City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 18 July 2020

How Silicon Valley doesn’t know what technology can be, and how this leads to Uber and Jump destroying bikes in a bike-shaped crisis; Or, why Y Combinator? The horror of Blitzscaling versus the promise of the East Kolkata Wetlands as nature-based technology and infrastructure. And just how boring is the Boring Company?

Technology is both a core constituent and modifier of these infrastructures of everyday life, and the paradigms they sit within. As technologies change, so our mental models are shifting planes, sliding around each other as new configurations become possible. As Carlota Perez describes in her seminal work on techno-economic paradigms, it is technological revolutions that tend to provoke redefinitions of the “over-arching meta-paradigm or shared best practice ‘common sense’”.

The word technology is derived from Ancient Greek concept oftechne, the artful craftiness or craft-ful ingenuity, or art or skill, making and doing. That is a broad church. And yet despite this suitably rich definition, in the popular imagination only the Ubers, Airbnbs, WeWorks, Facebooks, Googles, and Amazons of this world are apparently emblematic of the technology of our time.

In reality, they represent only a particular conception of technology, yet we allow their impact to be such that their particular dynamics are allowed to become “common sense”, defining how many things should work (A position well-critiqued in the collection “What if a city could be run like Amazon?”.)

These dynamics are quite unusual — for instance, those captured by the appalling term ‘blitzscaling’ — yet they apparently can be copy-pasted willy-nilly. (Only a culture as crass as Silicon Valley would appropriate the word ‘blitz’ for a business strategy.) Blitzscaling describes a particular approach to kind of technology i.e. the notion of ‘tech’ in an entirely extractive mode, arguably more redolent of yesterday than today.

Hundreds of JUMPs in Seattle sit in a storage facility near Jack Block Park, awaiting transport for scrapping. Photo © Jeff Rumbold, Bike Share Museum

Why Tech destroys bikes during a bike shortage

Witness the emblematic and sorry story of thousands of fully-working Uber Jump bikes being destroyed en masse, due to software incompatibility issues and contractual conflicts, just at the point that American key workers needed bikes to get to work whilst public transit was down during the first months of the pandemic. This is the very opposite of techne’s craft-ful and resourceful art. Few things could be less slowdown than this unethical and unsustainable waste, yet these companies are considered amongst the most innovative of the last decade.

Those Uber-Jump bikes were not surplus to requirements, but surplus to Uber’s ‘blitzscaling’ growth model, which values constant upgrades over resilience. The videos of the bikes that circulated were hard to watch, particularly as the New York Times reported that the US is facing “a severe bike shortage” due to the disruption in global supply chains. A few days before, a Bloomberg CityLab headline read “In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines”. Yet these Jump bikes shone only through the tangle of metal and plastic at the dump, their pristine red livery indicating how young and reusable they were.

As I’ve written elsewhere, judged purely through the reductive lens of traditional user-centred design processes, systems such as Uber and Jump appear to be well-designed. One cannot blame an interaction designer working on refining the user experience of the Jump app for this wider breakdown. She is only following orders, as it were. Yet if design more generally, almost half a century after Papanek’s shattering intervention in Design for the Real World, still has little grip on the growth dynamics that surround and value that user experience, we have failed as a discipline, just as economics has.

Watching metal jaws crush those perfectly good bikes brings that home in the most visceral of terms. Uber’s stock market value is not tied intrinsically to the movements of those jaws. Nor is design’s alleged value. Nor is GDP, which in fact benefits from each transaction implied in this sorry episode.

That single short video has all these mental models in play: valuing growth-obsessed startups and ‘market cap’ over real world outcomes; practices aimed at market domination; a design practice centred on individualistic user experience rather than broader resilience; implicitly valuing obsolescence and ‘creative destruction’ over repair and re-use, the tone-deaf ignorance by the tech sector of the wider social context and needs, and so on.

“An amazing COVID e-bike program could’ve done so much good and instead we have horrific images of bikes being eaten by the Claw at the dump. It’s a shameful nightmare.” — A former JUMP employee

The way that technology had been incorporated into those Jump bikes left it less resilient than before. It made it worse. This is not care-ful design.

