Automobility was a state project, rethinking privacy, AI's impact on music, KC's free transit, night trains, & more!

Issue 115

Hey urbanists,

Welcome to the new subscribers! More than 1,100 people are now getting Radical Urbanist every week.

I started with a short update that’s not related to cities, but which provides insight into how musicians who don’t have massive followings like Taylor Swift, for example, are thinking about how tech and AI are impacting music and the people who make it.

I also want to draw your attention to Lizzie O’Shea’s essay on the right to privacy and Jeff Sparrow’s fantastic piece using the history of automobility to inform the strategy to eradicate it (which Lizzie pointed me to). Plus, Sanders’ broadband plan, the school as panopticon, Uber’s (bad) safety report, European night train resurgence, Kansas City’s free transit, the impact of e-waste, and more! You can also read my latest piece about the Cybertruck.

Have a great week!


P.S.— Click the heart below the title or at the end of the email if you like the issue.

There’s a really interesting conversation happening on music Twitter about the role of AI and technology in music and society at large. It seems to have kicked off after a recent interview that Grimes (notably Elon Musk’s girlfriend) did on Mindscape with Sean Carroll where she talked about creating a digital persona to replace herself since “I feel like we’re in the end of art, human art,” as a result of artificial intelligence. In response, Zola Jesus wrote a long essay that began by calling out the tech industry.

I used the term “Silicon Fascist Privilege” on Twitter. It’s loaded. I’m sorry it’s loaded. But I do think it defines a perspective in our current society and I stand by it. […] People who work in Silicon Valley, or who are immersed in the tech world, are often well paid, and silo’d together in a way that shelters them from different classes. They’re idealistic by nature about the promises and future of tech. There is an emphasis on visionary idealism by glorifying current and future tech as a groundbreaking and life-changing. […] This utopian excitement for the future makes me think of Italian Futurism. Futurism was a movement in 20th century Italy that very quickly became the face of Fascism. And today, it feels like a bit of a reprise as we emphasize innovation as an inevitability. We muse on how AI will take over our lives, whether we like it or not. We talk about how it will show us beauty and excellence heretofore unknown to man. It promises to blossom humanity into an enlightened, fusioned species; where our consciousness will merge into our machines, and together all knowledge will float and congeal into one blooming spiral of perfection. It is Awesome. When tomorrow comes, our lives will never be the same.

Jesus then specifically addressed Grimes’ comments on AI and music, challenging the notion that AI-produced art would be the same as human produced art because our human experience is essential to the act of creation.

All pain, angst, despair, joy, love, ecstasy, messiness… it’s all wrapped up into a creation that I can experience in order to feel less alone on my own human journey. How could AI do that better? And if AI were able to do that better, would it even matter? Isn’t the whole point of so much art to serve as an expression for the universalness of what we all feel and don’t totally understand? If we cannot feel like AI, how can we relate to it? If it gives us something that isn’t bound to humanness, can we appreciate it in the same way we appreciate the vulnerability and intimacy of being alive? Even if an AI was to perfect the algorithmic CONCEPT of art, wouldn’t it still be sort of empty in the end? It’s nothing but a simulation of experience. There is no one behind it to connect to and feel human alongside. Kind of like using cheat codes. A cheap win.

She then discussed the existing impact of technology on art, and how the rise of streaming services hasn’t necessarily been the boon that was promised, rather “they hold all the power and profit, just as the labels once did. Artists again, fucked.” Her essay ended by emphasizing that technology doesn’t simply just happen; we have agency, and we can choose how we allow technology to impact our society instead of simply letting tech billionaires do whatever they please.

Finally, at least that I’m aware, Holly Herndon, a musician with a PhD in music from Stanford whose most recent album, Proto, was created with the help of AI, responded with an essay of her own on how AI can assist in the creative process, but that the human element is also essential. The key line, for me, was:

I’m not worried about robot overlords. I’m worried about democratically unaccountable transnational companies training us all to understand culture like a robot or narrow AI.

Tech dystopia

👁 Lizzie O’Shea, author of Future Histories, argues that a lack of respect for privacy and a misunderstanding of what the right to privacy should truly mean is allowing governments to use technology and algorithms “to manage the poor, confining them to a cycle of stigmatization and entrenched disadvantage.” Instead of seeing privacy “as the right to be left alone and little more,” we must instead redefine it “as a right to digital self-determination. It is about self-governance, the right to determine our own destiny and be free to write a history of our own sense of self.” O’Shea takes particular inspiration from postcolonial struggles and the work of Frantz Fanon:

He wrote about how, growing up in a colonial society, his identity as a black man was curated by the colonial system, and this process served those in power. […] For Fanon, his identity was not afforded the dignity of uniqueness or autonomy; the system of white supremacy had “woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” His account sounds a lot like how our data-fied selves are generated and used against us in our everyday experience of online life. This centuries-old practice of oppression is being imported into the digital age. […] There are good reasons to see the struggle for digital self-determination as a successor of these movements.

🇰🇪 The rise of fintech in Kenya is generating a cycle of perpetual indebtedness among a large swath of society, with each loan creating more data for the companies while further trapping the individual.

Kenya’s new experience of debt is worrying. It reveals a novel, digitized form of slow violence that operates not so much through negotiated social relations, nor the threat of state enforcement, as through the accumulation of data, the commodification of reputation, and the instrumentalization of sociality. […] The eruption of over-indebtedness in Kenya marks the intersection of a faith in finance to ameliorate the lives of the poor and a recognition by techno-capitalists that those same populations are the source of runaway profits.

🇺🇸 Bernie Sanders unveiled an incredible new high-speed internet plan to provide $150 billion in grants to build out “publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks” and guarantee an affordable basic plan. Sanders would also break up internet and cable monopolies, unwind vertical conglomerates, and bar service providers from providing content. As the Verge notes, “this policy could potentially impact every major US carrier, particularly Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal, AT&T’s ownership of WarnerMedia, and Verizon’s ownership of AOL.” It’s also in line with what I argued in my recent piece about breaking up the media giants.

✊ Three of the four Google workers fired last week say they’ll be filing unfair labor practice charges against the company for retaliating against workplace organizing

😳 Facebook content moderators in Ireland are preparing to sue the company over “psychological trauma” as a result of poor working conditions and lack of training — and the job sounds harrowing. “My first day on the job, I witnessed someone being beaten to death with a plank of wood with nails in it and repeatedly stabbed. Day two was the first time for me seeing bestiality on video — and it all escalated from there.” Within two weeks, he “started seeing actual child porn.”

🤕 Amazon provides on-site medical care to warehouse employees, but an investigation by the Intercept and Type Investigations “found multiple instances in which clinic staffers violated Amazon’s own rules as well as government regulations. The investigation found that Amcare employees nationwide were pressured to sweep injuries and medical issues under the rug at the expense of employee health.”

💸 “Uber has quietly been developing a loan program that may have the potential to trap drivers in cycles of debt, making them easier for the company to exploit. […] given the company’s business model, the extreme financial pressures it is facing, and its history of exploiting workers, we should fear the possibility that its loan program will create a cruel new form of digital peonage […] a system of economic exploitation in which workers are compelled to work to pay off debts to their employers.”

🏫👁 “It’s the school as panopticon.” Schools in the United States are the target of growing surveillance. Students have to use clear backpacks and water bottles, there are surveillance cameras everywhere, everything they do on school-provided laptops is tracked, and many are okay with it.

Ingrid said she is careful to use her personal device when she wants to look up sensitive issues, since she knows “teachers will let your parents know what you’re doing on your school computer.”

Even on a personal device, she is wary of connecting to the school wifi, since she is not sure if that enables the school to track what she’s looking at on her phone. Instead, she said, she uses her own data plan.

👩‍⚖️ Elon Musk was in court this week over his “pedo guy” tweet. “[T]he plaintiff Vernon Unsworth gave compelling testimony about how Musk’s words had affected him. Unsworth indicated he’d taken Musk’s words as an accusation, not an insult, and felt ‘dirtied’ by them.” They jury found the tweet did not meet the standard for defamation, letting Musk escape justice for his words and actions once again.

