Monday, December 17, 2007

Building Cyberspace, Ken Friedman

An Introduction

Ken Friedman

This idea of this project began in the (1960s. It was an interesting time, a decade that seemed to be more than it was in many ways, and a decade that was more than it seemed in others. One of the more interesting ranges of thought had to do with what would later become information science. The intellectual framework that we now pose as information science did not exist as such, but it was foreshadowed in many ways.

The fields that define the information era are still fluid enough to defy definition. There are many reasons for this. The implications of information are particularly difficult to capture because of their pervasive nature in contemporary society. "Information," write Nye and Owens (1996, p. 23), "is . . . hard to categorize because it cuts across all other military, economic, social and political power resources, in some cases diminishing their strength, in others multiplying it."

Debates on how to understand the nature of information go back several decades. They are not yet resolved. Ingwersen (1996, p. 78) identifies artificial intelligence, cognitive science, communication, computer science, epistemology, information theory, mathematics, psychology, psycho©linguistics, linguistics, and sociology as relevant fields that influence information. This is the scholarly approach of an expert in information science. Nye and Owens (1996) identify issues relevant to geo©political influence, the projection of military power, political might, social development and economic development. Drucker (1990, 1998) stresses the massive power of information to reshape cultures and societies, regions and nations and he also emphasizes the decisive role of information for individual organizations and companies. These issues have been debated for some years, especially in the fields of information science, library science and management information systems. Two pioneering economists realized even earlier that the information age would lead to a knowledge economy, Fritz Machlup (1962, 1979, 1983) and Harold Innis (1950, 1951, 1995).

Many effects flow from the development of information technology. One is the development of a new kind of space, cyberspace. While great attention has been given to cyberspace in recent years, this new space exists only in a region defined by information systems and telecommunication networks. There is another important effect that has, until recently, been overlooked. That is the influence of information technology on the physical world.

Every social technology reshapes the physical world around it. This happens for several reasons. Social technologies reshape the patterns of human living. Shifts in human behaviour then reshape the physical world. This has been particularly true of information technology for two reasons. The first is that the information technologies mirror and build on the physical world that shapes and structures them. The second is that the space of flows developed in around the new technologies has come to affect the physical world through a recursive series of feedback loops that build in power as their ramifications extend into every corner of the socio©technical environment. As a result, information systems and the knowledge economy are not only shaping cyberspace but they are shaping the built environment. This involves the physical world of cities, urban regions and nations as well as the physical world of individual buildings and manufactured artifacts.

This interpenetration and transfer of influence and energy between cyberspace and the physical world has now begun to receive serious attention. A number of authors have emphasized these issues in recent years. The early scholars working on these issues include Saskia Sassen (1991) whose article "Global Cities, Global Value Chains" appears in this journal, and Patrice Flichy (1991, 1995) whose book Dynamics of Modern Communication is reviewed here. Manuel Castells (1994, 1996) has also been particularly influential, as has W. J. Mitchell (1995). Nevertheless, a glance through any recent book or article on this specific subject will reveal a literature that has, for the most part, been written in the 1990s. There is a good reason for this. While it was obvious that a social technology as powerful as information technology and telecommunication would change our lives and the way we live, no one could have predicted the vectors and influences that would arise from the confluence of forces that have emerged to shape today's world.

The first force is the computer, and particularly the personal computer. The computer has been with us in one form or another for decades - and in its inchoate form, it goes back to Turing's conceptual computing machine and even farther back to the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, when IBM's Thomas Watson asserted that the world would never need more than 10 electronic computers, no one could have imagine the world of the 1990s. In fact, no one could have imagined this world before the two Steves - Jobs and Wozniak - invented the contemporary era by creating the first mass market personal computer. The personal computer and the ever©increasing power of the ever©smaller microprocessor have changed the face of technology.

The second force is the internet, a phenomenon that goes back to the days of the cold War. One visionary did understand the future of information. Korean©born artist and composer Nam June Paik (1974) who predicted the information superhighway and gave it a name, when he coined the term "electronic superhighway". This came about when Paik was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to write a series of three reports dealing with the future of media and communication. In these reports, Paik outlined a vision of communication in which he compared the future of telecommunicated information to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US interstate highway system. This analogy -- electronic superhighway -- was the predecessor of today's terms, "information superhighway" and "infobahn." Even Paik did not envision a mechanism for the way in which this information would be created, stored and transferred, however. His own focus was television and video.

Three other notable thinkers addressed aspects of these issues. Many features of the personal computer and the internet can be seen in the ideas of Vannevar Bush (1945) and in those of Buckminster Fuller (1964, 1965, 1967, 1981; Fuller and Dil 1983; Baldwin 1996). Marshall McLuhan's work also established a great many premises and issues that are even more relevant in the post©modern era of individual telecommunication than they were in the era of mass telecommunication.

The internet as we know it began with ARPANET as an agency seeking to secure American military communication and telecommunication through robust parallelism. Tim Berners-Lee of CERN invented the World Wide Web, which has become the defining face of the internet as we understand it today. Finally, the mechanism of the browser, shaped by the Mosaic project and the Netscape company, gave us individual access to the infobahn, together with the medium of e©mail. But none of this could have been predicted in the days before personal computing, particularly not the powerful multiplied effect of converging technologies.

The third force at work is telecommunication. The dynamic changes in every aspect of telecommunication are shaping the space of flows that make it possible to create, store, transmit and transact information in increasingly new ways. Here, many of the forces merge, and we find that the multimedia experiments of the 1960s and even those of the 1580s have much to teach us (Friedman, 1998a) about space and place today.

None of this was as readily visible to me in the 1960s. Of course, little of this was visible to anyone in the 1960s. Nevertheless, I had an intriguing intuition in 1967, and I acted it out in the form of a series of experiments. I was active in the conceptual laboratory of experimental artists, architects, composers and designers known as Fluxus. In the spring of 1967, I was developing a course in intermedia for the San Francisco State University Experimental College that would be offered through the Department of Radio, Television and Film. (I have since been told that the course holds an historic if modest position in the development of the information age as the first course specifically titled intermedia ever to be offered in a college or university curriculum.)

In April 1967, I had the notion -- who knows where such ideas come from ? -- to build a city that could change with the speed of thought and a bit of inspired action. Needless to say, this was and, for the most part, still is, impossible operating at the scale of a real city. It is not impossible in the world of modelling and simulation. So it was that I fulfilled the twin roles of Romulus and of Remus and built myself a city. The formula for the project was simple enough (Friedman (1985, page title City):



Construct a city out of found material. Let the city grow and change over a span of time. Abandon the complete city where it stands.

The city was built of cardboard boxes, lumber, banners, cloth, found materials of all kinds. The project was executed over the span of one week in April (1967 in the central quadrangle at San Francisco State University. It was a rather large construction, at some points extending nearly as much as (100 feet in any direction. After the city was abandoned, it stood untouched for another week. It was found one morning neatly disassembled, stacked and piled. The stacks stood untouched for another few days. Then they, too disappeared.

The idea occurred to me as a model for other kinds of ventures, notably a (1968 project that not was exhibited until (1973 in the exhibition "Intermedia - Fluxus - Conceptual Art" at Montgomery Art Gallery, Claremont College, Claremont, California (Friedman (1985, page title Paper Architecture):

Paper Architecture

Hang a large sheet or several large sheets of paper.

Inscribe the sheets with full-scale architectural features, such as doors, windows, or stairs, or with objects such as furniture, lamps, books, etc. These drawings may be used to imagine, create or map an environment. The drawings may create or map new features in an existing environment. They may mirror, double or reconstruct existing features in situ or elsewhere.

If the drawings are desired as relatively permanent projects, they may be applied directly to a wall.


In the years since then, I have wondered about the ways in which idea and space can interpenentrate. In the 1960s, one could only manage these things through collage techniques, physical models and rough thought experiments. One can say that what I did was not so very different from what architects and designers have often done, except that the scale and the concept of projects like this looked beyond the immediate moment to a conceptualization of information, space and place.

A few years ago, I took these ideas up once again. There were two stimuli. The first was my interaction with Johan Olaisen, head of the Department of Knowledge Management at the Norwegian School of Management. Working with Johan on the language and proofing of his anthology on information science (Olaisen et al., 1996), I developed some of the notions (Friedman, 1996a) that would later ripen into my recent research on information and the built environment. At the same time, I developed a project together with Janne Ahlin, former Dean of Architecture and current head of Industrial Design at Lund University. We presented this project (Friedman and Ahlin, 1995, 1996) at a conference on urban change at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. This led to several invitations to write and publish on the subject (Friedman 1996b, 1996c, 1998b). These have been my convergences. These converging paths led me from an intermedia project in the 1960s that drew in equal measure on Marshall McLuhan and the tradition of kindergarten building blocks to a conceptualization of how societies and cultures will operate in the space of flows.

In this issue of Built Environment, the goal of my paper is to seek an understanding of the way that information technology influences the flow of historical and cultural forces as the move between the cultural realm and the physical world.

Dominique Bouchet considers the ways that city life and the information era influence our cultural and social experience. To do so, he establishes a framework based on one of the seminal figures in sociology, George Simmel.

Saskia Sassen examines many of the same forces in their broadest perspective. Her paper considers the ways in which these forces reshape the global economy by creating a value chain linking key global cities at the risk of disenfranchising those cities outside the value chain and those individuals who live in them.

Jan Verwijnen looks at a range of issues in the city itself. He explores the concept of the city as a field condition. His paper suggests ways in which cities can adapt and thrive in a world influenced by the forces that the first three papers map out. He calls for new ways of planning, aided by the same information technology that has given rise to the forces that destabilize and threaten urban environment.

For cities to thrive in this world, it is vital to approach planning in new ways. Jon©Arild Johannesen, Johan Olaisen and Bjorn Olsen address this issue. As scholars in information science and knowledge management with extensive experience in planning and policy studies, they investigate the required basis for a philosophy of science for the new approach to planning required in the information age.

Tormod Lunde looks at the broad social and economic dimensions of a society reshaped by the Internet. He builds his thoughts on a sociological framework as well as on empirical work in consumer studies and electronic commerce.

Finally, Jytte Hilden offers a direct and fascinating account of how one nation is addressing the social, political and economic issues that arise when specific societies rebuild themselves around the flow of information. Ms. Hilden is Denmark's Minister for Research and Information Technology. Denmark has managed to adopt and implement an effective national information policy rivalled only by that of Singapore. As a result, this paper offers two good conclusions to this special issue of Built Environment. One is a recent microhistory of an exciting series of developments. The other is a valuable prescription that gives reason for optimism as well as caution in considering the ways in which we must use information technology.

This is the place to thank Peter Hall and David Banister for making available to me this opportunity as guest editor. It has been a challenge and a delight to bring these papers together on a topic of major contemporary value.

Here, too, I offer deepest thanks to Ann Rudkin of Alexandrine Press. As managing editor of Built Environment, Ann has been my shepherd and my colleague in bringing this issue forward to completion.

The most effective scholarly work takes place in a supportive context. The work that made it possible to prepare and edit this issue of Built Environment is no exception. The Norwegian School of Management is an excellent place for scholarship. The combination of thoughtful colleagues, an outstanding information technology and telecommunication support team and a friendly working environment make research easy. The dean of our school, Professor Fred Selnes, has created an increasingly focused, exciting environment for research, particularly for those who work on information issues and social informatics, Tormod Lunde, Johan Olaisen and myself among them. I thank him for his ongoing encouragement and support. I also thank three intellectual sparring partners who have shared their thoughts with me on the themes and topics of this issue: Research Director Tore Abrahamsen, Dr. Arne Krokan and Dr. Leif Christer Andersson.

Finally, I will tip my hat and flap my ears to my dear friend, deacon and wife, Ditte Mauritzon Friedman. In her, I have been delighted to find a partner who appreciates what it is a scholar does and accepts the peculiar habits and lifestyle that lead to publishing. Johan Olaisen says there are two kinds of research, perfect research and published research. My corollary is that these are mutually exclusive. Ditte has revealed a new truth to me. There are occasionally published researchers who are lucky enough to find perfect partners.

Welcome to this issue of Built Environment on Building Cyberspace: Information, Place and Policy.


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Publishing history:

This text appeared as Friedman, Ken. 1998. Building Cyberspace. An Introduction. Built Environment. 24: 2/3, 77-82.

It is copyright 1998 by Alexandrine Press and Ken Friedman. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to quote from this text providing that proper reference and acknowledgements are given.

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