[iDC] Architecture and Situated Technologies

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Thu Jul 27 14:21:21 EDT 2006

Yesterday in Manhattan I passed by a dynamic looking woman with intense, curious
eyes and it turned out to be Shu Lea Cheang, -- the -- Shu Lea Cheang.

Today, over a hot cup of coffee and the background noise of slash hammers we had
a conversation about the iDC list.

We agreed that it must be the baking hot summer that makes teen repellents more
attractive than longish texts. (I find it hard to debate any of these issues
without at least mentioning that while we speak Israel started a war against

Shu Lea and I considered what the July discussion achieved and where it fell
short. There were some real gems (welcome to the many first-time posters!) and
at the same time it was hard for us to stick to a few threads (without changing
the subject heading when posting about the same topic).

Shu Lea voiced her desire for iDC subscribers to follow up on the raised points
instead of turning the list into a social space (a problem that she is all too
familiar with, also from lists that are moderated by women or are
“women-only”). It’d be an amazing experiment to actually follow through on one
thread for months.

However, we agreed that genuine discussions can only be inspired, not forced and
that the discussion of a focused selection of media art projects is paramount
for this exchange leading up to the October symposium. The theory and practice
link is really a tough nut to crack.

I rarely saw threads lasting for several weeks or even months (on any mailing
list really) going deep, deep, and deeper into topics, reflecting on what
previous contributors wrote and actually responding to it, thinking it through,
not immediately using it as jumping off board for other ideas.

To really get into a focused discussion of two or three projects would be good.
This needs to go beyond my own joy of referencing relevant links because
websites are often documentation that cannot replace reports from eyewitnesses.

Shu Lea and I discussed the visibility of art using mobile technology. Much of
the work formerly known as locative media was hardly noticeable in the urban
scenario: an artists sitting in a park with a laptop or standing on a street
corner with a mobile phone does not exactly attract many passers-by.

There are, of course, more sensational approaches but much of media artwork in
public places has a real hard time engaging an audience, turning "lurkers" into
participants despite the explicit intention to do so. Artists armed with
miniaturized (concealed) mobile art projects walking the streets will be also
be a challenge for the upcoming ISEA Festival.

The call for audience engagement reminds me of Miwon Kwon's comments on
site-specificity in the context of institutional critique projects of the
1990s. The site-specific spectacle of the critical art project was occasionally
turned into an institutionally cathartic, tourist attraction.

Shu Lea and I also thought that it'd be great to meet those of you who will be
at ISEA in August. I'll be there to present on the 10th.

>What do you think of a meeting of iDC readers and contributors in San Jose? We
could arrange this off-list and post a meeting point/time on 08/10 or 08/11.

Perhaps another interesting departure point for this discussion is Rheingold's
Smart Mobs blog post that quoted a BBC article about the waning divide between
people's lives online and in the city.

"This BBC article quotes Dr Jo Twist,a senior research fellow at the Institute
for Public Policy Research in the UK, as saying "once the net was ubiquitous
like power and water, it had the potential to be "transformative." The divide
that separates people from their online lives will utterly disappear. Instead
of leaving behind all those net-based friends and activities when you walk out
of your front door, you will be able to take them with you. The buddies you
have on instant message networks, friends and family on e-mail, your eBay
auctions, your avatars in online games, the TV shows you have stored on disk,
your digital pictures, your blog - everything will be just a click away."


Finally, I'm adding Mitchell Moss' and Anthony Townsend's essay
"How telecommunication systems are transforming urban spaces."

Anthony consented to me posting this text (Anth.: "that old thing!") originally
published in:

Wheeler, J., Aoyama, Y., Warf, B. eds. (2000) Cities in the Telecommunications
Age: The Fracturing of Geographies. London: Routledge.



All too often, telecommunications systems are treated as an alternative
to transportation systems, as a substitute for the physical movement of
people and services. The growing use of telecommunications
systems is doing far more than influence where people work and live, but
is actually changing the character of activities that occur in the home,
workplace, and automobile. This chapter examines the way in which
information and telecommunications are transforming everyday urban life;
making the home into an extension of the office, shopping mall, and
classroom; allowing the automobile and airplane to become workplaces;
and converting the office building into a hub for social interaction and
interpersonal contact. The diffusion of information technologies
drastically increases the complexity of cities by increasing the number
and type of interactions among individuals, firms, technical systems,
and the external environment. Information systems are permitting new
combinations of people. equipment, and places; as a result, there is a
dramatic change in the spatial organization of activities within cities
and large metropolitan regions.

