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Home Futures contribution: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling?

Way stoked to have the following piece in Home Futures, the catalogue for the Design Museum’s impressive new show of the same name, alongside incredible work from Open Structures, Superstudio, Enzo Mari et many al. & essays from the likes of Deyan Sudjic and good Justin McGuirk. In full, it’s called “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appalling?: Labor-saving technologies, digital nomadism and the ideology of ease.” Please enjoy.

For most of us, home is a great many things. It affords us shelter from the elements, most obviously, but also a platform for conviviality and a container for our earthly possessions. Its address and appointments offer us, if we are lucky, a store of social capital to trade on; its walls and spaces an ark in which familial memory can be borne down through time; and its furnishings a supple, versatile medium in which we might express the uniqueness of the selves we understand ourselves to be.

In recent times, though, the dwelling-place is increasingly asked to serve one end above all these others. The home is now supposed to support efficiency — not merely or even chiefly its own, but that of its occupants. In sheltering, resting, restoring and entertaining us, it is supposed to underwrite our ongoing ability to act in the world as the autonomous, prudent, rational actors the regnant moral-economic theory of our age calls for us to be, in a manner as parsimonious with time, effort and other resources as is practically achievable.

Over the past century, we can see the drive toward efficiency settling over the domestic environment in three broad and overlapping waves, each of them arising in response to the technosocial possibilities of a given moment. The first and longest of these waves, starting around 1920 and yet to be fully concluded anywhere on Earth, accompanied the introduction into the home of labor-saving electromechanical appliances — a parade of ever-lighter and more powerful vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washer/driers, convection ovens and lawn sprinklers, without which the exacting hygienic and self-presentation standards of middle-class existence become hard to maintain.

The second is of far more recent vintage, getting under way only after the smartphone and widespread broadband connectivity had reached ubiquity in the urban centers of the developed world. It translates the distinctively neoliberal corporate logic of outsourcing into domestic terms, calving off each distinct function pursued in the course of ordinary household life (laundry, meal preparation, maintenance, even pet-, elder- or childcare) as a task to be mediated by an array of single-purpose apps.

The third, though it found early expression in certain utopian architectural currents of the 1960s and 1970s, is something we can only as yet perceive in vague outline, as a weak signal from a future that may or may not be coming into being. Seeking maximal efficiency by liberating the unencumbered body to dwell and work productively just about anywhere on the planet, this wave of innovation leaves traditional notions of home behind entirely.

Whether framed in such radically nomadic terms, though, or in the relatively drab and conventional ones of an “Uber for laundry,” there is no better way of understanding the trade-offs involved in the quest for domestic efficiency than by pursuing them to their source: the original provision of the middle-class home with labor-saving technological devices, a hundred years ago.

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The automation of home life is a well-trodden path across what is by now a full century of design, but most of the overt celebration of automation as a virtue in itself came during that century’s first half. From R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1920) to the Philco-Ford 1999 AD House (1967), there is no trope more central to the era’s vision of domestic ease. Most of us of a certain age recognize the exemplary Homes of Tomorrow, from a long succession of World’s Fairs, Expos and Walt Disney TV specials. Taking the Corbusian notion of the home as a “machine for living” with striking literality, these all-electric lifepods pampered their occupants with easy-dusting curves, instant-cooking Radaranges, push-button control panels and hose-down floors.

As little as such Futuramas, Futuros, and Houses of the Future (Monsanto or Smithson variety, take your pick) have to do with the way most any of us actually live, ever did or ever will, they constitute much of the loam in which visions of domestic advance are still grown. For all the concern for ecological sustainability, new materials and new construction methods that has emerged in the decades since, and for all the successive waves of social change that have transformed the size, age and composition of the average household, it’s the DNA of these twentieth-century forerunners that designers still unconsciously draw upon when devising the material substrate of contemporary living. It’s worth attending closely, therefore, to the unspoken and curiously retrograde — indeed, frankly neocolonial — principle that nestles at the core of all these Homes of Tomorrow, which is that they are intended to afford every class of consumer a level of service previously only available to those with the economic wherewithal to maintain a staff of domestic servants. (This argument was never made more plainly than by a 1924 issue of the French magazine Je Sais Tout, an early entrant in the lifestyle genre, which touted a three-storey “house without servants” in which dozens of futuristic, electrified appareils pratiques replaced the butler, the scullery-maid, the cook and the nanny.)

Whatever savings of time and energy was realized by such devices was primarily intended to benefit “the lady of the house,” it being assumed by designers almost without exception that the male head of household was elsewhere, earning a crust. The liberation from drudgery they offered was, in any event, ambiguous and ambivalently received. As Betty Friedan had observed in The Feminine Mystique (1963), nobody quite knew what to do with the time left over after the daily round of chores had been seen to, and the endless hours in splendid suburban isolation were every bit as suffocating and soul-deadening for women trapped in the home as the cycle of métro-boulot-dodo was for the men tasked with bringing home the bacon. Little surprise, then, that the tranquilizer Miltown (cf. The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper,” 1966) became the first runaway success of the postwar pharmaceutical industry.

Precisely what was it that the proud owners of these gleaming new labor-saving appurtenances were being freed for? For much of the twentieth century, the canonical answer would have been “leisure time” — which is to say, a period in which the adult members of the family might amuse, exercise and psychically restore themselves, renewing their labor power while partaking maximally of the fruits of a consumption-oriented economy. Thus the anticipatory visions of laughing, pipe-smoking dads and gingham-bloused moms so common to the era, waving at Junior through the seamless glass of the swimming pool set into the wall of their living room, or playing canasta in the swiveling leatherette seats of their self-guiding, bubble-domed futurecars. By midcentury, with the Keynesian economies of the West riding the postwar expansion to heights of collective wealth never scaled before (or, for that matter, at any time since), the architects of domestic tranquility had seen the future, and it was leisure.

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And here we stumble across a problem. After five solid decades of triumphantly unbroken innovation in microelectronics — three of which have seen an easy-to-use global informational network gradually extended until it can reach virtually every domicile on the face of the Earth, and the past two a parallel revolution in supply-chain management, low-cost manufacturing and logistics — we have never before had more, cheaper or more powerful labor-saving devices in the domestic environment. A panoply of networked objects are now distributed through the “smart home,” in a local deployment of what is generally described as the “internet of things,” or IoT; in addition to the by-now-unremarkable networked thermostats, lightbulbs and webcams, these can include a wide range of embedded sensors and actuators. Increasingly, the white goods themselves are networked, often to no clear end beyond affording the harried householder a remote control in the form of their smartphone, with which to begin the drying cycle or kick on the air conditioner while still stuck in commute traffic an hour away.

Taken all together, they are capable of dynamically optimizing the home environment across multiple axes, ensuring that its temperature, lighting levels, security posture and so on all continuously correspond with whatever state is desired by the user/resident. Increasingly, as well, such tasks are mediated via the natural-language speech interface of “virtual assistants” like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home — beachheads and points of presence in the home for the most advanced consumer-facing artificial-intelligence capabilities researchers have yet been able to devise. It would seem that peak domestic efficiency is very much within reach of anyone with the nous to download a few apps.

But for all of that, the leisurely future we were promised failed to arrive on schedule. In fact, it didn’t materialize at all; if anything, “leisure,” in the creaky, Affluent Society sense of the word anyway, is a thing that scarcely exists anymore, for almost any one of us. If it isn’t the mass production of leisure time, then, what problem does the smart home think it’s solving? The time saved by going to all the trouble of continuous modulation is time for what, exactly?

Given that the devices and services in question notably tend to be designed for people whose tastes, preferences and lifeways very much resemble the designers’ own, the contemporary Bay Area answer would appear to be “more code sprints and daily scrums,” i.e. further Stakhanovite exertions on their employers’ behalf, directed toward the goal of bringing ever-more-niche information-technological conveniences into being. But there’s a strong element of bad faith to all of this as well, and revisiting a curious landmark in the history of automation shows us why.

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In 1770, the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Klempenen presented his empress, Maria Theresa of Austria, with the curious contrivance that has become known to history as the Mechanical Turk. This was a cabinet atop which sat the torso of a figure garbed and turbaned in the manner of an Ottoman sorcerer, one arm equipped with a pipe and the other constructed in such a way as to give it the freedom to pluck chess pieces from a compartment and move them about a board set into the cabinet’s surface. To the awed delight of its royal audiences, this seeming automaton played at grandmaster level, taking on all comers and seeing them down to defeat, governed by nothing more than the elaborate assembly of brass gears, cogs and rods visible within its cabinet.

In fact, as we now know, the Turk was cunningly designed to conceal a human operator, a grandmaster of chess — a long succession of them, in fact, from its debut until its final destruction in a fire in Philadelphia in 1854 — and wasn’t in any real way automated at all. So many of the tasks launched by a command to Alexa or Siri or Google Home are like this: a desire expressed in a few words, all but literally uttered without thought, sends human bodies scurrying behind the scenes to preserve the user’s airy sense of automagical effortlessness. (In fact, Amazon has run a distributed digital piecework service explicitly named Mechanical Turk since 2005, offering what the company too-cleverly-by-half calls “artificial artificial intelligence” to a global userbase, at rates as low as one US cent per task completed.)

If the classic labor-saving appliance, for the most part, did away with the necessity for uniformed household staff by replacing their exertions with electromechanical might, the boomerang twist of the app age is that there are once again human beings in the loop: actual flesh-and-blood servants, merely time-shared, fractional ones. Whether the task involves the performance of cleaning and tidying, laundry, grocery shopping, pet and plant care, or light household maintenance and repair, you may be sure that there’s an app for that. But the app itself is merely a digital scrim behind which a largely immigrant labor force hustles and sweats and bids against the others competing for the same jobs. There is inevitably a raced and a gendered aspect to this, as well. If, in the new app economy, the effort and care of household maintenance is displaced not primarily onto machines but onto other bodies, it is notable how often those bodies are female, how very often darker than those requesting the service. The only significant exception here lies in the area of dining at home; a prominent fraction of “lead users” bizarrely seems to have interpreted the demands on their time as so pressing that they prefer gulping down a flavorless nutrient slurry like Soylent or Huel to a sit-down meal of any kind, even one prepared by someone else.

What we see here is a curious elaboration of something the educator Bradley Dilger has described as the “ideology of ease,” an implicit (when not entirely open and explicit) body of assertions that undergirds the design of information-technological devices and services, very much including those at the heart of the contemporary home. This ideology proposes that devoting effort or attentional resources to the tasks before us is undesirable — even, somehow, unseemly. Think of it as the demand for convenience raised to the nth degree, articulated virtually as a right.

Accordingly, much of the grandeur in contemporary design lies in streamlining processes until they consist of a few taps at most: the “Buy Now With 1-Click” imperative. But as a consequence, any opportunity for reflexivity is shortcircuited. Whatever values are manifested by these apps, they’re folded up like origami inside the interaction flow, no longer available for conscious inspection or consideration. So when you ask Siri to call you a car, that car will invariably be booked via Uber, an enterprise which notoriously refuses to shoulder any of the risk involved in operating a mobility-on-demand service, achieving growth by shedding that burden onto its drivers, its passengers and the communities in which it operates; and when you ask Alexa to order you more cat food, that order will be fulfilled by workers sweltering in a passing-out-hot warehouse where management won’t let the doors be opened to admit a little breeze, because of the risk of inventory pilferage; and when you ask Google to book you a table at your favorite restaurant that reservation will be made via OpenTable, a service which imposes onerous constraints on restaurateurs and waitstaff alike. These choices, these allocations of power are subsumed beneath the surface, the judgments and valuations inscribed in them simultaneously normalized and made to disappear. And if you should happen to find any of this disturbing or offensive…tough luck. That’s just the way things are in smartworld. Effectively, your choices are limited to take it or leave it.

It may have taken us some time, then, but finally perhaps we can learn to see “smart” for what it so often is: an inscription of power.

§

For a cohort who experiences even the time spent preparing and enjoying a meal as an intolerable interruption of their availability for work, homelife itself is a burden. For them, the very notion of a permanent dwelling is, in its fixity of place and the opportunity cost of the investments lavished on it, a suboptimal condition — an obstacle to the frictionless mobility our age calls upon us to deliver, and a roadblock on the drive toward total efficiency. And this leads directly to the culmination of this entire line of thinking: the suspicion that the most efficient of all possible homes may very well be no home at all.

Visionary architects of the 1960s believed that the dwelling could be brought with the body like a shell. This tendency, explored in whimsical projects like Archigram’s Suitaloon and Cushicle (1964-1967) and Francois Dallegret and Reyner Banham’s Environment Bubble (1965), reached its apotheosis in Martin Pawley’s rather grimmer vision of “terminal architecture,” in which individually-scaled mobile shelter units pick their way through the rubbled fields of a blasted transapocalyptic nonscape, mediating the unbearable reality all around to the nearly vestigial flesh within.

A rather more palatable interpretation of nomadism was the “plug-in lifestyle” foreseen by futurist Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970), and elaborated in fiction by John Brunner, in the legitimately visionary 1974 novel The Shockwave Rider. Brunner’s plug-in people went where the jobs were, dipped into casual relationships with whoever happened to be close at hand, moved on from either the moment they stopped being fun, and in any event found the material and human terrain comprehensively prepared for such acts of transience, wherever they should happen to alight. Despite a brief enthusiasm for the “technomadic” life at the moment it first became technically feasible, though, around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like such visions would remain safely the province of those whose job it is to speculate about the future.

But things have changed in the years since, with the rise of the network and the cloud, the ubiquitous provision of smartphones to serve as interface and mechanism of payment, and not least the stunning global spread of Airbnb, whose success supports the business case for the new wave of coworking/coliving ventures. Finally the logic of outsourcing can be raised to its perfect realization. You can now offload virtually all of the processes that underwrite domestic life onto a commercial service provider, allowing you to focus on your core competency, whatever that should happen to be, and to pursue it wherever on Earth you are able to find an audience, a market or a community.

