The long here and the big now

A fragment, a note, to be returned to.

Anybody into geography, landscape architecture, or urban planning will (or should!) be aware of Kevin Kelly’s writing on what he calls the Big Here, a way of thinking about the extended spatial context we’re embedded in and a development of Peter Warshall‘s pioneering work in the area. And most of us have by now tripped across one or another of the provocative explorations of “deep time” bundled up in the Long Now idea.

Happily, these interventions have functioned in my life exactly as I believe they were intended to: they expanded and refined my perceptions, helped me look at the world around me in a different light, and even occasionally urged me to one or another practical decision about the way I wanted to live my life.

But as I’ve considered how urban experiences are constructed under the condition of ubiquitous informatics, I’ve slowly come around to thinking that these Whole Earthy ideas are in general precisely the inverse of how we actually perceive things when afforded the technologies I’m so interested in. The terms are painfully reductive, but let’s for the time being go with the convention that’s been established: “u-” places are nothing if not cities of the long here and the big now.

The “long here” part is, I think, a little easier to make out; we’ve already seen how easily we can lay a persistently retrievable history of the things that are done and witnessed there over any place that can specified with lat/long coordinates. Whenever I’ve used the phrase “anchoring subjectivities,” this is what I was thinking of: place now has visible depth in time.

What about “the big now,” though? It’s shorthand for the enhanced and deepened sense of simultaneity – of the world’s massive parallelism – that certain digital artifacts lend us. The most concrete example I can come up with is my experience of Twitter, which, like one of the great NYTE visualizations, though more subtly and expressively, quite clearly reveals the great waves of activity and slumber sweeping over the globe. A ten-minute interval may see reports of friends’ experiencing rush-hour frustrations in the Bay Area, dining out in New York, and late night dancing in London, a notable lacuna in pings from Brussels or Torino or Helsinki, and then the first groggily pre-caffeinated dispatches from Seoul and Tokyo. For me, at least, it’s been difficult to see my New York through quite the same eyes, when every time I get my phone out I feel the entire planet’s deeper rhythms working themselves out.

I’m willing to bet that these are among the factors which will do the most to bend and shape our experience of urban place in the next few years to come. If, as so many have pointed out, the ongoing process of digital ephemeralization has taken previously place-bound functions like communication, banking and commerce, and exploded them – “smearing them across urban space,” in Bill Mitchell’s words – it’s without question also doing interesting and significant things to how we perceive the nexus of place and time. This is something I’m going to want to explore in more detail in the book.

26 responses to “The long here and the big now”

  1. Matt says :


  2. ville says :

    Made the $10 pre-order deposit few hours ago. Now waiting for the book even more! :)

  3. einar says :

    Have you tried to connect these thoughts on time/space in ubicomp with Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis?(or have you come across someone who has?)

  4. AG says :

    Yep. I’ve got a passage that starts from “Seen From The Window”‘s assertion that “no image or series of images” can capture the city’s rhythms, and, uh, disagrees rather sharply.

    I spend most of it talking about new visualizations, but also point out that “Seen From The Window” postdates Koyaanisqatsi, which as far as I’m concerned is the canonical depiction of urban flow. You kind of want to agree with the broader point Lefebvre’s trying to make about the sovereignty of the human heart as analytical instrument, but it’s difficult when the contrary evidence is lying thick on the ground.

    The way to reconcile these viewpoint is, of course, to posit that artifacts like NYTE and Cabspotting and Koyaanisqatsi are themselves the product of particularly acute and sensitive observers, rendering their perceptions of the world in persistent media. I’d of course tend to agree…but I get the idea Lefebvre wouldn’t. : . )

  5. Anne says :

    FWIW, it’s my understanding that Lefebvre’s point in that chapter was that the city in its entirety or as an entirety is impossible to know empirically, let alone represent ‘accurately.’ He refers to the glimpse as a matter of memory, recollection or repetition – which is a point well worth bringing up in relation to your claims that new visualisations represent both persistence and simultaneity.

  6. AG says :

    Anne, I think that’s right, or that’s certainly the impression I get from it; my passage admits that “there’s a profound sense in which he’s right, and always will be.”

    There will always and ever, in other words, be issues of interpretation. But as to the impossibility of empirical knowledge, I think this will increasingly be understood as a failure of performance – that “if only” “we” could get sensors on every bus, every tree, every brick, every warm body, then the city would surely reveal itself in all its magnificence and immediacy.

    Well, you know what I think about that, intellectually and even in terms of its desirability. Nevertheless, I suspect that this sort of dense carpet of sensing and mediation will prove an irresistible target for many of the parties to the municipal conversation, in very many places.

  7. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Adam, I hate to get meta here, but how do you distinguish between visualization and representation? It seems that this is a pretty important thing to address when talking about Koyaanisqatsi and Cabspotting in the same sentence.

  8. AG says :

    To me, both documents are representations. Admittedly, they surely differ – and importantly – in degree of abstraction, and in the amount of control the creative agency in question has imposed. But both documents involve an underlying set of movements enacted in time and space, both involve acts of selection, both involve the intervention of an editorial intelligence.

    Still more: I believe they both speak equally, albeit in their different ways, to that immanent order I believe Lefebvre was interested in fixing via his project of “rhythmanalysis.”

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