Humanity is now, we are so often told, an urban species. Though there are real questions as to what the numbers actually mean, the statistics on planetary urbanization are so often bruited about that they have become something of a cliché. What’s more, popular discourse on the subject appears to have internalized the notion that the great cities of Earth aren’t merely significant for their concentration of habitation, but for the beneficial effects that habitation gives rise to. Disproportionately generators of economic vitality, technical innovation and cultural dynamism, our cities may even be able to function as lifeboats capable of sustaining us through the ecological reckoning that is now bearing down on our civilization.
If it is an urban age, though, it is also a networked one. Between the comprehensive instrumentation of the built environment, and the smartphones that so many of us now carry through every moment of the waking day — simultaneously sensor platform, aperture onto the global network, and remote control for the connected systems and services all around us — the colonization of everyday urban life by information processing is virtually complete.
And finally, we appear to have entered an age in which the more-or-less stable neoliberal consensus that held global sway for the past four decades has started to erode. Thus far, the most notable and distressing result of this erosion has been a turn toward authoritarian and xenophobic ethnonationalisms of one stripe or another, its traces evident in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and a long list of autocracies in the ascendant, from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines. But more hopefully, the eclipse of neoliberal hegemony has opened up a space in which some dare to imagine an entirely new way of organizing the productive processes of life: a commons beyond state and market both, in which networked collaboration, distributed material and energetic production, and horizontal forms of governance give rise to striking new possibilities for a just, equitable and fructifying urbanism.
By leveraging the decentralizing tendencies that appear to be implicit in our networked technologies, and the configurations of power they in principle give rise to, we can even begin to imagine what a networked urban commons would look like, and how it might work, at global scale — as a desirable end in itself, an antidote to the anomie and widespread sense of powerlessness that underlie the turn toward xenophobic authoritarianism, and a means of restoring some semblance of ecological balance.
Those of us who are interested in bringing such a state of affairs into being, though, might find that our hopes are dashed at the outset by a lack of clarity about how the technologies involved actually work, naiveté about those parties who currently wield them most effectively, or confusion about what a true commons would require of us. At present, we can see networked technology being layered onto urban place along three basic trajectories: one based largely on the needs of multinational technology vendors; one with roots in the Silicon Valley startup and venture-capital complex; and one — the subtlest yet most promising of all — as yet indistinct. By examining each of them in turn, we can learn more about what is at stake in the advent of networked urbanism, and perhaps chart a course through the Scylla and Charybdis of unwise choices toward a more fruitful future for all.
§ Avatar I: Songdo
In his public appearances, the presidential candidate Moon Jae-in is fond of invoking a comprehensive vision of heavily technologized everyday life that involves “smart house, smart road, smart city” — indeed, an entire “Smart Korea.” There may be no place on Earth closer to concrete fulfillment of Moon’s objective than New Songdo City, a municipality of 90,000 souls built on some 53 square kilometers of tidal flats recovered from the Yellow Sea. In Songdo, both domestic spaces and the entire built fabric have been instrumented, allowing the city’s controllers to monitor and adjust traffic flow and energy utilization in real time.
As ambitious as this sounds, it’s an only slightly more elaborate version of a conception of networked urbanism that is common to municipal administrators and technology enthusiasts the world over. In its raw outlines, this conception seeks to harness the CCTV cameras and networked sensors installed throughout the urban milieu, as well as the torrential streams of data flowing off of our personal devices, to realize greater efficiency and enhance that ever-elusive property known as “quality of life.” By submitting these flows of data to advanced analytic techniques based on machine learning, all kinds of benefits can be obtained: the nominal “optimization” of material and energetic flows, the streamlined delivery of municipal services, even the preemption of undesirable conditions (whether traffic jams or criminal offenses).
