What I’m consuming of late, roughly 1H18

It’s always healthy, I think, to have a considered look at what it is I’m taking in. This is what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and thinking about lately.

First and last

I’ve spent a truly inordinate amount of time reading the MetaFilter megathreads documenting the ongoing Trump travesty in real time. In all honesty, these threads have been far and away my primary intake of content by volume since the time of the Brexit referendum just about two years ago now (!), and my inability to tear myself away from this transatlantic (shitshow, trainwreck, dumpster fire, act of civilizational suicide — choose your metaphor, they all amount to the same thing) over this entire period has put a major dent in my ability to think, write or get any meaningful work done.

Books

Nonfiction
– James Bridle: New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
– Owen Coggins: Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal
– Peter Godfrey-Smith: Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
– Graham Harman: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything
– N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious (Among the best of its type.)
– Humphrey Jennings: Pandæmonium (Simply wonderful.)
– Mateo Kries, Mathias Müller et al., eds.: Together! The New Architecture of the Collective
– Caroline Maniaque-Benton with Meredith Gaglio: Whole Earth Field Guide
– Mauvaise Troupe Collective, tr. Kristin Ross: The ZAD and NoTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence
– Elaine Mokhtefi: Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries
– Norman Ohler: Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Wildly entertaining.)
– Moshe Safdie: Beyond Habitat
– Elizabeth Sandifer: Neoreaction A Basilisk (Essential to understanding the shape of our moment.)
– Lynne Segal: Radical Happiness
– Richard Vinen: The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies
– Matthew W. Wilson: New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map
– and finally, got over my aversion to TED-style popthink and picked up
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Fiction
– Anna Kavan: Ice
– Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
– Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140 (Contains an incidental, paragraph-length ode to the place of “Heroin” in the consciousness of true New Yorkers that no lie brought me to tears, though I was admittedly at 38,000 feet at the time.)

Poetry
– Bejan Matur: If This Is A Lament

Film

– (hush) Black Panther
Funeral Parade of Roses
Homo Sapiens
– (cheating a little bit, actually saw it toward the end of last year) Gulistan, Land of Roses
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
– The usual, compulsive rewatches of, like, , Bande à part, Day of the Jackal, The Italian Job, etc.
– I’m sure there are other films I’ve gone to see in the cinema, but they’re slipping my mind. I’ll make another cup of coffee (see below) and see if I can’t remember.

TV

Oh, OK…I watch Westworld, I Love Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale and Love. Don’t @ me. (The casting for Westworld, in particular, is dialed in. Gorgeous Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Giancarlo Esposito, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Peter Fucken Mullan? Sold American. I even like those dudes what play the bickering nerdling technicians. And the costuming, set design, etc., is [smacks fingers].)

Music

Listening to a lot of Bong, Eluvium, Dopelord, Windhand, Electric Wizard, and so on, in addition to the usualcrew in permanent heavy rotation (Nancy & Lee, Staple Singers, Magazine, Minutemen, Velvets, James Cleveland, etc.); the best live acts I’ve caught in the past six months were Nadja and Taman Shud. Suuuuper looking forward to Zeal & Ardor in just a few weeks.

Exhibits, etc.

Haven’t been getting out as much as I should. I did see the comprehensive Forensic Architecture show now on at the ICA — huge congrats to Eyal and crew on your Turner Prize nom — as well as “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” and “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins,” both at the Barbican and both great. (The 1:1-scale recreation of Moriyama House at the former was one of the most wisely considered and squeeful things I’ve ever experienced in a gallery space.)

Drug of choice

…remains caffeine, delivered in the form of high-test black coffee, brewed in a Chemex. (Yeah. All it took was a single cup of pourover brewed for me at the Reserve counter in the Starbucks above Gangnam Station — instant conversion experience. I went down to longtime favorite D&Department in Itaewon and picked up a three-cup version and some filters to take home with me. When I got back to London, of course, I had to futz around with acquiring the various pieces of twee hipster kit you need to rock pourover in the Chemex — the precision grinder, the Hario scale, the gooseneck kettle and so on, all in matte black, as well as a little shibari-inspired black leather thong to customize the Chemex itself, ’cause it was like two quid and I’m a total dork. Thank god Nurri already had the digital kitchen thermometer. You can see why Buy Nothing 2018 was dead before it left the table.)

