This essay concerns the rise of the digital network culture and society that we are witnessing within our cities, and the subsequent impacts this phenomena is having upon the contemporary metropolis and its future evolutionart trajectory. It encompasses the theoretical postion of my studies into urban utopian models during the first semester of Year 5, and as such framed much of my research and development at the time, and probably will continue to do so for some time to come.
"Globalisation and informationalisation, enacted by networks of wealth, technology, and power, are transforming our world.” [Castells 2010a, p.72]
As society is taking its first tentative steps into the information age, it is increasingly clear that the contemporary city has become a highly contested territory. The rise of the global virtual network has produced the latest manifestation of the struggle between local-cultural and global-technological trajectories. The ascension of the information age, and the increasing impact of the digital urban metabolism, promise to radically transform our current perceptions of not only society and culture, but also our perception of place, and the future function of the city.
New digital technologies and the infrastructures to deliver them are becoming increasingly pervasive and ubiquitous within the city [Varnelis 2008]. The divergence of physical and virtual urban metabolisms, the crisis of global connectivity versus local disconnection, the flow of information and wealth within the globalised network of cities, and their resultant spatial impact upon place, have all become the dominant issues of social and urban discourse.
Cities now exist in two locations simultaneously – the traditional physical landscape and the digital virtual network. This dual identity will have profound effects upon the future form of the city. At present, the city exists as two distinct flows of energy, the physical and the virtual, which has resulted in increasing social, political, economic and spatial fragmentations.
The cities within the globalised network benefit from possessing the means to access all the information, [and therefore wealth], they require or desire. The digital infrastructures they contain are the result of colossal financial investment, and they serve to secure the future of these cities in terms of global financial, commercial and institutional influence. For those cities outside of the global flows of information and wealth, they suffer from massive social, economic and political isolation and exclusion. These urban regions are unable to compete in the globalised network of cities, and as a result they slip further into decline. This urban “tunnelling effect” of digital exclusion can be attributed to a poorer standard or complete lack of digital infrastructure [Varnelis 2008, pp.28].
It can be seen that the future of the networked city rests with its connective capacity, and its ability to integrate virtual-global and physical-local flows of energy and information.
“Space does not reflect society, it expresses it.” [Castells 2004, p.85]
With this statement, Castells is pointing out that urban transformation and the spatial reconfiguration of cities is the result of cultural and social upheaval, and not the other way around. It can be argued that the rise of a new information age society and culture will undoubtedly result in further changes to the physical form of the city.
In the view of Castells, the future transformation of the city will centre on the main axes of function and form. Firstly, in describing the functioning of the city he states that the,
“Network society is organised around the opposition between the global and the local.” [Castells 2004, p.85]
He points out that although the dominant economic, technological, communicative and administrative processes within the city are organised around global networks, the everyday activities of work, play, culture and political participation are inherently local affairs. Interactions between and within cities have become increasingly multi-layered, with interactivity now being co-ordinated simultaneously within the physical and virtual realms. The scale of this duality of function has been somewhat exacerbated by the rise of ever-more pervasive networks, and the city, in attempting to respond to both conflicting logics, is becoming increasingly fragmented. Castells suggests that the future spatial form of the city will be dependant upon the resolution of the conflict between the ability of the city to connect and communicate digitally with the global flow of information, and to interact physically with its locality and society.
“Cities are structured and destructured simultaneously by the competing logics of the space of flows and the space of places.” [Castells 2004, p.85]
This capacity for dual communication means that the notion of place is more critical than ever before, as it not only accommodates network connectivity and facilitates digital communication, but also provides the physically-grounded traditional social and cultural functions of a city. The new-found dominance of the virtual network has not resulted in the collapse of the city as a built form. According to Mitchell, although forecast to the contrary by many ‘cyberprophets’, the rise of the virtual does not,
“[…] destroy the power of place: local cultures and advantages still matter.” [Mitchell 2004, p.210]
The all-encompassing ‘city of bits’ has not come to pass, and the primary function of the city now in the information age is to fully integrate the “space of flows” with the “space of places” [Castells 2004, p.86]; it has to become a digitally-compatible communication device stitching together both virtual and physical urban metabolisms.
