Five threads in my head combine into this post:

  • Conversations during BlogWalk 2.0 in Nuremberg (amongst others with Siegried Hirsch)
  • A visit by Flemming Funch who moved to Toulouse in France from the US, working from home for clients a continent away.
  • The networks we bloggers are forming (as will be discussed in depth at BlogWalk 3.0 in a few days)
  • An e-mail from a former co-student telling me he has moved from urban California to rural Normandy while still working for the same Californian employer.
  • Reading Emergence by Steven Johnson, a gift of Jon Husband.
    On the role of Cities
    Cities are concentrations of people first, and because of that concentrations of relationships, networks, goods, production facilities, commodities, capital, ideas, novelties, news, information, knowledge, cultural activities, well the list goes on. For as long as there have been cities there has been a pull on people to move there, and by now more people live in cities than in the countryside that produces their food.
    In cities you are more likely to come across people who can help you realize a novel idea, more generators of ideas, and more who can finance your innovative endeavours. In terms of aspects of Emergence (Johnson, 2002) this connects to more and longer traces, more is different, and the ability to watch more neighbours than in a rural village. Cities are hubs in information and knowledge flows, as well as the cradle of emergence. Johson goes as far as stating that cities could be seen as a superorganism, with us as it’s unaware cells. Much like the aggregation of slime mold cells into one entity.
    On our use of Cyberspace
    Most of us cybersavvy people out here in the blogosphere, used to navigating the enormous amounts of information that are available to us, are citydwellers as well. However I also see people removing themselves from that picture somewhat. Flemming moved to France, not to rural France to be sure (Toulouse can hardly be called a quaint little village), but he did remove him and his family from their US life, while keeping up his economic connection to his previous place of living. My former co-student really lives out in the countryside. Celtic menhirs are more numerous where he now lives than neighbours. He still works for a California based firm however. They have not withdrawn themselves from the city-life they were leading before. Their on-line interactions, and their connectivity enables them to continue the best of their former lifestyle with the best the rural areas have to offer. Preventing peace and quiet turning into boredom and apathy.
    I myself look for ideas, co-thinkers, sounding boards and conversational partners in the blogosphere. I talk to Martin Roell for instance on an almost day to day basis, while I don’t really know who my nextdoor neighbour is. And the conversations Martin and I have are way more important to me than I can imagine having with the guy next door. So I too, am having part of my communication needs fulfilled on-line in stead of by the city I live in, and where I would traditionally have looked for it. If we can move aspects of citylive on-line, what would it take to move all of what we look for in cities into cyberspace?
    On building a CyberCity
    Ever since Cyberspace started 36 years ago in 1968 when military and scientific pioneers put up the first structures of a Cyberhicktown called Arpanet by connecting their computers, the number of inhabitants has increased steadily. I made my first travels there in 1988, and permanently took up residence in 1991 or so, before Tim Berners Lee turned the net into Boomtown by giving us the navigable web. Meanwhile I feel a growing need to be permanently connected. My always on DSL connection is no longer enough. It doesn’t help me on the road, nor in other places than my own house. WiFi and the interplay between my laptop and my cellphone isn’t quite as good yet as I would wish for. Also the seemless switching from one medium in the mix at my disposal to another is of growing importance.
