The following is a series of short posts WIRED commissioned me to write as part of their “Change Accelerators” promotion for BMW. Due to some infelicities of site design, I had a lot of people ask me if the posts would be consolidated anywhere, or otherwise reposted in a way that simplified the process of reading them as a continuous thread of argument. Here they are, then: formatted as a single post, but otherwise preserving the transitions and other artifacts of serialization.
If you’re familiar with my work, there’s not, frankly, likely to be a hell of a lot new here. You’ve heard me say this all before, generally in more detail and depth. Nevertheless, for those completists among you who wanted to see what I had to say, but didn’t want to wrestle with the original framing…here you go.
One final note: the content here closely corresponds with the basic talk I’ve been giving over the last few months (at PICNIC in Amsterdam, Strelka in Moscow, and at GSAPP the other day). If you missed any of those occasions, you can get a pretty strong flavor of what you would have heard me say here. I hope you find it useful.
My name is Adam Greenfield, and I’m the founder and managing director of a New York City-based design practice called Urbanscale, which is dedicated to design “for networked cities and citizens.”
I understand if this description causes you to scratch your head a little. You’re probably familiar, though, with the notion of the “smart city,” and the idea that ubiquitous information technology is transforming the way humanity designs, understands and lives its urban settlements. It’s fair to say that this is the domain we work in at Urbanscale.
The interest in what happens at the intersection of the urban and the technological is natural — and possibly even inevitable, given the convergence of two seemingly ineluctable trends. The first is the ongoing urbanization of our planet. There’s an oft-quoted observation from the statisticians of the United Nations Population Division that the end of 2008 marked the first moment in human history at which more than half of us lived in cities. In the wake of this finding, it’s reasonable to argue that henceforth any consideration of the human is necessarily a consideration of the urban…and vice versa. We are apparently a citying species.
At this same moment in time, we see an ever-greater proportion of the objects, surfaces and relations we encounter in our everyday experience of these cities colonized by information technology. Increasingly, we live in places where thoroughly ordinary things like buses, recycling bins, and parking spaces are instrumented with embedded sensors, where nearly everybody walking down the street carries a device that is nothing less than an aperture onto the global network (and an interface to whatever functionality is connected to it).
Somewhere in the merging of these two tendencies is the very potent idea that the environment in which the majority of twenty-first century humanity lives can consciously be reimagined as a platform for computational applications and services — as a “smart city.”
As it happens, though, we don’t actually use this phrase in our practice, nor do we entirely endorse many of the assumptions that are bound up in it. What I’d like to share with you over the next few days is an accounting of the reasons why. I’m going to be challenging some of the orthodoxies that have already cropped up in the short life of this idea, some of the failures of imagination that are preventing us from making the best possible use of networked technology in the cities of this urban century. And together, maybe we can grasp some of the more radical potential we see in the space.
Yesterday we discussed the increasing prominence of rhetoric around something called the “smart city.” As it’s generally described — and, increasingly, built and delivered — this is a place in which the buildings, streets, infrastructural elements and other aspects of the built environment have been equipped with embedded sensors. The flow of water through a city’s pipes, traffic through its streets, and people through its public spaces is mapped and modeled. Information derived from the widest possible array of municipal agencies and activities — applications for building permits, visits to drop-in clinics, restaurant health-and-cleanliness inspections — is gathered and subjected to computational scrutiny. The cleverer versions of this even use sentiment analysis applied to geocoded posts on Twitter to assess the collective mood of a place. The intention is to make every unfolding process of the city visible, to render the previously opaque or indeterminate not merely knowable, but known — and actionable.
There’s probably no better current example of this tendency than the “intelligent operations center” IBM’s Smarter City unit built for the city of Rio de Janeiro, billed as a “citywide monitoring and response-management system.” This is municipal government reimagined as some combination of automotive dashboard and war room, with live data used to direct and inform the disposition of a city’s available resources in something close to real time. It’s not a terrible idea, and it has perfectly honorable antecedents — notably the Cybersyn operations network cyberneticist Stafford Beer built for the Chilean government of Salvator Allende between 1970 and 1973 (!).
But there are certain problems with this approach, problems that as far as I can see are unacknowledged in any of the hype around the project. For one thing, any data gathered by a grid like the one IBM envisioned in Rio is never “just” the data, not at any point a neutral, objective quantity. As Laura Kurgan — director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and one of my intellectual heroes — has pointed out, we measure the quantities that it is politically expedient to measure. We deploy the sensors that are cheap to deploy. There is always contingency, always a selection process, always a choice of what to gather…and always decisions made by some historical agent about how to label, characterize and represent the information that does get collected.
In the overwhelming majority of the discussions I’ve seen around IBM’s “intelligent operations center” and the many proposals like it, this mystification of “the data” goes unremarked upon and unchallenged. The result is that inherently political and interested decisions acquire an entirely unearned gloss of technical neutrality. Ironically, an ever-so-slightly different, more sensitive design of the system would allow users of data to see and correct for its inevitable bias— or to ask different and potentially more fruitful questions of the same grid of inputs. But to be blunt, we’re not likely to ever see that craft or care in design from institutions like IBM or its vendors.
If there’s a saving grace in any of this, it’s that Rio is at least a genuine place — nothing if not an environment with its own distinct history and texture. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll see how that sets it apart from a great many of the current crop of “smart cities.”
At present, any time you hear the phrase “smart city,” the odds are very good indeed that your interlocutor is referring to nominally futuristic visions like Korea’s New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, or the unfortunately-named PlanIT Valley in Portugal — settlements built from scratch, on what urban planners call “greenfield” sites. In other words, these are places where there wasn’t anything, or anyone, before.
By building their cities up from nothing, in the middle of nowhere (or, in the case of Songdo, on land that was reclaimed from the East China Sea and literally did not exist ten years ago) the developers of these places get to live perpetually in that always-just-around-the-corner time researchers Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish call the “proximate future.” They don’t have to reckon with all that messy history, with existing neighborhoods and the claims and constituencies they inevitably give rise to, with the dense mesh of ways of doing and being that makes any real place what it is.
What’s worse, these are barely cities: Masdar City is being designed for 90,000, PlanIT Valley for 150,000. Even at a projected population of 500,000 — which, if my observations over this last summer are any guide, will take years to fill out — Songdo is best thought of as an appendix to the immense Seoul-Incheon-Ansan conurbation. On a planet of seven billion, we don’t believe this makes any sense. Despite the blistering pace of construction in places like the Pearl River Delta, these ground-up cities aren’t places where the overwhelming majority of us live, or ever will.
At Urbanscale we defer to the wisdom of the legendary American robber Willie Sutton, who targeted banks “because that’s where the money is.” If we’re going to imagine urban interventions based on networked information technology, we’re going to design them for the cities people already live in.
There’s another reason why we might want to do this. Whether they quite know it or not, anyone proposing to deploy “smart city” technology necessarily partakes of one of two alternative conceptions of urban structuration. (I should point out that my reading here owes a lot to James C. Scott’s framing of things in Seeing Like A State, a fantastic book I unreservedly recommend.)
The first approach is something that can be broadly characterized as “watchfulness from above,” which Scott identifies with the modernist architect Le Corbusier. In this construction of things, cities ought to be designed so that they observe a clear visual order, with rigid segregation between land uses (residential, industrial, commercial), and between those uses and the systems of circulation that support them.
This is intended to make it easier for an administrator to disentangle the various threads that make up the urban skein, to quite literally see what’s going on, to facilitate managerial intervention and regulation. It’s an aesthetic with distaste for the messiness and complexity of metropolitan life, and, equally, with clear political implications: the Corbusian city is one consecrated to administration, where the potential for any organic development is subordinated to the needs of managers. (Le Corbusier was thinking and writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, but this fetish for clear visual order only really comes into its own in the age of Google Earth.)
And it’s this vision that’s inscribed, knowingly or otherwise, in most contemporary descriptions of the “smart city.” Corbusian descriptions of the serene and masterful guidance of the city-as-machine-for-living are strikingly reminiscent of IBM, albeit couched in a different register of language.
But we can contrast this with a very different process of urban development, something that I think of as “spontaneous order from below,” and which Scott identifies with the great American urbanist Jane Jacobs. Tomorrow we’ll come back to this notion of spontaneous order from below, and what it might have to offer us as an appealing alternative model of networked cities.
Yesterday we discussed the first of two competing conceptions of urban order, a top-down vision that has its origins in the failed high modernism of Le Corbusier, and survives in the contemporary rhetoric around cities like Masdar and New Songdo and PlanIT Valley.
But there’s another way of thinking of things, which strikes me as not merely more appealing, but more empirical, more pragmatic…and ultimately more effective. This is a perspective often associated with urbanist Jane Jacobs, who devotes considerable space in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the ways in which a functioning urban community produces order from the bottom up, in an infinitely of small, unconscious acts.
