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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Prototyping the Idiotic City. From Frictionless to Recalcitrant Cities


















A conference report

Mike Michael, Gyorgyi Galik, Jennifer Gabrys, Alison Powell, Noortje Marres, Uriel Fogué, and Ola Söderström

This post was co-authored by the organisers Martin Tironi, Liam Healy, Fabian Namberger and Michael Guggenheim


The Prototyping the Idiotic City workshop was held June 7, 2018. Organized by the Centre of Invention and Social Process and Fondecyt Grant No. 1180062, the interdisciplinary event was designed to bring together researchers and practitioners to discuss the possibilities offered by the concept of the idiot (Deleuze and Guattari, 2014; Stengers, 2005) in relation to the emergence of the idea of the Smart City and its datafication dynamics. In dialogue with prior works that have approached the figure of the idiot to think about the city and participation (Michael, 2012; Gabrys, 2016; Farias, 2017) the conference sought to open up a space for discussion of other narratives of the city, smartness, experimentation and participation that can be prototyped through the notion of the idiot.

In order to be able to work with the “murmur of the idiot” and the idea of prototyping, the conference featured an experimental format. Each of the seven practitioners offered opening remarks to start the discussion, followed by a second presenter supposed to problematize or “make idiotic” those ideas. After each session, there was time for public discussion of, and collective reflection on the issue.

The conference began with an introduction by Martín Tironi, who emphasized the importance of reflecting on the implications of living in increasingly quantified and measured cities. Tironi stated that “one way to escape from the narrative of frictionless and programmable cities consists of anticipating opportunities to resist universal consensuses, recognizing the complexity, heterogeneity and the unthought of the urban space. He further suggested that the conference should not seek to move from an intelligent/efficient city to a dumb/inefficient one or propose another big paradigm of “cityism”. Rather, he said, this is an invitation to consider the generative capacity of recalcitrant situations to unfold and re-think urban life, providing a political voice in situations that ‘exceed’ the agenda of the Smart City. Tironi referred to practices, events and emotions that escape digital capitalization and the idea of optimization. Thinking through “the murmur of the idiot” forces us to pay attention to the resistances of the city, and to stop thinking that experts (urban planners, architects, engineers, sociologists, etc.) are the only ones authorized to define the criteria of intelligence of the city. The political radicality of the Idiot consists of making visible the conditions necessary to think through and deal with disruptive situations, creating a base on which issues, tensions and differences in urban space can begin to emerge. In this sense, prototyping the idiotic city is a way of taking seriously the value of the frictions that populate urban life, moving from a ‘problem solving’ logic towards one of problem making. If we use the word prototyping, it is precisely to emphasize the unfinished nature and constant becoming of the city, in which the urban is not only made of solutions, but of problems and tensions as well. The protocols and expectations of the Smart City are located in multiple events, communities and recalcitrant practices that must be recognized.

In the first session, which featured Mike Michael and Gyorgyi Galik, Michael began by recalling the meaning and significance of the figure of the Idiot and invited the public to situate the idiotic beyond the human figure by addressing the idiotic in material semiotic orderings. He suggested the importance of considering the idiotic as a disruptive encounter that goes beyond the verb. Based on this problematization, Michael proposed exploring the multiple overflows, orderings and disorderings offered by London’s fatberg, trying to suggest the idiotic resource that this reality contains.

According to Michael, London’s fatberg can be understood as one of the unexpected ways in which the Smart City can generate unexpected situations. From here, Michael showed the multiple genres that the fatberg has for enacting and the multiplicity of orders that it deploys. Fatberg is lived and represented by a proliferation of associations and practices in which administrative and corporeal, scientific and infrastructural, entertaining and affective, historical and political dimensions are articulated. This ontological diversity, which London’s fatberg adopts, suggests a form of the cacophonic idiot, that is, the idiotic resists uniformity or to be defined in one moment because it always suggests innumerable excesses that demand that we slow down what we are doing (in this case with the refuse of the city).

In her presentation, Gyorgyi Galik began by clarifying that she is seeking to develop a critical and constructive position on the Smart City using the idea that technological tools can activate smarter and more collaborative citizens. For her, there are no Smart Cities, only intelligent cities, where intelligence indicates citizen empowerment. From there, she presented her project on air pollution and discussed how the work of making pollution visible is a way to generate more awareness of its negative effects. The political nature of making pollution data visible forces one to go beyond the idea that data do not speak for themselves and to seek out narratives and designs that generate greater awareness. It is not enough to introduce more data collection sensors and technologies. Instead, it is necessary to experiment with how design (visualization, interfaces, etc.) can generate greater involvement in the problems of the city.

