(Urban) Landscape: Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

This section explores the negative impacts of big data on urban historiography and avenues countering its pervasive - and invasive - influence. It invites papers integrating forms of ethno-futurism as developed by artists, musicians, and filmmakers to critique algorithmic concepts of urbanism, revising urban historiography and delineating examples of strategies of resistance to hegemonic power. Session content: Cities have always been “propositional”: projecting visions for a future transforming the present. Urban historiography, particularly in a spatialized or Foucauldian mode, is skeptical of such futures. Linking the present to the past, its value lies in revealing the underlying strategies of marginalization towards minorities and migrants furthering occidental concepts of centrality and progress.  

As powerful a tool as this critical “history of the present” may be, it is challenged by “big data” that is predicated not on decoding a past in order to illuminate the present, but in simulating a future in order to regulate the present. In this reversal of temporal sequencing, the present arises not from the past but from an algorithmically determined future. Evidence of such a paradigmatic shift in temporal order is found in “preemptive” forms of governing, policing, and marketing (Armen Avanessian). In global centers that are home enterprises such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks, we may speak of an “algorithmic urbanism” in which spatial control elides with—and is ultimately subsumed by—the manipulation of an ephemeral digital realm.  

Resisting such an “algorithmic determinism” requires a movement away from critical historiography towards a “critical futurography”. Once ceded to the speculative endeavors of science fiction, this challenge is today addressed by “ethno-futurism”. Ethno-futurism fuses critiques of ethnicity—both as global multiculturalism and local ethnopluralism—and futurism in the form techno-militarism (Avanessian, Mahan Moalemi). Rather than establishing “countermemories” exposing strategies of marginalization, ethno-futurism uses cybernetic imaginaries as “counterfutures” (Kodwo Eshun), allowing for a rereading of both the present and the past from a future perspective. Its narrative strategies use science fiction to translate ancient mythologies into future technologies. Ethno-futurism envisions sites of resistance against claims of cultural hegemony, digital technologies of control, and Western concepts of progress. Forms of ethno-futurism such as Indigenous-, Afro-, Shanghai-, and Sino-Futurisms address both the legacy of post-colonialism and a global economic system to advocate for cultural hybridity and mobility. 

  • Spokesperson: Ralph Stern, University of Manitoba
  • Co-organizer(s): Nicole Huber, University of Washington
  • Keywords: Urbanism | Historiography | Ethno-futurism
  • Time period: Contemporary period
  • Topic(s): Architecture and urbanism | Cultural
  • Study area: More than one continent