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02 Oct 16:30

Essay: 'The commodification of everything', for 'SQM', by Space Caviar (Lars Muller)

by Dan Hill


This follows the earlier post on this set of essays, which also features 'A sketchbook for the city to come: the popup as R&D', for AD, and 'Urban Parasites, Data-Driven Urbanism, and the Case for Architecture' for A+U. This one first published as: 

Finally, Space Caviar, the Genoese design research collective headed by long-time collaborator Joseph Grima, Tamar Shafar and Andrea Bagnato (building into a very interesting wider group, incl. SImone Niquille) asked me to write a piece for a Lars Muller-published collection about domestic space, aka the home.

This is the book, 'SQM: The Quantified Home':

"The way we live is rapidly changing under pressure from multiple forces—financial, environmental, technological, geopolitical. What we used to call home may not even exist anymore, having transmuted into a financial commodity measured in square meters, or sqm. Yet, domesticity ceased long ago to be central in the architectural agenda; this project aims to launch a new discussion on the present and the future of the home. 'SQM: The Quantified Home', produced for the 2014 Biennale Interieur, charts the scale of this change using data, fiction, and a critical selection of homes and their interiors—from Osama bin Laden’s compound to apartment living in the age of Airbnb."

My piece addressed the latter few words there, and sat alongside others by the likes of Aristide Antonas, Keller Easterling, Sam Jacob, Alexandra Lange, Justin McGuirk, Joanne McNeil, Alessandro Mendini, Bruce Sterling et al. Do pick it up—it's a wonderful collection

Also, huge congratulations to Studio Folder (good friends Marco Ferrari and Elisa Pasqual) for winning Gold in the European Design Awards for their design for 'SQM'. It's a beautiful, beautiful bit of editorial design, inside and out.





My working title for this was ‘Fractal domestic’—you'll see why if you read on—but when published it became ‘The commodification of everything’, which is also about right, exploring the different understanding of domestic environment that Airbnb prompts. As usual, there are positive implications of this to flush out, as well as negative ones.



 Read on.

The commodification of everything 

Kalle Freese knew how to make a cup of coffee. Indeed, he was the Finnish barista champion. But he still needed somewhere to learn how to sell a cup of coffee, to craft an environment he wanted to sell coffee within, to try running a service business in a particular space. 

However, like many in Helsinki working at the more innovative margins of food culture, Freese faced a mountain of regulations almost implicitly designed to keep him out. These were a manifestation of Helsinki’s apparently exemplary bureaucracy, not least their particularly stringent food hygiene regulations, but also one of the most highly-regarded urban planning outfits in the world, which exerts a tight grip on the designated use of urban space. 

Many younger, mobile Helsinki residents, like Freese, were aware that cities elsewhere were benefiting from a more diverse, innovative food culture, from the small coffee shops Freese want- ed to start up, to the street food scene, to organic and locavore food cultures, to people hosting dinners which hovered between private and public events, in spaces that were also indeterminately domestic and commercial. Yet the tight grip of regulations on both spaces for food and on spaces for innovation prevented much in the way of real change in Helsinki. 

In response to this, Ravintolapäivä, or Pop-up Restaurant Day, emerged as a grassroots citizen-led movement, hovering in the indeterminate space between legal and illegal, domestic and commercial. Initially it was little more than an agreement among participants to make and serve street food, or small café food, on a particular day, working from domestic spaces such as first or second floor apartments (with food lowered to the street via baskets in the case of the latter), or vacant commercial spaces, or street-side, or in parks; wherever, in fact, people felt was a good, convivial place to make and serve food, rather than the spaces that authorities had designated as appropriate. This ended up being a ground-floor apartment with a handy window to serve from, as much as anything else. 

Ravintolapäivä turned out to be a huge success. Helsinki’s streets on Ravintolapäivä days are full of a rich diversity of food experiences, created and served by the city’s increasingly diverse population, from a diverse set of hastily repurposed spaces. None of the spaces are formally cafés or restaurants. None have licenses for preparing and selling food. Most have leasing arrangements described in years rather than hours. Most are zoned as residential rather than commercial. Most of them are, in fact, apartments. Ravintolapäivä found a way of temporarily re-zoning these spaces on-the-fly, at the whims of its residents. The tools by which Ravintolapäivä happens are—it almost goes without saying—social media-based web services, accessed primarily on location-aware smartphones. 

Freese himself opened up a trial coffeeshop on Ravintolapäivä, in a humble vacant ground- floor space in downtown Helsinki, and to huge acclaim. He now has his own gourmet coffeeshop business on the aptly-named Freesenkatu elsewhere in the city, yet Ravintolapäivä offered a space for experimentation, almost a form of training wheels. The space he set-up in was an at- tractive part of town; yet market dynamics meant it was temporarily vacant—like most Western cities, the inefficiency of market-led dynamics mean huge chunks of the city’s commercial spaces are frequently temporarily vacant. Ravintolapäivä provided an opportunity for the owner of the space to open it up to Freese gratis, for a day at least. 

The formal processes of zoning and planning, and other legislation regarding access and use of space, work at a very high level, focusing on major strategic planning initiatives to engineer change while blanketing all other activity in a prescriptive ‘dark matter’ of legislation. Ravintolapäivä works because it ‘flies under the radar’ of such bureaucratic cultures. It remains semi-legal—at best—for similar reasons. Yet such activities work perfectly at the scale of streets and neighbourhoods, which is the scale that people primarily live, work and play, of course. The tools citizens use to make decisions are advanced and sophisticated but off-the-shelf, accessible and often well-designed to be highly accessible and usable. They may only enable a highly localised form of decision-making— decisions at an urban scale may prove problematic— but existing legislation can rarely scale down to this level effectively. 

There is now a radical disjunction between the formal decision-making processes of the city council and the informal decision-making processes of the city itself. While it remains to be seen whether the latter can deliver the slow-release permanence of formal urban planning, they are at least able to move fluidly into urban spaces below the radar of the former, accessing and re-configuring the fine-grain of the city in a way that urban planning never could. 

In a similar way, contemporary services like Airbnb wheedle a form of hotel accommodation out of existing urban fabric. Commercial zoning at the district level, or designation of space for commercial activity at the building level—in this case whether a room can be a hotel room or not— does not appear to match the fine-grained and fluid way that some people perceive what space can be. 

Airbnb, over a few years, has unlocked hundreds of thousands of pseudo-hotel rooms from existing urban fabric, in the form of spare rooms and vacant apartments. They now offer the equivalent amount of accommodation as the entire Hilton hotel chain. It took Hilton a century to construct all their hotels, brick-by-brick, and Airbnb have come along, armed only with software, and created more, in six years, without laying a brick. 

