I just returned from a very interesting conference called Communicative Cities: Integrating Technology and Place in Columbus, OH.Â The main goal of the conference was to explore the concept of the “communicative city” and question exactly how cities communicate (as singular entities or as facilitating containers of social activity).Â The presentations ran the gamut from Peter Hecht’s rather dystopian talk about the risks of cell phone use in public spaces to Andrew Miller’s presentation of strategic integrations of social media into urban life.Â In all, the conference seemed to veer more prominently towards suspicion, doubt and lamentation of the potentially caustic effects of social media on the urban public sphere.Â Many concluded that the use of cellular devices disconnected people from their environment, causing them to not pay attention and as a result, put themselves at risk.Â Â Keith Hampton echoed this concern with a good deal of empirical evidence, noting that cell phone users are less likely to notice their surroundings than are readers of books or even laptop users.Â The recurring theme was distraction.Â Of course, within this discourse of distraction is the normative assumption that somehow outside of technological mediation, we pay absolute attention.Â Sure, cell phones fragment attentional focus, but was it not fragmented before?Â The over stimulation produced by the city has been a theme in critical theory for well over a hundred years.Â The city fragments attention.Â New portable media technologies – laptops, cell phones, portable gaming systems, iPodsÂ – continue this tradition.Â So, the question is really about the quality of distraction, not so much the quantity.Â What is the nature of this distraction prompted by portable technologies, and does the individualized nature of the distractional technology somehow transform distraction from a public event to a private one?
I believe that personal attention is important to consider when evaluating the urban public sphere.Â But instead of lamenting its loss, we need to consider the nature of its fragmentation.Â The manner in which we pay attention to the urban environment is different, but instead of assigning moral value and counting losses, shouldn’t we in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, identify opportunities?Â Benjamin understood that while modernism threatened aura, it opened opportunities for democratic access.Â When we lament the loss of attention in the city, we’re really lamenting the loss of aura.Â We’re suggesting that people aren’t paying attention and they can no longer experience the real city.Â We need to consider that the real city is not what we assume; and as it always does, the city will emerge alongside technological and cultural changes.
Attention is transformed with each technology.Â And if you look at the history of technologies in the city, changes in attention are designed into the form of the city.Â Consider the carbon arc light and its role in urban form, the motor car, the street car, or the portable camera, radio, television, and video cameras.Â Technologies manipulate our attention and urban spaces are eventually designed to accommodate the changes in attentional structures.Â What we see with the inundation of portable technologies in our cities is not a threat to the public sphere; it is an opportunity.
Many of the conference participants, myself included, tried to steer the conversation towards the opportunities of digital design for the communicative city.Â Kyle Ezell and Mike Reed presented an early version of their sensory planning tool.Â This tool, as far as I could understand it, is meant to aggregate many existing social media data sources into a single platform to assist in a particular planning task.Â The presentation was a bit disorganized, making it rather hard to follow, but my basic understanding of the tool is that it wants to work with the myriad technologies of urban distraction to formulate an attentive public on particular issues.
I hope that the debate about communicative cities moves more in the direction of discovering opportunities within the new landscape of distraction and less in the direction of legislating normative behaviors in public space.