The onset of a new cultural revolution throws up many obstacles for a society to overcome. With the digital revolution, society will have to adjust to new ways of interacting, communicating, and working. Post-industrial visions of a utopian future based upon the limitless possibilities of the virtual, without the burdens of the physical world have not materialised, and in all likelihood never will. Varnelis is all-too aware of the naivety of the ‘go anywhere, always online’ notion of virtual connectivity.
“Far from the mythical distributed ideal that ideologists of technology claim it to be, the network has its own physicality, its own material presence.” [Varnelis 2008, pp.27-8]
Here Varnelis makes reference to the fact that although digital networks appear to be ultra-modern and ubiquitous, they are completely reliant upon an archaic infrastructural system based upon subterranean or submarine conduits. These cables of copper or fibre optics shuttle all the world’s digital information, and the data itself is concentrated in a highly centralised and vulnerable network of relatively few routes and exchange nodes. If regions are outside of this digital backbone then they will suffer the consequences of economic and social exclusion as Varnelis rather pessimistically states,
“Areas and populations outside of this logic are subject to the tunnel effect: they virtually don’t exist as far as the network and, hence, the dominant world economy is concerned.” [Varnelis 2008, pp.28]
This urban tunnel effect is the result of inequality in the distribution of new digital infrastructure. This is not a new occurrence however. Over the centuries, new technological innovations were more often than not distributed in those areas that possessed favourable characteristics, usually economic and institutional in nature. As an example, the creation of national grids eventually provided the majority of people with a reliable and secure supply of electricity. But initially, the grid was only available in the primary urban centres, such as London. As Castells suggests,
“The higher the value of people and places, the more they are connected into interactive networks.” [Castells 2004, p.84]
Mitchell also advocates the importance of place and proximity to new digital infrastructures to enable economic growth, but also in a rather cautionary tone mentions the need for equality in public policy in the distribution of new infrastructure when he stated,
“It will be economically vital to have […] the high-speed backbone in your vicinity. It will be an increasingly important competitive advantage if you have […] and equity considerations will motivate public policies that encourage wide and even distribution […].” [Mitchell 2000, p.19]
The digital backbone of the world appears to be developing and expanding along a similar vein to the national grid, and consequently a whole new round of social conflict will have to be overcome to resist the spread of digital apartheid. As Varnelis observes,
“[…] the global city’s connections create local disconnections.”
[Varnelis 2008, pp.28]
At the local level, people are increasingly forsaking physical interactions in favour of leading their lives online through social networking websites, mobile phones and television, the so-called “telecocoon” [Varnelis 2008, pp.22].
Despite this inescapable truth, two emerging technologies are poised to bridge the gap between the global and the local – the geospatial web and ubiquitous computing. The rise of Geographic Information Systems [GIS], such as Google Maps and Google Earth, have imposed geographic co-ordinates upon placeless data within the internet, and conversely left virtual traces across physical environments. This meshing of the virtual and physical is intended to reduce local disconnectivity whilst maintaining connection to the global network, through the creation of social connections via mobile networking technology. The convergence of the geospatial web with locative media and mobile networking technology will enable society to read, and leave behind virtual traces on the world, re-creating physical place as a digital map – the virtual has become grounded in the real.
This overlay of virtual data over place will enable society to have access to a whole web of locally applicable information, thus enhancing local connectivity and the social significance of place. However, it could also render place a prisoner of memory and ‘someone else’s’ experiences. It may also exacerbate the issue of digital exclusion for those without network access. And, of course, the rise in locative media will undoubtedly result in an ever-expanding surveillance culture within a ‘virtual police state’ society.
Clearly, the assimilation of global and local networks is a problematic task, and one which requires economically pragmatic and socially sensitive planning and execution strategies to ensure a de-fragmentation of global network cities of the future.
