Maintainers ⊗ Build ⊗ Tokyo as slowdown city ⊗ Mass consumption — No.123

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

This week → Hail the maintainers ⊗ It’s time to build (is it?) ⊗ Tokyo as slowdown city ⊗ Mass consumption is what ails us

A year ago → Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation.

Hail the maintainers

Excellent piece at Aeon on progress, innovation, and maintenance. Recaps the recent history of innovation, how we largely stopped talking about progress—which was about society, not just technology—and switched instead to talking about innovation—which is almost exclusively about a certain vision of technology. On the influence of Schumpeter, Florida, and Christensen, how “in the world of business and technology, innovation had transformed into an erotic fetish. Armies of young tech wizards aspired to become disrupters.” Explains how “innovation” is only a very small part of the invention and use of technology, and how it’s come to obfuscate whole regions of the world, and the maintenance, care, and repair of objects and infrastructure. Reminds us that “we” need to recenter maintenance and care, address inequalities and the undervaluation of that work. It’s a piece from 2016 so the authors don’t address our current situation but obviously the whole thing can be read thinking of the blinders coming off on the value of essential workers. I’d also make a parallel between innovation and GDP, where for both the focus is on its growth and existence, usually without regard for the value it brings (or not) to society. Selling crap products that self-destruct in a few days is “good” for the GDP, just as crack cocaine was a great innovation (example from the article).

Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations. […]

After the Second World War, Americans treated new consumer technologies as proxies for societal progress. […]

Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, most of which falls far outside the realm of innovation. […]

Ultimately, emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. […]

A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.”

Tokyo as Slowdown City

Continuing his Slowdown Papers with another batch of articles, in this one Dan Hill looks at the urban fabric of Tokyo, its “polka dot” quality of having multiple centers, each at a liveable scale. Considers the book Slowdown by Danny Dorling (2020), the Saarinen Principle, Stewart Brand’s pace layers, and the city rebuilding itself instead of expanding outward. (Think of this alongside the Andreessen “building” article just below as well as the value of maintenance and care above.)

Heavily linked to more of Hill’s pieces as well as various books and projects. Definitely click through for the many many great pictures of Tokyo, illustrating his comments.

This is my favourite piece in the issue and will need some time to “ferment,” I think there are many important insights for the future of cities starting to emerge in the series.

Tokyo. Arguably the world’s biggest megacity, and to many visitors utterly bewildering in its scale and dynamism, Tokyo is a constantly churning urban experiment, with its own particular metabolism enabling it to constantly change and thrive. Yet the city precisely exemplifies the Slowdown, and revels in the small and the quiet. […]

The streets this leaves Tokyo with are small, tidy, but full of life. In local neighbourhoods, they are no more than four metres wide or so, but due to their openness, they are packed with life, but at the scale of plant pots, signs, window displays, seats, small trees, vending machines, bikes. […]

Tokyo in particular, and Japan more widely, can be seen in many ways to be at the forefront of slowdown. Japan has changed and will continue to change rapidly, but it is an example of the end to change in things that no longer need to grow — in the number of people, the number of buildings, and in overall consumption. […]

If we built on these themes idea of open, distributed, decentralised, networked, diversity over density, with purposeful redundancy, all pivoting around the social and natural life of small urban spaces, we would likely find a far more resilient pattern for city life and urban growth. […]

The virus shows us the error of our ways, with a most terrible ferocity, but also points to other possibilities, almost like an intervention with an alcoholic, showing us the value of slowing down.

I read the essay

I wasn’t sure if I was going to talk about that Mark Andreessen piece, but its obliviousness to broader systemic issues and social and political challenges was well addressed in the other three pieces, so I decided to include all of them. Plus, the four pair well with the maintenance piece above (yes, Andreessen did have some good ideas nonetheless). I read the essay looks at the difference between “basic” (usually publicly funded) and “applied” scientific research (measurable ROI, focus on commercial applications). In other words, Mariana Mazzucato territory. It’s Time To Learn focuses on the parts missing from Andreessen’s piece, and on learning before acting. Finally Why we can’t build lays out the partisan political issues in the US preventing the kind of building advocated in the original piece.

Like so much by tech luminaries, the essay reads like something written by someone who’s never taken a social studies class or paid attention to politics or history except insofar as it relates to Great Men of Business. […]

Without basic research, scientific progress runs into natural limits and technological progress faces diminishing returns eeking out percentage points of efficiency rather than making great leaps or paradigm shifts. To unlock the next phase of technological and social progress, we need the desire and ambition but we also need the funding. […]

We have refined and enhanced but we have not replaced. Until or unless we fund research at a huge new scale, we will be stuck on our present loops and limited by the boundaries of our basic knowledge. We will feel like we are making progress but we will be living in basically the same world with basically the same rules.

Mass Consumption Is What Ails Us

Contextualizing the virus within our ever expanding footprint, degradation of the planet, and the fact that it is driven not by population growth but by the gangrene of mass consumption.

Human consumption, not population growth, has driven these changes in land use. Over the past 50 years, human populations have doubled, but consumption of the planet’s natural resources has tripled. Traditionally, people living in high-income, industrialized countries consume most of the world’s natural resources. […]

Mass consumption would be impossible without the global bonfire of fossil fuels, which powers the machines that cut down the forests, provides the petrofertilizers for industrial farms, and fuels the airplanes that spread pathogens around the world, just as it thickens the blanket of carbon in the atmosphere. Preventing the next pandemic, then, will be impossible without greener policies.

The Revolution Is Only Getting Started

Not sure how pertinent the parallel with the French Revolution is but there are a couple of good reminders of how revolutions happen, and those are useful.

The most timeless and emancipatory lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history. Likewise, the actions we take and the choices we make today will shape both what future we get and what we remember of the past. […]

In hindsight a revolution may look like a single event, but they are never experienced that way. Instead they are extended periods in which the routines of normal life are dislocated and existing rituals lose their meaning. They are deeply unsettling, but they are also periods of great creativity.


Header image: Tokyo as Slowdown City, Dan Hill.