Note: I originally published this in June 2014 Issue of Contributoria. It is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. If you wish to republish, please attribute the original article
I once lived in a village on the rural Wild Coast of South Africa. It had a horizon so vast you could almost glimpse the curvature of the earth. There was one computer with a dial-up modem, and it almost never worked. That was just before I moved to London, to work in the steel and concrete of the city’s colossal financial sector. In London, as in many cities, you cannot see the horizon. The average visibility extends perhaps 30 metres in front of you. On the other hand, you are connected to a vast hallucinogenic web of broadband media connection, constantly.
That is, of course, provided the electricity doesn't go out.
In London, the electricity doesn't tend to go out. It is hooked into the all-powerful National Grid, a company I used to try sell financial derivatives to. In South Africa though, we experienced the ‘rolling blackouts’ of 2007. I remember how, for hours at a time, the electricity supply was shut off and cities were left in darkness. It was an embarrassing failure for the electricity giant Eskom, but the crisis had a strange silver lining. In the absence of electricity to watch television or browse the internet, people wondered outside, sitting on the front steps of their houses, talking with passers-by, watching the stars that were normally drowned out by the glare of the city.
It was as if, for a moment, a broader illusion had been turned off with the television sets. The bubble of streetlight security control disappeared, but instead of uneasy discomfort, it brought for some a sense of calm. The speed slowed down. People suddenly realised how much they took for granted.
Stars and horizons
In their natural setting, stars and horizons serve to remind you of your context. Seeing them helps to brings home the point that you are on a giant rolling planet, suspended within an enormous galactic system.
That’s something that doesn’t actually sit well with the implicit ideology of the city. Forget being on a planet. You are in LONDON, a uniquely important place in a uniquely important time, a control tower from which to master destiny and the external elements. Indeed, in the city, horizons and stars are not real things. Rather they are the basis for kitsch inspirational quotes (‘look to the horizon, reach for the stars’), pasted on the cubicle walls of wannabe high-flying young urban professionals, representing abstract places you cannot really reach.
And herein lies a central tension in the modern global mega-city. It might be a dynamic hub of glamorous entertainment, high-stakes commerce and edgy artistic sophistication, but it is also an engine of alienation, distancing us from the reality of our context, the land where food is grown, the ground in which fossil fuels and metals are dredged from the earth, and the ecological systems that underpin it all. In the city, you are divorced from that broader context, and placed into a different one – an exciting one perhaps – but a disconnected one nevertheless.
The disturbing possibility therefore, is that urban elites – whether in London, Brussels, Tokyo, Mumbai or New York – wield the greatest political and cultural trendsetting power, and yet may retain the least knowledge of the actual basis of their own survival. Those who do understand such realities – such as copper mine workers in Peru, or oil workers in the Niger Delta – are politically marginalised, and frequently looked down upon as backward objects of pity, or faces on charity aid brochures.
And urbanisation is not slowing down. So, in an era of hyper-consuming global metropolises, we face a crucial question with deep consequences: How does one live in the city whilst somehow retaining a grip on ecological reality?
This essay is my opening foray into that question. It doesn't quite answer it, but it sets out a map of what conceptual and practical territories need to be covered. I'm then going to use that map over the next few months as I undertake something of a techno-shamanic adventure into the mire of the city as part of collective called Wisdomhackers. There are 26 of us, all immersively exploring different aspects of modern life (which, let’s face it, is often a catchphrase for urban life), coordinated by the ‘Amish Futurist’ and explorer of informal pirate economies, Alexa Clay.
The collective includes Aina Abiodun, grappling with the implications of techno-utopianism, Anna Stothard, rethinking our relationship with physical objects in a throwaway consumer culture obsessed with change, Antoine Sakho, exploring technology consumption philosophy, Nathan Schneider, working on new social contracts, Lee-Sean Huang, exploring the disembodied experience of ‘knowledge work’, and Brock leMieux, experimenting with digital learning infrastructures.
In delving into city life and technology, I'm departing somewhat from my normal writings focused on the financial sector. There is a deep link though. The financial sector, after all, is intensely urban, and intensely technological, and I have a suspicion that some of the roots of financial crisis, and broader economic crisis, are inextricably linked to city life itself.
