We are interfacing the decline of an urban intelligence.
“Memories from the Future: Hudson 2117” speculative project is a thought-provoking multimedia project of realist speculative fiction centered around Hudson Yards, The High Line and Jersey City in the year 2117.
The narrative currently dominating the trajectory of the Hudson Yards development is one of technological progress, ‘smartness’ and prestige. This story charts a smooth, even path toward a bright future for Manhattan’s Far West Side; a “regeneration” of a formerly blighted area, a tabula rasa upon which to intensify New York City’s seemingly perennial quest to become ever-more inclusive of elite interests, and exclusive of almost everything else. Though this ‘smart city’ narrative seems likely to come to fruition — at least for a time — we propose a counter-narrative, situated within a speculative period of economic and material “decline” in early 22nd-century New York City. We wish to re-script this state-of-the-art landscape into something a bit rougher, aged, lived-in, challenging; a landscape that would also allow us to explore precarious and cooperative modes of urban intelligence, as to stop and reflect on our current urban intelligence problematics.
In order to bring this scenario to life, we developed a narrative following one Hudson Yards resident from the year 2117 for part of their day. Skylar, an intern at a prominent biotechnology firm at New Jersey City, has just turned 35. In order to speculate on the texture of our character’s everyday life in this future scenario, we created a “kit” of everyday objects and media belonging to Skylar. Much has changed in the intervening century between 2017 and 2117, but some things have remained remarkably consistent.
Climate change has wrought dramatic sea level rise and catastrophic damage to much of New York City. Against the techno-optimistic hopes and predictions of many urbanists, protective measures against climate change were never fully implemented (unfinished sections of sea walls and “green infrastructure” have become deteriorating curiosities). Coincident with widespread, permanent flooding in Lower Manhattan as well as waterfront areas in all the boroughs, a virulent strain of hyper-capitalism has evolved over the years, effecting multiple economic crises, increased privatization of public life, and soaring inequality, which have all dramatically re-arranged the social and political landscape of New York and its surrounding metro area.
The city’s wealthy and upper-middle-class, along with the financial and technological centers, have largely migrated across the Hudson River into New Jersey. Yet outside of these inland pockets of prosperity (where, for some, money can still buy a sense of stability), most of the region and its inhabitants have dramatically readjusted to an economy and ecology defined by precarity. Mass extinctions of many of the world’s species have become a grim, ongoing spectacle. Depletion of much of the world’s carbon fuel sources has slowed, though not stopped, the development of new consumer technologies; much of the economy has been re-directed towards mitigating many of the worst troubles wrought by the changing climate (including periodic shortages of food and potable water). The uneven growth of digital technologies has, in particular, slowed dramatically, though many of the major developments of the early-to-mid-21st century (including pervasive “mixed reality” interfaces and artificial intelligence) have become normal features of everyday life.
Within this milieu, Skylar’s Hudson Yards has become a very different place from its brief, mid-21st century heyday. For some of the remaining, original inhabitants, Hudson Yards was always first and foremost a home. As in the century preceding the rise of the Yards, this porous waterfront neighborhood has become, once again, a largely lower-income, working class neighborhood (the long-time residents and their descendants, meanwhile, tend to skew more middle class). Basic infrastructure has been unevenly adapted within the residential and formerly commercial towers of Hudson Yards, and subject to periodic disruptions from both regular superstorms and irregular maintenance. The once cutting-edge smart infrastructure of the Yards, a blueprint for the development of many of New Jersey’s “revitalized” communities, remains semi-operational. Though interfaces, including wearables and implants, are still commonplace, most people living in Hudson Yards have learned to adapt to and maintain aging digital technologies.
Each of the artifacts and multimedia developed as part of this project contain its own story. Collectively, they carry a century’s worth of history — and the power to make us, in 2017, reflect on our own potential futures.
Put on some headphones and listen into Skylar’s intersense here:
Below is a transcript of selected dialogue from that piece, spoken in the voice of a personalized artificial intelligence:
“Skylar! Hey, happy birthday! Look, I know you have this weird issue with people acknowledging your birthday, but, listen, this is your favorite personalized artificial superintelligence assistant talking here. Clearly, you can make an exception for me.
Okay, so I’ve prepared your daily podcast from the New Jersey Times ticker. Not so much bad news today. Let’s call it birthday luck, yeah? . . .
. . . So the weather for today is gonna be fairly average — standard orange smog alert, so you should probably pack a can of Prime Amazon Air. According to my records, you should still have three more full-day uses before oxygen expiration date. Don’t you love how subtle my product placement algorithm is? . . .
. . . New public housing plans have also been announced by NJCHA Secretary Xiaodan Zuckerberg. More than 1,000 derelict units throughout the Lower Manhattan Flood Zone will be purchased and converted to housing for basic income individuals and families, and Jamaica Bay climate refugees . . .
. . . Today also marks the 15th anniversary of the start of the Global Copper Riots, and nearly 10 years since Alphabet’s last mainstream piece of Intersense hardware. Meanwhile, illegal, open-source hardware repair and software hacks continue to become one of New Jersey City’s fastest growing black market sectors . . . I’m telling you it’s not easy being an artificial intelligence in this day and age.”
Here is Skylar’s 2117 ‘kit’ of everyday objects:
Paper map of HRTA (Hudson River Transit Authority) Ferry Service.
A guide to navigating a flooding region.
3D printed lunchbox.
An assortment of bio-engineered HudVal Roaches, Colombian chocolate, and Osaka Seaweed.
3D printed Intersense case and audio-visual interface.
A mixed-reality contact lens and earbud interface, with personalized A.I. assistant.
Climate-proof case w/ I <3 NJC sticker
A tough case for a tough world.
Dumb City Manifesto.
A mysterious pamphlet from a group of anti-tech radicals.
Cassette with encoded Intersense audio-visual feed.
A durable form of analog data storage for a precarious digital future.
Finally, as part of our project, we developed a timeline that would help us situate Skylar and give her some backstory, a history before her time. The timeline can be viewed here.