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All the Young Technocrats

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The "White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy" meme has touched a nerve, diagnosing exhaustion with a media infatuation with altruistic entrepreneurs. Many of the captions that have appeared thus far -- "Let them drink pourovers" -- are funny, but all of them are laced with much more bitterness than your average Internet joke. (Bitter, like an Ethiopian pourover gone cold?) It's worth considering what is actually behind the venom: It's not just mockery of "hipsters," or business owners, or non-native Detroiters, or God forbid, a case of "reverse racism."

The unfortunate subject of the meme, Jason Lorimer, set it all off with a tone-deaf article, "Detroit is the Opportunity of a Generation," in Model D, a local booster publication. Lorimer's article had big ambitions: to lay out a generational vision for Detroit while promoting his consulting company, Dandelion. "Cities advertise they are open for business," Lorimer writes, "but Detroit is open for changemakers. Cities advertise tax incentives, but Detroit is an opportunity to iterate alongside a community of doers and define the model for the post-industrial American city."

The article is so ridden with jargon that it reads like it was written by someone who has learned English entirely by watching TEDTalks. The lack of self-awareness was striking -- the absent sense that a little humility and dues-paying go a long way, especially for a white person of means in this city -- and the audacity of misappropriating the anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon as a consulting guru didn't help. Consider this befuddling description from Dandelion's homepage, in a poster unhelpfully titled "Dandelion Does," promising as it does to explain what Dandelion, in fact, does:

"A civic or social-issue investor comes to Dandelion with systemic issues that need measurable solutions. For example, homelessness in the community, truancy in the schools or a lack of a vibrant main street. Out entire tactical team studies the issue from all angles, for as long as it takes to make your problem our own."

Note the grand ambitions here: A little consulting firm will address homelessness or truancy "for as long as it takes to make your problem our own" (shouldn't homelessness already be "our" problem?). There's the recognition that such problems are "systemic" -- that is, they are symptoms of deeper societal failings with complex structures. Yet the solution to such systemic problems not in political activism but individual "innovation," not in social change but rather in heroic "changemakers."

But it would be unfair to pick on Dandelion exclusively. I, too, feel implicated by the meme, since I move easily in these same gentrifying precincts around Wayne State and downtown. The city's profound racial and neighborhood segregation, as persistent as ever, is in some ways the biggest problem signaled by the " entrepreneurial guy." But what the meme also mocks is a way of thinking about social change as an individual, technocratic, and even profitable affair. The Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov, in his excellent new book To Save Everything, Click Here has a term for this way of thinking:

"Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized -- if only the right algorithms are in place!...I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations 'solutionism.'"

Solutionism, in the context of the media-friendly Detroit of Midtown, Corktown, and the Dan Gilbert-controlled area of downtown, combines a utopian idealism with the technocratic fantasy that systemic problems can be managed away with the right experts and right digital tools. You can see why this appeals to austerity-minded politicians -- "turnkeying" (this is apparently now a transitive verb) truancy is cheaper and gets better press than the apparently impossible task of funding urban public schools. Perpetually summoning "doers" to "innovate" "solutions" to urban unemployment is easier than actually doing so. If only we could mass-produce buzzwords in one of our vacant factories.

Another example of solutionism is a recent project of Corktown's LOVELAND Technologies. As reported by Michigan Radio, the group has developed a tool in response to Detroit failure to collect taxes on 50 percent of properties held in the city: a website that makes it easier to pay property taxes. A cynic might point out that of all the reasons that the city fails to collect property taxes, the technical difficulty of paying them surely ranks far, far down the list. Alas, there's no iPhone app that can rehire laid-off city tax assessors or battle speculators, like the notorious Grosse Pointe Woods investor Mike Kelly, the largest private landowner in Detroit. According to a 2007 University of Michigan study cited by the Detroit News, Kelly's company failed to pay taxes on one-third of its Detroit purchases over a two-year period.

The lure of technocratic solutionism also lends itself easily to defenses of Kevyn Orr, the city's Emergency Manager charged with settling the city's debts to Wall Street bondholders. In his case, a systemic problem, the city's impoverishment and indebtedness, is redefined as "fiscal instability" or "financial mismanagement" -- an elegant reframing of a structural problem as a management problem. See? All we need are new people, presumably with some better calculators and faster Internet connection.

One could ignore the "White Detroit entrepreneurial guy" as a harmless joke, or a mean one. But the "good intentions" the joke mocks are not just harmless delusions, but pernicious distractions that waste the idealistic energy of many young people in Detroit.