Some of you may remember that I’m lucky enough to count among my friends the members of the legendary Philadelphia-based hardcore band RUIN. Not too long ago, they wrote to let me know they’ve got a double-disc, fully-remastered retrospective coming out on Alternative Tentacles later on this year — and did me the honor of asking me to write liner notes for the release. With their permission, I share them with you here.
You and I, we enjoy a prerogative that very few of the several billion human beings who walked the Earth before us could possibly have imagined. Most of us have ready to hand, at this very moment, a machine that’s capable of siphoning a train of modulated pulses from the ether and turning those pulses into the organized sound we call music. We can pluck down music literally from the very air, across all boundaries of human time and space and culture: as much as we want, whatever we want, whenever we want it.
It’s the long dreamt-of celestial jukebox. Just about anyone who feels the itch can plumb the depths of the Cole Porter songbook alongside Ella Fitzgerald, explore the mysteries of Arvo Pärt, or queue up an hour of obscure Throbbing Gristle releases at will, complete with alternate takes. They can turn the entire Trojan Records catalogue into a playlist with a few keystrokes, encounter the name “Ros Sereysothea” for the very first time, do a quick copy & paste and be listening to her five seconds later. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
It’s all very effortless, is what I’m getting at. Now this is a truly wonderful thing, for those of us for whom music frames, shapes and maybe even defines the way we respond to the things which happen in our lives. It’s a gift of all-but-inconceivable value.
But maybe, just maybe, it means that music doesn’t weigh quite as much as it used to. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing. How could it, when each new piece of music you hear is acquired with very little investment of effort, at effectively zero incremental cost?
I want to take you somewhere else.
Welcome to Philadelphia, 1985. These were bad years in America — the mid-Reagan years. Evil little shits like James Watt, Phyllis Schlafly, Oliver North and Grover Norquist were busy laying the groundwork for the titanic clusterfuck we’ve since inherited, each in their own way. The center hadn’t held, and the cracks were evident everywhere. The temporarily ascendent Japanese (always “the Japanese,” as though the entire country were a single monolithic hive entity, burrowing its way beetlelike through the moribund US economy) were buying up American landmarks like Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center. Never mind that they were being taken for a ride. It was the optics of the thing that counted — all those drab salarymen, cash in hand, standing athwart the monuments of American cultural supremacy.
The official media papered over this and the many other hints that the American Century had come to a premature end with jingoistic schmaltz like Red Dawn and Rambo. Like the actual invasion of Grenada, these were overtly intended to reignite the national mojo, restore the sense of limitless power and the serene belief in the justice of its cause the nation had lost after Vietnam. Even at the time, they seemed pathetic.
And then there was AIDS. Nobody quite knew what caused it yet, so no matter who we were, we brought biohazard protocols to bed along with our partners — those, and more fear than is quite healthy for the growth of anything supposed to be founded in love. It was that, or get the virus, waste away and die. That happened, too. The anti-retroviral cocktail was still years away. (Ronald Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1986.)
In all this gloom, voices with any experience of opposition or of building an oppositional culture were in perilously short supply. The Black Panthers, of course, had long been hunted to extinction; other prominent Sixties radicals, notably Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, wasted precisely zero time in announcing to all concerned that hell yes they were selling out, and to the highest bidder they could possibly land. And still others retreated into the thankless, unglamorous, constant and not particularly public work of ensuring that some kind of solidarity-based infrastructure survived through the long cold years of neglect.
If the mid-Eighties were grim years for America, they were harder still for Philadelphia. The local vibes were just ugly. There had been a time when you could credibly name Philly alongside New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but by the end of the Seventies those days were irretrievably gone. The industrial base on which the city’s economic vitality had depended for over a century had evaporated, seemingly overnight; as the factories went, so went the jobs, leaving black and white working people eyeing each other warily across a shrinking pile of scraps.
And of course there were those pleased to exploit this unease for their own benefit, notably a former police chief named Frank Rizzo, who as mayor in the late Seventies ran the city with a fascist swagger his core constituency just ate up. (During a period of more than usual civil unrest in 1969, then-commissioner Rizzo famously attended a gala ball with a nightstick thrust in his cummerbund. Any exploration of the Freudian implications thereof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Though he was out of office by ’79, Rizzo set the tone for the decade of Philly politics that followed; from him, the mayoralty passed first to the anodyne Bill Green, then to a nonentity named W. Wilson Goode. Briefly and justly celebrated as the first black mayor of this majority African-American town, Goode was soon enough notorious for standing passively by during what remains the only bombing of an American city by its own police force. An entire neighborhood of family rowhouses burned to the ground. Eleven people died. Five of them were children.
This was the city we came of age in: a city consuming itself in slow motion, like some particularly shabby and low-rent version of Samuel Delany’s Bellona. It called forth the most intense feelings of dread and love and confusion, but offered very little in the way of anything to channel them into. If you were between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five at the time, things were especially surreal, because the official culture available to you didn’t reflect any of this. You got Quincy scripts founded in the murderous, elemental badness of mohawked ne’er-do-wells. You got Larry “Bud” Melman. You got a double shot of the Hooters on WMMR.
It was maddening. You felt x’d out of existence. So you, we, did what all the others who felt the same way were learning to do at about the same time, in cities from Osaka to Helsinki: we made do, we made shift and we made culture of our own.
Actual concert venues were out of the question, on grounds of amateurishness and lack of pull both. Like other local punk scenes, then, the Philly milieu was cobbled together around a loose network of lodge halls, steak shops and church cellars, not to mention private dwellings from frat houses to out-and-out squats. (I saw Circle of Shit play to a crowd of seven, in a dirt-floored basement halfway to Upper Darby. That particular moldering funk of West Philadelphia earth is in my nostrils as I write these words, thirty years removed in time and the full reach of the Atlantic away.)
Commercial airtime, similarly off-limits — though thankfully Philadelphia was relatively well provisioned with noncommercial outlets willing to play the occasional Gang of Four side, and keep a channel open. Eternally manic Lee Paris hosted “Yesterday’s Now Music Today” on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, and that was good. Drexel’s WKDU was arguably even better, but their signal was weak — any more than twenty blocks or so from their transmitter, you’d literally have to walk your radio around the room to find a spot where whatever music was coming out of the speaker could be heard over the static.