Her most famous example has to do with the safety of well-trafficked streets, in which a diversity of building uses and schedules generates a reliable flow of passers-by throughout the day, and well into the night. This, in turn, produces what economists call a positive externality: nobody’s intentionally setting out to patrol the neighborhood, but with so many “eyes on the street,” untoward incidents are that much less likely to occur, and can be rapidly and appropriately responded to when they do.
Anna Minton, in her recent Ground Control, provides a potent — and disturbing — illustration of how the difference between these two conceptions plays out in the contemporary city. It’s a case study drawn from London, a city which deploys one CCTV camera for every seven of its 7.7 million residents, making it the most surveilled city on the face of the planet.
Minton poses the obvious, but heretofore apparently unspeakable, question as to whether all those cameras actually make Londoners any safer. Her research finds that, perversely, the opposite is true — that the presence of a CCTV camera makes pedestrians less likely to take personal responsibility for emergent situations like accidents, muggings or acts of harassment. People apparently assume that there’s someone (uniformed?) on the other end of the camera lens, duly empowered to respond to such incidents. They don’t need to intervene themselves…so they don’t. Minton’s findings suggest that CCTV fails entirely in the roles of crime deterrence and prevention. It’s Jane Jacobs’s point all over again: a functioning human community is bound together by an elaborate weave of organic relations that takes years or decades to build up, which can be destroyed in weeks or months through the clumsy application of technology.
What does any of this have to do with smart cities? Rather than the heavy — indeed, heroic — infrastructural investments involved in the Masdar/Songdo/PlanIT Valley way of doing things, rather than the necessity of starting the city all over again from scratch, mightn’t we imagine interventions that have a lot more to do with the places we already live in and the devices the great majority of us already have? Is there any possibility that we could use networked technology to preserve the intricate order and innate, pre-existing intelligence of our great urban places?
Tomorrow, in our final installation, we explore just what this might look like.
I believe that there’s a final reason why the vision of the smart city appears so vividly at this particular moment in history. At least in the United States, government is retreating from the provision of many services it used to provide as a matter of course; we’ve stumbled into a vicious cycle in which ascendant neoliberal rhetoric interacts with, and reinforces, a collapsing tax base and a brutal underlying economic reality. The result is an urgent imperative on the part of municipal administrations to do more with less, and a palpable hunger for any tools that will help them achieve this aim.
Into the breach step the theoreticians of the smart city, promising improved managerial oversight, greater resource-utilization efficiency, and predictive models to help keep the chaos at bay. I ultimately think that many of these interventions will prove heir to all the philosophical weaknesses and limitations of the Corbusian model, and will largely fail to deliver on their promise.
Is there a valid competing vision of the networked city, something that we might we offer instead? One of the most fascinating things I’ve witnessed in the last year was a management consultant from McKinsey — the most buttoned-down, Oxford-and-chinos kind of guy you could possibly imagine — forthrightly describe a vision of networked, self-organized place that would not have sounded out of place at the Barcelona Telephone Exchange in 1936, during the period that it was successfully managed by the anarchist CNT-FAI union.
You can certainly accuse me of making a virtue of a necessity, but I found this hopeful. If someone that entrenched in contemporary modes of technological development is comfortable with the thought that the art of municipal management hasn’t reached its final form, that in fact we may be on the verge of frankly radical reassessments, then the potential scope for creativity in everything that’s coming may well be far greater than we might have suspected. The downside is that most of us are going to have to take a lot more responsibility for managing the circumstances of our own lives. But the opportunity, the wonderful thing…is that most of us will get to take a lot more responsibility for managing the circumstances of our own lives.
What I want to emphasize is that the constraints aren’t primarily technological. We already have everything we need to achieve this aim, materially and conceptually. What limits us is a collective dearth of imagination, and a recourse to the same brain-dead processes of specification, procurement and development that resulted in the shoddy information-technological tools so many of us are perforce compelled to work with. (Anyone who’s ever tried to use an SAP tool to file an expense report knows precisely what I mean.)
It’s almost as if the space of possibility we’re now presented with is so large and daunting that we’re collectively more comfortable retreating to the relative certainties of the ways we’ve been doing things for ages, whether or not they make any particular sense amid our present circumstances. If we want to design supple, responsive networked places — if we want to invest all the considerable power of contemporary informatic technology in making places that are worth living in — I believe we can surely do so, but it will mean taking bold and decisive steps beyond the stale rhetoric and dubious intellectual heritage of the “smart city.”
We’re all familiar with the Panopticon, right? The notional prison devised by the eighteenth-century English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham?
No? OK, let me gloss it for you, and people for whom this is a familiar story will forgive me and, I’m sure, point out my mistakes of fact, emphasis or interpretation.
Bentham imagined a prison built in the form of a gigantic ring, with cells by their hundreds disposed around its inner wall. In the very middle of the structure’s central void stood the prison’s sole watchtower, atop which he placed a guard shack with 360-degree visibility.
How to maintain control over the prisoners with but a single tower and a relatively small cadre of guards? For all its formal ingenuity, Bentham’s real innovation was this: the cells lining the periphery were to be brightly illuminated at all times, while the guard tower itself was never lit. The guards were therefore free to observe activity in any cell, at any moment…while the contrast between their brightly-lit cells and the watchtower’s mute windows meant prisoners could never be certain if the guards were observing them, someone else or no one at all. (In principle, the prison administration could go a step further and achieve the same docilizing results without even staffing the tower. How would the inmates even know? After all, they were, and would remain, literally in the dark.)
And there was one final visibility-related wrinkle. The prison would be sited on a hill just outside of town, always there as a vivid reminder that any trespass of the social order would come at a price.
Bentham called his device the Panopticon, and the twentieth-century philosopher of power Michel Foucault famously used it as a jumping-off point for his own dissection of the ways surveillance, visibility and discipline work in contemporary society. One of Foucault’s arguments was that over time, this internalization becomes an entirely unconscious process, that we carry disciplinarity into the ways we move, speak, act and hold our bodies.
We can see this at work on the most literal level in the way we react to the presence of surveillance cameras. An ordinary CCTV camera’s gaze is directional. It sees you, but you see it seeing you. And should you be interested in evading its gaze, you’re free to tailor your actions accordingly.
As Anna Minton notes, though, in last year’s invaluable Ground Control, the simplest possible material intervention — housing the selfsame camera under an opaque polycarbonate dome, costing at the very most a few tens of dollars — achieves precisely the same innovation as that Bentham placed at the heart of Panopticon. Once the mechanism itself is screened by the dome, anything you do in the 360-degree field around it is potentially in its field of vision. You’re no longer quite certain whether you’re actually under surveillance at any given moment — in fact, there needn’t even be a functioning camera under the dome at all — but are in the interests of prudence forced to assume that you are. You’re compelled to internalize the sense that you’re being watched.
Domes are cheaper than cameras, but of course signs are that much cheaper still; I often suspect that the big yellow notice warning me that I’m under CCTV surveillance is unaccompanied by any actual gear to speak of. What could possibly be a more effective deterrent than the watcher that can’t be seen at all?
What’s the harm in all of this neopanopticism? While there have been cases in which this latent apparatus of control has proved decisive in bringing criminals to justice, or at the very least provided us with a few moments of lulzy fun, longer-term statistical analysis paints a different picture. London’s Metropolitan Police admits that CCTV imagery was used in the resolution of less than four out of every hundred crimes. All that watchfulness may be having some effect on behavior, but it sure isn’t buying the public any particular increment of personal safety.
Minton points out that long-cherished civil liberties may not be the only thing being damaged by the presence of CCTV. She compares Britain with CCTV-free Denmark, and from her review of the available data concludes that pervasive surveillance is actually counterproductive. (The conjectured causative mechanism: because people feel that the implicit presence of supervisory authority makes someone else responsible for dealing with crime, they tune out the incidents they witness, or otherwise choose not to intervene.)
In practice, technologies like CCTV surveillance are always exceedingly difficult to weigh in the balance, the more so when technical developments like doming change the envelope of affordances and constraints in which they operate. The complications are redoubled when those of us who are concerned with public space can only wield dry abstractions like “civil liberties” against hot-button appeals and the human reality of victimization. In this light, it’s not unreasonable to argue that some loss of anonymity is acceptable if it meant the capture and punishment of muggers and rapists and hit-and-run drivers. (I wouldn’t happen to agree with you, personally, but it’s not an outright ridiculous belief to hold.)
But we should be very clear that that’s the trade-off we’re being offered. Furthermore, proponents of technologies like CCTV should also be conversant with — and forthright about — the potential for mission creep inherent in them. Systems already deployed are turned toward unforeseen uses; frameworks we already recognize (and therefore, we reckon, understand sufficiently well) are endowed with entirely new potential as easily as you’d blow new firmware into your phone or digital camera. And this happens every day: when we were in Wellington, for example, we were told that the surveillance cameras that voters approved to help manage traffic congestion had been repurposed for crime prevention, without a corresponding degree of public consultation.
