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On augmenting reality

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.

1

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.

2

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%[1] 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[2], 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?

3

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[3]. 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.

4

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:

HIER WOHNTE
ELSA GUTTENTAG
GEB. KRAMER
JG. 1883

DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942
ERMORDET IN
AUSCHWITZ

HIER WOHNTE
KURT GUTTENTAG
JG. 1877

DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942
ERMORDET IN
AUSCHWITZ

HIER WOHNTE
ERWIN BUCHWALD
JG. 1892

DEPORTIERT 1.3.1943
ERMORDET IN
AUSCHWITZ

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?

5

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[4]. What, then, keeps wearable augmentation from being the ultimate way for networked citizens to receive and act on information?

6

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[5]. 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[6] 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.

7

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[7]. 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.

8

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[8], 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.

9

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[9]. 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[10]? 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[11] 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
[1] Grüter T, Grüter M, Carbon CC (2008). “Neural and genetic foundations of face recognition and prosopagnosia”. J Neuropsychol 2 (1): 79–97.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] See discussion of “Superplonk” in [a later section]. http://m.spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/geek-life/profiles/steve-manns-better-version-of-reality

[5] 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.

[6] Azuma, “Registration Errors in Augmented Reality,” 1997.
http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/azuma_AR.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/14/technology/at-airport-gate-a-cyborg-unplugged.html

[8] 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

[9] 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

[10] 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.

[11] 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/

The canonical smart city: A pastiche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deprecated 20150101.

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

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

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

Without any further ado, then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. …or disappearing into behavior altogether.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. Firstly, we measure what can be measured.

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

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

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

40. There is always contingency, always a selection process, always a choice of what to gather…and always decisions made by some historical agent about how to label, characterize and represent the information that does get collected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw “power”

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

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

You lookin’ at me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Real artists ship”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Urbanscale

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

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

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

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.

In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:

– That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.

– That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)

– That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.

– That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.

It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.

But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.

Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)

Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.

Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.

Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.

Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.

Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.

Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing

I saw a great Stephen Graham talk yesterday at the 24th AESOP Annual Conference at Aalto University in Espoo, called “Cities, Space, Security: The New Military Urbanism.”

I’ve enjoyed Graham’s thinking for quite awhile now, since picking his Splintering Urbanism off the shelf of late, lamented Micawber Books way, way back in the day. His argument here, in part, is that conceptualizations of urban space developed by the American, British and Israeli militaries, particularly, to support operations from Mogadishu to Gaza have begun to condition the metropolitan-in-both-senses fabric. This is a process he refers to as “Foucault’s boomerang,” and which will be familiar to any student of the intelligence community as “blowback.”

Graham calls out a litany of unhappy developments driven by this neo-Haussmannian thought, including a progressive cordoning by way of which the right of free movement in cities is slowly replaced by a checkpoint mentality, the contours of public space are subtly conditioned by simulations of blast physics, and events like the Olympics or the G20 are used to field-test techniques and strategies of urban control that eventually make their way into everyday policing.

To me, what’s really problematic about all of this is that it inscribes in our putatively urban places the fear of, and hostility to, the ordinary life of cities that completely suffuses the MOUT literature. It’s fine to assert that an infantry squad on patrol has to regard everyday urban space as festooned with “the clutter of concealment,” in which any number of threats might be secreted. But for that overwhelming majority of users of the city who do not happen to be conducting house-to-house sweep-and-clear operations…that’s just Tottenham Court Road. Or East 14th Street, or Mannerheimintie. And those are just newsstands, and parked cars, and bus shelters. That our cities should be designed for the former case over the latter strikes me as the kind of obscene argument that only someone who never loved city life in the first place could even think to propose.

This is why I had to nod in recognition when Graham described the security-industrial complex’s desperate attempt to develop video analytics that would permit algorithmic characterizations of urban “normality,” so as to simultaneously be able to recognize anomalies (“threats”). When you have any familiarity at all with the social and physical terrain of suburban northern Virginia, and the other locales in which these systems predominantly tend to be developed, you can see the punchline coming from miles away: anyone for whom Tysons Corner represents an uncomfortable concentration of human heterogeneity wouldn’t be terribly likely to recognize big-city normality if it bit them in the ass. How much less so, then, the algorithms authored by such a person?

Graham’s whole line of inquiry here is most pointedly relevant to me personally when he takes up the question of networked sensing and actuation, and situates it in the MOUT discourse as a tool to help the warfighter or security agent make sense of the chaotic urban environment. Needless to say, this is a vision that I believe must be strongly and continuously contested by those of us who understand the same sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus instead as a mechanism for citizen engagement and empowerment.

At any rate, if Graham’s still-newish book Cities Under Siege offers anything like as crisp and comprehensive an overview of the domain as this talk did, it will be well-worth picking up. (If you’re not too wrung-out and depressed by considering all of this, I also recommend Eyal Weizman’s essential Hollow Land as a companion. It’s a book-length expansion on the themes first explored in the brilliant “Walking Through Walls.”)

While we’re on the topic of citizen engagement: I’m delighted to be able to pass on to you the word that I’ve joined Code for America‘s Board of Advisors.

I think CfA is doing multiple important things at once: helping city governments and managers understand what emergent interactive technologies can do for them and their constituents; strongly countering the cheap cynicism about who government is, and what it is for, that seems to be so characteristic of our American moment; and maybe at the same time tempering the technical community’s natural enthusiasm for technical solutions with some immersion in the always charged and tangled arena of municipal politics.

This last aspect of the mission is particularly important to me. I’ve seen one or two responses to my recent work suggesting that people understand me to be arguing for the very thing I’m always so horrendified by, which is precisely the idea that social and political fissures can be patched with technology. As it happens, I don’t believe this, or anything like it, as readers with a more holistic familiarity with my output understand, but I thought the point could use some underlining. The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.

What I see here, in the parallax between the picture Stephen Graham drew for us and CfA’s vision of America, is two entirely different conceptions of the complicated relationship between urban space, networked technology and “security.” Is this notion some grim, shoddy farce of heavy-handed control, sold to us by defense contractors who nurture a deep-seated distrust of city life and lives — a half-trillion-dollar sham that will eviscerate the potential of our public spaces, and even on its own terms never, ever work just right? Or is mutual security something that can only be coaxed to emerge from the difficult interplay of communities, needs and capabilities, much less totalizing in its promises but infinitely better able to deliver on them?

You know I believe it’s (long past) time to reinvigorate a sense of public life in the United States, an awareness of collective challenges, mutual obligations and shared outcomes, and for me, here, the medium is also the message. I’m looking forward to helping Code for America in whatever way I can — in no small part because I do believe that there are threats and bad actors in the world, and that collective security is best underwritten by vibrant, functioning, resilient cities. Vibrant cities…and people who love them.