Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More questions on the smart city

There continues to be strong interest in the question of the smart city from all quarters — though perhaps, if my sense of things can be trusted, the tide is beginning to turn toward more grounded considerations, if not outright skepticism as to the ostensible benefits. One of the things I construct as a sign of this tidal shift is the slow but gathering interest more mainstream media outlets have in presenting alternate perspectives on the subject. Here we see no less august a newspaper than the Economist looking to do just that. I hope you enjoy this record of our brief conversation.

What, in a nutshell, is your primary objection or critique to the current discourse surrounding “smart cities” and Big Data related to urban planning and service delivery?

My main beef with the discourse of the smart city is that it was generated, and has almost exclusively been developed, by organizations and individuals that have no particular understanding of cities or their dynamics. They have zero — and I mean zero — familiarity with the canonical works of urbanist literature, and very little in the way of considered practical experience that might help them correct for this deficit of book knowledge.

I remember being a little stunned to learn that a very senior member of Cisco’s connected cities team, who was proposing to intervene in the dynamics of urban neighborhoods, had never even heard of Jane Jacobs. I watched slack-jawed as he carefully took down the name of Death and Life of Great American Cities, like a dutiful if rather grindy student, prepping for finals. I mean, good for him — he wanted to learn. I wager, though, that you’d feel a trifle uneasy in the presence of someone preparing to undertake surgery without having gone to medical school, especially if they were asking you to admire the handle on the kitchen knife that constituted their only equipment for the task.

There’s a mildly amusing Dunning-Kruger aspect to it, but then you remember that these organizations are playing with peoples’ homes and livelihoods and lives. If that kind of arrogant self-assurance coupled with cluelessness isn’t disqualifying, then I don’t know what would be.

Is it possible for developers in “new” cities like Masdar or Palava in India to be able to comprehensively map out how the city will work and anticipate its problems, or does a city need to already exist in order to properly understand how to deploy smart city technology?

What saddens me is that we’ve been down this road before — time and time again, in fact, in the latter part of the twentieth century. We know how this story ends, and it isn’t pretty. There’s a reason why Corbusian total planning is thoroughly discredited.

Understanding why top-down total planning doesn’t, and can’t, produce vital human communities from scratch is something that smart-city enthusiasts might have gleaned from even a cursory review of the urbanist canon. Having apparently forgotten our own (recent!) history, however, we’re now perforce condemned to repeat it.

Does Big Data have any productive role to play in urban planning or service delivery?

Sure it does. But whatever its functional utility, [that use] cannot be had without cost. The task of determining the precise nature of the trade-offs involved, and of deciding whether or not the community wants to shoulder that cost in return for benefits now or in the future — as I’m always saying, these are things that can only be decided in a specific locale, and with reference to a specific set of circumstances. Like any other technology that’s brought to bear on public life, the deployment of analytics founded in so-called Big Data needs to be subject to processes of democratic accountability. And I don’t see that happening in very many places at the moment.

Quick advice for event organizers

Despite the regular prognostications of futurists over what is now a forty-year period — and, no doubt, the most cherished hopes of the vendors of telepresence systems — the physical, in-person, face-to-face gathering remains a primary mode of knowledge production and circulation in our culture. Whether it’s pitched as festival, conference, colloquium or (god help us) summit, the basic paradigm of flying a comparatively small group of people a long way so they can present to a relatively much larger group of people seems to retain a great deal of appeal and prestige.

Whether or not we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on this way of doing things isn’t really my subject here, though it certainly would be interesting to discuss. What I want to get into is that while there’s an art to running such events well — and NB, it is not always about carefully-rehearsed timings, television-grade MCs, buttery transitions or the other appurtenances of high-production-value stagecraft — the elements of that art are by no means universally understood.

This becomes ever clearer, now that everybody wants to get into the act. With more, and more kinds of, organizations than ever before deciding that hosting a public or quasi-public event of some sort is somehow key to the accomplishment of their mission, the insight necessary to curate and manage such gatherings successfully feels to me like it’s getting a trifle thinner on the ground. Please accept, then, this little bit of advice, from someone who’s experienced it from both sides over the course of the twelve years I’ve been doing public speaking and organizing speaking events.

It’s simple, actually. If there is an art to successful event planning, that artfulness begins with the care you take for your presenters — and, in turn, that care begins with the invitation itself, with its very wording and the sincerity that can be discerned in it.