👁 Eight of the ten most surveilled cities in the world are in China, but London ranked sixth and Atlanta tenth. “With 2.58m cameras covering 15.35 million people – equal to one camera for every six residents – Chongqing has more surveillance cameras than any other city in the world for its population, beating even Beijing, Shanghai and tech hub Shenzhen.”

👩‍⚖️ Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, will pay at least $10 million to current and former female employees “following accusations of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment at the company”

🚽 Uber was found to have separate bathrooms for “employees” and “drivers” at an office in Providence, while a service center in Los Angeles had port-a-potties for drivers, but nicer “VIP-Single” toilets for employees. It’s blatant classism.

🛍 If you asked Alexa what to buy on Cyber Monday, it responded with a suite of Amazon-owned products

👁 Whatever you do, don’t buy a Ring surveillance camera.

Critical urbanism

🤝 Jeff Sparrow lays out the history of American automobility, how the shift was opposed by working class people and depended on state support, and how understanding that history can help us build the support for another fundamental transformation of our land use patterns and transport system.

[B]erating working-class people for celebrating the cars upon which they rely doesn’t make for a successful political strategy. […] If you are rich, it is a lot easier to buy an expensive, experimental hybrid vehicle. If you live in a fashionable part of town, you might not need a car at all. But lots of people – most people – don’t have those options.

A genuine strategy against climate change must include the provision of modern and comfortable public transport, not as an add-on but as a core component. Car culture will only be defeated by destroying its foundations. Once it is cheaper and more convenient to catch the train, the car will no longer represent freedom but will instead signify expense, waste and frustration.

The early history of the American automobile matters because it shows that ordinary people don’t have to be understood as a problem to be solved or an obstacle that needs overcoming. […] The working-class parents campaigning against the devastation wreaked by the car in the 1920s weren’t climate change activists. Nevertheless, theirs was a struggle over the urban environment, a resistance to the public harms inflicted for private interests. They refused to accept that children should die and that the commons should be privatised simply to facilitate the designs of the automotive industry.

📚 In April, the San Diego Public Library eliminated late fees when it found “nearly half of the library’s patrons whose accounts were blocked as a result of late fees lived in two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.”

🛑 In 2018, Uber delivered 1.3 billion trips in the United States. Over that same span, there were 3,045 reported sexual assaults (of which 235 were rapes), 9 murders, and 58 people who died in crashes. 42% of those sexual assaults were on drivers, and their classification as contractors could deny them employment protections that could keep them safe. By comparison, the NYC subway delivered 1.7 billion trips in 2017, with a single murder, 1,024 sex offenses (different sources say 0-2 rapes for 2017/2018), and about 2,500 total reported crimes.

👏 Jarrett Walker argues he’s not a bus advocate, “I am a freedom advocate, which means that I like it when people can go places, and therefore do things, and therefore have better lives more rich with choice and opportunity.  And when I analyze how to deliver freedom cost-effectively, the fixed route bus turns out to be the right answer in a huge percentage of cases.”

Ⓜ️ NYTimes has a really cool interactive on the evolution of the NYC subway map

🙄 Amazon tried to get $3 billion in tax breaks to set up shop in NYC, then people got angry and the company backed out. Now it’s leased a bunch of new office space and will be expanding there anyway — no tax breaks required.

🇬🇧 As part of Labour’s rail renationalization plans, it would reduce rail fares and bring a ticketing system like London’s Oyster to the national level with simplified, zone-based rail fares across England and Wales

🚆 Night trains are seeing a resurgence across Europe as more people choose trains over planes to lower their carbon footprint.

EU rules meant to make train services better and cheaper are at least partly to blame for the past retreat of cross-border sleeper trains. Rail companies, which used to provide trains free cross-country track access, began charging for it after the EU pushed for greater competition. The fee hit night trains hard because they travel longer distances and carry fewer passengers per car. […] there are calls for EU regulators to return to the drawing board. Lower track access charges at night are at the top of the wish list, which also includes harmonized cross-border systems with integrated tickets and timetables.

🚄 At a recent summit outside Seattle, a persuasive case was made for high-speed rail linking it with Vancouver and Portland. It could be much cheaper than adding a new lane to the highway. “[For] $108 billion we’ve got another lane of pavement in each direction, and it still takes you all day to get from Portland to Vancouver. Half of that invested in ultra-high speed rail and it’s two hours. That’s game-changing stuff.”

✊👁 Brooklyn tenants successfully fought their landlord’s secretive plan to install facial recognition in their building. “Landlords, building owners, development companies, and investors are just doing what they want. But I am a third-generation Brooklynite, I am from here, I can’t leave. I don’t want this technology in my home.”

🚌 Amy Hanser, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, studies the unwritten rules of using the bus. She found it “forces us to negotiate space with one another, and when the bus gets crowded you're really forced to both keep to yourself and also be really attentive to other people. It's this really interesting tension.”

🇦🇺 Researchers warn that infrastructure privatization has gone too far in Australia. “Market-led proposals present a risk for how our cities function. If infrastructure is built in the interests of private actors, the outcomes will favour them, not citizens. Privatising key public assets that are natural monopolies, such as railways, opens the door to rent-seeking.”

🇫🇷 Urban farming is taking off in Paris after the government implemented policies to incentivize growing food locally

🇨🇳 On December 1, China opened three new high-speed rail lines, totaling more than 1,000 km (nearly 650 miles)

🇺🇸 Kansas City voted to make its transit system free, which could save some users up to $1,000 per year, while reducing inequality and encouraging more people to use it

🚙☠️ By Paris:Sure, Elon Musk’s new Cybertruck is ugly. But it could also be dangerous.” (NBC News THINK): “Tens of thousands of people die on U.S. roads every year, and cars are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Larger and more powerful vehicles are making that worse, not better, and the Cybertruck doesn’t seem to be reflecting the challenges of our current reality.”

Climate crisis

🌎 “Today in the journal Nature, a group of researchers argues that we're closer to tipping nine climate demons than previously believed, and that we're already starting to see some associated effects. […] [But] tipping points don’t have to be signs of trouble. […] As politicians and capitalists double down on the apocalypse, the more sensible among us are betting on change. Perhaps that’s the most critical tipping point of all.”

🇺🇸 Colin Lecher reported on the environmental impact of U.S. e-waste and a company that claimed to be recycling it ethically, but was really shipping it to Asia.

To handle its waste, the US has turned to other nations, funneling discarded electronics to South Asia and Africa, where laborers scrap products for salvageable metals. The workers might burn the material in the open air, or treat it in an acid bath, sifting through the remains for small amounts of potentially valuable metals, like gold.

🎮 On a related note, as part of the Verge’s coverage of Playstation’s 25th anniversary, Lewis Gordon tore apart a PS4 and looked at where all its components come from. “Under its plastic hood, I discovered a machine that spans continents and deep time, touches thousands of lives (for better and worse), and leaves an indelible, measurable stain on Earth and its atmosphere.”

🇳🇴🇸🇪🇩🇰🇮🇸🇫🇮 Not everything about the Nordic model is worth emulating. Despite the great public services, the Nordic countries consume much more than what is sustainable — similar to the U.S., Canada, and Australia — meaning, “as with most rich nations, the bulk of their ecological impact has been outsourced to the global South. That is where most of the resource extraction happens, and where global warming bites hardest.”

⏱ Climate change isn’t just changing our world, it’s erasing our past. “When we return to the lands we used to know and no longer recognize, the grounding memories of hunting out on the ice with your father or your first kiss as a teenager feel like parts of a past life, memories you forgot to mourn.”

🇦🇺 Bushfires in Australia have burned ~2 million hectares (~5 million acres) of land, and a “mega-fire” is burning an hour’s drive from Sydney. It also expected to have a devastating impact on the region’s biodiversity: “You have animals relying on the eucalyptus trees for their primary diet […] Then you have a whole range of other species living off nectar or the insects in that environment, and there’s going to be a considerable loss of insect life in those fires. And then with fires that have been burning even at low intensity, leaf litter and all the understorey is gone. That’s providing food and refuge to animals there and the animals they would eat.”

🇿🇲🇿🇼 Victoria Falls, the 100-meter waterfall at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is experiencing an unprecedented drought with much of the wonder nothing but dry stone.

☀️ U.S. cities are going to get a lot more extreme heatwaves in the future, but few are planning for how to protect vulnerable residents

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