Episode One Hundred and Twenty Eight: The Only Medium; Watching You; Smart Cities

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

A surprise (and welcome) upgrade on the flight back to Portland and I’m relatively rested and relatively un-jetlagged, at least I am at 10:30 am in the morning, we’ll see how this afternoon goes. I’ve got my son solo for the next couple of days and I’m staring at the business end of an email inbox that between telling me about the amazing new Pimsleur Approach (not a Jason Bourne movie starring Matt Damon, unfortunately) or Soft Fruit or a new scratch-filler for my car, has got Actual Work in it that I Actually Have To Do.

But I also have to go to the zoo.

1.0 The Only Medium

Clive Thompson has written a piece with a line in it that caught my attention. In an article about the book 1,001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die[1], he notes something that the author Duncan Harris has written about Half-Life 2, a PC first-person shooter(ish) that came out in 2004, which instantly makes anyone who can remember it coming out feel old. Thompson is struck by the observation that Harris has that Half-Life 2 “tells its story as if games are the only medium on Earth”, which whilst Thompson notes isn’t strictly true, is certainly provocative.

The thing is, if we take some time to notice what it is about games that’s unique about them, there are some peculiar (and wonderful!) things going on. One of the things Thompson pulls out is third-person games – finally possible in an era where computing power allows better three-dimensional graphics – where the camera just floats behind the protagonist character, always affording a view of the back of their head. Third-person games were a distinctly 90s innovation – perhaps most popularly seen in something like Super Mario 64[2], whose SGI-powered graphics subsystem afforded amazing 3D graphics to a consumer audience for the first time in something that just plugged into a TV. I remember EDGE magazine marveling at the thought that had gone into the dynamic camera system, that mostly – certainly not always – seemed to figure out where it needed to be.

Thompson’s far smarter than me for noticing something like this. He writes:

“The thing is, the third-person game camera-angle is truly and totally foreign to Hollywood. I can’t imagine any director saying “guys, guys! I’ve got a great idea! Let’s shoot our entire movie from about five feet behind behind the protagonist, carefully tracking behind her, so that we almost never see her face!” That third-person angle is a piece of artistry that is utterly gamelike — a bit of aesthetics crafted as if games were, indeed, the only medium on Earth.”

and this to me is such a satisfying observation. Twenty-odd years into third-person games, they feel utterly natural and an entire generation has been pretty much raised upon their perspective through open-world games like the Grand Theft Auto series. To take that familiarity that makes perfect sense in an interactive environment – where the identity of the protagonist is projected onto by the player, where it’s more important to see where the protagonist is going instead of what their face looks like, and to map it on to the medium of film, where the audience has a different set of expectations, is a bit like having your head cracked open.

I think, then, this is what still interests me in terms of what it means to create entertainment native to the medium of the net. That’s always struck me as a somewhat wanky phrase – despite the fact that I use it a lot when I talk to people about what I’m interested in building. All this talk of “native”. But such a more poetic way to talk about it as if the net were the only medium on Earth. You would get a very different view of YouTube, I feel, that I’ve always maintained is just TV transposed onto a newer, bittier medium. But the internet, and the stuff you get on it – what you’d get as if the internet was the only medium on Earth is what’s fascinating to me.

I suppose there are parts – like Tumblr, for example – that exhibit parts of subculture, and it’s unfair to ask for what things would look like as if they were *literally* the only medium on Earth as nothing can really be created in such a vacuum. But the language of Tumblr and the fluidity of how things are created, the ease of linking from one subculture to another and the instant repurposing of how the link and the gif allows you to express emotional states – that type of appropriating is interesting. And then you have stuff like creepypasta, like the SCP Foundation[3] which on one level can be dismissed as “just a wiki” or “just a bunch of teenage sleepover horror stories” but precisely because the SCP Foundation sits at the intersection between the two means that it’s something new, that couldn’t have been created before. Is Slender Man[4], for example, something that was created as if the internet were the only medium on Earth? Not quite, perhaps, but it and things like it feel close as if part of the thing about the medium isn’t just its visual characteristics but also how things are quoted, spread and talked about.

[1] A game created “as if games were the only medium on Earth”
[2] Super Mario 64
[3] The SCP Foundation
[4] Slender Man

2.0 Watching You

I started re-watching Tony Scott’s 1998 movie Enemy of the State, which as anyone knows me well enough would instantly bucket into the haxploitation genre, not least of which because it involves Gene Hackman explaining to a late 90s Hollywood audience what a Faraday Cage is.

(Genuine nerd moment: I remember sitting in a car as a teenager and using the v=f*lambda equation and looking at the wire fencing around the car car park to work out why I wasn’t getting any reception on a particular radio station. I’m such a dork.)

Anyway. It’s interesting looking back at Enemy of the State because so much of that movie isn’t (unsurprisingly) about ubiquitous tapping of surveillance – mainly because it was 1998 and people were still freaking out about the stupendous innovation of Windows 95, they were starting to come to grips with Windows 98 and the horror of ME hadn’t yet been unleashed).

But then you look at the title design[2] and the entire thing, complete with geeky mathematical style typeface (a Greek sigma sum-of for the letter E, for example) and what now feels like an amateur green targeting reticle overlaid upon what you realise is *all* low-res CCTV suveillance footage, but of the peculiarly American kind – high speed police chases, satellite takes, helicopter or dashboard mounted, but always the kind of CCTV that’s manually controlled and monitored by humans. The NSA in Enemy of the State is a vast human sprawling enterprise – one populated by people like Jack Black, console and keyboard jockeys, able to fake FBI work orders and instigate “training operations”.

This isn’t necessarily how a city sees, but how instead people see when they’re given the apparatus of a city. I think there’s a distinction, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m a bit annoyed that I haven’t made the time to watch something like CBS’s Person of Interest, which by all accounts is the television account of Well Look We Told You So, Didn’t We.

The world of the late 90s Enemy of the State is one with VHS tapes, where Federal grant money goes toward bird watchers with motion-activated cameras and UNIX-y workstations, but not the kind where the bird watcher’s camera automatically tweets out photos whenever the head of the NSA tries to inexpertly off a politician.

The enemy of the state in, well, the movie, is one that’s an actor, whereas the enemy that we have these days is much more mundane. At least someone had a motive, there was someone falsifying that FBI work order. What we have now is an enemy of the state that’s just *there*, passively feeding off everything, working off the fact that all these data plumes are given off – exhaust that’s just exhaled as a matter of course as people go by their lives. That this is all retained and that anyone can weave a story about it is in a way a lot more evil than someone deciding to task a group to go after something. Everything is remembered, everything is watched without anyone having to decide to. This is surveillance by default, and, if I may, this year’s enemy of the state was Project Insight, the algorithm that determined, credit-score like, the risk to the state of any person, through the networking and crunching of, thousands, millions, billions of data points all mined together, but this time targeted by floating weapons platforms, sniping with precision from the sky.

[1] Enemy of the State
[2] Enemy of the State – titles

3.0 Smart Cities

I think it was via a remark of James Bridle’s that I ended up at this 2013 essay from Dan Hill about the smart city[1] (try not to think too much about the fact that Hill wrote it in 2013, and instead think about the fact that we’re able to read it at all – the man’s far too smart for his own good) and a particular thought struck me about the idea of the city needing to be adaptive enough, flexible and malleable enough for the smart things in it – the people, empowered as they are through networked communication technology – to do interesting things with it.

The Smart City, as Hill points out, shouldn’t just be seen in terms of increasing efficiency – because all too often it’s the pursuit of efficiency that leads to super-efficient, locally optimised systems that are good at one thing – or, I guess the host of things they’re designed for – but, as the contemporary saying goes, not particularly *resilient*.

It makes me think of all the smart city stuff that’s going on that relies on quite a lot of private capital and the spectrum among which all of these things – some of which lie inside a bucket that might be called the sharing economy – lie. If you take an example of something like Zipcar or Car2go – both car “sharing” services of which I subscribe to in Portland, they’re both services that have required a degree of regulatory approval and acceptance. The city must do something to allow these new organisms to exist inside them – they aren’t naturally accepted. In other words, Zipcar and car2go need to negotiate to find permits for the necessary street parking or even to be licensed to operate in the first place. Speaking as an outside, I wonder where this comes from: parking is a regulated activity – you can’t just do it where you want to (ie: streets that allow parking are declared as such, I don’t think there’s a natural state of a street that allows parking, instead they must be declared so).

I wonder what kind of balance can be struck between for-profit services and bottom-up, citizen built services, and what kind of distinction can be struck between the two. On one level, you can look at things like Airbnb as they existed in the early stages and see opportunistic (or smart) citizens who want to find a way to find somewhere to stay. Only later – at some sort of size-related phase change  – does Airbnb come up against regulatory hurdles when they reach a threshold where it’s not just a bunch of people finding cheap places to stay and make an extra buck. Or, rather, it’s at *exactly* the point at which people are trying to make an extra buck that the state or city starts to intervene.

In other words – what type of city resources exist, or what kind of regulatory environment needs to exist that’s permissive enough to allow new services to be invented, fostered and then copied (a bit like the food cart movement, which presumably found a loophole in the licensing of movable non-traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurant premises) but then in some cities was supported and perhaps even encouraged. Part of this feels like a sort-of self-service model, but also one that requires cities to be much more transparent about *why* regulation exists and to what purpose it serves. In other words, in terms of service delivery from local authorities, being able to say: one of the services the city offers is making sure that when you decide to stay here, you’re going to be safe. This is how we do that through regulation, and this is how we do that in practice. If you’re going to want to allow people to stay in your home, this is how to do it – and also to be encouraging of that. At this point you’d be forgiven for some sort of sympathy for the plight of Airbnb and Uber because, at one level, they’re trying to provide transportation services and getting frustrated at (presumably) self-interested parties that want to sustain the status-quo in terms of *how* the services are provisioned as opposed to the best way to provision those services.

And I swear to god I didn’t intend this to be a sort of Oh Look Now You’re Talking About GDS again, but the type of citizen empowerment (and I do really mean that) where it’s actually *easy* to say that you want to open up a food cart, or see how many food cart licenses there are left, or see where all the food carts are licensed so you can work out where to open one – that type of infrastructure that allows citizens to build on top and make a city a city – that seems smart, rather than generally piling upon more sensing data.

All of which is to say, I suppose: politics.

[1] Essay: On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead

Happy Thursday. One more day to go until we hit the weekend. Send me notes and introduce yourselves!