31 August 2011

the production of the urban

Mobile communication technologies allow individuals to be connected to their social network nearly anywhere. But place still matters. No one lives in the ether of hertzian space. More-so, our lives are still demarcated by physical, tangible boundaries: doorways, traffic on the streets, private property, urban planning decisions to run a freeway through a neighborhood. That individual can be connected to the ‘Net’, but they are still stuck in traffic on the freeway, waiting to get home. The supposed liberation that was to arrive with always-on access to the Internet through a smartphone is convenient, but still tied up in the real spaces we live in and move through daily. Smartphones do not smooth out potholes on the street, nor do they fix a leaky roof (and if a hurricane knocks out the electricity, once that battery dies, the connectivity dies as well. Assuming the mobile network didn't get cut out by the hurricane at the same time the power went out). Mobile connectivity forces society to reconceptualize our relationship to space, to include the immaterials of Net-based information providing useful information (or not), to tie to the global, digital flows of the Net-based communication systems. Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space (originally published in 1974), offers a way to re-think the concrete physicality of the urban landscape into a multitude of flows working at numerous scales from the local to the global. He reconceptualizes the urban landscape into a space that encompasses the material and immaterial movement of energy and information around which our everyday lives under network society are produced.

Here is the quote:

Consider a house, and a street, for example. The house has six storeys and an air of stability about it. One might almost see it as the epitome of immovability, with its concrete and its stark, cold and rigid outlines. (Built around 1950: no metal or plate glass yet.) Now, a critical analysis would doubtless destroy the appearance of solidity of this house, stripping it, as it were, of its concrete slabs and its thin non-load-bearing walls, which are really glorified screens, and uncovering a very different picture. In the light of this imaginary analysis, our house would emerge as permeated from every direction by streams of energy which run in and out of it by every imaginable route: water, gas, electricity, telephone lines, radio and television signals, and so on. Its image of immobility would then be replaced by an image of a complex of mobilities, a nexus of in and out conduits. By depicting this convergence of waves and currents, this new image, much more accurately than any drawing or photograph, would at the same time disclose the fact that this piece of ‘immovable property’ is actually a two-faceted machine analogous to an active body: at once a machine calling for massive energy supplies, and an information-based machine with low energy requirements. The occupants of the house perceive, receive and manipulate the energies which the house itself consumes on a massive scale (for the lift, kitchen, bathroom, etc.)

Comparable observations, of course, might be made apropos of the whole street, a network of ducts constituting a structure, having a global form, fulfilling functions, and so on. Or apropos of the city, which consumes (in both senses of the word) truly colossal quantities of energy, both physical and human, and which is in effect a constantly burning, blazing bonfire. Thus as exact a picture as possible of this space would differ considerably from the one embodied in the representational space which its inhabitants have in their minds, and which for all its inaccuracy plays an integral role in social practice. (Lefebvre 1991, 93)

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