The architecture of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood is unique in the dense urban island-state of Singapore and has been designated a special area of architectural interest, resulting in the preservation of the 1920s Streamline Moderne façades and structures of the buildings while the rest of Singapore undergoes continual redevelopment. The ethos of Streamline Moderne, with its horizontal and curved facades, reflects functionalism in modernity and hearkens back to the machine age of the 1920s and the notions of speed and mobility inspired by immense technological innovation, with automobiles and aeroplanes becoming a part of common social experience. Today, Singapore is in the midst of a new machine age of big data and artificial intelligence where algorithms, digital infrastructure, and “smart city” initiatives are already intricately woven into the common quotidian experience of citizens: the optimisation of everyday life, from healthcare, housing, and transportation, to fostering and managing community relations. Within the dense web of algorithmic and digitally mediated social welfare, how can we imagine ways to resist increasingly algocratic modes of social control and to regain some form of individual agency?
The 2020 Singaporean science fiction film Tiong Bahru Social Club1Tiong Bahru Social Club(13 Little Pictures; Golden Village Pictures, 2020). (hereafter: TBSC) engages with this contemporary social reality through its imagination of a closed and highly datafied urban community that aims to create the happiest neighbourhood in Singapore, wherein inhabitants’ well-being and care are governed behind-the-scenes by algorithms and measured against a “happiness index.” The film follows the journey of a thirty-year-old man, Bee, a fairly one-dimensional figure who unquestioningly moves through life in an unremarkable manner. He is a caricature of the unthinking, unquestioning, docile, and compliant citizen-subject who, in daily life, accepts what he is given and does what he is told. On his birthday, his mother presents him with a gift: an invitation to join the Tiong Bahru Social Club as a resident and employee. Bee accepts his mother’s present and moves out of her apartment, entering the heterotopia of the Tiong Bahru Social Club where he, like the other young residents in the community, takes on the role of a “Happiness Agent” whose job is to care for and increase the happiness of the elderly inhabitants. Each person in the community is assigned a daily score based on how much happiness their activities generate, and these personalised activities are determined by “the algorithm.” Bee is paired with Miss Wee, an eccentric, elderly woman obsessed with cats who is aloof and gruff with a no-nonsense attitude, and he is tasked to care for her and increase her (and his own) happiness level.
Care, which is registered in the film’s narrative via themes of individual and collective happiness and well-being, is portrayed as something that can be quantified, optimised, computed, rationalised, standardised, practiced, and communicated via algorithmic processing, thereby shifting the responsibility of caring from the human individual and community to the “black box” of technological systems. The inhabitants are portrayed as suspended in a Marcusean one-dimensionality,2Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964). having surrendered agency over their own well-being to “the algorithm”: they have little-to-no choice in the modality of care practiced within the community, and their needs and welfare are determined by how much net happiness is generated by their actions.
In this essay, I read TBSC alongside contemporary techno-social currents in Singapore in which citizens’ welfare is taken care of by algorithms — a state of “care-by-algorithm.” In this cinematic rendering of a utopian community in which individuals voluntarily relegate practices of self-care and collective care for one other to extreme algocratic systems of social control and regulation, there are clear parallels with contemporary policy discourses in Singapore – in particular, the government’s Smart Nation AI initiative3Smart Nation Digital Government Office, “National Artificial Intelligence Strategy: Advancing Our Smart Nation Journey” (Singapore: Smart Nation & Digital Government Office, 2019). – that seek to integrate AI-driven “solutions” into almost every facet of governance and everyday life. Through its satirical exploration of the tensions between individual agency and a governing entity’s well-meaning but restrictive care-by-algorithm, TBSC imagines and illustrates a path by which one can navigate the ideologies and anxieties of the algocratic city. In the constellation of urban imaginations, cinema serves as a critical mirror and heterotopic space that speaks back to dominant, real-world narratives of digital utopias.
Smart City and Fourthspace
The Singapore government’s Smart Nation vision is a whole-of-government effort that positions digitisation and data-led policymaking as key to addressing the complex problems arising from the country’s growing population and limited land space. Under the National AI Strategy, the Singapore Government has set a 2030 target for the small island-state to be a leader in developing and deploying AI solutions across key sectors of society and the economy.4Smart Nation Digital Government Office, 6. For instance, one initiative includes “smart” and data-driven solutions for urban living such as an Elderly Monitoring System that captures data from senior citizens’ movements at home and alerts caregivers to unusual patterns that might signal health issues or accidents within the home environment. Other initiatives include a Smart Town Framework to be deployed in public housing estates that aims to build “Smart Communities” by using data analytics and other technology to “foster community bonding and empower communities to take greater ownership in co-creating their living environments.”5Smart Nation Singapore, “The Smart Town Framework,” 19 April, 2023, https://www.smartnation.gov.sg/initiatives/urban-living/smart-towns/
Like many smart city projects around the world, Singapore’s smart urbanism is framed as progressive and forward-looking, with efficient, workable “solutions” that optimise the quality of life for its citizens and promotes proactive, “smart” citizenship by empowering citizens to participate and embed themselves in urban governance assemblages in everyday contexts such as urban living, transportation, and healthcare. As Ezra Ho notes, the smart city is “fundamentally about redefining and reconfiguring relations within and between people, their community, government and the urban environment.”6Ezra Ho, “Smart Subjects for a Smart Nation? Governing (Smart)Mentalities in Singapore,” Urban Studies 54, no. 13 (October 2017): 3103, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098016664305. For community relations at large and especially for elderly residents, care and many other spaces of daily life are increasingly instantiated via digital infrastructure and machine learning algorithms in both visible and invisible ways. Singaporeans hold a fairly high level of trust for their government that has shepherded the nation into its current form as a prosperous, highly developed country, and a large majority are typically acquiescent to being nudged to embrace initiatives designed to optimise convenience and efficiency. Yet, as the state hurtles towards greater digitisation in search of optimisation whether citizens like it or not, what avenues are there for them to reclaim some individual control?
One could read the Smart Nation initiative as an example of an “algocracy”: the idea of government by computer algorithm,7A. Aneesh, Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Aneesh Aneesh, ‘Global Labor: Algocratic Modes of Organization’, Sociological Theory 27, no. 4 (2009): 347–70. which describes the phenomenon where algorithms are used as the material and conceptual prism through which we regulate and understand the world in which we live. In recognition of this “inevitable encroachment” of digital technologies and “smart” algorithms into everyday experience, Lily Kong and Orlando Woods offer their concept of fourthspace through which the authors highlight the emancipatory potential for digital technologies to create new possibilities for control and post-human agency.8Lily Kong and Orlando Woods, “The Ideological Alignment of Smart Urbanism in Singapore: Critical Reflections on a Political Paradox,” Urban Studies 55, no. 4 (March 2018): 694, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098017746528. The authors acknowledge that, in the context of Singapore, the ways that various stakeholders engage with the city are shifting within this context of digital transformation in society, and such changes elicit new spatial forms and imaginations, especially as the logics of top-down smart urban imaginaries dictate that a smart city requires smart citizens9Rob Kitchin, “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” GeoJournal 79, no. 1 (February 2014): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-013-9516-8. who navigate their way through real life via digital technologies such as apps, sensors, and web platforms. Urban imaginaries, real life, and digital spaces are fundamentally imbricated in Kong and Woods’s conception of the fourthspace, which “reflects a new blend of everyday spaces that merges the digital with the analogue, the online with the offline, and the public with the private.”10Kong and Woods, “The Ideological Alignment of Smart Urbanism in Singapore,” 695. Whilst power is interwoven into digital forms of control and surveillance in the algocratic society, it is not necessarily concentrated in the hands of and exercised by a governmental entity. Rather, inherent within fourthspace, the authors argue, is the opportunity for subversion to take place — an example is the rise of hacking collectives and cultures of bottom-up (re)programming of new power structures and symmetries.11Kong and Woods, 696. In the fourthspace, what becomes possible and visible are the tactics for people to resist, speak back to, and potentially destabilise algocratic power using the same digital infrastructures through which this power is discursively enacted. To illustrate the ways in which smart citizens might navigate the fourthspace to regain individual agency and hack “the algorithm,” I turn now to TBSC.
Technifying Happiness in Tiong Bahru Social Club
In the retro-futuristic Tiong Bahru of TBSC, its residents’ daily lives are driven by a Marcusean “technological rationality”12Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964). where the modalities of happiness and care are determined strictly by “the algorithm” and flattened into a one-dimensional experience of compliance. Residents are ushered to partake in workshops on laughing and intimacy to optimise their happiness levels, while the young happiness agents are reminded daily by the ubiquitous managers that their priority is to increase the happiness of their elderly wards and their own, and thereby increasing the community’s “Gross Community Happiness.” Every resident’s actions and happiness levels are closely monitored digitally and by omnipresent managers, who offer friendly nudges to agents whenever their happiness KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) have not been met. In a darkened bunker in a corner of the compound known as the “analysis centre,” we see managers and a mysterious chief-like character — all female — monitoring dashboards containing multiple data points about each resident and presiding over a miniature model of the compound with movable pieces representing residents. The black box, as it were, and the algorithmic engineering of happiness are made visible in this sequence. There, they discuss the performance of individual agents according to the calculations of the algorithm: who should be promoted, who should be paired off with whom, and who should be evicted — all with the goal of increasing the Gross Community Happiness.
I read the fictional depiction of the social club in Tiong Bahru as a manifestation of fourthspace, as a community whose operational logic is determined by data analytics and algorithmic reasoning, yet also contains the potential to differ and to reclaim agency. It is, however, not the algocratic project itself that is the fourthspace. Rather, it emerges from the socio-technical relations between characters and their interactions with the algorithm. To examine this, I turn not to the film’s protagonist, but rather to supporting characters with whom Bee interacts within the context of the social club – Orked and Miss Wee.
Orked is a happiness agent who leads the water confidence workshops in the community pool and to whom Bee is very drawn. Contrasted to Bee’s and the other agents’ stilted and highly mannered expressions, Orked speaks to everyone with a relaxed and cheerful demeanour, affectionately calling Bee “sayang” (Malay for “dear”) and making friendly conversation with the elderly residents during her workshop. At first glance, it seems as though she does not fit in with the others, her natural and humanising character standing out from the rest, but happiness levels are high when residents join in activities led by her. As other agents are pressured continually by the managers to meet their happiness targets, Orked flourishes without facing the threat of removal. At the end of the film, we learn that she has left the Tiong Bahru Social Club of her own will, having succeeded at her job.
Orked works within and outside of the algorithm while still maintaining her own individuality – she is like water, adapting to the circumstances around her and not allowing the algorithm to determine her identity. Her care for others is depicted as genuine and unscripted, despite performing it within the bounds of the social club and being a significant part of “the algorithm.” The digital, algorithmic aspects of the social club have not, in this context, been a means to suppress or confuse Orked’s sense of self-identity in the way that Geok, another leading female happiness agent does. Geok, despite being a top performer who is given many opportunities to embrace and dole out happiness, expresses deep uncertainty and anxiety about who she is and what she wants in life. In this fourthspace, the real, genuine care-work that Orked performs intersects with the planned and imagined happiness-boosting activities and the algorithmically determined happiness index. It is through this intersection that Orked gains the means to own her life outside of the social club, armed with the data evidencing her strong performance as a worker (her personal happiness level is at 80 percent, top of the leaderboard). She is shown at the end of the film, working as a technician, repairing a television set in Bee’s mother’s apartment, now holding the tools to craft her future.
Miss Wee’s character demonstrates how one might “hack” — I take McKenzie Wark’s statement that “to hack is to differ”13McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). — the system to assert individual agency and meaning. Eschewing the happiness rhetoric of the community, she refuses to partake in the approved communal happiness-boosting activities and claims that she only joined the community for the benefits. Instead, she pursues her own programme of happiness and fulfilment with Bee as her sidekick: painting cats, instructing Bee to steal the neighbourhood cat, making him pose as a cat for one of her paintings, and insisting on speaking in Cantonese to Bee and Malay to Orked within the English-speaking enclave. Bee is not a typical caregiver in this relationship, nor is he the agent leading the generation of happiness between the two of them. It is the other way around, where through Bee’s interactions with Miss Wee, his happiness levels (according to the sensor in the ring that all agents wear) reaches all-time highs to the delight of the community’s managers. Rather than be cared for by Bee, Miss Wee’s hacking of the social club’s algorithm is a form caring for Bee, an education for the young man to progress towards self-awareness and individual agency. She chides Bee the way a mother would, asking him pointedly if he is truly happy in the community, or prodding him to take charge of his own needs and desires: “You’re such an obedient boy. You do what you are told. Don’t you have a mind of your own? You don’t have to care what people think. Do what you like!”
Her data points, too, register high satisfaction and happiness, albeit being attributed to her own hijinks rather than community-approved activities. Towards the end of the film and at the height of her own happiness levels, Miss Wee “leaves” the community by apparently taking her own life on the night of a party by the community pool; the managers tell a dejected Bee that “our data shows she died of happiness.” She returns later in the film in an enigmatic dream-like sequence wherein she and Bee perform a dance as she tells Bee how happy she is in death. Miss Wee’s happiness is not at all engineered by the social club’s managers, nor by Bee. Hers is engendered by a quiet defiance of the norm and by the pursuit of self-care and individual desire beyond the circumscribed activities recommended by the managers. Despite choosing to accept the conveniences that being a resident of the Tiong Bahru Social Club brings, she works to carve out her own individual space using the tools and structure of the algorithmic community. Ironically, dying brings her the most happiness, contributes significantly to the gross community happiness, and her death propels Bee towards the next stage of his tenure in the club and his eventual decision to exit the community and return to the “real world” of his mother’s apartment.
Through Bee, the film portrays a very Singaporean condition of the one-dimensional citizen suspended in a state of “the happy consciousness,”14Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 87. surrendering individuality and agency over one’s well-being to state (algorithmic) control, in which the structures of power remain invisible within the space of daily life.15Kenneth Paul Tan, Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension (Leiden: Brill, 2008). The premise of the Tiong Bahru Social Club project is, indeed, a magnification of this very relationship wherein the modalities of care and care relationships are dictated by an algorithm within a space that is discursively constructed as “smart” and where human relationships can be optimised via data-driven means. Yet the film shows us that it is within this space of the social club and its highly visible algorithmic construction of care that not only the relations of power are foregrounded, but also ways to circumnavigate state authority and reclaim individual agency become visible. Care in Tiong Bahru Social Club (and by extension, Singapore), whether it is care-by-algorithm practiced by the club managers or off-algorithmic care à la Orked and Miss Wee, becomes the conduit through which we glimpse the fourthspace – the digital space where data is power – as a nexus of critical possibility for the individual to regain agency, resist, and ultimately, to care for oneself and for community.
Pei-Sze Chow is Assistant Professor of Media and Culture and Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Amsterdam. She is Director of the AI and Cultural Production research group at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis and co-PI of Automating Cinema: Technographic Explorations of AI in Film Culture, where she is researching the impact of AI-powered tools on film labour. Her most recent book is Transnational Screen Culture in Scandinavia: Mediating Regional Space and Identity in the Oresund Region (Palgrave, 2021) and she was a recipient of the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship from 2018 to 2020.
|↑1||Tiong Bahru Social Club(13 Little Pictures; Golden Village Pictures, 2020).|
|↑2, ↑12||Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964).|
|↑3||Smart Nation Digital Government Office, “National Artificial Intelligence Strategy: Advancing Our Smart Nation Journey” (Singapore: Smart Nation & Digital Government Office, 2019).|
|↑4||Smart Nation Digital Government Office, 6.|
|↑5||Smart Nation Singapore, “The Smart Town Framework,” 19 April, 2023, https://www.smartnation.gov.sg/initiatives/urban-living/smart-towns/|
|↑6||Ezra Ho, “Smart Subjects for a Smart Nation? Governing (Smart)Mentalities in Singapore,” Urban Studies 54, no. 13 (October 2017): 3103, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098016664305.|
|↑7||A. Aneesh, Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Aneesh Aneesh, ‘Global Labor: Algocratic Modes of Organization’, Sociological Theory 27, no. 4 (2009): 347–70.|
|↑8||Lily Kong and Orlando Woods, “The Ideological Alignment of Smart Urbanism in Singapore: Critical Reflections on a Political Paradox,” Urban Studies 55, no. 4 (March 2018): 694, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098017746528.|
|↑9||Rob Kitchin, “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” GeoJournal 79, no. 1 (February 2014): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-013-9516-8.|
|↑10||Kong and Woods, “The Ideological Alignment of Smart Urbanism in Singapore,” 695.|
|↑11||Kong and Woods, 696.|
|↑13||McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).|
|↑14||Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 87.|
|↑15||Kenneth Paul Tan, Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension (Leiden: Brill, 2008).|