Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”
I am very pleased, and every bit as proud, to announce the publication of the latest SUPERTOME to emerge from the Urban Age process, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, and with it my essay “Of Systems and Purposes.” It won’t contain anything to startle those of you who have been following my work for awhile — you’ll see, for example, that I once again return to the Beer well — but I do think it’s a pretty neat distillation of my thought about cities and technology as it’s developed over the past several years. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.
I’m particularly delighted that my work is featured alongside that of so many urbanists I respect enormously, in such a physically beautiful edition. My congratulations to Ricky Burdett, Philipp Rode, and especially the book’s indefatigable production team.
The legendary technologist Alan Kay once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Kay could perhaps be forgiven for the comment’s Promethean hubris, central as he was to the intellectual life of Xerox’s celebrated Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where so many of the interface conventions we continue to rely upon today were invented. The plain fact of the matter is that an ensemble of techniques invented or extensively developed at PARC, over a period of a very few years in the early 1970s — among them the graphical user interface, the mouse, the windowing system and the kind of multitasking it enabled, laser printing — remain at the core of home and office computer use some forty years down the line. The tools and techniques that Kay and his colleagues at PARC experimented with for their own use really did change the way we all work, think and play, generating a multitrillion-dollar market in the process of doing so.
This unimpeachable set of facts certainly does seem to legitimate the premise at the heart of Kay’s claim: that collective futures are something that can be architected at will by the sufficiently visionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heroic role it casts them in, this notion has been embraced by successive generations of technologists, very much including those now busily at work “disrupting” the processes that have defined urban life since time immemorial. Judging from the frequency with which Kay is invoked in their PowerPoint decks and TED talks, at least, their various interventions in commerce and mobility, self-presentation and socialization, and production, distribution and consumption are consciously intended to realize coherent visions of the future.
But which visions? Where Kay’s work at PARC was at least liminally inspired by the liberatory ethos of the Bay Area 1960s — an intellectual current nurtured by the work of thinkers like Illich, Marcuse, Carson and Fuller, the upwelling of the Black Power, feminist and gay-rights movements, the anarchist Diggers and their experiments with Free Stores, Clinics and crashpads, the encounter with mystical-ethical systems of the East, and above all copious amounts of high-grade LSD — his latterday descendants appear to imagine futures of a rather different stripe. Those taking the boldest strides to transform urban life today range from explicit neo-Randians like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, to the avowedly technolibertarian developers of Bitcoin and the technology undergirding it, the blockchain, to those whose political projects — beyond a clear commitment to the standard tenets of entrepreneurial capitalism, as it expresses itself in the neoliberal period — are as yet unclear, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
From the public comments, commitments and investments of these and other would-be disruptive innovators of their ilk, it is possible to assemble at least a rough picture of the world they wish to call into being, and therefore the urban forms and rituals that are likely to predominate in that world:
Where on-demand, local digital fabrication of goods (via 3D printing, numerically-controlled laser cutting and milling, etc.) is not possible, conventionally-manufactured products will be shipped, warehoused and distributed to the consumer via an almost fully automated supply and fulfillment chain. While it won’t be possible to do without human labor completely, entire job categories — warehouse worker, commercial truck driver, deliveryperson — will disappear from the economy, never to be replaced.
The means of production will be held (and such employment contracts as remain necessary issued) by distributed autonomous organizations, corporations manifested in and as self-directing software. With the greater part of the built environment networked at high resolution, and truly economic microtransactions enabled by digital currency, every market for mobility and commercial or residential space is “liquified,” or ruthlessly optimized for efficient, moment-to-moment value extraction. Access to space (microflats, single rooms, or even workstations) will be leased by the minute, while very, very few spatial resources will escape being harnessed for revenue generation.
For those who can afford it, on-demand, point-to-point mobility will be undergirded in most cities by a permanently orbiting fleet of autonomous vehicles. And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.
In this world, the art of governmentality has been refined to a very high degree. Custodial organizations, State or otherwise, are furnished with a torrential flow of information about our choices, and the unparalleled insight into human motivation that can be gleaned from analysis of that flow. Prudent behavior on the part of the consumer-citizen is enforced by an array of personalized performance targets, incentives and disincentives presented in the form of brightly-gamified “social credit” schemes — networked carrots and sticks sufficient to keep all but the irredeemably anti-social acting within permissible bounds.
