I’m beyond honored to have had this piece — a love letter to London and its maps — commissioned for the launch issue of the revived Journal of the London Society. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. For the record, the impeccable choice of title was theirs.
I very much doubt that there is a city on the face of this Earth better mapped, over a longer period of time — nor more potently associated with the image of the map, as cultural and practical artifact — than London.
I’m sure some of the reason behind this stems from the need to assert administrative control, assess taxation and clarify property rights across a bewildering profusion of boroughs, wards, parishes, liberties, districts and councils. Part of it, certainly, arises from the way in which successive mobility technologies have allowed the city to colonize the land — sprawling its way across terrains and conditions, levering itself ever outward via rail lines and motorways, until the area within the ambit of the M25 subsumed a not-inconsiderable chunk of the British landmass.
But a great deal of this history is driven by history itself. Over the two thousand years of its documented existence, the physical fabric of London has blithely folded everything from animal trails and Roman roads to the Abercrombie Plan and the Westway into its network of connections. As a result, this is, at its core at least, a topologically ornery city. It is a place threaded with byways that admit to no obvious exit, that continue past a nodal point only under some other name (and therefore bear multiple designations within the space of a few dozen meters), that deposit the pedestrian somewhere, anywhere else than wherever reason and intuition suggest they might. Saffron Hill, Newman Passage, Johnson’s Court, the increasingly (and, it must be said, distressingly) salubrious alleys of Soho — you can walk these thoroughfares half a hundred times, and still not quite remember how they link up with the rest of the city. Or even, necessarily, how to find them again the next day.
At the same time, of course, London is a city of roundabouts, flyovers and gyratories, of circuses and viaducts and junctions — a city that was already thoroughly reticulated by bus routes and Tube lines before anyone now living was born. With each new layer, its complexity increases in a way that is not additive, but multiplicative. But if all of this is undeniably the case, it’s also true that you can wake up one morning to discover that the tramways have been pulled up, that Charing Cross Road no longer quite connects with Tottenham Court Road, that someone’s proposing to turn Elephant & Castle roundabout into a peninsula. The confoundments threaten to spiral out of control. So whether they avail themselves of one via the enameled surface of a Legible London plinth, an app on their phone, or for that matter the Knowledge so splendidly immanent in the comparably complex network of neurons in a cabbie’s head, the would-be reckoner with London needs nothing so much as a chart, a guide. A map.
So equipped, one can finally negotiate the city with relative ease. But navigation is by no means the only thing we use maps for. It’s long been understood that cartographic tools can help us better comprehend some state of the world, and even allow us to make effective interventions.
As it happens, this kind of spatial analysis was born right here in London. When John Snow tallied deaths in the 1854 Soho cholera outbreak on a map, he made manifest a pattern that had previously eluded even the most conscientious ledger-based tabulation: that peak mortality clearly centered on the Broad Street water pump. Armed with this evidence, Snow famously petitioned the parish Board of Guardians to remove the pump handle, which they did the next day, stopping the epidemic in its tracks. It was a landmark moment for both epidemiology and geographic information systems — and it would not be the last time in the history of London that a map proposed an intervention.
Though a great deal more impressionistic than Snow’s fastidious chart, Charles Booth’s poverty maps of late-Victorian London are almost as granular, delineating among seven increments of socioeconomic status as they varied block to block, and occasionally house to house. Though Life and Labour of the People in London, the magnum opus in which they appeared, must be given the lion’s share of the credit — and this is to say nothing of Booth’s apparently indefatigable organizing — it’s generally acknowledged that the maps themselves were critical for catalyzing the sense that something had to be done to redress abject want in the city, perhaps by conveying its true extent in the backstreets and rookeries only rarely penetrated by the respectable classes. (The blithe ignorance these classes nurtured for their own city was truly impressive. In 1855, the London Diocesan Building Society had described the East End to its subscribers as being “as unexplored as Timbuctoo,” which must have come as some surprise to the hundreds of thousands of Cockneys living there.)
In their way, Booth’s maps were as effective as Snow’s in driving change in the world. The response, when it came, may not have been quite as elegant or as precisely targeted as the removal of a single pump handle, but its impact was undeniably felt at a larger scale. When Parliament authorized the first Old Age Pension in 1908, Booth’s work was widely regarded as having been instrumental to the effort aimed at securing its passage.
Here we get some sense of the power of a geographic data visualization. By judiciously folding complex urban dynamics back against the ground plane, maps like these help us comprehend circumstances that may well be transpiring beneath or beyond the threshold of unaided human perception, in space or time or both. They are, quite literally, consciousness-altering.
In all the long history of mapping the great metropolis, though, it’s arguable that no single map did more to change the ordinary Londoner’s perception of urban space than Harry Beck’s original Underground diagram of 1933. In reckoning with the burgeoning complexities of a then relatively new addition to the city’s network of networks, Beck’s map emphasized the experiential truth of urban space over the geographically literal. As anyone who’s ever hoofed it between Angel Station and Old Street can tell you, the overland distance between any two contiguous stations bears only the slightest resemblance to the proximity implied by the Beck schematic and its many descendants.
The distortions pull in both directions. With only the Tube map to rely on, someone unfamiliar with the topography of central London might well conclude that it’s entirely reasonable to take the Tube from Bank to Liverpool Street, or from Borough to London Bridge, when the former is at worst a nine- and the latter a ten-minute walk. (And don’t get me started about vertical distances. At Angel Station, the system’s deepest, it can take the rider a good five minutes just to get from turnstile to platform.)
But these gross displacements, however grievously they might afflict the small but vocal contingent of people who care passionately about such things, are entirely beside the point. For all its compressions, expansions and improbably crisp 45-degree angles, the map is impeccably accurate in reflecting the way Tube riders actually perceive the space of the city, as it unspools a few dozen meters above their heads. Rely on it often enough for long enough, and you too may find — to paraphrase Edward Tufte — that the map organizes your London.
For someone more than casually fond of both London and maps, it’s inordinately pleasing that these landmarks in cartographic history are all also part of the story of this particular place on Earth. You can go and visit the very places that John Snow and Charles Booth mapped any day of the week, using the system that Harry Beck described with his map.
We are, however, safe in considering all of this history mere preamble, however glorious it may be. I believe that at this moment in time, we are collectively experiencing the most significant single evolution in mapping since someone first scratched plans on papyrus — for one relatively recent and very simple development, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, and what we can do with it.
It’s this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.
Nothing in all my prior experience of maps prepared me for the frisson I experienced the first time I held an iPhone in my hand, launched Google Maps, pressed a single button…and was located, told where I was to within a very few meters. When you realize that, already, some 30% of the adults on the planet own a device that can do this, that this audience already greatly outnumbers all the people who ever consulted an A-Z, a Thomas Guide or a friendly green Michelin volume put together, you begin to understand just how dramatically the popular conception of cartography is evolving. Those who come after us will have a hard time imagining that there was ever such a thing as a map that couldn’t do that.
The fact that such depictions can now also render layers of dynamic, real-time situational information — traffic, weather, crime and so on — seems almost incidental compared to this. The fact of locability, in itself, is the real epistemic break. It subtly but decisively removes the locative artifacts we use from the order of abstraction. By finding ourselves situated on the plane of a given map, we’re being presented with the implication that this document is less a diagram and more a direct representation of reality — and, what’s more, one with a certain degree of fidelity, one that can be verified empirically by the simple act of walking around.
I’d argue that this begins to color our experience of all maps, even those that remain purely imaginary. We begin to look for the pulsing crosshairs or the shiny, cartoonish pushpin that says YOU ARE HERE. The ability to locate oneself becomes bound up with the meaning of any representation of space whatsoever.
And it has profound pragmatic consequences, as well. It means that our maps can do real work for us. Typical of this is the online service Citymapper. Fed real-time information by TfL via a series of conduits called “application programming interfaces,” or APIs, Citymapper constitutes nothing less than a set of keys to the city, accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a data plan. It effortlessly tames what is otherwise the rather daunting perplexity of the street network, divining a nearly-optimal path through all those closes and courts and alleys, or suggesting just what combination of buses and trains you’d need to cobble together to get from, say, Stoke Newington Common to Camberwell Green.
