We Are All Platform Urbanists, But Not All in the Same Way

[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.]

In their opening remarks for this platform urbanism roundtable, Scott Rodgers and Susan Moore comment on the convergence of platforms and infrastructures. Platforms are infrastructures that condition how humans and non-humans interact, but they also transform the notion of infrastructure as active and lively. Keller Easterling calls this a disposition or potential agency.1Easterling, Keller. Extrastatecraft: The power of infrastructure space. Verso Books, 2014, 72.

“Infrastructure’s pliable microfibers provide structure and support,” have a “moldable texture” and “lived-in look,” one can read about the AG Hair Style pomade called “Infrastructure,” a description that reads as if it were lifted from any of the paeans to infrastructural urbanism.2Allen, Stan. “Infrastructural urbanism,” in Points + Lines, Diagrams and Projects for the City, Architectural Press, 1999, 46-89. Against the modish proliferation of loose infrastructural metaphors, we might address the challenges of splintering infrastructure networks in the age of digital platforms and platform urbanism.3Graham, Steve, and Simon Marvin. Splintering urbanism: Networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. Routledge, 2002.

Following the suggestion of Rodgers and Moore to study what platform infrastructures do rather than what they are, we can ask what they do to the dynamics of uneven urban development itself. For one, this concerns the exclusion/inclusion binary that has informed so many struggles for urban justice. These terms are surely of utmost relevance in light of the unprecedented levels of gentrification, displacement and other forms of accumulation by dispossession.4Harvey, David. “The new imperialism: Accumulation by dispossession,” The Socialist Register 40 (2004), 63-87. The logics that structure these processes under platform capitalism, nevertheless, do not neatly align with the exclusion/inclusion axis, where, as Lizzie Richardson notes, “publicness of infrastructure is not constructed by the state but by markets,” and where the alternative to opt out is increasingly a form of luxury.

The recent joint campaign of Apple and Vitality Insurance in the UK reveals this in a tangible way. Customers, or rather users, can purchase the latest Apple Watch for a heavily discounted price if they “stay active”. Monthly payment levels reflect how many so-called Vitality points customers earn, and they are reduced to zero if customers make 250,000 steps or burn six million calories in a month. The Apple Watch, with its attendant infrastructures of treadmills and data, bodies and motivation, functions here as a platform normalizing the shift from collectively provided welfare to individually managed well-being, and is paid for by the users’ data.

Routinely, however, the being-active of platform users exceeds the concentrated intervals of high-intensity physical activity, and is rather consistent with mundane daily tasks that we carry out without much thinking. These are processed as data under the apparently innocent term “behaviour,” where in a kind of inverted psychoanalysis that reveals nothing, the knowledge-desire of data scientists is invested in the patterns of commuting, sequences of clicking, and trajectories of moving eyes. We are all platform urbanists, as Sarah Barns suggests, and “the data exhaust of our daily activities” fuels the speculative valorisation of the urban.

John Stehlin highlights the appropriation of “reproductive activities conducted ‘outside’ of the formal limits of the working day … as valuable data sources,” a challenge posed by platform infrastructures to labour-based and even urban social movements.5On urban social movements see e.g. Mayer, Margit. “The ‘right to the city’ in the context of shifting mottos of urban social movements,” City 13, no. 2-3 (2009), 362-374. These are not particularly well poised to counter the subtle yet insidious effects of data-behaviourism, and the attendant non-democratic politics of “nudging”.6Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, 2008. On data-behaviourism see Rouvroy, Antoinette. “The end(s) of critique: Data-behaviourism vs. due-process,” in Mireille Hildebrandt, Ekaterina de Vries (Eds.), Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn, pp. 143-168 (New York: Routledge, 2012). How can those forms of exploitation diffused across the everyday be resisted, and what forms of tactical and strategic organization could challenge what Karen Yeung calls “nudge as fudge”?7Yeung, Karen. “Nudge as fudge,” The Modern Law Review 75, 1 (2012), 122-148.

Compelling as the speculative rethinking of Henri Lefebvre’s ideas on the urban revolution is, the articulation of platform urbanism¬ must avoid the double pitfall of reducing the urban to the city, and giving in to planetary-wide, infrastructural deliria. Matthew Wilson’s intriguing concept “quantified self-city-nation” – to which I would add Jennifer Gabrys’ “program Earth”8Gabrys, Jennifer. Program Earth. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. complete with her critical reflections on the planetary9Gabrys, Jennifer. “Becoming planetary,” e-flux Architecture, 2 October 2018, online at https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/accumulation/217051/becoming-planetary/ – offers a way forward to think platform urbanism across scales, without losing sight of how contours of those scale are being continuously redrawn (and here we might think about the sensationalist ideas on “charter cities,” championed by the recent Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences recipient Paul Romer).

To challenge platform urbanism might require us to ask not only what platforms do to nations, cities and selves, but equally what nations, cities and selves do (and can do) to platforms. Even if we are all platform urbanists, some are in a position to design platforms, which others are compelled to use, the “nudgers” and “nudgees” so to speak. In a path-breaking history of neoliberal thought, Quinn Slobodian argues that neoliberal intellectuals sought to redress the state to suit markets rather than abolish it, “building an extra-economic framework that would secure the continued existence of capitalism”.10Slobodian, Quinn. Globalists. Harvard University Press, 2018, 16. We can ask accordingly about frameworks that secure the reproduction of platform urbanism, but are not platforms themselves. That might be paradoxically one of the hopeful insights of this roundtable on platform urbanism: that not everything is a platform, and the challenging of platform urbanism from the outside remains as important as unsettling it from the inside.


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