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The Widening Gyre of Precarity

Published onNov 24, 2020
The Widening Gyre of Precarity

To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a person in a laboratory, everything looks like an experiment. Experiments can vary in scale and site. If the colony is a major site of experimentation, so too is the city. Particularly those parts of the city that are already the home to the most precarious. The publicity of the city as a site of experimentation with precaritization offers the opportunity for retrospective unfolding of precarity’s longue durée through an inquiry into its compounding and spiraling effects.

Let’s think about how a previous generation of industrial technologies enabled experimentation on a city-wide scale, the residues of which are still with us. Let’s take this example: Michigan is a key center of the automotive industry. In the post-war period, the car was a component of an experimental production process that re-engineered the space of the city. Less-precarious workers hopped in their cars and migrated to the suburbs, leaving the urban core depleted in terms of their tax base. The divide between those who fled and those left behind was heavily racialized.

Ironically enough, the automotive industry not only caused city-wide spatial experiments that intensified precarity for those already at a disadvantage; it was itself then caught up in a global experiment in the redesign of the supply chain for elaborate manufacturing. General Motors (the Apple Corp of the 1950s), once the world’s largest and most profitable corporation, tried to maintain market dominance in the post-war economy through implementing technical experiments with task-automating robots, techniques for scientifically managing assembly line production, and offshoring jobs that were relatively automation-resistant.

It’s a seldom-told story that today’s networked digital media were born, in part, in places such as the GM factories, which pioneered technological and scientific processes. The shop floor became an experimental space for “solving the problem” of labor, turning the screw on labor’s sliver of autonomy. Remaining competitive in the second half of the twentieth century meant intensifying industrial output without corresponding growth in demand for manufacturing labor. Producing more industrial commodities with fewer workers became increasingly generalized as unemployment and its threat haunted the lives of those employees whose jobs and families had relocated to the suburbs in the late twentieth century.

Precarity is a social force, vectors of domination that congeal into the form of a spiral. Through labor-saving strategies that allowed for corporate growth in periods of intense competition between manufacturers, precarity has become increasingly generalized; it has insinuated itself in the lives of even the privileged subset of industrial workers who fled once heavily populated industrial cities for the suburbs.

One should keep in mind, however, that the earliest experiments with the devaluation of industrial production were initially concentrated on the racialized and gendered bodies of already precarious workers.

The “problem” of labor was always also the problem of race. Black workers were an integral ingredient in the auto industry’s labor experiment. They were hired to be precarious – first excluded from the unions, then excluded from leadership of unions. As workers they were the were first in, first out, and relegated to deskilled, often dangerous jobs. In a sense they were automation’s forerunners. It wasn’t the gig economy yet, but this lab tested ways to cheapen human labor by racializing it.

But let us never forget the agency of those workers. In the late 1960s, in Michigan, revolutionary black workers took on their own white union leaderships, their bosses, and their local governments. Their movement was defeated before it could spread very far, and black militancy only accelerated white flight and the depletion of urban cores. But for a while it was black workers who led a counter-movement against the experimental laboratory of racialized labor and precarity.1

The city as laboratory and the techniques of experimentation that generate precarity have pre-histories in the pre-digital age. But reading the city as a palimpsestic laboratory notebook, one striated by half-marked inscriptions of precarity’s historically fluctuating intensities, allows us to see how sliding down the spiral of precarity accelerates as the screw tightens and the gyre widens. With each new experiment, precarity more intensely saturates the lives of the already precarious while simultaneously drawing more lives into the spiral’s on-ramps.

Ironically enough, the depleted urban core, into which black communities were corralled, is now the site of a more recent modality of precaritization; once-depleted former-industrial cities have become sites of gentrification as more information-intensive industries and creative industries have moved into urban spaces and drawn knowledge workers to them. Initially celebrated as an attempt to revitalize once-depleted cities, gentrification’s sinister logic has led to the intensification of precarity in the lives of those who were just scraping by. And, that was before the cost of rent and coffee started skyrocketing.

These digital industries treat the city as an expanded laboratory for engineering yet more spirals of precarity. The digital makes everywhere a possible site for experimentation. It is predicated on beta versions that are released and tested so users stumble on errors and glitches to be “fixed” even while further failures are afoot. As “users” we are not only test subjects in a lab; we are unpaid laboratory assistants, working to make experimental network software “better.” To be the user is also, always, to be the used.2

The city becomes programmable, and its assistants are reworked as code and feedback into its blank slate. The automotive industry used to experiment on the drivers who bought its products, but consumer rights advocacy limited the degree to which live humans could function as crash test dummies. With today’s tech industry, though, the unregulated social-technical experiment is the norm once again and has so far escaped regulation.

