Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Lofty goals

Urban renewal, the wireless way

"So-called 'urban computing' means much more than bringing your Centrino laptop to Starbucks and logging on to Amazon.com. Instead, cutting-edge mobile and wireless services emphasize proximity over connectivity, the local over the global and the here and now rather than anytime, anywhere. Computer geeks suddenly turned urban theorists, many of today's technologists harbor even loftier goals for mobile research agendas: to enhance the image of the city itself -- the patterns, the complexities and, above all, the sheer serendipity of the urban landscape ...

Ultimately, the reaction of the urban design and planning community to telecommunications trends raises the question: Who is the driving force behind the 21st century digital city? The correct answer is not the Project for Public Spaces -- or any planning organization, for that matter. Think of it this way, says Townsend. 'Intel is the General Motors of the 21st century. It's very influential.' Backed by the big bucks, technology researchers are devouring tomes related to the theory of place. For their part, (underfunded) planners have yet to develop a comprehensive approach to emerging mobile and wireless technologies."

Townsend's comments about Intel cracked me up - and the article definitely cites the big players: Intel's Urban Atmospheres and Place Lab, Seoul's Digital Media City and "Hewlett Packard's Urban Tapestries project in Bristol, U.K." (Oops! Presumably this is a mash-up of HP's Mobile Bristol project and Proboscis' Urban Tapestries project?) And despite giggling at the "geek turned urban theorist" scenario - I imagined Benjamin's hefty Arcades Project replacing the featherlight laptop as the most-toted geek object - I wondered if this was true. After all, I know many of these people and they're not posers. Nonetheless I am often enough annoyed by sloppy borrowing from unfamiliar disciplines. And it's important to note that much of the urban and cultural theory being cited is explicitly critical and in opposition to the interests of big business. I also know that companies like Intel and HP will be amongst the first to commercialise these technologies, and in the process, commodify some or all of the social practices cited as inspiration. It will be very interesting to see how - or if - these contradictory values get resolved. It also would have been interesting if the article mentioned more artistic explorations in this space that provide fruitful counter-points to the large-scale corporate examples. Nonetheless, I really appreciated this comment:

"Urban telecommunications strategy needs to do more than plan for 'lead users,' says [urban planner Scott Page]. 'You want to be feasible, not utopian, not just throw out a bunch of ideas and hope that everyone is going to own a cellphone in five years,' he says, 'because that's not going to be the case'."

Companies like Intel and HP project market saturation and work hard to make it happen - but the actuality of global pervasiveness has yet to be seen. After four years of researching this, I am convinced of only one thing: we have mistaken the myths and virtualities of ubicomp for the actualities of technological development, political support and cultural uptake. And much to my surprise, it was the corporate interviewees who helped me realise this.


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