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<nettime> The Network of Waves - Public Agency in Hybrid Space
Eric Kluitenberg on Sat, 16 Dec 2006 04:15:56 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The Network of Waves - Public Agency in Hybrid Space


dear nettime,

This essay was written for the new issue of Open (#11), cahier about  
art and the public domain - "Hybrid Space". The essay introduces the  
overall theme of the issue, and suggests some strategic  
considerations on the use of hybrid space.

More information on the issue can be found at the website of NAi  
Publishers:
http://www.naipublishers.nl/art/open11_e.html

and at the website of Open:
http://www.opencahier.nl

The journal was presented at De Balie, Centre for Culture and  
Politics in Amsterdam, on November 18, with the annual SKOR lecture,  
delivered this year by Saskia Sassen: "Public Interventions - The  
Shifting Meaning of the Urban Condition".
The lecture is available on-line at: http://www.debalie.nl/terugkijken
See also: http://www.debalie.nl/artikel.jsp? 
podiumid=media&articleid=85601

best wishes,
eric

-------------------

The Network of Waves

Public Agency in Hybrid Space

by Eric Kluitenberg


The office space above which I live, in a corner house in the  
Indische Buurt, somewhere in Amsterdam East, used to house a local  
police station. At that time I was not yet living there. The place  
was briefly in the national news because of a fair-sized riot which  
took place there. A couple of Moroccan youths were brought to the  
station for some minor offence. Their friends thought that this was  
not right, so they followed the police back to the station to besiege  
the policemen there. It was not just a few friends who ran after the  
policemen, but a much larger group which suddenly turned up at the  
station, coming from nowhere at the precise moment when the youths  
were brought in. At that time this phenomenon, later known as a  
'flash mob', [1] was still relatively new. The police on site were  
unpleasantly surprised, and had to issue a hasty call for  
reinforcements to negotiate with the besiegers. When it was all over  
a police spokesman said that it was a disgrace that the Moroccan  
youths had used their mobile phones to mobilize a mob. How else could  
these youths all have known at the same time that something was going  
on at which their physical presence was 'urgently desired'? And  
exactly where they needed to be? What the spokesman meant was that  
the youths had compiled mailing lists for text messages and then used  
texting to get together as many people as possible as quickly as  
possible. Texting with mailing lists was a popular application,  
because at that time text messages could still be sent and received  
free of charge.

A few years ago 'flash mobs' received a good deal of attention from  
the mass media. Semi-spontaneous public gatherings of groups of  
people, hardly if at all known to one another, nondescript, with no  
determining characteristics such as banners, uniform or logo, briefly  
performed some collective synchronous action, and then dissolved back  
into 'the general public'. Directions and information about the  
gathering were sent out by text messages, or e-mails, telling  
participants where, when and what. These short messages could easily  
be sent on to friends and acquaintances with the aim of starting a  
chain reaction resulting in the appearance of an unpredictably large  
mob at a predetermined time and place.

Reclaim the Mall!!

The 'flash-mob' phenomenon is thought by some people to have  
originated in a few relatively unmanageable actions in large shopping  
centres in American towns, disorganizing them temporarily and  
playfully. These actions generally had no political significance.  
This all changed at the end of the 1990s. The 'Reclaim the Streets'  
movement, [2] highly active at the time, which used to organize  
illegally orchestrated 'street raves' in the public spaces of large  
towns, made intensive use of text and e-mail address lists to  
organize quasi-spontaneous street parties. They did however give  
these street parties a layered political agenda. The parties were  
generally given concrete political and social themes and were linked  
to particular actions, such as support for a strike by London  
Underground staff. The movement's desire to also use these actions to  
free public space from its economically determined function (for  
instance transport, shopping or advertising) was succinctly expressed  
in the slogan 'The streets for people!'. The parties followed a fixed  
procedure. The evening before, a sound truck with a generator, a DJ  
kit and a large number of loudspeakers would park in a wide street.  
Shortly before the start a double collision would be staged at the  
beginning and end of the street. The crucial factor here was the  
provision of information for the participants, who were, in  
principle, unknown to the organizers. Participants therefore received  
a short message containing simple directions to the place, the date,  
the time and a few instructions, such as 'wait for the orange smoke --  
that's when the rave will begin'. The double collision meant that at  
the agreed time the street was closed to all traffic. The cars used  
were fitted with smoke bombs which were set off by the mini-crash,  
producing enormous plumes of orange smoke, visible for miles around.  
This was the sign for which the 'Reclaim the Street' mob was waiting.  
Suddenly the street was flooded with people, sometimes more than a  
thousand at a time, while music began to boom from the previously  
parked truck or bus.

These examples demonstrate that we are living in a space in which the  
public is reconfigured by a multitude of media and communication  
networks interwoven into the social and political functions of space  
to form a 'hybrid space'. Traditional space is being overlaid by  
electronic networks such as those for mobile telephones and other  
wireless media. This superimposition creates a highly unstable  
system, uneven and constantly changing. The social phenomena which  
occur in this new type of space can not be properly understood  
without a very precise analysis of the structure of that space.

The way the Moroccan youths in Amsterdam East used text message  
address lists to mobilize themselves rapidly and effectively against  
what they saw as unjustified police violence provides an interesting  
example of a social group which finds itself in a socially segregated  
and stigmatized position appropriating a newly available technology.  
Mobilization was possible because at that time real-time mobile  
communication (texting) was available essentially free of charge.  
Shortly after that incident, texting became a paid service, though  
the reasons for this were economic rather than political, and its use  
for this purpose quickly lost popularity. It was simply too expensive  
to send so many messages at the same time. The specific relationship  
between time, space and technology, and to a lesser extent simple  
economics, determined the way in which this social phenomenon  
manifested itself. More than e-mails, which almost always have to be  
downloaded from a terminal or laptop (e-mailing on a mobile telephone  
is extremely laborious and inefficient), the brief phase during which  
text messaging served as a free public medium provided an important  
indicator to a changing relationship in the use and organization of  
public space. The mobility and immediacy of the medium gave birth to  
new social morphologies, like the 'flash mob', which still seem  
mostly to indicate a kind of mobile 'just-in-time-community' in  
physical public space.

The Place of Flows...

The question here is what this new kind of social morphology might  
mean. What lies behind the gimmick? What social, economic and  
technological transformations give rise to new phenomena of this kind?

So far the most important sociological theory about this is set out  
in Manuel Castells' Rise of the Network Society, the first part of  
his trilogy on the information age. [3] In it he describes the rise  
of flexible social network connections which resulted from economic  
and social transformations in late industrial societies and were  
strengthened by the introduction and wide application of new  
technology, primarily communication and information technology.  
Castells postulates that the network has become the dominant form in  
a new type of society that he calls the network society. He treats  
the influence of the network form as a social organization in  
physical and social space and establishes a new kind of dichotomy.  
According to Castells there are two opposing types of spatial logic,  
the logic of material places and locations (the 'space of place') and  
the logic of intangible flows of information, communication, services  
and capital (the 'space of flows'). [4]

The particularly striking thing about Castells' theory is the strict  
separation between the two kinds of spatial logic. Whereas the space  
of places and locations is clearly localized and associated with  
local history, tradition and memory, Castells sees the space of flows  
as essentially ahistorical, location-free and continuous. This last  
mainly because it moves across every time zone and so in some sense  
is not only location-free but also timeless. [5] Castells believes  
there is a fundamental asymmetry between the two kinds of space:  
while the vast majority of the world's inhabitants live, dwell and  
work in the space of places and locations, the dominant economic  
political, social and ultimately also cultural functions are  
increasingly shifting to the place of flows, where they make possible  
location-free ahistorical network connections, international trends,  
power complexes and capital movements. Only a very small part of the  
world population is represented in the bodies which take decisions  
about the organization and use of new location-free spatial  
connections. But increasingly the decisions made within such self- 
contained systems determine the living conditions in those places and  
locations where the vast majority of the world population attempt to  
survive and where their knowledge, experience and memory is  
localized. Castells feels that it is not surprising that political,  
social and cultural bridges need to be deliberately built between the  
two spatial dynamics, to avoid society's collapse into insoluble  
schizophrenia.

