The following is section 4 of “Against the smart city,” the first part of The City Is Here For You To Use. Our Do projects will be publishing “Against the smart city” in stand-alone POD pamphlet and Kindle editions later on this month.
4 | The smart city pretends to an objectivity, a unity and a perfect knowledge that are nowhere achievable, even in principle.
Of the major technology vendors working in the field, Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement of the philosophical underpinnings on which their (and indeed the entire) smart-city enterprise is founded: “Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”
We’ve already considered what kind of ideological work is being done when efforts like these are positioned as taking place in some proximate future. The claim of perfect competence Siemens makes for its autonomous IT systems, though, is by far the more important part of the passage. It reflects a clear philosophical position, and while this position is more forthrightly articulated here than it is anywhere else in the smart-city literature, it is without question latent in the work of IBM, Cisco and their peers. Given its foundational importance to the smart-city value proposition, I believe it’s worth unpacking in some detail.
What we encounter in this statement is an unreconstructed logical positivism, which, among other things, implicitly holds that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable, and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in the state of a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, it is effectively an argument there is one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)
Every single aspect of this argument is problematic.
— Perfectly knowable, without bias or distortion: Collectively, we’ve known since Heisenberg that to observe the behavior of a system is to intervene in it. Even in principle, there is no way to stand outside a system and take a snapshot of it as it existed at time T.
But it’s not as if any of us enjoy the luxury of living in principle. We act in historical space and time, as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions. So when Siemens talks about a city’s autonomous systems acting on “perfect knowledge” of residents’ habits and behaviors, what they are suggesting in the first place is that everything those residents ever do — whether in public, or in spaces and settings formerly thought of as private — can be sensed accurately, raised to the network without loss, and submitted to the consideration of some system capable of interpreting it appropriately. And furthermore, that all of these efforts can somehow, by means unspecified, avoid being skewed by the entropy, error and contingency that mark everything else that transpires inside history.
Some skepticism regarding this scenario would certainly be understandable. It’s hard to see how Siemens, or anybody else, could avoid the slippage that’s bound to occur at every step of this process, even under the most favorable circumstances imaginable.
However thoroughly Siemens may deploy their sensors, to start with, they’ll only ever capture the qualities about the world that are amenable to capture, measure only those quantities that can be measured. Let’s stipulate, for the moment, that these sensing mechanisms somehow operate flawlessly, and in perpetuity. What if information crucial to the formulation of sound civic policy is somehow absent from their soundings, resides in the space between them, or is derived from the interaction between whatever quality of the world we set out to measure and our corporeal experience of it?
Other distortions may creep into the quantification of urban processes. Actors whose performance is subject to measurement may consciously adapt their behavior to produce metrics favorable to them in one way or another. For example, a police officer under pressure to “make quota” may issue citations for infractions she would ordinarily overlook; conversely, her precinct commander, squeezed by City Hall to present the city as an ever-safer haven for investment, may downwardly classify felony assault as a simple misdemeanor. This is the phenomenon known to viewers of The Wire as “juking the stats,” and it’s particularly likely to happen when financial or other incentives are contingent on achieving some nominal performance threshold. Nor is it the only factor likely to skew the act of data collection; long, sad experience suggests that the usual array of all-too-human pressures will continue to condition any such effort. (Consider the recent case in which Seoul Metro operators were charged with using CCTV cameras to surreptitiously ogle women passengers, rather than scan platforms and cars for criminal activity as intended.)
What about those human behaviors, and they are many, that we may for whatever reason wish to hide, dissemble, disguise, or otherwise prevent being disclosed to the surveillant systems all around us? “Perfect knowledge,” by definition, implies either that no such attempts at obfuscation will be made, or that any and all such attempts will remain fruitless. Neither one of these circumstances sounds very much like any city I’m familiar with, or, for that matter, would want to be.
And what about the question of interpretation? The Siemens scenario amounts to a bizarre compound assertion that each of our acts has a single salient meaning, which is always and invariably straightforwardly self-evident — in fact, so much so that this meaning can be recognized, made sense of and acted upon remotely, by a machinic system, without any possibility of mistaken appraisal.
The most prominent advocates of this approach appear to believe that the contingency of data capture is not an issue, nor is any particular act of interpretation involved in making use of whatever data is retrieved from the world in this way. When discussing their own smart-city venture, senior IBM executives argue, in so many words, that “the data is the data”: transcendent, limpid and uncompromised by human frailty. This mystification of “the data” goes unremarked upon and unchallenged not merely in IBM’s material, but in the overwhelming majority of discussions of the smart city. But different values for air pollution in a given location can be produced by varying the height at which a sensor is mounted by a few meters. Perceptions of risk in a neighborhood can be transformed by altering the taxonomy used to classify reported crimes ever so slightly. And anyone who’s ever worked in opinion polling knows how sensitive the results are to the precise wording of a survey. The fact is that the data is never “just” the data, and to assert otherwise is to lend inherently political and interested decisions regarding the act of data collection an unwonted gloss of neutrality and dispassionate scientific objectivity.
The bold claim of perfect knowledge appears incompatible with the messy reality of all known information-processing systems, the human individuals and institutions that make use of them and, more broadly, with the world as we experience it. In fact, it’s astonishing that anyone would ever be so unwary as to claim perfection on behalf of any computational system, no matter how powerful.
— One and only one solution: With their inherent, definitional diversity, layeredness and complexity, we can usefully think of cities as tragic. As individuals and communities, the people who live in them hold to multiple competing and equally valid conceptions of the good, and it’s impossible to fully satisfy all of them at the same time. A wavefront of gentrification can open up exciting new opportunities for young homesteaders, small retailers and craft producers, but tends to displace the very people who’d given a neighborhood its character and identity. An increased police presence on the streets of a district reassures some residents, but makes others uneasy, and puts yet others at definable risk. Even something as seemingly straightforward and honorable as an anticorruption initiative can undo a fabric of relations that offered the otherwise voiceless at least some access to local power. We should know by now that there are and can be no Pareto-optimal solutions for any system as complex as a city.
— Arrived at algorithmically: Assume, for the sake of argument, that there could be such a solution, a master formula capable of resolving all resource-allocation conflicts and balancing the needs of all a city’s competing constituencies. It certainly would be convenient if this golden mean could be determined automatically and consistently, via the application of a set procedure — in a word, algorithmically.
In urban planning, the idea that certain kinds of challenges are susceptible to algorithmic resolution has a long pedigree. It’s already present in the Corbusian doctrine that the ideal and correct ratio of spatial provisioning in a city can be calculated from nothing more than an enumeration of the population, it underpins the complex composite indices of Jay Forrester’s 1969 Urban Dynamics, and it lay at the heart of the RAND Corporation’s (eventually disastrous) intervention in the management of 1970s New York City. No doubt part of the idea’s appeal to smart-city advocates, too, is the familial resemblance such an algorithm would bear to the formulae by which commercial real-estate developers calculate air rights, the land area that must be reserved for parking in a community of a given size, and so on.
In the right context, at the appropriate scale, such tools are surely useful. But the wholesale surrender of municipal management to an algorithmic toolset — for that is surely what is implied by the word “autonomous” — would seem to repose an undue amount of trust in the party responsible for authoring the algorithm. At least, if the formulae at the heart of the Siemens scenario turn out to be anything at all like the ones used in the current generation of computational models, critical, life-altering decisions will hinge on the interaction of poorly-defined and surprisingly subjective values: a “quality of life” metric, a vague category of “supercreative” occupations, or other idiosyncrasies along these lines. The output generated by such a procedure may turn on half-clever abstractions, in which a complex circumstance resistant to direct measurement is represented by the manipulation of some more easily-determined proxy value: average walking speed stands in for the more inchoate “pace” of urban life, while the number of patent applications constitutes an index of “innovation.”
Even beyond whatever doubts we may harbor as to the ability of algorithms constructed in this way to capture urban dynamics with any sensitivity, the element of the arbitrary we see here should give us pause. Given the significant scope for discretion in defining the variables on which any such thing is founded, we need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act. And at least as things stand today, neither in the Siemens material nor anywhere else in the smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability.
— Encoded in public policy, and applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics: A review of the relevant history suggests that policy recommendations derived from computational models are only rarely applied to questions as politically sensitive as resource allocation without some intermediate tuning taking place. Inconvenient results may be suppressed, arbitrarily overridden by more heavily-weighted decision factors, or simply ignored.
