Blog Post

The Origins of Digital Urbanism

In "Beyond the Ruins" (1993), an essay that explores the relationship between urban decay and cyberpunk, Claire Sponsler argues that the insertion of characters into the "ruined urban cityscape[s]" of cyberpunk is not meant to be a "form of alienation as it is in Cold War SF" but rather is intended to be a kind of transition into an "ontology of digitally defined realities." She goes on further to declare that in cyberpunk, "[i]nhabiting a ruined environment becomes an objective correlative to entering a disembodied space (cyberspace)." Further, these narratives use the ruined city as a kind of "metaphorical bridge" to the post-industrial cyber-setting.  In Terminal Identity Scott Bukatman writes that the city in SF is a "monument to entropy," and the "entropic urbanism" we encounter, where "the city is...figured as an inertial form," tends to feature the cityscape imploding into the cyber-realm. What is suggested by these SF narratives, i.e. The Matrix, Neuromancer--is that the only solution to the problems of urban blight is to activate a cyberlife that will compensate for the degradation of the physical environment in which the body still exists.  Bukatman argues that "Cyberspace arises at precisely the moment when the topos of the traditional city as been superceded": cyberspace is the space of flows that, like the plane, overshoots the specific location of any one city.

The city, however, has long been thought of as a kind of medium in its own right.  Historian Lewis Mumford argues that the city is a "special receptacle for storing and transmitting messages." Just as the city acts as a node in a global communications network, the city itself is made up of a network of flows.  It was Arnold Toynbee who proposed the notion of "etherialization," the idea that technology evolves to become less wieldy.  In terms of the city, this would imply "a thinning of the container [i.e. the wall] and a strengthening of the magnet" (Lewis).  Lewis views the city as a continued alteration between etherialization and materialization; between mental and physical space, idealism and materialism.  While this dialectical view is more organic than just thinking about urban decay in isolation, it still does not address the fact that many urban sites are completely losing the physical. In his essay on "Detroit Tagging," Jeff Rice marks the move from assembly to assemblage, and encourages a re-vitalization of the urban wasteland through a citywide engagement with a Digital Detroit. This includes tagging sites on a digitized map of the city, uploading photos, chatting, blogging, etc. This is meant to compensate for the lack of sociality in many of the more blighted parts of the city. This, of course, also presupposes that those living in these areas have regular access to a computer with the internet.  Ultimately it raises the question of which mentalities, belonging to which bodies, will be able to gain access to the cyber-realm.



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