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.
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.
Compare and contrast:
– SHoP Architects, Dunescape, for the 2001 MoMA/P.S.1 courtyard competition.
— Zuloark Collective, el Campo de Cebada, Madrid, 2010.
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.
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.
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.
We can think of the propositions the so-called “smart city” is built on as belonging to three orders of visibility. The first is populated by exotica like adaptive sunshades, fully-automated supply and removal chains, and personal rapid transit (“podcar”) systems. These systems feature prominently in the smart city’s advertising, promotional renderings and sales presentations. They may or may not ever come into being — complex and expensive, they very often wind up value-engineered out of the final execution, or at least notionally deferred to some later phase of development — but by announcing that the urban plan in question is decidedly oriented toward futurity, they serve a valuable marketing and public-relations function. Whether or not they ever amount to anything other than what the technology industry calls “vaporware,” they are certainly highly visible, and can therefore readily be held up to consideration.
A second order consists of the behind-the-scenes working of algorithmic systems, the black-box churn of “big data” analytics that, at least in principle, affords metropolitan administrators with the predictive policing, anticipatory traffic control and other services on which the smart-city value proposition is premised. These systems are hard to see because their operations are inherently opaque. While the events concerned are inarguably physical and material, they are far removed from the phenomenological scale of human reckoning. They unfold in the transduction of electrical potential across the circuitry of databases and servers, racked in farms which may be hundreds or even thousands of miles from the city whose activities they regulate. Such systems are, therefore, generally discernible only in their outputs: in the differential posture or disposition of resources, or the perturbations that result when these patterns are folded back against the plane of experience. At best, the dynamics involved may show up in data visualizations bundled into a “city dashboard” – access to which itself may or may not be offered to the populace at large – but they otherwise tend to abscond from immediate awareness.
The third order, however, may be the hardest of all to consider analytically, and this is because it is predominantly comprised of artifacts and services that are already well-assimilated elements of everyday urban life. Being so well woven into the fabric of urban experience, the things that belong to this category, like other elements of the quotidian, fade beneath the threshold of ordinary perception; we only rarely disinter them and subject them to critical evaluation. In this category we can certainly place the smartphone itself: a communication device, intimate sensor platform and aperture onto the global network of barely half a decade’s vintage, that has nonetheless utterly reshaped the tenor and character of metropolitan experience for those who wield one. Here as well we can situate big-city bikesharing schemes — each of which is, despite a certain optical dowdiness, a triumphant assemblage of RFID, GPS, wireless connectivity and other networked information-processing technologies. And here we find the network-mediated mobility-on-demand services that have already done so much to transform what it feels like to move through urban space, at least for a privileged few.
Inordinately prominent among this set of mobility brokers, of course, is the San Francisco-based Uber. So hegemonic is the company that its name has already entered the language as a shorthand for startups and apps dedicated to the smartphone-mediated, on-demand provision of services: we hear the Instacart offering referred to as “an Uber for groceries,” Evolux as “an Uber for helicopters,” Tinder as “an Uber for dating,” and so on. If we are to understand personal mobility in the networked city — how it works, who has access to it, which standing patterns it reinforces and which it actually does disrupt — it might be worth hauling Uber up into the light and considering its culture and operations with particular care.