If this sounds like a grim, dispiriting and airless set of possibilities — and it certainly does to me — it is fortunately unlikely that this particular future will unfold in quite the way imagined by those now busily engaged in the attempt to realize it. Several decades’ accumulated experience with networked technologies suggests that whatever actual impact they do have in the fullness of time often bears little to no resemblance to the visions of the people who devised them, or indeed the concrete experiences of their earliest adopters. It would be profoundly foolish to suppose that technologies like 3D printing, the blockchain or machine learning will have no bearing on the form or function of large-scale urban environments. They undoubtedly will. But when would-be innovators promise that their inventions will directly drive radical change — whether undermining material scarcity and the commodity form (as the inventor of the RepRap 3D printer originally imagined his device would do), stripping bias from the operations of the criminal justice system (as the promoters of risk-assessment algorithms promise) or even allowing exchanges of value to abscond from the visibility of the State entirely (as ideologues of the blockchain hope) — we have reason to believe that circumstances will conspire to confound or even subvert their intentions.
Recall Steve Jobs’s astonished comment, upon being shown the algorithmically self-righting Segway scooter for the first time, that “they’ll architect cities around these things.” With this technology in hand, the prospect of undoing at least some of the damage done to cities of the twentieth century by the internal-combustion engine suddenly seemed a great deal more credible. The formless sprawl, the environments legible only at speed, the dependence for mobility on capsular vehicles that isolated occupants from their surroundings and one another, above all the air pollution: in the minds of its earliest advocates and enthusiasts, all of these circumstances stood to be transformed by the Segway. But compare this rather pleasant vision to the world we actually live in some two decades downstream from the Segway’s commercial appearance, where the vehicles remain limited to ferrying around annoying platoons of helmeted tourists, and perhaps the occasional airport security officer. Instead of compelling any gross transformation of the urban environment, let alone the way we collectively think about urban mobility, thus far the Segway’s primary contribution to everyday life has been inspiring the cheap, Chinese-made “hoverboards” whose lithium-ion batteries burst into flames with distressing frequency.
Or consider what eventually happened to Craigslist — when it first emerged in the San Francisco of the late 1990s, a virtually utopian space in which goods, skilled services and shelter circulated for free. A passionate community of users grew up around the early Bay Area Craigslist, and something very close to a true gift economy sprung into existence among them: a functioning ecosystem of exchange founded on goodwill and mutuality, in the very heart of the late-capitalist West. For these early users, much of what they’d previously resorted to accomplishing at retail was, for a time, furnished by a single humble, all-but-rudimentary website.
And yet, for all its promise and sustaining optimism, this apparition of an entirely different mode of citying somehow failed to take the rest of the world by storm. Putting the indifferent stewardship of its management team to one side, Craigslist was ultimately undone by nothing other than scale. As the userbase drawn by the enticing prospect of free or ultra-low-cost services spiked beyond the Dunbar number — the notional upper bound of a human community in which all the members know one another by name — the bonds of implicit trust necessary to any agalmic community became first harder to sustain, and then impossible to construct at all. And this was replicated in city after city, as the service was rolled out across the planet’s major metropolitan markets, in accordance with the build-once/deploy-many-times ethos that drives the software industry and the logic of unlimited scalability that governs the network. In many ways a victim of its own success, Craigslist just about everywhere soon became cluttered with nakedly commercial listings — listings whose propositions were virtually impossible to verify independently, which flowed onto the site at such implacable velocity that they crowded out the community-generated posts that had so strongly characterized its early days. (What’s more, the platform badly undercut the classified advertising-based business model most free local weeklies depended on, driving many of them to extinction.) None of this looked anything like the neighborly, human-scaled, practically utopian community of exchange its gentle founder Craig Newmark had intended to realize. The Craigslist at scale that we know today, harbor for slumlords, haven for scammers and human traffickers, isn’t so much a negation as an outright renunciation of its initial promise.
Some technical innovations, of course, actually do result in profound alterations in the form, tenor and distribution of city life. For every internal combustion engine, safety elevator, tungsten-filament lightbulb or mobile phone, though, there are dozens of Segways or Craigslists. It is striking, furthermore, how often the technologies with truly transformational implications for the city were originally intended to address some other order of challenge or problem entirely. I very much doubt, for example, that Jeff Bezos had the cratering of high-street retail, the choking of big-city streets with parcel-delivery traffic or the staggering reduction in demand for warehousing labor in mind when he sat down to draft his first plans for an online book market.