You couldn’t just hear a song on the radio and then go buy it. Before Chaos Records opened up, later on, this was a city of two million souls that offered but one place you could have any hope of reliably finding punk rock records: specifically, the milkcrate sitting in the concrete dust and mouse droppings on the floor against the back wall of the basement of Third Street Jazz. I admit that I did once, inexplicably, turn up a French Stiff Little Fingers EP at the Sam Goody in the Gallery — but otherwise you went to Third Street, you braved the sneers of the jazzbo staff and you brought home whatever they happened to have in that crate.
There was no media coverage to speak of, save for a sole, entirely risible profile in Philadelphia magazine. We made ‘zines instead: shitty missives Xeroxed after hours at a parent’s office, chock full of record reviews, “political” rants and terrible poetry. These we left in tottering stacks at shows, in piles beside the cash register of whatever oddball retail store would have them.
And beside all of this, and above it, and under it, and through it, some among us made the music that tied it all together.
History lesson, Part III. The Philly punk scene was always harder to get a handle on than some others that come to mind. Neither as mired in blue-collar machismo as the second-wave NYC scene then coalescing around CBGB’s Sunday matinees, nor as (self?)righteous as the Dischord-centric DC community, Philadelphia threw nothing but curveballs. McRad, the Dead Milkmen, Pagan Babies, Scram: none of them quite fit the template, somehow. They were too weird, too goofy, too unpredictable, too hard to fit into the categories that were already then beginning to solidify.
Which brings us at last to Ruin.
Originally active from 1982 to 1986, in its early lineup Ruin was a five-piece unit, often described to the unaware as a “Buddhist hardcore band.” (You see what I mean about not fitting easily into the established categories.) In that time they released just two albums: the definitive blast of 1984’s He-Ho and the somewhat more polished Fiat Lux of 1986. An additional few tracks trickled out on compilations like the much-loved Get Off My Back, We’re Doing It Ourselves and the obscure, cassette-only Welcome Worlds, before eventually being reissued on Blackhole’s comprehensive Songs of Reverie and Ruin. One or two cuts, like “The Rain Comes Down,” remain uncaptured. But that’s the recorded output. That’s it.
This leaves us with twenty-six songs, of which four are covers. This is not an unreasonable tally for a hardcore band of the era — Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, for example, which sure enough does what it says on the tin, similarly clocks in at a mere 26 tracks — but it’s not in absolute terms very much at all. And yet it’s in those relatively few tracks that everything happens. You hear a bunch of kids throw themselves headfirst at Philadelphia, and America, and even at 1984, intent not on simply beating themselves against the membranes that contain them but on breaking the fuck through. They are, I say it again, kids, who have nevertheless understood or intuited something critical about what it means to live this life in this container or vehicle we call a body, something that most people never fully internalize at any age. They’re not going to tell you what that thing is. They’re going to enact it. And they’re going to take you along with them.
If you were lucky enough to see them play, you never forgot it. There were rugs. There were, no lie, candles. The band filtered onto the stage dressed in white from head to toe. The message was unmistakable: whatever it was you were about to witness, it wasn’t going to be yet another clutch of Black Flag wannabes, sounding off about their petty beefs with still pettier authorities.
One New York City Christmas many years ago, an ex-girlfriend took me to midnight mass at the cathedral church of St. John the Divine. Neither one of us was religious, was a believer of any kind, but we went for the fellowship and the warmth and the sheer ritualistic spectacle of it. That Christmas Eve glows in my memory as a soft haze of light and song and incense from the thurible. And for the first time in my life I understood what a cathedral is — what any church is supposed to be, really, in the layout of its nave and the arrangement of its parts. It’s a runway for God, complete with landing lights and air traffic control.
I’m going to risk sounding unbearably pretentious by arguing to you that this is more or less what Ruin was trying to do on stage. They were trying to create a bubble of space and time in which musicians and audience alike could experience something heightened, something preverbal, something that words can only ever fail. I would argue to you, further, that they succeeded: not completely, but reliably enough, and for as long as ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Ten or fifteen minutes spent outside your name, cut loose from your ego and that collection of regrets, fears and desires you call a self, pummeled this way and that by the crowd’s Brownian churn: not such a bad ROI for a few bucks at the door.
Could you have experienced something similar at another band’s gig? Similar, sure…but not quite the same. Ruin were, and are, astonishingly physical performers, even by the standards of hardcore punk. They brought a commitment and an intensity of focus to the act of playing music before a crowd that I have only very rarely encountered. Most schools of Buddhism place great importance on each of us being fully present in this moment, neither caught up in retrospection nor immobilized with thoughts of what is yet to come. You wouldn’t have needed to know the first thing about the band or its members to see the impact of this way of thinking on their music. It was all right there.
And here we come to the question of ancestry. You can learn a lot about how a band sees itself by its choice of covers — what it thinks it’s doing, what line of descent it wishes to claim as its own. I can promise you that in the Philadelphia of the mid-Eighties, Leonard Cohen was not a major presence on the punk hit parade, that in some quarters even covering “White Rabbit” could be read as a dangerous concession to hippie lamery. By wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, the members of Ruin were declaring their independence from the petty doctrinaire bullshit that so often characterized that scene, despite its manifest weirdness, and in fact hobbles all scenes and always will. That declaration said, “You go on ahead and draw your lines.” It said, “We come from a place where those lines add up to nothing.” Ultimately it implied you’d be welcome in that place, too, if you didn’t mind letting go of your need for lineation.
A cover song is what literary critics might call “intertextuality,” and what most of us would call “a conversation.” Ruin’s records were having a conversation with other musics. But — and this is important — not just other musics. If you were prepared to let them, these conversations unfolded in ways you just weren’t primed to expect from punk rock. They were drilling straight through Jefferson Airplane to Lewis Carroll, and right through him even to the ontological weirdness that animated his greatest work. Similarly, Leonard Cohen was just an inn and a place to rest for the night on the way to Basho.
When you place so much emphasis on the ones that came before, you also imply that someone will come after. Somebody will come along to discover your work and claim it for their own. Maybe not as a gig flier stapled to a telephone pole and left to fade in the wind and rain. Maybe not as an older sister’s taped-over Elton John cassette, band logo lovingly crosshatched onto the label in smeared blue Bic, passed hand-to-hand in secret like high school samizdat. But maybe in ways that could barely be imagined at the time of creation. As a well-formed uniform resource indicator fully compliant with the https scheme, for example, which is to say: an emailed link.
