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The VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Program Blog

Huh #40: An interview with Adam Greenfield

April 3, 2018

Adam Greenfield is a London-based writer and urbanist. His most recent book is Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (Verso, 2017). VCFA’s Ian Lynam recently took some time out to interview Greenfield for Perpetual Beta.

Read on…

Which writers have affected you the most throughout your career?

Affected? I mean, if we’re talking about the writers who most influenced my idea of the fundamental cadence of a sentence, or the way language can be used to impart information, we’d have to go back to the science fiction I read in early childhood—so Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Phil Dick, maybe a little later Ursula Le Guin and J.G. Ballard. Orwell and Huxley—I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time when I was 10 or 11, and its rhythms still structure the way I think when I sit down to write. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren made a huge impression on me as well, with its circularity, its density and its totally unambiguous descriptions of various kinds of sex. And then William Gibson blew my head to pieces with Neuromancer when I was 16. So if I’m being honest, a whole lot of my sense of what writing is for and what it can do comes from there.

Rock criticism of the golden age of Rolling Stone and Creem was hugely important to me. We’re talking Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus—Marcus’s article on the Sex Pistols in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll was an absolutely pivotal piece of writing for me, the way it wove together erudition and verve and structure. The discographies in the same book were also crucial, just lists of band names and album and song titles. It was difficult to get a hold of indie records in those days, so the language arrived in my life even before the music itself in many cases. (Just the name “Throbbing Gristle” had an extraordinary power to shock and evoke that the actual band, when I finally heard them many years later, couldn’t possibly live up to, try as they might.) Similarly, I bought Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style the same week I picked up Neuromancer, and his evocation of Genet might have done more for me than his descriptions of mods, rude boys and punks.

Later on, a group of thinkers I think of as the mid-century empirical humanists became important to me: Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, Bernard Rudofsky, and Christopher Alexander. Their prose tends to be straightforward, plainspoken, declarative, and only occasionally elegant, but as a genre it’s just luminous with good sense and the feeling that the world might be put to rights if only we paid attention and valued the ordinary intelligence already everywhere around us. I might put Hannah Arendt into this category as well, though I didn’t discover her until after college.

And finally, confessedly, I have a weakness for theory-speak of the Deleuzian type and vintage. It flies in the face of everything I believe, but there’s a lyricism to it I just cannot help but dig.

What do you feel are the biggest impediments between theory and practice?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but capitalism.

In a last-ditch effort to see if it could be done at all, I tried to inscribe my values in a functioning enterprise between 2010 and early 2012, and had my ass handed to me. Some of that might have been down to my deficiencies as an operations guy or a manager of people, certainly, maybe even most of it. But I concluded that, at least in the technology space, you cannot at present design systems that treat people with respect, and refuse to sell them out or exploit them on any level, and also make a profit.

My practice set out to design the elements of a networked urbanism—so, street furniture and signage and mobile applications that would orient, inform and empower people moving through the twenty-first century city. Bruno Latour talks about the ways in which aspects of an idea get “translated” in the attempt to recruit collaborators to a project, and therefore secure greater purchase in the world for it, and in my case, the translation involved trying to discover a viable business model for the studio. How could we furnish people with access to useful information as a matter of right, on behalf of a municipality who considered that important enough—valuable enough in itself, and generative of sufficient downstream value — that they’d be willing to invest in it, in a way that was economically viable for us? And what we pretty swiftly discovered is that we couldn’t. Our clients always wanted to monetize the interaction, generally through data mining and targeted advertising, and the trouble is that all the ways to do that ethically and respectfully aren’t nearly as revenue-producing as the alternatives.

I can accept as a designer that in our world, what is technically possible is always deformed by the need to push designs through some kind of economic logic. Fine, OK. What I cannot accept is when that economic logic governs every choice that is made to the point that it disrespects the user, thoroughly degrades the user experience, and undermines the product’s fundamental value proposition…and the client either can’t tell the difference, or just plain doesn’t care.

You see this kind of thing, for example, with the trash garbage LinkNYC and LinkUK kiosks, which haven’t been designed to serve anyone’s needs but those of the consortium that produces them, and the recipient of the revenue that they generate through the visual blight of display advertising. Whatever these kiosks’ claim to furnish information, they’re fundamentally designed around serving ad impressions, and don’t even do that well or with any craft or taste or delicacy. And when you dig into the set of business relationships behind their introduction, you discover why this has been allowed to happen, and whose interests are actually being served, and you can’t help but conclude that the whole thing stinks to high heaven. It’s about everything but informing and empowering ordinary city dwellers.

You’re probably thinking that this should have been self-evident to anyone born with the ordinary complement of senses, and you’d be right. Apparently, though, I needed to learn it the hard way. It was a crushing experience, emotionally and financially, but also super-clarifying.

"Radical Technologies is Adam Greenfield’s latest book on the “colonisation of everyday life by information processing”. If Brian Eno says, “This is an essential book.”, you should probably check it out…

Radical Technologies is Adam Greenfield’s latest book on the “colonisation of everyday life by information processing”. If Brian Eno says, “This is an essential book.”, you should probably check it out…

Who is your most/least Bauhausler?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Bauhaus per se has never figured in my intellectual life. I sure do like me some Mies, though: the Seagram Building and the plaza in front of it is still probably my single favorite composition in all of New York City. So for all that he’s problematic—and boy howdy is he ever problematic—there’s your answer.

If “crisis” is the basis of criticism, what crises draws you out most as a writer and critic and spur you to write?

Nothing has ever lit a fire under my ass like the sense that the real adults are gone and fled from the scene—that we have to be the adults now, because if we don’t step up to the challenge, then who will?

And part of what that means to me is retrieving our history as writers and designers and thinkers, connecting our work with the work of those who came before us, and situating ourselves and our work in a current running across time. So I want to talk about advocacy planning. I want to talk about Sherry Arnstein. I want to talk about “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” I want to talk about all of this incredible work from the late 1960s and 1970s, not because it was perfect, or because it doesn’t have anything to learn from our present intersectional moment, but because it was generated at enormous personal and collective expense, it still contains useful insights and lessons for us, and it was suppressed.

You know, in the city I grew up in, there was a whole parallel infrastructure of schools and health clinics, childcare groups and community gardens and food co-ops and even housing: all self-organized things that people had willed into being themselves, outside commercial or governmental channels, because those channels were incapable of furnishing them with the tools of self-determination. These alternative structures, again, might not have been perfect—I’m sure, in particular, that they were heir to all the unconscious racism and sexism and homophobia and ableism that saturated the society of that era. But they existed. They served the people. And Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher came along and tore that whole fabric of community institutions to shreds. And all the knowledge that was bound up in those institutions, all the lessons that had been learned at such great cost? All of that went out the window. And then a few years later we get the internet, and we get John Perry Barlow, and we get so caught up in the rhetoric and the excitement and the “bodiless exultation” of that moment that we didn’t even notice what we’d lost. What was taken from us.

And I’m here to say that if we’re going to survive the challenges we’re now confronted with, we’re going to need to disinter that knowledge so we have recourse to it. We’ll need to pick it up, dust it off, and retrofit it for our own present, more complicated and intersectional circumstances. My guess is that the effort of doing so will pay off in more ways than we’ll ever know—like, who could possibly have guessed that all those Murray Bookchin books going furry with dust and unread at the back of the anarchist bookshop would turn out to inspire Kurdish women’s rising up, 30 or 40 years down the line, and seizing the power that was theirs by right all along? More than anything I have to say myself, that’s what’s animating me at the moment: the urgent necessity of reminding ourselves that we’ve seen heavy manners before, and developed the insights and tools to deal with it, and those tools could still be useful to us.

Does the notion of an increasingly post-critical world scare you?

Well…sure. Or not so much a post-critical world as a post-rational one. 

Look, I think rationality is overrated in some quarters, often very badly so. I think there are important, foundational truths about our sojourn in the house of being that cannot be measured, or even spoken. I think there are important limits to the notions of objectivity and scientific detachment, and good historical and practical reasons why we need to hold the Enlightenment project up to a certain amount of question. But that doesn’t mean I think we should accede to a world in which there’s no way to agree that anything is true, not even operationally and contingently and for a limited set of purposes.

I think we’ve by now come to understand that the notion that seemed so heady and so dizzingly liberatory when it was first presented to us in the 1980s, in the guise of postmodernism—that there’s no ground beneath us, that everything we encounter is merely a play of signs—actually and in practice serves reactionary ends. It goes back, again, to “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”: the appearance of formlessness and chaos only serves to mask the ability of the powerful to enact policies and allocations of resource that are preferential to themselves and their own interests. What’s actually liberatory, it turns out, is structure—consensual, discussed, deliberated, agreed upon, but structure nonetheless. If we’re ever to stand together, we have to have ground to stand on. And that means, ultimately, that we have to discover mutually-agreeable procedures for the determination of truth. We can always agree that that truth is contingent and local, we can always stipulate that its articulation is determined by our positionality. We can agree about all those things. But in order for collective action to be effective, we have to found it in a shared account of our circumstances that we all recognize as true. And whether we’re talking about police violence or access to health care or anthropogenic climate change, we’re a very, very long way from that right now, and moving further away by the day. By the hour, even. That’s what I find most distressing about the moment we find ourselves in.

Well put, sir—this sentiment is echoed by many of us. Thank you very much, Adam. We really appreciate your time.

More “Huh” coming soon!