The City and the Wild

I was extremely fortunate to have been able to take part in the Philosophy of Human-Technology Relations conference last weekend. It took place online but the energy and the good collegial atmosphere that I have also experienced at Philosophy of the City events was palpable nonetheless. The full program is available at the conference website.

What was most mind-blowing was the keynote lecture given by Prof. Ashley Shew (Virginia Tech). She talked about human-technology relations from the perspective of a technologically enabled disabled person (Prof. Shew’s lower leg has been amputated and she relies on wheelchairs and prosthetics). She dispels many of the common myths around disabled people such as that they spend all their time wishing they could be cured or enabled to walk again – an assumption Shew calls ableism, or that all disabled people should play along in the narrative of being an inspiration for perseverance and high achievement for the non-disabled.

Shew identifies as a cyborg, though not in that kitschy Haraway-way. She draws attention to the fact that it is precisely the disabled who have immense experience with the interface between the human and the technologicized, since they deal with it in almost every moment of their life. Ironically, their perspective is almost never included in these discussions!

My contribution was on the way the city as a technology mediates to the wild. Both notions of the city (as the locus of the civilised) and the wild are historically shifting and constructed with various ends in mind and therefore require careful reflection. A video of my presentation is available here.

Urban AI: Part II

So, I was able to take part in a fascinating online workshop on urban artificial intelligence (urban AI). We were quite a mixed bag of social scientists, designers, IT developers, and humanities academics from Finland, the Netherlands, India, Taiwan, Switzerland, USA etc. This made the event particularly stimulating, because it opened up the horizon for imaginaries of AI in the urban everyday around the world, and not just according to the Californian model.

Some of the recurring themes were post-binary imaginaries of future cities that go beyond the usual utopian/dystopian prophesies, and investigations into the intertwining of human and non-human agency in urban contexts around the world. This is a different approach than endlessly critiquing “smart cities” as corporate-driven (which they originally were, but many smart city projects have responded to academic critique; for instance the smart city strategy in Basel, Switzerland is not aimed at technology for technology’s sake, but at using technological tools towards more sustainable cities).

I particularly liked Stephanie Sherman‘s input against the inflationary use of Bentham’s panopticon to describe the surveillance state, as hailed in by Foucault and more recently updated by Zuboff. It ignores the current lack of centralised state power (I take this to be due to the rise of supranational companies), and the fact that it is not only surveillance enabling technology that is disciplining, but that civilisation as such has a disciplining function (for better or worse). She and her fellow researchers and designers at UC San Diego investigate plural AI ecologies in interaction with human, mineral, vegetative etc. agency. Nitin Sawhney‘s input on value-based ecologies and embracing interactions between human, AI and other non-human agency (such as granting the status of legal personhood to a river in New Zealand) went in a similar direction. My own contribution was on a case study of the use of AI in Basel to mediate motion in cities.

As you might be able to tell, the discussions had a distinctly Actor-Network theory flavour, which doesn’t bother me. In any case, the workshop will be repeated in the future. There was discussion of it taking place entirely outside of Europe or North America, to really bring in completely different perspectives on urban AI, such as in Bangalore, India. But it is not yet decided. It would definitely be super exciting, if it did, since really I hope research some more on India.