Software has enabled an entirely different approach to managing space, providing an agile, highly transient and flexible conception of urban fabric. Why shouldn’t a spare room be made available for hire? A few clicks make it happen. In comparison, the processes of bureaucratic approval seem lumbering, intractable and monolithic, and are apparently largely unable to prevent it happening anyway. It is another example of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s choice phrase, “software is eating the world.” 

As an example of the so-called sharing economy, Airbnb possesses similar dynamics to urban mobility services like Uber and Lyft, which exploit a redundancy or inefficiency of space or resource use, supposedly a product of a twentieth-century approach to managing such things: through designation, planning, licensing. Just as Ravintolapäivä found ways of using urban space in the grey areas left over by high-level approvals, services like Uber and Airbnb offer entirely new urban services by thriving in similar gaps. Is this apartment a hotel? Is this private car a taxi? The software supporting all these activities trans- forms inefficiencies—the ‘redundancy’ of unused parked cars or unoccupied rooms—into the raw material for new services. In doing so, it changes our perception of the city’s fabric. This is as big a challenge for the business of urban planning as it is for the Hiltons’ business. 

However, underpinning such approaches, at least in commercial services like Airbnb, is a clear ideology. This could be described as the capitalistic ideal of maximising resource utilisation, a ‘commodification of everything’ applied to domestic space. It can manifest itself in the skirting of as much local regulation and taxation as possible, for the sake of better user interfaces for urban space. ‘Sharing economy,’ then, is a complete misnomer. 

Almost twenty years ago, these dynamics were foreseen and described by Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook as the “Californian Ideology.” They arguably represent a form of civic failure rather than market failure. In circumventing taxation and regulation, and operating in the high-value pockets of town where the pickings are easy, Airbnb or Uber give little sense that they might enable more equitable services, or that they see the city as a public good. (Uber is perhaps easier to criticise on this basis, yet Airbnb could be creating upwards pressure on rents, which is not exactly helpful.)

While strategic urban planning may seem untenably slow and opaque in comparison, there is at least a chance it has public interest at its core. Several strong critiques of the idea of sharing economy are now emerging, suggesting significant issues with stretching such dynamics over the city, particularly over domestic space. 

At first glance, it’s odd to see manifestations of this culture, such as disruptive pop-ups, emerging in Helsinki in particular, which is as far away from California as one could get—in its solid social democratic backdrop as much as its climate. However, in recent years Helsinki has positioned itself as a centre for start-ups in Europe, trying on an entrepreneurial culture in much the same way Finns holidaying in Spain try on espadrilles; at first awkwardly, and then with gusto. The same kind of people that create the Ravintolapäiväs of this world also inhabit Aaltoes, the local start-up support network and first European partner of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program. Much of this is positive, if it could be reframed through a Nordic lens. Yet that is a big 'if'. We might wonder how far Californian businesses like Airbnb can travel outside of California; yet the ideology of the same name may have been preparing the ground more widely than we think. While Helsinki can consider itself to be a very well-run city by almost any twentieth-century measure, it is not immune to the ‘radical disruption’ of Ravintolapäivä/Airbnb twenty-first-century dynamics, to the extent that people now expect systems to simply behave in a certain way. 

However, there is something intriguing in that malleability and fluidity of domestic urban space that Ravintolapäivä and Airbnb enable, whether in Helsinki or San Jose. Could it suggest a more fractal organisation of space within the city, perhaps more in tune with many twenty-first-century conditions, in which an apartment can shift mode from residential to commercial to industrial over the course of an afternoon, at the behest of network logics? 

In fractal planning, zoning is something that occurs at the level of the room, within the home, rather than at the neighbourhood level. Where zoning previously applied to broad sweeps of urban fabric, we now apparently have the tools to rezone a bedroom or living room as commercial property within a residential container, at least for a period of time. Again, the tools enable an apparent fluidity of space, at least in terms of fractal subdivisions of domestic fabric, rather than larger, more permanent schemes. Ravintolapaiva and Airbnb magic up restaurants and hotels out of our interiors. Will we begin to actively design residential space within this in mind? Might we see Airbnb-ready apartments emerging from architects’ drawing boards soon? How will this shift our notion of the home, as a retreat from the public? The inside from the outside? 

Or, as municipalities now struggle with the over-supply of retail space in cities— given the preponderance of internet-based retail—could such fractal approaches open up such spaces to much-needed new housing, or spaces for the new light industry of fabrication? The formerly commercial would now host the residential, or the industrial? Or both? Could fractal approaches planning enable a more human-centred, localised designation of space, determined by communities themselves? 

While services like Airbnb have been characterised as ‘disruptive in a bad way’, skirting regulation and taxation, there is no reason why they should. If municipalities decide to apply such rules, they can—just as many are now trying to regulate, reject or replace Uber. Given the the traces left by digital transactions, such services are arguably easier to identify and manage than previous processes (as long as municipalities are literate in such ‘big data’ approaches.) Authorities could easily ensure that taxes are paid, and that activities are safe; yet this requires a shift in stance, from inhibiting activity via the hefty blocking moves of regulation, to instead observing point-clouds of transactions and managing accordingly, knowing when to innovate through regulation, and knowing when to innovate through creating better public services themselves, taking advantage of many of the same dynamics. 

For municipal governance, and for those that attempt to manage urban spaces, attempt- ing to wrangle these radically disruptive dynamics could be playing with fire. It simply may not be possible to disengage the services from the ideologies that underpin them. Yet what are the alternatives? This is why the fact that ‘software is eating the world’ presents such challenges; it is eating the world, and it is only just booting up. Our response to that, as citizens and cities, will determine whether it does so for public good or for private gain, whether our ability to shape and use our domestic spaces is enhanced or inhibited. 

In deep winter, the sea around Helsinki freezes over, effectively doubling the size of the city. For as long as people can remember, this temporary extension of the city has been used for public fairs and feasts. In much the same way, Ravintolapäivä has found new places for food experiences within the existing fabric of the city, un-zoning, unlocking and extending the city’s potential via domestic space. Equally, Airbnb has illustrated that peoples’ perception of what residential space can be is far more fine-grained—more fractal—than the city’s approach to regulation can possibly handle.

While it is easy for some of us to characterise Ravintolapäivä as intrinsically ‘good,’ and Airbnb as a more equivocal entrant, in reality both present disruption to local governments. Both entail a radical re-drawing of domestic spaces in the context of the city. The question is whether the city can absorb the force of the disruption and redirect it, enabling a different conception of space while retaining civic and public value. 

