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On counter-hegemony, or: “I got it! We’ll have them write hit songs.”

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.

Further notes on the quantified self

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.

VR: I’m frankly surprised they admitted this out loud

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.

Antecedents of the minimum viable utopia: Cliff Harper’s “Visions” series

Clifford
Clifford Harper, Vision 1: Collectivised Garden, in Radical Technology, 1976.

Twenty-five years ago, just after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I moved into an anarchist co-op in the Upper Haight. (If you know the neighborhood at all well, you’ve almost certainly stood beneath my room: the bay window jutting directly above the ATM on Belvedere Street, at the time and for many years thereafter the only one for over a mile in any direction.) Though its every fiber was saturated with the sad pong of sexually deprived male bitterhippies in early middle age, the flat nevertheless (/therefore?) boasted one of the most impressive specialist libraries I’ve ever encountered.

No doubt because many of the flat’s residents had historically been associated with the Haight’s anarchist bookstore, Bound Together, its shelves had over the years accumulated hundreds of rare and unusual books on squatting, DIY technique, self-housing, revolutionary syndicalism, the politics of everyday life and so on. Among these was a curious 1976 volume called Radical Technology. Something between a British Whole Earth Catalog and an urban Foxfire book, Radical Technology presented its readers with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for self-reliant, off-the-grid living.

Each of the book’s sections was fronted by an elaborate illustration depicting what typical British spatial arrangements — terraced housing, allotments, council estates, parish churches — might look like after they’d been reclaimed by autonomist collectives, in some not too terribly distant future. Unlike some of the more heroic imaginaries that were floating around in that immediate pre-Web epoch, you could readily imagine yourself living in their simple everydayness, making a life in the communal kitchen and sauna and printmaking workshop they depicted. From the material-economic perspective of someone residing in a shabby flat in the Upper Haight circa 1991, struggling to eke out a living as the city’s worst and clumsiest bike messenger, it would clearly be a good life, too: austere, perhaps, in some ways, but fulfilling and even generous in every register that really counts. (To be sure, this was a sense the illustrations shared with contemporary real-world outcroppings of late hippie technology in both its particularly British and its Bay Area variants, and I’d seen traces of it crop up in squats and urban homesteads back East, wherever someone resident had been infected by the Whole Earth/Shelter/Pattern Language ethos.)

I clean forgot about Radical Technology for a quarter century, but I never did forget those drawings. I had no way of reconsidering them, though, let alone pointing anybody else at them, until the other day, when Nick Durrant recognized my vague handwavings for what they were: a description of the “Visions” series anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper contributed to the mid-70’s British journal Undercurrents. (These issues of Undercurrents were subsequently anthologized as the book I’d come across; here’s scans of Harper’s entire series.) I had to smile when I read the account of “Visions” on Harper’s Wikipedia entry, as it could not possibly have been more on the nose:

These were highly detailed and precise illustrations showing scenes of post-revolutionary self-sufficiency, autonomy and alternative technology in urban and rural settings, becoming almost de rigueur on the kitchen wall of any self-respecting radical’s commune, squat or bedsit during the 1970s.

My memory of Harper’s “Visions” returned with such force not because I’d suddenly developed nostalgia for the lifeways of alternative San Francisco in the first ripples of its death spiral — though those house-feedingly enormous vegetarian stir-fries sure were tasty — but because the way of doing and being they imagined seems relevant again, and possibly more broadly so than ever before.

Something is clearly in the air. The combination of distributed, renewable microgrid power with digital fabrication, against a backdrop of networked organization, urban occupation and direct action, seems to be catalyzing into a coherent, shared conception of a way forward from the mire we find ourselves in. Similar notions crop up in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, in Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society (the particular naivety of which I’ll have more to say about in short order), in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, and the same convergence of possibilities animated my own first pass at articulating such a conception, a lashed-up framework I rather cheekily called the “minimum viable utopia.”

These conceptions of the possible are all pretty exciting, at least to those of us who share a certain cast of mind. What they’re all missing, though, to a one, is a Cliff Harper: someone to illustrate them, to populate them with recognizable characters, to make them vivid and real. We need them to feel real, so when we print them out and hang them on the walls of flats where the rent is Too Damn High and the pinboard surfaces of the cubicles where we grind away the mindless hours, we remember what it is we’re working so hard to bring into being.

