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The canonical smart city: A pastiche

Consider this a shooting script for one of those concept videos so beloved of the big technology vendors. If you find my reading here tendentious, I can assure you that every element of the scenario I present here has been drawn directly from the website copy or other promotional literature of IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Living PlanIT, Gale International (i.e. Songdo) or Masdar.

Daybreak on a Wednesday in April, sometime in the first third of the twenty-first century. The lights come up slowly in Maria Villanueva’s condo, forty-seven stories up the side of the soaring Phase III development. It’s a few weeks past the first anniversary of Maria’s arrival in Noblessity, and in some ways she’s still getting used to the way she lives in this brand-new city of ten square kilometers, so recently and famously reclaimed from the ocean itself.

Her building, for example: a daringly helical twist of stacked apartment units, devised by a name-brand Danish architectural practice. Back home she could never have afforded to live in anything remotely like this — and that’s if there even were buildings like this at home in the first place, which she doubts. This morning the active shutters, sensing a rare onshore breeze, have deployed microfilaments to trap the moisture in the air, softly hazing them at the edges so they seem to blur into the murky sunlight. Even the soft light that makes it through is too bright for Maria, though, and she clutches vaguely at bedside for her phone so she can launch the app that controls the windowshades.

Maria’s husband Mark left for work hours ago — he’s a lawyer negotiating EMEA rebroadcast rights for an American basketball league, and his teleconferences tend to happen on Los Angeles time. So on this Wednesday morning, she finds she has the apartment to herself. She drags herself from bed, shouts for the kitchen to fix her a latte and heads to the en-suite bathroom.

Headlines stack up on the mirror, and Maria scans them as she blowdries her hair: “Climate talks enter a third fruitless…guest-worker privileges revoked following…Royal scandal erupts as Mail drone captures…” None of this seems like it will immediately bear on her work, and just as quickly as the headlines arrive she dismisses them, with the mere swipe of a fingertip.

The walk-in closet has an app to choose outfits appropriate to the weather, but the weather’s always the same here — punishingly hot and dry outside, and invariably a comfortable 72º everywhere that isn’t. Maria has never once launched the app. She gives herself a last quick once-over in the full-length, pats down a few vagrant strands of hair, and then it’s off to work.

Maria belongs to an elite team of analysts tasked with riding herd on autonomous trading algorithms for a City of London-based financial concern. After a solid six months in which she made a newcomers’s show of diligence, she’d rather gotten used to the luxury of working from home most days of the week, but in the interests of team cohesion senior management has just issued a policy forbidding this. And so once again she finds herself faced with the necessity of a twice-daily commute between the ranked condos of the residential zone and the supertowers of the Central Business District.

This is not, as it happens, a huge imposition. The mobility fee is included in her compensation package, and actually, the drive isn’t so bad; depending on traffic and the precise route chosen by the car, it takes anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes. Maria knows from experience that if she calls the car service as she walks out the front door of her unit, her car will be pulling up under the porte-cochère just as she gets there. And so it is this morning, the elevator, as always, alert to the patterns of movement within the building and therefore empty of anyone else. She momentarily realizes she’s forgotten, again, to shut off the lights in the closet, but it doesn’t matter; but for the low-level autonomic systems, everything in the condo fades to black thirty seconds after the unit detects a lack of human presence.

The briefest blast of desiccating heat, and then she’s safely into the car. Today’s car is a little funky, a little foul — not so much that somebody had actually smoked a cigar in it, but maybe that it had recently been used by somebody who smoked a lot of cigars. And used rather too much cologne. Maria punches the air conditioning to its highest setting and tries to breathe through her mouth.

There’s apparently been a fender-bender on the Grand Axial, and the car is rerouted around it without so much as a peep. And so Maria finds that her way to work this morning takes her via the Coastal Ringway, past the three enormous pipelines that supply Noblessity with fresh water from the mainland. This is provided by the host nation at no expense, for the duration of the developer’s 99-year lease on the land — just one of the many ways the host nation expresses its gratitude for the massive infusion of talent and capital sitting just offshore. Of course it’s been awhile since Maria crossed the causeway; truth be told, she only does so on her way to or from the airport. But she keeps meaning to drag Mark over for a visit, get a taste for how the people here really live, and one of these weekends she’s sure they will.

