Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”

I am very pleased, and every bit as proud, to announce the publication of the latest SUPERTOME to emerge from the Urban Age process, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, and with it my essay “Of Systems and Purposes.” It won’t contain anything to startle those of you who have been following my work for awhile — you’ll see, for example, that I once again return to the Beer well — but I do think it’s a pretty neat distillation of my thought about cities and technology as it’s developed over the past several years. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.

I’m particularly delighted that my work is featured alongside that of so many urbanists I respect enormously, in such a physically beautiful edition. My congratulations to Ricky Burdett, Philipp Rode, and especially the book’s indefatigable production team.

The legendary technologist Alan Kay once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Kay could perhaps be forgiven for the comment’s Promethean hubris, central as he was to the intellectual life of Xerox’s celebrated Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where so many of the interface conventions we continue to rely upon today were invented. The plain fact of the matter is that an ensemble of techniques invented or extensively developed at PARC, over a period of a very few years in the early 1970s — among them the graphical user interface, the mouse, the windowing system and the kind of multitasking it enabled, laser printing — remain at the core of home and office computer use some forty years down the line. The tools and techniques that Kay and his colleagues at PARC experimented with for their own use really did change the way we all work, think and play, generating a multitrillion-dollar market in the process of doing so.
This unimpeachable set of facts certainly does seem to legitimate the premise at the heart of Kay’s claim: that collective futures are something that can be architected at will by the sufficiently visionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heroic role it casts them in, this notion has been embraced by successive generations of technologists, very much including those now busily at work “disrupting” the processes that have defined urban life since time immemorial. Judging from the frequency with which Kay is invoked in their PowerPoint decks and TED talks, at least, their various interventions in commerce and mobility, self-presentation and socialization, and production, distribution and consumption are consciously intended to realize coherent visions of the future.
But which visions? Where Kay’s work at PARC was at least liminally inspired by the liberatory ethos of the Bay Area 1960s — an intellectual current nurtured by the work of thinkers like Illich, Marcuse, Carson and Fuller, the upwelling of the Black Power, feminist and gay-rights movements, the anarchist Diggers and their experiments with Free Stores, Clinics and crashpads, the encounter with mystical-ethical systems of the East, and above all copious amounts of high-grade LSD — his latterday descendants appear to imagine futures of a rather different stripe. Those taking the boldest strides to transform urban life today range from explicit neo-Randians like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, to the avowedly technolibertarian developers of Bitcoin and the technology undergirding it, the blockchain, to those whose political projects — beyond a clear commitment to the standard tenets of entrepreneurial capitalism, as it expresses itself in the neoliberal period — are as yet unclear, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
From the public comments, commitments and investments of these and other would-be disruptive innovators of their ilk, it is possible to assemble at least a rough picture of the world they wish to call into being, and therefore the urban forms and rituals that are likely to predominate in that world:
Where on-demand, local digital fabrication of goods (via 3D printing, numerically-controlled laser cutting and milling, etc.) is not possible, conventionally-manufactured products will be shipped, warehoused and distributed to the consumer via an almost fully automated supply and fulfillment chain. While it won’t be possible to do without human labor completely, entire job categories — warehouse worker, commercial truck driver, deliveryperson — will disappear from the economy, never to be replaced.
The means of production will be held (and such employment contracts as remain necessary issued) by distributed autonomous organizations, corporations manifested in and as self-directing software. With the greater part of the built environment networked at high resolution, and truly economic microtransactions enabled by digital currency, every market for mobility and commercial or residential space is “liquified,” or ruthlessly optimized for efficient, moment-to-moment value extraction. Access to space (microflats, single rooms, or even workstations) will be leased by the minute, while very, very few spatial resources will escape being harnessed for revenue generation.
For those who can afford it, on-demand, point-to-point mobility will be undergirded in most cities by a permanently orbiting fleet of autonomous vehicles. And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.
In this world, the art of governmentality has been refined to a very high degree. Custodial organizations, State or otherwise, are furnished with a torrential flow of information about our choices, and the unparalleled insight into human motivation that can be gleaned from analysis of that flow. Prudent behavior on the part of the consumer-citizen is enforced by an array of personalized performance targets, incentives and disincentives presented in the form of brightly-gamified “social credit” schemes — networked carrots and sticks sufficient to keep all but the irredeemably anti-social acting within permissible bounds.
If this sounds like a grim, dispiriting and airless set of possibilities — and it certainly does to me — it is fortunately unlikely that this particular future will unfold in quite the way imagined by those now busily engaged in the attempt to realize it. Several decades’ accumulated experience with networked technologies suggests that whatever actual impact they do have in the fullness of time often bears little to no resemblance to the visions of the people who devised them, or indeed the concrete experiences of their earliest adopters. It would be profoundly foolish to suppose that technologies like 3D printing, the blockchain or machine learning will have no bearing on the form or function of large-scale urban environments. They undoubtedly will. But when would-be innovators promise that their inventions will directly drive radical change — whether undermining material scarcity and the commodity form (as the inventor of the RepRap 3D printer originally imagined his device would do), stripping bias from the operations of the criminal justice system (as the promoters of risk-assessment algorithms promise) or even allowing exchanges of value to abscond from the visibility of the State entirely (as ideologues of the blockchain hope) — we have reason to believe that circumstances will conspire to confound or even subvert their intentions.
Recall Steve Jobs’s astonished comment, upon being shown the algorithmically self-righting Segway scooter for the first time, that “they’ll architect cities around these things.” With this technology in hand, the prospect of undoing at least some of the damage done to cities of the twentieth century by the internal-combustion engine suddenly seemed a great deal more credible. The formless sprawl, the environments legible only at speed, the dependence for mobility on capsular vehicles that isolated occupants from their surroundings and one another, above all the air pollution: in the minds of its earliest advocates and enthusiasts, all of these circumstances stood to be transformed by the Segway. But compare this rather pleasant vision to the world we actually live in some two decades downstream from the Segway’s commercial appearance, where the vehicles remain limited to ferrying around annoying platoons of helmeted tourists, and perhaps the occasional airport security officer. Instead of compelling any gross transformation of the urban environment, let alone the way we collectively think about urban mobility, thus far the Segway’s primary contribution to everyday life has been inspiring the cheap, Chinese-made “hoverboards” whose lithium-ion batteries burst into flames with distressing frequency.
Or consider what eventually happened to Craigslist — when it first emerged in the San Francisco of the late 1990s, a virtually utopian space in which goods, skilled services and shelter circulated for free. A passionate community of users grew up around the early Bay Area Craigslist, and something very close to a true gift economy sprung into existence among them: a functioning ecosystem of exchange founded on goodwill and mutuality, in the very heart of the late-capitalist West. For these early users, much of what they’d previously resorted to accomplishing at retail was, for a time, furnished by a single humble, all-but-rudimentary website.

