Books increasingly don’t have covers. Most still do, but a growing percentage of published books appear on the screens of Kindles and tablets rather than bound paper, and this is even more true for other forms of print media, as articles, essays, stories, and personal memos splinter into browser tabs, tweets, threads, emails, and direct messages. Meanwhile, a larger subset of verbal communication has transformed into video, which only recently became as ubiquitously accessible as any reading material ever was. We still spend plenty of time reading—probably more time than ever, if in smaller increments—but the digital works we read on screens don’t have covers, those physical surfaces that visually mediate between content in its pure form and the surrounding world in which that content exists. Screens, and the devices of which they’re part, aren’t just a different kind of cover but an entirely distinct avenue of external approach, trading the cover’s individuality for a standardizing consistency that unifies everything displayed.
The declining importance of covers generalizes beyond print as all information migrates to the digital milieu. Music and movies both live comfortably on devices now, accessed via streaming platforms like Spotify and Netflix, or apps that play the files you still actually own yourself. Gone for most are the days of impressing friends at home with a monumental record collection shelved upon furniture designed for the purpose. While album covers still survive symbolically as visual, on-screen companions to digital listening (the apps might as well display something, after all), those covers have moved from the center of the experience to its periphery and are unlikely to reverse that trajectory. Like the envelope icon that still represents email, album covers are stylized, decontextualized reminders of what the technology you’re currently using has killed.
Covers haven’t stopped being useful, though. The folk warning against judging a book by its cover implies superficiality and even deception, qualities that companies hawking Kindles and other post-cover technologies would surely cite as support for their disruption. Rather than enticing us via a cover’s imagery, those disruptors might argue, digital platforms let us engage more directly and authentically with texts themselves. The supposed purity of the post-cover regime, however, is an illusion: While the ways that covers fool us are obvious by now, platforms’ algorithmic mediation represent a newer, more subtle (and less transparent) kind of deception, feeding us the unadorned content itself but concealing its own biases and affordances.
Icons that pay tribute to what they’ve made obsolete
The notion that covers are separate from the content they contain is also a fallacy. For centuries the cover has functioned as the gateway to an artistic work, priming us to receive what’s within. In the Middle Ages, before books had formal titles (or distinctive covers), that role was fulfilled by the text’s incipit—”the first few words of the text, employed as an identifying label,” a similar gateway into the work itself. Titles and covers emerged later for the same reason, giving books context and connecting them to the surrounding environment while not quite being part of the work itself.
Given the cover’s pre-digital importance, it’s strange that covers lie almost entirely beyond the original artist’s scope of influence or responsibility. Sanford Kwinter writes that “a book’s cover (or to be precise, its jacket) belonged traditionally not to the book itself but rather to the retail or public environment in which a book is deployed and displayed, in which it claims its place among other books, and in relation to the public eye and mind of the citizen-reader. The cover was therefore conceived as a material part of the extended urban infrastructure within which it was intended to operate, was devised to serve as a communicative but also commutative and conductive surface.” Far more than a container or shell for content, the cover is an interface between that content and human society, the intermediate layer that positions information in the world.
Book covers, Kwinter writes, are infrastructure; thinking of them this way improves our understanding of what infrastructure actually is. Books, albums, and films are closed systems—complete works of art—that still, necessarily, have a relationship with the world that is external to them. Infrastructure is the physical and informational connective tissue that links and organizes a complex system—an institution, city, nation, or civilization. One early 19th-century definition of infrastructure was “the installations that form the basis for any operation or system.” The word’s meaning remains similarly broad today.
Defined another way, infrastructure provides context, establishing a relationship between one thing and other things. Infrastructure creates adjacency where it wouldn’t otherwise exist, frequently in the form of a physical connection. The massive Denver International Airport, opened in 1995, put an otherwise isolated, mid-sized city at the doorstep of the world, an exemplary case of infrastructural adjacency production. Urban street systems are the principal surfaces that link houses, stores, workplaces, and the traffic between them, thus defining neighborhoods and cities as coherent entities. Airports and roads, however, are only the most tangible examples of infrastructure. The internet and everything it comprises is also infrastructure at global scale, as are organizational schemas like geographic coordinates or the Dewey Decimal System. And again, covers are infrastructure. Our ability to find a printed book or vinyl record in physical space, as well as the very existence of spaces dedicated to perusing those media, depend upon those covers, as surely as our ability to explore a city depends on roads.
A physical book cover is like hailing a taxi by waving your hand in the air: an analog protocol for engaging with a physical object in a specific way. Digital protocols have emerged more recently as superior alternatives by many measures: Spotify holds far more music than any personal record collection ever did, and makes that library easier to browse. Uber similarly improves upon the need for mutual eye contact between taxi driver and passenger, expanding the range of possible matches by orders of magnitude and elevating those matches’ quality. Such digital protocols are also infrastructure—the more refined, rationalized, and totalizing kind we call platforms. Because platforms accomplish their specific goals so effectively—efficiency, legibility, and breadth of selection—they tend to rapidly replace their analog predecessors once they appear.
What platforms gain in efficacy, though, they lose in context. Or rather, platforms strip away the familiar sources of context and replace them with their own internal context (in tech lingo, those processes are called unbundling and bundling). Context is a valuable side effect of adjacency. Because we’re bad at articulating it as an explicit objective, we’re correspondingly bad at preserving it, and the transformations of the past few digital decades have demonstrated this as much as anything. We’ve lost a lot of context without fully noticing it, and into that void has flowed the new context that platforms provide—uncanny, unfamiliar, perhaps no worse than what it replaced, but requiring further examination. One certainty about the transition, as indicated by phrases like “watching Netflix” or “listening to Spotify,” is that platforms, as media, denature their content to some degree and assimilate its identity into their own. As individual works and artists become correspondingly less significant in their new environments, we should assess what that identity was worth.
I recently deviated from habit and hailed a yellow taxi in a situation where I’d normally request an Uber. “Cool story bro,” I know, but as I climbed into the cab I felt the same frisson I sometimes feel when I leave the house without my phone or postpone a would-be text message for in-person conversation: the pleasant sensation of leaving information on the table. Wasting my data; opening my fist and letting the digital dollars blow away, except they’re dollars that only someone else can spend. A ride in a yellow taxi still generates plenty of data, to be sure, but considerably less than the equivalent app-based trip, especially if paid with cash and thus unlinked to one’s identity. Leaving aside for now the many methods for correlating separate data sets and linking this specific cab ride back to me, and also acknowledging that many tech companies have enough of my data to infer what I’m doing offline, it’s still edifying to avoid another active contribution—less as an act of resistance and more as a form of self care, a personal statement that affirms one’s humanity. Let little bits of your daily existence dissipate into the air rather than having them vacuumed up by a global machine that will alchemize them into advertising gold.
By now, we take it for granted that nearly everything about ourselves will be digitally known and recorded, one way or another. My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily active users generate a combined $100 million in average daily revenue, meaning an average user’s average day on Facebook is worth about 7 cents, which is a lot when you think about what your typical day of messing around on Facebook actually entails. We usually think about data in the aggregate, but individual actions and individual data points have quantifiable value, and the monetary difference between interacting within Facebook and outside of it, like the difference between a digitally-imprinted rideshare trip and an anonymous cab ride, is real and non-negligible, even if it’s only fractions of a cent.
A visualization of taxi dropoff activity in New York (source)
When you choose the data-poor analog option, what happens to the value you failed to create? Above, I used the metaphor of money scattering away in the wind, which suggests entropy, or information receding into random oblivion; however, we can also think of the data we “keep” as a form of consumer surplus—the difference between the price a consumer is willing to pay and the price they actually pay. Today, unlike in the past, we pay for products with a combination of money and data; giving up more of the latter often means we provide less of the former. In Facebook’s case, data usually constitutes the entire price, and is as good as money when it’s successfully captured. If we are willing to give more personal data than a company demands of us, from this perspective, we are enjoying another version of consumer surplus.
The concept of consumer surplus implies a few things that are true of money but not of data: Money’s utility is symmetrical, so whatever an individual doesn’t spend stays in his bank account and remains useful to him there. Data that Facebook or Google don’t capture doesn’t accrue directly to its users in any quantifiable way; those companies can thus argue that information exchange isn’t zero sum and we might as well just give our information up to them. Keeping our data, again, really just means not letting anyone else get it—discarding it before someone else uses it for profit or worse. We intuitively recognize the value of illegibility when we see it, even when we don’t know why, and while that value is hard to measure, it’s increasingly built into every price we pay.
“People on their feet are more or less equal. People solely dependent on their feet move on the spur of the moment, at three to four miles per hour, in any direction and to any place from which they are not legally or physically barred. An improvement on this native degree of mobility by new transport technology should be expected to safeguard these values and to add some new ones, such as greater range, time economies, comfort, or more opportunities for the disabled. So far this is not what has happened. Instead, the growth of the transportation industry has everywhere had the reverse effect.”
-Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity
Transportation, as a topic of mainstream enthusiasm, endures plenty of long, boring stretches, but every once in a while it gets interesting and resonates widely, usually thanks to a major, visible, technological leap. Now is one of those times: In the past decade, the iPhone has reoriented the passenger’s relationship to the vehicle, enabling urban mobility to approach the economic ideal of perfect information, at least in theory, while expanding our ability to access and use cars (or bikes) that we don’t actually own. Due to this digital revolution in transportation, previously unmeasured and untracked modes produce multitudes of data that in turn support artificial intelligence, thus furnishing a necessary ingredient for self-driving cars—a real revolution in the offing, at least if it progresses anything like we expect it to.
These recent transformations, in other words, have improved the quality of mobility information, as opposed to its underlying hardware or its fundamental physical constraints. The hardware has improved too, of course, just not as dramatically. Vehicles have steadily become cleaner and more efficient in their fuel consumption, but the environment isn’t proportionally unharmed as a result, nor have other chronic problems like congestion improved, because our movement continues unabated. The smartphone’s information revolution, in fact, has enhanced transportation’s “user experience” far more than its efficiency, so innovations in the latter domain (such as electric cars) have difficulty compensating for our ever-increasing overconsumption of movement itself. Demand for high-speed travel is greater than it’s ever been; by stoking that demand, digital interfaces (and eventually self-driving cars) further entrench a slightly better version of the status quo while marginally expanding certain groups’ mobility ranges—but even this comes at others’ expense, as we’ll see below.
During transportation’s recent evolutionary phase, the dialogue about what’s going well, what’s not, and what we’re all trying to accomplish has foundered upon a couple of semantic barriers. The first is confusion about which problems are actually being solved. The transportation industry perpetually faces a handful of broad challenges that are distinct but easily conflated. Jarrett Walker divides them into four categories: communications, environmental impact and energy efficiency, labor and safety, and finally, physical space. Whenever a certain development addresses one of these four areas, it doesn’t necessarily help the others, and it often makes them worse. Lately, we have confused software improvements—that largely solve Walker’s “communications” problem—with fundamental improvements upon the physical limits of urban mobility, or Walker’s “space” problem. We remain enchanted by the notion that a technological panacea—apps, data, self-driving cars—will soon solve every problem in a complicated domain that has faced brutal tradeoffs as long as it’s existed. We have indeed solved some, but other, bigger problems remain.
A second assumption that prevails today is a false dichotomy that positions privately-owned cars in opposition to everything else—the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” fallacy. If private cars are the ultimate evil, as it’s tempting to believe, is any alternative inherently good? Based on much recent discussion, you would think so. This is the unfortunate axiom at which useful discussion frequently stops, needlessly limiting the scope of a debate that requires far more nuance. In the 1970s, the architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri described how modernist designers had made themselves irrelevant by seeking utopia via built form alone—the sphere they actually could revolutionize—while neglecting the broader capitalist context that would ultimately overwhelm whatever edifices they designed and constructed. Urban planners are arguably making a similar mistake now, by avoiding a more difficult reckoning with the oppressive structural conditions that dictate most individuals’ mobility choices from beyond the realm of the urban planning field itself.
The destruction that cleared the path for Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway (source)
Well before we arrived at this impasse, in 1973, the philosopher Ivan Illich recognized similar contradictions in the prevailing modern attitude toward high-speed mobility. His essay Energy and Equity is a blistering polemic against the belief that unlimited consumption of energy-intensive industrial products—motorized transportation in particular—could continue unabated, or that we would eventually eliminate the remaining costs of speed and thereby free ourselves to have it both ways. He announces his position in the piece’s opening line: “It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis. This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion…high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.” Before he even gets around to addressing the urgent threat that energy-intensive transportation presents to the environment, Illich finds its social impact to be equally grave, and in this assessment, he sets himself apart from the majority of voices that have participated in this debate, who frame energy usage as a constrained optimization problem and would welcome as much transportation as the environment allowed, at the maximum possible speed. For Illich, by contrast, unlimited free and clean energy would not transcend transportation’s fundamental limitations, and would likely exacerbate other issues, such as congestion and inequality. “Even if non-polluting power were feasible and abundant,” he writes, “the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving.”
Speed, to Illich, was the primary villain, the source from which a variety of societal ills flowed. Today, we recognize many problematic effects of transportation, but speed is almost never the main culprit—if anything, we still crave more of it. So how, exactly, does high-speed transportation enslave us, according to Illich? Most visibly, it reorganizes space around itself: The sprawling, car-oriented city became all too familiar in the twentieth century, and while many compartmentalize that spatial reorganization as an urban design failure, Illich understands it as an inherent, unavoidable outcome of that technology’s once-optimistic widespread adoption. Cars need a lot of room to travel at 70 miles per hour, and airplanes need a lot of room to land. Traditional, pre-twentieth-century urban environments don’t accommodate either activity. Exponents of the often-violent urban transition toward modern speed landscapes, such as Robert Moses, negotiated that uncomfortable tension by bulldozing large swaths of dense, vibrant urban fabric to make room for a motorized future that was more appealing at the time than most recall now. Cars, Illich writes, create “a remoteness which they alone can shrink.” Throughout the twentieth century, actively or passively, humans helped create, and ultimately welcomed, that remoteness in exchange for greater travel speed.
