Smart Complaints? ‘Wild’ Things and the Promise of (Un)happiness in Urban Crowdsourcing Apps
Sabrina Stallone

The way we make sense of cities today is heavily codified by data. As media scholar Shannon Mattern argues, “this datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city” 1. Following this thought, it is not only making sense of the city that is structured through “harvested, cleaned, filtered, analyzed” data, but precisely how we sense it; how it makes us feel. The data through which we experience the city, however, is not only mandated by state forces and automated technology, but also provided by dwellers themselves. As I am going to argue in the following, the rise of Geographic Information System (GIS) based, crowdsourced feedback systems for “urban improvement”, in the shape of apps or web platforms used to voice complaints and incidents, contributes to how affect is distributed throughout urban space and place, following and magnifying existing dynamics of difference and exclusion. In an analysis of these feedback systems, complemented by ethnographic data collected on Zurich’s urban land reserves, I aim to explore how civic crowdsourcing platforms such as Züri wie neu, an urban improvement platform whose title translates from Swiss German to “Zurich like new”, and the therein archived “ephemeral” sources of complaint contribute to creating lasting geographies of (un)happiness in the city. Drawing on AbdouMaliq Simone’s seminal concept of “people as infrastructure”, 2 as well as literature on affect, promises and cleanliness, I propose a reflection on how this datafication of complaint operates with other urban dynamics of exclusion. I argue that it not only constructs a “misanthropic city” 3, but also cultivates a materially felt experience of “fragmentation and distrust”, 4 ultimately creating impermeable borders and differential affordances with respect to what the appropriate use of the city is.

Matter out of place – a source of unhappiness?

During the months-turned-year of global pandemic, collective life was drastically altered. In uncountable places worldwide, urban proximity and sociality, craved for and yet feared, came to be sensed in oblique, unexpected ways. Songs sung from balconies, collective applause and virtual gatherings had to fill lacunas left by the memories of occupying the same space in asphyxiating, now dearly missed closeness. Similarly, the discarded, found and repurposed objects on the streets of Zurich came to signify many things: of course, they could be seen as “matter out of place”, those dirty things that transgress established borders and confound order 5; as evidence of a system overload, a ghastly trace that things, for once, here, did not run smoothly. But they also hinted at the co-presence of other dwellers, albeit at a different beat; the reassurance that even on sometimes deserted street corners, there was still a chance to reiterate, reaffirm life by leaving material traces, allowing matter to be part of an admittedly hiccupping infrastructural cycle, or be imbued with new purpose. Making a case for people as infrastructure, AbdouMaliq Simone indeed defines the city, with its constant “conjuncture of heterogeneous activities” 6 as a space of incessant convertibility, “turning commodities, found objects, resources, and bodies into uses previously unimaginable or constrained”. In this context, people as infrastructure is understood as a lens through which to understand “people’s actions as technical, an infrastructure generating possibilities of acting in concert beyond the explicit intention or planning of any individual or group” 7. It is a concept that wants to go beyond the “apparent insularity” 8 of cities, their processes and their events, and show that its bodies can be simultaneously more and less than what they are, “a dynamic infrastructure” 9.

Beyond the contemplative and poetic, the disposed objects left outside buildings in my own neighborhood of Zurich – pans, furniture, bags of clothing, books and TV sets – were also reflective of a broader shift in the visibility and urgency of mutual aid and solidarity on the one hand, and racialized imaginaries of “disorderly” urbanity on the other. Even in the urban spaces of one of the richest countries worldwide, images of persistently long queues in front of food banks in Basel, Geneva or Zurich have flooded the media since March 2020. Suddenly, these images (re-?)centered lived realities of poverty that are tenaciously rendered invisible otherwise in the heavily policed and tidily structured Swiss public spaces and in the public sphere delineated by mainstream media. Affective reactions of shock and irritation abounded, disseminating an incredulity for the otherwise stubbornly effaced poverty of sans-papiers and temporary seasonal workers in Switzerland that exists beyond official statistics – a “paradox situation”, as the municipality itself admitted 10. A renewed sensibility for the interdependence of social and economic trajectories across urban class and race, citizenship and gender came to the fore. That led to many an informally organized initiative of redistribution of goods and services, and initiatives asking themselves: can a fairer re-distribution of goods, resources and objects be arranged? At the same time, the disorder, suspension and uncertainty provoked by the global impasse also evoked geopolitical anxieties uttered in forms of geographical, cultural othering, even beyond the despicable Covid-19 xenophobia and racism that emerged almost instantly with the advent of the pandemic. Videos of emptied shelves in Swiss supermarkets started to circulate, as well as imagery of shuttered spaces of leisure and entertainment, accompanied by verbalized incredulity. “Is this really Switzerland?”, internet dwellers asked in the comments section of large media outlets, voicing disbelief towards the seemingly interrupted flow of surplus goods. On a walk back from one of said supermarkets, during the early weeks of Zurich’s lockdown, I see a pile of objects draped against the wall of a building: wooden bars, a toddler car seat, a broken umbrella, an intact mirror. On the mirror, penned with a white marker in Swiss German, the question: “Simmer da in Napoli?” – “Are we in Naples, or what?”

