5.31.2009

Where is The Digital?


Digging into the Where archive, I found Brendan asking himself:

As the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous and reality moves toward the virtual, the emergent Cyberspace will almost certainly take on an urban form -- though it remains to be seen whether it will lean more heavily on the physical or virtual world. Either way, geography will become less and less binding as cities learn to connect in ever more complex ways, and we will likely come to understand urbanism as something very different from what it is now.

Only a couple of years later, we're already there. Maybe it's time we started thinking of ways to answer these questions. Here go my two cents:

1. Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts Into Air is a double ode to Modernism and The Street. The Modernist Canon includes Dostoyevsky and Joyce, of course, but also Jane Jacobs. Urban vitality is supposed to culminate Modernism. Despite Jacobs and her followers (sometimes because of them), today The Street keeps loosing ground, through stale, celebratory urbanities. The Street is not only displaced or attacked anymore; it is manicured, mercantilized, neutered, over-regulated. Today, The Street is no longer The Street. The Street is The Web.

2. The Web has not only added to Modernist/Urban Canon. It is constantly reworking and dissolving it. The Web Canon is nothing like the usual Canon. The Web Canon is not about authorship. It is about the dissolution of Authorship, swaying back to a wilder communal mode or spirit (or rather a bunch of different communal modes and spirits bumping against each other constantly). (This is one of those eras of cultural dispersion we're entering, like the days of oral tradition or pamphleteering or independent broadcasting). What is Canon one day is forgotten the next. Some Canon never makes the cut, until it does. The Canon swallows every Canon before it. The Canon is The Web itself.

3. Anything cyber — cyberspace, cyberpunk, etc — reeks of Future Anterior and has a bit of that nostalgic (conservative) retraction from reality, even when dreaming up alternative realities. Incursions into cyber-whatever (Second Life urbanisms, virtual reality, etc.) are as much the future of The Web as digital renderings, parametric design and Dubai are the future of architecture and urbanism. Depending on where you stand, this means either everything or close to nothing.

4. Even when embracing and exploiting and dwelling on The Digital, any Networked Urbanism should recognize itself as deeply entrenched in everyday, physical, political, social and cultural realities. It should also acknowledge that it has significant, explicit, lasting effects on these realities.

5. I don't think geography has become "less binding". On the contrary, it's probably only starting to reveal its complexities. This is a matter not only of physical geography or distance we're talking about, but also of political and cultural geographies and distances.

6. The Web Canon might seem Western, but it's definitely not.

7. In one of the hundreds of Web Canon Classics (someone should start collecting them), Kevin Kelly discusses the production and spreading of digital content. He states that the impact of digitization will likely be most significant not in the Developed World (despite the abundance of resources, technical knick-knacks and gadgetry) but in the Third World, in areas that are practically bookless, or at least don't have an Amazon branch.

Something similar might happen with Networked Urbanisms. In the Developed World, Networked Urbanisms' potential might very well fade out under the weight of control and commercialization. The Kindle and the iPhone are the McMansions of Digital Urbanity. Networked Urbanisms could certainly profit from the chronic instability, forced flexibility, selective implementation, DIY and everything-up-for-grabs mindset, creative reuse and living-off-scraps culture of Third World urban realities as much as it already does from its pools of skilled tech workers, cheap manufacturing and shady practices like piracy and copyright infringements. The “digital breach” doesn’t necessarily follow the North-South divide.

8. The Plaza Meave is a huge semi-formal electronics bazaar in the heart of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, or Historic Quarter. It’s a piece of urban infrastructure straight out of Sci-Fi: an anonymous, damp, smelly and seemingly innocuous building where people hawk and hustle pirated software, stolen or scavenged electronics, tuned hardware, abandonware, orphaned technology, and any random techno-spoils you can imagine. The market often spills over onto the street, and the tech stands mix in with food stalls.

9. I hate the “digital skin” metaphor. There is no such thing as an ICT blanket that just comes and covers or supplants “traditional” urban dynamics. If you’re going to use the usual cheap organicist metaphor, why not say “digital lymphatic system” or something like that?

10. Most of us are too quick to associate technological change with the brave and the new. But to me, one of the most interesting aspects of the digital onslaught is the novelty with which it feeds the past into the present and therefore the future. The Digital has an uncanny historical bent. It allows for and thrives on richer, more intense and diverse readings of the past. We are unburying the marginal, the secondary, the almost forgotten, the populist, the failed, the ephemeral, the quaint, the curious, the quotidian, the small, the foreign, the frilled, and so on and so forth, and inserting everything into our steady and active forward marches. The Angel of History doesn’t have to fly with its back turned to the future anymore. It can just gaze at the past on its iPod.


(I don't remember if I got the photo from Flickr or from Mark the Cobrasnake. If it's your's, please let me know!)

1 comment:

Peter Sigrist said...

Interesting! I love the idea of orphaned technologies. It's good that the internet provides a place for orphaned information and ideas, like an informal archive that makes it easy for things to be discovered and integrated into new things. I guess cities are like that too. I'd like to visit Plaza Meave.