The Future of the City: a Smart City or a Social City?

Reflect #10 The City as Interface


Several years ago I stumbled upon a column by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in the American magazine Information Week. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the magazine had invited a number of leading pioneers from the world of computing to look back and to look ahead: what had been the most important breakthroughs in the last quarter of a century and, above all, what did the future have in store?

Gates’ column was an eye-opener for me, not so much because of the scenario he outlined but because of the way he did it. Some- what predictably, he began by summarizing the huge progress the computer had made during the last twenty-five yearsa: from expensive mainframes as large as an entire room operable only by specialists, to the affordable personal computers found nowadays in virtually every household, and their ever more awe-inspiring performance, measured in units that are difficult to grasp for ordinary mortals: from kilohertz and bit to gigahertz and terabyte. Impressive, concludes Gates. But, he goes on to say, this is ‘only the beginning . . .’

I believe that we’re entering an era when software will fundamentally transform almost everything we do. The continued growth of processing power, storage, networking, and graphics is making it possible to create almost any device imaginable. But it’s the magic of software that will connect these devices into a seamless whole, making them an indispensable part of our everyday lives.1

In a couple of sentences, Gates sketches a vitally important technological development that forms the basis of this book: following the era of the mainframe and the beige PC box placed on or under our desks, we have now entered a new phase. This time around, the computer is becoming invisible and slowly but surely will permeate every aspect of everyday life.

It is a scenario that many people will recognize. The calculating power of the mobile phone we carry around in our trouser pockets is many times greater than that of the first mainframes. This has enormous consequences for our everyday routines: a text message enables us to reschedule a meeting at the last minute or send a quick personal message to a loved one in between all our activities; our smartphones enable us to conveniently look up information about our surroundings (‘where is the nearest café, restaurant, ATM?’); thanks to navigation systems, we reach our destinations more quickly, especially if the software is geared to receive live traffic updates and it can redirect us so we avoid traffic jams; mobile social networks such as Twitter and Facebook enable people to keep their ‘friends’ constantly informed about where they are, what they are doing and what they think of it all.

These are all examples of urban media: a collective term that I use in this book for media technologies that in one way or another can influence the experience of a physical location. If it is left to Gates and his colleagues, digital technology will become even more closely interwoven with everyday life. Leading computer multi- nationals such as IBM and Cisco are currently developing the infrastructure for the city of the future: they envisage a city crammed with sensors and rapid communication networks; all sorts of ‘intelligent’ technologies will monitor various processes in the city – from traffic circulation to air pollution – and use the collected data to make improvements without human intervention. In his column Gates predicts that ‘software can go places it has never gone before.’ The factory-floor inventory, the amount of cash in the till, potential burglars around your house, the amount of milk in your fridge – in his column, Gates promises that Microsoft will soon be able to monitor it all for us.

The scenario sketched by Gates is interesting but what mainly set me off thinking was the choice of words in his final sentence: thanks to the magic of his software, our lives will soon be even more convenient, more pleasant, more efficient and more agreeable. In that one sentence I suddenly recognized a larger theme I had often encountered in the past. When we talk about new technologies, it is often about their practical application: technology is presented as a convenient solution to real or supposed problems, it promises to make our lives more pleasant and convenient; at the same time, our cities will also become safer, more sustainable and more efficient. In short, technology is an almost inescapable magical power that will improve urban society. But for those who do not believe in magic, this picture mainly raises a number of questions. Sure enough, the new infrastructure of mobile and digital media provides convenient applications for busy city dwellers to organize the practicalities of their lives more efficiently. But what we tend to forget is that this also changes the city as a society. Research has shown that the places we visit, the meanings we attach to them and our contacts with others are all changing because of the rise of mobile media.

This is not necessarily a magical process that simply happens to us. As a community – regardless of our role as designers, citizens, policymakers, or consumers – we can make choices about the way we want to deploy technologies. These choices are, in turn, related to the way we think a city should function as a community: ideology rather than magic is one of the central forces behind the way in which technology changes our lives. However, we rarely encounter this philosophical approach outside the specialized worlds of art and science, and it is precisely this which is the theme of this book. ‘Technology at present is covert philosophy’, argues American communications studies researcher Phil Agre, ‘the point is to make it more openly philosophical.’2 On the one hand technology contains an idea about what the ideal world should look like; on the other hand, the very same technology can also intervene in our everyday world and radically change our experience of and ideas about it. With urban media playing an increasingly prominent role in everyday urban life, it is of great importance to consider this. What are the underlying urban ideals concealed in technologies? And what is the significance of all these new means of communication for urban societies?

