1 Ephemeral cities
Postmodern urbanism and the production of online space
Why not oppose ephemeral cities to the eternal city, and movable centrality to stable centres?
(Henri Lefebvre 1996: 155)
In the last decade of the twentieth century networked computers became an increasingly visible part of contemporary life. Before 1990 the Internet served primarily as an e-mail and file-transfer system for academics and researchers across the United States. By the middle of the decade the fabric of this medium had undergone two significant changes: commercial use, once forbidden across the US-based backbone, had begun to outpace academic use; and, with the growing popularity of the World Wide Web (WWW), a graphical, hypertextual interface (point-and-click) became the dominant cybernetic vehicle for navigating Internet sites. By 1999 Internet access had penetrated everyday life in America and elsewhere around a networked globe. While we have hardly reached universal access - and ‘the Web’ is hardly worldwide - website URLs have become as common as trademark logos in the commercial world, and e-mail has far surpassed the US Postal Service in number of daily correspondences. Perhaps, then, the 1990s will best be remembered as the ‘cyberspace decade’. In the US city of Wilmington DE, at least, the 1990s have already been declared the ‘http://dot.com decade’ or, in the words of Paul Levinson of Fordham University: ‘the information decade … It’s only been in the ‘90s that we’ve paid attention to information as a commodity’ (Vejnoska 1999: B1). True, the word ‘cyberspace’ first appeared in the 1980s science fiction work of William Gibson (most notably his 1984 novel Neuromancer), but it was not until the 1990s that it became a powerful cultural trope - first in America and then spreading virally elsewhere.1 The network of computers that we call the Internet maintained a phenomenal growth rate throughout the 1990s, from around 300,000 ‘host sites’ at the start of the decade to more than 72 million by January 2000 (Internet Software Consortium 2000). But this material expansion alone cannot account for the increasing presence of networked computers in elementary and secondary schools in the US, or the appearance of Internet kiosks and electronic coffee shops worldwide. Nor can it account for the explosive growth of capital investment in Internet companies (and, more generally, e-commerce) during 1998 and 1999.2 While the discussion of an immersive virtual information space may have sounded to many like speculative science fiction ten years ago, the explosion in the number of users who have since invested real time, real energy, and real capital into the Internet has very much made cyberspace a social, cultural and economic reality. More than anything else, it would seem, the 1990s’ fascination with information technology concerned the power of the computer to function as a communication medium and social environment, rather than its capacity as a processor.3 As such, ‘cyberspace’ offers the exhilarating and foreboding image of a mediated social space that is no longer geographically determined. At the beginning of the 1990s, Michael Ostwald notes, the Internet (along with other ‘virtual technologies’) appeared in the media as a ‘door’ or ‘window’ onto a hacker world that threatened to undermine social and urban environments; by the mid-1990s, however, that world promised ‘a potentially new way of reinstating democracy, reforming the community and redistributing the populace so that urban ghettos could be invigorated with new life’ (Ostwald 1997: 125–6). While Ostwald maps an historical shift in perspectives, I would argue that these representations are coexistent within the contemporary moment. An analysis of the social function of the Internet, in fact, reveals a heterogeneity of sites, practices, and representations, all falling under the rubric of ‘cyberspace’. In the same way that ‘the urban’ speaks of both the dangers and potentials of complex social interactions, the Internet presents a social space of multiple figurations and multiple virtualities. Certainly the burst of business investments suggests a landscape dominated by capitalist modes of production, but one will also find cyberspaces that resist, differentiate, and disperse those territorial claims. To understand the cultural significance of cyberspace, it is therefore important to recognize that these competing, contradictory social spaces are not merely productions of a media event or figments of a popular imagination. Called by any name, these ‘virtual topographies’ involve real bodies, real material investment, and real social interaction.
