Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Urban magic; The idea of an arcology

What's the attraction of arcologies, sea-steading, moveable cities and the like? Why are they such a common motif in popular culture as it relates to cities? Archigram's walking cities seem to be always in fashion, with retrospective exhibitions every few years. Philip Reeves' traction cities, as depicted in the Mortal Engines series of books, have introduced the concept to a new generation. The work of Buckminster Fuller is full of this stuff, from the mile-high dome over Manhattan to early plans for floating cities; and despite Fuller's inability to build things that actually worked in the way that they were supposed to, it remains popular with techno-hippy optimists who think that this sort of thing is a vision of sustainability.

I think it's because they are like magic for grown-ups. In children's books (and increasingly, grown-ups' books, but that's another story) magic is a way of easily resolving the problems of the physical universe – restoring the world to the way it was when you were little, and could get what you wanted without effort or deferment. In grown-up fantasies about the city, hermetically sealed or free-standing urban entities deal with the real-world problems of cities by pretending they don't exist, or by proposing technological solutions to them that work best in fantasy.

In the real world, the inhabitants of cities need food to be brought in every day, and it needs to be moved to where it's needed despite all those pesky people getting in the way. Sure, there have been times when some of this food has been produced within the confines of the city itself, and it's hard not to get dewy-eyed about dig-for-victory gardens, backyard chickens, and the urban pigs that graced London and New York into the nineteenth century. Others are turned on by urban agriculture as practised in Cuba, or by dreams of giant vertical farms within cities. But agricultural surplus in the surrounding countryside, and consequent surplus of population, is what has historically made cities possible.

Cities also create huge amounts of waste, which includes but is not limited to the organic waste products of their human and animal inhabitants. Disposing of this stuff is, and always has been, one of the biggest problems with which all urban settlements struggle. Again, the surrounding countryside has historically been the solution. Relatively straightforward arrangements have ensured that the shit was taken to where it was useful, with the result that the farms and market gardens in the vicinity of cities had above-average productivity.

As transport became cheaper, the definition of 'surrounding' countryside became wider. At the heart of the Roman empire, the city of Rome imported its grain from North Africa and elsewhere. When the empire collapsed under the weight of its political, economic and energy-equation contradictions, there was a move towards re-localisation. Transport did not become so easy or so cheap again until the nineteenth century; until then cities were usually smaller and more closely linked to their immediate region.

But by the nineteenth century London, as the centre of a global empire, was obtaining its grain from one continent and its meat from another, and thereby supporting a population far greater than its region would have allowed. In terms of economics, the city only made sense as part of a global system; in terms of ecology, it didn't really make sense at all. Despite a flourishing network of market gardens on the fringes of the city, its sheer size and population meant that the night-soil economy was no longer sufficient to move all of the shit, human and animal, away from where it wasn't wanted. The immediate result was the 'great stink', and the longer-term consequence was the Bazalgette sewerage system, which collects human faeces from within our homes, transports them in a gush of potable water and then dumps them, more or less processed, somewhere downstream of us. Moving people round the city presented an analogous problem, and modern methods of transport were only possible because they relied upon energy imported from outside the city's boundaries – first fodder, then coal and coal-fired electricity for trams and metropolitan railways, then petroleum.

Cities are complex technical systems, embedded in complex social systems, with the latter both logically and historically prior. Cities can't exist outside of a web of economical and social relationships, not only within themselves but with the rest of the world. The twentieth century was rich in examples of cities that were politically separated from their surrounding regions – think Hong Kong, Singapore, West Berlin, West Jerusalem, or Nicosia. All of these have survived and sometimes thrived because of the way that they managed to plug themselves into a bigger support-system.

The idea of an arcology, or of a city that can pick itself up and move out of its supporting bio-region to find a better one, is a fantasy of denial – of pretending that with the right technology, it would be possible to do without all those messy social arrangements. Some of these fantasies are influenced by green thinking, and others by its opposite – lots of the literature on 'seasteading' seems to be driven by the attraction of leaving the rest of humanity to go to hell, and the involvement of Milton Friedman's grandson is probably not a coincidence. There are utopian and dystopian versions of this, and some of the dystopias seem to be intended as warnings rather than blueprints. As a thought experiment, and as an influence on some more serious proposals for making cities 'smarter', these visions might be a useful tool.

Ultimately, though, in so far as they are intended seriously, these proposals are a kind of survivalist response to real urban problems – I can't hole up in the woods with a gun because I'd miss my cappuccinos, but my entire city can cut itself off from the world. As in Bob Dylan's “Talking World War Three Blues”, in which everybody sees themselves walking around with no-one else; all the people can't be all right all of the time. Believing that you can make your city sustainable by preparing it to go for a stroll belongs with the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Life After Armageddon.

Watched 'Life After Armageddon', a US dram-doc, on Channel Five the other night. It depicts a society brought to collapse by an outbreak of flu, which has such a devastating effect because the country is so interdependent; once enough people stay home because they are ill, or to avoid becoming ill, everything fails, including water, power, law and order, and food distribution.

The program was a bit crass and repetitive, despite talking head slots from some of my favourite collapse theorists, but the scenario it depicts didn't seem particularly far-fetched. It seems worthy of comment that many of the tools which we are embracing to deal with the prospect of climate change -- such as more efficient transport networks, smarter power grids, and more reliance on the internet for work, shopping, and control systems generally -- actually make our civilisation less resilient to shocks. I don't know whether the internet would really stop working, in the way it does in the movie, once the workers in the server farms stop coming in to work, but it does bear thinking about.

I suppose the upshot of this is that there is more to sustainability than reducing power consumption; it's important to think about resilience, and reversibility. Of course we need to reduce our carbon emissions, but we ought to be aiming to do it in a way that doesn't create new systemic weaknesses and threats.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Story of Stuff

Yesterday I watched The Story of Stuff, an Internet video/film about the wastefulness of our throwaway consumerist society. It left me feeling a bit grumpy, because while it scores some good points, it ultimately disappoints. Yes, it's crazy to build our material civilisation on the constant stimulation of wants to be satisfied, and to trash natural resources to make stuff that we don't really like, only to throw it away to replace it with more stuff. Yes, there are lots of little insanities in that too. But when George Bush (and Tony Blair, for that matter) responded to the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks with an instruction that we should go shopping, they weren't just being crass or stupid.

Actually, our material well-being in the economic system that we have constructed really does depend on people carrying on buying stuff. If they stop, the whole edifice really does crumble. Unless we keep spending (and borrowing, for that matter) we can't get paid wages to buy the things we really do need - not just stuff, but also food, shelter, and even education, health care (which in civilised countries, the government buys on our behalf using taxes that it raises on economic activity ultimately premised on people buying stuff).

So calling for more recycling, less waste, and less conspicuous consumption, is nice but misses the point. Ditto pointing out that stuff doesn't really make us happy -- the point is that without the stuff and the buying, as we are presently organised we can't have the other things that stop us being really miserable. We can't move to a material civilization not based on the production and sale of stuff without a major change in the economic system - to one based on production for need, not production for exchange. That's a really, really big deal - not a little one that can be satisfied by recycling your glass bottles, or even making stuff in a less wasteful way in the first place. So far there are no good precedents for this - the most re-distributive social democratic societies are still premised on lots of making and selling. Only the Soviet Union seems to have tried another way, and that can hardly be characterized as an unqualified success.

Capitalism really does require perpetual growth, and on a finite planet. The borrowing from the future is not an accidental misdemeanor, it's fundamental to the way the system works. Ultimately this is not going to have a happy ending. But unless we can think of a way to step off the moving treadmill without trashing the means by which we sustain our lives, we can't write a different ending.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Aaronovitch on conspiracy theories

At the Latitude Festival last weekend, I listened to David Aaronovitch talking about conspiracy theories, to promote his book Voodoo Histories. I haven't read the book, so I'm just reviewing his talk. I didn't like it at all. He began by introducing the audience to the history of the Protocols, and about how it was shown to be a forgery; then he segued into post-9/11 conspiracy theories, and then on to the death of Diana. There was a bit of good-natured joshing at Dan Brown (particularly since half the audience admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code), and Brown's "source" Henry Lincoln.