Street corner things, “Simmer da in Napoli?” (Are we in Naples or what?), by author

In the pandemic spatiotemporality of Zurich, a city known for and proud of the smoothness of its governmental and infrastructural operations, particular responses as collective articulations of feelings were brought to the fore with respect to, simply put, things that are discarded. For instance, in the latter example, an outraged corrective of an imagined “orderly” Zurich communicated through a snarky comment about disorder as an inherent property of the Italian city of Naples. A place often associated with imaginaries of lack of hygiene and security 11, its surfacing in this context is reminiscent of Swiss racist and paternalistic attitudes towards its southern neighbors, and the stereotypes of incivility and backwardness linked to them 12. In encounters like these, “wild” things were put into the spotlight, refocalized to expose the frictions of the urban everyday. Instead of making leftover objects and bodies “invisible by not looking, and unthinkable by not thinking” 13, the city confronted its matter out of place in less “smooth” ways.

Methodologically, this article relies on ethnographic fieldwork in Zurich’s urban interstices 14, whose relevance in the urban context I will detail below, as well as on a qualitative content analysis of the digital feedback system for “urban improvement” Züri wie neu, asking what affective geographies are produced and amplified by such a service in the current moment. Drawing from recent theorizations of affect, I see the study of affective geographies as the study of “non-representational dimensions of body–space relations” 15; in other words, how spatialities are created and shaped by the attunement and relationality between human and non-human bodies, in their respective capacities to “affect and be affected”, citing long-standing work done on affect indebted to Spinoza 16. At the same time, I follow Sara Ahmed’s critical stance towards the clear-cut separation between emotion and affect 17, arguing that distinct definitions of emotion as subject-centered and affect as pre-cognitive and relational don’t do justice to the ways in which emotions can also move bodies and move between bodies 18, and how they influence our visceral and bodily reactions to given situations 19. While it goes beyond the scope of this article to discuss this philosophical distinction in detail, in the following I will use and consider these terms as reflective of intertwined processes.

Focusing on crowdsourcing apps for urban improvement, technologies increasingly used to voice emotions of complaint and dissatisfaction in urban spaces, I interrogate the role of found and discarded out-of-place objects, from “wild” trash bags to repurposable goods, in the geographies created by such Geographic Information System (GIS) based applications, within a context of urban surveillance of and in everyday life. I then draw from ethnographic material collected during my dissertation fieldwork concerned with the future-making and future-contesting practices of interim usages on Zurich’s land reserves. I contend that those spaces, arguably already seen as “matter out of place” that disrupts dominant narratives of urbanity and future growth, are relevant sites to look at how civic crowdsourcing apps, and the emotions and affects they codify, seep into these spaces, amplifying existing domination and fragmentation patterns based on social differences. I ask, what types of affective geographies of (un)happiness do these technologies of ”smart complaints” establish? And how does the praxis of complaint, as organized by digital platforms, structure how we establish geographies of exclusion in the city?

Cleanliness as prestige, cleanliness as security

Zurich, with less than half a million inhabitants the largest city in Switzerland, often appears in intra-urban competitive rankings listing “the cleanest cities in Europe”, if not the world. Much pride is taken locally in the cleanliness of urban shared spaces and the smoothly functioning hygiene and recycling infrastructure – which includes the removal of multiple kinds of “matter out of place”. After a period of urban instability and upheaval in the 1990s, with an open drug scene amid economic recession that made global headlines, in 2002 the municipality launched a 1 mio. Swiss Francs urban improvement project called Sauberkeit & Sicherheit, Cleanliness & Security, in collaboration with the municipal police corps and closely monitored by the Department of Social Services. The project was based on three pillars: improvement of infrastructure, broad communication of the improvement measures, and “visible (police) presence” (‘sichtbare (Polizei-)Präsenz’) on the urban territory 20. The project, after 2002 fully integrated into long-term administrative structures, unmistakably linked issues of personal and collective security to the material signifier of dirt, setting up systems of police surveillance in service of the promise of cleanliness. With that, it echoed often drawn parallels of the enforcement of social order through the removal of dirt 21, and the historical presence of waste in a city with a destabilization of ruling class domination 22. In light of these more general governance genealogies, Zurich’s cultural specificities as well as the current historical impasse, the discarded objects found on street corners, under canopies and in building entrances are imbued with yet another dimension of meaning: the potential destabilizers of urban safety and thus of a promised urban happiness, as I will show later on in this piece.

