It may well be impossible to write about the major thrusts of contemporary urbanization without nurturing and giving vent to a certain ice-cold rage, like that which suffuses Aaron Timms’ clear-eyed, expert evisceration of the New Manhattan and its soulless creep toward total irrelevance.
Never forget, though, that there is a counterpoint. That counterpoint is, is always, Harvey’s.
As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.
May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.
What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.
As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.
But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?
What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.
What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.
But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.
What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?
Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.
Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.
Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.
But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.
Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.
What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.
You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.
It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.
What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.
I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.
There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.
The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.
Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.
Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?
Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.
Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”
Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.
I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.
How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.
How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.
What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.
We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.
What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.
Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.
If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?
As my awesome yoga instructor Kamellia explained in class this week, this past Wednesday into Thursday was Samhain (pronounced “sauin,” more or less), the annual Gaelic festival marking the onset of the season of darkness.
I’m not sure if such an observance can ever fully resonate for anyone who doesn’t live close to the land and its rhythms, but city kid that I am, I sure did feel the turn this year — feel it, and rush forward into its embrace. In fact I’m finding nothing nearly so comfortable lately as darkness, its sensory equivalents silence and stillness, and above all solitude. I’m not unaware that being able to access these qualities at will pretty much defines privilege, of course. But long walks alone in the gloaming feel like a powerful specific for the dis-ease of life in 2018, something blessedly orthogonal to all the fear, hatred and endemic bullshit of our days.
This has been true for me, anyway; as ever, your mileage may vary. However the darkness happens to find you this year, may you know the deep still peace at its heart, and in that peace take the strength to return to the world renewed.
I’m not sure if it’s entirely discernible from the things I’ve written here, but my political sentiments these past few years have taken a reasonably sharp turn toward the position known as degrowth: the acceptance that, in Edward Abbey’s words, economic “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell”; the belief that collective prosperity and wellbeing are possible in the absence of such growth, indeed orthogonal to it; and the commitment to a way of life where value has ever less to do with the production and consumption of market goods.
These are things I believe and try to live by, not without some struggle, and I’m going to be writing more about that struggle in short order, both here and elsewhere. But before I do any of that, I want to acknowledge the staggering magnitude of the challenge involved in degrowing the economy wisely, responsibly and with care and solidarity for all, given our present sociotechnical circumstances. And I’m going to do so in the first instance by invoking a concrete practical example: the handle I recently bought for my Brompton bicycle.
As a convivial tool, I have to imagine the Brompton is all but unrivaled.* Both mechanically self-explanatory and human-scaled, it is par excellence a machine for urban mobility. Like all bicycles, of course, I can use it to get around town. But unlike most bicycles, I can collapse it in a few quick folds, so I can take it with me on the bus, or wheel it into a cafe or bar rather than locking it up outside exposed to the weather and the risk of theft. As a manufactured object and a way of moving through a real city both, it has self-evidently been cannily, cleverly and thoughtfully designed.
Every good designer, though, knows that bringing anything complex into being necessarily involves tradeoffs and compromises. And one of the tradeoffs most noticeable in the design of the Brompton is that the very moves necessary to make it fold elegantly produce a rather unwieldy package in its collapsed configuration. That the Brompton specifically is considerably more wieldy than competing folding bikes is surely one of the primary reasons for its success: it’s been devised in such a way as to let it function as sort of a trolley when folded, with all the greasy mechanicals safely tucked away on the inside. You can haul it around supermarket aisles and the like on the almost-vestigial little wheels mounted to the fender and the frame for just this purpose. But none of that means it’s particularly light or pleasant to carry in this mode…and that really tells when you’re doing something like rushing across a crowded concourse to catch the last train home.
Enter the Fahrer carrying handle. By fusing together some carefully-trimmed nylon webbing, a strip of Velcro and an off-the-shelf, commodity plastic grip, this clever little aftermarket accessory allows the rider to lift the folded Brompton from something much closer to its center of gravity. It’s a godsend for the harried urban cyclist, and a middle finger for all the chiropractors and physiotherapists one imagines cleaning up on yoiking Brompton-sore spines and shoulders back into shape.
But it’s also, dig, the fruit of an unprecedented ramification and refinement in the global product-innovation ecosystem. Combine the extraordinary democratization of digital design tools and rapid-prototyping capability; low-cost, generally Pearl River Delta-based fabrication, as well as the well-lubricated global logistics network and Chinese state policies that allow these factories to price and move goods as though they were made next door; and not least a designer’s ability to raise capital through crowdsourcing platforms, market through viral social media, and bring the things they make to market at scale via platforms like Amazon, and you wind up with two things: a dizzying cornucopia of mostly wonderful new things in the world, most of which are necessarily shortly bound for the landfill, and (/therefore) a near-insuperable challenge to the idea of putting brakes on the use of Earthly resources to make things for sale.
Maybe the Fahrer handle itself didn’t come about in exactly this way, but it might as well have. For all intents and purposes, these days just about any one of the few hundred million people sufficiently privileged to make use of that ecosystem can perceive a need not currently being addressed by the market and mount a response — generally, a response framed in terms of that market, and thereby extending its dominion. What previous generations might have thought of as garage or garden-shed tinkerers willy-nilly become capitalists now, entrepreneurs, self-conscious “innovators.” By the same token, though, an ever-greater amount of material-energetic investment is invoked to produce things of ever-lower marginal utility, as just about any passing want results in a manufactured solution, and each manufactured product catalyzes its own downstream explosion of model-specific bolt-ons, clip-ons, accessories and enhancements — many of them in fact originally user-produced, in the way I’ve described here.
