After a lengthy health sabbatical, I’m returning to blogging all things activism. Though I’ve mostly recovered, the world remains imperiled by runaway climate change, nuclear proliferation, imperialism, racism, violence against women and people of color, and the rest of the regulars in the twenty-first century. Though my progress is slow, great activists continue a great tradition of placing the human condition ahead of personal wealth, and often safety.
This is the first in what I hope will be a long tradition of discussions with activists. Below is a transcript and audio of my conversation with George Polisner. A special thank you is in order for George himself, as he kindly edited our transcript for clarity and ease.
Introduction to a Technactivist
Engaging Minds By Opening Eyes
Swallowing the Camel While Swatting the Gnat
Salvage the Franchise While Evolving Beyond the Booth
civ.works : A New Social Media Platform
Why Not Just Another Online Petition?
Labor Movements : A Hard-Fought Battle
Introduction to a Technactivist
NP Slagle: Thank you for listening to Scire Populum et Potentiam, To Know the People and Power. It’s my great pleasure to have George Polisner for the hour. George, the technologist has over a quarter of a century of experience managing and designing distributed systems, cloud services, QA and data products for various big names in high tech such as Dell and perhaps more infamously a director at Oracle. His impressive list of technical credits also include state and local initiatives as well as technology startup consulting as founder of Alonovo which we’ll talk about shortly. George, the activist is engaged in community organizing and media for a few years now and his impressive credits include the Lincoln County Democratic Central Committee in Oregon and hosting a regular program on community radio at KYAQ. Most recently, George founded civ.works, a social engagement platform designed to offer a privacy protective alternative to the for-profit social media and this is hot on the heels of a public resignation from Oracle, topics I’m very eager to explore. Welcome, George.
George Polisner: It’s a pleasure to be here, Neil.
NPS: I’d like to start with what it is that lead you to resign from Oracle, so maybe explain to listeners the genesis of that, what lead you to make that decision and what you plan to do going forward?
GP: That’s a good question. I remember after the election on November 8th, really being in shock I think with many of my progressive friends and …
NPS: We all were, yes.
GP: Yeah. It was a very dark period, but then when Oracle’s co-CEO, Safra Catz announced that she was going to work for the Trump transition team, I felt that while she was remaining active co-CEO at Oracle, and issued a statement that, “We are here to help the Trump administration,” I did not want to be included in that “we”. I did not want to normalize the kind of hateful rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign. The attacks on women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ community, I could not take part in what Safra stated or I could not tolerate her position in remaining at Oracle while joining, what I saw as something that was just a hate-filled criminal enterprise.
NPS: Right. It certainly evokes the more recent wave of resignations we saw at Google over the drone programs that they’re engaging with respect to the federal government. Was there much internal discussion along these lines with some of your fellow coworkers and leaders in the company?
GP: There was really none. As a matter of fact, I read about Safra’s position in a paper. There was no internal communication about … Or formal issuing of a statement internally and so no, there just wasn’t really much talk. There had been some early concern. As a matter of fact with Trump’s stated desire to start a Muslim database, there was a Not in Our Name campaign and I was very proud to sign on to that and lend my name as an Oracle employee that we would not support any attempt to create what we saw as a database that could be used to eviscerate someone’s human and civil rights.
NPS: Yeah, absolutely. In my own experience at Microsoft, when they Muslim ban was first announced, this was a Muslim ban 1.0 which was a spectacular failure fortunately, it did cause a great deal of churn and upset in my organization because of course Microsoft is an international corporation and we have people from all over the world working there. It’s easy to see how that could be a very visceral concern for people who work in technology and have the interplay with all of these people from other countries. Seems like it is more than what Trump was trying to promote.
GP: It really should be. If we can’t learn from history and basically pointing out a class of people really othering them as they would say at the Haas Institute, that is something that I could not stand for and I think a lot of peers … It was interesting after I did issue my public resignation letter, I had many various supportive messages from all over the world including many Oracle people.
Engaging Minds by Opening Eyes
NPS: Right. This gets to the broader conversation that I want us to have about how to engage technologists. I find that it really is true and most of the companies where I’ve worked, I have found a pretty strong contingency of people who are sympathetic to a more liberal perspective of the world. A more liberal and global perspective but there is this concern about forfeiting one’s career and certainly I’ve been part of that also and it’s hard to know where that dividing line should be. When do you take the stand and when do you not because sometimes if you do take that stand, it can mean you won’t work in industry again. I suppose that’s part of the uphill battle that we’re dealing with.