Exploring urban ambiguity
Cities are deeply ambiguous, even contradictory places. On the one hand, they can be exuberant crucibles of cosmopolitan culture, liberating one from oppressive social bonds and bigotries, leaving you free to join loose floating groups of like-minded people. If you’re an ostracised gay person in rural Mpumalanga, or an aspiring tech entrepreneur in the Australian outback, or Billy Elliot in a coal-mining town, are you going to stick around? Hell no! You go to Johannesburg, Brisbane, the Royal Ballet School in London. You become a city dweller, just like me.
And if there is one thing that we know about cities, it’s that they are veritable hives of technology, and the physical host for the ghostly force of innovation. That’s as true today as it was during the Middle Ages, when people from distant small village towns needed to buy their church bells from specialist smiths in London. Cities host economies of agglomeration, and small towns frequently have too few people to support the capital and labour requirements of high tech industries. The same thing can be said about opera. Not enough people to support a big specialist theatre in the Ausi outback. Got to go to Sydney.
And this indeed is an engine of ‘progress’, if defined in terms of material and cultural output levels. The city churns out new ideas, new music, new sub-cultures, new technology, new everything, all the time.
On the other hand, cities also churn out an extraordinary amount of bullshit. It crawls with superficial phonies (so despised in Catcher in the Rye), asshole businessmen, aggressive drivers, chancers and purveyors of meaningless fads. Pampered high-life culture meets low-life crime. Blinkered positive-thinking optimism meshes with hard-edged cynicism. And all the time, giant piles of material and cultural waste accumulate, last month's fashion magazines shuttled out of sight into the landfill.
Part of this dynamic is due to the fact that newness itself starts to feel old after a while, so people become jaded in the city, demanding and hard to please. In a sense, city culture becomes a prisoner of its own success, as once-innovative breakthroughs become stultifying producers of casual boredom. As a South African in London, I arrived wide-eyed and gawking at the incredible underground transportation system. A year later I was bitching about it. Oh my god, it’s five minutes late!
Cities have also long had a reputation for inspiring self-serving individualistic decadence and moral corruption. I’ve experienced my fair share of it, from the nauseating overpriced cocktail culture of Mayfair, to the self-destructive mindfuck of bankrupt Withnail & I melancholia. I lived with a guy who had such a drug problem that he couldn’t bring himself to buy toilet paper, and started using the pages of an old Stephen King novel to wipe his ass. The shocking thing though, wasn't that he was doing that, but that I didn't care. If you’re in that mode for long enough, it breeds a kind of anarchic disdain for convention, a Down and out in Paris and London haze which is both terrifying and liberating, incredibly deep, or incredibly shallow, depending on who you are.
There is also a long history of people lamenting these dynamics, from the Book of Revelation reviling the depravation of Babylon, to Rousseau scolding city dwellers ‘depraved by sloth, inactivity, [and] the love of pleasure’, to Utopian Socialists leaving to start intentional communities in the countryside, to Gauguin leaving for Tahiti. Recently, even Micah White of Occupy Wall Street began berating the cadres of urban activists and moved to Nehalem to launch a rural revolution (albeit one less demanding than the rural revolution demanded under Maoism).
Perhaps urban ambiguity is rooted in the fact that the same loose bonds that can unlock empowering forms of freedom, can simultaneously create disempowering forms of disassociation. Take, for example, early proletarianisation, whereby people disenfranchised from the land drifted into wage labour in cities. The loosening of rural bonds was associated with the emergence of the ‘free’ human labour market, the ability to voluntarily detach oneself from social – and ecological – ties, eerily similar to how a marketised product detaches from those who produce it. The open-minded and expansive search for self is always prone to being twisted into the service of corporate power, taking the commoditised, shallow form of the fun-seeking consumer shopping for identity.
Urban dynamic 1: Illusions of access in a world of interfaces
Many things are indeed very shallow in a city. Consider a simple plug socket, a two-dimensional interface discreetly inset within the wall. Somewhere, elsewhere, natural gas from the North Sea is being burned in turbines to produce a generic, seemingly invisible form of all-purpose energy called electricity, which is channelled via the electrical grid and now waits innocently for me at the plug. The wall blocks the outside reality while the plug presents a new one. We might say our experience of energy begins at the plug. Everything that happened before this is blocked out.
Most interfaces are like this. One part blocks you from something, while another part invites you into something else. In the city we’re faced with a myriad of such interfaces. Consider the supermarket. The simple Tesco aisle is a sanitised interface. It presents us with free-floating consumption items whilst simultaneously blocking awareness of their prior production processes that happened elsewhere. It’s a key institution of modern psychological disconnection, doubling as an exemplar of modern sophistication.
