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“Against the smart city”: Impact metric

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

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

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

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

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

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

The extended Acknowledgments

With Radical Technologies finally out and — to my amazement and deep satisfaction — receiving the most extraordinarily generous notices, I think it’s a good moment to pause, take a breath, and take stock of how it is that I’ve rolled up on these shores.

In the course of a life, if you’re very lucky, you run into people who through their words and deeds launch you on a completely new and better trajectory than the one you arrived on. There’s actually quite a bit more than luck involved, of course; one of my favorite definitions of “privilege” glosses it as a state in which your personal networks tend to help you achieve your ambitions, rather than suppressing or undermining them. But there’s unquestionably room in all of this for the operations of chance.

Looking back now, I can see a few clear and obvious inflection points in the journey that resulted in me being able to write and publish Radical Technologies, and without exception they were moments at which a specific individual human being intervened in my life in a conscious attempt to change my fortunes for the better. And what strikes me with particular force is how contingent all of these encounters were. They so easily could have gone another way — any other way. And had that been the case, it is overwhelmingly likely that my life as I know it wouldn’t exist.

What follows, then, is my (no doubt flawed and incomplete) attempt to name and thank these human beings for making the decisions they did. I want them, and you, to know that wonderful things happened in the aftermath of those choices.

Juliana Uruburu, Dwight Jackson, Dave Dunn, Tori Orr, Anne Galloway, Christina Wodtke, Jeffrey Zeldman, Andrew Otwell and Chris Heathcote: thank you for seeing what nobody else could, and for acting on what you thought you saw. You all have my profound and permanent gratitude. Adriana Young and Leo Hollis, of course, I’ve already thanked in the book itself. Maya Lin extended to me, at a critical moment, a gesture of big-sisterly kindness that she will have long ago forgotten, but which meant everything to me. And a few other people along the way, sadly no longer with us, who said or did things that changed the entire course of my existence. (Here I’m thinking primarily of Herbert Muschamp, who I miss all the time, and the great Red Burns at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who took a gamble on letting me teach there when there was no obvious reason to do so. May their memory be a blessing.)

A brief note on “commoning”

I got taken to task the other day regarding my preference for the jargony-seeming construction “commoning” over the more usual “commons.” (The specific wording: “You say you hate bullshit, but ‘commoning’ seems like just so much bafflegab to me.”)

This brilliant 2010 interview with key thinker/doers Massimo de Angelis and Stavros Stavrides ought to go some distance toward explaining that preference; it’s lost none of its luster with the intervening years, despite everything that’s happened in the world over that period.

In the effort to define a space for living that is neither market nor state, De Angelis and Stavrides make it clear that the act of seizing and occupying it is the easy part. All the glamor and all the grandeur attend that first nervy moment when wirecutters meet chainlink. But precisely who gets saddled with the obligation of continuously remaking that space? Who’s left with the physical work of maintenance, the emotional labor of negotiation? It’s a process, not a reified thing, and that in turn seems to demand the gerund form, with its implication that this is something unfolding in time: commoning.

Yeah? No? Works for me.

On counter-hegemony, or: “I got it! We’ll have them write hit songs.”

At the moment, I’m neck-deep in my Verso stablemates Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s still-newish book Inventing the Future; things remaining more or less stable schedulewise, I’ll most likely finish it later on today, or tomorrow at the latest.

It’s a strange book, Inventing. You may have caught some of the buzz around it, and that buzz exists for good reason. (It’s not just the superspiffy totebags Verso had ginned up for it, though I’m sure those do not hurt one whit.) At its heart a passionate argument against work and for an end to neoliberalism and its reality control — forged along the same rough lines as those Paul Mason and the Fully Automated Luxury Communism kids are currently touting — Inventing is a genuinely curious mixture of crystal-clear analysis, righteous provocation and infuriating naivety. If you’re even remotely interested in what emergent technologies like machine learning and digital fabrication might imply for our capacity for collective action, and especially if you think of yourself as belonging to the horizontalist left, you should by all means pick it up, read it for yourself and form your own judgments. (Here’s Ken Wark’s take on it; I endorse most of his thoughts, and have a great deal of my own to add, which I’ll do in the form of my own forthcoming book.)

Late in the book there’s a passage concerning the stance Srnicek and Williams feel the postcapitalist left needs to adopt toward the mainstream media: if the “counter-hegemonic” project they describe is to have any hope of success, they argue, “it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.”

Well. It must be said that this is not one of the book’s high points. In its latent suggestion that the only reason Thomas Piketty and Donna Haraway aren’t cohosting a lively, popular Sunday-morning gabfest on NBC right this very moment is because we, the progressive public, are somehow not trying hard enough, or have failed to sufficiently wrap our pointy heads around the awesome conditioning power of the mass media, in fact, it’s somewhere between irritating and ridiculous. (It’s hard for me to see how Srnicek and Williams’s argument here is substantively any different from that stroke of market-savvy inspiration the beloved but famously marginal Minutemen skewered on the cover of their second-to-last album. And now you know where the title of this post came from.)

Nevertheless, they’re onto something. Though that more-than-faintly patronizing tone never quite dissipates, S&W eventually find themselves on far firmer ground when they argue that “[l]eftist media organizations should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining, gleaning insights from the success of popular websites.” I was able to shake off the momentary harrowing vision I had of Leninist Buzzfeed, and press on through to what I take to be their deeper point: radical thought can actually resonate broadly when care is taken to craft the language in which that thought is expressed, and still more so when insular, self-congratulatory obscurity is avoided in the design of its containers. I endorse this notion wholeheartedly. This recent appreciation of Jacobin hits many of the same notes; whatever you think of Jacobin‘s politics, it’s hard to deny that its publishers consistently put together a sprightly, good-looking read. (I’d call it “the Monocle of the left,” but that would be to imply that Monocle‘s content is far more compelling than in fact it is.)

You might still argue that S&W ought to spend a little more time with McLuhan. My own feeling is that there’s more to distrust about the “mainstream media” than merely its overtly political content — that consuming information in the form of tweets, listicles, Safety Check notifications, screens overloaded with crawlers, and possibly even glowing rectangles themselves is hard to square with the kind of awareness I at least find it necessary to cultivate if I’m to understand anything at all about the way the systems in which I’m embedded work.

But ultimately, these are quibbles. I agree with S&W when they argue that overthrowing the weaponized “common sense” of the neoliberal era is an explicitly counter-hegemonic project; that developing a functioning counter-hegemony is something that requires longterm commitment; and that those with truly radical programs need to reconsider the relationship between “pop,” “popular” and “popularity” if that whole hearts-and-minds thing is ever going to work out for them. (I’m honor-bound to point out that Saul Alinsky said as much fifty years ago, but perhaps that too is a quibble.) So: no. I have no problem at all with presenting complex and potentially challenging ideas accessibly, so long as they can be rendered accessible without dumbing them down. If successful counter-hegemonic media looks a whole lot more like a Beyoncé video than some preciously anti-aesthetic art installation, so much the better. Bring on the hit songs.

Antecedents of the minimum viable utopia: Cliff Harper’s “Visions” series

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Clifford Harper, Vision 1: Collectivised Garden, in Radical Technology, 1976.

Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.

No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.

Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)

I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:

These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.

My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.

Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”

These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.

At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.

Making the place of democracy

Compare and contrast:

SHoP Architects, Dunescape, for the 2001 MoMA/P.S.1 courtyard competition.

SHoP Architects, Dunescape, 2001

Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, 2005 Serpentine Pavilion.

Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, Serpentine Pavilion, 2005

Zuloark Collective, el Campo de Cebada, Madrid, 2010.

