Walled Gardens and the Instrumented City

24 June 2011

Cities are full of public space; between the buildings – most of which are private, some of which are public – is space, most of which is public, some of which is private.

Some of that public space isn’t, really. It looks like it is – and part of the conditions of its existence are that it serves as a limited thoroughfare – but it’s very much a private space that you’re lucky to be allowed on, and which can be policed privately.

Nowhere is that more obvious than More London – a complex directly west of Tower Bridge, where City Hall resides, as does a variety of office buildings. It contains the obvious walking route along the river front; it’s designed as a very public space. But it isn’t at all: it’s private property, with its own rules.

Lock a bike to a lamp-post and this happens:

That lamp-post wasn’t yours to lock it to. This sort of thing both frustrating and confusing: why does this space, which looks like any other space, behave differently? How was one to know it wasn’t, technically, public? If you don’t see the little signs, you wouldn’t know. People walking freely, people eating their lunch in the open spaces: these are much greater signifiers for the urban citizen, and these all seem to fit a representation of “publicness”.

More and more of the city looks like this.

What happened with Tower Bridge on Twitter a few weeks back was a reminder that this is also true online. Twitter isn’t a public space like the domain name system is; it’s a private one, and you’re at the whim of its Terms of Service. I infringed its Terms (just), things got moved around.

So far, so walled-garden. We’ve seen things like this before.

But there’s a slightly larger, and more complex question raised here, and that’s the one I’m much more concerned about.

The frustrations that you see in the real city are coming to the instrumented city, and this highlights an interesting set of problems if you’re designing that instrumented city.

(What follows is not about my bot in specific; it’s about the state of existing terms of service around the web, and what they mean for any form of instrumentation and augmentation).

The idea that an object representing a structure itself in the first person isn’t allowed to describe itself is problematic; the idea that someone with the rights to a trademark has more claim to represent a structure, an edifice, than a stream of information that the structure itself produces is… troubling. (I’m not sure I can find the right word there just yet).

There’s something important about authorship and identity here, and the idea to suggest that the streams of information about a structure come from anywhere other than that structure itself feels backward.

(I would, of course have no problem if the trademark owner wished to produce that stream of information themselves).

The Transamerica Pyramid doesn’t have an account on Flickr so that people can pretend to be it, or pretend to upload photographs in its name. It has an account so that it can be pointed at in other photographs; it has an account so that it can be referenced just like a person. How do you enable something to serve that purpose if it doesn’t have the actual name of the building in question? The account isn’t impersonating the building; it is the building. Those photographs aren’t lying about having the Pyramid in them. (As it stands: the account on Flickr is called “The Pointy Building”, which is both non-infringing, but also a more accurate representation of what most people call the building anyway).

There are obvious issues that the Instrumented City, ultimately, will find ways around. Twitter – a short, written-language service – really isn’t the best format for instrumenting the city in the long run; it’s just what some of us are using for now. So I’m not worried about service-specific issues or any particular terms of service. I’m sure that the city of data will find more detailed, specified delivery formats for its information that building-owners will buy into, although I’d hope there’d still be an emphasis on the human-readability of such information.

For now, though, this is what we have, and these are the issues we have to work around, and they bear thinking about.

  • "On my way home from FOO I sat staring out the car window, all of these impressions, ideas, and seeming contradictions bouncing around in my head. And then something occurred to me. O’Reilly’s human-centered approach is still a kind of systems thinking. O’Reilly is still building a model of what the geek world is working on. They’re just doing it through the social relationships that their employees form with other geeks. The “data” they gather is stored in their employees heads and hearts and in those of the wider community of geeks they bring to events like FOO. Instead of trying to live in the model, O’Reilly tries to live in the community."
  • "In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet. Instead, I have plundered various video archives and ripped him off, up, down, left, right and back again." Somewhere between savage and affectionate, like the best parodies.
  • "Twenty-one years later, an anonymous software engineer pulled together various digital artifacts to create a multiplayer game for his son.

    Tonight, while playing that game, I ran into my 15-year-old self."

    What magic smells like.

Reality is augmented when it feels different

19 June 2011

Kevin‘s talk from Momo Amsterdam a few weeks back. I know it’s been linked elsewhere, but really, it’s marvellous, and if you’ve ever used “AR” in a meeting or room – or even been in a meeting or room where it’s been mentioned – you need to sit down and watch this. It is a good 26 minutes of your time.

I, personally, am very bored of screens as magic windows, especially when they have to be held between the eye and the world; the Wii U video with the controller held up between eye and TV made me very sad.

Using screens liks this turns them into a kind of “reality gobo“. So much optical AR suggests it’s overlaying information on reality, and thus augmenting it – but really it sits between our senses and reality, getting in the way.

Optical AR, viewed through screens, derived from markers, or marker-less technologies, or through QR or barcodes or god knows what else, I think – I hope – will feel like a distraction, a false turn, in the years to come. And yet right now, it’s cropping up in more and more places in increasingly irrelevant implementations. And if I don’t care, why will a consumer? There are many wonderful ways to augment reality, many wonderful learnings to gain from new sensory input (be it seeing through satellites or feeling, at a distance, when a bridge opens). But this whole cameras, screens, and gobos thing? Tiring. Not to mention: computationally expensive for under-rewarding output.

And so: that talk felt like a solid distillation of a bunch of truths, backed with excellent examples and a lovely thread. Also, I always enjoy watching Kevin talk; he’s a coherent and thoughtful speaker.

As a footnote: I also liked Greg Smith’s astute take on the talk:

…the initial buzz was slightly misleading as it suggested that the presentation was an outright dismissal of AR. I don’t really think this was the case… My reading of the talk is that Slavin is extremely curious about augmenting reality—as praxis—and suggesting we (startups, developers and consumers) need to be considerably more thoughtful in our application/exploration of the emerging medium and consider how it might activate other senses – AR should not distill down to “an overlay for all seasons”.

I think the key takeaway point is in Slavin’s suggestion that “reality is augmented when it feels different, not looks different” – which basically echoes Marcel Duchamp’s (almost) century-old contempt for the ‘retinal bias’ of the art market. If AR development (thus far) is lacking imagination, perhaps the problem is that we’re very much tethering the medium to our antiquated VR pipe dreams and the web browser metaphor.

  • "In contrast to the human-scale of the prototype, the Clock in the mountain will be monumental, almost architectural in scale. It will be roughly 200 feet tall. Located under a remote limestone mountain in the Sierra Diablo Mountain range in Texas, it will require a day’s hike to reach its interior gears. Just reaching the entrance tunnel situated 1500 feet above the high scrub desert will leave some visitors out of breath, nicked by thorns, and wondering what they got themselves into." Beautiful; not only that they're building it, but that pilgrimage is practically built into the design. "You wind the clock by walking", as it were.
  • "The value of the web is in its history. The value of the web is that it grows over time and that it spiders out making connections, just as often doubling back on itself to find previously unseen patterns and connections. It is not a linear progression through time and space always discarding the near past. Or if it is then I'm sorry for wasting everyone's time because that sounds about as exciting, and about as valuable, as any given season of canned television programming."

@towerbridge: a bit more clarity

12 June 2011

Buried, somewhere in the inbox I use for the Tower Bridge account, was an email from Twitter Support. So, let’s get the apology out of the way: Twitter did contact me. It was buried in an old GMail account. And, sure enough, on the first of June, here we go:

Twitter responds to reports from trademark holders regarding the use of trademarks that we determine is misleading or confusing with regard to brand or business affiliation. It has come to our attention that your Twitter account is in violation of Twitter’s trademark policy:

http://support.twitter.com/entries/18367

This account has been suspended.

Let’s see what they have to say at the URL:

Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation.

OK, I can see the reasoning behind that. There’s not much space in the Bio field to explain that it’s not official, but their policy is clear: it doesn’t matter if you were attempting to mislead; if there’s any likelihood of confusion, you’re breaking their rules.

They go on:

  • When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.
  • When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.

OK. So, what they did was the first thing.

There was no intent to mislead. Seriously, what else would you call a bot that did this? I can think of several alternatives, but in 2008, it seemed obvious.

Does it break the current terms of service? Perhaps.

What I’m really, really annoyed by is this: I have not been giving opportunity to clear up the potential confusion. I’ve just had the account suspended, the username taken, and, well, that’s it.

The account didn’t pretend to pass itself off as a trademark, or a registered company, or as anything related to the exhibition that runs within the edifice. If it passed itself of as anything, it was the structure itself. And everybody knows that really, bridges don’t talk, and certainly not that politely. There’s an interesting question – perhaps for a separate, less emotional post – about the relationship between the Instrumented City and the corporations that own the things that are Instrumented – but that’s not for now.

For now: I’m going to pursue this with Twitter, and at least resurrect the bot somewhere. When it comes back, it seems unlikely it’ll be at the original account name.

Where’s @towerbridge?

12 June 2011

I got an email today, a bit sad that the bot I made to comment on Tower Bridge’s state had disappeared.

I wasn’t aware it had disappeared.

So I checked Twitter, and sure enough: @towerbridge is now owned by an “official” account. They joined Twitter on the 18th May this year. I’m not going to comment on the quality or usefulness of the account to date.

What I am going to comment on: the bot has disappeared. All those tweets are gone, basically. So there’s no history any more of bridge lists. There’s no instrumentation of a part of the city. A little bit of the heartbeat of London – for me, and the nearly 4000 other people who followed the bot – has disappeared.

Now, I use an old email address that I check rarely for that account – but I’ve not been contacted once about this issue. The account has just been gazumped, and a little, talking part of the city has been killed.

I’m about to get in contact with Twitter the second I’ve posted this. I’m more than a little furious; after all, all the URLs that link to it are now incorrect, all the lifts, all the (puppet-mastered) banter is gone. Cool URLs don’t change, and these have just gone. And in their place: marketing.

I’ve never pretended to be an official account; I’ve never dissimulated; no-one from the exhibition has ever got in touch with me about the bot.

So, for the time being: this is why the bot has disappeared. I’m very, very cross, and perhaps a little upset; the robots are our friends, after all.

Links & notes for this month