February 14: Urban Intelligence Before “Smartness”(TM)

Screening: Chad Freidrichs’ The Experimental City, 2017

Supplemental Resources:

  • Armin Beverungen, Florian Sprenger, and Susan Ballard, eds., “Computing the City,” Fibreculture 29 (2017): especially Apprich on smart city precursors and Rossiter on data center sovereignty.*
  • Cambridge’s Centre for Urban Conflicts Research.
  • John de Boer, “Resilience and the Fragile City,” Our World (August 25, 2015).
  • Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014).
  • Indexical Landscapes” Symposium, ArtCenter College of Design, October 2016.
  • Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  • Jennifer Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
  • Clare Lyster, Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change our Cities (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016).
  • Shannon Mattern, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: 5000 Years of Urban Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).*
  • Shannon Mattern, “Indexing the World of Tomorrow,” Places Journal (February 2016) [on an index-card-and-clerical-worker-based form of urban smartness].
  • Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).*
  • Margaret O’Mara, “Media Space,” UWTV <video>.
  • Margaret O’Mara, “Silicon Valleys,” Boom: A Journal of California 1:2 (Summer 2011): 75-81.
  • Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016).
  • Anthony Townsend, “The $100 Billion Jackpot,” “Cybernetics Redux,” “Cities of Tomorrow” in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (New York: Norton, 2013): 19-114.
  • Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  • Mark Wigley, “Network Fever,” Grey Room 4 (2001): 82-122.

Images: Freidrichs’ Experimental City | Cuneiform + Mud Construction

8 Replies

  • “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” – Erasmus, 1500

    “I can imagine myself knowing everything; in other words, I can neglect in myself the curiously that I still have” – Bataille, 1951

    “We live in overstimulated times” – Videodrome, 1983

    Apparently a lot happened in 500 years. From a dreadful sense of too much reading, to a complicit passivity of “superabundance” (McCullough), and back again, the above quotes point to the unresolved and diffuse status of knowledge, and the mourning of excess information.

    The progress of mediums of knowledge is similarly suspect. Chalkboards, once dry-erasable, are now “smart” – as is intelligence: interconnective, immediate, transparent. The seamlessness of our devices mirror the will to transparency in architecture (think: Midtown) but also in technology (the new home-button-less iPhone).

    Has, what Shannon Mattern considers a “geologic analog,” disappeared? The formality of previous materiality inscribed a relationship between eye and text, as well as between text and wall: revealing a certain inexchangeability of the text’s presence in analog mediation. The reterritorializations of text to wall, wall to eye underscored a way of perception that was hardwired via the pre-modern city. Digital screens are necessarily the opposite: seamless and fully integrated in moving-images and text on-demand, with internet access – not unlike design strategies for the future city, as Orit Halpern writes.

    Although digital and analog are comparatively different, they both attempt to render the city meaningful, yet the differences in design can arguably be traced to semantic errors in comprehension. McCullough writes “overload is a perception of excess” but maybe this is moreso a problem of the human’s hardwire – impotent without extensions, prosthetics, machines.

    People eat an ambien or xanax to decelerate (psychosomaticism of the masses) for the same reason Brian Eno installed “ambient music” in airports: to posit transitory, in media res, accompaniment to the overstimulated pulsations of your prior destination. Unfortunately, as Erasmus said, there is no-place on earth away from swarms of text.

    • Thanks, Leo! You’ve highlighted the ways in which text and code are materialized in space, and how those materializations determine the ways in which they’re perceived and comprehended. Perhaps the semantic richness of our contemporary urban texts exceeds the perceptual capacities of human subjects.

  • The city, as Friedrich Kittler reminds us elsewhere, is a medium, with networks layered on top of networks. Where I disagree with Kittler is his hardwired argument that the city has always been a kind of programmed processor. Ignoring for the moment that such a processor or machine must of course be built by someone or something, Kittler’s technological determinism is somewhat reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s idea of the city as a machine for industrial production. Perhaps it’s seductive to be lulled into the idea that the city is a self-regulating and programmable machine, because some of us are desperate for a technological sublime, and we want to find it in our cities. And maybe this is what is also driving the (unsustainable) global hackathon for smart cities, who knows! But what’s missing in this seductive metaphor of the city as a processor or a machine is surely the agency of citizens.

    Orit Halpern’s excerpt on Kevin Lynch’s work provides us with an account of someone who thought of the city as a subjective space: while the city is informed by its grids; its alleys; its roads; its public spaces, it is also informed and performed by the perceptions of its citizens. As Halpern describes it, “Lynch was among the first to produce a psychological account of urban space, making individual cognition and perception a dominant discourse in urban planning.” (114) Yet, while Lynch has argued that citizens are part of the city’s intelligence or overall algo-rhythm, I can’t help but wonder if his influential contributions have unwittingly led us down the path with our contemporary smart cities. I guess what I mean to suggest is that Lynch’s ideas were just one step short of seeing citizens (i.e. their perceptions/attention/performance) then as extractable resources for the city-system.

