This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 62: In dreams begin responsibilities,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York City on the 16th of March 2012.

Week 62: In dreams begin responsibilities

Adam Greenfield on 16 March 2012

Two seemingly-unrelated topics have been occupying the lion’s share of our thoughts in studio this week, both concerning what we might call the politics of imagination.

» You may well have heard of the boneheaded stunt a marketing agency pulled at the South by Southwest Interactive festival last week, in which members of Austin’s homeless population were pressed into service (OK: “recruited”) as walking, talking wireless hotspots.

I’m going to go out on a limb and advance the opinion that this is not inherently an obscene idea. Once a society is prepared to tolerate the genuine obscenity — which is the human cost incurred whenever and wherever a market unimpeded by wisdom or mercy forces people to fend entirely for themselves — you’d pretty much better offer the worst-off a few ways to keep their nostrils above the waterline. In this light, the notion of furnishing homeless people with something of inherent value, network access, that they can both use themselves and exchange for cash money is not terrible.

Had this been executed properly, it would have been no more troubling, at its core, than the street-paper business model that was its direct inspiration. It would have some resonances with the Indian-inspired alternative model of service delivery Anab Jain discussed in her Urban Lenses session at PICNIC 2010, bringing the network-wallah to American streets. I can even see circumstances under which such a scheme would underwrite the dignity and autonomy of those choosing to participate in it — if, that is, I thought for even a bright moment that the creative sparks responsible for conceiving Homeless Hotspots had anything as un-buzz-generative as dignity or autonomy in mind.

We’re skeptical because so much of the program’s design-in-detail seems bound to dehumanize the people giving life to it. And even if this does not ultimately turn out to have resulted from a massive failure of empathy on the part of the designers, well, the purpose of a system is what it does.

For example, participants were required to wear t-shirts saying “I’m [e.g.] Clarence, a 4G Hotspot“; the inclusion of the first name here reads to me like a disrespectful diminution, rather than the personalizing touch it was most likely intended to be. Worse still was that the privileged conference-goers making use of the hotspots were asked to consider a “donation,” rather than making a fair exchange of money for value received. Finally, insult to injury: the program was launched during a week when much of Austin was mourning the death of local character Leslie Cochran, a street person flamboyant and ubiquitous enough to have become a fixture even among that cohort that only visits town for SxSW.

Let’s be clear, then, that we think the harsh reception Homeless Hotspots met with was entirely deserved. But it’s also kind of a shame. Within the limitations of the neoliberal city, it’s nothing if not a creative (“innovative”) application of the existing toolkit. Further, there’s a cleverness in the concept that is not incompatible with the notion of using networked information technology to forge new, surprising and mutually-valued human relations in the city. The yawning gap between that end and the hot mess the people of Austin were actually offered reinscribes the first and last lesson of urban-systems design, which is that details matter.

It’s the details that determine how actors can form links with one another, or fail to. It’s the little granular greebly surface bits of the things we design that condition what other frameworks they can plug into, what behavior they make possible, what potentials they actualize.

And that brings us to the other teapot tempest that’s been on our minds this week…

» It’s always interesting to see a more-or-less mainstream media outlet focus its attention on issues “in our wheelhouse,” to use the parlance of our times. The latest such that’s popped up on our radar is Talking Points Memo — a well-known American political site that I’d judge center-left by US standards, and center-right by any sane ones — which has recently been trying to extend its brand into the science and technology space.

As part of this push, TPM has shown a great deal of interest in the results of the somewhat notorious annual skyscraper-design competition run since 2006 by “architecture and design journal” eVolo. (In fact, TPM lavished rather a lot of attention on this competition — as far as I can tell, more than they did to any non-party-political matter unfolding over the same interval. Here’s a post in the site’s main column by site founder and lead editor Josh Marshall; here’s another six days later, by associate editor Paul Werdel, and here’s a separate, high-profile slideshow that was merchandised in modules on the bottom and side of the front page.) The troubling thing is that the site repeatedly characterized the subject of these renderings as “visions of our urban future.”

No. These are:

- Static pictures…
- …of fantasy buildings (i.e. precisely not cities)…
- …that are completely detached from contemporary (or any reasonably foreseeable near-future) materials engineering possibility…
- …that make no reference to any real-world economic, political, practical or moral constraints on land acquisition and development…
- …that at best wave a hand at the social relations they embody, extend, or make possible, and at worst appear to deny any necessity for or possibility of human inhabitation…
- …that were produced as part of eVolo’s cynical, pay-for-play promotion, something that has always struck me as more about revenue generation than the advancement of visionary architecture.

It straight-up mystifies me as to why a media outlet presumably interested in establishing its bona fides in a new field of coverage would want to lend its hard-won imprimatur to everything implied by the above description.

What’s our beef here? Mostly, it’s the act of dual normalization performed, doubtless inadvertently, by TPM’s framing of the competition and its winning entries. In labeling these posts “2012 Skyscraper Competition,” Talking Points Memo is implying that this is the annual such competition, and therefore worthy of your attention, not merely (with all due respect to the many talented entrants) a rather marginal and contested exercise that’s not taken seriously by any architect I know. And by characterizing these as “visions of our urban future,” Marshall and his writers are telling us — again, almost certainly without thinking very deeply about it — that urban progress has something to do with ever-more-ambitious conquests of the vertical. Hark unto the experts, they seem to be saying, whose visionary vision-y visions will show us the shape of tomorrow today. And boy howdy, that shape is up.

As it happens, any “urban future” I’d want to be a part of isn’t about experts and their visions at all, but would concern the creation and long-term sustenance of architectures of participation. With the exception of the justificatory apparatus around the (formally hackneyed and even played-out) Honorable Mention, it’s frankly hard for me to find gestures at anything resembling this among the eVolo competition winners. In this light, however unwitting it is, the ideological work performed by the TPM posts is precisely the kind of policing of the discourse that the site’s writers and editors would recognize in a heartbeat in the party-political sphere.

In the end, the question I lodge against Homeless Hotspots and eVolo’s skyscaper pr0n is the same — is, in fact, the same I ask of all provocations, prototypes and “design fictions”: what specific, historical spaces, relations and experiences are they foreseeably likely to bring into being, for people and nonhuman participants both? As designers, what I believe we all need to develop is the courage to rework or even refuse projects that seem likely to generate further squalor, no matter how seductively bold the idea, how soaring the conceptual arc. And what I would ask of those making representations of designed artifacts in the broader media is the perspicacity to unpack the images you encounter, and determine which agendas they might serve, before granting them the aura of your approval.

» Logistics: In Copenhagen and Aarhus all week, for meetings with Gehl Architects, BIG, and the Aarhus city government. Back in NYC next Monday! Endmark