A few decades later, it’s virtually impossible to imagine any alternative to the speed-dependent condition Illich describes. Nevertheless, his argument remains just as pertinent, if not more so because of all we’ve forgotten: In addition to distorting urban form, high-speed transportation wastes time, both by creating congestion and delays that offset vehicles’ mechanical power, and by forcing passengers to spend increasing portions of their money on the consumption of speed (time spent earning the money to pay for cars, fuel, or air fares is part of one’s real travel time). Hence the relationship between velocity and inequality: “Beyond a critical speed,” Illich writes, “no one can save time without forcing another to lose it.”
Biking in the speed landscape (source)
High travel speeds, in other words, create allocation problems that necessitate the technocratic administration of mobility, substituting that control for the personal agency that a pedestrian still enjoys. This brings us to Illich’s great relevance today. Having long ago surpassed the “threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations,” we are increasingly consumers of transportation, and in general, decreasingly moving under our own control, on foot, by bicycle, or even via mass transit. The technocratic logic needed to coordinate and allocate motorized transportation has by now created a vast infrastructure, so ubiquitous that it’s nearly invisible. The aforementioned digital revolution has enabled that infrastructure to reach its apotheosis, finally becoming so pervasive that it even captures the “informal” types of movement that Illich preferred to high-speed modes: Bikes and scooters are now frequently enmeshed in larger platforms that require smartphones to access, while the simple act of walking is often mediated by digital maps and routing. These developments further influence and thus compromise the individual’s ability to move freely, though they are environmentally-friendly and reduce congestion. The role of mobility consumer (and now, user) is increasingly the only position available to any traveler, and if we can’t recognize what’s wrong with this, we only prove Illich’s point.
The quote that introduces this essay contains the key premise of Energy and Equity: Whatever mobility improvements a new technology enables, whether that technology is the combustion engine, the shipping container, the iPhone, or the self-driving car, that technology should not impair a society’s existing forms of mobility. Crucially, this means that any one group’s mobility gains shouldn’t impair the mobility of others. Today, we recognize this in certain cases, like accessibility for the disabled, but fail to observe it in most other domains. High-speed transportation, almost unfailingly, does impair slower but more universally available modes like walking and biking. Freeways cut cities into walled-off enclaves and disperse formerly close-knit communities into atomized housing units separated by long distances, parking lots, and dangerous, car-filled roadways. In this way, transportation embodies the essence of what Illich criticized in so much other technology, which he called “radical monopoly,” technology that undermines alternatives to itself and becomes the only means of satisfying problems that it has also created.
At this point, it’s important to note that the primary value of Energy and Equity, especially today, is less as prescription or as a program for action than as a polemic against the overwhelming status quo that forecloses so many alternatives to itself. It’s an extreme position that returns us to the fundamental purpose of transportation and clears away baggage, unhelpful assumptions, and biases, thus reclaiming a useful departure point for a conversation that has gone stale. The simplistic anti-private-car axiom, the belief in software’s unlimited ability to solve hardware problems, and the facile hope for continuous incremental improvement all prove unequipped to address the problems Illich describes. However idealistic and unrealistic, the positive vision that Illich outlines in Energy and Equity is downright appealing: a world where bikes and pedestrians dominate public thoroughfares and occasionally share the roads with gentle, modestly-paced motor vehicles (“The third-class bus does not separate the farmer from his pig, and it takes them both to market without inflicting any loss of weight, but this acquaintance with motorized “comfort” does not amount to dependence on destructive speed”). Illich invokes a pastoral version of the world many say they desire but don’t earnestly intend to pursue.
Transportation, we must remember, is not an end in itself, but a mechanism for supporting other goals a human community might have. More transportation, in other words, is not inherently better; more is often worse. We can’t solve our transportation problems with more transportation. Movement is an index of freedom but also a measurement of positional failure: the separation between where we are located and where we wish we were. Land use and the economics that dictate it should place people closer to what they want and need, to the extent possible; cars and their supporting infrastructure (along with other categories of motorized transportation) are the great enemies of that goal, even though we need them once the sprawlscape is already built. The space that cars require ensures that if anyone is able to maintain consistently easy access to the various places they want to be, they will do so at a high price and at others’ expense, a lesson currently being relearned in affluent cities like New York and San Francisco. Physical space is the crucial terrain upon which every transportation battle will unfold, one that emerges before climate change or oil shocks or deadly accidents, and one that will persist after all of those are solved. In 1973 that was already true. Driving is the party that too many people showed up to.
