Steven Johnson @ Parsons

I saw Steven Johnson‘s lecture last week at Parsons, part of The New School. It was titled, “The Urban Web,” and its main premise, which ties to Johnson’s business venture, was to examine how the web is being embedded within our everyday lives.

Most interesting was the review of some of his earlier work, especially his “web as city” metaphor, which he based on the work on Jane Jacobs. For the web to be useful, Johnson argues, it needs to have the same qualities (values, really…) we find in many cities:

  • Stranger Interaction — the city’s walkable sidewalks and interesting storefronts encourages interactions, just as the web has forums, blogs, etc
  • Serendipity — walkable cities encourage chance happenings, something less likely in car-based surburbia. He calls this “swerving” — how you’re walking down the street and see something interesting and decide to take a peek. Swerving in a car means something very different. Web sites like Boing Boing epitomize the kind of serendipity found on the web.
  • Neighborhoods — just as distinct neighborhoods form in a city, the web encourages spaces of like minds. Sites such as Daily Kos…
  • Order From Below — this is the “grassroots” effect. Digg, for example.
  • Density — lots of all the above packed into relatively small spaces

Today, as technology changes, the “urban web” is no longer a metaphor; it’s reality. The web is turning into the geographic web, as it becomes an interface to the real world. An early example of this was Meetup, which became most well-known with its association with the Howard Dean Presidential campaign, as his supporters used Meetup to organize their real-world meetings.

An important reason the urban web is forming is mapping technology. Both Yahoo and Google have added maps to their sites, and through opening their maps through programming interfaces, the field of “amateur cartography” has developed. With some relatively simple programming skills, anyone can overlay the geography of the material world with what they think is significant. So, for example, people have created maps of the “best bike routes through Brooklyn.” The web has become a “filter and user interface” for the real world.

Johnson noted that the major roadblock today preventing the geo-tagging of everything from happening is the web is not organized geographically. The web works today through both standard virtual locations (URLs), and through standard time stamps (made possible because of blogs).

But what the web cannot do is: “Find what everyone is saying about the schools within one mile of my house.”

That, of course, is the problem Johnson’s is trying to solve.

The reminder of the lecture was generally about, how it works, where it’s going next. One interesting idea was an integration with Twitter, so that as you walk around the city (presuming you’re using an iPhone, for example, with geo-location built-in), will send tweets about the places you’re passing, as well as tweets your followers where you are at any given time.

Frankly, it all sounds way too much like a technological panopticon for me. To his credit, Johnson did state that when implementing this technology, they will be very conscious of making this an “opt-in” service by default, meaning you have to explicitly tell the site you want it to start tracking a tweeting where you are to everyone.

Because the lecture was for Parsons, it was much less theoretical than I would have liked, but Johnson is a very interesting and entertaining speaker, so it was well worth it. I should add, he was extremely gracious in the Q&A, and really tried to answer everyone’s questions.


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