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You lookin’ at me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

- As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

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

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Introducing Urbanscale

And this is what everything that came before was leading up to: Urbanscale, design for networked cities and citizens.

Urbanscale is a New York-based boutique practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of human-centered interaction design to the specific problems of the metropolitan environment. We aim to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. And yes, we’re hiring.

You can find us via the above site, or @urbnscl on Twitter.

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.

Maxima/list

By infrastructure, one refers to every aspect of the technology of rational administration that routinizes life, action, and property within larger (ultimately global) organizations. Today, infrastructure can be argued to own a little part of everything. Infrastructure, at the very least, is the systematic expression of capital, of deregulated currency, of interest rates, credit instruments, trade treaties, market forces, and the institutions that enforce them; it is water, fuel, and electrical reservoirs, routes and rates of supply; it is demographic mutations and migrations, satellite networks and lotteries, logistics and supply coefficients, traffic computers, airports and distribution hubs, cadastral techniques, juridical routines, telephone systems, business district self-regulation mechanisms, evacuation and disaster mobilization protocols, prisons, subways and freeways and their articulated connections, libraries and weather-monitoring apparatuses, trash removal and recycling networks, sports stadiums and the managerial and delivery facilities for the data they generate, parking garages, gas pipelines and meters, hotels, public toilets, postal and park utilities and management, school systems and ATM machines; celebrity, advertising, and identity engineering; rail nodes and networks, television programming, interstate systems, entry ports and the public goods and agencies associated with them [Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], sewers and alarms, multi-tiered military-entertainment apparatus, decision engineering pools, wetlands and water basins, civil structure maintenance schedules, epidemiological algorithms, cable delivery systems, police enforcement matrixes, licensing bylaws, greenmarkets, medical-pharmaceutical complexes, internet scaffolds, handgun regulations, granaries and water towers, military deployment procedures, street and highway illumination schemas; in a phase, infrastructure concerns regimens of technical calculation of any and all kinds.

- Sanford Kwinter and Daniela Fabricius, from “Urbanism: An Archivist’s Art?”, in that old standby, Koolhaas et al. Mutations.

Fear factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.

In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:

- That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.

- That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)

- That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.

- That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.

It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.

But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.

Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)

Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.

Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.

Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.

Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.

Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.

Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing

I saw a great Stephen Graham talk yesterday at the 24th AESOP Annual Conference at Aalto University in Espoo, called “Cities, Space, Security: The New Military Urbanism.”

I’ve enjoyed Graham’s thinking for quite awhile now, since picking his Splintering Urbanism off the shelf of late, lamented Micawber Books way, way back in the day. His argument here, in part, is that conceptualizations of urban space developed by the American, British and Israeli militaries, particularly, to support operations from Mogadishu to Gaza have begun to condition the metropolitan-in-both-senses fabric. This is a process he refers to as “Foucault’s boomerang,” and which will be familiar to any student of the intelligence community as “blowback.”

Graham calls out a litany of unhappy developments driven by this neo-Haussmannian thought, including a progressive cordoning by way of which the right of free movement in cities is slowly replaced by a checkpoint mentality, the contours of public space are subtly conditioned by simulations of blast physics, and events like the Olympics or the G20 are used to field-test techniques and strategies of urban control that eventually make their way into everyday policing.

To me, what’s really problematic about all of this is that it inscribes in our putatively urban places the fear of, and hostility to, the ordinary life of cities that completely suffuses the MOUT literature. It’s fine to assert that an infantry squad on patrol has to regard everyday urban space as festooned with “the clutter of concealment,” in which any number of threats might be secreted. But for that overwhelming majority of users of the city who do not happen to be conducting house-to-house sweep-and-clear operations…that’s just Tottenham Court Road. Or East 14th Street, or Mannerheimintie. And those are just newsstands, and parked cars, and bus shelters. That our cities should be designed for the former case over the latter strikes me as the kind of obscene argument that only someone who never loved city life in the first place could even think to propose.

This is why I had to nod in recognition when Graham described the security-industrial complex’s desperate attempt to develop video analytics that would permit algorithmic characterizations of urban “normality,” so as to simultaneously be able to recognize anomalies (“threats”). When you have any familiarity at all with the social and physical terrain of suburban northern Virginia, and the other locales in which these systems predominantly tend to be developed, you can see the punchline coming from miles away: anyone for whom Tysons Corner represents an uncomfortable concentration of human heterogeneity wouldn’t be terribly likely to recognize big-city normality if it bit them in the ass. How much less so, then, the algorithms authored by such a person?

Graham’s whole line of inquiry here is most pointedly relevant to me personally when he takes up the question of networked sensing and actuation, and situates it in the MOUT discourse as a tool to help the warfighter or security agent make sense of the chaotic urban environment. Needless to say, this is a vision that I believe must be strongly and continuously contested by those of us who understand the same sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus instead as a mechanism for citizen engagement and empowerment.

At any rate, if Graham’s still-newish book Cities Under Siege offers anything like as crisp and comprehensive an overview of the domain as this talk did, it will be well-worth picking up. (If you’re not too wrung-out and depressed by considering all of this, I also recommend Eyal Weizman’s essential Hollow Land as a companion. It’s a book-length expansion on the themes first explored in the brilliant “Walking Through Walls.”)

While we’re on the topic of citizen engagement: I’m delighted to be able to pass on to you the word that I’ve joined Code for America‘s Board of Advisors.

I think CfA is doing multiple important things at once: helping city governments and managers understand what emergent interactive technologies can do for them and their constituents; strongly countering the cheap cynicism about who government is, and what it is for, that seems to be so characteristic of our American moment; and maybe at the same time tempering the technical community’s natural enthusiasm for technical solutions with some immersion in the always charged and tangled arena of municipal politics.

This last aspect of the mission is particularly important to me. I’ve seen one or two responses to my recent work suggesting that people understand me to be arguing for the very thing I’m always so horrendified by, which is precisely the idea that social and political fissures can be patched with technology. As it happens, I don’t believe this, or anything like it, as readers with a more holistic familiarity with my output understand, but I thought the point could use some underlining. The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.

What I see here, in the parallax between the picture Stephen Graham drew for us and CfA’s vision of America, is two entirely different conceptions of the complicated relationship between urban space, networked technology and “security.” Is this notion some grim, shoddy farce of heavy-handed control, sold to us by defense contractors who nurture a deep-seated distrust of city life and lives — a half-trillion-dollar sham that will eviscerate the potential of our public spaces, and even on its own terms never, ever work just right? Or is mutual security something that can only be coaxed to emerge from the difficult interplay of communities, needs and capabilities, much less totalizing in its promises but infinitely better able to deliver on them?

You know I believe it’s (long past) time to reinvigorate a sense of public life in the United States, an awareness of collective challenges, mutual obligations and shared outcomes, and for me, here, the medium is also the message. I’m looking forward to helping Code for America in whatever way I can — in no small part because I do believe that there are threats and bad actors in the world, and that collective security is best underwritten by vibrant, functioning, resilient cities. Vibrant cities…and people who love them.

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