One of the tangible results of the integration of cleanliness/order and security/control into municipal governance infrastructure was the civic crowdsourcing app for urban improvement called Züri wie neu, meaning Zurich like new, emulating other such services existing in European cities such as the pioneering “FixMyStreet” in the UK, or “Verbeter de Buurt” in the Netherlands. As a crowdsourced GIS-based application looking to “create a communication channel between civil society and city administration” 23, Züri wie neu was established in 2013 as an early initiative of “eZurich”, the municipality’s then-digitization effort, which was since channeled into a smart city strategic plan launched in 2018. Züri wie neu’s main goal is to allow residents to file damage and claim reports on the maintenance of urban infrastructure. The data made available by residents includes a geographical location visualized on a satellite map of the municipal territory, colour-coded in red (submitted), yellow (being processed) or green (resolved). Moreover, submitters can upload photos of the grievance, as well as a short explanatory text, to add a verbal component to their “pin drop” complaint.

The web- and mobile-based application is one of the many crowdsourced urban improvement platforms established worldwide, which can be understood as a “new computing paradigm where humans are actively enrolled to participate in the procedure of computing, especially for tasks that are intrinsically easier for humans than for computers” 24, with an open call for participation by the largest possible group of people 25 as its most defining factors. Pioneer examples go beyond FixMyStreet or Verbeter de Buurt, as they also include the open source “activist mapping” platform Ushahidi in Nairobi, or the open source BCN Antimasclista app, mapping gender violence in Barcelona’s public spaces. Literature on the topic of urban civic crowdsourcing through digital technology is as vast as the applications themselves, but an analytical focus on affect and emotion is only rarely centered. While next to the technology’s emancipatory potentials 26, issues of limited participation 27, demographic inequality 28 and the deliberate use of emotion as a category of data collection 29 are widely debated, it is mostly in queer-feminist critiques that the unintentional affective geographies created by such technologies are discussed, building on insight indebted to scholarship of automated racial and gendered discrimination in technology 30, arguing that the “ways in which code, data, and algorithms assemble the city are geographically uneven” 31. In Serena Olcuire’s treatise of the app Wher, which is supposed to crowdsource “safe” routes for women* in the Italian city of Bologna, she shows how the app “actively collaborates in processes that exclude them from public spaces” 32, carving out geographies of fear and anxiety by, for instance, constructing bodies that are deemed dangerous, such as migrants and sex workers through the digital mapping of their urban presence.

The need for a continued scholarly examination of these unintentional affective entanglements in civic crowdsourcing for urban improvement is supported by a broader scholarship on cities and emotions. Space, and more precisely urban space, is a particularly important vehicle for and transmitter of emotions, which are in turn preceded by certain affective intensities. Geographer Nigel Thrift goes as far as arguing that “space and affect are often coincident”, as “transmission is a property of particular spaces soaked with one or a combination of affects” 33. In his work, Thrift makes a case for misanthropy as a pervasive emotion in the city, arguing that the often sought-for sociality in modern cities, and the relative contemporary robustness of cities as spaces of social life, does not take away from the fact that cities are “drenched in dislike and hatred” 34. While Thrift does not believe that these feelings structuring the city are new, or at all escapable, he does remark that certain “models of organisation” 35 have recently institutionalized such misanthropy and rendered it an integral part of our urban everyday life. It is precisely these models of organisation of “dislike”, if not hatred, that, I argue, are institutionalized through platforms that serve as datafied receptacles of such emotions – echoing the initial quote by Shannon Mattern, they don’t just become aggregators for civic data, but mediators of our affective registers as urban dwellers. In the proximity created between civil society and administrative instruments through civic crowdsourcing technologies, this misanthropy – coming in the shape of complaints about lack of “civility” – is permanently weaved into our urban fabric, and possibly the politics therein generated.

In the context of cities, for a number of years now happiness has been quantified through collection of data on subjective well-being and quality of life. Happiness and other positive emotions in the city can, however, be more than the aggregation of contentment with regard to the built environment and urban infrastructure. They can also become moral and highly political impositions in urban societies, used to justify processes of domination. In her discussion of the “promise of happiness” with respect to migration and colonialism, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed argues that, in the colonial project, happiness was a promised goal that justified the inculcation of a very specific brand of civility, based on a socially constructed set of “local custom and good habits” 36. In current migration discourse, “happiness is still used as a technology of citizenship, as a way of binding migrants to a national ideal” 37. Following this tenet, the digital datafication of supposed un-civility, in the specific cultural context of Zurich in the form of “wild” disposal of matter out of place, is also the sedimentation of unhappiness: “to be bound to happiness is to be bound by what has already been established as good” 38, and what has already been established as good is the antithesis of matter out of place: that which is classifiable as dirt 39, that which threatens “disorder, ambiguity, anomaly and impurity” 40. The datafication of those objects threatening disorder contains both the “model of organization” that cements our urban unhappiness, and the moral classification of how a city is supposed to be, and its citizens – or those dwellers yet-to-be, promised to be citizens – supposed to behave, and ultimately, feel.

“Wild” things: Züri wie neu and models of datafied urban misanthropy

In the Zurich app Züri wie neu, the aspired proximity between civil society and administration is manifested through a relatively quick turnaround from “submitted” to “resolved”, with approximately 450 claims processed per month. A lot of the claims signaled concern infrastructural damage such as defective displays at public transport stops, fallen branches after heavy storms and broken glass on bike paths. However, a considerable chunk of the complaints marked on the map figure in the category “trash/collection points”, finding fault with “wild” objects, “illegally disposed” trash and Sperrmüll – “bulky waste”. Sometimes, the attached photographic “proof” of the latter indicates that the things sparking the complaint cannot unequivocally be considered waste: often, these crowdsourced complaints feature photographs of neatly stacked wooden boards, worn out yet intact pieces of furniture, or cardboard boxes filled with various household trinkets. The accompanying texts communicate a discomfort, an irritation with such objects: “inappropriate disposal!!!”, “this trash is here illegally”, “can you take care of this mess?”, and not rarely a decidedly misanthropic connotation: “Unbelievable, the kinds of people we have to live with”, accompanied by a photo of a picnic table in a public park covered in empty beer bottles. After record-time processing, the municipality of Zurich almost always replies with a promised deadline for removal (“We will take care of this within eight working days”) and by expressing its thanks: “Thank you for your contribution to a clean Zurich.”

What can this datafication of urban unhappiness through “smart” as in digitized complaints tell us about the fabric of a wealthy and generally well-functioning city such as Zurich? How are the above-described possibilities opened up by Simone’s “people as infrastructure” limited by such a process of mediation? In reflecting on these question, it is important to keep in mind that “though crowdsourced civic participation is generally perceived as a positive mechanism for empowering ordinary citizens and democratizing an otherwise bureaucratic process” 41, such civic participation comes with its own limitations, facilitating systems of marginalization – concerning digital divides, but not only. While some of the “wild” disposals of still usable objects are posted to Züri wie neu with only a two or three word description, or even wordless visual proof, some of the instances of civic participation elicited by the platform take on tones that enmesh a geography of complaints and unhappiness with strong racial undertones – marking the overlap of the so far argued for misanthropy with urban xenophobia. On one of my GIS excursions on the Zurich territory, I find the following complaint:

“The trash is regularly left near the takeout ‘Himali’*, which is probably run without the required licence. There are serious doubts about their sanitary conditions. There is not even running water in the ugly truck, which serves as a food stand and kitchen.” (own translation, *name changed by the author)

The pin had been placed in November 2020, in a district of Zurich with a markedly high migrant population, in front of a small, temporary pavilion rented out to a business in the hospitality industry, run by a migrant family. The picture added to the complaint, indeed showed two paper bags full of garbage, one spilled over to the side, a kitchen knife on the ground. The Nepalese takeout restaurant has since left the premises; however, the complaint that “spilled over” from a claim about trash on a street corner to the xenophobic assumptions about a facility’s sanitary conditions on Züri wie neu remained online even after the takeout’s demise. Chillingly, much like most other complaints, the grossly contentious claim was “resolved” with a resounding “Thank you for your contribution to a clean Zurich.” An inquiry to the chief of GIS services at the municipality on existing community guidelines regarding the claims was answered by mentioning that none of the complaints are taken down after submission, in fact over 25’000 claims posted since 2013 are currently available as open data. Only after directly referring to the specific claim cited above, and repeatedly asking for community guidelines, the municipality employee agreed with me, stating that “the claim text should have definitely been redacted, or set to ‘invisible’” (personal correspondence, own translation, May 2021). The day after this last inquiry, the claim text was indeed shortened: “The trash is regularly left near the takeout ‘Himali’*”. This complaint, thus, continued to mark a datafied assumption (“probably run without the required licence”), immortalizing an urban geography of indignation in an “archive of unhappiness” 42, beyond the existence of those affective responses’ supposed source, and was only readily redacted upon inquiry – a complaint about a complaint.

