Random finds (2018, week 9) — On cities that remember everything, the way we experience art, and Slow Thought as an antidote to our techno-consumerist age
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
Cities that remember everything
Last week’s Random finds featured Joel Kotkin’s recent article for Daily Beast, From Disruption to Dystopia: Silicon Valley Envisions the City of the Future, in which he describes Silicon Valley’s plans to fashion our urban future as “the latest expansion of [its] narcissistic notion of ‘changing the world’ through disruption of its existing structures and governments and the limits those still place on the tech giants’ grandest ambitions. This new urban vision negates the notion of organic city-building and replaces it with an algorithmic regime that seeks to rationalize, and control, our way of life.”
In an article for The Atlantic, The City That Remembers Everything, Geoff Manaugh wonders how people might opt out of the smart city? “What does privacy even mean, for example, when body temperature is now subject to capture at thermal screening stations, when whispered conversations can be isolated by audio algorithms, or even when the unique seismic imprint of a gait can reveal who has just entered a room? Does the modern city need a privacy bill of rights for shielding people, and their data, from ubiquitous capture?”
“The most impressive technical feat of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses,” Manaugh writes, “is that it manages to record nearly every detail from a day in the life of the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and to elevate those events to the status of literature. Mythology, even. Readers track Bloom’s journey step by step, as he navigates the labyrinthine streets, pubs, and offices of Dublin […]. Recording stray thoughts, private conversations, newspaper headlines, and even an amorous act in the bedroom, Ulysses functions as a super-catalog of the mundane. Joyce’s approach — a persistent surveillance of events in Dublin on the date of June 16 — implies that a larger story remains hidden in a plain sight, an explanation that might finally make sense of the world, lurking in the data of everyday life. We just need to capture and record that data.”
Today, there are other ways to capture a city, writes Manaugh. “In 2009, the U.S. military revealed the use of a new surveillance tool called Gorgon Stare. It was named after creatures from Greek mythology that could turn anyone who made eye contact with them to stone. In practice, Gorgon Stare was a sphere of nine surveillance cameras mounted on an aerial drone that could stay aloft for hours, recording everything in sight. As an Air Force major general explained […] at the time, ‘Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.’
This sort of persistent surveillance no longer requires drones, however, or even dedicated cameras; instead, people have willfully embedded these technologies into their daily lives. The rise of the so-called smart city is more accurately described as the rise of a loose group of multisensory tracking technologies. Gorgon Stare, we might say, is the metropolis now.”
“The tension between Ulysses and Gorgon Stare, of course, is one of intention, of the interpretive goal that motivates these acts of mass data collection. Put another way, are these tools for novelists or tools for police, for authors or authoritarians? Every June 16 — the day of the events depicted in Ulysses — Joyce’s novel is read aloud at events celebrating ‘Bloomsday,’ as Leopold Bloom’s fictional day of wandering around Dublin has become known. But Bloomsday, in a sense, now never ends, and not just in Dublin: Urbanites everywhere are becoming infinitely tracked characters in a story someone else — something else — is writing, even as it is not yet clear what it means for their lives to be captured.”
“Utrecht has become a tangle of individual pilots and projects, with no central overview of how many cameras and sensors exist, nor what they do,” Saskia Naafs says in ‘Living laboratories’: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious residents. “In 2014, the city invested €80m in data-driven management that launched in 80 projects. Utrecht now has a burglary predictor, a social media monitoring room, and smart bins and smart streetlights with sensors (although the city couldn’t say where these are located). It has scanner cars that dispense parking tickets, with an added bonus of detecting residents with a municipal tax debt according to the privacy regulation of the scanner cars. But when I asked the city to respond to a series of questions on just 22 of the smart projects, it could only answer for five of them, referring me to private companies for the rest of the answers.
Like many cities, Utrecht argues that it acts in accordance with privacy laws because it anonymises or pseudonymises data (assigning it a number instead of a name or address). But pseudonymised personal data is still personal data. ‘The process is not irreversible if the source file is stored,’ says Mireille Hildebrandt, professor of ICT and Law at Radboud University. ‘Moreover, if you build personal profiles and act on them, it is still a violation of privacy and such profiling can — unintentionally — lead to discrimination.’ She points to Utrecht’s plan to register the race and health data of prostitutes, which came in for heavy criticism from the Dutch Data Protection Authority.”
The Dutch Personal Data Protection Act stipulates that people should be notified in advance of data collection and its purpose. In many ‘smart cities,’ however, this is seldom the case. All the while, data is being collected and stored. “Visitors do not realise they are entering a living laboratory,” says Maša Galic, a researcher on privacy in the public space at the Tilburg Institute of Law, Technology and Society.
This also raises the question who actually owns data which is collected in a public space?
“Public authorities are increasingly outsourcing tasks to private companies. Think of waste removal or street lighting,” says Arjen Hof, the director of Civity, a company that builds data platforms for governments. “But they do not realise that at the same time a lot of data is collected, and do not always make agreements about the ownership of data.”
He “gives the example of CityTec, a company that manages 2,000 car parks, 30,000 traffic lights and 500,000 lamp-posts across the Netherlands. It refused to share with municipalities the data it was collecting through its lamp-post sensors,” Saskia Naafs writes. “Their argument was that, although the municipality is legally owner of the lamp-posts, CityTec is the economic owner and, for competitive reasons, did not want to make the data available.”
“When I interviewed the technology writer Evgeny Morozov in October,” Naaf writes, “he warned of cities becoming too dependent on private companies. ‘The culmination of the smart city is a privatised city,’ he said. ‘A city in which you have to pay for previously free services.’”
In an opinion article in The Guardian, Only a cash-strapped public sector still finds ‘smart’ technology sexy (2016), Morozov wondered what would happen once tech firms become the only game in town? “Will they be like those drug companies that, having entered into profitable and seemingly eternal deals with the government, can charge the public sector exorbitant prices, simply because there’s not much competition around?”
“In the end,” Morozov argued, “welfare by corporations is nothing but welfare for corporations.”
The way we experience art
“Please take your photos as quickly as possible and you can look it up online. Everything is online.”
Those were the instructions of a museum guard to visitors at the US National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where people queued for hours to get a few seconds in front of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
“In an effort to expedite the lines, the Portrait Gallery has devised a cordoned ‘photo queue’ system for anyone who wants to see the paintings up close,” Anne Quito writes in Instagram is killing the way we experience art. “Once in front of the portraits, most museum goers did one of three things: They held up their mobile phone to take a picture of the painting; they turned around to snap a selfie with the painting as backdrop; or they posed next to the portraits for a companion to take a souvenir shot (making the Obamas’ Smithsonian portraits into the world’s most expensive life-size cardboard cutouts). What hardly anyone did was this: Raise their eyes from their mobile phone and use their allotted time to gaze up at the arresting, symbol-laden canvases.”
“This is a far cry from the time when art museums banned or just barely tolerated photo-takers,” says Quito. Today, “[c]urators have come to embrace social media as a way for visitors to engage with art, explains Dr Kylie Budge, a senior research fellow at Western Sydney University. ‘It tips the balance of power and makes the experience more democratic on some levels,’ she says. ‘There’s an element of co-creation involved. With platforms like Instagram available, the person experiencing the art now has the capacity to respond and create something instantly that communicates their reaction.’”
Are social platforms changing the way we judge art, or making us more easily dismissive. “Put another way,” Quito wonders, “does a work that an artist has labored over for months, even years, deserve more than a glance on a tiny screen?”
Today, platforms like Google’s virtual museum tours have enabled art lovers to ‘visit’ top museums all over the world and ‘see’ works of art up close, at even higher resolutions than if they were to stand before it a museum. Yet, “despite the democratizing value of widely disseminating great masterpieces, the fact is that looking at art on our backlit screens is not the same as encountering it in person,” Quito writes.
While the makers acknowledge the debt and inspiration of the original 1969-series, they had to forge something new, says the BBC’s arts commissioning editor, Mark Bell. “We started off making this, thinking: ‘What would it be like to make a programme like [Civilisations] now?’ And quite early on, we came to the conclusion that we’d need to go broader, that we live in a world that is much more diverse and our understanding of and appreciation of different cultures has changed in 50 years.”
“As well as geographic breadth, the new Civilisations has an epic temporal arc — beginning, unlike Clark, with the very first human creations in the caves of Spain and Africa,” Luke writes. “Perhaps the most palpable difference is in its presenters. Civilisations, too, is about personal views, but those of three people: Simon Schama, who presents five programmes, and Mary Beard and David Olusoga, who each present two.”
Mary Beard’s first programme, called How Do We Look?, comes closer to a direct critique of Clark.
