UPDATE: Event confirmed for 14th March, 2014. See the final post.
For the past half-decade or so, in a phenomenon most everyone reading this site is no doubt already intimately acquainted with, data-derived artifacts (dynamic visualizations, digital maps, interactive representations of place-specific information, even static “infographics”) have taken increasing prominence in the visual imaginary of mass culture.
We see such images all the time now: broadly speaking, the visual rhetoric associated with them is the animating stuff of everything from car commercials to the weather forecast. The same rhetoric breathes life into election and sports coverage on television, the title sequences of movies, viral Facebook posts and the interactive features on newspaper sites.
Sometimes — in fact, often — these images are deployed as abstract tokens, empty fetishes of futurity, tech-ness, data-ness, evidence-basedness…ultimately, au-courantness. Just as often, and very problematically, they’re used to “prove” things.
But we’ve also begun to see the first inklings of ways in which such artifacts can be used more interestingly, to open up rather than shut down collective discussion around issues of great popular import — to ask its users to consider how and why the state of affairs represented by a given visualization got to be that way, whether that state of affairs is at all OK with them, and what if anything ought to be done to redress it. And this is whether the topic at hand happens to be land use, urban renewal and gentrification, informal housing, the differential consequences of public and privatized mass transit or expenditures in the criminal justice system.
Very few methods of advocacy can convey the consequences of our collective decisions as viscerally as a soundly-designed visualization. (Similarly, if there’s a better way of helping people imagine the spatial implications of alternative policy directions, strategies, investments and allocations, I haven’t stumbled onto it yet, although that certainly blurs the distinction between representing that which does exist and simulating that which does not.) What would happen if such visualizations were consciously and explicitly used as the ground text and point of departure for a moderated deliberative process? Could democracy be done this way? Could this be done at regular intervals? And how might doing so lead to better outcomes (or simply more buy-in) than existing procedures?
There’s plenty of rough precedent for such a notion, albeit scattered across a few different registers of activity:
- A few savvy journalists are starting to use data-based visualizations and maps as the starting point for their more traditional investigative efforts, and the narratives built on them. Visualizations, in this mode, essentially allow unexpected correlations and fact patterns to rise to the surface of awareness, and suggest what questions it might therefore be fruitful for a reporter to ask.
- SeeClickFix, of course, already allows citizens to levy demands on local government bodies, though it doesn’t provide for the organization of autonomous response to the conditions it documents, and it forthrightly positions the objects it represents as problems rather than matters of concern. More proactive and affirmative in its framing is Change By Us, which does emphasize voluntarism, though still with a sense of supplication to (elected or appointed) representatives in government. (The site answers the question “Who’s listening?” by promising that a “network of city leaders is ready to hear your ideas and provide guidance for your projects.”) In any event, both SeeClickFix and Change By Us focus on highly granular, literally pothole- or at most community-garden-scale issues.
- Storefront Democracy, a student project of Kristin Gräfe and (ex-Urbanscaler) Jeff Kirsch, reimagined the front window of a city councillor’s district office as a site where community sentiment on various questions, expressed as votes, could be visualized. Voting is not quite the same thing as democracy, much less deliberation, but the project began to explore ways in which situated representations might be used to catalyze conversations about matters facing the community.
- There are even full-blown technological platforms that promise to enable robust networked democracy, though for all the technology involved this one at least seems to blow right by the potential of visualized states of affairs to serve as focal points for managed dissensus.
Draw out all of those threads, and what do you wind up with? I’m not at all sure, but the question is certainly provocative enough that I want to explore its implications in further depth and detail. Again, I’m interested in digital cartography and interactive representations of data used as the starting point, rather than the product and culmination, of a decision process. My intention is to disturb these things as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book, and activate them instead as situated social objects. I think by now it’s clear that data-driven projects like Digital Matatus can furnish people with practical tools to manage the way things are in the city. But can they usefully catalyze conversation about the way things could (or should) be? And can we somehow bundle information about provenance into every representation of data, allowing users to ask how it was gathered, by whom, using what means and for what notional purpose, so they can arrive at their own determinations of its reliability and relevance? All of that remains to be seen.
If you find yourself nodding at any of this — or, indeed, you think it’s all deeply misguided, but nevertheless worth contesting in person — consider this a heads-up that I’ll be convening a one-day seminar on this and related topics at LSE in mid-March, and am looking for qualified speakers beyond my personal orbit and existing friendship circles. If you’re interested in either attending or speaking, please do email me at your earliest convenience at my first initial dot my last name at lse.ac.uk. Limited travel support is available – I have an event budget that allows me to fly in two to three speakers and put you up in Central London for a night, so if you or someone you know is inclined to present I definitely encourage you to get in touch. And let’s see if together we can’t figure out if there’s a thing here or not.
