On February 18, 2021, I joined Marisa Duarte, Rahul Mukherjee, and Tyler Morgenstern, at the Carsey Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for “The New Ethereality.” We discussed the “contemporary politics of wireless communication, with special attention paid to the cultural and governmental imaginaries that accrue to emerging wireless infrastructures like 5G. Wirelessness has long been embedded in a range of divergent cultural, political, and social narratives. Today, it is as central to the enduring promise of untrammeled global connectivity as it is to the paranoid divinations of conspiracy theorists. What is at stake in this volatile mix of epistemologies? How might historical debates regarding the possibilities, the substance, and indeed the very existence of the ether help us to grapple with a new era of ethereal speculation?
Image via Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Miguel A. Fortuna, and Jordi Bascompte@ PNAS
Maps reveal, delineate, verify, orient, navigate, anticipate, historicize, conceal, persuade, and, on occasion, even lie. From the earliest spatial representations in cave paintings and on clay tablets, to the predictive climate visualizations and crime maps and mobile cartographic apps of today and tomorrow, maps have offered far more than an objective representation of a stable reality. In this hybrid theory-practice studio we’ll examine maps as artifacts, as texts, as media; and mapping as a method useful in the social sciences, humanities, arts, and design. We’ll explore the past, present, and future – across myriad geographic and cultural contexts – of our techniques and technologies for mapping space and time. In the process, we’ll address various critical frameworks for analyzing the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of spatial and temporal maps. Throughout the semester we’ll also experiment with a variety of critical mapping tools and methods, from techniques of critical cartography to indigenous practices to sensory mapping to time-lining, using both analog and digital approaches. Students are encouraged to use the course, which will be supported by a skilled cartographer teaching assistant, to supplement their fieldwork, to develop their own thesis / dissertation projects, or to advance other personal research and creative pursuits. Course requirements include: individual map critiques; lab exercises; and individual research-based, critical-creative “atlases” composed of maps in a variety of formats.
I guest-edited the Digital Frictions series for the Architectural League of New York’s Urban Omnibus. With the expert assistance of editors Mariana Mogilevich and Josh McWhirter, we released 11 installments between September 2019 and January 2020. Here’s my introduction: “Where Code Meets Concrete,” Urban Omnibus (September 4, 2019)
In 2014 Google debuted Material Design, a set of user-interface design guidelines “inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Material surfaces reimagine the mediums of paper and ink” by presenting layers of content as if they’re solid surfaces of equal thickness, stacked atop one another. Unifying the user experience across all Google products, Mark Wilson wrote in Fast Company, “Google has become a second reality inside touch-screen devices – complete with its own rules of logic and physics – and if Google has its way, it will eventually break free of touch screens to quite literally shape the world around us.”
Well, Google has been having its way. The following year, before it metamorphosed into Alphabet, Inc., Google launched Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation” division dedicated to solving urban problems with technology. Sidewalk adopted its own form of Material Design for the “physical world,” but their materials were concrete and cameras rather than paper and ink. Sidewalk’s leaders broadcast their intention to reimagine cities “from the Internet up.” I speculated back in 2016 that Sidewalk might be involved in the master-planning of New York’s new Hudson Yards development, home to the company’s headquarters, but the following year, Sidewalk shifted its attention to Toronto, where they’re currently working with Waterfront Toronto, a government organization, to build a new district infused with Alphabet tech (from tall timber buildings to sensor-embedded streets).
That effort has faced significant resistance. Critics have challenged the terms of the public-private partnership, the opacity of the development process, and the lack of clarity over data governance. Given the obfuscatory nature of Sidewalk’s closed-door deals and proprietary technologies, it might be surprising that they’ve adopted relatively transparent, intelligible, accessible tools of self-defense: paper and ink. Material Design as rhetorical redoubt.
