The Lifehouse: Distributed community support centers for the Long Emergency

An illustration of two disused parish-church buildings, repurposed as a community Lifehouse, with a person harvesting vegetables from planters arranged beneath solar-panel arrays

I don’t write here any more, obviously. But having posted variations of the below on my Mastodon, my free dispatches from London and my Patreon, and over the few days thereafter receiving what is for me a genuinely unusual degree of response, a few readers suggested that I might want to run a version of it on an open platform, so more people could see it/there would be a URL folks could point to. I thought that was a good shout.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this column in the Guardian, from the usually egregious Simon Jenkins. It concerns, of all things, the decline of organized religion in these isles, and the opportunity it presents us to repurpose underutilized churches and restore them to active benefit of the local community.

What occupies Jenkins in his Eastertide offering are the 51,000-odd church buildings scattered across the land — each of them generally “the most prominent, not to mention magnificent, building in almost every English town and village” — and what becomes of them in a time when the profession of Christian faith is in precipitous decline. His primary worry seems to be that, with neither an active congregation to care for them nor meaningful links to the lives unfolding around them, these buildings face abandonment, decrepitude and eventual collapse into terminal disrepair, even as the communities they’re embedded in still have want of the functions they once served.

Jenkins thinks there’s life in them yet. His argument starts from the observation that throughout history, “these buildings have offered their publics ceremony and memorial, peace and meditation, charity and friendship, quite apart from faith,” but that modern communities, by contrast, often lack a place in which they might pursue these very ends. And this is where he perceives the opportunity: church buildings, he says, “must be wholly or partly seculari[z]ed” and repurposed, not merely to fill “the gaps in an increasingly dilapidated welfare state” but to “reconnect them to the surrounding communities from which the decline in worship has distanced them.” 

What may or may not surprise you, depending on the degree to which you’ve heard me rant over the years about Simon Jenkins and his manifest uselessness, is that I agree with him completely. In fact, his column reminded me of an idea I’ve been nurturing for the past decade or so now, going all the way back to Occupy Sandy, taking in my enduring love for Clifford Harper’s “Visions” illustrations, and building on lessons learned in the course of Nurri’s work with our neighborhood food hub. Here’s the crux of it: local communities should assume control over underutilized churches, and convert them to “Lifehouses,” facilities designed to help people ride out not merely the depredations of neoliberal austerity, but the still-harsher circumstances they face in what I call the Long Emergency, the extended period of climatic chaos we’ve now entered. This means fitting them out as decentralized shelters for the unhoused, storehouses for emergency food stocks (rotated through an attached food bank), heating and cooling centers for the physically vulnerable, and distributed water-purification, power-generation and urban-agriculture sites capable of supporting the neighborhood around them when the ordinary sources of supply are unreliable.

Jenkins is, in the first instance, absolutely right that communities need places to observe the rituals of lifestage and season that bind us together. Such observances are a considerable part of how we invest places with meaning, and there is no reason why church buildings, suitably desacralized, cannot serve that purpose into the indefinite future, as parish churches have done in this land since time immemorial. But what strikes me is that underutilized houses of worship are also well-suited to provide an entirely new set of distributed infrastructural capacities demanded by our age of climate system collapse.

The fundamental idea of the Lifehouse is that there should be a place in every three-four city-block radius where you can charge your phone when the power’s down everywhere else, draw drinking water when the supply from the mains is for whatever reason untrustworthy, gather with your neighbors to discuss and deliberate over matters of common concern, organize reliable childcare, borrow tools it doesn’t make sense for any one household to own individually, and so on, and that these can and should be one and the same place. As a foundation for collective resourcefulness, the Lifehouse is a practical implementation of solarpunk values, and it’s eminently doable.

Formally, the infrastructural services I imagine Lifehouses offering have a distributed topography, which makes them robust to the kind of reticulated-grid failure we’ve been experiencing more and more often here on Shite Island. In Ours To Lose, Amy Starecheski’s wonderful social history/ethnography of squatting on the Lower East Side, she tells the story of the electricity-generating stationary bicycle belonging to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space that was set up on the sidewalk outside C-Squat at E 10th Street and Avenue C, and used to power a bank of phone chargers during the extended Con Ed outages that followed Hurricane Sandy. The entire community gathered around, at first simply to top up their phones, but later because that’s where the people were. Over these days and weeks, the sidewalk in front of C-Squat was simply the most obvious place for people experiencing a sharp and relatively sudden disruption to seek out help, useful information and the comfort of fellowship. This is the model I have in mind for Lifehouse-as-community-infrastructure: when the grid goes down, or the water from the pipes isn’t safe to drink, every cluster of a hundred or so households has a place it can fulfill its needs, on multiple levels at once.

This feels like it might be particularly useful, as the long-term process of intentional disinvestment that David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore call “organized abandonment” increasingly intersects with the unfolding reality of climate system collapse, and essential service infrastructures that have been undermaintained for all too long fall before the intolerable new demands imposed upon them by an enraged atmosphere. Again, though, the value of such a place extends past the material to the psychic and affective. If a Lifehouse can be somewhere to gather and purify rainwater, the hub of a solar-powered neighborhood microgrid, and a place to grow vegetables, it can also be a base for other services and methods of self-provision — a community workshop, a drop-in center for young people or the elderly, and a place for peer-to-peer modes of care like Cassie Thornton’s hologram to latch on. It can be all of those things at once, provisioned and run by the people living in its catchment area. If mutual aid needs a site, and so does robustly participatory power, then that site should draw out and strengthen the connections between these ways of being in the world, as a way of seeing us through the Long Emergency together.

There’s a kind of positive externality here, too. One of the problems that always vexes those of us who believe in the assembly, and similar deeply participatory ways of managing our communities, is that deliberation is a hard sell, for a great many reasons. Most of us are exhausted, for starters. Our lives already hem us in with obligations, commitments, situations that require our presence and undivided attention. We may not always have the energy or the wherewithal to travel very far to “participate,” even if we’re convinced of the value of doing so. If the place of deliberation is right in our immediate neighborhood, though, and we happen to be going there anyway (to charge a phone, pick up the kids, return a borrowed dehumidifier, seek shelter from the heat, etc.), then the odds that any one of us will get meaningfully involved in the stewardship of these collective services increases considerably. Just like the phone chargers on the table outside C-Squat, think of the infrastructural stuff as the “killer app,” if you well — the compelling proposition which enables everything else.

And of course, in longer-established neighborhoods, there will often already be a building or physical site that organically serves many of these functions – the neighborhood’s naturally-arising Schelling Point, or node of unconscious coordination. Whether church, mosque, synagogue, high-school gym or public library, it will be where people instinctively turn for shelter and aid in times of trouble. What I believe our troubled times now ask of us is that we be more conscious and purposive about creating loose networks of such places, each of them provisioned against the hour of maximum need.

The notion of a loose, federated network of Lifehouses presupposes that each be run by and for the people in a specific neighborhood or district, and that means that many of them will necessarily reflect distinctly local values. And that’s fine! That’s as it should be! But it also suggests that the network itself can maintain a set of stated values — primarily oriented toward inclusion, I’d think — that are arrived at consensually, and that local Lifehouses would have to observe these principles if they wanted to federate, and derive all the benefits that attend upon federation. You can maintain whatever principles you like as a pragma, or local agreement, so long as they don’t come into conflict with the principles of the network. Your Lifehouse is strictly vegan? Observes Ramadan? Asks for a 1% tithe from businesses operating in its catchment basin? Go nuts – but do it as a pragma. Who has the standing to tell you how your community should show up for itself?

The neat bit is that just about every neighborhood that’s been subjected to organized abandonment, and treated like a sacrifice zone under late capitalism, will have one or more underutilized spaces perfectly suited to use as a Lifehouse: virtually by definition, places where the market for land has cranked up property value to the level where there are no such underutilized facilities don’t have acute need for the things a Lifehouse does. They’re already adequately cared for by the market, and most likely prefer it that way.

The rest of us, though? We will increasingly have need of places where we can come together, to care for ourselves and for one another, to decide from among the courses of action available to us, and to bolster our collective capacity across all of the many registers implicated by the rigors of life in this difficult new dispensation. For now, I’ll be developing these ideas at some length in the last section of my next book, Beyond Hope: Collective Power and Mutual Care in the Long Emergency, which is now due out on Verso toward the end of next year. And given the level of interest, I’m also considering breaking this material out and publishing some of it in slightly different form, as a stand-alone, illustrated pamphlet. But really, I dream of helping to establish a network of Lifehouses, and of living to see the map dotted with them. Your thoughts along these lines are warmly solicited — all I ask is that, if you do happen to post your ideas somewhere, you use the #lifehouse hashtag so I can see what you’ve come up with. I look forward to seeing how this conversation develops.

Further reading:

Illustration by Stable Diffusion.

“Against the Smart City”: Introduction to the 2023 Italian edition

Not long ago I received the very welcome news that the publishing house GOG Edizioni was interested in bringing out an Italian translation of my 2013 pamphlet “Against the Smart City,” in time for its tenth anniversary. I’ve contributed a new introduction, which I hereby share with you. Godere e gustare!

It is only very rarely that a writer of polemical tracts is validated the way I was in July 2018, when the global consulting titan McKinsey published a report entitled “Smart city solutions: What drives citizen adoption around the globe?”.

On page 7 of that report, there is a graph, not so dissimilar to the famous Hype Curve charts that McKinsey’s competitor consultancy Gartner releases from time to time, that seeks to trace the fortunes of the smart city as they evolve over a ten-year period. Starting from November 2008, with the launch of IBM’s Smart Planet initiative, and “the entry of tech companies into the field,” the chart traces an early swell in activity and interest that peaks two years later. At this point, the sinusoidal wave of enthusiasm for the smart city takes a sharp downward turn, plummeting into a trough it never quite recovers from during the entire half-decade that follows.

What marks the downturn, the inflection point at which global enthusiasm for the smart city suffers such a tremendous reverse? According to McKinsey, anyway, it is the moment at which “critical voices start dominating the debate” — a moment emblematized for them by the publication of the very book you are now reading. 

Well. That’s very flattering, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to think their work had that kind of impact on the world? As much as it’s nice to believe, though, that a pamphlet self-published by a lone, uncredentialed and unaffiliated researcher might bear on the investment choices made by municipal governments around the world, and in doing so change the shape of a multibillion-dollar global market for products and services, I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I think that when the early conception of a smart city inevitably did die, it succumbed to its own fatuity (or, more to the point, to the fact that there never was a sustainable business model beneath all the hype). It would have done so in any event, whether or not this book or anything like it had ever appeared.

Consider the eventual fates of the three smart-city projects treated most centrally in these pages: New Songdo, in South Korea; Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, and the frankly ludicrous, never-was private development of PlanIT Valley, plopped down on a semi-rural site in northern Portugal.

Of these, Songdo comes closest to being anything we might recognize as “a success,” though not at all in the form of the gleaming edge-tech metropolis it was sold as. Shorn of the elaborate automated management systems planned for it, it is now an entirely conventional satellite city of the vast Seoul megurbation, last reported to be something of a ghost town on weekends. Masdar is currently home to some 1,300 residents — far short of the 40,000 it was planned for — and, similarly, has dispensed with virtually the entire armature of advanced technologies daily life there was ostensibly going to be founded upon. It is fair to say that, while this dusty, depopulated precinct somehow soldiers on, it has had no net impact whatsoever on the way people around the world think about, design or live in cities.

