Hiroki Azuma’s General Will 2.0 and Urban Planning

The Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma has contributed some of the most inventive contemporary propositions for the use of information and communication technologies for democratic practice. In General Will 2.0 (2014), Azuma argues that democratic ideals should be “updated on the basis of the realities of information society” (p. iii). Simply stated, the proliferation of myriad media channels and messages disseminated by networked communication has made modern society too complex to accommodate traditional notions of the public sphere and practices of democratic political participation. Azuma proposes the “creation of a completely new public sphere” (p. x) supported by the use of ubiquitous computing technology. His prescription for a model of governance informed by ubiquitous computing and social media draws on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of “the general will.” The general will refers to the collective will of a people that aims toward common well-being and “creates the standards for good and for the public sphere” (p. 23). This will is distinct from the will of the government or the sum of individual wills, and arises from a community of people joined through a social contract, regardless of whether communication or political deliberation occurs between them. Azuma’s interpretation of Rousseau leads him to the provocative proposition that “politics does not require communication” (p. 34). That is to say, spaces for communication and deliberation are not only unnecessary but are in fact “an impediment to the emergence of the general will” (p.33), as citizens need only be provided with adequate information in order for the general will to emerge. It is here that Azuma locates the potential for data aggregation and information visualization to inform political procedure. 

Azuma introduces the term “democracy 2.0” to describe a model of democratic governance supplemented by data aggregation and information visualization. Such a system, he argues, would provide “a mechanism to visualize what we truly need without the mediation of roundabout systems such as elections, hearings, and public comments” (p. 86). He points to internet-based communication behaviors and social media usage in particular as fertile resources for assessing the collective thoughts and attitudes of a populace. Azuma thus relates the general will to concepts such as “collective intelligence” and the “wisdom of crowds” (p. 12). Under the democracy 2.0 model, the public realm would be shaped by the aggregate of private actions in a way that challenges traditional distinctions between the public and private spheres. Azuma contrasts this notion of democracy 2.0 with Arendt’s and Habermas’ conceptualizations of the private and public realms. Crucially, Arendt and Habermas both stipulated that the public realm is created through speech or communication whereas Azuma is proposing democracy 2.0 as politics without communication. For Azuma, the inherent complexity and fragmentation of contemporary society precludes the realization of an Arendtian or Habermasian ideal public sphere such that modern citizens “are not able to believe in a shared space for discussion” (p. 69). Declaring these formulations of the public sphere as “impossible to establish” (p. 87), Azuma calls for taking “our current social situation and technological conditions” to bring about “something like a public sphere” (p. 87). This approach calls for abandoning both traditional notions of politics as “conscious communication mediated by language” (p. 75) as well as “abstract frameworks that differentiate between private and public” (p. 77). 

In addition to the political philosophy of Rousseau, Azuma’s formulation of “democracy 2.0” is further informed by the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious. Social media again functions as a significant touchstone for Azuma, who describes tweets, check-ins, and other social media activities as constituting a vast trove of information enabling “the extraction of patterns of unconscious desires that go beyond the intentions of individuals” (p. 57). Azuma thus defines incidental yet observable online activity as “unconscious communication” and proposes the use of data monitoring in democracy 2.0 for “collecting and systematizing the wills and desires of people without the need for conscious communication” (p. 56). The realization of democracy 2.0 involves not just data aggregation but also data visualization, as Azuma notes “the internet is not only an apparatus for documenting the unconscious but also for actively visualizing it” (p. 95). Revisiting the earlier formulation of the general will as “politics without communication,” Azuma specifies that the “visualization of the unconscious of the masses” (p. 122) should not be understood as a replacement for deliberation but rather as a supplement to deliberation. He proposes that a democracy 2.0 framework should consist of “on the one hand extracting the unconscious of citizens and on the other invigorating conscious communication among citizens” (p. 102). Azuma proposes that the aggregate unconscious communication of the citizenry should shape the contours and define the limits of public policy-making in a fashion that is “neither direct democracy nor indirect democracy but something that might be called unconscious democracy” (p. 143). Such a model reflects the democracy 2.0 ideal that “all deliberation must be exposed to the unconscious of the populace” (p. 144), whereafter the database citizens’ unconscious communication “and harnesses it as a power to restrain deliberation” (p. 153). 

In order to illustrate what such a system would look like in practice Azuma turns to the field of urban planning and design. Azuma’s argument is scaled to the level of the nation state, and he is concerned overall with practices of national citizenship rather than regional or municipal governance. There are, however, significant points of intersection between the theory of democracy 2.0 and urban studies. For instance, Azuma (2014) often employs spatial metaphors in theorizing how to “design an architecture” that would support the democracy 2.0 model (p. 80). His theory also bears correspondences with the urban visualization literature, as he describes the general will 2.0. as “the record of action and desire carved into the information environment” (p. 71). Yet the most substantial connection between urban studies and general will 2.0 is the invocation of Austrian-born urban designer Christopher Alexander. Azuma’s prescription for unconscious communication is not that it be ignored or blindly followed but rather that states should “harness it through visualization via information technology” (p. 136). The unconscious desires of the masses, aggregated and visualized, would then be used to inform public deliberation and policy-making. Azuma cites Alexander’s urban planning work as a prototype for such a model. In the classic planning text A Pattern Language (1977), Alexander and his colleagues outlined an index of urban settlement shapes or “patterns” inspired by the then-emerging fields of network theory and computer science. Alexander’s systems approach to urban design is captured in his well-known aphorism “a city is not a tree” (1965). What Azuma highlights, however, is a method Alexander developed for determining the design of highway routes. 

Alexander and his team identified twenty-six factors that influence planning decisions such as construction costs, economic impact, and environmental issues. The list of factors also included not typically taken into account by highway planners such as air pollution, eye sores, and noise (Lystra, 2016). The planners then examined the site under consideration to determine what the least and most desirable locations were for each influencing factor. They then visualized the distributions of these factors by superimposing shades of color onto a map, with least desirable locations colored lighter and most desirable areas colored darker. Using a combination of photographic and hand drawing techniques they composited multiple overlays to create a final path map. The resulting distribution did not necessarily plot the optimal route, and would not always determine the final planning decisions, but it did provide a method for visualizing a range of options based on aggregated data. Azuma thus cites Alexander’s approach to planning the highway route as “the budding form of an urban design based upon collective intelligence” (p. 152). He also sees in this technique “a method for providing limits to design rather than determining the design” (p. 124). This is a crucial takeaway for Azuma: Alexander’s method is a model for imposing limitations on deliberation via a database. Alexander and his fellow planners did not automatically implement the routes that emerged from the composited path maps, but they rather used the maps to delimit the best areas for potential action. Democracy 2.0 may therefore be seen as “an application of a theory of urban planning” (p. 125) and “a mechanism that restrains the arbitrary wills of planners” (p. 153). As Azuma notes, planners today have access to a wealth of information and communication technologies from which to draw a “map of user desires” (p. 125). The democracy 2.0 framework is thereby applicable to not only national politics but is particularly relevant for e-governance initiatives in smart city programs.

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