The Burger Experience

I was in a pub once several years ago. From memory it was the Royal Albert. I was with a couple of friends, entirely sober as I didn’t drink at that point, and enjoying the atmosphere. It was dark, there was loud thumping music playing and in general it was difficult to interact with the people around me. So I descended into a solipsistic world until my burger arrived. When I did, the hypnotic trance I’d been led to an enhanced visceral experience. It is my foremost burger memory.

The experiment

So I resolved to recreate this. I wanted this happy accident to become a reproducible experience that I could create for others. My hypothesis was that by the application of a set of environmental parameters I could drown out the distractions of the environment and one’s own mind. Thus entering a state where flavour is king.

The music, darkness and burger were obvious points. I added a strobe light, fog machine and projected videos to the mix. The idea was to dislocate the participant as much as possible from the actual room they were in so that the only thing left was them and the burger.

Every hypothesis needs trials. First to throw their hat in the ring was my girlfriend Eleanor. I set up an installation in my living room with the projector on the ceiling and the strobe light and fog machine facing towards the participant on the sofa.

Making the burgers

For the burgers themselves, I did a lot of testing, finding the best buns, meat, cooking methods etc. A lot of this information came from Serious Eat’s Kenji Lopez-Alt and his articles on burgers. A lot of good stuff, however I found the (expensive!) blue label burger blend to be not particularly special. Mincing your own meat, probably chuck from the butcher, is miles better than pre ground, but various blends don’t add a whole lot.


Doing the cooking while trying to set up lights, a smoke machine and making sure the music and video don’t run out was a bit of a challenge. Fortunately this is pretty much all automatable with node.js. The video can be controlled via chromecast using this package ( Audio could be done that way as well, but I have an Apple Airplay compatible speaker, so I can make use of these instead: airplay server or trampoline. The strobe light can be activated with an (Orvibo S20 wi-fi plug)[] and then turned on and off using this node-orvibo. The fog machine is a pain, it requires you to heat it up and then press a button to release when ready. That would need taking apart and triggering perhaps with an (arduino hooked up to the control system)[], but not a big task if this was a proper installation.

Round 1

Strobe lights are hard to film…

I made a big initial faux pas by putting cheese on Eleanor’s burger, who is lactose intolerant. I managed to remedy this however and the burger went down a treat. Though chicken burger would have been her preference.

Overall it was an interesting experience, if also ridiculous. Immersion was rated at a 6 or 7. The darkness and music helped (as in the pub experience) but the strobe light was a bit intense.

I made the mistake of having the strobe light face right at the participant. A strobe light works best when it captures movement and creates that funny juddery effect. If it’s in your eyes it just blinds you repeatedly.

The projections were on the ceiling in this iteration. I thought the participant would lean back and take them in ignoring what was in front of them. The problem is that it’s impossible to eat like this. So it was pretty much ignored in favour of avoiding getting ketchup all over you.

I tried it again with my friend Theo. I didn’t change much this time, and again as he arrived I provided the sensory deprivators (blindfold and earplugs) as I raced about trying to get everything ready. I became aware that this setup was not as efficient as it could have been, as Theo loudly proclaimed his boredom.

Round 1 - Second participant

Theo described the music (a short loop created with Figure) as ‘depressing’ and the trippy visuals rather than being hypnotising as I’d hoped were distracting to someone interested in the making of generative art. The burger got a pretty good review however.

What these experiments showed me was that I had misjudged the heart of the experience. When I was sitting in that pub, I was deeply relaxed and comfortable. I was allowing myself to sink into the atmosphere. What I’d tried to recreate was something jarring and bizarre, in the hope that that would be overwhelming enough to blot out mundane thoughts. But that’s actually quite unpleasant and it doesn’t really help anything.

Round 2

So I tried again. I adjusted the parameters a bit to accommodate what I learned in the initial experiment. Don’t blind people, let them look the same direction as they’re eating in. And the main change in direction was to make the environment hypnotic, to allow the participant to descend into comfort.

The second round was a little bit better. This time I chose music I knew Eleanor would find satisfying (Kraftwerk) and a series of youtube videos called ‘Oddly Satisfying’. She reported that this was hypnotising and the strobe light and fog added to this experience in their slightly more muted outputs. The problem with doing this in a small space is that it’s difficult to make the fog atmospheric without having it interfere with the taste and smell of the burger. The burger itself she said was nice but a bit greasy, which reminds me of the need to make the food itself the absolute focus.

What I thought

I joined in with this one myself. It’s difficult to really get the full experience as the organiser/experimenter as I was making mental notes and checking everything was still working ok - all the things I was trying to get my participants to forget about. Even so I thought it was still partially successful. The biggest flaw being the room itself which was far too mundane, the aspect I tried to correct by having the participant look up at the ceiling. The biggest question I had, which also came up for Eleanor, was ‘if one is successfully overwhelmed, does that add to the burger? Or does the burger add to being overwhelmed? Are both desirable?’.

Overall I think I’d consider the project a success. I learned a key point that being pleasantly overwhelmed, not spooked out that created the experience. Having done these trials I’d like to run this again for a wider audience. A lot of the elements are right. The biggest change would be putting the participant in a properly dark room with a larger projection, surround sound and perhaps a choice of burger type (beef, chicken, fish, veggie). A living room is just too ordinary for this project.

Tracking the improvement of my social life

In the last post I described the means by which I’m going to improve my social life. You can’t change what you don’t measure. So I need some metrics. Here’s a graph (made with d3) of my current social network. You can click and drag the nodes to ping them about.