This brings us to the matter of PlanIT Valley. I can express far more clearly now what I wanted and did not quite dare to say in 2013: though Living PlanIT founder Steve Lewis has angrily denied this to me, in a series of sputtering, illiterate messages over the years, I do not believe there was ever any way the project could have been seen through to completion. Whether the result of incapacity, incompetence or intention, none of the published plans for PlanIT Valley ever remotely came to pass. The putative “city” on which “ground had already been broken” never took any form more concrete than a series of renderings shopped around to potential investment partners; a few pages of a clownishly amateur social-networking site ostensibly intended for the use of PlanIT Valley residents survived online for awhile, though you’d have to be some kind of a search-engine genius to track them down now. Whatever is left of Lewis’s pretentious folly lies in the Earth now, unmourned and unmentionable, like so many failed smart-city projects before and since.

The arc toward failure and insignificance of these three heavily-promoted projects suggests that the original vision of the smart city as a heavily-instrumented urban environment, overseen and managed through a single centralized operating system, manifestly could not have been sustained. But what swiftly became plain in the aftermath was that the rhetoric of technologically-enhanced urban place would die harder. Undead, it shambled back to abominable life, taking a number of different forms as it was molded to suit the agendas of a new set of actors, accomodate the conditions imposed by novel terrains, and incorporate the premises of emerging technologies.

In Toronto, where a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet tried to develop a smart district called Quayside, the architects had clearly internalized and prepared to counter the arguments of books like this one: their promotional materials at least paid lip service to issues like citizen empowerment and the conservation of privacy. (A leak of internal documentation later undermined their professions of sincerity on such matters.) Only concerted citizen opposition helped see the Quayside initiative off. In India, under Narendra Modi and his ethnonationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the figure of the smart city was mobilized as part of a faintly retrograde, developmental state-style project of national greatness. The BJP vows, even now, to plant “100 smart cities” on the land, with frankly eliminationist consequences for the powerless peasants, pastoralists and fisherpeople that get in the way. Across the Arabian Sea, a similar fate no doubt awaits the Bedouin struggling to preserve their way of life against the onslaught of Saudi Arabia’s fabulist NEOM project, with its plans to gouge a linear megastructure called The Line a hundred miles across the 45-degree desert.

In all of these cases, calling something “smart” is simply to sprinkle the pixie dust of technological futurity over entirely conventional processes of state capture or accumulation by disposession, in the evident hope that key audiences will be so dazzled that they will fail to perceive what’s actually happening. Nor does the bullshit ever let up: each new technological development, from drones to self-driving cars to blockchains to “AI,” swiftly gets folded into the next generation of smart-city marketing, in a dreary precession of the buzzwords. All of this suggests that, for better or worse, the McKinseyan sine wave of hype and deflation will propagate onward through history for some time yet to come.

At the distance of ten years, are there things I wish I’d gone harder on? Of course there are. I should have been much more pointed about the role of global management consultancies (like McKinsey itself!) in peddling these visions to the variously understaffed, underresourced or just plain insecure administrators of cities, and the way in which their involvement undermines the organic competence of democratically-elected governing bodies to determine what is appropriate for their constituents. Given the existential stakes, I feel now that the book should have been still more critical about the way smart-city discourse folds in unquestioned and thoroughly hegemonic assumptions about the virtues of growth and development. Finally, I wish I’d been harder on myself. The final section, particularly, pulls a few punches; at the time of writing, I believed this was necessary to secure the book any readership at all, but it now seems tepid and pusillanimous of me.

