Public Objects – the networked city and civic responsibility: Adam Greenfield

Re-posted from the Digital Cultures Research Centre blog.

Last night DCRC in collaboration with Bristol Festival of Ideas and the Pervasive Media Studio hosted a talk by Adam Greenfield, which he titled “On Public Objects: connected things and civic responsibility”.  During the talk Adam suggested that a significant question before us now is that of ‘networked urbanism’, the increasing range of ordinary things and places in the city that are identifying themselves to global information networks or being identified by them.  Clare Reddington, Director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studio, created a Storify feed during the talk which contains lots of images and links to aspects of Adam’s talk – it is an excellent precis of the talk.

I’d like to offer a brief account of the talk, also drawing upon Adam’s recent essay “Beyond the ‘Smart City’.”

The argument of Adam’s talk was forged upon the theoretical impetus of Marxian scholar Henri Lefebvre’s contention of the right to the city. We are, according to Greenfield, living in a ‘networked now’ in which people are comprehensively instrumented with network communications technologies, even, and especially, in the developing world.  We operate with ‘locative’ and ‘declarative’ media, through which devices elicit geo-located information or people themselves announce their locations or activities. In turn, these media are leveraged by commercial interests by performing analytics such as ‘sentiment analysis‘. There are also an emerging range of declarative objects, such as London’s Tower Bridge, which has been endowed with a Twitter account to declare “I am opening for…” and “I am closing after…”.  Greenfield argued that objects are increasingly gathering, processing, displaying, transmitting and sometimes physically acting upon data.

Adam’s principal argument, therefore, is that we need a new theory (and jurisprudence) for networked objects.  Throughout the latter part of the talk Adam offered some observations about the ‘morality of objects’ such as a Finnish road sensor, a Japanese vending machine that profiles customers, and networked bollards that limit access to the Ramblas in Barcelona.  For Adam, it is necessary to find a new way of conceiving of things we encounter in public space.  He offered a working definition of ‘Public Objects’ as: “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”, “any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessbile to the public, regardless of its ownership or original” intention.

We are asked to consider what happens when power resides not in the material manifestations of the network, as in the physical ‘public objects’, but in code. Adam gave the example of software updates that facilitate new functionality, about which members of the public are not informed but could be seen to infringe their rights – for example: the addition of facial recognition pattern matching software to municipal CCTV systems without the public being informed.

Adam closed his talk by arguing that public objects, as defined above, must be open and usable by citizens.  This openness, he argued, should be figured through APIs (open interface platforms that allow people to interact with them); it should involve “read” and, sometimes, “write” access to data streams, so that people can access the data that public objects gather and sometimes be able to write into it; and that public objects should be non-rivalrous and non-excludable, i.e. in economic theory, they should be public goods.

In conclusion, Adam argued that we should be acting against the capture of public space by private interests and acting towards a revitalised public sphere.

This talk was recorded by Watershed and will shortly feature on dshed and in the DCRC Vimeo feed – check back with our blog for details soon!

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