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raumlabor Berlin, The Generator, 2010 (image by Flickr user raumforschung.)

raumlabor Berlin, The Generator, 2010, by Flickr user raumforschung

Two of these projects involve the deployment of digital design and production techniques to create platforms for small-group conviviality, nestled inside larger spaces generally associated with high culture and the flows of capital that support it. The other two involve the use of low-end, commodity material to create platforms for face-to-face deliberation and the practice of democracy (as well as conviviality), deployed in marginal, interstitial or outright occupied spaces.

The appearance of a parallel evolution in these admittedly cherry-picked examples may say more about my wishful thinking than anything else. But it seems to me that there’s clearly something going on here, in the convergence of sophisticated digital design, on-site fabrication and software for the near-real-time user configuration of space in what we might call lightweight placemaking. In all of these projects, we see an emphasis on rapid mountability and demountability, and the mobility and highly sensitive user control they afford. We see high technique brought to bear on utterly commodified, widely available, broadly affordable (even free) materials. And we see these things used to bring people together, both to enjoy one another’s company and to discuss such matters of concern as arise before them.

There’s an especially lovely symbolism to the use of such humble materials in making the place of democracy, and if the use of commodity lumber doesn’t involve quite the same material rhetoric as the use of marble in the ennobling public spaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well, neither is the public being invoked the same.

— SEE ALSO: Francis Cape’s We Sit Together, a history of the wooden bench in the American intentional-community tradition. Image courtesy Murray Guy Gallery.

Francis Cape's Utopian Benches at Murray Guy Gallery, NYC, 2013

Commoning systems, part II: On the ahistoricity of “social innovation”

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Bootstrap Company, Dalston.

Following on from the other day’s post about systems of commoning, it occurred to me that what I find most galling about the social innovation literature (as it exists at present, anyway) is its refusal to acknowledge that the tactics of survival it celebrates have both a provenance and a valence.

Maybe I’d better explain what it is that I mean by “social innovation”? A discourse of relatively recent standing, social innovation aims to fix the problems we see all around us arising out of what a Marxist might call the “internal contradictions” of late capitalism, problems like deskilling, food poverty, the isolation of the elderly or the persistence of the digital divide.

All of this is to say that while social innovation is an essentially reactive and ameliorative discourse, it definitely responds to something real in the world: the failure of the neoliberal State, in its retreat from the provision of public services, to prevent a significant percentage of the population from sliding into circumstances of immiseration and precarity. (Looked at from another direction, one could argue these concerns are driven instead by market failure, and the inability of private actors to develop offerings that serve the needs of poor and marginalized communities while delivering reasonable returns on investment.)

Whether the perceived failure is that of the State or the market, though, the shortfall of social provision is as serious as the proverbial heart attack. It’s left tens of millions of people in the developed world contending with overwhelming circumstances in daily life, circumstances that sap their energy, saddle them with anxiety and depression, and — surely of interest even to the most cold-blooded economist — threaten their ability to participate in the reproduction of labor power. We can list among the further consequences phenomena like the widely-noted epidemic of despair that is currently reversing a century-long trend of improving life expectancy in the United States.

Emerging in direct response to this situation, the community that’s gathered itself under the banner of social innovation aims to generate a stream of new ideas to help us deal with the collective challenges of contemporary life. These ideas have a few elements in common:

— They are rooted in civil society, which is to say that they are neither private, for-profit enterprises nor a matter of public provision;
– Canonically, they are local, “bottom-up,” grassroots and voluntarist;
– They are oriented toward force multiplication, toward the accomplishment of enhanced levels of social provision from reduced inputs of investment or other sorts of capital from public or private sources. (The Wikipedia entry, typically, glosses this as “doing more with less,” without ever explaining why there is more to be done in an apparent age of mass plenty, or why there should happen to be fewer resources available for such tasks than there used to be.)

As it happens, there’s a reasonably well-developed institutional infrastructure dedicated to propagating the discourse of social innovation. There are conferences, government and parastatal initiatives, tranches of available funding both public and private, downloadable resources galore, and inevitably media outlets dedicated to extolling its virtues. Learned societies take it up as a subject for discussion. There’s even an annual award to be won!

