Monday, May 12, 2008

Walter Walks

Among those who study information theory, the concept of the "Wiener Walk" has a particular utility for analyzing seemingly random pathways. Among new media theorists, in contrast, it is often the figure of the flâneur who is the reference point for theoretical reflections about meandering, particularly when writers acknowledge their intellectual debts to Walter Benjamin and to Charles Baudelaire before him. This roving figure appears in texts that includes Ian Bogost's Unit Operations and Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media. The flâneur even crosses paths at one point with the book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, which I heard about in the equally mediated albeit face-to-face environs of a religious sermon punctuated by a tap dancing promenade from Steve Zee.

In today's talk by Todd Presner, "HyperCities, Google, and the Digital Dialectic," Presner discussed how the MacArthur Foundation grant-winning Hypercities project functions as an "interactive web-based research platform," but he also described how this group of related projects commented upon two high-traffic commercial sites that he sees as bound together by a "digital dialectic": Google and Google Earth, in considering how their histories of spectatorship may overlap and be contained in one another in affiliated forms of cultural mapping.

As a story in Der Spiegel points out, the Mountain View search software company has created a virtual double of Berlin, which is painstakingly recreated as 3D models, that consists of 44,000 buildings, 550 structures with photo-realistic facades, and five landmark examples of architectural space into which the user can seemingly fly.

Following Manovich and others, Presner argued that this software presents a particular cultural from of navigational space, which is dictated by the conventions of the combat flight simulator. Presner also discussed how the famed "Earthrise" photograph by NASA, with its Apollonic view associated with the detached omniscient eye in a plane that has been severed from the embodiment of a human observer is another important visual trope in Google Earth. Presner claimed that this concept of a sublime reverie can in turn be linked to the German philosophical tradition, in which words like Aufhebung and Erhebung in the Hegelian lexicon specifically call up images of rising above. Of course, this image of the Earth without borders or clouds or night like the proprietary Van Sant GeoSphere can be seen as a scene of disaster triumphant, much like Horkheimer and Adorno's fully enlightened world.

What Presner has created is a kind of "map bigger than the territory," to use Borges' terms, that gives particular attention to the role of railway networks, which he also describes in his book Mobile Modernity: Jews, Germans, Trains. As Heinrich Heine has observed, railroads served as a kind of providential event that killed space and predicted the mortality of time.

Yet, as Presner noted, although many of the maps in the Hypercities collection represent a topography of architectural monuments and railway stations, the project's sensibilities are also influenced by the vignettes that Walter Benjamin presents from his walks through the city and other kinds of diagrams that show social and economic structures, fleeting somatic experiences, and memories. One of the uses for the site's mark-up functions would therefore be to annotate these maps with other kinds of more personal landmarks that might suggest other networks and systems in play, not merely the functional yet absent electricity grids or sewers but also real and fictional spaces of encounter. In other words, in Habermassian terms that Presner didn't use, a hypercity could attempt to depict lifeworld as well as system.

Presner even allows for the mapping software to present counterfactual histories. What if we put in the Berlin Wall in 1772? He argued that this “cartographic imaginary” of annotation, remixing, and play also continues the Situationist project of remapping of European cities. As such, he acknowledged his own "weakly messianic practice" of remapping places of "erasure and oblivion," such as a Jewish graveyard that had long been removed from the map of the city.

By using Google tools, he said he hopes to denaturalize common operations such as "panning and zooming" and to encourage users of the site to think critically about spectatorship, epistemologies, and ideologies of new media, so that we can "examine their intentions and investments."

He is also piloting a Hypercities map of Los Angeles in collaboration with historians of the Filipino communities in the city. Like his virtual Berlin, he hopes to foster a "proliferation of authorship" that will allow users to incorporate even seemingly asocial forms of urban subversion, such as posting what could be considered graffiti or pornography, in addition to the project's suggested kinds of augmentation, such as community histories or oral histories. In order to do this, he used an architecture that made compromises, because he wanted an open system that could still allow for copyright protected materials to be shown in fair use teaching environments. Thus, he created an elaborate privilege system that is both open and vetted

I've already signed up for a Hypercities account to use with my students in Winter. Presner explained how his own students were assigned to "live" virtually in particular parts of the city and create their own stories of arrival and departures and connections. For example, he showed how one of his twelve groups of students melded fictive and factual elements by creating a Mafia-style family saga.

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