Playing with dirt while staying clean.

In ‘Code + Clay … Data + Dirt’ Shannon Mattern puts forth the argument that cities have always been smart in that they have been shaped by the media they helped to create.  Mattern puts forth a ‘high level’ (10000 feet from my perspective) reverse chronology of four different mediums and their impact on the structure and form of urban development.  Mattern’s approach is unique in its integration of media archaeology and traditional archaeology. Mattern loosely connects radio, phone, and telegraph (ether) with the radial structure of cities and tall tower like antennas mounted on the tallest buildings.  She does a better job connecting the visual iconography of radio’s propaganda with the architectural structuralism of buildings designed with broadcast media in mind. Still this chapter was indicative of the ethereal quality of Mattern’s main argument, namely that there is materiality in media and media’s impact on our environment.  Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the argument wholeheartedly, but something about Mattern’s approach left me wanting more. That said, I truly enjoyed the chapter on print and the city as it closely mirrors my research and interests in the dissemination of ‘secret’ knowledge from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and its impact on modern media.  Mattern’s reverse chronology strikes me as the right approach to long extended timelines across multiple mediums, but some of her examples felt like reaching and detracted from the potential connections of other examples. Jumping from culture to culture as in the case of colonial Peru, China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome in her chapter on writing felt rushed and only vaguely connected.  I think all of the media she covers works to further her argument, but her argument for each media as its own chapter leaves the overall case watered down. In the end the book felt like four separate essays loosely connected by a theme, which is fine, but her obvious effort to connect them in reverse chronology and multiple epistemologies requires more ‘solidity’ to justify the ‘messiness’.

My reaction to the book struck me as odd because I’m keenly interested in most of the subject matter she’s discussing.  I’ve worked in historical heritage, I’ve worked on projects like the Hudson Yards Project at the beginning of the book. I’ve considered the implications of recreating sounds in ancient environments.  This book could have been a bible to me, but it felt like a tour guide. I enjoyed a lot of what it had to say, I just wanted more to connect it all together. I’m left with several questions. Which chapters accomplish the most in defense of her arguments?  What could make it all work better together? (less jumping around?) How does her argument fit with the field of Media Archaeology? I felt like it was playing in the dirt, but I left feeling clean with more questions about the method than the subject.

Mediation through cities

One thing that strikes me by the book Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media is its long timespan. It is hard not to compare it with Turner’s book of which focused on a relative timespan from the 1930s until the Cold War. This book also reminds me of a lot of Hu’s chapter on the cloud infrastructure that built upon the railway. However, it remains unknown whether Mattern offers the same depth while covering a vast amount of time of rich material as she makes her seemingly overambitious arguments.

Taking a media archaeology approach, Mattern not only provides a thoughtful expansion of the idea on mapping the cities and the architecture but also makes the audience beyond the city to look at the historical context of the dot com period that others deemed an assumption. The book also investigates “patterns in how particular media made themselves materially present now and in history.”

The biggest audience of her book could be the people who are already in the field of media studies who want to know more about other related disciplinary. I can also see that she tries to engage with a broader audience by introducing some novel aspects. Scanning the chapters and their titles, I am aware that she used a reverse-chronological order to disclose the history. This adds much refreshment to the books we have read previously due to its unique structure, and it also helps the audience to understand the whole picture from a new perspective, which is also explained early in her introduction.

It also seemed that “mediation” is a topic that she explores throughout the book from my initial reaction. What does it mean by engaging the mediation in a public way?

Although the method had been justified to use for her book, the question still lingers around that is it too aggressive to jump from wired cities of the mid-nineteenth century to the printing media five centuries before? Even though, looking at how media technologies through ages of transformation have shaped the way we designed buildings, the way we experience our cities is still fantastic.

Code, Clay, Data, and Dirt

Shannon Mattern’s book Code, Clay, Data, and Dirt provide a historical text on the evolution of urban media. The book goes through a series of examples of cities and the use of urban media the book goes over about 5,000 years of media. It begins with waves and wires a section which focuses on telecommunications. Mattern provides a series of examples of cities that show how communities were incorporating these technologies into the architecture. They then move on to a section on steel and ink; the area considers how different forms of print information occur in cities. It also examines how news and information are on different surfaces around cities. This demonstrates the various ways that content is distributed in these communities. Mud, media, and metropolis tend to focus on the materials that were used to create buildings it also shows how hieroglyphics into the side of buildings as a way of telling stories or sharing information. The book ends with a section titled speaking stones which focuses on how sensors have integrated into urban communities in the earlier years. Mattern’s book is useful in showing that smart cities have always been a part of the structure of urban and rural towns. What was most interesting about the text was the methodology that Mattern incorporates to learn more about the city and area. The primary goal of the book is to consider how the current push for smart sensors to be placed in towns has been continuously occurring. By incorporating stories of communities where technology used in these communities shows that these methods of media have been used throughout centuries to build and connect communities. What I found most interesting from the readings was the approach she used to study the area by applying an urban media archaeology approach. This approach to me was fascinating because it considers not only the media but also the materials and physical elements of the history and culture of the city. Mattern’s approach is overall effective in thinking about how smart city technology has been present throughout ages.

Urban Intelligence Across Time and Space

Mattern begins by talking about this high tech Hudson Yards development in Manhattan that is teaming with wires and technologies that support the harvesting of data–data that drives modern, “smart” societies as we know them. While Mattern references historians, archaeologists, designers, technologists and others, her line of inquiry seems to be primarily in conversation with urban planners, designers, and smart cities advocates who maintain that the efforts that modern design and development make to improve the quality of life in city spaces is contemporary and unmatched historically. She insists that urban intelligence is not unique to today’s smart cities, that this intelligence can be traced back thousands of years to civilizations that thrived off ancient mediums and media. She quotes: “… urban media ages are productivly mixed in their materiality. Our Cities past and present have been simultaneously aural, graphic, textual, electro acoustic, digital, and haptic.” Mattern is exploring the ontological significance of modern data-driven societies and beliefs associated with them, while seeking to answer questions related to the “dumbness” of past cities, our dependence on data, and political and social implications of data driven cities.

Her methodology steps backwards in history from the present to “peel away successive but intertwined layers of mediation”, where in the first chapter she starts with the radio (both broadcast radio and other modes of radio use) and its impacts on urban architecture, then she travels back to the telegraph and the telephone and their influences. She provides high level examples of how these technologies were used culturally, historically, or generationally situated within various global civilizations of the past and present. A similar method is presented in following chapters, however we begin to see more references to other histories and historical myths or norms that Mattern either agrees with or aims to debunk.

I wonder if her broad, brief sweeps across peoples and places in her analysis of wires and sound, paper and steel and so on prevent her from constructing a history of smart cities that is at least easier to follow. Mattern’s consistent conversation on the soundscape of different technologies apart from landscape is interesting, thinking of these different mediums that alter our soundscapes across time is something that I had never given much thought to. She goes on interesting side conversations (think of the Gitelman reference, the tree undone, and the telephone pole disguised as a palm tree w/ the picture included) (34) that I appreciate, but again that seem to sort of get in the way of a more linear or well grouped exploration of her point. The quote “examining the entwined histories of print and the city requires..mix…as media are the products of their urban environments and human creators and users; and media, in turn, script and shape those places and people.” (45) stands out to me, I see a lot of overlap in the ideals of Gitelman and Mattern in terms of media and the publics that groom them.

Mattern’s Infrastructural Mediations

Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay, Data and Dirt is an devoutly eclectic mix of media theory, urban archaeology, architecture, architectonics, paleography, the history of printing, and archaeoacoustics. Mattern admits that, ostensibly, her work here is one of media archaeology; but she differentiates it from many of its precursors in that regard. “In focusing on machines and signals,” Mattern writes, “media archaeologists often bracket out not only the people with which, but also the environments within which, those media interact” (xvii). In contrast, Mattern describes her approach as “urban media archaeology”—“a literal archaeology of the mediated city” (xxi) which is always already rendered in both “ether and ore” (xxxi).

Mattern’s approach proceeds through something akin to a reverse chronology—or at least, in light of her frequently expressed distrust of linear technological progressivism—a reverse chronology of our own biased, Western assumptions: from electric wires to mechanical printing and back through mud, clay, and finally raw, acoustic resonance. She begins with radio: quite etymologically a “radiant, spherical” (7) medium, defined in its urban adoption by “radial organization, multiple connected centers, open plans, ample vistas, material lightness” (9). Such organization of course both, in the case of the European Renaissance, predates, and in the case of contemporary urbanism, continues onward past, the golden age of radio as such. In today’s wireless era, “our seeming unfetteredness is actually quite fettered—by fixed, seam-full infrastructures and complex protocols” (37) which are not, apart from visually, necessarily dissimilar from the sky-darkening “‘forest of [telephone] poles’” described by turn-of-the-century New Yorkers (21).

Mattern’s “printed city” (49) represents an all the more radical manifestation of urban mediation. Here, in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, “the building itself is thus a book” (55)—the city, “materially—and morally” a kind of library (54). The newspaper, its frantic production, and its frenzied consumption soon become a “multisensory mania” through which print columns imagined grids of avenues (69) and the classically-styled buildings which housed the presses themselves “functioned as corporate communication” (70). Printing, in the West, lead to “productivity,” to “order, accountability, efficiency” and thus, to the steel-framed cabinet in which to file it all away (74).

Even more literally, around the ancient and the modern world, mud, “a constructive and destructive force throughout […] all of human and even geologic history” (88), is demonstrated by Mattern to be exemplary of another kind of urban mediation. She writes: “where the entanglement of global and local political-economic forces enter people’s lives through the material, the geological, and the aesthetic” that “construction materials then become public media” (90). The Nazca made line-drawings, the imperial Persians cuneiform carvings (90), the Romans and the ancient Greeks inscriptions (ad absurdum or nauseum) “‘onto and into everything’” (92). Eventually, the “banality and brutality” (113) of concrete becomes yet another way of writing a place into mud (110).

By the time Mattern turns to the “archaeoacoustics” (120) by which we come to understand the Hellenic, “structural form of rational communication” (121), the subsequent Roman cities “predicated on rhetoric” (123), the “separate acoustic zones” of the homes of the 15th century elites (130), and the “long-simmering controversy over the politics of sound” in regard to the adhan (132-135)—her position has become clear. “Urban environments everywhere,” Mattern concludes, “are characterized by a lot of messy materiality” (156)—radio waves, telephone wires, library catalogues, clay tablets, inscribed porticos, the rings of church bells, or din of political rallies. The obvious question becomes what that mess translates into, not as digital infrastructure, but as mediated into digital structures themselves.