Media Literacy: Curing the Common Code

“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.

So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.

Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.

We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.


Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.

Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.

Metropolis of Memories

Each time we move to a new city, we make memories as the city slowly takes shape in our minds. Every new place we locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new point on the map. Wayfinding a new city is an experience you can never get back. Once you are familiar with the space or place, it’s gone. Since moving out on my own, I’ve gravitated toward cities: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. Externalized memories built in brick and concrete. As David Byrne writes, cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are” (p. 2).

Cloud Gate
[“Cloud Gate” drawing by Roy Christopher]

You can map out a whole city according to the weight of memory, like pins on the homicide board tracking the killer’s movements. But the connections get thicker and denser and more complicated all the time — from Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Imaginary CitiesDarran Anderson‘s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) brings many of these unconscious thoughts out of our heads and into the light, mapping cities according to memories. Anderson humbly calls the book “a diminished non-fiction mirror” to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), but it is a masterwork unto itself. As Calvino (1974) writes in that book, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p. 11). Anderson’s book illuminates these interstitial crags and corners, yet it goes as wide as it does deep, digging through the details as much as minding the monolithic. It’s a book I will have to spend much more time with, as it deserves to be explored in depth, like any good city.

What is the importance of placing a memory? he said. Why spend that much time trying to find the exact geographic and temporal latitudes and longitudes of the things we remember, when what’s urgent about a memory is its essence?
— from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

In Divisible CitiesI’m also interested in spending much more time with Dominic Pettman‘s In Divisible Cities: A Phanto-Cartographical Missive (Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books, 2013). Aside from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this book’s form recalls only McKenzie Wark‘s Dispositions (Salt Publishing, 2002). These two books hint at their own genre. Locative love stories? Positional poetry? They’re nothing if not poetic, and and the style suits both the authors and their subjects. As Johannes Milner (1814) put it, “Poetry is not something to be activated and deactivated. It is a part of a process, a byproduct of simply being poetic” (p. 43). In Divisible Cities is definitely that, and Pettman’s subtlety is astounding. Download or buy it directly from Punctum Books or get lost in the interactive web version.

In the sagas it was said that humans dream with their hands, only their hands, and so have cities rather than sagas, monuments rather than memories. — from Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney

Savage MessiahSavage Messiah (Verso, 2011) is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, chronicling the streets of London in various states of duress. I’ve never seen a zine or a zine collection that seemed this important. I’ve never even seen one with the potential to be this important. Ford’s writings and drawings map not only the city’s streets but also the lives underneath. In his Introduction, Mark Fisher calls the zine “out of time” but not “out of date”: “Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch — and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on a screen” (p. x). Indeed, Savage Messiah‘s return to the anarcho-punk aesthetic of the late-1970s is essential to Ford’s revival of that attitude. This is poetry. This is protest. This is London undone. Holding it in your hands is imperative.

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. — Kathy Acker

Early on in In Divisible Cities, Dominic Pettman repurposes the idea of mattering maps, those maps we make to and from the things that matter: “A map that generates territory, rather than the other way around… A map that does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map that brings cities into being…” (p. 3). These three books can be read as giant, sprawling mattering maps. Within them, there are vast and multiple new cities to be explored.


Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 135.

Anderson, Darran. (2015). Imaginary Cities. London: Influx Press.

Beukes, Lauren. (2008). Moxyland. Nottingham, UK: Angry Robot, p. 79.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible Cities. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Erickson, Steve. (1985). Days Between Stations. New York: Owl Books, p. 178.

Ford, Laura Oldfield. (2011). Savage Messiah. New York: Verso.

Milner, Johannes. (1814). This Quotation is From a Dream I Had: Pull Inspiration from Everything. My Head: Dream Time.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine. p. 219.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). In Divisible Cities. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cromer: UK: Salt Publishing.

Spatial Effects: Cars, Cities, and Social Movements

In his essay, “Garcetti’s Bridge to Bicycle Nowhere,” LA writer Joseph Mailander (2014) describes the harrowing bike ride across the half-mile Hyperion-Glendale Bridge between “the lands the freeways forgot,” Los Feliz and Silver Lake. The traffic signals there currently afford a brief, semi-safe interval between the roaring cars and trucks on the road. “And how are they making this bridge safer?” asks Mailander. “By making the traffic even faster and daring the cyclists to mix with the motorists even more.”

Happy CityJust about everything I’ve read about urban development has faulted the car for the ills of the city. “A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” says Bogatá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa while riding a bike through his city in 2007 (quoted in Montgomery, 2013, p. 7). “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities,” he says. “I’m talking about the US, of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by private cars” (p. 9). Bogatá and Peñalosa are the first case study in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013). Montgomery writes that as systems, cities are susceptible to self-replicating. That is, a design is established, becomes codified in the plans, and spreads itself to other cities. For example, the car-based dispersion that characterizes our American cities is encoded in their DNA. “The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways,” he writes, “but also in the habits of the professionals who make our cities” (p. 75).

