Resilient Hope

Orit Halpern

When describing the word logistics there are few things that at first appear more unintuitive than the term ‘concrete’. Seemingly solid and rock-like, concrete is immobile and heavy. On reconsideration, of course, concrete was and continues to be the very infrastructure for industrialization. Since the 19th century, it has been the material that made possible roads, buildings, factories and many other built environments that are now commonly understood as ‘modern’. In fact, it is the material most often invoked in modernist architectural and design projects. The very auteurs of modernist design and architecture such as Le Corbusier favoured the material. When called upon by Nehru to produce a new capital for the post-colonial Punjab – the city of Chandigarh – Corbusier did not hesitate to build the monumental structures of concrete, even as the material was found to be almost untenable and unmaintainable under the climatic conditions. These now seemingly decaying but still operative monuments continue to serve, however, as both icons and memorials to a previous industrial and national order fantasized in the wake of Independence. It is not only Indians who fell in love with concrete. From the Bauhaus to the Futurists, concrete was the preferred building material that bridged nature with industry to induce new possibilities for ever faster cars, buildings and cities. All these utopias were built on a cement foundation that would creatively destroy the world before it.

Concrete, as both a fantasy and a reality, opens to a series of scenes that bridge between older histories of creation and destruction, along with technology and contemporary worlds of high speed trading, algorithms and computation. In doing so, these juxtapositions pose serious questions about the forms of speculation, and of futurity, being currently constructed through assemblages of software, hardware and, often enough, concrete.

To begin thinking about how creative destruction has now taken new ‘concrete’ forms within later capitalism, I want to contemplate a number of scenes, and then I would like to situate them within contemporary debates in urban planning and design about large scale infrastructural planning. This piece of writing thus has two sections, one dedicated to concrete and the second to computing. Such an organizational device is made, following Walter Benjamin, in the interest of producing an image of a condition, and to ‘concretize’ a relationship between these seemingly different realms of practice and technology. The cut, or edit, that links these two seemingly incommensurable realms is the term ‘resilience’, which is both an ontological category describing the characteristics of materials and ecologies and an emergent epistemology that shapes the practices and future imaginaries, particularly in fields such as design, engineering, urban planning and finance.

Figure 1. Siliguri, 2016. Film by Orit Halpern.

Let’s set the scene. The first set of images is the site of mass extraction of boulders and sand from the river beds at the base of the Himalayas in Siliguri in West Bengal. Siliguri is located at the borders between Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China, at the base of the Himalayas. The Asian Development Bank has invested large sums in the area, developing a new ‘silk’ road that is part of a broader Asian Highway plan to increase and improve the infrastructure of roads throughout South and South-east Asia, connecting West Bengal and Tibet. While the economic goals of such an endeavour are unclear, the political objective of China holding Tibet is an unspoken but largely accepted truth. The road, however, demands massive financing and, like all roads, concrete.

Concrete demands sand particles that are clean, smooth, hard and without clay or chemical coatings or contamination for the mixture. Sand that has been worn by water, usually dredged from a river or seabed. The most striking element of this environment, for me, was to witness the intense forms of environmental and human devastation wrought through the endless effort to mine sand from riverbeds in order to fuel the purported construction boom within the locality, the new Asian Highway projects that will tie these regions of India to Chinese-held Tibet, Bangladesh, Nepal and, more broadly, the wide-scale real-estate speculation currently happening throughout India. The extraction of sand and boulders from riverbeds in the interest of real-estate speculation amounts to a massive geo-engineering project, the scale of which is yet to even be recognized. The result of this speculative extraction is that the rivers are sinking into the earth and drying up, thus effectively destroying a major source of water for much of India. The full ecological and human consequences are playing themselves out in what is a large scale experiment in destruction, with no clear endpoint. Phenomenologically, this situation manifests itself through a level of particulate dust that makes breathing difficult and the dust is omni-present on one’s body and belongings at all times when in Siliguri.

Some 600 kilometers to the south lies the great city of Kolkata.  One of the largest and densest settlements on Earth, it has long been at the heart of global trade and commerce, and central in the development of capitalism. Rajarhat ‘New Town’ has emerged in recent years, situated between Kolkata’s IT park in Sector 5 and the airport. It was supposed to be designated a ‘smart city’ by the government. It never achieved this designation, but it has been developed in the interest of producing a space for high-technology corporations and luxury housing for the envisioned workers of these industries. While the high-tech industry never moved to Kolkata, and most of the existing firms are largely secondary service providers to the central operations located in Bangalore and elsewhere, the construction continues.

The urban space of Kolkata is crisscrossed by endless highway developments and fly-overs, one of which actually collapsed during our visit on 31 March, 2016, killing many. This collapse was the result of overly rapid construction, corruption, and the velocity of speculation and derivation in the real-estate sector. The space feels monumental, and empty. In fact many of these developments are empty, some are not even hooked into the information and bandwidth infrastructures which is their purported raison d’être. Much of the housing, here as across India, has never been, and might never be, occupied, having been bought solely for speculation by domestic and foreign investors.

