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Home Futures contribution: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling?

Way stoked to have the following piece in Home Futures, the catalogue for the Design Museum’s impressive new show of the same name, alongside incredible work from Open Structures, Superstudio, Enzo Mari et many al. & essays from the likes of Deyan Sudjic and good Justin McGuirk. In full, it’s called “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling?: Labor-saving technologies, digital nomadism and the ideology of ease.” Please enjoy.

For most of us, home is a great many things. It affords us shelter from the elements, most obviously, but also a platform for conviviality and a container for our earthly possessions. Its address and appointments offer us, if we are lucky, a store of social capital to trade on; its walls and spaces an ark in which familial memory can be borne down through time; and its furnishings a supple, versatile medium in which we might express the uniqueness of the selves we understand ourselves to be.

In recent times, though, the dwelling-place is increasingly asked to serve one end above all these others. The home is now supposed to support efficiency — not merely or even chiefly its own, but that of its occupants. In sheltering, resting, restoring and entertaining us, it is supposed to underwrite our ongoing ability to act in the world as the autonomous, prudent, rational actors the regnant moral-economic theory of our age calls for us to be, in a manner as parsimonious with time, effort and other resources as is practically achievable.

Over the past century, we can see the drive toward efficiency settling over the domestic environment in three broad and overlapping waves, each of them arising in response to the technosocial possibilities of a given moment. The first and longest of these waves, starting around 1920 and yet to be fully concluded anywhere on Earth, accompanied the introduction into the home of labor-saving electromechanical appliances — a parade of ever-lighter and more powerful vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washer/driers, convection ovens and lawn sprinklers, without which the exacting hygienic and self-presentation standards of middle-class existence become hard to maintain.

The second is of far more recent vintage, getting under way only after the smartphone and widespread broadband connectivity had reached ubiquity in the urban centers of the developed world. It translates the distinctively neoliberal corporate logic of outsourcing into domestic terms, calving off each distinct function pursued in the course of ordinary household life (laundry, meal preparation, maintenance, even pet-, elder- or childcare) as a task to be mediated by an array of single-purpose apps.

The third, though it found early expression in certain utopian architectural currents of the 1960s and 1970s, is something we can only as yet perceive in vague outline, as a weak signal from a future that may or may not be coming into being. Seeking maximal efficiency by liberating the unencumbered body to dwell and work productively just about anywhere on the planet, this wave of innovation leaves traditional notions of home behind entirely.

Whether framed in such radically nomadic terms, though, or in the relatively drab and conventional ones of an “Uber for laundry,” there is no better way of understanding the trade-offs involved in the quest for domestic efficiency than by pursuing them to their source: the original provision of the middle-class home with labor-saving technological devices, a hundred years ago.


The automation of home life is a well-trodden path across what is by now a full century of design, but most of the overt celebration of automation as a virtue in itself came during that century’s first half. From R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1920) to the Philco-Ford 1999 AD House (1967), there is no trope more central to the era’s vision of domestic ease. Most of us of a certain age recognize the exemplary Homes of Tomorrow, from a long succession of World’s Fairs, Expos and Walt Disney TV specials. Taking the Corbusian notion of the home as a “machine for living” with striking literality, these all-electric lifepods pampered their occupants with easy-dusting curves, instant-cooking Radaranges, push-button control panels and hose-down floors.

As little as such Futuramas, Futuros, and Houses of the Future (Monsanto or Smithson variety, take your pick) have to do with the way most any of us actually live, ever did or ever will, they constitute much of the loam in which visions of domestic advance are still grown. For all the concern for ecological sustainability, new materials and new construction methods that has emerged in the decades since, and for all the successive waves of social change that have transformed the size, age and composition of the average household, it’s the DNA of these twentieth-century forerunners that designers still unconsciously draw upon when devising the material substrate of contemporary living. It’s worth attending closely, therefore, to the unspoken and curiously retrograde — indeed, frankly neocolonial — principle that nestles at the core of all these Homes of Tomorrow, which is that they are intended to afford every class of consumer a level of service previously only available to those with the economic wherewithal to maintain a staff of domestic servants. (This argument was never made more plainly than by a 1924 issue of the French magazine Je Sais Tout, an early entrant in the lifestyle genre, which touted a three-storey “house without servants” in which dozens of futuristic, electrified appareils pratiques replaced the butler, the scullery-maid, the cook and the nanny.)

Whatever savings of time and energy was realized by such devices was primarily intended to benefit “the lady of the house,” it being assumed by designers almost without exception that the male head of household was elsewhere, earning a crust. The liberation from drudgery they offered was, in any event, ambiguous and ambivalently received. As Betty Friedan had observed in The Feminine Mystique (1963), nobody quite knew what to do with the time left over after the daily round of chores had been seen to, and the endless hours in splendid suburban isolation were every bit as suffocating and soul-deadening for women trapped in the home as the cycle of métro-boulot-dodo was for the men tasked with bringing home the bacon. Little surprise, then, that the tranquilizer Miltown (cf. The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper,” 1966) became the first runaway success of the postwar pharmaceutical industry.

