Growing Cities

by Beauchamp Art

Norwich [Vertical Gardens] - 04

I recently attended the Growing Cities: Crowds, Games and the Web lecture with NUA Senior Lecturer in Games Innovation and Research Marie-Claire Isaaman and NUA Visiting Professor of Architecture Anthony Hudson, which was stimulating, as the topics discussed covered game theory, city planning and simulations of societies, and the prospect of using interactive virtual reality programs (video games et al.) to organise urban space. This seemed intriguing, especially after looking at the topic of how homelessness in the Sims City games is discussed in forums, referring to Matteo Bittani’s (2015) How to get rid of homeless.

Following this line of thought, I proposed a question surrounding the issue of banality, and if using digital interfaces to manage plan and manage a human landscape would make it easier to dehumanise the population, and therefore make it easier to exploit them, or commit acts of horror against them; as it requires minimal mediation for atrocities to become minor phrases slipping off the tongue (as Hannah Arendt observes regarding (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on Banality of Evil). ‘Cleaning up the streets’ not only suggests the removal of general detritus from the urban landscape, but also can easily progress towards the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing’, turning genocide and systematic oppression and murder of undesirable people into un-emotive housekeeping.

However, their response was that using games and simulations to plan cities would be tested only a small scale, before being up-scaled and trialled on a larger populous, as it could be an effective means of planning human spaces, that is currently only a simulation; and that evidently people are already capable of committing horrors against their fellow men without much thought (in fact, the lack of thought makes the activity considerably easier, thereby not requiring a doublethink). This is not exclusively the symptom of any extreme or fascist tendencies, but if the matter of mass control and hatred is presented as commonplace, it is normalised.

Such opinions may become a more acceptable opinion for people to express: such as in widely read UK tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Express, which “ran 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period,” [RT, 2015] according to the UN Human Rights Chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who also observed that:

“The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches. […] Asylum seekers and migrants have, day after day, for years on end, been linked to rape, murder, diseases such as HIV and TB, theft, and almost every conceivable crime and misdemeanor imaginable in front-page articles and two-page spreads, in cartoons, editorials, even on the sports pages of almost all the UK’s national tabloid newspapers” [RT, 2015].

Nevertheless, I still see this as potentially problematic as it gives another tool for dehumanisation, on an even more industrial scale. It could be worth considering the rather extreme proposition: how could video-game formats be used to most strategically execute the implementation of an apartheid state? The seeds of social division are sewn into the social landscape, as Isaaman and Hudson noted, and they proposed the application of electronic simulations in city planning in order to readdress this balance. Such as in one situation having groups of the public working on Minecraft simulations of despondent city areas to produce a more efficient and socially balance use of the space.

This still seems to neglect the opinions of the people from an area to decide what to do with their own environment. Is it not possible that the inhabitants of an area may have an idea of what they would like to happen to improve their living standards within the community? The proposition that the video game city planning approach would be a more ‘grass-roots’ or ‘bottom-up’ approach to management seems to negate that this is just another imposition of authority over the peoples of the area; like a revolution that substitutes one social ordering for another in the name of the people.

Getting the people of an area to engage with one another would surely be the most direct approach to best representing the needs and desires of those people, in order to best organise their living space (direct citizen action, or anarchistic social organisation – anarchy is not disorder, but a means of structuring society that aims to best represent all aspects of society in a manner that is not dependent on an insubstantial hierarchy). Otherwise there comes the problem of an unrepresentative or counterproductive distribution or absence of social house, cities divided into wealth or class based groups, so the different peoples of a single place do not come into contact with one another, and cannot comprehend the lives of the ‘other’, as well as the advent of unwanted gentrification that seeks only to exclude the impoverished, and supplant a civilian homestead with the luxuries of a wealthy elite.

For example, the recent case of Aylesbury Estate residents fighting against their expulsion from their homes, and the literal gating of their community, patrolled by private security contractors [Parnell-Hopkinson, 2015] which could be seen to be a modern case of the wealthy land baron hiring mercerise to oust the plebs. Through a virtual haze, the plebs are plunged into an even lower state of inhumanity, they become statistics, utilitarian numbers that dictate decisions that elevate blame from the decision maker, negating any human cost.

In summary, although using video game technology to plan cities may enable new ways to plan and organise societies’ shared spaces, offering an alternative to the traditional top-down management structures or large social constructions; they may simply provide new avenues for develops to appear to be representing the needs to the people without having to consult with them directly, positing the opinion of the needs of people above the direct, human perspective. They may  be effective and potentially efficient, but could also be considered dehumanising and underestimating the complex needs of a mixed populous that go beyond the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, demanding more pragmatic responses to unique situations and consultation with the people affected.

Should the human element be neglect and simple another top-down perspective is adopted, then there will be little difference for the people affected, besides becoming even more neglected and powerless in the decision making processes that govern their everyday lives. Even with countless safeguards, there are still tremendous risks that have to be factored in, man of which were covered by the guest lecturers, to prevent a worsening or reinforcement of a system that is already flawed. It is unsurprising that humanity would look to consult with its machines, its electronic constructs, for guidance on producing a superior physical world in which people would inhabit, when “the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time.” If, as Foucault suggests, “utopias are sites with no real place. […] utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces,” [Foucault, 1984: 2, 3] then perhaps their ideal embodiment would be in the virtual constructs enabled by complex computer code.

However, the issue here is whether the simulation can be used to map a new world to build from the ground up, or is the bedrock of previous civilisation too unstable to form secure foundations. Maybe it is not inaccurate to presuppose that it is the human element that undermines the potential for a Utopia. For all humanity’s great accomplishments, it may not be the tools that are unfit for creating an egalitarian society, but humanity’s internal struggles; for one group to have power over all others; that prevents any great progress.

Although “Out entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view” [Baudrillard, 1983: 19], it could be worth considering that what is required is deconstruction not destruction. The hammer smites but may also forge anew. The errors of old may be learnt from before being overturned to prevent them being repeated. A move towards a society with a less stringent hierarchy, more in line with traditional Anarchism, does not necessarily demand the creation of chaos from which the new society can emerge from its ashes, but rather a system of decentralisation of power through gradual reform may provide a more effective avenue for progress than a rush to a rapid revolution that fails to comprehend the misconceptions of that which it is replacing, to avoid a situation like the Russian Soviet Revolution, that used the strength of the proletariat to force out the ruling class, but that then supplanted it with a new bourgeois, replacing Tsar for Dictators.

Nevertheless, a Dystopian prediction that the ‘Judgement Day’ of a machine revolution, when the computers and robots (the new slaves) revolt may be less in line with nuclear weapons turned on their masters, but more a situation where HAL micromanages the architectural structures and so the society so efficiently, so coldly, that man descends from the role of dominance that it has striven for since the first tool was grasp and the first wall erected, should techne, the fire of the Gods, be passed wholly into the hands of machine systems that make life a video game where the people are not the players but the units of capital, the measure of success, moving “from a capitalist-productivist society to a neo-capitalist cybernetic order that aims now at total control” [Baudrillard, 1983: 111].