Some Thoughts on Dromology and Urban Techno Topology

- by Helena Björnesjö

We live in an increasingly mediated and automated technological high speed whirling world. Technology and its products are everywhere. Think of the vast spread and use of the internet. We socialize online. We retrieve information online. We shop, book our trips and do our banking errands online. Think also of the cars, buses or trains many of us take to and from school or work. Well on the bus or train we call a co-worker from our smartphone and check a text message from a friend. Then we send off an email from our tablet whilst uploading yesterday's images to some online cloud service. It has been suggested that this technologized world is driven by a logic of speed and a strive for efficiency. It has also been said that technology arranges, orders, and alters reality in certain ways. How do these suggested features affect urban space, and the people that live in it? And how do they affect the urban planning practice?

Michel Foucault used the term 'heterotopia' for referring to places and spaces of otherness, or of difference. A heterotopia is characterized by deviating from some normality. A greenhouse is a heterotopia if it houses plants that are other and rare, perhaps relative to the local flora. A hospital is another example of a heterotopia in that it houses ill people in contrast to well people (and wellness is taken to be the normal health state). Foucault treated a variety of heterotopias and he described a heterotopia of compensation as: ”[...] a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”1  A heterotopia of compensation brings order to where there is otherwise some amount of disorder. It is a regulated, and perhaps idealized, manifestation of the world from which it secludes itself. We might then ask: Could the modern and present-day planned cities be conceived of as such manifestations of order?

Urbanist and academic Paul Virilio has long argued that modern society is dominated by a logic of speed that he terms 'dromology' (derived from the Greek word 'dromos', meaning race or race course). Dromology is largely associated with logistics and technology. Motor highways that cut through both cityscape and landscape, serving fast speeds and logistic efficiency, might come to mind. Consider also the nearly optic speeds at which information travels in between devices of technology.

In the computer and information age that we are in, we communicate messages to people across the globe in near to no time, using social media such as Instagram. The effective distance from here to there is overridden by the immediacy of the internet. Due to properties like these, in this age the individual becomes subject to repositioning, or redistributing. Performance artist Stelarc writes: ”Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body's identity, but its connectivity [and interconnectivity] – not its mobility or location, but its interface.”2  Foucault similarly argued: ”We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.”3

Virilio is critical of this development. He believes that technologies distort ”real” reality by substituting real time and space with virtual realities. German philosopher Martin Heidegger also considered modern technology to be a sort of distortion of reality that contributes to an incomplete, or even false understanding of reality and of our role in it. Technology, he believed, can make us forget that we are not merely technological beings in a technological realm.

Urban planning is not exempted from the digitalization of space or rapid increase in technological services. On the contrary, the city has often been a site for realizing new technologies. As such, the city is also subject to “dromofication”. It is a dromosphere. Earlier this year CITYMOVES, a conference about transportation policies for future cities, was held in Stockholm. One of the speakers at the conference was Noah Radford, advisor on futures, foresight, and innovation. Radford is part of a project in which a web-based survey on possible scenarios for future Stockholm has been conducted. Participants in the survey agreed on several trends that they believed will be important forces of change. Amongst these were: an increase in urban population and in usage of information and communication technologies (ICT). Trends were then correlated to possible future city scenarios, one of which was Techno City. In a techno city, or technopolis (from the Greek word 'polis', meaning city) technologies are integrated into most aspects of life. This scenario comes across as particularly interesting as there is widespread interest in future cities where technology plays a crucial role in shaping city space and city life alike.4 

In techno cities, ”smart cities” is yet another common phrasing, vast quantities of data and information become available. Data can be used in many different areas of urban planning, varying from geographic information systems (GIS) and traffic management, to policy making and action planning. Professor Rob Kitchin from the Programmable City research project talks of a translation-transduction cycle, such that data about events and activities in the city are collected, and then translated into software whereby data can be analyzed.5  Data can be employed in predicting and simulating future scenarios, similar to the work of Radford and team. But it can also be used to transduce city life by reshaping space, or affecting how and where we work and move, entertain ourselves and so on. Planner, forecaster, and author of Smart Cities; Anthony Townsend, raises some concerns about this type of approach:

”Smart cities need to be efficient but also preserve opportunities for spontaneity, serendipity, and sociability. If we program all of the randomness out, we’ll have turned them from rich, living organisms into dull mechanical automatons. They need to be secure, but not at the risk of becoming surveillance chambers. They need to be open and participatory, but provide enough support structure for those who lack the resources to self-organize.”6

Heidegger believed that the modern world is dominated by calculative and technological ways of thinking. However, models and simulations fail to give a full view of reality. They rely on methods of estimation, measurement, categorization and organization that leave out what cannot be so measured or easily categorized. Heidegger understood modern technology as revealing what is real in an ordering mode. If we return to Foucault for a moment, it seems the techno city does begin to resemble a heterotopia of compensation, a place of order. It represents what is perhaps an idealization of technology. But a heterotopia does not merely (wrongfully) represent. It also transduces – alters – reality in various ways, transforming city space into a large scale digital maze.

Techno cities are very complex structures and planning for, and handling them requires expertise. In discussing this expert role in her thesis Planned, All Too Planned (2010), Sara Westin turns to Freud's theories of the psychic apparatus. She likens the modern architect/planner coupling to that of a rational and oppressive superego, and the city to that of a control-mechanism at its service. And between superego and the untamed id (likened to the citizen, or flâneur), lies a conflict. This is a very vivid illustration of the organizing and controlling character of the planning practice, and of the complicated relationship between planner and citizen. Westin critically argues further that expertise is often accompanied by a certain amount of legitimacy. Could this put experts of (techno) cities in a position to make order and control, dromology and technology, into norms, seemingly normal?

This connects to another concern raised by Virilio about the rapid increase in technologies. Reducing distance in space and time is key in the dromosphere. One way of achieving such reduction is by minimizing friction, or resistance. However, Virilio claims that one type of friction is in fact a constitutive feature of dromology and an integral feature of technology: accident, or crash. Since the logic of speed is as present today as ever before, it is therefore not unreasonable to consider what types of risk (of accident) might emerge in the technological dromosphere. There is no space for discussing risk at any length or depth here, but some considerations might be in place. Risk is typically taken to be the product of the probability of an undesirable event and the effect of that event. This immediately raises the questions: What is a desirable event and what is an undesirable event? And furthermore, who decides what is and what is not so, and which risks we should attend to?

In considering risk assessment procedures in areas of technology, Franssen et al. suggest that some of the possible negative effects of technology, such as social or psychological effects, are given less attention than other much debated areas of impact; such as safety and health.7 Townsend writes, somewhat cynically, that: ”The technology industry is asking us to rebuild the world around its vision of efficient, safe, convenient living.”8 

But, if technology has great social and psychological impact; then the scope of undesirable events that we take into account when judging risks in planning may be too narrow if we leave these out. Recall the quotes from above by Stelarc and Foucault about individual connectivity. Recently there has been a surge in reports on how life online, beeping smartphones, and the multi-tasking that goes with it, might negatively affect our mental and bodily well-being. Present in this debate are propositions about increase in stress and distraction, a fear of missing out (FOMO), passivity, boredom and alienation. Effects on memory, learning, and other cognitive capacities, are other debated risks. Radford mentions a filter bubble, where we retreat into our own digital worlds. Ironically then, it seems we might be growing increasingly disconnected in a time when everything is about being connected. These reactions may not be the direct or typical concerns of architects and urban planners, but the mediated and technologized environments that they help realize, and the lifestyles these encourage, contribute to such effects.

Furthermore, Franssen et al. argue that there is a widespread technological fix: ”(...) the solution of a problem by a technical solution, that is, the delivery of an artifact or artifactual process, where it is questionable, to say the least, whether this solves the problem or whether it was the best way of handling the problem.”9 For instance, it seems doubtful that (merely) implementing technological, or otherwise artificial, strategies for dealing with the psychological effects of technology use described in the last section would be very helpful. What more, if we rely too heavily on technological practice, Townsend worries we might be (at risk of) ordering away plurality, friction, and flexibility from the city, making it an automaton. That being said, the benefits of technology are of course plentiful, and what is going too far in one's optimism (or skepticism) towards the virtues of technology is not always so clear.

What is clear is that planners and architects cannot allow themselves to be reduced to Freudian superegos that by suppressing what is not in order face away from other, non-standardized, non-regulated, wishes and needs. Yet planning is a way of practicing control. Balancing between exerting control and knowing when to let go becomes an important characteristic of the urban planning practice.

If dromological techno cities are made norm, should planners in fact be planning for a ”heterotopia” that is other to the logic and properties of these cities? What would such a counter heterotopia be like? Following Virilio, maybe a counter heterotopia ought to be one of resistance, where we begin to slow things down. The orthodox planning process is often criticized for being slow and inert. But maybe this is as it should be then, in a way. Or, should we continue to accelerate in order to free ourselves from technosocial bonds, as accelerationalists suggest? Perhaps the complexity of, or inherent accident in, techno cities will make them unstable and bring it about that they collapse in on themselves. Truly smart cities should cope with a variety of kinds of challenges and wicked problems. Perhaps no heterotopia can be fit for this task.

Common to both Heidegger's and Virilo's critical analyses of technology is large (industrial) scale, and a distortion of reality of some kind. The smart city is a technopolis is a dromosphere. Managing this ubiquitous superstructure in all its complexity is part of the planning challenge that lies ahead. Heidegger believed that by reflecting on technology and by reassembling our thinking beyond ordering reason, we can come to terms with, and possibly avoid the ordering crisis that he thought technological domination brings upon us. In "The Question Concerning Technology" (1977), he quotes German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin: ”where danger is, grows the saving power also”. Until then, citizens are likely to cry: These are evasive days in redundant space, where we seem to be doing everything at a pace. Life is but a race!

This text has been produced as a part of the research and idea development within Experiment Stockholm.

  1. ”Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (1986)
  3. ”Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1986)
  4. You can watch video footage from the conference at CITYMOVES youtube channel. Radford's presentation is availiable here: