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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.
One of many unmistakable truths about the year 2016 is that we all posted a lot. We posted a lot. We posted on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, and Periscope, because we had a moment of free time, were bored, did something cool, wanted to participate, needed to vent, couldn’t sleep, or—more than anything else—never strayed more than a few feet from a device that made it so easy to post. It’s now 2017 and we’re still posting furiously. As we have roads and cars and therefore drive, the technological context we inhabit is designed for us to post content, so we do.
That we as a human race generate unimaginable volumes of text and imagery every second is clear, but it’s less certain what kind of agency these new tools give us, whether that agency is real or illusory, and whether we’ve exchanged something less valuable in order to get it. At a glance, it’s hard to conclude that one ordinary person doesn’t have more power at his fingertips than a king had a thousand years ago: the ability to broadcast communication to a potential audience of millions or conduct massive, instantaneous financial transactions.
To a hammer, though, every problem is a nail, and we perhaps overexcite ourselves with a myth that we’ve finally mastered the universe when we’re just increasingly digital hammers, optimized for our chosen domain of influence and blind to problems that aren’t informational nails. The most potent lesson of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was that spirited content generation within controlled platforms did not sufficiently impact the messy world beyond those platforms’ reach, it just increased its users’ confidence in an alternate version of reality.
“I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content,” Darren Rovell tweeted last October, an ill-advised, tone-deaf statement that accidentally captures the present zeitgeist perfectly. A similar sentiment appears in the movie We Are Your Friends: Ayesha Siddiqui observes in her brilliant review that the central characters state their vague intent to “invent an app, start a blog, sell things online” as if it’s a mantra. And finally, of course, Bruce Sterling offers Favela Chic as a conceptual vehicle for these examples, the condition “when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”
Put another way, our software is getting better while our hardware is getting worse. We’re better equipped than ever to solve software problems as hardware problems become more difficult by comparison, so we give in to the temptation to rebrand the latter as the former, a grave mistake. The Port Authority doesn’t need more data as much as it needs appointed leaders who won’t close the George Washington Bridge for political revenge. Data and connectivity have done wonders for mankind in the past decade, and the so-called real world is closely enough intertwined with digital technology by now that it’s impossible to speak of the two as separate entities, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t certain things that software simply can’t do. Sterling’s Favela Chic metaphor captures the divergence between physical reality, where scarcity still rules, and digital reality, where it barely exists, that most of the world has experienced in recent decades. Communities suffering from abject poverty (a physical or “hardware” problem) still enjoy disproportionate abundance of information and connectedness, but those are too high up Maslow’s hierarchy to make a fundamental difference.
In The Stack, Benjamin Bratton suggests as a thought experiment that half of all architects and urban designers stop building new buildings and instead focus on creating software that enables better usage of the built environment we already have, while the other half continues building as before. In a sense, this experiment is already well underway, although too few urbanists are creating the software. The half that just continues building may be outside the scope of Bratton’s argument, but as a representative group for addressing the world’s hardware problems in so many domains, they’re once again the more important half.
New York City did the seemingly impossible this month, activating free WiFi and cellular service throughout its underground subway stations. In 2017 it didn’t seem like any filthy corner of everyday life still remained for the internet to invade and conquer, but that’s because we were so accustomed to not having service in the frantic pathways of the Union Square station as the morning-commute cannon fired us through them every day. Useless now is the metis by which each of us navigated our microwindows of access on subway rides, jacking in just long enough to refresh our email inboxes or fire off the message that we’re running ten minutes late. For residents of New York, airplanes are now the last bastions of disconnectivity, along with deep woods excursions and Faraday cages.
Activating WiFi service somewhere new is an obvious benefit for all involved. Even more obvious is that it’s inevitable. How did any urban space get this deep into the millennium without it? More than anything, though, it’s boring: I haven’t felt a personal shortage of connectedness in years and would jump on a plane just to hide from it, though I know many don’t share this attitude. Today, there’s no need to explain why New York subway stations need WiFi—it’s axiomatic that every inch of the world needs it.
The last mile before Link (source)
A more interesting project along these lines was LinkNYC, New York City’s effort to blanket the city with free public WiFi above ground and replace thousands of decaying pay phones with shiny kiosks for web browsing and device charging. The opportunities for increased surveillance are clear, but that’s OK because we should all feel like we have nothing to hide, except that those who should feel like they have something to hide tarnished the experiment by openly watching porn at the kiosks. In general, the demographic for whom the kiosks would be most useful, those less able to afford internet access in other domains, seemed to catch the most heat for actually using them, evoking Anatole France’s observation that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” As for surveillance, if LinkNYC doesn’t monitor our movements, someone else will, so it’s hard to complain.
