business."
Smith has tagged every one of the 6000 files in his office. He estimates the technology saves him $25,000 a year.

Ford Motor Company material flow launch manager, Alex Kumfert, raved about it: "What we're taking this to is live data, real-time performance . . . and getting those trailers on-site and off-site as efficiently as possible."

In her June 29 article, "On the right track with RFID," Padmaja Krishnan lists the many, many uses that RFID offers obsessive compulsive bosses. Many of them are familiar to regular readers here, but it all comes down to this corporate doublespeak:
With increasing business benefits, decreasing costs and more number of applications and solutions becoming available, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is finding acceptance and adoption across all verticals. Retail ports, industries, warehouses, parking lots, toll roads, travel/car fleet units, banks, airports, judiciary and various departments of government are significant adopters of this technology. While priorities vary for industries, the bottom line expectations essentially remain the same. Most companies are adopting RFID technology for management of security, access control, logistics as well as real-time information access and update with tags, sensors, readers and state-of-the-art business application systems.
In other words, more exploitation and less autonomy, more power for the boss and less for workers, and a future "internet of things" that will attempt to know where everything in the world is at all times. Welcome to the age of omniscient capitalism.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The RFID attack on workers power

There is little doubt in my mind that technology, especially since the rise of industrial capitalism, has been a disaster for humanity. Those of you who know my politics are certainly aware that I am a firm believer in the notion that technology is not a neutral force, but rather a political tool wielded by the capitalist and bureaucratic class for the domination of the working class (see my article, "Future's Past: Technology and the Class War by Other Means"). This is accomplished through increasing control over the worker, workplace and work day - limiting worker autonomy - as well as increased control over inventory and, very often, de-skilling and eliminating workers entirely.

Along those lines, the Washington Post reports today that wages for lower income workers have grown at an anemic rate while those of upper income workers and managers have soared. The reason?
[C]ompanies are simultaneously finding ways to automate clerical tasks, move call centers to cheaper places and handle business online, weakening demand for less-skilled workers.

Consider Focuspoint Inc., a company in Manassas that sells recorded messages for companies to play when callers are on hold. Three years ago, two order clerks frantically juggled calls and faxes from several hundred clients placing orders. Now the company has 1,700 clients and is expanding its sales and other high-level staff but still has just those two clerks -- who now sit quietly overseeing Internet orders.

"Three years ago, we would have had to hire more people to handle all our new clients," said Joe Martin, a vice president. "Now, we rely on new technology to pick up that work."

Such innovations help explain why, from 2003 to 2005, the average wage for people in the lowest pay bracket, with salaries around $20,000, rose only 5.4 percent in the Washington region -- not enough to keep up with rising prices. For the jobs that pay around $60,000, salaries rose 12.4 percent, well ahead of the 6.8 percent inflation in that period.
Technology has allowed bosses to reduce the power of some of their workers on the job, and that has reduced their ability to demand higher wages. As someone who has personally suffered job de-skilling and the resulting collapse of a good wage package, I can understand this phenomenon quite well. This deskilling has a direct impact on workers. From the same article:
"This is a divided labor market," said Jonas Prising, president of Manpower North America, a large staffing firm. "There's no talent shortage for people with low skills or no skills, but you do have a talent shortage for people with specific skills."

In the 1990s boom, Prising said, there was a shortage of low-skilled as well as high-skilled talent, sending wages up across the board.

What changed? Many new technologies and ways of operating -- often aimed at cutting labor costs -- were in their infancy in the late 1990s. Now they are maturing, tamping demand for low-skilled workers.

Some examples: The retail industry has shifted to big stores that require fewer cashiers (two-year wage gain nationwide: 2.1 percent) and stock clerks (2.7 percent) than the department stores and small shops they replace. Firms that once employed dozens of people handling payrolls now hand the work to huge companies that do nothing else and rely heavily on automation (payroll clerk wages: up 4.7 percent). And long-distance telephone costs have dropped so much that it is feasible for big companies to hire people in the rural United States or abroad -- far from corporate offices -- to take phone orders (order clerk wages: up 3.2 percent).
Consider the impact of technology on the wages and job power of a typical bank teller.
More people are banking on the Internet, by telephone or at teller machines. So while banks had 88 tellers per $1 billion in bank assets in the region in 2003, two years later they had 84, based on a comparison of data from bank regulators and the Labor Department. And in those two years, tellers' average salary rose only 4.6 percent, to $24,090.

