Learning to love what doesn’t exist: smart city fictions and technophilia

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.

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