Telecommunications has made the fundamental elements of urban life –
housing, transportation, work, and leisure – far more complex
logistically, spatially, and temporally. Despite the rapid integration
of information and telecommunications into everyday life, our theories
and policies rarely consider the role of information technology in urban
growth and development. In this chapter, we explore the way in which
new information and telecommunications systems are altering the
structure of urban development in the United States.

For the past century, cities have sought to control land use and guide
economic development by designating areas for distinctly different types
of activities. The zoning regulations that govern most cities and
suburbs reflect the industrial-era value placed on the separation of
activities into distinct zones for residential, commercial, and
industrial uses. Tire dirt, dust, and fumes from factories led to
concern for public health that imposed restrictions on where
manufacturing activities could occur. With the advent of
the electric streetcar, commuter railroad, and the automobile, it
becarmr possible to develop residential comunities far from the
industrial portions of cities.

 As we enter the twenty-first century, telecommunications technologies
are transforming the mix of activities within the home, office and
automobile in ways that are only beginning to be recognized and
understood. We have invested far more resources to study the influence
of transportation systems on urban development than to understand the
relationship of telecommunications technologies to urban and
regional growth. The popular and academic literature on new information
technologies reflects a long-standing belief that electronic
communications will lead to the economic decline of cities as they make
it possible to replace the face-to-face activities that occur in central
locations. More than a quarter century ago, Ronald Abler (1970), a
pioneer in the study of communications and urban space suggested that:

Advances in information transmission may soon permit us to disperse
information- gathering and decision-making activities away from
metropolitan center, and electronic communications media will make all
kinds of information equally abundant everywhere
in the nation, if not everywhere in the world.

George Gilder (1995) extended this argument when he wrote that: "we are
headed for the death of cities" due to the continued growth of personal
computing and distributed organizations advances. Gilder further
claimed that: "cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era."

By this reasoning, cities are no longer needed to access a wide range of
cultural activities and information sources, because telecommunications
can bring the library, concert hall, or business meeting into any home
or office.

Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson ( 1997), of the University of
Southern California, have argued that communications technologies are
reinforcing the movement out of cities that the automobile had
initiated: "Rapid advances in telecommunications are now accelerating
the decentralization trends set in motion by the advent of the
automobile." They contend that: "Proximity is becoming redundant...
Entertainment already is, and instruction is more likely to be,
transmitted over broad-band radio frequencies rather than seen in
traditional theaters or lecture halls, today's cities continue to become
less compact; the city of the future will be anything but compact." Most
observers believe that technology will eliminate the need for cities as
centers of interaction. The leading media guru, Nicholas Negroponte
(1995), has stated that "The post-information age will remove the
limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less
dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the
transmission of place itself will start to become possible." Even the
concept of the "edge city," a label that Joel Garreau (1991) applied to
clusters of suburban office parks linked bevy freeways, is a reflection
of how both transportation and communication technologies are treated as
forces that have fostered the outmigration of work and housing from the
central city.

Admittedly, geographers such as John Goddard, Jean Gottman, Allen Scott,
and James Wheeler have carefully analyzed the way in which
telecommunications can both centralize and decentralize activities,
reflecting geography's concern for understanding communications
technology and the location of human activities. Gottmann (1983)
proposed that communications technologies work in two directions by
making it possible both to concentrate and to disperse economic
activities, and had a "dual impact" on office location: "First, it has
freed the office from the previous necessity of locating next to the
operations it directed; second, it has helped to gather offices in large
concentrations in special areas." The authors of this paper have also,
succumbed to this spatial imperative and emphasized the role of
technology in reinforcing the position of major cities in the United
States. (Moss and Townsend, 1996, 1997, 1998)

Nigel Thrift (1996) provided a new rationale for face-to-face contact in
an era of high-speed communications by claiming that telecommunications
networks were generating a demand for instant information in the
financial services sector that was best done in a face-to-face context.
Thrift argued that the principal function of major financial centers is
interpreting in real time the massive amounts of information that are
generated each day: "Since the international financial system generates
such a massive load of information, power goes to those who are able to
offer the most convincing interpretations of the moment." Interpreting
information depends as much on face-to-face interaction as on advanced
technologies, an activity that is necessarily and increasingly
centralized in the leading world financial centers.