Cards and Chipboard
Consider Sidewalk’s Toronto HQ 307, where the company tests out and solicits ideas for the smart neighborhood taking shape nearby. This “experimental workspace” features an assortment of unassuming analog media – post-its, index cards, markers (not to mention face-to-face communication between trained liaisons and visitors) – amidst scaffoldings of unfinished plywood, chipboard, and cork. Paper signage is affixed to walls, tacked to bulletin boards, or hung from movable metal dividers. These layered sheets of white and pastel – which bear resemblance to a Material Design interface – mix simple stencil and san serif typefaces to tell us about everything from the project concept, job creation, and Ontario’s timber industry, to Sidewalk’s proposals for data use, environmental sustainability, accessibility, and social infrastructures – including myriad hypothetical health and wellness spaces.
Embedded among the printed text and still images we find the occasional screen, where we can explore maps, animations, and Sidewalk’s design tools. Humble sawhorse tables host an array of annotated cards, each offering feedback or questions from fellow 307 “co-designers.” A nearby stack of blank cards and pile of markers call upon us to add our own voices: “A question I have about facial recognition is: how will sensors and cameras be used wrt safety / security in data collection,” one visitor noted. An “efficient unit prototype,” a sample apartment made of cardboard, invites visitors to annotate its features with colored post-its: “corridor too narrow for wheelchairs,” “I like looking at something while I cook.”
Designers Daily tous les jours says they’ve created a “set of colorful, rolling, modular, stackable, playful interactive tools” that turn 307 into a place for “input + discussion + experimentation + new ideas + action.” Not everything is interactive, however. Some features simply announce their presence and expect us to deal with it. Perched high in a corner is a pair of gadgets, a white cylinder and a grey box, which, a stencil-and-san-serif sign-on-a-stand informs us, is a Numina sensor: “Hello,” it says. “A low-resolution image of you may be taken in this area. This image is immediately de-identified and is only used to calibrate and validate pedestrian and vehicle movement operating in the area.” No opt-in or out. No solicitation of your opinion or request for consent. Numina simply is, as-is, and it may have already taken your photo – before you even knew of its existence.
The open room is painted primer-white, and at the center of its concrete floor is a platform composed of tessellated chipboard hexagons, each with an embedded LED light. Those hexagons reappear outside, as pavers made from concrete infused with powerderized post-consumer glass (thus, the signs say, keeping glass waste out of landfills, and decreasing the CO2 emissions generated through concrete production). Inspired by the work of the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Networks, these pavers deliver “four key features”: modularity, which allows for easy removal and replacement; heating, which hastens the melting of snow and ice; lighting, which can be programmed to offer real-time cues to regulate traffic and communicate street use; and permeability, which aids with stormwater management. A sign affixed to the side of a shipping container – the modern model of modularity – identifies these hexagons as the “holy grail of pavement.” It’d be sacrilegious not to exploit their virtues.
307’s humble material objects – concrete and chipboard, post-its and powderized glass – are rhetorical tools suggesting that, here, cities are “workshopped,” urban futures and data plans are co-created from a mix of proprietary platforms and public knowledge. Except for that Numina sensor: that’s registering your presence and taking your picture, whether you like it or not.
Cells and Sensors
“Sensors have become a part of our daily lives. CCTVs. Traffic cameras. Transit card readers. Bike lane counters. Wi-Fi access points. Occupancy sensors that activate lights or open doors. These are all examples of how digital technologies can integrate into our physical world to help make our public spaces more comfortable, responsive, and efficient.” So acknowledged Sidewalk Labs in its Designing for Digital Transparency in the Public Realm project, developed through Spring of 2019 and formally released on April 19.
Open government advocate Bianca Wylie decried Sidewalk’s “passive language, without agency.” They speak “as though the sensors and cameras just sprouted into the world, without creators or purchasers, without contracts or decisions.” Of course Sidewalk, its parent company Alphabet, and partners like Numina have put – and are putting – many of those sensors in place. This act of “subtle [sensor] normalization,” Wylie says, “works to “guarantee that a quantified city becomes a social norm.” It’s already happening, Sidewalk reminds us; we might as well accept the facts: “Look around you as you go about your day, and you’ll start to see how much sensing and data collection infrastructure is already all around you — but there is very little transparency around what data is being collected, by whom, and for what purpose.”
Think back to that Numina privacy notice inside 307. “Hello! A low-resolution image of you may be taken in this area.” Or it may alreadyhave been taken by the time you read this sign. What if we applied a similar tell-don’t-ask / declaration-without-consent strategy to the thousands of outdoor sensors around Quayside – and all across Toronto and other cities and towns. Boston and London are already posting signage that alerts people to the presence of digital technologies in the public realm, but those signs are often text-heavy, and they require visiting a website to gather more information. As Sidewalk team members Jacqueline Lu, Patrick Keenan and Chelsey Colbert explain, user research shows that “few users read long, jargon-filled privacy and data collection policies.” SL asks: “What if you could quickly communicate what technology was in use in the public realm in a way that was transparent and clear without being overwhelming?”
Sidewalk’s team (which contains lots of talented folks with impressive design, civic tech, and government experience) responded to this question by, first, examining existing labels and signage – from nutrition labels to street signs to surveillance camera notices – and the relevant International Organization of Standardization guidelines. They then convened co-design sessions in Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and London, which made use of cards and forms like those available in 307 to assess participants’ questions and concerns about existing technology (as much recent research has shown, those tech concerns vary widely in relation to users’ race and class, which raises questions about the demographic diversity of workshop participants). Sidewalk’s facilitators first asked participants what questions they had about existing technologies, like Bluetooth beacons and infrared sensors, then identified concerns shared within the group. They then asked participants to imagine signage systems and icons that would provide useful information about those technologies. Sidewalk polished those user proposals into their own set of icons, which they further refined through user-testing. They held periodic online “shareouts,” too, to present the evolving design.
Through this iterative user research process (undertaken in collaboration with the Soofa signage team), Sidewalk learned that the questions most important to people are: the purpose of various digital infrastructures (e.g., emergency, mobility, accessibility, enforcement, energy efficiency, and so forth; it’s not the most ontologically consistent classification system), the entity accountable for each technology, and whether that technology collects identifiable information. The co-design process seemed to begin by assuming that the presence of these technologies is a given; [edit:] while some resistancewas apparently permitted, workshops seemed to be structured such that little time was spent debating whether particular digital infrastructures belonged in the public realm in the first place. The co-design process ultimately frames sensing technologies as a necessity, an inevitability. Might as well normalize them by getting to know them.
Sidewalk developed a set of icons (derived from Google’s Material icons) for each variable and decided to set those icons within a hexagon badge. “We chose the hexagon,” they explained, “because this perfect shape that occurs naturally” – from honeycombs to snowflakes – “is the most efficient way to fill a space with the least amount of material.” Plus, it’s “currently unused in our vocabulary of signage shapes and slightly resembles a stop sign – giving users a slight ‘Hey, check this out’ without forcing a stop.” (edit: Alex Gekker also noted hexagonal resonances in sci-fi gaming.) And as with the hexagonal concrete pavers planned for use on Toronto’s streets, these hexagonal icons tessellate easily, in standard patterns (again, in accordance with Material Design principles, and as James Birch notes, in a fashion quite similar to that of the NFPA 704 hazard placard).
The “purpose” and “accountable entity” cells are black and white, while the “identifiability” cell is in color: if its captured data is de-identified, (e.g., by blurring recognizable information in photos) the cell is blue; if users are identifiable (as in surveillance camera footage), the cell is yellow. If a particular technology collects no identifiable data, there’s no colored cell. I must admit: I’m not quite sure what it means to be “air-” or “light-de-identified” (a breeze could dissipate any identifiable chemicals?).
A fourth cell offers a QR code and URL through which users can access, via their mobile devices, a “digital channel” that offers more detail. This transition from physical signage to digital interface again exploits the cross-platform continuity of Material Design. Online, the information is organized linearly, via a set of chained icons identifying, first, the responsible organization, the technology’s purpose, and the tech type – the same information embedded in hexagons on public signage. The next set of icons, enclosed in circles, addresses the data and its processing: the type of data, whether it’s identifiable, how it’s processed. The final set, framed in squares, pertains to data storage and access: how long, where, and how it’s stored, and who has access to it. Plus, as the Sidewalk Team explained in their April 8, 2019, shareout, “You’ll see in the digital channel [tha]
there’s always an area to give feedback, … a way for people to express their opinions about the technology. And hopefully that feedback actually goes to someone who can make a difference.” Yes, hopefully the platform facilitates the registration of concerns to an accountable entity, and that that feedback prompts real dialogue – rather than merely enabling the performance of “co-design.”