This, anyway, is the theory of smart urbanism. In practice, however, a number of issues conspire to ensure that what gets delivered invariably turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts. The first is that, in looking to a rising technology sector to achieve this ambition, municipal-scale actors leave themselves at the mercy of powerful vendors —
globally, multinationals like Siemens, IBM, Hitachi or Microsoft; in Korea the infrastructure, systems-integration and real estate development arms of the familiar chaebol. Because they generally lack the organic technical competence to determine what kinds of hardware and software might best serve their needs, city governments entering this market are perforce compelled to buy what these vendors have to sell, whether or not the problems those systems are designed to solve bear any particular resemblance to the issues perceived by their constituents. This was certainly the case in Songdo, where the expensive and elaborate Cisco “telepresence” hardware planned for each apartment unit in the city was rendered obsolete even before it was deployed, outmoded instantly by free smartphone- and tablet-based video chat applications like Kakao Talk and FaceTime.
The second problem follows on from this. By its very nature, the municipal procurement process involves one set of centralized, hierarchical actors (i.e. technology vendors) interacting with another (local bureaucracies). As a result, the multispectral awareness that might in principle be derived from large-scale analysis of data is generally retained for the exclusive use of municipal administrators, habitually and instinctively — and not, in other words, made available to the public who generated the data in the first place. What is offered to us wreathed in the ostensible glamor of technological futurity, then, is here revealed to be something that’s actually rather dowdy and retrograde: old-style technocratic management from the top down. Not by any stretch of the imagination something consonant with the will to collective self-determination, it cannot be reconciled with the commons without contortions that verge on intellectual dishonesty, however well-intentioned they may be.
And there is a final issue: daily life in Songdo, at least, appears to be rather soulless and dull. NPR quotes a young resident who describes it as a nonplace and a “prison,” and compares her escape into Seoul and all its nightlife at the end of the workweek to a jailbreak. This is admittedly a single data point, but it hardly makes a compelling argument for quality of life in the well-tuned city.
In its current form, then, the smart city as delivered by vendors is not merely ill-advised, nor merely unlikely to support the kind of vivid experiences we associate with big-city life, but actively detrimental to the achievement of an urbanism consistent with the values of the commons. A case in point can be found in the recent Korean experience of mass public demonstrations, which illustrate like relatively few other moments in history the power that an aggrieved citizenry claims for itself when it takes to the streets in protest of an order that has become intolerable. As it happens, the technologies bound together under the banner of the smart city have no way of accounting for this kind of active practice of democracy. Far from recognizing mass demonstrations as the signal of public sentiment they surely are, the smart city can only interpret such protests as a disruption to business as usual: first as an anomaly to be detected, then as an inefficiency to be contained, minimized, neutralized or eliminated.
§ Avatar II: San Francisco
It’s worth unpacking just what business as usual looks like to the architects of the smart city, what conceptions of the normal and the ordinary they may hold in mind when designing the algorithms responsible for detecting imminent departures from normalcy and triggering preemptive action.
And here we need to address the fact that even in software development, there is such a thing as fashion. Once something practiced by a self-consciously professional cohort given to horn-rim glasses, crisp short-sleeve shirts and pocket protectors — call it the Mission Control look — software engineering is, in its Northern Californian and Pacific Northwest fastnesses, dominated by a young, privileged and remarkably homogeneous technical elite. At present, you cannot walk down the streets of San Francisco — a city whose name was once synonymous with the radical, the queer, the experimental and the frankly marginal — without running headfirst into a mostly male scrum of software engineers in their mid-twenties, in their universal uniform of fitted hoodies and $400 sneakers, talking unit tests and code sprints. To a surprisingly great extent, it is their tastes, predilections, priorities and values that urban technology is increasingly designed around.
If the multinational vendor, in all its centralization, conservatism and ponderous lack of agility, represents one of the two predominant modes in which information technology is now applied to the life of cities, the other is typified by the proverbial Bay Area tech startup, with its addiction to venture capital and its imperative to “move fast and break things.” Thus the emphasis on convenience and immediate gratification we see in offerings like Airbnb, Tinder, TaskRabbit and above all Uber: services whose socially corrosive effects were self-evident virtually from the outset, though they are only recently becoming matters of widespread controversy.
