As physical manifestations of culture, beliefs, and social utility, cities and metropolises function as consequential relics of modernity. They are shaped and built deliberately, assembled in the image of their creator(s). Recently, the advent of utilitarian architecture and pragmatic urban design has played a large role in this importance. Cities act as interfaces, transmitting values and norms through the reification of cultural narratives and messages.
Discussion on the interfacial process around cities and urban design must necessarily begin at cultural semiotics and media theory. Recent ideological shifts in semiotic theory have brought the process of reception to the forefront. Stuart Hall’s seminal work, especially the piece “Encoding/Decoding,” captures this shift well.
The introduction of Hall’s chapter is a good cursory introduction to this model of transmission. Hall writes of relational structures and processes in terms of, “a structure produced and sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive moments…a process…sustained through the articulation of connected practices (Hall, pg. 508).” The author also discusses a discursive form that enables, “the circulation of the product…as well as its distribution to different audiences (Hall, pg. 508).” Shortly thereafter Hall delivers one of his big blows. “…the discursive form…has a privileged position in the communication exchange…We must think, then, of the variant articulations in which encoding and decoding can be combined (Hall, pgs. 508 & 515).” The shift theorized communication as a dynamic process in which reception is just as important as, if not more so than reception. Hall’s contributions did much to revise the communication fields, and would later go on to play an important role in the discourse surrounding cities, urban planning, and their respective importance.
The significance of this paradigmatic shift cannot be understated. Hall and his peers signaled a notable progression in communications theory. Previous communications models failed to take into account the complexity of both the communication process and the meaning-making process. Post-shift models from the 1960’s to the 80’s stressed the importance of reception and interpretation. Thinkers like Stuart Hall, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and William Gibson produced works highlighting the symbiotic process of communication and meaning-making.
This process can be broken down exponentially, ad infinitum. Functioning within any semiosphere requires both constant symbol-production and continual meaning-making. Existence necessitates interpretation. While exhausting at times, this continual sense-making process is extremely liberating. It is infinitely combinatorial. It allows for a continually emergent semiosphere. Much like language, the meaning-making process ensures the open ended-ness of the broader communication process.
This open ended nature of the communication process does have some issues and pre-requisites that must be addressed. First, the process relies on an intertwined network of concepts and ideas. This network underlies the semiosphere, and provides the necessary nodes for meaning-making amongst connections and relations. The network runs across intertextual lines, and collapses both time and space. This intertextuality is of note when discussing the semiological importance of cities and urban spaces.
The work of Roland Barthes does well to begin a discussion of intertextuality. Specifically Barthes’ 1971 essay “From Work to Text,” provides a solid background for the concept of intertextuality. In the piece Barthes discusses Texts heavily. The Text is “…radically symbolic: a work conceived, perceived, and received in its integrally symbolic nature…an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural…not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing (Barthes, pg. 158-159).” Elsewhere, “The Text is experience only in an activity of production (Barthes, pg. 157).”
A Barthes-ian reading of the Text is clearly a very active one. There is room to move within the social space of the Text. There’s a dynamism and vibrance to the Textual process. It is analogous to a ballet, or pugilism. Communications Theory in the 1960’s-1980’s brought about a much more nimble frame of thought.
Because this communications model has much more symbiotic interaction than previous models, it quickly becomes clear that the model needs some kind of frame of reference. Connections between nodes require some sort of pre-established system of signification in order to make sense of the continual communication process.
The Cultural Encyclopedia serves this very purpose. Umberto Eco’s piece “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia,” serves as a brief guide. Eco describes the encyclopedia form as, “potentially infinite…[and] of a polydimensional network of properties, in which some properties are interpretants of others (Eco, pg. 261).” Eco defines the communications process as being,
“defined by other terms assumed as interpretants, with the advantage that an encyclopedic representation (even if ideal), based on the principle of unlimited interpretation, is capable of explaining in purely semiotic terms the concept of ‘similarity’ between properties(Eco, pg. 261).” Eco’s notion of the encyclopedia enables not only the interrelations happening in the semiosphere but also the generative nature of the semiosphere.
A distributed cognition model is useful here. According to theorists James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins and David Kirsch, a distributed cognition model, “extends the reach of what is considered cognitive beyond the individual to encompass interactions between people and with resources and materials in the environment…[and] refers to a perspective on all of cognition, rather than a particular kind of cognition (Hollan, Hutchins & Kirsch, pg. 175).” Further on the authors break down distributed cognition into three distinct categories: those distributed across members of a social group, those involving coordination between internal and external (material or environmental) structure, and those that may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events (Hollan, Hutchins & Kirsch, pg. 176).
Theorists like Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsch, and their contemporaries such as Andy Clark, signalled a very important conversion in the discourse. While all of the previous theorists acknowledged the existence of the Text, few notioned towards the physicality of the Communication process in regards to interfaces and the transmission of values. By shifting their frames to include both chronological contexts and material/environmental factors, the aforementioned works place semiological practice and communications models within a complex network of physical space and interfacial theory. While useful as a guide into the contextual complexity of the communication process, the distributed cognition model will come to play a larger role in this project during discussion of interfaces.
Going back though, the cultural encyclopedia and associated semantic complexity is emblematic of the 1960’s-1980’s shift in communications theory. This shift had a supreme importance in theories regarding the meaning-making process and communication. As mentioned above, both processes can be broken down infinitesimally, ad infinitum. The Text itself is a sign, which is comprised of many more signs, which of themselves are comprised of many more signs. It is a progressive model, and one that hinges upon a constant interpretive process between multiple nodes within a complex system.
The open-ended nature of this dynamic, systems-based communication process relies on some kind of mediating body between internal systems and external bodies. Broadly speaking, this is the interface function. The work of Lev Manovich serves as a good introduction to contemporary iterations of interfaces. Though not his most notable work, his piece “New Media from Borges to HTML” serves us well in this instance. Manovich argues, “The greatest interactive work is the interactive…interface itself: the fact that the user can easily change everything which appears on her screen, in the process changing the internal state of a computer, or even commanding reality outside of it (Manovich, pg. 5).” Further on Manovich writes, “…interface comes to act as a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated (Manovich, pg. 7).” Interfaces play an enormous role in the maintenance of social order and conservation of cultural norms.
As the primary mediating bodies within social interactions, interfaces are a necessary aspect of new media. In his book The Language of New Media, Manovich breaks down New Media into a 5-point typology. The typology appears as follows: 1) Numerical Representation 2) Modularity 3) Automation 4) Variability and 5) Transcoding. Though not a strict definition, Manovich’s work does well to introduce the concepts and characteristics of New Media.
So, according to Manovich, New Media is “described formally (mathematically)…and subject to algorithmic manipulation (Manovich, pg. 49),” made up of elements “…assembled into larger-scale objects but [still able] to maintain their separate identity (Manovich, pg. 51),” allow for the automation of operation (Manovich, pg. 53), “not something fixed…but [that] can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions (pg. 56),” and deals with the, “substitution of all constants by variables (Manovich, pg. 63).” As a consequential aspect of New Media, interfaces must be analyzed through each of these lenses.
Through these lenses then, interfaces come to act as a novel form through which all older forms of cultural production are mediated. New Media works mathematically, spatially, mechanically, individually, and in an infinitely combinatorial nature. By specifying both what New Media is and what New Media is not, Manovich has provided us a suitable starting point for the discussion of interfaces. Through a Manovich-ian lens, interfaces are important in that they allow for a dynamic relationship with a text, while also maintaining an efficient operation.
Discussion of interfaces must first address the technical and mechanical aspects of interfaces. Our prior insights into the distributed cognition model are useful here. As mentioned above, the article “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research,” by James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsch does this well. The authors take a distributed cognitive approach to interface analysis. Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch argue that the distributed cognitive approach, “provides an effective theoretical foundation for understanding human-computer interaction and a fertile framework for designing and evaluating digital artifacts (Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsch, pg. 175).” The distributed cognition attempts to understand the organization of cognitive systems.
This model concentrates on the boundaries and processes underpinning interfacial interactions. In doing so, the distributed cognition model addresses not only the complex nodal networks supporting the interface (actors within a complex network), but also the physical embodiment of a techno-social process (the physical aspects of the interface). By integrating these broad frameworks into one methodological approach, this model speaks towards the utility of interdisciplinarity. A useful analysis of interfaces must address the artifact on multiple, disparate levels.
Though their article focuses heavily on technical aspects of any given technology, the distributed cognitive methodology is useful in this project. By stressing an interdisciplinary framework, the distributed cognitive model allows the project to view an interface through multiple lenses. As a result, we can gain a fuller picture of both the implications and consequences of cities as cultural interfaces.
Though a substantial gap, this jump is very important and must be addressed. Popular discourse surrounding interfaces concentrates on technological artifacts, but not necessarily geo-spatial ones. The field seems to be lacking in this area.
This project is useful in that it addresses that deficiency. Through thorough analysis, this project argues that cities act as cultural interfaces. By functioning as physical embodiments of the cultures, values, and norms of geographic areas, cities play a profound interfacial role. They mediate between past beliefs and contemporary physicalities. Additionally, this project argues that cities operate as interfaces within a complex, dynamic acculturation process. As manicured and curated urban spaces, cities work to reify existing socio-political separations. Going further though, the city interface is a space of agency for fringe demographics. Through various generative and combinatorial actions, city-dwellers are able to make an interface their own and use it as a channel for discussion and communication.
This responsive action is not always as militant as it initially sounds though. Even benign activity within the city constitutes some kind of interaction with the interface. This is discussed in Michel de Certeau’s seminal text The Practice of Everyday Life. His 7th chapter “Walking in the City” is especially useful for this project. De Certeau frames cities as emergent, continually evolving spaces. The author claims that “Its (a city’s) present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future (De Certeau, pg. 91).”
As continually emergent bodies, cities thus provide ample space for reconfiguration and, as a result, the enunciation of agency. They then become immensely powerful interfaces. Further on in his chapter, de Certeau claims that walking, “has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian…; it is a spatial acting-out of the place…; and it implies relations among differentiated positions (de Certeau, pgs 97-98).” By encouraging personalization and an intimate user relationship, cities as interfaces provide ample means for user-actualization (De Certeau, pg. 98).
This specific user-relationship ties in well with our previous discussion on interfaces. Specifically though, it ties in well with our discussions on interfaces as mentioned in the writings of Lev Manovich. Manovich characterizes the interface as, “the greatest interactive work (Manovich, pg. 5).” Manovich additionally claims that interfaces act, “as a new form through which all older forms…are being mediated (Manovich, pg. 7.)” Cities, as discussed by theorists like de Certeau, fit cleanly into this definition. The artifacts, spatial arrangement, and branding of cities all reinforce and mediate older forms, while allowing for generative, combinatorial interactions.
Washington DC is especially insightful in this example. Firstly, the city clearly has a deep history. As the nation’s capital, there is much going on within the city both ideologically and semiotically. The National Mall is a good example of this. In a relatively short length (about a mile), city planners worked to pack in a number of national monuments, memorials, and shrines to our collective national memory. Examples include: the National Museum of American History, the National Sculpture Garden, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and much more.
While I could continue listing the many shrines and memorials located within the National Mall proper, the quantity is not the point. The quality of this space, the memorial function, is the greater point. By memorializing US history and US culture in a very specific and curated way, DC’s city functions as a constant re-ification of past norms and values. The arrangement of the National Mall is a relatively new form through which select older forms are being mediated.
De Certeau’s chapter touches on this mediation. The author argues that the “operating chronological arrangements and historical justifications (de Certeau, pg. 104)” associated with a city (read: landmarks), “slowly lose, like worn coins, the value engraved on them, but their ability to signify outlives its first definition (de Certeau, pg. 104).” Thus, the function takes precedence over face value. As a mediating body between past narratives and contemporary social function, the National Mall’s function as interface is it’s main purpose. The landmarks and monuments exist to reify certain cultural norms and values. The idea of these places becomes detached from the physicality of these monuments, thus extending the reach of the interface past their physical, geographical, and technical limitations and into the socio-cultural lexicon. They have very deliberately become part of Eco’s cultural encyclopedia.
This sentiment is echoed by Dagmar Motycka Weston, a specialist in space, meaning, and modernity at the University of Edinburgh. In her piece “Le Corbusier and the restorative fragment at the Swiss Pavillion,” Weston discusses the implications of architecture and urban design. Weston argues that, “…it is possible…for architecture to transcend merely formal, technical or aesthetic concerns, and communicate deep thematic meaning (Weston, pg. 189).” Elsewhere the author refers to architecture and urban design as, “a source of existential orientation (Weston, pg. 190).” Our placement within the city helps place us. Cities work to map us conceptually, ideologically, and semiotically. Our mapping of space works to map us as well. Though not DC, this Yuppie map of San Francisco shows how the mapping of space translates into social and cultural expectations not only of certain areas but of people within certain spaces as well.
While the National Mall is useful in showing the power dynamics of geo-spatial arrangements, it is not a very manipulatable space. It is heavily surveilled. There is comparatively little semiotic room to move. The progression and flow of bodies within the space is heavily dictated. It thus fails to fully highlight the agency of city spaces. Part of de Certeau’s big thrust is the personalization of space and function. The author discusses spatial organization as, “an ensemble of possibilities,” and argues that the city-walker “actualizes some of these possibilities….he makes them exist as well as emerge (de Certeau, pg. 98).” According to de Certeau at least, the city is rife for displays of agency.
The National Mall is only a fraction of DC Proper, the city as a whole. There are many other neighborhoods and quadrants, each of which have their own brand and personality. The residents within the area heavily dictate this brand and personality, unlike the National Mall. As less sacred areas (when compared to the National Mall, our own Holy of Holies), these habitable spaces act as a discussion between city dwellers, city walkers, and culture. There is much more space for personalization and customization. They allow a conversation between city-dwellers and the idea behind a city.
De Certeau discusses this in the context of a city’s reputation, or brand. To de Certeau, the discourse surrounding an artifact (city) fails to fully deliver on its own promise, thus opening up room for movement and personalization.
“It [room to move] ‘authorizes’ the production of an area of free play…It makes places habitable (de Certeau, pg 106).” This authorizing act of play within a space is key in both de Certeau and similar theorist’s work.
This concept of the authorizing act of play is necessarily broad. De Certeau focuses on the rather benign act of walking. It crosses the spectrum though. Dissident acts like graffiti and vandalism qualify. But so do seemingly quotidian acts like skateboarding and neighborhood clean-ups. All of the aforementioned practices are instances of free play that personalize an area, thereby authorizing the production or manifestation of this space. This ties back into Weston’s input as well. Our own mapping and personalizing city space does the same for us in return.
While Weston and de Certeau’s arguments are notable, they are definitely lacking in certain areas. Namely, both models neglect to address the relationship of the physical cityscape to the acculturation process over time. While de Certeau does discuss an individual walking through a city and looking down at a city, he does not fully address the chronological implications that are a pre-requisite for this process.
There are several scholars who discuss time and space though. Geographer Yi Fu Tuan’s book Space and Place does a good job of working through this relationship. “Architectural space,” Tuan argues, “has been called…spatialized time (Fuan, pg. 118).” Elsewhere, Fuan writes, “Daily living in modern society requires that we be aware of space and time as separate dimensions and as transposable measures of the same experience (Fuan 118-119).” Spaces in general then take on a big role semiotically. Their relics and arrangements are physical embodiments of aged norms, texts, and values (culture). They are the impositions of the past onto the present. Going further though, they also stand for future combinatorial possibilities as well.
This prevalence of time within the semiosphere ties in well with our frames of cities as interfaces. It works especially well with Manovich’s definition of the interface. Part of Manovich’s definition reads as follows: “a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated (Manovich, pg. 7).” This works directly with Fuan’s conception of time within the function and process of space. The spatial arrangement and relics of cities are a new form (a physicality) through which older forms of cultural production are mediated.
Washington DC again serves as a good working example. The design and architecture of the city incorporates themes from prior eras, namely Classical and Victorian aesthetics. This incorporation relies on the physical remediation of past symbols and images into a contemporary context. Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of George Washington on the Capital grounds (in which the first President is displayed in white marble, wearing a toga a la classical Greece) serves as a prime example. Additional examples of this incorporation of the past include the Romanian, Victorian, and Norman architectures prevalent amongst the numerous Smithsonian buildings. By channeling past norms and values into contemporary physicalities, the aforementioned architectural works to mediate all older forms of cultural production. This hearkens back to Manovich’s framing of interfaces as cultural mediators.
This cultural mediation works outside the sacred spaces of the Capital and the National Mall as well though. Again, the utilization and personalization of city space works within the process of cultural mediation. The progression and evolution of spaces over time is a personalization. The affordances of a city allow for a deep-seated relationship through personalization. This interactive playground design site is a good example of efficiency through personalization. Space is re-mediated and re-designed to better align with the needs and desires of city dwellers.
This personalization and customization is discussed in the book Human space by O.F. Bollnow. Bollnow, who was a professor of philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Tübingen, worked extensively within and between the fields of existentialism and phenomenology. This work translates well to the semiotic and cultural importance of city spaces.
Bollnow discusses this lightly in his section “The ordering of space.” “Ordering space,” argues Bollnow, “means that, with conscious deliberation, I assign a place in a space or a container to every object….This ordering must be done appropriately….Thus human ordering always gives a strange sense of satisfaction, because here the world, in the ordered area in question, has become clearly comprehensible and manageable (Bollnow, pg. 196).” Elsewhere Bollnow argues, “The process of new ordering is a very significant one…We are re-creating space for ourselves.”
While this is useful, it is the connection to cultural significance and importance that is especially of note. The arrangement and layout of a city helps us become accustomed to norms and values. “The bringing together of these objects of use with the totality of spatial order creates a totally organized and therefore also totally comprehensible space (Bollnow, pg. 200).” The personalization of space helps us make sense of our own experience within broader social, cultural, and political networks. The arrangement and re-arrangement of a space helps us map out our own placement within the complex nodal system.
Cities clearly play a profound role in the semiosphere. Their importance cannot be understated. Yi-Fu Tuan’s work covers this well. “Objects anchor time….To strengthen our sense of self the past needs to be rescued and made accessible (Tuan, pg. 187).” Our articulations of space, both as memorials to the past and combinatorial affordances for the future, teach us not only about ourselves but also about those around us. They orient us. Much like technological interfaces, the geo-spatial interface of the city communicates information and data (technological, historical, cultural, etc…) to the user in a meaningful way.
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Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Online.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Print.
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