Designs on the City:
Designs on the City:
Urban Experience in the Age of Electronic Reproduction.
Coventry, CV4 7AL
The information society is on its way. A digital revolution is triggering structural changes comparable to last century's industrial revolution, with correspondingly high economic stakes. The process cannot be stopped and will lead eventually to a knowledge-based economy.
Techno-enthusiasm like this, often accompanied by fanciful illustrations of the wonders of cyberspace, fills popular magazines and bookshops. As the next century approaches, digital technology is celebrated with the fervour aroused by heat engine technology at the close of the last one. The speed with which information can circulate, whether between people at home or on the move, within corporations and workplaces, between the governors and the governed and around the whole globe, is now central to the story of cultural progress that people in technologised societies are telling themselves. In advertising the computer is an icon of precision, power and assured worth. The arcades are digitised cornucopias from which tumble glittering cascades of electronics. Machines that not much more than a decade ago were tools for research elites are now commonplace consumer durables participating in mundane social life (Pickering, 1997). The technologising of the human condition depicted in cyberpunk fiction seems to be coming up over the horizon faster than it was. (Gibson & Sterling, 1992)
However, the opening quotation was not fiction, nor was it from a catalogue or magazine. It was the opening section of a recent report to the European Commission entitled Europe's way to the information society: an action plan (European Commission, 1994). Its recommendations about the Internet and other aspects of digital technology were: " .... an acceleration of the liberalisation process and the achievement and the preservation of universal service and the Internal Market principles of free movement. ..... The deployment and financing of an information infrastructure will be the primarily responsibility of the private sector." The tone of the report was urgent: "The race is on at global level, notably with US and Japan. Those countries which will adapt themselves most readily will de facto set technological standards for those who follow." This tone is similar to that of a number of reports produced in the G7 nations over the last decade or so. The feeling they express is that digital technology will continue its rapid growth and penetration of all sphere of life, that it will help economic growth, that communication networks are its most distinctive manifestation and that these will be a positive force in maintaining democratic regulation of societies.
The rapid deployment of public and transnational corporate resources to create networks is now a central policy issue of all G7 nations. This is in many ways similar to the building of railways in the middle nineteenth century. It is seen as a multiplier that will enhance economic and cultural structures already in place. The social changes it will make to the way we live are represented as being cohesive and liberating. For example, during the early 1990s the UK Labour party used information technology in education and industry as a symbol of its modernisation. The Clinton and Gore re-election campaign used it as a sign for Democratic progessivity in contrast to Republican conservatism. Al Gore in particular has for the past decade made it part of his political profile to urge the US treasury to treat the information highway as part of the economic infrastructure, akin to the state highway system.
Digital technology now symbolises where world culture is heading. It signifies economic progress and openness in communication and governance. Although rapid change and exaggeration make it difficult to evaluate the cultural role digital technology is playing, it is interesting to note that sensationalised accounts are sometimes modest when compared with the objectives of research corporations. Popular magazines may carry articles on virtual reality sex games, but it is in internal publications of research laboratories that we find discussions of matter transference and of electronic implants for the direct creation of pleasure (Pearson & Cochrane, 1994). Clearly those with the power to develop this technology are taking seriously the cliché that is often used about it: "the only limitation is imagination".
This article will examine some ways in which digital technology may influence urban living. The suggestion will be that it will be modest in the short term, despite the substantial changes it is making in economic and political life. In the longer term however, there may well be a change in the way cites are inhabited and designed. The article will conclude by suggesting that Walter Benjamin's prescient understanding of the cultural role of technology provides a powerful framework within which to understand this change. To begin, however, we look briefly at the evolutionary origins of the city.
Evolution and the City
By 'evolution', most of us understand Darwin's biological theory and its subsequent elaboration into it contemporary form where genetic transmission holds central place. Like any hypothesis, the theory is a conjecture, not a fact. It cannot be considered final or complete, and recent work is changing it radically. What is emerging is a very different picture of evolutionary change in which the transmission and modification of genetic information is only part of the story (Goodwin 1995). In particular, more attention is being paid to individual development and it is more than ever clear that culture rather than genetics underlies the emergence of modern human beings. For example, there was an exponential increase in the variety and sophistication of stone tools during the late Palaeolithic period, that is, from about 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. This period covers the emergence of modern human beings and, towards its end, the appearance of the first cities. However, during this period nothing in the genetic makeup of human beings changed radically.
This confirms that it is a mistake to think that it is essentially something inside human beings that makes them different from animals. Though there are differences of course, far outweighing anything internal is the fact that in the human case, development occurs in an environment that is a cultural product, the city being the most noticeable example of this. This means, in a more radical sense than hitherto considered, that human beings are 'self-produced', just because the possibilities for action, which shape development, are provided by the human environment which is the material trace of previous human action (Kingdon, 1995). What was changing during the late Palaeolithic period was the cumulative system of cultural relations that supports the human condition. The human condition is the system. It has mutually evolved components both outside and inside the human body, but no one part is crucial.
To appreciate this mutuality of biology and culture properly requires appropriate theories. A number of recent accounts of the interaction of human biology and the social context during development favour a systems view of genetics and culture (Johnson, 1993; Maturana & Varela, 1992; Edelman, 1992). For example, Edelman suggests that the brain is more fundamentally plastic, and thus more influenced by the environment, than was previously thought. Recent research into brain development has extended the sensitive period of brain growth from two to around ten years (Quartz & Sejnowski, 1997). Thus, the trend is towards an interactionist, emergent model of the relationship between genes and the environment. Developments like these mean that a simplistic distinction between human evolution and human history is increasingly difficult and unproductive to make. In the emergence of the modern human condition, biological and cultural evolution have become seamlessly integrated (Ingold, 1996).
Cultural evolution, which is the evolution of technology tools and practices, has replaced biological evolution as the principal arena of change on both the timescale of individual lifetimes and for longer periods of history. Cultural evolution is intimately bound to the communicative and cognitive capacities of human beings. But these are dialectically created, acquired and expressed through human social practices. These have always been collective in the sense that humans have evolved to live in clan or tribe groups rather than as solitary individuals. However, these groups now exist, when they survive at all, within far larger urban collectives. The demographics of this century are striking here. When the present century began, not much over ten per cent of the human population lived in cities. As it ends this figure is close to fifty per cent and is growing rapidly. The city is now the most common human habitat.
Lewis Mumford's remarkably far-seeing works, especially Technics and Civilisation and The Culture of Cities, explore the role of urbanisation and technology in cultural evolution (Mumford, 1940, 1968). What he called the eotechnic, paleotechnic and neotechnic phases cover, respectively, tool making, power generation and information handling. These phases do not just chart the development of techniques. They track the incorporation of technology into the human condition. Two principal observations that Mumford makes about this incorporation should be noted here. First it makes possible radically new conditions of human association. Second, technology is not merely the means by which relatively unchanging human needs are met but is the means by which new ones are created. It helps create a system from which fundamentally new forms of human activity and desire emerge.
As human being collected in large urbanised habitats, the pace of cultural evolution accelerated. According to some accounts this was somewhat like a nuclear reactor as it goes critical. The opportunity to associate and exchange, once over a certain limit, releases social and cultural forces of a new character and strength (Teilhard de Chardin, 1955, pages 261 - 276). In doing so, in creating what Bourdieu has called the habitus of human societies, human practices are co-ordinated and our awareness of the world is shaped at all levels (Bourdieu, 1977, 1984). In this way, as psychologists interested in culturally created meanings have pointed out, human cognitive abilities and indeed the capacity for consciousness itself, are created (Bruner, 1990; Wertsch et al., 1995). Not only do we acquire ways of identifying objects and situations but also ways of evaluating and reacting to them. This is the deeper and perhaps more important meaning of Bourdieu's insight into habitus. Cultures are carried by a system made up from practices, beliefs, artefacts and the very physical layout of the built environment. In contemporary industrialised cultures, this system means urban living. The system not only creates opportunities for human action and association but also the sensitivities and values that go with them.
The dynamics of neotechnical culture have primarily to do with the circulation of information and the creation of meaning. The forces that now, autonomously, shape economic and political life demonstrate that evolution has proceeded beyond organic material and energy flows to semiotic circulation (Elias, 1989; Baudrillard, 1993 ; Deleuze & Guattari, 1980, 1984). These theories are matched by recent reworking of evolutionary theory towards a systems view of biological-cultural interaction (Barkow et al., 1992 ; Barlow, 1992).
Thus we now have a clearer picture, albeit it a more complex one, of how biology and culture interact to produce the human condition. Culture is technologised and developing fastest in the domain of the circulation of information and signs. This not only has the direct effects that are felt in the 'information economy' but also the more subtle effect of creating a habitus, a system of sensitivities and values. Human beings now developing within this habitus are bound to be fundamentally shaped by it. Thus the assimilation of technology into the human condition with which Mumford was so concerned may be occurring in a more radical manner than he realised.
