Air becomes a gift when you live in Beijing. If you have a clear blue sky, it’s really like a gift. It is a very tangible material in the sense that when the sky is not blue and clear, you can taste the air in your mouth. You can feel all the particles that it transports. They penetrate your body; they go through your mouth, every orifice, your clothes and your computer. You don’t actually think about the dust. You think about the air when you live here.
Personally I’m not using apps. It’s just my disposition. I’m the kind of person who would easily be misguided by this kind of data. I’d become more anxious if I’d check them all day long. So I prefer to sense the quality of the air by myself, and to make my very personal, subjective decisions on my own. Some people are more aware with the apps. They are not numb. But maybe that’s because they have the money to buy the protection stuff or the air cleaner. For example, my roommate bought an air cleaner, and she would check the air quality inside our apartment all the time. She relies more on that than on her subjectivity. But she also has the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, so she values her health. It’s very much linked to the opportunities, visions, and expectations one has for one’s life.
Today, I received a message from China Mobile that says: “Today is orange alert because today the AQI is this high and kids should stay at home.” It’s already on that level. The government is very conscious of this. They are aware of the things people talk about every day on social networks: What are the concerns? What are the emotions? I think that instead of just ignoring it, they are learning to take certain strategies, launch certain plans if something happens. Also, when necessary, they will take very extreme measures to rescue the air, like when the APEC summit took place in Beijing and Obama was here. They shut down a lot of factories around Beijing and we had two weeks of blue sky. So we call that APEC blue, which is really funny. For the Olympics they literally hacked the weather. There are big cannons that bring down the rain if the air is too bad.
I think foreign companies—not only foreign companies but some big central state-owned companies, too—they protect their employees. They have many air purifiers in the office. In my company we have lots of air purifiers. They also do some reports about the air condition, and we are asked to wear masks. At the reception area you can take a mask. So I would say it depends on the company environment. If your company educates you, and reminds you to protect yourself, if your company has this sense, then you will have it.
Something as ephemeral as air always dwells in that liminal in-between space. The pollution today of 330 is not entirely uneventful, but it’s definitely not an event either. Something like that doesn’t make the headlines, even besides headlines, people wouldn’t mark it in their own personal lives either. You think of the nonevent as the ordinary, but it is not at all ordinary. There is something very surreal about it. In Beijing, you have this case study where you have millions of people in the space between event and nonevent, negotiating it in their everyday practices.
That's the whole debate about whether we should wear masks. Because in the design process that's the very last phase. By wearing a mask you are only adapting, you are not solving any of the underlying problems. From an engineering perspective it shouldn't be this way, you should prevent the system problem from the origin.
These micro-histories are set in twenty-first century Beijing, but could be taking place in many other cityscapes of late modernity. Fragments of longer accounts shared by Beijing residents, they bear witness to the embodied experience—everyday encounters, material realities, and imaginaries—of living in polluted urban air. The quotes describe the materiality of particulate pollution, refer to protective masks and air purifiers, to apps and data, the AQI, or the National Air Quality Index, and to color codes, as citizens are sent SMS messages by state-owned China Mobile, stating that »Today is orange alert.« Together they highlight the recent emergence of a »new air, the one we talk about a lot«, as expressed by TG, another Beijinger. The narratives further reveal that in the aftermath of what was nicknamed the »airpocalypse« event (several consecutive days of toxic smog of unimaginable intensity during January 2013) Chinese people learned a lot of new »chemical« and »technical« words; namely the word »wumai«, a new Chinese concept for smog, as well as different indexes for describing airborne pollution, such as PM2.5 (fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 µm) and AQI.1 Unlike more visible forms of pollution such as smoke or dust, the fine particulate matter that became common in Beijing, as well as in many other rapidly developing urban areas at the turn of the century, is particularly health-threatening because it is small enough to enter the human circulatory system and accumulate in brain tissue. However, as the microscopic matter is imperceptible to human senses and its toxic effects become slowly apparent, knowing about the existence of small but toxic particulates and understanding their pathways in urban ecosystem (and bodies) is contingent upon technoscientific apparatus.
Following the numerous media responses to the 2013 Beijing airpocalypse, and enabled by the official access to air pollution levels in many major cities provided by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection as of January 1, 2013, when air pollution was officially recognized, a number of smart-phone apps giving access to real-time air quality index values soon appeared. As a result, Beijingers becoming early adopters of historically novel, real-time modes of sharing environmental data. This technological shift was made possible thanks to digitalization and automation technologies that transformed all aspects of the air pollution monitoring apparatus. In a short period, automated ubiquitous environmental sensors, automated real-time data transitions, and smart real-time social networks entered the lives of millions of people affecting the ways they went about their everyday lives. In this process, the national air quality index (AQI) expressing cumulative health risks of several atmospheric pollutants was established, by virtue of its compatibility with the new digital and automation paradigm, as one of the main techniques of assessing, and importantly also communicating, air pollution.
