Suburban Computing

Being a product of the sprawling wasteland that is suburban Cleveland, Ohio, (voted a couple of years back the most miserable place to live in the US by Forbes magazine) I can attest that I am no fan of suburbs. This is because I spent roughly two-thirds of my life in a place that required me to drive 15 minutes if I wanted to do anything, whether it’s buying a banana or basically anything. I don’t like this. However, lots of people do. Lots. Lots more people like this now when cities are once again seen as pits of disease and where the air can now kill you in another way.

Fifteen minutes. This is what I would have to drive, not ride on my Segway or have my aware fridge know what my stock in produce was to order from the grocery, to get a banana if they were out. We can speculate and posit all we want on the future of the city. What we have right now is that there’s the oft bandied quote of over 50% of the earth’s population living or going to be living in metropolitan areas (notice the deliberate disuse of the word “city”), but a lot of those billions aren’t necessary happy about it. I used to live in London. For those of you that also have or still do live in London, you know that the fact that this city hasn’t eaten itself alive, been subjected to weekly riots and civil strife or been abandoned by humanity altogether yet is quite a miracle.

A lot of people don’t want to live in a city

For all the talk of the city, the future of the city and how this big scary place is either going to go Bladerunner, Minority Report or some Buckminster Fuller wet dream, there isn’t a lot of thought to the 98% of the population who aren’t venture capitalists, lifestyle coaches or have the economic wherewithal to live in the city by choice, or what the city means to them. The fact is that there are plenty of people who would leave the city if they could, and they do when they can. People usually move to a city from a faceless suburb or some depression-ridden little town they call home and then see it as this amazing place that surely everyone loves. The grass is always greener on the other side of the highway.

This concrete and steel beast is seemingly calling the lot of us to its bosom in droves, either out of desperation or out of some dream of boundless opportunity that most humans like to make themselves believe. However, there are also still countless others fleeing the city like a bad case of the cooties. Fed up with the hustle and bustle, shitty schools, failing infrastructure or any other number of social catastrophes you get when you chuck a couple of million people together, they can’t wait to get out.

As cities will only get bigger, theoretically so too will the suburbs. Whether gated communities in Sao Paulo or Istanbul (I’ve been to them, they’re actually quite pleasant), people are making hard compromises, trying to be close to things and trying to get a tree or two into their life. Fact is, I no longer blame them like I once did. I’ve lived in the East End of London and surrounded by rubbish, crime which I suppose could be worse and general infrastructural incompetence for over a decade, and itch for greener, wider places only spread further across my body and brain like poison ivy.

Photo by David McBee from Pexels

What works for where

Recently I dug up some good ideas about starting to think about rural computing, a great nod to the other half. I would take a tad farther, and fatefully steer into the realms of sub-urban computing.

Russell Davies – “Ruricomp”

…in a lot of the conversations about the urban world, we’ve forgotten the next largest context for the city; the suburbs, the rural world and the small towns and villages that populate it.

So much city thinking seems mad keen for a return to city states; autonomous islands, connected to each other through finance and fibre but not to the land and various environments that surround them. It’s a little bit collapsist: Let’s wrap the city around us while we still can seems to be the idea. But maybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other. Perhaps all this brilliant city thinking could lift its eyes a little and look beyond the city walls – I’d love to see what we’d come up with then.

If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City.
(Davies 2009)

Part of the problem seems to be with the very notion of what “urban computing” seems to be, which is the vague and poorly defined notion of there being a ubiquitous and usable data structure and presence to the city. In essence, a data or computing architecture that would hypothetically function like architecture and civic engineering would, shaping the experience of the city. Like a sidewalk has you walk this way way or that, so too would this data layer, allowing you to experience things in brand new, exciting ways.

This translates way too many times to technology for cool, rich, priveleged people in the centres of New York City, London and San Francisco “rediscovering the city” or “reshaping the experience of the city” all through the miracle of iPhones, “smart” buildings, and regrettably, more screens everywhere.

The reality is that a lot of people just don’t care. The reality is that most of the people who can afford to access this new experience of the city, can’t because there is a good chance they don’t live in the city. When people are commuting further and further, whether it be a two hour bus ride from rural Pennsylvania to New York City or a two hour train ride to London, a lot of people aren’t in the city long enough in a given day to use this stuff. They probably don’t want to be in the city long enough to use this stuff either.

Sprawl, space and bringing it all together

Photo by Daniel Frank from Pexels

The suburban experience is fundamentally about driving and transport and in general, very little walking about which would allow you to hold up your phone to a building and find out all about it. The experience is from spending long periods of time at home and then in a car and then in groceries stores and shops far from your house. You spend a lot of time in the living room. Going out to meet a friend for coffee is not so easy usually. You also drive drunk typically. This is the reality for quite a bit of people. One would assume then that urban or ubiquitous computing would be a really good tool for reconnecting these people back to the experience of the city and all the things and wonders it entails, but that would chuck out the basic premise that they live in the suburbs because they don’t really want anything to do with the city. So what now?

The interesting thing about suburbs, whether ‘inner-ring’ or cul-de-sac or gated is that by default they are neighbourhoods, and a lot of times more so than the neighbourhoods we live in today. They’re just typically too spread out. They’re generally also less diverse and much more homogenised. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in raw statistics. You have a large group of people of a relatively concurrent income level and technical expertise. Getting them onto a system that would be tailored to them and their experience would make more sense than trying to shove a whole boatload of technology on bankers who are there for eight hours a day who don’t have time or care and people in lower income groups with less access and knowledge of technology. So maybe suburban computing is about connecting living rooms of people who live next to each other that don’t even know each others names. Or maybe its community oriented. Maybe its connects streets, not just people, miles away from each other and not just by profile or musical interest.

Suburban computing us all about driving, living rooms, backyards and strip malls. It’s about sprawl and density loss and all that means for humans and the systems that live in between and around them. What Suburban Computing could or should be is an approach to bridge these gaps, not emphasise them and try to find a way to spread around trees and barefeet in backyards, not just efficient traffic lights.