Urbanizing tech­nol­o­gy. I think of this short talk that I’m going to give about what is of course a big sub­ject as lying at the inter­sec­tion— (I’m hav­ing trou­ble find­ing a place for my clock oth­er­wise I’ll go out of con­trol speak­ing.) of two vec­tors. One of them is the fact that cities have become sites, places, for mas­sive deploy­ments of increas­ing­ly com­plex and all-encompassing tech­ni­cal sys­tems, some of them good, some of them dubi­ous.

On the oth­er hand, I think that—and this is sort of a more explo­rative side—I think that cities talk back. They don’t allow any­thing just to go. And the fail­ures of many of the­se tech­ni­cal sys­tems are an indi­ca­tion of that. And so I have a lit­tle project that I call Does the city have speech?” and I mean speech in the com­plex sense of the legal schol­ar­ship, the dis­course, not just talk talk talk. 

So, urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy is a way of nav­i­gat­ing between the­se two con­di­tions. And in a way, of course, it’s an ambigu­ous notion. Two propo­si­tions to orga­nize. So, one is the chal­lenge of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and I don’t have all the answers but I think it’s a project. It’s, you know, a col­lec­tive project. And sec­ond­ly, part of the chal­lenge is of course to pre­serve what has made cities able to out­live all kinds of oth­er closed sys­tems, from enter­pris­es, king­doms, etc., to finan­cial firms, which I find absolute­ly adorable.

Now what might this mean, urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy?” So here is one. Urbanizing oil plat­forms, which looks actu­al­ly rather attrac­tive; a cer­tain den­si­ty. Density by itself is not going to urban­ize. This type of density—and the­se are also intel­li­gent sys­tems, intel­li­gent build­ings, deur­ban­izes a city. So this is not a con­cept that is attrac­tive.

This is a very intel­li­gent sys­tem. This is a util­i­ty in San Francisco which has a cen­tral­ized sort of knowl­edge and information-gathering sys­tem. It con­trols every­thing that has to do with cer­tain aspects at least of the util­i­ty. And this is of course quite prob­lem­at­ic. IBM has been devel­op­ing the­se types of sys­tems. There might be good aspects to it, but there are cer­tain­ly also prob­lem­at­ic aspects to it. Because in the end it’s a rigid sys­tem. When the tech­nol­o­gy becomes obso­lete, what hap­pens?

Now, the ques­tion of tech­ni­cal obso­les­cence when­ev­er you deal with tech­nol­o­gy is of course crit­i­cal. And what we are see­ing nowa­days is a rapid accel­er­a­tion in the rate of obso­les­cence of tech­nolo­gies. So the more wide­spread the use of intel­li­gent sys­tems in a city, the more the city itself is at risk of becom­ing obso­lete. What do we get? Dead cities. 

This is also an intel­li­gent sys­tem. I love this image. You don’t know what you’re look­ing at real­ly when you look at that. Now the ques­tion for me is, does the fact of the trees and their tem­po­ral­i­ty (very dif­fer­ent from the tem­po­ral­i­ty of tech­ni­cal sys­tems) sort of give the­se build­ings poten­tial­ly a larg­er life. Is it dif­fer­ent to kill hun­dreds of trees embed­ded in build­ings if you want then to allow tech­ni­cal sys­tems to become obso­lete and there­by bring build­ings down? These are ques­tions and I’m sure that the answers can vary enor­mous­ly from one place to anoth­er.

A first step for me in this notion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and here I just want to con­fine myself to one type of sys­tem which is to a large extent and also a kind of an urban sys­tem, which are inter­ac­tive tech­ni­cal domains. And it seems to me that it is quite foun­da­tion­al, I think, to engage in this ques­tion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, to rec­og­nize that the­se inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal domains deliv­er their util­i­ty through a larg­er ecol­o­gy that includes non-technical aspects. So there is a built-in capac­i­ty in that sense in the­se tech­nolo­gies to include key aspects of cities, of the social, of the inter­ac­tive.