“We’re not planning this just for Quayside,” the team says. “The intention from the beginning was that this would be implemented well before Quayside, and that this can really forward provocations about digital literacy and understanding the public realm at large.” They intend for their Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR) project designs – and the whole design process – to extend well beyond Toronto, too. All workshop materials, icons, and design standards are available on Github under a Creative Commons license. Sidewalk wants folks in other towns and cities to adopt and adapt them – and thus further advance the cause of “digital literacy.” “Our goal is to co-develop meaningful design patterns that will eventually be adopted by cities, private partners, and other institutions that are interested in improving digital transparency in public spaces,” they noted in their March 4, 2019, shareout.
Transparency implies disclosing the presence of urban technologies and the harvesting of what Sidewalk calls “urban data,” which encompass data collected in public spaces, private spaces accessible to the public, and private spaces that aren’t controlled by their occupants (what a conveniently wide jurisdiction). By “providing transparency,” Sidewalk helps people “increase their awareness” – their “literacy” – “of how digital technology in the public realm works.” That’s not an ignoble goal. Transparency, Lu, Keenan, and Colbert explain, “can empower users to meaningfully engage in what is fast-becoming a critical conversation of our time. And, equally important, transparency can nudge both users and data collectors towards best practices.” Yet I can’t help but wonder in whose interest “best” is defined here.
DTPR, an acronym likely to evoke GDPR – a recent landmark EU regulation on data protection and privacy – isn’t really about privacy or consent, or about fundamental questions regarding the presence of extractive and surveillant technologies in the public realm. Instead, DTPR, like the 307 experience, marshals Material Co-Design – its stacked colored cards and tessellated hexagons, minimalist icons and ISO standards – to aestheticize and rationalize coercion (co-optation? hegemonic persuasion? I can’t find the right word!), to frame “performative ethics” as political action. As Rob Kitchin argues, “citizen-centric” design, or co-design, “has largely acted as an empty signifier, designed to silence detractors or bring them into the fold while now altering the technocratic workings, profit-driven orientation, or ethos of stewardship … and civic paternalism … of smart city schemes.”
By becoming literate in design methods, by framing deliberation within a totalizing Material Design system, by learning how to spot urban technology and celebrating our “awareness” of its operations (undoubtedly valuable skills!), we can lose sight of the bigger questions: about whether we want cities built in the image of a corporate internet, whether all digital infrastructures are necessarily in the public interest, and whether a public’s acts of citizenship should be reduced to filling out co-design cards and training Alphabet’s algorithms.
 When the motorcar was new, it exercised the typical mechanical pressure of explosion and separation of functions. It broke up family life, or so it seemed, in the 1920s. It separated work and domicile, as never before. It exploded each city into a dozen suburbs, and then extended many of the forms of urban life along the highways until the open road seemed to become nonstop cities. It created the asphalt jungles, and caused 40,000 square miles of green and pleasant land to be cemented over… Streets, and even sidewalks, became too intense a scene for the casual interplay of growing up. As the city filled with mobile strangers, even next-door neighbors became strangers.
“This is the story of the motorcar,” Marshall McLuhan explained in 1964, “and it has not much longer to run.”  He noted in Understanding Media a “growing uneasiness about the degree to which cars have become the real population of our cities, with a resulting loss of human scale, both in power and in distance. The town planners are plotting ways and means to buy back our cities for the pedestrian from the big transportation interests.”
 And the arrival of a new medium was making it possible for those planners to conceive of a new, less auto-centric form of urbanity. Television – that “hot, explosive medium of social communication” – would render meaningless such phrases as “going to work” or “going shopping,” McLuhan predicted, because we would soon be able to do these things from our own homes, via video-telephone or two-way TV. Television was collapsing distance in such a way that the car’s extension of our corporeal mobility was no longer necessary – or desirable. “The tide of taste and tolerance has turned, since TV,” he explained, “to make the hot-car medium increasingly tiresome.  Witness the portent of the crosswalk, where the small child has power to stop a cement truck.”
