On being touched, but not obliged, in Northfield, Minnesota

Downtown Northfield, Minnesota. Image: 123dieinafire/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 1998, Phil Smith has been developing the concept of ‘mythogeography’, “a paranoid, exploratory, detective-like approach to space and place”. He published his first book on the subject in 2010.

In this extract from his new book, “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota”, he writes about “being touched, but not obliged”.

On my first morning in Northfield, exploring on Division Street, I met Helen on the doorstep of the Prayer Room. She caught me obsessively studying the way the step outside its front door had begun to bubble ectoplasmically; the sun or the frost had disrupted its ceramic surface and a new pattern of unhuman forces was brazen.

The praying folk began to descend to the street from their upper room. Deploying my best ‘Khlestakhovian Inscrutability’ – a tactic I use in the street, offering a minimum of response (while remaining polite) so that others can fill the quiet with their own ideas and spaces – I engaged gently in a series of conversations (with one precant it was something about comparing the watches of our dead fathers that we were both wearing) until I was asked in to see the Prayer Room.

I was asked if hands could be laid upon me for a prayer. Although I was clear that I was not a believer, I was pleased to accept the offer. Pleased because I felt all these strangers’ hands on me, without aggression; my eyes were open and I saw the shelves of peculiar videos and books, and I heard the words of the prayer as the leader sought in curling sentences to somehow address the immediate future of someone he knew nothing about.

I was re-imagined in prayer in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community. I was 4,000 miles from home and on my first day in town I was held intimately by six strangers in an upstairs room.

Such encounters, when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or simply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around.


Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of that abyss we all hang onto. In a place that was strange to me, it was a meeting in myth on that first morning in Northfield. I discovered a capacity to shape and hold a kind of void within; around which others had then woven something better than I could.

A void worth sharing. 

There is always an essential ambivalence in such unbalanced but efficacious connections, even when they are very intense. They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures.

When I left Northfield I was more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path – its pilgrimage, even – beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions.

So, now there is an obligation that arises from my encounter in the Prayer Room, though not one intended by the supplicants there. My part in the upper room octopus and my stay in Northfield in general have made me aware of how little of the potential, the urgency or the route of the mythogeographical pilgrimage I have shared with others. I am trying to go a little further here.

Rethinking Mythography is out now from Triarchy Press.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.