The attractive thing about Castells' theory is that it makes it  
possible to grasp and clarify a multiplicity of asymmetric social  
developments in a single image -- an image that has certainly not left  
popular culture unmoved. At the same time Castells' suggested  
contrast between physical locations and places and the intangible  
space of flows is misleading and ultimately even counterproductive  
for his political agenda: the deliberate building of bridges between  
physical space and informational space. Instead of a strict  
separation between physical space and informational space, all  
technological and social trends clearly indicate that these two  
'spheres' are becoming more and more closely interwoven. A generic  
model of the sort suggested by Castells is totally unsuited to the  
analysis of this closeness and to gaining an understanding of how  
possibilities for public and private action come about within it, the  
central question posed in the present issue of Open. What threats to  
the autonomy and inviolability of the subject, the group, the  
community or cultural self-determination could possibly manifest  
themselves here and how can something be done about those threats?

Hybrid Space as a Polymorphous Concept

Against the placelessness and continuity of Castells' ahistorical  
'space of flows' stands the discontinuity and multiplicity of hybrid  
space. The hybridity of this spatial concept refers not only to the  
stratified nature of physical space and the electronic communication  
networks it contains, but every bit as much to the discontinuity of  
the 'connectivity' or degree of connection between the multiplicity  
of communication networks. After all, even the universal presence of  
a telephone connection can not be taken for granted. More important  
still is the connection between local social and electronic networks:  
who communicates with whom, and in what context, is determined  
differently from one region to another, sometimes even from one day  
to the next. Because the space of electronic communication is rooted  
in local networks, it is also linked with local history. And  
questions about who controls electronic space or becomes familiar  
with electronic space are by no means easy to answer. Ravi Sundaram  
for example, co-founder of the Sarai new media initiative in Delhi,  
is constantly drawing attention to the coming into being of what he  
calls 'electronic pirate-modernity', [6] which comes about when local  
groups or individuals, illegitimately and without permission, gain  
access to television, telephone or the Internet -- 'Never ask  
permission, just appear!'.

Hybrid space is never exclusively local, as in the case of the  
idyllic hippy commune at the beginning of the 1970s. Small local  
networks, hacked or not, never remain limited to the local bazaar or  
the vegetable market in the next village. Local networks interweave  
with the international networks into which they force their way.  
Thus, says Saskia Sassen, the local is reconstituted as a micro- 
environment with a worldwide reach. Free-software geniuses in Sao  
Paulo's favelas find no difficulty in downloading the results of the  
latest interchange between the Amsterdam Waag (the Society for Old  
and New Media) and the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, but nobody  
pulls his or her local roots out of the ground.

Diktat of Visibility

The thing that strikes one about current discussion and the  
associated criticism of the rise of electronic media in public space  
is the preoccupation with the visual forms in which these media  
manifest themselves, such as screens, projections and electronic  
tagging. [7] It is a sort of extended visual criticism, closely  
connected with a tradition which assumes that the visual arrangement  
of observable reality is a necessary precondition for any ability to  
exercise power over that reality. However, the thing that stands in  
the way of this preoccupation with the visual is a critical analysis  
of the more invisible processes which are rearranging public space  
and imposing a different utilization logic. Relatively invisible  
forms of social compulsion, which bring these processes into play,  
may well have a much greater significance for the way in which public  
space can and may be used in future.

The concept of the perfect visual arrangement, expressing a social  
reality in which power structures are completely unambiguous and  
transparent, still always refers to Alberti's 'legitimate  
construction' and Piero della Francesca's ideal city, both of which  
reflect a visual articulation of daily life suggesting that  
everything, social and public, is completely controllable and  
constructible. Although the unifying point of view of a linear  
perspective has long been rejected, the street screens still  
stipulate for us a single perspective: a correct viewing distance and  
direction, while social relationships are radically altered.

The street screen is also the embodiment of spectacle in its most  
repressive form. Today spectacle is no longer alone in controlling  
the inner life, the interior of the alienation of the average TV  
junkie. The street, the classic stage of modern theatre, is  
overloaded with marching electronic screens and projections, so  
erasing the public functions of open space. Public functions become  
blurred by the flow of light and images drenching us in a fetish of  
alienating desires as we follow our necessary route through the city,  
from A to B.


Limitations of the Screen

Another point of criticism of the new urban visuality is its inherent  
limitation. Virtually every screen is rectangular and flat and has  
limited resolution (the number of pixels which determine the quality  
of the image). Media artists recognized these limitations years ago  
and have, with varying degrees of success, developed a multitude of  
strategies to attempt to overcome those limitations by, for example,  
a spatial type of installation, interactive media in which the screen  
itself also becomes an object capable of being moved and manipulated,  
projection on walls, fabrics, curved screens, screens that are not  
rectangular, [8] mirrored projections, moving projections,  
projections on glass materials and so on. Some artists, as for  
example the members of the Knowbotic Research collective, even leave  
out screens entirely, replacing them by new haptic interfaces and  
stereoscopic helmets from the Virtual Reality research laboratory or,  
as during the 1996 Dutch Electronic Art Festival, an installation on  
the roof of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, where network  
manipulations translated into sound and stroboscopic light. [9] Yet  
another example of the movement to bypass the screen is the Xchange  
network, in which artists collectively explore the sonic dimension of  
the Internet. [10]

The new generation of media-architects can learn from media art that  
the screen is ultimately a dead end. It is interesting to see how  
these attempts at iconographic liberation keep on recurring. Avant- 
garde painters carried out endless experiments in their attempts to  
break away from the frame of the painting and the surface of the  
canvas, their ultimate aim being to announce the death of the  
'retinal' object. This same death announcement is repeated by today's  
media artists, but this time in relation to the screen. Media  
architecture again venerates the screen as a window on a space first  
seen as boundless, but later recognized as being largely subject to  
limitations and conventions.

Ultimately the screen dissolves into the architecture, becoming less  
a screen than a membrane between physical and medial reality. Here  
the 'image' functions less and less as an autonomous object, but  
increasingly coincides with the architecture itself, its skin, its  
inner life and its internal processes, finally disappearing from the  
consciousness of the user of that architecture. The image becomes  
subliminal, 'vernacular', commonplace, merged with the environment,  
self-evident -- in the end the spectacle neutralizes itself. Media  
theorist Lev Manovich was still positive about this new medially  
enhanced architecture in his essay entitled The Poetics of Augmented  
Space, that had Learning from Prada as subtitle and was based on the  
success of Koolhaas's creation. [11] By now we know that the concept  
has failed completely, screens have disappeared from the scene or  
have been cut back to a minimum. The lesson of Prada is that the  
strategy of visibility can quickly turn into its opposite.

The Problem of Invisibility

In the present phase, the most important change in computer  
technology and its applications is that they are steadily beginning  
to withdraw themselves from sight. The European Union has for some  
years now been subsidizing a wide-ranging programme of  
multidisciplinary research and discussion with the remarkable title  
The Disappearing Computer. This title alludes less to the  
disappearance of computer technology than to its ongoing  
miniaturization and the way that it is beginning to turn up  
everywhere. The programme is investigating the migration of  
electronic network technology into every kind of object, to built  
environments and even to living beings. The thesis is that  
miniaturization and steadily reducing production costs are making it  
simpler to provide all kinds of objects with simple electronic  
functions (chips containing information, tags that can send or  
receive signals, identification chips and specialized functions in  
everyday objects). This is more efficient than building ever more  
complex pieces of multifunctional apparatus and mean the abandonment  
of the old idea of the computer as a universal machine capable of  
performing every conceivable function. [12] In fact, this is how  
technology becomes invisible. A decisive step, with dramatic  
consequences for the way people think about and deal with spatial  
processes.

This assimilation of computer technology in the environment  
introduces a new issue: the problem of invisibility. When technology  
becomes invisible, it disappears from people's awareness. The  
environment is no longer perceived as a technological construct,  
making it difficult to discuss the effects of technology.

