“From realtime city to asynchronicity” abstract for workshop “Time Travelers: Temporality and Mapping”, University of Oxford, 27-28 May 2014

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Last week I was in Oxford for the workshop “Time Travelers: Temporality and Mapping”. The workshop was organized by the research team of the ERC-funded project “Charting the Digital: digital mapping practices as new media cultures” (Sybille Lammes, Nanna Verhoeff, Clancy Wilmott, Sam Hind, Alex Gekker, and Chris Perkins) based at the University of Warwick (in collaboration with Utrecht University and the University of Manchester) and Jesus College at the University of Oxford.

Thanks to the organizers for a great event with many inspiring people and talks!


abstract: From realtime city to asynchronicity

Michiel de Lange

Mapping events in realtime and responding to them immediately in (semi-)sentient autonomous ways is a main promise of ‘smart city’ visions and policies. In these views, the smart city collects data, quantifies and makes algorithmic decisions through self-learning feedback loops. It is modeled as an automated system that effectively bypasses the messy role of citizens.

In a thought-provoking ‘design fiction’ exercise, design researchers Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova deliberately invert the discourse of instantaneity in digital cartography.[1] Implicitly arguing for ‘slow mapping’, they propose the notion of asynchronicity to explore how urban computing technologies might afford more interesting interactions with the city than the efficiency-driven realtime model. For instance, out of sync mapping may reinsert serendipity into urban life. Asynchronicity allows citizens to appropriate the city by incrementally mapping and narrating their personal and collective ‘sense of place’. And asynchronicity draws attention to the messiness of failing systems, thus exposing the equally fictitious myth-making of realtime mapping.

My contribution pursues their exploration of asynchronicity, to investigate temporality at the nexus of digital mapping and urban life along three lines.

First, at the level of representation, asynchronicity draws attention to reprogrammability as a distinct feature of todays media city. The modernist city was spatially preprogrammed to be read according to singular functions: living, working, leisure, mobility, meeting. Asynchronicity highlights disjunctions between standard readings and the myriad of possible temporary rewritings. For example, location-based urban games temporarily remap city streets from a mobility infrastructure to a gameboard, and AirBNB allows private houses to be rescheduled into hotels.

Second, at the level of performance, asynchronicity highlights how maps may provide horizons for action in spatial decision-making. Asynchronous maps, for example open data aggregator OSCity.nl, are always unfinished. They show their falling-short and messiness, thus allowing ongoing processes of adaptation and mutation. They provide scripts rather than scenarios: affording diverging, iterative and open-ended play instead of singular, predefined, top-down planning narratives.

Third, at the level of (self-)interpretation, asynchronicity points to the mobility in urban subjectivities and identities. The terra cognita map with its fixed boundaries supported atemporal ‘imagined communities’. In todays super-diverse cities, singular narratives with stable plots no longer appear the privileged form of identity mediation. In subjective and emotional cartography we see existing and new identity parameters for self-understanding being dynamically reshuffled.

[1] Bleecker, Julian, and Nicolas Nova. 2009. A Synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing. In Situated Technologies Pamphlet series, eds. Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz and Mark Shepard. New York: The Architectural League of New York http://www.situatedtechnologies.net.

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