Shielding, undistraction and conviviality, and my central dogma
In our Urban Computing class this year, I’ve gone out on a limb and offered our students the following “central dogma”:
That which primarily conditions choice and action in the urban environment is no longer physical, but resides in the invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds it.
At first blush, this is not a particularly timid way of framing our concerns. But while I think there’s plenty of room to demur as to whether this is already fully the case, or merely a matter for the near future, I genuinely do not believe the central argument is open to question.
Or maybe it’s not such a bold assertion? As has so often been the case as I’ve thought and written about ubiquitous technologies, an argument that sounds dramatic and science-fictional when stated formally like that turns out to be much less controversial – in fact, all but trivial – when moored to the real-world examples that substantiate it. Here’s an everyday example of choice and action being conditioned by the invisible informational layer that brings it all back home.
We’ve all heard by now of those cafés that have instituted a “no WiFi” policy, generally at peak hours or on weekends. In some cases the establishments in question have gone as far as to physically remove the routers they’ve not too long ago paid to have installed. And what these cafés are reacting to is the empirical finding that WiFi changes the way we use public space.
In many cases, I’m sure we’ll find that owners and operators are doing this out of an understandable commitment to their own profitability: there’s an imperative to turn the tables inscribed pretty implacably in the calculus of commercial real estate, and margins are already vanishingly thin. Since every nomad knowledge worker that springs three bucks for coffee and a bagel and then sits there officing for the next two hours is a direct hit on the bottom line, this is behavior you’d understandably want to discourage if your financial viability is at risk.
But I think we’ll also find that to some extent such decisions are motivated by a recognition that technologies of abstract interconnection undercut the logic of place pretty badly. Consider what Seattle coffeehouse owner Jen Strongin had to say on the subject way back in 2005, when she made what was at the time a strangely radical-seeming decision to deny her customers network access on weekends: “[W]e noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe…nobody talks to each other any more.”
The digital layer’s availability or nonavailability demonstrably toggles behavior in the space between two different conditions, and it changes what the café is in the profoundest sort of way. I’m sure you could feel the difference blindfolded, and with ears plugged. It’s not necessarily what Kazys Varnelis means by “network culture,” but it sure is an example of same.
This accords entirely with the idea of “multiple adjacency” that Mark Shepard and I discuss in our “Urban Computing and Its Discontents” pamphlet, and our thinking as to which end of the equation generally suffers under such constraints. The mere existence of options that allow for a customer physically present in the room to invest the weight of their consciousness outside of it changes that place, changes what is done there, changes what sorts of options it presents to you as someone walking through the door for the first time not so equipped.
This goes back to the joke I always make about opening a chain of coffeehouses called Faraday’s: under the condition of ambient informatics, we will need to consciously create platforms for the specific kind of conviviality we recognize as animating our “third places,” and we will generally have to do this by physically denying, buffering or mitigating the Hertzian overlay. And this will be true at least as long as we recognize that there is an inherent value to the specific kinds of interactions we only tend to have when confined to the possibilities physically present in the room. Or to the degree that we do recognize that, anyway.
Simple, concrete example. No need for the maximal case of perfect, seamless, context-aware inference-engine ubicomp, let alone (cough) “utility fog.” We see here how the presence or absence of an invisible informational overlay changes behavior in this place in every important respect. That’s what (and all, so far) we’re arguing. What do you think?