This is a history we might wish to bear in mind when inventors, developers and other interested parties present us with claims that some new technology on offer will surely give rise to radically new (and invariably radically better) permutations of the city. We would be wise to consider that the things they propose will invariably be constrained by what the philosopher Jane Bennett thinks of as “the material recalcitrance of cultural products.” Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. In this light, we should consider the possibility that Kay’s promise might have been little more than bravado all along, and the successful scaling-up to worldwide hegemony of the ensemble of tools he helped to develop at PARC a one-time, more or less irreproducible fluke, with no particularly salient implications for innovators in other times or places.
For all the sweep and verve of his framing of things, then, I personally prefer the perspective offered by another technologist: the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer, who argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” We should evaluate a technology, that is, by considering the outcomes it is actually seen to produce when deployed in the world at scale — and not the reputations of its authors, their intentions, institutional affiliations or prior successes, or the ostensible benefits that supposed to attend its adoption.
Applying Beer’s bracing realism, the most pernicious words in the technologist’s vocabulary are “might,” “could” and “can,” and the only meaningful test of a proposed technical intervention are the conditions it empirically gives rise to when deployed into a recalcitrant world. We oughtn’t properly even be speaking of “potential”; the only way to ascertain whether or not a given technical or techno-social proposition is indeed within the space of possibility is to build a prototype, deploy it, and await the results. And what we learn when we consider past innovations in the light of this unremitting standard is that technical development, for all its rigors, is the easy part of inventing the future. Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.
And this is perhaps truer still for those who intend to realize progressive urban futures. It is still possible to dream of cities in which the flows of matter and energy necessary to an equitable distribution of goods and lifechances are sustainable over the longer term, in which the rather abstract, Lefebvrian “right to the city” is made concrete in accessible, universal mobility and participatory political processes, and above all in which dignified, decent lives are possible. But translating these aspirations into conditions on the ground will require urbanists to develop fluency with a set of conditions that by and large remain opaque to them, even threatening.
We must in the first instance have the courage to think the city in the light of the more outré technical possibilities suddenly available to us. Just what does public space look or feel like, when each of the people occupying it is surrounded at all times by a cloud of semi-autonomous servitors and companions, virtual as well as materially embodied? What remains of high streets, Main Streets or malls once retail as we have known it, with all its ability to communicate, seduce and gather, is exploded into ten thousand separate acts of on-the-spot production or just-in-time fulfilment? What do prospects for entry-level or otherwise unskilled employment look like in that unbundled world, and how will that be felt in the tenor of street life? The ways in which these questions come to be answered will set the boundary conditions for everyday urban life, for the kinds of political struggle that are possible in the urban frame and for the subjectivities and selves that arise there.
As we reckon with the lines of flight that now open up to us, however, we must retain the clarity and integrity to ground these possibilities against everything we know about the fate of interventions past. We need to understand the captures, detours and reversals that perennially afflict emergent technologies at the point where they intersect with existing ways of doing, making, dwelling and being, taking note particularly of the fact that technologies that prosper and find traction in the world are very often those which reinforce existing inequities of power. What this implies for urbanists of a politically progressive stripe is that, for a given struggle, conventional community organizing may offer a far better return on investments in energy, effort or other resources than an attempt to drive change via technical means.
Working fluently with technology means stripping it of its unearned gloss of neutrality. All technologies are, without exception, expressions of one or another set of values, and therefore by any sane accounting ought to be contested terrain. When Uber becomes popular in a given city, for instance, and that popularity is explicitly cited as justification for not maintaining an adequate level of investment in public transit, we can be sure that what we are seeing is somebody’s values being enacted, if not necessarily our own.
Like any other professional or disciplinary community, the adepts of network technology hold tacit beliefs in common. They hold certain conceptions of the just, the true and the beautiful, think the world in certain distinct ways. If they cannot always realize their aims directly, it still behooves us to know what they believe, and understand what it is that they are trying to achieve.
