This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Weeks 51-53: Friendly platforms, private maps and philosophical excursions,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 5th of January 2012.

Hello! Happy new year! We certainly hope you had a relaxing break. Just spinning up the drive here.

» The past few weeks have seen some interesting and welcome developments on Urbanflow Chicago, including a departure of one of the parties that had been proposed to deliver the hardware on which Urbanflow would be running.

If I don’t sound particularly concerned about this, it’s because I’m not. We’ve always conceived of Urbanflow as a service, and while I don’t think it would be correct to describe that service as entirely agnostic to the hardware and software on which it’s instantiated, we’ve certainly done our level best to keep its options open and varied.

Too, we were having a hard time imagining how we were going to achieve ultralow-latency interactions, and the other measures we regard as benchmarks of acceptably good user experience, on the thin client we’d previously been handed. I have enormous faith in J.D.’s development chops, and in the team’s ability to provide him with maximally elegant components, e.g. memory-parsimonious colorways for map tiles, which becomes significant for a city the size of Chicago. But wresting high performance from a single-core, Celeron-based machine with no onboard graphics acceleration, no local storage, and, charitably, an idiosyncratic implementation of WebKit? What I’m saying is that I don’t doubt our capacity for wizardry, but there are certainly less stressful ways of doing things.

The proposed replacement is based on Android, and relatively speaking, it’s a much friendlier platform. We have, at least, a much easier time seeing how we’re going to get to the kinds of interactions that meet our expectations. So this latest turn is actually quite welcome. Nor, for that matter, would I regard the few weeks we’d lived with the Celeron box as wasted effort. We all refined techniques that allowed us to do more with less, tutored ourselves in the sleight of hand necessary to make the clunky processes underlying interaction at least feel elegant.

It turned out, also, to be relatively easy to port that work to iOS, where Mayo, Leah and J.D. continue to add refinements and nice touches to the interface. This provides us with a very, very helpful interactive sketchpad on which to work out Transitflow UI ideas. (This is the work that was responsible for my first genuine frisson of what it’s going to feel like when we can interact with public objects by tapping on representations of them.)

There have been other developments on the project as well, including the prospect of working closely with two of our favorite design organizations, but more detail on that count will sadly have to wait for a moment at which we can speak freely. (That’s actually my least favorite thing about weeknotes, the occasional necessity of being opaque in describing something we’re really excited by.)

» We’re turning up a deeper issue in our work, regarding who maintains municipal geographic data, and especially which parties maintain such data with the quality of representation and specific attributes necessary to support robust automated routing.

If I can judge fairly from what drifts across our field of vision, it would appear that cities are by and large getting out of this game. They’re no longer allocating resources to producing maps of their own terrain, because they believe Google or Navteq can do it better and cheaper.

This is really where all that neoliberal rhetoric about government sticking to its ostensible “core competencies,” and “getting out of the way of enterprise,” comes home to roost, because at the end of the day those critical assets are owned by concerns who get to determine exactly who can do what with them, and how. The city winds up acquiring map data of its own streets, alleys and sidewalks under a license that permits use for any internal purpose whatsoever, but explicitly forbids its incorporation in public-facing services.

This is why Open Street Map is so important to us and to our work. We don’t believe any municipality should ever be beholden to an outside party for something as basic as a representation of its own terrain. There’s a great deal more to say about this issue, but it’s becoming pivotal to our entire practice, and will therefore get an entire post of its own in the relatively near future.

» I’m delighted to say we’re closing in on finishing the first of the collaborations with Dentsu London we’d mutually announced last March, this one a primer on the effective use of urban screens for information, entertainment, and advertising. This is something I’ve been cowriting with Dentsu’s Chris Heathcote for the better part of a year, and it’s nice to finally be getting to a place with it where near-term release feels like a real prospect.

» The most wonderful thing about the break was that it afforded me (just a little) time to read and think. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking, particularly, about how we conceive of the things we encounter in the world. Are they best described as “objects”? “Events”? “Actors”? “Becomings”?

As academic as it may seem, the question of how to conceptualize the things that exist and how they relate to each other is directly relevant to our work. As designers, I believe we’re obligated to take things seriously, to respect them in their particularity, haecceity, “thisness.” For example, it’s unsatisfying to me when I hear someone discussing the implications for some given environment of installing “an interactive touchscreen.” You wonder if they mean an IR, resistive, capacitive, or projective-capacitive screen, because each of these technologies has discrete consequences for what people can do with and on the surface of a screen, how those people stand in relation to one another, what happens when they move their finger this way and not that. This line of thinking is nothing if not concrete, and it probably doesn’t seem that strange to you that someone in our position would approach the world this way.

But here we stumble. Inasmuch as I believe we ought to be “taking things seriously,” I also believe that nothing achieves its effects in isolation — and this is particularly true of the things we do at Urbanscale. Whether we’re trying to deliver a new kind of stored-value card, an urban-screen interface, an iOS application, or something else, it invariably does work in the world by virtue of being bound up in a technosocial assemblage, an actor-network that yokes these objects with others in a mesh of relation. And these meshes aren’t necessarily homogeneous — in fact, they’re almost certainly woven of the most heterogenous things, operating in a variety or registers, at a multiplicity of scales: technical standards, material qualities, bodies of law and regulation, the physical affordances of the human body.

And wait! We’ve got still another problem, because this focus on things doesn’t seem to account for process, for the flux or continuous unfolding that sure seems to characterize our universe. It also has a hard time with things that transcend ordinary scales of human perception in time, space, or both. Some things belonging to this latter category turn out to be pretty important to our practice — cities, for example.

Maybe this is accounted for by Tim Morton’s notion of “hyperobjects.” These are things that “far outlast most human time scales, or [are] massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience.” That certainly sounds like a reasonable description of a city to me, of that way a city has of absconding from whatever description you try to capture it with. It seems to capture the sense of pulsating, inchoate, protean Londonness, Newyorkness, or Seoulness I experience when I’m in, or think about, these places.

But that, in turn, seems like nothing but process to me, and — as I understand them, anyway — Morton and his peers among the object-oriented thinkers would deny there is any such thing. Someone with a strong object-oriented perspective would argue that the senses of elapse and duration we experience are illusions, that time is nothing but an interpretation of the differential state of the objects we perceive. Accept this perspective, and it folds back onto the design of user experiences in an entirely different way than the process-oriented Deleuzian or De Landan way of constructing the phenomenal world I’m more used to.

This is the furthest thing from abstraction for me. Anybody who sets out to design things and (“therefore”) achieve a set of given effects in the world, it strikes me, certainly ought to have at least some account of these things and the way one imagines they do their work.

Thanks to Anil Bawa-Cavia for pointing me at The Prince and the Wolf, a transcript of Graham Harman’s 2008 conversation with Bruno Latour at the LSE. This and Harman’s book on Latour, Prince of Networks, are the first things I’m reading in my attempt to reconcile the objects of object-oriented ontology with Latour’s actors, which endeavor is what sparked all of the above in the first place. (If anyone’s interested in forming a reading and discussion group around these and related issues, by the way, please do let me know.)

» Logistics: We’re all here and all cranking, ahead of next week’s jaunte to Madrid for a client workshop. Come see us at Temple Bar for our first FRIDAYS AT 7 of 2012 — and bring some cash, ’cause this is the one and only place you’ll be able to pick up your Urbanscale Year One t-shirt, in the fashionable Johnny Cash colorway. Friday, then? Endmark