Our Digital Future Is A City We Have Known In The Past
; how we structure the flow of information, whether through physical or virtual space, will define the character of the interactions that take place there. If we design public or virtual space for openness, participation and self-determination we get vibrant communities. If we push central planning too far and attempt to control all interactions, we get dead space. I extended the theme slightly during the close of my keynote last week in South Africa and the Integrated Marketing Conference.
Many of my notes never made the talks so I am reprinting them here.
Cities are never static. They learn. They grow and adapt based on the usage patterns of their inhabitants. Take my native San Francisco. Where does Chinatown end and the Italian section of North Beach begin? Where does the fraternity/sorority kingdom of The Marina end and give way to the posh neighborhood of Pacific Heights and so on? The answer is that these communities blend into one another. Their boundaries are necessarily permeable and unfixed because they represent the thousands of choices being made within these communities by individual actors.
Yet these choices share a common impulse: the desire for sociality, for security, a need for commerce and the exchange of ideas in the forum. The cost of admittance is participation – material or spiritual – and each member adds value to and in their part defines the whole. Like any city worthy of the name it is beautiful, seedy and corrupt all at once. It has no singular character and therefore defies neat description. We all live in this online megacity. Our content, links, likes and follows are all acts of participation that define its character.
The connected age is dynamic but immature. We are just beginning to see the outlines of its possibilities to transform culture, commerce, government and civic life. If we always design for openness and feedback, if we structure our organizations to learn from what our communities are actually doing and saying, we are fulfilling an important civic role. If we design our communications for durable relationship, if we put our values forward as a call to action then we are doing a service to the future. The most beautiful cities are the oldest, the ones that have had time to bear the mark of a million tiny optimizations at the hands of its inhabitants.
We cannot see the outer precincts of what we are building on the Internet. This is as it should be. “Progress” is the sum of human actions and as such it is beyond singular control or conception. What we can control are the actions we take online. The quality of our content, the sincerity of our conduct and the civic commitment we bring to what we do.