Latent Cities with Eyes Wide (and) Shut

Latent Cities with Eyes Wide (and) Shut

In a condition of growing superimposition between digital and physical, the threshold of the real is being pushed by a vast set of apps and platform that as a wired-wiring infrastructure manipulate cities and citizens in a constant exchange of data; in turn, this is progressively invading and exceeding the set of references we have to describe the urban condition. Users, now actors-producers of the human environment, will likely lose their physical agency and become producers of data, in what Federico Ruberto describes as the digital schizophrenia of the city of tomorrow. Through philosophical, artistic and cinematographic references the author paints varying scenarios, investigating what might be the limits for digital infrastructures and what tools we might employ in manipulating them.

For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.

[POST-DIGITAL CITIES] What is a “city”? Philosopher Achille Varzi gives a mereological account of cities as “not enduring objects; they are processes” [1].There is no dualism between the physical and ideal (analog and digital) essence of a city for Varzi, as there isn’t for us: the city is a process embedding different cities and times; an implicit and explicit trans-finite set. The “city”’s dense topology is endless “depth” augmented and accessible in different manners by way of apps.Fragments of its explicit “endlessness” are physically visible, but the endlessness we are interested in is the implicit one: it's the “City Everywhere” [2], the wired-wiring infrastructure differentially jamming multiple city-parts, the latent space that extracts and manipulates data [3]. The “city” as a cosmo-poli(tic)s is potentially endless, already so, though its potential is implicitly-explicitly fragmented in multifarious ways by private investments and black-boxed ownerships. The post-digital (machine-learnt) “city” is radically different from previous city-forms due to the transformation of the way we “see things”. Jonathan Crary in “Techniques Of The Observer” writes that “visual images no longer have any reference to the observer in a ‘real,’ optically perceived world” [4]. What Crary describes is the previous topology of the current hyper-digital paradigm. There is not anymore one object(ive)-city as the “city” is read and mapped by “eyes” wandering its latent-spaces, reading its digital fibrosity and synthesizing city’s forms. The reality of the city is in surplus, endlessly augmented. This has ontological-aesthetic-ethical implications: there is not one “nature”, or form, or identity, or “image of the city” since its nature is a matter of continuous virtual construction. The city’s essence is its layered spectrality, ubiquitously lived by consumers-producers in deep-immersions. Apps and platforms are 24/7 engaged in the making, connected through myriads of digital devices linking physical-to-digital actions, making the “city” and “us” at the same time. The proximal “city” will be true-depth: multitudes of agents with multi-sensorial augmenting devices will create series of hybrid immersions [5]. Experiential-reality will be hybrid: physical “events” causally, or non-causally, interacting with digital ones. The interpolations of agents and events will be carried on massively by digital machines. “Reality” will result from real-time digital/physical translations, feedback loops of queries by machine-learning protocols, silently re-adjusting themselves and re-parametrizing latent-spaces. Bodies-devices-sensors, the localized holy trinity, will be feeding-fed by algorithms, assessing-filtering-augmenting what constitutes the “world”. “SLAM” (simultaneous localization and mapping) will be feeding physical experiences with curated digital events. Experiences will be (as they are already) stored off-site as data-performed, kept in delocalized hubs with millions of others to be manipulated for future usage, analyzed and filtered by engineered algorithms “learning” by re-iteratively hovering data-banks, searching for correlations and twisting parameters: crafting new keys to reality, forging conditions for new mixed-realities to emerge. Reality will be multi-linear experiences: actions, augmenting-devices interfacing and machine-learning algorithms reading present physicalities and providing them optional-optimal digital couples, creating events in hybrid spaces, both digital and physical. It will only make sense to speak about the “city” and its physical/digital divide for a short time. The city as “events” will soon come into being qua causal-non-causal chains of physical-digital dyads. The multi-linearity and the non-fully causal unfolding of experiences will trigger the total radical transformation of (pre-modern, modern, and post-modern) city-narratives.

“Neural Glitch” series, Mario Klingemann, 2018

[COMPUTATIONAL COSMO-POLI(tic)S] Clearly any future immersive city-scape’s depiction is genetically woven to the core formal-abstract functioning of its coded infrastructure: the future of the city is the future of immersion, which is the future of computation. The city is wired infrastructure and “codes”, a generative and autocatalytic machine for sorting-refining-assembling actions and desires, a synthesis machine, jamming synchronicity of heterogeneous model: a hybrid model of models. Backing-up the “city” is the “staked” and cloud-like [6] computing apparatus working differentially on one/several (depending on its capability) of the following scales. There is a “local-scale” of diffuse systems of sensors connecting digital-physical environments, making couples GPS-mapped so that users’ experiences are kept interactive and sharable in, digitalised by a common medium. Actions gets captured by environmental-personal sensors, paired to local (personal) computational devices that rely for feedbacks on distributed off-site (“cloud”) dynamic data-banks processed algorithmically. There is a “meta-scale”, the unevenly owned synthesizing infrastructure, a distributed computing and scalar infrastructure, a “machine-of-machines” equipped sorting-classifying events, images, sounds and smells. Finally the “global scale”, the geo-machine passively administered by national and transnational stakeholders, a smoothening-accelerating apparatus that maximizes returns, a self-catalytic apparatus without identity. This is what the “city” hangs on; the hyper-digital form of the “city”. The city is a latent systems for classification. Dynamics are read by data classifiers [7] trained-self-trained to categorize semantically what sensors provide them. The deep immersion that will soon (h)eat the city will be read by real-time classifiers helping content creators for outputting hybrid experiences. These will be intersections of physical and digital components, a selective process where physical-analog presences will be substituted-augmented with virtual-digital ones. “Content-aware fill functions” algorithms paired to augmented-reality goggles could radically redesign the concept of reality, the very idea of being “present”, what a subject can see, what a body can do, what a subject is. This could radically alter the “world”, creating customized experiences where selectively some “objects” are simply replaced [8] for implicit or explicit reasons. Such operations are far from being objectively omniscient as media classifiers are incredibly performative when they operate with words-concepts that have been objectively defined —thus if they sort-synthesise “objects” (images, sounds… categories) that have somehow a place in the history of thought, meaning “objects” with stabilised figure and meaning— however, they suffer when they have to categorize objects-figures-qualities-experiences that are fictional… “things” that don’t have an embedded pre-constituted meaning, that require perhaps the invention of new concepts-words to “exist”. 

The potentially epistemological revolution carried forward via machine-learning based operations (for looking at ourselves differently) is not under discussion here, as several machine-learning artists are finding creative pathways to redefine with creativity and agency means [9]. What we are discussing here are the potential limits of such digital infrastructure in defining city-dynamics, in predetermining the communal eyes of the city, and ours. There are many open questions lingering with regards to how to regulate the functioning of such computationally based machine-learning infrastructures. These questions need to be kept in mind whilst imagining the hybrid realms of future queer-cities. We shall name just a few. The radical virtualization of experience could problematically catalyze the commodification of every single action, as any bit could potentially be sold and bought limitlessly. Access to the “virtual” will be unfairly discriminating, as rich-deep multi-media experiences will be accessed by the few who can purchase them, as the construction of synthetic environments will be led more and more by private Leviathan-like corporations. Regarding machine-learning one of the pressing questions is: how energetically sustainable such models will be when utilized massively and passively by multitudes of users [10]? Another is, how to get rid of machine-learning, latent biases [11]? How we will be able to distinguish real-facts from fictional-facts given the already demonstrated video-textual [12] ability of algorithms to create anew (or hybridize) textual content? The singularity of “cosmo(polis)” will be problematically questioned by the blending between what we believe to be commonly “true” and what we believe to be “false”. This will challenge a shared-common narrative: consensus reality. To summarize our concerns about building a hybrid-fictional, partly automatically generated city-world we report a passage from one of OpenAI’s blog post: “the same tool that an artist could use to help them write a short fiction story … can also be used to do things like generating synthetic financial news about specific companies … screeds of racist, sexist, or uninclusive text … create fake reviews on well-known sites like Amazon or Yelp … or augment political information influence operations” [13]. We don’t deny the potential for exploring the city-world’s complexity through such digital infrastructure, for perhaps beginning to construct new alternative epistemologies, but we must keep in mind the associated dangers emerging with such infrastructure. How could we create in such present-future truly exceptional city-scapes and experiences, meaningful experiences that do not commodify the living but that challenge problematising the constituency of what is considered real, and that problematize the subject(s), doing so without selling “new” experiences, commodified forms driven by market-logics?

“Formaxioms”, Federico Ruberto, 2019

[NOTES FOR A QUEER FUTURE] The “city” we are living in is one already fractured by competing realities, built on multi-layered virtual models, shaped by different media-structures each with personalized narratives dematerializing the possibility of a common drive-consensus (see the unresolvable clash spanning trans-scalar issues, global warming). Assuming that the digital schizophrenia (deeply-augmented, personally infinitely tailorable) of the hybrid cosmo-polis of the future will be evidently more extreme than what we have described, we cannot but be reminded of J.G. Ballard, who in the introduction to “Crash” admonished his readers that “the most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction. Conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads” [14]. For avoiding to free-fall down such path designers must start to engage now with the “city everywhere”, shaping conceptually how hybrid events and multi-linear narratives, physically restlessly and digitally shimmering, will come into being. In this hybrid “tomorrow” we will be explicitly virtual, crafted on parallel narrative-based ideological sequences, as at core “ideology”, Slavoj Žižek wrote, “is the practice of augmenting reality” [15]. The cosmo-polis of the future will maximize what Pier Paolo Pasolini decades ago intuited to be, a cinematic world, where “the language of the world is [will remain] essentially a spectacle” [16]. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” [17], Guy Debord proposed, the radical future’s spectacle will be, will necessitate, the furious process of mediation of cinematic relations between actors and the paraphernalia of hybrids making themselves “real”, events happening as tripartite performances…  of actors, data and content made accessible by providers. The radical “city” of the future will be what Kevin Kelly describes as the “mirrorworld”, space(s)-time(s) in which “the laws of light will govern what is possible” [18]. Intuitively thus, what will be necessary will be the creation of tiny spaces of digital “opacity”.

Design will be about scripting and narrating modes of intersection regarding how physical-digital sets of events-objects-atmospheres will come into (a hybrid form of) being. Each space will be a speculative model in dual tension, one in which the distinction between digital-physical and the one real-fictional will be continuously problematized. Design will have to mean the creation of truly “virtual” experiences (a continuous alteration of physical/digital series), fictions in way: not personal-worlds for solipsistic wanderers but queer narratives responding to the agenda of more common, more open “world”, queer tectonic for the existence of new communities of problematized (non-)subjects. We will need to blur and break physical/digital boundaries bending time-space not to find refuge in nihilistic retreats, or passive, consumer-driven enjoyments, but to question implicit biases, to create non-commodified forms of exchange and participation and to create spaces to enable emphatic and communitarian drives. In sum, to demand a more comprehensive and equal future. The design of space(s)-time(s) as stories —with different models interacting at the same time sensors-mediated— will be an ecosystem of multi-interactive sets and subsets, a decentralized polycephalum of possibilities where ontological implications such as the distinction between real-ideal will keep surfacing in novel forms. Thus, similar to what Liam Young proposes, we shall start constructing fictional-futures through “data-dramatization” [19], becoming strategists,  critical agents, transmedia storytellers, meta-modern world-builders that manipulate geometries and stories confronting the multi-dimensionality of the “world”. We shall right now start making digital instruments for manipulating alternative forms of “meaning”, crafting narratives to give a sense to what otherwise will (commonly) have none. We need to write the unfolding of new fictions, following Jaques Rancière proclamation, as “‘fiction’ is not a pretty story or evil lie, the flipside of reality that people try to pass off for it. […] Fiction means using the means of art to construct a ‘system’ of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs” [20]. We must craft model-interfaces, both necessary for reading the “city” and for deciding how the “city” looks back at us. Now we can only look at the city qua digital vastness with eyes-wide-shut —as looking directly at it means staring at its sublime sub-horridus formlessness. “The eyes of the city” are already wide-open looking at our multiple digital personae, observing through the vast plethora of sensors machine-learning driven, churning data in spans faster than “real-time”. Its eyes are wide, helping “us” in the management of complex arrays of sets of agents, making the city actualised while inductively predicting its futurity. Its eyes are wide but blind for they are biased; mole-working on limited data-banks owned and sorted privately, they are shut for they hide in themselves the prejudices of “first world” agencies that invest and promote particular modes of gazing, looking inclusively at some diversities, thus necessarily excluding the open diversity of Others. Design the “city” means defining new ways to be looked at and to look at the future-now of such complex cosmo-polis, “rather than merely incorporating the Other as a map subject”, Shannon Matterns writes,  “we should think more deeply about Othering cartographic subjectivity, or acknowledging that Others have developed their own map-making practices that diverge from Western convention” [21]

What would such “world” intrinsically be? Perhaps asking “what world?” is an already outdated question; let’s begin by thinking that there isn’t the finite set we call the “given world”, that there will always be latent multiplicities of possible worlds, to be constructed. Paul Éluard wrote that “there is another world but it is this one”, Octavio Paz stated that “there is another world, in this one” and Emile Cioran concluded that “there is no other world, not even this one” [22]. Three literary axioms remind us how open a thought must remain by confronting the “world”. “Worlds” will be virtual hybrids, parts and networks, agents and bodies; bodies which must be thought of not as nouns but as adverbs, acting in non-absolute space-time as both space and time must be open categories to be narrated, sets to be made of adjectives.


About the Author

Federico Ruberto is a writer and architect working between philosophy/ design with a PhD in “Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought” from the European Graduate School that focused on the concept of “contingency” in formal/natural languages. His texts connect metaphysical questions to the field of de-sign, inquiring the possibility of writing the open within the current computational paradigm. He is co-founder/partner of formAxioms, a Singapore based research laboratory of speculative narratives, and of reMIX Studio, architectural office in Beijing. He currently leads design studios at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Urban Interactions": Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) - 8th edition. Shenzhen, China

Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.

"Eyes of The City" section

Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.

Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South China University of Technology - Sun Yimin)

Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao    

Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)

"Ascending City" section

Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci

Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)

Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li

About this author
Cite: Federico Ruberto. "Latent Cities with Eyes Wide (and) Shut" 18 Mar 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.