Green extractivism, invisible smart city workers, printing press disruption, COP25, & more!

Issue 116

Hey urbanists,

I’m still feeling like shit after seeing a Conservative majority elected in the United Kingdom, knowing how many people are going to suffer over the next five years as a result, but that doesn’t mean the newsletter stops.

This week I want to highly recommend the pieces by Thea Riofrancos on lithium mining in South America and by Kevin Rogan on how smart cities are designed to make the labor of maintenance workers invisible. Plus, the cultural impact of superheroes, what we can learn from the printing press, Ring wants you to fear your community, Uber’s academic propaganda, why infrastructure used to be cheap, the Arctic is fucked, and leaders from rich countries are watering down climate targets at COP25. I have two pieces this week on how The Expanse shows Jeff Bezos’ space fantasy is bullshit and Uber’s ignorance of the human cost of its business.

Have a great week!


Note: Last week, I shared an article about Uber’s safety report. In my description, I accidentally wrote that the safety figures were for 1.3 million rides in the United States, but that should have said 1.3 billion rides.

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

If you’re trying to recover from the U.K. election, Richard Seymour wrote a good reflection on the campaign and Labour’s defeat for Novara Media.

[O]nly the kind of agenda that Labour sought to get elected on could feasibly undermine the social bases of Brexit nationalism. The problem is, the election was called because parliament couldn’t make a decision on Brexit, after three years in which the Brexit vote had been radicalised. Nationalism is such an established script in this country that its abstractions can be experienced as intimate, concrete. Whereas the policies in Labour’s carefully drafted, carefully budgeted and yet ambitious manifesto, offering specific help, were so remote from everyday experience of the government, that for a lot of voters it felt abstract and utopian.

Tech dystopia

🇨🇱🔋 Thea Riofrancos went to Chile to learn about the impact of lithium mining. She describes how electric vehicles, battery storage, and other technologies are fueling a “green extractivism” which entails “the subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless extraction in the name of ‘solving’ climate change.”

For the suits at the W Hotel, the Atacama was an extraction site, an operational landscape, the beginning of a long trail of logistics & profit. But what of the vicuña and the quince, and the communities rooted in the flow of the desert’s precious water? What would it look like to bring these into view?

🎬 Alex Pappademas wrote a fantastic piece on the cultural impact of superhero movies over the past decade, how they’re quashing any other type of film, and how their fans are being sore winners in service of content monopolies.

What superhero movies and violent video games aimed at 16-year-old boys and YA fiction novels for teenagers have in common is that they were once looked down upon by the culture at large and have since become market forces so supermassive that no individual’s objection to them means anything at all. Yet their adherents will tolerate no dissent, rushing to the barricades at the drop of a mean tweet.

It’d be funny if it weren’t funny at all. Most of the time, corporations have to pay people to lay down this kind of Astroturf on their behalf. This is what nerds are now: a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world, shouting down anybody who refuses to read “BLACK WIDOW EQUALS FEMINISM” or “BABY GROOT IS AWESOMESAUCE” off a cue card held by a dancing Spider-Man.

📚 Elizabeth Einstein, the late historian of the printing press, wrote about how its disruptive effects were largely unforeseeable. Her work has lessons for how we see the internet, and how we forget how similarly unforeseeable many of its effects and developments truly are.

[The printing press] was a revolution—many revolutions, really, most of them unforeseeable. Consider what it meant to own books personally and read them silently, rather than having to hear words read aloud: No one knew what you were up to in the privacy of your home. Writers and publishers wanted some degree of ownership—­hence the new concepts of copyright and intellectual property. More books and rising literacy created an eyeglass industry, which in turn brought advances in lens-making, which ultimately made possible the telescope and spelled the end of biblical cosmology. The printing press transformed religion, science, politics; it put information, misinformation, and power in the hands of more people than ever before; it created a celebrity culture as poets and polemicists vied for fame; and it loosened the restraints of authority and hierarchy, setting groups against one another. This shattered the status quo in ways that proved liberating but also lethal: If the printing press deserves some of the credit for democracy and the Enlightenment, it also deserves some of the blame for chaos and slaughter.

🇺🇸 Google is under investigation by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board over whether its firing of four organizers violated labor laws and if it discouraged employees from unionizing. Clyde W. Ford writes that Google’s recent anti-worker actions are reminiscent of IBM’s racist past.

🇺🇸 U.S. Department of Justice will investigate Google’s purchase of FitBit over potential antitrust issues. The Federal Trade Commission may also seek an injunction against Facebook in the new year over the anticompetitive integration of the main app, Instagram, Messenger, and Whatsapp. “An injunction could seek to bar Facebook from further integrating apps that federal regulators might look to unwind as part of a potential future breakup of the company.”

🇲🇽 “Delivery workers across Mexico are under severe pressure. Fatal crashes are a known risk, and reports of robberies are practically a daily occurrence. To protect themselves and each other, delivery workers are turning to messaging apps and social networks to document grievances and rally for change.”

🇬🇧 The NHS has an incredibly valuable dataset, but the Conservatives have started selling it off to U.S. pharmaceutical companies and gave Amazon free access

🇪🇺 Apple Pay is expanding in Europe, but antitrust regulators are investigating the service because Apple limits access to the NFC chip that enables wireless payments, forcing banks to allow Apple Pay instead of using their own apps

🇦🇺 Australia’s competition authority will be given new powers to regulate tech giants. That will include an examination of their advertising businesses, new media regulations, and a mandatory code to address power imbalances.

📦 Amanda Mull explains why people are so adamant their online purchases have free shipping, and how it’s yet another way small retailers and independent sellers are being pushed out in favor of massive conglomerates like Amazon

🤖 A recent U.S. Army report on future cyborg soldiers worries that movies like Terminator turned the public against killer robots. Or maybe people just don’t like the idea of robots that murder people?

🚀☠️ By Paris:Jeff Bezos and His Billionaire Space Fantasy” (Jacobin Magazine): “Whatever Bezos’s personal fantasies are, The Expanse destroys the notion that space colonization under capitalism will be any kind of utopia. Instead, it suggests a terrible life for the working class and even more power for the capitalist elite.”

Critical urbanism

👁 Kevin Rogan explains how the “Dynamic Street” promised by Sidewalk Labs in Toronto has already been shown not to work in France. But the insidious nature of their goals goes even further by turning maintenance workers into little more than robots that respond when needed, while building a city to serve “knowledge” workers. No wonder Richard Florida loves it.

Quayside will effectively exist as two cities. In one, citizens will enjoy the dreamlike novelty of streets, spaces, and services that seemingly respond to their every desire; in the other, woven in and through the first, workers will be confronted with machines that likewise demand they become more machinic. The mundane utility of Dynamic Street in minimizing disruption and suppressing repair is fundamental to this. Smuggled in as an innovation, Dynamic Street composes the base layer of Sidewalk’s minimal urban environment: a “city” free of social services, community, and solidity. Instead, the illusion of a city is carefully constructed atop a vast apparatus that exists primarily to organize capital, labor, and profit. Usually, we would call such environments factories or industrial zones. Quayside is a proposal that the factory and the city don’t just mirror each other but become each other.

👁 Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras claim to protect owners’ privacy, but journalists at Gizmodo were able to access data that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of tens of thousands of its devices. Meanwhile, Caroline Haskins describes how Ring’s business model is built on making you fear your neighborhood.

When the company once known as DoorBot relaunched as Ring in 2014, its marketing strategy promptly changed. The convenient “smart home” doorbell butler was gone, reborn as Ring, a home-security product that doesn’t simply sell fear, but sells the idea that the nuclear, suburban family is a delicate, precious thing which needs protection from a hostile world. […] The Neighbors app empowers people to not just watch their neighborhood, but to organize as watchers. Ring markets Neighbors as a “digital neighborhood watch,” which is an accurate description. It encourages people to think about who belongs and who is an outsider. In this way, Neighbors is not just a digital neighborhood watch. It’s a digital gated community.

🇺🇸✊ Spin e-scooter workers in San Francisco unionized with Teamsters Local 665, and want to negotiate for better pay, healthcare, and retirement security. The company hires workers as employees, not contractors, and committed to supporting the union in its application for an e-scooter permit earlier this year.

👏 Hubert Horan rips into Uber’s academic research program, the academics it worked with, and the misleading claims made in four key Uber-backed academic papers. “All of the authors claim that the alleged improvements are all due to the superior economics of Uber’s business model (e.g. innovative technology, scale effects) but the papers provide no objective evidence substantiating any of these claims. Several make pronouncements supportive of Uber claims totally unrelated to any of the data and analysis.”

💰🇨🇦 Many high-income countries have shifted to a public-private partnership model of infrastructure construction, but Rosemary Frei argues this is making infrastructure much more expensive than it has to be. She uses the example of Canada:

[F]rom 1938 to 1974 Canada and other western countries did in fact get very good infrastructure for very cheap. […] during those four decades the Bank of Canada loaned massive amounts of money, virtually interest-free, to all levels of government. This same central-bank function was exercised in the U.S. and the other G7 countries.

That’s how we got massive projects like the war effort, the Trans-Canada Highway and the St. Lawrence Seaway -- as well as pools, schools, government buildings, roads, subways, etc. – all without significantly increasing government deficits or debts.

Then in 1974 under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau the central bank’s issuance of very-low-interest bonds to fund federal and provincial governments slowed to a trickle. That’s because private lenders in Canada and abroad took over that function. The result was a significant slow-down in the building and maintenance of infrastructure.

🇺🇸 Kansas City’s decision to make transit free could have economic and equity benefits. The city also passed a tenant’s bill of rights — it’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

💥 U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “will investigate a 12th Tesla crash that may be tied to the vehicle's advanced Autopilot driver assistance system after a Tesla Model 3 rear-ended a parked police car in Connecticut last week.”

🏠 Homelessness is rising in the European Union, United States, and Australia. That terrible fact needs to be seen for what it is: a policy decision, not an inevitability. Countries and cities around the world have already shown us how to end homelessness; our decision not to learn their lessons is on us.

🛑 Elon Musk took out the Cybertruck for a dinner at Nobu, then ran over a “right turn only” sign while making a left turn to leave the parking lot

📱 A change to the Uber app in California could result in discrimination against low-income and minority riders

😡 Bloomberg just bought CityLab from The Atlantic — and they’re laying off a ton of its journalists. This is bullshit.

🇲🇽 Mexico is holding consultations along the route of the proposed Mayan Train as people wonder whether the government is serious that it will be canceled if local communities oppose it

🚫🚗 “Cars have their place in cities, but the place of people in cities needs to be given a more central role, and we can and should reduce the primacy of vehicles. It all comes down to geometry. Since, there is only so much space in cities, let’s make sure it’s for people.”

🩸💰 By Paris: “Uber Has Always Been a Criminal Organization” (Jacobin Magazine): “Uber’s whole business model was premised on criminality — the willful, systematic flouting of local taxi regulations, based on a wager that the company could retroactively absolve itself by getting the laws changed via big-money lobbying. With that kind of mission, it’s not surprising its executives had blood on their hands long before they started taking Saudi blood money.”

Climate crisis

☀️ NOAA released a worrying report card on the state of the Arctic, and it’s not good news. It describes rising temperatures, declining sea ice, unstable weather systems, and the release of carbon into the atmosphere as permafrost melts.

“The very old ice that’s been around for more than four years used to be 33 percent of the ice cover and now it’s 1 percent,” Dr. Perovich said. “One way to think about that is, when we look at the area that the old ice covered back in 1985 it was a little bit bigger than the United States east of the Mississippi River. And all that’s left now is Maine.” […]

Permafrost sequesters twice as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as is currently in the atmosphere. As that ground thaws it releases that carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Researchers say that if too much permafrost thaws it will create a self-reinforcing cycle wherein thawing permafrost will lead to still more thawing permafrost, which in turn will make climate change worse. Recent observations of carbon flows in Alaskan permafrost have found that more carbon is being released than stored.

😬 “The four largest American freight railroads—BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and CSX—have sat at the center of the climate-denial movement nearly since it began, documents and studies show. These four companies have joined or funded groups that attacked individual scientists, cast doubt on scientific consensus, and rejected reports from major scientific institutions”

🤦 Rich countries are fighting the inclusion of a mandatory climate fund during negotiations at COP25 in Madrid that would assist “local organizations working in frontline communities in the Global South to help with rebuilding, recovery and resilience efforts.” They’re also watering down their emissions commitments.

The latest text includes an “invitation” for countries to communicate their mid-term and long-term climate plans, and the majority of delegations, which attempted to push countries including the U.S. towards ambitious climate targets, were unable Saturday to sway the U.S. away from language regarding carbon markets.

❄️ There’s microplastic in the snow

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