Saturday, October 4, 2003

Post-Spectacular Cities?

John Thackara on the post-spectacular city and "why it would be foolish to entrust the future of our cities to the creative class."

We now design messages, not interactions. The world is awash in print, and ads, and billboards, and packaging, and spam. Semiotic pollution. Brand intrusion at every turn ... And whom do we have to thank for this semiotic pollution, for the catatonic spaces that despoil our physical and perceptual landscapes? The "creative class". That's who's responsible. In the same way that mill owners optimised mass production, the creative class has optimised the society of the spectacle ... Our cities are over-designed because the creative classes get paid for designing things. 'Creatives' don't get paid for leaving well alone. That's a conundrum we'll need to resolve.

I'm not sure I agree with his assessment of the 'creative class' but I do agree that there is such a practice as over-designing, and it should be avoided. I've often thought that new technologies should be designed according to a principle of non-interference, as in, not interfering with or replacing something that already works well. One of my favourite examples is the dream of a paperless world - as if there were no legitimate reasons why paper had become so pervasive. Why did we seek to - through technology - eliminate paper, rather than finding ways - again through technology - of making it better and using it more efficiently and beautifully?

In retrospect, we got the information age completely wrong. We thought it would be smart to remove people from services ... We also thought we could do without place ... The point is that the information age has been added to the industrial age. Telematic space has been added to Cartesian space. The one did not supplant the other ... And mobile phones and networks do not make the city disappear. On the contrary, they render the city itself more powerful as an interface.

Sure, some people argued that space would become irrelevent in the sense of being able to overcome it (a position not unrelated to the triumph of mind over body and the dissolution of identity in cyberspace) - and if anyone actually believed it at the time, it seems pretty clear now that this has only been partially true. When other people reject spatial metaphors altogether, are they reacting to such limited concepts of space or are there other objections? If some form of embodied interaction is to guide technology design - as I believe it should - then we (and our designs) will be crippled by any rejection of the importance of space in social interaction. Space and time are experiential or phenomenal categories, central to our being-in-the-world. It is this understanding that has lead to reminds me of growing objections to seamless interaction in ubiquitous computing. The dis/locatedness and mobility of wireless technologies is only ever possible because of in tension with certain stabilities, located practices and materialities.

Mobile phone and wireless-enabled gadgets enable us to access people, or resources, or services - just-in-time, and just-in-place. By doping that, they also design away the need for mobility, or much of it. Demand-responsive services, combined with location-awareness, combined with dynamic resource allocation, have the capacity dramatically to reduce the mobility-supporting hardware of a city: its roads, vehicles, malls and car parks.

Hmm. Designing away the need for mobility? I think not. This is not an either/or case, and since we are instead dealing with hybridisation, we need to understand what it might mean to dwell in mobility. To be stable and mobile. We need to keep asking if the types of technologies and services described above will actually solve problems of social exclusion, or merely create more opportunities for social connection. (Those are qualitatively different scenarios.)

But really, what remains most unclear to me is how all of this will create a "post-spectacular" city - one in which we move beyond commodified experiences ...

Thanks Frederique!

Update: I just read The thermodynamics of cooperation (European Conference on CSCW 2003) in which he looks more closely at embodiment, situation and meaning and this time from a clear political position (via Ivan Illich): "Give back to people the capacity to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships." For some reason this makes me think of Stewart Brand asking: "How can we invest in a future we know is structurally incapable of keeping faith with its past? The digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective." And I might take another look at Illich's Tools for Conviviality.

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