That said, though: what a joy this book was to write. What an absolute pleasure it was to flag up the overweening arrogance and naivety of what are still all-too-often regarded as cutting-edge takes on the future city, to name fools, charlatans and closet authoritarians for what they were, and to make plain that the parties most fervently touting the fusion of networked digital information technology with everyday urban experience understood neither domain in any particular depth. (We should all be so lucky in life as to be granted such opponents, honestly — pointing out the fatal flaws in their arguments was like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.) And what a privilege it was to represent in writing the feelings of everyone who ever suspected they were being sold a bill of goods, that there was far less to the smart city than met the eye, and that the real generators of pleasure, meaning and value in urban life lay far outside its limited ambit. Of everything I’ve ever written, this book came together most easily, and sparked the most glee in the process of composition. I hope you find it even half as much fun to read as it was to write.

The mission is terminated.

It feels to me, beloved — and plainly has felt for some time — like this is no longer an organic way for me to work through ideas and share that work with you, so I think I’m gonna close up shop. Thanks for reading, thinking and responding all these years. (For some of you, I imagine that means all the way back to the old, starting around the end of ’98.)

For continuing thoughts about ultrarunning, long-distance walking and ultralight hiking, drone/doom/stoner/postmetal, horizontalist and participatory politics, and whatever else my fancy alights upon, you can always follow my (very) occasional newsletter, and you may want to keep an eye peeled for my book about citycraft, forthcoming from Verso next year; otherwise, I guess I’ll see you on the streets. Take care and be well.

«Окей, бумер»: ForbesLife Russia interview, December ’19

Pursuant to my recent trip to St Petersburg, the cats at ForbesLife Russia wanted to chat with me about “my attitude to some controversial urban technologies.” Herewith the results.

What is the future of e-cars and self-driving cars? How soon they will replace regular drivers? Would it change the transport system in cities?
It’s pretty well-known by now that the first estimates of when autonomous vehicles would replace conventional ones were wildly optimistic, and at the moment even the best autonomous guidance systems can evidently still be fooled by rain, or fog, or light coming from an unexpected angle. I think autonomous vehicles will eventually be the norm, but the word “eventually” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When they do become the norm, though, I very much hope they’re imagined as collective means of mobility, rather than a fleet of isolated, individual, private pods taking up as much space as conventional cars do now.

How do you feel about Uber?
I don’t think they have much of a future as presently constituted. Personally, I would be very surprised if they’re still a going concern by mid-2021.

Are smartphones and smartwatches helping to collect data from citizens. Is it new possibilities for city and technology development or danger?
It’s both, obviously. The trouble is that most of the danger has already been realized, while, as ever, the new possibilities remain endlessly deferred.

Do we really need smart houses?
No. We need decent, actually affordable houses, and many more of them.

Will the increase of the AI-robots use influence the economic growth?
Well, look — I’m a degrowthist, which is to say that I believe that prosperity and the growth of the economy as conventionally measured are two entirely different things, and that unlimited growth is civilizationally untenable. So let’s be clear that if AI and automation drive growth, that’s a bad thing — a terrible thing, in fact, as they can only increase the efficiency with which we strip the planet of its final remaining organic resources and transform them into plastic in the landfills and oceans and waste heat in the atmosphere. AI-driven automation might well have been designed as formal proof of the Jevons Paradox.

Now there is a general trend towards automation of production. Is it possible that humans and robots will complement each other, or will robots inevitably replace humans?
That very much depends on the task in question, as well as the political economy and type of society in which that task is embedded. A just society would be more likely to make choices around automation that tended towards producing complementarity. You may have noticed, however, that we don’t happen to live in a just society.

What do you think about work automation? How do you think automation is likely to reshape our economy and society?
You know I don’t use the word “inevitable,” because very little is inevitable other than change and death. But some degree of automation certainly does seem overdetermined at the moment, and I don’t think you need to be any kind of a genius to predict that the consequences when deployed at scale will be economically and socially salient.

Lots of new technologies collect and monetize citizens data. What do you think about governance of this huge about data?
“If you can’t protect it, don’t collect it.”

