The "Morality of Public Objects" in Networked Cities

Adam Greenfield, the founder of Urbanscale, a consulting firm concerned with “design for networked cities and citizens,” gave a fascinating talk at a symposium called Hyper-Public,  convened by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 

The conference was about “designing private and public space in the connected world,” and therefore focused a lot on how urban spaces and the Web ought to be designed so as to protect people’s privacy rights while enhancing public social life.  Greenfield is the author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, and former head of design direction for service and user-interface design at Nokia.

Unbeknownst to most of us, the steady advance of digital technologies is starting to make buildings, billboards, traffic barriers and other urban infrastructure “declarative” objects -- if not interactive, networked objects.  For example, the Tower of London now has its own Twitter account so that it can now tell potential visitors, “I am opening at [name a time]...” and “I am closing after...” (The Twitter account @towerbridge, an unofficial one started by a fan, was displaced when the museum itself asserted a trademark claim on the name.) 

This is not unusual, said Greenfield.  Urban objects are increasingly gathering, processing, displaying, transmitting and sometimes physically acting upon data, he said.  The idea is that as urban populations become pervasively networked, frequently with smart phones and other mobile devices, urban spaces, too, can begin to interact with people by transmitting, receiving and analyzing digital signals, sensors.

It raises some interesting moral and political questions, such as Who gets to benefit from all the real-time and archived data being generated by public objects and geo-located mobile devices?  Private companies?  The government?  Or the commoners?  Greenfield noted, “We need a new theory and jurisprudence of public objects in cities."

He offered a “taxonomy of effects” of digitized objects to illustrate their social ramifications.  The most benign example is a traffic piton with an embedded motion sensor and bright blue light, clearly intended to promote traffic safety.  “This has a local effect on a local situation, the data is not archived and it’s a pure public good,” he said.  So, no problem.

A more problematic public object is a billboard for Nikon camera in a pedestrian subway tunnel.  As people walk past the billboard of paparazzi shooting photos, stepping on a red carpet that has motion sensors underneath it, the ad sets up the situation that pedestrians are VIPs walking on the red carpet.  “Flashbulbs” go off, as if paparazzi were shooting photos.  “This is mildly disruptive and disrespectful,” said Greenfield, adding that there is no public good dynamic at play at all. 

A more ominous innovation is a “gendered vending machine,” which has actually been introduced in Japan, whose touch-screen surface has hi-res images of various beverage products.  The catch is, not everyone is offered the same products.  Based on a camera embedded in the vending machine, the machine uses facial recognition pattern-matching software to guess the age and gender of the potential customer.  It then alters the product offerings instantly, to provide the vendor on-the-fly customer profiling and market segmentation!  “This is prescriptive and normative vending,” said Greenfield, “with no public goods purpose at all.”

Another subway billboard claims to detect the age, gender and ethnicity of people walking underneath it using.  The billboard even claims to assess (via beams to people’s eyeballs) whether passersby are looking at the billboard, presumably to document the number of viewings.  This billboard draws value off the street as people walk about their life, sucking up data for advertisers to analyze. 

The digitization of urban objects can be a real boon to users in navigating the city and organizing their lives.  But public objects can also be designed to serve wholly private commercial interests.  To assure public benefit from public objects, Greenfield argued that data streams must be openly available and useable by anyone. 

Greenfield’s working definition of “public objects” is “any artifact located in or bounding upon public rights-of-way,” “any discrete object in the common spatial domain intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public,” and “any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessible to the public, regardless of its ownership or original” intention.

To assure that data streams are open and equally available, Greenfield urged that APIs [application protocol interface] for software used in public objects should also be open.  In economic terms, public objects should be treated as public goods, i.e., non-rivalrous and non-excludable.  The early indications are that a great many public objects will be designed as private devices that prey upon the aggregating information about the public’s movements, demographic identities, and public behaviors, for private gain.

The growing skein of meta-data systems in the urban sphere are creating “an enormously increased ‘attack space” for capturing collective value,” said Greenfield.  “We have yet to develop etiquettes and protocols" for governing this emerging public space.  He noted how it has taken us 100 years to work out accommodations with motor vehicles.  We may be at the cusp of a similar odyssey of social accommodation to public objects the generate digital data streams. 

An ominous frontier – but it is nice to learn about this envisioned enclosure of the urban commons before it’s too late.