Further, the particular set of values inscribed in a technology may have a great deal to do with its fortunes in the world, and how well it is able to function as a purposive invention of the future. Uber is a particularly resonant example; whatever else it may be, it enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed, or what the media scholar Alison Powell calls the argument-by-technology. The vision of hyperindividualism, invidious interpersonal competitiveness and unlimited-convenience-for-those-who-can-afford-it inscribed in the service dovetails perfectly with — one might even say “embraces and extends” — the neoliberal ethos that has prevailed in the developed world for the past four decades. And this perhaps explains why it has been realized, where the rather more humane visions undergirding Craigslist or the Segway plainly have not been. Wherever services like Uber go unchallenged, the imposition of these values is effectively a fait accompli — and with future resource commitments tending to be entrained by path dependence, that achievement sets the initial conditions for everything that follows in its wake.
In the end, perhaps the crucial insight is this: urbanists can no longer ignore the impact of developments like machine learning, large-scale data analysis and automation, or treat them as something external to our field of inquiry. Operating at every scale and level of urban life, from vehicle guidance to the mediation of sociality to the aesthetics of the built environment, they are clearly set to exert the most profound influence on the physical spaces of our cities, the things we do in them, the ways they generate meaning and value, and the very selves we understand ourselves to be. It’s no longer tenable for anyone who cares about the life of cities to hold this set of facts at bay, especially those of us who nurture some remaining hope that the master’s tools can be used to build other sorts of houses entirely. And while we needn’t and oughtn’t build our practices exclusively around this class of technologies, we might want to consider how to fold a nuanced, properly skeptical engagement with them into our approach to the design of urban space and experience.
Well chuffed to see my micro-essay on this site’s header image — José Moscardi’s photograph of a 1969 student demonstration at FAU-USP — reprinted in the “On My Mind” section of the current issue of international photography magazine FOAM, no. 51, available now at finer newsstands everywhere. (If you can’t make it out from the image above, you can find the text in its entirety here.)
Once again, a note of cheer for those of you who may have suspected from time to time that all your creative efforts are in vain: this chart from a blathering McKinsey white paper on global adoption of “smart city solutions” acknowledges my 2013 pamphlet “Against the smart city” as part of an inflection point in the discourse.
Think about that for a second — I mean, I sure did, for well more than a second, and you can be equally sure it’s a thought I’ll return to in less affirmative moments. What we’re talking about here is a slim, self-published missive, written by an unaffiliated, uncredentialed independent, taking to task the offerings of hugely well-funded, global enterprises like IBM, Siemens, Hitachi, Cisco and Microsoft, and being cited by an equally global and well-resourced management consultancy as having helped blunt the force of their drive toward hegemony.
That the pamphlet in question was aided immeasurably by the simplemindedness, mendacity and brittleness of the things it set out to critique is beyond any doubt: you don’t need to wield much of a battering ram, after all, if all you’re trying to do is knock down a house of cards. Let’s be equally clear that by far the greater part of the c. 2014-15 retrenchment in corporate smart-city rhetoric stemmed from the fact that the multinationals found, to their great chagrin, that there simply wasn’t a viable high-return business model for what they’d been peddling. And finally, let’s not discount the influence of the multiple kinds of privilege I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) in shaping the pamphlet’s reception. Those factors were all surely in play. But the lesson I derive from this experience is that at least some of the asymmetry and access to leverage those of us who were there cherished about the early Web remains a fact of the world — a fact that other uncredentialed, unaffiliated, independent actors can grasp and turn to their own advantage, whatever the flavor of their own particular struggle.
It’s not every day you wake up and see you’ve been given even partial credit for forcing Behemoth to alter its plan of attack, by a party granted all the credibility to perform such acts of discourse policing and consensus formation, and hope that the world is made that infinitesimal amount freer and more just as a result of your actions. As silly as this may certainly be, it’s also a gratifying and a sustaining thing. Know then that your pamphlet (mixtape, rant, supercut, outfit, etc.) can move mountains, if only by that much and only for awhile. I hope that more of you get to experience what that feels like — or still better, experience the reality of your impact for yourself, perceive it with your own senses instead of relying on some bottom-feeding consultancy to reaffirm what you already know to be true.
PETTY UPDATE: I get a huge, if somewhat cruel, kick out of seeing the McKinsey cats identify the June ’16 launch of Y Combinator’s New Cities initiative as a landmark moment in the triumphant return to credibility of the smart city. Headed up by the useless Ben Huh, New Cities appears to have been stillborn, with its blog featuring no activity to speak of since its initial announcement of intent, and a grand total of two posts on the associated research portal over the subsequent two years (one of which is a repost of the launch announcement). It really takes an impressive amount of intellectual dishonesty to anoint this as a milestone in anything but the annals of FAIL.
