Saturday, August 10, 2019

Digital Platforms, Porosity, and Panorama

I published an article in the Platform Surveillance issue of Surveillance & Society back in March, but was so busy at the time that I neglected to post it here. Here is the abstract and link to the full text online:

The concept of porosity, developed by Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, is proposed as a useful concept for examining the political, social, and economic impacts of digital platform surveillance on social space. As a means of characterizing and comparing how interconnected spaces are shaped through a diversity of interfaces, porosity bypasses a simplistic distinction between analog and digital technologies without losing sight of the actual material affordances, social and surveillance practices, and politics that these differing and interacting technologies enable. As part of Benjamin’s project of uncovering the tension between the present and the utopian visions that capitalism repeatedly invokes through new technologies, an attention to the politics of porosity can situate the effects of digital platforms within the ongoing history of struggle over the production and experience of urban space.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Bus Ride through San Francisco in 1859

A "Yellow Line" omnibus in front of Gilbert's Melodeon at Clay and Kearny, about 1860. Detail of a photo held by the Bancroft (Online Archive of California)

The horse-drawn omnibus was the first form of mass transit through the streets of San Francisco. This description was written by "The Dictator at the Dessert," a somewhat pompous columnist for the Hesperian, a women's journal in San Francisco.

An omnibus is a type of life. Like the stage it has its entrances and its exits. Passengers come in and go out all along the track, as humanity commences and ends its existence. At each street corner some one pulls the strap. The fee is paid, the cost of the ride is settled with the driver, and the passenger moves by you to the door, as people move to the grave. A little rustling of silk, a compression of crinoline, a staggering along between rows of people who give place to the departing, and each thinking over an obituary; the passenger goes down the steps into that great grave, the city; the door is shut, and on the omnibus moves again like life, until the next one’s time and place are reached, when the same process is re-enacted.

Meanwhile, like life, the vacant seat is soon occupied by another taken up by the wayside; and so the omnibus, like the great congregation of existence, is varying ever, never so full that there is not room for more. If you keep your seat until near, or quite to the station, like him who reaches the “three score years and ten,” the chances are that few or none of those that started with you are still your companions, and you must go down the steps alone, and no one misses you. All along the way you see new faces, and forms, and fashions; no two alike; each on a different errand, each for a different destination; some, the workers, with a little bundle, some with hard hands, some with unsoiled gloves.

Look out of the window as you ride, and life is passing you this way and that; the pedestrian who keeps abreast, or falls behind; the equestrian who dashes by your slow motion like High Flyer or Lecompte; and there, too, is the toiling drudge harnessed to his cart and heavy load, or the donkey beneath his disproportioned burden. You pass the splendid mansion and its luxurious inhabitants; you pass, too, the hovel and its squalid inmates. Your city is humanity, the street you travel is life’s avenue, along which the wheels of destiny still roll you onward. Now the late shower of prosperity may have lain in the dust, or a hot sun may have dried it, and a fresh breeze, or a squall may roll the stifling particles through the open windows—just like life. Close the windows and you stifle with pent up air, and respiration becomes a burden. Open the sashes and the chill winds comes whiffing in, full of colds, cramps, and rheumatism.

Opposite, sits beauty in satin and ribbons, and by your side, ugliness with a disagreeable breath. Here is a subject of sympathetic instinct that makes the ride pleasant, and you regret to see the fair, small hand raised to pull the string; and there is your antipathy, whose touch makes you shrink with aversion, and you bless the fortune that puts him down at the corner—just like life. I often ride in an omnibus for the lessons it teaches me, for the views I get of humanity in that democratic coach—the royal carriage of the people. There I am the equal of the millionaire, and I see him move from the noisy conveyance to the marble steps of his palace with as much indifference as I do the poor Irish servant with her bundle to find entrance to the kitchen by the side door. I listen to the vapid panegyrics of a prim gentleman, in elegant attire, as he talks morality and essays possession of exquisite taste. And I am not surprised if, when looking back after him when he has jauntingly stepped down from the ignoble car, to see him pull the bell at the door where virtue never enters—just like life.

... Yes, the omnibus is a moving panorama; a life on wheels; an age spent in a half hour’s ride; an education at a bit charge; an experience for which you hand the driver a half dollar and get as change, a ride, eight tickets, and – in the evening – a short quarter from the knavish driver. … 

For more on the Hesperian and its editor, Hermione Day, see Marion Tingling, (1980/1981) "Hermione Day and the Hesperian," California History 
59 (4):282-289. 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Soft Cities, Old and New

Here is the abstract for the paper I'm presenting tomorrow at the AAG meeting in DC, as part of an interesting panel on Digital Urban Revolutions:

How best to theorize the “smart” or data-driven city, without fetishizing the digital-analog divide? In this paper I turn to the image of the “soft city,” invoked by Jonathan Raban (1974) as a foil to the “hard,” planned and governed city of 20th Century modernity. For Raban the soft city is the complex and mercurial lived reality which eludes governance, and even representation. David Harvey (1990) argued that the “soft city” marked a loss of faith in grand modernist narratives, and in the “hard” technologies of governance and progress (indeed, almost all of Raban’s examples of the “hard city” are Latourian immutable mobiles). Harvey denounced Raban’s subjectivism for losing sight of the power structures shaping both hard and soft cities, and thus foreclosing the potential for revolutionary critique. In recent years the image of Raban’s “soft city” has gained renewed attention by advocates of digital platforms for managing and organizing urban space, favoring “soft” regulation by software-enabled platforms (Hill 2010, Skelton 2016). Ironically, advocates for the “new soft city” express a hopeful confidence in the new soft technologies of governance that are rolling out to replace the old hard technologies which Raban originally criticized. I argue that these multiple views of the soft city—Raban’s, Harveys, and the “new soft city”—can be taken together as one ambivalent locus of discourse, what Foucault called a problematization, which situates both the liberatory potential and the dystopian perils of the digital city within a longer history of technologies and politics in urban space. 

Click here to see the abstracts for the full panel.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What A Hackman Sees

A hack rolls along 5th Avenue in 1881 (detail of a photo held by the New York Public Library).

From Glimpses of Gotham, by Samuel MacKeever, 1880:

I know a very nice fellow who drives a hack for a living. It is his own vehicle, and he naturally takes a pride in it, as he does in his horses, which are always neatly groomed.

It is his own choice that he works at night instead of daytime. He is something of a student of human character like myself, and he avers that the pursuit of the occupation is much more entertaining at night than in the garish, vulgar day.

And then again he makes more. There is always some eccentricity about people who take carriages after midnight, which is just as apt to find expression in a liberal system of payment as in any other manner.

I must be very careful to explain that my hackman, with whom I have just had a long talk, must not be confounded with those disreputable fellows who stand in with burglars. He is an honest whip, and during all the time that I have known and hired him I have detected nothing wrong in his character. I first made his acquaintance when there was an all-night eating and drinking saloon in the basement at Clinton place and Broadway. His hack stood outside.

He knows all about the disreputable members of his fraternity, however, and has told me many a story of their collusion with thieves. The burglar has frequently escaped owing to a hack being in a dark alley ready for him to jump into and bid defiance to the pursuing police.

There was a case about two years ago where a robber got away successfully with his swag owing to fleet horses, and amused himself furthermore by firing a revolver through the back window at the policemen.

The Jehu of my acquaintance haunts the railroad ferries, and generally gets a fare. One of the most mysterious that he ever had he picked up at Desbrosses street at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was a young girl from Philadelphia who took his carriage and told him to drive anywhere until daybreak. She had no baggage.

" ' But it is cold and damp, Miss. Had you not better stop at a hotel, or with some friends?' I asked her.

" She looked at me sadly—my eye, but she was pretty—and said: “ I have no friends. Drive till the sun rises. I will pay you.'

" So I did. I remember that it was down near the Battery I had gotten to by sunup. It was a Spring morning and the birds were singing, while the waves in the bay had just begun to glisten. I got down and looked in. She was dead! stone dead, with the revolver still in her hand and a purplish hole in her temple. She had so arranged a shawl and her handkerchief that the blood had not soiled my carriage a bit If it had I would not have been ruined, for she had pinned a $50 note to the lace of the coach, with a penciled line on a piece of paper, saying it was for me."

" And what did you do ?"

" I drove her to the Morgue, wondering all the while how I never heard the report of the revolver. She must have done it during the clatter made by some market wagons from Long Island that I got mixed up with. After leaving the body I informed the police. Nothing was found upon her, and the chief of police in Philadelphia could get no trace. They buried her up the river."

New York City hacks wait in front of a 5th Avenue hotel in the 1880s (detail of a photo held by the New York Public Library).

Cabby tells curious tales about the balls at the Academy. He says that he is frequently told by the gentleman, after the lady is assisted into the vehicle, to drive up to Central Park at a walk. He has then been requested to drive to High Bridge, or anywhere else. Sometimes on these occasions the most violent scenes take place, and one night the woman screamed to him for assistance. It was at a lonely place on the Kingsbridge road, and about 3 AM. He halted his horses, jumped down and opened the door; the young woman, who was costumed as a page beneath a pink domino and mask, springing out almost into his arms, begging him to protect her.

