Don’t get me wrong
What follows is something I’ve been meaning to post for awhile, ever since I realized it had become necessary. I would have thought this point was already quite sufficiently clear to all concerned, but since there’s apparently been some fairly significant confusion out there regarding my fundamental position on the things I discuss here:
Please do not make the mistake of believing I endorse or embrace technological interventions, whether in urban space or in everyday life, simply because I spend the lion’s share of my time talking, reading, thinking and writing about same.
I spend so much time considering these issues because I believe that both our experience of a given place, and the choices available to us in that place, are already heavily conditioned by the network weather. We needn’t wait for some maximalist vision of urban computing to come to pass: this is all true now, right now. What people are saying about you online, how they rate the businesses around you, which social networks their customers are using — these are the things which now tell.
You don’t have to like what this all implies. Most days I myself do not; I tend to think that there are very few ways you could augment, say, dinner with friends that would actually improve the experience. But if you care about cities and what people can do with them, you do need to understand these technologies and their potential.
The irritating guy with the popped collar standing next to you at the bar? He paid less for his G&T than you did, because he’s the Mayor of this place on Foursquare, and the management has cannily decreed Mayors get a 5% discount. Ten minutes from now, the place is going to fill up with his equally annoying buddies, absolutely ruining your hope of a quiet drink. And they’re going to show up not because he did so much as call them to tell them where he’d be, but because he’s got things set so his Foursquare account automatically posts to his Facebook page. Buddies of his that don’t even use Foursquare will come, to slouch at the bar, stab at their phones and try and figure out where the party’s going next.
You’ll settle up and leave, miffed, and ease on down the road a spell to a place you know where you can get a decent bowl of penne — nothing special, but good and hearty and cheap, and you’ll chase it with the big bouncy house red, and all will be well and right with the world. Except the Italian place is gone, gone because it racked up too many nasty reviews on Yelp, or somebody Googlebombed its listing, or its hundred healthcode violations made it positively radioactive on Everyblock.
Two years from now, these names will most likely be different. But the point will remain: if services like these are opaque to you, if you don’t know what they are and how they work, you’ll never have the foggiest clue why things shook out the way they did. Your evening will have a completely different shape and texture than what it would have prior to the advent of ubiquitous mobile Internet. You’ll have been tossed this way and that by the gusts and squalls of network weather.
Of course, you could just as easily argue that your evening out would be inflected in all sorts of delightful ways by the prevailing winds. Either way, though: inflected it will be.
And that’s why, as someone who enjoys all the things cities do for us, I’ve taken on the project of anticipating trends in technical development as they apply to urban experience. My aims are to challenge and contest visions of the networked city that seem to me to be designed in ignorance of everything we know about how cities (and people) work; to encourage literacy in the networked and other complex systems that now undergird so many urban interactions; and to instill in all of us a sense of our own agency in these matters.
Networked urbanism, read/write urbanism, open-source urbanism…sure, these things are in their infancy. But if the whole domain retains some plasticity, it’s also beginning to be shaped by parties motivated solely by their own interests, and absolutely not by any larger affinity for urban life and its benisons. To be blunt, I don’t want the IBMs and Ciscos and Microsofts of the world defining what networked urbanism can be for me…or, forgive my presumption, what it can be for you, either.
I still believe, as Howard Rheingold used to say, that “what it is…is up to us.” But only if we’re willing to get our hands dirty, challenge ourselves, and pursue insight even if it originates from outside our comfort zone. It’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, these last twelve years or so, and it would be particularly gratifying if you interpreted my efforts here in this light.