Reading the Digital City: New political technologies in the Network Society (revised version)

This article examines the 'digital city' debate of the mid 1990s as a point of departure for a media-historical questioning of how technology and the discourse about technology were used as an experimental playground for new forms of knowledge that are fundamental for the understanding of today’s network society. This text has been presented as a conference paper at the 'networks and sustainability' track of the 'textiles' conference in Riga in June 2010. The paper will also appear in a special edition of the Arts and Communications Journal edited by RIXC at the end of 2010.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the proclaimed crisis of the city marked a general crisis of governance: the discussion about the supposed “decline of cities” was characterized by a controversial debate about a possible loss of control.[fn]In October and November 1995 the Telepolis-exhibition took place in Munich and Luxembourg, where these topics have been addressed (cf. Maar/Rötzer 1997).[/fn] Paradoxically, all hopes have been pinned on those technologies that were held accountable for the dissolution of the urban space. That’s because, as in similar techno-utopias before,[fn]For example, space colonisation projects during the 1970s (cf. Pias 2008).[/fn] cyberspace was considered to be constructable and, therefore, controllable. At the “electronic frontier” (cf. Barlow 1996) science fiction and high-tech were linked with the old dream of the ideal community (cf. Morus 1992). For the so-called “net pioneers”, a new and promising land was spreading out behind the countless number of cables and server rooms, which “called for a series of new metaphors, new rules and patterns of behavior” (Bollmann 1995, p. 164). In the following, I would like to unveil some of the hidden layers of urban net cultures by tracing the tracks of this “technotopia” back to the early stage of network building.[fn]My dissertation project deals with a geneaology of net cultures, in order to retrace the phenomenon of “Medien-Werden” resp. “Unsichtbar-Werden” (cf. Vogl 2001) of Computer-mediated communication. The goal of the work is not to look again for the “origins” of the Internet or to rediscover the “New” of new media, but rather to define net cultures of the early 1990s as an experimental playground for new forms of knowledge that are fundamental for the understanding of today’s network society. For this purpose, the city metaphor serves as a guideline to describe the setting and to introduce the main actors, as well as to define the field of research.[/fn] A media-historical perspective arises from the question of how technology and the discourse about technology were used to provide a social, epistemological and theoretical model. Excavating the city, as a spatial metaphor to describe digital networks, should finally allow the disclosure of an implicit knowledge that is – as a first hypotheses and starting point for my inquiry – at the basis of a variety of new political technologies in today’s network society.

With the increasing interconnection of computers, the machines of discrete logic transformed into a collective medium (cf. Bolz / Kittler / Tholen 1994). This involved the construction of common meaning, as it was realized in the visual world of cyberspace.[fn]The term cyberspace has often been used synonymously with that of virtual reality. But the crucial difference lies in a certain intersubjectivity or dispersal of subjects, “because a single person does not exist in cyberspace, but in virtual space” (Holmes 1997, p. 234).[/fn] Given the fact that the digital space represents an enormous amount of binary numbers, the question arose as to how this new, invisible space could be adequately structured? For this reason, Andreas Dieberger, who was a postgraduate student at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) in the early 1990s, coined the term “Information City” to describe a spatial user interface for hypertext (cf.. Dieberger 1994). In order to resolve the problem of “getting lost in hyperspace” (Dieberger 1993), Dieberger's city metaphor attempted to make the structure of information systems easier to understand by drawing a cognitive map of the information space. In his concept, hypertext documents are visualised as houses in the “Information City” using architectural knowledge from city planning in order to build an information environment that helps to navigate hypertext.[fn]This idea of a visual structure is mainly based on the work of Kevin Lynch. (cf.Lynch 1960).[/fn] The “Information City” defines an “ontology of spaces and connections” in order to “explicitly create structure in an unstructured information domain” (Dieberger 1998). In this sense, navigation through cyberspace is only possible when this structure is communicated to the user. In other words, not only the visibility, but also the readability of the city, is central to this concept.

