Resilient and inclusive cities
The only thing needed for the triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.
On a morning of March, I embarked on a journey where I could see several « dreamy places » described as heaven for women working in technology. I have saved some money from a previous contract. I then have to decide of where to go.
After a quick stop in Barcelona that I knew quite well as I used to study in Spain for a year and where I also travel often to visit friends, I packed my stuff and flyed out to Berlin bringing my desk, i.e. my computer. I went without any fixed plan except watching what is up there with social creativity and entrepreneurship.
I was going there by my own for some holidays and my friends in Berlin were off of the city for work and holidays.
Both Barcelona and Berlin are described as places with open culture and enabling infrastructures for new entrepreneurs in tech. The problem is that an abundant litterature also points the lack of inclusivity of the tech culture driven by white male technocrats as well as a culture of competition that tend to exclude the new comings.
I recorded my experiences by writing them down as others might have the same issues, concerns or wants. I used the methods of auto-ethnography, qualitative observations, web data in the field of technology and community of experiences. By this, I wasn’t pretending to provide a general view of the issue but giving my account.
It is also a nomad research that didn’t allow me much access to sources and references I use to work as I wasn’t settled in my personal environment. Sometimes, research implies access to books, shelves and written notes that give it its deep. I like to see myself as a feminine version of Kerouac researching into the wild but I was facing some limitations (I am not Kerouac anyway).
So here I was, flying to Berlin with only a couple of weeks left. I have travelled many places in my life, too much to list them here, and I had wonderful experiences mostly in emerging economies, but travelling has become quite challenging with the rise of nationalism.
Even in short time, there are some indicators that can give you a quick insight of the culture you plan to integrate like its openness to foreigners and its will to welcome people and surround them with a culture of inclusion, with more women, strangers, nomads or disabled for example, its capacity to connect people and knowledge via technology or culture and to make the local culture accessible to others, its reflexivity.
Unfortunately none of these was present in the tech cultures I observe. Instead a model of ultra-competition and intolerance seemed to be prevalent based on the combination of boys club culture and nationalism.
An absence of consciousness about sexism, racism and minorities or alternative cultures creates a serious level of dangerosity that can make the city quite reluctant to a woman in spite of its patrimony and modern infrastructures.
In Paris where all is walls, museums and routes, the concientization about human identity having been a bit left behind since the post-industrialization (war might be the cause also), the porosity of interactions is quite reduced.
In Berlin, it’s not the absence of education and access that has to be noticed, but the resurgence of fascism through harsh comments, attitudes and micro-assaults that make the experience of travelling for a woman dreadful.
Taking some legitimacy from the appealing fiction of terrorism, using images as women’s kamikazes or foreign travellers causing troubles, these toxic places enable the foreign woman to become the ideal target for a spirale of agressions.
I was denied access and voice to some places and venues in downtown Berlin by nazist myrmidons at the door. My voice was ignored at a meeting with women technologists hosted by the Deutsch company of telecommunications mostly focused on code and girls (i.e. flat) when I opposed an abrasive woman making a francophobe comment about Montreal. As she was returning from Canada to Berlin, I asked her why and she complained about the cost of the living. I said that BC was known for being the most expensive province and that Montreal was cheaper than Berlin. Then she launched bitterly : « Who would like to live in Montreal? » (Me), then laughed complacently and then said : « It’s only good for french people, hahaha » (God I am so proud of my language). This woman seemed totally to ignore that Montreal, where I am staying, is rich of an active multicultural community coming from Asia, Africa, South and North America and Europe.
Then the other twenty women almost nodded their heads and returned to their talk as if nothing had happened. The problem with xenophobic bias is that it creates mental walls that are making people blind to social realities. This subtle comment sounded so good to my hears being a native french speaker that I left soon after. The thing is that her sarcastic laught got me no wants to go any furt
I was also assaulted repeatedly in streets and transportation by German people, men and women, for no reasons as taking a seat in the autobus, but my bag and language identifying me as a foreigner. It also happens in a train between Copenhagen and Sweden, once I was travelling alone with a bike, that people seaten where to put the bike don’t let me put the bike in the bike compartiment when there were plenty of free seats in the wagon (had to call the ticket agent). The next time, same things occured with people seaten in the bike compartiment as I was travelling with a Swedish friend, unless people offered to let their seats.
I was intentionally assaulted by a german man assuming I was a tourist who deaththreated me with his car while I was crossing a peatons path at green lights. He saw me and literally drove on me high speed. I had to walk on the side of the road. It raised absolute no reaction in the people around me and it was middle of the day, really busy day. I presumed it was considered as acceptable by the local population. Where society don’t say anything about violence on minorities is when it collectively enables violence.
I was hosted on Airbnb by a Fraulein, a german woman considering me as an animal. It painfully reminded me of my last trip in Berlin with my friends and I wish I never had to pick a stranger as an host. I had another experience of this kind in Toronto with a sexist guy who didn’t want to assume that women are part of a minority and thought I was crazy when I said so when there are numerous stats of gender violence. The problem is that you have no way to put an end as nights are paid in advance. In every case, I was at the mercy of my aggressors.
In the past, I have been backpacking Brazil during months at the time it just emerged from militarian government and never was confronting to that kind of behaviours and attitudes. People there steal or kill for money but they won’t see the point in mistreating you. I travelled 50 countries these last 15 years including arabic countries and never faced such a climate of hostility towards women. And I am still grateful to that couple who wanted nothing than to let us sleep in their only room while taking the sofa in Maruecos.
The irony of it is that I was the one with many others bringing my talents and savings as a complete autonomous person, wasn’t even asking for favors but despite this fact, I found myself caught into the stigma of the immigrant, ressourceless, stupid and ignorant, mean, time and energy consuming.
I finally managed to escape that asphyxiating ideological culture by taking a bus to Copenhague after awful days of insomnia, muscular cramps, emotional stress, gingivitis and headaches caused by stress that prevented me to work properly. I have been dealing with anxiety then following abusive situations as a traveller woman.
I would not have started any business in a city that is not able to find the ways to fight the drifts of fascism impregnated in its historical roots anyway, but I would rather not go through that unnecessary expression of xenofobia and sexual violence. No one is ready for that. I wasn’t. When you think about, it is the resurgence of a medievalism that a travelling woman might still be considered as a witch that deserves persecution and correction.
Many big cities that pretend to modernity are in fact using knowledge and weathy networks to exclude and fight what is different from them. Usually, these cities have nevrotic personnalities.
I had a german friend who was dating an eastern guy and said to me that fascism was still well alive in Berlin. I of course agreed her but now I understand what fascism is.
What makes a city organically evolves and not stay still is again mysterious to me. Is it the activation of antic tokens without the integration of the newness – as the inclusion of the woman, the Other, the Alien and a sort of stiffness opposed to movement? Resistant dynamics to change and archaic mindsets prevent modernity to emerge. Remains of human activities are stucked into stones and still. Streets have become more concentrative hubs for markets through tourism, media and urban environment than social spaces, streets have emptied from humanness and humanity and replaced it with forms of consumption without culture. Selfies. Shops. Dollars. Numbness.
Technology are meant to be something else than replicants of the echo chamber of the dead old world. It has to allow the integration of the cyborg. As the human enabled by technology, people using technology via their smartphones and computers to gather and raise awareness for change, education or artistic works.
Technology should not be used to control or design the oppressive city of ubiquitous outsiders, driven by the brutality of exclusive social forces but to enable the reflection of the observers inside the system.
Unfortunately, technologies hardly manage to resist the marketization of our living.
I remember that in New York, Montreal or London, I have gone through serious precarity as I found myself almost homeless because my credit card has been locked by my bank at the end of an expensive trip of professional travels, work meetings and university paneling in New York (had not a single penny in my pocket).
