Interview with Mark Shepard: ‘critical design’, architecture, urbanism and location based media

Mark Shepard is a media architect and researcher. His current research investigates the influence of mobile and pervasive media, communication and information technologies on architecture and urbanism. He is one of the organizers of the 2006 symposium on Architecture and Situated Technologies. This fall, for the Architectural League of New York, he curates the exhibition Toward the Sentient City. He is also one of the editors of The Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series

I have always considered you as one of the pioneers in the field of architecture, urbanism and location based media. How have you seen the discussions in this field develop over the last few years?

The discourse you mention has evolved significantly since I began working in the field in the late 90s, with many people contributing to its development. When Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz and I began planning the Situated Technologies symposium in the fall of 2005, we were initially focused on how Mark Weiser’s vision for ubiquitous computing might apply to cities: what happens when computing leaves the desktop and spills out into the streets and sidewalks of everyday urban space? We speculated that this would likely shape (and in some ways already was shaping) the way we inhabit the city and the choices we make there. Yet if computing was becoming embedded in and distributed throughout the material fabric of contemporary cities, we asked, why weren’t architects more involved in shaping these technologies and their applications for urban architecture? While architects had been exploring the possibilities of, say networked computing or cybernetic systems in the 1960s and 1970s, this interest began to wane in the 1980s. Weiser’s vision for ubicomp, which was formalized as a research agenda in the late 1980s at Xerox PARC in Paolo Alto, California, was one where computing and computers would recede to the background, and physical space and the social interactions that transpire there would come to the foreground. Computing was to become environmental. Computer scientists and media artists–each in different ways–seemed to grasp the implications of this early on. Where were the architects?

During the three months leading up to the symposium, the Institute for Distributed Creativity hosted an email discussion list where people from different fields along with the symposium participants and organizers framed a set of issues for discussion. One discussion thread revolved around the Interactive City exhibition accompanying ISEA 2006 and the Zero One Global Festival of Art on the Edge that was happening at that time in San Jose, California. Organized by Steve Dietz, Joel Slayton and Eric Paulos, Interactive City was an important exhibition that brought together many media artists and creative technologists exploring the intersections of art, technology and urban space. For the Situated Technologies symposium, the idea was to bring together people from a range of different disciplines–architecture, art, philosophy of technology, comparative media study, performance studies, computer science and engineering–and attempt to find a common language by which we might identify and address critical issues concerning the technological mediation of urban life. One aspect of this had to do with avoiding default terms like “users”, “public space” and “technology,” for example. As Usman Haque, one of the symposium participants, proposed: Let’s not think of Users, but rather of People, Participants, Players, P-Individuals, all kinds of things that begin with the letter “P”. Let’s not talk about Technology, let’s talk about Instruments. And let’s not talk about Public Space, but let’s talk about the Commons. This was one of many threads that were explored over those three days in New York.

Now, following the symposium, there was a sense among many participants that we generated more questions than answers–which is usually a sign that things went well. At the same time, related conferences in Europe were developing similar lines of inquiry – both the Media City conference organized by the Bauhaus-Universität in Weimar (2006, 2008), The Locative Media Summer Conference in Siegen, and The Mobile City conference in the Netherlands proved important conversations partners at this juncture, and suggested there was significant interest in these issues.

We thought it important to sustain this discussion, and decided to produce a series of pamphlet length publications that would address some of the key research vectors that were beginning to emerge. Published by the Architectural League three times a year over the course of three years, the series is structured as a succession of nine “conversations” between authors from various fields. Currently in our second year with the series, we are just about to release the fourth pamphlet on Responsive Architecture by Phillip Beesley and Omar Khan. Further, as you mentioned, I am curating Toward the Sentient City–an exhibition that aims to critically explore this evolving relation between ubiquitous computing and urban architecture. The exhibition is scheduled to open this September and is organized by the Architectural League, who has commissioned five interdisciplinary teams to produce urban interventions that attempt to provide concrete examples of some of the more abstract ideas that have evolved though these discussions.

Overall, I think one of the main aspects of this evolving discourse is the shift in focus away from specific technologies to the larger social, environmental and political contexts within which these technologies take shape and are situated.

I want to return to this idea of users/participants, technology/instruments, public space/the commons. The difference between those two sets of concepts to me seems to signal a shift in thinking, from – to paraphrase Robert Venturi – planning for mankind to designing for men. The terms public space, users and technology indicate a top-down way of framing urban space, where ‘users’ are relatively passively constrained by the spatial design of public space that the architects have deemed right for them, and where technology is seen as a force with an outside impact on reality. The alternatives you put forward seem to frame urban culture from a more ‘situated’ perspective, reminding me of the tradition of ethnomethodology and Paul Dourish. The focus is on the bottom up processes of people who from particular spatial and social contexts try to achieve particular goals, the processes that when taken together make up the city or urban culture.

That’s an interesting way to frame it. True, we were interested in the notion of the “situated” not just in the sense of being located in a particular spot or position, but also in terms of ‘situated actions,’ as Lucy Suchman discusses in her book Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication (1987). Suchman writes that every course of action is highly dependent upon its material and social circumstances, “an emergent property of moment-by-moment interactions between actors, and between actors and the environments of their action.”[1] Similarly the term ‘instruments’ refers not so much to the technology in itself but rather about its possible performance in a particular context. Here, performance is understood along multiple vectors: technological, social and organizational, each with their own criteria for evaluation (effectiveness, efficacy and efficiency, respectively). Finally, public space is a term that clearly needed revisiting. Much of the so-called of “public space” in New York City, for example, is quasi-public: “public” plazas and atria managed by “private” developers and corporations where effectively a security guard decides who is allowed access and who is not, what one can do within the space and what one cannot do. Here, public space is no longer the geography of the public sphere. The Public, publics, and public opinion are formed less through the physical geography of specific urban places and more through networked information and broadcast media systems – we have known this for decades. Public space thus has become an imprecise and weak term, it means both everything and nothing today.

So how is the concept of the commons helpful to reconceptualize urban public space?

The ‘public’ that is addressed in the public sphere tends to be defined as a unified mass. The term ‘commons’ is based on the idea of the bottom up appropriation of a shared resource. Rather than thinking of public space as something to be legislated by the city government from the top down, thinking through the commons allows for shared collective action, which is more horizontally distributed. The term refers of course to the central grassland in English villages that was owned by no one but could be used by all villagers to graze their cows. Built-in was the notion that everyone was to benefit equally from this resource. Now this was not unproblematic, as Garrett Hardin has pointed out in his essay The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin reasons that for me as an individual it would be beneficial to add as many cows as possible. I would gain all the benefits of doing so, while the damage to the commons would be shared by everyone. Yet if everyone were to keep on adding cattle, the commons would become overgrazed. So we need some form of collective coercion that keeps individualist tendencies in check with the common interest.

Now, as with other aspects of the physical world such as land, water and air, the electromagnetic spectrum upon which contemporary wireless communications depend can be similarly understood as a shared and limited resource. Thus regulating it in ways that benefit everyone should be the objective. Hertzian Rain is a recent project of mine that that proposes a variable event structure designed to raise awareness of issues surrounding the wireless topography of urban environments through telematic conversations based on sound and bodily movement. Approaching the wireless topography of contemporary cities as a ‘commons’ makes much more sense than simply seeing it as public space, whatever that term may mean today. It provides a better framework for thinking about the sharing of scarce resources or our impact on the environment.

So far we have mainly discussed public space from an infrastructural perspective: the idea of the city as a bunch of infrastructures or collective resources that need to be distributed fairly or efficiently. Now, let’s shift this discussion a bit. A lot of the discourse on public space is not so much on the space itself, but rather on what happens inside these spaces, about our attitudes. Public space only comes into being if we choose to behave in a particular way, if we choose to be ‘public men’ so to speak, which means that we should not retract into our own social groupings but have to open up to the others with whom we share the city. Public space is thus also a highly ethical concept, it proscribes how we are to behave as ideal citizens. Should we update the concept of ‘public men’ as well, or is this public ethos as described for instance by Richard Sennett and Hannah Arendt still relevant?

