How the Internet Redefined Urban Space

A new publication explores the troubling implications of our networked world.

Image
Shutterstock

As the internet spreads beyond our computer screens and into the physical world, how can we define and distinguish between public and private spaces?

That's the question explored by Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects, a new publication from the Architectural League of New York. This installment, part of a series on the computer's impact on architecture and urbanism, is a dialog of essay-responses between New York University Professor of Media, Culture and Communica­tion and Computer Science Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Their discussion delves into the challenges raised by technologies in the urban realm that feed off the information we share on the internet.

According to Nissenbaum, three relatively recent developments exemplify the confusion that has arisen since the internet jumped out of our computers and into our pockets and cities. One is that networked devices and sensors can now be embedded throughout physical space, creating what's often referred to as the "internet of things."

Second is that, through the development of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, we've found ourselves voluntarily publicizing what would have otherwise been private. And third, she points to new technologies that change our expectations of the anonymity of public space, such as the facial recognition software used to identify people during the Summer 2011 London riots. These technologies, she writes, "overturned robust, longstanding expectations about the limits on what others may see and know about us, even in public."

"The potential for Minority Report-style surveillance is growing," writes Varnelis. "If we are sure that our every move online is tracked and monitored, it seems likely that a walk in the mall, or for that matter, through the city, will be as well."

As Varnelis puts it, this "network culture" of ubiquitous computing and mobile telecommunications devices is invisibly shaping the city around us, both through the new ways we think about communities and the uses of public space as well as our willingness to sacrifice some elements of our privacy to obtain benefits. It's a direct outgrowth of the countless privacy policies and terms of services that we accept and agree to regularly online.

Instead of sustaining the freedoms of physical space online, Nissenbaum writes, we are allowing the way we disregard privacy on the web to follow us into the physical world through RFID tracking, GPS devices, location tracking technologies, crowd-sourced identification and other technologies.

Both Nissenbaum and Varnelis note that in the physical world, these technologies aren't always under our control, nor are there privacy policies we can choose to accept or reject. A slightly older example is how the move from cash to credit and debit purchases created vast pools of data for corporations and creditors. This practice has gotten more precise over the years, even going down to the level of individual retailers, as reported in the New York Times.

Online, we often don't know who or what is tracking us. As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal showed recently, 105 separate companies were keeping watch over where his browser traveled online. And yet, it's this tracking that makes much of the web's content and tools free to use – a tradeoff many people are willing to make.

In the physical world, though, what tradeoffs will we accept to have, for example, parking spaces that tell us when they're open or camera systems that can identify anyone walking past a street corner?

Nissenbaum and Varnelis agree that without better oversight and clearer laws, our increasingly available data can be used without our knowledge and maybe inappropriately as a predictor of what we as a city or a neighborhood might want. In some instances, that might be what we need, but not always. Both Nissenbaum and Varnelis call for more transparency from the corporate and governmental entities that are tracking and holding information about us. Because things can become a little weird when we get something we didn't know we were asking for.

Photo credit: nmedia /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.