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Cultural Mobilities – what urban computing can do and can be

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

I’ve recently read an interesting article about urban computing. The authors illustrate how narrow and exclusive current pervasive computing technologies for urban scenarios are. Narrow: most applications are solving the problem of disconnection (thus “mobilizing” traditionally desktop-based ones), or addressing the problem of dislocation (thus helping users to find their way), or addressing the problem of disruption (thus adapting to context to provide a customised service). Exclusive: target users as mostly “young, affluent city residents, with both disposable income and discretionary mobility.” In so doing, attention is placed on fixing problems created by mobility, rather than exploiting new interactional opportunities it opens. Moreover, many people are left outside the picture: “unrestricted discretionary mobility is far from a universal experience for a city’s occupants. […] we share urban spaces with people who, due to disability, economic status, immigration status, employment, race, caste, and other reasons, find themselves unable to move about easily or, conversely, have mobility forced upon them.”

How can we put pervasive computing to use then, and make it more inclusive and progressive? The authors point their fingers towards three directions: (1) take an heterogeneous view of mobility, which acknowledges and caters for different kinds of journeys (commuting, vacation, moving house) and different kinds of purposes for the same journey (going to work, seeing a doctor, driving a train); (2) look at the symbolic meaning of a journey, which varies across social groups (wayfinding is a purely instrumental reading of space, but this completely neglects other aspects of social, cultural, moral, political and historical aspects of mobility); (3) look at urban mobility as a social phenomenon (we move individually, but collectively we create flows).