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Further to notes on a diagram of Occupy Sandy

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.)

Responsibility in technology reportage: the case of Talking Points Memo

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.

You lookin’ at me?

I confess to being both heartened and frustrated by John Geraci’s new post on “the user experience of New York City,” which you should go take a look at. The “heartened” part is easy: I’m delighted that John raises the issue of the Passenger Information Monitor — the touchscreen interface mounted on the rear surface of a New York City taxicab’s protective partition — because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. The “frustrated” part has very little to do with John or his admirable optimism, and much more to do with the fact that, well, I have been thinking about this precise issue for a very long time, as have a great many designers more talented than I, and not all our efforts combined have been able to alter the badness of the taxi-passenger experience one whit in all that time.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary problem with the PIM is that it provides real-time GPS mapping and other situational information to passengers — but not the driver. This gives rise to an informational asymmetry that only exacerbates whatever issues of mutual mistrust and class, ethnic and linguistic-cultural tension may be latent (or explicit) in the encounter between the two parties.

Anyone who takes cabs in New York City with any frequency whatsoever will surely have noticed that a very large number of drivers are not merely recent immigrants but recent immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh. This, of course, is not a neutral pattern of fact, in either the American imaginary or the reckoning of the various Federal agencies charged with enforcing immigration law and upholding homeland security. Drivers from the Subcontinent, particularly, do absorb the suspicion and hostility of a post-9/11 public, and therefore may have some justification for a belief in otherwise hard-to-swallow conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons for the in-vehicle deployment of locational technologies. (How do I know they hold such beliefs? I know this ’cause I ask drivers for their opinions on the PIM whenever I get the chance, and the notion that DHS or some similar entity is tracking their personal movements through in-car GPS arises spontaneously about a third of the time.)

Even absent this specific consideration, the placement of the screen carries along with it a not-so-subtle implication that the driver is out to screw the passenger, and if left to their own devices will surely do so. The particular message of the PIM is that the driver needs to be supervised, their microbehavior monitored and their choices (e.g. of routing) verified from moment to moment. Compare this to the dashboard-mounted GPS navigation systems used by cab drivers in, say, Seoul, which are more clearly there to assist the driver in their negotiations with the cityscape — a primary use of such screens which does nothing to prevent their also being used to coordinate agreement between driver and passenger as to appropriate courses of action.

Finally, as John points out, and in what has to be reckoned an extraordinarily clumsy and hamfisted way of undermining any common feeling between the person in the front seat and those behind the partition, the PIM screens run ads. These are predictably loud and irritating, they load automatically and continue running unless manually shut off, and they generate revenue for the taxi operator every time they are viewed. (The passenger is provided with an Off button, but it is designed so as to be relatively obscure and hard to engage.) The cab driver is therefore incentivized to tolerate a system behavior that’s clearly detrimental to the experience of the paying customer.

These are design decisions. There is nothing inherently wrongheaded with choosing to site a passenger interface on the back of a taxi’s partition, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with providing the passenger with information that will reassure them as to the wisdom of the driver’s choices. But in each of the above cases, as a result of bad design, the interests of driver and passenger have been allowed to become uncoupled from one another, with terrible repercussions for their ability to trust and feel comfortable with the other — both locally to this specific ride, and across whatever rides take place in the future, for as long as this particular envelope of technological and design decisions remains intact.

I share John’s hope that this and the other moments that constitute stumbles in the user experience of the city can be rectified by design — I hope obviously so, given my investment of time, effort, reputation and life savings in a company intended to do just this. But I can’t help but note that we New Yorkers appear to live in a place, a time and a culture in which considerations of design are all but invariably shunted to the back of the line when budgetary and other resources are apportioned. In situations like this, I’m so often put in mind of Stafford Beer‘s observation that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” If, in all the years since Vignelli, New York City and its institutions have mostly failed to produce high-quality citizen-facing design, it’s difficult to conclude anything but that on some level, and from some party’s perspective, this is an intentional outcome.