I would be careful conflating Sennett’s notion of Public Man with Arendt’s concept of the Space of Appearance. Sennett laments the demise of physical public space as the space of social interaction, and sees a crisis in the retreat from more formally defined public life to more informal, individual, private, and intimate relations. Arendt’s Space of Appearance, on the other hand, is less a physical location than anyspace whatsoever where we come together in speech and action. “The polis, properly speaking,” she writes “is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.” [2] So the two are actually quite different regarding how they view so-called “public space.” Again, it is important to distinguish between public space and the public sphere. While historically they have been congruent, this is by no means the case today.

There is the idea that the direct encounter with the ‘other’ in the public sphere produces a democratic condition that breeds tolerance of the other, and through that we have a public society. To address how this plays out in our contemporary world of electronic networks, we need to understand what is happening in social space now that mobile media are becoming truly ubiquitous in urban environments. Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchen have suggested that these kinds of “code/space” need to be understood ontogenetically, that is, as a spatial condition that is brought into being through specific practices that alter the conditions under which the space itself is (re)produced. Building on the work of Adrian MacKenzie, they differentiate between technicity (the productive power of technology to make things happen) and its realization through transduction (the constant making anew of a domain in reiterative and transformative practices). These assemblages of code, people and space are thus brought into being through specific techno-social performances or enactments within the course of daily life.

These new social spaces complicate the traditional notion of the public citizen. Take Twitter, for example, where one potentially develops an ‘ambient’ awareness of the emotional state of hundreds or thousands of people. Now what kind of public is performed and enacted here? What kind of place is this, which engenders citizens with a different kind of ‘public-ness’ than that of Sennett’s Public Man?

Now, lets connect these new type of hybrid social spaces you mention with the notion of designing ‘instruments’ as you proposed five years ago. Over the last years we have seen a lot of location based media services and art projects that could be understood as instruments. The question of course is: instruments to what aim? To me it seems that they often remediate old notions of the city, rather than take the new situations you mentioned here into account. That is, they either make the use of the city more efficient (as in way-finders or recommendation services), or they provide instruments for the serendipity (also a central concept in public man-theory) that we might loose through the increased efficiency that these location based services offer. I am not unsympathetic to these projects, but I am also wondering whether rather than building instruments to restore older notions of urban culture, shouldn’t we be looking at instruments geared to a new experience of the city that is emerging?

Personally I think it’s always more interesting to invent than reproduce. And who wants an ever-more ‘efficient’ life anyway? It’s funny that you raise the notion of serendipity. I am working now on a project titled the Sentient City Survival Kit. The project explores the social, cultural and political implications of ubiquitous computing for urban environments. It takes as its method the design, fabrication and presentation of a collection of artifacts, spaces and media for ‘survival’ in the ‘near-future’ sentient city. One item in the kit is the GPS-Serendipitor, a way finding device that determines a route to a destination that the user has not previously taken. Given a culture obsessed with getting from point A to point B, it seems we’re losing sight of what happens along the way. Where I am now and where I want to be are the important points. Every week there is a wonderful article somewhere about how somebody’s TomTom has led them over a cliff or into an oncoming train. Just recently I read an article about how bad GPS coordinates led a demolition contractor to demolish the wrong house!. Are we losing our ability to navigate, unassisted, through physical space? What does it say about us when we need to download an application for serendipitous encounters?

In this respect I am very much attracted to Anthony Dunne’s definition of ‘critical design,’ an approach to design practice he poached from architects and the idea of the design competition. The goal is less to design a solution to a given problem but to provoke public discussion surrounding a set of current issues. In the context of technology, critical design involves looking a upstream into what the research communities in computer science and engineering are contemplating for the near-future, and try to tease out some of the more absurd assumptions, naive projections and hidden agendas at play there. The aim is not to get involved in the business of forecasting future trends, but to stimulate a public debate about what kind of future we want.

[1] Lucy Suchman Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication 1987 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p. 179

[2] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. pp. 198.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.