Subscriber City

What happens when you need an app to access anything

Full-text audio version of this essay.

At their base, most of the apps on your phone have a simple value proposition: When you want something, you can tap on a screen. Pizza, mortgages, a ride, groceries, you name it — they all can be hailed through the user interface, which commands a mix of information and criminally cheap labor to fulfil your request. You don’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has opened up new frontiers for this basic business model, as the surging demand for grocery and prepared-food delivery suggests. Typically, pandemics require us to cooperate and compromise until the danger subsides, but apps offer a different approach: They merge the need to isolate with a celebration of convenience, as though having our access to the world mediated by tech companies were the silver lining.

Already, apps excel at offering private, individualized solutions to collective problems that urge us to participate in exploiting one another. As subways crumble and housing prices reach stupendous heights, we get apps that ration car rides and single-bedroom efficiencies. But Covid’s wake may bring a maturation and hybridization of these systems as part of tech companies’ broader agenda: to serve as gatekeepers and toll collectors capable of extracting profit from “identity management,” resource allocation, and access control long after this pandemic has passed. Such systems — which will link insurance, health, financial, and advertising data to profile us against our will (much as credit rating companies have for decades) — already may determine the cost of your car insurance premiums, what job ads you see, and whether or not you will be offered bail. But they may ultimately come to administer our access to everything we associate with the freedom of urban life.

Apps merge the need to isolate with a celebration of convenience, as though having our access to the world mediated by tech companies were the silver lining

When a 2012 Microsoft patent filing posited a method for taking “the user through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold,” it spurred a flurry of articles about whether such a project was racist. Yes, it was, but the bigger picture is how crime data may be used alongside data on purchasing histories, demographic information, and land prices to dictate where people live their lives. For example, the patent also described displaying in-car advertisements (“stop at a highway exit for a cup of coffee”) and then monitoring the driver to see if they made that purchase, so that the advertiser could be charged for the ad conversion. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a driver originating from a poor part of town is steered with ads for rent-a-centers, check cashing, and fast food, or one in which a black-owned business is charged double for an ad conversion because there was an armed robbery in the vicinity two days ago. And so on. The various inputs that go into the value of a location for a particular transaction can be assessed and prices adjusted accordingly in a matter of minutes instead of years.

There are already highway toll lanes with dynamically adjusted congestion pricing, but dynamic pricing can easily move beyond the car. Amazon — an early leader in automating price discrimination — has already bought Whole Foods; how long before different customers are charged different prices for the same goods in physical grocery stores? How soon will a credit card reward system dictate your place in line for the doctors’ office, the DMV, or the breadline? How soon before paywalls go up around the public spaces we are used to crossing unhindered, before services that once seemed available to all on equal terms become subject to priority tiers?

Let’s call this emerging new normal the subscriber city: a set of technological, legal, financial, and marketing techniques that manage segregation for the purposes of capital accumulation and resource management. Cities have always been unequal, of course, but this has always been tempered by the time it took to reassess the value of land, years-long lease contracts, and the legal rights of tenants and homesteaders. The subscriber city would offer no such refuge: It would be able to wall off parts of the city on the fly without changing the physical landscape. Individuals would be unable to predict the behavior of doors, queues, and prices, as these would be subject to the whims of platform owners. One could be anywhere and suddenly find oneself outside looking in.

As the technology for blanket tracking and ring fencing has steadily emerged, and the legal justifications and corporate consolidations have accumulated, it can seem like the vision of the subscriber city has also only recently come into focus, a monstrous outgrowth of a metastasized tech industry. But the desire to implement this dystopia was not invented with the means for it. One can trace its roots to something ancient and familiar: the walled garden.

Building a wall around a garden is a very old and practical idea — animals are a relentless enemy when it comes to cultivating fruits and vegetables. But the wall itself is also a kind of horticultural technology that allowed for growing delicate stone fruits, grapes, and other warm-weather foods in a wider range of climates. The walled garden was a forerunner of the greenhouse: A thick stone wall baking in the clear autumn sunshine creates a microclimate within the garden that may be as much as 20°F above the ambient temperature. Some gardens had walls heated by furnaces. Walls not only keep enemies out; they nurture new kinds of possibilities within.

While tech’s walled gardens certainly are an effort at enclosure and control, they are also an effort to create microclimates: artificially altered zones where certain novelties — and certain attitudes — can grow and flourish. In 2015, when Mark Zuckerberg decreed a “pivot to video,” the world’s biggest media conglomerates dutifully obeyed. Apple’s ecosystem of hardware, software, and services makes it nearly impossible to switch to the competing Android platform without losing hundreds of dollars of paid-for apps and the hours spent teaching grandma how to use FaceTime. The monopolistic size and relative simplicity of closed platforms can bend nearly everyone to their will. In their gardens, we’ve become expertly stunted bonsai trees.