Unshakable lust object

I keep slinking back to Velorution to gaze slackly upon this exquisite Moulton AM GT Mk III, and thereupon to dream and plot — first how to afford such a recockulous expenditure on a bike, then how to justify it. (NB: I understand full well that even should I sell a kidney to gin up the necessary dosh/consign myself to penury for some extended term thereafter, it is almost certainly beyond any conceivable justification. Nevertheless, there are worse midlife crises.)

Happy May Day, beloved

Atélier Populaire poster from the struggle of May 1968, "Mai 68 — Début D'Une Lutte Prolongée"

On an International Workers’ Day that’s dawned fine and clear here in London, I want to take a moment to celebrate the pivotal events of May on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary.

Let’s be crystal-clear that the struggles of May left us with a legacy that is by no means uncomplicated. More than a few of those who threw their bodies on the barricades then and in the months that followed shamefully spearheaded the turn to neoliberalism just a few years down the road, as the intellectual winds started to blow from a different quarter. The language and symbols of the moment have often been coöpted in the decades since, used to advance political and commercial agendas that would surely have struck the demonstrators at the Sorbonne (and their counterparts in Chicago, Prague, Mexico City and elsewhere) as obscene. Adding insult to injury, images of May are more than occasionally invoked by sentimental veterans of the left as a stick to beat younger activists with — taking them to task for not somehow bringing society to its knees in a matter of weeks every time there’s a new wave of dissent, as though the entire economic/sociotechnical/media milieu hadn’t changed a whit in the half-century since Danny the Red leapt the CRS fences.

And yet, and yet. We (OK: I) return time and again to those indelible, iconic Atelier Populaire posters, and the images of Paris ripped up, barricaded, shrouded in a fog of war gas they so reliably conjure, for the pure hit of Situationist verve and sheer insurgent insouciance they offer, even at such a long remove. If there’s a task before us, it’s to ensure that those images live as channels of power from their moment to ours: that we avoid turning them into fetish, shrine for a dead and irretrievable vector of possibility, or worst of all, decor. If we use them properly, in fact, they’re a goad, a potent reminder that the impossible is still a thing that lays before us to demand, and to achieve.

Happy May Day, beloved.

CGT-organized demonstration, Place de la République, Paris, France, May 29, 1968. © Fondation Gilles Caron/Contact Press Images.

CGT-organized demonstration, Place de la République, Paris, France, May 29, 1968. © Fondation Gilles Caron/Contact Press Images.

“Perpetual Beta” interview, plus Tallinn/Helsinki dates

A good few years ago now, on one of my more-or-less quadrennial swings through Tokyo, I met a hugely enthusiastic graphic designer and educator by the name of Ian Lynam, who teaches design at the Temple University campus there. (If his name doesn’t happen to ring any bells, you’re surely familiar with his work, as co-founder of the splendid néojaponisme.)

Ian and I have kept fitfully in touch ever since — I’m afraid he’s a far more diligent correspondent than I — and not so long ago he asked if he could interview me for “Perpetual Beta,” the blog for one of the other programs he’s affiliated with. (Dude gets around.) Of course I agreed, and was rewarded with a brace of really refreshing questions — I mean, how many times can you find something fresh and insightful to say about a topic as played-out as the smart city? It was a total pleasure to talk, instead, earliest literary influences, the subtly explosive little discographies in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, my complicated love for the alternative social infrastructure of the late 1970s, and so on. Anyway, here’s the interview; I hope you dig it.

Speaking of swings-through-town, I’m going to be in Tallinn and Helsinki the first week of June, for back-to-back events with Housing Europe and the University of Helsinki. Join me for those events, or give a shout if you’re simply up for vodka shots, loud metal and sauna.

Abject apologies

For no reason that I am able to discern, I have only now received a few hundred messages you’ve been leaving for me here, some dating back to 2015.