In what follows, this biological incorporation of technology should be kept in mind as the backdrop to the primary focus, which is the degree to which technology is influencing social relations and human experience within the urban habitat. This influence is characteristically reflexive, in that it is likely in the long run to change how the habitat itself is created.
Digital Technology and Social Relations.
Cultural evolution, then, is the evolution of artefacts and the skilled practices that go with them. These artefacts are not neutral environmental furniture but agents of cultural transmission. Individuals are fundamentally shaped by the technological envelop within which they develop. This envelop draws out and shapes the intrinsic predisposition towards action and effort after meaning that animates all organisms. In the human case, this drawing out and shaping is primarily social, beginning with the early interactions between infants and the caring adults around them. As individuals develop, and their capacity for independent action increases, these formative interactions occur with artefacts as well as people. This may require another individual to act as intermediary, model or teacher. It may be, however, that an artefact draws out action in and of itself. It is in this sense that objects as well as individuals may be considered to be social.
To call artefacts 'social' may seem to overextend the term considerably but in fact, objects are rapidly becoming social in the conventional sense, as digital technology creates machines with social skills (Pickering, 1997). The encounter with these machines is occurring earlier and earlier in human development. This accelerates the assimilation by which, as Mumford and McLuhan pointed out, outer cultural structure becomes inner cognitive structure. This assimilation involves learning skilled practices through which humans interact socially with each other and with artefacts. Here Rogoff's distinction between three levels of human sociocultural learning provide a framework within which to address the assimilation of technology, especially during human development (Rogoff, 1995).
Rogoff points out that as well as formalised education, knowledge, and the values that go with it, is transmitted through cultural activities, technological practices and everyday social interaction, particularly that between children and the adult world into which they are learning to fit. Rogoff developed a three level model of qualitatively distinct but overlapping processes through which individuals assimilate sociocultural practices: apprenticeship, guided participation and participatory appropriation. Apprenticeship is a collective term for activities such as education, training and instruction of all sorts. It is what happens when learners who know they are learning participate with teachers who know they are teaching to develop specific skills and knowledge. In guided participation, explicit instruction is not involved. It is when individuals learn though taking part with others in collective activities that leave a residue of skills and knowledge. Participatory appropriation is personal, tends to be creative and to individualise knowledge. It is when individuals make for themselves a style and a unique set of practices which are the means to achieve goals they have set themselves.
Until recently these forms of learning were predominantly mediated by interaction with people. Increasingly, however, they now involve artefacts which simulate human social skills. Now, as Mumford reminds us, technological artefacts do not only match a static set of human values and goals, they also create new ones. Thus, as artefacts become social, so new values and goals will appear having to do with the skilled practices that arise in interaction with them. An object may create practices by itself, much as an implement instructs the user how to wield it. It is in this sense that culturally produced opportunities for action, whether provided by objects, situations or people, may be considered to be social (Costall, 1995). While this broadens the meaning of 'social' considerably, this is what is interesting about artefacts with the capacity for social interaction.
Of course, human action and social interaction has been mediated by artefacts since the emergence of modern human beings. What is significant about digital technology is that it allows artefacts themselves participate in the interaction. The telephone system is not now merely a means to put human beings in touch with each other. It is quasi social collection of agents for answering, asking questions, giving informing, holding callers, re-trying numbers that were engaged, informing users of another caller waiting, taking messages, re-routing enquiries and so on. It is rapidly becoming an active participant in social exchange. Such participation is now so far advanced that it is no longer merely a matter of technology but ethics (Lanier, 1995). The concern is that machines with social skills may elicit from the human beings that interact with them a new type of skilled practice that expresses cybernetic rather than human values. As Mumford showed, technology not only amplifies human capacities, it also creates needs, goals and values. Presently, digital technology is amplifying human capacities for social interaction. This may create new needs, skills and values that will be expressed in social relations.