    • Great, Kenneth. I appreciate your concern with human agency, as well as your concern that planners’ interest in civic engagement might amount to little more than justification for the “program.” Jennifer Light also talks about the ways in which RAND and other consultancies promoted “system literacy” — through games, simulations, etc. — to encourage “buy in,” rather than to elicit genuine debate.

  • My takeaway in a sentence: it is not enough to simply dream or plan for urban development without understanding the physical bricks, accumulation of knowledge, and historical patterns of behavior that sculpt where we are today as a local and global civilization. (This includes perception, but also structural incentives). These readings offer a reaffirming pause for us to look back and consider the development of epistemologies, to really analyze how we know what we know (in the context of cities but also in the context of cultural worlds as Leo mentioned above: analogue to digital, digital to analogue).

    There is an emphasis on both “building landscapes of knowledge” (Mara) as well as materials being a form and platform of [knowledge] expression (Mattern). Reading Shannon’s piece instantly reminded me of a book I’m reading called Pagan’s Progress: a Ge-ology Primer in which Michael Dames attempts to reconstruct his science-based approach to geography and reanalyze his interpretation of the science from a more social science/anthropologist point of view. The attempts to remind us that in “an age of ecological turbulence, our understanding of the hills, rivers and fields we live among is more critical than ever. But what might the academic study of geography fail to teach us, and what relationships to the land might be revealed by reinvestigating the neglected knowledge practices of myth, history and legend?” How does this relate to the conversation of knowledge development, and smart cities? This emphasis on existing ‘smartness’ within a culture or indigenous religion is exactly what easily scalable (concrete?) development has subdued. Understanding the subjectivity of space is exactly what Lynch sought to do by reaffirming the process versus the outcome, or reaffirming the immeasurable, the invisible, or the illogical based on the local perception. With all this said, though, it becomes a question of scalability and whose interests promulgate what practices. Although I agree with this emphasis on process and perception, emphasizing the subjectivity of a space cannot ignore the historical and structural practices of the institutions that create such environments. These structures, too, are part of the perception of space even if only ‘seen’ by those affected by such policies/practices.

    Still, valuing the historical process of knowledge creation may seem to exist at odds with the historical development of technology as both Jennifer Light and Mara O’Mara emphasize, regarding the military-industrial complex (which is very new to me). How do citizens, policy makers, “artists” (or designers), consider these threads within the more homogenized and easily scalable vision for smart cities, how do we begin to understand the neglected knowledge and re-emphasize the more emotional aspect of perception while still being very much aware of institutionally backed development?

    • Fabulous, Irie! I’m grad you’ve reminded us that historical, indigenous, embodied intelligences needn’t be “logical” or “reasonable.” There are other ways of knowing — knowing ourselves, our environments, our pasts. How do we account for, and make *room* for, history, myth, and legend? Excellent questions.

  • The dependency we have on smart devices is not only a personal issue but a societal one. Our social skills have become completely numb since there is no necessity on speaking to someone or having any physical contact to get in touch with them. We are becoming a ascetic society, where our primary contact is with machines and not with humans. What would happen if the internet goes off for one day worldwide, it would be very interesting to see how our societies work without smart devices and see if we are still “smart” without them. Malcolm McCullough called the digital natives “connected but oblivious” which sounded very interesting to me since I see the new generations on a complete change of routine on their daily activities. It is almost as if it wasn’t on the internet it never happened.
    I personally believe that the information and communication technologies are a helpful tool if we know how and when to use them. 5 months ago a terrible earthquake shook Mexico City, leaving lots of people without home and some of them trapped under the remains of what used to be buildings. Many lives got lost, but some of them where rescued safe and sound thanks to the geolocation on their smartphones. Some of them where lucky enough to get a wifi signal and send a message with their exact location. During that time, it was incredible to see how smart devices came to the help of a city full of eagerness to save their own people. The ambiance of the city changed forever opening their doors to a new era of technology where skepticism was left behind.

    The problem is, Are the smart devices always necessary? The fixation of the human to always be connected has changed the definition of privacy. We are overwhelmed with information to the point where we multitask because of the anxiety of producing stuff. It is very interesting to think how smart technologies are going to transform our society and how new generations can embrace the change without many repercussions.

    • Belated thanks for this, Rosa! I appreciate your critique of contemporary social media. I wonder how you might address some of these issues within a historical perspective, which was our focus for last week? Is information overload a new phenomenon? How might communities have used “old” media in times of crisis?

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