A few weeks ago, while trying to go to sleep, I started to think about imagined cities and technology. How fictional cityscapes of the future relate to the social communication patterns at present. Three particular pop cultural works were informing these thoughts, two films I’d just seen, Tron and The Social Network and a comic book/cartoon show I’d been reading/watching, Marvel hero the Silver Surfer. What these quite separate works initiated in me was a reflection on the image of the electronic city as a communicative milieu and how that differs from the modern realities of electronic communication.
I am trying to understand what spatial relationship best illustrates current social networking and electronic media communication. How these media reflect cities and how, one day, cities must reflect that communication.
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Recently I saw the 1982 Disney film Tron and I found it interesting that the inside of the computer was shown to be a whole world, where programs are represented by people, moving about the environment. There are even cities, large modern type towers, with beams of light as transportation infrastructure. The idea that a computer network would function conceptually like a city is interesting to me. Especially since the imagery of the city is a sort of modernist futurism that is quite familiar in many Sci Fi works.
The last scene of Tron foreshadows the coming electronic age. In a long, time-lapse, shot of the city at night, autos re-create the strong linear lights seen earlier in the computer. The image than fades out into the end credits. Similar imagery can be seen in the above video of the original trailer at 2:10.
The idea of man being drawn into computers, while fantastic and stylized at the time, there is an honest tone, this is coming. The linkages are much more obvious for us looking back at the film from our electronic world.
Where the film is less predictive is how that relationship would manifest itself. Electronic habitation, homes for computer programs, is a spatial relationship with the same social construct as a human landscape; the urban spatial relationship.
In the 90’s the computing community started to create and communicate over the internet. The language around the internet, however, was not described as a human landscape or city like in Tron: In the physical city I could be “off to the market” or “going downtown this afternoon.” But one was not “off to the internet” or “going to the web” Instead, people surfed the internet, the web or cyber-space. They did so using Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. The internet was a new ‘net-scape’ which was travelled rather than inhabited.
In the way people ‘travel’ cyberspace, web-surfing the internet was positioned as a journey in a way that reminds me of the Marvel Comics character the Silver Surfer. The Surfer leaves his home to journey the universe in order to conquer his insatiable curiosity. In time, what he wants most is to return to his home planet and this desire alludes him in various ways.
The Silver Surfer is a representation of the lone voyager, alone among a universe of information, sights, sounds and people yet not finding satisfaction with this freedom. The endless searching, for the place where the grass is greenest, is ultimately unsatisfying. All the while he is searching for a home he can and never could be happy to stay in.
When I think of the internet of my youth in the 90’s the action of surfing was solitary. What I remember of the commentary at the time, the internet was mocked and trivialized by many for how it isolated people. Powerful computers were too large for mobility and communication was in chat rooms, posting walls or email. To communicate you had to travel to a site to receive or give messages. The internet was a universe you voyaged through for a while but, unlike Marvel’s Surfer, could eventually leave for reality.
Things began to change in the 2000’s when social networks expanded from chat rooms and email to instant messaging via the likes of ICQ and MSN Messenger. Suddenly there was more to you, an identity profile of likes and interests that could be related to even if you were not online. The introduction of MySpace type sites that allowed for greater media sharing and creation. With more available media forms came a greater depth of personality and community building capacity. Now Facebook and Twitter create ways to communicate all your thoughts and keep abreast of social groups. Hardware like smart phones, wi-fi and powerful lap tops blend mobility with connectivity.
The internet provides a social community as you voyage cyberspace, where Facebook friends, email contacts, bloggers, YouTube stars, and tweeters orbit about your online profiles like satellites in orbit around Planet You. Cellphone texting, Facebook wall posts and tweeting shorten messages but increase their frequency. Smart-phones provide mobility and media access (both creative and digestive) throughout the physical world. People may access their electronic social networks in the physical public realm, where the frequency of communications within their social web fill public spaces with different beeps and chirps.
