M16: Text and the City, Part IV
In my writing about the Interverse since October, I have covered two key ideas:
We saw how the metaverse builds upon ‘identity as a medium.’ We have also seen how cities can be media, the carrier of new messages on the surface of buildings and billboards and in a different way inside their infrastructure; the pipes that carry sewage are also media. In the last three essays, I engaged with Shannon Mattern’s thoughts about code and the city, ending with an argument against humanism. We are barely scratching the surface of media archaeology and what that brings to our understanding of the Interverse and I’ll keep returning to it in the future.
Next stop: reality media, i.e., how VR and AR are vehicles for understanding ‘reality as a medium.’
‘Cities’ are a key differentiator between the metaverse and the interverse. The metaverse - even at its most expansive - is a purely technological artifact: VR, AR, crypto etc coming together in one continuous virtual or augmented space. But there’s no text without context. We know that new means of production - in this case metaverse technologies - lead to new social relations. In a Marxist analysis, new classes such as labor emerge as a result of capitalist means of production, but we are not humanists anymore, so we can’t look for classes.
So where do we look for the new social relations?
In the city! Instead of looking at changes in society as the emergence of new ‘classes’ of people, we look at the changing networks of things, data, energy flows and yes, people too. Once we take the city to be a medium, changes in people’s experience, consciousness and subjectivity are subordinated to changes in things, networks, data flows etc.
Social science traditionally takes the individual human being as the atomic unit, but today important social changes are taking place inside people - in their brains and in their guts - while other important social changes are taking place at a scale that dwarfs people - such as carbon emissions. With both the micro and the macro transcending the human individual, the social doesn’t have to take the individual as its starting point.
The social is not only about people, it is the study of all connections.
Brunu Latour makes this point in his introduction to actor-network theory:
Latour is quite aware of the importance of text:
We can take one step beyond Latour’s description of the social as the space of all connections:
code (and cognition) is the connector of all things and beings.
Code is both the medium and the message, but isn’t only computer code. It includes biological code, and even more generally, code is an abstract principle of organization, ‘order as medium.’ To be covered: how Christopher Alexander makes the connection between code, architecture and the nature of order from an architect’s POV.
While the coded world includes gut bacteria and flows of carbon, the metaverse doesn’t span as vast a canvas. It’s remit starts with mental and neural processes at the sub-human level, the new ‘text’ in which the social is inscribed and ends with the city, which is the context in which that inscription takes place.
Combine text and the city in one package assembled by code, you get: the interverse. The interverse is the social within and across cities, and its natural limit is the ‘planetary city.’
With the City + Code = Interverse equation, we are back to the first words I wrote on the Metaverse in October, which started as the Mauhaus project, i.e., an architectural school for the metaverse like Bauhaus was for the industrial era. The Bauhaus connection makes explicit why the city takes center stage in the Interverse.
Having denounced humanism, I am in no position to go back to one of its founding texts, a text that can still teach us how a city is supposed to be managed if that’s what one wants to do:
Machiavelli’s Florence feels distant, but those Renaissance towns prefigure the planetary city of the future. If I had more time, I would have combined my reading of Mattern with that of a much older figure: Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Machiavelli shocked his contemporaries by advocating an amoral ‘realpolitik’ approach to power; rule that’s both durable and popular.
Behind that realist stance lay the realization that a moral approach to politics was no longer tenable; that society had become too complex to be reduced to simple moral decision making. Five hundred years later, our world is even more complex, but moral perspectives are strong as ever - on the left because of climate change and other ‘end of humanity’ scenarios and on the right with the revival of ethno-religious-nationalism. A Machiavellian politics for the 21st century might be a bracing antidote.
What would the Prince say if it were written in 2022?
Though once we crack the door open for the Florentine to slip in, we might have to keep it open for Aristotle as well, for:
I here presume that the revival of the republican ideal by civic humanists posed the problem of a society, in which the political nature of man as described by Aristotle was to receive its fulfillment, seeking to exist in the framework of a Christian time-scheme which denied the possibility of any secular fulfillment.
There’s a meandering line connecting the politics of the Greek city written by Aristotle (as a marker of the era when the written word first became the medium of scholarship) to the politics of the Italian city written by Machiavelli (after Arabic and Greek and Latin texts all became available and the printing press was beginning its journey into society) and tomorrow’s interverse that will make use of the latest innovation in the history of text.
The written word —> the printed text —> hypertext :: Athens —> Florence —> Planetary City.
What do you think of this analogy?
For the term ‘human’ to feel real (for example, if human rights are to be substantial rather than lip service) we need a planetary city in the background. At the same time the planetary city destabilizes the human as soon as it’s built, not least because in getting there we breach the planetary boundaries that make human life possible.
Therein lies the main contradiction of humanism.