On failing to make the case

I’ve given some version of my “City Is Here” talk, oh, must be ten or twelve times now. To a pretty wide variety of venues, too, ranging from last May’s hometown kickoff event in the Great Hall at Cooper Union to gigs in London, Seoul, Cheju-do, Amsterdam, Madrid and Helsinki. And one note that’s emerged from feedback with a fair amount of consistency – whether in comments at the time or in blog posts afterward – is that while people seem to be enjoying this talk, they also seem to be getting different things out of it than I’d intended.

I find myself asking if there’s something hinky in my body language, if there’s any possibility, however slight, that I may myself not actually believe the lines I’m taking. Maybe it’s time to pull the whole thing back to the shop for a rethink and a refit.

Here are the four main themes I’ve noticed cropping up in audience response:

- There’s generally a contingent in the audience who are by and large sympathetic to the broader contours of my argument, but seem underwhelmed by the evidence I’ve marshalled in support of it. That seems simple enough to deal with: I simply need to provide more concrete examples of the kinds of scenarios I see happening.

In this I’m abetted (as were the Everyware talks generally, over the two-and-some years I was giving them) by the relatively rapid passage of various technologies I’m concerned with out of their experimental phase and into shared history. Proofs-of-concept become shipping products, and very soon thereafter established social reality, and at that point they get much easier to invoke in support of an assertion. As it happens, the world does not lack for supporting cases, so I’m not terribly worried about closing up this gap.

- I think I also know how to answer that strongly skeptical cohort in my audiences – those who view any deployment of ubiquitous informatics in the everyday urban as of necessity so hamfisted and antihuman that they cannot help but make things worse.

They don’t see how the ubiquitous systems I’m describing might work to help citydwellers rediscover the life of the street, or against the various means developers and municipalities use to make space deliberately unfriendly. They’re just not buying into my contention that ubiquitous technologies designed properly can help us reclaim the space of the city as a public good.

The only answer I have for anyone voicing viewpoints along this line is that if people “like us” don’t get our hands dirty, institutionally and at the development level, then they will assuredly be correct. In a lot of ways I do happen to feel that our cobbled-together, pre-digital systems and strategies for taking on urban life already work pretty well; that anyone who would be a friend to all that is richly magical about the city would be best advised to leave well enough alone. But as I see it, that’s not among the choices we’re being offered.

I believe the decision we actually face isn’t one between panoptical, ad-bludgeoned dystopia on the one hand, and some idyllic fusion of Jane Jacobs’ Hudson Street with the original Galleria on the other, but one between the former and something that’s been challenged and contested and forced to be more responsive to its users’ desires at every step of the way. Maybe I need to lean a little harder on this in order to sell it.

There’s a mildly bitter irony here for me, in that I consciously intended “The City Is Here” as counterweight and gentle corrective to the rather gloomy picture of the urban near-future I painted in Everyware. So I find myself in an awkward position when some discussant, generally someone unfamiliar with me or my previous work, chides me for being insufficiently critical of the practices, stances and, especially, institutions invoked in any consideration of urban computing; I like to think I bow to nobody in my outright contempt for corporate happytalk and groupthink stupidity. Consider this one an unresolved issue.

Sometimes, too, I feel as if my various audiences simply don’t find me credible as a purveyor of optimism. (The relevant term of art is that as a public speaker, I wouldn’t appear to have the “brand permission” to tell happy stories.) Not so sure what to do about this one either, practically speaking; no matter how much happier (some) people would be to hear that Everything’s Going To Be OK, I’m simply not prepared to frame things that way.

- Equally ironic is that segment of the audience – and I’ve gotten this consistently – who for whatever reason (and despite all my carefully-worded caveats) think I’m rah-rah cheerleading for the idea that cities should be blanketed with networked technology. Some of them are wildly enthused, some clearly upset; either way, I find it inexplicable that anyone could sit through half an hour of me ranting about how broken “mobile computing” is and still think I’m unquestioningly in favor of all this. But there you have it.