The best-documented example of this tendency remains the work of the New York City-RAND Institute, explicitly chartered to implant in the governance of New York City “the kind of streamlined, modern management that Robert McNamara applied in the Pentagon with such success” during his tenure as Secretary of Defense (1961-1968). The statistics-driven approach that McNamara’s Whiz Kids had so famously brought to the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, variously thought of as “systems analysis” or “operations research,” was first applied to New York in a series of studies conducted between 1973 and 1975, in which RAND used FDNY incident response-time data to determine the optimal distribution of fire stations.
Methodological flaws undermined the effort from the outset. RAND, for simplicity’s sake, chose to use the time a company arrived at the scene of a fire as the basis of their model, rather than the time at which that company actually began fighting the fire; somewhat unbelievably, for anyone with the slightest familiarity with New York City, RAND’s analysts then compounded their error by refusing to acknowledge traffic as a factor in response time. Again, we see some easily-measured value used as a proxy for a reality that is harder to quantify, and again we see the distortion of ostensibly neutral results by the choices made by an algorithm’s designers. But the more enduring lesson for proponents of data-driven policy has to do with how the study’s results were applied. Despite the mantle of coolly “objective” scientism that systems analysis preferred to wrap itself in, RAND’s final recommendations bowed to factionalism within the Fire Department, as well as the departmental leadership’s need to placate critical external constituencies; the exercise, in other words, turned out to be nothing if not political.
The consequences of RAND’s intervention were catastrophic. Following their recommendations, fire battalions in some of the most vulnerable sections of the city were decommissioned, while the department opened other stations in low-density, low-threat areas; the spatial distribution of firefighting assets remaining actually prevented resources from being applied where they were most critically needed. Great swaths of the city’s poorest neighborhoods burned to the ground as a direct result — most memorably the South Bronx, but immense tracts of Manhattan and Brooklyn as well. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, many permanently, and the unforgettable images that emerged fueled perceptions of the city’s nigh-apocalyptic unmanageability that impeded its prospects well into the 1980s. Might a less-biased model, or a less politically-skewed application of the extant findings, have produced a more favorable outcome? This obviously remains unknowable…but the human and economic calamity that actually did transpire is a matter of public record.
Examples like this counsel us to be wary of claims that any autonomous system will ever be entrusted with the regulation and control of civic resources — just as we ought to be wary of claims that the application of some single master algorithm could result in an Pareto-efficient distribution of resources, or that the complex urban ecology might be sufficiently characterized in data to permit the effective operation of such an algorithm in the first place. For all of the conceptual flaws we’ve identified in the Siemens proposition, though, it’s the word “goal” that just leaps off the page. In all my thinking about cities, it has frankly never occurred to me to assert that cities have goals. (What is Cleveland’s goal? Karachi’s?) What is being suggested here strikes me as a rather profound misunderstanding of what a city is. Hierarchical organizations can be said to have goals, certainly, but not anything as heterogeneous in composition as a city, and most especially not a city in anything resembling a democratic society.
By failing to account for the situation of technological devices inside historical space and time, the diversity and complexity of the urban ecology, the reality of politics or, most puzzlingly of all, the “normal accidents” all complex systems are subject to, Siemens’ vision of cities perfectly regulated by autonomous smart systems thoroughly disqualifies itself. But it’s in this depiction of a city as an entity with unitary goals that it comes closest to self-parody.
If it seems like breaking a butterfly on a wheel to subject marketing copy to this kind of dissection, I am merely taking Siemens and the other advocates of the smart city at their word, and this is what they (claim to) really believe. When pushed on the question, of course, some individuals working for enterprises at the heart of the smart-city discourse admit that what their employers actually propose to do is distinctly more modest: they simply mean to deploy sensors on municipal infrastructure, and adjust lighting levels, headway or flow rates to accommodate real-time need. If this is the case, perhaps they ought to have a word with their copywriters, who do the endeavor no favors by indulging in the imperial overreach of their rhetoric. As matters now stand, the claim of perfect competence that is implicit in most smart-city promotional language — and thoroughly explicit in the Siemens material — is incommensurate with everything we know about the way technical systems work, as well as the world they work in. The municipal governments that constitute the primary intended audience for materials like these can only be advised, therefore, to approach all such claims with the greatest caution.
 For example, in New York City, an anonymous survey of “hundreds of retired high-ranking [NYPD] officials” found that “tremendous pressure to reduce crime, year after year, prompted some supervisors and precinct commanders to distort crime statistics” they submitted to the centralized COMPSTAT system. Chen, David W., “Survey Raises Questions on Data-Driven Policy,” The New York Times, 08 February 2010.
 Simon, David, Kia Corthron, Ed Burns and Chris Collins, The Wire, Season 4, Episode 9: “Know Your Place,” first aired 12 November 2006.
 Fletcher, Jim, IBM Distinguished Engineer, and Guruduth Banavar, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Global Public Sector, personal communication, 08 June 2011.
 Migurski, Michal. “Visualizing Urban Data,” in Segaran, Toby and Jeff Hammerbacher, Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions, O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol CA, 2012: pp. 167-182. See also Migurski, Michal. “Oakland Crime Maps X,” tecznotes, 03 March 2008.
 See, as well, Sen’s dissection of the inherent conflict between even mildly liberal values and Pareto optimality. Sen, Amartya Kumar. “The impossibility of a Paretian liberal.” Journal of Political Economy Volume 78 Number 1, Jan-Feb 1970.
 Forrester, Jay. Urban Dynamics, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969.
 See Flood, Joe. The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City — And Determined The Future Of American Cities, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010.
 See, e.g. Bettencourt, Luís M.A. et al. “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 104 Number 17, 24 April 2007, pp. 7301-7306.
 Flood, ibid., Chapter Six.
 Rider, Kenneth L. “A Parametric Model for the Allocation of Fire Companies,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1615-NYC/HUD, April 1975; Kolesar, Peter. “A Model for Predicting Average Fire Company Travel Times,” New York City-RAND Institute report R-1624-NYC, June 1975.
 Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Basic Books, New York, 1984.
Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.
The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.
Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.
This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.
All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.
But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.
To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.
Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.
As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.
Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:
– Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.
There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.
This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.
Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.
And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.
– More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.
I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.
– No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.
Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)
– Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake– or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).
I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.
I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.
And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.
Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.
One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.
A piece I was commissioned to write earlier this year for the catalogue for Juha van ‘t Zelfde’s exhibition Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom, opening at De Hallen Harlem in the Netherlands on 06 September 2013. I hope you enjoy it. (You can find out more about the show and the catalogue here, or purchase it direct from the publishers.)
When I was 18, I moved in with my first real girlfriend, to a draughty ground-floor apartment on East 7th Street between Avenues B and C. This was the winter of 1986-87, a time at which the edges of Manhattan Island (or, for that matter, its core) hadn’t yet been subjected to the concerted pacification campaigns of the Giuliani years. The act of choosing to live downtown, if you were among those for whom it was a choice, still meant accepting some level of risk and physical danger into your life. This was especially true in the neighborhood where I lived, in Alphabet City, where a common rule of thumb had it that A stood for adventurous, B for brave, C for crazy and D for dead.
And it was true, or felt true. Those were the days in which crack cocaine and the 9mm semiautomatic handgun first came to prominence in the psychic life of New York City, the years of the Guardian Angels, “subway vigilante” Bernie Goetz and of Michael Griffith being hounded to his death in Howard Beach. The tension was just something we lived with — more of a constant thrumming note in the background than anything else, though it occasionally crescendoed to apocalyptic-feeling levels. (Early one morning, my girlfriend and I woke to an unusual sensation of heat in our ordinarily-freezing room; it was the five-storey squat in the block behind us, whose backyard butted up against ours, burning to the ground — in fact, being watched as it did so, by the evidently unperturbed personnel of the Fire Department and the HPD, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)
However it may have swollen, crested and then receded from day to day, the predominant emotion I remember from those years is fear. I was afraid of cops. I was afraid of skinheads. I was afraid of the pack of Puerto Rican kids who used to tool through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, hassling Chinese-restaurant deliverymen and the occasional unwary NYU student. I was afraid of the ubiquitous Missing Foundation graffiti that confronted you on every block, the shadowy band’s sigil of an upside-down martini glass enormous in ashy black Krylon on every second building front, bracketed by the legends PURGE and THE PARTY’S OVER.