Here is a possibility to dissolve previously calcified boundaries between residential, commercial and industrial, between individual and collective space in the city, between bottom-up and top-down. Whether it does so beneficially will depend on how much we care about the idea of the city as a public good, and how adept we are at absorbing and redirecting disruptive forces for civic returns.

An edited version of this essay was published as: 

14 Sep 18:25

What a starchitectural skyline means for the future of New York

by Amelia Taylor-Hochberg

The latest explosion of Manhattan development has fully and passionately embraced the phenomenon of the global starchitect. [...] As it turned out, the future would be pure real estate ... The future was the privatisation of the sky and a transfer from corporate power to individual wealth, the visual manifestation of the 0.1 per cent. It was a catwalk of anorexic skinnyscrapers by the equivalents of haute-couture designers ... global names with which to sell real estate.

25 Aug 16:00

Cities, the Middle Class, and Children

by Michael Lewyn
Joel Kotkin argues that Jane Jacobs's insights are of limited value because cities are no longer useful for middle-class families.
20 Jul 04:12

Natural City

by admin

Organic metaphors for cities have been in fashion at least since Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932). A biologist by training, Geddes turned to city planning when his eyesight became too defective to use a microscope. He imagined a city as not fundamentally different from any other living organism.

A city seems to follow a logic of its own, complex and mostly spontaneous. It grows and mutates taking different forms and functions. The only difference between a city and an organism, is our conviction that we can plan the former, while we see an organism’s internal capacity to grow and structure as divine.

Tampering with biological cells, whether animal or vegetal, is seen as sacrilegious. Think of the strong movement against genetically modified organisms. The fear is that we may create types of organisms that could get out of hand, go viral and threaten biodiversity. Playing god may endanger and impoverish the realm of our own existence. The related worry we have with GMO is that these extra-dominant strains tend to become the property of corporations that control and impose their terms on farmers and consumers.

At one level these fears are real. We don’t want any cartel to dominate the food industry. Organic food, farmers’ markets and guerrilla gardening are healthy reactions to a form of capitalism that threatens the livelihood and autonomy of producers and consumers.

At another level, we can’t treat nature as sacrosanct and out of bounds of human engagement. We’ve always been tampering with it and always will. However much we pollute and exploit it, we are part of nature.

Forests have forever been inhabited by humans. Their ecosystem depends on us as much as we depend on them. Even “pristine” forests have relied on intricate and interfering knowledge systems, which humans living in and around them possessed for their co-dependent survival. We can’t reduce nature either to something pure that must remain untouched or a raw resource that we should freely exploit. Either way this amounts to physically and conceptually evacuating human presence, and makes way for nature’s total sacralisation or devastation. Both of which are happening simultaneously today.

Nature is messy, contradictory, predatory. Harmony is a beautiful invention of the mind but as green-architect and nature-lover Michael McDonough once told us pointing to a harmless-looking creeper growing around a serene-looking tree: “it is a war out there.” He saw his role as that of a peacekeeper. There is a lot humans can do to monitor and support nature that doesn’t involve destroying it, as the greening of arid regions in Israel and India have shown.

Could the same thing be true of cities? Can we manage them without killing their diversity and spontaneity? Geddes certainly thought so.

We are only starting to understand how we can alter an organism’s genetic code, while we have been planning cities and neighbourhoods since Sumerian times. The problem is that we have never been very good at it, or perhaps we lost those skills in modern times. Master planned cities usually turn out to be disasters, and our proud megacities, which are colonizing the planet from Shenzhen to Santiago are the result of the same Monsanto brand of capitalism that kills diversity in the name of efficiency and profit. The problem with this model is that it is crisis-prone and offers a highly uneven quality of life.

Maybe it is time we start recognizing human agency as an active principle in urban growth. We must see beyond planning and engineering as ways of organizing habitats, and invent methods that involve users and residents and their dynamic acts. We must start seeing people as the building blocks of cities and open the planning process to them.

Unfortunately, even as the rhetoric of participation dominates the urban planning discourse from Tokyo to Toronto, and at a time when hundreds of thousands of communities of users interact in responsive networks and games, we seem unable to open up urban practices. Urban development still tends to be managed by technocratic planning agencies, which serve the interest of real estate speculators more than that of end-users.

There are a few concepts that we love to use, like the title of this article, precisely because they evoke an oxymoronic world were nature and city not only coexist but blend into each other. This vision is not one of LEED-compliant buildings with floral facades and smart cities surrounded by green belts that preserve “nature” out there. No, we do not need to preserve the city from nature or vice-versa. The two work best together.

Above all, the natural city is one where human nature can express itself. Where the act of making a home is as natural as plucking fruits from trees. It is a place where habitat develops continuously, in response to the changing needs and means of the people who live in them. And where objects, homes and places can be produced locally by mixing native skills with the most advanced technology available. Where the architect is also a builder and a resident. Where the users are the developers. And where rules follow forms rather than the other way around.

While this sounds like a utopia straight out of a Jehovah’s Witness brochure, it is in fact a reality that exists in rather complicated “slums” the world over, from Mumbai to Madrid. Destitute people have demonstrated what the dark side of this vision looks like. They live in homegrown neighbourhoods, built locally by resident contractors in vernacular fashion, using whatever resources they can access. They usually lack resources, but what they lack most is the right to improve their habitats on their own terms.

What policy-markers, planners and architects usually do when confronted by what looks like feral urbanization is to ghettoize or destroy it. Sometimes the authorities can’t cope with the magnitude of such growth, and let it be. Some enlightened souls praise the “informal city” – but this has become a catchall phrase as flabby as blobs in architecture. Others suggest “tactical” interventions, but as Neil Brunner observes these are not antidotes to “the vicissitudes, dislocations, and crisis-tendencies of neoliberal urbanism.”

What we need instead is a fundamental reshuffling of our conception of how a city grows. Growth must be redefined and reclaimed if what we want is a city that is diverse, fertile, creative, but also inclusive, beautiful and resilient. We may have to stop trying so hard to plan and control, and recognize the city’s inherent capacity to evolve.

The vital force at work in cities is not divine, but eminently human. We must trust users and give them the right and means to improve their habitats and shape it in small and big ways. Users should be empowered to meddle with the code of their urban environment and create new urban genomes – as they have always done. We should not allow real estate developers to monopolize the engineering of cities in ways that only benefit them. In this process, the users best ally could well be the architect, the urban planner and the policy-maker –if only they learned to observe the natural city before planning it, as Geddes already did a century back.


Photos: Banganga Tank, Mumbai

28 Jun 16:24

The Slum Explosion Anxiety

by admin

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

Global anxieties about population growth have been around at least since Malthus, with a peak in the 1960s when American academics started talking about a “population bomb” that would throw the rich world right back into poverty -and annihilate India once and for all. The particular shape of that anxiety in the form of a housing crisis set to swamp the world is relatively more recent. We seem to now firmly believe that population growth will overtake the capacity of governments to house people at decent standards. Subsequently, the world will get slummed up beyond redemption. There is a prophet of doom – à la Mike Davis – for every urban crisis that we face in different parts of the world.

However the apocalyptic vision itself has a narrative thrust. In it, greed and fear dominate over humanity and creativity. It calls for drastic and swift responses. Our fear is that, unfortunately, these responses may actually be more catastrophic than the reality they wish to contain.

We believe that the most urgent thing we must do is step away from such anxieties as a starting point, while looking precisely at the factors that cause them. While we definitely must analyze why more and more people are getting constituted as the surplus humanity which modern urban administrations seem to have given up on, we need to look at the pressure points afresh. We simply don’t see the weak joints where others seem to– basically the dark horizons of megalopolises being invaded by multitudinous migrants – moving in hordes across national or rural-urban borders.

We believe that the preponderance of slums in a global landscape that continues to urbanize rapidly, is a legacy of faulty policy and worse – a lack of imagination about what makes for good cities. It is also a lack of memory about how slums have always been part and parcel of urbanization and the many ways in which they have been integrated in cities throughout history.  Architectural and planning professions and other urban commentators have an amazing capacity to forget how so many of the neighbourhoods that we love have gone through many stages of development before becoming what they are. Many of the quarters of New York, Paris, London or Tokyo were once slums, by any contemporary standards.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai

It is our contention that the inability of incremental housing in cities like Mumbai, Rio or Nairobi to translate into a successful tool of urban transformation is due to factors other than its intrinsic merit or fault. The issue of affordable housing is a problem not because there are simply too many people lacking resources or means to find or make decent homes and neighbourhoods, but that there are a handful of people who refuse to see cities and habitats in any other way but as a place of fixed and limited choices.

Around eight years ago, we set up a small office in the famed and notorious so-called ‘slum’ of Dharavi. In the global map of slums, we placed ourselves at the epicentre of what was mistakenly referred to as the largest such settlement in Asia. We were the latest entrants in a field that was populated by activists, NGO’s, political parties and other do-gooders and got absorbed in heated waves of discussion, debate and dissent. The government’s redevelopment plan, originally master-minded by a New Jersey consultant of Indian origin, was slated to become a single point clearance agenda for redeveloping this neighbourhood.

We interacted with Mumbai’s diverse set of activists and citizens with more diverse viewpoints and ideological moorings. And even where there was an overlap, we often found ourselves saying things that were counter-intuitive.  Those conversations helped us sharpen our conviction more than ever, and over the next few years, we found ourselves being immersed in the practice of incremental development strategies in Mumbai. We have since then resettled our office in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi – a settlement which is not as much in the limelight as Dharavi, but which is struggling just as much to reinvent itself.

We worked with local community leaders, with local house builders, residents and children and began to understand what community and neighbourhood life in a ‘slum’ was all about. All through the years, what we saw seemed to be some kind of real-time unfolding of incremental development strategies – the way we had read about them, or quickly glimpsed in Latin American contexts. Our practice sharpened, convictions became firmer and communication became smoother as we started conversing more confidently.

We had started our journeys in diverse, overlapping and occasionally parallel worlds. Our practice became a mashup of urban planning, anthropology, economics, architecture and design. Our ideological make up reflected all the unacknowledged intellectual confusion and fierce ethical commitment that our generation had grappled with thanks to the tectonic shifts of national and political maps since the 90s.

Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo by Ishan Thanka for urbz)

We attempted to connect our practice in Mumbai to a larger set of conversations that happened as we found ourselves travelling to Tokyo, Barcelona, Geneva, Sao Paulo, Rio, New York, Istanbul, Perugia, Milan, Shenzen, Belgrade, Johahhnesburg – wherever we went we found ourselves making linkages to the city and coming back to familiar practices – which somehow or the other involved watching people make their homes and lives over a generation, creating bonds with each other, sculpting communities from basic human needs of co-dependency and good-naturedness. We found a bit of Mumbai everywhere in the world.
And the people who we encountered through these journeys – our colleagues, our supporters, our collaborators, our critics and intellectual comrades – were the real touchstones of transformative learning. They all helped shape our central argument that connects our work:

Human beings as productive agents have the collective capacity to create their own built environments. If their environments are degraded in any way – that is to say if they happen to be slums – this state of affairs is connected to a set of factors that has little to do with their capacity or ability to create quality built environments. These factors include land arrangements that do not recognize occupancy rights as a valid mode of living in a city. They also include legislation that prohibits them to improve their environment because that would mean developing a sense of ownership towards the land on which they exist.

This is not allowed simply because cities today are shaped by speculation on land and space which is so tied down to its exchange value that it becomes out of reach for most of its residents. Especially those who find it more economical to use it for productive means. And it has to be deliberately kept out of reach as only then would the exchange value become genuinely lucrative. Due to this, civic authorities refuse to acknowledge that the city’s workers and the poor who contribute to its economy, need a different regime of occupying urban space, one which is based on use-value.

It is in this state of affairs – more than anything else that the urban crisis of today is predicated and this is what needs to be unpacked and understood – in the greatest of detail possible.

Shvaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai (photo Ishan Thanka for urbz)


03 Nov 21:22

Essay: Clockwork City, Responsive City, Predictive City and Adjacent Incumbents

by Dan Hill

"In this context, it means such ‘disruptive innovators’ may try avoid other ‘constraints’ over and above universal service’s equitable agenda..."


This is the in-depth version of my column posted in Dezeen this week, around the impact of predictive analytics on cities. This version particularly uses public transport services and new transport startups as the pivot for its arguments, as transport (or transit, or mobility) is a fundamental aspect of city services currently being transformed, disrupted and contested through such dynamics. The arguments get usefully tangible when we're looking at Uber, Lyft, Bridj alongside MTA, Transport for London and MBTA. This also features a bit of a Q&A with Bridj CEO Matt George—I've posted a fuller version of that separately. I now realise that, completely unintentionally, this is a follow-on to a piece on 'transport informatics' I posted around six years ago.

1. Clockwork City

For the last 150 years or so, we’ve run our cities like clockwork.

I don’t mean that as a compliment, a suggestion of flawless efficiency. Just that we’ve designed, planned and run our cities based on regulated industrial rhythms, bound to pre-digital engineering and organisations, and we still do.

We expect a rush hour at the beginning and end of work-week days, and planners intensify mass transit at these times along major arteries, usually into the middle of cities via a form of ‘hub-and-spoke’ model. Citizens must move towards the nearest nodes in that network—the bus stop, the metro station—rather than their actual origin or destination, and these must necessarily be organised along averages of demand.

These patterns are in-part derived from mass industrialisation, and its physical impacts, and the 20th century urban planner’s instinct to separate functions like retail, offices, housing and industry into different zones of the city.

These days, however, not only are we now trying to create ‘mixed-use’ urban environments, dissolving zones left, right and centre, but many of our patterns of working are fragmenting—whether that’s through zero hours contracts or the burgeoning freelance sector—as are many other patterns of living, generally.

But those clockwork patterns run deep. Few western cities look like a Lowry painting anymore. The factories have gone, the workers have gone, the tramlines that delivered them have often gone too. Yet traffic still tends to runs along those now-buried lines, even though the route’s raison d’être has long since departed.


Our bureaucracies are also based on processes that would not be all that unfamiliar to the Dickensian clerk hunched over reams of paper in stygian gloom, shuffling applications, plans, appeals, and accounts back and forth. Those processes have sometimes been digitised, yet the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves has suggested that the shift from digital to paper is not just a shift of format, for the same processes; he says means completely ”redesigning government and how you interact with people.” This probably applies to to municipal governance more than national or federal, given their remit in actually delivering services, yet few, if any, cities have redesigned accordingly.

City policies and services are still derived from planning around averages and rounding down, informed by a muddy stew of samples, snapshots, censuses and ideologies, and delivered en masse, one size near-enough fits all, and then spotily measured or policed, to see what actually happened. Sometimes.

There are two ways this may about to change, as cities begin to address Ilves's challenge—by enabling services on-demand, and by using data to predict the need for services in a particular place at a particular time, with great precision (allegedly.) 


2. Predictive City

Although replete with thorny issues, a potent combination of predictive analytics with responsive services may prove irresistible to politicians and policymakers, and indeed could deliver genuinely positive transformative services. But this air of inevitability makes it all the more necessary for us to stop and think about what kind of city we might want, and who takes advantage of these new dynamics.

John Lanchester tells a story in “How to Speak Money”—a book I recommend to any designer or architect wishing to understand the context their work is produced in—about the way Ancient Egypt worked. In short, everything hinged on the annual inundation of the Nile flood plain: the society itself, arguably the most stable the world has ever seen, its cultural artefacts, such as their calendar, their understanding of seasons, their taxation system, and of course their agricultural cycles—all were directly linked to the Nile’s flood. The priesthood of Egyptian society, drawing from rich mythologies, performed complex rituals to divine the nature of the flood, and thus the harvest, each year. 

But Lanchester reveals how the priests actually did it: they were cheating. Unbeknownst to the population, they had a ‘nilometer’, a device to predict the level of flood water. Based on measuring stations secreted in temples, the nilometer captured the flow of the river, plotted it against various markers and combined with flood records dating back centuries, enabling relatively accurate predictions of that year’s harvest—its success, or the likelihood of disaster. Lanchester suggests “the nilometer was an essential tool for control of Egypt. It had to be kept secret by the ruling class and institutions, because it was a central component of their authority”. 


Not that Herodotus would’ve put it like this, but this is perhaps the first example of predictive analytics in urban governance.

Predictive analytics is the ability to deliver services for *future* events, before the need has manifested itself, based on the accretion of ‘big data’ about past events, increasingly derived from a sensor-rich environment. Although urban planning and policy has always been a form of prediction—sometimes combined with agency to make it true—this is an order-of-magnitude shift in data gathering and number crunching; and so, in turn, in the purported accuracy of what can be predicted.

The same principles are in play across an increasingly wide range of services. Based on the data they have, Amazon can apparently guess what you’re about to buy before you know you want to buy it, and will move it nearby accordingly (they filed a patent for ‘anticipatory shipping’ earlier this year.)

Yet when people talk about predictive analytics and cities, they often turn to Chicago’s rats. Combining many previously disparate data sets, such as calls to the city’s 311 service related to garbage or broken water mains, over geospatial databases—AKA maps—has enabled the city to predict where infestations are likely to occur before they do. Just as Mr. Rat has paid the deposit on a new place and picked up his keys, he turns the corner to find a Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation officer leaning against the door, whistling. 

This idea, and its impacts, could fundamentally change the way we think about running cities generally. Using similar techniques, and digging ever deeper into urban data, Chicago could soon predict which buildings are most likely to catch fire next, where vacant properties will occur, or where planning violations might be likely.

More controversially, Chicago’s datasets include a ‘heat list’ of those 400 or so individuals in the city that are most likely to be involved in a violent crime—it enables police to pre-emptively, well, ‘address’ those on the list, which some see as an exaggerated extension of ‘Stop-and-Frisk’. 

(You may be familiar with the concept from the film ‘Minority Report’. Incidentally, isn’t it odd that this single film—which, after all, is not a terribly good—has dominated the popular imagination about interaction design for the last decade, thanks to John Underkoffler’s work on gestural interfaces for the movie; and now it may dominate the conversation around system design for the next decade. Almost as if the filmmakers could predict the future.)

The ‘heat list’ has come under much scrutiny in Chicago (and LA and New York, where similar software has been deployed) but few realise that these systems, like PredPol, are increasingly in use everywhere, from Seattle to Kent. Here the difference between pest control and policing should be clear, but you can imagine the attraction to a certain kind of politician—“Sir, you can eradicate crime, nipping it in the bud before it happens”—irrespective of the enormous ethical, and indeed constitutional, issues. Once the list exists, it’s difficult to put that particular genie back in the bottle. What if you don’t act upon the list and someone dies? Equally, what if you do act upon the list? And how exactly do you do that?


(Interesting to note how recent this is; there was little direct mention of such techniques in the talk by Michael Downing, Deputy-Chief of Counter Terrorism for LAPD at Postopolis LA, despite a lot of tech in his talk. The antecedents were visible, perhaps, but could a deep culture of practice have emerged in that time? Besides, at some point, once things are scaled and pass certain thresholds, they become something else altogether: just as Jane Jacobs said a city is not just a big village—it is an entirely different condition—predictive policy is probably not just exaggerated stop-and-frisk.)

3. Responsive City

Perhaps less immediately contentious is the use of predictive algorithms in public transport. If transport agencies can ‘scrape’ data from the surfaces of their city’s interactions, they can build models of behaviour that enable them to predict where the demand for transport is needed, before anyone asks for it. In other words, instead of walking to the bus stop, the bus stop comes to you.

These dynamics underpin Bridj, a transport startup in Boston. Bridj uses patterns of transport use, combined with social media analytics and apps, in order to send its fleet of buses to where there is demand for a fleet of buses—on the fly. It is largely post-timetable, post-route and its founders have just attracted around $4m in seed funding.

Techcrunch reports, “Bridj leads to sub-10 minute wait times, as well as much faster commutes than its passengers are used to. … Bridj routes can cut commute times in half, with 20-minute rides compared to city transit routes that would typically take 45 minutes. It also generally picks up customers closer to their homes or businesses.” (Note many non-US cities achieve sub-10 minute wait times anyway; of course, services like Bridj emerge in a certain local context.)


Bridj seems a sharp approach, sitting neatly between the approaches of mass transit and private car ownership—as the name suggests. It could work as a form of “relief valve” for the Boston MBTA, and equally would enable those awkward transverse routes, threading together the city outside of the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model that are simply too expensive for public transport to cover.

I spoke to Bridj’s CEO Matt George about their service. George suggests they’re additive to cities, rather than subtractive, but working in a different way: “On one end of the spectrum you have low-cost low-flexibility services like traditional mass transit. On the other end of the spectrum is high-cost and high-flexibility options like owning a car or using Uber. We are looking to be a third option—moderate flexibility and moderate price—that we think captures most of the needs of city travellers. “

Where have we seen on-demand transit before, outside the limited horizons of US tech culture? Interestingly enough, many of the more useful reference points, positive and negative, for these developments occur in more informal urban environments.

Keiichi Matsuda tells me about the gloriously-festooned buses that careen around Medellin, essentially occupying a legal grey area as well as often unpredictable street routes, and sometimes, the pavement. In Nairobi, the equally gaudy matutu buses are fighting off Google NFC-enabled smart cards, preferring to transact in cash—whilst matutu may observe a form of bus-stop, they move through traffic at full pelt as if autonomous vehicles (though with a rather different safety record.) Even highly-regulated cities like New York have what The Verge called “a shadow transportation network” of dollar vans and buses, serving areas like Chinatown, or particular communities. Often unlicensed, sometimes the police apparently turn a blind eye, and even welcome their presence; other times, not so much. 

These services fill in the cracks and gaps of the formal transit networks in a broadly similar way to Bridj, yet based on driver knowledge, instinct and ‘small data’, if we can call it that. The fact they don’t scale doesn’t really matter, and in some senses they are more legible, local and, well, likeable than an Uber, say. (Incidentally, in one of its few genuinely innovative moves to date, Uber has also started using predictive analytics—Bayesian, since you ask—to predict pick-up points.)

Yet the bus-stop that moves to you via predictive data is something else again: a broader idea of a Responsive City. (Though it does also remind me of the time I informed the council of an unnamed Northern English city about Barcelona’s responsive litter bins; “They just tell you when they need emptying, so you don’t have to send out the bin-men when they don’t!” One of the councillors muttered, “It’s all very well having responsive bins, lad. Problem is, we don’t have responsive bin-men.”)

4. Adjacent Incumbents

Both the matutu and the metro could be derailed by startups like Bridj, Lyft, Uber, Relayrider et al, however. None of these startups have a primary aim of putting public transit agencies out of business—least of all Bridj, who George says have a clear mission of working in the gaps—yet the adjacent space they play in is close enough to destabilise those incumbent agencies, given the way that startups play.

This is ’The Problem of the Adjacent Incumbent’.

It could be that Uber et al seriously destabilise existing public transport agencies, simply by working an adjacent patch to them, mopping up bits of their business without having to work with their constraints like universal service.

Here, we might describe universal service as the delivery of a consistent transport service at a consistent, affordable price to everyone in the city, irrespective of net worth or location. (I would personally frame this as a wonderful ambition for mobility services in a city.) Transport for London, for example, has to deliver that, whilst innovating; Uber, for exampe, simply gets to pick off the low hanging fruit in the middle of town, moving freely as a 21st century mobility business, floating across taxi-likes, hire-cars, delivery services and ultimately minibuses and privately-owned cars generally. Essentially, given half a chance, Uber’s trajectory will envelop most mobility in the city, not merely taxis.

Google is not the same as Nissan (or equivalent), but its self-driving cars may begin to place it very close indeed. And so Google (or equivalent) do not have to build a 20th century automobile business to replace one—they can simply build a self-driving car industry, in the far smaller numbers such a service requires. Like Uber, they exploit the redundancy in private car use via a Responsive City combination of on-demand and just-in-time.

Similarly, yet in a different line of work, Airbnb is adjacent to hotel chains like Hilton and Hyatt, yet in theory not the same thing at all. (In theory.) Airbnb does not have to build a 20th century hotel industry to replace one—they unlock pseudo-hotel rooms via software rather than laying bricks. It enables a Responsive City approach to urban fabric.

All these initiatives could indirectly destabilise incumbents that are not theoretically “in their sights”, simply through their powerful dynamics.

5. Startup dynamics

For tech startup culture plays by its own rules, and is a little careless and untidy about how it does so.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described those rules as ‘Californian Ideology’ dynamics, and they typify tech startups. In this context, it means such ‘disruptive innovators’ may try avoid other ‘constraints’ over and above universal service’s equitable agenda—such as aspects of local legislation (especially around workers’ rights) or local taxation (eg.), just as their venture capital-fuelled trajectories mean that they may instigate temporary price wars in order to gain early market domination, subsequently raising fees later. These dynamics create issues. (Indeed, Uber has just suffered its first strike, alongside reports of long working hours, difficult working conditions, low wages, an exploitation of a wider economic context, and even mishandled retweets from drivers. This, and their ongoing tussles with city regulators, may be why Uber hired Obama’s campaign manager. Suggestions that these services self-regulate themselves are a little off the mark as a result, and all this means that the phrase 'sharing economy', and its connotations of trust, is a terrible bit of 'newspeak' for something like Uber.)


These are what economists would call ‘externalities’, which is usually econo-code for something not terribly good. (Do read Cameron Tonkinwise’s informed take-down of the “sharing economy” more generally, noting also the last vestiges of possibility there, as well as the externalities.)

Matt George is aware that Bridj is playing with slightly different dynamics than those transit agencies: “What we offer is the ability to start with a clean slate. We are an incredibly high-paced technology company who focuses exclusively on creating a better demand-responsive mass transit system. There are some small agencies that we think can implement better demand response, however, most agencies are trying to simply maintain the service they have, and have little capacity to try new things.“

Though Bridj’s service is designed to complement rather than replace, the lack of a level playing field means that unhelpful externalities could arise either way. The challenge is to sketch out the externalities and mitigate against them, to enable and yet also shape such innovation.

