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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 4] |||
using the interface to enhance everyday life: internet urbanism, digital commons, smart spaces
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Technologies are not neutralů In truth, technologies come loaded with both intended and unintended social, political and economic leanings.William Mitchell's concern for the preservation of the public sphere illustrates his deep-seated belief that technological enhancements to the urban landscape should improve everyday life. He invokes McLuhan's global village positively, emphasising the potential for global connectivity to release people from many of the chores of work, such as the commute. There will be more time to play, and a positively enabled environment to play in. However, no attempt is made to address the extent to which such play will be mediated by the corporate entertainment industry. Mitchell's robust defence of public space may serve to fend off the mall, but in its place may rise the multiplex. Vested interests in the current digital marketplace may allow public space the luxury of existence, and pay lip service to its attendant social freedoms 16, but if they are its creators the consumption of leisure will be higher on the agenda than unmediated play. It may turn out to be little more than Main Street, Disneyland. As the spectacle has cast the town centre as consumer space and sold interactivity as consumer choice, it is likely to colonise the smart spaces of the lean, green future with the narrative of mediation. Who scripts the electronic genius loci will determine the extent and nature of freedom and play. There are a number of potential scenarios. The plaza may appear inviting, but be as tightly enclosed as Tiananmen Square. It may disapprove of, but allow, tolerated irruptions of play akin to skateboarding. Or it may realise a 'culture of negotiation and acceptance of otherness' 17 that recognises the creative value of joyous, often unstructured, assembly.
The medium, itself, seems to prefer unmodulated individual expression and priorities. Homogenised, generic, conglomerized corporate intrusions into this arena always appear antagonistic, disruptive, and annoying.At some point in the early 1970's, the military-industrial apocalyptic rescue package that prefigured the internet entered via academia into the public domain. Its early development remained in the hands of a loose conglomerate of interested parties until magazines like Wired spread the word in the early 1990's. Thus began the period of wild-eyed enthusiasm and burgeoning online society that characterised cyberspace until the recent corporate enclosure movement 18. Between its military genesis and corporate takeover, the virtual domain was defined by democratised participation and the free exchange of open source code. Its development became a loose, ongoing project, devoid of central ownership, to which any interested parties could pitch ideas. Hackers played freely across this digital commons, which Lawrence Lessig has described as an innovation commons 19. Enclosure of the commons by proprietary code threatens the innovation it engendered by replacing participation with competition. Forcibly alienated from cooperative play, proprietary code becomes spectacular representation. The smart future is under threat from this enclosure movement, as the code layer will underpin the smartening of space. The spectacle appears to be fulfilling its aim to 'remake the totality of space into its own setting' 20. Its primary agenda of economic exchange requires participation in consumption, not creation 21. The extent to which smart public space genuinely encourages freedom of expression therefore depends upon the extent to which spectacular narrative is removed from its script. Hackers at play are in danger of becoming virtual graffiti artists who occasionally gain access to deface the corporate agora. The smart city will undoubtedly have its corporate landmarks, but truly public space should be open to public participation if it is to serve the interests of the community and encourage play. Revitalisation of the digital commons is necessary. Open source code, devoid of hierarchy or the bureaucracy of imposed ownership, should underpin the development of the electronically enhanced public domain. Its claim to being an agent of free speech has recently been confirmed by a California State Appeals Court, which ruled that it is protected by the First Amendment 22. By recognising the value of free play at the code layer, spaces of social intercourse can be created that bisect spectacular narrative and therefore maintain the urban centre as a vibrant, interesting space.
The physical town centre, despite being presided over by spectacular narrative, retains many features that are porous enough to allow other narratives to coexist in its spaces. The spectacle seeks to embrace all activity within the boundaries of consumption, but the existence of public space and agencies of civic government in physical environments hinders its totalitarian intent. Coexistent activities may intersect consumer culture in participatory ways, such as meetings in cafes or events in entertainment venues, or they may bisect at unexpected angles like street theatre and outbursts of Christian evangelising. They may be welcomed, tolerated or actively discouraged, largely in relation to the perceived benefits of such activities to consumer culture. While the spectacle seeks to homogenise the urban centre in order to further the agenda of consumption, many contiguous activities celebrate its spatial diversity. Thus skateboarding bestows value on many spaces considered useless in spectacular terms because their utility cannot be commodified; temporary autonomous zones can be instantiated that impose peculiar narrative; and psychogeographical investigation can treat urban space like a pallet to tease out liminal juxtapositions of time and place. The urban centre is revealed as a palimpsest. Its surface culture of sameness and separation is everywhere intertwined with rhizomatic indicators of lived experience and celebrations of otherness. Contrary to spectacular doctrine, which berates opposition to a unitary culture of consumption, it is this very diversity that keeps the city centre healthy. Diversity is enabled by the juxtaposition of public and private space. Playful activity and community participation take place alongside mediated leisure and product consumption. The public may even show open disregard for establishment concerns in demonstrations and marches. The palimpsest keeps spectacular monoculture at bay and limits its enclosure of play.
The online parallel to the city centre is the virtual marketplace. The spaces that comprise this digital centre are defined by very different architectural considerations from those that influence spectacular occupation of physical space. While the city centre is governed by civic institutions, its online equivalent is corporately managed. Media conglomerates are arbiters of freedom and the public interest in this realm. However, the lexicon of freedom and definition of public are everywhere coloured by spectacle. Freedom to consume and interest in product information are given primacy over other considerations, such as freedom of information and community issues. These and other alternatives are removed from the commercial hub, rather than being intrinsically part of it. Having no public threshold to corporate presence, the virtual centre is characterised by the monotony of consumption. All potential alternatives are rewritten as commodities. Play becomes leisure. Information is consumed. Everything is embodied by shopfronts. The architecture is that of the mall, privately owned and policed according to the needs of its owners rather than its visitors. Individual choice and play are discouraged within its boundaries. Behaviour is stage-managed by virtual closed circuit television that collects information in order to present a tailored consumer environment should the visitor return. Where the physical body delineates personal territory, its virtual prosthesis is recast as data body inscribed with the intentionality of others.
Where urban centres have existed for thousands of years, the virtual mainstream is a very recent phenomenon. Corporate colonisation of cyberspace has been both rapid and intense, and the imposition of commodity culture sits uneasily with many of the values held dear by long term inhabitants. As the building of vast shopping malls on greenfield sites provokes antagonism, so too does its virtual counterpart. The architecture of the virtual mall, enclosed by proprietary code and intended to impose hierarchy over a decentralised, participatory structure, poses a clear threat to public interest. The fabric and continued health of cyberspace is at risk from privatisation of a digital commons that served to induce innovation.
Future development must arrest this process of private colonisation if it is to promote a vibrant, lively and inclusive virtual mainstream. It must also pursue popular participation in the embodiment of physical and virtual union implied by smart architecture. The exclusivist narrative of spectacle must be modulated by narratives of public interest, community needs and free expression. Tangential play and innovative utility of space must be allowed. The commodification of culture, and increasingly of the code that scripts the virtual domain, threatens to homogenise the future before it is realised. The internet could develop into a wonderful tool that aids the everyday life of people around the world, or it could become an agent of suppression and economic hegemony. Smart cities could liberate time for play, or they could sell it for leisure. As Guy Debord suggested 23, there is every reason to believe that the spectacle will continue to attempt to totalise its occupation of the places and spaces of human interaction. Allowing the limited discourse of consumption and commodification to dictate the future will aid its deliberate intrusion. By replacing commodity fetishism with inclusive popular development and the encouragement of play, virtual space can interact with the physical in ways that enhance everyday life.
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] 1 . 2 |||
16. Arthur Kroker & Michael A. Weinstein (1996), 'Global Algorithm 1.4: The Theory of the Virtual Class' (28/10/2001)
17. Stavros Stavrides (2001), 'Spatiotemporal Thresholds and the Experience of Otherness' (1/2/2002)
18. Andrew Leonard, 1996, 'Hot-Wired', in Arthur Kroker & Michael A. Weinstein (1996), 'Global Algorithm 1.4: The Theory of the Virtual Class' (28/10/2001)
19. Lawrence Lessig (2001), 'The Internet Under Siege', (29/11/2001)
20. Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 169
21. Jonathan Rowe (2001) 'Carpe Callosum', Adbusters, No.38, no page numbers
22. Ann Harrison(2001), 'Code as free speech' (1/12/2001)
23. Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 169