My thesis, Anti-Intelligence: A Marxist Critique of the Smart City is now somewhat done and available online.
PDF (and download) available on Academia
Epub download available from Dropbox here
(the following is completely unedited, not intended to be anything other than kind of elaborate notes, and more of a primer on Lefebvrian dialectics than anything noteworthy. Also I wrote it on an airplane on 2 hours of sleep)
This talk is an attempt to solidify ideas I am currently thinking through about the historical character of war, not as teleological escalation but as a contingent social process. This is a talk about history as it moves and is moved by space.
Basically, I begin by rejecting any view which treats war as a special case or interruption of society, economics, and politics. The proposal here—that the character of military fortifications, for example, of a war economy happens and then reverts to peacetime—is ludicrous. War “as event” fundamentally misunderstands the shifting continuum of history, conceiving of it as, usually, a string of moments contributing to unceasing progress which abstractly proceeds on its own. This is a simplistic, turnkey, universal history which seems appropriate because, in the words of Georg Lukács, it is “a simplified presentation that simplifies the problems and solutions themselves, rather than the historical constellations of problems and solutions”. War is always coming, always going, weaving its way through the social totality.
Focusing on military space allows a different angle on the problem. Of course, to think about space, one usually finds themselves at some point looking at Henri Lefebvre, particularly to his concept of abstract space, a representation of space as a universal which is a lodestar of spatial power. Japhy Wilson notes that for Lefebvre, abstraction is “a concrete historical process in which capital accumulation and technocratic rationality—materiality and representation—are dialectically intertwined”. In a spatial sense, abstraction refers both to a sort of universal, Cartesian conception of space, and the concomitant administration of that space as a technocratic plaything. Abstraction, for Lefebvre, is the materialization of alienation. The central figure of alienation within capitalism is the commodity-form, which bends all of modern capitalist life and social activity to its logic. Lukács insists that any commodity of any type “must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects”. (p181-182) (So, when we talk about the commodity, in some sense we are talking about capitalism.) Lefebvre jumps back in to develop the commodity in another arena: “[a]ll Marxist concepts”, he writes in The Production of Space, “are taken to a higher level without any one stage in theory disappearing. The reconsideration of Marxist concepts develops optimally by taking account fully of space”. (So, when we talk about the role of commodity-logic in space, we are talking about abstract space or the attitude of capitalism in space.
The title of this talk—‘devastating memory’—is an allusion to a passage of Lefebvre’s from The Production of Space: “there is a violence intrinsic to abstraction, and to abstraction’s practical (social) use…For abstraction’s modus operandi is devastation, destruction…[t]he violence of abstraction unfolds in parallel with what we call ‘history’…”. Put another way, the devastating memory simultaneously refers to the slow-motion annihilation of life under capitalism as well as reclaiming spatial memory from an indifferent power that sees space as empty substrate. If abstraction contains within it devastation, what is to be made of space which is conceived for the purposes of devastation? This is a peculiar question; one can’t realistically say a space’s usage is ‘military’ in nature, full stop, and expect this to be enough. Military uses can be concrete (this barracks at this base in this country) or may describe, as in the case of this paper, a valence or attitude shared across spaces.
Lefebvre’s spatial framework analogically transfers Marx’s method as elaborated in the Grundrisse: concepts are developed by moving from the “from the abstract to the concrete”. Marx describes his method against both his favorite punching bag “the classical economists” and Hegel. For this talk, I can’t start with abstract space itself and arrive at the concrete realities of space which has become a commodity. This process would take a long time—a book, a career—but luckily Lefebvre has already handled the dirty work. All that remains to do is supply another twist of the knife (by returning to Marx).
Most commentators on Lefebvre address his analogical treatment of space as a simple copying-over of Marx’s analysis of the commodity in the opening pages of the Grundrisse. Marx mentions the idea of “production in general” (20). This “general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations”—basically, this means that though production may be a constant (writers such as Lukács will identify production qua labor as the origin of human social being itself). From production in general, there are the determinations, and from there, a “particular branch of production” (such as agriculture, vehicle manufacturing, being a barista, hauling freight, and so on). This is not a ‘new rung’ or ‘topographical division’ within the dialectical movement from abstract to concrete: the determination is not an object on its own but rather a movement within the method. The determination may be seen as a sort of speciation or heuristic of abstraction in general. What this means in terms of military space is as Edward Thompson wrote about the nuclear bomb in Notes on exterminism, the weapon is “thing of menace…[as well as a] component in a weapon-system”, taking care to understand that “producing, manning, and supporting that system is a correspondent social system”. That social system—that which administers the bomb, the gun, etc.—is the determinant. Feminist critical conflict studies does important work in this arena, exploring the military social system and exposing its violent, patriarchal perpetuation, the reproduction of its social relations left to bloodthirsty imperialists and soldier males.
I would like to focus on two attitudes, among many which begin to define military space. Military space disappears and projects. It hides and it explodes outwards. To attempt to define the contours of military space and its relationship to abstraction, I would like to make a case study of the Endicott fortification system, a distributed coastal defense network on both the East and West coasts of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1885, then-US President Grover Cleveland asked his Secretary of War, William C. Endicott, to create a ‘Board of Fortifications’, tasked with the creation of recommendations to significantly upgrade the United States’ coastal defenses, which had ceased since the 1870s. After the Civil War—in which the bulk of military budget and development had gone into ‘monitor ships’ for river warfare—the United States’ Navy was woefully out of date. Endicott’s report proposed $127 million (or $3.2 billion today) be poured into developing a reticulated system of fortifications and defensive batteries at strategic locations all along the coast of the United States, with a particular focus on urban centers. “The recommendations were enormous and arguably unrealistic, covering 27 locations…[and] including armament, floating batteries, submarine mines, and torpedo boats”.
Endicott’s program was never fully realized, and didn’t truly come into effect until 1890, hitting its stride in 1898 as a response against the Spanish in the Spanish-American War. In 1910, another Board of Fortifications was convened, and the Endicott period was brought to a close. However, the Board under Endicott represented a significant leap forward, both in terms of spatial understanding and technological capacity. The variegated approach the Endicott recommendations took towards coastal defense challenges both military operational procedure and ideas of concrete space. “Seacoast artillery…primarily served at separate harbors, manning varying numbers of batteries with widely differing sizes and number of guns”. There is no concrete aspect which is true for all Endicott fortifications; at the same time, it would be difficult to say it is fully abstract. Rather than a cohesive clockwork structure, coastal defense requires a conceptual acceptance of fluidity.
In many ways, the formal character of the fortifications—commonly, open-roofed concrete depressions surrounded by earthen glacis—was a substrate for the true star of the Endicott modernization: the “large caliber-breech loading artillery”, such as the 12-inch M1895 cannon which sat behind and inside the concrete defenses.
To fortify is to spatialize and technologize logistical knowledge. The foritified position spatializes the social hierarchy of military order by making legible the order in the territory. With respect to the Endicott system, the establishment of the concrete walls establishes the position: high, out of sight, with quite literally a commanding view of the territory. When constructed on a continental scale, we can identify some commonalities between the most disparate military spaces.