The current global network condition does raise the question of an almost ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario – do cities require digital infrastructural intervention in order to take their place within the global network of information flow and achieve prosperity? Did these cities, by now within the global network, already possess the infrastructure necessary to be globally prosperous and competitive? Can new cities join this elite group? This surely is one of the most pressing issues for all urban planners and policy makers – for the city to survive in the information age it must be connected globally and integrated locally.
So what does the rise of the global digital network entail for architecture in the Digital_Territories of the future? Perhaps a new approach to urban design is required, one which has at its heart the issue of integrating global and local connectivity within the major flows of information, capital and culture. The spatial materialisation of such a city is open for debate. In Castells’ opinion, the information city does not exist as a concrete physical form but rather as the result of cultural transformational processes.
“[…] based upon knowledge, organised around networks, and partly made up of flows, the information city is not a form but a process, a process characterised by the structural domination of the space of flows.”
[Castells 2010b, p.429]
As such, the city is re-conceptualised as a network system of virtual and physical processes [or metabolisms], each working in a symbiotic capacity to enable the city to communicate at both the global and local scales. However, there is a risk inherent in the very idea of a global city – its architecture could become progressively more generic and homogenised. As many architectural and urban design commentators have pointed out over the past decades, architecture has become increasingly banal and predictable, especially in the fields of infrastructure. According to Castells,
“Because the spatial manifestation of the dominant interests takes place around the world, and across cultures, the uprooting of experience, history and specific culture as the background of meaning is leading to the generalisation of ahistorical, acultural architecture.” [Castells 2010b, p.449]
He acknowledges this very real danger, and suggests that perhaps an architecture more rooted in the locale, more contextually driven and reflective of the increasing heterogeneity of the network society can avoid the pitfalls of intensifying issues of cultural identity loss.
“The more societies try to recover their identity beyond the global logic of uncontrolled power of flows, the more they need an architecture that exposes their own reality […].” [Castells 2010b, p.449]
Mitchell, on the other hand, takes a much more optimistic perspective on the new networked city. In his book ‘e-topia’ he proposes a new digitally-networked utopia, one that could facilitate the transformation of society, economy, culture and architecture for the information age. He sets out his manifesto for urban transformation based around five themes: “dematerialisation, demobilisation, mass customisation, intelligent operation, and soft transformation” [Mitchell 2000, p.147]. These themes all have one major characteristic in common – they involve the replacing of outdated industrial modes of communication, infrastructure, design and manufacture within the city with new digital technologies and techniques facilitated by the advent of the network era.
The post-industrial city is already engaged in transformation as a result of the rise of the globalised digital network. The social, cultural and economic value of each individual city will determine its position within the network. For those cities unfortunate to find themselves outside the network, they are caught in a catch-twenty two situation whereby they are denied access due to a lack of connectivity, but yet cannot gain connectivity without access. The only escape is through massive investment in digital communications infrastructure, and the hope that the investment will be returned through the influx of new capital, information and people. The task facing architecture in the information age is to accommodate the mostly invisible functioning of the global network infrastructure, whilst simultaneously facilitating and encouraging interpersonal social interactions, and providing a significant cultural materialisation.
What is certain is that the traditional dynamics and metabolisms of post-industrial place have been irreversibly altered by the folding of power and information flows into the global virtual network. The prospect of a pervasive new urban future, that of a truly global ‘e-lifestyle’, is a very real one indeed.
>> Bibliography + References
> Castells, M.  Space of Flows Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In: Graham, S. ed. The Cybercities Reader. London, Routledge, pp.82-93.
> Castells, M. [2010a] The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. 2 - The Power of Identity. 2nd ed. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
> Castells, M. [2010b] The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. 1 - The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
> Graham, S. & Marvin, S.  Splintering Urbanism. New York, Routledge.
> Mitchell, W.J.  City of Bits. Cambridge, MIT Press.
> Mitchell, W.J.  e-topia. Cambridge, MIT Press.
> Mitchell, W.J.  ME++ The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge, MIT Press.
> Varnelis, K. ed.  Networked Publics. Cambridge, MIT Press.