It may seem perverse to describe something as “difficult to see” when it is so insistently, inescapably visible. To be sure, though, Uber’s sudden prominence is not merely due to the esteem in which its users hold it; the company has a propensity for becoming embroiled in controversy unrivaled by its peers, or indeed by just about any commercial enterprise, regardless of scale or sector. To list just some of the most widely reported incidents it has been involved in during the past half-year:
- Concerned that the non-regulation of Uber’s drivers, vehicles and fare- assessment systems resulted in an unfair competitive advantage on its part, taxi drivers in Berlin, London, Madrid and Paris called a one-day strike in June 2014 (in the wake of which the company crowed that its week-over-week ridership in London had increased by 850%);
- Over the summer months of 2014, insurance providers broadly began to refuse coverage for (and, in some cases, claims against) drivers found to be working for Uber; the company had previously assured drivers that their own personal liability insurance — rather than the vastly more expensive commercial insurance livery services are ordinarily required to provide — would suffice to protect them and their riders;
- In September 2014, it was reported that the company had used ostensibly secure and private user data to populate a real-time visualization of ridership projected onto the wall at a party, for the entertainment of guests;
- In October 2014, a second wave of complaints emerged alleging that Uber had sabotaged mobility-on-demand competitors Lyft and Gett in certain strategic markets, by among other things disseminating untraceable “burner” phones used to book some 5,560 nonexistent rides;
- A persistent drumbeat of allegations of rape and assault lodged against Uber drivers worldwide culminated in decisions by (September) German national and (December) Delhi regional authorities to ban the service entirely;
- A flurry of dismay predictably greeted the company’s active (i.e. deliberate, conscious and human, not algorithmic) decision to institute surge pricing during the December 2014 Sydney hostage incident;
That any given mobility technology should become a flashpoint for so many controversies so widely dispersed over a single six-month period is remarkable. That all of them should involve a sole mobility provider may well be unprecedented. The truth is that we certainly do see Uber…but not for what it is. Its very prominence helps to mask what’s so salient about it.
What is Uber? Founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick — a UCLA dropout whose only previous business experience involved the peer-to-peer file exchange applications Scour Exchange and Red Swoosh — Uber is a company valued as of the end of 2014 at some $40 billion, currently operating in over 200 cities worldwide. Like others of its ilk, it allows customers to arrange point-to-point journeys as and when desired, via an application previously loaded on their Apple or Android smartphones. All billing is handled through the application, meaning that the rider needn’t worry about the psychological discomfort of negotiating fares at origin or tips at their destination. Its various offerings, which range from the “low-cost” uberX [sic] to the super-premium UberLUX, are positioned as being more convenient, and certainly more comfortable, than existing municipal taxi and livery (“black”) car services. Regardless of service level, the vehicles involved are owned and operated by drivers the company has gone to great lengths to characterize not as employees (with all that would imply for liability insurance, wages, and the provision of employee benefits) but as independent contractors.
Uber is classified under California law as a “network transportation company,” and while the dry legal taxonomy is technically accurate, it masks what is truly radical about the enterprise. Seen clearly, Uber is little more than a brand coupled to a spatialized resource-allocation algorithm, with a rudimentary reputation mechanic running on top. The company owns no fleet, employs relatively few staff directly, and — as we shall see — may not even maintain public offices in the commonly-understood sense of that term.
What distinguishes it from would-be competitors like Hailo and Lyft isn’t so much any particular aspect of its organization or technical functionality, but its stance. Uber comes with an overt ideology. (Even if you somehow remained unaware of CEO Kalanick’s libertarian politics, or his fondness for the work of Ayn Rand — both of which have been widely reported — the nature of that ideology might still readily be inferred from his company’s very name.) Despite a tagline positioning itself as “Everyone’s Private Driver,” Uber has never for a moment pretended to universality. Just the opposite: every aspect of the marketing and user experience announces that this a service consciously designed for the needs, tastes, preferences and status anxieties of a very specific market segment, the aspirant global elite.
Uber makes no apologies about its policy of adaptive surge pricing, in which fare multipliers of up to 8X are applied during periods of particularly heavy demand. But at an average fare of around twenty US dollars, a single Uber ride can still be justified by most members of its target audience as an “affordable luxury” — all the more so when enjoyed as an occasional rather than a daily habit. Availing oneself of this luxury, and being seen to do so, is self-evidently appealing to a wide swath of people living in densely built-up places around the world — necessarily including among their number a great many who would likely be appalled by Kalanick’s politics, were they ever unambiguously forced to consider them.
With Uber, Kalanick has made it clear that a service founded on a relatively high technological base of ubiquitous smartphones, sophisticated digital cartography and civilian GPS can be wildly successful when it is wrapped in the language not of technology itself, but of comfort and convenience. So enticing, indeed, is this combination that hundreds of thousands of users are willing to swallow not merely the technologically complex but the politically unsavory when sugarcoated in this way. While this will likely strike most observers as rather obvious, it is an insight that has thus far eluded other actors with a rhetorical or material stake in the development of a heavily technologized urbanity.
This state of affairs, however, is unlikely to last forever. Other interested parties will surely note Uber’s success, draw their own conclusions from it, and attempt to apply whatever lessons they derive to the marketing of their own products and services. If Uber is a confession that the “smart city” is a place we already live in, then, it is also a cautionary case study in the kinds of values we can expect such a city to uphold in its everyday operation — some merely strongly implicit, others right out there in the open. Just what are they?
– Those who can afford to pay more deserve to be treated better.
Uber’s proposition to its users collapses any distinction between having and deserving; quite simply, its message is that if you can afford to be treated better than others, you’re entitled to be treated better than others.
This is certainly one of the logics of resource allocation available to it in the late-capitalist marketplace; as Harvard’s Michael Sandel observes, in his 2012 What Money Can’t Buy, this particular logic is increasingly filtering into questions traditionally decided by different principles, such as the (at least superficially egalitarian) rule of first-come/first-served. And it is not, after all, very different from the extant market segmentation dividing public transit from taxi or livery-car service: money to spend has always bought the citydweller in motion a certain degree of privacy and flexibility in routing and schedule. What specifically distinguishes Uber from previous quasi-private mobility offerings, though, and takes it into a kind of libertarian hyperdrive, is its refusal to submit to regulation, carry appropriate insurance, provide for the workers on whom it depends, or in any way allow the broader public to share in a set of benefits distributed all but exclusively between the rider and the company. (Driver comments make it clear that it is possible to make decent money as an Uber driver, but only with the most exceptional hustle; the vigorish assessed is significant, and monthly payments on the luxury vehicles the company requires its drivers to own saddle them with an onerous, persistent burden.)
Uber’s “disruptive” business model forthrightly treats the costs of on-demand, point-to-point mobility as externalities to be borne by anonymous, deprecated others, and this is a strong part of what makes it so corrosive of the public trust. This becomes most acutely evident when Uber drivers are involved in fatal accidents during periods when they do not happen to be carrying passengers, as was the case when driver Syed Muzzafar struck and killed six-year-old Sofia Liu in San Francisco, on the last day of 2013. (Muzzafar’s Uber app was open and running at the time he hit Liu and her family, indicating that he was cruising for fares, but the company refuses to accept any liability for the accident.)
– That “better” amounts to a bland generic luxury.
Uber’s conception of user comfort pivots largely on predictability and familiarity. Rather than asking riders to contend with the particularities and idiosyncrasies of local mobility culture, or any of the various factors that distinguish a New York City taxi cab from one in London or Delhi or Beijing, the Uber fleet offers its users a mobile extension of international hospitality ￼nonplace: a single distributed site where globalized norms of blandly aspirational luxury are reinforced.
The suggestions Uber drivers leave for one another on online discussion sites are revealing in this regard. Those who wish to receive high ratings from their passengers are advised to ensure that their vehicles are well-equipped with amenities (mints, bottled water, WiFi connectivity), and remain silent unless spoken to. The all-but-explicit aim is to render the back of an Uber S-Class or 7 Series experientially continuous with the airport lounges, high-end hotels and showplace restaurants of the business-centric generic city hypostatized by Rem Koolhaas in his 1994 article of the same name.
– Interpersonal exchanges are more appropriately mediated by algorithms than by one’s own competence.
This conception of good experience is not the only thing suggesting that Uber, its ridership or both are somewhat afraid of actual, unfiltered urbanity. Among the most vexing challenges residents and other users of any large urban place ever confront is that of trust: absent familiarity, or the prospect of developing it over a pattern of repeated interactions, how are people placed (however temporarily) in a position of vulnerability expected to determine who is reliable?
Like other contemporary services, Uber outsources judgments of this type to a trust mechanic: at the conclusion of every trip, passengers are asked to explicitly rate their driver. These ratings are averaged into a score that is made visible to users in the application interface: “John (4.9 stars) will pick you up in 2 minutes.” The implicit belief is that reputation can be quantified and distilled to a single salient metric, and that this metric can be acted upon objectively.
Drivers are, essentially, graded on a curve: their rolling tally, aggregated over the previous 500 passenger engagements, must remain above average not in absolute terms, but against the competitive set. Drivers whose scores drop beneath this threshold may not receive ride requests, and it therefore functions as an effective disciplinary mechanism. Judging from conversations among drivers, further, the criteria on which this all-important performance metric is assessed are subjective and highly variable, meaning that the driver has no choice but to model what they believe riders are looking for in the proverbial “good driver,” internalize that model and adjust their behavior accordingly.
What riders are not told by Uber — though, in this age of ubiquitous peer-to- peer media, it is becoming evident to many that this has in fact been the case for some time — is that they too are rated by drivers, on a similar five-point scale. This rating, too, is not without consequence. Drivers have a certain degree of discretion in choosing to accept or deny ride requests, and to judge from publicly-accessible online conversations, many simply refuse to pick up riders with scores below a certain threshold, typically in the high 3’s. This is strongly reminiscent of the process that I have elsewhere called “differential permissioning,” in which physical access to everyday spaces and functions becomes ever-more widely apportioned on the basis of such computational scores, by direct analogy with the access control paradigm prevalent in the information security community. Such determinations are opaque to those affected, while those denied access are offered few or no effective means of recourse. For prospective Uber patrons, differential permissioning means that they can be blackballed, and never know why.
Uber certainly has this feature in comment with algorithmic reputation-scoring services like Klout. But all such measures stumble in their bizarre insistence that trust can be distilled to a unitary value. This belies the common-sense understanding that reputation is a contingent and relational thing — that actions a given audience may regard as markers of reliability are unlikely to read that way to all potential audiences. More broadly, it also means that Uber constructs the development of trust between driver and passenger as a circumstance in which algorithmic determinations should supplant rather than rely upon (let alone strengthen) our existing competences for situational awareness, negotiation and the detection of verbal and nonverbal social cues.
Interestingly, despite its deployment of mechanisms intended to assess driver and passenger reliability, the company goes to unusual lengths to prevent itself from being brought to accountability. Following the December 2014 Delhi rape incident, police investigators were stunned to realize that while Uber had been operating in India for some time, neither the .in website nor any other document they had access to listed a local office. They were forced to register for the app themselves (as well as download a third-party payment application) simply so they could hire an Uber car and have the driver bring them to the place where he believed his employers worked. Here we see William Gibson’s science-fictional characterization of 21st-century enterprise (“small, fast, ruthless. An atavism…all edge”) brought to pungent life.
– Private enterprise should be valorized over public service provision on principle, even when public alternatives would afford comparable levels of service.
Our dissection of Uber makes it clear that, in schematic, the company offers
nothing that a transit authority like Transport for London could not in principle furnish its riders. Consider that TfL already has everything it would need to offer not merely a comparable, but a better and more equitable, service: operational control over London’s fleet of black cabs, a legendarily skilled and knowledgeable driver cohort, the regulatory ability to determine tariffs, and a set of existing application programming interfaces giving it the necessary access to data. Indeed, coupling an on-demand service directly to its standing public transit capacity (at route termini, for example, or in neighborhoods of poor network coverage) would extend its reach considerably, and multiply the value of its existing assets. Even after accounting for operating costs Uber is unwilling to bear, the return to the public coffers could be substantial. [UPDATE 29 August 2015: Something very much like this now appears to be happening in New York City.]
Like other transit authorities of its scale, TfL certainly has the sophistication to perform such an analysis. But the neoliberal values on which Uber thrives, and the concomitant assumption that public transport is best provisioned on a privatized, for-profit basis, have become so deeply embedded into the discourse of urban governance just about everywhere that no such initiative is ever proposed or considered. The implication is that the smart city is a place where callow, “disruptive” services with poor long-term prospects for collective benefit are allowed to displace the public accommodations previous generations of citydwellers would have demanded as a matter of course and of right.
