Urban Technology at University of Michigan week -22
What Only Lovers Left Alive has to tell us about urban technology + 3 questions for Malcolm McCullough
So that there’s time for it to sink in, we’re mostly going to ignore the fact that this is the first week of President Joe Biden’s administration but—and this is an important but—if you did not catch it already, you must stop what you are doing now and watch the performance of Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at the inauguration.
Hello! I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan that will welcome its first students in the 2021-2022 academic year. While we launch the program, we’re using this venue to explore themes and ideas related to our studies. Thanks for reading. Have questions about any of this? Hit reply and let me know.
🧟 Moving Beyond Zombie S%#@
Last week we talked with Larissa Larsen about sustainability and this week we’re talking with Malcolm McCullough about energy grids. Two disciplines, two focal areas, but all overlapping and very much part of the same soup. This means it is an appropriate time to share a scene from one of the best movies set in Detroit, the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive.
Though it looks like a vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive also carries a sharp critique of technology and the way humans use it. We can build hospitals and jet planes but not fix the basics, like power infrastructure? Why is that? Is it due to a failure of ability of a lack of focus? And at what cost to the environment are those human innovations won? That’s what this scene is about, and it’s so good.
Two vampires, Adam and Eve, are having a jolly time listening to records in a ramshackle house in Detroit and the power goes out. They traipse outside to investigate why the power infrastructure has failed them and find a tangle of wires.
ADAM: Look at that. Fucking zombie shit, the grid. It’s so antiquated. I mean what century is this? [Nikola] Tesla had lightbulbs you didn’t even have to plug-in in 1895!
EVE: But it’s not even connected.
ADAM: Yeah, I disconnected all that.
Adam opens a hatch in the ground to reveal a mysterious device.
EVE: Ohhh! What a hidden treasure. My darling! Did you make that?
ADAM: Well, I cobbled it together from bits and pieces.
While Adam tinkers with the device, Eve looks around the garden and finds some mushrooms.
EVE: How odd. Adam, have you noticed these?
ADAM: Yeah. Fly Agaric. They’re behaving rather strangely.
EVE: This is not their season.
ADAM: They appear, disappear, then reappear—those caps. I guess they’re receiving information from the atmosphere like my antenna.
ADAM: Goes to show, we really don’t know shit about fungi, do we? Even though life on this planet wouldn’t exist without them.
EVE (softly to the mushrooms): You know, you guys shouldn’t be here. Not until the autumn!
Why is Detroit and every other city in the country powered by a grid of tangled and feeble wires? Why does the United States continue to ignore so many signs that our carbon footprint is causing problematic changes to the planet’s climate? Why don’t humans apply their ingenuity more often to the technologies of infrastructure? All of this in a single scene—and a beautiful one.
Since vampires live forever, the movie imagines that they know how to make things and do stuff beyond the reach of us normal people. In that regard, it imagines vampires as individuals with focus sustained longer than any human can muster. Adam has used his immortality to become a rockstar (naturally) and also to remove his home from the power grid, instead running it via some kind of underground turbine that provides clean, quiet service. His car is powered by a similar device. Both technologies are clearly Adam’s own creation and neither of the power generators are fetishized in the movie. They’re just there in the background.
Eve is sensitive to the environment, picking up immediately on the fact that things are out of balance in Adam’s backyard. Despite his Promethean tinkering, Adam has managed to improve his own existence while not changing that of this neighbors or fellow Detroiters. The rest of the city is powered by the “zombie shit” of a grid. But it is not just Adam’s backyard that will feel the consequences of the forces symbolized by Eve’s precocious mushrooms, so his invention is little more than a temporary independence from the collective fate of the planet. Adam’s not an urban technologist, he’s only in it for himself.
While her sensitivity to the natural environment may not be technological in nature, and environmental considerations are generally not foregrounded in computer science or electrical engineering curriculums, Eve’s observation of the link between the machine underground and the mushroom sprouting from the land is a good model for us to aspire to when we think about urban technology students. In Eve’s fungi whispers we see a clear and tender understanding of the link between what happens below ground and above, between technology and nature, between human and environment. In the darkness of the backyard, she finds both the human ingenuity of a buried machine and the planetary time of spotted mushroom caps.
If vampire Eve joined the team for Google’s planned new district in downtown San Jose, what would she design? Eve sees the meta that connects the matter of the world around her, and because of that she sees past the “zombie shit.”
The question is, can we see like Eve without first becoming bloodthirsty vampires?
Here’s the clip:
🔋 3 Questions for Malcolm McCullough
One of the first people who welcomed me to UM was Malcolm McCullough, and no surprise because he has been thinking about and working on urban technology since before it was a buzzword. Malcolm wrote about digital craft when the internet was just becoming mainstream, the ambient commons and ubiquitous computing before they were truly ambient and ubiquitous, and most recently about microgrids, which are small-scale, bottom-up power grids. If his track record of prescience is maintained, your home may soon be powered by locally produced energy.
Q. What’s your favorite city and why?
I know this is too easy, but it’s Paris. I say that for personal, architectural, and historic reasons, and not for the recent state of the city. Alas the twenty first century has not been kind to Paris. Yet longterm, Paris has been the one greatest crucible of modernity. Along the way it has shaped many now familiar urban technologies. But above all it is unimaginable without its architecture. That’s what I hope anyone likewise understands about their own favorite city. May the mental map be strong. All the more so for me personally, since Paris was the first great city in which I was turned loose for a couple of weeks on my own, at age 16. What’s yours?
Q. You’ve been thinking about urban technology since before it was a thing and recently you wrote a book about microgrids. Why work on “grid awareness?”
I have been thinking about urban technology ever since the mid 90s, when as a junior professor from Harvard GSD I got a sabbatical at the legendary thinktank Xerox PARC. There, at the very start of the internet of things, people were studying social histories of earlier network technologies, such as railroads, telephones, or electrification. I have been teaching some version of that ever since. It really helps explain how the social and the technical forever reshape one other.
This is obviously one key basis for our new degree program. For a good case of that dynamic, one especially positive recent story is the great transition to clean decentralized electricity. This bright green trend is not just engineering and policy, but also a communitarian pursuit and an emblem of cultural value change. I like this story for its counterpoint to so much technofuturist promise of everything–always–anywhere. After all, some things are better just sometimes, only in particular places. Resilience tends to be local, for instance. Without that, perhaps the most salient quality of any more totalizing new smart city is its fragility.
What the microgrid boom has to say is: beware over-engineered systems that seek to do everything. Instead resilience has to be participatory, reconfigurable, and made of smaller pieces more loosely joined. That is true for many kinds of resource ecologies besides energy. Local difference thus brings design opportunity and challenge in urban technology.
Paradoxically, smarter technologies take all the more tweaking and tuning—and that can feel better than total automation. In any case the city is not something just to “set and forget.” Grid awareness is a simple way to stay mindful of this complexity. Meanwhile, for me it is a daily pleasure to appreciate electricity as a cultural phenomenon again.
Q. You teach design studios. What’s a studio?
A studio is project-based, social learning. It teaches conceptual agility. While lots of fields often seek that kind of learning lately, architects spend all day (or night) at it, and they have been doing so for a couple of centuries. This is because design runs on creative propositions, and not just analytically-indicated solutions. A designer must take a position.
A studio is typically twelve participants each working toward a stance on a design challenge, often a wickedly under-constrained challenge. There, what to work on matters just as much as how. Writing a studio project brief is thus an art form in itself. Evaluating the results is a conversational event. It runs on something much more subtle than pitch decks. Up in front of a peer group and highbrow jury, presenting one’s carefully prepared speculative take is an education in itself.
Links - Special Biden Inauguration Edition!
🛠 Could service design and thoughtful use of technology help set a new standard of government responsiveness in the Biden administration? Fast Company muses about the possibility of setting a mandate that all government forms can be completed in 20 minutes or less. A difficult but encouraging challenge.
🤹♀️ Should infrastructure be about more than concrete? Uhh, yes! Physical, digital, and social infrastructure must be designed and developed together with a multidisciplinary approach, argues the Siegel Family Endowment. Sounds like a call to action for DOE, DOT, DOI, HHS, and HUD if you ask me.
💃 How will the Biden administration make sure that investments in physical/digital/social infrastructure are meaningful to communities? If we take a cue from this recent interview with Carol Coletta, CEO of Memphis River Parks who is undertaking a massive project to reconnect the city to the waterfront, it may entail acting with agility and speed.
🕸 How might team Biden help the country deal with the crushing complexity of contemporary life? In Harpers, Hari Kunzru suggests: “Instead of behaving like [QAnon] conspiracy theorists, trying to hold unfathomable complexity in our minds, and collapsing into naïve reductionism when we fail, maybe we should think of ourselves as sailors, cyclists, or cooks, steering a course through turbulent times.” Nods head.
🏡 What would make Biden’s investments in new technology different from the New Deal? Baking bottom-up governance into it from the start. AirBnb offers an example. They are creating an advisory board of 10-15 hosts from around the world to provide input directly to company leadership. Nathan Schneider, who has written extensively on the concept of platform cooperatives, previously proposed user trusts, which goes even further.
This week: Slow going because technically the author of this newsletter (👋) is still out on paternity leave. Very little time to spare, however, because we have our first admissions season coming up in no time and that’s going to be quite exciting. 🏃♂️