What is the future of mass media? Will be they replaced by news aggregators and AI writing news reports?
I can’t see how that would be particularly worse or any shallower than the situation we contend with right now. The concentration of corporate and billionaire ownership in the media sector means that honest, accurate reportage about the circumstances of our lives is increasingly vulnerable to suppression, from the mass, mainstream outlets right down to niche outlets like Gawker, Deadspin and Splinter.

You have said that technical feasibility is not key to the development, and [that it is] more important to change politics. How do you see the future of digital governance?
As far less important than the collective task of becoming what the geographers Danny MacKinnon and Kate Driscoll Derickson call “resourceful.” We desperately need to recover our competence for being public, for being civic, simply for being together. The means via which we enact that being-together could be the human voice or pencil and paper every bit as much as some elaborate, digitally-mediated delegation network — the mechanics of implementation matter much less than the fundamental skills and attitudes necessary to self-determination and collective stewardship.

Are there any others controversial technologies that are overestimated? Could you please list and briefly describe them?
Blockchain in particular seems like a mass exercise in hype and self-delusion, in which the grifters and scam artists are hard to tell from the willing sheep (and neither cohort is particularly comprised of people I’d want to have a drink with). Cryptobros gonna cryptobro, I guess.

Reminder to self

It may well be impossible to write about the major thrusts of contemporary urbanization without nurturing and giving vent to a certain ice-cold rage, like that which suffuses Aaron Timms’ clear-eyed, expert evisceration of the New Manhattan and its soulless creep toward total irrelevance.

Never forget, though, that there is a counterpoint. That counterpoint is, is always, Harvey’s.

Excavating the meshwork

Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. And a primary figure of thought I’ve retained from the enthusiasms of those long-gone-by days is the opposition he drew (in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and elsewhere) between two organizing principles he saw at work in the world, principles he termed hierarchies and meshworks.

Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated (and therefore do work in the world) without suppressing their difference.

Despite my dawning awareness in the years since that there’s rather less to De Landa’s thought than meets the eye, this still strikes me as a useful distinction to make. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network.

At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced. The notion was abroad in the land that human communities organized as networks were inherently more conducive to equality and justice, as well as significantly more open to creative novelty, than implicitly coercive and privilege-conserving hierarchies. We see highly influential articulations of this line of thought in Castells’ Rise of the Network Society (1996), Kevin Kelly’s risible 1998 New Rules for the New Economy and Yochai Benkler’s magnum opus The Wealth of Networks (2006)*, to this day it utterly saturates ostensibly progressive initiatives like the P2P Foundation, and it’s an unspoken, foundational assumption beneath some of the most interesting left thought and praxis of the last decade. (Both De Landa and his theory-papas Deleuze and Guattari had explicitly cautioned against falling for this vulgar topological reductionism, by the way, but evidently to no avail. I mean, I certainly believed it, and reproduced it too, for quite a long time.)

That the famously “flat ontology” of De Landa’s thought (as well as actor-network theory), the horizontal turn in politics and the suddenly ubiquitous physical presence of networked devices all arrived at about the same historical moment is no accident. They all spring from the same deeper well of formal signification. Nature itself seemed to authorize our use of these horizontal logics. It turns out that when you go looking for networks, they crop up just about everywhere, making them a reasonable candidate for master organizing principle of the physical universe. Just as biomimesis has often seemed to both commend and justify novel organizational tactics – “swarming” was also a glamor trope at the millennium, and fused to the then-sparklingly novel enabling technology of the text message, gave us the flash mob, which in turn was supposed to transform street protest — so too the network turn seemed to sound the clarion call for a dawning age of flat politics.

But what is a network? De Landa tells us — here, anyway — that networks connect heterogeneous things. But this is in no way the case: in the real world, the networks that we consciously construct almost by definition connect elements that observe the same connection protocol or standard, whether that be rail gauge, or USB-C, or IEEE 802.11, or the act of driving on the right. Putting to one side the notion that some degree of standardization at the interface permits diversification at the network’s edge, in fact, you make things homogenous precisely so they can be coupled. So it seems clear that if you want to describe a connective logic that links the activity of formally dissimilar elements, you need a better language.

And this is especially so when you consider how service-delivery infrastructure works in the cities most people on Earth actually live in. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re talking about is water service and waste removal, healthcare, public safety, or any of the other Maslovian essentials those of us who live in what we call “the developed world” tend to take for granted. They arrive via some mixture of public and private provision, and these methods are stacked at variable scales in space and take varying rhythms and cadences in time. So water may get to you via some combination of buried pipes, trucks, municipal taps, bucket relays, and pallets stacked with tightly-shrinkwrapped plastic bottles (not to mention falling from the sky), and any or all of those but the rain could be privatized. You may get your electricity from the national grid on some days, on others from a little Honda generator you keep out back. For a sense of safety, you may knit together some combination of block watch, smartphone apps and protection payments to the local gang. The point is that all these systems of provision have a whole lot more in common with the “transversal logics” the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira describes, or the language of squatting, repair and consolidation her student Gautam Bhan uses, than they do with the crisp interfaces and imposed formal homogeneities of the network.

Enter the meshwork. What I want above all to recover from the De Landan use of this term is the possibility of describing more accurately the infrastructural and social assemblages we see in the real city — the kind of hybridized agglomerations of deeply bastard heritage, whose elements were laid down by many different hands, at different times, at different scales and degrees of completion. These wildcat provisions can’t be understood in the same way you understand the formal, reticulated, tightly-regulated and -standardized infrastructure networks of the Northern city, and we need a language supple enough to describe them. If we can retrieve this valuable concept, dust it off and render it fit for purpose in the contemporary world, we might gain some theoretical purchase on circumstances that have hitherto eluded structured understanding. But first we have to upgrade De Landa’s thought by peeling away the layers of woolly network-mysticism that adhere to it, so it can better grasp the systems and structures we encounter in practice.

And I’m interested in doing so in the first place because I suspect that thinking things as meshworks (in my own, as yet not fully articulated sense) has a powerful connection with the kinds of social formation I’m interested in sustaining, and their ability to enact adequate levels of social provisioning. If my admittedly perverse little anarchist project is to reassemble in principle (e.g.) a universal health service on non-welfare state grounds, figuring the necessary set of relations as first and foremost a meshwork seems like it would help clarify what’s involved in building and maintaining such a capability. And you’ll no doubt be hearing more about that from me in the fullness of time.

UPDATED: Politiken Byrum interview, May 2019

As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.

May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.

What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.

As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.

But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?

What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.

What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.

But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.

What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?

Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.

Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.

Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.

But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.

Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is
always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.

What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.

You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.

It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.

What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.

I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.

There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.

The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.

Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on
technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.

Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?

Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.

Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”

Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.

I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.

How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.

How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.

What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.

We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.

What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.

Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.

If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?

Two Copenhagen talks, May 22nd-23rd

Just so long as I’m posting upcoming talks, I figure I’d better pull your coat about two talks I’m giving in Copenhagen week after next.

– On the 22nd, from 09:00 to 10:30 in the morning, I’ll be keynoting something called the Prix Bloxhub Interactive Symposium. This ought to be interesting, to say the least, as my views about what makes a city “liveable” (for whom?) are quite strongly in tension with those of most all the other speakers, and indeed the framing of the event itself. I can’t quite figure out from the website just where the symposium’s going to be held, but I’m sure the organizers can help you with that if you’re thinking of attending. I can’t promise sparks, but, y’know…where there’s friction there’s always gonna be a decent chance of same.

– Similarly, the next morning from 09:20 to 10:00 I’m giving a talk at the Danish Design Museum — what is it about Copenhagen and talks at an hour I’m generally not even fully caffeinated yet? Here again the whole framing of the event is about digital innovation and other conceptions of the common good I’ve parted ways with, so I’m imagining a healthy dialectic will emerge.