I graded every connection between me and my connections and between my connections from 0-5 and the nodes on the graph arrange themselves with respect to the strength of their connection with other nodes.

0 - have never met
1 - have met, but wouldn’t approach in supermarket
2 - have met, would say hello in the street, but not chat in supermarket
3 - would stop to chat for 5 minutes with person in the supermarket, see at events, no active contact
4 - actively go out together every so often, don’t call to chat
5 - comfortable calling, speak weekly, go out regularly

There are some caveats. Originally I’d planned to make various ones for people I’d known over the years, but it turned out to be too hard to remember that far back. The relationships below 3/‘would stop for a 5 minute chat’ are too numerous and nebulous to recall precisely and the effect of adding them makes the labour of determining the connections immense (n^2 - n). At that point whether I do or don’t ‘know’ someone gets too fuzzy to calculate.

I excluded professional contacts, simply because it screwed with the rating. There are some people I talk to a lot but are not high contacts, because it’s all work related.

The graph isn’t that accurate. I spent quite a while trying to configure it so that it would all be precise, but it doesn’t really work like that because the resulting graph is a simulation of forces which depends on the randomised starting points of the nodes. Dave for instance should be closer to me, but because of his strong ties to his subgroup he ends up quite far away. So this kind of visualisation might actually reveal unconsidered impacts of the strengths of relationships.

So this is one useful visualisation of how my life will change over the next 3 months. Of course there are lots more interesting things I’d like to understand. For example, where and what kind of events help me meet new people? What behaviours, like alcohol consumption, lead to a change in the number of new people met and relationships developed? How do initial contacts pan out over time? Do some sources of meeting people lead to more friendships than others? On the micro level, I’d like to understand how well the personalities of myself and others lead to rapport when meeting for the first time.

Here’s a full list of the data I’ll be capturing. In about 3 months I’ll be using this data to make a whole bunch of visualisations and see what insight I can divine into what I can do to grow my network and make more friends, and increase the quality of my social life.

  • Social network (evaluated monthly)
    • Number of connections at rank 4 and 5
    • Number of new nodes added to network as a whole
    • Density of network (number of friends that have mutual friends with me)
  • Social activity (records kept in calendar)
    • Events attended (invited to/instigated) (location, start time, end time)
    • Records of people met (location, time, source, meeting #)
    • Analysis of call logs, text messages and emails (frequency, time, distribution)
    • Alcohol consumption (units per day)
    • Time spent in different locations (recorded by Moves)
  • Romantic activity (evaluated monthly)
    • Number of people asked on dates
    • Number of dates (separated by stage) + success metrics like reply rate
  • Social skills (recorded on rolling basis, evaluate at non specific intervals)
    • Qualitative analysis of my own and other’s social behaviour on first meeting - answering the question “what makes for a good conversation between new people?”
    • Qualitative analysis of actions and events in new relationships as they develop - answering the question “how and why does a first meeting evolve into a friendship?”
    • ? - perhaps survey data collected from old and new friends on social abilities

Improving my social life

To the frequent dismay of my friends and family, I tend to approach tasks with a moderately unhealthy single mindedness and have an obsessive focus on planning and analysis. I’ve decided to turn this focus to my social life and I’ll thus spend the next 2-3 months improving my social skills, expanding my network and tracking the results.

My social life has changed over the past few years. When I was at university, it was a lot more free flowing. I was in a place with a lot of people doing the same thing and with a lot of free time on their hands. I’m not a part of that community anymore, and my social life has declined in proportion. It’s also become more homogenous, as I’ve stopped having the spontaneous encounters with the people I’m not immediately comfortable with.

Something else that’s changed is that the people I used to know in my network were edge nodes that connected me to another network, essentially doing the work of maintaining that network for me, meaning I could go along to the parties and social events of that network without really being a part of it. Of course having this single link means low resiliency, so when my relationship declines with that individual node my connection to that network effectively ceases as well.

So now I’d like to actively change this. I want to live a more socially interesting life, to have a larger network and to make that network denser (each person-node has many connections to other nodes) for greater resiliency. I’d also like to meet more women. To do this I’m going to totally fill my free time with social activity and its analysis. I’m going to take every opportunity I can and create as many as possible. I’ll make an effort to meet new people and work out what parameters help me to develop rapport and what leads to the growth of a friendship.

Here’s a more complete list:

  • Know more people
    • Make an effort to increase the rank of existing of contacts in network, including old friends who have slipped
      • Send texts and emails to these people
      • Invite these people to events I’m going to and to meet individually
    • Make an effort to turn new acquaintances into increasingly ranked contacts in network
      • Take notes on interactions with new people and work out what’s blocking progression, make effort to be actively social when meeting new people
      • Send texts and emails to these people
      • Invite these people to events I’m going to and to meet individually
    • Invite friends to events where they can get to know each other to increase connectedness of network and establish core
    • Setup social media accounts
      • Setup facebook + add friends
      • Setup twitter
      • Hire a freelancer to manage my facebook and twitter accounts - post updates and send digests of relevant information
  • Go out more
    • Accept all invitations to social events from people I already know
    • Instigate events and invite people to attend, esp people I don’t know well
    • Find and attend meetup and similar events where interesting people might be
    • Start drinking
      • Establish set of rules to prevent excessive drinking
      • Plan party to celebrate first beer, prepare flyer and guest list
  • Go on more dates
    • Meet women in person (through knowing more people), ask them on dates
    • Set up profiles + send messages on online dating services
      • Take photos for profile
      • OkCupid
        • Set up bot for auto liking/profile viewing etc
      • Tinder
        • Set up bot to auto like users, make date requests
      • Happn
      • Others (there seem to be hundreds)

Next post: Tracking improvement

Unusual noises


I’m setting out on a journey to create a noise that nobody’s ever heard before. Recently I was wandering down Kingsland Road at night and I heard a strange sound as I passed by a building site. I don’t remember what it was, mostly because I didn’t have any context to associate it with, but it was such an oddity that it knocked me out of my thoughts and set my mind down a new path, my senses attuned to new things everywhere, thinking ever so slightly differently.

