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.