Precisely what was it that the proud owners of these gleaming new labor-saving appurtenances were being freed for? For much of the twentieth century, the canonical answer would have been “leisure time” — which is to say, a period in which the adult members of the family might amuse, exercise and psychically restore themselves, renewing their labor power while partaking maximally of the fruits of a consumption-oriented economy. Thus the anticipatory visions of laughing, pipe-smoking dads and gingham-bloused moms so common to the era, waving at Junior through the seamless glass of the swimming pool set into the wall of their living room, or playing canasta in the swiveling leatherette seats of their self-guiding, bubble-domed futurecars. By midcentury, with the Keynesian economies of the West riding the postwar expansion to heights of collective wealth never scaled before (or, for that matter, at any time since), the architects of domestic tranquility had seen the future, and it was leisure.


And here we stumble across a problem. After five solid decades of triumphantly unbroken innovation in microelectronics — three of which have seen an easy-to-use global informational network gradually extended until it can reach virtually every domicile on the face of the Earth, and the past two a parallel revolution in supply-chain management, low-cost manufacturing and logistics — we have never before had more, cheaper or more powerful labor-saving devices in the domestic environment. A panoply of networked objects are now distributed through the “smart home,” in a local deployment of what is generally described as the “internet of things,” or IoT; in addition to the by-now-unremarkable networked thermostats, lightbulbs and webcams, these can include a wide range of embedded sensors and actuators. Increasingly, the white goods themselves are networked, often to no clear end beyond affording the harried householder a remote control in the form of their smartphone, with which to begin the drying cycle or kick on the air conditioner while still stuck in commute traffic an hour away.

Taken all together, they are capable of dynamically optimizing the home environment across multiple axes, ensuring that its temperature, lighting levels, security posture and so on all continuously correspond with whatever state is desired by the user/resident. Increasingly, as well, such tasks are mediated via the natural-language speech interface of “virtual assistants” like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home — beachheads and points of presence in the home for the most advanced consumer-facing artificial-intelligence capabilities researchers have yet been able to devise. It would seem that peak domestic efficiency is very much within reach of anyone with the nous to download a few apps.

But for all of that, the leisurely future we were promised failed to arrive on schedule. In fact, it didn’t materialize at all; if anything, “leisure,” in the creaky, Affluent Society sense of the word anyway, is a thing that scarcely exists anymore, for almost any one of us. If it isn’t the mass production of leisure time, then, what problem does the smart home think it’s solving? The time saved by going to all the trouble of continuous modulation is time for what, exactly?

Given that the devices and services in question notably tend to be designed for people whose tastes, preferences and lifeways very much resemble the designers’ own, the contemporary Bay Area answer would appear to be “more code sprints and daily scrums,” i.e. further Stakhanovite exertions on their employers’ behalf, directed toward the goal of bringing ever-more-niche information-technological conveniences into being. But there’s a strong element of bad faith to all of this as well, and revisiting a curious landmark in the history of automation shows us why.


In 1770, the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Klempenen presented his empress, Maria Theresa of Austria, with the curious contrivance that has become known to history as the Mechanical Turk. This was a cabinet atop which sat the torso of a figure garbed and turbaned in the manner of an Ottoman sorcerer, one arm equipped with a pipe and the other constructed in such a way as to give it the freedom to pluck chess pieces from a compartment and move them about a board set into the cabinet’s surface. To the awed delight of its royal audiences, this seeming automaton played at grandmaster level, taking on all comers and seeing them down to defeat, governed by nothing more than the elaborate assembly of brass gears, cogs and rods visible within its cabinet.

In fact, as we now know, the Turk was cunningly designed to conceal a human operator, a grandmaster of chess — a long succession of them, in fact, from its debut until its final destruction in a fire in Philadelphia in 1854 — and wasn’t in any real way automated at all. So many of the tasks launched by a command to Alexa or Siri or Google Home are like this: a desire expressed in a few words, all but literally uttered without thought, sends human bodies scurrying behind the scenes to preserve the user’s airy sense of automagical effortlessness. (In fact, Amazon has run a distributed digital piecework service explicitly named Mechanical Turk since 2005, offering what the company too-cleverly-by-half calls “artificial artificial intelligence” to a global userbase, at rates as low as one US cent per task completed.)

If the classic labor-saving appliance, for the most part, did away with the necessity for uniformed household staff by replacing their exertions with electromechanical might, the boomerang twist of the app age is that there are once again human beings in the loop: actual flesh-and-blood servants, merely time-shared, fractional ones. Whether the task involves the performance of cleaning and tidying, laundry, grocery shopping, pet and plant care, or light household maintenance and repair, you may be sure that there’s an app for that. But the app itself is merely a digital scrim behind which a largely immigrant labor force hustles and sweats and bids against the others competing for the same jobs. There is inevitably a raced and a gendered aspect to this, as well. If, in the new app economy, the effort and care of household maintenance is displaced not primarily onto machines but onto other bodies, it is notable how often those bodies are female, how very often darker than those requesting the service. The only significant exception here lies in the area of dining at home; a prominent fraction of “lead users” bizarrely seems to have interpreted the demands on their time as so pressing that they prefer gulping down a flavorless nutrient slurry like Soylent or Huel to a sit-down meal of any kind, even one prepared by someone else.

What we see here is a curious elaboration of something the educator Bradley Dilger has described as the “ideology of ease,” an implicit (when not entirely open and explicit) body of assertions that undergirds the design of information-technological devices and services, very much including those at the heart of the contemporary home. This ideology proposes that devoting effort or attentional resources to the tasks before us is undesirable — even, somehow, unseemly. Think of it as the demand for convenience raised to the nth degree, articulated virtually as a right.

Accordingly, much of the grandeur in contemporary design lies in streamlining processes until they consist of a few taps at most: the “Buy Now With 1-Click” imperative. But as a consequence, any opportunity for reflexivity is shortcircuited. Whatever values are manifested by these apps, they’re folded up like origami inside the interaction flow, no longer available for conscious inspection or consideration. So when you ask Siri to call you a car, that car will invariably be booked via Uber, an enterprise which notoriously refuses to shoulder any of the risk involved in operating a mobility-on-demand service, achieving growth by shedding that burden onto its drivers, its passengers and the communities in which it operates; and when you ask Alexa to order you more cat food, that order will be fulfilled by workers sweltering in a passing-out-hot warehouse where management won’t let the doors be opened to admit a little breeze, because of the risk of inventory pilferage; and when you ask Google to book you a table at your favorite restaurant that reservation will be made via OpenTable, a service which imposes onerous constraints on restaurateurs and waitstaff alike. These choices, these allocations of power are subsumed beneath the surface, the judgments and valuations inscribed in them simultaneously normalized and made to disappear. And if you should happen to find any of this disturbing or offensive…tough luck. That’s just the way things are in smartworld. Effectively, your choices are limited to take it or leave it.

It may have taken us some time, then, but finally perhaps we can learn to see “smart” for what it so often is: an inscription of power.


For a cohort who experiences even the time spent preparing and enjoying a meal as an intolerable interruption of their availability for work, homelife itself is a burden. For them, the very notion of a permanent dwelling is, in its fixity of place and the opportunity cost of the investments lavished on it, a suboptimal condition — an obstacle to the frictionless mobility our age calls upon us to deliver, and a roadblock on the drive toward total efficiency. And this leads directly to the culmination of this entire line of thinking: the suspicion that the most efficient of all possible homes may very well be no home at all.

Visionary architects of the 1960s believed that the dwelling could be brought with the body like a shell. This tendency, explored in whimsical projects like Archigram’s Suitaloon and Cushicle (1964-1967) and Francois Dallegret and Reyner Banham’s Environment Bubble (1965), reached its apotheosis in Martin Pawley’s rather grimmer vision of “terminal architecture,” in which individually-scaled mobile shelter units pick their way through the rubbled fields of a blasted transapocalyptic nonscape, mediating the unbearable reality all around to the nearly vestigial flesh within.

A rather more palatable interpretation of nomadism was the “plug-in lifestyle” foreseen by futurist Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970), and elaborated in fiction by John Brunner, in the legitimately visionary 1974 novel The Shockwave Rider. Brunner’s plug-in people went where the jobs were, dipped into casual relationships with whoever happened to be close at hand, moved on from either the moment they stopped being fun, and in any event found the material and human terrain comprehensively prepared for such acts of transience, wherever they should happen to alight. Despite a brief enthusiasm for the “technomadic” life at the moment it first became technically feasible, though, around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like such visions would remain safely the province of those whose job it is to speculate about the future.

But things have changed in the years since, with the rise of the network and the cloud, the ubiquitous provision of smartphones to serve as interface and mechanism of payment, and not least the stunning global spread of Airbnb, whose success supports the business case for the new wave of coworking/coliving ventures. Finally the logic of outsourcing can be raised to its perfect realization. You can now offload virtually all of the processes that underwrite domestic life onto a commercial service provider, allowing you to focus on your core competency, whatever that should happen to be, and to pursue it wherever on Earth you are able to find an audience, a market or a community.

At present, there is no suggestion that anything beyond the tiniest number of people will ever choose to live this way over even the medium-term. But it would be unwise to count it out completely. Consider WeLive, a residential offering developed by the hugely successful WeWork chain of coworking spaces, which orients its offering toward a customer base who are “always working or always semi-working.” Or Roam, a competing “global community of coliving and coworking spaces” that offers members the opportunity to touch down and get busy at their San Francisco, London, Bali, Miami or Tokyo locations, for prices starting at $500 a week.

Taken in one way, such propositions clearly gesture toward some of the more fantastic archisocial visions of the late sixties and early seventies — the ones in which hip nomads roamed the planet-spanning supersurfaces and megastructural interiors ad libitum, equipped with no more than a cache-sexe, a small pouch for personal effects and perhaps a cloak against the acid rain. If you squint hard, you can make out the last tattered remnants of that imaginary in the existing real-world global archipelago of short-term flats and coworking spaces, knit together by ubiquitous broadband connectivity and low-cost point-to-point flights, and undergirded by other, rather less glamorous enabling infrastructures (chiefly extended-stay motels and self-serve storage-locker chains). It is possible to bounce around the nodes of this network for years on end, and indeed there are some who seem profoundly fulfilled by the years they spend doing so. Here we drift intriguingly close to, again, Archigram: “the need for a house (in the form of a permanent static container) as part of [human] psychological make-up will disappear.”


