20th July 2021. Cities | Tech

Drawing the future; Regulating Big Tech—or not

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

A Substack glitch meant that yesterday’s post didn’t go out until the evening. The Two Things were caffeine and the Harlem festival documentay Summer of Soul. You can catch up with it here.

#1: Drawing the future city

Noah Smith’s Substack newsletter, Noahpinion, is consistently one of the most interesting out there, with a good ratio of free to paid posts and a willingness to argue his conclusions.

At the weekend he riffed at length on an urban image by the anime artist Imperial Boy.

(Image by Imperial Boy (帝国少年))

Looking at it carefully and trying to analyze what I like about it, I think that much of it is about architecture, and even more of it is about the use of urban space — about how the structures in the picture shape the kinds of things you’d do if you were there. 

He concludes that there are five things in particular that he likes about the image as an example of the ‘solarpunk’ genre:

  • Open, walkable multi-level retail

  • River with low bank

  • Walkable streets

  • Varied architecture

  • Shade.

I’m not sure I’d have had them in quite the same order, but they do make for a rich future urban environment. And in the article he follows on with examples of actual urban architecture that also embodies these principles. 

So that’s really the secret of Imperial Boy’s magic. Not some biopunk science fiction that merges foliage and concrete, nor some cyberpunk construction method that creates buildings in improbable shapes. It’s just good urban design — something we could have right now if we wanted. Except that “if we wanted” actually means “if a huge set of institutional and cultural barriers to dense, walkable development and high-quality architecture didn’t exist”, which of course they do.

Because the trick to liveable cities, especially ones where walking is a realistic option, is density. And when people think about density, they usually imagine tower blocks.

This is wrong, as it turns out; Noah Smith doesn’t mention it, but the densest part of London is the rather expensive (these days) area of Notting Hill. 

And when it comes to density, there’s a magic number somewhere between 50 dwellings per hectare and 60 dwellings per hectare which gives enough density to enable walkable local distances to decent amenities, and enough space (gardens, public space) not to feel crowded. 

How do we get to richer ideas about our urban environments that allow us to imagine these solarpunk riches? Smith is a fan of the design competition. He references a long Twitter thread by Christopher Hawthorne, the Chief Design Officer of Los Angeles, on the results of his competition to visualise denser housing. It turns out it doesn’t look that dense at all. 

As Smith says, it’s harder to do that at city level, although he’s a fan of the version of San Francisco created for the Disney movie Big Hero 6. But it’s not impossible:

But only by drawing a bunch of these futures can we convince the people of our cities that density and transit and mixed-use development won’t turn their cities into Manhattan clones or dystopian superblocks ... 

To create the future we must first dream the future. Private foundations that are interested in pro-density politics should give a bunch of money to people like Christopher Hawthorne, who should then scour the country for a hundred different Imperial Boy type artists to draw pictures of the futures of American cities.

#2: Regulating Big Tech—or not

The French tech analyst Frederic Filloux casts a jaundiced eye at the state of attempts to regulate the big technology companies at his Monday Note newsletter.

As he says, we know which the most destructive tech company is, and why:

Ask any expert, they will tell you that Facebook is the most dangerous player in the digital world. The social network’s business model is based on fracturing society, spreading false information ranging from the “stolen” election of 2020 to antivax propaganda. 

And close on its heels, for different reasons, comes Amazon:

As for Amazon, its behavior is a textbook model of leveling the competitive field of e-commerce, such as imposing its will on the merchants who joined its marketplace by forcing them to buy ads if they want to be visible. Add to that the ever-present risk of the dreaded “Amazon Basics” copycat those merchants face if their product is too successful, etc. Amazon might not be a monopoly in the traditional sense (none of the Four are, actually), but the company is a rare collection of near-perfect predatory practices.

And as it happens, since 2010, 70 worldwide probes have been started since 2010. Of these, “Europe has launched no less than 36 probes against Big Tech, including 10 from the EU Commission, and 25 from individual European countries.”

(Source: The Information via Monday Note)

Yet, as the chart shows, Facebook are lagging at the back of the pack when it comes to regulatory interest. Google gets most attention. But not effective attention; three of the investigations have led to a fine, and none of these have led to a change in market behaviour.

Filloux thinks this is down to politics, certainly in France, where there is a Presidential election on the horizon and big media interests concerned about Google.

He thinks we might see more effective intervention from the Biden administration, which has made some heavyweight appointments in this area and where the regulation of Big Tech is one of the few areas where there is bipartisan consensus.


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