An envelop of social relations mediated by digital technology is developing and moving down the age scale. What used to be an activity of adults at work is rapidly becoming what children do at school and in the home while learning, playing and communicating. Cybernetics has moved from automating mundane rationality to automating mundane sociality. Hybrid intelligent action involving people and computers is increasingly part of social situations. Computer systems help people to communicate, design and decide; in the process they have become socialised. For example, supermarket tills not only display prices and product codes, but also provide help and supervision at a quite naturalistic level. They prompt the operator to ask the customer questions, to obtain signatures, to carry out various phases of the transactions and to watch out for errors. The till has access to a lot of information the operator no longer needs to do their job. For example, if a customer asks the price of an item, the operator is quite unlikely to know it, but will obtain it from the machine. The level of prompting from and intervention by the till varies with the skill of the operator. With the checkout closed, operators can be trained by the till itself, with only occasional interventions by a human supervisor required.
Cars now have voices to remind the driver of things and to give advice. Portable computers now accept written and spoken inputs. These, unlike typing, are attached to individuals, making the machine very much more the a personal assistant than a mere tool. Buildings are becoming intelligent, with the advent of security systems that require individuals to have electronic keys. Who is in the building, where they are and where they have been is easy to track. Pagers, electronic diaries, remote conferencing and similar systems are converging into integrated systems attached to particular locations. From bringing busy people together to opening doors, these systems are mediating the social politesse of communication and mundane social interaction.
Digital technology of increasing in sophistication and naturalness of use is also appearing in the home. There is rapid convergence of domestic computers, TV's, faxes, cable and satellite systems, digital audio broadcasting, telephones and other media. This digitised sociability is descending the age scale. The ease with which children get on with computers is a common and disconcerting experience for adults. Being able to operate and to co-operate with technology is not just to do with knowing how to make the video recorder work. It is about feeling at home with machines that are beginning to use language, recognise individuals, make decisions and offer advice. Being at ease with these human simulacra has as much to do with attitudes as with skills. Such simulacra are appearing in all areas of economic and social life. Soon, children will be growing up with systems that will be an integrated resource for education, communication, recreation and entertainment. Their forerunners can already be seen in the increasingly naturalised operating systems of home computers. These prompt, instruct, ask and autonomously act to provide the user with what they want. As systems converge, more sophisticated agents will help people to use them. Home computers, in addition to paper manuals, now come with extensive CD-ROM and on-line help resources and training tutorials. These remain on the machine and adjust their interventions as the user becomes more skilled. When a difficulty arises adults are likely to say "where's the manual?". Children are more inclined to say "let's ask the computer".
Children who grow up using such systems may on occasion be unconcerned whether or not they are communicating with a human agent. They are likely to take more rapidly than adults to computer mediated social interaction. It seems clear here that something important is emerging from the way human beings are growing up with artefacts that participate in human social interaction. As social relations are increasingly mediated by machines the habitus that is thereby created will transmit technologised values and sensitivities. This will influence how human beings communicate with each other and how they think of themselves (Lanier, 1995). As well as being an adjunct to human practices, digital technology creates the habitus of attitudes, tastes and modes of social interaction that has come to be called 'cyberspace'. The more direct effects of digital technology, when compared with construction, transport and energy technology, may not be that extensive or distinctive. However, in the longer run, its effects on social life and human relations may have a profound influence on how urban life is lived and how urban habitats are designed.
Digital Design and Collectivity.
The convergence that digital technology makes possible has rapidly emerged into the economy, into the home and into social interactions. This is the fluidity of signs and the compression of time and space characteristic of postmodern political economy (Harvey, 1990; Baudrillard, 1993, ch. 5). Home computer equipment is now sold as 'communication centres' where images, texts, signs, sounds and whatever media carry are now interchangeable as never before. This shift to a recombinant culture of assembly and quotation is clear in the advertising industry which now recycles images on a shortening timescale. For example, Ian Dury's 'Reason's to be cheerful' which came out in the late 1970s had by about 1995 become 'Reasons to eat Alpen'. The transformation of mildly subversive pop into yuppie breakfast cereal illustrates neatly the postmodern cliché that ironic re-assembly forges new meanings. This is the same digital fluidity that underlies outworking, downsizing, dispersal and the other elements of post Fordist industrial practices (Winner, 1996).
Digital communication networks permit such rapid circulation and recombination of data, images, messages and practices, that they represent a qualitative break with what had been possible before. In industry, commerce education and government, this has changed the culture of organisation. This change has propagated from corporate and political structures into the wider community far more rapidly than previous technological innovations. Now electronic tools may, initially, merely have been new ways to do old things. Now they have come to mean more than this as digital intelligence has become incorporated into human practice. In doing so it has changed it fundamentally.
Digital technology may prosaically influence the design of urban living simply by amplifying and enhancing existing design practices. The tools of digital technology are now commonplace items in the professional resources of architects, designers and planners. But these tools are not only to do with the visualisation, transformation of spaces, surfaces and volumes. They permit circulation, collectivity and consensus. Buildings, environments and arenas for action can be created in virtual space and then entered in order that their layout and their workings can be investigated. Components and activities from other arenas of practice can be inserted and re-arranged in virtual models of what is to be built. Designers and clients may walk around the prototype, much as tourists would walk round a town. Alterations, collectively agreed, might be carried out, evaluated and incorporated. Once things are satisfactory, the updated design can be electronically moved into the next phase of the production process.
Thus, the impact of digital technology here will have to do with how designs are distributed and used. It means the rapid transfer and reproduction of any data structure, be they plans, drawings, texts or virtual prototypes. These will migrate and be worked on collectively far more extensively and rapidly than at present. Ways of displaying, storing and distributing architectural work, initially there for commercial reasons will become a more mobile resource, with clear implications for the collective inhabitation of the built environment. Already digital cites exist that are electronic doppelgangers for real ones. Virtual fantasy environments have existed for some time of course, but these are proving to be far less significant than the hype surrounding them has implied. Of far greater significance are the virtual communities that are growing up within organisations and real locations (Jones, 1995; Donath, 1997). These are now places where designers, students, clients and the general public may inspect, modify and participate in collective work. This has the potential to transform the role of consultation and consensus in the process of planning, designing and building environments.
Increasingly, the design of products passes through an initial virtual phase that digital technology has made possible. This make for greater sensitivity in the design process. Rapid prototyping followed by market testing, field trials, both real and virtual are all possible on a greater scale and with more distinctive inputs. This can be seen in contemporary design practices. In the motor industry for example, the production techniques that were put in place to minimise stock holding have been discovered to permit ordering information to counter-flow "up" the production system to customise cars as they flow "down". Similar applications of digital technology is also changing the relationship between architects, engineers and clients. There is no reason why the design of urban habitats could not have the same participatory character. Given that these are shared spaces, there is every reason for this to happen.
Thus, at a more profound level, digital technology may influence urban living by altering social relationships. Urban spaces are social spaces and the significance of cities is the opportunities they create for human meeting and interaction. As social relations become increasingly mediated by technology, the expectations of citizens will change towards the virtual and the distributed. The growth of social venues that provide Internet activities is an illustrative case. These strike a new balance between the local and the global. Real local presence at a cybercafe is required to enter the global world of digital connectivity and interchange. The activities of corporations such as banks have undergone similar changes. The relocations of the early 1990s demonstrated that actual location was still highly significant. The banking areas of cities like London and New York, retain their attraction because face to face meetings remain important. Once there is real change here, then dispersal will become that much more marked and attractive. In small and medium sized enterprises, this trend is already clear.
Thus, the significance of networked communication lies as much in the social relations it makes possible as it does in the economic and manufacturing practices. This, along with the entry of socialised artefacts into every day domestic life will be the route by which, digital technology effects urban living in the longer term. These effects are unpredictable in detail, but some broad trends can perhaps be seen if the impact of digital technology is placed within a framework of the wider political and cultural role of technology in general.
Who is empowered by digital technology?
The explosive growth of digital technology is a media cliché. Its significance for the practical tasks that routinely face people in going about their everyday lives is often exaggerated and distorted. Popular accounts of virtual reality for instance stress the outlandish and the fanciful. The short lived playful experiments with sex games are a case in point. Their high profile was clearly due to the unmissable media opportunity created by the combination of the latest cultural glamour object, digital technology, with the oldest and most reliable circulation builder, sexuality. Far less attention was given to the highly significant applications in training, telematics, design and modelling.
Even in more informed and realistic discussions there can be a surprising lack of reflection about the social and cultural realities surrounding digital technology. A good example is the a recent doctoral thesis from MIT's Medialab entitled Inhabiting the Virtual City: The Design of Social Environments for Electronic Communities (Donath, 1997). The thesis describes some experiments in designing communication systems carried out on the Internet and within the highly developed networked systems of the Medialab community itself. Throughout, the fundamental metaphor for the community created by networked digital technologies is the city. The thesis begins and ends with it and it is central to its key idea: that successful building of virtual communities requires that they are designed in such a way that individuals with identities and histories can inhabit them. Thus: "There is a close relationship between building and inhabiting, for inhabiting the virtual city is a process of adapting it and adding to it, of building the connections between places and people that make the on-line world a vibrant and vital environment." (Donath, 1997, page 97).
The work expresses the excitement and creativity of those who are working to bring digital networks out of the research laboratories and make them a natural adjunct to human social life. The ingenious experiments concern human scale activities like sending postcards, working with other people and having conversations. The acknowledgements identify the inspiration for the work as the lifelong quest of the authors father " ... to formulate the basis of a just society... ". Thus the thesis appears to be about turning the rhetoric of techno enthusiasm into realistic and benign social outcomes. Indeed, the first part of the thesis is about the sociology of urban living: the meaning of community, the idea of identity and affiliation within a locale and so on. However, apart from a foot note here and there (e.g. Donath, 1997, page 12) there is virtually no discussion of just how virtual communities will integrate, or not, with the ones we already have, on the local, national and global levels. Now the thesis explicitly sets out its objectives as being the design of the virtual community itself, and not about integrating it with any larger social structures. However, the virtual community must integrate with traditional patterns of human social life. If it does not it will remain an isolated specialism or cult. Therefore this thesis points on to questions like 'what does participation in the virtual community relate to citizenship as it conventionally exists?' 'Who will develop the skills and practices to participate?' 'What will these skills and practices do for them?' and so on.
Here the fundamental issues have to do with empowerment, inclusion/exclusion and access. The politics and economics of the Internet are an arena for a vigorous debate about issues such as who, if anyone, is to control traffic and access, who will own and profit from networks and what role they will play in political debate. There is an interesting contrast here between the US and Europe. Following Gore's initiatives, the US is more inclined to see networks as a state responsibility instead of being left to the free market forces as might have been expected, given the history of private development of transport systems in the US. In Europe the reverse seems to be the case, as the earlier quotation illustrated and as the Bangermann report indicated (Bangermann, 1994).
The relative unconcern with the cultural surroundings of networks in Judith Donath's thesis mirrors a similar unconcern in The Way Ahead, the highly publicised book on the impact of digital technology by the president of Microsoft Corporation, Bill Gates. With little sense of wider historical movements, Gates' eyes are fixed on what lies ahead, where, since he is so instrumental in building it, he quite probably sees further than most. However, he pays little attention to what lies behind. The role of digital technology in the culture of late capitalism is not perhaps as simple as building a highway. While this may be unfair to Gates, who was not trying to make that sort of historical assessment in any case, the lack of concern for broader cultural issues is striking. For example, in an interview in a UK newspaper published roughly at the same time as his book, he speculated on the way the Internet might alter the way in which ideas and communities of interest form within society:
To me, cultural homogenisation is one of the most fascinating questions. The broadcast media absolutely homogenise culture, absolutely. Take the distribution of books, some sell extremely well and then there's quite a tail-off ... the Highway is the ultimate distribution system ... more niches will grow up, people who want to read Sanskrit or whatever. Or maybe it'll make things more centred. It comes back to something we don't understand about human interest. .... But it's not really my thing. I'm not willing to spend lots of time thinking about this. Just because we're involved in building the system doesn't mean we know how it will be used.
As network culture gathers pace, such disingenuous pursuit of technology for its own sake needs to be treated with caution. Despite the rosy presentation of the Internet as democratising, its significance to a large proportion of the world's population is more likely to be disempowerment and isolation. The community of Medialab is highly privileged with respect to American society as a whole. Likewise the users of the Internet worldwide have access to resources that will remain well beyond the reach of the vast majority of the world's population, perhaps indefinitely.
Now of course, it is not the fault of those who work in developing networked communications that there is inequality and injustice. But it needs to be considered whether what is being created will help to make things better or worse. For example, at a meeting in June 1995 on 'Society and the Future of Computing' Langdon Winner suggested that principles needed to be drawn up that would alert those working in the area to the wider impact of their work on people and society. Attempts were made at the conference to draft such principles and these were subsequently published as the 'Durango Declarations', after the location of the meeting (Harvey & Gross, 1996). The tone of these declarations is that of professional undertakings, like the Hippocratic oath, to use technology for good rather than ill. While broad and diffuse, they show very clearly the growing concern over the social and political impact of digital technology.
These sorts of moves and undertakings are very necessary. Looking at digital technology as part of the culture of late capitalism it is far from clear that its role will be particularly benign or beneficial. It participates in the slide towards the simulacrum in economic and political life which Baudrillard depicts as leading away from autonomy and towards totalitarianism and control. Digital technology is represented as a means towards greater access, to the opening up of the process of governance political control and as the means to police accountability. But in the experience of most people, it is just as likely to be accomplishing the opposite. As the trustworthiness of screen images declines with the techniques of recombinant culture, so there grows a loss of confidence that democratic machinery can be trusted. There is growing suspicion that the rhetoric of networks conceals a move towards disempowerment. It may stimulate greater consumption and turnover in economies that already disrupt and damage the biosphere. For the nations that experience this damage, it will do very little that is positive. It is all too easy to represent digital technology as progressive, but the longer term historical process in which it is bound is unsustainable.
For example, at the Global Environmental Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the then president of the US George Bush was asked by representatives from the Third World to put on the agenda the over-consumption of resources by the technologised countries, especially the US. Their point was that global warming, deforestation, famine and the loss of cultural diversity were not natural disasters but the geopolitical effect of which the urbanised lifestyle of nations like the US was the cause. Therefore, it was suggested, the summit should consider these causes as well as the various conservation measures to deal with the effects.
Bush's reply was terse and uncompromising: "The American Way of Life" he said, "is not up for negotiation". Although not long after this Clinton replaced Bush in the White House, the new administration quickly made clear that whatever else may have changed with the change of presidents, the technological domination by the US of global political and economic life has not. Moreover, digital technology will be of central importance in this effort (Clinton & Gore, 1993).
Thus the representation of digital communication networks as part of global progress and democratisation is highly questionable. They are presently far more likely to contribute to widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots than to narrow it. Within the developed nations clear geopolitical effects of digital technology have appeared, dispersion and downsizing of production being examples. As these effects manifest themselves it is becoming easier to place digital technology as something that has arisen in a context and with a history.
Baudrillard points out the transition to a political economy of simulation. Simulation here moves beyond mere imitation, that is, the fabrication of a copy of something real. It takes the significant step of substituting the simulation for the real: "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." (Baudrillard, 1983). The virtual cities that digital technology is building are perfect illustrations of this. They demonstrate the space time and compression that dulls our sensitivity to the destructive consequences of giganticism and overconsumption (Harvey, 1990). Its role in the spread of Western ideology following the collapse of the Soviet system is subtle coercion. The skills and practices that go with the Internet are obviously a form of intellectual and economic colonialism. This, in concert with the media, entertainment and other aspects of screen culture, is accelerating the already rapid loss of cultural diversity.
Digital technology is now being implicated in the definition of contemporary conditions of citizenship and identity. In a recent lecture Alain Touraine defined the contemporary condition of citizenship and identity as having access to the resources that would permit the citizen to assume whatever identity seemed appropriate (Touraine, 1997) Thus, it seems, technology now enters into the creation of identity itself. This is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's suggestion that technology, especially the technology of reproduction, would bring fundamental changes to what we think of as being the unique and authentic source of identity for any cultural object, be it a person or a work of art. His insights suggest a broader framework within which to understand the way technology is assimilated into the human condition.
Benjamin in Cyberspace.
Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project, (original German title: Das Passagen-Werk) was fundamentally about the production of human consciousness within the city (Buck-Morss, 1989). His perception of cities, especially of the overwhelming displays in the shopping areas of Paris and Berlin, was central in forming his materialist philosophy of cultural history. The experience of urban living recurs as a motif in his writings. In a psychoanalytic reading of his radio talks for children, for example, Jeffrey Mehlman traces the precursors of the Arcades Project and of his essay on the Fate of the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In both, cases Benjamin's life in cities, both the Berlin of his childhood and the Paris of his maturity and exile, figure centrally (Mehlman, 1993, pages 18 - 21 and pages 67 - 71). The shaping of consciousness within the habitat of the city and way it conditioned experience of art, the natural world and other people, was close to the core of his work.
Cites express in literally concrete form how massive overproduction unleashed by mechanical technology was leading culture away from authentic being and towards alienated violence. This overproduction is now amplified by the recombinant culture unleashed by digital technology. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction there is much discussion of film as a living laboratory in which to see, in the simulacrum, the detachment of art objects from domains of traditional aesthetic and cultural values (Benjamin, 1979). It is interesting to note, especially in sections ten and fifteen, that the means for this detachment is the seperability and transportability of the photographic image. This is precisely the fluidity and mobility that digital technology has unleashed (Winner, 1996 ; Baudrillard, 1983. See especially the section entitled 'The Map Precedes the Territory').
The city is an artefact for collective living that has been the natural home for the human collective for around ten thousand years. Now, a simulacrum of the city is growing in cyberspace. This virtual city is ramifying through the real city and in the process reproducing it. Cyberspace, the space behind the screen, is virtual and real at the same time. Its virtuality is patent. It's reality lies in the way it is used. This use has seen the rapid production of a new habitus, in Bourdieu's terms. The work is now in hand to make cyberspace powerful and natural enough that its sociability simulates that of traditional agoras (Donath, 1997; Mitchell, 1995). But simulation is now the condition of hyperreality. In the cities of cyberspace it is possible to visit, look, listen, communicate, meet, buy, browse and simply hang out. The citizen of cyberspace is participant, explorer, worker, consumer or merely flâneur. The practices and values of this new habitus will not only reproduce the economic and social relations of the city but, as Mumford pointed out, will also create new ones.
This is part of the historical transition from value to sign, from production to reproduction from copies to simulacra and from law to code. This transition is a continuation of Benjamin's central insight. He anticipated the effects that the technology would have on aesthetics, on the cultural production of value and on human perception and consciousness. What he foresaw was the significance of the simulacrum, the multiple and mobile sign that seems to stand for a fixed and singular reality but which ends up by standing for nothing and for everything.
The virtual city is a simulacrum into which real life is migrating. The temples of commodity capitalism are not only realised in glass and steel, they are forming everywhere and nowhere in the virtually realised arcades of cyberspace. The Passagen Werk, productive because it is incomplete, is a powerful way to understand how the cities of cyberspace are being built and how they will form the consciousness of those who inhabit them.
Technology creates the urbanised cultural envelop within which human beings exist and, perhaps more significantly, develop. The city is now the natural home of most of human kind. Indeed, the boundary between the natural the artificial is now more problematic and more contested than ever before (Robertson et al., 1996). As technology becomes more organic and social, so the organic is technologised and increasingly brought within the sphere of human social concern and action. In this suitably ironic exchange of identity, postmodern science, particularly biology and cybernetics, demonstrates that human consciousness is an artefact and that artefacts already have vestiges of consciousness (Langton, 1995).
These developments remind us that the human condition is not exclusive a function of what is in the head or even in the genes. It is inextricably entwined in a system of relations that comprise the biological order of the body and the cultural order outside the body and the mutually evolved processes that integrate them into a seamless whole. What Benjamin recognised is that the system was now dominated by the sociological dynamics of urban life. These dynamics, Baudrillard claims, are now being amplified by the mobility and fluidity of signification that digital technology permits.
The early and optimistic humanism of Mumford and Tielhard de Chardin depicted the city as a stage in a progression towards productive human association. The bright visions of Donath and of Mitchell present the virtual city as a continuation of this progression by digital means. But this benign view is not a common appraisal. The urban concentration that Harvey presents as central to the postmodern condition of world culture is darker and more dystopian (Harvey, 1990, chapter 12). Likewise, for Deleuze & Guattari, the flows of information, matter and energy set in motion by the technology of late capitalism are destructive economic and geopolitical forces. While they originate in human action they are now, autonomously, proceeding well beyond human control in what Deleuze & Guattari have termed the 'machinic phylum' (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988). In doing so they are creating the material conditions for the corporate giganticism and squalid technopolis of 'Blade Runner', within which human consciousness may be formed in the coming century.
The urban environment is now being simulated in virtual space. Design techniques based on digital technology are bringing the built and the images of the unbuilt closer together in space and time. The future arrives earlier than it used to, and with it comes the danger that Baudrillard has identified: in a process of virtualisation, the simulacra that pour from screens are becoming the reality of social and political life. This is what Benjamin foresaw - the power of the simulacrum and the dangers created when society cannot contain the forces created by technology. These dangers are actually exaggerated in the hype that surrounds digital technology. The condition of simulation helps conceal its participation in the repression depicted by Mumford in his later and more pessimistic works such as The Pentagon of Power.
Benjamin's Acrades Project concerns the urbanisation of consciousness (Buck-Morss, 1989). The virtual technocity is bringing into existence modes of urban living that conceal as never before the disparities that technology creates, on both a local and a global scale. The virtual space opened up by computers and networks is often presented as a social space, an electronic agora in which democratic and progressive interaction between autonomous individual citizens will be the means to more openness and justice in governance. But this presentation is a representation, a simulacrum that is in danger of becoming reality. Presently it seems more likely that the virtual city will come to stand as a monument to the damage that results when culture cannot contain the effects of technology.
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