“We don’t really believe in democracy.”
The tech futurists behind Sui Generis, a Montreal-based company with ambitious plans to jumpstart stagnant nations with networks of startup-friendly city-states, don’t see the point in revamping existing countries and their dying governments. The world we live in, they posit, is too far gone. If we want innovation, creativity, and experimentalism, we’re going to have to begin again.
Co-founder Guillaume Dumas argues that the evolution of science, medicine, and technology is being stifled by restrictive governments designed in ways unsuited to humanity’s future needs. Dumas envisions a network of “corporate socialist” utopian societies — built on a foundation of economic freedom, transhumanist ideals, and fun — erected on land shared by existing nations in exchange for a cut of the profits. (from here)
The Future of Techno-Socialist City States
On the Sui Generis site one gets a preview of their concept:
Innovators are hackers, and the first thing a hacker hacks is his own life. However, since we spend our lives navigating between dysfunctional institutions, obsolete legislation and chaotic urban spaces, hacking ones own life has somehow become a full-time job.
But what if you could outsource this job? What if you could go live and work in a place that was already hacked for you – a place designed precisely for maximal freedom, significance and pleasure? As an innovator in this situation, you could then put all your effort into solving real world problems and focusing on personal growth.
At Sui Generis, they believe that freedom and happiness are partly technical problems. If you combine the right people, culture, fiscal and legal framework, weather, urban setting and spirit of competitiveness, then magic happens…
Magic? Techno-Utopianism for the hypercapitalist? A sort of City-within-the-City, walled off for all those lesser inhabitants, built for the neo-entrepreneurs of the future, a place separated out from the common run-of-the-mill slave, a site for the innovators of the creative (knowledge) or cognitive workers of the corporate assemblages?
In many ways this is not a new concept at all. As Luis Suarez-Villa in Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism remarks “the socialization of experimentalism means that society as a whole becomes the laboratory of technocapitalism. This is a laboratory that is certainly quite different from the traditional labs of experimental science, not only physically but also in terms of scope, governance, and reach. And, it is a laboratory in which all of society is forcibly engaged, through the commercial compulsion of the new order. All of society, in essence, becomes the guinea pig of corporate experimentalism”.1
Sui Generis offers an accelerationist vision suggesting that over the next decade, they will accelerate human evolution by building a network of city-states around the ideas of economic freedom, transhumanism, sustainability, inclusiveness and creativity. Offering their clients economic symbiosis:
A state willing to establish a startup city on its territory would benefit extensively from investment, job creation, long-term business opportunities or equity in the project.
A Techno-Utopian tax-haven with an optimal legal environment for workforce mobility, bio-medical research and medical tourism. Like a bubble world after Disney’s heart or as Sloterdijk will say “the creative people, one hears now and again, are those who prevent the whole from being bogged down by harmful routines”. The creative class that seeks a paradise apart, an intelligent alternative, a city of the future where technology and the artificial worlds of tomorrow seem to collude in some Corporate take-down of the myth of socialist praxis. Is this truly the wave of the future?
Startup incubator City States? Sui Generis promotes an entrepreneurial zone of hypertech innovation, “offering funding, guidance, housing and extensive resources in exchange for equity”. Sounds like an IBM add campaign for the new Smart City. As General Manager of IBM’s smarter city projects in Madrid Michael J. Dixon unabashedly tells us: “Over time, we expect that cities will increasingly become a “system of systems” — independent systems (in areas such as transportation, energy, education, and healthcare) will increasingly work together. Leveraging the Internet of Things, a myriad of devices will communicate with each other to deliver benefits, but without human intervention.”