At present, there is no suggestion that anything beyond the tiniest number of people will ever choose to live this way over even the medium-term. But it would be unwise to count it out completely. Consider WeLive, a residential offering developed by the hugely successful WeWork chain of coworking spaces, which orients its offering toward a customer base who are “always working or always semi-working.” Or Roam, a competing “global community of coliving and coworking spaces” that offers members the opportunity to touch down and get busy at their San Francisco, London, Bali, Miami or Tokyo locations, for prices starting at $500 a week.

Taken in one way, such propositions clearly gesture toward some of the more fantastic archisocial visions of the late sixties and early seventies — the ones in which hip nomads roamed the planet-spanning supersurfaces and megastructural interiors ad libitum, equipped with no more than a cache-sexe, a small pouch for personal effects and perhaps a cloak against the acid rain. If you squint hard, you can make out the last tattered remnants of that imaginary in the existing real-world global archipelago of short-term flats and coworking spaces, knit together by ubiquitous broadband connectivity and low-cost point-to-point flights, and undergirded by other, rather less glamorous enabling infrastructures (chiefly extended-stay motels and self-serve storage-locker chains). It is possible to bounce around the nodes of this network for years on end, and indeed there are some who seem profoundly fulfilled by the years they spend doing so. Here we drift intriguingly close to, again, Archigram: “the need for a house (in the form of a permanent static container) as part of [human] psychological make-up will disappear.”

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It isn’t so much that the plug-in vision of unlimited freedom was superseded, or even betrayed, as that its present-day realization for a few reveals something telling about what the rest of us want and need. For all the value on liberation implicit in the dehoming movement, just the opposite appears to be happening, reflecting a need most of us have for continuity and stability at a time when very little else seems to be holding fast.

But for some tinkering around the edges — primarily driven by the microhome ventures of the commercial real-estate development industry, and perhaps some experimentation with household structure on the part of those embarked upon polyamory — the twenty-first century home remains astonishingly conservative. In its stasis, it offers a place to recover from the world, perhaps even from the pressure toward efficiency itself.

In our time, this is no longer a matter of Taylorist time-and-motion studies or Dreyfusian calibrations of the body in space, but something more intimate still, harder to define and far less concrete. It’s about reforging yourself to meet the demands of a brutally competitive market for your labor: making yourself fit, rested, ready, reliable, available via multiple communication channels at any time of day or night, and ready to go wherever the work takes you. Seen in this harsh light, even cultural trends that are entirely unobjectionable on their face — the turn toward minimalism, say, or the rise of streaming services, or the Kondoesque pursuit of decluttering — can be understood as moves toward frictionlessness and the elimination of anything that would encumber the homedweller as plausible service provider and autonomous economic actor.

As we’ve seen, as well, the pressures involved in supporting this way of life cascade downward to a frankly subaltern class, exposed to many of the same requirements of personability, fitness and perpetual availability, yet expected to tolerate the whims, tantrums and outright harassment of their betters in silence. The question, then, remains today what it always has been: efficiency for whom, exactly? Whose time and energy are valued, and whose are sacrificed on the altar of another’s freedom to move and to act? If we but trace them with a little care, the new logics of domestic ease make the answers to questions like these distressingly, unavoidably clear, to the point that whenever any such proposition arises, it’s worth interrogating both its “smart” and “home” aspects with the greatest care.

Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”

I am very pleased, and every bit as proud, to announce the publication of the latest SUPERTOME to emerge from the Urban Age process, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, and with it my essay “Of Systems and Purposes.” It won’t contain anything to startle those of you who have been following my work for awhile — you’ll see, for example, that I once again return to the Beer well — but I do think it’s a pretty neat distillation of my thought about cities and technology as it’s developed over the past several years. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.

I’m particularly delighted that my work is featured alongside that of so many urbanists I respect enormously, in such a physically beautiful edition. My congratulations to Ricky Burdett, Philipp Rode, and especially the book’s indefatigable production team.

The legendary technologist Alan Kay once said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
 
Kay could perhaps be forgiven for the comment’s Promethean hubris, central as he was to the intellectual life of Xerox’s celebrated Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where so many of the interface conventions we continue to rely upon today were invented. The plain fact of the matter is that an ensemble of techniques invented or extensively developed at PARC, over a period of a very few years in the early 1970s — among them the graphical user interface, the mouse, the windowing system and the kind of multitasking it enabled, laser printing — remain at the core of home and office computer use some forty years down the line. The tools and techniques that Kay and his colleagues at PARC experimented with for their own use really did change the way we all work, think and play, generating a multitrillion-dollar market in the process of doing so.
 
This unimpeachable set of facts certainly does seem to legitimate the premise at the heart of Kay’s claim: that collective futures are something that can be architected at will by the sufficiently visionary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heroic role it casts them in, this notion has been embraced by successive generations of technologists, very much including those now busily at work “disrupting” the processes that have defined urban life since time immemorial. Judging from the frequency with which Kay is invoked in their PowerPoint decks and TED talks, at least, their various interventions in commerce and mobility, self-presentation and socialization, and production, distribution and consumption are consciously intended to realize coherent visions of the future.
 
But which visions? Where Kay’s work at PARC was at least liminally inspired by the liberatory ethos of the Bay Area 1960s — an intellectual current nurtured by the work of thinkers like Illich, Marcuse, Carson and Fuller, the upwelling of the Black Power, feminist and gay-rights movements, the anarchist Diggers and their experiments with Free Stores, Clinics and crashpads, the encounter with mystical-ethical systems of the East, and above all copious amounts of high-grade LSD — his latterday descendants appear to imagine futures of a rather different stripe. Those taking the boldest strides to transform urban life today range from explicit neo-Randians like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, to the avowedly technolibertarian developers of Bitcoin and the technology undergirding it, the blockchain, to those whose political projects — beyond a clear commitment to the standard tenets of entrepreneurial capitalism, as it expresses itself in the neoliberal period — are as yet unclear, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
 
From the public comments, commitments and investments of these and other would-be disruptive innovators of their ilk, it is possible to assemble at least a rough picture of the world they wish to call into being, and therefore the urban forms and rituals that are likely to predominate in that world:
 
Where on-demand, local digital fabrication of goods (via 3D printing, numerically-controlled laser cutting and milling, etc.) is not possible, conventionally-manufactured products will be shipped, warehoused and distributed to the consumer via an almost fully automated supply and fulfillment chain. While it won’t be possible to do without human labor completely, entire job categories — warehouse worker, commercial truck driver, deliveryperson — will disappear from the economy, never to be replaced.
 
The means of production will be held (and such employment contracts as remain necessary issued) by distributed autonomous organizations, corporations manifested in and as self-directing software. With the greater part of the built environment networked at high resolution, and truly economic microtransactions enabled by digital currency, every market for mobility and commercial or residential space is “liquified,” or ruthlessly optimized for efficient, moment-to-moment value extraction. Access to space (microflats, single rooms, or even workstations) will be leased by the minute, while very, very few spatial resources will escape being harnessed for revenue generation.
 
For those who can afford it, on-demand, point-to-point mobility will be undergirded in most cities by a permanently orbiting fleet of autonomous vehicles. And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.
 
In this world, the art of governmentality has been refined to a very high degree. Custodial organizations, State or otherwise, are furnished with a torrential flow of information about our choices, and the unparalleled insight into human motivation that can be gleaned from analysis of that flow. Prudent behavior on the part of the consumer-citizen is enforced by an array of personalized performance targets, incentives and disincentives presented in the form of brightly-gamified “social credit” schemes — networked carrots and sticks sufficient to keep all but the irredeemably anti-social acting within permissible bounds.
 
If this sounds like a grim, dispiriting and airless set of possibilities — and it certainly does to me — it is fortunately unlikely that this particular future will unfold in quite the way imagined by those now busily engaged in the attempt to realize it. Several decades’ accumulated experience with networked technologies suggests that whatever actual impact they do have in the fullness of time often bears little to no resemblance to the visions of the people who devised them, or indeed the concrete experiences of their earliest adopters. It would be profoundly foolish to suppose that technologies like 3D printing, the blockchain or machine learning will have no bearing on the form or function of large-scale urban environments. They undoubtedly will. But when would-be innovators promise that their inventions will directly drive radical change — whether undermining material scarcity and the commodity form (as the inventor of the RepRap 3D printer originally imagined his device would do), stripping bias from the operations of the criminal justice system (as the promoters of risk-assessment algorithms promise) or even allowing exchanges of value to abscond from the visibility of the State entirely (as ideologues of the blockchain hope) — we have reason to believe that circumstances will conspire to confound or even subvert their intentions.
 
Recall Steve Jobs’s astonished comment, upon being shown the algorithmically self-righting Segway scooter for the first time, that “they’ll architect cities around these things.” With this technology in hand, the prospect of undoing at least some of the damage done to cities of the twentieth century by the internal-combustion engine suddenly seemed a great deal more credible. The formless sprawl, the environments legible only at speed, the dependence for mobility on capsular vehicles that isolated occupants from their surroundings and one another, above all the air pollution: in the minds of its earliest advocates and enthusiasts, all of these circumstances stood to be transformed by the Segway. But compare this rather pleasant vision to the world we actually live in some two decades downstream from the Segway’s commercial appearance, where the vehicles remain limited to ferrying around annoying platoons of helmeted tourists, and perhaps the occasional airport security officer. Instead of compelling any gross transformation of the urban environment, let alone the way we collectively think about urban mobility, thus far the Segway’s primary contribution to everyday life has been inspiring the cheap, Chinese-made “hoverboards” whose lithium-ion batteries burst into flames with distressing frequency.
 
Or consider what eventually happened to Craigslist — when it first emerged in the San Francisco of the late 1990s, a virtually utopian space in which goods, skilled services and shelter circulated for free. A passionate community of users grew up around the early Bay Area Craigslist, and something very close to a true gift economy sprung into existence among them: a functioning ecosystem of exchange founded on goodwill and mutuality, in the very heart of the late-capitalist West. For these early users, much of what they’d previously resorted to accomplishing at retail was, for a time, furnished by a single humble, all-but-rudimentary website.

And yet, for all its promise and sustaining optimism, this apparition of an entirely different mode of citying somehow failed to take the rest of the world by storm. Putting the indifferent stewardship of its management team to one side, Craigslist was ultimately undone by nothing other than scale. As the userbase drawn by the enticing prospect of free or ultra-low-cost services spiked beyond the Dunbar number — the notional upper bound of a human community in which all the members know one another by name — the bonds of implicit trust necessary to any agalmic community became first harder to sustain, and then impossible to construct at all. And this was replicated in city after city, as the service was rolled out across the planet’s major metropolitan markets, in accordance with the build-once/deploy-many-times ethos that drives the software industry and the logic of unlimited scalability that governs the network. In many ways a victim of its own success, Craigslist just about everywhere soon became cluttered with nakedly commercial listings — listings whose propositions were virtually impossible to verify independently, which flowed onto the site at such implacable velocity that they crowded out the community-generated posts that had so strongly characterized its early days. (What’s more, the platform badly undercut the classified advertising-based business model most free local weeklies depended on, driving many of them to extinction.) None of this looked anything like the neighborly, human-scaled, practically utopian community of exchange its gentle founder Craig Newmark had intended to realize. The Craigslist at scale that we know today, harbor for slumlords, haven for scammers and human traffickers, isn’t so much a negation as an outright renunciation of its initial promise.  

Some technical innovations, of course, actually do result in profound alterations in the form, tenor and distribution of city life. For every internal combustion engine, safety elevator, tungsten-filament lightbulb or mobile phone, though, there are dozens of Segways or Craigslists. It is striking, furthermore, how often the technologies with truly transformational implications for the city were originally intended to address some other order of challenge or problem entirely. I very much doubt, for example, that Jeff Bezos had the cratering of high-street retail, the choking of big-city streets with parcel-delivery traffic or the staggering reduction in demand for warehousing labor in mind when he sat down to draft his first plans for an online book market.

This is a history we might wish to bear in mind when inventors, developers and other interested parties present us with claims that some new technology on offer will surely give rise to radically new (and invariably radically better) permutations of the city. We would be wise to consider that the things they propose will invariably be constrained by what the philosopher Jane Bennett thinks of as “the material recalcitrance of cultural products.” Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. In this light, we should consider the possibility that Kay’s promise might have been little more than bravado all along, and the successful scaling-up to worldwide hegemony of the ensemble of tools he helped to develop at PARC a one-time, more or less irreproducible fluke, with no particularly salient implications for innovators in other times or places.

For all the sweep and verve of his framing of things, then, I personally prefer the perspective offered by another technologist: the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer, who argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” We should evaluate a technology, that is, by considering the outcomes it is actually seen to produce when deployed in the world at scale — and not the reputations of its authors, their intentions, institutional affiliations or prior successes, or the ostensible benefits that supposed to attend its adoption.
 
Applying Beer’s bracing realism, the most pernicious words in the technologist’s vocabulary are “might,” “could” and “can,” and the only meaningful test of a proposed technical intervention are the conditions it empirically gives rise to when deployed into a recalcitrant world. We oughtn’t properly even be speaking of “potential”; the only way to ascertain whether or not a given technical or techno-social proposition is indeed within the space of possibility is to build a prototype, deploy it, and await the results. And what we learn when we consider past innovations in the light of this unremitting standard is that technical development, for all its rigors, is the easy part of inventing the future. Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.
 
And this is perhaps truer still for those who intend to realize progressive urban futures. It is still possible to dream of cities in which the flows of matter and energy necessary to an equitable distribution of goods and lifechances are sustainable over the longer term, in which the rather abstract, Lefebvrian “right to the city” is made concrete in accessible, universal mobility and participatory political processes, and above all in which dignified, decent lives are possible. But translating these aspirations into conditions on the ground will require urbanists to develop fluency with a set of conditions that by and large remain opaque to them, even threatening.
 
We must in the first instance have the courage to think the city in the light of the more outré technical possibilities suddenly available to us. Just what does public space look or feel like, when each of the people occupying it is surrounded at all times by a cloud of semi-autonomous servitors and companions, virtual as well as materially embodied? What remains of high streets, Main Streets or malls once retail as we have known it, with all its ability to communicate, seduce and gather, is exploded into ten thousand separate acts of on-the-spot production or just-in-time fulfilment? What do prospects for entry-level or otherwise unskilled employment look like in that unbundled world, and how will that be felt in the tenor of street life? The ways in which these questions come to be answered will set the boundary conditions for everyday urban life, for the kinds of political struggle that are possible in the urban frame and for the subjectivities and selves that arise there.
 
