Approaches To Design

A brief post with a couple of pointers, mostly coming from a peculiar serendipity: A stack of The New Yorker often comes with me to be read during long periods where, otherwise, I would be staring at the back of someone else’s seat and head. Often times, when not on a long journey, sadly — these issues just pile up, maybe an article quickly read and that’s it. In this case, and one of the upsides of crossing a continent and an ocean and another additional bit, is that I end up reading just about everything, unless it’s another Sedaris, who has just about become another Keillor to me. Or even a Rooney (“ ever wonder why..”). In other words – m’eh.

In any case, and back to the point, several months ago I skimmed through Richard Sennet’s book “The Craftsman” per a friend’s recommendation. I found the book intriguing in that it discusses the role of craft and handwork and the hands-on intimacy that obtains when designing and creating with an emphasis on the materiality of things and processes of construction. That is, different from the “screen-work” of disconnected finger-twitching and mouse-moving, for example. These things are topics near and dear to the Laboratory and, generally, thinking about new ways of making things, discovering new ideas, and so on. Things that have more that motivates them — the values and principles — that is not firstly, or even at all about the calculus of quantity produced, minimum profit opportunities, loss-leading market share swirls, derivative land grabs, fast-follows behind market leaders. Etcetera. Ad nasium.

On NPR recently, I heard an interview with Matthew Crawford, who has written a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work“, which sounds at least congruent with Sennett. This one I have not read, because it’s in hardback still. It certainly sounds intriguing — new ways of working and thinking, assessing the value of what you do and so forth.

Then, I came across this review titled Fast bikes, slow food, and the workplace wars in The New Yorker, which I had almost threw out, that brings Shop Class and The Craftsman together along with the canonical perspective, imho, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, which is a must read. (You know: stop-what-you-are-doing-now level of urgency, etc.)

Why do I blog this? This review provided a great perspective in my mind to the larger questions on our relationship to work, innovation, values and these things relationship to the larger world beyond our own desires to better ourselves. We need a kind of “design” where decisions are based upon principles of making the world a more habitable, playful place in some measurable way. This is a thoughtful approach to making things, rather than accounting-led practices that ends up making things that stuff our warehouses/delivery trucks/store shelves/homes/garbage cans/land fills with more crappy crap. Criteria for making things cannot be undergirded first, or only, or primarily by rules of accounting and engineering and counting the quantities of things made, or technical features for their own geeky sake. Quality — and not only the “styling” sort of quality — the quality of a thing’s presence in the world should account for its capacity to bring about a normatively more habitable place to live.
Continue reading Approaches To Design

SXSW 2010 Interactive Proposal – Design Fiction

Tuesday July 21, 21.18.24

Burger stand, downtown Los Angeles. I have never eaten here. And I probably won’t. I’m generally not particularly brave when it comes to street foods. But it’s a curious, particularly Los Angeles thing, I think.

Fortuitously, the SXSW folks provided a brief window of opportunity for us delinquents to submit a panel proposal in the “Late” category of things. Which I have done on behalf of several of us kindred design fictionists. The panel proposal machine at SXSW is wonderfully constrained – 8 word titles, 50 word descriptions, 10 sharp, short questions that will be addressed. This helps one go through the proposed panels efficiently. Unfortunately, when I was composing notes for the panel proposal, I got all academic-y and definitely had an enormous, colon-filled title, and about 300+ words of description.

Well, I winnowed it all down, and you can vote on our proposal here:

You’ll have to register, but I suspect all 37 people who occasionally read over my shoulder here are already in the SXSW system.

You confidence in our ability to bring insights and thoughtful examples, and practical take-aways is always appreciated. As usual.

Loosely associated and perhaps participating if this all happens will hopefully be, besides myself: Nicolas Nova (, Sascha Pohflepp (, Jake Dunagan ( Bruce Sterling ( and Stuart Candy (

The too-long proposal, for my own record of things written, is this:

Design Fiction: Using Props, Prototypes and Speculation In Design

This panel will present and discuss the idea of “design fiction”, a kind of design genre that expresses itself as a kind of science-fiction authoring practice. Design fiction crafts material visions of different kinds of possible worlds.

