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Route Master: A Biography of the London Map

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.

1.

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.

2.

John Snow's map of cholera deaths in Soho

John Snow’s map of cholera deaths in Soho

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.

3.

Charles Booth's maps of London poverty

Charles Booth’s maps of London poverty

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.

4.

Harry Beck's original diagram of the London Underground

Harry Beck’s original diagram of the London Underground

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.

Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

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
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.

What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)

Updated.

Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.

I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.

This year’s model

More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.

Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?

Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.

As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.

Signs, pointers and portents

Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.

So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?

In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.

Campo de Cebada: Community control

At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.

After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)

Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.

What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.

My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.

But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.

There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.

Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.

Come together

In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.

When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.

At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.

So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:

- In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.

There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.

- In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.

On forgetting to slay the dragon

Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.

I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)

But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.

My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.

This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and Couchsurfing.org implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.

The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:

The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.

Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.

As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:

I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.

Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)

Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.

An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object

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.

Public space, civilization and the self (long)

I go on about this thing we call “public space” quite often — most recently here — but I don’t think I’ve ever furnished you with an argument as to why I think creating, maintaining and actually using it is so important, from either the individual or the collective point of view. So on the eve of publishing a pamphlet that deals with the topic not a little bit, I figured I’d have a go at doing just that. You might want to settle back and pull up your cushions, because like the man says, this is going to go on for awhile.

Public space,

For the past several years, exploring the ways in which we collectively understand and use the common spatial domain has been a primary focus of my design work, as well as my writing. One of the things we set out to do at Urbanscale was use digital cartography to surface and expose all those spaces of the city that are public in name and law, that are yours to use and to enjoy, but which generally remain beneath the threshold of everyday awareness. In New York City specifically, we wanted to use data furnished to the public under the various Local Law provisions to populate a map layer on our Urbanflow kiosks, and eventually personal devices connected to the Urbanflow service, effectively updating Jerold Kayden’s invaluable Privately Owned Public Space (or, for that matter, the Nolli map) for the age of networked informatics.

Discovery turns out to be critical to activating this scattered archipelago of courtyards, plazas and atria as a public amenity. Michael Kimmelman, in his Introduction to Beyond Zuccotti Park (a volume I recommend highly, by the way), emphasizes the idea that no space, however designated in law, can legitimately be described as “public” unless it is routinely occupied and used by members of the entire community, and of course I agree wholeheartedly. But you can’t use something that you don’t know is there. And despite the mandatory signage, to say nothing of longtime activism, advocacy and consciousness-raising on the part of groups like Project for Public Spaces or the Design Trust for Public Space, most New Yorkers seem blissfully unaware that these sites are in fact available to them.

These privately-owned parcels simply aren’t as self-evident as the sidewalks, squares and parks we more often think of as public space. And while some of them are of extremely high quality — Paley Park, for example, which is simply one of my favorite places to sit, read and think in all of New York City — more often they’re neglected, underutilized and unwelcoming, which is something I read as a direct consequence of their low profile. (In fact, their managers tend to rely on this relative obscurity, as well as a fair amount of confusion as to the contours of their rights and obligations, to prevent members of the public from using what is rightfully ours, and therefore contributing to their maintenance burden.)

Why go to the trouble of bringing these spaces to light? And especially why would Urbanscale, as a commercial enterprise, dedicate resources toward doing so? After all, firms like Control Group certainly don’t seem to think that any such thing is in their remit, when developing wayfinding kiosks for the MTA, and the notion that the city is suffused with spaces available for free use is something barely even alluded to in Pentagram’s otherwise-respectable, Legible City-based program of map plinths. Nor do these sites receive any particular attention or distinct graphic treatment in any other widely-used digital map of the city. So why undertake the effort involved in raising them to real-time awareness?

The honest, simple answer is “Because we live here.” That was true when Urbanscale was a “we,” and it remains just as true now that the practice is (but for the occasional collaboration) an “I”: for the most selfish of reasons, I want people to know these spatial amenities are available to and for them, because I benefit when they’re used routinely.

How so? Let’s start with the idea that, like anyone rational, I want the city I live in to be a humane, generous place, one that provides for its citizens and visitors at every level of the Maslovian pyramid. (I happen to believe that I’m better off when everyone around me is receiving the support they need, whether that support be physiological, material, interpersonal or entirely intangible in nature.) And public space in all of its forms is one of the few tools we have that’s capable of speaking to all of these dimensions of need, at least in potential. So it seems to me that there are few more worthwhile things a design practice might do than contributing to awareness, stewardship and use of this resource.

civilization

I’m comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:

Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords.

The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)

Most fundamentally of all, people should have free and unimpeded access to toilets and hygienic facilities for reasons of self-respect. Mitchell Duneier, in his 1999 book Sidewalk, describes a distinction the unhoused themselves delineate between those who habitually relieve themselves in public and those who, for reasons of pride, make a habit of doing so indoors whenever they are able to do so; I now think of this every time I see anyone but a drunken fratboy peeing in the street. In so many words: nobody should be forced to rely on the contingent goodwill of a friendly shopclerk or McDonald’s manager to take a shit in safety and privacy. The point is that most street people, just like anyone else, want to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity, and will do so if given the slightest chance.

And I should hardly need to point out that while the need for a clean toilet, a sink or similar facilities may be felt most acutely by those among us without a permanent place to call their own, the same need can beset any one of us, at any time. Even if for no other reason than “I just got crapped on by a pigeon, and I need a place to take my shirt off and scrub it down before my next meeting.” In this very direct and very real sense, the provisions we make for the ostensibly lowest among us are the provisions we make for ourselves.

We need to make at least some provision for the basic needs of all, and public space can do this.

Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities. Last year, I joined a local group advocating for the pedestrianization of a service road just off Second Avenue near our apartment, and the furnishment of the resulting space with planters and seating. The (eventually successful) opposition to the pedestrianization plan hinged largely on the notion that with Bellevue Hospital and the city’s main homeless shelter/intake center for unaccompanied men in the neighborhood, if the service road were in fact to become a pedestrian plaza that plaza would swiftly come to be overrun by those with nowhere else to be.

Never mind that no one ever offered any empirical support for this scenario. And put to the side, if you can, the understanding that many of those opposing the pedestrian plaza on these grounds were fellow residents of the building complex I live in, and just like me able to avail themselves of the leafy, three-acre garden between our buildings at any time of their choosing. Assume that everything the opponents said was true: that if we successfully created a public amenity in our neighborhood, that amenity would be dominated by the vagrant, the unclean and the unstable.

My response to this is to say, effectively, “So what?” Those human beings, manifestly, exist. There they are. They have needs. As a society, we have made collective choices that result in their being unable to fulfill or even address those needs in the way you or I would as a matter of course. And now we’re going to begrudge them even the ability to sit down and take a load off, when we can do so wherever and whenever we want?

I don’t say any of this cavalierly, and I am under absolutely no illusion that every last person living on the street is an angel, or even particularly safe to be around; New Yorkers, of all people, are acutely aware of the risks of living in close proximity with people whose substance-abuse and mental-health issues have gone untreated, of what’s likely to happen when those issues are allowed to fester to the point that they become life-threatening (or indeed life-ending). But we don’t solve anyone’s problems — neither theirs nor ours nor the region of the Venn diagram where they overlap — by succumbing to self-satisfied NIMBYism, sweeping homeless people out of sight, denying them the basic lineaments of self-care and making tidied-up, fatuous little Potemkin villages of our neighborhoods. So if we don’t want to be confronted by the reality of homeless people sleeping on our public benches, taking up all our public chairs and being visible in the public way, maybe we’d better design public policies that provide them with better options.

We need to face the consequences of our actions, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces.

At the most basic level, if a city isn’t furnished with a well-developed fabric of public spaces of different sizes and shapes and types, there is no place to simply be if you are not actively consuming. You never understand quite what this implies — just how stark and uncomfortable an urban environment can be, no matter how well-appointed otherwise — until you visit someplace where such a nightmare endstate is enacted intentionally and literally.

For me personally, it’s an experience I had last year on a visit to Istanbul’s Kanyon mall that comes to mind when I think of what might await us, should the various tendencies toward privatization of the common spatial domain we can currently discern in our own environment go unchecked. Designed by the California-based Jerde Partnership (the same practice responsible for Universal CityWalk, the “parallel urban reality” dissected by Mike Davis in his 1992 pamphlet “Urban Control“), Kanyon offers plenty of places for visitors to sit…not a single one of which is not clearly demarcated as belonging to Illy or EAT or Le Pain Quotidien. God help you if you’ve come to look and see, but not necessarily to buy: you’ll attract nasty glares not merely from security guards, but — like something out of the “militarized subconscious” of Inception — from shoppers themselves, as though they suspect that your desire to sit somewhere and quietly eat the sandwich you’ve packed is in itself a token of being up to no good.

This may be true of malls everywhere, for all I know; I’ll confess that it’s been a good few years since I’ve been inside of one. But it was glaringly obvious at Kanyon, a place which seems to take Rem Koolhaas’s infamous description of shopping as “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” a little too firmly to heart. Its demand that we justify our presence by spending is a tendency that’s only likely to accelerate as Square and similarly “effortless” low-cognitive-load mechanisms for the transaction of value proliferate in the world, and fuse with the ability to throw a virtual geofence around a given locale. The inherent cruelty involved is something that affects us all, whether or not we happen to have the price of a coffee to spare by way of paying a half-hour’s rent on a place to sit.

I want to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the ability of small, independent operators to make a buck. James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism helped me articulate the distinction I think needs to be made whenever we discuss commercial activity in public space. It’s the same made in Pattern 87 of A Pattern Language, “Individually Owned Shops”: that between individual, accountable proprietors and those deadening enterprises that operate at national or global scale, and that function mainly to extract value from the local community. (I know it’s the hip thing to hate on the High Line these days, but to my mind it’s a place that gets this mix just about right. The kiosks and food stands feel refreshingly humble and local, and reasonably well-curated. You want an ice-cream sandwich, you get a ice-cream sandwich.) My point isn’t that all commercial activity needs to be purged from public space, but that it must never be allowed to dominate these environments, or drive out ways of using them freely.

We need to develop meaningful ways for people to use the city when they don’t have so much as a penny to their name, and public space can do this.

Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way.

Georges Amar, formerly head of foresight for the RATP, reminds us that the sidewalks are a high-throughput mode of conveyance. He likens them to walking subways, and suggests that just as subways have stations, so too ought our pedestrian thoroughfares be well-provisioned with places to stop and rest at regular intervals — again, each complete with shade, toilets, drinking fountains and (I would add) free WiFi. Per the point above about small businesses, further, there’s no reason why each of these nodes can’t support an independently-operated food cart or coffee stand as an adjunct to and enhancer of experience. perhaps as a social focus. platform for impromptu conviviality.