Just past the ten-story screen that fronts the Museum of Contemporary Art, as the car passes beneath the overway heralding entry into the CBD, the windshield starts to pulse red. The soft bonging of an awareness alert issues from the dashboard, and there is the slightest sideways lurch as the car moves to put some distance between itself and a disturbance rapidly approaching in the curbside lane. On the sidewalk ahead, a man in the yellow coveralls of a guest worker is visibly struggling with two Public Safety men. The windshield overlay has identified him as a PDP, or Potentially Disruptive Person. Ever since the bombings in Rio, of course, everyone’s been a little bit on edge, and feeling the slightest bit guilty that she’d ignored the headline earlier in the morning, Maria taps a finger on the windshield for more information. The public scanners have registered an unidentifiable, roughly weapon-sized object under the man’s clothing; and this, correlated with his location and immigration status, is surely enough to trip the threat-detection algorithm’s probability threshold.

But they’re barely abreast of the disturbance before a Public Safety van has whisked up to the curb, and amid a sudden bloom of khaki PS uniforms the guest worker is hustled in and away. Maria’s car torques up with the silent immediacy of electric drive; with a quick and almost subliminal sigh, she releases the tension she barely knew she was carrying, and the unpleasantness rapidly dwindles in the rearview mirror.

Before long the car glides to a halt in front of the Bourse, and the door pops open to let Maria exit before heading off to its next booking. Maria places great stock in mindfulness, so today as every day she takes a moment to pause for a moment, breathe, and contemplate the massive visualization that pulses across the entire width and breadth of the façade. It’s hard to make out in direct sunlight, but if you shield your eyes and look carefully you can see how the whole surface of the building shimmers with graphics representing real-time trading activity.

At this hour, it’s still last night in Chicago and New York, and half a day yet before the London and Frankfurt exchanges open. So the activity dancing across the façade is all the Nikkei, the Hang Seng and the CSI 300…and the blips of an algorithm she and her colleagues have dubbed Dirty Frank, leaving its bizarre and so-far unfathomed spoor of stochastic trades across the minutes.

The view on Maria’s desk, of course, is more sophisticated by far than the poppy visualization splashed across the façade. Her job is to reverse-engineer algorithms like Dirty Frank, determine the logic driving each one, and help her firm develop tactics to counter them. The few hours of morning work pass quickly, as work always will for someone who is paid well to do what she’s good at, and loves what she is paid to do, and lunchtime rolls around before she knows it.

Everyone knows how awkward it can be to socialize with folks working in different backgrounds, so Maria’s agenda app has booked her for lunch in a restaurant rated highly over the past six weeks by people whose activity on Noblessity’s resident-only social network suggests a high degree of compatibility. But when she gets out onto the Plaza, she finds it unusually, even alarmingly crowded, and asks one of her building’s uniformed concierges if he knows what’s going on.

It seems a private shopper for one of the luxury boutiques on the Skydeck level, deputized to serve one of the members of the boy band that played the Performing Arts Center last night, has uploaded a brief video of her charge shimmying into a tight new pullover — and of course the time- and location-stamped video has gone viral locally. In the fullness of time the shopper will be fired, doubtlessly, but the damage is already done. A lengthening line of cars waits to disgorge passengers at each of the bays around the plaza’s perimeter, and the walks and overways are perceptibly starting to fill with giddy young women.

The mast-mounted cameras high above Bourse Plaza have, of course, identified the potentially troublesome concentration of pedestrians, just as roadbed sensors register the increased traffic load and flag it for immediate attention. It’s just after shift change in Noblessity’s Intelligent Operations Center deep beneath the streets, and the fresh crew is quick to respond to the emergent condition – except for special occasions like the annual Jazz Festival, management likes to keep densities in the CBD low, and the oversight team’s contractual performance incentives depend on keeping the sidewalks at Level of Service C or better.

Ordinarily, of course, this isn’t an issue; between the oppressive heat and the long, triumphal blocks, nobody tends to walk very much or very far in Noblessity. Thanks to the private shopper’s indiscretion, though, today is shaping up to be different. Traffic on the sidewalks has started to thicken, contraflow movement is beginning to be difficult, one or two leading indicators of social distress have started to show up on the Big Board. It’s little more than threshold activity at this point, but if nobody issues a command override, active countermeasures will be deployed…and mindful of those incentives, nobody does. Up go the bollards around the plaza, down go the gates on the overways, and one after another, all of the signals turn green on all of the routes leaving the area.

Maria finds herself rerouted for the second time this day, this time on foot. Her phone runs a few quick calculations against her standing parameters and winds up recommending a trattoria-style Italian place she’s never thought to try before, just the other side of the World Expo Center — happy serendipity. Of everything on the menu, there are only a few options lit up on the tabletop as falling within her current diet guidelines, but the Caesar salad she chooses is delicious. The ten-minute walk back to work mostly takes her through temperature-controlled spaces, while between them the gorgeous, ethnic-inspired patterns of the active brise-soleils have unfolded to shield the walkways from the worst of the noonday sun. Even the more visible crowd-dispersion measures have faded back.

By the time Maria calls it a day, the East Asian markets are long closed, but NASDAQ’s just getting started. With a brief series of taps, she formally passes operational responsibility to her New York-based colleagues, and puts her desk to sleep. Her drive home is daydreamy, if a bit subdued — the billboards along the route all seem to be down, and she watches them drift by in a succession of vivid frames the color of clear sky.

After she’s changed into workout clothes, Maria orders a car to the Recreation Zone. Despite the heat, she loves to run along the manicured paths set between the lakes and fountains, to measure her progress against the countersunk lighting pavers. At the entrance to Oceanside Park, a two-man construction crew with a miniature backhoe is digging up the sensors they emplaced just last year — management has sourced a newer model, cheaper and more capable. True to every word of the promises the headhunter made, Noblessity is continuously in the process of being upgraded.

As Maria huffs around the outer loop, her sunglasses keep a running tally of the calories she’s burning, representing them as a blue line climbing diagonally across her peripheral vision. As the blue of her efforts finally begins to track the green of the optimal curve set by her company’s employee wellness plan, she feels a tight glow of satisfaction well up inside her. A brief flourish of trumpets in her earbuds and an animated burst of fireworks means she’s unlocked a mileage target achievement. This will mean new options at dinner for sure.

The original plan for the evening was to meet Mark for dinner at the new robata grill on the garden level of Entertainment Sector South. But just as she turns into her final lap, Maria’s sunglasses light up with a call. It’s Mark; it turns out that he’s exhausted from what has been a long and arduous day of strategy sessions, and feeling pretty burnt out herself, they decide to meet up at home and order in. She knows from experience that she won’t even need to call for a car — the service’s adaptive load-balancing algorithm knows the fall of darkness will always mean a line of people who need rides home from the park — and the condo is mere minutes away.

Of the many amenities provided by her building, among Maria’s very favorites is the one she now avails herself of: ordered meals, like care packages from home and other deliveries, are deposited in the autolocker, so she doesn’t even need to deal with the delivery boy. Mark orders with a few taps on the kitchen screen, and they catch each other up on their respective days during the twenty or so minutes that go by before the autolocker chimes to announce the arrival of their dinner. They grab a few napkins and their containers of food and settle back on the couch to buy a movie from the wallscreen.

Before it’s even a third over, though, Maria realizes with a start that she’s started to nod off. She plants a kiss on the top of her husband’s head and pads off to bed. Just as she slides between the sheets, the briefest prayer of acknowledgment escapes her lips, a prayer of gratitude for another day of health, profit and productivity, another day in balance, another day in Noblessity.

The City Is Here For You To Use: 100 easy pieces

Deprecated 20150101.

On the first of January, 2008, I promised you a book about the things I saw happening at the intersection of emerging networked information technologies with urban place.

Well. It has been a long, long time coming, the book has inevitably evolved from my initial conception of it, and there’s still a great deal of work to be done. But I’m now in a position to at least let you know, in a fair amount of detail, just what The City Is Here For You To Use argues.

Please bear in mind that the following is not an outline, just an accounting of some of the book’s major propositions, in the rough order in which you’ll encounter them. As it happens, some of my favorite passages are acutely underrepresented in this accounting (particularly historical material and that concerning network technology’s implications for subjectivity and the constitution of a metropolitan, cosmopolitan self). What’s worse, a good deal of fairly carefully worked-out argumentation is here compressed into what are more or less bullet points. Unless you and I are already muy, muy simpatico, there’s no reason you should necessarily find all of the arguments as presented here convincing, nor do I expect you to. But I do want you to have a map of the line I’m going to be taking.

Without any further ado, then:

1. We find ourselves at a moment in history in which the nature of cities, as form and experience both, is under pressure from a particular class of emerging technology. The advent of lightweight, scalable, networked information-processing technologies means that urban environments around the world are now provisioned with the ability to gather, process, transmit, display and take physical action on data.

2. As a result, that which primarily conditions choice and action in urban places is no longer physical, but resides in an invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds the physical city. That is, our experiences in such places are no longer shaped exclusively, or even predominantly, by our physical surroundings, but by the interaction of code and data.

3. While it is impossible to know for certain just how much of the activity going on around us on any given street is there as the explicit result of a network sounding, it is clearly both a nontrivial and a growing percentage.

4. Our ability to use the city around us, our flexibility in doing so, just who is able to do so, will be shaped by decisions made about the technical design of objects and their human interfaces, and the precise ways in which such objects are connected to one another and made visible to the network.

5. There are many modes in which information raised to the network can re-enter the world. The most obvious is for that data to be mediated by a personal networked device, and acted upon at the level of individual choice and behavior.

6. A second clear category of interest is when this data populates urban media interfaces, which is to say the wide variety of shared, situated display and interaction surfaces of all sizes which increasingly layer urban space.

7. A third order of output is when data is expressed as a dynamic alteration to the physical form or other performative qualities of buildings, circulation networks and other infrastructural systems. We find ourselves in the liminal realm of physical form as the dynamic expression of some discrete measured condition.

8. Independent of the platform on which they’re displayed, the velocity and complexity of the data we are presented with suggests that it will increasingly be conveyed to us in the form of data visualizations that in and of themselves may be both dynamic and interactive.

9. An expansive range of everyday urban tasks currently mediated by analogue (or only passively networked) means, from physical access control to the ability to participate in economic transactions, are increasingly mediated by a single converged interface object, the smartphone…

10. …or disappearing into behavior altogether.

11. Just as Bourdieu argued that we learn the social roles and performances expected of us, in part, from our engagement with material and manufactured objects, we now learn those roles from our interactions with digital interfaces.

12. Digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.

13. We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed nonbiological, nature, from drones to algorithms.

14. These inevitably have their own embedded rhetorics and immanent logics.

15. Equally, there is a determinism implicit in the software used to design spatial relations, from 3D design packages to agent-based modeling tools.

16. The grandeur in determining the conditions of urban existence increasingly resides with those who produce networked objects and services and the interfaces to them.

17. The technologies we are concerned with here achieve their effect not as discrete objects, but as functional ensembles.

18. In many ways, the capabilities and affordances associated with any given ensemble remain distressingly hard to understand, even to people exposed to them on a daily basis.

19. A strong motivator for the deployment of these technologies is the idea that they will render previously obscure, occult and opaque urban processes transparent to inquiry, and therefore actionable.

20. For a variety of reasons, technologists have tended to treat the environments in which the things they design are deployed as what Deleuze called “any-space-whatever”: abstract, generic, unconditioned spaces, containing infinite potentials for connection. But as insightful observers of technology like Paul Dourish and Malcolm McCullough have pointed out, this isn’t so, and can never be: space is always some particular space, systems are always given meaning by being situated in a specific locale and human community, with all the limitations and constraints which go along with those things.

21. Conversely, of course, the urbanists that might have supplied technologists with vital corrective insight have tended to be correspondingly far from the cutting edge of technical development.

22. These technologies are at present offered to us in two guises: the smartphone app and the smart city. Neither is satisfactory.

23. The smart city, as currently proposed, exists almost solely for the benefit of managerial elites.

24. The smart city is situated in “the proximate future.”

25. The smart city pretends to a perfect knowledge that is nowhere achievable, even in principle.

26. The smart city replicates in substance most if not all of the blunders we associate with the discredited high-modernist urban planning techniques of the twentieth century.

27. The smart city and similar schemes tend to rely on a model that hardwires or literally embeds technical devices and systems too deeply in the urban fabric to accommodate the rate of change we observe in such systems. (The componentry that affords us an informatic service layer will tend to evolve far more quickly than the structural support in which it is housed. Cities ought therefore be designed to accommodate ready maintenance and the constant swapping-out of hardware.)

28. The smart city is predicated on a neoliberal political economy, and in particular presents a set of potentials disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.

29. Most damningly, the smart city has little enough to do with cities.

30. Latent in the ideology underwriting the smart city is the notion that there is one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need, and that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically.

31. We should demand to know precisely which models of everyday life, subjectivity and experience are implicit in the smart city.

32. There is an inherent tension between technologies that achieve their beneficial effect only at network scale, and therefore benefit from or even require top-down imposition, and the imperatives and prerogatives of local autonomy.

33. The same set of underlying technical potentials that results in the (rhetorical or actual) performance of the smart city can be turned to far more interesting, vital and responsive ends. These meaningful alternatives can best be realized when organized according to the “small pieces, loosely joined” logic so decisive in securing the uptake of the World Wide Web.

