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June 9, 2005

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Detroit Tag City? What?

Over on Smart Mobs they’re talking about Detroit and social software, two topics that interest me greatly.

But… I have no idea what any of this means:

Detroit, like the urban experience in general, has become non-referential. Its empty spaces, or “ruins” as the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website declares, don’t refer to anything anymore. Tagging allows us to transform that non-referentiality into social experience.

Gah! Is this more than techno-gibberish?

Posted June 9, 2005 at 12:10 | Comments (20) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Nay, 'tis Derrida and his legion of deconstructionists! Referentiality! Intertextual space! Social space! Signifiers! Aporia!

No one really knows what these things mean. But they sound kind of cool, don't they?

(I *am* kidding. Deconstructivism is a legitimate philosophical inquiry as far as semiotics et al are concerned, although you do get the ridiculous radical postmodernists trying to apply it to everything, including, viz. urban disintegration).

Hey Y'all,

I am the dude who posted that to smartmobs. I guess I should have clarified it more (or maybe quote dthe article better).

it really is more than techno-gibberish, and more than post-modern philosophizing.

The idea is to create a type tagging system for the entire city of Detroit, for instance (and perhaps other social software appplications as well). What does this have to do with urban renewal? It creates a virtual space for public dialogue that is tied to the place. It also creates an open knowledge commons that is tied to a place.

People can link anything to a place. Webpages with news articles, data about environmental quality, about property value, blog postings, experiences/anecdotes etc etc.

A person could come along with a a cell phone and follow all of these links. Or, if thir cellphone isn't web-enabled, but is perhaps GPS enebled, they could make places and look them up later via a website that records their location choices. Or, they could simply surf to google maps and look at everything that is linked to a place there. This is far more important for real urban renewal than you might think. Currently, lots of people use blog software, and folksonomy-style software, and social networking software. This can all be tied into location-based "tagging" software. So, you can follow social networking links, or "folksonomy" links to blog postings, webpages, news articles, wikis, and so on.

All of this information, and all of these "tags" that lead to info about a place will help me better understand how you experience a place,and vice versa. Furthermore, if this type of activity begins to spread to a lot of people throughout the city, then it creates new networks of connections between people, while simultaneously giveng them new ways to share experiences through a medium much like the one I am sharing experiences with you through right now. It also gives people a place to share knowledge and data about a place. This can reveal government/corporate corruption, and help people become more informed and knowledgeable about their communities.

So, it's not "deconstructivism" so much as simply extended several networking, and knowledge/info/data creating and sharing into a new medium. Attaching lots of information to a place. And it's also giving people new ways to get to know each other.

Okay, I think I get the concept -- and indeed, I've seen other systems like this floating around -- but how is this specifically appropriate to Detroit?

To me it seems in fact NOT appropriate to Detroit, given the initial assumption of emptiness. Wouldn't you need a lot of people to build up a critical mass of tags? And not just a lot of people, but a lot of nerdy computer-toting people?

Yes, in fact even in places that currently DO have a lot of "nerdy computer-toting" people, something like this would be a few years off from bcoming what Rice envisions. All of the technologies exist, but the software applications to make it possible with something like cellphones are still in their infancy, if they even exist at all.

I think that this type of project is appropriate to Detroit, or any city. I live somewhat near Detroit. I know that, although there are a lot of empty commercial and residential buildings, there are also a lot of people there (and a lot of occupied buildings). All of those people have to have some kind of opinion about the areas that they drive through, walk through, live near and work within. Even if all they are saying is "this is ugly". Or, "the city should turn this area into a park." The idea is instead of tyring to just turn downtown into a "digital center", that you turn the whole city into a digitized city.

Rice's "assemblage" idea allows people to link to ideas about how to redesign those empty spaces, even perhaps to brainstorm and create ways to raise money to make improvements.

Within a few years, I thik the technology will be available within even some of the cheapest cell phones to allow a scenario like Rice's to exist. This will open up certain dimensions of a medium like this to almost anyone.

I don't think it will require "nerdy" people to participate. That would depend upon the way people design the interfaces.

The main thing I took away from Rice's paper was that grass roots, bottom-up networks of Detroit citizens will more likely successfully and sustainably renew Detroit than trying to import whatever the current "hot" industry is into Detroit's downtown.

It's an interesting idea - I've seen similar ideas too, e.g. hyperlinked text graffiti that one can access via WEP - but really, a venture of this ambition and nature would require an audience with a confluence of two characteristics: technologically inclined, and non-apathetic. The ease of the former would feed into the latter, naturally (i.e. the easier it is to add your contribution, the more likely you'd be bothered to do it) but somehow I think the technology won't be prevalent and accessible enough anytime in the near future, unless it has real commercial and consumer appeal. There's definitely a youth dimension to this too - or perhaps adults in the states are more tech savvy? My mother wouldn't find the right click on the mouse if I gave her two tries.

Well, it would be interesting to see how it played out. I'm dubious there's sufficient technologically inclined non-apathetic youthful types in Detroit to approach that critical mass of tags, but Sam has a point that citizens themselves would probably know best how to renew their own town.

As someone who knows a thing or two about quasi-intellectual academic gibberish AND the city of Detroit, I have to say that even if Rice's article isn't JUST quasi-intellectual academic gibberish, it is, in fact, at least mostly quasi-intellectual academic gibberish.

