On the Slippages in Platform Urbanisms

Figures from Joseph R. Schwendeman’s (1938) Educational Device, US Patent 2,139,860, https://patents.google.com/patent/US2139860.
Matthew Wilson argues that, as a form of “self-city-nation,” platform urbanisms enable slippages between the self and outside organizing forces that expand logics of quantification.
[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.]

Platform urbanisms disguise much beneath their interfaces. These digital platforms, as infrastructure that enable entire systems of measurement, calculation, analysis, and representation, can only ever make do. Almost always a sleight of hand, these platforms are oversold, bursting with future-speak, and glitchy.1Agnieszka Leszczynski helped our panelthink about the glitch with regard to platform urbanism at our AAG session earlier this year, drawing upon Legacy Russell’s “glitch feminism.” Here, Russell writes, “… let glitch be deployed as something other than enemy… testing boundaries, traveling along limens, defying limits”. In conceptualizing these as quantified self-city-nation, I want to highlight how these systems make do – and this is captured for me by the work of the hyphen. The slippages between the self and other organizing entities (household, neighborhood, city, region, state, nation, planet, etc.) enable an expansion of the logics of quantification: prediction, preemption, and profit-maximization.

Here, I think of Ian Spangler’s recent writings on the emotional labor of Airbnb, which draws upon feminist political economy by scholars in this forum like Lizzie Richardson, to understand the work of hosting.2Spangler, Ian. 2018. “‘One More Way to Sell New Orleans’: Airbnb and the Commodification of Authenticity Through Local Emotional Labor.” Master of Arts, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky. Available at: https://doi.org/10.13023/etd.2018.241 He writes of those ‘locals’ living in New Orleans:

“…their work of playing host is exploited in the interest of Airbnb … Importantly, as actors outside the formal economic transaction become swept up into an emotional labor process, this enrollment of nonemployees blurs the lines between public and private enterprise. Airbnb demands emotional labor of non-employees on a spatial basis. Neighborhood residents are enrolled into an emotional labor process – one whose goal is the reproduction of so-called authenticity – merely by virtue of where they live…”3Spangler, 107.

As Richardson writes, “platforms are dependent upon a host of other arrangements that lie outside of their control”. For Spangler, this can be studied in the ways that neighbors of Airbnb properties are called upon to produce the neighborhood. Other ‘outsides’ might include elements of capture (of value, of attention, of property, etc.) both by media platforms and the city itself, according to Maroš Krivý. Further, these arrangements are more usefully made the targets of resistance if they are conceptualized as extractions, appropriations, and exploitations, following John Stehlin. As “ecosystems of interactions”, to quote Sarah Barns, platforms depend upon these slippages in order to further embed these systems into the practices of everyday life, from the materials of urban infrastructure into the noosphere. Indeed, even their maintenance and repair are not remainders of their successes, but are foundational to their designs and implementations.4Shannon Mattern’s forthcoming work, “Amending Care: An Archaeology of Maintenance”, is fruitful for thinking about the long rhythms of platform urbanism. She gave this lecture at the University of Kentucky on August 31st. The slides are available here.

In the quantified self-city-nation, these slippages are not failures of platform urbanisms, but are the binding practices that keep us individually and collectively still in the state of play — caught up in the various dreams that might allow some of us peace of mind, while many others are left insisting: wake up.


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