It may well be impossible to write about the major thrusts of contemporary urbanization without nurturing and giving vent to a certain ice-cold rage, like that which suffuses Aaron Timms’ clear-eyed, expert evisceration of the New Manhattan and its soulless creep toward total irrelevance.
Never forget, though, that there is a counterpoint. That counterpoint is, is always, Harvey’s.
Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. And a primary figure of thought I’ve retained from the enthusiasms of those long-gone-by days is the opposition he drew (in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and elsewhere) between two organizing principles he saw at work in the world, principles he termed hierarchies and meshworks.
Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated (and therefore do work in the world) without suppressing their difference.
Despite my dawning awareness in the years since that there’s rather less to De Landa’s thought than meets the eye, this still strikes me as a useful distinction to make. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network.
At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced. The notion was abroad in the land that human communities organized as networks were inherently more conducive to equality and justice, as well as significantly more open to creative novelty, than implicitly coercive and privilege-conserving hierarchies. We see highly influential articulations of this line of thought in Castells’ Rise of the Network Society (1996), Kevin Kelly’s risible 1998 New Rules for the New Economy and Yochai Benkler’s magnum opus The Wealth of Networks (2006)*, to this day it utterly saturates ostensibly progressive initiatives like the P2P Foundation, and it’s an unspoken, foundational assumption beneath some of the most interesting left thought and praxis of the last decade. (Both De Landa and his theory-papas Deleuze and Guattari had explicitly cautioned against falling for this vulgar topological reductionism, by the way, but evidently to no avail. I mean, I certainly believed it, and reproduced it too, for quite a long time.)
That the famously “flat ontology” of De Landa’s thought (as well as actor-network theory), the horizontal turn in politics and the suddenly ubiquitous physical presence of networked devices all arrived at about the same historical moment is no accident. They all spring from the same deeper well of formal signification. Nature itself seemed to authorize our use of these horizontal logics. It turns out that when you go looking for networks, they crop up just about everywhere, making them a reasonable candidate for master organizing principle of the physical universe. Just as biomimesis has often seemed to both commend and justify novel organizational tactics – “swarming” was also a glamor trope at the millennium, and fused to the then-sparklingly novel enabling technology of the text message, gave us the flash mob, which in turn was supposed to transform street protest — so too the network turn seemed to sound the clarion call for a dawning age of flat politics.
But what is a network? De Landa tells us — here, anyway — that networks connect heterogeneous things. But this is in no way the case: in the real world, the networks that we consciously construct almost by definition connect elements that observe the same connection protocol or standard, whether that be rail gauge, or USB-C, or IEEE 802.11, or the act of driving on the right. Putting to one side the notion that some degree of standardization at the interface permits diversification at the network’s edge, in fact, you make things homogenous precisely so they can be coupled. So it seems clear that if you want to describe a connective logic that links the activity of formally dissimilar elements, you need a better language.
And this is especially so when you consider how service-delivery infrastructure works in the cities most people on Earth actually live in. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re talking about is water service and waste removal, healthcare, public safety, or any of the other Maslovian essentials those of us who live in what we call “the developed world” tend to take for granted. They arrive via some mixture of public and private provision, and these methods are stacked at variable scales in space and take varying rhythms and cadences in time. So water may get to you via some combination of buried pipes, trucks, municipal taps, bucket relays, and pallets stacked with tightly-shrinkwrapped plastic bottles (not to mention falling from the sky), and any or all of those but the rain could be privatized. You may get your electricity from the national grid on some days, on others from a little Honda generator you keep out back. For a sense of safety, you may knit together some combination of block watch, smartphone apps and protection payments to the local gang. The point is that all these systems of provision have a whole lot more in common with the “transversal logics” the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira describes, or the language of squatting, repair and consolidation her student Gautam Bhan uses, than they do with the crisp interfaces and imposed formal homogeneities of the network.
Enter the meshwork. What I want above all to recover from the De Landan use of this term is the possibility of describing more accurately the infrastructural and social assemblages we see in the real city — the kind of hybridized agglomerations of deeply bastard heritage, whose elements were laid down by many different hands, at different times, at different scales and degrees of completion. These wildcat provisions can’t be understood in the same way you understand the formal, reticulated, tightly-regulated and -standardized infrastructure networks of the Northern city, and we need a language supple enough to describe them. If we can retrieve this valuable concept, dust it off and render it fit for purpose in the contemporary world, we might gain some theoretical purchase on circumstances that have hitherto eluded structured understanding. But first we have to upgrade De Landa’s thought by peeling away the layers of woolly network-mysticism that adhere to it, so it can better grasp the systems and structures we encounter in practice.