And sort of a short propo­si­tion here is that the­se sys­tems get used in ways that, if you want, hack the engineer’s design. The engi­neer may have thought they get used in one way, but the actu­al users bring to the­se sys­tems a lot of oth­er ele­ments. And I think that it is in that diver­gence that lies this project of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The diver­gence between how users actu­al­ly alter the orig­i­nal design—a kind of open source mech­a­nism, if you want—and that log­ic of the engi­neer, if you want. And there­in, if you think of the city as a kind of open source sys­tem that goes way beyond a par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy, then I think we’re begin­ning to address this ques­tion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy.

So one image that I like is the city as hack­er. Of spaces, of tech­nolo­gies, of indi­vid­u­al self-interest. I have quite a few lit­tle projects that show how even in the space of the city, even if you have a bunch of rather self­ish peo­ple engag­ing in cer­tain prac­tices, there can be an out­come that pro­duces a pub­lic good. One might say they have sort of solved the prisoner’s dilem­ma.

One of my favorite exam­ples, and I don’t know, some of you may be famil­iar with this, was when New York City was in very bad shape in the 1980s. Riverside Park was by the river, beau­ti­ful hous­ing, but dan­ger­ous. Murders, rapes. The new sort of techies that were com­ing in, the new peo­ple, young peo­ple from Wall Street, bought places there. Dangerous place. What do you do in New York? You buy a dog. And the­se dogs were like lit­tle hors­es, so they were tru­ly impres­sive dogs. If you have a dog, you’ve got to walk it. No mat­ter how self­ish, they had to walk the dog. And the dogs evi­dent­ly have cer­tain rhythms. So in the end, everybody’s walk­ing the dog. The park becomes safe again. That is a capa­bil­i­ty that urban space has.

And my ques­tion is how can that capa­bil­i­ty also be put in motion, if you want, in terms of the­se tech­no­log­i­cal issues? When you think of urban space as pro­duc­ing that third pres­ence that adds some­thing else, I think that some­thing hap­pens there.

Now, sort of to wrap it up a bit here, this notion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy requires more than only under­stand­ing par­tic­u­lar fea­tures of cities. It requires I think also see­ing as as a city. In oth­er words, there is a dif­fer­ent way in which the city responds than the engi­neers, the cit­i­zens, etc., jug­gling the diver­si­ty of ele­ments that con­sti­tute urban space. A multi-perspective approach. 

For me, to con­clude also, one of the key issues is the many of the forces that are deur­ban­iz­ing cities. And one of the­se, and it con­sumes a lot of elec­tric­i­ty, is the new sur­veil­lance appa­ra­tus. And my ques­tion is, what are the spaces that can con­test? This is what we know about the United States. Ten thou­sand plus sur­veil­lance build­ings. That’s a lot of elec­tric­i­ty, by the way. It’s not clan­des­tine, because those build­ings are huge. But it’s big. It’s secret. And real­ly the ques­tion becomes what are the spaces where we can con­test this? This is a pro­found­ly deur­ban­iz­ing force, and I think that the city is one of the few places where we can con­test. The sys­tem basi­cal­ly pre­sumes that for our secu­ri­ty, we the cit­i­zens, we have to be sus­pect. We have to be sur­veyed.

As some­body put it, Assange, recent­ly, the­se are like turnkey sys­tems. The key has been turned just a lit­tle, but we are basi­cal­ly ful­ly mapped. Between Facebook. Between Google. Between what our gov­ern­ments do for our secu­ri­ty. So real­ly, a good city, a city that can talk back, a city that has not been deur­ban­ized, is one of the places where we can con­test this. And urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, because tech­nol­o­gy is with us here to stay and the­se sys­tems are huge and pow­er­ful. I think urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy is one of the crit­i­cal fac­tors in con­test­ing the deur­ban­iz­ing of cities and in mak­ing cities the­se places that are com­plex and, if you want, incom­plete. And because they’re incom­plete they can keep rein­vent­ing them­selves, being remade. They’re mutants. Thank you very much. 

Further Reference

"Urbanising Technology" essay by Saskia Sassen [different from this presentation] in the Urban Age: Electric City conference newspaper


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