Felix Stalder on Wed, 4 May 2005 11:33:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fragmented Places and Open Societies

Fragmented Places and Open Societies

[This essay was writtenm for the catalogue of the exhibition "Open=20
Nature", ICC Tokio, April 29 - July 3, 2005=20

         Human life unfolds simultaneously in three environments, biologica=
built, and informational. Analytically, they can be distinguished, but in=
practice they are inseparable. The way we construct our houses reflects as =
our bodily as our cultural determination. The relationship among these=20
environments, however, is unstable. They mirror and penetrate each other in=
historically specific ways. Much of the turmoil of our present period can b=
understood in terms of a realignment of these three environments, driven by=
profound expansion of our cultural capacities as information technology is=
expanding into an all-connecting internet. In the following, I will to look=
how physical space is affected by this process and the challenges this pose=
s to=20
the future of society as an open political system.

         Time and space are the fundamental dimensions of human action. One=
of reading historical development is as an acceleration and expansion of=20
society (interrupted by periods of deceleration and contraction). We learne=
over time, to manage more space in less time. Technology played a major=20
enabling role in this 'time-space compression'. Cities grew into metropolis=
a world economy emerged, the whole planet became interconnected from the 17=
century onwards, in close relationship with advances in communication,=20
transportation, and, not to forget, accounting. As profound as this develop=
has been, it did not touch the basic definition and characteristics of spac=
Following Manuel Castells, we can define space as the material basis of=20
time-sharing. In order to interact in real-time, one has to be in the same=
space which has always been a single place. Space, then, could be thought o=
f as=20
a series of places. One next to the other. Indeed, time-space compression m=
that the relative distance between places was shrinking, yet their relation=
remained characterized by just that, a distance which always expressed itse=
as a time lag in interaction. The assumption that entities which are in clo=
proximity can interact more quickly and that the time lag grows linearly wi=
distance remained basically correct, despite the capacity to span time and=
space more extensively, quickly and reliably. Some time in the 1980s, this=
changed. The quantitative development of acceleration reached its limit. Ye=
rather than space disappearing, which some postmodernists predicted as the=
'terminal condition', what we have been witnessing is the emergence of an=
entirely new kind of space, aptly termed the space of flows by Castells, th=
first and still most perceptive analyst of this historical discontinuity.

         The concept of the space of flows points to the emergence of a new=
material basis for time-sharing based on instantaneous electronic informati=
flows. This has been long in the making, starting with the telegraph in the=
19th century. Its real foundations, however, were laid in the 1970s when th=
development of the micro-processor coincided with capitalist firms=20
restructuring themselves in order to escape a deep economic crisis. This=20
created the push and the pull to incorporate into social institutions=20
technology capable of generating and processing information flows. The spac=
e of=20
flows expanded massively. In the process, the physical environment in which=
these institutions operated became restructured, too, by the logic of the s=
of flows. They key to this logic is that it is placeless, even if its physi=
components, quite obviously, remain place-based. Even a data-center is loca=
somewhere. And the people who operate it have their homes somewhere as well=
=2E It=20
is therefore not a co-incidence that the major financial centers are still=
located in New York, London, and Tokyo, yet the dynamics of the global=20
financial markets can not be explained with reference to these places. The =
logic also infuses production of, say, clothing. Designed in Northern Italy=
produced in Sri Lanka, marketed in New York, it is sold around the world in=
franchise stores which are locally managed, but globally controlled. What i=
emerging is a new social geography, highly dynamic and variable, which is n=
longer based on physical proximity, but on logical integration of functiona=
units, including people and buildings, through the space of flows. The phys=
location of the various units is determined by the unequal ability of diffe=
places to contribute to the programs embedded in the various network. Wheth=
production is located in China, Sri Lanka, or Bulgaria is, from the point o=
view of the overall operation, irrelevant, as long as the factory is capabl=
e of=20
providing the required services competitively. In short, the connection bet=
functional and physical distance has been broken. Yet, this is not the deat=
h of=20
distance. Rather, it is being reconfigured into a non-linear pattern.

         Thus, we have certain areas within, say, Sofia, whose developmenta=
trajectory does not follow that of Bulgaria as a whole, but is determined b=
other free trade zones in emerging economies. Indeed, the very concept of f=
trade zone indicates that certain locales have been decoupled from their=20
geographic environment. In a legally binding way, they are governed by a=20
different set of rules than their 'host countries'. This, in itself, is not=
entirely new. Shipping harbors have always enjoyed certain exemptions from=
taxation, a freedom granted to stimulate trade and commerce. Yet,=20
traditionally, these pockets of extra-territoriality have been located at t=
borders of territories, facilitating the transition between them. Now, thes=
zones are sprinkled across territories, severely undermining national=20
sovereignty and territorial integrity. This has been the stories of early=
1990s, the result of commercially driven globalization. Fast forward to tod=
The ability to operate translocally in real-time has diffused through socie=
at large, though quite unequally. Small firms, criminal organizations, soci=
movements, and even individual people can network globally with relative ea=
Thus, more and more places on which the social actors in these networks rel=
are becoming decoupled from their local environments and determined by=20
translocal flows of people, goods, money, and culture. These networks are=
highly specific. For one, they can easily adapt their components as changin=
demands or self-selected goals require. Thus, they only need to cooperate w=
those who match their own shared culture. Second, cultural specificity is n=
an option, but a functional requirement for networked organizations. Relyin=
g on=20
adaption and cooperation, rather than command and control, they need to=20
establish a distinct internal culture in order to build trust and facilitat=
communication. Corporate mergers, apparently, fail so often because the=20
managers cannot fashion a new 'corporate culture' out of the two existing o=
In the process, the cultural differentiation between the networks is growin=
From=20within the network, this appears as a process of integration and=20
'community' or 'team' building. From the point of view of physical space, w=
none of the network actors ever escapes, this appears as a process of=20
fragmentation and of  increasing isolation of social actors from one anothe=
despite the fact that they might share the same physical space. This proces=
has advanced to such a degree that it applies to the highly connected as we=
as to the disconnected. In fact, the two groups mirror each other. In many=
ways, people are not 'more connected' than before, but rather, the connecti=
which characterized dominant processes (even within the counter-culture) ar=
increasingly made and maintained in the space of flows. The flip side of th=
ability to forge translocal connections is that those connections made in t=
space of places are becoming weakened. There is no need to relate to others=
just because they are physically present. Rather, places (and people) can b=
bypassed, rendered invisible from the point of view of those operating thro=
the space of flows. This new form of exclusion applies to whole regions, bu=
also to particular neighborhoods. It works on all scales.

