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October 31, 2006

Adam Greenfield


On the failure (or impossibility) of mapping

Last night I had an appointment to meet some old friends at Freemans for drinks and - as is both my habit in general, and an occupational hazard when getting around town on a conveyance that moves faster than just about anything else in the mired cityscape - I showed up quite a bit early.

Having locked up my bike, I found myself with a good fifteen minutes on my hands, an absurdly generous stretch of time in which to stroll up and down the not-particularly-extensive length of Freeman's Alley. I didn't have a book, I didn't happen to have my Moleskine on me, I had nothing close at hand with which to divert my attention, and so I wound up subjecting the space of the alley to the kind of close and sustained inspection I so rarely get to lavish on anything.

I saw windows bricked up, apparently against the encroachment of a neighbor building that was no longer in evidence. I saw fronds of razorwire tangled in rusted lengths of now-obsolescent barb, the both moored to a stanchion that had somehow worked or been torn free from anything more solid than the wire itself and which remained hanging stupidly in the void. Above all I saw a thousand ad hoc interventions, each the trace of some occasion on which an electrician or a plumber or a contractor made an off-plan, field-expedient modification in the name of getting things done - the outstanding example of which was a congeries of coiled, small-gauge utility lines staplegunned to the alley's westerly wall, their distal ends disappearing through holes into the buildings beyond. Some of these were still tagged legibly (feed 193 chrystie roof), but most had long gone mute as to their function or purpose.

I took all of this in, over the course of a quarter-hour. And then I knew, immediately and in my bones, that any project devoted to the Borgesian attempt to map the built environment at even reasonably high resolution is forever doomed to failure, no matter how many self-reporting locational gizmos we tack onto the world. Time and layered improvisation had rendered this one alley-end baroque almost beyond description, calling into question the practicality of any attempt to represent it schematically. And from there, inevitably, the regress beckoned, as it always does for me, and I suddenly understood the world as nothing more than an enormous aggregation of moments like these.

Infrastructure foliates, ramifies. That's what it is, what it does. It has a thousand parents, all of whom work on their own, in effective silence, and none of whose efforts or intentions are fully knowable to anyone else. Infrastructure, as I once insisted to a friend, is a bitch. All the cables, conduits, trunks and buses our planetary girdle of awareness is built from - they may not literally have the power of self-reproduction, but they may as well have, given how far beyond any one agency's knowledge or control they are and continue to grow. You turn around for a moment and it's all changed. How could we possibly hope to map it all?

I can't help but think that this is one of those apparent insights which occasionally strike me with the force of epiphany, and yet are completely banal to others. I don't know why a few minutes at the back of one particular New York alley should impress this feeling on me - maybe it's the effect of recent attention to questions of situatedness and underspecification - but I do know that moving forward, I'll be a lot less likely to take seriously any schema of the world which relies on the accurate description or representation of live infrastructure for its force. [blogged by Adam Greenfield]

Posted by jo at October 31, 2006 02:44 PM