WHY ARE BUS STOPS in particular a place where some homeless people prefer to sleep? Even if we’ve never been homeless ourselves, we can take a guess at what factors might be involved. Perhaps we’ve seen homeless people sleeping on benches in parks or subway stations, so we know that benches at bus stops—although designed for sitting—also afford homeless people a place to lie down. Surely another reason is the fact that bus stops are often equipped with a small rooftop and walls that offer some shelter from the rain, wind, and sun. If we are at all familiar with the dangers that come with sleeping on the street, then we might also guess that bus stops provide the relative safety of a well-trafficked and possibly well-lit public area.
But there is an additional factor that may be less obvious: bus stops afford a way to circumvent antiloitering laws that target the homeless. Cities often enact ordinances against sitting, lying down, sleeping, or simply spending too much time in public spaces. It can be argued that such laws are often designed specifically to force homeless people out of public areas. Thus the bus stop bench in particular not only offers a roofed and public place to lie down. It also offers plausible deniability: I was only waiting for the bus.
In this light, we see the shrewd political calculation of the vertical seat dividers, armrests, and handles that are so often added to bus stop benches. Such designs make it difficult or impossible to lie down across the bench. The design of such modified benches thus works together in conjunction with the antihomeless laws.
And yet it is possible to fail to notice all of this. This confluence of design and law can be so effective that everyday nonhomeless users of the bus stop may remain unaware of the location’s status as a material and legal site of ongoing political dispute. With the homeless people themselves effectively scattered or prosecuted, with the law itself unnoticed, and with the design unobtrusive, the person who uses the bus stop each day simply as a space to wait for the bus may even remain largely unaware of the local problem of homelessness altogether.
The argument of this pamphlet is that law and design come together to force homeless people out of public space and into further danger and disadvantage. This treatment of the homeless, or the “unhoused” as some prefer, is immoral, unjust, and unnecessary. I join with homeless advocates who have long pressed this view and hope to draw out these issues in new ways through the use of ideas from social theory and the philosophy of technology.
This argument consists of two interrelated parts. The first is the task of exposing the empirical reality of the designs and laws that maintain a hold on our cities. We will need to take a look at the design of an assortment of everyday public-space devices, including garbage cans, ledges, fences, and signage. The bench will continue to serve as our guiding example. To make the moral argument, this pamphlet will not delve into the intricacies of ethical theory but will instead unearth, highlight, and test our moral intuitions. By raising awareness of the often unnoticed designs of our shared public space, and by reflecting on the often hidden political agendas behind them, I hope to demonstrate just how immoral and unjust these designs and agendas are.
This argument also involves the second task of considering the nature of technology itself. The philosopher Donna Haraway urges us to recognize technology’s “noninnocence.” Extending this line of thinking, we must develop a conception of technology’s “guilt.” We must think about what it could mean for a material “thing” to fall under political critique and even be criticized as callous. On one hand, of course, a device like a park or subway bench is simply an inert object, certainly not something with a mind or intentions, and thus obviously not among the category of things we would normally call “guilty” for any reason, let alone callous or cruel. But on the other hand, we must develop a way to understand objects like the bench as capable of participating in large-scale collective ends. It is crucial that we understand them to be things open to certain uses, closed to others, and amenable to concrete alteration by different social forces advancing different political objectives. Thus whatever form of callousness it is possible to attribute to technology, it will be a kind that is shared by a social collective. This accountability will be a distributed one, spread out across an assemblage of people and objects, all with real and specific consequences for people’s lives. In what follows, I draw on insights from the philosophy and sociology of technology to develop an original account of the ways in which technologies are open to multiple meanings and uses and at the same time tailorable to specific agendas. There is a growing interest in what is sometimes called hostile architecture, and this elaboration of technological accountability in general, and this critique of antihomeless design in particular, adds to this line of thinking.
Applying these ideas to the topic of antihomeless design will again be a task of intuition management. An understanding of technological guilt will require challenging deep-seated cultural conceptions of technology as always either (or somehow both at the same time) inherently morally neutral or inherently part of forward thinking solutions. With this attempt to raise awareness of antihomeless law and design, combined with this exploration of the agency and even potential guilt of technology, we can put a spotlight on the callousness and injustice built into our everyday world.