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A place for antiheroic technology

As I seem to have acquired, in some quarters anyway, a reputation as an uncompromising and intractable Luddite where matters of networked technology in everyday domestic life are concerned, I thought I’d share with you today some minor evidence that I’m not unalterably opposed to each and every such appearance. I give you…the Ember.

This is precisely the kind of networked device I might have written off as a near-meaningless frippery a few years ago. It’s a nicely-designed ceramic mug with a rechargeable heating element built into its base, allowing you to set the temperature at which you prefer to drink your coffee or tea.

All it is, really, is a thermostat — but a thermostat in a surprising, and surprisingly welcome, place. There isn’t any computation to speak of going on. The networked aspect is nicely circumspect, and it’s mainly there to let a smartphone app serve as the user interface, keeping the mug itself appropriately stripped down. You pair it with a phone once, on first setup, and that’s it. Everything else is done through the app, and you don’t even need to interact with that too much once you’ve got your preferences dialed in.

I should say that Ember is not perfect, either as a product or as a piece of interaction design. The embedded, multicolor LED fails to communicate much of anything useful, despite its multiple, annoyingly blinky and colorful states; all I really need to know from it is when the mug needs to be recharged. That need arises far too often, at least when it’s set to maintain the temperatures at which I prefer to drink coffee. And inevitably, I have concerns about the nonexistence of any meaningful security measures, a nonexistence that in fairness is endemic to all consumer IoT devices, but remains inexcusable for any of them.

But Ember gets some things right, and when it does, they tend to be very right. By far the most important of these is that it works as a mug, prior to the question of any networked or interactive functionality. The vessel has a good heft to it, and when you set it down on a solid surface, the feeling of a damped but substantial mass that’s transmitted through the rubberized rings at its base is just very, very satisfying. The ceramic surface has a pleasingly velvety texture — so much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if it’s one of those miracle materials that will turn out to have been threshold-carcinogenic twenty or thirty years down the line. It’s gratifyingly easy to clean.

And as far as that additional functionality is concerned, the mug does what it says it will, does it well…and it’s a hoot. It turns out that there’s a real Weiserian frisson to be had from something that violates all the subtle, subconscious expectations you’ve built up over a lifetime of drinking hot beverages from ceramic mugs. The confoundment of assumptions is so deep, indeed, that it takes you awhile to catch up with the new reality — to realize that you can go answer the doorbell or otherwise be distracted for five or ten minutes, and still come back to a piping hot beverage. In fact, Ember stands the principle of evaporative cooling on its head: because the heating element is still set to maintain a larger volume of liquid at a given temperature, but most of that volume will have been drunk away by the time you get to them, your last few swallows are noticeably, delightfully hotter than any you’ve had since first filling the mug.

To be clear, the Ember mug is not something anyone needs, especially at this price point. But I admire its clarity of purpose, in leveraging a modest deployment of technology to furnish its user with a small but nevertheless genuine everyday pleasure. And without wanting to be pompous about matters, I happen to believe there’s a crucial role for small but genuine pleasures in difficult times like the ones we happen to be living through. You may find yourself surprised by the degree to which a sip of hot coffee lands when you sip it forty or forty-five minutes after brewing — at least, I surely was, and am — and how psychoemotionally sustaining it can be when it does. Most of that is probably the coffee itself, doing what it is that coffee does, but better by far a networked product that is modest and humble in its aims, and succeeds in meeting them, than one which promises everything and does none of it particularly well.

On the received aesthetic of the urban commons, and transcending it

Edmund Sumner's lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa's Moriyama House

Edmund Sumner’s lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House: What the commons could look like, but generally does not

A few days back, my friend and colleague John Bingham-Hall gave a great talk at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, as part of a series on the urban commons organized by the wonderful Torange Khonsari. John’s talk was called “Common(s) Materials,” and it took up a question that’s central to many of my own concerns: is there some necessary relationship between the social or political qualities of a space claimed for the commons, and the materials used in articulating and furnishing that space?

What I want to do here is expand on some of John’s thoughts, and perhaps develop them further. What follows is more of a free association than anything else, and certainly not a well-formed argument; while I apologize if it’s not particularly structured, hopefully you’ll find some utility in it regardless.

What do you mean when you talk about “the commons”?

Let me first clarify what I mean by “the commons,” which, for present purposes, we can simply define as territory not governed by either the market or the state, and that is in principle available and accessible to all. (I’ve previously written about why I prefer the gerund form commoning, but we can set that to the side for now.)

Sites organized as commons have been in short supply in conurbations of the developed world ever since the so-called “urban renaissance,” or rediscovery and revalorization of the central city by the middle class, which started gathering steam around 1990. This reversal in the outward flow of population that had characterized the previous few decades sent land value in urban cores worldwide to vertiginous heights, and guaranteed that the worth of such parcels would henceforth be determined by their speculative exchange value, rather than any utility they might have as a dwelling-place for human beings. At the culmination of this process, a clear consensus regarding “the highest and best use” for land emerged worldwide, in the form of luxury condominiums whose units are traded as “sky bullion” among the members of a fairly shady global investor class consisting of oligarchs, autocrats, hedge-fund traders, private-equity managers and their children.

Under such circumstances, the only sites that were by and large left to popular control were waste and interstitial spaces, sacrifice zones too steep, difficult or prone to subsidence to develop profitably, or tracts where the projects of finance capital had failed, gone into receivership or otherwise been abandoned.

In the global South, for the most part, any such site is impossible to distinguish from the broader and thoroughly informal built fabric that may constitute the absolute majority of a city’s developed land area. It’s only in the metropolitan core of the developed world that sites occupied and maintained as commons tend to stand apart, not simply in terms of their political organizing principles but of their visual identity as well.

Is there any such thing as a “commons aesthetic”?

So can we establish that there is a coherent aesthetic associated with such spaces?

As I’ve noted here before, there is a distinct mode in which urban sites claimed for the commons present themselves to their users and the world. It’s present in most of the participatory spaces I’ve been so interested in over the past decade: you can see it deployed at Grand Voisins in Paris, el Campo de Cebada in Madrid, perhaps to a lesser extent at Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, and it’s all over the projects of collective practices like Campo designer-builders Zuloark or the intriguing spatial provocateurs raumlabor Berlin. These spaces are characterized by the use of ultra-low-cost, widely accessible commodity materials readily manipulable by the untrained: shipping pallets and the wood reclaimed from them, CMUs of various types, construction tarps and rebar.