What, then, does Energy and Equity ultimately offer us today? Illich presents a vision of truly human-centered transportation, not the kind to which so many pay lip service, but the kind that replaces the atrophied consumer and user with fully-developed individuals who dictate their own movement. Illich forces us to acknowledge the values that inform our transportation choices, and to follow their implications to their conclusions, even if his idealism isn’t practically attainable. Why do we move, and how would we move differently if we had a chance to start from scratch? At present, our values are fuzzy, as are the goals that arise from them: We want more transportation at all scales. Yes, we want that transportation to be cleaner, safer, faster, less congested, and more convenient, but we still absolutely want more of it. This position ensures that mobility will remain an eternally scarce commodity (if for no other reason than only so many bodies can fit in a given space at once), perpetuating an allocation problem that we let the market solve, as we do for so many allocation problems. The affluent, as Illich observed and predicted, will continue outbidding the poor for better mobility and better access.
To adherents of this ideology, self-driving cars represent a rapture event: pure, commodified efficiency that solves every problem but the most important one, pushing demand for transportation to unprecedented heights without addressing the constraints of speed and space, nor ensuring equal access to that scarce supply of mobility. The value system just described is why cities feel like they’re designed for cars rather than people—not because of a past urban planning failure that we wouldn’t make again, but because of a mistake we still continuously repeat. We might finally fix these problems by learning to prize land use approaches that let individuals live and work closer to what they need and reclaim personal agency in their movement. Until then, we remain stuck in the condition Illich describes: “A country can be classified as overindustrialized when its social life is dominated by the transportation industry, which has come to determine its class privileges, to accentuate its time scarcity, and to tie its people more tightly to the tracks it has laid out for them.” By finally noticing the tracks, we might begin untying ourselves.
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“The problem (of the modern city) was to plan the disappearance of the subject, to cancel the anguish caused by the pathetic (or ridiculous) resistance of the individual to the structures of domination that close in upon him, to indicate the voluntary and docile submission to those structures of domination as the promised land of universal planning.”
Few would consider the iPhone a Singularity fantasy, but it isn’t hard to imagine Apple wishing for pure spiritual unity between its devices and users, instead of the inelegant smudging and fumbling to which clumsy humans actually subject their devices. The iPhone’s smooth platonic completeness only breaks for the minimum number of buttons and switches the hand requires, while more recent features like fingerprint and voice recognition foreshadow a future version unblemished by any moving parts, one that responds to inputs less brutish than pressure from our shaky fingers. Following that phase, we can also imagine, will come the time when the iPhone doesn’t need our input at all—because our usage is sufficiently predictable, because we float unconsciously in Matrix feeding tube pods, or because the separation between our phones and selves has finally eroded to a point of invisibility.
Apple’s design philosophy, in other words, already recoils from our physical, embodied presence as humans. Virginia Heffernan suggested this in a podcast interview with Paul Ford, speculating that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive must think people are revolting—the reason their products “deny the body” with antiseptic forms that do their best to resist the dead skin cells and oily finger smudges that inevitably ensue. For all of Apple’s ability to perfectly anticipate human instincts and behaviors, they only reluctantly meet us at the point of physical contact. The iPhone would probably even be better off without us. And yet, iPhones exist for people, in a way few other technologies ever have, as virtual extensions of both our bodies and minds.
Magritte, La Décalcomanie (source)
Technology hasn’t always felt like such a mirror of human nature. The problem with people has long been their insistence on being people and doing things that people do, a tendency that has created friction in the modernization project since its inception centuries ago. Mankind’s original sin, in Manfredo Tafuri’s assessment of the modern era, was precisely that stubbornness, which worked against the formal perfection and machine-like efficiency of everything that was supposedly being built for the same people who so frequently obstructed it, intentionally or not. The solution that Tafuri cynically saw embedded in early twentieth-century modernism, which he called the “ideology of the Plan,” was the disappearance of the human subject via submission to the mechanized universe that was then eating the world (to borrow a more recent phrase). In Albert Pope’s words, “Universal planning was simply the means of mitigating the demands of industrial capital,” or the invitation to become more like a machine.
Today, one might believe we’ve moved past that. While the industrial era (which many are still in) needed warm bodies that could behave more like machines, Apple—this era’s emblem of capitalism—seems to herald the opposite arrangement. Our bodies are less essential to whatever work we do now, and even the keystrokes and mouse clicks still happening will soon diminish; the present economic regime needs “warm minds.” To us, as users, Apple and many others extend an equally enthusiastic invitation to resemble a more sophisticated kind of machine (and Jobs was a disciple of the same modernism that invited us the first time). Even now, amazingly, we encounter sincere invocations of Le Corbusier’s overly rational “machine for living” in discussions about the smart home.
And people still foil the march of progress with their very presence. A century ago, Robert Moses and countless others found the organic premodern city to be a roadblock in the path of the modernist city’s realization. Today, those modernist urban environments—which Moses helped build—similarly obstruct the continuous globalized network city: “You will know these new systems by the extent to which cities are in their way and extraneous to their purposes,” I wrote in a previous post about this process. I argued that, from the perspective of global shippers, airlines, and Amazons, population centers were necessary evils that furnished labor and demand—these systems’ reasons for existing—but otherwise inhibited their optimal functioning in almost every way. The last mile problem is another way of saying that logistics would work better without all the people (and in fact, “making the trains run on time” has become shorthand for totalitarian reform of societies).
The problem today, one that Apple won’t solve, is to reimagine the global urban subject as something more than just a user—a transition that would affect cities as well as the technology we use. Demand for transportation, as an example, has always been an index of failure: the separation between where you are and where you need to be at a given moment. Rather than minimizing such distance by building communities that place people as near as possible to what they need, our current brand of modernity codifies that separation and uses it to extract value from its subjects—users, passengers, customers—whom it would gladly otherwise do without. The resulting condition described by Paul Virilio, in which many of us currently exist, is one of “movement and acceleration not as displacement but rather as emplacement.”
Far from eradicating distance or restoring the role of fully developed individuals in the world economy, the digital has largely accelerated the subject’s disappearance. Jan Chipchase writes, “As more data comes on stream, revealing what people are doing and how, there is a growing danger of people being treated as little more than lines in a database, stripped of personality and context, there solely to be mined and monetized.” The Singularity may be a delusional fever dream, but from the perspective of anyone who understands you as a user, it’s already almost real.
It’s impossible to get lost in Chicago. The city adheres so faithfully to its grid layout—major roads spaced at half-mile intervals, street addresses that mark exact distance from its center—that you can almost always know where you are, navigate to where you’re going, and orient yourself within the larger metropolis, even if you’re not fully aware why it all comes so naturally. Chicago is a more idealized version of a familiar city type: the kind whose layout makes sense and communicates to individuals their position within it using the symbolism of its built form. Kevin Lynch called this quality imageability and measured it by urban subjects’ ability to form mental maps of their environments.
The notion that a city’s physical form would convey such information about itself to its inhabitants is already starting to seem quaint. They don’t make them like that anymore, you could say. Even now, you may be wondering why it matters that Chicago’s grid makes the city easier to navigate or grasp mentally (whatever that even means). We have iPhones. When is navigation ever a problem? Like Victor Hugo’s pronouncement that the book would kill the building as a medium of communication, the handheld sensors we all carry in our pockets have dealt another blow to the physical city’s already-ailing function as repository of information about itself, finishing a process that the car accelerated and various other technologies started. For the most part, we still have legible, imageable built environments—in limited supply—because so much of the urbanized world is residue from bygone technological regimes.
Russian megastructure: Norman Foster edition (source)
Our sense of scale is one obvious victim of the spatial mush that has swallowed or surrounded traditional urban fabric. Freed from the mandate to provide fixed, stable indicators of geographic position, space itself has become fluid. Movement by airplane, highway, or even subway has always been topological—network position matters more than distances between nodes—but in advanced conditions of digital saturation, distance dissolves altogether. Striated space, in the Deleuzian sense, gives way almost literally to smooth space, and that smooth space is the prevailing condition of increasingly-common urbanized places that don’t quite feel like cities, at least in the familiar sense.
Here’s an example of where we’ve ended up: When I run, like many people, I use my phone to keep track of my distance and pace (an admitted concession to the Quantified Self). Lately, near my house, this practice has revealed a phantom pocket of space or warp in the fabric of reality, an extra, nonexistent quarter-mile that the app consistently adds to my runs in that same location every time. I recognize this anomaly because I know how fast I’m running and notice when my pace suddenly doubles, having calibrated a sense of real distance and speed through years of measuring my runs with less precision. My phone is the only tool I ever use to measure distance now, yet I know it’s wrong.
If the measurement error were less obvious, though, the spasm I just described wouldn’t register. How would anyone notice it or measure it? That a more subtle error perhaps doesn’t really even matter—something you’re probably thinking—is more evidence that we live in smooth space now. A physical world only measured with digital tools and demarcated by digital signposts offers us insufficient reference points for catching these casual failures in everyday life and, again, it usually doesn’t even matter. Analog methods of measurement certainly have their own pitfalls—they are far from perfect, and likely less accurate overall—but their shortcomings and limitations are more accessible to lay users. Take this as a metaphor for other domains of contemporary life: We eagerly shove as much as possible onto the internet and just as eagerly dismantle what it replaced. Sometimes that works out, but usually at the price of increased fragility.
Grid layouts, boulevards, wayfinding signage, and other traditional urban design components never existed just to serve prosaic purposes like local navigation or measurement, although they often did those too. Rather, those elements constituted an environment that reminded the urban citizenry what kind of world they inhabited: one where connected, coherent, and shared space mattered, in which that space helped knit together the society it housed. Today, we lack such reminders outside of certain well-preserved districts, and even when we recreate that type of urban fabric, it sends another message, that urbanism as we once knew it is a product to consume.
The truest spatial expression of the present moment is the disconnected enclave or megastructure, suspended in an oceanic swirl of infrastructural illegibility, connected to its surroundings physically and digitally but not related to them, and having no special relationship to what’s adjacent aside from the commercial costs and benefits that a given location determines. Any airport, rail terminal, stadium, shopping center, or insular urban condo tower fits this description, but enclaves smaller and larger are easier to miss, from the interior of a taxi requested via one’s phone to the grandiose megastructures with which Norman Foster and others would literally replace cities.
In all of these cases we—the citizen-users—navigate not by any kind of global orientation but using the tools of smooth space, our Apple-made versions of sextants and nautical almanacs, ranging through a manmade wilderness from one port-of-call to the next. Using an app to measure the length of a run is a frivolous application of a serious skill: When we’re between enclaves we’re floating in space.
“The end result is not so much a neutralization of placefulness but rather a monumental (or antimonumental) hyperinscription, a total architecture withdrawn from the public city and bound by its own structural borders, gates, walls, and skins, introverted from its immediate environment so as better to connect to external planetary economies on its own terms. Enclaves inside of enclaves digest one another all the way down.”
Werner Herzog, replying to an interview question about his fascination with certain places in America, once explained that “in the United States, I feel these focal points, these knots, where everything seems to converge,” like Wall Street or San Quentin. Last Saturday, a paved enclave outside of JFK’s Terminal 4, sandwiched between a parking lot, a parking garage, and a roadway, became one of those focal points. A week prior, we had been protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration in city centers and public squares. Now we were protesting at airports. We rode monorails and paid for expensive parking so we could crowd ourselves into the normally unnoticed nooks and crannies of infrastructural junkspace and, from these newly significant spaces, shout down the executive order that had precipitated sudden detentions and deportations behind the glimmering facades of those same airports.
The axis between the protest sites of two weeks ago and last week—between the city center and the airport—is the vector of urbanization’s past hundred years, an invisible wire between two poorly connected points that hums with the tension of societal cognitive dissonance. This axis, usually 10-20 miles long, is the symbolic distance between a persistent myth that downtown is still the center of urban life, and the reality that airports secretly are. In most cities, downtown and the airport are the two focal points of employment, human activity, and local transportation, but one has surpassed the other, if not according to these local variables than by the flows of people, money, and culture most visible at a wider angle. Losing airport connectivity often hurts a city more than losing its downtown.
Delta Terminal 4 (source)
The JFK protest last Saturday, indeed, felt like it was happening on the doorstep of the globalized world. We were shouting into a glowing portal that stood ready to carry any of us to Dubai and Singapore with magical speed if we stepped inside. The areas where the protests happened occupied the border between two spatial realities, as Christopher Hawthorne described, “not inside the terminals but just outside them, along the narrow strips of land where the contemporary airport meets the contemporary city.” The cosmopolitanism and borderlessness on which Trumpism has declared war means that major international airports in America’s global cities—particularly the edge spaces Hawthorne describes—form a crucial front in that war, if one has to pick a physical boundary.
Hawthorne and others see airports as promising sites for future protest activity, but if this is true, it’s because of what airports symbolize more than their suitability as that kind of public space. In fact, the opposite is probably true: The airport, especially its post-2001 version, marks the full maturation of a new type of urbanism, a hyper-controlled surveillance/consumption space that has spilled outward into other parts of cities where it’s less necessary. Shopping malls have historically been bad places to protest; airports are usually worse. The fact that mass protests happened at airports last week is the exception that proves this: The demonstrations’ tightly-controlled procession, with walls of riot police standing by, was enabled by the same discretion that enables customs agents to search and detain with such impunity. Unlike so many other historical demonstrations, these protests felt like they were “allowed” to happen more than they felt like the exercise of a right to space that the public owns. If this description doesn’t even seem strange it’s because the same logic of discretionary control has come to pervade so many other aspects of contemporary urban life, including that of the public square (“I don’t care about privacy because I’ve got nothing to hide”).