Yet, as Suarez-Villa reminds us not all is happy times in the neo-future cities of the creative class. “Social mediation through networks also involves relations of power. Networks are not neutral insofar as the governance of social relations is concerned. Their extent, structure, and access are largely articulated by those who participate in them. Such participation can become a means to dominate other network participants or it can become a vehicle to collapse hierarchies, oligarchies, and exploitive control.” (KL 135)
Before we fall into the techno-utopian dream of such creative paradises maybe we should take a look at the complexity involved in such innovation. As Gautum Shroff suggests there are at least six elements that any network based intelligent or sentient system will need to acquire before it can truly be enabled to support such large scale sensoriums of the future: looking, listening, learning, connecting, predicting, and finally self-correcting algorithms.2 As Shroff tells us “for the web-intelligence systems of today to cross the chasm, integrate the six different elements, and become a mind, I believe the link between perceptual and symbolic needs to be understood properly. So, it certainly appears that there is much science remaining to be done. Hopefully, though, I have convinced you of both the potential as well as the purpose of such an effort.” (281)
Another sceptic yet not wholly against such creative paradises Adam Greenfiled remarks, saying that building such a place will surely mean looking past the shallow visions of urban futurity we’ve been offered in places like PlanIT Valley, Masdar and New Songdo City. It will mean learning how to work productively with enterprises like IBM, Cisco and Siemens, while asking more pointed questions of them than perhaps they are used to, or will be comfortable with. It will require that we work past the contours of our own comfort zones, both teaching ourselves the things we need to know and helping others arrive at the same level of proficiency. Above all, it will mean demanding that the systems on which our networked city is founded are designed with concerns about power, privilege and justice at their very heart. But we can have it. We can live and thrive there, if we never once lose sight of the people in whom any city’s capability actually subsists, for theirs — ours — is the only kind of urban intelligence that will ever truly matter.3
Yet, is it? Is this still the dream of exceptionalism? The dream of humanity as the exception to long dark heritage of evolutionary protocols? And, what of our age, when certain advocates of Transhumanism, Human Enhancement, H++, etc. seek to instigate an artificial intervention into the human genome? To experiment with the very structural relations of the human program? Produce an artificial variation on the theme of humanity? As one advocate of such interjections states it
Using nanobiotechnology, we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup. Synthetic genomics has the potential to recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection. We are already remaking ourselves and our world, retracing the steps of the original synthesis— redesigning, recoding, and reinventing nature itself in the process.4
Smart Cities, Biohackers, Creative Class… Is there a division in the human species ahead, a sort of drift to the bioethical divide, a movement between those who will inherit the earth not because they are poor, but rather because they are changed, changed utterly into something inhuman – or, other than human? Apollinaire the poet said during the heyday of modernist discourse that “More than anything, artists are men who want to become inhuman.” What of women? What might they say? And, what of those who seek to trans out of such biological straight-jackets altogether? Adorno once suggested that art “remains loyal to humankind uniquely through its inhumanity in regard to it”. Lyotard in his late work The Inhuman would ask: “What if humans are being constrained by the very process of their creative and experimental truth to become inhuman?”
Maybe the better question would be: “What are the conditions under which this new mode of being is being enacted and constrained? And, who is modulating, regulating, and constraining us to become inhuman to begin with? Is this an impersonal process, a political or social decision; or, is it something immanent to desire itself?”
Robin MacKay in an interview once said if what “we want to do is to tap into future intelligence, bringing it to bear on the present, by opening up epistemic, technological and social paths to change… is this intelligence the blind autosophistication of capital, which only seeks to intensify, and has no regard for the human as such? Or does a collective intelligence come forth through a collective practice of rationality (as in Reza Negarestani’s very boldly rationalist text in the book, ‘The Labor of the Inhuman’)? Or is the future a twisted, constantly churning abyss of possibility that we can voluntarily participate in by throwing off dogmatic constraints on our thinking, but can never bring under control for the purposes of a political programme? That’s accelerationism, the political question of futurality, intelligence and politics. And intelligence is not necessarily ‘our’ friend.”
So is the notion that you can create a special place, a City-State planned like some socialist experiment, where innovators and creative cognitive workers can live and work, share and compete. Such utopian designs might as J.G. Ballard in High Rise once suggested:
In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape.5
In the end this techno-utopian City-State might be the prison house of a future elite who have constrained themselves to believe their own hype, believe they’ve escaped the world of mere existence for a technological realm of pure creativity and fun, when the truth is that they are the slaves to a ubiquitous intelligence whose deigns to even recognize their humanity and secretly seeks to command and control their every whim to ends not their own.
- Luis Suarez-Villa. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 118-120). Kindle Edition.
- Shroff, Gautam (2013-10-22). The Intelligent Web: Search, smart algorithms, and big data (p. 275). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
- Greenfield, Adam (2013-12-20). Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use) (Kindle Locations 1482-1488). Do projects. Kindle Edition.
- Regis, Ed; Church, George M. (2012-10-02). Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (pp. 12-14). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
- Ballard, J. G. (2012-03-05). High-Rise: A Novel (pp. 100-101). Liveright. Kindle Edition.