Cheap, lightweight components of this sort emphasize the mobile, participatory and rapidly reconfigurable qualities of common space — though perhaps at the cost of inadvertently underlining just how contingent such space generally is in the global North, just how vulnerable it is to clearance by the state and recuperation by the market. As John pointed out, there is a certain invitational character to them as well. You don’t require much in the way of training or prior experience to build surprisingly durable structures with these materials, which is the same reason you’ll find them at the heart of various self-build schemes of the past half-century. (Ken Isaacs’ visionary 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures is exemplary in this regard, though Walter Segal’s method has to be singled out for the longevity of its influence on actually-existing lifeways.)

Together, these elements comprise what I think of as the Received Commons Aesthetic, and as the name implies, it’s fair to say that it has by now become something of a mannerism. Further, its achievement on a given site may require outlays of capital or labor that the community claiming it for the commons cannot well tolerate. For example, raumlabor Berlin’s rather clever chairs, albeit using salvaged wood, are nevertheless purpose-built and labor-intensive. (Despite my own long-nurtured hopes for an eventual alignment of the informational commons with the spatial commons, at present I think it’s clear that the use of digitally-fabricated furniture in this context, like the designs licensed by Opendesk, can only be understood as hopelessly fetishistic, and the same thing probably goes for most appearances of open hardware.)

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of actual squats and social centers I’ve ever spent time in were furnished in an eclectic style that could best be described as “adaptive reuse,” with much of the interior furnishing either inherited from the building’s former occupants, or trashpicked and therefore freegan. In my experience, anyway, such avowedly anarchist spaces tend to be cozy with rugs, spavined La-Z-Boys and thick, insulating wall-hangings, if not outright gemütlich; the idea that their inhabitants would dedicate any effort at all to the design and construction of new furniture, especially amid the profound global surplus of manufactured objects available more or less for the taking, strikes me as, uh, questionable. (John ended his talk with the provocation that the most appropriate seating for spaces of participatory democracy would be the £5 folding chair from Ikea, rather than anything intended to function as a visual signifier of the commons; the equivalent, for most of the emerging world, would of course be the ubiquitous knockoff Monobloc.)

Why does any of this matter?

In his comments, John raised the question of performative transparency, as epitomized by Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. At the Reichstag, glass is both denotative and connotative. You can literally see through it, of course, from the observer galleries to the workings of the chamber below, and it’s therefore supposed not merely to signify but actually enact the idea that democracy is something that takes place in public: the implication is that in present-day Germany, the deliberative process itself is as accessible, available and accountable as its image.

We can certainly wonder whether this is now the case, or ever has been. But as John pointed out, these performative qualities of glass do raise the question of what is implied when we choose to use other materials in our constructions of democratic space. In particular, he asked, “Does wood symbolically trap politics in the realm of the intimate?” In other words, does the very humility of the materials that together comprise the Received Commons Aesthetic consign the active practice of democracy to the strictly local, or suggest that there are no larger scales at which participatory praxis is appropriate?

In my own flavor of politics (which, as you may have noticed here and elsewhere, I’m increasingly comfortable characterizing as “neo-Bookchinian”), this may not matter so much. My feeling is that participatory deliberative processes work best in assemblies of about the Dunbar number — not at all coincidentally, the size of a New England-style town meeting — and that effective governance in both municipalities and larger territories can be achieved by networked federations thereof. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth taking seriously.

But there’s a more troubling implication raised by the Received Commons Aesthetic, which is that is so easily recognizable, so straightforwardly characterizable and so readily replicable that it can not merely stand for participatory politics but replace it entirely. If we see the RCA in admittedly interesting hybrid spaces like the Institut for (x) in Aarhus or the R-Urban project just northwest of Paris, there is however no suggestion that these sites are owned and managed collectively, for the benefit of all. And needless to say, anything so readily reducible to pastiche can also be encountered in watered-down form, at commercial sites like Seoul’s Ssamziegil — the latter places that do not remotely constitute a commons in any way, but clearly wish to convey the sense of openness, adaptivity, porosity and invitationality we associate with liberated spaces. What such sites imply is that the presence of architecture based on pallets, CMUs, tarps and other mobile elements may perform radical inclusion and participation where they do happen to be present, but also suggest them where they are not.

Indeed, at places like Boxpark and the truly vile Artworks, the aesthetic isn’t merely emptied of meaning but actually inverted: Boxpark is nothing more than a way of turning an otherwise marginal interstitial site into a buzz- and revenue-generating minimall, while the similar Artworks is deployed where the Heygate Estate housing complex once stood, camouflaging developer Lend Lease’s deep complicity in the council’s own program of social cleansing. (Apartments at the new Elephant Park were marketed, and evidently sold, exclusively to overseas investors, while the developers failed to actually provide any of the notionally affordable units they’d committed to.)

What all this says to me is that there is great value in establishing radically participatory spatial situations that do not greatly resemble the Received Commons Aesthetic, or at the very least pushing outward our notions of what common space can look like. Here my model has always been the microurbanism of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, a gorgeously-conceived and carefully detailed cluster of dwelling units surrounding shared service, conviviality and circulation spaces. As private property owned by a single individual, the thicket of buildings that constitutes Moriyama House is clearly in no way a commons as we’ve defined it. But in edging away from the atomized nature of life in discrete apart-ments, it points toward what it might mean to dwell in common, and perhaps suggests something about the ways in which space can help individual tenants modulate public and private as need be.

Like raumlabor’s chairs, such proposals certainly run afoul of that tendency Kurt Vonnegut once perceptively identified as one of the primary flaws in the human character: that “everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” There’s no doubt a great deal of justice in the idea that by the metric of sustainability, at least, the most radical thing one could possibly do is to reclaim existing spaces, leverage the material-energetic investments already sunk in them, and perhaps retrain them if necessary. By this ethic, the grandeur comes to live with the otherwise unglamorous practices of maintenance and long-term stewardship.

