Agin the Smaht Cit-ay!

(Published also today at

I started reading Adam Greenfield’s new book, Against the Smart City, with the expectation that it would be a critical view of the ways our urban lives have changed during the past half decade with the massive adoption of so-called “smart phones” and the rest of the ubiquitous technosphere. But it turns out he has a rather different target in mind. His polemic, delivered by EPUB and kindle only (so far), is directed at a techno-utopian fantasy promulgated by large multinational corporations and their government client-sponsors.

Specifically, he spends most of his book going point-by-point over the absurd claims of efforts to build cities in “empty” spaces; that is, brand new urban complexes built from scratch in reclaimed mudflats in the sea, or in one case in an “undeveloped” rural valley in Portugal. The three targets of Greenfield’s scathing critique are the Korean New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and a planned small city in Portugal called PlanIT Valley. “These are putatively urban-scale environments designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life. They are held up before us as forerunners and exemplars of the kind of urban environment we might inhabit once the cities of Earth have been decisively colonized by networked informatics, at some point in the undefined but not-too-distant future.”

Pictured above: A rendering of Masdar City, a "smart city" in the United Arab Emirates. By Forgemind ArchiMedia under a Creative Commons license from

Pictured above: A rendering of Masdar City, a “smart city” in the United Arab Emirates. By Forgemind ArchiMedia under a Creative Commons license from

The three big corporations at the heart of this below-the-radar industrial fantasy are IBM, Cisco Systems, and Siemens AG (of Munich, Germany). These companies are very familiar with large-scale projects and like to imagine they are capable of re-engineering life itself (IBM’s hubris-filled slogan these days is “let’s make a smarter planet”). They have all brought software- and hardware-linked systems to the market, offering urban planners a turnkey “solution” for everything that faces a generic municipal government. As Greenfield ably shows, the rhetoric, vision, and reality of these corporate schemes depends on an alarming amnesia and disregard for both history and actual knowledge about how cities really function.

While trading in the grand claims of cyberspace and seamless integration and frictionless futures, the urban life these corporations are trying to manage actually depends on real people moving through real environments, using everything from their feet to bicycles to cars and trains. Their sales pitch depends on a flattening of layered realities and omitting complex knowledge from more than a century of urban planning, history, and analysis:

Of the major technology vendors working in the field, Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement of the philosophical underpinnings on which their (and indeed the entire) smart-city enterprise is founded: “Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”
We act in historical space and time, as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions. So when Siemens talks about a city’s autonomous systems acting on “perfect knowledge” of residents’ habits and behaviors, what they are suggesting in the first place is that everything those residents ever do — whether in public or in spaces and settings formerly thought of as private — can be sensed accurately, raised to the network without loss, and submitted to the consideration of some system capable of interpreting it appropriately. And furthermore, that all of these efforts can somehow, by means unspecified, avoid being skewed by the entropy, error and contingency that mark everything else that transpires inside history.

Soon after plunging into Against the Smart City I began to wonder why so much analytical effort had been spent debunking what seem to me to be patently absurd assertions by corporate PR departments.  While I appreciate Greenfield’s detailed rebuttals to the Smart City propagandists, I found myself bogging down. I can’t really believe these plans are being built or will ever come anywhere near to their claims. Greenfield’s critique leaves little room for anyone to suggest that these “smart city” plans are anything but self-evidently ridiculous.

For all of the conceptual flaws we’ve identified in the Siemens proposition, though, it’s the word “goal” that just leaps off the page. In all my thinking about cities, it has frankly never occurred to me to assert that cities have goals. (What is Cleveland’s goal? Karachi’s?)…By failing to account for the situation of technological devices inside historical space and time, the diversity and complexity of the urban ecology, the reality of politics or, most puzzlingly of all, the “normal accidents” all complex systems are subject to, Siemens’ vision of cities perfectly regulated by autonomous smart systems thoroughly disqualifies itself. But it’s in this depiction of a city as an entity with unitary goals that it comes closest to self-parody.

The frenzy of construction and upward growth continues unabated in San Francisco while we all await the next, inevitable crash.

The frenzy of construction and upward growth continues unabated in San Francisco while we all await the next, inevitable crash.

As I read along I kept feeling like I’d seen all this before. And finally, about 75% into the book, Greenfield confirmed my suspicions. In his chapter on “overspecification” he points out the brittleness of their vision, the bizarre lack of flexibility, the sheer hubris of their overdetermined plans. For the Portuguese PlanIT Valley the designer

Appear[s] to allocate commercial, residential and retail sectors around a central public space, in a radial scheme as inelastic as Disneyland’s…The city’s functions are dispersed among discrete Retail, Residential, Research and Entertainment quarters, there to remain…the strict functional segregation of activity into designated, single-purpose districts is a hallmark of high-modernist urban planning, finding its earliest pure expression in Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Plan Voisin of 1924 and reaching an apotheosis in post-war plans like those for Brasília and Chandigarh.

