I have seen the future of urban life
Every rock critic and critic wannabe – and trust me, there are a great many more of the latter – is familiar with that famous moment in 1974 when Rolling Stone‘s Jon Landau breathlessly proclaimed that he’d seen “rock and roll’s future.” (Unfortunately for Landau’s credibility, the sentence ends “…and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”)
After something I saw last night, I now know just how Landau felt. And you know what? I bet I’m a lot righter than he turned out to be.
What I saw was this. It’s a visualization tool called Citysense, the product of SoHo-based startup Sense Networks. Sense Networks’ hyper-enthusiastic CEO Greg Skibiski spent about an hour walking me through Citysense, and the overall impression I was left with was that the future so many of us have been talking about for so long has all of a sudden arrived in the form of a live, running, working application.
What Citysense does is simple, yet profound. It gathers real-time positional fixes from mobile devices (so far, naturally, for San Francisco only), aggregates them and plots them on a map that is itself then pushed back to the mobile device. The result is a live “heat map” of human activity, displaying specifically which parts of the city people tend to use, and when. In a dreamy rhythmscape designed as if to give Henri Lefebvre a posthumous boner, you can see surges of activity washing over the city just like an algal bloom across the surface of a lake: morning commute, lunch break, quittin’ time, supper and the dispersal home (followed by a discrete, if just possibly indiscreet, coda of after-hours clubbing). It’s a textbook illustration of my dictum that nothing is as interesting as information about place in that place, delivered in such a way that it can be acted upon.
So far, so good…so what, right? You might imagine that such tidbits are of interest solely to geowankers, traffic engineers, outdoor-advertising brokers, and the kind of consultants that get called in to help decide where to drop the next Starbucks or Rite Aid. But here’s where things begin to get interesting, because anyone familiar with the whole rhetoric of “reality mining” that’s emerged from MIT’s Media Lab over the last few years will be comfortable with the idea that macro-level social and behavioral inferences can be derived from data of this sort. (This is not at all coincidental: Media Lab mining maven Sandy Pentland is a co-founder of Sense Networks.)
The use case that Citysense comes bundled with in this first iteration is, frankly, just a little bit silly; the idea is that you’d plan your evenings around the emergent nodal points, clicking through hot spots to the Yelp listing associated with each, or the relevant Google Street View. Just how many nights, though, am I going to be sitting at home at ten o’clock, wanting to hit the town but needing a mobile application to tell me where the action is? (And doesn’t any self-respecting 24-hour party person already just know, anyway?)
So where the promotional materials bill Citysense as “an innovative mobile application for local nightlife discovery,” and it’s currently saddled with the tagline “Live San Francisco Nightlife Activity,” it is clearly capable of so much more than that. The find-the-party scenario is pretty transparently just something to prime the pump, a stalking horse for all of the far more interesting things that people will figure out what to do with it.
For example, one of the first things that drops out of the Citysense data is a statistically strongly significant degree of correlation between certain populations and specified locations in the city – in effect, the existence of self-selected “tribes” defined entirely by their behavior in space and time (Skibiski’s word, and one whose resonances I’m not entirely happy with). When you have access to additional information characterizing these locations – you know: is this a sportsbar or a leather bar? a Muni Metro stop or a parking lot? the Zeitgeist or the Top of the Mark? the drunk tank or the emergency room? – well, then, it seems to me that you have the beginnings of a concordance to the city. You can begin to make proactive decisions about how to make best use of the urban manifold.
I don’t want to let go of any of the ethical or practical reservations I have about such inferences and actions taken upon them. For one thing, the mapping fails to account for the possibility of differential uses of space along the z-axis, treating it as merely a programmatic extrusion of the ground plane. And I particularly worry about creating spatiotemporal and experiential echo chambers worse than any political blog, in which nobody armed with Citysense or equivalent ever needs to confront the existence of anyone, -where or -thing not pre-vetted as being inside the user’s comfort zone.
Nevertheless, it is transparently self-evident to me that this is the way we’re going to do cities from here on out. And if you don’t think that’s pretty dang novel, just imagine what it’s going to be like when the spaces in question are themselves provided with APIs that pull usage data from Citysense and reflect it in some state of their presentation to the world – then the crazy feedback-loop urbanism really begins.
I’m seeing a big LED signboard tacked across the front of Zeitgeist’s doorway: “Garden now at 23% above threshold. Get your Tamale Lady orders in now!” And if that isn’t the future of cities, then I don’t know what is.