Notes from the Mobile City conference

Some notes of things that I found relevant to me at the Mobile City conference. Malcolm McCullough Malcom gave an insightful talk about the history of "urban inscriptions" and how the City has been the place of "marking" for a long time. First, "the city itself is an inscription" and there lots of instances of inscriptions from graffiti to state proclamations to the contentions of branding, and from petroglyphs to banners to lit facades, the architecture of the city has been layered with lasting messages. To him, there's an tension between "locative media/emergent culture of street level participatory urban computing" AND the "built environment as a new media", sort of "tagging versus LED display". In one case, it's about the fashion of blinking "push media" (displays), in the other, it's a rather "pull" mode. As he claimed "locative media is different from watching a war from your bed alone, it's like dog marking fire hydrant". And it asks the question "must media means remoteness?".

Moreover, the layering of cities have some analogies with past histories of electricity and print, that - in their times - also covered cities. Text was pretty scarce at first, but then handbills and gazettes started to spread and there was text everywhere. Electrification also gave rise to industrial design and situated technologies: lights, streets lamps. The tech then became ambient: air conditioning, radio advertising (through outdoor speakers)... he showed a very peculiar example of "rock speakers":

There is thus a "toxic data smog" along with "a competition for eyeballs on buildings". This pollution should be "managed" and although the answer in Sao Paulo (removal of urban ads.) is a bit extreme, it certainly acknowledges the presence of a problem.

Christian Nold Nold 's presentation was entitled "The Locative Media Autopsy" as he criticized the notion of "locative media": what does it refer to? the community who created that term or the weird gadgets we are talking about? He thinks that these applications are not representing the right representations of cities. To him, the work of Blast Theory or GPS drawings are nice but are only a limited account of cities and wondered about the presence of people and social relationships in there (or the lack of). He then criticized projects such as Real Time Rome stating that they are interesting but are a techno-fetishistic way to represent Rome: where is the history of Rome? What kind of social relationships are represented behind these atomic explosions?

Locative Media, for Nold, is about verbs such as "gather/share/play/visualize/imagine" currently. And he thinks the field should rather focus on "collaborate (people, institutions), archive, educate, challenge (politics), change behavior (although it may sound instrumental) and organise". That's why he think Oakland crimespotting (Stamen Design) interesting because they re-interprete publicly available data and make then legible for people. He also showed very basic examples of "register your fruit tree": maps where people indicate where passers-by can collect fruits on certain trees.

He concluded saying that locative media can be a way to engage people in a long-term relationship with their environment and their issues of concern. To do so, locative media should take an extra step to really make it work.

Jeroen van Shaik This one was not a keynote presentation but one of the project description. Van Shaik described "Urbanism on Track", an urban planning project that explores the possibilities of the application of knowledge from research on activity patterns using new tracking technologies. His research question is "is it possible for urban planners to adopt these tracking technologies as a tool? is there a future for urban planning with these technologies?" and discussed why they can be relevant for urban designers/planners.

Using examples drawn from Spatial Metro, he showed how activity patterns can represent urban attraction, invisible borders, the structure of the city, the relation between movement and people's purposes or the relation between time spent in certain places and patterns of movements.

To him, tracking have challenges: - re-conceptualizes City-ICT relationships - tracking tech are space/time adjusting (see Jannelle and Gillespie, 2004: Space–time constructs for linking information and communication technologies with issues in sustainable transportation): there is a difference between cities (which are about building streets, material stuff), which tracking technologies is not. - re-ceonptualizes the role of urban research, urban design/planning OR merely a new research instrument? As Jeroen said, "perhaps tracking tech are nothing more than a tool but at least we have batter pictures". And they need to be combined with other design tools.

The problem of tracking tech is that it measures the past state of affair whereas design is about the future. And we can never track the future patterns.

Stephen Graham This talk was a presentation of Graham and Crang's paper entitled "Sentient cities ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space" published in Information, Communication & Society, a reflection on politics, locative media and ubiquitous computing and how we are moving towards "a society of enacted environments". With Ubiquitous computing, architecture and urban spaces are continually animated, brought into being and continually performed. This leads to a "calculative background", a "technological unconscious" that brings both opportunities and political questions. What was great in his talk was all this precise (and almost poetic) vocabulary social scientists/geographers have about the politics of urban computing, very much in the same vein of Rob Kitchin or Martin Dodge.

Graham proposed 3 starting points: 1) To abandon the notion of a "real" and a "virtual" world. The situation is best understood not as real/virtual binary but rather simply the latest process in a long history of remediation that refashions and extends earlier media (as proposed by Bolter and Grusin in 1999). It's indeed a "new layering" and holographics or cyberspace are wrong vision: we're not abandoning physical mobiltiy. 2) Cities can be seen to emerge as fluid machines, places which combine "distant proximity" and "proximate distance". It's more accurate to follow Deleuze and Guattari when they take the city as a process and not as a shape: with flows of energy, people goods, services, etc. Therefore it's interesting to see how locative media fit into cities as a process. 3) Like all new technologies, ubicomp and locative media tend to becomes hidden and disappear at precisely the moment they become most important. As Mark Weiser stated, "the most profound technologies are those who disappear" but we're not yet at that stage. But the SATNAV/GPS navigator tends now to disappear (to re-appear when they fail). Technologies becomes adopted and becomes a part of our infrastructure, creating a "sociological black-box", "th engineers' stuff".

For Graham, several trajectories of ubicomp are emerging, each struggling to becomes fixed, normalized and standardized: consumerisation, militarization/ securitisation and finally urban activism/democratization.

Consumerization is about creating the long-dream of "friction-free capitalism" and enhance the control of consumption, this sort of long-standing trope of perfect flow, complete efficiency, seamless interconnection and annihilation of space through time. What falls into this category: RFID for "smooth flows" and "just-in-time management", Microsoft Aura, software-sorting techniques that recommodify public infrastructure into neoliberal mobility marketplace (faster lane on the highway if you pay), prioritized internet traffic depending on services used, call-centres or on-line GIS that enable to get different services depending the neighborhood (software-sorted cities).

Militarization/ securitisation towards "passage-point urbanism" or "the clutter of concealment" or as a way to "differentiate the good and the bas people". The anonymity of the city is seen as a problem requiring profiling, data-mining, anticipation and tracking to identify targets. Hence the development of biometrics, detection of walking styles, etc. because "everyone is a potential war target" and identifying bad people is difficult because "leaders look like everyone else". A good example is also "privium" at Schiphol airport, which leads to "software-sorted mobility" or a selectivity of street usage through facial recognition. As he said, "we should all grow beards women included". Most of the time, technology is put in place for other reasons (for instance the congestion charge in London was meant to limit traffic) but then, once the system is in place, it can be used for other purposes than intended. So the question is how can you build regulation robust enough to prevent misuse? Graham recommends the work of Jordan Crandall about this.

Urban activism and democratization: this is where might the re-enchantment can come from, to re-politicize the city: to reclaim the potential of augmented space, re-appropriate technologies (calls for new forms of public action) and new social performances. What is interesting is that technologies often start military, then are commercially exploited or tweaked by artists.

He concluded saying that multiple visions of "sentient urbanism" are struggling with these new technologies of locative media to become fixed into infrastructure, striving to remediate urban life in various ways. He argued that relations between these multiple visions are poorly understood. Also, temporality is important because it's about inferring the future and delegating agency to invisible and sentient systems.