War of Streets and HousesA disturbing amount of these habits come from military practices. Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses (Uncivilized Books, 2014) briefly and beautifully tells a story of struggling with space, place, and the design of both through subtle comic panels and sparse text. Of this struggle, she tells Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, “I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain ‘know-how’ when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.” In War of Streets and Houses, she cites Foucault’s “disciplinary space” to describe the ways urban space is designed to control its inhabitants. Echoing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Yanow continues, “…I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don’t just see each other passing by in cars.” Urban space is such a different experience when you’re actually in it, on foot or on a bicycle and not in a car or a building. As Rebecca Solnit tells Jarrett Earnest at The Brooklyn Rail, “With cities I’m more interested in public spaces and streets, which have been important for my work on democracy and the way that democracy requires us to co-exist in public, so I’m more concerned with the space between the buildings than the buildings themselves.”

Having grown up in rural Northern California, Yanow first finds downtown Montreal an anonymous space, “Empty. Calm. As if it hid nothing and had nothing to hide” (p. 23). She quickly compares it to places along the coast or in the suburbs where “human scale things are quaint or unimaginable” (p. 20, 21). Democracy happens at human scale. That is why we occupy the streets and not the fields.

Rebel CitiesIn Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012), David Harvey traces the pedigree of urban-based class struggles back to the late eighteenth century. From Paris in 1789 through Paris in 1968, through Seattle in 1999, and the more recent Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City, Harvey situates the city as the center of capitalist and class struggle. Where others have criticized OWS is unorganized and ineffectual, Harvey praises the movement, writing, “It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked” (p. 161-162). There is less and less public space to fill with bodies as such. From Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris to Robert Moses in New York, changes in architecture and urban planning might be the most tangible and tenacious result of political unrest.

Our cities were redesigned to prevent political action and simultaneously they’ve been reconfigured to accommodate automobiles. Looking ahead we see more lanes of gridlocked traffic. Mailander (2014) adds, “Imagining the future as a cool and pristine place is code for saying things aren’t right right now. Some may like to try to fix things by inviting dreamers to dream bigger dreams. But we had better apply some math to these dreams too.” Cars drive capital. If we want them out of the city, it’s time to learn the algebra of alternatives.


Earnest, Jarrett. (2014, March 4). The Poetic Politics of Space: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Jarrett Earnest. The Brooklyn Rail.

Goodyear, Sarah. (2014, April 14). An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us: An Interview with Sophie Yanow. The Atlantic Cities.

Harvey, David. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso.

Mailander, Joseph F. (2014). LA at Intermission: A City Mingling Towards Identity. Los Angeles: Nellcôte Press.

Montgomery, Charles. (2013). Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Yanow, Sophie. (2014). War of Streets and Houses. Minneapolis, MN: Uncivilized Books.

That Which Rolls: Bicycles and the Future

“If I am asked to explain why I learned the bicycle,” writes Frances E. Willard in her 1895 book How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, “I should say I did it as an act of grace, if not of actual religion” (p. 73). I grew up riding bicycles, so I often take the fun and freedom they afford for granted. Having seen several adults squeal with childlike glee after riding a bike for the first time in years or the first time ever, I am reminded of my own love for what Alfred Jarry called “that which rolls.” Willard continues,

The cardinal doctrine laid down by my physician was, ‘Live out of doors and take congenial exercise;’ but from the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys (p. 73-74).

Willard was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until the age of 53. Like most of the things she tackled in her life (e.g., women’s suffrage, politics, education, etc.), she took it as a challenge. As she so boldly puts it, “She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Bikes can empower the weakest of spirit and liberate the most muddled of minds.

BikenomicsIn Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (Microcosm, 2013), Elly Blue argues that they can also fix the recession. Starting with the myth that cyclists don’t pay for roads and motorists do. Car drivers pay for about half of the paved infrastructure in the U.S. The other half comes from everyone, regardless of our choice of vehicle. Blue lives and rides in “bike friendly” Portland, Oregon, where its growing citizenry is able to pay higher rents because they don’t have to own or drive cars. I lived in Portland for a year myself, and it’s a great town to ride in. Out of the cities I’ve lived in since getting rid of my last car in 1998 (e.g., Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, Flagstaff, AZ, Athens, GA, Austin, TX, Chicago, IL), it’s easily one of the most comfortable. That makes a big difference.

A quick aside: I used scare quotes around the term “bike friendly” above because it’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around during urban mayoral elections and the like by people who don’t ride bikes. I hear it regularly here in Chicago. The friendliness of your city to bicycles is not about how many miles of bike lane your roads contain. It’s about how  your city’s cyclists are treated while on those roads. With that said, Portland is way ahead of most cities in this respect.

