Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Institut für Europäische Ethnologie

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Institut für Europäische Ethnologie | Das Institut | Aktuelles | [Workshop] Big Tech & the City: Space, Labor and (Sub)Urban Struggles

[Workshop] Big Tech & the City: Space, Labor and (Sub)Urban Struggles

Time: July 12th 2024 14.00 - 17.00

Location: Anton Wilhelm Amo-Straße 40/41, 10117 Berlin, Room 408

Registration: To participate, please register with Valentin Niebler via e-mail.


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Digital capitalism is also a project of spatial (re)organization on multiple scales, including the remaking of local landscapes to support global innovation. From San Francisco to Berlin, Silicon Valley technology companies have become increasingly skilled in leveraging local place and public life to “activate” spaces around their workplaces and extend their brand image into physical space. How do tech companies imagine, appropriate, and transform (sub)urban space under different structural conditions, and how are these visions contested on the ground? By bringing together perspectives from Silicon Valley to Berlin and beyond, this workshop aims to place these landscapes in a “glocal” perspective, foregrounding translocal entanglements and potential future solidarities.

Based on her ethnographic research in the Bay Area, Katja Schwaller discusses how Silicon Valley technology companies have become experts in appropriating participatory urban planning processes to get their campus expansion projects approved. In contrast to older, inward-focused HQ architecture, Google, Meta & Co display an aesthetic of openness and inclusion, by envisioning whole neighborhoods, replete with housing, retail, “public” parks, festivals, bike lanes, and community centers, which they brand as “a platform for community connection.” While inviting the public to participate and express itself, however, Google & Co set the terms and control the infrastructure on which these interactions take place. And yet, here's the paradox: Big Tech’s "public" parks and community spaces only exist because neighboring communities starved for resources fight for them, turning to tech capital as urban public funding has dried up dramatically in the US. Now, powerful tech actors take over the provision of essential infrastructure and services, branding themselves as quasi-public actors better equipped to allocate formerly public amenities. As these miniature cities stage a whole ecology of work, porous campus architecture extending outwards into (sub)urban space has become a strategic and contested site for both capital expansion and social struggles in a digital age, Schwaller argues.

While some of these processes are also at play in Berlin, struggles against Big Tech’s local presence take on different forms. Instead of negotiating community benefits, campaigns like “Berlin vs. Amazon”, “Fuck off Google” and “Disrupt Tesla” try to block the opening or expansion of local campuses and factories altogether. Drawing on insights from Metrozones’ multi-sited digital storytelling project “Stadt als Byte” (the City as Byte) and the ongoing struggles against the Tesla gigafactory in Berlin-Brandenburg, we aim to discuss how processes of take-over and resistance unfold under different structural conditions. Can we build new translocal solidarities to curb Big Tech’s increasing hold on our cities? By bringing in suburban struggles, supply-chain relations, and stories from the Grünheide countryside, this workshop aims to foreground and discuss the relationality between multiple sites, scales, and struggles.

This event is part of the summer colloquium lecture series “In the Clouds? Situating the Digital” at the Institute for European Ethnology.




14.00 Welcome & Introduction
Valentin Niebler, Humboldt University
14.30 Greetings from Google, Mountain View – How Big Tech appropriates participatory urbanism to design cities and offices “for people”
Katja Schwaller, Stanford University

Response and Q&A

Niloufar Vadiati, HafenCity University Hamburg


Questions and discussion

15.30 Coffee Break

Stadt als Byte, stories from a multi-sited webtech urbanism project

Jochen Becker, Anne Huffschmid, Oliver Pohlisch, metroZones


Input on urban conflicts in Berlin



Q&A and Concluding Discussion

Moderated by Valentin Niebler, Humboldt University

17.00 Reception


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