Techno-optimists on the vanguard of the so-called Singularity have given rise to a seductive machine: a networked society optimized for exponential growth. How do we manifest alternatives to reductive aggregation?
We are caught in a seductive machine. Led by the vanguard of the so-called Singularity, zealous techno-optimists have engineered a networked society that is increasingly optimized for exponential growth as an end in itself. New information technologies intensify, deepen, and transform old capitalist practices, extracting value through relentlessly reductive aggregation. With ever fewer hands left hovering over the switchboard of pervasive automation, the rumbling machine of this info-capitalism uses us up, for we—human beings, society, the unwitting masses—are its fuel. As our everyday spaces are reorganized, requantified, and recalibrated, the churn of data from our human lives propels the machine toward Singularity, its paradoxical apotheosis of dehumanization.
Over three decades ago, Donna Haraway issued “The Cyborg Manifesto,” arguing that “we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from all work to all play, a deadly game.”1 Haraway’s diagnosis feels as apt as ever, and well into the new millennium, we are perhaps even better able to grasp the apocalyptic peril of the “deadly game,” the seductive, mass customized, autopoietic now. Joichi Ito argues that the ultimate expression of such developments is the religion of the Singularity. In his critique of the “evolution of the worship of exponential growth applied to modern computation and science,” he calls us to resist the distinctive way in which contemporary technological civilization buttresses itself as “progress” underpinned by a growth imperative.
Growth, of course, is not simply linear accumulation. Competition can never rest; it demands exponentiality. The story is familiar, its cadre of protagonists stretching across history: Carnegie, Caesar, Alphabet, the Honourable East India Company. When power derived from material resources and physical capital, empires depended on territorial expansion. But now data itself is capital, and in fast, switchable, liquid forms, capital pools in new and astonishing ways.2 In the absence of leveling conditions like physical geography, resource consumption, or political interference, monopolies can emerge with even greater speed. The basic (economic) rule of data, after all, is that the more you have, the more useful it becomes. Today, agglomerative growth drives the centralizing progression from data to artificial intelligence to Singularity. Naturally, the fiercest advocates of this digitally optimized configuration are the Silicon Valley elite who stand to benefit the most from its spoils. Their pursuit is techno-solutionist, a tacit doctrine that “with more computing and bio-hacking we will somehow solve all of the world’s problems”—from traffic flow to biological mortality—“or that the Singularity will solve us”—replacing us merely fleshy individuals with “an all-seeing, all-powerful, super-intelligence.”3 This vision of the Singularity presents a beyond-mythic spectacle of monopolistic, centralizing coordination, where more and more data brings the artificial ever closer to intelligence. It’s a numbers game; critical mass wins.
It would be all too easy to assume that real space, the physical world, is immune to this totalizing growth logic. We could take comfort in the apparent neutrality of public spaces, the stable boundedness of private spheres, or the micro-sovereignty of property rights. Not so. The city is a growth machine.4 Territory itself is deeply suffused with a market logic of use and exchange, and the result is a stark urban process under capitalism, the “inner connection … between the development of capitalism and urbanization.”5 What began as accumulation and stratification has perpetually accelerated through technological feats, from mechanical to digital, that mine new veins of wealth from physical territory. Traditional material techniques for multiplying land value (like skyscrapers) are being replaced by intangible, networked systems (like co-working), whose virtuality renders them infinitely scalable and indefinitely replicable.
Under the rhetorical cover of “efficiency,” “empowerment,” and “well-being,” the modern city's boundaries between public and private, civic and administrative, corporate and governmental are eroding through a range of processes that optimize the extraction of value. And just as in virtual space, the ore is you. The spatial-digital-retail patterns of savvy, empowered, mobile, entrepreneurial creatures are exceptionally valuable; our desires can be satisfied as quickly as they are monetized. With this rise of networked techniques for creating new sources of value in urban space, the city itself careens toward a bizarre Singularity of its own.6 Just tap your phone, catch an Uber to your desk at WeWork, and get to the business of innovating!
