Reading, writing, texts, literacy, cities
As a way of kicking off our discussion at the Architectural League
tomorrow Friday evening, each of the speakers has been asked to contribute a brief “provocation,” “understood to be an opinion rooted in evidence, and not simply a statement of fact.” The panel is just a little over 48 hours away now, but I’m still not entirely sure what sort of provocation I might usefully offer. Here’s what I’m thinking so far:
In their highly recommended Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, the artist/technologists Casey Reas and Ben Fry quote legendary developer Alan Kay‘s definition of full literacy: “The ability to ‘read’ a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to ‘write’ in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate.”
We understand Kay to be speaking about something other than storage media; in context, his clear implication is that one can only be a fully-empowered citizen of a digital age if one understands just how the tools which shape our environments and experiences were made. Kay’s central metaphor for agency here is the dual act of inscription and decipherment, and as it happens, this is one we embrace and extend in the “read/write urbanism” we discuss in our pamphlet on Urban Computing and its Discontents.
This emphasis on literacy has evidently been seductive for students of urbanity. Kevin Lynch, of course, speaks of a city’s “legibility,” and, in a different mode, we’ve been accustomed to “reading” cities as “texts” at least since Barthes‘ work of the late 1950s. Nor has this trope been left behind with the other intellectual impedimenta of late twentieth century thought: Bill Mitchell’s recent collection on digital-urbanist themes is called Placing Words.
I myself am an almost shockingly linear, textual, literal person in the way I think, occasionally ploddingly so. So from where I stand, this is an appealing, accessible, perhaps an obvious way to speak about engaging and understanding complexity. But trouble arises when we begin to use this framework to talk about robust urban computing: the systems that structure and determine outcomes in this context – distributed armatures of minuscule embedded sensors, processors, and actuators – cannot be “read” in any ordinary sense. Individually, they’re the proverbial “black boxes,” and what’s worse, they achieve their effects by being connected in nonlinear, emergent process loops. The result can be something more closely akin to “spooky action at a distance” than to any process scaled to bodily space, time and expectation.
Therefore. My “opinion rooted in evidence” is that, ironically, the “read/write city” we say we want to help into being is at real danger of absconding from everyday comprehensibility. That as a result, we need to do some serious thinking as to what measures we might take to ensure its legibility to all those who will be living in and using it. That legibility does not happen by itself, least of all when most of the decisions that matter – that signify – have already been made, by parties unknown and at levels inaccessible. That the single most important role we can play now, as designers of urban-informatic structures, is to underwrite, support and extend the legibility of the things we make.
That’s pretty good, actually. See you Friday night.