Quite simply, the city is smaller for people who have access to Uber. The advent of near-effortless, on-demand, point-to-point personal mobility has given them a tesseract with which the occasionally unwieldy envelope of urban space-time can be folded down to something more readily manageable. It’s trivially easy to understand the appeal of this — especially when the night is dark, the bus shelter is cold, the neighborhood is remote, and one is alone.
But as should be clear by now, this power to fold space and time comes at a terrible cost. The four values enumerated above make Uber a prime generator of the patterns of spatialized injustice Stephen Graham has called “software-sorted geographies,” although it does so in a way unencompassed by Graham’s original account. Its ordinary operation injects the urban terrain with a mobile and distributed layer of invidious privilege, a hypersite where practices and values deeply inimical to any meaningful conception of the common wealth are continuously reproduced.
More insidiously yet, these become laminated into journey-planning and other services when they position Uber alongside other options available to the commuter, as simply another tab or item in a pull-down menu. Ethical questions are legislated at the level of interface design, at the hands of engineers and designers so immersed in the privileges of youth and relative wealth, and so inculcated with the values prevalent in their own industry, that they may well not perceive anything about Uber to be objectionable in the slightest. (Notable in this regard are Google Maps and Citymapper, both of which now integrate Uber as a modal option alongside public transit and taxis, and Apple’s App Store, which lists the Uber app as an “Essential.”) Consciously or not, though, every such integration acts to normalize the Randian solipsism, the fratboy misogyny, and the sneering disdain for the very notion of a public good that saturates Uber’s presentation of its identity.
Where innovations in personal mobility could just as easily be designed to extend the right to the city, and to conceive of on-demand access to all points in the urbanized field as a public utility, Uber acts to reinscribe and to actually strengthen existing inequities of access. It is an engine consciously, delicately and expertly tuned to socialize risk and privatize gain. In furtherance of the convenience of a few, it sheds risk on its drivers, its passengers, and the communities within which it operates. If in any way this offering is a harbinger of the network-mediated services we can expect to contend with in the city to come, I believe we are justified in harboring the gravest concern — and, further, in doing whatever we can to render the act of choosing to book a ride with Uber a social faux pas of Google Glass proportions.
And this is only to consider what is operating in the proposition offered by a single provider of networked mobility services. If there is a distinct set of values bound up in Uber, it is unmistakably enmeshed within the broader ideological commitments all but universally upheld in the conception of the smart city, wherever on Earth the deployment of this particular ensemble of technologies has been proposed. Chief among these are the reduction or elimination of taxes, tariffs, and duties; the concomitant recourse to corporate sponsorship (or outright privatization) of essential municipal services; the deregulation of activity between private actors; and the prioritization of other policies primarily oriented to the needs of classes and sectors within society that benefit from frictionless global trade.
A judicious onlooker might of course wonder what anything on this laundry list has to do with the attributes or capabilities of networked digital systems, but that is precisely the point. As articulated on terrain from Dholera to Rio de Janeiro to New York, we can understand the ostensibly utopian smart city as nothing more than the information-technological aspect of a globally triumphant but still-ravenous neoliberalism — a mask this ideology wears when it wishes to dissemble its true nature and appeal to audiences beyond its existing core of convinced adherents.
Dissecting Uber may help clarify the implications of this turn for those whose life chances are and will continue to be affected by it, but it is the merest start. There remain arrayed before the public for its consideration a very great number of other propositions that belong to the latter two of the smart city’s three orders of visibility, from security systems equipped with facial-recognition capability to networked thermostats to wearable devices aimed at nothing less than quantification of the self. It is these systems in which even the clearest ideological commitments are most likely to be screened or obscured, whether by the seemingly ordinary nature of the product or service or by the very complexity of the distributed technical architecture that underwrites it. Given what is at stake, it’s therefore essential that we subject all such propositions to the most sustained, detailed, and knowledgeable scrutiny before embracing them.
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