While telecommunications technologies are certainly a space-adjusting
phenomena, the emergence of the Internet, the growth of mobile
telephony, and the diffusion of new information technologies are doing
far more than merely rearrange the spatial pattern of activities in
cities and metropolitan regions. New telecommunications systems are
redefining the fundamental elements of modern urban society – the
office, the automobile, the home, and the street – and generating a need
for a new conceptual framework to understand the way in which
telecommunications systems are influencing the character of activities
in cities and metropolitan regions.

Simply put, telecommunications systems have progressed faster and deeper
into our society than the theories we use to guide research on such
technologies. Michael Batty (1997) states: "the city itself is turning
into a constellation of computers." Batty highlights the way in which
new information systems are "generating new opportunities for
understanding and planning cities," and makes a powerful case for a
new approach to the study of cities that builds upon the "synthesis of
computers and telecommunications." As he states:

Computers which were once thought of as solely being instruments for a
better understanding, for science, are rapidly becoming part of that
infrastructure, and thus affecting space and location. In one view, the
line between computers being used to aid our understanding of cities and
their being used to operate and control cites has not only become
blurred but has virtually dissolved. In another sense, computers are
becoming increasingly important everywhere and the asymmetry posed by
their exclusive use for analysis and design in the past and their all
pervasive influence in the city is now disappearing. In both cases, the
implication is that computers will have to be used to understand cities
which are built of computers.

In recent years, new theoretical empirical studies have offered insights
into the way in which information systems are influencing urban activity
patterns. Jed Kolko has suggested that telecommunications has led
to the "death of distance" but not the "death of cities." He also found
that "city size is positively related to domain density, and
significantly so" (Kolko, 1998). Daniel Sui has proposed the need for
new urban models that reflect an "organic view of cities based upon
analogies in biology" and that emphasize that "cities are formed more
from local actions without centralized planning or macro control " (Sui,
The growth of electronic communications is also forcing changes in how
we think about regions, according to Harvey and Macnab. They assert that
"the fundamental geographical notion of the region" is in need of a
temporal overhaul and ask "to what degree will traditional east-west
channels...give way to north-south alignments more in keeping with the
time of day?" (Harvey and Macnab, 1998).

This chapter makes a simple argument: the deployment of new
telecommunications systems is altering the activities that occur in the
key elements of urban society – the home, the office, the automobile,
and even the hotel room and public parks and streets. Telecommunications
systems are blurring the separation between the home and the workplace,
radically changing office design and function, transforming the
automobile into an extension of the workplace, and moving street crime
into the shadows of cyberspace.


The modern office building is the single greatest human artifact
explicitly designed to generate, process, and manage information. The
merger of computers and telecommunications systems has profoundly
altered the physical design of office buildings and the type of
activities that occur within them. At the macroscopic level, new office
buildings increasingly feature advanced telecommunications
infrastructure built into their walls and floors to accommodate the
growing use of data and video transmission equipment. For large
financial institutions, the floorplate of a building has become the
critical factor, as large floor areas are required for modern trading
rooms where hundreds of traders are situated in close proximity to each
other. In cities such as New York and London, many older office
buildings arc unable to meet today's technological requirements,
generating a demand for new buildings that can meet today's spatial and
technological requirements. As a result, Canary Wharf in the London
Dockyards and the World Financial Center in New York City's Battery Park
City have attracted leading financial institutions to areas that are not
contiguous to the city's traditions financial district.

At the same time, there is also a new emphasis on interior office design
that eliminates the physical boundaries within offices in order to
promote human interaction. Francis Duffy (1969) was the first to
observe that  modern office buildings are increasingly designed to
accommodate the face-to-face exchange of information through meetings,
conferences, and informal conversations at the water cooler.

