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The City is a Medium
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The City Is a Medium 1
Translated by Matthew Griffin

Just as we are accustomed—when not also subjected—to absorbing energy in different forms at home, we will also find it quite easy there to receive or absorb accelerated changes and oscillations which our sensory organs pick up and integrate to form all that we know. I don’t know whether philosophers have ever dreamed of a society for the domestic distribution of sensory reality.

Paul Valéry 2

Capital. 3 The name already says it: Capitals are named after the human body. The state (since the Greeks) has been conceived of as an organism, whose head is its capital. This capital, in turn, is ruled by a chief, whose name once more means just that, the head.

Historically, the analogy can be shown to have been true. The prehistoric implosion of villages or entire countrysides and the subsequent emergence of the city was due, as Mumford illustrates, less to economic necessity than to the arms monopoly of a warlord. Plato, as lawmaker for an ideal city, proposed that its size be limited to the range of a voice, which would broadcast laws or commands.

And for centuries—from the prehistoric formation of cities, which was also the beginning of high culture or history, through the residential seats of baroque power—the military head remained architectonically visible: as fortress or acropolis, citadel or palace. Not until the first in-dustrial revolution did a growth begin, whose spread, in Mumford’s eyes, changed the face of the city and went, in the name of pure technology, beyond the ecological necessity of living together: megalopolis.

The description, however, of a digression is often itself a digression. When we cling to the clear-cut centrality of the head in thinking the concept “capital,” it may be (as in Foucault’s thesis “in political thought and analysis”) that “we still have not cut off the head of the king.” 4 The monarchs, to whom Europe owes most of its capitals, might thereby be said to have transcended architecture and achieved immortality in the head of theory itself. But if ‘man’ with his ecological necessity is only a [End Page 717] miniature of these potentates, it then becomes possible to decipher “head” and “capital” from technology rather than vice versa.

TECHNOLOGY. What strikes the eye of the passerby as a growth or entropy is technology, that is, information. Since cities no longer lie within the panopticon of the cathedral or castle and can no longer be enclosed by walls or fortifications, a network made up of intersecting networks dissects and connects the city—in particular its fringes, peripheries, and tangents. Regardless of whether these networks transmit information (telephone, radio, television) or energy (water supply, electricity, highway), they all represent forms of information. (If only because every modern energy flow requires a parallel control network.) Even in those unthinkable times when energy still needed beasts of burden like Sinbad and information required messengers like the first marathon runner, networks existed. They just hadn’t been built yet or, in technician’s jargon, implemented. The narrow, rugged mule trail was replaced by the railway and the highway, which in turn have been replaced by no less transient copper and fiber optic cables.

NETWORKS. It is common in the open spaces of the city to see the skeletal infrastructure on the backside of a building—these are networks, too.

To best reconstruct the way out of a labyrinth (as the Greeks were said to have done in reading the ruined foundations of Knossos, Phaistos, or Gournia), one doesn’t need to sketch the still visible connecting walls, rather their inverse: the invisible passages between path and door. Thus (in mathematical terminology) a “tree” takes shape, whose bifurcations distinguish the dead ends from the exits.

Or one can, like Claude Shannon, head mathematician for Bell Telephone laboratories, construct a mechanical mouse, capable of nosing its way through the labyrinth on the basis of trial and error. Whereas the mouse would be able to optimize city plans without Ariadne’s thread, Shannon himself was able to optimize an invisible something else: the telephone network in...