‘Urban’ Is Taken More As Format for Design Than Genre of Design

PHOTO by Evgeny Kruglov / Strelka
Excerpt from Benjamin Bratton’s new essay on what makes the norms really new

“The New Normal” education programme is getting wider. Strelka Press released a new book by Benjamin Bratton, Education Programme Director of the programme, dedicated to mapping new norms in the context of emerging technologies. Strelka Magazine offers a short excerpt from it.

Тhe New Normal

I should speak to the Russian context for this work, as it is obviously an “interesting” (some would say problematic) position from which to map these circumstances.

These days, it is no secret that mainstream Russian political discourse is not entirely enamored with the premises of universal modernity. That is an ironic shame in that for much of the 20th century, Moscow was seen as the seat of an ambitious internationalism. Against this current, we ask how past Russian futurisms (literary, cinematic, scientific, social, etc.) might yet shape urbanism in Russia and elsewhere. This is not as quixotic as it may seem, in that contradictory impulses pull this moment between opposing neo-modern and neo-reactionary narratives, and it is not always clear which is which. The aims of our little cosmopolitan sect of speculative urbanists are unambiguously universalist, but what that means now requires continual re-discovery.

From our campus on the river, we are in the center of Moscow and in its legacies of melancholic utopianism and voluptuous dystopianism. The city links European and Asian passages, Arctic and Baltic flows, and is where during the 20th century, algorithmic governance found one of its primordial forms. As it intends to double or triple its jurisdictional circumference will “the Moscow agglomeration” innovate a regional vernacular of duplicative sprawl, or interlocking nested megastructures, or both, or neither? At 20 million inhabitants and counting, will its path be one toward lower density or higher density – and density of what? How much energy can it draw into the centripetal force of sovereign centralization until – like the Antonov 225, Tsar Bomba, Ostankino Tower or Norman Foster’s unbuilt Crystal Island – the city, like any such system, is just too big to function, and finally is set aside for other options? Will it only find new ways to rehearse the existential malaise of the Strugatsky brothers’ The Doomed City?

Taisia Korotkova. From the series "Museums of Astronautics", 2013.

Russia’s expanse launched mankind’s initial vertical forays into space, freeing us from one sort of planetary predicament and revealing others which we can never leave. A century ago, Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky, and the Cosmists imagined migration off-planet a necessary evolutionary step for the species. While for them that mission was, in such strange ways, part of a national orthodoxy, now we might make it into what Strelka faculty, Benedict Singleton, calls “maximum jailbreak.”

So where to? From Bogdanov’s Red Star to A. Tolstoy’s Aelita to Fokin’s (and Coppola’s) Nebo Zovyot to the Mars 3 craft (in 1971, the first Earth machine to land on the red planet), Mars has been a preferred location for Russian charter cities. According to this tradition we will conceive our charter cities and charter stacks (discussed below) as if they were for Mars, because, in a way – whether it is for Laika’s little space suit or growing food under a domed desert – they are. Perhaps, as before, the path out is upward, where the idealism of internationalism and the geometries of the global give way to a stark planetarity (and what Ed Keller calls the post-planetary).

Of course, “outer space” is not actually out of anywhere (I once had to remind a student, whose speculative design project was about “the first human born in space,” that all humans, hurtling around the sun as we are, were born in space) How space signifies an exterior alternative (or alternative exteriority) is provisional, but productively so. Whether from orbit or on Mars, we may perceive the interdependent totality of planetary circumstance untethered from our intuitive horizontalism, and when we do, this suggests but never guarantees the possibility of comprehensive alternatives. In this, if Mars stands for Planet B, it is less because we will move there than because solving systems for its arid plains makes solving for Earth’s teeming tropics easy by comparison.

With our 2050 brief in mind, the urban is taken more as a format for design than a genre of design. Cities are media for the circulation of potentials (as well as the encapsulation of foregone conclusions) and to search that potential this means getting out of our own skins. In the oscillations between hard science and science-fiction which set the rules for our spatial scenarios to play out, and to make the future look Russian, we will have to cultivate that most Russian ethos: alienation.

Charter Stacks

In the months since we announced our theme, the phrase “the new normal” has trended in popular discourse. It is often used in concert with declarations that certain new things should never be considered “normal” and should not bend the frame of acceptability to include them. We are reminded of Eugène Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, in which people rationalize away the massive savannah mammal suddenly marauding through town. “Give it a chance, wait and see. Maybe it’s a rhinoceros and maybe it’s not. How bad could it be, really? I heard that it’s not even happening.”

Among our trending themes is the demeaning of the real by conspiracy, fake intrigue, superstitious populism, clickbait science, causality/correlation fallacies, and motivated inference.

Konstantin Yuon, New Planet, 1921

Exemplifying these tendencies in spades is Adam Curtis, whose cut-and-paste political documentary, Hypernormalization, spins a good yarn about the deep history of this iniquity, supergluing it to the rise of Neoliberalism and all his pet peeves (including a longstanding refusal to grasp how technological systems operate with effects that exceed political representation.) When Curtis announces that now “no one has any vision for a different or better kind of future,” he speaks only for himself. We also see the new normal in the long collapse of avant-garde novelty cycles, such that technologies become normal even before they become real. A.I. is already normal. Universal Basic Income? So August 2015! Driverless cars are normal and they aren’t on the road yet. Your mom was playing Pokemon Go! before some of society’s moral guardians knew to denounce it.

In the exact spot where a viable future should be, something insufferably backward fills it in: a psychotic simulation of medieval geopolitics. The rise of ethno-nationalist populism is a global phenomenon with global causes. Yet in each case, locals either blame or congratulate themselves for their unique failure/accomplishment. But from Manila to Milwaukee, we see the same demographic voting patterns of urban, highly-educated cosmopolitans and rural, less-educated, monocultural nationalists (and/or national monoculturalists). Even as globalization has delinked class from geography in uneven ways, we try to deal with the phenomenon one 18th-century jurisdiction at a time. And yet this is also when networks of city-states seem decisively detached from their national hosts. For those from “District 13” in our real-life Hunger Games, the city is a source of arbitrary power. Looked at this way, isn’t urbanization itself a focus of the populist backlash?

We may be seeing the emergence of a new (old) multipolar order of geographically encapsulated domains, an amalgamation of legacy polities that may last a few years or a few decades. While some functions of globalization proceed according to the dynamics of spheres and networks, the nomos of the Cloud is subdividing into multilateral sovereign domains, each with a parallel stack of servers, sensors, data, applications and users/citizens. A silver lining of the enclosure into regional sovereign stacks (North American, Eurasian, Chinese, etc.) may be a diversification of innovation at each layer according to differing contexts.

Such consolidations may be another phase in the ‘great convergence’ of political economies under information logistics, and if so it holds both light and dark potentials. The segmentation of stacks may force diversification and speciation of software and hardware by hemispherical “Galapagos effects.” Among the strange implications may be its effects on the evolution of artificial intelligences, which are bound to the data they are allowed to sense and process and so may be physically constrained by the Great Firewalls of the regional stacks inside of which they are born. For the coming years, the morphogenetic diversity of A.I. may be a function not only of their application domains but of their sovereign domains as well.

Along the coast or countryside, on Earth or Mars (one standing in for the other) the question of urbanization is now, and will remain, a question of who and what is urbanized, and when and how so. For our programme, the ante is a tempered alienation from conventional answers.