- Digital Homelessness and L'Espace Internet
Click for larger view
View full resolution
A dispatch on the arts, technologies and cultures in the metropolitan community served by the Paris airports.
In 1960s Paris the Situationist strategy of the dérive took as its point of entry the premise that modern urban space (the architectural manifestation of enlightenment rationality) should facilitate clear lines of sight. Haussmann's Paris, with its wide boulevards and uniform buildings, is built on the principle of visibility: the city is organized according to the goal of bringing to light structure and organization in place of darkness, chaos and occlusion. Grids of visibility facilitate hygiene, and central perspective encourages surveillance. Visibility leads to clarity, where clarity is both a contributor to knowledge and an indicator of power. That which is clear is knowable and true (note that "I see" is idiomatically equivalent to "I know").
In Paris, the catalyst for this increased visibility was architecture itself, both at the macro (the placement of buildings on the grid) and micro (the form and aesthetic of the buildings themselves) levels. Low buildings and wide boulevards enable the eye to traverse the cityscape freely, but the aesthetic and commercial goals behind the construction of the buildings also exerted control over the desires and movements produced by particular (usually consumerist) forms of visual activity encouraged by Haussmann's architecture.
In an apparent contrast, the Internet creates a largely invisible architecture. But despite Internet architecture's invisibility it is necessary to realize that digital space is physical, even if its physicality manifests on an invisible register. On one level, electronic connectivity affects our behavior, communications and metaphors for describing the world and producing lived space. But moreover, early biological science recognized that electricity is a primary conduit of "life." Physical processes have frequencies, which manifest themselves in movement, sound, etc. Digital phenomena are lifelike, or at least physical, insofar as they are electrical. Each zero-one combination refers to a switch that is either "on" or "off." Digital media thus inherently enter into discourses of power, where "power" comes from an electrical switch turned to the "on" position. Power does not merely affect materiality; it is in itself fundamentally material. By extension, if cyberspace is a phenomenon based on the electrical configuration of power, it is also physical. Cyberspace cannot be imagined apart from architecture insofar as it creates webs, networks and places out of the building materials of electrical power. Each time a digital traceroute is created, it manifests a new set of electronic signals and thus engenders a new electronic landscape. The importance of digital cartography is that it actually creates a territory, or leads, instead of merely following a territory that already exists.
While Haussmann built a city that exemplified the centrality of visibility in modern culture, the Internet represents a more subtle 21st-century Hauss-mannization that adds to existing territories without demolition or enforced homelessness. This architecture is based on principles of connectivity rather than visibility, of decentralized webs that are not without their own threats of surveillance, but a surveillance based on information transmission rather than retinal vision.
In my recent state of "digital homelessness" on the European new media festival circuit, I had rapidly become accustomed to easy wi-fi access at festival sites, and was dismayed to find that at my new job at La Parc Villette in Paris, you do not get supersized wi-fi with your French work permit. Having sent an emergency message to a French hacker friend, I discovered to my disappointment that if one wants free street wi-fi, it is necessary to go to the 20th arrondissement, where there is a massive wi-fi network that is far more powerful, with a greater range, than commercial networks.
The frenzy among the digital homeless new media folks to find wi-fi is the frenzy to find a familiar architecture, a base, a hub, a place. It is often remarked by conference speakers that they are well aware that conference attendees constantly multitask during sessions, keeping up contacts, checking references, chatting, e-mailing. To me, this is less about the constant craving for distraction than about our need...