One of the things I love best about having done Radical Technologies for a publisher with genuine worldwide reach is that it’s found its way into places none of my previous books ever did. And a delightful consequence of that, in turn, is that I’m hearing from more readers with questions they’d like to discuss further, readers whose perspectives are often relatively far from the concerns of the people who have furnished the core of the audience for my books since Everyware days.
I’m always happy to answer their questions, if I can, and still more so when those questions come from disciplinary concerns or perspectives I rarely have occasion to consider myself. This was definitely the case with this next interview, conducted by Matthew Dagher-Margosian of Asia Art Tours. You’ll see pretty quickly what I mean about concerns or perspectives I don’t often get to think about, and I hope you find it as refreshing as I did.
Japan is host to numerous art forms whose masters are literally dying off, with no apprentices under them to carry on the art form. After reading [in Radical Technologies] about the Bushido Project, I’m wondering if you see projects like this as a way to archive and save art forms before the masters (and their knowledge) literally die. As with the Bushido Project, could (and should) we apply this technique to other art forms such as calligraphy, ikebana or ceramics?
It’s not my place to say, not having mastered any of those forms. But my gut tells me that from the senior practitioner’s perspective, the answer will depend very much on how they perceive their chosen domain of endeavor. In martial arts terms, do they think of themselves as practicing a 道 or a 術?
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t imagine the practioners of an “art” particularly minding if their methods are abstracted and represented as machinic instructions, especially if in pragmatic terms it means the survival of their art and the continuing relevance of their contributions to it. But I do, very much, anticipate resistance on the part of those who conceive of what they do as a “way,” as a spiritual practice.
The possible exception, I suppose, would be those masters who share the perspective of the Heart Sutra — that is, that there is no “subject” of a spiritual practice, properly understood, and therefore that any possible distinction between human and posthuman sentiences enacting it is invidious.
Everyday I read about tech moguls being obsessed with emotional spaces like Burning Man, LSD usage, “cuddle orgies” or whatever the hell you’d call this trend from the New York Times. Why do tech workers (or perhaps just moguls) build “machines” and systems that tag, categorize and segregate reality but celebrate hedonism and unstructured creativity in their personal lives? Why do they want freedom and lack of structure in their own lives, but abhor this in the systems they build?
I have two answers, one perhaps kinder than the other.
The straightforward, if unkind, way of answering is to observe that a great many of the figures at the heart of our present technosocial revolution grew up fairly nerdy, with everything that then implied about self-esteem and social confidence. They may, indeed, have been drawn to technology because it presented itself to them as a realm governed by reason, logic and order, in sharp contrast to the fickle, unpredictable, unjust world of social interaction. But now that they’ve acquired a little capital, worldly power and recognition, and the self-confidence that goes hand-in-hand with them, they find that they’re better able to manage the pressures of the social world. They want to explore all the possibilities that have opened up for them, and most particularly the access to sensual pleasure they’re newly afforded.
And this can express itself with an almighty vengeance at SxSW, or still more so Burning Man. Everybody goes a little nuts their first time at an event like that, especially if they experience it for the first time as an adult, and nothing in their previous life has prepared them for it. I think what you’re seeing is simply what happens, predictably enough, when you combine temporal power, long banked-up desire and sudden disinhibition. The New Age trappings are just window dressing, scene-setting or priming for what they really want to do, which is Get Down.
A more charitable way of answering, though, is to point out that digital systems are still founded on a binary logic that both requires precision in its inputs and renders it in its productions. That logic renders reality in discrete intervals, which is astonishingly effective as a way of ordering the world so its contents can be instrumentalized or operationalized, but is pretty limiting as a mode of being. The world, by contrast, is continuous, or at least quantized at a level many, many orders of magnitude beneath our ability to perceive it. So looked at through a different, more generous lens, what your tech moguls are doing when they take a few hits of ecstasy and dissolve into a cuddle puddle on the floor of a friend’s loft is redressing an imbalance in their lives that they may or may not be consciously aware of. Seen this way, they’re giving themselves over to a rich, continuously variable reality of sensation and flow, precisely because their everyday experiences deprive them of such opportunities.
The truth, of course, is that very very few people in technology are close enough to the code for it to order their perceptions in any meaningful way. So my money’s on the former explanation.
Jaron Lanier (a big fan of music and art) among others has long praised VR as a potential for greater human connectivity and creativity…giving people a virtual play space to create and connect. I am wondering if you see this same potential? Is creativity and connection possible if these VR platforms are owned by monopolistic concerns as they are now?
Well, I personally wouldn’t look to Jaron Lanier for coherent thought about much of anything, and I think this is a great example of his shallowness.
