Housing Europe interview

In the runup to our June event in Tallinn, the good folks at Housing Europe have asked me to address a brief series of thoughtful questions. I share the questions and my answers to them with you here, in the hope that you’ll find them as usefully provocative as I did.

Social anxiety, introversion, isolation, and feelings of loneliness are on the rise, especially in the younger generation, a result of various factors including the irony-laden hyper-connectivity of social media, smart phones and screen time, general alienation from our schooling and work, our physical surroundings, ourselves and each other – is there any way in which technology could be used to actually curb this trend at all?
Well, there are of course any number of apps that claim to spur us to mindfulness and presentness, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the same hyperconnectivity you’re talking about actually works pretty well for some. I’ve seen studies suggesting, for example, that the most densely-connected social media users tend to score well above average on self-reported measurements of happiness and life satisfaction.

But as far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of a master’s tools/master’s house situation. I don’t think you can reliably underwrite the kind of psychically restorative, face-to-face interaction we seem to require with the same technologies that corrode our ability to attend to and be emotionally present for one another. There are powerful physiological processes engaged by the way smartphones and apps are currently offered to us that tend to militate against our very ability to be present: consider the way the flickering of our screens involuntarily entrains focus, so that you can’t not glance at a screen entering your field of vision, at least momentarily. Or the dopamine cycle, which, as we now know, is consciously exploited by app designers to capture and retain our attention, beneath the level of conscious awareness — that’s what the little red bubble with the number of unread messages is all about, it’s very carefully tuned to be an irresistible trigger to action. The notion that we might somehow override these very old, very deep features of our nervous system at will strikes me as naive.

So what’s the alternative? The alternative is to cultivate a greater sophistication regarding what networked information technology is for, where in our lives it’s best and most wisely deployed, and when the time has come to quite literally set it aside and surrender ourselves to an as-nearly-unmediated encounter with the other as we can feasibly achieve. But that itself takes education, and patience, and the desire to do so, and above all the recognition that it’s not by any stretch of the imagination always comfortable to be in the unmediated presence of another human being, their claims and prerogatives. There’s a skill involved with being copresent with each other in such a vulnerable way, or even a craft, and we could all use some refinement of that craft. Myself very definitely included.

Would it be advisable to build a city from scratch and, if so, would you enjoy being involved in this project and what guiding principles would you wish to employ?
Advisable? In the abstract, I’d have to say no. Most likely inevitable, though: the number of people worldwide who are now looking to avail themselves of urban density and urban opportunity — in not a few cases, mind you, because they were forcibly displaced from the land — will clearly stress the infrastructural carrying capacity of existing conurbations to the breaking point. So we need to bring new ones online, even if it takes a few decades for anything resembling a genuinely metropolitan sensibility to bed into such places.

Would I enjoy being involved in their design? Of course. Like any other urbanist, I have my own pet theories and received nuggets of wisdom about how it is one might go about designing a city so that it simultaneously underwrites equity, complexity, texture and sustainability, and I’d love the opportunity to put those theories to the test. Who wouldn’t?

As to what principles would guide me in any such engagement, it shouldn’t be too much trouble for anyone with even a glancing familiarity with my work to guess their general contours. The first is to provide maximum scope for people to determine the circumstances of their own being, as individuals and collectivities both. The second, which is obviously in a fair deal of tension with this, is to proceed always from the understanding that quality of life for all is best achieved by closely and respectfully attending to the needs of the most vulnerable users of a space.

Have your thoughts or attitudes changed or developed since 2013, when you wrote “Against the smart city”?
At the time I wrote “Against the smart city,” I was — very atypically — cowed by some bizarre notion that the pamphlet’s credibility would be enhanced by a relatively even-handed description of the things I was writing about, even though they were plainly terrible. Figuring that the smart-city schemes I was discussing were so prima facie foolish (or, in the case of PlanIT Valley, outright fictional) that a relatively uninflected account of them would speak plainly enough for itself, I just didn’t put things as sharply as I could or should have. Not to put too fine a point on it: I pulled my punches.

And what happened in the months and years that followed is that, on a fairly regular basis, I’d hear from the architects and engineers who worked on those efforts, people fairly intimately involved with the creation of Masdar or Songdo and so on. They’d write to me and say, “You know, that project was so much worse than you said it was. You have no idea how much worse.”

Well, look: I’ve spent a few years of my life inside large, multinational technology firms. I did have some idea. It’s true that I didn’t have the fine details at hand — and lordy, did they ever make for cacklingly schadenfreudy, if somewhat hair-raising, reading — but even given what I knew at the time, I certainly could have been more pointed in my critique.

The irony, of course, is that the pamphlet is clearly already pretty far to one side of the spectrum of published opinion on the question of the smart city. Yeah, there are a number of critical academic papers that treat the issue, some of them quite tasty, but as far as the popular literature on the subject is concerned virtually everything else out there is a more-or-less optimistic attempt to justify or recuperate the idea of the smart city. If we stipulate, then, that “Against the smart city” pretty much already defines one pole of debate, here I am suggesting that taking these insiders at their word means it should have been much harsher still. I shouldn’t have let myself been affected by tone arguments advanced by purely imaginary interlocutors in my own head, or watered down the truth of what I knew about the elemental mendacity and incompetence of smart-city schemes out of some profoundly misguided notion of the politics of respectability.

It’s a lesson I bear in mind whenever I’m asked to comment on things like Sidewalk Lab’s adventures in Toronto.

Migration as a result of conflict, poverty, land grabbing, climate and demographic change, as well as a type of continuous mobility as a consequence of the pursuit of education or employment opportunities, and, on a more positive note, our curiosity and desire to explore the world, means that we often find ourselves in new and short-term living situations. Could you think up a system in which people could be appropriately and comfortably housed on such a basis?
Sure, and it wouldn’t even necessarily look all that different from present-day AirBnb, at least in schematic. (Let me be clear that I have absolutely no problem with something like AirBnb, provided first of all that every permanent resident of a city in which such a service operates has access to safe, decent, centrally-located housing, unimpeded by considerations of income or affordability. The beef I have with AirBnb is the way it distorts the rental market, and secondarily the signature psychogeographical condition that tends to crop up pretty reliably when much of a city’s historic center is given over to the needs of tourists and other short-term visitors.)

And circling back to your earlier question, here’s a place where I definitely think networked technology has an important role to play in defining the contours of a decent, grounded, equitable modus vivendi. Along these lines, I did some thinking awhile back about what I was then calling “space as a service.” There’s also been some pretty innovative work on ways in which networked shelter and mobility assets might be integrated, epitomized for me by Höweler + Yoon’s Shareway 2030 project from a few years ago.

What do you think is the way — if there is such a way — to make sure that these “radical technologies” you talk about in your latest book actually serve an inclusive design of everyday life that does not leave anyone behind?
If there is a way, it would have to involve massively enhancing the inclusivity, the representational diversity and sheer invitationality of technological development organizations, so that the apps and services that set the bounding conditions on our lives aren’t exclusively devised by a markedly self-similar cadre of young, privileged, able-bodied engineers and designers. Designing technological products and services that are pertinent to and sensitive of the needs of people who don’t happen to process information, understand embodiment or experience space like the existing development cohort is necessarily going to have a lot to do with who’s in the room when the thing’s being made, and what power they’re able to claim. The watchword has to be “nothing about us without us.”

Note that I am not arguing that we need to “prioritize STEM education” above everything else, whatever that is, or god forbid that “everyone should learn to code.” But we need to get a whole lot closer to a paradigm of development by people rather than for them, or on their behalf. It’s not like this is by any means fully resolved inside urban planning, by the way — it’s a tension that’s been plainly evident since at least the mid-1960’s, and here I’m thinking of some of the more thoughtful critical responses to Paul Davidoff’s 1965 paper on advocacy planning. Not even the most skilled advocate will ever be able to fully evoke someone else’s lived experience of the world in all of the ways that are salient to a design challenge of this order, no matter how diligent or well-intentioned or empathic they may happen to be. So the task that lays before us is figuring out how ordinary people everywhere can meaningfully claim a voice in the development of the information-technical systems that now do so much to condition their life choices and chances.

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