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No Maps: Social Networks and Space

March 7, 2011

Something shivered, in her field of vision. “Look. Look here.”
She turned, following his gesture, and saw a slender, dark-haired body, facedown on the sidewalk.
“Alloween night, 1993,” said Odile.
Hollis approached the body. That wasn’t there. But was. Alberto was following her with the laptop, careful of the cable. She felt as if he were holding his breath. She was holding hers.
– William Gibson, Spook Country

We’ve heard over and over again of how revolutions spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa were incited and organized through digital social networks, particularly Twitter and Facebook. We were told excitedly about how the new revolutionary will be an executive from Google.

But of late we increasingly hear more sobering/sobered assessments of what transpired in Egypt and Tunisia – acknowledgments that digital social networks were important to initiating calls to action and dissemination of information, but reminders that social movements are made by people. New York Times columnist Frank Rich warned early of our fixation on the extent to which social networks mobilized the uprisings. He cites author Evgeny Morozov’s recent book The Net Delusion, in which the author argues against a simplistic or one-sided reading of the political consequence of the internet. Morozov contends that, contrary to the often heard premise, the networks are not always democratizing. In fact, in the hands of an authoritarian power, it could even be the opposite, tools of disinformation and control.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
– Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”

The fact that social networks are not always benevolent should be obvious enough by the fact that they are run, controlled, and actually enabled by increasingly mammoth corporations who have more than their stated social missions to be accountable to.

Google, the company that epitomizes constant access and connectedness, went through its early heady growth accompanied by its famous motto Don’t Be Evil (an obvious rebuke to Microsoft). The company has since maneuvered to less loftily progressive positions on net neutrality. Facebook has never pretended to have the wellbeing of its users at heart. The furious rise of its 500 million and counting users has always been premised on the ways massive interconnectedness is tied to opportunities to mine and use personal information and preference. It’s not particularly surprising that Facebook and Goldman Sachs are now best friends. There are clear financial opportunities to such friending.

When the power for social movements are dependent on infrastructures that are – technologically, financially – not of the people, then how are we to count on them for the people? I think the answer to that question is clear: we can’t, or shouldn’t, really. Or, rather, we temper our enthusiasm for their powerful instrumentality with caution and realization that these are borrowed tools. It is a tenuous relationship. These days, the means of production is often exactly the means of communication.

As an architect, as someone who is mostly concerned with physical space, I am curious about the spatial and environmental possibilities of such pervasive networks. When we are hyper connected, always tied virtually on multiple levels through multiple distances, what does that do to the way we move through, define, and redefine “real” time and space? The relationship between actual and virtual space has been in flux and contest since the early days of radio, when wireless networks first disengaged information from time and space. What happens now, when virtual flows attain a density that often seems quite physical?

Firstly, can we see it, this virtual space? Christian Marc Schmidt and Liangjie Xia’s Invisible Cities project visualizes social networks in urban environments, using geotagging to map and illustrate densities of network activity that then create abstract information landscapes. We follow bursts of tweets and updates across a 3-D terrain, constantly in flux, while images of actual space, actual time occasionally pop up. While strangely fascinating, Schmidt and Xia’s work as yet does not imply or produce spatial or environmental impact.

Christian Marc Schmidt & Liangjie Xia, Invisible Cities

William Gibson, in his book Spook Country, envisions how geolocative art – virtual creations that are tied to place and time – can reformat experience of urban space in particularly vivid ways. A famous scene from the book depicts a geolocative artist creating a virtual 3-dimensional River Phoenix, face down and dead on a Los Angeles sidewalk. Gibsons suggests that interconnectedness – pervasive GPS coordinates, wireless access, virtual imaging – can significantly shift and alter experiences of public space for networked users.

William Gibson reads from Spook Country to virtual Second Life audience. Image by gnwcampus on Flickr

On a global level I’m also interested in the ways that a massive dissemination of information – of tools and strategies, clearly important to social movements like the aforementioned political uprisings – can engage actively with issues of urban form and ecologies. How can new networks of digital communications reformat understanding of urban space? How can a broader understanding of local systems, materials, and energy flows – helped by communications networks – actually empower local movements and reinforce the power of people and place? What are spatial, physical, architectural, planning or non-planning parallels to pervasive social networks?

Initial efforts seem promising, if still quite passive. Three examples of global networked architectural projects were on display at the recent exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. These – The 1% by Public Architecture, urbaninform by Rainer Hehl and Jörg Stollman, and the Open Architecture Network by Architecture for Humanity – envisioned ways to mobilize public engagement, foster the creation of design communities and sharing of strategies. They offered glimpses into the intersection of social and environmental activism and global communications technologies.

Within the decade, more people will access the internet through their mobile devices than on their computers. Globally, mobile phone use, wireless internet access, and handheld devices like the iPad are already changing the ways businesses and services are understood and implemented in ways that were unthinkable just a decade before. The tools are in their infancy. Even if we can’t rely on the benign nature of digital social networks, we can clearly foresee the widespread change they bring. For those of us who are working towards social and environmental sustainability, who understand and respect the power of social movements to transform our built and natural environments: how do we envision this change?

