I’ve just finished sitting for this brief interview with Lalie Nicolas for Le Hub‘s Ludigo project, dedicated to the creation of “ambient intelligent landscapes.” As usual, whenever an interview with me will appear exclusively in another language, I reprint it here – for my own convenience, as much as anything else. (I’ve taken the liberty of lightly editing the questions.) And, again as usual, I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
LN: How do you see the near-future city working with ubiquitous computing, or what you call “everyware”?
AG: Answering this question at the length it deserves would take far more time than I’m afraid we’ve got together at the moment. It’s like asking me to list all the ways electricity informs the life of the city – that’s how protean and pervasive the technologies we’re talking about are and will be.
I would go so far as to say that there will be no area or domain of urban activity that is not somehow disassembled and recomposed as a digital, networked, interactive process over the next few years. Objects, buildings and spaces will be reconceived as network resources; cars, subways and bicycles will be reimagined as on-demand mobility services; human communities are already well on the way to becoming self-conscious “social networks.”
LN: What kind of consequences will the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) bring, in this new way of living in the city?
AG: The one thing we can say with any confidence at all is that the consequences will be different in each city.
Mobile phones, when introduced to the Philippines, proved an effective way of coordinating large-scale civic action and gave people a venue in which they could demand governmental reform. But Japanese people have virtually identical mobile phones, capable of performing the same functions, and yet so far as I know have never used them for political activism.
Why is that? We’ll never understand why if we ask questions about the technology qua technology. The tool has certain affordances, certain capabilities, and these operate in and as an ensemble with pre-existing and emergent social proclivities to produce effects. The relevant unit of analysis is the technosocial assembage, not the technology itself.
LN: What are the main social evolutions you expect?
AG: Well, I don’t happen to be a technodeterminist, so I can’t say. It will depend to a very great degree on how the systems in question are designed, and by whom, and with what values.
It would be easy enough for me to make an argument that these technologies will only further fragment and atomize us, ensure that we’re only ever able to be the most passive consumers of our own lives. But by the same token – and even using some of the same systems as examples! – I could just as easily argue that ubiquitous technologies break down social barriers, allow people to form more effective communities of interest, give people the tools with which to readily coordinate their activities with friends and strangers alike.
LN: Most of the time, you seem pessimistic or negative in your analysis. Why is that?
AG: I’m not at all sure that’s actually the case. It’s certainly true that I’m just as often criticized for offering an unduly rosy portrayal of circumstances.
To the degree that what you’re characterizing as pessimism reflects my stance accurately, though, I’d rather think of it as realism. People keep talking about “cities 2.0,” but people haven’t changed; we’re still “humans 1.0.” Through malfeasance and (probably more often) misfeasance, we will continue to build systems that damage lives, limit freedom, waste time, and constrain expression. We have done this with every technology we have ever devised, and we will not suddenly become enlightened when handed ubiquitous ones.
“Pessimism” would be facing that set of circumstances and concluding that there’s nothing to be done about them. What I counsel, by contrast, and hopefully practice myself, is facing them without illusion, and then trying to design meaningful responses.
LN: What are the methods that need to be invented in order to govern this digital city?
AG: I hope, believe and expect that we will see entirely new systems of democratic governance emerge at urban scale – systems capable of allocating resources equitably, buffering and resolving disputes, giving each of us a voice in the management of the communities we live in and constitute through our actions.
Again, these systems will be only partially technical in nature. We will also have to invent the social practices, habits, and forms of agreement that will work in mesh with this particular set of technical components to produce the effects we’re interested in. And we have barely even begun to think about what those might look like.
Maybe there are some hints in the Making Things Public catalogue, and Latour’s other work; maybe the relevant conversations are happening in places or communities or languages I’m simply not aware of. But for the most part I’m not convinced that our understandings of public space, the public sphere and its constitution are adequate to the contemporary technical milieu.
LN: What could be the basis for an ethics of ambient intelligence?
AG: We could start with the recognition that only human beings have intelligence – human individuals and human communities forged into effective ensembles by their tools. Only by admitting that the intelligence resides in and between us – that we own it, it is ours and it fully bears the marks of our failures and our hopes – could we begin to talk about an ethics of ubiquitous computing.