Position alone is not enough to truly disappear. Defense must be total when it comes to the military determination of space. This is evident, of course, in the M1895 gun. In its ‘coastal defense’ configuration the M1895 was mounted on an M1896, M1897, or M1901 ‘disappearing carriage’, which allowed the massive bulk of the gun to drop behind its concrete walls, into a hollowed out part of the battery. The nature of the fortification was such that even its offensive emanations must be concealed unless absolutely necessary.
Military disappearance is also a historical phenomenon. The Endicott system lasted until 1910; the M1895 gun in service until 1945. After this, there were two further disappearances. Abstract space’s indifference to usage is present here in a militarily contingent way: with ocean-facing coastal defense obsolesced in favor of air defense, the former forts of the Endicott system undergo a rapid transformation culminating in dissolution. Take, for example, Fort Tilden. After World War II, the coastal guns were retired and Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missiles soon took their place. Other forts disappeared into sprawling peacetime complexes, hidden behind fences and guard posts or under overgrowth.. Before long, even these were made obsolete, superseded by the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles such as the Minuteman III. And even here was a further, dialectically unfolding disappearance: the ICBMs into hardened bunkers, and Fort Tilden into the control of the Park Service. The total indifference of abstract space continues unabated. One may imagine a future in which, for whatever reason, New York may again need coastal defenses, and the seamless transition the parks may make back to a hardened—which is to say, disappearing—military emplacement. This is the conditionality of abstract space: there is no condition at all. There is only abstraction’s “devastating conquest of the lived by the conceived”.
Disappearance is paired with projection. This appears concretely as the projection of force—a military term which means exactly what it sounds like. The Endicott system fortifications display this acutely—they are designed to make the here everywhere. The weaponry guns alone which each fortification wielded allowed for the projection force as much as 9 miles beyond its walls. Projection of force is inherently a colonial spatial practice, which allows for the explosion of a territory beyond its natural borders. The bounded character of military fortification obtains an annunciatory power that goes beyond the materiality of the weapon and into an institution. Projection entails an expansion of the rational logics of the military power prior to the construction of any structure or the placement of any gun. The area within the gun’s reach becomes oceanic—treated as flat and infinite, a projection on a map—and the oceanic becomes naturalized as the targeting field. The gun reorganizes space around it, in polar rays stretching out from the mouth of the gun; war space is not geometric but volumetric. At the same time, the flat sea requires projection upwards the arcing shot, the orbital strike, the fort on the bluff above the waves to use the infinite plain to its fullest extent. Space itself must take on strange, non-cadastral directions—a volume whose perfect 3D grid is interrupted only by the languid arcs of falling shells.
military space—not a new representation of space but a spatial practice (that is, of the triad) which occurs in, but does not diminish, the tendencies of abstraction (which are informed by the application of knowledge and power). To both appear and disappear, to become massive and shrink to nothing, is dialectical—it is about negation, and the negation of the negation. It is hard to separate the two: disappearance enables projection, and projection (keeping enemies at bay) makes disappearance all the more useful.
Not about supplying specificity to the overall condition of abstraction, but rather an attempt to describe two attitudes which abstraction may be thought of as having
The precise relationship of the determination with both the abstract and the concrete remains something I am unsure of.
The city has long been a repository for the worst excesses of ideological sycophancy. We are cursed with nearly infinite examples of metaphorical form: the city is a system (Nick Land, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Sam Palmisano), the city is defined by flows (Eric Swyngedouw, Maria Kaika, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari), the city is an organic or human body (Patrick Geddes, Jose Luis Sert), as a computer (Paul Fedries, Sidewalk Labs), along with countless other novel (sub-)characterizations. It is unclear whether these contribute to or a reaction against sociology’s ambiguity about what a city actually is: is it to be defined spatially (as, quite literally, a bounded space riven with infrastructure), demographically (in terms of population density), municipally (if it’s called a city, it’s a city), or some combination of the three? These themes are well beyond the scope of this thesis to discuss; however it is important to note the epistemically messy arena into which the smart city enters.
Of these, it is perhaps the identification of the city with the body that has the most staying power—likely by virtue of the fact that its example is most vivid and ready to hand. The conceptualization appears in extended form in Plato’s Republic, in the famous analogy of the city and the soul: “The same account of justice must apply to both cities (justice is the right order of classes) and to individuals (justice is the right order of the soul)”. The body was, throughout antiquity, a model of the order of nature and a reflection of the impeccable logic of the cosmos: thus Plato’s “demand that the city be unified is identical to the demand that the body and its extensions” and as such “the soul is a unity in diversity and is strictly parallel to the city”. The city must correspond, in the Republic, to both moral and physical perfection of the body and the soul.
What then is to be made of Benjamin Bratton’s statement that the city to come is arriving, right now, and that it will appear as an “insane sentient garment” which is even now in production? “This clothing,” he tells us, “combines different kinds of artificial intelligence, embedded industrial sensors, very noisy data, tens of millions of metal and cement machines in motion or at rest, billions of handheld glass-slab computers, billions more sapient hominids, and a tangle of interweaving model abstractions of inputs gleaned from the above”. All told, this composes what Bratton refers to as a McLuhanesque prosthetic skin, a metaphorical universalization of the “largest sensory organ” of the human body. Technology surrounds and ensconces the body, stitching the contours of the flesh and the morphology of the city tighter until they are inseparable. It is worth noting here the similarities in Bratton’s metaphor of choice to a metaphor of technology present in Sigmund Freud, Marshall McLuhan, and Ernst Jünger: technology as a raiment of immense power—the prosthesis of divinity itself, extending the capacities of the human until they become godlike. What else could be the purpose of Bratton’s concatenated swirl of technological apparatus and flesh?
Of course, Bratton’s piece is not intended to be strictly a paean to techno-sensorial extension; his focus is (at least intended to be) urban in character. The city is a metaphor for life itself, for the materialization of lived experience. Specifically, he is speaking about the smart city—though he himself disagrees. He labels the skin-city-garment the “plasmic city”, which (in his view) differs from a smart city. The plasmic city, in his telling disrupts “cycles of residence, work, [and] entertainment of earlier eras” whereas the smart city only reifies these cycles in the service of “municipal omniscience and utility optimization”. While I agree with his sentiment—that the smart city stands to provide a technological glamer to traditional patterns of wealth accumulation, biopolitical domination, and force projection—Bratton can only realistically separate his plasmic city by invoking a limp, toothless political dimension which is neutered in its powers and has its scope arrested at the municipal level. If cities and their inhabitants were free, “rational actors” adrift upon the surface of the earth (if they were desiring-machines, manned by Turbo-Bessacines and Cyber-Gideons), he would be correct. But when actual politics becomes a consideration, the plasmic city loses its distinction from its smart cousin: what is controlling his subject-skin? By twisting it like a mobius strip (“A person is not only a Virtruvian actor at some phenomenological core who wears the city; he or she is worn as well. We are also the skin of what we wear”), Bratton tries hard to evade the questions of ownership, control, production, rehearsing a utopian cyberpunk non-political libertarianism which the freedom to share or accept information stands in for actual freedom. Skin becomes a technological platform, made up of “components and sub-components across applications”. Who owns that platform, and what are their intentions? What good is it to me that I wear and am worn by the city if our tangled skins are nevertheless held bunched in the collective fist of the old bourgeois masters, same as they have always been? How curious that liquification takes place through the addition of solidity, through an avalanche of ever more discrete sensorial artifacts!