Politics, in effect, must be recreated again if we are to reclaim any degree of personal and collective sovereignty over our destiny. The nuclear unit of this politics is not the impersonal bureaucrat, the professional politician, the party functionary, or even the urban resident in all the splendor of his or her civic anonymity. It is the citizen — a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality and, above all, civic commitment. The elusive citizen who surfaced historically in the assemblies of Greece, in the communes of medieval Europe, in the town meetings of New England, and in the revolutionary sections of Paris must be brought to the foreground of political theory. For without his or her presence and without a clear understanding of his or her genesis, development, and potentialities, any discussion of the city is likely to become anemically institutional and formal.
– Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, 1987.
Yes, enumerate the carriage parts — still not a carriage.
When you begin making decisions and cutting it up rules and names appear
And once names appear you should know when to stop.
- Tao te Ching, tr. M. LaFargue. (For the record, I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation, but this seemed more pointedly relevant to the work at hand.)
The subject of this post may be rather obscure, particularly for those of you who are not from the United States, or do not pay attention to American political media. I hope you’ll excuse me, though, because I think it’s important to examine some of the ways that claims on behalf of the corporate use of information technology are normalized and made to seem natural by their treatment in the media.
My concerns here focus on Talking Points Memo, a political blog whose tendency, I think, it would be fair to describe as center-left by US standards (and center-right by those generally obtaining elsewhere). Over the past year or so, under the leadership of site founder and editor Joshua Marshall, TPM has been seeking to broaden its coverage beyond the party-political, with the clear ambition of supplanting brands like the dying Newsweek as a trusted general-news outlet. The site continues to position itself as “the premier digital native political news organization in the United States,” but I’m willing to bet that “political” isn’t destined to remain there forever. This is a site with its eye on the main chance.
Part and parcel of this effort has been a significant expansion into science and technology reportage, both handled by a TPM staffer named Carl Franzen. Ordinarily, I would welcome a political site — especially one as associated with the notion of rigorously-vetted crowdsourced investigative journalism as TPM — taking on the responsibility of covering a topic as salient to our choices in everyday life as emergent technology, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t begin to measure up to my expectations.
In fact, it’s hard to how overstate how disappointed I am with the quality of TPM’s technology coverage. In most articles appearing under Franzen’s byline, you’ll note, the content of a press release or a sympathetic interview is transcribed word for word into the TPM post, lending the site’s imprimatur to whatever claims that are being made by the article’s subject. At no time does Franzen appear to challenge what he’s being told, seek any other informed perspective, or simply attempt to validate a proffered representation as factually accurate.
The most recent example of Franzen’s credulity is an almost perfectly ahistorical post accepting Google’s claim that their prototype Field Trip app somehow constitutes an example of “ubiquitous computing”; indeed, the piece comes perilously close to crediting Google with inventing ubiquitous computing in the first place. (And yes, those of you familiar with the ubicomp discourse will not in the slightest be surprised to learn that in among the hype recapitulated by Franzen is the inevitable claim to offer a “seamless” experience.) Note that Franzen allows Google VP John Hanke 163 words: over half the length of his 299-word post.
Here, in a piece entitled “Cooler Than Facebook” — and how the marketing department must have loved that — Franzen makes a pitch on behalf of Google Plus:
In the near future, social networking may involve navigating a stylishly animated Google Plus on your desktop computer while resting comfortably in a chair a few feet away, using your smartphone as a remote control.
What is this but a unchallenged, unexamined and limpidly transparent paraphrase of a Google team’s own description of their demo? It’s practically Eisenhower-era in its depiction of benevolent corporate forces deployed on behalf of your convenience and comfort. (“Resting comfortably in a chair,” you say? Why, Top Men are working on it even as we speak!)
It’s not just Google that gets this treatment. Here Microsoft “bring[s] the ability to accurately scan 3D objects to the masses,” with their “eye-popping, incredibly detailed” Kinect Fusion offering. And here is a selection of other Franzen pieces that read like press releases: for Barnes & Noble, eBay, Tesla…these, mind you, are just from TPM’s technology coverage over the last sixty days.
I think you may be beginning to sense a pattern here, no? From my perspective, though, the most galling example of Franzen’s work is probably this piece on Control Group, which not merely reads like the kind of flackery you find on PR NewsWire, but does so on behalf of some particularly pernicious claims.
