24 August 2008

Cities are all about difficulty

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Adam Greenfield
The PICNIC conference website has posted a short but intriguing interview with Adam Greenfield, Nokia’s new head of design direction. An excerpt about the urban experience, technology and solitude:

“You know, I believe that cities are all about difficulty. They’re about waiting: for the bus, for the light to change, for your order of Chinese take-out to be ready. They’re about frustration: about parking tickets, dogshit, potholes and noisy neighbors. They’re about the unavoidable physical and psychic proximity of other human beings competing for the same limited pool of resources….the fear of crime, and its actuality. These challenges have conditioned the experience of place for as long as we’ve gathered together in settlements large and dense enough to be called cities.

And as it happens, with our networked, ambient, pervasive informatic technology, we now have (or think we have) the means to address some of these frustrations. In economic terms, these technologies both lower the information costs people face in trying to make the right decisions, and lower the opportunity cost of having made them.

So you don’t head out to the bus stop until the bus stop tells you a bus is a minute away, and you don’t walk down the street where more than some threshold number of muggings happen – in fact, by default it doesn’t even show up on your maps – and you don’t eat at the restaurant whose forty-eight recent health code violations cause its name to flash red in your address book. And all these decisions are made possible because networked informatics have effectively rendered the obscure and the hidden transparent to inquiry. And there’s no doubt that life is thusly made just that little bit better.

But there’s a cost – there’s always a cost. Serendipity, solitude, anonymity, most of what we now recognize as the makings of urban savoir faire: it all goes by the wayside. And yes, we’re richer and safer and maybe even happier with the advent of the services and systems I’m so interested in, but by the same token we’re that much poorer for the loss of these intangibles. It’s a complicated trade-off, and I believe in most places it’s one we’re making without really examining what’s at stake”.

Read interview

Meanwhile Greenfield posted on his own blog about the difference between context-aware applications and location-based services.

Referring to the prototypes by designer Mac Funamizu, Greenfield writes:

“The device’s capabilities and available interface modalities at any given moment are largely if not entirely determined by the other networked objects around it. If you pair the device with a text, it’s a reader; at the checkstand, it provides a friendly POS interface; aimed at the skyline, it augments reality.

Why this argument is so self-evident to longterm IxD folks and so relatively hard for anyone else to grok is, I believe, a function of the fact that we already take for granted the (rather significant) assumption from which it proceeds: that the greater part of the places and things we find in the world will be provided with the ability to speak and account for themselves. That they’ll constitute a coherent environment, an ontome of self-describing networked objects, and that we’ll find having some means of handling the information flowing off of them very useful indeed. […]

The second thing Mac got right is more subtle, and it’s a line about the evolution of mobile devices that I think is deeply correct. It’s that the device is of almost no importance in and of itself, that its importance to the person using it lies in the fact that it’s a convenient aperture to the open services available in the environment, locally as well as globally.

Mac happens to have interpreted this metaphor particularly literally, but there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s certainly a defensible choice. The business lesson that drops out of it, though – and of course I would think this – is that the crafting of an impeccable user experience is virtually the only differentiator left to a would-be player in this market, with clear implications for allocation of organizational effort and resources.”

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