Tagged: urbanstudies

Wound Culture and Public Space: Mark Seltzer’s concept of the pathological public sphere

Mark Seltzer: Serial Killers (II): The Pathological Public Sphere
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 122-149

Seltzer’s essay on serial killers and the pathological public sphere immediately calls J.G. Ballard to mind. Eventually Seltzer does cite Ballard, but it is in reference to Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, a selection that renders the author’s omission of Ballard’s subsequent novel, Crash, all the more conspicuous (Crash was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996, the year after Seltzer’s article was published). The article’s introductory anecdote about Sylvestre Matushka, who engineered train wrecks and claimed to only achieve sexual satisfaction when witnessing these accidents, is obviously evocative of Crash. Ballard’s story follows characters who are sexually excited by car crashes, and stage car accidents and recreate famous wrecks. Seltzer cites The Atrocity Exhibition in order to borrow Ballard’s phrase and relate it to his own notion of the pathological public sphere: “spectacular corporeal/machine violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire in public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence” (p. 124). Though he never refers to Crash, Seltzer’s language here could have come direct from the book’s dust jacket: “The coupling of bodies and machines is thus also, at least in these cases, a coupling of private and public spaces” (p. 125).

Seltzer’s argument is also evocative of a different Crash: the identically-titled but textually-dissimilar Crash, a 2004 film exploring race relations in contemporary Los Angeles through the interweaving of multiple characters and plotlines. Los Angeles is famous for its iconic freeway system, and the city is often regarded as the apotheosis of car culture, an alternatingly visionary or dystopic manifestation of car-dependent society. The film Crash uses the city’s freeway network as a thematic device, beyond the relation of the story’s interweaving plot threads and intersecting characters to the on-ramps and cloverleaf interchanges of L.A.’s freeways as seen from above. The film opens at the scene of a car accident one of these L.A. freeways, and the first lines of dialogue (spoken by a character riding in a car involved in the accident) establishes the thematic significance of the film’s Los Angeles setting:

Graham: It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.

Compare this sentiment with these words of serial killer Ted Bundy quoted in Seltzer’s article:

“Another factor that is almost indispensable to this kind of behavior is the mobility of contemporary American life. Living in a large center of population and living with lots of people, you can get used to dealing with strangers. It’s the anonymity factor.” (p. 133)

Seltzer does cite a Los Angeles-based film in his discussion of public and private space: the action-thriller Speed, a sort of wish-fulfillment Hollywood fantasy for Angelenos where the city’s congested freeways are cleared of all traffic and the hero’s speedometer never drops below 50 miles per hour. Seltzer notes the film’s use of “public vehicles of what might be called stranger-intimacy” (p. 125): elevators, buses, airplanes, and the city subway system. Seltzer’s highlighting of transit systems to illustrate the collisions of public and private space resonated with my own research in this area. Seltzer cites urban sociologist Georg Simmel’s account of “the stranger” in urban life; Simmel’s theories have influenced a great deal of urban studies, including theories of transportation and public space.

Toiskallio (2000) applied Simmel’s sociability to an analysis of “the interaction between the taxi driver and the fare as an example of an intensive urban semi-public situation where feasible and face-saving social interaction is needed” (p. 4). The term “semi-public” refers to that are neither public nor totally private, as taxicabs are neither public nor private transportation, but “paratransit” (p. 8). Such distinctions are further complicated by the recent advent of “car-share” or rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. These services are essentially hired car services, and function much like taxicabs, but with significant differences. Most relevant to the current discussion is the fact that rideshare drivers do not drive company vehicles as taxi drivers do, but operate their private vehicles to transport customers. This situation transforms a person’s private car into a space of stranger-intimacy. There are consequences here not only for transformations of public and private space, but also the coupling of bodies and machines, as well as implication for affective labor and transportation services.

Urban Media Studies conference in Zagreb, Croatia: post-trip report

imag2122

On September 24th and 25th, I was on hand for the Urban Media Studies conference, hosted at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. The conference was organized by members of the ECREA temporary working group on media and the city. It was a thoroughly international event, with participants from across Europe and the United States, as well as Russia, Japan, and Brazil. It was also interdisciplinary, with various academic fields represented by scholars from communication, sociology, geography, and other faculties. In addition to academics, the participants also included artists, policy makers, and urban planners.

imag1994

A key concept that I noticed appearing in several presentations is that of assemblages. Presenters spoke of ecologies and assemblages for staging mobilities, sites such as airports as assemblages of digital interfaces, and cities as communicative figurations involving constellations of actors and practices.

imag1993

Another recurring theme was visibility. Many participants highlighted the often imperceptible functioning of digital technologies. While they may not rely on the visible infrastructure of previous technology, these media regulate bodies in material ways, often establishing and enforcing otherwise unmarked borders. In his keynote address on staging mobilities, Ole Jensen stated that technologies must become visible to the community in order for them to realize them as a field for action.

imag2123

A recurring question, still unresolved, concerned the distinction between urban and rural. If this is a conference on urban media studies, could there be a rural media studies? With all the discussion of planetary urbanization, is the distinction between urban and rural still meaningful? Participants were divided on this issue. Some suggested that through the networking of the globe via media and ICTs, the “urban” has become the predominating way of life across the planet. Others argued that rural areas are very much an extant reality and way of life, and the distinction between urban and rural people and places is still very clear.

imag2043

The conference program included an optional excursion to tour some of the housing developments built during Croatia’s socialist period. I was impressed with beauty of central and historic Zagreb, so this excursion provided a fascinating view of parts of the city not normally visited by tourists (nor, as I learned, by locals).

imag2062

Our tour went not only around the socialist housing blocks, but also to the top of one. Despite the hazy and overcast weather, we had a spectacular view of Zagreb, the surrounding area, and into Slovenia. It was a wonderful addition to the program, and a personal conference highlight.

imag2073

Urban Comm roundup: Smart cities, hostile architecture, and placemaking

Smart Cities

Smart City

I see three categories of winners. The first will be suppliers of digital technology, from high-speed telecom, cloud services and digital security to apps, for example, like Uber’s and Airbnb’s that use physical resources with greater efficiency. But these can get you only so far.

The second category will be traditional industry reborn. The trick will be to find breakthroughs in materials, construction and transportation–updates to the blood-and-sweat stuff that built the great cities of the 20th century. Will the winners be known names, such as GE, Mitsubishi, Tata and Samsung, or new players?

A third category will be the smart cities themselves. Leaders will likely create services that can be used to teach other cities, so their expertise will have value beyond the benefits enjoyed inside the cities. Smart cities will enjoy premium brands in a tough global economy, and they will attract talent. A great example is Singapore.

The first category is what we can call basic infrastructure—water or sewerage pipelines would fall under this group. Unlike developed countries, most Indian cities have significant shortages in this area.

[…]

[The] second category of technology investments in a typical smart city, which we can broadly call network level infrastructure. These are essentially a set of devices or sensors installed at specific points in the city-wide network which are used to monitor parameters related to service delivery.

[…]

Integrating information and communication technology (ICT) solutions constitute the third and final component of the smart city technology architecture. These solutions can be of two types. One set of ICT solutions usually help the city administration manage their internal functions like finance and accounting, human resources etc. The other set of ICT solutions are usually used to analyse data collected through network level sensors to generate potential decision options for the city administration to provide seamless and efficient urban services.

“Smart city” remains loosely-defined in India and around the world, but many say the adoption of technology is a crucial element. Ambitious initiatives to build “smarter” cities include the use of data and digital infrastructure to manage energy and water usage to the creation of intelligent transport networks, according to a Brookings report earlier this year.

However, India will likely focus on fixing the lack of basic amenities and infrastructure such as housing, water supply, sanitation, and electricity in existing urban regions.

“Real world hacker” Cesar Cerrudo has blasted vendors, saying they’re stopping security researchers from testing smart city systems, and as a result they’re being sold with dangerous unchecked vulnerabilities.

The warning will be detailed at RSA San Francisco this week, and comes a year after the IOActive chief technology officer found some 200,000 vulnerable traffic control sensors active in cities like Washington DC, London, and Melbourne.

Vendors don’t want their kit tested, Cerrudo said, although there are now 25 major cities across the world taking the lead in deployment, such as New York, Berlin, and Sydney.

Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patters. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masda in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain”.

The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.