At the very least, we need them so that those who follow us a quarter century from now understand that they too belong to a lineage of thought, belief and action, just as anyone who’s ever been inspired in their work by the Harper illustrations does. Some days, just knowing that line through time exists is enough to get you through the day.

Architetti Roma interview

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.

Make City Berlin 2015 interview

This coming June, I’ve been invited to offer a keynote that will function as a hinge between two complementary events of Berlin’s Make City Festival 2015: a workshop called “Science Fictions: Smartology as a New Urban Utopia” on Friday the 19th, followed by a public symposium called “Beware of Smart People! Re-defining the Smart City Paradigm towards Inclusive Urbanism” that takes place on Friday and Saturday the 20th both.

As part of the run-up to the events, the organizers asked me to answer a few questions for a newspaper they’re putting together for free distribution at the Festival. I’ve reproduced this interview below, and hope, as ever, that you enjoy it.

Why is the “Smart City” relevant to a broader public?
It’s only relevant because at the moment this is the predominant conception of the way in which networked information technology ought to be deployed in cities to aid in their management and governance, and it encodes within it a pathetically circumscribed vision of urban citizenship. As far as classic conceptions of the smart city are concerned, your sole job as a citydweller is to generate data which can be captured, analyzed and acted upon by administrators — those are the limits of participation.

Another way of putting it: If the municipality you live in buys and deploys this technology, your life will be affected by it, whether you particularly care about this thing we call the “smart city” or not. Your choices will be conditioned, your scope of action curtailed, and your ability to shape the circumstances of your own life constrained, in ways that might not appear immediately obvious, for the ultimate advantage of others. You do not have a voice other than in the aggregate. And while this is a rather bleak prospect, it’s easily enough avoidable if enough people come to understand what’s at stake in the deployment of these technologies, and refuse to let it unfold unchallenged.

How can a focus on people as urban knowledge producers help to redefine the technology and market oriented concept of the Smart City?
That’s a pretty abstract and, to my way of thinking, overly intellectualized way of framing what it is we do as residents of an urban place and as participants in a community. Do we “produce knowledge”? Yes, of course we do: at all times, all of us, both individually and collectively. We produce knowledge about place, most of which is and only ever can be tacit, and it’s important to understand that this is what ordinary people are in fact doing as they pursue the course of their everyday lives. It’s not, or not exclusively, the regime of experts and specialists.

But is that the best — the most satisfying or resonant — way to construct what it is we do as city people? I would argue that it isn’t. I would, in fact, argue that in a sense it dovetails all too well with the command-and-control model implicit in the smart city rhetoric, because if we’re all “urban knowledge producers,” the implication is that some sufficiently subtle array of technical systems will be able to capture that knowledge, derive actionable inferences from it and make it available to be acted upon remotely.

So I prefer to focus on participation. I prefer to understand everyone in the city as an actor, an active and vital contributor — someone who is capable of mobilizing knowledge and bringing it to bear on the matters of concern they themselves perceive.

How can smart people become active participants in new urban governance models based on knowledge sharing and coproduction?
Understand that I’m not at all interested in “smart,” in smart anything. What I am interested in is creating circumstances in which ordinary citydwellers are able to acquire an refined understanding of all the circumstances that shape their participation in civic life, whether those circumstances are technical, political, economic or psychological.

We should, in particular resist the notion that every last citizen needs to acquire a high degree of specifically technical competence — the inane calls for everyone to learn to code, and so on. Not everyone has the cognitive propensity, not everyone has the ability, and quite simply not everyone wants to. But this is not the same thing as groups of neighborhood scale acquiring a greater collective sophistication as to how informational-technical systems work and what it is that they do. It’s crucial that we demystify these things, but it’s neither necessary or possible for everyone to acquire the habits of mind of a software engineer.

What we need, therefore, is for those who do have the propensity, the capability and the insight into the workings of technical systems to share that insight, in terms ordinary people can relate to. For many, it will mean developing a theory of mind that will guide them in understanding what it is that people don’t understand, and what metaphors are best suited to helping explain these systems and their functions without condescension or oversimplification.

Everybody who possesses comfort and competence with information-technical systems needs to realize that from now on, part of their job is to function as a translator. And this will be frustrating. There are literally different cognitive styles involved, different intelligences, and bridging between the divergent models of the world people hold, however unconsciously or inarticulately, is by no means a straightforward or a simple thing. But it’s not optional, not if we believe in the right of ordinary citydwellers to understand the systems that condition their everyday choices.