But there’s also something to be said for the idea that beauty, craft and rigor in design ought to be reclaimed from the market — that spaces by, of and for the people need not read as or be ad-hoc, that they might instead be marked by certain aesthetics we more often associate with luxury and the commercial high end. Dating back at least as far as Ruskin, Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, this is not, of course, a novel suggestion. It acquires new relevance, though, in a period of increasingly democratic and high-resolution control over the distribution of matter.

Organized as housing cooperatives or community land trusts or their equivalents, there’s no reason emergent spaces in common need to partake of the Received Commons Aesthetic — especially if it is more than occasionally dishonest in what it implies about the nature of the sites marked by it. With new digital design and construction techniques becoming relatively accessible, and powerful ways of building and dwelling together becoming available to learn from, it would be disappointing if the participatory and collectively managed spaces of the future failed to transcend the visual language of those few examples that exist at present.

I personally enjoy the Received Commons Aesthetic, just as I kinda dig the funky Ken Isaacs/early Whole Earth Catalog vibe of the various, deeply clever mobile assemblies Zuloark and their collaborators have built at el Campo. But what I enjoy more is the sense I have whenever I’m lucky enough to be on that parcel of land, which at that is not so different from what I remember about Kunsthaus Tacheles, or the various squats in which I’ve ever laid my head for the night: that here is freedom, and what’s more, freedom of a kind the market cannot offer at any rate or price. And because freedom is only another word for privilege unless it’s truly shared by all, it feels necessary, now, to begin peeling away that experience of freedom from the material undercarriage that implies but only occasionally actually supports its becoming.

My sense is that the Aesthetic, and the use of the materials it’s based on to construct and articulate spaces in common, will persist for some time yet to come, for all the reasons of low cost, accessibility and invitationality we’ve discussed. I hope, though, that we can imagine a time when such spaces aren’t limited to those that can be established on the scraps from late capitalism’s table, using offcuts from its voracious machinery. We should be thinking about what the urban commons might look like in triumph, when it can truly leverage all of the organizing, funding and building capabilities this moment in history offers us — when we dare to demand something reaching beyond a minimum viable utopia, and settle for nothing less than the entire city held in common, for the use and enjoyment of all who dwell in it and bring it to life.

My thanks to John Bingham-Hall, to his co-panelists Adam Kaasa and Nicolas Fonty for their insightful presentations, and to Torange Khonsari for her generosity in putting it all together.

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

Clifford
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.

cebada

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

Uber, or: The technics and politics of socially corrosive mobility

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:

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.

Conclusion
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.

References:
Biddle, Sam. “Uber used private location data for party amusement,” Valleywag, 30 September 2014. Retrieved from http://valleywag.gawker.com/uber-used-private-location-data-for-party-amusement-1640820384.

Bradshaw, Tim. “Uber valued at $40bn in latest funding round,” Financial Times, 4 December 2014. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/66a76576-7bdc-11e4-a7b8-00144feabdc0.html.

Carr, Paul. “Travis shrugged: The creepy, dangerous ideology behind Silicon Valley’s cult of disruption,” Pando Daily, 24 October 2012. Retrieved from http://pando.com/2012/10/24/travis-shrugged/.

Constine, Josh. “Uber’s denial of liability in girl’s death raises accident accountability questions,” TechCrunch, 2 January 2014. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/02/should-car-services-provide-insurance-whenever-their-driver-app-is-open/.

Fink, Erica. “Uber’s dirty tricks quantified: Rival counts 5,560 canceled rides,” CNN Money, 12 August 2014. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2014/08/11/technology/uber-fake-ride-requests-lyft/index.html.

Gibson, William. “New Rose Hotel” in Burning Chrome, Ace Books, New York, 1986.

Graham, Stephen. “Software-Sorted Geography,” Progress in Human Geography, October 2005.

Greenfield, Adam. “Against the smart city,” Do projects, New York, 2013.

Greenfield, Adam. Everyware, New Riders Press, Berkeley CA, 2006.

Hempel, Jessi. “Why the surge-pricing fiasco is great for Uber,” Fortune, 30 December 2013. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2013/12/30/why-the-surge-pricing-fiasco-is-great-for-uber/.

Huet, Ellen. “Rideshare drivers still cornered into insurance secrecy,” Forbes, 18 December 2014. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenhuet/2014/12/18/uber-lyft-driver-insurance/.

Koolhaas, Rem. “The Generic City” in S, M, L, XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1994.

Rawlinson, Kevin. “Uber service ‘banned’ in Germany by Frankfurt court,” BBC News, 2 September 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-29027803.

Reilly, Claire. “Uber reaches 4x surge pricing as Sydney faces hostage lockdown,” CNet News, 15 December 2014. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/uber-reaches-4x-surge-pricing-as-sydney-faces-hostage-lockdown/.

Said, Carolyn. “Leaked transcript shows Geico’s stance against Uber, Lyft,” SFGate, 23 November 2014. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Leaked-transcript-shows-Geico-s-stance-against-5910113.php.

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy.

Sharma, Aman. “Delhi government bans Uber, says it is misleading customers,” The Times of India, 8 December 2014. Retrieved from http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-12-08/news/56839680_1_taxi-services-radio-taxi-scheme-customers.

Tran, Mark. “Taxi drivers in European capitals strike over Uber – as it happened,” The Guardian, 11 June 2014. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/11/taxi-drivers-strike-uber-london-live-updates.

Rhythms of the connected city

The following essay on the instrumented streetscape is one of the oldest surviving passages in The City Is Here For You To Use; parts of what you’re about to read date to 2007 (!). Among other things, this explains why it’s tonally more enthusiastic about the prospect of living in such a city than anything I’d be likely to write from scratch today, and also accounts for the fact that a decent chunk of it bears an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Hill’s great and deservedly foundational 2008 essay “The Street As Platform.” (I like to think my take is sufficiently distinct from Dan’s that it’s still worth publishing as-is, but I’m sure you’ll let me know if you think otherwise.)

Those quibbles aside, I’m pleased with the way it stands up — pleased enough, at any rate, to offer it to you here, now, before any more time goes by. As ever, I hope you enjoy it and find it usefully provocative.

Imagine trying to apprehend everything that happens over the course of a single day, in any of Earth’s great cities: all the flows of matter, energy and information; all the happenstance connections which come into being for a single moment, before passing forever into history; every sensible event which transpires. Even if you could somehow capture all of these passages in a single diagram, how could the result be anything but a writhing hypershape, forever absconding from our ability to comprehend it?

But what if we could perceive the shape of events, even for a moment? Better yet, what if we could somehow decode what it was trying to tell us? What if we could divine the subtle patterns latent in it, haul ashore from this dark sea order, insight…meaning?

Toward the end of his long and productive career, the great sociologist Henri Lefebvre took up just this question, in a project he called “rhythmanalysis.” This was a notion he introduced in an essay called “Seen from the Window,” and a famous passage in which Lefebvre simply stands at his balcony and gives himself up to the tides of the living city.

His view must have been spectacular. From this favored vantage point, he can take up the Centre Pompidou, the Bank of France, the National Archive, “[a]ll of Paris ancient and modern, traditional and creative, active and idle” in a single sweeping gaze. Alongside Lefebvre, we stand at the window long enough to note the diurnal washes of office workers and schoolchildren, the cyclic peaks and troughs of vehicular traffic, the blooms of tourist-friendly mummery in the museum plaza and the slow ebbing of activity into the long stretch of the deep middle night.

This depiction of the great city’s surges and stutters is vivid enough, especially for readers familiar with Paris. But what Lefebvre is trying to call our attention to is what happens when we immerse ourselves in the art of watching. “Seen from the Window” isn’t ultimately concerned with anything that can be captured by a single glance, as much as it is with an order that reveals itself only in time.

What the trained mind perceives in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it completely — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — “Window” argues that there is a hidden truth of the city, something bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis: in a word, rhythms. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

While it certainly resonates with other attempts to know the city via concerted application of the senses, notably Georges Perec’s lovely 1974 Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris, this is something Lefebvre maintains even though “Seen from the Window” apparently postdates a few artifacts demonstrating how much more rewarding this undertaking can be when augmented with appropriate technology. Koyaanisqatsi, for example, which is nothing if not a sequence of images showing the rhythm of urban place and the underlying social order, and an extraordinarily vivid and memorable one at that. Or William H. Whyte’s wonderful 1980 investigations of sidewalk life in New York City, released as a short film called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

It is surely the case, historically, that time-and-motion studies have had unfortunate Taylorist and Fordist resonances, and perhaps Lefebvre was reacting to those in insisting on the primacy of human perception. But Whyte’s work demonstrated that, conscientiously applied, time-lapse photography could reveal patterns of use and activity that would have escaped the unaided human observer; if the value of such techniques wasn’t obvious before his films, it certainly should have been thereafter. So while I’m always tempted to submit to Lefebvre’s passionate humanism, the fact is that any attempt to understand patterns of regular activity in anything as compound in its complexity as a city is likely to fail if the proper tools are not brought to bear on it.

Could it be that we now have access to tools that Lefebvre lacked? Tools that even he might have granted would provide crucial support to his project of rhythmanalysis and, more broadly, other attempts to divine the deeper order in the surging and cycling of things? Certainly those of us with the ordinary endowments of attention and focus have a hard time wrapping our heads around the “organized complexity” Jane Jacobs thought of as emblematic of urban place; I can tell you from long experience that sitting and watching a city, straining to read its traces and signs, is an exercise in head-flexing frustration. I, at least, need help.

Consider that organized complexity, and what it implies about the dynamics of place. In any settlement worthy of the name “city,” a very large number of discrete events will transpire at any given moment. We can think of each as a move in a sprawling, elaborate game — but a game in which every move changes the rules all players must abide by. Each and every event that is seen to occur alters the terms of the shared situation, however incrementally or subtly, and anyone wanting to develop any particularly robust understanding of that situation needs to account for as many of them as possible.

For most of human history, this was well beyond the capabilities of even the most ambitious state, or enterprise. As we’ve seen, however, we are by now collectively well-embarked on the project of installing sensing devices both on our persons, and throughout the urban environment, that can capture these fragile traces before they are lost. These devices operate in a bewildering profusion of registers, and at every scale. They generate the most torrential volumes of data about our bodies, our places, and everything that happens in and between them.

In being uploaded and propagated across a network, the flickering traces of our existence acquire an uncanny persistence. If this persistence isn’t immortality, or anything like it, it is at the very least an extension in time of things we have generally expected to expire and disappear from the world entirely. Whatever is once captured by the network remains available for future retrieval, furnishing us with a repository of collective memory that another French thinker, Bernard Stiegler, thinks of as a “global mnemotechnic apparatus.” And where the flood of sensed impressions easily overwhelms any unaided ability to make meaning of it, we now have access to an array of analytical techniques to help us correlate, synthesize and extract significance from the intake.

Where Lefebvre maintained that only the human eye was capable of registering the city’s rhythms, and only the human heart truly able to make sense of them, we’ve bound ourselves and our cities in a skein of technical mediation that — in this sense, anyway — allows us to transcend the limitations of the merely human. In doing so, we acquire new and almost superhuman capabilities, collectively and individually. We can sift the onrushing flow of events, divine the presence of a signal amidst all the noise, develop a vastly refined understanding of a city’s organized, compound and ramifying complexity…and act upon it.

Lefebvre is gone, but his balcony remains. The city that stretches beneath it is, like all other true cities, a manifold positively shuddering with life and activity at every scale of being. It pulses with flows of matter, energy and information, in patterns that vary from the clockwork-routine to the one-of-a-kind and never-to-be-repeated. What would you miss, if all you could know of these flows was the wedge or cone visible to you during a few hours’ vigil at a window in the 6e?

It’s a few moments before six, on a damp evening in early spring. From Montreuil in the east to Neuilly-sur-Seine in the west, streetlights wink on in a slow wave, as their sensors register the falling dusk. There’s a rush-hour backup approaching the Porte d’Orléans exit on the Périphérique; in front of a BNP Paribas ATM in the Rue de Sèvres, a brief scuffle breaks out between supporters of the Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille football clubs. Two friends from Sciences-Po laugh abashedly, as they recognize one another before one of the few tatty multiplexes remaining on the Champs-Élysées — they’re in line to pick up tickets for the 6:15 showing of an American blockbuster. Not far away, in the Avenue Carnot, a flic pins a suspected purse-snatcher to the wall; affecting nonchalance as they wait for a van to come pick them up, he leans into the man’s back, putting all his weight behind the point of his elbow.

