The Wave of Unknowing

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

“Unable to find a place outside the capitalist system, the postmodern subject loses any possibility of fulfilling the Enlightenment ambition of drawing a map that could claim to mirror reality.”

-Kazys Varnelis

When Frederic Jameson published Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism twenty years ago, he ensured that his essay’s subject, the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, would become the world’s most intellectualized hotel. Designed by John Portman and built in the late 1970s, the Bonaventure’s monolithic presence in downtown LA (like much of Portman’s work) still represents everything urbanists hate: The massive building is a mirror-clad fortress with a rotating rooftop bar that boldly shirks any responsibility for relating to or enhancing the cityscape that surrounds it.

Inside its walls, the Bonaventure is its own universe: disorienting, windowless, and lacking reference to any external reality (aside from the rooftop bar’s panoramic views of the city). Reflecting upon the building and Jameson’s essay, Kazys Varnelis observes that its confusing, illegible layout perfectly epitomizes the contemporary era: “For Jameson, the hotel’s complexity is an analogue for our inability to understand our position in the multinational, decentered network of finance and communications that comprises late capitalism.” In the past, we believed that we could comprehend the world that we lived in—especially the parts of that world that we ourselves had made—but Portman’s hotel was a society announcing that it had finally outsmarted itself and was willing to embrace that outcome.

During the last two decades, frantic technological process has destroyed, transformed, or at least shaken many of the institutions and activities that predate the internet and smartphones. Some have fared much better than others. Public space—always a broadly-defined concept—has been spared the upheaval that has afflicted, say, the print media, but its digital counterparts have certainly challenged it. Many commentators have explained how networks like Facebook and Twitter are our new public spaces, but these analogies are typically far oversimplified: A glance around any major city reveals that traditional public space still exists and flourishes in its familiar, pre-digital form. People still fill Central Park on a warm Saturday afternoon, regardless of what’s happening on the internet.

What has changed about public space is how we enter that space and organize ourselves within it. The complex interactions between people on the street, in the marketplace, and at social events and bars now also occur as more streamlined and rationalized processes on Craigslist, eBay,, dating sites like OKCupid, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter. On OKCupid, for example, much of the information processing that has traditionally assumed the form of nuanced face-to-face contact in dating now happens digitally from the comfort of home. Yes, it eventually becomes necessary to venture out into public for the date itself—this is the whole point of OKCupid—but a lot of the sorting, matching, posturing, and arranging can occur online.

In other words, the internet functions as a back office to the city’s “front end” of streets and public spaces. When we finally leave the house, as a society, we can just relax and enjoy ourselves because so much of the work has already been done. Traces of the prior era still persist everywhere—street vendors still hawk merchandise the old-fashioned way, and people still go to bars to meet prospective mates – but there’s a new, powerful dynamic layered on top of this, silently and invisibly searching and sorting, arranging us in public according to its own networked logic.

Cities have always been information systems as well as places to live, and the built environment occupies the intersection of those two roles. The Bonaventure Hotel represents a departure from the belief that we can understand the environments that we created for ourselves to live in, but traditional city planning—which favors grids, parks, and legible urban patterns—embodies the opposite assumption: that understanding those environments is not just something we’re capable of, but something we need.

Legibility and perception change with technology, however, and the traditionally-planned city assumed slow speeds, low mobility of information, and relative simplicity. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in their seminal Learning from Las Vegas, understood that city’s “new landscape of big spaces, high speeds, and complex programs” as a function of the car. No one driving at 70 miles per hour has time to interpret subtle details and nuanced symbolism. They need unambiguous signs that they can read quickly from far away—an “architecture of bold communication.”

If the car dictated the look of the 20th-century city, as epitomized by Las Vegas, the iPhone and the internet will provide the logic that produces the next version of the legible urban environment. The iPhone enables us to filter the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds us, extract relevant information, and navigate the unfamiliar. Legibility, instead of something we build into our environment using street grids or neon signs, is attained through handheld devices that scan for signals amid noise. An app like Yelp is to this new city what the huge signs of the Vegas Strip were to the prior iteration.

Reyner Banham explained Americans’ love of gadgets and devices as “the belief in a device like a surfboard as the proper way to make sense of an unorganized situation like a wave.” The iPhone and the Bonaventure Hotel are both surfboards, then: tools for facing a wild, complex reality without having to understand or control it. The imperative of urban legibility always implied power—for the designer as well as the user, who always demanded to see the big picture. Public space in the legible city was most itself when filled with a crowd responding to a leader. The widened streets of Haussmann’s Paris, for all their ordered beauty, were optimized for military operations. Those same public spaces, in the digital era, are increasingly staging grounds for algorithmic operations carried out on the internet, filled with centerless swarms instead of crowds. The most common criticism of Occupy Wall Street—the purest lesson yet in the ongoing transformation of public space—was always that it lacked a center, a leader, and a coherent position. Why would the movement have needed any of those, though? We used to organize, map, and comprehend; now we surf and swarm.