It is now beyond dispute that Airbnb has undermined the market for affordable rental housing in city after city, just as Uber’s massive, outsourced fleet has drastically increased traffic in cities around the world, even as it drained custom and resources from public transit. What these services offer is nothing less than a shared reality platform for everyone wealthy enough, and sufficiently comfortable with technology, to use them fluently — a platform that privatizes benefits and sheds costs on the public so nakedly indeed that we no longer hear much talk of a putative “sharing economy.” Though these effects can be noted in every market where these services operate, they’re felt particularly acutely in the Bay Area, where life for those who most closely resemble software developers demographically and psychographically often does seem to consist of near-effortless algorithmically-streamlined ease, albeit at the cost of a slowly decaying public realm for everyone else.
It is telling, in this withdrawal from any pretense at convivial urbanity, that we don’t even discuss progress anymore, only “innovation.” In doing so, we preemptively surrender the terrain of the social imagination to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, if not still more impoverished souls like Travis Kalanick or Peter Thiel. If the urban condition that results from their everted imaginings is not quite the brutal reality of first-generation smart cities like Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates — where Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Filipino guest workers labor long, thanklessly and at great personal risk to keep the city turning over, and end their days in metal shipping containers arrayed behind razor wire under the broiling desert sun — neither does it have much to do with how cities have traditionally generated meaning and value for their inhabitants. Thus far, at least, everyday life in this capsular, app-mediated city appears to be defined by its exclusions.
§ Avatar III: Seoul
By contrast, the Greek architect and activist Stavros Stavrides, in his recent book on practices of spatial commoning, emphasizes the profoundly invitational aspect of any true commons, its quality of radical openness and porosity. If neither the multinational nor the startup way of doing networked cities quite works to produce such conditions on the ground, where can we go looking for a model that might do so?
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the present context, is that certain aspects of vernacular Korean urbanism already work quite well in this regard. Without fetishizing them, or sugarcoating their less felicitous aspects, Korean cities even now reliably generate an informality and canniness in the use of space that comes much closer to achieving the vision of a life in common than anything on offer from either wing of the tech industry. Not so much the newly-built, gated apartment complexes, of course, with their Ballardian full-service towerblocks rising in endless numbered ranks, but in older city cores throughout the country. Here the ajeossi play an impromptu game of baduk in a doorway, seated on torn cardboard box covers; there a sudden chicken-and-beer stand has popped up on an unused concrete forecourt; above, tucked into the fifth floor of an otherwise anonymous office building, is the jjimjilbang with beauty salon and restaurant and game parlor attached, pulsing with life and activity through 24 hours of the day. These things may not read that way to a globalized elite smitten with enticingly glossy corporate visions of the future, but to a certain kind of Western visitor, these feel like signals of the way life in the networked city could be: spontaneous, mobile, flexible, convivial, and above all open.
Could we design networked platforms and systems that generated this kind of urban experience, not merely for a few, but for everyone? The answer is almost certainly yes — but successfully doing so would require that we learn to wield networked technology quite differently than we do at present.
It would be necessary, first, to step back and ask what we are actually trying to achieve by deploying networked systems in the urban frame. We would have to test and iterate and test again, and discard for good that which is seen not to work. This, of course, runs almost directly counter to several aspects of the way we do things now: the headlong pace of technical innovation most obviously, but also its ahistoricity.
It would be necessary to press for specifics, whenever we are offered hype, buzzwords and promises. We would have to ask hard questions about how technologies actually function when used by real people in real environments, and not simply be seduced by lovingly-crafted renderings or animated flythroughs.
It would be necessary to nurture more space outside the market in particular. If “the commons” is to mean anything at all, it can only refer to a milieu where neither the values of the state nor those of the market prevail, leaving room for mutuality, solidarity and positive-sum collaboration — the diametric opposite, in other words, of the condition that broadly obtains in the West now, where the market sets the ground conditions of everyday life, and the state is increasingly figured as something that exists solely to guarantee the operating conditions for private enterprise. It remains to be seen how this model might apply to a place like Korea, where the dynamics of the developmental state retain a powerful hold on the national psyche, but it would clearly be an uphill battle.
Finally, regardless of the particular set of political commitments we hope to see observed in the design of urban technologies, it would be necessary for us to consider with the greatest care what kind of subjectivity our use of these systems give rise to. We would have to ask who we become in their presence and through their use, and be prepared to redesign everything if we don’t much care for the answers.
The examples I’ve offered here ought to make it clear if what we seek to achieve is a life in common, the whole quest for technological “smart” is something akin to a category error, where it isn’t simply intellectually bankrupt. We know in any event that any city deserving of the name is always already smart, and that its intelligence resides in the people who live in it and give it life. The task that remains before us is to design technical systems that are respectful of that intelligence, and allow it to speak itself. In the final analysis, this task cannot be outsourced. It cannot be optimized. It cannot be automated. It will require of us profound investments of time, energy and care. But the reward would be considerable: a place, or a meshwork of places, where everyday life is spontaneous and convivial, where the conditions of equity, justice and ecological balance are finally realized, where our quest to be human in full might find at last a natural home and ground.
The following is a very lightly edited version of something I wrote for the newsletter I published on a weekly basis all through 2015. I always understood these pieces as ephemera, and so my policy was that there would be no persistent archive of them, and no way for anyone to read a weekly entry they hadn’t received by virtue of being subscribed to the newsletter at the time it was published. They were strictly of and for the moment.
I still think that was a sound policy. But not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me to repost the following, and in the interest of saving everyone some time I figured I’d do so here. For reasons that I cannot fathom, it remains the single most-requested among the sixty-odd newsletters I published last year. Usual disclaimers apply, but I hope you enjoy it.
Many of you will recall that for the two years before we moved to London, I was in the habit of convening drinks every Friday night at Temple Bar on Lafayette Street. This standing get-together, imaginatively dubbed FRIDAYS AT 7, remains one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. I still derive an enormous amount of satisfaction out of having brought this particular assortment of people together, still glow from the memory of a great many great nights, and to this day try to arrange a FATSEVEN gathering whenever I happen to be in New York City for more than 48 hours or so.
But it also taught me something very deep about the nature of human socialization. You should know that I inherit from my mother a profound tendency to want to please everyone I’m interacting with, at least in certain contexts — even when there are more than two people involved, even when some of those people disagree with or outright dislike one another. Now, this can be a beautiful trait. Buried within it, I’m sure, are the seeds of some future generation’s ability to settle all invidious contentions, bring all parties to a common table and drape the world in universal harmony. But of all the troublesome tendencies in my psychological makeup (and there are a few), this one quality has perhaps caused more chaos in my various relationships and jobs than any other.
Because as it happens, you just can’t give everyone you know everything they want. I’m not necessarily saying that all relationships are brutally zero-sum games of resource management, but, y’know, they take place inside history. Like anything else that does, they’re subject to entropy, scarcity, the rules of physics. That I can see, there are no Pareto-optimal solutions for interpersonal relationships, any more than there are for any other system above a certain threshold of complexity. They’re like a three-body problem. (Sometimes they are a three-body problem.)
It turned out that my dearly beloved FRIDAYS AT 7 crew was like that. Now, I need to do a little bit of stage-setting, so you understand the particular dynamic at play here. Though to a one they were (and are) all fascinating, funny, talented and endearing, not everyone who came to drinks on a regular basis had necessarily tasted success as the world defines it. But there was a subset of folks there who had done so, and by any rational standard these were all accomplished people. They’d published well- and widely-reviewed books, or shown films at world-famous festivals, or played a part in the development of some piece of software you use on a daily basis.
I certainly don’t think any more highly of them because this happens to be the case, because god knows why any of our lives break the way they do. But naturally I admired them for their achievements, as well as for the other things that commended them to my friendship in the first place. And I had assumed that within the social universe of the particularly accomplished, there existed something like a consensus that anyone you might care to name more or less knows what they’re talking about.
And so I’ll confess that it floored me when late one night, on hearing me praise a mutual acquaintance who I myself did consider to be highly accomplished, one of these people said, “I can’t believe you rate that guy. He’s just such total bullshit.” Laboring under my maternal inheritance (which I eventually came to recognize as a mutant strain of Geek Social Fallacy #4, actively operating in both my mother and I decades before it was identified and named as such), it had never occurred to me that some objectively high-achieving people might regard one another in this way.