And what about the ATM? It's an interface into the banking system, a machine of convenience replicating what a human bank teller used to do. They're often placed next to physical bank branches, giving the impression that the money coming out of the wall came from 'inside' the bank. Given that the majority of our money is in fact electronic, ‘stored’ in a bank's datacentre-based IT system, nowhere remotely close to the ATM, this is something of an illusion. And what about my debit card? Is the money in the plastic card, or elsewhere? Maybe you see a taxi displaying an advert for a share-trading account. The account is just an interface into an underlying stockmarket, and the shares there are just interfaces too, channelling returns generated elsewhere.
But even the seemingly down-to-earth world of physical buildings frequently represents a kind of interface. For all the rhetoric of city freedom, the average person experiences the city as a zone of things that you can see but that you will never actually interact with, a collection of human and physical objects, many of them out of bounds. The streets might be free to all, but the buildings are a series of locks and gates, or rather, paywalls, and differential access to them abounds. I can look at the two-dimensional frontage of the Ritz, but can I experience the three dimensional space beyond the facade?
You can of course use wealth to unlock these paywalls. Wealth brings a kind of universal freedom of the city access card (albeit, ironically, if you’re very poor, you may be so marginalised that you gain a different sort of freedom to use parts of the city that many people wilfully shut themselves off from, the parallel world of trashcan alleys, shacks and derelict squats, hauntingly captured here by photographer Chris Arnade). For the average person though, the city expresses itself to you as a kind of aspiration, things you maybe one day will get to do.
This phenomenon applies to human relations too. In the city you’re faced with a constant stream of people you will never meet. Have you heard of the term sonder? It’s a neologism from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, referring to the realisation that every person that passes you by is living a life as intense as your own, but that you’ll never have access to it, with you perhaps appearing “only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
Urban dynamic 2: FOMO meets YOLO in the buzz of constant surveillance
The ironic consequence of this is that you’re almost never alone in a city, but are surrounded by people who often don’t offer much in the way of sympathy either. This is part of that hard-edged, bittersweet symphony city vibe that some people get a big kick off, blitzing down the road shoulder-barging people out the way, leaving kind-hearted romantics feeling deeply isolated, wanting to escape to the countryside. Of course, the endless stream of people offer potential for interaction, a tantalizing potential for sex, fun, intellectual debate, and experience. It culminates in the ever-present fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) complex, breathlessly (and tragically) set against the ticking timebomb of the you-only-live-once (YOLO) complex.
The sense of never being alone is part of the city buzz, but it also doubles as an element of a peculiar urban surveillance complex, joining the interconnected web of visible policing, endless lights, and, if you glance upwards, CCTV cameras, all meshing together to give the subsconscious awareness of always potentially being on someone’s radar. Here’s an experiment: Walk down a city pavement and then make an abrupt stop and stand frozen still. Can you hold it for more than 20 seconds? An invisible force hits you. You feel the weight of people potentially watching you (maybe you can call it the panopticon). Why have you stopped for no reason?
There are ways to escape the surveillance complex, and at any one moment in central London you’ll find people existing in pockets of unmonitored space, feeling the wild tinge of alone-ness in a toilet cubicle, in old elevators, behind pillars in underground parking lots, in back alleys. We intuitively know where to find these places. One just need imagine where you would go if you were trying to find a place to piss in the city, or to have sex, or basically to do anything slightly illicit.
Urban dynamic 3: In control of freedom
But even in the toilet cubicle you are not entirely alone. There are always the attempts to use the physical space to communicate with you, drunken messages plastered on the walls, and then, of course, there is the ADVERTISEMENT on the back of the door. Just like old communist cities were dotted with socialist realist artworks depicting idealised visions of humanity working towards common goals, so the surrealist corporate propaganda urges you to act on the goal of becoming something slightly different to what you are, to give in to vague fears or aspirations (reaching dystopian proportions in the sci-fi imagination of Minority Report).
Advertising is part of an obvious ongoing attempt to influence thought, to control to some end, but it tends to cloak it within the banner of either freedom, or of security. Under the hedonistic exterior of the Calvin Klein billboard there is clearly some highly-strung anal executive trying to orchestrate a well-oiled campaign. It’s the same with the friendly pleas for civility on the London Underground, or the Mayor’s cycling campaign, or the health and safety warning signs, the traffic lights and rules. They're all reflective of perhaps the deepest ambiguity of a city, that between freedom and control, and between control and its confusingly similar echo, security. Levi's makes me feel secure.
