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Smart Enough or Too Smart? Territorial Platforms, Social Reproduction, and the Limits to Digital Circuits of Dispossession

Published onJun 21, 2022
Smart Enough or Too Smart? Territorial Platforms, Social Reproduction, and the Limits to Digital Circuits of Dispossession
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Abstract

As we embed ever more computing technology in urban space, when do cities cross the line from smart enough to too smart? How should we limit the computing we embed in urban space so that it serves the people and not vice versa? This paper provides a conceptual synthesis building on recent work from critical media studies, urban studies, and feminist thought to analyze the proliferation of spatially embedded digital intermediaries in cities, which I call territorial platforms. It suggests that we can understand the limits of extractive logics of territorial platforms and generate effective political responses to them by centering social reproduction in our analyses. Social reproduction refers to the often taken-for-granted work required to sustain human life and society. Often informal and unwaged, social reproductive labor is overwhelmingly carried out by women in the domestic sphere, in institutional settings like daycare centers, educational institutions and hospitals, or in voluntary community initiatives. Centering social reproduction means attending to what cannot be “solved” or innovated away by means of technology. Even so, territorial platforms interface with social reproduction in a variety of important ways. Critical urban studies has highlighted the ways in which territorial platforms reorganize social reproduction by integrating it into market relations and extending commodification into daily life. This includes Airbnb and other “sharing economy” platforms that turn previously “unproductive” (reproductive) areas of life into source of surplus, but also gig work platforms that often serve to commodify social reproduction (e.g., food delivery or carework platforms). Critical media studies has documented how social platforms and “smart” technologies extract value from the everyday lives of urban dwellers. From this perspective, territorial platforms effectively function as digital circuits of dispossession putting more and more of life in the service of accumulation. If allowed to continue unchecked, this dispossession would render the city “smart” but ultimately uninhabitable. For this reason, social reproduction is set to become a focal point for struggles over the role of computing in urban space. Feminist thought in general, and Social Reproduction Theory in particular, offers tools both to understand and to foment such struggles.

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