Spaces and Boundaries

13 Sep

#agir 09/13/2016

Spaces and Boundaries

Note: I’m trying a shift in the format of the recommendations, in which I’ll attempt to draw a bit more of a connection between the various links. This is inspired by Deb Chachra’s excellent Metafoundry newsletter, which everybody should subscribe to.

The new academic year is getting into gear for me, and as it does some lingering debates about the respective virtues of “safe spaces” and “free speech” are rising up to the surface. (I’d like to think those two things aren’t actually in opposition, but I’ll leave that for another time). For that reason, among others, I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces, and the boundaries between them. First and foremost, this is at work in the protests over Dakota Access Pipeline. There are lost of issues involved in that, but one part of it is competing claims over the same space: who has which rights to a particular place, and how did they get those rights (or lose them). The Standing Rock Sioux are concerned about both the possible disruption of a burial site, and the quality of their water— the pipeline is supposed to run underneath the Missouri river, which forms the eastern border of the reservation—. Among other things, part of the trouble is that neither the Missouri river nor the burial site are, strictly speaking, tribal land. The burial site is simply beyond the boundaries of the reservation. A stretch of the Missouri, again, touches tribal lands, and the tribe has some rights to the water, but in general tribes don’t have control over the “beds and banks” of navigable rivers, even if they have rights to the water itself. (See the case of Montana v. United States [1981], in which the Supreme Court found that these rights belong to the states, unless Congress has explicitly acted to give them to a tribe).

So, in this case, there are a couple of different questions: on the one hand, what should be done when the boundaries that define sovereignty (drawn fairly arbitrarily, as all reservation boundaries were) exclude something important— precisely the kind of thing for which sovereignty was desirable in the first place? On the other hand, what kind of rights or powers are carried with the possession of a space? To identify a piece of land as “belonging” to somebody, whether an individual or a Native American tribe or a private corporation, doesn’t automatically tell us what, exactly, comes along with that; “ownership” has many versions, and the laws that define it are complex.

Another way of talking about this is to say that the definition of a space, both its external boundaries and its internal structure, is always done with a purpose— often, with multiple purposes that are not necessarily compatible. Native reservations were created, at various times, to concentrate and control specific populations, to separate Native Americans from white settlements, to clear land for other uses, and to give Native groups the power to regulate their own internal affairs. Indian law today still reflects those diverse and conflicting purposes.

I was also thinking about all of this as I read about efforts by private companies and by universities to design spaces in ways that will foster or encourage collaboration and creativity. In both cases, there is a recognition that the structures within spaces (by which I mean really basic things like where there are doors or pathways, how furniture is arranged, whether there is more than one way to get from one place to another, lines of sight, how noisy they are, etc.) determine how people will move through them and, to an extent, how they will use them. Therefore, if you want them to get used in particular ways, you should design them to encourage those uses (and discourage others). In the one case, this has led (according to these authors) to an increasing homogeneity of office design, and efforts to deny, or to push out of sight, the messiness of actual creativity. If these spaces are to serve their purpose, then, the people in them will have to use them in ways other than those their design would seem to dictate. In the case of universities, it’s too early to say what the outcome of these efforts will be, but anybody who’s read James C. Scott will be at least a little skeptical about all of this. At the very least, the extent to which these projects are influenced by the tech industry and often more or less directly connected to it is troubling, since they have played a major part in popularizing the office aesthetic Tokumitsu and Mol are arguing does not work as intended.

Moreover, its an aesthetic that may be spreading, leading not only to the homogeneity of office spaces but also to the places in which “knowledge workers” live and spend their leisure time. Kyle Chayka describes the growth of what he calls “AirSpace”, a global, disarticulated space through which highly-paid members of the professional-managerial class increasingly move, finding comfort in a “frictionless” sameness that carries over no matter where they are actually located, minimizing the displacement or disorientation of moving from one place to another. This idea calls into question the idea of these world travelers (Chayka describes people who have no permanent address, but instead shift from one AirB&B to another) as cosmopolitan global citizens, at home anywhere they can get an internet connection; instead, they are the people who can afford to reproduce a familiar environment for themselves wherever they go. They move not from one space to another, but from one point to another within a very particular kind of space. And, at the same time, the movement of populations, in the form of refugees, prompts calls for the hardening of borders even in “liberal,” open societies like Denmark.

And, in a totally different kind of thing: this piece by Maddi Chilton discusses the many glitches for which Bethesda Softworks’s games are known, and asks whether it is “cheating” to take advantage of such glitches. If an action is possible from within the game (without, say, hacking it or installing a mod) then can it be considered cheating? For Chilton, the important factor is whether the possible “cheat” is internal to the game or external. One can legitimately play the game in a way not intended by its creators if one can do so without going outside of it— without crossing the boundaries of the game world.

Finally, I’m also in the midst of reading Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City, in which he argues that burglary in particular, and crime in general, should be seen as alternative ways of using a city, outside of the intentions of architects and city planners. It’s fascinating so far. If you don’t read Manuagh’s blog, you really should.

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