Towards a spatial analysis of cyberspace
During this first decade of ‘cyberspace’ much of the theoretical writing on the Internet has suffered from two serious errors. First, both critics and advocates of ‘computer-mediated communication’ (CMC) tend to assume too readily that cyberspace describes a mental or non-corporeal space: a world of simulated bodies and actions that replaces (parasitically or transcendently) the physical world. Much of the early theorizing on cyberspace (exemplified by that oft-quoted collection of speculative and technical essays Cyberspace: First Steps) tended to perpetuate this corporeal/non-corporeal divide, marking off cyberspace as a strictly mental realm.4 As Michelle Kendrick notes, this fundamentally dualist approach denigrates res extensa in the name of cogito, treating networked social space as a Cartesian-Leibnizian space ‘that represents the triumph of the algorithmic mind over a physical body that refuses to be fully computed’ (Kendrick 1996: 145). Or, put more euphorically and succinctly by Internet pundit John Perry Barlow: ‘Nothing could be more disembodied than cyberspace. It’s like having your everything amputated’ (cited in Kelly 1994: 185). This figuration of cyberspace imagines an immaterial world that promises to free us from the burdens of the flesh. While many popular conceptions of CMC have embraced this notion, the image lingers even in some of the most sophisticated renderings of cyberspace. In his 1997 book Collective Intelligence, for example, Pierre Levy theorizes the emergence of a networked ‘knowledge space’ that, while ‘inseparable from the construction and habitation of a world’, still limits the experience of cyberspace to a mental phenomenon, immaterial in its very ‘form’ (Levy 1997: 12). Central to Levy’s book, in fact, is an analogy between cyberspace and the angelic realms of Jewish mysticism, in which virtual subjects (‘angelic bodies’) carry and receive messages that provide ‘dynamic descriptions of the world below, moving images of the events and situations into which human communities are plunged’ (Levy 1997: 98; italics added). Levy provides a more nuanced understanding of a relation between a knowledge space and a space of social processes, but even this description of a ‘virtual world [that] is no more than a substrate for cognitive, social, and affective processes that take place among actual individuals’ tends to divide off a mental cyberspace from a material ‘world below’ (Levy 1997: 112). This tendency towards dualism in ‘cybertheory’ radicalizes the difference between the social space of networked interactions and the space of everyday life. Even Ostwald’s analysis of the ‘virtual urban’, which connects networked communication with other contemporary urban phenomena, tends to focus on how this social space ‘simulates something that is other than the real space’ (Ostwald 1997: 127).5 But certainly the social space produced by way of networked communication neither begins nor ends at the computer screen The experience of the interface between bodies and machines has a material and event-like quality to it: one that cannot be reduced to a mental conception of space. In response to this tendency to think of cyberspace strictly as an imaginary or mental realm, I argue in this chapter that Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of the production of space provides a valuable analytical solution. Lefebvre attempts to reveal what he describes as the ‘truth of space’: that lived, social space emerges where concept and practice intersect (Lefebvre 1994: 398–9). Lefebvre in part faults Cartesian dualism for giving rise to modernity’s tendency to understand space in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. Social space, he argues, is neither an abstraction mapped by a conceptual system (mathematical, semiotic, or discursive), nor is it an absolute emptiness that simply awaits the arrival of objects (the ‘empirical’ space of Newtonian science). Instead, Lefebvre describes the production of space as a material process occurring at the interplay of concept and practice, and inseparable from this process. Social space is ‘not a thing but rather a set of relations between things (objects and products)’ (Lefebvre 1994: 83). Lefebvre’s social space occurs within a triad of lines of force: material ‘spatial practice’, conceptual ‘representations of space’, and experiential ‘representational spaces’. Social space incorporates all three of these dialectical forces, and the production of one is always implicated in producing the others.6 Rather than thinking of cyberspace as merely a representation of space, then, a Lefebvrean analysis would take into account all three of these spatial productions. More precisely, it would implicate all three of these forces within the production of cyberspace as a conceptual, material, and experiential space. As opposed to assuming that cyberspace describes a purely mental realm, any discussion of the production of online space would need to take into account the conceived, the perceived, and the lived spaces of networked social interactions: the cramped fingers and carpal-tunnel-syndrome wrists; the laptops in coffee shops and terminals in public libraries; the proliferation of IPOs and URLs; the cyberphilic hype and the technophobic dread. The second troublesome error that has frequently occurred in analyses of CMC stems from the assumption that cyberspace describes a homogenous social space. While one can certainly identify a dominant networked social space (both capitalist and ‘democratic’), a critical analysis of cyberspace reveals heterogeneous and heteromorphic materializations, representations, and practices. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Lefebvre was already pointing out how the dominant social space under neocapitalism7 involves itself in the creation of ‘a technological utopia, a sort of computer simulation of the future, or of the possible, within the framework of the real - the framework of the existing mode of production’ (Lefebvre 1994: 9). In the past decade, the Internet has increasingly become that technological utopia. The dominant representations of the ‘information superhighway’ and the ‘World Wide Web’ as a zone of free and open exchange are perceived within the lived, material practices that support global networked capitalism. Simple numbers reflect the dominance of this figuration of cyberspace: as of January 2000, the Internet had nearly twenty-five million commercial hosts - more than four times the number of academic sites (Internet Software Consortium 2000).8 ‘The Information Superhighway’ - as both a representation of space and a material process - is seen as replacing the rails and roadways that under an earlier form of capitalism produced ‘a close association … between daily reality (daily routine) and urban reality (the routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, “private” life and leisure)’ (Lefebvre 1994: 38). Within this technological ‘virtuality’ of networked domains (a technological map of the possible, so to speak), social space reduces to a matter of traffic - the regulated circulation of information and capital, as well as the bodies caught up in these flows.
But not all usages play out along these lines. One finds a wide range of social bondings online that cannot be reduced to production and consumption - not even a production and consumption of information. A range of contemporary theorists and, in particular, a group of ‘postmodern geographers’, have called attention to how heterogeneous social spaces resist co-ordinating into any total system, presenting instead multiple emergences, types and arrangements. As Derek Gregory points out, much of the post-modernizing trend in geography by figures such as Giddens, Hagerstrand, Harvey, and Mann involves a recognition of social spaces as the products of ‘multiple sociospatial networks of power’ (Gregory 1996: 223). He sees a return to a geography of areal differentiation, but with differences occurring as ‘overlapping, intersecting, and contending’ space-times that map both the physical and experiential components of social space (Gregory 1996: 223). Applying such a perspective to an analysis of cyberspace would allow for an account of the range of material, mental, and experiential components involved in the production of online social spaces that make ‘cyberspace’ resistant to homogenous descriptions. One could also then begin to consider how this network permeates ‘everyday life’. Increasingly,lived spaces are understood, in James Rojas’ terms, as ‘enacted environments’, producing and produced by the actions of individuals: ‘People are both users and creators of a space … People activate settings merely by their presence’ (cited in Hayden 1997: 87). Practices such as e-mail, web-browsing, electronic shopping, and ‘chatting’ implicate a range of ‘enactions’ of a lived social space. Likewise, the proliferation of computer labs built by universities, the computers sitting in every public high school in the US, and the appearance of public ‘kiosks’ and cybercafes present a heterogeneity of spatial practices with real ramifications for the production of multiple social spaces.
On one hand, the dominant post-industrial economic space of web advertisements, ‘cookies’, and electronic commerce instantiates a ‘hyperpotential’9 cyberspace for capitalist exchange that gives the market a new kind of omnipresence. But the lived experience of this networked structure also allows for relations that appear as ‘threats’ to the ideological blanket of late capitalism. These dangers appear in the media most frequently as representations of ‘inappropriate’ contact: pornography before the eyes of children and bomb recipes in the hands of terrorists. On a more everyday level, however, one might think of how ‘browsing’ or ‘chatting’, for example, can suggest a more playful relation of individuals, rather than one based on exchange value, production, or consumption. Thus corporations worry about work hours lost to games and ‘net-surfing’, and in college and university computer classrooms students drift off from their assignments in multiple directions. These recreational immersions in cyberspace run counter to the promotion of the Internet as a place of efficiency and the realization of Enlightenment values of progress, control, and the speculative unity of knowledge. Regarding the Internet as a resource can be considered a part of what Lyotard calls the postmodern ‘logic of maximum performance’: at all costs, communicate efficiently (Lyotard 1984: xxiv). Under this performativity principle, legitimation becomes a matter of establishing ‘the best possible input/output equation’ (ibid.: 46). Advertisements for faster connections and more accurate search engines10 describe an Internet driven more and more by this performance logic. But the potential for a wide array of contacts, for the dissemination of information, and for the cross-pollination of social groupings suggests that other modes of experiencing the Internet are quite prevalent. Consider, for example, the case of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1997 MIT commencement address, widely circulated on the net. Unfortunately, Vonnegut had nothing to do with MIT’s commencement that year, nor was the circulated speech his work; it wa...