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what does everyware do to emergence?

For me, time off usually implies reading. In anticipation of Steven Johnson's presence at our UX Week conference later this summer, I brought along a copy of Emergence. No, I have no idea why I hadn't read it yet, either.

About 100 pages in, the book starts addressing the concept of cities as self-organizing data storage devices – which reminded me of a link Matt Jones sent along about cities as geomagnetic harddrives. As fantastical as that all is, what Johnson is talking about is as easy to witness as taking a walk on any street in almost any city, from Kapabashi-dori to the Bowery:

Cities store and transmit useful new ideas to the wide population, ensuring that powerful new technologies don't disappear once they've been invented. But the self-organizing clusters of neighborhoods also serve to make cities more intelligible to the individuals who inhabit them… The specialization of the city makes it smarter, more useful for it inhabitants. And the extraordinary thing again is that this learning emerges without anyone even being aware of it. Information management – subduing the complexity of a large-scale human settlement – is the latent purpose of a city, because when cities come into being, their inhabitants are driven by other motives, such as safety or trade. No one founds a city with the explicit intent of storing information more effeciently, or making its social organization more palatable for the limited bandwidth of the human mind. That data management happens later, as a kind of collective afterthough: yet another macrobehavior that can't be predicted from micromotives. Cities may function like libraries and interfaces, but they are not built with that explicit aim.

What about when they are, though? As Adam Greenfield points out in Everyware, the South Korean "ubiquitous city" New Songdo is being "designed, literally from the ground up, as a test bed for the fullest possible evocation of ubiquitous technology in everyday life." As New Songdo is completed and populated, we'll get to see what happens when the "explicit aim" of a city's design incorporates the data management and specialization that ubiquitous technology can make possible.

Thinking about both of these texts at the same time, I'm trying to figure out what impact ubiquitous tech might have on the way cities self-organize. Will we see tighter patterns of organization, or even more rapid emergence of sustainable "neighborhoods" of aggregated intent? Will interactions between individuals and the city become facilitated to the extent that traditional motivations are abandoned and replaced? To be honest, I have my fears that an everyware-mediated urban environment might completely inhibit the types of behavior patterns Steven Johnson describes.

Categories: everyware
  1. AG
    June 12, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    …and I think that’s an entirely reasonable worry to have, for a number of reasons, although I also think there’s some countervailing evidence.

    I think the factor that is going to make the difference is the proportionality between top-down and bottom-up control over the things people choose to do (with/in) urban space, and that’s going to be a matter of local politics and practice more than it is a strictly technical one.

    If the dynamics of urban structuration are essentially limited by choices made at design time, though – I think of Bruce Sterling’s kit-of-parts house: “I’m a corner brick! Place me in a corner!” – then I think the arrangements that result cannot help but be brittle and prone to rapid decay.

    I shall certainly be writing about this very issue, to what will probably be an overbearing degree of depth, in “The City Is Here For You To Use.” ; . )

  2. June 12, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    I was hoping you’d be taking this up in your next book, Adam. And I’m compelled to agree that the degree to which ubiquitous technology is imposed before a city has come “full-term” (as it were) will determine its flexibility and overall usefulness to citizens over time.

    Definitely a topic to keep an eye on (and thanks for weighing in!).

  1. June 13, 2006 at 12:23 pm

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