Thoughts on the geography & economics of cyberspace from the Brussels airport

I noted the shapes of houses as soon as we crossed from France to Belgium. Houses even built alone in the middle of a field go straight up in a narrow box shape, like a brick stood on end, and a pointy roof, as if built into an invisible row of narrow box townhouses crammed together. I wondered if they had been in a row over the years and fire, age, or war destroyed the others? Or is it the function of laws and the accepted size of a single plot of land and house footprint? Or style detached now from any of those things so that if you built a house in the middle of a field, it would be that obelisk shape like a slice of cake standing alone?

I noted in my 4am haze on the way to the airport that there were not many billboards. Our notions of wasted space, bare space, unused, *needing* colonization and exploitation. Once you start painting “Chew Mailpouch” on the side of barns and slotting tiny ads into parking meters, every informationless space is an opportunity. Our rush to ad-driven web is such a colonization. We don’t put ads in the margins of books – but we do in magazines, which are replacing the book. Cyberspace was thought of by Gibson & Sterling early on as a sort of cave that paralleled our reality but underneath it or outside of it, using stuff it internally knew to build models of corporations, people, geographies, wealth and power. Relationships were not modelled that I can think of, other than as the flow of money – or were they modelled as information flow as well? But when I look at the world I am seeing it with *missing information*, missing overlays as in Spook Country or Stross’s Halting State, with not just facts and advertisements but game systems and fiction, enhancements to objects and thus to geography. Already I notice that my own geography differs from other people in that (as Zond-7 and I just did) I head for a power outlet or a wifi hot spot, rather than a chair and a window. We compete with other little technocratic foraminifera for the most mineral-rich spot in our ocean, detecting currents invisible or unimportant to our fellow travellers.

As I consider information-rich areas as somehow attractive or nutritious I think of windows again, or televisions, or paintings and art.

The “wasteland” idea I was talking about in my last post: we invent the idea of wasteland or uncolonized space, as with Patagonia or Antarctica or “The West” or Mars, areas that are occupied in one way or another but that by circumscription of language can be made empty. I was thinking of this as I looked at the cultivated fields next to the strips of land (waste land) alongside the railway (and that exists also along highways) and wondered that it is not under cultivation. That ecological niche costs too much to exploit, it has a particular transaction cost and the economy is such that it is not “worth it” to produce goods from the strips of land. Then i thought of the fire prevention goats in my county, a flock of goats which is herded from area to area to eat the underbrush in dry weather, entire fields of thorns, weeds, tall bristly grasses. In an area where people keep goats in order to survive, the roadside and “vacant” area weeds would be a hot commodity. In ours, the county actually pays someone to feed their goats. The roadside could grow hay mowed and sold, or it could be mowed and composted (which perhaps it already is). The amount of things that it is less expensive to *throw away* than to use boggles my mind and seems inherently wrong. So I looked at the side of the road and thought “why isn’t it being used?” and then realized that no — the weeds provide seeds to birds, habitat for insects, unpaved surface for rain to return filtered to groundwater reserves, and other benefits I can’t think or or see and which in fact drive me crazy when I see pointlessly concreted-over areas next to streams, where there could be useful weeds. When I was 17 or 18 I used to glue or wheat-paste little posters with poetry and stories on them onto parking meters, bus stops, bathroom stalls, or any places where people seemed to be waiting or liminal or stuck, as “OccuPations of Uninhabited Space” , OPUS for short, named after Takver’s mobiles in The Left Hand of Darkness, as an attempt to counteract the information colonization by advertisements with a different kind of information — the encrypted information, the steganography of fiction and poetry. My colonizations were invasive, were graffiti, were wrong, in a way that paid advertisements were not. Easy construction of web pages have made more space, more territory, for all of our information-emitting habits, our billboards to the future, our overlay of stories. I knew the instant I saw Mosaic for the first time that there would be enormous attention grabbing flashing colored advertisements not just colonizing the screen space of our machines but the internal landscape of our attention. A certain kind of space would be created in us that was not there before, for the organization and absorption of information.