I was also exposed to street violence after a female coworker fired me from my hard won job in London because I had a too good connection with her associate (sad to her). I was finally hosted by an african friend who was doing night shifts so we could share the tiny flat but I will never forget the feeling of emergency it caused. In NYC, I skipped eating for two entire days and I got so weak that I could hardly move at the time to board on flight (flight was delayed 3 hours). I was then assaulted by the flight attendants when I asked them to get some food.
In Montreal, the sheriff at boarders checked my passport twice in the hall of the airport when I was returning home after two years spent in Quebec studying and working and paying students’ fees (high fees by the way) and taxes. I was all in pain, mourning my sudden departure from Montreal and from the man I loved. And this guy from I don’t know where asking me for my ID’s when going to bathroom left me with even more despair. These remained my last pictures from Quebec in 2010.
These are war zones… Linked with fictions of terrorism that make it just another expression of a war for money, it creates a permanent culture of threat for precarious women workers or travelers. Some disappear along the way. Fortunately I escaped that destiny. But I had to fight for. That’s probably the point many men ignore, sometimes we already survive by being here.
If no awareness is raised, digital networks will grow monsters deprived from human qualities as empathy, respect for the others. They will enclose us into systems that comfort people into their fake beliefs and distorted views and produce disembodied cities. I used to love Berlin.
What a beautiful name. Everybody loves Copenhagen. This is what makes integrative cities specials.
After Berlin, I arrived to Copenhague by bus-boat. The remembrance of my stay with the German Fraulein and the reflection of her reality based on the distorsions of her mind about the Other suddenly vanished on the cruise. What a relief to say good bye to Berlin.
My pathway to Copenhague has been serendipitous. I was about to fly back home. But I didn’t want to leave without seeing Copenhagen. Many people have said to me it was a huge place to live and visit but I was fearing the disappointment, the hostility or the rejection. I was wrong.
Everything’s been perfect since my first seconds in there. People helped me spontaneously as soon as I went out of the bus to find my way to the hotel. I had the right connections with the metro and bus. I was wonderfully hosted by the right people that did the right things for me to feel good. Maybe they have that degree of empathy and trust a woman needs to succeed or to find the courage to start something anew. Maybe they’re just kind.
It’s been like a physical combustion of synchronicity. We are made of atoms and pieces of information that connect and intertwine permanently like a plasma. But the magical is not only due to one person, attitude or style, it is also linked with the nature of the city to welcome you, its capacity to vehiculate the proper energy around to be invested with the smiles and the good intentions of the people you talk to, the way they invite you into their lives and intimacy, or try to understand your accent; the attention the connected city suddenly pays at you even sometimes with the cooperation of the urban constructions, electric cables, streets’ walls, cobbles, lights and connective zones, because you are person of culture.
I am quite sure I did plenty of mistakes or that some of my attitudes did not fit the Danish culture at all but, contrary to what happened in Germany or even Quebec, I never felt judged. Instead I found people to be full of understanding with my oddity. Copenhague after Berlin (and Paris) was like living in the dark and the electricity is invented. I plugged into it. I rode the streets with a bike in an extactic mood, talked with strangers to figure out who they are and what motivate them and visited some places of the Danish culture, taking the time to observe and acknowledge.
Biking in the city with its smart inclusive networks free of cars and sharing spaces for cyclists, peatons and public transports was a tremendous expérience. I liked what I was seeing and I liked the way people interact, directly but without violence. I just wanted to learn again because what I was seeing pleased me. I felt home, in a way.
It’s not an accident if our digital civilization started with the fée electricité, the transports and the urban architecture our modern technology use to connect. Information emerges in the antics canals remixed with the newness media and technology bring to our modern lives and is interrelated with networks of social texts, human subjects and machine interfaces. This is what technology is meant to be to let new models of subjectivity occur.
While shaping our transitory identities, some advanced societies have invented the way to adapt. After the war, Denmark had to rebuilt and to recover from bombing and occupation by successively the Swedish and the German. They probably learnt to appropriate, reappropriate, transform and integrate minor narratives within their social forms of communication. This is the resilient city my resilient soul and body were calling for : the informational city made as fluid as we dreamed about.
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