I am more and more intrigued by a certain niche of cultural studies that has become my focal point: the cross-section of urban life and new media technologies.
What are, essentially, the changes that Social Media and location-based services have brought to urban spatiality and mobility? How will cityscapes be influenced by these new forces of mobility?
Where Do We Go From Anywhere?
There are plenty of starting points for an intensive research of a digitally influenced urban mobility and spatiality. One of my biggest interests is how the convenience and immediate access to service apps are changing behavior. An example: while you’re walking to the train station, you check the arrival time on your BVG app and realize that it’s probably more time saving if you take the bus instead. So you turn around and go into the opposite direction. The app basically told you how to move differently.
This seems like a mundane example, but already your ways have changed due to a virtual clue. And there are other apps that specialize in location-based services. Take Foursquare: for any foreigner in a city, this app is a gem. It can tell you which places to go to, and which ones to avoid, by calculating and condensing the ratings of all visitors.
Regardless of the tool: if you wanted to see whether the line at Berghain is long, you could hypothetically type in the hashtag #Berghain and see what people have posted.
The data that can be aggregated through these tools could have a game-changing impact: the more people use these apps, the more we (or rather: the data-keepers) will find out about how urban spaces function. Which are the most popular places in the city? What makes them attractive? Where do users of specific demographics go to eat / party / socialize / learn / etc? And, furthermore: how do we create more of these potentially profitable places?
Big Data, in regards to the future of urban planning, could be a gold mine for clever schemers. We can erase all obstacles from the streets and add more to infrastructure to dress-up a city and make it more attractive to visitors, locals and most importantly, investors.
The Magic of The City: Diversity & Spontaneity
I’ve had my qualms with Foursquare for a while, because it makes popular places look even more popular than they are. Of course, the better the rating, the more people will go, the more data can be aggregated, which will most likely yield better results (don’t get me started on the inherent confirmation bias).
But: what about places that don’t get attention even though they are good, because there is no mechanism of visual perception anymore? If they’re not part of the network, will they survive? What about cultural institutions (like museums, galleries or non-profit organizations) that can’t afford a thorough Social Media strategy?
Let’s talk about something else, though: urbanity. What makes something urban, in the Social Sciences, is a mix of distinctive social characteristics, regardless of geographical location. “Diversity of people, beliefs, and histories “- heterogeneity, to be exact. More so, “speed, flows of people, information, and goods, and mobility, as well as concentration and density.” What really makes urban life exciting and different- I think we’ve all felt this incredibly magical moment at some point – is the privilege of “the spontaneity and diversity of everyday life”. (Source)
When people moan about my personal favorite subject “BERLIN IS SO OVER“, then most of them seem to describe the lack of diversity and spontaneity without being able to put it into words. I wonder: does the rising use of location-based apps have anything to do with that? Or is it the general obsession with rationalizing and planning through every detail of life?
A New Urban Dystopia
We judge the places we regard via virtuality instead of our direct line of view. Thus we share our opinions and views, regardless of the temporary factors that might have accompanied our experience, and make them absolute in the world of data.
A story of an inevitable urban dystopia is easily told: we miss what’s right in front of us. If it’s not mapped out, it becomes invisible. The good news is: we might also find out that the places we have ignored for such a long time are actually really good, and that we shouldn’t judge them by their initial appearance. Like Fish House on Oranienstraße, which is great unless you order the Tuna.
Unfortunately, the good and the bad don’t cancel each other out. The bad gets a little worse when you frame it into a vision of how cities will be planned in the future. The data collected can yield valuable insights into how we must structure urban spaces to accommodate the actors’ needs. This is can be a best- and a worst-case scenario at the same time. My favorite example is Haubentaucher, which according to Roundhere is the most visited place in Berlin right now.
Haubentaucher, a public swimming pool, has only been open for one season. It is already an institution. I’ve been there a couple of times and indeed, it’s usually crowded. What to make of this information? I’ll leave this question open-ended, as there are many ways to answer it.
Economically speaking, it would make sense to copy the concept to grab the spill-over of guests who couldn’t make it into the overcrowded venue. This is a phenomenon that is most likely going to be accelerated by those service-apps: more and more locations are going to be filled to the brim with guests, while others are going to fade, unseen, into the abyss of data noise. Why would you want to go to a place that is far away and empty from the ones that are crowded and popular? Alas, there’s an unfortunate catch-22 inherent in this statement. Maybe the places are crowded and popular because they are crowded and popular?
If everybody is at the same place at the same time because they’re all using the same apps, we will soon pass a threshold of tolerance and reach a capacity limit. We will undoubtedly get the feeling that Berlin is too small, that all the spaces we frequent are overcrowded. Even though that seems very impossible. We have this perception because we – as users – are following a virtual map. I have talked about it before how this phenomena might be a long-lasting problems for those who want to open up shops, restaurants, or clubs in the city. Whether they’re instantly popular and struggle to grow organically, or they’re simply not cool enough to compete with the listings.
When I moved to Berlin, there was a steady process of “discovering new places”, an organic growth. Excitement about the variety, and that you could unexpectedly run into something beautiful and magical at any turn of the corner. Everything could be classified as cool, new and magical if only you were not prepared for it. Nowadays, you know miles ahead what’s happening and where. It makes time more efficiently used, but it also sacrifices some of the magic that we feel about urban life.
Using apps to determine the ratings of a place in the city is useful for economic reasons, but not necessarily promoting cultural variation. Those who don’t know how to place themselves in apps will fall through the cracks. Those who had a bad start might never make it on a top-list. Those that cater to different demographic than app users are never to been seen or heard from again. And, last but not least: since I know beforehand where I’ll find the best party or restaurant, my journey takes me almost straight from A to B, while possibly ignoring what could coincidently open up in front of me.
We used to try and walk off the beaten tracks. But in our perfectly mapped out city, we are forgetting the tracks altogether for a bigger and better ultra-highway that takes us straight to our destination.
How do we deal with these changes, and how can we direct the emerging flows of people through the city without sacrificing spontaneity? One reaction, of course, is living outside of virtuality (which people still do, and I wonder what their role in this might be). No listings, no website, no phone number, just an urban space that can only be vaguely defined by the users.
Whether this is a wise choice in terms of financial success I can’t predict. But a new surge of “underground” has definitely spread out in Berlin, with rumors of secret parties, events and clubs only making it to the periphery our awareness. Some pop up and vanish in the same night. I bet I could host an Open Air Rave for four hours on a sunny afternoon in Görlitzer Park without being busted by the cops if nobody posted a picture of it or a Facebook event. That’s how invisible the underground is becoming.
The Future of Urban Mobility
Some of the apps in question are only virtual tour-guides. These have been around for quite a while in print format or as actual guides. But I do see some stark differences. Location-based apps and maps provide:
- easier access (no need to buy the tourguide, have it on hand all the time)
- easier production (data can be tracked automatically, no need to research and interview)
- cheaper production and download
- intensely accelerated effects (online is way quicker to spread than content of a printed tour guide)
- data can be used for other purposes
It is the last point that has a very bleak side to all of the things discussed so far. In a dystopian fantasy, the paths that are documented can be taken to “perfect” the city, or at least influence how people move. We could measure out exactly how people go, and where they go to, and build little economic boobie-traps on the way (like the shelves of little candies at the supermarket). We could build direct streets and train-lines and thus eradicate any possibility of random encounters, which, I believe, urban space relies on to be the base of human interaction.
Dropping out of virtuality, from the perspective of both consumers and shop-owners, isn’t really a way to combat this scenario: anyone can map anything anyway. Paradoxically, the availability of all information makes the fleeting, temporary even more attractive than it ever was. Why else would the concept of “pop-ups” have become so popular? (Most commercial pop-ups aren’t even fleeting, and can be “temporary” stationed up to a whole year, which is just ridiculous). You would book it as total success if you ended up spontaneously in a place where only your friends and their friends hung out at, that wasn’t overcrowded or tailored to a specific market, and that stayed like this for a while. The end-result is more segregation and less multiculturalism.