Today I am deeeeeeeeeeelighted to share with you the news that my application to study toward a PhD in the Cities Programme of the Sociology Department at the London School of Economics has been accepted. Good god! I’m going back to school!
This is quite the fiftieth birthday present, and will require above all that I get over the little chip on my shoulder I’ve carried around for years about being uncredentialed, unaffiliated and unbound. This has been an enduring source of pride and strength for me, but I’ve come to feel like it’s outlived its utility, and has for the past little while actually functioned as a pretty sharp constraint on some of the things I’d like to achieve. Time to leave it behind.
Unending thanks to David Madden and Suzi Hall for your guidance and encouragement, to Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett for your active support of my candidacy, and to Nurri Kim for your insight and counsel. I am so, so stoked — in fact, I cannot quite believe I’ve been offered the opportunity to learn and grow from this particular community of passionately engaged scholars. Let’s kick the tires and light the fires, I am ready to go.
A couple-few upcoming talks and other events around town I want to hip you to:
— First, with apologies for the vertiginously late notice, is an event I’ve been looking forward to forever: tomorrow night at the Tate Modern, I’m sitting down with the wonderful Sally Davies for a chat about Radical Technologies, cyborg urbanism, and whatever tactics of refusal and resistance remain available to us. Sally is hands-down one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, and the Tate’s a lovely venue for a chat, so this ought to be particularly good.
— June 15th at the RA, splendid Shumi Bose is chairing a panel for the London Festival of Architecture on which I’ll be appearing, and giving a brief talk called “Inhospitable Soil: Destination London and the Difficulty of the Commons.” This’ll basically recapitulate my recent writing on the Received Commons Aesthetic, and describe why common space has such an overwhelmingly hard time taking root in a city optimized for the shelter of bandit capital.
— Fast-forward a month, and there’s a rare treat in store for you: on the 15th of July we’re doing a Systems/Layers walkshop in collaboration with the Design Museum, details TBA. (This will be the fourth walkshop we’ve mounted in London, after explorations in Holborn, Elephant & Castle and the area around Euston Station, and I do believe we’ll be poking around King’s Cross this time.) Keep an eye peeled for registration information.
— Early July and the Design Museum, as well, means an event which I’m not quite at liberty to tell you about just yet, but which certainly has something to do with this. Swing by and Pawsonize — it ought to be goooood.
That’s it for London dates for the moment. I’ve got Helsinki and Tallinn coming up in early June, events in Rotterdam, São Paulo, Chicago, Toronto and Cordoba, Argentina, scheduled for late summer or early fall, and — if things pan out the way I expect them to — one or two surprises up my sleeve for the same time frame. But more about that later.
It’s always healthy, I think, to have a considered look at what it is I’m taking in. This is what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and thinking about lately.
First and last
I’ve spent a truly inordinate amount of time reading the MetaFilter megathreads documenting the ongoing Trump travesty in real time. In all honesty, these threads have been far and away my primary intake of content by volume since the time of the Brexit referendum just about two years ago now (!), and my inability to tear myself away from this transatlantic (shitshow, trainwreck, dumpster fire, act of civilizational suicide — choose your metaphor, they all amount to the same thing) over this entire period has put a major dent in my ability to think, write or get any meaningful work done.
– James Bridle: New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
– Owen Coggins: Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal
– Peter Godfrey-Smith: Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
– Graham Harman: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything
– N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious (Among the best of its type.)
– Humphrey Jennings: Pandæmonium (Simply wonderful.)
– Mateo Kries, Mathias Müller et al., eds.: Together! The New Architecture of the Collective
– Caroline Maniaque-Benton with Meredith Gaglio: Whole Earth Field Guide
– Mauvaise Troupe Collective, tr. Kristin Ross: The ZAD and NoTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence
– Elaine Mokhtefi: Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries
– Norman Ohler: Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Wildly entertaining.)
– Moshe Safdie: Beyond Habitat
– Elizabeth Sandifer: Neoreaction A Basilisk (Essential to understanding the shape of our moment.)
– Lynne Segal: Radical Happiness
– Richard Vinen: The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies
– Matthew W. Wilson: New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map
– and finally, got over my aversion to TED-style popthink and picked up
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow
– Anna Kavan: Ice
– Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
– Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140 (Contains an incidental, paragraph-length ode to the place of “Heroin” in the consciousness of true New Yorkers that no lie brought me to tears, though I was admittedly at 38,000 feet at the time.)