How do smart people redistribute urban resources and reconfigure urban spaces?
This is not, of course, a technical question. I personally believe we need to ensure that the information-technical systems which increasingly govern the distribution of (material-energetic, spatial, financial or attentional) resources in the city work in as self-explanatory a way as can possibly be achieved, and that the valuations bound up in them remain available for inspection and renegotiation at all times. But this ambition ultimately relies on how we choose to organize ourselves in a polity, what values we hold and enact in our collective decisions. We cannot achieve any such thing if we do not first believe we have the right and the affirmative obligation to do so, and in fact that the exercise of all our other rights will ultimately come to depend on our doing so.

Zeroville-on-Khambhat, or: The clean slate’s cost

A response to a piece Ayona Datta wrote for the forthcoming Dialogues in Human Geography, which I am pleased to present to you on the occasion of the Urban Age Delhi conference on Governing Urban Futures.

«Dites donc, c’est pas Alphaville qui faut appeler votre patelin, c’est Zéroville!»
– Eddie Constantine as private eye Lemmy Caution, in J.-L. Godard’s Alphaville (1965)

In her paper examining the Indian “smart city” development of Dholera, Ayona Datta furnishes us with a very welcome case study in just how elite actors mobilize the language and appearance of technological contemporaneity to achieve ends of displacement. Her analysis is straightforward and capably presented, and the most useful thing I can do in the space allotted to me for commentary is cosign, and hopefully amplify, certain of her conclusions.

Datta, as I understand her, has two fundamental aims here. The first is simply to establish that in the claims made on its behalf, in its disconnection from the history of the land, in its mendacity about its actual purpose, and in every other relevant register, the development site of Dholera is utterly exemplary of the smart­ city paradigm so many of us have inveighed against over the past half­-decade or so. The second — to me, a more interesting and more enduringly valuable ambition — is to demonstrate that this existing line of critique is insufficient to understand the particular kind of work Dholera does in Indian politics.

What any such understanding would require is a kind of multipronged forensic analysis, and that is precisely what Datta provides. In the case of Dholera, an account of the actual site, its physical characteristics and existing demography are no less crucial to the development of insight than the provisions of the enabling legislation facilitating the new city and the highly interested language swirling around it. And without wanting to be overly actor-­networky about things, this attention to detail — to the ways in which specific institutions, events, personalities, laws, and phrases mesh with one another to produce a state of affairs — is the most welcome aspect of the article at hand.

So what is Dholera?

We learn that it is a 903 km^2 development site in the Indian state of Gujarat, masterplanned by the UK engineering firm Halcrow, with some ten percent of its budget provided by the Indian national government and Japanese enterprises (specifically Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, JGC and TEPCO), and the balance by unspecified but presumably domestic “private sector” entities.

We learn that — just like the canonical smart cities that came before it, among which the South Korean New Songdo and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City remain the most widely known — Dholera is promised to be a place where embedded information-­technological services and systems mediate every aspect of everyday urban life. Everything from personal mobility to access control and the functioning of the supply and removal chain is to be handled by IT vendors, “optimized” in the name of maximum efficiency. (That this model of urbanity bears no resemblance whatsoever to the way in which any Indian city current or historical functions doesn’t matter; indeed, as we’ll see, it’s an important part of the value proposition.)

And, like the canonical smart cities as well, we learn that Dholera is represented to the world by its backers as having been magicked into being from nothing, on what planners are pleased to call a “greenfield site.” But of course the terrain upon which this tomorrowland is to be built wasn’t precisely a bare Cartesian plane beforehand: parcels of land had to be acquired to make the project a reality, and the people living and working on those parcels dealt with somehow.

The particular history of this process of acquisition and displacement (and the local resistance to it) deserves sustained attention. In Datta’s telling, this smart city with Indian characteristics turns out to be a place where the impoverished people who currently occupy the site — subsistence farmers and fishers, mostly, with soil rendered barren by previous government misadventures in macroengineering, and a literacy rate that stands twenty full points lower than India’s average of 77% — have been convicted by more powerful forces of failing to fully capitalize on the value latent in their land, and sentenced to expulsion.

Here we see how a global body of rhetoric, promulgated primarily by all­-but­-placeless multinational enterprises, converges with powerful regional and class interests, squeezing the nation-­state (and the better part of its citizenry) to a thin paste between them.

