Tag Archives: solutionism

the captured city

Seems like Jathan Sadowski (previously) is doing pre-promo for a new book on the “smart city” memeplex:

The “smart city” is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It’s better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future. The phrase itself is part of the ideological infrastructure it requires. As the cliché goes: Who wants to live in a dumb city? But if we focus on the version of smart urbanism on display in corporate brochures and concept designs, even if critically, we may miss the real impact of the underlying transformations in urban governance they foretell […]

These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing. Sensors, cameras, and other networked surveillance systems gather intelligence through quasi-militaristic methods to feed another set of systems capable of deploying resources in response. In reality, the urban command centers — or, the sophisticated analytics software that create relational networks of data, like that produced by the CIA-funded Palantir — are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public.

Contrary to the suggestions of “smartness” shills, these systems are not used by the general public but on it.

I was sold even before I hit the Haraway citation.

Schlock & Ore

An archival re-run from 2012 at The Baffler: Will Boisvert on the MIT Media Lab. Boisvert was clearly well ahead of the hype cycle on this topic; it’s a gloriously withering piece.

But while the Lab often seems like a marketing team posing as an academic institution, the corruption is subtler than the mere capture of the ivory tower by commerce. The Lab is a failure by the standards of storied corporate-sponsored R & D outfits like Menlo Park and Bell Labs. Instead, the Lab focuses on what corporations think is cool. […] No matter how ridiculous the Lab’s mockups, its grand schematic of omnipresent computing, sensors, video representation, and interactivity is a thrilling business prospect, promising enormous revenues from a tech network that redefines the meaning of ubiquity. And more than that, it’s an expression of an ideology of consumerism—the commodification of things that once were free and the shift toward a lifestyle of infantile narcissism—that the Lab takes to unprecedented extremes.

It can take a good long while to realise that the emperor is naked. Hell knows that I pranced along in his wake in similar caparison for quite some time.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.

Justifications for critical utopianism

A strident argument for critical utopian discourse  (and against  technotopian solutionism) from David F Ruccio at Real-World Economics Review [via SyntheticZero]:

[This] doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

And that is why, after five years of feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall, I’m nonetheless bandaging my metaphorical head and carrying on. For the most part, infrastructural research in the UK academy has been thoroughly colonised by solutionist paradigms, to the extent that it feels like being caught in an warped loop of the Marge vs. the Monorail! episode of The Simpsons that never reaches the denouement. It’s frustrating — and has frequently felt futile — to do battle with the unholy alliance of perverse economic incentives and semantically ambiguous suitcase words… but as the old cliche goes: to try is to invite failure, but to give up is to ensure it.

A new narrative for narratives

A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.

That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).

The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and

… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.

In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).

The Nature editorial continues:

Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.

It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.

Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.

But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.