Shannon Mattern on her book, A City is not a Computer

Interview by Elliott Montpellier

Elliot Montpellier: You write that you questioned how to write about “the frustratingly capricious world of technology” in book form. With this in mind, what inspired you to bring together these pieces in book form and how does it relate to the overarching argument you’ve put forward across the chapters?

Shannon Mattern: First, thanks so much for engaging with A City Is Not a Computer and for inviting me to discuss it. A few weeks ago Alex Ketchum, a faculty member at McGill, invited me to talk about the book as part of her excellent Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies series. I framed my remarks not as a traditional “book talk,” but as a “biography of the book,” which allowed me to engage with a lot of the material “how did this bibliographic object come into existence?” questions you’re posing here. 

The ideas central to this book emerged across a decade of collaboration with Places Journal, an open-access venue for public scholarship on architecture, urbanism, and landscape. As a contributing writer, I’ve published nearly 30 long-form pieces that, because of their accessibility (in multiple senses of the term!), have reached readers in myriad fields around the world. A few years ago Places launched a new short-form book series with Princeton University Press, and I was invited to propose a book that expanded upon my existing articles. I initially wondered not only why I’d want to create a book out of material that I had deliberately made freely available online, but also why and how I would translate and transform my digital writing about timely topics into the static, enduring form of a book. 

I asked around on social media to see if such a transformation would be of use to others – and lots of folks proposed that reformatting this existing work, supplementing it with some new material, and putting these once-separate pieces and disparate issues in dialogue with each other, between the covers of a book, would constitute something new and valuable. The book form also allowed me to show, both rhetorically and materially, how our seemingly ephemeral technologies allow us to ask enduring questions. This mixture of the analog and the digital, or the fleeting and enduring, is also present in the book’s argument: I argue that what we know about cities, and the intelligence embedded and activated within them, comes in a range of material forms. 

In my contribution to Alex’s series I share several other reasons why I chose to write the book, some of which, I’ll admit, were born of frustration. First, as much as I love and feel at home with the essay form, I realize that the monograph is still the primary currency in my various fields of practice. Second, I got tired of some traditional scholars mistaking digital scholarly publications – regardless of how heavily researched and rigorously edited they might be – as mere blog posts or think pieces, simply because they’re online. And third, I was frustrated with the numerous Men With Big Ideas books, themselves super-sized think pieces unburdened with precedent or citation, about cities and technology. I think some of the most exciting work emerges through a mix of fascination and frustration, affection and annoyance.

Finally, I was excited to work with an amazing editor and staff at an exceptionally well-resourced press! 

Elliot Montpellier: The book engages liberally across disciplines – speaking to media theory, library science, science and technology studies, urban studies, journalistic media pieces, and much more. What takeaways do you hope anthropologists, in particular, take away from this cross-disciplinary work? 

Shannon Mattern: While the book does draw on the work of anthropologists and relies in part on ethnographic methods, I really wasn’t writing for anthropologists. Most of the research was completed when I was housed in a media studies department, working regularly with designers and librarians! When the book came out, I just happened to be teaching in an anthropology department, where I was transferred to build a new program in anthropology and design. I was both flattered and amused to see various reviewers and interviewers commenting on the book’s “uniquely anthropological” insights. The book unique approach, if it has one, is really the product of a very undisciplined curiosity! 

I’ve always enjoyed being a mediator between different fields, so my primary interlocutors are the people who, like me, inhabit the interstitial spaces, or who aren’t too concerned about disciplinary boundaries. I think so-called general or lay audiences often fall into the latter category; they recognize that most of our everyday concerns – like urban transit, maintenance, public knowledge, and other themes I address in the book – are inherently overdetermined, intersectional, and uncontainable.  

That said, I hope anthropologists will find in the book some evidence of why it’s useful to read across disciplines (I’ll admit that, over the years, I’ve seen quite a bit of anthropology of media that doesn’t engage with precedent media studies research!); to combine scholarly and applied knowledge; and to recognize popular, mediated discourse as a cultural sphere; an epistemological realm, that’s its own ethnographic terrain. 

And given that anthropology as a discipline has repeatedly questioned the centrality of ethnography to its disciplinary identity, has critically engaged with the ethics and inclusivity of standard ethnographic practice (see for instance the recent exciting activity around patchwork ethnography), and has grappled with the vexed question regarding the validity of autoethnography, I hope readers might see in the book what can be gained by looking at one’s own multifarious practices, one’s personal and professional experiences, one’s teaching and civic engagement, as something approximating a retroactively accumulative auto-ethnography – as forms of knowledge production. 

Elliot Montpellier: To follow-up on that question, your methods and writing-style offer an enriching thickness, appealing to an ethnographer’s sensibilities, but you go about this in a multitude of ways. Some of these are not always privileged in anthropological interventions (let alone the training graduate students receive). Specifically, you speak to numerous community projects and engagements that catalysed or were catalysed by your writing. How do you think anthropologists open themselves up to community collaborations as part of training and knowledge production?

Shannon Mattern: These questions pertain to long-standing ethical questions about anthropologists’ involvement in, and obligations to, their field sites. There’s a whole vibrant tradition of activist anthropology we can draw on here, too. 

I’ve had several enlightening and disheartening conversations with anthropology PhD students who are eager to write about particular topics and phenomena, but who convince themselves that they’re not entitled to do so because they haven’t engaged in formally recognized ethnography. Obviously, scholars in other fields write about a whole host of topics without engaging in ethnography; there are countless other methods one can deploy in understanding the world. That said, so many of these students have years of personal experience – as students, as student leaders, as teachers, as laborers, as neighbors, as activists, as engaged citizens – that we might regard as participant observation within their own communities. Their reflection on and analysis of that experience would ideally be informed by the various critical concepts and frameworks they’ve encountered within anthropology and elsewhere. 

Plus, I don’t think it’s necessary to engage in community projects, to serve your neighbors or your city, through your role as an anthropologist or scholar. Your research might offer you insight or grant you expertise that draws you into particular service or collaborative roles; my published research on libraries and archives has led to invitations to collaborate with these institutions, to serve on boards of directors, etc. But one needn’t serve as an anthropologist, or as someone intending to mine their community for research data.

Ultimately, however, that community engagement might – and, ideally, would — inform your work as a scholar: it can shape an ethos, help you identify a wider network of stakeholders, reveal nuanced social dynamics, and so on, that you can take up in your research. The big ethical and methodological challenge is to determine whether it’s appropriate to bring that experience into your published work. This has been a relatively easy question for me, since I work with public institutions that are committed to public knowledge and transparency; the board meetings I might reference in my writing, for instance, are also publicly documented. In other cases, utilizing behind-closed-doors experiences constitutes a betrayal of trust and a breach of ethics. 

Elliot Montpellier: I’m particularly drawn to your discussion of religion in Chapter 1. The connections you draw from dashboards and technology to talismans, amulets, and users’ faith seem so apt. This is a connection that a few others have made and with all that has been going on in the tech world, I’ve seen several op-eds about the tech Gods falling back to earth, or other clickbaiting titles along these lines. What strikes you as potent about these metaphors? How does the reliance on religious metaphors as integral to critique, not reify secular-religious (or scientific-superstitious) divides, especially as religious worlds themselves are so vital in local and indigenous ways of knowing?

Shannon Mattern: The whole book is in part about the metaphors we use to understand complex sites and systems – and how those metaphors shape the way we conceive, design, build, maintain, administer, and value those sites and systems. As we now see with Elon Musk, whether we regard him as a reckless speculator, a business titan, a skilled engineer, or a divinely inspired Tech Genius determines how users and investors and regulators engage with him and his platform – which, again, because of how they’ve been metaphorized, are now regarded as one and the same. 

In the book I referenced talismans to raise questions about epistemology and belief – particularly our belief that exhaustive datafication cultivates omniscience and positivist truths. This is a central theme in the book: that these ways of knowing are inevitably entangled – and so, in order to appreciate and respond to the complexity of our cities, we have to recognize that the hard and the soft, the quantitative and the qualitative, both provide invaluable insights. 

Elliot Montpellier:Your overarching argument makes the case for greater critical engagement with the hype of the technological present (and pasts). In Chapter 2, you discuss how the slowness of public consultation, deliberation, community input, participation, and so forth was integral to the friction that derailed the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. And you make the broader case throughout the book that the myriad situated and public knowledges that animate cities comprise the alternative vision to the city as computer. Across the book, I found myself thinking about housing, public and active transport advocacy, each anchored in the urban realm you discuss. Advocates have remarked on how bureaucratic and cultural processes (especially community meetings) have been wielded against communities seeking to enact change toward more embodied ways of interacting in urban worlds. (Similarly, one could argue the same thing about activism around climate change, reparations, land back, and so on) A very broad question, but how might communities (and their academic collaborators) work to ensure that participatory methods aren’t co-opted to reinforce negative majoritarian principles?

Shannon Mattern: One of the case studies I discuss in the book – Sidewalk Labs’ proposed design for a “smart city” development in Toronto – prompted me to address these very questions. So, in 2020, I published an article about the risks of co-opting the aesthetics of participatory design, of using superficial “civic engagement” as a smokescreen for fait accompli planning. I realized then that this question had underlain a lot of my research for the past 20 years. The first article I published was about how the public was conceived in a public design process for an ambitious “public” library. I wouldn’t have told you 20 years ago that I was embarking on a longitudinal ethnographic study of participatory planning processes – but when I looked back on my years of academic research and my observations, as both an engaged citizen and as collaborator, of various participatory design projects, that’s kind of what I was doing, without knowing it! 

So, what’s to be done about this co-optation? A whole bunch of things: making sure we aren’t simply hiring community engagement consultants who regard “participation” as a list of obligations (which is what ESG and LEED have become), making sure we have trusted community-based liaisons involved, making sure we’ve engaged in an inclusive campaign of public education, making sure our methods of community engagement are themselves designed in consultation with community members, and triangulating a variety of methods and deploying a variety of media – each of which will resonate differently with different members of the community. Organizations like the Creative Reaction Lab, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Colloqate, Measure, and lots of digital and environmental justice collectives have been designing processes that take these factors into consideration. 

Elliot Montpellier: One response to the question above–that I read in the book–was your focus on public infrastructure and knowledge institutions as part of a vital infrastructural network. What role can anthropologists play in supporting these infrastructures?

Shannon Mattern: I’d love to see more ethnographies in public libraries and archives. Dan Green’s The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope is a great example of what one can learn about our misplaced faith in technology – and its profound, long-term impact on policy – by hanging out in libraries for years.  

As I write this, Twitter is imploding, and lots of folks are migrating over to Mastodon, which is prompting some to consider – perhaps for the first time – the danger of allowing an egomaniacal oligarch to control a platform that’s effectively become a critical public resource; the potential for public, federated alternatives; and what new infrastructural topologies and imaginaries this moment of crisis might make possible. Gabriella Coleman’s, Joan Donovan’s, and Sarah T. Roberts’ ethnographic work can shed a lot of light on what’s happening at Twitter – as a cautionary tale. And Christina Dunbar-Hester and Greta Byrum’s ethnographic and policy work can help us understand what’s possible – and what risks arise – when communities design networks that reflect their values. 

I also wish academics – including anthropologists – would be more reflexive about the infrastructures they rely on, often unthinkingly, to do their own work. Are our prestigious journals published by rapacious corporate publishers? Do we depend on research databases and software owned by extractivist organizations that are deeply entangled with surveillance capitalism? (Sara Lamdan’s new Data Cartels: The Companies that Control and Monopolize Our Information has a lot to say about this). Are we locked into teaching platforms that deploy a bunch of algorithmic “cop shit” that cultivates adversarial relationships with our students and monetizes their data? Are we relying on infrastructures that construct knowledge as a scarce capitalist good? 

Last semester, in my final teaching semester at The New School – which I’m leaving in part because the institution’s own infrastructures contradict its professed politics – I taught a class called “Redesigning the Academy,” where I invited students to turn an ethnographic eye to these very questions – to ask why academic things are built the way they are, who those structures serve, and how we might do things differently. All of us need to ask those questions much more frequently – and then muster up the will, and demand the resources, to actually do things differently

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