Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Alleyways and Interstitials

I have been thinking about Interstitial Infrastructure: those hidden, undocumented architectures of the physical and/or virtual worlds, not necessarily temporary or permanent, but that don't fit within the predetermined social framework: like makeshift clotheslines, suspended between high-rise apartment buildings, draped with colorful articles of clothing, unforeseen and unanticipated by urban planners or governmental officials; like shanty towns of ad hoc shelters, arising on land otherwise undesired; like cars parked on empty lots and bare fields in the urban metropolis, sporting hand-lettered "For Sale" signs, the artifacts of a makeshift, interstitial economy; like flea markets and garage sales, sprouting up in areas not originally intended for public commerce, with haphazard, makeshift advertising signs, fashioned from cardboard boxes, weighed down in the medians of nearby intersections by bricks and stones. Artifacts, all of these examples, of things otherwise hidden and indistinct, the Dark Matter of the social metropolis that reveals invisible fissures in an otherwise flawless facade.

I was walking through an alleyway in an older, well-established part of town, behind a strip of established businesses, and happened upon, high up on the worn brickwork, the half-faded detritus of an old painted sign, partially obscured, left over from decades ago like archaeological evidence of a previous civilization, whose passing is measured not in centuries but in cycles of economic ebb and flow. The few words I could make out indicated some radio or television shop. But, given the street address, would I be able to Google the history of this building's past business occupants? No; these businesses faded into the dustbin of history long before the internet's arrival. Instead, one would need to peruse the dog-eared pages of old City Directories in the local public library for a clue about this long-since-faded local history, whose intrinsic value may lie only within the passionate concern of the archivist, in an age when intrinsic value is meaningless, the concept of worth being measured only by consumer marketability or political expediency.

In an age when it is assumed everything is documented and Googleable, it comes as a surprise that many things aren't, in fact, Googleable. I wonder if the presumption of Googleability itself is a fundamental mistake we too easily fall into, and in whose wake are left countless unrecorded stories of lives left lost. It is as if the internet remains merely a sieve between whose skeins countless minutiae are left undisturbed, uncounted, unfiltered; lost. We may never know, unless we dust off and rebuild those once vital but now fallow mechanisms of local and personal history-making.

Alleyways themselves are interstitial, and long since obsolete. Housing developers have long ago abandoned the alleyway as a waste of subdivision real estate, and local municipalities have reinforced these tendencies by moving the function of waste collection, once hidden from public view in the alleyway behind one's residence, boldly onto the front curb, overtly proclaiming these once mundane, modest and private activities, like toilet stalls absent the modesty that comes from a door of privacy, a Panopticon-like compromise for the sake of efficiency and expediency. Private vehicles used to be parked in garages behind one's residence, out of sight, accessed by alleyway, a carryover from the even more ancient carriage house of the pre-automobile era, rendering the streetside of one's residence more pedestrian accessible and aesthetically pleasing. But since alleys have been dispensed with, suburbs are now blighted by the detritus of countless automobiles crowding driveways, curbsides, even front yards, the fact punctuated by the recent phenomenon of adult children remaining in, or returning to, their childhood nests; the after-effects of economic devastation and expediency-driven urban planning.

We can grasp the real hidden cost of riddance, when the interstitial, these intermediary fissures between the overt structures of society, have been efficiently and effectively put out, there being nowhere else for the once hidden to remain hidden. Organic growth happens through fissures in the existing matrix, ever expanding and widening, offering space from which new growth can fill in and expand. Interestingly, any attempts at the covering over or elimination of the interstitial, rather than removing all possibility of further organic growth, results in unforeseen, unpredictable consequences. Parasitic economies, seemingly devoid of self-sustenance, paradoxically remain, even thrive, in times of social or economic unrest. These parasitic neural and limbic systems seem inextricably intertwined with their feeder economies, waxing and waning along with the flux of growth and death in the local economy, their social impact uncounted, undetermined, unknowable. These often are manifested in the black markets of sex, stolen property and illicit drugs. The tendency for organic growth remains implicit, like weeds sprouting from between slabs of concrete, their presence intrinsic, but unplanned and unwanted.

There is this concept, documented in William Gibson's new novel "Zero History," referring to a person who has no traceable background, who remains unGoogleable. He posits the question of what it will take, in the near future, to remain unGoogleable. I suspect some of my older relatives might be unGoogleable; they have no direct internet presence or email account. There is the possibility they might exist in some local governmental records website, and the certainty that they exist in Social Security, IRS and insurance databases; but whether this constitutes having an internet presence is debatable. These are the denizens of Information Alleyways (in contrast to the Information Superhighway), the interstitials within which the hidden remains unseen.

Gibson postulates that, like Dark Matter in the observable universe, up to 90% may remain unseen, whether in Information Alleyways or "Darknets," those hidden recesses of the internet that officially don't exist, maintained by both governments and private interests, that remain removed from public scrutiny, the inverse of Democracy in the Information Age.

Our personal participation in the public square of the internet presents a dichotomy: on the one hand, excess openness on social networking sites opens up the possibility of one's private information to exploit, while on the other hand having one's private information secretly held only within governmental-corporate data bases, outside of our direct knowledge or scrutiny, sustains a background level of uncertainty and fear. Both end up having a similar affect upon our psyche, in that we feel our lives are out of our control and exploitable by unseen or hidden forces. What many of us are sensing, but cannot express in concrete language, is that we are desiring of the need for purpose-built interstitials, alleyways through which the private or mundane can proceed, hidden from public scrutiny, while the public front yards of our virtual and real persona are neat, orderly and aesthetically pleasing. This is the intrinsic benefit of ensuring the sustainability of personal privacy, in an age when individuals are cultivated from birth to death as a fertile source of information for the benefit of, and consumption by, governmental-corporate interests, a kind of meta information farming. Our hidden desire is that such information farming be conducted as organically and sustainably as possible.


Blogger Winston said...

I liked Zero History too. Gibson's novels are strange. You know the world is changing in them but it's never clear just how. And then it's those little interstitial fragments that linger in the brain years later.

12:01 PM  

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