Lookit: I get several speaking invitations a week. Of course those who are interested in having me present have varying levels of capacity — and I do mean varying. Some are commercial enterprises that I expect to pay my full commercial fee, plus all the bells and whistles — business-class airfare; as many nights’ accommodation as I think necessary, at a similar standard; and all transfers, meals and incidentals. Other organizations are academic, non-profit or voluntary in nature, and they don’t have access to the kind of budget these things require, or anything like it. Because it is — let us never forget for a moment — an honor and a privilege to be asked to share your perspectives in this way, I do try my best to work something out with each and every one of them. With a little give and take, we’re generally able to come to some agreement. Not, certainly, all of the time, but enough to keep me on the road for a good part of the year.

However. I seem to be getting a class of requests lately that I’m afraid I have very little choice but to turn down, and it’s these that I want to warn you against should you be contemplating convening an event of your own. These are invitations for me to speak at an event — generally across an ocean, and many time-zones away — that don’t acknowledge the significant cost of that participation to me. Some of them only offer to pay for economy-class airfare, and one or at most two nights in a hotel, but no honorarium. Some don’t include any offer at all, but imply that I should cover my own travel and accommodation for the sheer privilege of doing so. I frankly don’t know what the point is of asking someone to present at an event if you’re only going to turn around and say to them, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the budget to support your participation.” I mean, that’s not really much of an invitation, is it? You got in touch with me! You took the effort to reach out! Obviously you think it would be useful to you or your audience for me to be there — I’m sincerely flattered, but shouldn’t your request reflect the worth you place on this utility?

I feel like I shouldn’t have to spell this out in so many words, but evidently I do: your speakers aren’t just giving you the time it takes to present at your event, or even the time it takes to travel to and from that event. They’re giving you all of that, and however long it takes for them to prepare and to recover, and during this entire arc they will contend with some degree of disruption to their life rhythms. Everything under the span of this arc is time they cannot fully devote to personal projects, or paying client work, or the pleasures of home and the ones they love. Shouldn’t you offer them something that acknowledges and reflects this?

There are two points that deserve emphasis here:

– I reiterate that this “something” doesn’t have to consist of money, or indeed of anything that money buys. I myself have organized international events on a shoestring budget, and the very first thing I acknowledge to those I invite is that they are the event. However much excitement you may have stoked up as an organizer, however willing to be generous an audience may be, your presenters need to know that the whole proposition will stand or fall on the quality of their contributions, and that you understand this. So I express my gratitude to them for even considering the invitation, apologize that I’m not always able to offer the class of travel or accommodation they surely deserve — and promise them that if they’re nonetheless able to attend, I will do everything I humanly can to make their effort worthwhile. Like a citation, this acknowledgment costs you precisely nothing, but is a token that you are operating in good faith, and if offered sincerely generates a great deal of good will.

– By contrast, though, don’t — I mean really do not ever — say or imply to your speakers that their compensation is “the opportunity,” or getting to meet the other fabulous people who are going to be at your event. I would humbly suggest that this is not a way of approaching speakers that’s likely to produce the results you want. It’s presumptuous and self-important, in the first place, and who wants to be that? But what’s worse is that reliance on this gambit produces a speaker cohort whose core motivation is to network. If they’re only there to instrumentalize or operationalize their participation in your event — slinging out business cards like a dealer from Macau, parsing everyone they meet into A and B and C people — they’re not likely to be genuinely interested in you, your organization, your mission or your audience in and for themselves. You will have connived at douchery, and to what end?

Since the conference game seems to be all about the takeaway these days, here’s the takeaway: You don’t need to book your presenters into seven-star hotels and feed them exquisite meals for them to feel valued. In my experience, anyway, there’s by no means a linear relationship between the budget an event has available to it and its quality; I’ve been bored silly at a good number of the most opulently-appointed conferences, while the biggest I’ve spoken at have invariably been the worst.

By contrast, there are examples to aspire to, at every scale but that of the mega-event. The Webstock folks, for example — Tash Lampard, Mike Brown and their crew — they’re brilliant at this, inarguably setting the gold standard for making speakers feel special, in word and deed. Their enthusiasm comes from the heart and it is palpable in everything they do, from the very first letter gingerly inquiring as to your availability to the public big-upping of speakers they continue to conduct long after they’ve put you on the plane for home. Speak at Webstock once, and you want to speak there again, even though for most of their speakers it means something on the order of a grueling 24-hour trip each way. Similarly, the team responsible for Ideas City at the New Museum, Karen Wong, Richard Flood and Corinne Erni, does a fantastic job of letting presenters know their voices are valued…and it always becomes before the ask. (I hate that expression, by the way: “The ask.” If ever there was one, there’s a clue as to the profoundly transactional nature of our times.)

Anyway. The essence of all of this is that acknowledging the investment of time and effort people make when they present is one of the foundations on which a successful event is built — triply so if you expect your event to be part of an ongoing series. If you can’t do it materially — and let’s face it, sometimes you can’t — be utterly goddamn sure you’re doing it in every aspect of your personal deportment when you interact with them. It is, at least, a minimal courtesy I try to observe in inviting people to the things I put together, and I hope that in the future, when extending invitations to speakers you expect to come from far away to present from your stage, for the benefit of your organization and your community, you extend it to them as well. I believe from personal experience that they will note and appreciate it, and from the bottom of my heart that your event will be the better for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond and back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another brief interview

I recently answered a few questions for the leading Korean architectural magazine, SPACE.

First, please state in a sentence your area of interest or expertise in the field of urban computing.

“Ensuring that to the greatest degree possible a robust conception of the right to the city is designed into networked informatic systems intended or otherwise destined for urban deployment.”

Second, an example that you use to make urban computing more readily accessible to architects is of Mark Weiser‘s concept of ubiquitous computing. How do you think functionality within the city divides from novelty or ‘art works’ of urban computing architecture? And which do you think architects can relate to more?

I think we long ago collectively transcended Weiser’s specific vision of technologized everyday life; as a matter of fact, I can tell you the precise date we did so, which was June 29th, 2007, the day on which the original iPhone was launched. What architects and urban planners now have to account for — but curiously, generally do not — is that the overwhelming majority of the human beings they’re designing spaces for are equipped with a way of knowing and making use of the city that no previous population has ever had before. We call it a “smartphone.”

What does it mean for a networked body and a networked self to move through equally networked space? And what might all of this portend for the practice of architecture, for the planning and execution of the built environment? As far as I can tell, these are questions that the disciplines involved haven’t even begun to reckon with in any particularly consistent or meaningful way.

The question about art is impossible to answer without reference to specific works or pieces or artists. Architects and urban planners might do well, in fact, to pay attention to the more thoughtful artists, or people involved in the critical making community, who have begun to interrogate the uses and consequences of information technology in a way that goes far beyond pointlessly “interactive” façades and mobile sculptures. But the kind of digital “art” installation that is generally used to apply a superficial gloss of contemporaneity or futurity to some otherwise utterly conventional commercial real-estate proposition? As far as I’m concerned it’s not even properly art, because it doesn’t satisfy the threshold condition of catalyzing some psychic or emotional change in the viewer, and of course it’s not meant to.

Your representative work Urbanflow examines the limitations of interactive media booths around cities, and looks to connect these booths while making them more behaviorally approachable. What other recent works have you been working on, and how do you feel the future of urban computing has been portrayed through this piece in terms of human behavior and adaptability to technologies?

Right now the thing I’m most interested in is designing for the future of urban mobility, for what I call “transmobility.” Unlike the transportation industry, whose rather boring, heavily capital-intensive conceptions of this future all seem to center on exotic new vehicle types or heroic infrastructures, what I’m trying to articulate is a framework allowing us to make maximum use of a city’s existing heterogeneous array of vehicles, mobility modes and options. Transmobility uses locational data and information-, interface- and service design to bind these things together in a mesh capable of providing something close to on-demand, real-time, point-to-point personal mobility to every citizen. Ultimately I think it’s a wiser, lower-cost and more practical way of achieving that end.

Urban computing is defined as “the integration of computing, sensing, and actuation technologies into everyday urban settings and lifestyles.” Yet, you register your work as belonging to the field of everyware (permeating places and pursuits, social activity, shaping relationships, as a distributed phenomenon). You mentioned that it is in need of a paradigm shift in 2011, has this happened? What is your definition for each of these concepts and how are they better suited in defining your approach in comparison to the term urban computing?