34. A set of technical preconditions exists, which Anthony Townsend has identified as (free or low-cost) robust broadband connectivity; (free or low-cost) personal network-interface devices, of wide availability; fully public interfaces; a robust cloud-computing infrastructure, such that storage and information processing are pulled off of local devices; and, at the policy level, an equally robust commitment to open municipal data.

35. Of course, the data is never “just” the data, not at any point a neutral, objective quantity.

36. Firstly, we measure what can be measured.

37. As Laura Kurgan has pointed out, we measure the quantities that it is politically expedient to measure, or which signify against the metrics and success criteria that between them constitute our incentive landscape.

38. We deploy the sensors that are cheap to deploy.

39. Above all, we measure what we think to measure, looking for explanations in some places and not others.

40. 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.

41. We move toward a time in which every change of state, every transaction, every mediated conversation transpiring in the cities of the developed world is, at least in principle, capable of being captured and retained by the network, assigned some meaning, and grabbed, manipulated and acted upon by some remote system.

42. Where previously human and other processes in the urban fold were lost to insight and to history, the contemporary city’s rhythms speak themselves.

43. Even seemingly innocuous facts or patterns of fact, when subjected to relational, inferential and predictive analytics, may be brought to bear against us in distressing and unforeseeable ways, such nonobvious linkages particularly leading to transitive closure and the revelation of identity.

44. These technologies redefine surveillance. It is no longer something which takes place exclusively, or even primarily, in the audio and visual registers, or, for that matter, in real time.

45. We must henceforth understand surveillance as something that can be assembled retroactively, on demand and in response to an emergent perception of need.

46. When discussing surveillance, and the use of power/knowledge to police and constrain behavior, historically most concerns have centered on the state and its capabilities. We must now extend the ambit of our concern to include both market entities and the collectivity of our peers.

47. As ever, the salient thing is not whether some technical capability exists, but whether some party believes that it does, sufficiently to act upon that belief.

48. The discrete objects that gather information and furnish it to the network are acutely sensitive to the alteration of parameters relating either to their design or their deployment.

49. As Anna Minton has observed, the presence of certain kinds of surveillant artifact in the streetscape empirically diminishes personal safety, by eroding the sense of mutual responsibility that is otherwise the hallmark of an organically functioning neighborhood.

50. New visualization tools endow us with what amounts to an extended sensorium, but only at the risk of privileging the perspectives they encode over others which may well be more salient to the situation at hand. There is a danger that our tools will seduce us into believing we understand the flow of things better than we do, or can.

51. Because predictive analytics are all too often based on straight-line extrapolations from present behavior, they can fail to account for perturbations that knock a metastable system out of its present state and into another basin of stability.

52. Networked technologies erode our long-standing conceptions of public and private space. Instead of “public,” perhaps we are better off constructing these as places one can reasonably expect one’s behavior to be observed.

53. Instead of “private,” by the same token, perhaps we can consider such to be places where behavior, once observed, has a very high probability of being correlated with one’s identity.

54. We are now in a position to see that any meaningful distinction between such spaces is collapsing.

55. The risks to individual privacy posed by the contemporary networked streetscape and the objects in it is compounded by the personal devices we carry voluntarily.

56. Mediated digitally as they now are, many of the activities that constitute the public sphere have evaporated from the public realm, leaving the destiny of our public spaces uncertain.

57. Networked objects capable of collecting information from public space can usefully be placed on a spectrum of concern, evaluated by whether they do not store captured data, store it locally in a persistent manner, or upload it to the network…

58. …allow analytics to be applied to collected data or not…

59. …what their effective range and domain of action is…

60. …whether or not meaningful provisions for consent to and opt-out of attempts at collection are present…

61. …and whether or not there is a clear and immediate public good served by the collection.

62. As presently constructed, certain such deployments represent a unidirectional and involuntary transfer of value from individuals moving through public space to private concerns unknown to them.

63. Coming to terms with the fact that a very wide range of everyday objects and surfaces in our cities will have the capacities discussed here will require a new conception of them as open informational utilities: public objects.

64. What is a “public object”? Any artifact located in or bounding upon public rights-of-way…

65. …Any discrete object in the common spatial domain, intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public…

66. …Any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessible to the public, regardless of its ownership or original intention.

67. The data streams collected by such objects should, within reason, be open, free, accessible and extensible. You should certainly be able to draw data out of them, and — so long as those functions represent no public harm — to run other functions on top of them.

68. We might more rigorously define the aim here as ensuring that the goods produced by public object data collection are nonrivalrous and nonexclusive.

69. Given the rapidity with which software evolves, it may be exceedingly difficult to subject systems where power/knowledge is brought to bear by provisions resident in code (rather than in discrete hardware) to processes of democratic accountability.

70. Provided with such functionality, urban space itself becomes capable of performing sorting and ordering operations, including differential exclusions with little or no effective recourse in real time.

71. Increasingly, the systems we are exposed to treat us as temporary and contingent aggregates of “dividuals,” distinguished from one another and laminated together only in the act and moment of inquiry. In the absence of traditional markers of mutual in-group recognition and solidarity, it may be difficult for such dividuals to recognize that they do in fact constitute a class.

72. Cities, with their density and diversity, generate two profound goods for free: enhanced information exchange and transactive capacity…

73. …and the forging, through friction, dissensus and the constant exposure to difference, of a metropolitan self.

74. The ability to trivially search the space of a city is leaching away at the constitution of a quality we have always recognized as urban savvy or savoir faire.

75. The persistent retrievability of personal information is undermining the city’s capacity to act as a chrysalis for personal reinvention.

76. Technologies like high-resolution positioning and algorithmic facial recognition are destroying any promise of anonymity we thought the metropolis afforded.

77. Cities depend vitally on informal, illicit, even deviant economies, which are threatened by a regime of eternal, total and trivial visibility.

78. The wish to protect, preserve or even enhance these qualities, when the technologies we now have at hand would seem to cut against them in ordinary use, furnishes us with several clear design desiderata for networked urban systems.

79. Transfer of the tools of placemaking — particularly the ability to make and publish maps — from empowered elites to the general public represents a profound recasting of spatial knowing. The ability to be represented (or, to some degree, to resist representation) is now in popular hands.

80. Equally, the advent of maps that tell you where you are on them represents a profound epistemic break from the entire history of cartography to date.

81. Our conceptions of lived, bodily space and the simultaneity and capacity of time are almost casually transformed by our everyday use of networked artifacts.

82. Many of the things our new tools tell us about the places we live will be circumstances we’re not quite ready to face up to.

83. Equally, these technologies present us with the specter of new and unforeseen failure modes. Such defaults may affect us in multiple registers simultaneously.

84. The ability for any person to physically travel to and occupy any public space of the city at any time of their choosing and without confronting challenge is an absolute precondition for any meaningfully articulated “right to the city.”

85. The present panoply of heterogeneous transportation networks we encounter in most cities cannot accommodate this requirement. They must therefore be bound together in a mesh of finely-grained and fully interoperable networked services — a transmobility field. Information is the substance of this new urban mobility.

86. The ability to claim unoccupied or unutilized space, at least temporarily, by the act of creative use is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city,” most especially in so-called “shrinking cities.”

87. Present land-use policies and practices cannot accommodate this requirement. Parcels available on short-term, temporary, contingent or negotiated bases ought therefore be made discoverable via a networked service, such that both market and nonmarket service models are accommodated: space as a service.

88. The ability of citizens to enjoy the same real-time synoptic visibility over the unfolding processes of the city available to any manager is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”

89. Present deployments of information technology, especially as made manifest in so-called intelligent operations centers, do not accommodate this requirement. Such consolidated awareness ought therefore be made available via open, shared platforms: frameworks for citizen engagement.

90. The ability to deploy vetted and reliable real-time information in support of collective self-determination is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”

91. Present decision-making procedures, even in places under democratic governance, cannot accommodate this requirement. We ought therefore devise and install, at the lowest reasonable level, a populist deliberative process capable of harnessing networked information, bringing it to bear on challenges before the community and focusing dissensus where it is most productive: evidence-based citizenship.

92. The frictions and constraints that act to keep novel technosocial potentials from bedding in are almost never of a technical nature, but are rather institutional, regulatory and legal.

93. Though some of these constraints may certainly exist for good historical reasons, there is at present an odd and potentially temporary confluence of interests between those invested in a neoliberal retreat of the state from the provision of services and those holding an affirmative vision of collective self-determination.

94. Given the drag generally imposed on government informatics by the unwieldy combination of lowest-bidder procurement policies, the requirement for compatibility with legacy systems and elephantine IT bureaucracies, we stand on the threshold of a world in which the ordinary citizen has recourse to data-gathering, -processing and -visualization tools at least as good as, and often considerably superior to, those which local governmental institutions can bring to bear on a problem.