You may be certain that I have reached out to the WordPress support team in an attempt to find out how this happened, but in the meantime please accept my sincerest apologies. You must think I’ve been terribly snide in ignoring your comments, questions and invitations all this time, and I assure you nothing could possibly be further from my intention.

Should you wish to contact me, I remain available, as always, at my initials at urbanscale dot org.

On the received aesthetic of the urban commons, and transcending it

Edmund Sumner's lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa's Moriyama House

Edmund Sumner’s lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House: What the commons could look like, but generally does not

A few days back, my friend and colleague John Bingham-Hall gave a great talk at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, as part of a series on the urban commons organized by the wonderful Torange Khonsari. John’s talk was called “Common(s) Materials,” and it took up a question that’s central to many of my own concerns: is there some necessary relationship between the social or political qualities of a space claimed for the commons, and the materials used in articulating and furnishing that space?

What I want to do here is expand on some of John’s thoughts, and perhaps develop them further. What follows is more of a free association than anything else, and certainly not a well-formed argument; while I apologize if it’s not particularly structured, hopefully you’ll find some utility in it regardless.

What do you mean when you talk about “the commons”?

Let me first clarify what I mean by “the commons,” which, for present purposes, we can simply define as territory not governed by either the market or the state, and that is in principle available and accessible to all. (I’ve previously written about why I prefer the gerund form commoning, but we can set that to the side for now.)

Sites organized as commons have been in short supply in conurbations of the developed world ever since the so-called “urban renaissance,” or rediscovery and revalorization of the central city by the middle class, which started gathering steam around 1990. This reversal in the outward flow of population that had characterized the previous few decades sent land value in urban cores worldwide to vertiginous heights, and guaranteed that the worth of such parcels would henceforth be determined by their speculative exchange value, rather than any utility they might have as a dwelling-place for human beings. At the culmination of this process, a clear consensus regarding “the highest and best use” for land emerged worldwide, in the form of luxury condominiums whose units are traded as “sky bullion” among the members of a fairly shady global investor class consisting of oligarchs, autocrats, hedge-fund traders, private-equity managers and their children.

Under such circumstances, the only sites that were by and large left to popular control were waste and interstitial spaces, sacrifice zones too steep, difficult or prone to subsidence to develop profitably, or tracts where the projects of finance capital had failed, gone into receivership or otherwise been abandoned.

In the global South, for the most part, any such site is impossible to distinguish from the broader and thoroughly informal built fabric that may constitute the absolute majority of a city’s developed land area. It’s only in the metropolitan core of the developed world that sites occupied and maintained as commons tend to stand apart, not simply in terms of their political organizing principles but of their visual identity as well.

Is there any such thing as a “commons aesthetic”?

So can we establish that there is a coherent aesthetic associated with such spaces?

As I’ve noted here before, there is a distinct mode in which urban sites claimed for the commons present themselves to their users and the world. It’s present in most of the participatory spaces I’ve been so interested in over the past decade: you can see it deployed at Grand Voisins in Paris, el Campo de Cebada in Madrid, perhaps to a lesser extent at Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, and it’s all over the projects of collective practices like Campo designer-builders Zuloark or the intriguing spatial provocateurs raumlabor Berlin. These spaces are characterized by the use of ultra-low-cost, widely accessible commodity materials readily manipulable by the untrained: shipping pallets and the wood reclaimed from them, CMUs of various types, construction tarps and rebar.

Cheap, lightweight components of this sort emphasize the mobile, participatory and rapidly reconfigurable qualities of common space — though perhaps at the cost of inadvertently underlining just how contingent such space generally is in the global North, just how vulnerable it is to clearance by the state and recuperation by the market. As John pointed out, there is a certain invitational character to them as well. You don’t require much in the way of training or prior experience to build surprisingly durable structures with these materials, which is the same reason you’ll find them at the heart of various self-build schemes of the past half-century. (Ken Isaacs’ visionary 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures is exemplary in this regard, though Walter Segal’s method has to be singled out for the longevity of its influence on actually-existing lifeways.)