I just don’t use these terms in my work anymore. In fact I’m completely uninterested in technology, except insofar as it facilitates individual and collective self-determination, the meaningful expression of solidarity and the practice of mutual aid.

Think of it this way: networked informatic technology is simply another material we now have available to us as builders and shapers of urban space. And like any other material, it has certain inherent qualities, tendencies, properties or directionalities. But you don’t learn anything useful about these qualities by considering the material as an abstraction; the grain you’ve got to contend with as a designer only reveals itself at the local level — in technological terms, at the level of a specified device, sensor, display or API. And equally, these qualities only become important in context, when you’re designing some ensemble of networked systems in a given space, for a given population of users, to achieve a given effect.

So I try to avoid thinking in jargon, or otherwise succumbing to a uselessly generic conception of the material I’m working with, and focus my inquiry instead on actual communities in specific spatial contexts, their articulated and unarticulated concerns, the envelope of requirements and other constraints within which we work, and only finally the properties of some particular technical system.

‘Nother interview

For a French magazine.

You harshly criticize the top-down controlled, ubiquitous, smart city, designed by big operators for their own interests. But can cities tackle all the challenges without those big companies? Don’t you throw out the baby with the bathwater?

There are things, certainly, that industrial-scale vendors of infrastructural services and systems are very good at delivering to cities. Whether it’s wastewater treatment or the deployment and maintenance of street lighting or managing clean and safe demolition, that’s their competence, their domain of expertise, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that those of us without that experience know their job better than they do. The difference that arises with the “smart city” is that now some subset of these vendors have made an unwonted conceptual leap between whatever specific competence they’ve developed and the ambition to furnish municipal governments with a kind of general decision-support utility, without any particular understanding of or sensitivity to the unique complications of the terrain on which they propose to operate. And latent within almost all of these notions is some conception of municipal administration as an essentially rational and objective pursuit.

Well, of course, it’s anything but rational. It’s a fundamentally political pursuit, sweaty and unpretty and utterly lacking in closure. You can’t automate the complication out of it — or, for that matter, the accountability for having made a decision that necessarily deprived some one or party of access to some resource they regarded as rightfully theirs. I simply don’t believe that the process of governing is something that can be reduced to key performance indicators on a dashboard and optimized and made clean. And so far at least, that’s all the big IT vendors are offering.

No: Let them provide what they are so good at providing. There may not be much glamor in providing “dumb pipe,” but there’s honor aplenty. That ought to be enough.

Do many local governments share your vision? Do they have the intellectual and technical background to understand the ins and outs?

In my experience municipal administrators are not in the slightest degree stupid people, but by and large of course they don’t understand the intricacies of networked informatics or data, which is why some of them can from time to time find the superficially confident blandishments of solution integrators and management consultants so appealing. Fortunately, what they do tend to have a deep and intimate understanding of is the local social, institutional and political environment, and this very often gives them a firm platform from which to push back against some of the more foolish claims that are made for the promise of “smart cities.” It has nothing to do with whether or not they share my “vision.”

Are you afraid of the rise of a new kind of technocrats, that we could name “datacrats”?

Every new configuration of technical capability will tend to generate a stratum of people who are differentially skilled and confident in the use and practical application of that technology. As I see it, though, the point isn’t merely to trade one superficially hipper and trendier priesthood for another, it’s to prevent the emergence of such priesthoods in the first place.

Could you detail a few inspiring examples of cities which are dealing with their challenges with lucid, relevant solutions?

Dublin is doing some very interesting things, with their city council’s Beta Projects initiative. I’m impressed with Madrid’s administration that they had the maturity and wisdom to let the citizen-driven Campo de Cebada process unfold. And I know there are thousands upon thousands of people in local government around the world, generally but not exclusively younger, who understand the multiplex value proposition of efforts like these and would let them proceed if only they could. A big part of my job is to provide those people with resources that support their intuition, so they can make the internal case against the smart-city vendors and in favor of more fruitful directions.

What suggestions would you give to a mayor who is engaged in such a smart city program? To a mayor who has not yet chosen what to do?

To the former, I’d argue that so-called smart initiatives be subjected to the most rigorous oversight and accounting, in a effort to establish precisely who has benefitted from their introduction, and to what degree, and whether or not this observed distribution of benefits aligns with the claims that were made at project inception.