The bicycle could be considered a near perfect design. Steve Jobs himself observed this in 1980, leading to his famous “computers as bicycles for the mind” quote, in which he drew from S.S. Wilson’s March 1973 study published in Scientific American.

In his article, Wilson used charts of calories versus weight to position a man (sic) on a bicycle as the most efficient transportation mode of all animals. Wilson wrote: It is worth asking why such an apparently simple device as the bicycle should have had such a major effect on the acceleration of technology. The answer surely lies in the sheer humanity of the machine. Its purpose is to make it easier for an individual to move about, and this the bicycle achieves in a way that quite outdoes natural evolution.”

Bicycle Technology, SS Wilson, Scientific American March 1973

Ivan Illich picked up on Wilson’s work in his 1978 pamphlet Toward a History of Needs:

“Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored.”—Ivan Illich (1978) (emphasis added)

Back to Wilson’s original, where he concluded, “If one were to give a short prescription for dealing rationally with the world’s problems of development, transportation, health and the efficient use of resources, one could do worse than the simple formula: Cycle and recycle.”

Yet we still do not cycle and recycle en masse — with a few honourable exceptions. Our mental models reject these obvious benefits, in favour of other abstract constructions, like trashing bikes in order to bolster ‘market cap’ by ‘upgrading the tech’. (I recall, with a shudder, a moment from a previous job in urban innovation circles in the UK, where I was told by someone ‘higher up’—there is always someone higher-up—that we should do fewer projects with cycling as the government thinks that there’s no money in bikes.)

The Uber-Jump debacle perfectly encapsulates the careless integration of Big Tech’s accoutrements onto what David Edgerton calls the everyday ‘technology-in-use’ of the bicyle. The bike’s resilient, humble, and near-perfect design was spoiled beyond repair by too much Tech, deployed with an eye on the market, rather than its actual use. Some of the today’s e-bikes may provide an example of more sensitive integration of technology into the bicycle — such as VanMoof, Cowboy, Sushi Bike et al — all of which are produced by European companies, not un-coincidentally.

Technological innovation is slowing down

So whilst the Uber/Jump articulation of technology runs counter to concept of ‘techne’, somehow the Ubers and Jumps of this world are emblematic of our age, that they represent rapid technical change. Big Tech is the engine of this accelerating age, and its mental model is one of roiling turbulence, a sense that it is our age that is defined by the fastest, most widespread, most disruptive technological progress.

In fact, all this noise is the sputtering engine at the end of the Great Acceleration, and thus a yearning for the past. Kevin Kelly, speaking at a TEDx in San Francisco and promoting his book What Technology Wants, states that “technology is basically increasing or amplifying or accelerating the way in which things change.” To his eyes, it is literally about acceleration.

Again, this could not be more wrong, not simply with that earlier understanding of ‘techne’. Dorling’s Slowdown is again instructive here, in fact suggesting that the rate of technical innovation has actually slowed radically in the last few decades. (This claim is also backed by Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom who describes how innovation generally has already radically slowed down, at least since the 1950s: Despite soaring investment in R&D, the ‘ideas productivity’ of individual researchers has been in freefall for decades.”. This recent podcast with Bloom talking to Tyler Cowan is worth a listen, if you pick the wheat from the chaff.)
Reading Dorling, you consider instead that, if you were born in ‘the West’ around 1900, you grew up into a world that almost entirely moved around on horseback. Yet by your middle-age, you could be going on holiday on a supersonic jetliner, and within your likely lifetime, Neil Armstrong would be stepping foot on the moon.

Dorling has example after example of how technical innovation of the Great Acceleration outpaces that of our age now, with perhaps the 1930s as the peak decade for technical innovation, in his view. (In her book Building Suburbia, Dolores Hayden notes that the solar water heater was patented in the 1890s, and that Dr. Maria Telkes at MIT, and architect Eleanor Raymond, had a fully-working prototype solar house handling most of its heating needs, in the “cold and overcast climate of Boston”, by the late 1940s.)

And yet it is our age in which the tech sector is to the fore, seen as the solution to most problems, at the core of the most innovative, most valuable companies, and effectively our primary organising principle — at a point when its purported stock in trade, breakthrough technical innovation, is actually faltering.