A municipal street-cleaner churns slowly through the streets of the Marais, hosing the day’s grit and dust from the asphalt. Across town, on the Boulevard Ney in the 18e Arrondissement, a bored Ghanaian streetwalker seeks shelter from a brief downpour beneath the awning of a pharmacy, her emerald-daubed nails clacking on the screen of her phone as she checks her messages. In the Rue Saint-Honoré, a fashion executive urges her two matched Standard Poodles from the back of the black S600 that has just deposited her in front of her office. An American backpacker on a post-collegiate month abroad strides forth from the marble gate of Père Lachaise with a shoplifted Gide wedged in the cargo pocket of his fatigue pants. And way out in Torcy, there are RER cars being switched in from a siding to the main rail line, bound for Les Halles and the other stations of the center.

In this city, everyone passing by with a mobile phone reveals their location — whether or not the phone is equipped with explicitly locative technology, whether or not the phone is even turned on. Every transaction in the bistros and shops and cafés generates a trail, just as every bus and car and Vélib bicycle throws its own data shadow. Even the joggers in the Bois du Boulogne cast a constant, incrementing tally of miles logged and calories burned.

This is Paris: all of it, all at once. In any previous epoch, all of these events might have transpired unobserved and unmarked — except, perhaps, by a sociologist in the twilight of his life, gazing down from his balcony. Even the most sensitive observer could never hope to witness or impress upon their recollection more than the tiniest fraction of it, however long they watched the city go by. And any information or potential insight bound up in the flow of events fell to the ground like a silent, diffuse drizzle, forever lost to introspection, analysis, and memory.

But now we can trace these flows, at least in principle, and plot them in space and in time. We can turn up latent patterns and unexpected correlations, and in turn suggest points of effective intervention to those with a mind to change. We can determine that there are more rhythms in the living city than even Henri Lefebvre ever dreamed of: anticipations, reversals, slight returns. Stutters, stops, and lags. Doublings and crashes. And we can do this all because of the vast array of data-collecting devices we’ve seeded through the quotidian environment.

Traffic cameras and roadway sensors on the Périphérique log the slowdown, and it shows up as a thick red line splashed across a hundred thousand electronic roadsigns, dashboard navigation units and smartphone screens. Here are the rhythms of daily mobility and, by extension, the broader economy.

The ATM’s security camera captures the precise details of who did what to whom in the scuffle, and when; the identities of the participants can be reconstructed later on, if need be, by a state-sanctioned trawl of the transaction records. (Those identity files will almost certainly note an individual’s allegiance to a particular football club.) As with the traffic, here too we can begin to make correlations, mapping outbreaks of aggression against other observed phenomena — the league schedule, perhaps, or the phase of the moon, or the unemployment index. Or even something comparatively unexpected, like the price of discount-airline tickets. Here are the rhythms of collective mood.

The friends so embarrassed to run into one another at a superhero movie? They reserved their tickets online using their phones, and in so doing broadcast their choice for all to see, at least in aggregate; they might be surprised to learn that those who purchase tickets in this way in the streets around their campus appear to have a marked fondness for Hollywood action flicks. Here are correlated geographical patterns of socialization and consumption, and the rhythms of media consumption.

The Avenue Carnot is nowhere to be found in any official record of the bag-snatching incident. In all the relevant entries, the offense is associated with the location where it was reported, a few blocks away in the rue de Tilsitt, and so that is how it shows up in both the Mairie’s statistics and a citizen-generated online map of risk in Paris; in fact, this kind of slippage between an event that happens in the world and the event’s representation in the networked record is routine. But the arrogant insouciance of the arresting flic’s posture bothers a lycée student passing by, who snaps a picture with her phone and submits it, time- and location-stamped, to the Commission Citoyens Justice Police, a civilian review board. In this constellation of facts, we can see something about the frequency with which particular kinds of crimes are committed in a given location, the type and density of policing resources deployed to address them, and the frictions between the police and the communities in which they operate. Here, then, are the contrapuntal rhythms of crime, its control and the response to that control.

The nature of the streetwalker’s trade could perhaps be inferred from the multiple daily orbits her cellphone describes between her regular patch on the sidewalk and a cheap rented room nearby. If not this, then her frequent purchases of condoms would certainly help to flesh out the picture, even though she pays cash for them — the pharmacy she buys them from retains a service that uses each phone’s unique IMEI number to track customers’ trajectories through the store, and this service maps her path to the Durex display with unerring precision. Here in these ghostly trails are the rhythms of the informal economy, surfacing through seemingly innocuous patterns of fact. (Her phone calls home to Ghana, like the tens of thousands of other calls mediated monthly by the base stations of the 18e, to Nigeria and Sierra Leone, clarify not merely how deeply interconnected any city is with others, but specifically which neighborhoods within them are most associated with other places on Earth. Here are the rhythms of global mobility, global migration and, inevitably, global exploitation.)

The streetcleaner, of course, has a GPS transponder; its moment-to-moment route through the city is mapped by the Mairie itself, and provided to citizens in real time as part of a transparency initiative designed to demonstrate the diligence and integrity of civil servants (and very much resented by the DPE workers’ union). Unless prevented from happening — should those workers, for example, happen to go on strike, or a particularly rowdy manif break out — here are the metronome-reliable rhythms of the municipal.

The fashion executive had her assistant reserve a car online some weeks ago, and so while there’s certainly something to be inferred from whether she splurged on the S600 as usual, or economized with a cheaper booking, there’s probably some lag in what it signifies. (Even if the car hadn’t been booked on the corporate account, it is also, of course, equipped with GPS, and that unit’s accuracy buffer has been set such that it correctly identifies the location at the moment it pulls up to the curb with the name of the house the executive works for.) Here can be gleaned solid, actionable business intelligence: both the cycling of particular enterprises and sectors of the economy, and by extension possibly even some insight into the rhythms of something as inchoate and hard to grasp as taste.

What might we learn from the American backpacker? The pedometer app on his phone is sophisticated enough to understand his dwell of eleven minutes in a location in the Rue de Rivoli as a visit to the W.H. Smith bookstore, but other facets of his activity this day slip through holes in the mesh — that boosted volume of Gide, notably, which will remain an unexplained lacuna on the bookstore’s inventory-tracking software. And, bizarrely, his few hours contemplating greatness and mortality in Père Lachaise, which resolve against a flaky location database as having been passed instead in the aisles of a Franprix market a few blocks to the east. (Indeed, so often does this same error happen that after a few months, the Franprix starts getting recommended to other tourists as a destination frequently visited by people like them, and enjoys a slight but detectable bump in revenues as a result. The manager is pleased, but mystified.) Here are the rhythms of contingency and chance and stochastic noise.

And each commuter passing through the turnstiles of the RER at day’s end, each of them the increment of a register in the capacity-management systems of the RATP, clarifies the contours of one final picture. The city’s population at 4 AM may be half what it is at 4 PM, revealing the true Paris as something that has only a casual relationship with its administrative boundaries. Here is the rhythm of the city itself.

Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network, and retained for inspection at leisure. We can readily visualize basins of attraction or repulsion, shedding light on the relationships between one kind of flow and another, and in so doing perhaps learning how to shape their evolution with a lighter hand.

By the same token, though, that which had been liminal becomes clear; what was invisible is made self-evident, even painfully obvious; the circumstances we generally prefer to ignore or dissemble stand forth, plain as day. The embarrassing, the informal, the nominally private and the illegal become subject to new and perhaps untenable kinds of scrutiny. The gaze of the state intensifies — but the state may find, to its surprise, that its subjects have many of the same capabilities, and are gazing right back upon it.

On this evening in the City of Light, a hundred million connected devices sing through the wires and the aether. Of the waves that ripple through the urban fabric, at whatever scale, very few escape their ken — escape being captured by them, and represented in bursts of binary data. Enciphered within are billions of discrete choices, millions of lives in motion, the cycling of the entire economy, and, at the very edge of perception, the signs and traces of empire’s slow unwinding.

This is a city Lefebvre never saw from his balcony, and never could — any more than Henry Mayhew could have, in looking down on the wild scrum of Victorian London from the parapet of St. Paul’s, or any observer of any of the great cities of history would have been able to, no matter the perspicacity they brought to the task. It’s ours, the one we live in.

What might we do with it?

Route Master: A Biography of the London Map

I’m beyond honored to have had this piece — a love letter to London and its maps — commissioned for the launch issue of the revived Journal of the London Society. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. For the record, the impeccable choice of title was theirs.

1.

I very much doubt that there is a city on the face of this Earth better mapped, over a longer period of time — nor more potently associated with the image of the map, as cultural and practical artifact — than London.

I’m sure some of the reason behind this stems from the need to assert administrative control, assess taxation and clarify property rights across a bewildering profusion of boroughs, wards, parishes, liberties, districts and councils. Part of it, certainly, arises from the way in which successive mobility technologies have allowed the city to colonize the land — sprawling its way across terrains and conditions, levering itself ever outward via rail lines and motorways, until the area within the ambit of the M25 subsumed a not-inconsiderable chunk of the British landmass.

But a great deal of this history is driven by history itself. Over the two thousand years of its documented existence, the physical fabric of London has blithely folded everything from animal trails and Roman roads to the Abercrombie Plan and the Westway into its network of connections. As a result, this is, at its core at least, a topologically ornery city. It is a place threaded with byways that admit to no obvious exit, that continue past a nodal point only under some other name (and therefore bear multiple designations within the space of a few dozen meters), that deposit the pedestrian somewhere, anywhere else than wherever reason and intuition suggest they might. Saffron Hill, Newman Passage, Johnson’s Court, the increasingly (and, it must be said, distressingly) salubrious alleys of Soho — you can walk these thoroughfares half a hundred times, and still not quite remember how they link up with the rest of the city. Or even, necessarily, how to find them again the next day.

At the same time, of course, London is a city of roundabouts, flyovers and gyratories, of circuses and viaducts and junctions — a city that was already thoroughly reticulated by bus routes and Tube lines before anyone now living was born. With each new layer, its complexity increases in a way that is not additive, but multiplicative. But if all of this is undeniably the case, it’s also true that you can wake up one morning to discover that the tramways have been pulled up, that Charing Cross Road no longer quite connects with Tottenham Court Road, that someone’s proposing to turn Elephant & Castle roundabout into a peninsula. The confoundments threaten to spiral out of control. So whether they avail themselves of one via the enameled surface of a Legible London plinth, an app on their phone, or for that matter the Knowledge so splendidly immanent in the comparably complex network of neurons in a cabbie’s head, the would-be reckoner with London needs nothing so much as a chart, a guide. A map.

2.

John Snow's map of cholera deaths in Soho

John Snow’s map of cholera deaths in Soho

So equipped, one can finally negotiate the city with relative ease. But navigation is by no means the only thing we use maps for. It’s long been understood that cartographic tools can help us better comprehend some state of the world, and even allow us to make effective interventions.

As it happens, this kind of spatial analysis was born right here in London. When John Snow tallied deaths in the 1854 Soho cholera outbreak on a map, he made manifest a pattern that had previously eluded even the most conscientious ledger-based tabulation: that peak mortality clearly centered on the Broad Street water pump. Armed with this evidence, Snow famously petitioned the parish Board of Guardians to remove the pump handle, which they did the next day, stopping the epidemic in its tracks. It was a landmark moment for both epidemiology and geographic information systems — and it would not be the last time in the history of London that a map proposed an intervention.

Though a great deal more impressionistic than Snow’s fastidious chart, Charles Booth’s poverty maps of late-Victorian London are almost as granular, delineating among seven increments of socioeconomic status as they varied block to block, and occasionally house to house. Though Life and Labour of the People in London, the magnum opus in which they appeared, must be given the lion’s share of the credit — and this is to say nothing of Booth’s apparently indefatigable organizing — it’s generally acknowledged that the maps themselves were critical for catalyzing the sense that something had to be done to redress abject want in the city, perhaps by conveying its true extent in the backstreets and rookeries only rarely penetrated by the respectable classes. (The blithe ignorance these classes nurtured for their own city was truly impressive. In 1855, the London Diocesan Building Society had described the East End to its subscribers as being “as unexplored as Timbuctoo,” which must have come as some surprise to the hundreds of thousands of Cockneys living there.)

In their way, Booth’s maps were as effective as Snow’s in driving change in the world. The response, when it came, may not have been quite as elegant or as precisely targeted as the removal of a single pump handle, but its impact was undeniably felt at a larger scale. When Parliament authorized the first Old Age Pension in 1908, Booth’s work was widely regarded as having been instrumental to the effort aimed at securing its passage.

Here we get some sense of the power of a geographic data visualization. By judiciously folding complex urban dynamics back against the ground plane, maps like these help us comprehend circumstances that may well be transpiring beneath or beyond the threshold of unaided human perception, in space or time or both. They are, quite literally, consciousness-altering.

In all the long history of mapping the great metropolis, though, it’s arguable that no single map did more to change the ordinary Londoner’s perception of urban space than Harry Beck’s original Underground diagram of 1933. In reckoning with the burgeoning complexities of a then relatively new addition to the city’s network of networks, Beck’s map emphasized the experiential truth of urban space over the geographically literal. As anyone who’s ever hoofed it between Angel Station and Old Street can tell you, the overland distance between any two contiguous stations bears only the slightest resemblance to the proximity implied by the Beck schematic and its many descendants.

The distortions pull in both directions. With only the Tube map to rely on, someone unfamiliar with the topography of central London might well conclude that it’s entirely reasonable to take the Tube from Bank to Liverpool Street, or from Borough to London Bridge, when the former is at worst a nine- and the latter a ten-minute walk. (And don’t get me started about vertical distances. At Angel Station, the system’s deepest, it can take the rider a good five minutes just to get from turnstile to platform.)

But these gross displacements, however grievously they might afflict the small but vocal contingent of people who care passionately about such things, are entirely beside the point. For all its compressions, expansions and improbably crisp 45-degree angles, the map is impeccably accurate in reflecting the way Tube riders actually perceive the space of the city, as it unspools a few dozen meters above their heads. Rely on it often enough for long enough, and you too may find — to paraphrase Edward Tufte — that the map organizes your London.

3.

Charles Booth's maps of London poverty

Charles Booth’s maps of London poverty

For someone more than casually fond of both London and maps, it’s inordinately pleasing that these landmarks in cartographic history are all also part of the story of this particular place on Earth. You can go and visit the very places that John Snow and Charles Booth mapped any day of the week, using the system that Harry Beck described with his map.

We are, however, safe in considering all of this history mere preamble, however glorious it may be. I believe that at this moment in time, we are collectively experiencing the most significant single evolution in mapping since someone first scratched plans on papyrus — for one relatively recent and very simple development, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, and what we can do with it.

It’s this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.

Nothing in all my prior experience of maps prepared me for the frisson I experienced the first time I held an iPhone in my hand, launched Google Maps, pressed a single button…and was located, told where I was to within a very few meters. When you realize that, already, some 30% of the adults on the planet own a device that can do this, that this audience already greatly outnumbers all the people who ever consulted an A-Z, a Thomas Guide or a friendly green Michelin volume put together, you begin to understand just how dramatically the popular conception of cartography is evolving. Those who come after us will have a hard time imagining that there was ever such a thing as a map that couldn’t do that.

The fact that such depictions can now also render layers of dynamic, real-time situational information — traffic, weather, crime and so on — seems almost incidental compared to this. The fact of locability, in itself, is the real epistemic break. It subtly but decisively removes the locative artifacts we use from the order of abstraction. By finding ourselves situated on the plane of a given map, we’re being presented with the implication that this document is less a diagram and more a direct representation of reality — and, what’s more, one with a certain degree of fidelity, one that can be verified empirically by the simple act of walking around.

I’d argue that this begins to color our experience of all maps, even those that remain purely imaginary. We begin to look for the pulsing crosshairs or the shiny, cartoonish pushpin that says YOU ARE HERE. The ability to locate oneself becomes bound up with the meaning of any representation of space whatsoever.

And it has profound pragmatic consequences, as well. It means that our maps can do real work for us. Typical of this is the online service Citymapper. Fed real-time information by TfL via a series of conduits called “application programming interfaces,” or APIs, Citymapper constitutes nothing less than a set of keys to the city, accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a data plan. It effortlessly tames what is otherwise the rather daunting perplexity of the street network, divining a nearly-optimal path through all those closes and courts and alleys, or suggesting just what combination of buses and trains you’d need to cobble together to get from, say, Stoke Newington Common to Camberwell Green.

Again, here London is different from other places. Though Citymapper offers versions for New York and Berlin, Paris and Barcelona, the utility of each is hampered by the limitations placed on it by those cities’ respective transit authorities. In my experience, no metropolitan transit agency in the world provides APIs as robust and thorough as those offered by TfL, and as a direct result Citymapper and its competitors are more useful here than they are just about anywhere else.

Happily, buses and Tube trains aren’t the only ways of getting around that are enhanced by the new interactive cartography. The networked maps so many of us now rely upon transform the practice of walking, too. The way in which access to real-time locative information enhances one’s sense of security in exploring the city is beautifully expressed by the London-based technologist Phil Gyford: “I can quickly see that my destination might be only 25 minutes’ walk away, and I know I’ll be going the quickest route, and GPS will ensure I won’t get lost halfway there. Somehow walking now seems more viable and less uncertain.” What this opens up, even for the longtime resident, is the prospect of exploring a city they never knew, though it may have been separated from them more by habit and uncertainty than any physical distance. Gyford now feels free to wander “the overlooked parts of London…the neglected seas between the Tube-station islands”; somewhere, the worthies of the London Diocesan Building Society breathe a sigh of satisfaction before returning to their deep slumber in the earth.

4.

Harry Beck's original diagram of the London Underground

Harry Beck’s original diagram of the London Underground

That we are becoming — that some of us have already become — so intimately and thoroughly reliant on our maps to guide us safely through the urban thicket makes it more important than ever that we regard them critically. Though we know intellectually that the map is famously not the territory, the emotional truth of this can be harder to internalize; we’ve all seen news stories about truck drivers following their satnav directions straight into a lake, or a wall. We need to get in the habit of asking pointed questions about who makes the maps, who chooses the information that is rendered upon them, and where that information comes from in the first place.

We might also attend to the deeper truths about the city we live in that are brought to light by this class of representations. Consider the dynamic visualizations of the Milan-based transportation-planning practice Systematica. In their time-series map of London, peristaltic pulses of expansion and contraction wash across the familiar terrain, revealing what we’ve always known to be the case: that at no hour of the day is the actual city coextensive with its formal, administrative boundaries. Though the human presence must still be inferred from these abstract surges of color, the message is unmissable: for all the grandeur of its physical fabric, the deep London is nothing more or less than the people who move through it, animate it and endow it with meaning.