In general terms, this debate is currently dominated by two scenarios: the ‘smart city’ and the ‘social city’ scenarios, both of which have their supporters and opponents. The smart city embodies Bill Gates’ scenario: the city is crammed with sensors, software and networks that enable optimal traffic circulation and energy use. The smartphone becomes an intelligent compass, guiding the city dweller through the bustle and chaos of everyday life. The mobile phone is deployed to personalize the urban experience, for example through software that recommends restaurants or shops that fit the user’s profile. It sounds like a splendid vision of the future. Yet this scenario has its critics. American architecture critic Paul Goldberger says that the very media and communication technol- ogies that make life for individual consumers so much easier are a threat to the continued existence of urban society as a whole. Will city dwellers still enter into relationships with their physical surroundings? Will they still participate in community life or will they withdraw completely into the ‘cocoons’ they create with their mobile phones, thereby transforming the city into an extension of their private domains? Goldberger claims that people who walk down the street using their mobile phones are no longer participat- ing in street life: they are there in body but not in spirit. And it is this very attitude that poses a threat to poses a threat to how the city functions as a democratic community:

(. . .) the street is the ultimate public space and walking along it is the defining urban experience. It is all of us – different people who lead different lives – coming together in the urban mixing chamber. But what if half of them are elsewhere, there in body but not in any other way?3

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Others see the rise of digital and mobile media as a series of aids giving city dwellers more control over urban life, not only as consumers but also as citizens, thus reinforcing the bonds within local communities. They are supporters of the social city scenario. American essayist Andrew Blum for one hopes that bloggers who write about their neighbourhoods can increase a sense of community there. While on the one hand media technologies can link us to global networks, on the other hand local blogs can play a role in developing bonds with our neighbourhood. According to Blum, ‘in a community where common ties are electronically buttressed we may be able to reap the global environmental benefit of high-density living without sacrificing the local ties of a medium-density neighborhood’.4

It is important not to become fixated on these two scenarios. What matters are the underlying urban ideals they embody. What sorts of philosophical ideals do these scenarios conceal about the way the city as a community should function? I distinguish three: the libertarian city, the republican city and the communitarian city. The libertarian city is based on the ideal of the city as a market. The city is a place where people lead their individual lives in free- dom; it is a place where city dwellers have virtually no reciprocal duties or responsibilities. City dwellers are first and foremost consumers of various services, and the city is thus primarily a platform where supply and demand in a variety of fields can meet. In this vision, political and cultural aspects of city life fade into the background or are considered private matters. Many – but not all – smart city scenarios dovetail with this ideal.

Then there is the ideal of the republican city (from the Latin res publica, the public interest, rather than a reference to the United States political party). Here, the city also provides the free- dom to choose between divergent ways of life, but at the same time city dwellers share responsibility for the city as a whole. Whereas the libertarian thinks it is perfectly acceptable for city dwellers to completely isolate themselves in their private worlds or behind the fences of a gated community, the republican disapproves of such behaviour. The city dweller is first and foremost a citizen and may not completely withdraw from urban society. The philosophical legitimacy of many social city approaches is founded on these concepts.

Finally, there is the ideal of the communitarian city, which is based on the ideal of a harmonious local community in which all city dwellers share more or less the same way of life. In this vision the emphasis is on the common identity of the collective and not on the individual. Nowadays, the idea of the communitarian city is mainly found in nostalgic retrospectives filled with a village-like sense of community. This category includes a small number of social city approaches that mainly deploy digital media to reinforce or invent unambiguous local communities.

But – and this might be counterintuitive – a number of smart city scenarios also dovetail with this ideal. On some issues, libertarian and communitarian principles are surprisingly related. After all, those who use the libertarian freedom to isolate themselves may end up in an unambiguous communitarian world. Remarkably, there is also a certain kinship between the village-like communitarian ideal and modernist ideas that have long played a dominant role in urban planning and that will also occasionally hover in the background in this book. While it is true that at their most extreme the modernists wanted to destroy the old, traditional order, they also proposed a new (modern) collective experience to replace it. The architect was to use scientific methods to determine ideal social relationships and convert them into a physical form that would provide city dwellers with a new collective world of experience: an experiential world that did not arouse nostalgic feelings of togetherness but, instead, a feeling of solidarity that fitted in with the mobility, speed and new technologies of modern life.

The three ideals referred to above are not clear-cut categories. They may overlap and all sorts of intermediate forms are also possible. Here, they are used to make the debate about the role of technology in the city again a philosophical one. I use the three ideals as a gauge to link practical applications of digital media to urban ideals.

The central proposition in this book is that many urban media mainly support the libertarian urban ideal. With their emphasis on efficiency and personalization, they approach city dwellers as individual consumers and increase their freedom to organize life according to their own insights; at the same time, these media also reduce city dwellers’ mutual involvement. This is not a foregone conclusion, however: other examples of urban media are based on the republican ideal. They succeed in combining the smart city ideals of personalization and efficiency with the social city ideals of citizenship and connection.

This book can also be read as a defence of the republican city. I defend the proposition that a modern democratic urban society benefits from taking an intermediate position between the communitarian and the libertarian. The city as a communitarian society, where the emphasis is on an unambiguous shared culture, is too coercive and offers little individual freedom; the city that primarily functions as a market offers a great deal of freedom, but that freedom is also so free of commitment that it can ultimately lead to far-reaching fragmentation and segregation, both culturally and economically. The difficult task of finding a balance between freedom and mutual involvement is central to the republican city. My main aim in this book is to study how urban media can or cannot contribute to that task. In order to do this, I will consider not only the future but also the past. To what extent can the three urban ideals be traced in our cities today? Which broader social developments play a role here? And how do urban media fit in with these developments?

A good way to keep this complex question manageable is to look at the phenomenon of the urban public sphere – the collection of places in a city that serve as meeting places for city dwellers from various backgrounds. The organization of these public spaces plays an important, albeit differently appreciated, role in all three urban ideals. In the communitarian ideal, urban public spaces embody the collective identity: their architecture and design are an expression of this identity and are mainly used for rituals (parades, festivals, commemorative events), allowing city dwellers to participate in a shared culture.

In the libertarian ideal, urban public spaces are markets. By definition, the city consists of city dwellers with varying needs, backgrounds, preferences, aims and convictions. In urban public spaces, they meet in a mechanism of supply and demand, regard- less of whether this concerns sellers trying to find customers, believers looking for religious leaders, artists in search of inspira- tion or members of a specific subculture looking for kindred spirits. The republican ideal is situated somewhere between the two: as in the libertarian ideal, urban public spaces are places where city dwellers from varying backgrounds meet, but these spaces are not commitment-free markets; instead, they are places where all those individual city dwellers can be absorbed into a larger whole, despite their differences. They are places where city dwellers meet, where mutual trust develops, where conflicts are settled, and where city dwellers must ultimately try to relate to each other in one way or another.

The organization, use and experience of the urban public sphere can thus be seen as an indication of how a city functions as a community. Consequently, the way urban media intervene in this process also determines the direction in which urban communities develop. In order to properly research this, we must first look more closely at the phenomenon of the urban public sphere.

The Urban Public Sphere and Urban Publics

The urban public sphere is a complex concept. It usually means a meeting place – ‘the urban mixing chamber’, as Paul Goldberg put it. But opinion is divided on exactly what sorts of meetings or urban mix should take place in these spaces. Sometimes it is a political debate in which different views clash. A perfect example was the seventeenth-century English coffee house as described by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and the American sociologist Richard Sennett. City dwellers met at the coffee houses as citizens to discuss matters of general interest.

But certainly not all examples of urban public spaces are based on the concept of a place for holding rational debates. In their descriptions of the public spaces that developed on the boulevards of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin were chiefly concerned with the physical confrontation between different worlds that took place there. The emerging bourgeoisie who sauntered on the boulevards stumbled on paupers from the slums that had survived behind the façades of Haussmann’s shiny new buildings. For American urban researcher and neighbourhood activist Jane Jacobs, public spaces were about even more banal everyday interactions: in her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities she described how trust can develop over time as neighbourhood residents regularly meet on the street, briefly exchange greetings and occasionally have a superficial chat.

What the above examples have in common is that at the places referred to, the interaction between city dwellers always leads to the development of a modern urban public: a group of people who are (temporarily) united around a common goal or practice. The way the term ‘public’ is used is closely related to its two meanings in everyday language: on the one hand, a public is a collection of people who (coincidentally) share a common experience or a common interest. This might be a spatial experience, for example, quite literally the public that is present in a theatre (or on a boulevard) or a mediated experience – the public of a television programme. In addition, ‘public’ has a second meaning, that of ‘making public’: something that is ‘public’ is disclosed to others.5

Both aspects come together when we look at how publics in urban public spaces come into existence. Together, city dwellers can form a public (a group of people) by making an aspect of their lives public (accessible to others). Consider again the seventeenth- century coffee houses: citizens went there to drink coffee and read the newspapers but above all to discuss the topics dealt with in the newspapers. In other words, by making their own ideas public (accessible), they created a public (group) with and for each other.

A public is therefore not a passive collective in the sense of an ‘audience’. Members of a public are alternately listener and performer.6 In a similar sense, Marshall Berman used Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s contemporary accounts to describe the nineteenth- century boulevards as ‘the common meeting ground and the com- munications line’ of the nineteenth century: because the bourgeoisie and paupers came together on the boulevard, it developed into a place where different groups of city dwellers became aware of each other.7 Through their clothing, habits and manners, city dwellers showed each other who they were and to which group they belonged. At the same time, they formed a public together. The boulevard was the stage on which the inhabitants of Paris and St Petersburg were both performers and spectators.

And not only did they become aware of each other; crucially for Berman, a new public could emerge as a result of this interaction on the boulevard. In a somewhat romanticized account he sketches how the boulevards of St Petersburg contributed to a growing class-consciousness because, while out strolling, workers and proletarians recognized others like themselves. This mutual recognition could give rise to a sense of solidarity and perhaps even political action.

The publics of the English coffee houses and Nevski Prospekt, St Petersburg’s main boulevard, were typical urban publics. Both publics emerged out of practices that over time had become associated with specific urban locations. Both the seventeenth- century English coffee house and the nineteenth-century boulevard had a set of cultural repertoires: a collection of roles and acts that were connected with and considered appropriate for a particular location. These protocols and repertoires were in turn partly related to the specific urban condition whose essence was the need for citizens to continuously relate to strangers. As Jane Jacobs wrote:

Great cities are not like towns, only larger; they are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers. To any one person, strangers are far more common in big cities than acquaintances. In short, the very nature of the city means that we are always sur- rounded by people who are different from ourselves and that most of our fellow city dwellers will also remain strangers to us. Yet in one way or another we must find a way to live with each other.

