The city is an instrument of war. It’s a slow weapon. It’s a gigantic siege engine, grinding ever-forward, capturing space and ordering it by the logic of empire.
I can only speak for American cities, of course. I’ve never been anywhere else (“stay with the trouble”). But I’ve read that the very idea of grid-plotted cities comes from Roman imperial colonies. Their armies would destroy the organic forms of a town and rebuild something orderly and manageable. At a perpendicular intersection a legionnaire could see miles in four directions. And the parallel grids meant any opposition could be cornered into smaller and smaller quadrants.
The USA took that further. The attitude of Manifest Destiny (which sounds oddly like a hippie festival, and ought to be a red flag about both) was to charge forward across the continent, murdering the locals and their food animals, and tossing together a tent city every so often to claim the land for the frontier. Later, car companies ripped out all the public transit, and white-flight suburbs oozed forth like a blood infection along the interstate highways. Western cities are hostile, hasty, mass-produced facsimiles that mock all human values and refuse to live at human scale.
If you’re homeless and broke in a city, the violence is inescapable. You see it as soon as you need to poop. Anyone who’s desperate enough can find a tree to hide behind and pee, but when you want to make designer biscuits it’s not so easy. You have to find one of the rare places that will let you get to the public restroom before you buy anything: a library, grocery store, or VValmart. Sometimes you can pull this off at a bar or fast-food chain – but do you want to risk it? Do you have the time to walk somewhere else if this bathroom is locked?
Then: where do you put your backpack? Can you take this opportunity to wash behind your ears? Maybe today you can sneak into the college swimming pool and get a shower, but you’ll have to put your stuff in a locker and you don’t own a lock. If you get caught and kicked out, will they just throw it away?
The ‘public sphere’ is limited to parks and libraries. You can poop at a library and sleep at a park, as long as you do both during daylight. The city planners put them far apart so you get your exercise walking back and forth. Plus you can’t sleep anywhere at night, so you get to do lots of walking then too!
Or if you’re lucky enough to live in one of those liberal cities that have decriminalized sleep, you can join in the cut-throat marketplace of bridges and doorways, where everyone’s sidewalk status and degenerative life spirals are defined only by their merit. Cut a junkie’s tent open and take his spot - he’ll never remember! Collect your teeth furtively while the person who threw you off the roof pisses down upon your head! Wake up in your alley with new teenage friends pouring gasoline on your legs and smoking! THERE’S NO END TO THE FUN!
The city infiltrates and calcifies the organic tissues of society. Memes and institutions replicate in physical space, encrusting the earth like barnacles. We live in their skeletons.
If you have to poop, or eat, or sleep in the city you confront the machinery of capital bodily. It intervenes between your orifice and your environment. It monetizes your metabolism. It inserts itself in your tubes.
Capital directs your functions as part of its machinery, and when you have to scrape food out of the trash you are still a part of the job machine because there’s got to be a stick as well as a carrot. The homeless, jobless, undignified precariat is the threat that keeps the middle class in line. As Bryan Quinby says in the new Means TV trailer :
“When you wake up in the morning, and you feel like shit, and you have to wipe the sleep from your eyes and look around and be like, why does this have to happen this early in the morning? That’s a capitalism.”
All the land on Earth is owned. There are a few public places that have not yet succumbed to the market, and they’re under siege. But the real battlefield is in the cyber, where the new robber barons operate their open-pit data mines and our social relations are their gold. They already own our bodies. Now they intend to extract our souls.
When so-called journalism writers spin hot takes on the AI Doom Gods coming to steal our bullshit jobs they inevitably lean hard on the world algorithm. Algorithms do this, algorithms want that, algorithms think the other or at least we think they think that because nobody really understands how algorithms do their algorithmic computational whatnots and such, except we’re pretty sure they’re algorithmically biased for some reason no algorithm can yet explain).
- But if you read actual neural-network research papers, they don’t call them algorithms at all. That would be stupid, like baking different types of cake and calling them all “recipes”. They speak of neural
- convolutional networks, recursive networks, transformers and state machines and perceptrons. These architectures have flow: if you put an image in this end, it spits out a description at that end. And if you run the same network backwards, it can generate some amazing images from its hidden understanding of the terrain. The information floods the different layers of the network, activating different neurons which activate further layers of neurons to create a complete picture.
Like a subway platform at rush hour: the turnstiles and the different stations along the line create an emergent symphony of graceful motion. Each person knows their own stop, and everyone’s individual actions combine with the architecture of the platform to replicate a consistent pattern.
Pattern recognition is also pattern generation. This is the lesson we have to grapple with as we empower governments, corporations and individuals with more data and better architectures. The state has always been a pattern replicating machine, since the days of those Roman cities. Power wants to reproduce its own biases. That’s why kings have heirs and billionaires have boardrooms. The stupidest thing can become a strange attractor, and suddenly we’re lost in a dance of prediction and generation.
The city is a weapon wielded by architects but built by workers. The street finds its own use for the street. Squatters do parkour through backyards to safehouses. Gangs of teenage boys invent new dances in subway cars. Burglars deprecate a triple-locked hotel door, slice in from the adjoining room with a drywall knife.
So, too, for the cyber. We can survive in the interstitial spaces. We can grow like weeds through the cracks in the Spectacle. We can unite against the attention economy, tear down the clickbait factories and build a village of abundance in the ruins. The internet, like the city, is a weapon. But it’s a double-edged sword.
Thanks for reading,
###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter about living in skeletons. And other stuff. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or insert it in your tubes. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .
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