The City as Interface

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Last week my book The City as Interface was published in an English edition, and I’m happy to announce that it is now available!

This book is the result of my fascination for both technology and cities. My main interest is not so much in technology itself, but in the way it is shaped by society and how in turn technology has the affordance to reshape our society.

This time around, digital and mobile media are changing the way urban life takes shape and how we experience our built environment. More and more, we are experiencing the city through the interfaces on our (mobile) screens and through the algorithms designed by various actors, from commercial companies to non-governmental institutions and citizens.

On the face of it, this is mainly a practical matter: thanks to these technologies we can organize our lives more conveniently. But the rise of ‘urban media’ also presents us with an important philosophical issue: How do they influence the way that the city functions as a community?

Employing examples of new media uses as well as historical case studies, I wanted to show how new technologies, on one level, contribute to the further individualization and liberalization of urban society. There is an alternative future scenario, however, in which digital media construct a new definition of the urban public sphere. In the process they also breathe new life into the classical republican ideal of the city as an open, democratic ‘community of strangers’.

Below you will find the first part of the introduction chapter of the book. If you want to learn more about the book, or order a copy, visit The City as Interface website.

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Introduction

Several years ago I stumbled upon a column by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in the American magazine Information Week. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the magazine had invited a number of leading pioneers from the world of computing to look back and to look ahead: what had been the most important breakthroughs in the last quarter of a century and, above all, what did the future have in store?

Gates’ column was an eye-opener for me, not so much because of the scenario he outlined but because of the way he did it. Some- what predictably, he began by summarizing the huge progress the computer had made during the last twenty-five yearsa: from expensive mainframes as large as an entire room operable only by specialists, to the affordable personal computers found nowadays in virtually every household, and their ever more awe-inspiring performance, measured in units that are difficult to grasp for ordinary mortals: from kilohertz and bit to gigahertz and terabyte. Impressive, concludes Gates. But, he goes on to say, this is ‘only the beginning . . .’

I believe that we’re entering an era when software will fundamentally transform almost everything we do. The continued growth of processing power, storage, networking, and graphics is making it possible to create almost any device imaginable. But it’s the magic of software that will connect these devices into a seamless whole, making them an indispensable part of our everyday lives.1

In a couple of sentences, Gates sketches a vitally important technological development that forms the basis of this book: following the era of the mainframe and the beige PC box placed on or under our desks, we have now entered a new phase. This time around, the computer is becoming invisible and slowly but surely will permeate every aspect of everyday life.

It is a scenario that many people will recognize. The calculating power of the mobile phone we carry around in our trouser pockets is many times greater than that of the first mainframes. This has enormous consequences for our everyday routines: a text message enables us to reschedule a meeting at the last minute or send a quick personal message to a loved one in between all our activities; our smartphones enable us to conveniently look up information about our surroundings (‘where is the nearest café, restaurant, ATM?’); thanks to navigation systems, we reach our destinations more quickly, especially if the software is geared to receive live traffic updates and it can redirect us so we avoid traffic jams; mobile social networks such as Twitter and Facebook enable people to keep their ‘friends’ constantly informed about where they are, what they are doing and what they think of it all.

These are all examples of urban media: a collective term that I use in this book for media technologies that in one way or another can influence the experience of a physical location. If it is left to Gates and his colleagues, digital technology will become even more closely interwoven with everyday life. Leading computer multi- nationals such as IBM and Cisco are currently developing the infrastructure for the city of the future: they envisage a city crammed with sensors and rapid communication networks; all sorts of ‘intelligent’ technologies will monitor various processes in the city – from traffic circulation to air pollution – and use the collected data to make improvements without human intervention. In his column Gates predicts that ‘software can go places it has never gone before.’ The factory-floor inventory, the amount of cash in the till, potential burglars around your house, the amount of milk in your fridge – in his column, Gates promises that Microsoft will soon be able to monitor it all for us.

The scenario sketched by Gates is interesting but what mainly set me off thinking was the choice of words in his final sentence: thanks to the magic of his software, our lives will soon be even more convenient, more pleasant, more efficient and more agreeable. In that one sentence I suddenly recognized a larger theme I had often encountered in the past. 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. Sure enough, the new infrastructure of mobile and digital media provides convenient applications for busy city dwellers to organize the practicalities of their lives more efficiently. But what we tend to forget is that this also changes the city as a society. Research has shown that the places we visit, the meanings we attach to them and our contacts with others are all changing because of the rise of mobile media.

This is not necessarily a magical process that simply happens to us. As a community – regardless of our role as designers, citizens, policymakers, or consumers – we can make choices about the way we want to deploy technologies. These choices are, in turn, related to the way we think a city should function as a community: ideology rather than magic is one of the central forces behind the way in which technology changes our lives. However, we rarely encounter this philosophical approach outside the specialized worlds of art and science, and it is precisely this which is the theme of this book. ‘Technology at present is covert philosophy’, argues American communications studies researcher Phil Agre, ‘the point is to make it more openly philosophical.’2 On the one hand technology contains an idea about what the ideal world should look like; on the other hand, the very same technology can also intervene in our everyday world and radically change our experience of and ideas about it. With urban media playing an increasingly prominent role in everyday urban life, it is of great importance to consider this. What are the underlying urban ideals concealed in technologies? And what is the significance of all these new means of communication for urban societies?

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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.