A new book on urban informatics hit the bookstores last December: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011) edited by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs. Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of this impressive collection of case studies, reflections and stories from the front lines of the ever-expanding set of practices that is urban informatics. The collection comes as a result of an HSCNet symposium held in 2009 by QUT’s Urban Informatics Lab .
Strange indeed how different are the time scales inhabited by online vs print publishing, meaning that a ‘new’ book in fact features research outcomes that are two years old, obviously a long time in internet years. And yet while much may have changed since the symposium itself, when the likes of Adam Greenfield shared with eager onlookers his disruptive, eclectic thoughts and musings relating to The City is Here for You to Use, the tangibility of a printed book certainly retains its special charms.
Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis, and photo sharing and social networking sites, have made possible a more participatory Internet experience. Much of this technology is available for mobile phones, where it can be integrated with such device-specific features as sensors and GPS. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen examines how this increasingly open, collaborative, and personalizable technology is shaping not just our social interactions but new kinds of civic engagement with cities, communities, and spaces. It offers analyses and studies from around the world that explore how the power of social technologies can be harnessed for social engagement in urban areas.
Chapters by leading researchers in the emerging field of urban informatics outline the theoretical context of their inquiries, describing a new view of the city as a hybrid that merges digital and physical worlds; examine technology-aided engagement involving issues of food, the environment, and sustainability; explore the creative use of location-based mobile technology in cities from Melbourne, Australia, to Dhaka, Bangladesh; study technological innovations for improving civic engagement; and discuss design research approaches for understanding the development of sentient real-time cities, including interaction portals and robots.
Image credit: Bob Brown’s confident prediction was made in 1931. Sourced from James Gleick’s blog.
Originally written for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, 2011.
Closing the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a plenary address by author James Gleick, whose book The Information has been recently described by the ABC’s Robyn Williams as the ‘best science book ever’.
Detailing the modern history of information technology, The Information tracks how it was that ‘information’ came to be conceived as an abstract quantity, giving rise to terms like ‘bit’ to describe a unit of data. It’s obvious to us now, but it took people like Bell Telephone Labs engineer Claude Shannon to imagine that everything from the morse code to thermodynamics to jungle drums might have a measurable scientific quantity, before the information age we now live in could emerge.
But while The Information offers readers insights into how the abstraction of data has created what he calls an ‘information flood’, Gleick’s SWF address, titled ‘Perish the Thought’ was far less inclined to treat books as mere ‘containers’ of ‘content’.
“The separation”, he suggests, “is not entirely satisfying – we interact with a book in a more complex way”. A book is not merely a container for content, in the way that a wine bottle holds the wine. It is, he suggests, a “peak technology – one that is ideally suited to its task”. That means, contrary to the deafening roar of technology boosters and bloggers, the book will never die.
To support his case, Gleick took us on a journey through the many moments of the book’s anticipated demise. In the 1930s, for example, a relatively obscure American author Robert Brown wrote a manifesto declaring books “antiquated word containers”. We were reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s impassioned embrace of print’s demise in the early 1960s – the potentials then offered by fuzzy black and white television were, to MacLuhan, portents of new participatory forms of literacy in the coming ‘electric age’. Nicholas Negroponte was calling for an end to the book back in 1996, just as he claimed in 2010 that “the physical book is dead” – that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant form.
So it’s not that the claims are new. It’s just that the e-book is now a reality, and what’s more it’s splendid. Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 2009 how much he loves the Kindle as his “cool new literature delivery system”. Audiences agree: last week Amazon announced a new milestone, now selling more Kindle versions of book titles than print. Forget the future – the death of the book is clearly happening right now.
Not so, says Gleick. As someone who has thought a lot about the relationships between ‘containers’ and their ‘content’, Gleick is more inclined to think of the value of the book as lying in its print form. It’s the human instinct to collect objects of value that makes us love the book as an object, he suggests, and he quotes I.A Richards, who thought of the books as ‘a machine to think with’.
Like other treatments on the subject, such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, Gleick tends to think the bigger problem at hand is not in fact the demise of the book – after all 2010 saw the publication of 316,000 new titles, and that’s not including the nearly one million titles borne of ‘internet-driven’ non-traditional publishing – but rather the publishing industry itself. Gleick contends here that the trouble may be less about digital formats and more to do with the short-termism of publishers and their insatiable greed, chasing after block busters and leaving the backlists for dead.
It’s these characteristics that are only letting the e-books down too, he claims. Sloppy editing, too many widows and orphans, charging readers too much, paying writers too little – they all stand in the way of creating a satisfying e-book experience. ‘Enhanced’ e-books offering readers embedded video and applets may be well and good, but don’t, he pleas, start embedding hyperlinks into text, and don’t start introducing social bookmarks! In other words don’t introduce anything that will take the reader out of the book.
