Becoming-Platform, the Urban and the City

Press image from Hudson Yards website, visualising the relationship between the Hudson Yards development in New York City and the High Line elevated park. Cropped by editor.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Platform Urbanism.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The concept of the platform is paradoxical. Its topography is horizontal, flat and level, not unlike a Deleuzian plateau, but also vertical and stratified: the platform as an elevated plateau. The platform demands tactical and collaborative network organization, but it is built around new hierarchies and relations of inequality.1Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, Organization after Social Media (Colchester, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2018).

In platform capitalism, writes Nick Srnicek, the platform is “a designed core architecture that governs the interaction possibilities”.2Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017), 48. The inter/activity of population is a raw material to be captured as data: an algorithmic update to the neoliberal governmentality by optimization where, in Michel Foucault’s words, “the field is left open to fluctuating processes”.3Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979 (New York: Picador, 2008), 259. The platform is an environment of capture coextensive with sensing infrastructural networks, the late neoliberal epitome of which is the smart city.

The questions to be posed are what is the smart city as the smart city, but also as the smart city? How is platform capitalism a platform urbanism, a variant of Henri Lefebvre’s much-discussed thesis that the society has been completely urbanized?4Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Half a century ago, Lefebvre speculated that late capitalist urbanization had made the notion of city obsolete, with a caveat that this was still a “virtual” process. Has that process been actualized in the smart city of today? And why the atavistic emphasis on the smart city at the very moment of the city’s apparent dissolution?

The concept of the urban is vague, as Ross Exo Adams argues, concealing historically determinate forms of techno-politics reaching to and integrating intimate interiority and planetary exteriority.5Ross Exo Adams, “Lefebvre and urbanization,” Society & Space Open Site, 24 April 2014. Online at http://societyandspace.org/2014/04/21/lefebvre-and-urbanization-ross-exo-adams/. The hypothesis of planetary urbanization foregrounds the infrastructural character of the urban beyond any formal and scalar specificity.6Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid. “Planetary Urbanization,” in Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, ed. Neil Brenner (Berlin: Jovis, 2014), 160–163. It remains, however, inattentive to historically specific technologies of government that have made the urban explode across the planet, but also “implode” by making-infrastructural bodies and souls. What power relations sustain the platform bio-politically as well as noo-politically (the term by which Maurizio Lazzarato describes the control of brains, attention and memory)?7Ross Exo Adams, “Becoming-infrastructural” e-flux Positions, 2 October 2017. Online at https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/149606/becoming-infrastructural/; Maurizio Lazzarato, “The Concepts of Life and the Living in the Societies of Control,” in Deleuze and the Social, ed. Martin Fuglsang and Bent Meier Sørensen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 171–190.

As the algorithmic avatar of planetary urbanization, the smart city reconfigures infra- and supra-human infrastructures around the principle of optimization and resilience;8Orit Halpern, Robert Mitchell, and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “The Smartness Mandate: Notes toward a Critique,” Grey Room 68 (Summer 2017): 106-129. as the smart city, it simultaneously foregrounds a neo-humanistic creed à la liveable cities.9Maroš Krivý and Leonard Ma, “The limits of the livable city: From Homo sapiens to homo cappuccino,” Avery Review 30 (2018). Online at https://averyreview.com/issues/30/limits-of-the-livable-city. The kinds of criticism of the smart city as insufficiently “people-centric” are misguided, since it is “people” who lubricate the smart city.10For example: Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City (New York: Do Projects, 3). We urgently need to challenge the benevolent visions of “optimization inflected with humanization,” where the post-human techno-rationality governing inside-out and outside-in is sustained by the ideology of socially and politically indeterminate humanism.11Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 37. For a critique of humanism see the classic Louis Althusser, “The Humanist Controversy,” in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (1966-67) (London and New York: Verso, 2003 [1967]), 221–305.

The urban is absent from Srnicek’s account of platform capitalism, most conspicuously when he questions the viability of lean platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, disproportionally dependent on surplus capital and outsourcing. What if that surplus capital is, however, captured through real estate, as when Airbnb exploits the gap between actual and potential rents?12David Wachsmuth and Alexander Weisler, “Airbnb and the rent gap: Gentrification through the sharing economy,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 50, no. 6 (2018): 1147-1170. We can plausibly criticize the city to be an ideology, but isn’t the city-as-ideology intrinsic to how financialized real estate generates surplus value for Airbnb?13David Wachsmuth, “City as ideology: Reconciling the explosion of the city form with the tenacity of the city concept,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 1 (2014): 75-90.

The impact of these and other digital platforms on the urban is undoubtedly pivotal to the concept of platform urbanism, but we also need to consider the “platformalization” of the urban itself. Tarleton Gillespie argues that platforms are inclusive of but not limited to data capture, highlighting computational, architectural, figurative and political meanings to the term.14Tarleton Gillespie, “The politics of ‘platforms’,” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-364. His definition of the platform’s governing rationality (and topology) as a “‘raised level surface’ designed to facilitate some activity that will subsequently take place” offers a helpful bridge between media and urban studies.15Gillespie, “The politics of ‘platforms’,” 350.

Fredric Jameson identified late capitalist urbanization with the proliferation of enclave typology as a middle-ground between the architecture and the city.16Fredric Jameson and Michael Speaks, “Envelopes and enclaves: the space of post-civil society (an architectural conversation),” Assemblage 17 (1992): 30-37. Enclave, an imploded city within the city (the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, famously), is for Jameson the spatial framework through which real estate capital governs the postmodern culture of congestion. Might we then consider the platform as an update to the enclave, where the consolidation of that capital’s power is paradoxically consistent with the opening and “explosion” of the enclave?

The symptomatic case of platform urbanism would then be the much-touted High Line in New York City, an elevated railway-turned-wasteland-turned-linear-park. This privately-funded public promenade is literally designed to facilitate some activities rather than other, cater for some people and deter others. As a platform, nevertheless, it problematizes the inside/outside, not only in terms of property and access, but also how it produces the surplus value.17Nate Millington, “From urban scar to ‘park in the sky’: terrain vague, urban design, and the remaking of New York City’s High Line Park,” Environment and Planning A 47, no. 11 (2015): 2324-2338; Julia Rothenberg and Steve Lang, “Repurposing the High Line: Aesthetic experience and contradiction in West Chelsea,” City, Culture and Society 9 (2017): 1-12. As Robert Hammond, the founder of the Friends of the High Line put it, the elevated promenade is simultaneously “all about being in the city” and “escaping from your normal experience of the city”; or in the architects’ words, to walk up onto the platform is both to “have left the city” (Ricardo Scofidio) and to experience that the “city is an exhibit” (James Corner).18All citations are from the documentary Elevated Thinking: The High Line in New York City (Marc Doyle and Chesney Blankenstein Doyle, 2014).

The High Line frames the city as an object of the gaze, but is in turn framed as a platform for performing urban liveability, appraisable in terms of a “hedonic analysis of the housing market”.19Heeyeun Yoon, “Is a High-Quality Park Worth the Cost? Hedonic Analysis of Housing Market Near the High Line, New York City,” The Journal of Korea Planners Association 48, no. 7 (2013): 135-152. As is well known, real estate prices have spiked in the vicinity of the promenade, drastically transforming the neighbourhood. If media platforms thrive on “social” activity generating data to be captured, urban platforms such as the High Line thrive on the figments of urbanity to be captured via the rent gap mechanism. Both have anticipatory orientation, and the coordination of planetary, urban and psycho-physical infrastructures is intrinsic to their speculative success.

Is it a coincidence that Hudson Yards—one of the costliest development projects in New York City’s history, consulted and touted as a quantified community by the Urban Intelligence Lab think-tank, which “uses data to solve problems facing cities and society”—have arisen literally on the quasi-ruderal heels of the High Line?20Cited from the website of Urban Intelligence Lab. What binds together the smart city and the smart city? How do the ideological and infrastructural aspects to being level and raised play out in media platforms that capture the city, but also in the becoming-platform of the urban itself as a medium of capture?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, Organization after Social Media (Colchester, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2018).
2. Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017), 48.
3. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979 (New York: Picador, 2008), 259.
4. Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
5. Ross Exo Adams, “Lefebvre and urbanization,” Society & Space Open Site, 24 April 2014. Online at http://societyandspace.org/2014/04/21/lefebvre-and-urbanization-ross-exo-adams/.
6. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid. “Planetary Urbanization,” in Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, ed. Neil Brenner (Berlin: Jovis, 2014), 160–163.
7. Ross Exo Adams, “Becoming-infrastructural” e-flux Positions, 2 October 2017. Online at https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/149606/becoming-infrastructural/; Maurizio Lazzarato, “The Concepts of Life and the Living in the Societies of Control,” in Deleuze and the Social, ed. Martin Fuglsang and Bent Meier Sørensen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 171–190.
8. Orit Halpern, Robert Mitchell, and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “The Smartness Mandate: Notes toward a Critique,” Grey Room 68 (Summer 2017): 106-129.
9. Maroš Krivý and Leonard Ma, “The limits of the livable city: From Homo sapiens to homo cappuccino,” Avery Review 30 (2018). Online at https://averyreview.com/issues/30/limits-of-the-livable-city.
10. For example: Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City (New York: Do Projects, 3).
11. Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 37. For a critique of humanism see the classic Louis Althusser, “The Humanist Controversy,” in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (1966-67) (London and New York: Verso, 2003 [1967]), 221–305.
12. David Wachsmuth and Alexander Weisler, “Airbnb and the rent gap: Gentrification through the sharing economy,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 50, no. 6 (2018): 1147-1170.
13. David Wachsmuth, “City as ideology: Reconciling the explosion of the city form with the tenacity of the city concept,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 1 (2014): 75-90.
14. Tarleton Gillespie, “The politics of ‘platforms’,” New Media & Society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347-364.
15. Gillespie, “The politics of ‘platforms’,” 350.
16. Fredric Jameson and Michael Speaks, “Envelopes and enclaves: the space of post-civil society (an architectural conversation),” Assemblage 17 (1992): 30-37.
17. Nate Millington, “From urban scar to ‘park in the sky’: terrain vague, urban design, and the remaking of New York City’s High Line Park,” Environment and Planning A 47, no. 11 (2015): 2324-2338; Julia Rothenberg and Steve Lang, “Repurposing the High Line: Aesthetic experience and contradiction in West Chelsea,” City, Culture and Society 9 (2017): 1-12.
18. All citations are from the documentary Elevated Thinking: The High Line in New York City (Marc Doyle and Chesney Blankenstein Doyle, 2014).
19. Heeyeun Yoon, “Is a High-Quality Park Worth the Cost? Hedonic Analysis of Housing Market Near the High Line, New York City,” The Journal of Korea Planners Association 48, no. 7 (2013): 135-152.
20. Cited from the website of Urban Intelligence Lab.

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