These Books Were Made for Walking

For what might seem a most mundane human activity, walking has quite a body of literature. Even being such a normal, everyday act, it’s a theme that never wears out. As Karen O’Rourke (2013) puts it, “…contemporary artists have returned time and again to the walking motif, discovering that, no matter how many times it has been done, it is never done” (p. xvii). Are they making too much of putting one foot in front of the other, or is walking always already much more than that?

You’re walking
and you don’t always realize it
but you’re always
falling.
With each step,
you fall
slightly
forward
and then
catch yourself
from falling.
Over
and
over,
you’re falling
and then you catch yourself from
falling.
And this is how you can be walking
and falling
at the same time.
— Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling”

The Art of WalkingIn The Art of Walking: A Field Guide (Black Dog, 2013) edited by David Evans, artists are shown contextualizing and recontextualizing the act of walking, sometimes by taking it outside its everyday context, sometimes by drastically changing that context. Evans’ colorful book covers Jan Estep’s Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth Heritage (homage to the inventor of the modern walk), Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, beautiful marches, weird shoes, paint drippings, mobile shelters, high wires, GPS units, various maps, and even walking dogs. It’s part art book, part documentation, and part field guide to the possibilities of both.

What makes a collection like this work is great photographs, and The Art of Walking is full of them. Nearly 200 photos of walks and works illustrate the wide-ranging art of the bipedal and peripatetic. It’s a worthy addition to the growing literature on walking as an artistic and political practice.

In her own history of walking, Rebecca Solnit (2000) writes,  “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). She continues,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination (p. 250).

Walking and MappingIn Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (MIT Press, 2013), Karen O’Rourke explores not only the relationship between walking, body, world, and art but also walking and design. Using protocol as a trope through which to illuminate the differences between top-down planning and bottom-up development, O’Rourke breaks new ground between them. For example, paved sidewalks are predictions, attempts at restricting the walks of the future (top-down). Trails are of the past, worn by many previous walks (bottom-up). Maps are metaphors and often represent a bit of both, as well as the relationship(s) between body and world.

Making the workaday weird is one of the central challenges of art. Walking can be artistic, political, practical, or just a last resort for getting from one point to another. No matter our intentions, we walk this way to make our world and to make our way in it.

References:

Anderson, Laurie. (1982). Walking and Falling. On Big Science [LP]. New York: Warner Bros.

Evans, David. (2013). The Art of Walking: A Field Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing.

O’Rourke, Karen. (2013). Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2000). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin.

Swarm Cities: The Future of Human Hives

The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.

"Ephemicropolis" by Peter Root
“Ephemicropolis” by Peter Root

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Great American CityAccording to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.

Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.

There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls

Out of the MountainsLynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces

These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.

References:

Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.

Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.

Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.

Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.

Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.

Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.

Ambient Networks: You Are Here

“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:

Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).

City Wall, Helsinki, 2007
“City Wall,” Helsinki Institute for Information Tenchnology, 2007.

Ambient Commons

“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?

Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3
Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3

McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.

An Aesthesia of NetworksFraming some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.

“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.

References:

Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.

References:

Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

 

William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.

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Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:

poQwVguZeBg

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References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.