Most of all, though, I was afraid of the Avenue C end of my own block. In fact, I’d rarely wander any further east than the bodega directly across the street from our apartment, which, but for a few cans of Goya beans, dusty bricks of Bustelo and cartons of island-grade bug spray, never seemed to have much on the shelves. (My housemates and I were certain it was a front for a crack-dealing operation.) It was as if some vast and only semi-permeable membrane had been stretched across the roadway, a thickening of the dread in the air to the point that it was physically difficult to pass through; in all the time I lived on East 7th, I only once recall walking the few blocks to the river. The cold grey light of that single occasion remains hypernaturally vivid in memory, which is what happens when what ought to be uncomplicated everyday experience is etched in the neurons by a jittery endocrine surge.
Like most of the people I knew, I armored myself against the streets in a drag of Schott biker jacket and chain-wrapped combat boots. It was, for the most part, sufficient. I was able to convince myself that I looked tough enough to constitute a disincentive to anyone inclined to hassle me — in fact, my armoring may well have contributed to others’ discomfort more than it alleviated any of my own. But I also made a concerted effort to perform everything the leather jacket and boots implied, as if along with my clothes I had to strap on a set to the shoulders and a walking gait capable of warding off the various bad but never quite fully-imagined things that might happen to me.
In time, all of this taught me something valuable about the nature of life in cities. When fear is an everyday thing, it becomes a habit that settles into the bones. It conditions the hours at which you leave the house, the routes you take, the way you hold your body, the things you carry. And utterly groundless though the great majority of my worries may have been — however precious and pearl-clutching it was for this bourgeois kid to quail at circumstances the overwhelming majority of my neighbors confronted every damn day of their lives, without even the option of picking up stakes and moving to a less fraught neighborhood — I could no longer pretend that the city was in any sense a safe theater of operations for me. Or, by extension, for anyone else.
And that was the crucial insight. It may have been the first time in my life I fully and directly understood the calculus some enormous percentage of people living in every city on Earth are forced to perform every time they walk out the front door. For not a small number of us, the mere act of walking out onto the street is an act that brings us face to face with our own precarity, and not merely the economic precarity we’ve all gotten used to in these austere days, but the deeper contingency of our very being in the world. Under conditions like this, the need to perform the most basic daily operations — shopping for groceries, say, or doing the laundry — becomes something that must be weighed against the risk of being mocked, harassed, mugged, beaten, or worse.
This calculus, unsurprisingly, weighs disproportionately on the elderly, on immigrants, on the homeless, on those who are by fate or choice visibly different than the majority population of a neighborhood, and above all on women of all backgrounds and descriptions. The right simply to be in public, secure in one’s bodily integrity, is and can never be taken for granted by anyone who belongs to any of these groups. And though a great many things have changed in the world since I managed to connect the dots and figure this all out for myself in the winter of 1986, the reality of fear is sadly not among them.
When people live this way, their access to the city’s nominal opportunities is radically curtailed. All of the urban amenities that might exist — not just in theory, on paper, or in principle but actually exist — are simply not present for them in quite the same way as they would be to someone who didn’t have to account for the perception of threat. The landscape is permeated by invisible gradients, boundaries and lines of force, and you disregard these only at your own peril.
If you yourself are an immigrant, of course, or disabled, or queer, or fat, you understand all of this immediately, implicitly, without needing to have it explained. It’s only a revelation to those who are lucky enough never to have felt the burden of any such fear — and such people tend to get prickly and defensive when the subject is raised, as though their interlocutor means to park sole and exclusive blame for this set of circumstances at their feet. Mention any of these facts in polite company, however diffidently, and you can surely expect to be accused of indulging yourself in the worst and most hyperbolic sort of left-wing rhetoric. Even to utter the word “privilege” is to chance having yourself dismissed as a hectoring scold.
And so I learned to talk not of the moral dimensions of this failure, but of its practical implications.
My understanding of the cost of fear starts with my reading of American sociologist Mark Granovetter’s landmark paper of 1973, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” “Weak Ties” concerns the diffusion of information in social networks; Granovetter’s thesis is essentially that we learn the most from people we know the least — more precisely, that because we generally share a very wide range of beliefs and assumptions with those we’re closest to, we tend to receive truly novel information from people to whom we’re only loosely affiliated.
A big city, of course, ought to be wonderful at generating just the kinds of weak ties Granovetter’s paper described. The encounters that take place while waiting at a bus stop, over the counter of a deli, the happenstance conversation with the next person in line at the supermarket — these are, at least potentially, hinges between entirely different ways of life, and moments at which information might pass through the membrane. But these are precisely the opportunities that drop off when fear is the order of the day, for reasons that are both physical and psychic.
The first is a matter of simple availability: you obviously can’t contribute to, or derive benefit from, a milieu you’re not in in the first place. The second has to do with your receptivity, your openness to the unpredictable. Divining the intentions of those with whom we’re unfamiliar, personally or culturally, is hard work. When you’re always on alert — pre-emptively cringing from the violence you assume and believe is headed your way eventually, from one or another direction — it’s exhausting to submit every chance encounter to an on-the-spot risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. It’s safer, and certainly easier, not to drop your guard. And so we stay in our comfort zone, and default to engaging people with whom we’re already more or less similar.
Which is to say that I was denied learning anything from the people down the end of my block of East 7th, and they from me. I don’t want to get sentimental about this and suggest that we need have been best friends, sending choruses of “Kumbaya” pealing into the air of the Lower East Side and so on. But neither was that what Granovetter was getting at. All that is necessary for information to flow is simply exchange.
In this regard, I don’t even think “exchange” means anything particularly declarative. I mean the casual intelligence that two or more people cannot help but impart to one another simply by virtue of being copresent: the way we do, or do not, respond to the utterance of a well-known name. The expressions that cross our countenance upon hearing certain words or ideas, before we master our facial musculature. The way someone holds a bag, a phone, or a newspaper; the pocket in which they keep their wallet; the particular style with which they address the task of locomotion. All of these things are, at least in potential, the makings of urban savoir faire.
There’s a way of quantifying what is lost when we withdraw from the possibility of such exchanges: Metcalfe’s law. This is a notion drawn from the theory of telecommunications, which states that the value of a network rises as the square of the number of connected nodes. The very first telephone, in other words, is entirely worthless: what of value could you possibly do with it? But it leaps in value the moment a second telephone is brought into existence. The number of potential connections, and the aggregate value of the network as a whole, expand geometrically with each additional phone that is added to it. What does this terribly abstract framing of things imply for city life? It means that every one of us who connects to the network of possibilities that is any great city benefits from it — benefits more, in fact, the bigger and further-flung that network is — but that the network’s power, capability and value are tremendously enhanced by the fact of our connection. And to a very great degree, we connect to any such urban network physically, by being bodily present in it and to it.
And that’s why it matters, concretely and in terms the hardest-knuckled quant can respect, whenever someone is prevented from full participation in the city by the gnawing sense that they are a target. I am convinced that every such event is a double loss, doubly felt. Because Metcalfe’s law has an inverse, too. Every person that huddles behind a triple-locked door — or who does make it onto the public way, but only as a timid presence, tuning out everything but the mission at hand — does not simply shut out the city and its possibilities. They represent a corresponding, exponential loss to the city. Not only is the person deprived of the things the city can do for them, in other words, but the city is deprived of the perspectives, skills and capabilities they might have offered the collectivity. You don’t need to acknowledge a moral dimension, or find the language of privilege and exclusion particularly resonant, to understand why this is an outcome we might wish to prevent.
And if weak links do, counterintuitively, turn out to be the thing that binds the whole city together as any kind of psychologically recognizable entity, we’re actually indulging much more damage than we think in allowing these conditions to persist. Or at least that’s what seems to be implied by my reading of Metcalfe and Granovetter: if what you want is to disrupt a city’s overall social cohesion — and limit its ability to conduct novel and potentially vital information from one community to another — there’s nothing more effective you can do than sunder the weak links.
By contrast, though, what if you’re interested in improving the city’s ability to benefit its citizens, and benefit from them in turn? There’s a potential point of intervention at the threshold of public and private, whenever people are faced with the choice of fully committing themselves to the public way or remaining in an environment they perceive as offering them shelter. What might outweigh fear, at such a moment? Awareness of the actual conditions someone might confront, and of the resources they may be able to draw upon in doing so. Confidence in their own capability. Bonds of solidarity — the idea that whatever threats do exist in the world, no one is forced to face them alone. In a word: information.
