Swarm Cities: The Future of Human Hives

The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.

"Ephemicropolis" by Peter Root
“Ephemicropolis” by Peter Root

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Great American CityAccording to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.

Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.

There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls

Out of the MountainsLynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces

These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.


Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.

Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.

Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.

Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.

Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.

Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.


Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.

Ambient Networks: You Are Here

“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:

Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).

City Wall, Helsinki, 2007
“City Wall,” Helsinki Institute for Information Tenchnology, 2007.

Ambient Commons

“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?

Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3
Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3

McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.

An Aesthesia of NetworksFraming some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.

“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.


Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.


My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

Bringing the Attack to Your Network: Hacking 2.0

Hacking, as the term is generally (mis)understood, gets a bad rap. The longstanding attempts at distinguishing between hacking and cracking have yielded little results. If you self-identify as a hacker, most will still assume you illicitly break into computer systems to steal secret information or vast sums of money.

In Hacking (Polity, 2008), Tim Jordan puts great effort into developing a solid, working definition of the term. Not only is Jordan concerned with differentiating hacking from cracking, but also in not watering down the concept (as he claims McKenzie Wark, Pekka Himenan, and Sherry Turkle, among others, do). “A hack…” he writes, “is a material practice that produces differences in computer, network, and communication technologies” (p. 12). Grounding hacking as a material practice allows Jordan to explore what he considers the two major categories of hacking: information gathering (e.g., cracking) and creative hacks like the myriad tools and toys of the Linux operating system and the open source software movement, both of which push technology beyond its intended uses. Jordan’s book is a cogent, clear, and concise look at what is usually quite a muddy topic.*

Speaking of clear, if you know anything about computer books, you know that O’Reilly publishes the best of them. Hacking: The Next Generation (O’Reilly, 2009) by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin (all of whom are security experts, engineers, or advisers at large companies with lots at stake) is about as good as these books get. Much like their sister imprint’s book by a similar name (Hacking: The Art of Exploitation on No Starch), this is a solid guide to how to break into things and how to keep someone from breaking into yours. Subtitled “Bringing the Attack to Your Network,” Hacking thoroughly covers everything from the usual corporate firewalls and email accounts to Facebook and Twitter with the hands-on depth you’ve come to expect from O’Reilly.

Bringing hacking to a much larger scale network, environmental futurist Jamais Cascio’s Hacking the Earth (Lulu, 2009) explores the consequences of geoengineering. If you can imagine the global climate as a system to be hacked, then Cascio is speaking your language. This collection of essays (culled from the past five years of his writings at World Changing and Open The Future) covers everything from techniques and terraforming to geoengineering and geoethics. It’s a lofty and enlightening look at hacking the very system of our planet.


* Special thanks to John David Smith at Learning Alliances for recommending Tim Jordan’s book.

Thinking Systems

In his epic, futurist tome The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler (1980) wrote that we need to “move from a Second Wave culture that [has] emphasized the study of things in isolation from one another to a Third Wave culture that emphasizes contexts, relationships, and wholes” (p. 300-301), what Herman Witkin calls “field dependence.” Taking the long view, considering the context, and how one thing influences another — these are all things we would do well to do at all times. General system theory as conceived by Ludwig von Bertalanffy provides a rich framework for just this type of thinking.

“A system,” writes Bertalanffy’s biographer Mark Davidson, “like a work of art, is a pattern rather than a pile. Like a piece of music, it’s an arrangement rather than an aggregate” (1983, p. 27). In other words, a system is an assemblage that is arranged to serve a purpose. Whereas Camus insisted that there were no ends, only means, Bertalanffy saw them as one and the same. The system is its own means and its own end.

Framing things as systems inherently simplifies them. Sometimes this is done by leaving certain aspects out, sometimes by artificially drawing boundaries around a “whole.” As Manuel De Landa puts it, this

point of view allows for the emergence of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, but only if specific historical processes — specific interactions between ‘lower scale entities’ — can be shown to have produced such wholes. Thus, in my view, institutional organizations like bureaucracies, banks, and stock markets acquire a life of their own from the interactions of individuals. From the interactions of those institutions, cities emerge, and from the interactions between cities, nation states emerge. Yet, in these bottom-up approaches, all the heterogeneity of real nation states can be pockets of minorities, the dialect differences, the local transience — unlike when history is modeled on totalities (concepts like ‘society’ or ‘culture’ or ‘the system’). In this latter situation, homogeneity has to be artificially injected into the model (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 71-72).

The main criticism of systems theory is its quasi-functionalist embrace of the needs of the system over those of the humans involved. Where one view seems to favor the system over all else (cf. Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavasky’s Risk and Culture; 1982), Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems (2008) shows how framing risks and problems in their context can help us understand and even control them better. Acknowledging the artificial nature of “closing off” systems for study, Meadows (2008) wrote, “The right boundary for thinking about a problem rarely coincides with the boundary of an academic discipline, or with a political boundary” (p. 98).

De Landa (1997) wraps it up eloquently, writing, “…[M]uch as sedimentary rocks, biological species, and social hierarchies are all stratified systems, so igneous rocks, ecosystems, and markets are self-consistent aggregates, the result of the coming together and interlocking of heterogeneous elements” (p. 66). We are — and we live in — a system of interacting systems. The better we understand them as such, the better off we will be.


Bertalanffy, L. v. (1968). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Davidson, M. (1983). Uncommon sense: The life and thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

De Landa, M. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.

Douglas, M. & Wildavasky, A. (1982). Risk and culture. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Miller, P. D. (2007). ILLogical Progression. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for now: Interviews with friends and heroes (pp.). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam.

Witkin, H. A. & Goodenough, D. R. (1981). Cognitive styles: Essence and origins. New York: International Universities Press.

Cyberactivism Edited by Martha McCaughy and Michael D. Ayers

Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice illuminates many current vectors in online activism, never losing sight of the big picture. Martha McCaughy and Michael D. Ayers have assembled a stellar collection of scholarly essays. Sitting at the intersection of virtual and corporeal, theory and praxis, Cyberactivism observes the brief history, the current actions, and the future implications of online activism. Continue reading “Cyberactivism Edited by Martha McCaughy and Michael D. Ayers”

Dispositions by McKenzie Wark

Armed with only a notebook and a GPS device, McKenzie Wark set out against the world in words. Each entry of Dispositions (Salt Publishing) is marked by Wark’s global position, and the date and time of entry. The style is part journal, part epic poem and in turns reminds me of the oblique observations of Jean Baudrillard, the playful verse of Lewis Carroll, and the incessant wordplay of James Joyce. Subsequently, Dispositions is rife with astute observations, memorable aphorisms, and quotable bon mots. Ground covered includes Deleuze and Guitarri, DJ Spooky, Walter Benjamin, 9/11, and lots of locales in New York City and Europe. Continue reading “Dispositions by McKenzie Wark”

CTRL [SPACE] Edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel

They’re everywhere: tiny cameras, webcams, security cameras… video-capturing devices are almost as ubiquitous as the banner ads for them: “Watch anyone, anytime.” We’re all stuck somewhere between reality TV and a TV reality. Following the panopticon from an eighteenth century architectural drawing by Jeremy Bentham to the pervasive surveillance of the twenty-first century, CTRL [SPACE] is a comprehensive history of watching and being watched. Continue reading “CTRL [SPACE] Edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel”