Towards an Information Urbanism: Beyond Form and Function
Alan Waxman, December 12th, 2015
Information urbanism is derived from informal spaces; the opposite of which are formal spaces. Formal spaces are defined by function in three broad categories: the information rich consumption and performance space, the resource space, and the conduit between the two. Spaces not defined by use - sacred, ignored, or left behind - are informal spaces. These spaces are living storehouses and generators of information. Informal spaces are the basis of information urbanism - intelligent, living, and ecological - of which we are intimately a part.
Imagine driving a car and coming to an intersection where there is a stop sign. Upon seeing the text on a red steel octagonal form, you stop. You recognize that there may be danger hidden at the intersection according to how it is used, with life or death implications. You understand the symbol and act upon it. Although the word, "stop" exists in a timeless, aspatial, almost ethereal space - as text it can be instantaneously sent anywhere on the globe - it is empowered by context - the relational significance of the red steel octagonal sign, the street, and yourself. Confronted by the necessity to perform this information in the context, you may translate the spatial and temporal significance of "stop" into your actions, in the here and now, at the intersection, along the journey of your life.
"Stop" has been situationalized. The word, encoded in timeless textual cultural space, is brought into real time through its expression by you in the urban context. The text in the context - you, the sign, and your decisions - are informal. You become the real time performer within the context. Your action, your translation of information into urbanism, is an intelligent force of information urbanism.
Now consider a few elements of function based formal urbanism: the stage, the resource, and the conduit. These spaces may be theaters for the informal flows of information urbanism, for you and I, but they are designed for a formal, functional purpose.
Consider the highly formalized environment of a corporate board room. Each person in the board room is an actor regulated by texts: economic numbers in spaces and times, various legal regulatory boundaries, professional decorum, and corporate goals. These codes are performed by the participants inside and in between these textual and physical boundaries, as a highly formalized dance on the information "rich" stage of the board room. What happens inside this space may be similar to the stop sign, although the space itself is formally designated as a stage. Informality flows within intended function of formality.
When a zone is perceived to be "rich" in materiality, rather than information, it is considered a "resource" space, which only has value in terms of exchange. In a sense, "resources" are the opposite of the stop sign. They are interpreted as informationless spaces; the opposite of voids, they are seen as objects. Rather than their textual significance having affects, only their materiality has value. Any information they carry with them from their place of origin is disregarded. Their new value is counted, textually, in their destruction.
Resources may be limited, as in minerals, or they may be renewable, as in timber or animal bodies; their value is defined by their potential function used somewhere else. The "resource" space creates the necessity for the conduit, to deliver resources from their place of origin to their destination where they are performed or transformed, registering their textual value.
Conduits lack both the performative stage like quality of the board room and the objective consumable value of the resource, while retaining a formal use - the transportation of resources to their stage of consumption. Rather than a space of text, literally like the stop sign, or a space without a text that can be destroyed to be counted in text, like a "resource;" conduits are spaces between text, carrying users between named and signified spaces. Although conduits don't have textual significance of their own, they have use, functioning to connect "resources" to stages of textual peformance. Two examples of conduits are a highway and an airport interterminal tube.
The highway is external, transitory, asphalted, and may be dangerous for people or animals to occupy without being enclosed in a moving steel frame. Consumption of resources in automobiles allows for a functional change of scale, creating a violent rift with the scale of the biology within.
The interterminal tube is enclosed within the functional envelope of the airport in a vast, sealed, contextless functional environment, allowing movement inside at a human scale; but this space is also intended entirely for transit, for passing through, not for being in. The tube may have art works embellishing it, but they are to be seen while moving. There may be refreshment inside the conduit, but they too are intended to provide something momentarily in transit.
The tube and highway are conduits not seen to have their own residents or their own identity; rather they are perceived as having non identities.
This collection of formally designated spaces: the "rich" stage space, the "resource" object, and the conduit, make a process together in which "rich" spaces form places of centrality, command, transformation, and consumption; resource spaces form places of harvest, removal, and waste; and conduits allow transference between the two. The process can be described as objectification or "industrialization" and it's primary form of measure in a capitalist system is money.
Informality precedes and progresses from formality and it's systems of use. Informality, like the earth itself, was here long before industrial resource exploitation; and will be here long after.
We can imagine the identity assigned to the tube, the highway, the "resource," and the board room changing drastically if they were largely unusable, and left behind. If there is no longer any actual connectivity between the rest of the airport or the rest of the highway system these spaces might be seen more as large homes for wayward plants, or shelter for displaced people who settle in the area. Likewise, if the board room is abandoned by its company and not resold, it would be similarly occupiable by plants and people of various kinds. The resource would no longer be considered a resource if it is considered unusable. When the space loses its assigned use, it actually regains its recognition as a place or value in a non commodifiable way. It gains or regains an identity more by it's intelligent and biological human or nonhuman squatter community and less by its exchange value. This sort of space can be considered "post-industrial."
It is worthwhile to consider that all spaces, even if they are currently defined by use, former use, or resource value, were never solely defined by use. All spaces in this sense were and potentially are "informal," in that their meaning was and potentially is not contingent solely on formal use. Before the highway, the board room, and the resource mine were built as an extension of a massive infrastructure of function, there may have been a network, or rather, a cluster of neighborhoods linked by an extended set of plazas (places).
These living embodied communities - neighborhood tissue and plaza connectivity - are the basis of information urbanism.
Drawing an analogy with function based formal systems, these communities have all three parts - stage, resource, and conduit - but there is the key difference of informality: they grow from the inside according to their information, their embodied knowledge, rather than the imposition of outside form for performance function or resource use purposes. They are in a state of becoming, like you, when you reach the "stop" sign.
The plaza appears similar to the performance stage and the transportative emptiness of the conduit. However, the plaza does not have to be programmed to represent textual laws and economic numbers; it does so seamlessly because its form represents the changing reality of laws and numbers in its contiguous mesh of neighborhood. Nor are its properties as conduit exclusive; the plaza can be used for pause and meeting with as much ease or difficulty as it can be passed through.
The neighborhood with its diversity of human and nonhuman residences appears to have the objective materiality of the resource. However, the neighborhood does not have to be cut up and sold to have value to its own residents. In fact, cutting itself up and selling itself would displace its residents, destroying itself and potentially ending or damaging the memory contained within.
The neighborhood tissue and plaza connectivity embody their knowledge, a vast interconnected network of information. They are living, real time texts, with instantaneous feedback and change. Change in knowledge and social structure become change in form. Information becomes form from the inside out. Rather than a machine for living, the informal neighborhood is a living intelligent body informed by its collective imagination.
With more time and inhabitation, the neighborhood doesn't become more spent, it evolves greater diversity and resiliency. Information urbanism doesn't suffer from the "tragedy of the commons;" it grows a plethora of the commons.
Archaeological and anthropological research has revealed that there are really almost no stretches of planet earth that have not had a long history of dense inhabitation at some point. The landscape is full of embodied knowledge, signs, literature and names. We might say that archaeological, anthropological, and ecological research is literally the opening up of a few of the hidden texts of informal spaces, whether buried underground, or present in people's existing cultural worlds. In this sense, all of the earth is an interconnected mosaic of neighborhood tissue and plaza connectivities.
To look beyond the trifold process of objectification - consumption space, conduit, and resource space - is to admit the lasting informality of information urbanism, ripe with eons of knowledge embodied in past present and future.
In fact, we human beings are information urbanism at its core. We are walking embodied knowledge in a deeply interconnected ecological world which we consciously live to fruition.