“This is more radical than many might have dared to expect from Civilisations. Beard’s use of the term ‘way of seeing’ can’t be coincidental: it evokes the title of John Berger’s BBC series, which was a direct riposte to Clark. And Beard admitted in an article in the Guardian newspaper in 2016 that, while Civilisation had made an impression on her when she saw it in 1969, she grew to be a ‘devotee’ of Berger’s book and series. She became ‘decidedly uncomfortable with Clark’s patrician self-confidence and the great man approach to art history — one damn genius after the next — that ran through the series,’ she wrote. Clark’s characterisation of the barbarian hordes was, she argued, ‘as crude an oversimplification of barbarism as his dreamy notion of ideal perfection was an oversimplification of classicism.’ But Civilisation had still opened her eyes, she conceded: ‘not only visually stunning, it had shown us that there was something in art and architecture that was worth talking, and arguing, about.’ How Do We Look? simultaneously reflects what Beard admired and disliked about Civilisation: it is as dramatic and visually gorgeous as Clark’s series was for viewers encountering the new medium of colour television in 1969; it very much proposes an argument; yet it undoubtedly reflects shifts in art historical thinking over the intervening years.”
Civilisations is on BBC Two from 1 March, when all the episodes will be available at once on the BBC iPlayer. In the US, the series airs on PBS from 17 April
Slow Thought as an antidote to our techno-consumerist age
“We need a philosophy of Slow Thought to ease thinking into a more playful and porous dialogue about what it means to live,” says Vincenzo Di Nicola, a tenured full professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. In Slow Thought: a manifesto, an essay for Aeon, he elucidates and illuminates Slow Thought through seven proclamations.
One of them (#6) is, ‘Slow Thought is a counter-method, rather than a method, for thinking as it relaxes, releases and liberates thought from its constraints and the trauma of tradition.’ Di Nicola writes:
“An editorial in The Irish Times in 2014 exhorting Ireland to introduce philosophy to secondary schools argues against ‘attempts to remove time for reflection,’ perfectly summed up by ‘the slogans of our techno-consumerist age’ — Just do it, Move fast and break things, YOLO (You only live once) — which encourage us to ‘act now, think later.’ Against a ‘consumer society [that] constantly attempts to remove time for reflection,’ philosophy is recommended as ‘a counterbalance to this culture of fast action.’
The problem with ‘fast action’ is that it presumes a sure way of doing things and a uniformity that, in a pinch, we can accelerate. Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present. The key here is multiplicity, plurality and diversity, which take time.
According to Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.’ The most famous and radical philosopher of the 20th century did not establish a philosophical system because he wished to cure himself — and us — of philosophy. The reference to therapy is important as Wittgenstein compared the work of philosophy to that of medicine or psychology: ‘The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.’
When I say Slow Thought is a counter-method, I align it with Wittgenstein’s thought, published posthumously in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (1980), where he concludes:
‘What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.’
Let us put this into a greater philosophical perspective. In the work of [Alain] Badiou and Richard Rorty, we can distinguish two kinds of philosophers. Rorty calls them systematic and edifying philosophers, while Badiou calls them philosophers and anti-philosophers.
Systematic philosophers (according to Rorty) and true philosophers (according to Badiou) build systems of thought, often constructing their own materials (methods) for the philosophical edifice. Thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Giambattista Vico and Giordano Bruno, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant and Husserl — they are all systematic philosophers. Others address edifying questions (Rorty) or work to undermine established systems of thought (Badiou’s anti-philosophers). Rorty refers to these thinkers as ‘therapeutic rather than constructive’. Badiou’s anti-philosophers include Paul of Tarsus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and his follower Lacan, and Wittgenstein.”
“Following my philosophical investigations into trauma and event, I discern systematic, true philosophers as philosophers of the event, opening possibilities — of thought and of life. Anti-philosophers are the philosophers of trauma and the abyss, closing possibilities. What they have in common is rupture understood as caesura, discontinuity or hiatus. When rupture becomes trauma/abyss, it is not necessarily clinical trauma as it is conceived in psychiatry and psychoanalysis but the trauma of cultural studies which, true to the way it is understood in the anti-philosophy tradition, is neither systematic nor constructive but deconstructive and, unlike clinical trauma, does not require intervention of any kind.
There is another group of thinkers whom I call methodologists. These are thinkers who offer us new tools of thought. They do not fit easily into the dichotomous categories of philosophy/anti-philosophy or systematic/edifying philosophers. I think of aspects of Nietzsche, such as his genealogy, as a methodology. While Badiou sees Wittgenstein as an anti-philosopher, it is clear that Wittgenstein saw himself as the great methodologist who eschewed a philosophical system and, by clarifying language games, cleaned up certain philosophical pseudo-problems. From this perspective, Derrida is also best viewed as a methodologist who offers a series of extraordinary insights into language, culture and thought with such notions as the pharmakon, dissemination and iteration. Foucault and his greatest reader, Agamben, are methodologists. Foucault offers a series of methodologies — genealogy, archaeology and problematicisation. Agamben has honed Foucault’s archaeology whose genealogy he traces back to Nietzsche and Freud into a refined methodology that he calls philosophical archaeology. Foucault furthermore offers his notions of the dispositif or apparatus, as well as his notion of the ‘care of the self’ as methodologies for investigation, thinking and practice.