So what does this music mean, in a world where music is something you stream from Spotify on a whim, rather than wrest from a maddeningly wavering college-radio signal? What does a fierce insistence on being present in this moment mean, when the very next moment could as easily hold Daft Punk or Palestrina or just as likely a leap out of the music app altogether?
One way to answer might be to say that in pressing “play,” you’re listening to the air of a different time and a different place. This is essentially a historical document, in other words — though perhaps one with a certain uncomfortable resonance for us, now that we once again find ourselves come upon hard times. The contemporary listener may not have lived through the Philadelphia of the mid-1980s, goes this line of thinking, but Frank Rizzos and Gary Heidniks and Budd Dwyers turn out to be sadly archetypal characters, so music forged in their time and place has as much claim to resonance and permanent relevance as any other ever penned.
Another way of answering would position these songs as a reminder that everything that means anything comes with a weight and a cost. This is not to say that meaningful things need to be joyless and self-serious. It just means that their realization invariably required some investment of human effort, whether that be a few late nights up writing, a strain on the vocal cords, a wrenched shoulder, or half a lifetime outside of the main current of human fellowship. This is music that asks its listener to sit still with the fact of that cost, if one can sit still inside a cyclone. I wish more music were like that, but the fact that these songs even exist is and will have to be enough.
I’m beyond honored to have had this piece — a love letter to London and its maps — commissioned for the launch issue of the revived Journal of the London Society. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. For the record, the impeccable choice of title was theirs.
I very much doubt that there is a city on the face of this Earth better mapped, over a longer period of time — nor more potently associated with the image of the map, as cultural and practical artifact — than London.
I’m sure some of the reason behind this stems from the need to assert administrative control, assess taxation and clarify property rights across a bewildering profusion of boroughs, wards, parishes, liberties, districts and councils. Part of it, certainly, arises from the way in which successive mobility technologies have allowed the city to colonize the land — sprawling its way across terrains and conditions, levering itself ever outward via rail lines and motorways, until the area within the ambit of the M25 subsumed a not-inconsiderable chunk of the British landmass.
But a great deal of this history is driven by history itself. Over the two thousand years of its documented existence, the physical fabric of London has blithely folded everything from animal trails and Roman roads to the Abercrombie Plan and the Westway into its network of connections. As a result, this is, at its core at least, a topologically ornery city. It is a place threaded with byways that admit to no obvious exit, that continue past a nodal point only under some other name (and therefore bear multiple designations within the space of a few dozen meters), that deposit the pedestrian somewhere, anywhere else than wherever reason and intuition suggest they might. Saffron Hill, Newman Passage, Johnson’s Court, the increasingly (and, it must be said, distressingly) salubrious alleys of Soho — you can walk these thoroughfares half a hundred times, and still not quite remember how they link up with the rest of the city. Or even, necessarily, how to find them again the next day.
At the same time, of course, London is a city of roundabouts, flyovers and gyratories, of circuses and viaducts and junctions — a city that was already thoroughly reticulated by bus routes and Tube lines before anyone now living was born. With each new layer, its complexity increases in a way that is not additive, but multiplicative. But if all of this is undeniably the case, it’s also true that you can wake up one morning to discover that the tramways have been pulled up, that Charing Cross Road no longer quite connects with Tottenham Court Road, that someone’s proposing to turn Elephant & Castle roundabout into a peninsula. The confoundments threaten to spiral out of control. So whether they avail themselves of one via the enameled surface of a Legible London plinth, an app on their phone, or for that matter the Knowledge so splendidly immanent in the comparably complex network of neurons in a cabbie’s head, the would-be reckoner with London needs nothing so much as a chart, a guide. A map.
So equipped, one can finally negotiate the city with relative ease. But navigation is by no means the only thing we use maps for. It’s long been understood that cartographic tools can help us better comprehend some state of the world, and even allow us to make effective interventions.
As it happens, this kind of spatial analysis was born right here in London. When John Snow tallied deaths in the 1854 Soho cholera outbreak on a map, he made manifest a pattern that had previously eluded even the most conscientious ledger-based tabulation: that peak mortality clearly centered on the Broad Street water pump. Armed with this evidence, Snow famously petitioned the parish Board of Guardians to remove the pump handle, which they did the next day, stopping the epidemic in its tracks. It was a landmark moment for both epidemiology and geographic information systems — and it would not be the last time in the history of London that a map proposed an intervention.
Though a great deal more impressionistic than Snow’s fastidious chart, Charles Booth’s poverty maps of late-Victorian London are almost as granular, delineating among seven increments of socioeconomic status as they varied block to block, and occasionally house to house. Though Life and Labour of the People in London, the magnum opus in which they appeared, must be given the lion’s share of the credit — and this is to say nothing of Booth’s apparently indefatigable organizing — it’s generally acknowledged that the maps themselves were critical for catalyzing the sense that something had to be done to redress abject want in the city, perhaps by conveying its true extent in the backstreets and rookeries only rarely penetrated by the respectable classes. (The blithe ignorance these classes nurtured for their own city was truly impressive. In 1855, the London Diocesan Building Society had described the East End to its subscribers as being “as unexplored as Timbuctoo,” which must have come as some surprise to the hundreds of thousands of Cockneys living there.)
In their way, Booth’s maps were as effective as Snow’s in driving change in the world. The response, when it came, may not have been quite as elegant or as precisely targeted as the removal of a single pump handle, but its impact was undeniably felt at a larger scale. When Parliament authorized the first Old Age Pension in 1908, Booth’s work was widely regarded as having been instrumental to the effort aimed at securing its passage.
Here we get some sense of the power of a geographic data visualization. By judiciously folding complex urban dynamics back against the ground plane, maps like these help us comprehend circumstances that may well be transpiring beneath or beyond the threshold of unaided human perception, in space or time or both. They are, quite literally, consciousness-altering.
In all the long history of mapping the great metropolis, though, it’s arguable that no single map did more to change the ordinary Londoner’s perception of urban space than Harry Beck’s original Underground diagram of 1933. In reckoning with the burgeoning complexities of a then relatively new addition to the city’s network of networks, Beck’s map emphasized the experiential truth of urban space over the geographically literal. As anyone who’s ever hoofed it between Angel Station and Old Street can tell you, the overland distance between any two contiguous stations bears only the slightest resemblance to the proximity implied by the Beck schematic and its many descendants.