The perception of power and control as security is a hallmark of ‘mainstream’ status quo thought, constituting what we can call, loosely, hegemony, the way that powerful institutions appear in popular consciousness as reassuringly normal. The police represent security to those in the mainstream, control to those outside, just like the smiling faces of corporate executives appear respectably professional to some, and as exploitative masks of manipulation to others.
We have a long tradition of critiquing adverts, corporate executives and police violence, isolating the exploitative strands found within the comfortable security. Perhaps the most pervasive control complex of the city though, is the most subtle, and we take it so for granted that it’s almost invisible. If there is one thing that most social classes implicitly agree on, it’s that wilderness is not allowed to flourish in the city. We have developed technologies of control like concrete to resist the chaotic wiles of weeds. We have pest removal companies and poisons to remove pockets of alternative life as they form, and tree surgeons assassinating rogue branches that don’t obey council rules. We might allow carefully tended parks, but wilderness, NO!
Urban dynamic 4: The echo-chamber of urban elitism
The silent bulwarks of concrete control tend to get forgotten, or hidden, amidst the loud buzz of urban creativity, and it's in this contradictory setting that a covert cultural agreement emerges. It runs across the political spectrum, and across national boundaries. It is the tacit agreement that the City is where everything important happens, where policies get made, where trends get set. It’s wired into urban mentality, and above all it finds expression in people who consider themselves global jet-setters – the transnational urban elite – and in our favourite technology, the internet.
The internet, when taken in aggregate, does not reflect ‘the world’. It reflects the relentless content production of large global cities, and the transnational aspirations of transnational urbanites. There are up to 3 billion Google search results for New York. How many for the entire country of Angola? Around 126 million.
Urbanites have long be criticised for having their feet off the ground, for lacking an earthy connection to the soil, but the sheer scale of this potential disconnection has increased as the sources of distraction have become richer than ever, a commercial media complex interwoven ever more closely into experience, the mobile internet streaming data from urban trendsetters around the world, music videos from San Francisco, stock prices from Hong Kong. This is the distraction complex, pointed out in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the basis of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality. You can live an entire life in this cultural echo-chamber, surrounded by others doing the same. Base level awareness of things like soil and rain merely distract from more important upper level realities. Who cares about watersheds when we can discuss vinyl, technology, business?
So let’s talk business then. All business, in the final analysis, comes down to raw human labour (physical or intellectual), which is supported by agriculture and augmented by technology (made with materials dug out of the earth) that's fuelled by energy sources. That's a formula captured in everything from large-scale construction of highways to the simple act of using a photocopier after lunch (labour + food + technology + electricity). The pinnacle of city business though, is finance, the portal for amplifying and steering previously accumulated capital into businesses of the future. The headquarters of global financial institutions are profoundly urban, and it’s in this setting that professionals make daily decisions about financing destructive projects in far-away places. The disconnected mentality of the city feeds into disconnected notions of economic life. Forest destruction is reduced to a series of numeric cash flow projections in excel spreadsheets.
The quest part 1: Getting behind the interfaces
So let's imagine it's evening in the city. You close down the spreadsheet, and pull on your suit jacket to head across town to a bar, walking along the controlled space of the pavement, making a pit-stop in a shop to pick up a disassociated pack of cigarettes piped in from some unknown location, petroleum-powered cars blurring past.
If you were, however, to look down the back alley you pass, or through the sewer grilles under your feet, or behind the billboards, you’d see that there are strange piping systems, ventilation shafts, bundles of wires, mechanical pulleys, delivery docks, waste management systems, storage depots, dirt and grease compounds. The world of interfaces is kept illuminated and co-ordinated via a vast, elaborate network of manual workers who will undertake all the steps necessary to seamlessly deliver a glass of cider down on a table in a Shoreditch bar.
This is the back-end, the spaces behind the interfaces. These are the only spaces in a city like London that you won’t find adverts.
It is here then, that I will begin a search for the deeper soul of the city. The first part of my quest over the next few months is to go behind the interfaces. The back end is, for some, a zone of resistance. It is where the urban foxes live. It is where squatters make homes in abandoned old pubs. It is where community gardens are started. It is where graffiti artists practice their craft. It is where weeds grow untended, little outposts of ecological resistance against concrete control. There are wild tomatoes growing on the banks of Thames, if you know where to look.
