A hand holding a sign.

Has Connectivity Changed Our Experience of Place? 

By John Parman

The latest Gensler Design Forecast has made me think about how I experience place and whether the overlay of digital connectivity has changed it. Here are my field notes.

Given the ubiquity of digital connectivity, I would expect place itself to change tangibly, along with how we perceive and use it. Spatial changes appear to lag changes in our use and perception, however. This conforms to tech guru John Seely Brown’s contention that it takes a generation for a major technology innovation’s impact to be fully felt.

So what is place in 2017? To me, it’s still any setting that registers in human terms. The scale and edge conditions of a given place are inexact—we intuit its context from prior experience and whatever we’ve brought with us to help reveal it. Not long ago, this meant maps and guidebooks. Or we gave up and hailed a cab. Now we have Maps, Yelp and Lyft on our phones. We can orient ourselves faster, but has place changed?

Signs and symbols have long been layered onto place. The added layers of information that our smart devices give us make it possible to imagine the real signs and symbols disappearing. This is even more likely if mixed reality (MR) devices hit the market, annotating places digitally in real time as we walk through them. In Japan’s tumultuous Tokugawa era, when invasions by warring barons were a problem, the Shogunate made street addresses in Edo, as Tokyo was known, non-sequential, so only the locals could find their way around. A version of this problem arises for Tokyo as its 2020 Olympics approach: a city that’s largely devoid of Western signage is hard to navigate if you don’t read Japanese. My colleagues in Tokyo have proposed a multi-scale signage and wayfinding system, including an app; tourists will need it.

No signage—now that would be a change. And MR could be like acquiring X-ray vision. Not only could we annotate the places we visit, but we could also peer inside, so to speak, by tapping geographic information system (GIS) data about them. We can sort of do this now with our phones, but MR will make the experience more seamless. As connectivity peels back the surfaces of a place, it becomes more accessible. This supports our desire as urban flâneurs to let our interests lead us through the city.

Our smartphones give us a degree of agency in space and time, but they also turn us into targets for an array of sensing devices. In town, CCTV cameras film us, but the data captured is fragmentary. Cellular networks track us from cellphone tower to cellphone tower, a more-or-less continuous progress unless we turn our phones off. At home and at work, we interact with devices that know we’re there—from personal assistants like Alexa to smart controls like Nest that can adjust the temperature without prompting. Interacting with us, these artificial intelligence-linked devices “learn” from our behavior and feedback. But they may have other agendas. And what happens to the data?

Reading the weekend’s glossy supplements, the eye-watering prices attached to the chic backstreet hotels, clothes and baubles they feature suggest they’re not aimed at me. I make that decision as a reader, but as a flâneur, experiencing the digital city as I move through it, I may not get to choose. Sampling my profile, algorithms may decline to annotate parts of what’s around me. Different profiles could change the picture dramatically. A homeless person with a cheap mobile phone might be directed to shelter and services, instead of queuing all day in hopes of getting them. A wealthy person with an iWatch might be invited up for a drink. Either way, our profiles precede us. Editing our experiences of place algorithmically is as much excluding as inclusive.

Connectivity draws people to the pop-up cultural and community events that activate city streets, parks, plazas, and other gathering places. In the past, these events took more planning, but now they’re much more spontaneous. In leveraging spontaneity, the event organizers may be thwarting local regulations. Connectivity makes both civic and political events disruptive to those enforcing the gathering places’ status quo. It’s why the hardliner regimes often shut connectivity down when people demonstrate.

When the umbrella protestors in Hong Kong found their connectivity disrupted, they used their mobile phones to create a network of their own. Flâneurs and demonstrators alike will use similar workarounds to bypass the algorithmic profilers and the nanny state. But the disruptions that tech’s invasion of place cause will also push status quo arrangements to evolve. Witness how the popularity of house-sharing apps have led cities to revise their regulatory stance. And how car-hailing apps are starting to make inroads into parking and street layouts, ceding space for urban life.

This brings us back to “agency in time.” Connectivity conditions us to want our expectations met quickly, if not immediately. The Internet of Things will extend this beyond smart devices. As driverless cars come on the scene, they will sync with us more seamlessly—arriving when we do, for example, and only opening their doors to us.

One consequence for place is that time looms larger in our assessment of it. Can we get there quickly? Once there, can we access whatever attracted us? Is it worth it? This starts to apply to everything. We’ll avoid certain airports if we’ve missed flights trying to get from gate to gate. If we find a city hard going, or hear it is, we may choose to skip it.

It’s curious today to see people walking distractedly, slowed down by their focus on their phones. Others, animatedly talking into space, may walk faster but are no more aware of their surroundings. In museums, people with audio headsets plant themselves in front of the art, oblivious to other patrons. Connectivity’s impact on place could prove to be a plague, like a boom box on a crowded train. Or not. When it comes to the digital revolution’s impact on place, people are the prime movers. They assimilate connectivity into everyday life. Irritation, pleasure and indifference shape their behavior. Place is assimilating connectivity, too, of course. It’s learning how to interact with us.

John J. Parman is a senior editor/writer in Gensler’s Integrated Communications Studio, and an advisor to the Design Innovation Committee of its Board of Directors.