Unlocking Digital Cities

The November issue of Wired Magazine (UK) features "Unlocking the Digital City", a series of articles exploring how new technologies have transformed - and are continually reinventing - urban life and urban landscapes. The entire issue is worth reading. Below are excerpts from three perspectives on the promises and realities of the digital age in urban environments. (This blog post has been cross-posted on the OAC. Discuss it here).

'Sense-able' urban design
Scholars back in 1995 speculated about the impact of the ongoing digital revolution on the viability of cities. Only 14 years ago, the mainstream view was that, as digital media and the internet had killed distance, they would also kill cities. Technology writer George Gilder proclaimed that "cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era" and concluded that "we are headed for the death of cities", due to the continued growth of personal computing, telecommunications and distributed production. At the same time, MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital that "the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible."

In fact, cities have never prospered as much as they have over the past couple of decades. China is currently building more urban fabric than has ever been built by humanity. And a particularly noteworthy moment occurred last year: for the first time in history more than half the world's population - 3.3 billion people - lived in urban areas.

The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way. Sensors, cameras and microcontrollers are used ever more extensively to manage city infrastructure, optimise transportation, monitor the environment and run security applications. Advances in microelectronics now make it possible to spread "smart dust" networks of tiny, wireless, microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors, robots or devices. [Read more ...]

Words on the Street
Over the last decade a great number of people on Earth have embraced the digital mediation of everyday life. Without considering the matter with any particular care, as individuals or societies, we have installed devices in our clothing, our buildings, our vehicles and our tools which register, collect and transmit extraordinary volumes of data, and which share this data with the global network in real time.

Under such circumstances, it is only natural that a great many of these systems will be used in the planning and management of cities. In the interest of managing traffic and, ostensibly, enhancing public safety, our streets are ringed with networked cameras, salted with embedded sensor grids. We traverse urban space in networked vehicles that are GPS-tracked and leased to us as hourly services like VĂ©lib' and Bicing and City CarShare, or tap our way on to mass transit with RFID-enabled payment cards like London's Oyster. [Read more ...]

Your Neighborhood is Now Facebook Live
... Miriam "went to the Flea" (the flea market, I presumed). Out on the street a few minutes later, Eva herself appeared, violin case slung over her shoulder. It wasn't until we bumped into Miriam a few blocks later, bags full of second-hand trinkets, that it hit me: my Brooklyn neighbourhood had become Facebook Live.

Conventional wisdom says that technology is bad for real-world communities, that we are often alone at home in front of blue screens. This is no doubt true. But we are also out on the street stealing glances at smaller screens, and interacting in more meaningful ways because of it. When it comes to technology and cities, today's thrilling development - "thrilling", that is, if you like real cities and corporeal people - is that social networking is enhancing urban places. I may have been only affirming face-to-face the interactions I just had in cyberspace, but that act was significant for the future of our cities.

The bandwidth of urban experience has increased. The ancient ways are still there: the way a place looks, the neighbours we wave at and the hands we shake. But now, there is an electronic conversation overlaid on top of all that: tweets and status updates, neighbourhood online message boards, detailed mobile electronic maps, and nascent applications that broadcast your location to your friends. This is far more interesting than what we were promised a decade ago: the proverbial coupon blinking on your mobile as you walk past Starbucks. (I have yet to experience this.) [Read more ...]

Discuss at Urban Anthropology.


Post a Comment

If you got this far, you should probably leave a comment, no?