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Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

– represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends 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 — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “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.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.

The City Is Here For You To Use: (very) provisional bibliography

A week or so back, a bright guy I met at PICNIC named Lincoln Schatz asked me if I mightn’t list for him a few things I’d been reading lately. I got about halfway through before I realized that I was really compiling a manifest of books I’d been consulting as I put together the pieces of my own.

So this is for you, Lincoln – but I bet it’d also be particularly valuable for readers who are coming at issues of networked urbanism from the information-technological side, and would like a better grounding in sociological, psychological, political and architectural thinking on these topics. (There’s also a pretty heavy overlap here with the curriculum Kevin Slavin and I built our ITP “Urban Computing” class around.)

Not all of these were equally useful, mind you. Some of the titles on the following list are perennial favorites of mine, or works I otherwise regard as essential; some are badly dated, and one or two are outright wank. But they’ve all contributed in some wise to my understanding of networked place and the possibilities it presents for the people who inhabit it.

Two caveats: first, this is very far from a comprehensive list, and secondly, you should know that I’ve provided the titles with Amazon referral links, so I make a few pennies if you should happen to click through and buy anything (for which I thank you). At any rate, I hope you find it useful.

UPDATE 19 October 20.49 EEDT
Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. Please do bear in mind that, as I noted, this is not a comprehensive list of interesting urbanist books, but an attempt to account specifically for those works that have been influential on my own thinking. With a very few exceptions, I’m no longer looking for new insights, but for ways to consolidate and express those deriving from my encounter with the works listed.

That said, I’ll continue to update the page as I either remember titles that ought to have been included in the first place, or in fact do assimilate new points of view.

– Alexander, Christopher, et al.: A Pattern Language
– Ascher, Kate: The Works: Anatomy of a City
– Augé, Marc: Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity
– Aymonino, Aldo and Valerio Paolo Mosco: Contemporary Public Space/Un-Volumetric Architecture
– BAVO, eds.: Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City
– Bachelard, Gaston: The Poetics of Space
– Baines, Phil and Catherine Dixon: Signs: Lettering in the Environment
– Banham, Reyner: The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment
– Benjamin, Walter: Selections from The Arcades Project
– Benkler, Yochai: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
– Borden, Iain: Skateboarding, Space and the City
– Brand, Stewart: How Buildings Learn
– Canetti, Elias: Crowds and Power
– Careri, Francesco: Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice
– Carter, Paul: Repressed Spaces
– Crawford, J.H.: Carfree Cities
– Davis, Mike: Planet of Slums
– De Cauter, Lieven: The Capsular Civilization
– De Certeau, Michel: Chapter VII, “Walking in the City,” from The Practice of Everyday Life
– DeLanda, Manuel: Part I, “Lavas and Magmas,” from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
– Design Trust For Public Space: Taxi 07: Roads Forward
– Di Cicco, Pier Giorgio: Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City
– Dourish, Paul: Where The Action Is
– Flusty, Steven: Building Paranoia
– Fruin, John J.: Pedestrian Planning and Design
– Gehl, Jan: Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space
– Goffman, Erving:
Behavior in Public Places
Interaction Ritual
– Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin: Splintering Urbanism
– Greenfield, Adam (that’s me!): Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing
– Hall, Edward T.: The Hidden Dimension
– Hammett, Jerilou and Kingsley, eds.: The Suburbanization of New York
– Hara, Kenya: Designing Design
– Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri: Empire
– Haydn, Florian and Robert Temel, eds.: Temporary Urban Spaces
– Holl, Steven, Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Pérez-Gómez: Questions of Perception
– Hughes, Jonathan and Simon Sadler, eds.: Non-Plan
– Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Ken Anderson: “Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places
– Iwamoto, Lisa: Digital Fabrications
– Jacobs, Jane: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
– Kaijima, Momoyo, Junzo Koroda and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto: Made in Tokyo
– Kay, Alan: “User Interface: A Personal View,” in The art of human-computer interface design (Laurel, ed.)
– Kayden, Jerold S.: Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience
– Kieran, Stephen and James Timberlake: Refabricating Architecture
– Klingmann, Anna: Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy
– Klooster, Thorsten, ed.: Smart Surfaces and their Application in Architecture and Design
– Latour, Bruno:
Aramis, or: The Love of Technology
Reassembling the Social
– Lefebvre, Henri: The Production of Space
– Lynch, Kevin: The Image Of The City
– McCullough, Malcolm: Digital Ground
– Mollerup, Per: Wayshowing: A Guide to Environmental Signage Principles and Practices
– Miller, Kristine F.: Designs on the Public
– Mitchell, William J.:
City of Bits
Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City
– Moran, Joe: Reading the Everyday
– Mumford, Lewis: The City In History
– MVRDV: Metacity/Datatown
– Neuwirth, Robert: Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
– Nold, Christian, ed.: Emotional Cartography: Technologies of the Self
– O’Hara, Kenton, et al., eds.: Public and Situated Displays: Social and Interactional Aspects of Shared Display Technologies
– Oldenburg, Ray: The Great Good Place
– Qiu, Jack Linchuan: Working Class Network Society
– Raban, Jonathan: Soft City
– RAMTV: Negotiate My Boundary
– Rheingold, Howard: Smart Mobs
– Rudofsky, Bernard: Streets for People
– Sadler, Simon: Archigram: Architecture without Architecture
– Sante, Luc: Low Life
– Sennett, Richard: The Uses of Disorder
– Senseable City Lab: New York Talk Exchange
– Solnit, Rebecca: Wanderlust: A History Of Walking
– Suchman, Lucy: Plans and Situated Actions
– Tuan, Yi-Fu: Space and Place
– Varnelis, Kazys, ed.: The Infrastructural City
– Wall, Alex: Victor Gruen: From Urban Shop to New City
– Waldheim, Charles, ed.: The Landscape Urbanism Reader
– Watkins, Susan M.: Clothing: The Portable Environment
– Whitely, Nigel: Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future
– Whyte, William H.: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
– Wood, Denis and Robert J. Beck: Home Rules
– Zardini, Mirko, ed.: Sense Of The City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism

Along the Dystopia Line 0: Backgrounder

I’d be flat-out lying if I tried to insist that the reason I spend so much of my time thinking about human cities and their near-term future has anything much to do with teaching a class on the subject. If anything, it’s almost certainly the other way around: I’ve been obsessed with the urban next since early childhood, and was winning prizes in essay competitions on the topic by the time I was a fifteen-year-old überdork. Essay competitions – that’s what we had in Philly, instead of county fairs.

Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to get a certain kind of weird kid obsessed with skyscrapers, subways, cop cars and fire engines. What’s perhaps a little more unusual is an enduring interest in how they all fit together…and especially how they might fit together, after a few more years have elapsed. (Any concern for the actual human beings populating these environments took a much longer time to develop; at the beginning, it was all about volumes, masses, frictions, velocities. And sound effects, naturally.)

I can’t imagine but that I came to this interest through science fiction, delivered initially via library paperbacks and Saturday-afternoon TV. Cities were everywhere in 70’s SF: domed cities, underground cities, cities in flight. Being exposed to them was how I learned to see and to read the actual city around me, if only to question why we still had trolleys instead of transit-pod tubes.

Big cities, and the problems of overcrowding, pollution, and racial, ethnic, and class antagonism they seemed to simultaneously epitomize and exacerbate, were outsize figures in the imaginary of the era. Conurbations like New York and Los Angeles were portrayed and understood by all as unmanageable, inherently prone to breakdown along multiple axes; this was, after all, the Abe Beame era (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), the energy crisis of 1972-’73 had served as a warning that the cheap energy from which the putative American Century was forged wouldn’t hold out forever, and Detroit, Watts, and Newark had all burned almost to the ground not so many years before.

A straight-line extrapolation – and that’s generally what you got from futurists of the period – suggested that tomorrow would hold more of the same, in every sense. Since we hadn’t as a society yet quite cottoned on to what has become the conventional wisdom that “more is different,” from that vantage point the urban future was often portrayed as a race between the soulless, punch-card rationality being peddled by systems analysts and operations researchers and the terrifying prospect of a general breakdown in social order – that breakdown generally arriving in the person of people who were young or dark-skinned, or both.

And since SF is, famously, always about the present day, it should come as absolutely no surprise that all of these fears play front and center in the era’s culture of the fantastic as well. “Realist” films like Death Wish perhaps best captured the sense that the “ordinary, law-abiding middle class” had lost control, that Something needed to be Done, but it was in science fiction that urban anxieties were fleshed out in the most nightmarish sort of detail – and for that very reason, possibly even exorcised.

By way of seeing if I can’t recover some present-day value from the many, many hours I logged utterly immersed in this stuff, and generating shoutouts to some enormously important forebears and personal heroes along the way, I thought I’d try a series of brief pieces exploring how a variety of urbanist themes have been treated in dystopian science fiction, particularly that of the Sixties and Seventies.

Why dystopian? It has something to do with testing the ligatures, I guess, pushing the assumptions undergirding urban normality to their extremes and seeing just where and how they break down. (I wish I could dig up an interview I remember reading with the legendary visual futurist Syd Mead – probably in the Guccioni-owned Omni – in which he explains the manifold attractions of “high-tech default” as a mode.) Perhaps it’s a matter of personal predilection, but dystopias feel to me as if they have more to teach us – and in most cases, however grim, they bear a far closer resemblance to the lives we actually lead than Roddenberrian fantasies of unlimited technological mastery and universal brotherhood.

Coming tomorrow, then: the first in a series of occasional essays, “Along the Dystopia Line.” For this shakedown cruise, we’ll be looking at ultrahigh density and its consequences. I hope you enjoy it, and the ones that follow.

Set theory for heartbroken existentialists: Lesson One

“The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Yes.

Mimsy were my memories

I think I first discovered “Lewis Padgett“‘s “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” at the age of eight or so, in a hardbound grey volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I on my grandmother’s shelf.

As I remember it – and memory is all I’ve got, now that the lawyers have had at the versions once freely available online – it’s an elegantly creepy story about a box of educational child’s toys that are sent backward in time from the far future, to wash up on a creekbed in Smalltown, U.S.A. circa 1940. Where, of course, they are discovered by local kids who at once set about absorbing lessons in transdimensional “x logic” from them, with predictably hair-raising results.

Like the children in Clarke’s later Childhood’s End, it’s the youngest who disappear into the manifold first, their as-yet unstructured brains far better able to adapt to the alien concepts being fed to them. I still have a vivid sense of how well the story conveys the parents’ helplessness and desperation, as they watch their baby daughter Emma disappear irretrievably into some curled-up dimension inaccessible to their docilized adult minds.

The story never once failed to send a shiver up my spine. Its dense rush of ideas – that there were such things as non-Euclidean geometries and non-observable dimensions, that there was a strict mathematical logic encoded in Lewis Carroll’s work, that evolution wasn’t over – supplied a kick I foolishly believed (and continued to believe for many years) that I would routinely find in science fiction. Even the way “x logic” sat on the page terrified me. Must’ve been the italics.

And now, well. I haven’t seen it yet, but do they have to dumb everything down? Why, for example, was it necessary to change the contents of the box from “Jabberwocky” to a cyborganic pet “mimzy,” and, in so doing, apparently eliminate anything that might have sent inquisitive kids back to the truly mind-blowing Lewis Carroll? No, don’t tell me. I know the answer, and it depresses me too much to think about.

In fact, all I can offer you by way of argument for the original’s superiority is this heavily-branded excerpt, which is in itself disheartening. (And that’s without even considering the idea that Carroll, with his known pedophile tendencies and so on, is probably too hot to handle in the charged, knives-out milieu of contemporary education.)

Looky here: if I believed for the space of a heartbeat that this film version would enlarge its viewers’ worlds (and minds) the way “Mimsy” did mine, I’d be its strongest advocate. But I just don’t see it happening.