Slow Thought is a counter-method as an analogue to anti-philosophy. Just as there are philosophers and anti-philosophers, there are methods and counter-methods. In this sense, we can group Slow Thought as an edifying philosophy and as an anti-philosophy, the way that Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Derrida examine the tools and methods of thought to clarify genealogies (Nietzsche), to rid us of pseudo-problems (Wittgenstein), and to reveal latent, unknown and disavowed roots, meanings and traces of words (Derrida).”
And also this …
“Consider that holy grail of learning outcomes, critical thinking — what the philosopher John Dewey called the ability ‘to maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry,’” Molly Worthen writes in The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes.’
“Teaching it is not a cheap or efficient process. It does not come from trying to educate the most students at the lowest possible cost or from emphasizing short, quantifiable, standardized assignments at the expense of meandering, creative and difficult investigation.
Producing thoughtful, talented graduates is not a matter of focusing on market-ready skills. It’s about giving students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.
That’s how we produce the critical thinkers American employers want to hire. And there’s just no app for that.”
In Want to Kill Your Economy? Have MBA Programs Churn out Takers Not Makers, adapted from her book Makers and Takers, Rana Foroohar explores why business education has failed business.
“Business schools by and large teach an extremely limited notion of ‘value,’ and of who corporate stakeholders are. Many courses offer a pretense of data-driven knowledge without a rigorous understanding and analysis of on-the-ground facts. Students are given little practical experience but lots of high-altitude postulating. They learn complex mathematical models and ratios, but these are in many cases skills that are becoming somewhat devalued. As Nitin Nohria, dean of the Harvard Business School, admits, ‘anyone can teach you how to read a P&L [profit-and-loss statement] or value a derivative; those kinds of things have become commoditized.’ The bigger challenge is to teach America’s future business leaders how to be curious, humane, and moral; how to think outside the box about problems like funding the research for a new blockbuster drug. And how to be strong enough to stand up to Wall Street when it demands the opposite.”
“Yet ironically, many business leaders, even those who have MBAs themselves, have begun to question the value of these programs. ‘I went to business school before I knew any better, kind of like sailors get tattoos,’ jokes former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, whose book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters decries the rise of the MBAs. The problem with business education, according to him, is that students are taught not what happens in real business — which tends to be unpredictable and messy — but a series of techniques and questions that should take them to the right answers, no matter what the problem is. ‘The techniques, if you read the Harvard Business School cases, they are all about finding efficiencies, cost optimization, reducing your [product] assortment, buying out competitors, improving logistics, getting rid of too many warehouses, or putting in more warehouses. It’s all words, and then there’s a sea of numbers, and you read it all and analyze your way through this batch of charts and numbers, and then you figure out the silver bullet: the problem is X. And you’re then considered brilliant.’ The real problem, says Lutz, is that the case studies are static — they don’t reflect the messy, emotional, dynamic world of business as it is. ‘In these studies, annual sales are never in question. I’ve never seen a Harvard Business School case study that says, Hey, our sales are going down and we don’t know why. Now what?’”
“Great places have soul. They aren’t simply about great architecture, great infrastructure or great locations. There is a life to great places, a vibrancy built on the relationship between the people who live, work and grow there and the place itself,” writes John Atkinson in Great Places Have Soul.
“Great leadership recognises this. It understands the importance of ‘purpose’, a sense of what we are about and what binds us in common. Leadership finds the articulation of this purpose, not through the abstract thought of a great individual but by connecting with the stories people tell about the place and their lives in it.
The expression of these stories makes places come alive. A shared belief in who we are, what we stand for and why we are here connects into people’s energy and opens the way for us to do great things together. Great places are not ‘made’ by good administration, they are served by it.
Some places have a feel for how to do this, they make wise decisions together, feeling when to be bold and how to be true custodians of their predecessors aspirations. Many places have lost connection with this vibe. Rapid growth, steady decline and social change can leave places needing to attend to themselves to find afresh their connection and soul and thus the activities that nourish them.
This means reconnecting with each other, experimenting with what might work and uncovering some of the invisible dynamics that hold us in unproductive patterns and relationships. When we do this we unleash the creative potential in places that allows people to live meaningful lives. We reconnect places with their soul.”
“Change is not about going from point A to point B, reaching an ideal state and stopping there,” she writes. “What really matters is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next. The organization may never reach point B; it may give up on its initial destination along the way, and focus on something else according to circumstances. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is to build capacity for change: to make people comfortable with the unfinished, the in-process, the let’s-see-what-happens-and-figure-out-the-next-steps.
I’ve heard in the past that constant re-organizations were a way to achieve this. To maintain employees in a constant state of discomfort, to ‘break the baronies’ (little kingdoms, silos) supposedly made staff agile and efficient whatever the organizational setup. I believe it is totally wrong. It just destroys connections, damages trust, makes people unproductive during the time they have to build new connections and disengaged in the long term.
Instead, the more an organization relies on — and continuously strengthens — its formal and informal networks, the better it equips itself and its agents for change. The essence of change is what the individuals learn and how they grow, in a collective process that has no real end.”
In How Digital Maps Have Changed What It Means to Be Lost, Julie Beck tells the tales of people losing their way, before and after GPS. After being lost in St. Petersburg, Beck started collecting memories of the last times people felt really, truly lost.
“I suspected many of them would come from the pre-smartphone era — and some of them did — but while it’s easy to think that an interactive map in every pocket would make the experience of getting lost obsolete, it hasn’t. People still get lost, but the proliferation of digital maps has definitely changed the landscape, if you will, of when and how people lose their way,” Beck writes.
“There are many ways to be lost. Some have declined due to technology; others are newly born. But in every situation, to be lost is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, often dangerous, but it also breeds connection — with people, and with places. The maps people carry in their pockets can be a barrier to that connection, but they are also safety nets. And it’s easier to take a leap if you know there’s something at the bottom to catch you.”
In Cræft, “the archaeologist and BBC presenter Alexander Langlands offers a fascinating and surprisingly relevant dive into a subject that might seem niche to many — the origins of traditional crafts in medieval Europe,” Sarah Archer writes in The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft.’
“Apart from its use as a marketing term for, say, microbrews, the word [‘craft’] today doesn’t usually connote a skilled trade. Unlike ‘working,’ ‘crafting’ is commonly understood as fun: It can be self-consciously silly, feathered, decoupaged, and brightly colored. It’s fun for kids and meditative for grownups. In most cases, the product of a crafting session is less important than the relaxing process by which it was made. This is the case not only because mass production has trained consumers to value the widespread affordability of manufactured goods. It’s also because industrialization permanently altered how people understand work, leisure, and time. Craft is leisure, but it’s terribly efficient: It provides the satisfaction of transforming a stack of materials into a tangible, recognizable finished object, often by way of a therapeutically repetitive process. Craft’s magic trick is that it’s play that’s been designed to look like work.”
“In Cræft, Langlands calls for living and working with awareness of our environments, materials, and challenges in real time. We don’t have to quit our jobs and start keeping bees in order to do this. Every architect thinking through climate-change-resilient design is applying ‘cræft’ logic to their work; so are chefs who source all their produce locally, and jewelers who use only reclaimed gems and metals. We need not be literal about ‘cræft’ to enjoy its benefits, or to see how it might benefit the world. Sometimes, a metaphor is the right tool for the job.”
Mango Tree House, designed by Volume Matrix Studio, is built on one of the old reminding mango gardens that still exist in Bangkok, Thailand. “[I]t is the reason why the house tries to insert itself into its environment. The planning of the house is layed out in a way to introduce the house in the tree-rich site, without disturbing, or cutting any of the original landscape.”
Mango Tree House “shows its own true identity according to its surroundings, and changes during the different time of day. The design intention was to create a humble house, that fits in with nature. The space planning design is created to be simple, clear, and consistent.” (source: ArchDaily)
In The Country House in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, which has been designed by 1+1>2 Architects, “[f]unctional rooms are located between open spaces. Large curved corridor, garden, courtyard and atrium are arranged flexibly. Open terrace spaces are covered by thatch roofs and edged by trees.
Based on traditional experiences, the interaction between the inside and the outside within spacious architecture plays an important role. The lamellar solar protection made out of wood and appears along the corridor, with the roof, it creates a curved surface.” (source: ArchDaily)
“The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on, you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal.” — Guttorm Fløistad, the Norwegian philosopher who, according to Vincenzo Di Nicola in Slow Thought: a manifesto, grasped the beat of the Slow Movement.