NIMBY Luddites in Urban Technospace

By Tony Chavira

Finding a place to put an airport or a jail is a near impossible task when someone living just down the road has the backing of an angry neighborhood development board. For this reason Not In My BackYard-ers (NIMBYs), with their fervent anti-build position, famously dominate the national conversation regarding development. I don’t necessarily blame them if it’s a jail or an airport, but enacting measures to correctly increase density for smart growth also tends to immediately put the fear of both dropping home prices and the death of the suburban American dream into the id-center of NIMBY minds. Their targets are developments, their fears are based in change, their weapons are local government and protest, and most of the time their weapons kill projects.

I was raised to utilize the Thomas Guide to its full potential. In case you didn’t grow up in Southern California, it’s a book filled with maps of the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura, updated every year or so to show changes in roads and additional development. As a kid, my dad would drive me and my brothers around to jobsites and I’d have to sit with the Thomas Guide in my lap, flipping from page to page to follow the path our car was taking. This is how I learned how to get around Southern California: from a birds-eye perspective, one page of map at a time.

My parents still prefer using the Thomas Guide to their GPS in many cases. They think it’s easy, and they have such a good understanding of cities and neighborhoods in Southern California that they really just need the page with the exact address. They can visualize (generally) where they’re going based on the city or which freeway the place is near. This is mostly the way I get around Southern California also: tell me the city, point me in the right direction, and I can figure it out. I have no qualms about asking directions and no testosterone-triggered allergies to stopping to ask for some help.

But something’s happened over the course of the past two years, starting in many ways with websites like Google Maps: technology has become infused into (and onto) urban spaces. Not only can you access Google Maps through your phone to see where you’re going, but it can serve as your GPS device. Suddenly, you are being tracked through a city and pointed in whatever direction you are going. Somehow you know where you’re going, even if you don’t know where you are. Incorporate a listing system like Yelp or Citysearch into your map system and suddenly you know where everything is, even if you’ve never heard of that place before. Incorporate a rating system (the way Yelp and Citysearch currently do) and suddenly you know which places are worth your while. The city is no longer an empty, desolate or rundown place for you to file away your shattered hopes and dreams. Instead, it is a living and breathing utopian wonderland of quality and quantity, with services, goods and amenities at your fingertips.

But what does this type of access to the secrets of your city require? Despite whatever people say, it’s absolutely not free. At the very least, you need to purchase an interface device like a cell phone or a laptop to connect to the wider network. At the very most, you also pay for data plans, high-speed Internet access and applications that make access to this network richer, smarter, more expansive or more fun. For example, the IPhone application UrbanSpoon makes you shake your mobile device in order to find a restaurant when you are too lazy to make a decision on your own. Does this necessarily mean that you can’t make a decision on your own? Does this necessarily mean that you want it to make a decision for you? Does this even mean that the ultimate recommendation will even be something you want?

The idea of being a technological determinist, or someone who wholly believes that technology advances society, is that at some point you really have to let go of the idea that you’re using your technology as a tool. You know that you can pick up the Yellow Pages and scan for an Italian restaurant in your area at any time, but you just don’t. You shake UrbanSpoon and presto-chango you didn’t even have to type anything into Google. But the severe lack of effort on your part comes with a trade-off: you are now basing your interests for recommendations on a system that is totally out of your control. The restaurant down the road may have gotten a 5-out-of-5 from everyone who went there and reviewed it on Yelp, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to like it. However, what is does mean is that rating sites will likely recommend it to you based on peer reviews. It may even work like Netflix and recommend based on your supposed preferences, but either way technology is now choosing something for you: whether it’s a Thai restaurant for dinner in Long Beach, a route through downtown L.A., or a dentist in Valencia. Concede a little money with a certain degree of freedom and you’ve earned yourself the ability to sit back and let a computer make up your mind for you.

