A Return to High Modernist Principles in 21st Century “Smart” City Planning

[Note: This was an essay that, funnily enough, I wrote for an english elective instead of any of my dozens of planning courses. I’m posting this now because the actual thing I’m working on is taking a lot longer than I expected, oops.

It’s a bit stuffy because I wrote it initially in 2018 before I got a little better at talking about academic subjects without sounding like I have my head up my ass, but I still mostly stand by the content.

This is an extra-long post at something like 3500 words, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to hear me break down why this now endemic “smart cities” trend isn’t one that I’m particularly fond of. The last section is new content and expands on the ways I’ve changed my thinking since I wrote the essay.]

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Links Retrospective, March – April 2020

Links Retrospective is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month time-frame. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism.
 
The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Of ~200 articles that I liked enough to bookmark during this period, I shortlisted 15, and now here are my top 5 picks for March and April, 2020 in no particular order:
 
Hyperobjects and the End of Common Sense – Timothy Morton, 2010
We have created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it’s good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I’m going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they’re massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience.
 
I think that this could be a really useful term. Go take a look at the plutonium, really look. Because I felt a new emotion when I did.
Reiki Can’t Possibly Work. So Why does it? – Jordan Kisner, 2020
To note that touch-based healing therapies, including Reiki, simulate the most archetypal care gestures is hardly a revelation. Several scientists I interviewed about their work on Reiki mentioned the way their mother would lay a hand on their head when they had a fever or kiss a scraped knee and make the pain go away. It is not hard to imagine that a hospital patient awaiting surgery or chemotherapy might feel relieved, in that hectic and stressful setting, to have someone place a hand gently and unhurriedly where the hurt or fear is with the intention of alleviating any suffering.
 
I’m generally very, very anti-woo. But honestly, this doesn’t even feel like woo. This just seems like a pretty reasonable thing for humans to respond to.
Zeroth Person Writing – Tumblr thread, 2020
Anyways, what I’m trying to talk about here is: there’s this thing that… I guess philosophers talk about sometimes which is, how certain kinds of information can’t really be transmitted via just, text, in the generalized sense (like, not necessarily writing, also images, sound, etc) and the point is usually that like, those are the things that you Just Have To Go Through. And math has a specific construct which, in effect, lives kind of in the middle of that gap.
 
Exercises.
 
No solutions are ever given, though; the strictures of the genre are strong enough that when you find a solution, you’ll know it, and the author can just give you the challenge and expect you not to fuck it up.
 
A delightful but rambly discussion thread that goes in many directions.
 
I Don’t Know What These Food Videos Are, But I Can’t Stop Watching Them – Scaachi Koul, 2020

Chefclub recipes are pure id — an expression of the most primal desires of someone who enjoys food, taken to an extreme no one asked for. Bread good, cheese good, meat good. Me like big food tower. Me like when cheese go in bread hole. If you were to claim that none of Chefclub’s videos are enticing to you, you would absolutely be lying. Imagine you went to a party — do you remember what it’s like to be at a party? — and saw the host made finger sandwiches in the shape of flip-flops. You’re telling me you’re not going to eat one? You’re telling me you’re not going to eat eight?? And that for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t tell everyone you know about the insane foot-themed party where you ate shoe sandwiches??? Come on, bro, grow up.

Can’t wait until quar is lifted and I can host a garden party and serve finger sandwiches in the shape of flip flops B’)

The Asshole Filter – Siderea, 2015

When you set up a situation in which other people’s choices are between, on the one hand, respecting your espoused wishes and being significantly disadvantaged, and, on the other hand, transgressing against your wishes to be effective, you have essentially posed a test that discriminates against those who are less willing to transgress against your espoused wishes: an asshole filter.

If you tell people “the only way to contact me is to break a rule” you will only be contacted by rule-breakers.

Another very useful concept.

Links Retrospective, January – February 2020

So, I read a lot of stuff. Links Retrospective is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for January and February, 2020:

When “Life Hacking” is Really White Privilege – jendziura, 2013

Skipping ahead of people in line, even when invited to do so, is better referred to as “being an asshole.” And obliviousness to your own privilege is no excuse. If you’re absorbed in your phone and not really sure if you’re rightfully next in line, it’s your job to look around and say, “I’m sorry, were you here before me?”

