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nettime: Dwelling in Cyberspace - Wim Nijenhuis
Pit Schultz on Wed, 17 Jul 96 14:31 MDT

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nettime: Dwelling in Cyberspace - Wim Nijenhuis

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 18:16:11 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Geert Lovink <geert {AT} xs4all.nl>

Lezing Tart Enschede    30-11-'94.

Dwelling in Cyberspace.

In 1853 the American Matt F. Ward wrote in his travel-
brochure the following lines: 'The fabulous beauties of
England should be as fleeting as visions out of a dream.
They are the most attractive when we rush through them
with fourty miles an hour. The route does not require any
attention or meditative contemplation. Although the neigh-
bouring objects seem to fly by as swift as an arrow, the
far-away fields and trees do not withdraw themselves from
perception, they stay in sight long enough to leave a
stable impression. Everything is so quiet, so fresh, just
like at home, there are hardly any particular objects that
catch the eye or divert the attention from the fascinating
whole. I dream myself through these soft beauties as if
I'm floating through the sky, quick as if I'm riding on
a tornado.'
Still in our time this description of a train travel
covers our possibilities to describe dwelling in cyberspa-
ce. Most of the used images derive from the religious
discours on heaven. At first there is the sense of being
displaced, of being disconnected from the daily surroun-
dings, that are now offered to the gaze as a set of ima-
ges. Then there is something like an identification with
the sight of an angel, who has the ability to float as you
all know. There is too a sense of detachment, not only in
the spatial sense of the formation of a distance between
the spectator and the surroundings, but too in the sense
of a certain indifference, that allows one to view an
undisturbed whole. The possibility to see a whole, to see
the totality, up to now has been reserved for the eye of
God. And last but not least the whole frase expresses a
tendency towards immateriality by means of the metaphers
of the dream, the floating, the quietness and the fresh-
ness, it expresses that one can not be touched, not at all
by dirty things. All together I would estimate these
qualities of existence, like: the displacement, the de-
tachment, the flaoting, the view of the whole, the immate-
riality and the softness of the environment as heavenly.
This way to experience the train came to surface in the
litterature of the 19th century by means of exaggeration,
but if we look at the present statements and films about
cyberspace, like Lawnmower Man, where people has to be
installed in Gyroscopes in order to simulate the free
floating movements of their bodies, or at Tekwar from
William Shatner (1994), where we see people floating
through soft spaces at high speed, where many appearances
are so transparant that they allow a kind of hyperwhole-
ness of the perception by means of superimposed images,
and where the actors can step through walls and are always
troubled with the question: is the environment an illusion
or is it real?, then we wittness, that the dream of imma-
teriality becomes moore and more a technological possibi-
This space-type opposes completely to the traditional
space of architecture and urban design. During thousends
of years the space of the city has been based on material
construction, the house and the city constitute hard and
immobile, stable spaces, in which we move around with our
material bodies.
     2. To make an estimation of the probability of a
certain technical and social development, and its influen-
ce upon the form of the city we must investigate within
which play of power and within which valuesystem it possi-
bly could happen. So I will step back in history in order
to find a trend, that can be extrapolated in the future.
In the past the form of the city has been determined by
two major values, that were both depending upon technolo-
gical developments, nl. Safety and Wealth. Both safety and
wealth were depending upon the military technological
In the era of the fortified town, that lasted up to about
1800, the city was essentially a territory. Not in the
sense that it was the property of a community, but in the
sense that it was a guarded field, a spatial extension,
surrounded by fortresses. This field was controlled and
defended by military power, but offered to its inhabitants
safety and therefore the possibility of wealth. So the
value and the seductive power of the city derived from the
security it offered and its wealth came from the secure
stemming and skimming off the passing flux of trade. The
flux of traffic was the excluded of the city. This floa-
ting component of society had to be controlled becouse it
was seen as the carrier of violence. All economical and
