Friday, November 26, 2004

Lost in space

In browsing Matt Webb's always interesting mini links, I'm reminded of Bill Hillier's theories on space syntax.

"Space is a lawful thing," Hillier says. I cringe. Space is the machine. I cringe again.

Hillier and Hanson were very popular when I worked as an archaeologist, although I found their theories on the social logic of space to be resoundly inapplicable in cross-cultural contexts. Pre-columbian architecture and settlement planning just weren't amenable to being seen as "objects" with "laws" no matter how hard I tried to fit them into those models. I just don't agree that the goal should be, as Hillier suggests, to "control complexity". While control systems may sound lovely when dealing with machines and other objects, controlling people and cultural diversity has historically been much more sinister and heart-breaking. And that's only one of many objections I can raise.

But it's exactly these kinds of structural-functionalist thinking that appeal to studies in cybernetics and informatics and pattern languages - despite the fact that in the 80s anthropologists and sociologists pretty much discredited and abandoned these ways of understanding social and cultural interaction. Really. People, it was argued, are not machines, not objects, not predictable. And yet, when trying to understand technology, we most often use models that advertently - or inadvertently - render people in precisely those ways.


When I was born in Malta, my father was working in Libya. Upon hearing that he had a new daughter, the Bedouin with whom my dad shared coffee and went falconing, presented him with a traditional wool rug woven in natural colours of black and brown and beige. If I had been a boy, the rug would have been brilliant blues and reds. These carpets embody both physical and cultural spaces. A Bedouin carries her rug with her wherever she goes, and while the nomad's rug is always mobile, when laid on the floor of a tent embodies stability of place, the space of home. The gendered colour schemes and tribal patterns also embody stability of identity in a culture constantly on the move.

In thirty-two years, my rug has been on four separate continents, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans many times. Currently it lies at the foot of my bed, a daily testament to my history, both mobile and stable. Sometimes I lay on it and imagine the worlds embedded in its threads and patterns. What stories my carpet could tell! Its space is both narrowly circumscribed by its physical dimensions and far-reaching in its lived experience. In it, I can see where I have been and where I am, as well as who I have been and who I am.

I love this tension between mobility and stability, the local and the global. This sort of complexity cannot be easily modelled, nor reduced to either structure or function.

Hillier would tell you about the object that is my rug. I have told you about the subjects that are my rug. Quite different spaces, no?


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