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Book Reviews

Shannon Mattern. A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021. 200p. Paperback, $19.95 (ISBN: 9780691208053).

Book cover for A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences

When Grand Valley State University completed their Allendale, Michigan campus library’s remodel in 2013, it reflected a specific vision for a transportation hub, which is probably why it feels like an airport when I go to work. What does it mean to embrace that intense liminality? People, ideas, objects, community, as always transitioning from one space to another, until they’re required to hold still, lockdown, and quarantine. This metaphor is expansive and full of the possible, though I occasionally wonder about its limits. Hubs, nodes, and clusters in networks (and their associated movements) expose the limits of developmental metaphors, and so I’ve read Shannon Mattern’s A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences with this in mind.

A City Is Not A Computer is written with a density that invites revisiting over a lifetime. Mattern’s parsing of the “metaphors that give rise to technical models” will engage a variety of readers looking to complicate and otherwise reimagine how people understand information. There’s a useful critique of the city-as-computer model’s actual outcomes in various smart-cities projects here. Hailed as transformational and innovative, they’re taken up and quickly abandoned by companies. Mattern shares the story of Alphabet, who treated their failed project, Sidewalk Toronto, as an engineering problem and not a philosophical one, along with their city partners like Toronto Public Library, engaged largely in order to privacy wash and create the illusion of neutral facilitation between Sidewalk Labs and the residents of Toronto. Worse than abandonment, Mattern cites projects like Google’s Tree Canopy Lab and Microsoft’s Tree Equity Score as examples of city-scale interventions, as though the absence of trees in low per-capita income neighborhoods in Los Angeles were the result of poor people and not a conscious series of policy decisions shaping the environment. A City Is Not A Computer argues that technologies can augment, but not substitute for, human and community intelligences.

Mattern opens with a chapter on consoles, mission control rooms, and dashboards. It explores where these consoles make visible the often invisible structures and work, while inviting surveillance and encouraging paternalist nudges in design. The dashboard is itself a representation of faith, that the consoles we develop will actually drive resource allocation and help us divine “impoverished understanding” of what can be known about the work of libraries (12). Key performance indicators are not so much “key” but rather the items most easily measured within our systems. It’s why, for example, our professional organizations do not coherently track student savings with authored and adopted Open Educational Resources, or spend on Article Processing Charges, or otherwise incentivize similar metrics. Nor can those organizations reasonably describe a commitment to open infrastructure. Open Access remains coded as a “trend” along with questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The systems producing statistics that drive how academic libraries describe themselves to each other and to funding agencies cannot meaningfully explicate the work of libraries. Although Mattern brings up many examples throughout the chapter, I’m reminded I have yet to encounter a dashboard or console that displays the time, processes, and knowledge required to maintain a dashboard.

As many library workers consult a variety of dashboards and consoles in their jobs, the university functions in the same structures where Mattern draws her attention. Universities build (and buy) dashboards for Covid-19, scholarly production and funding, strategic planning, diversity initiatives, and surveillance under the pretense of various interventions. Mattern takes the design of the dashboard in a variety of spaces and untangles the new forms of expertise, literacies, and communications demanded by these codified assemblages and ontologies. Because dashboards are also a form of marketing, they define boundaries around what is and is not a system, library, city, space, disaster, community (43).

Complex infrastructure often invokes stopgaps to manage the measurable effects of a problem. What it means to make, in the context of those infrastructures, is an “enactment of [city] knowing—which cannot be reduced to computation” (72). It’s unsurprising that this conclusion flows immediately into a discussion of libraries and public knowledge in chapter 3. Mattern complicates the library’s position in these projects and within itself: libraries could have a “productively adversarial” role against “smart” initiatives (81). Moving fast and breaking things tends to strain resources and break people. Mattern cites practitioners, theorists, and those who work in hazy, less defined spaces of expertise, and the text is stronger as a result. Mattern engages with maintainers, writing with a voice that inhabits doing and observing with few peers.

Mattern does masterful work that only scholars willing to pay the interdisciplinary taxes required to develop this analysis can achieve. Mattern draws from architecture, technology, libraries and archives, archeology, sociology, and media studies with ease. Mattern is able to graft and weave more specific vocabularies of maintenance across scale. Because so much necessary work exists at each of these scales of repair, A City Is Not a Computer provides tools to better make legible and understand both the work and its often overlapping scope. One review will not do justice to this achievement, but the scholarship, advocacy, and communities that follow certainly will.

A city is not a computer. Neither is a library. Mattern’s work will find readers of both utility and joy, and each of these readers will develop different metaphors, reclaim knowledge, and reframe value propositions. As each of us confronts what it means to exist in liminality in this moment of strangled, unevenly distributed momentum, Mattern’s research is a striking and necessary text that resonates in multiple disciplines, a handbook to ethically reconstitute the world.—Scarlet Galvan, Grand Valley State University

Copyright Scarlet Galvan


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