To the latter, I’d suggest that whatever it is they think they will achieve by engaging the incumbent vendors to deliver some smart city “solution,” there may be far better returns on investment to be realized economically, socially and strategically from smaller-scale, more locally-grounded and more thoughtful alternatives. And, of course, whatever promises they are made by those vendors, they should make sure to get it in writing.

Some problems raised by the smart city are linked to the huge amount of (personal) data they use for their tools: privacy, resilience, and blind technosolutionism in general. Do you think it’s time to “uncomputerize” our cities?

No, not at all. I think it’s time for the people living in each place on Earth to think carefully, collectively and consciously about what they want this class of technologies to do for them, and whether or not they think it’s capable of delivering on those expectations. And it’s the responsibility of any of us who do have some grounding in what networked digital information technology can and cannot do to explain and contextualize that technology for everyone else, so they’re more readily able to make those determinations.

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

Updated.

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

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

This year’s model

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

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

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

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

Signs, pointers and portents

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

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

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

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

Campo de Cebada: Community control

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

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

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

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

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

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

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

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

Come together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On forgetting to slay the dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban data wrapup

I realize I haven’t yet given you an account of the March 14th urban data event. By and large, I thought it went extremely well, and the conversation that evolved over the course of the day actually wildly overfulfilled my hopes. (I already knew we’d managed to gather a cohort of particularly sharp and inspiring people, but you always want an event like this to come together in a way that makes it somehow more than the sum of its component parts. And that either happens, or it doesn’t; my experience is that this kind of flowering is virtually impossible to plan for ahead of time. In this case, happily, it did.) Both at the coffee breaks and over lunch — and indeed for sometime thereafter, online and off — I saw participants chewing over the things they’d heard and seen in the most animated, passionate way. This, of course, is a sight to gladden any event organizer’s heart — a signal that whatever secret victory conditions one nurtured in one’s heart at day’s dawn, they’ve well and truly been achieved by the time all involved have scattered to the four winds.

I want to thank speakers Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, Rachel Binx, Andy Bolton, Leyla Laksari, Andy Nash, Arlindo Pereira, Alison Powell, Nithya V. Raman, Paula Z. Segal, Mona Sloane, Even Westvang and Farida Vis for their cogent contributions; Rebecca Ross for the fantastic job of moderation she did; Robin Howie for his thoughtful work on the lovely event poster; and never least Andrew Sherwood, Tessa Norton, Kiera Blakey and Emma Rees here at LSE Cities for their vital assistance in pulling the event together on such a telescoped timeline. I hope you all continue to stay in touch and inspire one another to further deeds of greatness.

Urban data: From fetish object to social object | 14th March 2014 at LSE Cities

Urban data: From fetish object to social object

A one-day conversation at LSE Cities on 14th March, 2014

Anyone paying even casual attention to contemporary media, whether popular or scholarly, is now exposed to a steady cascade of voices assuring us that we live in something called the Age of Big Data.

Whichever audience they are aimed at, such assertions are generally illustrated by images of interactive visualizations, digital maps and “infographics.” Each of these may originally have been intended by its designers to convey some complex state of affairs, readily and accessibly, but has been used in this context primarily to signify the zeitgeist itself.

These images furnish the practice of data analysis and decision support with a visual rhetoric, and they circulate widely. They are reproduced endlessly on blog posts, posted to Facebook and Pinterest and Tumblr, tweeted and retweeted and retweeted again. They circulate, and they seduce. They are admired as much for their beguilingly aesthetic qualities as for any analytical or practical utility they may have. The result is that while data visualizations surely do a kind of work in the world, it may not be the kind of work we’re led to believe they’re capable of doing.

This is (or, I’d argue, ought to be) of particular concern to those of us with an interest in urban politics specifically. It leaves us very little with which to challenge the story we are told about Big Data in cities: that it will transform the processes of municipal governance and administration — that leveraging it can raise emergent chokepoints and trouble spots to the attention of the relevant authorities, cut through circumstances once thought intractable, even help managers anticipate and preempt crises before they quite coalesce into being. When this rather sterile and technocratic conception of data-driven superintendence is fused to a cultural expectation that data visualizations function as pretty pictures and little more, virtually everything that is interesting and potentially emancipatory about them is left on the table.

The intention of this one-day gathering is to convene some of those whose work is currently doing the most to push back against this set of circumstances. It aims to disturb the data visualizations we’re offered as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that has settled over the practice of data visualization (and which furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book), and activate them instead as situated social objects.

We’ll be discussing questions like…
– Who makes the data represented in interactive visualizations and maps, and how?
– Who are the parties responsible for gathering the data, and what criteria do they use for the selection and representation of information they feel to be salient?
– What pressures may be operating on either selection or representation?
– What domains of urban life seem to lend themselves most readily to intervention via participatory mapping or data visualization?
– How can those who generated the data in the first place gain access to it later, either in raw form or as analytic product?
– What implications follow from the choice of a given technical platform or presentation strategy?
– What does it feel like to work with data, in any of these phases or aspects?
– What can communities do with data visualization, as practice or artifact?

Our speakers will present some cases in which local communities from all over the planet have used participatory data-gathering and -mapping practices to open up questions of distributional justice, make claims against power, and gain a sense of themselves as having agency and competence with networked tools. Together, perhaps we can begin to push data visualizations from being fetishized tokens of a notional futurity — and, at best, flat and settled representations of the way things are in the city — to active propositions about the way things might be.

Featuring presentations from and conversations with

Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, Mülksüzleştirme, Istanbul TR
Rachel Binx, NYC NY
Arlindo Pereira, Ciclo Rotas Centro, Rio de Janeiro BR
Nithya V. Raman, Transparent Chennai, Chennai IN/Los Angeles CA
Paula Z. Segal, 596 Acres, Brooklyn NY
Mona Sloane, Configuring Light, London UK
Dr. Farida Vis, Everyday Growing Cultures, Sheffield UK
Even Westvang, Bengler, Oslo NO
and other speakers to be confirmed

and introduced and moderated by yours truly.

Free and open to the public, but registration is essential. Robin Howie‘s lovely poster is here; feel free to download and disseminate as widely as you please. Please use hashtag #LSEUrbanData. We look forward to seeing you.

Two recent interviews

Two recent interviews, neither of which will appear in their original English when published. I apologize if they’re slightly redundant, either between the two presented here or between these and other recent interviews I’ve given. (A guy gets tired of answering the same questions all the time, you know?) I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.

Interview 1

Where is the world now in terms of developing smart cities? Is it at the start of a long journey? What’s the level of investment now?

Well, as you probably know, I don’t use the terminology “smart cities” at all. As a matter of fact, that term itself is sort of a dead giveaway that we’re just beginning to discover the potential that waits for us at the intersection of networked information technology and everyday urban experience.

What I see so far, just about everywhere, is partial, tactical, disarticulated propositions, very much inflected by existing institutional practices and the perspectives and investment priorities of incumbents. This city has RFID-mediated transit payment, that one has dynamic pricing markets for parking, still another has a robust and useful open municipal data platform — but very, very few places on Earth have yet quite grasped the potential that arises when all of these things exist all at once, in a conscious informational ecosystem, and each element is able to feed on the data produced by every other.

In a perverse way, though, we may be benefiting from precisely this sense of disarticulation and disconnection. What we wind up with, when every object and surface and transaction in the city is made visible to the network, is an extraordinarily detailed picture of our movements, our behaviors and our patterns of association. There’s obviously an enormous amount of value locked up in that picture, value that will yield quite readily to the application of advanced analytics — but I’m not sure any of us as individuals, let alone any human society, is quite ready to face up to total transparency, or will quite like what we see in the mirror these technologies hold up to us.

What are the benefits, to individuals and society?

At present, these technologies are generally sold to municipalities with a set of fairly predictable claims about enhanced efficiency, convenience, security and sustainability, but quite frankly I think those are red herrings. The real benefits we stand to realize from the introduction of networked informatics into our cities are the increased sense of control we achieve over the circumstances of our own lives, the enhancement of our competence as citydwellers, and the potential they hold to underwrite new and more responsive patterns of land use, mobility and urban governance.

How viable is it to convert existing infrastructures into smarter set-ups?

I think that very much depends on the kind of infrastructure we’re talking about. As far as heavy urban infrastructure is concerned, it’s straightforward enough to retrofit existing sewerage systems or electric grids with flow meters and so forth. But the cleverest interventions of all rely solely on the networked sensor package, identity credential and interface device 96 out of every 100 adults on the planet already carry around on their person at all times: the mobile phone. Solutions that leverage this set of capabilities can be deployed almost immediately, and at comparatively negligible expense.

