Looking back on cyberpunk1.0

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2010

An interesting personal-reflection post from Adam “Everyware” Greenfield on his formative experiences with cyberpunk. In a fresh refingering of the “we live in that fictional world now” riff, he wonders if anything could possibly strike such a powerful chord for him again:

[This graffiti’d Chinese shipping container] struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

I know what Greenfield’s talking about here, but I suspect that personal subjectivity has a lot to do with it; Justin Pickard crops up in the comments to point out that, as a younger reader, he got something of the same gutpunch from Gibson’s Pattern Recognition reproducing the world he recognised from beyond the book’s covers. Just like the books we read, we’re products of our own milieu… atemporality is rarer than it might appear from inside our favoured goldfish bowl.

I can easily imagine the inquisitive teens of today seeing themselves and their world in Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, or in the more recent works of Ian McDonald and (to a lesser extent, because as much as I feel he tries earnestly to capture the world as-is, he can’t help but Disney-fy it at the same time) Cory Doctorow. But thinking about sf from this angle, it feels to me like there’s a real paucity of works that seek to engage the world on political and economic terms in the way that cyberpunk grappled with the Eighties…

… or perhaps that’s what’s going on in the world of YA urban fantasy (or whatever we’re calling it this week). Which might possibly explain why I just don’t understand the appeal of that stuff whatsoever. *shrug*

Bughunting in the city’s software

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2010

Ah, internet serendipity – a few days after my post about SeeClickFix and systems for crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system*, Adam “Speedbird” Greenfield posts about improving “frameworks for citizen responsiveness” [via Chairman Bruce]:

So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?

In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.

When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.

The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.

Seems pretty logical (and pretty much what SeeClickFix are aiming towards, albeit a lot more fully featured and comprehensive). That said, the system relies on the same sort of user tenacity that any big collective project requires: making it easier to see where pressure needs to be applied still requires that the pressure to be applied, if you see what I mean, and maybe it’s naive to hope that the majority of citizens will care enough to get involved (because the vast majority of, say, Ubuntu users, certainly don’t bother doing much beyond turning up and asking n00b questions that five minutes of searching would solve for them**). Then again, lowering barriers to participation, so on and so forth… maybe if it’s done right, people would use it.

Or perhaps this is the natural outcome of geeks developing ideas for the wider world: they’re gonna be geeky ideas, and geeky ideas don’t always float the boats of everyone else. Is Greenfield’s framework just another case of everything looking like a nail when you’re well-versed in hammer deployment?

[ * “… crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system…” Yeah, I know, I felt awful typing it, but there’s no less pretentious way of saying the same thing without using another two dozen words, so Web2.0 speak was the only way out. I blame the future. ]

[ ** I fully include myself under this admittedly damning and sweeping indictment. ]

Welcome to the Networked City

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2009

urban anglesAdam “Everyware” Greenfield doesn’t seem to have much luck with editors mangling his articles and essays before publishing them. His misfortune is our gain, however, as it means he ends up putting the originals up on his website, as with The Kind of Program A City Is“, a piece which appears in a more abridged form in the latest dead-tree version of Wired UK. [image by Barbara L Hanson]

Everyone seems to be writing about urban futures at the moment, be it Chairman Bruce cheerleading the Augmented Reality types (who are working on a technology whose utility is far greater when deployed in urban spaces) or Matt Jones writing the most interesting post that’s apperared at io9 in months. Blame it on whatever you want, but cities are changing fast – indeed, as Greenfield notes, faster than even the people who saw the changes coming ever expected – and we need to prepare for urban spaces that are completely saturated by networked technology:

In the networked city, therefore, the truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them. This will be a primary occupation for urbanists and technologists both, for the foreseeable future, as will ensuring that the public’s right to benefit from the data they themselves generate is recognized in law. If we’re reaching the point where it makes sense to consider the city as a fabric of addressable, queryable, even scriptable objects and surfaces – to reimagine its pavements, building façades and parking meters as network resources – this raises an order of questions never before confronted, ethical as much as practical: who has the right of access to these resources, or the ability to set their permissions?

The map is no longer the territory (if it ever was). Next time you see graffiti, recognise it for what it is: the echoed report of the first skirmishes and warning shots in a war for public space which is just about to start in earnest, in multiple cities across the globe and in multiple augmented versions thereof. Let’s just hope that war continues to be fought predominantly with art and commerce rather than knives and guns, eh?