Another example: Urban Engines is a newish startup which also collates data from transport operations, and then uses an understanding of how congested the network is, in real-time, in order to offer small payments to people to ride later, shifting the load across the network better. A good idea, at first glance. But on second thoughts, what does this market-based approach do to the core idea of public transport?


Such an offer is all very well for knowledge workers with what Will Hutton called ‘time sovereignty”—the ability to choose when to work, and to move your day around. They can now get paid for exploiting their own time! But what if you’re a low-paid service worker on a zero hour contract, having to get a bus from the outer suburbs at 5am in order to clean a CBD Walmart store before it opens? You hardly have the choice to displace your travel, and so you pay whatever price the network demands.

Urban Engines is trying to solve a Real Urban Problem many of us are familiar with (over-congested mass transit) and, speaking as a regular London Underground user, many of us desperately do want it solved. Yet the way in which this is done could either reinforce public good, generating a cohesive civic spirit—or rent it asunder. Currently it’s another example of brute-force market dynamics being deployed into areas which have traditionally had rather more subtle toolkits at hand. It is potentially socially-divisive as a result.

Equally, a recent NYT account of Uber use in Los Angeles suggests it has little to offer as a public transport innovator across a wide range of citizens. In fact, it suggests it's for well-off kids on nights out in a few highly populous parts of an American city where, typically, the car has been king—unlike most other cities outside the USA. This is a long way from an innovative public transport offer—and from its claims to be able to really shift the mobility dynamics of a city, as with their recent statement about removing one million cars from London's roads. Frankly, as with Google's self-driving cars, swapping private cars for a different flavour of private cars is unlikely to transform much, compared to the possibilites of other modes, from bikes to buses.

Yet Uber is frequently held up as a key contemporary urban innovation, including by policymakers and others in European cities with excellent public transport. The lustre is extraordinary. Equally, in terms of ‘following the money’, watch how Uber’s founders talk about the potential market size. One way or another, Uber is seen as a future of mobility in general, despite its inability to deliver to the strategic goals of the incumbents it may destabilise.

So now would be a good time to pause to think through —to design through—the unforeseen implication of predictive analytics and responsive city services. What might we gain and what might we lose? It doesn’t mean we have to remain trapped in our clockwork cities; just that we need to try to unpick the unforeseen and adjacent. We might want to hang on to some of these precarious incumbents, clockwork or not.

Perhaps predictive analytics applied to crime can cause the rate of violent crime in a city to plummet? Yet might the way it does this also shred social fabric? Perhaps Airbnb enables redundant space to become temporarily valuable. But perhaps in doing so it puts big and small hotel chains out of business, leaving only a largely unregulated offer in its place, and further reinforcing the idea of home as financial commodity rather than, well, home. Perhaps predictive analytics applied to transport creates a nifty little service like Bridj, but when it is combined with Uber, Lyft, RelayRider, Urban Engines et al as well, all swirling around the city with those new dynamics, perhaps it destabilises public transport to the extent that a universal service is no longer viable? These implications are adjacent, slippery, opaque, and laden with assumptions about the positive effects of data-driven services on the city.

(Incidentally, that most acute social commentator, South Park, just skewered all these new transport startups. Wacky Races indeed.)

6. Modern service dynamics

Uber is popular partly because, on some level, it is doing a good job. Leaving aside their premium service, where status is an indicator and so not particularly relevant to an equitability argument, Uber's abilty to eat into the taxi business is due to their understooding that a good user experience is a differentiator.

In this case, that means the service should be responsive, location-aware, personalised, well-designed and reflexive (in other words: cars should be quick to arrive on-demand; locations handled easily via GPS-enabled smartphone; payment should be seamless; user interface should be pleasurable and effective, and the car should be clean, attractive and potentially low-emission; and customers might want to leave feedback about their experience.)

These, and related, qualities may typify how many (most?) people expect systems in general to behave now. I doubt customers care much whether it’s Uber—again, outside of their premium service customers—it simply provides a reasonable user experience at a reasonable price (surge pricing aside). That is not actually innovative in terms of service. While good user experience is not easy, it is at least well-understood now. It takes rigour, but not necessarily breakthrough innovation. It differentiates nonetheless, compared to existing transit offers—and that means something (leverage, in fact.) But Uber's UX could be easily improved; it is no more than just 'good enough'. Their primary innovation is in skirting 'constraints' such that they can play with market dynamics. (Indeed, the roughly contemporaneous Hailo does essentially the same thing, though within constraints. Set up partly by London cabbies, Hailo has now been forced to pull out of North America due to being caught in the crossfire of a deregulated price war between Uber and Lyft, according to the FT.)

Given that, there is every chance for those qualities of 21st century service to be adopted by public agencies. Seoul recently ‘banned’ Uber, following the lead of an increasing number of cities such as Brussels and Berlin, and announced they plan to simply set up their own version. (This relates to an earlier Dezeen column asking whether public agencies can invent or adopt such service innovations; recall also the earlier Toomas Hendrik Ilves quote about redesigning government.)

There is a mismatch between the easy replicability of code and the distinct differences of cities, yet cities are increasingly able to adopt and adapt code-based services.

And adaptation is important, as there's a limit to how far we can stretch the idea of California. Uber emerges from a particular place, with what we could describe as a largely uncivilised approach to public transport, and a sclerotic approach to regulating and operating the taxi business. These conditions are not the same everywhere, particularly outside the US, and Uber’s mileage may vary as a result, despite their hefty capital. That also leaves an opportunity for local variants, adaptations.

Similarly, Google’s self-driving car prototype is predicated largely on their map data, as well as their sensors, and happens to have been tested on the bit of the world they happen to have mapped in almost microscopic detail ie. around Menlo Park, California. Will Google’s car even function in places where it is uneconomic to map? (Note that other autonomous vehicle prototypes preference sensors over maps, such as Oxford University’s RobotCar—could we even say that is a more equitable approach?)

Uber says that regulations are outdated as they were written before we carried smartphones around. This is true. The question is what one does about it, and further, what ideologies underpin such decision-making. As it says on the Uber blog, “Uber is fundamentally a marketplace”, and exonerates itself from much collateral damage by portraying Uber as being  simply a technology platform for connecting riders and drivers.

The “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” in today’s complex urban dynamics means that there is no such ‘simple platform’. So the impact of Predictive City and Responsive City is not simply in the development of new services, but how they interact with the existing services in the city, or create value in the city. It's also about what they stand for. These advances coud have outcomes either way, of course—so a larger question I would have, over and above their short-term market share-grabs, is about the possibility for enriching the idea of the city as a public good. When one of the primary challenges facing our cities is inequality, that must surely be a core concern. But is it? The value that Uber generates, outside of their generic if professional user experience for 'riders', is leached from the city. Low-paid jobs, the drivers, remain the city — though the Californian Ideology dynamic tends to suggest that wages drop until they are replaced by automation — whereas high-paid jobs exist only in California. (Compare with a scenario of a similar service — again the core service features are entirely obvious, replicable — deployed by a local public transport agency or by a local startup employing locals in a range of valuable jobs, as well as paying taxes in the city? Better service, and better for the city too?)

7. The motor car and the traffic jam

There are numerous possibilities for positively using big data, and data-driven services in the city. The Clockwork City is from another age, and much of it is no longer fit-for-purpose in terms of addressing complex, interdependent 21st century issues and opportunities. Many of Chicago's early advances show huge promise, and services like Bridj could revolutionise mass transit, actually finding new patterns in-between 'mass' and personal. Imagine if it was combined with the data that Citymapper already has, for instance? Who wouldn't want bus-stops that were more at-hand, with buses arriving just-in-time?

So the design challenge is to better understand and shape the ideologies underpinning data-driven urbanism, to combine a sophisticated understanding of rich urban data with a holistic, collaborative approach to design and governance, to see that data is a material that must be fashioned into particular services for particular places.

An excited Harvard Business Review notes that “It’s still pretty amazing that we can use analytics to predict the future. All we have to do is gather the right data, do the right type of statistical model, and be careful of our assumptions.”

Be careful of our assumptions, indeed. A model is still a model, at the end of the day. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 (and beyond) has already given us a potent example of poor predictive analytics in action—in that case, when assessing how likely mortgage customers were to repay their loans.


When we look at a picture of, say, subways and sewers, and their tangled knots of pipes, we should really note that the picture “n'est pas une pipe”—it’s just a picture. The map is not the territory; not even if that map is as richly detailed as the kind of deep behavioural data our cities may soon generate. Whilst the notion of ‘path dependency’ obsesses urbanists, a city is more than just the sum of its previous behaviours; just as a former violent criminal might not ever be violent again.

Fundamentally, with this Predictive City in mind, the sheer unpredictability of cities is not only part of their charm, but a vital lesson about the possibility of change. As Oscar Wilde said, “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." Predictive analytics, if applied with a carelessness Lady Bracknell would recognise, has no time for such subtleties.

Such approaches needn’t necessarily be detrimental—they could be highly informative, in the context of more holistic, collaborative, imaginative approaches to designing and running cities—but only if, unlike the priests of Ancient Egypt and their secret nilometers, we are openly discussing the potential pitfalls—the possibility that ironing out unpredictability also irons out difference, and the possibility of change itself—and sketching out richer versions of our urban future.

There’s a saying in design futures circles—when you invent the motor car, you also invent the traffic jam. You gain; you might also lose. But no-one envisages the traffic jam because … HEY, MOTOR CAR!

We might borrow the informal dynamics of Nairobi’s matutus or New York’s dollar vans and wrap them up in scalable code structures, in the gleaming business models of tech start-ups. Yet in doing so we potentially destabilise not just the matutu but the metro as well, and we stumble towards whatever invisible version of  a traffic jam is contained within these scenarios.

Ironically, it may not be a traffic jam—perhaps software can fix that, after all—but what will it be?

03 May 19:29

Is the Internet Destroying Art, Beauty, Wisdom and All That is Good, Decent and True?

by Bill LeFurgy
Improvement the order of the age, by Boston Public Library, on Flickr

Improvement the order of the age, by Boston Public Library, on Flickr

A strain of techno-pessimism, much of it invading the border of hysteria, is rampant in our culture. The Internet is Making us Stupid!  Gadgets Ruin Relationships and Corrupt Emotions!  Technology Is Taking Over English Departments with The false promise of the digital humanities!

At first glance, this kind of thing seems so very important and present-day, reflecting serious analysis about the impact of new tools on what we value about the past (or should value). Plus, it must also be said, some of these doomsters write compelling with sincerity and intelligence.

But there are two issues with such Cassandraic pronouncements, one conceptual and one historical. The conceptual issue boils down to basic human nature, which leaves us feeling a little uneasy about big changes in our lives. There’s a little nagging fear back in our heads even in the midst of what is generally thought of as progress, both personally and culturally. We may be swept along with innovation, but the more we see (and the more we age), the more nostalgic we tend to feel about tradition. Given how radically everyday life has changed in the West over the last several decades, heightened anxiety toward change leaves us particularly receptive to contrarian arguments about the benefits of technology. All those subjective pronouncements about how technology hurts us and erodes human values may just be the manifestation of our collective little nagging fears goosed by lots of change.

The historical perspective makes it clear that techno-pessimism is very old, most particularly in connection with communication itself. Plato, for example, decried writing because it diminished the power of learning through conversation. “If men learn [writing],” he wrote (!), “it will implant forgetfulness… calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

Denis Baron, in A Better Pencil, notes how critics railed against the printing press when it came on the scene because inked words on paper would last far less time than handwriting on parchment. Peter the Venerable, according to Baron, contrasted the pen as carving wisdom into parchment with the press, which merely brushed marks on top of paper.

The typewriter, favorite of literary nostalgists, was initially viewed with much fear and loathing. While Samuel Clemens claimed he “was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature” in 1874, he bore no love for the device.

That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself. He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.

And so on until the recent past, where David Mamet declares his love for pad and pencil and abhors computers.  “The idea of taking everything and cramming it into this little electronic box designed by some nineteen-year-old in Silicon Valley… I can’t imagine it.”

The bottom line here is that yes, we are a little worried about how quickly things are changing with information technology. But we can take some comfort in knowing that our ancestors had the same fears over the past 2500 years and things seem to have turned out reasonably well.

08 Sep 22:02

New restrictions on public space in England and Wales could make "unusual or unpopular" behavior criminal

by Amelia Taylor-Hochberg

Public Space Protection Orders, or PSPOs, came into existence last year under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Similar to the much-derided anti-social behaviour orders (asbos), PSPOs allow for broad powers to criminalise behaviour that is not normally criminal. But where asbos were directed at individuals, PSPOs are geographically defined, making predefined activities within a mapped area prosecutable.

For a primer to this piece, check out:

And for more on contested public spaces: