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Between urban and digital spaces, or the material unfolding of practice

Vinicius M. Netto1
Distance is a form of the achievable.

J. L. Borges

The idea of digital spaces and cities an apparently invisible network of interactions and information overlapping the historically concrete and durable space of our cities, until recently the sensory condition of our experience has captured contemporary imagination. These terms evoke a somewhat unusual encounter between apparently separate phenomena distinct materialities. Scholars from different areas have been attracted by this new materiality, which in itself contains the potential for connection between events and situations, people and places in a disruption of the contiguity of geographical space. Taking the form of networks of hypertexts and informational exchange and possibilities for interaction on unprecedented levels it is a web that can connect us extensively all the time, beyond the need for presence. Indeed this intriguing fabric of materiality and its omnipresent aspect even begins to mean endless connectivity. Digital networks are still considered as a new space-time experience in which the properties of multiplicity and simultaneity of world events become increasingly clear and attainable as never before. If distance communication is not a new phenomenon (remembering that it dates from the end of the 19th century) it has certainly acquired new forms and enormous scope, involving our everyday actions and often giving the impression that we live in a kind of brave new world3 a hypermodernity creating experiences of a nature and a speed never previously experienced. Understanding the unveiling of this world based on new material foundations and a culture experiencing rapid technological acceleration means understanding how the coexistence of urban spaces and digital networks arises and affects our lives our ways of acting, experiencing and socialising in material conditions that are also new. It is interesting to note that until recently the relationship between the concrete nature of the urban space and the elusiveness of the digital in our actions even seemed to be a contradiction an impossible synthesis, as if the digital put a check on

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Adjunct Professor, Programme of Graduate Studies in Architecture and Urbanism, Universidade Federal Fluminense. La lejana es una forma de lo alcanzable (Borges, 1956). 3 I recall here Aldous Huxleys (1932) novel about a dystopian future.


the concrete, in an electronic overpowering of the old space, making it obsolete. A destructive and apparently inexorable dualism seemed to be suggested.4 As we shall see, this dualism was overcome. We know that the rift feared by apocalyptic zeal has not occurred. But if there has been no rift between concrete spaces and digital networks, can we say that there instead been an interweaving? Confirmation that there is no contradiction does not suspend the fundamental problem that digital networks and urban networks have entirely different natures: the volatility, elusiveness, invisibility of one; the tangibility, rigidity and constant presence of the other. Where are the connections, the points of support between the digital and the concrete? How do these planes of different materiality involve action? This work aims to answer these questions beginning with an investigation of the nature of urban and digital networks and their roles in the production of social practice or association. We shall then move on to see how practice emerges and bifurcates between these two networks, the urban and the digital. This paper addresses the coexistence of these materialities, apparently now resolved and naturalised in practice. It is theory which now needs to make efforts towards understanding the conditions and modes of this coexistence. Three points of interconnection and the return of practice to the concrete are suggested: meaning, the body and the centrality of the subject acting in the place. It involves exploring a role of urban space that is potentially renewed by what we shall see as a growing complexity of the social world. Finally, I shall argue that in the current development of practice in diverse communication networks urban space is becoming increasingly removed from its original role as a material environment that is highly central in social reproduction for one among many environments but with the incorporation of a new ontological role: as a fundamental counterpoint to the elusiveness and partiality of digital communication networks.

In different spaces These questions central to the understanding of the place of cities and digital networks in contemporary life address the way in which the two supposed forms of space relate to each other; and also where their contact touches on human practice and how it affects our form of life, the capacity and possibility of associating our acts and testing their continuities. These issues arouse so much interest because they relate to the nature of these different material networks and to their own possibility of relation. We certainly need something more than descriptions of informational action produced through digital media; instead, descriptions of the actual entanglements of acts bifurcating into different materialities, or how those acts form and unfold in urban networks and electronic and !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Virilio (1991); Castells (1996); Cairncross (2001).


telematic networks: the concrete and electronic places they arise and emanate from; the points of passage between them and the trajectories taken; where they occur and eventually their return to their places of origin, in the form of responses, reactions, and continued interaction. Practice is defined as acts of human doing, therefore involving objects, signs and meanings produced by gestures or speech, in texts and in hypertexts objects, signs and meanings that are transmittable and understandable by other people, involving agreement or disagreement, omission or reflection leading to new acts.5 Social practice involves effects produced in the mutual nature of acting, and acting in a socialised world. The challenge here is to understand how social practice develops in apparently separate spaces, with points of convergence and divergence between them. The first problem in terms of reading cyberspace as part of a socio-technical reality of growing penetration and scope is to grasp the complexity of the framework of practices unfolding in two types of networks. In other words we have to understand how our practices unfold in interactions and exchange, effects and results that connect and spread, partly through urban space and partly in electronic networks and mobile communications. The second problem is to understand the practical and cognitive bases of the connections and the material and ontological foundations that make them possible and give them substance. If description of the frameworks of social practice in these material conditions initially seems trivial (in view of the naturalisation of our experience) or impossible (faced with its huge complexity and elusiveness), description of what maintains the integrated frameworks as networks coupled together touches on the counterintuitive. It involves understanding the conditions of the possibility of producing communicative and technical networks that shape social and material reality, which are perhaps asymmetrical in scope, presence and expression in practice. Understanding these two problems means finding new descriptions. The first description relates to how we act immersed in spatial and temporal dynamics that increasingly break down the profound association between distance and time inherent to the historical constitution of practice and demand constant updating and changes in our understanding of the world that is presented. A second description would touch on the conditions that ensure integration of these frameworks and their potentially infinite ramifications.

5 I use this definition based on the concepts of social action in Weber (1978), communicative action in Habermas (1984) and communication in Luhmann (1995).



The nature of concrete spaces and digital networks An infinite number of terms has been employed in attempts to describe the intriguing materiality of so-called digital spaces: cyberspace, A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system (Gibson); the new information network or grid of computers, a huge megalopolis without a center, the cybercity (Boyer); the information city and the space of flows (Castells); the post-metropolis (Soja), the unwired cities (Townsend) of post-mass communication networks generated by mobile technology and ubiquitous and intrusive computing; the infobahn, the City of Bits or the Net (Mitchell):6

The Net negates geometry. While it does have a definite topology of computational nodes and radiating boulevards for bits [] it is fundamentally and profoundly antispatial [] the Net is ambient nowhere in particular and everywhere at once.

Cyberspace and its theoretical variants even raised the idea of dissolution of the city as we know it, a movement known as the end of geography by the economist Richard OBrien, and the death of distance by another economist, Frances Cairncross. Bill Mitchell summarises the process:

The bonding agent that has held this whole intricate structure together [] is the need for face-toface contact [] proximity to expensive information-processing equipment, and for access to information held at the central location and available only there. But the development of inexpensive, widely distributed computational capacity and pervasive, increasingly sophisticated

telecommunications systems has greatly weakened the adhesive power of these former imperatives, so that chunks of the old structure have begun to break away and then to stick together again in new sorts of aggregations.

Naturally, apocalyptic statements like these were firmly countered:

What is remarkable is how very little criticism depictions like this and other similar readings around notions like cyberspace have received. [] even though the account offered is chock full of cardinal errors: riven by a technological determinism that constantly transposes the characteristics of machines on to human subjects [] indifferent to the constant backup work that is needed by mediaries and intermediaries to keep telecommunications instantaneous [] Most serious of all such

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Gibson (1991, p. 51); Boyer (1996, p. 14); Castells (1996); Soja (2000); Townsend (2003); Mitchell (1995, p. 8). Mitchell (1995, p. 94); OBrien (1992); Cairncross (2001).


accounts fail to sense the continual process of slow adjustment in practices [] the addition of new cultural layers which negate the idea of a simple transmission from technology onto space.

Crang and Thrift refer to questions that still resonate today: is space changing under the impact of new technologies? Could these technologies change the relationship between society and space? With the passing of time, theorists like Saskia Sassen have shown that there is no need to fear for our cities: technology will not lead to their apparent end at least not in the foreseeable future9. This understanding has even led to an enthusiastic reversion in defence of concrete spaces, from Peter Halls city of the coming golden age to Edward Glaesers recent and frankly optimistic Triumph of the City. But we shall see that despite overcoming the dualistic conflict of space versus technologies, questions about the ways in which practice unfolds between the possibilities offered by an information economy and the historical material means of the city itself remain open. These questions are still largely answered by reifications, now about the supposed impact of technologies on the actual configuration of the urban space and on our experience. So although I do not intend to expound a genealogy of the worn debate about new technologies making concrete spaces obsolete, I would suggest that the way in which the new digital networks impact on the possibilities of human practice and its relationship with space lies at the root of these issues.

Space in practice Unlike the so-called cyberspace of information and communication technologies, space is defined by its comprehensive rigidity, which gives the artificial space of architecture and the city its particular perception to the senses, and a place in language a name. Indeed, space can be defined as the opposite of an abstract space or ether. Or rather, space can be defined by coexistence of rigidity and ether, given that we act in empty spaces structured by the rigidity of tangible, visible spaces; an ether that, although penetrable, is resistant to change precisely through being defined by rigidity. In contrast to an apparent ubiquity of telematics and electronic networks that are elusive in themselves but which depend on physical nodes and network devices for their existence, urban space is a constant presence in social practice10. But if its rigidity forms the physical extent that separates in distance, on the other hand it links and connects as structure networks of space connected as channels of movement (streets) linking active nodes (buildings) and forming systems of access and activities that allow our !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Crang and Thrift (2000, p. 17). Questions like these inspired the chapter A sociedade sob o prisma do espao. 10 I am referring to the fact that world population is intensifying. Recent data about this can be found at State of the World's Cities 2010/2011, UN Habitat (
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practices to interrelate. As networks of spaces and places, cities have a topology that more than echoes the one of webpages and electronic places in the multidirectional traffic of bits. 11 Wherever there is collective social life there is a structuring of the physical space actions of producing space in the form of artificial structures on the natural geography. The city is one such form, so far the one most adapted to societies of complex division of labour and intense interactivity, involving spaces laden in relation to practice. The structuring of space is an expression of social dynamics: the power of the search for integration in the life of social groups, the power of association of practice shaping spaces. This structure or inner differentiation12 can be seen as the visible trace of social emergences in a rigid material form, but even so and probably because of this capable of providing support both to practices and to particular social interactions. An unusual question might help us to see more of the place of space in practice. What spatialities other than the urban could have the effect of stimulating high levels of co-presence and potentials for interaction? Spatialities spread through the landscape; a concentrated spatiality but without any internal differentiation or structure; a labyrinthine spatiality? These spatialities would be obstructions to the flow of association. Someone might point out the possibility of our interaction without needing to be co-present precisely through distance-communication technologies. But could those technologies be attained without the density of co-presence and communication historically provided by the densities and structures of the city? The city means the possibility of performing acts not through a shapeless world or fragmented or labyrinthine spatialities, which would render the emergence of communication practices mediated by the body and co-presence highly problematic, 13 but instead through material forms that are in themselves means for our communication. The production of urban structures increases the potential of space in putting actors in conditions of communication. The effects of these spatial structures echo through all the spheres of practice mediated by the body. Putting it another way, the effects related to urban space mediate and articulate every form of action and interaction. Urban spaces contain the potential for effects on the mutual and relational nature of our acts and can intensify the passage from individual to social acts. So the potential for the emergence of communication mediated by the body is deeply embedded in the actual materiality of the urban. Space has the role of stimulating (or controlling, depending on the society, group and urban area in question) the possibilities of communication in !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Removing the extent of the information and communication network infrastructure that support it, the topology of places and flows in cyberspace closely resembles that of the city. 12 It is hard to imagine how acts of production of space can generate spatialities that can evade any structure. However, we need to distinguish between structure and order and incorporate contingency and play in the concept of structure see Derrida, 2001). 13 This is an argument easily used by those who reify the digital space of communication as a reason for the obsolescence of urban spaces forgetting that it was precisely that density of presential communicative processes in the urban that provided the vector of technological development that brought us distance-communication technologies.


the form of: (a) supporting the randomness and contingency of interactions and exchanges in the social system, based on a kaleidoscope of encounters in public spaces and access to places of activity; (b) increasing the potential for complementary actions finding continuity or for desired interactions to occur let us say, in urban centres where certain complementary activities seek to locate themselves close to one another. This effect of urban space allows elements of causality to be established in the connections between certain types of practice, when space helps to bring together potentially interactive actors; and (c) asserting conditions for what Giddens addressed as recursivity of encounters, thus ensuring the continuity of interactions and their passage to a wide range of actual relationships, which in turn will perform the role of establishing continuities in the symbolic and material reproduction of groups and social systems. But how does social practice emerge through concrete space? How can space be part of the communication exchanges that constitute association? An act is not an isolated phenomenon with an independent existence, without connections to its surroundings. Its intrinsic connections as an act in the world immediately relate it to its effects and outputs, its context (acts arise through spaces and places) and other acts, their outputs and places (the association between people involves connections between their acts in time and in space). Neither can urban space be experienced in isolation, or find an independent existence or have effects only upon itself. While our practices continue to be related (that is to say produced through continuities and references to previous practices, those in process or in the future, their contexts and their effects), their spaces will take part in those referential connections. These connections are fundamentally shared meanings produced in practices14 and conveyed in urban spaces. In other words, a substantial part of the inherent relationality 15 that would make up our social and material reality is achieved by meanings produced through references between our practices and space such as accessing the workplace to carry out activities cooperatively, looking for a particular service in a certain street and there engaging in activities in progress or meeting friends in a bar. The practice of association requires actors to test relations as they act: a construction that includes physical presence and communicative exchange; connections that include a dimension that is as informational as it is material; connections that take the form of the spatial contexts in which we act. However, this description of practice and space as linked together is somewhat general. How do such connections materialise in reality, in everyday life? Urban space has different presences in the association of practice.

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The idea of the signified as an effect of practice derives from Wittgenstein (2001). See recent debates in human geography, performative approaches and actor-network theory, such as Thrift (2008).


(i) Space is appropriated as a source of information16 for practice. Urban space is a form of knowledge about the social fabric and the way in which it is structured and reproduced. Space is a way of the social world presenting itself to itself. We are participating in a social situation if we know that it occurs, or possibly occurs in a particular place. We are guided to that place by its meaning, that is to say by understanding its social content as a context of certain acts that interest us. As we know the city and its material and semantic structures we can anticipate the possibilities for interaction and encounter. The city here provides a reference system for our actions.! (ii) Then there is appropriation of space at the moment of interaction with others present in the place. The spatiality of the place makes way for interaction, but considerably beyond being a mere physical support and visual or semiotic setting. Space can be seen as an ambiguous environment both material and informational that supports the emergence of communication. Such space laden with meanings produced by practice, a semanticized space, is the result of our practice. But it is semanticized when an other actor perceives it as such, by interpreting the practice that takes place in it. Moreover, the space is only fully semanticized when it is enacted jointly, and jointly recognised as such. That space of socially recognisable meanings is the result of the actual association that it supports. Prior to that, space (even if intended for a particular purpose) cannot acquire enough meaning to inform practice. A semanticized space is the sign that space has been appropriated and recognised as a reference for acts. (iii) Finally, this semanticized space becomes part of the practical and informational connections between acts or events in progress or to be produced at other times and places. This is the formation of communication networks beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the event, when actors interact with absent actors through distance communication (through the exchange of objects, accessing texts, hypertexts or with mobile devices). This third moment leads to the formation of complexes of social interaction, and includes space as mediation and articulation in the production of a highly ephemeral form of social structure: the emergence of social systems as recursive communicative achievements in the here and now.17 We relate to spatial contexts so that the effects of our practices can relate to each other through them: so that our practice is felt by and can touch other actors. A large part of the connections between our practices and their effects (and until recently all practice) takes place through spaces shaped artificially in the form of cities. That relationship is essential for social reproduction. Urbanisation was historically the pathway to the intensification of communicative practice, and the contemporary urban space continues to exercise precisely that role. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
For examples of the view of space as information, see Haken and Portugali (2003), Portugali and Casakin (2003), and Netto (2005). 17 This idea of volatile social structures as communicative effects derives from Luhmann (1995).


That is the central idea of association through a referential space, the inseparable relationship between practice and space and the place occupied by space in the production of channels of references that connect our acts and their results to their contexts of realisation.

Digital networks, hypermodernity and the materialisation of practice Notions of cyberspace and digital spaces have acquired considerable popularity, but what exactly do they involve? One of the key elements of the change we are experiencing is the growing use of computers in carrying out our practices and in putting them into operation, associating our progressive involvement with semantic signs and content in the continuous production of information, and our immersion in the communications allowed by new technologies. From a functional point of view these technologies have led to increased speed and precision of actions and the control of their results. Practices previously carried out in the physical world of presential interaction and planned in the analogue register of the physically printed sign are now realised in the technical interface of electronic media. Their products lose tangibility and are re-codified in the apparent immateriality of the electron, represented in shapes and symbols as machine code; re-materialised in the invisible and impalpable world of the bit. The use of computers involves and absorbs our practices making its projection of the digital world of the bit inside computers the means for the materialisation of results. It launches our practices into a kind of third nature beyond both the ecosystemic and the artificial urban system that we produce. The sense of partial invisibility of the operations and effects and results of practice mediated by digital technologies is further expanded by another particular aspect. Texts and images acquire the possibility of moving and replicating themselves infinitely, instantaneously rematerialising in any other place that is connected. The effects of our acts are able to travel without the material support of the physical artefact, and can affect people we have never seen and never will see. This environment is formed by the apparent omnipresence of the bit, and takes the historical form of an inexorability of the immersion and conversion of practice to the digital; an immersion in the unbearable lightness of the bit, to ironically paraphrase Kundera, exponentiated by the possibility of emitting the effects of our acts, now converted into the imponderable flow of electronic bits to anywhere with a device capable of decoding the flow and re-materialising it on the screen or machine. This environment finds physical form and certainly a physical connotation in our imagination, since we can no longer imagine all its ramifications, or where its nodes really come together: the electronic web that connects computers and everyone with the conditions to use


them. The web becomes another place (every and no place, as Bill Mitchell would put it), another possible environment. Socialities are apparently available at the click of a mouse. Practices of interaction across distances begin to form in the paths of this virtually infinite maze. Computer screens, tablets and mobile telephones provide their users with entries into cognitive worlds. The moment of looking at the screen means entering into an informational space. This would be no different from reading a book or any tangible work, apart from the fact that these technological artefacts are able to access a practically infinite number of pages and relate to each other, and apart from the fact that looking inside them means looking at things made in distant places. It means the possibility of immersing oneself in the communicative flow between absent actors, in exchanges that are as synchronic as they are diachronic, in messages and content waiting to be accessed through the screen and this cognitive space. Informational space is certainly created in the relationship between the presence of the body and the electronic artefact in a physical place, but the bodily subject is no longer just there in the physically circumscribed space. We of course know there is no digital space hovering in the web of cables supporting the circulation of an electronic flow, but there are personal cognitive spaces connected and stimulated digitally. There is a space of topological connections between machines and minds genuinely integrated into information flows when in contact a topology with no relevant dimension in a concrete sense: the connection between the screens and digital passages supported by devices that intermittently receive our attention and become bridges to interaction across space18. Our attention in the here and now alternates between our surroundings and our connected screens of many shapes and sizes . This environment re-signifies, through pure contrast, our presence in the concrete, in the second and first types a re-signification induced by the possibility of immersion in texts and images that are in fact nowhere but which seem accessible everywhere in this third environment in which practice seems immersed. That immersion, which takes the form of a dematerialisation of the effects of our actions and their re-materialisation in the form of the bit, requires our cognitive repositioning in relation to the concrete portion of our spatial practices within reach of the body. It demands a repositioning of the subject towards the partial dematerialisation of the results of her acts and increased transpatiality the break with the extent and contiguity of space as a fabric adhering to action and the movement of the body and communication in co-presence. The relation between space and body and the status of practice in this new ontological condition is still tensioned by an acceleration of the historical rupture with the dependence of tangibility and presence. Such ruptures require the subjects (conscious or otherwise) redefinition of !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

See the notion of topology in Mitchell (1995).


her action and possibilities in the face of the increasing means of conversion of actions and their effects into such virtual, invisible maze of connectivity. The convergence between practice and the technologies and flows of the bit appear to the subject, in their extent and consequences, as a growing virtualisation of the world. Action does not become virtual in the sense of being less real but instead in the sense of becoming partially invisible, imponderable, since a large part of the world within my reach

is substantially

produced, associated and experienced in a world whose frameworks are becoming increasingly digitised. This new status of practices spatiality and temporality and its new, apparently endless connectivity is part of the difficulty in understanding the changes being experienced by our culture. Epistemologically, this complexity was foreshadowed in the idea of postmodernity, the crisis of modernity and the break with the modern, technological and evolutionary view of the world from the 1960s onwards a period of relativizing the centrality of reason, in which a sense of order was replaced by acceptance of instability, by an idea of absence of centres and a questioning of the existence of dualisms and structures20. But many people also believe that modernity was not really overcome and that rather than entering truly postmodern times we are in fact experiencing an acceleration of the modern experience via technology: a hypermodernity.21 In this view, modern principles are not exhausted but instead acquire more profound form in certain aspects, even absorbing the problem of instability and flexibility in social structures and relations, and in relation to growing reflexivity on the level of the subject. Hypermodernity absorbs this reading of instabilities not as an epistemological necessity but instead as process and events shouting in the world outside: in the globalised economy synchronised in real-time by computerised production technologies in networks of flexible geometry (as geopolitics); in the regime of speculative financial accumulation and the casino of global gambling in which events on Wall Street lead to a global crisis and redundancies in rural towns in southern Brazil; in the growing mobility of people and objects; in electronic communications that increase complexity and change forms of social interaction and the formation of social networks; and in the instability all this seems to enforce on the subject.22 What would the spaces of hypermodernity be? Hybrid spaces of fragmentation and connectivity, bridges between concrete places and the electronically floating cloud even in a hardware of physical networks and hubs and providers that are apparently decreasingly locatable

Schtz and Luckmann (1973). See Derrida (2001); see Bauman (1992). 21 Lipovetsky (2004); cf. Giddens (1990) and Bauman (2001). 22 In discussion with Frederico de Holanda. The position expressed is the authors. On reflexivity, see Beck (1992); on the sociology of mobility see works by John Urry and colleagues: Urry (2000; 2007); Elliot and Urry (2010).
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physically?23 The electronic web that became popular with the introduction of the Internet is being progressively associated with another: telematic webs of mobile communication are popular and evolving in new technologies, exponentiating communication with the mobility of transmissions. A new period of communicative explosion came into being in the convergence of these two webs through mobile technologies, with mobile phones practically everywhere and connected to the World Wide Web, together with other portable devices like Palms and laptops, Wi-Fi wireless internet networks and short-range webs.24 These networks and devices form the new media of post-mass function with growing connections, allowing actual bilateral exchange of information, as effective communication: the passage from the static interface of computers or fixed digital-web nodes to the interfaces or mobile nodes of cell phones and other portable devices with internet access. Cyberspace relates intimately to traffic in the streets, enveloping actors in a generally connected environment. The anthropomorphism of mobile devices and communication networks has penetrated virtually all fields of practice, creating new ontological conditions deeply associated with the mobility of the body itself.25 Mobility and its relationship with other means of practices transpatial association and the dematerialisation and re-materialisation of the effects of practice transmissible and replicable transpatially form impressive ontological properties of access to the multiplicity and simultaneity of acts and events. We are experiencing a materialisation of Henri Bergsons simultaneity of events and simultaneity of flows, the apparent possibility of events entering within a single, instantaneous perception26 in a connection almost filled with places, socialities and subjects on a global scale. In hypermodernitys compression of time and space27 we also experience the impression of the ubiquity of another property, connectivity beyond contiguity. The ontological place occupied by !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The localisation of centres of hardware that support the electronic places of websites is becoming increasingly less relevant when the information is progressively maintained and stored inconstant circulation. 24 The presence of cyberspace: at the end of 2010, 2 billion people had internet access, 1.6 billion of whom connected in their homes amounting to 30% of the world population; 71% of the population of developed countries, 9.6% in Africa (source: UN International Telecommunications Union, Digital sources are replacing TV, radio and newspapers as the man source of information for 61% of the online population in the countries investigated (source: BBC Brasil,; 350 million people send messages everyday via Facebook (source: TechCrunch,; 82% of children in 10 western countries surveyed have a digital footprint before the age of two (source AVG Internet, The presence of mobile communication: there were an estimated 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide at the end of 2010. Almost 200,000 mobile phone messages are sent every second. Access to mobile networks is available for nine out of ten inhabitants and for eight out of ten rural inhabitants (source: /UN/ITU, In Brazil in 2009, there were 173.9 million accesses to the Personal Mobile Service (PMS) (source: Anatel, Data accessed in November/2010. 25 See Silva (2006) and Santaella (2010), respectively. Another potentially powerful aspect of the convergence of technologies and spaces in an effective hybridisation in terms of perception is the introduction of augmented-reality technologies. Devices can add virtual layers to perception (with the use of devices like lenses, which are still in experimental phase). During use, these can create layers of different information and a tensioning of commonly perceived reality. 26 See Bergson (2006, p. 65). 27 Term from Harvey (1992).


contiguity in our readings of social and material reality is somehow destabilised by the assertion of a topology beyond concreteness, possible only through a break with the absolute continuity of space and able to align globally distributed events in a single temporality in our cognition. Channelling practice in this topology of connections and shortcuts of the concrete materiality of urban and geographic spaces leads to the definitive establishment of what we might term a topological understanding of the world, in which socialities, places and subjects suddenly seem attainable. The ontology of a social and geographic world becomes penetrable and intelligible in its apparent totality through the concept of network, popularised and turned into a paradigm, as if the diagram representing the huge planetary social world were becoming flatter and flatter. An ontology in which historicity either collapses or becomes invisible through the impression of an eternal present, introduced by access to the simultaneity of agencies and situations appearing globally, all the time visible and recordable as never before by cameras and communication devices carried on the body. Nonetheless, and precisely because of this, we are affected by the exponentiation of an overwhelming property: complexity in terms of information in volumes that are impossible to be processed (pages and hypertexts that will never be known; actors suddenly becoming closer and closer through electronics in webs that are increasingly connected but which cannot be sufficiently known). Contemporary complexity is even felt in the problem of choice in this infinite option of signs, meanings, acts, actors this second aspect visible in Niklas Luhmanns concept of complexity. I shall move on to explore a role of urban space potentially renewed paradoxically by this growing complexity of the social world. We have discussed the nature and role of digital and mobile networks of trans-spatial communication, the webs of urban spaces as reference systems for the presential emergence of practice as social practice, and the social as a system of practices. We shall see how human practice unfolds in these two entirely different networks of materialities.

Unfolding practice into urban and digital networks What is the connection between the practices we perform in the form of urban processes and in cyberspace? Both networks become part of the connections between acts and are fundamental means of communication as frameworks of recognisable and interactive acts. We naturalise these relationships. But thinking again counterfactually for a moment, we can see the real as improbable as Luhmann would say the conditions of this naturalisation. Given that human practice has become more complex as it has bifurcated into two distinct, albeit interconnected, planes, one problem is to know how these interconnections are produced and structured the way


in which these different networks link together in practice; a practice that is quickly adapted to these passages: the possibility of unfolding into multiple places and material networks. A second question is to understand what prevents such a system of practices becoming so complex as to be partially disconnected, in possible gaps in its frameworks, through loss or difficulty in the search and selection of information and cooperating actors. I would like to suggest five aspects of the passage of practice between different, possibly asymmetrical material networks of communication, and the complex interweaving of these networks. (1) In cognitive terms, these interweavings involve the form in which circulating meanings and messages connect with the concrete. I would suggest that the passage between acts materialised in urban and digital networks occurs according to mutual references between meanings with which connection or communication is established. The sign can travel wherever the references take it and momentarily connect it; where its meanings make sense; that is to say where meanings produced in the urban place complement the meanings of signs circulating in cyberspace, and viceversa. Acting while plugged in to the transpatial web means bifurcating our acts and merging their meanings and effects (previously fixed to their spatial context) with meanings produced and circulating in other places, which connect us to actors who are not present. Urban space is more than mere physical structure: it is a system of references whose places contain embedded meanings that suggest latent connections to simultaneous, past and potential acts. Connections between meanings do not end there. If the references make sense, meanings enacted in places produce potential connections with those in other places, connected by the digital web. Meanings enacted in urban spaces form referential bridges between frameworks of acts produced in these different planes of materiality. Urban and digital networks are therefore tied together kaleidoscopically and changeably, in a kind of constantly changing tangle. Meanings are a medium of connectivity and provide direction in the unfolding of practice in different spaces, therefore asserting continuity between acts performed in urban space and those performed in the fabric of cyberspace. In our cognition this connection happens in flashes, such as when we take part in an activity or social situation defined by the borders of architecture or urban places. The contextual meanings produced there by our actions and communications define the scope of attention to meanings and messages and social events accessed digitally or telematically. But how does that connection occur in the passage from cognition to practice? (2) In practical terms, the interweaving involves forms in which we convert this cognitive continuity, constructed by references shared between actors, and urban and electronic places, into sequences of acts performed on different planes of materiality. These flows of acts unfold into


different materialities, to then converge and return to the concreteness of the place and the body that form the nodes and frameworks for our acts. Practice converts signs and images using mouse, keyboard or screen into codes, invisible bits, emitted and infinitely replicable. The products or effects of our acts converted into bit flow (or electromagnetic wave) and transmitted via digital or mobile networks are then reconverted into words and images in (an)other place(s) where, their meanings recognised, they can intervene in and affect the actions of other actors. Once related to the meanings of this new place or places and their physical acts, and transformed by such acts, they can once again be electronically conveyed to other places and actors. The power of the references contained in the meaning structures and opens out these connections and allows practice to unfold coherently in multiple places and agencies (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Passages and division between digital networks (partially dematerialised, mobile and transspatial) and the urban space (concrete, extensive and physical) through referential connections between act, context, message and flow.

(3) New information technologies have the effect of generating an increasing complexity of the social world: information in volumes that are impossible to process (Castells definition of complexity), and the problem of selecting from an unlimited choice of signs and meanings, acts and interacting subjects (Luhmann) 28 . In other words, the increased possibilities for action and interaction and the progressive break with the extent of the physical space have created a problem in reproduction of practice: how to find particular information or actor, object or artefact in conditions of apparently endless choice. We are forced to filter and discriminate between an enormous number of options. Commerce offers a notable example.29 In the traditional retail system !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Castells (1996); Luhmann (1995). Recent research has emphasised face-to-face contact and dissemination of information between producers and consumers. See Florida et al. (2010).
29 28


of clients purchasing products in physical stores, the level of choice is restricted by the amount of space on the available shelves. Electronic-commerce websites, however, offer selections that can never be fully known. Search tools and websites are one way of converting limitless choice into a manageable set of recommendations. In this context, choice limited to a local scale makes the decision-making process easier. I would like to suggest that, perhaps paradoxically, the role of the urban space is potentially renewed by this exponentiation of complexity. We may see the city as a form of projection of possible practices or those in progress, which stimulate interactions and therefore the production of meanings (in objects, speech, texts and hypertexts), thus increasing social complexity.30 At the same time, urban space is a mode of social information that enables actors capacity for knowing and engaging in acts that make up the social world. The production of space as the location of actors and possibilities for materialisation of their relations consists of an arrangement and pre-selection of situations of action. The urbanisation of space is a form of connecting acts which is produced to converge material and immaterial flows. Cities express social practice as a constellation of agencies arranged spatially through urban structures. Their concrete materialisation, in the form of production and occupation of spaces, and fierce competition for localisation and proximity to actors in potential interaction, arises as patterns of distribution of more easily recognisable and reachable activities. I suggest that at this moment the moment of urban structuring cities form a powerful everyday form (cognitive, practical) of reduction of social complexity. Ultimately, cites are a fundamental part of the cycle of societal continuity: a form of projecting, increasing and reducing social complexity at the same time, paradoxically. This cycle which culminates in the reduction of social complexity by the production and appropriation of urban space takes on a self-referential form that defines the city as an active material counterpart in social reproduction. Space becomes a way of making the relationship between acts, actors and their production possible in Luhmanns sense of rendering social reproduction sufficiently unproblematic. (4) Hugely complex, substantially invisible, never entirely knowable, the flows of referential connections between acts and their effects even digitalised can be penetrated and referenced by means of urban space. They are substantially produced and structured through meanings and structures latent in human spatialities. Networks of communicative actions are actualised through cognitive references say, when we are able to mentally anticipate our participation in a certain social situation, and when we actually act within these situations. Urban
30 In this section I explore the particular relationship between information, complexity, selection and social structuration in Niklas Luhmann (1995) as a way of exploring the place of urban space in processes of social reproduction in the face of the challenge of selection, between growing possibilities of action and communication, during the performance of the action itself and in face of the mobility of people, information and objects (Urry, 2007).



spaces and digital networks become mutually referential systems of communication and connection to a diversity of socialities and experiences, capable of relating meanings, information and artefacts produced or encountered within them. (5) We come finally to the role of new electronic spaces in the practice of social interaction. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, recently said, I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace because the environment seemed too top-down mediated. They feel like malls to me. But Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.31 The parallel between urban and digital networks in Gibsons observation about which electronic place or tool for social interaction most resembles the properties of the street illustrates both the paradigmatic position of the public space and the difference and limitations of different electronic spaces. The street is the space where distinct identities can be co-present in a non-programmed way. The chances of effective communication are slight, but this fortuitous and volatile encounter is where the possibility is constructed of recognising the Other in its idiosyncrasies, along with the knowledge of the social as a complex fabric of identities.32 ! Structurally social systems need both the randomness of contact in the generation of social relations and the recursiveness of the encounter between acquaintances and practices for preserving social ties as the basis for their own reproduction. Electronic social and mobile communication networks seem so far to offer less space for the randomness of co-presence. By tending to be used in the interaction and reproduction of ties between members of pre-identified and selected groups of individuals, they act as forces for affirming social fields rather than transversal integration of fields. These risks of dissociation and tendencies for the partial breakdown of social fields need to be compensated for given that their elimination is impossible through their composition by other processes of recognising the Other and possible interaction. Interaction is focused on the most fundamental aspect of proximity: face-to-face communication. And the city is a rich melting pot of interactions, information and unforeseeable exchanges, which cannot easily be replicated in electronic or technological spaces of distance communication. On the other hand the convergence of transpatial communication technologies has provided a more intense connection with urban space.33

See Facebook is certainly not like the street, considering that social networks are formed by recursive contact outside the electronic space or through considerably controlled shared affinities and interests. The fascinating Twitter is certainly more open and has another role apart from a social network: it is a network of exchange of information among peers, Nonetheless, the message-exchange relations occur through affinities, possibly with less condition for recognising identities. 33 Mobile communication technologies and GPS positioning-system interfaces allow marking of geographical position to be transmitted in real time to web servers, and the listing of nearby participants enables points for meeting and social interaction. Group actions are thus fed by mobile connection (Santaella, 2010).
32 31


Conclusions: the materialities of practice and the ontological structure of the social world We shall now try to take this exploratory reflection to the starting points of the passages and interconnections between actions performed in situations of co-presence and those performed across space, i.e. from their bifurcation between different material networks, their re-materialisation in electronic networks to their recursive return to the place of presence, and the urban networks of face-to-face communication. I argue that even the frameworks of actions of elusive materialities have their origins in the concrete spaces of the city and return to it. This return is assured by the ontological primacy of three nodalities through which such flows must pass three conditions which have been jettisoned too quickly in current ontologies, influenced by the postmodernist critique of metaphysics: meaning as ontological connection, the inescapable physicality of the act, and the centrality of the acting subject and her place i. The referentiality of the meaning. We have seen that the cognitive connections that make up human interaction take in the form of meanings, in different forms, materials and means. Communication is a volatile fabric of meanings transmitted, interpreted, and transformed in perpetual circulation. These meanings have a property of establishing endless connectivity between things, even of different materialities. This concept allows us to find the material traces of the relations between our everyday acts traces active at the precise moment of association and which form the possibility of any association. ii. The return to the body and to presence. Far from reifications of bodies transforming into cyborgs or extended interconnection systems, the ultimate materiality of the experienced world is related to the body and to presence. In a time when different material systems and spaces overlap and interpenetrate, it is the presence of the body with its driving, perceptive and cognitive force that rules.34 Even when immersed in cognitive spaces, we still inhabit the indivisible body. iii. The inescapable centrality of the subject and her place. We can see that cyberspace offers new conditions for practice and its connectivity. So we return to one of the initial questions: how does cyberspace affect urban space? New forms of appropriation of space have been observed such as locative functions, introducing new dimensions of the use and creation of meaning in urban spaces.35 Digital networks and informational practices would redefine and reconfigure urban spaces. Nevertheless, we should avoid such reifications. Meanings produced in the informational territory are not inscribed in space. These re-significations are either volatile, active in the place during the limited time of our practices and access to information circulating in digital networks,
34 Santaella (2010). Santaella suggests that the continuity between the digital and the concrete takes place through perception and proprioception; but this explanation, like any other deriving from the phenomenological tradition, only displays the continuity of the subjects field of experience. Our problem lies in understanding how the relationships between acting subjects are constructed in the divisions of these different networks between players, outside their minds. 35 Lemos (2010, p. 160).



and may remain while emission persists, or exist as a somewhat enclosed system, accessible only by those with the digital technologies or who are part of the electronic networks that share them. Unlike meanings imprinted by practice in urban spaces, recognisable by people in a social situation, meanings in the informational territory contain an inherent fragility. Actions performed digitally and telematically do not really change the configuration of urban spaces but they can empower the social role of places by conferring meanings in momentary experiences. They end up implying a return to place as a central nodality of our practice. Besides, there is still an ontological primacy of subjects. However existing objectively just as tools do, and seemingly sharing a phenomenal symmetry in that sense, subjects have a creational role. There is no symmetry when we consider the role of creativity. So despite Heideggers assertion of the ontological place of tools and current assertions of the importance of technologies as social actors, we cannot ignore their ontological condition as non-autonomous tools.36 Until the invention of artificial intelligence the acting subject will retain primacy in the production of information and technologies and the social world as it is presented. I have argued that the digital networks connected to virtually every computer allow genuinely bilateral transmission, and this fact breaks with the historical dependence on the presence of the body and on spatial proximity for the production of communication. This double rupture introduces an exponential expansion of possibilities for the connectivity of actions, together with the complexity and scope of action networks. The fabric of the social is structured, manifest, and it expands and reproduces through these networks, since the introduction of distance communication in the 19th century to its re-materialisation through technologies, when complex pieces of information become transmittable while retaining their structure intact and reproducible. We could also see that the end of the city is a discussion that has been surpassed, recognising the city as a living basis for technological production and the phenomenological centrality of the subject, the body and spatiality in human experience. Finally, we could see the centrality of communication in social reproduction. Our acts are associated by means of communication. Furthermore, face-to-face communication cannot be fully replaced by interaction mediated technologically: the randomness of the interaction of different actors and diversity of exchange of information something that the city historically provides are not easily replicable in digital networks just yet.37 These introductory descriptions refer to the fundamental issue of what it is that maintains the integration of social reality namely, in the form of frameworks of material and informational connections. These frameworks include language and what the sociologist Talcott Parsons called steering media, the structuring means of social reproduction, such as money and power. These !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
36 37

See Heidegger (1962; 2000); cf. Harman (2010) and his theory of equipment; cf. Thrift (2008). Cf. Sassen (2001).


different subsystems provide the ontological infrastructure that connects acts; the infrastructure through which the products and effects of acts are exchanged, transmitted and disseminated to other actors and places, and absorbed and synthesised into new acts. Electronic and telematic networks and their progressive convergence are considerable additions to the possibilities of integration of social systems as shortcuts in the extent of concrete space. They shift urban space from its historical role as the sole physical means of societal integration a shift which can hardly be overestimated. When the material means of integration multiplies, the historically privileged role of the urban space in practice is reduced. Technological networks are dependent on subsystems of energy and extensive hardware, however; a dependency that makes these networks relatively fragile in material terms. We can add to this dependency the infrastructural and communicative conditions for the production of information, found typically in the spatial hardware and the informational software of the city. A system of nodes and connections from which the highly fluid system of cyberspace and its hubs is created. These are the locations where each personal computer enters the Web. So the fleeting materiality of these flows depends on the constant presence of spatial conditions. Considering the ontological condition of cyberspace, a counterpoint to its extraordinary properties is needed: a counterpoint able to (1) complement and compensate for the pervasive but largely invisible presence of information technologies; (2) constitute a material and informational resource in managing the growing complexity of the social; (3) constitute a means of introducing both randomness and recursivity in the generation of social relations and encounters, which will allow stability of interactions. Urban spatialities therefore retain their centrality as the locus of subjects, of communication mediated by the body, the situated production of meanings and information, as a melting pot of interactions a way of providing support to practice in times of growing social complexity and abstraction. There is in short a shift in the ontological role of urbanised space as a material system with a central task of integrating the social system into one among other means but with the incorporation of a new ontological role: as a fundamental counterpoint to the elusiveness of transpatial communication networks. Digital networks are certainly going to extend and penetrate more and more into the concrete, with the multiplication of types of networks, technologies and media increasingly based on the materiality of electrons and the electronic wave but it seems that they will do so in constant dialogue with urban space, in its unique position in the ontological structure of our reality.

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