Imagination through calculation
While the actual equation may differ from place to place, the AQI is a global method that combines several major pollutants of different statistical weight into one cumulative estimate of a current or predicted air pollution level and, at the same time, also estimates the associated health risk for a general population. To communicate the latter, AQI values are reported as a color code that separates the index scale into categories of health concern, which represent benchmarks of exposure described as good, moderate, unhealthy, or hazardous. Each group is complemented with a standardised public health advisory, which indicates recommended behavior, such as whether it is safe to go out, to exercise outdoors, and if it is advised to wear a protective mask. While early AQI scales were designed using traditional semaphore colors (green, yellow, orange, red) with red representing the sphere of »danger«, the magnitude of air pollution has far exceeded this imaginary horizon. Subsequently, new colors using the remaining space between red and black (purple and maroon) have been added, with each new shade doubling the values of the bandwidth it precedes.
The indexing of air pollution and the construction of the AQI scale is predicated on a series of assumptions about what constitutes both pollution and a population. What counts as a pollutant depends on known epidemiological effects, but is also contingent on the possibility of affordable routine monitoring. Relatedly, what counts as a health risk is relative to the expected health response of a statistically-constructed representative sample of an urban population, as well as the arbitrary, managerial decision of what constitutes a significant impact on health. As anthropologist Timothy Choy argues, the air quality index is an aesthetic technology with very serious stakes. In making air pollution visible and experienceable, the AQI calibration becomes a technique for managing the perceptions of risks otherwise difficult to discern. This is not because it is used for specific ends, but simply because the processes through which the index is generated »bring air into sense and sensibility.«2 In this way, the index operates as a distinct technology of imagination. The broadly universal color scheme extends human perception to realms otherwise undetectable by the human senses, while the unambiguous numerical scale translates and materializes the unruly complexity of toxic aerosols and particles into clearly communicable and actionable sets of rules of self-care—making »air become this number«, in the process. Instead of attempting to identify the sources of pollution or their chemical variability, the variables selected for the AQI equation emphasize the realm of individual choice. In other words, the index produces a distinct imaginary of air (quality) as a matter of calculated exposure matched with designed ranges of individual conduct and personal management of risks. This shifts the responsibility of social risks due to air pollution (such as illness) from governing bodies to the citizen, who, assisted by air quality technologies, is expected to manage his or her personal exposure to toxic air through self-care.
Atmospheric care and control
The close proximity of calculation, control, care and urban air are not limited to the emblematic AQI. Many of the new technologies that emerged in Beijing and other cities in response to particulate pollution appear to operate on similar principles of caring through control or control through care. By carefully controlling the composition of the air, protective masks (often with high-tech filters) and sophisticated indoor-air purifiers are constructed to care for exposed urban bodies. Smart-apps and public screens with real-time air quality information neither control nor manage particulate pollution. Nonetheless, by informing about the particle levels, the digital sources of real-time data influence public awareness and relatedly people’s daily conduct (decisions on which restaurant to choose, whether to stay home, or go out, to invest in air-cleaning technology, to relocate or emigrate). In the context of urban air pollution, care and control are not mutually exclusive. Rather, dominant forms of care are predicated upon the control of both air and the behavior of urban bodies.3
Referring to the intertwined histories of smog and modern forms of governance in the UK, geographer Mark Whitehead reminds us that the entanglement of air, care, and control is not unique to contemporary Beijing. Earlier attempts to mitigate industrial pollution through complementary care and control of urban life can be traced back at least to the industrial cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.4 At that time, atmospheric therapeutics, or the attemptive governance of the urban atmosphere, involved efforts to coordinate personal conducts and the production of different social identities, to some extent reinforcing gender and class roles. For example by instructing housewives to use new smokeless domestic techniques, or through the introduction of new work assignments, such as boiler attendants or smoke inspectors. Improving air quality involved governing people and producing new »air aware« subjects. As Whitehead writes: »Understood as a vector of power, which quite literally moves through multiple subjects, effectively governing the atmosphere appears to promise the goal of caring ›all and each‹ (omnes et singulatim), which Foucault identifies as a key marker of governmentalities.«5 In other words, the mobile, porous, and life-supporting qualities, which afford air to form a particularly intimate link between each breathing subject and the urban atmosphere, makes it a unique site for new forms of biopolitical control, i.e. the governing through the calculative administration of collective life, rather than through direct administration of death.
