The City and the Network

"The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." - William Gibson, Neuromancer

We all believed that the network would become the city; instead, is the city becoming the network?

I guess, because of the trope of ‘moving to cities was a huge social adaptation, so the internet is no bigger deal’, we might have gorged on the (admittedly useful) comparisons between cities and the network. Our early media about the network was flooded with images of the network as city; in text with Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy, on screen in Tron, Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, and Hackers (just watch the birds eye view of cars morphing to ‘electrons’ here):


And the language we use to talk about the network also shows this creep; things like site maps, information architecture and especially the physical manifestations of the network, with server ‘farms’ and the weird and often brutally urban physicality of data hubs.

One of the works that got me into information architecture and user experience was Kevin Lynch’s ‘The Image of The City’; a chatty and approachable treatise on how we navigate our way around cities, the ways we visualise and understand our position in them and what coping strategies we’ve developed. Lynch talked about the imageability of the city; the ways in which residents and visitors can understand how the city is laid out and what the overall shape was; what he found was people defined their cities by landmarks, key routes between them and districts. Reasonably, this way of looking at navigation and systems understanding made it’s way into how we think about designing websites…while we have moved on from the gauche obviousness of the GeoCities communities, we are still tied to a metaphor of place in information; visiting websites, going back and forward, even the faux inside/outsideness of logging in and out.

But the city and the network have grown together in new and unexpected ways.

"the skating urban anarchist employs the handiwork of the government/urban corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never even dream of: sidewalks for parking,streets for driving, pipes for liquid, sewers for refuse etc., all have been reworked into a new social order" - John Smythe, SkateBoarder magazine

Iain Borden’s ‘Skateboarding and the City’ was the book that disillusioned me with Lynch; this is a great romp through the more situationist and critical theory of the city, but what grabbed me was the unashamed subjectiveness of his city dwellers. Or not so much dwellers as users, because the skateboarders he writes about are engaged viscerally with the city in a way that is not about simply getting from A to B, engaging in commuting, touristing or even the Baudelairean flaneur. This is the city as a place to play, not work. And this engagement is what we are seeing on the network; not a Snow Crash metaverse, but Borges’ garden of forking paths (there is much more to be said about Borges’ prefiguring of the ways the world would work).

And I wanted to talk about the Occupy $CITY movement here (in fact, that’s where this post started); a protest movement that is not about the event, or the movement through the city, or even the disruption per se. It is protest as part of the fabric of the city; a constant questioning and reassessment of a conversation with the fabric of the city physically, economically and politically; taking the concept of Wall St and Main St and making it suddenly concrete, forcing a conversation to take place.

No, these people don’t know what they want, but they’ve grown used to virtual spaces where that can be discovered; where a manifesto is on a wiki, and where consensus building allows populism, complexity and ambiguity to coexist. They are trying to forge these spaces in the city; simply come by the occupation, talk to some people, be Kanye West and stride silently through, be a banker who cannot help but face the perception of bankers, or be a police officer who is genuinely torn about what to do. The Occupy movement forces us to question the city in, weirdly, almost the same way that a facebook redesign manages to cause so much dissatisfaction; it throws a space we take for granted in our face and demands to know if this is what you expected.

I hope that this is the new city; not as Kevin Lynch saw it; a clustering of destinations and strategies for getting there, but as a place where everything happens in the cracks between the canonical. Where skaters, protesters, critical mass-ers, warehouse party goers and everyone else express themselves through their choices of canvas, space and activity. The city is becoming the network, and that’s a great thing.

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