The plasmic city prioritizes the total technologicization of urbanism above and beyond standard conceptualizations of the smart city. Bratton is a devotee of the Cult of the Black Box. In his (widely espoused) view, technology is a transhistorical force with empirical basis, and behaves gyroscopically across all of society to correct and re-orient towards progress. All that remains for us to do is to offer ourselves up for participation.
The plasmid city offers a fashionable reproach to critics (such as myself) who would perhaps detect in his pleas for greater technocratic extension mere libertarian ‘disruptionalism’ wearing an ethically vetted uniform. Bratton shifts the conversation from semio-technic music to a discussion of greater democracy by invoking the possibility of alternative “intelligences” that inhabit the plasmid city. “The presumption that of all the information-rich entities in the world,” Bratton admonishes, “the hominid brain should be the primary if not exclusive seat from which prostheses of AI would extend is based in multiple misrecognitions of what and where intelligence is. In such a circumstance, intelligence does not only radiate from us into the world, it already is in the world, and in the form of information (which is form) it is the world”. Bratton updates von Neumann by claiming not only will things self-replicate, but that they deserve citizenship by virtue of their capability of world-sensing and thus information-processing. Which is on the face of it, a fine preposition—and one I can’t particularly say that I disagree with. But what is the point? Do these non-hominid intelligences exist? Will they anytime soon? Bratton is not interested, rather preferring to espouse an agonistic Lebensphilosophie with the intention of making his argument purely ethical: ‘these fantastic chimeras’, he seems to say, ‘must at the same time be our equals’. Nowhere is it discussed that the only entities which would give us these are the economic and political institutions of the market and the state, and thus his non-hominid intelligences are just as flawed, if not the aggregate of all flaws, of the hominids themselves (one can’t help think of ‘corporate citizens’). Bratton’s individualism (here couched in democracy) is complete. Consider Lukács’ words to the ‘ethical’ socialists of his day:
“For the individual, whether capitalist or proletarian…the world can only be understood by means of a theory which postulates ‘eternal laws of nature’. Such a theory endows the world with a rationality alien to man and human action can neither penetrate nor influence the world if man takes up a purely contemplative and fatalistic stance.”
Bratton bends away from this accusation slightly. Instead of stating bluntly that the world is endowed with alien rationality, he proposes that at one day it should and might be, adopting a view to nature that may be more analogous with the maxim “if nature is unjust, change nature!” from the Xenofeminist Manifesto by Laboria Cuboniks, or a techno-centric wrinkle to Donna Haraway’s famous invitation to participate in “kin-making” or “kinning” (“kinship as a non-genealogical mode of relation that is based on response-ability and becoming-with, extending beyond Anthropos and humanist accounts of relationality”). He combines this with vitalism, smuggled in through the apolitical avenue of individual ethics which reimagines humanity as a lost particle drifting in a hostile, Hobbesian world. The plasmid city is a solipsism run amok, dressed in the thin tatters of radical self-knowledge (empirical vs. experiential) and the long-overdue attention in academia paid to the value of indigeneity and folkways. It mutates these genuine political concerns into a caricature.
Bratton performs a similar colonial compulsion: by demanding the extension of citizenship to as-yet-unseen non-hominid intelligences, his plasmid city is ordered as anti-politics: struggle is over, the politics will come later, and only then as the maximalization of communication. At the risk of being crass, maybe it is telling that Bratton analogically uses an unpigmented ‘skin’ as his sensorial organ of choice. The human race are trammeled into simple ‘hominids’ (a loose amalgamation of individuals with class, racial, gendered etc. identities removed) in order to be foreclosed on as a political subject. Plasmid city politics is for the new humans, and our job, according to Bratton, is to construct their agora. His declaration that the “hominid brain” must be cast down from prominence is an insidious political statement designed specifically in order to avoid answering whether that brain belonged to the oppressor or the oppressed, the colonizer or the colonized, and so on. His demand for an explosion of diversity first requires the collapse of existing diversity into a single monolith. It is only then, from a eugenic foundation, he can state his maxim: ‘If humanity must be dethroned to preserve the linearity of order, then so be it.’
Bratton’s plasmid city speaks, as I mentioned, to an as-yet ambiguous idea of urban improvement called the smart city. The smart city is still ambiguous because, despite toasts to its arrival, it has yet to appear—either as a new construction or as is more likely, a retrofit and uplift of an existing urban environment. It, just as much as Bratton’s ‘smart city to come’ or plasmid city, is first and foremost a utopian dream, an illusion of grandeur, a wish from the mind of a technocrat. As I mentioned, despite Bratton’s insistence on the difference between his plasmid city and the smart city, they are in fact modes of the same contemplative core, and the proponents of smartness set out with the plasmid city in mind at the end; the plasmid city is, in a sense, the smart city’s own future, representing the point at which it becomes total. The goal of the smart city is to totally command communication as such, and further to command everyday life. The city as it stands provides a template, but it must be modified extensively; life itself needs to change. That change will happen at the behest of a technological regime; and that the city is to be considered not as the site of anything but as terra nullius ready to receive a future politics.
The smart city, politically speaking, tries to insinuate itself into urban-municipal democratic processes, offering to make city running a question of management, to allow greater transparency, of to furnish better communication between residents, agencies, and services. In the plasmid city, the skin of technocommunication is the omega point of these tendencies (I get the idea that in this context total-communication is intended to terminate democratic participation as such). Further, the focus on technology, ecology, or democracy as their own transhistorical forces pushes the struggle out of the real city, away from the social-material realities of class, race, gender, and other prejudices. By chattering in pseudo-democratic language, the brutal relations experienced today are buried as much as possible under illusory calls for a fuller agonism. In this framework, power is reformulated as technical achievement, freedom as bandwidth, communication as the only imperative. It is an illusory position buttressed by science fiction technology let loose in an apolitical, experimental environment. These, when taken together, constitute a materialism not of the world but of a fever dream. Nothing more.
Manuel Castells is perhaps Daniel Bell’s most forceful and celebrated acolyte—sharing with Bell a youthful Marxism that soured into inveterate liberal sycophancy and led to wide fame. At the time of the publication of the first (and most universally lauded) book of his seminal The Information Age trilogy of books, The Rise of the Network Society (note the structural parallels with Bell’s title), Castells was hailed not just for a new theoretical approach, but for reigniting sociology altogether: in a particularly fawning review, William Anderson notes critical reception has treated Castells as single-handedly saving sociology, leading to a “rebirth of sociology in its grand classical tradition” and saving the “queen of the sciences” from its state of “free fall”. He cites giants of the discipline such as Anthony Giddens, who claim that Castells’ work deserves to be hagiographically slotted in along the work of Max Weber and Karl Marx (comparing it directly to Weber’s landmark Economy and Society!), and makes further note of the extension of Castells’ work outside the academy, appearing in the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.