There’s nothing information can do about that fear per se, especially once it’s set itself up in the body. Not being the kind of thing that can be refuted, it remains beyond the reach of mere facts. But practical informational tools can and do give people the strength to act and to be in public regardless of their fear.
For example, some women I know use Google’s StreetView on a regular basis to scan the neighborhood around destinations that are unfamiliar to them, especially if they’re planning to arrive there after the fall of dark. They use the service ahead of time to determine points of particular vulnerability, and plan routes with more lighting, population, and activity. It gives them a sense that they’re more in control, and that often turns out to be just enough to coax someone out the door.
Or consider a mobile application called Stop and Frisk Watch, developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and translated into Spanish by a group called Make the Road New York. “Stop and Frisk” is a policy instituted by the New York City Police Department; in theory, it permits a police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, to stop and question that person, and search them for any weapons they may be carrying. In practice, the NYPD’s own records show that nearly nine out of every ten of the more than four million New Yorkers subjected to such street interrogations since 2002 — the overwhelming majority of whom were black or Latino — have been completely innocent.
If you are young, male, and black or Latino, in other words, you have a nontrivial chance of being stopped by the police every time you step out of doors, and if you think that doesn’t contribute to people’s sense that their very personhood is being called into question, you’ve never met a New York City police officer. By giving those subjected to the policy a way to record and report their experiences, Stop and Frisk Watch helps them resist, even a little, the sense that power in the world is exclusively arrayed against them and there’s no recourse or succor to be found anywhere.
What’s at stake in both cases is the basic right to be in public. To be sure, constraints on this right are experienced in different ways by different populations, and to varying degrees from one individual to another. But what so many of these abrogations all have in common as a ground note is the experience of bodily dread. And if we’re to take “Weak Ties” and Metcalfe’s law as our guides, this dread, when surrendered to, quite literally undoes the bonds which make any city what it is — weakens its resilience, hampers its ability to convey vital information from one neighborhood, district or community to another, and corrodes its own ability to respond effectively at moments of crisis.
It’s precisely Granovetter’s weak links, in fact, that turn out to furnish cities with an unusual and highly desirable property: that of getting stronger under stress. This is the quality Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragility.” You may find Taleb fatuous; I certainly do. But antifragility is a terrifically important idea. When a city is confronted with some sudden external shock — a Blitz, a Fukushima, a Sandy — it’s the tenuous relations that get activated, the nodding acquaintances that are based on very little more than recognizing a person from one or two prior encounters. It’s these, and not the stronger bonds of affiliation and existing affinity, that wind up furnishing the grounds of cooperation under the most difficult circumstances, and that can in turn make the difference between a community’s survival and its disappearance. And these are the relations that never come into being when we let fear shut us in, off or down.
Any means of which we can avail ourselves, therefore, that dispels our fear, and does so without adding to the burden anybody else is forced to shoulder, is something that can only strengthen our cities, our selves, and their ability to mutually reinforce one another. And this is something that we all ought to agree is desirable, whether or not we ourselves are moved by the moral dimension of dread’s persistence.
Stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery redux: On design interventions intended to make space inhospitable
From Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk, 1999. The context is a discussion of various physical interventions that have been made in the fabric of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station:
On a walk through the station with [director of “homeless outreach” Richard] Rubel and the photographer Ovie Carter one summer day in 1997…I found it essentially bare of unhoused people. I told Rubel of my interest in the station as a place that had once sustained the lives of unhoused people, and asked if he could point out changes that had been made so that it would be less inviting as a habitat where subsistence elements could be found in one place. He pointed out a variety of design elements of the station which had been transformed, helping to illustrate aspects of the physical structure that had formerly enabled it to serve as a habitat.
He took us to a closet near the Seventh Avenue entrance. “We routinely had panhandlers gathering here, and you could see this closet area where that heavy bracket is, that was a niche.”
“What do you mean by ‘a niche’?”
“This spot right over here was where a panhandler would stand. So my philosophy is, you don’t create nooks and corners. You draw people out into the open, so that your police officers and your cameras have a clean line of sight [emphasis added], so people can’t hide either to sleep or to panhandle.”
Next he brought us to a retail operation with a square corner. “Someone here can sleep and be protected by this line of sight. A space like this serves nobody’s purpose [emphasis added]. So if their gate closes, and somebody sleeps on the floor over here, they are lying undetected. So what you try to do is have people construct their building lines straight out, so you have a straight line of sight with no areas that people can hide behind.”
Next he brought us to what he called a “dead area.” “I find this staircase provides limited use to the station. Amtrak does not physically own this lobby area. We own the staircase and the ledge here. One of the problems that we have in the station is a multi-agency situation where people know what the fringe areas are, the gray areas, that are less than policed. So they serve as focal points for the homeless population. We used to see people sleeping on this brick ledge every night. I told them I wanted a barrier that would prevent people from sleeping on both sides of this ledge. This is an example fo turning something around to get the desired effect.”
“Another situation we had was around the fringes of the taxi roadway. We had these niches that were open. The Madison Square Garden customers that come down from the games would look down and see a community of people living there, as well as refuse that they leave behind.” He installed a fencing project to keep the homeless from going behind corners, drawing them out into the open [emphasis added]. “And again,” said Rubel, “the problem has gone away.”
This logic, of course, is immanent in the design of a great deal of contemporary public urban space, but you rarely find it expressed quite as explicitly as it is here. Compare, as well, Jacobs (1961) on the importance to vibrant street life (and particularly of children’s opportunities for play) of an irregular building line at the sidewalk edge.
The following is the draft of a section from my forthcoming book, The City Is Here For You To Use, concerning various ways in which networked devices are used to furnish the mobile pedestrian with a layer of location-specific information superimposed onto the forward view — “augmented reality,” in other words. (The context is an extended discussion of four modes in which information is returned from the global network to the world so it may be engaged, considered and acted upon, which is why the bit here starts in medias res.)
As you see it here, the section is not quite in its final form; it hasn’t yet been edited for meter, euphony or flow, and in particular, some of the arguments toward the end remain too telescoped to really stand up to much inspection. Nevertheless, given the speed at which wearable AR is evolving, I thought it would be better to get this out now as-is, to garner your comments and be strengthened by them. I hope you enjoy it.
One seemingly potent way of returning networked information to the world would be if we could layer it directly over that which we perceive. This is the premise of so-called augmented reality, or AR, which proposes to furnish users with some order of knowledge about the world and the objects in it, via an overlay of informational graphics superimposed on the visual field. In principle, this augmentation is agnostic as to the mediating artifact involved, which could be the screen of a phone or tablet, a vehicle’s windshield, or, as Google’s Glass suggests, a lightweight, face-mounted reticle.
AR has its conceptual roots in informational displays developed for military pilots in the early 1960s, at the point when the performance of enemy fighter aircraft began to overwhelm a human pilot’s ability to react. In the fraught regime of jet-age dogfighting, even a momentary dip of the eyes to a dashboard-mounted instrument cluster could mean disaster. The solution was to project information about altitude, airspeed and the status of weapons and other critical aircraft systems onto a transparent pane aligned with the field of vision, a “head-up display.”
This notion turned to have applicability in fields beyond aerial combat, where the issue wasn’t so much reaction time as it was visual complexity. One early AR system was intended to help engineers make sense of the gutty tangle of hydraulic lines, wiring and control mechanisms in the fuselage of an airliner under construction; each component in the otherwise-hopeless confusion was overlaid with a visual tag identifying it by name, and colored according to the system it belonged to.
Other systems were designed to help people manage situations in which both time and the complexity of the environment were sources of pressure — for example, to aid first responders in dispelling the fog and chaos they’re confronted with upon arrival at the scene of an emergency. One prototype furnished firefighters with visors onto which structural diagrams of a burning building were projected, along with symbols indicating egress routes, the position of other emergency personnel, and the presence of electric wiring or other potentially dangerous infrastructural elements.
The necessity of integrating what were then relatively crude and heavy cameras, motion sensors and projectors into a comfortably wearable package limited the success of these early efforts — and this is to say nothing of the challenges posed by the difficulty of establishing a reliable network connection to a mobile unit. But the conceptual heavy lifting done to support these initial forays produced a readymade discourse, waiting for the day augmentation might be reinstantiated in smaller, lighter, more capable hardware.
That is a point we appear to have arrived at with the advent of the smartphone. As we’ve seen, the smartphone handset can be thought of as a lamination together of several different sensing and presentation technologies, subsets of which can be recombined with one another to produce distinctly different ways of engaging networked information. Bundle a camera, accelerometer/gyroscope, and display screen in a single networked handset, and what you have in your hands is indeed an artifact capable of sustaining rudimentary augmentation. Add GPS functionality and a three-dimensional model of the world — either maintained onboard the device, or resident in the cloud — and a viewer can be offered location-specific information, registered with and mapped onto the surrounding urban fabric.
In essence, phone-based AR treats the handset like the transparent pane of a cockpit head-up display: you hold it before you, its camera captures the forward-facing view, and this is rendered on the screen transparently but for whatever overlay of information is applied. Turn and the on-screen view turns with you, tracked (after a momentary stutter) by the grid of overlaid graphics. And those graphics can provide anything the network can: identification, annotation, direction or commentary.
It’s not hard to see why developers and enthusiasts might jump at this potential, even given the sharp limits imposed by the phone as platform. We move through the world and we act in it, but the knowledge we base our movements and actions on is always starkly less than what it might be. And we pay the price for this daily, in increments of waste, frustration, exhaustion and missed opportunity. By contrast, the notion that everything the network knows might be brought to bear on someone or -thing standing before us, directly there, directly present, available to anyone with the wherewithal to sign a two-year smartphone contract and download an app — this is a deeply seductive idea. It offers the same aura of omnipotence, that same frisson of godlike power evoked by our new ability to gather, sift and make meaning of the traces of urban activity, here positioned as a direct extension of our own senses.
Why not take advantage of this capability? After all, the richness and complexity of city life confronts us with any number of occasions on which the human sensorium could do with a little help.
Let a few hundred neurons in the middle fusiform gyrus of the brain’s right hemisphere be damaged, or fail to develop properly in the first place, and the result is a disorder called prosopagnosia, more commonly known as faceblindness. As the name suggests, the condition deprives its victims of the ability to recognize faces and associate them with individuals; at the limit, someone suffering with a severe case may be entirely unable to remember what his or her loved ones look like. So central is the ability to recognize others to human socialization, though, that even far milder cases cause significant problems.
Sadly, this is something I can attest to from firsthand experience. Like an estimated 2.5% of the population, I suffer from the condition, and even in the relatively attenuated form I’m saddled with, my broad inability to recognize people has caused more than a few experiences of excruciating awkwardness. At least once or twice a month I run into people on the street who clearly have some degree of familiarity with me, and find myself unable to come up with even a vague idea of who they might be; I’ll introduce myself to a woman at a party, only to have her remind me (rather waspishly, but who can blame her) that we’d worked together on a months-long project. Deprived of contextual cues — the time and location at which I usually meet someone, a distinctive hairstyle or mode of dress — I generally find myself no more able to recognize former colleagues or students than I can complete strangers. And as uncomfortable as this can be for me, I can only imagine how humiliating it is for the person on the other end of the encounter.
I long ago lost track of the number of times in my life at which I would have been grateful for some subtle intercessionary agent: something that might drop a glowing outline over the face of someone approaching me and remind me of his or her name, the occasion on which we met last, maybe even what we talked about on that occasion. It would spare both of us from mortification, and shield my counterpart from the inadvertent but real insult implied by my failure to recognize them. So the ambition of using AR in this role is lovely — precisely the kind of sensitive technical deployment I believe in, where technology is used to lower the barriers to socialization, and reduce or eliminate the awkwardnesses that might otherwise prevent us from better knowing one another.
But it’s hard to imagine any such thing being accomplished by the act of holding a phone up in front of my face, between us, forcing you to wait first for me to do so and then for the entire chain of technical events that must follow in order to fulfill the aim at the heart of the scenario. The device must acquire an image of your face with the camera, establish the parameters of that face from the image, and upload those parameters to the cloud via the fastest available connection, so they may be compared with a database of facial measurements belonging to known individuals; if a match is found, the corresponding profile must be located, and the appropriate information from that profile piped back down the connection so it may be displayed as an overlay on the screen image.
Too many articulated parts are involved in this interaction, too many dependencies — not least of which is the coöperation of a Facebook, a Google, or some other enterprise with a reasonably robust database of facial biometrics, and that is of course wildly problematic for other reasons. Better I should have confessed my confusion to you in the first place.
Perhaps a less technologically-intensive scenario would be better suited to the phone as platform for augmentation? How about helping a user find their way around the transit system, amidst all the involutions of the urban labyrinth?
Here we can weigh the merits of the use case by considering an actual, shipping product, Acrossair’s Nearest Subway app for the iPhone, first released in 2010. Like its siblings for London and Paris, Nearest Tube and Nearest Metro, Nearest Subway uses open location data made available by the city’s transit authority to specify the positions of transit stops in three-dimensional space. On launch, the app loads a hovering scrim of simple black tiles featuring the name of each station, and icons of the lines that serve it; the tiles representing more distant stations are stacked atop those that are closer. Rotate, and the scrim of tiles rotates with you. Whichever way you face, you’ll see a tile representing the nearest subway station in the direction of view, so long as some outpost of the transit network lies along that bearing in the first place.
Nearest Subway is among the more aesthetically appealing phone-based AR applications, eschewing junk graphics for simple, text-based captions sensitively tuned to the conventions of each city’s transit system. If nothing else, it certainly does what it says on the tin. It is, however, almost completely worthless as a practical aid to urban navigation.
When aimed to align with the Manhattan street grid from the corner of 30th Street and First Avenue, Nearest Subway indicates that the 21st Street G stop in Long Island City is the closest subway station, at a distance of 1.4 miles in a north-northeasterly direction.
As it happens, there are a few problems with this. For starters, from this position the Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue stop on the 7 line is 334 meters, or roughly four New York City blocks, closer than 21st Street, but it doesn’t appear as an option. This is either an exposure of some underlying lacuna in the transit authority’s database — unlikely, but as anyone familiar with the MTA understands implicitly, well within the bounds of possibility — or more probably a failure on Acrossair’s part to write code that retrieves these coordinates properly.
Just as problematically, the claimed bearing is roughly 55 degrees off. If, as will tend to be the case in Manhattan, you align yourself with the street grid, a phone aimed directly uptown will be oriented at 27 degrees east of due north, at which point Nearest Subway suggests that the 21st Street station is directly ahead of you. But it actually lies on an azimuth of 82 degrees; if you took the app at its word, you’d be walking uptown a long time before you hit anything even resembling a subway station. This is most likely to be a calibration error with the iPhone’s compass, but fairly or otherwise Nearest Subway shoulders the greater part of the blame here — as anyone familiar with computational systems has understood since the time of Babbage, if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out.
Furthermore, since by design the app only displays those stations roughly aligned with your field of vision, there’s no way for it to notify you that the nearest station may be directly behind your back. Unless you want to rotate a full 360 degrees, then, and make yourself look like a complete idiot in the process, the most practical way to use Nearest Subway is to aim the phone directly down, which makes a reasonably useful ring of directional arrows and distances pop up. (These, of course, could have been superimposed on a conventional map in the first place, without undertaking the effort of capturing the camera image and augmenting it with a hovering overlay of theoretically compass-calibrated information.)
However unfortunate these stumbles may be, they can all be resolved, addressed with tighter code, an improved user interface or a better bearing-determination algorithm. Acrossair could fix them all, though — enter every last issue in a bug tracker, and knock them down one by one — and that still wouldn’t address the primary idiocy of urban AR in this mode: from 30th Street and First Avenue, the 21st Street G stop is across the East River. You need to take a subway to get there in the first place. However aesthetically pleasing an interface may be, using it to find the closest station as the crow flies does you less than no good when you’re separated from it by a thousand meters of water.
Finally, Nearest Subway betrays a root-level misunderstanding of the relationship between a citydweller and a transportation network. In New York City, as in every other city with a complex underground transit system, you almost never find yourself in a situation where you need to find the station that’s nearest in absolute terms to begin with; it’s far more useful to find the nearest station on a line that gets you where you want to go. Even at the cost of cluttering what’s on the screen, then, the very first thing the would-be navigator of the subway system needs is a way to filter the options before them by line.
I raise these points not to park all of the blame at Acrossair’s door, but to suggest that AR itself is badly unsuited to this role, at least when handled in this particular way. It takes less time to load and use a map than it does to retrieve the same information from an augmentive application, and the map provides a great deal more of the context so necessary to orienting yourself in the city. At this point in technological evolution, then, more conventional interface styles will tend to furnish a user with relevant information more efficiently, with less of the latency, error and cruft that inevitably seem to attend the attempt to superimpose it over the field of vision.
