Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing

I saw a great Stephen Graham talk yesterday at the 24th AESOP Annual Conference at Aalto University in Espoo, called “Cities, Space, Security: The New Military Urbanism.”

I’ve enjoyed Graham’s thinking for quite awhile now, since picking his Splintering Urbanism off the shelf of late, lamented Micawber Books way, way back in the day. His argument here, in part, is that conceptualizations of urban space developed by the American, British and Israeli militaries, particularly, to support operations from Mogadishu to Gaza have begun to condition the metropolitan-in-both-senses fabric. This is a process he refers to as “Foucault’s boomerang,” and which will be familiar to any student of the intelligence community as “blowback.”

Graham calls out a litany of unhappy developments driven by this neo-Haussmannian thought, including a progressive cordoning by way of which the right of free movement in cities is slowly replaced by a checkpoint mentality, the contours of public space are subtly conditioned by simulations of blast physics, and events like the Olympics or the G20 are used to field-test techniques and strategies of urban control that eventually make their way into everyday policing.

To me, what’s really problematic about all of this is that it inscribes in our putatively urban places the fear of, and hostility to, the ordinary life of cities that completely suffuses the MOUT literature. It’s fine to assert that an infantry squad on patrol has to regard everyday urban space as festooned with “the clutter of concealment,” in which any number of threats might be secreted. But for that overwhelming majority of users of the city who do not happen to be conducting house-to-house sweep-and-clear operations…that’s just Tottenham Court Road. Or East 14th Street, or Mannerheimintie. And those are just newsstands, and parked cars, and bus shelters. That our cities should be designed for the former case over the latter strikes me as the kind of obscene argument that only someone who never loved city life in the first place could even think to propose.

This is why I had to nod in recognition when Graham described the security-industrial complex’s desperate attempt to develop video analytics that would permit algorithmic characterizations of urban “normality,” so as to simultaneously be able to recognize anomalies (“threats”). When you have any familiarity at all with the social and physical terrain of suburban northern Virginia, and the other locales in which these systems predominantly tend to be developed, you can see the punchline coming from miles away: anyone for whom Tysons Corner represents an uncomfortable concentration of human heterogeneity wouldn’t be terribly likely to recognize big-city normality if it bit them in the ass. How much less so, then, the algorithms authored by such a person?

Graham’s whole line of inquiry here is most pointedly relevant to me personally when he takes up the question of networked sensing and actuation, and situates it in the MOUT discourse as a tool to help the warfighter or security agent make sense of the chaotic urban environment. Needless to say, this is a vision that I believe must be strongly and continuously contested by those of us who understand the same sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus instead as a mechanism for citizen engagement and empowerment.

At any rate, if Graham’s still-newish book Cities Under Siege offers anything like as crisp and comprehensive an overview of the domain as this talk did, it will be well-worth picking up. (If you’re not too wrung-out and depressed by considering all of this, I also recommend Eyal Weizman’s essential Hollow Land as a companion. It’s a book-length expansion on the themes first explored in the brilliant “Walking Through Walls.”)

While we’re on the topic of citizen engagement: I’m delighted to be able to pass on to you the word that I’ve joined Code for America‘s Board of Advisors.

I think CfA is doing multiple important things at once: helping city governments and managers understand what emergent interactive technologies can do for them and their constituents; strongly countering the cheap cynicism about who government is, and what it is for, that seems to be so characteristic of our American moment; and maybe at the same time tempering the technical community’s natural enthusiasm for technical solutions with some immersion in the always charged and tangled arena of municipal politics.

This last aspect of the mission is particularly important to me. I’ve seen one or two responses to my recent work suggesting that people understand me to be arguing for the very thing I’m always so horrendified by, which is precisely the idea that social and political fissures can be patched with technology. As it happens, I don’t believe this, or anything like it, as readers with a more holistic familiarity with my output understand, but I thought the point could use some underlining. The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.

What I see here, in the parallax between the picture Stephen Graham drew for us and CfA’s vision of America, is two entirely different conceptions of the complicated relationship between urban space, networked technology and “security.” Is this notion some grim, shoddy farce of heavy-handed control, sold to us by defense contractors who nurture a deep-seated distrust of city life and lives — a half-trillion-dollar sham that will eviscerate the potential of our public spaces, and even on its own terms never, ever work just right? Or is mutual security something that can only be coaxed to emerge from the difficult interplay of communities, needs and capabilities, much less totalizing in its promises but infinitely better able to deliver on them?

You know I believe it’s (long past) time to reinvigorate a sense of public life in the United States, an awareness of collective challenges, mutual obligations and shared outcomes, and for me, here, the medium is also the message. I’m looking forward to helping Code for America in whatever way I can — in no small part because I do believe that there are threats and bad actors in the world, and that collective security is best underwritten by vibrant, functioning, resilient cities. Vibrant cities…and people who love them.

3 responses to “Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing”

  1. Larry Irons says :

    Interesting thoughts as always Adam. I’d also highly recommend Stephen Graham’s edited collection, “Cities, War, and Terrorism,” especially Graham’s chapter on Cities as Strategic Sites.

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