Jennifer Gabrys’ comments on Gyorgyi’s presentation focused on questions regarding the criteria and modes that citizens have for participating in the Intelligent City and the disruptive and political role that the idiotic can play in this technological regime that seeks to calculate everything. The idiot forces us to think about what is good in the expansion of technologies in the city. If the Smart City tries to address people as data creators, what new forms of citizenship or forms of computation can be developed? Gabrys referenced Saskia Sassen’s invitation to urbanize technologies. How does the city itself write back?

In her presentation, Gabrys on the other hand talked about one of the chapters from her book Program Earth, in which she analyzes forms of involvement in DIY projects and participatory urbanism, which are beginning to form part of Smart City proposals. Gabrys emphasized that modes of participation are loaded with implicit normative concepts regarding how the “smart” citizen should behave, which brought her to two fundamental questions: What types of urban participation do digital platforms enable? And how are urban problems broken down to become computational tasks? In that context, it is interesting to think about the figure of the idiot and analyse how the programming that these projects try to produce always experiences disruptions, moments in which the political emerges in an unforeseen way. The resistance that the idiot proposes “is not a matter of searching after what is true or false, but rather a way of attempting to reroute what counts as important.” In her analysis of FixMyStreet, an app that allows citizens to indicate problems with litter, potholes etc. on a map, Gabrys analyzed how the idiotic emerges from participatory processes, challenging the programming sought by this platform and how it generates disturbing moments. Like many similar platforms, FixMyStreet is designed to hold cities accountable through citizen participation in problem-solving. Citizens thus become sensors, “readers” and “writers” of their city, gathering and generating data. However, Gabrys shows the discontinuities and difficulties of this participatory system to produce real changes. In this context, the figure of the idiot asks if all problems can receive a technical solution and, more fundamentally, what type of vision of the city and the citizen these projects are proposing.

Echoing Gabrys’ arguments on the forms of exclusion that these digital platforms generate, Alison Powell explored the unknowable dimensions of the city in her presentation. For Powell, the strongest part of the massification of digital technologies lies not in an increase in optimization and the opportunity to turn events in the city into data, but in how sensing technologies introduce into the technological imagination the possibility of sensing, knowing and living with others. The constant circulation of data creates new ‘material surfaces’ that flow and establish the possibility of expanded forms of empathy and cooperation. She illustrated this renewed opportunity to “pay attention” to new entities through digital sensors with a few examples. Powell referred to Spitalfields City Farm and analyzed how sensing technologies produce data of plant growth to augment the stories that people tell. The sensors allow plants to ‘talk’ and to get across plant information to food-growers and garden visitors.

In her commentary, Noortje Marres invited the audience to think about the figure of the idiot as the impossibility of generating harmonious encounters among various actors. The idiot’s disruptive capacity forces us to slow down and to seriously consider what the common world is. The imaginary provided by the Smart City of an entirely interconnected, shared future that is acceptable to all comes up against the idiot, who forces us to remember the incommensurability of goals as a quality and to recall that we have to deal with biases rather than trying to eliminate them. Stenger’s idiot is a way of moving away from commensurability.

Marres’s own presentation focused on street testing with self-driving cars and the interpretative and ethical challenges involved with experimenting with these technologies in urban space. Marres explored the scopes and limits of these open air experiences and, more specifically, how these street tests distribute and manage the intelligence of the multiple entities involved. What sorts of skills of users, the environment and technologies are required to carry out these experiments? What aspects are made visible in these experiments and which are left in the shadows? How do these social prototypes manage to make tangible and incorporate the complexity produced by these experiments?

Marres analyzed various approaches to representing street tests. By comparing the videos of the company hired to conduct the tests and videos made by amateurs, she showed how both create recordings and identified issues that must be sociologically interpreted in both cases. Far from being a clear-cut issue, the introduction of self-driving cars in urban environments opens up a set of questions and uncertainties that must be tested. The question is how to engage with the complexity of these experiments without falling into critical distancing or complacency regarding the benefits of these technologies. Marres cautioned against endorsing a sort of teleology of these technological projects and suggested that we should instead seek out ways to engage with other (idiotic?) ways of monitoring these tests, recognizing what these experiences do to the city. The intention is not to produce totalizing representations of the experiments (as if one could have direct access to a reality) but instead to produce more sensitive ways of eliciting the complexities, concerns and needs of cities and the people who live in them.

