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Failure Space

January 14, 2016

In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.  These big five American vertically organized silos are remaking the world in their image.  

-Bruce Sterling, 2013

When you exit the freeway for the airport in any city, your peripheral vision probably catches some of the dead patches of grassy unused space between the shoulders of the roadway, or maybe a strip of dirt along the edges of the airport property, although your brain doesn’t register their existence.

This dead non-space isn’t any place you want to be. You wouldn’t ever wonder about it either, unless you design airports or recently read JG Ballard’s Concrete Island. Non-places like the scrubby patch of land on the freeway shoulder next to the chainlink fence enclosing the airport are the key landscapes of the present day, though.

A few years ago I wrote a guest post on Ribbonfarm about the “holey plane,” Lars Lerup’s metaphor for the atomized urban landscape of the late automobile age. I argued in that post that the texture of life—our experience of environments physical as well as digital—has become more connected but less continuous as we’ve gained more sophisticated means to bypass whatever we deem irrelevant to the goal at hand. That “search, don’t sort” philosophy first defined how we manage our Gmail inboxes but now extends to numerous facets of daily existence. Here, every route is the scenic route, meaning you won’t see any scenery unless you actively seek it out.

The similarity between the experience of cities and the internet, a perennial theme of this blog, may be due to the forces producing their common structure. Bruce Sterling described the “the Stacks” in the quote at the top of this post—the five platforms that dominated the internet a few years ago and have consolidated that dominance since then—leading Alexis Madrigal to wonder what would be left of the diminishing spaces between the Stacks: “Your technology will work perfectly within the silo and with an individual stack’s (temporary) allies. But it will be perfectly broken at the interfaces between itself and its competitors.”

If the “internet” was the traditional city, the Stacks are the holey plane, junkspace, enclaves, or any other euphemism trying to describe what replaced Main Street. Like a defunct URL from 1997, the space between closed systems like freeways or the airport tends to be perfectly broken. It might as well throw a 404 error. It’s where the hapless protagonist of Concrete Island got stuck when he fell through a hole in the Holey Plane: Failure Space. You end up there by making a mistake, or more likely by trying something that didn’t work because the Stacks don’t support it.

Failure Space is where trash finally accumulates after blowing across every other surface. It’s where we imagine the homeless might set up a peaceful encampment, although we rarely glimpse that. It’s where Emilio Estevez got chased in Repo Man and where John Cusack got dumped back into reality in Being John Malkovich. It’s everywhere and multiplying rapidly. Places you try to visit once and then stop trying.

Failure Space accrues in the annihilation of everything not part of a larger closed (and usually private) system. A common misconception is that all this dead space is a tragedy. It’s not; there’s plenty of space to go around. Failure Space is tragic because it’s the contour of a different kind of space, the Stacks, and it makes up more and more of the world we produce beyond those platforms’ rigid borders.