Continue reading Agin the Smaht Cit-ay!

Liberalism… Still!

It’s been 10 years since I started this blog, originally called “The Attitude Adjustor,” but retitled “The Nowtopian” in 2008 or so. And I just went six weeks without an entry, the longest gap in all these years I think… hmmm. Well, I’ve been quite busy as you can imagine. Spent the past six weeks employed as a curator and writer for a new Tenderloin Museum slated to open in Fall 2014 at the Cadillac Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. We’ll see how what I wrote turns out after museum designers—and editors unknown—get done with it! I’m guessing it’ll get pretty flattened and drained of some of what I think are the most important histories, but let’s hope for the best.

The Baldwin Hotel at Powell and Market, c. 1880s, then the gateway to the Tenderloin.

The Baldwin Hotel at Powell and Market, c. 1880s, then the gateway to the Tenderloin.

I’ve been reading a lot during these past months too, and will be writing about two books in particular in this entry. First, my enthusiastic kudos to Jonathan Lethem for Dissident Gardens and Margaret Atwood for the final volume in her trilogy MaddAdam—two novels that I really enjoyed. (I also plowed through Oscar Wilde’s classic Portrait of Dorian Gray but I really didn’t like it, thereby violating my cardinal rule of not finishing anything that I don’t really enjoy.) I mentioned in the past entry how much I loved Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love, which went right into my top five of books about San Francisco past and present. (Kamiya also generously and graciously allowed us to use two excerpts on FoundSF, one a great short history of the Western Addition, and the other about searching for evidence of the original inhabitants of San Francisco.) And I just cruised through Ian Buruma’s fascinating Year Zero about 1945. I had that lurking sense that things happened in that year that are still shaping our lives today, and to some extent that is borne out by his book. The assault on labor and the left that began in the waning months of WWII set the stage for so much of the Cold War and the way things evolved in the last half of the 20th century, right up to and including the bizarre ideological zombies parroting all this pro-market gibberish in the wake of the tidal wave of displacement and community destruction underway in San Francisco.

St. Ann's Valley, 1858, looking south across what would later become the Tenderloin and South of Market towards Mission Bay and Potrero Hill in the distance.

St. Ann’s Valley, 1858, looking south across what would later become the Tenderloin and South of Market towards Mission Bay and Potrero Hill in the distance.

And that leads me to today’s topic which is broadly “liberalism.” Twenty years ago I read Immanuel Wallersten’s After Liberalism, which I thought was a sharp analysis and very cogent explanation for the post-Cold War world. In it he looks at the long trajectory of politics from the French revolution through the 20th century and showed how liberals had come to depend on communism, without which they had trouble explaining what they stood for. As long as there was a totalitarian left the liberals could masquerade convincingly as a humanist left. (It deserves to be mentioned, though, that Jimmy Carter was the first neoliberal president, pushing a deregulatory privatizing agenda even before Reagan came in to accelerate the process—see Jefferson Cowie’s excellent Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the American Working Class for a great analysis of this.)

But what we’ve seen during the quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union is a similar and perhaps more abject collapse of liberalism. Bill Clinton, still strangely lauded as a liberal Democrat, oversaw the deregulation of the financial industry, the destruction of the welfare state, and strongly pushed free trade (NAFTA and WTO) along with privatization at every turn (Obama has just been more Clintonism, perhaps a bit more aggressively pro-corporate). Tony Blair did the same in England at the head of a “Labor” government. In England of course, as in Europe more generally, “liberal” does not refer to people on the left. (The Economist magazine considers itself a liberal newspaper even though it’s a magazine and one of the most staunchly pro-business rags in the world.) In the United States official politics is divided between the two parties and the two acceptable ideologies, which used to be liberal and conservative, but after 1990 or so, it became moderate and conservative, with the label “liberal” so derided by the right-wing media echo chamber that no mainstream politician would defend it any more. To be sure, many vaguely leftish folks these days still call themselves “liberals” in the U.S. Plenty of the tech “working class”—who are raking it in and dominating the SF real estate market—claim a socially liberal politics while promulgating a harsh libertarian pro-market economic bias, which in terms of classical definitions is purely liberal too. The odd hybrids of liberalism, libertarianism, and progressivism mixing and matching in this area these days clearly can be connected to the long, strange history of liberalism.

squatters republicFar be it from me to try to take on such an enormous topic as liberalism in a simple blog post, but I am going to dig around the peculiar and specific roots of western liberalism while considering two excellent new books on California history. The two books are Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West by Stephen J. Mexal (University of Nebraska Press: 2013) and A Squatter’s Republic: Land and the Politics of Monopoly in California, 1850-1900 by Tamara Venit Shelton (© 2013 Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens and University of California Press). I’ve been teaching San Francisco history for the past few years at the SF Art Institute, and that’s given me a chance to learn a lot about the first 50 years of urban growth here. San Francisco has a remarkably short history actually, and it’s easy to think that what happened in the 19th century, while charming and often surprising, has little to do with the modern metropolis of 7+ million ringing the Bay nowadays. But echoes of those long-ago days keep reverberating against the walls of today’s City, from the wild real estate speculation that goes on much as it did in the days when this peninsula was still sand dunes and mud flats, to the deep racism and classism that white settlers brought to California and from which the state has never fully freed itself, San Francisco’s reputation for racial diversity and tolerance notwithstanding.

Both Mexal and Shelton are very good writers and both have done excellent jobs of delving into histories that we stopped thinking about a long time ago, if we ever did. Mexal sets out to do a combined literary, philosophical, and political analysis of the writings that appeared in San Francisco’s Overland Monthly magazine from its founding in 1868 under the editorship of Bret Harte. His goal, as his full title suggests, is to excavate the way the writings in this influential journal helped shape the self-conception of liberal republican society in the West in the post-Civil War era, an era characterized by growing industrialization and expansion of capitalist enterprises in agriculture, shipping, manufacturing, and more. Ultimately, the efforts of Overland Monthly writers are directed towards promoting development of the West at a time when the boundaries of civilization and wilderness were blurry, as were the boundaries between who qualified as members of civilized society and those who fell outside its edges. (Gray Brechin’s important Imperial San Francisco shows how Union Iron Works owner Irving M. Scott used the Overland Monthly—of which he became a director after buying a 100-year subscription—in the late 19th and early 20th century to promote an aggressive, militaristic, and imperial California—a story invisible in Mexal’s work.) For Mexal the liberal republicanism under construction in the 1860s and 1870s in California was trying to “balance the rights of the individual with the good of the public.” This is already a departure from the classical liberalism of philosopher John Locke which assumed (politically at least), as Margaret Thatcher did two centuries later, that there was no such thing as society, and that everything came down to the atomized individual. Continue reading Liberalism… Still!

Thoughts on the Gift Economy

Sunset view from Tank Hill, sun lighting up windows in east bay hills, Corona Heights in foreground.

Sunset view from Tank Hill, sun lighting up windows in east bay hills, Corona Heights in foreground.

Adriana and I went on a long walk Sunday in search of two trails previously unknown to me, written about by Gary Kamiya in his masterful “Cool Gray City of Love” (highly recommended!). The photos accompanying this otherwise unrelated essay are my favorites from our walk. The essay below is something I wrote in response to my colleagues from the Giftival (previous post) who asked me to elaborate.

Funny what you find in random windows in San Francisco.

Funny what you find in random windows in San Francisco.

The gift is apparently a concept that carries a lot of weight. People use it in all kinds of contexts and it can hold many different meanings, and even refer to quite different things. To contemplate the notion of a “gift economy” first requires some clarity about what is being discussed.

Some people take the notion of a gift and connect it to the feelings they’ve had at receiving a gift, usually some kind of gratitude and/or surprise. It doesn’t take too long before this perception morphs further and some people begin to relive moments where they were given something that they unconsciously took for granted, and later realized they SHOULD have felt grateful for it. For those who are religiously inclined, the concept of gift quickly becomes a pivot for giving thanks to God for life itself, or to Gaia/Earth, or if more secularly minded, to give thanks to other people in one’s life for the “gifts” of food, water, even air.

I think framing the idea of a “gift economy” in these highly subjective and personal ways, often fundamentally spiritual, makes it almost impossible to face up to the enormous challenge of posing the logic of the gift AGAINST the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is an amazingly adaptive and complex system of social organization based on class, private property, and exchange knit together in a productive regime that is meant to grow in perpetuity. To pose the gift as an alternative to this runs into immediate problems, since it tends to reinforce the starting point of private property that can be “given” by one to another. (As I type this, in the background on the television is a commercial for Christmas shopping centered on a character they’ve dubbed “The Gifter”—a woman who engages in a frenzy of shopping to give dozens of gifts during the holiday season). Moreover, the notion of the gift also tends to direct our attention to the goods and services being given (and received), rather than the social relationships that are both necessary prerequisites and logical outcomes of a culture of free sharing. Continue reading Thoughts on the Gift Economy