Hostile Architecture

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Imaginechina/REX (1790320a) Rows of concrete spikes Concrete spikes built to stop homeless from sleeping under road bridge, Guangzhou city, Guangdong province, China - 02 Jul 2012 Rows of concrete spikes have been laid beneath a road bridge in Guangzhou city to allegedly discourage homeless people from sleeping there. A 30-meter-long area has been covered with the small spikes, each of which measures about 20cm tall. They are, reportedly, meant to stop people from sleeping rough but this explanation has been denied by the local administrative authority. However, they have not given any further details to explain why the spikes have been installed. CONCRETE SPIKES BUILT STOP HOMELESS FROM SLEEPING UNDER ROAD BRIDGE GUANGZHOU CITY GUANGDONG PROVINCE CHINA 02 JUL 2012 ROWS Not-Personality 13797718

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Imaginechina/REX 

From ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges to bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from water sprinklers and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, from metal park benches with solid dividers to forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.

We see these measures all the time within our urban environments, whether in London or Tokyo, but we fail to process their true intent. I hardly noticed them before I became homeless in 2009. An economic crisis, a death in the family, a sudden breakup and an even more sudden breakdown were all it took to go from a six-figure income to sleeping rough in the space of a year. It was only then that I started scanning my surroundings with the distinct purpose of finding shelter and the city’s barbed cruelty became clear.

[…]

Defensive architecture acts as the airplane curtain that separates economy from business and business from first class, protecting those further forward from the envious eyes of those behind. It keeps poverty unseen and sanitises our shopping centres, concealing any guilt for over-consuming. It speaks volumes about our collective attitude to poverty in general and homelessness in particular. It is the aggregated, concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit.

Ironically, it doesn’t even achieve its basic goal of making us feel safer. There is no way of locking others out that doesn’t also lock us in. The narrower the arrow-slit, the larger outside dangers appear. Making our urban environment hostile breeds hardness and isolation. It makes life a little uglier for all of us.

Creating urban spaces that reject human interactions affect us all. Not only do they prevent the homeless taking refuge; neither can the young mother find shelter from the rain or the elderly man a space to rest. It creates a physical manifestation of a hostility that we could all stand to be without, rather than encourage. These problems are not limited to New York City or to London, but are in fact a stubborn part of the architecture of modern city life, whether indented or accidental. However, they aren’t intractable.

Early on, the British did much as we have done since 9/11, installing barriers and bollards anywhere they might save some lives. But as the years passed, their approach became much more nuanced as they realized that over-securitizing public spaces drives away the public, which increases crime. This appears to happen in part because security features lead people to believe that crime is commonplace and increasing even if it is rare and decreasing, and in part because simply seeing security features causes anxiety and discomfort.

Placemaking & Tactical Urbanism

Mexico_placemaking

Unfortunately, Placemaking, as promulgated by its chief advocate, the nonprofit Projects for Public Spaces, is largely bogus, even though PPS rather presumptuously claims it “has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” After you hack through thickets of slogans and vagaries, Placemaking seems to comprise a community-driven process for designing public spaces (streets, sidewalks, plazas, squares, campuses, parks, and so on) that are mixed use, host a variety of activities for diverse audiences, and are well-connected to the larger city or town. All this has been mom & pop, apple-pie stuff in urban planning circles for decades, derived from the valuable 1960s work of the urbanist and author Jane Jacobs and the urban planner William H. “Holly” Whyte. The same ideas energized the 1990s New Urbanism that gave us Neo-historical neighborhoods, a few of them actually good.

Sadly, Placemaking could only gain currency because our building and development processes create so little that is inviting and memorable. America’s default is to assemble standardized real-estate products along roads engineered for auto throughput, and call it a day. Placelessness is so ubiquitous and such second nature that it is actually hard to think about what it takes to make a building or streetscape that’s appealing, that feels as if it belongs.

[…]

What are the lessons here? Making great places is a more organic and less mechanical process than PPS makes it out to be. Yes, the public must be involved, and yes some places should be active social mixing bowls. But some places—especially extraordinary natural features—should be left alone. In others, we should recognize that what is unique is sometimes strange (like Gasworks’ rusting ruins). Recall that the rail line that hosts the High Line Park escaped demolition only because two intrepid people cared.

