PLAT Journal is an independent architectural journal whose purpose is to stimulate relationships between design, production, and theory. It operates by interweaving professional and academic work into an open and evolving dialogue which progresses from issue to issue. Curating worldwide submissions in two annual issues, PLAT is a projective catalyst for architectural discourse.

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Not Sharing: Urban Techno-Colonialism in the Age of Big Data

Not Sharing: Urban Techno-Colonialism in the Age of Big Data

What does sharing mean in the current context of the growing agency of technology corporations within contemporary society? Exactly what is being shared? By whom? For whose benefit? Beyond the glossy surface of the current paradigm of sharing, propagated by tech corporations, lies a global data extractive apparatus that concentrates power and means of production within an information economy in the hands of a few global firms. And while the notion of sharing—and its various economic models: sharing economy, gig economy, etc.—is promoted as a redistribution of economic capacities and social agencies for the masses, it essentially entails an unprecedented concentration of resources and power for the few.

Increasingly, this centralizing logic of sharing, propped up by the technological and monopolizing apparatus of the “cloud,” is finding expression within architecture, urban design, and the brick and mortar of physical spaces. Cities are once again emerging as the ultimate sites for the grounding of the extractive strategies and separatist ideologies of the tech sector.

Contrary to the superficial promise of innovation, the brand of urbanism promoted by the tech sector consists of tested neoliberal spatial strategies and historically grounded techno-utopian ideologies, which attempt to bridge the gap left by weakening government oversight and the deteriorating agency of public urban planning institutions in cities worldwide. Cash-strapped cities wanting to compete with other global centers for jobs and development dollars give away billions in incentives just for the chance of having a tech giant land in their town. For the most part though, the urban projects of the cloud—the “smart” cities, towns, and neighborhoods instigated by tech companies that treat data as a resource to be extracted—take the form of technologically decked-out enclaves, campuses, or neighborhoods, that are contextually closed-off, and therefore controllable. The concentration of resources and infrastructures, selective regulatory suspension and lucrative incentive packages, as well as uninterrupted access to user data, all coalesce into detached enclaves that operate in a vacuum that is deemed necessary for “innovation” and technological “experimentation.” The notion of the camp, as an urban morphology, is invoked here both as the internalization of control over seemingly finite and defined conditions, as well as a defensive mechanism against external forces, which are manifested as either governmental/regulatory, environmental, or both at different times.

Over the past few months, three of the largest technology corporations in the world—Amazon, Google, and Microsoft—have initiated urban projects. While all three projects share the common traits of tech driven urban enclaves, they have gone about it in very different ways. The case of Amazon is especially interesting as it provides a representative pulse for the widespread condition of contemporary tech-driven neoliberal urbanism.

A New Urban Crisis

Amazon has approached its urban project as if it were a pageant. In September 2017 the company put out a request for proposals (RFP) for cities to bid to host its next North American headquarters, “Amazon HQ2.”1 The RFP attracted 238 proposals from cities and regions across fifty-four North American states, provinces, and territories.2 In a unified showing of urban desperation, the 238 proposals have clamored for the five billion dollar investment by giving up almost as much in tax breaks and other incentives, with all the gimmicky charm of wooing a rich suitor. Tucson sent a twenty-one foot tall cactus costing two thousand dollars as a symbolic gesture that “Amazon can grow in Arizona.”3 Many of New York’s landmarks were lit “Amazon Orange” in support of its bid.4 The Atlanta suburb of Stonecrest set aside 345 acres of industrial land to be used to create a new city called “Amazon” with Jeff Bezos as its mayor for life.5 However, the unabashed gestures of gushing over Amazon only mask the massive monetary incentives offered by cities and local governments. Chicago, supported by the state of Illinois, has offered 2.25 billion dollars in subsidies and tax incentives.6 This offer comes from a city administration that has consistently cut public services while raising taxes.7 Perhaps the most aggressive incentive package came from New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie offered Amazon an incentives package worth seven billion dollars for the company to locate its new headquarters in Newark.8

This model of “corporate welfare,” is not new, nor is it unique to technology companies. Based on a recent study by the New York Times, more than eighty billion dollars of incentives are awarded to businesses by local governments every year.9 This is in addition to the annual one hundred billion dollars in the federal budget that goes towards corporate welfare.10 The Amazon sweepstakes are perhaps the most public and unabashed contemporary example of the dominance of neoliberal urbanism. Neoliberal urbanism is a complex and variegated landscape of strategies, sites, and models. However, as Neil Brenner has articulated,

“The common denominator of neoliberal urbanisms is the market-fundamentalist project of activating local public institutions and empowering private actors and organizations to extend commodification across the urban social fabric, to coordinate a city’s collective life through market relations, and to promote the enclosure of non-commodified, self-managed urban spaces.”11

In this vein, the lobbying effort of city managers for Amazon HQ2 is perhaps the ultimate commodification of urban life, in which each one of the fifty thousand jobs Amazon has promised comes with a price tag that would be financed by public funds.

The Amazon pageant follows decades of weakening city administrations and deteriorating public planning institutions in the wake of neoliberal policies adopted after the 1970s urban crisis in North America. For some, the Amazon sweepstakes represents the ultimate bankruptcy of the notion of “urbanism” inherited from the aftermath of the urban crisis, as a loosely adopted and fetishized Jacobsian “ballet of street life,” and a kind of urban idealism that ignores the neoliberal economic characteristics of the contemporary city, which is now increasingly subject to the whims of corporate strategies and their profit-driven locative logics.12 Michael Storper, writing about the importance of the location of businesses in the economic health of cities like New York, London, and Paris, argues that the “vast majority of their people come to these cities in order to work. The world urban system—from its richest to poorest cities—is not a set of playgrounds or amenity parks but instead a vast system of interlinked workshops.”13 Here lies the neoliberal basis of contemporary tech-urbanism. By dangling fifty thousand “well-paying jobs,” Amazon is able to underwrite its five billion dollar capital investment over fifteen to seventeen years through massive incentives from eager city administrations.14 The jobs, however, are not guaranteed and the race to grab the private capital offered by Amazon will ultimately result in a massive devaluation of fiscal policy to appease the needs of the corporation. The Amazon sweepstakes also represents a transference of authority, as instituting tax incentives “not only makes investment less costly, [but also] creates space for the private sector to take over what had been public.”15 Amazon’s strategy, which is only indicative of the much more common—and increasing—neoliberal policies of local governments, seems to encourage unnecessary and ultimately destructive competition among municipalities.16 Hence, this strategy will likely result in further social strife between those that can afford access to the rapidly privatizing urban realm and those that will be displaced.17

As observed in countless corporate campuses across the world, the project will also likely result in a physical separation of Amazon resources, talent, and any infrastructural bounty that may come with them, from the larger context of the city in which it lands. This separationist ideal is coded into the physical and urban DNA of tech corporations. In advancing their neoliberal agendas, the cities built by the cloud will seamlessly combine utopian imaginaries, frontier ideologies, and extrastatecraft strategies to generate enclaves of privilege, which are separated from the larger urban realm. In doing so, each aspect carries with it the escapist and the separationist ideals coded into the camp morphology.

Tech Secession

In a recent speech at the Y Combinator’s Startup School, Balaji Srinivasan passionately argued for Silicon Valley to “exit” the limiting regulations and political shackles of the United States.18 Comparing “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” to emigration, Srinivasan based his arguments on Albert Hirschman’s 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.19 In his talk, Srinivasan highlights the ascendance of Silicon Valley—in terms of the power it is able to wield—above what he calls the “Paper Belt,” the older, less agile institutions of governance, education, publishing, finance, and entertainment, as represented by the four cities of Washington D.C. as the seat of the national government, Boston as the representative nucleus of higher education, New York as the center of publishing, and the seat of Wall Street, and Los Angeles as the hub of entertainment, film, and music industry. Srinivasan is not alone in this. A growing chorus of the tech elite have recently voiced their belief in Silicon Valley’s growing power over the other traditional institutions of society.20 In fact, what Srinivasan and others argue is that these traditional seats of power are holding back the innovative push of Silicon Valley through unnecessary regulations while blaming tech companies for a myriad of sociopolitical problems, including soaring housing costs, and the deterioration of public institutions. Srinivasan’s counter argument is exit: “We want to show what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like without actually affecting anyone who still really believes the Paper Belt is actually good. And that’s where exit comes in.” For him Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit means to “built an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.”

This separationist ideology is by no means a niche interest, and is widespread amongst the tech elite. For example, on May 15, 2013, as part of Google’s annual developer conference called Google I/O, Larry Page, the cofounder and CEO of Google at the time, held a rare and informal Q&A session. While the questions oscillated between technical concerns of developers to socially oriented aims of the company, an intriguing exchange towards the end of the session is worth expanding upon here. In response to a question about reducing the negativity and focusing on the positives of technological developments and their transformative power to change the world, Page voiced his frustration that the older institutions of society, “like the law and so on,” have not been able to keep pace with the rapid changes caused by technological development. While acknowledging the need for some regulation so that the world does not “change too fast,” Page objected that we, as a society, have not been able to build mechanisms that allow for experimentation:

“There's many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can't do because they're illegal or they're not allowed by regulation…But maybe we should set aside a small part of the world. You know, I like going to Burning Man, for example…That's an environment where people can try out different things. But not everybody has to go…I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what's the effect on people, without having to deploy it kind of into the normal world. And people who like those kinds of things can go there and experience that.”21

In this short response Page is invoking a number of the most critical aspects of tech secessionism: First, the general dissatisfaction with the slow institutional and regulatory response to technological change; Second, a utopian belief in the transformative power of technology to change the world; Third, the sacredness of the Californian/neoliberal ideals of individual liberty and freedom, exemplified through events like Burning Man; Fourth, the importance of “safe” enclaves of experimentation and innovation, separated from the larger societal and contextual frictions; And fifth, the opt-in exclusionary nature of these enclaves. Page’s comments have since become emblematic of Silicon Valley’s “ultimate exit” for agitators like Srinivasan, who cite Page, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk’s ventures into cities, oceans, and outer space as indicators of the general direction of technological development towards an immanent exit from the rest of the society. However, far from fantasies, the tech elite are organizing their massive resources behind these ventures and are steadily moving them towards reality.22

About a month after his talk at the Y Combinator, Srinivasan followed up with an opinion piece in Wired magazine. In the article he examines how tech innovations developed in Silicon Valley are reorganizing the world: while every square foot of space on earth is spoken for by at least one nation-state, the lack of remaining physical frontier is leading people to exit to the “cloud,” at least mentally. Srinivasan further articulates the emerging dominance of the cloud in relation to the American ideal:

“while our ancestors had America as their ultimate destination, it is not immediately obvious where those seeking opportunity might head today…With our bodies hemmed in, our minds have only the cloud—and it is the cloud that has become the destination for an extraordinary mental exodus.”23

According to Srinivasan, “states of mind”—as opposed to nation states—formed in the cloud are increasingly staking ground in the physical realm. Within this logic, hacker houses, co-living spaces, and gatherings like Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square are all manifestations of cloud formations in physical space. And the divergence between social relations formed in the cloud and those formed based on geographic proximity is starting to nullify, as “these cloud formations of mind are beginning to take physical shape, driving the reorganization of bodies.”24 It is the technological basis of the cloud that is enabling this reorganization of the world because the latest wave of technologies born in the cloud is “not just connecting us intellectually and emotionally with remote peers: it is also making us ever more mobile, ever more able to meet our peers in person.”25

Underlying Srinivasan’s arguments for exit is a deeply rooted ideological mix of frontier-seeking, individual freedom, the unquestionable techno-utopian belief in the transformative power of technology, and the ultimate irrelevance of location and spatial friction mediated through the technologies of the cloud. But it is also about an inherent set of exclusionary mechanisms that concentrate power and wealth while allowing the spaces and people that lie outside of specific communities to perish: “The best part is this,” Srinivasan declares in his talk, “the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology, they won’t follow you out there.”26

This separationist notion of exit tends to ignore foundational questions about who can actually opt into these communities. What are the cost and barriers to access? What kind of relationship do these communities—or countries—need to establish with those outside of their bounds?27 The tech secessionist ideology also completely ignores the inherent dependencies of Silicon Valley on the “paper belt” and those who actively live in, contribute to, and construct it. In response to Srinivasan’s speech, Farhad Manjoo, technology journalist and author, warns of these hard-to-ignore links and the arrogance-induced ignorance of the Silicon Valley elite by highlighting the fact that Silicon Valley’s new found power is historically enabled by the rest of the country and its institutions.28 Furthermore, since at least the mid-1990s a massive chorus of urban economists and geographers have maintained the spatially grounded and socially dependent relationship of technological innovation to physical and spatial proximities.29

In invoking a separationist attitude towards the mainstream, the neo secessionist faction of Silicon Valley falls within a long history of the Californian counterculture which claimed freedom and individualism as its ideals.30 For Douglas Spencer, an architectural theorist and historian, the entrepreneurial account of liberty that is shared in both the history of the Californian counterculture and contemporary Silicon Valley stems from their parallel development and effective alignment with the rise of neoliberalism in their conceptions of freedom and the individual.31 Neoliberalism tends to understate and subvert the political through an inherent assumption that all planning leads to authoritarian governance. Silicon Valley is implicated in this as its “tools of personal liberation” heavily contribute to the depoliticizing project of neoliberalism, “both in the conditions of temporality they impose, and in their tendency to atomize the social into an aggregate of hyper-connected individuals constituted, as such, by their investments in capital and its technological apparatus.”32

However, while the separatist spatial dreams of the tech sector generally have been represented as colonies out on the ocean or in outer space, hence outside the bounds of governments, these dreams are increasingly landing in cities around the world. Much tamer in language and with promises of improved access, openness, and “high-paying jobs,” these contemporary cloud cities are advantageously positioning themselves within the gap left by the desperation and insecurity of local governments and are increasingly offering their capital and their extractive practices as high-value services to cities. In other words, urbanism has now effectively become a tool for the grounding of the techno-utopian dreams brewed up in the clouds of the Silicon Valley’s elite. The Amazon sweepstakes is one example of this ultimate grounding of the utopian ideology and territorial logic of the cloud. However, the sentiment is growing and forming new strategies and responses.

Urban Techno-Colonization

Amazon, IBM, Google, and Microsoft’s urban moves represent a simultaneous evolution of neo-cybernetic urbanism and devolution of public city planning, management, and discourse.33 Instead of acting as technologists or consultants, the agency of the new breed of cloud urbanists manifests itself in the ultimate privatization, control, and management of cities bit by bit. Softer at first but increasingly forceful, the centralizing logic of the cloud will inflict communities, neighborhoods, cities, and regions, reorganizing them through its own controlled, exclusionary, and extractive logic. If the “smart city” represents the discursive translation of the tech dream of commanding friction-less urban environments, cloud urbanism represents its ultimate aim. Cloud urbanism, extending on the neoliberal logics of platform capitalism, internalizes notions of enclosure, centralization, and monopolization. Evolving beyond the initial aims of smart cities, the city organized through cloud urbanism is bounded, standardized, packaged, controlled, branded, marketed, and entirely commoditized.34 Hence, urbanism becomes a tool for grounding the techno-utopianism of the frontiersmen and the technologically empowered settlers of the techno-utopias of the future.

In parallel, the separationist turn in Silicon Valley represents a new wave of ideologically aligned techno-colonizers in search of new frontiers liberated from government scrutiny and democratic oversight. From outer space to the oceans, the tech elite have formed a renewed interest in the libertarian potential of new colonies outside the reach of the limiting bounds of terrestrial regulatory mechanisms. While the frontier status of outer space and the largely inhabited oceans is perhaps more clear, cities and urbanization, now faced with a renewed sense of crisis, are beginning to emerge as frontiers for technological colonization once again.

It is likely that the marriage between the secessionist turn in Silicon Valley and the incentivized urbanism of the tech sector will result in more exclusive enclaves of innovation, further separation from the context that they are so dependent upon, and partial freedom from regulatory mechanisms of oversight, taxation, and democratic governance. However, given the repeatability of the model and the ease by which these enclaves proliferate and regenerate, these “zones” will grow to overtake entire metropolitan regions—as they have already done in China and the UAE—or even entire countries like Singapore and many offshore islands.35 The neoliberal basis of these cloud cities, propped up by ideals of individual freedom and liberty, will increasingly call for friction-less urban environments mediated through “tools of personal liberation.”36 This will ultimately lead to the depoliticizing of social and environmental resistance which, together with the personal behavioral activities of inhabitants, are now quantified, aggregated, and monetized as external forces to be dealt with through market-driven technological innovation and unregulated experimentation. Once contextually and politically detached from the very real frictions of urbanization—which is now primarily made up of like-minded, demographically consistent population-users—the externalities will be perceived to be eliminated. The hegemonic tech elite—now the planners of these cloud nations—rule by data and surveillance through technological platforms that regulate their population-users socially and behaviorally to maintain the smoothness of their territories.


1 Amazon, Amazon HQ2 RFP, 2017,

2 Amazon has more recently announced a shortlist of 20 finalist cities. “Amazon HQ2,” Amazon,

3 Kurt Schlosser, “Tucson sends a 21-foot-tall cactus to Jeff Bezos with a message: Amazon can grow in Arizona,” GeekWire, September 14, 2017,

4 Dennise Green, “New York City will be bathed with orange light in support of its bid for Amazon's $5 billion headquarters,” Business Insider, October 18, 2017,

5 Shannon Liao, “Georgia city will rename itself Amazon if it wins the new headquarters,” The Verge, October 3, 2017,

6 Bill Ruthhart and Monique Garcia, “Illinois, Chicago letter to Amazon: $2 billion in tax breaks, maybe more,” Chicago Tribune, October 24, 2017,

7 Miles Kampf-Lassin, “Don’t Trust Jeff Bezos—or Rahm Emanuel,” Jacobin, October 31, 2017,

8 Lucinda Shen, “This Unexpected City Says It Has Everything Amazon Wants for a New Headquarters,” Fortune, October 16, 2017,

9 Louise Story, Tiff Fehr, and Derek Watkins, “United States of Subsidies,” The New York Times, December 1, 2012,

10 Tad DeHaven, Corporate Welfare in The Federal Budget, Policy Analysis (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2012),

11 Neil Brenner, “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?,” Post (MoMA), March 24, 2015,

12 Nikil Saval, “Desperately Seeking Cities,” n+1, October 31, 2017,

13 Michael Storper, Keys to the City: How Economies, Institutions, Social Interaction, and Politics Shape Development (Princeton NJ: Princeton Universtiy Press, 2013), 31.

14 In its RFP Amazon repeatedly touts the 50,000 jobs the project will create with an average annual salary of $100,000 per job. See, Amazon, Amazon HQ2 RFP, 2017, 

15 Michal Rozworski, “The Amazon Sweepstakes,” Jacobin, November 2, 2017,

16 The average value of incentives offered to businesses by local governments (cities and states) has tripled between 1990 and 2015. See: Timothy J. Bartik, A New Panel Database On Business Incentives for Economic Development Offered by State And Local Governments In The United States (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2017),

17 For example, a recent project by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, has reportedly displaced people living in their vans and RVs from a proposed site for a new school. See, Alastair Gee, “Homeless evictions near future site of Zuckerberg-funded school spark protest,” The Guardian, November 16, 2017,

18 Balaji Srinivasan is a lecturer at Stanford University and, since the speech, a Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the largest Silicon Valley venture capitalist firms. See, Balaji Srinivasan, “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” in “Balaji Srinivasan at Startup School 2013,” YouTube video, posted by “Y Combinator,” October 25, 2013,

19 Albert Hirschman, Voice, Exit and Loyalty: Responses to Declines in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

20 Kevin Roose, “The Government Shutdown Has Revealed Silicon Valley’s Dysfunction Fetish,” New York Magazine, October 16, 2013,

21 See, “Google I/O 2013: Keynote,” YouTube video, 3:25:20, posted by “Google Developers,” May 15, 2013,

22 Peter Thiel has cofounded the Seasteading Institute which is actively pursuing the establishment of a libertarian society out in the oceans. See for example, Melia Robinson, “Silicon Valley's dream of a floating, isolated city might actually happen,” Business Insider, October 5, 2016,; Likewise, Elon Musk has put a massive amount of resources behind his SpaceX venture which among its aims is planning for the colonization of Mars. See, Robin Seemangal, “Elon Musk’s Mars Colonization Plan Now Includes Intercity Rocket Travel,” Wired, September 29, 2017,

23 Balaji Srinivasan, “Software is Reorganizing the World,” Wired, November 22, 2013,

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Srinivasan, “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” video at 13:49,

27 The notion of new countries is also put forward by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and a name partner in the venture capital firm that hired Srinivasan. See: Hamish McKenzie, “Marc Andreessen: ‘The world is going to see an explosion of countries in the years ahead’,” Pando, October 3, 2013,

28 Farhad Manjoo, “Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2013,

29 For example, an early, yet massively influential, account of this relationship to spatial proximity is articulated in Manuel Castells and Peter Hall’s concept of ‘milieux of innovation’ in their book, Technopoles of the World: The Making of 21st Century Industrial Complexes (London: Routledge, 1994). Castells further contends that “spatial proximity is a necessary material condition for the existence of such milieux because of the nature of the interaction in the innovation process,” in Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 419. A more recent example can be found in: Michael Storper and Anthony Venables, “Buzz: face-to-face contact and the urban economy,” Journal of Economic Geography 4, Issue 4 (August 2004): 351–370.

30 The Silicon Valley elite frequent events like Burning Man with its roots within the Californian counterculture and are ardent subscribers and perhaps the direct descendants of tech driven ideals of the Californian counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

31 Douglas Spencer, “Architecture After California,” e-flux, October 12, 2017,

32 Ibid.

33 Danny Westneat, “This City Hall, Brought to you by Amazon,” The Seattle Times, November 24, 2017,

34 See: Carlo Ezechieli, “Shifting Boundaries : Territories, Networks and Cities,” NETCOM 12, No.1-2-3 (1998): 35-50; Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (London; New York: Routledge, 2001); Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (Cambridge MA; London: MIT Press, 2005); Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London; Brooklyn: Verso, 2014); and, Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City (New York: Do Projects, 2013).

35 Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London; Brooklyn: Verso, 2014), 25-70.

36 Douglas Spencer, “Architecture After California,” e-flux, October 12, 2017,


Sharing with Amin Taha & Jason Coe of Groupwork

Sharing with Amin Taha & Jason Coe of Groupwork