March 7: Observing + Operationalizing Spatial Intelligences I: Simulations, Models + Games

For the next three weeks, we’ll be asking: How do we make urban intelligences visible, sense-able, intelligible, operationalizable, measurable, testable, actionable?

Lab: Using the Extrapolation Factory’s Alternative Unknowns method, we’ll model a smart-city disaster scenario: what “old school” intelligences would we have to rely on if our smart city suffered a massive-long-term power outage?

Supplemental Resources: 

Image: Aspen Movie Map | Senseable City Lab

10 Replies

  • The United Arab Emirates notwithstanding, a nation markedly influenced by US military operations, the very American tendency to conflate work and play seems to mirror the desire to “redefine city problems as problems of communication and and information flow” (Light, p. 351). The implementation of gaming as a means to better analyze urban systems and “restore the beauty to urban life” is ambitious; as Alexander Galloway explains in “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”, visualization alone is not always an effective explanatory model in complex datasets. Following this, role-playing with predetermined outcomes is probably not a competent measuring tool for determining solutions to problems in urban living.

    Despite the fact that urban planning and intelligence fields are rife with academics, individuals we tend to regard with a certain distinction, particularly in terms of social awareness, values of self-government and individualism maintain a neoliberal stronghold. This calls attention to Steven Pinker’s contrasting of intelligence and honor, the latter defined as “standing firm as a matter of constitution rather than a rational choice.” It’s interesting how someone working at the intersection of computing, urban renewal, and social justice might admit that operational games were oftentimes “bedeviling” to both government planners and city residents, yet the continued efforts focused on further operationalizing rather than attempting a new paradigm (Light, p. 351).

    • Thanks, Allie! I appreciate the connections you’ve drawn to some of our earlier readings, and to outside texts like Galloway’s. Galloway’s notion of the “unrepresentable” might make us wonder if other non-representational methods might be more appropriate pedagogical techniques. What can play do, what do inhabitable models do, that a “representation” cannot?

  • The ‘simulation’, as Jennifer Light implies, can be decomposed into pure calculation. In some way, the simulation spatializes the calculation, and attempts to introduce enough variables and unknowns to engender uncertain outcomes through which a shining path can be identified. To address in which way the simulation fails to be a model for reality (and of course, there are many) is to miss the point—the simulation exists only to apprehend reality, and I would argue, produce a dialectical relation between itself and reality. To put it simply, don’t confuse the map (however painstakingly expansive it may be) for the territory. All the simulation does is produce familiarity with the modeled scenario, which can be as simple as gaming the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention (Chicago-Chicago!: or as complex and traumatic as “forecasting an atomic blast”.

    The simulation or war game stems out of what Light calls “systems thinking” undertaken during the cold war, and identifies cybernetics as another crucial result of this line of thought. I would like to push back on this slightly if only by saying that the simulation and the cybernetic system operate under 2 completely different conditions: the simulation is predicated on a ‘rupture event’—the point at which business as usual collapses into a distinctly identifiable crisis which must be navigated and ended (see However, cybernetics (even second-order) depends on a relative degree of stasis, of rheostatic control, of smoothly interlocking parts without jagged edges.

    Finally, I want to touch on Orin Halpern’s article “Inhuman Vision”, Anable’s “The Architecture Machine Group’s Aspen Movie Map”, and the changing nature of telemetry/remote vision in light of an article that was published yesterday by Gizmodo ( which points out that Google has provided its TensorFlow machine learning suite to the Pentagon for training image recognition capabilities in participation with a program called Project Maven, which has been in the field since late last year. This represents a massive shift in the discussion of simulation, which has traditionally relied on a sapient process of ‘sorting’ to identify targets and tactics on the battlefield to perceive it as a “responsive environment”. As Halpern notes, this understanding “reconfigured the idea and practices of visuality and cognition in a manner that made perception itself a medium”. The genesis of Maven completes this circuit as perception abandons human operators altogether and sublimates into the machine. Perception becomes a series of images, frames per second, scanned and ingested by TensorFlow brains in order to speed up wartime decision making and thus laminating the experience of battle (even that experienced by a drone operator) into an opaque procedure of matching identified persons to existing target schematics—essentially presenting the brain with a revolving police lineup, a gun, and carte blanche to destroy who matches a predetermined profile.

    • Thanks, Kevin, for all these epistemological provocations! I wonder, though: does the simulation have to be about crisis? I’d also like to hear a bit more about how the TensorFlow / Pentagon partnership is new: haven’t we been using machine vision and automated decision-making in other contexts?

  • what does it mean to simulate the future: the “world fair” – a silent consensus of what the world’s future could be – is the tangential facade to a history of history-making, lead by state interests, in investing the myth of the future. no longer contained to the museum, which told the history of the past anyway, “future agencies” delineate the future based on cybernetic optimizations, cartographic visionaries, market demands. design fiction as the will to shape the future, “while predicting the future is an eternal pursuit, rendering it experiential is a more modern innovation.” (Chayka) [Halpern’s test-bed urbanism / resilient optimism resonates here…]

    in 1900 W.E.B. Du Bois introduced the world to vibrant data visualizations at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. his images traced the afterlife of slavery, depicting various “integrated” relations among black and white American: college enrollment, occupation, property. preceding the modernism that would take place a few years later across the Atlantic, his minimalist-graphed visualizations used the forum of the World’s Fair to dwell on the present life of post-slavery America. 110 years later, at China’s World’s Expo in Shanghai, state imaginations harmonize the future and inseminate the past with a myth of Chinese world-supremacy via encoding the future: the map has replaced the territory. no longer are World Fairs insular events (footnoted musings on the next decade) but simulations that feign a future irresolvable of its past. accordingly, World Fairs mask the fact that reality has disappeared and has been replaced by its own toyotist advertising, cybernetic planning, simulated programming. or as Jennifer Light writes, “new models would be able to reflect the latest information about changes to their analogs in the real world, creating simulations ‘not simply [of] the state of the system at some given time,’ but also of ‘the way the system changes.’” the simulation adheres to tenets of reality, its changing flows, patterns and simulates organic gradients of the future. nothing real will emerge, only continual fabulation on the possibility of the future (evidently impossible in nature) imbued in virtual productivity. at the scene of the world expo (in a country that has always been the repository of the West’s fantasy) nothing discloses more than a simulated present, whereas the border between this artificial insemination and authentic nature has been destabilized.

    It is not surprising that in Kyle Chaykra’s piece, citing Rahel Aima, “Gulf Futurism” is revealed as “the deployment of technology in ‘the proto-fascisms of a society that privileges success and speed over human life.’” proto-fascism and/or late liberalism, both spectral regimes, deploy tropes. somewhere, Emily Apter notes the similarities between Hitler’s “Nuremburg Rally Grounds” (of the 1939 World Fair) and late 20th century futurist architecture. Both of which either project light or metal pillars upwards, encoding futurist precedents vertically.

    architecture, in the interest of the state, is never not obstinate, concrete, foreboding. Enter “Hudson Yards:” where I am told (standing next to Kenneth?) that each individual window costs $20,000. Gulf futurism is, then, thousands of meters of $20,000 windows composed towering porcelain glass “Kingdom Tower” (I read as ‘the tallest building in the world’), protruding the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia landscape, resisting thrashing windstorms, marketed against a desolate landscape – and nothing else. below, of course, lie fantastical sources of Western oil: this is the only future that remains, simulated transparency, carbon copied and sold for royal consumption.

    • Thanks, Leo! I appreciate your drawing these connections between the long history of World’s Fairs and our contemporary “trade expos” — and pointing out that, even outside such exceptional events, our material environments, our architectures, perform similar self-aggrandizing functions.

  • This week’s readings left me reflecting on the uses of games and play for pedagogical purposes and for the sharing of ideas. Jennifer Light’s essay, “Taking Games Seriously,” addressed this subject directly, relaying the development and implementation of the Model Cities games in the 60s and 70s, intended to help urban residents understand and participate in the running of their cities, in collaboration with planners and systems thinkers. The Alternative Unknowns Method and its enactment at the Extrapolation Factory, also offered play and humor as ways for participants and audience members to consider what their urban future might look like in the event of different emergency scenarios. David OReilly’s game Everything combined lighthearted play with the exploration of philosophy (the game’s website describes this philosophy as “both serious and funny, silly and sincere, rational and absurd…Everything’s philosophy is designed to be experienced in all of its parts, and above all to be playful, entertaining and helpful.”).

    All of this reminded me of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal’s “form of theatre where the people becomes active and they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living.” Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the theatre of the oppressed is meant to help people workshop and present ways to work against the oppression they experience in their day-to-day lives. The Theatre is based around play and exploration, and helps make the oppressions of everyday life navigable through collaboration and exploration. The Forum Theatre method, for example, is structured as a game in which participants act out scenes of oppression that they encounter in everyday life and then collaboratively workshop ways to respond to, process, and interfere with these scenarios.

    Boal first conceptualized the Theatre in the 70’s, but it remains popular today, both in Brazil and abroad. This week’s readings have left me thinking about what Boal’s methods can and do look like in the age of the smart city, as well as how Boal’s form of pedagogy will shift as the urban landscape continues to shift as well. In a ‘smart’ future that is meant to be politically neutral, but which ‘privileges success and speed over human life,’ what does play-based response and interference look like? When machine learning software comes to biased conclusions, what does bottom-up human intervention look like? In the landscape of the smart city, how can we effectively politicize play in order to place human life on equal footing with the lure of the future?

    Theatre of the Oppressed info:

    • Thank you, Julia, for drawing these connections to Boal! Let’s talk about this today. And perhaps this might be an interesting area of exploration for your final project? 🙂

  • I found two essays on Aspen Movie Map (AMM) particularly illuminating for each other. While the essay by Aubrey Anable on the AMM provides first a necessary account of the urban and socio-economic contexts in the US which informed the AMM (e.g. suburbanization, racial re-segregation, failure of state’s urban policies, privatisation of urban planning), Orit Halpern’s text builds on that to suggest that the AMM, as with any other demos, needs to be historicized in order for us to denaturalize many of the presentist prejudices embedded into their modeling (“The Trauma Machine”, 65). To which, Anable provides a powerful critique of AMM and other interfaces built to allow the individuals to surf the city without ever leaving their house as “exceedingly fearful and conservative” (515) because it keeps us from encountering any real difference, alterity, chance, etc. (This is why, as Adam Greenfield reminds us, cities need to be thought of as engines of difference.)

    In AMM, the simulated empowerment of the individual is nonetheless performed only within the safespace of a programmed model – which however complex and seemingly infinite, is already prescribed through a series of anticipated and calculated permutations. In short, simulations are differential machines – made up of discrete calculable values and scenarios – but not necessarily that of difference.

    In thinking further about this issue of difference vis-a-vis the differential, I am also reminded of film critic Andre Bazin’s essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” in which he looked to the cinematic work by Italian neorealists, to their long-takes and deep focus of the city, as an antidote to montage editing, to argue that they have “reintroduced ambiguity into the structure of the image.” Bazin believed that cinema presents reality as always already haunted by an uncertainty and unpredictability, always already flickering; always already a moving image. Perhaps we need a re-reading of Bazin’s essay, to see how the city is not just a mere backdrop to his argument, but also an active engine of difference and chance.

    For more on Bazin, cinema, reality, and uncertainty:

    • Great, Kenneth. Thank you! I appreciate your reading these two articles in relation to each other — and highlighting how the texts’ complementarities reveal the importance of difference in urban contexts. How do we model difference, chance, alterity? How can our models account for the fact that cities are themselves “engines” of difference? Excellent questions.

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