Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  10 May 20  by   The Abs-Tract Organization  on  Medium
The Meta-Convergence Continuum

Smart Cities, Systems Change, and Metamodernism

To be sure, I’m not advocating building some elitist utopian ringworld nonsense… This is just a cool image to illustrate a continuum.

“…the guided convergence of technology with natural and social systems to form self-regulating governance platforms will potentially be the solution to what humanity has constructed as our current demise…— Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence (preview first 30 pages here)

Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence

The convergence is happening all around us, funnelling us through a planetary paradigm shift. In these dour times — Scientific American described four “converging crises”; the pandemic, the US political crisis, climate change, economic depression — convergence can enable coordination and mitigate collapse. With that in mind, I am pleased to report on the book Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence: Convergent Systems for Planning, Design, and Operations, by Christopher Grant Kirwan (US) and Zhiyong Fu (China), published by Elsevier Press, May 5th, 2020, where I am credited as editor, researcher, and contributor. The book was a team effort (convergence), led by the two authors who have been working together for a decade and represent an aspirational collaboration between the US and China. Such a partnership and vision are needed now more than ever in these times. The abstract of the book reads:

“Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence offers a comprehensive view of how cities are evolving as smart ecosystems through the convergence of technologies incorporating machine learning and neural network capabilities, geospatial intelligence, data analytics & visualization, sensors, and smart connected objects to name a few. These recent advances in AI move us closer to developing operating systems that simulate human, machine, and environmental patterns from transportation infrastructure to communication networks. Understanding cities as real-time, living, dynamic systems coupled with new tools including generative design allows readers to plan, manage, and optimize city operations, making cities more efficient and sustainable with the ultimate goal of becoming self-regulating.” — blurb on Google Books.

The book is mostly technical, but strives to eschew the naive techno-optimistism or market fundamentalism of conventional smart city hype. Rather, I would describe it as semi-planned techno-opportunism, based on an AI convergence methodology with the understanding that a substantive paradigm shift is needed and is happening. The technological singularity is not a paradigm shift in itself, but requires a new social contract and worldview to match. This book takes a mostly positivistic view of technology combined with humanism, not “a social anthropological or political approach nor a technocratic one.” In this way, it attempts to outline a neutral methodology that accounts for all variables in the evolving context of smart cities to serve all actors and stakeholders equitably.

Given the global scale of the challenge of urbanization and growing populations amidst climate change, the idea of smart cities are a key point of leverage to achieve the necessary and desirable socio-technical systems transition. We are likely to reach a major technological-AI singularity by the end of this decade (2029 CE), as affirmed in The 21st Century Singularity and Global Futures (p. 7, 2020). Notwithstanding this precise prediction, there are many other micro-singularities that have already occurred, and many to come. Cognizant of these trends and the present state of technology, our book maps out a prefigurative Smart City OS to self-regulate cities, eco-systems, and public health. While AI is overtaking human capability on innovation and design itself, humanity is more important than ever. This mandates a proactive and metamodern perspective.

“The evolving frame of metamodernism gives a necessary historical context to the technological singularity and the social and political transformations that also must occur.” — p. xxiii, Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence

Table from p. xxiii, quotes from Borgmann, 1992.

In broad strokes, Kirwan and Fu’s book ties together some of the latest smart city discourse and convergent trends while linking to high-profile meta-philosophy and geo-engineering projects, inflected with some social movement theory, marxist critique, and a rejection of surveillance capitalism for good measure (see Anti-intelligence: A Marxist critique of the smart city, The Sin of “Smart” Cities). The book embraces a metamodern historicity, of timelines intersecting and past and future converging in the present unfolding, and appreciates the unique constitution of each city.

We anticipate many of the economic, political, and ecological challenges of smart city development and advocate for a bold planned socio-technical transition to rejuvenate society and bring City OS Planet Earth online. However, the book does not solve any of the big problems, such as the details of meeting energy demands and/or reversing climate change. Such specificity is not possible in this book, but our overall approach aligns itself in solidarity in an evolving meshwork of best practices to address those things. There is no mention of degrowth, nor any discussion of nuclear power, but that does not diminish the importance of those things or preclude their integration. I have also written elsewhere on the importance of human abstraction vis-a-vis AI, which we did not have space to integrate.