Let’s start with Public Space. Outlining the role and value of public space has long been a subject of academic, political, and professional debate. At the most basic level public space can be defined as publicly owned land that, in theory, is open and accessible to all members of a given community—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, or socio-economic level.

[…]

Places, on the other hand, are environments in which people have invested meaning over time. A place has its own history—a unique cultural and social identity that is defined by the way it is used and the people who use it. It is not necessarily through public space, then, but through the creation of places that the physical, social, environmental, and economic health of urban and rural communities can be nurtured.

As many people increasingly rely on data-driven apps and platforms like Google Maps to navigate their cities, some skeptics have worried that our streets are losing their traditional element of chance, surprise, and mystery. Kopfkino (roughly, “head theater” in German) is a project to revitalize those aspects of the urban experience. Using a shopping cart as their base, a group of friends in Istanbul built a portable projector that casts users’ faces onto building facades when they peer into a laptop camera. Kopfkino invites the curious passerby to pause from his or her regular routine and discover a new experience in a familiar place.

DIY projects in public spaces like Kopfkino are popping up all over Turkey. However, unlike some other examples of tactical urbanism, Kopfkino likely wasn’t intended to be replicable or scalable. The point, however, is to challenge what it means to encounter other people in public space, and to revisit the idea that every city offers an individual and unique experience.

Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it. In some cases, tactical urbanisms appear more likely to bolster neoliberal urbanisms by temporarily alleviating (or perhaps merely displacing) some of their disruptive social and spatial effects, but without interrupting the basic rule-regimes associated with market-oriented, growth-first urban development, and without challenging the foundational mistrust of governmental institutions that underpins the neoliberal project. The relation between tactical and neoliberal forms of urbanism is thus considerably more complex, contentious, and confusing than is generally acknowledged in the contributions to the debate on Uneven Growth. As illustrated in the list below, it cannot be simply assumed that because of their operational logics or normative-political orientations, tactical interventions will, in fact, counteract neoliberal urbanism. No less than five specific types of relation between these projects can be readily imagined, only two of which (1 and 5 in the list) might involve a challenge to market-fundamentalist urban policy. There are at least three highly plausible scenarios in which tactical urbanism will have either negligible or actively beneficial impacts upon a neoliberalized urban rule-regime.

Smart Cities: India’s initiative; technologized transport; democratic dilemmas and dystopian dangers

  • Smart cities continue to be a hot topic for urban designers and commentators, even as the very definition of the term is debated. Kieron Monks at CNN recently addressed this in an article on the next generation of smart cities:

The urban planning equivalent of a Rorschach test, a “Smart City” can be taken to mean almost anything.

But by the most popular criteria; sustainable energy and development, open data and government, and integrated information, communications and technology (ICT) serving wide areas of a city, these ultra-modern hubs are on the rise.

  • One site for this next generation of smart cities is India, where the Prime Minister has advanced a vision of building “100 smart cities“:

Secretary of India’s Urban Development ministry, Shankar Aggarwal interacted with the people and officials involved with the ambitious project.

Aggarwal said a smart city may have diverse significance for different groups belonging to various fields.

“The definition of smart city differs from person to person. One can say that smart design is smart city or smartly deployment of a city can be considered as smart city. If utilities are put forward in a smarter way can be defined as a smart city. Assimilation of all the things makes a smart city. If there is growth of economic activates, improvement of quality of life, that is a smart city,” he said.

Smart cities have the potential to transform India’s cities, but unless the people who design them are sensitive to the reality that half a billion Indians are not even on the current grid, and almost a quarter of the country is illiterate, real change will not happen. Unless the engineering is combined with ingenuity to address fundamental political, social and economic weaknesses, smart cities will inevitably become another high profile megaproject; a false promise that does not realize its potential and becomes a burden, much like an empty Olympic stadium after games that promised much needed infrastructure and sustainable economic development.

The current model of city planning is based on an outdated Le Corbusier concept that the city needs to be flat. Indian planners still believe that Chandigarh is the best city as it was planned by Corbusier, but it is not a smart city because you need a car to live in such a city. And dependence on a car means depending upon fast-depleting fossil fuels; it means commute as a part of daily life.

