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.
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.
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 federation, 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.
Humanity is now, we are so often told, an urban species. Though there are real questions as to what the numbers actually mean, the statistics on planetary urbanization are so often bruited about that they have become something of a cliché. What’s more, popular discourse on the subject appears to have internalized the notion that the great cities of Earth aren’t merely significant for their concentration of habitation, but for the beneficial effects that habitation gives rise to. Disproportionately generators of economic vitality, technical innovation and cultural dynamism, our cities may even be able to function as lifeboats capable of sustaining us through the ecological reckoning that is now bearing down on our civilization.
If it is an urban age, though, it is also a networked one. Between the comprehensive instrumentation of the built environment, and the smartphones that so many of us now carry through every moment of the waking day — simultaneously sensor platform, aperture onto the global network, and remote control for the connected systems and services all around us — the colonization of everyday urban life by information processing is virtually complete.
And finally, we appear to have entered an age in which the more-or-less stable neoliberal consensus that held global sway for the past four decades has started to erode. Thus far, the most notable and distressing result of this erosion has been a turn toward authoritarian and xenophobic ethnonationalisms of one stripe or another, its traces evident in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and a long list of autocracies in the ascendant, from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines. But more hopefully, the eclipse of neoliberal hegemony has opened up a space in which some dare to imagine an entirely new way of organizing the productive processes of life: a commons beyond state and market both, in which networked collaboration, distributed material and energetic production, and horizontal forms of governance give rise to striking new possibilities for a just, equitable and fructifying urbanism.
By leveraging the decentralizing tendencies that appear to be implicit in our networked technologies, and the configurations of power they in principle give rise to, we can even begin to imagine what a networked urban commons would look like, and how it might work, at global scale — as a desirable end in itself, an antidote to the anomie and widespread sense of powerlessness that underlie the turn toward xenophobic authoritarianism, and a means of restoring some semblance of ecological balance.
Those of us who are interested in bringing such a state of affairs into being, though, might find that our hopes are dashed at the outset by a lack of clarity about how the technologies involved actually work, naiveté about those parties who currently wield them most effectively, or confusion about what a true commons would require of us. At present, we can see networked technology being layered onto urban place along three basic trajectories: one based largely on the needs of multinational technology vendors; one with roots in the Silicon Valley startup and venture-capital complex; and one — the subtlest yet most promising of all — as yet indistinct. By examining each of them in turn, we can learn more about what is at stake in the advent of networked urbanism, and perhaps chart a course through the Scylla and Charybdis of unwise choices toward a more fruitful future for all.
§ Avatar I: Songdo
In his public appearances, the presidential candidate Moon Jae-in is fond of invoking a comprehensive vision of heavily technologized everyday life that involves “smart house, smart road, smart city” — indeed, an entire “Smart Korea.” There may be no place on Earth closer to concrete fulfillment of Moon’s objective than New Songdo City, a municipality of 90,000 souls built on some 53 square kilometers of tidal flats recovered from the Yellow Sea. In Songdo, both domestic spaces and the entire built fabric have been instrumented, allowing the city’s controllers to monitor and adjust traffic flow and energy utilization in real time.
As ambitious as this sounds, it’s an only slightly more elaborate version of a conception of networked urbanism that is common to municipal administrators and technology enthusiasts the world over. In its raw outlines, this conception seeks to harness the CCTV cameras and networked sensors installed throughout the urban milieu, as well as the torrential streams of data flowing off of our personal devices, to realize greater efficiency and enhance that ever-elusive property known as “quality of life.” By submitting these flows of data to advanced analytic techniques based on machine learning, all kinds of benefits can be obtained: the nominal “optimization” of material and energetic flows, the streamlined delivery of municipal services, even the preemption of undesirable conditions (whether traffic jams or criminal offenses).
This, anyway, is the theory of smart urbanism. In practice, however, a number of issues conspire to ensure that what gets delivered invariably turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts. The first is that, in looking to a rising technology sector to achieve this ambition, municipal-scale actors leave themselves at the mercy of powerful vendors —
globally, multinationals like Siemens, IBM, Hitachi or Microsoft; in Korea the infrastructure, systems-integration and real estate development arms of the familiar chaebol. Because they generally lack the organic technical competence to determine what kinds of hardware and software might best serve their needs, city governments entering this market are perforce compelled to buy what these vendors have to sell, whether or not the problems those systems are designed to solve bear any particular resemblance to the issues perceived by their constituents. This was certainly the case in Songdo, where the expensive and elaborate Cisco “telepresence” hardware planned for each apartment unit in the city was rendered obsolete even before it was deployed, outmoded instantly by free smartphone- and tablet-based video chat applications like Kakao Talk and FaceTime.
The second problem follows on from this. By its very nature, the municipal procurement process involves one set of centralized, hierarchical actors (i.e. technology vendors) interacting with another (local bureaucracies). As a result, the multispectral awareness that might in principle be derived from large-scale analysis of data is generally retained for the exclusive use of municipal administrators, habitually and instinctively — and not, in other words, made available to the public who generated the data in the first place. What is offered to us wreathed in the ostensible glamor of technological futurity, then, is here revealed to be something that’s actually rather dowdy and retrograde: old-style technocratic management from the top down. Not by any stretch of the imagination something consonant with the will to collective self-determination, it cannot be reconciled with the commons without contortions that verge on intellectual dishonesty, however well-intentioned they may be.
And there is a final issue: daily life in Songdo, at least, appears to be rather soulless and dull. NPR quotes a young resident who describes it as a nonplace and a “prison,” and compares her escape into Seoul and all its nightlife at the end of the workweek to a jailbreak. This is admittedly a single data point, but it hardly makes a compelling argument for quality of life in the well-tuned city.
In its current form, then, the smart city as delivered by vendors is not merely ill-advised, nor merely unlikely to support the kind of vivid experiences we associate with big-city life, but actively detrimental to the achievement of an urbanism consistent with the values of the commons. A case in point can be found in the recent Korean experience of mass public demonstrations, which illustrate like relatively few other moments in history the power that an aggrieved citizenry claims for itself when it takes to the streets in protest of an order that has become intolerable. As it happens, the technologies bound together under the banner of the smart city have no way of accounting for this kind of active practice of democracy. Far from recognizing mass demonstrations as the signal of public sentiment they surely are, the smart city can only interpret such protests as a disruption to business as usual: first as an anomaly to be detected, then as an inefficiency to be contained, minimized, neutralized or eliminated.
§ Avatar II: San Francisco
It’s worth unpacking just what business as usual looks like to the architects of the smart city, what conceptions of the normal and the ordinary they may hold in mind when designing the algorithms responsible for detecting imminent departures from normalcy and triggering preemptive action.
And here we need to address the fact that even in software development, there is such a thing as fashion. Once something practiced by a self-consciously professional cohort given to horn-rim glasses, crisp short-sleeve shirts and pocket protectors — call it the Mission Control look — software engineering is, in its Northern Californian and Pacific Northwest fastnesses, dominated by a young, privileged and remarkably homogeneous technical elite. At present, you cannot walk down the streets of San Francisco — a city whose name was once synonymous with the radical, the queer, the experimental and the frankly marginal — without running headfirst into a mostly male scrum of software engineers in their mid-twenties, in their universal uniform of fitted hoodies and $400 sneakers, talking unit tests and code sprints. To a surprisingly great extent, it is their tastes, predilections, priorities and values that urban technology is increasingly designed around.
If the multinational vendor, in all its centralization, conservatism and ponderous lack of agility, represents one of the two predominant modes in which information technology is now applied to the life of cities, the other is typified by the proverbial Bay Area tech startup, with its addiction to venture capital and its imperative to “move fast and break things.” Thus the emphasis on convenience and immediate gratification we see in offerings like Airbnb, Tinder, TaskRabbit and above all Uber: services whose socially corrosive effects were self-evident virtually from the outset, though they are only recently becoming matters of widespread controversy.
It is now beyond dispute that Airbnb has undermined the market for affordable rental housing in city after city, just as Uber’s massive, outsourced fleet has drastically increased traffic in cities around the world, even as it drained custom and resources from public transit. What these services offer is nothing less than a shared reality platform for everyone wealthy enough, and sufficiently comfortable with technology, to use them fluently — a platform that privatizes benefits and sheds costs on the public so nakedly indeed that we no longer hear much talk of a putative “sharing economy.” Though these effects can be noted in every market where these services operate, they’re felt particularly acutely in the Bay Area, where life for those who most closely resemble software developers demographically and psychographically often does seem to consist of near-effortless algorithmically-streamlined ease, albeit at the cost of a slowly decaying public realm for everyone else.
It is telling, in this withdrawal from any pretense at convivial urbanity, that we don’t even discuss progress anymore, only “innovation.” In doing so, we preemptively surrender the terrain of the social imagination to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, if not still more impoverished souls like Travis Kalanick or Peter Thiel. If the urban condition that results from their everted imaginings is not quite the brutal reality of first-generation smart cities like Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates — where Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Filipino guest workers labor long, thanklessly and at great personal risk to keep the city turning over, and end their days in metal shipping containers arrayed behind razor wire under the broiling desert sun — neither does it have much to do with how cities have traditionally generated meaning and value for their inhabitants. Thus far, at least, everyday life in this capsular, app-mediated city appears to be defined by its exclusions.
§ Avatar III: Seoul
By contrast, the Greek architect and activist Stavros Stavrides, in his recent book on practices of spatial commoning, emphasizes the profoundly invitational aspect of any true commons, its quality of radical openness and porosity. If neither the multinational nor the startup way of doing networked cities quite works to produce such conditions on the ground, where can we go looking for a model that might do so?
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the present context, is that certain aspects of vernacular Korean urbanism already work quite well in this regard. Without fetishizing them, or sugarcoating their less felicitous aspects, Korean cities even now reliably generate an informality and canniness in the use of space that comes much closer to achieving the vision of a life in common than anything on offer from either wing of the tech industry. Not so much the newly-built, gated apartment complexes, of course, with their Ballardian full-service towerblocks rising in endless numbered ranks, but in older city cores throughout the country. Here the ajeossi play an impromptu game of baduk in a doorway, seated on torn cardboard box covers; there a sudden chicken-and-beer stand has popped up on an unused concrete forecourt; above, tucked into the fifth floor of an otherwise anonymous office building, is the jjimjilbang with beauty salon and restaurant and game parlor attached, pulsing with life and activity through 24 hours of the day. These things may not read that way to a globalized elite smitten with enticingly glossy corporate visions of the future, but to a certain kind of Western visitor, these feel like signals of the way life in the networked city could be: spontaneous, mobile, flexible, convivial, and above all open.
Could we design networked platforms and systems that generated this kind of urban experience, not merely for a few, but for everyone? The answer is almost certainly yes — but successfully doing so would require that we learn to wield networked technology quite differently than we do at present.
It would be necessary, first, to step back and ask what we are actually trying to achieve by deploying networked systems in the urban frame. We would have to test and iterate and test again, and discard for good that which is seen not to work. This, of course, runs almost directly counter to several aspects of the way we do things now: the headlong pace of technical innovation most obviously, but also its ahistoricity.
It would be necessary to press for specifics, whenever we are offered hype, buzzwords and promises. We would have to ask hard questions about how technologies actually function when used by real people in real environments, and not simply be seduced by lovingly-crafted renderings or animated flythroughs.
It would be necessary to nurture more space outside the market in particular. If “the commons” is to mean anything at all, it can only refer to a milieu where neither the values of the state nor those of the market prevail, leaving room for mutuality, solidarity and positive-sum collaboration — the diametric opposite, in other words, of the condition that broadly obtains in the West now, where the market sets the ground conditions of everyday life, and the state is increasingly figured as something that exists solely to guarantee the operating conditions for private enterprise. It remains to be seen how this model might apply to a place like Korea, where the dynamics of the developmental state retain a powerful hold on the national psyche, but it would clearly be an uphill battle.
Finally, regardless of the particular set of political commitments we hope to see observed in the design of urban technologies, it would be necessary for us to consider with the greatest care what kind of subjectivity our use of these systems give rise to. We would have to ask who we become in their presence and through their use, and be prepared to redesign everything if we don’t much care for the answers.
The examples I’ve offered here ought to make it clear if what we seek to achieve is a life in common, the whole quest for technological “smart” is something akin to a category error, where it isn’t simply intellectually bankrupt. We know in any event that any city deserving of the name is always already smart, and that its intelligence resides in the people who live in it and give it life. The task that remains before us is to design technical systems that are respectful of that intelligence, and allow it to speak itself. In the final analysis, this task cannot be outsourced. It cannot be optimized. It cannot be automated. It will require of us profound investments of time, energy and care. But the reward would be considerable: a place, or a meshwork of places, where everyday life is spontaneous and convivial, where the conditions of equity, justice and ecological balance are finally realized, where our quest to be human in full might find at last a natural home and ground.
Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.
No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.
Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)
I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:
These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.
My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.
Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”
These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.
At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.
Compare and contrast:
– SHoP Architects, Dunescape, for the 2001 MoMA/P.S.1 courtyard competition.
— Zuloark Collective, el Campo de Cebada, Madrid, 2010.
Two of these projects involve the deployment of digital design and production techniques to create platforms for small-group conviviality, nestled inside larger spaces generally associated with high culture and the flows of capital that support it. The other two involve the use of low-end, commodity material to create platforms for face-to-face deliberation and the practice of democracy (as well as conviviality), deployed in marginal, interstitial or outright occupied spaces.
The appearance of a parallel evolution in these admittedly cherry-picked examples may say more about my wishful thinking than anything else. But it seems to me that there’s clearly something going on here, in the convergence of sophisticated digital design, on-site fabrication and software for the near-real-time user configuration of space in what we might call lightweight placemaking. In all of these projects, we see an emphasis on rapid mountability and demountability, and the mobility and highly sensitive user control they afford. We see high technique brought to bear on utterly commodified, widely available, broadly affordable (even free) materials. And we see these things used to bring people together, both to enjoy one another’s company and to discuss such matters of concern as arise before them.
There’s an especially lovely symbolism to the use of such humble materials in making the place of democracy, and if the use of commodity lumber doesn’t involve quite the same material rhetoric as the use of marble in the ennobling public spaces of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well, neither is the public being invoked the same.
— SEE ALSO: Francis Cape’s We Sit Together, a history of the wooden bench in the American intentional-community tradition. Image courtesy Murray Guy Gallery.
Bootstrap Company, Dalston.
Following on from the other day’s post about systems of commoning, it occurred to me that what I find most galling about the social innovation literature (as it exists at present, anyway) is its refusal to acknowledge that the tactics of survival it celebrates have both a provenance and a valence.
Maybe I’d better explain what it is that I mean by “social innovation”? A discourse of relatively recent standing, social innovation aims to fix the problems we see all around us arising out of what a Marxist might call the “internal contradictions” of late capitalism, problems like deskilling, food poverty, the isolation of the elderly or the persistence of the digital divide.
All of this is to say that while social innovation is an essentially reactive and ameliorative discourse, it definitely responds to something real in the world: the failure of the neoliberal State, in its retreat from the provision of public services, to prevent a significant percentage of the population from sliding into circumstances of immiseration and precarity. (Looked at from another direction, one could argue these concerns are driven instead by market failure, and the inability of private actors to develop offerings that serve the needs of poor and marginalized communities while delivering reasonable returns on investment.)
Whether the perceived failure is that of the State or the market, though, the shortfall of social provision is as serious as the proverbial heart attack. It’s left tens of millions of people in the developed world contending with overwhelming circumstances in daily life, circumstances that sap their energy, saddle them with anxiety and depression, and — surely of interest even to the most cold-blooded economist — threaten their ability to participate in the reproduction of labor power. We can list among the further consequences phenomena like the widely-noted epidemic of despair that is currently reversing a century-long trend of improving life expectancy in the United States.
Emerging in direct response to this situation, the community that’s gathered itself under the banner of social innovation aims to generate a stream of new ideas to help us deal with the collective challenges of contemporary life. These ideas have a few elements in common:
— They are rooted in civil society, which is to say that they are neither private, for-profit enterprises nor a matter of public provision;
– Canonically, they are local, “bottom-up,” grassroots and voluntarist;
– They are oriented toward force multiplication, toward the accomplishment of enhanced levels of social provision from reduced inputs of investment or other sorts of capital from public or private sources. (The Wikipedia entry, typically, glosses this as “doing more with less,” without ever explaining why there is more to be done in an apparent age of mass plenty, or why there should happen to be fewer resources available for such tasks than there used to be.)
As it happens, there’s a reasonably well-developed institutional infrastructure dedicated to propagating the discourse of social innovation. There are conferences, government and parastatal initiatives, tranches of available funding both public and private, downloadable resources galore, and inevitably media outlets dedicated to extolling its virtues. Learned societies take it up as a subject for discussion. There’s even an annual award to be won!
My beef with all of this activity is fourfold:
– That both the innovations it presents and the context within which those innovations arise are routinely depoliticized, as if interventions in the material and psychic economy of everyday life could possibly be any such thing;
– That initiatives are routinely presented as tactical, piecemeal and disconnected, in a way that tends to deny the efficacy or value of any purposive collective action at scale;
– That such tactical and piecemeal efforts are inherently vulnerable to capture and recuperation by the market;
– And that the entire body of thought is badly, culpably ahistorical.
“That’s when I reach for my revolver.”
Actually, the social innovation literature is ahistorical in (at least) two senses:
Firstly, but for a very few highly technologized exceptions, the ways of making, doing and being under discussion are not in fact novel in any way, are not actually “innovations” at all. Almost to a one, these methods and measures were developed over the course of history by communities under various kinds of social and economic pressure.
The reason this matters is because the success of such efforts as originally developed — the very thing that made housing cooperatives or shared-resource libraries or mutual lending societies work in their original contexts — had a great deal to do with the specifically political wellsprings of motivation. Whether by landless peasants, by queers and feminists, by freemen and former slaves, by impoverished immigrants, or by radicalized soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam, many if not most of the specific tactics celebrated in the social innovation tradition were originally developed by communities organizing for their own survival, under conditions that could best be described as “heavy manners.” In each case, the people participating had an acute sense of the institutional power arrayed against them, and equally, how survival in a hostile world would depend on their ability to form their own institutions. And that is something they simply couldn’t do without being able to name the sources, causes and means of their oppression.
Of course none of this ever makes it into the dozens to hundreds of chirpy, boosterish blog posts that are literally generated daily by the organs responsible for promulgating the discourse of social innovation. In each instance, we see an idea for collective living severed from its politically radical roots, and presented as if it’s just another in a series of essentially fungible plug-and-play accessories buyers of the fluky Late Capitalist platform can choose to upgrade their system with; in some cases, neither the blogger nor the community activist whose effort is being celebrated is aware that the central insight on which their project is founded even has a pedigree. It would be melodramatic and inaccurate to say that this history is being suppressed, exactly, but neither is it being recovered and told. In effect, it’s like an operating manual exists for our shiny new appliance, but we’ve thrown it out with the packaging…and now we wonder why the thing doesn’t work the way we were told it was supposed to.
The second mode in which ahistoricity hobbles a meaningful consideration of these projects is the failure of social innovation media (and parallel institutions) to track the fortunes of the efforts they celebrate as they unfold over time. However formally independent they may be from one another, it’s evident that many of the organizations involved understand their fundamental mission to be promotion of the field as a whole, and not the development of critique — not even the kind of detailed, concrete, constructive critique necessary to any field of human endeavor serious about its own iterative improvement. As a result, blogs serving the field almost never publish pieces that check back in with the initiatives they hyped in 2012 or 2014 to see how they were faring.
The discourse does get one thing very right indeed, and it’s hugely important. This is the understanding that there’s an incredible amount of human talent and energy lying fallow in our communities, and that surviving the dark times we’re confronted by with dignity and verve will have a great deal to do with our ability to tap into it together. Simply recognizing this is a big step forward. What if, like me, you want the kind of collective tools that are generally celebrated in the social innovation discourse to be more broadly available, and to work effectively on behalf of the people they’re supposed to serve? What can we do to increase the chances of any such thing happening?
— We can recognize that broadly speaking, wherever they display the character of self-determination and mutual aid, these activities properly belong to the history of the libertarian Left — to the currents of anarchosocialism, anarchosyndicalism and autonomism, specifically — and will need to be reclaimed as such to work properly in the long run.
– We can understand that these currents (as well as parallel movements like that toward participatory economics) propose to us infrastructures that are capable of uniting, upholding, securing and extending the potentially fragile efforts of individuals and local communities, and that we can avail ourselves of that power at any time.
– As participants, we can deepen our acquaintance with the history of thought about what makes collective action work over time. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is the outstanding example; somewhat less empirically and more philosophically, you might also find John Searle’s “Collective Intentionality and Actions” useful. (On this point I want to emphasize that many, many of the people I’ve met through their work in this space are, as individuals, profoundly aware of the relevant local and global history, and deeply conversant with the theoretical literature around collective action; indeed, they’ve taught me most of what I know. But it matters that the discourse isn’t any of these things.)
– Finally, we can demand a dual accountability of social innovation as a body of thought — of the individual efforts grouped under this rubric, and as well, of the media outlets and other bodies that promote it. We can insist that the practices underlying social innovation projects be properly situated historically, and that both individual projects and the discourse itself be rigorously assessed as to whether or not they do what they claim to.
In the end, the most cluelessly apolitical social innovation project you can point me at is probably acceptable to me, if it means that even one more person finds in it shelter from the failure of the systems late capitalism proposes that they rely upon for their subsistence. It’s cold out there — or rather it’s been made to be cold, the warmth and comfort of others depend on it being cold — every last hearth at which someone can wander in off the street and find warmth is to be welcomed, and better still is the hearth they themselves are enabled to stoke and offer to others in need. I especially don’t want to mock any well-intentioned enthusiasm for this set of ideas. I do want to challenge people who are enthusiastic about social innovation to think about the currents in human thought that originally developed such notions, and the infrastructures and architectures of consistently reliable mutual aid those currents can give rise to if we but ask it of them.
I’m indebted to Greta Byrum and Tom Igoe for prodding me to clarify my thoughts on this matter.
Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, 2011. Photo by Marco Clausen.
This is a lovely article about what an actual sharing economy might look like. It’s suffused with hope and energy and good practical ideas, and that I can see there are three huge gaping problems with its premise:
– First, if the service ecosystem described in the article is in any meaningful way a “glimpse of the future,” the future glimpsed can only be the future of Berlin. There’s a well-developed, sustained, long-term local culture in Berlin, with ethics and values that support such activities; grown out of various anarchist, feminist, squatter and immigrant-rights struggles, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe that culture as one of resistance to the late-capitalist status quo.
So if you want this sort of sharing to thrive in your city, you’ll have to develop — or better yet, rediscover and reinforce — the values and the political culture that underwrite it. (Even in Berlin, initiatives like Prinzessinnengarten struggle to surmount the barriers thrown up by developers and well-intentioned but clueless bureaucrats. It should also be pointed out that while I personally think Prinzessinnengarten is fantastic, it’s faced accusations that it’s merely the thin edge of the gentrifying wedge, and comes no closer to serving the needs of a vulnerable local population than do Smorgasburg or Boxpark in Shoreditch.)
– There is also the fact that in most developed-world places I am familiar with, people’s desire for consistency and reliability of service can be seen to trump concerns with sustainability and equity, pretty reliably. Three or more generations of life in a consumer economy have trained them — let me be frank: us! — to prefer packaged, managed, branded services to quirky informality.
So you can have all the free community fridges you want, but in all likelihood all you’re doing is performing R&D and market research for the bozo entrepreneur who’s eventually going to come along, break off whatever part of the service can be monetized, do just that…and probably displace the free community alternative. Actually, worse: they’ll displace the community fridges, all right, but their poorly thought-out, stupidly-named, under-resourced startup will fail after having shited up the entire “space,” practically and psychically, leaving everyone back at square one.
– There is a third and deeper challenge to the broader adoption of informal sharing services, which is that this is how poor people have always lived — both in the favelas and slums of the “developing world,” and in the deprived communities of our own cities. (They don’t call it “social innovation,” by the way; they just get on with it.) And I have doubts about the degree to which significant numbers of people raised in Western culture’s last full flush of middle-class prosperity will adopt ways and means of daily survival they’ve been taught to associate with poverty, until and unless they have no choice in the matter.
One response to this challenge is indeed to package collective services, to brand them brightly and make them trendy, so people can harvest the specific frisson of social distinction we associate with luxury consumption from performing their virtue in public. (This strategy strikes me as being analogous to Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian Design project, the aim of which was to encourage the design of products that would allow people to consume their way to ecotopia.) And perhaps there’s some canniness to this insight: we all know that there’s a socially performative aspect to consumption, so why not harness it?
But while that social performativity does cut both ways, under the present dispensation it cannot help but do so in ways that work disproportionately to favor the time-honored modes of conspicuous consumption. While you can be sure there’s someone dying for you to notice that they’re restocking the Little Free Library on the corner, we can be sure that there are ten or even a hundred times as many seeking more conventional reinforcement — preening in the window at Drybar, perhaps, or making sure you see them climbing into an Uber.
And worse still, to build a service ecosystem on such foundations is to endorse the mayfly logic of the fashion cycle: that which is trendy this season is by definition a dead letter next year. By contrast, to function effectively in support of a community over the long term, participation in the commons has to be something more than a fad or momentary fashion. It has to be able to rely upon institutions, practices and arrangements that stabilize it and make it tenable as an approach to living. If those institutions, practices and arrangements are ones broadly associated with life under conditions of deprivation, the ingrained psychological resistance to adopting them may be the hardest of all these barriers to overcome.
The bottom line is that the practical insights that are necessary to render any such thing as a “sharing economy” workable at all get lost when this idea is depoliticized, as it all but invariably is in the “social innovation” literature and the popular press. If those of us who do not happen to live in a place like Berlin truly want to live this way, we’ll have to learn (or relearn) the preferences, habits, patterns of association and daily life that make peer-based commoning systems a realistic alternative to late-capitalist service provision. We’ll have to deal intimately and honestly with people outside the “innovation” subculture — not so much an issue for some of us, naturally, but evidently a major problem for others, including if we are honest some of those talking loudest about participation and the commons. We’ll have to develop (or redevelop) a vibrant, active, living culture of commoning, not because it’s convenient or trendy but because it responds to our values. We’ll have to organize the communities we live and work in. We’ll have to do so even if, for some of us, it means admitting that we are choosing to live in ways that have always been adopted by people facing hard times, at whatever cost to the self-image as a dynamic, successful, self-reliant competitor in the late-capitalist marketplace we’ve cherished and have worked so hard to uphold. And these investments of effort and energy are fundamentally a matter of the politics we choose to live.
The following is an interview with me conducted by the Italian architectural magazine Architetti Roma. This one focuses on issues of mobility and, as always, I hope you find it illuminating.
What are the urban contexts where technology and mobility have brought about the best outcomes?
To clarify, here we should make it plain that we’re strictly talking about networked information technology, and not, say, developments in power-train technology or materials engineering. And of relatively recent developments in this field, I’m particularly fond of a smartphone app called Citymapper. It’s like being handed the keys to the city.
Consider that I arrived in megacity London with nothing more than the vaguest mental map of the place, and still less of a sense of how to get around it. And what Citymapper let me do was dive right in, the night I got here. I could hop on a bus and go meet friends, and know exactly where I had to wait, what bus to take, where to get off and how long the trip would take me. It radically lowered the threshold of fear and uncertainty that keeps us sequestered in our local neighborhoods. Not within the weeks or months that it might have taken me to wrap my head around the transit network’s endlessly ramified field of possibilities in any previous age — immediately. And this is a service that’s available for zero incremental cost, to anyone with the wherewithal to afford a smartphone and a data plan. Now that is truly radical, a truly epochal development in urban mobility.
There are only two issues with it, really. The first is that Citymapper only works so well in London because TfL, our local transit authority, offers a generous selection of real-time APIs, the open application programming interfaces that allow a service like Citymapper to grab, represent and make use of that information. It wouldn’t be nearly the same thing in a city that didn’t, just not at all the same proposition.
The second, more serious problem is that Citymapper — like all other services positioned as products in the late-capitalist marketplace — is subject to churn. It’s not stable. A new version can appear at any time, might even be pushed to your device in such a way that you don’t get to choose whether you want it or not, and you’ll find that the features, conventions and metaphors you’ve come to rely upon and stored in muscle memory just don’t work the same way anymore. And if Citymapper’s CEO decides that his personal future and his investors’ outcomes are best secured by choosing to sell the service in toto to Apple or Google, then that’s what’s going to happen. And there’s not a damn thing you or I or anyone outside that decision loop can do about it.
So, yes: we’ve been handed the keys to the city, but they can be yanked away at any time. At any moment, TfL can decide that it no longer wants to provide real-time APIs, Citymapper can decide that it no longer wants to support a given city, Apple can decide that it no longer wants to allow third-party journey-planning services on its platform. Our golden age is real, but it’s terribly vulnerable.
Are you familiar with Rome? What in your opinion are the technology applications that could be suitable for Rome?
I’ve only spent three days in Rome in my adult life. I just don’t think I’m qualified to speak in anything more than generalities about what might or might not work there. But, sure, in any place where there’s a single accountable public transit authority, and that transit authority offers reliable real-time APIs, there’s no reason that something like Citymapper couldn’t work and work well.
Roman traffic is also, of course, legendary, and that’s something I can very easily see yielding to automated vehicle control. The deeper question there is the extent to which Romans actually cherish the impossibility of getting around, as part of their identity in the world. Letting go of that may be more of a obstacle than any of the material challenges of implementing automated mobility.
Considering Uber and similar services, do you think they are a positive solution for urban mobility?
My position on Uber is rather well-known.
Google’s self-driving car has just been presented. Do you think it will catch on? In what time frame?
Well, firstly, I think Google itself is further away from fielding a solution that will work anywhere outside of Mountain View than is generally understood. The media hype has been very misleading. And secondly, Google is far from the only actor currently working to resolve this envelope of challenges. Despite their power, reach and influence, we should never make the mistake of collapsing the ideas of “autonomous personal transportation” and “Google.”
That said, it will happen, one way or another. I don’t think it’s a question of “catching on,” so much as one of getting the necessary regulatory, legislative and risk-assessment frameworks in place. And this is one of those very rare contexts where I believe that the information-technological approach really is unambiguously superior to the way we do things now.
In the United States alone, we sacrifice more than 30,000 human lives a year to misplaced confidence in our own ability to manage the performance regime presented to us by the car. People drive drunk, while texting, when they’ve just had an argument with their partner. Long-distance truckers drive bent half out of their mind on sleeplessness and crank because that’s what’s demanded of them by the economics of contemporary logistics. People drive in the morning to minimum-wage jobs that are two hours away because they’re the only ones that were on offer, on sleep that’s already been brutally truncated by the two hours it took them to get home the night before. People use vehicles as weapons — to bolster their sense of self, to claim space from the others they feel encroaching on them at every turn, to assert dominance in a world that makes them feel like they’ve been zeroed out. And algorithms even at their clumsiest stand to do a better job in each and every single one of these circumstances.
But “unambiguously better” doesn’t mean “perfect.” The disruption, in particular, to working-class livelihoods will be dreadful. If unanticipated, unaccounted for and unresponded to, in fact, I venture to say it will cause misery easily on the order of those 30,000 annual deaths. And that’s quite a thing to say. It’s why I support the provision of universal basic income, to at least buffer the havoc automation is sure to wreak on our societies as it transforms mobility, logistics and a thousand other fields.
Could you draw some possible scenarios regarding the use of technologies in the field of mobility ten years from now?
Ten years is a long, long time in my field. It’s the far future. Consider that ten years ago, we didn’t even have smartphones. Given all the wildly interacting factors at play, and the ever-present likelihood that their interaction will render our world effectively ungovernable, I’m just not comfortable prognosticating.
Some of you may remember that I’m lucky enough to count among my friends the members of the legendary Philadelphia-based hardcore band RUIN. Not too long ago, they wrote to let me know they’ve got a double-disc, fully-remastered retrospective coming out on
Alternative Tentacles SOUTHERN LORD!!! later on this year — and did me the honor of asking me to write liner notes for the release. With their permission, I share them with you here.
You and I, we enjoy a prerogative that very few of the several billion human beings who walked the Earth before us could possibly have imagined. Most of us have ready to hand, at this very moment, a machine that’s capable of siphoning a train of modulated pulses from the ether and turning those pulses into the organized sound we call music. We can pluck down music literally from the very air, across all boundaries of human time and space and culture: as much as we want, whatever we want, whenever we want it.
It’s the long dreamt-of celestial jukebox. Just about anyone who feels the itch can plumb the depths of the Cole Porter songbook alongside Ella Fitzgerald, explore the mysteries of Arvo Pärt, or queue up an hour of obscure Throbbing Gristle releases at will, complete with alternate takes. They can turn the entire Trojan Records catalogue into a playlist with a few keystrokes, encounter the name “Ros Sereysothea” for the very first time, do a quick copy & paste and be listening to her five seconds later. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
It’s all very effortless, is what I’m getting at. Now this is a truly wonderful thing, for those of us for whom music frames, shapes and maybe even defines the way we respond to the things which happen in our lives. It’s a gift of all-but-inconceivable value.
But maybe, just maybe, it means that music doesn’t weigh quite as much as it used to. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing. How could it, when each new piece of music you hear is acquired with very little investment of effort, at effectively zero incremental cost?
I want to take you somewhere else.
Welcome to Philadelphia, 1985. These were bad years in America — the mid-Reagan years. Evil little shits like James Watt, Phyllis Schlafly, Oliver North and Grover Norquist were busy laying the groundwork for the titanic clusterfuck we’ve since inherited, each in their own way. The center hadn’t held, and the cracks were evident everywhere. The temporarily ascendent Japanese (always “the Japanese,” as though the entire country were a single monolithic hive entity, burrowing its way beetlelike through the moribund US economy) were buying up American landmarks like Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center. Never mind that they were being taken for a ride. It was the optics of the thing that counted — all those drab salarymen, cash in hand, standing athwart the monuments of American cultural supremacy.
The official media papered over this and the many other hints that the American Century had come to a premature end with jingoistic schmaltz like Red Dawn and Rambo. Like the actual invasion of Grenada, these were overtly intended to reignite the national mojo, restore the sense of limitless power and the serene belief in the justice of its cause the nation had lost after Vietnam. Even at the time, they seemed pathetic.
And then there was AIDS. Nobody quite knew what caused it yet, so no matter who we were, we brought biohazard protocols to bed along with our partners — those, and more fear than is quite healthy for the growth of anything supposed to be founded in love. It was that, or get the virus, waste away and die. That happened, too. The anti-retroviral cocktail was still years away. (Ronald Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1986.)
In all this gloom, voices with any experience of opposition or of building an oppositional culture were in perilously short supply. The Black Panthers, of course, had long been hunted to extinction; other prominent Sixties radicals, notably Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, wasted precisely zero time in announcing to all concerned that hell yes they were selling out, and to the highest bidder they could possibly land. And still others retreated into the thankless, unglamorous, constant and not particularly public work of ensuring that some kind of solidarity-based infrastructure survived through the long cold years of neglect.
If the mid-Eighties were grim years for America, they were harder still for Philadelphia. The local vibes were just ugly. There had been a time when you could credibly name Philly alongside New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but by the end of the Seventies those days were irretrievably gone. The industrial base on which the city’s economic vitality had depended for over a century had evaporated, seemingly overnight; as the factories went, so went the jobs, leaving black and white working people eyeing each other warily across a shrinking pile of scraps.
And of course there were those pleased to exploit this unease for their own benefit, notably a former police chief named Frank Rizzo, who as mayor in the late Seventies ran the city with a fascist swagger his core constituency just ate up. (During a period of more than usual civil unrest in 1969, then-commissioner Rizzo famously attended a gala ball with a nightstick thrust in his cummerbund. Any exploration of the Freudian implications thereof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Though he was out of office by ’79, Rizzo set the tone for the decade of Philly politics that followed; from him, the mayoralty passed first to the anodyne Bill Green, then to a nonentity named W. Wilson Goode. Briefly and justly celebrated as the first black mayor of this majority African-American town, Goode was soon enough notorious for standing passively by during what remains the only bombing of an American city by its own police force. An entire neighborhood of family rowhouses burned to the ground. Eleven people died. Five of them were children.
This was the city we came of age in: a city consuming itself in slow motion, like some particularly shabby and low-rent version of Samuel Delany’s Bellona. It called forth the most intense feelings of dread and love and confusion, but offered very little in the way of anything to channel them into. If you were between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five at the time, things were especially surreal, because the official culture available to you didn’t reflect any of this. You got Quincy scripts founded in the murderous, elemental badness of mohawked ne’er-do-wells. You got Larry “Bud” Melman. You got a double shot of the Hooters on WMMR.
It was maddening. You felt x’d out of existence. So you, we, did what all the others who felt the same way were learning to do at about the same time, in cities from Osaka to Helsinki: we made do, we made shift and we made culture of our own.
Actual concert venues were out of the question, on grounds of amateurishness and lack of pull both. Like other local punk scenes, then, the Philly milieu was cobbled together around a loose network of lodge halls, steak shops and church cellars, not to mention private dwellings from frat houses to out-and-out squats. (I saw Circle of Shit play to a crowd of seven, in a dirt-floored basement halfway to Upper Darby. That particular moldering funk of West Philadelphia earth is in my nostrils as I write these words, thirty years removed in time and the full reach of the Atlantic away.)
Commercial airtime, similarly off-limits — though thankfully Philadelphia was relatively well provisioned with noncommercial outlets willing to play the occasional Gang of Four side, and keep a channel open. Eternally manic Lee Paris hosted “Yesterday’s Now Music Today” on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, and that was good. Drexel’s WKDU was arguably even better, but their signal was weak — any more than twenty blocks or so from their transmitter, you’d literally have to walk your radio around the room to find a spot where whatever music was coming out of the speaker could be heard over the static.
You couldn’t just hear a song on the radio and then go buy it. Before Chaos Records opened up, later on, this was a city of two million souls that offered but one place you could have any hope of reliably finding punk rock records: specifically, the milkcrate sitting in the concrete dust and mouse droppings on the floor against the back wall of the basement of Third Street Jazz. I admit that I did once, inexplicably, turn up a French Stiff Little Fingers EP at the Sam Goody in the Gallery — but otherwise you went to Third Street, you braved the sneers of the jazzbo staff and you brought home whatever they happened to have in that crate.
There was no media coverage to speak of, save for a sole, entirely risible profile in Philadelphia magazine. We made ‘zines instead: shitty missives Xeroxed after hours at a parent’s office, chock full of record reviews, “political” rants and terrible poetry. These we left in tottering stacks at shows, in piles beside the cash register of whatever oddball retail store would have them.
And beside all of this, and above it, and under it, and through it, some among us made the music that tied it all together.
History lesson, Part III. The Philly punk scene was always harder to get a handle on than some others that come to mind. Neither as mired in blue-collar machismo as the second-wave NYC scene then coalescing around CBGB’s Sunday matinees, nor as (self?)righteous as the Dischord-centric DC community, Philadelphia threw nothing but curveballs. McRad, the Dead Milkmen, Pagan Babies, Scram: none of them quite fit the template, somehow. They were too weird, too goofy, too unpredictable, too hard to fit into the categories that were already then beginning to solidify.
Which brings us at last to Ruin.
Originally active from 1982 to 1986, in its early lineup Ruin was a five-piece unit, often described to the unaware as a “Buddhist hardcore band.” (You see what I mean about not fitting easily into the established categories.) In that time they released just two albums: the definitive blast of 1984’s He-Ho and the somewhat more polished Fiat Lux of 1986. An additional few tracks trickled out on compilations like the much-loved Get Off My Back, We’re Doing It Ourselves and the obscure, cassette-only Welcome Worlds, before eventually being reissued on Blackhole’s comprehensive Songs of Reverie and Ruin. One or two cuts, like “The Rain Comes Down,” remain uncaptured. But that’s the recorded output. That’s it.
This leaves us with twenty-six songs, of which four are covers. This is not an unreasonable tally for a hardcore band of the era — Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, for example, which sure enough does what it says on the tin, similarly clocks in at a mere 26 tracks — but it’s not in absolute terms very much at all. And yet it’s in those relatively few tracks that everything happens. You hear a bunch of kids throw themselves headfirst at Philadelphia, and America, and even at 1984, intent not on simply beating themselves against the membranes that contain them but on breaking the fuck through. They are, I say it again, kids, who have nevertheless understood or intuited something critical about what it means to live this life in this container or vehicle we call a body, something that most people never fully internalize at any age. They’re not going to tell you what that thing is. They’re going to enact it. And they’re going to take you along with them.
If you were lucky enough to see them play, you never forgot it. There were rugs. There were, no lie, candles. The band filtered onto the stage dressed in white from head to toe. The message was unmistakable: whatever it was you were about to witness, it wasn’t going to be yet another clutch of Black Flag wannabes, sounding off about their petty beefs with still pettier authorities.
One New York City Christmas many years ago, an ex-girlfriend took me to midnight mass at the cathedral church of St. John the Divine. Neither one of us was religious, was a believer of any kind, but we went for the fellowship and the warmth and the sheer ritualistic spectacle of it. That Christmas Eve glows in my memory as a soft haze of light and song and incense from the thurible. And for the first time in my life I understood what a cathedral is — what any church is supposed to be, really, in the layout of its nave and the arrangement of its parts. It’s a runway for God, complete with landing lights and air traffic control.
I’m going to risk sounding unbearably pretentious by arguing to you that this is more or less what Ruin was trying to do on stage. They were trying to create a bubble of space and time in which musicians and audience alike could experience something heightened, something preverbal, something that words can only ever fail. I would argue to you, further, that they succeeded: not completely, but reliably enough, and for as long as ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Ten or fifteen minutes spent outside your name, cut loose from your ego and that collection of regrets, fears and desires you call a self, pummeled this way and that by the crowd’s Brownian churn: not such a bad ROI for a few bucks at the door.
Could you have experienced something similar at another band’s gig? Similar, sure…but not quite the same. Ruin were, and are, astonishingly physical performers, even by the standards of hardcore punk. They brought a commitment and an intensity of focus to the act of playing music before a crowd that I have only very rarely encountered. Most schools of Buddhism place great importance on each of us being fully present in this moment, neither caught up in retrospection nor immobilized with thoughts of what is yet to come. You wouldn’t have needed to know the first thing about the band or its members to see the impact of this way of thinking on their music. It was all right there.
And here we come to the question of ancestry. You can learn a lot about how a band sees itself by its choice of covers — what it thinks it’s doing, what line of descent it wishes to claim as its own. I can promise you that in the Philadelphia of the mid-Eighties, Leonard Cohen was not a major presence on the punk hit parade, that in some quarters even covering “White Rabbit” could be read as a dangerous concession to hippie lamery. By wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, the members of Ruin were declaring their independence from the petty doctrinaire bullshit that so often characterized that scene, despite its manifest weirdness, and in fact hobbles all scenes and always will. That declaration said, “You go on ahead and draw your lines.” It said, “We come from a place where those lines add up to nothing.” Ultimately it implied you’d be welcome in that place, too, if you didn’t mind letting go of your need for lineation.
A cover song is what literary critics might call “intertextuality,” and what most of us would call “a conversation.” Ruin’s records were having a conversation with other musics. But — and this is important — not just other musics. If you were prepared to let them, these conversations unfolded in ways you just weren’t primed to expect from punk rock. They were drilling straight through Jefferson Airplane to Lewis Carroll, and right through him even to the ontological weirdness that animated his greatest work. Similarly, Leonard Cohen was just an inn and a place to rest for the night on the way to Basho.
When you place so much emphasis on the ones that came before, you also imply that someone will come after. Somebody will come along to discover your work and claim it for their own. Maybe not as a gig flier stapled to a telephone pole and left to fade in the wind and rain. Maybe not as an older sister’s taped-over Elton John cassette, band logo lovingly crosshatched onto the label in smeared blue Bic, passed hand-to-hand in secret like high school samizdat. But maybe in ways that could barely be imagined at the time of creation. As a well-formed uniform resource indicator fully compliant with the https scheme, for example, which is to say: an emailed link.
So what does this music mean, in a world where music is something you stream from Spotify on a whim, rather than wrest from a maddeningly wavering college-radio signal? What does a fierce insistence on being present in this moment mean, when the very next moment could as easily hold Daft Punk or Palestrina or just as likely a leap out of the music app altogether?
One way to answer might be to say that in pressing “play,” you’re listening to the air of a different time and a different place. This is essentially a historical document, in other words — though perhaps one with a certain uncomfortable resonance for us, now that we once again find ourselves come upon hard times. The contemporary listener may not have lived through the Philadelphia of the mid-1980s, goes this line of thinking, but Frank Rizzos and Gary Heidniks and Budd Dwyers turn out to be sadly archetypal characters, so music forged in their time and place has as much claim to resonance and permanent relevance as any other ever penned.
Another way of answering would position these songs as a reminder that everything that means anything comes with a weight and a cost. This is not to say that meaningful things need to be joyless and self-serious. It just means that their realization invariably required some investment of human effort, whether that be a few late nights up writing, a strain on the vocal cords, a wrenched shoulder, or half a lifetime outside of the main current of human fellowship. This is music that asks its listener to sit still with the fact of that cost, if one can sit still inside a cyclone. I wish more music were like that, but the fact that these songs even exist is and will have to be enough.