Where do you want to go today? Space as Interface

Microsoft introduced the Internet to the world in 1994 with the slogan: “Where do you want to go today?” Everyone who booted up Windows 95 was routinely asked this question. Although the Mad Men did not consider this global image advertising campaign a great success, Microsoft’s slogan says something philosophically important about the digital media revolution. Digital media, and above all the Internet, have something to do with space, with where you are and where you are going. The importance of new media for the concept of space has for the most part been formulated in negative terms. Digital media are said to annihilate space, to shrink great distances to the movement of a computer mouse, and create a networked global space – Castells speaks of a “space of flows” – in which everything and everyone are open and available all the time. This is indeed what Microsoft is saying; you can go anywhere; there are no limits to movement, space is no longer a barrier or a hindrance to communication, flows of information, and cooperation. In the Internet space is replaced by cyberspace, a virtual reality, a paradoxical expanse containing the whole world in the dimensionless realm of bits and bytes. Much has been written about the dangers and advantages of cyberspace. In the meantime, so-called virtual reality has become so important for work, shopping, business, education, and all other areas of life that it cannot be thought of as a domain of its own, somehow separated from the “real” world. Physical space and cyberspace have merged to become what could be called a “mixed reality.” But how are we to understand space when it is mixture of contradictory elements. Is the philosophy of space after the advent of digital media doomed to speak of a spaceless space similar to what Castells has called the “timeless time” of the network society?

In his reflections on the network society Castells also speaks of “space of places.” Place is what space was before the Internet. As already Heidegger pointed out, space is not an empty container, but is always already broken up into concrete places; the home, the office, a clearing in the forest, the backyard, the street, the theater, the city square, the courtroom, the doctor’s office or the hospital, the schoolroom, the shopping center, etc. Everyday experience has never found itself in the abstract space of the Cartesian res exensa, an immense empty container, but always, as Heidegger pointed out, “in” a particular place. Dasein exists as thrown into a particular time and place. This is the “facticity” of existence. Being is always a concrete spatial and temporal “being-in” the world. Everything and everyone has their place. The hammer has its place in the shed, pots and pans belong in the kitchen, the television is in the living room, the desk in the office, and even people have their places in society, in the family, at work, and before God. Place is always somewhere, a particular here and there structured by near and far. What is perhaps farthest from us in terms of measured space can actually be what is nearest to us in terms of our interests, of importance, meaning, relevance, and usefulness. Place is structured not only by near and far, but also by directionality. Places direct us toward matters of concern. When we are tired, we go to bed, when we wake up, we go to work. Place is where we are and where we want to go. Therefore, when Microsoft asks where we want to go today, the Internet appears not as a abstract space of flows, but as the unlimited offering of places. Perhaps the space of flows should not be radically opposed to the space of places. If reality is indeed no longer separable into a virtual and a physical domain, but is always mixture of both, then what becomes of space?

For Castells the space of flows is both physical and virtual, that is, it is constituted by the material infrastructure of the network as well as the interactions that this infrastructure makes possible. Applying this duality to the space of places allows us to see the importance of architecture in creating places. Houses are built so that hammers, pots and pans, beds, televisions, and people as well all have their places. Architecture is the material infrastructure of places. We in-habit our world by constructing buildings, monuments, houses, towns, and cities. Places are not merely given, they are designed with specific uses and meanings in mind. It is the design, the construction, the architecture that opens up a place to inhabit while at the same time closing out the empty, abstract space of pure possibility. Much like the Greek temple that Heidegger describes in The Origin of the Work of Art any building opens up a world while at the same time closing down pure materiality of the res extensa into the silent Earth. Architecture functions as a filter. The ways in which walls, windows, floors, columns, streets, etc. are constructed allows certain directions, purposes, goals, practices, feelings, etc. to “take place” and tends to exclude others. A doctor’s office looks and feels different from a courtroom, a factory, an office, a bank, a schoolroom, a workshop, or a shopping center. The filter allows certain kinds information and action while disallowing others. The filtering function of architecture is similar to the filters that are applied when moving through the space of flows. Access to the Internet is always dependent on filters that allow certain information and interactions and exclude others. When Microsoft asks where we want to go today then the answer is always a filter. It is a search query. It opens up a direction in the unlimited world wide web that takes us to some place rather than to another. The material infrastructure (hardware and software) that comes into play when applying a filter is usually called an “interface.” In a similar way architecture can be said to be a filter and thus also an interface. Just as the space of flows is co-constituted by a material infrastructure that makes a particular flow of information and interaction possible, so the space of places is co-constituted by a material infrastructure that opens up places, directionality, near and far. From the point of view of mixed reality, these two spaces are inseparable. In mixed reality there are not two distinct infrastructures just as there are not two distinct kinds of reality, the physical and the virtual. The two infrastructures are integrated into one. And because of its filtering function it can be thought of as interface.

Wherever we want to go today, it is somewhere, a specific place. So much is certain. But what of space? Perhaps a theory of space for the digital world should leave behind concepts of space as an empty container as well as simply reducing space to an indefinite multiplicity of places. Our proposal is the think of space as the condition of the possibility of place(s). A condition that only then conditions when it functions as a filter. This implies that space gives access to places, while at the same time closing down and covering over the abstract, empty space that traditional philosophy has always conceived as a metaphysical container of the world. According to our poposal, what gives access to places, whether it be architecture or IT – both of which are becoming integrated into each other under the regime of mixed reality – can be termed the interface. In short: Space is interface.