The distortions pull in both directions. With only the Tube map to rely on, someone unfamiliar with the topography of central London might well conclude that it’s entirely reasonable to take the Tube from Bank to Liverpool Street, or from Borough to London Bridge, when the former is at worst a nine- and the latter a ten-minute walk. (And don’t get me started about vertical distances. At Angel Station, the system’s deepest, it can take the rider a good five minutes just to get from turnstile to platform.)
But these gross displacements, however grievously they might afflict the small but vocal contingent of people who care passionately about such things, are entirely beside the point. For all its compressions, expansions and improbably crisp 45-degree angles, the map is impeccably accurate in reflecting the way Tube riders actually perceive the space of the city, as it unspools a few dozen meters above their heads. Rely on it often enough for long enough, and you too may find — to paraphrase Edward Tufte — that the map organizes your London.
For someone more than casually fond of both London and maps, it’s inordinately pleasing that these landmarks in cartographic history are all also part of the story of this particular place on Earth. You can go and visit the very places that John Snow and Charles Booth mapped any day of the week, using the system that Harry Beck described with his map.
We are, however, safe in considering all of this history mere preamble, however glorious it may be. I believe that at this moment in time, we are collectively experiencing the most significant single evolution in mapping since someone first scratched plans on papyrus — for one relatively recent and very simple development, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, and what we can do with it.
It’s this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.
Nothing in all my prior experience of maps prepared me for the frisson I experienced the first time I held an iPhone in my hand, launched Google Maps, pressed a single button…and was located, told where I was to within a very few meters. When you realize that, already, some 30% of the adults on the planet own a device that can do this, that this audience already greatly outnumbers all the people who ever consulted an A-Z, a Thomas Guide or a friendly green Michelin volume put together, you begin to understand just how dramatically the popular conception of cartography is evolving. Those who come after us will have a hard time imagining that there was ever such a thing as a map that couldn’t do that.
The fact that such depictions can now also render layers of dynamic, real-time situational information — traffic, weather, crime and so on — seems almost incidental compared to this. The fact of locability, in itself, is the real epistemic break. It subtly but decisively removes the locative artifacts we use from the order of abstraction. By finding ourselves situated on the plane of a given map, we’re being presented with the implication that this document is less a diagram and more a direct representation of reality — and, what’s more, one with a certain degree of fidelity, one that can be verified empirically by the simple act of walking around.
I’d argue that this begins to color our experience of all maps, even those that remain purely imaginary. We begin to look for the pulsing crosshairs or the shiny, cartoonish pushpin that says YOU ARE HERE. The ability to locate oneself becomes bound up with the meaning of any representation of space whatsoever.
And it has profound pragmatic consequences, as well. It means that our maps can do real work for us. Typical of this is the online service Citymapper. Fed real-time information by TfL via a series of conduits called “application programming interfaces,” or APIs, Citymapper constitutes nothing less than a set of keys to the city, accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a data plan. It effortlessly tames what is otherwise the rather daunting perplexity of the street network, divining a nearly-optimal path through all those closes and courts and alleys, or suggesting just what combination of buses and trains you’d need to cobble together to get from, say, Stoke Newington Common to Camberwell Green.
Again, here London is different from other places. Though Citymapper offers versions for New York and Berlin, Paris and Barcelona, the utility of each is hampered by the limitations placed on it by those cities’ respective transit authorities. In my experience, no metropolitan transit agency in the world provides APIs as robust and thorough as those offered by TfL, and as a direct result Citymapper and its competitors are more useful here than they are just about anywhere else.
Happily, buses and Tube trains aren’t the only ways of getting around that are enhanced by the new interactive cartography. The networked maps so many of us now rely upon transform the practice of walking, too. The way in which access to real-time locative information enhances one’s sense of security in exploring the city is beautifully expressed by the London-based technologist Phil Gyford: “I can quickly see that my destination might be only 25 minutes’ walk away, and I know I’ll be going the quickest route, and GPS will ensure I won’t get lost halfway there. Somehow walking now seems more viable and less uncertain.” What this opens up, even for the longtime resident, is the prospect of exploring a city they never knew, though it may have been separated from them more by habit and uncertainty than any physical distance. Gyford now feels free to wander “the overlooked parts of London…the neglected seas between the Tube-station islands”; somewhere, the worthies of the London Diocesan Building Society breathe a sigh of satisfaction before returning to their deep slumber in the earth.
That we are becoming — that some of us have already become — so intimately and thoroughly reliant on our maps to guide us safely through the urban thicket makes it more important than ever that we regard them critically. Though we know intellectually that the map is famously not the territory, the emotional truth of this can be harder to internalize; we’ve all seen news stories about truck drivers following their satnav directions straight into a lake, or a wall. We need to get in the habit of asking pointed questions about who makes the maps, who chooses the information that is rendered upon them, and where that information comes from in the first place.
We might also attend to the deeper truths about the city we live in that are brought to light by this class of representations. Consider the dynamic visualizations of the Milan-based transportation-planning practice Systematica. In their time-series map of London, peristaltic pulses of expansion and contraction wash across the familiar terrain, revealing what we’ve always known to be the case: that at no hour of the day is the actual city coextensive with its formal, administrative boundaries. Though the human presence must still be inferred from these abstract surges of color, the message is unmissable: for all the grandeur of its physical fabric, the deep London is nothing more or less than the people who move through it, animate it and endow it with meaning.
This, in the end, is not such a bad lesson to derive from contemplating the play of pixels on a screen. If, as the disgraced geographer Denis Wood puts it, all “maps are embedded in a history they help construct,” this is true of maps of this city more so than most. And if we know that London, this gorgeous hypersurface, is forever absconding from the knowable, and can never be entirely reduced to a set of lines and points and paths, this doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no point in making the attempt. Perhaps, as with those of John Snow, Charles Booth and Harry Beck, the maps of Citymapper, Systematica and their descendants may yet help bring a safer, wiser, more just and merciful city into being.
A piece republished on my old v-2 site in 2003 and creakingly old even then, having originally been written for a magazine called neo my ex-wife and I published in Seattle circa 1994. It is soooooo Nineties in its framings and formal concerns, but kinda fun nevertheless. Enjoy!