It isn’t so much that the plug-in vision of unlimited freedom was superseded, or even betrayed, as that its present-day realization for a few reveals something telling about what the rest of us want and need. For all the value on liberation implicit in the dehoming movement, just the opposite appears to be happening, reflecting a need most of us have for continuity and stability at a time when very little else seems to be holding fast.

But for some tinkering around the edges — primarily driven by the microhome ventures of the commercial real-estate development industry, and perhaps some experimentation with household structure on the part of those embarked upon polyamory — the twenty-first century home remains astonishingly conservative. In its stasis, it offers a place to recover from the world, perhaps even from the pressure toward efficiency itself.

In our time, this is no longer a matter of Taylorist time-and-motion studies or Dreyfusian calibrations of the body in space, but something more intimate still, harder to define and far less concrete. It’s about reforging yourself to meet the demands of a brutally competitive market for your labor: making yourself fit, rested, ready, reliable, available via multiple communication channels at any time of day or night, and ready to go wherever the work takes you. Seen in this harsh light, even cultural trends that are entirely unobjectionable on their face — the turn toward minimalism, say, or the rise of streaming services, or the Kondoesque pursuit of decluttering — can be understood as moves toward frictionlessness and the elimination of anything that would encumber the homedweller as plausible service provider and autonomous economic actor.

As we’ve seen, as well, the pressures involved in supporting this way of life cascade downward to a frankly subaltern class, exposed to many of the same requirements of personability, fitness and perpetual availability, yet expected to tolerate the whims, tantrums and outright harassment of their betters in silence. The question, then, remains today what it always has been: efficiency for whom, exactly? Whose time and energy are valued, and whose are sacrificed on the altar of another’s freedom to move and to act? If we but trace them with a little care, the new logics of domestic ease make the answers to questions like these distressingly, unavoidably clear, to the point that whenever any such proposition arises, it’s worth interrogating both its “smart” and “home” aspects with the greatest care.

A handle for my Brompton, a headache for degrowth

I’m not sure if it’s entirely discernible from the things I’ve written here, but my political sentiments these past few years have taken a reasonably sharp turn toward the position known as degrowth: the acceptance that, in Edward Abbey’s words, economic “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell”; the belief that collective prosperity and wellbeing are possible in the absence of such growth, indeed orthogonal to it; and the commitment to a way of life where value has ever less to do with the production and consumption of market goods.

These are things I believe and try to live by, not without some struggle, and I’m going to be writing more about that struggle in short order, both here and elsewhere. But before I do any of that, I want to acknowledge the staggering magnitude of the challenge involved in degrowing the economy wisely, responsibly and with care and solidarity for all, given our present sociotechnical circumstances. And I’m going to do so in the first instance by invoking a concrete practical example: the handle I recently bought for my Brompton bicycle.

As a convivial tool, I have to imagine the Brompton is all but unrivaled.* Both mechanically self-explanatory and human-scaled, it is par excellence a machine for urban mobility. Like all bicycles, of course, I can use it to get around town. But unlike most bicycles, I can collapse it in a few quick folds, so I can take it with me on the bus, or wheel it into a cafe or bar rather than locking it up outside exposed to the weather and the risk of theft. As a manufactured object and a way of moving through a real city both, it has self-evidently been cannily, cleverly and thoughtfully designed.

Every good designer, though, knows that bringing anything complex into being necessarily involves tradeoffs and compromises. And one of the tradeoffs most noticeable in the design of the Brompton is that the very moves necessary to make it fold elegantly produce a rather unwieldy package in its collapsed configuration. That the Brompton specifically is considerably more wieldy than competing folding bikes is surely one of the primary reasons for its success: it’s been devised in such a way as to let it function as sort of a trolley when folded, with all the greasy mechanicals safely tucked away on the inside. You can haul it around supermarket aisles and the like on the almost-vestigial little wheels mounted to the fender and the frame for just this purpose. But none of that means it’s particularly light or pleasant to carry in this mode…and that really tells when you’re doing something like rushing across a crowded concourse to catch the last train home.

Enter the Fahrer carrying handle. By fusing together some carefully-trimmed nylon webbing, a strip of Velcro and an off-the-shelf, commodity plastic grip, this clever little aftermarket accessory allows the rider to lift the folded Brompton from something much closer to its center of gravity. It’s a godsend for the harried urban cyclist, and a middle finger for all the chiropractors and physiotherapists one imagines cleaning up on yoiking Brompton-sore spines and shoulders back into shape.

But it’s also, dig, the fruit of an unprecedented ramification and refinement in the global product-innovation ecosystem. Combine the extraordinary democratization of digital design tools and rapid-prototyping capability; low-cost, generally Pearl River Delta-based fabrication, as well as the well-lubricated global logistics network and Chinese state policies that allow these factories to price and move goods as though they were made next door; and not least a designer’s ability to raise capital through crowdsourcing platforms, market through viral social media, and bring the things they make to market at scale via platforms like Amazon, and you wind up with two things: a dizzying cornucopia of mostly wonderful new things in the world, most of which are necessarily shortly bound for the landfill, and (/therefore) a near-insuperable challenge to the idea of putting brakes on the use of Earthly resources to make things for sale.

Maybe the Fahrer handle itself didn’t come about in exactly this way, but it might as well have. For all intents and purposes, these days just about any one of the few hundred million people sufficiently privileged to make use of that ecosystem can perceive a need not currently being addressed by the market and mount a response — generally, a response framed in terms of that market, and thereby extending its dominion. What previous generations might have thought of as garage or garden-shed tinkerers willy-nilly become capitalists now, entrepreneurs, self-conscious “innovators.” By the same token, though, an ever-greater amount of material-energetic investment is invoked to produce things of ever-lower marginal utility, as just about any passing want results in a manufactured solution, and each manufactured product catalyzes its own downstream explosion of model-specific bolt-ons, clip-ons, accessories and enhancements — many of them in fact originally user-produced, in the way I’ve described here.

This isn’t to harsh on the handle in and of itself. It’s hard to put in words, in fact, just how much I appreciate it, and with a negligible amount of maintenance it’ll last as long as the bike it’s mounted to will. It’s equally hard to imagine anyone wanting to return to a world in which only a very few, relatively centralized and hierarchical organizations had the power to determine what got made and what did not, least of all me. But if the sunk material-energetic investment in my handle can at least be plausibly defended, the same can’t necessarily be said about dozens of other things I have strewn around the house, or tens of thousands of things on sale in the neighborhood shopping center on Kingsland Road, or a hundred million things for sale on Amazon and Alibaba. Here indeed is an empire of things, the ecosystem responsible for their existence functioning de facto as a massively distributed, more or less entirely unfunded R&D lab for the major manufacturers, as well as a massive generator of signals relating to desire and agency in its fulfillment.

Every single last aspect of this situation is fascinating to me, worth unpacking at some length, and when I hoist my bike by its new handle it is all quite literally present at hand for me. In its own curious way, this handle stands as an object lesson as to why we desperately need to degrow “the economy,” and, at the very same time — at least for anyone possessed of intellectual integrity — a very good argument for the precisely opposite position. Whenever I wrap my hand around it, it makes me acutely aware of the tremendous and growing tension between the gorgeous, entirely laudable desire to ensure that the highest possible number of human beings are able to express themselves materially and the way we presently arrange to attend to that desire. More: it makes me painfully conscious that we have yet to realize anything like the full cost of that arrangement.

*I fully acknowledge that the Brompton both suffers in this regard from, and would most likely be impossible as a commercial proposition without, its reliance on proprietary, noncommodity, non-industry standard components. A fully convivial folding bicycle — designed as thoughtfully as the Brompton, but engineered from the wheels up to use components even the least well-equipped bikeshop will have in stock or which are otherwise user-serviceable — is certainly something worth thinking about.

Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”

I am very pleased, and every bit as proud, to announce the publication of the latest SUPERTOME to emerge from the Urban Age process, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, and with it my essay “Of Systems and Purposes.” It won’t contain anything to startle those of you who have been following my work for awhile — you’ll see, for example, that I once again return to the Beer well — but I do think it’s a pretty neat distillation of my thought about cities and technology as it’s developed over the past several years. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.

I’m particularly delighted that my work is featured alongside that of so many urbanists I respect enormously, in such a physically beautiful edition. My congratulations to Ricky Burdett, Philipp Rode, and especially the book’s indefatigable production team.

The legendary technologist Alan Kay once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Kay could perhaps be forgiven for the comment’s Promethean hubris, central as he was to the intellectual life of Xerox’s celebrated Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where so many of the interface conventions we continue to rely upon today were invented. The plain fact of the matter is that an ensemble of techniques invented or extensively developed at PARC, over a period of a very few years in the early 1970s — among them the graphical user interface, the mouse, the windowing system and the kind of multitasking it enabled, laser printing — remain at the core of home and office computer use some forty years down the line. The tools and techniques that Kay and his colleagues at PARC experimented with for their own use really did change the way we all work, think and play, generating a multitrillion-dollar market in the process of doing so.
This unimpeachable set of facts certainly does seem to legitimate the premise at the heart of Kay’s claim: that collective futures are something that can be architected at will by the sufficiently visionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heroic role it casts them in, this notion has been embraced by successive generations of technologists, very much including those now busily at work “disrupting” the processes that have defined urban life since time immemorial. Judging from the frequency with which Kay is invoked in their PowerPoint decks and TED talks, at least, their various interventions in commerce and mobility, self-presentation and socialization, and production, distribution and consumption are consciously intended to realize coherent visions of the future.
But which visions? Where Kay’s work at PARC was at least liminally inspired by the liberatory ethos of the Bay Area 1960s — an intellectual current nurtured by the work of thinkers like Illich, Marcuse, Carson and Fuller, the upwelling of the Black Power, feminist and gay-rights movements, the anarchist Diggers and their experiments with Free Stores, Clinics and crashpads, the encounter with mystical-ethical systems of the East, and above all copious amounts of high-grade LSD — his latterday descendants appear to imagine futures of a rather different stripe. Those taking the boldest strides to transform urban life today range from explicit neo-Randians like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, to the avowedly technolibertarian developers of Bitcoin and the technology undergirding it, the blockchain, to those whose political projects — beyond a clear commitment to the standard tenets of entrepreneurial capitalism, as it expresses itself in the neoliberal period — are as yet unclear, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
From the public comments, commitments and investments of these and other would-be disruptive innovators of their ilk, it is possible to assemble at least a rough picture of the world they wish to call into being, and therefore the urban forms and rituals that are likely to predominate in that world:
Where on-demand, local digital fabrication of goods (via 3D printing, numerically-controlled laser cutting and milling, etc.) is not possible, conventionally-manufactured products will be shipped, warehoused and distributed to the consumer via an almost fully automated supply and fulfillment chain. While it won’t be possible to do without human labor completely, entire job categories — warehouse worker, commercial truck driver, deliveryperson — will disappear from the economy, never to be replaced.
The means of production will be held (and such employment contracts as remain necessary issued) by distributed autonomous organizations, corporations manifested in and as self-directing software. With the greater part of the built environment networked at high resolution, and truly economic microtransactions enabled by digital currency, every market for mobility and commercial or residential space is “liquified,” or ruthlessly optimized for efficient, moment-to-moment value extraction. Access to space (microflats, single rooms, or even workstations) will be leased by the minute, while very, very few spatial resources will escape being harnessed for revenue generation.
For those who can afford it, on-demand, point-to-point mobility will be undergirded in most cities by a permanently orbiting fleet of autonomous vehicles. And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.
In this world, the art of governmentality has been refined to a very high degree. Custodial organizations, State or otherwise, are furnished with a torrential flow of information about our choices, and the unparalleled insight into human motivation that can be gleaned from analysis of that flow. Prudent behavior on the part of the consumer-citizen is enforced by an array of personalized performance targets, incentives and disincentives presented in the form of brightly-gamified “social credit” schemes — networked carrots and sticks sufficient to keep all but the irredeemably anti-social acting within permissible bounds.
If this sounds like a grim, dispiriting and airless set of possibilities — and it certainly does to me — it is fortunately unlikely that this particular future will unfold in quite the way imagined by those now busily engaged in the attempt to realize it. Several decades’ accumulated experience with networked technologies suggests that whatever actual impact they do have in the fullness of time often bears little to no resemblance to the visions of the people who devised them, or indeed the concrete experiences of their earliest adopters. It would be profoundly foolish to suppose that technologies like 3D printing, the blockchain or machine learning will have no bearing on the form or function of large-scale urban environments. They undoubtedly will. But when would-be innovators promise that their inventions will directly drive radical change — whether undermining material scarcity and the commodity form (as the inventor of the RepRap 3D printer originally imagined his device would do), stripping bias from the operations of the criminal justice system (as the promoters of risk-assessment algorithms promise) or even allowing exchanges of value to abscond from the visibility of the State entirely (as ideologues of the blockchain hope) — we have reason to believe that circumstances will conspire to confound or even subvert their intentions.
Recall Steve Jobs’s astonished comment, upon being shown the algorithmically self-righting Segway scooter for the first time, that “they’ll architect cities around these things.” With this technology in hand, the prospect of undoing at least some of the damage done to cities of the twentieth century by the internal-combustion engine suddenly seemed a great deal more credible. The formless sprawl, the environments legible only at speed, the dependence for mobility on capsular vehicles that isolated occupants from their surroundings and one another, above all the air pollution: in the minds of its earliest advocates and enthusiasts, all of these circumstances stood to be transformed by the Segway. But compare this rather pleasant vision to the world we actually live in some two decades downstream from the Segway’s commercial appearance, where the vehicles remain limited to ferrying around annoying platoons of helmeted tourists, and perhaps the occasional airport security officer. Instead of compelling any gross transformation of the urban environment, let alone the way we collectively think about urban mobility, thus far the Segway’s primary contribution to everyday life has been inspiring the cheap, Chinese-made “hoverboards” whose lithium-ion batteries burst into flames with distressing frequency.
Or consider what eventually happened to Craigslist — when it first emerged in the San Francisco of the late 1990s, a virtually utopian space in which goods, skilled services and shelter circulated for free. A passionate community of users grew up around the early Bay Area Craigslist, and something very close to a true gift economy sprung into existence among them: a functioning ecosystem of exchange founded on goodwill and mutuality, in the very heart of the late-capitalist West. For these early users, much of what they’d previously resorted to accomplishing at retail was, for a time, furnished by a single humble, all-but-rudimentary website.

And yet, for all its promise and sustaining optimism, this apparition of an entirely different mode of citying somehow failed to take the rest of the world by storm. Putting the indifferent stewardship of its management team to one side, Craigslist was ultimately undone by nothing other than scale. As the userbase drawn by the enticing prospect of free or ultra-low-cost services spiked beyond the Dunbar number — the notional upper bound of a human community in which all the members know one another by name — the bonds of implicit trust necessary to any agalmic community became first harder to sustain, and then impossible to construct at all. And this was replicated in city after city, as the service was rolled out across the planet’s major metropolitan markets, in accordance with the build-once/deploy-many-times ethos that drives the software industry and the logic of unlimited scalability that governs the network. In many ways a victim of its own success, Craigslist just about everywhere soon became cluttered with nakedly commercial listings — listings whose propositions were virtually impossible to verify independently, which flowed onto the site at such implacable velocity that they crowded out the community-generated posts that had so strongly characterized its early days. (What’s more, the platform badly undercut the classified advertising-based business model most free local weeklies depended on, driving many of them to extinction.) None of this looked anything like the neighborly, human-scaled, practically utopian community of exchange its gentle founder Craig Newmark had intended to realize. The Craigslist at scale that we know today, harbor for slumlords, haven for scammers and human traffickers, isn’t so much a negation as an outright renunciation of its initial promise.  

Some technical innovations, of course, actually do result in profound alterations in the form, tenor and distribution of city life. For every internal combustion engine, safety elevator, tungsten-filament lightbulb or mobile phone, though, there are dozens of Segways or Craigslists. It is striking, furthermore, how often the technologies with truly transformational implications for the city were originally intended to address some other order of challenge or problem entirely. I very much doubt, for example, that Jeff Bezos had the cratering of high-street retail, the choking of big-city streets with parcel-delivery traffic or the staggering reduction in demand for warehousing labor in mind when he sat down to draft his first plans for an online book market.

This is a history we might wish to bear in mind when inventors, developers and other interested parties present us with claims that some new technology on offer will surely give rise to radically new (and invariably radically better) permutations of the city. We would be wise to consider that the things they propose will invariably be constrained by what the philosopher Jane Bennett thinks of as “the material recalcitrance of cultural products.” Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. In this light, we should consider the possibility that Kay’s promise might have been little more than bravado all along, and the successful scaling-up to worldwide hegemony of the ensemble of tools he helped to develop at PARC a one-time, more or less irreproducible fluke, with no particularly salient implications for innovators in other times or places.

For all the sweep and verve of his framing of things, then, I personally prefer the perspective offered by another technologist: the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer, who argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” We should evaluate a technology, that is, by considering the outcomes it is actually seen to produce when deployed in the world at scale — and not the reputations of its authors, their intentions, institutional affiliations or prior successes, or the ostensible benefits that supposed to attend its adoption.
Applying Beer’s bracing realism, the most pernicious words in the technologist’s vocabulary are “might,” “could” and “can,” and the only meaningful test of a proposed technical intervention are the conditions it empirically gives rise to when deployed into a recalcitrant world. We oughtn’t properly even be speaking of “potential”; the only way to ascertain whether or not a given technical or techno-social proposition is indeed within the space of possibility is to build a prototype, deploy it, and await the results. And what we learn when we consider past innovations in the light of this unremitting standard is that technical development, for all its rigors, is the easy part of inventing the future. Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.
And this is perhaps truer still for those who intend to realize progressive urban futures. It is still possible to dream of cities in which the flows of matter and energy necessary to an equitable distribution of goods and lifechances are sustainable over the longer term, in which the rather abstract, Lefebvrian “right to the city” is made concrete in accessible, universal mobility and participatory political processes, and above all in which dignified, decent lives are possible. But translating these aspirations into conditions on the ground will require urbanists to develop fluency with a set of conditions that by and large remain opaque to them, even threatening.
We must in the first instance have the courage to think the city in the light of the more outré technical possibilities suddenly available to us. Just what does public space look or feel like, when each of the people occupying it is surrounded at all times by a cloud of semi-autonomous servitors and companions, virtual as well as materially embodied? What remains of high streets, Main Streets or malls once retail as we have known it, with all its ability to communicate, seduce and gather, is exploded into ten thousand separate acts of on-the-spot production or just-in-time fulfilment? What do prospects for entry-level or otherwise unskilled employment look like in that unbundled world, and how will that be felt in the tenor of street life? The ways in which these questions come to be answered will set the boundary conditions for everyday urban life, for the kinds of political struggle that are possible in the urban frame and for the subjectivities and selves that arise there.
As we reckon with the lines of flight that now open up to us, however, we must retain the clarity and integrity to ground these possibilities against everything we know about the fate of interventions past. We need to understand the captures, detours and reversals that perennially afflict emergent technologies at the point where they intersect with existing ways of doing, making, dwelling and being, taking note particularly of the fact that technologies that prosper and find traction in the world are very often those which reinforce existing inequities of power. What this implies for urbanists of a politically progressive stripe is that, for a given struggle, conventional community organizing may offer a far better return on investments in energy, effort or other resources than an attempt to drive change via technical means.
Working fluently with technology means stripping it of its unearned gloss of neutrality. All technologies are, without exception, expressions of one or another set of values, and therefore by any sane accounting ought to be contested terrain. When Uber becomes popular in a given city, for instance, and that popularity is explicitly cited as justification for not maintaining an adequate level of investment in public transit, we can be sure that what we are seeing is somebody’s values being enacted, if not necessarily our own.

Like any other professional or disciplinary community, the adepts of network technology hold tacit beliefs in common. They hold certain conceptions of the just, the true and the beautiful, think the world in certain distinct ways. If they cannot always realize their aims directly, it still behooves us to know what they believe, and understand what it is that they are trying to achieve.

Further, the particular set of values inscribed in a technology may have a great deal to do with its fortunes in the world, and how well it is able to function as a purposive invention of the future. Uber is a particularly resonant example; whatever else it may be, it enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed, or what the media scholar Alison Powell calls the argument-by-technology. The vision of hyperindividualism, invidious interpersonal competitiveness and unlimited-convenience-for-those-who-can-afford-it inscribed in the service dovetails perfectly with — one might even say “embraces and extends” — the neoliberal ethos that has prevailed in the developed world for the past four decades. And this perhaps explains why it has been realized, where the rather more humane visions undergirding Craigslist or the Segway plainly have not been. Wherever services like Uber go unchallenged, the imposition of these values is effectively a fait accompli — and with future resource commitments tending to be entrained by path dependence, that achievement sets the initial conditions for everything that follows in its wake.

In the end, perhaps the crucial insight is this: urbanists can no longer ignore the impact of developments like machine learning, large-scale data analysis and automation, or treat them as something external to our field of inquiry. Operating at every scale and level of urban life, from vehicle guidance to the mediation of sociality to the aesthetics of the built environment, they are clearly set to exert the most profound influence on the physical spaces of our cities, the things we do in them, the ways they generate meaning and value, and the very selves we understand ourselves to be. It’s no longer tenable for anyone who cares about the life of cities to hold this set of facts at bay, especially those of us who nurture some remaining hope that the master’s tools can be used to build other sorts of houses entirely. And while we needn’t and oughtn’t build our practices exclusively around this class of technologies, we might want to consider how to fold a nuanced, properly skeptical engagement with them into our approach to the design of urban space and experience.

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 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.


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.

Quite simply, the city is smaller for people who have access to Uber. The advent of near-effortless, on-demand, point-to-point personal mobility has given them a tesseract with which the occasionally unwieldy envelope of urban space-time can be folded down to something more readily manageable. It’s trivially easy to understand the appeal of this — especially when the night is dark, the bus shelter is cold, the neighborhood is remote, and one is alone.

But as should be clear by now, this power to fold space and time comes at a terrible cost. The four values enumerated above make Uber a prime generator of the patterns of spatialized injustice Stephen Graham has called “software-sorted geographies,” although it does so in a way unencompassed by Graham’s original account. Its ordinary operation injects the urban terrain with a mobile and distributed layer of invidious privilege, a hypersite where practices and values deeply inimical to any meaningful conception of the common wealth are continuously reproduced.

More insidiously yet, these become laminated into journey-planning and other services when they position Uber alongside other options available to the commuter, as simply another tab or item in a pull-down menu. Ethical questions are legislated at the level of interface design, at the hands of engineers and designers so immersed in the privileges of youth and relative wealth, and so inculcated with the values prevalent in their own industry, that they may well not perceive anything about Uber to be objectionable in the slightest. (Notable in this regard are Google Maps and Citymapper, both of which now integrate Uber as a modal option alongside public transit and taxis, and Apple’s App Store, which lists the Uber app as an “Essential.”) Consciously or not, though, every such integration acts to normalize the Randian solipsism, the fratboy misogyny, and the sneering disdain for the very notion of a public good that saturates Uber’s presentation of its identity.

Where innovations in personal mobility could just as easily be designed to extend the right to the city, and to conceive of on-demand access to all points in the urbanized field as a public utility, Uber acts to reinscribe and to actually strengthen existing inequities of access. It is an engine consciously, delicately and expertly tuned to socialize risk and privatize gain. In furtherance of the convenience of a few, it sheds risk on its drivers, its passengers, and the communities within which it operates. If in any way this offering is a harbinger of the network-mediated services we can expect to contend with in the city to come, I believe we are justified in harboring the gravest concern — and, further, in doing whatever we can to render the act of choosing to book a ride with Uber a social faux pas of Google Glass proportions.

And this is only to consider what is operating in the proposition offered by a single provider of networked mobility services. If there is a distinct set of values bound up in Uber, it is unmistakably enmeshed within the broader ideological commitments all but universally upheld in the conception of the smart city, wherever on Earth the deployment of this particular ensemble of technologies has been proposed. Chief among these are the reduction or elimination of taxes, tariffs, and duties; the concomitant recourse to corporate sponsorship (or outright privatization) of essential municipal services; the deregulation of activity between private actors; and the prioritization of other policies primarily oriented to the needs of classes and sectors within society that benefit from frictionless global trade.

A judicious onlooker might of course wonder what anything on this laundry list has to do with the attributes or capabilities of networked digital systems, but that is precisely the point. As articulated on terrain from Dholera to Rio de Janeiro to New York, we can understand the ostensibly utopian smart city as nothing more than the information-technological aspect of a globally triumphant but still-ravenous neoliberalism — a mask this ideology wears when it wishes to dissemble its true nature and appeal to audiences beyond its existing core of convinced adherents.

Dissecting Uber may help clarify the implications of this turn for those whose life chances are and will continue to be affected by it, but it is the merest start. There remain arrayed before the public for its consideration a very great number of other propositions that belong to the latter two of the smart city’s three orders of visibility, from security systems equipped with facial-recognition capability to networked thermostats to wearable devices aimed at nothing less than quantification of the self. It is these systems in which even the clearest ideological commitments are most likely to be screened or obscured, whether by the seemingly ordinary nature of the product or service or by the very complexity of the distributed technical architecture that underwrites it. Given what is at stake, it’s therefore essential that we subject all such propositions to the most sustained, detailed, and knowledgeable scrutiny before embracing them.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.