New technology in the post-growth city, or my misgivings about the smart city
Q&A about my work (1)
Thanks for everyone who tuned in to the UCSD Japan Zoominar that I participated in this morning (and hello to all of you who subscribed afterward!). I’ll post a link to the YouTube here once it’s available. The need to present on three projects in such a short time left a lot unsaid, and I received a lot of questions from the audience. Answering cogently during a live Q&A is difficult, but some of the questions serve as great jumping off points for me to explore my ideas and their implications. The biggest source of writer’s block is simply figuring out how to frame ideas—left to my own devices, I’m usually too ambitious and grow discouraged before I finish writing. So I will try to simply respond to a number of the questions I received in coming weeks, with minimal editing and second-guessing. Below I flesh out a response I gave in the live Q&A.
Do you envision the use of new technologies in your Onomichi project?
Modern technological conveniences are really important to living and working on Labyrinth House in Onomichi. First and foremost, a fiber-optic connection, online ordering of supplies, and the fact that Japanese parcel services will deliver almost anything up the stairs to Labyrinth House is a godsend. I once ordered a giant roll of glass wool insulation expecting to have to pick it up from the truck down below when it arrived, but the delivery guy hiked ten stories up the hill with it slung across his shoulder, heaving heavily as he asked me to sign the slip. In Onomichi and lots of local places, goods ordered on Amazon arrive the next day. Mostly the nuts-and-bolts miracle of Japanese logistics, but a benefit of technology nonetheless.
More broadly speaking, Japan’s excellent internet infrastructure, logistics network, and high-speed transportation are an enormous factor behind the trend of rural migration of urban professionals over the last decade, which has accelerated in the remote-friendly post-covid era. I go back and forth to Onomichi from Tokyo ten times a year by Shinkansen. I can leave my house at 6:45 am and reliably be on the worksite 750 kilometers away by noon for about ¥15,000 ($115 or so). I could not imagine what I do without that convenience.
Will we use delivery drones twenty years from now? Perhaps, though a quadcopter can’t carry a 5-meter beam. I can imagine a world in which supplies are shuttled between Onomichi and the neighboring islands in the Inland Sea, particularly as population decline necessitates cuts in ferry service. Japanese bureaucrats are quite enthusiastic about such possibilities for new technology, like robot taxis and drones, to maintain social services over wide depopulating regions while consolidating logistical hubs and other infrastructure. Our own dream at the moment is to get a caterpillar stair climber like the construction crews on the hillside have, and lend it out to fellow renovators as part of a mutual aid network. I would love if there were quiet electric versions. Probably twenty years from now a lot of technological things will be different. We may have to contend with the disappearance of municipal services like our gas connection, sewage removal, or trash collection. Perhaps we’ll install solar panels and an electric heat-pump water heater, some form of composting toilet, and try to go off-grid as much as possible.
Why I am suspicious of the smart city
To step back and reframe the question to how new technologies fit into my vision of the post-growth city, I can appreciate the benefits of certain modern technologies, but I have deep misgivings about placing technology at the center of urban design in the manner discussed in “smart city” discourse. The core philosophy behind what I do as an activist derives from the belief that cities should be built around unmediated bonds among people and rooted in geographically defined places, and that urban life is most divine when you break free of the myriad forms of technologically-mediated shit that capital pumps into our environment for purposes of profit and persuasion, in order to engage with other human beings, art, nature, or sensation on an intimate level.
This intimacy is something I don’t believe algorithmically-organized urban space offers. I confess that I am disturbed by the ability to order food through my phone and have it delivered to my door with absolutely no awareness of who made it or where, and that the apps sometime offer to bring it to me from halfway across town in the middle of a rainstorm. What kind of city is that? Such algorithms are almost certain to be optimized for maximum convenience, and in the process eliminate the friction, the uncertainty, the empathy, the serendipity of urban life—snuffing out the potential for an urban commons to emerge among residents beyond the domination of technology or markets. I do use such technology on occasion, but I much prefer to walk down the street to a local place and get something from the people whose faces I know and who know me (and who, were an earthquake to strike, would be with me too).