To dip, again, into A Pattern Language, what Amar is proposing corresponds almost precisely with Pattern 82, “Bus Stop”:

Build bus stops so that they form tiny centers of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighborhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a newsstand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops [!], coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms, squares…

A city whose walking paths are well-provided with nodes such as these is simply a more merciful place than one that is not. I didn’t really take Amar’s deeper point, though, until I thought carefully about the routes I habitually take when traversing Manhattan on foot. There’s no question he’s on to something: I’ll happily choose a clumsy, meandering path, or even cut a block or two out of my way, if it lets me pass through one of my favorite public spaces, whether it be Union Square, Liz Christy Community Garden, Lincoln Center or the plaza in front of the Seagram Building. I find these places restorative, even without stopping to rest in them — they make the difference between a joyless trudge and a pleasingly punctuated journey. The happy fact is that, for a great many potential journeys one might take through New York City, something like Amar’s network of walkstations already exists.

The lesson I draw from this: the measure we take to enhance one mode of using the city winds up being an investment in others. The same amenity that furnishes one set of users with the necessities of daily survival can afford others the makings of a safer and more pleasant commute. In other words, there’s a multiplicative, synergistic quality to the return we enjoy on whatever interventions we make with an eye toward improving the urban fabric. If nothing else, each place where people can freely sit and watch the life of the city furnishes an additional increment of Jacobian “eyes on the street.”

We need to think of the urban fabric itself as a source of amenity and succor, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole.

We’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy now. It’s not just a matter of production values, but of what those production values communicate. And what public investments like these communicate is that what binds us truly is more important than what separates us; that even the least “important,” most marginal member of our society is entitled to the same experience of belonging as anyone else; and there can be a dignity, even a grandeur in the everyday.

We need to celebrate what we are collectively and together, and public space can do this.

Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups. The other night, we stumbled onto this as we passed by Bryant Park. My initial response was that it was one of the most appalling displays I’d ever seen in New York, that there was something almost fascist about it. That it was not at all light-hearted, spontaneous and captivatingly romantic, as it so obviously ached to be, but exclusionary, pretentious, class-ridden and uptight, just an obscene misuse of a public park. (The event didn’t do itself any favors by stationing private security guards at entrances to the park, there to turn away anyone who wasn’t sufficiently compliant with the all-white theme.)

That was my initial response, and truth be told, it was my second one as well. But then I reconsidered a bit. No, Dîner en Blanc is not an ideal use of this public resource. No, it’s not acceptable for a private event to control access to a space maintained for the benefit of all. Yes, there are troubling aspects to it — not least of which is that the dinner struck me as being an all-white event in more ways than one. But it’s one night a year. I can find Dîner en Blanc not at all to my liking — in point of fact, entirely grotesque — but so long as it doesn’t persistently interfere with anyone else’s ability to use Bryant Park I can’t find particular fault with it. (And, in fact, as a traveling spectacle it’s highly doubtful it would impact the same neighborhood two years running.) At very worst, it’s sufficiently localized that anyone who finds it distasteful can avoid it, which is more than can be said for SantaCon.

Ideally, though, different groups would be able to pursue their multiple uses of a space simultaneously and non-exclusively, interpenetrating like strollers, joggers, runners and cyclists all using a path together. The benefit of doing things this way is that it more directly teaches us to accommodate one another’s needs, in a way that merely alternating in time does not. At a time when our city has never been more heterogeneous, and when the “interautistic” tendencies of foam-phase social interaction make it ever harder for us to read, understand or empathize with one another, the kinds of encounter and exchange we generally experience in public space furnish us with a crucial tutorial in getting along.

This applies to public spaces at the smallest of scales, as well. I believe that something was lost, for example, when Barcelona began to phase out its public benches a few years ago, in favor of appealingly designed but single-place seating; certainly, park benches were the site of some of my own first negotiations with strangers over contested space. Shared spatial arrangements such as this teach us the rudiments of being a citizen and an urban self — and sites in which young people can practice urbanity are even more necessary when contemporary technology otherwise allocates us into what Jane Jacobs, in another context, once described as “decontaminated sortings.”

We need to learn the comfort with oneself that allows us to accommodate the needs of others, and public space can do this.

— Finally, civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances. If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, in object lessons from Tahrir Square, the Plaça de Catalunya and Zuccotti Park to the Place Émile-Gamelin and Taksim Square, it is the enduring symbolic power of physically occupying public space, even in our putatively mediated age. We seem to have arrived at a renewed understanding that no political gesture is quite as resonant as the act of coming together in shared space, to join our voices and the presence of our bodies.

I can’t meaningfully discuss what happened with 15-M in Spain, or the various protests and uprisings of the Arab Spring, because I wasn’t anything but a distant observer of those events. But I can speak, a little, to what happened in New York City, and I can tell you that some of the most exciting, empowering interactions I’ve ever participated in happened in Zuccotti Park and Foley and Union Squares in the fall of 2011. Whether or not it was effective in bringing about the precise change desired, the consensus now seems to be that Occupy Wall Street was responsible for the prominence income inequality retained as an issue throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign; for all the good it seems to have done over the long term, it definitely forced the Obama campaign to shore up its bona fides on the left. Among that subset of my friends, anyway, who believe that constitutional democracy is something other than a shuck and a con, just about everyone is disappointed with the Obama Administration, and to a degree that surprises me I share their sense of disillusionment…but I continue to believe that everything we face would have been much, much worse under a Romney Administration.