Dorling writes, “There is huge resistance to being told that technology is no longer improving as fast as it used to.” We strain our vocabularies making transformative claims for machine learning and Internet of Things, yet as Dorling sardonically puts it:

“The washing machine itself was a great leap forward. Getting washing machines to talk to one another is not.”

This example reveals a more powerful positioning of technology, in a broader context of social justice, rather than simply attempting a desperate growth of ‘market cap’. The real breakthrough of the washing machine was made a century ago, and enabled generations of women in particular to be released from the crushing drudgery and toil of laundry, in turn enabling their broader participation in the workforce. An Amazon Dash button, however, stuck to a washing machine to enable one-touch ordering of more detergent did little for social justice—or much else actually, despite emerging from one of the wealthiest corporations in human history. (Amazon Dash buttons were launched and then killed within four years.)

Cedric Price’s aphorism from 1966, “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”, remains hard to resist (not least to me). It captures our instinctive tendency to jump on new technologies as a solution before framing the question more holistically, rarely exploring what technology can mean in the first place, what it can be, nor its broader context. We cannot start with the answer ‘cars’, for instance, when we could ask the questions, “What kind of city do we want in the first place, and what would it stand for? How might this city move?”.

Technology is an incredibly rich field, with hugely diverse possibilities. Effectively, all our inventions, from pencils to libraries to streets to clothes, are technologies. With this broader understanding, amongst the most interesting lines of enquiry currently concern research into ‘nature-based technologies’, generally constructed within indigenous practices (See an earlier Paper for more discussion of this, particularly those collated and conveyed by the architect Julia Watson, in her recent Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism.)

These nature-based technologies inherently fold biodiverse and health-generating environments into forms of social and cultural infrastructure. In this, as with De Monchaux’s prototype, they stand for more than simply doing the job of hard infrastructure. They are also about culture, ownership, care, a relational mode. Is it drawing too long a bow to see a relationship between softer, more porous, absorptive landscapes and their social and psychological equivalents?

In their responsive and engaged mode, they also recall Jonathan Raban’s ‘soft city’ sensibility; the city is not the hard, inert built fabric, but plastic, pliable, open.

“(The city) invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in … Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form round you.” — Jonathan Raban

Although Raban’s vision was predicated on a deeply human sensibility, this adaptive, flexing, contingent and relational sensibility — as opposed to the ‘hard city’ assumed and practiced by current planning cultures — can suggest alternate mental models for developing nature-based infrastructures. For example, recall the technologies I discussed in an earlier Slowdown Paper: those of the Gates Foundation-funded ‘Toilet of the Future’ programme versus those of the East Kolkata Wetlands, in Bengal.

For the former, Janicki Bioenergy’s Omniprocessor fecal sludge sewage plant is one of the main outcomes of multi-million-dollar Gates project. A large Omniprocessor now sits outside Dakar, Senegal, and treats 14 tons of sewage per day, from which it can produce thousands of litres of drinking water. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

Yet the East Kolkata Wetlands is also a technology, albeit a nature-based technology or infrastructure. Devised and shaped by people and articulated as landscape and ecosystems, a brief glance at what the Wetlands does, as with the other examples in Watson’s collection, might cause you to ask why we so narrowly define our sense of what technology is. If you read the comparison in Paper 11 again, you’ll find the Wetlands outperforms the Omniprocessor on almost every available metric: across biodiversity, jobs, maintenance, food production, water filtration, sewage handling, storm mitigation, climate resilience, robustness, adaptability, cost, and almost inarguably, beauty—perhaps with the sole exception being ‘the ability to make a VC-backed product out of it.

A system like the Wetlands requires constant care, maintenance, engagement: a form of gardening, essentially. It is slow, labour-intensive, and organic — to hugely positive effect. It is effective rather than efficient, at least in terms of how we usually frame these terms. And it is precisely these performative requirements that make the Wetlands quite so valuable.

14 tons versus 700 million tons? Perhaps 80 jobs versus 80,000? Zero biodiversity versus rich biodiversity? No contest.

