The kind of program a city is

Those of you who live in the British Isles may wish to run out and pick up a copy of this month’s Wired UK, featuring a special section on the “digital city.” As it happens, I have a piece in this section, but it’s not precisely the one I wrote.

Strictly for purposes of comparison, then, you’ll find what I intended for you to read below in its original form, bearing its original title. Enjoy.

When rumors of the project later revealed to the world as the Segway personal transporter first surfaced, back in 2001 – back in the days when the curious had little more to go on than inventor Dean Kamen’s reputation, and the cryptic codename “Ginger” – one of the more tantalizing of the few tidbits of information that did emerge was Steve Jobs’ reported reaction: “If enough people see the machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It will just happen.”

Architect cities around it: now that fired the imagination. What innovation could possibly be so fundamental that it would compel us to rethink something so deeply entrenched in culture, and so hard to alter, as the way we make cities? (At the very least, what might convince RDF-sporting Steve Jobs himself, of all people, that any such thing was likely?)

Speculation regarding the machine and its nature went on for months, online and off, anywhere technophiles, futurists and venture capitalists gathered. Had Kamen come up with an ultra-efficient power source? Some unexpected breakthrough in materials science? Something still further afield?

These were the obvious things to wonder about. Lying just underneath, though, were the questions that really settled into the mind and took up residence – or at least did so if that mind belonged to someone who’d grown up on Blade Runner, Judge Dredd and Angus McKie book jackets. If people really did come to devise cities around Kamen’s machine…what would those cities look like? And how would it feel to live in them?

Whatever heights the primed imagination may have scaled in these months, we know how the story ended. Already suffering from impossibly inflated expectations, the Segway launched into a world still reeling from the September 11th attacks, and in no mood for overscaled flourishes of dotcom-era technotriumphalism; to say it has not seen wide adoption in the years since would be generous. To date it’s had no appreciable effect on the cities of humanity at all, beyond the occasional column of tourists doing their best to sightsee while tilted forward at a ten-degree angle.

But the potent set of expectations that surrounded the Jobs pronouncement – that technological innovation would reshape the way we collectively make and understand cities, that we would see it happen in our historical moment, and maybe even play a role in shaping the outcomes ourselves – these were and are by no means unfounded. In fact, maybe they’re surer guides to the present than might have appeared to be the case in the immediate aftermath of the Segway’s anticlimactic launch.

It is by now clear that over the last decade a great number of people on Earth, in the developed and the developing world both – certainly the overwhelming majority of those reading these words – have embraced the digital mediation of everyday life, to such a ferocious extent that it can already be difficult to remember how we ever got through our days without the networked things around us.

Without necessarily considering the matter with any particular care, as individuals or societies, we have installed devices in our clothing, our buildings, our vehicles and our tools which register, collect and transmit extraordinary volumes of data, and which share this data with the global network in real time. If some of us once – and recently! – thought of this as the domain of “ubiquitous computing,” the words are already starting to sound obsolescent, as clunky as “horseless carriage.” This is simply the way we do things now.

And barring the usual panoply of potential catastrophes, it is only likely to be more so as time goes by, for an ever larger proportion of us. Under such circumstances, it’s only natural to expect that a great many of these systems will wind up speaking directly to the challenges cities were designed to resolve, as well as those with which they cannot help but confront us:

In the interest of managing traffic and – ostensibly – enhancing public safety, our streets are ringed with networked cameras, salted with embedded sensor grids. Where our parents might have owned one or more cars, we increasingly traverse urban space in networked vehicles that are GPS-tracked and leased to us as hourly services, or tap our way onto mass transit with RFID-enabled payment cards like London’s Oyster. (If you should happen to live in Hong Kong, Seoul, or Tokyo, that same card will serve to buy a magazine or a can of soda.) Above all, we ourselves declare the moment-by-moment choices we make to services like Twitter and Facebook.

The data sheeting off of these systems can show us where muggings and assaults happen, when and where the worst traffic arises…or simply whether there are any nearby Vietnamese restaurants open at this hour, and how highly they’re rated by their customers.

These things are fait accompli, well on their way to being unremarkable for many of us. Never mind that this kind of god’s-eye perspective on the city was impossible just a few years ago: cheap, ubiquitous, networked information processing has reshaped urban potential, every bit as dramatically as the automobile did the cities of the twentieth. And all of it in the absence of top-down guidance or orchestration: You won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It will just happen.

But as is so often the case, there’s a catch: the complex technologies the networked city relies upon to produce its effects remain distressingly opaque, even to those exposed to them on a daily basis.

In fact, it’s surpassingly hard to be appropriately critical and to make sound choices in a world where we don’t understand the objects around us. Understanding networked urbanism on its own terms, however wise it might be, requires an investment of time and effort beyond the reach of most. (“I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original,” said the great 20th Century architectural critic Reyner Banham, and the systems we’re talking about are orders of magnitude more complex than mere cars and freeways.)

In the networked city, therefore, the truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them. This will be a primary occupation for urbanists and technologists both, for the foreseeable future, as will ensuring that the public’s right to benefit from the data they themselves generate is recognized in law. If we’re reaching the point where it makes sense to consider the city as a fabric of addressable, queryable, even scriptable objects and surfaces – to reimagine its pavements, building façades and parking meters as network resources – this raises an order of questions never before confronted, ethical as much as practical: who has the right of access to these resources, or the ability to set their permissions?

All of this will be messy, and contentious, and never anything other than locally and/or partially successful. It certainly makes for a less satisfying narrative than the heroic genius all-but-singlehandedly reshaping human cities with his self-righting wondercart. But it’s the work we have cut out for us, it is profoundly worth doing, and the rewards will pay out in increments of better quality of life and a deeper, more resonant engagement with the places and people that surround us. We may as well roll our sleeves up and get started.

35 responses to “The kind of program a city is”

  1. Andrew says :

    I have to admit, I think the version in Wired UK is better. I read it first, and think it’s probably one of your best pieces of writing; a bit of editorial tightening helped the pace here and there. Nice to read again here in any case. :-)

  2. AG says :

    Surely you’re entitled to your opinion, and the Wired version is inarguably a more linear read.

    But the edits have the effect of turning the piece leaden. Lookit: if you’re going to cut “self-righting” from “self-righting wondercart,” kill the phrase entirely and replace it with “the Segway.” It’s only the whole phrase that captures the neo-Victorian goofiness of Kamen’s tinkering; the unadorned word just makes you scratch your head.

    I was actually thinking of using this edit as the pretext for a master class on how (and how not) to edit the difficult writer.

  3. Abe says :

    “I was actually thinking of using this edit as the pretext for a master class on how (and how not) to edit the difficult writer.”

    – I’d be careful there Adam, a writer is clearly the least objective person to be judging an edit. Much better to build the class off an edit of another person’s work I think.

    – Also bare in mind that magazine editing and book editing are quite different animals in some key regards. With a magazine a decent editor will have a much better sense of the audience and their needs than the author. With a book the audience doesn’t quite exist yet, and while both the author and editor may have their opinions, it’s really in the authors hands to shape what audience the writing is for.

  4. Gene says :

    “Horseless carriage”

    Nine out of ten complex readers prefer difficult writers for whom words are highly personal expressions of self.

  5. Gene says :

    Huh, your comment system strips out parenthetical remarks enclosed in angle brackets. That was supposed to be “Horseless Carriage” [grin].

  6. Rebecca Cottrell says :

    On the subject of intrusive editing:

  7. AG says :

    That’s beautiful, and exactly how I feel.

    Not to be a precious fucking snowflake about it, but I generally take some time crafting my sentences, y’know? I can hear them in my head. They have meter. They scan. If they don’t, I know something’s wrong.

    Sure, I can go on. Sure, I have a weakness for overly complicated sentence structure and nigh-endless cascades of clauses. But this shit matters to me, because my readers and the experience of readership matter to me. An editor who doesn’t get that might as well hang up his or her spurs, far as I’m concerned.

  8. Menachem says :

    I’m not much of a lawbreaker, but I do live, work and simply am enough on the margins and with the marginalized, that the idea that somebody not of my choosing could know where I am so much of the time disturbs, offends and even scares me. Thank you, but I’ll find out about that great new Thai place by talking to someone.

    shalom v’ahava,


  9. Nestor says :

    I suppose I’m just not wired enough to feel this is such a big deal at the moment. Sure I have an internet capable mobile phone. And sure, it did start sending me SMS advising me how to enable roaming when it detected I had moved to another country, but I can always turn it off. It’s not quite the mark of the beast just yet.

  10. AG says :

    You understand that I’m not arguing otherwise, right? See the fifth of my principles for the ethical development of ubiquitous computing.

  11. AG says :

    You may not be “wired enough” personally, but trust me, your city probably is.

  12. Tim Sharpe says :

    Cities aren’t networked; they’re just piles of contiguous data in a world that’s networked.

    Regarding a city as an entity where inhabitants need particular help demystifying its digitised representation is to ignore the fact that everyone, everywhere who’s environment has been digitised needs to understand the implications of this.

    It’s no different than a CEO needing to understand Google’s PageRank; you can live without that understanding, but you can do so much more if you have it.

  13. AG says :

    Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about that, then. On a lot of levels, and fairly deeply. So it goes.

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