– Bejan Matur: If This Is A Lament
– (hush) Black Panther
– Funeral Parade of Roses
– Homo Sapiens
– (cheating a little bit, actually saw it toward the end of last year) Gulistan, Land of Roses
– A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
– The usual, compulsive rewatches of, like, 8½, Bande à part, Day of the Jackal, The Italian Job, etc.
– I’m sure there are other films I’ve gone to see in the cinema, but they’re slipping my mind. I’ll make another cup of coffee (see below) and see if I can’t remember.
Oh, OK…I watch Westworld, I Love Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale and Love. Don’t @ me. (The casting for Westworld, in particular, is dialed in. Gorgeous Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Giancarlo Esposito, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Peter Fucken Mullan? Sold American. I even like those dudes what play the bickering nerdling technicians. And the costuming, set design, etc., is [smacks fingers].)
Listening to a lot of Bong, Eluvium, Dopelord, Windhand, Electric Wizard, and so on, in addition to the usualcrew in permanent heavy rotation (Nancy & Lee, Staple Singers, Magazine, Minutemen, Velvets, James Cleveland, etc.); the best live acts I’ve caught in the past six months were Nadja and Taman Shud. Suuuuper looking forward to Zeal & Ardor in just a few weeks. [UPDATE: Zeal & Ardor was exceptionally good, with the new material off Stranger Fruit just tearing jagged little holes in me. Also, I finally got around to the new Sleep, The Sciences, and it is in every last way a stone motherfucker.]
Haven’t been getting out as much as I should. I did see the comprehensive Forensic Architecture show now on at the ICA — huge congrats to Eyal and crew on your Turner Prize nom — as well as “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” and “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins,” both at the Barbican and both great. (The 1:1-scale recreation of Moriyama House at the former was one of the most wisely considered and squeeful things I’ve ever experienced in a gallery space.)
Drug of choice
…remains caffeine, delivered in the form of high-test black coffee, brewed in a Chemex. (Yeah. All it took was a single cup of pourover brewed for me at the Reserve counter in the Starbucks above Gangnam Station — instant conversion experience. I went down to longtime favorite D&Department in Itaewon and picked up a three-cup version and some filters to take home with me. When I got back to London, of course, I had to futz around with acquiring the various pieces of twee hipster kit you need to rock pourover in the Chemex — the precision grinder, the Hario scale, the gooseneck kettle and so on, all in matte black, as well as a little shibari-inspired black leather thong to customize the Chemex itself, ’cause it was like two quid and I’m a total dork. Thank god Nurri already had the digital kitchen thermometer. You can see why Buy Nothing 2018 was dead before it left the table.)
Unshakable lust object
I keep slinking back to Velorution to gaze slackly upon this exquisite Moulton AM GT Mk III, and thereupon to dream and plot — first how to afford such a recockulous expenditure on a bike, then how to justify it. (NB: I understand full well that even should I sell a kidney to gin up the necessary dosh/consign myself to penury for some extended term thereafter, it is almost certainly beyond any conceivable justification. Nevertheless, there are worse midlife crises.)
A good few years ago now, on one of my more-or-less quadrennial swings through Tokyo, I met a hugely enthusiastic graphic designer and educator by the name of Ian Lynam, who teaches design at the Temple University campus there. (If his name doesn’t happen to ring any bells, you’re surely familiar with his work, as co-founder of the splendid néojaponisme.)
Ian and I have kept fitfully in touch ever since — I’m afraid he’s a far more diligent correspondent than I — and not so long ago he asked if he could interview me for “Perpetual Beta,” the blog for one of the other programs he’s affiliated with. (Dude gets around.) Of course I agreed, and was rewarded with a brace of really refreshing questions — I mean, how many times can you find something fresh and insightful to say about a topic as played-out as the smart city? It was a total pleasure to talk, instead, earliest literary influences, the subtly explosive little discographies in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, my complicated love for the alternative social infrastructure of the late 1970s, and so on. Anyway, here’s the interview; I hope you dig it.
Speaking of swings-through-town, I’m going to be in Tallinn and Helsinki the first week of June, for back-to-back events with Housing Europe and the University of Helsinki. Join me for those events, or give a shout if you’re simply up for vodka shots, loud metal and sauna.