If phone-based augmentation performs poorly as social lubricant or aid to urban navigation, what about another role frequently proposed for AR, especially by advocates in the cultural heritage sector? This use case hinges on the argument that by superimposing images or other vestiges of the past of a place directly over its present, AR effectively endows its users with the ability to see through time.
This might not make much sense at all in Songdo, or Masdar, or any of the other new cities now being built from scratch on greenfield sites. But anyone who lives in a place old enough to have felt the passage of centuries knows that history can all too easily be forgotten by the stones of the city. Whatever perturbations from historical events may still be propagating through the various flows of people, matter, energy and information that make a place, they certainly aren’t evident to casual inspection. An augmented view returning the layered past to the present, in such a way as to color our understanding of the things all around us, might certainly prove to be more emotionally resonant than any conventional monument.
Byzantium, old Edo, Roman Londinium, even New Amsterdam: each of these historical sites is rife with traces we might wish to surface in the city occupying the same land at present. Locales overwhelmed by more recent waves of colonization, gentrification or redevelopment, too, offer us potent lenses through which to consider our moment in time. It would surely be instructive to retrieve some record of the jazz- and espresso-driven Soho of the 1950s and layer it over what stands there at present; the same goes for the South Bronx of 1975. But traversed as it was during the twentieth century by multiple, high-intensity crosscurrents of history, Berlin may present the ultimate terrain on which to contemplate recuperation of the past.
This is a place where pain, guilt and a sense of responsibility contend with the simple desire to get on with things; no city I’m familiar with is more obsessively dedicated to the search for a tenable balance between memory and forgetting. The very core of contemporary Berlin is given over to a series of puissant absences and artificially-sustained presences, from the ruins of Gestapo headquarters, now maintained as a museum called Topography of Terror, to the remnants of Checkpoint Charlie. A long walk to the east out leafy Karl-Marx-Allee — Stalinallee, between 1949 and 1961 — takes you to the headquarters of the Stasi, the feared secret police of the former East Germany, also open to the public as a museum. But there’s nowhere in Berlin where the curious cost of remembering can be more keenly felt than in the field of 2,711 concrete slabs at the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendt-Strasse. This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, devised by architect Peter Eisenman, with early conceptual help from the sculptor Richard Serra.
Formally, the grim array is the best thing Eisenman has ever set his hand to, very nearly redemptive of a career dedicated to the elevation of fatuous theory over aesthetic coherence; perhaps it’s the Serra influence. But as a site of memory, the Monument leaves a great deal to be desired. It’s what Michel Foucault called a heterotopia: something set apart from the ordinary operations of the city, physically and semantically, a place of such ponderous gravity that visitors don’t quite know what to make of it. On my most recent visit, the canyons between the slabs rang with the laughter of French schoolchildren on a field trip; the children giggled and flirted and shouted to one another as they leapt between the stones, and whatever the designer’s intent may have been, any mood of elegy or commemoration was impossible to establish, let alone maintain.
Roughly two miles to the northeast, on the sidewalk in front of a doner stand in Mitte, is a memorial of quite a different sort. Glance down, and you’ll see the following words, inscribed into three brass cubes set side by side by side between the cobblestones:
Ermordet in Auschwitz: that is, on specific dates in November of 1942 and March of the next year, the named people living at this address were taken across this very sidewalk and forcibly transported hundreds of miles east by the machinery of their own government, to a country they’d never known and a facility expressly designed to murder them. The looming façades around you were the last thing they ever saw as free people.
It’s in the dissonance between the everyday bustle of Mitte and these implacable facts that the true horror resides — and that’s precisely what makes the brass cubes a true memorial, indescribably more effective than Eisenman’s. The brass cubes, it turns out, are Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” a project of artist Gunter Demnig; these are but three of what are now over 32,000 that Demnig has arranged to have placed in some 700 cities. The Stolpersteine force us to read this stretch of unremarkable sidewalk in two ways simultaneously: both as a place where ordinary people go placidly about their ordinary business, just as they did in 1942, and as one site of a world-historical, continental-scale ravening.
The stories etched in these stones are the kind of facts about a place that would seem to yield to a strategy of augmentation. The objection could certainly be raised that I found them so resonant precisely because I didn’t see them every day, and that their impact would very likely fade with constant exposure; we might call this the evil of banality. But being compelled to see and interpret the mundane things I did in these streets through the revenant past altered my consciousness, in ways subtler and longer-lasting than anything Eisenman’s sepulchral array of slabs was able to achieve. AR would merely make the metaphor literal — in fact, it’s easy for me to imagine the disorienting, decentering, dis-placing impact of having to engage the world through a soft rain of names, overlaid onto the very places from which their owners were stolen.
But once again, it’s hard to imagine this happening via the intercession of a handset. Nor are the qualities that make smartphone-based AR so catastrophically clumsy, in virtually every scenario of use, particularly likely to change over time.
The first is the nature of functionality on the smartphone. As we’ve seen, the smartphone is a platform on which each discrete mode of operation is engaged via a dedicated, single-purpose app. Any attempt at augmenting the environment, therefore, must be actively and consciously invoked, to the exclusion of other useful functionality. The phone, when used to provide such an overlay, cannot also and at the same time be used to send a message, look up an address, buy a cup of coffee, or do any of the other things we now routinely expect of it.
The second reservation is physical. Providing the user with a display surface for graphic annotation of the forward view simply isn’t what the handset was designed to do. It must be held before the eyes like a pane of glass in order for the augmented overlay to work as intended. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this gesture is not one particularly well-suited to the realities of urban experience. It has the doubly unappealing quality of announcing the user’s distraction and vulnerability to onlookers, while simultaneously ensuring that the device is held in the weak grip of the extended arm — a grasp from which it may be plucked with relative ease.
Taken together, these two impositions strongly undercut the primary ostensible virtue of an augmented view, which is its immediacy. The sole genuine justification for AR is the idea that information is simply there, copresent with that you’re already looking at and able to be assimilated without thought or effort.
That sense of effortlessness is precisely what an emerging class of wearable mediators aims to provide for its users. The first artifact of this class to reach consumers is Google’s Glass, which mounts a high-definition, forward-facing camera, a head-up reticle and the microphone required by the natural-language speech recognition interface on a lightweight aluminum frame. While Glass poses any number of aesthetic, practical and social concerns — all of which remain to be convincingly addressed, by Google or anyone else — it does at least give us a way to compare hands-free, head-mounted AR with the handset-based approach.
Would any of the three augmentation scenarios we explored be improved by moving the informational overlay from the phone to a wearable display?
A system designed to mitigate my prosopagnosia by recognizing faces for me would assuredly be vastly better when accessed via head-mounted interface; in fact, that’s the only scenario of technical intervention in relatively close-range interpersonal encounters that’s credible to me. The delay and physical awkwardness occasioned by having to hold a phone between us goes away, and while there would still be a noticeable saccade or visual stutter as I glanced up to read your details off my display, this might well be preferable to not being remembered at all.
That is, if we can tolerate the very significant threats to privacy involved, which only start with Google’s ownership of or access to the necessary biometric database. There’s also the question of their access to the pattern of my requests, and above all the one fact inescapably inherent to the scenario: that people are being identified as being present in a certain time and place, without any necessity whatsoever of securing consent on their part. By any standard, this is a great deal of risk to take on, all to lubricate social interactions for 2.5% of the population.
Nearest Subway, as is, wouldn’t be improved by presentation in the line of sight. Given what we’ve observed about the way people really use subway networks, information about the nearest station in a given direction wouldn’t be of any greater utility when splashed on a head-up display than it is on the screen of a phone. Whatever the shortcomings of this particular app, though, they probably don’t imply anything in particular about the overall viability of wearable AR in the role of urban navigation, and in many ways the technology does seem rather well-suited to the wayfinding challenges faced by the pedestrian.
Of the three scenarios considered here, though, it’s AR’s potential to offer novel perspectives on the past of a place that would be most likely to benefit from the wearable approach. We would quite literally see the quotidian environment through the lens of a history superimposed onto it. So equipped, we could more easily plumb the psychogeographical currents moving through a given locale, better understand how the uses of a place had changed over time, or hadn’t. And because this layer of information could be selectively surfaced — invoked and banished via voice command, toggled on or off at will — presenting information in this way might well circumvent the potential for banality through overfamiliarization that haunts even otherwise exemplary efforts like Demnig’s Stolpersteine.
