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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.

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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Carr, Paul. “Travis shrugged: The creepy, dangerous ideology behind Silicon Valley’s cult of disruption,” Pando Daily, 24 October 2012. Retrieved from

Constine, Josh. “Uber’s denial of liability in girl’s death raises accident accountability questions,” TechCrunch, 2 January 2014. Retrieved from

Fink, Erica. “Uber’s dirty tricks quantified: Rival counts 5,560 canceled rides,” CNN Money, 12 August 2014. Retrieved from

Gibson, William. “New Rose Hotel” in Burning Chrome, Ace Books, New York, 1986.

Graham, Stephen. “Software-Sorted Geography,” Progress in Human Geography, October 2005.

Greenfield, Adam. “Against the smart city,” Do projects, New York, 2013.

Greenfield, Adam. Everyware, New Riders Press, Berkeley CA, 2006.

Hempel, Jessi. “Why the surge-pricing fiasco is great for Uber,” Fortune, 30 December 2013. Retrieved from

Huet, Ellen. “Rideshare drivers still cornered into insurance secrecy,” Forbes, 18 December 2014. Retrieved from

Koolhaas, Rem. “The Generic City” in S, M, L, XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1994.

Rawlinson, Kevin. “Uber service ‘banned’ in Germany by Frankfurt court,” BBC News, 2 September 2014. Retrieved from

Reilly, Claire. “Uber reaches 4x surge pricing as Sydney faces hostage lockdown,” CNet News, 15 December 2014. Retrieved from

Said, Carolyn. “Leaked transcript shows Geico’s stance against Uber, Lyft,” SFGate, 23 November 2014. Retrieved from

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

Tran, Mark. “Taxi drivers in European capitals strike over Uber – as it happened,” The Guardian, 11 June 2014. Retrieved from

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 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.


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.


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

[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.

[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.)

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[13] See the Amazon interview with Fires author Joe Flood.

[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.

On tools, their use, and how to avoid fetishizing them

The other day I got mail asking me to contribute to something called usesthis, a site that asks a (frankly fairly homogeneous) selection of creative workers to describe their “setup” — or, in other words, the combination of hardware and software they use on a daily basis — as well as their ideal such arrangement.

I’m always happy enough for a prompt to think in this direction. Although usesthis isn’t really (no pun intended) set up to examine these issues, the whole question of a relationship between creative output and one’s choice of tools is inherently interesting, and is kind of an ongoing preoccupation of mine. As a good connectionist, I’m bound to believe that the artifacts we use mediate or allow us to approach the world in certain specific ways. It follows from this that our selection of one particular tool over another conditions the kind of relations we’re able to enter into — but also, that if the tool is functioning properly, we’re ordinarily unaware of its operations, or of this potential it has to constrain or to open.

If we’re inclined to examine that potential, a rigorous accounting for the intermediators we choose can help us rise up out of the usual, unconscious relation we have to them, and restore the sense of interested inquiry Heidegger (at least) calls presence-at-hand — see Peter Erdélyi’s foreword to The Prince and The Wolf for a particularly pungent version of this.

There’s a lot to say, too, about the determinisms implicit in our selection of specific tools. Very often, particular methods and tools tell in the finished work; it’s not simply, then, that mediating artifacts shape our own ability to act in the world, it’s that they indirectly condition the experience of everyone who comes into contact with the result of that action thereafter. (I’m put in mind of Matthew Fuller and Usman Haque’s prescient comment, in their Situated Technologies pamphlet Urban Versioning System 1.0, that “[i]t is often possible to determine, admittedly more so in a building than in a neighborhood, whether it was designed using AutoCAD, Microstation or Vectorworks.”)

I think it’s relatively easy to see what this means for creative domains like fashion, music, or (as the Fuller/Haque quote implies) architecture. Take the work of Issey Miyake, for example. We can trace the very different ways in which A-POC and the superficially similar Pleats Please line are perceived (by the wearer, by the observer) to specific techniques used in their creation, observe that the material qualities of Pleats Please garments result from polyester fabric being subjected to a particular heat-press process. The way the garment drapes on the body is the direct result of the cloth’s having been shaped by a particular regime of temperature, constraint and pressure — a regime which is in turn brought into local being by a highly particularized set of tools. If you’re interested in understanding why the Pleats Please line tends to appeal to women d’un certain âge, some consideration of how the designer’s understanding of the body is mediated to the body via the deployment of those tools seems indispensable.

Similarly, albeit in a rather different register, it strikes me as being very difficult to discuss Stephen O’Malley‘s work without understanding at least a little something about drop-tuning, .68-gauge strings and the performance envelope of the Sunn Model T amplifier. The unique somatic (SOMAtic?) experience of a SUNN 0))) gig is contingent on these elements — these things — being present, assembled and wielded in a particular way. The affordances and constraints of the objects yoked together in the act of production are directly relevant to the phenomenology of the finished product, even if that “product” is a ten-minute excursion in dronespace.

Casting light on the mesh of associations that bring a Pleats Please garment or a SUNN O))) cut into being does tend to construct creativity a little bit differently than we have traditionally been used to, and I think that’s entirely legitimate. Instead of positioning creation as the act of a lone genius, this way of looking at things suggests that the ability to bring novelty forth is, instead, something that’s smeared out across a network of heterogeneous participants, both human and non-human. This is certainly a decentering of the individual designer, but by no means do I necessarily think of it as an insult. It merely suggests that in those domains where creative production does require the enlistment of such ensembles, exceptional designerly talent ought properly be understood as the specific genius of knowing how to activate, and enable the operations of, such an ensemble — something more akin to orchestration than anything else. In this light, there’s still a great deal to be discovered by poking into the specifics of a given ensemble, and asking how each is brought to bear on the task of creation.

For those of us who work primarily in the medium of words, though, the case isn’t as clearcut.

It’s not as if at least some descriptions of the writer’s toolkit aren’t of interest. Here’s John Brunner, in the final words of his 1968 Stand on Zanzibar:

“This non-novel was brought to you by John Brunner using Spicer Plus Fabric Bond and Commercial Bank papers interleaved with Serillo carbons in a Smith Corona 250 electric typewriter fitted with a Kolok black-record ribbon.”

This was a good McLuhanite, speaking to the formal concerns of the Pop moment. That invocation of brands carries along with it a certain zazzy quality, a sense of liberation experienced in and through commodities I associate with Warren Chalk’s 1964 Living City Survival Kit. (In 1968, as four years earlier, you could still plausibly argue that this was fresh and revelatory.) In this case, as it happens, more specific yet is better. So not just any Smith Corona 250, but John Brunner’s Smith Corona 250. It adds something — something ineffable, and if you know anything about Brunner’s life, ineffably sad — to your appreciation of his oeuvre to read what’s on the Dymo-tape labels he affixed to this daily working tool.

But that has more to do with the object as environment, and only invokes the Smith Corona 250’s material properties and other affordances in the rather attenuated sense that its front affords a surface on which to stick a label. This, of course, is a quality it has in common with a great many other objects that might have occupied the same space on Brunner’s desk. And this begins to get to the crux of what I find a little curious about asking writers about their “setup.”

For me, anyway, focusing on getting things just-so is very little other than a way of delaying the moment I actually settle down to do what I need to. Most of us have some such ritual; Matt Jones memorably describes this process of lining up one’s pencils and notebooks (in preference to actually using the former to write in the latter) as “shaving the yak.” I’ll admit that I also find it a little unseemly, at this point in history, to mention specific named brands and commercial offerings. I’m not Warren Chalk, this isn’t London in 1964, and I’m not performing a swingin’ly post-austerity self through my consumption of Canadian Club and Miles Davis sides. So while, yeah, sure, I use such-and-such a text editor, under a given operating system, running on a particular model of laptop, you won’t learn that much about me — or more to the point, develop any particularly salient insight into the structuration of the argument I’m trying to make — by having these specifics revealed to you. The blunt truth of things is that I would almost certainly be expressing these same sentiments were I working in Microsoft Word on the kind of thoroughly generic, commodity Windows machine the “wrong people” use. From this perspective, the ideal setup of tools is nothing but the one that most readily dissolves into intention. ‘Nuff said, yeah?

You lookin’ at me?

I confess to being both heartened and frustrated by John Geraci’s new post on “the user experience of New York City,” which you should go take a look at. The “heartened” part is easy: I’m delighted that John raises the issue of the Passenger Information Monitor — the touchscreen interface mounted on the rear surface of a New York City taxicab’s protective partition — because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. The “frustrated” part has very little to do with John or his admirable optimism, and much more to do with the fact that, well, I have been thinking about this precise issue for a very long time, as have a great many designers more talented than I, and not all our efforts combined have been able to alter the badness of the taxi-passenger experience one whit in all that time.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary problem with the PIM is that it provides real-time GPS mapping and other situational information to passengers — but not the driver. This gives rise to an informational asymmetry that only exacerbates whatever issues of mutual mistrust and class, ethnic and linguistic-cultural tension may be latent (or explicit) in the encounter between the two parties.

Anyone who takes cabs in New York City with any frequency whatsoever will surely have noticed that a very large number of drivers are not merely recent immigrants but recent immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh. This, of course, is not a neutral pattern of fact, in either the American imaginary or the reckoning of the various Federal agencies charged with enforcing immigration law and upholding homeland security. Drivers from the Subcontinent, particularly, do absorb the suspicion and hostility of a post-9/11 public, and therefore may have some justification for a belief in otherwise hard-to-swallow conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons for the in-vehicle deployment of locational technologies. (How do I know they hold such beliefs? I know this ’cause I ask drivers for their opinions on the PIM whenever I get the chance, and the notion that DHS or some similar entity is tracking their personal movements through in-car GPS arises spontaneously about a third of the time.)

Even absent this specific consideration, the placement of the screen carries along with it a not-so-subtle implication that the driver is out to screw the passenger, and if left to their own devices will surely do so. The particular message of the PIM is that the driver needs to be supervised, their microbehavior monitored and their choices (e.g. of routing) verified from moment to moment. Compare this to the dashboard-mounted GPS navigation systems used by cab drivers in, say, Seoul, which are more clearly there to assist the driver in their negotiations with the cityscape — a primary use of such screens which does nothing to prevent their also being used to coordinate agreement between driver and passenger as to appropriate courses of action.

Finally, as John points out, and in what has to be reckoned an extraordinarily clumsy and hamfisted way of undermining any common feeling between the person in the front seat and those behind the partition, the PIM screens run ads. These are predictably loud and irritating, they load automatically and continue running unless manually shut off, and they generate revenue for the taxi operator every time they are viewed. (The passenger is provided with an Off button, but it is designed so as to be relatively obscure and hard to engage.) The cab driver is therefore incentivized to tolerate a system behavior that’s clearly detrimental to the experience of the paying customer.

These are design decisions. There is nothing inherently wrongheaded with choosing to site a passenger interface on the back of a taxi’s partition, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with providing the passenger with information that will reassure them as to the wisdom of the driver’s choices. But in each of the above cases, as a result of bad design, the interests of driver and passenger have been allowed to become uncoupled from one another, with terrible repercussions for their ability to trust and feel comfortable with the other — both locally to this specific ride, and across whatever rides take place in the future, for as long as this particular envelope of technological and design decisions remains intact.

I share John’s hope that this and the other moments that constitute stumbles in the user experience of the city can be rectified by design — I hope obviously so, given my investment of time, effort, reputation and life savings in a company intended to do just this. But I can’t help but note that we New Yorkers appear to live in a place, a time and a culture in which considerations of design are all but invariably shunted to the back of the line when budgetary and other resources are apportioned. In situations like this, I’m so often put in mind of Stafford Beer‘s observation that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” If, in all the years since Vignelli, New York City and its institutions have mostly failed to produce high-quality citizen-facing design, it’s difficult to conclude anything but that on some level, and from some party’s perspective, this is an intentional outcome.

A rough road ahead for the would-be designer of good urban user experience, then — but a clarion call to greatness, as well. Tomorrow’s Vignellis surely have their work cut out for them. But should you succeed in such tasks even partially, you’ll know that your intervention is improving the texture of someone’s life tens of thousands of times a day, every single day. By my lights, anyway, there are not a whole hell of a lot of things on Earth more worth the effort.