Again, here London is different from other places. Though Citymapper offers versions for New York and Berlin, Paris and Barcelona, the utility of each is hampered by the limitations placed on it by those cities’ respective transit authorities. In my experience, no metropolitan transit agency in the world provides APIs as robust and thorough as those offered by TfL, and as a direct result Citymapper and its competitors are more useful here than they are just about anywhere else.
Happily, buses and Tube trains aren’t the only ways of getting around that are enhanced by the new interactive cartography. The networked maps so many of us now rely upon transform the practice of walking, too. The way in which access to real-time locative information enhances one’s sense of security in exploring the city is beautifully expressed by the London-based technologist Phil Gyford: “I can quickly see that my destination might be only 25 minutes’ walk away, and I know I’ll be going the quickest route, and GPS will ensure I won’t get lost halfway there. Somehow walking now seems more viable and less uncertain.” What this opens up, even for the longtime resident, is the prospect of exploring a city they never knew, though it may have been separated from them more by habit and uncertainty than any physical distance. Gyford now feels free to wander “the overlooked parts of London…the neglected seas between the Tube-station islands”; somewhere, the worthies of the London Diocesan Building Society breathe a sigh of satisfaction before returning to their deep slumber in the earth.
That we are becoming — that some of us have already become — so intimately and thoroughly reliant on our maps to guide us safely through the urban thicket makes it more important than ever that we regard them critically. Though we know intellectually that the map is famously not the territory, the emotional truth of this can be harder to internalize; we’ve all seen news stories about truck drivers following their satnav directions straight into a lake, or a wall. We need to get in the habit of asking pointed questions about who makes the maps, who chooses the information that is rendered upon them, and where that information comes from in the first place.
We might also attend to the deeper truths about the city we live in that are brought to light by this class of representations. Consider the dynamic visualizations of the Milan-based transportation-planning practice Systematica. In their time-series map of London, peristaltic pulses of expansion and contraction wash across the familiar terrain, revealing what we’ve always known to be the case: that at no hour of the day is the actual city coextensive with its formal, administrative boundaries. Though the human presence must still be inferred from these abstract surges of color, the message is unmissable: for all the grandeur of its physical fabric, the deep London is nothing more or less than the people who move through it, animate it and endow it with meaning.
This, in the end, is not such a bad lesson to derive from contemplating the play of pixels on a screen. If, as the disgraced geographer Denis Wood puts it, all “maps are embedded in a history they help construct,” this is true of maps of this city more so than most. And if we know that London, this gorgeous hypersurface, is forever absconding from the knowable, and can never be entirely reduced to a set of lines and points and paths, this doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no point in making the attempt. Perhaps, as with those of John Snow, Charles Booth and Harry Beck, the maps of Citymapper, Systematica and their descendants may yet help bring a safer, wiser, more just and merciful city into being.
A piece republished on my old v-2 site in 2003 and creakingly old even then, having originally been written for a magazine called neo my ex-wife and I published in Seattle circa 1994. It is soooooo Nineties in its framings and formal concerns, but kinda fun nevertheless. Enjoy!
Returning slowly to ordinary consciousness as you stagger out onto the sidewalk at quarter to two in the morning, you find yourself with a pair of gonging eardrums, hands covered in the fluid seeping from torn blisters. The high-pitched scream in your ears is the predictable aftermath of a show; the blisters were suffered (you can only surmise) while hammering on a 55-gallon oil drum with a crowbar.
It’s the blisters – and the stench of cordite and adrenaline and fear that still hovers in your nostrils – that testify to the fact that what you’ve just seen is anything but the average rock’n’roll show. You’ve survived your first encounter with ¡Tchkung!
Recipe for a ¡Tchkung! show: a little May 1968 guerrilla street theater, a few touches from Survival Research Laboratories, a surprising amount from the contemporary French circus, maybe a pinch of Leni Riefenstahl – and not very much at all from the hallowed iconographic menu of rock.
Oh, sure, there’s some people playing musical instruments up on a stage, and there’s a pretty light show flickering over them. But that’s about where the resemblance ends. ¡Tchkung! uses a variety of techniques to break down the wall between performer and audience, sideshow pyrotechnicians and roving self-piercers among them. There’s no identifiable boundary between observation and participation – here’s where the comparison to SRL comes in: you can either choose to join in the chaos or back away to a putatively safe distance. The experience almost manages to revivify the use-worn phrase “in your face.”
As your mind clears, you review the events of the evening. You can barely remember how you felt just a few hours ago, so total has been your immersion in the mood of the show.
You do remember getting into the opening acts, a bagpipe ensemble and a Taiko drumming group, and being disappointed that more people in the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. The Taiko drummers in particular impressed you with their sense of barely-contained energies, and you wanted them to go on longer. But that desire was forgotten as ¡Tchkung! took the stage, amid the martial clang of found percussion and a sudden cacophony of voices and instruments.
How many were up there, anyway? Six, seven? They launched immediately into a grinding dirge, and everything else was swept away.
A torchlight procession wends its way down from the stage, around the club and back again; drums and sheet metal are tossed into the audience, along with tools and rough pieces of rebar for use as strikers. The action is acentric: there’s stuff going on up there, yeah, but there’s a knot of people twenty feet away watching a man eat fire. Right above you, a woman is shoving a needle through her lip with an expression of calm concentration made more exquisite by the total clamor on all sides. And where you’d expect a mosh pit to be, people who have never met each other – some in full bodypaint – are locking arms and dancing in a circle like medieval peasants at Beltane.
You’re encouraged to participate in this laying on of hands.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about the music. In this, I join a growing line of reviewers, who have tended to talk about the “barrage” of “damage” and “ritual”, but not about tunes. So far, music has been surprisingly secondary to any discussion of ¡Tchkung!, whether you’re talking about their live presentation or their self-titled debut CD (Belltown Records). It’s not because the music is bad – very much the contrary – but because the experience seems to be so much larger than just the songs.
They collude in giving this impression, too. The CD insert gives none of the standard information about the personnel of the band, the instruments or samples deployed, the lyrics. Instead, what you find upon opening the booklet is a veritable smorgasbord of left-antiauthoritarian thought, with elements recognizably derived from the IWW, the Situationists, the Diggers and Luddites, French theory circa Baudrillard…
Some of it doesn’t hang together very well: this is one of the only places I’ve ever seen ecofeminist and pagan thought juxtaposed with the macho deep ecology of Dave Foreman. And what would Kropotkin make of Terence McKenna? I appreciate ¡Tchkung!’s desire to turn their audience on to the wellsprings of their thought – but you do get the feeling that most of the other verbiage would be unnecessary if the music did its job.
OK, then: the music itself. If you’ve just gotta have a label, you might put ¡Tchkung! in the political wing of the percussive, assaultive school of sound known as “industrial.” This would make them classmates of the Lower East Side’s Missing Foundation and the Bay Area’s Sharkbait. There also seems to be a little bit of the anti-statism and anti-Christianity of the seminal, and annoying, British anarchist band Crass. What all of these bands share musically despite their many differences is a deep appreciation of harshly rhythmic noise, found percussion, and the use of slogans (all too often shouted from bullhorns) as lyrics.
You needn’t consider ¡Tchkung! to be hemmed in by this description, because they do have the makings of a sound that would far transcend the limitations of the genre. Where other bands of this genre dig themselves a rut of anger and monotony, ¡Tchkung!’s music has elements that compel genuine feeling and memory, whether the haunting, soulful keening of an extraordinary female vocalist, the weird Dreamtime warblings of a didgeridoo, or the chain-gang cadences of a worker’s blues. Where they’ve fallen down so far is in the successful integration of these elements into a focused whole, and in fact their CD will make you think you’re listening to a compilation album.
And listening to ¡Tchkung! at home is difficult anyway. Our society is structured in such a way that, for most people, it’s next to impossible to devote time to music exclusively, and so you wind up listening most while taking care of other tasks. We listen while driving, washing the dishes, making love – but how often do you just sit back in an otherwise silent environment and savor music? Getting the most out of a song like the otherworldly invocation “Io Lilith,” requires just such attention.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that most of these cuts evolved as soundtracks to live performance art – participatory and unscripted, but performance nonetheless. They can seem inchoate and incomplete without their complement of live activity. That they still succeed as well as they do is evidence that there’s some talent involved, but it is a sore point. They need to figure out how to have the performance of the music itself be the show.
I have seen bands that have mastered this. One I particularly remember launched into a song about a homeless Vietnam veteran living and dying on Venice Beach. All I really remember of the evening is this song, with its visceral thrum of bass and drums beneath the parallel wailing of sax and singer. The sound conveyed with absolute precision and fidelity an oppressive sense of narrowing options and failing hopes — and somehow found an affirmation of possibility at the bottom of the well. This is something that the unadorned three-piece wasn’t necessarily capable of; it’s my belief that it was the room they made for the swooping, lacerating sax that took them over the edge into transcendence.
That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not suggesting that it can be found simply by grafting a sax or a second drum kit onto the rock unit; neither do I believe that it can be forced by the wholesale, disrespectful adaptation of instrumentation or time signatures from other cultures. I think it comes in the fusion, the cross-fertilization, the creative recombination of elements.
We’re not limited anymore, in either the tactics or tools with which we approach making music. Punk rock famously urged us to Do It Ourselves. Hip-hop gave us the ideology of the sample; minimalism allowed us to derive structure from repetition of a few simple elements. Industrial taught us to explore the textures of noise and “world music” brought the planet’s entire history and heritage of musical experience to our immediate awareness. And digital technology means that whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, the throat-singers of Tuva, or a squealing circular saw we’re learning from, the lessons are as accessible as the nearest disc player.
So rise the new hybrid forms, born of new experiences: Parisian hip-hop, Gregorian ambient, Nipponese grindcore. Township jive touches down in Queens and Brazilian kids find out that speedmetal works especially well in Portuguese. It may not be exactly what McLuhan meant by the “global village,” but it’s as close as we’re likely to know.
I expect amazing things.
The musicians send forth waves of sound to break and crash over the audience; the response is immediate, sending bodies surging about like a throng of urchin dervishes. Sweatslick flesh presses in on you from every side, beyond individuality or gender. There’s an erotic charge in the air here, but also a palpable thanatos, a will to death and destruction that pulls on you like an undertow. Over the pounding beat, one of the singers is giving voice to a full, almost Old Testament wailing, a shriek of hopeless grief that recalls Diamanda Galas. It’s obviously a very intense and meaningful moment for her; the intensity comes across but much of her meaning is lost to you.
The air is thick with pheromones. The contrasts of the moment are dizzying: the singer’s grief, the exhilaration of losing yourself to the bodies on either side of you, the feral sexuality and the sense of loss.
They’re out on tour as I write, these offspring of Neubauten and Noam Chomsky, playing their harsh sounds out there in the American Night. I try to imagine them in Idaho, on this first night of the State Fair, mounting their full onslaught for what could be a room of fifteen, and fail.
I just can’t picture ritual percussion and onstage piercing playing real well in Boise. But maybe the world is changing faster than I think. According to a band member — the band speaks collectively or not at all — “the ranting and raving, they could take or leave, but they’ll stay through it just to hear the music.” I have to admit I’m surprised; after all, what will a nation used to Pantera and Snoop Doggy Dogg make of ¡Tchkung!, a band whose live sound could fairly be described as a discourse on the 1934 General Strike fused to the squeal of sawblade on aluminum?
But they’re not having too tough of a time getting their point across to audiences, and at that there is something appealingly homespun about them, something wholesome and (they’d hate it) deeply American. It’s a spirit somewhere between the Boston Tea Party and Andy Hardy shouting, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” None of which probably sounds terribly inviting, but I mean it as a compliment.
Avowedly anti-music-business, ¡Tchkung! claims “we’re doing something wrong if we get famous.” At the same time, they face the central dilemma of our mediated age — one never successfully negotiated by veterans of the punk rock moment such as Fugazi or Bad Religion: what happens when a subculture reaches critical mass?
If you believe in your message, naturally you want it to reach as many minds as you can. The way to those minds is through the gate of mass communications, and the gatekeeper is the big bad Media Biz. Because even such radically decentered communications tools as the Internet or the ‘zine scene speak to their own elites: a map of signals traffic along either of these networks would burn brightly over Hoboken, Berkeley and Georgetown, while leaving Jersey City, East Oakland or Anacostia dark.
The sad fact is that it’s the people who already have “access to tools and information” and power who know how to find relatively obscure artifacts like a ¡Tchkung! CD. Only the mass media have the ability to introject information into every fissure and crevice of our society. It’s a race and class and even cultural dilemma that ¡Tchkung! is sure to face head-on if they’re serious about getting their message across to the people who would benefit the most from a little self-empowerment.
The noise goes on and on and ON and you just want it to come to a climax or at least some sort of closure. After a while, you become aware that the stage is mostly empty, that the musicians are packing up their gear, and you’re not really sure at what point the show “ended.” The hammering din hasn’t let up in the least, and there’s still a good number of people locked into ecstatic dance.
Some perverse instinct compels you to wait it out, to see just how long it takes the crowd to ramp down from its ecstatic high. And so you wait and watch for things to end. But this show doesn’t; it just tapers off into guttering flames and one last screech of feedback, as dazed survivors reel across a dancefloor littered with “industrial” debris and shrapnel.
Seeing ¡Tchkung! left me feeling painfully ambivalent. On the one hand, here’s this band with a ton of energy, an awesome array of tactics to keep the audience involved, and (in the abstract, at least) politics I have little argument with. Those qualities have all proved vanishingly hard to come by in contemporary music. But what they have in sincerity, commitment, and intensity, they lack in focus and yes, discipline.
Because sometimes less really is more. Or more to the point: sometimes the energy that can sustain a show for three and a half hours at a given level could be used in more structured ways to produce a more vivid total effect in half that time. I know part of ¡Tchkung!’s intent is for each show to provide a door for the influx of chaos into the world — to create a temporary autonomous zone in which Anything Could Happen. But as it is, the Anything all too easily becomes boredom. And I resented it; the whole experience had raised a particular sort of energy in me — and then done nothing with it.
What did I want them to do with that energy? What might I have done with it myself? Alternately, what might I have done if only it was asked of me in that interval before the showbuzz wore off? Part of the problem here is that ¡Tchkung! is playing with fire, in more ways than the merely literal. The piercing, the firebreathing, the dervish-dancing, the relentless rhythms: these are all shamanic techniques for the alteration of consciousness, and there is no doubt but that they work. In their original contexts, they are all used by people undertaking specific initiatory journeys, when guided by others steeped in the traditions of their use. Of course, none of these conditions obtains at a ¡Tchkung! show. What happens when you put several hundred people into a suggestible state, in an environment filled with extraordinarily powerful signs of no fixed meaning?
¡Tchkung! obviously hopes that people will be empowered by the experience, moved to take back their lives from the entanglement of economic, social, religious, and political strictures that now binds us all. I share this hope, but I’m not so sanguine about the chances of such a mass transformation occurring spontaneously as the result of a three-hour carnival of noise. I could be wrong: for all I know, that’s the only way it could happen. But I’d bet against it.
¡Tchkung! is a band I like enough to come down hard on. They are a long way from where they need to be, I think, maybe even from where they want to be. And it sometimes seems — for an entity that presents itself as a musical group — that their music is entirely beside the point. But if they fall short on these counts it’s only because they have set their sights far higher than other acts you’ll see on the very same stages. They don’t seem particularly interested in providing an entertainment experience to an audience of passive consumers, which in itself is unusual for a band. They do seem interested in provoking the spontaneous creation of a community of desire, using any technique at hand. ¡Tchkung! wants you to determine the shape and direction of your own life. Despite some doubts about their tactics, there can be no higher goal, whether for a book, a speech, a magazine…or a rock band.
A writer for Fortune, another magazine aimed at corporate policy-makers, laments, “No single agency…guides the urban program, as NASA does in space or the Pentagon does in weaponry. The major problem therefore is to find some profit-oriented mechanism by which the great talents of systems-oriented industry can be brought to bear on the great needs of the cities.” If anyone ever stood in need of an argument that the free-enterprise system is dead in this country…he [sic] can find much in the last two statements in these journals of the free and enterprising. What we are told is that the demand side of the equation is to be a function of government and not demand…If there [is demand], then why does government have to find some profit-oriented mechanism (which I take as the euphemism for subsidies) to stimulate business? Isn’t business’s supply under capitalist economics supposed to equal the demand?”
— Robert Goodman, After the Planners, 1972.
The UK Government is using a “market making approach” to try and ensure the right conditions are available to encourage the take up of new technologies.
- The Centre for Cities, Smart Cities, May 2014.
We need to reconnect the principles of risk, hard work, and success with reward. When people take risks, with their own ideas, energy and money, when they succeed in a competitive market where anyone can come and knock them off their perch at any time, we should celebrate entrepreneurs who get rich in that way.
— David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, January 2012.
Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.
That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.
The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.
In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.
So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?
On the plus side of the ledger:
– Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
– So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
– Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
– You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
– Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
– The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.
These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?
- Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
– The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
– Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
– It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
– Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?
I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.
There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. (In fact, I did this just yesterday, in my responses to questions put to me by Korea’s architectural magazine SPACE.) I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.
My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. The canonical example of the perils that attend the overly generic consideration of a technology is bus rapid transit, or BRT, which works very, very well indeed on sociophysical terrain that strongly resembles its original home of Curitiba, and much less so in low-density environments like Johannesburg, or in places where, for whatever reason, access to the right-of-way can’t be controlled, notably Delhi and New York City. BRT was sold to these latter municipalities as a panacea for problems of urban mobility, without reference to all of the spatial, social, regulatory, pricing-model and service-design elements that had to be brought into balance before anything like success could be declared, and it shows. (Boy howdy, does it show. Have you ridden the New York City MTA’s half-assed instantiation of BRT lately?)
And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.
But despite all this, sometimes it is possible for the careful observer to suss out the likely future contours of a technology’s adoption, based on a more general appreciation of its nature. And that’s why I want to take a little time today to discuss with you my thinking around the emergent class of low-power, low-range transmitters known as “beacons.”
Classically, of course, a “beacon” was a visually prominent effect of some sort, designed to notify or warn those encountering it of some otherwise indistinct condition or feature in the landscape. And perhaps as originally envisioned, this class of transmitters genuinely was supposed to be what it said on the tin: a simple way for relatively low-powered devices to find and lock onto one another, amid the fog and unpredictable dynamism of the everyday.
This is not a particularly new idea; as long ago as 2005, I’d proposed on my old v-2 site that networked objects would need some lightweight, low-cost way of radiating information about their presence and capabilities to other things (and by extension, people) in the near neighborhood — the foundation of what, at that time, I thought of as a “universal service-discovery layer” draped over the world. And of course I was nowhere near the first to have proposed something along these lines; I myself had been inspired to think more deeply about things talking to each other from a sideways reading of a throw-away bit of cleverness in Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction, and it’s fair to say that the idea of things automatically broadcasting their identity to other things had been in the air for quite a few years before that.
But in evolving commercial parlance, beacons are nothing of the sort, really. A contemporary beacon (like these ugly and rather hostile-looking blebs, sold by Estimote) is primarily designed to capture information, not to convey it — and such information as it does convey outward is disproportionately intended to benefit the sender over the recipient. So my first objection to beacon technology is that this very framing is in itself mendacious, dishonest and misleading. (You know you’re in trouble when the very name of something is a lie.)
As things stand now, beacons are intended for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to capture and monetize your behavior. As with the so-called Internet of Things more broadly, there simply aren’t any particularly convincing or compelling use cases for the technology that aren’t about driving needless consumption; almost without exception, those that are even partially robust have to do with closing a commercial transaction. Both the language of beacon technology and the framework of assumptions it grows out of are airlessly, claustrophobically hegemonic, and this thinking is all over their sites: vendors urge you to deploy these “media-rich banner ads for the physical world” in “any physical place, such as your retail store,” to “drive engagement,” “cross-sell and up-sell” and eventually “convert” passersby to purchasers. Even beacon advocates have a hard time coming up with any more than half-hearted art projects by way of uses for the technology that are not founded in the desire to relieve some passing mark of the contents of their wallet, reliably, predictably and on an ongoing basis.