Blue concludes Bikenomics with a re-envisioning of the future as seen through increasing trends in bicycle use. From global warming and access during power outages to general health and safety, she makes a strong case for the bicycle as the best choice for getting around. As David Byrne (2009) puts it in his Bicycle Diaries, “Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore” (p. 40). Here’s hoping that sentiment continues to spread.

The Bike DeconstructedIf you’re looking for a close-up view of the machine itself, Richard Hallett’s The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) breaks it down to the last bolt and bracket. As the former editor of, Hallett knows his shifters. I’m learning and will continue to learn from Hallett’s thorough guide being relatively new to anything outside of a BMX set-up. As Isabel Marks (1901) once put it, “to the ardent cyclist no side of the sport is devoid of interest…” (p. 5). If you need to know more about the mechanical minutia of your rig or just love to geek out on gears and gadgets, this book is perfect for both.

As the sticker goes, cars run on money and make us fat; bikes run on fat and save us money. Exercise is essential, and our technologies tend to sway us away from getting enough. “The bicycle…” Frances E. Willard concludes, “will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home” (p. 74). Everything is better with bicycles.


Blue, Elly. (2013). Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. Portland, OR: Microcosm.

Brotchie, Alastair (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Hallett, Richard. (2014). The Bike Deconstructed: A Grand Tour of the Modern Bicycle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling. Oxford, UK: Old House Books.

Willard, Frances, E. (1895/1991). How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing.

These Books Were Made for Walking

For what might seem a most mundane human activity, walking has quite a body of literature. Even being such a normal, everyday act, it’s a theme that never wears out. As Karen O’Rourke (2013) puts it, “…contemporary artists have returned time and again to the walking motif, discovering that, no matter how many times it has been done, it is never done” (p. xvii). Are they making too much of putting one foot in front of the other, or is walking always already much more than that?

You’re walking
and you don’t always realize it
but you’re always
With each step,
you fall
and then
catch yourself
from falling.
you’re falling
and then you catch yourself from
And this is how you can be walking
and falling
at the same time.
— Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling”

The Art of WalkingIn The Art of Walking: A Field Guide (Black Dog, 2013) edited by David Evans, artists are shown contextualizing and recontextualizing the act of walking, sometimes by taking it outside its everyday context, sometimes by drastically changing that context. Evans’ colorful book covers Jan Estep’s Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth Heritage (homage to the inventor of the modern walk), Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, beautiful marches, weird shoes, paint drippings, mobile shelters, high wires, GPS units, various maps, and even walking dogs. It’s part art book, part documentation, and part field guide to the possibilities of both.

What makes a collection like this work is great photographs, and The Art of Walking is full of them. Nearly 200 photos of walks and works illustrate the wide-ranging art of the bipedal and peripatetic. It’s a worthy addition to the growing literature on walking as an artistic and political practice.

In her own history of walking, Rebecca Solnit (2000) writes,  “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). She continues,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination (p. 250).

Walking and MappingIn Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (MIT Press, 2013), Karen O’Rourke explores not only the relationship between walking, body, world, and art but also walking and design. Using protocol as a trope through which to illuminate the differences between top-down planning and bottom-up development, O’Rourke breaks new ground between them. For example, paved sidewalks are predictions, attempts at restricting the walks of the future (top-down). Trails are of the past, worn by many previous walks (bottom-up). Maps are metaphors and often represent a bit of both, as well as the relationship(s) between body and world.

Making the workaday weird is one of the central challenges of art. Walking can be artistic, political, practical, or just a last resort for getting from one point to another. No matter our intentions, we walk this way to make our world and to make our way in it.


Anderson, Laurie. (1982). Walking and Falling. On Big Science [LP]. New York: Warner Bros.

Evans, David. (2013). The Art of Walking: A Field Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing.

O’Rourke, Karen. (2013). Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2000). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin.

Swarm Cities: The Future of Human Hives

The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.

"Ephemicropolis" by Peter Root
“Ephemicropolis” by Peter Root

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Great American CityAccording to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.

Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.

There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls

Out of the MountainsLynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces

These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.


Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.

Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.

Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.

Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.

Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.

Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.


Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.

Ambient Networks: You Are Here

“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:

Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).

City Wall, Helsinki, 2007
“City Wall,” Helsinki Institute for Information Tenchnology, 2007.

Ambient Commons

“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?

Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3
Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3

McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.

An Aesthesia of NetworksFraming some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.

“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.


Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.


Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.


Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:




Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.

Dead Cities by Mike Davis

The ground on which you walk is the tongue with which I talk — Saul Williams

Mike Davis gives voice to just what the hell we’ve done to our environment, what’s transpiring in the gaps in our relationships with each other, and what goes on underneath the deep and wide footprint of our rampant urban development. Dead Cities (The New Press) is a postmortem excavation of our postmodern urbanscape, a conjugation of all the verbs at work in the human condition. Continue reading “Dead Cities by Mike Davis”