Crossing Boundaries

The Networked City

The network is the new urban location. Inside the network we’re no longer tied to geographical places but to inter-connectivity and bandwidth. If we want to move from one place to another we don’t need pathways and doors, we move along network connections. The ability to connect defines an ever-increasing part of our lives: “connectivity has become the defining characteristic of our twenty first-century urban condition.“ [1] In networks of various types and sizes we play various network roles. Today, the network, rather than the enclosure, is emerging as the desired place. Connectivity is becoming the central condition of our globalized world.

No more „here and now“

With the advent of omnipresent interconnectivity we’re living in an age of globalized network-time in which traditional concepts of here“ and now“ no longer have meaning. Digital interconnectivity has led to the existence of a networked parallelism. Daily behaviors are fragmented: “they are no longer bounded by walls, but by the reach of our networks” [1]

For some time physical proximity no longer defines the scope of our actions and social interactions. More and more, social networks are characterized as “dynamic patterns of presence”; group affiliation is experienced as a dynamic construct via electronic networks.

Crossing boundaries

Networks are the new vehicles we use to link ourselves together. It follows thus: we cannot connect without also separating. In order to maintain our distance from people we don’t know, we enclose ourselves within a variety of boundaries. Countries, cities, houses, rooms, clothes or even social or cultural boundaries all function as semi-permeable filters that determine what we let in and what we don’t. Only our network-connections have allowed us to transcend these physical barriers. Connection crosses boundaries. Yet only those who have access to the network – an access point – can connect to it. “Our networks […] have well-defined access points, and between these points things are in a kind of limbo.” [1] We can only experience networks at their interfaces.

The spread of urban displays

Following the global inter-linking of computers, the digitalization of physical space has now begun: “At the beginning of the twenty first century the research agendas, media attention, and practical applications have come to focus on a new agenda – the physical – that is, physical space filled with electronic and visual information.” [3]

With the development of advanced screen-display technologies, which, at the same time, are manufactured more inexpensively, large-surface computer screens have experienced a big jump in usage in public space over the past several years. It’s all about ”dynamic digital displays and interfaces in urban space such as LED signs, plasma screens, projection boards, information terminals but also intelligent architectural surfaces.” [5]

With the rapid spread of these urban screens it’s already easy to notice the variety of various applications. From sports fields to entertainment venues, from shopping centers to gas stations, urban screens are becoming an everyday addition. New possibilities and challenges arise.

Through the spread of urban screens, we’re witnessing for the first time on a grand scale in public the interaction between people and the virtual world of the computer. “The large-scale LED video screens, which are becoming an increasingly common sight on the urban landscape, have been put there principally for advertising, information or entertainment. […] While this potential remains largely untested, it is clear that urban screens establish new sites for the negotiation between commercial, public and cultural interests.” [4] Urban screens have the potential to enhance public urban space with dynamic content and to redefine civic infrastructure. They import digital data into the public sphere, which leads to significant changes in the urban landscape: “the migration of electronic screens into the external cityscape has become one of the most visible tendencies of contemporary urbanism.” [6] The modern city becomes a media-architectonic complex, the perceiving and designing of which becomes, respectively, a social experience and social process. For the first time pedestrians can directly interact with a growing number of advertising surfaces. “Architecture and media technology is melting into each other, and buildings are turning into becoming media infrastructure.” [7] Flexible, transparent or glowing materials can be integrated into these structures and display any content. Social interaction is fostered through the convergence of urban architecture and technology: “The intentional use of digital screen technology […] is changing the meaning of both media and architecture. Thus to interpret this emerging electronic urban landscape, both as a cultural and socio-spatial landscape is of great importance.” [7]

Social and cultural interaction

Interactive computer and video screens in public space allow content to be visibly displayed to a potentially high number of pedestrians simultaneously. Because the interaction takes place in public, social and cultural factors also play an important role in interacting with these urban displays. In comparison to private space, public interaction can be seen by others. People who knowingly or by chance find themselves caught up in the interaction – who perceive the person interacting – can participate directly in the interaction or, simply by virtue of being present, influence the interactive behavior.  [11] Urban screens “support the idea of public space as space for creation and exchange of culture, strengthening a local economy and the formation of the public sphere.” [5]

The social glue of contemporary communities consists of a dynamic balance between interactions – immediate and local exchange on the one side and computer-mediated communication that transcends physical distances on the other. But computer-mediated interactions are still not displacing local face-to-face encounters. Urban screens offer new ways of combining the emerging ubiquitous nature of digital technologies with the actual qualities of physical environments. Possessing the potential to facilitate, encourage, and enrich social interaction, technologies situated in the public sphere can be used to create “smart places.” [2] Like dwellings or fireplaces they can promote social interaction and become a locus for shared experiences.

Public windows into virtual worlds

With the spread of urban screens and their interconnectivity new public access points emerge on the global network. With their ubiquity, public displays allow us to dive from the urban context into alternative realities and simulated worlds. The real three-dimensional world is becoming linked in public space with computer-generated simulation. The normal boundaries between city reality and computer virtuality are breaking down or disappearing altogether. [8] Urban screens become public windows into virtual worlds that we, as passers-by, can dive into. If they are linked to the network they make overcoming these boundaries possible.

As windows into other worlds, urban screens don’t only present applications for social- or politically-minded projects. According to Murray, it’s a part of human nature to detour from reality and explore virtual worlds every now and again. In wanting to experience fictional worlds we are searching for an experience similar to that of jumping into a swimming pool or the ocean. It’s the experience of being completely submerged in another reality. We enjoy leaving our familiar world behind and exploring the characteristics of the new environment. We want to swim around and see new possibilities develop. The feeling of experiencing virtually a fictional place is, according to Murray, “pleasurable in itself”. [9] When time and space were still analog and continuous, windows demarcated the separation between inside and out – on the other side of the window it was the same time and place. Public screens create a new kind of opening in the city. The scenes we observe on the screens are extremely remote. The place “on the other side of the screen“ can change from one moment to the next and jump from one world into another.

“As with all ‘new’ technologies, the convergence of buildings and media technology has been envisaged for some time; what is new is not necessarily the idea, but the ways in which current technology makes it possible. As the technological possibilities of urban screens unfold, we become able to analyze their social and cultural consequences more fully.“ [7]


The scientific, technological and artistic engagement with cities penetrated by interconnected urban screens is only beginning. The development takes place along various perspectives. “Emerging in complex environments, urban screens will challenge the assumptions of artists, curators, urban- and media theorists as well as the expectations of city authorities, advertisers and broadcasters.” [4] Only interdisciplinary collaboration and discipline-spanning thinking can foster enduring developments. The arrival of new display technologies poses new questions for architects, city planners and interaction designers as well as the advertising-industry. With a communal effort all participants must develop new rules for how the digital and physical world can be brought together and whether and how digital technologies should be used to link distant locations with one another.


  1. Mitchell, J.W., Me++: the cyborg and the networked city, MIT Press, 2003
  2. Mitchell, J.W., e-topia: Urban life, Jim – but not as we know it, MIT Press, 2000
  3. Manovich, L., The poetics of urban media surfaces, First Monday Special Issue, Nr. 4, 2006
  4. Auerbach, A., Interpreting urban screens, First Monday Special Issue, Nr. 4, 2006
  5. Struppek, M., The social potential of Urban Screens, Visual Communication, Vol 5(2), 2005
  6. McQuire, S., The politics of public space in the media city, First Monday Special Issue, Nr. 4, 2006
  7. Slatta, T. Urban screens: Towards the convergence of architecture and audiovisual media, First Monday Special Issue, Nr. 4, 2006
  8. Mitchell, J.W., City of Bits, MIT Press, 1995
  9. Murray, J., Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press, 1998
  10. McCollough, M. Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. MIT Press, 2004
  11. Michelis, D., Observing Interaction with Public Displays, in: Work in Progress, Urban Computing and Mobile Devices, IEEE Pervasive Computing, 6(3), pp. 52-57, Jul., 2007


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