GP: In some of the messages I received, people were supportive and that they admired my courage but they weren’t in a position where they could do what I did. I recognized that. I mean, I was fortunate, Neil to have been in this industry a long time and be in a point in my career where I was able to take this personal risk but I recognize it’s an individual and very personal decision. I mean, I was at a point in time in which my kids were through college. They were independent. I’d put them on the ‘quantitative easing’ dad economic program for sometime so they were standing on their own. I was just at a very different point in my life. I also recognized that the circumstances that we’re dealing with today … At the time when I left Oracle, they were theoretical. I mean, really we didn’t know what would happen or how bad things would be. I expected an assault across the entire spectrum of progressive issues. At the time, people were saying, “Shouldn’t you really be patient and see what’s going to happen?”
NPS: Yeah. That’s what I was going to mention. One of the very frustrating things that came out of that especially in what limited social media access I have that there’s a course to rabid collection of people who are very much so going to try to force their views on us and there’s a lot of savage activity that happens online but there is this contingency of people that I like to think of the way Martin Luther King described them, the white moderates. People who want us to test the waters incrementally and say, “Well, we really should be patient,” and like you were saying, “Wait and see what this man does because it may not be all that bad. Maybe he just lied in the campaign and that was just to get people spun up but he’s going to actually gravitate more towards the center.” We know that wasn’t true.
GP: Well, we certainly felt it wasn’t.
NPS: I’m married to a psychiatrist and so that gives me special dispensation that is not necessarily good dispensation inside in the personalities and what we’re dealing with is something that is very, very pathological.
GP: There’s no question. Dr. King also talked about ‘The Fierce Urgency Of Now’ over 50 years ago. In my mind, the now has never been more fierce.
NPS: Right. The now is always with us and I think that’s part of the realization that technologist in particular I’d like to reach. It reminds me of what Noam Chomsky says about dipping a toe in and really the currents are strong enough that if you dip a toe in, it’s probably gonna sweep your way. My first exposure to you was seeing your resignation letter that was posted on LinkedIn and I have to say I was so impressed and gratified at the same time to see somebody in this industry where we have immense power and influence much more so than trade folks in other industries. Seeing you take this stand very publicly was gratifying and incredible and I realized this is a man I need to get to know.
GP: It’s funny Neil because there’s a back story there. After I’d found out that Safra had joined the Trump transition team, my children had been visiting as they often did during their … They would try to visit in winter break when they were in college and then later on they would try to plan some time around the holidays to come out and we would play Catan, Risk, and Monopoly and all of these games. We were in the midst of this.
NPS: And rather metaphoric playing Risk and Monopoly.
GP: Yes, exactly. Probably fueling my fire but when I found that this had happened, I said, “This can’t stand with me. This aggression will not stand,” to quote The Big Lebowski. I wrote this letter over the weekend and so we were watching what was happening. It was really unexpected. We would see, “Gee, this is now been seen by 3,000 people.” We were looking at that going, “Well, gee, what if it reaches 10,000? This will really be amazing.” It went over 350,000 views and then got coverage from The Guardian. Olivia Solon who is a wonderful senior reporter over at The Guardian wrote a story about it. The New York Times followed with a story. It was completely unexpected. I was very happy that it could serve while many of us were really still in a state of shock that it was able to serve as an example of tangible things that we could do to not normalize the behavior of this administration.
NPS: Right. I can remember I was a little bit more fearful that he would be elected partially because I believed social desirability keeps people from stating what they really think. It’s like you encounter a person on the street and you ask him, “Are you a racist?” Well, what is he going to say? If he tells you he’s a racist, then you’ll know you’re dealing with an interesting person.
Alonovo : Ethical Advertising
GP: We know what they’ll say now and they’ll say, “Make America great again.”
NPS: Yes, MAGA all the way. I can remember it certainly … Well, it was what motivated me to form this blog and start trying to basically establish a record, a written record of views and positions and source material that hopefully will be useful for people. I know certainly your works have been very useful for me, so far. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. I was listening to a couple of your talks in preparation for this interview and one of these talks was geared towards discussing Alonovo. I’d like to hear more about that and this notion of ethical advertising and ethical affinity. I found this to be a really interesting discussion so if you could share a few words about that.
GP: Oh, of course. During the Bush-Cheney years, in which so many people felt disenfranchised by government, I recognized along with many others that shaped my point of view really starting with John Kenneth Galbraith that there’s incredible power that’s untapped that we all share from an economic perspective and the socially responsible investing community had been started and had gained certain amount of momentum. People like Peter Kinder who founded KLD Research and Analytics which would guide institutional investors on social screens. In other words, which companies to invest in that aren’t doing as much harm instead of tobacco companies or defense manufacturers, weapons manufacturers.
GP: Exactly, coal. This work had been going on for a while. People like Peter, Amy Domini and others were really leading the charge. Other friends along the way like John Tepper Marlin and Alice Tepper Marlin really shaped a lot of my perspective but what I saw was there was a lot of guidance with respect to how we would invest capital but the majority of Americans are consumers as opposed to investors. I felt that there was a very large component that was missing from the socially responsible economic equation and so what I envisioned through Alonovo was providing a service to consumers that guided them towards which companies are doing less harm, which companies are evolving to mitigate their environmental impact that are managing their resources well, that are really truly adding value to society, that are treating their workforce well. In the classic case that I would talk about with respect to socially responsible consumption if that’s not oxymoron. It is like the Costco versus Walmart story. Costco has embraced organized labor. They treat their employees well. They’re well paid, they have great benefits and that’s one side of the case study. The other side of course is Walmart which is really an economic giant but they’re notorious in terms of trying to essentially erode any kind of organized labor and the treatment of their supply chain is horrific. When they’ve opened stores …
NPS: Abuses of Foxconn.
GP: Exactly. I mean, when they open a store, it usually means the death of the main street economy in a particular town. I look at that Costco versus Walmart example and then thought about Brave New Films and The High Cost of Low Prices and thought, you know something. If we use similar information that guides institutional investment but make it accessible to consumers, we can create demand affinity with companies that are doing the right thing. If we do this, then … I used to say hey, if we can make Dick Cheney a socially responsible investor without him having to know that he is, then we will have succeeded because if we create greater equity growth in companies who are doing the right thing, it’s going to create natural affinity for investment to follow those companies. I saw consumer demand was being a missing piece to … And why I felt that socially responsible investing have been really marginalized in terms of its impact. I got together with a group of people and put some of my money into Alonovo which was created as a service that sat as part of the Amazon shopping experience that would provide guidance, a simple grade as to whether this company was treating people well and treating the environment well and operating ethically.
GP: Then the ideas was to educate people so if they clicked on that grade, they could find out the attributes that make up what would be a more evolved socially responsible company. The ideas was to not only create this demand affinity but also educate people and make this decision ubiquitous as people would basically look at products or services in terms of not only brand reputation but also what kind of behaviors am I perpetuating when I spend my money on this particular company.
Swallowing the Camel While Swatting the Gnat
NPS: Yes. This is very important work and it very so much dovetails with this broader discussion of motivating technologists in particular. I’m guilty of this as much as anybody else of not being completely aware of the impact of all of my choices as a consumer. When I was doing research for one of my blog pieces on climate changes, I came across the works … Her name escapes me [Kari Marie Noorgard] but she’s a social scientist from Norway who wrote a book about the capacity for denial that we have around climate change. You can take me for instance. I feel like I want to be socially responsible but I also fly on planes all the time which means all my carbon footprint is much … It’s larger than a dinosaur’s footprint unfortunately because of this, and the point that she was making in these series of studies that she conducted is that it’s one thing to care about the issue and it’s another thing to know how to implement that and having this kind of service available would make it much easier and also believable for technologist. I worked with people at Amazon, some of them very good people. One guy in particular, very socially responsible and just all around a great guy, and I can remember chatting with him about the conditions of schools in the United States. He was floored when I told him that there are public schools in this country that don’t have power and don’t have water that the students can drink and don’t have enough textbooks. These are the kinds of things that are hiding in plain sight.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: Our consumer choices are related to this, and that by receiving these enormous tax breaks when we’re in the upper parts of the income spectrum, we don’t realize the huge price that’s being exacted on people in the lower couple of quintiles.
GP: That’s right. Look at the community in Flint, Michigan. I mean, that’s just not the school, it’s an entire community that’s been denied safe drinking water. You’re right. We’re really abstracted from a lot of the blight that’s caused by economic policy and this snake oil that’s sold as trickle down economics. I mean I hesitate to even use the terms trickle down and economics together because trickle down to me is nothing more than a mass fraud that’s perpetrated by the obscenely wealthy upon all of us.
NPS: Even the name of it is condescending, “trickle.”
GP: Right. Exactly
NPS: Trickle, if we give anything to the lower income earners, it should be a trickle because that’s all they really deserve. There are lots of values that are tried into just the language. Which hearkens to George Lakoff’s work around metaphors in the way that we frame these issues in the first place.
GP: It may as well be trickled on as opposed trickle down.
NPS: Yes. That is great. I have not heard that. That is excellent. Definitely great stuff and I’d like to learn more in the days ahead about your work with Alonovo.
