Navigating the Holey Plane

by Venkat on October 23, 2012

Guest post by Drew Austin of Kneeling Bus, an excellent blog about urbanism and cities.

 Although connectedness is the spirit of the city, and will probably remain so, the American version has always harbored a tendency to explode, to atomize, and to spread itself as far as possible. Today this may be exacerbated (or made more possible, if you like) by the media of virtuality.

– Lars Lerup

 “Connectedness” is one of the great buzzwords of the Internet Age. The claim that everyone is now more connected than ever before is the platitude upon which plenty of techno-optimism rests. Count the number of times Mark Zuckerberg uses the word whenever he explains Facebook’s role in the world (on his own profile, for instance). Then, count the number of times he explains what he actually means.

Within the context of Facebook, of course, Zuckerberg shouldn’t have to explain what “connected” means. Everyone knows. If more information can flow between two people via Facebook than was previously possible, those two people have become more connected—at least by the standards of the Facebook universe. Does this mean that Facebook has brought about its stated objective, a more connected world? Has the internet even accomplished that? What about the last century of technological progress in general? What does it mean to be connected, exactly, and what have we given up in order to reach that state?

In advancing through modernity toward a digital, networked world, we have gained connectivity at the expense of continuity. Analog technology embodied continuity, and the very fabric of society was more continuous and whole before a variety of innovations enabled us to slice, separate, and otherwise reorganize our reality. This frequently happened in the name of connecting new parts of the world: the railroad and telegraph in one era, the automobile in another, and of course the internet and everything that came along with it more recently. Many of these innovations enabled people to bypass much of what they deemed irrelevant, whether that was space, time, or information itself, and the result was large gaps in experiences that had once been continuous.

The physical environments we now inhabit are products of this hyperconnected but discontinuous world, as well as metaphors for it. Our experience of space is full of gaps—the land traversed at 75 mph between freeway exits, for example—and so are cities themselves. Architectural theorist Lars Lerup has coined the term “Holey Plane” to characterize the urban landscape of his own city, Houston. Lerup quotes the artist Robert Smithson, who traveled through Passaic, New Jersey and marveled that it “seems full of ‘holes’ compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid.” The tightly-packed New York, like old cities all over the world, was built for direct sensory experience and foot travel. Residents knew their neighbors, shopkeepers attracted customers with signs and other visual cues, and everyone noticed the subtleties of the surrounding city as they walked from one place to another.

That early version of New York resembled analog technology: full of smooth, gradual transitions. Like a record or cassette tape, it was perceived as a continuous sequence and not made for rapid point-to-point skipping. There were few holes of any kind in the walking city, but the railroad and subway, both products of the nineteenth century, introduced measures of discontinuity. Rapid transit functioned as a system of wormholes connecting distant points with fast underground travel. Passengers entered one station and exited another with few intuitive clues to relate their trip’s origin to its destination. The automobile intensified that discontinuity, and air travel later enabled “jump cuts” spanning thousands of miles. Technological progress connected the world as gaps proliferated.

The Holey Plane—places like Passaic and Houston—thus depends upon infrastructure in a way that older cities did not. Infrastructure and the speed it enables are why sprawling suburbs and the holes within them can exist. Those systems of freeways, airports, fiber optic cable, housing, fast food chains, shopping centers, and everything else are far more legible than the teeming, disorganized, complex blocks of tightly-packed Manhattan two hundred years ago or Lagos today, and they are much closer to Le Corbusier’s vision for the city. Plenty of illegible space coexists with that legible infrastructure, but the people speeding by interpret it as noise among signals and barely notice it. If Manhattan was analog, these environments are digital—lacking ambiguity, made up of zeros and ones.

Navigating the Holey Plane requires different tools and faculties than did the illegible old cities, whose agoras and side streets rewarded intuition, accumulated knowledge, and metis. The engineered systems that dominate the Holey Plane, designed for legibility, require reason and perhaps a decent map. As mentioned above, subway travel is not intuitive, but the system map enables newcomers to get around almost as easily as long-time riders. Likewise, the wayfinding signage of the US Interstate Highway System requires rational interpretation, not the familiarity gained through experience.

People who grow up in the Holey Plane tend to relate to their environments differently than their traditional urban predecessors. With a car, an iPhone, and a credit card, one can be right at home throughout much of a metropolis like Houston. In the United States, truly illegible places have grown scarce, and even places like New York have been recoded for legibility by migrants from the Holey Plane. The explosion of social media and smartphone apps epitomizes this shift, transforming countless aspects of city life, such as restaurant recommendations and dating, into more rationalized, algorithm-driven processes. After all, many of us have lived hyperconnected lives that are broken up by jump cuts across space and time, and we welcome any tool that can smooth our experience of a discontinuous world. Despite what he says, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t connecting that world—he’s just covering up the holes.

Drew K October 23, 2012 at 3:56 pm

There has been plenty of discussion of the fact that humans evolved in tribes of about 100, and modern humans still seem to be wired to “know” about 100 people. Perhaps the same phenomenon applies to space. Maybe we can “know” ~10 square miles.

For ancient man, you knew the land you could walk to. Eventually, you knew the land you could ride a horse to, but I imagine there was “flyover country” even then. Today we don’t really know any more land than we ever did, we just know smaller pieces of it, spread out farther.

W at Off-Road Finance October 23, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I’m happy to be a native of the holey plane to the point where I really dislike densely packed and in your terminology illegible cities. Then again, I don’t much like cities of any sort, but if I have to deal with them give me Vegas or Denver, not New York. Effective navigation and fast travel make it possible to go to the stuff you want, rather than having what you want determined by what’s immediately available. That’s a huge improvement in utility no matter how you slice it.

Drew Austin October 29, 2012 at 12:07 am

W, I’m glad you pointed this out. Since I fall into the other category, as someone who likes illegible urban environments and places like New York (where I currently live), it’s helpful to hear someone argue in favor of the other side. I too am a native of the Holey Plane and in many ways I do impose those biases on an environment for which they’re not ideally suited. Most of us want what you described, but to different degrees: effective navigation, fast travel, and easy access to what we want. I don’t embrace those desires quite as enthusiastically as you do, but I do embrace them somewhat, and it’s probably because of the world I’ve grown up in and the technology used to navigate that world.

Isaac Lewis October 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm

I’ve long thought that travelling by foot is like a plane – you can go pretty much anywhere.

Travelling by car or bike is like a network of tunnels (like a ants nest) – you can only move along certain paths, but you can stop anywhere.

Trains, subways, buses and planes are like graphs. The edges exist, but passengers can abstract them away; only the nodes exist.

Nathaniel October 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I think the one thing that you are missing is that large highways make car routes graph-like. I get off two exits after I get on, I don’t consider the mileage.

Otherwise I love your reading of this post.

Drew Austin October 28, 2012 at 11:56 pm

This is a great observation, and something I hope to explore more. Air travel, in particular, fascinates me because it is most purely graph-like (differences in the edges exist, but mean very little). This is a crucial characteristic of the Holey Plane as I tried to describe it.

Cars are interesting because not all car travel is the same: Highway driving is much more graph-like than driving around on city streets, as both of you have pointed out. The infrastructure on which a vehicle operates probably determines more about how many “gaps” it creates than the vehicle itself does. For example, air travel doesn’t have to be quite as node-oriented as it is, but regulations and industry characteristics concentrate all origins and destinations for commercial aviation within a relatively small number of points.

Greg Linster October 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Digital technologies, rather than creating more holes, may just help repair the holes that already exist. Given the current state of technology, I think it’s a wonderful time to live in a dense city. The evidence supports the notion that people the world over think this as well.

JiaoNing Bu October 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm

I live in Central Taiwan. It’s a joy to ride a bike here versus the cities or manufacturing zones in the North or the big Agri/Aquaculture centers in the West. Here you can ride smoothly from the new section of farming town to the old city, and out to the surrounding aboriginal villages. Trying a new road might reward you with a mountaintop, a temple, a waterfall, a little village, some fire-roads, or a plantation (or some mean farm dogs and a redneck shack in the woods).

Now that I’ve read this, I’m thinking part of the reason I prefer riding here is the continuity. I’m wondering if this kind of continuity is always a quality of non-corporation farming areas. I remember roaming around Ireland in 1999, which boasted a lot of independent side-business farmers and shepherds. It was similar to this part of Taiwan.

The Vain Yogi October 29, 2012 at 10:33 am

Construction or maintenance of urban infrastructure are opportunities to explore alternative routes, increasing illegibility. When we moved to Dallas in 1997 US75 was still under construction, a big tunnel with slaloming lane changes. This influenced how we traveled and where we chose to live initially – using arterials and selecting unfashionable neighborhoods. When we moved to a slightly better neighborhood we kept to finding and using arterials or old main roads that the new freeway was meant to displace, even after US75 was open for business.

Another factor was choosing to rent a semi-detached unit of a duplex instead of an apartment with amenities. The amenities are good in developing connections with people but are not effective in creating attachment to a place. Even if we did not always end up talking to neighbors a detached dwelling feels more continuous than an apartment with its demands of maintaining the yard.

Being connected may be more about relationships with people while feeling a sense of continuity comes from owning and knowing a place through its ups and downs. When we choose to connect we connect with what we like and take pains to avoid what we don’t like. This selective bias breaks the continuity of experience.

Drew Austin October 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm

I believe that awareness about the effects of everything in your environment–technology, social relationships, or physical conditions–is a major step toward controlling how that environment affects you. The connected/discontinuous condition that I described is the default state for those who choose the path of least resistance and don’t reflect upon that condition. What you’ve described is an active effort to overcome your environment’s limitations–something we should all be doing, and the next logical step after articulating what those limitations are.

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