And even those scenarios of use which appear at first blush to be founded in blamelessly humanitarian ends, when subjected to trial by ordeal ultimately turn out to embrace the shabbiest neoliberal reasoning. Cheaper to spackle a subway station with networked microlocation transponders, goes the thinking, than to actually hire and train the (unpredictable, and damnably needy) human beings that might help riders navigate the corridors and interchange nodes. Even if the devices don’t actually turn out to work all that reliably in the fullness of time, or impose a starkly higher TCO than initially estimated, there will be a concrete deployment that someone can point to as an accomplishment, a ticked-off achievement and a justification for renewed budgetary allocation or re-election.
Finally, I find it noteworthy that the beacon cost-benefit proposition can only subsist when it is accomplished stealthily, and when it is presented to citizens forthrightly and transparently, it is just as forthrightly rejected. Perhaps it’s a temporary blip of post-Snowden reticence, but my sense is that most of us have become chary of bundling too many performative dimensions of our identity onto our converged devices at once, and not at all without reason. (Ultimately, I diagnose similar reasons underneath the failure to date of digital wallets and similar device-based payment solutions to gain any market traction whatsoever, though there are other questions at play there as well.)
Beyond and back
The interest in beacons strikes me as being symptomatic of something deeper and more troubling in the culture of technology, something I think of as “the Engelbart overshoot.”
There was a powerful dream that sustained (and not incidentally, justified) half a century’s inquiry into the possibilities of information technology, from Vannevar Bush to Doug Engelbart straight through to Mark Weiser. This was the dream of augmenting the individual human being with instantaneous access to all knowledge, from wherever in the world he or she happened to be standing at any given moment. As toweringly, preposterously ambitious as that goal seems when stated so baldly, it’s hard to conclude anything but that we actually did achieve that dream some time ago, at least as a robust technical proof of concept.
We achieved that dream, and immediately set about betraying it. We betrayed it by shrouding the knowledge it was founded on in bullshit IP law, and by insisting that every interaction with it be pushed through some set of mostly invidious business logic. We betrayed it by building our otherwise astoundingly liberatory propositions around walled gardens and proprietary standards, by putting the prerogatives of rent-seeking ahead of any move to fertilize and renew the commons, and by tolerating the infestation of our informational ecology with vile, value-destroying parasites. These days technical innovators seem more likely to be lauded for devising new ways to harness and exploit people’s life energy for private gain than for the inverse.
In fact, you and I now draw breath in a post-utopian world — a world where the tide of technical idealism has long receded from its high-water mark, where it’s a matter of course to suggest that we must attach (someone’s) networked sensors to our bodies in order to know them, and where, rather astonishingly, it is possible for an intelligent person to argue that spamming the globe with such devices is somehow a precondition of “reclaim[ing our] environment as a place of sociability and creativity.” And this is the world in which beacons and the cause of advocacy for them arise.
There’s very little meaningful for this technology to do — no specifiable aim or goal that genuinely seems to require its deployment, which could not be achieved as or more readily in some other way. As presently constituted, anyway, it doesn’t serve the great dream of aiding us in our lifelong effort to make sense of the endlessly confounding and occasionally dangerous world. It furthers only the puniest and most shaming of ambitions. To the talented, technically capable folks working so hard to build out the beacon world, I ask: Is this really what you want to spend any part of your only life on Earth working to develop? To those advocating this turn, I ask: Can’t you think of any way of relating to people more interesting and productive than trying to sell them something they neither want nor need, and most likely cannot genuinely afford?
It doesn’t take too concerted an intellectual effort to understand what’s really going on with beacons — as a matter of fact, as we’ve seen, most people evidently seem to understand the situation perfectly well already. But I don’t hold out too much hope of getting any of the truly convinced to see the light on this question; we all know how very difficult it can be to get people to understand something when their salary (mortgage payments/kids’ private-school tuition/equity stake/deal flow) depends on them not understanding it. If you ask me, though, we were meant for better things than this.