Freedom in Smooth Space

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

“But the nomad goes from point to point only as a consequence and as a factual necessity; in principle, points for him are relays along a trajectory.”

-Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari

Up in the Air, the 2009 George Clooney movie, remains pop culture’s best effort to portray the placeless, jet-setting professional class that 21st century conditions have enabled and incubated. For commentators on the film and the phenomenon, “nomadic” seems an irresistible descriptor: Like the tribes that pitch camp after impermanent camp across deserts and steppes, the contemporary nomads are defined by their constant motion, lack of permanent settlements, and the lightness of their material possessions. Technology—particularly high-speed transportation and the internet—makes such contemporary rootlessness possible as it tethers its subjects to a world-encompassing network that lessens the gravity of leaving and arriving at specific locations. Like the desert tribes, the new nomads are shielded from the emotional drain of perpetual goodbyes and hellos. Their culture allows them to keep most of what they deem important within reach, at least superficially, as they move around.

The similarities between the nomadism of Clooney’s frequent-flyer lifestyle and its traditional counterpart end there, however. Traditional nomads don’t build cities—a quality that practically defines those cultures—while it’s hard to imagine contemporary nomads exisiting independently of cities and urban culture. In The Global City, Saskia Sassen explains how the consultants who fly from New York to London to Tokyo and the information that travels even more fluidly between those economic centers are fundamental to the cities’ abiding prominence on the world stage. In other words, these “cloud mice” (to borrow Venkat’s term) are the orbiting particles of the global megacities that are physically rooted even while many of their people are not. The new nomads might yet detach from these cities altogether, but they haven’t thus far.

Urbanism, at its core, is a study of civilized human environments—which, for most of history, have been physically embodied or “built.” The ambient complement to the traditional bricks-and-mortar city, the networked digital space that overlaps so much of today’s physical urban space, deserves to be considered urban as well by this definition.  The contemporary nomad or Cloud Mouse, then, inhabits a version of urban space that is more topological than embodied. Their environments and lives, like many of ours, are structured by networks and saturated with network logic even when grounded in material reality. New York and Los Angeles are separated by one direct flight or 25,000 reward miles. Hilton, Starbucks, Hertz, and a multitude of individual, Yelp-validated local establishments are recognizable points amid the noise that envelops their patrons’ constantly changing settings. The formal networks of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, all pillars of globalized culture, are not just symbolic descriptions of social reality; they reinforce and influence that reality.

Topological space is best understood in contrast to the embodied space it is always replacing. In embodied space, relationships depend on physical proximity more than network connectivity. One’s neighbors are more familiar than people who live across town, all else being equal, due to non-networked interactions with one’s environment, like walking around the neighborhood. Institutions such as school, church, and the traditional workplace, or physical cities themselves, breed social relationships by grouping people together in space and time. Travel by foot, bicycle, boat, or even car (in many instances) fits the embodied model—unrestrained in two dimensions, limited mainly by distance, and not reducible or limited to a set of discrete points. In topological space, it’s different—New York City is closer to Boston than (nearer) rural areas of upstate New York due to the structure of high-speed transportation networks.

The network has always been symbolically useful for understanding embodied space. Street maps, for example, compress the diverse physical characteristics of roads into uniform links and nodes, optimizing those maps for the most relevant information at the expense of the rest. It was possible to depict a social network on paper before anything like Facebook ever existed, as a model that reduced a messier reality. Euler introduced key tenets of graph theory in the 18th century with the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg problem, long before modern “networks” as we know them emerged.

Today, everyone thinks about networks, and those networks don’t just describe reality; they prescribe it. Advanced transportation and communication technology lends itself to network arrangements: Infrastructure-dependent transport modes like rail, air travel, and container shipping are all confined to the capital-intensive terminals and lines that make them possible. Similarly, the binary nature of digital information flows most naturally through the unambiguous pathways of a network (Facebook, for instance, eliminates nuance by making friendship a yes-or-no question) while physical networks of fiberoptic cable actually move that data around. Seen from this perspective, the networked world is the legibility project of an increasingly rationalized society.

Networks, it seems, are a natural arrangement for contemporary human activity. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, however, we may have shaped our world this way before it began to shape us. Deleuze and Guattari famously distinguished the striated space of sedentary societies from the smooth space inhabited by nomads: The former imposed a restrictive legibility by “parceling out a closed space to people, assigning each person a share and regulating the communication between shares.” Think of the 1812 plan for New York, which extended the grid layout for streets and real estate parcels upward across the largely unpopulated Manhattan island, or the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stretched a similar Jeffersonian grid across a large section of the United States. Nomadic smooth space, on the other hand, does not enclose, delimit, or regulate, but “distributes people in an open space” and is variable and fuzzy.

Networks, though popularly understood as the milieu of the supposedly unbound Up in the Air nomad class, are anything but a smooth space. The topological space in which we find ourselves on I-95, at LAX, within Facebook’s semantic maze or amid Amazon’s algorithmic recommendations is the most striated and enclosed of all, with pathways more rigid than even the most uniform street grid. As data about human behavior within these networks accumulates, the networks transform themselves to reinforce their frequently-traveled paths at the expense of less popular ones. The loyalty programs that sustain Clooney’s Up in the Air protagonist are one visible example, as is the code that predicts which music or articles you’ll like and feeds it back to you. Compare these conditions with those of an earlier generation’s nomad myth: Kerouac’s On the Road. The freeway isn’t a very free space either, but it never seems more free than when we look back from what followed it.

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.

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