What sets apart earlier instances of air pollution technologies from their contemporary analogues is more a matter of quantity than quality; namely, the uninterrupted streams of access to information on air pollution levels and associated health risks by (not all, but) considerable proportions of urban populations. While the AQI existed long before, the means of its distribution significantly changed as the automation of sensing and communication technologies, as well as new modes of networking through the internet gave millions of people access to the continuously updated stream of AQI data. In addition to informing urban inhabitants on their likely exposure to pollution, the data streams instruct them how to act, and to some extent even communicate directly with other air-cleaning technologies, for example prescribing them to automatically purify the air to desired values. In this process, air quality monitoring becomes atmospheric Big Data.
Having access to information is certainly a good thing. While helping to care for self and families, the data have propelled new discussions and some policy changes. The reimagination of natural-cultural dimensions of air as a matter of calculated indexes, risks, and behavior is, however, neither innocent nor a legitimately objective scientific procedure. Constantly moving and mixing within bodies, buildings, cities, and regions, urban air is in fact highly mutable, and not homogeneously predictable. What might be possible to estimate with a degree of certainty are small pockets of air separated from the extensive outdoors, such as sealed rooms that can be purified or the intimate space provided by air filtering masks. In this scenario, the calculative perspective comes to focus on the immediate atmospheric envelopes of singular bodies, and therefore on the responsibilization of the individual. In other words, the lack of attention to solving »system problems from their origin« (as VS rightly points out) is not coincidental but inherent to the promotion of calculation over other forms of knowing.
Importantly, this is not to imply that being calculative means being careless. As the logic of AQI calculations, air masks, and air cleaning systems indicate, air pollution control technologies continue to function as technologies of care. However, rather than understanding care as a matter of prevention enforced through strict collective regulation of large polluters and accounting for the real costs of modern production, these technologies promote neoliberal forms of care centred around individual choice and responsibility in relation to exposure to toxic air (such as investing in air monitoring and cleaning technologies that are afforded only by some). Relatedly, VN’s remark that an AQI of 330 (thirteen times exceeding the WHO’s guidelines for daily mean ambient PM2.5 of 25 μg/m3) remains a nonevent in daily life, attests to the limits of equating “algorithmic” air quality technologies with collective care.
By reducing all aspects of life to their calculable aspects, the proliferation of automated environmental Big Data erodes laws, regulations and due process. Legal scholars Antoinette Rouvroy and Karen Young highlight tensions between democratic forms of participation and algorithmic governance that integrates real-time streams of information from human, nonhuman and environmental components to preemptively balance (urban) system and manage risks through automatic feedbacks and behavior modification.6 Urban citizens are no longer seen as lively and political subjects, but a probabilistically construed population, conceived as composed of highly individualized sensing and adapting nodes. By replacing »real« citizens with »virtual« populations constructed by and for the capture by algorithms, algorithmic regulatory power contributes to the fragmentation and impoverishing of (political) subjects who are no longer inscribed in any collective context. Relatedly, it fractures political attention and public imagination of collective futures. The key issue, however, is not to reject digital technology and emancipatory, collective forms of care as mutually exclusive, but to recognize that configurations of technology and care are mutable and closely connected to distributions of political agency and power. Instead of accepting the “automated” status quo, we may want to side with Beijingers like VS, to carefully question and collectively work toward reconfiguring the care-control paradigm of atmospheric technologies beyond their algorithmic and preemptive dispositions.
—Agata Marzecova & Hanna Husberg
1. See also Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova: “Sick air in making of the smart cities” in: RTV Magazine 2, 2019.
2. Timothy Choy: "Air’s substantiations", in: Lively capital: Biotechnologies, ethics, and governance in global markets, pp. 121-152, Durham: Duke University Press 2012.
3. Here, care signifies more than simply health care. Considering the broad and insidious nature of the experienced and estimated impacts of air pollution (cancer, premature deaths, infertility, sleep-pattern disturbances, decreased mental focus, etc.), adhering to certain behaviors, protection, and adaptation is a matter of survival.
4. Mark Whitehead: State, science, and the skies Governmentalities of the British atmosphere, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2009.
5. Ibid., p. 222.
6. Antoinette Rouvroy: "The end(s) of critique: Data behaviourism versus due process", in: Privacy, due process and the computational turn, pp. 157-182. London: Routledge 2013; Karen Yeung: "Algorithmic regulation: A critical interrogation", in: Regulation & Governance 12, no. 4, pp. 505–523, 2018.