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To take it further, can we even call life mediated by omnipresent technology urban (in the positive, Jane Jacobs-urbanist sense)? A smart phone screen is an anti-urban interface. Delivery culture, algorithmic recommendation engines, behavior influenced by the visual saturation of social media content—the ways digital technologies already impact city life seem fundamentally antithetical to the idea of the city as a place created together from the bottom up. The city becomes a simulacrum of itself, a collection of discrete spaces and experiences that are pre-programmed and connected through hyperlinks, no different than a virtual marketplace.
This is why the utopian visions of smart cities sound so dystopian to me. The ambition of technology is to mediate, design, and shape every aspect of our behavior, wants, and desires; to make problems and provide their solutions. Do I need a delivery drone in Onomichi? No, at least not until someone invents it and makes me need it. One might argue that present trends are simply the continuation of the centuries-long history of media and technology infiltrating urban space and transforming everyday life, but at a certain point the saturation becomes so complete that you cross a threshold and the relationship is inverted: we no longer have technology within a city, but inhabit a city within technology. Of course, this is the explicit goal of visions like Zuckerberg’s metaverse or kooky MBS fantasies in Saudi Arabia.
Something fundamental happens to the urban experience at this stage of the city’s subordination to technology, similar to the way that the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued that the city itself subordinated nature and the rural. In his argument, the city progressed through historical stages before crossing a horizon of “implosion/explosion” to swallow the whole of urban and rural space within an “urban society” fully dominated by the logic of capital. Indeed, as I mentioned above, depopulating Japanese regions fed by Amazon warehouses are not so much rural as firmly ensconced in urban society.
In many ways we are already beyond that implosion/explosion point with technology. Technology is the instrument through which capital seeks to constantly revolutionize urban life, and I find little to cheer in a future in which it is omnipresent. The vision of the “smart city” is also inextricably tied to a faith in endless growth. (Likewise the metaverse, which offers the promise of real estate speculation ad infinitum!). It is no surprise that Japanese technocrats and corporate visionaries at Toyota and elsewhere expound on the utopia of smart cities cut from whole cloth as a panacea for Japan’s aging society and stagnant economy. I will not begin to explain how wrong-headed I think this is. But if growth is your priority, in an era of demographic decline when extensive growth is no longer possible, an intensive assault on everyday life through the smart city is the only option: to live fully in a smart city necessitates a complete embrace of a technologically- and market-mediated form of existence. It will fuel demand for economic goods and services, but does it maker us richer? Does it solve the fundamental issues with human society today, or just make more?
In my academic research, I argued that the urban conditions engendered by demographic decline would present opportunities to create what Lefebvre termed “differential space”—places where residents can enjoy the use value of space, the basis for a new urban commons—in the margins of the post-growth city. This is more or less what I’m trying to do through my activism, and the sort of urban culture I wish to see more widely embraced.
Can technologies be hacked for alternative ends and to further the pursuit of such spaces? Of course, every day and in a million ways. The very fact that we got a cluster of free houses in a beautiful community that I can get to in four hours by bullet train from Tokyo feels like a delightful hack (or bug) of this technologically dense country. But we must resist the logic embedded in technology that seeks to organize everyday life, local spaces, and the city as a whole around the endless pursuit of capitalist growth. If something that can be delivered by drone to the Onomichi hillside is also for sale down the stairs in the shopping arcade, I’d prefer to say hi to my local shopkeeper and haul it up by hand. That’s how I feel free, how I feel human, and how I know I’m here, in Onomichi.
I think they would be very interested in your work, too!
Dear Sam, I loved your Zoom talk. I wonder whether you are familiar with the work of folks like John McKnight and Peter Block and the Asset-Based Community Development group in Chicago. You and they seem to be on the same wavelength regarding the importance of personal connection and very local community development. It was great to “see” you yesterday, one benefit of technology. Thanks for the work you and your colleagues are doing to keep community alive.