And I’m interested in doing so in the first place because I suspect that thinking things as meshworks (in my own, as yet not fully articulated sense) has a powerful connection with the kinds of social formation I’m interested in sustaining, and their ability to enact adequate levels of social provisioning. If my admittedly perverse little anarchist project is to reassemble in principle (e.g.) a universal health service on non-welfare state grounds, figuring the necessary set of relations as first and foremost a meshwork seems like it would help clarify what’s involved in building and maintaining such a capability. And you’ll no doubt be hearing more about that from me in the fullness of time.
As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.
May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.
What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.
As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.
But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?
What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.
What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.
But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.
What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?
Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.
Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.
Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.
But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.
Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.
What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.
You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.
It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.
What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.
I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.
There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.
The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.
Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.
Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?
Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.
Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”
Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.
I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.
How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.
How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.
What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.
We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.
What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.
Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.
If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?
Way stoked to have the following piece in Home Futures, the catalogue for the Design Museum’s impressive new show of the same name, alongside incredible work from Open Structures, Superstudio, Enzo Mari et many al. & essays from the likes of Deyan Sudjic and good Justin McGuirk. In full, it’s called “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling?: Labor-saving technologies, digital nomadism and the ideology of ease.” Please enjoy.
For most of us, home is a great many things. It affords us shelter from the elements, most obviously, but also a platform for conviviality and a container for our earthly possessions. Its address and appointments offer us, if we are lucky, a store of social capital to trade on; its walls and spaces an ark in which familial memory can be borne down through time; and its furnishings a supple, versatile medium in which we might express the uniqueness of the selves we understand ourselves to be.
In recent times, though, the dwelling-place is increasingly asked to serve one end above all these others. The home is now supposed to support efficiency — not merely or even chiefly its own, but that of its occupants. In sheltering, resting, restoring and entertaining us, it is supposed to underwrite our ongoing ability to act in the world as the autonomous, prudent, rational actors the regnant moral-economic theory of our age calls for us to be, in a manner as parsimonious with time, effort and other resources as is practically achievable.
Over the past century, we can see the drive toward efficiency settling over the domestic environment in three broad and overlapping waves, each of them arising in response to the technosocial possibilities of a given moment. The first and longest of these waves, starting around 1920 and yet to be fully concluded anywhere on Earth, accompanied the introduction into the home of labor-saving electromechanical appliances — a parade of ever-lighter and more powerful vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washer/driers, convection ovens and lawn sprinklers, without which the exacting hygienic and self-presentation standards of middle-class existence become hard to maintain.
The second is of far more recent vintage, getting under way only after the smartphone and widespread broadband connectivity had reached ubiquity in the urban centers of the developed world. It translates the distinctively neoliberal corporate logic of outsourcing into domestic terms, calving off each distinct function pursued in the course of ordinary household life (laundry, meal preparation, maintenance, even pet-, elder- or childcare) as a task to be mediated by an array of single-purpose apps.
The third, though it found early expression in certain utopian architectural currents of the 1960s and 1970s, is something we can only as yet perceive in vague outline, as a weak signal from a future that may or may not be coming into being. Seeking maximal efficiency by liberating the unencumbered body to dwell and work productively just about anywhere on the planet, this wave of innovation leaves traditional notions of home behind entirely.
Whether framed in such radically nomadic terms, though, or in the relatively drab and conventional ones of an “Uber for laundry,” there is no better way of understanding the trade-offs involved in the quest for domestic efficiency than by pursuing them to their source: the original provision of the middle-class home with labor-saving technological devices, a hundred years ago.
The automation of home life is a well-trodden path across what is by now a full century of design, but most of the overt celebration of automation as a virtue in itself came during that century’s first half. From R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1920) to the Philco-Ford 1999 AD House (1967), there is no trope more central to the era’s vision of domestic ease. Most of us of a certain age recognize the exemplary Homes of Tomorrow, from a long succession of World’s Fairs, Expos and Walt Disney TV specials. Taking the Corbusian notion of the home as a “machine for living” with striking literality, these all-electric lifepods pampered their occupants with easy-dusting curves, instant-cooking Radaranges, push-button control panels and hose-down floors.
As little as such Futuramas, Futuros, and Houses of the Future (Monsanto or Smithson variety, take your pick) have to do with the way most any of us actually live, ever did or ever will, they constitute much of the loam in which visions of domestic advance are still grown. For all the concern for ecological sustainability, new materials and new construction methods that has emerged in the decades since, and for all the successive waves of social change that have transformed the size, age and composition of the average household, it’s the DNA of these twentieth-century forerunners that designers still unconsciously draw upon when devising the material substrate of contemporary living. It’s worth attending closely, therefore, to the unspoken and curiously retrograde — indeed, frankly neocolonial — principle that nestles at the core of all these Homes of Tomorrow, which is that they are intended to afford every class of consumer a level of service previously only available to those with the economic wherewithal to maintain a staff of domestic servants. (This argument was never made more plainly than by a 1924 issue of the French magazine Je Sais Tout, an early entrant in the lifestyle genre, which touted a three-storey “house without servants” in which dozens of futuristic, electrified appareils pratiques replaced the butler, the scullery-maid, the cook and the nanny.)
Whatever savings of time and energy was realized by such devices was primarily intended to benefit “the lady of the house,” it being assumed by designers almost without exception that the male head of household was elsewhere, earning a crust. The liberation from drudgery they offered was, in any event, ambiguous and ambivalently received. As Betty Friedan had observed in The Feminine Mystique (1963), nobody quite knew what to do with the time left over after the daily round of chores had been seen to, and the endless hours in splendid suburban isolation were every bit as suffocating and soul-deadening for women trapped in the home as the cycle of métro-boulot-dodo was for the men tasked with bringing home the bacon. Little surprise, then, that the tranquilizer Miltown (cf. The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper,” 1966) became the first runaway success of the postwar pharmaceutical industry.
Precisely what was it that the proud owners of these gleaming new labor-saving appurtenances were being freed for? For much of the twentieth century, the canonical answer would have been “leisure time” — which is to say, a period in which the adult members of the family might amuse, exercise and psychically restore themselves, renewing their labor power while partaking maximally of the fruits of a consumption-oriented economy. Thus the anticipatory visions of laughing, pipe-smoking dads and gingham-bloused moms so common to the era, waving at Junior through the seamless glass of the swimming pool set into the wall of their living room, or playing canasta in the swiveling leatherette seats of their self-guiding, bubble-domed futurecars. By midcentury, with the Keynesian economies of the West riding the postwar expansion to heights of collective wealth never scaled before (or, for that matter, at any time since), the architects of domestic tranquility had seen the future, and it was leisure.
And here we stumble across a problem. After five solid decades of triumphantly unbroken innovation in microelectronics — three of which have seen an easy-to-use global informational network gradually extended until it can reach virtually every domicile on the face of the Earth, and the past two a parallel revolution in supply-chain management, low-cost manufacturing and logistics — we have never before had more, cheaper or more powerful labor-saving devices in the domestic environment. A panoply of networked objects are now distributed through the “smart home,” in a local deployment of what is generally described as the “internet of things,” or IoT; in addition to the by-now-unremarkable networked thermostats, lightbulbs and webcams, these can include a wide range of embedded sensors and actuators. Increasingly, the white goods themselves are networked, often to no clear end beyond affording the harried householder a remote control in the form of their smartphone, with which to begin the drying cycle or kick on the air conditioner while still stuck in commute traffic an hour away.
Taken all together, they are capable of dynamically optimizing the home environment across multiple axes, ensuring that its temperature, lighting levels, security posture and so on all continuously correspond with whatever state is desired by the user/resident. Increasingly, as well, such tasks are mediated via the natural-language speech interface of “virtual assistants” like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home — beachheads and points of presence in the home for the most advanced consumer-facing artificial-intelligence capabilities researchers have yet been able to devise. It would seem that peak domestic efficiency is very much within reach of anyone with the nous to download a few apps.