The notion that virtual environments might foster a form of creativity is something I don’t actually have that much of a problem with. I mean, there’s plenty of precedent: there are any number of clever ways in which people have used the relatively limited expressive palette offered to them by something like Minecraft to generate something that speaks to them. An even more apposite example might be Second Life — as embarrassing and dated as it now seems to most of us, there are people who have spent literally months if not years of their lives in that environment, crafting objects and spaces that evidently communicate something intensely important to them. It doesn’t speak to me, but it seems foolish to argue that what they’re doing isn’t creative in some way.
But connection is a harder sell, and there I draw the line. Interpersonal relations in a virtual space are always and by definition going to be mediated through a sharply impoverished and heavily stylized subset of the communicative channels embodiment offers us. Anyone who thinks that’s “connection” is selling genuine physioemotional copresence pretty short, and in fact I’m moved to suspect that someone pressing that argument with vigor may never have fully experienced what it is to be emotionally present, vulnerable and available to another.
Most seriously of all, we already have a space in which to create and connect. It costs nothing, is owned by nobody, has no technical specifications, doesn’t require upgrades or ingame purchases or DLC to use effectively, and doesn’t go away when the power is cut off. We call it “reality,” and we undervalue it at our peril.
One of art’s great functions for the wealthy is that it occupies space, and by occupying space it occupies mind. Art hung on a mansion’s barren wall brings meaning that otherwise would make one question the purpose of their wealth and status. I’m wondering if art becomes non-physical (i.e. teamLab’s “digital museum”) or if art is produced by algorithm (non-human actors) how will the wealthy adjust? Will they be willing to support non-human created art that doesn’t occupy physical space (digital)?
That’s an interesting take, and I want to consider it further. My own observation is that the wealthy people I know very rarely spend any time in actual contemplation of the artwork they’ve collected. Once an artwork has served its dual functions of accumulating social capital and, well, capital-capital, it’s wallpaper, something that’s precisely not in mind. Perhaps they have occasion to contemplate a piece for a few seconds every time they get to show it off to new visitors, but for the most part it’s just there…appreciating but not appreciated.
But to your point, yeah, I just don’t see the wealthy broadly underwriting work that doesn’t support what we might call its Veblen functions — not unless it somehow redounds to their benefit socially. And what that implies for expressive media that can’t be tangibly consumed is, as far as I’m concerned, fantastic. It means that people who are there for the wrong reasons, for motivations other than those of sincere curiosity and excitement, just tend to evaporate and to bunk off to scenes where their desire for social affirmation is more straightforwardly rewarded.
The risk for any scene like that then becomes insularity and obscurity and self-referential preciousness, but that’s nothing particularly novel for niche creative communities the world over.
Regarding the Next Rembrandt project, do you anticipate entirely original artwork will soon be created completely by algorithms? And if so, how would its aesthetic merits be evaluated? For creative endeavors will we soon have digital critic algorithms critiquing (and rating and categorizing in recommendation engines) films/pieces of art produced by other algorithms?
I think we can approach an answer, albeit in kind of a crabwise manner, by considering a closely parallel question. I often argue that the true achievement of synthetic intelligence will lie not in defeating the highest-ranked human player of chess or go, but in devising a game as captivating as chess or go in the first place.
That, to me, is the test. By this standard, I don’t believe we can truly consider algorithmic systems capable of creativity until they’re generating expressive works that correspond somehow to their unique experience of the world. Not simply generating bizarre forms or sounds or images, that is, à la DeepDream, but producing forms and sounds and images that reflect aesthetic choice, that are structured specifically to express something, however ineffable. And I don’t think we’re there just yet, we may not get there for some time yet to come, and may indeed never quite get there at all.
There is always the possibility, of course, that we will simply not recognize this achievement if and when it does happen — that creative machinic systems will make their aesthetic choices in a medium, at a spatial scale or subject to a temporality which is beneath or beyond the threshold of human perception. What if the highest form of machinic creativity is manipulating material, social or geological dynamics to produce patterns in space and time that are somehow pleasing to the systems involved, that we don’t even recognize as the product of volition? There may well be genres of art that we’re not even capable of perceiving, let alone participating in.
As to whether other machinic systems will, in turn, evaluate those works of art, that would seem to suggest a coherent set of criteria for doing so, articulated by an agent that shares at least some subjectivity with the creator. And again, I just don’t think we know enough about the nature of emergent machinic intelligence to say whether or not such evaluations would arise unprompted. It’s hard for me, at least, to imagine why posthuman systems, acting purely amongst themselves, would feel the need to produce a structured set of discursive acts that fill the same role art criticism serves in human societies, but maybe that says more about the limits of my imagination than it does anything else.
Lastly, of all the subjects addressed in Radical Technologies, which do you see as potentially of the most use or of the most utility to future artists?
I mean, they’re almost all of them expressive media, they almost all support an aesthetics and a poetics…but I have to confess I’m personally really excited to see where precision digital fabrication goes. I think we’ll see some pretty subtle, potent objects arise out of that, whether formally devised via algorithm or by the human hand and heart.
As I seem to have acquired, in some quarters anyway, a reputation as an uncompromising and intractable Luddite where matters of networked technology in everyday domestic life are concerned, I thought I’d share with you today some minor evidence that I’m not unalterably opposed to each and every such appearance. I give you…the Ember.
This is precisely the kind of networked device I might have written off as a near-meaningless frippery a few years ago. It’s a nicely-designed ceramic mug with a rechargeable heating element built into its base, allowing you to set the temperature at which you prefer to drink your coffee or tea.
All it is, really, is a thermostat — but a thermostat in a surprising, and surprisingly welcome, place. There isn’t any computation to speak of going on. The networked aspect is nicely circumspect, and it’s mainly there to let a smartphone app serve as the user interface, keeping the mug itself appropriately stripped down. You pair it with a phone once, on first setup, and that’s it. Everything else is done through the app, and you don’t even need to interact with that too much once you’ve got your preferences dialed in.
I should say that Ember is not perfect, either as a product or as a piece of interaction design. The embedded, multicolor LED fails to communicate much of anything useful, despite its multiple, annoyingly blinky and colorful states; all I really need to know from it is when the mug needs to be recharged. That need arises far too often, at least when it’s set to maintain the temperatures at which I prefer to drink coffee. And inevitably, I have concerns about the nonexistence of any meaningful security measures, a nonexistence that in fairness is endemic to all consumer IoT devices, but remains inexcusable for any of them.
But Ember gets some things right, and when it does, they tend to be very right. By far the most important of these is that it works as a mug, prior to the question of any networked or interactive functionality. The vessel has a good heft to it, and when you set it down on a solid surface, the feeling of a damped but substantial mass that’s transmitted through the rubberized rings at its base is just very, very satisfying. The ceramic surface has a pleasingly velvety texture — so much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if it’s one of those miracle materials that will turn out to have been threshold-carcinogenic twenty or thirty years down the line. It’s gratifyingly easy to clean.
And as far as that additional functionality is concerned, the mug does what it says it will, does it well…and it’s a hoot. It turns out that there’s a real Weiserian frisson to be had from something that violates all the subtle, subconscious expectations you’ve built up over a lifetime of drinking hot beverages from ceramic mugs. The confoundment of assumptions is so deep, indeed, that it takes you awhile to catch up with the new reality — to realize that you can go answer the doorbell or otherwise be distracted for five or ten minutes, and still come back to a piping hot beverage. In fact, Ember stands the principle of evaporative cooling on its head: because the heating element is still set to maintain a larger volume of liquid at a given temperature, but most of that volume will have been drunk away by the time you get to them, your last few swallows are noticeably, delightfully hotter than any you’ve had since first filling the mug.
To be clear, the Ember mug is not something anyone needs, especially at this price point. But I admire its clarity of purpose, in leveraging a modest deployment of technology to furnish its user with a small but nevertheless genuine everyday pleasure. And without wanting to be pompous about matters, I happen to believe there’s a crucial role for small but genuine pleasures in difficult times like the ones we happen to be living through. You may find yourself surprised by the degree to which a sip of hot coffee lands when you sip it forty or forty-five minutes after brewing — at least, I surely was, and am — and how psychoemotionally sustaining it can be when it does. Most of that is probably the coffee itself, doing what it is that coffee does, but better by far a networked product that is modest and humble in its aims, and succeeds in meeting them, than one which promises everything and does none of it particularly well.
Here’s a brief interview I did with a new publication called Rewired. As you can see, I’m not always super-comfortable with the way the questions are framed, but hopefully manage to bring my answers in for a landing nevertheless.
Is there (or will there be) a possibility to be 100% tech-free in our society?
No society of human beings has ever been “tech-free,” since well before the moment we first emerged as a distinct species. Like other species on Earth, we have always used technical extensions of our being to enact the satisfaction of need and the fulfillment of desire — always, from before the beginning. Stripped of our technologies, we would not merely no longer be capable of constituting a society, we would no longer be human.
You write in the first chapter of Radical Technologies that phonebooths, Walkmans, etc., disappeared. Do you think that people become less attached to objects? But at the same time, why is there this revival of “old school” objects, like vinyl records for example?
Part of it, for the older generation of consumers, is no doubt nostalgia. Those of us who were born before 1980 or so have lived through quite an impressive lacuna: we experienced a trough of time during which a great many of the objects that had between them constituted much of the material substrate of social existence in the developed economies simply disappeared from the world. For these objects to reappear in a slight return — dusted off and perhaps upgraded — is a warm bath in the reaffirmation of a baseline psychic normality we thought had fled from the scene forever. As I write to you now I am within arm’s reach of an Olivetti Lettera 33 typewriter and a Western Electric Model 500 rotary telephone, neither of which I actually use for their intended purpose, both of which I keep around as exemplars of the modernism, dynamism and sophistication I remember from my early childhood.
And beyond that, there are real pleasures associated with these objects: pleasures that their contemporary near-equivalents simply do not afford, that have value independent of whatever nostalgia they may invoke, and that remain available even to those for whom they constitute entirely novel experiences and not reflections of something remembered. Though I don’t do so myself, I understand that playing a vinyl record isn’t simply a sterile act of media consumption. It’s an auditory and tactile and even olfactory experience, material in nature, sharply bounded in space and time, and in fact subject to physics in a way listening to Spotify just isn’t. That sure seems sufficient to explain why some of us might find the experience desirable.
How do you explain the fact that in democratic countries, people are consciously subjected to the dictatorship of tech?
I don’t think I know exactly what you mean by “the dictatorship of tech,” but if I understand you correctly, you’re concerned to know why people voluntarily choose the circumstances of their own oppression? All I can say by way of answering is that the dynamic has been recognized for well over a century, and has been addressed by everyone from Engels and the Frankfurt School to Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum and Noam Chomsky. I don’t myself believe that there’s anything particularly new about the information-technical turn in this regard.
Beyond that, I always feel a little hesitant, even a little shabby in ascribing false consciousness to someone else, as if I and I alone am possessed of an analysis of such Olympian clarity as to lay bare all the ways in which we pull the wool over our own eyes. Nobody you’ll ever meet is quite so smug as the undergraduate who’s just read Marcuse for the first time, or the barstool philosopher who’s seen Manufacturing Consent, and thinks that getting their news from Reddit somehow constitutes a brave, heroic end run around the process of discourse management. Don’t be that guy.
You talk in your book about low-waged labor forces in Shenzhen for example, to satisfy our consumption. Do you think that we became numb to other people’s situation? Are we in what Albert Camus would call the “murderous consent”?
We were always already numb to the suffering of the other — if, indeed, we weren’t actively indifferent to it. It is our present circumstances, by contrast, that begin to extend the remotest hope of learning from the confrontation with the consequences of our desires.
You write that apps like OpenDesk are revolutionizing the way we conceive things. With 3D printers, we can print chairs, tables, etc. You say that with a printer, a laser cutter and feedstock we can make anything at home. Do you find this worrying, as it is easy to imagine someone creating a 3D gun for example?
I do not say that with a printer, a laser cutter and feedstock we can make anything at home. I say no such thing.
What I do say is that the range of useful things that the untrained, ordinary person can now fabricate, equipped with nothing more than a printer or laser cutter costing a few hundred dollars, has grown considerably. And furthermore, that the range of such things not long ago expanded to include, yes, crude, rudimentary firearms, devised by ideologues and fanatics to prove precisely this point, as a kind of propaganda of the deed.
I don’t believe this is cause for any particular concern at the moment, as such weapons clearly tend to pose a greater threat to their own would-be users than they do to anyone else. But, you know, we can see what’s coming. It’s in the mail. And what that suggests to me is that polities or societies that wish to discountenance the spread of such weapons (or other notionally or actually harmful objects that might be fabricated in this way) would be best advised to adopt a layered defense in depth composed of multiple kinds of frictions, retardations and disincentives — in essence, a harm-reduction strategy rather than one of prohibition.
You explain that data has political involvements and that “the data is never just the data.” Do you think that governments are blatantly lying to satisfy data?
All governments lie, and always have — all human institutions, for that matter, not merely those of state. All human institutions will attempt to create an epistemic environment that’s favorable to their own continuation, by any means at their disposal, at both the micro and macro levels — even when this is not always in their own longer-term interest, as Goodhart’s Law suggests. The manipulation or selective release of statistics was an important component of this sort of effort in the twentieth century, and it is now augmented by the selective collection, manipulation of or differential analysis applied to machine-readable data, sure.
Yesterday, Elon Musk said he would make a platform to rate and track a credibility score for journalists. Do you think that more and more actions of the sort will start to take shape?
That’s funny. What might actually be more useful is a platform to rate and track Elon Musk’s credibility.
Humanity is now, we are so often told, an urban species. Though there are real questions as to what the numbers actually mean, the statistics on planetary urbanization are so often bruited about that they have become something of a cliché. What’s more, popular discourse on the subject appears to have internalized the notion that the great cities of Earth aren’t merely significant for their concentration of habitation, but for the beneficial effects that habitation gives rise to. Disproportionately generators of economic vitality, technical innovation and cultural dynamism, our cities may even be able to function as lifeboats capable of sustaining us through the ecological reckoning that is now bearing down on our civilization.
If it is an urban age, though, it is also a networked one. Between the comprehensive instrumentation of the built environment, and the smartphones that so many of us now carry through every moment of the waking day — simultaneously sensor platform, aperture onto the global network, and remote control for the connected systems and services all around us — the colonization of everyday urban life by information processing is virtually complete.
And finally, we appear to have entered an age in which the more-or-less stable neoliberal consensus that held global sway for the past four decades has started to erode. Thus far, the most notable and distressing result of this erosion has been a turn toward authoritarian and xenophobic ethnonationalisms of one stripe or another, its traces evident in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and a long list of autocracies in the ascendant, from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines. But more hopefully, the eclipse of neoliberal hegemony has opened up a space in which some dare to imagine an entirely new way of organizing the productive processes of life: a commons beyond state and market both, in which networked collaboration, distributed material and energetic production, and horizontal forms of governance give rise to striking new possibilities for a just, equitable and fructifying urbanism.
By leveraging the decentralizing tendencies that appear to be implicit in our networked technologies, and the configurations of power they in principle give rise to, we can even begin to imagine what a networked urban commons would look like, and how it might work, at global scale — as a desirable end in itself, an antidote to the anomie and widespread sense of powerlessness that underlie the turn toward xenophobic authoritarianism, and a means of restoring some semblance of ecological balance.
Those of us who are interested in bringing such a state of affairs into being, though, might find that our hopes are dashed at the outset by a lack of clarity about how the technologies involved actually work, naiveté about those parties who currently wield them most effectively, or confusion about what a true commons would require of us. At present, we can see networked technology being layered onto urban place along three basic trajectories: one based largely on the needs of multinational technology vendors; one with roots in the Silicon Valley startup and venture-capital complex; and one — the subtlest yet most promising of all — as yet indistinct. By examining each of them in turn, we can learn more about what is at stake in the advent of networked urbanism, and perhaps chart a course through the Scylla and Charybdis of unwise choices toward a more fruitful future for all.
§ Avatar I: Songdo
In his public appearances, the presidential candidate Moon Jae-in is fond of invoking a comprehensive vision of heavily technologized everyday life that involves “smart house, smart road, smart city” — indeed, an entire “Smart Korea.” There may be no place on Earth closer to concrete fulfillment of Moon’s objective than New Songdo City, a municipality of 90,000 souls built on some 53 square kilometers of tidal flats recovered from the Yellow Sea. In Songdo, both domestic spaces and the entire built fabric have been instrumented, allowing the city’s controllers to monitor and adjust traffic flow and energy utilization in real time.
As ambitious as this sounds, it’s an only slightly more elaborate version of a conception of networked urbanism that is common to municipal administrators and technology enthusiasts the world over. In its raw outlines, this conception seeks to harness the CCTV cameras and networked sensors installed throughout the urban milieu, as well as the torrential streams of data flowing off of our personal devices, to realize greater efficiency and enhance that ever-elusive property known as “quality of life.” By submitting these flows of data to advanced analytic techniques based on machine learning, all kinds of benefits can be obtained: the nominal “optimization” of material and energetic flows, the streamlined delivery of municipal services, even the preemption of undesirable conditions (whether traffic jams or criminal offenses).
This, anyway, is the theory of smart urbanism. In practice, however, a number of issues conspire to ensure that what gets delivered invariably turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts. The first is that, in looking to a rising technology sector to achieve this ambition, municipal-scale actors leave themselves at the mercy of powerful vendors —
globally, multinationals like Siemens, IBM, Hitachi or Microsoft; in Korea the infrastructure, systems-integration and real estate development arms of the familiar chaebol. Because they generally lack the organic technical competence to determine what kinds of hardware and software might best serve their needs, city governments entering this market are perforce compelled to buy what these vendors have to sell, whether or not the problems those systems are designed to solve bear any particular resemblance to the issues perceived by their constituents. This was certainly the case in Songdo, where the expensive and elaborate Cisco “telepresence” hardware planned for each apartment unit in the city was rendered obsolete even before it was deployed, outmoded instantly by free smartphone- and tablet-based video chat applications like Kakao Talk and FaceTime.
