Re: Re: Cities and Information

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Hang it, that site requires registration too. So much for this experiment. Here is the full thing.

The Production of Space.

Revised 18th December 2006.

I listened to Bruce Perens talk recently about the open source software movement. Bruce agrees
with Richard Stallman on most philosophical points of availability of source code and software
licensing. Except for one thing, Bruce thinks open source and proprietary software can co-exist in
the same world. Why is it, that often in software worlds, people want to choose one or the other?
People subscribe to this notion of zoning, we found in urban planning in the 20th century. Namely
that residential areas are only residential areas, industrial areas are only industrial etc. People have
described the city of Bejing to me several times in this way. I don’t know what Bejing is like to live
in. I don’t know if Jane Jacobs would endorse such a design. I think virtual and web space, are
opportunities to extend the complexity of space, which Jacobs speaks so lovingly about. It is hard to
design like this. The best minds in urban planning haven’t figured it out.

“Consider, for example, the orthodox planning reaction to a district called the North End in
Boston. This is an old, low-rent area merging into the heavy industry of the waterfront, and it is
officially considered Boston’s worst slum and civic shame. It embodies attributes which all
enlightened people know are evil because so many wise men have said they are evil. Not only is the
North End bumped right up against industry, but worse still it has all kinds of working places and
commerce mingled in the greatest complexity with its residences. It has the highest concentration of
dwelling units, on the land that is used for dwelling units, of any part of Boston, and indeed one of
the highest concentrations to be found in any American city. It has little parkland. Children play in
the streets. Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in
planning parlance it is “badly cut up with wasteful streets.”

From ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jane Jacobs.

What Danah Boyd’s discussion on Being Virtual fails to point out, is the great opportunity we have
now sitting in front of us. We have the opportunity to provide many different kinds of work place in
the same design. Over the summertime here in Dublin, I witnessed an interesting thing. I was sitting
outside a cafe in Dublin city centre one Sunday morning. There was a couple beside me, a man was
reading a newspaper and the girl was sipping her coffee. After a while, she was begging the man to
come with her to a web cafe. She wanted to catch up on some news.

Why anybody would forsake the summer sunshine in Dublin on Sunday morning, to catch up with
‘friends’, social networks and news feeds on an LCD monitor is beyond me. But to try and resolve
the matter, the man walked across the street to a shop and returned with a second newspaper for her.
She took one look at the front page and still protested. It became clear to me, he preferred his news
as ink squeezed onto dead wood with a cup of coffee in his hand. We will always have these
newspaper readers, no matter how much technology pervades into our lives. While she had to get
her news, in her favourite online immersive way. A Sunday morning, just wasn’t complete
otherwise. So the physical and virtual space have to merge in some way to keep this couple happy.
Consider the idea expressed by Nicholas Negroponte, of the weather forecast broadcasted in pure
digital bits. You would be free on your end, to interpret this data stream however you wish.

Depending on your life and how the weather affects you, you could ‘view’ the information through
whatever instrument or lense you wish. I will be the first person to wear a digital eye piece, and use
software to provide alternative views of my world, if it helps me. Surely this is what we are seeing
with blogging and the data feeds people tend to use. Without having to wear a clunky prostectic
device, using RSS feeds and blogs, people are getting used to the idea of adjusting their lense to suit
their personal requirements and preference.

Something, Jane Jacobs describes in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is how
automobiles are employed as convenient villians for all urban problems. If we solve the traffic
problem in cities then we will solve all other problems at the same time. We see traffic engineering
departments command huge resources to build infrastructure and plan our environment. But we
don’t see an end result worth the investment in most cases. Because traffic problems alone do not
cause decay in cities. In the virtual/ web space/ meatspace debate, we are wasting a lot of our
energy arguing over who will become the traffic engineering department. Will it be Google, will it
be Microsoft or Wikipedia? The platform battle is waged to decide who will gain control over the
online ‘commons’ space.