Let the image stream coming off of them be provided with a facial-recognition algorithm, and you’ve got an entirely different kind of system on your hands, with entirely different potentials and vastly expanded implications. Yet the cameras, domed or otherwise, look no different from one day to the next. How are people supposed to inform themselves, or avail themselves of their existing prerogatives, under such circumstances?
And all of this is still confining our discussion to the visual realm! Yet the real relevance of this neopanoptical drift will only become obvious to most of us as more data is gathered passively in public space, through location-aware devices, embedded sensors and machine inference built on them. It’s these developments which will, as I’ve argued elsewhere, “permanently redefin[e] surveillance,” and it’s these that I’m more worried about than any simple plastic dome. If we don’t get a collective handle on what disciplinary observation means for our polities and places now, we’ll be in genuine trouble when that observation gets infinitely more distributed and harder to see.
We’ve been talking a little bit about what we might gain if we begin to conceive of cities, for some limited purposes anyway, as software under active development. So far, we’ve largely positioned such tools as a backstop against the inevitable defaults, breakdowns and ruptures that municipal services are heir to: a way to ensure that when failures arise, they’ll get identified as quickly as possible, assessed as to severity, brought to the attention of the relevant agencies, and flagged for follow-up.
And as useful, and even inspiring, as this might be, to my mind it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s essentially the lamination together of some entirely conventional systems, provisions and practices — something that already exists in its component pieces, something, as Bruce points out here, that’s “not even impossible.”
But what if we did take a single step further out? What if we imagined that the citizen-responsiveness system we’ve designed lives in a dense mesh of active, communicating public objects? Then the framework we’ve already deployed becomes something very different. To use another metaphor from the world of information technology, it begins to look a whole lot like an operating system for cities.
Provided that, we can treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks. One prospect that seems fairly straightforward is letting these resources report on their own status. Information about failures would propagate not merely to other objects on the network but reach you and me as well, in terms we can relate to, via the provisions we’ve made for issue-tracking.
And because our own human senses are still so much better at spotting emergent situations than their machinic counterparts, and will probably be for quite some time yet to come, there’s no reason to leave this all up to automation. The interface would have to be thoughtfully and carefully designed to account for the inevitable bored teenagers, drunks, and randomly questing fingers of four-year-olds, but what I have in mind is something like, “Tap here to report a problem with this bus shelter.”
In order for anything like this scheme to work, public objects would need to have a few core qualities, qualities I’ve often described as making them “addressable, queryable, and even potentially scriptable.” What does this mean?
– Addressability. In order to bring urban environments fully into the networked fold, we would first need to endow each of the discrete things we’ve defined as public objects with its own unique identifier, or address. It’s an ideal application for IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, which I described in Everyware as opening up truly abyssal reaches of address space. Despite the necessity of reserving nigh-endless blocks of potentially valid addresses for housekeeping, IPv6 still offers us a ludicrous freedom in this regard; we could quite literally assign every cobblestone, traffic light and street sign on the planet a few million addresses.
It’s true that this is overkill if all you need is a unique identifier. If all you’re looking to do is specify the east-facing traffic signal at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Lexington Avenue, you can do that right now, with barcodes or RFID tags or what-have-you. You only need to resort to IPv6 addressability if your intention is to turn such objects into active network nodes. But as I’ve argued in other contexts, the cost of doing this is so low that any potential future ROI whatsoever justifies the effort.
– Queryability. Once you’ve got some method of reliably identifying things and distinguishing them from others, a sensitively-designed API allows us to pull information off of them in a meaningful, structured way, either making use of that information ourselves or passing it on to other systems and services.
We’ve so far confined our discussion to things in the public domain, but by defining open interoperability standards (and mandating the creation of a critical mass of compliant objects), the hope is that people will add resources they own and control to the network, too. This would offer incredibly finely-grained, near-realtime reads on the state of a city and the events unfolding there. Not merely, in other words, to report that this restaurant is open, but which seats at which tables are occupied, and for how long this has been the case; not merely where a private vehicle charging station is, but how long the current waits are.
Mark my words: given only the proper tools, and especially a well-designed software development kit, people will build the most incredible ecology of bespoke services on data like this. If you’re impressed by the sudden blossoming of iPhone apps, wait until you see what people come up with when they can query stadium parking lots and weather stations and bike racks and reservoir levels and wait times at the TKTS stand. You get the idea. (Some of these tools already exist: take a look at Pachube, for example.)
– And finally scriptability, by which I mean the ability to push instructions back to connected resources. This is obviously a delicate matter: depending on the object in question, it’s not always going to be appropriate or desirable to offer open scriptability. You probably want to give emergency-services vehicles the ability to override traffic signals, in other words, but not the spotty kid in the riced-out WRX. It’s also undeniable that connecting pieces of critical infrastructure to an open network increases the system’s overall vulnerability — what hackers call its “attack surface” — many, many times. If every exit is an entrance somewhere else, every aperture through which the network speaks itself is also a way in.
We should all be very clear, right up front, that this is a nontrivial risk. I’ll make it explicit: any such scheme as the one sketched out here presents the specter of warfare by cybersabotage, stealthy infrastructure attrition or subversion, and the depredations of random Saturday-night griefers. It’s also true that connected systems are vulnerable to cascading failures in ways non-coupled systems cannot ever be. Yes, yes and yes. It’s my argument that over anything but the very shortest term, the advantages to be derived from so doing will outweigh the drawbacks and occasional catastrophes — even fatal ones. But as my architect friends say, this is above all something that must be “verified in field,” validated empirically and held up to the most rigorous standards.
What do we get in return for embracing this nontrivial risk? We get a supple, adaptive interface to the urban fabric itself, something that allows us not just to nail down problems, but to identify and exploit opportunities. Armed with that, I can see no upward limit on how creative, vibrant, imaginative and productive twenty-first century urban life can be, even under the horrendous constraints I believe we’re going to face, and are perhaps already beginning to get a taste of.
Stolidly useful, “sustainable,” justifiable on the most gimlet-eyed considerations of ROI, environmental benefit and TCO? Sure. But I think we should be buckling ourselves in, because first and foremost, read/write urbanism is going to be a blast.
I wish I had it in me to resist plunking down cash on things like eVolo’s Skyscraper for the XXI Century. The New Titles racks at Stout and Urban Center are generally piled high with volumes like this, glossy omnibus reviews of architectural design competitions, and when I have a few bucks in my pocket I tend to bite.
I’m always idly expecting to find some actual critique there among the purty renderings, and eight or nine times out of ten I come away disappointed. Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way. (The exception this last year was Typological Formations, an AA pamphlet that continues to resonate with me, as provocative as it is beautifully designed.)
It’s the uncritical embrace of whatever frankly dubious (social as well as technical and structural) assertions the projects are making that really makes me wonder what the various juries and editors are looking for in these competitions, and in eVolo’s case especially the vibe is not good.
Nevertheless, every once in awhile I trip over something in one or another of these books that makes it all worthwhile, like that experiment you read about in Psych 101 that returns randomized rewards just often enough to keep the hapless rat jamming down on the button. And this is the case here: snuck in among the squamous mile-high neoplasms and the vertiginous shafts premised on pure unobtanium is an entry that puts a delightfully nasty latterday twist on the basic, time-honored pod-and-frame iconography we inherit from Archigram and the Metabolists.
It’s an entry by the team of Edwin Liu, Nathaly der Boghosian, Felix Monasakanian, Efren Soriano and Hugo Ventura called Billboard Skyscraper. Billboard Skyscraper posits a pod-stippled megastructure in the form of an enormous undulant wave, in which the end of every pod is a smart-glass window, and every window a single pixel in the kilometer-square screen. And then it requires the subsidized residents of those pods to exhibit the “correct” consumption behavior in order to make use of their sole window on the world:
The invasive insertion of this massive entity into the downtown [Los Angeles] area alters or destroys existing sight lines and replaces them with corporately sponsored images. Living rent-free in the towering structure are residents that are participants in the performance of the building as advertising conduit…In coordination with RFID tags embedded in participating advertisers’ products, sensors within each pod determine the level of consumer activity that an individual produces. In a typical scenario, consuming more of the “correct” brand clears the window to full transparency, removing the “pixel” as a participant in the advertising façade.
Consumer inactivity or consumption of the “wrong” products causes the smart glass to become opaque…[O]perating at full commercial potential produces a surface punctuated by transparent windows, while…operating below established market criteria will compensate by activating the surface with advertising.
It’s a breathtaking proposition. I bet these kids’d find Irish babies pretty tasty, too.
It’s a damn shame I can’t find any pictures of this thing to show you: it’s one of the few student projects I’ve ever seen whose construction would result in an LA truly worth of Ridley Scott. The neat little self-correcting ad-placement algorithm this team has ginned up seems to capture, too, something of the deeper nature of living in an Empire with no edge and no outside. For the notional residents of Billboard just as for the rest of us, there really is no way not to play the game. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about this project is that once the ideas that animate it are on the table, there’s no telling what they might lead to, however clearly satiric they were at their inception.
I consider it very bad form on eVolo’s part, by the way, that they make it virtually impossible to learn anything at all about their entrants. No contact information or other metadata is offered, either on the Web site or in the pages of the book, making it unlikely that winning entrants will be able to leverage their success here in any meaningful way. (Amusingly enough – as I should have suspected, given my brushes up against Internet ad sales one or two lifetimes ago – if you Google “billboard skyscraper,” you get…scummy bus-dev pages on ad rates.) I’m still willing to extend eVolo the benefit of the doubt as to the sincerity of their aims, but I have to say this doesn’t help their case.
At any rate, I have to say I was delighted to find among the usual dreamy wankspires one finds in these books not merely a project with actual teeth in it, but the nous to dissect out some of the generally occult linkages between architecture, commerce, technology and representation, and I do hope some of those names crop up again in future.
On his Tecznotes blog, good ol’ Mike Migurski has a neat practice called “Blog All Dog-Eared Pages” (e.g.). Well, as it happens, I tend not to dog-ear my books: although Nurri insists that the true mark of respectful engagement with a book is precisely to mark it up and crimp it and generally leave it bearing obvious signs of the encounter, I was raised to treat books as something close to holy.
So dog-earing is out. Nevertheless, the sentiment is correct, and I’m straight-up ganking Mike’s trope to get into a little more detail on Phaidon’s excellent book on Naoto Fukasawa, mentioned here just the other day. You probably won’t be surprised that just about every page provokes some thought in me, so consider these merely a first installment:
– Page 21, the celebrated Muji “window fan” CD player
Apparently, there was quite a struggle getting the engineers to accept that a more traditional precision short-pull switch was all wrong for this device. As Fukasawa understood and successfully argued for, there’s a deep relationship between form, the other experiences with which that form resonates, and the interaction quality suggested by those resonances. The man prevailed, and a “clunky” long-pull switch was selected for the final production version.
Anybody who’s ever worked on a Japanese product-development team will understand precisely what was at stake here, and how subtle Fukasawa’s efforts at persuasion must have been. I’m in awe, reminded of a long-standing wish that I knew how to be more effectively persuasive when working on a design team, without losing my cool. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve worked on where my sense of the correct measure was equal to Fukasawa’s here, yet, whether through overstating my case, or failing to make it in the first place, my viewpoint was overruled. It’s all well and good revelling in the putative independence of “not being a team player,” but sometimes the design suffers for that vanity.
– Page 22-23, “Erasing physical existence” (!)
With the mundanely gorgeous INAX Tile Light, Fukasawa engages the single most pressing issue of design for the everyware age: what is the designer’s responsibility when an object’s functionality is absolutely impossible to determine from its form or appearance?
The Tile Light is an incandescent lighting element indistinguishable, in its unlit state, from the other standard white ceramic tiles surrounding it, and I am cleaved in half temperamentally by the problems it raises. As designed object and intellectual object both, it derives all of its substantial power and beauty from the fact of this indistinguishability, to the point that any intervention whatsoever intended to announce its presence or explain its use would be to miss the point entirely. In Fukasawa’s words, “when the light is not on, it goes back to being a tile”: it fades away, it’s anonymous, that’s why it’s beautiful and, to my mind, there’s almost no better concrete illustration of Mark Weiser’s idea of functionality that’s “invisible, but in the woodwork everywhere.”
But – and isn’t there always a “but”? – this anonymous quality is also the Tile Light’s Achilles heel. Assume for the sake of argument that the tile really is effectively indistinguishable from its peers on visual inspection. How do you know which one to pry out when the lightbulb dies? Still more problematically, should such funtionality be actuated not by an external switch but by some embedded (pressure, capacitance) sensor, how do you even know it’s there and available to begin with?
You might say that here’s where the minimalist aesthetic I cherish crashes directly into the humanist usability practice I champion – and if things were really that simple, I’m afraid there would be no contest between the two. But part of Fukasawa’s point, as it was part of Weiser’s point, is that the disappearance from view is itself a humanist gesture: it reduces clutter, distraction, psychic overload and the very real risk of option fatigue. No easy answers here, but the provocation is at least bound up in something surpassingly lovely and humble.
– Page 48-49, KDDI Ishicoro mobile phone
On its face, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that a phone should be designed to afford moments of pleasure when worn, carried, held or (as can be the case) unconsciously stroked. Nor is there anything amiss, at first blush, with the form factor Fukasawa’s chosen here, one with the smoothed heft and concavity of a river stone – Nicolas Nova will confirm that I once stole just such a stone straight off a Geneva table, because I’d spent the entirety of a long happy dinner compulsively burnishing it with the ball of my thumb.
Two things come to mind, though. One is the practical blobjection that the Ishicoro, like any irregularly convex lump, doesn’t play very nice with the other, predominantly flat-surfaced things we use and carry. It’s not stackable, it doesn’t balance, and, well, is that a river stone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
The other thought is a little harder to pin down. It has to do with the commodity nature of mobile phones: is it even fair for the form factor of something you’re inevitably going to trade out in a year or so to suggest timelessness (and invite longterm sensual engagement)?
– Page 59, Muji air cleaner
“The remote-control unit that comes with the air purifier is the same size and shape as a cigarette pack, and the buttons are the same circumference as a cigarette”: this strikes me as a rare instance of Fukasawa getting a little overinvested in a conceit. It’s, at best, a stretch.
Of course, unless there’s some countervailing standard, or argument from human factors, there’s no reason why the controls shouldn’t be shaped this way. But I’m not overjoyed when designers indulge themselves in this kind of cuteness, for the sake of a hermetic in-joke that makes sense only internally. I’m occasionally guilty of this as a writer, I always know when I’m doing it, and the bad faith always makes me cringe later.
– Page 70-71, on the +/- 0 mindset
“In the twenty years since 1980, I have, as a product designer…” Wow, I hadn’t understood he’d been working that long.
“A load was taken off my mind when I understood that there’s no one shape that appeals to everyone, and that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ shape in isolation of function…I believe that designers had begun to realize that design for the sake of changing something or to give meaningless form to things was somehow not right.” [Stormy, prolonged applause.]
– Page 84-85, Assimilating into the surroundings: +/- 0 Coffee Maker
“The corner radius of the bottom of this square coffee maker matches [that of] the tray that specifically goes with it. When the legs for the tray are attached, it becomes a small table.” This strikes me as being overly brittle design. I’m not so comfortable, in fact, any time something is precision-machined to mate with another non-mission-critical component that “specifically goes with it.” The coffee maker, yes, goes with the tray…but then the tray is broken, damaged, misplaced, or lost. (This goes double for the tray legs.) And then, forever after, the coffee maker doesn’t “go with” anything else quite as nicely. I almost feel like this is a physical argument for open standards.
More to come.
In the fall of 1992, I commited to my hard drive (where it was to stay) some three hundred pages of an unforgiveably awful, utterly unpublishable novel: a work of vaguely noirish but otherwise genre cyberpunk I called The Carbon Sutra. And in this book our protagonists, SFPD detectives Thuy Tran and Sean “Chunkstyle” Salinas, happen to chase their prey into and through an illegal club called Lush Mechanique…
[T]hree floors of moiling frenzy, sweat and gender panic. Making it all even better, all that polymorphous kink in full bloom in direct view of the Supes’ chambers, under the blind aegis of so much civic respectability.
The upstairs a black box, superheated, bodyhumid and stale with skunky potsmoke. Packed up here – the DJ, a local favorite named Lamprey, cut back and forth against the backing track, playing silence like a drum, dropping an antipercussion of rapid-onset quiet into the spaces between beats, and in general fucking shit heavily up. The crowd responded in kind: you could feel something formless and a little scary rising as an undertow as the beat got heavier, harder, faster, denser. The individual movements of dancers across the floor went still jerkier, epileptiform and jagged as the BPM count headed north of 220.
The grind rose to an all-but-unbearable intensity for almost a full minute, then broke into abrupt, angular silence, as if the DJ simply couldn’t maintain that level of output. A burst of chant exploded from the dancefloor, filling the void to its edges – “ATTACK! DECAY! SUSTAIN! RELEASE!” – then the beat picking back up as the final hoarse sibilant hissed into nothingness.
Yeah, I thought that was pretty clever. But now look. That’ll teach me to bury my work.