Urbanism Is Plenty, Thanks (And YES WE CAMP)

The fantastic Kevin Slavin has recently spoken at MOMO in Amsterdam and at TED Global in Edinburgh. While the latter talk was provocative, the former was simply prophetic (in a brilliant way).

At the TED Global event, Slavin talked about the algorithms that inform and direct movement of international financial flows. He spoke about the terrifying possibilities of these algorithms, devoid of any human supervision (not sure if that is necessarily a thing to be trusted), taking arbitrary decisions about shifting large-scale innvestments and shaping the economic condition of places. He also pointed out the necessary physicality of these digital algorithms — how the servers from which they operate are located as close to the Colocation Centers (where multiple internet networks connect physically) as possible to gain microsecond adavantages in moving the money around before its competitors do so. Slavin shows a map of all the locations in the world where servers should be installed for optimum reaction time to specific regional stock exchanges, and compare these algorithms to the nature in their power to shape the form of earth, to terraform. Slavin’s argument can easily be extended (and I wonder why he did not) to talk about the financial flows and their ability to transform human landscapes, as painfully experienced in one financial crisis after another.

But if the rapidly built up but unoccupied suburban landscape of Madrid is the result of this new evolutionary force of financial algorithms, the 15M movement and the #spanishrevolution shows the very best re-adaptive strategies of human beings. Andres Jaque of the Office for Political Innovation has recently written about the 15M movement across Spain, and the disturbance created by the ‘YES WE CAMP’ slogan in the heart of algorithmic cities. He notes:

“The (Puerta del) Sol protest-camp (in Madrid) has exposed worldwide the discussion between an exclusive urbanism and an opposing one of the constituted dispute. A tension between the city of accomplished facts and a city not willing to solve, but to install into the public space the conflict and difference it contains.”

At MOMO, Slavin talked about the aesthetics of Augmented Reality. He reflected upon what makes Augmented Reality feel ‘real’, how the sense of immersion operates and how such a sense can be created. He spoke about the rather stupid vision-centricity of majority of Augmented Reality imaginations. Think of all those images of ‘smart city’ you have seen (remember Sixth Sense?) where all available city surfaces are extensively (and illegibly) stuffed with information written on it — why should Augmented Reality be like a nightmare of tiny bad handwriting?

Slavin ends the prophetic talk arguing that rather than creating new things to look at, let us create new ways to look at things. The 15M movement is doing the same thing by establishing controversy into the urban form. We do not need new cities and smart urbanisms to live in. We need new ways to live in the cities. To use Slavin’s words — urbanism is plenty, thanks.

Image courtesy: Jonathan Barker