And yet, for all its promise and sustaining optimism, this apparition of an entirely different mode of citying somehow failed to take the rest of the world by storm. Putting the indifferent stewardship of its management team to one side, Craigslist was ultimately undone by nothing other than scale. As the userbase drawn by the enticing prospect of free or ultra-low-cost services spiked beyond the Dunbar number — the notional upper bound of a human community in which all the members know one another by name — the bonds of implicit trust necessary to any agalmic community became first harder to sustain, and then impossible to construct at all. And this was replicated in city after city, as the service was rolled out across the planet’s major metropolitan markets, in accordance with the build-once/deploy-many-times ethos that drives the software industry and the logic of unlimited scalability that governs the network. In many ways a victim of its own success, Craigslist just about everywhere soon became cluttered with nakedly commercial listings — listings whose propositions were virtually impossible to verify independently, which flowed onto the site at such implacable velocity that they crowded out the community-generated posts that had so strongly characterized its early days. (What’s more, the platform badly undercut the classified advertising-based business model most free local weeklies depended on, driving many of them to extinction.) None of this looked anything like the neighborly, human-scaled, practically utopian community of exchange its gentle founder Craig Newmark had intended to realize. The Craigslist at scale that we know today, harbor for slumlords, haven for scammers and human traffickers, isn’t so much a negation as an outright renunciation of its initial promise.  

Some technical innovations, of course, actually do result in profound alterations in the form, tenor and distribution of city life. For every internal combustion engine, safety elevator, tungsten-filament lightbulb or mobile phone, though, there are dozens of Segways or Craigslists. It is striking, furthermore, how often the technologies with truly transformational implications for the city were originally intended to address some other order of challenge or problem entirely. I very much doubt, for example, that Jeff Bezos had the cratering of high-street retail, the choking of big-city streets with parcel-delivery traffic or the staggering reduction in demand for warehousing labor in mind when he sat down to draft his first plans for an online book market.

This is a history we might wish to bear in mind when inventors, developers and other interested parties present us with claims that some new technology on offer will surely give rise to radically new (and invariably radically better) permutations of the city. We would be wise to consider that the things they propose will invariably be constrained by what the philosopher Jane Bennett thinks of as “the material recalcitrance of cultural products.” Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. In this light, we should consider the possibility that Kay’s promise might have been little more than bravado all along, and the successful scaling-up to worldwide hegemony of the ensemble of tools he helped to develop at PARC a one-time, more or less irreproducible fluke, with no particularly salient implications for innovators in other times or places.

For all the sweep and verve of his framing of things, then, I personally prefer the perspective offered by another technologist: the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer, who argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” We should evaluate a technology, that is, by considering the outcomes it is actually seen to produce when deployed in the world at scale — and not the reputations of its authors, their intentions, institutional affiliations or prior successes, or the ostensible benefits that supposed to attend its adoption.
Applying Beer’s bracing realism, the most pernicious words in the technologist’s vocabulary are “might,” “could” and “can,” and the only meaningful test of a proposed technical intervention are the conditions it empirically gives rise to when deployed into a recalcitrant world. We oughtn’t properly even be speaking of “potential”; the only way to ascertain whether or not a given technical or techno-social proposition is indeed within the space of possibility is to build a prototype, deploy it, and await the results. And what we learn when we consider past innovations in the light of this unremitting standard is that technical development, for all its rigors, is the easy part of inventing the future. Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.
And this is perhaps truer still for those who intend to realize progressive urban futures. It is still possible to dream of cities in which the flows of matter and energy necessary to an equitable distribution of goods and lifechances are sustainable over the longer term, in which the rather abstract, Lefebvrian “right to the city” is made concrete in accessible, universal mobility and participatory political processes, and above all in which dignified, decent lives are possible. But translating these aspirations into conditions on the ground will require urbanists to develop fluency with a set of conditions that by and large remain opaque to them, even threatening.
We must in the first instance have the courage to think the city in the light of the more outré technical possibilities suddenly available to us. Just what does public space look or feel like, when each of the people occupying it is surrounded at all times by a cloud of semi-autonomous servitors and companions, virtual as well as materially embodied? What remains of high streets, Main Streets or malls once retail as we have known it, with all its ability to communicate, seduce and gather, is exploded into ten thousand separate acts of on-the-spot production or just-in-time fulfilment? What do prospects for entry-level or otherwise unskilled employment look like in that unbundled world, and how will that be felt in the tenor of street life? The ways in which these questions come to be answered will set the boundary conditions for everyday urban life, for the kinds of political struggle that are possible in the urban frame and for the subjectivities and selves that arise there.
As we reckon with the lines of flight that now open up to us, however, we must retain the clarity and integrity to ground these possibilities against everything we know about the fate of interventions past. We need to understand the captures, detours and reversals that perennially afflict emergent technologies at the point where they intersect with existing ways of doing, making, dwelling and being, taking note particularly of the fact that technologies that prosper and find traction in the world are very often those which reinforce existing inequities of power. What this implies for urbanists of a politically progressive stripe is that, for a given struggle, conventional community organizing may offer a far better return on investments in energy, effort or other resources than an attempt to drive change via technical means.
Working fluently with technology means stripping it of its unearned gloss of neutrality. All technologies are, without exception, expressions of one or another set of values, and therefore by any sane accounting ought to be contested terrain. When Uber becomes popular in a given city, for instance, and that popularity is explicitly cited as justification for not maintaining an adequate level of investment in public transit, we can be sure that what we are seeing is somebody’s values being enacted, if not necessarily our own.

Like any other professional or disciplinary community, the adepts of network technology hold tacit beliefs in common. They hold certain conceptions of the just, the true and the beautiful, think the world in certain distinct ways. If they cannot always realize their aims directly, it still behooves us to know what they believe, and understand what it is that they are trying to achieve.

Further, the particular set of values inscribed in a technology may have a great deal to do with its fortunes in the world, and how well it is able to function as a purposive invention of the future. Uber is a particularly resonant example; whatever else it may be, it enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed, or what the media scholar Alison Powell calls the argument-by-technology. The vision of hyperindividualism, invidious interpersonal competitiveness and unlimited-convenience-for-those-who-can-afford-it inscribed in the service dovetails perfectly with — one might even say “embraces and extends” — the neoliberal ethos that has prevailed in the developed world for the past four decades. And this perhaps explains why it has been realized, where the rather more humane visions undergirding Craigslist or the Segway plainly have not been. Wherever services like Uber go unchallenged, the imposition of these values is effectively a fait accompli — and with future resource commitments tending to be entrained by path dependence, that achievement sets the initial conditions for everything that follows in its wake.

In the end, perhaps the crucial insight is this: urbanists can no longer ignore the impact of developments like machine learning, large-scale data analysis and automation, or treat them as something external to our field of inquiry. Operating at every scale and level of urban life, from vehicle guidance to the mediation of sociality to the aesthetics of the built environment, they are clearly set to exert the most profound influence on the physical spaces of our cities, the things we do in them, the ways they generate meaning and value, and the very selves we understand ourselves to be. It’s no longer tenable for anyone who cares about the life of cities to hold this set of facts at bay, especially those of us who nurture some remaining hope that the master’s tools can be used to build other sorts of houses entirely. And while we needn’t and oughtn’t build our practices exclusively around this class of technologies, we might want to consider how to fold a nuanced, properly skeptical engagement with them into our approach to the design of urban space and experience.

One response to “Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist””

  1. gcerceau says :

    An excellent essay, both on the conceptual and the rhetorical level. There is a creative insight in almost every paragraph. My favorite: “Uber (…) enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed.”

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