jueves, 13 de febrero de 2014

The city as interface, by Martijn de Waal

It´s been a long time since I knew about the Ph.D. Martijn de Waal had completed and it would have a new life as a book. The book in its English version is finally here (it was expected to go live in 2013) as a new contribution to understanding the role of digital media in urban living.

The city as interface. How new media are changing the city turns out to be the perfect company in this time that I am starting to put into words my own Ph.D., so I am sure it will be for some time on my desk –along with other books such as Against the smart city or Smart cities. Big data, civic hackers and the quest for new utopia). In the last few years, Martijn´s writings (see, for example, or The ideas and ideals in urban media theory and design) and work (see, for example, Social cities of tomorrow and the related publication, Ownership in the hybrid city) through The Mobile City he runs with Michiel de Lange) have influenced my approach to the intersection of public life and digital technologies and have usually appeared on the blog. Thus, it is no secret I was eager to read this book that constitutes a great exploration about where we are heading to regarding the digital public realm and its implications in collective life.


One of the most remarkable things about its pages is that it depicts a good overview of different approaches and scenarios to understand the kind of society these technologies may promote (in a few words, but deeply discussed throughout the book, the libertarian city, the republican city and the communitarian city), facing the challenges and implications on collective life. In these times in which the promises and prospects of technology abound without a clear understanding and a critical assessment of where we are heading to, we need to confront these promises with stronger political and philosophical ideas to put some light into the discussion:
When we talk about new technologies, it is often about their practical application: technology is presented as a convenient solution to real or supposed problems, it promises to make our lives more pleasant and convenient; at the same time, our cities will also become safer, more sustainable and more efficient. In short, technology is an almost inescapable magical power that will improve urban society. But for those who do not believe in magic, this picture mainly raises a number of questions.(p. 8)
To understand this debate and the application of urban media, Martijn sets two different levels, as urban media tools can serve as experience markers ("they can be used to record urban experiences and share them with others") an, at the same time, as territory devices ("an appliance or system that can influence the experience of an urban area"). This leads him to conclude “that the urban public sphere can no longer be considered as a purely physical construct. If we continue to view public spaces like this, we will miss important new ways in which city dwellers are brought together, take notice of each other and form urban publics. Therefore, instead of looking at physical locations, it is worth focusing on aspects of the process itself: how and under what circumstances do city dwellers take notice of each other and thus form urban publics?” (p. 20)

From this point, the book presents a framework to understand the claim of “the city as interface”, providing readers with a platform-programme-protocol scheme that relates computers functioning with public life experience in cities. and testing these premises under several test cases from today and from the past and the work by Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jane Jacobs and Jürgen Habermas, among others, and their ideas of the public domain. Here is where the book turns the head towards the crisis of the public sphere (via  privatization and commercialization of the public domain) that certain urbanism ideals implied in the past, revisiting Haussmaan´s boulevards –with an insightful, at least for me, of the contradictory visions we can raise from its impact in public life, the Flâneur, New Babylon or Plug-In City.

All of this serves as a theoretical approach to the main contents of the book in terms of practical implications, which appear in the “Digital media and the public domain” chapter. The public realm scenarios previously described are confronted with the most standardized vision of smart cities (with its most celebrated canonical representation in Songdo) against other approaches such as Dan Hill´s influential essay on the street as platform (and other tools and digital projects developed in the last few years). As such, the book is an exploration on how to transcend individualization (networked individualism) to reach an alternative scenario for which we need new definitions of urban public sphere that is now so determined by locative media ("The infrastructure of these new technologies and the way they are programmed now co-shape urban life, just like the physical infrastructures and the spatial programming of urban planning have always done"), but to reach that scenario “ this depends on one condition: citizens must retain agency. The design of a platform must be genuinely interactive: this gives participants the opportunity to establish or change protocols instead of being forced to comply with rules laid down by companies. Magical software automatically arranging everything for us sounds very attractive, and the services provided by commercial parties will undoubtedly make life more pleasant and agreeable. There is nothing wrong with that, but, ultimately, we are better off when platforms for such services are accessible and citizens themselves can appropriate the related data and protocols in their own way.

It´s the right time to think about these questions. Things are changing so quickly we hardly find the time to build a meaningful understanding of what media tools are bringing to public life and this book is a very valid contribution of public life in cities and the tools that are colonizing our daily lives.

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