The Production of Space

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 10 years 27 weeks ago.

I listened to Bruce Perens talk recently about the open source software movement. Bruce agrees with Richard Stallman on most philosophical points of availability of source code and software licensing. Except for one thing, Bruce thinks open source and proprietary software can co-exist in the same world. Why is it, that often in software worlds, people want to choose one or the other? People subscribe to this notion of zoning, we found in urban planning in the 20th century. Namely that residential areas are only residential areas, industrial areas are only industrial etc. People have described the city of Bejing to me several times in this way. I don't know what Bejing is like to live in. I don't know if Jane Jacobs would endorse such a design. I think virtual and web space, are opportunities to extend the complexity of space, which Jacobs speaks so lovingly about. It is hard to design like this. The best minds in urban planning haven't figured it out.

"Consider, for example, the orthodox planning reaction to a district called the North End in Boston.
This is an old, low-rent area merging into the heavy industry of the waterfront, and it is officially
considered Boston's worst slum and civic shame. It embodies attributes which all enlightened people know are evil because so many wise men have said they are evil. Not only is the North End bumped right up against industry, but worse still it has all kinds of working places and commerce mingled in the greatest complexity with its residences. It has the highest concentration of dwelling units, on the land that is used for dwelling units, of any part of Boston, and indeed one of the highest concentrations to be found in any American city. It has little parkland. Children play in the streets. Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in planning parlance it is "badly cut up with wasteful streets."

From The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.

What Danah Boyd's discussion on Being Virtual fails to point out, is the great opportunity we have now sitting in front of us. We have the opportunity to provide many different kinds of work place in the same design. Over the summertime here in Dublin, I witnessed an interesting thing. I was sitting outside a cafe in Dublin city centre one Sunday morning. There was a couple beside me, a man was reading a newspaper and the girl was sipping her coffee. After a while, she was begging the man to come with her to a web cafe. She wanted to catch up on some news.

Why anybody would forsake the summer sunshine in Dublin on Sunday morning, to catch up with friends, social networks and news feeds on an LCD monitor is beyond me. But to try and resolve the matter, the man walked across the street to a shop and returned with a second newspaper for her. She took one look at the front page and still protested. It became clear to me, he preferred his news as ink squeezed onto dead wood with a cup of coffee in his hand. We will always have these newspaper readers, no matter how much technology pervades into our lives. While she had to get her news, in her favourite online immersive way. A Sunday morning, just wasn't complete otherwise. So the physical and virtual space have to merge in some way to keep this couple happy.

Consider the idea expressed by Nicholas Negroponte, of the weather forecast broadcasted in pure digital bits. You would be free on your end, to interpret this data stream however you wish. Depending on your life and how the weather affects you, you could view the information through whatever instrument or lense you wish. I will be the first person to wear a digital eye piece, and use software to provide alternative views of my world, if it helps me. Surely this is what we are seeing with blogging and the data feeds people tend to use. Without having to wear a clunky prostectic device, using RSS feeds and blogs, people are getting used to the idea of adjusting their lense to suit their personal requirements and preference.

Something, Jane Jacobs describes in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is how
automobiles are employed as convenient villians for all urban problems. If we solve the traffic problem in cities then we will solve all other problems at the same time. We see traffic engineering departments command huge resources to build infrastructure and plan our environment. But we don't see an end result worth the investment in most cases. Because traffic problems alone do not cause decay in cities. In the virtual/ web space/ meatspace debate, we are wasting a lot of our energy arguing over who will become the traffic engineering department. Will it be Google, will it be Microsoft or Wikipedia? The platform battle is waged to decide who will gain control over the online commons space.

I have lived in Dublin city in Ireland all my life, and this weekend myself and an Italian friend took
a short train journey together. We were at a loss however - there was no map in the entire train
station. This was Connolly Station, one of the two main train stations in the city of Dublin. Not even the information booth had a map of where the various stops were. In this city of information and fibre optic technology, we had no idea where we were going. My Italian friend made sure to point this out to me, that no bus or train station in the country considered the person from another country, trying to find their way around. I was aware that Ireland has been a little island stranded on the edge of Europe all my life. But what I didn't consider was the lack of signage was in our cities to help people move efficiently within them. This is after how many millions of Euro spent in the Traffic Engineering department?

As a last resort we asked the ticket checker which platform our train was on. Half an hour later, having got the train on platform 7, we arrived in a maintenance shed 3 miles away. Hardly the destination I was looking for. We had trouble getting out of the maintenance facility and some security guy had to escort us through the big steel gates which led out to an unknown portion of the city. My Italian friend seemed to see the humour in this whole pathetic situation, but I didn't. Much of our experience could have been avoided by a simple virtual tool, like a map at the train station.

Later that evening, a taxi driver called to the front door of our house. He was asked to collect someone who had ordered a taxi. No one in our house had ordered a taxi. There is an effort under way in Dublin at the moment, to automate private taxi companies. They have pocket PCs on their car dashboard, bluetooth headsets and connections back to head office. It seems machines are replacing human beings again. If these system ever work, it will save a lot of work at head office in taxi companies. But right now, I am just reminded of Kevin Kelly's description of the bee hive in his book Out of Control. Kelly talks of the drone bees who go back and forth all day long for no apparent reason. In the hive intelligence there is always a large portion of wasted resources, to eventually get the right answer. Kelly imagines the drone bees saying to themselves, ah well, just another day at the office.

Whether a space is virtual, web based or real doesn't strike me as the real issue. There are an infinite number of ways in which designers can and have screwed up the design of all three kinds of space. We should aim for better design in general, and erase these silly boundaries we make between different kinds of space. Skill in design of one space should easily transfer into design or another. In building online worlds, is not enough just to follow the traffic analogy. This has dominated much of debate amongst executives, startups, journalists and VCs in the past decade or so. Many of the comments I read at Shirky's Second Life post at corante, still concern themselves with the traffic analogy. It should also be noted, that building of all sorts of space happen in periods of boom and bust. This is unfortunate in ways. The meatspace Danah Boyle refers to is notorious for periods of intense building and demolition. Often following periods of war, when there is little money available and many people to house.

We tend to forget this now, but following the last big roll out of the web as application, all kinds of uses, which previously had their own protocols and rules, were absorbed underneath the umbrella of web space. Take mail for example.Over the history of the network, mail has had several homes. Lately, mail has found its home on web space, in the form of hotmail, yahoo, google mail etc. It is far from being clear, if this will be its final resting place. But at the moment, that is where it gets housed. Perhaps mail could prove more durable tool, if it was absorbed into a semi-real kind of space? Mail in the real world seems to work wouldn't you say? In fact, for large amounts of data, I still have to resort to shipping hard disks.

In order to sustain real online virtual communities, I think you need to examine the complexity of space and how it really works. Alvin Toffler has a wonderful chapter in his book, The Third Wave where he ridicules the notion of a traditional family in today's society. He points out that only 25% of people or less, fall into the definition of a traditional family. Yet, the cities we are building still conform to this outmoded idealism. As time goes by, we will have to create cities which take account of the wide spectrum of people that do live and exist in everyday society. This is why I find Henri Lefebvre's comments in the book The Production of Space, on Karl Popper, and the Open Society so interesting to read.