On the Commodification and Technification of Urban Spaces and Relations

On the Commodification and Technification of Urban Spaces and Relations

The death of Keyif, the rise of the Chinese techno-surveillance society, and its creeping influence in the West in the form of mob rule and control.

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Commodifying coffee - why we now pay to be in public

I nonchalantly responded to a tweet with an obvious idea: "You're not paying $600 a year for coffee, you're paying $600 to rent a space for a few hours every day in a central socialising space." Cafes are already aware of this; however, the tragedy of the commons means that they have to pretend their primary purpose is selling coffee so that customers have to buy something to "rent" the space. Their primary concerns are:

(1) loitering that would prevent new customers from entering the store;

(2) homeless people who may try to find some respite in the warmth of the space.

Why do we have to spend money to spend time in public areas? For many people, their problem with spending hundreds of dollars on coffee is less to do with the act of spending money on coffee itself, but is due to the feeling of alienation one feels owing to the lack of free public spaces; short of the library, city spaces now almost always require some sort of expenditure, because we have decided to use money as a form of social technology to negotiate urban spaces. This is something that frustrates me to no end. When my friends and I go out, we always have to spend money. This has attached the concept of spending and consumption to the act of simply hanging with the boys.

The wider cause of this phenomenon is simply that there has been the total commodification of urban relations in industrial-capitalist society, owing to the liquification of shared norms and customs and the treadmill of modern life turned up to full speed. Over the period of a few centuries, rural populations that were marked by complex, overlapping social relations and allegiances between family, religion, state, local notables and so on, made their way into the city to seek work in factories. The consequence of this great shift in rural-to-urban weight led to the breakdown of their respective norms and customs. This then created a need for a new form of social technology that could effectively mediate spaces and relations in a world no longer marked by stability and familiarity but by liquidity and strangeness. Therefore, instead of relying on shared norms and customs, we rely on formal mechanisms to arbitrate space and relations, such as the use of money.

Regions like the Middle East give us a glimpse of a world where commodification has not taken over urban relations and spaces. When I visit the Middle East, there are people enjoying the green spaces and cafes everywhere I go. They sit, they drink tea or coffee (worth a few cents) and simply gossip and relax with friends. The hustle and bustle of the city, with its hawkers shouting hoarsely about their wares in the bazaar, the children screaming and shouting in the streets, or the incessant beeping of car horns that make the cities feel alive. There is no rush; you won’t feel the anxiety and stress of London or New York here. No one has anywhere to be in that sense. Most importantly, the idea of having to spend and consume to spend time in public areas is anathema. In these countries, regularly derided as being non-democratic or authoritarian, the people are still free to enjoy the open air without spending or surveillance.

One of the effects of the commodification of urban relations is that our cities are no longer built with Keyif in mind. Keyif is a Turkish word (although it may have roots in Arabic or Persian) that captures the wistful feeling of simply sitting around, enjoying simple pleasures like sipping tea, gossiping about the latest politics and doing nothing as life goes by. This is what can still be seen and experienced in cities that have not undergone commodification. It’s no wonder that stress, depression and general unhappiness are so high in the western hemisphere where people, arguably, enjoy a far more luxurious lifestyle than people do in the “developing world”. However, commodification and liquification mean that one can never truly enjoy these things. In developing countries, where life is harder, people have time to sit and contemplate, and this process of Keyif is arguably crucial for our mental health.

And yet, Keyif has been entirely excluded from urban planning and design. For those in the charter cities space, it may be useful to consider this in your wider philosophy around urban design, citizenship and the development of customs and norms conducive to free public spaces. How this can be accomplished, I am not entirely sure. It may require a socio-economic model that incentivises long-term settlement, informal and community-level mechanisms for dispute resolution, and a group of people who are willing to eschew the hyperfast pace of modern life in favour of the measured and contemplative one. The coronavirus crisis and the rise in work from home offers a possible path towards achieving the economic viability of such a project.

But there are new hurdles on the horizon. The commodification of urban relations is a western form of social organisation and one that is increasingly under threat. China presents a new challenge to the humanness of our cities; namely, the rise of the techno-surveillance state and the technification of urban relations and spaces. It may very well be that we may no longer have to pay to dwell in the public arena, but we will be under an ever-watchful eye of the techno-surveillance state.

The rise of the techno-surveillance state and the technification of social relations in China

China’s social credit score system has received a lot of attention over the past few years. The context behind its rise and how it operates in practice is actually quite different to how it is being portrayed in the media; a dystopian effort by the CCP to control every aspect of life in the 1.3 billion-strong ‘People’s Republic’. These two articles give a realistic assessment of what exactly the social credit system (‘SCS’) is – using technology to incentivise good social behaviour and punish bad ones in lieu of established norms and rules – and what the system isn’t – the rise of a dystopian Big Brother system centrally commanded by the CCP leadership.

To understand the development of the SCS in China, we need to understand the context of the development of urban relations in the country’s cities over the past few decades. China has been much lauded for its claim of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, making up the lion’s share of progress against poverty in global terms. However, it has also experienced another more quantifiable record, and that is the migration of hundreds of millions from the countryside to urban areas in a few decades. From an urban population of just under two hundred million (or 17.92% of the population) in 1978 to eight hundred million (or 61.4% of the population) in 2020, this was a seismic shift that shattered the established urban culture of pre-1980 China with its customs, norms and local laws.

Faced with the mass influx of foreigners which led to the inevitable breakdown of norms and customs of the cities and significant friction between the various Chinese people, there was significant pressure on the Chinese government to act and try to establish some sort of semblance of norms and laws. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese people are not a monolith and have a wide variety of norms and mannerisms depending on the region, city or village that they are from, contributing to this urban friction and chaos. In contrast, Europe underwent this process of rural-to-urban migration over the space of a few centuries. It still faced significant upheaval and the total transformation of urban life in doing so, some of which I detailed earlier on in the commodification of urban life in the West.

China’s traditional method of managing migration and rural-urban relations was through the Hukou system, which has roots going back to Ancient China, although its contemporary design dates from the 1950’s and Zedong Mao’s attempts to deal with the increase of migrant labour from agriculture to industry. This system registered information about individual’s places of residence and their family’s details to ensure there was a level of social control and even caste-like separation between permanent urban-dwellers and rural-dwellers, determining their movements and even the sort of benefits they would enjoy from the state, in favour of the urban-dwellers. However, Hukou alone was not enough to deal with the acceleration of rural labourers moving to cities to find work after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s.

What has arisen is the SCS as a method of policing and creating a new social contract. This system is not a centralised system implemented and controlled from the top but is a ramshackle hodgepodge of various standards and implementation across China. More importantly, it is local and regional officials largely responsible for it and face significant pressure from the local citizens about the standards that they want/don't want enforced. A form of social credit already does exist in the West, such as in the form of credit scores which can determine whether you can take out a phone contract, loan from the bank, or even a mortgage for a home. But this system is far more technologically rudimentary and so has not aroused the same level of anxiety and fear.

The western response was, as mentioned earlier, money. Our liberal norms can actually work to neuter technological responses, even though liberalism is ostensibly seen as championing technological progress. This is also related to the themes of discipline versus control, something I discuss later on in the post. Instead, money arbitrates the social contract in the polis. If I spend on something, I am far less likely to break the rules likely to incur my loss of that thing. The commodification of urban relations may very well be the essence of 19th-20th capitalist society, while the technification of urban relations like surveillance and SCS are the methods of social contract enforcement in 21st century societies like China, which is illiberal enough to comfortably endorse technology as a means of formal control without that illiberalism threatening its now thoroughly-capitalist economy.

The process of industrialisation leads to the liquification of the traditional urban community which was bound by the norms and customs engendered through familiarity and rootedness, creating what Zygmunt Bauman termed liquid modernity, i.e. the nomadism of the individual who is able to take shapes and forms and moves from place to place without ever being anchored to a particular place or culture. China's response to the process of liquification of its pre-industrial society was technology, i.e. the social credit system. Their unfathomably rapid modernisation necessitated this, but their illiberal regime helped to facilitate this with relative ease, as opposed to our entrenched liberal norms which would balk at the formal use of the full force of technology to negotiate urban relations. But how long can our liberal order truly resist this phenomenon?

The rise of mob justice and the techno-surveillance society in the West

The liberal norms of the West are under threat from this new techno-surveillance society. This essay looks at Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Rene Girard and how their ideas interact with the emergence of hyper-modern techno-surveillance methods of control. I want to summarise it because I think it’s a very important read in understanding the changes that are being wrought in society today. One important point that the author repeatedly makes is that this system is emerging alongside the archaic form of control of mob justice, in the form of the woke mob and their weapon of choice - cancellation. These two events are not in contradiction; on the contrary, they feed into each other.

This is really interesting because it suggests that the new 21st century methods of control and archaic mob justice are almost forming a pincer movement against traditional liberal-capitalist society. This society is marked by its preference for the method of discipline over the method of control but is simply not catching up with the technological trends of the time, and risks succumbing to the more formal mechanisms written on by Deleuze. The method of control is not marked by less freedom - on the contrary, it may very well result in increased mobility. There is a tradeoff. Deleuze brought up the example of the prison system and how permanent surveillance in the future may well lead to the abolition of prisons as a form of discipline (see: Foucault), in favour of control (via applications that track your every movement). One should question whether we have achieved real freedom in this case.

This is an interesting point. If we can increase mobility via the use of control, as opposed to controlling spaces via the use of discipline, what does this mean for the concept of Keyif? Could one of the few positives of a control society be that we feel comfortable being in public spaces, assured that as opposed to regulating each other with money, the All-Seeing Eye instead guarantees the safety and security of the public space? Or will control lead to new problems that once again deny so many people the opportunity to sit and contemplate existence – these are open questions.

Girard believed that human beings’ mimetic nature naturally led to spiralling, reciprocal violence, leading to what we know as the feud. Modern states have attempted to eliminate this through neutral arbitration mechanisms, i.e. the modern court system, but the assault against the justice system in America may very well result in the loss of this and its replacement by mimetic violence and feuding, i.e. mob justice. Girard also believed that in order to do away with the feud, a society may choose to scapegoat another person (or group of people), on to which all their animosity is focused on. This ritualised violence against outgroups has claimed many lives over the millennia, the most famous example in Europe being the Jews.

The woke mob justice we are seeing today is a return to these ancient methods of discipline and punishment, and that bodes ill for anyone lacking a tribe larger than the mob’s and leaves minorities most at risk. However, its return and combination with techno-surveillance means that the mob is just another form of control – no one will step out of line when they know that they will be torn apart at a moment’s notice. When people claim that cancel culture doesn’t exist because only a few people have actually been cancelled, well, that’s entirely the point. All you have to do is utterly destroy a few people in full view of the public, and millions of others will be cowed enough not to “act out” in a similar manner.

This likely has wider implications for the future of liberal society in the West, implications outside the scope of this essay and my understanding of the change we are starting to undergo. What I do think is that the current social movements we are seeing in America, and by extension, across its global empire, are the birth pangs of a new society that eschews the subtley of disciplining systems and commodification in favour of direct methods of control such as mob justice and surveillance. I think that we will have to adapt to some of these changes regardless of what we think about them. One cannot halt or roll back history; it will roll inexorably onwards even with the attempts of some who want to stand athwart it and yell "stop!”.

However, we also need to act with principle in refusing to allow this combination of mob justice and techno-surveillance to become the de facto norm of our societies. Our constitutional and legal orders were hard-won and enabled us to rise above feuding and arbitrary justice systems of pre-modern societies. We now risk losing this. How this changes the way norms and rules are constructed in urban spaces is anyone’s guess, although China offers a partial glimpse into this future. So far, wherever technology has ventured, it has introduced alienation and the destruction of organic authenticity, i.e. the spontaneity of human interaction and total sovereignty over our social relations, in favour of permanent control by the All-Seeing Eye of the state.

What next?

The commodification of urban relations in the West led to the loss of authentic public spaces not regulated by spending and consumption. China has instead chosen to deal with the problems of modernity by erecting a complex techno-surveillance system. This system is now influencing American (and thereby wider western) culture where we see the rise of mob justice (an ancient, universalist impulse) and the creeping adoption of techno-surveillance methods of social control.

What now? I have too many questions that I cannot answer. We have two different means of enforcing social contracts in the modern polis. Are there better ways of managing the liquid nature of our world? Is there a way to build real trust and norms without it being some sort of homogenous culture found worldwide? Can cities retain their distinctive cultures and manners in such a place? In a way, the bland airport-style architecture found across the world's major cities today is an expression of our innate desire for shared customs and norms. If London and Shanghai are closer than London and Newcastle, I'd want them to look and act similar. The economy responds to consumer demands in this subtle manner.

It seems to me that so long as the world remains connected as it is, this necessitates a homogenous culture that can be found in all connected major metropolises. The retrenchment of the state today after the preceding three decades of globalisation may be a blip and we may yet be inexorably heading towards a future whereby the new forms of sovereignty abandon territorial homogeneity in favour of a titanic, non-territorial megapolis that acts as a network of nodes across the world sharing one culture. This necessitates a shared enforcement system for this culture.

Maybe globalisation will more permanently reverse itself, and the connectivity we saw between the 1980s-2020s was a momentary blip in the course of history. The Chinese internet firewall, Indian and European Union discussions about erecting their own firewalls, and the obvious retaliation that would follow by the USA in establishing its own zone, may very well render the period that has just ended with the coronavirus as the apex of global connectivity. What is clear to me is that, far below the high-minded issues of geopolitics and dystopian surveillance societies, if we as human beings cannot find moments in our urban spaces to sit, sip tea and take measure of time, we will never be truly happy in those spaces. Keyif is an imperative of life, and it may yet be a long way off.