Lev Manovich speaks of 'augmented space', a space enriched with  
technology, which only becomes activated when a specific function is  
required. [13] Wireless transmitters and receivers play a crucial  
role in such enriched spaces. Objects are directly linked with  
portable media. Chips are incorporated into identity cards and  
clothing. Even one's shopping is automatically registered by sensors.  
Screens and information systems are switched on remotely, by a simple  
wave of the hand. Miniaturization, remote control and particularly  
the mass production of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags is  
bringing the age-old technological fantasy of a quasi-intelligent,  
responsive environment within reach of digital engineers.

Of course these applications are not exclusively neutral.  
Combinations of technologies of the sort described above make it  
amazingly simple to introduce new and infinitely differentiated  
regimes for the control of public and private space. The application  
to public transport of RFID smart cards, which automatically  
determine the distance travelled, the fare and the credit balance,  
still sounds relatively harmless. Fitting household pets with an  
identity chip the size of a grain of rice, inserted under the skin,  
has become widespread practice. Indeed most health insurance schemes  
for household pets prescribe the insertion of such chips as an entry  
condition. Recently, however, first reports have turned up of  
security firms in the United States which provide their employees  
with subcutaneous chips allowing them to move through secure  
buildings without the use of keys or smart cards. Such systems also  
allow companies to compile a specific profile for each individual  
employee specifying those parts of the building or object to which  
the employer has (or is denied) access, and at what times.

It is not difficult to extrapolate these practices to society as a  
whole. Who has the initiative in such matters? If the initiative lies  
exclusively with the constructors, the producers of these augmented  
spaces, and their clients, then the space we are living in is liable  
to total authoritarian control, even if there is no immediately  
observable way in which that space displays the historic  
characteristics of authoritarianism. The more widely the initiative  
is distributed between producers and consumers and the more decision- 
making is transferred the 'nodes' (the extremities of the network,  
occupied by the users) instead of at the 'hubs' (junctions in the  
network), the more chance there is of a space in which the sovereign  
subject is able to shape his or her own autonomy. The articulation of  
subjectivity in the network of waves is also an opportunity for the  
last remnants of autonomy to manifest themselves.

The Strategic Issue: 'Agency' in Hybrid Spaces

The concept of 'agency' is difficult to interpret, but literally  
combines action, mediation and power. It is not surprising therefore,  
to find it applied as a strategic instrument for dealing with  
questions about the ongoing hybridization of public and private  
space. Unlike Michel de Certeau's tactical acts of spatial resistance  
to the dominant utilitarian logic of urban space in particular, the  
action of this instrument in new ('augmented') hybrid spaces has  
mainly strategic significance. A tactical act of spatial resistance,  
which is after all no more than temporary, is hardly comforting to  
anyone faced by such an infinitely diversified and adaptive system of  
spatial control. New hybrid spaces must be deliberately 'designed' to  
create free spaces within which the subject can withdraw himself,  
temporarily, from spatial determination. Given the power politics and  
the enormous strategic and economic interests involved, and the  
associated demands for security and control, it is clear that these  
free spaces will not come about by themselves or as a matter of  
course. I would therefore like to suggest a number of strategies to  
give some chance of success to the creation of such spaces.

Public visibility: 'maps and counter-maps', tactical cartography
The problem of the invisibility of the countless networks penetrating  
public and private space is ultimately insoluble. What can be done,  
however, is to remake them in a local and visible form, in such a way  
that they remain in the public eye and in the public consciousness.  
This strategy can be expressed in 'tactical cartography', using the  
tools of the network of waves (gps, Wi-Fi, 3G, etcetera) to lay bare  
its authoritarian structure. An aesthetic interpretation of these  
structures increases the sensitivity of the observer to the  
'invisible' presence of these networks.

Disconnectivity
Emphasis is always placed on the right and desire to be connected.  
However, in future it may be more important to have the right and  
power to be shut out, to have the option, for a longer or shorter  
time, to be disconnected from the network of waves.

Sabotage
Deliberately undermining the system, damaging the infrastructure,  
disruption and sabotage are always available as ways of giving  
resistance concrete form. Such measures will, however, always provoke  
countermeasures, so that ultimately the authoritarian structure of a  
dystopian hybrid space is more likely to be strengthened and  
perpetuated than to be thrown open to any form of autonomy.

Legal provisions, prohibitions
In the post-ideological stage of Western society it seems that the  
laws and rights used to legalize matters provide the only credible  
source of social justification. But because a system of legal rules  
runs counter to the sovereignty of the subject it can never be the  
embodiment of a desire for autonomy. It can, however, play a part in  
creating more favourable conditions.

Reduction in economic scale
New hybrid systems of spatial planning and control depend on a  
radical increase in economic scale in the production of its  
instruments of control. Thus the political choice to deliberately  
reduce economic scale would be an outstanding instrument to thwart  
this 'scaling-up' strategy. [14]

Accountability and public transparency
In the words of surveillance specialist David Lyon, 'Forget privacy,  
focus on accountability'. It would be naive to assume that the  
tendencies described above can easily be reversed, even with  
political will and support from public opinion. A strategy of  
insisting on the accountability of constructors and clients of these  
new systems of spatial and social control could lead to usable  
results in the shorter term.

Deliberate violation of an imposed spatial program
Civil disobedience is another effective strategy, especially if it  
can be orchestrated on a massive scale. Unlike sabotage, the aim here  
is not to disorganize or damage systems of control, but simply to  
make them ineffective by massively ignoring them. After all, the  
public interest is the interest of everyone, and no other interest  
weighs more heavily. [15]

The formation of new social and political actors -- public action
'Agency', the power to act, means taking action in some concrete  
form. The complexity of the new hybrid spatial and technological  
regimes makes it appear that the idea of action is in fact an absurdity.
However, new social and political players manifest themselves in  
public space by the special way they act, by clustering, by  
displaying recognizable visuality, by marking their 'presence' vis-a- 
vis (the) other(s).

The manifestation of concrete action by new social and political  
actors in public space is 'gesture'. The action, in this case, is the  
way the space is used, though there is still a difference between the  
use of a space and more or less public actions in that space. The use  
of space becomes agency when that use takes on a strategic form.


Notes:

1. For a description, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/flashmob.
2. Reclaim the streets website http://rts.gn.apc.org/.
3. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford:  
Blackwell Publishers, 1996).
4. Ibid.
5. Consider for example the concept of the 24-hour economy.
6. 'Electronic pirate modernity': see also www.sarai.net.
7. See also www.urbanscreens.org or the Logo Parc symposium held in  
Amsterdam on 16 November 2005, a cooperative project undertaken by  
the Jan van Eyck Academy, the Premsela Foundation and the Art and  
Public Space Lectureship (Rietveld Academy and the University of  
Amsterdam).
8. These 'shaped screens' do incidentally form a curious counterpart  
to Frank Stella's Shaped Canvasses.
9. Anonymous Muttering: http://www.khm.de/people/krcf/AM/.
10. Website of the Xchange network, http://xchange.re-lab.net.
11. Lev Manovich, The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada  
(2002), see www.manovich.net
12. The so-called Turing Machine, named after the mathematician Allan  
Turing -- the machine that is capable of simulating any other machine.
13. Manovich, The Poetics of Augmented Space, op. cit. (note 11).
14. The mass production of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags  
compelled producers to minimize the security provisions incorporated  
to allow the tags to be applied cost effectively to virtually any  
conceivable consumer product. A policy of giving priority to the  
safety and reliability of the chips and the information stored on  
them would make them much too expensive, restricting their  
development to specialized 'niche' markets.
15. Examples of a new kind of civil disobedience include deactivating  
RFID tags with the aid of an adapted mobile phone, hindering the  
operation of smart cards, regularly swapping client cards,  
deliberately supplying false information when registering online and  
using 'anonymizers' on the Internet, 'encrypted' (coded) mobile  
phones and local gsm blockers.


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