Under the shadow of these developments, we build on and respond to Ito’s manifesto by advancing a threefold argument. We hold, first, that the “religion of the Singularity” is not new—it must be understood as a symptom of neoliberal rationality in the Information Age. Second, we argue that the same neoliberal logic is exemplified by recent developments in the urban process, its value flows, and its associated forms of governance. Finally, we conclude that to surpass the contradictions of info-capitalism that unfold in the ideology of the Singularity and of tech-infused urban life, we can turn to alternative models of ownership. Only by wresting back control of information and space can we begin to build radical alternatives to Singularitarian reduction.7
The Singularity obsession is an almost religious system of belief. Ito incisively sketches the contours of how it is dramatically reconfiguring cultural currents, social values, and the human relation to self. But this fails to paint the full picture. Faith in the Singularity is not simply a cultural phenomenon, but an expression of the deepest material workings of economic production, and thus of political power. The slate of “interventions at the cultural level” that Ito calls for will indeed be crucial, but not nearly enough to countervail the political and social developments that portend a Singularity Event.
A critique of the Singularitarians must begin by acknowledging that the dogma of the Silicon Valley elite is not just a (potentially problematic) ideal for utopian technical progress; rather, it must be understood as a contemporary development of the ideology of neoliberalism. As the term is used by philosophers and critical theorists, “neoliberalism” is a name for not only the ascendant politics of privatization, marketization, and austerity8 that have characterized the last five decades, but also for the political rationality that accompanies them. It is this latter meaning that is most important to making sense of the “Singularity religion.”
Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, the political theorist Wendy Brown has argued that, as a mode of political rationality, neoliberalism “disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities... and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors always, only, and everywhere....” Economic growth becomes a rallying cry across partisan lines and governmental scales, reaching up to global political orders like the WTO and down into the very experience of selfhood. The concomitant techniques of government create a public that is governable in distinctively new ways,9 iteratively reinscribing the unimaginability of any alternative to these socio-material developments. In the resulting marketized model of human subjectivity, individuated selves jockey for position in an atomistic world that is as fragmented as it is interconnected. The neat subdivision of political versus economic, public versus private, or ethical versus juridical zones has all but evaporated.10 The Anthropocene reveals itself now as the Capitalocene.11
Brown argues that under neoliberalism, the individual is reimagined and reconstituted as “human capital,” and anything irreducible to individuated interaction-as-transaction becomes invisible.12 Although Brown pays little attention to the rise of information technology, her diagnosis of neoliberalism’s transformation of everything that can be known about society into nothing more than a vast aggregation of microscopic actions neatly captures the way the tools of big data reshape not just how society is observed and measured but also in turn how it is experienced, made, and transformed. Neoliberalism predates the information revolution, originating in the postwar assault on the welfare state and the rise of neocolonial financial governance; but in the context of info-capitalism, “human capital” becomes “the quantified self,”13 and everything from Twitter metrics and FitBit data to rent-payment gamification, targeted ads and automated traffic tickets can be a tool for inscribing neoliberalism’s individualizing, flattening mode of sociality at ever more fundamental levels of human experience.
Yet the networked existence is all too seductive.14 It offers speed, excellence, community, wellness; it promises to calibrate every part of the world around us not simply to needs we express but also to desires we do not yet even know we have. But the result is that, from AdSense to Equifax, we become the product. As Byung-Chul Han argues, in a society where the individual’s thoughts and hopes are reconstituted as a basic site for generating economic value, “productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes.” 15
The optimization of the self: Is this not what the Silicon Valley vanguard hopes will carry us onwards to Singularity? Increasingly, our entire mode of economic production intertwines with data-driven, networked attempts at self-optimization. Step back from the level of the individual, and the overall result is a remarkable form of “digital class society” in which one’s social standing in relation to companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Alphabet—which singly and together exercise power much greater than a traditional nation-state—depends on the economic value of one’s data.16 Moreover, even apart from the question of individualized data-generation as a new vein of profit, personal data functions in relation to more traditional forms of labor as a way to make oneself as productive, as efficient, indeed as exploitable as possible. Adam Greenfield argues that this ethos is one through which “a not-insignificant percentage of the population has so decisively internalized the values of the market for their labor that the act of resculpting themselves to better meet its needs feels like authentic self-expression.”17 Such an internalization of market rationality, with its concomitant economization of all human activities, is the fundamental core of neoliberalism.
Precisely this shift in one’s relation to oneself—and to others—is valorized as a central tool in setting the stage for the subsumption of humanity into Singularity. The Singularitarian vision is often presented as something radically new, as though it embodies a difference of kind and not simply of degree from past projects of utopian optimization. But the ideology of the Singularity is, in its essence, nothing more than the logic of neoliberalism at explosive scale and frenetic pace, made now limitless through its new disconnection from the constraints of concrete commodities, of material resources, and in some cases, of corporate law. The world’s most powerful companies deal in switchable, intangible assets,18 largely derived from our accumulated data. These developments reach beyond a cultural shift toward digital media, beyond the values expressed in music or literature, beyond the claims of identity; they are bound up with a profound reorganization of the productive processes of technological society. Armed with the tools of informatic power, neoliberal info-capitalism suffuses both large-scale politics and the “design of everyday life,” reconfiguring every corner of our social and physical world, from hotels and taxis to education, employment, and governance.
The liquid, switchable, intangible assets of digital space are a slippery lot. A tumbling slide toward accumulation and reduction has enclosed and suburbanized the once-wild Internet at a terrific pace. Napster is history, and many of its former peer-to-peers gladly pay for Spotify every month. But beyond grumbling complaints about fees or privacy, diagnoses of informatics accumulation as a problem have been largely abstract—focused on society-scale macroeconomics and offering few grounded critiques, let alone actionable alternatives. Discourse remains, in many senses of the term, “in the cloud.” Joining a growing cadre of critical urban theorists,19 it is our suspicion that an effective critique will be unearthed from real processes and real property—in relations that tangibly demonstrate the intrinsic dynamics of growth, ownership, and governance.20
Urban processes themselves are laced with the rationality of capitalist markets, stretching down to their origins in property rights. Long before the rise of network society, this logic has guided now-ubiquitous approaches to land ownership, design and management of real estate, and the dynamics of metropolitan decision making. Today, digital platforms have calcified into a kind of virtual space—a digital terrain—whilst urban dynamics, from infrastructure to daily experiences, are increasingly governed and commodified through geo-locative or IoT systems. The cascade of urban digitization21 threatens to reinscribe old dynamics of extraction and exchange; and if that reinscription reaches its pinnacle in the Singularitarian vision, then the critique of such reduction must begin from a reexamination of old questions of how land itself can be owned and of how such ownership is valorized.
So we turn to first principles. A familiar narrative of economic history in urban theory paints a picture of pre-property societies conceiving of territory generally as a commons, where individuals extract resources according to need. But when the valuation of these resources increases dramatically or when their depletion becomes possible, managing the commons becomes a serious concern.22 In many contexts the enclosure and privatization of land as property emerged as one solution to the intertwined problems of allocating resources and policing their abuse.23 Juridically-legitimated owners would bear the risks and accrue the benefits of management, and title deed would grant legally constructed freedoms as concrete as the right to dig a well and as abstract as the concept of privacy. Secondly, property rights introduce exchange value: Land can become not only exploited, but also traded. A whole array of territorial processes such as quantifying value and making transactions becomes impersonal, dependent on formal contracts and broadly applied laws, rather than contingent negotiations between neighborly participants in a commons. Unsurprisingly, this system was historically useful to colonial capitalism, quickly achieving global hegemony.
Insofar as they are a tool for defining the use and exchange values of land, property rights can be understood as a technological and social development at the very foundation of modern cities. As privatized property is traded on a real estate market, a growth imperative dominates the urban process. Strategies for maximizing the use and exchange values of land underpin urban design, development, and operations. But in the classical formulation of property rights and real estate markets, there comes a limit to how far the value of parcels can stratify. Undesirable land generally transitions too slowly to satisfy exponential growth (a long history of “urban renewal projects” for economic development have been encumbered by political and social movements).24 In other words, the economic growth imperative demands a sharper curve than physical growth will permit.
Architects, financiers, and planners have thus continually looked to technological innovation to create new sources of value in urban space. The simple elevator, for example, had utterly revolutionary consequences. Rem Koolhaas argues that “Otis’ apparatus recovers the uncounted planes that have been floating in the thin air of speculation and reveals their superiority,” and so “[a]ny given site can now be multiplied ad infinitum to produce the proliferation of floor space called Skyscraper.”25 By enabling square footage to expand upward in a newly unfolded third dimension, the elevator rewrote use and exchange equations, shattering an older mathematics of property rights and leaving a new one in its place.
Yet the cycle repeats forever; in the case of architectural verticality, what initially appeared as a boundless resource inevitably exhausted itself. The twentieth century was largely a history of urbanization in dense downtowns—but, as the city rises, it reaches an upper limit of territorial value. When the skyscraper met its technical (structural) and political (zoning) limitations, the only remaining exploitable dimension was inward: subdivision in space and time. Enter co-working, a dynamic, access-based real estate model, best exemplified by the ascendant empire of WeWork. The company is conquering New York’s skyscrapers with a frustratingly simple innovation: Rent floors, carve them up into units, tap a keg, and open the door to the eager start-up crowd waiting to pay hundreds of times the value of the original square footage. Unlike traditional corporate leases, “workplace as a service” quantifies occupancy not as a matter of mechanics (bodies, square footage) but as a matter of stochastics (anticipated demand over time). Density—the number of users allocated to openly accessible desks on flexible floor plates—is optimized with sophisticated probability models that account for a broad swath of urban and economic factors.26
Access-based real estate is pregnant with possibility. It suggests new collaborative social dynamics while mitigating the risk of binding leases through near-real-time transfers. Most fundamentally, co-working hints at destabilizing the original condition of property rights. And yet it has fulfilled none of those promises. Despite that its dimensional and organizational innovations generate unprecedented value, WeWork exhibits no fundamentally new forms of ownership or governance. Co-working spaces operate under the most familiar lease regime, simply with smaller spaces and faster time-scales. And they are no less rarified—once the exclusive domain of the suit-clad elite, downtown skyscrapers are now the enclave of technologists and venture capitalists.
The public sector, too, has eagerly welcomed WeWork’s brand of urban revitalization for its promise of economic development. Governments marshal new zoning measures, density bonuses, and infrastructure spending, paving the road to vibrant “innovation districts.”27 Such metropolitan processes are endemic to what is perhaps neoliberalism’s greatest urbanistic achievement: the transformation of government—a central, stable, vertically-organized, and (ideally) democratically-legitimized authority—into governance—a flexible, networked, and (again, ideally) collaboratively-legitimized coauthority.28 The distinction between government and governance is manifest in a pervasive set of alliances and their self-justifying practices. Governance is embodied in “[a]pparently horizontally-organised and polycentric ensembles in which power is dispersed,” across a range of “socially innovative institutional or quasi-institutional arrangements… of private (market), civil society (usually NGO) and state actors,” that together engage in “governance beyond-the-state.”29 Moreover, its rise brings about a crisis of citizenship. Behind the purportedly empowering turn from “citizens” to “stakeholders” lurks the dangerous substitution of raw economic power for free political action; the “stake” that is “held” determines not only winners and losers but the right to play at all. The rise of distributed governance under neoliberal conditions, in other words, guarantees not that more people will have a say in the workings of power, but merely that the centers of that power will multiply and disaggregate, leaving behind any single point of accountability.30 The locus of power has diffused into the system itself. 31
In sum, the urban process under capitalism fracks our cities, creating physical and political spaces of reduction where the individualizing logic of the market is paradoxically intertwined with individual disempowerment. The digital condition simply accelerates these dynamics. The ascendance of neoliberalism as an organizing rationality of all zones of life is crystallized in the cutting edge of the urban process; it is the relentless current of the ride-sharing, restaurant-rating, picture-tagging river of information coursing through our contemporary experience of place. The city is where the marketizing logic of contemporary info-capital pools and churns and erodes the sediment of commons-based territorial history.
These recent developments in urban form, operation, and governance suggest that the rise of networked society is transforming modes of capitalist production itself in ways not yet fully understood. If the only guarantee is that the mechanics of value will change, the question remains: What will be their governing logic? To date, we have witnessed the extension of long-dominant neoliberal rationality, which the digital is only intensifying, accelerating, and twisting into new shapes. Under such conditions, there can be no going back to an (illusory) image of how things used to be; the only way out is through. We must stay with the trouble.32 To regress from network society to a pre-informational capitalism or pre-capital collectivism is as undesirable today as feudalism was to industrial capitalism two centuries ago. Network society—info-capitalism—is inevitable, but what it leads to next is not. We face, therefore, a choice: If the Information Age culminates in anything other than the Singularity and absolute Reduction—what else?
Ito’s essay diagnoses an erosion of the givens that have long underpinned critiques of capitalism. The irreducibility of physical space, the inevitability of human biology, and the inexorability of labor time have all been swept away by the techno-social developments that make the Singularity conceivable at all. Ito’s protagonists are the canny optimists who co-opt those same developments and swirl them into potent counter-narratives, stirring up the whirlpools of cultural intervention. Ito is right—we need new values!—yet the fundamental relationship between “reduction,” economic production, and governance demands a current of action and imagination that must flow far deeper than cultural eddies. History has demonstrated that capitalist societies of all kinds—and especially those characterized by an ascendant neoliberalism—have a torrential capacity to wash away all attempts at critique. Resistance is swept up into the status quo. Whether through the aestheticization of dissidence (Che shirts sold at mall stands) or the retrospective whitewashing of genuine radicalism (MLK recast as moral reformer rather than political rebel), our so-called developed democracies are all too adept at turning internal and external critics into exoticized icons or hallowed banalities.
The outstanding challenge is not simply answering the questions of our time, but knowing what questions to ask at all. History feels denser now, and it is easy to forget how few years have passed since the information revolution made it possible to imagine that the largely self-operating computer cluster (let alone the cloud!) could replace the factory floor as the primary site of economic production. To understand and surpass the exploitations of the information society is perhaps as difficult in 2018 as it would have been to do the same for industrial society in 1818, at its very birth.
In his 1968 lecture that popularized the concept of the “tragedy of the commons,” Garrett Hardin suggested a distinction between those problems that permit technical solutions and those that do not. Where the former require only a “change in the technique of the natural sciences,” the latter demand a “change in human values or ideas of morality.” In his call for new values to resist reduction, Ito seems to suggest that the problem raised by the Singularity is of this latter sort. Clearly there is no “technical solution” to the contradictions of info-capitalism—we can’t just hack our way into a better world. But it is instructive to note that for Hardin, problems that require a change in human values often demand not simply cultural shifts, but the concrete reordering of social arrangements; a deliberate redesign of the structures emerging from the interaction between the cultural, economic, and governmental. In other words, they require not simply the articulation of morals but the exercise of power.
Ownership is one form of such power. The rallying cry of nineteenth-century critiques of industrial capitalism was that means of economic production should be controlled by the workers whose labor was their fuel. Nowhere was this achieved permanently; the almost utopian Paris Commune was crushed swiftly in 1871, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 degenerated into Stalinist bureaucracy within years of its initial victory. What ensued was the rise and fall of the welfare state, and the rise and rise of neoliberalism. A century after 1917, we do not live in a world where the means of production can simply be seized at the point of operation, for the machines that convert the data of the many into profit for the few are scattered across the planet. Their programmers are myriad, dispersed, and concerned with infinitesimal fragments of the whole. Productive work—the creation of value—is tied more to the flow of data through algorithms than to specific physical devices, individuals, or localized sites of extraction. Materially, this is embodied in the wiring of connections between municipal codes (e.g., zoning, incentives), location equations (e.g., how promising neighborhoods are identified) and use metrics (e.g. how co-working memberships are dynamically priced)—in sum, how the digitalized city is designed and governed to produce value. In such a world, we need radical new forms of political action that take the economics of the informational as a starting point, rather than as a problem simply appended to some broader account of ethics or ideals.