- Finally there are those who simply do not believe that the systems I’m so interested in will play prominent roles in shaping urban experience, either in the near term or, well, ever.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I am hugely, hugely sympathetic to viewpoints like the one Julian Bleecker expresses here. I share the sentiment that the ambition level of so much contemporary context-“aware” urbcomp is crazy-stupid, given that the IT field generally hasn’t even gotten the simple basic shit right.

I’m also sensitive to the point Bryan Boyer made here a while back, and more generally to those enunciated by Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova in their pamphlet Sliding Friction: the world has a physics, entropy is real, time runs in but the one direction…and that’s before you even account for what people do with and make of the systems we designers so artfully devise.

Nevertheless. As I imply above, and have said explicitly many times in the past, the concern is not whether or not these systems will actually do what they say on the label; it’s whether a sufficiently convincing narrative can be woven around them to sell them to the various parties public and private that predominantly shape experience in our cities. And you know I think we’re well, well along that path. My take is that it’s therefore incumbent upon those of us who have some understanding of what’s bearing down on us to take concrete measures to improve the likelihood of acceptable outcomes.

Please do leave additional thoughts in comments, especially if you’ve seen one of these talks and doubly-especially if you weren’t particularly convinced by what you heard and saw. I’m looking to take this show back out on the road in the new year, and want to deliver good value for my audiences when I do so. Thanks!

6 responses to “On failing to make the case”

  1. Kars says :

    I saw you present in Amsterdam at TWAB, and I guess I fall in your first category. Thinking back to your talk — which I very much enjoyed — the only improvement I would suggest is to have less examples but discuss them in more detail. I got the impression that you assumed most people were familiar with them, but I think this was not the case.

  2. Christopher Fahey says :

    I think back to a recent Eschaton post which claims we are lucky to have the webnet as we know it. A narrow series of correct decisions were made to get us here.

    “Imagine telling senators in 1992 that soon every 13 year old would have a porn machine on his/her desk.”

    The point is that to best articulate _the future you want_ you may have to imagine and articulate those futures you don’t. And make it clear that the path to a happy outcome is narrow and there will be many fateful decision points along the way.

    Of course, this is kind of a sci-fi way of approaching futurist thinking.

  3. Julian Bleecker says :

    Ah, the slipperiness of ideas and language. I say, revel in it. Speculate, too. Extant cases from the real world may serve as a nice counterpoint to speculative design. Create a corner of the world you’re imagining and speak on it as a material reality, perhaps. Maybe like this suggestion from Christopher Fahey — but not as futurist thinking, as if reflecting back on something you had done, for real, and you’re looking back . It’s “fiction” — but perhaps this idea of design fiction, or speculative design / speculative modeling.

  4. John Statistician says :

    It does seem to me like there is such a nested mindfield of qualifications to needed say anything to the most observant folks in your audience at the level of nuance they demand, I honestly don’t blame other folks getting lost.

    On one hand, maybe these qualifications are honestly earned, and there is no simple way to say what you want to say given all of the context that has to be given its due, and that you do have to revel is the fact that you’re digging around in a speculative vocabulary, in definitional struggles.

    But, on the other hand, maybe there is some straight up three-chords and the truth punk honesty that is better fitting to the overall message. Maybe a clear thesis statement to kick everything off: “I don’t want everywhere around me to be an endless set of chain conglomerate retail outlets, so we’re going to set up a way to navigate right over it, because if I can’t have the city I love straight up, Jane Jacobs style, by God we’ll get arbitrate it for ourselves” or something the like. And then dig into the complications, with a clear target set forth…

  5. AG says :

    Heh. That’s pretty tasty.

  6. Enrique Ramirez says :

    My favorite H.G. Wells quote: “Everyone was to be exposed to the contagion of modernity” (1933)

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