|space of flows
:: characteristics and strategies
Felix Stalder, from Openflows, gave a talk at the last Doors of Perception conference 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? And, how do we deal with these differences?
The conference flyer already introduced us to the famous idea of Heraclitus: every thing flows.
What he was referring to is a general condition of nature. Everything is in a constant process
of transformation. 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 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.
The space of today's information flows consists of three elements: the medium digital
communication technology, the flows information, and the nodes hybrids of people
The differences between the space of flows and space, as we know it, 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.
Function, value and meaning in the space of flows are relational and not absolute. 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.
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. The characteristics of
any technological form of life are not simply the sum of their individual qualities, but they
emerge from their interaction.
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 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. Excerpts
of Flows: Characteristics and Strategies by Felix Stalder*, november 26, 2002.
> flow: the design challenge
of pervasive computing. november 6, 2002
> think networks:
the new science of networks. june 6, 2002
johnson's emergence. october 29, 2001