While small initiatives like Raahgiri are catching people’s attention as they reclaim the streets from cars for a few hours every week, what if it was part of a city’s design? That the streets belonged to people, and not to cars? A fundamental shift in even the way permissions are given for development and integration of public transportation has to be part of city planning. Then only can a city be livable; it has to be embedded in its planning and not in its sensors.

Another suggestion would be to make the city self-sufficient in terms of agricultural produce, so that in times of crisis it is capable of taking care of the basic requirements of the residents of the city. Of course, it seems to much to ask for in the current scenario but with advanced technological know-how it’s not impossible.

But just as having a smartphone doesn’t make you a smart person, a digitally smart city isn’t necessarily one that’s doing all the right things by its citizens and making their lives more pleasant.

In fact, a smart city with all the computers at its disposal can be doing many dumb things, and doing them even more quickly.

A really smart city (as opposed to being just digitally smart), on the other hand, knows what the right things to do are, with or without technology.

The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.

In both these cases, ordinary people used technologies of connection to help them steer their own affairs, not merely managing complex domains to a minimal threshold of competence, but outperforming the official bodies formally entrusted with their stewardship. This presents us with the intriguing prospect that more of the circumstances of everyday urban life might be managed this way, on a participatory basis, by autonomous neighbourhood groups networked with one another in something amounting to a city-wide federation.

The system, still in its early stages, has put Copenhagen on the leading edge of a global race to use public outdoor lighting as the backbone of a vast sensory network capable of coordinating a raft of functions and services: whether easing traffic congestion, better predicting where to salt before a snowstorm or, to the alarm of privacy advocates, picking up on suspicious behavior on a busy street corner.

Cities worldwide are expected to replace 50 million aging fixtures with LEDs over the next three years, with roughly half of those in Europe. Some are mainly interested in switching from outmoded technologies to one that uses less energy and can last for decades. But many others want to take full advantage of the LED’s electronics, which are more conducive to wireless communication than other types of lighting.

Many cities are also using smart technology to integrate services between different areas of government. For example, Barcelona has undertaken an ambitious multi-year program, Smart City Barcelona, in order to efficiently ensure that city services reach all citizens. The city’s long-term plan involves government, residents, and the business community in developing and shaping the city’s technological initiatives. One of these unique solutions will be called CityOS (operating system), for which the city is currently seeking a developer. City officials envision this OS as an open platform that unites the various smart technology projects operating across the city. In particular, the OS is expected to improve the daily commuting experience as well as reduce the operating costs of transport systems.

One only has to look at the hi-tech nerve centre that IBM built for Rio de Janeiro to see this Nineteen Eighty-Four-style vision already alarmingly realised. It is festooned with screens like a Nasa Mission Control for the city. As Townsend writes: “What began as a tool to predict rain and manage flood response morphed into a high-precision control panel for the entire city.” He quotes Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, as boasting: “The operations centre allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

What’s more, if an entire city has an “operating system”, what happens when it goes wrong? The one thing that is certain about software is that it crashes. The smart city, according to Hollis, is really just a “perpetual beta city”. We can be sure that accidents will happen – driverless cars will crash; bugs will take down whole transport subsystems or the electricity grid; drones could hit passenger aircraft. How smart will the architects of the smart city look then?

[…]

One sceptical observer of many presentations at the Future Cities Summit, Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales, suggests that “a smarter way” to build cities “might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.” That would certainly be one way to acquire a better understanding of what technologists call the “end user” – in this case, the citizen. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “What is the city but the people?”

Urban Media Ecology: light pollution, gender mainstreaming, urban marginality

Image ©Willem Pont (retrieved from http://www.corius.net/?page_id=47)

Image ©Willem Pont (retrieved from http://www.corius.net/?page_id=47)

  • When I first read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television several years ago I was inclined to agree with the bulk of the thesis presented: the dangers posed by the inherent biases of the television medium, such as the centralization of control and “the walling of awareness”. One of Mander’s arguments that I did not find persuasive was the section on the adverse health effects linked to exposure to artificial light. That part of the book seemed too “out there” for me at the time, though that part of the argument is one of primary reasons I think Mander’s book should be included in the canon of Media Ecology literature. Well, I have since come to consider the artificial light argument as much more plausible. A recent article in The Guardian by Ellie Violet Bramley addressed the work of researchers investigating the potential long-term effects of exposure to urban light pollution:

Because humans evolved in a 24-hour light/dark cycle known as the circadian clock, any light after dusk is “unnatural”, Lockley says. When we are exposed to light after dusk, “our daytime physiology is triggered and our brains become more alert, our heart rates go up, as does our temperature, and production of the hormone melatonin is suppressed”.

