The Dawn of Digital Urbanism

Blog Like You Give a Damn put up a great post last month on recent advances in online urban cartography (like Google's über-controvertial Street Views) and how these new digital reinterpretations of the world are moving us toward William Gibson's vision of cyberspace as a physically inhabitable place. From BLYGAD:

"Unlike the cyberspace that Gibson describes in [his book] Neuromancer:

'...a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...' (69)

this new cyberspace will be much more familiar to us. It will look and behave in ways we understand - dangerous because the line between real and virtual will be that much more hazed. As the possibilities for exploration, learning, and knowledge building expand - so too will the potential for surveillance, misuse, and abuse."

Cyberspace is Shangri-la for the internet generation: a mythic miracle of a place that we are sure exists just over the horizon, within a whisper's length of our grasp. Each person has their own idea of this place painted in their mind, but I think the truth about an inhabitable Cyberspace is that it will be very much like Gibson's fantastical vision. It will also be very familiar to us, as BLYGAD predicts. In fact, our physical reality is already merging with its virtual counterpart. For, as the hyperconnectivity brought on by the rise of the internet becomes integrated into the urban fabric, understanding of one's physical environment is becoming more inextricably tied to one's understanding of the web itself. The melding of the physical and virtual (cyber) worlds is already taking place on both ends, with each side moving quickly toward the other. Eventually, of course, they'll meet somewhere in the middle.

We can see this trend online as the "clusters and constellations of data" described by Gibson are being harnessed to create a sort of digital urbanism, recreating various aspects of the physical world for Cyberspace. Akamai recently launched a tool -- Visualizing the Internet -- that has been described as a weather report for the web. Meanwhile, an online art project called We Feel Fine (profiled in the June issue of Metropolis) mimics the richly frenetic atmosphere of a busy public space without actually replicating any of the recognizable features of physical places. If the aforementioned Google Street Views is representational digital urbanism, We Feel Fine is the presentational version, capturing the essence of public space in a wholly new way, reorganizing the traditional tokens of public spaces (trading visual diversity for emotional diversity) into a "place" that could only exist online.

Good old-fashioned bricks and mortar urbanism, meanwhile, is getting a digital overhaul as handheld, web-enabled devices and wireless internet for laptop users takes the edge off of some this system's perennial problems. I'll take any chance I can get to highlight Urbanspoon, a site that catalogs every restaurant in several major US cities (DC was recently added), aggregates reviews from major websites, allows for user ratings and reviews, and provides neighborhood breakdowns via kickass "nighttime" maps that show the locations of all of the cities' eateries. Finding a great restaurant has never been so easy. Another genius web service, recently covered on Springwise, is MizPee, a San Francisco-based service that allows users to access a list of nearby public restrooms, eliminating one of the chief drawbacks of pedestrianism.

As cities become more digitally enabled, they are also starting to bleed together. Geographic constraints have been removed from art and culture in the same way that they were from commerce. Even street fashion has crossed over into the digital realm. As the David Report...well...reports, cities across the globe will be represented in "Street Clash," a blog where the tragically hip artkids from dozens of cities will go head-to-head in an effort to determine which city has the ultimate street style. The irony of this is that, while individuals can rep their hometowns in a token sense, they are still independent human beings free to change their geography at any time. That is to say that what is happening here is the formation of an international street style, as a handful of people cannot be representative of an entire urban population. Hipster fashion has been globalized. Whether this is good, bad, or just hilarious is still a question mark.

As BLYGAD's post points out, the transition of the physical world into the Cyberspace of the future could open a Pandora's Box of new social, ethical, and safety concerns. Pittsblog reported yesterday on a proposal from the city of Pittsburgh for a massive urban surveillance system. Mike Madison, who writes the blog, had this to say: "Hopefully the public will respond...to the proposal's Benthamite implications...It's one thing (though it's not necessarily a good thing) to be watched when you know that you're being watched. It's something else entirely -- and rarely a good thing -- to be watched all the time, when you don't necessarily know it" (emphasis his). Madison then asks the age-old question, "who will watch the watchers?" This, I think, will be the most fundamental challenge of Cyberspace: in a universally connected world, the unwatched watcher has more power than ever, as they will have unprecedented access to the masses.

As the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous and reality moves toward the virtual, the emergent Cyberspace will almost certainly take on an urban form -- though it remains to be seen whether it will lean more heavily on the physical or virtual world. Either way, geography will become less and less binding as cities learn to connect in ever more complex ways, and we will likely come to understand urbanism as something very different from what it is now. Shangri-la is upon us.

(Photo from Flickr user 3views.)

New Urban Cartography (Blog Like You Give a Damn)

Visualizing the Internet (Akamai)

We Feel Fine


Mobile Loo Locator (Springwise)

Street Clash (David Report)

The Pittsburgh Panopticon (Pittsblog)

No comments: