My parents were not college educated. As a child, my father woke at 3 a.m. to deliver milk on horse-drawn wagons and run a paper route all before the morning school bell. He left high school in his junior year to help support his family during the Great Depression. So among many things that college did was teach me vocabulary I did not hear at home. I carried a dictionary with me at all times, a stranger in a strange land translating to assimilate.
Among the many words I remember looking up not once or twice but many times because its meaning kept eluding me was “reification.” Here is the first definition that popped up on a search from Wikipedia. “Reification generally refers to making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete, absent of evidence.”
I thought of that word this morning while reading this opinion about the transformation of San Francisco, “What Tech Hasn’t Learned from Urban Planning.”
A number of articles framed this opinion piece, beginning in early November with a positive account of how Twitter changed a seedy neighborhood positively.
In late November, an article on the accessibility and fairness concerns for denizens priced out of neighborhoods bought up by large Internet companies.
In many of my previous blogs, without using the word “reification,” I have woven it into my thinking. Things, people, societies, economies, politics and cultures have origins, developments, trajectories, cycles, sometimes very complex ones, to the degree that no matter how many academic disciplines scholars may throw at a subject, there is always something inexplicable about it. Such a phenomenon as "Ancient Rome" or "modern society" can never be as neat and controlled as a scientific experiment.
Technology is another example, in particular the way in which it is used contemporaneously. How much easier and more comfortable is it to bundle up loose and messy threads into a concept and give it not only a name but agency. Technology is doing it. It’s convenient shorthand. We all think we know what that means. We collectively buy into the interpretation and move on to the next thought. At that level of abstraction, it is beyond reproach. It has a life of its own, and there is almost nothing to be done about it anyway … or so we think.
At about the same time that Western thought began to reify technology (remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?), so, too, did we take world-historical transformations in the political economy of the western world, i.e. laissez-faire or “free market,” as the foundation for a modern economy. Revolutionary in the moment (remember that the Declaration of Independence and Wealth of Nations share the iconic 1776 date), centuries of political thought reified that idea. The “invisible hand” of a free market society, in the words of Adam Smith via Wikipedia, conceived the “idea of markets automatically channeling self-interest toward socially desirable ends [and] is a central justification for the laissez-faire economic philosophy, which lies behind neoclassical economics.” In plain English, the invisible hand of the market drives the economy with a force all of its own.
These shared concepts, reified notions of both technology and the market, lie behind what is transforming San Francisco’s urban landscape. The force behind the changes described in the NYT articles seems almost inevitable. It is as if no choice is involved in the process. Why? Because "technology" is reshaping society. The "invisible hand" of the market complements that effect. Consequently, pensioners displaced as a result? Neighborhoods paved over with the tasteful outlines of corporate architecture? Restaurants and shops out of business because Internet companies feed employees inside? Progress, some might say. A shame, others. With or without a moral perspective, the thinking remains the same. These are the results of inevitable forces.
But are they? These are the central questions that Allison Areiff asks in the NYT opinion piece. And they are good questions. Perhaps we all need a dictionary now that includes words such as “planning,” "public" or “policy” to inform perspectives that look more critically at “technology” and the “market.” Without that additional education, affected neighborhoods or cities seem unable to do much more than capitulate to the assumptions. There are questions and terms and concepts well worth looking up as many times as it takes to understand what is behind not only the changes in the urban landscape of San Francisco, but just about every aspect of our global society in the Internet age.