Has the way city dwellers live, removed from natural light patterns, confused our bodies? “Not so much confused as shifted: we’ve been shifted later,” Lockley says. “What happens when people go camping? If you don’t have sources of electric light, then you go to bed earlier, shortly after the sun’s gone down, and you sleep for longer.” Every day we don’t go to bed at dusk, we experience what Lockley calls “mini jetlag”.

His colleague, Ken Wright at the University of Colorado in Boulder, conducted an experiment on camping. Wright found that for campers, midnight was the middle of the night: living in brightly lit cities has artificially lengthened our days. “We go to bed later, we don’t sleep as long, and we don’t know of the long-term health impact of changing,” he says.

The decision to look at how men and women used public transit wasn’t a shot in the dark. It was part of a project aimed at taking gender into account in public policy. In Vienna, this is called gender mainstreaming.

Gender mainstreaming has been in place in the Austrian capital since the early 1990s. In practice, this means city administrators create laws, rules and regulations that benefit men and women equally. The goal is to provide equal access to city resources. And so far, officials say it’s working.

Vienna has adopted gender mainstreaming in a number of areas of city administration, including education and health care policy. But nowhere has it had more of an impact than on the field of urban planning. More than sixty pilot projects have been carried out to date. As the size and scale of these projects increase, gender mainstreaming has become a force that is literally reshaping the city.

Until quite recently, ethnographic studies of the lives of the urban pariahs in the Americas regularly failed to take into account one simple, essential, fact: the poor do not breathe the same air, drink the same water, or play on the same grounds than others. Theirs is an often-polluted environment that seriously affects their present health and future capabilities, and about which scholars, myself included, have remained silent for a long time. This silence is, as we argue in the book I co-wrote with native anthropologist Débora Swistun (Flammable), another incarnation of what Sherry Ortner famously called “ethnographic refusal.”

[…]

The book will come out in the Summer of 2015 and it’s called Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, so you will have to wait! But to give you a preview, the book examines the lives of those living on “the other side” – the invisibilized, the “not talked about,” – of Austin, a thriving, rapidly growing, highly unequal, and segregated Texan technopolis. And it does so by taking an in-depth look at the ways in which individual lives (of an undocumented worker, a homeless woman, a cab driver, a domestic worker, an activist, etc.) intersect with larger social forces.

Gentrification and ‘the fucking hipster show’; hostile architercure and defensive urban design

Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Linda Nylind for the Guardian

[Marxist geographer Neil] Smith offers a dry, but emphatically structural account of this process, which he first theorized in the late eighties with Soho and the Lower East Side in mind. Gentrification has since become central to neoliberal urbanization generally, and New York City in particular, under the developer-driven Bloomberg administration.

But why bother with “dry” and “structural” when you can tune-in to the “fucking hipster” show?

Unlike Smith’s rigorous Marxian analysis, most popular accounts from the spurious creative class mystifications of Richard Florida to standard issue conservative populist diatribes forget the larger forces and primary movers in this process, which is instead reduced, metonymically, to the catchall figure of the hipster.

[…]

On topics ranging from the capitalist dynamics of gentrification to the casualization of employment among ostensibly middle class Millennials, the “fucking hipster” show beats staid structural analysis every time — even for many members of the self-identified Left.

[…]

We should retire “hipster” as a term without referent or political salience. Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.”

The anti-hipster censure here includes a healthy dose of typically American anti-intellectualism, decked out in liberal bunting, subtle homophobia, and recognizably manipulative appeals to white, middle class resentment, now aimed at the lazy hipster, who either lives on his trust fund or, more perniciously, abuses public assistance, proving how racist templates are multi-use tools.

Our power elites’ rhetorical police action becomes increasingly necessary as large swaths of the people lumped under the hipster taxon slip into the ranks of the long-term un- and underemployed. Once innocuous alternative lifestyles could potentially metamorphosize into something else altogether. Better to frame “alternative lifestyle” in terms of avant-garde trend setting without remainder, providing suitably rarefied consumption options for Bloomberg’s new bourgeoisie, as they buy locally sourced creativity on Bedford Ave.

