WHO ARE WE URBAN HACKING FOR? (1)

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Photo: Maciej Frąckowiak, Poznań, autumn 2007

Maciej Frąckowiak

‘Urban hacking’ calls to mind several forms of activity which seek to improve the quality and accessibility of the urban environment. Initially, the term referred to exploring inaccessible spaces – overcoming security measures and scaling the sides of skyscrapers, traversing underground tunnels and canals and entering abandoned industrial sites.(2) Today, hacking the urban environment also involves guerrilla actions (guerrilla gardening, yarn bombing) and tactical urbanism – micro-gardens, setting playgrounds in small under-utilized spaces, reclaiming parking spots for micro-bars, or the recycling of elements of post-industrial infrastructure in community initiatives, as well as various forms of data-activism which seek to redress asymmetrical access to information. ‘Urban hacking’ can also be associated with some forms of protests (particularly nude), as well as with pranks which seek to provoke unusual situations with the potential to surprise, scare or fool passersby. The people behind these activities work off the assumption that there is something lacking in the everyday urban environment – that it is not urban enough because it continues to lock-out, exclude certain groups or narratives, fails to create opportunities for social interaction or reflection, does not provide sufficiently stimulating activities and thus no longer inspires or captivates. These types of actions are typically thoroughly documented in snapshots and movies.

Keeping its computer science origin in mind, hacking’s sense comes from overcoming security features in order to reveal content that was intended to remain hidden to ‘unauthorized’ users. Thus, it is worth investigating whether the ‘urban hacking’ efforts mentioned above satisfy the crucial requirement of overcoming security measures given the changing context in which they are carried out. After all, the idea of open-source cities is gaining in popularity. Aside from the ideological issues involved, the justification for this change is usually an economic one – cities and their key actors increasing rely on community involvement to continue their existence. Therefore, we are facing a situation where there is really nothing left to hack as public and commercial institutions support various subversive actions either through willful ignorance or outright subsidies or grants. Institutions have adopted this approach in order to further their existence, to convince others that they remain worthy of attention and are willing to evolve. Additionally, their willingness to be hacked allows them to throw-off some of their obligations, efforts and responsibilities and transfer them to willing entities capable of creating value at a fraction of the cost.

Hacking has become one of the most accepted forms of cultural participation. Since it coincides well with the narrative of the city as a unique form of experience that has been recently adopted by various arts festivals which provide exciting forms of experimentation with urban spaces. Much like other forms of resistance (such as the sharing economy), hacking provides new cultural patters which may prompt new market offers and ambient marketing strategies. A good example of these are controlled pre-release leaks of new music or films, or Ikea’s successful legal effort to capture a grass-roots blog which suggested ways of hacking its products, and eventually offering products dedicated to that very goal. Overcoming security measures is also an important part of pop culture. As it is generally associated with scandals, it ideally matches the formula for creating, promoting and distributing pop- culture content. The Edward Snowden case or the continuing leaks of nude celebrity photos are but the most obvious examples.

I do not mean to claim that activities which contravene the traditional rules of urban spaces are pointless or that they do not change anything. Occasionally they establish unexpected relations between various entities and force the creation of new patches or updates to urban systems which improve their functionality and benefit the end-users. I am also not denying that these are well-intentioned efforts. However, I want to reiterate a previously stated argument: one of the results of the growth of global capital and informational networks (both in terms of reach and bandwidth), and the technological saturation of social relations, has been the blurred boundary between participation and consumption.(3) For example, by using social media to alert my acquaintances about an eviction protest, I am also increasing the economic value of the particular social platform which I used, and thus boosting the wealth of its shareholders across the world. Further, as I use a geolocation app to locate the place where the protest is to occur, this, in turn, generates data which the app’s owner can then sell to advertising companies.
These examples illustrate that one of the unintended results of grass-roots actions is some form of capital accumulations (via social media remediation). Viewed from this perspective, any and all actions intended to make the urban environment more fluid, freed from obligations, open to new uses or generate hype and vibe, can hardly be perceived as challenging the basic logic of communal life. In fact, the very existence and development of this logic increasingly relies on the existence of such hacking initiatives. A more effective challenge to the modern rules of communal life can be found in blockages within the urban networks, which include everything that hampers movement with an insistent desire to do things “the way they were always done,” to resist efforts to be be tagged and digitized, to forgo tallying “unique visitors,” to limit options and immobilize.4 The blockages frustrate the development of the urban environment as a massive RSS system which spread common standards of content circulation, attention, human activity or financial resources.

One example of such a blockage can be seen in The Invisible City which we studied several years ago.(5) This phenomenon consists of various forms of residents’ spontaneous efforts to transform their immediate surroundings in a way which more fully reflects their desires, needs and values. Such efforts include neighborhood clubhouses set up in apartment building courtyards or other vacant spaces, home-made advertising signs, decorations or religious cult objects, garden patches, playgrounds designed by local children, animal enclosures, hand-made objects designed to regulate the lives of the local community such as: notes, warnings, fences and various other examples of the residents’ everyday creativity and readiness to address their own concerns.
At the start of our research, we assumed that such projects constitute an overlooked reservoir of citizen activity – that they are targeted at others. That turned out not to be the case. Most examples of the invisible city were based on appropriating public and semi-public spaces for personal use or use by a small community of immediate neighbors. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of these efforts were meant to resist changes taking place in both modern city and life models, and not to initiate or accelerate these changes. The invisible city is also remarkably permanent: the majority of gardens, decorations and meeting places have been in existence for extended periods of time, with multiple reconstructions, maintenance activities and transfers of custody to new caretakers. Since such projects require attention, they provide residents with an opportunity for creative and social outlets. They also serve as a means of rooting their creators in their immediate environment. Thus, the invisible city not only lowers the porosity of urban spaces, but also weakens mobility within them.

At some point we actually became rather disappointed with these results. It turned out that the invisible city was not only incompatible with the idea of the city as a tourist and investment center, but also with the modern (and personally appealing) visions of utopian open cities whose development would be based on designed socialization. The continued existence of the invisible city attracts energy which does not radiate out in a way that enhances the system resources. Additionally, this phenomenon makes cities less transparent and deprives them of a common standard which would provide suggestions for our behavior within it. Examples of the invisible city can also become the sources of local conflicts. Sometimes the disputes are based on the scarcity of space: new guerrilla gardens can take away parking spaces. Alternatively, they may raise issues of increased communal costs: the garden is watered from a basement faucet which is paid for by all residents of a building, or clashes of value hierarchies: parents of small children may oppose the construction of housing and the feeding of feral cats or doves.
However, upon a closer examination, we recognized that the invisible city plays an extremely important role in the lives of many of its creators. It allows them to establish their space which may be otherwise unavailable, to manifest their commitment to values persecuted by mainstream discourse or to shape the environment which has often been forced upon them. In such circumstances, a lack of trust, weariness of outsiders or the desire to remain separate can be seen as defense mechanisms which create a more level playing field and challenge alienation from the larger society. Such is the cost of an incompatibility that is not based on a desire to engage in activities of questionable legal status or in opposition to custom, but rather from a distinctness from today’s dominant vision of the urban environment.

The invisible city stems from a culture which shares little with the so-called new bourgeoisie. It is rooted in a completely different experience of the everyday – its authors do not fetishize change, do not seek out sensations or desire to become the focus of attention, they also do not experience the city as an image. Examples of the invisible city do not match the dominant expectations and conceptions of aesthetic harmony because they are mostly driven by ethical thinking – building using available resources left over from other projects. The invisible city is built by people for whom taking photographs is not the basic mode of reaction to their environment and who, even in this way, do not create or share media content and contribute to the global systems of attention.

From a certain point of view, the invisible city is a barrier to urban development due to its tendency to not produce generalized trust which we typically grant to others under the assumption of their good intentions. The creators of the invisible city are far removed from the networked individualism model proposed in Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s books.(6) For the most part, these are individuals much more rooted in their small communities rather than networks. These individuals’ situation comes with attendant social costs: their prospects for social advancement or effective resolution of unemployment or poverty issues are much lower. However, in observing the various efforts to “open” and “network” these types of communities and spaces one cannot help but believe that these efforts are driven by factors other than simply compassion.

We could just as well assume that all of this networking and diffused trust is being (sometimes forcefully) imposed because it is required by the logic of new community initiatives or economic forms such as the sharing economy.(7) The ideal implicit in these initiatives reflects a vision of urban environment which tends to benefit a single category of inhabitants. The invisible city occupies spaces which could be more profitable and generate value with a higher market potential. It also captures the time, creativity and energy of individuals who could participate in other endeavors in which their presence could provide a justification for the public subsidies underwriting many urban initiatives., validate the claims of urban activists and legitimize other advocacy efforts. The invisible city’s makers could also be useful as beneficiaries of the currently fashionable and frequently publicly subsidized initiatives such as open-air cinemas or workshops in design thinking – they would be helpful in challenging claims that these efforts are mostly classist in nature.

The invisible city is only one example of existing blockages. Other examples include manifestations of the shortage economy phenomenon which include junkyards, squeegee men, cars used as advertising billboards occupying parking spaces or basic forms of businesses such as temporary stalls selling shoelaces, flowers or fruits and vegetables.(8) Other examples of this phenomenon are urban areas whose market potential is under-utilized such as central Warsaw’s Finnish houses colony, Cracow’s Zakrzówek (a flooded former quarry serving as an unofficial park), or the common urban allotment gardens. Other blockages include areas which, for a variety of reasons, including flood risk regulations or complicated ownership status, are classified as wastelands and thus provide the venue for practices which could not occur anywhere else. One such example are certain areas around the Warta River in Poznań, which, despite their central location, are used in a manner commonly associated with peripheral zones (fishing, sun-bathing and unregulated camping). The areas’ legal status prevents authorities from improving the river banks with paved paths, access roads, landscaping or even holding design competitions for urban beaches – this situation allows the existence of a rarely-seen area of urban heterogeneity. Numerous parasitic practices which take advantage of urban infrastructure, such as unlicensed advertising billboards, illegal electricity connections or even using street-side steam vapor vents for heating can also be viewed as forms of blockages.(9)

A more thorough investigation would probably yield a much long list of similar practices, in fact, a good part of the modern city functions and looks much different than many of us would like it to. The “us” here does not refer merely to city officials and the wealthiest residents but, rather, to the urban middle class whose idea of the city was shaped by the categories with which they were raised with and which make it difficult to recognize blockages as anything more than manifestations of poverty, lack of comfort or an ethnographic oddity.(10) This situation is yet another example of the “peripheral mentality” characteristic of developing cities and societies that fetishize the forms (but not necessarily the norms) characteristic of Western core countries which serve as the aspirational models.(11) So while we are fascinated with exploring the urban underground, defending guerrilla gardens, organizing hackathons and activating riverbanks, we are simultaneously marginalizing grass-roots efforts which are far more effective in opposing the troubling processes associated with the modern social operating system than all the purposeful hacking efforts put together.(12)

In the current context, refraining from taking action, obstructing circulation and constructing firewalls all appear to be significantly more subversive activities than hacking. After all, these actions also require effort and sacrifice. Sometimes, only resistance to change and a negative approach allow varied lifestyles (perceived as competing universalities)(13) to be saved from absorption by the dominant model. By recognizing this potential, we must reconcile ourselves to a more complex and demanding definition of an open city.(14) This expanded definition goes beyond experiences offered by urban festivals or similar initiatives and includes care toward efforts which may be uncomfortable to us, contrary to our habits, and difficult to incorporate or even comprehend. Finally, this definition requires us to tolerance the distrust of others in situations where such an attitude is the only means of maintaining individual dignity and a feeling of safety. Cities should also belong to those who’ve never read Lefebvre!

(1) This article is an expanded version of a presentation given during the “Hacking of the Social Operating System” symposium (curated by Edwin Bendyk), a part of the The City/Laboratory of the Future program of the Wrocław European Capital of Culture 2016 and WRO 2015.
(2) See e.g. B.L. Gerrett, Explore everything: Place-Hacking the City (London: Verso Books, 2013).
(3) Reference to Culture time: consumption or participation? debate hosted by Czas Kultury, June 3, 2015.
(4) M. Krajewski, M. Frąckowiak, Polityka impulsów i rzeczy [The Politics of impulses and objects], in My i Oni. Przestrzenie wspólne i projektowanie dla wspólnoty [Us and Them. Common spaces and designing for a community] ed. Bogna Świątkowska (Warsaw: Fundacja Bęc Zmiana,2014).
(5) See. Niewidzialne miasto [The Invisible City] ed. Marek Krajewski (Warsaw: 2012); Rafał Drozdowski et. al., Narzędziownia. Jak badaliśmy (niewidzialne) miasto [Tool shop. How we studied the (invisible) city]; photo gallery documenting examples of invisible city available at: http://www.niewidzialnemiasto.pl.
(6) Lee Rainie, Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
(7) Comment drawn from discussion of Zaufanie [Trust] by Anna Cieplak and Lidia Ostałowska; discussion took place at club Zemsta, Poznań, May 2015. Participants included: Anna Cieplak, Dorota Grobelna and Natalia Mazur.
(8) Architektura cienia [Shadow Architecture] ed. Aleksandra Wasilkowska (Warsaw: Fundacja Inna Przestrzeń, 2012).
(9) The word ‘parasitic’ need not be seen as being pejorative; my intentions are closer to Michel Serres’s conception which calls attention to its potential for creating static which interferes with the “normal” course of events, and creating added value. In the above-mentioned examples the added value could result from a fuller usage of energy which would otherwise be wasted, or a partial return to symmetry where illegal billboards which typically draw residents’ attention to themselves being taken over as shelter with their owners unable to appeal to authorities for redress due to their own earlier evasion of existing legal structures. See video and story Bezdomni zasiedlili wielki billboard w Krakowie [The homeless take over a giant billboard] at http://www.krakow.gazeta.pl.
(10) During our investigation of the invisible city we learned that these practices generate most criticism from other residents and not city authorities and officials. See Rafał Drozdowski, Maciej Frąckowiak, Jak mieszkaniec z ekspertem [Like a resident talking with an expert] in Niewidzialne miasto [The Invisible City].
(11) Zbigniew Rykiel, “Szaleństwo czy metoda? Modernizacja przez biurokratyzację i prekaryzację” [Madness or method? Modernization by bureaucratization and precarization], Przestrzeń społeczna no. 2 (8), 2014, 34–35.
(12) The functioning of this mechanism (after all, the greatest resistance is provided by that which, mostly aesthetically, is not associated with resistance) in relation to other practices has been frequently noted by Marek Krajewski, see. e.g.. Dyskretna niezgoda. Opór i kultura materialna [A discreet refusal. Resistance and material culture], Kultura współczesna no. 2, 2010; Przeciw inżynierii wizualnej. Ożywianie i uśmiercanie miasta [Against visual engineering. Invigorating and killing of a city] in Sztuka – kapitał kulturowy polskich miast [Art – the cultural capital of Polish cities] ed. Ewa Rewers and Agata Skórzyńska (Poznań: Adam Mickiewicz University, 2010); Słabe obrazy / obrazy słabych [Weak images/images of the weak] (forthcoming).
(13) Style życia i porządek klasowy w Polsce [Lifestyles and the class order in Poland] ed. Maciej Gdula and Przemysław Sadura, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, 2012).
(14) I’m referring here to R. Sennets understing of the term, proposed in papers and numerous speeches that can be found e.g. in Youtube.

Maciej Frąckowiak (b. 1985) – sociologist interested in urban activism and inactivity, his research also deals with visual studies and the ways in which images may be used to prompt changes in social relations. PhD student at the Institute of Sociology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

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