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«Окей, бумер»: ForbesLife Russia interview, December ’19

Pursuant to my recent trip to St Petersburg, the cats at ForbesLife Russia wanted to chat with me about “my attitude to some controversial urban technologies.” Herewith the results.

What is the future of e-cars and self-driving cars? How soon they will replace regular drivers? Would it change the transport system in cities?
It’s pretty well-known by now that the first estimates of when autonomous vehicles would replace conventional ones were wildly optimistic, and at the moment even the best autonomous guidance systems can evidently still be fooled by rain, or fog, or light coming from an unexpected angle. I think autonomous vehicles will eventually be the norm, but the word “eventually” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When they do become the norm, though, I very much hope they’re imagined as collective means of mobility, rather than a fleet of isolated, individual, private pods taking up as much space as conventional cars do now.

How do you feel about Uber?
I don’t think they have much of a future as presently constituted. Personally, I would be very surprised if they’re still a going concern by mid-2021.

Are smartphones and smartwatches helping to collect data from citizens. Is it new possibilities for city and technology development or danger?
It’s both, obviously. The trouble is that most of the danger has already been realized, while, as ever, the new possibilities remain endlessly deferred.

Do we really need smart houses?
No. We need decent, actually affordable houses, and many more of them.

Will the increase of the AI-robots use influence the economic growth?
Well, look — I’m a degrowthist, which is to say that I believe that prosperity and the growth of the economy as conventionally measured are two entirely different things, and that unlimited growth is civilizationally untenable. So let’s be clear that if AI and automation drive growth, that’s a bad thing — a terrible thing, in fact, as they can only increase the efficiency with which we strip the planet of its final remaining organic resources and transform them into plastic in the landfills and oceans and waste heat in the atmosphere. AI-driven automation might well have been designed as formal proof of the Jevons Paradox.

Now there is a general trend towards automation of production. Is it possible that humans and robots will complement each other, or will robots inevitably replace humans?
That very much depends on the task in question, as well as the political economy and type of society in which that task is embedded. A just society would be more likely to make choices around automation that tended towards producing complementarity. You may have noticed, however, that we don’t happen to live in a just society.

What do you think about work automation? How do you think automation is likely to reshape our economy and society?
You know I don’t use the word “inevitable,” because very little is inevitable other than change and death. But some degree of automation certainly does seem overdetermined at the moment, and I don’t think you need to be any kind of a genius to predict that the consequences when deployed at scale will be economically and socially salient.

Lots of new technologies collect and monetize citizens data. What do you think about governance of this huge about data?
“If you can’t protect it, don’t collect it.”

What is the future of mass media? Will be they replaced by news aggregators and AI writing news reports?
I can’t see how that would be particularly worse or any shallower than the situation we contend with right now. The concentration of corporate and billionaire ownership in the media sector means that honest, accurate reportage about the circumstances of our lives is increasingly vulnerable to suppression, from the mass, mainstream outlets right down to niche outlets like Gawker, Deadspin and Splinter.

You have said that technical feasibility is not key to the development, and [that it is] more important to change politics. How do you see the future of digital governance?
As far less important than the collective task of becoming what the geographers Danny MacKinnon and Kate Driscoll Derickson call “resourceful.” We desperately need to recover our competence for being public, for being civic, simply for being together. The means via which we enact that being-together could be the human voice or pencil and paper every bit as much as some elaborate, digitally-mediated delegation network — the mechanics of implementation matter much less than the fundamental skills and attitudes necessary to self-determination and collective stewardship.

Are there any others controversial technologies that are overestimated? Could you please list and briefly describe them?
Blockchain in particular seems like a mass exercise in hype and self-delusion, in which the grifters and scam artists are hard to tell from the willing sheep (and neither cohort is particularly comprised of people I’d want to have a drink with). Cryptobros gonna cryptobro, I guess.

Reminder to self

It may well be impossible to write about the major thrusts of contemporary urbanization without nurturing and giving vent to a certain ice-cold rage, like that which suffuses Aaron Timms’ clear-eyed, expert evisceration of the New Manhattan and its soulless creep toward total irrelevance.

Never forget, though, that there is a counterpoint. That counterpoint is, is always, Harvey’s.

