#bordertown: The Canonical City

Paul Raven @ 26-09-2011

“We all like to congregate at boundary conditions. Where land meets water. Where earth meets air. Where bodies meet mind. Where space meets time. We like to be on one side, and look at the other” – Douglas Adams

***

Perhaps the concept of the border goes right back to the most basic bits of biology. Imagine yourself in the primordial soup of a young Earth, and look around: barring the physical limits of the sea itself as it thrashes against rocks (which in this instance counts as the edge of the perceivable universe, beyond which is beyond imagining), the only walls you can see are the cell membranes of the crudest lifeforms, each tiny critter an independent fiefdom of security and gathered resources, a little living city-state. And even here, even this early, we see the necessity of border permeability; food must be brought into the city for it to survive, so the walls must allow for that passage, as well as for the expulsion of the toxic and unwanted.

Some evolutionary biologists hypothesise that the earliest stages of single-celled life consisted of symbiotic mergers. It might well be that mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally independent bacterial lifeforms that finagled themselves through the walls and into the security of one of those little city-states, wherein they discovered that their own unique abilities would improve the lot of their adopted home; there we have the hopeful narrative of the economic migrant, born before even the first multicellular lifeforms.

Chloroplast 12000x

And what a border the surface of the sea must have been to the first creatures to contemplate it – as challenging, unassailable and inhospitable as the border between the atmospheric envelope of Earth and outer space seems to us now, if not more so. We’re drawn to borders, challenged by them, inspired or intimidated by them. They are a function of our sense of identity, a mapping of ourselves onto the world around us. We understand their necessity, and yet we dream of transgression, of the meadow on the far side; the grass is always greener in the other guy’s stash.

The work of British science fiction author Chris Beckett is full of explorations of that contradictory tension between manning the city walls and sneaking through the postern gate, in either direction (because to leave the city is only to enter another territory). As climate change, post-growth economics and the inevitable evisceration of the nation-state make a mockery of map and territory alike, the questions he asks will only become more relevant.*

***

Given its harrowing history, it seems almost inconceivable that you could meet a Berliner who resented the loss of the Wall. And while no one but a last lingering few folk with a hard-on for the authoritarianism of the past (so much less subtle and velvet-gloved than that of today) would ever wish for a return to the oppression and hypocrisy that the Wall symbolised and enforced, it doesn’t take a long stay in that fine city for you to encounter the symptoms of a nostalgia for division. It’s probably clearest (and most commercially viable) at the level of aesthetics; there was a successful campaign to resist the replacement of East Berlin’s distinctive Ampelmännchen walk/don’t-walk signage characters, for instance, and – much as in any major city – the tourism industry makes money from tying ribbons around things dug up from the boneyard of the not-so-distant past. Sepia photography, the patina of age… these things have an authenticity that we find to be rare in the altermodern swirl of our mediated lives, an authenticity we seek to overlay on our experiences here at the cutting edge of time.

Conrad Schumann

(I can get an infinitely reproducible copy [reproduced from Wikipedia under Fair Use terms; please contact for takedown if required] of the iconic shot of Conrad Schumann leaping the checkpoint barricade within seconds of googling for it, but the symbolic buttons it presses get pressed much harder when one buys it as a postcard from a shop on Unter den Linden before sitting down among the glistening new constructions of Potsdamer Platz 2.0 to scribble a suitable message on it and send it to a friend back home. Geography has a residual emotional power, even when we think it doesn’t, or shouldn’t… and time is just another dimension of the map.)

But I encountered a different, deeper sense of loss among the Berliners I met – a contradictory thing that baffled (and sometimes angered) people as they tried to explain it to me across the pocked no-man’s-land between our native languages. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that I have misinterpreted what I was being told, of course, but the sense I got was that while no one misses the cruel and arbitrary physical schism of the city, they miss the sense of unity that the schism gave them. Berlin was once united in its hatred of the Wall; as such the Wall became a huge part of Berlin’s sense of identity. The euphoria that accompanied its dismantling is long gone, leaving behind the unscratchable itch of a once-hated phantom limb. Formerly united by their division, Berliners are now divided in their responses to their unity; their discussions of contemporary civic politics now include the same gripes about zoning, gentrification, class and race as any other big European city, but there’s always an underlying sense that, even if the Wall was a horror, it at least made things simple: you always knew where you stood, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be stood there.

