Space of Flows
Space of Places
Today, media networks are influencing and interacting with ‘real’ places. The emerging space of digital information-communication networks is modifying not only our physical environment but the social, economic, and cultural organization of our societies in general. Information-communication technology (ICT) is radically changing the way we live, interact and perceive our world.
Politics, economics, warfare, culture are increasingly taking place in the spaces of information-communication, of media networks. Manuel Castells describes in his book The Rise of the Network Society the immense impact ICT developments will have on our society. According to Castells the ‘space of flows,’ these spaces of information-communication, media networks transform and shape the ‘space of places,’ our physical environments. Castells – having a background in urban sociology – juxtaposes these space of flows of information and communication, of services and capital, against the space of places, the local urban space.1
Interesting as it is to consider urban/architectural space and the space of information-communications networks as competing, even mutually exclusive frameworks of social interaction, it will be more fruitful to recognize the emerging interweaving of physical space and informational space and the fusions of analog space and digital networks. The term ‘hybrid space’ stands for this combination and fusion of media and physical space. Hybrid space is the product of alliances between physical objects and information-communication networks, between architectural and media space.
More interesting than the juxtaposition and polarization, than the distinction in media networks and urban places, is the interplay of media and urban space. The concept of hybrid space sees the physical environment in the context of and in correlation with the networks which it belongs to and interacts with. This distinguishes the hybrid space approach from the methodology which urban sociologist Castells introduced with his notion of the space of flows.
We can find fusions of analog and digital space, the so-called ‘hybrid’ networked spaces all around us. Such different environments as the trading floor of the stock exchange or the (dance) club with its disc-jockeys and video-jockeys are both hybrid spaces.
Examples of hybrid space can be found everywhere in our daily lives. With mobile telephony in urban open spaces, private and public space intermingles. Mobile devices with, for example, Augmented Reality applications superimpose media information layers on our physical environments. In monitored environments cameras keep watch over open urban areas. We are increasingly dealing today with these fuzzy mixes of the analog and the digital, as for instance with miniaturized digital communication devices integrated in wearables such as watches or safety coats.
More examples can be found in our private environments, as our homes become ‘smart’ and our cars become networked spaces with, among other things, GPS navigation. ‘Intelligent’ home devices such as refrigerators networked via your personal portable information-communication system will in the near future tell you that you don’t have any milk left and, if you don’t want to teleshop, your car will guide you to the next shop where you can buy milk. Networked wallpaper, carpets and doors, as integral elements of the system of the ‘smart’ house, will recognize the inhabitants of the house and process the patterns of their habits. ‘Intelligent,’ networked materials and objects will be everywhere.
Physical space and objects should not be looked at in isolation. Instead, they should be considered in the context of and in relation to the networked systems to which they belong. We therefore focus on the hybrid ambivalent spaces, both analogue and digital, virtual and material, local and global, tactile and abstract, in which we live and interact.
But there is more. The hybrid space approach also focuses on methodologies to clarify and develop the fusion of media space and physical space in an integrative way. Considering these combined media and physical spaces in their layering and stratifications, in their changing densities and discontinuities, leads to a spatial concept with a high level of hybridity – reflecting a cultural shift away from a mindset based on clear-cut categories toward a flexible approach based on intermixtures, on interconnections and networks.
‘Hybrid’ is an ancient Greek word. In the times of the Aristotelian categories, the notion of the hybrid, the crossbreed, had a negative connotation. Today the notion of the hybrid is everywhere. Hybridization is becoming an increasingly important issue in the cultural field. Look at the attention paid to world literature; think of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature. The new production and communication tool of the networked computer provides a common working instrument for a broad range of creative professions, paving the way for a series of hybrid professional fields. Today, you have hybrid businesses, hybrid securities, hybrid cars, hybrid plastics, hybrid plants, hybrid pigs . . .
The clear-cut antinomy and the excluding logics of Castells’ space of flows versus space of places does not correspond to the crossbreed character of the hybrid space all around us – in all its variations of combined physical space and media networks. While Castells’ space of flows would be placeless – thus continuous – the hybrid space approach considers our environment in its fluctuating connectivity to a multiplicity of media networks, in its changing densities of layered communication spaces.
The contemporary hybrid urban realities require a more differentiated approach that considers their changes in densities and stratifications. In this context traditional spatial categories, such as private space versus public space are dissolving. Today one can observe an ‘inversion of privacy’ as public and private environments become intermingled in the fusion of media and ‘real’ space. We see this in the hybrid spaces of the publicly broadcast (inverted) privacies of reality TV or the ‘Big Brothers’ and in the explosion of social media, in the media presence of war intruding into our living rooms and in the islands of private (communication) space of mobile telephony within public urban space.
In his phenomenological analysis of lived space, La poétique de l’espace (1958), the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard develops a ‘dialectics of inside and outside,’ contrasting the intimate felicitous space, the comforting private enclosure, with the space of the ‘outside.’ According to Bachelard, ‘[the house] is an instrument with which to confront the cosmos.’2 Architecture provides, in a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surrounding space, such structures for organizing our experiences and fantasies, helping us construct (us in) our world.
The notion of a ‘privy chamber,’ emerging in English literature of the seventeenth century, describes not only the new private physical spaces but also the introduction of the corridor layout; which in the English interiors of the seventeenth century enabled the development of the ‘private quarters.’ ‘Privy chamber’ is used also metaphorically for the ‘soul.’ ‘Privy chamber’ is the container of (private) identity. Within the traditional – bourgeois – concept of privacy, identity is based on private individuality. As John Lucaks writes ‘Domesticity, privacy, comfort, the concept of the home and of the family . . . are, literally, principal achievements of the Bourgeois Age.’3
The changes concerning privacy described above are influencing the way we form our identity today. The formally exclusive and contrasting concepts of ‘inside versus outside,’ of private versus public space, are intermingling and blurring. This will have implications on the constructions of subjectivity and on the concepts of identity.
In the last year of the twentieth century, ‘Big Brother’ (with its networked container), the notorious ‘reality-soap’ was first launched in Holland and was cloned and copied all over the planet. What in the meantime, with Reality TVs proliferation, is an everyday reality, was then new. ‘Big Brother’ shocked; and was discussed all over the media, from the popular talk shows to the scholarly journals (‘Is this the End of Our Civilization?’).
What shocked in ‘Big Brother’ was the broadcasting (the inverting) of privacy. What shocked was that the participants of the soap defined their identity not in the ‘privy chamber’ but in the public networked character of the broadcasting-container. The ENDEMOL soap was an interactive environment (the television public had democratic rights, influencing developments). The captives in the container/networks witnessed their existence in the ‘Real Virtuality’4 of the media presence. They witnessed their identity within the ‘idensities’ of the (communication) channels.
In the same year, 1999, a big campaign was launched in Holland: on most billboards in major or minor cities, men and women, youngsters and the elderly – the average Dutch person – were declaring ‘ik ben Ben.’ This was not the mass expression of an identity crisis, but an advertising campaign for the introduction of the new GSM company called ‘Ben,’ targeting the public at large. The advertising slogan was based on a simple play on words, ben meaning in Dutch ‘I am’ and ‘Ben’ being a common male name as well as the name of the mobile phone company.
But what makes this slogan such an interesting expression of our times is its definition of identity (I am: Ik ben) as connectivity (‘Ben’ being the network provider). The identity of the urbanite being defined as the density of the (superimposed media/‘real’) communication spaces.
In February 2000 it was announced: ‘Ik Ben een jaar.’
This advertising slogan expresses in a very direct way nothing other than a new view of subjectivity and identity of our ‘social networking’ times. Villém Flusser (1920-1991), the philosopher of communication, would write:
The new image of man looks roughly like this: we have to imagine a network of interhuman relations, a ‘field of intersubjective relations’. The strands of this web must be conceived as channels through which information (ideas, feelings, intentions and knowledge, etc.) flows. These strands get temporarily knotted and form what we call ‘human subjects’. The totality of the threads constitutes the concrete sphere of life and the knots are abstract extrapolations. . . . The density of the webs of interhuman relations differs from place to place within the network. The greater the density, the more ‘concrete’ the relations. These dense points form wave troughs in the field . . . The wave troughs exert an ‘attractive’ force on the surrounding field (pulling it into their gravitational field) so that more and more interhuman relations are drawn in from the periphery. . . . These wave troughs shall be called ‘cities’.5
Such a communication model for understanding and developing space implies a ‘topological thinking,’ a thinking in (spatial) relations and not in geometries. In the words of Vilém Flusser:
In order to understand such a city at all, one must give up the geographical in favour of topological conceptual categories, an undertaking which is not to be underestimated. One should not think of the city as a geographically determined object (like a hill near a river, for example), but as a bend, twist or a curvature in the intersubjective field of relations.6
According to Flusser, this ‘topological thinking,’ thinking in (spatial) relations and not in geometries, implies that ‘the architect no longer designs objects, but relationships. . . . Instead of thinking geometrically, the architect must design networks of equations.’7
This networked hybrid cityscape is part of our contemporary urban condition. In Flusser’s (ontological) vision, the new city would be:
A place in which ‘we’ reciprocally identify ourselves as ‘I’ and ‘you,’ a place in which ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ define each other. That is not only a question of distribution, but also of circuitry. Such a city presupposes an optimal distribution of interpersonal relationships in which ‘others’ become fellow human beings, ‘neighbours’. It also presupposes multi-directional traffic in the cable of interpersonal relationships, not in one-way bundles as in the case of television transmissions, but responsive as in the telephone network. These are technical questions, which have to be resolved by urbanists and architects.8
Flusser describes the city in terms of this communicative model: ‘Geographically, the city will therefore take in the entire globe, but topologically, it will remain, for the time being, a barely noticeable curvature in the wider field of human relations. The majority of interpersonal relationships will lie outside it (in contemporary civilisations).’9 Hence, the plexus of interpersonal relationships lies in other communication systems outside the urban setting, such as the media networks. The physical cityscape is therefore only a particular instance of communication space. It has to be developed by an integrative approach, which addresses both urban and media spaces of social interaction.
Placing the issue in a general model of communication as Flusser does, allows the urban discourse to be shifted from the morphological level of a formal (‘geographical’) description of the fragmented cityscape to a ‘topological’ understanding of the relations and networks that pervade it. Here the term ‘urban’ describes an overlapping and heterodyning of communication spaces and networks, a heterodyning of interpersonal relationships and dialogue.
In architecture’s role of defining and materializing the spaces for social interaction, designing the relationship between the physical and digital public domain is becoming more and more of a challenge: investigating the relation and interconnection of the ‘soft’ city with its finite material counterpart, the living environment, speculating about interfaces between the ‘virtual’ and the material (urban) world and designing hybrid (analog-digital) communicational spaces.
Soft Urbanism is a new interdisciplinary field of design and planning, researching the transformations of architectural-urban space of the emerging ‘information-communication age,’ exploring the dynamic interaction of urbanism and the space of mass media and communication networks.
Soft Urbanism’s interventions follow a ‘network logic.’ Soft Urbanism is not about determining places and fixed physical objects (as with traditional urbanism), but about creating frameworks for processes of self-organization. Soft Urbanism not only intervenes in the realm of infrastructure, it adopts its concept and follows its paradigm.
‘Soft’ strategies are ‘bottom-up’ strategies: rather than defining first the global result of the interaction and then determining the necessary relation between the elements in order to produce that interaction (which would be a top-down approach), simple rules for a set of independent elements are developed and what emerges from the interaction of these elements is aleatory. According to biological models, these fields of interaction of plural forces serve as a reservoir for the selection processes needed for the urban social transformations. Soft Urbanism brings an inherently flexible approach by expanding the possibilities of social interaction and opening new paths of urban development.
Within these new hybrid (‘real’ and media) landscapes, these interconnected networks, traditional categories for analyzing space are becoming obsolete. The new field combining urbanism, architecture, and design with information-communication networks and media spaces that is emerging requires new tools and new research categories in order to develop the new hybrid network urbanities.
Today, not only the polarity between private and public space is disintegrating. In the contradictory dynamics of today’s urban environment with its antithetical tendencies of concentration and decentralization, of functional mix and segregation, traditional terms of spatial distinction lose their validity. In this fragmented urban landscape, categories like ‘center’ versus ‘periphery,’ ‘landscape’ versus ‘city,’ and ‘functional zoning’ (such as living, working, and recreation), are becoming obsolete.
To help us understand this fusion, this superimposition and the interaction of media and ‘real’ urban spaces, we introduced in 1999 – within the framework of our survey ‘The Use of Space in the Information/Communication Age – Processing the Unplannable’ of the think-tank of the Dutch government Infodrome10 – a new term: ‘idensity.’ Idensity does not differentiate between information-communication networks and urban/architectural environments. It thereby offers an integrated model for dealing with hybrid space in the information-communication age.
It is a composite term, combining the word ‘density’ – of real (urban) and ‘virtual’ (media) communication spaces (density of connections) – and the word ‘identity.’ Idensity integrates the concept of ‘density’ (density of connections, density of physical and digital infrastructure, density of communication-spaces, etcetera) with the concept of ‘identity’ (image policies, urban brands, and so forth). Idensity addresses therefore the logics of today’s expanding economy of attention.
It can, for example, help in understanding the processes of spatial segregation and distinction between urban fragments that have qualities of ‘global’ performance and that can be seen as part of a ‘global urban condition,’ such as airports or front office locations, and those other, sometimes neighboring (parts of) cities that lose in relevance and disappear from (global) mental maps. It can therefore be implemented as an operative tool to steer the processes of urban development.
But it is not a mere summation of the concepts of ‘density’ and ‘identity.’ It is instead a fusion, as it inverts ‘identity,’ linking it to communication, ‘identity’ being defined by connectivity.
Therefore, it does not just address the ‘clear-cut identity, the particularity, the individuality of the traditional places or sites’ but also the layered idensities of the non-lieux (non-places)11 of today’s generic cities, which are to be found especially in the realms of mobility and consumption (airports, hotels, shopping malls, motorway rest areas, and so forth). It does not refer only to object-qualities but describes a field of superimposed (communication) spaces: the branded space of the chain store, the symbolic space of the traditional building the shop is located in, the media space of mobile augmented reality applications integrating teleshopping . . .
This new term is implemented to describe and analyze the communication spaces of the coming ‘network society,’ a society not so much based on the traditional, relatively static structures of belonging in the family, the corporation or the state, but on flexible, dynamic, ever-changing networks of exchange and communication. It carries therefore the discussion on the urban from the morphological level of a formal description of the network patterns of the ‘network city’ to a more integrated structural understanding of the networks of spaces for social communication.
The term idensity is a conceptual tool for researching and developing (social) space in the information-communication age.
The web and the emerging mobile Internet have been powerful forces of change in the last decades. They have radically changed the way we live and interact. This hybridization of the urban will be accelerated in the coming years with the emergence of mobile technologies that can sense and react to what is happening in the surrounding physical space. Mobile Augmented Reality as an example, which is now beginning to enter the mass market, will be a dramatic step in this evolution. With it the physical world itself is becoming the interface, as media layers of information are projected over the physical environment. Augmented Reality technology allows mobile phones to capture images of objects from the physical environment and superimpose them with metadata. Augmented Reality is just one layer, a technique, for creating a hybrid net that integrates digital networks into physical objects, into the environment and its organisms.
Commercial applications for Augmented Reality (Layar, Wikitube) are already supported by mobile devices such as i-Phones and Android phones. For the most part, these technological developments are commercially driven. Google™ – who lately announced a turn in its business strategy towards mobile media (see the ‘Mobile first!’ statement of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt in February 2010) – has been mapping cities to create an infrastructure for posting advertisements with the help of Augmented Reality applications.
Supported by mobile Augmented Reality technologies a series of media information and communication layers are superimposed over physical space. This will enhance spatial complexity and transform the concepts that frame our perception and construct our world. The need for an increasingly higher level of understanding of and interacting with complex dynamic systems will have impact on our mental skills.
A whole new set of navigational techniques and tools will be needed to steer us through this stratified complex hybrid space. Semi-intelligent systems will filter and select information from the exploding information multiplicity. Personalized, customized software agents will interactively form our selective spatial perception and guide us through the complexities of the hybrid city.
In our age of information overload, human attention is a scarce commodity. The intelligent agents that guide our interest and focus our concentration are decisive forces in the so-called ‘economy of attention.’ By what logic do these intelligent agents operate?
The hierarchies and choices defined by Google™ search-machine algorithms are heavily influenced by the commercial logics of Internet marketing. Another intelligent agent function of Google™ identifies groups of people connected to their consumption preferences and patterns in order to post personalized advertisements. A next well known example, Amazon, uses software agents that make book suggestions based on our previous purchases, sparing us the creative experience of unexpected discovery.
Today most of us are willing to pass on private information and relinquish control just for the sake of a convenient application. This makes the (economically very attractive) marketing service of long-term data mining possible. These data-mining tools track our physical and emotional movements, our wishes and desires – to use the gained information for developing economically relevant transaction activities.
This tracking and tracing of our Internet searches and real-time movements – of the media and physical links and connections we make – has a different character to real-time monitoring for real-time threats, such as terror. Nevertheless, our search profile, that enable software agents to guide us through information complexity, can with a small step – by linking, for example, our Internet-ID to passport information – turn into a tag that labels us and our activities (within space).
The conditioning traditionally given by parents, implanting their children with their norms, wishes, and visions, continued by teachers and other socialization agencies, has long been supplemented by media environments. Software agents extend this task with so-called ‘indirect management.’ The information landscapes are not just passive environments to be explored by active users. Information spaces are formative environments. Within human computer interaction not only the users manipulate data – the software agents manipulate the users as well.
1 Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers,1996), 376-428.
2 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 46.
3 John Lucaks, ‘The Bourgeois Interior,’ American Scholar, 4 (Autumn 1970): 620-1.
4 Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 327-75.
5 Vilém Flusser, ‘Die Stadt als Wellental in der Bilderflut,’ in: Vilém Flusser, Nachgeschichten. Essays, Vorträge, Glossen, ed. Volker Rapsch (Düsseldorf: Bollmann Verlag, 1990); English translation ‘The City as a Wave-trough in the Flood of Images,’ ARCH+ 111 (March 1992), 84.
6 Vilém Flusser, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung (Frankfurt a/Main: Fischer Verlag, 1998), 53; first published in Mannheim: Bollmann Verlag, 1994.
7 Vilém Flusser, ‘Entwurf von Relationen’ (interview), ARCH+ 111 (March 1992): 49.
8 Flusser, ‘The City as a Wave-trough in the Flood of Images,’ 84.
9 Flusser, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung, 57.
10 Our survey was published online on the websites of Infodrome (2000), of ‘DISP-Plus’ of ETH Zürich (2001), of the Center for Urban Research of New York University (2001), of the Technical University of Athens/Greece (2002), of the Global Development Research Centre/‘GDRC’ (2003), of the magazine Space and Culture: International Journal of Social Spaces (Ottawa, 2004), of the ‘Sociology/Social Science discussion forum – University of Abertay Dundee’ (UK, 2004), of planum – the european journal of planning (2004). Our survey was also published in Dutch as ‘Ruimtegebruik in het informatie-communicatietijdperk. Verwerking van het onplanbare’ on the website of Infodrome (2000), in the book De burger als spin in het web. Essays over het verdwijnen van plaats en afstand in de informatiesamenleving, ed. Rick van der Ploeg (former Dutch State Secretary of Culture) (The Hague, 2001), and in a summary form in the book Controle nemen of geven – een politieke agenda voor de informatiesamenleving, ed. Rick van der Ploeg (The Hague, 2001).
11 Marc Augé, Non-Lieux (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992).