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Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

February 16, 2017

It’s impossible to get lost in Chicago. The city adheres so faithfully to its grid layout—major roads spaced at half-mile intervals, street addresses that mark exact distance from its center—that you can almost always know where you are, navigate to where you’re going, and orient yourself within the larger metropolis, even if you’re not fully aware why it all comes so naturally. Chicago is a more idealized version of a familiar city type: the kind whose layout makes sense and communicates to individuals their position within it using the symbolism of its built form. Kevin Lynch called this quality imageability and measured it by urban subjects’ ability to form mental maps of their environments.

The notion that a city’s physical form would convey such information about itself to its inhabitants is already starting to seem quaint. They don’t make them like that anymore, you could say. Even now, you may be wondering why it matters that Chicago’s grid makes the city easier to navigate or grasp mentally (whatever that even means). We have iPhones. When is navigation ever a problem? Like Victor Hugo’s pronouncement that the book would kill the building as a medium of communication, the handheld sensors we all carry in our pockets have dealt another blow to the physical city’s already-ailing function as repository of information about itself, finishing a process that the car accelerated and various other technologies started. For the most part, we still have legible, imageable built environments—in limited supply—because so much of the urbanized world is residue from bygone technological regimes.


 Russian megastructure: Norman Foster edition (source)

Our sense of scale is one obvious victim of the spatial mush that has swallowed or surrounded traditional urban fabric. Freed from the mandate to provide fixed, stable indicators of geographic position, space itself has become fluid. Movement by airplane, highway, or even subway has always been topological—network position matters more than distances between nodes—but in advanced conditions of digital saturation, distance dissolves altogether. Striated space, in the Deleuzian sense, gives way almost literally to smooth space, and that smooth space is the prevailing condition of increasingly-common urbanized places that don’t quite feel like cities, at least in the familiar sense.

Here’s an example of where we’ve ended up: When I run, like many people, I use my phone to keep track of my distance and pace (an admitted concession to the Quantified Self). Lately, near my house, this practice has revealed a phantom pocket of space or warp in the fabric of reality, an extra, nonexistent quarter-mile that the app consistently adds to my runs in that same location every time. I recognize this anomaly because I know how fast I’m running and notice when my pace suddenly doubles, having calibrated a sense of real distance and speed through years of measuring my runs with less precision. My phone is the only tool I ever use to measure distance now, yet I know it’s wrong.

If the measurement error were less obvious, though, the spasm I just described wouldn’t register. How would anyone notice it or measure it? That a more subtle error perhaps doesn’t really even matter—something you’re probably thinking—is more evidence that we live in smooth space now. A physical world only measured with digital tools and demarcated by digital signposts offers us insufficient reference points for catching these casual failures in everyday life and, again, it usually doesn’t even matter. Analog methods of measurement certainly have their own pitfalls—they are far from perfect, and likely less accurate overall—but their shortcomings and limitations are more accessible to lay users. Take this as a metaphor for other domains of contemporary life: We eagerly shove as much as possible onto the internet and just as eagerly dismantle what it replaced. Sometimes that works out, but usually at the price of increased fragility.

Grid layouts, boulevards, wayfinding signage, and other traditional urban design components never existed just to serve prosaic purposes like local navigation or measurement, although they often did those too. Rather, those elements constituted an environment that reminded the urban citizenry what kind of world they inhabited: one where connected, coherent, and shared space mattered, in which that space helped knit together the society it housed. Today, we lack such reminders outside of certain well-preserved districts, and even when we recreate that type of urban fabric, it sends another message, that urbanism as we once knew it is a product to consume.

The truest spatial expression of the present moment is the disconnected enclave or megastructure, suspended in an oceanic swirl of infrastructural illegibility, connected to its surroundings physically and digitally but not related to them, and having no special relationship to what’s adjacent aside from the commercial costs and benefits that a given location determines. Any airport, rail terminal, stadium, shopping center, or insular urban condo tower fits this description, but enclaves smaller and larger are easier to miss, from the interior of a taxi requested via one’s phone to the grandiose megastructures with which Norman Foster and others would literally replace cities.

In all of these cases we—the citizen-users—navigate not by any kind of global orientation but using the tools of smooth space, our Apple-made versions of sextants and nautical almanacs, ranging through a manmade wilderness from one port-of-call to the next. Using an app to measure the length of a run is a frivolous application of a serious skill: When we’re between enclaves we’re floating in space.