The main organizing principle for the book was evolutionary and technological convergence, and the integration of several convergence theories and trends of various singularities. This led us to develop a model of “metaconvergence”, supporting the notion of the accelerating convergence of humans, nature, and technology. This process is increasingly mediated and automated by AI and human collective intelligence, but this is not an argument for “accelerationism” in the reactionary sense. Our concrete goals of smart city development are to maximize wellbeing for humans, restore regenerative balance in nature, and optimize technology and logistics to make cities living self-regulated systems, which AI can be harnessed towards.

Convergence has a certain inevitability to it in its various processes. In evolution, it refers to similar selection pressures in different species causing convergent adaptations and mutations. In the sense of technological convergence, we see that science, technology, media, hardware, and software are also evolving independently, and integrating and embedding into each other. Convergence is both a theory and reality, part of our long term history and everyday lives. From convergence theories to convergence outcomes we chart a complex course between the abstract and concrete of smart city development. The convergence methodology prescribes a transformation to a post-capitalist economy that is sustainable, to alleviate the pressure on people and the planet. It poses the ultimate design challenge; the simulation and regulation of the real.

The Meta-Convergence Continuum

“This book proposes the application of a new composite theory of how cities adopt technology over a period of time based on diverse subtheories of convergence, such as for evolution, society, science, media, nature, technology, knowledge, organizations, and globalization.” — p. xx

Convergence is the tendency of unrelated things to evolve similar characteristics, but also taken more literally it refers to action towards union and uniformity. It is necessary to understand this process as we transform it and ourselves into an anti-fragile global civilization. We attempt to make a unique contribution towards these ends. The book does not discuss the concept of emergence, which has become over-exposed in the discourse and does not provide a complete theory of change, hence the convergence focus. Emergence will certainly play a role though, and some literature we consulted does address both, such as Mario Bunge’s Emergence and Convergence.

Like biological life, societies also develop similar forms and converge. This is now happening on a global scale throughout all our systems, such that we are entering a new period of sustained civilizational convergence over the next 50–100 years (and particularly the next 10), where human society integrates harmoniously with technology and ecology. Economic convergence is also implied in the methodology, but not discussed for lack of space. Likewise, the Introduction of the book invokes Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence just to help set the stage. There are many theories on convergence and we did not map them all, as the project continues beyond the book, but the appendix summarizes the six main convergence themes we did integrate:

  1. Convergent Evolution
  2. Convergence Theory of Society
  3. The Convergence of Science, Technology, and Nature
  4. Convergence in Knowledge, Technology, and Society
  5. Digital Convergence
  6. Organizational Convergence

As you can see in the list, some terms are repeated in others, which I was able to map into the crude diagram below, showing where the different research fields overlap. For example, there is a convergence theory of society (2) on its own, but then another theory for the convergence of knowledge, technology, and society (4), so they overlap. Consilience is the convergence of knowledge, and technically that has its own focus as well.

Crude mockup of meta-convergence theories

Then there is one for technology itself (5), which on the other side has a convergence with science and nature (3). Thus technology is the general attractor in the overall pattern. The apparent levels of humans, technology, and nature also correspond better to the differentiated fields as laid out vertically. At the top and bottom are generalized convergence theories of organization (6) and evolution (1), which are more meta- frames than domains and give context to memes and genes, respectively.

Generator functions and initial value-problems are also considered as inputs (7), informing the unique challenges and potentials for convergence, which is discussed in the Introduction as an integration guiding the book. Generator functions are the deepest causal origin of a given phenomena. It enables us to understand meta-problems and externalities better. Initial-value-problems refer to predicting how systems evolve given certain initial conditions. In the chaos of social evolution it is typically difficult, but technological trends are more universal and teleological, making it easier to anticipate.

Point being, everything is converging. In the image above the topics are arranged geometrically to show their domain and direction of convergence, with relation to each other. Beyond that, this diagram doesn’t model anything real, it is just my artistic rendering of the listed theories. I include it here because it is not part of the book, which includes a much more refined diagrammatic models of convergence. My sketch above reveals some of the thinking process during development.

Corresponding roughly to the six theories, we proposed that the full spectrum smart city OS maps and relates six different dimensions (pictured below): landscape, physical infrastructure, human population, culture/society, technology infrastructure, ubiquitous/AI, and they are also converging. The first dimension, the land base, preceded humans, but we are here now and it is what has enabled industrial development. Physical infrastructure such as roads, rails, and utilities become layered overtop and through it like a nervous system. Humans populate that infrastructure as their own dimension, plus another dimension of imaginary structures guiding and governing their behavior. Then basic ICT (computation/ communication) forms another dimension, that of the more particular hardware and of the internet, separate from the basic physical infrastructure. From the book:

The final dimension of ubiquitous technology-AI maps and models the terraforming and governance of the original domain, the natural landscape, as well as the other diaphanous and coextensive layers. Thus, the basic idea is that our theory of ‘metaconvergence’ loops back on itself; at the granular (nano) level ubiquitous technology reinserts itself into back into nature, society, and our bodies, forming a loop or circuit, that we call a meta-convergence continuum. This continuum lends itself to the notion of a closed-loop materials economy that has zero waste, to achieve the self-regulation of living systems better than humans are currently managing and can manage. None of this should be an invasive process but rather a harmonious one.

Sociological Convergence and Metamodernism

The areas of convergence that concern me the most are knowledge and society, particularly how it relates to the politics and cultures of capitalism. They require the most conscious support and development, the most investment, and are the closest to my expertise. There is lots of knowledge and social work to be done to deploy these smart city plans effectively. Technology has its own momentum, but societies stagnate and knowledge is made an artificially scarce resource. The culture wars have exacerbated political polarization, making it difficult to share reliable information and demonstrate the best policy even among adjacent tribes. The internet gets turned against itself.

A long lineage of sociological thought around the convergence of society tracks and informs the movements towards similarity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but history is laden with false promises and failed utopias. Globalization is still having contradictory effects. It is no small task to smoothly converge the global education system and media ecologies to create the basic conditions of truth and trust in public discourse both within countries and between them. There is far too much divergence, not enough consilience and convergence.

Over the last two centuries, the world system follows a pattern of Great Divergence and Great Convergence, referring to societies developing at different rates and now catching up and converging. We do not naturalize this social phenomena, which includes a lot of exploitation and imperialism, but it is given as historical material reality nonetheless. Over centuries, experiments in science and democracy have brought us to this unique threshold today, where the global system risks collapse if it doesn’t converge into a new process of integration and collective conscious collaboration. However, the sundowning global empire of the United States tends to create obstacles to our collective salvation, as Daniel Woodley puts it:

“Confronted by the spectre of global economic convergence instantiated by the internationalization of capitalist social relations, the US is emerging as a geopolitical barrier to ‘reasonable change’ in a paradoxical attempt to forestall the overdue end time of empire.” — Daniel Woodley, Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics, 2017, p. 18

The US is no longer the world’s super-power and this is okay, if it can be accepted. China is leading the smart city race, but are arguably no more or less ethical than the US, and we are all united by greater shared risks and concerns than antagonistic competition. It is a multi-polar world now, a new historic moment, and we all need to collaborate. In my paper on Social Paradoxes and Meta-Problems, a method of paradox resolution is described as ‘normative incrementalism’, which could be considered a practice of convergence as well. Oscillation between positions or with dialectical materialism are similar interventions that converge on a praxis of transformation towards a shared goal.

What also comes to mind is Randall Collins’ Abstraction-Reflexivity Continuum, which describes the ebb and flow, yin and yang, rise and fall of intellectual currents throughout history. Collins writes of it like a law of history, emphasizing the tendency of intellectual communities to increase their level of abstraction and reflexivity over time. But he clarifies that the social production of ideas is one of sequencing and branching, and is not necessarily linear or developmental. Collins does not have a theory of convergence to facilitate his process though, which is emergence driven.

Given the topic of smart cities and AI, our book emphasizes Borgmann’s metamodern philosophy of technology, juxtaposed against excessive and exploitative hypermodern trends. However, the book was not a space for a full blown metamodern theory, which is in motion. Many of these references are made only briefly, to add to the context of the convergent planning, design, and operations of smart cities. The book’s ambitious vision relies on linking to other great works towards these ends, including metamodern influences such as Zak Stein, Tomas Bjorkman, Hanzi Freinacht, Vermeullen and van den Akker, and myself (Brent Cooper). Convergence is also emerging, as Stein uses the term here:

“…there can and should be an explicit trans-lineage symbolic convergence towards new shared rituals of sanity and care” — Zak Stein, on Emerge, writing of Coronavirus

