Urbanizing technology. I think of this short talk that I’m going to give about what is of course a big subject as lying at the intersection— (I’m having trouble finding a place for my clock otherwise I’ll go out of control speaking.) of two vectors. One of them is the fact that cities have become sites, places, for massive deployments of increasingly complex and all-encompassing technical systems, some of them good, some of them dubious.
On the other hand, I think that—and this is sort of a more explorative side—I think that cities talk back. They don’t allow anything just to go. And the failures of many of these technical systems are an indication of that. And so I have a little project that I call “Does the city have speech?” and I mean speech in the complex sense of the legal scholarship, the discourse, not just talk talk talk.
So, urbanizing technology is a way of navigating between these two conditions. And in a way, of course, it’s an ambiguous notion. Two propositions to organize. So, one is the challenge of urbanizing technology, and I don’t have all the answers but I think it’s a project. It’s, you know, a collective project. And secondly, part of the challenge is of course to preserve what has made cities able to outlive all kinds of other closed systems, from enterprises, kingdoms, etc., to financial firms, which I find absolutely adorable.
Now what might this mean, “urbanizing technology?” So here is one. Urbanizing oil platforms, which looks actually rather attractive; a certain density. Density by itself is not going to urbanize. This type of density—and these are also intelligent systems, intelligent buildings, deurbanizes a city. So this is not a concept that is attractive.
This is a very intelligent system. This is a utility in San Francisco which has a centralized sort of knowledge and information-gathering system. It controls everything that has to do with certain aspects at least of the utility. And this is of course quite problematic. IBM has been developing these types of systems. There might be good aspects to it, but there are certainly also problematic aspects to it. Because in the end it’s a rigid system. When the technology becomes obsolete, what happens?
Now, the question of technical obsolescence whenever you deal with technology is of course critical. And what we are seeing nowadays is a rapid acceleration in the rate of obsolescence of technologies. So the more widespread the use of intelligent systems in a city, the more the city itself is at risk of becoming obsolete. What do we get? Dead cities.
This is also an intelligent system. I love this image. You don’t know what you’re looking at really when you look at that. Now the question for me is, does the fact of the trees and their temporality (very different from the temporality of technical systems) sort of give these buildings potentially a larger life. Is it different to kill hundreds of trees embedded in buildings if you want then to allow technical systems to become obsolete and thereby bring buildings down? These are questions and I’m sure that the answers can vary enormously from one place to another.
A first step for me in this notion of urbanizing technology, and here I just want to confine myself to one type of system which is to a large extent and also a kind of an urban system, which are interactive technical domains. And it seems to me that it is quite foundational, I think, to engage in this question of urbanizing technology, to recognize that these interactive digital domains deliver their utility through a larger ecology that includes non-technical aspects. So there is a built-in capacity in that sense in these technologies to include key aspects of cities, of the social, of the interactive.
And sort of a short proposition here is that these systems get used in ways that, if you want, hack the engineer’s design. The engineer may have thought they get used in one way, but the actual users bring to these systems a lot of other elements. And I think that it is in that divergence that lies this project of urbanizing technology. The divergence between how users actually alter the original design—a kind of open source mechanism, if you want—and that logic of the engineer, if you want. And therein, if you think of the city as a kind of open source system that goes way beyond a particular technology, then I think we’re beginning to address this question of urbanizing technology.
So one image that I like is the city as hacker. Of spaces, of technologies, of individual self-interest. I have quite a few little projects that show how even in the space of the city, even if you have a bunch of rather selfish people engaging in certain practices, there can be an outcome that produces a public good. One might say they have sort of solved the prisoner’s dilemma.
One of my favorite examples, and I don’t know, some of you may be familiar with this, was when New York City was in very bad shape in the 1980s. Riverside Park was by the river, beautiful housing, but dangerous. Murders, rapes. The new sort of techies that were coming in, the new people, young people from Wall Street, bought places there. Dangerous place. What do you do in New York? You buy a dog. And these dogs were like little horses, so they were truly impressive dogs. If you have a dog, you’ve got to walk it. No matter how selfish, they had to walk the dog. And the dogs evidently have certain rhythms. So in the end, everybody’s walking the dog. The park becomes safe again. That is a capability that urban space has.
And my question is how can that capability also be put in motion, if you want, in terms of these technological issues? When you think of urban space as producing that third presence that adds something else, I think that something happens there.
Now, sort of to wrap it up a bit here, this notion of urbanizing technology requires more than only understanding particular features of cities. It requires I think also seeing as as a city. In other words, there is a different way in which the city responds than the engineers, the citizens, etc., juggling the diversity of elements that constitute urban space. A multi-perspective approach.
For me, to conclude also, one of the key issues is the many of the forces that are deurbanizing cities. And one of these, and it consumes a lot of electricity, is the new surveillance apparatus. And my question is, what are the spaces that can contest? This is what we know about the United States. Ten thousand plus surveillance buildings. That’s a lot of electricity, by the way. It’s not clandestine, because those buildings are huge. But it’s big. It’s secret. And really the question becomes what are the spaces where we can contest this? This is a profoundly deurbanizing force, and I think that the city is one of the few places where we can contest. The system basically presumes that for our security, we the citizens, we have to be suspect. We have to be surveyed.
As somebody put it, Assange, recently, these are like turnkey systems. The key has been turned just a little, but we are basically fully mapped. Between Facebook. Between Google. Between what our governments do for our security. So really, a good city, a city that can talk back, a city that has not been deurbanized, is one of the places where we can contest this. And urbanizing technology, because technology is with us here to stay and these systems are huge and powerful. I think urbanizing technology is one of the critical factors in contesting the deurbanizing of cities and in making cities these places that are complex and, if you want, incomplete. And because they’re incomplete they can keep reinventing themselves, being remade. They’re mutants. Thank you very much.