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Urbpocalypse now

A piece I wrote for last month’s Wired UK, a mag you should totally be reading if you aren’t already.

Near the beginning of Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, the camera swoops low over the film’s eponymous setting: a refugee camp for a population of chitinous extraterrestrials, marooned on earth these last twenty-eight years. Denied participation in the human community surrounding them, the aliens eke out a kind of existence — what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” — in a fenced-off wasteland shoehorned into the sprawling slums of Johannesburg.

Blomkamp isn’t particularly subtle in his portrayal of this desolate zone and the possibilities of life there. The streets of District 9 are little more than dusty tracks lined with tumbledown shacks of corrugated aluminum, garlanded with the infinite tangles of pirate infrastructure; shreds of rotted-out plastic bags waft in the slightest breeze, the air itself laced with filth from the sooty fires that burn the day through.

A few derelict shipping containers and the rusted hulks of overturned cars make a market square, where the hapless aliens queue up to haggle with the juked-up (human) gangsters who control access to everything that matters. To the extent that there’s anything resembling governance at all, it’s that imposed from without, public order having been outsourced to the paramilitary arm of a multinational. Blomkamp’s point couldn’t possibly be clearer: District 9 is the Worst Place In The World.

Unless, that is, you think that title ought rather belong to Bexhill.

The Bexhill Refugee Camp, to give it its full name: in the 2027 of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, the green & pleasant land itself totters on its last legs, while the poky seaside resort town has been cordoned off, pressed into service as nothing less than a concentration city. Inside its perimeter, a babel of ethnic factions huddle up against the damp misery of a Kentish winter, squabbling over the pitiful few scraps left in the wake of total ecosocial collapse. The physical landscape is a by-now-familiar scatter of corrugated shanties, oil-drum fires and improvised chicken coops of shattered breeze-block.

We’re told these scenes are transpiring in some time yet to come: in both cases, the corruption we see is the ostensible outcome of some unspecified but clearly long-drawn-out embaddening process, by way of which the world we know has been laid to wrack and ruin. But while it’s great fun to titillate ourselves with this kind of worst-case scenario while ensconced in a plush theater seat (or alternately, sprawled on the sofa, iPad propped up on our knees), there’s one thing we might want to bear in mind: for a great many people on Planet Earth, what’s up on the screen isn’t the future at all.

These — like other familiar science-fictional depictions of urban collapse and chaos, from Soylent Green and Blade Runner to Minority Report — are reasonably accurate portrayals of present, real-world conditions for a billion or more human beings living in the favelas, slums and informal settlements of the Global South, from El Monton to Klong Toey.

I point this out not by way of guilt-tripping anyone, but rather, in an attempt to backstop another set of extrapolations about the urban next, those peddled by technology think tanks, consultancies and corporate research labs. As someone who spends much of my time thinking about the future of cities, it strikes me as being somewhat useful to first reckon with the circumstances under which an awful lot of citydwellers actually lead their lives.

So how do people get by when their everyday reality looks like the darkest science fiction? Ingenuity and adaptability — that hard-to-define quality that Americans call “hustle.” Mutuality, though there’s more than enough exploitation at the so-called bottom of the pyramid to demolish any sentimental notion of inherent human solidarity. Above all, the ability to endure the worst ruptures and reversals uncomplainingly, an attribute which is very often the product of profound religious faith.

These human qualities strike me as key to understanding the cities of the future we’re actually going to get. Along with the Maslovian fundamentals and the sad certainties of discrimination and abuse, they’re the ultimate bounding context in which any emerging technology will take its effect.

If, as the cliché has it, the supposedly futurist visions of science fiction are really just funhouse reflections of the present, films like District 9 and Children of Men are an aperture through which an awareness we’ve otherwise managed to suppress leaks into our lives. The urban chaos and squalor they depict is both an inescapable reality for many and, if certain less felicitous scenarios come to pass, a way of life more of us will be getting used to. Maybe we ought to be paying particularly close attention.

• Further reading:
– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
State of Exception
– Mike Davis, Planet of Slums
– Daniela Fabricius, “Resisting Representation: The Informal Geographies of Rio de Janeiro.”
– Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
– Andreas Seibert, From Somewhere to Nowhere: China’s Internal Migrants

On Immaterials

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Immaterials: The ghost in the field – the magnificent new film from Timo Arnall and BERG’s Jack Schulze, in which they make visible the ordinarily imperceptible fields around RFID devices. (If you haven’t, click this link immediately; I’ll wait for you to get back.)

Anyway, Timo and Jack are putting together a Newspaper Club publication around the film, and asked me to contribute a “brief” essay. As usual, I’m afraid I’ve gone on a bit long, but I hope they’ll be able to use this anyway. And for whatever it’s worth, you get to read it…right now.

Since its 2006 publication, I’ve given perhaps a hundred talks in various places around the world expanding on the themes of my book Everyware, talks dedicated to exploring the quality of everyday life in a world of ubiquitous computing. As I see it, the essence of what we can expect from this set of circumstances is a way of interacting with the technology around us I describe as “information processing dissolving in behavior.”

In my talks, to illustrate this rather arcane idea, I very often tell the story of something I saw in Hong Kong almost ten years ago now: young women moving briskly through the turnstiles of the MTR subway system, swinging their handbags in the air with an all-but-balletic grace as they did so.

What were they doing? They were using Hong Kong’s RFID-equipped Octopus farecards brilliantly and intuitively, but in a way that system’s architects had never foreseen.

The designers of the Octopus system most likely imagined that people would use their cards in the conventional manner – by tapping the card neatly against a turnstile-mounted reader. At some point soon after the system’s introduction, however, one or another canny passenger obviously figured out that they didn’t have to do this: because the reader was powerful enough to acquire and read an antenna tens of centimeters away, even through layers of fabric, they could leave the card wherever it was most convenient for them, and never have to fish it out at all.

The result wasn’t merely the elegant gesture I’d seen enacted time and again. Because the elaborate interaction between card and turnstile, turnstile and database, database and barrier had been compressed into the third of a second it might take someone to swing their handbag through a reader field, each one of the women I’d seen was able to move through the process of fare collection and into the subway without breaking her normal walking pace. And this, in turn, markedly improved the number of passengers the station could accommodate in a given period of time, what traffic-analysis engineers call “throughput.”

Things got even more interesting when I gave this talk in Tokyo a year or so later. During the Q&A, someone in the audience pointed out that one of that city’s major public transit systems, JR East, also offered its customers an RFID-based smartcard, called Suica…and yet he’d never seen women in Tokyo making the handbag gesture I’d described. And he asked the obvious question: Why not?

I had to confess that I didn’t know. As it turned out, though, someone in the audience that day did. As she explained it, the designers of the Suica system, acting out of concern over the long-term health implications of radio-frequency fields for human users, had deliberately lowered the power of their readers, and therefore abbreviated their system’s range. No range, no handbag ballet, no enhanced station throughput.

And here we get to the crux of the issue: in both Hong Kong and Tokyo, the consequences of decisions made by engineers about the properties of a technical system cascaded upward not merely to the level at which they could afford or constrain individual behavior, but that at which they affected the macro-level performance of the entire subway system…and maybe even the community’s long-term well-being.

The primary trouble with this, from my point of view, is that in both cases, the tradeoffs involved remained opaque to by far the vast majority of the people implicated by them. Perhaps Hong Kong’s subway riders would have had similarly pressing concerns about health and safety; perhaps Tokyo’s would have been willing to accept some level of risk in exchange for more efficient commutes.

The point is, we’ll never know. Unless you understand a little bit about what RFID is and how it works, you have no way of assessing how a system built on the technology is designed, and whether you wish to accept or reject the propositions embedded in it. And this is just as true for all of the other imperceptible technologies we are increasingly exposed to.

This is why I believe the work that Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze and their colleagues are doing is so very important. By depicting the ghostly traces of invisible radio fields so elegantly, they help engineers, designers and system architects to understand the particularity of their materials, even as they help us ordinary users grasp just what’s going on in these magical-seeming transactions.