But for all of that, the leisurely future we were promised failed to arrive on schedule. In fact, it didn’t materialize at all; if anything, “leisure,” in the creaky, Affluent Society sense of the word anyway, is a thing that scarcely exists anymore, for almost any one of us. If it isn’t the mass production of leisure time, then, what problem does the smart home think it’s solving? The time saved by going to all the trouble of continuous modulation is time for what, exactly?
Given that the devices and services in question notably tend to be designed for people whose tastes, preferences and lifeways very much resemble the designers’ own, the contemporary Bay Area answer would appear to be “more code sprints and daily scrums,” i.e. further Stakhanovite exertions on their employers’ behalf, directed toward the goal of bringing ever-more-niche information-technological conveniences into being. But there’s a strong element of bad faith to all of this as well, and revisiting a curious landmark in the history of automation shows us why.
In 1770, the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Klempenen presented his empress, Maria Theresa of Austria, with the curious contrivance that has become known to history as the Mechanical Turk. This was a cabinet atop which sat the torso of a figure garbed and turbaned in the manner of an Ottoman sorcerer, one arm equipped with a pipe and the other constructed in such a way as to give it the freedom to pluck chess pieces from a compartment and move them about a board set into the cabinet’s surface. To the awed delight of its royal audiences, this seeming automaton played at grandmaster level, taking on all comers and seeing them down to defeat, governed by nothing more than the elaborate assembly of brass gears, cogs and rods visible within its cabinet.
In fact, as we now know, the Turk was cunningly designed to conceal a human operator, a grandmaster of chess — a long succession of them, in fact, from its debut until its final destruction in a fire in Philadelphia in 1854 — and wasn’t in any real way automated at all. So many of the tasks launched by a command to Alexa or Siri or Google Home are like this: a desire expressed in a few words, all but literally uttered without thought, sends human bodies scurrying behind the scenes to preserve the user’s airy sense of automagical effortlessness. (In fact, Amazon has run a distributed digital piecework service explicitly named Mechanical Turk since 2005, offering what the company too-cleverly-by-half calls “artificial artificial intelligence” to a global userbase, at rates as low as one US cent per task completed.)
If the classic labor-saving appliance, for the most part, did away with the necessity for uniformed household staff by replacing their exertions with electromechanical might, the boomerang twist of the app age is that there are once again human beings in the loop: actual flesh-and-blood servants, merely time-shared, fractional ones. Whether the task involves the performance of cleaning and tidying, laundry, grocery shopping, pet and plant care, or light household maintenance and repair, you may be sure that there’s an app for that. But the app itself is merely a digital scrim behind which a largely immigrant labor force hustles and sweats and bids against the others competing for the same jobs. There is inevitably a raced and a gendered aspect to this, as well. If, in the new app economy, the effort and care of household maintenance is displaced not primarily onto machines but onto other bodies, it is notable how often those bodies are female, how very often darker than those requesting the service. The only significant exception here lies in the area of dining at home; a prominent fraction of “lead users” bizarrely seems to have interpreted the demands on their time as so pressing that they prefer gulping down a flavorless nutrient slurry like Soylent or Huel to a sit-down meal of any kind, even one prepared by someone else.
What we see here is a curious elaboration of something the educator Bradley Dilger has described as the “ideology of ease,” an implicit (when not entirely open and explicit) body of assertions that undergirds the design of information-technological devices and services, very much including those at the heart of the contemporary home. This ideology proposes that devoting effort or attentional resources to the tasks before us is undesirable — even, somehow, unseemly. Think of it as the demand for convenience raised to the nth degree, articulated virtually as a right.
Accordingly, much of the grandeur in contemporary design lies in streamlining processes until they consist of a few taps at most: the “Buy Now With 1-Click” imperative. But as a consequence, any opportunity for reflexivity is shortcircuited. Whatever values are manifested by these apps, they’re folded up like origami inside the interaction flow, no longer available for conscious inspection or consideration. So when you ask Siri to call you a car, that car will invariably be booked via Uber, an enterprise which notoriously refuses to shoulder any of the risk involved in operating a mobility-on-demand service, achieving growth by shedding that burden onto its drivers, its passengers and the communities in which it operates; and when you ask Alexa to order you more cat food, that order will be fulfilled by workers sweltering in a passing-out-hot warehouse where management won’t let the doors be opened to admit a little breeze, because of the risk of inventory pilferage; and when you ask Google to book you a table at your favorite restaurant that reservation will be made via OpenTable, a service which imposes onerous constraints on restaurateurs and waitstaff alike. These choices, these allocations of power are subsumed beneath the surface, the judgments and valuations inscribed in them simultaneously normalized and made to disappear. And if you should happen to find any of this disturbing or offensive…tough luck. That’s just the way things are in smartworld. Effectively, your choices are limited to take it or leave it.