    This all has to do with facilitating me as a knowledge worker, with giving me presence. It is the combination of the two things Dave Pollard marks as the most important trends in Knowledge Management: connectivity and personal knowledge management. I have a feeling that that is exactly what I have to perfect myself in, to be able to become a full citizen of a Cybercity.
    What elements do we need to make a City in Cyberspace? In Small Pieces Loosely Joined (Weinberger, 2002) David Weinberger lists how different concepts work out on the web, and we can find parallels for that in cities. (Those concepts were, place, time, perfection, togetherness, knowledge, matter and hope) Most obviously for place, perfection, and togetherness.
    Johnson in Emergence adds to that what is for the most part still missing, mainly feedback. What would help is two-way links (nearness is based on links, links are based on interest), which would make the end point of a current link as near to the originating site as the target site is now viewed from the source-site.
    The connection to our physical reality will of course always be important. The need for direct human contact, for tangible surroundings is an important part of our lives. It’s no wonder that bloggers are arranging f2f meetings at any given opportunity. The intertwining of both our on-line and physical spheres of living is made possible by the asynchronicity built into the Internet (Weinberger, 2002)
    What is missing in the current Cyberspace, to be able to turn it into ‘real’ city-life? The red light district is well established, now even with tools that turn manipulations of another person into physical sensations by letting these tools be remotely controlled through your internet connection. Coffeehouses for conversation (portals, fora), libraries, livingrooms/frontporches (blogs), neighbourhoods emerge (blognetworks), and work shops (wiki’s) are there as well, as are of course the shops and the auction houses. There are tribes and nations of people living alongside eachother, not necessarily mingling. Crime is there, scam artists, Nigerian and otherwise.
    But how many of us go to the theater on-line? I watch tv shows on-line, when available from public broadcasting websites here in the Netherlands, and the BBC. On-line stand up comedians? Fishmarkets? Harbours? Monuments? Old and new architecture? Heroes, villains?
    In general there is an enormous amount of information coming at you, just like when you first enter a larg city, the noise, the choice can be overwhelming. (dealing with informationoverload as learning to live in a new busy city?) The biggest problem is probably do we see the net as a whole or as a myriad of largely unrelated fragments. Most internet users experience fragments, or a vast sea of information to be consumed.
    Not nearly enough of us yet are there to shape the net to our own insights, as something to be produced. How many private persons run their own servers from home, how many of us are publishing stuff regularly on the net, thus creating ‘places’ of their own in the city they are in? We do it in our towns, decorating the front door, tending the garden, putting out the garbage for the cats to plunder.
    On shaping our City
    We shape our city as much as it shapes us. Until the the net is a two-way thing for most of it’s users, it will be like an empty city however, where loads of tourists come everyday to look around, shipped from sight/site to sight/site without knowing how one relates to the other, but nobody breathes life into it, with no real inhabitants that both create and feel it’s pulse. That is what the current state of the web is mostly like.
    Planning of cities doesn’t work very well, even if we try, but what micro actions can we take, in order to try and work towards this Cybercity where you and I could dwell in, travelling around the physical world for f2f meetings, withdrawing to a well connected village in between, doing our work on-line from wherever we are? Maybe we can draw on the ideas of emergence to answer that, in the light of Weinbergers characterization of the net?
    I have some inkling of what those micro-actions might be, but will save it for a next post, as this one is already pretty long. Your thoughts of course are welcome.
    [Addendum: A city is not a tree, interesting article]