This idea of the city as a collection of strangers developed in the large cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chicago School sociologists described how large groups of city dwellers migrated from the country to the city at that time. For many, this literally and figuratively meant arriving in a new world. They left behind their close-knit and orderly traditional communities in the country and arrived in the big city, where anonymity was the norm. There, they were surrounded by innumerable other city dwellers, often from very diverse backgrounds. According to Louis Wirth, the density and heterogeneity of the modern metropolis led to the birth of new urban publics. City dwellers started to specialize, and they also started to become part of various communities and publics for different aspects of their lives.9

The urban public sphere playes an essential role in this process. It’s the stage or platform where city dwellers show who they are (make their way of life public) and, as a result, become acquainted with other people’s ways of life and compare themselves with them. The public sphere is like a cultural or political marketplace: city dwellers can recognize like-minded people and, together with others, be absorbed into new collectives (new publics) or actually distinguish themselves from other city dwellers. In order to research the urban public sphere in today’s society, we must there- fore look at the way city dwellers make their lives public on our con- temporary ‘stages’ – from the boulevard to Facebook – and how this process then leads or does not lead to the development of new publics.

Parochial and Public Domains

This also leads us to the most important subject in the ideological debate about urban public spaces. In modern cities, residents are continuously surrounded by other city dwellers whom they not only do not know but who are also different from themselves. And yet in one way or another, they must find a way to relate to those other city dwellers. But what is the correct way to relate? The libertarian thinks it is perfectly acceptable if city dwellers isolate themselves and mainly form publics that consist of kindred spirits. The republican wants city dwellers to relate to each other in one way or another despite their differences and in fact actively form publics in which city dwellers from diverse backgrounds come together. The communitarian demands that everyone unequivocally consider themselves members of an overarching cultural community.

In fact, careful consideration shows that the issue revolves around the harmonization of two different domains: the private domain, in which people can do whatever they want, and the urban public sphere as the place where city dwellers from different backgrounds come together and have to relate to each other. Yet this unequivocal distinction between private and public is too clear-cut to get to grips with the social processes that take place in the city: the distinction between the world behind the front door (the private domain) and that of the street (the public domain) is too crude. There are all sorts of gradations in the way we experience the public domain. In some places in the city we feel at home, and sense that we are part of an urban public in which we recognize ourselves or whose members we even know personally. At other places, we do not meet anyone we know and are part of a public of city dwellers with different lifestyles.

In order to do justice to this reality, American sociologist Lyn Lofland introduced a third, intermediate sphere between the public and private: the ‘parochial sphere’, by which she meant those places in a city where we mainly meet like-minded people. It can be recognized by ‘a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located within “communities”.’10 Examples of parochial domains are a Turkish coffee house in a Dutch city neighbourhood, the canteen of a sports club, a gay bar, a local pub in Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighbourhood, a bench on some square that has become a hangout for a group of adolescents, and so on. Parochial domains are generally accessible to outsiders but these will probably be received with some suspicion. Lofland contrasts the public domain with the parochial domain. The public domain consists of those places in the city where we mainly come across strangers whom we either do not know at all or whom we only know as members of a category: ‘those areas of urban settlements in which individuals in copresence tend to be personally unknown or only categorically known to one another’.11

Both the parochial and the public domains are part of the urban public sphere, which consists entirely of places where city dwellers meet and come across each other and together form publics. However, they clearly have a different character: the parochial sphere consists of places that have been appropriated by a particular group; in the public sphere city dwellers mainly come across people whom they do not know. As such, both domains also have an important function: in parochial domains city dwellers can be absorbed into all sorts of collectives, in the public domain they have to relate to each other.

In recent decades, a significant shift has occurred in the relationship between the parochial and public domains, one that plays an important role in this book. Traditional expositions of urban public spaces often idealize nineteenth-century cities such as Vienna or Paris: the centre of the city with its squares and boulevards constituted the public domain, surrounded by all sorts of neatly arranged neighbourhoods that functioned as the parochial domains of local communities. I shall draw on various studies to show that this picture is no longer valid, if it ever existed at all. As a result of increased mobility and the individualization of lifestyles, parochial and public domains have started to overlap more and more. The common Amsterdammer of the past no longer lives in the Jordaan neighbourhood; he has moved to Purmerend or Almere, works in Hoofddorp, shops at an outlet centre in the Flevopolder at the weekends and visits mega-cinemas at the ArenA in the Bijlmer; on Saturday evenings, he likes to briefly return to his old neighbour- hood because that is where the most convivial cafés are. His city consists of an extensive network of parochial domains – and this is also true for other segments of the population. Indeed, it is debatable whether there is still a clear-cut public domain, a place where all city dwellers meet. In this, I concur with Maarten Hajer and Arnold Reijndorp, who argue in their book In Search of New Public Domain that we must not rigidly cling to the ideal of the nineteenth-century city. They argue that the public domain can also be the product of a temporary overlap of parochial domains belonging to various city dwellers.