For no reason that I am able to discern, I have only now received a few hundred messages you’ve been leaving for me here, some dating back to 2015.
You may be certain that I have reached out to the WordPress support team in an attempt to find out how this happened, but in the meantime please accept my sincerest apologies. You must think I’ve been terribly snide in ignoring your comments, questions and invitations all this time, and I assure you nothing could possibly be further from my intention.
Should you wish to contact me, I remain available, as always, at my initials at urbanscale dot org.
Here’s a quick heads up that, at long last, Radical Technologies is available for order in a handsome new paperback edition. (Order directly from Verso, if you prefer, and get you a free e-book into the bargain.)
You ought to know that I got my hands on one of these a few weeks back, and they’re adorable. Something about the chunky little format just sings to me. It’s not, admittedly, as potent an object as the Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents paperbacks of yore — those were elegantly slim back-pocket editions, capable of spurring the kind of conversations that lead to, um, coupling — but it’s charming nonetheless.
Stay tuned, as well, for details regarding a London event/afterparty celebrating the paperback launch.
PS Also out in Italian, from the splendid Einaudi and their maverick Maverick imprint! This is the first of the editions in translation to see the light of day, with Turkish, simplified Chinese, Polish and Russian editions coming before the end of the year, and more to come.
I’m fairly sure that I share with most other writers the uneasy sense that every word issuing from my keyboard ultimately flies off into the great void. I go to sleep at night safe in what is surely the statistically reasonable belief that the things I write are at best parsed quickly, in a state of distraction, and never really land in any meaningful way. This isn’t occasion for bitterness or resentment, mind you. It’s just the inevitable consequence of living in a time of massive informational overload. There’s such fierce competition for each precious increment of attention, and the kind of things I write about, by their very nature, have a hard time crowding out other claims. It’s something you learn to accept if you hope to face the world with anything like equanimity, let alone cheer.
Maybe this is why I felt such a gut-deep thrill at learning that some Minnesota activists opposed to the testing of a new autonomous shuttle hung this banner from an overpass last night. If nothing else, it suggests that at least some of what I tried to express in “Against the smart city” escaped the abyss, and managed to register somehow. I’m sure this is laughably small potatoes from the perspective of anyone whose contributions actually do shift the global discourse, but for a decidedly non-A-list writer, such evidence of impact is supremely gratifying.
I am — naturally, because this is me — ambivalent about the idea that my work can be mobilized in the context of this specific protest. I think it’s far from clear that autonomous mobility will necessarily drive the oppressive métro, boulot, dodo cycle of late capitalism, as this particular protest assumes, and that there’s a decent argument to be made that if properly designed, it will physically concretize the right to the city in a way few other modes of getting around have ever been able to — particularly for citydwellers of limited personal mobility.
Nevertheless, that “if properly designed” is a major stumbling block, it’s far too late in the day to place any stock in the good will or benevolent intentions of would-be technological disruptors, and in any event, intent isn’t magic. People are right to question every aspect of the propositions they’re confronted with by smart-city advocates — to question, ascertain whether what is to be installed accords at any point with their needs and desires, and protest, disrupt and prevent the deployment of anything that does not. And that very much includes mobility systems whose designers cannot adequately justify the thing they have conceived, either to their intended audience, or to the communities through which their infrastructure runs.
At present, I don’t know enough about the Hennepin County autonomous-mobility test to determine whether or not I personally would oppose it. But then, I don’t live there. It’s enough for me to know that at least some of the people who do have yet to be convinced that it’s anything but a harbinger of exploitation and oppression yet to come. I’m delighted, and deeply gratified, to see my words invoked in their struggle.
PS If anyone responsible for this banner should happen to see this, please do get in touch — anonymously, if you prefer. I’d love to hear from you.
Adam Greenfield on TwitterMy Tweets
- Home Futures contribution: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling? 8 November 2018
- Into the darkness 4 November 2018
- A handle for my Brompton, a headache for degrowth 22 October 2018
- Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist” 27 September 2018
- AG on Moscardi, now in FOAM 51 23 September 2018
Being discussed now
- August C. Bourré (@FishSauce) on Into the darkness
- #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics – SubSense on Can you smell what I’m cooking?
- Sentiers Media on Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”
- gcerceau on Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”
- August C. Bourré (@FishSauce) on A place for antiheroic technology