When demand for even a few types of low-wage jobs goes soft, wages can be held down in all of them, economists say. That's because a worker qualified to be a retail clerk might just as well become a security guard or receptionist. That means, in effect, that all low-wage workers are competing with one another, a sharp contrast with more specialized jobs.
Technology, in effect, turns one worker against another as we are increasingly forced to compete for whatever jobs remain for low or de-skilled workers.

Meanwhile, the Post reports in the very same issue, that
It was another banner year for the Washington area's highest-paid executives.

The median total compensation for the 100 highest-paid executives at local public companies rose 21.2 percent in 2005, to $6.4 million from $5.2 million the year before. While the median salary for that group increased 4 percent, bonuses climbed nearly 14 percent, the value of the typical stock option grant went up by more than 25 percent, and other forms of long-term compensation leapt by a third.
There is a direct connection between these two stories, as reduced worker power to demand wages and increased exploitation at work leads directly to increasing profits and incomes for managers and capitalists. According to the article:
Altogether, the more than 700 executives at 157 firms in The Post's study took home $467.5 million in salary and bonus. Their total compensation -- including options, perks and other items -- had a combined value of almost $1.4 billion, more than the budget of the D.C. public schools.

The average worker in the Washington area was making $50,000 in wages or salary as of May 2005, according to the most recent local snapshot from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For private-sector workers nationwide, total compensation rose an average of 2.9 percent last year.
A stark difference indeed.

It's important to realize, however, that technology serves more than one purpose for the capitalist. Sure, it de-skills and reduces wages, but it also reduces worker power and independence on the job. One of the most important tools we have, as workers, is our ability to re-appropriate time and product for our own ends. In essence, we take the job, which is designed by the boss to suit her own ends, and we use it to advance our own position either relative to the boss or perhaps in other areas in our lives. Examples of this include taking long breaks, stealing product, making personal phone calls and a whole host of other scams and manipulations with which all workers are familiar. This autonomous activity is at the core of the struggle between the capitalist and the worker, as he attempts to regulate us and we fight for independence. In the broad sense, when we do this, we are fighting for control over our lives and the means of production, both of which the capitalist and managers jealously guard but which we must control if we are to be free.

And, so to illustrate this point, consider an article today from the RFID Journal. Entitled, "USPS Uses RFID to Manage Vehicles, Drivers", this article strikes a special chord with me, since I was a reasonably well-paid postal worker for a while, before being suddenly and quite coldly shown the door, along with a hundred of my union brothers and sisters, when new software and computers made our jobs redundant.

For those who don't know, RFID is key to the capitalist's new vision of the workplace. This technology, involving small imbedded radio transmitters, readable at a distance, promises to revolutionize inventory and control of workers, allowing the boss, for the first time, to know the location of individual items and workers at any time. This is a tremendous threat to worker autonomy. As with all major technologies, the nanny state, protector of the capitalist class, has massively subsidized this attack on the working class. After several years of heavy military purchasing to get the technology off the ground, it's now ready for prime time, and businesses across the country from Wal-Mart to, well, the Post Office, are jumping on board, hoping to reap the benefits they can derive from increased "efficiency," doublespeak for increased exploitation of workers.

USPS "manager of material-handling deployment with the USPS' engineering department," Victoria K. Stephen, gushes enthusiastically as she highlights the features of the new system.
"This system allows for driver authentication; real-time location of vehicles; two-way messaging; maintenance and productivity tracking; speed, weight and impact sensing; and impact accountability; and facilitates OSHA [the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration] compliance and tracking, just to name a few of its capabilities."
The article continues,
After a vehicle's VAC reads a postal employee's employee ID badge, the PIVMS authenticates that person as the authorized driver, confirming that his or her training certification is valid and current. PIVMS will also provide the driver with the required OSHA checklist at the start of each operating day, ensuring that the vehicle is in safe operating condition before being put into service.