In a sense, the airportization underway today is a more insidious kind of Haussmannization, in which large swaths of Paris were demolished in the 1800s and rebuilt to make the city more legible and less susceptible to revolutionary unrest, complete with boulevards wide enough to accommodate faster military movement. Compared to Haussmann’s project, the creep of airport urbanism proceeded not by demolition or visible, monumental replacement, nor with a statement of purpose, but instead by the construction of a parallel built environment outside of the historic city. This “total architecture withdrawn from the public city,” as Benjamin Bratton characterizes it, eventually managed to overcode more traditional city space as well.
Borders have somehow attained new symbolic importance in the increasingly borderless world we all inhabit, which is why last week’s airport protests matter so much. Twenty-five years after Deleuze described the “ultrarapid forms of free-floating” control that have largely replaced enclosure-based power systems, we see a similar dissolution at other scales, with nation-states’ influence eroded by networked tribes, digital swarms, and global city-states that transact with one another more than with their own hinterlands. Air travel is the physical foundation of this cultural reality and airports are the beachheads of the post-enclosure world where last weekend we literally stood at the edge: increasingly free from borders, but inside new enclaves we still can’t see.
I just came back from Los Angeles where I spent fours days driving a lot. The rare transition from never driving to constantly driving awakens in me dormant notions about car culture’s weirdness and its distortion of the urban landscape, but at the same time, I’m always amazed by how ordinary driving is, how ordinary everything seems from behind the wheel, and how America’s car-friendly environments are in fact its most “normal” places.
The last time I visited LA, what struck me was how it’s actually dense—something I noticed as I crawled through I-405 traffic jams and tried to park in Koreatown and stood in line at various Starbucks. LA is not as dense as New York, but it’s dense, and more than that it’s crowded, because people with cars (and the infrastructure that supports them) take up more space than people without cars.
Dense Los Angeles (source)
During this visit to Los Angeles I noticed something different, which may be obvious to most. Soon after arriving, sitting on the freeway, I found myself thinking about Curb Your Enthusiasm—one of the only shows or movies I know of that realistically depicts the amount of driving LA inflicts upon even its wealthy inhabitants. Tedious car journeys are poor narrative material for mainstream Hollywood but perfect for framing the trials and exasperations that Larry David endures in his daily life. In a city so full of personal wealth, Curb attests, there is almost no way to supersede the freeway, and certainly not by buying one’s way out of it. Slight upgrades are available—owning a better car (and spending just as much time in it) or using the limited toll lanes for occasional slightly faster trips—but everyone is still basically stuck in the same traffic.
Don’t be mistaken—this is not an egalitarian condition. That Larry David is subject to the same transport limitations as you does not mean that everyone else in Los Angeles has it so good, which we’ll come back to. In an older transit-oriented city like New York, it always feels like there’s another level of speed for sale: If the subway or bus is too slow or inconvenient there are taxis and Uber (although the subway is often still faster) and you’re more likely to upgrade certain transit rides if you have a bit of disposable income. The super-rich in New York might travel exclusively by car, with a helicopter ride mixed in now and then. For longer distance intercity travel, the tiers become more distinct and one can buy real speed: Greyhound buses yield to Amtrak yield to commercial flights yield to private jets—all meaningfully distinguished from one another in speed and comfort.
Like America’s broader culture, its transportation embodies a myth of upward mobility, as Ivan Illich articulated in 1973:
“The captive tripper and the reckless traveler become equally dependent on transport. Neither can do without it. Occasional spurts to Acapulco or to a party congress dupe the ordinary passenger into believing that he has made it into the shrunk world of the powerfully rushed. The occasional chance to spend a few hours strapped into a high-powered seat makes him an accomplice in the distortion of human space, and prompts him to consent to the design of his country’s geography around vehicles rather than around people.”
In LA, the flatness of upper-tier transportation simply means that more people are forced into high-speed travel with no comparable alternative. The inability to overcome the landscape’s physical constraints fosters insane scheming among those who would pay handsomely for better mobility: Elon Musk wants to build tunnels beneath the city to circumvent its congestion, a revival of a utopian modernism that is rarely realized and almost never works.
Ultimately, though, anyone in a city like Los Angeles with the means to extract themselves from the traffic jam doesn’t need a faster mode of travel to do so, and this is the dark secret of American urbanism that underlies the superficial equality suggested by rich and poor sharing the same freeways: Transportation problems are solved with land use, not more transportation, and the affluent can better afford to structure their lives so that they live near the places they need to go. You wouldn’t know who’s in which category by looking narrowly at who’s driving, but by knowing where they’re going, where they came from, and how long they’ve been stuck in traffic.