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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.

On the iPhone 5 form factor

I think someone took the old cliché about the mobile phone being “a remote control for your life” a little too seriously.

What Apple needs to do now

Update, 10 June 2013: Vindicated!

I’ve been in San Francisco for a day or so, on my way up to O’Reilly’s Foo Camp. This in itself is already happy-making, but when I found myself jetlagged and wide-awake in yesterday’s dawny gloaming and realized where I was (three blocks from the flagship Apple Store) and what day it was (!!), my schedule for the day was foreordained.

I performed quick ablutions, picked up a tall coffee to go, and met free-at-last Tom Coates a little after six in the morning, on what was already a nontrivial line. Lots of free energy drinks, doughnuts, and burritos and eight hours later, I was ushered into The Presence; after the usual provisioning and activation hassles, I left the store with a gorgeous, brand-spankin’-new iPhone 4.

And it truly is gorgeous, y’know? In its formal qualities, this Mk IV represents a significant advance over the last iteration — which I never cared for, as it looked and felt cheap — and a return to Jony Ive’s long-term effort to reinscribe a Ramsian design ethic in the market for 21st century consumer products. As an object, it just about cannot be faulted. Mmmmm.

Oh, but that interface. Or more particularly, the design of applications and utilities. The worrisome signs that first cropped up in the iPhone 3G Compass app, and clouded the otherwise lovely iPad interaction experience, are here in spades. What’s going on here is an unusual, unusually false and timid choice that, in the aggregate, amounts to nothing less than a renunciation of what these devices are for, how we think of them, and the ways in which they might be used.

I’m talking about the persistent skeuomorphic design cues that spoor applications like Calendar, Compass, iBooks and the truly awful Notes. The iPhone and iPad, as I argued on the launch of the original in 2007, are history’s first full-fledged everyware devices — post-PC interface devices of enormous power and grace — and here somebody in Apple’s UX shop has saddled them with the most awful and mawkish and flat-out tacky visual cues. You can credibly accuse Cupertino of any number of sins over the course of the last thirty years, but tackiness has not ordinarily numbered among them.

Dig, however, the page-curl animation (beautifully rendered, but stick-in-the-craw wrong) in iBooks. Feast your eyes on the leatherette Executive Desk Blotter nonsense going on in Notes. Open up Calendar, with its twee spiral-bound conceit, and gaze into the face of Fear. What are these but misguided coddles, patronizing crutches, interactively horseless carriages?

Lookit: a networked, digital, interactive copy of, say, the Tao Te Ching is simultaneously more and less than the one I keep on my shelf. You give up the tangible, phenomenological isness of the book, and in return you’re afforded an extraordinary new range of capabilities. Shouldn’t the interface, y’know, reflect this? A digital book read in Kindle for iPad sure does, as does a text saved to the (wonderful, indispensable) Instapaper Pro.

The same thing, of course, is true of networked, digital, interactive compasses and datebooks and notepads. If anything, the case is even less ambivalent here, because in all of these instances the digital version is all-but-unalloyed in its superiority over the analogue alternative. On the iPad, only Maps seems to have something of the quality of a true network-age cartography viewer.

I want to use the strongest language here. This is a terribly disappointing renunciation of possibility on Apple’s part, a failure to articulate an interface-design vocabulary as “futuristic” as, and harmonious with, the formal vocabulary of the physical devices themselves. One of the deepest principles of interaction design I observe is that, except in special cases, the articulation of a user interface should suggest something of a device, service or application’s capabilities and affordances. This is clearly, thoroughly and intentionally undermined in Apple’s current suite of iOS offerings.

What Apple has to do now is find the visual language that explains the difference between a networked text and a book, a networked calendar entry and a page leaf, or a networked locational fix and a compass heading, and does so for a mass audience of tens or hundreds of millions of non-science-fiction-reading, non-interface-geek human users. The current direction is inexplicable, even cowardly, and the task sketched here is by no means easy. But if anybody can do this, it’s the organization that made generations of otherwise arcane propositions comprehensible to ordinary people, that got out far enough ahead of the technology that their offerings Just Worked.

Application interfaces as effortlessly twenty-minutes-into-the-future as every other aspect of the iPad experience? Now that truly would be revolutionary and magical. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, or to expect.

Learning by Doing, redux

Sasha Huber with Do 0901, "Tokyo Blues"

I know I posted a brief piece about it when we first launched, but I’ve been meaning to get back to a fuller account of my work with Nurri on Do projects — what it is, what we want to achieve with it, where we want to take it, and what’s in it for you.

We first conceived of Do as a publishing platform, an attempt to reckon with what passionate-amateur production of visual and textual materials looks like in an age when such amateurs have access to professional-grade tools and distribution networks. Our desire to get our hands dirty grows out two parallel sets of frustrations: Nurri’s with the art world, and my own with publishing.

Hers is rooted in a fundamental problem with the notion of art object (and aesthetic experience) as commodity, and her longstanding desire to do something about the practical and social barriers that keep art an elite activity. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth.

Mine has to do with my utter (and perhaps somewhat naïve) shock at how little my former publishers New Riders cared about my book as an object, from typography and graphic design to paper stock, and how little effort they were prepared to dedicate to marketing the book once published.

I’ve told this story before, of course. But even that piece doesn’t express fully how galling it was for me to give up control of the thing I’d created to an organization less competent, in the final analysis, than I was my untrained self. That Nurri and I, in our own clumsy and untutored way, could come up with something more appealing than the design I was essentially paying my publisher to execute on my behalf was a real wake-up call.

And that got us thinking about the space between. We’d seen what commercial publication all too often resulted in. At the other end of the spectrum, we knew people like Meejin Yoon and Craig Mod: genuinely talented, possessed of the right kind of eye, confident with materials and capable of producing gorgeous printed objects. We were acutely aware that we lacked these qualities, but we also had a certain faith that even our own limited talents could result in worthwhile results — and never once doubted that the content we were thinking of deserved aesthetically pleasant physical instantiation. Was there room for maneuver in between these two poles?

Do is how we intend to find out. As we explained it when we launched in December, some of our ambitions are to:

– develop words and images that make the people who encounter them re-see themselves and the world around them;
– find the most appropriate containers for our ideas;
– craft the kind of books that please their readers in the details of their conception, design and construction as much as in the things they say;
– and figure out what “do-it-yourself” might mean in an age when new production technologies, informational and logistical networks give the independent amateur producer unprecedented power to reach out and make things happen.

With Tokyo Blues, our very first release, we feel like we’ve already travelled some way toward answering those questions; true to our beliefs (and as will be the case with every Do project), in addition to offering the physical book for sale, we’ve made a full PDF version available for free download. As I’ve said before, you buy the book if you want the object; the ideas are free.

And that book itself? It’s as good as we currently know how to make it, the best quality we could practically achieve while still offering it at a reasonable, accessible price. The unexpected gift is that we’ve been able to use the momentum built up in seeing Tokyo Blues through from concept to shipped product to drive other efforts. As I’ve frequently had cause to say these last few months, there’s a reason they call it “fulfillment.”

We’re also beginning to feel our way toward using Do as a platform for other things, a vehicle for collective efforts beyond publishing. Some of these things will be events, like the Systems/Layers “walkshops” we kicked off in Wellington, and had such a blast doing; others may involve the creation of objects or spaces.

Whatever we wind up creating, though, will be inherently networked, in a deep sense of that word. Organizationally and practically, we’ve tried to imagine Do as a weave tight enough to enable effective execution, yet open enough to capture unexpected influences and energies beyond those we generate ourselves. There’s a block of copy we’ve been using in the datasheet we include with every release that speaks to this: “For the realization of this project, Do consisted of…”. Another way of saying this is that beyond the core of Nurri and I, the organization itself grows and shrinks with every new project, trying to find the size and shape most appropriate to the challenge presented by each particular undertaking.

