How The Web Fits Our Cities: What I Learned from Cory Doctorow, Sara Diamond and Mark Surman

Last week I attended an excellent panel discussion entitled “How Can We Build A City That Thinks Like The Web?” It was part of a conference/festival at the University of Toronto (May 28 to June 5, 2011)  called Subtle Technologies: Where Art and Science Meet.

Three “big brains” (as moderator Dan Misener called them) convened to discuss the issue of cities and the Internet: Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla (creator of FireFox); Sara Diamond, digital-media artist and researcher, and president of OCAD University (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design); and sci-fi author, Boing Boing co-editor and renowned blogger Cory Doctorow.

I went to the discussion mainly to hear Doctorow, as I have read several of his columns with interest and pleasure, but happily found that the other two panelists were as interesting as he was. I was particularly intrigued by what Dr. Diamond had to say, with her prodigious knowledge about the intersections among art (and artists) and technology, and the connections of these conjunctions with social history and design.

What I heard that evening surprised, worried and encouraged me, and it made me think about potentials for the Internet that I had never previously considered. In fact, I’ve been thinking about some of them all week. If a successful presentation makes you see the world in a new way, then this panel was a success for me.

The title of the discussion was inspired by a comment made by Surman in 2008, at which time he had been feeling optimistic about the ways in which Washington, D.C. was opening its data bases to the public, contributing to “a buzz around the city as an organism.” By last Saturday, he was feeling less excited about the speed of the transition to municipal-data accessibility: with a few notable exceptions (Boston being one, he said), the provision of municipal databases for public access has progressed “more by bits and pieces than leaps and bounds.” Still waiting for “the tip” (the reference pleased me as I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book),  Surman joined his fellow panelists in pointing out the social, cultural and other benefits that can accrue through citizen access to public databases—and some of the downsides.

The topics the panelists discussed fell into three general categories: 1) the potential for the Internet to make citizens into more active members of local communities; 2) the conflicting interests of personal privacy and personal security, particularly those associated with advances in surveillance technology (these affect more than municipal contexts, of course); and 3) some really interesting Internet-based urban initiatives that are already underway.

Here are some highlights:

Surf Locally

The panelists discussed:

  • The ways in which citizens can work with Internet data to make their communities and governments (municipal and others) work better, citing as an example a traffic-monitoring experiment in Galway, Ireland, where citizens provide real-time information on traffic congestion on the motorways for the benefit of other drivers;
  • The Internet’s capacity to galvanize large numbers of people around local issues (such as the recent rash of on-line/social-media photos and complaints by Toronto Transit customers), bringing matters of public concern to a point of visibility where they can no longer be ignored by bureaucrats and elected officials;
  • How public access to aggregate data — on neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood power usage, for example — can encourage residents to act: by, for example, reducing their power consumption. “If we can actually see online the impact of turning off a light,” one panelist said, “we’re more likely to do it.” The importance of releasing only aggregate data in this and other contexts was stressed: knowing exactly how much power your next-door neighbour is using can only lead to conflict;
  • How the Internet has led in some cases to what Diamond described as “intense localization,” facilitating such initiatives as community gardens and even block parties. In Surman’s words, “Smaller groups with fewer resources can achieve more than ever before.”

The Individual vs. The Machine

  • Cory Doctorow, who was born and raised in Toronto but now lives in London, England, wants to see a future in which people are “scanners rather than barcodes.” Humans, he points out, have the capacity to explain and interpret what we see, and designers and individuals should be thinking about how our mobile devices have the capacity to provide us with data and information that we can put to use as individuals, rather than expanding the ways in which they act like implanted wildlife-tracking devices. Doctorow says this requires a shift in attitude: we need to start thinking about the information our mobile devices store over the course of the day that can help us to understand what has happened to us – sort of the way a journal does. He suggests that we should be framing the development of both hardware and apps in a context that puts us, as thinking beings, at the centre;
  • In order to capitalize on the potential humans can bring to information, Doctorow points out, we need network services that provide no caps on data, and do not prefer one type of data over another: we must be allowed to be the filters. He said, “We need a world where the majority of us have access to the available data, and know how to get at it”;
  • Doctorow also raised the matter of the conflicting goals and purposes of technology intended to protect individuals and families from criminals such as burglars, stalkers and pedophiles, and the invasions of our privacy. He cited the irony of the situation in which he finds himself when he walks his child to day-care from his home in London: he passes about 40 closed-circuit tvs (CCTVs) en route, which have been installed for the security of the property owners but end up monitoring him and his daughter, too—recording their passage through the neighbourhood—but when he gets to the school he is not allowed to take a photo of his own child anywhere on the property because of the school’s child-protection concerns;
  • The ultimate question is how we can keep our own data under our own control — although Sara Diamond also wondered whether the next generation (the one that has grown up with the Internet) cares as much as their elders do about privacy issues in such arenas as social media. The younger members of the audience seemed to suggest that they do still want to protect their privacy (giving only first names when they went to the mike, for example, or in one case an email-type nickname). In regard to data control, Surman pointed out that we need to turn the existing paradigm of information acquisition upside down: “Now as a society, and as local business people, we get a lot of benefit from the proliferation of specific user data. For example, it allows us increasingly refined location-based marketing. Now we need to provide evidence of ways in which controlling the distribution of our own personal data can offer us benefits”;
  • The matter of data collection, even in aggregated format, continues to be a concern.  “Aggregating data for no good reason almost always leads to a leak,” Doctorow pointed out.

Cool Stuff

  • Sara Diamond pointed out the artistic possibilities of open access to data: she said that “amazing stuff” has come out of “open-data hackathons” – such as tracking the activities of local humane societies;
  • Diamond also mentioned what can happen when artists are involved as artists in efforts to bring about change—the Surveillance Camera Players, for example (among other subversive activities) create artistic performances in front of the CCTV cameras that have proliferated in urban areas since 9-11;
  • Diamond also talked about the potential of data visualization in social contexts in urban areas, mentioning the work of architect and activist Laura Kurgan who studied data in new ways to relate incarcerations with federal census blocks—showing that the enormous costs of incarceration go to residents of a disproportionately few number of neighbourhoods—in a project entitled Million Dollar Blocks;
  • A great example of local initiatives facilitated by the Internet is [murmur] (So cool! And it’s not just in Toronto. Check out the other cities). The website describes it thus: “a documentary oral-history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place.” As Diamond pointed out, [murmur] allows the remapping of geographical areas, creating the overlay of a virtual space of memory and history on our actual neighbourhoods;
  • Several panelists mentioned Toronto’s new Bixi Bike program. The status of the bike stands are monitored digitally and, Misener pointed out, within a few days of the program’s establishment someone had mashed up a map of stands where the bikes were out – an act of citizen ingenuity that suddenly provided us with a new way of looking at the data — and the city.

It is human participation and ingenuity that is going to make the Internet an essential partner in local initiatives. The “web and the city” panelists agreed such enterprise will also add a level of beauty and art to our worlds (both its “meet spaces” and its “techno spaces”), as we–for example–communicate information online about our neighbourhoods, and our memories of those neighbourhoods. But it is essential to the range and success of creative local projects that citizens have open access to all the data that is relevant to their undertakings. Our governments can help us make our communities better, more interesting and more beautiful places by sharing the aggregate data they currently control on issues that affect us.

“Structures of control are what have made our cities ugly,” Sarman said. “Hope lies where it has always been: in our capacity to provide the human overlay.”

Note: My interest in the individual uses of digital technology and the Internet is explored further on my Militant Writer blog, most recently in an article entitled “As Publishers, Agents and Booksellers (unfortunately) (for them) Go The Way of the Dodo, Writers Learn To Fly.

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One response to “How The Web Fits Our Cities: What I Learned from Cory Doctorow, Sara Diamond and Mark Surman

  1. Mark this down as “I wish I was there” … but at least I can follow you over at militant writer.
    I’ve been thinking about this a bit too and your penultimate paragraph about human participation also caught my interest. The idea I have been working with is an approach to architecture and urban design in which ‘the designer’ does not design a building or a city but an ‘instrument’ to be used by the building or city inhabitants to transform their environment themselves. Not so much crowdsourcing but more ‘emergence’ with active agents.
    The instruments in this case are both business-centric and app driven – both, in a sense, social marketplaces that promote built environment ideals.
    USNetZero at http://amonle.com/#1378916/USNetZero
    and hu.bb at http://amonle.com/#1378875/hu-bb
    have a look

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