Samples of his independent art work are visible at: http://www.christianmarcschmidt.com
Constructing narrative from disparate, yet thematically related elements, the basis of this piece is video footage found through Google Video using "driving" as the search query. I chose results which depicted the road from a first-person perspective. Footage matching this criteria was edited and sequenced to create a narrative spanning various locations around the world, different weather and traffic conditions, highways, country roads and city streets, as well as different times of day. The result is a commentary on the construct and use of space as defined by the path
Driving at 70 miles per hour, the landscape dissolves into colors and concepts. Impressions coalesce into ideas, particles into patterns. It may seem like a paradox, but the faster we go, the clearer we can see. At high speeds, we can tune out the noise and see the forest for the trees. Our focus is on the destination.
At 30 miles per hour, the landscape resolves into discrete objects. We can now make out individual trees, buildings, the faces of drivers and pedestrians. Below 15 miles per hour, finally, we start to perceive a sense of place. We can make out the details of the objects around us, including their textures and physical properties. Any destination seems far more distant now.
For many of us, life is undeniably getting faster. Whatever the reasons are, it appears that we have increasingly less time to do the things we do. The faster time progresses, the lower the resolution in our lives. With the increase in speed, life becomes increasingly abstract, as we advance from goal to goal without reflecting on the composition and weight of the many individual experiences we make.
At the same time, technology keeps advancing. We are in the process of creating a digital copy of the physical world. This is manifested in mapping, where mainstream software products like Google Earth and Nokia Maps are shifting the discipline from abstraction to simulation due to their increasing accuracy.
The relationship between abstraction and simulation in respect to reality is vividly expressed in Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story On Exactitude in Science (1946). In it, a map entirely covers the territory it represents, coinciding with it point for point. Yet despite having reached the pinnacle of precision, it never fulfilled any practical purpose and remains unused in a state of gradual decay.
Yet, none seem to question the utility of three-dimensional maps with their photorealistic textures, extruded buildings and photographic streetscapes, though it seems that two-dimensional maps with a higher degree of abstraction may often be more efficient in helping you get to where you need to go. The need being fulfilled here apparently goes beyond utility. Rather, it seems more about shaping and affirming a mental model of a physical reality.
The forms of representation that these and similar products incorporate have an analogy in the world of computer gaming, where realism has long been a driver, not for utility but rather for immersion. Immersion in gaming is typically thought of as the suspension of disbelief, of forgetting that one is playing a game and instead experiencing reality firsthand. In Rules of Play (2004), Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen dismantle this prevailing notion that they call the immersive fallacy. They argue that the sense of immersion we feel is due not to the accuracy of the simulation, but rather to play itself. This is especially clear in that even games with the most understated appearance can capture a gamer’s attention for hours on end. It is as if we look to technology as compensation for no longer paying attention to the details in our lives, yet could it be that we are deluding ourselves in thinking that it can replace the lack of resolution in our lives?
Realism is not the only model for resolution in the simulation of the physical world. Technology has enabled us to quantify other facets of our personal lives, many of which would have seemed unquantifiable until recently. Participants in the so-called Quantified Self movement are pioneers of personal analytics, drawing insight from personal data they create, that they claim can lead to behavioral change and self-improvement in areas such as health, fitness, mood, academic progress, and personal relationships. However, while technology has opened the door to creating and analyzing a wealth of personal data, the question also arises whether we are increasingly out of touch with our own bodies and desires so as to require these forms of analysis.
Technology is empowering. It allows us to exert control over our surroundings and amplify our own abilities. In Google Earth, the viewer is omnipotent in terms of being able to navigate and manipulate various aspects of the simulation. However, the higher the resolution, the more technology distances us from a visceral experience of the physical world.
Referencing On Exactitude in Science, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard later suggested that the simulated copy (the map) would eventually supersede the original object (the territory), and that reality was in fact eroding, rather than the map from Borges’ original text. The relationship of the map and the territory is effectively inverted to where the simulation supersedes reality. It appears that our times have caught up with his theory.
By extension, one might ask if we are choosing an accelerated pace of life in order to distance ourselves from the world and increasingly replace our own visceral experience with the simulation. To some that idea may seem seductive, as it allows absolving ourselves of a certain responsibility in terms of coping with our lives, a point often made in dramatized form in popular science fiction from The Matrix to Surrogates. As the speed of life increases, we look to technology to fill the resolution void, to affirm our existence and provide us with evidence that we ourselves are still real.
When Kevin Lynch conducted the research for a project called The Perceptual Form of the City, providing much of the material for his seminal work The Image of the City, he asked study participants to draw their mental models of the cities they lived in. Lynch then created composite maps generated from multiple drawings, resulting an archetypal, aggregate mental map of the city. He was able to identify five shared characteristics of the mental image people form of their environments: paths, nodes, districts, edges, and landmarks. While the individual interpretation of these five elements may vary, they form the vocabulary of what he called the imageable city.
Lynch’s studies suggest that some cities are more imageable than others, and that it is potentially possible to improve their imageability and thereby how people navigate within them by focusing on the identity of the five elements. His work also suggests that there are basic building blocks that constitute the way in which cities grow. If we as individuals had a clearer understanding of what comprises these basic elements and how they relate to eachother, we would presumably have a better way of understanding both new and familiar city environments.
In The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi wrote about urban artifacts—constant elements within the city that form the foundation of its identity and how it evolves over time. It follows that, if we were to filter out the urban ‘variables,’ we might be able to identify the elements of the imageable city that constitute its essence from a geographic standpoint. This was the premise of a series of prints called Artifacts that I produced in 2003. These were brief experiments in mapping cities based on their signature characteristics as identified by studying satellite imagery. The underlying idea of ‘authentic identity’ or imageability of places and cities is one that continues to inform my work.Recently, Stamen launched a new project based on OpenStreetMap (OSM), a map created solely through the contributions of volunteers. Called “Map=Yes”, the project allows creating maps of cities around the world, displaying only select urban elements such as buildings and parks, while filtering out all other elements such as streets and labels. Enabled by XAPI, an API maintained by MapQuest allowing advanced queries to the OSM database, the technique has the effect of displaying the unique character of a city. Although many cities are far from complete, the represented buildings and the patterns they create help to define the character of a place. The more metadata is added to geographic elements in OSM, the more customizable these maps can become.
The real potential of the combined framework that Stamen and MapQuest have created is the capability of generating personalized maps, displaying places with personal significance. What would it mean if, instead of resorting to generic, ‘swiss army knife’ maps, we could explore and navigate our environments through personalized maps?
Individually personalized maps are only the first step. As Kevin Lynch’s studies suggest, every city may have an archetype—the composite of collective, manifested associations. Rather than a map with neutral or objective posture of the sort that we have become accustomed to, a filterable map aggregating and merging a multitude of personalized, semantic maps would potentially enable understanding not only the location of geographic elements, but also their significance to the urban fabric on a larger scale.
A recent rereading of Wired’s 2010 article “The Web is Dead” cemented a few thoughts of mine on where design in the online space might be headed. The article claims that our use of the web, meaning content delivered via the http protocol, is being eroded by apps—light-weight, low-cost, task-oriented programs. The article describes this as an effect of the natural progression of technology: as special interests start to take control of a new market it becomes fractured, producing silos that in turn allow more user friendly experiences and drive greater adoption.
The “applification” of the Internet is certainly one important factor in its evolution. There is, however, another factor that, in conjunction, could provide an even greater opportunity for design. That trend is open data. Initiatives such as Linked Data have begun to see adoption (e.g. at the New York Times), with the objective of opening up and creating relationships between databases. This presents opportunities to break down the barriers that separate individual websites and their content, creating unprecedented opportunities for the reuse and combination of different data sources. A common critique of apps has been the walled-garden approach to storing data and communicating with other apps—open data promises to change that.
As a consequence we will begin to see more apps that aggregate a multitude of sources, rather than remaining tethered to any particular set of content (though those will likely continue to exist). These will be apps designed for a particular scenario and user experience—their primary point of differentiation. They will use whatever data sources are available in order to best satisfy the goals of whatever experience or scenario is being designed.
The most common applications that aggregate content from multiple domains are search engines. Search engines present all types of content side-by-side, no matter how diverse. They aggregate data around a query or an entity (a person, place or thing), and present you with a relevant cross-section of the web for any topic. This also imbues them with the potential to become a platform for content consumption, in addition to content discovery.
Search engines generally require a high investment in order to provide relevancy of search results. The semantic layer introduced by Linked Data, however, could make parsing and ranking data more accessible, potentially lowering the cost of entry. The separation of data from the container webpage is key, and, with the ubiquity of content management systems, that foundation has already been laid. The outcome will be a greater diversity of specialized content aggregators. Microsoft’s Pivot software was essentially a visual search engine able to display a wide variety of data sources. Other recent aggregation apps are Flipboard and Qwiki. In all of these cases, user experience and presentation are key differentiators: the same content can be found elsewhere, just not in the same context and presented in the same unique way.
Navigating large datasets calls for new paradigms that extend beyond the typical techniques of finding and consuming content, while increasing both usability and engagement. We need to design systems that are adaptive and multi-layered, able to present content of all types. For that reason, I believe that the future of design in the online context is data visualization, used not for analytic purposes, but rather for content discovery. In other words, data visualization could become the interface.
This will yield a range of new views and visual paradigms suitable for displaying aggregate data from multiple sources. Applications that aggregate and visualize large datasets could well become the future of how we access and consume information online.
With the proliferation of social networks we are already experiencing a new kind of city, a city augmented with location-sensitive information. While location in the past was largely an economic factor, many of the traditional reasons for geographic specialization have been erased due to the effects of technology. As a result, location is taking on new meanings, and the city is increasingly re-configuring itself as a vessel for the growing, interconnected and constantly changing social networks that form the basis of the contemporary urban experience.
The information we have access to changes the way we interact with the city.
For one, information can create efficiency. We are now in a position to steer our task-oriented behaviors based on current events, such as schedule changes and traffic updates. Now that we can become aware of the locations of other agents (people and things), we can time our own interactions to coincide more immediately with theirs, removing time-based inefficiencies.
Next is location-sensitive search. Related to efficiency, search is about decreasing the distance to finding a particular person, place or thing. Search is about understanding intent, and location adds a significant factor to intent analysis. Location is a way of creating more specificity around search.
Access to real-time information in the city aids discovery. Discovery is based on latent intent. Because technologies can know about our interests and patterns, they can provide real-time recommendations that match our general or specific interests, even if they have not yet been fully articulated.
The augmented city can also have a positive effect on serendipity. This may initially sound counter-intuitive, until considering services like Foursquare that create more opportunities for surprising and spontaneous encounters through location-based check-ins. While discovery is about actively seeing information (“push”), serendipity is based on information coming to us (“pull”). Through technology, we can reinforce the likelihood of positive encounters matching our location, mood and general interests.
In all of these cases, the key phenomenon is transparency. Transparency changes the way we engage with the city. As we are broadcasting our actions and tracking those of others, location takes on a different meaning. Where we go and the places we frequent are now, more than ever, extensions of our identities, becoming another factor in our lives that we curate in order to project a particular image. Furthermore, while traditionally the areas we have lived in and the places and venues we would frequent of course had an influence on social status, the pervasiveness introduced with new technologies means that we are constantly monitoring how our actions resonate among members of our social networks.
The overlap between physical geography and information is what I call metacities. The way I use the term differs from its conventional usage, where it refers to emerging global megacities. Instead, my reference is Italo Calvino, who in 1972 wrote a novel called Invisible Cities. In the text, the explorer Marco Polo recounts his travels to the emperor Kublai Khan. He describes the many cities of Khan’s empire he has visited, all of which ultimately turn out to be descriptions of the same city: the city of Venice. The invisible cities of Calvino’s text are in fact facets of a single city that exist seemingly independent of one-another, with the geography of the city following its thematic orientation. Analogously, I use the term metacities to refer to the social structures, both permanent and temporal, that emerge on top of the physical geography of the city, treating the public and private spaces of the city as a mediated framework for activity.
Metacities are then the cities that emerge as the result of our interactions and patterns of communication. They are our projections of the “cities” we inhabit and construct together. Any urban area may contain a nearly infinite number of metacities, collectively representing the social fabric of the city.
Data visualization gives us the ability to visually represent these emerging metacities, the slices of the urban fabric we knew existed, but of whose forms and structures we may have had little concept. We can now visualize our interactions and behaviors in real-time, along with those of our friends or social networks, exposing the hidden cities around us and creating a feedback loop where our actions, predicated upon a certain given condition at any moment in time, will in turn affect that very same condition.
Most cities were built for a different age. Just like the elevator enabled high-rises and greater urban density, and the telephone challenged many of the traditional benefits of city living, metacities are once again demonstrating the advantages of urbanization, updating cities in ways suitable for the information age. They point to a new kind of urban living—transparent, social, serendipitous—paving the way for the city of tomorrow.
Invisible Cities is now in beta. The project has evolved from a visualization of collective memory for Taipei to a platform with the capability of surfacing data from the Twitter and Flickr services for any geographic area. While initially we have kept the piece focused on New York City due to the density of available data, we are planning to extend it with other cities as the project progresses. For documentation, please refer to the project site, as well as our recent article in the Volume 3, Issue 1 of the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping (Invisible Cities: Representing Social Networks in an Urban Context).
Many thanks to my collaborator Liangjie Xia for his tireless dedication and remarkable talent, and also to Jason Hsu for the inspiring discourse in the early phases of this project.