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.