Excavating the meshwork

Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. And a primary figure of thought I’ve retained from the enthusiasms of those long-gone-by days is the opposition he drew (in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and elsewhere) between two organizing principles he saw at work in the world, principles he termed hierarchies and meshworks.

Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated (and therefore do work in the world) without suppressing their difference.

Despite my dawning awareness in the years since that there’s rather less to De Landa’s thought than meets the eye, this still strikes me as a useful distinction to make. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network.

At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced. The notion was abroad in the land that human communities organized as networks were inherently more conducive to equality and justice, as well as significantly more open to creative novelty, than implicitly coercive and privilege-conserving hierarchies. We see highly influential articulations of this line of thought in Castells’ Rise of the Network Society (1996), Kevin Kelly’s risible 1998 New Rules for the New Economy and Yochai Benkler’s magnum opus The Wealth of Networks (2006)*, to this day it utterly saturates ostensibly progressive initiatives like the P2P Foundation, and it’s an unspoken, foundational assumption beneath some of the most interesting left thought and praxis of the last decade. (Both De Landa and his theory-papas Deleuze and Guattari had explicitly cautioned against falling for this vulgar topological reductionism, by the way, but evidently to no avail. I mean, I certainly believed it, and reproduced it too, for quite a long time.)

That the famously “flat ontology” of De Landa’s thought (as well as actor-network theory), the horizontal turn in politics and the suddenly ubiquitous physical presence of networked devices all arrived at about the same historical moment is no accident. They all spring from the same deeper well of formal signification. Nature itself seemed to authorize our use of these horizontal logics. It turns out that when you go looking for networks, they crop up just about everywhere, making them a reasonable candidate for master organizing principle of the physical universe. Just as biomimesis has often seemed to both commend and justify novel organizational tactics – “swarming” was also a glamor trope at the millennium, and fused to the then-sparklingly novel enabling technology of the text message, gave us the flash mob, which in turn was supposed to transform street protest — so too the network turn seemed to sound the clarion call for a dawning age of flat politics.

But what is a network? De Landa tells us — here, anyway — that networks connect heterogeneous things. But this is in no way the case: in the real world, the networks that we consciously construct almost by definition connect elements that observe the same connection protocol or standard, whether that be rail gauge, or USB-C, or IEEE 802.11, or the act of driving on the right. Putting to one side the notion that some degree of standardization at the interface permits diversification at the network’s edge, in fact, you make things homogenous precisely so they can be coupled. So it seems clear that if you want to describe a connective logic that links the activity of formally dissimilar elements, you need a better language.

And this is especially so when you consider how service-delivery infrastructure works in the cities most people on Earth actually live in. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re talking about is water service and waste removal, healthcare, public safety, or any of the other Maslovian essentials those of us who live in what we call “the developed world” tend to take for granted. They arrive via some mixture of public and private provision, and these methods are stacked at variable scales in space and take varying rhythms and cadences in time. So water may get to you via some combination of buried pipes, trucks, municipal taps, bucket relays, and pallets stacked with tightly-shrinkwrapped plastic bottles (not to mention falling from the sky), and any or all of those but the rain could be privatized. You may get your electricity from the national grid on some days, on others from a little Honda generator you keep out back. For a sense of safety, you may knit together some combination of block watch, smartphone apps and protection payments to the local gang. The point is that all these systems of provision have a whole lot more in common with the “transversal logics” the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira describes, or the language of squatting, repair and consolidation her student Gautam Bhan uses, than they do with the crisp interfaces and imposed formal homogeneities of the network.

Enter the meshwork. What I want above all to recover from the De Landan use of this term is the possibility of describing more accurately the infrastructural and social assemblages we see in the real city — the kind of hybridized agglomerations of deeply bastard heritage, whose elements were laid down by many different hands, at different times, at different scales and degrees of completion. These wildcat provisions can’t be understood in the same way you understand the formal, reticulated, tightly-regulated and -standardized infrastructure networks of the Northern city, and we need a language supple enough to describe them. If we can retrieve this valuable concept, dust it off and render it fit for purpose in the contemporary world, we might gain some theoretical purchase on circumstances that have hitherto eluded structured understanding. But first we have to upgrade De Landa’s thought by peeling away the layers of woolly network-mysticism that adhere to it, so it can better grasp the systems and structures we encounter in practice.

And I’m interested in doing so in the first place because I suspect that thinking things as meshworks (in my own, as yet not fully articulated sense) has a powerful connection with the kinds of social formation I’m interested in sustaining, and their ability to enact adequate levels of social provisioning. If my admittedly perverse little anarchist project is to reassemble in principle (e.g.) a universal health service on non-welfare state grounds, figuring the necessary set of relations as first and foremost a meshwork seems like it would help clarify what’s involved in building and maintaining such a capability. And you’ll no doubt be hearing more about that from me in the fullness of time.

UPDATED: Politiken Byrum interview, May 2019

As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.

May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.

What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.

As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.

But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?

What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.

What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.

But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.

What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?

Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.

Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.

Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.

But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.

Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is
always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.

What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.

You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.

It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.

What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.

I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.

There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.

The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.

Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on
technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.

Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?

Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.

Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”

Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.

I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.

How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.

How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.

What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.

We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.

What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.

Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.

If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?

Two Copenhagen talks, May 22nd-23rd

Just so long as I’m posting upcoming talks, I figure I’d better pull your coat about two talks I’m giving in Copenhagen week after next.

– On the 22nd, from 09:00 to 10:30 in the morning, I’ll be keynoting something called the Prix Bloxhub Interactive Symposium. This ought to be interesting, to say the least, as my views about what makes a city “liveable” (for whom?) are quite strongly in tension with those of most all the other speakers, and indeed the framing of the event itself. I can’t quite figure out from the website just where the symposium’s going to be held, but I’m sure the organizers can help you with that if you’re thinking of attending. I can’t promise sparks, but, y’know…where there’s friction there’s always gonna be a decent chance of same.

– Similarly, the next morning from 09:20 to 10:00 I’m giving a talk at the Danish Design Museum — what is it about Copenhagen and talks at an hour I’m generally not even fully caffeinated yet? Here again the whole framing of the event is about digital innovation and other conceptions of the common good I’ve parted ways with, so I’m imagining a healthy dialectic will emerge.

Give a shout if you’re in town & feel like having a coffee, Christiania-izing, etc.

New book in the works: Power at Human Scale

What with one thing and another, I see that I’ve forgotten to mention that I’m currently working on my next book: an extended consideration of the theory, practice and future of libertarian municipalism, tentatively entitled Power at Human Scale. (As is always the case with these things, that title is subject to change, but it ought to give you an idea of my fundamental orientation toward the topic.)

Here’s how I summarized the book’s introduction, in the pitch I originally sent my publishers:

“The ecosphere is observably, demonstrably dying around us. Everyday life is increasingly ordered by technologies most of us do not understand — and in the case of artificial intelligence, cannot understand, even in principle. A vanishingly small number of plutocrats and oligarchs lay claim to virtually all of the wealth produced on Earth, as the rest of us are forced to accept the baleful truths of a life defined by precarity. The far (and in some places the extreme) right run rampant everywhere from Brazil to Hungary to the Philippines, deftly capitalizing on the sense of helplessness and powerlessness generated by these implacable circumstances.

“Amidst the gloom, though, a tenuous but real shard of hope has appeared. Generally percolating beneath the notice of the media, showing up solely when it can no longer be ignored, a novel, non-statist approach to the organization of complex societies has appeared. There is no getting around the fact that this way of doing things requires a great deal of effort and commitment, but it can restore to us a sense of agency over the circumstances of our lives, a feeling of competence in the management of difficult situations, and the knowledge that our voices matter. It might even function as a lifeboat capable of carrying us, our communities and the values we cherish safely through the perilous decades ahead. We know it by the rather dry name of ‘municipalism.’

“In this introduction, municipalism is presented to the reader as a cluster of related tactics and techniques that allow a community embracing them to ascend the rungs of Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation,’ from manipulation through consultation to citizen control. As Arnstein suggests, the point of increasing the intensity of involvement in decision-making is to grasp power, and the testimony of those who have experienced such power as a lived reality attests to the wide array of beneficial social, psychic and ecological effects that follow.

“This overview of the state of play establishes that over the past quarter century, movements of a frankly municipalist character have furnished the left with much of its ferment and hope for the future, culminating in the stunning appearance of a large-scale non-state governance framework in Rojava. The balance of the book will seek to summarize and consolidate the lessons learned by these movements, taking them not so much as literal blueprint, but as a vital repository of ideas to be taken up and reworked in practice by living communities the world over — and a jumping-off point for a non-statist politics native to the networked, imperiled twenty-first century.”

The book visits Porto Alegre, Chiapas, the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Athens, Brooklyn, Barcelona and Jackson, Mississippi to see what lessons each of them can teach us about the organization of autonomous communities; moves through an extended discussion of the Rojava achievement; and concludes by taking a stab at articulating what all of this might be leading up to.

I’m curious to know what you think ought to be included in a book of this nature, and especially what you think I might be missing. I have to say, though, that I can’t remember ever having been as excited about a book project. This is the one I’ve wanted to write for almost a decade now. I’ll keep you in the loop as to how I’m getting along with it.

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.

Four questions for the smart city

After a few solid years of thinking, writing and consulting about smart cities, I’ve distilled my recommendations down to four questions any municipal administrator or concerned citizen should ask when presented with propositions for the technological improvement of everyday urban life:

0. What does it do?
This question seems so obvious that you mightn’t think it needs to be posed explicitly. Incredibly, though, in my travels I’ve met a huge number of people, both in and out of government, who are so enamored of technological intervention both for its own sake, and for the gloss of modernity they think comes along with it, that they forget to ask just what it is they’re signing up for. Sometimes, indeed, they don’t even care. They should care, and so should you. What is the thing supposed to do in the first place?

1. Does it work?
Does the proposed intervention do what it’s supposed to do? This is by no means a settled matter of fact, even when dealing with technologies that might work stably and well in other contexts. Demand some kind of evidence that the proposed intervention actually functions in the way its vendors and advocates claim it will when deployed in an urban environment like yours, not just for a few weeks, but on an ongoing basis. If no such evidence is forthcoming, feel free to drive a much harder bargain, or to walk away entirely.

2. Do we agree that what it’s supposed to do is something worth doing?
A proposed technology might indeed do what its manufacturers say it will, but that thing might be monstrous — or at the very least, not something that a majority of citizens consider to be an end worth pursuing as a matter of public purpose. Say that someone is proposing to license and install new facial-recognition software for the city’s CCTV network, and that software reliably identifies 95% of the individuals that pass before its cameras. Is this a goal that the public has passed collective judgment on, and considers to be an acceptable expression of its will? (Are there procedures in place to reverse the deployment and its effects, should that collective judgment change in the future?)

3. Does it do that thing at reasonable cost, compared to other ways of addressing the issue at hand?
Maybe the proposed technological deployment serves an end that’s more or less universally regarded as desirable in your city, like reducing violence or vehicular traffic. And maybe the system on offer does actually (consistently, demonstrably, reliably) function toward that end. So far, so good. Are you convinced, though, that you’ve exhausted available ways of addressing the issue at hand that might be cheaper, less complex or less dependent on long-term systems integration, maintenance and upkeep commitments? Perhaps a summer jobs program is more effective at reducing youth violence than a cutting-edge predictive policing suite, and achieves its goals at a fraction of the cost (and without either abrogating the community’s rights or abrading its sensitivities). It might not be as superficially glamorous, and it won’t necessarily get your city talked about in puff pieces on cutting-edge urban innovation, but shouldn’t you exhaust that and other possible alternatives before shelling out in perpetuity for the complicated, big-ticket item?

Again, this almost shouldn’t need to be said in so many words, but: if you can’t come up with affirmative answers to questions 1 through 3, you should strongly reconsider whether the investment at hand is one worth making.

Note too that the framework I offer here limits itself to a consideration of the smart city at face value and on its own terms, i.e. those of financial cost-effectiveness and process efficiency. The truth, of course, is that are other ways of accounting for cost and benefit, and that the costs reckoned in dollars are neither the only ones incurred in any given deployment of informatic technology, nor by any stretch of the imagination the ones that matter most. But for the moment, let’s agree to place all such considerations to one side. What you might find startling, in doing so, is that the smart city very often cannot even justify itself on its own, artificially constrained terms.

“Against the smart city”: Impact metric, part II

Of such moments is a happy life made.

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.

Piling higher and deeper

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.