We’ve been talking a little bit about what we might gain if we begin to conceive of cities, for some limited purposes anyway, as software under active development. So far, we’ve largely positioned such tools as a backstop against the inevitable defaults, breakdowns and ruptures that municipal services are heir to: a way to ensure that when failures arise, they’ll get identified as quickly as possible, assessed as to severity, brought to the attention of the relevant agencies, and flagged for follow-up.
And as useful, and even inspiring, as this might be, to my mind it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s essentially the lamination together of some entirely conventional systems, provisions and practices — something that already exists in its component pieces, something, as Bruce points out here, that’s “not even impossible.”
But what if we did take a single step further out? What if we imagined that the citizen-responsiveness system we’ve designed lives in a dense mesh of active, communicating public objects? Then the framework we’ve already deployed becomes something very different. To use another metaphor from the world of information technology, it begins to look a whole lot like an operating system for cities.
Provided that, we can treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks. One prospect that seems fairly straightforward is letting these resources report on their own status. Information about failures would propagate not merely to other objects on the network but reach you and me as well, in terms we can relate to, via the provisions we’ve made for issue-tracking.
And because our own human senses are still so much better at spotting emergent situations than their machinic counterparts, and will probably be for quite some time yet to come, there’s no reason to leave this all up to automation. The interface would have to be thoughtfully and carefully designed to account for the inevitable bored teenagers, drunks, and randomly questing fingers of four-year-olds, but what I have in mind is something like, “Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.”
In order for anything like this scheme to work, public objects would need to have a few core qualities, qualities I’ve often described as making them “addressable, queryable, and even potentially scriptable.” What does this mean?
- Addressability. In order to bring urban environments fully into the networked fold, we would first need to endow each of the discrete things we’ve defined as public objects with its own unique identifier, or address. It’s an ideal application for IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, which I described in Everyware as opening up truly abyssal reaches of address space. Despite the necessity of reserving nigh-endless blocks of potentially valid addresses for housekeeping, IPv6 still offers us a ludicrous freedom in this regard; we could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.
It’s true that this is overkill if all you need is a unique identifier. If all you’re looking to do is specify the east-facing traffic signal at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Lexington Avenue, you can do that right now, with barcodes or RFID tags or what-have-you. You only need to resort to IPv6 addressability if your intention is to turn such objects into active network nodes. But as I’ve argued in other contexts, the cost of doing this is so low that any potential future ROI whatsoever justifies the effort.
- Queryability. Once you’ve got some method of reliably identifying things and distinguishing them from others, a sensitively-designed API allows us to pull information off of them in a meaningful, structured way, either making use of that information ourselves or passing it on to other systems and services.
We’ve so far confined our discussion to things in the public domain, but by defining open interoperability standards (and mandating the creation of a critical mass of compliant objects), the hope is that people will add resources they own and control to the network, too. This would offer incredibly finely-grained, near-realtime reads on the state of a city and the events unfolding there. Not merely, in other words, to report that this restaurant is open, but which seats at which tables are occupied, and for how long this has been the case; not merely where a private vehicle charging station is, but how long the current waits are.
Mark my words: given only the proper tools, and especially a well-designed software development kit, people will build the most incredible ecology of bespoke services on data like this. If you’re impressed by the sudden blossoming of iPhone apps, wait until you see what people come up with when they can query stadium parking lots and weather stations and bike racks and reservoir levels and wait times at the TKTS stand. You get the idea. (Some of these tools already exist: take a look at Pachube, for example.)
- And finally scriptability, by which I mean the ability to push instructions back to connected resources. This is obviously a delicate matter: depending on the object in question, it’s not always going to be appropriate or desirable to offer open scriptability. You probably want to give emergency-services vehicles the ability to override traffic signals, in other words, but not the spotty kid in the riced-out WRX. It’s also undeniable that connecting pieces of critical infrastructure to an open network increases the system’s overall vulnerability — what hackers call its “attack surface” — many, many times. If every exit is an entrance somewhere else, every aperture through which the network speaks itself is also a way in.
We should all be very clear, right up front, that this is a nontrivial risk. I’ll make it explicit: any such scheme as the one sketched out here presents the specter of warfare by cybersabotage, stealthy infrastructure attrition or subversion, and the depredations of random Saturday-night griefers. It’s also true that connected systems are vulnerable to cascading failures in ways non-coupled systems cannot ever be. Yes, yes and yes. It’s my argument that over anything but the very shortest term, the advantages to be derived from so doing will outweigh the drawbacks and occasional catastrophes — even fatal ones. But as my architect friends say, this is above all something that must be “verified in field,” validated empirically and held up to the most rigorous standards.