As I said, I haven't read the book, so I don't know to what extent Aaronovitch engages with the preceding academic literature on this subject - for example, Norman Cohn's book on the Protocols, "Warrant for Genocide", or Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". In the talk, though, he warmed to his main themes - having a good laugh at the stupidity of people who believe the wilder conspiracy theories (like David Icke's theory that the world's elites, including the British royal family, are really giant blood-drinking lizards), and offering psychological explanations as to why people believe in conspiracies.

For me, the worst part of the talk was that Aaronovitch did not address the main reason that people believe this stuff -- because it's enough like the way the real world works. For example: Henry Lincoln's idea that the French royal family are the lineal descendants of Jesus, who escaped to the South of France and had children, and that most of the history of the Church is about how this has been covered up, does not stand up to much examination by an informed critical reader. But the Church has engaged in forgeries and cover-ups over much of its history. Consider the 'donation of Constantine', for example - a forged document which purported to show that the Roman emperor had transferred authority to the Pope. Or the forging of a paragraph in the writings of Josephus, which the Church claimed as a contemporary account of Jesus' life - subsequently shown to have been inserted by a later Christian writer. Lincoln's and even Brown's work has caught the imagination because it draws attention to something that many people suspect to be true but do not have the time or the resources to investigate for themselves - that theologians and the inner circles of the Church know that the ideas that they foist on others are not true.

The same might be said about the more contemporary and political conspiracy theories. Aaronovitch went on at some length about the (fictional) TV series Edge of Darkness, and about the widespread belief that the anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell had been murdered by the security services.

Aaronovitch laughed at the way conspiracy theorists believe both governments and corporations carry out secret medical experiments on unwilling subjects; but there are lots of well documented cases of them doing just that - experiments on British servicemen at Porton Down, mustard gas experiments on Indian soldiers at Rawalpindi, the CIA's K-ULTRA program of mind control experiments using drugs and hypnosis. The fact that this stuff has happened before, and that it was indeed widely denied and covered up, makes claims that other similar stuff is happening and is being covered up seem eminently plausible.

Similarly with the big claims about secret political arrangements, or government organisation of terrorism. Think about the way that Britain and France colluded with Israel in the Suez campaign, pretending to intervene "to separate combatants" in a war that they had themselves sponsored and arranged. Aaronovitch's claim that the real world is not as complicated at the conspiracy theorists make it out to be sits ill with the realities of the Iran-Contra affair, in which the CIA sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The weapon sales were secret and illegal, the Israelis were involved in shipping the missiles, the Nicaraguan rebels were known to be using the weapons runs to ship drugs into the US - could you make this up?

In argument against the conspiracy theorists, Aaronovitch says that real conspiracies are less effective than the theorists would have us believe - it's not possible to cover up anything big and important for very long because too many people would have to be involved. But surely this is just the equally implausible obverse of the argument style of the conspiracy theorists, who faced with apparent evidence that their theories are wrong, say that this in fact proves that they are right. Aaronovitch is claiming that because we know that cover-ups have been exposed in the past, they must all have been exposed - there can't have been any successful cover-ups.

And this points to the real problem, both with Aaronovitch's account and with those of other meta-theorists of conspiracy theorists; they don't offer any way of distinguishing between a 'conspiracy theory' and a genuine expose of a conspiracy or a cover-up. This is made worse by the fact that, as with other kinds of 'rejected knowledge', the people who espouse are often a bit special - only people like that are prepared to carry on in the face of widespread hostility. The old joke about intellectual presumption goes: "They laughed at Galileo, they laughed at Einstein, and they laughed at Punch and Judy." Being rejected doesn't mean that you are a genius, just because some other geniuses were at some stage rejected.

But it's important to remind ourselves that science, are inherently and necessarily conservative most of the time. It's useful to hold on to an existing paradigm and continue to work out its ramifications and puzzles; we can't afford to have scientific revolutions every time a bit of contradictory evidence turns up. As with science, so with political and social discourse. On the one hand, we can't pay equal attention to every nutter who walks through the door claiming to have evidence that the moon landings were faked; on the other hand, it's equally important to realise someone's claims to have uncovered a government or corporate cover-up aren't necessarily invalid because they have an unfortunate manner or smelly beard.