It’s not just that Franzen’s gee-whiz tone is annoying, although it does annoy me. It’s the willingness to carry water for an agenda that would certainly be sinister if it had not been so thoroughly debunked over the past twenty years. Consider this unquestioned statement from Control Group CEO Campbell Hyers:
[I]n a corporate environment, you’d be able to swipe your badge and instantly have a conference room itself invite all of the right participants to the meeting and bring up the right slides on a projector screen and then log the whole conference as an audiovisual file later.
A more knowledgeable reporter would have spotted that Hyers’s pitch, far from being futuristic, is actually a string of clichés reaching straight back to Mark Weiser‘s 1990s tenure at PARC (and, at that, long problematized). This knowledge is somewhat arcane, of course, and it may not be particularly realistic to expect a cub reporter to have immersed him- or herself in the detailed history of the field being covered. But surely a more diligent reporter might have reached out to known sources of insight in that field, and attempted to vet the essential contours of the story he or she was being told. And that’s without touching the airless, hegemonic notion that conference rooms and employee identity badges and PowerPoint presentations are the natural order of things.
Franzen manages to accept at face value all of the claims made about the company’s putative “operating systems for physical space,” in a way that’s curiously at odds with TPM’s ostensible progressive agenda. (In fairness, the problems with Franzen’s coverage precede his arrival at TPM. Here’s an older, similarly breathless piece he contributed to Atlantic Wire.)
And it’s just that tension — between the latent logic of so many of these pieces and anything we might fairly think of as progressive politics — that prompts me to write this. I don’t pay much attention to the gadget-oriented technology blogs, with their pong of adolescent-male wish fulfillment, and I certainly can’t abide the Valley-centric tech industry coverage of other “technology” sites. But I don’t expect insight or critique from either of these directions — in fact, I’d be foolish to do so. By contrast, I surely do expect it from a site that not only, in every other realm in which it operates, upholds the honorable tradition of investigative journalism, but clearly does so in the name of a particular kind of politics.
I’m not asking that Talking Points Memo transform itself into, say, the New Left Review. But questioning the logic of the arguments that are made before the public, seeking alternative perspectives: these functions are both core to TPM’s mission, and key to the value it represents itself as providing to its audience. Lending its hard-won imprimatur to transparent PR and marketing tripe — on not a few occasions, again, literally word for word — not merely does not establish any new domain of credibility, it undermines whatever reputation for independence and quality the site currently enjoys. Franzen and, by extension, Marshall’s site are getting played. They’re being used. They would resent it, howlingly, from a corrupt Congressman or a racist sheriff, and they ought to resent it every bit as much from corporate flacks and clueless technoutopians.
What’s worse is that, given contemporary habits in media consumption, it is not at all unlikely that Franzen’s is the only coverage of the technology sector TPM’s core audience will be exposed to. TPM’s embrace of his work could all too easily lead otherwise-sophisticated readers to believe that viewpoints like the ones expressed in Carl Franzen’s writing are fully normalized and universally agreed-upon — if not, god forbid, the leftmost marker of acceptable opinion. This is precisely how consensus realities are established, how discourse policing works; if “even the left-leaning Talking Points Memo” endorses a point of view, anyone quibbling with it is by definition outside the bounds of the discursive community, and of fair comment. Like any publisher, in other words, Marshall has some responsibility for anticipating how the color of approval his act of publication lends to things is likely to be used, particularly by those ideologically unsympathetic to his other aims.
The old feminist adage reminds us that “the personal is the political,” and it’s precisely the same here: every technology comes with a conception of our role in the world bundled in it. It’s vital, particularly for those of us who think of ourselves as somehow being “on the left,” or in any way working toward a progressive agenda, that we ask how technologies can serve ends inimical to whatever goals we believe are worth the effort. And it’s unquestionably the prerogative of a would-be independent news outlet to apply to ostensibly innovatory products and services some standard of evaluation deeper than whether or not they are “cool.”
My bottom line is that I find the tone, tenor and, most importantly, the content of Franzen’s coverage sharply at odds with the progressive tradition I interpret Talking Points Memo as trying to uphold. I recognize some of the shortfalls in his work as the clear consequence of the intense pressure on an online outlet to publish, on an online writer to make word count. But that pressure doesn’t justify outright stenography. If Talking Points Memo is not willing or able to bring the exact same level of discernment, skepticism and professionalism to their technology coverage that Marshall would demand of any political coverage appearing under the site’s name, perhaps they ought to consider stepping back from the ambition of offering that coverage.
It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:
- As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.
As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)
We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.
So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.
Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.
We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.
Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)
It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.
These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.
Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.
From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.
I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.