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You Are Not a Packet

“Each new technology is a reprogramming of sensory life.”
-Marshall McLuhan

Technology has always defined and created cities. The electric streetcar and the skyscraper are two obvious examples, but the lowliest paving stone is technology as well—technology is literally the the stuff cities are made of, and it impacts how we experience those environments in ways both subtle and obvious. At present, the technologies most responsible for cities feeling different than they did ten years ago are not visible in the bricks-and-mortar city, nor on trains or buses, nor even in the streetlights and sewers. Theyʼre the devices in our hands—iPhones and Droids—and everything that those devices let us access. Steve Jobs and the creators of Foursquare and Yelp are among the great urbanists of the 21st century, and the fruits of their labors are merely the latest technologies to have reprogrammed our sensory lives.

Consider a few of the apps and websites that are most inextricably tied to the “user experience” of cities: Along with Yelp and Foursquare, thereʼs Groupon and Meetup and a long tail of lesser-known variants. Even Shazam belongs in this category, considering how music saturates the cityscape. Most of these apps are tools that describe and interpret the city (Yelp) or add a layer of meaning to activities that happen outside of the internet (Foursquare) while some are tools that enable us to actually do or create things in the real world by using the cityʼs vast social resources more effectively (Meetup, Skillshare, Taskrabbit). This is an important distinction: Interpreting and creating the urban environment are two different but closely intertwined processes, and the means directed toward either will influence how we inhabit our cities. McLuhanʼs observation has particular relevance for the former category: We use more than immediate sensory input to learn about the places where we live—we always have—but we should consider it our duty to at least understand how the tools we use are “reprogramming” the way we apprehend our surroundings.

Last September, Meetup cofounder Scott Heiferman sent an email to the whole Meetup community that poignantly and fascinatingly described the influence of 9/11 on the websiteʼs creation. The manner in which the tragedy brought New Yorkers together, he explained, created a desire to preserve that sense of community, which inspired the idea that we could “use the internet to get off the internet.” This is the ethos of what has been called the Web of Intent (see Venkatesh Raoʼs excellent post) and it presents a hopeful alternative to the enveloping universes of Facebook and Twitter. Rao points out, “Social media isnʼt a set of tools to allow humans to communicate with humans. It is a set of embedding mechanisms to allow technologies to use humans to communicate with each other.” Unlike social media, the Web of Intent and networks like Meetup are tools to enrich life away from the screen, and the people are using the tools, not the other way around.

If social media sits at one end of this spectrum, inviting us to spend the day online, and the Web of Intent sits at the other, urging us to go outside and do things, Yelp and Foursquare are somewhere in the middle. I have never heard anyone complain about the existence of Yelp (the way people complain about Facebook). And who would, beyond the poorly reviewed? But Yelp is an excellent example of how we are being reprogrammed as city dwellers, for better or worse. The site’s benefits are so obvious theyʼre barely worth discussing: In addition to restaurants and bars, one can find doctors, churches, or reviews of the Lincoln Tunnel (I wrote one of those). You can find virtually anything that has a proper name. Now, recall visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods or cities without Yelp—something many of us still do. Imagine browsing storefronts, Chinese restaurants, and dim nondescript bars, wondering which ones are worthwhile and what gems you might miss for lack of exploration. Visual clues mean everything in these situations, as do word-of-mouth recommendations, or maybe you’ve got a guidebook. Regardless, finding the ideal restaurant or bar requires work, and the risk of a terrible choice often accompanies the adventure.

Yelp and its kin make the city more legible. There are fewer and fewer mysteries all the time, as a result of these inventions, and even if we value this mystery we are powerless to resist optimizing our consumption of the cityʼs treasures. Take the reborn speakeasy: always in a “secret,” signless location, evoking mystery, but never a secret at all, because the internet is exploding with rave reviews of such places. They’re largely popular because they still feel secret but theyʼre almost impossible not to discover. Internet hype is more effective signage than the brightest neon monstrosity. A Chicago friend once amazed me by describing a filthy “buzzer bar” (you ring a buzzer to get in) on Western Avenue that Yelp had yet to christen. It didnʼt even have a name (and if not on Yelp than not anywhere). He had, in fact, added the first review, using its address as its name. A fringe of establishments will always evade the apps, as this humble buzzer bar had, but the appsʼ developers and their volunteer workforce of reviewers and forum posters are always working tirelessly to capture them and drag them into the light.

Cities present some of the most complex sensory environments that humans have ever inhabited. Urban  settings are continuous, textured landscapes, brimming with analog information that cannot easily be compressed. Yelp and similar apps, like maps before them, necessarily reduce that rich reality to a simplified representation in order to better serve a specific purpose. But the apps eliminate ambiguity in a way maps do not, defining discrete objects with specific characteristics: names, addresses, average star ratings. They re-imagine the city as a digital, not an analog, construct. Places and things omitted from the database are not recognized as things and places, becoming the dull gray backdrop between bright red numbered arrows on a map.

This process of reduction is no problem, however, if we use the apps to “help us get off the internet.” We should beware, though, of Yelp and Foursquare reprogramming us to see the city differently. If we mistake their representations for realities, if we let apps digest the city for us and feed us their clean, unambiguous products, we risk becoming numb to the nuances, textures, and meanings that distinguish cities from shopping malls. If we can conceive of areas with few bars, restaurants, or other commercial establishments as “empty,” this may already be happening.

App developers will keep developing apps. That’s their job description, and their work enhances our lives in countless ways. Businesses and local governments want cities to be more legible and more convenient. Directly or indirectly, that’s their job description too. But for many of us, our job is to keep the city interesting, mysterious, and strange. We should try to create complexity that apps cannot capture, rather than fitting our behaviors more closely to what they can capture. To quote Ivan Illich, we should “expose literal-mindedness with metaphor.” It’s no mistake that James C. Scott titled his book about legibility Seeing Like a State and associated the concept with the establishment, high modernism, and control. Instead of being the packets switched from node to node in a network, from tapas bar to coffee shop to Irish pub, we should strive to be the nodes themselves, and let the apps make our lives more interesting.

7 Comments on “You Are Not a Packet”

  1. […] on any point, it is that Facebook’s users tend to work for Facebook more than the reverse. In an earlier post on this blog, I describe how apps can oversimplify the rich realities of cities and impoverish our […]

  2. […] (in more extreme language) what I was trying to say in one of my first posts on this blog, You Are Not a Packet. Scott’s ideas about legibility and complexity will probably show up a lot more here as I […]

  3. […] The most interesting quality of smartphones, to me, is their redefinition of individual perspective. Again, Marshall McLuhan’s observation helps here: The iPhone is a kind of eye, although it doesn’t fully replace (“amputate”) the human eye. It augments or extends it. More than just visually, the iPhone is something we look into and through to see the world around us. Each app presents a different kinds of vision—a different Umwelt. Yelp, for example, lets the user “see” resturants, bars, and other places of business, but leaves everything else i…. […]

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