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Information, Communication and the City

September 2, 2010

According to Luis Buñuel information was going to be among the 4 riders of the Apocalypse that would come to destroy our civilisation. This is something to think about when starting a blog. Am I giving a contribution to the end of the world or what am I writing for?  To share my thoughts and make them clearer? To disseminate ideas and projects I like? I am contributing to build a political platform? Would I like to build a community of people with same interests and goals?

In the meanwhile it is worthwhile trying to clarify some concepts fundamental for such an undertaken, such as information and communication, particularly in respect to the city.

Internet has given birth to many ways of (producing and consuming) information that can be seen under different perspectives. It has increased the number of information sources, made them more accessible and more independent. On the other hand the overwhelming information is dramatically reducing the possibility to react to all the challenges it offers, raising the bar of indifference, wasting time for individual reflection and interpersonal communication. All this  affects the city.

The relationship between communication and the city was the subject of an international symposium at the Town Planning Institute of the Stuttgart University in autumn 1998. The essays were collected in the book “Stadt and Kommunikation im Digitalen Zeitalter” edited by Bott, Hubig, Pesch and Schröder (© 2000, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt aM). The contributions to this conference are very technical and specific (Kulturwissenschaftlich speaking) so that the 18 essays printed in the 300 pages are rather hard to read and unlikely to be reported in a blog, but there are some very basic points that I like to recall.

Communication is an exchange of messages between two or more subjects, whereby the action of sending or receiving a message brings an actual modification in the conscience of them (Bott). To this extent communication has always needed the presence of two or more subjects in the same place. Traditional media such as books, newspapers, cinema, radio and television have created a broader offer of information or “one-way communication”, but they have not radically changed the way of communicating between people. They surely have stimulated a change in the mind of the “public”, but the latter was never in the position to respond and provoke the same effect in the opposite direction.

The philosopher Helmut Böhme asks to question: “Konstituirt Kommunikation Stadt?” The city is the place where many people live and work next to each other so that, among various other advantages (and disadvantages), they enjoy much more opportunities to communicate: meeting at the market place, in the church, along the street etc. In a time when communication seems not anymore to need being in the same place (wherever you are you can make me change my mind with a comment to this post) the question is: “Does Communication Constitute the City?” If the place does not make any difference anymore, is it all only about time? Will the city of the future be the place of “density of time” instead of “density of space”?

According to its original meaning communication is the establishment of a relationship that allows the flow of meanings between two or more subjects. In old rethoric it meant the way to address people in order to receive an answer that is proper to the question, in other words the pre-condition of a fruitful dialogue.

Communication is independent from content, it relates to identity, education and cultural background that, to a certain extent, have to be common to the sender and the receiver. First and foremost it is a social and cultural matter, not a technical one. Cities have historically made possible a great deal of communication because they have been able to integrate a variety of points of view that otherwise wouldn’t have had the possibility or the need to get in touch. The most important place where diversities have met and shared views is their respective “agora”, where the cities have worked out the set of rules to regulate living together. To this extent – this is Böhme’s conclusion –  communication constitutes the city in reacting to manifold political visions, as a result of the struggle for rights, for power and for control of land use.

What is going to happen now that the technical platforms for communication are radically changing and it seems that physical density is not necessary anymore to agree the rules for living together? How is digital communication (or information exchange) going to affect our cities and build new ones?

According to Böhme telephone is the only traditional media that has changed the way we communicate in a substantial way. It is the first means of tele-communication, having separated the subjects of a conversation, but the effects of this tools seems not to have changed radically our civilisation and its main footprint: the city. Who would say that a phone call (or a conference call) is the same as a “face to face” conversation (or a round table discussion)? Nevertheless phone calls has affected the way we communicate more than any other media and it may not be by coincidence that new media are converging with telephones much faster that they do with books, newspapers, radio, cinema or television.

Telephone have built the most efficient telecommunication networks before the World Wide Web, they have been defined the prototype of the urban space produced by the new media: “Networks effectively have the opposite effect to concentration in cities in that they help to overcome distance constraints by minimising time constraints (…) [they] annihilate space with time” (E. Negrier, 1990) If the development of the city would follow the development of communication one could argue that instead of streets and buildings the new urban fabric would be made of bytes and cables, software and hardware. Common sense and research show that this is not the case.

Böhme and other researchers share the point of view that urban space is not going to be destroyed and replaced by an electronic new kind of city, but that the city in its single elements is going to be affected by the new media in a manifold and subtle way, away from radical visions into the complexity of post-modernity. This “amalgam” between the city and the new media is an interesting field of research. The new city “whereby the fixed and tangible aspect of familiar urban life interact continuously with the electronic and the intangible”; “thus, a car, rail, plane or busjourney, and the physical flows of water, commodities, manufactured goods and energy are supported by a parallel electronic net-world” (Schuler, 1992).

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