What’s more, the physical city also contains an urban grammar, whose codes are readable in a built environment. Modern architecture built of concrete, steel and glass gets more and more replaced by a post-modern architecture, “whose forms are so neutral, so pure, so diaphanous, that they do not pretend to say anything” (Castells 1996, p. 450). This architectural silence, which implies less a new form of insignificance, but rather a permanent process of overcoding, is responding to the spatial transformations caused by new information technologies: “The dramatic changes in information technology deeply affect the core of our system, and in so doing lie at the very roots of its spatial pattern of change” (Castells 1991, p. 126). And as Manuel Castells underlines in his early book “The Informational City” (cf. Castells 1991), this involves a rather complex process that has nothing to do with the alleged disappearance of cities maintained by the idealistic speech of technological determinism. Thus, the organizational restructuring of economic, social and institutional circumstances transforms the “Informational City” into a socially contested space. Unlike Diebeger’s concept of a container space, which has only to be filled with meaning, the physical and digital space appears here as a socially produced space.[fn]This goes back to Henri Lefebvre and his trialectics of social space (cf. Lefebvre 2000).[/fn]

In the transformation of the "Informational City" we can witness a significant shift in the relationship between space and society, a shift that is characterized less by a specific form than by a process. In his three-volume work on the information age, Manuel Castells describes this process as the increasing dominance of the “space of flows” over the “space of places” that is decisive for our current understanding of spatial orders. Thus, cultures have always been able to develop over long distances, but not in real time. And this fact marks a new historic event: “The space of flows is the material organization of time-sharing practices” (Castells 1996, p. 442). In our digital environment, time and space merge into a new material foundation on which the dominant social processes are reorganized by information flows. The “space of flows” serves as the basis for those social practices that are crucial for the conception of economic, political and symbolic structures of society. One of the key features of informational society is the networking logic of its basic structure,[fn] This explains the term „network society“ used by Manuel Castells, though he underlines that it does not contain the full meaning of the “informational society” that would also include components like the state or social movements (Castells 1996, S. 21).[/fn] hence “the functions to be fulfilled by each network define the characteristics of places that become their privileged nodes” (Castells 1996, p. 444). To put it in other words, the “space of flows” is not placeless, but its structural logic is.

Given this transformational process, French philosopher Pierre Lévy questioned the implications of new information and communication technologies for the organization and management of local communities (Lévy 1996, p. 151ff.). And in doing so, he refers to three standpoints that came up in the debate about new communication systems and which often led to misunderstandings in the relationship between the city and cyberspace: first, the position of analogy, which represents a mere doubling of institutional forms into cyberspace and can be found in the expression of the “digital city”;[fn]De Digitale Stad (DDS) in Amsterdam has been considered as a model for a variety of digital cities that were founded in Europe during the 1990s (e.g. Bologna, Kiev, London, Berlin and Vienna).[/fn] second, thinking in terms of substitution, which implies the replacement of classical urban functions by technical means of cyberspace and is mainly fostered by the “managers of the territory" using catchwords such as teleworking, remote learning or distance education;[fn]In this sense, the exodus from the city should enable a “new elite of the digital age” (Freyermuth 1996, p. 86) to escape from overcrowded urban sprawls and thereby from the dark side of civilization. However, except for some very few prominent examples, this renewed version of “Go West!” has not become real and also the promising figures related to telecommuting have been disproven early (Castells 1991, p. 165f.).[/fn] and third, the assimilation of cyberspace on behalf of the urban model by implementing information superhighways, underground networks or public traffic into the digital space.[fn]The information superhighway with its (mainly male) fantasy of individual freedom and unlimited mobility was in direct contrast to the urban environment with its winding streets and public places (c.f. Bolter 1996).[/fn] Instead of analogy, substitution and assimilation, Lévy emphasises the articulation between the space of the territory and what he calls the “space of collective intelligence” (Lévy 1996, p. 162). What matters here, is less a low-cost access to the technological infrastructure or the free exchange of content, but more the possibility to open up the processes of collective intelligence in order to exploit the potentials of new communication systems in re-articulating a community spirit.

The revitalization of urban communities should, therefore, be accomplished by technological means, all the more as a “new Athenian Age” (Al Gore) was proclaimed in the early 1990s as a result of the new information and communication systems: “Cyberdemocracy or electronic democracy are the new tubes which should transform the passive spectator democracy into an active participatory democracy and, at the same time, create a global public sphere” (Leggewie 1997, p. 5). And as German political scientist Claus Leggewie notes in this context, only the well-informed citizen constitutes an important and valuable part of the virtual community (Leggewie 1998, p. 40). Here the concept of community interferes with the “Information City” mentioned before, since all knowledge has to be gathered and structured through spatial organizational regimes, in order to be visible and readable for the digitally enlightened Netizen.[fn] Here I am following the research done by Kirsten Wagner (cf. Wagner 2008).[/fn] This ideal of a city of knowledge refers to the utopia of an egalitarian and global community, which is characterized by the libertarian spirit of new data networks (see Barlow 1996). The “virtual community” (cf. Rheingold 1994) implicates a sense of collective identity that “is reinforced by rituals of self-assurance and mutual recognition and is constituted, not least, by the definition of the >Other

The productive power of new technologies, therefore, constitutes new forms of knowledge, which, in turn, give birth to new regimes of control. And within the “digital city” these are linked to a political practice of governance that is based on “the instrumentalization of personal allegiances and active responsibilities: government through community” (Rose 1996, p. 331). As British sociologist Nikolas Rose points out in this context, the “community” as a new form of self-governance is not related to the society as a whole, but rather aims at the single, self-regulating individual and social groups. The virtual community relies on a network-oriented mode of governance that implies the activation and submission of its respective members. Nonetheless, the cybernetic promise of self-governing communities involves the danger “that there is little chance of social change within a given network, or network of networks” (Castells 2001, p. 22). Thus, the capacity of networks to switch off incompatible nodes, or to integrate them into their own functionality, undermines the possibility of an articulatory practice and that means of democracy itself.

In the struggle over the establishment of symbolical orders, we witness a permanent confrontation of different forces. In contrast to pure Cyber-utopianism, new information and communication technologies have always been structured by powerful interests. The Internet, therefore, does not represent some kind of unattainable substance, as it is supposed by a techno-determinist point of view, but rather it is the product of its own power relations. Given the fact that digital data is simply a sequence of zeros and ones, there are numerous ways in which it could be made visible and legible to the user. Thus, it is not by accident that the city has been chosen as one of the most meaningful metaphors in the early days of the Internet. The city has (like Cyberspace) a military origin and it is defined (at least symbolically) by walls whose gates constitute the interface to the rest of the world. In this sense, every human computer interface contains some sort of metaphor (e.g. Laptop, Desktop, folders, trash can, windows, etc.). The interface determines how the user conceives the computer itself and the world accessed via this computer. In keeping this matter, media theorist Lev Manovich states: “Far from being a transparent window into the data inside a computer, the interface bring with it strong messages of its own” (Manovich 2008, p. 184). Hence, by organising the digital space in specific ways, the interface provides distinct models of the world.

In the “war of metaphors” (Marchart 1998, p. 72), the hierarchical concept of the city offered an organisational regime of inclusion and exclusion in order to draw the line between the visible and invisible, the expressible and inexpressible, order and chaos. By tracing the tracks of the digital city back to this early phase of network culture, we come across the old desire for information control, which, in turn, constitutes the Cyberspace as social space traversed by power relations. Hence, the information space provides a venue for individual and social practices, for ways of living, cultural patterns, knowledge, power, and domination. In realising these forces, new identity fields arise within the virtual communities and thereby the rules for their governance. However, these strategies of governance, which are responsible for the constitution of the communities, as well as the activation of their subjects, are themselves always at risk, because “what they demand of citizens may be refused, or reversed and redirected as a demand from citizens for a modification of the games that govern them, and through which they are supposed to govern themselves” (Rose 2000, p. 100). Like in any other transformation process new fault lines emerge and give rise to new forms of subjectivity. Based on their knowledge, these subjects may respond to power in one way or the other – in order to obey or resist.

This paper is a slightly modified version of my lecture given at the 1st conference of the SLSAeu: Textures in June 2010 in Riga. I would like to thank Armin Medosch, Rasa Smite, Felix Stalder and Brian Holmes for their comments, and especially Hana Yoosuf for her revision.


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