Bookproject update 003: The daunting

Third in a series.

The way people invariably start conversations with me these days is to ask that one question you are never, ever supposed to ask a writer.

So. How is the book going?

What I can tell you is that we’re currently holding steady at 55,241 words. I always hedge this accounting, though, by admitting that I’m not sure more any more than about eight hundred of them are the right ones.

And I’m not. I’m really not sure of this, because the scope of what I have to cover in this book is positively daunting. If you’re remotely serious about furnishing a comprehensive account of urban computing and its prospects – and I like to think that I am – you have to consider the city-under-ambient-informatics at a number of different scales, and from a very wide variety of angles:

First, background. There’s the form of the city taken as a whole. I’ve got a stack of work on this, from Lewis Mumford in The City in History to the far more contemporary, Deleuze-inflected approach Manuel de Landa takes in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. They’re all useful, but they take a long time to digest and absorb.

(Did someone say “Deleuze”? Yeah. It’d be hard to talk about the potential impacts of pervasive and ambient sensing, representation and effector technologies without starting with “Postscript on the Societies of Control.”)

In order to understand how the technologies we’re interested in might shape how people understand and use the spaces those cities are built up from, I’ve first had to wrap my head around what an architect might call the “as built” condition. Holly Whyte’s classic empirical work in City and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is crucial here – but also Lefebvre, and if Lefebvre than certainly Iain Borden’s guerrilla reading of him in the brilliant Skateboarding, Space and the City. There’s also the “schizogeography” Mark Shepard and I talk about in our pamphlet to follow up on, hopefully to deepen.

It’s hard to think about any of this without wondering how the advent of these technologies inflects conceptions of space in the social imagination, and so I’ve turned to Kristen Ross and her dazzling The Emergence of Social Space as grounding, before looking at gamespace and other contemporary artifacts.

I don’t, in the slightest, want to limit myself to discussing conditions relevant solely to the developed world, or to the privileged segments of cities anywhere, so Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s Off the Books and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums become pointedly relevant, as does a whole stack of work on Lagos and Manila and Mumbai and the favelas of Rio.

Of course I’m going to make an argument that ambient informatics begins to wear away at our understanding of what constitutes public space, that our newfound ability to track and meter the use of streets and sidewalks can easily erode the rights of use and enjoyment inscribed in Anglo-American jurisprudence. Conversations with legal scholar M. Scott Boone have been super-helpful here, as has Kristine Miller’s wonderful Designs on the Public.

And then there’s staying on top of relevant built or deployed projects, especially difficult because coverage of same tends to be parceled out among six or seven discrete and mutually non-communicating disciplinary communities. For just one example, the interactive façades that Peder Burgaard’s turned me onto belong to the same conceptual universe as the transit interventions Dan Hill’s done such an incredible job of cataloguing here, and while anybody reading this site understands at first glance how each (at least potentially) relates to the other, transit planning and interactive art/chitecture still tend to be two very different silos. At the very least, I find myself having to maintain realtime awareness of blogs dealing with architecture, industrial design, service design, urban planning, transit, geography, real estate, theory, information visualization, materials, and, of course, “technology.” (I at the very least have to be able to discuss the granular details of the technologies I discuss as they affect higher-level processes and experiences. So add a whole bunch of information on the ins and outs of APIs, authentication protocols, sensor specifications, and so on to the growing pile.)

Finally, it can’t hurt to develop a sense for global-scale intercity flows – both the highly abstract ones that Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells are good on, and those person-to-person connections SENSEable City Lab’s NYTE provides such an incredible window on. Kazys Varnelis‘s thoughts on “network culture” are particularly apropos in this regard.

Point is: all of these things are “urban computing,” and any book claiming to treat that topic had better be founded on an account of all of them. It’s, admittedly, more work than I had figured, but I think the results will reward this kind of in-depth interrogation of the entire topic space. And, of course, I believe (and hope) you’ll agree.

13 responses to “Bookproject update 003: The daunting”

  1. einar says :

    sounds very promising. lykke til and good luck.

  2. sevensixfive says :

    ‘Postscript …’ has got to be one of the most on-point texts around, I always think of it as a kind of anti-Bill-of-Rights. It’s going to be influential for a long time. My favorite line: ‘There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’

  3. Enrique Ramirez says :

    In your ample (yeah, right) spare time, skim through Lars Lerup’s “After The City” (MIT press, 2000) …. it was one of the first books I ever read about urbanism, but written from an architect’s point of view. Very weird, trippy. He deploys weird, made-up, often decontextualized words such as “zoohemic canopy”. And best of all, it’s about Houston.

  4. C. C. Pugh says :

    I came across Rita Carter’s “Multiplicity” being enthused about in British policy think tank circles the other day, which was surprising because it was basically a pop-psychology version of Deleuze’s “be schizophrenic” imperative.

    I suspect it will only become harder to talk about the impact of anything without talking about D-.

  5. Kosmograd says :

    If you’re reading Manuel de Landa, you should definitely check War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, if you haven’t already.

    The history of cities up until the Second World War was about defense. DeLanda brilliantly traces the military form of cites from ancient times to WW2.

    With ICBM’s, aerial bombardment, and nuclear weapons, a city is no longer a military defense system. In fact disurbanism could be seen as a better defensive strategy.

    The fact that the built form of cities no longer has a military role is potentially very liberating. New modes of control and militarisation of space emerge, especially vis-a-vis terrorism.

    Control versus freedom remains the essential urban condition.

  6. AG says :

    The history of cities up until the Second World War was about defense.

    I’m not sure that’s so, or even an entirely fair representation of de Landa’s position (although to be fair in turn to you, that’s certainly an impression you can walk away from that particular book with).

    I think the history of cities has at least as much to do with (“simple”) hominid gregariousness, ritual, resource-utilization efficiency and efficiency of exchange – to name just a few of the more obviously relevant factors – as it does defense per se. So while I’d never deny that the will to control has been and remains a strong driver of urban form, I don’t think that’s the sole (or even the main) story.

  7. Kosmograd says :

    Well of course I’m not suggesting that defense was the only reason, but you can ‘read’ any city in terms of it’s militarisation, which is what I took away from De Landa’s book, though it’s been a while since I last read it.

    Perhaps I should have said “A history .. “.

    But I think it’s fascinating that a fortified urban form is no longer a workable military strategy, and whether this frees up new forms and roles for the city.

  8. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Check out the Jane Jacobs v. Lewis Mumford debates on the origins of cities. Mumford comes out, surprisingly, as an anti-urbanist curmudgeon in these debates.

  9. AG says :

    Oh, I’m not surprised; remember that this is the man who extolled Sunnyside Gardens over the churn of the city.

    And never forget that he had to punish Jane Jacobs – who he’d once seen as a disciple and a bearer of the flag of Mumfordian values into the future – for daring to develop her own voice and ideas.

  10. Scott Boone says :

    And I was getting ready to drop you an email asking how the book was going!

  11. Kars says :

    Thanks in advance for all the heavy lifting Adam. (Someone’s got to do it, right?) Looking forward to the end result which I’m sure will be great.

  12. Jamie says :

    Re: Mumford: Donald L. Miller’s 1989 biographical tome on the man includes (what appear to me to be at least an attempt at) some judicious pages on (some of) Mumford’s debate(s) w/ Jacobs & others.

    Included is an encapsulation of William H. Whyte’s view, purportedly stated in _The Last Landscape_, that “as a means of saving the city the movement to the garden city is like taking a mistress to improve one’s marriage.”

    You can consult other passages in Miller’s biography — oh let’s say on Mumford’s marital (and extra- ) relations — to assess the extent to which Whyte’s simile was even more perfect than he let on, or seems to be especially during the unavoidable moments when the temptation to psychologize Mumford and/or his ideas becomes irrepressible.

    Most of the pages of above-mentioned books by Miller and Whyte are viewable on Google Books.

    Like, no doubt, some of your other readers, we’ll be curious to see what, if anything, you find instructive or of (positive) value in Mumford’s approach to looking at cities/the city/”the City”/whatever-it’s-called-at-the-moment, or in his voluminous and (on some level(s), at least) diverse writings.

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