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Month: March 2014

March 02014

I’m debating whether these meta-posts serve enough of a purpose to keep them up. It *is* only once per month, but I feel that my more »

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Against the Smart City III

Between my new learning regimen and a big sprint on one of my projects (which will probably continue into another week), I haven’t been keeping up with my usual reading/writing pace. I’ll make for lost time starting next week, I think.

Anyway, more of Greenfield’s Against the Smart City. Very light run-through this time.

Part I (reviews/interpretations)

Part II (“Generic Time and Space”)


Proprietary platforms: “At every turn, [these materials suggest] that in the minds of its designers, the smart city is a place where the technical platforms on which everyday life is built are privately “owned and monetized,” and information is reserved exclusively for the use of those willing and able to pay for it.”

Overspecification: “Overspecification is hubris and brittleness. It is to imply that the designer can anticipate at inception all the potential uses to which the things they create might be put, down through the long future. And it is to set in concrete (in some cases, quite literally) relations that ought to remain supple and fluid.”

The discredited notion of “seamlessness”: Obscuring the meaningful distinctions between “public and private services” makes it hard to people to navigate systems and find the levers they need. Artist James Bridle: “Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it and are powerless”

“Inappropriate model of optimization”: Again, missing the logic of the tradeoff, and the concern that “what” is being optimized is important. There are rarely globally optimized solutions. Also, a whole class of behaviors are meant to be disruptive *and vital*, (eg. strikes).

Continue reading Against the Smart City III

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Against the Smart City II: Generic Time and Space

Note: Greenfield’s arguments are also easily applicable to any political ideology.

Discussion about this pamphlet started here.



Against the Smart City is the first pamphlet in an unfolding series, The City is Here For You To Use. 

The pamphlet is not long, but I’ve been reading it sporadically alongside some other things, so these notes are only for roughly the first third of the work.

Adam Greenfield argues that there are two views of the Smart City:

  • the ex nihilo cities of Songdo, Masdar, or PlanIT valley;
  • the evolutionary view of adaptations to existing cities, the view that will clearly more directly affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming years, and the view of IBM, Siemens, and Cisco.

Interestingly, Greenfield opts to “focus analysis primarily on the sites where the ideology of the smart city finds its purest expression”.

Continue reading Against the Smart City II: Generic Time and Space

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The Last Psychiatrist

The Last Psychiatrist is reliably fun to read. But is there a consistent method/view to the whirlwind soliloquy? I was thinking about this again during my note-taking on the “psychotherapy of nations” theme in The Democratic Surround.

This is a short back-of-napkin exercise at approximating the line of thought of The Last Psychiatrist. I think I might trail off a bit at the end, but it’s what I had at publishing time.

I started by scribbling up consistent themes I thought of when I recall TLP’s (I’ll call the main writer “Alone”, as (s)he does) writing, based on what I’d consider to be his Greatest Hits:

  • You always think it’s about you, don’t you?
  • If your view of your partner is as a fulfillment of the checklist of needs for you, you will probably find failure in every human you attempt to find a connection with. Doubly so if they hold the same view of you. But you are consistently told that it is okay to view other people as instruments for your own fulfillment. Presumably because you want to hear it and someone wants your money (though there’s more to it than that, ultimately we can’t blame you. More on that later.)
  • Comparably, if your view of work is as a deep personal fulfillment, a product of your passion, you are ignoring the reality that the engine of commerce is driven by addressing (and shaping) other people’s passions. You will probably fail to find work as satisfying as you feel you deserve, ever. But, you will keep working hard, you will keep from “checking out”, which is the important part. Those who collectively sell this “passion” vision to you are succeeding because they are addressing/shaping someone else’s passion- yours- and are extracting resources from you. In Gervais Principle terms, the System benefits when you stay Clueless. Aspirationalism and Narcissicism are elevated virtues in order to accomplish this.

But what is Alone’s view of “The System”? We can’t just make agents up out of thin air.

  Continue reading The Last Psychiatrist

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The Democratic Surround II

This book was wonderful, very illuminating, and I scratched as much of it as I could to share but there is a lot of very interesting trivia. Here are my notes and quotes on the second half of The Democratic Surround. 


World War II and the Cold War

Post-War America is misremembered as a time of great unity. More than 14000 wildcat strikes broke out in factories and mines in the US, 1941-1945. Race riots erupted in Detroit (’42), Harlem (’43), Los Angeles (’43).

The psychological damage done to millions of soldiers was acutely felt in the United States intelligentsia and the public at large (both very popular books on dealing with “combat nerves” and damaged soldier psyches).

Essayist Mary McCarthy (1947): “The movies, the radio, the super-highway have softened us up for the atom bomb.”

President Eisenhower, 1954: “The world, once divided by oceans and mountain ranges, is now split by hostile concepts of man’s character and nature… two world camps… life farther apart in motivation and conduct than the poles in space.”

