From Network Society to Net Locality

In a research report titled “The Mobile Communication Society”, Castells, et al (2004) suggested that there is an ongoing shift from already-decentralised, stand-alone computers towards entirely pervasive computing. Writers and researchers like Adam Greenfield (Greenfield, 2006) and Rob van Kranenburg (van Kranenburg, 2008) discuss ubiquity of computers in our environment through different social and technical perspectives.

In “The Rise of the Network Society”, Castells introduced the concept of ‘space of flows’ which is not a placeless space, because “it does have a territorial configuration related to the nodes of the communication networks.” (Castells, 1996). It lingers on the idea of time-space compression discussed in the context of globalisation by theorists such as Paul Virilio (Virilio, 1997, 2000). However, it deflects from its negation of space in the sense that it recognizes the ultimate importance of location and spatiality within the network. Edward Soja describes the term ‘spatiality’ in a footnote in Postmodern Geographies (Soja, 1989) as a “formative structure created by society” with an “inherently social quality”. Soja argues for importance of spatiality, pertaining to Lefebvre’s views of space as his primary interpretive viewpoint. Soja recognized an increased spatial consciousness – the ‘spatial turn’ in the form of significant reinsertion of space in the humanities and social sciences or the ‘turn’ of academia’s attention to space.

What is common to spatial thought from Lefebvre, Soja and Castells to recent books like Net Localities and Code/Space, is the idea that space is the effect of some form of social interaction. Soja’s view of space as “a social product – that (it) arises from purposeful social practice” (Soja, 1989, p.80) is confirmed in Castells’s writing: “Space is the expression of society” (Castells, 1996, p.376). In Digital Ground, McCullough (2004) recognises a new character of information technology, which “has become ambient social infrastructure”, while Kitchin and Dodge discuss how “social is inherently temporal and spatial” in Code/Space (2011, p.65). Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva refer back to Lefebvre’s view of space as inherently social (Lefebvre, 1991), to conclude that “reconfiguring spaces means reframing the social interactions within them.” (Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011, p.79)

It might be true that “wireless communication homogenizes space” (Castells et al., 2004, p.236) because of the way it connects people independent from their location. Or it might be just difficult to break with the seductive idea embraced by the theorists in the 1990s who argued that space becomes equal to place, places being condensed with connectivity. However, already in 1996 Castells recognised that in a process that “connects advanced services and provider centers… territories surrounding these nodes play an increasingly subordinate function, sometimes becoming irrelevant or even dysfunctional” (1996, p.380). More recently, Castells wrote more on the structure and meaning of the space of flows, which he finds to be “not related to any place but to the relationships constructed in and around the network processing the specific flows of communication.” (2004, p.232) This problem is discussed in detail in the book Splintering Urbanism through a broad range of examples of uneven development of infrastructures making “physically close spaces … relationally severed” (Graham and Marvin, 2001, p.15). Because the physical network infrastructure is not evenly distributed, network also does not distribute evenly throughout the world. Fibre-optic cables are laid along the London’s financial district and Wall Street to avoid any possible delay in the execution of trading algorithms; at the same time, in many African and some South American countries, dial-up modem speeds are still a standard.

So far I have examined the 1990’s theory of the network shift, the increased connectedness of individuals and the organizations throughout the world. We were talking in fact about cable-facilitated networks. What, if anything, changes with the introduction of wireless?

Mackenzie writes “Wi-Fi connections, intermittent, unstable, and uneven as they often are, act as a kind of patch or infill at the edges and gaps in telecommunications and network infrastructures” (2010, p.4). In his research into the Wi-Fi infrastructure coverage in Salt Lake City, Utah, US; Paul M. Torrens (2008) concluded that decentralised Wi-Fi coverage is cheaper to install and less demanding in maintenance than a centralised cable infrastructure would be. However, according to Mackenzie (2010), the city-provided wireless Internet access in cities like Taipei (Taiwan) and London (UK), failed to take on a significant role in user connectivity. Apparently, there is a preference amongst users to access the Internet through their own secure networks, occupying public space with wireless signals protected with passwords. On the other hand, Internet providers support this individualisation trend, as they can easier determine the conditions and costs of their services. This trend will play a role in further development of wireless Internet access. We are now experiencing a competition between UMTS and WiFi technologies in providing ubiquitous, broadband data services. However, WiFi and UMTS can be also found to complement each other (Lehr and McKnight, 2003).

The authors of Net Locality are looking at changes in the use of space that came with the increasing use of networked location-aware devices. The authors claim that “Net locality has transformed immersion from a function of large screens and virtual reality to a function of small screens and the representation of located information networks.” (Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011, p.72). Social Networks turned out to be more immersive than virtual environments. Ava Fatah gen. Schieck recognises the emergence of interaction spaces between urban environment and pervasive computing systems which “are not limited to architectural spaces but also include spaces that are created by the mobile artefacts.” (Fatah, Penn and Neill, 2008).

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