22 October 2009

iPhones and the (inter)face of the city

A provocative statement from Benjamin H. Bratton:

An experiment: one half of all architects and urbanists in the entire world should, as of now, stop designing new buildings and new developments altogether. Instead they should invest the historical depth and nuance of their architectural imaginations into the design and programming of new software that provides for the better use of structures and systems we already have. It is a simple matter of good content managment.

This quotation begins Bratton's article iPhone City (v.2008) which addresses the topic of urban 'interfaciality': the ways in which we interact with and influence the urban environment. He reminds us that mobile phones are the new computers - more widely owned, and offering more radical possibilities than 'PC + internet' in terms of bringing information into the real spatial environment, into being a part of where-you-are-now. Architects and planners, as the shapers and organisers of urban space, consequently need to engage as much with technological interfaces as with physical ones.

In more down-to-earth language, they shouldn't just be building more public loos but also designing iPhone apps that tell you where the nearest public loo is (with/out babychanging, wheelchair access or a drinking water fountain), as well as some kind of SMS messaging service that lets people tell the council when the toilets need extra cleaning or graffiti scrubbed off the walls. And how about micropayments to encourage private businesses (shops, cafes etc) to open their loos up to the public, or a localised version of TheyWorkForYou.com that lets you quickly tell the council that where you are right now is a public space inexplicably lacking a loo, and needing one built (or a bike rack or a cashpoint or a pothole mending)?

On this interaction of geography and technology, Bratton writes:

Like children learning a new skill, we learn by gaming how to strategize and modulate bodily gestures with environmental spaces, to control nearness and remoteness at once, both as individual passengers of the city and as social groups in emergence. We learned to point & click, to touch & pinch, and are learning to wave & poke. The richness of this appears in the details. As computation becomes a more pervasive ingredient in the fabric of the habitat, the advent of locative media sugegsts the need for an urban operating system(s) that can weave together the multitudinous computational events into a graceful, programmable pattern.

Bratton's iPhone City (v.2008) reminded me of the Urban Tick blog. Here Fabian Neuhaus (of UCL CASA) talks about mapping the rhythmns of daily life - be that by time-lapse photography, GPS route tracing, or (here is the connection!) using an iPhone.

This post on Layar illustrates really well these ideas of technological 'interfaciality' with the city. Essentially Layar is an application which visualises geo-data provided by a wide range of sources: Twitter, Flikr, Open Street Map, even Wikipedia. Though crude, it's an early attempt at overlaying virtual information over the iPhone's camera image of the space in front of you - here, then, the possibility of substantialising 'the cloud' of digital data; of making the virtual immanent and real.

What I really like about Bratton's article is his focus on the materiality of this interface; it is this that's critical in closing that gap between real and virtual:

"Enclosed in sensate glass, the iPhone interface and hardware blend into what the user perceives as a single dynamic form or field. ...The iPhone GUI is filled with things not metaphors; it's a tactile movie shell to be pushed and pulled as real, rubbery stuff. The iPhone GUI seems illuminated from within, not as a layer but as an organic expression; it has faciality. This tangibility and this anthropomorphology are what makes it work, socially and psychologicaclly, as an interface to the world directly, not to the network indirectly; to the real not to the iconic."


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's possible to oppose the radical potential of phones to that of internet-connected PCs, because most of the politically interesting things that people are doing with phones, from coordinating and filming protests to mapping disasters, use phones to connect to internet services that are also accessible from, and potentially hosted on, PCs. In that sense phones aren't the new computers; phone+PC+internet is the new PC+internet.

But I'm not optimistic about what happens if we remove the PC. As long as phones remain locked down in hardware and software by manufacturers and service providers, the relatively open PC is crucial for enabling them to be used in radical ways. As Zittrain argues, an internet of iPhones would be a tightly controlled space. So if the PC's really going to disappear, we don't need more architects - what we urgently need (but then I'd argue that architecture needs this too) is more hackers.

Jay said...

Just caught this in old BLDGBLOG post, Phantom City (1st October 09):

"On one level, of course, it's worth asking whether or not it's a problem that all of these new and exciting visions for 21st-century urban life are only accessible to people rich enough to afford iPhones – but, on another level, why not use the tools that exist, no matter how expensive they might be, in order to try out new models for historical and spatial exploration?

... But do we really want to build and promote the city of tomorrow, if it's effectively inaccessible to a particular class of consumers?

Yet, one could argue, this is exactly what we've done with cars; the spatial needs of the automobile industry have shaped our cities far more than the cultural and economic – and possibly even neurological – needs of those cities' inhabitants. So will iPhones do to urban information what cars have done to the streetscape?"