Notice that I say "mostly" and "quasi-", not "entirely" and "pseudo-." Some things -- like, say, what Sam Rose pulled out of it -- make sense. But the postmodern veneer is pretty absurd. Lyotard's critique of grand narratives is sloppily if not mistakenly applicable here. In so far as the article is about anything, it's about the replacement of a centralized city organized around industry and labor by a decentralized city organized around information and commerce. I'd say that this is THE grand narrative operating behind this and most other reconceptualizations of the city. Yes, you can make a tangential connection between narrative breakdown and the digital city through the idea of cybernetics, but that doesn't really clarify anything or get you anywhere new.

And while we're at it: "Referentiality, of course, is the basis of print culture. But Detroit is no longer a product of that culture, and that is why Richard Florida's graphs and diagrams of equation between specific types of individuals and urban economic potential cannot pan out." Let's start from the top -- in what sense *was* Detroit a "product" of print culture? What's changed to make it "no longer a product" of print culture? And what does this have to do with Richard Florida's graphs? Again, it's tangential, sleight-of-hand logic that doesn't prove anything or go anywhere.

It's like saying that people migrated to Detroit or Chicago in search of "a fixed place." That's ridiculous for several reasons, but let's pick two. First, they traveled in search of jobs, not out of any mystic-existential yen for fixity. Secondly, if anything, most migrants to industrial cities sought to escape the crushing fixity of place of the farms and small towns of the midwest and South. Cities then as now offered freedom, anonymity, and possibility. The fixity came later, when the jobs left and the workers who could leave did, leaving the rest behind. Most people whom I know from Detroit experience its fixity of place, fused with its vestigial placelessness, as something dreadful.

I could write more, but that would probably bleed into what I want to write about the ending of EPIC 2015: that the real revolution of digital technology might not be its obliteration of place but the reinvention of and reinvestment in the local. I think that's what Rice is trying, in part to get at, but it's covered over in grimy po-mo plaque.

P.S.: Folks, it's "Deconstruction." That's it. No -isms, and for heaven's sake, no -ivism or -ivists. It comes from a term of Heidegger's, "Destruktion", that Derrida picked up and used a few times in his writing in the 60s. What it means is making a philosophical claim or system fall apart by picking out one aspect of it that doesn't seem to be immediately important, showing that this aspect is in fact central, then showing how it contradicts itself or stands in for or masks some other unresolved problem. That's it.

Yes, deconstruction. Apologies for the overenthusiastic conjugations :) Also 'deconstructive reading', as the specific term for the method of analysis.

Speaking of postmodernists, Tim, if you haven't already, you should pick up a copy of Alan Sokal's 'Intellectual Impostures'. In the anti-pomo vein of this discourse, it's a side-splitting read :)

Hey, just to reaffirm, I'm a literature and literary grad, and I'm all for Derrida, Lyotard, and co. But there is something about the language of postmodern thought that lends itself to misunderstandings, misapplications and abuse. Wankery is wankery, no matter whose flag you're flying.

Postmodern thought is language, and language, supposedly, can mean anything - thus lending itself to misunderstandings, misapplications and abuse. And yes, usually in that order. Thought crime, as dear George might put it.

Wankery - now there's a word that was entirely deservant of conjugation.


Wanking is wanking.

To wank is to wank.

A wanker is a wanker.


P.S.: As it happens, there's something on my site that just might be relevant to this discussion. It starts out as a critique of Christopher Hitchens, but turns into a rumination on Orwell, the language of literary theory, etc.

P.P.S.: Ro. and Ma., how can I put a link in a comment without having to cut-and-paste the whole URL? I've seen you do it.

You guys are so smart.

Handy HTML code:

<a href="url goes here">linky!</a>

Deconstruct THAT! Wham!

Like so?

Except you need to put the URL in there, a la

<a href="">don't click here!!</a>

Ignoring the last little bit about how to put links in a snarkcomment, Tim gets at a lot of what bugs me about literary critic activists. People do indeed move to a place for jobs, and if they're a little bit further up the social ladder, schools. The Detroit Free Press has written lately about urban spelunkers--people who explore abandoned buildings, and at best this "tagging" thing seems to resemble that. (I'm reading "tagging" in the graffiti sense, and I realize that Sam Rose is talking a bit more about hyperlinks, and virtual networking.)

The trouble is that urban spelunking is, at best, tourism, and while making more information available about site may well do something to encourge preservation and/or renovation, but not much. Most of that information is already out there. In a library as opposed to the internet, perhaps, but out there. Historical and architectural societies exist, but preserving a structure isn't necessarily putting it to use.

Detroit isn't going to be saved unless we find ways to use these spaces. Real uses. Uses that benefit the residents and the community. That may well mean tearing the ruins down. Hell, even parks and gardens would be better than what we have now. (Though, economically, not that much.)

I'm an English major, although nowhere near as smart as Tim. I have kind of a soft spot for Derrida. Literary theory, however, will not save our cities. Save your tags. Bring us your spades, shovels, and paint.

And your money.

Holla from 8-mile.

Let me try again.

Congrats, Tim.

So this is like Yellow Arrow, right? Is there more to it?

Well put, Gavin!

Yeah, it strikes me that the first and best use of social software in hollowed-out cities would be to simply connect people -- somehow helping folks find each other in these places where the density has dropped and there's no longer the sort've critical mass and osmotic pressure that sustains more crowded and vibrant places.

Tagging stuff might in generate some of those connections, but it seems like it would be awfully indirect.

Yeah, I can imagine some web-connected Detroiters chatting with each other (a la EPIC 2015): "Hey, if you're waiting for the bus at Warren and Tireman, good luck: I'm on the next bus right now, and I think we're about an hour away."
I joke because I love.

P.S.: I must be extremely confused. Warren and Tireman are parallel to each other. (I was trying to map my grandma's house: she lives between Warren and Tireman, on Asbury Pk.)

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