Give a shout if you’re in town & feel like having a coffee, Christiania-izing, etc.

Last-minute heads up: Chicago May 8th & Ann Arbor May 10th

I can’t believe I forgot to post these dates — I’ve been such a total lunchbox regarding this blog lately. Still, better late than never, yeah? A quick heads up, then, that I’m popping over to the States next week to give a few talks in the Midwest:

– May 8th sees me giving my talk “Leaving The Twenty-First Century” in Chicago, at DePaul University School of Design, 14 E Jackson Boulevard, starting at six o’clock in the evening.

– On the 10th, from 4:30 to 5:30, I’ll be giving the closing keynote at the Living A Digital Life conference at the Rackham Building of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 915 E Washington Street.

As ever, it’d be swell to see you at either or both of these!

PS It looks like I was quoted a few times in this week’s Long Read in the Graun! Thanks to Shan Vahidy for the tip.

New book in the works: Power at Human Scale

What with one thing and another, I see that I’ve forgotten to mention that I’m currently working on my next book: an extended consideration of the theory, practice and future of libertarian municipalism, tentatively entitled Power at Human Scale. (As is always the case with these things, that title is subject to change, but it ought to give you an idea of my fundamental orientation toward the topic.)

Here’s how I summarized the book’s introduction, in the pitch I originally sent my publishers:

“The ecosphere is observably, demonstrably dying around us. Everyday life is increasingly ordered by technologies most of us do not understand — and in the case of artificial intelligence, cannot understand, even in principle. A vanishingly small number of plutocrats and oligarchs lay claim to virtually all of the wealth produced on Earth, as the rest of us are forced to accept the baleful truths of a life defined by precarity. The far (and in some places the extreme) right run rampant everywhere from Brazil to Hungary to the Philippines, deftly capitalizing on the sense of helplessness and powerlessness generated by these implacable circumstances.

“Amidst the gloom, though, a tenuous but real shard of hope has appeared. Generally percolating beneath the notice of the media, showing up solely when it can no longer be ignored, a novel, non-statist approach to the organization of complex societies has appeared. There is no getting around the fact that this way of doing things requires a great deal of effort and commitment, but it can restore to us a sense of agency over the circumstances of our lives, a feeling of competence in the management of difficult situations, and the knowledge that our voices matter. It might even function as a lifeboat capable of carrying us, our communities and the values we cherish safely through the perilous decades ahead. We know it by the rather dry name of ‘municipalism.’

“In this introduction, municipalism is presented to the reader as a cluster of related tactics and techniques that allow a community embracing them to ascend the rungs of Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation,’ from manipulation through consultation to citizen control. As Arnstein suggests, the point of increasing the intensity of involvement in decision-making is to grasp power, and the testimony of those who have experienced such power as a lived reality attests to the wide array of beneficial social, psychic and ecological effects that follow.

“This overview of the state of play establishes that over the past quarter century, movements of a frankly municipalist character have furnished the left with much of its ferment and hope for the future, culminating in the stunning appearance of a large-scale non-state governance framework in Rojava. The balance of the book will seek to summarize and consolidate the lessons learned by these movements, taking them not so much as literal blueprint, but as a vital repository of ideas to be taken up and reworked in practice by living communities the world over — and a jumping-off point for a non-statist politics native to the networked, imperiled twenty-first century.”

The book visits Porto Alegre, Chiapas, the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Athens, Brooklyn, Barcelona and Jackson, Mississippi to see what lessons each of them can teach us about the organization of autonomous communities; moves through an extended discussion of the Rojava achievement; and concludes by taking a stab at articulating what all of this might be leading up to.

I’m curious to know what you think ought to be included in a book of this nature, and especially what you think I might be missing. I have to say, though, that I can’t remember ever having been as excited about a book project. This is the one I’ve wanted to write for almost a decade now. I’ll keep you in the loop as to how I’m getting along with it.