Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a tran­script of my pre­sen­ta­tion at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobil­i­ty in Ams­ter­dam on 22 May. Since the major­i­ty of pay­ing atten­dees were local I pre­sent­ed in Dutch. How­ev­er, Eng­lish appears to be the lin­gua fran­ca of the inter­net, so here I offer a trans­la­tion. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video record­ing of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the pre­sen­ta­tion to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for record­ing this.

In 1966 a num­ber of mem­bers of Pro­vo took to the streets of Ams­ter­dam car­ry­ing blank ban­ners. Pro­vo was a non­vi­o­lent anar­chist move­ment. They pri­mar­i­ly occu­pied them­selves with pro­vok­ing the author­i­ties in a “ludic” man­ner. Noth­ing was writ­ten on their ban­ners because the may­or of Ams­ter­dam had banned the slo­gans “free­dom of speech”, “democ­ra­cy” and “right to demon­strate”. Regard­less, the mem­bers were arrest­ed by police, show­ing that the author­i­ties did not respect their right to demon­strate.1

Good after­noon every­one, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a free­lance inter­ac­tion design­er. Today I’d like to talk about play in pub­lic space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing in the city new forms of play will be made pos­si­ble. The tech­nolo­gies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gib­son writes in Burn­ing Chrome:

…the street finds its own uses for things”

For exam­ple: Skate­board­ing as we now know it — with its empha­sis on aer­i­al acro­bat­ics — start­ed in emp­ty pools like this one. That was done with­out per­mis­sion, of course…

Only lat­er half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘ver­ti­cal’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skate­board­ing is tol­er­at­ed. Skate­board­ing would not be what it is today with­out those first few emp­ty pools.2

Flash mobs are spon­ta­neous mass gath­er­ing often coor­di­nat­ed through mobile phones. Peo­ple con­gre­gate to play zom­bie or have a pil­low-fight. The fun of flash mobs lies pri­mar­i­ly in the reac­tions of unwit­ting bystanders, the fric­tion that aris­es from this con­fronta­tion. With­out mobile phones there would be no flash mobs.3

I see play as some­thing more than ‘just’ enter­tain­ment, some­thing that is not only for kids. Play to me is a phe­nom­e­non that per­me­ates cul­ture and is omnipresent. Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith — who cat­a­logued the var­i­ous the­o­ries on play in his book The Ambi­gu­i­ty of Play — once said:

The oppo­site of play is not work. It’s depression.”

In oth­er words, with­out play the desire to live rapid­ly dis­ap­pears. Play lies at the foun­da­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty, per­son­al devel­op­ment, inno­va­tion, and so on. It is a gen­er­a­tive process. A use­ful def­i­n­i­tion of play is the one put for­ward by Katie Salen and Eric Zim­mer­man in Rules of Play:

Play is free move­ment with­in a more rigid structure.”

On the one hand, play exists thanks to the lim­i­ta­tions imposed by the struc­ture with­in which it takes place, on the oth­er hand it works against the same struc­ture, try­ing to change it. Play is the explo­ration of a ‘pos­si­bil­i­ty space’, the search for bound­aries and test­ing of pos­si­bil­i­ties. The fric­tion that aris­es from all this is a source of pleasure.

Free run­ning is about get­ting from point A to point B in the city, in straight a line, and over­com­ing all the obsta­cles you meet in as inter­est­ing a man­ner as pos­si­ble. Free run­ners strive to achieve har­mo­ny between them­selves and the built environment.

In the case of free run­ning the struc­ture in which play takes place is sole­ly deter­mined by the city and the bod­ies of the play­ers them­selves. But objects car­ried or encoun­tered by peo­ple have a role in urban play too. Take for instance the mobile phones of the flash mobs men­tioned earlier.

LED throwies is an inven­tion of Graf­fi­ti Research Lab. They con­sist of a LED, a coin bat­tery and a small mag­net. You throw them at a met­al sur­face to have them stick there. They are a form of non­de­struc­tive graf­fi­ti. The recipe for a LED throwies is ‘open source’ — any­one can make them.

Shar­ing a recipe for play is a pow­er­ful con­cept. Street artist Poster Child pub­lished instruc­tions for the cre­ation of blocks from the game Super Mario Bros. to his web­site. There he also col­lects pho­tos sent to him by peo­ple who cre­at­ed their own blocks and put them in the streets. The project is a com­men­tary on the ever increas­ing amount of adver­tis­ing in pub­lic space.

Play changes once com­pu­ta­tion gets involved. Com­pare board games to dig­i­tal games — soft­ware offers game design­ers the pos­si­bil­i­ty to include sig­nif­i­cant­ly more cal­cu­la­tions in their games.

This is what famous game design­er Chris Craw­ford calls ‘process inten­si­ty’. Accord­ing to him a game is bet­ter when the ‘crunch per bit ratio’ is high­er. He sees ‘data inten­si­ty’ — sim­ply trans­port­ing data back and forth — as infe­ri­or to process inten­si­ty — per­form­ing cal­cu­la­tions on the same data:4

Pro­cess­ing data is the very essence of what a com­put­er does. […] Using the com­put­er in a data-inten­sive mode wastes its great­est strength.”

Games (be they ana­log or dig­i­tal) can always be typ­i­fied as sys­tems, as dynam­ic mod­els. Play­ers explore those mod­els. Dis­cov­er­ing the mod­el that is the basis for a game is a source of plea­sure. Some games have a very sim­ple mod­el: Tic-Tac-Toe is a mod­el of ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­flict, albeit a sim­ple one. This is why you get bored of this game so quick­ly: the pos­si­bil­i­ty space is very small. Sim City con­sists of a com­plex net­work of mod­els from archi­tec­ture and urban planning.

Games can con­vey argu­ments, just like oth­er media. The impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between the way a tele­vi­sion show or film can present an argu­ment and the way a game does the same lies in the afore­men­tioned process inten­si­ty. Games, par­tic­u­lar­ly dig­i­tal ones, can offer a dynam­ic mod­el of an argu­ment that is explored by the play­er. This is what Ian Bogost calls ‘pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric’:5

Pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric […] argu­ments are made not through the con­struc­tion of words or images, but through the author­ship of rules of behav­ior, the con­struc­tion of dynam­ic models.”

Sep­tem­ber 12 is a news­game that com­ments on the events around 9/11. As play­er you fire rock­ets at ter­ror­ists mov­ing in the streets of a Mid­dle East­ern vil­lage. The inno­cent casu­al­ties that result from each shot lead to more civil­ians join­ing the ter­ror­ist ranks. This is a sim­ple exam­ple of a pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric.

I expect that play in pub­lic space will become more process inten­sive with the arrival of com­pu­ta­tion embed­ded in the built envi­ron­ment. I think future urban play will com­pare to its cur­rent shape as Halo 3 com­pares to Monop­oly. The pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric of games will take place in the built envi­ron­ment too. Peo­ple will present argu­ments in the form of dynam­ic mod­els that use the city as their platform.

At this point, you might be won­der­ing how. I have a few ideas, but first, one more anecdote:

A year after Provo’s blank ban­ner stunt, in the Unit­ed King­dom, Christo­pher Southall won­dered how the author­i­ties would react to an inva­sion of fly­ing saucers. So, togeth­er with a few friends, he built sev­en UFOs. Each saucer made a unique beep­ing sound that was turned on or off using a mer­cury switch. They dropped the UFOs at equal dis­tances on a straight line cut­ting through the south­west of Eng­land. Alien life could not be left out so they filled the saucers with a boiled mix­ture of flour and water.

The reac­tions of the author­i­ties were — besides very amus­ing to read about years lat­er — unco­or­di­nat­ed and in some cas­es even irre­spon­si­ble. Some UFOs were moved, or worse — blown up, with­out know­ing for sure what they were exact­ly.6

The British UFO hoax­ers and Pro­vo have a lot in com­mon — both used play in pub­lic space to pro­voke a reac­tion. Pro­vo made the absur­di­ty of their sit­u­a­tion appar­ent. Southall and his gang used play to ask “What if?” and made a pos­si­ble future tangible.

Because I do not want to lim­it this pre­sen­ta­tion to talk alone there now fol­lows a small design exer­cise. These are sketch­es for pos­si­ble urban pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics. I’m not sure if these are all good ideas, but that’s some­thing we can talk about after­wards. With plea­sure actu­al­ly. I do hope these sketch­es illus­trate the prin­ci­ples I have talked about so far.

Let’s sup­pose I’m wor­ried about the ever increas­ing amount of sur­veil­lance cam­eras present in the city. I am not con­vinced they pro­vide more safe­ty, I have read crime sim­ply moves to oth­er areas. In that case, is all this con­trol real­ly nec­es­sary? And is all the data that is gath­ered in good hands with the author­i­ties? I am annoyed by the fact that most peo­ple do not share this con­cern. How can I make peo­ple more aware of these cam­eras and make them ques­tion their use­ful­ness too?

