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Desperately Seeking Serendipity

"Desperately Seeking Serendipity" - what can the design of cities teach us about designing serendipity in digital spaces?

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Desperately Seeking
Serendipity


Ethan Zuckerman
(@ethanz)
12.5.11
in 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas.
         by 1900, 14% was living in urban areas.
     by 2008, the majority of humanity lives in cities.




                                              data: world bank
textile market, Lagos,
         2003
       photo by
“A Throne for King Cholera”
    Punch, Winter 1852
Old Amsterdam Bourse
from a woodcut reproduced in
H.F. Helmolt, “History of the
World”
Cosmopolitanism
Κόσμος     Πόλις
Cosmos     Polis

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Desperately Seeking Serendipity

Editor's Notes

  1. \n
  2. \n
  3. easy to understand impetus towards urban migration in contemporary world\nin developing world, where growth of cities is most dramatic, motivations easy to understand:\nbetter economic opportunities, better healthcare, better education (lagos market)\n
  4. slightly harder to understand why you might move to a European city in the 19th century or earlier:\nLondon - largest city in Europe in 1800 with 800k\ndangerous - fires destroyed 80% of the housing stock in the great fire of 1666\nunsanitary - London's cholera epidemics killing 10k at a time in 1800s, plague\nthe great stink, result both of using the thames for waste (and drinking water), massive livestock markets in the city, horse manure from transport \n- Peter Ackroyd in a bio of Dickens: "If a late twentieth-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period, he would be literally sick - sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him." \n(london king cholera 1852)\n\nrisky to leave extended family and community, expensive to migrate\n
  5. - increased economic opportunity, trade with others\n- opportunity to court and marry outside a closed community\n- increased intellectual opportunity - universities, coffee house culture\n- worship without persecution - Amsterdam in 1600s featured French huguenots, Spanish and Portuguese jews as well as a roman catholic minority, despite the conflict with Spain...\n(amsterdam bourse)\n\nto a large extent, the reason to come to the city was to encounter the people you couldn't encounter in your rural, disconnected lifestyle - to trade with, marry, learn from, worship with\n\nbasically, you come to the city to become a cosmopolitan - a citizen of the world \n
  6. \n
  7. much like the man who coined the word - diogenes of sinope. Thrown out of his home city for counterfitting, fled to Athens, the metropolis of the day, seeking the opportunity to argue with the leading philosophers of the day, and to outrage as many people as possible\n\n(diogenes of sinope by Jean-Léon Gérôme) \n
  8. cosmopolitanism as a lived category impossible to most humans until very recently - that 3% living in cities in 1800 might have had a chance to view all humanity as their countrymen, but most of humanity wasn't forced to take on the challenge of understanding how to live with someone radically other until quite recently... which might explain why, in general, we're so bad at doing so\n\n
  9. view of the city as a cosmopolitan space realizes that one function of the city is to act as a communication technology\nin the simplest sense, a technology that allows realtime communication between different groups of people, something that wasn't possible in an age before telecommunications\n\nin a more complex sense, a communications technology that enables constant contact with the unfamiliar, strange, different - that second view is consistent with the fascination the city holds for those of us coming from a small town, a more limited place into a place that promises excitement, danger, connection\n
  10. It's not an accident that early portrayals of the internet seized on the city is a metaphor. what early cyberpunk authors were interested in was the possibility of encountering the weird, dangerous, unexpected all competing for your attention. Both writing in the days before the World Wide Web, and from very different perspectives - Gibson was utterly naive about technology, writing on a typewriter; Stephenson was a talented programmer, actually trying to write the software to do a computer-generated movie, ended up writing the book instead. Both seized on the compression, noise and competition for attention that cities embody as their metaphor for how data is presented... which is pretty interesting, in that there's no reason why data can't look like a forest of trees or a sea of bits... they saw virtual spaces as ones in which people were forced to interact because lots of people wanted to be in the same spaces at the same time, bumping into one another as they tried to occupy the same spaces and see the same things. Literally an insane way to represent a virtual space - why force people to crash into one another in a potentially infinte space? But they wanted cyberspace to behave in some of the ways cities do\n
  11. We hope that cities are serendipity engines. By putting a diverse set of people and things together in a confined place, we increase the chances that we're going to stumble onto the unexpected. \n(flâneur)\n(image)\n\nworth asking the question - are they?\n
  12. Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, 1957\nmapped the movements of a political science student over the course of a year, asking her to keep a journal of her journeys each day\nemergence of a triangle - home, school, her piano teacher. Familiar to sociologists as home, work and "the third place"\n\n“The narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives” ought to provoke “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.” Guy Debord\n\nmuch easier to make these maps these days, voluntarily or involuntarily - you may not have a good map of how you live in Boston, but your mobile phone provider does. And if you use a service like Fourquare regularly, you're producing a public version of this map, whether or not you realize it...\n
  13. Here's a map generated by Zach Seward, social media evangelist for the Wall Street Journal. It tracks his movements across NYC for a year, and offers a pretty convincing version of the Chombart de Lauwe triangle in an age of workoholism - he lives in Manhattanville, works in midtown and frequently hangs out in the east village. You can tell he's a Yankees fan\n
  14. You can also probably guess that he's white\nhis map of Harlem aligns almost exclusively with blocks in that part of the city that are not majority african-american - as he explains in his essay, this reflects on his commutting patterns and on the comparative state of commercialization in different parts of the city, but it also reveals the uncomfortable truth that "our cities" may look very different depending on our race, language, socioeconomic status\n