Graffiti on the Berlin "death strip"

***

China Miéville’s novel The City & The City reminded readers of Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and many other brutally divided territories, past and present; indeed, the ease with which the book could map onto the politics of postmodernity is a testament to Mieville’s powerful command of metaphor. But there is a crucial difference: Miéville’s twin cities share the same physical space, and for the most part there is no physical or material obstacle between one city and the other. Indeed, the mapping of the two cities – and the necessity of unseeing the city that you do not belong to, and all the people in it, despite them sharing the street or building or park with you – is entirely the work of the citizens themselves. Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, at least in the crudest architectural sense, but their mutual invisibility is rigorously policed and enforced.

Miéville strongly yet politely resists attempts to canonise any single reading or interpretation of his books, but given the inescapable facts of his staunchly Marxist politics and life-long love for England’s ancient capital city, we can make an interesting case for TC&TC as a model of a schismatic London – the same class-riven metropolis that erupted in riots earlier this year. (I can’t take credit for that interpretation, though it was astonishingly obvious in hindsight after I saw it made by Owen Hatherley, who himself saw it made by a commenter elsewhere.)

Anti-cuts Riot in London

As Hatherley and others have noted, Paris has long had “no-go” underclass neighbourhoods prone to violent car-burning unrest, but they are geographical outliers, their inmates unable to easily attack anything other than the squalor that surrounds them. For more reasons than one could ever list – historical, political, economic – London is marbled with strata of class, the privileged living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. Physical borders would be impractical, expensive… and so Londoners soon learn to unsee those places and citizens who do not belong to their own city. (The same doubtless applies to many British cities, including my own hometown of Portsmouth, which has been so often described as a Northern industrial city that somehow ended up in the South that no one knows who said it first; I dare say it applies in many other countries, too. We’ll notice which ones, soon enough; keep an eye on the headlines.)

There are streets you don’t walk, shops you don’t use, pubs you don’t drink in, people you don’t acknowledge; the borders are powerful, and they cascade down to the scale of individual citizens in fractal complexity, but they only exist only in the collective, by an unspoken consensus. When enough decide to abandon or defy that consensus, a liberating permeability offers itself, and the underlying fragility of the city-as-system is laid bare, its viscera exposed, twitching in the dirt of the street like the victim of a Ballardian mugging. Within the city are many cities, interwoven or entangled, sometimes at detente, sometimes at war; an organism so complex and poorly understood that, as medicines for the body civic, contemporary politics and economics look little more rational than leeching and the balancing of bodily humours. If we have a long-term future as a species, the city will be an ever-larger part thereof; its diseases must be studied, lest we treat only the symptoms while we watch the patient die.

***

STONER KITTAH

Cats are territorial animals, but their conception of territory is four-dimensional. Where a dog works on the theory that its back yard is always its back yard, accessible only to pack-mates (of whatever species, honorary or otherwise), cats make allowances for their greater ability to get past physical obstacles by timesharing their favourite locations. That spot on the corner of the garage roof might be a young tom’s turf until the midday sun makes it more desirable, at which point it becomes the fiefdom of the local bruiser; as the sun moves on, so does the boss, and the residual warmth gets soaked up by someone else; then, at 3am, the whole breadth of the roof might become a hybrid of nightclub, knocking shop and backyard fight venue.

It’s a lot like the way we share cities, isn’t it?

***

Donning our speculative techno-urbanist hats for a moment, we can assume that once augmented reality navigates its way rightwards across the Gartner hype cycle and gains widespread adoption, the post-geographic schisming of physical space will become even more normal, with Miéville’s metaphorical act of unseeing becoming one component of a multitude of possible layered maps of the city. Offended by rotting Brutalism, or the glistening thrust of postmodern monstrosities in the heart of the city? Then choose a layer where they do not exist, and never see them again. Do the same with the homeless, or the rich; choose to swap the iconic London buses for steam-driven robot elephants, or to swap brown skins for a lighter (or a darker) shade; see the city of the Reformation as Sam Pepys would have seen it, bumbling down a side-street to some secret assignation; see the Londons of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s Freakangels, or Ballard’s Drowned World, or Moore’s From Hell; see a city, see any city, see every city. Geography is just the screen, the Canonical City, the hardware on which we run the software of urban life: we project the city on to it, drawing our borders in the gaps as instinctively as we draw the line between me and you, between Us and Other.

A metaphor too far? I disagree; I’ve seen and participated in layerings of exactly that sort in my own home town over the years, and I expect the same happens wherever people may be found – but the complexity of manifestation is a function of population. The layers are cultural, and they’re spooled out in realtime on the wetware between our ears. My city is not the same as your city.

Albert Road

When I walk down Albert Road, nominal main drag of Portsmouth’s unevenly distributed bohemian quarter (as in London, geographical constraints to expansion have led to a patchwork demography), my cultural affiliations and long period of residence determine the things I notice most: the second-hand bookstores; that flat-above-a-shop where I once DJ’d to a full room at 5am on a summer morning in 1996 before the police turned up and impounded the sound system; that guy sat eating lunch by the window of Little Johnny Russell’s, who was in a band that a friend once played bass for; the plastic nick-nacks and Spongebob lunchboxes in the window of Passionfish, one of the few indie stores that’s been a going concern since before I moved here, and which has employed at least a dozen of my friends; and of course the Wedgewood Rooms, the music venue that has employed and entertained a hefty tranche of P-town bohemians over two and a half decades.

Each journey I take has different highlights of attention, of course, but to a tourist passing through on their way to the historic dockyards or the Gunwharf “shopping experience”, it’s just a narrow and somewhat grubby strip of pubs and takeaways, devoid of places to park. Perception is reality. My Albert Road – our Albert Road! – is not your Albert Road, but all the Albert Roads – actual, virtual, fictional, possible – are anchored to that same physical space. You can’t touch the borders, can’t spray your name on them, but you can see them if you sidle up to them just right: try dressing a tad too metrosexual on beer’n’curry Wednesdays at The King’s Arms, maybe, or elbowing your way to the bar of the One Eyed Dog at 10pm on a Friday night while wearing a Square Mile suit.

Oi!

That sharp hard glint of who-the-fuck-are-you in the eyes of the other customers?

That’s your border, right there.

***

For every wall we build in the world, we build one that matches in our hearts.

***

* In the interests of full disclosure, Chris Beckett is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his writing before that was the case.

With the exception of the Conrad Schumann image (which I ganked unashamedly from Wikipedia) the above images are linked to their originals as found on Flickr. The London riot cops were found using the indispensable Compfight search engine; some are my own, and the rest are by my good friend and erstwhile bandmate Rusty Sheriff.


BERG’s Robot-Readable World

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2011

I was on a focus group panel last week, and had a real fanboy moment when I discovered that one of my fellow panellists was employed by the notorious polymathic design consultancy BERG. When I expressed a fascination with their output, I was assured that their studio – far from being the Wonka-esque factory of chaotic genius I liked to imagine – largely consisted of people sat staring at computer monitors. (I still think I was lied to, and they just do the magical stuff out back somewhere.)

Name-dropping anecdotes aside, there’s a more pertinent reason I mention BERG, and it’s this post by Matt Jones, titled “The Robot-Readable World”. It is long, and it is full of stuff; Jones collects a whole disparate bunch of thinkers and thoughts and synthesises it all into something coherent, compelling and challenging. It also pretty much sums up why I count myself as a BERG fanboy – even if all they do really is just stare at monitors a lot, if that results in this sort of output, then I can feel a lot better about my own working practices.

TL;DR: I’m a bit busy today, so go read something awesome someone else wrote. It’s about robots ‘n’ shit, yeah?


H+ zero-day vulnerabilities, plus cetacean personhood

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2011

Couple of interesting nuggets here; first up is a piece from Richard Yonck at H+ Magazine on the risks inherent to the human body becoming an augmented and extended platform for technologies, which regular readers will recognise as a fugue on one of my favourite themes, Everything Can And Will Be Hacked. Better lock down your superuser privileges, folks…

In coming years, numerous devices and technologies will become available that make all manner of wireless communications possible in or on our bodies. The standards for Body Area Networks (BANs) are being established by the IEEE 802.15.6 task group. These types of devices will create low-power in-body and on-body nodes for a variety of medical and non-medical applications. For instance, medical uses might include vital signs monitoring, glucose monitors and insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs. Non-medical applications could include life logging, gaming and social networking. Clearly, all of these have the potential for informational and personal security risks. While IEEE 802.15.6 establishes different levels of authentication and encryption for these types of devices, this alone is no guarantee of security. As we’ve seen repeatedly, unanticipated weaknesses in program logic can come to light years after equipment and software are in place. Methods for safely and securely updating these devices will be essential due to the critical nature of what they do. Obviously, a malfunctioning software update for something as critical as an implantable insulin pump could have devastating consequences.

Yonck then riffs on the biotech threat for a while; I’m personally less worried about the existential risk of rogue biohackers releasing lethal plagues, because the very technologies that make that possible are also making it much easier to defeat those sorts of pandemics. (I’m more worried about a nation-state releasing one by mistake, to be honest; there’s precedent, after all.)

Of more interest to me (for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is a novel-scale project that’s been percolating at the back of my brainmeat for some time) is his examination of the senses as equivalent to ‘ports’ in a computer system; those I/O channels are ripe for all sorts of hackery and exploits, and the arrival of augmented reality and brain-machine interfaces will provide incredibly tempting targets, be it for commerce or just for the lulz. Given it’s taken less than a week for the self-referential SEO hucksters and social media gurus douchebags to infest the grouting between the circles of Google+, forewarned is surely forearmed… and early-adopterdom won’t be much of a defence. (As if it ever was.)

Meanwhile, a post at R U Sirius’ new zine ACCELER8OR (which, given its lack of by-line, I assume to be the work of The Man Himself) details the latest batch of research into advanced sentience in cetaceans. We’ve talked about dolphin personhood before, and while my objections to the enshrinement of non-human personhood persist (I think we’re wasting time by trying to get people to acknowledge the rights of higher animals when we’ve still not managed to get everyone to acknowledge the rights of their fellow humans regardless of race, creed or class) it’s still inspiring and fascinating to consider that, after years of looking into space for another sentient species to make contact with, there’s been one swimming around in the oceans all along.

Dovetailing with Yonck’s article above, this piece extrapolates onward to discuss the emancipation of sentient machines. (What if your AI-AR firewall system suddenly started demanding a five-day working week?)

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

It would be mighty sad were things to come to that… but is anyone else thinking “that would make a brilliant movie”?


Bruce Sterling on vernacular video

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2011

For those who’ve not already seen it, here’s Chairman Bruce delivering the closing keynote speech to the Vimeo Festival back in autumn of last year. Lots of paradigm demolition work towards the end, but things start off with a discussion of The Dick Van Dyke Show…

Lots of takeaway points in there:

  • every medium will get its own Kent’s Cigarettes moment, where everyone looks back at its nascence and realises some massive and heretofore overlooked ethical compromise in the sponsorship or funding of said medium. “It seemed OK at the time!”; moral complicity through consumption/creation habits
  • network culture has to push through its current youthful banality and “ennoble its own vernacular”; there’s no utility in grafting the classical terminologies of a dead medium (cinema, film) onto one that bears little or no true resemblence to it (web video)
  • “obsolesence before plateau” (every early adopter reading this will have been through this at least once; heck, my own father was a sort of pioneer of OBP, and I learned it at his knee)
  • the three certainties of futurism are Greying, Climate Change and Urbanisation (“the future looks like cities full of old people who are afraid of the sky”)

And then the last third or so is the sort of terrifyingly plausible slingshot futurism you’d expect from a cynical sf author turned pundit.

A friend of mine remarked a while ago that he couldn’t understand how Sterling gets so many speaking gigs like this: “he just turns up, tells a seemingly disconnected story about the past for half an hour, and then spends the next half hour telling the audience that they’re not as smart as they think, that their business model leaks like a sieve, and that the only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it’s going to screw over pretty much every worldview we currently hold dear!”

That’s a pretty good summary of why I pay such close attention to the guy. 🙂


Diminished Reality: unsee the unpalatable

Paul Raven @ 16-10-2010

Interesting find at BoingBoing; a sort of inversion of augmented reality, in that rather than adding things that aren’t there to your field of vision, you take away things that are there.

Remarkably similar to another BB post from a week or so ago, namely the chap trying to develop a system that automatically removes corporate logos from video footage. Neither idea seems any more unlikely to be implemented than ‘traditional’ augmented reality, either, which effectively means that reality is destined to become an even more mutable concept than it already is.

Perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if everyone could simply stop seeing the things that offend them? Somehow I don’t think it’ll work out like that…


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