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PML (Psychogeographical Markup Langauge)
Wilfried Hou Je Bek

After laying dormant within obscurantist circles for the last few decades, psychogeography, that joyful combination of peripatetic hedonism & cartographic sadism, is again a living practise. This revival takes place alongside recent developments in fields as diverse as outdoor gaming, location based services & graffiti. All these practises reflect the need for new ways of using, experiencing & understanding the ever changing city.

One important direction modern psychogeography is taking is the development of systems that can display the psychogeographical landscape of a city without having the need to describe the shape of the city that caused the psychogeography. Or in other words: instead of talking about the anatomy of individual cities it wants to extract data from the city as a persistent body of continuing processes: doing psychogeography thus becomes the possibility to, metaphorically speaking, measure the heartbeat & blood pressure of a city. Of course in the human body blood pressures are different for everybody, but for all humans apply the same boundaries of what is considered healthy. It would be interesting to see if it’s possible to determine the ideal conditions that support a healthy urban system. Jane Jacobs already postulated this kind of research in the sixties.

PML (Psychogeographical Markup Language) is a notation system meant to do all of the above. It’s not at all finished at present, but what follows is a rough sketch of how it is being envisaged.

PML starts with a list of recommended markups that identify beyond doubt a certain experience-based quality of urban space. These markups are not placed in a fixed dropdown menu that floats around in the corner of your mind’s eye while wandering about, they are recommendations only. Current tags include: “stim”, “dross”, “horror”, “terror”, “open”, “closed”, most of them taken from acknowledged writers in urban theory (Jacobs, Lerup, Lynch, Radcliffe).

Once a small set of markups is selected, psychogeographers start swarming through the area; they are not trying to find the experiences that come with the tags. They only mark them when they really feel the markup is a valid tag equivalent to their experience. After a certain time everybody comes back together. The various lists of markups can than be layered on top of each other, usually with the name of the street as the binding element. In this way PML tries to distill an objective psychogeographical image of a territory by clustering many small subjective observations into one file. In this way the particular, the freak-incident, is cancelled out from the average.

Once a PML dataset for an area has been compiled it can be used in several ways. The results can be translated into a psychogeogram: a diagrammatic representation of psychogeographically experienced space. Or in medical terms: a psychogeogram is a cardiogram of the territory.

The resulting data can be shared on the internet, preferably in a format that complies to the standards used in the development of the ‘free information network’, more commonly known as the semantic web. This has several benefits, once your data is ready for the semantic web you can also combine it with other data about the same area as your PML data is about, in this way adding more knowledge to your psychogeogram. Secondly you herby add to the available knowledge about an area, thereby improving the precision of future psychogeograms. Thirdly, by making this data available you ultimately add to the knowledge of cities in general, cities that can than be compared, analysed, etc.

While translating the experience of cities into a small number of categories may seem like a contradiction to the general aims of psychogeography, as a tool developed in the public domain, PML might play an important role in helping bring about a participatory urban design, or open-source urbanism. PML enables non-specialists to make reasonable statements about urban space, with PML anybody can get their second opinion if the one put forward by the urban planner doesn’t seem right.