If I were to put together an interaction tour of New York, the first stop would be Coney Island. The Coney Island of today is not a place that conjures up the wonder of Apple’s next device. In fact, I think the only technological improvement recently is the location-based digital layer added by foursquare. Historically, however, Coney Island’s association with technology is quite a different story.
With the expansion of transportation systems at the turn of the last century, Coney Island underwent an enormous transformation. In the mid 1800s, Coney acted as a retreat for the city’s well-heeled; it was a destination valued for both its isolation and connection to nature. By the early 1900s, this isolation disappeared through the construction of bridges and train extensions, allowing the metropolitan masses to also enjoy the coastline.
This explosion of visitors brought with it the demand for entertainment. Satisfying this demand was explored most intensely in the first decade of the 20th century, through 3 parks – Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. It is during this phase of activity that Rem Koolhaus, in Delirious New York, calls Coney Island “a place for the ‘new technology of the fantastic’, from which stem the strategies and mechanisms that came to shape Manhattan”.
These explorations used technology to amuse, subvert, and extend the experience of visitors. Roller coasters were invented here, allowing riders to leave gravity behind by making the most of breakthroughs in steel and railroad construction. Switzerland, a ride at Dreamland, allowed visitors to experience a space “as cold and as full of sweet pure air as can be found among the picturesque Swiss mountains…” as they rode through an artificial landscape on small red sleighs.
The burst in technological exploration for amusement didn’t last long. A string of disasters and scams brought this golden age to an end around 1914. It did not take long, however, for the explorations made by the inhabitants of Coney Island to be claimed by the more formal world found on the next island over, Manhattan. Koolhaus puts it this way – “To support the alibi of “business,” the incipient tradition of Fantastic Technology is disguised as pragmatic technology. The paraphernalia of illusion that have just subverted Coney Island’s nature into an artificial paradise: electricity, air-conditioning, tubes, telegraphs, tracks and elevators- reappear in Manhattan as paraphernalia of efficiency to convert raw space into office suites. Suppressing their irrational potential, they now become merely the agents of banal changes such as improving illumination levels, temperature, humidity, communications, etc., all to facilitate the processes of business.” (1997, p. 87).
The first stop of the tour serves not only as an excuse to ride the Cyclone, but to remind us to think of the fantastic as we make and experiment with technology – regardless of the scams and disasters we encounter. We are building and playing with new mediums that will change lives in ways we can’t yet know and we must stay focused on the experience. We are, after all, designing for people.