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Figure 3. Rajarahat, 2016. Photograph by Orit Halpern.

Long before ground was even broken for construction, the debt and cost to both the state and the developers was credit-debt swapped with profits reaped by large investment banks located in global financial hubs of Mumbai and even more likely New York, Frankfurt and London. The function of these spaces in terms of life beyond financialization is unclear. At the same time, as a result of the complex assembly of histories of caste, colonialism and capitalism, these constructions have cost some 30,000 people their homes. Claimed through eminent domain, the previous residents of these spaces are often dispossessed with little remuneration, since most of the lower caste inhabitants never owned the land, even if they lived and farmed on it over decades. As a result, these people end up occupying the ubiquitous shanty towns of Kolkata, seeking transitory work in locations such as the port where they often supply labor usually done by automated machines in other spaces under enormous duress. Lacking any public health sanitation infrastructure or electrical grids these individuals are literally being worked to death, and living without sanitation. The cost in morbidity and mortality is enormous. According to the union representatives we spoke to, dock workers retire by their late 30s, their bodies no longer capable of delivering efficiency and productivity at the speed necessary for unloading and loading the ships.

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Figure 4. Haldia Port, 2016. Photograph by Orit Halpern.

My interest is in how to think the automated algorithms (the software, but also concrete, infrastructure of global finance) with its material and physical impact on the Earth and on human life. I propose that these images are the traces of a new form of speculative hope that is indoctrinated within an emergent paradigm of what I want to label ‘resilient hope’. Resilient hope links high-technology computational infrastructures of ubiquitous computing and ‘smartness’, data centres and finance to the far more ‘concrete’, if we will, spaces of locations such as West Bengal.

For ecologist C. S. Holling, resilience denotes the capacity of a system to change in periods of intense external perturbation, and thus persist over long time periods. In this sense, resilience is conceptually linked to crisis and states of exception; that is, resilience is a virtue when the latter are assumed to be either quasi-constant or the most relevant states. In the 1970s, Holling worked from a systems perspective, and was interested in the question of how humans could best manage elements of ecosystems that were of commercial interest (e.g., salmon, wood, etc.). What makes my concept of ‘resilient hope’ distinct is the marriage between this view of systems and change and practices of prototyping, versioning and demoing that are ubiquitous in software development, design and architecture.

‘Resilient hope’ describes a scenario in which a hopeless situation is met with hopeful speculation, usually through new forms of temporal management in finance and technology. For instance, real estate speculation can continue to occur on new silk roads, and never occupied ‘smart’ or at least high-end developments, even as the Himalayan flood-planes are destroyed because the end never arrives, but is simply delayed or, more appropriately, derived. ‘Resilient hope’ marries older histories of actuarial management with contemporary financial and computational techniques and design thinking to reformulate systems – whether human, animal, technical or geological (or all combined) – to assimilate shock and traumatic events while maintaining consistent operability, functionality and organization through time.

Another way to think about the link between resilience and prototyping or demoing is by distinguishing between risk and uncertainty. According to economist Frank Knight, uncertainty, unlike risk, has no clearly defined endpoints or values. It offers no clear cut terminal events. Under conditions of uncertainty, the test no longer serves as a simulation of life. Rather, the test-bed makes human life itself an experiment for technological futures. As future risk transforms into uncertainty, high-technology, particularly ‘smart’ and ‘ubiquitous’ computing infrastructures, becomes the language and practice by which to imagine our future. Computing becomes concrete.

One of the key (and troubling) consequences of ‘resilient hope’ is to obscure differences in kinds of catastrophes. While every crisis event – for example, the 2008 sub-prime mortgage collapse or the Tohoku earthquake of 2011 – is different, within the demo-logic that underwrites the production of smart and resilient cities, supply chains and infrastructures, these differences can be subsumed under the general concept of on-going crisis without clear event structure; fortified because measurement of impacts has been transformed into ‘optimization’ and demoing or prototyping. That is, whether threatened by terrorism, sub-prime mortgages, energy shortages or hurricanes, smartness always respond in essentially the same way. It is precisely this evacuation of differences, temporalities and societal structures that most concerns me in confronting the extraordinary rise of ubiquitous computing and high-tech infrastructures as solutions to political, social, environmental and historical problems confronting urban design and planning, and engines for producing new forms of territory and governance. This logic also prompts us to ask about the possible alternatives.

Our challenge, then, is to fundamentally transform the current resilient hopes of deferring negative futures through the practices of demoing and versioning that mirrors the models of software development to another mode. This demands examining the social movements, construction projects and many efforts in art, design, the humanities science and politics that have challenged the positive embrace of end times, and fought to reintroduce other forms of time and life into space. When concrete first emerged as an ideal material in architecture and in art, it was in the interest of producing another world, one that was not yet here. Today, we face another challenge – one of imagining another world while recognizing the tragedy that already has, and is still, occurring to most of life on earth. This demands a change of tense for design and politics. We cannot dream of creative destruction, since we have indeed already destroyed the world, but nor can we continue to embrace a world without futures.