As Duffy states, "Office work is generally becoming more mobile, more
complex, and more plural. And yet there is often the need for some
concentrated, individual work in the same place. This has led to one
of the eternal conflicts in office design: the need to accommodate
communication and interaction as well as individual work" (Duffy, 1998).

Firms such as IBM  (Young, 1993) have reduced the size of individual
office and rely on flexible office assignments such as "hot-desking,"
but there is simultaneous a greater emphasis on the use of conference
rooms and centers for mobilizing workers, encouraging interaction,
and bringing experts together to work in team efforts.

Telecommunications technologies have also influenced the scale and mix
of activities that occur within office buildings. The modern office
building has remained the epicenter of electronic and face-to-face
communication by adapting to new technological requirements and
organizational priorities only through investments in new equipment,
which have dramatically expanded the buildings' information-processing
capabilities. An example of such modernization is the New York
Information Technology Center, a 400,000-square-foot building in
Manhattan's financial district that was previously the headquarters of
an investment bank. Although the building stood empty for years, in 1995
it was totally renovated with new telecommunications systems and has
become a center for New York's multimedia industry (Conway,

While technological innovation has strengthened the role of the office
building in certain areas of the financial sector, it has also led to
the dispersion of routine and retail financial services. Nowhere is this
more apparent than in the consolidation of local banks into interstate
banking companies and the replacement of the local branch offices with
automated teller machines (ATMs). Retail banks, once built to resemble
elaborate temples in order to reassure depositors that their savings
were safe and secure, are no longer defined by real estate but by
electronic networks. This has led many communities to protest the
loss of the locally owned and managed bank, while also hastening the
spread of24-liour banking into local communities through the
supermarket, drugstore, and gas station.

Of even more significance, banks now operate solely in electronic space
rather than physical space. Three Internet banks, Security First Network
Bank and Atlanta Internet Bank offer 24-hour service at their Websites,
and a third, CompuBank, opened in mid-1998. These banks may be the
harbinger of banking in the future; an activity once confined to a
distant physical building in the geographic center of a community that
can now be conducted from a terminal anywhere in the world. However,
these new ways of banking presuppose access to and literacy in
information technology and telecommunications, which are lacking in many
poor inner-city and rural communities.

Another place-based activity, the auction market – whether in rare art,
commodities, or financial instruments – has traditionally relied on
face-to-face contact that took place in specific cities and at specific
times. Telecommunications has totally disrupted the traditional physical
marketplace in which goods are bought and sold. For example, the auction
of tea leaves, an activity based in London for more than three hundred
years, can now be conducted wherever tea is grown – in Sri Lanka, India,
China and Africa – as a result of advanced telecommunications systems.
Electronic trading in futures and options is being done through a global
network that links the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Paris Bourse,
and the Singapore International Monetary Exchange and will eventually
replace the traditional "open outcry" system, in which buyers and
sellers shout out bids on the crowded floor of an exchange.

Even the secretive world of buying and selling art has adapted to
telecommunications. More than seven hundred art dealers are linked to
ArtNet, an online service that allows potential buyers to see
collections online and to compare prices, a previously impossible task.
Jacob Weisberg notes that "the Web will expand the art market not only
by spreading information but also by making art info a more liquid
asset" (Weisberg, 1999). The potential growth of the art market through
electronic auctions does not mean that cities will decline as centers
for culture, but that the world of art, like the world of finance, will
soon be driven by information, and that those people and places with the
skill and capacity to participate in the electronic flow of art will
benefit greatly. If history is any guide, explaining, interpreting, and
conveying information about the art market will soon be as valued as the
production of art itself.


Just as the office environment has been influenced by telecommunications
technology, the home is undergoing a fundamental change in its function
and design as a result of new telecommunications technologies.
Information has traditionally been delivered to the home through a
single telephone line, broadcast radio and television, and by hand
(whether delivered by mail carriers or newspaper delivery personnel, or
carried in by the residents). For much of the last one hundred years,
the home has functioned primarily as a site for social-emotional
functions of the family, explicitly designed as a refuge from the
workplace. A relic of Victorian-era philosophers, this separation of
home and work appears to be disappearing as new information technologies
are becoming widely available.

Information brought into the home through satellite dishes, coaxial
cable, and high-speed phone lines dramatically expands the number and
type of activities that can occur within the confines of a residence.
According to a recent study by the US Department of Labor (1998), more
than 21 million Americans did some part of their primary job at home in
1997, and more than half of those used a computer for their home-based
work. For many small businesses and self-employed individuals, personal
computers equipped with modems, reliable overnight deliver services,
sophisticated voice mail systems, and the proliferation of neighborhood
office centers such as Kinko's have allowed the home to become the
firm's headquarters, workplace, and distribution center. In Manhattan,
San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, underutilized industrial structures
have been converted into combined "work-and-live space" with advanced
telecommunications systems to serve home-based workers.

The capacity to extend the workplace into the home has generated new
demands for high-speed telephone lines in the home. Home contractors now
treat telecommunications infrastructure as  the  equivalent of
"electronic plumbing," and new homes are being equipped with high
capacity phone conduits to accommodate information services. Electrolux
has even developed an Internet-connected refrigerator with an LCD touch
screen and bar-code scanner that could be used to order groceries over
the Web. New housing developments across the United States are being
marketed to sophisticated buyers, based on the speed of their Internet
access and services available through their own intranet. A developer of
townhouse and single-family housing in the Washington, D.C.,
metropolitan area offers Local Area Network (LAN) wiring as an option in
all new homes it constructs, at a price of $1,500 to $2,000 (Tueting,

The diffusion of new information-based services in the home – for
security, climate control, and entertainment – has led a consortium of
semiconductor, computer, and telecommunications companies to develop a
"Shared Wireless Access Protocol" that would interconnect electronic
devices within the home using the same technology employed by cordless
telephones. Even low-income communities are participating in the
information explosion in the house. In Oakland, California, the Acord
complex, a 206- unit housing project, is equipped with fiber-optic
cables, computers in each home, and a learning center for job training.

Public services, once provided solely within designated public buildings
such as schools, libraries, or prisons are now also being provided in
the home, albeit for different reasons. For example, tire growth of
"home-schooling" has been facilitated by the Internet; an estimated 1.2
million children now learn at home, and in California there is a
California Homeschool Network that links home-schooling parents.
Amazon.com even has a link for home-schoolers on its Web site. At the
same time, many government agencies have adopted advanced technologies
remotely to monitor parolees as a way to control costs. The home has evolved
into a site for the incarceration for nonviolent
offenders. Electronic bracelets simply activate a modem to contact
corrections officers when a convict attempts to leave his or her home.

In the twenty-first century, a home's attractiveness will be judged by
the speed of its dial-up connections and extent of its intelligent
infrastructure, rather than conventional measures such as the number of
bedrooms or bathrooms. John Chambers, President of Cisco Systems,
believes that "everything" in the home will be connected to the Internet
– not just electronic devices, but the  piano, the fireplace, the window
blinds (Beiser, 1999). According to some experts, it will even be
possible to create "rooms or environments where humans can interact with
otherwise inanimate objects and machines;...consumers will be able to
turn their homes into full-fledged intelligent environments" (Patch and
Smalley, 1998).
Clearly, the movement of information into the home will expand its role
in the economy, allowing all members of a household to participate in a
wide array of different economic and social functions and making the
home far more than a site for housing family members.


Wireless telephony has transformed transportation and travel across the
world, converting the automobile, the hotel room, and even the airport
into an information-intensive infrastructure. It is conceivable that
telecommunications will eventually make the automobile commute into a
productive part of the workday, once it is possible to send and receive
e-mails, faxes, and telephone calls from any street or highway.
"Hands-free" voice recognition technology should overcome many of the
safety concerns about mobile phones. Traffic jams and congestion may
even be tolerated as a chance to catch up with telephone messages and
e-mail. Traffic congestion may even intensify in cities and suburbs, as
the automobile evolves into a communications as well as transportation

There are a variety of new technological innovations that have been
designed to take advantage of the automobile's new role. Traffic
information, once delivered by radio stations, is now a commercially
available service provided by mobile phone in many metropolitan areas.
Subscribers can even purchase customized traffic reports on their routes
in Southern California. And in the State of Washington, a demonstration
project is testing a voice-activated computer, the AutoPC, that provides
instant traffic information to cars equipped with this technology (A.
Reid, 1998 and Whitely, 1999).