And that means that as we imagine it, anyone reading this is a potential Do member/co-conspirator. We have a roster of things already planned for the balance of 2010 — a project called Emergency Maps, my own long-delayed book — but beyond that we want to hear from our friends as to what kinds of things they’d like to see us doing, including your own project proposals. At the heart of our conception of Do is the idea that the “company” exists to facilitate extension, inspiration and execution, and gets more capable as it makes new connections. Think of it as something to plug into, and let’s see what we can do together.

Real life: Weiser FTW

In Everyware‘s Thesis 03, I describe the array of devices that populated Mark Weiser‘s original vision for ubiquitous computing, devices he called “tags,” “pads” and “boards”:

[T]hese were digital tools for freely-roaming knowledge workers, built on a vocabulary of form universally familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in an office: name tags, pads of paper and erasable whiteboards, respectively.

Each had a recognizable domain of function. Tabs, being the smallest, were also the most personal; they stayed close to the body, where they might mediate individual information like identity, location and availability. Pads were supposed to be an individual’s primary work surface, pen-based devices for documents and other personal media. And boards were wall-sized displays through which personal work could be shared, in a flow of discovery, annotation and commentary.

Networking infrastructure throughout the office itself enabled communication among the constellation of tabs, pads and boards in active use, allocating shared resources like printers, routing incoming e-mails and phone calls, and providing background maintenance and security functions.

Well. We see where some of the emphases turn out to have been slightly askew, a little parochial; Weiser, after all, worked at Xerox PARC, and Xerox was and is an enterprise dedicated to office productivity. But this circa-’95 conception turns out to be stunningly prescient if you look at the ecology of objects we’ve wound up using.

I barely have to connect the dots, do I? Tabs. Pads. Boards.

OK, so it turns out the “tab” does quite a bit more than Weiser-era artifacts like Active Badge implied; the pen has by and large been superseded by the very thing it displaced, the human finger; and the network undergirding these things is more likely to be national in scale than something installed and maintained at the level of a particular building. This is to say nothing of the fact that we’re more likely to be watching 30 Rock on our pads than Working Industriously On Our Assigned Projects.

But that was inevitable. The street always and everywhere finds its own uses for technology, and who is this “street” if not us, you and I? The plain fact is that a few people working at PARC in the mid-1990s largely got it right — and someone, at least, ought to remember them for it as the very evaporation they foresaw becomes a reality, and we think less and less of “computing” at all.

I’ve been arguing for awhile now that there is no longer any utility in maintaining a distinct domain of inquiry or endeavor known as “ubiquitous computing,” unless by these words we mean to denote the historical study of Weiser and his intellectual progeny; I’d prefer that we simply speak of “everyday life.” Because that’s the degree to which these ideas have triumphed, right?

I don’t even wonder that Everyware itself seems to be slipping into obscurity. Why would anyone need to seek out a book on some arcane topic called ubiquitous computing, when the issues it treats — the slippages of identity, the hassles occasioned by thoughtless design and constant default in a pervasively technical world — are literally the stuff of front-page news and day-to-day concern for a great many of us?

No, it’s clear that in the main, in imagining the forms platforms for networked interaction would basically have to adopt and the scales they would operate at most naturally, Mark Weiser nailed it. Where he was wrong was equally profound, of course, and this lay in asserting that the existence of such an informational ecosystem would tend to entrain calm in its users. And this strikes me as easily enough forgivable, simply the enthusiasm and hope of a proud parent.

It may have taken fifteen years, several turns of Moore’s law and the application of designerly genius to the objects themselves, but here we are. Computing is finally, finally going away, the necessary objects condensing into infinitely less awkward forms as the things we use them for sublimate into the air itself. It’s a terrible shame Mark Weiser isn’t here to enjoy it, but then history teaches us prophets rarely live to see the day of their vindication. What counts, in the end, is not merely that he had the clarity of vision to imagine the contours of our contemporary ecosystem, but the charisma to enlist others whose efforts would call it into being, just like Sister Kay said. And as to what we now make of that ecosystem…well, that’s in our hands, isn’t it?

The City Is Here For You To Use: (very) provisional bibliography

A week or so back, a bright guy I met at PICNIC named Lincoln Schatz asked me if I mightn’t list for him a few things I’d been reading lately. I got about halfway through before I realized that I was really compiling a manifest of books I’d been consulting as I put together the pieces of my own.

So this is for you, Lincoln – but I bet it’d also be particularly valuable for readers who are coming at issues of networked urbanism from the information-technological side, and would like a better grounding in sociological, psychological, political and architectural thinking on these topics. (There’s also a pretty heavy overlap here with the curriculum Kevin Slavin and I built our ITP “Urban Computing” class around.)

Not all of these were equally useful, mind you. Some of the titles on the following list are perennial favorites of mine, or works I otherwise regard as essential; some are badly dated, and one or two are outright wank. But they’ve all contributed in some wise to my understanding of networked place and the possibilities it presents for the people who inhabit it.

Two caveats: first, this is very far from a comprehensive list, and secondly, you should know that I’ve provided the titles with Amazon referral links, so I make a few pennies if you should happen to click through and buy anything (for which I thank you). At any rate, I hope you find it useful.

UPDATE 19 October 20.49 EEDT
Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. Please do bear in mind that, as I noted, this is not a comprehensive list of interesting urbanist books, but an attempt to account specifically for those works that have been influential on my own thinking. With a very few exceptions, I’m no longer looking for new insights, but for ways to consolidate and express those deriving from my encounter with the works listed.

That said, I’ll continue to update the page as I either remember titles that ought to have been included in the first place, or in fact do assimilate new points of view.

- Alexander, Christopher, et al.: A Pattern Language
– Ascher, Kate: The Works: Anatomy of a City
– Augé, Marc: Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity
– Aymonino, Aldo and Valerio Paolo Mosco: Contemporary Public Space/Un-Volumetric Architecture
– BAVO, eds.: Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City
– Bachelard, Gaston: The Poetics of Space
– Baines, Phil and Catherine Dixon: Signs: Lettering in the Environment
– Banham, Reyner: The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment
– Benjamin, Walter: Selections from The Arcades Project
– Benkler, Yochai: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
– Borden, Iain: Skateboarding, Space and the City
– Brand, Stewart: How Buildings Learn
– Canetti, Elias: Crowds and Power
– Careri, Francesco: Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice
– Carter, Paul: Repressed Spaces
– Crawford, J.H.: Carfree Cities
– Davis, Mike: Planet of Slums
– De Cauter, Lieven: The Capsular Civilization
– De Certeau, Michel: Chapter VII, “Walking in the City,” from The Practice of Everyday Life
– DeLanda, Manuel: Part I, “Lavas and Magmas,” from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
– Design Trust For Public Space: Taxi 07: Roads Forward
– Di Cicco, Pier Giorgio: Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City
– Dourish, Paul: Where The Action Is
– Flusty, Steven: Building Paranoia
– Fruin, John J.: Pedestrian Planning and Design
– Gehl, Jan: Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space
– Goffman, Erving:
Behavior in Public Places
Interaction Ritual
– Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin: Splintering Urbanism
– Greenfield, Adam (that’s me!): Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing
– Hall, Edward T.: The Hidden Dimension
– Hammett, Jerilou and Kingsley, eds.: The Suburbanization of New York
– Hara, Kenya: Designing Design
– Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri: Empire
– Haydn, Florian and Robert Temel, eds.: Temporary Urban Spaces
– Holl, Steven, Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Pérez-Gómez: Questions of Perception
– Hughes, Jonathan and Simon Sadler, eds.: Non-Plan
– Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Ken Anderson: “Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places
– Iwamoto, Lisa: Digital Fabrications
– Jacobs, Jane: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
– Kaijima, Momoyo, Junzo Koroda and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto: Made in Tokyo
– Kay, Alan: “User Interface: A Personal View,” in The art of human-computer interface design (Laurel, ed.)
– Kayden, Jerold S.: Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience
– Kieran, Stephen and James Timberlake: Refabricating Architecture
– Klingmann, Anna: Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy
– Klooster, Thorsten, ed.: Smart Surfaces and their Application in Architecture and Design
– Latour, Bruno:
Aramis, or: The Love of Technology
Reassembling the Social
– Lefebvre, Henri: The Production of Space
– Lynch, Kevin: The Image Of The City
– McCullough, Malcolm: Digital Ground
– Mollerup, Per: Wayshowing: A Guide to Environmental Signage Principles and Practices
– Miller, Kristine F.: Designs on the Public
– Mitchell, William J.:
City of Bits
Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City
– Moran, Joe: Reading the Everyday
– Mumford, Lewis: The City In History
– MVRDV: Metacity/Datatown
– Neuwirth, Robert: Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
– Nold, Christian, ed.: Emotional Cartography: Technologies of the Self
– O’Hara, Kenton, et al., eds.: Public and Situated Displays: Social and Interactional Aspects of Shared Display Technologies
– Oldenburg, Ray: The Great Good Place
– Qiu, Jack Linchuan: Working Class Network Society
– Raban, Jonathan: Soft City
– RAMTV: Negotiate My Boundary
– Rheingold, Howard: Smart Mobs
– Rudofsky, Bernard: Streets for People
– Sadler, Simon: Archigram: Architecture without Architecture
– Sante, Luc: Low Life
– Sennett, Richard: The Uses of Disorder
– Senseable City Lab: New York Talk Exchange
– Solnit, Rebecca: Wanderlust: A History Of Walking
– Suchman, Lucy: Plans and Situated Actions
– Tuan, Yi-Fu: Space and Place
– Varnelis, Kazys, ed.: The Infrastructural City
– Wall, Alex: Victor Gruen: From Urban Shop to New City
– Waldheim, Charles, ed.: The Landscape Urbanism Reader
– Watkins, Susan M.: Clothing: The Portable Environment
– Whitely, Nigel: Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future
– Whyte, William H.: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
– Wood, Denis and Robert J. Beck: Home Rules
– Zardini, Mirko, ed.: Sense Of The City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism

“Responsibilization” and user experience

It’s a terrible word, but maybe a terrible thing deserves one: “responsibilization” refers to an institution disavowing responsibility for some function it used to provide, and displacing that responsibility onto its constituents, customers, or users. Pat O’Malley, in the SAGE Dictionary of Policing, provides as crisp a definition as I’ve found, and it’s worth quoting here in full:

…a term developed in the governmentality literature to refer to the process whereby subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task which previously would have been the duty of another – usually a state agency – or would not have been recognized as a responsibility at all. The process is strongly associated with neoliberal political discourses, where it takes on the implication that the subject being responsibilized [!] has avoided this duty or the responsibility has been taken away from them in the welfare-state era and managed by an expert or government agency.

Of course, it’s not just state agencies. It’s every half-stepping, outsourcing, rightsizing, refocusing-on-our-core-competency business you’ve encountered in these austere days, shedding any process or activity which cannot be reimagined as a profit center. You’ll get the taste of it any time you turn to a Web community to replace the documentation or customer service manufacturers used to provide as a matter of course. More generally, we see the slow spread of attitudes like this reflected in technological artifacts like the femtocells carriers want to sell you to patch the holes in their own network coverage and semiotic artifacts like the signage here, not-so-subtly normalizing the idea that checking in for a flight is something that should be accomplished without recourse to expensive, troublesome human staff.

In both of these cases, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand is deployed to reframe the burden you must now shoulder as an opportunity – to convince you, to trot out once again a phrase that is rapidly outstaying its welcome, that what you are experiencing is a feature and not a bug. And this is the often-unacknowledged downside in the otherwise felicitous turn toward more open-ended product-service ecosystems: the price of that openness is generally increased vigilance and care on the user’s part, or “wrangling.” But there’s a stark difference, as I read it anyway, between knowingly taking on that order of obligation in the name of self-empowerment and improved choice, and having to take it on because the thing you’ve just shelled out a few hundred dollars for is an inert brick if you don’t.

I’m not sure there’s any longterm fix for this tendency in a world bracketed by the needs of institutions driven primarily by analyst calls, quarterly earnings estimates and shareholder fanservice on one flank, and deeply seamful technologies on the other. The pressures all operate in one direction: you’re the one left having to pick up a sandwich before your five-hour flight, figure out what on earth a “self-assigned IP address” means, and help moribund companies “innovate” their way out of a paper bag, for free. So if you manage an organization, of whatever size or kind, that’s in the position of having to do this to your users or customers, you definitely have the zeitgeist defense going for you. But at least have the common decency not to piss on people’s heads and tell them it’s raining.

There’s more on such “boundary shifts” here, and I’ll be writing much more about their consequences for the user experience over the next few months. For now, it’s enough to identify the tendency…and maybe begin to think about a more euphonious name for it, as well.

“Urban mobility”

As most of you know, I pay a decent amount of attention to products offered under the Puma brand. Even when a particular item or line doesn’t quite do it for me – and this happens more and more often with every passing year, presumably because I’m ever more decisively aging out of their target demo – there’s generally something ever so slightly more interesting about the stance and overall aesthetic of the things they sell than those of competitors Adidas and Nike.

Nor should it come as any surprise that I’m going to be especially interested in a line called “Urban Mobility,” which has at various points over the last two years consisted of shoes, baggage, clothing, and even a white-labeled Biomega bike.

In Puma’s conception, urban mobility apparently has to do with affording the wearer free movement of the body, protecting him or her against inclement conditions, and offering plenty of pockets. These are not clothes for sitting in cars, riding on buses, or waiting on subway platforms, in other words; apparently, getting around the city is something that must be negotiated parkour-style, in the remorseless arena of the physical, unaided by anything infrastructural.

I’m not necessary put out by the fact that the line invests the act of getting around the city with a glamour entirely missing from most of the actual, everyday transactions involved – after all, isn’t that kind of the point of fashion? Nor am I even that surprised by the relative functional underperformance of the garments and luggage, their elevation of (nice-ish) typography and silly posturing over any real utility. (Though if you’re going to do “urban mobility,” you might as well do it.)

No, the biggest disappointment to me in all of this, by far, is that not a single one of the artifacts included in the Urban Mobility line partakes of or refers to the networked information real-world city mobility is increasingly built upon. It’s not just a question of Puma being a maker of stuff, not services; remember, even the abortive Trainaway offering included online and audio components. It’s a failure of imagination and understanding.

At the very least, how hard would it have been to gin up an Urban Mobility iPhone app? I mean, sure, it’s the kind of flavor-of-the-month thing I generally decry, an initative which would at first blush appear heir to all the sad-ass metooism of most such marketing efforts. But in this case there would at least be some logic and justification underwriting the effort, considering that urban mobility is manifestly what people do with these devices.

I know, I know: I’m being too literal. I’m failing to grasp that concern for function is too often the death of fantasy. More importantly, I’m failing to account for the fact that the whole collection is past its sell-by date (and doesn’t seem to have done that well to begin with). I’m showing my age, my lack of edge, whatever. Mark my words, though: such efforts are going to feel increasingly weak and incomplete without a networked component of some type, and the more so the greater the degree to which the posture subtends a domain in which the informatic is primary.

Update: Paris event added to fall schedule

Super-stoked to be joining my esteemed colleagues Julian Bleecker, Nicolas Nova and Daniel Kaplan at a discussion of “the unfinished object” on Friday the 27th of November, 2009, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This’ll be part of a multi-day forum on the “New Industrial World” presented by the Pompidou’s Institute for Research and Innovation, and I’m delighted to see questions around networked objects engaged from that direction.

For better or worse, that week is already chock full of appearances – it will be a real relief to arrive via Eurostar and not have to spend yet another day of my year in the air. If you’re planning to be in Paris in the last week of November, it’d be great to see you there.

Arctic insertion

Thanks to the lovely Matt Cottam, two weeks from today I’ll be holding forth in the far North, at the Umeå Institute of Design’s Spring Summit 2009 – and doing so alongside some of my very favorite people.

If you should happen to be in Umeå, or anywhere within a hearty day’s cross-country trek, I really do recommend that you come; with Timo Arnall, Jack Schulze and Matt Jones all in one small place, the arctic tundra may just melt from the concentrated thrill-power. Bring galoshes.

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