Saturday, October 30, 2004

On cities and technologies (yet again)

Liz reports from the Distributed Form: Network Practice conference at Berkeley, and this observation of hers makes me want to watch the archived webcast:

"The digital - instantiated as a metaphor, and in specific tools - becomes the servant of the architect's creative process. And after the process is complete and the building is fully designed, the digital then (for them) seems to disappear, leaving the building as the only evidence of its passage. A neat concept - except in its ceding of all agency to the architect, and its utter denial of the increasing presence of the invisible landscape of information flows in the build structures around us."

Peter took extensive notes on a recent talk by Manuel Castells on cities in the information age. I've always thought Castells was considerably more astute than Bill++ Mitchell, and this reconfirms it. I especially like his discussion of heterogeneous and networked metropolitan regions - similar to Steve Graham's work - which does much to undermine the urban vs. suburban debate.

And speaking of suburbia, last week I noted Molly's proposed suburban computing presentation. (I also posted on ethnoburbs at spaceandculture, for anyone interested.) Anyway, my primary concern with this suburban/urban divide is precisely that it is a divide and one, I feel, that is increasingly unproductive.

First of all, suburban living often gets dissed by urbanites - hell, the word urbane automatically positions urbanites as more refined, and although the 'sub' in suburban means 'near' an urban area, the prefix also means below and by extension, less suave. But I digress.

Personally, I don't think Molly at all meant to insult suburbanites in her proposal. But as soon as one conjures the urban/suburban dichotomy something weird happens, not least of which is the tendency for suburbanites to defend themselves. And, in fact, that is what Elizabeth Lawley did. And Molly responded by advocating for the richness of suburban life and denying its inferiority, yet still maintaining the urban/suburban dichotomy.

So back to the unproductiveness of this dichotomy, especially as it influences technology design. First of all, the urban and suburban are treated as mutually exclusive, if interconnected, categories. As such it is easy to deny their mutually constitutive aspects. They are also macro- or structural categories quite separate from the micro- or lived experiences of their inhabitants. Now, I don't mean to reduce this to an equally reductive debate between structure and practice, or structure and agency, but it is important to be clear about the qualitative differences between understanding cities as places (i.e. nouns) both urban and/or suburban, and cities as diverse actions (i.e. verbs) of diverse people.

When we talk about designing technologies for cities, I trust (hope?) that what we are really talking about is designing technologies for people in cities. It makes more sense then, to me, to focus on what people do. Now, of course this involves the where and when of people doing things, but context is much more dynamic than structure. And most importantly for this discussion, context extends beyond the common definitions (and spaces) of urban and suburban.

If cities are indeed polycentric, then the suburb ceases to relate to an urban core. At best we have many suburbs related to many centres which, in turn, suggests networked or assembled shapes where the urban and the suburban are increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other. Add to this mangle the actions of people, objects and ideas and we have to deal with concepts quite different from the urban and/or suburban.

Rather than focussing on either urban or suburban or even location-based computing, I'd like to see a focus on computing for people. Sounds straightforward enough, and I'm sure that most people working on urban/suburban/location-based computing would say they are doing exactly that. But, quite frankly, I'm not sure that's true. After all, when we put place before people, we put structure before agency, and technology before sociality.


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