This isn’t to harsh on the handle in and of itself. It’s hard to put in words, in fact, just how much I appreciate it, and with a negligible amount of maintenance it’ll last as long as the bike it’s mounted to will. It’s equally hard to imagine anyone wanting to return to a world in which only a very few, relatively centralized and hierarchical organizations had the power to determine what got made and what did not, least of all me. But if the sunk material-energetic investment in my handle can at least be plausibly defended, the same can’t necessarily be said about dozens of other things I have strewn around the house, or tens of thousands of things on sale in the neighborhood shopping center on Kingsland Road, or a hundred million things for sale on Amazon and Alibaba. Here indeed is an empire of things, the ecosystem responsible for their existence functioning de facto as a massively distributed, more or less entirely unfunded R&D lab for the major manufacturers, as well as a massive generator of signals relating to desire and agency in its fulfillment.
Every single last aspect of this situation is fascinating to me, worth unpacking at some length, and when I hoist my bike by its new handle it is all quite literally present at hand for me. In its own curious way, this handle stands as an object lesson as to why we desperately need to degrow “the economy,” and, at the very same time — at least for anyone possessed of intellectual integrity — a very good argument for the precisely opposite position. Whenever I wrap my hand around it, it makes me acutely aware of the tremendous and growing tension between the gorgeous, entirely laudable desire to ensure that the highest possible number of human beings are able to express themselves materially and the way we presently arrange to attend to that desire. More: it makes me painfully conscious that we have yet to realize anything like the full cost of that arrangement.
*I fully acknowledge that the Brompton both suffers in this regard from, and would most likely be impossible as a commercial proposition without, its reliance on proprietary, noncommodity, non-industry standard components. A fully convivial folding bicycle — designed as thoughtfully as the Brompton, but engineered from the wheels up to use components even the least well-equipped bikeshop will have in stock or which are otherwise user-serviceable — is certainly something worth thinking about.
As I seem to have acquired, in some quarters anyway, a reputation as an uncompromising and intractable Luddite where matters of networked technology in everyday domestic life are concerned, I thought I’d share with you today some minor evidence that I’m not unalterably opposed to each and every such appearance. I give you…the Ember.
This is precisely the kind of networked device I might have written off as a near-meaningless frippery a few years ago. It’s a nicely-designed ceramic mug with a rechargeable heating element built into its base, allowing you to set the temperature at which you prefer to drink your coffee or tea.
All it is, really, is a thermostat — but a thermostat in a surprising, and surprisingly welcome, place. There isn’t any computation to speak of going on. The networked aspect is nicely circumspect, and it’s mainly there to let a smartphone app serve as the user interface, keeping the mug itself appropriately stripped down. You pair it with a phone once, on first setup, and that’s it. Everything else is done through the app, and you don’t even need to interact with that too much once you’ve got your preferences dialed in.
I should say that Ember is not perfect, either as a product or as a piece of interaction design. The embedded, multicolor LED fails to communicate much of anything useful, despite its multiple, annoyingly blinky and colorful states; all I really need to know from it is when the mug needs to be recharged. That need arises far too often, at least when it’s set to maintain the temperatures at which I prefer to drink coffee. And inevitably, I have concerns about the nonexistence of any meaningful security measures, a nonexistence that in fairness is endemic to all consumer IoT devices, but remains inexcusable for any of them.
But Ember gets some things right, and when it does, they tend to be very right. By far the most important of these is that it works as a mug, prior to the question of any networked or interactive functionality. The vessel has a good heft to it, and when you set it down on a solid surface, the feeling of a damped but substantial mass that’s transmitted through the rubberized rings at its base is just very, very satisfying. The ceramic surface has a pleasingly velvety texture — so much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if it’s one of those miracle materials that will turn out to have been threshold-carcinogenic twenty or thirty years down the line. It’s gratifyingly easy to clean.
And as far as that additional functionality is concerned, the mug does what it says it will, does it well…and it’s a hoot. It turns out that there’s a real Weiserian frisson to be had from something that violates all the subtle, subconscious expectations you’ve built up over a lifetime of drinking hot beverages from ceramic mugs. The confoundment of assumptions is so deep, indeed, that it takes you awhile to catch up with the new reality — to realize that you can go answer the doorbell or otherwise be distracted for five or ten minutes, and still come back to a piping hot beverage. In fact, Ember stands the principle of evaporative cooling on its head: because the heating element is still set to maintain a larger volume of liquid at a given temperature, but most of that volume will have been drunk away by the time you get to them, your last few swallows are noticeably, delightfully hotter than any you’ve had since first filling the mug.
To be clear, the Ember mug is not something anyone needs, especially at this price point. But I admire its clarity of purpose, in leveraging a modest deployment of technology to furnish its user with a small but nevertheless genuine everyday pleasure. And without wanting to be pompous about matters, I happen to believe there’s a crucial role for small but genuine pleasures in difficult times like the ones we happen to be living through. You may find yourself surprised by the degree to which a sip of hot coffee lands when you sip it forty or forty-five minutes after brewing — at least, I surely was, and am — and how psychoemotionally sustaining it can be when it does. Most of that is probably the coffee itself, doing what it is that coffee does, but better by far a networked product that is modest and humble in its aims, and succeeds in meeting them, than one which promises everything and does none of it particularly well.