So that got me trying to compose the same situation for others. I want to create a moment of strangeness for a stranger in the same place as me. A brief moment of unique sound, unrepeated and short enough that they question what they heard. Did they hear it at all? A trick of the mind? Was it something else? What did it mean? Ultimately they determine it’s something without meaning, something novel. They continue on with their senses expanded.

I’m writing this now, before having made anything to get a clear picture of what I set out to do. I find that when working on projects it’s very easy to lose track of what I’m actually trying to do and I end up being set on just getting things done and doing something ‘successfully’, rather than fulfilling the richness of the original ambition. Often success is orthogonal to the real value of what I’m creating. Sometimes an original failure is worth more than successfully popping something out of a mould.

I feel that it’s essential to capture the excitement of the concept itself, while it’s still grand and untamed by the constraints of reality. I need that when I’m looking at a bunch of wires and bits of wood and trying to remember why I thought this was going to be fun and interesting in the first place.

So my first thought is to get a basic understanding of sound’s parameters so I can look at everyday sounds and then tweak each one so that my sound becomes entirely unique. My first port of call was my colleague Frank, a former audio engineer who filled me in on auditory variables beyond frequency like wave shape and phase.


I spent some time consciously paying attention to all the sounds around me in a standard urban environment. Walking down the street, on the bus, in my office, sitting at home. There are lots of noisy noises. Windy, rustling, rumbling imprecise sounds. Then noises that stand out because they are high pitched and have recognisable tones in them. An oyster card beep, a piece of music, a bird’s call. And then the most distinguishable third category seems to be the human voice. It’s hard to say what makes it distinct, but it definitely is even when the content is inaudible. It has a kind of undulating quality, containing lots of different tones.

Playing with synths didn’t get me too far. I spent some time learning about synthesisers, how to manipulate them and produce different sounds. I never managed to create something that was wildly different from a synthy sound. It still sounds recognisably like someone bashing a keyboard even when only heard for a moment. Making noisy sounds is easy, but rather pointless as these just fade into the background of buses, cars and wind. The synthetic simpler tones are too easy to dismiss as the response of a computer.

In the course of my research I stumbled across some recordings of unusual noises supposedly heard around the world. These sky trumpets are enough to make people stop and stare in unison trying to make sense of it all.

Sadly I don’t think I can make a noise this loud. What makes it interesting is the lack of context. And at a normal volume it’s just another example of another noisy noise.

I was discussing this problem with my friend Michael and I asked him how he would go about trying to create a sound that no-one had ever heard before. He suggested that instead of trying to synthesise the sounds, I could just make them with my mouth. It actually works pretty well.

So what I ended up doing is recording my voice making strange sounds and then putting those through Garageband to create complex sounds that I could then tweak to be just outside the range of what seems human.

I spent some time wondering what the cheapest arduino setup I could use so I wouldn’t be too much out of pocket if someone pinched it. It turns out however that you can get an iPod shuffle knockoff, a speaker, battery and electronics project case for about £15. So I went with that and loaded the tracks onto the mp3 player with an hour of silence inbetween each noise.


Of course, the hardest part of this project is actually going out and putting it somewhere. That’s the extroverted part of this project and the whole reason why it’s exciting to me - having people interact with it. Programming is easy. I can do it any time of day or night. All the tools are readily available without delay. There’s never any social risk whatsoever. Actually going out and testing things is hard, there’s a risk of rejection and public failure.

In a similar vein, I wasn’t sure how to document this project. It’s part of my methodology to start small and experiment and learn. To do that I need to understand what the impact is. Of course, to do that here I’d have to hide in the undergrowth with a video camera, and then draw an inference from whatever small reaction someone had to the sound. Here’s a little demo of the intended experience:

So in this case I had to be a little unscientific. I ended up leaving it in Peckham Rye park for a week (the limits of the USB battery packs I used) tied to a tree in a spot where it couldn’t be seen but there are a fair bunch of people milling about most of the time. Then at the end of the week I went and cut it down again. I have no idea how well it worked, or indeed if anyone even heard it at all. It’s difficult making art like that.

Silver Burkas

I created some costumes for a party. I’m interested in the identities we portray with our clothing, our hair, our voices and body language. In particular the way these things can either make us feel more comfortable or inhibit us in social situations.

I once worked as an extra for a period film set in the 1940s. As I sat in the waiting room I looked around for someone interesting I talk to. It was a real challenge. Everyone had had their hair cut and make up done and was wearing their assigned costume. Until I actually went and talked to someone it was impossible to assign any characteristics to them. It was much more anonymising than say a fancy dress party, because the people involved had no choice in their costume. Basically, I didn’t know who was a cunt and who wasn’t. Every trace of personality had been washed away.

I considered that to be at a party without identity might be freeing. So my costumes were basically a big silver sheet designed to hide form (made from reflective silver fabric with an orange tulle section as a visor). Also part of the costume was a voice changing box to mask what the wearer sounded like. This was a cheap kids’ toy off ebay gaffer taped to a coat hanger as a frame.