While only a fool would try to draw a direct connection between Zuccotti Park and, say, the 50% reduction in health insurance costs New Yorkers now stand to benefit from, the events of 2011 are a potent reminder that democracy is something that still happens in public. And the experience of Occupy benefitted New York in other, less obvious ways, as well: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it was precisely the connections and networks that formed in these spaces that laid the groundwork for the city’s single most effective response to Hurricane Sandy.

Both by happenstance and design, our city furnishes us with a network of spaces in which the rights of free speech and assembly cannot be abrogated. The particular ways in which we pursue and enact those rights are continually in the process of being constructed, renegotiated and challenged, but the act of doing so places us in a tradition that extends from the first beginnings of our nation — and beyond that, from the very roots of democratic practice itself.

We need to negotiate the terms under which we pursue our individual destinies within the overarching framework of common purpose, and public space almost alone can do this.

…and the self (a personal coda)

I think it’s clear by now what I mean when I use the rather loaded word “civilization,” and why I make the perhaps curious linkage between this quality and the various modes of land use we collectively describe as “public space.”

But none of the above really explains why this particular platform for social interaction is so important to me personally, why I’ve chosen to dedicate my practice to it, or why I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the parks, community gardens and plazas of New York City. Maybe I can approach an answer sideways, by putting it in one final axiom: Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so.

I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Anybody still reading who doesn’t care about the particulars of my own history, or finds this sort of detail distasteful, is more than welcome to skip forward to that bit with the bullet points at the end. (I won’t be offended, I promise.)

Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.

I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.

But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.

So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.

Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.

I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.

We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this.

In practice

Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?

• Learn about the legal status of public space in your municipality, particularly as regards the full measure of rights you enjoy there. Share that knowledge with others.

• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)

• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of public-space activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.

• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)

• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.

• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.

• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.

• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover.

“Against the smart city” teaser

The following is section 4 of “Against the smart city,” the first part of The City Is Here For You To Use. Our Do projects will be publishing “Against the smart city” in stand-alone POD pamphlet and Kindle editions later on this month.

UPDATE: The Kindle edition is now available for purchase.

4 | The smart city pretends to an objectivity, a unity and a perfect knowledge that are nowhere achievable, even in principle.

Of the major technology vendors working in the field, Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement[1] of the philosophical underpinnings on which their (and indeed the entire) smart-city enterprise is founded: “Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

We’ve already considered what kind of ideological work is being done when efforts like these are positioned as taking place in some proximate future. The claim of perfect competence Siemens makes for its autonomous IT systems, though, is by far the more important part of the passage. It reflects a clear philosophical position, and while this position is more forthrightly articulated here than it is anywhere else in the smart-city literature, it is without question latent in the work of IBM, Cisco and their peers. Given its foundational importance to the smart-city value proposition, I believe it’s worth unpacking in some detail.

What we encounter in this statement is an unreconstructed logical positivism, which, among other things, implicitly holds that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable, and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in the state of a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, it is effectively an argument there is one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

Every single aspect of this argument is problematic.

Perfectly knowable, without bias or distortion: Collectively, we’ve known since Heisenberg that to observe the behavior of a system is to intervene in it. Even in principle, there is no way to stand outside a system and take a snapshot of it as it existed at time T.

But it’s not as if any of us enjoy the luxury of living in principle. We act in historical space and time, as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions. So when Siemens talks about a city’s autonomous systems acting on “perfect knowledge” of residents’ habits and behaviors, what they are suggesting in the first place is that everything those residents ever do — whether in public, or in spaces and settings formerly thought of as private — can be sensed accurately, raised to the network without loss, and submitted to the consideration of some system capable of interpreting it appropriately. And furthermore, that all of these efforts can somehow, by means unspecified, avoid being skewed by the entropy, error and contingency that mark everything else that transpires inside history.

Some skepticism regarding this scenario would certainly be understandable. It’s hard to see how Siemens, or anybody else, could avoid the slippage that’s bound to occur at every step of this process, even under the most favorable circumstances imaginable.

However thoroughly Siemens may deploy their sensors, to start with, they’ll only ever capture the qualities about the world that are amenable to capture, measure only those quantities that can be measured. Let’s stipulate, for the moment, that these sensing mechanisms somehow operate flawlessly, and in perpetuity. What if information crucial to the formulation of sound civic policy is somehow absent from their soundings, resides in the space between them, or is derived from the interaction between whatever quality of the world we set out to measure and our corporeal experience of it?

Other distortions may creep into the quantification of urban processes. Actors whose performance is subject to measurement may consciously adapt their behavior to produce metrics favorable to them in one way or another. For example, a police officer under pressure to “make quota” may issue citations for infractions she would ordinarily overlook; conversely, her precinct commander, squeezed by City Hall to present the city as an ever-safer haven for investment, may downwardly classify[2] felony assault as a simple misdemeanor. This is the phenomenon known to viewers of The Wire as “juking the stats[3],” and it’s particularly likely to happen when financial or other incentives are contingent on achieving some nominal performance threshold. Nor is it the only factor likely to skew the act of data collection; long, sad experience suggests that the usual array of all-too-human pressures will continue to condition any such effort. (Consider the recent case in which Seoul Metro operators were charged with using CCTV cameras to surreptitiously ogle women passengers[4], rather than scan platforms and cars for criminal activity as intended.)

What about those human behaviors, and they are many, that we may for whatever reason wish to hide, dissemble, disguise, or otherwise prevent being disclosed to the surveillant systems all around us? “Perfect knowledge,” by definition, implies either that no such attempts at obfuscation will be made, or that any and all such attempts will remain fruitless. Neither one of these circumstances sounds very much like any city I’m familiar with, or, for that matter, would want to be.

