Here’s a brief interview I did with a new publication called Rewired. As you can see, I’m not always super-comfortable with the way the questions are framed, but hopefully manage to bring my answers in for a landing nevertheless.
Is there (or will there be) a possibility to be 100% tech-free in our society?
No society of human beings has ever been “tech-free,” since well before the moment we first emerged as a distinct species. Like other species on Earth, we have always used technical extensions of our being to enact the satisfaction of need and the fulfillment of desire — always, from before the beginning. Stripped of our technologies, we would not merely no longer be capable of constituting a society, we would no longer be human.
You write in the first chapter of Radical Technologies that phonebooths, Walkmans, etc., disappeared. Do you think that people become less attached to objects? But at the same time, why is there this revival of “old school” objects, like vinyl records for example?
Part of it, for the older generation of consumers, is no doubt nostalgia. Those of us who were born before 1980 or so have lived through quite an impressive lacuna: we experienced a trough of time during which a great many of the objects that had between them constituted much of the material substrate of social existence in the developed economies simply disappeared from the world. For these objects to reappear in a slight return — dusted off and perhaps upgraded — is a warm bath in the reaffirmation of a baseline psychic normality we thought had fled from the scene forever. As I write to you now I am within arm’s reach of an Olivetti Lettera 33 typewriter and a Western Electric Model 500 rotary telephone, neither of which I actually use for their intended purpose, both of which I keep around as exemplars of the modernism, dynamism and sophistication I remember from my early childhood.
And beyond that, there are real pleasures associated with these objects: pleasures that their contemporary near-equivalents simply do not afford, that have value independent of whatever nostalgia they may invoke, and that remain available even to those for whom they constitute entirely novel experiences and not reflections of something remembered. Though I don’t do so myself, I understand that playing a vinyl record isn’t simply a sterile act of media consumption. It’s an auditory and tactile and even olfactory experience, material in nature, sharply bounded in space and time, and in fact subject to physics in a way listening to Spotify just isn’t. That sure seems sufficient to explain why some of us might find the experience desirable.
How do you explain the fact that in democratic countries, people are consciously subjected to the dictatorship of tech?
I don’t think I know exactly what you mean by “the dictatorship of tech,” but if I understand you correctly, you’re concerned to know why people voluntarily choose the circumstances of their own oppression? All I can say by way of answering is that the dynamic has been recognized for well over a century, and has been addressed by everyone from Engels and the Frankfurt School to Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum and Noam Chomsky. I don’t myself believe that there’s anything particularly new about the information-technical turn in this regard.
Beyond that, I always feel a little hesitant, even a little shabby in ascribing false consciousness to someone else, as if I and I alone am possessed of an analysis of such Olympian clarity as to lay bare all the ways in which we pull the wool over our own eyes. Nobody you’ll ever meet is quite so smug as the undergraduate who’s just read Marcuse for the first time, or the barstool philosopher who’s seen Manufacturing Consent, and thinks that getting their news from Reddit somehow constitutes a brave, heroic end run around the process of discourse management. Don’t be that guy.
You talk in your book about low-waged labor forces in Shenzhen for example, to satisfy our consumption. Do you think that we became numb to other people’s situation? Are we in what Albert Camus would call the “murderous consent”?
We were always already numb to the suffering of the other — if, indeed, we weren’t actively indifferent to it. It is our present circumstances, by contrast, that begin to extend the remotest hope of learning from the confrontation with the consequences of our desires.
You write that apps like OpenDesk are revolutionizing the way we conceive things. With 3D printers, we can print chairs, tables, etc. You say that with a printer, a laser cutter and feedstock we can make anything at home. Do you find this worrying, as it is easy to imagine someone creating a 3D gun for example?
I do not say that with a printer, a laser cutter and feedstock we can make anything at home. I say no such thing.
What I do say is that the range of useful things that the untrained, ordinary person can now fabricate, equipped with nothing more than a printer or laser cutter costing a few hundred dollars, has grown considerably. And furthermore, that the range of such things not long ago expanded to include, yes, crude, rudimentary firearms, devised by ideologues and fanatics to prove precisely this point, as a kind of propaganda of the deed.
I don’t believe this is cause for any particular concern at the moment, as such weapons clearly tend to pose a greater threat to their own would-be users than they do to anyone else. But, you know, we can see what’s coming. It’s in the mail. And what that suggests to me is that polities or societies that wish to discountenance the spread of such weapons (or other notionally or actually harmful objects that might be fabricated in this way) would be best advised to adopt a layered defense in depth composed of multiple kinds of frictions, retardations and disincentives — in essence, a harm-reduction strategy rather than one of prohibition.
You explain that data has political involvements and that “the data is never just the data.” Do you think that governments are blatantly lying to satisfy data?
All governments lie, and always have — all human institutions, for that matter, not merely those of state. All human institutions will attempt to create an epistemic environment that’s favorable to their own continuation, by any means at their disposal, at both the micro and macro levels — even when this is not always in their own longer-term interest, as Goodhart’s Law suggests. The manipulation or selective release of statistics was an important component of this sort of effort in the twentieth century, and it is now augmented by the selective collection, manipulation of or differential analysis applied to machine-readable data, sure.
Yesterday, Elon Musk said he would make a platform to rate and track a credibility score for journalists. Do you think that more and more actions of the sort will start to take shape?
That’s funny. What might actually be more useful is a platform to rate and track Elon Musk’s credibility.
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.
At the moment, I’m neck-deep in my Verso stablemates Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s still-newish book Inventing the Future; things remaining more or less stable schedulewise, I’ll most likely finish it later on today, or tomorrow at the latest.
It’s a strange book, Inventing. You may have caught some of the buzz around it, and that buzz exists for good reason. (It’s not just the superspiffy totebags Verso had ginned up for it, though I’m sure those do not hurt one whit.) At its heart a passionate argument against work and for an end to neoliberalism and its reality control — forged along the same rough lines as those Paul Mason and the Fully Automated Luxury Communism kids are currently touting — Inventing is a genuinely curious mixture of crystal-clear analysis, righteous provocation and infuriating naivety. If you’re even remotely interested in what emergent technologies like machine learning and digital fabrication might imply for our capacity for collective action, and especially if you think of yourself as belonging to the horizontalist left, you should by all means pick it up, read it for yourself and form your own judgments. (Here’s Ken Wark’s take on it; I endorse most of his thoughts, and have a great deal of my own to add, which I’ll do in the form of my own forthcoming book.)
Late in the book there’s a passage concerning the stance Srnicek and Williams feel the postcapitalist left needs to adopt toward the mainstream media: if the “counter-hegemonic” project they describe is to have any hope of success, they argue, “it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.”
Well. It must be said that this is not one of the book’s high points. In its latent suggestion that the only reason Thomas Piketty and Donna Haraway aren’t cohosting a lively, popular Sunday-morning gabfest on NBC right this very moment is because we, the progressive public, are somehow not trying hard enough, or have failed to sufficiently wrap our pointy heads around the awesome conditioning power of the mass media, in fact, it’s somewhere between irritating and ridiculous. (It’s hard for me to see how Srnicek and Williams’s argument here is substantively any different from that stroke of market-savvy inspiration the beloved but famously marginal Minutemen skewered on the cover of their second-to-last album. And now you know where the title of this post came from.)
Nevertheless, they’re onto something. Though that more-than-faintly patronizing tone never quite dissipates, S&W eventually find themselves on far firmer ground when they argue that “[l]eftist media organizations should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining, gleaning insights from the success of popular websites.” I was able to shake off the momentary harrowing vision I had of Leninist Buzzfeed, and press on through to what I take to be their deeper point: radical thought can actually resonate broadly when care is taken to craft the language in which that thought is expressed, and still more so when insular, self-congratulatory obscurity is avoided in the design of its containers. I endorse this notion wholeheartedly. This recent appreciation of Jacobin hits many of the same notes; whatever you think of Jacobin‘s politics, it’s hard to deny that its publishers consistently put together a sprightly, good-looking read. (I’d call it “the Monocle of the left,” but that would be to imply that Monocle‘s content is far more compelling than in fact it is.)
You might still argue that S&W ought to spend a little more time with McLuhan. My own feeling is that there’s more to distrust about the “mainstream media” than merely its overtly political content — that consuming information in the form of tweets, listicles, Safety Check notifications, screens overloaded with crawlers, and possibly even glowing rectangles themselves is hard to square with the kind of awareness I at least find it necessary to cultivate if I’m to understand anything at all about the way the systems in which I’m embedded work.
But ultimately, these are quibbles. I agree with S&W when they argue that overthrowing the weaponized “common sense” of the neoliberal era is an explicitly counter-hegemonic project; that developing a functioning counter-hegemony is something that requires longterm commitment; and that those with truly radical programs need to reconsider the relationship between “pop,” “popular” and “popularity” if that whole hearts-and-minds thing is ever going to work out for them. (I’m honor-bound to point out that Saul Alinsky said as much fifty years ago, but perhaps that too is a quibble.) So: no. I have no problem at all with presenting complex and potentially challenging ideas accessibly, so long as they can be rendered accessible without dumbing them down. If successful counter-hegemonic media looks a whole lot more like a Beyoncé video than some preciously anti-aesthetic art installation, so much the better. Bring on the hit songs.
We can surely read the various technologies of the quantified self as tending to “ensure that people continue to act and dream without any form of connectedness and coordination with others” (Stavrides), and this quick, cogent piece will only reinforce that sense.
Now, I can imagine a world — just barely, but it can be done — in which the capture of biometric measurements by a network with qualities of ubiquity and persistence was somehow not invidious. I can even imagine a world in which that capture resulted in better collective outcomes, physically, psychically and socially. But in our world, the one we actually live in, I think the very best we can possibly hope for from these technologies is positive-sum competition, a state in which each of our individual outcomes only improve for the fact that we are set against each other.
That’s the best-case scenario. Even that is still competitive, still oriented solely toward the individual, still only bolsters the unquestioned supremacy of the autonomous liberal subject. And far more likely than the best case, frankly, is the case in which data derived from these devices is used to shape life chances, deprive us of hard-won freedoms at work, mold the limits of permissible expression or even bring violence to bear against our bodies.
My bottom line is this: Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong, given everything I know and everything I’ve seen it is very, very difficult for me to imagine socially progressive uses of quantified-self technologies that do not simultaneously generate these easily foreseeable, sharply negative consequences. It may be my own limitations speaking, but I can’t see how things could possibly break any other way. In this world, anyway.
Wagner James Au, who would know, has what in a better world would be an incendiary piece in the latest Wired. Au’s piece lays it all right out there, regarding the meaning and purpose of virtual reality.
As VR’s leading developers straight-up admit in the piece, its function is to camouflage the inequities and insults of an unjust world, by offering the masses high-fidelity simulations of the things their betters get to experience for real. Here’s the money quote, no pun intended: “[S]ome fraction of the desirable experiences of the wealthy can be synthesized and replicated for a much broader range of people.” (That’s John Carmack speaking, for future reference.)
I always want to extend to those I disagree with some presumption of good will. I don’t think it’s either healthy or productive or pleasant for the people around me to spend my days in a permanent chokehold of high dudgeon. And I always want to leave some room for the possibility that someone might have been misunderstood or misquoted. But Au is a veteran reporter on this topic; I think it’s fair to describe his familiarity with the terrain, and the players, as “comprehensive.” So I rather doubt he’s mischaracterized Carmack’s sentiments, or those of Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey. And what those sentiments amount to is outright barbarism — is nothing less than moral depravity.
The idea that all we can do is accede to a world of permanent, vertiginous inequity — inequity so entrenched and so unchallengeable that the best thing we can do with our technology is use it as a palliative and a pacifier — well, this is everything I’m committed to working against. Thankfully there are others who are also doing that work, who understand the struggle as the struggle. Thankfully, I think most of us still understand Carmack’s stated ambition as vile. We do, right?
I’ll have more to say about the uses of VR (and its cousin augmented reality, or AR) shortly.
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.
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.