The Serendipitous Web

Ethan Zuckerman describes in his latest blog post exactly why I love to live in the big city:

It may not sound intuitively obvious to people living in the developed world, but a city like Lagos – with a population of 8 million, over 4% growth a year, living in a dense, crowded, traffic-choken sprawl – is an extremely appealing destination for Nigerians living in rural areas. In a developing world city, the schools and hospitals tend to be far better than what’s available in rural areas. Even with high rates of unemployment, the economic opportunities in cities vastly outpace what’s available in rural areas. But there’s a more basic reason – cities are exciting. They offer options: where to go, what to do, what to see. It’s easy to dismiss this idea – that people would move to cities to avoid rural boredom – as trivial. It’s not. As Amartya Sen argued in his seminal book, “Development as Freedom“, people don’t just want to be less poor, they want more opportunities, more freedoms. Cities promise options and opportunities, and they often deliver.

My roots are in the rural area, but I must say that cities are just more attractive for young people like me. They offer you round-clock opportunities and access to any kind of culture. Cities are often vibrant and dynamic. Cities give me some sense of harmony and structure! Everything seems to be so well balanced: traffic lights control the traffic, the sewer system, the electricity grid et cetera. The naked truth is slightly different however. As everything has its price, massive disruptions such as floods, earthquakes, political unrest or even a plague cannot withstand by a city. An atom bomb or an event like 9/11 can indeed cause some serious damage to people. It has a much bigger impact compared to the countryside. These risks must not be underestimated. But what we really need is more data. Data to support our disaster recovery systems, to increase health and wealth, to foster cultural diversity and basically to give politicians the means to make the right decisions about these topics. However, this will definitely bring tension between the public and private spheres.

Then Zuckerman makes the comparison between a city and communication technology. He touches on the fact that location data is collected through devices like a mobile phone, but also through services like Foursquare. What is more interesting though is that research points out that our lives are actually pathetically limited: “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. […]What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter.” So how does this translate to our most important communication technology today: the Web? Well, it turns out that the Web isolates us even worse than the city. The thing is that Web technologies let us digest just what our friends come up with. Since our online lives are just about knowing what our friends know, we might miss out on important stories. Moreover, online services such as Twitter and Facebook collect data about your browsing habits through their widgets (also in recent news in The Netherlands: mobile internet providers track customers traffic and analyse behavior through DPI). This tracking allows the social networking sites to filter and tailor to our personal taste even more, possibly resulting in polarization and extreme views, because we only get to see what web companies think is relevant to us. As a result, our status quo is not challenged and our world view will not be broadened: a threat to our democracy. This is exactly what Eli Pariser is concerned about. Google personalizes your search based on 57 signals about what they know about you (even more when you are logged on), and Facebook decides which information is displayed from our friends. Most people don’t know that Google’s personalized search and the algorithmic decisions Facebook makes, actually isolates us – makes us even ignorant I would say! But people think it’s good because we get to see more of what we already like. Here’s a TED video where Pariser explains what he calls the “filter bubble”:

According to Zuckerman, the solution to the isolation threat of our online experience lies in serendipity. When you live in a city and want to survive, you must be tolerant and open minded towards a diversity of beliefs and values. I believe that certain urban architectures will make you adopt this behavior of openness. At least it gives you some incentive to be more open-minded, even though that might be hard when a stereotypical black steals your bike’s saddle to make you suffer. So in order to remake the Web in the image of the city (note: not the other way around), we need to create online spaces that promote creativeness and innovation. Truth be told, I am not very convinced that the way we have been communicating, living and learning the last decades was so special. We can do much better. The work of activists such as
Mark Surman, pundits like Ethan Zuckerman and Eli Pariser as well as the thinking of writers such as Cory Doctorow, William Gibson and Neil Stephenson should be praised. In particular, on the front of architecture and design I also think of Adam Greenfield, a thought leader in information architecture but who has also been doing work on IT for urban environments through Urbanscale, a boutique practice providing design for networked cities and citizens. A bit closer to home, I am a fan of user experience engineer Alper.

The bottom line is that we need to shape online places that bring us unintended consequences and unexpected discoveries. Make us encounter things by accident. The real challenge for the Web is to embrace these architectures and design patterns of serendipity to connect people and ideas. Only then knowledge sharing will become effective and only then people will finally get of their couch and do something thanks to the Web.

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