And what about the question of interpretation? The Siemens scenario amounts to a bizarre compound assertion that each of our acts has a single salient meaning, which is always and invariably straightforwardly self-evident — in fact, so much so that this meaning can be recognized, made sense of and acted upon remotely, by a machinic system, without any possibility of mistaken appraisal.

The most prominent advocates of this approach appear to believe that the contingency of data capture is not an issue, nor is any particular act of interpretation involved in making use of whatever data is retrieved from the world in this way. When discussing their own smart-city venture, senior IBM executives[5] argue, in so many words, that “the data is the data”: transcendent, limpid and uncompromised by human frailty. This mystification of “the data” goes unremarked upon and unchallenged not merely in IBM’s material, but in the overwhelming majority of discussions of the smart city. But different values for air pollution in a given location can be produced by varying the height at which a sensor is mounted by a few meters. Perceptions of risk in a neighborhood can be transformed by altering the taxonomy used to classify reported crimes ever so slightly[6]. And anyone who’s ever worked in opinion polling knows how sensitive the results are to the precise wording of a survey. The fact is that the data is never “just” the data, and to assert otherwise is to lend inherently political and interested decisions regarding the act of data collection an unwonted gloss of neutrality and dispassionate scientific objectivity.

The bold claim of perfect knowledge appears incompatible with the messy reality of all known information-processing systems, the human individuals and institutions that make use of them and, more broadly, with the world as we experience it. In fact, it’s astonishing that anyone would ever be so unwary as to claim perfection on behalf of any computational system, no matter how powerful.

One and only one solution: With their inherent, definitional diversity, layeredness and complexity, we can usefully think of cities as tragic. As individuals and communities, the people who live in them hold to multiple competing and equally valid conceptions of the good, and it’s impossible to fully satisfy all of them at the same time. A wavefront of gentrification can open up exciting new opportunities for young homesteaders, small retailers and craft producers, but tends to displace the very people who’d given a neighborhood its character and identity. An increased police presence on the streets of a district reassures some residents, but makes others uneasy, and puts yet others at definable risk. Even something as seemingly straightforward and honorable as an anticorruption initiative can undo a fabric of relations that offered the otherwise voiceless at least some access to local power. We should know by now that there are and can be no[7] Pareto-optimal solutions for any system as complex as a city.

Arrived at algorithmically: Assume, for the sake of argument, that there could be such a solution, a master formula capable of resolving all resource-allocation conflicts and balancing the needs of all a city’s competing constituencies. It certainly would be convenient if this golden mean could be determined automatically and consistently, via the application of a set procedure — in a word, algorithmically.

In urban planning, the idea that certain kinds of challenges are susceptible to algorithmic resolution has a long pedigree. It’s already present in the Corbusian doctrine that the ideal and correct ratio of spatial provisioning in a city can be calculated from nothing more than an enumeration of the population, it underpins the complex composite indices of Jay Forrester’s 1969 Urban Dynamics[8], and it lay at the heart of the RAND Corporation’s (eventually disastrous) intervention in the management of 1970s New York City[9]. No doubt part of the idea’s appeal to smart-city advocates, too, is the familial resemblance such an algorithm would bear to the formulae by which commercial real-estate developers calculate air rights, the land area that must be reserved for parking in a community of a given size, and so on.

In the right context, at the appropriate scale, such tools are surely useful. But the wholesale surrender of municipal management to an algorithmic toolset — for that is surely what is implied by the word “autonomous” — would seem to repose an undue amount of trust in the party responsible for authoring the algorithm. At least, if the formulae at the heart of the Siemens scenario turn out to be anything at all like the ones used in the current generation of computational models, critical, life-altering decisions will hinge on the interaction of poorly-defined and surprisingly subjective values: a “quality of life” metric, a vague category of “supercreative[10]” occupations, or other idiosyncrasies along these lines. The output generated by such a procedure may turn on half-clever abstractions, in which a complex circumstance resistant to direct measurement is represented by the manipulation of some more easily-determined proxy value: average walking speed stands in for the more inchoate “pace” of urban life, while the number of patent applications constitutes an index of “innovation.”

Even beyond whatever doubts we may harbor as to the ability of algorithms constructed in this way to capture urban dynamics with any sensitivity, the element of the arbitrary we see here should give us pause. Given the significant scope for discretion in defining the variables on which any such thing is founded, we need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act. And at least as things stand today, neither in the Siemens material nor anywhere else in the smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability.

Encoded in public policy, and applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics: A review of the relevant history suggests that policy recommendations derived from computational models are only rarely applied to questions as politically sensitive as resource allocation without some intermediate tuning taking place. Inconvenient results may be suppressed, arbitrarily overridden by more heavily-weighted decision factors, or simply ignored.

The best-documented example of this tendency remains the work of the New York City-RAND Institute, explicitly chartered to implant in the governance of New York City “the kind of streamlined, modern management that Robert McNamara applied in the Pentagon with such success[11]” during his tenure as Secretary of Defense (1961-1968). The statistics-driven approach that McNamara’s Whiz Kids had so famously brought to the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, variously thought of as “systems analysis” or “operations research,” was first applied to New York in a series of studies conducted between 1973 and 1975, in which RAND used FDNY incident response-time data[12] to determine the optimal distribution of fire stations.

Methodological flaws undermined the effort from the outset. RAND, for simplicity’s sake, chose to use the time a company arrived at the scene of a fire as the basis of their model, rather than the time at which that company actually began fighting the fire; somewhat unbelievably, for anyone with the slightest familiarity with New York City, RAND’s analysts then compounded their error by refusing to acknowledge traffic as a factor in response time[13]. Again, we see some easily-measured value used as a proxy for a reality that is harder to quantify, and again we see the distortion of ostensibly neutral results by the choices made by an algorithm’s designers. But the more enduring lesson for proponents of data-driven policy has to do with how the study’s results were applied. Despite the mantle of coolly “objective” scientism that systems analysis preferred to wrap itself in, RAND’s final recommendations bowed to factionalism within the Fire Department, as well as the departmental leadership’s need to placate critical external constituencies; the exercise, in other words, turned out to be nothing if not political.

The consequences of RAND’s intervention were catastrophic. Following their recommendations, fire battalions in some of the most vulnerable sections of the city were decommissioned, while the department opened other stations in low-density, low-threat areas; the spatial distribution of firefighting assets remaining actually prevented resources from being applied where they were most critically needed. Great swaths of the city’s poorest neighborhoods burned to the ground as a direct result — most memorably the South Bronx, but immense tracts of Manhattan and Brooklyn as well. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, many permanently, and the unforgettable images that emerged fueled perceptions of the city’s nigh-apocalyptic unmanageability that impeded its prospects well into the 1980s. Might a less-biased model, or a less politically-skewed application of the extant findings, have produced a more favorable outcome? This obviously remains unknowable…but the human and economic calamity that actually did transpire is a matter of public record.

Examples like this counsel us to be wary of claims that any autonomous system will ever be entrusted with the regulation and control of civic resources — just as we ought to be wary of claims that the application of some single master algorithm could result in an Pareto-efficient distribution of resources, or that the complex urban ecology might be sufficiently characterized in data to permit the effective operation of such an algorithm in the first place. For all of the conceptual flaws we’ve identified in the Siemens proposition, though, it’s the word “goal” that just leaps off the page. In all my thinking about cities, it has frankly never occurred to me to assert that cities have goals. (What is Cleveland’s goal? Karachi’s?) What is being suggested here strikes me as a rather profound misunderstanding of what a city is. Hierarchical organizations can be said to have goals, certainly, but not anything as heterogeneous in composition as a city, and most especially not a city in anything resembling a democratic society.

By failing to account for the situation of technological devices inside historical space and time, the diversity and complexity of the urban ecology, the reality of politics or, most puzzlingly of all, the “normal accidents[14]” all complex systems are subject to, Siemens’ vision of cities perfectly regulated by autonomous smart systems thoroughly disqualifies itself. But it’s in this depiction of a city as an entity with unitary goals that it comes closest to self-parody.

If it seems like breaking a butterfly on a wheel to subject marketing copy to this kind of dissection, I am merely taking Siemens and the other advocates of the smart city at their word, and this is what they (claim to) really believe. When pushed on the question, of course, some individuals working for enterprises at the heart of the smart-city discourse admit that what their employers actually propose to do is distinctly more modest: they simply mean to deploy sensors on municipal infrastructure, and adjust lighting levels, headway or flow rates to accommodate real-time need. If this is the case, perhaps they ought to have a word with their copywriters, who do the endeavor no favors by indulging in the imperial overreach of their rhetoric. As matters now stand, the claim of perfect competence that is implicit in most smart-city promotional language — and thoroughly explicit in the Siemens material — is incommensurate with everything we know about the way technical systems work, as well as the world they work in. The municipal governments that constitute the primary intended audience for materials like these can only be advised, therefore, to approach all such claims with the greatest caution.


Notes

[1] Siemens Corporation. “Sustainable Buildings — Networked Technologies: Smart Homes and Cities,” Pictures of the Future, Fall 2008.
foryoutou.se/siemenstotal

[2] For example, in New York City, an anonymous survey of “hundreds of retired high-ranking [NYPD] officials” found that “tremendous pressure to reduce crime, year after year, prompted some supervisors and precinct commanders to distort crime statistics” they submitted to the centralized COMPSTAT system. Chen, David W., “Survey Raises Questions on Data-Driven Policy,” The New York Times, 08 February 2010.
foryoutou.se/jukingthenypd

[3] Simon, David, Kia Corthron, Ed Burns and Chris Collins, The Wire, Season 4, Episode 9: “Know Your Place,” first aired 12 November 2006.

[4] Asian Business Daily. “Subway CCTV was used to watch citizens’ bare skin sneakily,” 16 July 2013. (In Korean.)
foryoutou.se/seoulcctv

[5] Fletcher, Jim, IBM Distinguished Engineer, and Guruduth Banavar, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Global Public Sector⁠, personal communication, 08 June 2011.

[6] Migurski, Michal. “Visualizing Urban Data,” in Segaran, Toby and Jeff Hammerbacher, Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions, O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol CA, 2012: pp. 167-182. See also Migurski, Michal. “Oakland Crime Maps X,” tecznotes, 03 March 2008.
foryoutou.se/oaklandcrime

[7] See, as well, Sen’s dissection of the inherent conflict between even mildly liberal values and Pareto optimality. Sen, Amartya Kumar. “The impossibility of a Paretian liberal.” Journal of Political Economy Volume 78 Number 1, Jan-Feb 1970.
foryoutou.se/nopareto

[8] Forrester, Jay. Urban Dynamics, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969.

[9] See Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City — And Determined The Future Of American Cities, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010.

[10] See, e.g. Bettencourt, Luís M.A. et al. “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 104 Number 17, 24 April 2007, pp. 7301-7306.
foryoutou.se/superlinear

[11] Flood, ibid., Chapter Six.

[12] Rider, Kenneth L. “A Parametric Model for the Allocation of Fire Companies,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1615-NYC/HUD, April 1975; Kolesar, Peter. “A Model for Predicting Average Fire Company Travel Times,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1624-NYC, June 1975.
foryoutou.se/randfirecos
foryoutou.se/randfiretimes

[13] See the Amazon interview with Fires author Joe Flood.
foryoutou.se/randfires

[14] Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Basic Books, New York, 1984.

On Adaptive Ecologies

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.

The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.

Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.

This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.

All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.

But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.

To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.

Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.

As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.

Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:

- Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.

This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.

Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.

And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.

- More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.

I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.

- No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.

Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)

- Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake- or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).

I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.

I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.

And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.

Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.

One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.

Feeling our way forward: Touch and the new reading

An article I was commissioned to write for the Touch issue of What’s Next magazine.

What does it mean for a text to be digital?

In principle, it can be replicated in perfect fidelity, and transmitted to an unlimited number of recipients worldwide, at close to zero cost. Powerful analytic tools can be brought to bear on it, and our reading of it. It can be compared against other texts, plumbed for clues as to its provenance and authorship. Each of our acts of engagement with it — whether of acquisition, reading, or annotation — can be shared with our social networks, mobilized as props in an ongoing performance of self. Above all, it becomes (to use the jargon practically unavoidable in any discussion of information technology) “platform-agnostic.” This is to say that it becomes independent, to a very great degree, of the physical medium in which it currently happens to be instantiated.

To varying degrees, these things have been true as long as words have been encoded in ones and zeroes — certainly since 1971, when Project Gutenberg was founded with the intention of digitizing as much of the world’s literature as possible, and making it all available for free. Why is it the case, then, that digital books only seem to have entered our lives in any major way in the last two or three years?

The apparently sudden arrival of the digital text likely owes something to the top-of-mind quality Amazon currently enjoys in its main markets, its name and value proposition as prominent in our awareness as those of the grocery chains, television networks or airlines we patronize — a presence it’s taken the company the better part of the last fifteen years to build up. And it surely has something to do with the widespread popular facility with the tropes and metaphors governing our engagement with digital content of all sorts that has developed over the same period of time, to the point that it’s increasingly hard to meet a grandparent inconversant with downloads, torrents and the virtues of cloud storage.

But the fundamental reason is probably that bit about platform-agnosticism. Anyone so inclined could have “engaged digital text” on a conventional computer at any point in the past forty years. But the act of reading didn’t — and maybe couldn’t — properly come into its own in the digital era until there was a platform for literature as present to the senses as paper itself, something as well-suited to the digital text as the road is to the automobile. I refer, of course, to the networked tablet.

It’s only with the widespread embrace of these devices that digital reading has become ubiquitous. Relatively inexpensive, lightweight and comfortable in the hand, capable of storing thousands of volumes, the merits of the tablet as reading environment may strike us as self-evident. But there’s another factor that underlies its general appeal, and that is the specific phenomenology of the way we manipulate reading material when using one.

We read text on a tablet as pixels, just as we would on any screen. But the ways in which we physically address and move through a body of such pixels have more in common with the behaviors we learned from books in earliest childhood than with anything we picked up in the course of later encounters with computers. This is why the post-PC tablet feels more “intuitive” to us, despite the frank novelty of the gestures we must learn in order to use it, and which no book in the world has ever afforded: the swipe, the drag, the pinch, the tap.

This is the new tactility of reading. But where there are comparatively few semantically-meaningful ways in which the reader’s hand can meet the pages of a material book, the experience of engaging a digital text with the finger is subject to a certain variability. It’s not a boundless freedom — it’s delimited on one side by technological limitations, and on the other by the choices of an interaction designer — but it does require explication.

The first order of variability is the screen medium itself. Each of the major touchscreen technologies available — resistive, capacitive, projective-capacitive, optical — imposes its own constraints on the latency and resolution with which a screen registers a touch, and therefore how long one must place one’s finger against it to turn a page or select a word for definition or a passage for annotation. Reading on a good screen feels effortless, even transparent — but particularly high latency or low resolution can easily disrupt the flow of experience, lifting the reader up and out of the text entirely.

The second is the treatment of type. As critical as it is to the legibility and emotional resonance of a text, and even at the higher resolutions now theroetically available, typography is all but invariably treated as though it had not been refined over five centuries. It still feels like we are many years and product versions away from type on the tablet rendered with the craft and care it deserves.

A third order of variability consists in the separation of content, style and interface elements inherent in contemporary application design. This means that both the meaning of gestural interactions and the treatment of the page itself can vary from environment to environment. Especially given the pressure developers are under to differentiate their products from one another, a tap in the Kindle for iPad application may not mean precisely what a tap in Readmill or Instapaper or Reeder does, or work in at all the same way.

In fact, something as simple and as basic to the act of reading as turning a page is handled differently in all of these contexts.

Originally, of course, the pagination of text was an artifact of necessity, something imposed by running a semantically continuous text across a physically discontinuous quantity of leaves. One might think, therefore, that pagination would be among the first things to go in making the leap to the digital reading environment, but contemporary applications tend to retain it as a skeuomorphism, larding down the interaction with animated page curls and sound effects.

On the Kindle proper, the reader presses a button — one for page forward, another for page back — and the entire screen blanks and refreshes as the new page loads, a transition imposed by the nature of electronic pigment. In the Kindle app, by contrast, the page slides right to left, slipping from future to present to past in a series of discrete taps.