We also included references to other works I’ve integrated previously such as those of Benjamin Bratton, Maja Gopel (detailed in Emergentsia #4), Michel Bauwens, and Alexander Wendt. Such approaches are prefigurative of the new era, after empire but between worlds, reconstructive towards world society, global governance, meeting all human and ecological needs, while retaining autonomy and resilience at the local level. In addition to all the smart cities literature, this makes for a pretty diverse and comprehensive paradigm. Along these lines, and striving for a unification of socially constructed Western and Eastern thought, Kirwan and Fu write that…;

“…the worldly perspective presented in this book may provide a new consciousness to support the process of convergence incorporating both linear and nonlinear processes and in defining a greater cross-cultural collective intelligence.” — p. xix

The book follows the guiding logic of convergence for smart cities and AI with metamodern exuberance, because there appears to be no viable alternative. The beguiling smart city glimmers on the horizon while dumb politics builds walls and tears us apart. There is no smart cities without smart publics, and no AI without real qualitative and emotional forms of intelligence. We are co-creating our future one day at a time and the convergence methodology manifests the unknown future we desire. As Kirwan invokes the arts of Bonsai or jazz, the dynamic equilibria of human, natural, and technological convergence requires our participatory flow, which I contend also calls for sociological convergence.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter One of the book discusses the evolution of cities, which implies some sense of vitalism and macro-stability. The conventional use of the term ‘smart city’ obscures the evolutionary and technological convergence of cities over time, so we warn against the fetishization of ‘smartness’ and emphasize education.

Chapter Two explains the city as a living organism, or at least projecting the qualities of such, and being reflexive. We embrace the edges of biomimicry and panpsychism here if only to bring the theory to life. A self-regulating social body will simply be healthier, happier, and more efficient. Each city has its own identity narratives, geography, and other features we group together as City DNA, and each city process corresponds to some anatomical functions for illustrative purposes.

Chapter Three gets into the design and planning of cities; their goals, models, innovations, and convergent processes. Generative design aided by AI and Machine Learning facilitates outcome-based modelling, invoking biomimicry again, towards the simulation of city in real time.

Chapter Four is the meta-architecture of the city operating system, or City OS, integrating a combination of stakeholders, requirements, and intended outcomes, prototyped in ‘living labs’ and intelligent interfaces. The proposed Convergent OS integrates living systems, technical networks, and humane relationships.

Chapter Five is about ambient connectivity enabled by AI, neural networks, and Machine Learning. Communications technology is evolving and integrating with urban architecture, using AI and ML to optimize using different bandwidths. Smart objects and the IoT are proliferating on a convergent path to integrating holistically, with the right guidance.

Chapter Six describes the city-wide interface and how we access and operate city resources through it. We discuss phenomenology and distributed collective intelligence, recognizing the city as an ecosystem. The current state of technology includes kiosks and smartphone control, towards Augmented Reality (AR). Building on methodologies from Ch3, AI and ML iteratively improve the interface flow.

Chapter Seven looks at six essential smart city functions — governance, economy, environment, people, mobility, living — and proposes a past-present-future framework in terms of understanding the Object (of the function), the Action to be taken, and the Outcome to be achieved. Each smart city function has different considerations, but convergent goals. The Multi-Level Perspective is introduced as a methodology for socio-technical system transition, guided by the normative design of the convergent functions.

Chapter Eight is focused on AI, as it relates across the smart city functions and technologies such as cloud computing, 5G, and Big Data. We look at the technological implications on the macro-, meso-, and micro- levels across different scales and scopes, to understand how everything is converging. Technology and ML enables AI Convergence Funnel towards Narrow AI, General AI, through the singularity into Strong AI.

Chapter Nine is for understanding different business models, incorporating a Marxist analysis and critique of smart cities, and how niche social and open-source movements challenge the incumbent market ideology. Private industry and finance will continue to play a role, but so will government issuing of currency for development and including the public as stakeholders. Technologies such as Holochain and alternative commons-based and P2P economics can converge towards these ideals and values.

The Conclusion closes with a comprehensive Convergence Hierarchy diagram, visualizing what was developed in the book, from theories, to methodologies, to scenarios, to applications, and finally to outcomes. The Introduction and Conclusion attempt to bookend the technical chapters with a more narrativistic approach. We consolidate the ambition of the book into a clear statement of purpose and direction. We must pursue the metamodern set of attractors and eschew the hypermodern ones, and work with the convergence that is already sweeping us along.

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