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Data in cities: It’s a [Good, Bad] Thing

Via IBM’s Smarter Cities Tumblr, I stumbled across this summary from the Sustainable Cities Collective of an interesting event that happened recently — a panel discussion taking place at the Apple Store on Regent Street in London about data in cities. The panelists were Usman Haque, Susannah Hagan, Rachel Armstrong, and Juliet Davis — who between the four of them wear hats such as economists, architect, science fiction author, and sustainable city thinker.

Each brought both the strengths and the biases of their fields and experiences to their responses. But in that sense, I also found it unfortunately predictable and lacking a lot of the nuance that really delights me about the study of technology — although I am, of course, limited by what the author of the article deemed worth for inclusion in the piece. Haque took a proactive stance that views the city as a process by which people shape their environment, and considered data as a part of that overriding project rather than anything special in and of itself. Armstrong, as the sci-fi author, must have used the word ‘Singularity’ in order for it to have been included in the article, expressing excitement over the possibilities of interweaving biological and non-biological (digital? electronic?) data — what she later described as components of cities being made responsive through active or passive systems powered by feedback vis-a-vis data. Davis, meanwhile, brought a place-making perspective with the questions she was asking. Can “data connect us digitally, while grounding us in reality”?

But I must admit, what spurred me to write this blog post was the brief write-up for Susannah Hagan’s position, which I’ll just quote in full from the article:

Susannah Hagan, Head of Research into Environmental Design (RED), […] began by mentioning how hard it was to speak against the subject considering the location of the event. Despite this, Hagan went on to call digital devices a form of escapism from reality, asking what is it about the traditional city we are trying to avoid by using these devices?

The environmental impact of technology was also raised as an issue, saying that the resources involved in production and energy required to maintain them meant that our iPhones, Laptops and other computing devices were bellowing invisible black smoke before our eyes.

I think the reason it got me fired up is because I think this is the reaction I get from most people in urban planning when I tell them I study online collaboration and use Twitter; so I’m used to getting my back up or reaching for my verbal probes to determine what about the sound of my work is so instinctually distasteful to the person I’m interacting with.

But let’s pry a little deeper than my knee jerk reaction. I think Hagan’s question about what in the traditional city we are trying to avoid is actually a pretty good one — even if I think the framing of “avoidance” is a broad-sweeping. Nowadays, we do use devices in cities to avoid a lot of things. Transit at rush hour (or Vancouver during one of those spectacular lengths of rain)? It seems like iPods are the only things that make those experiences the least bit bearable to large swaths of people. So I’m not going to argue that we aren’t doing any avoiding with it.

But I’d argue that the specific wording — digital devices — makes me think that Hagan’s understanding of what data in cities means is limited to a particular conception of what they are being used for that ignores the meaning of a large swath of other activity. They were in an Apple Store, so I can understand why “gadget” might have been the primary interpretation of “data in cities”, while things like The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project and its equivalents might not be at the top of mind. It feels to me that Hagan was zeroing in on one purpose for which we find the digital devices useful: consumption. We’ve used them mostly for that up until now; again, understandable. But what about the use of devices for creating; for reflecting; for connecting? Is my listening to the CBC Ideas podcast (or, more typically, Spacing Radio) supposed to be deemed a detriment to my participation in the life a city instead of passively giggling to myself at the content of the conversations between the people sitting within earshot of me on the bus? I doubt that’s what she really meant — perhaps she meant larger time displacement effects like not volunteering for the local school or something.

It’s really the essentializing of technology down to only one of its uses for the purposes of constructing a case against it which really frustrates me — especially considering people do the exact same things to cities all the time, and I’m pretty sure it pisses urbanists off too! Until cities became all the rage again, weren’t they being written off by large swaths as being dirty, uncouth, and unpleasant due to all that rubbing up you had to do with people you didn’t like? I think the typical reaction to people who live in or who like cities is, “Yes, but…” followed by all those things that cities enable that people value. So it goes with technology. The design process for the two look really different but, to me, has a lot in common. There’s a sensitivity that’s required, that what one is designing will be used by those who necessarily will be wholly unlike one’s own self. We’re really still in the learning process of what it looks like to create a web that is inclusive, useful, safe, and not geared strictly for mindless consumption.

In that same way, there are insular, anti-social or downright sinister uses of cities, and then there are community and civic-oriented, productive uses of them. And there are insular, anti-social and damaging uses of the Internet or Internet-enabled devices, and then there are community and civic-oriented, productive uses of them. And for both there are levels for which individual personalities fare better or worse. (And on the note of the environmental impact of technology: yes, but what, cities don’t have negative externalities? We didn’t use that as an excuse to stop building cities. Should we use that as an argument to stop engaging with technology altogether?)

I’m open to the idea that I’ve only glimpsed the arguments of each of these speakers; I’m much more inclined to take their observations as all applicable to a spectrum of reactions to technology, which means in the end all of their statements have some contribution to illuminating the truth. I personally agree most with Davis. Her approach did not focus on what appears to be inherent to the technology itself, but more how its uses would be value-laden: renewing commitment to places or promoting homogenization. Like every single piece of forerunning technology, the answer to whether we can make use of technologies without letting them lead us to our collective ruin in one way or another, comes right back (clichéd as it may be) to Marshall McLuhan and the Laws of Media, and what we think we are enhancing in our search for better. Individuals can and will always choose, and it’s expanding the realm of choice, and the thoughtfulness to make those choices with full knowledge, that determines the tone in which our society will shape this debate on data in cities.

One Comment

  1. Sarah

    I think you’re right about that our use of personal and social technology is moving from escapism toward utility and creativity.

    Tangential to your main point: I still find myself wondering what we miss when the public realm is increasingly inhabited by people who are in some way elsewhere — on the phone, listening to music on headphones, playing video games, etc. I also wonder whether we use these devices to numb ourselves to all that rubbing up we have to do with people we don’t like.

    Posted July 13, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

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