Design’s various ways of articulating ideas in material can be seen as a kind of practice close to writing fiction, creating social objects (like story props) and experiences (like predicaments or scenarios). In this way, design fiction may be a practice for thinking about and constructing and shaping possible near future contexts in which design-led experiences are created that are different from the canonical better-faster-cheaper visions owned by corporate futures.

This panel will share design fiction projects and discuss the implications for design, strategy and technology innovation. In particular, how can design fiction bolster bolster the communication of new design concepts by emphasizing rich, people-focused storytelling rather than functionality? How can design fiction become part of a process for exploring speculative near futures in the interests of design innovation? What part can be played in imagining alternative histories to explore what “today” may have become as a way to underscore that there are no inevitabilities — and that the future is made from will and imagination, not determined by an “up-and-to-the-right” graph of better-faster-cheaper technologies.

Continue reading SXSW 2010 Interactive Proposal – Design Fiction

Eduardo Galeano Contemplates History's Paradoxes

An intriguing short interview with the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano as he contemplates the various histories of the worlds over the past 5,000 years.

I found the context of this radio interview intriguing for a number of reasons. The setting of a cafe as a place to think and plot and plan future worlds — of course this is resonant to me. The right cafes are peerless as places to think, observe, meet people, write, sketch, ponder. Much, much better than just about any of the social settings available in digital environments. I mean, really — Facebook is an obscure diacritic in the language of human social practices as far as my experience suggests.

But perhaps what resonated were its closing remarks describing briefly how Galeano does not drive, rarely uses a cellphone, etc. All of the things you might expect from a poet-author-dissident. This remark in particular has stuck with me for a couple of days:

When it’s time to leave the cafe, a friend appears outside to give him a lift. Galeano doesn’t drive, nor does he use his cell phone much. He suspects his computer — and all computers — drink whiskey at night when nobody’s watching.

“And that’s why next day they do some enigmatic things that nobody can understand,” he says.

I like this imagery, of devices that do things while we sleep. Nothing too crazy, just slightly disruptive. Like the concept for the “Sleeping Brawler” Nicolas and I poked around awhile ago. Your online personas/avatars who sleep walk around the network when you are asleep, doing generally harmless but annoying things, like sending weird messages, poking at people, etc.

Once exiled for 12 years, the Uruguayan author now spends his days at his hometown cafe, writing about themes that have preoccupied him for a lifetime. His latest book, Mirrors
is an unofficial — and unconventional — history of the past 5,000 years.

(Via NPR Blog.)

Pogoplug and The Rise of Network Fog


Pogoplug in the wild. Some edition of Linux in there, stripped down to basically require zero configuration. Plug it in to your network via an RJ45, and plug in your USB drive(s) and they appear online.
BTW lying under the tech is a first edition (1973) of the brilliantly quirky and prescientThe Velvet Monkey Wrench by John Muir (yes..related) with hippy-days illustrations by the talented Peter Aschwanden, who also illustrated the repair manual for my very first beater VW Rabbit. It has been recently re-issued. Chapter 8: “In Which Money Becomes Electrified”, complete with “E-Sellers” and “E-Cards.” Great future-past stuff.

Along with Augmented Reality, Cloud Computing seems to be one of the more thorough-going technology memes these days. The concept is consistent with the logic of the network. As bandwidth speeds level-up, and bandwidth costs go down (not free, just less, despite what Chris Anderson hypes) the asymptotic extreme approaches a curious quandary: where should “processing” be placed in relation to “data”?

Imagine if data can move (or appear to move) fast enough between where it is consumed and created such that it doesn’t actually matter where it lives? That might mean that I don’t have to lug around lots of big portable computing power — I can use a svelte device with just a sliver of CPU and enough screen to see what I need to see. No hot, power-hungry hard drive. Etc.

I’m curious about this intersecting graph and so decided to introduce an experiment using this newly available Pogoplug device. Effectively it’s a condensed bit of pre-existing technology wonderfully packaged into simple oneness. Simple oneness — my half-assed way to describe the Pogoplug without referring to it as either “smart”, as an “appliance” or a “smart appliance.” It’s only smart in the degree to which it does not make me feel dumb.

I have to say, it certainly appears clever in a number of ways. First of all, it does something obvious, and I mean that this way: the bits of technical kit required to make ones data appear close to one no matter where one is, within the constraints of reasonable access to networks and so forth — this has been around for quite some time. I can remember — and I’m sure every geek with an itch to not just speculate but live a bit in the future — I can remember cobbling together this and that to get my screen, my data and my command prompt to appear and be accessible from other places. It was all there, all the little packages and so forth — it was just an unpleasant, distasteful peasants stew. Pogoplug adds some robust seasoning. I didn’t have to touch a thing except to plug everything together, copy a unique identifier found in the box into a web form — and the Pogoplug mothership found my unit, prompted me to pick a username and password and then I saw a web interface to all the drives I had plugged into the unit. Nice, simple, surprising.

There’s a bit of software for Windows and OS X to allow the drives to appear like ordinary desktop storage, making drag-and-drop and browsing quite familiar. I can assign files to be shared to specific people — there are no global permissions it appears, which is just fine with me. Although, one interesting aspect of this is a possible shift in the locality of served data. I’m curious about this — rather than data living in the more typical, canonical places like data centers, does it distribute in a fashion, so that your data is accessed at its place of origin, or where you decide to keep it and perhaps you like to keep it close by or even under your mattress or the equivalent in the networked age. And perhaps it is served up and processed more locally, such as at my home, in my car’s computer, directly from my mobile computer or mobile phone or even from my camera.

It’s just a speculation, but a more distributed network of nodes is a peculiar inversion of the typical run and hype of cloud-y things, which implores us to move everything into one or two or many clouds run by cloud service providers. What about an infinity of highly localized service points? What about my front doormat? Should it be a service provider? Can the guys who insist on bringing door hanger adverts for the local Thai restaurant just upload it to my door handle instead? Save the paper? Can I unsubscribe to the inevitable digital version of the crappy real estate newspaper that appears on the lawn in the morning?

I don’t know the specific advantages this might offer when measured against the usual metrics of the technology business — faster, cheaper, more profitable — but I enjoy the concept of keeping my stuff — data, touch points, access ways — close to me, nearby, on me, in my devices, etc. There are times when I feel like I am too trusting when I put it off somewhere I don’t even have physical access to. Perhaps my furniture secures my stuff, hidden in the overstuffed arm rest of my reading chair or something?
Continue reading Pogoplug and The Rise of Network Fog

Personas Web

Ian Bogost flagged this one from the netherline — a curious visualization engine called “personas Web” used to create these kinds of colored bands that somehow represent and categorize me based on a comb through of the network, I assume. I might be projecting a bit, but it appears that the principle here is this: through an aggregation of “stuff” found about me, seeded only by my first and last name, this instrument constructs a visualization by data scouring. I like the idea generally speaking — or, it’s provocative at least. You can imagine data “fingerprints” or some such thing. A unique signature of you and your footprint in all teh world’s databases and links and structures and this then indicates the canonical you in some weird data geek-y, network-y way.

The engine does lots of quick-cut processing, and you can sort of watch it do its work. It reminds me of watching a really well-done, action packed, cut-cut-cut visual introduction to an action-spy film, like Bourne or something. But, meh..then its like the film gets snagged in the sprockets and breaks. The house lights come up. People moan and throw popcorn at the screen. Because it just stops dead leaving me with a bunch of striped bars and some vague categories. I guess I am now meant to interpret the size of the bars? Or correlate that in my brain to myself and who I am? And what’s this “illegal” category of things? I’d sure like to investigate where that came from.


But, there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for shift-right-clicking your way into the slag heap of stuff from which the color bar was assembled. And the process runs awfully quick in the midst of it so there’s no making sense of it along the way. It’s a nice idea, or what I think the idea is is, you know…nice. The punch colors are colorful and web-2.0-y, I guess. But, sadly, I have no clear idea about how this is meant to convey information in a meaningful, interactive, exploratory way.

