[Fwd: [newcolonist] Urban renewal, the wireless way]
> Urban renewal, the wireless way
> Thanks to Wi-Fi networks, cellphones and global positioning locators,
> there's a new sense of place in the city.
> - - - - - - - - - - - -
> By Linda Baker
> Nov. 29, 2004 | In November 2003, New Yorker architecture critic
> Paul Goldberger penned a diatribe in Metropolis magazine against the
> isolation and dissolution of place wrought by the pervasive use of
> cellphones on city streets. "The mobile phone renders a public place
> less public," he wrote. "It turns the boulevardier into a sequestered
> individual, the flâneur into a figure of privacy. And suddenly the
> meaning of the street as a public place has been hugely diminished."
> Goldberger's critique of mobile communications technology capped over
> a decade of analysis revolving around the ability of global
> communications networks -- for better and for worse -- to release
> people from the constraints of time and place. "The post-information
> age will remove the limitations of geography," wrote Nicholas
> Negroponte in "Being Digital." "Digital living will depend less and
> less on being in a specific place at a specific time." In
> "Pandemonium," Lars Lerup, dean of the architecture school at Rice
> University, proclaimed: "The bandwidth has replaced the boulevard."
> Actually, it didn't. Virtual reality as a substitute for reality? That
> kind of thinking is, well, so very yesterday. With a new generation of
> wireless devices, GPS (global positioning system) locators and
> ubiquitous networking, future gazers claim, digital space will simply
> add another dimension to physical space, especially as technology
> continues to penetrate what sociologist Ray Oldenberg has famously
> described as "third places": the communal public spaces where people
> interact with friends or strangers.
> So-called "urban computing" means much more than bringing your
> Centrino laptop to Starbucks and logging on to Amazon.com. Instead,
> cutting-edge mobile and wireless services emphasize proximity over
> connectivity, the local over the global and the here and now rather
> than anytime, anywhere. Computer geeks suddenly turned urban
> theorists, many of today's technologists harbor even loftier goals for
> mobile research agendas: to enhance the image of the city itself --
> the patterns, the complexities and, above all, the sheer serendipity
> of the urban landscape.
> "People talk about mobile computing as now you'll be able to leave
> your home and go to a cafe or park and maybe go online and check
> e-mail," says Eric Paulos, lead researcher at Intel's Urban
> Atmospheres project in Berkeley, Calif., a program designed to explore
> technology's potential to augment and enhance the urban experience.
> "But we're interested in something much bigger than that. We're
> interested in the social cues that people already perform in urban
> spaces, in the artifacts that already exist, like trash cans, park
> benches, and how they will be mapped or reappropriated into a playful
> network of digital life on the streets."
> Call it the "new new urbanism," a fusion of telecommunications
> technology and urban design that is at once a 21st century zeitgeist
> and a familiar riff on the age-old interface between cities and
> technology. "From an urban design perspective, a lot of technologists
> are just discovering public space," says Dennis Frenchman, chairman of
> the master of city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of
> Technology. "It's an old story that goes back hundreds of years." A
> consultant on Seoul's Digital Media City, Frenchman himself is part of
> a very new story. The DMC will incorporate all-digital signage, with
> programming capacity accessible to the public, personal positioning
> services, intelligent street lamps and transparent storefronts that
> will reveal a building's inner uses as well as real-time Web feeds
> from sister cities.
> The overall purpose of the DMC design, Frenchman says, is to infuse
> life on the street with multiple layers of meaning. "We're in a
> transitional moment," he hastens to add. "Huge kinds of things are
> To use the Wi-Fi location-based vernacular, several factors
> triangulate the growing relationship between urban design and computer
> science. First, having taken over the home and the office, the
> technology industry has little virgin territory to conquer except the
> public realm. Second, until recently, there wasn't the technological
> capacity to do much computing on city streets and sidewalks -- the
> devices were too big and the network applications not big enough.
> Third, it turns out that virtual reality, when it comes right down to
> it, just can't compete with the immediacy and sentience of real-time,
> real-place encounters.
> In the 1980s, technologists and urban planners began to look at
> virtual communities as a new form of urbanism, says Anthony Townsend,
> a research scientist who teaches in both the urban planning and the
> telecommunications departments. "But they very quickly realized that
> it wasn't that interesting," he says. "There are some indirect
> linkages between the desktop web and what goes on every day in urban
> spaces, but not really very tight linkages." Today, he says, the
> proliferation of wireless technologies has led to more direct
> interactions between cities and networked spaces. "What's happening
> now is that technology and industry are adapting to us," Townsend
> said. "Instead of us becoming global beings, technology is reorienting
> around the way we are: visual, local, tactile."
> In an article written last spring for the architecture journal Praxis,
> Townsend offers a primer on new digital technologies, categorizing
> them according to four different functional applications: mobile
> communications, positioning services, digital displays and urban
> documentation. Deployed in urban spaces, these technologies ultimately
> sort themselves out according to long-standing debates about the
> nature of people, place and community. Ask today's tech researchers
> about the next big thing, and instead of obscure lectures on the radio
> frequency spectrum you'll hear invocations to '60s situationist
> concepts of "derive" -- urban flows -- or the neotraditional ideas of
> Jane Jacobs, whose seminal work, "The Death and Life of Great American
> Cities," focused on the dense, diverse and random encounters that
> support thriving urban neighborhoods.
> "I'll tell you the truth of the matter -- it ain't rocket science to
> figure out how to do this," drawls Scott Shamp, director of the New
> Media Institute at the University of Georgia, which set up a Wireless
> Athens Georgia (WAG) zone last summer covering all 24 blocks of Athens
> and the university campus. The project catalyzed NMI's Mobile
> Multimedia Consortium, a cooperative effort involving students,
> faculty and consultants along with five private industry partners:
> Intel ExecuTrain, XcelleNet, Air2Web and Hewlett-Packard.
> Since the WAG zone -- also known as the Cloud at Athens -- launched
> last June, says Shamp, he's been getting calls from people all over
> the world who want to set up similar networks. "People said: 'We want
> to know what access points you're using, what protocols you're using;
> tell me how you're mounting them on the poles,'" says Shamp. "But what
> was most important was not that they understood the technology, but
> that we turned it into something that enhanced the community."
> Registered users take advantage of the Cloud's interactive software to
> outline preferences regarding specific businesses; then in downtown
> Athens, they can receive information -- via PDAs, laptops and cellular
> phones -- about bands, menu specials or discounts at various stores.
> So far, the Cloud sounds like just another vehicle for advertising,
> but the goal, Shamp emphasizes, is to invigorate a local business
> economy by providing community content and applications. "Otherwise,"
> he says. "you can easily make an argument that somebody goes into
> downtown Athens, gets out that laptop, goes to Amazon to buy that book
> instead of walking two blocks and buying that book from a local
> Like a street or a building, WAG zone access points actually inhabit
> part of the physical infrastructure, orienting the Cloud user to
> specific resources within the community. "A huge part of this is
> connecting up the information with the location and making it
> place-and-time relevant," Shamp said. "To experience it, you actually
> have to be in downtown Athens." Another site-specific application --
> customized for the social life of a student -- is Friend Finder, a
> Cloud service designed by University of Georgia art, business and
> music students. "I can come into downtown Athens with a PDA, send a
> text message that I'm going to be in Blue Sky Coffee for two hours,
> then turn it off and put it in my pocket," explains Shamp. "Then when
> one of my buddies comes into downtown, he can use the WAG zone to find
> out where his friends are."
> Global positioning systems embedded in mobile devices add yet another
> spatial dimension to virtual technologies. As Townsend points out, in
> cellphone-packing Tokyo, GPS chips are already embedded in most mobile
> devices, creating hordes of "smart mobs" who navigate the densely
> built -- and inhabited -- city through use of custom maps and
> buddy-finder applications. More recently, researchers at Intel's
> Seattle lab have developed a Wi-Fi positioning system called Place Lab
> that doesn't require extra hardware to install in mobile devices.
> "As computing moves off the desktop into the environment, you and I
> are going to own a large number of computationally enabled devices,"
> says Anthony LaMarca, a Place Lab researcher. That's going to require
> a qualitative shift in how we interact with technology. "It's not
> going to be that every computationally enabled device is going to be
> able to command your attention," he says. "The devices you own and
> encounter in densely populated urban environments are going to have to
> make decisions on their own. For that to happen, the devices need
> context. And for a mobile device, location is one of the key pieces of
> Hewlett-Packard's Urban Tapestries project in Bristol, U.K., takes
> finder and navigator functions to yet another level: leveraging
> Wi-Fi-enabled networks to allow users to digitally tag real locations
> with text and images. Thus you can wave your mobile phone at a tagged
> restaurant to pick up reviews left by previous clients, or download
> digital audio tours as you wend your way through a museum. Other labs
> are developing "smart place" services based on detection of embedded
> radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Then there's the inverse
> of location-based services, otherwise known as "computer enhanced
> location" technologies. At the 2003 UbiComp conference, former Intel
> researcher Joe McCarthy debuted three "place augmented" prototypes
> based on scanning and displaying digital profiles -- with information
> about personal and professional interests -- contained in wearable
> RFID tags.
> "We are just beginning to scratch the surface of this," says McCarthy,
> who left Intel last month to launch his own company, Interrelativity.
> "You can imagine scenarios where this is used at work, especially in
> large organizations with a lot of nameless faces. It gives people
> something to talk about and recognize that they have more in common
> than they thought. It also has a lot of potential for coffeehouses and
> other so-called third places."
> If the 21st century digital city raises serious questions about
> surveillance and information overload, the flip side is that mobile
> technologies put more eyes and feet on the street, a benchmark for
> success in any urban place. In fact, one of the paradoxes of digitized
> urban space is its apparent affinity for traditional urban and
> neighborhood aesthetics -- not the soulless supermalls and virtual
> suburbs one might expect. The design of Seoul's Digital Media City,
> for example, reflects an earlier era of narrow streets, dense
> alleyways and pedestrian plazas. Or consider the Intel People and
> Practices lab in Hillsboro, Ore., where researcher Michele Chang has
> designed a hybrid street game -- with real and virtual components --
> steeped in nostalgia for old-fashioned street play such as hopscotch,
> kick the can and stickball.
> "Street games, this really rich city practice, have all but
> disappeared," she says. "It's because cities have become more
> regimented, anonymous and commercialized." If some might blame
> computer games for taking kids off the streets, Chang wants to
> leverage digital spaces to counter what she calls the prevalence of
> "heads-down computing." Intended as a research tool to map urban
> practices, her digital street game assigns players random combinations
> of objects, practices and places to document stunts on the streets of
> New York. "The idea is very much technology is the medium and the city
> is the canvas," she explains. "The street game is a platform for
> creativity that randomly sets out different ways of discovering your
> The neotraditional bent of the postmodern city perhaps explains the
> attraction of wireless technologies for more conventional urbanists
> working to mitigate the problem of place in American life. "Anything
> that's networked tends to work better where there are lots and lots of
> people," says John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president
> of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that supports
> walkable neighborhoods and high-density, mixed-use development. "So
> Wi-Fi supports urbanism; it's one of the technologies that enhances
> it, unlike the interstate highway system that undermines the density
> of cities."
> Wireless zones, says Ethan Kent, a program manager at New York's
> Project for Public Spaces, give people a reason to use public space
> "in an era when there are more reasons to be in our houses, offices
> and cars." Pointing to light-emitting-diode displays in Times Square
> -- in particular a Reuters sign that offers live news and photo feeds
> -- Kent said digital display technologies that reveal a building's
> inner uses offer the greatest potential for enlivening public spaces.
> Ultimately, the reaction of the urban design and planning community to
> telecommunications trends raises the question: Who is the driving
> force behind the 21st century digital city? The correct answer is not
> the Project for Public Spaces -- or any planning organization, for
> that matter. Think of it this way, says Townsend. "Intel is the
> General Motors of the 21st century. It's very influential."
> Backed by the big bucks, technology researchers are devouring tomes
> related to the theory of place. For their part, (underfunded) planners
> have yet to develop a comprehensive approach to emerging mobile and
> wireless technologies. An embryonic field, technology planning usually
> focuses on building an infrastructure network -- such as expanding
> municipal Wi-Fi zones -- or responding to citizen concerns about
> cellphone towers and radiation, says Scott Page, a Philadelphia urban
> planner who recently launched his own company, Interface Studio. "It's
> unfortunate that the planning profession has turned more of a blind
> eye to the potential of emerging technologies than they could have,"
> he says. Urban telecommunications strategy needs to do more than plan
> for "lead users," he says. "You want to be feasible, not utopian, not
> just throw out a bunch of ideas and hope that everyone is going to own
> a cellphone in five years," he says, "because that's not going to be
> the case."
> In conjunction with a local nonprofit, Page recently completed a
> comprehensive technology strategy for a distressed neighborhood in
> northern Philadelphia, including a community technology center where
> Temple University faculty will teach kids GIS (geographic information
> system) skills to build a database for the neighborhood, and public
> art that will double as a digital bulletin board accessible from a
> public place. "Technology becomes a visible part of a community's
> revitalization, and you get exposure to people who have never had
> exposure," he says.
> In January 2005, MIT's Sensible Cities Lab and Center for Real Estate
> are hosting a digital city symposium bringing together real estate
> companies, tech companies, urban planners and designers, and cities
> that partner with tech companies. At the September 2004 UbiComp
> conference held in Nottingham, England, Intel's Eric Paulos
> co-organized an Urban Frontiers Workshop that brought together
> technologists, urban designers, geographers and architects to examine
> the ways mobile and wireless computing will be integrated into the
> urban landscape.
> Perhaps more than any other project, the Urban Frontiers Workshop
> suggests that trends within the digital city movement mirror
> long-standing distinctions in the urban planning community: between
> those who view cities as compartmentalized centers of production and
> efficiency, and those who view urban spaces as a kind of barely
> organized chaos, favoring unpredictable encounters between diverse
> social groups. Thus on one side you have the Place Labs and the Friend
> Finder applications; on the other you have the street games and what
> Paulos calls "urban probes." These include a digitally augmented
> garbage can he designed to capture the pattern, flow and personal
> stories connected to trash usage and a "familiar strangers" project, a
> mobile phone application that logs and records the presence of people
> we see every day -- at the bus stop, in the grocery store -- but with
> whom we do not interact.
> "Probably the big thing was try to bring the discussion away from the
> immediacy of things that promote efficiency or productivity," says
> Paulos, who cites influences such as the situationists, who staged
> unpredictable street performances, and Kevin Lynch, whose seminal
> planning book, "The Image of the City," exposed the difference between
> people's mental maps of a city and the physical plan. "Even though
> these are important goals, it's important to acknowledge that things
> we actually cherish in life in home or the city are not always about
> efficiency. They are intangible; they get at emotional experiences.
> It's what constitutes the richness of people's lives."
> Toggled together, the pragmatic and playful digital city applications
> will change both the shape and the experience of public space. As for
> value judgments, it is too early to say. If the cellphone, as
> Goldberger and many others complain, is a technology that isolates
> people on the street, it is also a tool to engineer face-to-face
> encounters. If a pervasive silicon-embedded environment suggests an
> Orwellian politics of place, it also points toward a democratization
> of technology, an era in which individuals and communities control
> their digital future.
> Townsend tells a story of being in Seoul during the 1988 Summer
> Olympics, where 500,000 people would gather to watch soccer on a
> four-story Jumbotron on top of a building. "It's a shared event, a
> shared sense of space," says Townsend, "where people choose to make a
> statement by being in large group."
> "Emerging technologies are an enabler," says Page. "They can reinforce
> anything we want to accomplish." Besides, he adds, "it's traditional
> that cities change and adapt to technology. It's what cities are
> partially there for."
> - - - - - - - - - - - -
> About the writer
> Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Ore.
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