Building, Dwelling, Thinking in the Network Society

Heidegger’s definition of space (in Building, Dwelling, Thinking) is unusual and thought provoking. Things don’t exist in space, they are space, that is, they exist by making space.  In Heidegger’s view things are not mere objects lying about out there in the world waiting to be stumbled over or discovered, they are active. Things open up places in which humans dwell. Heidegger uses the example of a bridge. The bridge doesn’t merely connect the banks of a river, it lets them appear as banks from out of an anonymous and undifferentiated nature. Not only that, it creates a relation between the banks of the river and the surrounding land. They are “gathered” together as places of crossing, places of meeting, of communication, and of commerce. Such activities, or as architects would say, programs, are made possible by constructions of all kinds; roads, checkpoints, watchtowers, shops, houses, etc. Each thing, each building allows certain activities to “take place.” Buildings create places to live, to do business, to produce or sell goods, to learn, and much more. These constructions are not simply put into an abstract Cartesian space that was somehow already there. Buildings not only take up space, they make it appear and open it up for human dwelling.

What does this view of space have to do with the usual definition of space as “a three-dimensional framework in which we can sense direction and quantify distances between objects or points” (Wikipedia)? In Heidegger’s account, once buildings have created places for dwelling one can then measure the distance from wall to wall, from post to post, and abstract the idea of pure extension. But this kind of unitary and abstract Cartesian space is not the essence of space. It is a space without things, which is no place at all.

The example of the bridge intends not only to say something about building, but also about dwelling. Humans live by means of building. Human existence is essentially action, constructing, and building. This is what Heidegger calls “dwelling.” In his earlier work Being and Time, dasein exists as that being that constructs meaning. Constructing meaning is now thought as “building.” Heidegger appeals to the original meaning of the Greek word techné (as in “technology,” or “architecture”). Techné “means neither art nor handicraft but rather: to make something appear, within what is present, as this or that, in this way or that way.” The hermeneutical “as” that characterized dasein’s existence as understanding of Being has now become the activity of building. Dwelling is the activity of bringing something into appearance. Not just bridges, houses, and artifacts of all kinds are the result of techné. Even if the house is a primitive cave and the bridge a fallen log, they are nonetheless constructed if not by tools and machines, then by being understood “as” a shelter or “as” a bridge, that is, by thinking and by language. Just as space is not a res extensa, thinking is not a purely cognitive activity of a disembodied subject, a res cogitans, a ghost in a machine. To construct meaning is to let things appear “as” they are. Techné allows things of all kinds to appear and to make space for dwelling. Building, dwelling, and thinking are fundamentally the same.

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) would probably consider Heidegger’s bridge to be an “obligatory point of passage” (OPP). It functions as an influential actor in a network of heterogeneous associations linking humans and non-humans together. The bridge acts by gathering all who want to cross the river, by making associations with other buildings, roads, and the many activities they allow. Much like Heidegger, ANT also sees things as making space. Here again, we are not talking about physical space. Things are actors because they create social space, the social link. Latour (Strum/Latour, Redefining the Social Link: From Baboons to Humans, London, 1987 ) uses the example of the social life of baboons. Baboons, as other species of apes and monkeys, have a complex social life. The difference between baboons and humans is that baboons do not have things to mediate their social relations. They only have their bodies with which they constantly negotiate and renegotiate their social ties. They have very limited resources to build society. They interact in the here and now of bodily presence. Humans, on the other hand, have a wealth of things, symbols, tools, etc. with which they distribute cognition and order their world. Without things, that is, what Heidegger would call techné, the baboons cannot localize their social interactions into different social roles and identities within a world and they cannot globalize their activities into social structures such as division of labor, farming, industry, law, science, and so on. Heidegger’s “world” is for ANT a social space that is disclosed by the construction of actor-networks in which things, artifacts, buildings etc. play the same role as humans. They make associations; they gather actors and activities together into a meaningful world.

If technology and architecture are taken in Heidegger’s sense of building, dwelling, and thinking and understood to create a social space made up of actor-networks as ANT proposes, then revolutionary technologies do indeed change the world. If the original meaning of technology and architecture lies in their unique ability to construct meaning and create space then it should not be surprising that new media technologies are influencing the forms of in which building, dwelling, and thinking take place in today’s world. “Interactive Architecture,” (Fox/Kemp, Interactive Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2009) and “Mediatecture” (Mediatecture The Design of Medially Augmented Spaces, ed. by Ch. Konhagel Springer, Wien, New York, 2010) are interesting documentations of these changes. Both texts are rich in examples of how communication and information technologies are becoming integral components of buildings. Architecture no longer constructs physical buildings, but at the same time interfaces that mix the virtual world of information with the physical world of walls, windows, floors, etc. As Erkki Huhtamo  (Konhagel, 20) puts it, “buildings are becoming media machines.” Fox and Kemp (13) speak not only of interactive architecture, but of “intelligent environments,” “responsive environments,” “smart architecture,” and “soft space” in order to describe an architecture that “not only interacts, but that transacts and transforms both the user and itself.” The architectural integration of the virtual world into the physical world shows in a new way how thinking is inseparable from building and dwelling and also how non-humans are becoming actors in society. It changes the meaning of human-computer interaction. Once confined to relatively small screens and awkward input devices such as keyboard and mouse, interfaces are becoming buildings. Just as Heidegger’s bridge gathered a world together, buildings now have the possibility to gather the physical and virtual worlds together into a “mixed reality.” In mixed reality, space and places of all kinds are opened up by what can be called “filters.” A filter allows certain knowledge and action to take place and blocks out other possibilities. If things, as Heidegger claimed, are space, because they open up places, then things can also be thought of as interfaces, that is, they are filters, and space itself can be seen as interface. From this perspective, Heidegger’s building, dwelling, and thinking lose their romantic associations and remind us that Herkunft aber bleibt stets Zukunft.