Felix Stalder on Wed, 4 May 2005 17:55:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fragmented Places and Open Societies

[...reformatted for readility...]

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

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

The concept of the space of flows points to the emergence of a new=20
material basis for time-sharing based on instantaneous electronic=20
information flows. This has been long in the making, starting with the=20
telegraph in the mid 19th century. Its real foundations, however, were=20
laid in the 1970s when the development of the micro-processor coincided=20
with capitalist firms restructuring themselves in order to escape a deep=20
economic crisis. This created the push and the pull to incorporate into=20
social institutions technology capable of generating and processing=20
information flows. The space of flows expanded massively. In the process,=
the physical environment in which these institutions operated became=20
restructured, too, by the logic of the space of flows. They key to this=20
logic is that it is placeless, even if its physical components, quite=20
obviously, remain place-based. Even a data-center is located somewhere.=20
And the people who operate it have their homes somewhere as well. It is=20
therefore not a co-incidence that the major financial centers are still=20
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=
same 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=20
controlled. What is emerging is a new social geography, highly dynamic and=
variable, which is no longer based on physical proximity, but on logical=20
integration of functional units, including people and buildings, through=20
the space of flows. The physical location of the various units is=20
determined by the unequal ability of different places to contribute to the=
programs embedded in the various network. Whether production is located in=
China, Sri Lanka, or Bulgaria is, from the point of view of the overall=20
operation, irrelevant, as long as the factory is capable of providing the=
required services competitively. In short, the connection between=20
functional and physical distance has been broken. Yet, this is not the=20
death of distance. Rather, it is being reconfigured into a non-linear=20

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

In cities, this expresses itself through the twin processes of global=20
homogenization and local diversification. We have a McDonald's in=20
virtually every city of the planet. Yet, increasingly, there is no way to=
predict what will be located right next to it. On the ground, the many=20
globals and locals mix in seemingly random ways. The result is a kind of a=
patchwork of cultures and their physical expressions jumbled together in=20
agglomerations, sprawling metropolitan regions held together by fast=20
transportation networks. These regions emerge without much planning, often=
they don't even have same (or, how are we to call the region, which can be=
traversed in either direction within a few hours, comprising London, Paris=
and Amsterdam). The people who life on, or travel between, these patches=20
-- the connected as well as the disconnected -- are, quite naturally,=20
building their own cultures that enable them to deal with this new=20
fragmented reality, increasingly without reference to the geographic 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=
the degree that 'community' is one of the few concepts that is virtually=20
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=
are accountable for their actions to the public and the fundamental rights=
of all individuals are respected. Historically, the institutional=20
foundation for open societies have been liberal democracies. These are=20
built on the assumption that people who live in one territory share=20
certain values, or, at least, certain experiences. This communality is the=
glue that holds together the body politic. It served as the ultimate frame=
of reference in the endless game of compromises that characterizes the=20
open political processes. This communality, however, is eroding as space=20
fragments. Contributing to this erosion is the retreat of the state from=20
the life of citizens, leaving them to fend for themselves. Thus people=20
migrate =FF=FF sometimes voluntarily, sometimes forced =FF=FF into new=20
communities, making them increasingly unresponsive for compromise and=20
consensus without which liberal democracies do not work.

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

Further reading:

Agamben, Giorgio (2005). State of Exception (trans: Kevin Attell).=20
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=
Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I (second edition). Oxford,=20

DeLanda, Manuel (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York,=20

Hardt, Michael; Negri Antonio (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the=
Age 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=20

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=20
(August, 27)

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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