Navigating civics and space in our digital world: a call to action
The term “technology” comes from the Greek techne, meaning art or craft, and logos meaning word or expression, the two combining to give tekhnologia, referring to a form of systematic treatment. Today, the term refers more practically to the application of knowledge by humans through tools and techniques. This “technical” application of knowledge has served as the fundamental means of fueling progress throughout human history, from agriculture to communication, infrastructure to the domestic sphere. Sometimes this means a subtle shift in a society’s foundations; sometimes the change is more violent, disrupting long-standing norms. In The Site Magazine Volume 39: Foundations/Disruptions we examine both the foundational and disruptive capacities of technology and the ways in which it ultimately shapes our physical, social, and cultural relations, questioning what role designers have in influencing this course.
Technology in and of itself has no inherent moral value—it is neither good nor bad, but rather it becomes charged by the values we impart to it. In the last two decades, the proliferation of data programming and information has led to an explosion of digital technologies, placing wide-reaching technological capacity into the hands of many and accelerating the rate of its application. According to a 2017 study by IBM, every day we produce 2.5 exabytes (1018) of data globally, (1) or, as Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously (though perhaps inaccurately) stated, the equivalent to the volume of data produced from the dawn of civilization through to 2003. (2) By any measure, this is a huge amount of information, generated through browser searches, social media posts, text messages, digital photos, and the information collected through a growing, dispersed internet-of-things. As citizens, designers, writers, artists, we have a professional and civic responsibility to consider how the platforms and technologies generating and collecting these data are structured, and how they consequently influence our practice, social engagement, and spatial production.
In the call for submissions for this issue, we noted that in contrast to Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 prophecy that digital living would remove the limitations of geography, (3) the opposite has taken place: space has expanded as it has become more complex and inseparable from its digital dimension. (4) In fact it is a complicated situation—digital networking has enabled the transmission of information, communication, and even experience across large geographical distances, collapsing space as Negroponte suggested. However, at the same time, this compression has made physical location less significant in many ways and opened up a new "space," the digital space, which, in its abstract, intangible way, extends our understanding of spatial limits.
For quite some time, the digital world was seen as an alternate reality, an "other" space where one could live an alter-ego with anonymity. But the escapism offered by this digital reality—freedom from perceived hierarchies of race, age, and gender—proved limited and only possible when kept separate from physical or political realities. In recent years, questions of online vs. offline, human vs. robot, truth vs. post-truth, etc, reveal how inextricably intertwined our physical, political, cultural, and digital spheres have become. The use of digital technology has been demonstrated to both support and undermine democratic institutions, providing platforms where political will can coalesce around the possibility of social change, opening the door to opportunities as well as crises like Facebook-Cambridge Analytical scandal.
The fifteen pieces collected in this volume address this history of technology, its current digital evolutions, and the agency and responsibility that it bestows upon us as both citizens and designers through four main themes: “Markets,” “Ethics,” “Experiments,” and “Interfaces.” “Markets” addresses the role of technology in transforming and subverting a traditional market structure, as in Matthew Claudel’s exploration of the ways in which companies like WeWork have usurped digital tools to not only transform spatial models of work on a small scale, but to radically monopolize real-estate markets on an urban scale. In “Ethics,” contributors directly address looming questions about the moral and ethical values that technological applications and the interpretation of data take on in the hands of different controlling parties. This section also considers how these technologies offer the opportunity to decentralize control and empower individuals or communities, as in the case studies in Maya Przybylski’s research that highlight how three architectural practices leverage information communication technologies to actively engage with and contribute to public urban life. “Experiments” questions how the tech industry’s entrepreneurial method of experimentation—trial and error, or learning-by-doing—is applied to design, considering history, risk, and various implications of such a methodology. “A Discussion on Tech in Toronto,” for example, engages a group of experts and leaders from design, politics, academia, and tech to discuss Sidewalk Labs’ urban experiment with Quayside. Finally, “Interfaces” offers a collection of pieces that address the wide infiltration of data and digital technology into public, domestic, and professional spheres, from benign street furniture to futuristic fiction, including “Spectacle Squares,” by Kuba Snopek, Petro Vladimirov, Tomasz Świetlik, and Nicholas W. Moore, which uncovers a history of democratic urban action and media in public squares in Eastern Europe.
The incomprehensible volume of our data and the impersonal perception of machinic algorithms abstract our understanding of digital technology making its effects seem distant from our lives. But in reality the accessibility of knowledge afforded by these means offers us new agency, representation, and visibility (not to be mistaken for equality). Despite the overwhelming consolidation of power by a few giants—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—digital technologies simultaneously support grassroots efforts and connect intersectional groups. It is our responsibility to be literate in digital technology and find ways to translate these equalizing opportunities into our built fabric. Technology has no capacity in and of itself to solve any problem: we need to address issues such as inequality, sustainability, and accessibility ourselves. Rather than give up our agency to systems without critical consideration, we can use the information available to participate in the process. Technology is evolving, the data is available, and we just need to act—in responsible, ethical, and meaningful ways—to continue to shape the foundations of our social, cultural, and physical fabric. And to disrupt when necessary.
Aisling O’Carroll and Miriam Ho, editorial leads v39, co-editors in chief
Ruth Jones, co-editor in chief
(1) IBM Marketing Cloud, 10 Key Marketing Trends for 2017: and Ideas for Exceeding Customer Expectations, November 2016, https://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?htmlfid=WRL12345USEN.
(2) MG Siegler, “Eric Schmidt: Every 2 Days We Create As Much Information as We Did Up To 2003,” TechCrunch, 2001, accessed September 15, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/schmidt-data/.
(3) Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred A Knopf,1995), 165.
(4) Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, City of Tomorrow (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 16.