This, in the end, is not such a bad lesson to derive from contemplating the play of pixels on a screen. If, as the disgraced geographer Denis Wood puts it, all “maps are embedded in a history they help construct,” this is true of maps of this city more so than most. And if we know that London, this gorgeous hypersurface, is forever absconding from the knowable, and can never be entirely reduced to a set of lines and points and paths, this doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no point in making the attempt. Perhaps, as with those of John Snow, Charles Booth and Harry Beck, the maps of Citymapper, Systematica and their descendants may yet help bring a safer, wiser, more just and merciful city into being.

Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.

The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.

In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.

Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.

So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?

On the plus side of the ledger:
– Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
– So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
– Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
– You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
– Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
– The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.

These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?

– Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
– The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
– Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
– It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
– Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?

I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.

What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)

Updated.

Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.

I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.

This year’s model

More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.

Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?

Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.

As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.

Signs, pointers and portents

Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.

So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?

In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.

Campo de Cebada: Community control

At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.

After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)

Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.

What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.

My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.

But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.

There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.

Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.

Come together

In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.

When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.

At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.

So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:

– In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.

There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.

– In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.

On forgetting to slay the dragon

Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.

I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)

But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.

My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.

This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and Couchsurfing.org implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.

The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:

The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.

Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.

As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:

I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.

Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)

Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.

An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object

UPDATE: Event confirmed for 14th March, 2014. See the final post.

For the past half-decade or so, in a phenomenon most everyone reading this site is no doubt already intimately acquainted with, data-derived artifacts (dynamic visualizations, digital maps, interactive representations of place-specific information, even static “infographics”) have taken increasing prominence in the visual imaginary of mass culture.

We see such images all the time now: broadly speaking, the visual rhetoric associated with them is the animating stuff of everything from car commercials to the weather forecast. The same rhetoric breathes life into election and sports coverage on television, the title sequences of movies, viral Facebook posts and the interactive features on newspaper sites.

Sometimes — in fact, often — these images are deployed as abstract tokens, empty fetishes of futurity, tech-ness, data-ness, evidence-basedness…ultimately, au-courantness. Just as often, and very problematically, they’re used to “prove” things.

But we’ve also begun to see the first inklings of ways in which such artifacts can be used more interestingly, to open up rather than shut down collective discussion around issues of great popular import — to ask its users to consider how and why the state of affairs represented by a given visualization got to be that way, whether that state of affairs is at all OK with them, and what if anything ought to be done to redress it. And this is whether the topic at hand happens to be land use, urban renewal and gentrification, informal housing, the differential consequences of public and privatized mass transit or expenditures in the criminal justice system.

Very few methods of advocacy can convey the consequences of our collective decisions as viscerally as a soundly-designed visualization. (Similarly, if there’s a better way of helping people imagine the spatial implications of alternative policy directions, strategies, investments and allocations, I haven’t stumbled onto it yet, although that certainly blurs the distinction between representing that which does exist and simulating that which does not.) What would happen if such visualizations were consciously and explicitly used as the ground text and point of departure for a moderated deliberative process? Could democracy be done this way? Could this be done at regular intervals? And how might doing so lead to better outcomes (or simply more buy-in) than existing procedures?

There’s plenty of rough precedent for such a notion, albeit scattered across a few different registers of activity:
– A few savvy journalists are starting to use data-based visualizations and maps as the starting point for their more traditional investigative efforts, and the narratives built on them. Visualizations, in this mode, essentially allow unexpected correlations and fact patterns to rise to the surface of awareness, and suggest what questions it might therefore be fruitful for a reporter to ask.
SeeClickFix, of course, already allows citizens to levy demands on local government bodies, though it doesn’t provide for the organization of autonomous response to the conditions it documents, and it forthrightly positions the objects it represents as problems rather than matters of concern. More proactive and affirmative in its framing is Change By Us, which does emphasize voluntarism, though still with a sense of supplication to (elected or appointed) representatives in government. (The site answers the question “Who’s listening?” by promising that a “network of city leaders is ready to hear your ideas and provide guidance for your projects.”) In any event, both SeeClickFix and Change By Us focus on highly granular, literally pothole- or at most community-garden-scale issues.
Storefront Democracy, a student project of Kristin Gräfe and (ex-Urbanscaler) Jeff Kirsch, reimagined the front window of a city councillor’s district office as a site where community sentiment on various questions, expressed as votes, could be visualized. Voting is not quite the same thing as democracy, much less deliberation, but the project began to explore ways in which situated representations might be used to catalyze conversations about matters facing the community.
– There are even full-blown technological platforms that promise to enable robust networked democracy, though for all the technology involved this one at least seems to blow right by the potential of visualized states of affairs to serve as focal points for managed dissensus.

Draw out all of those threads, and what do you wind up with? I’m not at all sure, but the question is certainly provocative enough that I want to explore its implications in further depth and detail. Again, I’m interested in digital cartography and interactive representations of data used as the starting point, rather than the product and culmination, of a decision process. My intention is to disturb these things as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book, and activate them instead as situated social objects. I think by now it’s clear that data-driven projects like Digital Matatus can furnish people with practical tools to manage the way things are in the city. But can they usefully catalyze conversation about the way things could (or should) be? And can we somehow bundle information about provenance into every representation of data, allowing users to ask how it was gathered, by whom, using what means and for what notional purpose, so they can arrive at their own determinations of its reliability and relevance? All of that remains to be seen.

If you find yourself nodding at any of this — or, indeed, you think it’s all deeply misguided, but nevertheless worth contesting in person — consider this a heads-up that I’ll be convening a one-day seminar on this and related topics at LSE in mid-March, and am looking for qualified speakers beyond my personal orbit and existing friendship circles. If you’re interested in either attending or speaking, please do email me at your earliest convenience at my first initial dot my last name at lse.ac.uk. Limited travel support is available – I have an event budget that allows me to fly in two to three speakers and put you up in Central London for a night, so if you or someone you know is inclined to present I definitely encourage you to get in touch. And let’s see if together we can’t figure out if there’s a thing here or not.