What would our lives be like if Amazon or Tinder ran an entire city?
A sci-fi collection explores extreme corporate futures, such as a Tinder-run city where you can swipe left or right for everything from sex to teachers
5 February 2020
Turning a city “smart” is an alluring prospect, for some
Qi Yang/Getty Images
IN STARBUCKS CITY, you can apply to have a pothole filled, just like in any other city. Just specify the size of your hole (Maltesa, Sharpe or Labradoro) and be sure to check whether your neighbourhood requires your asphalt to be ethically sourced.
In recent years, it has become a truism among policy-makers that cities should be optimised in the way corporations are. Turning a city into a is an alluring prospect. It pushes inefficient government bureaucracy out of the way and replaces it with streamlined corporate governance. But to what end?
Two new works of speculative fiction take that question very literally, and their vision of the efficiency endgame shares more DNA with horror than with science fiction, albeit cut with farce.
Because ? Whose priorities are reflected in that word? How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables imagines life if a whole city were run by one of 38 megacorps even now insinuating their way into our lives. One of the co-editors, Mark Graham, an internet geographer at the University of Oxford, asked some academics to write speculative stories or essays about living according to corporate leadership principles espoused by companies from Apple to Pornhub.
The underlying question here is what could possibly go wrong? It is posed, one imagines, with a certain degree of glee.
“We are beyond the point where we can use human frailty as an excuse,” writes Sarah Barns in one stand-out story, “So You Want to Live in a Pivot City?”. She examines a takeover of a city’s carbon economy in the style of Alphabet’s urban innovation arm, Sidewalk Labs.
The way you spend your day is no longer your business, and every choice is measured. Meanwhile, in Tinder City, you swipe left or right for everyone and everything, from sex to teachers and civil servants.
Some pieces are derivative, but among the predictable notes of Black Mirror and Inception lurk strange poetry and unexpected horror: in the city run by Acxiom (one of the world’s biggest ), you get the treatment you deserve – according to your data.
What kind of humans would be able to survive there? Marc-Uwe Kling’s satirical novel QualityLand nurtures that question into full bloom. In QualityLand, every citizen is named after parental careers. Also, everyone rates everyone on every interaction, from work to sex. Enter Melissa Sex-Worker, icily determined to improve her lot. She is aggressively pursuing a higher score because a higher , as in China, creates a more frictionless life.
We are already in the pupal state of such a world. Some people on Instagram get real-life fillers and surgery to replicate the most engaged-with facial contours, . The denizens of LinkedIn (a network of muscular, joyless efficiency) publicise morning routines meant to turn them into perfect entrepreneurs: “4.30: get up. Bulletproof coffee. 5 am: gym while I learn a new language”.
Meanwhile, in QualityLand, robots with bugs get scrapped because fixing them is against the law. But one guy keeps old robots: left to their own devices, the bugs evolve into distinct personalities.
You just watch: in our lifetime, robots will be the only ones smart enough to help us rise above the drive to automate, optimise and homogenise us into robots.
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