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The Digital City
Alex Steffen, 14 Jan 04

I'm a huge fan of William Gibson's writing, but I am always a little puzzled by the fact that most of his other fans don't seem to realize that his central metaphor, cyberspace - a virtual matrix through which disembodied cyberjockeys fly performing feats of geekiness - was, as prediction, a total failure.

There is no "cyberspace." We don't leave our bodies when we go online. Instead, the opposite is happening: computers and communications are suffusing the physical world, melting into the fabric of daily life, especially daily urban life.

Here are three primary impacts I'm seeing:

First, there's ubiquity. Simply put, computers and Net connections are getting smaller, more portable and closer and closer to always available. Very, very soon, any employed city-dweller on the planet will have some form of access to the Internet constantly available to them. This means that the Internet ceases entirely to be something you go to, and starts to be something that you carry with you, that surrounds you.

The second is what we might call layering - a term from GIS mapping. With layering we start to see the invisible accretion of data clumping over physical objects and places. Want to find a good cafe, get a map for how to walk there, and then let your friends know you're there and ready to hang out? Piece of cake. Combine the rise of social software and reputation capital systems, the increasingly cheap nature of basic data, and the ability to easily tag information to specific physical locations and layering emerges.

The third is the revival of public space. While we've all seen people cruising down the sidewalk barking into their mobile headsets and oblivious to the world around them, we tend not to notice the countervailing (and I think) stronger force of "loose encounters" - easily facilitated brief meetings - and untethered work (as people are freer to leave offices and conduct business on the fly). Both are already resulting in more people in public spaces, which is a pretty fair metric of urban health, and the trend is far from played out.

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Comments

Well, apart from the notion that WG never, AFAIK, set out to predict something, he nevertheless did, and quite a lot. In fact, if you take his works in sequence, his "cyberspace", as a metaphor, does exactly what you describe here - it starts to get "everywhere". And honestly, only 10-15 years ago, those rare people feverishly typing the night away on clunky keyboards to have characters travel through untol miles over a 1200/NONE connection and back before appearing on the screen, were not that different from WG console jockeys, sans the temple electrodes and the stuff...


Posted by: Michael Bravo on 14 Jan 04

Alex -

You're right if you imagine "cyberspace" as a simulacrum of "realspace" - virtual reality and all that. But I think you're overlooking the necessity of visualizing large amounts of data.

There's a ton of information out there that can't be easily layered over physical objects. Take WorldChanging.com, for example. Is it tied to a physical space? Perhaps if I met you on the street, I could see that your tied to this particular blog, but I would hope that I wouldn't have to always be in your presence to access it. This could apply to any social software really - how do you represent your network of friends (and their associated informaiton) into a physical space if they're not all in your presence?

And frankly, the current system of windows and "Back" and "Forward" buttons is inadequate (the desktop metaphor should have ended after Windows 95) for navigating any sort of large data store such as this. We need a way to visualize the interconnecting nodes of blogs and posts and people (and to interact with them, modify and shift the links). To be honest, I'm a big fan of zoomable user interfaces and informational physics, but I'm still working out the kinks.


Posted by: Justin Martenstein on 15 Jan 04



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