Communication and the City


This post was conceived over two cappuccinos in a cute little cafe in Northern London this afternoon. I found this cafe by searching the web for “best cafes in London” and got there by looking it up on Google maps. Finding the best places to go and figuring out how to get there – these are only two of the ways in which the Internet can help us navigate through urban landscapes. Are there other ways in which communication technology influences our lives in metropolitan cities?

I can hardly imagine how to manage life in London without access to online information. How would I know what movies are playing tonight? How would I know what tubes, buses and trains to take? How would I know about the best cafes, clubs, restaurants, and so on?

Five Examples

People engage with cities not just “in real life”, when they’re walking through the streets, but also in a virtual realm, when they’re engaging with the city online. Here are some of the examples that I can think of right now.

  1. I’ve already mentioned online map services. Yes, there’s still the good old A-Z Guide to London, but I guess most of us look up the address online first and then print out the directions (or they do what I do – try to remember them and then forget…)
  2. The more advanced and more information-rich version of maps is Google Streetview. Sometimes, I virtually walk down a street before going there “for real”. Through geo-tagging, I can also find pictures of the place I’m intending to visit. In other words, I have an impression of the place before I actually travel there.
  3. Rankings and recommendation services are another important way in which the Internet impact on my experience of the city. If your restaurant isn’t mentioned on the Time Out website, it almost doesn’t exist in the online world. Hence, it’s not very likely that I’ll find it when I browse for a nice place to have dinner.
  4. I would also argue that network coverage and Wi-Fi access are themselves factors which determine which city places people visit. Restaurants and cafes with Internet access have been exploiting this fact for a while and in some cases entire neighborhoods advertise their Wi-Fi coverage to attract business and tourism.
  5. Finally, there are all those smart phone services – which I cannot really comment on because I have an old, old mobile. But I can imagine that in the near future we’ll be able to experience the “real” and the “virtual” version of the city simultaneously. The city will be covered with an additional information layer – thicker in some places and thinner in others. We’ll be navigating through urban life assisted by a constant stream of online information.

I’m sure there are other examples of how communication technology influences the way in which we experience the city. And a lot of questions to be asked about it.

As some will have a smart phone and others not even an internet connection at home, will there be fundamentally different experiences of the same city?

As some places will receive more online attention and others drop of the online map, will the former be better off (economically, socially, etc.), while the latter will sink into oblivion?

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