Looked at from this angle, the standard practice of urban planning and architecture suddenly seems very bizarre indeed.The architect and planners proceed by devising an overall vision of the building or ensemble of buildings they propose. This vision is physically represented in drawings and, typically, in an actual model of the buildings proposed. One sees in the newspapers photographs of beaming city officials and architects looking down on the successful model as if they were in helicopters, or gods. What is astounding, from a vernacular perspective, is that no one ever experiences the city from that height or angle. The presumptive ground-level experience of real pedestrians— window-shoppers, errand-runners, aimlessly strolling lovers— is left entirely out of the urban-planning equation. It is substantially as sculptural miniatures that the plans are seen, and it is hardly surprising that they should be appreciated for their visual appeal as attractive works of art: works of art that will henceforth never be seen again from that godlike vantage point, except by Superman.
Scott, James C. (2012-10-21). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Kindle Locations 840-847). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
I’ve been enjoying James C. Scott’s new book on anarchism tremendously. The opening concept of anarchist calisthenics remains one of my favorite, but another theme running throughout the book so far is really useful. It highlights the differences between vernacular understandings of nature, spaces, and ideas and those of the planners and elites. It is worth noting that he is very pragmatic in his critique, often pointing out things that the amped up radical would be hard pressed to admit. Here is a taste, from his keen observation of local custom near Durham, Connecticut where he currently resides:
Consider, by way of illustration, the vernacular and official names for roads. A road runs between my town of Durham and the coastal town of Guilford, some sixteen miles to the south. Those of us who live in Durham call this road (among ourselves) the “Guilford Road” because it tells us exactly where we’ll get to if we take it. The same road at its Guilford terminus is naturally called the “Durham Road” because it tells the inhabitants of Guilford exactly where they’ll get to if they take it. One imagines that those who live midway along the road call it the “Durham Road” or the “Guilford Road” depending on which way they are heading. That the same road has two names depending on one’s location demonstrates the situational, contingent nature of vernacular naming practices; each name encodes valuable local knowledge— perhaps the most important single thing you would want to know about a road is where it leads. Vernacular practices not only produce one road with two names but many roads with the same name. Thus, the nearby towns of Killingworth, Haddam, Madison, and Meriden each have roads leading to Durham that the local inhabitants call the “Durham Road.”
Now imagine the insuperable problems that this locally effective folk system would pose to an outsider requiring a unique and definitive name for each road. A state road repair crew sent to fix potholes on the “Durham Road” would have to ask, “Which Durham Road?” Thus it comes as no surprise that the road between Durham and Guilford is reincarnated on all state maps and in all official designations as “Route 77.” The naming practices of the state require a synoptic view, a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations. As Route 77, the road no longer immediately conveys where it leads; the sense of Route 77 only springs into view once we spread out a road map on which all state roads are enumerated. And yet the official name can be of vital importance. If you are gravely injured in a car crash on the Durham-Guilford Road, you will want to tell the state-dispatched ambulance team unambiguously that the road on which you are in danger of bleeding to death is Route 77.
Observations like these make it clear that there are times when hierarchy and standardization is quite useful - even from the perspective of the anarchist who sees these as often irrational and inhumane. In other words, there is little doubt that every situation is complex and overdetermined so each of us would do well to remember that, just because we have a hammer, not every problem needs a nail.
On the other hand, as I was reading the passage in the quote at the top of the post, my colleague Bryan Alexander sent me this video of the use of drones by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab. The project is allows slightly more ordinary citizens to use drones to get a better sense of the world from this “godlike vantage point.” In this case, they are using drones to get a better sense of the drought conditions the state is facing.
It is sort of funny that they are calling this a drone anyway. It is basically just an RC helicopter with a networked digital camera. Someday we should develop a taxonomy of drones so that we know what we’re talking about. For now, it is just worth noting that there are many democratic uses for these technologies which might help more people give input on how the world might be arranged from this god-like perspective - or at the very least give more people access to this perspective in order to encourage their input.
On this score, I don’t want to overstate causality any more than the “Twitter revolution folks” - and I certainly don’t want to give any more credence to the Imperial Messenger - yet there might actually be something to Thomas Friedman’s assertion that one of the catalysts for the Bahraini uprisings was Google Earth:
While Facebook has gotten all the face time in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, don’t forget Google Earth, which began roiling Bahraini politics in 2006. A big issue in Bahrain, particularly among Shiite men who want to get married and build homes, is the unequal distribution of land. On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: “Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’ Bahraini activists have encouraged people to take a look at the country on Google Earth, and they have set up a special user group whose members have access to more than 40 images of royal palaces.”
Like its social media brethren, this explanation overlooks the decades long struggle (and organizing) that has taken place in Bahrain - something Vijay Prashad vividly describes in his book on the wave of protests. Yet the godlike perspective of Google Earth may have helped give a visual representation of the disparity of the country at a time when there was an organization on the ground to suture this signifier with a signified that would produce pressure in a progressive direction.
In short, properly used, these kinds of technologies could go some distance towards overcoming the kind of divide between the vernacular and official perspectives. Scott himself seems suspicious of organizing in general, preferring the inchoate rage of the mob. Yet it seems these things may often go hand in hand: the spark of indignation which Scott sees as a legitimate outburst of the dispossessed and oppressed comes from a variety of sources. Organization of some kind often gives a more productive channel to that rage.
On the other hand, it would be more productive politically if the visual instigation came from an objective source. For instance, the Hezbollah drone shot down in Lebanon last month may well have been a useful piece of infrastructure in deterring further Israeli violence in the area, as Belen Fernandez contends. But since it was launched by Hezbollah instead of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, it’s hard to see it as journalism rather than espionage. The latter, of course, are as slippery to define as “drones.” But it seems you know it when you see it.