It may have taken us some time, then, but finally perhaps we can learn to see “smart” for what it so often is: an inscription of power.
For a cohort who experiences even the time spent preparing and enjoying a meal as an intolerable interruption of their availability for work, homelife itself is a burden. For them, the very notion of a permanent dwelling is, in its fixity of place and the opportunity cost of the investments lavished on it, a suboptimal condition — an obstacle to the frictionless mobility our age calls upon us to deliver, and a roadblock on the drive toward total efficiency. And this leads directly to the culmination of this entire line of thinking: the suspicion that the most efficient of all possible homes may very well be no home at all.
Visionary architects of the 1960s believed that the dwelling could be brought with the body like a shell. This tendency, explored in whimsical projects like Archigram’s Suitaloon and Cushicle (1964-1967) and Francois Dallegret and Reyner Banham’s Environment Bubble (1965), reached its apotheosis in Martin Pawley’s rather grimmer vision of “terminal architecture,” in which individually-scaled mobile shelter units pick their way through the rubbled fields of a blasted transapocalyptic nonscape, mediating the unbearable reality all around to the nearly vestigial flesh within.
A rather more palatable interpretation of nomadism was the “plug-in lifestyle” foreseen by futurist Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970), and elaborated in fiction by John Brunner, in the legitimately visionary 1974 novel The Shockwave Rider. Brunner’s plug-in people went where the jobs were, dipped into casual relationships with whoever happened to be close at hand, moved on from either the moment they stopped being fun, and in any event found the material and human terrain comprehensively prepared for such acts of transience, wherever they should happen to alight. Despite a brief enthusiasm for the “technomadic” life at the moment it first became technically feasible, though, around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like such visions would remain safely the province of those whose job it is to speculate about the future.
But things have changed in the years since, with the rise of the network and the cloud, the ubiquitous provision of smartphones to serve as interface and mechanism of payment, and not least the stunning global spread of Airbnb, whose success supports the business case for the new wave of coworking/coliving ventures. Finally the logic of outsourcing can be raised to its perfect realization. You can now offload virtually all of the processes that underwrite domestic life onto a commercial service provider, allowing you to focus on your core competency, whatever that should happen to be, and to pursue it wherever on Earth you are able to find an audience, a market or a community.
At present, there is no suggestion that anything beyond the tiniest number of people will ever choose to live this way over even the medium-term. But it would be unwise to count it out completely. Consider WeLive, a residential offering developed by the hugely successful WeWork chain of coworking spaces, which orients its offering toward a customer base who are “always working or always semi-working.” Or Roam, a competing “global community of coliving and coworking spaces” that offers members the opportunity to touch down and get busy at their San Francisco, London, Bali, Miami or Tokyo locations, for prices starting at $500 a week.
Taken in one way, such propositions clearly gesture toward some of the more fantastic archisocial visions of the late sixties and early seventies — the ones in which hip nomads roamed the planet-spanning supersurfaces and megastructural interiors ad libitum, equipped with no more than a cache-sexe, a small pouch for personal effects and perhaps a cloak against the acid rain. If you squint hard, you can make out the last tattered remnants of that imaginary in the existing real-world global archipelago of short-term flats and coworking spaces, knit together by ubiquitous broadband connectivity and low-cost point-to-point flights, and undergirded by other, rather less glamorous enabling infrastructures (chiefly extended-stay motels and self-serve storage-locker chains). It is possible to bounce around the nodes of this network for years on end, and indeed there are some who seem profoundly fulfilled by the years they spend doing so. Here we drift intriguingly close to, again, Archigram: “the need for a house (in the form of a permanent static container) as part of [human] psychological make-up will disappear.”
It isn’t so much that the plug-in vision of unlimited freedom was superseded, or even betrayed, as that its present-day realization for a few reveals something telling about what the rest of us want and need. For all the value on liberation implicit in the dehoming movement, just the opposite appears to be happening, reflecting a need most of us have for continuity and stability at a time when very little else seems to be holding fast.
But for some tinkering around the edges — primarily driven by the microhome ventures of the commercial real-estate development industry, and perhaps some experimentation with household structure on the part of those embarked upon polyamory — the twenty-first century home remains astonishingly conservative. In its stasis, it offers a place to recover from the world, perhaps even from the pressure toward efficiency itself.
In our time, this is no longer a matter of Taylorist time-and-motion studies or Dreyfusian calibrations of the body in space, but something more intimate still, harder to define and far less concrete. It’s about reforging yourself to meet the demands of a brutally competitive market for your labor: making yourself fit, rested, ready, reliable, available via multiple communication channels at any time of day or night, and ready to go wherever the work takes you. Seen in this harsh light, even cultural trends that are entirely unobjectionable on their face — the turn toward minimalism, say, or the rise of streaming services, or the Kondoesque pursuit of decluttering — can be understood as moves toward frictionlessness and the elimination of anything that would encumber the homedweller as plausible service provider and autonomous economic actor.
As we’ve seen, as well, the pressures involved in supporting this way of life cascade downward to a frankly subaltern class, exposed to many of the same requirements of personability, fitness and perpetual availability, yet expected to tolerate the whims, tantrums and outright harassment of their betters in silence. The question, then, remains today what it always has been: efficiency for whom, exactly? Whose time and energy are valued, and whose are sacrificed on the altar of another’s freedom to move and to act? If we but trace them with a little care, the new logics of domestic ease make the answers to questions like these distressingly, unavoidably clear, to the point that whenever any such proposition arises, it’s worth interrogating both its “smart” and “home” aspects with the greatest care.
As my awesome yoga instructor Kamellia explained in class this week, this past Wednesday into Thursday was Samhain (pronounced “sauin,” more or less), the annual Gaelic festival marking the onset of the season of darkness.
I’m not sure if such an observance can ever fully resonate for anyone who doesn’t live close to the land and its rhythms, but city kid that I am, I sure did feel the turn this year — feel it, and rush forward into its embrace. In fact I’m finding nothing nearly so comfortable lately as darkness, its sensory equivalents silence and stillness, and above all solitude. I’m not unaware that being able to access these qualities at will pretty much defines privilege, of course. But long walks alone in the gloaming feel like a powerful specific for the dis-ease of life in 2018, something blessedly orthogonal to all the fear, hatred and endemic bullshit of our days.
This has been true for me, anyway; as ever, your mileage may vary. However the darkness happens to find you this year, may you know the deep still peace at its heart, and in that peace take the strength to return to the world renewed.
I’m not sure if it’s entirely discernible from the things I’ve written here, but my political sentiments these past few years have taken a reasonably sharp turn toward the position known as degrowth: the acceptance that, in Edward Abbey’s words, economic “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell”; the belief that collective prosperity and wellbeing are possible in the absence of such growth, indeed orthogonal to it; and the commitment to a way of life where value has ever less to do with the production and consumption of market goods.
These are things I believe and try to live by, not without some struggle, and I’m going to be writing more about that struggle in short order, both here and elsewhere. But before I do any of that, I want to acknowledge the staggering magnitude of the challenge involved in degrowing the economy wisely, responsibly and with care and solidarity for all, given our present sociotechnical circumstances. And I’m going to do so in the first instance by invoking a concrete practical example: the handle I recently bought for my Brompton bicycle.
As a convivial tool, I have to imagine the Brompton is all but unrivaled.* Both mechanically self-explanatory and human-scaled, it is par excellence a machine for urban mobility. Like all bicycles, of course, I can use it to get around town. But unlike most bicycles, I can collapse it in a few quick folds, so I can take it with me on the bus, or wheel it into a cafe or bar rather than locking it up outside exposed to the weather and the risk of theft. As a manufactured object and a way of moving through a real city both, it has self-evidently been cannily, cleverly and thoughtfully designed.
Every good designer, though, knows that bringing anything complex into being necessarily involves tradeoffs and compromises. And one of the tradeoffs most noticeable in the design of the Brompton is that the very moves necessary to make it fold elegantly produce a rather unwieldy package in its collapsed configuration. That the Brompton specifically is considerably more wieldy than competing folding bikes is surely one of the primary reasons for its success: it’s been devised in such a way as to let it function as sort of a trolley when folded, with all the greasy mechanicals safely tucked away on the inside. You can haul it around supermarket aisles and the like on the almost-vestigial little wheels mounted to the fender and the frame for just this purpose. But none of that means it’s particularly light or pleasant to carry in this mode…and that really tells when you’re doing something like rushing across a crowded concourse to catch the last train home.
Enter the Fahrer carrying handle. By fusing together some carefully-trimmed nylon webbing, a strip of Velcro and an off-the-shelf, commodity plastic grip, this clever little aftermarket accessory allows the rider to lift the folded Brompton from something much closer to its center of gravity. It’s a godsend for the harried urban cyclist, and a middle finger for all the chiropractors and physiotherapists one imagines cleaning up on yoiking Brompton-sore spines and shoulders back into shape.
But it’s also, dig, the fruit of an unprecedented ramification and refinement in the global product-innovation ecosystem. Combine the extraordinary democratization of digital design tools and rapid-prototyping capability; low-cost, generally Pearl River Delta-based fabrication, as well as the well-lubricated global logistics network and Chinese state policies that allow these factories to price and move goods as though they were made next door; and not least a designer’s ability to raise capital through crowdsourcing platforms, market through viral social media, and bring the things they make to market at scale via platforms like Amazon, and you wind up with two things: a dizzying cornucopia of mostly wonderful new things in the world, most of which are necessarily shortly bound for the landfill, and (/therefore) a near-insuperable challenge to the idea of putting brakes on the use of Earthly resources to make things for sale.
Maybe the Fahrer handle itself didn’t come about in exactly this way, but it might as well have. For all intents and purposes, these days just about any one of the few hundred million people sufficiently privileged to make use of that ecosystem can perceive a need not currently being addressed by the market and mount a response — generally, a response framed in terms of that market, and thereby extending its dominion. What previous generations might have thought of as garage or garden-shed tinkerers willy-nilly become capitalists now, entrepreneurs, self-conscious “innovators.” By the same token, though, an ever-greater amount of material-energetic investment is invoked to produce things of ever-lower marginal utility, as just about any passing want results in a manufactured solution, and each manufactured product catalyzes its own downstream explosion of model-specific bolt-ons, clip-ons, accessories and enhancements — many of them in fact originally user-produced, in the way I’ve described here.
This isn’t to harsh on the handle in and of itself. It’s hard to put in words, in fact, just how much I appreciate it, and with a negligible amount of maintenance it’ll last as long as the bike it’s mounted to will. It’s equally hard to imagine anyone wanting to return to a world in which only a very few, relatively centralized and hierarchical organizations had the power to determine what got made and what did not, least of all me. But if the sunk material-energetic investment in my handle can at least be plausibly defended, the same can’t necessarily be said about dozens of other things I have strewn around the house, or tens of thousands of things on sale in the neighborhood shopping center on Kingsland Road, or a hundred million things for sale on Amazon and Alibaba. Here indeed is an empire of things, the ecosystem responsible for their existence functioning de facto as a massively distributed, more or less entirely unfunded R&D lab for the major manufacturers, as well as a massive generator of signals relating to desire and agency in its fulfillment.
Every single last aspect of this situation is fascinating to me, worth unpacking at some length, and when I hoist my bike by its new handle it is all quite literally present at hand for me. In its own curious way, this handle stands as an object lesson as to why we desperately need to degrow “the economy,” and, at the very same time — at least for anyone possessed of intellectual integrity — a very good argument for the precisely opposite position. Whenever I wrap my hand around it, it makes me acutely aware of the tremendous and growing tension between the gorgeous, entirely laudable desire to ensure that the highest possible number of human beings are able to express themselves materially and the way we presently arrange to attend to that desire. More: it makes me painfully conscious that we have yet to realize anything like the full cost of that arrangement.
*I fully acknowledge that the Brompton both suffers in this regard from, and would most likely be impossible as a commercial proposition without, its reliance on proprietary, noncommodity, non-industry standard components. A fully convivial folding bicycle — designed as thoughtfully as the Brompton, but engineered from the wheels up to use components even the least well-equipped bikeshop will have in stock or which are otherwise user-serviceable — is certainly something worth thinking about.