         In cities, this expresses itself through the twin  processes of gl=
homogenization  and local diversification. We have a McDonald's in virtuall=
every city of the planet. Yet, increasingly, there is no way to predict wha=
will be located right next to it. On the ground, the many globals and local=
mix in seemingly random ways. The result is a kind of a patchwork of cultur=
and their physical expressions jumbled together in agglomerations, sprawlin=
metropolitan regions held together by fast transportation networks. These=
regions emerge without much planning, often they don't even have same (or, =
are we to call the region, which can be traversed in either direction withi=
n a=20
few hours, comprising London, Paris and Amsterdam). The people who life on,=
travel between, these patches ? the connected as well as the disconnected ?=
are, quite naturally, building their own cultures that enable them to deal =
this new fragmented reality, increasingly without reference to the geograph=
place as whole. Consequently, the focus of this new 'community' or=20
network-centric culture lies on internal, rather than on external=20
communication. Community-building becomes an end, rather than a means, to t=
degree that 'community' is one of the few concepts that is virtually always=
positively connoted.

         This situation poses a great challenge to the projects of 'open=20
societies', understood simply as political system in which those in power a=
accountable for their actions to the public and the fundamental rights of a=
individuals are respected. Historically, the institutional foundation for o=
societies have been liberal democracies. These are built on the assumption =
people who live in one territory share certain values, or, at least, certai=
experiences. This communality is the glue that holds together the body poli=
It served as the ultimate frame of reference in the endless game of comprom=
that characterizes the open political processes. This communality, however,=
eroding as space fragments. Contributing to this erosion is the retreat of =
state from the life of citizens, leaving them to fend for themselves. Thus=
people migrate -- sometimes voluntarily, sometimes forced -- into new=20
communities, making them increasingly unresponsive for compromise and conse=
without which liberal democracies do not work.

         This is where we stand today. At the precise moment when democracy=
established itself as the only legitimate form of government world wide, it=
actual institutions face a deep crisis. There are two trends which can be=
understood as a reaction to this crisis. One is the reemergence of=20
authoritarianism, which does away with compromise and consensus, justifying=
power with reference to security instead. It operates across fragmented spa=
indeed, the ability to selectively alter the rules governing particular pla=
is a key technique of this new form of power. Its most extreme case is the =
outside the law established in Guant=E1namo Bay in Cuba. But also more mund=
special administrative zones where civil liberties are curtailed -- in rega=
to drinking, assembly or just the presence of 'suspects', say, around schoo=
ls --=20
are multiplying in cities around the world. Within these zones, which can=
spring up anywhere, the state of exception is being made permanent. This=20
tendency severely undermines the openness of society by deepening fragmenta=
in the service of power. The other, more hopeful and difficult, reaction to=
crisis of the democratic practices aims at reinventing the local. This time=
from the point of view of territorial and cultural unity, but as a ground o=
which differences can be negotiated. What is needed are cultural codes that=
not only circulate within particular networks, but that can travel across a=
of them. A renewal of fundamental rights could serve as a starting point fo=
this project to reinvent democracy in the space of places, using the space =
flows to expand the range of cultural expression, rather than diminishing i=

Further reading:

Agamben, Giorgio (2005). State of Exception (trans: Kevin Attell). Chicago,=
University of Chicago Press

Bateson, Gregory (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, Ballentine=

Castells, Manuel (2000). The Rise of the Network Society, The Information A=
Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I (second edition). Oxford, Blackwell

DeLanda, Manuel (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York, Sw=

Hardt, Michael; Negri Antonio (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the A=
of Empire. New York, Penguin Press

Harvey, David (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the=
Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford, UK, Blackwell Publishers

Innis, Harold, A. (1950). Empire and Communications. Oxford, Clarendon Pres=

McLuhan, Marshall; McLuhan, Eric (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science.=20
Toronto, University of Toronto Press

Virilio, Paul (1995). Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm! CTheory (Aug=

Wills, John E. Jr. (2001). 1688. A Global History. New York, W.W. Norton

This text benefited from comments by Christian H=FCbler and Armin Medosch.

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