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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Space of Flows:
Characteristics and Strategies

Felix Stalder

This text addresses three interrelated questions in order to query the status of the object within the space of flows and speculate about some ramifications for designing within this new environment.

* What is the space of flows in general?
* How is it different from the space of places, the type of geography we learned in school? And, finally,
* how do we deal with these differences?

So, what is the space of flows? The conference flyer already introduced us to the famous idea of Heraclitus: panta rei: everything flows. What he was referring to is a general condition of nature. Everything is in a constant process of transformation. Even Mount Everest is not static but continuous to grow at a rate of about 3-5 millimeters each year.

The concept of the space of flows is different from this. It refers to a specific historic condition which has become predominant only quite recently, arguably in the mid 1970s. The space of flows – to give you a general definition – is that stage of human action whose dimensions are created by dynamic movement, rather than by static location.

The operative words here are movement and human action. Without movement, this space would cease to exist and we would fall back into the space of places, defined by mountains, buildings and borders.

Equally important, the movement takes place through human action and it creates the conditions for our everyday lifes. In this sense, the drifting tectonic plates, even though they move too, are not part of the space of flows. They drift no matter what we do, causing much headache and the occasional humbling experience to Californians.

I said that the space of flows has become the dominant predominant stage on which our world is shaped only recently. But, of course, there have always been social spaces that were created by movement. Here in Amsterdam, the maritime world of long distance trading is still very present.

The space of flows – now and then – consists of three elements:

* the medium through which things flows,
* the things that flow, and
* the nodes among which the flows circulate.

In regard to Dutch long distance trading, the medium was the ocean. The medium was characterized by currents, storms and many other conditions that favoured some flows over others. Oceans and sailing ships were unsuitable for trading fresh fruits, but highly capable of transporting dried spices. This point can be generalized. There is always a close relationship between the medium of the flows and their contents. One of the first messages that came through the transatlantic telegraph cable when it opened in the mid 19th century was: The Queen has a cold. This factoid became newsworthy only under the conditions of instantaneous transmission.

The final element in the space of flows are the nodes, the harbours and trading posts that the Dutch established around the world. Flows always go from one node to an other. In a world with only a single harbour, ships are mere entertainment. Nodes focus movement into flows. Nodes, like the harbour where goods are loaded into ships, are membranes that connect various flows to one another and flows with places: a node is a kind of interface, and like all interfaces, they shape profoundly what they interface to.

Flows are created by subtle interplay of similarity and difference among nodes. People who do not speak the same language have a very hard time communicating. People who know the exact same stories have nothing to tell to one another. We have all seen old couples who sit silently next to one another. They know each other so well that they have nothing to exchange anymore.

Despite similarities, maritime flows are also every different from today's information flows. Since ports, the distance between them and the currents of the sea are relatively stable, the maritime space of flows is static in ways ours is not.

The quintessential node in our contemporary space of flows is the office, the command and control centers for the flows of goods, people and information. In pre-industrial manufacturing, the function of the work bench and of the office were barely separated. Rather, they were one and the same. This was efficient was long as the flows were small and slow. As volume and speed of production increased, this model came into a crisis. As a direct response to the growth of the factory output over the previous 100 years, the office emerged into centrality in the second half of the 19th century.

Flows and nodes began to differentiate.

The office represents the attempt to better manage the flows of goods pouring out of the factories. These flows are constantly threatening to run out of control, through over-production or runaway costs. The world of the office introduced a central theme of the culture of flows: the paradox that the practice of"hyper control" coexists with the condition of „out of control‰. They do not simply coexist at the same time, but more worryingly, because of one another. The two conditions are not contradictions, but actually two sides of the same medal.

In the process of differentiation of flows and nodes, the office moved away from the workbench. First into a separate room within the factory, then into a separate building within the centralized factory complex. Think of Ford's famous factory where raw iron ore entered on one side and finished cars left on the other. This is a node in the word were information flows in the office circulate through the medium of paper.

Now that information circulates through digital media, nodes and flows are differentiating even further. As volume and speed increase, both are growing to the extend that producing a sneaker has become an incredibly complex process involving research labs, marketing firms and production facilities around the world.

The important point here is: as volume and pace of the flows increases, nodes and flows are becoming more and more different logically, while functionally are being integrated ever more tightly. The worlds of the glittering NIKE head offices and the pretty bleak conditions under which its sneakers are produced are much more separated than what differentiated Henry Ford from his workers, they both worked and lived in more or less the same place. At the same time, the production cycle is becoming shorter and shorter to the degree that you can have a „personalized‰ NIKE shoe, just for you. The cycle has shrunk to a single point of real time interaction.

By now were are already deep into the second question: what are the differences between the space of flows and space as we know it?

I have already mentioned, it's made up of movement that brings distant elements – things and people – into an interrelationship that is characterized today by being continuous and in real time. Historically speaking, this is new. There have always been cultures that were built across large distances. But now, their interaction is in real time. Being entirely digital, one of its consequences is that space can expand and contract very quickly. Just think of the volatility if the stock market which has a lot to do with the volume and speed of trading.

What is perhaps more important is that such changes are not only quantitative – changes in size – but also qualitative – changes in kind. As flows change their volume and direction, nodes change their characteristics. This is perhaps the most central difference between the space of places and the space of flows. In the latter, the characteristics of each element are less dependent on their internal quality than on their relationship to others. These relationships, of course, are created by flows.

In other words, function, value and meaning in the space of flows are relational and not absolute. Acquiring a the latest expert system does not guarantee that one has sophisticated advice at one's disposal. More often than not, making such a system work in the unique configuration of information flows that characterize each company is a daunting task.

Whether a node works or not, then, is not determined within the node, but emerges from the network of which the node is only a part. As the network changes, as old connection die and new ones are established, as the flows are reorganized through other nodes, meaning, functionality, values changes too.

How do we deal with that?

The immediate question is: Who is „we‰? If we take it seriously that things – and people – are less defined by their intrinsic qualities but more by their relational position to one another, then the unit of analysis – and action – can no longer be the single element, an individual person, a product or a company.

We have to shift our attention away from the "within" on to the "in-between‰. Rather than asking what is made out of, we have to ask, what does it interface to?

In a similar shift of focus, social scientists have recently started to talk about "technological forms of life". By this they do not mean anything like artificial life, but the following: if two people are engaged in a conversation and develop a new idea, this idea does not stem from one or the other, but from the association – or the form of life – that they created. What is "in-between" people, is "within" a form of life.

By adding the modifier technological to the concept of the „form of life‰ the emphasis is put on the fact that these associations are increasingly made possible, and influenced, by technology, particularly information technology. It provides the medium through which information can flow among the participants. Again, we have the three elements of create a system of flows:

* the medium – digital communication technology
* the flows – information, and
* the nodes hybrids – of people and machinery.

The characteristics of any technological form of life are not simply the sum of their individual qualities, but they emerge from their interaction. Importantly, as life becomes technological, technology becomes life-like. Again, this mean that we are becoming Terminator-like cyborgs or technology will be able to reproduce itself autonomously. Rather, the two stand increasingly in a dynamic ecological relationship to one another. Technology – continuously and in real time – adapts to people who seek out the possibilities of new technologies. Their relationship evolves through constant feedback – flows circulating among nodes – rather than as cause and effect.

From the point of view of purposeful design this creates a problem. We cannot design technological forms of life, they are emergent. What we can do, though, is design some of its elements, particularly the objects. These elements, however, are complemented by elements outside of our immediate control.

This brings us back to the theme of the co-existence of "hyper control" and "out of control". We can micro-manage ever more precisely over ever greater distances. At the same time, we become ever more affected by, and dependent on, things are outside of our individual reach. The emergent effects, that which gives ultimately meaning and value to the individual elements that we design are even harder to steer.

This does not lessen the importance of design, but it changes its characteristics. As meaning and functionality move from the object of design into relationships created by flows, the object in itself becomes incomplete. One cannot know what the full shape of an object is before one tries it out by inserting it into a specific intersection of flows. There it takes on a kind of life of its own.

Nodes need to be generic so that they become specific under the condition that we cannot fully predict. This is not because we do not know enough. On the contrary in a highly integrated environment, in the medium of instantaneous digital data flows, our interventions to manage, or design, one little instance within the large space of flows is part what creates uncontrollability of the overall environment. Unintended consequences, filtered through the entire space, will sooner or later come back and surprise us by reconfiguring the conditions for the node that we have just so consciously designed. That's the moment we need to be ready for.

updated Monday 31 March 2003
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