Who benefits when New York upgrades its ‘user experience’?

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Raj Advani, founder of UpNext, featuring 3-D maps of the city. (Robert Scoble via Flickr.)
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The trains take too long. The buses run on molasses. Information on when these rusty wagons depart, arrive, or break down is scattered, unreliable. Bike lanes are crowded with delivery trucks, wandering pedestrians, Soho models waving their antennae to hail taxis. Commuters take a deep breath when they arrive at their destination, exhausted from dodging tourists, trash, slow-walkers, jay-walkers, cat-callers, construction, street signals, baby strollers, delivery bikers and loiterers.

You might say the city's "user experience" is broken.

“When you’re navigating the city, you want certain things to happen, you want a nice experience, just as you do with a website,” John Geraci, a cofounder of Outside.in, the hyperlocal news site acquired by AOL earlier this year, and generally a respected figure in New York’s tech scene, wrote on his personal blog recently. “You want the city to open up for you at all the right moments. And every city has their own unique user experience, just like every website or app does.” The International Organization for Standardization, the large and influential group that aims to streamline business practices by publishing rules and definitions, describes “user experience” as “a person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.” But it’s a phrase most often used by web geeks, who tend to shorthand it is "UX," which makes it sound like a maze in The Matrix. Really, it's just a term to describe how someone might feel while navigating a particular website or application or database. "Ease of use" is typically the barometer for quality "UX."

So, I may have exaggerated a bit: New York City’s user experience isn’t entirely broken. But does it have to be such an obstacle course all the time?

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The Bloomberg administration is working on changing that by creating more public spaces, painting more bike lanes (controversial ones, and otherwise), launching projects like the Big Apps competition (which entices developers to code city data into useful applications that will help New Yorkers better understand and navigate the city), and offering more useful information about the city on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. UX is a concept they mean to bleed out of your digital devices into the physical city, and that the city around you is something they want to make intelligible to you via your digital devices.

Part of Bloomberg's plan to make the city more innovative, efficient and navigateable is titled "NYC Simplicity."

So how do we make it simpler?

Geraci thinks, for instance, that taxis should have more useful information on the TV screens that every tourist from J.F.K. must watch over and over again: Information on the buildings that are whizzing by and neighborhoods they're driving through, which restaurants they should go to while in town, and where traffic patterns are, so they can properly direct their driver.

Geraci, like most of us, I guess, wants the experience of New York to be seamless: easier, more informed, less cluttered and less dirty.

It's the capstone of a series of trends that have been developing despite the protests of Jimmy Breslin and Fran Lebowitz and others like them who think of the city's grit and inscrutability as one of the elements that creates our real identities as New Yorkers: it filters out the people with too little heart for the project of being here. Others, without objecting so bluntly, have perceived that the city's efforts to clean up its act has had the result of giving too much rein to developers. They push out specialty and mom-and-pop shops and make music-rehearsal and studio spaces unreachable for musicians and artists. On the low end, everything can seem to be replaced with a consumer bank or a Subway franchise and, on the high end, a glittering condo building, where the hired real estate agents advertise and cash in on the very grit they will probably be displacing.

It's perhaps a nicer world, but it costs more for the end-user. More rent, higher bills. And in terms of Bloomberg's efforts, they raise the old digital divide question. If a working iPhone can run you $180 a month, who are all of these conveniences being built by BigApps developers via iPhone meant to be for?

It can be a very plushy city, with a better user experience—unless that user experience actually just makes the city boring, and, possibly, segregated across the digital-access divide.

A couple of months ago, I went to a discussion at the School of Visual Arts, where Virginia Heffernan, a New York Times TV and new media writer who is working on a book about the pleasures of the web, stood in front of a class of design students to discuss how cities are useful metaphors for the digital world.

“The web is such a teeming city,” she said. “People who don’t like it don’t like broken links, they don’t like trolls, they don’t like all the scams. And who can blame them?”

“When people nostalgize New York in the '70s and say that all these exciting things happened but you could also get mugged a lot,” Heffernan said. “The web feels a little like that to me.”

