“Against the Smart City”: Introduction to the 2023 Italian edition
Not long ago I received the very welcome news that the publishing house GOG Edizioni was interested in bringing out an Italian translation of my 2013 pamphlet “Against the Smart City,” in time for its tenth anniversary. I’ve contributed a new introduction, which I hereby share with you. Godere e gustare!
It is only very rarely that a writer of polemical tracts is validated the way I was in July 2018, when the global consulting titan McKinsey published a report entitled “Smart city solutions: What drives citizen adoption around the globe?”.
On page 7 of that report, there is a graph, not so dissimilar to the famous Hype Curve charts that McKinsey’s competitor consultancy Gartner releases from time to time, that seeks to trace the fortunes of the smart city as they evolve over a ten-year period. Starting from November 2008, with the launch of IBM’s Smart Planet initiative, and “the entry of tech companies into the field,” the chart traces an early swell in activity and interest that peaks two years later. At this point, the sinusoidal wave of enthusiasm for the smart city takes a sharp downward turn, plummeting into a trough it never quite recovers from during the entire half-decade that follows.
What marks the downturn, the inflection point at which global enthusiasm for the smart city suffers such a tremendous reverse? According to McKinsey, anyway, it is the moment at which “critical voices start dominating the debate” — a moment emblematized for them by the publication of the very book you are now reading.
Well. That’s very flattering, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to think their work had that kind of impact on the world? As much as it’s nice to believe, though, that a pamphlet self-published by a lone, uncredentialed and unaffiliated researcher might bear on the investment choices made by municipal governments around the world, and in doing so change the shape of a multibillion-dollar global market for products and services, I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I think that when the early conception of a smart city inevitably did die, it succumbed to its own fatuity (or, more to the point, to the fact that there never was a sustainable business model beneath all the hype). It would have done so in any event, whether or not this book or anything like it had ever appeared.
Consider the eventual fates of the three smart-city projects treated most centrally in these pages: New Songdo, in South Korea; Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, and the frankly ludicrous, never-was private development of PlanIT Valley, plopped down on a semi-rural site in northern Portugal.
Of these, Songdo comes closest to being anything we might recognize as “a success,” though not at all in the form of the gleaming edge-tech metropolis it was sold as. Shorn of the elaborate automated management systems planned for it, it is now an entirely conventional satellite city of the vast Seoul megurbation, last reported to be something of a ghost town on weekends. Masdar is currently home to some 1,300 residents — far short of the 40,000 it was planned for — and, similarly, has dispensed with virtually the entire armature of advanced technologies daily life there was ostensibly going to be founded upon. It is fair to say that, while this dusty, depopulated precinct somehow soldiers on, it has had no net impact whatsoever on the way people around the world think about, design or live in cities.
This brings us to the matter of PlanIT Valley. I can express far more clearly now what I wanted and did not quite dare to say in 2013: though Living PlanIT founder Steve Lewis has angrily denied this to me, in a series of sputtering, illiterate messages over the years, I do not believe there was ever any way the project could have been seen through to completion. Whether the result of incapacity, incompetence or intention, none of the published plans for PlanIT Valley ever remotely came to pass. The putative “city” on which “ground had already been broken” never took any form more concrete than a series of renderings shopped around to potential investment partners; a few pages of a clownishly amateur social-networking site ostensibly intended for the use of PlanIT Valley residents survived online for awhile, though you’d have to be some kind of a search-engine genius to track them down now. Whatever is left of Lewis’s pretentious folly lies in the Earth now, unmourned and unmentionable, like so many failed smart-city projects before and since.
The arc toward failure and insignificance of these three heavily-promoted projects suggests that the original vision of the smart city as a heavily-instrumented urban environment, overseen and managed through a single centralized operating system, manifestly could not have been sustained. But what swiftly became plain in the aftermath was that the rhetoric of technologically-enhanced urban place would die harder. Undead, it shambled back to abominable life, taking a number of different forms as it was molded to suit the agendas of a new set of actors, accomodate the conditions imposed by novel terrains, and incorporate the premises of emerging technologies.
