I’m all for making data work for San Francisco, a city I know well and which strives to be “smart.” But then I think of Palermo, Sicily, a city I know a little bit. It has similar aspirations, but they start from a much different place — with a warm, rich indigenous culture that’s not so easily handled by algorithms.
A few years back at my relative’s house in Sicily just west of Palermo, eleven people crowded around her kitchen table about 9 on a Wednesday night. They joked, talked, nibbled, drank a little bit of my cousin’s white table wine. It’s an everyday event in Sicily that I rarely see back home near San Francisco.
If you think of The Godfather, forget it. True, they still have the Mafia, just as Americans have the Wild West gun slinger. But just as here, that’s usually not the first-hand reality.
In fact, many Sicilians I know are even better educated and more urbane than many Americans I know. Around that table that night was a meteorologist, two architects, a scenery designer, and a marketing executive. There was also a neurosurgeon-to-be who, a few years later after she obtained her credentials, was snapped up by a prestigious hospital in Germany.
Not even the older ones knew many Sicilian gestures described in the little book someone had given me. The meteorologist read it aloud, describing each gesture and its meaning. There was “he’s a brownnose,” “I’m getting a haircut,” “he’s Mafia,” “they’re intimate,” and one my cousin threw in, “you can wait for it but you’re not going to get it.”
The culture there goes deeper than all that. It’s the custom of gathering in age-diverse groups and just having a good time. It’s not even special to Sicily or Italy. It’s common among old cultures.
The big question is how those cultures can not only preserve such precious customs? How could data technology support them? Facebook is out of the question.
San Francisco could teach Palermo a lot about how to run public agencies, from what I’ve seen and heard. But Palermo has a thing or two to teach San Francisco, too. I just hope those who drive technology in cities are smart enough to know it.