This raises the following questions: how do urban media enable us to shape these different domains in new ways? How does the emergence of a new technology shift the balance between parochial and public domains? Does the emergence of new technol- ogies reinforce the parochial domain, and do new technologies make it easier for city dwellers to withdraw to their own ‘turf ’? Or can they actually reinforce the public domain, which is dominated by mutual interchange?

Digital Media and Urban Public Spaces: ‘Experience Markers’ and ‘Territory Devices’

This leads us to the following curious fact: discussions about the role of urban media in the urban public sphere (the collective term for parochial and public domains) constantly hark back to a number of historical archetypes. The seventeenth-century coffee houses in London, the boulevards in Paris, street life in Jane Jacobs’s West Village have also been referred to here. Defenders of the republican urban ideal in particular tend to view digital media in one of two ways: they are our deliverance, restoring an urban public sphere that has apparently been under pressure for decades, or they are the death knell for the republican ideal of an ‘open society’, a democratic society in which citizens are open to each other and, despite all their differences, attempt to reach an accommodation with each other.

However, if we use yesterday’s terminology to describe the future, we risk being wide of the mark, especially as the very emergence of digital media undermines an essential aspect of the historical examples. The urban public sphere in the above examples was always based on the simultaneous use of space. Publics developed out of physical encounters or confrontations with others, however trivial such interaction sometimes was. Thus, in Jürgen Habermas’s Lloyd’s Coffee House in London, on Walter Benjamin’s Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris or in Jane Jacobs’s Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan, an urban public emerged consisting of city dwellers who took notice of each other, entered into debates with each other, simply had a chat or only observed each other. In essence, this is the function of the urban public sphere: it brings city dwellers together spatially who then collectively form a (temporary) public. This might be a public of strangers, in which case we are dealing with a public domain, or it might be a public of kindred spirits, in which case we are dealing with a parochial domain.

However, it is characteristic of the rise of digital and mobile media that the way urban publics do or do not form is no longer limited to a spatial process that takes place in the physical urban public space. Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs argued that ‘Word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking’.12 In her view, a modern urban public of ‘familiar strangers’ could not develop without street life and its associated brief encounters. But what happens if the word does manage to break free of the street? Because that is precisely what is happening with the emergence of urban media: when we blog, tweet or ping what we experience; when we look up information about our surroundings on the smartphone; when we just ring, poke, send text messages and whatsapp someone who is not physically present. We are then part of publics that are partly mediated and partly physical.

It is impossible to give a complete overview of all types of urban media here – the developments are so rapid that such a list would quickly be out of date. Moreover, there is a maze of technol- ogical standards, as well as developers and parties with diverging interests who are involved in the development of urban media, each with their own ideals, goals and approaches to urban life.13 Governments hope to make cities safer with closed circuit television cameras; politicians expect the new digital services to bridge the gap between citizen and government; telephone providers expect to make bigger profits through personalized location services; social workers hope that digital interventions in the public space can reinforce mutual understanding and trust between different segments of the population; artists use the technologies to criticize the ‘big brother society’ that results from these very technologies; and citizens, companies and consumers in turn use the technol- ogies in their own, often completely unforeseen ways.

The aim here is not to meticulously map out the whole field but to consider the way urban media are qualitatively changing the experience of the urban public sphere. In this book my main interest is in their latent possibilities: media technologies have certain qualities and affordances, but whether they are ultimately used depends on a variety of circumstances. To give just one example: when the radio came onto the market in the United States in the 1920s, this new appliance (often a kitset that the owner had to put together himself) was seen as a means of communication: users could communicate with each other over long distances via radio waves. As a result of legislation, the radio eventually developed into a mass communication medium with only a few parties preparing the broadcasts and the rest of us, as the public, being permitted to listen. Communication was a latent possibility of radio technology but eventually the law – and here the broadcasters’ lobby played an important role – determined how the new technology would be used, rather than the affordances of the technology itself. I am inclined to consider urban media in a similar way: what possibilities and promises do they contain? As the development of urban media is now in full swing, it is interesting to look at their possible effects on urban society. Moreover, the very fact that these media are still developing means we can influence their development through policy, regulation, design or use.

Bearing all this in mind, if we consider the latent possibilities of urban media, we can discern two possible applications, which can both take on a variety of shapes. First, we can use urban media as ‘experience markers’: they can be used to record urban experiences and share them with others. Social media or weblogs enable city dwellers to share their experiences at specific locations with friends, acquaintances and even strangers who are not present at that location. They can take photographs that can then be uploaded using GPS tags so they become visible on maps. All sorts of media files can be equipped with geographic coordinates so they can be linked to specific locations. The public for a particular experience or act is thus no longer limited to the physically present public. Other technologies can automatically record what is taking place in a space. Sensors and cameras can record who or what is present at a particular location, for example, with the aid of face- recognition software or RFID chips. Urban experiences, memories, stories and events can thus be intentionally or unintentionally recorded, stored on databases and made public in all sorts of ways, either immediately or later.14

A second series of latent possibilities enables the deployment of digital and mobile media as ‘territory devices’: an appliance or system that can influence the experience of an urban area. For starters, at a specific location the data files that are linked to that location can be opened again; then it is possible to see who was there yesterday, what sorts of stories or memories absent others have of that place, and so on. The experience of a place can thus extend beyond the here and now. And with aids such as the mobile phone it becomes possible to seek contact with absent friends or acquaintances. Japanese-American anthropologists Mizuko Ito and Daisuke Okabe refer to the mobile phone as a ‘membrane’: in their study Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life they argue that the mobile phone is not a ‘portal’ that teleports us from a physical situation to a virtual world but rather a ‘membrane’ that enables us to admit mediated contacts to our surroundings and to regulate in the here and now the presence of absent others or media files.15 Japanese anthropologist Fujimoto argues that this also means we can alter the nature of an urban situation: ringing a friend in a public space means temporarily withdrawing into a private space: ‘The keitai [Japanese for mobile phone, MdW] is a jamming machine that instantly creates a territory – a personal keitai space – around oneself with an invisible minimal barricade.’16 City dwellers can thus allow virtually absent others access to a physical location, thereby changing the experience of that location.

The reverse is also true: some digital media systems can regulate physical access to a location – smart cards that can be used to open the door of an office building or the communal inner space of a building, or cameras in trams equipped with face- recognition software that emit a signal when someone with a public transport ban boards the tram. Technological systems can also change the experience of a location in more subtle ways – think of billboards in the shape of interactive urban screens whose advertisements are targeted at individual passers-by: this is possible because a camera with face-recognition software ‘analyzes’ the target group (man or woman, age and so on) to which the passer-by belongs; different passers-by then see a content that is continuously adjusted to specifically appeal to them.

This leads us to conclude that the urban public sphere can no longer be considered as a purely physical construct. If we continue to view public spaces like this, we will miss important new ways in which city dwellers are brought together, take notice of each other and form urban publics. Therefore, instead of looking at physical locations, it is worth focusing on aspects of the process itself: how and under what circumstances do city dwellers take notice of each other and thus form urban publics?

The City as Interface

If we use yesterday’s terminology to look at the future, we risk missing a number of important developments in the study of urban public spaces. But what if we look at things from the other end, considering whether concepts used to describe the future can be used to explain past processes; to investigate whether, and to what extent, new technologies indeed cause important social changes.

When we consider urban public spaces from the point of view of digital media, we quickly come across the term ‘interface’, a rather technical term that according to Webster’s dictionary means ‘the place at which independent and often unrelated systems meet and act on or communicate with each other’. In the world of computing, ‘interface’ is either used to describe an environment in which different computer systems can be attuned to each other, or for an environment that converts the computer’s bits into humanly comprehensible applications. Bill Gates’ Windows is an interface: it translates the logic of the computer into icons that people can understand, enabling users to operate their computers. The TomTom screen is another interface: geographical data and information about traffic flows are converted into a dynamic map that enables us to navigate through traffic. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are interfaces too: they provide an environment with specific possibilities and limitations that enables us to communicate with each other.

Can we also use this term to study urban public spaces? Then we would no longer be concerned with the extent to which the interfaces and algorithms of urban media threaten the physical urban public space. Instead, we would look at how urban public spaces have always functioned as interfaces and the extent to which the new interfaces of digital media interfere with this. The short answer to this question is: yes, we can. First, the dynamic of urban life always consists of an accumulation of all sorts of exchange processes. To a large degree, everyday life revolves around attuning individual and collective identities, attuning the present to the past, and harmonizing the concerns and interests of different urban publics. Seen from this perspective, the urban public sphere has always functioned as an ‘interface’. This approach to the city as an interface can be found in the work of Manuel Castells: a city is the material reflection of social relationships and thus creates places where individuals can relate to these social representations:

Cities have always been communication systems, based on the interface between individual and communal identities and shared social representations. It is their ability to organize this interface materially in forms, in rhythms, in collective experience and communicable perception that makes cities producers of sociability, and integrators of otherwise destructive creativity.17

More concretely, specific social, cultural and economic practices, traditions and power relations are given a material form in the city: the market, a church, the town hall, a square where a variety of events are held. By using these urban spaces, city dwellers learn ‘hands on’ how to master the logic of these different social systems. They can gear their individual lifestyles to collective habits and practices, or try to gear collective rhythms to their individual wishes. They can identify themselves with the rhythms of urban society or resist them. The physical city is an ‘interface’ where collective practices take shape, and when these collective practices change, the shape and meaning of the physical environment change with them. Thus, the coffee house, the boulevard and the city street in West Village should also be seen as ‘interfaces’: places where different city dwellers came together and attuned their lives within the framework of social conventions that have developed over time.

Moreover, interface is a particularly apt term because it shifts attention from the spatial aspect (the coffee house, boulevard, street) to the question of the relationships themselves. Who is relating to whom? How are these groups brought together? Who is excluded? Which protocols apply to communications between those present, and who determines this? What sorts of new publics or communities might emerge as a result of this process? And on what sort of common elements are those publics or communities based?

The advantage of looking at urban life using the interface ‘frame’ is that an analysis can include all sorts of non-physical structures and practices. Moreover, this term also forces us to look at the role of the interface itself: interfaces are not neutral environ- ments; they partly determine how a possible interchange or harmonization comes about. The term enables us to look not only at the ‘outcomes’ of these processes – how are mobile media used and how does that change urban society – but also at the interface subject itself: what sort of urban ideal does it actually embody?

Platform, Programme, Protocols

When looking at the city as an interface, we are not so much concerned with the question whether certain locations can be regarded as parochial or public domains; instead, we look at how city dwellers organize themselves as publics and at the nature of these publics: are they mainly like-minded people who become linked to each other? Or is there in fact an overlap between city dwellers whose ways of life differ?

If we wish to analyze this process more thoroughly, we can consider five related aspects: platform, programme, protocol, filter and agency. By platform I mean the environment in which city dwellers are brought together, make their lives public and harmonize with each other. This might be a physical environment – a street or square can function as a platform – but it might also be a software environment such as a smartphone’s ‘operating system’.

In general, a platform only becomes useful thanks to a programme: a specific use of the platform. This might be an archi- tectural programme (a street can be designed with shops ‘in the plinth’ or designated as an exclusive residential area), a social programme (a neighbourhood centre where activities are organized) or a software programme (a Facebook app for the iPhone). Such a programme always imposes a certain order on the publics it creates. For example, through the Facebook app, communication is shaped by the possibilities and limitations inherent in the programme. For instance, Facebook allows a person to reveal something about his identity by filling in catchwords in a number of categories invented by Facebook. But urban designs and social policies also categorize city dwellers according to a particular logic. Designs always contain specific notions about urban publics and this labelling process (and the associated issue of power) plays a role in the way interaction takes place.

Connected to this is an interface’s function as a filter. An interface makes it possible to harmonize specific elements from different worlds and exclude other elements. Finally, interfaces function according to a ‘protocol’. A protocol is a specific behaviour that is experienced as generally applicable in a specific social context. If we look at Facebook again, we see that the status updates and the use of the ‘like’ button have developed into important protocols. In urban life, protocol is more concerned with all sorts of everyday behaviours that have become customary over time. Sometimes this concerns tacit agreements about which neighbour parks his car in a particular parking spot or who sits on a particular bench in the park and when, at other times it concerns practices that have been laid down in regulations or even laws.

Taken together, platform, programme, filter and protocol play a role in the way urban publics can be shaped. An underlying issue that will arise in this context over and over again is that of agency. Who has the opportunity to influence the way in which the city as an interface is shaped? Is it the architects and policymakers, who determine the urban programme? Is it the technology companies, which shape the protocols through which city dwellers can com- municate with each other? Is it perhaps city dwellers themselves, who individually or collectively are given more possibilities to ‘reprogramme’ the urban space using their mobile phones? This is an important question: all sorts of protocols can be established in computer algorithms but who determines precisely which legal and cultural codes are laid down in the software computer codes? As Eric Kluitenberg writes:

If the initiative lies exclusively with the constructors, the producers of these enriched spaces, and their clients, then the space we are living in is liable to total authoritarian control, even if there is no immediately observable way in which that space displays the historic characteristics of authoritarianism. The more widely the initiative is distributed between producers and consumers and the more decisions are made at the ‘nodes’ (the extremities of the network, occupied by the users) instead of at the ‘hubs’ (junctions in the network), the more chance there is of a space in which the sovereign subject is able to shape his or her own autonomy.18

In other words, who shapes the urban interfaces of the twenty-first century? Who determines the manner in which the city as interface functions? Are our future urban interfaces closed systems? Or do they in fact consist of open platforms? To put it in black-and-white terms, are citizens at the mercy of protocols that are laid down by the state and commercial parties or do they have the opportunity to exercise influence directly?

Test Cases: Scenarios for Tomorrow’s Urban Society

It is still unclear how the city, as a result of the emergence of urban media, functions as an interface. We are in the middle of an era in which urban media are being shaped: smartphones, navigation systems, location services, sensors, RFID chips, ‘smart city’ protocols are all products and services that are currently being developed, implemented and slowly becoming part of everyday life. And this is why it is so important to explore possible future scenarios now, without losing sight of historical continuity. At the same time this is also difficult, because the rise and use of digital media have not yet crystallized. Different scenarios are possible and these partly depend on the approach underlying the use of digital media in urban planning as well as on policy measures and the extent to which users will embrace these media. In order to avoid this difficulty, I study the role of urban media in urban public spaces using a number of ‘test cases’. These test cases are diverse and include a work of art that conveys a specific view of interactive design, an iPhone app that directs city dwellers to view the city in a particular way and the emergence of commercial practices that address specific publics. These test cases allow us glimpses of a possible future; they show us the different directions in which the ‘city as interface’ might continue to develop.

This approach is based on the idea of the ‘cultural probe’, a methodology borrowed from the world of design. As part of the design process, designers sometimes use cultural probes – objects presented to a test panel as part of a research project. Sometimes the object is a prototype whose functionality is tested, at other times it is an object that is not intended to be produced but rather to elicit reactions from the test panel that the designer can then use as inspiration.