Why do I blog this? Remind myself about data visualization, analytics and all the other things. Visual data footprints could be a nice sort of unique mark.
Continue reading Personas Web

Generative Urban Design



Get the flash player here:

var so = new SWFObject(“”, “PictoBrowser”, “500”, “430”, “8”, “#E0E0E0”); so.addVariable(“source”, “sets”); so.addVariable(“names”, “LA Generative Procedural Maps”); so.addVariable(“userName”, “nearfuturelab”); so.addVariable(“userId”, “73737423@N00”); so.addVariable(“ids”, “72157622074827670”); so.addVariable(“titles”, “on”); so.addVariable(“displayNotes”, “off”); so.addVariable(“thumbAutoHide”, “off”); so.addVariable(“imageSize”, “medium”); so.addVariable(“vAlign”, “mid”); so.addVariable(“vertOffset”, “0”); so.addVariable(“colorHexVar”, “E0E0E0”); so.addVariable(“initialScale”, “off”); so.addVariable(“bgAlpha”, “71”); so.write(“PictoBrowser090818080648”);

These images are from a series of generative, algorithmic sketches to describe what Los Angeles might look like as an “augmented reality.” Specifically, one view of the city from my point of view, where the topography and built environments height-density were a function of my presence. An ego city or something.

This is more an idea that has been stuck in my head and needed some expression. I am not at all sure what one does with this or how one uses it in any instrumental way except as a proper augmentation of the one canonical reality. A bit of a Kevin Lynch (Good City Form which I haven’t finished but am enjoying and, of course, The Image of the City) style map of presence, sketched from accumulated presence data rather than specifically what I imagine or how my brain conceives of urban space.

These are simple, early sketches to see how home made cartography might create density maps that reveal some sort of cartographic indication of where you have been, leaving blank or perhaps more obvious the places you have not been. Or a GPS that shows a fog-of-war map, or constructs routes for you based on a principle of exploration — routing you through areas that you have yet to see or explore.

To be continued, as always. Just curious.

Why do I blog this? But, besides that point, I am anxious to find alternative perspectives of the city, especially ones that are dynamic and produced from closer to the ground-up, rather than from the top-down. Using occupancy as a measure, or as the algorithmic seasoning seems like a Lynchian natural first step. Based on the amount of time spent in particular areas, my own personal maps should reflect this somehow, either by fogging out all the rest of the space, drawing the rest of the space as blank or, as in these sketches, altering the terrain height and the built environment’s density and building heights, etc. (Of course, these are not actual buildings from Los Angeles — it is all a thought, a sketch of these ideas. These are the things I have been thinking about, and other kinds of algorithms and/or mechanisms to materialize these ideas, such as Drift Decks, Apparatus, Personal Digital Pal’s etc.

Also, I thought I lost these sketches after complete, well-founded frustration with the absolute most crappiest piece of over-priced software I have ever come across in the whole world.
Continue reading Generative Urban Design

Pastiche, Scenarios, Design, Communication


While rummaging through a stack of things read and to-be re-read, I came back across this curious paper by Mark Blythe and Peter Wright called “Pastiche Scenarios: Fiction as a Resource for Experience Centred Design”. I believe I was referred to while deep into this business of “design fiction.” It describes an approach to design that employs scenarios that draw from pre-existing stories, particularly stories that have characters whose sensibilities, styles, quirks, etc., are well-rehearsed in the larger cultural milieu. You know — existing players from existing stories. The full design fiction production notes come from the things I learn from clever story tellers who actually do design fiction. Combining props as fictional design objects that are almost secondary to the experience that people have — like Hitchcock’s Macguffin’s that move a story forward, but now the story also has fleshed out fictional characters who have a large set of pre-existing attributes put together in a way that only a good story teller could accomplish.

I find this quite intriguing, particularly because most of the user scenarios or user segmentation models and demographic architectures rely on quite flat personas. They are not really people so much as database files of characteristics, demographics, and rather flat “marketing” grammars — the kind of car they are likely to drive, career aspirations, disposable incomes. This sort of thing.