My dinner party guests didn’t know what hit them. I invited two friends who didn’t know each other for a casual dining experience at my house. Upon arrival and before meeting each other I had them put on the full costume. I then introduced them. This is what followed.

It wasn’t quite as successful as I’d hoped. The biggest problem with the outfits was physical. The fabric got hot really quickly. It made me quite pleased that I didn’t use my original choice of mylar, the stuff they wrap athletes in when they finish a race. The voice box kind of worked, but you could still hear the original voice underneath. The outfits themselves were also quite bulky and made it difficult to move in. It made the game of monochromatic twister (shades of grey, in keeping with the theme of anonymity) somewhat difficult to play.

Frustratingly, once they took their costumes off they got along quite well. I asked a few leading questions to get them to say how freeing the experience was on camera, but mostly they just complained about the heat.

The result of the experiment: inconclusive. These costumes are no good though. The idea of stripping away facets of identity to become more free from social constraints still has some potential I think. If I repeat this I’ll give it a crack with some costumes that are a bit more fun to wear, or perhaps another method of anonymisation - making different things look the same is as good as concealing the identity of each.

The future of the world

I’d like to tell you about the future. It may be a departure from the imaginations you’ve been exposed to previously. Ever since the enlightenment science has been the bedrock of our understanding of the world, replacing religion and myth as the dominant form of knowing.

Like the stone steps worn away by curious flip-flops at your local ancient monument, all things fade into the constituent components from which they were made. These particles float into distant realms and return fully formed into crystals of novelty.

As well as positivism has treated us so far it will soon be time for it to decline. The concerns of life are becoming less about supporting it and more about enhancement. The pleasure of consciousness is found in fleeting moments and rarely can the memory that succeeds suffice.

Semiconductors provide a substrate to build upon and allow life to blossom. When the logical mundanities of life are dealt with we can begin to do something sensible. Virtual reality excepts the need for physics and philosophy. The need for understanding disappears and what becomes important is the richness of experience produced.

The best moments are those that don’t make sense on paper. The best people are those who can’t be confined to the strictures of a curriculum vitae.

Do we need roads?

Yes, you heard me correctly. Do we need roads? Those long winding black things that snake their way through our built up areas and rural pastures. They’re almost everywhere and you’ve been on one in the last few days. I’m willing to bet you’re about 30 feet away from one right now. Well I want to question their necessity. I’m going to ask what a road fundamentally is and more importantly, what it means for the way we live in our cities.

Roads are one of those elements of life that go unquestioned. This should be surprising given that we have spread our lives out to live around them. As drivers or cyclists, we consider them as a network, planning how to connect them to find our destination. As pedestrians, we wait obediently at the edge for traffic to pass. Instead of being the elephant in the street they are considered so basic as to not warrant discussion. We debate how fast people should travel on them and where they ought to be but rarely whether they should be at all.

They haven’t always been here. We live in a historical anomaly where we travel longer distances more frequently than ever before. It’s not unusual to make a commute of a hundred miles or more on a daily basis. A hundred years ago this sort of journey would have required several days in a bumpy carriage. Several hundred years ago it would have been an unthinkable dream for someone who wasn’t a merchant or soldier to explore an unknown realm so far away.

The way we build roads is critically important because they constitute such a large part, literally and conceptually, of our cities. As well as the function of transport they are our largest shared space and the most frequent site of protest and conflict as well as togetherness. The choices we make about how to implement roads affect the vitality and colour of our lives not just because effective transport allows us to travel easily but because the format of our shared space as a society is determined to a large degree by how we choose to do so. It has an impact on the amount and quality of space each one of us has to live our lives.

Roads are the things between places. They are what we tend to fill in the gaps with between the things we build. Because they are exclusively designated for vehicles, the way we think of them creates a duality of things that are where we live our lives, generally buildings and occasionally parks and public squares, and things that are not where life cannot be fulfilled. Travel is a single aspect of life and not one people are likely to suggest is the most important or pleasant. In spite of this, we have dedicated an enormous amount of our cities to facilitating it. In the city of Los Angeles where roads run riot, 60% of it is assigned to roads.

This idea has largely emerged through the 20th century and is the consequence of a number of social, political and technological factors. We view roads as dedicated channels of movement that should never be impeded and the rise of the car has been a huge driver in creating this impression. As well as being the exclusive domain of vehicles, they are restrictive because you cannot drive through a row of terraced houses.

I might disappoint the most radical of you by admitting here that I’m not going to suggest that all roads should be immediately abolished. My purpose is to be more questioning than that. I want to dig through the layers of assumptions about what roads are and how they should be. Once we start toying with alternatives to roads, we are forced to analyse the composition of our cities as well. If we find all to be well and good then we can put the layers back with the knowledge that we now have a living truth rather than dogma. However I fully intend to reach in and shake the foundations of these assumptions so that you can no longer look at two brick walls and a layer of asphalt and say, ‘yes, that all seems acceptable to me.’

This essay is going to be fairly Anglo-centric, so lets take a moment to explore how different cultures have different understandings of this duality. Japanese addresses perhaps reflect these two parts more accurately. In Japan the blocks of buildings contained by streets have names, but the streets themselves are nameless. After all, it is really the life that emerges from the buildings that give character to the road rather than vice versa.

In Costa Rica the streets do not have numbers and all directions are given by proximity to a nearby landmark. This makes our means of navigation impossible, since the roads are almost irrelevant in this case. The models we hold in our mind are important, as we use them to inform our interactions with the world. A change as simple as considering the street the void rather than what surrounds it will affect one’s attitude in the microactions that construct the world - how you choose to react to the pedestrian that steps in front you for instance. Or your feeling towards a street party being held in your neighborhood.

In our effort to bust out of this conceptual straitjacket, perhaps we can take inspiration from science fiction for some alternative means of understanding what the voids between places are and how else we can compose the city.

These are a couple of stills from the stunning dystopic scenes of the 1927 film Metropolis made by Fritz Lang. However, like most 20th century imaginations of the future, especially the earlier years, it is fairly unquestioning in its approach to roads. Most of what is proposed for the future is even more roads, wider and faster than ever before. At this stage, the car was a luxury for the rich only and we’re only just on the cusp where it starts to be seen as an agent of personal freedom. Hence vast roads are seen from the perspective of the driver zooming excitedly from one place to another rather than the community they sever.

Some credit has to be given for the innovation of a 3D city. Its citizens are not condemned to live their life on a single layer - trains and walkways rise through the sky passing from building to building.

Flying cars have been a mainstay of science fiction for roughly the last 50 years. We see them in Blade Runner (1982), The Fifth Element (1997), Judge Dredd (1995), Minority Report (2002) and Dredd (2013).

Unfortunately while all of these films feature exciting new technologies that allow for speed and high speed mid air chases, they fail to question how the background structure of the city might change in response as a result. At most what we get is more layers of roads on top of each other. Minority Report is probably the most interesting in terms of roads because it features fully automated vehicles that come right up to the window of your tower block residence.

It should be noted as well that these are all dystopias, so we can choose to interpret the representation of transport as a reflection of our own worst qualities as a society. Interestingly, Demolition Man (1993), an apparently utopian vision of the year 2032 features this scene of driving with a background of skyscrapers set amongst vast green spaces and traffic free highways.

This vision comes straight from the 20th century architect Le Corbusier, someone we’ll return to later on. In his plan for a contemporary city of three million he was attempting to construct “a theoretically watertight formula to arrive at the fundamental principles of modern town planning”. There’s a phrase that ought to chill you. The cityscape above has not arisen over time from the actions of its residents based on their needs, but imposed on them through the application of a series of scientifically extracted principles.

So breaking out of these fundamental assumptions of how roads should be is hard to do, even without the restraint of reality. Just ask the 20th century art movement The Futurists whose member Antonio Sant’Elia’s drawings inspired the design of the city in Metropolis. Their stated goal was to overturn centuries of stifled art and make Italy great again. They in turn were inspired by the machine age and the speed and energy it brought with it. In pursuit of this goal however they often ended up repeating the works of the past, making works that resembled those of the Ancient Greeks whose status they sought to displace.

For this reason we have to go deeper into what the current makeup of transport in our cities actually is. Importantly, why is it flawed? Roads become a problem when they take something away from us. Generally that thing is public space. We expand roads into anything that is not an otherwise defined space so they end up being the dominant form of shared space we experience in a city. Occasionally there are parks, public squares and purpose built spaces such as the Southbank arts complex by London’s Thames river, but the area of these places is vastly overwhelmed by roads.

We rarely have accessible spaces that are neither a designated focal point nor a medium of transport. Because roads are dedicated to motion, ordinary life can’t take place there. They become vacuums maintained to be as empty as possible for the fulfillment of speed on demand. This damages our communities in an immediate sense by bisecting them over and over with treacherous voids. It also does so in indirect ways by denying us a shared space to congregate in meaning people have to travel further to specialised venues to do the same and further increasing the dependence on roads.

One of a city’s marvels is the spontaneous connections that occur between people when they bump into each other. Ed Glaeser talks about this in detail in his book The Triumph of the City. If there is no shared space that functions as a residential extension, then we are limiting the opportunity for this to happen. Let’s not ignore the importance of this physical layer - it’s the physical manifestation of the intangible bonds that make up our society. The more meeting space we have, whether accidental or intentional, the better our politics functions. Squares can be filled with bodies, as the Ukrainians did the Maidan or people did Trafalgar Square during the poll tax riots in the UK and many protests since.

In the US there has been a greater attempt to manage the space we call the road with the invention by the car industry of an offence known as jaywalking. This wasn’t the legislative response to an inevitable problem but essentially a publicity campaign to increase car use in the US.

Prior to jaywalking becoming a popular term and crime pedestrians were assumed to have the right to the road. If there was an accident, popular opinion and the media would be on the side of the pedestrian and assume the fault of the driver.

The motor industry realised this was an impediment to people driving and set out to make the street a place for cars not people. They lobbied for various laws to prevent people from crossing other than at a designated point, but people were so against this that it couldn’t be effectively enforced.

What worked much better was public ridicule. The word jay means fool or rube, so the term jaywalking was appropriated in response to the use of the word joy driving by people angry at car users. A whole set of bizarre tactics were used including a man in a Santa suit shouting at ‘jaywalkers’ through a megaphone, a parade featuring a blundering fool being repeatedly shunted by a Model T Ford as he walked down the middle of the street and impromptu mock trials.

Legislation was created to similar effect, but it was the public humiliation and re-education of pedestrians, making society at large that people crossing the street where they felt like were idiots that worked best. In the UK the Green Cross Code (Stop look listen before you cross the road) is taught to children to help them not be run over. While there campaigns against drink, drug and tired driving there is no admonition of drivers for simply being foolish. The net effect of this is to teach children that they are at fault if they are hit by entering the dedicated area of fast movement.

Though the enforcement of jaywalking hasn’t survived everywhere, the derisive word has, and more importantly the idea that people not crossing at marked points are at fault for injuries sustained definitely has. The upshot of this strange tale is that the notion of what a road is more socially constructed than you might think. Its purpose and format are not dictated by technical design but by how we interpret technological change to affect our society.

The idea that roads should always be clear does not go unquestioned. Many cities around the world have experimented with car free days in varying degrees of totality, one of the largest being in Bogota, Colombia where the entire city bans cars for a day a year. Generally though, this space does not allow a great deal of freedom. There is the novelty of walking in a previously forbidden space but because they are temporary it does not allow any reconfiguration of structural concepts or allow social institutions to form within the vacant space. Report by Irish assembly on car free days.

Perhaps we’d better take a deeper look and find other ways of conceptualising the city. By taking a ground up approach we can develop a conceptual toolbox that allows us to formulate other ways of building the city. Our superficial view is that we have buildings with access that faces out onto a tarmacked road, often with raised edges we call pavements or sidewalks. It’s very difficult to come up with alternatives when thinking at this level since we’ve already determined on a mental framework of places and an intersecting network that surrounds it.

If we consider that we’ve made a choice to consider the fundamental unit of the city as the building or city block, which can be zoned or purposed, then we can change that unit to be whatever we feel is representative of the primary ingredient of a city. This could be people rather than buildings. Consider this image:

If that is the metaphor for a city that exists in your mind, it makes a huge difference what those cells are. If they are human beings, then we need to conceptualise an entirely different transport network. For the things that need to be carried from person to person - thoughts, ideas, love and anger. What kind of transport network could we imagine for that? Conversation or email? If we start to make planning decisions based on that notion then everything fundamentally changes in ways that are hard to imagine.

We’ll come to how what that might look like later on, but first I’d like to suggest another way of looking at a city: density. Yeah you know, what makes things sink. In terms of a city, density is usually defined as the number of humans occupying a defined measure of space. Not necessarily though, we could also measure the density of cars or rooms. If we choose any of those, again our design strategy changes and an entirely different city structure will result. I should note that when I say design here, I mean the unconscious collective emergent design that results from many people making microchoices based on a particular understanding of their surroundings. A driver’s choice to honk at someone crossing the road is a microchoice that is part of this design process.

What makes a city different from a village? Certainly a city is larger and has more inhabitants, but what really gives a city its character is density. Roads decrease density given that they are engineered to be as empty as possible and the objects that temporarily fill them tend to be much larger than the space a person might desire in a cafe say. Contarily, a bar or nightclub increases density by packing people close together and this is why people go there. So when you host a party, you are increasing the cityness of a city. In fact you are creating a mini city all of its own.

This is something that Corbusier and I agree upon: “The more dense the population of a city is the less are the distances that have to be covered. The moral, therefore, is that we must increase the density of the centres of our cities, where business affairs are carried on.”

Looking at these conceptual understandings of transport’s place in a city is all well and good, but before we get into what they mean for roads, I think we need to go one level deeper and ask what is a road exactly? It’s a widening, flattening and hardening of a surface that leads from one place to another place. The first roads opened up new opportunities, making it possible to pass through previously perilous terrain.

Of course the historical sibling of the road is the corridor. They serve a similar purpose as a dedicated thoroughfare designed to allow passage from one place to another. Generally you don’t stop for too long, great memories of corridors are few and far between. Unless you’re at a party of course, in which case you might be hanging out in the corridor due to the human density of other rooms.

As obvious and fundamental as they seem now, corridors haven’t always existed. In 14th Britain, people slept together in the lord of the manor’s great hall. The lord and lady would have had a separate room they shared with intimate servants. Although in the Georgian period people with money started to disperse into private rooms they still didn’t design houses with corridors connecting them as this was deemed to be an inefficient use of precious space. Similarly, in pre revolution France, the nobility lived their lives in public, with people coming to see them in their private rooms and servants passed from room to room to go about their duties. Because of the easily understood distinction in status, there was no need to physically separate them. It wasn’t until the French revolution and all people were determined to be equal that there became a need to emphasise status based on the occupation of a physical space.

In parallel, demands were being made for improved roads. However the first calls came from riders of the newly invented bicycle rather than car owners. The Good Roads movement was founded in the USA in 1880 and petitioned for easier ways to get around by bike. At the time, roads were bumpy and slow and could be dusty or boggy depending on the weather. It was only by chance that the self powered vehicle was invented as the movement started to get results and the problem of how to accommodate different types of traffic became an issue with cars eventually winning out.

Road building techniques varied at first. Some were built with planks laid end to end providing a surface wide enough to drive on or parallel tracks wide enough for wheels. A man called John Macadam laid the foundations for today’s road building, laying down crushed soil and stone that sat tightly together to provide a generally smoother road surface. These came to be mixed with sand and eventually tar, providing the black surface we call a road now.

This development of roads is more political than one might realise at first. As well as the micropolitics arising from interactions while driving, cycling or walking there are the larger macro impacts of governmental politics.

Under the reign of Napoleon III, vast swathes of dense housing were cleared to build Haussmann’s vision of ‘the city of light’. The poor dingy slums which were a hive for infections were bulldozed and replaced by large grand boulevards and large public parks at a cost of hundreds of millions of Francs with builders working 24 hours a day.

However, as well as the ill health and cramped conditions of the slums, they were also difficult to manage given their complex network of streets and alleys, making fertile ground for revolts. In clearing away these tightly packed milieus they also got rid of the obstacles that prevented effective control. Similarly when Napoleon conquered Bologna in Italy boulevards were built to facilitate the marching of armies through the city.