What do we get in return for embracing this nontrivial risk? We get a supple, adaptive interface to the urban fabric itself, something that allows us not just to nail down problems, but to identify and exploit opportunities. Armed with that, I can see no upward limit on how creative, vibrant, imaginative and productive twenty-first century urban life can be, even under the horrendous constraints I believe we’re going to face, and are perhaps already beginning to get a taste of.
Stolidly useful, “sustainable,” justifiable on the most gimlet-eyed considerations of ROI, environmental benefit and TCO? Sure. But I think we should be buckling ourselves in, because first and foremost, read/write urbanism is going to be a blast.
In the past, I’ve often enough described cities as being “all about difficulty“:
They’re about waiting: for the bus, for the light to change, for your order of Chinese take-out to be ready. They’re about frustration: about parking tickets, dogshit, potholes and noisy neighbors. They’re about the unavoidable physical and psychic proximity of other human beings competing for the same limited pool of resources….about the fear of crime, and its actuality.
If this is so, and I continue to believe that it is, are we compelled to accept it? Or is there anything that can be done about it? And especially, might the constellation of tools we’re just starting to wrap our collective heads around offer us any recourse in our struggle against this tangled welter of hassles and frustrations we call life in the big city?
Well. Some measure of friction is unavoidable in urban life — both endemic to any physical system anywhere near as complex as this and, truth be told, not such a bad thing. But there’s no reason why we can’t use our new capabilities to get on top of the roil, see what’s going on, and maybe even keep the less felicitous contingencies from solidifying.
Two services that I’m familiar with address this set of concerns, each representing a slightly different way of framing the problem: New York City’s 311 gateway to non-emergency services and, in the UK, mySociety‘s awesome FixMyStreet. There are others — many, many others — as well as roughly congruent resources facing other domains, but as far as municipal services are concerned these two are the best-known, arguably the most successful, and the most faithfully representative of their respective approaches.
As an official utility of the City of New York, 311′s stated mission is to:
- Provide the public with quick, easy access to all New York City government services and information while maintaining the highest possible level of customer service;
- Help agencies improve service delivery by allowing them to focus on their core missions and manage their workload efficiently;
- Provide insight into ways to improve City government through accurate, consistent measurement and analysis of service delivery Citywide.
…while FixMyStreet’s proposition is a little simpler: it allows its users to “report, view or discuss local problems.”
Despite the clear differences in aim and ambit, I think of both as frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Their essence is that some issue arises — a pothole, a fallen branch, an open fire hydrant or a wandering elder — is identified by a member of the public, and is then raised to the attention of whatever municipal authority is empowered to respond to it. (We’ll get to the weakness of this last link in the chain in a bit.)
While it does provide an online point of entry, 311 is in my experience predominantly something you engage over the phone. It’s an easy number to remember, the city’s representatives have repeated the mantra “911 for emergencies, 311 for everything else” until it ought to be second nature and, nicety of niceties in this IVR age, your calls are answered by a human being. Every time I’ve ever had cause to engage it, my calls have been answered in seconds, not minutes.
In fact, this is the nicest aspect of 311. There’s a certain deep satisfaction in venting your frustrations to someone listening with (at the very least a convincing simulacrum of) empathy, and I’d imagine this has practical consequences, too — that a decent swath of incoming complaints are prevented from escalating via the simple expedient of hearing the caller out.
When navigating a beast like municipal government, though, even the best and most sensitive operator is unlikely to have all the answers at his or her fingertips. So 311 operators are coupled to a reasonably good search database, and from what I’ve seen they’re usually able to point you at the proper resource or department in short order, whether your problem is a registering a noise complaint, a shattered bus shelter, or tracking down the taxi driver who drove off with your briefcase.
But that’s where 311′s utility largely ends. Once this connection is made, the caller is deposited right back into the universal thicket of big-city bureaucracy. Worse, the categories into which the catching department will sort your issue are likely to be brittle, and there tends to be little provision for following up on the status of an issue — or for that matter, identifying the single team or individual responsible for resolving the complaint.
Similar things are true of FixMyStreet, which collects issues on its users’ behalf and then forwards them to the relevant department of government. Despite offering users a range of tools that 311 lacks, and which ought by now to be table stakes in the domain, like the ability to pinpoint issues on a map, or document them with pictures, you get nothing in the way of confirmation or response other than a terse notification that the complaint was “Sent to Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council 1 minute” after its entry.
Seeing the city as software
So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?
In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.
When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.
The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.
You provide citizens with a variety of congenial ways to initiate trouble tickets, whether they’re most comfortable using the phone, a mobile application or website, or a text message. You display currently open cases, and gather resolved tickets in a permanent archive or resource. You use an algorithm to assign priority to open issues on a three-axis metric:
(a) Scale. How many people are affected by the issue? Does this concern just me, me and my immediate neighbors, our whole block, the neighborhood, or the entire city?
(b) Severity. How serious is the issue? In descending order, will it result in imminent loss of life, injury or the destruction of property? Is this, rather, an aesthetic hazard, or even simply a suggestion for improvement?
(c) Urgency. How long has the tag been open?
Because a great many urban issues are going to crop up repeatedly, routinely, perennially, perhaps you offer the kinds of tools content-management software for discussion sites has had to evolve over the years: ways to moderate tickets up or down, or mark their resolution as particularly impactful.
You assign tickets to specified agents.
Then, of course, you apply the usual variety of visualizations to the live data, allowing patterns to jump right out. Which city department has the best record for closing out tickets most quickly, and with the highest approval rating? What kind of issues generally take longest to address to everyone’s satisfaction?
So. To reiterate. As I see it, a contemporary framework for citizen responsiveness suited for big cities would offer most if not all of the following features:
- Two aspects of 311, an easy-to-memorize universal point of entry and a catching mechanism of empowered human operators lying just behind it;
- A useful spread of other points of access, including desktop and mobile applications;
- The kind of location-specific overview provided by services like Everyblock, with maps as one obvious and logical way in;
- An appropriate prioritization algorithm;
- Moderation tools;
- The accountability, transparency and ticking clock-to-resolution offered by an open-ticket system;
- A persistent archive of resolved issues;
- Top-notch graphic design, capable of holding its own with best contemporary Web practice; and
- A layer of data analytics and visualization.
Beyond trouble tickets
As is well-known, I tend to be skeptical when the replacement of human systems, however clumsy, with novel and untested technical frameworks is contemplated. I’m also acutely aware that the purpose of a system is what it does, and there may well be occult reasons why urban systems that appear intractably broken are allowed to remain that way, i.e. they’re actually functioning just fine in support of some agenda.
No issue-tracking system, even the best-designed and most cleverly devised, is going to quash the frustrations of city life completely. I believe, though, that the system I sketch out here would give cities a supple and relatively low-cost way to close the loop between Jacobian “eyes on the street,” and the agencies that serve and are fully empowered to respond to them. What I’ve described here is, if nothing else, a way to harness the experience and rich local expertise of ordinary citizens.
I’ve always taught my students that if you scratch a New Yorker, you’ll find a committed urbanist — someone with intense and deeply-held opinions about the kind of trees that ought to be planted along the sidewalks, or the right way to organize bike parking, or ways to reconcile the conflicting needs of dogwalkers and parents with children in city parks. And the same thing, of course, is true of Mancunians, Singaporeans and Cariocas.
The point isn’t that all of their notions are going to be fair, practical, practicable or even remotely sensible, but that an immense body of pragmatic insight and — more importantly, in my view — passion for the city is going untapped. Pundits, bobbins and bureaucrats talk constantly about improving the efficiency of municipal services, but if improved information is a driver of that efficiency, why aren’t we even trying to gather all the incredibly rich data that’s just lying there, more or less literally begging us to use it? We have the tools, we have the models, we know what they’re good for and where they fall down. It’s past time to build on this experience and bring its lessons to bear on the places we live.
As I’d mentioned previously, I’m going to be curating a showcase of urbanist iPhone apps at next month’s inaugural FutureEverything festival in Manchester, as part of the Serendipity City Challenge. I figured I’d take the opportunity to work out just what I thought these words taken together might mean, and more specifically how my feelings have changed since I first gave the topic any consideration back in 2003.
Serendipity, of course, doesn’t simply mean “surprise.” Strictly speaking, the word means accidentally discovering something wonderful in the course of a search for something unrelated. The genuine occurrence of serendipity necessarily implies a very powerful order of richness and texture in the world and, to my mind anyway, when you experience it in cities it’s a clear indicator of a healthily functioning urban ecosystem.
Given that the essence of serendipity is its unexpectedness, though, I tend to be wary of products and services that promise to enhance or “accelerate” it. An artificially accelerated serendipity strikes me as leaving precious little room for the real thing to emerge, and us with a set of instincts so attentuated we may not recognize it when we do encounter it.
Accordingly, in the selection of applications I made for FutureEverything, I allowed myself the leeway of a rather loose interpretation. I looked for applications that offered residents and other users of the city instant reads on the state of things, allowing them to change their behavior in response to evolving conditions or to take advantage of unexpected juxtapositions, however momentary.
It’s this ability to pivot on the moment’s demands that strikes me as so essential to the development of urban savoir faire. The nature of cities is such that life in them exposes each of us to the greatest possible variety of conflicts, difficulties, affronts and challenges, even simply desires that are in tension with one another. Learning to deal with these tensions, to negotiate them with aplomb and assurance, is something that generally takes years of experience with a given place. (Indeed, for English-speakers, this understanding of sophistication is encoded in our very language: that’s what it means, after all, to be “urbane.”)
This strikes me as a process which actually can be usefully accelerated by mobile applications and services, as opposed to trying to pin down something as aleatory as serendipity in its truest form. In order to succeed at this, developers will need to help their users actively reconceive of unplanned, emergent circumstances not so much as disruptions in orderly flow and more as opportunities, even potential “nodal points” in their lives.
The lightness and openness I’m looking for in the next generation of mobile services recall an older sense of the fertile unpredictability urban life might entail. This is André Breton, in 1924: “The street I believed was capable of causing surprising turning-points in my life; the street, with its restlessness and its glances, was my true element: there, as in no other place, I received the winds of eventuality.”
To my mind, this is just why we celebrate the street in the humanist-urbanist tradition. Canonically, it functions as mixing-chamber, randomizer, instigator of situations par excellence. I wonder, though, if this can fairly be said to be the case any longer.
If I’m to be honest, it’s only rarely that I experience that kind of charged moment on the street anymore, or in public space more generally. Mostly, I’m head-down and on my way somewhere — and at that, one of a very few consistent places — and if I can judge fairly by their outer demeanor, so are most of the people around me who might have furnished a great measure of the potential “turning-points.”
By contrast, it’s fair to say that something like this happens to me all the time when I’m online: I’ll follow a series of links and wind up somewhere completely wonderful and, equally, unexpected, or get sent a link to some article, image or video that takes me on a similar journey. When the “winds of eventuality” find me these days, I’m generally sitting in front of my laptop.
One of these days, somebody clever is going to figure out how to use mobile services to bring this effortlessly connectionist logic back to street life. With any luck, they turn out to be a way back to the bracing air of possibility the simple act of being on a great metropolitan sidewalk once entrained.
In fact, if done with any verve to speak of, I can see such services giving rise to the moments of heightened awareness and potential I associate with Situationist rhetoric, those precious intervals during which some fortuitous alignment of people, place and circumstance reminds you what life is for and why it’s worth the effort. (For those of us who savor such ironies, it would be particularly delicious if the final triumph and apotheosis of the flaky, incoherent Parisian left of the Sixties was delivered on the shoulders of systems like GPS and the Internet, originally devised, designed and deployed by the military-industrial apparatus for its own ends.)
And that, in turn, finally meets my own personal definition of “accidentally discovering something wonderful in the course of a search for something unrelated.” The technologies of just such a networked urbanism are here, are available, are in our hands — are, in fact, just about begging us to take them up and make use of them in our cities. Who wants to go first?
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
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.
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.
A summary of what those of us who are thinking, writing and speaking about networked urbanism seem to be seeing: fourteen essential transformations that, between them, constitute a rough map of the terrain to be discovered.
Not sure, in every case, I’ve got the phrasing just right, and will in any event expand on this shortly. Nevertheless:
1. From latent to explicit;
2. From browse to search;
3. From held to shared;
4. From expiring to persistent;
5. From deferred to real-time;
6. From passive to interactive;
7. From component to resource;
8. From constant to variable;
9. From wayfinding to wayshowing;
10. From object to service;
11. From vehicle to mobility;
12. From community to social network;
13. From ownership to use;
14. From consumer to constituent.
The briefest of thoughts, here, really deserving of more consideration than I’m going to be able to give it in the time I’ve got. Perhaps you can expand on it.
I wasn’t at all interested in the original Kindle, for no other reason than that the form factor seemed really clunky and poorly-resolved. And living in Finland, short-sightedly deprived of the brilliantly-conceived Whispernet service, I’ve had no need of the rather more attractive Kindle 2.
But as it happens – don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming from a mile away – I already have an e-reader platform in my pocket that’s not reliant for its bandwidth on any deals Amazon might forge with US carriers. And, OK, it doesn’t have a lusciously crisp e-Ink screen, and its battery life isn’t quite what a Kindle might be able to boast, but it easily breaches the “good enough” threshold. It’s called an iPhone.
So of course I downloaded Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone application (iTMS link) the moment it went live the other day, and sixty seconds later was tucking into my first Kindle book (Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which I recommend).
And the experience was convincing, in a lot of ways, and well on its way to pleasurable. I was able to adjust the type to a comfortable size, the iPhone UI is very well suited to flipping pages, and the battery didn’t seem to suffer overmuch from two-three hour jags of reading. I did miss some of the Kindle features I’ve read about – being able to take notes, or tap on a word to open up a Wikipedia link – but overall the convenience more than compensated for the drawbacks. Again: not perfect. Good enough.
I finished The Caryatids last night, and the feeling I experienced as I laid my phone on the night table was identical to that familiar, mellow melancholy of putting down a book at the end of a satisfying read. Except that I didn’t have to pay a premium for a hardcover edition I did not want, I didn’t have to tote around a book with an embarrassing cover – a factor which I imagine actually suppresses SF sales more than is generally recognized – and I don’t now have a legacy object to hump around from continent to continent like the other 5,000 volumes in our library. For certain kinds of things I want to read, this is an unbeatable bargain.
So. Expanding the audience for Kindle-formatted books would certainly appear to be a brilliant move on Amazon’s part. I spent ten bucks there that I would not have otherwise; I bought soon after its release a book I ordinarily would have waited to pick up in paperback; I seemingly helped reinscribe the critical associative chain book – Amazon – Kindle, however incrementally. And there are many, many times more iPhone users in the world than people who can or ever will plunk down the cash for a single-purpose, US-only device. The logic seems unassailable. But I’m not so sure it isn’t actually, in the long run, a fatal blunder for the entire business model Kindle is predicated on.
For the moment a Kindle-formatted work becomes decoupled from Kindle, the object, it becomes fungible, just another kind of digital document – less like a book and more like an mp3, in other words. I can use it on this device, I can use it on that device. Where have I seen that pattern before? And how much in the way of constraint am I willing to put up with in my music files? Perhaps more to the point, how much am I willing to pay for them?
All of a sudden, the DRM and pricing models which had seemed marginally acceptable – and I do mean marginally – in return for the convenience of a bespoke device/service experience are revealed as the absurdly overbearing impediments they are. I can’t send this file to someone else? Why? I can send a PDF to anyone I want. Amazon wants me to pay $13.99 for a subscription to the New York Times? Why? I can look at the Times any time I want, for nothing, in the browser that’s a tap away from the Kindle application.
And the genius Kindle/Whispernet integration, which points so clearly toward the only sustainable future of product/service value propositions – comes-with-device connectivity, no configuration, no setup, no additional expense, no hassle? Whispernet only works to Amazon’s advantage if I get to experience it, and perceive it to be clearly advantageous over the alternatives. It’s entirely irrelevant to my experience of Amazon e-books on the iPhone.
What the Kindle for iPhone winds up doing, ultimately, is undermining the value proposition DRM-secured e-books are founded on. There are some nice provisions in the application, but ultimately it’s not perceptibly different from reading a free book in Stanza. The only thing Amazon might have to offer to justify the expense is the depth of its catalogue, and at least as things stand now I challenge you to find even ten books you want to read in the Kindle shop. (It’s all lowest-common-denominator noise: technothrillers of the Captain Codpiece variety, Harry Potter, and an enormous tide of self-help and “productivity” tripe.)
So oddly enough, Kindle for iPhone winds up selling me not on Kindle, and not on anything provided by Amazon at all, but on an idea I’ve been resisting since June 29th, 2007: reading on my phone. I’ll definitely be doing more of that. I’m not at all sure Amazon will factor in the equation. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve planted the seed of an idea in a great many heads that turns out to be injurious to their longer-term prospects.