Together, these elements comprise what I think of as the Received Commons Aesthetic, and as the name implies, it’s fair to say that it has by now become something of a mannerism. Further, its achievement on a given site may require outlays of capital or labor that the community claiming it for the commons cannot well tolerate. For example, raumlabor Berlin’s rather clever chairs, albeit using salvaged wood, are nevertheless purpose-built and labor-intensive. (Despite my own long-nurtured hopes for an eventual alignment of the informational commons with the spatial commons, at present I think it’s clear that the use of digitally-fabricated furniture in this context, like the designs licensed by Opendesk, can only be understood as hopelessly fetishistic, and the same thing probably goes for most appearances of open hardware.)

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of actual squats and social centers I’ve ever spent time in were furnished in an eclectic style that could best be described as “adaptive reuse,” with much of the interior furnishing either inherited from the building’s former occupants, or trashpicked and therefore freegan. In my experience, anyway, such avowedly anarchist spaces tend to be cozy with rugs, spavined La-Z-Boys and thick, insulating wall-hangings, if not outright gemütlich; the idea that their inhabitants would dedicate any effort at all to the design and construction of new furniture, especially amid the profound global surplus of manufactured objects available more or less for the taking, strikes me as, uh, questionable. (John ended his talk with the provocation that the most appropriate seating for spaces of participatory democracy would be the £5 folding chair from Ikea, rather than anything intended to function as a visual signifier of the commons; the equivalent, for most of the emerging world, would of course be the ubiquitous knockoff Monobloc.)

Why does any of this matter?

In his comments, John raised the question of performative transparency, as epitomized by Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. At the Reichstag, glass is both denotative and connotative. You can literally see through it, of course, from the observer galleries to the workings of the chamber below, and it’s therefore supposed not merely to signify but actually enact the idea that democracy is something that takes place in public: the implication is that in present-day Germany, the deliberative process itself is as accessible, available and accountable as its image.

We can certainly wonder whether this is now the case, or ever has been. But as John pointed out, these performative qualities of glass do raise the question of what is implied when we choose to use other materials in our constructions of democratic space. In particular, he asked, “Does wood symbolically trap politics in the realm of the intimate?” In other words, does the very humility of the materials that together comprise the Received Commons Aesthetic consign the active practice of democracy to the strictly local, or suggest that there are no larger scales at which participatory praxis is appropriate?

In my own flavor of politics (which, as you may have noticed here and elsewhere, I’m increasingly comfortable characterizing as “neo-Bookchinian”), this may not matter so much. My feeling is that participatory deliberative processes work best in assemblies of about the Dunbar number — not at all coincidentally, the size of a New England-style town meeting — and that effective governance in both municipalities and larger territories can be achieved by networked federations thereof. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth taking seriously.

But there’s a more troubling implication raised by the Received Commons Aesthetic, which is that is so easily recognizable, so straightforwardly characterizable and so readily replicable that it can not merely stand for participatory politics but replace it entirely. If we see the RCA in admittedly interesting hybrid spaces like the Institut for (x) in Aarhus or the R-Urban project just northwest of Paris, there is however no suggestion that these sites are owned and managed collectively, for the benefit of all. And needless to say, anything so readily reducible to pastiche can also be encountered in watered-down form, at commercial sites like Seoul’s Ssamziegil — the latter places that do not remotely constitute a commons in any way, but clearly wish to convey the sense of openness, adaptivity, porosity and invitationality we associate with liberated spaces. What such sites imply is that the presence of architecture based on pallets, CMUs, tarps and other mobile elements may perform radical inclusion and participation where they do happen to be present, but also suggest them where they are not.

Indeed, at places like Boxpark and the truly vile Artworks, the aesthetic isn’t merely emptied of meaning but actually inverted: Boxpark is nothing more than a way of turning an otherwise marginal interstitial site into a buzz- and revenue-generating minimall, while the similar Artworks is deployed where the Heygate Estate housing complex once stood, camouflaging developer Lend Lease’s deep complicity in the council’s own program of social cleansing. (Apartments at the new Elephant Park were marketed, and evidently sold, exclusively to overseas investors, while the developers failed to actually provide any of the notionally affordable units they’d committed to.)