Among other things, what this means is that design is finally able to take these devices seriously, phenomenologically. Rather than asserting “an RFID” as some eternal given, something that will produce the same linear, determinate effect each and every time it is deployed, Immaterials reminds us that the choice of material, shape, size, direction, orientation and power rating of the components involved have distinct consequences for the uses to which those components can be put. And as we’ve seen, these choices can produce effects on levels seemingly entirely removed from the interaction itself.

In a recent piece for Wired UK, I argued that the pre-eminent need in the networked city would be for translators: “people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them.” Timo and Jack are among the very first to take up this challenge, and that they’ve done so so artfully and with such sensitivity sets a very high standard for all those who would follow.

Along the Dystopia Line 0: Backgrounder

I’d be flat-out lying if I tried to insist that the reason I spend so much of my time thinking about human cities and their near-term future has anything much to do with teaching a class on the subject. If anything, it’s almost certainly the other way around: I’ve been obsessed with the urban next since early childhood, and was winning prizes in essay competitions on the topic by the time I was a fifteen-year-old überdork. Essay competitions – that’s what we had in Philly, instead of county fairs.

Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to get a certain kind of weird kid obsessed with skyscrapers, subways, cop cars and fire engines. What’s perhaps a little more unusual is an enduring interest in how they all fit together…and especially how they might fit together, after a few more years have elapsed. (Any concern for the actual human beings populating these environments took a much longer time to develop; at the beginning, it was all about volumes, masses, frictions, velocities. And sound effects, naturally.)

I can’t imagine but that I came to this interest through science fiction, delivered initially via library paperbacks and Saturday-afternoon TV. Cities were everywhere in 70’s SF: domed cities, underground cities, cities in flight. Being exposed to them was how I learned to see and to read the actual city around me, if only to question why we still had trolleys instead of transit-pod tubes.

Big cities, and the problems of overcrowding, pollution, and racial, ethnic, and class antagonism they seemed to simultaneously epitomize and exacerbate, were outsize figures in the imaginary of the era. Conurbations like New York and Los Angeles were portrayed and understood by all as unmanageable, inherently prone to breakdown along multiple axes; this was, after all, the Abe Beame era (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), the energy crisis of 1972-’73 had served as a warning that the cheap energy from which the putative American Century was forged wouldn’t hold out forever, and Detroit, Watts, and Newark had all burned almost to the ground not so many years before.

A straight-line extrapolation – and that’s generally what you got from futurists of the period – suggested that tomorrow would hold more of the same, in every sense. Since we hadn’t as a society yet quite cottoned on to what has become the conventional wisdom that “more is different,” from that vantage point the urban future was often portrayed as a race between the soulless, punch-card rationality being peddled by systems analysts and operations researchers and the terrifying prospect of a general breakdown in social order – that breakdown generally arriving in the person of people who were young or dark-skinned, or both.

And since SF is, famously, always about the present day, it should come as absolutely no surprise that all of these fears play front and center in the era’s culture of the fantastic as well. “Realist” films like Death Wish perhaps best captured the sense that the “ordinary, law-abiding middle class” had lost control, that Something needed to be Done, but it was in science fiction that urban anxieties were fleshed out in the most nightmarish sort of detail – and for that very reason, possibly even exorcised.

By way of seeing if I can’t recover some present-day value from the many, many hours I logged utterly immersed in this stuff, and generating shoutouts to some enormously important forebears and personal heroes along the way, I thought I’d try a series of brief pieces exploring how a variety of urbanist themes have been treated in dystopian science fiction, particularly that of the Sixties and Seventies.

Why dystopian? It has something to do with testing the ligatures, I guess, pushing the assumptions undergirding urban normality to their extremes and seeing just where and how they break down. (I wish I could dig up an interview I remember reading with the legendary visual futurist Syd Mead – probably in the Guccioni-owned Omni – in which he explains the manifold attractions of “high-tech default” as a mode.) Perhaps it’s a matter of personal predilection, but dystopias feel to me as if they have more to teach us – and in most cases, however grim, they bear a far closer resemblance to the lives we actually lead than Roddenberrian fantasies of unlimited technological mastery and universal brotherhood.

Coming tomorrow, then: the first in a series of occasional essays, “Along the Dystopia Line.” For this shakedown cruise, we’ll be looking at ultrahigh density and its consequences. I hope you enjoy it, and the ones that follow.

It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response

I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet what an incredible thing it is to see Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” of Blade Runner in the way it was intended to be experienced: up on the glorious big screen, wreathed in a sound design so exacting you hear everything from the delicate ticking of a bicycle frame to the subsonic rumble of the cloacal megacity itself. Truly, if this showing comes to a theater within a hundred miles of you, you owe it to yourself to go experience something I have no problem calling a “masterpiece,” in all its considerable majesty.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Blade Runner in a theater, mind you: I did get to see the “Director’s Cut” at the good ol’ Castro in, what, ’92, and that was pretty neat in its own right. But if I’m recalling properly, it replaced the opening definitional crawl with mawkish laser-slash credits, certain parts of the atmospheric Vangelis score were missing, and it just wasn’t the same. By contrast, the scope of the visual restoration, audio redesign and continuity repair undertaken in this version is breathtaking. Unlike George Lucas’s hamfisted and essentially dishonest digital reversioning, here the result is nothing less than the film the way it was always meant to be seen. And, yes, you’ll walk away knowing whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant.

Of course, Nurri practically had to clamp a hand over my mouth to keep me from blurting out the lines. Such a BR geek am I, too, that I’m pretty sure I spotted all of the emendations. For those of you that care about such things:

    – For the first time, Bryant describes Leon’s offworld job, nuclear loader.

    - The embarrassingly visible cables “assisting” the police spinner’s vertical take-off have been erased.

    - Gaff and Deckard’s visit to Leon’s apartment is longer by just a second or two – just enough time to make out the (barely) luminescent panels in the grim hallway outside, and to hear the super mutter “Kowalski.”

    - There’s a few nice moments of goalie-masked strippers dancing in a transparent bubble suspended outside Taffy Lewis’s (Fourth Sector, Chinatown).

    - It looks like Scott managed to convince Joanna Cassidy to refilm (!) the scenes of Zhora’s brutal retirement. No more ultra-awkward cut to what I’ve always assumed was a stuntman in lingerie.

    - For some reason, Roy Batty’s chillingly flat “I want more life…fucker” retains the Director’s Cut’s edit to “…father.” I’ve always preferred “fucker” because Hauer’s delivery – properly, but unlike every other time that word has been uttered on Planet Earth – manages to include and convey the sense of “father.” By contrast, “father” on its own feels like weak sauce.

    - Roy’s murder of Tyrell is much more graphic – fountains of blood, me boyos. By contrast, his almost tender delivery on the additional lines “I’m sorry, Sebastian…come, come” as he backs poor doomed J.F. toward the elevator make the inevitable slaughter that follows that much more poignant.

    - This takes me all the way back to reading about the film in the Philadelphia Inquirer, before seeing it for the first time on Cinemax. (Heh.) The very first edit I ever read about? Pris hauling Deckard around by his nostrils, apparently by Harrison Ford’s explicit request. Here restored.

    - When Roy, at the end of his strength, releases the pigeon, it flies not up into a suddenly and comically clear sky, but into a dark one filled with appropriately looming megastructure.

Long-time fans should note that the new print is so mind-blowingly generous in scale that you’ll easily spot details (of architecture, fashion, signage, advertising, vehicle and interface design) that have eluded you no matter how many times you’ve seen the film before. For one thing, you can add TWA to the list of firms done in by the infamous “curse.” I also spotted one continuity error that’s escaped me through every previous viewing (and there must have been, oh, twenty):

    – The newspaper lining Leon’s hotel-room drawer, under a pile of sweaters presumably a few weeks old at the very least, bears the same front page as the one Deckard is reading right before he takes a seat at the noodle bar. The lede is something about farming the Moon.

At any rate: whether truly “Final” or not, this cut of Blade Runner is a solid ingot of high-purity Yes, and you’ll be doing yourself a significant favor by adding it to your list of things to do and see. And Ridley? You’ve done a man’s job, sir.

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