A rough road ahead for the would-be designer of good urban user experience, then — but a clarion call to greatness, as well. Tomorrow’s Vignellis surely have their work cut out for them. But should you succeed in such tasks even partially, you’ll know that your intervention is improving the texture of someone’s life tens of thousands of times a day, every single day. By my lights, anyway, there are not a whole hell of a lot of things on Earth more worth the effort.

“Real artists ship”

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.

- This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

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.

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)

There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.

Free Tokyo talk, 29 Oct: Becoming Real

Hey hey! I’m truly delighted to announce that I’m going to be giving a free talk here in Tokyo in a couple of weeks, in collaboration with my friends at AQ.

This is an entirely new talk, and kind of a departure for me. Born out of frustration with my own track record over the last twelve years, and how few of the efforts I’ve been involved with have launched, shipped or otherwise seen the light of day, it’s a pragmatic look at what it takes to move projects from idea to reality. (You should understand “project” here to meaning any complex plan of collaborative action that unfolds over time, whether it involves publishing a book, launching a new fashion line, building a house or rolling out a new brand identity.)

I’m calling it “Becoming Real, or: The Art of Making Things Happen,” and I’m planning to hang our discussion on a few tentpoles: Bruno Latour‘s concepts of “recruitment” and “translation,” how capital can function as both a usefully universal solvent and a perilous gravity well, what happened to Jasper Morrison when he tried to design a camera for a large Japanese company, and Stafford Beer‘s thoughts on viable systems. Finally, we’ll take a look at some people I know who seem to be unusually skilled at bringing their notions to fruition, and ask if there’s anything to be gleaned from their example.

It’s free, it should be fun, and if I pull it off properly, we’ll all learn a little something — myself as much as anyone else in the house. We’ll be setting up a Facebook event page over the next few days, and you’ll most likely have to register to guarantee admission, since I’m told seating will be limited.

But why not join us on the 29th of October, from 19.00, at co-lab Nishi-Azabu (2-24-2 Nishi-Azabu, Minato Ward, Tokyo)? I look forward to seeing you there, and finding out what we can make happen.

UPDATED: Here’s the Facebook link.

The sidewalks are for everybody (depending on just how you define “everybody”)

Coming back to the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco after many years away has been something of an education in the lower limits of urban metabolism for me. Despite a few significant disappearances and subductions, it’s astonishing just how many of the storefronts on the street remain precisely the same as they were when I first encountered them at the tail end of 1990 — in quite a few cases, businesses that barely ever seemed to enjoy any traffic or clientele, or have much future hope of same.

The neighborhood’s issues, as well, are sadly perennial. Since the mid-1960s, these few overdetermined blocks, and the lovely public park onto which they open, have served as a very strange attractor indeed. As the continent’s final stop, as a microclimate sporting permanently moderate conditions, and (after the so-called Summer of Love fixed it in the popular imagination as all-welcoming hub of benevolent creativity) as a destination of particular choice for the putatively free-spirited, the Upper Haight has for decades been a sink for those who have found the constraints of life elsewhere too much to bear. As you might imagine, a significant percentage of those attracted to the Haight for such reasons have historically wound up living on the street.

While there were originally at least the rudiments of an institutional support infrastructure in place to support such a life — including the network of crashpads, Free Stores and Free Bakery established by the anarchist Digger collective — all that was long over and done with by the 1980s. Nor has anything appeared to replace that infrastructure in all the long years since, given the gutting of municipal budgets by Proposition 13 (1978), the general souring and inward-turning that followed in its wake and continues to condition American constructions of public life, and the restatement of the Haight as a corporate simulacrum of itself.

Local property values had soared in the intervening decades, too, meaning that the selfsame flats that had once furnished errant hippies with welcoming, if crab-infested, places to crash were now home to knowledge workers in the creative industries — knowledge workers that needed their sleep, that had a harder time tolerating noise and other chaos, that just wanted to get out their front door without being harassed for change or having to step over a fresh pile of human shit.

By the turn of the century, the problem had hardened still further. If, for a variety of reasons, the Haight had lost whatever porosity it might originally have called upon to absorb this kind of influx, the folks sleeping rough on its streets had changed, too. They’d become angry, resentful crusty punks accompanied by pitbulls, trying to eke their rudimentary existence from the residents and visitors of a neighborhood that didn’t particularly want them there.

