Week 4 – Code/Space

In Wired’s article on The road to tomorrow: streets need to be as smart as the cars driving on them, Luke Dormehl presents the reader with examples of cities smarting up their dumb infrastructures. The ultimate objectives seem to be the usual suspects: reduction of traffic, reduction of cars in the street causing pollution and congestion and increased safety. The articles takes us on a ride though the streets of cities like Copenhagen, Bristol, Boston and the well-known case of Songdo, all working towards the development of smart roads filled with gadgets and sensors to enable smart self-driven cars. The point the article is trying to make (one of them at least, according to the title) is the following: if major cities want their landscapes to resemble the future shown in The Jetsons where the digitization and automation of cars reign supreme, they need to beef up the software ingrained in their infrastructure. What do these relationships mean with regards to the presence of code, its affect on the concept of space (and public space) and the impact on today’s societies?

The future, brought to you by Mercedes Benz

Kitchin and Dodge address the topic of digital cities through a less conventional lens; that of code and the language it uses to create software. Less conventional because code and software are not necessarily the subjects of exciting literature. Code is just not sexy enough to get into the discussion. But it’s about time we shed some light on this silent worker, as software does all the heavy lifting. Through its lines of code and algorithms it orders hardware around, telling it what to do and when to do it. Sometimes in such an automated way that we humans have no interaction whatsoever in the process and no notion of its actual existance. The very notion of public space is affected by code, as Berry points out: “Public space more than often functions as a space between the vir­tual and the real, between labor and leisure, between work and home. In urban public space, the technology that sends us off into virtual worlds and the embodied experience of physical and mental mean­dering all but collide, forming a mise-en-scene that is all montage. (…) The technological and the embodied become just so many reified strips of perception whose arrangement is all but arbi­trary.” (Berry et al., page 7). 

Code is all around us. It is ubiquitous as software is present in our everyday lives, all of the time. It is in our entertainment, our work and our daily operations such as shopping with a credit card. Code creates spaces where we operate and live; it transduces spaces that already exist. “Code/space occurs when software and the spatiality of everyday life become mutually constituted, that is, produced through one another. Here, spatiality is the product of code, and the code exists primarily in order to produce a particular spatiality.” (Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M.,page 16). In this relationship, one cannot exist without the other. The same applies to the smart-coded cars described in Wired and in every other blogpost or article referencing smart cities. These cars, coded infrastructure according to Kitchin and Dodge, are driving on physical streets, also containing software, coming together as coded assemblages that depend on each other to perform. 

The way we move in our cities, the way we understand space is defined by the code that it transduces. However, it is not the software that determines how we as citizens cities should move and function in our cities. It is an actual decision and vision coming from the engineers who programme the code, ultimately from the decision-makers who enable this to happen.

Although software is not sentient and conscious, it can exhibit some of the characteristics of being alive. (...) code can make things do work in the world in an autonomous fashion-that is, it can receive capta and process information, evaluate situations, make decisions, and, most significant, act without human oversight or authorization. (Kitchen and Dodge, page 5)

As Townsend mentions in the Wired article, “Cars didn’t take over the city until cities put rules in place that allowed it. It was a choice that city governments made. That’s one of the things that’s often uninformed about speculation that’s coming out of Silicon Valley now. They think they’re going to solve all the problems the car created by just putting in some software. Its a lot more complicated than that.” (Townsend quoted from  Wired). Software has been referred to as semi-sentient because of its automation capabilities, but this does not go as far as to believe that code is inserting itself in our cities without our human intervention. We might not be aware as inhabitants of a city of how far engrained and present software is around us, but it was purposely put there and that decision has shaped the spaces we inhabit as well as the way we function as a society.




2 thoughts on “Week 4 – Code/Space

  1. The way you explained the purpose of the Wired article got me thinking about my own relationship with technology, and that of others. Regarding your ‘Jetsons’ analogy, I realise I grew up thinking that flying cars (mainly a certain fictional DeLorean) would exist in my lifetime, but would be worried were I ever to be faced with taking a journey in a self-driving car (http://bgr.com/2018/02/27/huawei-mate-10-pro-self-driving-car-mwc-2018-hands-on/ the author of this blog recently faced that fear and didn’t entirely enjoy the experience!). This got me thinking about how Smart and Digital Cities, like Songdo, are struggling to attract residents, while I, for one, still lust over the offers of the often dystopian cities portrayed in science fiction movies. History teaches us the now baffling skepticism surrounding The Wright Brothers as they developed the first planes, while Elon Musk is today’s ‘Mad Genius’, while he tries to take humans to Mars. The sentience of software you discussed is another well-established fear, in both fiction and reality, even though ‘semi-sentient’ technologies like self-driving cars exist. Is it part of human nature, then, to simultaneously desire, but still fear change; long for the far-removed, yet struggle to accept the near, and tangible?

  2. Hi Mercedes, I enjoyed the ‘Smart cars for smart cities’ clip by Mercedes Benz, it looks really cool! I like how the cars automatically stop when pedestrians are waiting to cross, and how the cars self drive to pick up the owner and take them to locations that are interfaced with the car software. 🙂 The illustration presents a slightly scary thought, that the driverless cars will see humans as interfering! I hope it won’t come to that…

    Adding to your thorough description of code by Kitchin and Dodge (2011), my take away was how software is embedded in everyday life, producing coded objects, coded infrastructures, coded processes and coded assemblages; and how all these shape people’s daily interactions and transactions, mediates entertainment, communication and mobilities. Your case study is an excellent example of the coded products. I see the roads as public spaces, and the process of making the streets ‘smart’ a way of bringing together people, space and technology to interact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *