Tag Archives: Marshall McLuhan

Media archaeology with dirty hands: Mattern (2017), Code and Clay, Data and Dirt

  • Mattern, S. (2017). Code and clay, data and dirt: Five thousand years of urban media. U of Minnesota Press.

This is an exemplary introduction chapter for many reasons, and one of things I admire most about it is the tone: it’s critical of the “smart cities” memeplex, without a doubt – framing the book’s project as, in part, asking ‘how the quantifiable aspects of urbanity come to delimit our conception of what an “ideal” (productive? liveable? resilient?) city can be’ (p. x) – but it’s not at all strident or hectoring, which is something I’d like to emulate going forward (having realised that a legacy of my early socialisation in toxic masculinity is a tendency to be a bit fighty and prolix in my academic and critical writing).

Also admirable is the deftness with which Mattern scopes out and targets the disciplinary project at hand: the targets, as hinted above, are urbanists, futurists, civic planners and politicians, and their tendency to sell the latest Next Big Thing as a paradigmatic and innovative shift in the very conception of the urban, when in fact for the most part it’s usually a reinvention or iteration of something almost as old as the notion of the city itself.

‘Recognising the “deep time” of urban mediation, urban historians will ideally be incentivised to reevaluate their prevailing theories about the birth of cities, which ten to privilege economic explanations for urbanisation, and to pay greater attention to the central role played by media and communication in urban history.’

(p. xxv)

It is one of the responsibilities of ‘urban and architectural designers and engineers of all stripes […] to make provisions for a layering of communicative infrastructures old and new, made of both ether and ore, data and dirt’.

(p. xxvi)

Most important to my own work, however, is Mattern’s patient delineation of a media archaeology that takes the “archaeology” part seriously. So it’s not an archaeology in the Foucauldian sense, or at least not exclusively so – but nor is it the processual archaeology of yore, obsessed with its own fantasies of scientism, nor the romanticised (and often orientalist or otherwise othering) form that all too easily ends up as fuel for theme parks and/or dubious nationalistic heritage narratives. But it is figuratively and literally about the excavation of media, about digging up and digging around the media of the past:

‘An archaeological sensibility prompts us to shift our focus from ‘real-time’ data-streams and various speculative ‘futures’ […] toward the longue durée within which those presents and futures take shape.’

(p. xxvii)

That particular citation was both a gratifying and frustrating find: gratifying because it describes pretty accurately what I was trying to do with my doctoral research, and frustrating because it shows there to have been a whole discipline already aimed somewhat in that direction, of which I was almost completely ignorant throughout said doctoral research… though in my defence, doing that research in an engineering department made the likelihood of my discovering its existence through peer recommendation pretty slim.

(Indeed, I learned very early on not to mention the McLuhanean notion that infrastructure could be studied in the same way as media. By comparison, even the flat-ontology social theory I ended up wading around in was considered much less heretical. Hell knows how much more of a fight it would have been to say what I wanted to say if I’d come out as a full-bore media-studies type…)

So I find myself thinking that I can adapt Mattern’s arguments for media archaeology in defence of a related (or perhaps subordinate) discipline of infrastructure archaeology, which is pretty much what I’ve always thought I was doing anyway. Now, as previously hinted, Mattern’s thinking is avowedly McLuhanean (see p. xiii) in that “media” and “infrastructure” are considered to be categories with considerable analytical overlap, if not necessarily commensurate; I don’t want to untangle that at all, but I do want to make a case for a very specific approach to what I term the “concrete” infrastructures – the most basic distributive/transformative systems of provision that underpin other civic systems.

(For a first stab at a formal definition of the “concrete infrastructure” concept, see Raven, 2017; this is an analytical/methodological privilege I’m trying to extend, rather than an ontological one, and will get another fresh outing in a paper for this year’s RGS conference..)

This means that a lot of Mattern’s statements can be adapted to my purposes without any need for heavy translation or remapping (though there are some cases where she uses “infrastructure” in a way that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to do). Here’s a real winner:

‘We can be more attuned to the uneven spread of networks and infrastructurally distributed resources, uneven rates of technological development and commitment to maintenance, and diverse systems of ownership and control…’

(p.xxiii)

What a gift of a quote! Particularly for someone who rails repeatedly at foresight types for the misuse of the Bill Gibson unevenly-distributed-future riff. But here’s another:

‘We in media and design studies need to recognise our objects of study as situated, embedded in particular material contexts, and activated by their interactions with people and non-human actants – other media, other infrastructures, other creatures and things – in those environments.’

(p. xxx)

Obviously the use of “situated” links neatly to the well-known Harawayian riff, which has been a constant in my personal literature since encountering it via the Situated Systems project, which was enacted by a group of friends and colleagues whose work has been pretty much as formative upon me as Saint Donna’s.

But the uppermost of the two quotes above is the culmination of a few short paragraphs which effectively demolish the entire determinist strand of the (Sustainability) Transitions (Management) literature (pp. xxviii-xxix); if I’d had this book two years ago, the lit review in my thesis would be at least two whole pages shorter, if not far shorter still. Combine it with the other quote above, and you get a neat sketch of a radical and critical paradigm for thinking sociotechnical change as embedded in timespace. (One might argue that Mattern’s framing makes it more specifically an urban thing, but I’d counter that “the urban” is just a label we have for a poorly-defined but nonetheless tacitly specific density of infrastructural development.)

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A few quotes pulled for a specific piece of writing that I’m working on at the moment, in which the “smart city” is in the crosshairs:

‘This datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city: those data are harvested, cleaned, flitered, analyzed, rendered visible and intelligible and actionable via an assemblage of media, from sensor to screens, smartphone apps to building management systems.’

(p. ix)

‘Are we to believe that urban designers, administrators, and advocates were not attending to such communicative and quality-of-life concerns before they had the quantitative means to do so – and that such data-driven formalist or behaviourist approaches are better than old-fashioned formalism and behaviourism? Are we to presume that Big Data and the “science” of urbanism make everything better, that citizens are better served when their agency is tethered in part to their functions as data points?’

(p. x)

[claims for evidence of “smartness” in] ‘the urban genome […] all the way back to ancient Rome, Uruk, and Çatalhöyük’ (p. xi); ‘our cities have been smart and mediated, and they’ve been providing spaces for intelligent mediation, for millennia. That intelligence is simultaneously epistemological, technological and physical: it’s codified into our cities’ laws and civic knowledges and institutions, hard wired into their cables and protocols, framed in their architectures and patterns of development.’

(p. xii)

‘Evangelists of our always-already-new media have long promised that new technologies would alternatively allow cities to sprawl luxuriously into disparate wire-linked nodes, or concentrate intensively into clusters of crystalline towers or close-knit communities united by the audible voice. Those media technologies would either render cities obsolete or, alternatively, drive them to their utopian apotheosis.’

(p.xx)

‘We can assert that the means of communication – whether the voice, the printed page, or cellular networks – have also shaped cities throughout history, and that those cities have in turn given form and vitality to their media. Cities and media have historically served as one another’s “infrastructures”.’

(p. xxv)

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That sure is a lot of pull-quotes, given that I’ve only taken them from the introduction! But damn, it’s a fine piece of work: well-written, timely (both for my personal context and more broadly), and calmly assertive. Mattern joins my personal pantheon of thinkers – a dubious honour, perhaps, but nonetheless she’s in good company there.

In print

I’m still not sufficiently jaded a writer that I don’t feel a thrill at seeing my name in a byline, and that goes doubly so for fiction work, and for work that appears in actual physical dead-tree media. (I know, it’s just so archaic of me.) So fiction work that appears in dead-tree media is the best byline of all:

Noir anthology: author copies

Those are my author copies of the Noir anthology from Newcon Press, which contains my story “A Boardinghouse Heart”; you can buy it for your Amazonian e-reading device for just £2.01, as a paperback for £9.99, or a signed hardcover for £15.99. (Still no sign of any direct-from-publisher options, so you may need to drop Newcon a line if that’s your preference. Or catch ’em in the dealer’s room at pretty much any UK convention…)

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So last week I went down to That London for the Clarke Award, which was not only my first experience with 1st-Class trains both ways between Sheffield and London (1st-Class Advance tickets for midday trains are usually only a few quid more than the Standard option, so why not?), but also with AirBnB; both of which were agreeably affordable solutions to the Evening Shin-dig In London Conundrum.

The Clarke was a good bash as always; nothing quite beats catching up with literary chums (daaaahling!) while swanning around the reception rooms at the Royal Society, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice took the gong. No arguments from me with that result… nor, unusually for the Clarke, anyone else (perhaps because it seemed something of a foregone conclusion as soon as the book started turning up with reviewers and critics). One assumes everyone’s storing up their annual stock of outrage for the LonCon Hugos… *sigh*

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My late train out of London meant I had time to allow Charing Cross Road to relieve me of my money. Apparently the first step is admitting that you have a problem…

Books from Charing Cross Road

One of the downsides of starting a PhD is that it has acted as a hideous enabler of my book jones (see previous). Ah, well; better books than fast cars, hookers and blow, right? Nice bit of McLuhan (who seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, viz. this Will Self piece at Teh Graun on the senescence of the novel, which prompted just as many canonical displays of denial from the writerly twittersphere as one would expect); an intro to Adorno, who I keep bumping into in citations and notes of late; some Bookchin, who is that rarest of birds, the truly citable left-anarchist; some hermeneutics, because, well, why not; and a book that has provided me with a new pat answer to the question “so what is it you actually do?”: mappin’ the futures, man. Stand well back and hold on to your fedora!

Was wryly amused to find the GC hardback of Chairman Bruce’s The Hacker Crackdown; for that book to still exist as a prestige-format physical object is a glorious double anachronism. And Foyles had the Kathy Acker just sat there all on its lonesome in the regular fiction run… which is all the more impressive, given I thought Acker was out of print in the UK. Maybe someone ordered it in and never collected it? I dunno. I still need to get a copy of her Empire of the Senseless

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What else has been happening? All the things, it feels like. I’ve been to assorted seminars, including a fascinating talk by Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett, academic psychogeographer and penetrator of pillboxes (bring your own Jungian metaphors), and my PhD confirmation report is starting to take shape, but that’s all probs a bit too inside-baseball for blogging.

Coming up soon: this time next week I’ll be somewhere in the Lake District beyond the reach of the cellphone networks, as a bunch of folk from the Institute for Atemporal Studies conduct experiments on the successful use of Kendal mint cake as hallucinogenic ritual sacrament, and into just how long it takes internet habitués to go mad without the internet…