People make places @ Demos

Just wandered tonight along to Demos for the launch of their “People make places” report. A skim on the bus home made it seem the sort of thing I would like the Dan Hills and Anne Galloways of the world to have a look at…:

“The rise of privately owned corporate malls, out-of-town shopping centres and the virtual landscapes of the internet have cast doubt on the publicness of our towns and cities. Privatised space is seen to be in the ascendancy and, it is argued, this is squeezing out the possibility of shared social spaces in our cities, replacing them with a ‘shopping mall culture’ of sanitised, frictionless consumer environments where architecture and technology are used to filter out undesirable people and groups. So far it is unclear whether the new set of public spaces created through the urban renaissance are countering this trend and proving effective hosts for shared public life and exchange between people, or whether they are adding to the loss of publicness by imitating the character of private space. Many of the shiny new quaysides and squares seem either curiously empty of people or curiously monocultural in the type of people they attract.

The mission of Demos over the past 12 months has been to take on this uncertainty and track down the public life of cities – to identify the shared spaces of interaction and exchange, the value that such spaces generate and how that value is created. We explored in depth three cities in the UK – Cardiff, Preston and Swindon – to discover and illuminate the processes by which the public life of cities more widely might be reinvigorated.”

I arrived a little late as I only read about the event on the train back from Farnborough, so I don’t know whether it was covered before I got there, but there was little on the effects of digital technology, particularly personal, mobile digital technology on the use of public space. The debate wasn’t all that, although Greyworld were exciting – pointing out the role of play and playful technologies in invigorating and maintaining public spaces.

There’s a small mention of the venerable grassroots geoguide Knowhere in the report, but otherwise very little investigation it seems (again, I haven’t read it in great depth yet) of the impacts of digital technology.

There is a tantalising section heading: “Visible and invisible choreography” on page 62 of the report [PDF], with a brief mention of NYC’s “311” phone line as a concrete example – but nothing about pershaps, how space and place can be ‘reprogrammed’ smartmobs-style by mobile technologies, or how invisible infrastructures can change a place, e.g. free wifi in Bryant Park. I’m sure there are better examples, but hopefully you get my drift (derive?)

Worth a read, and as I say, I hope some of the more hardcore cyburbanists I know will offer their 2p…

As Hurricane Katrina makes ‘landfall’, this from the Viridian Design mailing list’s Bruce Sterling:

In the meantime, however, humanity’s incapacity to recognize and deal with its own peril is becoming eerie. And hilarious. Granted, this situation is not going to feel all chucklesome if you’re shivering in the New Orleans Superdome while its parking lots sink underwater, but that awesome mayhem is just the Southern Gothic version of our planet’s rapidly increasing woes. Here comes America’s worst storm ever, yet nobody on this plethora of satellites whispers the obvious: “climate change.” It’s catastrophic. It’s also surreal. A perfect placement for science fiction as political satire.

Watching the CNN coverage is surreal, he’s right.

They are covering it like a sports event – and inventing a psuedoscientific argot of catastophe as they go along: “wobble factor”, “cone of possibility” etc.


Update: AD calls out BS on his apparent glee.

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If this is what you get when you search for London.

I love that there are places called “Sublimity City” and “Deer Lick” neighbouring the great metropolis.

Liz’s notes on the recent O’Reilly Where 2.0 conference, even though she says they are sketchy, give a lot of food for thought (and they are funny, but it probably helps if you can imagine Liz recounting them, arms-a-waving) – I’m looking forward to her promised post-4th-of-July reflections.

Overall, it sounds like it was a fascinating carpet-mindbombing of the state-of-the-art of geographical technology and it’s effects on business and society. Wish I’d seen Nathan Eagle, and Kevin Slavin in particular.

One line in her notes will be thought about (and probably written about) much more by me:

“as always, they [O'Reilly] think that the difference between the desires of early and late adopters is one of size, not kind”

Crossing the Chasm was first published 14 years ago. Pre-web, pre-mobile. And yet the tech industry is still set in it’s belief that the mainstream will inevitably, steadily, globally – follow the alpha-geek early adopter. Surely it’s about time the Valley’s “Whig” telling of technological progress is tempered with the wiggly nature of human desire.