95. This is especially true when citizen information-processing resources are used in the aggregate.

96. As yet, the majority of urban places and things appear to the network only via passive representations. The networked city cannot come into its own until these are reconceived as a framework of active resources, each endowed with some manner of structured, machine-readable presence, and the possibilities for interaction such provisions give rise to.

97. It is only by consciously and carefully transforming the urban landscape into a meshwork of open and available resources that we can find some upside in the colonization of everyday life by information technology. Such resources ought to be maintained as elements of a core common infrastructure.

98. If place derives its meaning from phenomenology, capacity and history, the technologies under consideration here operate in all three registers.

99. The city is not a finite state machine, something with limited configurations. Networked cities, therefore, must be understood as constituting a grammar that admits to a very large number of valid permutations. Understood correctly, any such place will be ripe with potential for interconnection, recombination and improvisatory structuration — something capable of being extended, enhanced and repurposed by its users as new potentials become available and new desires arise.

100. Considerations, then, for a city and a world newly clothed in code. If we admittedly find ourselves amidst this set of circumstances without much having planned on it, how we respond — what we do now, what cities we make of the potentials before us — is still largely up to us. Now as never before, the city is here for you to use.

Raw “power”

The raw footage from an interview I did with ZDF German television — twenty-five minutes of me talking about networked cities, if you can take it. (I myself dig the hobbled Trabi I’m slouching against.)

I hope you’ll forgive the moments of redundancy, the result of a droning airplane which kept circling overhead and necessitating the reboot of one or two questions. I have less of an excuse for the inarticulation and hand-wavy quality…but all in all it’s not too shabby an outing for someone who was freezing and had to pee pretty mightily. I hope you enjoy it.

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.

“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

– As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

– This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Introducing Urbanscale

And this is what everything that came before was leading up to: Urbanscale, design for networked cities and citizens.

Urbanscale is a New York-based boutique practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of human-centered interaction design to the specific problems of the metropolitan environment. We aim to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. And yes, we’re hiring.

You can find us via the above site, or @urbnscl on Twitter.

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)

There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.

The sidewalks are for everybody (depending on just how you define “everybody”)

Coming back to the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco after many years away has been something of an education in the lower limits of urban metabolism for me. Despite a few significant disappearances and subductions, it’s astonishing just how many of the storefronts on the street remain precisely the same as they were when I first encountered them at the tail end of 1990 — in quite a few cases, businesses that barely ever seemed to enjoy any traffic or clientele, or have much future hope of same.

The neighborhood’s issues, as well, are sadly perennial. Since the mid-1960s, these few overdetermined blocks, and the lovely public park onto which they open, have served as a very strange attractor indeed. As the continent’s final stop, as a microclimate sporting permanently moderate conditions, and (after the so-called Summer of Love fixed it in the popular imagination as all-welcoming hub of benevolent creativity) as a destination of particular choice for the putatively free-spirited, the Upper Haight has for decades been a sink for those who have found the constraints of life elsewhere too much to bear. As you might imagine, a significant percentage of those attracted to the Haight for such reasons have historically wound up living on the street.

While there were originally at least the rudiments of an institutional support infrastructure in place to support such a life — including the network of crashpads, Free Stores and Free Bakery established by the anarchist Digger collective — all that was long over and done with by the 1980s. Nor has anything appeared to replace that infrastructure in all the long years since, given the gutting of municipal budgets by Proposition 13 (1978), the general souring and inward-turning that followed in its wake and continues to condition American constructions of public life, and the restatement of the Haight as a corporate simulacrum of itself.

Local property values had soared in the intervening decades, too, meaning that the selfsame flats that had once furnished errant hippies with welcoming, if crab-infested, places to crash were now home to knowledge workers in the creative industries — knowledge workers that needed their sleep, that had a harder time tolerating noise and other chaos, that just wanted to get out their front door without being harassed for change or having to step over a fresh pile of human shit.

By the turn of the century, the problem had hardened still further. If, for a variety of reasons, the Haight had lost whatever porosity it might originally have called upon to absorb this kind of influx, the folks sleeping rough on its streets had changed, too. They’d become angry, resentful crusty punks accompanied by pitbulls, trying to eke their rudimentary existence from the residents and visitors of a neighborhood that didn’t particularly want them there.

And this is the situation as it’s persisted, or been allowed to persist, all the way down to the present. I daresay the issue is so intractable because here San Francisco finds itself torn against the better angels of its own nature, and the desire to extend unlimited self-expression to all that is such a wonderful part of this city’s history and (forgive me) brand; most other North American cities, certainly, would have long ago targeted a revenue-generating neighborhood thus affected for Quality of Life intervention. The trouble for the would-be liberal or progressive is that any neat talk of a Lefebvrian “right to the city” breaks down on the sidewalks of the Haight: here it’s nakedly clear both that some legitimate uses of urban space inherently infringe others…and that the infringement need have nothing to do with a state actor or other convenient boogeyman. (The latent threat of state violence may certainly be invoked by one contesting party or another, and has in fact been invoked here, but it’s not a necessary precondition.)

In the end, unless you’ve got nigh-Solomonic abilities to reconcile conflicting claims, you’re going to be forced to choose which vision of “everybody” you wish to uphold. In San Francisco, that choice has crystallized in a measure to be voted on in the November election, Proposition L, which would amend the San Francisco Police code to prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks. Here are two sites representing very different perspectives on the issue: fighting the For corner, the “grassroots movement” Civil Sidewalks, and standing Against, the advocacy group Sidewalks Are For People, formerly known as Stand Against Sit/Lie. (The scare quotes are there because Civil Sidewalks — however much I may sympathize with certain of its aims and goals, however much I may believe these aims to reflect feelings genuinely shared by the community’s residents — is clearly an initiative of merchants’ associations rather than anything truly organic.)

In the distance between the arguments For and Against can be seen the reason why constructions of “the public” (and therefore of what legitimate interests that public may wish to pursue) are so dangerous. As Kristine F. Miller reminds us, there can never be any such thing, except as a screen for one or another set of interests. There are only publics, and policy is almost always going to mean disappointing some set of them.

For the record: I fully agree with neither the For nor Against positions as stated, though I think aspects of both have deep claims to truth. My sense, as you’ve certainly already inferred from my word choices above, is that the people who have made some longstanding investment in the neighborhood (physical and psychic, that is, far more than merely pecuniary) deserve to walk and chat and, yes, sit, on their sidewalks, free from hassle and threat. Why not fully embrace Prop L, then? I know that police departments historically have a nasty habit of invoking legislation like this to justify their repression of other populations; that panel in the Stand Against Sit/Lie comic was no hyperbole. Beyond that, though, I guess I prefer the flavor of the classic anarchist solution to situations like this — self-organized, robust citizen’s patrols — to invoking the firm hand of the Daddy State.

But maybe that’s a little too much like vigilante justice for this community. Maybe it would require more time, energy and exposure to personal risk than people are willing to invest. And if that’s the case, then maybe the crusties and the pitbulls and the spanging are something people ought to learn to live with. I’m not saying they’re pleasant, or attractive, or make any kind of meaningful contribution whatsoever to the neighborhood. I am saying that, if their presence on your sidewalks is really so offensive to you, there are other and better things to do about it than giving the police historically problematic powers — powers that they’re not even asking for.

The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends 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 — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “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.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.

Maxima/list

By infrastructure, one refers to every aspect of the technology of rational administration that routinizes life, action, and property within larger (ultimately global) organizations. Today, infrastructure can be argued to own a little part of everything. Infrastructure, at the very least, is the systematic expression of capital, of deregulated currency, of interest rates, credit instruments, trade treaties, market forces, and the institutions that enforce them; it is water, fuel, and electrical reservoirs, routes and rates of supply; it is demographic mutations and migrations, satellite networks and lotteries, logistics and supply coefficients, traffic computers, airports and distribution hubs, cadastral techniques, juridical routines, telephone systems, business district self-regulation mechanisms, evacuation and disaster mobilization protocols, prisons, subways and freeways and their articulated connections, libraries and weather-monitoring apparatuses, trash removal and recycling networks, sports stadiums and the managerial and delivery facilities for the data they generate, parking garages, gas pipelines and meters, hotels, public toilets, postal and park utilities and management, school systems and ATM machines; celebrity, advertising, and identity engineering; rail nodes and networks, television programming, interstate systems, entry ports and the public goods and agencies associated with them [Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], sewers and alarms, multi-tiered military-entertainment apparatus, decision engineering pools, wetlands and water basins, civil structure maintenance schedules, epidemiological algorithms, cable delivery systems, police enforcement matrixes, licensing bylaws, greenmarkets, medical-pharmaceutical complexes, internet scaffolds, handgun regulations, granaries and water towers, military deployment procedures, street and highway illumination schemas; in a phase, infrastructure concerns regimens of technical calculation of any and all kinds.

– Sanford Kwinter and Daniela Fabricius, from “Urbanism: An Archivist’s Art?”, in that old standby, Koolhaas et al. Mutations.

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