Charles Morris was a philosopher and semiotician who taught at the University of Chicago and also with John Cage at Moholy’s New Bauhaus. Like Bayer and Moholy, Morris believed that “individual psyches had been fractured by the pressures of industrial life and, now, by war”. In his 1948 book The Open Self he claims that “we need new selves. And new relationships between selves.” He posited a “flexible, highly interactive society, united in its heterogeneity”. “Science is a miniature example of the open society.” The book claims that he “favored a constant conversation among highly individuated, spontaneously acting citizens” over the idea of mass media.

Cybernetics father and human-machine interaction theorist Norbert Wiener was also involved in these intellectual circles. His frameworks clearly demonstrate an alternative to the dominance/submission dynamics of fascism: that of the feedback loop, the machine as an extension of the human’s will and senses, the conversation and learning between the biological, the mechanical, and the electronic. From his book The Human Use of Human Beings: “Our view of society differs from the ideal of society which is held by many Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government… such people prefer an organization in which the orders come down from above, and none return.”

An entire chapter is dedicated to the massively influential installation, The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art and later around the world. This installation will come up again, further down.

Continue reading The Democratic Surround II

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Against the Smart City I

In this post, I strategically deploy strawmen. 

Now also on my to-read list: “Against the Smart City (The City is Here For You to Use)” by Adam Greenfield. I’ve read some reviews of the pamphlet and it looks very worth the read.

The “Smart City” is a proposition forwarded by my employer and other large enterprise technology firms. I don’t mean to shill for my employer, and obviously all of this stuff reflects my own thoughts and not those of […]


The arguments I expect to find in the pamplet are absolutely considerable, and I’ve outlined them below. But the bastardization of these points that I’ve seen in reviews ought to be divorced from the clean claims I’m making below.

Found via Zhan Li: “A Review of Adam Greenfields Against the Smart City

A sketch of the grievances:

  • Efficacy: Building cities ex nihilo is incredibly difficult and generally should not be expected to be a worthwhile endeavor. True.
  • Policy: Many concept Cities are de facto authoritarian and intrusive, with massive amounts of information collection and processing. True.
  • Policy: Information platforms are expected to be privately owned. No social or organizational innovations factored in. True.
  • Logical: Cities don’t have “goals”. True (in the sense that they mean).
  • Normal Accidents: Massive system integration create large, single points of failure. Very true, and very scary.
  • Flexibility: Much of a city’s vibrancy takes place in the cracks between systems and regulations, where humans are making special spaces or artifacts of some kind or other. Sure.
  • Amateur Urban Planning: Technology firms have failed to properly amass the insights of mid-century High Modernism/Urban Planning and are retreading awkward, inorganic city layouts. Okay.

Before obfuscating, let me be clear that I agree with every single one of these grievances.

In fact, most of you could stop reading here.

Continue reading Against the Smart City I

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The Democratic Surround I

On the theories of the Committee of National Morale and the Bauhaus movement in the United States.

I apologize if I was too over-broad in my notes in part iv, my sense of art history is weak.




“How can we prevent Fascism from growing in the United States?”

This was a central question in many American intellectual circles in the 20’s and 30’s. Their concern is more complicated because they doubted their own toolset – mass media propaganda, they suspected, was inherently authoritarian, a one-to-many system requiring its victims to passively absorb a singular message en masse.

Are there alternative tools for spreading liberal democratic thought?

And, importantly, what is the nature Fascism, and what’s so seductive about it?

The Democratic Surround is full of interesting sketches of the concerns and theories of the early 20th century. For example, I liked the Less Wrong ancestor, General Semantics, which tried to hack language to make listeners aware of the emotive power of language to flout proper reasoning. But I’m most interested in Turner’s broad thesis, about the effects of early 20th century authoritarian modernism on our modern culture.

Continue reading The Democratic Surround I

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My girlfriend has been a bit weirded out by my sudden interest in Fascism over the past few weeks.

Let me explain.

I have been convinced that Fascism is far more misunderstood as a pathology than I previously thought (even very recently). Of course nobody really learns about the policies of other regimes in any depth except as a lever for some mythologized historical event, but the propagation of the word as a “snarl word” (as Greer calls it) and the continuous fear of its resurgence demands a cursory knowledge of what it is that we are denigrating, why it’s worthy of denigration (and of course I hold that it is), and how to avoid the return of such a movement.

Authoritarian regimes are roughly as old as agrarian society is. Totalitarian regimes, though, are a relatively recent invention, requiring technologies (both mechanical and social) that we might consider modern. (Chart credit to Wikipedia)

Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Authoritarian systems are generally cynical, conservative, and kleptocratic, operating within the limits that their brute power allows, and usually incidentally yielding a private sphere for citizens to live within. Totalitarian systems by contrast have a mandate, a popular vision- their leaders tend to rely on some concomitant concept of legitimacy, they act as ‘puppets of the national will’. Their understanding of the national purview is total- there is not private sphere, the entire system must be rebuilt to the New Vision. This requires centralization, mass mobilization, surveillance, messaging and media control, popular civil service, etc. Totalitarian thought is guided by the idea that the future is knowable and inevitable. By contrast, all that authoritarianism generally requires is a big stick and an improvising spirit. Totalitarianism’s champions in the early 20th century did embrace the phrase and the idea explicitly- and I’m considering reading some of them, out of curiosity.

Continue reading Totalitarianism

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