Metacities

With the proliferation of social networks we are already experiencing a new kind of city, a city augmented with location-sensitive information. While location in the past was largely an economic factor, many of the traditional reasons for geographic specialization have been erased due to the effects of technology. As a result, location is taking on new meanings, and the city is increasingly re-configuring itself as a vessel for the growing, interconnected and constantly changing social networks that form the basis of the contemporary urban experience.

The information we have access to changes the way we interact with the city.

For one, information can create efficiency. We are now in a position to steer our task-oriented behaviors based on current events, such as schedule changes and traffic updates. Now that we can become aware of the locations of other agents (people and things), we can time our own interactions to coincide more immediately with theirs, removing time-based inefficiencies.

Next is location-sensitive search. Related to efficiency, search is about decreasing the distance to finding a particular person, place or thing. Search is about understanding intent, and location adds a significant factor to intent analysis. Location is a way of creating more specificity around search.

Access to real-time information in the city aids discovery. Discovery is based on latent intent. Because technologies can know about our interests and patterns, they can provide real-time recommendations that match our general or specific interests, even if they have not yet been fully articulated.

The augmented city can also have a positive effect on serendipity. This may initially sound counter-intuitive, until considering services like Foursquare that create more opportunities for surprising and spontaneous encounters through location-based check-ins. While discovery is about actively seeing information (“push”), serendipity is based on information coming to us (“pull”). Through technology, we can reinforce the likelihood of positive encounters matching our location, mood and general interests.

In all of these cases, the key phenomenon is transparency. Transparency changes the way we engage with the city. As we are broadcasting our actions and tracking those of others, location takes on a different meaning. Where we go and the places we frequent are now, more than ever, extensions of our identities, becoming another factor in our lives that we curate in order to project a particular image. Furthermore, while traditionally the areas we have lived in and the places and venues we would frequent of course had an influence on social status, the pervasiveness introduced with new technologies means that we are constantly monitoring how our actions resonate among members of our social networks.

The overlap between physical geography and information is what I call metacities. The way I use the term differs from its conventional usage, where it refers to emerging global megacities. Instead, my reference is Italo Calvino, who in 1972 wrote a novel called Invisible Cities. In the text, the explorer Marco Polo recounts his travels to the emperor Kublai Khan. He describes the many cities of Khan’s empire he has visited, all of which ultimately turn out to be descriptions of the same city: the city of Venice. The invisible cities of Calvino’s text are in fact facets of a single city that exist seemingly independent of one-another, with the geography of the city following its thematic orientation. Analogously, I use the term metacities to refer to the social structures, both permanent and temporal, that emerge on top of the physical geography of the city, treating the public and private spaces of the city as a mediated framework for activity.

Metacities are then the cities that emerge as the result of our interactions and patterns of communication. They are our projections of the “cities” we inhabit and construct together. Any urban area may contain a nearly infinite number of metacities, collectively representing the social fabric of the city.

Data visualization gives us the ability to visually represent these emerging metacities, the slices of the urban fabric we knew existed, but of whose forms and structures we may have had little concept. We can now visualize our interactions and behaviors in real-time, along with those of our friends or social networks, exposing the hidden cities around us and creating a feedback loop where our actions, predicated upon a certain given condition at any moment in time, will in turn affect that very same condition.

Most cities were built for a different age. Just like the elevator enabled high-rises and greater urban density, and the telephone challenged many of the traditional benefits of city living, metacities are once again demonstrating the advantages of urbanization, updating cities in ways suitable for the information age. They point to a new kind of urban living—transparent, social, serendipitous—paving the way for the city of tomorrow.

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