The second problem follows on from this. By its very nature, the municipal procurement process involves one set of centralized, hierarchical actors (i.e. technology vendors) interacting with another (local bureaucracies). As a result, the multispectral awareness that might in principle be derived from large-scale analysis of data is generally retained for the exclusive use of municipal administrators, habitually and instinctively — and not, in other words, made available to the public who generated the data in the first place. What is offered to us wreathed in the ostensible glamor of technological futurity, then, is here revealed to be something that’s actually rather dowdy and retrograde: old-style technocratic management from the top down. Not by any stretch of the imagination something consonant with the will to collective self-determination, it cannot be reconciled with the commons without contortions that verge on intellectual dishonesty, however well-intentioned they may be.
And there is a final issue: daily life in Songdo, at least, appears to be rather soulless and dull. NPR quotes a young resident who describes it as a nonplace and a “prison,” and compares her escape into Seoul and all its nightlife at the end of the workweek to a jailbreak. This is admittedly a single data point, but it hardly makes a compelling argument for quality of life in the well-tuned city.
In its current form, then, the smart city as delivered by vendors is not merely ill-advised, nor merely unlikely to support the kind of vivid experiences we associate with big-city life, but actively detrimental to the achievement of an urbanism consistent with the values of the commons. A case in point can be found in the recent Korean experience of mass public demonstrations, which illustrate like relatively few other moments in history the power that an aggrieved citizenry claims for itself when it takes to the streets in protest of an order that has become intolerable. As it happens, the technologies bound together under the banner of the smart city have no way of accounting for this kind of active practice of democracy. Far from recognizing mass demonstrations as the signal of public sentiment they surely are, the smart city can only interpret such protests as a disruption to business as usual: first as an anomaly to be detected, then as an inefficiency to be contained, minimized, neutralized or eliminated.
§ Avatar II: San Francisco
It’s worth unpacking just what business as usual looks like to the architects of the smart city, what conceptions of the normal and the ordinary they may hold in mind when designing the algorithms responsible for detecting imminent departures from normalcy and triggering preemptive action.
And here we need to address the fact that even in software development, there is such a thing as fashion. Once something practiced by a self-consciously professional cohort given to horn-rim glasses, crisp short-sleeve shirts and pocket protectors — call it the Mission Control look — software engineering is, in its Northern Californian and Pacific Northwest fastnesses, dominated by a young, privileged and remarkably homogeneous technical elite. At present, you cannot walk down the streets of San Francisco — a city whose name was once synonymous with the radical, the queer, the experimental and the frankly marginal — without running headfirst into a mostly male scrum of software engineers in their mid-twenties, in their universal uniform of fitted hoodies and $400 sneakers, talking unit tests and code sprints. To a surprisingly great extent, it is their tastes, predilections, priorities and values that urban technology is increasingly designed around.
If the multinational vendor, in all its centralization, conservatism and ponderous lack of agility, represents one of the two predominant modes in which information technology is now applied to the life of cities, the other is typified by the proverbial Bay Area tech startup, with its addiction to venture capital and its imperative to “move fast and break things.” Thus the emphasis on convenience and immediate gratification we see in offerings like Airbnb, Tinder, TaskRabbit and above all Uber: services whose socially corrosive effects were self-evident virtually from the outset, though they are only recently becoming matters of widespread controversy.
It is now beyond dispute that Airbnb has undermined the market for affordable rental housing in city after city, just as Uber’s massive, outsourced fleet has drastically increased traffic in cities around the world, even as it drained custom and resources from public transit. What these services offer is nothing less than a shared reality platform for everyone wealthy enough, and sufficiently comfortable with technology, to use them fluently — a platform that privatizes benefits and sheds costs on the public so nakedly indeed that we no longer hear much talk of a putative “sharing economy.” Though these effects can be noted in every market where these services operate, they’re felt particularly acutely in the Bay Area, where life for those who most closely resemble software developers demographically and psychographically often does seem to consist of near-effortless algorithmically-streamlined ease, albeit at the cost of a slowly decaying public realm for everyone else.
It is telling, in this withdrawal from any pretense at convivial urbanity, that we don’t even discuss progress anymore, only “innovation.” In doing so, we preemptively surrender the terrain of the social imagination to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, if not still more impoverished souls like Travis Kalanick or Peter Thiel. If the urban condition that results from their everted imaginings is not quite the brutal reality of first-generation smart cities like Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates — where Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Filipino guest workers labor long, thanklessly and at great personal risk to keep the city turning over, and end their days in metal shipping containers arrayed behind razor wire under the broiling desert sun — neither does it have much to do with how cities have traditionally generated meaning and value for their inhabitants. Thus far, at least, everyday life in this capsular, app-mediated city appears to be defined by its exclusions.
