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April 15, 2020

Messy Entanglements

Review "Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media" by Sharon Mattern

The other day, like any other day, I stepped outside my door to take out the trash, only to find out the local garbage bin was full (read: overflowing and smelly). Being a good digital native, I went back inside to google the nearest alternative. Instead, I stumbled across a page on the website of the municipality of Amsterdam where you can report containers that are full or out of order. It offers three options: the first is by telephone (read: long bureaucratic slog), the second is by online contact form (idem, although probably slightly shorter), and the third is by using the free app Verbeter de Buurt (“Improve the Neighborhood”). [1] Easy choice, then.

In the app⁠ [2], I saw that other people had also experienced the same problem with the very same garbage container, and that we shared this unfortunate predicament with many other citizens of Amsterdam, as afval (“garbage”) seemed to be the most common type of melding (“notification/report”). However, being a slightly older digital native, I easily get lost in novelties like this, especially ones that are public and so ended up clicking on as many of the notifications spread throughout the city as I could find, from my current neighborhood in de Pijp to the one I will soon be moving to in Noord. There too, like this side of the river Ij, trash seems to be the main concern, together with faulty street signs and a fallen tree or two. At a certain point, though, I came across an anomaly: a post categorized as Groenvoorziening (“green facilities/amenities”) in which a user named 3555hans (responsible for a large portion of the “meldingen” of that area) had reported a little tent in between some reeds.[⁠3] The caption, like the category of the post, seemed impersonal at first: “Sleeping spot in park behind Laanweg in reeds”. It dates from last summer and its “status”, though similarly indifferent, carried an ominous inflection: “registered.” This supposedly neutral, public, democratic, and data driven app to improve bureaucratic efficiency suddenly took on a more sinister edge: “Improving” the neighborhood, for whom exactly?

The Verbeter de Buurt app comes at a time when governments and municipalities the world over are ceding many of their traditional responsibilities to private tech developers—from Uber, Alphabet (née Google), and Cityplanner taking over public transport (Wilding), to the grander utopian projects like an entire “smart” neighborhood in Toronto being built by Google or Bill Gates’ $80M “smart city” project in Arizona (McFarland). [4] The municipality of Amsterdam already has agreements sharing “anonymous” traffic data with local tech giant TomTom (who provides mapping and traffic data to Apple and Uber) and American mapping app Waze (owned, of course, by Alphabet) (Kruyswijk). It seems that we might already be living in a “smart city”, even though we (or at least I) didn’t know it. Indeed, various cities in the Netherlands don’t have a particularly good track record of being transparent about the data collections they’re selling, giving away, or outsourcing to private “improvers”: from sensors and webcams in rowdy streets in Eindhoven to more questionable profiling of certain age and income group activity via “targeted and innovative supervision” in Utrecht (Naafs), perhaps this digital “improvement” isn’t necessarily better for everyone.

The guiding metaphor for the ideology and rhetoric behind all of this digitization –thanks to digital technology the city will be “smarter” and thus improved– is that of the city as computer or operating system. Shannon Mattern’s recent book Code and Clay, Data and Dirt is positioned in direct opposition to this kind of thinking. A culmination of her varied research in media studies and urbanization over the past decade or so, Code and Clay posits that cities have in fact always been intelligent, that there are many analog versions of these digital metaphors all over time and space (Code and Clay 49; see also “A City is Not a Computer”), and aims to show how the various ways in which cities have materialized over the past thousands of years have in turn shaped the ways we communicate and think. Mattern argues that there are many forms of “place-based intelligences”, often (hyper)local and embodied: in us, in our performative cultural practices, in the other species we co-habit with, and even the matter––the streets, the parks, the buildings, the air(waves)––that we inhabit (“The Intelligence of Cities”). These kinds of smart-avant-la-lettre aspects of cities are important, because they have shaped urban environments in often functional, sustainable and equitable ways for millennia. Losing sight of the fact that cities are composed of “productively confused materialities and temporalities” (Code and Clay 156) therefore risks losing sight of those who actually inhabit those urban spaces and beyond, from bee populations to pirate radio antennae to the bedrock (or swamp, in Amsterdam’s case) on which cities are built, and yes, even people sleeping in tents.

Mattern’s main focus, therefore, is on asking not only how cities are mediated, how they have always been mediated, but how they function as media themselves, a notion borrowed from media theorist Friedrich Kittler, whose post-humanist style of media history envisions the urban environment as huge assemblage of information processing and storing infrastructure, the hardware of the city written into its material environment (722) While this approach highlights the material landscape in cities’ vast computational networks and workings, Mattern feels that these theories “leave[...] little room for affect, for meaningful experiences, for humans” (xvii, original italics). While some modern techno-solutionist developers might acknowledge the role architecture, art and human emotion play in urban planning, Mattern still feels they lack an appreciation of the “deep time” of cities’ material assemblages (xxv), which is why she situates this book in the relatively obscure field of “media archaeology”, using this sub-discipline to anchor the forking disciplinary and methodological paths this book takes.

As we already saw, media archaeology allows her to turn away from traditional hermeneutic interpretations (“city as text”) to the material, by focusing on “hardware”. It also allows Mattern to embrace nonlinear histories and focus on “the longue durée of urban mediation” (xv), switching up the temporality Lastly, her tactic of taking media archaeology’s name seriously aims to allow her brand of “urban media archaeology” to be both inside and outside archeology-proper, placing this book as a kind critique-from-within that doesn’t dismiss the field entirely (xxi). As she writs, Code and Clayis to be read as:

a literal archaeology of the mediated city, a materialist, multisensory survey and excavation of the deep material history—that is, a cultural materialist history that acknowledges the physicality, the “stuff,” of history and culture—composing our mediated cities and urban intelligences (xxi).

Taking this “cultural materialist history” angle into account, then, her division of the book into four achronological sections focusing on different media all over the world makes more sense. Code and Clay does not represent a definitive mode of knowing, but an entangled medium as much as anything it describes. By shifting from waves to wires, steel to ink, mud to stones and even human voices, Mattern not only situates her approach against overly visual representations of urban media (and urban environments generally), overly unreflexive academic disciplinary practices and overly (techno-solutionist) teleological conceptions of urban development; she enacts the very kind of “productive mix of materialities” (xi) that she is describing.

Barely holding all of the intellectual, physical, sensorial, and transmedial hopping and skipping throughout the book together is Mattern’s overarching concept (if you can call it that) of topos, “a particular archaeological-infrastructural emblem” (xxxvii). All the messy materialities she describes throughout are topoi: localized “artifacts” in the grandest sense of the word that are not quite localized, neither confined by time (they are easily revisited), nor space (they migrate, disappear, and resurface). A single topos might not be more than a fun fact, but taken together, going back and forth between them and being open to forking paths and unexpected twists exemplifies the kinds of “place-based intelligences” she seeks to describe.

Indeed, after reading how ink and steel helped shape offices, architectures, communications and cultures; how mud has been central to the development of scripts, bureaucracies, and literacies; how sound has refracted and been refracted by the city; some kind of topological resonance starts to form. At its best, Code and Clay uses this resonance to engage with political questions of culture and communication: who gets to say what through this medium? What do a medium’s particularities tell us about the sociopolitical context in which it was created? Mattern’s eye (and ear) for detail and description makes for very entertaining reading (most of the “academic stuff” is in the endnotes), but it can sometimes feel disorienting, and her style of continually opening up more and more possibilities and never making any of them fully concrete makes for a bit of a muddy argument at times (excuse the material puns).

However, in the grander scheme of the book (and far beyond), this probably serves her point: to underline the messy materiality of the world, the constant entanglement of knowledges, practices, spaces, imaginations, and materials. Furthermore, her focus on the confluence of shifts in epistemologies, ontologies, and material environments has much larger implications beyond (disciplinary) scholarly practice. Beyond cities, her argument for the entanglement of knowledges, material environments, and practices could seriously various hierarchies of knowledges, of beings, of all matter even. It would have been interesting, therefore, if she had expanded on some of these themes in an afterword, but perhaps this is my epistemophilia for a clear-cut ending talking, my locally-inflected cultural, transmedial sensitization to the material-ontological and epistemological environment of books, libraries, and universities in which arguments usually have beginnings, middles, and ends.

The book, though, despite all its offshoots, must end somewhere. Towards its end, Mattern writes: “Maybe your city has even launched a new radio network— a LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) to accommodate the chatter from its residents’ intelligent devices…” (156). ⁠[5] As I type this, I look out of the window across the street at the monumental 19th century former post office that is now a shopping mall, trying to envision all sorts of data floating around it in the ether, while noticing for the first time the bricks on its façade (no mere detail, as Chapter 3 is entirely dedicated to the interwoven history of mud, bricks, inscription, and urbanization), its ornamental carvings and graffiti (both epigraphies, an ancient and still-relevant practice of mediating in and on cities, Mattern would add), and begin to wonder if this is indeed “my” city. I google LoRaWAN and find that Amsterdam was the first city to be completely blanketed with this network in 2015 (Ricker). [6] Somehow, I’m not surprised. Once again, without my knowing, I seem to have been living in a city that’s quietly been “improved” in the background, an update to the operating system I don’t remember clicking on .

If cities, as Mattern shows, have consisted of communicative entanglements all along, then perhaps our current urban environments have been communicative in ways we are only just starting to be able to see, read, hear, and intuit. But what does this mean for urban environments like “mine”, where digitization becomes shorthand for improvement? What kinds of place-based intelligences, entangled topoi, and local participants not suited to digital environments or metaphors are being overlooked? In any case, Mattern argues that, despite all the messiness involved, people usually tend to end up all right…so far. Obscuring that mess, the fact that cities are both old and new, ether and ore, data and dirt, code and clay, is something we would do well to be more aware of as we construct our future cities, our future environments, and in doing so, our future lives.

Works Cited

  1. There’s even an English version of the webpage (scroll down for “reporting full or damaged containers”): https://www.amsterdam.nl/en/waste-recycling/household-waste/
  2. There’s also a web-based version: https://www.verbeterdebuurt.nl/
  3. https://www.verbeterdebuurt.nl/melding/163763
  4. Although he’s already been one-upped by Saudi Arabia, where plans have recently been unveiled for a new, flashy $500BN border-crossing metropolis near the Red Sea. For more details plus the fantastically flashy official 1-minute promotional video: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/saudi-arabia-building-billion-mega-bigger-new-york-city-a8230731.html
  5. Mattern’s style of address in the quote above is typical of Code and Clay, continually implicating the reader: “our discussion of print” (150); “in the next chapter, we’ll learn about…” (77); “the archaeological context surrounding those texts helps us better understand…” (101, all my italics). This is why I have felt the need in this paper more than ever to insert myself, my imaginings, wanderings and feelings, as well as the material environment surrounding me, the assemblage of topoi where I now sit (my waste, my local garbage bin, my computer screen, my google searches, the signals floating around me, the mice probably scurrying underneath me right now, etc.) which have all become entangled somehow in shaping this text.
  6. See https://www.thethingsnetwork.org/. Even though the company that set up the network is not big by our current tech standards, the website still evokes the kind of techno-solutionist rhetoric prevalent throughout the world today (more connectivity = smarter = better). I also think its application in agriculture is an interesting route along which Mattern’s methodology could be taken beyond the city’s limits.

Works Cited


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