Returning slowly to ordinary consciousness as you stagger out onto the sidewalk at quarter to two in the morning, you find yourself with a pair of gonging eardrums, hands covered in the fluid seeping from torn blisters. The high-pitched scream in your ears is the predictable aftermath of a show; the blisters were suffered (you can only surmise) while hammering on a 55-gallon oil drum with a crowbar.
It’s the blisters – and the stench of cordite and adrenaline and fear that still hovers in your nostrils – that testify to the fact that what you’ve just seen is anything but the average rock’n’roll show. You’ve survived your first encounter with ¡Tchkung!
Recipe for a ¡Tchkung! show: a little May 1968 guerrilla street theater, a few touches from Survival Research Laboratories, a surprising amount from the contemporary French circus, maybe a pinch of Leni Riefenstahl – and not very much at all from the hallowed iconographic menu of rock.
Oh, sure, there’s some people playing musical instruments up on a stage, and there’s a pretty light show flickering over them. But that’s about where the resemblance ends. ¡Tchkung! uses a variety of techniques to break down the wall between performer and audience, sideshow pyrotechnicians and roving self-piercers among them. There’s no identifiable boundary between observation and participation – here’s where the comparison to SRL comes in: you can either choose to join in the chaos or back away to a putatively safe distance. The experience almost manages to revivify the use-worn phrase “in your face.”
As your mind clears, you review the events of the evening. You can barely remember how you felt just a few hours ago, so total has been your immersion in the mood of the show.
You do remember getting into the opening acts, a bagpipe ensemble and a Taiko drumming group, and being disappointed that more people in the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. The Taiko drummers in particular impressed you with their sense of barely-contained energies, and you wanted them to go on longer. But that desire was forgotten as ¡Tchkung! took the stage, amid the martial clang of found percussion and a sudden cacophony of voices and instruments.
How many were up there, anyway? Six, seven? They launched immediately into a grinding dirge, and everything else was swept away.
A torchlight procession wends its way down from the stage, around the club and back again; drums and sheet metal are tossed into the audience, along with tools and rough pieces of rebar for use as strikers. The action is acentric: there’s stuff going on up there, yeah, but there’s a knot of people twenty feet away watching a man eat fire. Right above you, a woman is shoving a needle through her lip with an expression of calm concentration made more exquisite by the total clamor on all sides. And where you’d expect a mosh pit to be, people who have never met each other – some in full bodypaint – are locking arms and dancing in a circle like medieval peasants at Beltane.
You’re encouraged to participate in this laying on of hands.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about the music. In this, I join a growing line of reviewers, who have tended to talk about the “barrage” of “damage” and “ritual”, but not about tunes. So far, music has been surprisingly secondary to any discussion of ¡Tchkung!, whether you’re talking about their live presentation or their self-titled debut CD (Belltown Records). It’s not because the music is bad – very much the contrary – but because the experience seems to be so much larger than just the songs.
They collude in giving this impression, too. The CD insert gives none of the standard information about the personnel of the band, the instruments or samples deployed, the lyrics. Instead, what you find upon opening the booklet is a veritable smorgasbord of left-antiauthoritarian thought, with elements recognizably derived from the IWW, the Situationists, the Diggers and Luddites, French theory circa Baudrillard…
Some of it doesn’t hang together very well: this is one of the only places I’ve ever seen ecofeminist and pagan thought juxtaposed with the macho deep ecology of Dave Foreman. And what would Kropotkin make of Terence McKenna? I appreciate ¡Tchkung!’s desire to turn their audience on to the wellsprings of their thought – but you do get the feeling that most of the other verbiage would be unnecessary if the music did its job.
OK, then: the music itself. If you’ve just gotta have a label, you might put ¡Tchkung! in the political wing of the percussive, assaultive school of sound known as “industrial.” This would make them classmates of the Lower East Side’s Missing Foundation and the Bay Area’s Sharkbait. There also seems to be a little bit of the anti-statism and anti-Christianity of the seminal, and annoying, British anarchist band Crass. What all of these bands share musically despite their many differences is a deep appreciation of harshly rhythmic noise, found percussion, and the use of slogans (all too often shouted from bullhorns) as lyrics.
You needn’t consider ¡Tchkung! to be hemmed in by this description, because they do have the makings of a sound that would far transcend the limitations of the genre. Where other bands of this genre dig themselves a rut of anger and monotony, ¡Tchkung!’s music has elements that compel genuine feeling and memory, whether the haunting, soulful keening of an extraordinary female vocalist, the weird Dreamtime warblings of a didgeridoo, or the chain-gang cadences of a worker’s blues. Where they’ve fallen down so far is in the successful integration of these elements into a focused whole, and in fact their CD will make you think you’re listening to a compilation album.
And listening to ¡Tchkung! at home is difficult anyway. Our society is structured in such a way that, for most people, it’s next to impossible to devote time to music exclusively, and so you wind up listening most while taking care of other tasks. We listen while driving, washing the dishes, making love – but how often do you just sit back in an otherwise silent environment and savor music? Getting the most out of a song like the otherworldly invocation “Io Lilith,” requires just such attention.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that most of these cuts evolved as soundtracks to live performance art – participatory and unscripted, but performance nonetheless. They can seem inchoate and incomplete without their complement of live activity. That they still succeed as well as they do is evidence that there’s some talent involved, but it is a sore point. They need to figure out how to have the performance of the music itself be the show.
I have seen bands that have mastered this. One I particularly remember launched into a song about a homeless Vietnam veteran living and dying on Venice Beach. All I really remember of the evening is this song, with its visceral thrum of bass and drums beneath the parallel wailing of sax and singer. The sound conveyed with absolute precision and fidelity an oppressive sense of narrowing options and failing hopes — and somehow found an affirmation of possibility at the bottom of the well. This is something that the unadorned three-piece wasn’t necessarily capable of; it’s my belief that it was the room they made for the swooping, lacerating sax that took them over the edge into transcendence.
That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not suggesting that it can be found simply by grafting a sax or a second drum kit onto the rock unit; neither do I believe that it can be forced by the wholesale, disrespectful adaptation of instrumentation or time signatures from other cultures. I think it comes in the fusion, the cross-fertilization, the creative recombination of elements.
We’re not limited anymore, in either the tactics or tools with which we approach making music. Punk rock famously urged us to Do It Ourselves. Hip-hop gave us the ideology of the sample; minimalism allowed us to derive structure from repetition of a few simple elements. Industrial taught us to explore the textures of noise and “world music” brought the planet’s entire history and heritage of musical experience to our immediate awareness. And digital technology means that whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, the throat-singers of Tuva, or a squealing circular saw we’re learning from, the lessons are as accessible as the nearest disc player.
So rise the new hybrid forms, born of new experiences: Parisian hip-hop, Gregorian ambient, Nipponese grindcore. Township jive touches down in Queens and Brazilian kids find out that speedmetal works especially well in Portuguese. It may not be exactly what McLuhan meant by the “global village,” but it’s as close as we’re likely to know.
I expect amazing things.
The musicians send forth waves of sound to break and crash over the audience; the response is immediate, sending bodies surging about like a throng of urchin dervishes. Sweatslick flesh presses in on you from every side, beyond individuality or gender. There’s an erotic charge in the air here, but also a palpable thanatos, a will to death and destruction that pulls on you like an undertow. Over the pounding beat, one of the singers is giving voice to a full, almost Old Testament wailing, a shriek of hopeless grief that recalls Diamanda Galas. It’s obviously a very intense and meaningful moment for her; the intensity comes across but much of her meaning is lost to you.
The air is thick with pheromones. The contrasts of the moment are dizzying: the singer’s grief, the exhilaration of losing yourself to the bodies on either side of you, the feral sexuality and the sense of loss.
They’re out on tour as I write, these offspring of Neubauten and Noam Chomsky, playing their harsh sounds out there in the American Night. I try to imagine them in Idaho, on this first night of the State Fair, mounting their full onslaught for what could be a room of fifteen, and fail.
I just can’t picture ritual percussion and onstage piercing playing real well in Boise. But maybe the world is changing faster than I think. According to a band member — the band speaks collectively or not at all — “the ranting and raving, they could take or leave, but they’ll stay through it just to hear the music.” I have to admit I’m surprised; after all, what will a nation used to Pantera and Snoop Doggy Dogg make of ¡Tchkung!, a band whose live sound could fairly be described as a discourse on the 1934 General Strike fused to the squeal of sawblade on aluminum?
But they’re not having too tough of a time getting their point across to audiences, and at that there is something appealingly homespun about them, something wholesome and (they’d hate it) deeply American. It’s a spirit somewhere between the Boston Tea Party and Andy Hardy shouting, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” None of which probably sounds terribly inviting, but I mean it as a compliment.
Avowedly anti-music-business, ¡Tchkung! claims “we’re doing something wrong if we get famous.” At the same time, they face the central dilemma of our mediated age — one never successfully negotiated by veterans of the punk rock moment such as Fugazi or Bad Religion: what happens when a subculture reaches critical mass?
If you believe in your message, naturally you want it to reach as many minds as you can. The way to those minds is through the gate of mass communications, and the gatekeeper is the big bad Media Biz. Because even such radically decentered communications tools as the Internet or the ‘zine scene speak to their own elites: a map of signals traffic along either of these networks would burn brightly over Hoboken, Berkeley and Georgetown, while leaving Jersey City, East Oakland or Anacostia dark.
The sad fact is that it’s the people who already have “access to tools and information” and power who know how to find relatively obscure artifacts like a ¡Tchkung! CD. Only the mass media have the ability to introject information into every fissure and crevice of our society. It’s a race and class and even cultural dilemma that ¡Tchkung! is sure to face head-on if they’re serious about getting their message across to the people who would benefit the most from a little self-empowerment.
The noise goes on and on and ON and you just want it to come to a climax or at least some sort of closure. After a while, you become aware that the stage is mostly empty, that the musicians are packing up their gear, and you’re not really sure at what point the show “ended.” The hammering din hasn’t let up in the least, and there’s still a good number of people locked into ecstatic dance.
Some perverse instinct compels you to wait it out, to see just how long it takes the crowd to ramp down from its ecstatic high. And so you wait and watch for things to end. But this show doesn’t; it just tapers off into guttering flames and one last screech of feedback, as dazed survivors reel across a dancefloor littered with “industrial” debris and shrapnel.
Seeing ¡Tchkung! left me feeling painfully ambivalent. On the one hand, here’s this band with a ton of energy, an awesome array of tactics to keep the audience involved, and (in the abstract, at least) politics I have little argument with. Those qualities have all proved vanishingly hard to come by in contemporary music. But what they have in sincerity, commitment, and intensity, they lack in focus and yes, discipline.
Because sometimes less really is more. Or more to the point: sometimes the energy that can sustain a show for three and a half hours at a given level could be used in more structured ways to produce a more vivid total effect in half that time. I know part of ¡Tchkung!’s intent is for each show to provide a door for the influx of chaos into the world — to create a temporary autonomous zone in which Anything Could Happen. But as it is, the Anything all too easily becomes boredom. And I resented it; the whole experience had raised a particular sort of energy in me — and then done nothing with it.
What did I want them to do with that energy? What might I have done with it myself? Alternately, what might I have done if only it was asked of me in that interval before the showbuzz wore off? Part of the problem here is that ¡Tchkung! is playing with fire, in more ways than the merely literal. The piercing, the firebreathing, the dervish-dancing, the relentless rhythms: these are all shamanic techniques for the alteration of consciousness, and there is no doubt but that they work. In their original contexts, they are all used by people undertaking specific initiatory journeys, when guided by others steeped in the traditions of their use. Of course, none of these conditions obtains at a ¡Tchkung! show. What happens when you put several hundred people into a suggestible state, in an environment filled with extraordinarily powerful signs of no fixed meaning?
¡Tchkung! obviously hopes that people will be empowered by the experience, moved to take back their lives from the entanglement of economic, social, religious, and political strictures that now binds us all. I share this hope, but I’m not so sanguine about the chances of such a mass transformation occurring spontaneously as the result of a three-hour carnival of noise. I could be wrong: for all I know, that’s the only way it could happen. But I’d bet against it.
