Tuesday, February 8, 2005

On the persistence of the everyday

URBAN TAPESTRIES: the spatial and social on your mobile (pdf) by Nick West

Please forgive the long excerpts, but I want to get at these points as a whole.

"This spatialisation of the social is essentially a cloud chamber for everyday life: what was once invisible now becomes visible and leaves its trace behind ... The key here is persistence: the messages acquire qualities of space as they endure and accrete in a particular location. The spatiality of this process seems two-fold. Some annotations will, of course, carry a specifically spatial component... But there's an indirect spatiality at work here, too: even the most fleeting of notes becomes spatial once it is placed in a larger metropolitan archive of urban annotation. Future urban archaeologists will be grateful to find the verbal, visual and audio ephemera of our age already tagged with a geographical coordinate and awaiting their analysis...

The flows of everyday life exist already -- our small contribution is to point to a way in which an archive of this life can be created in the midst of our daily flows, in the hope that these flows will begin to more concretely shape the physical environments in which they take place... But the important point is that these experiments point to a potential change in the perceived topology of urban space. Not only will cities be open as they currently are to a wide variety of inhabitants and experiences, but the built environment itself will acquire exponentially more architects...

These annotations will be only indirectly social: their authors won't talk directly to one another; they will leave their commentary, like urban messages in a bottle, for others to read. Their audience is implicit rather than explicit. Sociality only emerges as the result rather than being the motivating cause. The social builds by accretion, by the appearance of multiple annotations at the same place, or on the same theme...

These small experiments foreshadow an open and persistent archive of the city, with each entry grounded in the geographical space that the city already inhabits. Urban annotation thus becomes a process of involution, an intensive rather than an extensive phenomenon: a potential anti-sprawl."

The article specifically addresses the spatialisation of the social and the socialisation of the spatial, but I take issue with the idea that they have ever been separate. Perhaps Nick and I are just defining our terms differently. After all, he considers non-spaces to be "placeless" and I would disagree. To say that mobile phone conversations lack a spatial component seems off to me. What Nick seems to be describing as spatial phenomena appear to have more in common with notions of timelessness and monumentality than with location in either space or time, and at the same time be limited to geographic location.

But moving along, I am particularly interested in his characterisation of everyday life and the notion of persistence. Where I think Nick and I first disagree is in his belief that archaeologists will be grateful to find cultural artefacts already tagged with geographical coordinates. In my experience, geographic location was the easy part; context is the difficult bit. But this notion of an archive is intriguing. What kind of artefact will this be? How will we know its place? How will we understand its social and cultural context, and not just its geographic location? If Nick's vision comes true, if we will be excavating "accretions" of data that have "endured" through space and time, what exactly will we know about everyday urban life?

I'm also curious about his assumption that these accretions will have greater power to act, to shape the physical world in which we live. Act how? Shape how? I understand the idea that the city can be seen to have more builders, more architects, but what exactly will they be able to build? Put another way, what would an archaeologist identify as their cultural artefact(s)? If accretions of data take on qualities of monumentality, what is the place of the monumental in everyday life?

As for the relation between annotation and sociality, I have to say I don't understand how the social emerges as a result of annotating space, or how it manifests itself only in the accretion of annotations, as history so to speak. Is he limiting sociality to direct (i.e. same space-times) interaction between people? That seems to me to be the opposite of duration.

And finally, I really want to better understand what he means by a "process of involution, an intensive rather than an extensive phenomenon: a potential anti-sprawl". What does that have to do with the persistence of the everyday?

Any thoughts?

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