As Dholera functions within Gujarat, so does “investor­-friendly” Gujarat function within India. Depicted by its own business-development initiative as “Vibrant Gujarat,” the state is home to both India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the philosophy of governance he pursued as the state’s Chief Minister between 2001 and 2012, a policy stance that has been described as “native­-born neoliberalism.” For over a decade, the state has consciously positioned itself as a testbed for techniques and practices that are seen as efficacious in overwriting external perceptions of India as teeming, mired in grinding, endemic poverty, and riven by communal strife with an image more consonant with its ambitions and hopes. These techniques and practices amount to a “Gujarati model,” intended to realize “maximum governance with minimum government,” and a nation desperate to cut the fetters imposed by its legendary bureacratariat might well regard that model as a turnkey solution for its own economic problems. This was the broadly implicit — and at times, entirely explicit — message of the 2014 Modi campaign, and indeed the Gujarati model has become national policy since his election to the Prime Ministership.

In a pungent and fascinating passage, Datta traces the development of this discourse to Modi’s Asian peregrinations. Denied entry to the US, UK and EU for his role in fanning Gujarat’s vicious communal pogroms of 2002, Modi took to visiting China and Japan instead — and there, Datta argues, he encountered both a “Shanghai model” of top-­down citymaking, readymade for transplantation into Gujarati soil, and a set of institutional partners prepared to foot the bill. The bitter irony is that identification with the program of crash urbanization that resulted is what lubricated Modi’s ongoing and evidently successful pivot from red­handed champion of the Hindu far right to polished global statesman — all of which suggests that well-­intentioned British and American moves to marginalize the firebrand of 2002 may have resulted in the mother of all unintended consequences.

For reasons of investor confidence, if no other, it was important that whatever happened in Gujarat was seen to transpire under the rule of law. Ensuring the formal legitimation of whatever measures it deemed necessary in the development of Dholera, the State of Gujarat granted itself new powers of eminent domain, leaving the victims of dispossession quite literally no ground to stand on.

Here Datta embarks upon the sort of detailed explication that helps us understand how a single piece of legislation (specifically, Gujarat’s 2009 Special Investment Region Act) allowed the state to do an end run around provisions dating to 1894 that guaranteed small holders both due process and fair recompense for land forcibly acquired. Under SIR’s terms, the state simply had to designate land as “needed for public purpose,” while nothing compelled them to compensate those with existing tenure; and of course parcels assembled in this way could then be transferred to whatever “parastatal” or entirely private development partners the state found congenial.

But after all the farmers and fishermen have been chased from the land, the digital infrastructure laid down, and the golf club opened for business, what of day-­to­-day life in this environment? Here is where more of the detail that Datta lavishes on other aspects of her tale would be welcome; specifically, I would have appreciated a closer look at the social and spatial logic of this ostensibly smart place on Earth. But then Dholera, like Masdar and Songdo before it, may as yet (and forever will?) be too unrealized to permit this sort of interrogation. What we do know is that Dholera’s promise/premise of furnishing citizens with information allowing them to “manage their lives better” dovetails perfectly with the neoliberal fetish for the individualization of responsibility, and parallel de­emphasis of collective or solidaristic action of any sort.

This, however, is only to scratch the surface of the questions we could ask of this project. If one were of a particularly sincere cast of mind, and thought that honest answers might actually be forthcoming, one might want to inquire as to why all of the following were so heedlessly conflated in Dholera’s conception:

— the perceived necessity of developing entirely new urbanized sites as a response to India’s social and economic transformation;

— the desirability of doing so using putatively “advanced,” i.e. imported, methodologies, practices and paradigms;

— the degree to which such models do or can speak to the needs and desires of the populations they are ostensibly intended to benefit;

— the suitability of information­technical systems and services as means to any ends articulated by these populations; and

— the identity of the institutions, organizations or actors best placed to achieve the conception and deployment of such systems.

But it may well be pointless to ask such things of Dholera’s promoters, or to subject their rhetoric to any particularly fine level of analysis. Like “eco­,” “green,” and “sustainable,” it appears that “smart” is simply the latest in a series of terms used to wreathe development projects with a superficial gloss of contemporaneity. Indeed, despite the claims of advocates that it could only operate at peak efficiency when designed and purpose-
built from the ground up to accommodate information technology, Dholera wasn’t identified (by its developers, or anyone else) as a “smart city” until 2012, some three years after the project’s inception. This record suggests that, like any other sufficiently interested party, the actors responsible for developing Dholera are comfortable latching onto just about any old justificatory apparatus if it serves their short­term needs — helping the project pass through the decision gate of an endorsement, authorizing vote or allocation of investment — and discard it without compunction once it has outlived its utility.