And this suggests something about further potentially productive uses for augmentive mediators like Glass. After all, there are many kinds of information that may be germane to our interpretation of a place, yet effectively invisible to us, and historical context is just one of them. If our choices are shaped by dark currents of traffic and pricing, crime and conviviality, it’s easy to understand the appeal of any technology proposing that these dimensions of knowledge be brought to bear on that which is seen, whether singly or in combination. The risk of bodily harm, whatever its source, might be rendered as a red wash over the field of vision; point-by-point directions as a bright and unmistakable guideline reaching into the landscape. In fact any pattern of use and activity, so long as its traces were harvested by some data-gathering system and made available to the network, might be made manifest to us in this way.
Some proposed uses of mediation are more ambitious still, pushing past mere annotation of the forward view to the provision of truly novel modes of perception — for example, the ability to “see” radiation at wavelengths beyond the limits of human vision, or even to delete features of the visual environment perceived as undesirable. What, then, keeps wearable augmentation from being the ultimate way for networked citizens to receive and act on information?
The approach of practical, consumer-grade augmented reality confronts us with a interlocking series of concerns, ranging from the immediately practical to the existential.
A first set of reservations centers on the technical difficulties involved in the articulation of an acceptably high-quality augmentive experience. We’ve so far bypassed discussion of these so we could consider different aspects of the case for AR, but ultimately they’re not of a type that allows anyone to simply wave them away.
At its very core, the AR value proposition subsists in the idea that interactions with information presented in this way are supposed to feel “effortless,” but any such effortlessness would require the continuous (and continuously smooth) interfunctioning of a wild scatter of heterogeneous elements. In order to make good on this promise, a mediation apparatus would need to fuse all of the following elements: a sensitively-designed interface; the population of that interface with accurate, timely, meaningful and actionable information; and a robust, high-bandwidth connection to the networked assets furnishing that information from any point in the city, indoors or out. Even putting questions of interface design to the side, the technical infrastructure capable of delivering the other necessary elements reliably enough that the attempt at augmentation doesn’t constitute a practical and social hazard in its own right does not yet exist — not anywhere in North America, anyway, and not this year or next. The hard fact is that for a variety of reasons having to do with national spectrum policy, a lack of perceived business incentives for universal broadband connectivity, and other seemingly intractable circumstances, these issues are nowhere near being ironed out.
In the context of augmentation, as well, the truth value of representations made about the world acquires heightened significance. By superimposing information directly on its object, AR arrogates to itself a peculiar kind of claim to authority, a claim of a more aggressive sort than that implicit in other modes of representation, and therefore ought to be held to a higher standard of completeness and accuracy. As we saw with Nearest Subway, though, an overlay can only ever be as good as the data feeding it, and the augurs in this respect are not particularly reassuring. Right now, Google’s map of the commercial stretch nearest to my apartment building provides labels for only four of the seven storefront businesses on the block, one of which is inaccurately identified as a restaurant that closed many years ago. If even Google, with all the resources it has at its disposal, struggles to provide its users with a description of the streetscape that is both comprehensive and correct, how much more daunting will other actors find the same task?
Beyond this are the documented problems with visual misregistration and latency that are of over a decade’s standing, and have not been successfully addressed in that time — if anything, have only been exacerbated by the shift to consumer-grade hardware. At issue is the mediation device’s ability to track rapid motions of the head, and smoothly and accurately realign any graphic overlay mapped to the world; any delay in realignment of more than a few tens of milliseconds is conspicuous, and risks causing vertigo, nausea and problems with balance and coordination. The initial release of Glass, at least, wisely shies away from any attempt to superimpose such overlays, but the issue must be reckoned with at some point if useful augmentive navigational applications are ever to be developed.
Another set of concerns centers on the question of how long such a mediator might comfortably be worn, and what happens after it is taken off. This is of especial concern given the prospect that one or another form of wearable AR might become as prominent in the negotiation of everyday life as the smartphone itself. There is, of course, not much in the way of meaningful prognostication that can be made ahead of any mass adoption, but it’s not unreasonable to build our expectations on the few things we do know empirically.
Early users of Google’s Glass report disorientation upon removing the headset, after as few as fifteen minutes of use — a mild one, to be sure, and easily shaken off, from all accounts the sort of uneasy feeling that attends staring overlong at an optical illusion. If this represents the outer limit of discomfort experienced by users, it’s hard for me to believe that it would have much impact on either the desirability of the product or people’s ability to function after using it. But further hints as to the consequences of long-term use can be gleaned from the testimony of pioneering researcher Steve Mann, who has worn a succession of ever-lighter and more-capable mediation rigs all but continuously since the mid-1980s. And his experience would seem to warrant a certain degree of caution: Mann, in his own words, early on “developed a dependence on the apparatus,” and has found it difficult to function normally on the few occasions he has been forcibly prevented from accessing his array of devices.
When deprived of his set-up for even a short period of time, Mann experiences “profound nausea, dizziness and disorientation”; he can neither see clearly nor concentrate, and has difficulty with basic cognitive and motor tasks. He speculates that over many years, his neural wiring has adapted to the continuous flow of sensory information through his equipment, and this is not an entirely ridiculous thing to think. At this point, the network of processes that constitutes Steve Mann’s brain — that in some real albeit reductive sense constitutes Steve Mann — lives partially outside his skull.
The objection could be made that this is always already the case, for all of us — that some nontrivial part of everything that make us what we are lives outside of us, in the world, and that Mann’s situation is only different in that much of his outboard being subsists in a single, self-designed apparatus. But if anything, this makes the prospect of becoming physiologically habituated to something like Google Glass still more worrisome. It’s precisely because Mann developed and continues to manage his own mediation equipment that he can balance his dependency on it with the relative freedom of action enjoyed by someone who for the most part is able to determine the parameters under which that equipment operates.
If Steve Mann has become a radically hybridized consciousness, at least he has a legitimate claim to ownership and control over all of the places where that consciousness is instantiated. By contrast, all of the things a commercial product like Glass can do for the user rely on the ongoing provision of a service — and if there’s anything we know about services, it’s that they can be and are routinely discontinued at will, as the provider fails, changes hands, adopts a new business strategy or simply reprioritizes.
A final set of strictly practical concerns have to do with the collective experience of augmentation, or what implications our own choice to be mediated in this way might hold for the experience of others sharing the environment.
For all it may pretend to transparency, literally and metaphorically, any augmentive mediator by definition imposes itself between the wearer and the phenomenal world. This, of course, is by no means a quality unique to augmented reality. It’s something AR has in common with a great many ways we already buffer and mediate what we experience as we move through urban space, from listening to music to wearing sunglasses. All of these impose a certain distance between us and the full experiential manifold of the street, either by baffling the traces of it that reach our senses, or by offering us a space in which we can imagine and project an alternative narrative of our actions.
But there’s a special asymmetry that haunts our interactions with networked technology, and tends to undermine our psychic investment in the immediate physical landscape; if “cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone,” it’s certainly also the “place” you are when you text or tweet someone while walking down the sidewalk. I’ve generally referred to what happens when someone moves through the city while simultaneously engaged in some kind of remote interaction as a condition of “multiple adjacency,” but of course it’s really no such thing: so far, at least, only one mode of spatial experience can be privileged at a given time. And if it’s impossible to participate fully in both of these realms at once, one of them must lose out.
Watch what happens when a pedestrian first becomes conscious of receiving a call or a text message, the immediate damming they cause in the sidewalk flow as they pause to respond to it. Whether the call is made hands-free or otherwise doesn’t really seem to matter; the cognitive and emotional investment in what transpires in the interface is what counts, and this investment is generally so much greater than it is in the surroundings that street life clearly suffers as a result. The risk inherent in this divided attention appears to be showing up in the relevant statistics in the form of an otherwise hard-to-account-for upturn in accidents involving pedestrian fatalities, where such numbers had been falling for years. This is a tendency that is only likely to be exacerbated by augmentive mediation, particularly where content of high inherent emotional involvement is concerned.
At this moment in time, it would be hard to exaggerate the appeal the prospect of wearable augmentation holds for its vocal cohort of enthusiasts within the technology community. This fervor can be difficult to comprehend, so long as AR is simply understood to refer to a class of technologies aimed at overlaying the visual field with information about the objects and circumstances in it.
What the discourse around AR shares with other contemporary trans- and posthuman narratives is a frustration with the limits of the flesh, and a frank interest in transcending them through technical means. To advocates, the true appeal of projects like Google’s Glass is that they are first steps toward the fulfillment of a deeper promise: that of becoming-cyborg. Some suggest that ordinary people mediate the challenges of everyday life via complex informational dashboards, much like those first devised by players of World of Warcraft and similar massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The more fervent dream of a day when their capabilities are enhanced far beyond the merely human by a seamless union of organic consciousness with networked sensing, processing, analytic and storage assets.
Beyond the profound technical and practical challenges involved in achieving any such goal, though, someone not committed to one or another posthuman program may find that they have philosophical reservations with this notion, and what it implies for urban life. These may be harder to quantify than strictly practical objections, but any advocate of augmentation technologies who is also interested in upholding the notion of a city as a shared space will have to come to some reckoning with them.
Anyone who cares about what we might call the full bandwidth of human communication — very much including transmission and reception of those cues vital to understanding, but only present beneath the threshold of conscious perception — ought to be concerned about the risk posed to interpersonal exchanges by augmentive mediation. Wearable devices clearly have the potential to exacerbate existing problems of self-absorption and mutual inconsideration. Although in principle there’s no reason such devices couldn’t be designed to support or even enrich the sense of intersubjectivity, what we’ve seen about the technologically-mediated pedestrian’s unavailability to the street doesn’t leave us much room for optimism on this count. The implication is that if the physical environment doesn’t fully register to a person so equipped, neither will other people.
Nor is the body by any means the only domain that the would-be posthuman subject may wish to transcend via augmentation. Subject as it is to the corrosive effects of entropy and time, forcing those occupying it to contend with the inconvenient demands of others, the built environment is another. Especially given current levels of investment in physical infrastructure in the United States, there is a very real risk that those who are able to do so will prefer retreat behind a wall of mediation to the difficult work of being fully present in public. At its zenith, this tendency implies both a dereliction of public space and an almost total abandonment of any notion of a shared public realm. This is the scenario imagined by science-fiction author Vernor Vinge in Rainbows End (2006), in which people interact with the world’s common furniture through branded thematic overlays of their choice; it’s a world that can be glimpsed in the matter-of-factly dystopian videos of Keiichi Matsuda, in which a succession of squalid environments come to life only when activated by colorful augmentive animations.
The most distressing consequences of such a dereliction would be felt by those left behind in any rush toward augmentation. What happens when the information necessary to comprehend and operate an environment is not immanent to that environment, but has become decoupled from it? When signs, directions, notifications, alerts and all the other instructions necessary to the fullest use of the city appear only in an augmentive overlay, and as is inevitably the case, that overlay is available to some but not others? What happens to the unaugmented human under such circumstances? The perils would surely extend beyond a mere inability to act on information; the non-adopter of a particularly hegemonic technology almost always places themselves at jeopardy of being seen as a willful transgressor of norms, even an ethical offender. Anyone forgoing augmentation, for whatever reason, may find that they are perceived as somehow less than a full member of the community, with everything that implies for the right to be and act in public.
The deepest critique of all those lodged against augmented reality is sociologist Anne Galloway’s, and it is harder to answer. Galloway suggests that the discourse of computational augmentation, whether consciously or otherwise, “position[s] everyday places and social interactions as somewhat lacking or in need of improvement.” Again there’s this Greshamization, this sense of a zero-sum relationship between AR and a public realm already in considerable peril just about everywhere. Maybe the emergence of these systems will spur us to some thought as to what it is we’re trying so hard to augment. Philip K. Dick once defined reality as “that which refuses to go away when you stop believing in it,” and it’s this bedrock quality of universal accessibility — to anyone at all, at any time of his or her choosing — that constitutes its primary virtue. If nothing else, reality is the one platform we all share, a ground we can start from in undertaking the arduous and never-comfortable process of determining what else we might agree upon. To replace this shared space with the million splintered and mutually inconsistent realities of individual augmentation is to give up on the whole pretense that we in any way occupy the same world, and therefore strikes me as being deeply inimical to the urban project as I understand it. A city in which the physical environment has ceased to function as a common reference frame is, at the very least, terribly inhospitable soil for democracy, solidarity or simple fellow-feeling to take root in.
It may well be that this concern is overblown. There is always the possibility that augmented reality never will amount to very much, or that after a brief period of consideration it’s actively rejected by the mainstream audience. Within days of the first significant nonspecialist publicity around Google Glass, Seattle dive bar The 5 Point became the first commercial establishment known to have enacted a ban on the device, and if we can fairly judge from the rather pungent selection of terms used to describe Glass wearers in the early media commentary, it won’t be the last. By the time you read these words, these weak signals may well have solidified into some kind of rough consensus, at least in North America, that wearing anything like Glass in public space constitutes a serious faux pas. Perhaps this and similar AR systems will come to rest in a cultural-aesthetic purgatory like that currently occupied by Bluetooth headsets, and if that does turn out to be the case, any premature worry about the technology’s implications for the practice of urban democracy will seem very silly indeed.
But something tells me that none of the objections we’ve discussed here will prove broadly dissuasive, least of all my own personal feelings on the subject. For all the hesitations anybody may have, and for all the vulnerabilities even casual observers can readily diagnose in the chain of technical articulations that produces an augmentive overlay, it is hard to argue against a technology that glimmers with the promise of transcendence. Over anything beyond the immediate near term, some form of wearable augmentive device does seem bound to take a prominent role in returning networked information to the purview of a mobile user at will, and thereby in mediating the urban experience. The question then becomes what kind(s) of urbanity will be produced by people endowed with this particular set of capabilities, individually and collectively, and how we might help the unmediated contend with cities unlike any they have known, enacted for the convenience of the ambiguously transhuman, under circumstances whose depths have yet to be plumbed.
Notes on this section
 Grüter T, Grüter M, Carbon CC (2008). “Neural and genetic foundations of face recognition and prosopagnosia”. J Neuropsychol 2 (1): 79–97.
 For early work toward this end, see http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~thad/p/journal/augmented-reality-through-wearable-computing.pdf. The overlay of a blinking outline or contour used as an identification cue, incidentally, has long been a staple of science-ﬁctional information displays, showing up in pop culture as far back as the late 1960s. The earliest appearance I can locate is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the navigational displays of both the Orion III spaceplane and Discovery itself relied heavily on the trope — this, presumably, because they were produced by the same contractor, IBM. See also Pete Shelley’s music video for “Homosapien” (1981) and the traverse corridors projected through the sky of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles (1982).
 As always, I caution the reader that the specifics of products and services, their availability will certainly change over time. All comments here regarding Nearest Subway pertain to v1.4.
 See discussion of “Superplonk” in [a later section]. http://m.spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/geek-life/profiles/steve-manns-better-version-of-reality
 At the very least, user interface should offer some kind of indication as to the confidence of a proffered identification, and perhaps how that determination was arrived at. See [a later section] on seamfulness.
 Azuma, “Registration Errors in Augmented Reality,” 1997.
 See Governors Highway Safety Association, “Spotlight on Highway Safety: Pedestrian Fatalities by State,” 2010. http://www.ghsa.org/html/publications/pdf/spotlights/spotlight_ped.pdf; similarly, a recent University of Utah study found that the act of immersion in a conversation, rather than any physical aspect of use, is the primary distraction while driving and talking on the phone. That hands-free headset may not keep you out of a crash after all. http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=205207840
 A story on the New York City-based gossip site Gawker expressed this point of view directly, if rather pungently: “If You Wear Google’s New Glasses, You Are An Asshole.” http://gawker.com/5990395/if-you-wear-googles-new-glasses-you-are-an-asshole
 The differentiation involved might be very fine-grained indeed. Users may interact with informational objects that exist only for them and for that single moment.
 The first widespread publicity for Glass coincided with Google’s release of a video on Wednesday, 20th February, 2013; The 5 Point announced its ban on 5th March. The expressed concerns center more on the device’s data-collection capability than anything else: according to owner Dave Meinert, his customers “don’t want to be secretly filmed or videotaped and immediately put on the Internet,” and this is an entirely reasonable expectation, not merely in the liminal space of a dive bar but anywhere in the city. See http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57573387-93/seattle-dive-bar-becomes-first-to-ban-google-glass/
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.
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.
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.