 If we update McLuhan’s 1964 vision for Toronto of 2028, when networked, ambient technologies will have supplanted the television, that small child needn’t even worry about finding a crosswalk. Autonomous vehicles, with their lidar and sonar and multidirectional cameras, will constantly be watching for his approach, ready to stop on a dime. The crosswalk could potentially migrate, too, depending upon traffic patterns and time of day.  Those shifting functions would be signaled by colored LEDs embedded in the pavers.  And our small child’s caretakers needn’t worry about shielding him from the curb, either – because there won’t be one. Quayside’s “shared streets,” inspired by the Dutch woonerf principle, will call on pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, wheelchair users, skaters, and other moving bodies to share space and negotiate around one another’s presence. Such negotiations – of power and privilege, publicity and privacy – have long distinguished the sidewalk as a species of space.  And as we examine Sidewalk Labs from a pedestrian perspective, I thought it might be useful to think critically about the pedestrian commitments implied in their name.
I must admit that I’ve adopted this conceptual approach in part because I’m not an expert on the Quayside project. It’s too fast-moving a target, whose trajectory is informed by too many local politics and legacies, for me to claim any expertise from my station in New York.  Yet I have written quite a bit over the past several years about smart cities and urban infrastructure and, on a few occasions, Sidewalk Labs and Alphabet’s other geospatial initiatives.  And in Spring of 2016 I published a big piece about New York’s version of Quayside, Hudson Yards, where Sidewalk Labs was one of the first tenants, and where I speculated that the Labs might be playing some role in developing urban technology for the 28-acre, $25-billion-U.S.-dollar project, the largest private development project in U.S. history.  I took my Urban Intelligence class on fields trips there in 2017 and 2018, where our tour guides confirmed that Sidewalk Labs was developing “digital master plans” for Hudson Yards and other cities.
 While Sidewalk ultimately chose you over us to build their city “from the Internet up,” New York is dealing with its own tech-urbanism drama. As you might know, last month, after facing weeks of opposition from activists, union leaders, and lawmakers, Amazon pulled out of a deal to build one of its two HQ2 campuses in Long Island City, Queens.  Then, just a little over a week ago, Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and dozens of legislators and CEOs published a full-page open letter in the Times, begging Amazon to come back. Like any passionate courtship, break-up, and attempted reconciliation, the New York-Amazon negotiation has migrated across platforms – from Twitter tirades and international press, to letter-writing campaigns,  paper flyers and sidewalk protests.
The sidewalks here served as a medium. I’m sure McLuhan would approve of such a designation. And while this spatial medium might’ve played a critical role in quelling Amazon’s project,  they’re a source of inspiration for Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff, who said that “Sidewalk Labs is a nod to both the rich mix of personal intersections that give great city streets their vitality and also the incredible ability throughout the history of cities to solve local challenges through innovation.” He thus acknowledges that sidewalks themselves are a medium for sociality, but also suggests that, like other media technologies, sidewalks and the cities they compose are maintained and improved through disruption.
Doctoroff’s observation is, of course, nothing novel.  Jane Jacobs, another Torontonian, regarded streets and sidewalks as “the main public places of a city,” its “most vital organs,” whose sociality helped to maintain safety and stability.  And the rudimentary spatial form has been around for quite some time, as Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht write in their book Sidewalks. The first sidewalks reportedly appeared around 2000 B.C. in central Anatolia, or modern Turkey. Ancient Corinth supposedly had sidewalks, and the Romans their semita, too.  Yet in medieval cities and towns, pedestrians “mingled with horses, carts, and wagons.” These were among the original “shared streets,” an innovation for which we typically credit 20th century Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman.
 By the mid-18th century, some Parisian streets had foot pavements and trottoirs, and elevated walkways lined many boulevards.  A few decades later, “when sidewalks were increasingly common in London,” a “border territory” emerged “between the footway and the carriageway”: the gutter, a textbook liminal space, became the place for all those who don’t belong. And by the early 19th century, many large cities, as part of larger public works projects, were paving and legislating sidewalks and occasionally including tax assessments for their provision. Wood and gravel eventually turned into concrete. “[S]idewalks had become important elements of the urban infrastructure, and thousands of miles of [them] were paved in American cities.”
