The problem with Google’s vision is that it doesn’t acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience. Back in 1970, cultural critic Richard Sennett wrote a wonderful little book—The Users of Disorder—that all Google engineers should read. In it, Sennett made a strong case for “dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities,” where strangers from very different socio-economic backgrounds still rub shoulders. Sennett’s ideal city is not just an agglomeration of ghettos and gated communities whose residents never talk to one another; rather, it’s the mutual entanglement between the two—and the occasionally mess that such entanglements introduce into our daily life—that makes it an interesting place to live in and allows its inhabitants to turn into mature and complex human beings.
Google’s urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It’s profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google’s world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google’s highly personalized maps. And if the promotional videos for Google Glass are anything to judge by, we might not even notice it’s gone: For all we know, we might be walking through an urban desert, but Google Glass will still make it look exciting, masking the blighted reali.