London, a soggy spring morning. Indifferent commuter faces insipidly glow under the white glare of mobile phone screens, and tired eyes glaze over as soft beats hum through wireless headphones. A biometric smart watch strapped to a gentleman’s wrist vibrates and flashes with notifications, and he smiles in response. A minor sensory disruption. There is usually no need to be consciously alert in this daily ritual. The carriage comes to an abrupt halt, prompting the bleeding of black sodden jackets out of the sliding doors. The rush of bodies gently ebbs away, as people peel off toward surface level. Two minutes later the cardiac cycle of the city repeats. A systematic urban organ undergirded by the hyperdynamic fusing of technological networks, connections, and transactions, all working harmoniously to maintain the façade of an indefectible and impenetrable digital city. – April 2019
Attempting to locate, or even contemplate, the digital city under today’s capitalist regime is often an unruly task. It is not a thing, a place, or a medium; but a constellation (Pettman 2016). It is an arcane assemblage of evolving elements that immaculately lattice together existing urban ecologies and infrastructures with novel digital articulations that are firmly rooted in the virtual, the programmable, and the radical (Greenfield 2018). As a result, the contemporary city is being increasingly imagined, performed, and viscerally felt through a series of disorientating multiplicities. As a consequence, our experiences teeter precariously between the old and the new, the tangible and intangible, desired and repulsed, the voluntary and involuntary. This situation can make it feel as though our lives are becoming more interconnected and intelligent in the virtual technological era, but also that our engagements with the urban are comparatively inarticulate and irrational (Fisher 2009). As such, the digital city seems to exist within its own compelling reality, a dimension in which technical objects are frequently iconised for complying with the aesthetic vision of hyper-modernity, but where all other interactions (human and non-human) can be systemically collapsed through psychoanalytic readings of impulsivity, seduction, sentimentalism, and calculation.
Adding further complexity is the inconsistent and frequently interchangeable use of culturally loaded terms such as ‘digital city, smart city, cyber city, [and] intelligent city’ within the mass media of late (Scott 2016: 1). Oddly, though, these ubiquitous phrases seem to have become synonymous with futuristic sci-fi perceptions of cities that exist ‘out there’, rather than within our own metropolitan experiences. In such imaginations, the city is composed of ultra-high-tech data clusters that coherently subtend into longitudes and latitudes of codable logic, allowing the virtual to seamlessly unfold onto the material world (Scott 2016). As ‘the borders between the city and cyberspace become blurred’ (Scott 2016: 1), the streets adopt a digital dimension, becoming as trackable as they are walkable, the sky is imagined as a befitting host to cloud storage hubs, and the body is reduced to a data trace; mined and exploited until all that is left is an emotional pulse to be quantified, commodified, and only reified in relation to its economic value.
Whilst these sci-fi visions hold the potential to stir some worrisome imaginations, the ability for the digital city, particularly against the backdrop of late capitalism, to mobilise these ambitions is rapidly becoming a reality. Although it can seem as if the digital territorialisation of our metropolitan landscape is occurring beyond its own momentum, the broad repertoire of techniques being actively used to harness the respective domains of the streets, the air and, most pivotally for this piece, the body, are very much transpiring with little friction or resistance (Greenfield 2018).
In a return to the opening excerpt – a journal entry documenting one of my own psychogeographic ventures – I found myself drawn to the performative parallels between the digital city, the underground tube, and the human body. Specifically, with relation to the kinds of ‘pulses’ which were evident at each scale, whether that be mechanic, fiscal, cardiac or emotional; or sometimes a combination of all four.
The Heart of the City
In perhaps an outdated, or simply undesired, hark back to nineteenth-century organicist “body-city nexus” narratives, discursive and planning practices alike have long recognised the body as a symbol for negotiating hierarchized control, order and functionality within urban terrains. Such approaches have devised metropolitan landscapes to be fully conscious, efficiently operating around powerful institutional ‘organs’ that aid the maintenance of human productive organisations, labour forces, communities, and cultures. In this vision, the city is synonymous to a mechanical body, and its ‘pulse’ lies in its expressed economic and political desires to maintain hegemonic influence over aggregate groups of consumers and producers. Contemporary attempts to update this narrative have sought to mirror the neural and the neuro with the digital, allowing metropolitan landscapes to be understood as teeming with a virtual buzz in an “interconnected realm of human interaction” (Gandy 2005: 5). Here, the pervasive presence of technology is likened to the behaviours of the brain’s central nervous system, controlling and governing on an individual level, rather than a collective.
“Here, the pervasive presence of technology is likened to the behaviours of the brain’s central nervous system, controlling and governing on an individual level, rather than a collective.”
The Underground as Veins
Looking closer in, comparisons have also been noted between the underground tube’s mechanic and repetitive rhythms, and the vascular composition of the human subject. Where, in a post entitled ‘The Underground as Body’ (London Geographies: 2018), corporeal functionality was again used to describe the magnetic pull of individuals into and around the city; “The veins carry de-oxygenated blood from the tissues to the heart, in resemblance; the tubes bring in the lifeless souls of outer London and inspire them with hope and stimulus…The culture enforced by the city’s media pumps blood through ‘The veins’ of London, and this central magnetism becomes somewhat of a compulsive necessity for Londoners, just as the blood needs to be moved to the heart to survive”.
Whilst these elucidations are certainly compelling, they seem to posit the temperament of the heart as ontologically separate from any notion of sentiment or emotion. Instead, the heart becomes impassively quantified, both in reality and rhetoric, in relation to its benefit to the metropolitan systems that rely on its ergonomic ‘pulse’ to survive (whether that be in relation to neoliberal, capitalist or bureaucratic motivations). Problematically then, the heart regularly becomes a discursive tool in urban dialogues seeking to parallel its inherent biological capability to bring life, or indeed bring control, to the city; all whilst giving the subjects that dwell within these municipal locales little agency or action to resist these prevailing demands (Gandy 2005). Afterall, we are just ‘lifeless souls’ waiting to be inspired by the stimulating spectacle of the urban.
“Afterall, we are just ‘lifeless souls’ waiting to be inspired by the stimulating spectacle of the urban.”
Although knotty in places, these analyses are hardly surprising when we consider the rapid renegotiation of everyday life that has occurred at the hands of banal consumerist technologies invading almost every spatio-temporal and scalic dimension of reality. Now, even the most sincere matters of the heart and mind tendto grow ever obsolete, unless they can be observed, captured, tracked, and placed into the chaotic ‘assemblage of protocols, sensing regimes, capabilities and desires’ that the compulsive obsession with the ‘internet of things’ manifests (Greenfield 2018: 32).
Quantifying the heart
Even at the most intimate scale, capitalist ambitions to quantify all aspects of the internal and external body are evident. The recent swell of wearable biometric devices from on the consumer market that work to decode, document, and recode the traces of our presence in the world emphasises this. From innovative technology targeted at harnessing the intangible realm of lucid dreaming via sleep masks and bracelets that send vibrations and flashing LED lights deep into our subconscious in the hope of triggering autonomy in our dream-worlds. To the downright bizarre, such as the i.Con smart condom that calculates calories burnt during intercourse, speed of thrust, and even allows comparison to other users across the globe.However, no other devices seem to have infiltrated the market more successfully than the smartwatch, which is largely a credit to its wide-ranging functionality. Now even the most basic models now track our steps taken, length of stride, distance traversed and at what incline; to more elaborate models that measure ‘heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and even perspiration – biological primitives from which higher-order, harder-to-define psychoemotional states like stress, boredom or arousal can be inferred’ (Greenfield 2018: 33).
In essence, these watches act as an interface or ‘hinge’ between our bodies and the virtual network, quietly harvesting our biometric data by appealing to the motivational psychologies of self-knowledge and lifestyle improvement (Whiston 2015). In real-time, our once illegible corporeal practices – such as simply having a pulse, are transformed and rendered into various jaunty graphs, statistics, and valuations, giving rise to an enumerative body perspective driven by brutal regimes of obsessive self-monitoring under late capitalist mindsets (Whiston 2015).
Rarely addressed, though, are issues surrounding the reductive languages these smartwatch applications stimulate. By facilitating numeric narratives of ‘self-mastery’ (Whiston 2015), body quantification becomes a façade for ferociously muting the epistemological and ontological weight of what it truly means to traverse city streets, to feel your heart pulsate from feelings of desire and love, or even to simply breathe. As a result, these unique ephemeral encounters become compacted into a slurry of info-visuals seeking to quantify matters of consciousness, feeling, and will into digestible but nonetheless insincere reverberations of data.
Perhaps, as a Debordian perspective might suggest, this is the quintessential design of the contemporary capitalist city – to bewilder already vulnerable consumer-spectators by dismantling any cultural, social or symbolic elaborations that could rupture the hegemonic illusion of the “Society of the Spectacle” (Debord 1994). As Adam Greenfield posits, the smartphone, a ‘signature artefact of our age’ (Greenfield 2018: 9) and more recently the smartwatch, are now indispensable mediators of the capitalist vision. These ‘glowing slabs of polycarbonate’, Greenfield writes, ‘have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition’ (Greenfield 2018: 9).
In such interpretations, mundane urban spaces; such as the London Underground, become a vortex for the indoctrination of “capitalist realist” logics (Fisher 2009: 1). Here, under constant bombardment from virtual paraphernalia, we become entrapped in a state of inertia. An impasse of desire compounding the belief that there is no alternative to the ‘densely interconnected ecosystems of commerce, practice and experience’ (Greenfield 2018: 12) offered to us by virtual interfaces such as the smartwatch and mobile phone. It is visible in tube carriages that are now uncannily haunted by zombified consumers, as though hypnotised and suspended in a kind of ‘networked solipsism’ (Pettman 2016: 7). As if alienated from our own cognitions, we shamelessly crave familiar and habitual consumptions of digital medias in captivating, but nonetheless sinister, spaces of synchronised attention. As Dominic Pettman (2016: XIII) writes, “If you dare lift your eyes from the screen even for a moment, you might miss the tweet or the post or the update that promises to change your life. Links are assumed to have a lifespan of only a few days, if that. Everything is in flux. And yet each day feels the same as the one before”.
Deliberating this all-permeating sense of capitalist realism, it is no wonder that the (dis)illusion of the digital city has incited a rampant loss of libido to engage with the unmediated physical world. Instead, an endemic of lassitude and malaise; the exhausting feeling that nothing is new nor satisfying enough, has resulted in an insatiable metabolism for instant gratification and validation all harboured in the embryonic fear of being unread, untagged or unseen (Pettman 2016). Dating apps, online fast-food services, social media, gaming platforms, and biometric smart watch applications almost exclusively work to harness algorithmic data that seeks to smooth our semi-instinctive thoughts, actions, impulses, and emotions by reducing them to a single pleasure that can be fulfilled immediately. Whether that be sex, hunger, communication, fun or bodily monitoring, our consciousness is being colonised through the “pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations, and hopes by capitalist culture” (Fisher 2009: 9), and then re-dispersed into the networked sphere for further consumption and approval (Pettman 2016).
Perhaps this is why we feel so intrinsically detached from one and other, the physical world around us, and to an extent our own selves. Rather than uniting us with potential allies, devices like the smartwatch ‘hypermodulate’ and disperse our interactions with the digital into a multitude of different micro-experiences, that are simultaneously available and unavailable, connected and disconnected, desired and undesired (Pettman 2016). As a result, the digital city becomes host to multiple calibrated media spectacles, that can redirect our attentions and emotions in order to sustain its “hallucination of presence” (Crary 2014: 29). A plateaued condition of communication, that enables even the most sentimental of gestures to occur at one remove (Plant 1992).
To conclude, Nietzsche solemnly ruminated that the capitalist city is now host to an oversaturated and ‘dangerous mood of cynicism’ (as cited in Fisher 2009: 6), a mindset that makes it difficult to dream of a reality outside of the projections, symbols, and artefacts that have come to determine our mental intuitions and responsive dispositions. Yet when probed, it is evident that the digital city’s integrity is unstable and unfixed. The digital city is no more than a fabrication, a capitalist desire that has thrusted inconsistency upon us, and forced us to adhere to its unjust sense of reality in order to feel valued. Compounded by the belief that every space, psyche, and body is upgradeable, we now inhabit a world of consensual confabulation, a ‘solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies’ (Fisher 2009: 56). Fantasies that are created by capitalist vision and perpetuated by the digital city. However, as the briefly noted psychoanalytic logics of Mark Fisher and Friedrich Nietzsche might suggest, if we can learn to distrust our compulsions for desire, our now encoded emotional pulses, and vacuous longings to be hyper-connected to the digital realm, we can begin to re-attune ourselves with the deeply internalised matters of our hearts. Only then can we rupture our capitalist realism.
Megan Harvey is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her work explores the spatio-temporal dimensions of sleeping and dreaming under 24/7 neoliberal logic by looking at the capitalist processes of sleep corporatisation and commodification. Her research is interdisciplinary in scope, garnering great inspiration from Neuroscience, Psychology, and psychoanalysis to contemplate the radical capacity of dream-space to perform introspective resistances to hegemonic forces of control.
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