Back when I was an architecture student, twelve (ahem!) or so years ago, one of the books I read with most lasting impact was “MirrorWorlds” by David Gelertner, the computer scientist perhaps most famous for being targeted and injured by the Unabomber.

In “MirrorWorlds”, Gelertner imagines powerful software providing models and simulations of the ‘real world’ and the change in our understanding and society that will arise from that.’s page on the book says this by way of synopsis:

Imagine looking at your computer screen and seeing reality–an image of your city, for instance, complete with moving traffic patterns, or a picture that sketches the state of an entire corporation at this second. These representations are called Mirror Worlds, and according to David Gelernter they will soon be available to everyone. Mirror Worlds are high-tech voodoo dolls: by interacting with the images, you interact with reality. Indeed, Mirror Worlds will revolutionize the use of computers, transforming them from (mere) handy tools to crystal balls which will allow us to see the world more vividly and see into it more deeply.

Creating ‘mirrorworlds’ has long been a dream that we can see repeated in the history of ideas, from Buckminster-Fuller’s World Game to the 1:1 scale map commissioned by Borges’ ficitonal emperor:

“…In that Empire, the Cartographer’s art achieved such a degree of perfection that the Map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the Map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these vast Maps were no longer sufficient. The Guild of Cartographers created a Map of the Empire, which perfectly coincided with the Empire itself.”

Recently, Larry and Sergey, our current information-emperors released Google Maps into the world.

Google Maps is an incredibly refined user experience, combining a number of valuable datasets that Google acquired, a great UI utilising cutting edge interface-code thinking, and as you’d expect some very efficent back-end technology.

This being the age of “Web 2.0” every application of merit is also invariably a platform whether it plans to be on not, so Google Maps has spawned some amazing innovations by its users: like Jon Udell’s audio-annotated maps [see also Charlie Schick from Lifeblog's thoughts on this type of 'life-recording'], and the fantastic Craigslist Housing Hack, which is a powerfully useful merger of small-ads listings for accomodation with the google maps interface .

Google, a few weeks after launching the Maps service, integrated satellite imagery from it’s acquisition of Keyhole. Again, the user-base seized upon this and started making their own uses, and moreoever, using this to tell stories.

Take a look at Flickr’s Memory Map group [See this Wired News story for more on the meme], where people are using Google Maps to tell stories about childhood, where they grew up or memorable events. Another trends is exemplifed by MezzoBlue’s post “Google Maps and Accountability” where the satellite imagery is used to illustrate the extent of environmental damage done by the forestry industry in British Columbia.

Salk Institute, La Jolla, California
^ Google Maps Satellite Image of La Jolla, California

And thus, a new view on the world around which you can inspire new thinking or action.

Which is precisely the promise of software simulation and modelling proposed by Gelertner a decade ago in Mirrorworlds.

Google’s mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” is rapidly creating practical mirrorworlds for us to explore.

Imagine a future Google mirror world, which:

  • Is real-time:
    with live satellite imagery showing weather, jet-streams, pollutant flow, traffic jams, cattle herds, refugee camps…
  • Has overlays:
    showing visualisations of abstract data – population density, energy use, wealth, “now playing”, infant mortality

And crucially…

  • Has history:
    Could show all the above, either from archive data, or simulation ansed on the historical record – from 1970, 1940, 1900, 1800, 1600… etc… etc…

What realisations and reactions would we have if we could gaze into this mirrorworld knowing it was real, not a simEarth, and further more – the only one we’ve got?

It would be the software-equivalent of when the space program in the late-sixties afforded us the first view back at the pale blue dot we’re stuck on.

We are the first ‘simulation-generation’ – we are used to constructing and manipulating ever more sophisticated models of reality or unreality on our personal computers.

Increasingly, what has started out in the mirrorworld of play that the videogame industry invents is revolutionising how we work and learn.

In their book “Got Game”, business strategists John Beck and Mitchell Ward state:

It’s the central secret of digital gaming… Games are providing real, valuable experience… [they] offer real experience solving problems that, however, fantastic their veneers, seem real to the player. When gamers head off to play, they are escaping. But… they end up in an odd-looking educational environment.”

And in education, PC-pioneers like Alan Kay are pursuing ‘mirrorworld’ like learning environments, driven by the mantra that “point-of-view is worth 80 IQ points”

Mobile mirrorworlds could give you that IQ boost Kay is working towards wherever you were. Augmented-reality researchers have been donning back-packs full of computers and ridiculous looking head-up displays for a decade or so, trying to build them.

A more practical, accesible version is being built bottom-up using cameraphones, web-services and primative locative technologies right now. Not only Google – but Yahoo, Amazon/a9 and a host of hackers and start-ups are setting about skinning the world in data.

Once these substrates are there, you can bet that manipulable models and visualisations will be built atop them. This is the other component of the mirrorworld: the “what-if” wonderlands you can explore with
a software model of reality.

Why we make models

We have always built models to understand how reality works – by taking them to breaking point, changing our approach, exploring the alternatives; we’ve made progress. We’re up against real problems casued by that progress – many parts of the pale blue dot are at breaking point – so making better decisions based on better models is crucial. Mirrorworlds are not just a playful diversion or powerful business tool – but a survival strategy.

Before I get too misty-eyed for the mirrorworld future of sustainability, happiness and harmony, a (hyper)reality check. There are some powerful players switched-on to the power of simulation.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are actively pursuing it

“modeling is pretty magic stuff, whether it’s management problems or business customization problems or work-flow problems, visual modeling. It’s probably the biggest thing going on”

What happens to our understanding of reality when there’s a monopoly on mirrorworlds?

French philosopher Baudrillard, in his “Simulation and simulcra” (You’ve read it right? I bet BillG has…;-) in reference to the mirrorworld mapping of Borges’ emperor, warned that:

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

In order to see that our new digital/real mirrorworlds reverse the Baudrillian desertification of the real world, it is crucial that we can not only understand the territory, but who and how they have done the mapping and their modelling – that we can own it, examine it and remap/remodel it ourselves – that the maps and models are open, free and shared by all.

The peer-production and scrutiny of the Wikipedia (and indeed the ideological discussion around it) might give some idea of what it’s like to create a reference work of this kind.

Then we will have mirrorworlds that we can all build on.

A side note – as part of Amazon’s mirrorworld of the printed word, they have introduced SIPs: “statistically-improbable phrases” that are supposed to automagically sum up the essence of a book. Here are the SIPs for “MirrorWorlds”:

chronicle streams, software ensembles, computational landscape, task cloud, simulated mind, evocative possibility, ensemble programs, tuple spaces, information machinery, mass border, software revolution, memory pool, software machine, information machines

Gridlockd by Mohit SantRam of NYU ITP sounds fascinating:

…an urban game where participants within one of four teams compete to capture grid positions in a half hour. the team with the most points wins! This project is meant to display how semacodes, cameraphones, ad-hoc groups, and social dynamics are effected under time pressure.

It’s going to be one of these fun ‘big games’ which create lots of spectacle, but looking at the core gameplay: capture grid positions… I wonder if it wouldn’t be more satisfying as a slower, more strategic game played over a much much longer timeframe.

As our own Greg Costikyan has said – latency in the mobile network makes it very hard to create real-time games. In Gridlockd – they are using walkie-talkie functionality to enable this – the phone is not the communications channel – it is a mobile networked computer for recognising physical/location data…

So why not play to the strengths of asynchronous communications instead, and harness an entirely different, more casual, less spectacular form of play.

I’m imagining a kind of urban location-based reversi that two people could play over a long time span – kind of like a play-by-mail game, but play-by-city…

This game would still using semacodes/QR-codes/NFC for the game grid positions. Janne Jalkanen has demonstrated how easy it is to create NFC/web services for presence – perhaps it would be possible to very quickly create such a game. Perhaps there could be some grid positions that were in coffee-shops where the players could meet and discuss the moves.

Of course, there are only some urban locations where the image of the city would match with the image of the game board. Manhattan and other big grid-structured US cities seem more ideal for urban games than European cities?

Matt Locke, a few years ago, wrote about slow-networks in cities a few years ago, using ‘public caches’ – bluetooth or IR connected public digital stores – what are the opportunities for slow-networks city-gaming?


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