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.

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