The following conversation between Carles Muro & Richard Sennett tackles Sennett’s Homo Faber trilogy on human nature and urban design. The conversation takes place at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona as part of the biennial Kosmopolis festival and celebrates Sennet’s latest book Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the City (2018).
In this talk, Sennet talks about the importance that he has placed on physicality and the relation between bodies and cities, the ethics of urban spaces and the challenges that global capitalism poses to urban design.
Peatoniños, or “pedestrian-children” is a joint project between Mexico City’s experimental division Laboratorio para la Ciudad (2013-2018) and the UCLA Urban Humanities initiative based on Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city. The project was part of a research axis that used small specialized teams to promote public policy improvements that favor pedestrians’ safety and mobility. The ultimate goal was to generate participation, collaboration and co-creation among the citizenship that favored children living in Mexico City and the greater metropolitan area.
According to the CONARPA, traffic incidents were the second cause of mortality among 5-14 year olds in 2013. These and other threats to children safety such as violence and general insecurity have diminished the use of streets as playgrounds (a common practice in Mexico City forty years ago, but a dying one now a days).
To address these issues, increase children safety, and provide children and families’ with a right to the city, the project ran a series of urban interventions from 2016 to 2018. These interventions consisted in the temporarily closing of streets to motorized vehicles and inviting children and adults to take part of a series of activities planned using community-centered design and urban space analysis.
The pedagogical activities of Peatoniños turned the intervened streets into areas where children were able to play, talk with their neighbors, make new friends and learn about road safety principles. A total of eight streets were intervened with an average participation of fifty children and seventeen adults. Institutional collaboration was a catalyst for participation. The project concluded that these interventions have a high potential for reproducibility and may, in the long run, strengthen social cohesion and improve street safety. The recommendation for the future was to implement these urban interventions in zones where there is a high number of children, few open or green spaces and where the development index is low.
If you would like to learn more about Laboratorio para la Ciudad, you can visit their website here.
To read more about Peatoniños, you can visit this post from the UCLA Luskin Global Public Affairs website, or you can read the summarized report from the Laboratorio para la ciudad here.
Geographical data is one of the Holy Grails of large tech companies; it can be used to understand customer behavior, build people’s profiles, and build smart cities. These companies even use this data to sell targeted advertising. This is hardly a secret. If you wish, you can go to Google History at https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity to find out right now the data that Google has collected from your searches, including the ones made through their voice assistant. You will find that in some of these, your network’s geographical location is included. I have included a couple of screenshots from my own Google History below:
Even though one can modify the security settings and even erase these data, security concerns are still being raised, for instance: who has access to these records? How can people be sure that there are no copies of them stored elsewhere? How can the less tech-savvy population manage their data? And, is it even possible to monitor what data is being collected about you across devices and companies?
Introducing the new Amazon Sidewalk mesh network.
Last month, Amazon announced its new wireless protocol called Sidewalk, which is aimed to provide internet over radio waves for devices that use low-power connections such as smart lights, cameras, and other devices. According to Amazon’s Day One Staff, “Customers shouldn’t have to settle for connected devices that lose functionality past the front door, which is why we’re excited to introduce Amazon Sidewalk.” Amazon claims that the range of these devices can be extended with their Sidewalk project by 1.5 miles. So how does Amazon plan to achieve this, and what does this translate to for the end-users?
According to said Carole Theriault, from Smashing Security, Amazon plans to use their new internet routers, (EEROs) for home use to build large interconnected data-transmitting systems called mesh networks or meshnets. “Sidewalk will use this proliferation of EERO devices to build a mesh network, or a wireless network where each device communicates with one another. And the idea is that all the devices will work together to transmit data across networks spanning large, broad geographical areas. So for example according to Amazon’s own announcement, the company found that pacing 700 devices across LA was enough to cover the entire metropolitan area of the city.” You can listen to Carole Theriault’s segment here.
For end-users, Amazon’s meshnets would mean being able to control remote devices with reliable connectivity outside their own wi-fi networks, keep track of their pets using the new Fetch tags, and just extend the internet of things in general beyond what is currently possible. The repercussions of what these data could mean for urban design, planning, and the further integration of technology with city spaces are unforeseeable, especially alongside artificial intelligence. Imagine a city that knows the exact location of every smart divice at all times and can predict the behavior of its inhabitants and even adapt to it.
However, what about all this data? Is it secure? Amazon claims that its Sideway protocol is. There are also privacy concerns regarding access to personal geographical data. The main issue is that it is not possible to know how much the tech companies will be able to find out about individuals once they pair their location data along with other types of data. In other words, a powerful AI system will not only be able to know and predict people’s location at any given time, but it may also be able to accurately predict the reason for it. For instance, based on a person’s search history and internet shopping data, a smart city could tell that you soon will be visiting the hospital and why. Based on this it will also be able to predict which of your relatives and friends will be going to the hospital to visit you and it will suggest to them shopping gifts that other people buy for this type of situation. I could go on, but, dear reader, you get the gist.
If you want to learn more about Amazon Sidewalk, you can visit Amazon’s blog here.
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A night with good food, great weather, and some of the most important scholars in the humanities in the Southwest, this is how the “Next” Tucson Humanities Festival started this year. At an uncanny location too: the Playground, a downtown bar in Tucson usually full of music and young people dancing until late hours, transformed into a delightful, peaceful rooftop in the middle of Tucson with a cool breeze and great company.
The night started with the words of the Dean of the College of Humanities of the University of Arizona, Dr. Alain-Philippe Durand, who tackled the theme of this year’s festival: Next. This year, the Humanities Festival will be discussing the future of humanities and the direction that humanities scholarship will take in the following years to maximize its impact during the digital age. “We don’t want the machines in charge, we want humans to be in charge,” said Dr. Durand during his speech
This year’s festival was inaugurated by the talk of Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman titled “Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City”. In it, Dr, Crisman offered a refreshing point of view on several of the most critical urban challenges of our time.
The Humanities Festival is a yearly month-long event that started in 2009 through a series of outreach events. This year, the festival includes fourteen events with topics like “transforming lives”, “politics and poetry”, and “space and wondering”. The acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros will also be part of this years’ festival with a reading on October 24th.
The talk was introduced by Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who enthusiastically talked about the many events that the city hosts, emphasized the importance of the festival: “events like this are why we live here… What a great city we have!”. And I agree with the Mayor. Tucson does have a rich cultural and intellectual life, and it is thanks to all the people who make this and other events happen. However, the city of Tucson just got better. Allow me to introduce to you the newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Public & Applied Humanities and the Institute for LGBT Studies, Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman.
Dr. Crisman is an expert urbanist who focuses on the intersection of art and urban design. He is the proposer of the concept of imminent speculation, which is “the practicing of an inherently unknowable future in order to create the conditions for that future to unfold”(Crisman: Practicing the Future, 2016). A concrete example of this would be a project called “Peatoniños” ( I will tell you about this project in the near future) where Dr. Crisman worked as part of a research team from UCLA. “Peatoniños” is an answer to the high mortality rate of children in Mexico City due to preventable traffic accidents. In this case, the practice of immanent speculation would ask: what kind of conditions do we need in order to create a future where children are safe on the streets of Mexico City?
The concept of Immanent speculation comes from what Dr. Crisman calls “the projective imperative”:
“As scholars and as people living in society we have an imperative to really think about the future. Especially in academia, we often have a tendency to be very comfortable engaging with the past […] or perhaps the present […], but what does it mean to actually engage with the future? It’s a little scarier; it’s a little more open-ended; it’s a little more abstract. And nevertheless, I think there is still a moral-ethical obligation to actually engage with the future.”
Speculative humanities do not need to be intimidating. Although it is not common practice to look at the future within the disciplines of humanities, there are firm reasons to believe that applied humanities is the fertile ground where much of the seeds for the future of the world may be planted. The practice of immanent speculation draws from the knowledge of the concrete culture and places where it needs to be applied. The future already stems from these places and cultures; it is immanent to them.
Dr. Crisman provided case studies of how many modern urban practices are far from being new “modes” of urban life, like the use of bicycles or the reinvention of buildings into high-end markets, for instance. Long-standing cultural traditions are being reimagined into new practices. This is the case of street vending, a practice that has resulted in the birth of Uber Eats or the legalization of street vendors in Los Angeles. And it is precisely this knowledge of cultural traditions, urban spaces, and the human condition that provides the humanities with the tools to speculate and reimagine the future.
The talk ended with a round of questions for Dr. Crisman, the announcement of a possible future project for improving bicycle culture in Tucson, and a great selfie moment (below) in which you can appreciate the excellent work that the Playground, the College of Humanities and the sponsors did into turning a night club into an academic space.
It is clear that designing urban spaces based on our understanding of the present is a necessity, but how applied humanities can contribute to this and other conversations about our collective future is the very topic of this year’s Humanities Festival: Next.
If you want to learn more about the Department of Public and Applied Humanities, where Dr. Benjamin Fraser, Chief editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies and this blog is an affiliated faculty member, you can visit their website here.
To learn more about other projects from Dr. Crisman and the Urban Humanities team at UCLA, make sure to visit their website here.
Continuing the discussion about anthropocentrism, I thought I’d share this post on object-oriented ontology, where professor Graham Harman from SCI-Arc, Los Angeles criticizes the view of correlationism, which is roughly the post-Kantian idea that we need to access the world necessarily through human thought. I believe that the issue with correlationism from a posthumanitarian perspective is not as much the fact that humans are irreducibly confined to their humanity (or the “correlational circle”, as Dr. Harman calls it), but rather the fact that this idea fosters the “more insidious form of human-centric ontology” which Timothy Morton attacks in his book Hyperobjects.
He briefly responds HERE to my remarks on the Adrian Johnston interview. The post is brief, so I’ll quote the bulk of it here:
“I’ve been telling people for the past few months that I feel the anti-anthro crowd, in all various and contradictory forms, is gaining ground within the academy. And because the cutting edge is always to be opposed to whatever the cutting edge is, I assume to see a pro-anthro backlash. I’m not blaming Johnston of any of this. I’ve never meet him, and everyone I know who knows him says he is a great guy and a sincere intellectual. However, I really do assume that the pro-humanism or pro-anthropocentrism conference is on the horizon. The special issue for anthropocentrism will be coming out in journals soon, In Defense of Humans or whatever will be a title forthcoming book. You know it’s coming.”