It's in this space also that the urban exploration subculture emerges, explorers of abandoned buildings and places you’re not supposed to see. The urban exploration crew is drawn to all that is designed to be out of bounds, which happens to include most key elements of city infrastructure, the underground train systems, the telecommunications towers, the electrical power yards, the warehouse complexes, the sewerage systems, the logistics nodes in the shadows or on the outskirts. They are back-end adventurers, on the one hand rebellious, but perhaps also seeking solace in places that nobody expects to find you in. It's a strand of the underground tradition of psychogeography, the attempt to defy or redefine the hegemonic logic of city spaces.
If there is one thing that fascinates me in the city, it’s the food system. How the hell does all the food get in? How many kebab shops are there in London and how much meat do they go through in a day, and where does that come from? Where are the warehouses that Tesco uses to restock its imperial army of store fronts? How many steps are there between a fishing boat pulling a tuna out of the ocean and it ending up in a Yo! Sushi outlet in Soho?
The quest part 2: Bringing the back end to the front end
The crux of the quest though, is to explore how these vast back end systems, and the ecological systems they drawn upon, can be brought to awareness within the very space that hides them. There are already urban movements that attempt to do this. The urban agriculture movements, for example, try to bring farm life right into the physical space of the city, creating rooftop plantations and city farms. In a more rebellious vein, there are guerilla gardeners seedbombing the stilted rows of public parks and manicured gardens with reckless wildflowers.
The key question for me though, is what part new high technology can play in all this. We are faced with a dilemma here. Technology historically has been used to cushion us from external realities. The streaming media capabilities of smart-phones have seemingly obvious potential to open our eyes to things, but they've also created an information bubble which appears on a day-to-day basis to mostly dull the senses, not make them alive to unseen realities.
But it's worth a try, so I will explore different approaches to using such communications technology. Firstly, it is worth looking at abstraction techniques, technologies that take a complex external reality and attempt to make it into something understandable, or present it in the form of an analogy. For example, think of big data visualisation of internet usage, or mapping projects, transforming the global subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs into a digestible form. It's an approach that really attempts to compress the disorientating scale of modern life into bite-sized chunks.
Secondly, there are humanising techniques, ways of taking something that is currently abstracted or obscured, and showing the story behind it. For example, can we build open data maps of supply chains, populate them with personal stories and data on resource usage, and feed them into augmented reality apps operating within the paradigm of the ‘internet-of-things’? Maybe even Google maps can be used: I’ve used StreetView to virtually drive the back streets of Hong Kong to get a glimpse of Shenzhen where my iPhone is assembled. And can I use the technological interface of the iPhone to breach its own branded façade and see the vast, intricate web of its own production?
And then there is the mother of all abstract façades, the financial sector, entrenched behind a firewall of political power and technical obfuscation. How might we breach the slick shell of financial instruments to view the gritty real world beneath? Is there a way to read the Financial Times that will make me alive to the deep human and ecological dynamics embedded in cold financial abstractions? Can we take a flat story about stockmarket regulation and see it for what it is, a network of urban politicians interacting with a network of urban businesspeople, battling it out amidst cultural constructions of risk, debt and the perceived potential of ‘assets’ in far flung, probably marginalised, production centres?
The battle for holistic fusion
Maybe none of this works without people being willing to adopt a certain critical orientation towards surface appearances. Groups like BankTrack do try to show the human and environmental stories behind major bank deals, but getting those stories into the public domain is tough. How do you bring marginalised voices into the city, to the ears of people who implicitly benefit by remaining ignorant. Out of sight, out of mind.
It's a crucial battle for holistic fusion. Because, the countryside and the city appear to me like the imagined split between body and mind, physicality and intellectuality, hard labour and innovation. And, in the same way that the artificial distinction between body and mind needs to be fought, the consciousness of the city needs to be fused with the consciousness of all those vast tracts of the earth’s surface that feed into it.
Read on! Part 2
To read Part 2 of this quest, please do sign up to Wisdomhackers on the Pigeonhole, where it is being released as part of an awesome group book. The book comes out in weekly installments for the nominal sum of £5, which goes to help us struggling writers. My essay in the new collection is a 7000 word deep dive into the questions raised above, and it's a lot of fun. It includes critical explorations of the technological smart city narrative, cyborgs, LSD and the battle to reinvent political economy in the city