The Instapaper application is, perhaps, truest to the nature of digital copy. It dispenses with all of this, and treats the document as one continuous environment: swipe upward when you’re ready for more. Instapaper is an acknowledgment of the text’s liberation from the constraints of crude matter. Handled this way, there’s no reason a digital text can’t return to something approximating the book’s earliest form, a scroll — in this case, one capable of unspooling without limit.

Finally, we also need to account for what it means to absorb text as a luminous projection. Marshall McLuhan drew a distinction between “light-on” media — that is, those in which content inscribed on a passive surface like paper is illuminated by an external light source — and “light-through” media, like our luminous tablets; per his insistence that medium is coextensive with message, we can assume that the selfsame text consumed in these two ways would be received differently, emotionally every bit as much as cognitively.

As it happens, I have both an actual, e-paper Kindle — digital, but nevertheless light-on — and Kindle applications for the eminently light-through iPhone and iPad. And purely anecdotally, it does seem to be the case that I have an easier time with thornier, weightier reading on the e-paper device. Novels are fine on the iPad, even on my phone…but if I want to wrestle with Graham Harman or Susan Sontag, I reach for the Kindle.

The McLuhanite in me frets that, in embracing the tablet, we inadvertently give up much of our engagement with the text. That beyond sentimentality, there is something about the act of turning a page to punctuate a thought, or the phenomenology of light reflecting off of paper saturated with ink, that conditions the act of reading and makes it what we recognize it to be, at some level beneath the threshold of conscious perception.

Which brings us back, at last, to the printed artifact. We can acknowldge that the networked tablet is a brilliant addition to any reader’s instrumentarium. I’m certain that it increases the number of times and places at which people read, and know from long, intimate and sorrowful personal experience the difference it makes where the portability of entire libraries is concerned. But it’s not quite the same thing as a book or a magazine, and cannot entirely replace them.

Curiously enough, the ambitions to which paper appears to remain best-suited are diametrically opposite:

On the one hand, deep, thoughtful engagement with a body of language, an engagement that fully leverages the craft of bookmaking. In this pursuit, the tablet cannot yet offer nearly the typographic nicety, conscious design for legibility or perceptual richness trivially available from ink on paper — all of the things, in other words, that permit the reader to immerse herself for longer, and with less strain.

But there are also occasions on which surface is all important, where the ostensible content is almost incidental to the qualities of its packaging. Here the texture or other phenomenological qualities of paperstock itself — even its smell — communicate performatively; I think of glossy lifestyle magazines. It’s hard to imagine any tablet or similar device affording these virtues in anything like the near term.

If we understand a book as a container, the precise shape that container takes ought to reflect the nature of its intended contents, and what one proposes to do with them. In acknowledging all the many virtues of networked, digital texts, the texture, tooth and heft of paper will ensure that for at least the contexts I’ve specified here, it remains irreplaceable among all the ways we contain thought as it flows from one human mind to another.

Stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery redux: On design interventions intended to make space inhospitable

From Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk, 1999. The context is a discussion of various physical interventions that have been made in the fabric of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station:

On a walk through the station with [director of "homeless outreach" Richard] Rubel and the photographer Ovie Carter one summer day in 1997…I found it essentially bare of unhoused people. I told Rubel of my interest in the station as a place that had once sustained the lives of unhoused people, and asked if he could point out changes that had been made so that it would be less inviting as a habitat where subsistence elements could be found in one place. He pointed out a variety of design elements of the station which had been transformed, helping to illustrate aspects of the physical structure that had formerly enabled it to serve as a habitat.

He took us to a closet near the Seventh Avenue entrance. “We routinely had panhandlers gathering here, and you could see this closet area where that heavy bracket is, that was a niche.”

“What do you mean by ‘a niche’?”

“This spot right over here was where a panhandler would stand. So my philosophy is, you don’t create nooks and corners. You draw people out into the open, so that your police officers and your cameras have a clean line of sight [emphasis added], so people can’t hide either to sleep or to panhandle.”

Next he brought us to a retail operation with a square corner. “Someone here can sleep and be protected by this line of sight. A space like this serves nobody’s purpose [emphasis added]. So if their gate closes, and somebody sleeps on the floor over here, they are lying undetected. So what you try to do is have people construct their building lines straight out, so you have a straight line of sight with no areas that people can hide behind.”

Next he brought us to what he called a “dead area.” “I find this staircase provides limited use to the station. Amtrak does not physically own this lobby area. We own the staircase and the ledge here. One of the problems that we have in the station is a multi-agency situation where people know what the fringe areas are, the gray areas, that are less than policed. So they serve as focal points for the homeless population. We used to see people sleeping on this brick ledge every night. I told them I wanted a barrier that would prevent people from sleeping on both sides of this ledge. This is an example fo turning something around to get the desired effect.”

“Another situation we had was around the fringes of the taxi roadway. We had these niches that were open. The Madison Square Garden customers that come down from the games would look down and see a community of people living there, as well as refuse that they leave behind.” He installed a fencing project to keep the homeless from going behind corners, drawing them out into the open [emphasis added]. “And again,” said Rubel, “the problem has gone away.”

This logic, of course, is immanent in the design of a great deal of contemporary public urban space, but you rarely find it expressed quite as explicitly as it is here. Compare, as well, Jacobs (1961) on the importance to vibrant street life (and particularly of children’s opportunities for play) of an irregular building line at the sidewalk edge.

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.)

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