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

2 responses to “Urbpocalypse now”

  1. Liz Buckley says :

    You know the preamble to the ten commandments is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” so yes profound religious faith has been used to get out of the house of slavery. I believe the way the some cities are formed lends them to have groups of people in them in a slave formation. Large buildings have to be run by some kind of human organization — I can’t think of any large building that doesn’t have a ‘slave’ class doing the grunt work. Technology seems to be doing something different though it seems to do away with the need for people’s work. I had friend who lived with an extended family who told me about how the family ate rice everyday and got a rice maker. And then they realized that the grandmother who used to make the rice everyday did not have anything to do. So they got rid of the rice maker. Sometimes you have to get rid of the rice maker to get out of the house of slavery

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