Repositioning places like Kolkata’s wetlands as infrastructures is key. As Eric Klinenberg explains, the modern world has been built around the notion of valuable infrastructure, but perhaps only understood through a particular Great Acceleration lens, and conjured in its basic hard metrics. Just as Watson looks to “rebuild an understanding of indigenous philosophy and vernacular architecture to generate sustainable, climate-resilient infrastructures”, so infrastructure itself embodies deeper meaning.

As Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder wrote:

“Infrastructure appears only as a relational property, not as a thing stripped of use” and that “choices and polities embedded in such systems become articulated components. Substrate becomes substance.”

The meaning of the Omniprocessor — the substance expressed in its substrate — is fairly clear. In the Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Mind (2019) Gates revealed his tendency to see everything through a very particular lens on technology. Despite Gates’s famously voracious appetite for reading, that lens remains essentially so limited that we can use the shorthand ‘Silicon Valley’ to cover it, and know exactly what that means (accepting Gates’s primary location in Seattle). “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, he says. His substrate is code and cloud, silicon and lithium, plastic and concrete.

That approach can produce something like the Omniprocessor, which is a wonderful addition to Dakar. It will scale sanitation in places that Wetlands cannot. Yet we could perhaps recognise its limits, too, taking a rather more humble, diverse, and inquisitive approach to tech.

If we don’t do this, not only do we miscast a one-eyed reading of tech as our future, but those other, richer forms of tech suffer, as they are not valued. Recent satellite data shows a huge loss in the East Kolkata Wetlands, with property development eating up the nature-based infrastructure. This is highly careless, with something so care-ful.

The author Amitav Ghosh, who grew up there, puts it plainly, when he says:

“If something (a natural disaster hits the city) happens, the two things which protect Kolkata are the east Kolkata wetlands and the Sunderbans. This vast wetland around us is what makes life in the city possible. If they start constructing on those lands, what they construct is doomed. When the floods come they will destroy the places. This is a terrible idea. Building on the wetlands should be resisted at all cost. We are looking at a disaster. We are constructing and building in dangerous ways. We have double disaster unfolding in front of our eyes,”—Building on Kolkata wetlands should be resisted at all costs: Amitav Ghosh, Hindustani Times, 25 August 2016

In his book The Great Derangement, Ghosh elides Kolkata with other great coastal cities now, or soon, similarly under threat, and links their growth dynamics to their physical outcomes, making clear how the former is pushing the latter over the edge:

“It is surely no accident that colonial cities like Mumbai, New York, Boston, and Kolkata were all brought into being through early globalisation. They were linked to each other not only through the circumstances of their founding but also through the patterns of trade that expanded and accelerated Western economies. These cities were thus the drivers of the very processes that now threaten them with destruction. In that sense, their predicament is but an especially heightened instance of a plight that is now universal.”—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (2016)

Would repositioning the older, pre-Accelerationist, nature-based systems such as the Wetlands as a form of Tech, or infrastructure, help ensure their value is recognised, in a world which values those things above all else? Or is that simply fighting on the ‘their’ battleground? The mental models framing technology and infrastructure are so narrow, thanks to monocultures of Silicon Valley—again, as metaphor for Tech, not the place, as such— that the Wetlands are effectively invisible, without value. This is the precisely the same manoeuvre the English colonisers led with in Australia: to ignore the more complex patterns of indigenous settlement and declare the place Terra Nullis, a ‘blank land’ ripe for invasion and extraction. It was not blank at all; simply invisible to the perhaps deliberately dulled eyes of colonialists. (Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore is good on that, as I describe here, and Paul Memmott’s book on indigenous architecture likewise.)

A start-up, Australia, circa 1788

Gautam Bhan powerfully describes the problem with the current framing of technology, particularly in Indian cities. He suggests that we need a different vocabulary and discourse around technology. Rather than the “grand schemes of programmers, policymakers and the high priests of transformation”, we should instead recognise the resilience, creativity, ingenuity and everyday innovation of citizens, streets, and neighbourhoods themselves. He describes the need for “words that start from who we are, that root themselves in the way our cities have been built and run, that don’t look for models anywhere other than our own streets.”

