Dystopian Cybertruck, left tech policy, EU antitrust, gig economy isn't new, & more!

Issue 113

Hey urbanists,

This issue is a little shorter than in recent weeks, but there are still a lot of great reads. I was really taken with the left tech policy outlined by Ben Tarnoff, and the interview with Margrethe Vestager gives a good idea of where tech regulation might be going in the E.U. in the coming years. I’d also recommend Jim Stanford on why the gig economy isn’t new, my brief thoughts on the Cybertruck (I’ll likely have something more on that next week), and why the Volocopter is elite transport.

I’m in Copenhagen, then back in London for a couple days, and finally back to Canada to take a much needed break. (But don’t worry, the newsletter will continue.)

Have a great week!


✊ In the latest issue of his Metal Machine Music newsletter, Ben Tarnoff outlines a (quite detailed) left approach to tech policy that outlines how we might categorize different services and how that would determine the types of ownership and control that will be necessary. Highly recommend.

There are elements of the antitrust toolkit that can be very constructively applied to the task of reducing the power of Big Tech and restoring a degree of democratic control over our digital infrastructures. But the antitrusters want to make markets work better. By contrast, a left tech policy should aim to make markets mediate less of our lives—to make them less central to our survival and flourishing.

Tech dystopia

🇪🇺 Margrethe Vestager has taken on a second five-year term as head of the European Commission’s antitrust division, and will take on more power over E.U. digital policy. She’s working on a number of important measures, and thinks Europe needs its own approach to tech companies that doesn’t mirror the United States or China: “Market forces are more than welcome, but we do not leave it to market forces to have the final say. Markets are not perfect.”

She’s weighing whether to remove some protections that shield large internet platforms from liability for content posted by users. She is also working on policies to make companies pay more taxes in Europe and investigating how the companies use data to box out competitors. […] She is taking steps to speed up investigations and is applying a rarely used rule known as “interim measures,” that acts as a cease-and-desist order for companies to stop acting a certain way while an investigation can be conducted. 

She will play a leading role in the European Union’s debate over a new Digital Services Act, which could bring sweeping reforms to how the internet operates, including forcing online platforms to remove illegal content or risk fines and other penalties. Facebook, she said, must be quicker to stop the spread of false and misleading information, violent material and hate speech.

🇺🇸 Apple announced a new suburban campus in Austin that could eventually hold 15,000 employees. It’s a completely backward plan that will need to accommodate that many cars too.

🚬 The American Medical Association has called for a ban of vaping products as New York and California have filed lawsuits against Juul, one of the most popular vaping companies.

The lawsuits allege that the company specifically targeted young people with deceptive advertising, featuring flavors like mango, cool mint, crème brûlée and cucumber. They charge that the company failed to warn customers that the products contain nicotine, misrepresented them as a safer alternative to cigarettes and illegally sold them to minors.

👨‍🔧 Jim Stanford explains that the gig economy’s ‘innovative’ business practices are a lot older than they make us think. Sure, they use apps now, but the precarity of labor isn’t very different from the day labor done by dock, mine, farm, and other workers in the past.

📱 “What would happen if low-wage workers came together to cut out the middleman and build their own platforms? This isn’t just a thought experiment. Worker-owned apps are already providing real alternatives to dismal working conditions in the global gig economy.”

📚 Nicole Aschoff’s critical review of Matt Stoller’s Goliath explains the flaw in his attempt to heap equal blame on the left and the right for the return of corporate monopolies and the decline of antitrust

👁 The latest batch of Sidewalk Labs documents suggests it wants to establish a Digital ID system that could be managed by Canada’s banking oligopoly and used to mediate access the healthcare and affordable housing — a completely dystopian proposal.

🖥 Ash Sarkar makes the case for free broadband, after some of the U.K. commentariat dubbed Labour’s policy “broadband communism.” “Decommodification – where something we need stops being delivered at the whim of the market and becomes a social entitlement – has always been politically controversial.”

😡 WeWork is laying off 2,400 workers worldwide, and outsourcing 1,000 cleaning and facilities workers. There’s little indication of whether they’ll respond constructively to workers’ demands.

Critical urbanism

☠️ Elon Musk unveiled his ugly Cybertruck. I haven’t had time to write up my thoughts yet, but Fred Scharmen made some of the points I would make: the inspiration from dystopian science fiction films makes it feel like the truck is going to be driving through streets where it expects to be attacked. How does that reflect an elite worldview, one where wealthy people are trying to separate themselves from people who are increasingly fed up with mounting inequality? Further, the dystopian design elements will actually make for a more dystopian present on our streets: the use of body panels that aren’t affected by a few smacks with a sledgehammer won’t be very forgiving when the ‘truck’ (more like an armored vehicle) runs into a pedestrian, a cyclist, or even another vehicle. We already know that SUVs and trucks are far more likely to kill on impact than a car and that pedestrian deaths are at their highest since 1990 as a result. A Cybertruck will be even worse.

🚗 A researcher wanted to see the real impact of low-cost AVs, so he paid for a chauffeur for 13 people for a week to see how their travel patterns changed. Their miles traveled increased a collective 83%, suggesting AVs could add a lot of vehicles miles (and thus congestion) to our roads.

🏚 “[T]he short-term incentives of our housing market are encouraging another potent strain of [climate] denial: the idea that millions of Americans living in harm's way of climate change have nothing to fear because the impacts are slow, gradual, and predictable, despite the number of climate-driven disasters and other costly events rapidly increasing.”

🇺🇸 Ilhan Omar’s new housing bill would propose over $1 trillion to build 9.5 million new units of public housing, 2.5 affordable housing units, and establish a fund to provide grants to local governments to combat the effects of gentrification

🤦 Waterfront Toronto’s November 19 public meeting dashed any hope that it would consider canceling Sidewalk Toronto

🚁 Alexis Ong attended a Volocopter demonstration in Singapore and came away with the impression that it’s an elite mode of transportation that may struggle to get public acceptance, if it can even operate in wind and rain.

Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter says he takes inspiration from The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi / fantasy film that featured chaotic scenes of flying cars veering and nose-diving. Though perhaps he isn’t thinking of the scene in which Bruce Willis’ character completely wrecks his flying taxi.

🇨🇦 Montréal is reprogramming all its traffic lights to prioritize pedestrians and ensure there’s enough time for children and the elderly to cross

🇫🇷 Paris, host of the 2024 Olympic Games, is not happy that Airbnb is now a sponsor

🇩🇪 Berlin’s rent control rules could face legal challenges as leaked emailed show the federal interior minister thinks it’s illegal

🏥 Capitalism doesn’t deserve credit for longer life expectancy and quality of life; that belongs to progressive political movements who forced positive change in the face of capitalist opposition. “Simon Szreter, one of the world’s leading experts on historical public health data, shows that industrial growth through the 19th century triggered not an improvement in life expectancy but rather a striking deterioration. […] It wasn’t until the 1880s that urban life expectancies finally began to rise – at least in Europe. But what drove these sudden gains? Szreter finds it was down to a simple intervention: sanitation.”

🇪🇬 Mohamed Gohar records the architecture that’s quickly disappearing in Alexandria, Egypt

The other stuff

🇨🇦 Some far-right figures in Alberta are kicking up a stink and threatening to separate from Canada. If the land of ‘ethical oil’ really became its own country, it “would overtake Saudi Arabia as the worst climate-polluter on the planet per-person if the province secedes from Canada.” It’s also notable for its large percentage of climate denial in comparison to the rest of Canada.

🇺🇸 U.S. DoJ announced it will end the 1948 Paramount Consent Decrees which effectively stopped Hollywood studios from owning cinema chains, and ended the practices of “‘block booking’, whereby multiple films are sold together, and ‘circuit dealing’, in which the studios have one contract with all theaters under a single circuit.” Peter Labuza provides a great analysis of what it might mean for the film industry.

📺 WarnerMedia CEO wants HBO Max to be the cable bundle of the streaming era

🎮 Google’s Stadia streaming service launched to mediocre reviews, without key features, and couldn’t even send codes to founding members on time

If you want to share Radical Urbanist with a friend, you can forward this issue or send them here to sign up. Send comments to @parismarx or paris@parismarx.com