Salvage the Franchise While Evolving Beyond the Booth
GP: Oh, sure. As a matter of fact, Alonovo at the time, we were looking for money and looking for investment to really take it to the next level and there was another entity that attracted a couple of serious rounds of venture capital. GoodGuide which was founded and operated by a Berkeley professor – Dara O’Rourke and Dara and I got to know each other fairly well. GoodGuide was eventually purchased by Underwriter Laboratories. I still think that there’s an incredible opportunity to not only … When I think about civic engagement and we’ll talk about civ.works, I’m sure next. When I think about civic engagement a large part of that is economics. A large part of that isn’t just about attending a town hall meeting or registering a vote which are incredibly important or the act of voting itself but how we live our lives is an expression of civic engagement.
NPS: Good citizenship.
GP: We go shop at Walmart and Walmart then takes some of their money and lobbies, tries to elect candidates that are for school voucher programs and want to eviscerate public education. When people shop at WalMart their money is supporting the erosion of public schools. We need to understand as a society that our power goes beyond just our vote. It’s how we choose to live and the choices that we make have influence in our society.
NPS: Right. Voting is extremely important but it also is the ground floor. It is just the beginning of civic engagement and not the end. I think that the propaganda campaigns in this country have been very successful in leading people to believe that voting may be the only power that they have that’s why we were told when we learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, well, there will be another election in a couple years.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: Just wait to vote for somebody else which certainly was not what we heard when we had the Clinton scandals in 1998-99.
GP: Right. I suspect it’s even worse than that, Neil because I think that people are told either directly or indirectly why bother to vote? Both parties are inherently corrupt. Who cares? I think it’s not only really trying to marginalize people’s impact in the political and civic world but it’s also about disenfranchising people so that we end up with a very toxic government as we have today.
NPS: With more than just the propaganda campaign. It also of course extends to voter suppression and fraud and faulty equipment and seeing to it that in the poorest of neighborhoods, it’s very, very hard to vote.
GP: It’s a science. If you know that your couple of points are going to make a difference between electing somebody like a known pedophile versus someone else, well, then you could play with voting machines, the placement of less voting machines in an area in which people are only given a very brief time to be away from work in order to vote. We’ll have lines for hours going out the door.
NPS: And always on a work day, never on a Saturday or a Sunday.
GP: That’s right, or vote by mail which is implemented in Oregon and has really been a phenomenal program. If we care about democracy, we should be demanding that people are automatically registered to vote. We should be demanding that it is easy as possible to vote not this garbage that people are taught by right-wing groups about the voter ID programs and doing these things to really try to disenfranchise people of color and impoverished that maybe don’t have the time to spend six hours at a DMV trying to get an ID to then spend four hours in line waiting to vote. To them such might make difference between paying the rent this month or being able to afford bus fare to get to their work. If we care about democracy, we should be making as easy as possible for people to vote.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly conjures this notion of what you see in dictatorships and in much more totalitarian regimes where the population generally because of sanctions are forced to starve and do without all basic necessities except for what they can get from the dictator. You see that on a … It’s certainly a different magnitude here but if it is the difference between you being able to pay your bills to go vote when you’re told your vote doesn’t matter anyway and chances are the candidate … The one of the two choices that you’re given probably won’t win anyway. It has a devastating effect in aggregate and I think that it is pretty clear to anybody who actually reads about these programs of voter suppression that the architects of these policies know very well the truth.
GP: That’s right, and it dates back to ALEC and a lot of the right wing think tanks like Heritage. I think we’re talking before about Paul Weyrich who said, “We don’t want people to vote.” When you think just about a couple of points of difference, it’s voter suppression voter caging. Other initiatives, it’s gerrymandering. It’s a electoral college that promotes a candidate getting more than three million more popular votes but losing the election. There are all kinds of ways in which the system is abused for the sake of the perpetuation of power by what we see right now.
civ.works : A New Social Media Platform
NPS: Right. A very narrow ideological framework that we’re forced to endure. I suppose that there is no time like the present to talk about civ.works. I’m very interested in understanding what is the genesis of it? First of all, what is it, what does it do? What do you want it to do and why did you create it?
GP: Well, I had a stroke. You’ll have to ask one question at a time.
NPS: I’m very, very grateful that you’re still with us. Please don’t go anywhere, George. We really need you.
GP: I am taking care of myself under my daughters and son, and granddaughter’s orders, so I appreciate that, Neil. The genesis is before the election, Adam Lake, Golda Velez and I were having great discussions in the background and we were all working full-time at other entities but we’re having great background discussions about the corrupting influence of money in the American political system and we’re having discussions about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which has brought these horrible voter suppression laws, open season on people of color laws, called Stand Your Ground, the right to work laws which are anything but …
NPS: [America’s] drug war…
GP: This is a horrible sinister organization that maybe people haven’t heard of. We started to think … I had spent a few years at the California State Legislative Counsel and Golda, Adam and I started thinking, “We need as we need a people’s ALEC,” or what we were calling a Smart ALEC at the time. We were thinking about databasing law and policy that people could use in their local jurisdiction, their state legislature or even on a federal level to promote policy and law that benefits the majority of people as opposed to just the Koch Brothers. As we have these discussions, we were continuing to design and develop and conceptualize the thought of an environment where this could all be readily available to people and then the election happened.
GP: When it did, we knew that … A couple of different things. We knew or felt that society was going to be assailed on just about every front. Every progressive front, any gain that was since the new deal would be under assault by this administration and this congress. We also felt that legislation if you look at a spectrum of civic action or civic engagement that people that can be involved in, working with legislation policy or running for office are probably the heaviest lifts there are. Asking somebody that’s already working hard, maybe working two jobs to make ends meet to get more involved in something like legislation, policy …
NPS: Take a five-year break off your career, right?
NPS: Dodge v. Ford.
GP: And sell data. That was something that we absolutely didn’t want to do. We felt the privacy protection part was incredibly important to what we have been building. We conceptualized civ.works. I left Oracle, I think around … I think it December 20th or 21st, or something like that.
NPS: The shortest day of the year, pretty much.
GP: It was the shortest day and the longest day, I guess. In any event, we went from concept to launch in two -and-a-half months. We launched on February 14th in what we call … We launched for the love of democracy, so launching on Valentine’s Day was important. Then we continued to add features and functions that were critical to the model and so we added the ability to aggregate civic actions from organizations like NARAL, Moms Demand Action, and Color of Change, Fight for $15. All of these great organizations, the ACLU, that we’re doing phenomenal work in trying to protect society’s most vulnerable to this very toxic administration. We would aggregate these actions coming from all over the United States and then when people signed up on the platform we would understand their geolocation. They would provide their zip code, and so when we had an action that matched their issue affinity and their geography, we would then basically provide them with, “Hey, here’s something that you can do. Then when people would actually say, “Yes, I did this,” they get civic action points because we felt that it’s important to overtime reward behavior even though there isn’t any inherent value or cryptocurrency behind civic action points or ego points.
NPS: Then again people will play Farmville for 100 hours a week because they get new crops. If people really believe that what they’re doing is making a difference.
GP: Well, we want a new crop of candidates.
NPS: Exactly, yes.
GP: Policy and legislation. It’s like Farmville for democracy.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly is a very big step in the direction of overcoming the problem of stratification that happens in activist circles where you may be interested in one particular kind of cause and I may be interested in another but what we want is a lot more similar than the differences would tell.
GP: That is exactly right. I felt that … Beyond just the peer technology solution, we really looked at a lot of behavioral and organizing theory and I have long felt the progressive space tends to marginalize its impact by siloing itself or segmenting itself and the reality is from a systems perspective whether you’re trying to address climate change or you’re trying to address systemic poverty in our urban areas, if we’re not working together, that’s a problem. I understand. If you’re doing climate work, that’s incredibly important because without a livable climate, there’s nothing else to talk about but there’s no reason that we can’t have mechanisms that allow us to work together as a societal flash mob. That’s how we viewed the way we would like to build and continue to evolve the thought of civ.works or the civ.works concept is respecting local autonomy, your ability to work in your passion area but when we all need to come together and act together as a society, let’s act together.
Why Not Just Another Online Petition?
NPS: Wow. An incredible model. It also is a step forward from what you referred to as the problem of petitions in another interview of yours that I listened to. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Very interesting.
GP: I’ve written a lot and I’ve probably angered some people and so sorry about that.
NPS: That’s what we do.
GP: I early on felt that civ.works must be about meaningful civic action and not all petitions are bad. I mean, I recognized that there is some value because they provide education and exposure. The things that were happening at Standing Rock for example were probably not gonna make the news but when 100,000 people were signing petitions and viewing this, that’s important. It’s important to raise visibility and awareness. What I talk about is when I get a study flood of petitions that say things like, “Paul Ryan just sneezed, sign my petition and chip in $5 now before he sneezes again.”
NPS: We need Kleenex available everywhere.
GP: That’s right. It’s a problem and it works … It’s a problem in multiple ways. One is somebody that wants to essentially have a political or civic impact things that they have, and so they do this collectivism thing, incredibly easy to click on this petition.