As anthropologist Bettina Stoetzer has argued, “garbage often carries racial meanings and is a potent polysemous symbol of disorder and threat to community in debates about urban development” 43. In her research on Berlin’s “wild barbecuing” practices in public parks and its racialized representations in public discourse, she shows how national and local media have significantly contributed to the linkage of “wasteful” migrant activities and a “violation of turf”, a “threat to the coherence of the ‘natural’ national community” 44. As the example stated above, as well as the complaint encountered in my neighborhood regarding the Southern Italian city of Naples, in a subtly amplified and largely unregulated way, the entanglement of environmental and “national” pollution can further be observed through the mediatic marking of public space: be it with a white marker tag on a reflecting surface like in the observed commentary on Naples, or with a geo-tag on a municipal, publicly funded platform. While the prompt admin response and amendment of the latter promises good intention, the practice of anonymously and publicly marking certain space as “ugly”, worthy of “doubt” and indignation, carries further implications. I want to argue that the system put in place by platforms such as Züri wie neu normalizes the “models of organization” 45 that give space to a xenophobic way of understanding urbanity, and reinforces the promise of a happiness contingent on a normed form of civility 46.

Wasteland and waste: Differential affordances in “people as infrastructure”

In the following, I will contemplate encounters with discarded objects on one of my ethnographic field sites in dialogue with the above described incident. A large part of my ongoing doctoral fieldwork takes places in a selection of large construction land reserves in Zurich, which I interrogate as interstitial spaces. On the one hand, the vagueness and seeming emptiness of interstitial spaces in cities makes them be “perceived as un-safe, un-inhabited and un-productive” 47 and “their unintentional mode of organisation seems to offer alternatives to modernity and utilitarianism; on the other hand, they take up a ‘wasteland aesthetic’ that romanticizes and commodifies urban wilderness and abandonment 48. In my specific field context, I see urban interstices as officially undetermined, yet hyper-utilized spaces formulated in the future tense, in which urban futures are planned and counterplanned, built and unbuilt, formulated and contested by dwellers, activists, association members, as well as private investors and municipality officials. As bounded geographical sites, they create a tension between capitalist speculation – as land reserve numbers dwindle and construction land becomes more and more expensive – and an existence beyond the glossy promises of Zurich as a growing city with a never-ceasing flow of wealth. As politically contested areas of marginalization and/or opposition, interstitial spaces can thus be seen as “matter out of place” in and of themselves.

Building on these tensions in so-called urban interstices as ”wasteland spaces”, the reactions to supposed waste happen in different ways than what the GIS-based application Züri wie neu suggests. Nonetheless, the attitudes towards waste-ful objects do not break completely free of similar logics of indignation and racial exclusion. Located at the post-industrial margins of the city in Zurich West, my field sites often are the locus of geographical overlap between the middle-class cosmopolitan sensibilities of those urban dwellers seeking self-organisation and a ‘free space’ (Freiraum), with the brutal and marginalized realities of sex workers, squatters or asylum seekers placed in temporary housing, in so-called Containerdörfer, container villages, piles of shipping containers beautified only in nomenclature.

On one of my fieldwork sites, known as Basislager to some, and as Aargauerstrasse to others, an interstitial space on a former municipal landfill managed by the municipality for interim usages at least until 2027, piles of shipping containers are divided into neatly assembled conglomerates. Three large container piles, counting 135 containers with two large glass entrances front and back, house small workshops, architecture bureaus, tattoo parlours, and a dozen more individually designed ones are used for artisanal practices and music studios. While the aesthetic connotes a sense of self-organization and informality, the container conglomerate called Basislager is indeed owned by Swiss Life – insurance company and by far the largest player in the Zurich housing market 49. Next to those containers, three shorter low-rise rows of red, orange and white containers are managed and maintained by the Asylorganisation Zürich, a semi-privatized institution with close ties to the municipality working on a mandate basis in the realms of language courses, occupation, and precisely housing for migrants and asylum seekers, in Zurich and beyond 50. The containers are called “Temporäre Wohnsiedlungen”, temporary housing, which, as one of my interlocutors stressed, “are not temporary at all. People come and go, yes, but the structure has been rotting there for over ten years.” Indeed, the rotation of 140 migrants placed in the Temporäre Wohnsiedlung Aargauerstrasse there is high. After ca. four months in so-called “transition centres” managed by the canton of Zurich, asylum seekers often have to share containers with other migrants from all over the world. While on the lookout for more permanent housing in their assigned municipality, in this case the saturated real estate market of Zurich, they make a home on the former landfill, surrounded by the highway on one side, and the federal train tracks on the other.

While the adjacent offices, workshops and artist spaces of Basislager are rented, frequented and heavily decorated by the urban creative class dwellers with plants, outdoor seating, even a self-built porch here and there, the rows of asylum containers of Aargauerstrasse linger in their intended and imposed uniformity. On the steel arcade stairs that lead to the upper floors of the “temporary” housing, there will be the occasional buggy, or, hanging from one window to the next, an old birthday festoon. Compared to the richness of recycled, seemingly abandoned objects signaling a form of appropriation of urban space 51, and connoting the aesthetic value of dirt and decay as a source of attraction 52, in the adjacent artists’ containers, the migrants’ containers appear orderly and uniformed. Indeed, while the freedom to appropriate is often mentioned by my interlocutors as the beauty of renting containers at Basis Lager, those in migrant associations and engaged in refugee activism repeatedly describe Aargauerstrasse as “something of a prison”, “the worst place in the city”, “inhumane”, “unlivable”. The perceived discomfort of life on the old landfill is further underlined by a datafied stigma: Züri wie neu’s GIS-based data shows complaints “pinned” in the area of Basislager/Aargauerstrasse in 2019, flagging “clandestinely” dumped things, with attached photos of plastic bags full of trash, abandoned bicycles, spilled detergent bottles. With minute precision, the GIS data geographically marks the “wild”, illegal disposal in the parts of the land reserve that are inhabited by the migrants – the only area on the lot in which the municipality had once installed public trash bins. The bins have since been removed, but Züri wie Neu’s application, to this day, denounces a number of corners of the open space next to the housing containers as spaces of “illegal” disposal. The mapping of this particular complaint is especially interesting in consideration of the other half of the area and its 135 containers, in which disposed and found objects are part of the “local micro-culture”, as an interlocutor, a young architect working in one of the containers, says – “it is part of what makes this place great”.

Screenshot “Züri wie neu”, Züri wie neu, May 2021

The marking of the space of migrants through digitized complaints as the space of environmental and urban illiteracy 53 is particularly interesting considering the ambiguous role of disposed objects on the land reserve. For each assembled pile of artists’ containers, there is one container in a central and visible position, which offers basic hygiene infrastructure to its users: a few toilet cubicles, hot water, a small shower. On a small table in front of one of them, users repeatedly leave objects in a variety of conditions: handleless pots, torn canvases, lamps, printers to pick apart for parts. At the end of weekdays, the thin trash bags placed next to the sinks in the sanitary containers are often filled to the brim with candy wrappers, takeout bowls, plastic bottles, or apple cores. At the latest since the removal of the public bins, all dwellers and renters on the lot are expected to buy their own taxed municipal trash bags and use the large containers located at the entrance of the lot and emptied twice a week for disposal. However, the informal usage of many of the non-housing atelier containers, shared by loosely organized groups of freelancers and hobby artisans, leads to many of the containers not having a clearly designated waste management concept, with some users taking their own trash home after using the containers, and others leaving bits and pieces in the sanitary bins.

The contrasting usages and perceptions of Basislager/Aargauerstrasse, much like in the virtual complaints issued on Züri wie neu, both imply and explicitly voice the environmental and urban illiteracy of migrants, addressed by AOZ itself in so-called Wohnschulungen, housing trainings, expected to attend by asylum seekers prior to their move into the containers, and focused on topics such as correct waste disposal and recycling 54. These different expectations in the engagement with urban “wasteland”, and the public displays of (un)happiness related to them, demonstrate the differential affordances made in urban contexts along categories of difference. Benefiting from the opportunities of “people as infrastructure” as the messy, entangled richness of social life, in which “incessant convertibility” is possible, seems to not be equally accessible to every city dweller. The described conditions much rather reflect what AbdouMaliq Simone has ascertained in his 2021 revisitation of the concept “people as infrastructure”: that, in fact, “particular kinds of bodies […] become receptacles for particular kinds of policies provided political-economic agendas are being serviced” 55. Due to these policies and the technologies in place to enforce them, “the very social intimacies of collective life – all of the neighborhood support systems, spaces of enclosure, and streets of “wild” encounter – are attacked in a conscious strategy of cultivating fragmentation and distrust. Here, an infrastructure is being dismantled, and the operative language becomes depletion, ruptures, spilling, and fractures.” 56 While not centering crowdsourcing apps as his main source of concern, Simone does allude to the “increasingly automated ways” 57 that can fragment the urban need and potential for messy, “out of place” collectivity. What I have illustrated above through my ethnographic observations, is how both crowdsourcing technologies that serve as repositories for misanthropic or xenophobic attitudes related to urban life, as well as existing racialized imaginaries of environmental illiteracy can gnaw at the conditions of possibility for “people as infrastructure” as an emancipatory practice in the city.

Even beyond the racialized symptomatics of urban complaints and the unhappiness it datafies, “complaint as a genre” 58 lends itself to a reflection on the urban as a site of misanthropy due to institutionalized “models of organization” 59, as suggested by Nigel Thrift, and the convergence of security and cleanliness as a service that residents expect to be offered by a municipality. In her work on diversity in universities, Sara Ahmed writes about how when complaints record a problem, they are digested into a list of solutions, resolutions, and finally dissolutions. In that, “complaints can thus be used in a similar way to diversity: a way of appearing to address a problem” 60. Of course, it is not to be denied that the municipality of Zurich takes the crowdsourced data filed in Züri wie neu seriously, providing individualized, albeit repetitive replies to each complaint archived in the interface, a factor not included in other platforms such as the Dutch “Verbeter de buurt” or the pioneer platform “Fix my Street” in the UK. However, this administrative diligence is beyond the point I am trying to make here; my focus lies much more on what Sara Ahmed suggests with her lingering on service-oriented “appearance” as a form of governance. Following one of the most prominent anthropological critics of planning and development James Ferguson, it thus becomes evident here that “government services” often conceal, behind the promise of a government whose purpose it is to serve, an intention to create “services” which serve to govern 61. Indeed, these digital interfaces create a façade of urban accountability, shaping a system to address the problem through the removal of supposed matter out of place – as observed, one of the main organizing principles for urban coexistence. This digital “tightening” of complaint as genre should thus also make us ask: “how many struggles are not recorded”? 62 What is the repository for other types of “depletion, ruptures, spilling, and fractures” 63, which concern the exclusionary politics of the linkage of cleanliness, security, and racialized imaginaries? Considering the “tightened” smoothness and user-orientedness of platforms like Züri wie neu also brings up issues of consumption in and of the city. In this “way of appearing to address the problem” by way of an application interface, a “model of organization” is forged to absorb and direct the “wild” things of the city and its misanthropic citizens, and make them coalesce with an imaginary of cleanliness, order and purity. The racial implications of consumer culture, physical and moral purity have been brilliantly explicated in gender scholar Anne McClintock’s work 64, which Patricia Purtschert borrowed to zero in on Switzerland more specifically 65. In an analysis of the rise of Swiss consumer culture in the early 20th century, she shows how the promise of a happy life cannot be disentangled from hygiene commodities and imaginaries of the racialized other – indeed, echoing Ahmed, Purtschert illustrates how the promise of a good life in Switzerland came to overlap with whiteness and the promise of national belonging 66.


Urban life, while it is increasingly datafied, recorded and controlled, is also marked by the ephemerality of its encounters, and from the incessant possibilities created by how, in cities, “people live and make things, how they use the urban environment and collaborate with one another” 67. The traces left by abandoned and then re-found, repurposed objects can make a mark for “the collective as both human and technical production” 68. The ways in which some of these traces are affectively codified as disorderly trash, while others aren’t, indicates that it is nonetheless important to keep critically assessing the rise of datafied urban improvement services, and how they could exacerbate lasting differential affordances of urban happiness and unhappiness as affective structures of domination. In the discussion of datafied complaints, as well as ethnographic observations of disposal and repurposing in undetermined spaces, I have shown that civic crowdsourcing apps such as Züri wie neu can partake in structuring geographies of happiness and unhappiness based on the racialized promise and “appearance” of cleanliness and order, and implemented by the “appearance” of a service well done. Communicating and archiving feelings of misanthropic and xenophobic disapproval and indignation in such ways can contribute to cementing expectations and promises of happiness based on ideals of belonging through prefigured ideas of civility and “good” behaviour. Thus, re-centering Shannon Mattern’s concern that our cities become increasingly mediated and felt through data, the affective geographies seeping into our urban fabrics by way of civic crowdsourcing apps should remain a focus of our scholarly attention.

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3. Thrift, N. (2007). Non-representational theory. Space, politics, affect. New York: Routledge.
4. Simone, A. (2021). Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure”, p. 6
5. Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger. London: Routledge.
6. Simone, A. (2004). People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg, p. 410
7. Simone, A. (2021). Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure”, p. 1
8. ibid, p. 2
9. ibid, p. 4
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18. Ibid, p. 98
19. Ibid, p. 99
20. Bürgi, F. & Mennel, K. (2008). Sicherheit und Sauberkeit im öffentlichen Raum. In: Gyr, U; Wettstein, A. (eds.), Sauberkeit und Hygiene im Alltag. Forschungsbeiträge aus einem Projektseminar. Zürich: Institut für Populäre Kulturen, p. 65
21. Campkin, B. (2007). Degradation and Regeneration: Theorise of Dirt in the Contemporary City. In: Ben Campkin and Rosie Cox, eds., Dirt. New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination. London: I.B. Tauris.
22. Sibley, D. (1995). Geographies of Exclusion. Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge.
23. Stadt Zürich. (2013). Mängelmelder «Züri wie neu» ist online. 16 April 2013.
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33. Thrift, N. (2007). Non-representational theory. Space, politics, affect, p. 222
34. Ibid, p. 26
35. Ibid, p. 199
36. Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 128
37. Ibid, p. 132
38. Ibid, p. 133
39. Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger.
40. Campkin, B. (2007). Degradation and Regeneration: Theorise of Dirt in the Contemporary City, p. 69
41. Bak, B., Chua, A. & Vande Moere, A. (2017). FixMyStreet Brussels: Socio-Demographic Inequality in Crowdsourced Civic Participation, p. 66
42. Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness, p. 125
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44. Ibid, p. 77
45. Thrift, N. (2007). Non-representational theory. Space, politics, affect, p. 199
46. Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness, p. 124
47. Lapina, L. (2021). Dancing with a billboard: Exploring the affective repertoires of gentrifying urban spaces. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 21(1), pp. 229-253.
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50. Widla, N. (2018). Seit 2006 ist die Asylorganisation Zürich (AOZ) Teil des Migrationsmarkts – mit fragwürdigen Folgen nicht nur für die Asylsuchenden, sondern auch für die Angestellten. Das Lamm. 16 October 2018. teil-des-migrationsmarkts-mit-fragwuerdigen-folgen-nicht-nur-fuer-die-asylsuchenden-sondern-auch- fuer-die-angestellten/
51. Estalella, A., & Sánchez Criado, T. (2019). DIY Anthropology: Disciplinary knowledge in crisis. Anuac, 8(2), pp. 143–165., p. 149
52. Campkin, B. (2007). Degradation and Regeneration: Theorise of Dirt in the Contemporary City, p. 74
53. Stoetzer, B. (2014). Wild Barbecuing: Urban Citizenship and the Politics of (Trans-)Nationality in Berlin’s Tiergarten, p. 78
54. Wirz, J. (2012). Integration beginnt in den eigenen vier Wänden. SozialAktuell 11, pp. 22-23. Zhao, Y., & Han, Q. (2016). Spatial Crowdsourcing: Current State and Future Directions. IEEE Communications Magazine, 54, 102–107.
55. Simone, A. (2021). Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure”, p. 4
56. Ibid, p. 5
57. Ibid, p. 6
58. Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p.162
59. Thrift, N. (2007). Non-representational theory. Space, politics, affect, p. 199
60. Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, p. 156
61. Ferguson, J. (1994). The Anti-Politics Machine. “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, p. 253
62. Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, p. 162
63. Simone, A. (2021). Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure”, p. 5
64. McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, New York: Routledge, p. 210
65. Purtschert, P. (2019). Kolonialität und Geschlecht im 20. Jahrhundert. Eine Geschichte der weissen Schweiz. Bielefeld: Transkript Verlag.
66. Ibid, p. 175
67. Simone, A. (2004). People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg, p. 410
68. Simone, A. (2021). Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure”, p. 6

Sabrina Stallone is an Italian-Swiss PhD researcher in Social Anthropology at the University of Bern (CH), and until recently a visiting fellow at HU Berlin and CUNY’s Graduate Center in New York. Her doctoral work focuses on urban futures, and Zurich communities’ local articulations and contestations of their city’s transformation. Moreover, she is interested in feminist urban theory, social reproduction, and the anthropology of planning.


Volume 5, no. 2 Jun-Dec 2022