" That I certainly would. I then asked what was the matter, but got no satisfaction. She cried and he laughed. It was easy to surmise, however. I ordered him from the carriage, and then put her back, she telling me where to go. I left him standing in the road in his full dress suit, calmly smoking a cigarette ! The lady lived in a swell house near the Windsor. She made me come around the next day and gave me $10, although I had been paid for the night's work by the Lothario in the dress suit."

" Have you never gotten in trouble about these mysterious night fares?"

" Once only. A young man picked me up on Broadway and took me way over to Hoboken. We stopped at a house from which a young woman, all muffled up, and so weak that she had to bo carried, was brought out. I suspected something wrong then, but I was younger than I am now and the night was wasted, and I resolved to stick it out. They had me drive to a place in Grand street—a disreputable-looking house, with a light burning in the second-story window. I got a glimpse of the young woman's face as the young man and an old lady helped her out. It was pale as death. She turned her head, and seemed to look right at me as if asking for aid. An old wretch in a skull-cap came to the door with a lamp.

" It was an abortion case, of course. The girl died, and when they advertised for the hackman I drove down and gave myself up. I believe that the old man got ten years. The young one jumped the town, and I never heard of his being caught."

He told me a great many more curious things; how an old gray-bearded man took him at Courtlandt street ferry once, and it was a young, smooth-faced fellow who got out at the Grand Central Depot, where he had been told to go.

On another occasion a veiled lady, carrying a baby, hired him to catch the midnight Washington express. He caught it, but when he opened the door the woman was missing, and the baby, tucked up in a corner, was all that remained. He turned it over to the police. The woman must have jumped out while he was going at full speed. In the case of the old man, my cabby thinks he was a criminal, fleeing from justice, who used the cab as a dressing-room in which to remove his disguise.

See also:

Friday, November 9, 2018

“The Bonds of Telegraphy:” class and gender politics of the urban telegraph

Advertisement for American District Telegraph, by Schmidt Label Co., San Francisco; early 1880s. (Image courtesy of the Bancroft)

I'll be presenting a paper on the urban telegraph this weekend at the Social Science History Association meeting in Phoenix. Here is the abstract:

Despite the well-worn analogy of the early telegraph as a “Victorian internet,” the story of the intra-urban telegraph—which might be called a “city-wide web”— has been almost completely neglected. In the 1870s, the American District Telegraph Company developed a dial-based interface that simplified the use of the telegraph, making possible a network connecting the businesses and homes of wealthy subscribers to a city of services. The interconnectivity provided by the urban telegraph promised both to transform urban space in the bourgeoisie’s image, and to professionalize the occupations—messengers, firemen, police, and hackdrivers—whose services were ordered through the telegraph callbox. More than simply a communication device, the urban telegraph promised to alter the class and gender constellations of advantage and disadvantage relating to public space and mobility.

This paper will focus on how the urban telegraph realigned advantage and disadvantage for both customers and workers, in particular though the provision of dispatched hack service. Telegraph dispatch increased the disadvantage of working-class hackdrivers vis-a-vis their wealthy customers, by constraining drivers’ movements, behavior, and control over the negotiation of fares and acquisition of passengers. At the same time, the urban telegraph brought new advantages to women customers, whose access to public space and mobility were increased, though not without controversy. Although the urban telegraph was quickly supplanted by the spread of the telephone, its story provides insight into the ongoing search for technological fixes for the complicated class and gender politics of urban space.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Reconstructing the Jehus:" How the Telegraph Tamed the "Hack Menace" in San Francisco

My new article on the history of how the first dispatched cab service was invented in San Francisco, way back in 1877, has been published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Urban History:

There is also a pre-print version (aka a rough draft) available for free download:

Abstract: In the late 1870s, the American District Telegraph in San Francisco introduced an intra-urban telegraph network, marketed to businesses and upper-class homes. Subscribers, needing no knowledge of telegraphy, used a dial to order pre-set services, such as messengers, police, and coal delivery. One of the service’s most noted innovations was the ability to summon hired carriages through the callbox. To provide hack service through its network, the ADT bought up many of the city’s carriages and consolidated them into the United Carriage Company, one of the first dispatch-oriented cab fleets anywhere. By controlling cab dispatch, the UCC also promised to reform the unruly occupation of hackdrivers. Though the telegraph box was soon supplanted by the telephone, it had put in motion a reorganization of the city’s cab industry which quickly became intricated with the politics of class and control in public space.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eighteen)

Gone To His Reward

Mike Brannigan; from the El Paso Herald, July 24, 1899.