As we reckon with the lines of flight that now open up to us, however, we must retain the clarity and integrity to ground these possibilities against everything we know about the fate of interventions past. We need to understand the captures, detours and reversals that perennially afflict emergent technologies at the point where they intersect with existing ways of doing, making, dwelling and being, taking note particularly of the fact that technologies that prosper and find traction in the world are very often those which reinforce existing inequities of power. What this implies for urbanists of a politically progressive stripe is that, for a given struggle, conventional community organizing may offer a far better return on investments in energy, effort or other resources than an attempt to drive change via technical means.
 
Working fluently with technology means stripping it of its unearned gloss of neutrality. All technologies are, without exception, expressions of one or another set of values, and therefore by any sane accounting ought to be contested terrain. When Uber becomes popular in a given city, for instance, and that popularity is explicitly cited as justification for not maintaining an adequate level of investment in public transit, we can be sure that what we are seeing is somebody’s values being enacted, if not necessarily our own.

Like any other professional or disciplinary community, the adepts of network technology hold tacit beliefs in common. They hold certain conceptions of the just, the true and the beautiful, think the world in certain distinct ways. If they cannot always realize their aims directly, it still behooves us to know what they believe, and understand what it is that they are trying to achieve.

Further, the particular set of values inscribed in a technology may have a great deal to do with its fortunes in the world, and how well it is able to function as a purposive invention of the future. Uber is a particularly resonant example; whatever else it may be, it enacts a kind of propaganda of the deed, or what the media scholar Alison Powell calls the argument-by-technology. The vision of hyperindividualism, invidious interpersonal competitiveness and unlimited-convenience-for-those-who-can-afford-it inscribed in the service dovetails perfectly with — one might even say “embraces and extends” — the neoliberal ethos that has prevailed in the developed world for the past four decades. And this perhaps explains why it has been realized, where the rather more humane visions undergirding Craigslist or the Segway plainly have not been. Wherever services like Uber go unchallenged, the imposition of these values is effectively a fait accompli — and with future resource commitments tending to be entrained by path dependence, that achievement sets the initial conditions for everything that follows in its wake.

In the end, perhaps the crucial insight is this: urbanists can no longer ignore the impact of developments like machine learning, large-scale data analysis and automation, or treat them as something external to our field of inquiry. Operating at every scale and level of urban life, from vehicle guidance to the mediation of sociality to the aesthetics of the built environment, they are clearly set to exert the most profound influence on the physical spaces of our cities, the things we do in them, the ways they generate meaning and value, and the very selves we understand ourselves to be. It’s no longer tenable for anyone who cares about the life of cities to hold this set of facts at bay, especially those of us who nurture some remaining hope that the master’s tools can be used to build other sorts of houses entirely. And while we needn’t and oughtn’t build our practices exclusively around this class of technologies, we might want to consider how to fold a nuanced, properly skeptical engagement with them into our approach to the design of urban space and experience.

A place for antiheroic technology

As I seem to have acquired, in some quarters anyway, a reputation as an uncompromising and intractable Luddite where matters of networked technology in everyday domestic life are concerned, I thought I’d share with you today some minor evidence that I’m not unalterably opposed to each and every such appearance. I give you…the Ember.

This is precisely the kind of networked device I might have written off as a near-meaningless frippery a few years ago. It’s a nicely-designed ceramic mug with a rechargeable heating element built into its base, allowing you to set the temperature at which you prefer to drink your coffee or tea.

All it is, really, is a thermostat — but a thermostat in a surprising, and surprisingly welcome, place. There isn’t any computation to speak of going on. The networked aspect is nicely circumspect, and it’s mainly there to let a smartphone app serve as the user interface, keeping the mug itself appropriately stripped down. You pair it with a phone once, on first setup, and that’s it. Everything else is done through the app, and you don’t even need to interact with that too much once you’ve got your preferences dialed in.

I should say that Ember is not perfect, either as a product or as a piece of interaction design. The embedded, multicolor LED fails to communicate much of anything useful, despite its multiple, annoyingly blinky and colorful states; all I really need to know from it is when the mug needs to be recharged. That need arises far too often, at least when it’s set to maintain the temperatures at which I prefer to drink coffee. And inevitably, I have concerns about the nonexistence of any meaningful security measures, a nonexistence that in fairness is endemic to all consumer IoT devices, but remains inexcusable for any of them.

But Ember gets some things right, and when it does, they tend to be very right. By far the most important of these is that it works as a mug, prior to the question of any networked or interactive functionality. The vessel has a good heft to it, and when you set it down on a solid surface, the feeling of a damped but substantial mass that’s transmitted through the rubberized rings at its base is just very, very satisfying. The ceramic surface has a pleasingly velvety texture — so much so, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if it’s one of those miracle materials that will turn out to have been threshold-carcinogenic twenty or thirty years down the line. It’s gratifyingly easy to clean.

And as far as that additional functionality is concerned, the mug does what it says it will, does it well…and it’s a hoot. It turns out that there’s a real Weiserian frisson to be had from something that violates all the subtle, subconscious expectations you’ve built up over a lifetime of drinking hot beverages from ceramic mugs. The confoundment of assumptions is so deep, indeed, that it takes you awhile to catch up with the new reality — to realize that you can go answer the doorbell or otherwise be distracted for five or ten minutes, and still come back to a piping hot beverage. In fact, Ember stands the principle of evaporative cooling on its head: because the heating element is still set to maintain a larger volume of liquid at a given temperature, but most of that volume will have been drunk away by the time you get to them, your last few swallows are noticeably, delightfully hotter than any you’ve had since first filling the mug.

To be clear, the Ember mug is not something anyone needs, especially at this price point. But I admire its clarity of purpose, in leveraging a modest deployment of technology to furnish its user with a small but nevertheless genuine everyday pleasure. And without wanting to be pompous about matters, I happen to believe there’s a crucial role for small but genuine pleasures in difficult times like the ones we happen to be living through. You may find yourself surprised by the degree to which a sip of hot coffee lands when you sip it forty or forty-five minutes after brewing — at least, I surely was, and am — and how psychoemotionally sustaining it can be when it does. Most of that is probably the coffee itself, doing what it is that coffee does, but better by far a networked product that is modest and humble in its aims, and succeeds in meeting them, than one which promises everything and does none of it particularly well.

Uber, or: The technics and politics of socially corrosive mobility

We can think of the propositions the so-called “smart city” is built on as belonging to three orders of visibility. The first is populated by exotica like adaptive sunshades, fully-automated supply and removal chains, and personal rapid transit (“podcar”) systems. These systems feature prominently in the smart city’s advertising, promotional renderings and sales presentations. They may or may not ever come into being — complex and expensive, they very often wind up value-engineered out of the final execution, or at least notionally deferred to some later phase of development — but by announcing that the urban plan in question is decidedly oriented toward futurity, they serve a valuable marketing and public-relations function. Whether or not they ever amount to anything other than what the technology industry calls “vaporware,” they are certainly highly visible, and can therefore readily be held up to consideration.

A second order consists of the behind-the-scenes working of algorithmic systems, the black-box churn of “big data” analytics that, at least in principle, affords metropolitan administrators with the predictive policing, anticipatory traffic control and other services on which the smart-city value proposition is premised. These systems are hard to see because their operations are inherently opaque. While the events concerned are inarguably physical and material, they are far removed from the phenomenological scale of human reckoning. They unfold in the transduction of electrical potential across the circuitry of databases and servers, racked in farms which may be hundreds or even thousands of miles from the city whose activities they regulate. Such systems are, therefore, generally discernible only in their outputs: in the differential posture or disposition of resources, or the perturbations that result when these patterns are folded back against the plane of experience. At best, the dynamics involved may show up in data visualizations bundled into a “city dashboard” – access to which itself may or may not be offered to the populace at large – but they otherwise tend to abscond from immediate awareness.

The third order, however, may be the hardest of all to consider analytically, and this is because it is predominantly comprised of artifacts and services that are already well-assimilated elements of everyday urban life. Being so well woven into the fabric of urban experience, the things that belong to this category, like other elements of the quotidian, fade beneath the threshold of ordinary perception; we only rarely disinter them and subject them to critical evaluation. In this category we can certainly place the smartphone itself: a communication device, intimate sensor platform and aperture onto the global network of barely half a decade’s vintage, that has nonetheless utterly reshaped the tenor and character of metropolitan experience for those who wield one. Here as well we can situate big-city bikesharing schemes — each of which is, despite a certain optical dowdiness, a triumphant assemblage of RFID, GPS, wireless connectivity and other networked information-processing technologies. And here we find the network-mediated mobility-on-demand services that have already done so much to transform what it feels like to move through urban space, at least for a privileged few.

Inordinately prominent among this set of mobility brokers, of course, is the San Francisco-based Uber. So hegemonic is the company that its name has already entered the language as a shorthand for startups and apps dedicated to the smartphone-mediated, on-demand provision of services: we hear the Instacart offering referred to as “an Uber for groceries,” Evolux as “an Uber for helicopters,” Tinder as “an Uber for dating,” and so on. If we are to understand personal mobility in the networked city — how it works, who has access to it, which standing patterns it reinforces and which it actually does disrupt — it might be worth hauling Uber up into the light and considering its culture and operations with particular care.

It may seem perverse to describe something as “difficult to see” when it is so insistently, inescapably visible. To be sure, though, Uber’s sudden prominence is not merely due to the esteem in which its users hold it; the company has a propensity for becoming embroiled in controversy unrivaled by its peers, or indeed by just about any commercial enterprise, regardless of scale or sector. To list just some of the most widely reported incidents it has been involved in during the past half-year:

That any given mobility technology should become a flashpoint for so many controversies so widely dispersed over a single six-month period is remarkable. That all of them should involve a sole mobility provider may well be unprecedented. The truth is that we certainly do see Uber…but not for what it is. Its very prominence helps to mask what’s so salient about it.

What is Uber? Founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick — a UCLA dropout whose only previous business experience involved the peer-to-peer file exchange applications Scour Exchange and Red Swoosh — Uber is a company valued as of the end of 2014 at some $40 billion, currently operating in over 200 cities worldwide. Like others of its ilk, it allows customers to arrange point-to-point journeys as and when desired, via an application previously loaded on their Apple or Android smartphones. All billing is handled through the application, meaning that the rider needn’t worry about the psychological discomfort of negotiating fares at origin or tips at their destination. Its various offerings, which range from the “low-cost” uberX [sic] to the super-premium UberLUX, are positioned as being more convenient, and certainly more comfortable, than existing municipal taxi and livery (“black”) car services. Regardless of service level, the vehicles involved are owned and operated by drivers the company has gone to great lengths to characterize not as employees (with all that would imply for liability insurance, wages, and the provision of employee benefits) but as independent contractors.

Uber is classified under California law as a “network transportation company,” and while the dry legal taxonomy is technically accurate, it masks what is truly radical about the enterprise. Seen clearly, Uber is little more than a brand coupled to a spatialized resource-allocation algorithm, with a rudimentary reputation mechanic running on top. The company owns no fleet, employs relatively few staff directly, and — as we shall see — may not even maintain public offices in the commonly-understood sense of that term.

What distinguishes it from would-be competitors like Hailo and Lyft isn’t so much any particular aspect of its organization or technical functionality, but its stance. Uber comes with an overt ideology. (Even if you somehow remained unaware of CEO Kalanick’s libertarian politics, or his fondness for the work of Ayn Rand — both of which have been widely reported — the nature of that ideology might still readily be inferred from his company’s very name.) Despite a tagline positioning itself as “Everyone’s Private Driver,” Uber has never for a moment pretended to universality. Just the opposite: every aspect of the marketing and user experience announces that this a service consciously designed for the needs, tastes, preferences and status anxieties of a very specific market segment, the aspirant global elite.

Uber makes no apologies about its policy of adaptive surge pricing, in which fare multipliers of up to 8X are applied during periods of particularly heavy demand. But at an average fare of around twenty US dollars, a single Uber ride can still be justified by most members of its target audience as an “affordable luxury” — all the more so when enjoyed as an occasional rather than a daily habit. Availing oneself of this luxury, and being seen to do so, is self-evidently appealing to a wide swath of people living in densely built-up places around the world — necessarily including among their number a great many who would likely be appalled by Kalanick’s politics, were they ever unambiguously forced to consider them.

With Uber, Kalanick has made it clear that a service founded on a relatively high technological base of ubiquitous smartphones, sophisticated digital cartography and civilian GPS can be wildly successful when it is wrapped in the language not of technology itself, but of comfort and convenience. So enticing, indeed, is this combination that hundreds of thousands of users are willing to swallow not merely the technologically complex but the politically unsavory when sugarcoated in this way. While this will likely strike most observers as rather obvious, it is an insight that has thus far eluded other actors with a rhetorical or material stake in the development of a heavily technologized urbanity.

This state of affairs, however, is unlikely to last forever. Other interested parties will surely note Uber’s success, draw their own conclusions from it, and attempt to apply whatever lessons they derive to the marketing of their own products and services. If Uber is a confession that the “smart city” is a place we already live in, then, it is also a cautionary case study in the kinds of values we can expect such a city to uphold in its everyday operation — some merely strongly implicit, others right out there in the open. Just what are they?

Those who can afford to pay more deserve to be treated better.
Uber’s proposition to its users collapses any distinction between having and deserving; quite simply, its message is that if you can afford to be treated better than others, you’re entitled to be treated better than others.

This is certainly one of the logics of resource allocation available to it in the late-capitalist marketplace; as Harvard’s Michael Sandel observes, in his 2012 What Money Can’t Buy, this particular logic is increasingly filtering into questions traditionally decided by different principles, such as the (at least superficially egalitarian) rule of first-come/first-served. And it is not, after all, very different from the extant market segmentation dividing public transit from taxi or livery-car service: money to spend has always bought the citydweller in motion a certain degree of privacy and flexibility in routing and schedule. What specifically distinguishes Uber from previous quasi-private mobility offerings, though, and takes it into a kind of libertarian hyperdrive, is its refusal to submit to regulation, carry appropriate insurance, provide for the workers on whom it depends, or in any way allow the broader public to share in a set of benefits distributed all but exclusively between the rider and the company. (Driver comments make it clear that it is possible to make decent money as an Uber driver, but only with the most exceptional hustle; the vigorish assessed is significant, and monthly payments on the luxury vehicles the company requires its drivers to own saddle them with an onerous, persistent burden.)

Uber’s “disruptive” business model forthrightly treats the costs of on-demand, point-to-point mobility as externalities to be borne by anonymous, deprecated others, and this is a strong part of what makes it so corrosive of the public trust. This becomes most acutely evident when Uber drivers are involved in fatal accidents during periods when they do not happen to be carrying passengers, as was the case when driver Syed Muzzafar struck and killed six-year-old Sofia Liu in San Francisco, on the last day of 2013. (Muzzafar’s Uber app was open and running at the time he hit Liu and her family, indicating that he was cruising for fares, but the company refuses to accept any liability for the accident.)

That “better” amounts to a bland generic luxury.
Uber’s conception of user comfort pivots largely on predictability and familiarity. Rather than asking riders to contend with the particularities and idiosyncrasies of local mobility culture, or any of the various factors that distinguish a New York City taxi cab from one in London or Delhi or Beijing, the Uber fleet offers its users a mobile extension of international hospitality nonplace: a single distributed site where globalized norms of blandly aspirational luxury are reinforced.

The suggestions Uber drivers leave for one another on online discussion sites are revealing in this regard. Those who wish to receive high ratings from their passengers are advised to ensure that their vehicles are well-equipped with amenities (mints, bottled water, WiFi connectivity), and remain silent unless spoken to. The all-but-explicit aim is to render the back of an Uber S-Class or 7 Series experientially continuous with the airport lounges, high-end hotels and showplace restaurants of the business-centric generic city hypostatized by Rem Koolhaas in his 1994 article of the same name.

Interpersonal exchanges are more appropriately mediated by algorithms than by one’s own competence.
This conception of good experience is not the only thing suggesting that Uber, its ridership or both are somewhat afraid of actual, unfiltered urbanity. Among the most vexing challenges residents and other users of any large urban place ever confront is that of trust: absent familiarity, or the prospect of developing it over a pattern of repeated interactions, how are people placed (however temporarily) in a position of vulnerability expected to determine who is reliable?

Like other contemporary services, Uber outsources judgments of this type to a trust mechanic: at the conclusion of every trip, passengers are asked to explicitly rate their driver. These ratings are averaged into a score that is made visible to users in the application interface: “John (4.9 stars) will pick you up in 2 minutes.” The implicit belief is that reputation can be quantified and distilled to a single salient metric, and that this metric can be acted upon objectively.

Drivers are, essentially, graded on a curve: their rolling tally, aggregated over the previous 500 passenger engagements, must remain above average not in absolute terms, but against the competitive set. Drivers whose scores drop beneath this threshold may not receive ride requests, and it therefore functions as an effective disciplinary mechanism. Judging from conversations among drivers, further, the criteria on which this all-important performance metric is assessed are subjective and highly variable, meaning that the driver has no choice but to model what they believe riders are looking for in the proverbial “good driver,” internalize that model and adjust their behavior accordingly.

What riders are not told by Uber — though, in this age of ubiquitous peer-to- peer media, it is becoming evident to many that this has in fact been the case for some time — is that they too are rated by drivers, on a similar five-point scale. This rating, too, is not without consequence. Drivers have a certain degree of discretion in choosing to accept or deny ride requests, and to judge from publicly-accessible online conversations, many simply refuse to pick up riders with scores below a certain threshold, typically in the high 3’s. This is strongly reminiscent of the process that I have elsewhere called “differential permissioning,” in which physical access to everyday spaces and functions becomes ever-more widely apportioned on the basis of such computational scores, by direct analogy with the access control paradigm prevalent in the information security community. Such determinations are opaque to those affected, while those denied access are offered few or no effective means of recourse. For prospective Uber patrons, differential permissioning means that they can be blackballed, and never know why.

Uber certainly has this feature in comment with algorithmic reputation-scoring services like Klout. But all such measures stumble in their bizarre insistence that trust can be distilled to a unitary value. This belies the common-sense understanding that reputation is a contingent and relational thing — that actions a given audience may regard as markers of reliability are unlikely to read that way to all potential audiences. More broadly, it also means that Uber constructs the development of trust between driver and passenger as a circumstance in which algorithmic determinations should supplant rather than rely upon (let alone strengthen) our existing competences for situational awareness, negotiation and the detection of verbal and nonverbal social cues.

Interestingly, despite its deployment of mechanisms intended to assess driver and passenger reliability, the company goes to unusual lengths to prevent itself from being brought to accountability. Following the December 2014 Delhi rape incident, police investigators were stunned to realize that while Uber had been operating in India for some time, neither the .in website nor any other document they had access to listed a local office. They were forced to register for the app themselves (as well as download a third-party payment application) simply so they could hire an Uber car and have the driver bring them to the place where he believed his employers worked. Here we see William Gibson’s science-fictional characterization of 21st-century enterprise (“small, fast, ruthless. An atavism…all edge”) brought to pungent life.

Private enterprise should be valorized over public service provision on principle, even when public alternatives would afford comparable levels of service.
Our dissection of Uber makes it clear that, in schematic, the company offers
nothing that a transit authority like Transport for London could not in principle furnish its riders. Consider that TfL already has everything it would need to offer not merely a comparable, but a better and more equitable, service: operational control over London’s fleet of black cabs, a legendarily skilled and knowledgeable driver cohort, the regulatory ability to determine tariffs, and a set of existing application programming interfaces giving it the necessary access to data. Indeed, coupling an on-demand service directly to its standing public transit capacity (at route termini, for example, or in neighborhoods of poor network coverage) would extend its reach considerably, and multiply the value of its existing assets. Even after accounting for operating costs Uber is unwilling to bear, the return to the public coffers could be substantial. [UPDATE 29 August 2015: Something very much like this now appears to be happening in New York City.]

Like other transit authorities of its scale, TfL certainly has the sophistication to perform such an analysis. But the neoliberal values on which Uber thrives, and the concomitant assumption that public transport is best provisioned on a privatized, for-profit basis, have become so deeply embedded into the discourse of urban governance just about everywhere that no such initiative is ever proposed or considered. The implication is that the smart city is a place where callow, “disruptive” services with poor long-term prospects for collective benefit are allowed to displace the public accommodations previous generations of citydwellers would have demanded as a matter of course and of right.

Conclusion
Quite simply, the city is smaller for people who have access to Uber. The advent of near-effortless, on-demand, point-to-point personal mobility has given them a tesseract with which the occasionally unwieldy envelope of urban space-time can be folded down to something more readily manageable. It’s trivially easy to understand the appeal of this — especially when the night is dark, the bus shelter is cold, the neighborhood is remote, and one is alone.

But as should be clear by now, this power to fold space and time comes at a terrible cost. The four values enumerated above make Uber a prime generator of the patterns of spatialized injustice Stephen Graham has called “software-sorted geographies,” although it does so in a way unencompassed by Graham’s original account. Its ordinary operation injects the urban terrain with a mobile and distributed layer of invidious privilege, a hypersite where practices and values deeply inimical to any meaningful conception of the common wealth are continuously reproduced.

More insidiously yet, these become laminated into journey-planning and other services when they position Uber alongside other options available to the commuter, as simply another tab or item in a pull-down menu. Ethical questions are legislated at the level of interface design, at the hands of engineers and designers so immersed in the privileges of youth and relative wealth, and so inculcated with the values prevalent in their own industry, that they may well not perceive anything about Uber to be objectionable in the slightest. (Notable in this regard are Google Maps and Citymapper, both of which now integrate Uber as a modal option alongside public transit and taxis, and Apple’s App Store, which lists the Uber app as an “Essential.”) Consciously or not, though, every such integration acts to normalize the Randian solipsism, the fratboy misogyny, and the sneering disdain for the very notion of a public good that saturates Uber’s presentation of its identity.

Where innovations in personal mobility could just as easily be designed to extend the right to the city, and to conceive of on-demand access to all points in the urbanized field as a public utility, Uber acts to reinscribe and to actually strengthen existing inequities of access. It is an engine consciously, delicately and expertly tuned to socialize risk and privatize gain. In furtherance of the convenience of a few, it sheds risk on its drivers, its passengers, and the communities within which it operates. If in any way this offering is a harbinger of the network-mediated services we can expect to contend with in the city to come, I believe we are justified in harboring the gravest concern — and, further, in doing whatever we can to render the act of choosing to book a ride with Uber a social faux pas of Google Glass proportions.

And this is only to consider what is operating in the proposition offered by a single provider of networked mobility services. If there is a distinct set of values bound up in Uber, it is unmistakably enmeshed within the broader ideological commitments all but universally upheld in the conception of the smart city, wherever on Earth the deployment of this particular ensemble of technologies has been proposed. Chief among these are the reduction or elimination of taxes, tariffs, and duties; the concomitant recourse to corporate sponsorship (or outright privatization) of essential municipal services; the deregulation of activity between private actors; and the prioritization of other policies primarily oriented to the needs of classes and sectors within society that benefit from frictionless global trade.

A judicious onlooker might of course wonder what anything on this laundry list has to do with the attributes or capabilities of networked digital systems, but that is precisely the point. As articulated on terrain from Dholera to Rio de Janeiro to New York, we can understand the ostensibly utopian smart city as nothing more than the information-technological aspect of a globally triumphant but still-ravenous neoliberalism — a mask this ideology wears when it wishes to dissemble its true nature and appeal to audiences beyond its existing core of convinced adherents.

Dissecting Uber may help clarify the implications of this turn for those whose life chances are and will continue to be affected by it, but it is the merest start. There remain arrayed before the public for its consideration a very great number of other propositions that belong to the latter two of the smart city’s three orders of visibility, from security systems equipped with facial-recognition capability to networked thermostats to wearable devices aimed at nothing less than quantification of the self. It is these systems in which even the clearest ideological commitments are most likely to be screened or obscured, whether by the seemingly ordinary nature of the product or service or by the very complexity of the distributed technical architecture that underwrites it. Given what is at stake, it’s therefore essential that we subject all such propositions to the most sustained, detailed, and knowledgeable scrutiny before embracing them.

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Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy.

Sharma, Aman. “Delhi government bans Uber, says it is misleading customers,” The Times of India, 8 December 2014. Retrieved from http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-12-08/news/56839680_1_taxi-services-radio-taxi-scheme-customers.

Tran, Mark. “Taxi drivers in European capitals strike over Uber – as it happened,” The Guardian, 11 June 2014. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/11/taxi-drivers-strike-uber-london-live-updates.

Rhythms of the connected city

The following essay on the instrumented streetscape is one of the oldest surviving passages in The City Is Here For You To Use; parts of what you’re about to read date to 2007 (!). Among other things, this explains why it’s tonally more enthusiastic about the prospect of living in such a city than anything I’d be likely to write from scratch today, and also accounts for the fact that a decent chunk of it bears an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Hill’s great and deservedly foundational 2008 essay “The Street As Platform.” (I like to think my take is sufficiently distinct from Dan’s that it’s still worth publishing as-is, but I’m sure you’ll let me know if you think otherwise.)

Those quibbles aside, I’m pleased with the way it stands up — pleased enough, at any rate, to offer it to you here, now, before any more time goes by. As ever, I hope you enjoy it and find it usefully provocative.

Imagine trying to apprehend everything that happens over the course of a single day, in any of Earth’s great cities: all the flows of matter, energy and information; all the happenstance connections which come into being for a single moment, before passing forever into history; every sensible event which transpires. Even if you could somehow capture all of these passages in a single diagram, how could the result be anything but a writhing hypershape, forever absconding from our ability to comprehend it?

But what if we could perceive the shape of events, even for a moment? Better yet, what if we could somehow decode what it was trying to tell us? What if we could divine the subtle patterns latent in it, haul ashore from this dark sea order, insight…meaning?

Toward the end of his long and productive career, the great sociologist Henri Lefebvre took up just this question, in a project he called “rhythmanalysis.” This was a notion he introduced in an essay called “Seen from the Window,” and a famous passage in which Lefebvre simply stands at his balcony and gives himself up to the tides of the living city.

His view must have been spectacular. From this favored vantage point, he can take up the Centre Pompidou, the Bank of France, the National Archive, “[a]ll of Paris ancient and modern, traditional and creative, active and idle” in a single sweeping gaze. Alongside Lefebvre, we stand at the window long enough to note the diurnal washes of office workers and schoolchildren, the cyclic peaks and troughs of vehicular traffic, the blooms of tourist-friendly mummery in the museum plaza and the slow ebbing of activity into the long stretch of the deep middle night.

This depiction of the great city’s surges and stutters is vivid enough, especially for readers familiar with Paris. But what Lefebvre is trying to call our attention to is what happens when we immerse ourselves in the art of watching. “Seen from the Window” isn’t ultimately concerned with anything that can be captured by a single glance, as much as it is with an order that reveals itself only in time.

What the trained mind perceives in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it completely — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — “Window” argues that there is a hidden truth of the city, something bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis: in a word, rhythms. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

While it certainly resonates with other attempts to know the city via concerted application of the senses, notably Georges Perec’s lovely 1974 Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris, this is something Lefebvre maintains even though “Seen from the Window” apparently postdates a few artifacts demonstrating how much more rewarding this undertaking can be when augmented with appropriate technology. Koyaanisqatsi, for example, which is nothing if not a sequence of images showing the rhythm of urban place and the underlying social order, and an extraordinarily vivid and memorable one at that. Or William H. Whyte’s wonderful 1980 investigations of sidewalk life in New York City, released as a short film called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

It is surely the case, historically, that time-and-motion studies have had unfortunate Taylorist and Fordist resonances, and perhaps Lefebvre was reacting to those in insisting on the primacy of human perception. But Whyte’s work demonstrated that, conscientiously applied, time-lapse photography could reveal patterns of use and activity that would have escaped the unaided human observer; if the value of such techniques wasn’t obvious before his films, it certainly should have been thereafter. So while I’m always tempted to submit to Lefebvre’s passionate humanism, the fact is that any attempt to understand patterns of regular activity in anything as compound in its complexity as a city is likely to fail if the proper tools are not brought to bear on it.

