“What role does urban planning play in the development of online, multi-user environments and communities?”
The city of contemporary experience is a dense web of interconnecting fibres, cables, lines, and connections. Overlaying the physical infrastructure of institutions with their corridors, doors, alarms, offices, and telecommunications are the invisible wireless signals, satellite feeds and other unseen yet omniprescent systems of messaging in all its form.
The sea of information which surrounds us in the contemporary city is more than a mere adjunct to the physicality of buildings, streets, public squares, malls and habitats. Life is to a large extent increasingly mediated by the conditions of a global digital system of commerce and governance. Those unconnected must pay the price of an often externally imposed set of social relations, which are for the most part a sophisticated extension of the traditional social system, reliant upon a stark division of labour. Capital, and its urban manifestations have remained largely unchanged since the days of the weaving loom, steam engine and the child labour factory. Those in power will always seek to coerce others to see the world as it, through them, appears to be: an uneven and skewed office, workplace and shopfront, where freedom from drudgery and boredom always seem to be just out of reach, forever a mirage of what could be possible.
But amidst this ocean of inequality borne aloft by the surface tension of global digital technology are emerging, paralell to those deemed official by those in power, alternatives to the system as it stands. Experimenters, playful artists, and those who refuse to cede to the expected aquiescence to capital are carving new and fascinating types of media usage. These are the public media activists, the programmers, graphics people, musicians and creative libertarians who have adapted the refuse of what Guy Debord called the media Spectacle, and turned the one way glass of computers and communications into a window of social possiblity.
Behind the creative use of media is a willingness to experiment, to identify the needs of society above and beyond those of the balance sheet. So plentiful are cast-offs devices that people around the world are learning to assemble not only working machines from the bits and pieces of the flotsam of the world of business, but are connecting these machines and making them available to those who genuinely need them for literacy, and communications, learning and social development. The Raspberry Pi computer, available for $25 can do as much as a Pentium could ten years ago, and more.
Thus new cities are being constructed alongside those of the traditional social systems of the past. For what is a building and a street but a technological method for the cultivation of civic life, with all that goes with it. Computers only require the physical space, electricity and communications links which enable them to be turned on, and used. A cast off machine can hide under a counter in a space no bigger than a drawer, and yet serve web pages, software and material with the entire world. A refurbished laptop can run alone, in a back room or a hidden place and act as the rallying point for a global movement!
The collision of physicality and virtuality in the urban mileu thus gives rise to new types of architecture – that of the hybrid city. The hybrid city is the blend of city space with the imagined spaces of the mind and minds of those connected via networks and software. As the late William J Mitchell in “City of Bits” once observed, the arrival of Automatic Telling Machines eventually gave rise to the gradual collapse of the very idea of the bank – a large building in a city which holds money and keeps it for people.
Money itself assisted in the collapse of the local bank by becoming increasingly unattached to its real world referents – cash, cheques etc. It was the networks rather than the automatic machines at the end of them which people use, hence a ‘bank’ can be anywhere connected to the banking network. Decentralised, dephysicalised, and cut adrift from the domain of urban fixity, banks now largely operate as token ‘end points’ on the global system of the circulation of capital which as McKenzie Wark dryle noted “like rust, never sleeps”.
In rural Australia in the mid 1990s, the collapse of the bank branch had serious effects on the makup and nature of life in small towns and provincial cities. People who had never needed to understand, use or deal with electronic systems of banking had relied upon knowing the teller behind the counter, and were quite happy with the pre-digital system of paper, pens, cash and other physical processes. For one thing, visiting the bank might have been the central purpose for a lengthy trip to an urban space, which would have also been the opportunity to perform other errands and tasks. When the banks went digital in outback Australia, locals know that the writing is on the wall for the town as a whole. Where the networks supplant the buildings, ghosts towns of isolation take their place.
But if networks and computers are ‘obsoleting’ cities as we once knew them, might there be opportunities for networks and computers to create meaningful cities in their place? Where computers and networks proliferate, very often so do economic and social and cultural systems. Could it be that it actually does not matter if the networks support commerce or not? Simply enabling people to connect, and to view connection itself as the basis for participation in hybrid urban life fulfills the promise of digital communications as a kind of global adhesive.
As computers proliferate, there is also emerging a kind of global culture of connectivity such that non government organisations, human rights groups, and other non-profit, people based institutions can fill the void which money, vacuum like robs from the social and civic life of cities. Cities are altering to reflect these emerging alterations to the fabric of urban experience.
It is entirely possible, because of the widespread influence of computer networks for those not connected to worldwide money making for people to take the cast-offs from businesses and put them to more social uses. Many companies are happy for people to take obsolete machines off their hands. Some charity groups have emerged around the world who refurbish old machines and pass them on at little or no cost to those who need them. Firms are often quite willing to contribute to social programs in exchange for publicity, always the currency in a media dominated world.
Anything from old cameras, laptops and networking hardware can find their way into the hands of those who ask for them, the primary motivator being the desire to see the unconnected join the global agora that is the internet. It is the process of asking which is the key. An understanding of the organic nature of city life can give the media activist a sense of contributing to new types of uses for urban culture – simply adapting what is around to the needs of the population can alter the nature and appearance of the city for the activist as much as the multinational.
Media culture is largely a one-way mainstream juggernaut, whose tentacles spread to all corners of the globe. Cable television, satellite news, and giant telecommunications firms have succeeded in making the world itself a kind of configured ‘desktop’ where filtered information and ideas relevant to the most powerful countries are the only ones allowed through. But with every branch office, and with every commercial spinnoff which accompany the global spread of media hegemony come the trickle down bits of hardware, software and the skills which are required to use them.