From a marketing standpoint, the incorporation of this fully integrative system onto the urban landscape is absolutely brilliant. Once you’ve paid an access fee to the technogatekeepers, the world is your data center. And your decisions are its data, as preferable routes are monitored, choices and web searches are recorded, and changes in the physical landscape realign future decisions and decision-making. Everything you do is now data for market research, but you’ll still make decisions based on targeted recommendations. Where there were once only locally-owned restaurants near our office in downtown Los Angeles, now there are giant chain restaurants. When you do a search on Yelp, these chains will likely rise to the top of the list of preferences based almost solely on the quantity of positive reviews and brand recognition. Where you once only knew a single route to work, there are now options through neighborhoods you’ve probably never heard of down streets you didn’t know existed. Between Sigalert, and Google Maps, you can know exactly how long it will take to fight your way through traffic every morning. And it’ll only get easier as the city grid itself becomes smarter, with better-coordinated traffic lights, on-ramp flow-monitoring and better-coordinated emergency services to target traditionally tough traffic spots.

Though just for the record, I’m not a Luddite (or more simply, someone who’s against technological change). On the contrary, I’m all for incorporating technology into the urban space. I feel that the infusion of programs like Google Transit into our smart phones, the apt integration of buildings designed in 3-D Studio Max or Revit into urban landscapes, the process of teaching kids how to plan great urban spaces using game simulations or the ability to track workers during hours by incorporating Microsoft Project with a GPS tracker can enable a whole new type of productivity. This utopian efficiency could keep people from being lost, keep traffic moving, help cities become more infusive, or teach everyone what it takes to manage their communities at a micro or macro level. Once integrated, these technologies will bring amalgamation and understanding to the masses, albeit through assimilating conventional technologies that everyone will just have to use lest you’re excluded from the movement. You may have to give up some of those freedoms you had when you were picking up the Thomas Guide, figuring out how to get somewhere on your own, and doing whatever it took while running the risk of getting lost. A great restaurant next to your home may never get visited because it is not uploaded onto the technogrid and peer-rated for awesomeness. But those are small prices to pay for access to a large wealth of information and its decision-making capabilities.

So you could ask yourself—as I do sometimes—what happened to the olden days when you drove to a new place in a dicey area of town and just tried something out? You might get food-poisoned or something, but so what? It’s part of the experience, and aren’t you living life to live it? Or you could ask yourself—as I do sometimes—why aren’t I as fully-integrated as I could be? Why aren’t I following food truck Twitter feeds for instant updates? Why don’t I just use Google Maps to get everywhere without paying any attention to where I am? Why aren’t I hunting for cool new recommendations on my Blackberry Storm?

Depends on whether you’re more of a Luddite or a determinist, I suppose. Like a NIMBY, you could easily reject the movement to integrate technology into the urban landscape as domineering, conforming, or even Orwellian. But to stand in the way of technological advancement means, in many ways, to stand in the way of progress. Regardless of the purity of your intentions, we almost have no choice but to expect better integration of technology into urban spaces as time goes on and to prepare to see a larger network for targeted recommendations arise because of it.

Most menacing of all to NIMBY Luddites, technological target marketing may take on a greater and greater role in the development of city spaces. As of now, these things are simply goods and services your city always had; you just have to pay for simplified access to them. But think about later:you may have to pay for simplified access to a city you and your community have customized through your choices. Our computers will, in essence, design our cities for us based on our recommendations. Things you need will be built closer to you. Architectural styles you like will be built into your surroundings. Traffic in your area will be planned to move according to how you and your neighbors determine it should. The Internet will just keep tracking our decisions endlessly, further and further refining what we need and finding ways to make those things more accessible to us. Even if it means recommending that they are literally built next door.

In this case, the anti-development NIMBY and the anti-technology Luddite may actually become the same person: a whole population will search for a way to keep technology from independently determining what is best for the development of real-life city spaces.

As Homer wrote in The Odyssey, “The blade itself incites to violence,” and the technology to begin this process is already in popular use. As long as this incorporative technology helps us navigate through our urban areas, it will have the potential to influence our decisions. Now there is a greater question to ask yourself when you think about whipping out your GPS system or searching for new restaurants on Yelp: are we beginning to think about how to better shape technology around our cities, or are we instead thinking about how to better shape cities around our technology?