Turns out I’m not the only one with this con­cern. On the web­site Spot the Cam you can see where in the cen­tre of Ams­ter­dam cam­eras have been placed. I now know for instance that peo­ple who parked their car in the Bijenko­rf this morn­ing have prob­a­bly been filmed.7 Check it out.

That’s a start I guess, but there must be more that can be done. Using a GPS-enabled cam­era-phone I can take pho­tos of all the cam­eras I run into…

…I can upload them…

…and in this man­ner (with a lit­tle help of oth­ers) I can make a map of all the cam­eras in the Netherlands.

On the same phone I can run some­thing sim­i­lar to Nokia Sports Track­er, to record all my movements…

…this way, when I get home I can see where I was filmed.

Heaps of data are fun and all, but use­less if I can­not act on them. It should be a small step to alert me to the pres­ence of cam­eras while walk­ing down the street…

…sim­i­lar to how Tom­Tom alerts you to the pres­ence of speed cam­eras while dri­ving. I can then choose to take a dif­fer­ent route…

…or to don my disguise.

So far so good, but it’s not very play­ful yet. All the data I col­lect can be made more under­stand­able using visu­al­iza­tions. A map view of this data would be nice too.

I could share the data with friends. A score can be linked to the amount of times I was filmed and so we turn it into a con­test: Who can stay out of sight of the cam­eras and whose life is most like that of Tru­man Bur­bank?

But if I want­ed to make it into a real game, I’d need to intro­duce some kind of con­flict. A bit of fic­tion often helps in those cases.

Alter­nate real­i­ty games use the ‘real’ world as a plat­form for their fic­tion­al real­i­ty. In Zona Incer­ta (a Brazil­ian ARG) for exam­ple, Ark­hos Biotech (the game’s bad­die) ask peo­ple to help them buy the Ama­zon rain­for­est through a YouTube video-clip. There was quite a bit of con­fu­sion amongst Brazil­ian politi­cians about the real­i­ty of the clip. Zona Incer­ta aimed only to enter­tain, but it could have been used just as well to raise aware­ness about the Amazon.

In my game cam­eras could be the tools of a total­i­tar­i­an regime, and it would be up to the play­ers to over­throw it. I would send them on all kinds of mis­sions, where they would need to stay out of the sight of the cam­eras. (The cam­era alert ser­vice men­tioned ear­li­er would not be admit­ted to the game.)

Play­ers of this game would expe­ri­ence first hand what it would be like to live in a 1984-like world. But they — and I — would also dis­cov­er how easy it real­ly is to stay out of sight of cameras.

The data we col­lec­tive­ly gen­er­ate as play­ers could be shared anony­mous­ly in the shape of a nice visu­al­iza­tion. It would pro­vide insight into the use­ful­ness (or use­less­ness) of cam­era sur­veil­lance. This way, non-play­ers can be spec­ta­tors and learn some­thing too. 

If I want to make the unsus­pect­ing pub­lic in the streets more aware of cam­eras I can take a dif­fer­ent approach, using Graf­fi­ti Research Lab’s LED throwies as an exam­ple. Com­po­nents for phys­i­cal com­put­ing are becom­ing increas­ing­ly cheap and acces­si­ble. Also, mar­keters have already made clever use of Blue­tooth in ‘prox­im­i­ty marketing’.

I could design a throwie that can be attached to cameras…

…the throwie would detect mobile phones of passers­by en send them a message.

The mes­sages could con­tain text, images, sounds, it would be up to the mak­ers of the throwies them­selves. But hope­ful­ly they’ll keep it cre­ative. This way, each cam­era would get a voice and a lit­tle bit of personality.

The instruc­tions for the throwie (includ­ing a shop­ping list of parts) would be pub­lished online.

And final­ly, if the cam­eras tran­si­tion into Bruce Sterling’s Spimes (objects that start and end life as data, that can be tracked in space and time), then we won’t have to both­er with all that geocod­ing with cam­era-phones and mess­ing about with throwies. We would be able to direct­ly play games with the cam­eras. Pro­vid­ed we get some kind of access to the data that flows through them…8

I believe tech­nol­o­gy is not neu­tral. I also believe that the spe­cif­ic tech­nolo­gies that we’re dis­cussing today have the poten­tial for far-reach­ing con­trol. Although I have great faith in the hack­ers and mak­ers of this world, I do not think things need to be made hard­er for them than they already are. You can all (part­ly) influ­ence the future shape of mobile tech­nolo­gies. I have one sim­ple request: Please make sure there remains space to play.

Or, as Bill Bux­ton would say:9

These things are far too impor­tant to take seriously.”

Thank you!

For image cred­its please refer to the slides over at SlideShare. I am very grate­ful to all the peo­ple shar­ing their images on Flickr under CC licens­es. If and image is not cred­it­ed it is cre­at­ed by myself. These include all the sketch­es that make up the major­i­ty of the sec­ond half of the presentation.

  1. The web­site of Gram­schap con­tains a chronol­o­gy of the Pro­vo move­ment in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emer­gence of the ver­ti­cal style of skate­board­ing see the doc­u­men­tary film Dog­town and Z‑Boys. []
  3. Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs is a won­der­ful book that described new social inter­ac­tions made pos­si­ble by mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies. []
  4. Craw­ford wrote one of the first books on game design, this quote is tak­en from a 1987 essay from his hand. []
  5. Bogost has writ­ten a book on the con­cept of pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric called Per­sua­sive Games. The quote is tak­en from an essay avail­able online enti­tled The Rhetoric of Video Games. []
  6. For a full account of the big British UFO hoax of 1967 refer to the arti­cle by John Keel­ing in Fortean Times #228. John was kind enough to per­mit me to use images from the arti­cle dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion, but I can’t share them online. []
  7. The Bijenko­rf is a Dutch depart­ment store chain. []
  8. For a full descrip­tion of Spimes I can rec­om­mend Sterling’s book Shap­ing Things. []
  9. This quote is tak­en from Buxton’s excel­lent book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences and orig­i­nal­ly refers to his approach to design. []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

22 thoughts on “Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk”

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  3. Nice con­cepts! Missed your talk on TWAB 08, but i’m glad you post­ed it here. See y’round in’t Utregse :)

  4. Thanks Men­no, glad you like it. I will cer­tain­ly see you when I move back to Utrecht.

  5. Great pre­sen­ta­tion. Have you read Cory Doc­torow’s Lit­tle Broth­er? Your men­tion of Pro­vo and the UFO hoax­ers brought to mind the Yip­pies which are dis­cussed in the book. He also speaks about pub­lish­ing instruc­tions online — in fact there is a real Instru­ca­bles account to accom­pa­ny the book using the pro­tag­o­nist’s han­dle: http://www.instructables.com/member/w1n5t0n/

  6. Thanks Robert, I’m glad you like it. I have not read Doc­torow’s book yet. I guess I’ll have to do so soon now. That Instructa­bles account is real­ly cool!

  7. Kars — Great work on the inster­sec­tion of games, expe­ri­ence design, mod­els for inter­ac­tion, etc! I’ve been fol­low­ing the game design com­mu­ni­ty for a long time now (since ~97) b/c of the many over­laps w/ expe­ri­ence design, but was nev­er quite able to get a client to bite on doing a com­plete project. It’s encour­ag­ing to see your suc­cess with this. Keep up the good work!

  8. Joe — thanks! It’s not easy find­ing projects that allow me to take this idea of a game design/interaction design crossover to its log­i­cal extreme (which does not pre­vent me from doing per­son­al projects around it any way). But I am con­fi­dent there is a grow­ing inter­est for this. We’ll see where it leads.

  9. led-throwies ‘They are a form of non­de­struc­tive graf­fi­ti.’ NOT true! as they are most­ly not col­lect­ed after use. they con­tain bat­ter­ies that end up unprocessed in the envi­ron­ment. so they ARE destructive.

  10. You are com­plete­ly right, Niels. A gross over­sight on my part. Thanks for set­ting me straight! :-) So what would con­sti­tute a true form of non­de­struc­tive / sus­tain­able graffiti?

  11. Non-destruc­tive sus­tain­able graf­fi­ti? Guer­ril­la gar­den­ing comes to mind (http://www.guerrillagardening.org/). A group that turns the pub­lic urban space into a garden. 

    Rock-carv­ings / chis­el­ing is sus­tain­able, but might not be con­sid­ered non-destruc­tive by everyone ;)

  12. I have come across the Gueril­la Gar­den­ers before, but for­got about them again. Thanks for remind­ing me! I would­n’t call it graf­fi­ti, but then that’s not the point.

    Do you know of any­one actu­al­ly carv­ing or chis­el­ing stuff (art­ful­ly) in the city?

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