And this is the situation as it’s persisted, or been allowed to persist, all the way down to the present. I daresay the issue is so intractable because here San Francisco finds itself torn against the better angels of its own nature, and the desire to extend unlimited self-expression to all that is such a wonderful part of this city’s history and (forgive me) brand; most other North American cities, certainly, would have long ago targeted a revenue-generating neighborhood thus affected for Quality of Life intervention. The trouble for the would-be liberal or progressive is that any neat talk of a Lefebvrian “right to the city” breaks down on the sidewalks of the Haight: here it’s nakedly clear both that some legitimate uses of urban space inherently infringe others…and that the infringement need have nothing to do with a state actor or other convenient boogeyman. (The latent threat of state violence may certainly be invoked by one contesting party or another, and has in fact been invoked here, but it’s not a necessary precondition.)

In the end, unless you’ve got nigh-Solomonic abilities to reconcile conflicting claims, you’re going to be forced to choose which vision of “everybody” you wish to uphold. In San Francisco, that choice has crystallized in a measure to be voted on in the November election, Proposition L, which would amend the San Francisco Police code to prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks. Here are two sites representing very different perspectives on the issue: fighting the For corner, the “grassroots movement” Civil Sidewalks, and standing Against, the advocacy group Sidewalks Are For People, formerly known as Stand Against Sit/Lie. (The scare quotes are there because Civil Sidewalks — however much I may sympathize with certain of its aims and goals, however much I may believe these aims to reflect feelings genuinely shared by the community’s residents — is clearly an initiative of merchants’ associations rather than anything truly organic.)

In the distance between the arguments For and Against can be seen the reason why constructions of “the public” (and therefore of what legitimate interests that public may wish to pursue) are so dangerous. As Kristine F. Miller reminds us, there can never be any such thing, except as a screen for one or another set of interests. There are only publics, and policy is almost always going to mean disappointing some set of them.

For the record: I fully agree with neither the For nor Against positions as stated, though I think aspects of both have deep claims to truth. My sense, as you’ve certainly already inferred from my word choices above, is that the people who have made some longstanding investment in the neighborhood (physical and psychic, that is, far more than merely pecuniary) deserve to walk and chat and, yes, sit, on their sidewalks, free from hassle and threat. Why not fully embrace Prop L, then? I know that police departments historically have a nasty habit of invoking legislation like this to justify their repression of other populations; that panel in the Stand Against Sit/Lie comic was no hyperbole. Beyond that, though, I guess I prefer the flavor of the classic anarchist solution to situations like this — self-organized, robust citizen’s patrols — to invoking the firm hand of the Daddy State.

But maybe that’s a little too much like vigilante justice for this community. Maybe it would require more time, energy and exposure to personal risk than people are willing to invest. And if that’s the case, then maybe the crusties and the pitbulls and the spanging are something people ought to learn to live with. I’m not saying they’re pleasant, or attractive, or make any kind of meaningful contribution whatsoever to the neighborhood. I am saying that, if their presence on your sidewalks is really so offensive to you, there are other and better things to do about it than giving the police historically problematic powers — powers that they’re not even asking for.

Talkin’ Everyware, tomorrow night in San Francisco

I’m pleased to pass along the news that tomorrow evening, Wednesday the 18th of August, 2010, the UX Book Club SF will be discussing my Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing. It’ll be interesting to hear what people think of the book after some four and a half years in the wild, at a time when it feels quaintly obsolescent to me, yet is objectively more relevant than it was on the day of its publication.

The meetup is at 1501 Mariposa Street, between 19.00 and 21.00. I’m going to be there, of course, but will do my damndest to maintain a dignified silence, somewhere in the back of the room. You can RSVP on the Facebook page or, I’m sure, just show up. Drinks afterward.

Fear factor

I really want to recommend to you this Olivier Thereaux post about broken bus systems and how they might be fixed (and not just because I happen to be taking the MUNI a great deal lately).