The obviousness and inevitability of the internet becoming more and more ubiquitous gets a fascinating treatment in Venkatesh Rao’s “Fortune at the Edge of Network” thread. He explores the concept of the “last mile”—the messy part of any network where efficiency dwindles as the end user actually makes contact with the network (for example, the UPS delivery guy parking the truck and running the package to your doorstep). The last mile is where a closed, streamlined system encounters the real world, and it’s the home of weird and archaic structures and behaviors that the network’s core would never tolerate.
As various infrastructural systems, but especially the internet, extend their reach, the last mile becomes the last hundred feet and then the last millimeter, Rao writes—the distance between the iPhone screen and the eye, or even less. As these systems colonize more space, they extend rationalized market forces into territory previously ruled by social norms. If this sounds sinister to you, he’s fairly optimistic, or at least fatalistic: “It isn’t between free individuals and an enslaving techno-capitalist cloud. You never were that free an inch from your face. You were merely the captive of non-economic forces.” Rao sees opportunity at this junction: the chance to inhabit and rule your own last mile, using technology to increase your own agency rather than resisting its inexorable creep or trying to hide from it. More so if the non-economic forces you traded away were particularly oppressive.
I haven’t yet embraced Rao’s advice: I entered the new year with the goal of reclaiming some scraps of my immediate space from digital/rational/market logic, purging half of the apps from my phone and trying not to hold it in my hand at all times. For example, I deleted Shazam. If I hear music in public, I thought, I’d try asking someone what they’d put on instead of antisocially querying the cloud. The opportunity to test this approach came last week at a coffee shop: I heard some jazz I liked and asked the barista what she was playing. “A Spotify jazz playlist” came the monotone reply and bored look. Thanks for nothing. So it’s possible that the space recovered by pushing back the networks isn’t always so great. Or maybe we’ve already hollowed it out beyond repair.
“Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much.”
The short twentieth century began in 1914 but the spiritual twentieth century started six years earlier when Filippo Marinetti lost control of his Fiat and plunged it into a muddy ditch outside of Milan, forging the Futurist manifesto’s introductory myth and launching the movement of the same name. Futurism, a pivotal moment in design modernism, celebrated the raw power of the car that Marinetti crashed and the many other fruits of the industrialism then transforming Italy, its adherents eager to discard the past and all its limitations. As Reyner Banham described Futurism, “the poet, painter, intellectual, was no longer a passive recipient of technological experience, but could create it for himself,” and Boccioni later proclaimed their cohort “the primitives of a sensibility that has been completely overhauled.” A new type of person was being born amid the roaring engines and factories.
Futurism, for all its shortcomings, was an admirable moment of raw exuberance about the potential of technology to make the world more interesting. The futurists celebrated machinery for its romantic possibilities and “universal dynamism” and rightly saw that it could be beautiful, not merely functional. You can imagine the ways this attitude (and the technology it celebrated) can and did eventually go wrong, but the Futurists dared to demand more from machines than economic production or convenience and in that sense their movement was a human triumph and an example to future generations.
Boccioni, The City Rises (link)
A century later, the affluent, well-educated, city-dwelling beneficiaries of the information economy—now more easily grouped by the recent election’s fault lines—enjoy a more cautious, productive optimism about the technological progress of the internet age. Or did until recently. That broad optimism, so solid even a year ago, is one of the reliable constants that 2016 has upended. The list of reasons for growing wariness about today’s digital landscape includes almost nothing new: Twitter has become a snakepit of harassment and unchecked hate speech. Facebook blurs the line between biased truth and outright falsehood. Almost anything connected to the internet can and will be hacked. The platforms and apps we use the most have evolved into the most effective surveillance infrastructure imaginable, perfectly gift-wrapped instruments for a totalitarian regime. Most of our jobs will be automated out of existence just as America dismantles its remaining safety nets. And even the exponentially-growing internet has an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels that could make everything else irrelevant by submerging us all underwater.
Somehow, the past year—the election in particular—revealed how each of those risks could potentially blow up. And some of them did blow up. The internet doesn’t feel as fun today as it did when we first applied an Instagram filter or read a @Horse_ebooks tweet. To those of us too old to get it, Snapchat looks like fiddling while Rome burns rather than another platform for unbridled 2011-style internet frivolity. The technological progress that’s still capturing popular enthusiasm is largely either the residue of mid-century speculation (space travel, self-driving cars) or the consumer-facing tips of foreboding icebergs like AI and automation (Alexa, Amazon Prime).