It is difficult at this juncture to not return to Thomas R. Bates’ discussion of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony and the role of hegemonic intellectuals, wherein “Civil society is the marketplace of ideas, where intellectuals enter as “salesmen” of contending cultures. The intellectuals succeed in creating hegemony to the extent that they extend the world view of the rulers to the ruled, and thereby secure the “free” consent of the masses to the law and order of the land” [emphasis mine]. Perhaps there is no better way to characterize Castells; similar to the way in which Bell proffered an escape route from the 1970s crisis, Castells repackages ruling class ideology as novel by trimming the dross and blunting the theoretical edge of capitalism’s weapons—all the while presenting himself as a proponent an European social-democratic ‘sober’ neo-, post-, non- or whatever x-Marxism which claims to have transcended Marxism, to have grown up and settled down. Anderson, though writing from a conservative-libertarian position, nevertheless is incisive in the question he poses to Castells: “does he simply peddle the same old sociology with a techno-twist that appeals to the new suburban bourgeoisie and to an academia fatigued by the pointlessness of postmodern scholarship?”
To the structure of Castells’ argument. Though it is remarkably similar to the sketch of the post-industrial society as offered by Bell, perhaps the strength of The Information Age is its employment of a vulgar Marxist sociology in order to give credence to its arguments. Where one gets the impression that Bell was writing a much more pragmatic, transductive text, Castells, writing two decades on, obtains the benefit of being enmeshed within the surface changes that Bell predicted. Commentator Frank Webster nicely summarizes Castells’ arguments across his landmark trilogy: firstly, that we live under the auspices of a “new structure of stratification” which centralizes “informational labour”, thus killing off both the ruling and the working classes of old—beginning, similar to Bell, with a claim that capitalism is dead. But Castells departs from this position to claim that what is actually at work within the post-industrial information age is the arrival of what he terms the “informational mode of development”, to be contrasted with the previous industrial mode. In Castells’ own words, the mode of development accompanies the Marxist mode of production, arising from the “the use of the means of production by the application of energy and knowledge”. To elaborate, “modes of development are the technological arrangements through which labor works on matter to generate the product, ultimately determining the level and quality of surplus”.
The mode of development, despite its courting of Marxist terminology and reliance upon Marxist concepts for its realization, nevertheless immediately is employed in order to define Castells’ supposed post-industrial, world-historical shift. He first establishes a largely agreed upon succession of temporal stages: first there was the agrarian mode of development, and secondly the industrial. He then continues: “In the new, informational mode of development,” Castells writes, “the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing, and symbol communication”. Further, he specifies that the informational mode of development derives wealth not from, as it did in the industrial mode, the “introduction of new energy sources, and in the ability to decentralize the use of energy throughout the production and circulation processes”, but in “the action of knowledge upon knowledge itself”.
This statement possesses a completely circular, tautological logic. By defining the mode of development as a feature over and above the mode of production, as aggregative of production in total, Castells is able to make what appears to be an airtight case that we have proceeded to a new age. His approach diminishes labor, industrial and otherwise, in favor of the category of “knowledge” which is simultaneously capable of taking action upon itself. What is the character of this action? In what way can his knowledge-subject perform upon its twinned knowledge-object? Castells labels this action “informational processing” which, in a “virtuous circle” is focused solely upon the improvement of the “technology of informational processing”. Later, he clarifies further: “the products of new information technology industries are information-processing devices or information processing itself”. Though he does not mention the concept, the formulation of knowledge working on knowledge takes off from Castells’ reification of Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” as developed in the Grundrisse.
Castells’ information age is, apparently, defined by a developmental mode freed from, if not material constraints altogether, than from the messy requirements of energy. In his cosmogeny, the passage from the industrial to the informational is contingent on the replacement of the primacy of energy in production with the primacy of autopoetic knowledge. Does this hold true? Of course not. One only needs to turn to recent discussions of fracking, the Keystone Pipeline, or various alternative energy technologies to see that energy concerns remain at the very heart of the production process. Further, to take Castells’ own technological considerations to heart, there is the problem that information does not come from anywhere; it cannot perform an “action” on itself without the energy investiture of existing and new networks of extraction and circulation. The energy expenditure of the internet, for example, was estimated in 2016 to be 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year, and has doubtlessly risen since. Castells’ insistence that knowledge is a demiurgic force—that inexplicably, wealth can be generated from nothing, from the mind itself—completely disregards the enormous consumption required to sustain the informational arena. That aforementioned 70 billion kwh is equivalent to the combined output of 8 nuclear power plants or double (as of 2016) the United States’ solar energy capacity. And, let’s not forget that energy generation is matched at the other end of the process by emissions: by 2020, it is projected that the energy usage of the combined internet will account for 3.5% of the world’s emissions, projected for a rise to 14% by 2040. In what is perhaps a further twist of the knife, the total combined power usage of bitcoin is projected to reach 48.16 terawatt-hours this year. Castells’ world of knowledge, the reaching of heaven through techno-brilliant autopoesis, cannot disentangle itself from energy and thus the sticky realities of the material, the infrastructural, the industrial. Informational-wealth is simply a clever sleight of hand, a wink and a trick, a wry twist of industrial-wealth into “something else” which wears an illusory “uniform” to obscure its character.
This is not to make a specific ecological argument against Castells; to do so would take too long. The intention here is simply to note that Castells, despite his Marxist pretentions, trips over himself as he rushes to hold his technocratic standard aloft. The new regime of total disintegration, in which knowledge consistently refines and reproduces itself in a technological manner, cannot be extracted from industrial mode of production by his own admission. His claim that energy concerns, that the messy tactility of the industrial mode of development, falls apart based on its own foundational principles. If the informational mode of development exists, it in no way can be claimed to be outside or apart from the industrial mode which has not been sublated or relegated in any way to history. The old, creaking industrial armature selectively enables informational development only as a particular, highly isolated aspect of what we may perhaps call a higher stage of industrial development; it represents a particular method of harnessing industrial surplus and externalizing not just its basal accumulations but also, by way of a vulgar “cyberspace ideology”, the entirety of the surplus altogether. Much as Europe constructed itself through a primitive accumulation which it has rendered invisible, knowledge qua knowledge colonizes industry, which is to say it colonizes labor, and proclaims that which sustains it effectively dead, or to have retreated from the world-historical stage. If Castells’ argument is at all relevant, it is only insofar as it describes the contingent historical development of today’s (petit) bourgeoisie—which have become “workers of the immaterial intellect”. In contrast, according to a recent paper on post-austerity Greece, 75% of surveyed households trade other essentials in order to have adequate heat in winter months.