What Olivier absolutely nails is the expression of a thought I’ve come back to again and again over the years: that buses and bus networks are by their nature so intimidating to potential users that many people will do just about anything to avoid engaging them. I don’t mind admitting that, depending on the city, the language in use, and my relative level of energy, I’m definitely to be numbered among those people. When buses are effectively the only mode of public transit available, that “just about anything” has occasionally meant laying out ridiculous sums on taxis; more often, it’s resulted in my walking equally absurd distances across cities I barely know.

“Intimidating,” in this context, doesn’t need to mean “terrifying.” It simply implies that the system is just complicated enough, just hard enough to form a mental model of, that the fear of winding up miles away from your intended destination — and possibly with no clear return route, not enough or the right kind of money to pay for a ticket, and no way of asking for clarification — is a real thing. There’s a threshold of comfort involved, and for quite a few categories of users (the young, the old, visitors, immigrants, people with literacy or other impairments) that threshold is set too high. People in this position wind up seeking alternatives…and if practical alternatives do not exist, they do without mobility altogether. They are lost to the city, and the city is lost to them.

The point is more broadly applicable, as well. You know I believe that cities are connection machines, networks of potential subject to Metcalfe’s law. What this means in the abstract is that the total value of an urban network rises as the square of the number of nodes connected to it. What this means in human terms is that a situation in which people are too intimidated to ride the bus (or walk down the street, or leave the apartment) is a sorrow compounded. Again: everything they could offer the network that is the city is lost. And everything we take for granted about the possibilities and promise of great urban places is foreclosed to them.

If you understand things this way, there’s a clear moral imperative inscribed in the design of systems like bus networks and interfaces. Every incremental thing the designer can do to demystify, explain, clarify, and ultimately to lower the threshold at which a potential user decides the risk of climbing aboard is worth taking does a double service — if the Metcalfe’s law construction of things rings true to you, a geometrical service. You are simultaneously improving the conditions under which an individual lives his or her life, and contributing materially to the commonweal. Not bad for a day’s work, if you ask me.

This is personal for me, too, and not just because I’ve occasionally found a route map overwhelming, or decided to walk from Bloomsbury to Dalston instead of chancing the N38 and winding up in, who knows, Calais. What I’ve come to understand, in these last few years of intense concentration on issues of urban design, is that my fascination with cities grows not at all out of ease or comfort with them, but the opposite. I’m an introvert, I’ve never been comfortable approaching strangers with questions, I’m twitchily hyperaware when I’m inconveniencing others (e.g. holding up a bus by asking questions of a driver) and my gifts for language are not great. Above all, I don’t like looking vulnerable and confused any more than anyone does, especially when traveling.

I’ve gotten better on all these counts over the course of my life, but they’re still issues. They can pop to the surface at any time, and, of course, are more likely to do so under conditions of stress. Taken together, what they spell for me is a relatively circumscribed ability to get around and enjoy the things the cities I visit have to offer — relatively, that is, compared to other able-bodied people my own age and with similar levels of privilege. Even this limitation, though, makes me acutely aware of just how difficult getting around can be, how very intimidating it can all seem, and what both people and place stand to lose each and every single time this intimidation is allowed to govern outcomes.

This is why I believe Olivier is absolutely right to focus on design interventions that reduce user stress, and, with all due respect, it’s why I think people like this Speedbird commenter, who understand cities solely as generators of upside potential, are missing something in the empathy department. There are an awful lot of people, everywhere around us, in every city, who have difficulty negotiating the mobility (and other) systems that are supposed to serve their needs. As far as I’m concerned, anyway, it is the proper and maybe even the primary task of the urban systems designer to work with compassion and fearless empathy to address this difficulty. Only by doing so can we extend the very real promise of that upside potential to the greatest possible number of people who would otherwise be denied it, in part or in full, and only by doing so can we realize in turn the full flowering of what they have to offer us.

San Francisco days, San Francisco nights

After travails & sorrows best left unexplicated, Nurri and I have finally arrived in San Francisco…just in time for its “summer.”

I’ll be here for the next month or so, doing some writing, working on some projects, but mostly just enjoying the city and the luxury of having real time to spend with all our good friends here. Drop a line if you’re up for e.g. Zeitgeisting.

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