What sectors stand to benefit as these ideas gather more investment?

I think it’s fair to say that in the medium term, every sector will find some operational efficiency to be gleaned from the deployment of this class of technologies. But as we collectively get more fluent with them, as we begin to unfold the fuller potential that’s bound up in them, our societies (and our business practices along with them) will necessarily undergo a profoundly disruptive series of transformations, and these may well result in a set of institutions someone approaching them from the vantage point of the twenty-teens would barely recognize. Clay Shirky famously said that institutions tend to conserve the problem to which they are the solution. This may be a reasonably clever strategy in the short term, but it leaves organizations and even entire sectors dead as the dinosaurs when the problem they’re designed to solve evaporates. What too many enterprises are doing right now amounts to perfecting the horseshoe at the very moment the automobile has started to arrive on the streets and roads of the land. The advantage under conditions of rapid and far-reaching change, therefore, goes to those actors who are able to transform their processes, their value proposition, their structure and even their very form to account for the terrain on which they now operate. The city, as a terrain of business operations, is evolving furiously at our moment in time, and it’s by no means certain that each and every one of our incumbent institutions and ways of doing things will survive.

Interview 2

What do you mean by smart cities: are you referring only to the three sites you’ve described in your book or more generally to existing cities upgraded with technologies?

Well, as I explain in the pamphlet, we need to understand that the phrase “smart city” only refers to the most limited and impoverished conception of the networked urban environment. It’s a particular discourse, in other words, and that discourse really only implies three things: the deployment of a centralized apparatus of data capture and analysis by existing enterprise-scale IT vendors; the wholesale abstraction and quantification of urban processes to render them transparent to that apparatus, and tractable by it; and the development of managerial techniques useful to an administrative authority so equipped.

The three places on Earth I examine in the pamphlet are of interest primarily as sites where this discourse finds its purest expression. In and of themselves, they’re trivial footnotes in the history of human habitation, not anything like “cities” by any reasonable definition of the word. Their sole significance is that they are staging grounds for the techniques a particular class of institutional actors badly wants to deploy across all conurbations in the years to come.

You’re writing about IT companies taking over cities. Could you explain how? What’s the goal?

“Taking over” may be a bit strong, but IT companies and their products “coming to play an outsized and inappropriate role in the management of” cities is probably about right.

From their perspective, the goal is clearly to find new markets for their existing products and services, or minor variations thereupon. IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center product, for example, is merely a zeitgeisty repackaging of a set of rules governing the execution of preset, stereotyped procedures any time the distributed mesh of sensing devices detects that some threshold value of a given metric has been breached. But for the claim that the software suite develops a full enough picture of what’s happening in the city on a minute-by-minute basis that it can help administrators predict and preempt emergent conditions, what it does is very little more elaborate than the rules you might set up to manage spam filters for your email client’s inbox. It’s something one might use to manage the operations of any large organization. There’s virtually nothing about it that’s inherently or specifically urban.

You’re describing cities subjecting citizens to the logic of algorithms. Could you elaborate?

In order to transform some body of data you’ve gathered into something an administrator might find meaningful and actionable, you first need to perform some sorting operation on it, right? That’s all an algorithm is, in this sense: a kind of numeric sieve. You toss an utterly opaque and unwieldy urban complexity into the hopper at one end, you apply some set of filters to it, and out the other end comes actionable clarity. That, at is most essential, is the core logic of the smart city: given everything we know about traffic, or the places that garbage accumulates, or the distribution of emergency-room admissions for acute asthma, here is the optimal strategy for dealing with that state of affairs. And we see this rhetoric of optimization throughout the smart city discourse.

This way of thinking may be superficially appealing, but the problems with it are legion. For one thing, famously, correlation isn’t causation, but that’s a nicety that may be lost on a mayor or a municipal administration that wants to be seen as vigorously proactive. If fires disproportionately seem to break out in neighborhoods where lots of poor people live, hey, why not simply clear the poor people out and take credit for doing something about fire? After all, the city dashboard you’ve just invested tens of millions of dollars in made it very clear that neighborhoods that had the one invariably had the other. But maybe there was some underlying, unaddressed factor that generated both fires and the concentration of poverty. (If this example strikes you as a tendentious fabulation, or a case of reductio ad absurdum, trust me: the literature of operations research is replete with highly consequential decisions made on grounds just this shoddy.)

More pointedly, such algorithmically-derived recommendations pretend to be apolitical, when they are anything but. Data analysis might help determine the optimal site for a wind turbine or a rape-crisis center, but in anything that resembles a democracy, believing that those are worthwhile investments to make in the first place deposits us firmly and unavoidably in the realm of politics. At best you can use analytics to make the case that we the public should collectively invest in those facilities, on those locations, for whatever set of reasons the data seems to suggest. But there will always be parties that contest the picture of reality you’re painting, parties that think there are other and better uses of the available resources, and there’s no way of satisfying all the city’s constituencies at once. Not even in principle. There’s simply no such thing as optimizing a city.

Finally, there’s always a politics that inheres in the algorithm to begin with, which tends to be suppressed or elided when any second-order operation whatsoever is performed on the results of its application. Someone — some known historical actor — wrote that algorithm, decided which values to weight and which to discard. Someone decided that “innovation” was an interesting or a useful quantity to measure, but that it was too difficult to measure directly, and so numbers of patent applications would be used as a proxy index for innovation. And then articles appear saying, for example, that San Diego is across-the-board “more innovative” than New York or San Francisco. And people act on those articles! They invest capital, or they move their families halfway across the country, in pursuit of everything that’s implied by that kind of framing. Well, all due respect to San Diego, but anyone who’s thought about the matter for two seconds knows that urban innovation — I’m talking about genuine, materially productive novelty, with real and significant economic value even beyond the generation of cultural capital — doesn’t work that way. It simply cannot be reduced to patent applications. Chicago may not generate much in the way of patents by comparison with, say, Eindhoven, but which one gave the world house music? How much value do you think would have been left on the floor, worldwide, over the past thirty years if Frankie Knuckles had never entered the DJ booth at The Warehouse? How many second- or third-order developments in audio technology, fashion or visual culture would never have come into existence? And where do you think he shows up in that innovation algorithm? Nowhere at all.

The bottom line is that what gets reified in an algorithm like this is driven by what you choose to pay attention to, and what you choose to pay attention to is a function of what you value. There’s not a single neutral thing about it.

Would you say living in smart cities could be a nightmare?

I’m less interested in whether or not living in a so-called smart city could be a nightmare — although I’m certain that it would be for many, and perhaps even statistically most — than in the kinds of subjects and subjectivities that tend to be reproduced by the act of living in such a place.

I think we have a pretty clear sense of what that would look like, at least at the limit. Consider that “optimized” urban management, as a sorting process, tends to create epistemic and experiential bubbles, and it does so in two ways. First, it acts to eliminate the daily frictions that force us to confront the other, and acknowledge the validity of that other’s claims to the city. And secondly, it gives us a set of tools that we can use to manage our own exposure to difference. (I saw a data-analytics company give a presentation a few years ago, where both the headline on their PowerPoint deck and the value proposition they were claiming for their product was literally and in so many words “Find People Like Me.”)

But that’s not how cities work. That’s not, even remotely, what cities are for. You want to be surrounded by People Like You, fine — go live in the suburbs. Cities are, by definition, sites for the practice of cosmopolitanism, and anyone who makes the choice to live in one had better expect that along with the economic opportunity comes the unavoidable necessity of negotiating with people who are different, who hold values and prerogatives that diverge from those you hold yourself. This is a good thing, by the way, a very good thing, because it’s that constant exposure to difference that generates the worldly, tolerant, resilient, feisty personality we associate with big cities around the world and throughout human history.

So to me, it’s not so much that living in a smart city would be a nightmare. It’s that the residents of any city that had been rendered “smart” in the way contemporary discourse suggests would themselves be nightmares to encounter and deal with: touchy, needy, self-absorbed, and above all incapable of negotiating the shared use of resources, whether those resources be spatial, budgetary or attentional.

What would be an alternative to smart cities? Open cities, also connected? What does it mean for inhabitants? For the entire society?

I think we are barely beginning to discover what potentials this class of networked informatic technologies may hold for us.

I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War. I found it both fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief, and profoundly hopeful and encouraging.

And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.

In your view, what are the 3 best cities in the world? And why?

The “best” cities? Best for what, precisely? And for whom?

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