Anthony Townsend on locative media and cities
December 22nd, 2004
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Anthony Townsend, consistently one of the best information sources regarding the effects of mobile communications on cities, posts this thoughtful mini-essay on his blog.


A growing number of urbanists believe that locative media have the potential to disrupt urban activity and consumption patterns in the 21st century city to an equal or greater degree as the automobile shaped the 20th century city. Yet like the automobile, locative media are likely to boost demand for mobility and the energy consumption required to achieve it. While efficiencies will surely be realized in supply chains and other bulk distribution services, it may all be offset by increased movement of individuals engaged in spatial arbitrage to gain an advantage in social or professional transactions.

However, locative media will also extend our awareness of the urban condition and give urban planners the kind of real-time data that climatologists and astronomers already use to understand their own complex systems. Thus locative media could very well drive a fundamental shift in our awareness of how cities function as collective organisms, perhaps leading to improvements in controlling their food intake and waste production.

Thus there are two equally possible scenarios – that locative media are the trigger for an unsustainable explosion in personal mobility in the world’s great cities, or that they are the key to unlock knowledge that will help us achieve a sustainable global urban system.

Few questioned the long-term effects of the automobile when it appeared in the 1920s, and it was not until GM’s Futurama exhibit of the 1939 World’s Fair that we saw a coherent vision of what the car could do to our cities. Unfortunately, the corporate goals of GM have led to an American urban landscape that isolates, fattens, and stupefies its residents. The discussion about locative media and the future of urban life needs to start today.


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