It is clear that Castells’ network society is a reified fiction with no bearing on reality, outside of an exclusive coterie which he (again strip-mining the Marxist lexicon) refers to as the entrepreneurial class of knowledge workers, the masters of the new economy, those “manager-technocrats who “control” but do not “own” the means of production”. In effect, Castells resurrects Louis-Auguste Blanqui and his conspiratorial view on social change, in which a small and utterly devoted cadre would function as the vanguard party in making revolution for the entire working class. Castells would like to think his knowledge workers likewise do the same for all of humanity, sweeping both proletariat and bourgeoisie into the dustbin of history or metamorphosing elements of them into his controlling “white collar” class. This argument is not as novel as Castells would perhaps like it to be. His argument bears a startling similarity to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of labor intrinsic to the industrial form. “Taylorism” is defined by, among other things, the “decisive separation of a knowledgeable management from a knowledge-less workforce….of mental from manual labor”. Durkheim, likewise, notes that in the industrial division of labor, the individual is “no longer anything but an inert piece of machinery, only an external force set going which always moves in the same direction and in the same way”.
Durkheim hoped that the proletarian condition of machine-life was merely a transitory feature and the alienation then experienced was merely a transitional moment in the general development of the division of labor. Castells merely introduces a third pseudo-class by separating the powers of ownership and steersmanship over the means of production, leaving the first to the capitalist grand bourgeoisie and assigning the second to his informational class of petty bourgeoisie. All he has done is he has made the division of labor unworkable, has deepened the existing divisions until he can break the classes apart altogether and capitalist society itself disintegrates into the Castellian space of the network.
The Network Society offers soothsaying to the petit, or petty, bourgeoisie, who have found themselves utterly transformed, and attempts to be a travel guide to a class swept along a path which they do not understand. Lukács understood this was their station in history: “The petty bourgeoisie will only be able to play an active role in history as long as these objectives happen to coincide with the real economic interests of capitalism”. This pseudo-class casts about for clarification on its position, scared as it is, and finds the objects of its sycophancy (the “grand bourgeois”) mute and strangely powerless. “The position held by the capitalist class,” Lukács clarifies, referring to the whole and unreconstituted bourgeois class without Castells’ illusory distinction, “and the interests which determine its actions ensure that it will be unable to control its own system of production even in theory”. There is not a soul that isn’t flying blind—the market remains chaotic, despite the much-needed injection of ‘knowledge’. Castells tries desperately to offer sense, an emergent logic, to the latest permutation of an inherently unstable system, and at the end is in fact able to do so—but only at reality’s expense. He must first redefine society, must establish the precise, contingent conditions in which his sociology works and offers a scientific assessment of society. In so doing, Castells employs the same shadowy trick which Lukács identifies almost 80 years earlier: “They seek refuge in the methods of natural science, in the way in which science distills ‘pure’ facts and places them in the relevant contexts by means of observation, abstraction and experiment”. An abstraction which becomes a tautology: the network society, founded on the principles Castells lays out, of course conforms perfectly to his supposedly empirical assessment. This is only by virtue of his ability to command and define the limits of the experimental field, which he claims is world-historical society but is in fact an economic pseudo-class. “The ‘pure’ facts of the natural sciences arise when a phenomenon of the real world is placed (in thought or in reality) into an environment where its laws can be inspected without outside interference. This process is reinforced by reducing the phenomena to their purely quantitative essence. to their expression in numbers and numerical relations”.
What does post-industrial mean? Of course, answering this question requires first answering what industrial means, but this does not tell the entire story. I will concern myself solely with the post-industrial, as in it I identify something of a semiotic container which contains subsequent periodizations and proposed epochal shifts of a socio-technological nature: the Information Age, the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Digital (or Third) Industrial Revolution, semiocapitalism/cognitive capitalism, surveillance capitalism, and the Anthropocene, to name just a few. (If there’s one thing to be sure of, the declaration of new historical eras seems to be profitable for one’s academic prospects, if nothing else.) It is my position that the declaration of the post-industrial necessarily preconditions or is isomorphic with all the above epochal shifts in that it is a subject without an object, a form without an object, a fabricated truth that attempts in the first instance to provide handholds and propulsive force to the societal totality. It is worth noting here that the only thing that can be said to discursively challenge this expansive definition of the post-industrial in terms of planetary-historical ramifications may be neoliberalism—which, I will argue later, effectively can be viewed as the political-bourgeois manifestation of a post-industrial weltanschauung insofar it is isolable at all. And above it all, the post-industrial age is itself a phantasm, just another tactic of capital’s spectacular tendency towards naturalization (particularly, post-industrialism’s insistence on its own Pyrhhic victory, making is so “old debates about capitalism and socialism are increasingly irrelevant”), and a specific reaction to political unrest and the collapse of the Euro-American economic base. (Lasch 1973) However, I will use the term—though with some distaste, and for the purposes of analysis only.
Even in the triumphalist, reactionary circles which spawned post-industrialism as process/product, there is significant disagreement with the specifics of the post-industrial age: when it began, what it entails, and so on. That said, Daniel Bell’s 1974 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is largely taken to be the touchstone of this new designation, and Bell as its prophet, having popularized Alain Touraine’s phrase from a few years prior. Bell’s sketch of post-industrialism’s anticipated social form has some generic features, including the change “from a goods-producing economy to a service economy, the centrality of theoretical knowledge for innovation, the change in the character of work, from a game against nature and a game against fabricated nature to a game between persons”. In the face of this description, Bell’s caveat that “A post-industrial society cannot provide a transcendent ethic….” almost goes without needing to be said. I follow from Christopher Lesch’s assertion, in his review of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society for The New York Review of Books, that Bell’s declaration of the dawn of the post-industrial age is ageless, predicated on not just various other thinkers but also Bell’s own essays predating his book by 15 years. Of course, the novelty of Bell’s work is not at stake. What is, however, of immense importance, is the fact that the concept of the post-industrial has come not to inform but to dominate: power functions in a post-industrial manner, bearing in mind Marx’s statement that theory which gains material form by gripping the masses. However, in a grotesque perversion, the masses are made to dance, as ever, to the steps provided by an elite that styles itself as post-industrial: post-industrialism, along with any epochal designation more broadly, does not exist outside the minds and actions of power. Beyond any discussions of the service economy, innovation, or development of work’s character, it is simply a social-economic relation—specifically one of hierarchical power.
By choosing to remain oblivious to both the primacy of social-economic relations insofar as they constitute the totality of society, Bell could not help himself but to “rebel” (if you could call it that) against what he perceived as the monomyths of both a vulgarized Marxist “econocentricism” and a functionalist-positivist moral standard. “Marxists,” Bell wrote, “believe that the society is unified through the mode of production; functionalists believe that society is integrated through a common value system. Neither view, I believe, is adequate to explain certain contradictions in contemporary society”. Bell positions his own account of the disunity of society specifically against Lukács’ totality, as an alternative view, thus begging the question (where did the perceived atomization come from?) and then seeking to plot out the ramifications of a social metaphysic of his own construction.
Bell placing his own account of the post-industrial in relation to the totality opens up a particularly withering line of critique by Lukács from History and Class Consciousness, bound up in his own definition of what the totality is—a heuristic by which to observe and comprehend the fitful interaction and laws of motion of capitalist society in toto. To begin, Lukács draws out Marx’s statement: “The relations of production of every society form a whole”. This is also where Bell begins, and which he turns aside in favor of a fitful plurality defined by contradiction (it is to Bell’s paltry credit that he can detect these). Lukács goes on, admitting that “This dialectical conception of totality seems to have put a great distance between itself and reality, it appears to construct reality very ‘unscientifically’”. However, the unscientific appearance of the totality is only when juxtaposed against bourgeois “royal science”: “The rightness of this view [of the totality] only emerges with complete clarity when we direct our attention to the real, material substratum of our method, viz. capitalist society with its internal antagonism between the forces and the relations of production [emphasis mine].”
