Thursday, November 27, 2014

Denkplatz D-503

This post was drafted practically at the dawn of time. April 27, 2013. Even then already it was belated. Not sure why I'm moved to hit Publish today. Perhaps a response to the new job. You know, the one I've had since September 2013. Which is to say, not a new job. So. Belated, ladies and gentlemen, belated through and through.


Theo A. Nusyg, untitled (1997), ink on bar napkin. Source. Used by permission.

A year ago I was reading a post by Jeffrey Schnapp, (Icy) cold spots, with great interest:
Or might it [the library cold spot] instead be imagined as a portable ice-cube shaped, battery equipped, signal jamming device that an authorized patron or librarian could introduce into a given space to reprogram it, as it were, on the fly? Or might it assume the form of an enclosure structure or booth, a kind of phone booth in reverse?
I decided to tweet a question in response: "as libr's jamming cube would also interrupt surveillance, would it become a criminal space? or is contemplation already criminal?"

"Not sure why it would interrupt surveillance, since surveillance systems are usually running on a hard wire," came Professor Schnapp's reply, which suggested that, unsurprisingly, Twitter had not served me well in speaking clearly. (OTOH, the poor workman blames his tools, the poor abstractician blames his concrete.)

And then I forgot all about the exchange until the DPLA launch last week got me to thinking about libraries. Thus, a belated note, not so much of clarification as of dilation.


Circa 2006 the executive director of the Berkman Center related an anecdote to me about an observation made by a visitor at the Center. At the end of his tenure there, the visitor was walking the creaky halls of the three-story Victorian which housed Berkman (housed it until – another kind reprogramming on the fly – it was moved down the street, and the Center was given a new home). As always at Berkman, there were a bunch of people with varying degrees of formal/informal affiliation working in every crevice of the place. Working: typing at computers. The visitor observed that this was all well and good – and the proof is in the pudding, look how productive! – but he was troubled that he saw no one leaning back and reading a book or, I don't know, staring off into space.

So my old boss hoped to elevate a fruitful alternation between reflection and production as a goal of the spatial programming of the Center when it moved into its new home: above all, to be sensitive to the idea that, periodically, we must do something other than produce produce produce, something other than be connected. At the center for Internet & society, cultivating this sensitivity is harder than it sounds. (Incidentally, Berkman is how I became aware of Jeffrey Schnapp's work. He is now one of the Center's directors.)


Bias: golly, disconnection sounds swell to me. For I am a slow thinker. Last year I was writing collapsed while I should have been working on something else. This year I am doing the same, writing this instead of that. Procrastination is my way of working through something. Crookedly. The digression is the lesson. I guess.


The immediate context of 'the library cold spot' is an emergent theme of conversation in a design practicum on the library. The practicum is practical; the "Library Test Kitchen" actually builds things, e.g., here is a take on the cold spot in question: (scroll down to) Wi-Fi Cold Spot. The theme, by contrast, is more aspirational: "the role of spaces of silence, contemplation, refuge and retreat in the library of the future." The urgency of this theme derives from the approaching ubiquity of connectivity. Hyper-connection is bound up with anxiety around silence and solitude. Or perhaps the anxiety is determined negatively, winding out from how unremarkable hyper-connection feels.

Libraries have sought to be centers of information in a connected age. Now that connectedness is becoming hyperconnectedness, thanks in no small part to handheld devices, the Library Test Kitchen begins asking after the role of quiet space in the library. It's a fun sort of inside-out question: how architecturally to program a certain silence now in the library? Schnapp dangles a possibility, "a kind of phone booth in reverse."

An image floats free, which had been lodged in my memory somewhere between a non-existent New Yorker cartoon and an apocryphal standup comedy routine or episode of Seinfeld, of someone stepping into an out-of-order phone booth in order to make a call on a cellular phone. I try to use the Internet to find the New Yorker cartoon, or the comedy routine, and find instead Cell Phone Booths in Davis Family Library – Location Update. It must take Clark Kent a long time to locate a phone booth in which to become Superman.


I also flash on: if the jamming cube or reverse phone booth chills a zone, interrupting connections, preventing information getting in and out, then it also complicates surveillance. Perhaps a prior kind of surveillance continues to function. A photographic device sees you go into the reverse phone booth, and it sees you come out. But my response to Schnapp had more to do with the way in which our behavior is increasingly surveilled in and on the network. By "going dark" one interrupts that. Surveillance is presupposed as the law of the land. Interrupting it is criminal. Sort of like loitering seems to interrupt a certain productivity. Thus the question of whether contemplation per se is already criminal because it's anti-social and opaque to power, non-instrumental.


Interlude: "I blew up the building." "Why?" "Because you made a phone call."


As a practical matter, I can imagine the reverse phone booth or jamming cube being used to create a space of "IRL" criminal activity as much as "contemplation" criminal activity. Let's sloppily call it the Tor effect. Let's also admit that the library cold spot already exists in the form of cell phone and wireless signal jammers and Faraday cages. Police and security services are sure to be good customers of the companies that manufacture them. And citizens will use these things, too, in unanticipated ways. And they will shun the library, perhaps, if it no longer serves their needs because it exposes them to online monitoring as the price for access to information.

Hot or cold, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have been better served in his purposes by the Watertown Free Public Library than by a stolen car. We express relief at his apprehension. But we should be anxious about the means — and hope that in the future it remains possible for the library, or any institution or person, to preserve a space, architectural or otherwise, beyond monitorability.

I'm not optimistic.


  1. Postscript: Perhaps if I had posted this post in June 2013, as the Snowden leaks began to hit, if I were a "timely" or "opportunistic" "blogger" instead of a belated one, this post would have been seen as perceptive. Now it just feels stale. Tasteless.