My beef with all of this activity is fourfold:
– That both the innovations it presents and the context within which those innovations arise are routinely depoliticized, as if interventions in the material and psychic economy of everyday life could possibly be any such thing;
– That initiatives are routinely presented as tactical, piecemeal and disconnected, in a way that tends to deny the efficacy or value of any purposive collective action at scale;
– That such tactical and piecemeal efforts are inherently vulnerable to capture and recuperation by the market;
– And that the entire body of thought is badly, culpably ahistorical.

“That’s when I reach for my revolver.”

Actually, the social innovation literature is ahistorical in (at least) two senses:

Firstly, but for a very few highly technologized exceptions, the ways of making, doing and being under discussion are not in fact novel in any way, are not actually “innovations” at all. Almost to a one, these methods and measures were developed over the course of history by communities under various kinds of social and economic pressure.

The reason this matters is because the success of such efforts as originally developed — the very thing that made housing cooperatives or shared-resource libraries or mutual lending societies work in their original contexts — had a great deal to do with the specifically political wellsprings of motivation. Whether by landless peasants, by queers and feminists, by freemen and former slaves, by impoverished immigrants, or by radicalized soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam, many if not most of the specific tactics celebrated in the social innovation tradition were originally developed by communities organizing for their own survival, under conditions that could best be described as “heavy manners.” In each case, the people participating had an acute sense of the institutional power arrayed against them, and equally, how survival in a hostile world would depend on their ability to form their own institutions. And that is something they simply couldn’t do without being able to name the sources, causes and means of their oppression.

Of course none of this ever makes it into the dozens to hundreds of chirpy, boosterish blog posts that are literally generated daily by the organs responsible for promulgating the discourse of social innovation. In each instance, we see an idea for collective living severed from its politically radical roots, and presented as if it’s just another in a series of essentially fungible plug-and-play accessories buyers of the fluky Late Capitalist platform can choose to upgrade their system with; in some cases, neither the blogger nor the community activist whose effort is being celebrated is aware that the central insight on which their project is founded even has a pedigree. It would be melodramatic and inaccurate to say that this history is being suppressed, exactly, but neither is it being recovered and told. In effect, it’s like an operating manual exists for our shiny new appliance, but we’ve thrown it out with the packaging…and now we wonder why the thing doesn’t work the way we were told it was supposed to.

The second mode in which ahistoricity hobbles a meaningful consideration of these projects is the failure of social innovation media (and parallel institutions) to track the fortunes of the efforts they celebrate as they unfold over time. However formally independent they may be from one another, it’s evident that many of the organizations involved understand their fundamental mission to be promotion of the field as a whole, and not the development of critique — not even the kind of detailed, concrete, constructive critique necessary to any field of human endeavor serious about its own iterative improvement. As a result, blogs serving the field almost never publish pieces that check back in with the initiatives they hyped in 2012 or 2014 to see how they were faring.

The discourse does get one thing very right indeed, and it’s hugely important. This is the understanding that there’s an incredible amount of human talent and energy lying fallow in our communities, and that surviving the dark times we’re confronted by with dignity and verve will have a great deal to do with our ability to tap into it together. Simply recognizing this is a big step forward. What if, like me, you want the kind of collective tools that are generally celebrated in the social innovation discourse to be more broadly available, and to work effectively on behalf of the people they’re supposed to serve? What can we do to increase the chances of any such thing happening?

— We can recognize that broadly speaking, wherever they display the character of self-determination and mutual aid, these activities properly belong to the history of the libertarian Left — to the currents of anarchosocialism, anarchosyndicalism and autonomism, specifically — and will need to be reclaimed as such to work properly in the long run.

– We can understand that these currents (as well as parallel movements like that toward participatory economics) propose to us infrastructures that are capable of uniting, upholding, securing and extending the potentially fragile efforts of individuals and local communities, and that we can avail ourselves of that power at any time.

– As participants, we can deepen our acquaintance with the history of thought about what makes collective action work over time. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is the outstanding example; somewhat less empirically and more philosophically, you might also find John Searle’s “Collective Intentionality and Actions” useful. (On this point I want to emphasize that many, many of the people I’ve met through their work in this space are, as individuals, profoundly aware of the relevant local and global history, and deeply conversant with the theoretical literature around collective action; indeed, they’ve taught me most of what I know. But it matters that the discourse isn’t any of these things.)

– Finally, we can demand a dual accountability of social innovation as a body of thought — of the individual efforts grouped under this rubric, and as well, of the media outlets and other bodies that promote it. We can insist that the practices underlying social innovation projects be properly situated historically, and that both individual projects and the discourse itself be rigorously assessed as to whether or not they do what they claim to.

In the end, the most cluelessly apolitical social innovation project you can point me at is probably acceptable to me, if it means that even one more person finds in it shelter from the failure of the systems late capitalism proposes that they rely upon for their subsistence. It’s cold out there — or rather it’s been made to be cold, the warmth and comfort of others depend on it being cold — every last hearth at which someone can wander in off the street and find warmth is to be welcomed, and better still is the hearth they themselves are enabled to stoke and offer to others in need. I especially don’t want to mock any well-intentioned enthusiasm for this set of ideas. I do want to challenge people who are enthusiastic about social innovation to think about the currents in human thought that originally developed such notions, and the infrastructures and architectures of consistently reliable mutual aid those currents can give rise to if we but ask it of them.

I’m indebted to Greta Byrum and Tom Igoe for prodding me to clarify my thoughts on this matter.

Commoning systems: Organize, don’t jargonize

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Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, 2011. Photo by Marco Clausen.

This is a lovely article about what an actual sharing economy might look like. It’s suffused with hope and energy and good practical ideas, and that I can see there are three huge gaping problems with its premise:

– First, if the service ecosystem described in the article is in any meaningful way a “glimpse of the future,” the future glimpsed can only be the future of Berlin. There’s a well-developed, sustained, long-term local culture in Berlin, with ethics and values that support such activities; grown out of various anarchist, feminist, squatter and immigrant-rights struggles, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe that culture as one of resistance to the late-capitalist status quo.

So if you want this sort of sharing to thrive in your city, you’ll have to develop — or better yet, rediscover and reinforce — the values and the political culture that underwrite it. (Even in Berlin, initiatives like Prinzessinnengarten struggle to surmount the barriers thrown up by developers and well-intentioned but clueless bureaucrats. It should also be pointed out that while I personally think Prinzessinnengarten is fantastic, it’s faced accusations that it’s merely the thin edge of the gentrifying wedge, and comes no closer to serving the needs of a vulnerable local population than do Smorgasburg or Boxpark in Shoreditch.)

– There is also the fact that in most developed-world places I am familiar with, people’s desire for consistency and reliability of service can be seen to trump concerns with sustainability and equity, pretty reliably. Three or more generations of life in a consumer economy have trained them — let me be frank: us! — to prefer packaged, managed, branded services to quirky informality.

So you can have all the free community fridges you want, but in all likelihood all you’re doing is performing R&D and market research for the bozo entrepreneur who’s eventually going to come along, break off whatever part of the service can be monetized, do just that…and probably displace the free community alternative. Actually, worse: they’ll displace the community fridges, all right, but their poorly thought-out, stupidly-named, under-resourced startup will fail after having shited up the entire “space,” practically and psychically, leaving everyone back at square one.

– There is a third and deeper challenge to the broader adoption of informal sharing services, which is that this is how poor people have always lived — both in the favelas and slums of the “developing world,” and in the deprived communities of our own cities. (They don’t call it “social innovation,” by the way; they just get on with it.) And I have doubts about the degree to which significant numbers of people raised in Western culture’s last full flush of middle-class prosperity will adopt ways and means of daily survival they’ve been taught to associate with poverty, until and unless they have no choice in the matter.

One response to this challenge is indeed to package collective services, to brand them brightly and make them trendy, so people can harvest the specific frisson of social distinction we associate with luxury consumption from performing their virtue in public. (This strategy strikes me as being analogous to Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian Design project, the aim of which was to encourage the design of products that would allow people to consume their way to ecotopia.) And perhaps there’s some canniness to this insight: we all know that there’s a socially performative aspect to consumption, so why not harness it?

But while that social performativity does cut both ways, under the present dispensation it cannot help but do so in ways that work disproportionately to favor the time-honored modes of conspicuous consumption. While you can be sure there’s someone dying for you to notice that they’re restocking the Little Free Library on the corner, we can be sure that there are ten or even a hundred times as many seeking more conventional reinforcement — preening in the window at Drybar, perhaps, or making sure you see them climbing into an Uber.

And worse still, to build a service ecosystem on such foundations is to endorse the mayfly logic of the fashion cycle: that which is trendy this season is by definition a dead letter next year. By contrast, to function effectively in support of a community over the long term, participation in the commons has to be something more than a fad or momentary fashion. It has to be able to rely upon institutions, practices and arrangements that stabilize it and make it tenable as an approach to living. If those institutions, practices and arrangements are ones broadly associated with life under conditions of deprivation, the ingrained psychological resistance to adopting them may be the hardest of all these barriers to overcome.

The bottom line is that the practical insights that are necessary to render any such thing as a “sharing economy” workable at all get lost when this idea is depoliticized, as it all but invariably is in the “social innovation” literature and the popular press. If those of us who do not happen to live in a place like Berlin truly want to live this way, we’ll have to learn (or relearn) the preferences, habits, patterns of association and daily life that make peer-based commoning systems a realistic alternative to late-capitalist service provision. We’ll have to deal intimately and honestly with people outside the “innovation” subculture — not so much an issue for some of us, naturally, but evidently a major problem for others, including if we are honest some of those talking loudest about participation and the commons. We’ll have to develop (or redevelop) a vibrant, active, living culture of commoning, not because it’s convenient or trendy but because it responds to our values. We’ll have to organize the communities we live and work in. We’ll have to do so even if, for some of us, it means admitting that we are choosing to live in ways that have always been adopted by people facing hard times, at whatever cost to the self-image as a dynamic, successful, self-reliant competitor in the late-capitalist marketplace we’ve cherished and have worked so hard to uphold. And these investments of effort and energy are fundamentally a matter of the politics we choose to live.

Medialab Katowice interview

The following is a short but rather chewy interview with me, conducted by Karol Piekarski for Medialab Katowice. I hope you enjoy it.

KP: It seems you’ve become quite pessimistic about the prospects of the public in the networked society (your weekly Dispatch, number 27), pointing out to the fact that for some reason we are not so willing to use creatively available data processing technologies. What if we look at this problem from a broader perspective? It took hundreds years for the basic literacy (writing and reading) to spread around the society. Although we may feel that invention of the World Wide Web was ages ago, in fact it’s just a beginning of the “new medium.” Maybe we “simply” need time to learn how to use, as a society, digital technologies?

AG: Well, I think we need to consider how rapidly we as consumers and users of technical systems can develop the critical literacy you’re talking about, versus the headway that those who are not concerned with such matters can make in the meantime.

I don’t even mean necessarily that the designers of emerging interactive products and services are consciously acting out of any set of values I might disagree with. I simply mean that portable, modular code can be recombined by some third party into really pernicious systems, readily and rapidly, either out of ignorance or what I would regard as malicious intent. By the time we figure out how to use these systems wisely, or come to a collective determination that we reject their use, the damage will have been done.

And even that’s assuming that we are more or less static, as subjects and users. The truth is that we are acted on by these technologies, as individuals and as societies both.

So the relative power of a particular kind of personality type or learning style may come into the ascendance, and reinforce the conditions of its own vitality, while making it very difficult for anyone else to even sustain themselves. For example, introverts have never had it easy, but now, in our world of continuous mandatory self-performance, they run the risk of being more marginalized and overlooked than ever. We know that success under the new dispensation requires more than the occasional schmoozing that might have seen you through in the past. It requires not merely that you make yourself continuously available, not merely that you have the energy — the psychic and the financial wherewithal — to socialize and network, but that you are seen to socialize and network and to be the kind of person who enjoys doing so. And that’s in large part a consequence of the way we’ve chosen to integrate always-on social networking technologies into our everyday lives.

Consider that I recently read an admiring description of “what a great 21st century mathematician looks like”: someone who is “part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.” And, you know, that’s great. But let’s be clear that success in such a world selects for a certain kind of highly social, highly outgoing personality type.

You could argue, with some justice, that the world has always selected for some personality types over others — that there’s nothing fundamentally new here, it’s just that the place where our culture has decided the grandeur ought to live is shifting. But I’ve always thought that the point of our work was to imagine futures that were more just and equitable, not merely a new and different unequal distribution of power.

KP: Smart cities vs. smart citizens, government or corporation vs. people – we still tend to build these clear oppositions. Do you think that juxtaposing “centralized” against “distributed” can really help explain the mechanisms of power in the networked society? Or maybe we need a bit more sophisticated approach to understand what is actually going on (thinking here about the “society of control” or the work of Alexander Galloway)?

AG: It strikes me that there are a few different concerns bundled up in this question, and that we might benefit from unpacking them and considering them separately.

First, there’s the question of what we mean when we refer to something as a network. The dominant political tenor of the early mass Internet was a kind of structural determinism we associate with folks like John Perry Barlow. The idea was that the network principle of structuration itself, as supposedly immanent in the distributed topology of the World Wide Web, wasn’t merely inherently morally superior to organizational schemes based on hierarchy and coercion, but was practically superior, too. It would therefore “naturally” underwrite a spontaneous mass restructuring of society along horizontal or rhizomatic lines.

We know now, of course, that that didn’t happen, and it’s reasonable to ask why that is. Alex’s great contribution, in Protocol, was to remind us that the Internet as we know it has never been anything but a monstrous hybrid. Its functioning depends on the interaction of two very different ways of organizing the transmission and reception of information: a highly centralized and hierarchical addressing scheme called the Domain Name System, and a radically distributed messaging protocol we call TCP/IP. Only one of these “routes around failure” in the rhizomatic way so beloved of the early net theorists, while the other remains radically vulnerable to (say) State efforts to interdict the free flow of information. So, far from spontaneously giving rise to some antiauthoritarian, horizontalist utopia, while it’s fair to say that the Internet does tend to destabilize certain existing power relations, just as often it reproduces the selfsame dynamics of power that existed beforehand.

And that leads to our closely-related second question, which is how we should consider the relationship between structure and agency. The fundamental mistake that network determinists very often make is to treat people like Internet switches, or the consensing bees Thomas Seeley depicts so beautifully in his book Honeybee Democracy. They assume that, given a certain topology of organization and the logics of informational flow that attend it, certain macro-scale political outcomes will necessarily follow.

I think there is a broadly observable trend toward networked structures showing up in places we might not historically have expected them to — in the large-scale capitalist commercial enterprise, for example. But just because an organization’s practical, day-to-day decision-making is nominally organized horizontally doesn’t mean the workers who use it on the job carry that logic into the other spheres of their life. And it certainly doesn’t mean that those workers can’t be fired just like people who work for more consciously and avowedly hierarchical organizations. Ask all the liberated, Holocratic non-managers Tony Hsieh just let go from Zappos where they think power lies.

So we’re forced to conclude one of two things: either the apparent structure of power in organizations like this isn’t the actual structure of power — which is certainly possible — or people have much more latitude to bend nominally flat network topologies toward all the usual, all-too-human ends of power than the determinists would have us believe. You can’t have it both ways.

Finally, there’s the question of how we model the relationship between openness and power. We know by now that it’s a terrible error to assume that there’s a necessary connection between radical openness and a liberatory or emancipatory politics. If anything, you could be forgiven for concluding just the opposite: that there’s been a fair amount of what Marcuse would call repressive desublimation, Gamergate being the preeminent case in point.

In fact, we have to ask if openness and mobility and the apparent freedom to act aren’t qualities that can easily be leveraged by parties acting in ways that are contrary to our own understanding of our interests. This is what I take Deleuze to be arguing in the “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” and it’s at the heart of governmentality theory.

So if neither distributed organizational topologies nor horizontal decision-making nor radical transparency and openness necessarily buy you equity and justice, it’s appropriate to ask: what would? And the only answer I have is that you have to fight directly for equity and for justice. You have to believe in and want those things first, and the tools that support them will follow, will be discovered or invented. But you can’t first build the tool and suppose that progressive values and organizing logics will flow outward from it — certainly not in any straightforward or uncomplicated way.

I should point out that this is something I’ve had to learn the hard way my ownself.

KP: Living in a globalised world, we tend to universalise the discourse around digital technologies, especially their relationship to society. It’s visible in your work that you try to put more attention to those less privileged in order to figure out whether any of our networked/digital solutions could actually make their life better. Poland is an interesting example: behind the western world, but way ahead the most economically deprived countries. You’ve spent some time in Poland recently, if you were to advise Polish government, universities or companies, what you would suggest to spend the money on in terms of innovation and development?

AG: I guess I would start by asking what ends and goals you’re trying to work toward. You know I completely reject the point of view that says Poland or anyone else necessarily needs to do what everyone else is doing, needs to accept anyone else’s definitions of “advanced” or “innovative” or “highly developed.”

It’s a phrase which has sadly taken on a fairly bourgeois coloration, but I still think there’s something to be said for “quality of life.” And I don’t think there’s any inherent correlation — and I should be very clear: neither a direct nor an inverse correlation — between economic development in the abstract and quality of life. Tokyo is certainly one of the safest, most “advanced,” most efficient and highly-developed cities on the planet, but the regnant xenophobia and gender politics you find there make it a place I can’t imagine wanting to return to, except as a visitor. The “quality of life” there mostly resolves to a continually refined, absolutely state-of-the-art consumerism. By contrast, most everyone can think of places that are maybe a little run-down, maybe even a little sketchy at times, but where more of your time is your own, you aren’t quite as hemmed in by the pressures of conforming to some model of appearance and self-presentation, and in general life is more spacious. So the first part of my advice to Poles would be to weigh with the most exceeding care what already works about the way you live, and not be in any particular hurry to overwrite it with modes of being someone living a million miles away who’s never once set foot in your culture assures you is the new hotness.

The flipside of this, of course, is not clinging to things that clearly aren’t working, just because they’re the ways in which things have always been done. Racism, sexism and homophobia — like ageism and ableism and hierarchical orderings in general — sure are traditional, just about everywhere. But that doesn’t for one hot second mean I think they’re worth respecting and holding onto. And this goes for organizational and technical matters as well. The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep your eye firmly fixed on what kind of frame for living you’re trying to bring into being, and absolutely refuse to let yourself get distracted, whether by notional hipness and the fetishism of emergent technology, or by appeals to stability and tradition for their own sake.

Bartlettizing, 25 November

Hey hey — just a very quick heads-up that I’ll be giving a talk at the Bartlett School of Architecture here in London on the 25th of November, in which I plan to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Mishima Yukio’s ritual suicide share my latest thinking around the idea of “commoning systems.”

Come along for the ride, and who knows, by the end of the night I might even have some other Bartlett-related news to share with you. Things ought to kick off right around 18.30, and I think we’re planning on going out for drinks after — stay tuned for the exact location and registration details. Hope to see you there!