When you are an affluent-seeming white man and you ask for things that don’t belong to you, sometimes you’re not really asking. It’s sort like Bill Clinton asking Monica Lewinsky to have sex with him. There’s a context behind the asking.

When you ask a serviceperson for something that doesn’t belong to you, there is often a subtext of, “If I complain to your manager, you know your manager is going to listen to me. Just look at me, and look at you.”

If you seem to be “getting everything you want,” you should probably examine whether you’re getting it at someone’s expense, or whether you’re just constantly, in small ways, making the world worse.

This is an interesting and well done piece from a bygone era of SJW blogging, when people were a lot more high-key about pointing out white privilege. I don’t really miss that era because I feel like most content put out then were unnecessarily inflammatory, but occasionally there would be an article like this one, that does a nice and tight analysis within the framework.

Pairs nicely with Siderea’s article on the Asshole Filter (check the “readability” box on the top right corner) from 2015, which has another perspective on the issue of assholery.

h/t Evan for putting it on my dash!

When the Hero is the Problem – Rebecca Solnit, 2019

In a farming valley on the Laxa River in northern Iceland in August 25, 1970, community members blew up a dam to protect farmland from being flooded. After the dam was dynamited, more than a hundred farmers claimed credit (or responsibility). There were no arrests, and there was no dam, and there were some very positive consequences, including protection of the immediate region and new Icelandic environmental regulations and awareness. It’s almost the only story I know of environmental sabotage having a significant impact, and it may be because it expressed the will of the many, not the few.

We are not very good at telling stories about a hundred people doing things or considering that the qualities that matter in saving a valley or changing the world are mostly not physical courage and violent clashes but the ability to coordinate and inspire and connect with lots of other people and create stories about what could be and how we get there.

Our largest problems won’t be solved by heroes. They’ll be solved, if they are, by movements, coalitions, civil society. The climate movement, for example, has been first of all a mass effort, and if figures like Bill McKibben stand out—well he stands out as the cofounder of a global climate action group whose network is in 188 countries and the guy who keeps saying versions of “The most effective thing you can do about climate as an individual is stop being an individual.”

Down with the cult of the individual, up with collective action.

Amy Discovers Jo’s AO3 Handle and Drags Her in the March Family Group Chat – Peyton, 2020

Beth: did she literally write sherlock holmes fanfiction about the time i got pneumonia and almost died

A piece of fiction. There’s getting fandom culture, and then there’s being able to capture the exact mixture of humiliation and nostalgia from unearthing your old Homestuck fanfiction from 2014 in the year of our lord 2020.

I absolutely love everything about this, but this is in large part because I’ve been heavily involved in fandom for over half my life at this point.

Do You Even Bake, Bro? – Dayna Evans, 2018

Bread requires little and it has existed in some form for thousands of years, relatively unchanged, because it’s simple to make and it feeds you. But if you were to scroll through Instagram, or watch recent YouTube tutorials, or read the libraries of blogs and self-published e-books, you might come away thinking that making bread was more challenging than performing brain surgery. That’s because bread-baking in America has, of late, found a friend in the unlikeliest of people: engineers, technologists, and the Silicon Valley-centric and adjacent. The image of a folksy baker laboring from muscle memory over her humble daily loaf, this is not.

Bread is back. And it’s being disrupted.

Man, I just relate to the author of this piece so much.

Like, all my friends are tech nerds, and I’ve dated one for five years. I just have a major soft spot for these adorable weirdos who feel a compulsion to debug and optimize every part of their existence. And I think she probably can relate to that because she’s married to one of these weirdos as well.

And also like Evans, at the same time I’m super frustrated with the, I guess, insularity that they exhibit whenever they find a new hobby to disrupt.

On one hand, it’s like, this is why representation is important, you know? When you see someone in a novel field that’s like you, it makes the field more approachable to you. This is why we want more women in politics, and people of colour in academia, and queer folk in board rooms etc etc etc.

When these nerds discovered bakers that spoke their language of debugging and standardization, it’s natural that it’s those (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male) bakers that the tech bros gravitate towards.

Again, this is the same phenomenon that we want, for more “underrepresented” groups, in more important fields. So being like, “ugh, these techies, so cliquey,” (to be clear this is not a thing that Evans says, I’m just saying like, in general) seems pretty disingenuous? Humans are cliquey, we like people who are like us. As the Gen Zs say, it’s not that deep, bro.