Uriel Fogué continued as well as challenged Marres’s elaboration along the tripartite urban sites of the laboratory, the fake city as well as the city itself. Seen as laboratories for the staging, representation and anticipation of newly automated technologies, urban car test centres, Fogué contended, increasingly assume the role of representation devices, comparable to theaters and film stages. In the crash test laboratory everyday life is being staged and simulated, while future security rules and safety regulations are being put into motion, giving rise, in Fogué’s words, to an “economy of catastrophy”. The fake city drags such simulation processes even deeper into the urban fabric of everyday life, as multinational corporations establish real-life street “models” of simulated urban life, in order to test their new products. Examples included Uber’s fake city in Pittsburgh as well as K-city in Korea and M-City in Michigan: Large scale urban theatres in which a one second crash test takes no less than 10 days of preparation. Speculating upon the extent to which the sites of the laboratory and the fake city increasingly inform ways of “real” urban everyday life and opening up ethical questions surrounding self-driving cars and similar devices of “smart urbanism”, Fogué concluded his response.

At the core of Fogué’s presentation, was the “lazy reading club”. Partly artistic intervention, partly architectural experiment, the lazy reading club brought together participants under the roof of one of Brussel’s finest castles, ready to embark on a two-day exploration of collective laziness. Hosted within an atmospheric architecture that included a sleeping rooms and reading rooms., p Passages from, inter alia, the Bible, Lafargue’s “Right to idleness” were read out loud to contribute to the slow, but full immersion into a mood of “cushioned comfort”. Exploring the architectural ingredients, roles and perhaps also contradictions of such a process, Fogué foregrounded crucial concepts such as those of the “boundary”, the “black box”, “hosts” and “conductors”.

Ola Söderström’s response continued Fogué’s train of thought through three quick examples, drawing the lazy reading club even closer and in stark contrast to the hectic business cycles of the Smart City. Söderstrom evoked both Lafargue’s Right to idleness and Sophie Calle’s 1979 photographic artwork “Les dormeurs” (The sleepers) as viable artistic antidotes to the toxic life and work rhythms of the Smart City, not least reflected, thirdly, in Jonathan Crary’s book-length intervention “24/7. Late capitalism and the ends of sleep”.

In a similar vein, Söderström presented on his new research that approaches and unsettles current forms of urban life through the unlikely but even more so thought-provoking “method” of a “schizo-analysis of the smart city”. Reflecting upon early criticism of schizo-analysis, Söderström gave glimpses into his ongoing research project. Accompanying persons diagnosed with schizophrenia in their walks through the city both with video cameras and microphones, such “sensory mapping”, a schizo-analytic approach is supposed to contribute to a better understanding of the Smart City and its sensory life worlds. How, such was the guiding question in his presentation, would a holistic sensory sociology of the smart city look like? Marking, at the very same time, a return to the urban “vitalist research” by 20th-century critics such as Simmel and Kracauer, schizophrenic analysis cuts through the supposedly seamless surfaces of the Smart City and refracts its one-dimensional quality of appearance.

Finally closing the circle of presentations during the afternoon, Mike Michael’s response took up Söderström’s “prototype” by stressing yet three more landmark observations vis-à-vis the Smart City. First, the sheer bombardment of its inhabitants by undisrupted sensory stimuli of any kind, leading to a heightened and, at times, deeply disorienting digital “urban sensorium”. Second, the exploration of and possible complementary role of “other Others” beyond the “mere” schizophrenic, who could possibly contribute to a critical dismantling of the Smart City in similarly insightful ways. And, third, invoking Raymond Williams’s landmark study “The city and the countryside”, the possible extension – both in its geographic and phenomenological dimensions – of the Smart City beyond the city itself.

On behalf of the organizers, Fabian Namberger and Liam Healy thanked both the presenters and audience for their participation, rounding up the event through a brief reflection on the necessity of cracking the ideological shell of the Smart City. Taking the concept of prototyping seriously, we suggest treating the days conversation as a prototype. And this invites the question of what comes next. If the idiot is a character who slows down the rest of the bunch, what other characters might we employ and think with?


(image credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans. Source:

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