 The sidewalk is indeed a concrete site with its own materiality and sociality, which are shaped largely by its in-between-ness – and this very liminality demonstrates just how much is negotiated, or mediated, in this zone. A sidewalk is, and has been, home to sandwich board-hawkers and newsstands, window displays and stock tickers, graffiti and surveillance cameras. But it also mediates between ontological conditions and political positions that parallel those central to the Sidewalk Labs debate – and data-driven urbanism and private development more generally.
 In the nineteenth century, because street improvements were known to increase property value, they were typically paid for by abutting property owners. This is why one would commonly see breaks in the sidewalk along a given block, reflecting crests and troughs of entrepreneurialism. Those sidewalks also often served as extensions of commercial space, where grocers could display their produce, peddlers could lay out their wares, and plyers of licentious trades could advertise their services.  But even now, when sidewalks are commonly regarded as public works, abutting property owners are still responsible for keeping them clear and in good repair. Some of those owners privatize the sidewalks, restricting particular uses and limiting access to particular people (typically those who can pay).  And in many cities, particularly in the developing world, sidewalks are the conduits for vibrant shadow economies and cultural networks. Annette Kim documents such uses in Ho Chi Minh City in her fantastic book, Sidewalk City.For these reasons, Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht argue, “sidewalks are simultaneously public and parochial – open to all and yet a space of which a group feels ownership.”
 We see similar tensions at Sidewalk Toronto, where critics and champions debate the proper division of labor between public and private – not only in the physical realm, but in the virtual one, too. There’s concern over the ownership and monetization of private data – and proposals to create data trusts or commons,  or to involve a trusted public institution like the Toronto Public Library. I won’t say much more about this because I assume(d) that one of my fellow panelists would be focusing on these issues.
 One of the primary concerns over data management is the risk incurred by already-marginalized populations. Urban sidewalks have also historically harbored their own forms of risk. They’ve mediated between subjects’ identities and either reinforced, or allowed for challenges to, traditional social hierarchies. As Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht describe the 19th-century sidewalk: “Acts of deference or domination were negotiated as people passed each other.” People of color and low socioeconomic class were expected to step aside, into the gutter, so as to avoid impeding the smooth passage of the elite. Yet the streets were also where the oppressed practiced small acts of resistance or engaged in political demonstrations to demand equality. The sidewalks were sites of contestation and media for resistance.
 Meanwhile, 19th-century “women who wished to maintain middleclass propriety were relegated to private realms.” If they wished to walk the sidewalk, they typically needed an escort. But by the middle of the century, some cities had passed ordinances against sexual harassment.  Geographer Ayona Datta is still working today to highlight and mitigate gender-based violence on the streets of the informal settlements in India’s smart cities. She’s not alone; sidewalks everywhere are still home to hate crimes and harassment – regardless of how “smart” a city is.  Here and elsewhere, the presence or absence of curb cuts and other accessibility measures can open up or close off a city to someone in a wheelchair, or a caretaker pushing a stroller, or a homeless person pushing all of her belongings in a cart. Sidewalk politics are issues of access and equity – and, for those in underserved areas, they’re emblems of environmental justice, too. These issues of equity and accessibility and security pertain to the virtual realm, too – and to the cloud of data that hovers over our networked urban neighborhoods.
 These are just a few of the ways in which, as McLuhan might say, a sidewalk serves as a medium.  And by considering the history and politics of this old-school medium, we might help to contextualize the ways in which Sidewalks Labs has adopted both the opportunities and risks of its namesake. Sidewalk’s sidewalk is one of modular pavers and movable street furnishings, timber canopies and traffic patterns that respond to immediate needs. None of it’s all that innovative – all of these individual technologies have existed before.  What’s novel here is not the TV, as McLuhan proclaimed in his time, but the data harvested and processed both to render these streets and sidewalks so hospitable and responsive, and to render their inhabitants trackable and targetable.
 The new crosswalk portent in tomorrow’s city is perhaps not the small child with the power to stop a cement truck, but the sovereign subject – or the collective – with the power to curtail surveillance capitalism disguised in timber and sustainable concrete,  pin-up boards and post-its.