I have lived in Dublin city in Ireland all my life, and this weekend myself and an Italian friend took
a short train journey together. We were at a loss however – there was no map in the entire train
station. This was Connolly Station, one of the two main train stations in the city of Dublin. Not
even the information booth had a map of where the various stops were. In this city of information
and fibre optic technology, we had no idea where we were going. My Italian friend made sure to
point this out to me, that no bus or train station in the country considered the person from another
country, trying to find their way around. I was aware that Ireland has been a little island stranded on
the edge of Europe all my life. But what I didn’t consider was the lack of signage was in our cities
to help people move efficiently within them. This is after how many millions of Euro spent in the
Traffic Engineering department?

As a last resort we asked the ‘ticket checker’ which platform our train was on. Half an hour later,
having got the train on platform 7, we arrived in a maintenance shed 3 miles away. Hardly the
destination I was looking for. We had trouble getting out of the maintenance facility and some
security guy had to escort us through the big steel gates which led out to an unknown portion of the
city. My Italian friend seemed to see the humour in this whole pathetic situation, but I didn’t. Much
of our experience could have been avoided by a simple virtual tool, like a map at the train station.

Later that evening, a taxi driver called to the front door of our house. He was asked to collect
someone who had ordered a taxi. No one in our house had ordered a taxi. There is an effort under
way in Dublin at the moment, to automate private taxi companies. They have pocket PCs on their
car dashboard, bluetooth headsets and connections back to ‘head office’. It seems machines are
replacing human beings again. If these system ever work, it will save a lot of work at head office in
taxi companies. But right now, I am just reminded of Kevin Kelly’s description of the bee hive in
his book ‘Out of Control’. Kelly talks of the drone bees who go back and forth all day long for no
apparent reason. In the hive intelligence there is always a large portion of wasted resources, to
eventually get the right answer. Kelly imagines the drone bees saying to themselves, ‘ah well, just
another day at the office’.

Whether a space is virtual, web based or real doesn’t strike me as the real issue. There are an
infinite number of ways in which designers can and have screwed up the design of all three kinds of
space. We should aim for better design in general, and erase these silly boundaries we make
between different kinds of space. Skill in designing one type of space should easily transfer to
design of other kinds of space.

In building online worlds, is not enough just to follow the traffic analogy. This has dominated much
of debate amongst executives, startups, journalists and VCs in the past decade or so. Many of the
comments I read at Shirky’s Second Life post at corante, still concern themselves with the traffic
analogy. It should also be noted, that building of all sorts of space happen in periods of boom and
bust. This is unfortunate in ways. The meatspace Danah Boyle refers to is notorious for periods of
intense building and demolition. Often following periods of war, when there is little money
available and many people to house.

We tend to forget this now, but following the last big roll out of the web as application, all kinds of
uses, which previously had their own protocols and rules, were absorbed underneath the umbrella of
web space. Take mail for example.Over the history of the network, mail has had several homes.
Lately, mail has found its home on web space, in the form of hotmail, yahoo, google mail etc. It is
far from being clear, if this will be its final resting place. But at the moment, that is where it gets
housed. Perhaps mail could prove more durable tool, if it was absorbed into a semi-real kind of
space? Mail in the real world seems to work wouldn’t you say? In fact, for large amounts of data, I
still have to resort to shipping hard disks.

In order to sustain real online virtual communities, I think you need to examine the complexity of
space and how it really works. Alvin Toffler has a wonderful chapter in his book, The Third Wave
where he ridicules the notion of a traditional family in today’s society. He points out that only 25%
of people or less, fall into the definition of a traditional family. Yet, the cities we are building still
conform to this outmoded idealism. As time goes by, we will have to create cities which take
account of the wide spectrum of people that do live and exist in everyday society. This is why I find
Henri Lefebvre’s comments in the book The Production of Space, on Karl Popper, and the Open
Society so interesting to read.

Brian O’ Hanlon.

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