If the Internet was a block of flats, would you want to move in?

[First published on HackerNoon.com]

We should use architectural language & drawings to help us discuss the politics of digital space.

Benjamin Koslowski’s drawing of the iconic view from the film Rear Window. Whose apartment does your Facebook feed overlook? 

Among many other examples, the ‘fake news’ outcry demonstrated how little we know about how other people experience the web, a problem I think is exacerbated by how hard it is to talk about our digital experiences. Privacy is a key concern obviously, but publicity is too — for example, who decides which stories are promoted on Facebook?

This post is a response to Benjamin Koslowski’s book chapter The Mediating City, a contribution to a book called Filming The City. Benjamin and I are both doing PhD research on a program that concerns itself with ‘Digital Public Space’. Benjamin researches notions of privacy and architectural representation, drawing comparisons between architecture and the built environment on the one hand, and digital experiences and social media on the other.

Casting around the web I found some enjoyably surreal attempts to attribute physical properties to the Internet: it uses 10% of the world’s electricity to power something the size of an oil tanker that weighs the same as a strawberry. Any clearer? No matter how many times we see maps showing the geographical routing of the undersea cables that power the Internet, we are no closer to articulating our online experiences.

From the Big Bang Data exhibition: explaining the Internet by telling you where the wires go — interesting, but perhaps also missing the point? (Credit) 

For these reasons we are tempted to call the Internet a ‘virtual’ world, and contrast it with the real world. But we gain no understanding by dividing our cosmos into real and virtual. The ‘virtual’ world has no countries, cities or towns, we are faced with terra incognita just as intractable as it was before we designated it ‘virtual’.

Timo Arnall’s silent, spooky video portrait of a data centre, also from the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It’s beautiful, but ultimately it’s just a very clean warehouse full of computers. (Credit) 

So while we have a surfeit of research into the psychological effects of the Internet, we struggle to discriminate between the variety of psychological situations we experience through it. Perhaps that’s why claims about the Internet’s impact on our well being sometimes seem so crass when they appear in the press, our vocabulary often fails to distinguish between sexting and writing a Wikipedia article.

The city, and the buildings within it, are also a technology — but one that’s been around so long that we’ve got a wide lexicon to describe it. We have the visual language of the architectural drawing to represent it. The psychological notions of privacy and performance, which we use so naturally, are both profoundly connected with the architectural spaces they take place in. Encounter any space and it immediately affords an intuitive sense of how observed you are, how permissive the environment, of how safe you are. Both instinctively and academically, architecture is a well explored domain.

Benjamin’s work might be for a largely academic audience, and clearly there is plenty of appetite for theoretical work on our increasingly digital lives. But perhaps vocabulary developed from this approach also has the potential to escape the institution and add to public discussion of the web, exactly because of our instinctive understanding of physical space.

Benjamin uses architectural discussion of film as a bridge to architectural discussion of on line experiences, where films serve as exemplars of the way cultural constructions can manipulate perspectives. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a particularly clear case of a film riffing on an urban space, with the plot utterly reliant on the physical features of the courtyard in which it unfolds. The film can only be understood using our intuitive, and vicarious, sense of what the characters can see to understand their behaviour.

Benjamin’s drawing of the Dogville set 

Lars Von Trier’s Dogville is another example. The film is set in a small town, but the scenery is deliberately incomplete, mostly only markings on the floor. As a result, in the background of scenes which are ostensibly indoors we can see through the walls to the inhabitants of the town going about their business. Unlike Rear Window, we are expected to understand that the characters in the film have different sight lines than our own — they proceed as if they cannot see through the ‘walls’. The film plays with our normal expectations of cinematic backdrops.

Lars Von Trier says of the film “We are establishing an agreement with the audience under which these circumstances are accepted. If that agreement is clear enough then I don’t think there are any boundaries to what you can do.”

The promise was that we’d be able to ‘cash out’ this theoretical apparatus by applying it to social media. The Von Trier quote for me raises the question of whether an agreement has properly been established with the audience of Facebook or Twitter, only the more so because in these cases everyone is both a member of the audience and a performer. Certainly Facebook’s algorithmic choices manipulate your perspective with just as much artifice as a Hitchcock film, as their experiments on our emotions have demonstrated. Benjamin suggests that social media is dominated by ‘uniform and inherently non-perspectivial mechanisms of display’ such as timelines, designed to hide these design choices.

This could be a malicious conspiracy on the part of Silicon Valley to keep users docile and complicit, confusing us into submission, denying us knowledge of how visible we are. Perhaps that’s why they are so keen for us to conceptualise the Internet using the least tangible physical analogy — ‘The Cloud’.

I suspect, rather than conspiracy, it’s simply a limitation of what can be shown on a screen, especially the diminutive smart phone screen. Twitter sends me alerts telling me how many people have seen my tweets, desperate to reassure me an audience exists, even if I have no sense of it. Facebook allows you to view your profile as though you were another user, an attempt to allay the anxiety-inducing complexity of the privacy settings.

If we imagine an interface where we could sense the audience watching us, perhaps a projection where we could see the faces of our potential audience looking back at us as we tap out a tweet, we can immediately see that the visual space required to communicate the information would have to be very large — perhaps a specialised room. This hints at idea that intuitive social understandings happen at architectural, not screen, scale.

StoryMap, a project that I collaborated on with Benjamin, exploring the spatial and the digital. StoryMap combined social media, mapping, projection and typewriters to elicit local stories. 

This idea of importing specifically architectural conceptions of space gives us a way to structure some other common thoughts about the web. You can understand the ‘filter bubble’ as an attempt to find a vantage point where you mostly can’t see people you disagree with. Of course it will be unsuccessful, occasionally an unsightly Daily Mail carbuncle will spoil your view. Just as you can’t put your finger on why you like a particular neighbourhood, you can alight on such sanitised vantage point without knowing that you’ve chosen it.

If we are worried that Facebook friends are not real friends, that’s because they do not intrinsically stand in any social relation to us, instead we can think of them simply as other Facebook users to whom we grant some regulated level of visibility. YouTube comments are the unwatched streets of a town in the terminal stages of broken windows syndrome where any level of antisocial behaviour has become normalised. Why the dick pic? Because selectively exposing your erection is what primates do. (Or maybe the analogy’s range of applications can be taken too far…)

What’s offered here is an extended and more nuanced version of Lawrence Lessig’s analogy, where he describes website like Facebook by analogy to shopping malls. On Facebook, we feel like we are in a free speech environment, making the political statements we choose. In fact we have no rights on Facebook, all activity is at the whim of Mark Zuckerberg. In the same way, shopping malls feel just like a public space, but any attempt at political dissent will see you see escorted away by private security guards.

Benjamin’s work goes further, to bring social media and the internet more broadly into the purview the well established literature linking architecture, film, psychology and urbanism, and it suggests that various architectural forms — the plan and model — might be well suited to articulating the social relations that the screen-based web does such a poor job of.

If you wanted to build the Internet, would you get planning permission? Who’s light would you block out, and whose bathroom could you see into? Are we living in a socially-minded garden city, or are we in a nightmare of homogenous privacy-defeating high-rise flats that only got built because the developer bribed the planning authorities?

[Thanks to @sarahbhayward and @samgraysonsam for their advice on this article.]