Platforms as urban technology?

Quicup platform delivery rider bike, Kensington, London. Source: Author
Lizzie Richardson's followup post explores urban plan forms as technologies of urban life.
[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.]

Does “platform urbanism” mark a particular, perhaps even novel, technology of urban life? At least in part, the nominal focus in this collection of essays suggests that this is the case. Platforms appear as a new technical device, part of a broader “high-tech” rhetoric of progressive urban development. Given this condition, the role of the critic is to question the forms of social control, including economic inequalities, which emerge from the operations of such technology, especially apparent when the platform is subsumed into the rhetoric of “smart urbanism”.

Yet this line of critique, while undoubtedly important, is also somewhat limited for two reasons. Firstly, the impact of “platforms” on urban life is highly geographically differentiated. It is reasonable to ask the question of whether, for the majority of the world’s population, it makes sense to prioritise the platform as a focal point for understanding cities. Secondly, and related, such critique revolves around a consensus concerning what an urban technology is, a consensus that informs both proponents and critics of platforms. To examine platforms as sites of social control is to stick within the same discursive frame of urban change set out by “platform companies” such as Uber.

For example, while proponents of platforms might argue that they are causing (progressive) disruption, critics would point to the implications of this change in terms of the forms of marginalisation it might produce. Such a critique challenges the progressiveness of the “platform” but does not upset the underlying assumptions of the platform as a novel and discrete focal point for examining how cities work. It lies within a well-established critique of the mechanisation of social life associated with the emergence of new forms of authority following the dissolution of traditional society.

What might a different form of critique do? For one thing, it might take an expanded approach to understanding what an urban technology is. This would situate the platform within longer histories of urban design and infrastructure to extend the debate beyond the narrow parameters set by technology companies. And by extension, this would mean asking questions of what a technology does, which following Foucault, must not be solely operations of social control but also of creativity.1Behrent, Michael C. “Foucault and technology.” History and Technology 29, no. 1 (2013): 54-104.


1 Behrent, Michael C. “Foucault and technology.” History and Technology 29, no. 1 (2013): 54-104.
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