1.3 Heterotopias, Drifting and other Social Products

It is important to stress that considering the extension of our models of space is not the sole reserve of scientists. There are several noteworthy cultural theorists from the arts and philosophy whose writings augment our understanding of actual and virtual space.

[Please refer to my Bibliography for the sources of quotes.]

In the 20th Century, several theorists have enabled us to move beyond our Cartesian-bias in to a deeper understanding of space and ‘our view of the world’. Post-Cartesian space is a model in flux that is supported by Foucault’s heterotopias, the social sensitivities of Lefebvre and the dérive of the Situationist International (SI) – particularly Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. Although most of these ideas were conceptualised before the advent of computers and the Internet – let alone mobile phones – they bring philosophical and social insight into the exploration of our new hybrid spaces.

The global exploration of the last century highlighted many similarities, as well as many differences, between the various cultures that populate our planet. As Foucault points out, an interesting commonality is that:

There are…probably in every culture… real places – places that don’t exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which … all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. (1967: 2)

Such counter sites are completely different from all of the actual sites they encompass and reflect. They are in complete contrast to the modern concept of one common vision of a perfect form, utopia, held by many to the extent that Foucault termed them ‘Heterotopias’, many visions of a common place juxtaposing and coming together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Thus it can be said that our common hybrid spaces are a perfect realisation of heterotopias created through modern technology. Just as in cellspace and augmented space, Foucault asserts that the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place, several spaces that are in themselves incompatible. He gives the example of the theatre as, over the course of a production, the stage is transformed in to consecutive places that are foreign to one another. This is not unlike maintaining multiple conversations between cellspace and actual space. Palen et al. (2001) highlight the theories of Erving Goffman explaining that people subconsciously assume different ‘faces’ and that the interleaving of multiple activities necessitates assuming multiple public faces. There can be conflicts between the different faces assumed for the remote and local activities. This is central to what those who dislike public mobile telephone use find disturbing or even offensive.

With the continued explosion of urban living across the planet most people’s view of the world and their understanding of space rests firmly in the man-made: the city. For some, the reality of such living, the imposition of a common model of space from above, was unacceptable. Methods and strategies were formed to reinterpret common space. One such practice is the dérive – literally ‘drifting’ – “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” (Debord, 1958: 1) Dérives, or drifts, “…were radical rereadings of the city… They linked the city’s ‘chunks’ in new ways, creating a subcultural knowledge versed as much in radicalism and literature as in the distillations of guidebooks and geography.” (Sadler, 1998: 99) Therefore, drifting affords participants a completely new view of the spaces they inhabit, often shared, arguably resulting in a heterotopic view of space. The similarities between dérives and modern practices spawned by mobile phone usage become apparent. Just as “…from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into and exit from certain zones.” (Debord, 1958: 1) mobile phone users follow currents of data flow and signal strength. Like dérive participants, the inhabitants of cellspace increasingly allow mood and circumstance to dictate their actions. Whereas with fixed point telephone access meetings are pre-arranged, with a set time and place, mobile phone users allow meetings to evolve. Vague times and places may be suggested and details are established and agreed in transit, thus the practice of approximeeting has emerged.

We see then, that models of space are inextricably intertwined with social activity, as Lefebvre notes, “at once the medium and the outcome of social being… simultaneously mental and material, work and product – such that social relations have no real existence except in and through space.” (Borden et al. 2001: 6) Our emerging hybrid spaces are also therefore social products, as can be seen in the emergence of cellspace. All of our hybrid spaces in the future will fundamentally rely on this relationship. Unlike the very individual experiences of early virtual reality, augmented space is social space and therefore social strategies for interaction and navigation, explored in chapter 2, will become as important in our new hybrid spaces as they are in actuality.

Posted by Sam at February 28, 2004 03:04 PM

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