In India, the virus continues to wreak havoc in terrible terms. Indeed, Bhan is quick to point out that “no-one wins when public policy stutters” — he is not suggesting a rejection of policy, of governance itself. Yet there is an opportunity to rethink the reality that Indian cities had got themselves into, with millions of migrant workers living in poor conditions, for low wages, doing crushing work — and then to pause before simply trying prime these places as markets for the West to ‘sell into’.

As I write, the attempt to fire up the same Indian economy is also stuttering, as a vast reverse migration impacts the big cities, described recently in the most compelling terms by Arundhati Roy, when she described the exodus, largely on foot, of around 460m people.

“Our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens like so much unwanted accrual.”—Arundhati Roy

COVID-19 triggered that awful spectacle, the event itself, but the deeper pattern is etched in the language of aspirational growth, on a notion of efficiency, and on a highly limited reading of technology and environment, framed by the lens of the West in Great Acceleration-mode, a model whose time is past.

Inspired inefficiency

In all this turbulence, we have to be particularly careful the second coming of the efficiency overlords in the guise of today’s Big Tech. Silicon Valley — the concept not the place — is driven by the idea of optimisation, and whilst the history of 20th century planning should make clear the issues with that, it’s all too easy for tech to position itself as ‘solutioneers’.

‘How to run a city like Amazon, and other fables’ (2019)

In a hilarious little design fiction in the book How to run a city like Amazon, and other fables (2019), Shannon Mattern skewers Silicon Valley’s typical ingredients — growth, capital, optimisation, elite-projection — particularly in the context of city-making.

Her story “Let’s Make This An Urban Product Everybody Wants” takes as its input the venture capitalist Y Combinator’s actual announcement of a ‘New Cities initiative’, but envisions an all-too-likely outcome, at a press event peppered with statements like, “Baltimore can become a change agent for the world, demoing new global paradigms, iterating our way out of the injustice and inequality, cultivating new ecosystems for full optimisation and self-actualisation.”

Lest it seem like Mattern is gilding the lily a little, the actual Y Combinator post announcing the New Cities initiative literally starts its rationale with:

“There are many high-level questions we want to think through, for example: What should a city optimize for?; How should we measure the effectiveness of a city (what are its KPIs)? …”

It continues in an equally dismal fashion from there. These are the first questions that spring to mind when we think ‘city’? At least Le Corbusier had a vision. This language — optimising the KPIs of the city to create unicorns for franchising — doesn’t just seem inappropriate in the midst of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. It seems actively dangerous.

The Twitter account for YC New Cities launched in October 2016 and at time of writing its last update is from March 2017. Maybe it will deliver. Maybe Sidewalk Labs will skulk back into Toronto. You never know with tech! Or rather, what we have mostly seen so far is false promises and empty schemes, before graceless retreat, from a culture with a shocking reputation for understanding diversity, even before the events of this year.

Tech’s collective market cap has rocketed in the last few months, due to the home-bound conditions of most lockdowns. Yet the more fundamental questions these events pose indicate how inappropriate it is for the tech industry to carelessly use the city as a lab, a sandpit, a physical twin to feed their digital instances — essentially, an open pit mine for further value extraction. As is clear by now, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, and WeWork have not markedly improved the cities they have thrived within, and in many cases have substantially harmed them.

It is entirely possible to run an urban tech startup and do so in a way that does not feel tone-deaf to social justice, does not feel extractive, does not look to sidestep and undercut public institutions and process.

For instance, Urban Sharing, the company running the Oslo Byskkel bikeshare service has been assessing data for gender diversity for some time, noting how a focus simply on optimisation merely plays out the dynamics that have been baked into urban planning for decades; that almost all transport, public and otherwise, is predicated on men getting to and from work. They are now tuning their algorithms counter to traditional optimisation techniques around efficiency, aimed at what their CTO Johan Høgåsen-Hallesby describes as strategic outcomes for the city instead, such as the sustainable development goals the city has explicitly signed up for, rather than simply tracing the grooves of discrimination that transport will implicitly run along if unchecked.

This is advanced contemporary technology shaping the city, yet tuned differently to other ‘urban technologies’ of recent times. They are unlocking entirely different outcomes as a result, predicated on what technologist Edward Tenner calls “Inspired inefficiency”.

Oslo Byskkel’s open, legible systems guide their floating assemblages of 21st century sensors and 19th century bike, leaving data concerning social fabric in their wake, rather than average revenue per user and market share. The Swedish e-scooter startup Voi has similar clear goals about driving sustainable cities, arguably quite different in tone to its Californian competitors. On its website, the Voi brand is articulated with the tagline “Shaping cities for people, reducing air and noise pollution, and breaking traffic gridlock across Europe.”

Just as care is not about efficiency, cities are not about efficiency. One wants a bus service to be efficient; just not at the cost of a higher goal, like community, culture, or conviviality. The former is the enabler, the latter are outcomes. We don’t make cities to make buildings. We don’t make cities to make roads. Or rather, we shouldn’t. Le Corbusier’s influence was mishandled when a focus on the efficiency of the enabler overtook the broader qualities of the outcome, when an obsession with one particular characteristic of some technologies overrides richer readings of what other technologies can be, and can be for, and for whom.

A technology allied to the dynamics of the slowdown could have a completely different sensibility, enabling a focus on social progress, on environmental justice, rather than simply VC-fuelled high-growth start-up dynamics. It would unlock a far richer, more diverse palette of technologies, with intriguing combinations.

There are stories within living memory of more diverse understanding, and of the value of a slower form of tech—and the loss we suffered when those things were excised from our streets and neighbourhoods in the name of ‘efficiency’. In 1987, Pete Hammill wrote a beautiful article looking back on New York of 30 years previously. Noting the danger in nostalgia—“a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment, never to be wholly trusted”—Hammill nonetheless points out how difficult it can be to remember what we had, such is the tendency to overwrite rather than layer.

“Perhaps most stupid of all the stupidities inflicted upon the city in the years after the war was the destruction of the trolley-car system. Every time I see a groaning bus coughing fumes as it lumbers across three traffic lanes, I long for the trolley cars. They were electric and therefore didn’t poison the air. They ran on steel tracks and so were unable to bully their way across other traffic; at the same time, they helped police that traffic, preventing by their implacable presence the infuriating double-and triple-parking that today clots so many of our streets … Some trolleys were chunky, square, steel-and-wood affairs that looked like the Toonerville Trolley in the comics; their geriatric cousins still live in San Francisco and New Orleans. Others were able to remove their side panels in the summertime. The newest ones were sleek and “streamlined.” And they seemed to go everywhere … The last was “streamlined,” all silver and green, and it carried us from Bartel-Pritchard Square all the way to Coney Island, past row houses and strange chalky neighborhoods, through the last of the Brooklyn vegetable farms and then into an immense brightness, the sudden odor of the sea air and the beach beyond. No wonder that lost baseball team was once called the Trolley Dodgers. No wonder nobody I knew drove a car.”—Pete Hammill, ‘The New York We’ve Lost’, New York Magazine, 21–28 December 1987

The slowness of the trolley-car as technology (‘trolley-car’ equals, more or less tram, streetcar, or light rail, depending on your locale) has an enduring virtue, as we see in those cities that managed to keep them. 30 years after Hammill’s article, we can look back again—and forwards. For every Sydney that is having to expensively re-install trams, along exactly the lines they used to run, there’s a Melbourne that dodged the bullet and continued to build its city around them (more on these stories in this series). These values are being slowly (ha!) rediscovered—see also the aforementioned Anthony Lane article on sleeper trains.

A richer understanding of technology does not place non-adaptive bets. Instead, it builds a layered understanding. With mobility in mind, looking at different pace layers and scales, we can take an additive approach to the value in heavy, longer-range grid-based systems like subways and trams, with lighter-touch more variable layers of buses, ferries, and shuttles overlaid, and then with the primary emphasis on the lightest, most highly adaptive non-grid layer of active transport (cycling, walking, scooting, rolling), software-based routing, and integrated user experience ‘on top’. There’s not that much more a city needs to do to, in terms of urban mobility. It’s really not hard.

Backing the car was an attempt to delete most, if not all, of those layers, in a non-adaptive move, disguising individualism and industrial growth as ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’. Once you’ve built a street around the car, you can’t do much else with it; the game is lost.