  15. It's worth pointing out that Seward is neither a racist, nor is he "pathetically limited", as Debord suggests. We all filter the places we live into the places where we're regulars and the ones we avoid, the parts of town where we feel familiar and where we feel foreign. We do this based on where we live, where we work, and who we like to spend time with. Our patterns tend to reflect a basic sociological truth - birds of a feather flock together. Homophily - we have a tendency to spend time with people from the same ethnic and socioeconomic background - might build maps of Dominican NY, Pakistani NY, Chinese NY, etc... as well as hipster NY (homophily slide)\nLazarfeld and Merton 1954\n\n
  16. when we talk about cities, we recognize that they're not always the cosmopolitan melting pots we dream they are - we recognize the ethnic character of neighborhoods, and we're conscious of ghettos that get separated through a combination of structure and behavior from the rest of the city. We hope for random encounter with a diverse citizenry to build a web of weak ties that increases our sense of involvement in the community, as Bob Putnam suggested in Bowling Alone. And we worry that we may instead isolate and cucoon ourselves when faced with a situation where we feel like outsiders, as Putnam's recent research has found...\n
  17. So... what I'm interested in isn't so much the ways in which we limit our encounters with the city\nI'm interested in what we do and don't encounter online\nIn "Being Digital", Nicholas Negroponte reported on a project at MIT's Media Lab called "Fishwrap" - a custom newspaper. Daily Me. (being digital)\nCass Sunstein, Republic.com - warned about the danger of this - echo chambers. possibility that political isolation makes us more extreme (republic com)\nI share that concern... but I'm less worried about republican/democrat than I am about us/them\n
  18. Miracle of the internet is that we're able to encounter news and opinion from virtually anywhere in the world. Most of us don't - 94% of news pageviews to US sites... massively more traffic to Yahoo News than to anything else. As if we were presented with the culinary richness of Allston and chose to eat 95% of our meals at McDonalds (news heatmap)\n
  19. The promise of the internet - the idea that everything is just a click a way - is that, here in Britain I can read newspapers from Australia, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Canada, at no cost and end up with a wider view of the world. The truth is that - on average - I won't. I did a study of the top 50 news sites in each of thirty countries - in the UK, over 95% of traffic to the most popular news sites is to domestic sites. It's one of those rare cases where the US can accuse the UK of being more parochial than we are - we like the BBC, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and as much as 6% of our news readership is of British media. But it's not just the US or the UK - you'll see that 94% of news read by Indian internet users - who are on average a lot wealthier, worldlier and English-literate than the average Indian citizen - spend 94% of their time on domestic news sites.\n
  20. \n
  21. move from curated to search to social\n\nCurators - implicitly telling us what they think we need to know about the world. often helpful, in that they demand we pay attention to things we might have ignored. But biased...\n\nsearch - I can learn a great deal about what I care about - sushi, sumo - but miss things I didn't know I needed to know about. need for serendipity\n\nsocial - seem to be trying to generate serendipity by looking to see what our friends care about\ncommunity based, through tools like reddit, digg\nmore specific through Facebook - here's what your friends believe is important, sending you towards it\n\nBrad DeLong - Facebook as a search engine that tells you what your friends know and believe is important... " You need to know what your friends and your friends of friends already know that you do not."\n\n
  22. my project - I want to rewire the internet so that we're more likely to encounter the richness, diversity, wonder that's available. I want to find ways to engineer serendipity\n\n(three princes of serendip)\nSerendipity as a concept is more recent than the city - robert merton's history traces back to coinage by Horace Walpole in 1740, refering to Three Princes of Serendip\nnot unexpected good fortune or random chance\nfortuitous occurance through sagacity and preparation\nserendipity is far from random - product of deep structure, careful design\n
  23. \n
  24. interested in learning from the city because there's been a recognition - certainly as early as Jane Jacobs, if not earlier - that there's a benefit to the (not really) random encounter with a variety of people on the street. It's tempting to think we want cities to be efficient, moving us from one place to another seamlessly and swiftly, ala Robert Moses. But what makes cities liveable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that Jacobs celebrates in the Village (Moses, Jacobs photos)\n
  25. intrigued by the movement in urbanism in designing spaces that encourage encounter, fight the tendency to isolate - design of spaces that encourage people to interact, mix - shopping streets, walkable cities\nDavid Walters: "Casual encounters in shared spaces are the heart of community life, and if urban spaces are poorly designed, people will hurry through them as quickly as possible."\n
  26. you'd think that it would be an easier task to rewire websites for serendipity than to rebuild cities to encourage casual encounter\nand, to a certain extent, it is - with the design of online spaces, we're constantly starting with a blank sheet of paper. Don't like how gaudy and flashy MySpace is? Wipe it clean - here's Facebook, where if you'd like a splash of color, you can have blue. The problem with this model - in online spaces, we're really bad at history. If you want to learn how great cities work, you can wander New York, London or Paris - it's hard to wander the Usenet of the late 1980s, or LambdaMoo...\n
  27. \n
  28. \n
  29. interestingly, signs of multiple uses in the same space - but not visible unless you’re tracking those uses\n\n
  30. \n
  31. \n
  32. suspect it’s a short while until we start seeing the like button - already on newspapers - being used to enhance maps. not sure this is a bad thing, so long as we can shut it off, or choose \n
  33. annotation and guiding:\nthe guided tour of the neighborhood\ncuration - understanding what you might need or want, interpreting the city through that lens\ncommunity maximums - Facebook and what's most popular in a community - the Brazilian passport through Framingham\n
  34. \n
  35. sf0\nJonathan Gold - The Year I Ate Pico\n
  36. \n
  37. serendipity through deep structure:\nlibrary shelves\nLibrary Lab - other forms of shelving\nmaking multiple structures visible\n
  38. \n