Try navigating most news sites and you’ll be dodging all kinds of digital equivalents to roadblocks, tourists and construction. Reading an article can sometimes require a mastery of mouse acrobatics, requiring you to steer from funny-looking links that, with just a graze over a photo, will awaken a sleeping giant ad that pop-ups up and takes over your screen, blocking the very words you were simply trying to read. Or a video will start playing, unprompted, somewhere in that digital box, and, although its sounds are blaring from your speakers, you can’t find it. You have to scroll and maneuver to figure out where the dang thing is and find that tiny pause button before your coworkers groan and tsk.

This is (still!) the “Wild West” of the web, as the cliché has gone since 1994. In 2011, maybe we’re not getting “mugged” on the web, but we are still having show-downs with banner ad enemies and downloading lawlessly, consuming pirated music, movies, TV shows and e-books with few penalties besides pop-up ad overload and our own web-privileged guilt.

Heffernan said at S.V.A. that reading on the web has a proximity to consumer culture that is dangerously close. Every inch of a website is bought and sold, whether it’s the advertising next to a piece of content, or the links within a piece of content, or the content itself, which might be peddling an aesthetic or political ideology that attracts an audience, which can also be bought and sold.

We’re not reading so much as being pitched to, constantly.

But that kind of business model allows people all kinds of freedoms, and, of course, a democratization of the web: anybody can start a blog, or an e-commerce shop on Etsy, for free. Like the guy on the subway who sells his poems for 50 cents.

Heffernan came to terms with the web's chaos with this idea: “People also think the ’70s were the most creative time to be in New York and if you’re like that, you may still find a home,” Heffernan said.

During her speech, Heffernan read notes off her iPad. She lifted it up and faced the screen toward the design students, to show a picture of her children in what looked like a leafy suburb. Heffernan said the safe haven to this “Wild West” of the web is applications on an iPad. If you’re feeling unsafe, bothered, annoyed by the web, applications may be your sanctuary.

“The first time I saw an app, I felt very much like the first time I went to one of those carpeted McMansions,” Heffernan said. “The incredible relief of the climate control and the stability of this and how I paid to get here and how expensive things seem and, 'Really, there’s 12 bathrooms in here?' That’s what an app feels like to me. It just feels like there’s so much space, there’s not the junky intrusions of so much sound and the impossible links to porn sites.”

“I never felt safer and more taken care of,” she said.

Open up a New York Times application and you might feel that way too: there are minimal ads, the content is carefully presented, organized and curated, and no pop-up screen asks for your sign-in. It's more like passing by a doorman or the guard at the entrance of the gated community who tips his hat and asks after the kids on your way in. All of this is for a price, of course: the cost of an iPad (starting at $499) and the application itself ($5 per week for access to all sections).

Apple C.E.O. Steve Jobs, his iPad, and the iTunes store are bursting with new paid applications every day. It might be a kind of “Apple Press Estates, a suburban sanctuary from the urban chaos of the web,” Heffernan said.

Of course, that urban chaos exists beyond the applications, just as it does in New York. But it's further and further from the rich and powerful. And that safe "sanctuary" is further and further from the reach of middle class and low-income class citizens.

Will the "Wild West" just get more wild as the "Apple Press Estates" on iPads get ever more beautiful, and expensive? The same questions can be asked of the city.

As cities and the bit-formed profiles of their citizens become more closely tied together, the impact of the digital divide increases. You can almost imagine "neighborhoods," maybe not geographic ones, of digital blight abutting and mingling among the digital richness of the city. Students in a classroom might browse the Internet on ancient computers with dial-up access, while, across the street, The ticket line for the person who has to pay three dollars an hour to access Expedia to buy a plane ticket home to Pakistan or Ecuador or China next to the ticket line for the person booking a last-minute flight to Paris while reclining on a buttery leather sofa in a glass-encased living room, for instance. Is that a city worth making?

Or does it start to seem like the best thing is just to move to upstate Maine and not bother with the headache of cities, and the Internet, at all?