¡Tchkung! is a band I like enough to come down hard on. They are a long way from where they need to be, I think, maybe even from where they want to be. And it sometimes seems — for an entity that presents itself as a musical group — that their music is entirely beside the point. But if they fall short on these counts it’s only because they have set their sights far higher than other acts you’ll see on the very same stages. They don’t seem particularly interested in providing an entertainment experience to an audience of passive consumers, which in itself is unusual for a band. They do seem interested in provoking the spontaneous creation of a community of desire, using any technique at hand. ¡Tchkung! wants you to determine the shape and direction of your own life. Despite some doubts about their tactics, there can be no higher goal, whether for a book, a speech, a magazine…or a rock band.
A writer for Fortune, another magazine aimed at corporate policy-makers, laments, “No single agency…guides the urban program, as NASA does in space or the Pentagon does in weaponry. The major problem therefore is to find some profit-oriented mechanism by which the great talents of systems-oriented industry can be brought to bear on the great needs of the cities.” If anyone ever stood in need of an argument that the free-enterprise system is dead in this country…he [sic] can find much in the last two statements in these journals of the free and enterprising. What we are told is that the demand side of the equation is to be a function of government and not demand…If there [is demand], then why does government have to find some profit-oriented mechanism (which I take as the euphemism for subsidies) to stimulate business? Isn’t business’s supply under capitalist economics supposed to equal the demand?”
— Robert Goodman, After the Planners, 1972.
The UK Government is using a “market making approach” to try and ensure the right conditions are available to encourage the take up of new technologies.
– The Centre for Cities, Smart Cities, May 2014.
We need to reconnect the principles of risk, hard work, and success with reward. When people take risks, with their own ideas, energy and money, when they succeed in a competitive market where anyone can come and knock them off their perch at any time, we should celebrate entrepreneurs who get rich in that way.
— David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, January 2012.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. (In fact, I did this just yesterday, in my responses to questions put to me by Korea’s architectural magazine SPACE.) I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.
My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. The canonical example of the perils that attend the overly generic consideration of a technology is bus rapid transit, or BRT, which works very, very well indeed on sociophysical terrain that strongly resembles its original home of Curitiba, and much less so in low-density environments like Johannesburg, or in places where, for whatever reason, access to the right-of-way can’t be controlled, notably Delhi and New York City. BRT was sold to these latter municipalities as a panacea for problems of urban mobility, without reference to all of the spatial, social, regulatory, pricing-model and service-design elements that had to be brought into balance before anything like success could be declared, and it shows. (Boy howdy, does it show. Have you ridden the New York City MTA’s half-assed instantiation of BRT lately?)
And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.
But despite all this, sometimes it is possible for the careful observer to suss out the likely future contours of a technology’s adoption, based on a more general appreciation of its nature. And that’s why I want to take a little time today to discuss with you my thinking around the emergent class of low-power, low-range transmitters known as “beacons.”
Classically, of course, a “beacon” was a visually prominent effect of some sort, designed to notify or warn those encountering it of some otherwise indistinct condition or feature in the landscape. And perhaps as originally envisioned, this class of transmitters genuinely was supposed to be what it said on the tin: a simple way for relatively low-powered devices to find and lock onto one another, amid the fog and unpredictable dynamism of the everyday.
This is not a particularly new idea; as long ago as 2005, I’d proposed on my old v-2 site that networked objects would need some lightweight, low-cost way of radiating information about their presence and capabilities to other things (and by extension, people) in the near neighborhood — the foundation of what, at that time, I thought of as a “universal service-discovery layer” draped over the world. And of course I was nowhere near the first to have proposed something along these lines; I myself had been inspired to think more deeply about things talking to each other from a sideways reading of a throw-away bit of cleverness in Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction, and it’s fair to say that the idea of things automatically broadcasting their identity to other things had been in the air for quite a few years before that.
But in evolving commercial parlance, beacons are nothing of the sort, really. A contemporary beacon (like these ugly and rather hostile-looking blebs, sold by Estimote) is primarily designed to capture information, not to convey it — and such information as it does convey outward is disproportionately intended to benefit the sender over the recipient. So my first objection to beacon technology is that this very framing is in itself mendacious, dishonest and misleading. (You know you’re in trouble when the very name of something is a lie.)
As things stand now, beacons are intended for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to capture and monetize your behavior. As with the so-called Internet of Things more broadly, there simply aren’t any particularly convincing or compelling use cases for the technology that aren’t about driving needless consumption; almost without exception, those that are even partially robust have to do with closing a commercial transaction. Both the language of beacon technology and the framework of assumptions it grows out of are airlessly, claustrophobically hegemonic, and this thinking is all over their sites: vendors urge you to deploy these “media-rich banner ads for the physical world” in “any physical place, such as your retail store,” to “drive engagement,” “cross-sell and up-sell” and eventually “convert” passersby to purchasers. Even beacon advocates have a hard time coming up with any more than half-hearted art projects by way of uses for the technology that are not founded in the desire to relieve some passing mark of the contents of their wallet, reliably, predictably and on an ongoing basis.
And even those scenarios of use which appear at first blush to be founded in blamelessly humanitarian ends, when subjected to trial by ordeal ultimately turn out to embrace the shabbiest neoliberal reasoning. Cheaper to spackle a subway station with networked microlocation transponders, goes the thinking, than to actually hire and train the (unpredictable, and damnably needy) human beings that might help riders navigate the corridors and interchange nodes. Even if the devices don’t actually turn out to work all that reliably in the fullness of time, or impose a starkly higher TCO than initially estimated, there will be a concrete deployment that someone can point to as an accomplishment, a ticked-off achievement and a justification for renewed budgetary allocation or re-election.
Finally, I find it noteworthy that the beacon cost-benefit proposition can only subsist when it is accomplished stealthily, and when it is presented to citizens forthrightly and transparently, it is just as forthrightly rejected. Perhaps it’s a temporary blip of post-Snowden reticence, but my sense is that most of us have become chary of bundling too many performative dimensions of our identity onto our converged devices at once, and not at all without reason. (Ultimately, I diagnose similar reasons underneath the failure to date of digital wallets and similar device-based payment solutions to gain any market traction whatsoever, though there are other questions at play there as well.)
Beyond and back
The interest in beacons strikes me as being symptomatic of something deeper and more troubling in the culture of technology, something I think of as “the Engelbart overshoot.”
There was a powerful dream that sustained (and not incidentally, justified) half a century’s inquiry into the possibilities of information technology, from Vannevar Bush to Doug Engelbart straight through to Mark Weiser. This was the dream of augmenting the individual human being with instantaneous access to all knowledge, from wherever in the world he or she happened to be standing at any given moment. As toweringly, preposterously ambitious as that goal seems when stated so baldly, it’s hard to conclude anything but that we actually did achieve that dream some time ago, at least as a robust technical proof of concept.
We achieved that dream, and immediately set about betraying it. We betrayed it by shrouding the knowledge it was founded on in bullshit IP law, and by insisting that every interaction with it be pushed through some set of mostly invidious business logic. We betrayed it by building our otherwise astoundingly liberatory propositions around walled gardens and proprietary standards, by putting the prerogatives of rent-seeking ahead of any move to fertilize and renew the commons, and by tolerating the infestation of our informational ecology with vile, value-destroying parasites. These days technical innovators seem more likely to be lauded for devising new ways to harness and exploit people’s life energy for private gain than for the inverse.
In fact, you and I now draw breath in a post-utopian world — a world where the tide of technical idealism has long receded from its high-water mark, where it’s a matter of course to suggest that we must attach (someone’s) networked sensors to our bodies in order to know them, and where, rather astonishingly, it is possible for an intelligent person to argue that spamming the globe with such devices is somehow a precondition of “reclaim[ing our] environment as a place of sociability and creativity.” And this is the world in which beacons and the cause of advocacy for them arise.
There’s very little meaningful for this technology to do — no specifiable aim or goal that genuinely seems to require its deployment, which could not be achieved as or more readily in some other way. As presently constituted, anyway, it doesn’t serve the great dream of aiding us in our lifelong effort to make sense of the endlessly confounding and occasionally dangerous world. It furthers only the puniest and most shaming of ambitions. To the talented, technically capable folks working so hard to build out the beacon world, I ask: Is this really what you want to spend any part of your only life on Earth working to develop? To those advocating this turn, I ask: Can’t you think of any way of relating to people more interesting and productive than trying to sell them something they neither want nor need, and most likely cannot genuinely afford?
It doesn’t take too concerted an intellectual effort to understand what’s really going on with beacons — as a matter of fact, as we’ve seen, most people evidently seem to understand the situation perfectly well already. But I don’t hold out too much hope of getting any of the truly convinced to see the light on this question; we all know how very difficult it can be to get people to understand something when their salary (mortgage payments/kids’ private-school tuition/equity stake/deal flow) depends on them not understanding it. If you ask me, though, we were meant for better things than this.
Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.
I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.
This year’s model
More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.
Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?
Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.
As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.
Signs, pointers and portents
Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.
So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?
In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.
For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.
Campo de Cebada: Community control
At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.
After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)
Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.
What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.
Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement
In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.
To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).
What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.
But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.
The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)
This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.
My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.
But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.
Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment
Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.
There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.
Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.
In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.
When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.
At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.
So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:
– In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.
There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.
– In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.
On forgetting to slay the dragon
Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.
I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)
But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.
My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.
This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and Couchsurfing.org implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.
The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:
The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.
Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.
As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:
I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.
Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.
So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)
Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.
Do you still speak to your no wave peers?
Those that still live…Of course [I do]…Anyone, that’s still alive — I’m down, I’m here, hello.
Boy howdy did that strike a chord with me, as I think it likely will for anyone who’s ever belonged to a community with a disproportionately high mortality rate. I found myself thinking about it again the other day, after some drama had broken out on the Facebook memorial page for a friend I knew from the West Philly punk/squat scene of the early 1990s, someone who died last week in Cambodia at the age of 40. (That number startled me two ways: it is, of course, shockingly young to die, but I was also halfway-amazed to hear he’d made it even that far.)
The drama had to do with the fact that this person, as charming and vivid and unique as he was, was not by any means always pleasant or even necessarily safe to be around. One or two members of the group apparently felt that saying so in so many words was somehow disrespectful of him, or diminished his memory, but I was gratified to see that the far larger number of people posting to the page did not. They apparently believed, as I do, that only the truth is love. But still more importantly, any attempt at sugarcoating that truth, or sanding away the edges of an uncomfortable reality, would have done a special kind of violence to memory. And when you’re talking about a shrinking group of people who collectively lived through a given set of experiences, that violence cannot easily be borne.
Here’s what happens. The people who were there, whose corporeal memory enfolds some fragment of your shared lifeworld, they begin to drop away. And in time, the world fills up with people who, whatever their gifts and however beautiful they are, simply have no conception of what it was like to live in those days, materially, experientially or somatically. They just don’t share the frame of reference. So that connection you have with the dwindling number of those who do — well, when coupled to the natural deepening of personality that most of us seem to undergo, that connection comes to outweigh just about every other consideration.
There are of course some things that shared bond can’t excuse, some acts that can’t be overlooked. But for the most part you find yourself warming even to the folks you outright despised back in the day. Whatever lay beneath the rupture between you — narrowly-defined and harshly-policed differences in taste or politics, sexual jealousy — it feels so petty and trivial and little when compared to the fact that suddenly seems kind of majestic, which is simply that you’ve both made it across this particular sea of time with memory intact.
I think just about everyone who gets to be old learns this eventually. (And at that, maybe it’s another case of Bruce Sterling’s dictum that whatever happens to musicians first sooner or later happens to everyone.) We all undergo this brutal process of attrition, and even early on it becomes clear that in time this process is bound to strip away from us every last external referent or confirmation that the world was indeed what we understood it to be. You come to appreciate that sanity and community may be different words for the same thing. So on this twenty-fifth World AIDS Day, for anyone who may be reading these words with whom I ever shared a moment in space and time, I think it’s worth saying explicitly:
Anyone that’s still alive: I’m down, I’m here. Hello.
Politics, in effect, must be recreated again if we are to reclaim any degree of personal and collective sovereignty over our destiny. The nuclear unit of this politics is not the impersonal bureaucrat, the professional politician, the party functionary, or even the urban resident in all the splendor of his or her civic anonymity. It is the citizen — a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality and, above all, civic commitment. The elusive citizen who surfaced historically in the assemblies of Greece, in the communes of medieval Europe, in the town meetings of New England, and in the revolutionary sections of Paris must be brought to the foreground of political theory. For without his or her presence and without a clear understanding of his or her genesis, development, and potentialities, any discussion of the city is likely to become anemically institutional and formal.
– Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, 1987.