So—Lukács’ totality is not a monomyth at all, but rather a method by which to collapse the above and the below, the macro and the micro, into a subject of analysis which nevertheless does not eliminate contradiction so as to construct a closed, teleological system. Bell’s own claim that Post-Industrial Society is an attempt to reckon with “changes in the social structure” falls flat, as by his own admission that, yes, his analysis comes with gaping holes and contradictions of its own. (When pressed on his claim that the promotion of knowledge to a primary role in production characterizes post-industrial society and thus “makes the university a central site” fails to take into account geopolitical intelligence regimes such as the CIA, he can only say that “there are many devils in a devilish world, but those kitchen sinks belong in another room, and please keep them there”. It is here that the true value of the totality becomes clear, as a method of working with and through contradiction. What in Bell’s fetishistic science appears as the limit of its logic and a space in which the goalposts must be moved back could be and in fact is resolved easily by an understanding of the totality as a gestalt. Contradictions are not overwhelmed or transcended; contradictions belong to the nature of capitalist reality. These contradictions are constantly shifting and transitory—they are themselves conditional to the particular, peculiar logic of capitalism itself.
By synthesizing his post-industrial framework, Bell has made an ideological argument that not only seeks to provide a gloss for capitalism’s inherently contradictory structure, but further performs a crude sleight of hand by admitting that capitalism’s relations are conditional (in a vulgar theodicy: industrialism is dead, long live capitalism!) while at the same time promising that capitalism in itself is “predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason”. Post-industrialism, in Bell’s view, happened to capitalism—not the other way around; it reigns supreme, indomitable, and the most Bell can humbly do is take its pulse and try to paper over its excesses and its crises. Thus, the problem of accumulation and the annihilation of urban fixed capital in the 60s and 70s becomes a promising pivot towards a world in which neither matters, where value can be conjured out of thin air.
 (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)
 (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)
 (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)
 The Poverty of Philosophy
 (Lukács n.d.)
Langdon Winner’s widely-cited essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” is perhaps a perfect example of what Georg Lukács would identify as a wholly bourgeois approach to the interaction of technology and society. Winner’s piece means well, but remains fundamentally blinkered by a worthy progressivist veneer that nevertheless cannot conceal a “bourgeois, contemplative materialism” inseparable from “the classical economics with which it is so closely bound up”, resigned forever to merely express “the antagonisms of capitalist society and the intractability of its problems when conceived in its own terms”. Winner, for his part, attempts to play both sides: pitting Marx and Engels against each other on the question of technology’s effect on the organization of social (and particularly productive) relations, but at the same time speaking to a rosy view of the future as a choice between nuclear or solar power, and never mentioning capitalism by name—not even once!
Winner’s piece seems to be the type of writing that, if I had read it a year or two ago, would have absolutely floored me. His approach is clear and his arguments seem lucid, nearly indomitable (an opinion shared by the Wikipedia editor of his article who writes that “criticisms [of Winner] are often narrowly focused upon particular cases in Winner’s essays, the height of the bridges built by Robert Moses on the Long Island Parkway, for example, and tend to overlook his general arguments about the interweaving of political institutions and technological devices”. However, Winner suffers from the aforementioned inability to escape the formulation of capitalism’s problems within its own terms.
Returning to Lukács’ essay “Technology and Social Relations” is illustrative in showing how Winner’s argument, while persuasive, is founded on capitalism’s foundation. As Lukács critiques Bukharin throughout the essay, he slowly explicates not just Bukharin’s failures to accurately situate technology within society but a wider problem of technology in general. “All economic or ‘sociological’ phenomena“, Lukács writes, “derive from the social relations of men to one another. Emphasis on a false ‘objectivity’ in theory leads to fetishism”. Winner commits the same error Bukharin does: both “find the underlying determinants of society and its development in a principle other than that of the social relations between men in the process of production” and thus give to technology a “far too determinant position” which, in Bukharin’s own terms (cited by Lukács) “every given system of social technique determines human work relations as well”. In this model, technique (or technological development) determines society itself. Technology becomes, like nature, an abstract, transcendental constant, “over and above” social relations. Though Lukács does not, of course, dispute that technology “retroactively influences the productive forces”, what is at issue here is both Winner’s and Bukharin’s mistake of placing those same productive forces at some remove above technology itself. In Winner’s quest to “take seriously” (always an injunction to maturity with these people!) the technological artifact, he makes a foundational mistake, which Lukács finds to be exactly the problem of the artifact (and specifically, the undialectical character of a new artifact qua progress), which he identifies within a general stream of productive “technique” as a dangerous focus on erroneous figures as opposed to the actually important ground, on the “undissolved quiddity (unaufgelöster Dinghaftlichkeit) and false ‘objectivity’” of the object as opposed to the truth of technology as subjected to socio-economic relations, or labor.
Winner identifies his approach as both technological and political. “The theory of technological politics,” he explains, “draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems, to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives”. At no point does he explain what those imperatives are, or to ask who is giving them. Later, Winner continues: “societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over a very long time”. How do societies choose? Though Winner is not shy about pointing out, say, the role of a mechanical harvester in destroying agricultural communities, he seems incapable of stating the obvious: societal choice is not undertaken consensually, it is not something that we, as a civilization, are all grasping towards with each other’s best interests in mind. Winner spends some time adopting the tone of the scold, the dour academic Marxist, wherein Winner (in caricature) undertakes a separation of the economic and political in order to establish a “Marxist” view in which everything is suborned to the economic and therefore allowing Winner the wherewithal to properly and “maturely” get down to brass tacks. We should not give Winner any credit here: in his attempt to carve off the economic from the political, he then entreats us to imagine a political object: Robert Moses’ bridges, for example, intentionally designed as too low to admit buses under them. Winner writes:
“Automobile-owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them, would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not get through the overpasses. One consequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’s widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach.”
He then comes so close to diagnosing the problem—”Moses’s social-class bias and racial prejudice”—without asking the question he himself asks earlier. Why does Moses have these biases, why was he able to put them into action? If society is determining its technological future, why did we not all roll up our sleeves and put a stop to this?
I’ll end this post with the blunt answer: Winner is a bourgeois theorist, and as such, eliminates questions of class as a universal in order to readmit it as a particular.
In this talk, I’d like to ask a simple question: in what ways does the smart city differ from the city as it is has appeared throughout history? By using the work of Lefebvre, Halpern, Lukacs, and others, I will offer a provisional answer. Following this, I will then seek to sketch out a loose future history of the smart city, in which the utopian dream gives way to the nightmare of weaponized intelligence, endocolonization, and inter-urban war.
The smart city breaks down into several threads that are militated towards the construction of a cohesive grand narrative, or an ideology of intelligence. This ideology constructs itself along three axioms: the economic, the political, and the spatial.
Let’s begin with the economic character of the smart city. Cities, free market proponents love to point out, are massive economic engines. The city as we’ve known it in Europe and the United States has historically been presented as an industrial center, and therefore the home of industrial labor. An individual laborer is not an artisan, but rather occupies a discrete point in the overall continuum of production. The laborer’s contribution to production is not measured in material produced but in time given, or quite literally, labor-time expended in the production of commodities. The technological innovation of the clock allows for a revolutionary control of production at the point the human enters the process. These commodities are then sold and used in a process we will refer to as consumption.
The arrival of the ‘smart city’ may prove to be similarly inversionary. The ‘first wave’ of the smart city in which we currently find ourselves appears in the form of sensors and highly specialized instrumentation—water and air quality analyzers, smart lightbulbs, fitness trackers, digital assistants, and so on. These devices are important in their ability to track personal consumption—how much energy, how many calories, how many opportunities. The tracking of consumption is now possible down to the merest quanta. It is in this basic premise that the smart city begins to take shape.
Jennifer Gabrys and Shannon Mattern open up a possible line of thought with their identification that increasingly tighter control of consumption is not something that happens to citizens, but a predicate to being considered a citizen in general. “Computational materializations distribute power through urban spaces and processes”, Gabrys writes.
Citizenship as a question of identification—who belongs and who does not. In this formulation, those who belong are those who are computational. Friends are interlinked, that is, they offer up their data. Enemies are those outside the network. The mediation of consumption appears to those in power as the ability to more acutely monitor behavior. There is not so much a question of “who is the smart city for?”—we know the answer to that already. The real question is, “what is the smart city doing for power?” What does it mean, as in the case of Zaha Hadid Architects’ newly announced project outside Moscow, that the designers claim to have investigated “happiness” as a design principle?
The person-citizen, happy or not, dissolves away in the smart city, replaced by quanta—an assemblage of sensors and data inputs that circumscribe the sum total of actions and effects that person has. Consider Sidewalk Labs’ ad copy: “By combining people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, we can achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” The “people” are the ostensible “center” of this statement, but they are not the subject—they are a vehicle to “people-centered design”. The person is only an emptyness around which the objects and data of smart city are set in motion. This is a crucial turn: subjecthood devolves from people to prostheses. Smartness begins by locating the citizens’ inputs and outputs and then amputating them. As a result, the citizen is alienated from themselves. As Lukacs notes: “rational mechanization extends right into the worker’s ‘soul’: even [their] psychological attributes are separated…into specialized rational systems and their reduction to statistically viable concepts”. The age of the smart city is, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “life in the time of hell”, wherein the human is surrounded with and luxuriates in the instruments of their own tortured dispossession.
Don’t count on hearing this anywhere, of course. The great mystification of the smart city is not politics, but ecology as achieved through technological efficiency. Orit Halpern succinctly states that “…sensor-based ubiquitous computing across urban infrastructures and mobile devices [will be used] to achieve greater sustainability”. If economics, as discussed previously, is the means of the smart city, ecopolitics is its end. The time of hell arrives neatly packaged, wearing the mask of radical environmentalism. It is in the name of planetary survival that the smart city is truly born.
This can take the form of urban-park integration or, more commonly, as an insistence that a scientific viewpoint can and should be applied to everyday life. The rendering here is of Jeffrey Burns’ Innovation Park, a “blockchain city” in the Nevada desert, which shows distinctly what I mean—deciduous trees in the desert garden, and the blockchain approach that underpins it.
Eco-smartness is something that can be achieved, says the ad copy. Our lifeboat in the Anthropocene will be a synthesis of city cybernetic and city beautiful. This is the city as commodity. If smartness begins with the commodity, it soon graduates to commoditizing space, and urbanity itself. The argument is simple: smartness defines itself in relation to a pre-existing stupidity.
Amalgamated and executed on the scale of a street, a neighborhood, a district, or a city, the smart city operates on the principles of what Orit Halperin calls “test bed urbanism”. Though she coined the phrase in particular reference to Songdo City in South Korea, it can be generalized to nearly all smart projects. The urban test bed pulls urban space away from the state and into the supposedly neutral sphere of the laboratory where all decisions are not made by fiat, it is claimed, but by a reasoned attempt to solve problems. However, to achieve the “laboratory” effect, requires several theoretical leaps in the representation of space.
Lefebvre identified what he called abstract space as a dominant spatial representation in 20th century Europe. Building off of the concept of reification, abstract space is the foundational myth of the urban as test bed: space is hollowed out and becomes delimited, quantified, and altogether empty. This can most easily be seen in a building that changes owners or falls suddenly under a different type of zoning: the spatial character of the building is a void that can be overwritten. It is not specialized. It is, in a word, abstract.
Abstraction in spatial terms is a vital component of the smart city because of its faculty to essentially be anything—a tabula rasa upon which only power can write. This is the advantage of the laboratory—by standing in for the world, the laboratory model produces the notion that reality is malleable, and exists in its most ‘pure’ form when completely quantified. Scientific, or rational, purity requires the judicious elimination of all aberrant irrationalities as a prerequisite for thought and action in a technocratic, rational process in the pursuit of the construction of instrumental reason. The continuum of instrumental reason can be imagined as a straight line from the enlightenment to the smart city. Smartness’ promise of ‘innovation’ is in fact dependent on ‘laboratorization’, or instrumental, rational method, which is centuries old. Adorno and Horkheimer point out this tendency as arriving with the Enlightenment—in producing natural law, all that does not fit the law must be removed.
It is essential to keep in mind that technocratic rationalism is first historically applied to the natural world in order to reformat nature from an environment to a constellation of resources. Abstraction is a prerequisite for exploitation. When, as in the case of Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, the project claims to be negatively identified with the world itself —”a place on earth like nothing on earth”—we should take pause. The entire earth is grist for the (intelligent) mill. The earth and the city are naturalized and thus enframed, appearing as a Heideggerian “standing reserve” of raw material which only needs to be shaped by a magisterial rational hand. In other words, the city as we see it is reinterpreted by smartness to be a material that is then modified by labor, in the same way nature is. The regime of science, or technocratic rationalism, has aggressively expanded its model from the natural world to the lived one.
This transvaluation of urban space is due to the appearance of abstract space as a Cartesian void—”a neutral thing into which disjointed things, people, and habitats might be introduced, or “social space as an exploitable resource”, according to Japhy Wilson. Adding to this, computation itself is now something that can be poured into abstract space. The addition of computation, or the materialization of the consumption-rationalization regime in urban space, repositions absolute space not as the telos of spatial power, but merely a step to a greater reformatting of space itself. This narrative is enchanting; who hasn’t wished, for at least a moment, that the city wasn’t a bit more responsive, more sensuous, or yes, more rational? The dream of rationalization has been a staple of urban thought throughout the 20th century; we can find an acute summation of this spirit in Eugene Henard’s City of Tomorrow, which takes off from a consideration of “defects” to propose a streamlined, authorial efficiency. “The adoption of the new industrial devices, previously described, would make it possible to ameliorate the conditions of modern life and to add to the health and comfort of the inhabitants. I shall not dwell upon the improvements already effected and applied in some modern houses…”. To “not dwell” upon the existing city, to proclaim it a substrate of the new tomorrow, is the precondition of making smartness a reality.