To this end, a new demand is everywhere gathering strength: the control of our own information. In a nascent form, this underlies fresh calls for “the right to data privacy,” the right to track “targeted online profiling,” even “the right to be forgotten.” As slogans, these appeals are eloquent; what they mean in practice remains remarkably obscure.33 We are beginning to see initial large-scale implementations, such as the EU’s halting experiments with digital consumer protection. But no government agency will solve this for us, and the only real certainty is that the ever-wily Silicon Valley will reincorporate new constraints into the machinery of its own accumulation. Our contemporary dilemmas are deeply entangled; they cannot be unknotted simply by better hacking, bolder mission statements, or nimbler regulations. Our information is increasingly constitutive of all parts of contemporary economic production, political governance, and social relationality, and to retake ownership in a truly emancipatory way will require a long struggle for “the infrastructure of everyday life.”34
Perhaps we have not yet reached the day when this path forward can be perfectly known; but we are at last in a time when it can be imagined. It should come as little surprise that glimmers of a different logic are apparent in the analog and the place-based, in experimental revisions of property rights. The ownership dynamics of well-established real space cooperatives, for example, can outline the contours of an alternative to “reduction.”35 Legal tools such as Community Land Trusts facilitate the democratic management of land that is “removed from the real estate market,”36 with promising implications for cities where speculative property investment has exacerbated housing inequality.37 Such a model could find a strong partner in distributed finance platforms,38 raising the possibility that occupants could not only own, govern, and inhabit, but also finance design-interventions, becoming the benefactors and the beneficiaries of myriad increased (non-monetary) values. Cooperative ownership and management structures similarly provide a response to the pathologies of co-working space. Groups of entrepreneurs and artists in cities around the world have organized to form independent legal entities that acquire and manage a workspace, where members own “shares” in the entity, rather than owning property or paying a fee for access.39 Physical property has long been a terrain for such emancipatory, commons-based modes of control; the question now is to what degree flexible, real-time, digital-physical “spaces” can be governed similarly.
Some domains within digital technology have indeed experienced what Yochai Benkler characterizes as a deep turn from intellectual “property rights exclusively to interaction between property and commons.”40 This shift is embodied in open source software, resources like Wikipedia, platforms like OpenDesk, or the practice of releasing patent rights.41 New forms of cooperative administration, enabled by digital technologies, can minimize the complexity of commons management. Such developments could help ensure democratic control and just distribution in informational life.42
In other words: We know that when it comes to physical territory, and even some areas of digital space, alternatives to the hegemony of extreme privatization and exploitation are possible. The barriers to their realization have always been social and political, not natural or inevitable; they run up against entrenched structures of interest and power that concentrate land and capital in the hands of an ownership class—but not categorically so.
Increasingly, we see the agglomerative growth dynamic reshaping the control of information as well. In economics and politics, there is no longer any simple distinction between the physical and the virtual, between real space and digital space, or between what it means to own a piece of land and what it means to own a piece of data. In such a context, the history of experiments with cooperatives and with the commons is at once inspiring and cautionary. While such efforts have succeeded in providing small spaces of freedom at the edges of broader systems of power, they have never yet come into their own as a true alternative to the world that industrial capitalism has created. Tellingly, physical cooperatives are often galvanized by aesthetics or morals. Although they provide a starting point for imagining how we might manage collectively the ownership of information and of virtual space, they carry also the warning that we must do more than simply carve out small informational coops or data trusts or rely on cultural interventions.
And indeed, within the virtual world of info-capitalism, marginal alternatives are perhaps even less likely to survive than land co-ops in the physical world. The immaterializing, intrinsically global nature of network society means that fundamental changes to its modes of production and its structures of power almost certainly must be systemic and total if they are to endure, and if we seek only to carve out for ourselves a small space at the edge of the Internet, it will be quickly overrun. We must therefore place our hopes in the possibility that principles of ownership, value-extraction, and governance can be fundamentally retooled.43
The obstacles to such a revolutionary change in info-capitalism are at least as significant as those that forestalled wide-scale alternatives to industrial capitalism. Yet we should not despair. We have models to aspire to, and we have new tools to experiment with. Every historical change in the nature of economic production and political administration brings with it simultaneously new forms of oppression and new opportunities for emancipation. The rise of the information society is no exception, and we find ourselves only at its beginning. The inchoate process that will prevent reduction and aggregation from achieving its Singularitarian end must not only mobilize us to action, but must also provide entirely new logics of transaction, of ownership, encoding, and governance. This will not be a revolution of colorful symphonies; it will rumble across the taupe hum of regulatory regimes and algorithm variables that connect human beings to each other, to places, and to things. We need new critiques of info-capitalism’s distinctive modes of economic production, and we need new spaces—physical, virtual, political—for those critiques to manifest as real alternatives to the dystopia of reduction.
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