Two Building to Code Columns

Forgot to announce my last two Building to Code column entries. In May I made the case for taking back scooters from Silicon Valley:

The act of renting scooters contains within it a bit of the radical tradition of democratic city governance — and if a city were built to more fully accommodate e-scooters it would be a serious, even radical, intervention in urban infrastructure. A city of scooters could show us what we’ve collectively ignored in our landscapes for the past century.

Read the full essay at Real Life.

June’s installment asked why the right is so successful at YouTube. I suspect the suburbs have something to do with it:

While cities have always done a good job of helping numerical minorities achieve a density sufficiently big to sustain a business (for example, a gay bar) or even a movement (think organized labor in major industrial cities), politically conservative suburbs and rural places have always faced a paradox: the built environment is made to support the individual family structure and is deeply isolating by design, which makes it harder to organize socially or politically. But social media is a good-enough stand-in for urban density, providing a means to form the early connections necessary for starting longer-term relationships. Platforms like YouTube, and talk radio before it, let anti-social conservatives who don’t want to live next to other people connect online and later in person for marches, rallies, and meetings.

Read the full essay at Real Life

Speaking in Provo, UT July 23rd at the American Association of Physics Teachers Annual Meeting

I was invited to talk about my research on ethics in engineering education at the 2019 summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Provo. Utah on July 23rd. Here’s my abstract:

What Young and Aspiring Engineers Should Know About Structural Violence

1:30PM - 2:00PM

Engineers are responsible for building some of the most consequential pieces of our technological world. Much like lawyers are essential to the writing and passage of law and policy, engineers are inextricably linked to how things get built and who benefits from their existence. However, unlike lawyers (or doctors, or teachers), and with the exception of structural failure, engineers are rarely asked to consider the ethical consequences of their work. If issues like climate change or the carceral state are to be truly dealt with, engineers will have to do better than off-loading the moral dimensions of their work to the people who hired them. Engineers, instead, must be taught how to think through and integrate structural violence theory into safety pedagogy. In other words, ideals such as reparations and dignity must be just as important as tensile strength or maximum load capacity. 

New Building to Code column

The belated second edition of my Building to Code column is now life on Real Life

Whereas elites of the 20th century had to actually neglect, demolish, and rebuild physical buildings to manipulate the price of land, the new titans of the FIRE industry can create artificial scarcity — from Uber availability to who your roommates are — with algorithms. With the surveillance technologies built into their Toronto and Hudson Yards projects, Google does to these buildings what they made billions doing to the internet: monitoring for advertising opportunities. Meanwhile, the We Company has grown from a humble but trendy co-working space to a globe-spanning real estate empire. Their recent smart cities initiative was introduced as part of a commitment to “globalization, urbanization, and climate change”; it is easy to imagine members-only WeCities as literal oases surrounded by guarded gates to keep out climate refugees. Big tech is poised to take the inscrutable filtering and sorting methods used on your Facebook Newsfeed or your Google search results and apply them to the streetscape.

Read more at Real Life.

A monthly column about how we live among cities and each other.

I have a new column over at Real Life looking at the more human aspects of urban planning.

What both Mumford and Jacobs feared — that those in charge of cities would see them only as an agglomeration of utilities, balance sheets, and geographic features to be managed — has come to pass. From the Facebook Group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens to the Atlantic‘s CityLab vertical co-founded by Richard Florida, cities are seen first and foremost as places for transportation technologies, data centers, and app-based services, with people a distant second. Even the most well-intended interventions — installing bike lanes, light rail, and public wi-fi —  either fall short of their promises or, worse, are caught up in the insidious real estate market which takes any land improvement as a reason to increase rents and cost of living.

Read at Real Life

Review: Against Creativity

I read and reviewed Oli Mould’s extremely useful book Against Creativity:

In Against Creativity, Oli Mould, a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of London, explores this phenomenon of how radical and revolutionary ideas become mere fodder for lunch boxes. Creativity, Mould claims, is often invoked to describe not how ideas break free of capitalism but are made compatible with it. It recasts kinds of labor that may have seemed outside capitalist exploitation — care, emotion, art, design — as the most exploitable form of production. The way creativity is used today, Mould writes, “feeds the notion that the world and everything in it can be monetized.” Accordingly, creativity has become a means to rent, sell, or offer subscriptions to something that was once free or otherwise disconnected from the profit motive. Graffiti artists are hired by real estate firms to bring a safe level of grittiness to a neighborhood. Ebay asks us to choose between passing on a valuable collectable to a relative or finding the highest bidder.

Which Side Are They On?

This past month I had my third story published in The Baffler! This one on tech sector unions.

Are these two sorts of campaigns—internal reform of company hiring practices and jockeying for control of external impacts of the company—synergistic or at odds? Do white and blue-collar workers have enough in common to act in solidarity with one-another? “Personally I, actually, oppose efforts to start talking about unionizing among software engineers,” says Fred (not his real name), one of the co-founders of the organizing committee of the tech action working group of the New York City DSA chapter—just “Tech Action” for short—who sees many white-collar workers as too politically inexperienced to start organizing properly. Echoing Westergard, Fred observes, “I think a lot of people have this naive feeling of, like, I’m new to socialism, I’m new to organizing, hey let’s unionize my workplace!” For these workers, management has been a receptive debate partner—an entity that has its own interests but genuinely wants to know what you think about how a project is going or where everyone should go on the company retreat. Demanding a union is a bright red line workers don’t even know exists. Fred warns, “I don’t think they appreciate just how truly aggressive the boss is going to be if they are not careful about that kind of discussion.”

Engineered for Dystopia in The Baffler

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

The engineers’ worldview and the fiction that is created as a critique to engineers’ creations forms an Ouroboros of destruction in the name of engineers’ own job security. Engineers’ work begets fiction, begets new engineering projects, begets fiction again, which in turn begets position papers about the possibility of it all going wrong. Each step requires additional funding, that cannot wait because the latest threat is already overdue. Charlie Brooker makes a Black Mirror episode about it, and then another engineer reads dystopia as a new product idea and so on. The engineers are still operating the siege engines, but they are also the ones building things back up, all the while warning us of the new siege engines they’re building. Perhaps, instead of such fictions, we should have more stories about engineers coming to terms with the consequences of their creations.

Read the whole thing at The Baffler

New Writing

Two recent essays from the past month:

Where the Streets Have No Numbers in Real Life Magazine

Florida himself has since backpedaled on many of these claims. His latest work, The New Urban Crisis, is a mea culpa of sorts, a career-spanning apologia similar in scope to Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, another work by a prominent liberal technocrat desperately trying to explain a world that their political failings helped create and that has largely cast them aside.

The parallels between Clinton’s and Florida’s books are striking: Each was overconfident in their computer models and ignored contrary evidence. They failed to understand the Rust Belt, seeing only rejuvenating progressive cities like Madison, Wisconsin or Hudson, New York and missing the deeply seated white resentment that also flourished alongside them. To Florida’s credit, he eschews finger pointing and contritely admits how sorely he had missed the mark. He had, in his own words, “been overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism.”

Local Institutions Respond to Net Neutrality Debate in The Alt

The coverage of net neutrality has largely focused on national politics, large corporations, and the broad economic implications of network regulation. Little has been said about the tangible impact of net neutrality’s demise on local communities. Businesses, labor unions, and nonprofit organizations rely on, and even base their work off of, a free and open internet. Net neutrality’s demise, if it does come to pass, will have an outsized impact on the people who rely on the internet the most to access essential services and run their organizations.

Weblandia on YouTube

All of Theorizing the Web 2017 is now on YouTube which includes Weblandia. It was a big honor to be the moderator for this all-star panel of Ava Koffman, Kyle Chayka, and Sharon Zukin (Kate Losse couldn't make it at the last minute but was cited several times).

We talked about the privatization of wealth derived from cultural products, the search for authentic experiences in the city, and what can be done about inequalities in urban environments.

Weblandia at #TtW17

I recently had the honor of moderating Weblandia the first keynote panel for Theorizing the Web 2017. I sat down with Sharon Zukin, Ava Koffman, and Kyle Chayka to talk about cities' relationship to the web and all the ways culture and city services are being rationalized and homogenized for the benefit of private capital. The whole talk was recorded and you can watch it above by scrolling down and clicking on "Weblandia" in the playlist.

Announcing #ttw17

Excited to do more for Theorizing the Web this year by acting as co-chair with Nathan Jurgenson. Check out the CFP below and hope to see lots of old friends and new faces at the conference in April!

Call for Papers

Theorizing the Web 2017

April 7–8 in New York City

At the Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens

The submission deadline is January 22, 2017 (11:59 p.m. EST)

Started in 2011, Theorizing the Web is an annual event for critical, conceptual conversations about technology and society. Theorizing the Web begins with the assumption that to talk about technology is also to discuss the self and the social world. Debate around digital social technologies too often fails to apply the many relevant literatures of social thought. We do not think “theorizing” is solely the domain of academia, and we value clear and compelling arguments that avoid jargon. Here are some photos from last year’s event if you want to see the vibe of it all.

Theorizing the Web is a home for thinking about technology by people who may not think of themselves primarily as “tech” thinkers. Activists, journalists, technologists, writers, artists, and people who don’t identify as any of the above are all encouraged to submit. We especially invite submissions that engage with issues of social justice, power, inequality, and vulnerability from a diverse range of perspectives. 

Submissions on any topic are welcome. Some general topical suggestions include the intersections between technology and identity, privacy, sexuality, the body, power, politics, surveillance, racism, sexism, ableism, harassment, space, code, design, knowledge, images, memes, attention, work, fiction, gaming, globalization, capitalism, and protest. 

Submissions should be 300 to 500 words (only the first 500 words will be reviewed). The TtW Selection Committee will blindly review submissions and make decisions in early to mid-February. Space is limited, and our acceptance rate is typically 20-35%. The presentations themselves will be 12-minute talks in a panel setting. You will be speaking to a general audience who may not share your area of expertise. 