NPS: Dopamine releases.
GP: That’s right. As opposed to actually doing something that’s effective and advancing or resisting or helping to protect vulnerable people. You’re just getting added to a mailing list and potentially being divested of a little bit of your cash. I just saw that as a huge problem. I met with entities that are actually a fairly large players in the petition space because I said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity.” I have no desire to build civ.works on my own. I always look at how can I collaborate? How can we get the resources that we need and act together and therefore accelerate our ability to be impactful? I met with people kind of what I would think of as the usual suspects that have been doing great work but most of it has been around petitions and I met with them and said … This was well before we actually launched civ.works. I would say, “You know something? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I haven’t funded real research or anything that’s peer reviewed but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are becoming sick of petitions. Now, I said we have an administration in which we know we’re going to be attacked on all fronts, so there’s going be an explosion of petition.
NPS: It’s a flood of petitions in my inbox.
GP: I was really met with the same reaction that you would get from the band, from Spinal Tap. It’s like our amplifier goes through 11. There was really … It’s like, “Oh, no. More people are signing more petitions now. It’s really going great.” No, it isn’t. It was an unfortunate experience in some ways but it also basically solidified my thought about just really going all in on civ.works and making the investment on my own and thinking that if you’re … When you understand what the right path is there is no toe in the water. If you’re not all in then you’re just part of the problem. I didn’t wanna be a white moderate … I wanted to embrace my more activist radical thinking about getting this done.
NPS: Right. It’s very much so is an honorable and needed cause. It’s interesting that while you were talking about this problem of petitions that it does remind me of the research I mentioned earlier where once we believe that we’ve made a difference in a certain regard like I can recycle the myriad aluminum cans waste that I produce because I drink so many diet sodas, there is this thought that I’m doing something for the environment that’s good but the problem and what she was finding is that we’re large either unaware of the rest of the impact that we have or somehow we’ve managed to push ourselves into denial.
GP: We didn’t push ourselves. Advertising, it plays a lot of that. We already don’t like to change our behaviors if we don’t have to and then when we … Advertising works. How many kids understand that a happy meal involves really a horrible situation for sentient beings being packaged up in fun little wrappers with a clown.
NPS: So you could have this happy little toy that you get in a happy meal and you don’t see the little Chinese girls that are laboring in Foxconn plants in China in order to produce this toy.
GP: Or later on diabetes and other conditions that arise from eating this so called happy meal.
NPS: Yes. It’s really interesting because I do think that there is good scholarship around the psychology of petitions, the psychology of taking an action that you believe is good. What brought that to mind when I was listening to your discussions is this gamification. This mechanism by which you can tap into that in a benign way, more than benign, a good and productive way.
GP: Right. When I think about civ.works, there are activists that are gonna be engaged regardless. They don’t need civ.works. They may already belong to Indivisible or the National Organizations for Women or Color of Change or other great organizations that are doing amazing work. They’re gonna be active regardless but I have always viewed the issue with the center and even the center left and center right, the more you go towards this center, the more likely I think people need to have some reinforcement for the civic activities that they do. For the good that they do. We know that gamification works. We know that competition works. I’ve often thought wouldn’t be great to be able to take communities and say for example, “Gee, Rancho Cordova near Sacramento is all over this great activity. What’s wrong with you guys over in Elk Grove? You should be all over this to and so you can create natural competitions to cause and really incentivize behaviors that are ultimate gonna be great things for society.” That’s how I see this potentially being used in the future.
NPS: Right. Just overcoming the atomization and the separation that Americans feel culturally, we all are very, very separate from one another and a lot of that, I think has to do with the propaganda that we mentioned in advertising, and the way that families and citizens and movements are depicted on television.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: It is essentially anecdotal but I used to watch … What is it called? It’s Seth MacFarlane show. Family Guy. I would watch Family Guy which of course is just a perverse and hilarious comedy but it and The Simpsons and Futurama and these cartoons have a very negative message about activism. They are very, very, very critical of people organizing and protesting which you see that anywhere all over the news, particularly on Fox if you could even call that a news channel.
GP: I can’t.
NPS: We can’t without laughing. It’s a joke. I found it was interesting in the years that I watched this show and my own awakening coming to recognition about what activism can actually do and what civic engagement really should really look like. Not that I embody it by any stretch of the imagination now but I understand what it needs to look like. Seeing that in this show, they go out of their way to criticize anybody who would do something like that. Anybody who steps out of their cast, essentially. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on this notion that the cast system in this country very much follows the same pattern of thought, pattern of propaganda as what we had with the institution of slavery that we were told by the powers that be that this was the way God wanted the order of man to be that women are subjugated to their husbands and their fathers and that slaves are going to be slaves because of the mark of Cain or whatever nonsense that they came up with at the time. Now, we’re told that we shouldn’t act out of our economic stratum because the market wants us to be there. We shouldn’t want poor workers at McDonald’s to be paid minimum wage or to raise minimum wage because it’s not what the market demands. The market is now become this thing that we appeal to as a deity.
GP: That’s right. The market has become America’s religion and when I think about American culture, and I think that American culture right now is very diseased. Now, you look at all over the violence. We look at kids with guns. We look at everything that’s happening in society and it’s a price that we’re paying for essentially making the free market our religion where profits and the concentration of wealth and material things are valued more than nature and more than people, your neighbors, your communities.
NPS: Elderly widow across town who can’t afford medication has to choose between medication and food.
Labor Movements : A Hard-Fought Battle
GP: Look at how retirees, retired teachers were vilified in Wisconsin by Scott Walker as being, “You horrible people are the ones that are ruining America.” It’s ridiculous. We are intentionally divided and conquered and so this idea of trying to break out of silos and segmentation and work together because that’s what really is required, Neil. I mean, when I look at the games that were made in the 1960s and 1970s, it was even before the word intersectionality was coined. It was the movements of civil rights, labor, the women’s movements and the peace movements coming together to basically challenge what is the American dream? It certainly wasn’t prosecuting more on popular wars in countries where we shouldn’t have been. It was not in the denigration of women. It was not in paying women 78 cents on the dollar or worse if you’re a woman of color. It’s not disenfranchising people of color from the vote. This is not our vision of America. Maybe some people’s vision of America where only wealthy white landowners have a vote and have a say in our direction, but we are divided and conquered and it was these groups of people coming together and saying, “You know something? We’re different but we’re fighting for the same dream.” That’s what’s required now and so that’s why in a virtualized way, we created this mechanism for people to actually work together whether they know that they are or not. We don’t care. We just want them working together because that’s what’s required.
NPS: One of the questions that I get a lot when I’m discussing these kinds of things with … I don’t know. For a lack of a better term, I would say lay people as far as people that don’t take a lot of time to try to understand history. This happens usually if I’m a Lyft or an Uber and I end up talking to the driver.
GP: Great discussions.
NPS: Even when I was working at Uber, I would tell them I needed to unionize. That probably wouldn’t made me very popular at work but they would ask the question what is it that we can do? The period of time that you’re describing in the 1960s and 1970s was monumental. A monumental shift in society and we saw something very similar in the 1890s and the early 1900s with the labor movements that were coming out of the industrial revolution and they actually managed to get some pretty powerful victories like having a forty-hour workweek as opposed to an eighty-hour workweek.
GP: We forget that a lot of those movements were paid for in blood and violence. Now …
NPS: Unusual amounts of violence for similar kinds of events if you look at other western democracies. Then we also saw something very similar in the early 1930s. In fact what we saw there is something that I really do wish workers in this country fully understood. I wish I could internalize this value and I guess if there’s one value that I would suggest to them above all others, it is the power of striking. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on that we are literally one sit down strike away from deep profound societal transformation. In the early 1930s, the workers sat down on the job and that terrified the owners. It terrified those in power to the extent that we had a card carrying member of the New York elite, inherited wealth, the whole bit, Franklin Roosevelt as president becoming very sympathetic to these people out of which came the new deal.
GP: It’s economic empowerment in our collective ability when we’re not divided. As we were talking a little bit before, we started this. I know that a lot of progressive organizations in leadership talk about what do we do if Robert Mueller is fired? What if that investigation which is incredibly important to preserving a thread of our aspirations ofdemocracy, what do we do? There’s a lot of thought about well, if that happens, we go out into the streets and march. Well, there really needs to be some thought about an extended labor strike if that happens and it can’t be people pouring into the streets on a Thursday afternoon and then going back to work on Friday morning as if nothing had happened. If that happens, this is a very different America unless we all gather together in an action. When you’re dealing with a concentration of wealth as we are now among the Koch brothers and the Walton family, and the Mercer family, and the Sheldon Aldeson‘s. Then hitting them economically is the only place where it’s going to make them reconsider the fact that they have pushed American society over a threshold.
civ.works : How Can We Help?
NPS: Right. The capacity to organize nowadays … Again, when I ask this question, I refer to these points in history where people organize in the industrial revolution or the aftermath you had news journals that were produced by localities and it was a very lively press that enabled them to quickly organize just using the printing press. Now, what we have is the capacity to communicate with anyone in this entire world pretty much almost instantaneously because of the internet which is another reason that I’m really excited about civ.works and the role that it can play. One thing I definitely want to get to before we run out of time is what are the needs for civ.works? We’ve discussed this before that there is a need and demand for software engineering support among other things. If you can talk about that a little bit, I wanna share those things with listeners and readers so that they will know what they can do to help?
GP: That’s a great question, Neil. The biggest challenge that we face isn’t the fact that there are resources available but the issue is we end up competing. We have campaigns with political campaigns and other work that’s going on. We’re really long-term infrastructure and so we’re not the cool building, apartment building or condo building that everybody wants to live in with great views. We’re the infrastructure, were the plumbing and the electrical grid. We tended not be very sexy and so if we’re competing with somebody like Doug Jones in a political [race], people want to expend their money in such a way that they feel that they’re having a tangible and direct impact on what’s happening right now. That’s still very important. I mean, the campaigns absolutely need funds. They need television airtime. Ronald Reagan made sure of that by eviscerating the fairness doctrine but for us, we do need money. We need resources, we need people to become active subscribers. What we’ve done, we didn’t want economics to be a barrier to use for civ.works and we struggled with how do we fund this and make this viable? We adopted a model very much like The Guardian newspaper. We didn’t want to have a pay wall and so we took away the pay wall but we do ask if people can afford to do it that they purchase monthly subscriptions for $3.99. That helps us immeasurably. That creates a foundation of revenue that we then use for operations, for new software development. There’s absolute things that we want to do. We want to have a native mobile platform available for civ.works to make it easier to use. We want to improve our core experience. There are certain very powerful functions and features that we to implement that are really waiting for the resources to get … I mean, we know what we want and we’re waiting for the financial or engineering resources to help us get there. Then once we do, once we have what we believe is a pretty well evolved set of features, functions, and mobile capability, we want to democratize development. This is the people’s social platform and so we want our subscribers to weigh in and say, “You know something? This would be a great … If we did this, let’s build this.” For us, it’s about resources whether it’s tax deductible donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. It’s about people that volunteer on the platform by helping us review and approve actions that we collect from all over the United States and really the world. There’s some talk about extending our capability. There’s been talk about using us in the UK.
GP: Some great discussions about potentially using this platform in Brazil. Anywhere, where we’re talking about how to organize people against the interest of organized, concentrated wealth. civ.works can be an effective mechanism in the tool chest of society, in the tool chest of the 99% to actually help rebalance power. Anyway, for us, it’s really about money and about engineering resources and then people that can actually be involved in the platform. We have created an environment. I would characterize it honestly in terms of a social platform. We’re nowhere near as good as Facebook in terms of features and functions but we haven’t had the hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in user experience.
NPS: Also, you’re not selling data to other malevolent actors.
GP: Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer not getting our data. Cambridge Analytica is not …
NPS: Peter Thiel.
GP: That’s right. God help us, Peter Thiel. Anyway.
NPS: They make so many of us look bad. This is very, very exciting work and I think that is incredibly important and often times when I review LinkedIn profiles looking for recruiting opportunities just for my day job, I noticed that a lot of people are looking for ways to volunteer their time for causes they believe in. I think that this is something that might be of great utility if we can find the right people who have the right skills who want to donate the time. I know that I’m a believer and I want to donate my time.
GP: I’m very grateful, Neil. I know that you and others that have advocated and helped us evangelize the work that we’re doing inspire me. I mean, there are days … These are dark times. I haven’t drawn a paycheck for a year-and-a-half and it’s challenging. You wake up and something that’s very different from the America that we’re really taught about when we’re young. People like yourself inspire, and motivate, and keep us going on days when it’s very hard to keep going.
NPS: Well, certainly you do that for me, so thank you very, very much for this very enlightening and exciting hour, and also helping me pilot this series of interviews with activists. Thank you very much. I look forward to what we’re doing in the future.
GP: I’m always happy to be a beta test, Neil.
NPS: Thank you very much. I usually end up being a gamma, so there you go. All right. Thank you so much, George.
GP: Thanks, Neil.
One thought on “Conversations with Activists I: George Polisner and civ.works”
Fascinating interview! I am so proud we have citizens like you trying to make this world a better place by educating and enlightening others. I am growing more and more pessimistic about our country and world. I can’t even watch much news because it upsets me to see Trump lie and even more so to see the deliberately ignorant cheer for him. I have little hope for the midterms, but I certainly wish for a “blue wave”.
I’m relieved to hear your health continues to improve.
Your friend, Candy