§ Avatar III: Seoul
By contrast, the Greek architect and activist Stavros Stavrides, in his recent book on practices of spatial commoning, emphasizes the profoundly invitational aspect of any true commons, its quality of radical openness and porosity. If neither the multinational nor the startup way of doing networked cities quite works to produce such conditions on the ground, where can we go looking for a model that might do so?
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the present context, is that certain aspects of vernacular Korean urbanism already work quite well in this regard. Without fetishizing them, or sugarcoating their less felicitous aspects, Korean cities even now reliably generate an informality and canniness in the use of space that comes much closer to achieving the vision of a life in common than anything on offer from either wing of the tech industry. Not so much the newly-built, gated apartment complexes, of course, with their Ballardian full-service towerblocks rising in endless numbered ranks, but in older city cores throughout the country. Here the ajeossi play an impromptu game of baduk in a doorway, seated on torn cardboard box covers; there a sudden chicken-and-beer stand has popped up on an unused concrete forecourt; above, tucked into the fifth floor of an otherwise anonymous office building, is the jjimjilbang with beauty salon and restaurant and game parlor attached, pulsing with life and activity through 24 hours of the day. These things may not read that way to a globalized elite smitten with enticingly glossy corporate visions of the future, but to a certain kind of Western visitor, these feel like signals of the way life in the networked city could be: spontaneous, mobile, flexible, convivial, and above all open.
Could we design networked platforms and systems that generated this kind of urban experience, not merely for a few, but for everyone? The answer is almost certainly yes — but successfully doing so would require that we learn to wield networked technology quite differently than we do at present.
It would be necessary, first, to step back and ask what we are actually trying to achieve by deploying networked systems in the urban frame. We would have to test and iterate and test again, and discard for good that which is seen not to work. This, of course, runs almost directly counter to several aspects of the way we do things now: the headlong pace of technical innovation most obviously, but also its ahistoricity.
It would be necessary to press for specifics, whenever we are offered hype, buzzwords and promises. We would have to ask hard questions about how technologies actually function when used by real people in real environments, and not simply be seduced by lovingly-crafted renderings or animated flythroughs.
It would be necessary to nurture more space outside the market in particular. If “the commons” is to mean anything at all, it can only refer to a milieu where neither the values of the state nor those of the market prevail, leaving room for mutuality, solidarity and positive-sum collaboration — the diametric opposite, in other words, of the condition that broadly obtains in the West now, where the market sets the ground conditions of everyday life, and the state is increasingly figured as something that exists solely to guarantee the operating conditions for private enterprise. It remains to be seen how this model might apply to a place like Korea, where the dynamics of the developmental state retain a powerful hold on the national psyche, but it would clearly be an uphill battle.
Finally, regardless of the particular set of political commitments we hope to see observed in the design of urban technologies, it would be necessary for us to consider with the greatest care what kind of subjectivity our use of these systems give rise to. We would have to ask who we become in their presence and through their use, and be prepared to redesign everything if we don’t much care for the answers.
The examples I’ve offered here ought to make it clear if what we seek to achieve is a life in common, the whole quest for technological “smart” is something akin to a category error, where it isn’t simply intellectually bankrupt. We know in any event that any city deserving of the name is always already smart, and that its intelligence resides in the people who live in it and give it life. The task that remains before us is to design technical systems that are respectful of that intelligence, and allow it to speak itself. In the final analysis, this task cannot be outsourced. It cannot be optimized. It cannot be automated. It will require of us profound investments of time, energy and care. But the reward would be considerable: a place, or a meshwork of places, where everyday life is spontaneous and convivial, where the conditions of equity, justice and ecological balance are finally realized, where our quest to be human in full might find at last a natural home and ground.
At the moment, I’m neck-deep in my Verso stablemates Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s still-newish book Inventing the Future; things remaining more or less stable schedulewise, I’ll most likely finish it later on today, or tomorrow at the latest.