Could it be that we now have access to tools that Lefebvre lacked? Tools that even he might have granted would provide crucial support to his project of rhythmanalysis and, more broadly, other attempts to divine the deeper order in the surging and cycling of things? Certainly those of us with the ordinary endowments of attention and focus have a hard time wrapping our heads around the “organized complexity” Jane Jacobs thought of as emblematic of urban place; I can tell you from long experience that sitting and watching a city, straining to read its traces and signs, is an exercise in head-flexing frustration. I, at least, need help.

Consider that organized complexity, and what it implies about the dynamics of place. In any settlement worthy of the name “city,” a very large number of discrete events will transpire at any given moment. We can think of each as a move in a sprawling, elaborate game — but a game in which every move changes the rules all players must abide by. Each and every event that is seen to occur alters the terms of the shared situation, however incrementally or subtly, and anyone wanting to develop any particularly robust understanding of that situation needs to account for as many of them as possible.

For most of human history, this was well beyond the capabilities of even the most ambitious state, or enterprise. As we’ve seen, however, we are by now collectively well-embarked on the project of installing sensing devices both on our persons, and throughout the urban environment, that can capture these fragile traces before they are lost. These devices operate in a bewildering profusion of registers, and at every scale. They generate the most torrential volumes of data about our bodies, our places, and everything that happens in and between them.

In being uploaded and propagated across a network, the flickering traces of our existence acquire an uncanny persistence. If this persistence isn’t immortality, or anything like it, it is at the very least an extension in time of things we have generally expected to expire and disappear from the world entirely. Whatever is once captured by the network remains available for future retrieval, furnishing us with a repository of collective memory that another French thinker, Bernard Stiegler, thinks of as a “global mnemotechnic apparatus.” And where the flood of sensed impressions easily overwhelms any unaided ability to make meaning of it, we now have access to an array of analytical techniques to help us correlate, synthesize and extract significance from the intake.

Where Lefebvre maintained that only the human eye was capable of registering the city’s rhythms, and only the human heart truly able to make sense of them, we’ve bound ourselves and our cities in a skein of technical mediation that — in this sense, anyway — allows us to transcend the limitations of the merely human. In doing so, we acquire new and almost superhuman capabilities, collectively and individually. We can sift the onrushing flow of events, divine the presence of a signal amidst all the noise, develop a vastly refined understanding of a city’s organized, compound and ramifying complexity…and act upon it.

Lefebvre is gone, but his balcony remains. The city that stretches beneath it is, like all other true cities, a manifold positively shuddering with life and activity at every scale of being. It pulses with flows of matter, energy and information, in patterns that vary from the clockwork-routine to the one-of-a-kind and never-to-be-repeated. What would you miss, if all you could know of these flows was the wedge or cone visible to you during a few hours’ vigil at a window in the 6e?

It’s a few moments before six, on a damp evening in early spring. From Montreuil in the east to Neuilly-sur-Seine in the west, streetlights wink on in a slow wave, as their sensors register the falling dusk. There’s a rush-hour backup approaching the Porte d’Orléans exit on the Périphérique; in front of a BNP Paribas ATM in the Rue de Sèvres, a brief scuffle breaks out between supporters of the Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille football clubs. Two friends from Sciences-Po laugh abashedly, as they recognize one another before one of the few tatty multiplexes remaining on the Champs-Élysées — they’re in line to pick up tickets for the 6:15 showing of an American blockbuster. Not far away, in the Avenue Carnot, a flic pins a suspected purse-snatcher to the wall; affecting nonchalance as they wait for a van to come pick them up, he leans into the man’s back, putting all his weight behind the point of his elbow.

A municipal street-cleaner churns slowly through the streets of the Marais, hosing the day’s grit and dust from the asphalt. Across town, on the Boulevard Ney in the 18e Arrondissement, a bored Ghanaian streetwalker seeks shelter from a brief downpour beneath the awning of a pharmacy, her emerald-daubed nails clacking on the screen of her phone as she checks her messages. In the Rue Saint-Honoré, a fashion executive urges her two matched Standard Poodles from the back of the black S600 that has just deposited her in front of her office. An American backpacker on a post-collegiate month abroad strides forth from the marble gate of Père Lachaise with a shoplifted Gide wedged in the cargo pocket of his fatigue pants. And way out in Torcy, there are RER cars being switched in from a siding to the main rail line, bound for Les Halles and the other stations of the center.

In this city, everyone passing by with a mobile phone reveals their location — whether or not the phone is equipped with explicitly locative technology, whether or not the phone is even turned on. Every transaction in the bistros and shops and cafés generates a trail, just as every bus and car and Vélib bicycle throws its own data shadow. Even the joggers in the Bois du Boulogne cast a constant, incrementing tally of miles logged and calories burned.

This is Paris: all of it, all at once. In any previous epoch, all of these events might have transpired unobserved and unmarked — except, perhaps, by a sociologist in the twilight of his life, gazing down from his balcony. Even the most sensitive observer could never hope to witness or impress upon their recollection more than the tiniest fraction of it, however long they watched the city go by. And any information or potential insight bound up in the flow of events fell to the ground like a silent, diffuse drizzle, forever lost to introspection, analysis, and memory.

But now we can trace these flows, at least in principle, and plot them in space and in time. We can turn up latent patterns and unexpected correlations, and in turn suggest points of effective intervention to those with a mind to change. We can determine that there are more rhythms in the living city than even Henri Lefebvre ever dreamed of: anticipations, reversals, slight returns. Stutters, stops, and lags. Doublings and crashes. And we can do this all because of the vast array of data-collecting devices we’ve seeded through the quotidian environment.

Traffic cameras and roadway sensors on the Périphérique log the slowdown, and it shows up as a thick red line splashed across a hundred thousand electronic roadsigns, dashboard navigation units and smartphone screens. Here are the rhythms of daily mobility and, by extension, the broader economy.

The ATM’s security camera captures the precise details of who did what to whom in the scuffle, and when; the identities of the participants can be reconstructed later on, if need be, by a state-sanctioned trawl of the transaction records. (Those identity files will almost certainly note an individual’s allegiance to a particular football club.) As with the traffic, here too we can begin to make correlations, mapping outbreaks of aggression against other observed phenomena — the league schedule, perhaps, or the phase of the moon, or the unemployment index. Or even something comparatively unexpected, like the price of discount-airline tickets. Here are the rhythms of collective mood.

The friends so embarrassed to run into one another at a superhero movie? They reserved their tickets online using their phones, and in so doing broadcast their choice for all to see, at least in aggregate; they might be surprised to learn that those who purchase tickets in this way in the streets around their campus appear to have a marked fondness for Hollywood action flicks. Here are correlated geographical patterns of socialization and consumption, and the rhythms of media consumption.

The Avenue Carnot is nowhere to be found in any official record of the bag-snatching incident. In all the relevant entries, the offense is associated with the location where it was reported, a few blocks away in the rue de Tilsitt, and so that is how it shows up in both the Mairie’s statistics and a citizen-generated online map of risk in Paris; in fact, this kind of slippage between an event that happens in the world and the event’s representation in the networked record is routine. But the arrogant insouciance of the arresting flic’s posture bothers a lycée student passing by, who snaps a picture with her phone and submits it, time- and location-stamped, to the Commission Citoyens Justice Police, a civilian review board. In this constellation of facts, we can see something about the frequency with which particular kinds of crimes are committed in a given location, the type and density of policing resources deployed to address them, and the frictions between the police and the communities in which they operate. Here, then, are the contrapuntal rhythms of crime, its control and the response to that control.

The nature of the streetwalker’s trade could perhaps be inferred from the multiple daily orbits her cellphone describes between her regular patch on the sidewalk and a cheap rented room nearby. If not this, then her frequent purchases of condoms would certainly help to flesh out the picture, even though she pays cash for them — the pharmacy she buys them from retains a service that uses each phone’s unique IMEI number to track customers’ trajectories through the store, and this service maps her path to the Durex display with unerring precision. Here in these ghostly trails are the rhythms of the informal economy, surfacing through seemingly innocuous patterns of fact. (Her phone calls home to Ghana, like the tens of thousands of other calls mediated monthly by the base stations of the 18e, to Nigeria and Sierra Leone, clarify not merely how deeply interconnected any city is with others, but specifically which neighborhoods within them are most associated with other places on Earth. Here are the rhythms of global mobility, global migration and, inevitably, global exploitation.)

The streetcleaner, of course, has a GPS transponder; its moment-to-moment route through the city is mapped by the Mairie itself, and provided to citizens in real time as part of a transparency initiative designed to demonstrate the diligence and integrity of civil servants (and very much resented by the DPE workers’ union). Unless prevented from happening — should those workers, for example, happen to go on strike, or a particularly rowdy manif break out — here are the metronome-reliable rhythms of the municipal.

The fashion executive had her assistant reserve a car online some weeks ago, and so while there’s certainly something to be inferred from whether she splurged on the S600 as usual, or economized with a cheaper booking, there’s probably some lag in what it signifies. (Even if the car hadn’t been booked on the corporate account, it is also, of course, equipped with GPS, and that unit’s accuracy buffer has been set such that it correctly identifies the location at the moment it pulls up to the curb with the name of the house the executive works for.) Here can be gleaned solid, actionable business intelligence: both the cycling of particular enterprises and sectors of the economy, and by extension possibly even some insight into the rhythms of something as inchoate and hard to grasp as taste.

What might we learn from the American backpacker? The pedometer app on his phone is sophisticated enough to understand his dwell of eleven minutes in a location in the Rue de Rivoli as a visit to the W.H. Smith bookstore, but other facets of his activity this day slip through holes in the mesh — that boosted volume of Gide, notably, which will remain an unexplained lacuna on the bookstore’s inventory-tracking software. And, bizarrely, his few hours contemplating greatness and mortality in Père Lachaise, which resolve against a flaky location database as having been passed instead in the aisles of a Franprix market a few blocks to the east. (Indeed, so often does this same error happen that after a few months, the Franprix starts getting recommended to other tourists as a destination frequently visited by people like them, and enjoys a slight but detectable bump in revenues as a result. The manager is pleased, but mystified.) Here are the rhythms of contingency and chance and stochastic noise.

And each commuter passing through the turnstiles of the RER at day’s end, each of them the increment of a register in the capacity-management systems of the RATP, clarifies the contours of one final picture. The city’s population at 4 AM may be half what it is at 4 PM, revealing the true Paris as something that has only a casual relationship with its administrative boundaries. Here is the rhythm of the city itself.

Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network, and retained for inspection at leisure. We can readily visualize basins of attraction or repulsion, shedding light on the relationships between one kind of flow and another, and in so doing perhaps learning how to shape their evolution with a lighter hand.

By the same token, though, that which had been liminal becomes clear; what was invisible is made self-evident, even painfully obvious; the circumstances we generally prefer to ignore or dissemble stand forth, plain as day. The embarrassing, the informal, the nominally private and the illegal become subject to new and perhaps untenable kinds of scrutiny. The gaze of the state intensifies — but the state may find, to its surprise, that its subjects have many of the same capabilities, and are gazing right back upon it.

On this evening in the City of Light, a hundred million connected devices sing through the wires and the aether. Of the waves that ripple through the urban fabric, at whatever scale, very few escape their ken — escape being captured by them, and represented in bursts of binary data. Enciphered within are billions of discrete choices, millions of lives in motion, the cycling of the entire economy, and, at the very edge of perception, the signs and traces of empire’s slow unwinding.

This is a city Lefebvre never saw from his balcony, and never could — any more than Henry Mayhew could have, in looking down on the wild scrum of Victorian London from the parapet of St. Paul’s, or any observer of any of the great cities of history would have been able to, no matter the perspicacity they brought to the task. It’s ours, the one we live in.

What might we do with it?

Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.

The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.

In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.

Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.

So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?

On the plus side of the ledger:
– Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
– So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
– Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
– You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
– Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
– The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.

These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?

– Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
– The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
– Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
– It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
– Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?

I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.

An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object

UPDATE: Event confirmed for 14th March, 2014. See the final post.

For the past half-decade or so, in a phenomenon most everyone reading this site is no doubt already intimately acquainted with, data-derived artifacts (dynamic visualizations, digital maps, interactive representations of place-specific information, even static “infographics”) have taken increasing prominence in the visual imaginary of mass culture.

We see such images all the time now: broadly speaking, the visual rhetoric associated with them is the animating stuff of everything from car commercials to the weather forecast. The same rhetoric breathes life into election and sports coverage on television, the title sequences of movies, viral Facebook posts and the interactive features on newspaper sites.

Sometimes — in fact, often — these images are deployed as abstract tokens, empty fetishes of futurity, tech-ness, data-ness, evidence-basedness…ultimately, au-courantness. Just as often, and very problematically, they’re used to “prove” things.

But we’ve also begun to see the first inklings of ways in which such artifacts can be used more interestingly, to open up rather than shut down collective discussion around issues of great popular import — to ask its users to consider how and why the state of affairs represented by a given visualization got to be that way, whether that state of affairs is at all OK with them, and what if anything ought to be done to redress it. And this is whether the topic at hand happens to be land use, urban renewal and gentrification, informal housing, the differential consequences of public and privatized mass transit or expenditures in the criminal justice system.

Very few methods of advocacy can convey the consequences of our collective decisions as viscerally as a soundly-designed visualization. (Similarly, if there’s a better way of helping people imagine the spatial implications of alternative policy directions, strategies, investments and allocations, I haven’t stumbled onto it yet, although that certainly blurs the distinction between representing that which does exist and simulating that which does not.) What would happen if such visualizations were consciously and explicitly used as the ground text and point of departure for a moderated deliberative process? Could democracy be done this way? Could this be done at regular intervals? And how might doing so lead to better outcomes (or simply more buy-in) than existing procedures?

There’s plenty of rough precedent for such a notion, albeit scattered across a few different registers of activity:
– A few savvy journalists are starting to use data-based visualizations and maps as the starting point for their more traditional investigative efforts, and the narratives built on them. Visualizations, in this mode, essentially allow unexpected correlations and fact patterns to rise to the surface of awareness, and suggest what questions it might therefore be fruitful for a reporter to ask.
SeeClickFix, of course, already allows citizens to levy demands on local government bodies, though it doesn’t provide for the organization of autonomous response to the conditions it documents, and it forthrightly positions the objects it represents as problems rather than matters of concern. More proactive and affirmative in its framing is Change By Us, which does emphasize voluntarism, though still with a sense of supplication to (elected or appointed) representatives in government. (The site answers the question “Who’s listening?” by promising that a “network of city leaders is ready to hear your ideas and provide guidance for your projects.”) In any event, both SeeClickFix and Change By Us focus on highly granular, literally pothole- or at most community-garden-scale issues.
Storefront Democracy, a student project of Kristin Gräfe and (ex-Urbanscaler) Jeff Kirsch, reimagined the front window of a city councillor’s district office as a site where community sentiment on various questions, expressed as votes, could be visualized. Voting is not quite the same thing as democracy, much less deliberation, but the project began to explore ways in which situated representations might be used to catalyze conversations about matters facing the community.
– There are even full-blown technological platforms that promise to enable robust networked democracy, though for all the technology involved this one at least seems to blow right by the potential of visualized states of affairs to serve as focal points for managed dissensus.

Draw out all of those threads, and what do you wind up with? I’m not at all sure, but the question is certainly provocative enough that I want to explore its implications in further depth and detail. Again, I’m interested in digital cartography and interactive representations of data used as the starting point, rather than the product and culmination, of a decision process. My intention is to disturb these things as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book, and activate them instead as situated social objects. I think by now it’s clear that data-driven projects like Digital Matatus can furnish people with practical tools to manage the way things are in the city. But can they usefully catalyze conversation about the way things could (or should) be? And can we somehow bundle information about provenance into every representation of data, allowing users to ask how it was gathered, by whom, using what means and for what notional purpose, so they can arrive at their own determinations of its reliability and relevance? All of that remains to be seen.

If you find yourself nodding at any of this — or, indeed, you think it’s all deeply misguided, but nevertheless worth contesting in person — consider this a heads-up that I’ll be convening a one-day seminar on this and related topics at LSE in mid-March, and am looking for qualified speakers beyond my personal orbit and existing friendship circles. If you’re interested in either attending or speaking, please do email me at your earliest convenience at my first initial dot my last name at lse.ac.uk. Limited travel support is available – I have an event budget that allows me to fly in two to three speakers and put you up in Central London for a night, so if you or someone you know is inclined to present I definitely encourage you to get in touch. And let’s see if together we can’t figure out if there’s a thing here or not.

Public space, civilization and the self (long)

I go on about this thing we call “public space” quite often — most recently here — but I don’t think I’ve ever furnished you with an argument as to why I think creating, maintaining and actually using it is so important, from either the individual or the collective point of view. So on the eve of publishing a pamphlet that deals with the topic not a little bit, I figured I’d have a go at doing just that. You might want to settle back and pull up your cushions, because like the man says, this is going to go on for awhile.

Public space,

For the past several years, exploring the ways in which we collectively understand and use the common spatial domain has been a primary focus of my design work, as well as my writing. One of the things we set out to do at Urbanscale was use digital cartography to surface and expose all those spaces of the city that are public in name and law, that are yours to use and to enjoy, but which generally remain beneath the threshold of everyday awareness. In New York City specifically, we wanted to use data furnished to the public under the various Local Law provisions to populate a map layer on our Urbanflow kiosks, and eventually personal devices connected to the Urbanflow service, effectively updating Jerold Kayden’s invaluable Privately Owned Public Space (or, for that matter, the Nolli map) for the age of networked informatics.

Discovery turns out to be critical to activating this scattered archipelago of courtyards, plazas and atria as a public amenity. Michael Kimmelman, in his Introduction to Beyond Zuccotti Park (a volume I recommend highly, by the way), emphasizes the idea that no space, however designated in law, can legitimately be described as “public” unless it is routinely occupied and used by members of the entire community, and of course I agree wholeheartedly. But you can’t use something that you don’t know is there. And despite the mandatory signage, to say nothing of longtime activism, advocacy and consciousness-raising on the part of groups like Project for Public Spaces or the Design Trust for Public Space, most New Yorkers seem blissfully unaware that these sites are in fact available to them.

These privately-owned parcels simply aren’t as self-evident as the sidewalks, squares and parks we more often think of as public space. And while some of them are of extremely high quality — Paley Park, for example, which is simply one of my favorite places to sit, read and think in all of New York City — more often they’re neglected, underutilized and unwelcoming, which is something I read as a direct consequence of their low profile. (In fact, their managers tend to rely on this relative obscurity, as well as a fair amount of confusion as to the contours of their rights and obligations, to prevent members of the public from using what is rightfully ours, and therefore contributing to their maintenance burden.)

Why go to the trouble of bringing these spaces to light? And especially why would Urbanscale, as a commercial enterprise, dedicate resources toward doing so? After all, firms like Control Group certainly don’t seem to think that any such thing is in their remit, when developing wayfinding kiosks for the MTA, and the notion that the city is suffused with spaces available for free use is something barely even alluded to in Pentagram’s otherwise-respectable, Legible City-based program of map plinths. Nor do these sites receive any particular attention or distinct graphic treatment in any other widely-used digital map of the city. So why undertake the effort involved in raising them to real-time awareness?

The honest, simple answer is “Because we live here.” That was true when Urbanscale was a “we,” and it remains just as true now that the practice is (but for the occasional collaboration) an “I”: for the most selfish of reasons, I want people to know these spatial amenities are available to and for them, because I benefit when they’re used routinely.

How so? Let’s start with the idea that, like anyone rational, I want the city I live in to be a humane, generous place, one that provides for its citizens and visitors at every level of the Maslovian pyramid. (I happen to believe that I’m better off when everyone around me is receiving the support they need, whether that support be physiological, material, interpersonal or entirely intangible in nature.) And public space in all of its forms is one of the few tools we have that’s capable of speaking to all of these dimensions of need, at least in potential. So it seems to me that there are few more worthwhile things a design practice might do than contributing to awareness, stewardship and use of this resource.

civilization

I’m comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:

Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords.

The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)

Most fundamentally of all, people should have free and unimpeded access to toilets and hygienic facilities for reasons of self-respect. Mitchell Duneier, in his 1999 book Sidewalk, describes a distinction the unhoused themselves delineate between those who habitually relieve themselves in public and those who, for reasons of pride, make a habit of doing so indoors whenever they are able to do so; I now think of this every time I see anyone but a drunken fratboy peeing in the street. In so many words: nobody should be forced to rely on the contingent goodwill of a friendly shopclerk or McDonald’s manager to take a shit in safety and privacy. The point is that most street people, just like anyone else, want to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity, and will do so if given the slightest chance.

And I should hardly need to point out that while the need for a clean toilet, a sink or similar facilities may be felt most acutely by those among us without a permanent place to call their own, the same need can beset any one of us, at any time. Even if for no other reason than “I just got crapped on by a pigeon, and I need a place to take my shirt off and scrub it down before my next meeting.” In this very direct and very real sense, the provisions we make for the ostensibly lowest among us are the provisions we make for ourselves.

We need to make at least some provision for the basic needs of all, and public space can do this.

Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities. Last year, I joined a local group advocating for the pedestrianization of a service road just off Second Avenue near our apartment, and the furnishment of the resulting space with planters and seating. The (eventually successful) opposition to the pedestrianization plan hinged largely on the notion that with Bellevue Hospital and the city’s main homeless shelter/intake center for unaccompanied men in the neighborhood, if the service road were in fact to become a pedestrian plaza that plaza would swiftly come to be overrun by those with nowhere else to be.

Never mind that no one ever offered any empirical support for this scenario. And put to the side, if you can, the understanding that many of those opposing the pedestrian plaza on these grounds were fellow residents of the building complex I live in, and just like me able to avail themselves of the leafy, three-acre garden between our buildings at any time of their choosing. Assume that everything the opponents said was true: that if we successfully created a public amenity in our neighborhood, that amenity would be dominated by the vagrant, the unclean and the unstable.

My response to this is to say, effectively, “So what?” Those human beings, manifestly, exist. There they are. They have needs. As a society, we have made collective choices that result in their being unable to fulfill or even address those needs in the way you or I would as a matter of course. And now we’re going to begrudge them even the ability to sit down and take a load off, when we can do so wherever and whenever we want?

I don’t say any of this cavalierly, and I am under absolutely no illusion that every last person living on the street is an angel, or even particularly safe to be around; New Yorkers, of all people, are acutely aware of the risks of living in close proximity with people whose substance-abuse and mental-health issues have gone untreated, of what’s likely to happen when those issues are allowed to fester to the point that they become life-threatening (or indeed life-ending). But we don’t solve anyone’s problems — neither theirs nor ours nor the region of the Venn diagram where they overlap — by succumbing to self-satisfied NIMBYism, sweeping homeless people out of sight, denying them the basic lineaments of self-care and making tidied-up, fatuous little Potemkin villages of our neighborhoods. So if we don’t want to be confronted by the reality of homeless people sleeping on our public benches, taking up all our public chairs and being visible in the public way, maybe we’d better design public policies that provide them with better options.

We need to face the consequences of our actions, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces.

At the most basic level, if a city isn’t furnished with a well-developed fabric of public spaces of different sizes and shapes and types, there is no place to simply be if you are not actively consuming. You never understand quite what this implies — just how stark and uncomfortable an urban environment can be, no matter how well-appointed otherwise — until you visit someplace where such a nightmare endstate is enacted intentionally and literally.

For me personally, it’s an experience I had last year on a visit to Istanbul’s Kanyon mall that comes to mind when I think of what might await us, should the various tendencies toward privatization of the common spatial domain we can currently discern in our own environment go unchecked. Designed by the California-based Jerde Partnership (the same practice responsible for Universal CityWalk, the “parallel urban reality” dissected by Mike Davis in his 1992 pamphlet “Urban Control“), Kanyon offers plenty of places for visitors to sit…not a single one of which is not clearly demarcated as belonging to Illy or EAT or Le Pain Quotidien. God help you if you’ve come to look and see, but not necessarily to buy: you’ll attract nasty glares not merely from security guards, but — like something out of the “militarized subconscious” of Inception — from shoppers themselves, as though they suspect that your desire to sit somewhere and quietly eat the sandwich you’ve packed is in itself a token of being up to no good.

This may be true of malls everywhere, for all I know; I’ll confess that it’s been a good few years since I’ve been inside of one. But it was glaringly obvious at Kanyon, a place which seems to take Rem Koolhaas’s infamous description of shopping as “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” a little too firmly to heart. Its demand that we justify our presence by spending is a tendency that’s only likely to accelerate as Square and similarly “effortless” low-cognitive-load mechanisms for the transaction of value proliferate in the world, and fuse with the ability to throw a virtual geofence around a given locale. The inherent cruelty involved is something that affects us all, whether or not we happen to have the price of a coffee to spare by way of paying a half-hour’s rent on a place to sit.

I want to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the ability of small, independent operators to make a buck. James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism helped me articulate the distinction I think needs to be made whenever we discuss commercial activity in public space. It’s the same made in Pattern 87 of A Pattern Language, “Individually Owned Shops”: that between individual, accountable proprietors and those deadening enterprises that operate at national or global scale, and that function mainly to extract value from the local community. (I know it’s the hip thing to hate on the High Line these days, but to my mind it’s a place that gets this mix just about right. The kiosks and food stands feel refreshingly humble and local, and reasonably well-curated. You want an ice-cream sandwich, you get a ice-cream sandwich.) My point isn’t that all commercial activity needs to be purged from public space, but that it must never be allowed to dominate these environments, or drive out ways of using them freely.

We need to develop meaningful ways for people to use the city when they don’t have so much as a penny to their name, and public space can do this.

Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way.

Georges Amar, formerly head of foresight for the RATP, reminds us that the sidewalks are a high-throughput mode of conveyance. He likens them to walking subways, and suggests that just as subways have stations, so too ought our pedestrian thoroughfares be well-provisioned with places to stop and rest at regular intervals — again, each complete with shade, toilets, drinking fountains and (I would add) free WiFi. Per the point above about small businesses, further, there’s no reason why each of these nodes can’t support an independently-operated food cart or coffee stand as an adjunct to and enhancer of experience. perhaps as a social focus. platform for impromptu conviviality.

To dip, again, into A Pattern Language, what Amar is proposing corresponds almost precisely with Pattern 82, “Bus Stop”:

Build bus stops so that they form tiny centers of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighborhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a newsstand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops [!], coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms, squares…

A city whose walking paths are well-provided with nodes such as these is simply a more merciful place than one that is not. I didn’t really take Amar’s deeper point, though, until I thought carefully about the routes I habitually take when traversing Manhattan on foot. There’s no question he’s on to something: I’ll happily choose a clumsy, meandering path, or even cut a block or two out of my way, if it lets me pass through one of my favorite public spaces, whether it be Union Square, Liz Christy Community Garden, Lincoln Center or the plaza in front of the Seagram Building. I find these places restorative, even without stopping to rest in them — they make the difference between a joyless trudge and a pleasingly punctuated journey. The happy fact is that, for a great many potential journeys one might take through New York City, something like Amar’s network of walkstations already exists.

The lesson I draw from this: the measure we take to enhance one mode of using the city winds up being an investment in others. The same amenity that furnishes one set of users with the necessities of daily survival can afford others the makings of a safer and more pleasant commute. In other words, there’s a multiplicative, synergistic quality to the return we enjoy on whatever interventions we make with an eye toward improving the urban fabric. If nothing else, each place where people can freely sit and watch the life of the city furnishes an additional increment of Jacobian “eyes on the street.”

We need to think of the urban fabric itself as a source of amenity and succor, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole.

We’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy now. It’s not just a matter of production values, but of what those production values communicate. And what public investments like these communicate is that what binds us truly is more important than what separates us; that even the least “important,” most marginal member of our society is entitled to the same experience of belonging as anyone else; and there can be a dignity, even a grandeur in the everyday.

We need to celebrate what we are collectively and together, and public space can do this.

Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups. The other night, we stumbled onto this as we passed by Bryant Park. My initial response was that it was one of the most appalling displays I’d ever seen in New York, that there was something almost fascist about it. That it was not at all light-hearted, spontaneous and captivatingly romantic, as it so obviously ached to be, but exclusionary, pretentious, class-ridden and uptight, just an obscene misuse of a public park. (The event didn’t do itself any favors by stationing private security guards at entrances to the park, there to turn away anyone who wasn’t sufficiently compliant with the all-white theme.)

That was my initial response, and truth be told, it was my second one as well. But then I reconsidered a bit. No, Dîner en Blanc is not an ideal use of this public resource. No, it’s not acceptable for a private event to control access to a space maintained for the benefit of all. Yes, there are troubling aspects to it — not least of which is that the dinner struck me as being an all-white event in more ways than one. But it’s one night a year. I can find Dîner en Blanc not at all to my liking — in point of fact, entirely grotesque — but so long as it doesn’t persistently interfere with anyone else’s ability to use Bryant Park I can’t find particular fault with it. (And, in fact, as a traveling spectacle it’s highly doubtful it would impact the same neighborhood two years running.) At very worst, it’s sufficiently localized that anyone who finds it distasteful can avoid it, which is more than can be said for SantaCon.

Ideally, though, different groups would be able to pursue their multiple uses of a space simultaneously and non-exclusively, interpenetrating like strollers, joggers, runners and cyclists all using a path together. The benefit of doing things this way is that it more directly teaches us to accommodate one another’s needs, in a way that merely alternating in time does not. At a time when our city has never been more heterogeneous, and when the “interautistic” tendencies of foam-phase social interaction make it ever harder for us to read, understand or empathize with one another, the kinds of encounter and exchange we generally experience in public space furnish us with a crucial tutorial in getting along.

This applies to public spaces at the smallest of scales, as well. I believe that something was lost, for example, when Barcelona began to phase out its public benches a few years ago, in favor of appealingly designed but single-place seating; certainly, park benches were the site of some of my own first negotiations with strangers over contested space. Shared spatial arrangements such as this teach us the rudiments of being a citizen and an urban self — and sites in which young people can practice urbanity are even more necessary when contemporary technology otherwise allocates us into what Jane Jacobs, in another context, once described as “decontaminated sortings.”

We need to learn the comfort with oneself that allows us to accommodate the needs of others, and public space can do this.

— Finally, civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances. If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, in object lessons from Tahrir Square, the Plaça de Catalunya and Zuccotti Park to the Place Émile-Gamelin and Taksim Square, it is the enduring symbolic power of physically occupying public space, even in our putatively mediated age. We seem to have arrived at a renewed understanding that no political gesture is quite as resonant as the act of coming together in shared space, to join our voices and the presence of our bodies.

I can’t meaningfully discuss what happened with 15-M in Spain, or the various protests and uprisings of the Arab Spring, because I wasn’t anything but a distant observer of those events. But I can speak, a little, to what happened in New York City, and I can tell you that some of the most exciting, empowering interactions I’ve ever participated in happened in Zuccotti Park and Foley and Union Squares in the fall of 2011. Whether or not it was effective in bringing about the precise change desired, the consensus now seems to be that Occupy Wall Street was responsible for the prominence income inequality retained as an issue throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign; for all the good it seems to have done over the long term, it definitely forced the Obama campaign to shore up its bona fides on the left. Among that subset of my friends, anyway, who believe that constitutional democracy is something other than a shuck and a con, just about everyone is disappointed with the Obama Administration, and to a degree that surprises me I share their sense of disillusionment…but I continue to believe that everything we face would have been much, much worse under a Romney Administration.

While only a fool would try to draw a direct connection between Zuccotti Park and, say, the 50% reduction in health insurance costs New Yorkers now stand to benefit from, the events of 2011 are a potent reminder that democracy is something that still happens in public. And the experience of Occupy benefitted New York in other, less obvious ways, as well: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it was precisely the connections and networks that formed in these spaces that laid the groundwork for the city’s single most effective response to Hurricane Sandy.

Both by happenstance and design, our city furnishes us with a network of spaces in which the rights of free speech and assembly cannot be abrogated. The particular ways in which we pursue and enact those rights are continually in the process of being constructed, renegotiated and challenged, but the act of doing so places us in a tradition that extends from the first beginnings of our nation — and beyond that, from the very roots of democratic practice itself.

We need to negotiate the terms under which we pursue our individual destinies within the overarching framework of common purpose, and public space almost alone can do this.

…and the self (a personal coda)

I think it’s clear by now what I mean when I use the rather loaded word “civilization,” and why I make the perhaps curious linkage between this quality and the various modes of land use we collectively describe as “public space.”

But none of the above really explains why this particular platform for social interaction is so important to me personally, why I’ve chosen to dedicate my practice to it, or why I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the parks, community gardens and plazas of New York City. Maybe I can approach an answer sideways, by putting it in one final axiom: Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so.

I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Anybody still reading who doesn’t care about the particulars of my own history, or finds this sort of detail distasteful, is more than welcome to skip forward to that bit with the bullet points at the end. (I won’t be offended, I promise.)

Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.

I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.

But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.

So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.

Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.

I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.

We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this.

In practice

Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?

• Learn about the legal status of public space in your municipality, particularly as regards the full measure of rights you enjoy there. Share that knowledge with others.

• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)

• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of publicspace activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.

• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)

• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.

• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.

• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.

• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover.

“Against the smart city” teaser

The following is section 4 of “Against the smart city,” the first part of The City Is Here For You To Use. Our Do projects will be publishing “Against the smart city” in stand-alone POD pamphlet and Kindle editions later on this month.

UPDATE: The Kindle edition is now available for purchase.

4 | The smart city pretends to an objectivity, a unity and a perfect knowledge that are nowhere achievable, even in principle.

Of the major technology vendors working in the field, Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement[1] of the philosophical underpinnings on which their (and indeed the entire) smart-city enterprise is founded: “Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

We’ve already considered what kind of ideological work is being done when efforts like these are positioned as taking place in some proximate future. The claim of perfect competence Siemens makes for its autonomous IT systems, though, is by far the more important part of the passage. It reflects a clear philosophical position, and while this position is more forthrightly articulated here than it is anywhere else in the smart-city literature, it is without question latent in the work of IBM, Cisco and their peers. Given its foundational importance to the smart-city value proposition, I believe it’s worth unpacking in some detail.

What we encounter in this statement is an unreconstructed logical positivism, which, among other things, implicitly holds that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable, and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in the state of a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, it is effectively an argument there is one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

Every single aspect of this argument is problematic.

Perfectly knowable, without bias or distortion: Collectively, we’ve known since Heisenberg that to observe the behavior of a system is to intervene in it. Even in principle, there is no way to stand outside a system and take a snapshot of it as it existed at time T.

But it’s not as if any of us enjoy the luxury of living in principle. We act in historical space and time, as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions. So when Siemens talks about a city’s autonomous systems acting on “perfect knowledge” of residents’ habits and behaviors, what they are suggesting in the first place is that everything those residents ever do — whether in public, or in spaces and settings formerly thought of as private — can be sensed accurately, raised to the network without loss, and submitted to the consideration of some system capable of interpreting it appropriately. And furthermore, that all of these efforts can somehow, by means unspecified, avoid being skewed by the entropy, error and contingency that mark everything else that transpires inside history.

Some skepticism regarding this scenario would certainly be understandable. It’s hard to see how Siemens, or anybody else, could avoid the slippage that’s bound to occur at every step of this process, even under the most favorable circumstances imaginable.

However thoroughly Siemens may deploy their sensors, to start with, they’ll only ever capture the qualities about the world that are amenable to capture, measure only those quantities that can be measured. Let’s stipulate, for the moment, that these sensing mechanisms somehow operate flawlessly, and in perpetuity. What if information crucial to the formulation of sound civic policy is somehow absent from their soundings, resides in the space between them, or is derived from the interaction between whatever quality of the world we set out to measure and our corporeal experience of it?

Other distortions may creep into the quantification of urban processes. Actors whose performance is subject to measurement may consciously adapt their behavior to produce metrics favorable to them in one way or another. For example, a police officer under pressure to “make quota” may issue citations for infractions she would ordinarily overlook; conversely, her precinct commander, squeezed by City Hall to present the city as an ever-safer haven for investment, may downwardly classify[2] felony assault as a simple misdemeanor. This is the phenomenon known to viewers of The Wire as “juking the stats[3],” and it’s particularly likely to happen when financial or other incentives are contingent on achieving some nominal performance threshold. Nor is it the only factor likely to skew the act of data collection; long, sad experience suggests that the usual array of all-too-human pressures will continue to condition any such effort. (Consider the recent case in which Seoul Metro operators were charged with using CCTV cameras to surreptitiously ogle women passengers[4], rather than scan platforms and cars for criminal activity as intended.)

What about those human behaviors, and they are many, that we may for whatever reason wish to hide, dissemble, disguise, or otherwise prevent being disclosed to the surveillant systems all around us? “Perfect knowledge,” by definition, implies either that no such attempts at obfuscation will be made, or that any and all such attempts will remain fruitless. Neither one of these circumstances sounds very much like any city I’m familiar with, or, for that matter, would want to be.

And what about the question of interpretation? The Siemens scenario amounts to a bizarre compound assertion that each of our acts has a single salient meaning, which is always and invariably straightforwardly self-evident — in fact, so much so that this meaning can be recognized, made sense of and acted upon remotely, by a machinic system, without any possibility of mistaken appraisal.

The most prominent advocates of this approach appear to believe that the contingency of data capture is not an issue, nor is any particular act of interpretation involved in making use of whatever data is retrieved from the world in this way. When discussing their own smart-city venture, senior IBM executives[5] argue, in so many words, that “the data is the data”: transcendent, limpid and uncompromised by human frailty. This mystification of “the data” goes unremarked upon and unchallenged not merely in IBM’s material, but in the overwhelming majority of discussions of the smart city. But different values for air pollution in a given location can be produced by varying the height at which a sensor is mounted by a few meters. Perceptions of risk in a neighborhood can be transformed by altering the taxonomy used to classify reported crimes ever so slightly[6]. And anyone who’s ever worked in opinion polling knows how sensitive the results are to the precise wording of a survey. The fact is that the data is never “just” the data, and to assert otherwise is to lend inherently political and interested decisions regarding the act of data collection an unwonted gloss of neutrality and dispassionate scientific objectivity.

The bold claim of perfect knowledge appears incompatible with the messy reality of all known information-processing systems, the human individuals and institutions that make use of them and, more broadly, with the world as we experience it. In fact, it’s astonishing that anyone would ever be so unwary as to claim perfection on behalf of any computational system, no matter how powerful.

One and only one solution: With their inherent, definitional diversity, layeredness and complexity, we can usefully think of cities as tragic. As individuals and communities, the people who live in them hold to multiple competing and equally valid conceptions of the good, and it’s impossible to fully satisfy all of them at the same time. A wavefront of gentrification can open up exciting new opportunities for young homesteaders, small retailers and craft producers, but tends to displace the very people who’d given a neighborhood its character and identity. An increased police presence on the streets of a district reassures some residents, but makes others uneasy, and puts yet others at definable risk. Even something as seemingly straightforward and honorable as an anticorruption initiative can undo a fabric of relations that offered the otherwise voiceless at least some access to local power. We should know by now that there are and can be no[7] Pareto-optimal solutions for any system as complex as a city.

Arrived at algorithmically: Assume, for the sake of argument, that there could be such a solution, a master formula capable of resolving all resource-allocation conflicts and balancing the needs of all a city’s competing constituencies. It certainly would be convenient if this golden mean could be determined automatically and consistently, via the application of a set procedure — in a word, algorithmically.

In urban planning, the idea that certain kinds of challenges are susceptible to algorithmic resolution has a long pedigree. It’s already present in the Corbusian doctrine that the ideal and correct ratio of spatial provisioning in a city can be calculated from nothing more than an enumeration of the population, it underpins the complex composite indices of Jay Forrester’s 1969 Urban Dynamics[8], and it lay at the heart of the RAND Corporation’s (eventually disastrous) intervention in the management of 1970s New York City[9]. No doubt part of the idea’s appeal to smart-city advocates, too, is the familial resemblance such an algorithm would bear to the formulae by which commercial real-estate developers calculate air rights, the land area that must be reserved for parking in a community of a given size, and so on.

In the right context, at the appropriate scale, such tools are surely useful. But the wholesale surrender of municipal management to an algorithmic toolset — for that is surely what is implied by the word “autonomous” — would seem to repose an undue amount of trust in the party responsible for authoring the algorithm. At least, if the formulae at the heart of the Siemens scenario turn out to be anything at all like the ones used in the current generation of computational models, critical, life-altering decisions will hinge on the interaction of poorly-defined and surprisingly subjective values: a “quality of life” metric, a vague category of “supercreative[10]” occupations, or other idiosyncrasies along these lines. The output generated by such a procedure may turn on half-clever abstractions, in which a complex circumstance resistant to direct measurement is represented by the manipulation of some more easily-determined proxy value: average walking speed stands in for the more inchoate “pace” of urban life, while the number of patent applications constitutes an index of “innovation.”

Even beyond whatever doubts we may harbor as to the ability of algorithms constructed in this way to capture urban dynamics with any sensitivity, the element of the arbitrary we see here should give us pause. Given the significant scope for discretion in defining the variables on which any such thing is founded, we need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act. And at least as things stand today, neither in the Siemens material nor anywhere else in the smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability.

Encoded in public policy, and applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics: A review of the relevant history suggests that policy recommendations derived from computational models are only rarely applied to questions as politically sensitive as resource allocation without some intermediate tuning taking place. Inconvenient results may be suppressed, arbitrarily overridden by more heavily-weighted decision factors, or simply ignored.

The best-documented example of this tendency remains the work of the New York City-RAND Institute, explicitly chartered to implant in the governance of New York City “the kind of streamlined, modern management that Robert McNamara applied in the Pentagon with such success[11]” during his tenure as Secretary of Defense (1961-1968). The statistics-driven approach that McNamara’s Whiz Kids had so famously brought to the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, variously thought of as “systems analysis” or “operations research,” was first applied to New York in a series of studies conducted between 1973 and 1975, in which RAND used FDNY incident response-time data[12] to determine the optimal distribution of fire stations.

Methodological flaws undermined the effort from the outset. RAND, for simplicity’s sake, chose to use the time a company arrived at the scene of a fire as the basis of their model, rather than the time at which that company actually began fighting the fire; somewhat unbelievably, for anyone with the slightest familiarity with New York City, RAND’s analysts then compounded their error by refusing to acknowledge traffic as a factor in response time[13]. Again, we see some easily-measured value used as a proxy for a reality that is harder to quantify, and again we see the distortion of ostensibly neutral results by the choices made by an algorithm’s designers. But the more enduring lesson for proponents of data-driven policy has to do with how the study’s results were applied. Despite the mantle of coolly “objective” scientism that systems analysis preferred to wrap itself in, RAND’s final recommendations bowed to factionalism within the Fire Department, as well as the departmental leadership’s need to placate critical external constituencies; the exercise, in other words, turned out to be nothing if not political.

The consequences of RAND’s intervention were catastrophic. Following their recommendations, fire battalions in some of the most vulnerable sections of the city were decommissioned, while the department opened other stations in low-density, low-threat areas; the spatial distribution of firefighting assets remaining actually prevented resources from being applied where they were most critically needed. Great swaths of the city’s poorest neighborhoods burned to the ground as a direct result — most memorably the South Bronx, but immense tracts of Manhattan and Brooklyn as well. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, many permanently, and the unforgettable images that emerged fueled perceptions of the city’s nigh-apocalyptic unmanageability that impeded its prospects well into the 1980s. Might a less-biased model, or a less politically-skewed application of the extant findings, have produced a more favorable outcome? This obviously remains unknowable…but the human and economic calamity that actually did transpire is a matter of public record.

Examples like this counsel us to be wary of claims that any autonomous system will ever be entrusted with the regulation and control of civic resources — just as we ought to be wary of claims that the application of some single master algorithm could result in an Pareto-efficient distribution of resources, or that the complex urban ecology might be sufficiently characterized in data to permit the effective operation of such an algorithm in the first place. For all of the conceptual flaws we’ve identified in the Siemens proposition, though, it’s the word “goal” that just leaps off the page. In all my thinking about cities, it has frankly never occurred to me to assert that cities have goals. (What is Cleveland’s goal? Karachi’s?) What is being suggested here strikes me as a rather profound misunderstanding of what a city is. Hierarchical organizations can be said to have goals, certainly, but not anything as heterogeneous in composition as a city, and most especially not a city in anything resembling a democratic society.

By failing to account for the situation of technological devices inside historical space and time, the diversity and complexity of the urban ecology, the reality of politics or, most puzzlingly of all, the “normal accidents[14]” all complex systems are subject to, Siemens’ vision of cities perfectly regulated by autonomous smart systems thoroughly disqualifies itself. But it’s in this depiction of a city as an entity with unitary goals that it comes closest to self-parody.

If it seems like breaking a butterfly on a wheel to subject marketing copy to this kind of dissection, I am merely taking Siemens and the other advocates of the smart city at their word, and this is what they (claim to) really believe. When pushed on the question, of course, some individuals working for enterprises at the heart of the smart-city discourse admit that what their employers actually propose to do is distinctly more modest: they simply mean to deploy sensors on municipal infrastructure, and adjust lighting levels, headway or flow rates to accommodate real-time need. If this is the case, perhaps they ought to have a word with their copywriters, who do the endeavor no favors by indulging in the imperial overreach of their rhetoric. As matters now stand, the claim of perfect competence that is implicit in most smart-city promotional language — and thoroughly explicit in the Siemens material — is incommensurate with everything we know about the way technical systems work, as well as the world they work in. The municipal governments that constitute the primary intended audience for materials like these can only be advised, therefore, to approach all such claims with the greatest caution.

Notes

[1] Siemens Corporation. “Sustainable Buildings — Networked Technologies: Smart Homes and Cities,” Pictures of the Future, Fall 2008.
foryoutou.se/siemenstotal

[2] For example, in New York City, an anonymous survey of “hundreds of retired high-ranking [NYPD] officials” found that “tremendous pressure to reduce crime, year after year, prompted some supervisors and precinct commanders to distort crime statistics” they submitted to the centralized COMPSTAT system. Chen, David W., “Survey Raises Questions on Data-Driven Policy,” The New York Times, 08 February 2010.
foryoutou.se/jukingthenypd

[3] Simon, David, Kia Corthron, Ed Burns and Chris Collins, The Wire, Season 4, Episode 9: “Know Your Place,” first aired 12 November 2006.

[4] Asian Business Daily. “Subway CCTV was used to watch citizens’ bare skin sneakily,” 16 July 2013. (In Korean.)
foryoutou.se/seoulcctv

[5] Fletcher, Jim, IBM Distinguished Engineer, and Guruduth Banavar, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Global Public Sector⁠, personal communication, 08 June 2011.

[6] Migurski, Michal. “Visualizing Urban Data,” in Segaran, Toby and Jeff Hammerbacher, Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions, O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol CA, 2012: pp. 167-182. See also Migurski, Michal. “Oakland Crime Maps X,” tecznotes, 03 March 2008.
foryoutou.se/oaklandcrime

[7] See, as well, Sen’s dissection of the inherent conflict between even mildly liberal values and Pareto optimality. Sen, Amartya Kumar. “The impossibility of a Paretian liberal.” Journal of Political Economy Volume 78 Number 1, Jan-Feb 1970.
foryoutou.se/nopareto

[8] Forrester, Jay. Urban Dynamics, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969.

[9] See Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City — And Determined The Future Of American Cities, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010.

[10] See, e.g. Bettencourt, Luís M.A. et al. “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 104 Number 17, 24 April 2007, pp. 7301-7306.
foryoutou.se/superlinear

[11] Flood, ibid., Chapter Six.

[12] Rider, Kenneth L. “A Parametric Model for the Allocation of Fire Companies,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1615-NYC/HUD, April 1975; Kolesar, Peter. “A Model for Predicting Average Fire Company Travel Times,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1624-NYC, June 1975.
foryoutou.se/randfirecos
foryoutou.se/randfiretimes

[13] See the Amazon interview with Fires author Joe Flood.
foryoutou.se/randfires

[14] Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Basic Books, New York, 1984.

Feeling our way forward: Touch and the new reading

An article I was commissioned to write for the Touch issue of What’s Next magazine.

What does it mean for a text to be digital?

In principle, it can be replicated in perfect fidelity, and transmitted to an unlimited number of recipients worldwide, at close to zero cost. Powerful analytic tools can be brought to bear on it, and our reading of it. It can be compared against other texts, plumbed for clues as to its provenance and authorship. Each of our acts of engagement with it — whether of acquisition, reading, or annotation — can be shared with our social networks, mobilized as props in an ongoing performance of self. Above all, it becomes (to use the jargon practically unavoidable in any discussion of information technology) “platform-agnostic.” This is to say that it becomes independent, to a very great degree, of the physical medium in which it currently happens to be instantiated.

To varying degrees, these things have been true as long as words have been encoded in ones and zeroes — certainly since 1971, when Project Gutenberg was founded with the intention of digitizing as much of the world’s literature as possible, and making it all available for free. Why is it the case, then, that digital books only seem to have entered our lives in any major way in the last two or three years?

The apparently sudden arrival of the digital text likely owes something to the top-of-mind quality Amazon currently enjoys in its main markets, its name and value proposition as prominent in our awareness as those of the grocery chains, television networks or airlines we patronize — a presence it’s taken the company the better part of the last fifteen years to build up. And it surely has something to do with the widespread popular facility with the tropes and metaphors governing our engagement with digital content of all sorts that has developed over the same period of time, to the point that it’s increasingly hard to meet a grandparent inconversant with downloads, torrents and the virtues of cloud storage.

But the fundamental reason is probably that bit about platform-agnosticism. Anyone so inclined could have “engaged digital text” on a conventional computer at any point in the past forty years. But the act of reading didn’t — and maybe couldn’t — properly come into its own in the digital era until there was a platform for literature as present to the senses as paper itself, something as well-suited to the digital text as the road is to the automobile. I refer, of course, to the networked tablet.

It’s only with the widespread embrace of these devices that digital reading has become ubiquitous. Relatively inexpensive, lightweight and comfortable in the hand, capable of storing thousands of volumes, the merits of the tablet as reading environment may strike us as self-evident. But there’s another factor that underlies its general appeal, and that is the specific phenomenology of the way we manipulate reading material when using one.

We read text on a tablet as pixels, just as we would on any screen. But the ways in which we physically address and move through a body of such pixels have more in common with the behaviors we learned from books in earliest childhood than with anything we picked up in the course of later encounters with computers. This is why the post-PC tablet feels more “intuitive” to us, despite the frank novelty of the gestures we must learn in order to use it, and which no book in the world has ever afforded: the swipe, the drag, the pinch, the tap.

This is the new tactility of reading. But where there are comparatively few semantically-meaningful ways in which the reader’s hand can meet the pages of a material book, the experience of engaging a digital text with the finger is subject to a certain variability. It’s not a boundless freedom — it’s delimited on one side by technological limitations, and on the other by the choices of an interaction designer — but it does require explication.

The first order of variability is the screen medium itself. Each of the major touchscreen technologies available — resistive, capacitive, projective-capacitive, optical — imposes its own constraints on the latency and resolution with which a screen registers a touch, and therefore how long one must place one’s finger against it to turn a page or select a word for definition or a passage for annotation. Reading on a good screen feels effortless, even transparent — but particularly high latency or low resolution can easily disrupt the flow of experience, lifting the reader up and out of the text entirely.

The second is the treatment of type. As critical as it is to the legibility and emotional resonance of a text, and even at the higher resolutions now theroetically available, typography is all but invariably treated as though it had not been refined over five centuries. It still feels like we are many years and product versions away from type on the tablet rendered with the craft and care it deserves.

A third order of variability consists in the separation of content, style and interface elements inherent in contemporary application design. This means that both the meaning of gestural interactions and the treatment of the page itself can vary from environment to environment. Especially given the pressure developers are under to differentiate their products from one another, a tap in the Kindle for iPad application may not mean precisely what a tap in Readmill or Instapaper or Reeder does, or work in at all the same way.

In fact, something as simple and as basic to the act of reading as turning a page is handled differently in all of these contexts.

Originally, of course, the pagination of text was an artifact of necessity, something imposed by running a semantically continuous text across a physically discontinuous quantity of leaves. One might think, therefore, that pagination would be among the first things to go in making the leap to the digital reading environment, but contemporary applications tend to retain it as a skeuomorphism, larding down the interaction with animated page curls and sound effects.

On the Kindle proper, the reader presses a button — one for page forward, another for page back — and the entire screen blanks and refreshes as the new page loads, a transition imposed by the nature of electronic pigment. In the Kindle app, by contrast, the page slides right to left, slipping from future to present to past in a series of discrete taps.

The Instapaper application is, perhaps, truest to the nature of digital copy. It dispenses with all of this, and treats the document as one continuous environment: swipe upward when you’re ready for more. Instapaper is an acknowledgment of the text’s liberation from the constraints of crude matter. Handled this way, there’s no reason a digital text can’t return to something approximating the book’s earliest form, a scroll — in this case, one capable of unspooling without limit.

Finally, we also need to account for what it means to absorb text as a luminous projection. Marshall McLuhan drew a distinction between “light-on” media — that is, those in which content inscribed on a passive surface like paper is illuminated by an external light source — and “light-through” media, like our luminous tablets; per his insistence that medium is coextensive with message, we can assume that the selfsame text consumed in these two ways would be received differently, emotionally every bit as much as cognitively.

As it happens, I have both an actual, e-paper Kindle — digital, but nevertheless light-on — and Kindle applications for the eminently light-through iPhone and iPad. And purely anecdotally, it does seem to be the case that I have an easier time with thornier, weightier reading on the e-paper device. Novels are fine on the iPad, even on my phone…but if I want to wrestle with Graham Harman or Susan Sontag, I reach for the Kindle.

The McLuhanite in me frets that, in embracing the tablet, we inadvertently give up much of our engagement with the text. That beyond sentimentality, there is something about the act of turning a page to punctuate a thought, or the phenomenology of light reflecting off of paper saturated with ink, that conditions the act of reading and makes it what we recognize it to be, at some level beneath the threshold of conscious perception.

Which brings us back, at last, to the printed artifact. We can acknowldge that the networked tablet is a brilliant addition to any reader’s instrumentarium. I’m certain that it increases the number of times and places at which people read, and know from long, intimate and sorrowful personal experience the difference it makes where the portability of entire libraries is concerned. But it’s not quite the same thing as a book or a magazine, and cannot entirely replace them.

Curiously enough, the ambitions to which paper appears to remain best-suited are diametrically opposite:

On the one hand, deep, thoughtful engagement with a body of language, an engagement that fully leverages the craft of bookmaking. In this pursuit, the tablet cannot yet offer nearly the typographic nicety, conscious design for legibility or perceptual richness trivially available from ink on paper — all of the things, in other words, that permit the reader to immerse herself for longer, and with less strain.

But there are also occasions on which surface is all important, where the ostensible content is almost incidental to the qualities of its packaging. Here the texture or other phenomenological qualities of paperstock itself — even its smell — communicate performatively; I think of glossy lifestyle magazines. It’s hard to imagine any tablet or similar device affording these virtues in anything like the near term.

If we understand a book as a container, the precise shape that container takes ought to reflect the nature of its intended contents, and what one proposes to do with them. In acknowledging all the many virtues of networked, digital texts, the texture, tooth and heft of paper will ensure that for at least the contexts I’ve specified here, it remains irreplaceable among all the ways we contain thought as it flows from one human mind to another.