Metal spikes designed to stop homeless people sleeping in the doorway of a London apartment block have been removed, after almost 130,000 people signed a petition calling for them to be taken out.

Pictures of the metal studs outside flats in Southwark Bridge Road were widely shared online last weekend, sparking outrage on social media.

Many criticised the spikes as inhumane, and compared them to those used to stop pigeons landing on buildings.

It has been encouraging to see the outrage over the London spikes. But the spikes that caused the uproar are by no means the only form of homeless-deterrent technology; they are simply the most conspicuous. Will public concern over the spikes extend to other less obvious instances of anti-homeless design? Perhaps the first step lies in recognizing the political character of the devices all around us.

An example of an everyday technology that’s used to forbid certain activities is “skateboard deterrents,” that is, those little studs added to handrails and ledges.  These devices, sometimes also called “skatestoppers” or “pig ears,” prevent skateboarders from performing sliding—or “grinding”—tricks across horizontal edges. A small skateboard deterrence industry has developed, with vendors with names like “stopagrind.com” and “grindtoahault.com.”

[…]

An example of a pervasive homeless deterrence technology is benches designed to discourage sleeping. These include benches with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests between seats, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying, among many other designs. There are even benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long. Sadly, such designs are particularly common in subway, bus stops, and parks that present the homeless with the prospect of a safely public place to sleep.

[..]

The London spikes provide an opportunity to put a finger on our own intuitions about issues of homelessness and the design of open space. Ask yourself if you were appalled by the idea of the anti-homeless spikes. If so, then by implication you should have the same problems with other less obvious homeless deterrence designs like the sleep-prevention benches and the anti-loitering policies that target homeless people.

In addition to anti-skateboard devices, with names such as “pig’s ears” and “skate stoppers”, ground-level window ledges are increasingly studded to prevent sitting, slanting seats at bus stops deter loitering and public benches are divided up with armrests to prevent lying down.

To that list, add jagged, uncomfortable paving areas, CCTV cameras with speakers and “anti-teenager” sound deterrents, such as the playing of classical music at stations and so-called Mosquito devices, which emit irritatingly high-pitched sounds that only teenagers can hear.

[…]

The architectural historian Iain Borden says the emergence of hostile architecture has its roots in 1990s urban design and public-space management. The emergence, he said, “suggested we are only republic citizens to the degree that we are either working or consuming goods directly.

“So it’s OK, for example, to sit around as long as you are in a cafe or in a designated place where certain restful activities such as drinking a frappucino should take place but not activities like busking, protesting or skateboarding. It’s what some call the ‘mallification’ of public space, where everything becomes like a shopping mall.”

Graeber on labor and leisure; the perils of hipster economics; and the educational value of MOOCs

Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”

But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better. I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.

[…]

For companies pushing MOOCs, education is no different from entertainment: it is simply a question of delivering ‘content.’ But learning to think exclusively via modem is like learning to dance by watching YouTube videos. You may get a sense of it, but no-one is there to point out mistakes, deepen your understanding, contextualise the gestures, shake up your default perspective, and facilitate the process. The role of the professor or instructor is not simply the shepherd for the transmission of information from point A to point B, but the coforging of new types of knowledge, and critically testing these for various versions of soundness and feasibility. Wisdom may be eternal, but knowledge – both practical and theoretical – evolves over time, and especially exponentially in the last century, with all its accelerated technologies. Knowledge is always mediated, so we must consciously take the tools of mediation into account. Hence the need for a sensitive and responsive guide: someone students can bounce new notions off, rather than simply absorb information from. Without this element, distance learning all too often becomes distanced learning. Just as a class taken remotely usually leads to a sea of remote students.

[…]

Marshall McLuhan was half-right when he insisted that the electronic age is ushering in a post-literate society. But no matter how we like to talk of new audio-visual forms of literacy, there is still the ‘typographic man’ pulling the strings, encouraging us to express ourselves alphabetically. Indeed, the electronic and the literate are not mutually exclusive, much as people like to pit them against each other.

  • Pettman also quotes Ian Bogost’s comments on distance learning:

The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that’s what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn’t online education per se, it’s the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.