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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 4] |||
Graeme Murrell

using the interface to enhance everyday life: internet urbanism, digital commons, smart spaces
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] 1 . 2 |||
Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer bounded by external societies. This unification is at the same time an intensive and extensive process of banalization.
Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 165
The rampant privatisation of virtual space that has characterised the e-commerce revolution appears to fulfil Guy Debord's statement relating means of production to spatial occupation. Whilst a multiplicity of entities still occupies digital territory, at its core is mainstream space that has flattened out creativity in the service of spectacle. A handful of media conglomerates dominate this space, which is the public face of the Internet. Banal, boring and predictable, the transactional interfaces of the virtual marketplace follow the same principles of audience familiarisation, spatial and cultural homogenisation, practised by multinational corporations worldwide. The superimposition of spectacular narrative over democratic, participatory hacker values, threatens to ossify the web as virtual representation of its physical counterpart. The Internet as a social entity is at risk. Lawrence Lessig states explicitly that, 'It is the enclosure of this commons that will bring about the Internet's demise' 1. The removal of play into representation, and the stigmatisation of hackers, will be largely to blame if this does indeed happen. As Pekka Himanen relates in his study of hacker ethics, working with and sharing of code is seen as joyous play. Himanen quotes hacker Eric Raymond expounding the mantra, 'You need to care. You need to play. You need to be willing to explore" 2.
Let us go on a pilgrimage to a city that is all about ~existence and sustenance~ the city of Banaras. Not only has the city survived over the last 5,000 years, but it has thrived and is still very much alive. During those five millennia, the city has sustained its essence, character, mythological power and existential agenda.
Mahesh Senagala (1999), 'Circuits, Death and Sacred Fiction: The City of Banaras'
At the Evolution conference in Leeds, Tom Loosemore presented a concept of virtual urban design that could act as a counter to the shopping mall model 3. Loosemore's 'internet urbanism' took as its starting point the elements of urban planning and architectural design that render certain parts of cities both familiar and aesthetically pleasing. Contrary to the mall, which is neither architecturally distinguished or socially embedded prior to the spectacular culture of consumption, traditionally identifiable landmarks are suggested to define what Axel Bruns has termed the cyberspatial cityscape 4. Mapping elements that constitute viable, and venerable, loci from physical to online urban centres is not just intended to breed familiarity. Renowned landmarks also impart civic pride, and may include both public and private territory. Virtual plazas can nestle between virtual skyscrapers or form a public entrance to the online town hall. Something of the essence and character ascribed to Banaras by Mahesh Senagala 5 can be attempted. The web presence of those who inhabit virtual mainstream space can be imparted by metaphorically interesting architecture that seeks to add character and life to the urban landscape. This does not have to be done literally, by creation of three-dimensional cityscapes, but should rather inform website design at the conceptual level. The historical baggage of place, informed by centuries of successful urban design, should be used to infer the utility of virtual spaces. Mainstream cyberspace could be analogous to the rich variety of streets, boulevards, plazas, markets, cafes, shops, monuments, parks and other diverse places that intertwine public and private activity, work and play. Genuine debate and open participatory interaction could inform the virtual polis, in place of spectacular representation, brokered information and commodity fetishism. The anarchic nature of the net could be celebrated as an urban playground, rather than enclosed like a mall. The groundwork for Ivan Shcheglov's 6 experimental city has already been laid amongst the 'unexpected shortcuts and hidden passages, as well as roadblocks and detours' 7 encountered by the more adventurous online traveller. Rather than push them to the fringes in favour of corporate real estate, their contribution to a richly textured internet urbanism should be welcomed. The alleyways and curiosities of cyberspace, as well as its magnificent landmarks, form the basis for psychogeographical play and the digital derive.
It is easy to agree with [Marshall] McLuhan that high tech vastly extends our senses. But his suggestion that this development liquidates spatial boundaries - and thus belongs to humanity, not just to the world's elites - is far more controversial.
Songok Han Thornton (2002), 'Let Them Eat IT: The Myth of the Global Village as an Interactive Utopia'
One of the most commonly applied indicators of inclusive interaction and social responsibility of the virtual domain is the widespread participation in virtual communities. Much of the enthusiasm for such organisations stems from the renewed attention paid to Marshall McLuhan's writings about the global village 8 in the light of the Internet and World Wide Web. This enthusiasm has been muted by the corporate buyout of online space, which has created a more heavily policed and litigious environment, and the realisation that the disappearance of human communication into virtuality impacts negatively on physical community relations. Songok Han Thornton warns that, 'cyberhoods and virtual communities spell the death of real communities' 9. Time spent online impacts on time spent in physical community activity, replacing the variety of social interactions experienced in urban spaces with an electronic comfort blanket of common interests.

