The Time of the City

Along the walls of Seonreung Subway Station (선릉역) in Seoul, Tesco HomePlus (a popular shopping chain with corporate headquarters in the United Kingdom) has put up photographs of 500 commonly ordered products in a style similar to their display on the shelves of a physical HomePlus.  Subway passengers can scan accompanying QR codes with their smart phones; the products will be delivered to their homes that evening.

Yes, yes–this is certainly convenient and suggests the degree to which Seoul is well on its way to becoming a ubiquitous computing city (or u-city)–and well ahead of cities in the United States.  But this also offers a more complex view of the occasionally simplistic logic behind the u-city.

When we look at cities and their built environments, we can identify what John Urry calls different “mobilities” that bring together people and objects in different spatio-temporal configurations: riding the subway versus driving an automobile versus walking down a wide boulevard versus sitting at a cafe (Urry 2007).  Each divulges a different temporal rhythm.  This is partly because of the temporal regimes that have been built into these systems–subway schedules, speed limits, the timing of traffic lights, etc.  And this is also partly due to the ways people have engaged these spaces through their own temporal practices (Lefebvre 2004).  Through these manifold technologies, we share temporalities with others–waking in the morning, the daily commute, breaking for lunch.  Commuting into Seoul from Ansan in Gyeonggi-do, you really get the sense of people marching lock-step in both time and space.  But the variations in those temporalities are the most noticeable.

In fact, it is at those precise places where different temporalities collide that have been the most interesting for urban dwellers: the entrance to a Seoul subway station where people wait for each other or sell gimbap.  A pojangmach’a (포장마차) (harder to find these days!) set up in alleys where people move by according to different temporal practices–walking from work, socializing, touring, going to class at a nearby language institute.  Vast urban markets like Namdaemun (남대문시장) where people alternately sit, scurry, stroll.  Isn’t at least part of the charm of these urban oases the confluence of difference?  And not only difference in the way that we usually think of it in anthropology, as differences in identity or social class, but differences in temporality–the difference between people caught in the rhythm of work versus those pursuing a variety of modern pleasures.

Of course, these same temporal differences can lead to all sorts of frustrations–when you climb into a car or taxi and find yourself jammed in on Jamsil Brigde (잠실대교), too annoyed to take in the view of Seoul’s skyline.  Or when waiting exceeds the 30-minute mark and turns to frustration.

Image from the Urban and Regional Innovation Group (

But what happens when we are in constant, real-time syncopation with the built environment around us?  As Seoul moves to ubiquitous computing, the frisson that comes from the confluence of different temporalities would seem to be threatened.  After all, the whole point of ubiquitous computing is the adoption of integrative, networked technologies that span these spatial and temporal differences, creating a vast syntagmatic exchange of information.  The dream, then, would be seamless networks that stitch together city services, transit, consumption, together with our home- and work-lives.

And yet, that may not be how ubiquitous computing develops into urban contexts at all.  When we look at the HomePlus installation at Seonreung Station, its success depends not on the homogenization of different temporalities, but on their exploitation.  It’s precisely because there are different mobilities in subway transit–descending into the tube, walking to the platform, waiting for the train, standing in the subway car–that there’s a temporal residue for HomePlus to exploit.  In other words, it’s the between-ness of the subway station that makes QR-code shopping at HomePlus an attractive option.

In the future, I would expect these temporal disjunctures to be fertile grounds for ubiquitous computing; and, perhaps, these may result in the concomitant multiplication of these temporal differences rather than their transcendence.  That is, the temporal dissonance between different formations suggests durational spaces for networked action.  With them, perhaps, an awareness of heterogeneous temporalities that may lead to new possibilities for human interaction in the interstices of the temporal formations we inhabit.


Lefebvre, Henri (2004).  Rhythmanalysis.  NY: Continuum.

Urry, John (2007).  Mobilities.  Malden, MA: Polity.