Felix Stalder on Tue, 26 Nov 2002 17:09:13 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Space of Flows: Characteristics and Strategies

[This is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave at the Doors of
Perception conference called "Flow: The design challenge of pervasive
computing." http://flow.doorsofperception.com ]

Space of Flows:  Characteristics and  Strategies
Felix Stalder <felix@openflows.org>

This text addresses three interrelated questions in order to query the 
status of the object within the space of flows and speculate about some 
ramifications for designing within this new environment.

* What is the space of flows in general?
* How is it different from the space of places, the type of geography we 
learned in school? And, finally,
* how do we deal with these differences?

So, what is the space of flows? The conference flyer already introduced us
to the famous idea of Heraclitus: panta rei: everything flows. What he was
referring to is a general condition of nature. Everything is in a constant
process of transformation. Even Mount Everest is not static but continuous
to grow at a rate of about 3-5 millimeters each year.

The concept of the space of flows is different from this. It refers to a
specific historic condition which has become predominant only quite
recently, arguably in the mid 1970s. The space of flows ­ to give you a
general definition ­ is that stage of human action whose dimensions are
created by dynamic movement, rather than by static location.

The operative words here are movement and human action. Without movement,
this space would cease to exist and we would fall back into the space of
places, defined by mountains, buildings and borders.

Equally important, the movement takes place through human action and it
creates the conditions for our everyday lifes. In this sense, the drifting
tectonic plates, even though they move too, are not part of the space of
flows. They drift no matter what we do, causing much headache and the
occasional humbling experience to Californians.

I said that the space of flows has become the dominant predominant stage
on which our world is shaped only recently. But, of course, there have
always been social spaces that were created by movement. Here in
Amsterdam, the maritime world of long distance trading is still very

The space of flows ­ now and then ­ consists of three elements:

* the medium through which things flows,
* the things that flow, and
* the nodes among which the flows circulate.

In regard to Dutch long distance trading, the medium was the ocean. The
medium was characterized by currents, storms and many other conditions
that favoured some flows over others. Oceans and sailing ships were
unsuitable for trading fresh fruits, but highly capable of transporting
dried spices.  This point can be generalized. There is always a close
relationship between the medium of the flows and their contents. One of
the first messages that came through the transatlantic telegraph cable
when it opened in the mid 19th century was: The Queen has a cold. This
factoid became newsworthy only under the conditions of instantaneous

The final element in the space of flows are the nodes, the harbours and
trading posts that the Dutch established around the world. Flows always go
from one node to an other. In a world with only a single harbour, ships
are mere entertainment. Nodes focus movement into flows. Nodes, like the
harbour where goods are loaded into ships, are membranes that connect
various flows to one another and flows with places: a node is a kind of
interface, and like all interfaces, they shape profoundly what they
interface to.

Flows are created by subtle interplay of similarity and difference among
nodes. People who do not speak the same language have a very hard time
communicating. People who know the exact same stories have nothing to tell
to one another. We have all seen old couples who sit silently next to one
another. They know each other so well that they have nothing to exchange

Despite similarities, maritime flows are also every different from today's
information flows.  Since ports, the distance between them and the
currents of the sea are relatively stable, the maritime space of flows is
static in ways ours is not.

The quintessential node in our contemporary space of flows is the office,
the command and control centers for the flows of goods, people and
information. In pre-industrial manufacturing, the function of the work
bench and of the office were barely separated. Rather, they were one and
the same. This was efficient was long as the flows were small and slow.  
As volume and speed of production increased, this model came into a
crisis. As a direct response to the growth of the factory output over the
previous 100 years, the office emerged into centrality in the second half
of the 19th century.

Flows and nodes began to differentiate.

The office represents the attempt to better manage the flows of goods
pouring out of the factories. These flows are constantly threatening to
run out of control, through over-production or runaway costs. The world of
the office introduced a central theme of the culture of flows: the paradox
that the practice of"hyper control" coexists with the condition of “out of
control”. They do not simply coexist at the same time, but more
worryingly, because of one another. The two conditions are not
contradictions, but actually two sides of the same medal.

In the process of differentiation of flows and nodes, the office moved
away from the workbench. First into a separate room within the factory,
then into a separate building within the centralized factory complex.
Think of Ford's famous factory where raw iron ore entered on one side and
finished cars left on the other. This is a node in the word were
information flows in the office circulate through the medium of paper.

Now that information circulates through digital media, nodes and flows are
differentiating even further. As volume and speed increase, both are
growing to the extend that producing a sneaker has become an incredibly
complex process involving research labs, marketing firms and production
facilities around the world.