When someone lays out the evidence as clearly as Datta does here, one conclusion is unavoidable: the point was never, really, to engineer an all­-seeing technological utopia. It was to dispossess the near-­voiceless of their land and turn it to the ends of optimal revenue generation. At times, various actors involved in facilitating Dholera’s transformation from salinated flatland to smart city have been surprisingly forthright about their values and motivations. Datta quotes Amitabh Kant, CEO of a state-­sponsored enterprise invested in the project, as mentioning that “the key challenge” to transforming India “will be to monetize land values.” Meanwhile, the Indian Intelligence Bureau justifies the surveillance it maintains on the lower­caste activists resisting the seizure of their land on the grounds of their involvement in “anti-
development activities.” The degree of cooptation of the apparatus of state on view here is truly impressive; not even in the US or the UK are the logics of accumulation by dispossession generally quite that close to the surface.

But why this particular confluence of ideas, why India, why now? We are often told, in the West, that India’s cities are now home to a growing middle class — crores of people liberated from the village and its strictures, flush with capital pumped into the economy by globalization’s outsourced engineering and back-­office operations, and beginning to flex their consumerist muscles. Given the very real benisons of all this material comfort and choice, it may well be that those on the receiving end of it are not overly inclined to question where it all comes from.

One result of this is that perhaps nowhere else in the world has reified “IT” to the extent that India has. That I can tell, anyway, the acronym is universally understood at all levels of Indian society — and nearly as universally, is understood to be desirable for its connotations of efficiency, effortlessness, logic, clean­room sterility and sheer modernity. It is a thing and a force both, something one applies to a circumstance to make it better. And to be a software engineer in this new economy is a noble thing, for in the end what else does so much of the new prosperity consist of but software?

In such a charged environment, the unremarkable trappings of postindustrial knowledge production acquire a curious valence in and of themselves. One can get some sense of what this looks like from Dholera’s promotional materials, which are dense with bombast and puffery of a distinctly Indian flavor: the state government’s act of having “appointed a consultant to develop the master plan of the project” and the involvement of “a global IT powerhouse” (transparently Cisco) are in themselves proffered — and perhaps even accepted by the intended audience — as guarantors of excellence.

I have no interest in judging an entire people’s aspirations, but the darker and more troubling aspects of all this are obvious. Among other things, the uncritical embrace of practices, arrangements and ways of doing things that originate in the developed world, and must therefore be “modern,” allows propositions that wouldn’t otherwise stand up to the slightest challenge to pass by without comment. Perhaps this explains why the State of Gujarat’s due diligence doesn’t seem to have extended to wondering why the master­planner they entrusted with the development of a megacity destined to be twice the size of Mumbai — the UK-­based engineering practice Halcrow — had no other successful urban planning engagements to its name, nor why its business fundamentals were evidently so weak that it had to be bailed out (and was eventually fully acquired) by the American concern C2HM HILL. Even mild skepticism regarding such matters would be powerfully salutary, particularly at a moment when the Modi government plans to plant one hundred such cities on the land.

This is why I’m glad to see Datta throw a little shade at relative optimists like Ashis Nandy, quoted here to the effect that whatever our reservations now, all will be well in the fullness of time, as India’s propensity to “corrupt” the best­laid plans renders the alien imposition of the smart city “impure…but ultimately less malevolent.” This is charming, and undoubtedly contains an element of truth, but as Datta implies, it verges on irresponsible naivete given the power of certain imperial discourses to transform subjectivity.

And in the end, subjectivity — the realm of sentiment, hope, fear, pride and desire — is far more central to the whys and wherefores of Dholera than might appear to be the case. For a state that has solid historical justification for wanting to believe in the possibility of a new beginning, the notion of rebuilding from a truly clean slate must be all but irresistible. There are many, no doubt, for whom this insistence that the ghosts of 2002 be plowed under constitutes a virtue — indeed, a primary aspect of Dholera’s appeal. For millions of young Indians just now coming into their maturity, it’s easy to imagine how tempting it must be to treat historical events that happened in childhood as bygones that should remain bygones, and considerations of communal, religious or caste identity as baggage from the past that has no place in an India founded on gleaming clean-­room technology. They may well be willing and more than willing to overlook the fiction of its origin myth, if Dholera’s promise of a new and glorious dawn can only be extended to Gujarat, to Narendra Modi, to India itself.

What remains clear is that others will pay the price for that wiping of the slate. Where master-planned High Modernist environments like Brasilia and Chandigarh at least paid lip service to the notion that issues of social justice could be addressed via the technics of the built environment, Dholera doesn’t even rise to that low standard. From the evidence at hand here, it seems certain that this smart city is destined to do little but inscribe further injustice and sorrow on the land. And for demonstrating just what the rhetoric of the smart city accomplishes on this particular terrain, at this particular moment in history, we have Ayona Datta to thank.

Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.

The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.

In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.

Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.

So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?

On the plus side of the ledger:
– Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
– So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
– Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
– You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
– Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
– The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.

These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?

– Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
– The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
– Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
– It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
– Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?

I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.

Beacons, marketing and the neoliberal logic of space, or: The Engelbart overshoot

If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. (In fact, I did this just yesterday, in my responses to questions put to me by Korea’s architectural magazine SPACE.) I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.

My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. The canonical example of the perils that attend the overly generic consideration of a technology is bus rapid transit, or BRT, which works very, very well indeed on sociophysical terrain that strongly resembles its original home of Curitiba, and much less so in low-density environments like Johannesburg, or in places where, for whatever reason, access to the right-of-way can’t be controlled, notably Delhi and New York City. BRT was sold to these latter municipalities as a panacea for problems of urban mobility, without reference to all of the spatial, social, regulatory, pricing-model and service-design elements that had to be brought into balance before anything like success could be declared, and it shows. (Boy howdy, does it show. Have you ridden the New York City MTA’s half-assed instantiation of BRT lately?)

And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.

But despite all this, sometimes it is possible for the careful observer to suss out the likely future contours of a technology’s adoption, based on a more general appreciation of its nature. And that’s why I want to take a little time today to discuss with you my thinking around the emergent class of low-power, low-range transmitters known as “beacons.”

Classically, of course, a “beacon” was a visually prominent effect of some sort, designed to notify or warn those encountering it of some otherwise indistinct condition or feature in the landscape. And perhaps as originally envisioned, this class of transmitters genuinely was supposed to be what it said on the tin: a simple way for relatively low-powered devices to find and lock onto one another, amid the fog and unpredictable dynamism of the everyday.

This is not a particularly new idea; as long ago as 2005, I’d proposed on my old v-2 site that networked objects would need some lightweight, low-cost way of radiating information about their presence and capabilities to other things (and by extension, people) in the near neighborhood — the foundation of what, at that time, I thought of as a “universal service-discovery layer” draped over the world. And of course I was nowhere near the first to have proposed something along these lines; I myself had been inspired to think more deeply about things talking to each other from a sideways reading of a throw-away bit of cleverness in Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction, and it’s fair to say that the idea of things automatically broadcasting their identity to other things had been in the air for quite a few years before that.

But in evolving commercial parlance, beacons are nothing of the sort, really. A contemporary beacon (like these ugly and rather hostile-looking blebs, sold by Estimote) is primarily designed to capture information, not to convey it — and such information as it does convey outward is disproportionately intended to benefit the sender over the recipient. So my first objection to beacon technology is that this very framing is in itself mendacious, dishonest and misleading. (You know you’re in trouble when the very name of something is a lie.)

As things stand now, beacons are intended for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to capture and monetize your behavior. As with the so-called Internet of Things more broadly, there simply aren’t any particularly convincing or compelling use cases for the technology that aren’t about driving needless consumption; almost without exception, those that are even partially robust have to do with closing a commercial transaction. Both the language of beacon technology and the framework of assumptions it grows out of are airlessly, claustrophobically hegemonic, and this thinking is all over their sites: vendors urge you to deploy these “media-rich banner ads for the physical world” in “any physical place, such as your retail store,” to “drive engagement,” “cross-sell and up-sell” and eventually “convert” passersby to purchasers. Even beacon advocates have a hard time coming up with any more than half-hearted art projects by way of uses for the technology that are not founded in the desire to relieve some passing mark of the contents of their wallet, reliably, predictably and on an ongoing basis.