Supervisors can use the PIVMS system to locate the nearest driver to pick up or move mail containers to the next operation, or to ensure that the mail makes it onto a specific truck for a critical dispatch. This facilitates USPS' ability to meet its delivery service goals. They can also send information to a specific driver or vehicle. PIVMS helps the USPS manage driver training and vehicle maintenance, while reporting features can analyze operations, identify potential problems and create operational plans.

Stephen says PIVMS provides the USPS with a wealth of new data, largely because much of the information it is designed to collect has not been available before. "In one of our early installations, we saw that in a facility with a fleet of approximately 50 powered industrial vehicles, there were two PIVs that were not even turned on for over two months during the fall and holiday mailing season," she says. "This type of information allows us to appropriately size the PIV fleet and reduce associated equipment/lease/maintenance costs, without compromise to mail delivery service."
Clearly, this new technology will have deleterious effects on worker autonomy. Increasingly able to track every move workers make, USPS employees will find their independence severely curtailed with RFID implementation. For instance, from working at the Post Office and warehouses, I can say that there are all kinds of reasons why workers might want to keep vehicles down, contrary to the wishes of their managers, including reducing work, stretching out hours for overtime or keeping unsafe vehicles off the road. This is what I mean by worker autonomy, and RFID represents a serious attack by the capitalists on this critical independence.

DigitalJournal.com reported a few days ago on RFID, highlighting Wal-Mart's application of the technology.
In 2003, Wal-Mart announced it was going to require its top suppliers to use the tags and after much testing, its RFID campaign went live in January 2005. Execs drooled even more when analysts projected savings of up to $8.35 billion with a complete RFID makeover. How? Simply by making supply chains more efficient.

Before RFID, stockroom clerks would manually record products as they arrived to the store, sifting through order forms to confirm inventory. On the sales floor, if toothpaste was running low, the “associate” (as Wal-Mart calls them) would have to scan the barcode to see how many items were left in stock, then go through the tedious task of finding more Colgate in the crowded stockroom.

But by using RFID, Wal-Mart completely overhauled the process: On every door at the back of the store, the company installed RFID readers and antennas. As each skid and box passes an RFID antenna, a flashing light indicates that the case’s tag had been read — no computer screens, no manual counting. The products are automatically added to the store’s inventory through its computer system.

The retailer also installed RFID readers on doors leading out to the sales floor. As boxes are taken out of the stockroom to replenish shelves, tags on the cases are read and the system updates itself, knowing the items have been put on the floor. If a product is sold out, the computer sends a message to the store manager to indicate what needs replenishing.

In addition to finding product, RFID has the potential to eliminate one of shopping’s worst headaches: the checkout desk. Future versions could allow you to simply walk through an RFID checkout with all of your groceries in hand and readers could automatically debit your bank account or credit card. A cashier’s job might be rendered obsolete.
Cashiering is a horrible, boring and annoying job. I did it for many years. As bad as it is, however, cashiering - especially in grocery stores - is one of the few places left in this country where a relatively unskilled worker - disproportionately women in this case - can earn a decent wage. Is it any wonder that the capitalist wants to eliminate it? Further, imagine the power that RFID checkout hands over to the boss during a strike? It's no "neutral" coincidence that these cashier-less checkouts have proliferated in the last several years. These systems are an attack on workers. Indeed, RFID transfers massive power over production and inventory off the shop floor and into the manager's office, and that's a set-back for workers.

Also from the same article:
One celebrated study from the University of Arkansas reported that RFID-enabled stores had reduced out-of-stock items by 16 per cent. The study also said that RFID-tagged items were put on the shelf three times faster than usual.
With the diminished power of the workers on the shop floor, there is little chance that these efficiencies will result in higher wages for workers. Without the power to collectively challenge the boss's authority, workers will increasingly find themselves on the low end of the pay scale. It's for this reason, among others, that the fight against the boss must include the fight against technology on the floor.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Living in Shit (an excerpt from Mike Davis' Planet of Slums)

The following is an excerpt from Mike Davis' excellent book Planet of Slums. Davis' writing provides a startling and provocative view on the world we live in. In this book, he examines the increasing slummification of the Third World, as rural areas depopulate at an astonishing rate and the former residents move to ever-growing megacities, where they crowd together in miserable conditions and unemployment. Half the urban population of the world lives like this, and the numbers are growing every day. Consider it a must read this summer.

The excerpt follows:


Excremental surplus, indeed, is the primordial urban contradiction. In the 1830s and early 1840s, with cholera and typhoid rampant in London and the industrial cities of Europe, the anxious British middle class was forced to confront a topic not usually discussed in the parlor. Bourgeois "consciousness," Victorian scholar Steven Marcus explains, "was abruptly disturbed by the realization that millions English men, women and children were virtually living in shit. The immediate quesiton seems to have been whether the weren't drowning in it." With epidemics believed to originate from the stinking fecal "miasmas" of the slum districts, there was sudden elite interest in conditions like those catalogued by Friedrich Engels in Manchester, where in some streets "over two hundred people shared a single privy," and the once-rustic River Irk was "a coal-black stinking river full of filth and garbage." Marcus, in Freudian gloss on Engels, ponders the irony that "generations of human beings, out of whose lives the wealth of Englad was produced, were compelled to live in wealth's symbolic, negative counterpart."

Eight generations after Engels, shit still sickeningly mantles the lives of the urban poor as (to quote Marcus again), "a virtual objectification of their social condition, their place in society." Indeed, one can set Engles's The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 side by side with a modern African urban novel, such as Mehja Mwangi's Going Down River Road (1976), and ponder the excremental and existential continuities. "In one of these courts," wrote Engels of Manchester, "right at the entrance where the covered passage ends is a privy without a door. This privy is so dirty that the inhabitants can only enter or leave the court by wading through puddles of stale urine and excrement." Similarly, Mwangi writes of Nairobi in 1974: "Most of the paths crisscrossing the dewy grasslands were scattered with human excrement... The cold wet wind that blew across it carried, in the same medium with the smell of shit and urine, the occasional murmur, the rare expression of misery, uncertainty, and resignation."

The subject, of course, is indelicate, but it is a fundamental problem of city life from which there is surprisingly little escape. For ten thousand years urban societies have struggled against deadly acccumulations of their own waste; even the richest cities only flush their excrement downstream or pump it into a nearby ocean. Today's poor megacities - Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on - are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians. (Except, perhaps, Rudyard Kipling, a connoisseur, who in The City of Dreadful Night happily distinguished the "Big Calcutta Stink" from the unique pungencies of Bombay, Peshawar, and Benares.) Constant intimicay with other people's waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the unversal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.

The global sanitation crisis defied hyperbole. Its origins, as with many Third World urban problems, are rooted in colonialism., The European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in native neighborhoods, preferring instead to use racial zoning and cordons sanitaires to segregate garrisons and white suburbs from epidemic disease; postcolonial regimed from Accra to Hanoi thus inherited huge sanitation deficits that few regimes have been prepared to aggressively remedy. (Latin American cities have serious sanitiation problems, but nothing to compare with the magnitude of those in Africa or South Asia.)

The megacity of Kinshasa, with a population fast approaching 10 million, has no waterborne sewage system at all. Across the continent in Nairobi, the Laini Saba slum in Kibera in 1998 had exactly 10 working pit latrines for 40,000 people, while in Mathare 4A there were two public toilets for 28,000 people. As a result, slum residences rely on "flying toilets" or "scud missiles," as they are also called: "They put the waste in a polythene bag and throw it on to the nearest roof or pathway." The prevalence of excrement, however, does generate some innovative urban livelihoods: in Nairobi, commuters now confront "10-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement - ready to thrust them into an open car window - to force the driver to pay up."

Sanitation in South and Southeast Asia is only marginally better than in sub-Saharan Africa. Dhaka, a decade ago, had piped water connections serving a mere 67,000 houses and a sewage disposal system with only 85 connections. Likewise, less than 10 percent or homes in metro Manila are connected to the sewer systems. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, still depends on open ditches for disposal of most of its wastewater. In contemporary India - where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open - only 17 of 3700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before finaly disposal. A study of 22 slums in India found 9 with no latrine facilities at all; in another 10, there were just 19 latrines for 102,000 people. The filmaker Prahlad Kakkar, the auteur of the toilet documentary Bumbay, told a startled interviewer that in Bombay "half the population doesn't have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside That's five million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that's two and a half million kilos of shit each morning." Similarly, "a 1990 survey of Delhi," reports Susan Chaplin, "showed that the 480,000 families in 1100 slum settlements had access to only 160 toilet seats and 110 mobile toilet vans. The lack of toilet facilities in slum areas has forced slum dwellers to use any open space, such as public parks, and thus has created tensions between them and middle class residents over defecation rights." Indeed, Arundhati Roy tells of three Delhi slum-dwellers who in 1998 were "shot for shitting in public places."

Meanwhile in China, where urban shantytowns reappeared after the market reforms, many in-migrants live without sanitation or running water. "There are reports of people," writes Dorothy Solinger, "squeezed into shacks in Beijing, where one toilet served more than six thousand people; of a shantytown in Shenzhen housing fifty shelters, in which hundreds subsisted without running water;... [and] a 1995 survey in Shanghia revealed that a mere 11 percent of nearly 4500 migrant households actually possessed a toilet."

Being forced to exercise bodily functions in public is certainly a humiliation for anyone, but, above all, it is a feminist issue. Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene. "The absence of toilets," writes journalist Asha Krishnakumar, "is devastating for women. It severely affects their dignity, health, safety and sense of privacy, and indirectly their literacy and productivity. To defecate, women and girls have to wait until dark, which exposes them to harassment and even sexual assault."

In the slums of Bangalore - the high-tech poster city for "India Shining" - poor women, unable to afford the local pay latrines, must wait until evening to wash or relieve themselves. Researcher Loes Schenk-Sandbergen writes:

Men can urinate at any time at any place, whereas women can only ben seen following the call of nature before sunrise and after unsset. To avoid hazards, women have to go in groups at five o'clock in the morning... often [to] marshy land where snakes would be hiding, or some deserted dumping ground with rats and other rodents. Women often say that they do not eat during the daytime just to avoid having to go to the open field in the evening.

Similarly, in Bombay women have to relieve themselves "between two and five each morning, because it's the only time they get privacy." The public toilets, explains the writer Suketu Mehta, are rarely a solution for women because they seldom function: "People defecate all around the toilets, because the pits have been clogged for months or years."

The solution to the sanitation crisis - at least as conceived by certain economics professors sitting in comfortable armchairs in Chicago and Boston - has been to make urban defecation a global business. Indeed, one of the great achievements of Washington-sponsored neoliberalism has been to turn public toilets in cash points for paying off foreign debts - pay toilets are a growth throughout Third World slums. In Ghana a user fee for public toilets was introduced by the military government in 1981; in the late 1990s toilets were privatized and are now described as a "gold mine" of profitability. In Kumasi, for instance, where members of the Ghanaian Assembly wom lucrative contracts, private toilet use for one family, once a day, costs about 10 percent of the basic wage. Likewise, in Kenyan slums such as Mathare it costs 6 cents (US) for every visit to a privatized toilet: this is too expensive for most poor people, who would prefer to defecate in the open and spend their money on water and food. This is also the case in Kampala slums such as Soweto or Kamwokya, where the public toilets cost a daunting one hundred shillings per visit.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Politics of Air Conditioning

What was the world like before air conditioning?  I know it seems like blasphemy - especially in Phoenix - but this technology hasn't been with us all that long.  And most of the world still does without it for most of their lives.  Like all technologies, while it is sold to us as either neutral or a necessity, air conditioning in fact reflects the political interests of the capitalists, bureaucrats, professionals and politicians that developed, installed and proliferated it. And they have used it to remake our lives to their satisfaction, extracting increasing profits from us for longer periods of time.

So, that said, here is some interesting reading for these hot July days.  Stan Cox has written two provocative articles on the political nature of air conditioning and the role it plays in capitalist development and social control.  I recommend the first article more than the second, as the second article does delve a bit into some largely meaningless party politics, as if somehow the Democrats were any less wedded to industrial and technological capitalism than their kissing cousins in the GOP.  Nevertheless, both articles are quite interesting.  Check them out.

Air-conditioning: Our Cross to Bear (part one)
Those air-conditioners that keep things cool and comfortable inside are helping make the outside world even nastier.

America's Air-Conditioned Nightmare (part two)
Air-conditioning puts a chill on community spirit, aids the cause of anti-enviros, and just might have given us President George W. Bush.

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