The important point here is: as volume and pace of the flows increases,
nodes and flows are becoming more and more different logically, while
functionally are being integrated ever more tightly. The worlds of the
glittering NIKE head offices and the pretty bleak conditions under which
its sneakers are produced are much more separated than what differentiated
Henry Ford from his workers, they both worked and lived in more or less
the same place. At the same time, the production cycle is becoming shorter
and shorter to the degree that you can have a “personalized” NIKE shoe,
just for you. The cycle has shrunk to a single point of real time

By now were are already deep into the second question: what are the
differences between the space of flows and space as we know it?

I have already mentioned, it's made up of movement that brings distant
elements ­ things and people ­ into an interrelationship that is
characterized today by being continuous and in real time. Historically
speaking, this is new. There have always been cultures that were built
across large distances. But now, their interaction is in real time. Being
entirely digital, one of its consequences is that space can expand and
contract very quickly. Just think of the volatility if the stock market
which has a lot to do with the volume and speed of trading.

What is perhaps more important is that such changes are not only
quantitative ­ changes in size ­ but also qualitative ­ changes in kind.
As flows change their volume and direction, nodes change their
characteristics.  This is perhaps the most central difference between the
space of places and the space of flows. In the latter, the characteristics
of each element are less dependent on their internal quality than on their
relationship to others. These relationships, of course, are created by

In other words, function, value and meaning in the space of flows are
relational and not absolute. Acquiring a the latest expert system does not
guarantee that one has sophisticated advice at one's disposal. More often
than not, making such a system work in the unique configuration of
information flows that characterize each company is a daunting task.

Whether a node works or not, then, is not determined within the node, but
emerges from the network of which the node is only a part. As the network
changes, as old connection die and new ones are established, as the flows
are reorganized through other nodes, meaning, functionality, values
changes too.

How do we deal with that?

The immediate question is: Who is “we”? If we take it seriously that
things ­ and people ­ are less defined by their intrinsic qualities but
more by their relational position to one another, then the unit of
analysis ­ and action ­ can no longer be the single element, an individual
person, a product or a company.

We have to shift our attention away from the "within" on to the
"in-between”. Rather than asking what is made out of, we have to ask, what
does it interface to?

In a similar shift of focus, social scientists have recently started to
talk about "technological forms of life".  By this they do not mean
anything like artificial life, but the following: if two people are
engaged in a conversation and develop a new idea, this idea does not stem
from one or the other, but from the association ­ or the form of life ­
that they created. What is "in-between" people, is "within" a form of

By adding the modifier technological to the concept of the “form of life”
the emphasis is put on the fact that these associations are increasingly
made possible, and influenced, by technology, particularly information
technology. It provides the medium through which information can flow
among the participants. Again, we have the three elements of create a
system of flows:

* the medium ­ digital communication technology
* the flows ­ information, and
* the nodes hybrids ­ of people and machinery.

The characteristics of any technological form of life are not simply the
sum of their individual qualities, but they emerge from their interaction.  
Importantly, as life becomes technological, technology becomes life-like.  
Again, this mean that we are becoming Terminator-like cyborgs or
technology will be able to reproduce itself autonomously. Rather, the two
stand increasingly in a dynamic ecological relationship to one another.  
Technology ­ continuously and in real time ­ adapts to people who seek out
the possibilities of new technologies. Their relationship evolves through
constant feedback ­ flows circulating among nodes ­ rather than as cause
and effect.

>From the point of view of purposeful design this creates a problem. We
cannot design technological forms of life, they are emergent. What we can
do, though, is design some of its elements, particularly the objects.
These elements, however, are complemented by elements outside of our
immediate control.

This brings us back to the theme of the co-existence of "hyper control"
and "out of control". We can micro-manage ever more precisely over ever
greater distances. At the same time, we become ever more affected by, and
dependent on, things are outside of our individual reach. The emergent
effects, that which gives ultimately meaning and value to the individual
elements that we design are even harder to steer.

This does not lessen the importance of design, but it changes its
characteristics. As meaning and functionality move from the object of
design into relationships created by flows, the object in itself becomes
incomplete. One cannot know what the full shape of an object is before one
tries it out by inserting it into a specific intersection of flows. There
it takes on a kind of life of its own.

Nodes need to be generic so that they become specific under the condition
that we cannot fully predict. This is not because we do not know enough.
On the contrary in a highly integrated environment, in the medium of
instantaneous digital data flows, our interventions to manage, or design,
one little instance within the large space of flows is part what creates
uncontrollability of the overall environment. Unintended consequences,
filtered through the entire space, will sooner or later come back and
surprise us by reconfiguring the conditions for the node that we have just
so consciously designed. That's the moment we need to be ready for.


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