military energy of the city therefore was concentrated at
the city-gate, the place where it exchanged with a floa-
ting environment that at the same time was as well threa-
tening, as the couse of welfare. This doubleness gave the
gate its specific quality of the margin of the city, where
all types of marginality were concentrated. 
The properties of this city were the hardness of the
material, the resistance offered by the fortresses and the
exactitude of its geometry. Such a city could by means of
euclidian geometry be represented in maps and scale-mo-
dels, that were considered to be the true representation
of its reality. The exact maps from their part were used
for the constitution of the nations in the 19th century.
Think of the land registry, that in a juridical sense
determines the private and the public property, think of
the territory in which a law is valid, the Constitution
of the Netherlands that is valid within the national
borders and all the other political and juridical institu-
tions that depend upon the exactitude of territorial
representations. The representation in maps and its iso-
morphic relation to a stable reality provided the citizen
with secure means of orientation, too in the sense of the
clear distinction between the important and the unimpor-
tant, the here and the there, the near and the far and-
All these qualities of the city-field, with its well
arranged parcels were step by step deconstructed by the
train, by the so called first industrialisation of space
and time during the 19th century. The first that changed
was the sense of distance under influence of the accelera-
ted speed of transport and its increased comfort. No
langer the day's march and the hours walk. No longer the
fatigue of men and animal that limited the journey. No
longer the thunderous violence of the horses that dragged
the caoch along bumpy roads, up and down a hilly landsca-
pe, and that caused such a tremendous involvement by the
act of travelling itself, as we can read in the testimo-
nies of Goethe, Ruskin and Flaubert. 
The train allowed the journey to continue at day and
night. The train introduced the comfort of travelling,
becouse it moved steady and smooth contrary to the horses
that galloped jerkily. Next the train eliminated the
experience of the surface of the earth, becouse it moved
over hard and smooth rails, that were placed on an outle-
velled ground.      
Many authors in the 19th century noted, that the train in
this way disconnected from the environment. Ruskin felt
so disconnected, that he slept, or pulled a blanket over
himself during the journey. This attitude expresses that
one experienced the journey as a kind of non-time, as an
absence of conciousness. The journey was an absent pheno-
menon between the points of departure and arrival, an
elimination of the space in between. To the conciousness
of the traveller this meant a short circuit in space, a
direct connection occured between the place of departure
and the goal of the journey. Mentally this meant the
implosion of the space. Points that were formerly far away
from each other, were suddenly lumped together in one
interconnected point.
The first reaction to this was the mental retreat, as I
mentioned about Ruskin. But a next generation developed
a new way of perception. They looked further away, but in
doing so they oriented themselves on the whole, on the
overview, which deprived the special attention for de-
tails, or particular objects. This type of view we could
call panoramatic. In a litteral sense this view implied
too a growing indifference of the spectator.
The perception in perspective, that was based on the depth
of the impression/representation, now orients on the
surface, it sees the things as if they were flat pictures,
like they really were in the 19th century panorama's. This
flattened mode of perception then was followed by the
transient view. The totality was no longer a matter of the
scale of the perspective, but was the result of a series
of sequencies, that were viewed from the side window of
a train through the intermitting rythm of the telegraph-
posts. This mode of perception conditioned the public for
the cinema to come, but it inaugurated as well the idea,
that the static representation of the surrounding world
by means of maps, paintings, drawings and photographs was
not according to reality. In the efforts to adjust the
mode of representation to the experience the landscape and
the city entered the realm of their soft representation.
They were cought in an order of the quick change of ima-
ges. The environment became fluid and vague, it lost its
static character. The exact measures, sizes and places of
the (near) things got lost in the whirlings and turbulen-
ces of a speed, that for the first time in our history was
intensively experienced by the Futurists.      

Not the attack of the enemy, but the attack of the train
caused the definitive collapse of the fortified field-city
immediately after the fortress had become obsolete due to
the increased power of the guns, that could bombard a city
by firing over the walls. Absolute secure defensive sys-
tems had to be of enormous sizes and thus had become to
expensive. War moved over to the mobile strategies in the
field, such as did Napoleon. But too the strategy of
welfare changed with the rise of capitalism and the ideal
of free trade. Even before the invention of the train, the
whole system that supported an economy of the delay, and
that consisted of toll-barriers, guilds, territorial
rights, bad roads, floaded lands, city-gates andsoon, was
rapidly removed in favour of all kinds of measurements
that would stimulate the free flow of goods, labour for-
ces, information and productivity in general. So, welfare
did not derive anymore from the power to delay a flux, but
from the power to stimulate it.
In this light the city was not conceived anymore as a
territory, a defensible field outside the flux of traffic,
but as a kind of station, that had to give free way to
traffic. The characteristics of the well designed place
were exchanged for the concept of the system, or the
network. From that moment on the city consisted of sprea-
ded points in space that had to be connected. One oriented
on the most imported points and their quickest connection.
The networkcity, or the citysystem is ruled by the calcu-
lation of the movement. Accurately speaking it became a
space-time. Town planning from that moment on was a split
activity, on one hand it tried to organise the network of
traffic with its logistic dimensions and on the other hand
it continuously raised the problem of the territory with
its geometrical dimensions.
The plans of Baron Haussmann for Paris, that were concei-
ved and executed between 1853 and 1869 are exemplary for
the way the traditional territory was destroyed in favour
of a dynamic network. His Boulevards, that were cut out
of the existent buildingstructure, can be seen as a conti-
nuation and as a kind of metamorphosis of the railwaytra-
jectory into a street. Their rectilinearity mirrors the
railwaytrajectory, their width not only corresponds with
traffic needs, but too with the panoramatic view and the
uniformity of the faŻades corresponds with the indifferen-
ce of the perception. On the Boulevard you did not go on
foot, but you mounted in a coach, in order to look at the
other people as we can read in Zola.
On several levels the Boulevard cooperated with a process,
that in a more general sense started with the train. It
installed a relative disconnection in the space, but too
between the people of a social totality. This last type
of disconnection is easy to demonstrate if we ask for the
relationship between a group of people sitting in a pas-
sing train and the inhabitants of the village it passes
through and that look at them. For a moment they share a
place, but are they one social group? This phenomenon of
disconnection had all kinds of implications for the social
community of a city. In painting and in literature the
modern phenomena of the departure and the separation
became regular themes, that were described with a beauti-
ful melancholic sentiment. The impressionists tried to
fade the images in the play of light and focused on the
theme of lonelyness, the futurists tried to express the
whirling and the vagueness, the fading of reality in their
paintings. To my opinion the car and the highway did not
add much to this in an essential way. With these themes
like the Boulevard, the station, the passing, the shrin-
king of the space and the logistical organisation of the
movement architects like Sorio y Mata, the Russian Desur-
banists, Mies von der Rohe, Le Corbusier and many others
have tried to come to terms, and the slides I'm showing
you all demonstrate the transformation of the city in a
network-like totality.
     The electronics increases the transmissionspeed of
messages and images up to the lightspeed. The characteris-
tics I formerly described such as the disconnection of the
daily environment and the interconnection of the places
are not experienced anymore by means of literary exeggera-
tion, but belong to the reality of everyday. We know
communications with the speed of light for quite a while
from the telegraph, the telephone and the radio, but these
communicationsystems did not touch urban design so much,
becouse they didn't intervene in its specific domain: the
visual representation of a place. This intervention came
up with the introduction of the television, the video and
the computer.
 I will concentrate on the video. The train revealed a
culture of the short circuit, the connection, the sticking
together of the places. The train did not represent these
phenomenae, but produced them. In this sense the train is
a revelationmachine that made something visible and invi-
sible that was already present in the material world. It
revealed a broken morphology and an imploded space. The
video is also a revelationmachine, that reveals a mutual
penetration, a fusion of one place with another, and it
does so in real-time, what is the consequence of the
transmission of the image at the speed of light.  
We can imagine the mutual penetration of the spaces if we
consider a situation that becomes more and more daily
reality. At the front door has been placed a camera and
somewhere in the building, in a room is a monitor, a
television screen. What happens here is the metamorphosis
of the traditional view on and the inspection of a sur-
rounding. In that sense the (surveillance) video relieves
the window. The window offered an outlook on the surroun-
dings thanks to its transparancy and the contiguity of the
spaces inside and outside. Through the window we had con-
tact with the adjacent environment, and this fact has been
of tremendous importance for the architecture of the
houses and their positioning in the city. But in the case
of the video, can we say it operates by means of trans-
parency and offers a view on an adjacent space? If we
imagine two persons who have a conversation by means of