Mark Hurrell.


From public space to private

03 June 2013

The problem with Google's vision is that it doesn't acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience. Back in 1970, cultural critic Richard Sennett wrote a wonderful little book — The Users of Disorder — that all Google engineers should read. In it, Sennett made a strong case for 'dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities,' where strangers from very different socio-economic backgrounds still rub shoulders. Sennett's ideal city is not just an agglomeration of ghettos and gated communities whose residents never talk to one another; rather, it's the mutual entanglement between the two—and the occasionally mess that such entanglements introduce into our daily life—that makes it an interesting place to live in and allows its inhabitants to turn into mature and complex human beings.

Google's urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It's profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google's world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google's highly personalized maps. And if the promotional videos for Google Glass are anything to judge by, we might not even notice it's gone: For all we know, we might be walking through an urban desert, but Google Glass will still make it look exciting, masking the blighted reality.

The main reason to celebrate maps that aren't personalized has nothing to do with technophobia or nostalgia about the pre-Google days. It's quite simple, really: When you and I look at the same map, there's a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents — perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches.

Evgeny Morozov, My Map or Yours?

Another well-observed and though provoking critique from Evgeny Morozov, he’s been pumping these out consistently over the last few months with each more focussed and convincing than the last.

Interesting thing that stands out for me about this change in direction for Google Maps is how rarely you get to see such an overt transition from an information design product (that you can interact with) to an interaction design product (that can extract some information from). From public space to private. We talk about the differences between design specialisms being indistinct, but in this example they’re clear as day.

Maybe that’s why Brody set up his RCA Information Experience Design programme as a counterpoint to the established Design Interactions. If we want the public space to endure, we need to make it every bit as compelling and provocative as the private, personalised space.

Some older stuff this has reminded me of: Hugues Boekraad on designing for the public domain, Experimental Jetset and their anti-social web.

If you want to chat more about stuff like this, send me an email or get in touch on Twitter.