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monday :: december 2, 2002
> flow impressions
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 and machinery.

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 >from *Space of Flows: Characteristics and Strategies by Felix Stalder*, november 26, 2002.

related context
flow: the design challenge of pervasive computing. november 6, 2002
> think networks: the new science of networks. june 6, 2002
> steven johnson's emergence. october 29, 2001
> google it!

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