What all this says to me is that there is great value in establishing radically participatory spatial situations that do not greatly resemble the Received Commons Aesthetic, or at the very least pushing outward our notions of what common space can look like. Here my model has always been the microurbanism of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, a gorgeously-conceived and carefully detailed cluster of dwelling units surrounding shared service, conviviality and circulation spaces. As private property owned by a single individual, the thicket of buildings that constitutes Moriyama House is clearly in no way a commons as we’ve defined it. But in edging away from the atomized nature of life in discrete apart-ments, it points toward what it might mean to dwell in common, and perhaps suggests something about the ways in which space can help individual tenants modulate public and private as need be.

Like raumlabor’s chairs, such proposals certainly run afoul of that tendency Kurt Vonnegut once perceptively identified as one of the primary flaws in the human character: that “everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” There’s no doubt a great deal of justice in the idea that by the metric of sustainability, at least, the most radical thing one could possibly do is to reclaim existing spaces, leverage the material-energetic investments already sunk in them, and perhaps retrain them if necessary. By this ethic, the grandeur comes to live with the otherwise unglamorous practices of maintenance and long-term stewardship.

But there’s also something to be said for the idea that beauty, craft and rigor in design ought to be reclaimed from the market — that spaces by, of and for the people need not read as or be ad-hoc, that they might instead be marked by certain aesthetics we more often associate with luxury and the commercial high end. Dating back at least as far as Ruskin, Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, this is not, of course, a novel suggestion. It acquires new relevance, though, in a period of increasingly democratic and high-resolution control over the distribution of matter.

Organized as housing cooperatives or community land trusts or their equivalents, there’s no reason emergent spaces in common need to partake of the Received Commons Aesthetic — especially if it is more than occasionally dishonest in what it implies about the nature of the sites marked by it. With new digital design and construction techniques becoming relatively accessible, and powerful ways of building and dwelling together becoming available to learn from, it would be disappointing if the participatory and collectively managed spaces of the future failed to transcend the visual language of those few examples that exist at present.

I personally enjoy the Received Commons Aesthetic, just as I kinda dig the funky Ken Isaacs/early Whole Earth Catalog vibe of the various, deeply clever mobile assemblies Zuloark and their collaborators have built at el Campo. But what I enjoy more is the sense I have whenever I’m lucky enough to be on that parcel of land, which at that is not so different from what I remember about Kunsthaus Tacheles, or the various squats in which I’ve ever laid my head for the night: that here is freedom, and what’s more, freedom of a kind the market cannot offer at any rate or price. And because freedom is only another word for privilege unless it’s truly shared by all, it feels necessary, now, to begin peeling away that experience of freedom from the material undercarriage that implies but only occasionally actually supports its becoming.

My sense is that the Aesthetic, and the use of the materials it’s based on to construct and articulate spaces in common, will persist for some time yet to come, for all the reasons of low cost, accessibility and invitationality we’ve discussed. I hope, though, that we can imagine a time when such spaces aren’t limited to those that can be established on the scraps from late capitalism’s table, using offcuts from its voracious machinery. We should be thinking about what the urban commons might look like in triumph, when it can truly leverage all of the organizing, funding and building capabilities this moment in history offers us — when we dare to demand something reaching beyond a minimum viable utopia, and settle for nothing less than the entire city held in common, for the use and enjoyment of all who dwell in it and bring it to life.

My thanks to John Bingham-Hall, to his co-panelists Adam Kaasa and Nicolas Fonty for their insightful presentations, and to Torange Khonsari for her generosity in putting it all together.

For the defense of Rojava: Democratic confederalism and the undying dream of freedom

To paraphrase Sartre’s famous comments about Che Guevara, the autonomous citizens of Rojava, or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — and especially those fighting in the ranks of its militia, the YPG/YPJ — are the most fully realized human beings of our time. Their understanding of kyriarchy and what it requires of those of us who would unwind it is direct, complete, unclouded.