  • 12 reactions on “Founding a City in Cyberspace

    1. Hey Ton,
      I like Your ideas on the Cyberspace/City-comparison. Just some non-systematic notes:
      – “I talk to Martin Roell for instance on an almost day to day basis, while I don’t really know who my nextdoor neighbour is. And the conversations Martin and I have are way more important to me than I can imagine having with the guy next door.” – Well, there’s something actually not so different between cities and Cyberspace: In cities you don’t talk to guys next door either. One of the defining features of the city (at least from a sociological point of view) is exactly this anonymity and heterogeneity that puts it apart from rural communities (where everybody knows their neighbours). “Spatial nearness” doesn’t imply “social nearnesse” in the city – instead, you connect to people because you have topics, or roles, or other specified relations in common.
      – Although I like to compare urban life with Cyberlife, this analogy sure has its limits. The city has materiality, there are social phenomena not based on discourse/commmunication (like Martin Roell getting mugged in Lisbon). So we can find analogies or similarities (like the “red light district”), but in the end there is a lot that sets urban and online interactions apart. I guess it comes down to different gratification sought from communicating online vs. interacting face-to-face.

    2. Hi Jan,
      Yes, you’re right, but three remarks on that.
      Maybe the guy next door was the wrong choice, I think I’m looking more for the neighbourhood effect, which basically are village-like entities in cities. The special part however is that I can feel Martin Roell is in my neighbourhood because even though he lives a days driving away: it’s about relatively low cost access to eachother, which places him in the same range as the people I chat to when I see them on the market square. The net/cities are expensive places to live, but bumping into Martin on the net is as inexpensive as walking the sidewalks of a city.
      But third, more important, I’m not after a complete metaphor for the internet. What interests me is what city-aspects are yet missing from the net, that would make the net a effective or even improved replacement for city-life in terms of access to ideas / creativity / bringing ideas to action, for emergence in short. So that as a professional I’m not dependant on the city I am physically in, but can take the city with me so to speak, where ever I go. Feedback loops, two-way links, and more ‘citizens’ who produce net-content, not only consume it, are what is most prominently missing, is my guess.
      Manual trackbacking:
      Also see:

    3. Knowing your neighbours

      Ton posted some interesting thoughts recently on Cybercities. I, on the other hand know all my neighbours as I am very keen to integrate within my local community. I actively arrange to say hello when we first arrive and like

    4. Die Stadt im Cyberspace

      Ton Zijlstra entwickelt eine “Stadt “-Metapher f�r das Internet und weist auf ein wesentliches Problem des Netzes heute hin: Zu viele haben nur passiv rezipierend daran teil, zu wenige sind…

    5. Die Stadt im Cyberspace

      Ton Zijlstra entwickelt eine “Stadt “-Metapher f�r das Internet und weist auf ein wesentliches Problem des Netzes heute hin: Zu viele haben nur passiv rezipierend daran teil, zu wenige sind…

    6. Lovely post, Ton. I’m going to go back and read it carefully, slowly and let it sink in. But in the meantime, a thought ….
      “First, we shape our structures … then, our structures shape us”.
      I think that today (2004) the Web and blogs are like small villages with store fronts and communal hangouts (or as small ecospheres, our personal blog ponds, if you will, where we sit as bullfrogs… blaawg, blaawg .. in chorus with the other blogfrogs).
      Just like London (the example I know the best) in the Roman times was many separate small villages. Over time, with improvements in infrastructure and communications, villages merged into bigger villages and regions – today it is one of the world’s large cities.
      So, too on the Web, i think. With increased capability and ease of use of personal publishing tools, with changes to societal and corporate structures in a wired, interconnected age, with all subsequent generations being digitally aware and interconnected, I think that new aggregations of transparency and knowledge will grow into “conurbations” that have learned how to function effectively in a continuous flow of information and conversation.
      Hierarchical structures and decisions in an interconnected conurbation will function only at the permission (probably because of the necessity for a decision-making structure) of an involved, informed polis of that conurbation – in effect, power will be delegated upward, because any power effected without the upward delegation will be subject to the transparent scrutiny of that polis.
      Emergent, indeed ! Industrial-age structures have shaped much of the behaviour we see today. New information age structures are beginning to have impact on that behaviour, and increasingly will shape our behaviours from here forward into the future. New emerging structures will reinforce this process – or cut it off, if we are not aware and careful.

    7. ABC ABout Cities

      Ton Zylstra baut Analogien um Cities (St�dte) und das Internet auf. Emergence von Steven Johnson, ein Buch das wir beide gelesen hatten, brachte uns zu dem Vergleich zwischen dem Internet

    8. Spikology

      Traffic’s been spiking here lately, thanks to two largely unrelated phenomena: Jenny received the first ever Kairos award for best academic weblog (congrats!), and then made me blush for about three days by saying that she thought I deserved the award….

    9. “A City is not a tree” … what a great article ! Thanks for finding and linking it, Ton
      Semilattices in a virtual, hyperlinked world – not hierarchies. We are all potentially small pieces loosely joined.
      What is it, other than the technical bits, that joins us, and then makes those joints flex and function over time ? That’s what fascinates me – the social and psychological aspects of the consciousness, caring and fundamental recognition of our shared human-ness.
      The interconnectedness of the Web is showing us many interesting – and maybe new – dimensions of our connectedness.

    10. Life between buildings

      A piece from the paper : An individual weblog is not likely to represent a community, while shared social spaces seem to emerge between weblogs, like in a city where life between buildings

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