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The idea of the city as an information-processing machine has in recent years manifested as a cultural obsession with urban sites of data storage and transmission. Scholars, artists, and designers write books, conduct walking tours, and make maps of internet infrastructures. We take pleasure in pointing at nondescript buildings that hold thousands of whirring servers, at surveillance cameras, camouflaged antennae, and hovering drones. We declare: “the city’s computation happens here.”

Yet such work runs the risk of reifying and essentializing information, even depoliticizing it. When we treat data as a “given” (which is, in fact, the etymology of the word), we see it in the abstract, as an urban fixture like traffic or crowds. We need to shift our gaze and look at data in context, at the lifecycle of urban information, distributed within a varied ecology of urban sites and subjects who interact with it in multiple ways. We need to see data’s human, institutional, and technological creators, its curators, its preservers, its owners and brokers, its “users,” its hackers and critics. As Lewis Mumford understood, there is more than information processing going on here. Urban information is made, commodified, accessed, secreted, politicized, and operationalized.

But where? Can we point to the chips and drives, cables and warehouses — the specific urban architectures and infrastructures — where this expanded ecology of information management resides and operates? I’ve written about the challenges of reducing complicated technical and intellectual structures to their material, geographic manifestations, i.e., mapping “where the data live.” Yet such exercises can be useful in identifying points of entry to the larger system. It’s not only the infrastructural object that matters; it’s also the personnel and paperwork and protocols, the machines and management practices, the conduits and cultural variables that shape terrain within the larger ecology of urban information....

Just as important as the data stored and accessed on city servers, in archival boxes, on library shelves and museum walls are the forms of urban intelligence that cannot be easily contained, framed, and catalogued. We need to ask: What place-based “information” doesn’t fit on a shelf or in a database? What are the non-textual, un-recordable forms of cultural memory? These questions are especially relevant for marginalized populations, indigenous cultures, and developing nations....

We must also consider data of the environmental, ambient, “immanent” kind. Malcolm McCullough has shown that our cities are full of fixed architectures, persistent terrains, and reliable environmental patterns that anchor all the unstructured data and image streams that float on top. What can we learn from the “nonsemantic information” inherent in shadows, wind, rust, in the signs of wear on a well-trodden staircase, the creaks of a battered bridge — all the indexical messages of our material environments? I’d argue that the intellectual value of this ambient, immanent information exceeds its function as stable ground for the city’s digital flux. Environmental data are just as much figure as they are ground. They remind us of necessary truths: that urban intelligence comes in multiple forms, that it is produced within environmental as well as cultural contexts, that it is reshaped over the longue durée by elemental exposure and urban development, that it can be lost or forgotten. These data remind us to think on a climatic scale, a geologic scale, as opposed to the scale of financial markets, transit patterns, and news cycles.

Excerpted and adapted from “The City Is Not a Computer” Places Journal (February 2017).