But on the other hand, the techies have a fair bit of cultural capital, and the end result is that, once again, the dudes in a female-dominated field are the ones that are spotlit, and any knowledge that hasn’t been formalized is belittled, putting them at a higher risk of being lost.

So like, wow, both those hands are pretty crap. The last thing that I think we need is people becoming intimidated by something as simple as baking bread.

We already have corporations telling us that doing everyday things like cooking and mending clothes and any other form of self-sufficiency is too hard and that you are right to be intimidated by it. Telling us that you should shell out money to let the professionals handle it instead, and continue being completely dependent on our incredibly fragile current system.

But then again, how can I say no to scientific inquiry and better troubleshooting when one of your loaves inevitably fails in some way? Trying to advance the field, and make the network of bakers stronger to facilitate better knowledge transfer, are both good and admirable goals.

For my part, I just try to push back against the narrative and tell my friends that, no, really, baking bread is pretty easy. I’m sending everyone who expresses even VAGUE interest the simple and entertaining recipe that inspired me to bake my first loaf. And once they bake bread for themselves, it’s a lot harder to believe that baking bread is as hard as brain surgery.

How to Draw a Horse – Emma Hunsinger, 2019

To learn to draw horses, you can’t just want to draw them; you must NEED to draw them.

A comic about middle school and doodling in class.

Now, Less Than Ever

On my corner of Tumblr, there’s a good meme going around, inspired possibly by something Matt Yglesias did a few years back? And it’s been a good workout for my brain, now that school doesn’t seem real anymore because the entire world sort of went on hiatus.

Anyways, so you know how every time there’s a crisis, there’s a bunch of people on Twitter saying “if we only had implemented [my preferred policy] years ago, this could have been totally averted”? 1  The idea is to flip that for the sake of nuance and intellectual honesty. To think of policies you unreservedly support that would have made things a lot worse now, or conversely, ideas that you absolutely will not support, that would have absolutely helped.

I’ve thought of a few things that fit this profile for me:

      • I want higher dependence on mass transit and a severe reduction of car culture. But if more households did not have cars and were dependent on public transportation to get around, then our transit systems would have been truly terrible vectors of disease. Instead, buses currently are near-empty here in Waterloo, meaning that if you absolutely had to go someplace, it’s not as dangerous to use. (I think there’s still decent ridership at peak hours, which is bad. But it could be a lot worse.)

        NUMTOT asked for “angry reacts only”, but where is the lie :^(
      • Downsizing your fridge and doing near-daily grocery runs for your food is a fantastic way to increase the freshness of what you eat and reduce food waste. But without the ability to shop for a weeks’ worth of food at a time, households would need to be in more frequent contact with the community.
      • Relatedly, as a #millennial, the whole #supportlocal lifestyle where I go to 4 specialty grocers for specific ingredients instead of one (1) Loblaw is very appealing to me. Now, the thought of visiting even two different stores back to back makes my hair stand on end and I’m very grateful for big-box stores that sell most of what I need.

      • Mass surveillance. Hoo boy, to say that I am not a fan would be a giant understatement. But I can’t deny that contact/proximity tracing would have helped prevent the spread, even if that feels like pulling teeth to admit. I am very angry that many countries are working on developing such tools, and extremely concerned about the further erosion of privacy that this symbolizes as well as the fact that, let’s be real, it won’t be rolled back.

        I’m anticipating some quibble about whether surveillance at our current fidelity level is actually effective, but I’m obviously against higher quality surveillance that is 100% effective even more than I am against our current level of surveillance. 2 Basically, surveillance will help save lives and I’m big mad about that.

What are some things that you support, that would have been pretty bad?

  1. To be clear, I’m not bashing on the “[my preferred policy] would have solved this crisis years ago” folk – such commentary is often valuable and true, and I do not agree with the characterisation that that is opportunistic/in bad taste. []
  2. Okay, so this might not be strictly true. It looks like clumsy surveillance screws over more innocents than having more comprehensive profiles, which might be a worse state of affairs on balance. But in case it wasn’t obvious, I would consider both clumsy and sophisticated state surveillance to be worse than no state surveillance. []