This may be a fanciful desire on Gleick’s part, but it also goes to the crux of the matter. The word not mentioned in this address was ‘narrative’, and it seemed a strange omission – after all, isn’t the only thing distinguishing ‘the book’ from ‘the internet’ in an age of e-publishing the coherence of the narrative perspective? And that old authorial voice?
In the end, for Gleick, it came down to a bit more than narrative consistency, and the trusted authorial voice nourished by publishers committed to the task of connecting writers with their audiences. The book as a ‘peak technology’ was key. Technology barriers limit the time horizon of video to around 100 years. For the internet, the time horizon is around 20 years; Facebook give or take a couple of years. The genius of the book as a peak technology is its ability to break through the technological barriers of the past, with a time horizon dating to the beginning of human history. In the antiquity of the book, then, lies its future. To Gleick: “When we find ourselves living in the perpetual present, books become the furniture of eternity”.
James Gleick is an author, journalist and biographer whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. His most recent book, ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’, is being hailed as his crowning work. Gleick is also the author of the bestselling books ‘Chaos’, ‘Genius’, ‘Faster’ and a biography of Isaac Newton. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. James divides his time between New York City and Florida.
Sarah Barns gets excited by digital publishing, but judging by the unwieldy pile of books stacked up by her bedside, remains stuck with the antiquated habits of what Ben Ehrenreich would call a ‘biblio-necrophiliac’.
I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the
arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would
be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of space and the events of its past.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities fluid assemblages of signs and images litter a subterranean landscape which mark the destinations to which Marco Polo has travelled. Polo recounts these destinations to his Emperor Kublai Khan without recourse to a map or a wayfaring guide; we are given little by way of their geography, or any sense of the spatial connections between each recalled location. Instead there are only fragments, the improbable exceptions of remembrance and experience. Calvino’s invisible cities are all given names, women’s names like Irene, Chloe, Raissa, Adelma: Irene, for example, “is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on” (1974: 112). There are many cities, but always the one: Venice. This is the Venice collapsed or hidden behind its contemporary, over-exposed tourist façade, whose ‘invisibility’ is cultivated as the imaginative potentiality of everyday encounters with a familiar space. Of this Venice there are no general claims made, instead, from the singularity of this one city, are teased provisional cities that capture a mood, a memory, a fleeting gesture, the tracery of a half-glimpsed pattern…
What might Calvino’s peculiar treatments of urban spatiality offer to today’s practitioners of urban computing? M. Christine Boyer (1996: 142) has noted the way Invisible Cities represents a network “much like the matrix of a hypertext, in which the reader can select multiple routes and draw a variety of conclusions”. During the 1960s Calvino was interested in what the combinatory complexities of cybernetics meant as a way of perceiving the world, one that could divide it into a series of discrete, divisible parts, rather than continuous in form, a shift he considered radical in the way it altered the theoretical image of our mental processes. Invisible Cities sees this recombinatory logic of cybernetics in action, allowing for an imaginary projection of urban space via a set of algorithmic relationships that enable places to exchange their form, order, and distances, as qualities assorted “like the letters in a name” (Calvino 1974: 164).
In Invisible Cities this recombinatory logic incorporates not only discrete spatial entities, but also “the measurements of space and the events of its past”. An imaginative projection of the city’s spatiality is thus evoked as intimately temporal – but again, this temporality is not continuous, as in the steady passage of time, but is rather experienced as discontinuous and elliptical. Just as there is no clear linear passage through the spatial environment of the city of Venice, so too there is no clear passage through its shifting temporalities, or the discrete stages of Marco Polo’s journey: “all the future Berenices”, for example, “are already present in this instant” (1974: 146). For this is a temporality that figures like the experience of memory, in which recollections emerge without warning, as discrete, embodied moments, which might flash up at any given time – such as, perhaps, when you lean out of a window in the early evening.
In this way Calvino animated invisible cities as topologies of moments, whose recombinations and recollections continue to haunt imagistic projections and abstract modes of knowledge. Released two years after the publication of Invisible Cities, Jonothan Raban’s Soft City (1974) offered a similar treatment of the urban terrain as intimately personal, and therefore malleable and indeterminate: “Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you” (Raban 1974: 1). The fractured identity of the modern condition was mirrored in the malleability of urban space, as Raban’s narrative itinerary teased out the many from the singular, navigating agitated spaces of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare. The dynamic of cities was presented as “plastic by nature”, criss-crossing both the real and the imagined, the voice of commentary mixing it up with the musings of a wondering, wandering traveler. Dense with labyrinthine alleyways of possibility and happenstance, Soft City presented urban spaces “in our images; they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them” (Raban 1974: 1-2).
Both writers offered their accounts of the city not as scholars of urbanism but instead as conjurors of stories. Jeannette Winterson (2001) has written that “[r]eading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.” At one point in his account of invisible cities, Calvino describes the way Kublai Khan had focused so narrowly on a chessboard of black and white squares that the game’s meaning had eluded him, as it had simply become an abstract piece of wood (Boyer 1996: 143). But when Marco Polo reminded him that this chessboard was “inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple” Khan’s imagination took flight. As Boyer has suggested, in this way Calvino teaches us a lesson: we might reduce events to abstract patterns that facilitate the procedures of logical operations, or we can work to engender or revive imaginary projections – in this case, making words reveal the very tangible qualities of a given object – which in turn might allow for the continued presence of the unfathomable, the invisible (ibid).
This Chapter considers some of the ways in which we might continue to encounter the elliptical invisibilities of contemporary ‘real-time ‘ cities. Today, the ability to graphically enhance our imaging of cities as multi-scalar, networked environments offers profound potentials, introducing an array of new urban management and design techniques using more detailed, real-time urban data. Just as a shapeless dust cloud invaded the continents of Invisible Cities, today’s real-time cities are underpinned by an information architecture of sensors and applications, whose databases express the mutating, multi-scalar complexities of the material world. The ability to visualize these interactions in real-time radically disrupts our conception of the city, by representing urban spaces according to their everyday uses as much as by their physical, built structures. Real-time usage patterns can, for example, be applied to predict the impact of new developments, replacing of out of date census data with predictive models more closely attuned to the complex interactions and spatial flows of the city. Embedded sensor networks reveal that which might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye; like coins rubbed over waxpaper, they make visible a myriad of fluid, complex exchanges between material, social and informational universes.
For many, this computational intensification of the material world retrieves hidden, hitherto banished possibilities, and can be put to disruptive uses (Foth 2008: 19). To Foth, practitioners of urban informatics can act as ‘urban anatomists’, dissecting urban environments and infrastructure by “trying to microscopically uncover the connections and interrelations of city elements”, seeking to “picture the invisible and to zoom into a fine-grained resolution of urban environments”. Peter Hall and Janet Abrams have suggested “[m]apping has emerged in the information age as a means to make the complex accessible, the hidden visible, the unmappable mappable” (2006: 12). The application of hyper-local, multi-scalar and real time mapping techniques, it is argued, present opportunities to expose ‘hidden’ or hitherto invisible relationships, including the relationships between centre and periphery, power and influence (see Sassen 2008; Boyer 2006).
For Dan Hill, there is the potential to avoid grand infrastructural interventions which become “hardwired into the urban fabric” for subsequent generations, and to instead develop a more “iterative, responsive field of ‘urban acupunctures”. Location-aware computing has in such ways been seen to greatly expand the range of possibilities for artists, architects and designers to “re-enchant the world”, offering “a way of making visible all these hidden stories of place” (Crang and Graham 2007: 815). The embedding of microprocessors via sensor web networks in physical environments also enables the informational life-worlds of millions of ‘users’, human or otherwise, to be made visible, such that needs not only of humans but also natural environments can be revealed as diffuse, complex systems of interaction.
But as practitioners of urban computing seek to actively to disrupt established views of the city, visualizing that which has hitherto remained hidden from view, a return to Invisible Cities also prompts us to reconsider the enduring presence of that which still remains out of view in today’s real-time cities. In a sense, many of the potentials associated with real-time mobile networks are predicated on making visible that which might otherwise remain unseen. But the twentieth century has already witnessed many costly lessons associated with relying too heavily on technologies of visual abstraction and representation as a means to progress urban reform. So when we today assess the potentials associated with enhanced, contextually-aware spatial representations of the real-time city, Calvino’s writing reminds us of the need to be remain mindful not only of what this capacity for spatial measurement reveals, but to consider also how we might continue to enfold the ‘the events of its past’ within these emergent, distributed networked configurations.
READ MORE: Chapter in Digital Cities publication From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. By by Marcus Foth (Editor) , Laura Forlano (Editor) , Christine Satchell (Editor) , Martin Gibbs (Editor) , Judith Donath (Afterword).
The title for the chapter was inspired by reading Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, in which she takes her readers on a walk through London one winter’s eve in search of a pencil. Happily, it’s available online now, and can be read below.
Another inspiration for the piece are the Lost Laneways of Sydney – one of the images from this fine collection is below. It captures a man walking down Exeter Place in Sydney, 1906. Exeter Place was obliterated as part of the Wexworth St Resumption.
This essay was written in August 2007. It outlines some of the possibilities of working with archives in site-specific ways using digital platforms, following on from my residency at the National Film and Sound Archives.