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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. I think what makes technology (and smartphones being the current way that technology is impacting us) so popular and so useful is the vast amount of information that it is able to make legible. It starts by taking real-world information and turning it into fungible data. Street names, restaurant hours, people’s locations, what your friends are reading about.

    Then it takes this data and makes it legible for us; it sorts the data, figures out what is relevant to us, and presents it to us. It’s a tool that allows us to face “a wild, complex reality without having to understand or control it,” like you say.

    Although you can’t understand how to understand and control the world, the device can understand it. Much better than we ever could. It understands how to get from Point A to Point B on public transit, figuring out a route that switches between subway and bus, bringing the street map and transit timetables into a previously-made algorithm to make sense of that data. It understands which restaurants are open right now, which movies you might like, and the partners you might be attracted to. And it gives you the power to filter information by that data.

    But: if we trust this imperfect device to make things legible for us, and we blindly follow it (for the most part), then we have to trust its system of making things legible. And what happens when that legibility system is wrong? What happens when it leads us away from the people that OkCupid showed as only a 50% match but in reality are great matches for us, and does that on a large scale for all OkCupid users?

    The easy answer is “something similar to when legibility systems go wrong in reality,” but I think given the degree to which technology has made things legible for us, it makes sense to study it closer.

  2. These notions of “legibility” at times are seemingly in willful denial of the ready knowledge of what might be referred to as “Hyper-Industrialism.”

    Hyper-Industrialism is merely the observation that technological advancements in: farming, transport, manufacturing, power generation/ maintenance, and construction still function (and must continue to function) and if nothing else serve as the legible basis for policies of necessity. Only from these policies of necessity and order may “leaderless impulses” develop.

    Your approach is philosophical, you seemingly use the term “city” to also encompass the behavior of its inhabitants, yet still, that hard-scape order of the city requires massive amounts of labor and work to maintain. I think a great deal of legibility and insight is to be gained by the study of the necessity for that sea of order which must exist BEFORE a “illegible” wave might develop.

    The ideas of “leaderless” swarms and all the gadgetry that might be used to engage such a function seemingly met the undertow of such a legible reality in Zuccoti Park. The blatant showmanship, the opaque retort “why haven’t you joined us?”, coupled with the further inability for said individuals “within” to articulate (even now) the supposed direction of that “leaderless swarm” speaks volumes in its deafening silence.

    If individuals “in the swarm” can’t articulate any vector other then a forward rolling with continual curves of unexplainable complexity, then perhaps the wave metaphor was right; however, there is a catch if this is indeed the metaphor of choice.

    Every wave is defined by the shore upon which it crests, and every such wave crashes there.

    It is nothing short of irresponsible to ignore the navigational aids of the landscape (or cityscape) and as it were trust the future to an Ouija board, or “Magic App Ball”. Sure flash mobs, apps, and self organization is fun but do they, at their core, fundamentally alter the smart-phone’s need for power or the users need eat?

    Given this, the choices for the way forward are stark, you either work to provide that power and food, or else (as you explain) you work to make an app to connect those existing bits of legibility. Neither choice is really all that beneficial for society and I sure I’m crazy in thinking that there must be some other alternative that is both technologically robust and economically legible.

  3. I was strongly reminded of the viral photos that recently did the rounds, showing St. Peter’s square during the 2006 (Pope Benedict) and 2013 (Pope Francis) announcements?

    Turns out the original viral pictures were sort of misleading, but the basic point holds — that we now access public physical spaces more through smartphones-as-prosthetics than directly.

    Here’s a Washington Post article about it.

    So smartphones and tablets do to walking short distances what cars did to traveling longer distances.

  4. The difference between the 3rd world and the first world exemplifies this iPhone as a city surfboard metaphor. Once your used to your surfboard, living without it is hell.

    I used to find it really difficult to buy small items (small specific kitchen utensils they didnt have in the megastores, a different type of bucket etc) in India because I never knew where to find things as my parents live on the outskirts of the city where there isn’t a central marketplace and 99% of shops aren’t on the internet. I had to create my map by literally walking around and keeping track of shops I could buy certain things at.

    So I started taking a different route back to my parents house and my map started building. I found all kinds of weird and wonderful shops.

    However this process of map building was so alien to me but once created, made my life much easier. In the US I’d flip open my phone and that’d be about it.

    So nowadays I always map out my neighborhood by foot wherever I live in the US and usually I find something worthwhile that I’d have never known was there through the interwebs.

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