A distinction must be made between online communities and virtual communities. The latter, usually held together by common interest alone, are largely removed from collective relationships to a physical environment. The participant is further alienated from lived experience by being no place at once 10. The virtual community has become another commodity that serves to 'destroy the autonomy and quality of places' 11. It inadvertently fulfils spectacular intent to homogenise. Much of the wide-eyed enthusiasm for these bodiless communities comes from media conglomerates, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, who provide the software to enable such interaction. They can police the environment, collect data and push products, information and values through the interface. They can ensure that the narrative of their spaces is not punctured by unexpected play that intersects the narrow spectrum of permitted activity. The complexity of community is simplified by partitioning into manageable common interest blocks that never have to metaphorically pass on the street.

Conversely, many online communities serve to bolster the physical activities of participants. Ranging from glorified newsletters given digital presence, through bulletin boards to virtual forums, such communities begin at a rudimentary level to connect real and virtual locations. They can be considered as low-tech smart spaces, the precursor to intelligent architecture of the sort foreseen by Roy Ascott:
With the advent of smart materials and self-regulating systems promising the emergence of an intelligent architecture, urban design is becoming cyburban design, and it is there in the cyburbs that we shall need to be able to wormhole effortlessly between real and virtual locations, meeting with real bodies and telepresences in the same continuum.
Roy Ascott (1996), 'Cyberception and the Paranatural Mind: an artist's perception'
What Ascott terms 'cyburban design' is inclusive of private and public space. The virtual domain becomes an electronic shadow of physical space, both improving the utility of that space and communications between it and others. Ascott shares with visionary architect William J. Mitchell a techno-utopian outlook that virtual technologies must relate to physical spaces in ways that enhance everyday life. Mitchell relates the smartening of spaces to electronic rendering of genius loci 12. The smart city gives digital presence to the same essence and existential agenda that Mahesh Senagala superimposes over Banaras 13. It might also be interpreted as virtual psychogeographical footprint. Mitchell foresees such interconnection of digital and physical spaces creating vibrant micro-neighbourhoods, in what he terms 'lean and green' cities 14. These smart cities will be polycentric, interconnected and will interact with existing urban patterns rather than destroy them. Smartening the city with appropriate digitising of services will gradually devolve the urban centre into many small centres, pedestrianised and teeming with life. They will be responsive to individual and community needs rather than antagonistic to them. Public space, incorporating freedom of association and expression, is essential to the continued vibrancy of the smart urban future 15.
Continued

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] 1 . 2 |||
References

1. Lawrence Lessig (2001), 'The Internet Under Siege', (29/11/2001)

2. Eric Raymond (2000), 'The Art of Unix Programming', in Pekka Himanen (2001), The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Random House, p. 6

3. Tom Loosemore, 2001, talk entitled 'Internet Urbanism' at conference Evolution: Scale - Screens, Audiences and Spaces, Leeds (12/10/2001)

4. Axel Bruns (1998), 'The n-Dimensional Village: Coming to Terms with Cyberspatial Topography' (6/1/2002)

5. Mahesh Senagala (1999), 'Circuits, Death and Sacred Fiction: The City of Banaras' (7/1/02)

6. Ivan Shcheglov (1953), Formulary for a New Urbanism, London Psychogeographical Association

7. Axel Bruns (1998), 'The n-Dimensional Village: Coming to Terms with Cyberspatial Topography' (6/1/2002)

8. Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore (1968), War and Peace in the Global Village, Hardwired

9. Songok Han Thornton (2002), 'Let Them Eat IT: The Myth of the Global Village as an Interactive Utopia (16/1/2002)

10. Richard Sclove (2001), 'Reclaiming Choice' (12/11/2001)

11. Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 165

12. William J. Mitchell (2000), e-topia, MIT Press, p. 50

13. Mahesh Senagala (1999), 'Circuits, Death and Sacred Fiction: The City of Banaras' (7/1/02)

14. William J. Mitchell (2000), e-topia, MIT Press, p. 146

15. William J. Mitchell (2000), e-topia, MIT Press, p. 97
Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art
 
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