However, information technology is also being deployed to assist
motorists eager to make face-to-face contact with drivers they identify
on the freeway. Traffic Gems, a company in Long Island, New York,
provides subscribers with a bumper sticker that contains an e-mail alias
so that motorists who want to meet a fellow driver can visit the Traffic
Gems Web site, find out more about other subscribers, and e-mail a
message (Slayton, 1998). When the automobile was first invented, it was
commonly called a "horseless carriage," but with information technology,
it has become possible to do far more in a car than one could do in a
horse-drawn carriage.


Cities have often been defined by their great public spaces, where
people meet and share common experiences, whether in a stadium, a
cathedral, or even a music club. Telecommunications systems are
gradually affecting even the activities and events that occur in those
distinctly urban settings. For example, the capacity to download music
from Internet sites may soon diminish the recorded music industry but
could invigorate nightclubs and concert halls, where live music is

Telecommunications technology makes is possible for every club and
concert hall to be a site for transmitting music over the Internet to
audiences around the world.

Airports and hotels are also being transformed into centers for
information-based activities so that travelers can conduct business
while waiting for flights or during layovers. A company called Laptop
Lane rents offices, phone lines, and equipment to air travelers in
several major airports across the United States. Similarly, hotels now
recognize the need to provide their guests with access to sophisticated
information infrastructure. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur,
there is an on-call "technology butler" to provide high-tech support to
business travelers. Hotel chains are increasingly providing a variety of
telecommunications services, ranging from "virtual offices" in each
hotel room to computing kiosks in public areas/  The hotel room, once a
place to rest, has also become a place to do business.

The character of urban street life is also changing due to the
deployment of communications technologies by law enforcement agencies
and criminal organizations.  Telecommunications has always been an
important tool in law enforcement but a broad array of new technologies
is increasing the effectiveness of crime prevention and prosecution. New
geographic information systems being used to map and identify
crime-prone locations, and remote surveillance cameras being deployed to
monitor drug dealing in many cities are widely used in many urban
precincts. In Redwood City, California, the police are able precisely to
identify the location of gunshots with a new system of directional
microphones connected by phone lines to a central computer. In St.
Louis, police cars are equipped with laptop computers so that police can
rapidly obtain information about suspects and perform live scanning of
fingerprints without using a radio dispatcher as intermediary.

Perhaps the most innovative use of new telecommunications has been by
drug dealers and prostitutes who increasingly use beepers, Web sites,
and mobile phones lo conduct their lousiness transactions. In big
cities, drug dealers rely on beepers to receive requests from purchasers
and can avoid selling drugs in public places by using mobile phones to
arrange deliveries.

Telecommunications is also converting the "streetwalker," the oldest
urban profession into an online industry. Web sites such as
www.redlightnet.com allow prostitutes to advertise their services and to
reach customers without leaving their home. While the actual service may
entail interpersonal contact, the negotiation over price and schedule
can be done electronically, off the streets. In New York City, street
level prostitution is reserved for the low-cost provider and customer.
Surely, prostitutes will never be eliminated from city streets, but the
emergence of erotic Web sites and online sex is diverting some of tire
traffic that might once have frequented adult entertainment districts in
large cities. While this may be an improvement in the "quality of life,"
it is not clear how tourists will respond to such changes in urban
street activity.


This chapter has sought to provide an alternative perspective on how
scholars can study the effects of telecommunications in cities and
metropolitan regions. The information-based city is increasingly
differentiated from previous urban forms by its extensive and
interconnected networks for moving information. Unlike previous
upheavals that followed the advent of large-scale technological
innovations such as factory-based mass production or the interstate
highway system, the transformation of the metropolis is being driven by
the diffusion of intelligence and awareness (via technology) across many
components of urban life. Telecommunications technologies are changing
the character of activities in the office, home, automobile, and even
the street. This essay has identified – at a very preliminary level –
the need to expand our research on telecommunication so that we can
understand how commuting, the home, work, and even public spaces are
being affected by new telecommunications systems.


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