The Smartness Mandate | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Smartness Mandate

The Smartness Mandate
by Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2023
336 pp., illus., 50 b/w. Paper, $35.00
ISBN: 9780262544511.

Reviewed by: 
Jussi Parikka
July 2023

The past decade–or even longer–has been full of all sorts of variations of “smartness”. Smart cities are likely at the forefront of this trend while it concerns multiple scales of technological solutions and even solutionism, as many would argue. Whether we reached peak smartness of corporate and public hype is to be decided (after all, new massive projects such as the NEOM in Saudi Arabia are marketed as “smart”, too) but the repercussions of particular ideas about the technological city and its political economy of data-driven operations continue, not least in terms of discourses of climate change, sustainability, and “resilience”.

Beyond the production of enthusiastic discourse about the combined forces of smartness and sustainability, several books and projects in architecture and urbanism have started to tackle the issue over the past years. This concerns especially the focus on urbanism. Beyond glitzy tech promises–but also beyond the usual critical theory check-list–there is though much room for takes that can push the discussion a bit further than recounting the main stakes at play or the usual warnings. Usually these have included at least: the fear of losing the city to tech giants and their ways of monetizing sensing and data circulation, or then in the more optimistic key, the promise of rationally planning urban areas to optimize their flows of people, energy, and waste in ways that can help reach sustainability goals. Moving beyond such usual points, The Smartness Mandate by Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell provides a strong, refreshing, and also productive way of tackling the fundamental operations of production of “smartness”.

The Smartness Mandate is an ambitious take on the defining features of not just smart urbanism but the underlying technopolitical and financial logics that provide something of an “episteme” through which to understand the topic at hand. As the authors early on define, smartness is “first and foremost an epistemology”. One could add that it is a very particular kind of an operational and material epistemology that in a nice recursive gesture works by way of “knowing and representing the world so that one can act in and upon that world” (xi). For sure, as Halpern and Mitchell point out, it is an epistemology underpinned by computational technologies while being irreducible to them in the narrow sense. Instead, at the beginning and the end of the book the readers are painted a picture of planetary scales of sensing and data, and how this planetary scene also helps to contextualise the promises of smartness in relation to their constitutive cultural techniques.

Halpern and Mitchell provide three key approaches that respond to the what, where, and how of smartness: smartness is produced in and through experimental zones, their quasi-agents are populations, and the complex operation that underlines their way of “knowing” (and financializing) is derivation (6). The beauty of this approach is that it combines architectural dispositions of smartness without reverting back to the generic smart city discourse where critique just picks up on the marketing discourse; it is instead specified through the generative notion of the demo and the test (zone), while also incorporating elements of histories of AI and Alife in terms of the emergence of the financial underpinnings of this model of projective thinking and planning. So, part of the story comes to be about the genealogies of population thinking as emergent and distributed intelligence (also something visible in history of software much before recent AI hype) that both stand as examples of, but also problematize some of the Cold War period methods: scenario planning, rational optimization, etc. As Halpern and Mitchell show, some of the emerging forces that incorporated “failure” (or noise and waste) as a central element in their projective operationalization of potentials comes to stand as significant legacy of some of the periods experimental takes. Hence, as importantly is shown, “optimization” is not the only AI operation in town, but it has to be understood in relation to this broader valorization of failure in those moments where avant-garde artistic language of enthusiasm for dysfunction is already adapted to the broader paradigm of “learning” that also fuels financial ideas.

Cue in the Black-Scholes option pricing model that builds the world in its own image. Halpern and Mitchell quote the mathematician and economist Fischer Black: “The effects of noise on the world, and on our views of the world, are profound. Noise in the sense of a large number of small events is often a causal factor much more powerful than a small number of larger events can be. Noise makes trading in financial markets possible, and thus allows us to observe prices for financial assets. Noise causes markets to be somewhat inefficient, but often prevents us from taking advantage of inefficiencies” (124). Connoisseurs of information theory come to notice that this kind of appreciation of communication–whether media or markets–as always being surrounded by noise is central element in this operational diagram: noise as the cause of and the solution to all the world’s issues (to misquote Homer Simpson). We just needed adequately noise-tolerant models of the world to be able to mine all that noise in the channels, which in this case of emergent financial logic was a version of Brownian motion: changes might be random but this does not stop attempts to model them and build value out of these models. “Instead of basing the price of an option on the underlying objective reality of a company, the key value for Black and Scholes was the expected volatility of the stock, which meant the amplitude of the movement of the stock price up and down over time” (127). Not just cybernetics, but even more so the lineage of stochastics from botanist Brown in the early 19th century to mathematicians, such as Louis Bachelier in the early 20th century to the Black-Scholas model, comes to stand as a core part of this genealogy of technological culture of “speculation”.

Loaded with times of all sorts–predicted, projected, modeled, geological, and political–The Smartness Mandate outlines with a strong sense of critical analysis that does not become in any way simply technophobic. A total dismantling of existing systems would not be realistic nor desirable, even if as the authors make clear, we need to fundamentally think about the material dependencies–and material repercussions of technological infrastructures. Their way of reading issues of racial capitalism and the pharmakon-like nature of “resilience” is an example of the awareness of the political issues of “smartness”. Their reading of resilience is productive, and complex, as the authors work through the various connotations of what it means across different scales of impact where terms such as flexibility, trauma and disaster operate. The planetary test bed is more permanent than the terminology of “test” would let us assume. The term also facilitates the move back to issues of architecture and spatial disposition: if smartness mandate is about contemporary forms of complex mediation and how they are being modeled, this sort of media is operative upon the spaces which it describes. Recursion again.

Due to the nuanced complexity of how it approaches key terms and topics, such as “resilience”, The Smartness Mandate might not always immediately stake out its own positions in clearest terms. There are also a couple of passages that are more about implications than any fully fleshed out explicit argument. For example, some of the points about planetary scale sensing work in this slightly alternative register. This does not in any way reduce the fact that this is an excellent book. Besides offering a strong historical and theoretical analysis, it can also work like a start of a design brief: a reference point for development of further models, plans, and critically productive positions.