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An Internet of Things

An “internet of things” describes a world embedded with so many digital devices that the space between them consists not of dark circuitry but rather the space of the city itself. The computer has escaped the box, and ordinary objects in space are carriers of digital signals. This capacity seems to finally fulfill the dream of artists and architects of the mid- to late twentieth century, among them Jack Burnham, Cedric Price, Archigram, and Christopher Alexander, who experimented with a cybernetic apparatus for modeling space. It might also be the practical answer to quests by Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group and architects exploring Artificial Intelligence, who rehearse interplay between digital machines and the space of the city and the body—reciprocal modeling that enhances the capacities of each. On the contemporary scene, manifestoes like Carlo Ratti’s “Open Source Architecture” imagine that in digitized space—this web of things—architecture can be constructed in much the same way that a wiki is assembled.

As art and architecture adopt technologies to embrace a new imaginary or model a new relationship, digital technologies often become an essential prosthetic for an idea about form-making. Yet these nourishing and exciting projects also perhaps prematurely stop, short of, or even foreclose on, a much more expansive investigation. Even when resisting the vampiric modernist impulse to declare a new regime, these projects may be drawn into a cul-du-sac; their production of artifacts risks being yet another anecdotal, even marginal, expression in a succession of ideas.

A non-modern question—the artifacts of which have always been with us, the boundaries of which include but exceed all of the above experiments, and the answer to which we already know—is how space, without digital or media enhancement, is itself information.1

We are not accustomed to the idea that non-human, inanimate objects possess agency and activity, just as we are not accustomed to the idea that they can carry information unless they are endowed with code/text-based information technologies. While accepting that a technology like mobile telephony has become the world’s largest shared platform for information exchange, we are perhaps less accustomed to the idea of space as a technology or medium of information—undeclared information that is not parsed as text or code. Indeed, the more ubiquitous code/text-based information devices become, the harder it is to see spatial technologies and networks that are independent of the digital. Few would look at a concrete highway system or an electrical grid and perceive agency in their static arrangement. Agency might only be ascribed to the moving cars or the electrical current. Spaces and urban arrangements are usually treated as collections of objects or volumes, not as actors. Yet the organization itself is active. It is doing something, and changes in the organization constitute information. Even so, the idea that information is carried in activity, or what we might call active form, must still struggle against many powerful habits of mind.

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