February 13, 2008

Information and the city

For an immersion into the complexity of the information systems that surround us, I can't recommend highly enough Dan Hill's post over at City of Sound (a real must-read blog) on The street as platform. It's long, yes - but covers almost every use of data in our lives, from phones to Oyster cards, wifi to CCTV, and vividly demonstrates how this is changing the way we operate in physical space. As Hill writes, this is a "new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street."

The post describes no technology that doesn't already exist, which makes it all the more remarkable. And as Dan points out, "How much of this life of the street, this rapidly increasing torrent of human activity, is registered as a field of enquiry or activity in most planning activity?" This data-filled world presents huge challenges to the processes of planning, governance and management of the public (and private) realm.

The interface between the physical and the 'virtual' (not a good word, but it will have to do) and indeed the private and the public is becoming blurred to an extraordinary degree. Who is to govern the part of the street where my open wireless network is accessible, and where therefore someone might want a bench to sit on so they can use their laptop? Who decides whether the pavement in front of an office building can be monitored by the CCTV of the tenant? how does this overlap with the council-run CCTV system? If a widely circulated YouTube clip features a brutal mugging in a prominent London square, how do you persuade people that it is actually a safe place to eat lunch, and does this have anything to do with its physical design?

As architects, this is something we must take into account. It may mean that a commission to redesign a public space may in fact result in interventions in the data web much more than physical changes on the ground; but this is a difficult thing to persuade a client of, not least because to maintain a positive presence in the web requires more skilled ongoing management, and is more potentially controversial, than the cleaning of new paving slabs.

And, as Dan Hill says, "we should be aware of the limits of information services, until made physical. Either from a phenomenological point-of-view, or from the view that just says these systems tend to be transient, it's important to keep a sense of perspective". The physical is still important - it lasts, it is democratically visible and tangible to all users in the same way (though of course interpreted vastly differently), it has qualities of sensory pleasure or discomfort. But to pretend that we can opt out of the data network and experience purely the physical is now a fallacy.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you mean http://www.cityofsound.com/ not http://www.cityofsounds.com/. Looks like it is a very classy blog.

February 13, 2008 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Hana Loftus said...

whoops! thanks for pointing out the typo - it's corrected now.

February 13, 2008 at 4:13 PM  

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