What I liked least about Aaronovitch's talk, then, was that it seemed to be essentially a plug for the conventional wisdom and the establishment view. Everything is what it seems to be. People who question this are all nutters. If an idea about events or political realities seems implausible, then it is.

Aaronovitch is a good writer who also talks well. Yet he is heading towards Melanie Phillips-land as a professional ex-leftist (this week he is on Radio Four talking about how Joseph McCarthy's fears of Soviet infiltration of the US were justified). Really, he ought to pull himself together and think about whether his obvious talents should be aimed at helping the weak and poor, or whether he'd rather be a tame clown who exposes the foibles of radicals for the amusement of the rich and powerful.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Haringey Council's carbon emission targets

It's easy to find stuff about Haringey Council's aspirations to be the 'greenest borough', and even to find the specifics about its plans and targets to reduce its own emissions.

It's much harder to find out specific information about what the baseline is for these reduction targets. I searched for ages, to no avail. Now, a cynical person might think that baseline was being kept from us, so that the council can claim progress secure in the knowledge that no-one will be in a position to dispute this.

For once, the cynical person would be wrong. After some courteous correspondence with Councillor Joe Goldberg, I was provided with the specific data that I wanted. In fact, the baseline and the progress against it show the Council in rather a good light. In 2006-7, which is the baseline year, Haringey Council's NI 185 emissions - that is emissions from its own operations - were 44,790 tonnes. For real emissions anoraks, this is a 'weather corrected' figure. In 2007-8 they were 44,616 tonnes, a fall of 0.39%, but in 2008-9 they were 42,631 tonnes - a reduction of 4.82%. The comparable figure for 2009-10 is 41,894 - 6.47% below the baseline.

It would be nice to get some more detail about where the emissions are coming from, and where the gains were being made - but at least there are real reductions being delivered.

So why doesn't Haringey make more fuss about its genuine progress? In the 1980s the GLC had a big signboard outside County Hall, showing the number of people unemployed in London. Why doesn't Haringey have an emissions board outside the Civic Centre?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Nokia takes irony to new heights

Nokia's publicity about "Conspiracy for Good", what appears to be some sort of immersive game around the theme of anti-globalisation protests, surely takes irony to a new level. The website seems to encourage people to play at being protesters, inviting them to take part in disrupting the activities of a fictional multinational corporation, and even to hack into its IT systems. Videos on the site deliberately blur the boundary between reality and game, implying that the game activity itself might actually become part of a 'conspiracy for good'. But Nokia really is a multinational corporation...is this so ironic that I don't get it? Or is Nokia making a corporate idiot of itself? I wish I knew.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My first fab idea for the Spending Challenge

Let's start by turning the armed forces from a cost centre to a profit centre. That way we won't have to spend anything on them at all, or at least spend a lot less. We should learn from our country's proud traditions, and sell commissions to posh boys who don't know what to do with themselves.

We should also allow people and organisations (especially corporations) to sponsor units in the armed forces. There is a lot of space for logos to go on.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bloody Sunday memory from a London school

I turned on the radio on Saturday morning to hear an Irish woman talking about the reaction to the Saville Inquiry and its conclusion. She talked about the reaction to the massacre at the time, and it brought back a personal memory that I hadn't thought about for a long time. In 1972 I was a young 14-year old, at a grammar school in North East London. I was beginning to take an interest in politics, but it didn't run very deep. I hadn't much thought about Ireland at all; the only time I remember having had a thought about it previously was as an 11-year old, reading the front page of the Daily Mirror about the Army storming into the 'no-go' areas in Londonderry. It must have been August 1969, and I recall thinking that this was probably a good thing, since the Army were the good guys and there shouldn't be any areas where they couldn't go.

In 1972 though, we had a new form master - Mr Sloan - who was also our Spanish teacher and French teacher. I've always been crap at learning languages, but for a short time that year I felt like I actually might be able to learn Spanish. Mr Sloan had that odd mixture of humour and menace that sometimes works in male teachers, which managed to convey that he was hard but fair. I really liked him and wanted to please him, so I made more effort with languages than ever before or since.

Mr Sloan's hardness was the more plausible because he was an Irish catholic from Glasgow. I didn't even know about the Glasgow Irish connection, but we learned a lot about it that year, along with stuff about how Franco's regime suppressed the Catalan language. We learned about gerrymandering, about the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and sectarianism. This was all at a boy's grammar school, where the headmaster had something of a reputation as a right-wing bigot. Somehow I connected Mr Sloan's Irish nationalism with my own emerging Jewish identity - part of no longer identifying as British or English, which up until then I had done. I didn't become any sort of Republican, but I no longer thought of either the Unionists or the Army as the good guys.

They day after Bloody Sunday Mr Sloan came into the classroom and wrote on the blackboard, in the space where he would sometimes write the names of those he wanted to intimidate. He wrote the number thirteen, and crossed it through and wrote the number twelve underneath. The point was that he was keeping score. One British soldier had been killed, so the deaths of the thirteen Bloody Sunday victims were on their way to being avenged.

It's kind of amazing to think that this could happen in a British school at that time. I think it would be on the front page of the Daily Mail now, and the teacher would be sacked and never work again.

I don't remember there being any consequences for Mr Sloan, though I also don't remember him continuing his scoreboard; funnily enough, I remember that he was pleased at the introduction of direct rule and the abolition of Stormont in 1973. Later that year he went off sick. He never came back as our teacher. We organised a collection for him, for a card and a present. I ended up buying the present, and chose a book about the IRA in the Civil War. He came back once to make a little speech of thanks. He looked really ill - thin, hairless and yellow. He died of cancer a few months later.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The debate

Watching the ‘Prime Ministerial Candidates’ debate, it was impossible not to be struck by how little difference there was between all three candidates. Clegg played the outside role dictated to him by his party’s position, but pretty much all the candidates had more or less the same sort. of answers to the carefully vetted questions.

This was only the first of three debates, but what was perhaps most revealing was the questions that weren’t asked. The debate was very much conducted on safe territory for the neo-liberal consensus to which all three candidates subscribe. No questions on climate change or peak oil, where the combination of market and moralising that they all like so much offers little or nothing. No questions on why Britain is involved in two wars in Muslim countries where it has little direct interest – just an easy ball on whether ‘our troops’ have enough kit. Clegg at least had the decency to raise the cost of replacing Trident, but all the candidates seemed to agree that the one thing we can afford was continued participation in whatever wars the Americans need us for.

And not even a question on the banking crisis. There was some verbal joshing on the precise mechanics by which the candidates propose to cut public spending, but nothing about how we got into this mess (bailing out the incompetently-run banks) and why it is so important to cut the deficit (er, to make sure that those same banks will carry on lending to the state at interest rates it can afford). Even this limited engagement with the question of who is going to pay the bill clearly went down like a bucket of cold sick with the minutely-analysed studio panel; so that’s probably the last we’ll hear about that. Until after the election, when you can bet that whoever wins will “discover” that the problems of the public finances were worse than they’d previously thought.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Inequality and New Labour

The Government's own National Equality Panel produced a report called Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK.

It shows:

  • The households in the top tenth of the UK wealth distribution have total wealth 100 times those in the bottom tenth

  • The share of wealth of the top 0.05% of the population declined from 1937 until the 1970s – but by 2000 this was higher than it had been in 1937

  • In the 1990s the top tenth increased its share of national wealth – but all of this was due to the increased wealth of the top 0.1%

This is not an inevitable consequence of globalisation or the market economy, or any other such bullshit. In other European countries the share of the top 1% did not increase, as it did in the UK (it declined from 1937 to the 1970s there just the same).

Britain is a more unequal society than our European counterparts. It has become more so during the thirteen years of 'New Labour' government. All the drivel about 'fairness' or 'an aspirational society' cannot hide this. If I needed reminding why I wasn't going to vote Labour, now I don't.

Peter Mandelson's famous dictum that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" is the real face of New Labour; what we are seeing at the moment is the one that they dust off every few years for elections.

Monday, April 05, 2010


>“I don't understand! Why can't you help me?” wails the caller. “You're the fourth person I've spoken to. Everyone just puts me through to someone else.”

“It's OK lady,” says the policeman, in tones usually reserved for a disconsolate child. “This stuff is always upsetting – not just for you, for everyone it happens to. We're sort of the experts in these cases.”

He sighs, and leans back from the vidscreen. “I'll try to make is as simple as I can, and don't worry if you need me to explain anything twice. Just ask.”

“Th-thanks,” sobs the young woman. “Tell me again about the pensioning thing.”

“Not pensioning, pynchoning,” corrects the policeman. “Or in your case, cross-pynchoning.”

“It's like this. Imagine a rich guy, or a rich lady. They pay to live in a gated community. They pay to drive on the priority roads, so they don't have to sit in traffic jams behind the likes of you and me. They eat in Old Dollar restaurants, not the Carbon Dollar places we go to. So they don't want to rub shoulders with us on the interwebs either.”

“What has this got to do with my pictures?” asks the woman.

“See, the rich people, they have this thing called Pry Vuh Sea...” The woman looks at him blankly.

The policeman tries again. “You know, like in the old days – when some things about people were sort of secret. Well, not exactly secret, just things you didn't tell everyone.”

“Yeah, I know it's kind of hard to take in. You and all your friends are posting pics and vids of yourself twenty-four seven, and telling each other and everyone else what you are doing and thinking and what you had for breakfast.” He pauses for effect. “And these folk are doing the opposite.”

“Thing is, everybody leaves traces on the interwebs, even if they don't mean to. But the very rich, they don't like this. They don't want to be in the same space as you, even a virtual space. It makes them feel dirty, like you touched them.”

“So they pay for a pynchoning service. Back in the twentieth, there was this writer – sort of a blogger, but on paper things called books – called Pynchon. He went to a lot of trouble to make himself disappear – found all the old paper records of himself and tore them up, stuff like that. So now they call a bot that trawls through the webs, cleaning up those traces – the billing records, the address databases, and the CCTV footage -- they call that a pynchoning service, after the writer guy. The bot just erases everything on the web that's a trace of the rich people.”

“But I'm not rich, and I haven't paid for any service,” whines the caller.

“That's what I've been trying to explain for the last half an hour. You haven't, but you look or sound like someone else who has paid for pynchoning. Enough like them for the bot to be erasing the traces of you. Maybe you've got the same name as a rich lady, or there's something similar about your behavioural footprint – the shape of the traces that you leave. Anyway, the bot has a fix on you now, and any trace you make gets rubbed out. We call it cross-pynchoning because it's like cross-fire. Nobody wanted to wipe you out, you just got caught in the cross-fire.”

“And it won't just be the pictures, I'm afraid. It's going to get worse.”

“Worse? What do you mean, worse?” asks the woman.

“It's going to be everything, I'm afraid. Your high school records. Your medical records. Your accounts. If it's still there now, it'll be gone soon. The bots have a very high level of access on all the major public servers.”

“This must be against the law! Why can't you do something?” She is gasping now, and her voice is shrill and loud.

The policeman looks embarrassed. “It's...it's a very grey area. The identity laws are mainly about theft. Somebody steals your identity to get stuff they aren't supposed to have, it's against the law. You try to use someone else's identity, it's a crime. But the law is about the deception and the thing you use it for. Identity wipe? Did anything get stolen? Did anyone lose any money that was coming to them? Nah...so no crime.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

The policeman shrugs helplessly. “Live with it. Change your name and start over. I can recommend a counsellor that helps with cases like this. Unless you are really, really rich – then you could try a counter-pynchoner; but you aren't really rich, are you? Because if you were, you wouldn't be calling me, would you?”

For a while the woman caller stares at the image of the policeman on her vidscreen. After a long minute she hangs up, and his screen goes dark. The policeman goes back to his keyboard. He knows that she will call back for the name of the counsellor in a few hours. They usually did.