The digital foundation onto which civilization has migrated, we’re finally acknowledging, is more fragile than we thought, though it continues to bring us countless real benefits. Even Jane Jacobs predicted an imminent dark age and, surveying our recent cultural shift and its causes, it’s getting easier to see how formerly unthinkable dark ages set in. Again, the election solidified the narratives and camps: Some were already in revolt against the so-called cutting edge of technology and its eagerness to automate everything. Today more people are, for many of the above reasons. We thought we’d arrived at the end of history but now worry we’re just at another inflection point of its eternal cycle. In a year when something called a phishing attack is one of the major stories from a presidential election, it’s at least certain that things are getting weirder.
So we’ve trapped ourselves in a technological stack that unsettles us, but just as bad, we’ve built one that’s boring and prosaic and even cowardly, one that becomes most exciting when it fails. I came across a perfect statement of where we’ve ended up, by Geoff Manaugh, in the comments of a Kazys Varnelis blog post:
“(T)he people today most concerned with building flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors in which You Can Do Anything™ are less often swinging nightclub owners and far more likely Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments and infinitely rearrangeable modular shelves and their themes of the week. There are already Christmas decorations up at Ikea. Similarly, the people building instant cities today aren’t the Balkan ravers of the 1990s (at least no more); it’s Camp Bondsteel and the logistics support teams of Bechtel. Or, for that matter, it’s the “megaslums.” Either way, it’s not a leisure class of hi-fi-owning Jimi Hendrix aficianados.”
If anything, the Silicon Valley version of technology and progress is too bland and too conservative, because it needs to scale, optimize, add value—buzzwords as dull as the results they produce. There’s a tech industry aphorism that companies ship their org chart (a version of Conway’s Law), a more concrete way of saying people recreate the milieu in which they live and work—which in this domain involves a lot of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints. We’re thus experts at extracting convenience and consumer value from technology but worse than we should be at using it to explore unknown territory, have an adventure, understand ourselves, or even throw a better party.
David Graeber famously complained that his generation was promised flying cars, as well as force fields, teleportation pads, Mars colonies, and every other exciting sci-fi trapping, but instead got bureaucratic tedium and screens to stare at. A popular counterargument is that iPhones and the internet are, in fact, more amazing than flying cars, but that rebuttal sidesteps Graeber’s broader point that poetic technologies, “the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality” (the Futurists’ bread and butter) are becoming increasingly difficult to pursue. Not because we don’t know how, but due to a failure of culture and will. The Steve Jobs dictum that customers don’t know what they want until you show them reflects a belief that individuals don’t achieve their full potential until they become customers. One of Apple’s most masterful accomplishments was concealing that bait-and-switch.
Our society continues to lose the thread: Not only are we not building flying cars, we’re instead building hardware and software that increase our fragility, anxiety, and dissolution, even if they do streamline shopping and get our laundry picked up faster. We could use a new Futurism, a recalibration of the ultimate purpose of all this work we’re doing, something better than convenience and efficiency. Give the Balkan ravers a shot. We’re more technically capable than ever and can build whatever we want, supposedly, so if we’re going to keep trying let’s build something that’s beautiful or weird or something that increases our collective freedom.
One example of such an alternate reality, already 50 years old, is New Babylon, the Situationist utopian city/megastructure. It’s the kind of model we should keep creating to remind ourselves of the futures we could be pursuing but aren’t. Acts of imagination like this, fantastical as they may be, represent a step toward realizing the poetic technology we’re currently missing, as McKenzie Wark writes:
“Owning property affords someone a house in which to be at home, at the price of being homeless in the world. Dispense with property, dispense with separation, and the feeling of being merely thrown into the world goes with them. Our species-being can give vent to its wanderlust, at home in a house-like world. Constant thought modernity was already accelerating a return to a nomadic existence. New Babylon is nomadic life fully realized. It is an architecture of duration, of thresholds, of collaborative place-making, writ large. Freed from the fixity and uniformity of property, space could again have its qualities. A short trip in New Babylon should offer more variety than the most interminable journeys through the concentrated city of spectacular society. “Life is an endless journey across a world that is changing so rapidly that it seems forever another.” The New Babylonians could wander over the whole surface of a world that was in flux. “New Babylon ends nowhere (the earth is round).”
Flying cars are probably a bad idea, and megacities cantilevered above the earth probably are too, but there are a thousand other desirable and already-possible technological outcomes that we’re failing to imagine or seek, beyond the pale of what we already have.