Inhabiting mediated space

By paying attention to shifting models of mediated space at the beginning of the 21st century, architects might learn from media studies some new ways to consider how mediation impacts the way we live now.

This article was originally published, feature-lenght, in Domus 977 / February 2014


Tracing four different formations of mediated space, I will suggest how Western conceptualisations of architectural and other built space have shifted in the past two centuries and speculate upon how our current model of mediated space impacts the way we live now. A naturalised model of social and political space has reconciled twodimensional representation with three-dimensional lived space at least since the geometrisation of linear perspective in the 15th century.

It is hardly an accident that Leon Battista Alberti, who systematised singlepoint perspective in the West, was an architect. Not only can singlepoint perspectival drawing or painting reproduce an accurate image of three-dimensional natural space, but used in architectural drawing it can also serve as a template for the production of three-dimensional space from a two-dimensional representation. It seems apt that an architect would develop a model of perspectival representation in which the picture plane was understood on the model of a window, which the artist would presumably look through from inside a studio or home.

Alberti’s veil, the technique depicted in Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of the same name, separates the viewer from the space represented but also imagines a continuity between them. Alberti’s ideal of the picture plane as window both suggests this separation and reminds us that we are continuous with represented space – the artist in Dürer’s woodcut, for example, can (and we assume has and will) go around the gridded window to interact with the model.

Unlike the virtual reality of simulacral cyberspace, today’s virtual space is real

The regime of mechanical reproduction, which gained intensity from both the mid-19th-century proliferation of photography and early forms of cinema in the first decades of the 20th century, served to automatise and democratise the technical mediation of perspectival representation. Cinema and other mass media conceptualised built space as inhabitable by the masses and oriented towards a mediated projection on screen (or in the case of Fascism to a single authoritarian leader).

In classical cinematic space, the viewer and the world exist in an enforced separation from one another. Although the viewer can become absorbed affectively and imaginatively in the world projected on the cinema screen, the theatrical setting produces an enforced separation from the viewer, with the world of the film remaining on the screen while the audience stays in its seats.

This cinematic model of mediated three-dimensional space began to be challenged in the last decades of the 20th century by the invention of cyberspace, which emerged from early digital computing and the invention of cybernetics in the same mid-20th-century moment that saw the classical Hollywood style at its apex. Famously defined by William Gibson as “a consensual hallucination”, “a graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system”, cyberspace aimed to simulate the world of information rather than graphically representing the natural or built world. Cyberspace enthusiasts advocated a networked model of built space in which the computer screen did not remediate a pre-existent external reality but simulated one through mathematical technologies of linear perspective.

Late-20th-century technologies like virtual reality or Gibson’s science fictional “jacking in” to information or data space imagine not a mimetic representation of this world or the reproduction of a world elsewhere, but a disembodied networked space of data flows and information architecture. In this model of mediated space, the computer user remains separate from the world of the screen, but unlike painting, photography or cinema, the viewer is represented by an avatar in screen space. Whether this is simply the cursor of early text-based spaces like MUDs and MOOs, online identities on list-serves or in chat rooms, or graphical avatars in video and computer games (or later 3D worlds like Second Life), the divide between the mediated space of the screen and the “meat space” of the computer user has begun to be broken down and the user can interact with cyberspace through her avatar.

The transformation of embodied space into mediated space makes all of us into objects of state and corporate premediation

This historical separation has been further challenged under our current formation of mediated space, in which the model of screen space as a window to a disembodied world of information and data elsewhere is giving way to a model of “pre-mediated” space which is primarily embodied and locational, distributed through networks of communication and information across multiple personal, public and institutional media devices like smartphones, iPads, laptops, GPS systems, ATMs or PCs.

Mediated space today is neither natural, mechanical nor simulacral, but virtual – distributed through premediated networked links and nodes rather than occupying a homogeneous, continuous three-dimensional space. Unlike the virtual reality of simulacral cyberspace, today’s virtual space is real. Networked technologies, in addition to becoming increasingly social and mobile, are embedded in the objects with which we interact and the locations in which we move and dwell. This remediation of the world as networked space is most striking in what is being called “the Internet of things”, which refers to a world in which objects (both natural and man-made) are tagged with RFID (radiofrequency identification) technology, which couples bar codes or their miniaturised equivalents with GPS technologies to identify particular objects and track those objects as they move through the world.

In the Internet of things, mediated space has finally become one with threedimensional natural or built space. The world of social media and the Internet of things – unlike that of perspectival representation, mechanical reproduction or cyberspace – is one in which we interact with people and places which are not present as commonly as we interact with those who are. Rather than social interactions occurring with other people located within our physical space, such interactions occur with those who are not present by means of media technologies present within our physical space, sometimes even (in the case of wearable devices like Google Glass) within our bodily space.

So when I move from home to my local cafe or from there to my office on campus, the transactions I perform in each location help to mark my path, or to provide the data for locating me in time as well as in space. And as we have become increasingly aware in the wake of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the extent of US spying and surveillance, the transformation of embodied space into mediated space makes all of us into objects of state and corporate premediation.  

Richard Grusin (1953) is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has published numerous essays and articles. He is currently working on a project entitled “Radical Mediation”.

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