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Streams, Shapes & Junkspace

There are threads coming from all directions and sometimes they build knots. [It’s like] when you look at a map in the airline brochure in front of you and you see the pattern of their flights, and all of a sudden they have a hub in Atlanta and they have another hub in Salt Lake City, and all the lines converge there as if there were knots. There are certain places [like that] in probably each country; in the United States, I feel these focal points, these knots, where everything seems to converge, including the nightmares. Like San Quentin. One of the knots would be Wall Street—not that I’m saying Wall Street is evil.

Werner Herzog

Last week, Alabama beat Clemson in the college football championship, winning the game in a quintessential Non-Place: the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Never mind that the University of Phoenix could as easily refer to the mythical bird as the city, as weakly as the online school is associated with the latter; the stadium itself is also physically a non-place, a temporary staging area for 75,000 people to spend a few days and then leave. The same is true of any major sporting event, to a degree, but Glendale is no New Orleans, Miami, or even Pasadena—the Phoenix suburb has no identity beyond this single landmark, a perennial site of top-tier bowl matchups, Super Bowls, and Arizona Cardinals home games. At least the Giants’ stadium purports to be located in symbolically charged place (New York) even though it’s actually somewhere else (New Jersey).

Rather than being a place, Glendale’s stadium is pure infrastructure, a link in the supply chain of global image-making—a blank canvas on which to project thousands of spectators as human wallpaper behind events that millions more (the audience that matters) watch on TV. The permanent population that inhabits Glendale (200,000 people), along with whatever “placeness” the town possesses, is decoupled from the stadium and its brief annual presence in the national consciousness, excepting the few who invisibly work at the stadium or even attend the games.

The University of Phoenix Stadium is a focal point where a special intense kind of cultural energy can gather and disseminate, or a knot where everything appears to converge, as Herzog would put it. This isn’t an organic convergence, though. It’s carefully engineered by a coalition of corporate sponsors and media conglomerates.

In the past, locations couldn’t detach so completely from their cultural presence. The most compelling synecdoches are place names: Detroit, Hollywood, the Beltway, all specific locations symbolizing certain activities that have historically happened there. Those symbolic associations arose in an era when abstraction hadn’t reached its current level of sophistication, though. What happens when the location never even matters in the first place, and we encounter the outcome before its context? That’s what we now observe in Glendale and elsewhere: blank physical spaces, barren of meaning, for staging the information that will travel everywhere and detach entirely from its site. The University of Phoenix Stadium could float in space and still serve its purpose.

Walled off from their environs, megastructures like stadiums and airports sit empty and inert until global forces activate them for use. Their scale is so out of proportion to their surroundings that they can’t serve purely local purposes, a rule proven by absurd exceptions like the Superdome sheltering Hurricane Katrina victims. This world of sleek surfaces across which humans glide without ever coming to rest—Rem Koolhaas’ junkspace—has a huge population at any moment, but no permanent one. How, then, do human communities relate to junkspace?

As seafaring societies survive through the ocean without living in it, so the modern world survives by junkspace, or the space of flows, or whatever else you call this growing system of airports, offices, malls, and event spaces. The condition this infrastructure supports is not a nomadic one, no matter how convincingly “lifestyle design” or Up in the Air narratives suggest otherwise.

A paradigm shift is underway: As mobility and connectivity increase, more and more people don’t really live in places at all—they live in streams.

The concept of the stream is best explained by Venkatesh Rao in this post. The stream, he writes, is “a sort of slow, life-long communal nomadism, enabled by globalization and a sense of shared transnational social identity within a small population.” Stream inhabitants have home addresses although they often move around, and they’re not just affluent frequent flyers: expat/exile communities, long-term travelers, and opportunistic professionals relocating internationally to seize opportunities abroad are all stream inhabitants. I’m adding to this list certain categories of refugees, touring entertainers and athletes, traveling knowledge workers, online gamers, and myriad internet communities.

The stream metaphor is so valuable because it frees us from the confining dichotomy of sedentary vs. nomadic, a spectrum no longer adequate for describing growing segments of the population. The fluidity of life supported by high-speed global travel and nonstop global connectedness means that nomadism is no longer necessary. Would-be nomads can enjoy permanent addresses while they partake of far-flung places for short or long durations, whether pushed or pulled to those places; however, these individuals’ permanent addresses provide less information about their reality than ever before. If traditional sedentary life is a point on a map, stream life is a vector, with magnitude and direction, representing a pattern of movement.

Junkspace and its complements—refugee camps, informal settlements—are the infrastructure of the stream. The internet and air travel are the wormholes that connect and rewire the globe, shortening the distance between the places where we actually live our lives. In the future and even now, people we meet will care less where we’re from, and more what stream we inhabit.

A popular idea about the stream society just described is that the incessant commingling it represents has eroded regionalism—the distinctiveness of physical places. Instead of unique local music and art scenes in mid-sized towns across America, we get Spotify and a gradual move toward equilibrium as every style and sound becomes accessible to every listener and musician. Brian Eno says we now live in “a stylistic tropics” in which unlimited access to music has unleashed a proliferation of genres.

The stylistic tropics, in replacing regionalism, have brought about a cultural mode in which variation depends less upon place and more upon everything else: stream regionalism. Two neighbors in the same apartment building today might develop tastes as divergent as if they’d lived on opposite sides of the world, thanks to the internet. If space is losing its grip on culture, the notion of the hip neighborhood might become as archaic as the compact disc, a concept only useful for real estate sales, with each city block containing its own fragmented subcultures. As I’ve observed before, we navigate the stylistic tropics without any kind of map or big picture, by “surfing and swarming.” Your region or hometown in this world is just your stream, or a vector pointing in the direction you’re headed.

Recently, Foursquare offered an interesting take on the idea of streams in its approach to the data it collects. In trying to get a handle on the “pulse of a city,” Foursquare pays attention not only to where people are located at present, but also where they’ve been, what patterns appear in their movement, and who’s in their social network. Foursquare’s check-in data generates “shapes”—digital clouds that correspond to the true GPS footprints of coffee shops, bars, or restaurants. To me, though, Foursquare’s work evokes a different, broader meaning of shape, one that the company is also investigating: the shape of your life, graphed on the axes of space, time, and information. The intersection of your social relationships, movement through a city (and other cities), and the stuff you like. The overlap between your shapes and other peoples’ shapes and the probability that you will meet any of those “stream neighbors” in this overlap. Foursquare’s multidimensional data, spanning the visible and the invisible, is both a perfect metaphor for the stream and an early map of an emergent world.

One Comment on “Streams, Shapes & Junkspace”

  1. […] Streams, Shapes & Junkspace A piece to stimulate your thoughts, employing the “stream” metaphor to describe how mobility and connectivity changes how people relate to the places they live at and travel to. […]

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