Social networking is the important change in social organization today and another movie I have seen recently, The Social Network, looks to understand the development of Facebook. The story involves Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg building a website where people can have the “college experience”. To do this he creates a network where personal pages that can only be accessed by people you accept into your social network.
The physical experience of this social network, exemplified in a scene at the end of the film, still is a solitary one. It doesn’t seem like a city or landscape inhabited by avatars, which online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft come close to accomplishing, where you might run into someone new. The physical experience, like with the internet remains insulating from the physical world. The change is that the digital connectivity starts to shape your personal social realm. We’ve all seen people in physical socialization, around a table at the coffee shop, each isolated onto their digital social community, ignoring the people near them.
Electronic social networks expanding with technology and information are changing our individual life-ways. In what ways, are technology and information, with the advancing mobility of display devices, changing our understanding of the physical urban environment?
Currently, programs like google maps and services like GPS re-create cities electronically to provide real-time spatial data to end users. Google Street View allows for the visual exploration of the physical built form. Cellphone cameras and YouTube record and distribute video and images almost instantly. In all these ways the city is being digitized, experienced and understood on site displayed on two-inch cellphone screens or from thousands of kilometers away.
One way the physical infrastructure of Regina may soon join the electronic world is by having electronic tracking of buses. In Regina Transit’s Transit Investment Plan document, section 5.7- Intelligent Transportation Systems for Transit (Pg 113-117) describes ways to provide real-time information on bus location to people who have access to the internet. The particular section, AVL Automatic Vehicle Location (Pg 115) discusses how this might enable someone waiting for a bus to know how far away it is from them.
I’ve seen the city and many of its functions computerized but I wonder when the physical city will begin to interact with technology. Increasing the interactivity between buildings and info-tech. Buildings have been important in communicating the culture and values of the builders throughout history. Will we see a physical reflection of digital languages?
In the modern city, during last year’s Janes walk weekend, Bernie Flaman spoke about how the general population is largely architecturally illiterate. The Legislative Building above is a clearer example than some, which broadly demonstrates the importance of order and democracy to Canadian people.
I fully admit to being architecturally illiterate too. My interest in architecture, buildings, form and planning is an attempt to learn more about the built environment around me. To learn lessons I was not exposed to, as I recall, in school or at home growing up.
Trying to understand what’s around me, I am compelled to imagine how the physical realm will begin to reflect new electronic languages and communication technologies.
When I was at Karnak this summer, a discussion with my travel mate about the narratives buildings could tell made me think about the above picture. I was not sure QR codes had been used structurally yet, but I thought it was a matter of time. The use of these in graves did surprise me at first, but in the end it makes sense. The question; what happens to your Facebook account after you pass away? A physical edifice that could, with the click of a smart phone, connect you to the deceased’s electronic identity.
I thought the technology could be used in public art or on buildings, in facades for example, that after being imaged could send people to the company, architectural firm or government agency’s website. An important consideration in the future of such signage is how people experience the urban environment: if people are still largely moving about cities in cars, they’re not going to be using cellphones to take images. I think only in highly walkable or dense formations (i.e. Japan) will people be able to have time to snap the signage. That is, if they look up from their phone screens to notice the QR code in the first place.
The internet and social networks may not be best understood in the terms of the city or landscape as Tron envisioned the computer in 1982. By the 1990s, the trajectory of computer use was launching to cyberspace, where people would visit and explore able to, at the end of the day, log off from that universe in favour of the physical realm.
Now, a whole generation is coming up with a social network influenced culture, mediated by a digital media language. The Social Network suggests Mark Zuckerberg, a man with millions of ‘Facebook Friends’ online, may not have any in the room. Though there maybe physical isolation, the personalized electronic communities people now inhabit can give prevalence to people’s machines. Increasingly, we can’t log out.
The physical realm is being digitized into on-demand information; shrinking the city into two square inches of media from a million sources. In time, I think the built environment will have to reflect the electronic lives people live.