Code for the Heavy WorldPosted: October 22, 2015
“In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in rustbelt cities and ghost suburbs across the US, the failure was so spectacular that many properties ceased to be mortage products. No longer standing for money, it was as if they returned to a gravitational field.”
The most literal example of software eating the world may be the “internet of things,” an umbrella term for the wiring and networking of physical objects from thermostats to cars to cities that makes them smarter and more efficient. The term itself can be puzzling: Before the internet, there were just things, and now there’s an internet of things, but how is that not just another way of describing a world (consisting of things) that is now connected by the internet?
Another way of asking that: If the internet of things makes objects smart and connected, does that mean they were dumb and disconnected until now? Even by a strict definition, objects have been wired and incorporated into digital networks for decades. High-speed vehicles from the car to the plane long ago ushered into society a network map of the world delineated by travel times rather than distances or physical paths, a graph of nodes and vectors more than a visual portrayal of the places we inhabit. The global city in the aviation age, linked to much of the world by less than a day of travel time, was smarter than it had ever been before.
Keller Easterling writes that “space, without digital or media enhancement, is itself information.” There’s an internet of things apart from the internet, even today. The junked trailers littering post-oil-boom North Dakota, discussed in my last post, are part of an internet of things that has nothing to do with technology embedded in the trailers themselves. Rather, the trailers are objects in a broader information landscape comprising commodity prices, job availability, and the real estate market: a software that generates and redistributes the spatial demand for temporary and permanent housing in North Dakota, driving its construction and subsequent dereliction. “Code for the heavy bulky world” is what Easterling has called this. Housing demand may be pure information (the code), but the supply is the heavy, physical part, and it necessarily lags in responding to that information.
The truly connected object takes its digital cues more quickly and consistently than a trailer in North Dakota—a self-driving car swerving to avoid a pedestrian, guided by real software. But the same spread of that software, in producing the internet of things, has accelerated the responsiveness of all space to information, as well as its saturation by information. Lars Lerup, in his essay “Stim and Dross,” describes a party he attends in Houston at an art patron’s house: “When toggled on, the stim’s shimmering lights attract its participants like moths sucked out of the darkness of the city…And when the lights are turned low, the guests and caterers depart, the stim is turned off and the house and its occupants are again mere dross on the littered city floor.”
Information, along with the infrastructural systems that support and carry it, can be life or death to physical as well as digital spaces. They exist regardless, but information makes them matter or not. Yelp might “toggle on” a specific restaurant as the New York Times might toggle on a neighborhood or novel. Dropping oil prices have toggled off towns in North Dakota, just as rising prices toggled them on several years ago. With or without chips and sensors, what is an internet of things if not a world that dances so well to such explicit instructions?