In the early days of the commercial internet, many tech observers were highly skeptical about walled gardens, likening the advent of systems like AOL to the 17th century enclosure of the commons in England. Prior to enclosure, peasants would collectively work these lands, often with intricate agreements between landowners and fellow farmers about how much could be planted and taken out of the ground. But with the rise of industrialization and transportation technologies, food production began to be centralized, and industrialists drove peasants off the commons and into factories and tenements. Critics saw something similar happening with walled content gardens on the internet: people were being pushed out of self-organized networks and into strictly controlled environments managed for concentrated private profit.

Nevertheless, it seemed at first that the online walled gardens were doomed to fail. The shared protocols that allowed the internet to function seemed also to dictate how it could be used: an ethos of collaboration and interoperability seemed intrinsic, and business models that went against that seemed marginal. Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, looking back at the internet’s early days in a 2010 Scientific American essay, condemned the “America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web,” arguing that “closed, ‘walled gardens,’ no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates.”

Once consumers were trapped in the garden, lured in by ease of use and escape from the chaos of the open web, platforms could treat users however they wanted to

But this vastly underestimated the resilience of the walled garden. How technology can  “request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow human action” — to use design scholar Jenny Davis’s formulation for what tech affords — has changed dramatically since the 1990s. Ubiquitous connectivity and the smartphone’s app-based organizational logics eventually achieved what AOL could not: locking users into subscription services like Netflix, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Google Stadia. Instead of email and RSS feeds (both of which are based on open protocols), internet users turned toward the serene blue of Facebook and the tightly controlled products of Apple, whose rigorously gated app store took the rent-seeking potential of the walled garden to new levels. Once consumers were trapped in the garden, lured in by ease of use and escape from the chaos of the open web, platforms could treat users however they wanted to, as all the data abuse and exploitation that was to follow has demonstrated.

This has had far-reaching implications. Once, it may have seemed that the web was “virtual,” and its walled gardens were metaphorical. But digital infrastructure has hybridized with physical infrastructure, administering (for instance) access to and maintenance of water, transportation, and health care systems. The walls are now coming from inside the phone: Platforms that started “online” have extended their tendrils into our cars, homes, workplaces, schools, and streets. Physical walls, doors, and vehicles are increasingly being governed by obscure algorithms and platform business models. Technologies that, to date, have been primarily advertised as convenient and optional are quickly turning into controlling, mandatory management systems. The person delivering your food will be paid according to a miserly algorithmic calculation. Your corner bodega might have a web-native point of service system like Square or Paypal; your landlord may take Venmo payments; your Uber driver’s car will send information about their driving habits to the insurance company. Perhaps the bodega of the near future won’t serve you unless you have an Amazon Prime account. Landlords may exclusively take payment through Paypal. All deliveries will be made on unethical and inhumane terms.

Regardless of the specific procedure these kinds of services are claiming to render more convenient, they all ultimately serve to organize people into categories so that profit may be made from them based on these ascribed differences. The subscription city is predicated on these services’ ability to successfully segregate us into finer, more elaborate tiers of access, service, and citizenship.

For a clear example of the new walled garden as it grows to city size, we can look to Singapore’s Municipal Services Office. It runs an app called OneService that can be used for everything from reporting potholes to identifying native birds. It is part of the government’s “issue-based approach” to public relations: Instead of Singaporeans having to hunt down which department is responsible for the problem they’re experiencing, the standardized complaint system routes the issue to whoever is responsible for fixing it.

OneService demonstrates a relationship to government that is both depoliticized and incredibly enticing. You can walk around reporting everything that’s wrong with the world and believe that someone will hear you. It’s a very Silicon Valley, solutioneering approach to governance: Render citizens as consumers, and the state as nothing more than an all-purpose service provider. But even as phones make it easy for citizens to make their demands of the state, they also allow the state to keep track of where they are and what they do. In addition to reporting water leaks and litter, Singaporeans can use the app to snitch on one another for “safe-distancing infractions.”

TraceTogether, another walled-garden app pushed out by the Singaporean government for Covid, eschews the privacy-centric open protocol developed jointly by Apple and Google in favor of a system that collects more information and is mandatory for the city’s migrant workers. These two apps work together to segregate migrant workers from citizenry. As native residents live nearly Covid-free lives, the approximately 300,000 migrant workers — mostly Bangladeshi and Indian — are kept in overcrowded dorms managed by their employers. The healthy ones are transported by van to worksites, only to return afterward to the single room they may share with as many as a dozen roommates.

Singapore’s ability to manage migrant workers from dorm to van to construction site and back is a harbinger of the form of control many of us may come to experience, only under a softer, more polite-seeming guise. Perhaps your next eviction will be delivered to you in the style of a GrubHub notification: Oh no! Looks like your Covid-19 test was positive! Good news is we picked out some sweet digs in the quar zone just for you!

Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg have long looked to techno-authoritarian states like Singapore as a model for their own political ambitions. Our phones’ sensor packages are the perfect tool for managing access and permissions for millions of people in real time. And if companies like the biometric identity verifier Clear get their way, we may soon be subject to continuous scanning of both our bodies and backgrounds to confirm our identities and threat levels. Clear runs the program that lets paying subscribers skip the TSA line at 35 airports. Since the pandemic has crushed the airline industry, Clear, as reported in OneZero, wants to bring its approach to credentialing to the world at large, becoming “a holistic identity verification platform, covering more intimate moments in our everyday lives.” From ordering a beer without showing your drivers’ license to tracking and verifying who has been tested for Covid-19, Clear wants to take the subscriber city beyond the phone and distribute it throughout the city itself.

The American response to Covid-19 has been marked by segregation — not just in terms of disproportionate outcomes of who suffers and dies but also in terms of who has access to what sorts of “normalcy.” In a recent essay in Curbed, Alissa Walker paints a stark picture of New York City’s racist response to Covid-19: “Harlem’s concrete-walled parks remained gated and locked. Meanwhile, the grassy parks of the West Village piers were open. Streets in tourist-friendly districts have been closed off to cars at the expense of poorer neighborhoods who see no such luxuries.” Since Walker’s essay was published, more moral failures have presented themselves, including the decision in September to kick 300 homeless men out of what would otherwise be an empty hotel on the Upper West Side after neighbors in the wealthy neighborhood complained.

In the emerging subscriber city, segregation will be obscured by a screen-thin veil of convenience and optimization. The walled gardens that encouraged publishers to pivot to video and music listeners to switch to Spotify will now be used to control where you work, live, and spend your rapidly dwindling free time. The growing armies of harried gig workers are already turning to Whizz, an app that is a less useful version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm joke, to find open bathrooms. Building a company that makes deals with other companies to let a third company’s not-quite-employees find a pot to piss in only makes sense if the first priority is making money from restricting and provisioning access, not providing a service. That’s the subscriber city in action.

Once upon a time, suburbanization was the means of segregation: A life built around the car was juxtaposed to the supposedly dirty, exhausting life of the crumbling city, while the federal government worked with private banks to red-line neighborhoods, locking in generations of poverty. Then, in the era of urban deindustrialization, the strategies shifted. In her 1982 book Loft Living, sociologist Sharon Zukin traces how the 1960s and ’70s trend of artists living in former industrial lofts in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood was sensationalized by the media, which, in turn, made artists’ lofts aspirational. But as she points out, “shifts in a dominant class’s accumulation strategy generally invoke cultural norms in order to justify and facilitate the exercise of unaccustomed forms of social control.”

In the emerging subscriber city, segregation will be obscured by a screen-thin veil of convenience and optimization

One of those forms was expensive contemporary art. By making bohemian urbanism an aspirational goal, a rising class of investment bankers could justify massive financial investment in both artworks and the kinds of urban environments where that art was made. This “artistic mode of production” as Zukin calls it, perfectly wedded banks’ need for new investment vehicles and the material conditions of artists in large cities. Of course those investments were not meant to improve the material conditions of artists; it was instead a means of using artists’ labor-intensive work to create unique places and things to buy — that is, value that accrues to the financiers.

Just as deindustrialization instigated SoHo’s loft living half a century ago, today’s pandemic-induced economic woes offer an opportunity for capitalists to shift the dominant accumulation strategy again, this time toward tech startup culture. Instead of art, we are presented with subscriptions, services, platforms, and digitally managed access. With just a few infrastructural adjustments — the replacement of an old-fashioned register with self-checkout, a phone nestled in its cradle on a Toyota Camry’s dashboard — the built environment can act completely differently. Tech scholar Jathan Sadowski has dubbed this the “internet of landlords.” By transforming useful conveniences into obligatory points of passage, apps that, say, once helped people reserve a table at a restaurant become the only way to eat at a restaurant. Services like AirBnB come to seem necessary and inevitable by emphasizing entrepreneurism on the supply side and authentic experiences on the demand side.

The always-watching sensors mean that it is never enough to pay for a thing just once. Every payment can be fused with a verification of your identity, health, and enrollment in various programs. This makes it possible to restrict an urban downtown to subscribers of a service like Amazon Prime. By allowing stores to not accept cash or provide deep discounts to enrolled customers, the internet of landlords fosters a subscriber city.

Just as the industrial loft became an artist’s loft with only interior renovations, the grocery store or even the city street itself becomes a site of profit extraction with only minor alterations. The generation of wealth comes not only from real estate transactions (although those remain very profitable) and segregation at the level of housing but also from segregation extended beyond the residence and the neighborhood to other spatial configurations. Shopping districts, government buildings, and university campuses are prime targets for a subscriber city makeover. Just as suburbs were justified as safe reserves for growing families and an overpriced studio once could be justified as an in vogue “artist’s loft,” these kinds of expansive segregation projects are made palatable through whatever idea is culturally dominant at the time: safety, creativity, and now convenience. Each idea has a foil —danger, conformity, and frustration— that we try to avoid. But in running from the frustration of crumbling infrastructure and lethargic bureaucracies, we are entering into walled gardens whose fruits are reserved for the most loyal, highest-spending customers.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.