Cultural probes are used by designers to stimulate imagination; the designer takes the role of ‘provocateur’ and the information collected is ‘inspirational data (. . .) used to acquire] a more impres- sionistic account of [people’s] beliefs and desires, their aesthetic preferences and cultural concerns.19

The test cases are similarly intended as a ‘philosophical gauge’ that I can use to measure feelings in the debate about digital media and the city, or even as a ‘philosophical provocation’, intended to provoke a debate. The test cases are always the occasion or spring- board for a number of discussions that make clear what might be at stake: how does the rise of urban media change the way in which urban publics can emerge? And what are the consequences for the way in which a city functions as a society? I follow two lines of investigation: in the first three chapters I will consider how the parochial domain is created and in the last three chapters I will consider the public domain.

In both cases it is important to explore the future scenarios without losing sight of historical continuity. By looking at the historical examples of the way the city as interface has functioned, we can demonstrate important qualitative and normative shifts in the way urban media interfaces interfere in urban public spaces. After all, the urban media software is not a magical force that will, abracadabra à la Bill Gates, improve life for everyone in the city. According to computer scientist and anthropologist Paul Dourish, software is an attempt to lay down a particular model of reality or vision of society in computer codes: It creates and manipulates models of reality of people and of action. Every piece of software reflects an uncountable number of philosophical commitments and perspectives without which it could never be created.20

A two-fold development is taking place: on the one hand, digital media influence the way the city is experienced and the way urban publics might be shaped; on the other hand, the design of these digital technologies is based on specific historical concepts of what a city is and of ideals of urban life.21

This study of the role of urban media in urban society there- fore begins with a return to the past: in order to explore the future, we travel to the Pendrecht district, which was built on the south bank of the Maas river in Rotterdam in 1954. Pendrecht developed into an icon of Dutch architectural history, not least because of Lotte Stam-Beese’s urban development plan: in line with the neigh- bourhood planning concept popular at the time, her plan was intended to result in the emergence of a completely new type of urban community. Although urban media are the great absent factor in this scenario, it provides a first clue to how an urban designer working on the basis of a republican city ideal approached her work as an ‘interface designer’.


1 Bill Gates, ‘The Enduring Magic of Software’, InformationWeek 18 October 2000, of-software/49901115 (accessed 18 October 2012).

2 Cited in: P. Dourish, Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embedded Interaction (Cambridge, MA 2004), viii.

3 P. Goldberger, ‘Disconnected Urbanism’,, 22 February 2007, disconnected-urbanism (accessed 28 February 2013).

4 A. Blum, ‘Local Cities, Global Problems: Jane Jacobs in an Age of Global Change’, in : T. Mennel, J. Steffens and C. Klemek (eds), Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 51-53, 53

5 See Danah Boyd in: D. Boyd, ‘Taken out of Context’ (UC Berkeley, 2008), 17. See also S. Livingstone, Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere (Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005).

6 See also L.H. Lofland, The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 31. On urbanism, theatre and roles, see also S. Lennard and H. Lennard, Public Life in Urban Places (Southampton, NY: Gondolier, 1984).

7 M. Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Verso, 1987), 196.

8 J. Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (London: Pimlico, 2000 [1961]), 40.

9 Wirth, ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’. 10 L. Lofland, A World of Strangers: Order and Action in Urban Public

Space (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 10. 11 Ibid., 9.

12 Cited in A. Blum, ‘Local Cities, Global Problems’, 53. 13 See also M. de Lange, ‘Moving Circles: Mobile Media and Playful

Identities’ (PhD thesis Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit, 2010) and A. Galloway, ‘A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and Locative Media’ (PhD thesis Ottawa: Carleton University, 2008) for an extensive overview of different technologies.

14 See also: Tuters and Varnelis, who refer to ‘annotation’ and ‘tracing’ as qualities of what they call ‘locative media’. M. Tuters and K. Varnelis, ‘Beyond Locative Media: Giving Shape to the Internet of Things’, Leonardo 39 (2006) no. 4, 357-363.

15 M. Ito, D. Okabe and M. Matsuda, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 15.

16 K. Fujimoto, ‘The Third-Stage Paradigm: Territory Machines from the Grils’ Pager Revolution to Mobile Aesthetics’, in: M. Ito, D. Okabe and M. Matsuda (eds), Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 77-102, 98.

17 M. Castells, ‘The Culture of Cities in the Information Age’, in: I. Susser (ed), The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002) 382. See also S. McQuire, The Media City: Media Architecture and Urban Space (Thousand Oaks: Sage,

1792008); Stephen Johnson popularized the ‘interface’ concept as a cultural metaphor in his book Interface Culture. In the Netherlands, Marianne van den Boomen published an essay entitled ‘De stad als interface’ (literally, ‘The city as interface’) as early as 1996, De Helling no. 1 (spring 1996), html (accessed 28 February 2013); S. Johnson, Interface Culture (San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997).

18 E. Kluitenberg, ‘The Network of Waves’, Open 11 (2007), 6-16,14 19 Galloway, ‘A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and

Locative Media’, 41. Galloway also uses ‘cultural probes’ in her research, based on of Gaver’s theory; B. Gaver, T. Dunne and E. Pacenti, ‘Design: Cultural Probes’, ACM Interactions, January – February 1999, 21-29.

20 Dourish, Where the Action Is, viii. 21 See also: M. de Waal, ‘The Ideas and Ideals in Urban Media’, in: M.

Foth et al. (eds), From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 5-20.