In Toronto, where a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet tried to develop a smart district called Quayside, the architects had clearly internalized and prepared to counter the arguments of books like this one: their promotional materials at least paid lip service to issues like citizen empowerment and the conservation of privacy. (A leak of internal documentation later undermined their professions of sincerity on such matters.) Only concerted citizen opposition helped see the Quayside initiative off. In India, under Narendra Modi and his ethnonationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the figure of the smart city was mobilized as part of a faintly retrograde, developmental state-style project of national greatness. The BJP vows, even now, to plant “100 smart cities” on the land, with frankly eliminationist consequences for the powerless peasants, pastoralists and fisherpeople that get in the way. Across the Arabian Sea, a similar fate no doubt awaits the Bedouin struggling to preserve their way of life against the onslaught of Saudi Arabia’s fabulist NEOM project, with its plans to gouge a linear megastructure called The Line a hundred miles across the 45-degree desert.
In all of these cases, calling something “smart” is simply to sprinkle the pixie dust of technological futurity over entirely conventional processes of state capture or accumulation by disposession, in the evident hope that key audiences will be so dazzled that they will fail to perceive what’s actually happening. Nor does the bullshit ever let up: each new technological development, from drones to self-driving cars to blockchains to “AI,” swiftly gets folded into the next generation of smart-city marketing, in a dreary precession of the buzzwords. All of this suggests that, for better or worse, the McKinseyan sine wave of hype and deflation will propagate onward through history for some time yet to come.
At the distance of ten years, are there things I wish I’d gone harder on? Of course there are. I should have been much more pointed about the role of global management consultancies (like McKinsey itself!) in peddling these visions to the variously understaffed, underresourced or just plain insecure administrators of cities, and the way in which their involvement undermines the organic competence of democratically-elected governing bodies to determine what is appropriate for their constituents. Given the existential stakes, I feel now that the book should have been still more critical about the way smart-city discourse folds in unquestioned and thoroughly hegemonic assumptions about the virtues of growth and development. Finally, I wish I’d been harder on myself. The final section, particularly, pulls a few punches; at the time of writing, I believed this was necessary to secure the book any readership at all, but it now seems tepid and pusillanimous of me.
That said, though: what a joy this book was to write. What an absolute pleasure it was to flag up the overweening arrogance and naivety of what are still all-too-often regarded as cutting-edge takes on the future city, to name fools, charlatans and closet authoritarians for what they were, and to make plain that the parties most fervently touting the fusion of networked digital information technology with everyday urban experience understood neither domain in any particular depth. (We should all be so lucky in life as to be granted such opponents, honestly — pointing out the fatal flaws in their arguments was like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.) And what a privilege it was to represent in writing the feelings of everyone who ever suspected they were being sold a bill of goods, that there was far less to the smart city than met the eye, and that the real generators of pleasure, meaning and value in urban life lay far outside its limited ambit. Of everything I’ve ever written, this book came together most easily, and sparked the most glee in the process of composition. I hope you find it even half as much fun to read as it was to write.
Excavating the meshwork
Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. And a primary figure of thought I’ve retained from the enthusiasms of those long-gone-by days is the opposition he drew (in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and elsewhere) between two organizing principles he saw at work in the world, principles he termed hierarchies and meshworks.
Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated (and therefore do work in the world) without suppressing their difference.
Despite my dawning awareness in the years since that there’s rather less to De Landa’s thought than meets the eye, this still strikes me as a useful distinction to make. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network.
At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced. The notion was abroad in the land that human communities organized as networks were inherently more conducive to equality and justice, as well as significantly more open to creative novelty, than implicitly coercive and privilege-conserving hierarchies. We see highly influential articulations of this line of thought in Castells’ Rise of the Network Society (1996), Kevin Kelly’s risible 1998 New Rules for the New Economy and Yochai Benkler’s magnum opus The Wealth of Networks (2006)*, to this day it utterly saturates ostensibly progressive initiatives like the P2P Foundation, and it’s an unspoken, foundational assumption beneath some of the most interesting left thought and praxis of the last decade. (Both De Landa and his theory-papas Deleuze and Guattari had explicitly cautioned against falling for this vulgar topological reductionism, by the way, but evidently to no avail. I mean, I certainly believed it, and reproduced it too, for quite a long time.)
That the famously “flat ontology” of De Landa’s thought (as well as actor-network theory), the horizontal turn in politics and the suddenly ubiquitous physical presence of networked devices all arrived at about the same historical moment is no accident. They all spring from the same deeper well of formal signification. Nature itself seemed to authorize our use of these horizontal logics. It turns out that when you go looking for networks, they crop up just about everywhere, making them a reasonable candidate for master organizing principle of the physical universe. Just as biomimesis has often seemed to both commend and justify novel organizational tactics – “swarming” was also a glamor trope at the millennium, and fused to the then-sparklingly novel enabling technology of the text message, gave us the flash mob, which in turn was supposed to transform street protest — so too the network turn seemed to sound the clarion call for a dawning age of flat politics.
But what is a network? De Landa tells us — here, anyway — that networks connect heterogeneous things. But this is in no way the case: in the real world, the networks that we consciously construct almost by definition connect elements that observe the same connection protocol or standard, whether that be rail gauge, or USB-C, or IEEE 802.11, or the act of driving on the right. Putting to one side the notion that some degree of standardization at the interface permits diversification at the network’s edge, in fact, you make things homogenous precisely so they can be coupled. So it seems clear that if you want to describe a connective logic that links the activity of formally dissimilar elements, you need a better language.
And this is especially so when you consider how service-delivery infrastructure works in the cities most people on Earth actually live in. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re talking about is water service and waste removal, healthcare, public safety, or any of the other Maslovian essentials those of us who live in what we call “the developed world” tend to take for granted. They arrive via some mixture of public and private provision, and these methods are stacked at variable scales in space and take varying rhythms and cadences in time. So water may get to you via some combination of buried pipes, trucks, municipal taps, bucket relays, and pallets stacked with tightly-shrinkwrapped plastic bottles (not to mention falling from the sky), and any or all of those but the rain could be privatized. You may get your electricity from the national grid on some days, on others from a little Honda generator you keep out back. For a sense of safety, you may knit together some combination of block watch, smartphone apps and protection payments to the local gang. The point is that all these systems of provision have a whole lot more in common with the “transversal logics” the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira describes, or the language of squatting, repair and consolidation her student Gautam Bhan uses, than they do with the crisp interfaces and imposed formal homogeneities of the network.
Enter the meshwork. What I want above all to recover from the De Landan use of this term is the possibility of describing more accurately the infrastructural and social assemblages we see in the real city — the kind of hybridized agglomerations of deeply bastard heritage, whose elements were laid down by many different hands, at different times, at different scales and degrees of completion. These wildcat provisions can’t be understood in the same way you understand the formal, reticulated, tightly-regulated and -standardized infrastructure networks of the Northern city, and we need a language supple enough to describe them. If we can retrieve this valuable concept, dust it off and render it fit for purpose in the contemporary world, we might gain some theoretical purchase on circumstances that have hitherto eluded structured understanding. But first we have to upgrade De Landa’s thought by peeling away the layers of woolly network-mysticism that adhere to it, so it can better grasp the systems and structures we encounter in practice.
And I’m interested in doing so in the first place because I suspect that thinking things as meshworks (in my own, as yet not fully articulated sense) has a powerful connection with the kinds of social formation I’m interested in sustaining, and their ability to enact adequate levels of social provisioning. If my admittedly perverse little anarchist project is to reassemble in principle (e.g.) a universal health service on non-welfare state grounds, figuring the necessary set of relations as first and foremost a meshwork seems like it would help clarify what’s involved in building and maintaining such a capability. And you’ll no doubt be hearing more about that from me in the fullness of time.
UPDATED: Politiken Byrum interview, May 2019
As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.
May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.
What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.
As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.
But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?
What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.
What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.
But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.
What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?
Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.
Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.
Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.
But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.
Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.
What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.
You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.
It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.
What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.
I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.
There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.
The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.
Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.
Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?
Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.
Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”
Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.
I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.
How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.
How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.
What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.
We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.
What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.
Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.
If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?
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.
Four questions for the smart city
After a few solid years of thinking, writing and consulting about smart cities, I’ve distilled my recommendations down to four questions any municipal administrator or concerned citizen should ask when presented with propositions for the technological improvement of everyday urban life:
0. What does it do?
This question seems so obvious that you mightn’t think it needs to be posed explicitly. Incredibly, though, in my travels I’ve met a huge number of people, both in and out of government, who are so enamored of technological intervention both for its own sake, and for the gloss of modernity they think comes along with it, that they forget to ask just what it is they’re signing up for. Sometimes, indeed, they don’t even care. They should care, and so should you. What is the thing supposed to do in the first place?
1. Does it work?
Does the proposed intervention do what it’s supposed to do? This is by no means a settled matter of fact, even when dealing with technologies that might work stably and well in other contexts. Demand some kind of evidence that the proposed intervention actually functions in the way its vendors and advocates claim it will when deployed in an urban environment like yours, not just for a few weeks, but on an ongoing basis. If no such evidence is forthcoming, feel free to drive a much harder bargain, or to walk away entirely.
2. Do we agree that what it’s supposed to do is something worth doing?
A proposed technology might indeed do what its manufacturers say it will, but that thing might be monstrous — or at the very least, not something that a majority of citizens consider to be an end worth pursuing as a matter of public purpose. Say that someone is proposing to license and install new facial-recognition software for the city’s CCTV network, and that software reliably identifies 95% of the individuals that pass before its cameras. Is this a goal that the public has passed collective judgment on, and considers to be an acceptable expression of its will? (Are there procedures in place to reverse the deployment and its effects, should that collective judgment change in the future?)
3. Does it do that thing at reasonable cost, compared to other ways of addressing the issue at hand?
Maybe the proposed technological deployment serves an end that’s more or less universally regarded as desirable in your city, like reducing violence or vehicular traffic. And maybe the system on offer does actually (consistently, demonstrably, reliably) function toward that end. So far, so good. Are you convinced, though, that you’ve exhausted available ways of addressing the issue at hand that might be cheaper, less complex or less dependent on long-term systems integration, maintenance and upkeep commitments? Perhaps a summer jobs program is more effective at reducing youth violence than a cutting-edge predictive policing suite, and achieves its goals at a fraction of the cost (and without either abrogating the community’s rights or abrading its sensitivities). It might not be as superficially glamorous, and it won’t necessarily get your city talked about in puff pieces on cutting-edge urban innovation, but shouldn’t you exhaust that and other possible alternatives before shelling out in perpetuity for the complicated, big-ticket item?
Again, this almost shouldn’t need to be said in so many words, but: if you can’t come up with affirmative answers to questions 1 through 3, you should strongly reconsider whether the investment at hand is one worth making.
Note too that the framework I offer here limits itself to a consideration of the smart city at face value and on its own terms, i.e. those of financial cost-effectiveness and process efficiency. The truth, of course, is that are other ways of accounting for cost and benefit, and that the costs reckoned in dollars are neither the only ones incurred in any given deployment of informatic technology, nor by any stretch of the imagination the ones that matter most. But for the moment, let’s agree to place all such considerations to one side. What you might find startling, in doing so, is that the smart city very often cannot even justify itself on its own, artificially constrained terms.
On the received aesthetic of the urban commons, and transcending it
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.
For the defense of Rojava: Democratic confederalism and the undying dream of freedom
To paraphrase Sartre’s famous comments about Che Guevara, the autonomous citizens of Rojava, or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — and especially those fighting in the ranks of its militia, the YPG/YPJ — are the most fully realized human beings of our time. Their understanding of kyriarchy and what it requires of those of us who would unwind it is direct, complete, unclouded.
Officially branded as terrorist sympathizers, alternately supported, disregarded and threatened by the US, in this era of incoherent strategic policy and smash-and-grab opportunism, the men and women of Rojava have been forced to do it all on their own. They’ve had to learn how to do anarchism, how to do feminism, how to do horizontalism and confederation, in practice, in real time, in what certainly appears to be some of the least propitious soil imaginable, in the face of a world that seems to want nothing so much as for them to disappear.
I believe we ought to be doing everything possible to support them, and defend them against those who would destroy them.
The emergence of a vital resistance in Rojava is weirdly personal for me. For decades, nurtured on more-or-less annual rereadings of Homage to Catalonia, I harbored the fantasy that had I lived during the time of the Spanish Civil War, I would naturally have run off and enlisted in a militia like that of the POUM Orwell was affiliated with, and put my body on the line in the struggle against fascism.
And not just to fight against something, either, but for something as well — for the total vision of emancipated life that emerged during the years of struggle in Spain. The POUM, of course, was committed to a fiercely egalitarian politics, even under the pressures of the front line; in the militia that fought beneath their banner, “[t]here were no visible differences between ranks, no saluting and no differentials in pay,” while combat tactics and plans of action were often debated among the fighters expected to enact them. (And they weren’t even anarchists!) Meanwhile, behind the lines, in the cities and lands under revolutionary control, entirely new forms of collective life were emerging.
For most of my adult life, this was one of the precious few examples of actually-existing anarchism any of us could point to. We could celebrate the real improvements in status and condition won by revolutionary Spanish women, in the “double struggle” against gender and class oppression. We could emphasize, with almost equal pride, the fact that material production and even technology-intensive urban infrastructure like tramways or the telephone network prospered in the sectors under democratic management. And we could further argue, with a good deal of justice, that this experiment in popular control ended not because it collapsed beneath the weight of its own accumulated contradictions, but because it was destroyed from the outside — directly by the Nazi-armed and -supported Nationalists, and indirectly via the perfidy of the parties aligned with Moscow.
Nevertheless, destroyed it was. And curiously, that made the Spanish experience of revolution safe for those of us who took inspiration from it so many years down the line. For one thing, whatever difficult realities, compromises or oppressions emerged during the months of popular control, they were interred in glorious defeat along with the insurgents themselves. Neither those brave souls nor their overseas admirers ever had to reckon with the unresolved tensions of large-scale governance and self-management over the longer term. But also, however those tales of heroism on the barricades and in the trenches may have quickened our blood, with no real way to act on them, it became cheap and easy to imagine oneself into the narrative. You could puff out your chest and say, “Oh, yeah, I would have shipped out, signed on with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and killed me some Fascists,” with nobody and nothing to stand in the way of your self-righteous posturing.
With another experiment in popular control really unfolding in our time, though, Rojava has put such fantasies to the test, and me along with them. The question isn’t, what are “we” going to do for Rojava? It’s what am I going to do for Rojava, for this land that never was, where the people are somehow, miraculously, against every certainty of geopolitics, both putting Murray Bookchin’s beautiful thought into practice, and setting Daesh to flight at the same time?
Without hyperbole, there is literally no question in our lives more important, nor likely to be, at least for those of us moved by currents of the antiauthoritarian or horizontalist left. For us, especially, the way we answer it will determine whether we really mean our politics, and intend to see them through — with all the risks and pitfalls that entails — or prefer to see them safely, gloriously dead and in the ground, where we can haul them out a few times a year to mourn what could have been.
Being discussed now