Communication and the City conference: report from Seoul

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This past June I was in Seoul, South Korea for the Communication and the City conference. The event was held at Yonsei University and co-sponsored by the Yonsei Communication Research Institute and the Urban Communication Foundation. It was a truly international conference, with participants hailing from around the world. Speakers included academic researchers, architects, urban planners, and Seoul city officials.

Over two days presenters spoke about topics including risk factors facing urban populations, the role of storytelling and community media in neighborhood life, and the rise of the Asian megacity. I was particularly interested to learn more about the history of Seoul, and recent developments in its ongoing urbanization. This was my first visit to the South Korean capital, and I was overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the sprawling metropolis.

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The recent history of Seoul’s development includes distinct periods of rapid modernization. One of these periods involved the demolition of traditional Korean homesteads and the displacement of residents from entire districts (this happened under the administration of a leader nicknamed “Mayor Bulldozer” by the locals). A second period is characterized by sustainability concerns, and is marked by the 1997 IMF economic crisis. In the wake of the economic crisis’ ramifications, Seoul continued to modernize and developed some of the most advanced transportation infrastructure in the world. The drive toward modernization and investment in dedicated “economic zones” has resulted in networked urban districts like Songdo City, sometimes called the first full fledged smart city (or “u-city,” with “u” designating ubiquitous computing infrastructure). In future posts I will share my thoughts and photos from my visit to Songdo, and some more thoughts on Seoul.

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The unreal urbanism of Pokémon Go

Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.

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A lure party in progress at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial in Oakland. Photo credit: user invertedcheese85 from reddit.com/r/pokemongopittsburgh

 

The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops.  We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.

Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:

I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.

Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.

Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:

Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.

Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:

On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.

On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.

Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.

We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.

Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:

We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.

Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.

My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing  Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.

One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of  Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.

Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.

Columbus wins DOT Smart City Challenge

The Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. The winning city will receive a $50 million grant to fund the development and implementation of networked and “smart” transportation infrastructure. From the Columbus Dispatch:

Columbus’ application includes several other transportation innovations, including an autonomous vehicle test fleet at Easton Town Center that would pick up passengers at the COTA terminal and deliver them nearer to jobs at the shopping center.

Columbus also wants to increase electric vehicle access in the city and improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes.

A key point in the city’s bid was how the money could be used to improve Columbus’ infant mortality rate. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services.

As a Pittsburgher who has been following the contest for several months, I was very disappointed that Pittsburgh did not win. Not only would it have been a welcome victory for the city and local industry, but it would have been perfect for my dissertation project.

I was genuinely impressed and even moved by Pittsburgh’s video component of their proposal, which presented a people-first approach that acknowledged past planning mistakes and continuing concerns about disparities among residents. You can watch the video below:

You can watch the other finalists’ videos and read the full proposals at Network World.

A colleague who watched each city’s video presentation agreed with me that Columbus’ video pitch was the weakest, though he cautioned that the videos are ultimately irrelevant in relation to the process of selecting the winning city.

The DOT has pledged to help the other finalist cities implement their proposed transportation initiatives, and Pittsburgh leaders have also declared their intent to follow through with their Smart PGH plan.

City space and emotion: Affect as urban infrastructure

For a change of pace this week, I thought I’d write about affect in relation to the urban condition. Specifically I am going to focus on Nigel Thrift’s chapters on spatialities of feeling from his book Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Thrift begins the first chapter by characterizing cities as “maelstroms of affect,” and asserting the “utter ubiquity of affect as a vital element of cities” (p. 171). Thrift questions why “the affective register” has not formed “a large part of the study of cities,” and states “to read about affect in cities it is necessary to resort to the pages of novels, and the tracklines of poems” (p. 171).

I have to question what Thrift means by “the study of cities,” particularly in relation to the history of urban sociology. There is a lengthy history in this tradition of studying the affective register of cities, from Weber’s anomie and Simmel’s blasé attitude, through the emergence of modern criminology and social scientific studies of urban anxiety and the fear of crime.

There are, of course, prolific approaches available for studying cities. In addition to approaches from fiction and prose, and the aforementioned social scientific methods, there abound philosophical, psychogeographic, and theological engagements with urban life. One approach to the study of cities that has been especially amenable to the affective register is the domain of urban design and planning. Practitioners and commentators from this realm (who often, erroneously and unfortunately, mistake their practice for urbanism entire) have long used affective language to describe and design urban spaces: happy streets, friendly spaces, menacing buildings, etc.

Thrift is not explicitly discussing “smart” urbanization projects, but of course much of the analysis across these two chapters is directly applicable to such initiatives. Shockingly, Ernst Bloch also says much of relevance to smart cities in his 1929 essay “The Anxiety of the Engineer”. Thrift’s summation of Bloch’s “apocalyptic” vision of cities from that essay reads like a ripped-from-the-headlines encapsulation of contemporary urbanization trends: “Transfixed by the idea of a totally safe and calculable environment, the capitalist city is fixed and unbending in the face of unexpected events: ‘it has rooted itself in midair’” (p. 198). It’s a fantastic connection to make, though I despair at my ever-growing reading list.

Lastly, I want to touch upon Thrift’s discussion of the misanthropic city. My first reaction was to respond that cities aren’t misanthropic, people are; but then I recalled my recent trip to Las Vegas. Returning to the affective register of urban design, I must say that Vegas is certainly a misanthropic city. It is a city built for money, not for people. To the extent that it is built for people, it is designed not to affirm or edify humanity’s highest qualities, but is rather constructed to amplify our basest and most animalistic aspects. Compulsion, lechery, and stupefaction are the human attributes “celebrated” in that space. From an urban design perspective, Las Vegas is among the most misanthropic of cities.

Of course, Thrift is not referring to misanthropic urban design (although the invocation of infrastructure is an interesting, and perhaps fecund, reference point for urban affect), but to misanthropic attitudes and behaviors among urban denizens. I do not ascribe to calls for kindness and idealized sense of community in the city, as I find they are often simplistic and embarrassingly maudlin. Indeed, the disconnectedness and universal strangeness that has long been decried as manifestations of the inherent disharmony of urban life, are in fact principal among the reasons that I love life in the metropolis. Nevertheless, I do appreciate that amidst the anxiety and imminent catastrophe of urban life, Thrift finds spaces for kindness and hope.

Thoughts on polemics, Audre Lorde, and Do the Right Thing

Radical black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde found productive potential in anger. According to Lester Olson, in his article “Anger among allies”: “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).

In a quote from her address titled “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:

“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)

This thematic link between hatred and disease is also present in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.

Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:

“I detest this place like a sickness.”

Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”

This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:

“Are you sick?”

Mookie replies: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”

Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.

If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio (kidding, of course), it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.

Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.

In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”).

A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by various authors. In her article on Larry Kramer’s polemical form, Erin Rand writes of polemics:

“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason an invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)

Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike”,  and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:

“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)

As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:

“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal’s begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as “like a son to me.” Mookie is a character we’re meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.” But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”

Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?

Video: Marshall Arts – McLuhan and media scholars

The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: “Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars”. This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:

Zagreb, Croatia: Part 3 – Friends, Family, and Farewells

My first visit to Croatia was a curious mixture of the strange and the familiar. A country I had never been to, and a part of the world that still seemed foreign to me, yet also a place that I had often thought about for many years. The feelings of familiarity stemmed from my surprise at how traditionally European much of the culture was, and also the fact that Croatia was the cite of my rendezvous with family and friends. But precisely because the context for these encounters was entirely new territory, the sense of familiarity was at times disorienting. The experience was akin to déjà vu: whether you chalk it up to a trick of the mind, echoes of a half-remembered dream, or genuine precognition, the passing sensation of surreality is there all the same.

David and daughter

The time spent reconnecting with my friend David exemplified this tension. Anyone who’s ever caught up with an old friend after a long absence should be familiar with feeling simultaneously that no time has passed at all, and an acute awareness of how swiftly flow the days. David seemed essentially unchanged from our college days, but of course his life has changed significantly, mostly through the addition of important people.

David apt view

I relished both aspects of my reunion with David: meeting the person I remembered and spending time with my friend in much the same way we passed time together in college; and getting to meet his wife and daughter in their home, taking in the view of Zagreb and the surrounding mountains from their flat’s balcony, and meeting the roosters who live out back.

Zagreb Saturday market

On my last morning in Zagreb, I met Z outside the national theater. I had previously mentioned to her that I wanted to ride one of the city’s blue streetcars, and so she escorted me to a Tisak kiosk in the main square to buy a tram ticket. We rode the tram down Ulica street toward the plaza nearest the family’s apartments. It was Saturday, and the city squares were filled with carts and stands bearing wares for the weekend open markets.

Brunch spread

When we arrived at the apartment, there was a full brunch spread laid out on the table. Soon family members began to assemble: first Z’s sister, then her niece and nephew, and finally her parents. I then learned that this generous brunch was not arranged solely in honor of sending me off; it was also the grandfather’s birthday.

Prodigal box

So we gathered to eat, commemorate the end of my visit, and celebrate a patriarch’s birthday. Fortunately my misplaced package had since been recovered and delivered to Z’s apartment, so I was able to distribute the gifts sent by my mother-in-law. This was a great relief, as I didn’t know how I would’ve faced my mother-in-law had the gifts gone undelivered. We ate, we sang, we had cake and exchanged presents. I said my goodbyes to the family and Z drove me to the airport.

Birthday brunch

I spent less than a week in Croatia, and only part of it with this adopted family. From the moment I passed Croatian customs control, Z and her family made me feel as warmly welcomed as possible. My sojourn in Croatia was one of the great trips of my life, thanks in no small part to their kindness and generosity. I’ve known Z less than a year, and spent perhaps a combined 72 hours in her presence; nonetheless, when we bade farewell at the Zagreb airport it was a touching and tearful goodbye.