Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Imagining global space, part 1

The world’s most populous metropolitan area is Tokyo, with around 35 million people. That’s comparable to California, the most populous US state. Texas, the number two state with 24.3 million citizens, is slightly larger than Seoul and Mexico City (with 20.5 million, give or take). I happen to be American, but for those of you in the rest of the world, Tokyo’s population is similar to that of Canada, while Seoul and Mexico City are a little bigger than Sri Lanka and a bit smaller than Australia.

If social network users were citizens, then Bebo and LinkedIn would have similar populations to Tokyo, Canada and California. BlackPlanet, Last.fm, Mixi and Skyrock would be about the same size as Seoul, Mexico City, Texas, Sri Lanka and Australia. You could compare Orkut to France and Iran. Windows Live would be nestled between Mexico and Japan. The biggest social networks, MySpace and Facebook, would both be larger than Indonesia but smaller than the United States. China and India don’t seem to have any neighbors. Yet.

By 2015, Mumbai and Lagos will be jostling with Seoul for second largest metropolis after Tokyo. Dhaka, Sao Paulo and Karachi will also join the 20-million-plus club. We don’t yet know who or what the Mumbais, Lagoses, Dhakas, Sao Paulos, Karachis, Chinas or Indias of social networking will be. Or even if the social networking paradigm will have any relevance in 2015. But I think it would be safe to assume that more people will be more connected in ways that transcend current spatial, cultural and technological constraints.

I recently came across two metaphors that might suggest a direction for this discourse. First, the Planetary Skin Initiative, a collaboration between NASA and Cisco to integrate “petabytes of unstructured data” from ground-, sea-, air-, and space-based systems, allowing “real-time situational analysis” and creating an “intuitive cognitive decision space for trusted communities.” OK, so it’s SkyNet, but note the implication that Earth is an organism. The second item is Joshua-Michéle Ross’s concept of a Social Nervous System, which he suggests is emerging from current social networks and “coordinates (and sometimes directs) physical activity in the world.” I guess that would be the difference between autonomic and somatic nervous systems.

Is it useful to imagine our world as an organism? What are the implications in terms of politics, business, and civil society? Organisms can be highly adaptable, intelligent and resourceful. They are susceptible to injury and disease, particularly if they are frail or exhausted. They require nourishment. They produce waste. They age and die, and if they don’t reproduce they become extinct. A threat to one part or the failure of one system can be catastrophic for the whole. An organism’s skin and nervous system can help it protect itself, learn about its environment, and communicate. How might these and other metaphors enrich our understanding of - and the effectiveness of our actions in - different kinds of spaces?

Friday, 13 March 2009

Imagining urban space, part 1

I invite you to take an imaginary trip to your favorite city. Imagine visiting one of your favorite spaces in that city. Are you in a private or public space? Is its character architectural or natural? Is your space open or enclosed? Is it intimate? Grand? Quiet? Noisy? Is it underground or up high? Can you see water? The horizon? Are there other people there? If so, what are they doing? Is it day or night?

I chose the Malecón in Havana. It’s a Friday night and there are crowds of people playing music, singing, laughing, drinking rum... The sky is filled with stars. Pitted façades are succumbing to salt and pollution on one side, while bits of neoclassical balustrade are swept into the sea by crashing waves on the other. Coco-taxis and creatively repaired classic American cars stream by, adding a hint of gasoline to the sultry air.

Close your eyes and take a moment or two to familiarize yourself with the sights, sounds, smells, temperature, and any other distinctive characteristics of your own imagined space.

Now, I’d like to ask you to come up with a metaphor for your space in relation to the larger context of your city. For example, if your city were a body, then its parks might be lungs, or its subterranean infrastructure might be bowels. If your city were a factory or machine, then it might have an assembly line, storage facilities, gears, valves, etc. If your city were an ecosystem, it might contain native or invasive species, or it could be the site of cyclical processes. If your city were some form of media, then it might have a narrative, plot points, characters, scenes, dialogue, locations, etc. If your city were a network, it might have data streams, conduits, fiber optic cables, satellite dishes, microwave antennae, circuits, RAM, ROM, storage devices, processors, a user interface, etc.

These kinds of metaphors have historically been used by social scientists and policy makers to discuss perceived urban problems and to formulate solutions. Insomuch as they constitute conceptual frameworks, they have influenced the shaping of urban space - and therefore our experience of everyday life. My theory is that these metaphors tend to follow recent cultural, scientific and technological developments.

So what’s next? Nanotechnology? Genetics? Theoretical physics? The geospatial grid? Augmented reality? I’m curious about our future urban imaginaries, and their spatial and experiential implications...

Friday, 27 February 2009

Spacebook, part 1

For your consideration: headlines, freshly mashed from the last 24 hours.

Headline 1: Antony Gormley wants you for the fourth plinth.

Headline 2: Facebook gets democratic - encourages voting on terms of service.

Mash-up: The dawn of real time social and spatial democracy.

Channels of communication are open, and meaningful dialogue is flowing. Ordinary people are capable of influencing the course of distant events as they unfold. Power structures and structures of physical matter are increasingly transparent. We can “see” inside governments and companies, as well as around corners and through walls. Facebook is undertaking an experiment in governance, and Antony Gormley is undertaking an experiment in the appropriation of public space. The tapestry weaving itself from these threads is going to be very interesting. I’m excited. Are you?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Collective transformation, part 1

Something quite extraordinary happened recently, and I’ve got proof. I know we’ve all been distracted by more pressing concerns since then: what Michael Phelps smoked, the global economic meltdown, and a variety of other headline-grabbers. But for the first two days of February 2009, Londoners lived in an ephemeral fairytale (for most, and I acknowledge nightmare for some). Yet however temporary, the transformation of London’s public spaces and social norms was very real. In this great metropolis, transport infrastructure came to a standstill. We were forced to experience our city on a different scale (local), and at a different pace (slow). No dashing here, no rushing there, just a few cars, no buses, no tube. Citizens brave enough to venture out from warm comfortable interiors were rewarded with fancifully surreal urban landscapes and sociable neighbours with whom to share their bemused marveling at the unfamiliarly familiar. We became both spectacle and spectator in a grand cosmopolitan folly, re-experiencing our city space together. It almost feels like it didn’t really happen now, as if it were some sort of mass hallucination. But it’s not just the odd remaining patch of snow in a shady corner that confirms this wasn’t merely a collective dream. Hundreds of people took thousands of pictures - of the views out their windows, their quiet streets, their frolicking pets, their friends and families, their snow sculptures, and many other scenes both quotidian and iconic - to document this once-in-twenty-year event. You can see them here.