Urban Aesthetics and Technology

What makes environments beautiful? What distinguishes the beauty of the city from that of a meadow? How do technologies like self-driving vehicles and 5G shape our aesthetic experience of the city? These are some of the questions I discuss in an interview with the Finnish philosopher Sanna Lehtinen.

Video: Cities on Mars

Elon Musk has some pretty concrete plans for the Red Planet. However, he mostly discusses technological and financial obstacles. I’m more interested in psychological and political challenges to living on Mars. And I found most insightful considerations from an unlikely source: Plato.

Plato’s Laws is about starting a new colony, the fictional city of Magnesia, on an isolated Cretan island. Many of the psychological and political difficulties that Magnesians would face can be juxtaposed to potential settlers on Mars.

The latest video on my YouTube channel is on possible cities on Mars.

Conference and Video: The City and the Wild

I was extremely fortunate to have been able to take part in the Human-Technology Relations conference last weekend. 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. 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.