It’s a strange book, Inventing. You may have caught some of the buzz around it, and that buzz exists for good reason. (It’s not just the superspiffy totebags Verso had ginned up for it, though I’m sure those do not hurt one whit.) At its heart a passionate argument against work and for an end to neoliberalism and its reality control — forged along the same rough lines as those Paul Mason and the Fully Automated Luxury Communism kids are currently touting — Inventing is a genuinely curious mixture of crystal-clear analysis, righteous provocation and infuriating naivety. If you’re even remotely interested in what emergent technologies like machine learning and digital fabrication might imply for our capacity for collective action, and especially if you think of yourself as belonging to the horizontalist left, you should by all means pick it up, read it for yourself and form your own judgments. (Here’s Ken Wark’s take on it; I endorse most of his thoughts, and have a great deal of my own to add, which I’ll do in the form of my own forthcoming book.)
Late in the book there’s a passage concerning the stance Srnicek and Williams feel the postcapitalist left needs to adopt toward the mainstream media: if the “counter-hegemonic” project they describe is to have any hope of success, they argue, “it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.”
Well. It must be said that this is not one of the book’s high points. In its latent suggestion that the only reason Thomas Piketty and Donna Haraway aren’t cohosting a lively, popular Sunday-morning gabfest on NBC right this very moment is because we, the progressive public, are somehow not trying hard enough, or have failed to sufficiently wrap our pointy heads around the awesome conditioning power of the mass media, in fact, it’s somewhere between irritating and ridiculous. (It’s hard for me to see how Srnicek and Williams’s argument here is substantively any different from that stroke of market-savvy inspiration the beloved but famously marginal Minutemen skewered on the cover of their second-to-last album. And now you know where the title of this post came from.)
Nevertheless, they’re onto something. Though that more-than-faintly patronizing tone never quite dissipates, S&W eventually find themselves on far firmer ground when they argue that “[l]eftist media organizations should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining, gleaning insights from the success of popular websites.” I was able to shake off the momentary harrowing vision I had of Leninist Buzzfeed, and press on through to what I take to be their deeper point: radical thought can actually resonate broadly when care is taken to craft the language in which that thought is expressed, and still more so when insular, self-congratulatory obscurity is avoided in the design of its containers. I endorse this notion wholeheartedly. This recent appreciation of Jacobin hits many of the same notes; whatever you think of Jacobin‘s politics, it’s hard to deny that its publishers consistently put together a sprightly, good-looking read. (I’d call it “the Monocle of the left,” but that would be to imply that Monocle‘s content is far more compelling than in fact it is.)
You might still argue that S&W ought to spend a little more time with McLuhan. My own feeling is that there’s more to distrust about the “mainstream media” than merely its overtly political content — that consuming information in the form of tweets, listicles, Safety Check notifications, screens overloaded with crawlers, and possibly even glowing rectangles themselves is hard to square with the kind of awareness I at least find it necessary to cultivate if I’m to understand anything at all about the way the systems in which I’m embedded work.
But ultimately, these are quibbles. I agree with S&W when they argue that overthrowing the weaponized “common sense” of the neoliberal era is an explicitly counter-hegemonic project; that developing a functioning counter-hegemony is something that requires longterm commitment; and that those with truly radical programs need to reconsider the relationship between “pop,” “popular” and “popularity” if that whole hearts-and-minds thing is ever going to work out for them. (I’m honor-bound to point out that Saul Alinsky said as much fifty years ago, but perhaps that too is a quibble.) So: no. I have no problem at all with presenting complex and potentially challenging ideas accessibly, so long as they can be rendered accessible without dumbing them down. If successful counter-hegemonic media looks a whole lot more like a Beyoncé video than some preciously anti-aesthetic art installation, so much the better. Bring on the hit songs.
We can surely read the various technologies of the quantified self as tending to “ensure that people continue to act and dream without any form of connectedness and coordination with others” (Stavrides), and this quick, cogent piece will only reinforce that sense.
Now, I can imagine a world — just barely, but it can be done — in which the capture of biometric measurements by a network with qualities of ubiquity and persistence was somehow not invidious. I can even imagine a world in which that capture resulted in better collective outcomes, physically, psychically and socially. But in our world, the one we actually live in, I think the very best we can possibly hope for from these technologies is positive-sum competition, a state in which each of our individual outcomes only improve for the fact that we are set against each other.
That’s the best-case scenario. Even that is still competitive, still oriented solely toward the individual, still only bolsters the unquestioned supremacy of the autonomous liberal subject. And far more likely than the best case, frankly, is the case in which data derived from these devices is used to shape life chances, deprive us of hard-won freedoms at work, mold the limits of permissible expression or even bring violence to bear against our bodies.
My bottom line is this: Though I’d be happy to be proven wrong, given everything I know and everything I’ve seen it is very, very difficult for me to imagine socially progressive uses of quantified-self technologies that do not simultaneously generate these easily foreseeable, sharply negative consequences. It may be my own limitations speaking, but I can’t see how things could possibly break any other way. In this world, anyway.