Officially branded as terrorist sympathizers, alternately supported, disregarded and threatened by the US, in this era of incoherent strategic policy and smash-and-grab opportunism, the men and women of Rojava have been forced to do it all on their own. They’ve had to learn how to do anarchism, how to do feminism, how to do horizontalism and federation, in practice, in real time, in what certainly appears to be some of the least propitious soil imaginable, in the face of a world that seems to want nothing so much as for them to disappear.

I believe we ought to be doing everything possible to support them, and defend them against those who would destroy them.

The emergence of a vital resistance in Rojava is weirdly personal for me. For decades, nurtured on more-or-less annual rereadings of Homage to Catalonia, I harbored the fantasy that had I lived during the time of the Spanish Civil War, I would naturally have run off and enlisted in a militia like that of the POUM Orwell was affiliated with, and put my body on the line in the struggle against fascism.

And not just to fight against something, either, but for something as well — for the total vision of emancipated life that emerged during the years of struggle in Spain. The POUM, of course, was committed to a fiercely egalitarian politics, even under the pressures of the front line; in the militia that fought beneath their banner, “[t]here were no visible differences between ranks, no saluting and no differentials in pay,” while combat tactics and plans of action were often debated among the fighters expected to enact them. (And they weren’t even anarchists!) Meanwhile, behind the lines, in the cities and lands under revolutionary control, entirely new forms of collective life were emerging.

For most of my adult life, this was one of the precious few examples of actually-existing anarchism any of us could point to. We could celebrate the real improvements in status and condition won by revolutionary Spanish women, in the “double struggle” against gender and class oppression. We could emphasize, with almost equal pride, the fact that material production and even technology-intensive urban infrastructure like tramways or the telephone network prospered in the sectors under democratic management. And we could further argue, with a good deal of justice, that this experiment in popular control ended not because it collapsed beneath the weight of its own accumulated contradictions, but because it was destroyed from the outside — directly by the Nazi-armed and -supported Nationalists, and indirectly via the perfidy of the parties aligned with Moscow.

Nevertheless, destroyed it was. And curiously, that made the Spanish experience of revolution safe for those of us who took inspiration from it so many years down the line. For one thing, whatever difficult realities, compromises or oppressions emerged during the months of popular control, they were interred in glorious defeat along with the insurgents themselves. Neither those brave souls nor their overseas admirers ever had to reckon with the unresolved tensions of large-scale governance and self-management over the longer term. But also, however those tales of heroism on the barricades and in the trenches may have quickened our blood, with no real way to act on them, it became cheap and easy to imagine oneself into the narrative. You could puff out your chest and say, “Oh, yeah, I would have shipped out, signed on with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and killed me some Fascists,” with nobody and nothing to stand in the way of your self-righteous posturing.

With another experiment in popular control really unfolding in our time, though, Rojava has put such fantasies to the test, and me along with them. The question isn’t, what are “we” going to do for Rojava? It’s what am I going to do for Rojava, for this land that never was, where the people are somehow, miraculously, against every certainty of geopolitics, both putting Murray Bookchin’s beautiful thought into practice, and setting Daesh to flight at the same time?

Without hyperbole, there is literally no question in our lives more important, nor likely to be, at least for those of us moved by currents of the antiauthoritarian or horizontalist left. For us, especially, the way we answer it will determine whether we really mean our politics, and intend to see them through — with all the risks and pitfalls that entails — or prefer to see them safely, gloriously dead and in the ground, where we can haul them out a few times a year to mourn what could have been.

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, comin’ atcha in paperback

Here’s a quick heads up that, at long last, Radical Technologies is available for order in a handsome new paperback edition. (Order directly from Verso, if you prefer, and get you a free e-book into the bargain.)

You ought to know that I got my hands on one of these a few weeks back, and they’re adorable. Something about the chunky little format just sings to me. It’s not, admittedly, as potent an object as the Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents paperbacks of yore — those were elegantly slim back-pocket editions, capable of spurring the kind of conversations that lead to, um, coupling — but it’s charming nonetheless.

Stay tuned, as well, for details regarding a London event/afterparty celebrating the paperback launch.

PS Also out in Italian, from the splendid Einaudi and their maverick Maverick imprint! This is the first of the editions in translation to see the light of day, with Turkish, simplified Chinese, Polish and Russian editions coming before the end of the year, and more to come.

“Against the smart city”: Impact metric

I’m fairly sure that I share with most other writers the uneasy sense that every word issuing from my keyboard ultimately flies off into the great void. I go to sleep at night safe in what is surely the statistically reasonable belief that the things I write are at best parsed quickly, in a state of distraction, and never really land in any meaningful way. This isn’t occasion for bitterness or resentment, mind you. It’s just the inevitable consequence of living in a time of massive informational overload. There’s such fierce competition for each precious increment of attention, and the kind of things I write about, by their very nature, have a hard time crowding out other claims. It’s something you learn to accept if you hope to face the world with anything like equanimity, let alone cheer.

Maybe this is why I felt such a gut-deep thrill at learning that some Minnesota activists opposed to the testing of a new autonomous shuttle hung this banner from an overpass last night. If nothing else, it suggests that at least some of what I tried to express in “Against the smart city” escaped the abyss, and managed to register somehow. I’m sure this is laughably small potatoes from the perspective of anyone whose contributions actually do shift the global discourse, but for a decidedly non-A-list writer, such evidence of impact is supremely gratifying.

I am — naturally, because this is me — ambivalent about the idea that my work can be mobilized in the context of this specific protest. I think it’s far from clear that autonomous mobility will necessarily drive the oppressive métro, boulot, dodo cycle of late capitalism, as this particular protest assumes, and that there’s a decent argument to be made that if properly designed, it will physically concretize the right to the city in a way few other modes of getting around have ever been able to — particularly for citydwellers of limited personal mobility.

Nevertheless, that “if properly designed” is a major stumbling block, it’s far too late in the day to place any stock in the good will or benevolent intentions of would-be technological disruptors, and in any event, intent isn’t magic. People are right to question every aspect of the propositions they’re confronted with by smart-city advocates — to question, ascertain whether what is to be installed accords at any point with their needs and desires, and protest, disrupt and prevent the deployment of anything that does not. And that very much includes mobility systems whose designers cannot adequately justify the thing they have conceived, either to their intended audience, or to the communities through which their infrastructure runs.

At present, I don’t know enough about the Hennepin County autonomous-mobility test to determine whether or not I personally would oppose it. But then, I don’t live there. It’s enough for me to know that at least some of the people who do have yet to be convinced that it’s anything but a harbinger of exploitation and oppression yet to come. I’m delighted, and deeply gratified, to see my words invoked in their struggle.

PS If anyone responsible for this banner should happen to see this, please do get in touch — anonymously, if you prefer. I’d love to hear from you.

A tale of three cities, or: The smart city as will and category error

The following short piece is my contribution to Imminent Commons, the catalogue accompanying the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. I hope you enjoy it.

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.

US book tour dates, Fall 2017 (rolling updates)

Here’s a list of some upcoming Radical Technologies events in selected East and West Coast cities during September and October. It’d be so lovely to see you at one (or more) of them.

You may want to check back to see if I’ve added a talk in your city, by the way, as this itinerary is very much a work in progress. Similarly, I’ll add links to event venues, times and other details as I get them. See you soon!

East Coast
September 12th
– Baltimore MD: Morgan State University, with Fred Scharmen.
– Baltimore MD: Red Emma’s.
September 13th
– Philadelphia PA: Wooden Shoe Books.
September 14th
– NYC NY: NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program.
– Brooklyn NY: Verso.
September 15th
– NYC NY: Columbia University, with Laura Kurgan.
September 16th
– NYC NY: McNally Jackson, with Aimee Meredith Cox.

Midwest/West Coast
October 3rd
– Chicago IL: Seminary Co-op, with Alaina Harkness.
October 4th
– San Francisco CA: City Lights Books.
October 9th
– San Diego CA: UC San Diego, details TBC, with Babak Rahimi.