Netopias: Premonitions of Past Futures

June 3, 2013

Essay by Eva Papamargariti and Vassiliki-Maria Plavou


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Mobile Networking, Premonitions of Past Futures. © Courtesy of author.

“Making” architecture within crisis confines has highlighted the need for re-examining and re-evaluating past utopias, minutes before the declaration of future utopian scenarios. The last bold formulations of improbable architecture were triggered by a technological impulse and the way this conquest influenced the individual’s imagination. Technological developments functioned favorably to produce new utopian thoughts, and new practitioners in the architectural field were incorporated in this dream-weaving machine. Recalling distinguished examples of the 70s, we can recognize such attempts. Archigram’s legions of mechanical contraptions with delicate, conjunctive tubes passing through bodies, machines, and cities augured a new, vibrant, assembled body through connectivity. Moreover, in a metaphysical manner, Superstudio provided a series of technophilic illustrations accompanying narrations of future life for a revolutionary society escaping the current capitalist system and refinding itself on the criticism of this former society.1 Such a venture implies the inviolable participation in the community’s dialogue. With Archizoom’s No-Stop City, we are facing the inauguration of an architectural practice, where built forms are intensively ruptured in exchange for the nurture of networking. Here architects could defy the limitations of physical boundaries and operate in a new trans-urban condition. In the early 70s, a new horizon was established in the architectural discourse: “Networks were, indeed, increasingly crucial.”2 Architects, along with scientists, designers, and researchers became the detectors of the ascending, whose occupation resupplied the social ground. Today, almost 40 years later, we are orchestrating our everyday and social life through and within networks, confirming the importance of the core of these former visions.

Recalling the explorer of the past who sought the ideal, unknown land to live and cultivate, we now meet the contemporary explorer who shifts the limits of research from finite physical space to the n-dimensional digital world: he moves from mountains, valleys and islands (world of surface) to the field of screen (world of interface). A different kind of landscape is being created, one that can be only seen through the frame and surface of the screen that imposes its own rules of representation, and underlines a crucial differentiation in terms of depth of field and spatial traits. While moving from the physical to digital, we are experiencing a gradually increasing absence of obstacles or temporal distances; everything is inscribed on the monitor, which the new era explorer observes. This sudden reversion of boundaries and oppositions that Virilio is referring to, constitutes a very definitive feature of contemporaneity, we are not facing a “here” and “there”; we are facing an unbounded expanse, the topology of electronic ether with no plenum. This endless grid becomes now the plane of action, search and observation that is timeless and ignores the notion and limitations of distance.

Cursor and keyboard are becoming the primary tools for the detection and discovery of the constantly evolving chaotic landscape that the cyber explorer traverses, substituting at the same time bodily functions and objects that the adventurer of the past used in order to approach inscrutable areas. The expedition of the supra material landscape that has occurred over the last decades is a rather lonely procedure, revolving around the close relationship of the person and the screen, transposing the acting and the nature of staring and contemplating through a different kind of frame, enhancing the perception that in the interface of the screen, everything is always already there, offered to view in the immediacy of an instantaneous transmission.3

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Important Moments of Internet Timeline. © Courtesy of author.

Albeit the fact that the expedition is a process of singular mode, the very construction of the digital landscape resides in the “multiple.” The endless Net.erittory is an ever-expanding datascape, where users reclaim, classify and restore files in a constant act of sharing. Sharing has become the fundamental gesture for stimulating an online community, thus introducing a new side of collectivity. The ability of uploading any “bits” of knowledge has overcome former publishing booms and is constantly limiting the amount of inaccessible information. The digitization of printed material offers a bounding method through keywords and like-minded choices of the users. Hyperlinks are the centripetal force that keeps together heterogeneous aspects of the same subject, resulting in the birth of idiosyncratic constellations of notions that compete the initial hypothesis. Users are becoming the “constructors” of a communal, virtual library, where each contribution of digitized knowledge (in arts, science, history, economy, etc.) is weaving a universal patchwork of culture. Open-access publishing like Issuu and Scribd and web services like delicious and flickr that enhance multi-disciplinary dialogues are strengthening the establishment of public communities. These kinds of interactions allow updates, corrections, and cross-referential interpretations of phenomena, benefiting the “research group” in multiple ways. Progress has always been accompanied by a stasis of openness, of revised feedback for the sake of common good.

Knowledge is claimed to reach its broadest disperse in the form of an open-access database. Initiatives like the Internet Archive Open Library and Creative Commons are efforts working towards this direction. These “New Alexandrians”4 establish new forms of collaborating, which challenge geopolitical extensivity through the opto-electronic ubiquity of the Internet, thereby forming a dynamic type of collective intelligence.

The “democracy” of the medium meets the first and foremost value of every utopia imagined, the state of including anyone.5 The notion of a rising Netopia, acquiring more intensively as the years pass by, the claim for globality is becoming gradually more stable. With every new user, Netopia’s limits are expanding, triggering a series of commands in World Wide Web and rendering tele-action as the hic et nunc of our times.

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Facebook Network Visualization. © Courtesy of author.

Online platforms underlined and enhanced the power of weak ties in social networking. Petitions for social concerns were now making difference even in a legislative manner. Such was the example of S.O.P.A, the radically growing participation of “weak ties” on the online petition achieved to delay and finally abort a bill for copyright infringement, which gave full permission to authorities to block access to websites and even impose imprisonment penalties to “traced” perpetrators. The fine line between copyrights and privacy violations was now disturbed. The body of protests directly structured online with clear will and aim gave a great fight not only for the suspension of government interventionism, but also for the freedom of speech, for the freedom to connect, for progress. Internet activism supercedes the binary messages and activates a physical political body defending universal human rights.

“Revolution will be twittered,” stated Andrew Sullivan, witnessing the deafening outcomes in Tehran that a 140-character message triggered. Faster than any other time before, people could be informed and organized for a protest. The very action of protest takes place in different kind of spaces. Firstly, there is this physical initiative of typing the message (having already sensed a common need of reaction to a certain situation). Then a series of comments and retweets opens a dialogue over the “tuning” of this protest. Organization takes place in cyberspace and aims at a physical event with people gathering in historically important public spaces. After the protest, images, videos, and documentations of this action are re-distributed through and within the digital world, becoming the de facto source for TV channels, newspapers and blogs. The power of the Twitter Revolution didn’t reside with Twitter itself, but in the very relationship of new media and citizens ready to take action. An unpredictable aspect of ethos is emanating from the digital world and is capable of re-informing the analog everyday life.

While former utopian proposals raised questions on the political and social role of architecture, today we are witnessing real-time political discourse and social aggregation in the absence of the built, in the excess of intangible “networking”. The requirement to express desire through an idealized condition is now capable of being fulfilled through intangible platforms hosted in cyberspace. Thomas More’s imaginary island (utopia) with a stratified social structure is now replaced by its virtual versions: worlds that are built by bits and bytes, conceived alongside with the rise of the Internet culture. The first virtual communities were only text based (MUDs) and included role-playing tactics along with some basic user-to-user interaction.

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MUD Game Window Interface. © Courtesy of author.

Players started imagining themselves in the context of alternate places and communities existing a few centimeters away, behind their computer screen. With the rapid growth of broadband capacity and graphic technologies, these virtual worlds increased, from MUD1 to Habitat and Wow, constituting a common feature of cyberspace, inhabited by millions of users. One of the greatest paradigms of these ‘virtual land series’ is Second Life. Its user-created content and the vast amount of choices gave to the player-resident made this online platform one of the most popular virtual worlds of the Internet era. The user can create and customize his own land, travel among different worlds, wander around just like IRL, do the same routine actions, buy, consume, and work, but he can also fly, he can build a house with a few clicks, meet other avatars, choose to present himself as an animal or a vampire, visit islands and cities that could never exist in the non-fictional world. This new type of real time collectivity that is being created shapes a different kind of sociability and communication that Manuel Castells defines as “mass self-communication.” User identity is being constructed constantly through the actions and decisions that players make, thus altering the results, timing and balance of the relationships that formulate cyberspace’s social substance. The virtual reality that dominates our experience has canceled the notion of time, as we live in the ever-present world of our avatars.6 The question that arises is whether these virtual platforms became so prevalent because of their proximity to a utopian nature or because of their ability to resemble the real world. Bel Muse, a blonde girl avatar in Second Life, states that in the real world, “I have to prove myself. I have to make a good impression right away—I have to come off nice and articulate, right away. In Second Life, I didn’t have to. Because for once, I can pass. I can’t pass in real life.”7 The notion of identity that designates the virtual existence of user is being staggered during his/her abidance to this fabricated world and is strongly hinged from the input that he/she chooses to disclose each time. One of the most imposing lineaments located at the very core of these virtual worlds is the promise granted to their “residents” to actualize most of the desires of each one’s imaginary commands. Longing therefore finds an unhindered field to project itself to; users obtain the choice to express some of their most occult yearnings, even if they comprise a certain kind of aberrance. But existing and acting in a cyber land gives players the freedom to do almost whatever they can imagine. Punishment incurs nothing and that’s a quite strong particularity that weakens any limit or ethics prohibition and differentiates emblematically life in a real world from life in a virtual one that includes strong elements of fiction. Acting through an avatar often forms a liberating relocation to someone’s distinctiveness, thus detuning the confines of reality’s tight schemes (like “right and wrong” or “truth and lie”), restructuring the dynamics that compose the continuously changing cyber world stream. Interweaving of fantasy and real data is the very intriguing fact that one will experience in these lands made by ones and zeros which blur even more the boundaries that are set in front and behind the screen, allowing a certain kind of fiction to function in truth, resolving and reinstating a user’s status through keyboard commands.

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Utopia Island. © Courtesy of author.

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Second Life Island. © Courtesy of author.

Counter to other-topias, Netopia’s establishment of no-where succeeded to prolong the “visitor’s” stay due to immediate indulgence of desire. The imposed transaction between the user and the machine, through a protocol of choices and operations with multiple options ahead, has introduced an unprecedented transition from no-where to now-here. Finger-typing the keywords of intimate desires on a search machine has crossed a new hedonistic era for the user. Serendipity has been the most resonant “siren” for sustaining immersion in cyberspace with a pinch of cyber flânerie essence. Nineteenth’s century flâneur was captured strolling the city attempting to “indulge the gastronomy of the eye” under the arcades. Twenty-first century’s cyberflâneur was captured navigating in Geocities. Streets entered the thresholds of digitalized homes, filled with the homesteaders’ favorable archival material. Cities were organized in neighborhoods with thematic-similar intimacy. Zooming in and out simulated the new gestures of pleasure-seeking voyeur. If for Benjamin the flâneur went botanizing on the asphalt, cyberflâneurs went “botanizing” on the digits, but the effortlessly wandering through clicking lacked the sediment of thriving in the crowd, yet remaining untouched by it. That is the critical moment, when cyberflâneurs’ romantic profiles were agitated. The upcoming structures of Internet platforms were organized with a society promoting behavior for the user, giving strong incentives for the user to act online collectively. As Evgeny Morozov notes, “But if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible—solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking—is under assault by that company. The state of art is that networks exist to provide more efficient ways to ‘get things done.’” Operating in cyberspace with an aim radically cancels the integral vagueness of the flâneur’s profile. Users are suffocated in endless expressions of home and self. Home pages are re-contextualizing the self in the cybernetic era; profile briefs are compressing and deducting life’s experiences in a functional scale for passing by faces to peep. Home is rebuilt with a frivolous view and an uncanny interior. Once you go online, there is no place for you to hide.

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Internet Dictionary (screenshot from © Courtesy of author.

Within these networks of overexposure, peer-to-peer processes favor expressing and promoting political and social activities. The Internet is not just a virtual space, or a space of pleasure, but a place of action.8 Consisting of one of the oldest architectures in the world of peer to peer technology (the Internet was initially conceived in 1960s as also a peer-to-peer system) has created a kind of restitution, returning the Internet to its original vision, in which everyone creates as well as consumes.9 Decentralized distribution systems and infrastructures enabled extensive storing and exchanging of files and information.10 Combined with the increasingly evolving mobile networking, these practices are establishing during the last years a different kind of floating invisible communication and transmittal fabric, unsettling and re-inventing at the same time the balance between physical and digital plain, between city and cyber grid, but also the timing and spatial conditions that govern person-to-person relationships. Mobile and wireless communication rearranges the conditions in which we experience and perceive urban context; technologies of tracking, GPS, a vast amount of applications, instant messaging, a constant stream of news are only a few offerings that characterize the everyday life of the urban citizen and give chance to immediate and ad hoc situations to happen, thus imposing an alternative kind of synchronicity, abolishing the notion of strict local boundaries and introducing a type of network glocalization. Horizontal networking, as an outcome of such technological novelties, is expanding more and more, stabilizing itself at the center of today’s nexus, affirming the existence of self and community through its web connections; this horizontal access cuts across vertical locations and restrictions. Mapping, followed by the action and practices of dérive and détournement now happens mostly through our mobile phones rather than wandering to the urban terrain, through particular applications someone can tag, characterize or add data and information to a place thus embedding, through the mechanism of tracing, social knowledge in the landscape of the city for others to retrieve later.11 Mobile networking re-contextualizes and reconfigures the way that people interact with the city, objects and in a more extensive base the public sphere. Having a smartphone, even if you are hundreds of kilometers away from home, automatically creates a very puissant liaison with your surroundings; it is an extra node added to the huge field of nodes, redefining the place of individual among the ocean of networked publics.

During the recent 00s, immersion in cyberspace implied a staying still in the physical world. Today, evolving technological accomplishments managed to reach inaccessible areas through the installation of enhanced broadband networks. At the same time, computer capacities were merged into cellphones and coped with the miniaturization challenge. Hence, human anatomy is becoming more and more receptive to newly conceived devices which are modified appropriately so as to adjust better to our body parts and are designed so as to minimize unneeded gestures and motions, thus conducing to the gradual construction of a constantly plugged-in individual who participates in the wider network of a pauseless, wireless digital community. The conquest of speed and broad accessibility is influencing strongly the way that we perceive the environment of the city. The constant flow of information and data will be characterized by a supra local condition; the new territory is no longer aiming to the ground but is dispersing through the ‘invisible’ infrastructure in which the human body becomes an integral part of the networking wetware. Activities that were traditionally hosted and exclusively took part in the physical urban space are now re-territorialized at the cyborg body, thus re-establishing the norms that rule the relationship and balance between user and urban terrain. The city becomes the locus where human body betakes in between its digital abidance and obtains traits of a “ruin”—in whose rareness lies its nostalgic value—since the cyborg body no longer depends sturdily on it, but is more related to the ever expanding network that resides within. The cyborg stroller revisiting the city could actually be a future experience for “tasting” our analog past. Although cyberspace has outreached any attempt of simulating and condensing the experience of world, has amplified the sense of everyday life, and has re-invented communities’ modus operandi it is nevertheless a world collapsing within the seconds of a switching-off button. The improbable scenario in which a power shutdown occurs will always reveal the in-limbo possibility of a total reboot to a primitive life.

1 Felicity D. Scott, Architecture or Technoutopia: Politics after Modernism (The MIT Press; Reprint edition (February 26, 2010)), 142.
2 William J. Mitchell, Me++ The Cyborg Self And The Networked City (The MIT Press (October 2, 2003)), 35.
3 Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension, (Semiotext(e) (1991)), 17.
4 Don Tapscott, Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Portfolio Trade; Expanded edition, September 28, 2010), 151.
5 “Buckminster Fuller,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 17,2013).
6 Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I (Wiley-Blackwell; 2nd Edition with a New Preface edition (August 17, 2009)), 43.
7 Wagner James Au, The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World (HarperBusiness; First Edition edition (February 26, 2008)), 46.
8 Paul Virilio, Sylvère Lotringer and Michael Taormina, “After Architecture: A Conversation,” Grey Room, 3 (Spring, 2001), 41.
9 Lawrence Lessig, Andrew Oram, Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies (O’Reilly Media; 1st edition, March 15, 2001), Preface,ix.
10 Usenet, Gnutella, Napster, and Freenet were some of the most notable networks that provided a new perspective to the modus and scheme through which internet users were operating until then, paving the way to many subsequent mass communication, file sharing platforms and applications which are basing their structure and function to P2P technologies, such as Skype, Spotify or Open Garden.
11 Marc Tuters, Kazys Varnelis, “Beyond Locative Media,” (accessed May 3, 2013).