“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. — Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903)

Yet you can see similar instincts in Elon Musk’s intransigent, effectively misanthropic, Boring Company proposal to build tunnels under Las Vegas. There is learning from Las Vegas to do here, but not in the way that Musk might hope. The proposal does nothing to reduce the number of cars in circulation; and so will increase it. Changing the way a tunnel is built (an American self-imposed problem) does not change the fundamentals: as with Tesla generally, it’s a tired, perhaps even boring, late-20th century model, reflecting a narrow understanding of technology predicated on individual efficiency, individual speed, and individual gain.

Summarising the current situation well, Alissa Walker accurately describes how the Boring Company is likely to become yet another perfect example, should we need one: how a solution looking for a problem actually creates far bigger problems than it could ever solve:

“In a way, Musk’s tunnels have become the perfect metaphor for the public-private dilemmas all post-COVID cities will face. Almost 40 percent of Las Vegas’s transit funding comes from sales tax, which meant the RTC’s monthly revenue dropped from $4.7 million in February to only $398,943 in May. More cuts are needed, so a series of public meetings is scheduled for next week where passengers can provide feedback on proposed service reductions. One of the routes to be eliminated is the SDX, which links most major destinations from the airport to downtown. Passengers who used this bus to get to the convention center will have to plot out alternate routes or longer walks, as a $50 million tunnel built for a few dozen Teslas will be putting on its finishing touches right below their feet.”—Alissa Walker, ‘Somehow Elon Musk’s Tesla Tunnels Are Even Less Useful Now’, Curbed, 23 July 2020

Similarly, despite their status as one of the preeminent venture capitalists in tech, Y Combinator’s approach actually reveals a misunderstanding of what technology is, simply as it does not fit the model of VC-fuelled Silicon Valley tech.

As Mattern suggests, without a new way of seeing, they are likely to remain largely ignorant to the powerful social focus of Oslo Bysykkel’s algorithm’s tuned to purposeful inefficiency, or to the way that East Kolkata Wetland’s unlocks immense value creation precisely by resisting capture by finance. Or that both of these approaches push out the edges of the canvas defining what technology is, positioned in opposing corners yet with shared sensibilities of care, repair, maintenance, culture, and craft.

This man is a genius?

Sara Hendren, who I would trust to know more about technology than almost all the Valley-types put together, recently posted a useful, thought-provoking response to MIT’s search for a new director. (MIT being only far from the Valley geographically; actually, rarely has a school’s executive search produced such useful critiques of an entire culture, which suggests how rotten the state of play has been.)

She also suggests a new direction centred on repair and critique.

Let’s call “repair” mode, in the technical sense, the best-case version of new technologies (or technical research fields) that come into the world for the net benefit of humankind … the world gets important tech that it needs.

“Critique,” in the technical sense, has been a matter of concern at the Lab, but from where I stand, not nearly enough defined or robustly supported … Technological critique is the articulation of urgent socio-political questions made real in things. Things-to-think-with, which is not just for the gallery viewer. They’re public technologies with high stakes attached.”

Although they may currently seem miles apart, the approach to nature-based technologies such as East Kolkata Wetlands and Australian ‘cool burns’ could potentially be infused with the benefits of satellite data, sensor networks, contemporary biomaterials, machine learning, and so on. This would take extremely careful, craft-ful synthesis, for sure, and a hard-nosed assessment of the value in doing so—but might it be fruitful, through building from this basis in nature-based technologies, as opposed to the more limited technologies of the current tech industry? Foregrounding the Earth’s most valuable places rather than its most valuable corporations? Big Nature precedes Big Tech, but what value in asset-stripping Tech of its components and reappropriating their use in the context of wetlands and forests, bikes and buildings?

Could tech be unmoored from Silicon Valley’s blitzscaling, and placed instead within a context of slowdown typified by nature-based technologies or community-based architectures, derived from inspired inefficiency, of ‘upstream’ social and environmental justice? What might these everyday infrastructures, technologies, and landscapes feel like?

Next: 33. Mood-worlds of the Slowdown
Previous: 31. Tilling the soil for slow-growth, and embracing uncertainty
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: