Thérèse Tierney: "Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information" - Response by Peter Thompson

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 24, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Distinguished Faculty Lecture, "Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information," presented by Thérèse Tierney, Associate Professor in the Illinois School of Architecture at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Peter Thompson, History.]

"Networked Urbanism: Theory and Practice"
Written by Peter Thompson (History)

The 1980s and 90s saw an increased interest in space and place among leading critical theorists. As Professor James Hay (Media & Cinema Studies) pointed out in his opening remarks, the works of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre were major motivating factors in this move toward spatial thinking. This critical turn inspired the critical Marxist geography of David Harvey as well as the conception of space and design developed in Frederic Jameson’s well-known definition of postmodernism. A little later, in the mid-90s, Doreen Massey advanced a feminist critique of spatial concepts, while Meaghan Morris asked how these ideas of space played out in cinema and literature. In various ways, these scholars argued that space is produced both physically and semiotically, thus both shaping our material world and the way that we discursively understand it. Professor Hay asked us to keep this field of theoretical work in mind as we consider the (possibly) new ways in which urban design and information technology are being integrated in the 21st century.

Thérèse Tierney’s presentation, “Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information,” examined and historicized the integration of new technology into the development of urban spaces. With her academic home in the School of Architecture, she applies her practical knowledge of architectural design to examine the recent development of “smart cities.” The merging of contemporary information technology and architecture is broadly reflected in her previous publications: New Urban Mobilities as Intelligent Infrastructure (2015), The Public Space of Social Media (2013), Abstract Space: Beneath the Media Surface (2007), and Network Practices: New Strategies in Architecture and Design (2007).

Tierney first discussed the ways in which the conception of “the city” is in the midst of change. Challenges such as climate change, migration, population growth, and advanced telecommunications have encouraged architects, governments, and corporations to rethink the definition of the city. Previous studies of urban development employed statistical studies of fixed locations. However, considering the newly mobile (or flowing) nature of contemporary city dwellers, the urban theorist Edward Soja has argued that cities should be studied as systems in what could be termed as “networked urbanism.” The urban designer William Mitchell echoed this idea and furthered the integration of careful sociological study, architectural planning, and advanced computing.

The smartphone is the primary factor in the mobilization of urban spaces. Thus, smartphones can be viewed as the various nodes that create the urban system. Wireless apps for banking, car sharing, paid transportation, etc. further contribute to the expansion of this mobile network. The increasing development of these kind of technologies suggest that the 21st century “smart city” will be dependent on information technology. And while smartphones are privately owned technology, community WiFi and Hackathons can expand access to this kind of mobile network.

“Nodes of the urban system.” From The New Yorker

Professor Tierney argued that the utopian nature of the “smart city” is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s and 60s, modernist designers and theorists hoped to improve city infrastructure through massive building projects such as Disney’s Project X. However, these projects were simultaneously progressive and conservative in their utopian visions. Architects conceived of new designs and utilized new technologies, but they assumed traditional and fixed lifestyles for the people who would populate their cities. The sense of a failed alternative future that is often associated with these midcentury designs can perhaps be attributed to the inability of designers to account for cultural change and human agency.

“Renderings of the city center in Disney’s Project X.” From Esquire

This should be a historical lesson for architects and urban planners who are currently developing the “smart cities” of the 21st century. According to Tierney, new designs should consider and incorporate the ways in which people utilize the city. In this vein, the integration of new information technologies should strive for a truly democratic process, one in which all inhabitants have equal access and cultural power. For this reason, governments might be better at developing the new “smart city” than private corporations, which generate new networking technology for their own ends (including tracking and targeted sales). The self-interested desires of these private corporations also raise the issue of privacy and data mining. We must ask ourselves who should control such massive amounts of private data and to what ends should this data be used.

“The Digital Stewards set up DIY WiFi in Detroit for community access.” From Commotionwireless.net

Professor Tierney’s talk exposed the ways in which “smart cities” are being imagined and developed in order to raise these kind of questions. While there are no easy answers to the problems of restricted access and corporate use, Professor Tierney hopes to raise awareness of these problems in order to inspire an inclusive collective imagination of our own future cities. Tierney hopes that this collective imagination will use information technology to encourage an idealized civitas, or a community bound by an expansive conception of citizenship.

Professor of New Media, Kevin Hamilton, gave concluding remarks. He viewed Professor Tierney’s presentation as the bridging of theory and practice that the Unit for Criticism has long championed. Ideally, urban designers are now incorporating the theoretical work on human subjectivity that has long guided sociological concerns. This would lead to a view of the city itself as ontologically dynamic. However, the historical view of this research raises questions about whether or not the technological integration into lived experience is especially new in any way. Perhaps we would prefer to decenter technology in our vision of the future city, and rather start from the human ontological definition(s) of technology. Perhaps we should consider what we are actually striving for in the reimagining of urban spaces: are we trying to envision “the good life” or are we simply aiming for basic survival? 

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