This is an influence that has existed throughout history. Roman gridiron town patterns were designed to be thrown up in a matter of hours by an army on the move. During wartime, many highways were built in the US and Germany for the purpose of emergency landing of aircraft. We can see a modern day parallel to this in North Korea, where vast roads have been built that lie empty in preparation for an army to mobilise on.

Commerce has also had a deep influence on our roads, often making them wider and greater with vast parking lots outside shopping centres. And commerce has returned the favour most notably in the Googie architecture which primarily existed from the 40s to the 70s. It featured futuristic bold angles and was inspired by the raygun science fiction of the time. Independent travel was seen as part of this future, so cars and driving were heavily incorporated into the themes.

The styles were made to be seen from the car at high speed, so they stuck them into the air and decorated them with highly visible neon signs.

This takes us to present day Dubai, a city designed for excessive spending. Much as we’ve seen featured before in visions for planned cities, Dubai is littered with vast empty highways surrounded by nothingness. Given that it is an absolute monarchy, the composition of the city reflects its politics. Rather than places created by people in an ongoing process that serves themselves, it is a city designed in a top down fashion that serves external desires.

Interestingly though, the proliferation of Sheikh-ego boosting towers is actually an application of the principle of human density. The Burj Khalifa is a mixed use skyscraper currently the tallest in the world. The floors comprise homes, hotels, shops, restaurants and office space. It’s conceivable that one could live within the tower and never leave. While it is not also self sustaining in terms of energy and resources, it has the possibility to designate floors for hydroponic farming, waste and water recycling and power production which would make it so.

The Burj Khalifa bears a resemblance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposed tower The Illinois. Intended to be a mile high and built in Chicago, it was a giant tower with everything needed built inside. With these towers, elevators become the new roads. Futurist Sant’Elia was excited by the premise of vast buildings scaled by mechanical boxes: “Elevators must no longer hide away like solitary worms in the stairwells, but the stairs—now useless—must be abolished, and the elevators must swarm up the façades like serpents of glass and iron”. Movement by vehicle becomes redundant in this scenario because needs can be fulfilled within. This is the concept of simply not going anywhere. Returning to a state where going far afield is not so much an unthinkable dream, merely unnecessary.

However as we can see in Dubai, towers are frequently built for luxury purposes and have great infrastructural and resource needs that require heavy transport around them. So given that need, for now lets look at how we could integrate that transport into the general environment. If we don’t conceive of a transport network as a fundamental element of our city, then we are not bound to create roads in the first place. The car was invented over 100 years ago and while our technologies have changed, road design has merely improved in longevity and comfort rather than adapted to a changing society.

You will have heard of the Segway and possibly the Sinclair C5. Both are remembered as inventions hailed as revolutions but failed to take off, with the C5 entirely dead and the Segway enjoying a limited use. They are regarded as somewhat foolish and impractical because they are not suitable for road use due to the lack of protection they offer the rider. However there is nothing lacking about the designs themselves. Only that they do not fit into an existing infrastructure. Sant’Elia again: “As if we who are accumulators and generators of movement, with all our added mechanical limbs, with all the noise and speed of our life, could live in streets built for the needs of men four, five or six centuries ago.” Indeed we are now furnished with many more opportunities for powered movement than he could have imagined. Yet we still constrain ourselves to an inefficient single purpose format.

“The modern street in the true sense of the word is a new type of organism, a sort of stretched-out workshop, a home for many complicated and delicate organs” ~ Le Corbusier

Here Corbusier is talking about a workshop in terms of infrastructure, arguing that what is currently buried beneath the streets should be easily serviceable. We can expand that definition to mean the workshop of our lives - the place where we tinker, experiment and explore alongside each other. We should free our minds from the definition of streets as empty spaces and consider them extensions of residential, social and business spaces. Because the space doesn’t need to kept clear, the sharp divide between what is somebody’s and what is simply some space is far less relevant.

In this shared space that is not designated for traffic, which is what the streets partially were before the advent of the motor car and the invention of jaywalking, we can adopt different and more suitable forms of transit. In a world of narrow gaps, uneven surfaces and low speeds, a person sized electrically powered vehicle is ideal to get around.

Previously the aim was to create as much space on the road to fulfill all transport needs without any congestion. It’s since been established that the more capacity created the more demand rises. This is known as induced demand and Los Angeles’ traffic jams are testament to it. Thought in urban planning has turned to creating pleasant livable streets and often this involves narrowing them and banning certain modes of transport. In the age of the autonomous vehicle and agile robots it might be easier to let computers navigate these crowded and complex streets. Autonomous vehicles are capable of recognising other road users and navigating around them more safely than humans, so there is less need to separate pedestrians and vehicles. See Bjarke Ingels for more.

Does this go far enough though? Given that roads are the dividers between places, if we remove them we are also questioning buildings as the basic unit or cell that forms the body. Bodily metaphors are often used for cities. They have centres as hearts, parks as lungs and arteries that provide flow. This is no longer an appropriate metaphor. The imagery we make use of to understand our cities affects our roles in them. I suggest we see roads as cords that bind and trap the city, preventing it from expanding organically.

If roads do not need to be kept clear, then we can have semi-permanent or permanent structures that fill that void. These don’t have to replicate existing buildings, since they are designed to interface with a road and provide vehicular access. Long distance travel can be provided by underground or elevated trains that transition to ground level train track once reaching the countryside to avoid impeding the pedestrian. Local travellers are compelled to explore their environment and interact with it and other people during their journey. Some travelling may take slightly longer, but the magic of the city is created by mysteries, so some of the efficiency of the transport function will be sacrificed in aid of fun and exploration. An example of this is Leopold Lambert’s Nausicaä Gardens, shown below. Imagine a whole city structured like this where movement is simply an interaction with the whole, rather than a separation from it.