Before submitting, please read our FAQ section on submissions.

Submit your proposal here: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/2017/submit

Registration for Theorizing the Web remains pay-what-you-can, and we ask that you donate whatever amount you deem fair or can afford (minimum $1). Register here: http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/2017/registration

Stay tuned to theorizingtheweb.org for announcements about invited panels, and email us at theorizingtheweb@gmail.com if you would like to help out with our all-volunteer event in any way. We’re @TtW_conf on Twitter, and the conference hashtag is #TtW17.

xx

The Edifice Complex in Real Life

How long and how intensely a technology seems “vulgar” before it fades into the background is a useful barometer of a society’s willingness to embrace whatever ideology that technology has made it impossible to ignore.

I have a new essay up at Real Life Magazine that I'm very excited about. You can read it here. I've also added some photos of Empire State Plaza to my photography portfolio

Talk with Melissa Gira Grant about Selfies and Politics

On November 1st Melissa Gira Grant and I will be discussing the role of selfies in the election. Knowing us we'll probably talk much more generally about privacy and publicity in ways that cut against the typical discussions of selfies as exercises in vanity. The event is hosted by the International Center for Photography at 250 Bowery in Manhattan. More information about this event and other events in the series here.

Some writing on writing

Over at Cyborgology I took a moment to write out my approach to writing, how to start writing for more popular audiences, and how to work with editors. It's mainly written for academics but I think it's generally useful for anyone in a professional discipline looking to speak to more general audiences. Had a lot of fun writing it. You can read the whole post here.

True-Ish Grit in Real Life

Original artwork by  Alexis Beauclair

Original artwork by Alexis Beauclair

Had the distinct pleasure and honor of writing a long essay about social media and the marketing of authenticity in Rust Belt towns for the new publication Real Life magazine

If places have become commodities, social media are platforms on which cities like Troy might dream of competing. For such cities, photogenicity represents opportunity. Friends sharing Sunday brunch on a terrace, a dog being walked in a well-appointed dog park—such moments create a reproducible online brand built on an air of exclusivity. This rationalized quirkiness makes a local flavor known, sellable in the broader market of “those nice places to live.” Once a city’s obscure and unique qualities are made machine-readable and comparable across networks, the city’s brand solidifies and can sit nicely on a social-media shelf.

Full essay here.

Web Safe 2k16

Wrote something for the Web Safe 2k16 project. Web Safe 2k16 publishes one 216-word story associated with one of the original 216 web safe colors.  I wrote about forced calm and the use of blue in both social and work settings. 

I should have stared at the color a little bit more before writing because now I realize this also feels like the color of a TV awaiting a VHS tape. I wonder if there's something to that. A subconscious infusion of anticipation across all of our commonly-used platforms. 

There’s a reason so many memories with computers are blue. Blue is the color of imposed calm. Blue demands conscious calm in spite of what the blue-colored thing is doing to you. From social media and word processors, to company logos and web standards, shades of blue are keeping you passively awake.

Full essay here.

Won 1st Prize for Short Fiction at the 75th Annual McKinney Awards

I was very honored last week to receive first prize in RPI's annual McKinney Competition for short fiction (of all things!). The winning story, which is currently unpublished but looking for a home, is titled Platinum. Here's a short excerpt:

I do not like the house I am built in. I think it is ugly. I am beautiful. On the outside the house is trimmed in Quiet Moments™ and has Hawaiian Shell™ walls. I am black, with green, yellow, and red LEDs. I am mounted on an unpainted wall underground protected by a sump pump and treated steel. The inside of the house is largely characterized by PANTONE 14-1118 TPX and 15-1516 TPX and kept at 76F. My insides are plastic and platinum and reach temperatures in excess of 180F. 

This house is a brick and I am drowning slowly. That is a Ben Folds Five lyric. Jason Carethers played Brick on Whatever and Ever Amen [2035 Digital Vinyl Collection Edition] 135 times. Joyce Carethers, $usan and NickRulez were in a different room from Jason Carethers 96% of the time that song was playing. Automatically purchasing new needle heads for SONY Digital Vinyl – D3400 Player as per subscription settings.

Moderating #TtW16 Keynote Panel "Cool Story"

Stories are one of our first technologies. They are a means of collective memory storage that propel ideas forward in time and outward to new communities. Stories not only tell us what has been, they also help us imagine what could be. On the web, the scope of that collective memory increases and the relationships among stories, their tellers, and audiences are redefined. A complex social life plays out on our little screens, refracting and feeding into the stories told on the big screen. How will compelling, timeless narratives be told through timelines, threads, and selfies, and videos? Are algorithms already our best authors and editors? Rather than focus solely on perennial questions about the always imminent death of media forms and institutions, this panel explores how the web changes the stories we tell and how we tell them. 

This keynote panel happens during TtW on Saturday April 16th and features,

Alexandra Kleeman

Ales Kot

Laurie Penny

Jenna Wortham

Natasha Lennard

David A. Banks (moderator)