Yeah, I know. You’d think I would have figured this out on the dewy side of forty, come to some much earlier insight into how contingent and variable human reputation can be. I dunno — maybe I cut class that day. Either way, it wasn’t until that very moment that I realized how acutely uncomfortable my praise of this third party was making my friend. It was clear to me, in fact, that he would begin to question my own judgement if I insisted on proceeding too much further down this path. The conversation would get awkward, then actively difficult, and then who knows? maybe the friendship would too. Doors of perception blasted wide by my third Stolichnaya martini of the evening, I began to wonder how many other times over the years I had put someone in just this uncomfortable position.
I realized on the spot that what I needed was a Master Bullshit Matrix.
The Master Bullshit Matrix, as I saw it in that blinding flash of insight, would take the form of a very large (but mercifully finite) spreadsheet. In its cells would be recorded — would reside for all time — a complete accounting of just who considers whom to be Bullshit. Accomplished or not, celebrated or not, by definition there would be a place for everyone on the Master Bullshit Matrix, and then we’d all finally be able to reckon just where we stood.
On its face, compiling any such thing would certainly appear to be a spectacularly mean-spirited and juvenile thing to do: the kind of effort snotty fourth-graders set themselves to, when deciding who is and is not allowed to sit at their lunch table. But as I imagined it, the point of the Master Bullshit Matrix was letting everyone involved in one of these conflicts of appraisal save a little face.
Armed with the Master Bullshit Matrix, I wouldn’t embarrass myself (or anyone else) by continuing to insist on the quality of someone the person I was talking to considered Bullshit. Not unless I wanted to, anyway. In any given moment, I could decide whether or not I wanted to press the case for someone’s non-Bullshitness, teasingly needle someone by dropping the name of someone I knew full well they thought was Bullshit, or avoid the topic entirely. I could even cross-reference a particular intersection of personalities, and learn whether the Bullshit judgement ran one-way or two-way.
Please do not mistake me to be saying that good conversation requires agreement about everything — that you should ever be insincere yourself, or commit yourself to a position you do not in fact hold, just for the sake of someone’s momentary comfort. But there are clearly times when the greater good of social ease requires the deft avoidance of certain conversational minefields. And as I came to understand so late in life, you enter one of those minefields in arguing for someone’s transcendent genius…when your interlocutor believes that person to be Bullshit.
In an attempt to see what it might take to populate the Master Bullshit Matrix, I gently began to probe certain of my more forthright friends for their opinions. All of them understood the question immediately, offering their own personal Bullshit nominations without hesitation. What I found most interesting was that some of these nominations — many of them, in fact — came to me as a complete surprise. It reinforced my sense that there’s absolutely no predicting ahead of time who is going to strike someone else as Bullshit.
Broadly speaking, what seemed to make someone vulnerable to the charge that they were Bullshit? It’s hard to pin down precisely, but certain qualities seemed to crop up fairly often. The perception of insincerity, chiefly. Intellectual laziness, from someone my interlocutor believed that we can and should expect better of. Posturing. Ideology when it appeared to be deployed for craven professional, financial or sexual advantage.
There seemed to be some overlap with Dunning-Kruger syndrome, but not entirely so – it is broadly acknowledged that some people just can’t help being dumb, and while they may not be aware that they are dumb, this in itself doesn’t necessarily make them Bullshit. In other people, however, the behavior that constitutes reasonable ground for a Dunning-Kruger diagnosis is 100% the same thing that makes them Bullshit.
Note, too, that the quality of being Bullshit is something that mostly seems to reside at the professional or vocational level. Very importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything preventing you from liking or enjoying the company of someone you believe to be Bullshit. Indeed, among the friends I talked to, some of their nominations were folks I know full well that they remained greatly fond of. These weren’t bad people. They were just Bullshit.
Of course the most interesting thing you could do with a Master Bullshit Matrix would be using it to discover who believes that you yourself are Bullshit. You could avoid wasting your time with those people; if you were particularly brave, you could even open up the question of your possible Bullshitness with them, and take steps to address the grounds for their belief, if any. Again, as I imagined it, anyway, the Master Bullshit Matrix would be a constructive tool for interpersonal growth and the avoidance of inadvertent offense, not a preteen’s nasty little cut-book. On this count I am probably being optimistic.
Is it possible to know that one is Bullshit? It’s hard to say. Perhaps, like the Dunning-Kruger effect itself, it’s a self-blinding condition: if you knew you had it, you wouldn’t have it. But it’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?
At the moment, I’m neck-deep in my Verso stablemates Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s still-newish book Inventing the Future; things remaining more or less stable schedulewise, I’ll most likely finish it later on today, or tomorrow at the latest.
It’s a strange book, Inventing. You may have caught some of the buzz around it, and that buzz exists for good reason. (It’s not just the superspiffy totebags Verso had ginned up for it, though I’m sure those do not hurt one whit.) At its heart a passionate argument against work and for an end to neoliberalism and its reality control — forged along the same rough lines as those Paul Mason and the Fully Automated Luxury Communism kids are currently touting — Inventing is a genuinely curious mixture of crystal-clear analysis, righteous provocation and infuriating naivety. If you’re even remotely interested in what emergent technologies like machine learning and digital fabrication might imply for our capacity for collective action, and especially if you think of yourself as belonging to the horizontalist left, you should by all means pick it up, read it for yourself and form your own judgments. (Here’s Ken Wark’s take on it; I endorse most of his thoughts, and have a great deal of my own to add, which I’ll do in the form of my own forthcoming book.)
Late in the book there’s a passage concerning the stance Srnicek and Williams feel the postcapitalist left needs to adopt toward the mainstream media: if the “counter-hegemonic” project they describe is to have any hope of success, they argue, “it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.”
Well. It must be said that this is not one of the book’s high points. In its latent suggestion that the only reason Thomas Piketty and Donna Haraway aren’t cohosting a lively, popular Sunday-morning gabfest on NBC right this very moment is because we, the progressive public, are somehow not trying hard enough, or have failed to sufficiently wrap our pointy heads around the awesome conditioning power of the mass media, in fact, it’s somewhere between irritating and ridiculous. (It’s hard for me to see how Srnicek and Williams’s argument here is substantively any different from that stroke of market-savvy inspiration the beloved but famously marginal Minutemen skewered on the cover of their second-to-last album. And now you know where the title of this post came from.)
Nevertheless, they’re onto something. Though that more-than-faintly patronizing tone never quite dissipates, S&W eventually find themselves on far firmer ground when they argue that “[l]eftist media organizations should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining, gleaning insights from the success of popular websites.” I was able to shake off the momentary harrowing vision I had of Leninist Buzzfeed, and press on through to what I take to be their deeper point: radical thought can actually resonate broadly when care is taken to craft the language in which that thought is expressed, and still more so when insular, self-congratulatory obscurity is avoided in the design of its containers. I endorse this notion wholeheartedly. This recent appreciation of Jacobin hits many of the same notes; whatever you think of Jacobin‘s politics, it’s hard to deny that its publishers consistently put together a sprightly, good-looking read. (I’d call it “the Monocle of the left,” but that would be to imply that Monocle‘s content is far more compelling than in fact it is.)
You might still argue that S&W ought to spend a little more time with McLuhan. My own feeling is that there’s more to distrust about the “mainstream media” than merely its overtly political content — that consuming information in the form of tweets, listicles, Safety Check notifications, screens overloaded with crawlers, and possibly even glowing rectangles themselves is hard to square with the kind of awareness I at least find it necessary to cultivate if I’m to understand anything at all about the way the systems in which I’m embedded work.
But ultimately, these are quibbles. I agree with S&W when they argue that overthrowing the weaponized “common sense” of the neoliberal era is an explicitly counter-hegemonic project; that developing a functioning counter-hegemony is something that requires longterm commitment; and that those with truly radical programs need to reconsider the relationship between “pop,” “popular” and “popularity” if that whole hearts-and-minds thing is ever going to work out for them. (I’m honor-bound to point out that Saul Alinsky said as much fifty years ago, but perhaps that too is a quibble.) So: no. I have no problem at all with presenting complex and potentially challenging ideas accessibly, so long as they can be rendered accessible without dumbing them down. If successful counter-hegemonic media looks a whole lot more like a Beyoncé video than some preciously anti-aesthetic art installation, so much the better. Bring on the hit songs.