There are also number of ideas around differently structured roads. Harvey Wiley Corbett in 1913 proposed a multilayer structure that would separate pedestrians from traffic entirely.

Chicago has multilevel streets that separate traffic into various layers depending on destination. The top level serves local traffic and lower levels serve through traffic.

We can take density another level further. How about no open space at all? There are some places in the world that due to historical conditions are so dense as to have no roads at all. The most famous of these was the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, demolished in 1994. Because of its semi-lawless state, it was a place where refugees could settle and filled it to a population density of 3.2 million per square mile. While much like pre-Haussmann Paris the argument for demolishing it was that it was a dingy run down place - there were few sources of water and a single tap was shared by hundreds of residents - there is nothing that makes that inevitable. While there was a high degree of criminality within the city, for most people life carried on as normal and it featured an entire ecosystem with shops, butchers, schools and brothels inside.

The Kowloon Walled City does have some very narrow corridors connecting parts of it together. If we combine this level of density with the medieval approach to building houses without corridors, we have a city that does not even know the notion of roads. This could be a city where rooms are temporary function based rather than unit based. Talking about the walled city Leung Ping Kwan writes in The City of Darkness that “what were children’s games centres by day became strip show venues by night”. In no other period but our own could this make sense; we’ve never had the density of people to create it. If you take an open area of land and build a house on it then you still have the remainder of space which the house is an interruption to. We are not building single houses anymore, we’re building cities. That requires a different set of rules to the accumulation of single houses that happen to be near each other. Most of us would prefer to reside somewhere more salubrious and with the option for more privacy than Kowloon Walled City, but we should take into account what it means conceptually to abandon roads in a city and how we can take parts of that into our own design.

There is another option which I would like to investigate in more detail elsewhere. That is the movement of the buildings themselves, again negating the need for any division between places and road-voids.

Consider yourself a play

Consider yourself a play. A person of many voices. Identity and paradigms are funny things. For some reason we assume we have to have a single one of each. One way to be and to express ourselves, and another to understand the world. Understand the artificiality of a knowable self, embrace cognitive dissonance and liberate yourself from the complications of linearity and coherence. Take yourself out of your niche and take on a number of different roles ad hoc at will.

A play has acts, don’t be afraid to pretend. It doesn’t have to have a message, but sometimes the purpose of its statements that develop, the characters that enter, are to elucidate a message, to prompt a reflection in the mind of the audience. Do the same and abandon honesty.

Walk in different ways, talk in alternating tones, become a new character each day, each moment during conversation. Express two directly contradictory opinions in sequence without apology. Act as a series of incommensurable persons and close the rift between souls.

Above all, refuse to be who you are.

What is power?

Power is the sublime. We perceive power when we understand that something is beyond boundaries. That boundary can be the law, social codes or the conceptual categories you use to file something in your mind. Boundary crossing is increasingly frightening in that order because the further you go the more difficult it is to make sense of.

Somebody who breaks the law is a criminal. They have disrupted order and are potentially a threat to physical safety but their motives are clear and they have a motivation for doing so. Their motivation neuters fear because it makes them rational and if somebody is rational they can be defeated using logic or what they want can be taken away from them. A remorseless killer who murders for no other reason than because they wanted to is far more frightening than a gangster who shoots a rival over money.

Breaches of social codes are more disturbing because they challenge unconscious mental structures. If a man wears a dress it forces you to consider the insecurity of your own gender construct. You’re compelled to understand that there is not such a clear divide between men and women as you thought thus your understanding is reduced. Imagine you walk into a shop and the man behind the till does not respond and just turns in circles silently with his eyes fixed on the middle distance. This is even more frightening because the functioning of his mind cannot be determined. There is no ability to reason about his thoughts or actions.

The most terrifying of all are those things that we cannot put any boundaries around at all. Caves, the deepness of the ocean and the vastness of the ocean all allow us to project our worst fears into them. Worse than that, the projected idea is entirely conceptual. We generate in our minds the essence of the thing, which would not appear to us in real life even if exactly reconstructed. A ghost is entirely unbounded. We cannot understand where they are, how they move from place to place or what the limits of their capabilities are.

God and the devil fit into this final category. Or rather we put the parts of our mind that we cannot make sense of into these categories. Forces that are not understandable but are good are god and forces that are inexplicable and sinister we call the devil. If you cannot simulate a person’s thoughts and life in your mind then they take on an air of power. For the same reason people have bought into the concept of a darknet because they do not fully understand the internet. In spite of its actual benignness, people have assigned it a tremendous power because of its mystery.

I hate art galleries

Art is something that should be a part of our lives. When it gets separated out into a different physical location it develops a different context. We need to be able to bring back into our daily lives and thoughts and that’s difficult to do if we have art-based experiences solely in art galleries. We should be experiencing art in what we do on a regular basis, when we work, shop, see friends and do the washing up. Even a sculpture in a shopping centre is too separate and distinct. It requires that you cease shopping, regard the sculpture then return to shopping. The shelves and products themselves should be art. There should be no escape from it.

Worse are the white walls of art galleries that give a supposed neutrality to the room to allow you to view the walls in isolation. They do nothing but scream ‘you are in an art gallery’ loud enough to perforate your eardrums. The walls are so white in the Saatchi gallery that I was snow blind after spending a few hours inside. There be can no lack of context. Everything is contextual.