We get used to working with experimental tech that fails. Some failures lead to scrambled images on computer screens, others lead to stocks erroneously sold at an accelerated pace by high-frequency algorithms. These errors, so integral to the logics of digital technology, disproportionately impact already vulnerable populations or produce new experiences of precarity.

When the tech laboratory is deployed, precarity begets precarity. A most excellent case to illustrate this is the Flint water crisis, where the city can no longer deliver clean water to its majority-black residents. Flint is a city of the Fordist industrial core. Or it was. The water crisis must be understood as a product of a protracted history of crises of deindustrialization described above, a white-flight and automation-induced spiral of precarity that left the town depleted of tax revenue for investing in public infrastructures and their maintenance and forced the city to incur debts that were impossible to pay.

The Flint water crisis was precipitated by the State of Michigan’s decision to place the city under emergency management in 2011. After reviewing the status of Flint’s finances in 2010, which revealed the city was operating on a $14.6-million-dollar deficit, an estimated 45-percent increase in net debt since the previous year, Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed a non-elected emergency manager in December 2012 to handle the city’s finances and balance its budget.

The crisis began garnering attention in local news just a few months after the city switched its water source to the Flint River in April 2014, a decision that was supposed to offer only a cheap and temporary source of water for the city. Sourcing water from an industrially polluted river flowing through town, however, was not enough to directly cause the crisis. The decision that made the difference in the case of the Flint water crisis was ultimately the result of the emergency manager’s choice to cut further costs by not adding standard anti-corrosives to the river water at its treatment facilities. Without these added chemicals, the highly acidic water surged through the city’s decades-old lead pipes, corroding the rust and protective lining that prevented lead from leaching into the water that gives life to the city’s residents.

Very soon after the city began sourcing water from the Flint River, residents started complaining about discolored and foul-smelling water, rashes on their skin after showering, and eventually lead poisoning, and the presence of E. coli and total coliform bacteria as well as disinfection byproducts in the water supply. When “business-minded” governments like Snyder’s steer municipalities towards financial solvency through techniques of austerity, one cannot be surprised that these parasitic state and local governments and their financiers are directly responsible for the health problems currently suffered by Flint’s residents.

In 2017, the city of Flint hired engineering consultant AECOM for $5 million to accelerate the implementation of a machine learning algorithm that could predict which of the city’s water pipes might still need to be replaced. The algorithm was only accurate 70 percent of the time but initially saved the city resources that it would have spent in investigating every pipe connecting individual homes to municipal infrastructures. The lives of Flint’s inhabitants could only be protected seven out of ten times. An algorithm designed to save lives was also pushing others deeper into toxicity and the precarity it accelerates.

The spirals of precarity turn and turn again. As more pipes were replaced, the algorithm began detecting fewer and fewer compromised pipes. So the city had to abandon the algorithm and go back to searching through the entire haystack of pipes. This was a more expensive solution that caused the city to fall further into debt. Precarity that begets precarity is mediated by growing mistrust.

The digital laboratory fuels deindustrialization and produces concentrated zones of depletion, where poverty leaves residents vulnerable to exposure to toxins, where heavy metals circulate through residents’ blood streams, making their little mineral deposits in certain vital organs, eroding cognitive functioning. In this case, computers can’t inspect pipes as carefully as humans can, but computers are much cheaper. They create more precarity for those humans who would have performed by hand the crucial job of caring for infrastructure. Exposure to lead brought about cascading health problems the effects of which degrade well-being over the course of the human life cycle, which in turn exacerbates poverty, debt, vulnerability, and the conditions of precarity ad infinitum: a widening gyre.3

Like the turn of a screw, the spirals of precarity tighten the ever-enclosing process of exposure. They suffocate and poison, dispossess and displace historically vulnerable populations. Once white-flight leaves the city with a dwindling tax base, and once resources are extracted from predominantly black and Latina/o/x cities like Flint, city governments and entrepreneurial actors begin an urban reorganization project to attract the creative class. Artists, musicians, and so-called innovation hubs are just the opening salvo in white-return (gentrification) to urban centers, a return predicated on the expulsion of black and brown lives. The underside to the enrichment of a zone is the depletion of another.

Some wounds don’t completely heal. They scab and scar. Many are invisible to all but those who carry them. There are certain things surveillance does not want to know, or when it knows, it keeps to itself. Flint community members suffer trauma, suggesting a poisoning that could be as spiritual as it is physical, and an inability to trust its infrastructure despite several studies confirming that the levels of lead and hazardous material in the water are now acceptable for residential use. The community has very little to rely upon except its own covens of care, and sometimes those are just not enough. As we might say, after Samuel Beckett: we can’t go on; we will go on.4

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