And even those scenarios of use which appear at first blush to be founded in blamelessly humanitarian ends, when subjected to trial by ordeal ultimately turn out to embrace the shabbiest neoliberal reasoning. Cheaper to spackle a subway station with networked microlocation transponders, goes the thinking, than to actually hire and train the (unpredictable, and damnably needy) human beings that might help riders navigate the corridors and interchange nodes. Even if the devices don’t actually turn out to work all that reliably in the fullness of time, or impose a starkly higher TCO than initially estimated, there will be a concrete deployment that someone can point to as an accomplishment, a ticked-off achievement and a justification for renewed budgetary allocation or re-election.

Finally, I find it noteworthy that the beacon cost-benefit proposition can only subsist when it is accomplished stealthily, and when it is presented to citizens forthrightly and transparently, it is just as forthrightly rejected. Perhaps it’s a temporary blip of post-Snowden reticence, but my sense is that most of us have become chary of bundling too many performative dimensions of our identity onto our converged devices at once, and not at all without reason. (Ultimately, I diagnose similar reasons underneath the failure to date of digital wallets and similar device-based payment solutions to gain any market traction whatsoever, though there are other questions at play there as well.)

Beyond and back

The interest in beacons strikes me as being symptomatic of something deeper and more troubling in the culture of technology, something I think of as “the Engelbart overshoot.”

There was a powerful dream that sustained (and not incidentally, justified) half a century’s inquiry into the possibilities of information technology, from Vannevar Bush to Doug Engelbart straight through to Mark Weiser. This was the dream of augmenting the individual human being with instantaneous access to all knowledge, from wherever in the world he or she happened to be standing at any given moment. As toweringly, preposterously ambitious as that goal seems when stated so baldly, it’s hard to conclude anything but that we actually did achieve that dream some time ago, at least as a robust technical proof of concept.

We achieved that dream, and immediately set about betraying it. We betrayed it by shrouding the knowledge it was founded on in bullshit IP law, and by insisting that every interaction with it be pushed through some set of mostly invidious business logic. We betrayed it by building our otherwise astoundingly liberatory propositions around walled gardens and proprietary standards, by putting the prerogatives of rent-seeking ahead of any move to fertilize and renew the commons, and by tolerating the infestation of our informational ecology with vile, value-destroying parasites. These days technical innovators seem more likely to be lauded for devising new ways to harness and exploit people’s life energy for private gain than for the inverse.

In fact, you and I now draw breath in a post-utopian world — a world where the tide of technical idealism has long receded from its high-water mark, where it’s a matter of course to suggest that we must attach (someone’s) networked sensors to our bodies in order to know them, and where, rather astonishingly, it is possible for an intelligent person to argue that spamming the globe with such devices is somehow a precondition of “reclaim[ing our] environment as a place of sociability and creativity.” And this is the world in which beacons and the cause of advocacy for them arise.

There’s very little meaningful for this technology to do — no specifiable aim or goal that genuinely seems to require its deployment, which could not be achieved as or more readily in some other way. As presently constituted, anyway, it doesn’t serve the great dream of aiding us in our lifelong effort to make sense of the endlessly confounding and occasionally dangerous world. It furthers only the puniest and most shaming of ambitions. To the talented, technically capable folks working so hard to build out the beacon world, I ask: Is this really what you want to spend any part of your only life on Earth working to develop? To those advocating this turn, I ask: Can’t you think of any way of relating to people more interesting and productive than trying to sell them something they neither want nor need, and most likely cannot genuinely afford?

It doesn’t take too concerted an intellectual effort to understand what’s really going on with beacons — as a matter of fact, as we’ve seen, most people evidently seem to understand the situation perfectly well already. But I don’t hold out too much hope of getting any of the truly convinced to see the light on this question; we all know how very difficult it can be to get people to understand something when their salary (mortgage payments/kids’ private-school tuition/equity stake/deal flow) depends on them not understanding it. If you ask me, though, we were meant for better things than this.

What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)

Updated.

Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.

I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.

This year’s model

More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.

Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?

Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.

As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.

Signs, pointers and portents

Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.

So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?

In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.

Campo de Cebada: Community control

At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.

After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)

Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.

What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.

My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.

But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.

There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.

Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.

Come together

In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.

When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.

At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.

So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:

– In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.

There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.

– In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.

On forgetting to slay the dragon

Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.

I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)

But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.

My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.

This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and Couchsurfing.org implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.

The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:

The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.

Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.

As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:

I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.

Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)

Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.

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