All of this theorizing has been my attempt to take stock of the forces at work which are encapsulated and obscured by the concept of “smartness” within the city. The smart city should not be confused for utopia because utopia takes far greater stock of the world around it; however they should also not be confused for dystopia at the current stage as they do not fundamentally offer a difference from the current status quo. However, there is value in investigating one chain of possibilities in a world sufficiently developed and entrained by the smart city. Alvin Gouldner writes in The Two Marxisms that “Every theoretical system has another system inside it struggling to get out. And every system has a nightmare: that the caged system will break out.” What is the nightmare of the smart city?
The First Age of Intelligent Cities
We are already in the first age of the smart city. This era has been characterized thus far by the piecemeal introduction of smartness and the gradual seepage of technocorporate terminology into the rhetoric of urban governance to the extent that, in 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio could refer to “disruption” as positive (as he did in the September 2015 “BUILDING A SMART + EQUITABLE CITY” report), and no one batted an eye. In tech industry parlance, disruption describes an intentional destablization of norms in favor of the opening of new markets, usually with massive consequences for labor. Probably the best example of disruption would be the effect of Uber and other ridesharing services on taxis—in this case, the taxi industry was essentially torpedoed by Uber’s disruption. It’s hard to imagine that this procedure, at the level of urban governance, would be without its casualties.
At the current stage, though the groundwork is being laid piece by piece, there at the same time a general tendency towards monopolization. These countervailing, dialectical moves—both towards and away from centralization—compose a fundamental contradiction.
More devices and services can communicate with each other: your FitBit reports to your iPhone, your biometrics are used to pay for dinner or a car home from the bar, your purchases online are tracked. The process of reification, of the fetish of the dumb commodity which has existed since nearly the beginning of capitalism, is gradually replaced with an even more heightened fetish of the intelligent object—the one that knows you better than you know yourself. Within this age, it becomes easier and easier to identify the city itself as a service, a space of pure amenity, as a commodity in its own right. At the level of policy, governments find themselves unable to adequately respond to an oncoming wave of intelligence coherently. In this way, the advent of the smart city almost appears as a revolution, with change sweeping in from the ground up. I can’t help but think about Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he reports that, during the July Revolution in Paris, workers fired on the clocks. Does this act have an equivalent in the smart city?
The Second Age of Intelligent Cities
There will come a point in which disruption is no longer tolerated. As David Harvey points out, there is at the heart of capitalism a “state-finance” axis. The state retains the “monopoly of violence” as elaborated by Max Weber, and finance, or capital in general, is generally left (in neoliberal states) to its own devices. However, when capital threatens to swamp the state, the state is obligated to tamp it down and force it to cooperate. The frenetic proliferation of smart commodities is a perfect example of one such imbalance because the data that these commodities generate is, of course, itself a commodity. The city as a concretization of libidinal agency comes alive with ever more novel ways of entrapping data and turning it to uses as defined as beneficial by established governmental structures—in other words the disruptive, fitful network that is, at this stage, already in place becomes animated with new purpose and pushed towards a greater rationalization.
This stage is dominated by the introduction of cohesive software packages (many of which in a nascent stage already exist) that are peddled by several transnational corporations specializing in the field. Rationalization, when it first arrives, needs a leg up. Linked by a vernacular mental framework, a global city begins to come into focus—a “territorial machine”, to borrow the phrasing of Deleuze and Guattari, or a “megamachine” of interconnected intelligent urbanity. Cities can, at this stage, be thought of as more or less enantiomorphic, sharing the same base DNA.
It is at this same time that the smart city’s nightmare begins to come into being—the real identification of a coherent megamachine contains within it the elements of its own destruction. Whereas, in 2018, cities cannot be said to truly compete with each other (outside of tourism perhaps, incentives to attract businesses, or as smaller parts of rival nations), this will begin to change at the exact moment that a truly global urbanism becomes possible for the first time. If the city’s spaces and data are commoditized on a substrate of universal software, that software must before long be modified to attend to specific local cases which arise—for example, dealing with coastal flooding, an explosion in crime, decaying material infrastructure—that fall outside the operational abilities of the template. It follows that novel data collection and intelligent responses will be generated to deal with what, in the eyes of the megamachine, is too small to register across the board. Urban intelligence is forced to turn inward, to deviate from the baseline.
The Third Age of Intelligent Cities
The involutionary speciation of smart cities is matched by an “explosion” in the territorial claims of smartness. Prior to this stage, the “smart city” is a misnomer, as smartness appears most strongly in enclaves and test neighborhoods, with only residual benefits from the underpinning template delivered to excluded zones.
However, as smartness develops and specializes, these isolated areas will no longer be enough. Simply put, smartness can never achieve a “climax state”, or an equilibrium point at which enough data is taken in, rationality is imposed. When paired, the desire to expand and the desire for total control develops into a fitful endocolonization which is simultaneously obsessed with commanding the maximum amount of territory and at the same time exercising complete control over that territory, bringing it to absolute rationalization and complete abstraction.
It is no longer enough to command and control enclosed “test areas” or “quantified zones”—the entire city, the entire region, must be uplifted and brought into the system. This process can never be completed. There will always be a “digital frontier”, an uncoded periphery, an uneven distribution of intelligence. This impossibility of total encoding will haunt the smart city. The terror of the remaining unknown is its ghost story.
The Fourth Age of Intelligent Cities
At this point we are completely off the rails. The neoliberal collaboration of state and corporation in the service of a fully quantified, commoditized smartness will have been proven to be if not a means, than an illusory end. The increasingly feverish development and consolidation of smartness at the local level produces a globally distributed and sharply uneven landscape of cities that can be thought of as urban “minds”—highly specialized strategies, tactics, technology, and operational procedures that essentially govern the day to day life in their particular cities. Questions like: How does this city think about this issue? What is the way that city solves problems? Are not the absurdities they appear to be, but actual questions of governance and metagovernance.
At this last stage, smartness in an urban area begins to look like an empire in freefall—overextended and vulnerable. Increased issue with hacks and takedowns requires these minds develop and employ strategies of self-defense. The monopoly of the global city falls apart for good, devolving into a new regionalism as local smartness finds itself incompatible with its surroundings. Some strategies, and therefore minds, will be better than others. These strategies will function as the ultimate prize. Market principles select for intelligence—the smartest cities are the best for business, for living, for development. The question becomes less and less abstract, moving away from “How does this city think?” to How does this city think in that way? In this world, market decorum, the laws of circulation and trade, are no longer enough, because smartness has overwhelmed the logic of the commodity to become an operational advantage and thus an existential imperative. To be not smart enough is to die—by disaster, or by military activity. The possibility of attack can no longer be allowed to exist outside intelligence as it does outside of law and sociological study, and thus must be entered as a possible scenario. Self-preservation becomes a governing instinct at an urban and regional level, the state of siege constant. Walls become necessary, both in digital and physical formats. The form of the city-state reappears, arms itself, and waits.