The Networked Narrative

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“In every age urban spaces—streets and squares—have served to stage spectacles in which the citizenry participated as players and audience. Urban life in nothing if not theatrical.”

-Spiro Kostof

“Places do not disappear, but their logic and their meaning become absorbed in the network.”

-Manuel Castells

The compact disc, a beachhead in the eventual digital absorption of nearly everything, introduced itself to the world via Philips and Sony with the promise of “perfect sound forever.” Today, that succinct phrase reads as a flawed prophecy about a then-nascent revolution in information and memory: The replacement of an analog world where death and decay ultimately eroded all but the most valued (and fortunate) vessels of information—paintings, books, records, and even buildings—with a digital one where the same bits that had previously lived in physical objects could achieve immortality and begin piling up forever unless consciously deleted. Analog information had to opt into survival through intentional preservation; digital information would have to opt out.

Digital information still dies, of course. It just dies differently—through large, unexpected, and instantaneous losses rather than gradual, incremental attrition. Its default condition, however, is indefinite storage, and no matter how much data our society manages to produce, we’re even better at finding places to keep it. Kevin Kelly has cited an estimate by Google economist Hal Varian that total worldwide information has been increasing at an annual rate of 66 percent for decades (while the production of analog goods like paper has been increasing by only 7 percent).

The informational excess that follows from these qualities of digital information impacts our society’s creation of meaning through narratives as well as its maintenance of those narratives. In the analog era that comprised most of human history, narratives competed with one another and achieved prominence through a physical presence in the world: A cathedral, a monument, a Dickens novel, or Mao’s Little Red Book all mattered in proportion to their tangible reach across space and time, while lesser works were limited by their lack of such a reach. Lasting longer through preservation, spreading across space through mass production, or occupying visible locations in urban centers were the only ways for narrative influence to grow. Nassim Taleb has called this condition Mediocristan and contrasted it with Extremistan, the present state, in which digital reproduction (among other things) removes those limitations. In Mediocristan, the individuals and groups with the most wealth and power had great ability to promote the narratives that much larger groups would ultimately accept. Building and distributing the physical media that transmitted those narratives was not cheap, and it was certainly never as easy as merely writing text and pressing a button.

As narratives accumulate, selective destruction of them becomes critical. The significant must be emphasized at the expense of everything else; the creation of narratives entails a conscious emphasis of certain realities over others. The physical attrition of analog information ensured that this would happen naturally—we would “opt in” to the narratives worth keeping—but the rapid buildup of digital information presents the risk of noise overwhelming signal. Forgetting is essential to remembering, but many of us who grew up in the digital era never learned how to forget. The effort to foreground the important at the expense of everything else becomes qualitatively different when it all remains equally accessible, and the task of searching has thus replaced the tasks of building and preserving as central to narrative creation.

Like other narrative vessels, the built environment grows and decays incrementally. Residue of the past lingers long after its purpose has dissipated. In the 19th century, Victor Hugo predicted that the printed word would kill architecture as a bearer of meaning; two hundred years later, he might finally be right, although the printed word faces similar danger. The post-analog world doesn’t require buildings (or books) to speak; more effective communication channels have replaced them. In surveying the Baroque urbanism that characterizes cities like Rome, Paris, and Washington DC, the architectural historian Spiro Kostof returns again and again to their designers’ pursuit of stunning visual experiences punctuated by dramatic focal points—often monuments—and unified by coherent narratives. Kostof finally concludes that subsequent formal planning principles ranging from modernism to New Urbanism embody similar beliefs about the public realm’s purpose. Planned cities have traditionally been saturated with narratives, the dominant ones intentionally constructed and meant to be interpreted similarly by all who encountered them.

In the now-fading industrial age, too, entering a major city entailed recurring narratives that the built environment reinforced. Trains brought their passengers into cavernous, breathtaking spaces like Grand Central Station, situated at the heart of the city, and those newly-arriving visitors knew they had come to a place of an entirely different scale than the one they had left. A message—that a momentous event was occurring—was coded into that infrastructure itself, if not consciously designed, and transmitted in unambiguous terms to everyone who passed through it. The physical structure of intercity rail networks, too, mirrors the world that it exists to serve, reinforcing those narratives of long-distance travel by emphasizing that network’s most important points (its metropolitan hubs) and providing an experience visceral enough to live on in the present-day United States as a form of tourism—transportation for its own sake.

Throughout the preceding millennium, urban space has communicated bluntly with its subjects in languages explicit and implicit. A monument and a railroad station both speak forcefully about the nature of the world around them, whether designed to do so or not, and one of their most important statements has consistently been the significance and centrality of the city itself. A Grand Central Station, a National Mall, or an Arc de Triomphe each acknowledged a collective pathway through space and shouldered the responsibility for making a striking impression upon subjects who traveled it.

Lately, those pathways of movement have changed, and so have the narratives that explain them to us. The experience of entering a city—or negotiating physical space in general—has utterly transformed since the industrial heights of centuries past, and so have the means of transmitting and receiving information about that space. The various media of analog communication, in a mature digital world, persist or resurface as objects fetishized for their very materiality, from vinyl records to statues to architectural wonders to print books. As Victor Hugo anticipated, their value is mainly aesthetic, and no longer central to their society’s narrative projects (Marshall McLuhan elaborated upon this notion when he called the modern city a cultural ghost for tourists).

The digital age has by now reached a stage of relative maturity, and our most important information can live on microchips and travel by fiber-optic cable. It no longer needs to reside in stone structures or even on paper. This loss of physicality has impacted the urban built environment in ways that are only starting to become obvious. Manuel Castells has explained,

“Oversignificant architecture, trying to give a very definite message or to express directly the codes of a given culture, is too primitive a form to be able to penetrate our saturated visual imaginary. The meaning of its messages will be lost in the culture of ‘surfing’ that characterizes our symbolic behavior. This is why, paradoxically, the architecture that seems most charged with meaning in societies shaped by the logic of the space of flows is…the architecture whose forms are so neutral, so pure, so diaphanous, that they do not pretend to say anything.”

In other words, networks are “eating” the physical space of contemporary society, and we are kidding ourselves when we pretend that our buildings and infrastructure need to speak to us. We have more powerful information coming to us from the screens of our iPhones and from countless other sources; the spatial messages our cities used to transmit can’t compete with these.

Airports, for Castells and for many of us, are the quintessential built forms of the digital, networked age, and the environments that most embody the values and rhythms of this age. Unlike Grand Central Station, landing at JFK or LAX is not a dramatic experience. The plane’s taxi from runway to gate, the slow filing up the aisle, and the walk from jetway to terminal to baggage claim all feel mundane, in contrast to the technology that makes them possible. Any visceral excitement—a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline during descent, for example—is incidental, not designed. In fact, those glimpses typically result from breaches in the facades set up to shield passengers from any awareness of air travel’s infrastructural realities.

As Venkat has pointed out in his description of the geographically decoupled “Cloud Mouse,” these standardized environments aren’t meant to excite us or reinforce a societal narrative, though they are well-positioned to do both; rather, they exist to comfort us with the familiarity that we jeopardize by living lives of constant high-speed movement. Ideally (and unlike the infrastructure they replaced) these places will help us forget that we’ve moved at all. The space we inhabit is more topological than ever as we locate our positions within networks instead of maps and this may be the most true narrative about the present age: No matter where in the networked world we’re coming from or traveling to, we’re already there.

About Drew Austin

Drew Austin is a New York based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of the changing nature of urban environments . Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Harold Smith says:

    I grew up in Ft. Madison, Iowa, in the Forties, in Santa Fe town – where everyone, directly or indirectly, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad.

    I distinctly remember the Kansas City Railroad Depot, a grand structure where you could take a shower in the basement, change clothes, and then get a shave, a haircut, and a shoe shine. Commercial travelers used to practically live on the trains.

    The last time I visited Kansas City, the whole structure was gone without a trace. There was only a tiny, underground Amtrak building you couldn’t even see from the street.

    Ft. Madison used to be served by two railroads, and had two posh hotels right next to the depots, which were right next to each other. Now all are gone.

    I like what you said – Networks are “eating” the physical space of contemporary society – and I might add, society too.

  2. Lovely imagery, hadn’t come across Victor Hugo on architecture before.

    Just to pull out some subtext here, it seems like the symbolically muted world of diaphanous transport architecture could form a kind of antidote to the signal heavy digital world. In other words, if information subtraction becomes more and more important, then you need a ground state that is less and less noisy, that forms an escape from the buzz, but also the museum-white stage for whatever you are currently selecting.

    In more basic terms, if the shops stop providing music, you’re free to continue listening to the album you started before you left the house. Although in real life, advertising, decision points, and various other things can still cause space to functionally determine the progress of narratives by acting on those internal structures of meaning in terms of trains of thought, the generative selection processes that create them.

    The narrative structure of space would then not so much be about structures of reference and relationship but cruising speeds and interruption.

  3. The lack of creative-destruction in digitally-based narratives has bothered me for quite a while as well. I think people, myself included, generally think of things like synthesis/bricolage (or, in the language of platitudes, “synergy”) as simply the product of multiple ideas “having sex” (as Matt Ridley would put it), but the other part of sexual reproduction is that the parents eventually die in order to filter out what becomes noise. Permanent storage may very well hinder the evolution of ideas by raising the noise-to-signal ratio.

    Also considering that the exponential growth of undying information dovetails with Venkat’s idea of “Peak Attention.” An exponentially growing amount of narratives/signifiers/ideas/etc juxtaposed with a finite amount of human cognition suggests what I might dare call “narrative hyperinflation.”

    • Alexander, I like the following idea: “Permanent storage may very well hinder the evolution of ideas by raising the noise-to-signal ratio.” This is why I think people (not machines) will continue to have the upper-hand when it comes to curating information online. I still respect human taste over algorithms for some important things. The real issue, in my mind, is that we want some things to be stored permanently and we want others to disappear into the digital abyss.

      • I think what Alexander was trying to say was “lower the signal-to-noise ratio.” Less signal, more noise. 99% of email traffic is spam, all of it preserved for eternity by default.

        That you felt a need to qualify “respect (for) human taste over algorithms” by preceding it with the word “still,” and use the qualifier “some” before “important things,” ought to light up every red fire alarm on your switchboard. That kind of language certainly does so for me. Technology is our creation, not our Creator, and we should neither worship it nor subjugate ourselves to it. (Speaking here as a technology professional.)

        • G.

          Perhaps I misinterpreted what Alexander meant, but I’ll leave him to be the judge of that.

          As for your second point, I agree with you, but the reason I felt the need to qualify my remark was that not everyone shares our belief on the matter, presumably including many regular readers of this blog.

          • Re. “not everyone shares our belief on the matter…” Ahh but that’s the point: to call up questions about the prevailing catechisms, so they don’t stand as unchallenged dogma.

            The strong version of your statement would be “I respect human taste over algorithms for many important things.”

            Clearly there are numerous important things we should be willing to trust to algorithms, from the engineering designs of large buildings and bridges, to the trajectories and maneuvers of space vehicles. These are purely empirical matters: objective facts of nature embodied in technology.

            Taste is a set of value judgements, subjective experiential facts that vary among humans, rather than objective empirical facts of nature. Science and by extension technology, can only address what can be measured objectively and created on the basis of objective measurements. Humans have to exercise the value judgements about the uses to which science and technology are put, and how those uses are expressed.

            Thus any algorithm that attempts to express taste, is ultimately a tool for a human expression of taste, whether or not the humans who design or utilize it know that. For example digital music synthesis can facilitate compositional genius, but to quote Frank Zappa, it has also “enabled a whole generation of dreckmeisters.”

            We can’t (whether we want to or not) step back from our human responsibility for judgements of value, whether in the form of architecture, music, or the policies that govern our civic and economic lives.

  4. Architecture, none the less, creates a narrative, whether we choose it or not, and whether we know it or not.

    The airport is an interesting construct, especially for a traveler with any sense of patience and everyday curiosity, and any degree of appreciation for technology beyond the latest consumer disposables. All the better for someone who can imagine him/herself in the role of a time-traveler or an extraterrestrial visitor, or at least a cultural anthropologist.

    In the airport the surveillance is overt rather than hidden in consumer baubles, but the watchers are only concerned with preventing violence rather than with “nudging” you to one or another “consumer experience.” As long as the watchers are diligent, it’s the safest place this side of a rural pasture, and you can comfortably shed your city crime paranoia. From your departure terminal you can observe workers and obscure machinery busily attending to aircraft, and learn much about what goes into making a flight happen. There is ample food to be had, not gourmet fare and not cheap, but tasty and nutritious and more than sufficient. There are social clusters of various kinds to observe, from the throngs of travelers speaking diverse foreign languages and domestic dialects, to the airport workers, flight crews, and various gaggles of tourists and business travelers. In the recent past one could observe nerd-clusters with laptops attached to whatever power sockets could be found; today it’s just as likely that people with “devices” represent a random population sample.

    But there is one thing absent from the airport, for those who are its customers, and that is _community_. The nature of the place is one of transience, where every social contact is fleeting and few if any will develop beyond that point. We gain a world where any place is at most a day away, but from one airport to the next, we lose the roots to a particular place that gives meaning and longevity to our relationships, and regain them only upon returning home.