Thus, the way it is “wrong” or colonialist/imperialist to look at the Patagonian landscape or a small town by quiet river and seeing it as empty and unused, full of potential, or misused, unfertilized (coded female and in need of impregnation) because not full of industry, mills, factories, garbage dumps, bustling workers and trains and tourists — in that same way I would question our assumption that “the Internet” is an empty space with infinite ecological niches waiting (yearning!) to be discovered and exploited. What we are seeing as “the Internet” while obviously a real thing is also an idea and a geography. I thought of the roadside weeds, the in-theory-valuable growing power or living-space of the land by the train tracks, and the way that pay-for-recycling created paying work for people collecting cans and bottles from trash, and speculated that “there should be” a movement to find and expose and create infrastructures for people to step in and use tech tools to create entire economic niches. A way to use web tools to lower the transaction costs, for those flocks of goats or the opportunity to publish books on the seat backs of buses. I thought of couchsurfing.com, and the site that lets people register the fruit trees in their suburban yards, to get rid of a surplus of plums, lemons, apricots. There *are* many such niches. But is this approach doing harm in some way? We might say of course not as “the Internet” does not have previous inhabitants to be damaged or ecosystems destroyed but it is the potential I wonder about and what avenues become narrowed as we barrel down these particular highways. For example, everyone wants to publish a book. They have photocopiers, they have paper and pens, why don’t they publish it in the sense of making it public by pasting it up on the wall somewhere public? It is not just the ambition of making it big and “publishing” 50,000 copies of that book because of the ways poets jockey and shark for their little 200-run letterpress hoo-ha dumpster-fillers or space-taker-uppers unread on their friends’ shelves. It is also because of property rights; it would be illegal for me to paste up my novel’s pages on the wall of the train station, even though it wouldn’t be particularly offensive, it might entertain people waiting in line, it might be aesthetically just as pleasing or unpleasing as the bare wall. As we colonize our vacant planet of Internet we have to watch out for the pressures that then make every space owned, even potential space (consider domain names).

Okay. I’m ready for my overlay implants now.

Onward to Budapest!

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6 Responses to “Thoughts on the geography & economics of cyberspace from the Brussels airport”

  1. Lyssa



    I hate how we (not the royal we, but we as a US society) must pave over and control spaces we aren’t even using. I guess it is easier to maintain a chunk of concrete than a patch of dirt that might, god forbid, sprout weeds.
    Los Angeles really, really pisses me off in this regard. All the little extra spaces tend to be paved, because if people planted stuff there they would have to water it (I guess the native plants that don’t need watering are too messy and nonconformist for consideration), and watering things is expensive, so they just pave it and fuck the groundwater levels some more. Yay America!

  2. badgerbag



    Well thank god someone commented on this crazy ass jet lag rambling epic !

  3. heather w



    I’m reading Wild by Jay Griffiths, and she discusses the wilderness/wasteland concept a lot. As I contemplate yet another return to grad school, this time for geography, cyberspace is one of the areas I might attempt to ponder in more detail. specifically the way information gets organized online (or maybe I’ll have left my librarian exoskeleton behind by the time I get there). I love your “mineral-rich” metaphor!

  4. Pretty Lady



    I’ve already been reading survivalist blogs that recommend planting guerrilla crops on highway medians to ride out the coming famine, though presumably you’d also have to stake out the ripening corn with your gun to prevent starving citizens from stealing it.
    In Northern California I know there are several non-native species, pampas grass and fennel among them, which have taken over the wild land and really screwed up the ecosystem. Spending a few hours with an ecologist can give you the heeby-jeebies.
    I look forward to the coming days when there is an ecologist on every city-planning board, however. Either we are going to learn how to be enormously more efficient, in our use of food, fuel, land and water, or the survivalist’s apocalypse may come true.

  5. badgerbag



    Well in reality we would not want to eat the things by the roadside which are sucking up the very disgusting runoff of cars on the roadway and their exhaust fumes. (But, people do it anyway)

  6. badgerbag



    Also I thought while writing this of the video of people who have a market *over* the train tracks – in india? bangladesh? but did not have time to go find the link to it. Also, the big extended family in Guatemala who live by the side of the road – I just looked that one up and it is Hector Reyes family in Nueva Linda.

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