Something shivered, in her field of vision. “Look. Look here.”

She turned, following his gesture, and saw a slender, dark-haired body, facedown on the sidewalk.

“Alloween night, 1993,” said Odile.

Hollis approached the body. That wasn’t there. But was. Alberto was following her with the laptop, careful of the cable. She felt as if he were holding his breath. She was holding hers.

– William Gibson, Spook Country

We’ve heard over and over again of how revolutions spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa were incited and organized through digital social networks, particularly Twitter and Facebook. We were told excitedly about how the new revolutionary will be an executive from Google.

But of late we increasingly hear more sobering/sobered assessments of what transpired in Egypt and Tunisia – acknowledgements that digital social networks were important to initiating calls to action and dissemination of information, but reminders that social movements are made by people. New York Times columnist Frank Rich warned early of our fixation on the extent to which social networks mobilized the uprisings. He cites author Evgeny Morozov’s recent book The Net Delusion, in which the author argues against a simplistic or one-sided reading of the political consequence of the internet. Morozov contends that, contrary to the often heard premise, the networks are not always democratizing. In fact, in the hands of an authoritarian power, it could even be the opposite, tools of disinformation and control.

The fact that social networks are not always benevolent should be obvious enough by the fact that they are run, controlled, and actually enabled by increasingly mammoth corporations who have more than their stated social missions to be accountable to.

Google, the company that epitomizes constant access and connectedness, went through its early heady growth accompanied by its famous motto Don’t Be Evil (an obvious rebuke to Microsoft). The company has since maneuvered to less progressive positions on net neutrality. Facebook has never pretended to have the wellbeing of its users at heart. The furious rise of its 500 million and counting users has always been premised on the ways massive interconnectedness is tied to opportunities to mine and use personal information and preference. It’s not particularly surprising that Facebook and Goldman Sachs are now best friends. There are clear financial opportunities to such friending.

When the power for social movements are dependent on infrastructures that are – technologically, financially – not of the people, then how are we to count on them for the people? I think the answer to that question is clear: we can’t, or shouldn’t, really. Or, rather, we temper our enthusiasm for their powerful instrumentality with caution and realization that these are borrowed tools. It is a tenuous relationship. These days, the means of production is often exactly the means of communication.

As an architect, as someone who is mostly concerned with physical space, I am curious about the spatial and environmental possibilities of such pervasive networks. When we are hyper connected, always tied virtually on multiple levels through multiple distances, what does that do to the way we move through, define, and redefine “real” time and space? The relationship between actual and virtual space has been in flux and contest since the early days of radio, when wireless networks first disengaged information from time and space. What happens now, when virtual flows attain a density that often seems quite physical?

Firstly, can we see it, this virtual space? Christian Marc Schmidt and Liangjie Xia’s Invisible Cities project visualizes social networks in urban environments, using geotagging to map and illustrate densities of network activity that then create abstract information landscapes. We follow bursts of tweets and updates across a 3-D terrain, constantly in flux, while images of actual space, actual time occasionally pop up. While strangely fascinating, Schmidt and Xia’s work as yet does not imply or produce spatial or environmental impact.

William Gibson, in his book Spook Country, envisions how geolocative art – virtual creations that are tied to place and time – can reformat experience of urban space in particularly vivid ways. A famous scene from the book depicts a geolocative artist creating a virtual 3-dimensional River Phoenix, face down and dead on a Los Angeles sidewalk. Gibsons suggests that interconnectedness – pervasive GPS coordinates, wireless access, virtual imaging – can significantly shift and alter experiences of public space for networked users.

On a global level I’m also interested in how a massive dissemination of information – of tools and strategies, clearly important to social movements like the aforementioned political uprisings – can engage actively with issues of urban form and ecologies. How can new networks of digital communications reformat understanding of urban space? How can a broader understanding of local systems, materials, and energy flows – helped by communications networks – actually empower local movements and reinforce the power of people and place? What are spatial, physical, architectural, planning or non-planning parallels to pervasive social networks?

Initial efforts seem promising, if still quite passive. Three examples of global networked architectural projects were on display at the recent exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. These – The 1% by Public Architecture, urbaninform by Rainer Hehl and Jörg Stollman, and the Open Architecture Network by Architecture for Humanity – envisioned ways to mobilize public engagement, foster the creation of design communities and sharing of strategies. They offered glimpses into the intersection of social and environmental activism and global communications technologies.

Within the decade, more people will access the internet through their mobile devices than on their computers. Globally, mobile phone use, wireless internet access, and handheld devices like the Ipad are already changing the ways businesses and services are understood and implemented. The tools are in their infancy. Even if we can’t rely on the benign nature of digital social networks, we can clearly foresee the widespread change in the ways we understand our built and natural environments.

How can we harness such power, as long as we have it?

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