(Read Part Seventeen: A Joke on Somebody)
(Read Part One: The First Cabdriver in San Francisco?)

From the El Paso Herald, July 24th, 1899:


Mike Brannigan, the Hackman, Died Suddenly Last Night

Was Widely Known

He Numbered His Friends and Acquaintances Among Millionaires and Could Secure a Pass on Any Road in the United States.

Colonel Mike Brannigan, the hackman and one of the best known residents of El Paso, died suddenly this morning at four o’clock of heart failure at his residence on North Oregon street.

Mike, as he was familiarly called by all his friends and acquaintances, was slightly ill yesterday and Dr. Justice called to see him during the day and left a prescription. The sick man complained of pains in his left side in the region of his heart, but the trouble was not considered serious.

Last night he was restless until about 3 o’clock. He talked constantly about the business of the morrow and was up and down during the night.

“Just about 4 o’clock,” said Mrs. Brannigan, “I told him he had better leave a sofa in which he was sleeping and get in bed. A few minutes later I heard him breathe heavily and went to him. I shook him violently and told him to get up, but he did not stir and continued to gasp for breath.

“I ran to a neighbor’s and awakened them and asked them to send for a priest, but before the priest arrived poor Mike was gone.”

The funeral will take place tomorrow morning under direction of Emerson and Berrien. It will be held at the Catholic church, at 8 o’clock, and requiem mass will be said.

Deceased came to this city from California and had been a resident 13 years. He was born in Ireland and was 70 years old. In 1846 he landed in New Orleans and during the gold excitement in California left New Orleans for that state and was there during the rush of ‘49 and ‘50. Mike was known from San Francisco to New York and had friends among all the millionaires who prospected in California in the early days. He and millionaire John W. Mackay were boon companions in 1849 and whenever he passed this point he and Mike always spent a social hour together talking about old times.

Mike was intimately acquianted with the late Senator Hearst and some time ago the widow presented the hackman with a double harness trimmed with silver on account of the friendship existing between him and her husband.

It was Brannigan’s boast and pride that he could get a pass over any railroad in the United States on account of his influence with millionaire railroad men.

Brannigan leaves a widow, but no children. He was married 24 years ago in Galveston. His nephews, Edward and Pat and Jim Sexton will arrive from Chihuahua and John Sexton from Casas Grandes to attend the funeral.


“Mike Brannigan was a man with a heart as big as a house,” said Mr. Berrien this morning, after he had called at the residence of deceased to look after the body.

“He was known to every man, woman and child in El Paso, and nobody ever asked him for a favor and was turned away empty handed. He was lacking in education, probably, but he had many noble qualities.”

Mike Brannigan led an eventful career in the early days in California, if reports be true. Prior to the time he married and settled down his life was full of exciting incidents.

He was a gold digger in ‘49 and not meeting with any great amount of success concluded to seek his fortune in another direction. He owned and operated hacks both in Sacramento and San Francisco, California, and made money. Mike was of a turbulent and restless disposition when he was young, however, if reports be true, and got into some trouble in California, when the population was unsettled and lawless, and was given notice by the vigilantes to leave town. He went to New York and the entire press of the country was in an uproar about it. Mike was interviewed by reporters of all the leading papers and quickly became widely known. He threatened to sue the city but nothing ever came of it. He afterwards came to El Paso and located and during his residence here has been exceedingly hard working and attentive to his business and made money while his competitors slept.

He used to tell a good story on himself about selling a Chihuahua dog to a tourist. He had a little Newfoundland pup and sold it for a fancy price to a man who wanted to buy one of the famous Chihuahua dogs. The man took the dog east and it grew to be the size of a burro.

Months afterward he came to El Paso and upbraided Mike for deceiving him. Mike said:

“Faith, if you had kept that dog in Texas it would have been a Chihuahua dog, but I couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t grow any bigger, if you took it east.”

The tourist had to laugh and admit that the joke was on him.

From the El Paso Herald, July 25th, 1899:

Mike Brannigan’s Funeral.

Mike Brannigan’s funeral occurred at 8 o’clock this morning. It was attended by a large number of friends of the deceased.

Requiem mass was said at the Catholic church and the funeral procession afterwards wended its way to the cemetery.

Brannigan, who had been a hackman in this city so many years, owned and operated the first hack in San Francisco at the time when it cost $100 to take a ride in a carriage.

El Paso's legendary Concordia Cemetery, where Mike Brannigan is buried. (NPR)

(Next time: The Last Word)