Place: Networked Place

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Place: Networked Place

by Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg


Contemporary life is dominated by the pervasiveness of the network. With the worldwide spread of the mobile phone and the growth of broadband in the developed world, technological networks are more accessible, more ubiquitous, and more mobile every day. The always-on, always-accessible network produces a broad set of changes to our concept of place, linking specific locales to a global continuum and thereby transforming our sense of proximity and distance.

In the following chapter, we explore both the networking of space and the spatiality of the network, identifying a series of key conditions: the everyday superimposition of real and virtual spaces, the development of a mobile sense of place, the emergence of popular virtual worlds, the rise of the network as a socio-spatial model, and the growing use of mapping and tracking technologies. These changes are not simply produced by technology. On the contrary, the development and practices of technology (as well as the conceptual shifts that these new technological practices produce) are thoroughly imbricated in culture, society, and politics. To be clear, the new is not good by default. The conditions we observe are contested and give rise to new tensions as much as to new opportunities. With connection there is also disconnection, and networks can consolidate power in the very act of dispersing it. We will examine both the plusses and minuses of these conditions throughout the chapter.

Taken together, these changes are already radical. But it is likely they will be only the first steps in restructuring our concept of spatiality toward a reality of which we can only be partially aware, just as the first theorists of modernism could only partially understand the emerging condition of their day.

Simultaneous Place: Networked Publics

“One hundred dollars for three thousand minutes,” a twenty-five-year-old man with a Farsi accent repeats into his mobile phone. The scene is the local Starbucks, where you’ve gone to get away from the all-consuming distraction the Internet introduces into your life. You’ve intentionally left your phone in the car in order to be blissfully unaware of any professional or personal obligations that might take you away from your task. You’ve even left your laptop behind so that you won’t be tempted by the queue of e-mails to catch up to. You’re in the café with your Moleskine notebook—a non-networked object ubiquitous among the digerati—trying to start an essay on the role of place in network culture and finding that the only way forward is to detach yourself from the network as much as possible. But the people surrounding you have other ideas. The man behind you is trying to commit himself more deeply to the network, purchasing a plan that will allow him to talk on his mobile phone for one-tenth of his waking hours every month. A woman next to you is browsing the Internet with her laptop, a late-career executive is thumbing his Blackberry,two students are studying together, and some teenagers are hanging out listening to music on their iPhones. While one texts her friends, the other downloads music from the iTunes store. A thirtysomething man is on his laptop working on a screenplay, while a few people are just reading books or the paper. You are all somehow drawn together by the lure of the generic (but branded) caffeinated beverage and the desire to share a similarly generic, but nonetheless communal, space with other humans with whom you are likely not to have any direct interaction.

This is, as far as humanity goes, a scene that is simultaneously age-old and unprecedented. We gather at the communal watering hole as we always did; only now we don’t reach out to those around us. Instead, we communicate with far-flung souls using means that would be indistinguishable from magic for all but our most recent ancestors.

That we open at a coffeehouse is not incidental. For theorist Jürgen Habermas, when the public sphere emerged in the early eighteenth century, it did so in the context of the café, the learned society, and the salon.[1] Together with the rituals of coffee drinking, the café increasingly provided both forum and fuel for critical debate about the latest pamphlets, newsletters, and broadsides. But the public sphere was not so much a physical place as a discursive site in which a literate public could conduct rational and critical debate. The assembly and dialogue that constituted this emerging public sphere occurred as much within the pages of newly circulated printed materials as it did within the walls of the coffeehouse. And yet, although Habermas’s ideas of the emancipatory potential of the public sphere were dependent on open models of communication and participation, the café maintained its own invisible divides of power and access. The spaces that Habermas championed as the original outposts of this deliberative democracy were not open to women, or to men not of the appropriate race, class, or ethnicity. Instead, women conducted different modes of deliberative discourse in separate spaces, such as the tea table and the public laundry.

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