As opposed to this, the idea of using an existing character to fill out the design thinking exercises may not produce better design, but it may produce more effective design communication. This is mostly what I am thinking about here — mechanisms for communicating an idea. This to me is not about strategies for devising clever new experiences — crackerjack designers should be able to do this from their own experiences and capabilities which is what makes a crackerjack designer crackerjack. It may be that bad design comes from poor design instincts. But it likely also comes from poor communication of intent and sensibility, which results in the loss of integrity and foundational principles of a design, which gets mucked up in the execution. Which includes all the objectives that cloud that integrity, such as, for example, accounting and profit principles.

From Pastiche scenarios: fiction as a resource for experience centred design.

Rather than attempt to write strong character-based scenarios from scratch we have looked to re-use characters from existing fictions. Characters such as Ebenezzer Scrooge and Bertie Wooster Bridget Jones and Renton from Trainspotting. This has the advantage of drawing on readers’ shared knowledge of already familiar characters thereby recruiting a pre-existing rich understanding of the character-users and the use context. If you have read Dickens’ Christmas Carol or Bridget Jones’s diary you will have an understanding of these characters and be able to envision how they would respond to new and novel situations. This is so because giving the reader such an understanding is precisely the point of a well-written novel. If you have not read these novels there are so many other cultural representations of the characters in film and television that they will still resonate. And if you have never seen any of them they are strong enough on the page to make an impression at first reading.

Pastiche scenarios can be used as rhetorical devices for design – to convince and persuade and to make apparent assumptions and values around the design and use of technology. They can also be used to explore emotional, social and political contexts of use. Characters in fiction can occasionally surprise their own authors..When characters with as much depth and richness..are recruited to scenarios they might also surprise and inform designers. The use of complex, rounded characters may also create ambiguity which, as Gaver et all (2003) note, can lead to new design challenges and insights.

Related of course is critical design in the sense of creating provocations, to stir discussion and consideration of things, although critical design does not have as its primary purpose the creation of things.

Critical design is related to haute couture, concept cars, design propaganda, and visions of the future, but its purpose is not to present the dreams of industry, attract new business, anticipate new trends or test the market. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence. It differs too from experimental design, which seeks to extend the medium, extending it in the name of progress and aesthetic novelty. Critical design takes its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical and economic values, in an effort to push the limits of lived experience not the medium. This has always been the case in architecture, but design is struggling to reach this level of intellectual maturity. [Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects]

Critical design would seem to be preliminary to the communication, to stir conversations that help yield some insights into the design itself.

Why do I blog this? Rehearsing strategies for communicating the intent of designed things using something other than bullet points and four-quadrant graphics and up-and-to-the-left graphs. But I also wonder how these two curious practices can come together in a fruitful way. Current mood: Hopeful.

Lift Asia 09 Jeju Korea, Sept 17-18

Lift Asia 09, Jeju Korea, Sept 17-18 2009

Just a short note about the Lift Asia 09 conference in a month, September 17-18 2009. I’ll be speaking on something to do with either minor undesired paternity notoriety or, perhaps more likely — building your own world to get the future you deserve.

Either way, I am looking forward to once again sluicing into a Lift conference. Parenthetically, the last Lift Asia I went (I guess this is only the 3rd one) way too long ago was in Seoul and was the inaugural “Asia” edition of Lift and I had a terrific time, although through a fantastic bit of misunderstanding, I thought the conference was two days, rather than two hours.

Get the flash player here:

var so = new SWFObject(“”, “PictoBrowser”, “500”, “500”, “8”, “#EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“source”, “sets”); so.addVariable(“names”, “Seoul/Lift/Nabi”); so.addVariable(“userName”, “julianbleecker”); so.addVariable(“userId”, “66854529@N00”); so.addVariable(“ids”, “72157604476553290”); so.addVariable(“titles”, “on”); so.addVariable(“displayNotes”, “on”); so.addVariable(“thumbAutoHide”, “off”); so.addVariable(“imageSize”, “medium”); so.addVariable(“vAlign”, “mid”); so.addVariable(“vertOffset”, “0”); so.addVariable(“colorHexVar”, “EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“initialScale”, “off”); so.addVariable(“bgAlpha”, “90”); so.write(“PictoBrowser090813145802”);


Sorry displaced atmospheric molecules for traveling so far for a two hour event. Ah, but the time to connect face-to-face with friends was well worth the time. And, I forbade myself from too many epic trips for a good bit this year, despite the temptation for such.

Continue reading Lift Asia 09 Jeju Korea, Sept 17-18

Ikky Futures — Back To The Futures on VHS Tape

Thursday August 06, 18.53.55

“Icky Futures” — a brilliantly distorting collection of corporate visions of the future, packaged in an original BTTF VHS (FTW!) tape. The redoubling ironies here are precious.

This arrived in the mail over a week ago and I just now managed to actually watch the thing, mostly because access to a VHS deck is not super easy. There are a few around the studio. Irony Number One: The first one I tried — which I tried because it appears to be connected via some piping of cables into a wall, probably up in a ceiling, then down the wall on the opposite side of the room, finally tumbling out in a completely incomprehensible bundle of unmarked, inconsistent wires which vaguely attach themselves to a fantastically huge piss-off-and-die flatscreen of the sort I am certain Sir Edmund Hillary would demand were he alive today.


The only thing that came through, despite a good 45 minutes of fiddling and wrangling from the guy who used to run the film loops and projectors and such back in the day — was sound.

A few days later, an attempt in the other room with a VHS deck, but the television — a proper, gentleman’s cathode “ray” tube — wouldn’t turn on. Just wouldn’t.

Finally, got one going in the other, other room and the tape rolled. Not wanting to push my luck as far as actually seeing something, I watched on my computer screen through my trusty ADVC110 video converter.

Called “Icky Futures” — the video cassette tape that Chris composed contains almost 1h:30m of corporate future visions, many of which I would be hard pressed to watch while keeping a straight face. Of course, some of that has to do with production style and value, or seeing yesteryears technology darlings (Bellcore, for example, Apple with a striped rainbow logo) pin their dreams on one thing or the other.

Well, despite these things having a compendium of past future visions of what some little aspect of the world might look like is fantastic stuff. These sorts of things should be required viewing for anyone who gets into the racket of trying to communicate their vision of possible near futures. Observing tried techniques for expression of sometimes tricky ideas is a quite useful approach to the communication craft. Talking heads combined with described scenarios? Or acted scenarios? Do you show the technology in its prototype form? Or do some visual special effects to make it seem as though it is working? What kind of people? What fields of trade? Business people? Cops? Etc.

It is also interesting to identify visions of the future that “failed” (or did not come to fruition, not yet at least.) So much attention is placed on things that happen, we rarely look at the things that were supposed to (according to some people), but did not. This is endemic to the futures community, I think. You can say lots of things, and you only have to be right once for those “misses” to fall away.



What I would say Chris and Natalie are doing or attempting to achieve in part is precisely what was enacted through this mishegoss of trying to get a VHS tape to play and be seen and potentially enjoyed. As well, the fact that the material is in a physical object and in some sense “unique” for each instance. I can’t actually “send it around” in the sense of uploading the digital bits without violating some aspect of the physicality of the thing. Yes, i know this is stretching it — I could “rip” the VHS tape into digital form, but then it is something else, at least I assume different from Chris’ intention with it. And I like having it up on my shelf this way. It has a certain integrity to itself. A different sort of media and content that will ultimately degrade into something barely viewable or not viewable at all because the extremes I would have to go to to find the equipment to play it will be way too much for me to endure.

There are some powerful ironies and a heavy wiff of whatever us optimistic cynics dose ourselves with before going on the hunt for the next ridiculous “meme” that everyone gets hopped up on. The combination of the means of delivery of this object (Chris mailed it to me, using the normal, human postal service), and the VHS tape (which forced me to stop and think about how/where I could actually view this), the scratchiness of the video picture (which is a configuration of zillions of magnetic particles intricately aligned on a microscopically thin plastic tape for chrissake) — all of these things force one to think about what futures were planned, which came to be and which did not, what futures we actually deserve, and the things we end up leaving behind.

Why do I blog this? A nice, evocative object to think with. Thanks Chris! Check out Chris’ project page for more.
Continue reading Ikky Futures — Back To The Futures on VHS Tape

William H. Whyte Revisited: An Experiment With An Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View

Times Square Urban Living Room from Julian Bleecker. More Apparatus Videos.

[[Update: The Apparatus was exhibited at the HABITAR show at LABoral in Gijón Spain this summer 2010.]]

A couple of months ago a colleague, Jan Chipchase, floated by my desk and handed me a book of his called “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William H. Whyte. I had no idea who this Whyte character was and I could only guess what it was about and, just by the title — I figured this would lead me down another rabbit’s hole of exploration and experimentation.

As I flipped through the pages, looking at the images of urban observations of New York City from the 1970s, I was enthralled by the technique as well as the substance of the material. Whyte and his team were capturing the intriguing, sometimes curious ways in which people adapt small corners of urban space and their habits and practices and rituals. The pace and momentum of pedestrian movement is intriguing. Without assuming anything in particular, Whyte’s work was capturing movement in a seductive way — even small scale jolts and shifts and gestures. Someone moving a chair just a small bit to indicate that he is not attempting to invade someone’s microlocal private space. You see the “fast-movers” bobbing and weaving quickly around a phalanx of slow moving tourists, window shoppers or a more elderly pedestrian.

Wonderful, intriguing stuff. Sold. Hooked. What’s the brief? Oh, what would I do? Follow footsteps and curiosities, I guess. I was curious — how can the momentum and pace and speed (or lack thereof) of the urban flows be captured, highlighted, brought into focus and revealed in such a way as to visually describe time, movement, pace, scales of speed and degrees of slowness?

There is lots to say about Whyte, I am sure. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this well-known urban sociologist, explorer, scout, observer. But, for the purposes here what happened as a result of this brief conversation with Jan was something that spread through the studio — a bout of curiosity that led to another, other project. It started simply by wondering if the observational studies that Whyte had done both in this book and in other projects could be done today? And, if so — what might they observe? What might be the questions? By what principles and assumption would small urban spaces be explored?

A copy of the films Whyte had made was secured in short order. Simple observations from ground level as well as from carefully chosen vantage points up high, above the ground. This intrigued me. There had been a project in the studio this time last year with things placed high for observational purposes (high chairs, periscopes, etc.) and it was filed away in the “lost projects” binder, so this seemed perhaps a way to revive that thinking. Over the course of a week, I made four trips to Home Depot, Simon jigged a prototype bracket on the CNC machine, and I had a retractable 36 foot pole that I imagined I was going to hang a heavy DSLR off of — it scared the bejeezus out of me and required two people to safely raise up. Too high, too floppy.

Another pole — 24 feet. Daunting but serviceable. It retracts to 8 feet, which is still quite high, but the range made it worth the embarrassment. After a brief bang around the reputation and suggestion networks, a wide field of view camera was identified and two ordered. Two cameras, secured to the pole produced a fair resolution, very wide field of view for displaced observations from a peculiar point of view. Good enough.

Penn Station Still Observation from Julian Bleecker on Vimeo.

Observation apparatus deployed at 7th Avenue main entrance to Pennsylvania Station, NYC, capturing ingress & egress flows, pedestrians waiting, deciding, waking up in the morning upon hitting the sidewalk, &c. The slow-scan mode highlights things which are not moving and therefore often discounted as to their import such as, for instance, the two peculiar characters to the far left who scarcely move (and were still there at the end of the day, around 7pm!), defensible space obstacles in the form of potted plants, people who wait for things, time to pass, people or taxi cabs, &c.

A notion interpreted and brought into focus by Rhys Newman.

Friday June 19, 16.17.17

15th Street and 5th Avenue, New York City.

Using some generative algorithms to show neutral zones of flow and highlighting areas of relatively stable inactivity. Somewhat mitigated by the windiness of the day which caused the cameras to move quite a bit.

Whyte was intrigued by the movement, flows, behaviors, but also emphasized the engaged observations — pen and paper, not just measurements and statistics. He was observing and analyzing both statistically — flows of people per time period over various widths of sidewalk, for example — as well capturing those things that one misses in abstracted data sets. In the film, his avuncular tone draws our attention to small curious practices. Things like someone to moving a chair in a public open space barely a few feet from where it was so as to indicate to a nearby fellow New Yorker that they were not intending to impose upon their public-privacy.

There was something about these sorts of couplings between the analytic data — numbers and so forth — and the observed, seen and demonstrated activities of people. Observed practices crafted into a kind of story about this subject — the social life of small urban spaces. Finding ways to observe and perhaps produce useful insights and design inspirations based on the observations seems a reasonable goal. There is only so much you can do with the books of abstracted data squirreled away some place before you have to go out in the world. Where I was most interested in exploring was somewhere “lower” than the high-level observations which produce intriguing visualizations but are many steps removed from the everyday, quotidian practices. Some empirical, rough-around-the-edges, observational data ethnography. A close cousin of the truly fascinating data visualizations we have grown to love. Perhaps close to Fabien’s notion of citizen sensors and citizen cartography.

We got plenty of guff with the Apparatus when we took it on the new Highline Park. One rather abrupt park minder — sort of behaving like an airline stewardess on a really bad day — was not pleased with the pole at all and let us know it. I had to talk to someone back at the offices of the "Friends of The Highline" via a cellphone given to me by a guy who was like a human surveillance entity. The woman on the phone explained – after listening to my perhaps overly analytic and historic description of the project, Whyte, &c. – that they do not allow tripods or, "you know..long poles" in the park.

Errr ahhh…

It was all very weird, and very un-appealing and put a cloud on what is a playful project, I think, but — *shrug*.

It’s all to be figured out. Or not. Perhaps its just observation. Scraps and visual thinking. Some notes in video. Constructed objects and anticipation of going mobile in Seoul and Helsinki and Linz and London. &c. Or some kind of exploration to suggest alternative ways of seeing the world around us. That may be closer to the point, at least now.

The post-processing stages of the activity are mostly explorations of ways in which individuals or small groups of people in movement could become their own producers of representations of what they do, in an aesthetic sense. What other sorts of systems might people-flows evoke or be reminiscent of? Weather patterns? Displacement grids? Where is there stillness in the bustle? Can the city’s flows be slowed down to evoke new considerations and new perspectives of what happens in the small urban spaces?

People themselves are often seen to be controlled in a top down fashion — even less insidious than “the man”, I think of the significant pedestrian operator — the “I want to cross” button at many busy intersections. It’s a point of contact with the city’s system of algorithmic, synchronized flows. But what about people as their own algorithms, by virtue of their occupancy of urban space? Not following specific top-down plans, but bottom up actions and movements. Not augmented reality but productions of realities. The center of what happens, displaced from the operational command center that articulates how the flows will operate.

I love these moments that countervene the system-wide control grids, which you can see if you watch carefully the raw footage from 15th Street and 5th Avenue where pedestrians spread themselves into the street, stretching the boundaries of the safety of the sidewalk in anticipation of the crossing. Or, perhaps something I love less but it is still something to note, a bicyclist turning the corner against traffic, possibly into pedestrians who may be less inclined to look from whence traffic should not be coming.

We push buttons to control the algorithms of the city, as in the buttons to control signals and so forth. Or roll our cars over induction loops – these are parameters to the algoithms of top-down controls over urban flows. Suppose we interceded more directly or suppose the geometry of the city were represented this way, as a product of the non-codified “algorithm” of movements.

What sort of world would this be? What would it look like?

Highlighting only things that are moving in the Union Square Farmers’ Market.

A cartesian grid distorted by flows around the Union Square Farmers Market.

Wednesday June 17, 15.04.24

Wednesday June 17, 14.44.17

Help thanks to Marcus Bleecker, Chris Woebken, Rhys Newman, Simon James, Jan Chipchase, Aaron Meyers, Noah Keating, Bella Chu, Duncan Burns, Andrew Gartrell, Nikolaj Bestle. And so on.

Videos live online and will accumulate over time. This is Times Square, NYC, Highline in Chelsea NYC, and a generative video done with Max/MSP Jitter