Essay by Michael Chen, principal of Normal Projects and a faculty member at Pratt Institute School of Architecture
“A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls…Viva la revolución.”
—Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted,” The New Yorker, October 04, 2010.
Many of the events of the past year in American and international politics have unfolded at the curious intersection of social media and urban public space, calling attention to the impact that such networks have had on the changing status and roles of public places in the city. Social media are altering the relationship between information and physical space, and have become important elements of the recent political uprisings that have taken hold. Naturally, amidst all of the euphoria surrounding the discussion of social media and networking as tools for revolution, opportunities for sarcasm abound as well. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s widely circulated October 04, 2010 piece in The New Yorker, which casts doubt on social media-based activism and its potential as an agent for political change. Gladwell’s argument, that social media promotes weak ties as opposed to strong ones, thus sponsoring low-risk activism when tremendous high personal risk and a clear decision-making hierarchy are necessary for genuine change, was certainly challenged with the flourishing of the Arab Spring a few months after it was published, as “high-risk” activism took place both online and in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, and continues to unfold throughout the region.
Only a few blocks away from where I write this, in Zuccotti Park, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration and its many affiliated occupations worldwide (#occupy) are supported, at least in part, by social media and its capacity as a communication tool. And while Gladwell’s contention, that a strong hierarchical decision-making structure is the key ingredient that distinguishes successful activist movements from largely passive slacktivist ones, is debatable, labeling social media networks as fundamentally weak-link arrangements is fairly accurate. And it is precisely the weak links that are significant to the way these collective movements are challenging existing paradigms about networks and the City.
What are the architectural implications for a network to take hold within the city? At one level, this might seem to be a question about infrastructure, and the literal connective spaces and public works of the city. But the tendency to think of conventional infrastructures as networks is consistent with the corresponding urge to think of networks as static formations rather than dynamic multiplicities. Conventional notions of infrastructure are not adequate. Networks are fundamentally concerned with the flow of information. Their connections reflect intensity and are capable of transformation and reconfiguration and thus, their protocols distribute both agency and control in complex ways. The search for network space is also the search for new modes of territory and collectivity. It is clear that these new forms of political occupation have linked certain public spaces to one another along political and tactical lines. But more importantly, they are taking shape as new civic spatial practices that exhibit the resiliency and capacity for change that are features of intelligent networks. This is an aberrant or illicit infrastructure, not for its material expression as a shantytown, in the case of OWS, but rather for its spatial techniques and organizational complexity, and its capacity to channel information and tactics across multiple sites, alluding to a strategic command structure where none exists.
In contrast to many previous protest models, the #occupy movements and those similar are not orchestrated by identifiable organizations. In fact, they eschew hierarchy at every level. So rather than pre-existing networks and organizations manifesting themselves spatially, #occupy are developing in parallel with spatial practices and protocols for communication and decision-making that promote mingling and horizontal communication and that, in turn, take on network characteristics. The somewhat romantic notion of the emergent nonhierarchical organization here is of little use, as well. The political agenda of Occupy Wall Street is certainly becoming sharpened over the course of the occupation, just as its spatial logistics are refined, but these developments are the product of painstakingly slow and laborious consensus building rather than spontaneous and emergent phenomena. And while the organizational structure of the General Assembly and Working Groups that are the context for consensus building and decision making at OWS are certainly self-organizing, they are also designed to incorporate and interrelate a broad and heterogeneous range of inputs and individual agendas that are the actual material of the network.
Weak ties are essential for the network to express itself. What is significant is not that the participants in the occupations communicate using social media (everyone does), but the fact that the political thrust of the movement is formed through the processes of aggregating consensus on the one hand, and the strategic logistics of spatial occupation on the other. The planning of the occupation at Zuccotti Park itself is organized primarily around spaces for meeting and discussion, rather than event, and is thus constantly re-programmed. This is hash tag planning, a high-absorbency mode of urbanism, capable of acquiring mass from casual observers and dedicated demonstrators alike. And it is precisely the weak-tie relationships that contribute both population and momentum to the movement. Rather than the more familiar narrative of the casual observer swept up in the emergent event of political unrest, the population at Zuccotti Park and sites like it are built up through frequency of exposure, multiple intensities of affiliation, duration, and the ease with which other individuals and their interests and agendas are incorporated. By virtue of the fact that the occupation is geared toward the sharing of information over time and through discussion, individual protesters are engaged in a process of finding commonalities and are coalescing into multiple affinity groupings that serve to further connect them to the movement.
Bruno Latour has observed that these types of weak links belong to the family of “profile” data that forms a basis for how digital technologies, for one, are undermining the classical division between individuals and the larger society that contains them. Latour’s conception of actor-networks “where the parts are actually bigger than the whole…where a phenomenon can be said to be collective without being superior to individuals,”1 is a model for understanding networks that moves away from the more rehearsed metaphors of (a) the emergent phenomenon that is greater than the sum of its parts; or (b) the invisible hand of economics and other universal pressures; or (c) the overarching society and hierarchical organizational pressures—all conceptions of collectivity that are “superior” to the individuals they organize. As a model, the actor-network is a protocological one, paralleling the spread of standards on the web, rather than the explicit organization of individuals into greater collectives. It is the wealth of ambient information and casual connectivity—the weak links—that, once aggregated, begin to take on network behaviors inseparable from individual profiles.
In this sense, the #occupy movements not only employ social media, but adopt the characteristics of social media as well. The density of individual information-rich profiles, engaged in a process of finding linkages between them as a function of mingling, manifests as a series of network connections, what Latour refers to as the’ reversibility between actors and the networks that link them’. Individuals are not nodes contained within a greater network structure; nor are they, strictly speaking, always nodes connected by edges; instead, they are packed with attributes that are both nodal and connective in nature—edges without nodes. And the actor-network model is operative at a series of scales, each of which is important to the spatial logic, as well as the political instrumentality of the occupations.
At a local scale, the site of Zuccotti Park is programmed around two primary areas dedicated to sleeping and shelter, and to the General Assembly. Decisions are made through broad consensus via the General Assembly process and individual Working Groups. Broadly speaking, the Working Groups, which are tasked with more specific decision-making, generally fall into one of two categories: those that are largely political in nature, and those that concern the logistics of the occupation, from safety to cooking, and shelter to landscaping. Because the primary expression of the occupation involves holding territory rather than demonstration exclusively, managing the spatial logistics that concern duration and the ongoing viability of the Zuccotti Park encampment creates a space where disparate and otherwise uncoordinated political messages can be aggregated. Its longevity as an urban feature is essential. A critique of the occupation that emerged early on, that it communicated no singular or clear political message, has over the course of weeks become one aspect of its strength and appeal as a broadly open and democratic expression of concern and urgency, and a larger attempt to correlate a range of social ills to the political and economic imbalances in society. The spatial tactics not only prolong the occupation, but become enablers and vehicles for political content. The occupation is a spatial umbrella and the General Assembly and Working Group structure enables individual interests to gain traction and accumulate support.
Internal to the occupation itself, the General Assembly and consensus decision-making has spatial attributes, too. Perhaps most notable is the tactic adopted to circumvent the prohibition against using amplified sound without a permit. Participants famously employ an echo, repeating a speaker’s statements collectively, phrase by phrase, to transmit the message across a large space. This practice has the effect of both transmitting a message and compelling the participants to consider it carefully and register their response via hand gestures. The visual effect of hand gestures such as the “twinkle” (the wiggling of fingers to communicate agreement in lieu of applause and cheering, which are discouraged) is to register agreement through the visual and auditory environment of the assembly space.
The architectural elements of the Zuccotti Park encampment, including kitchen, library, medical center, media center, and solar-powered charging station, are some of the clearest examples of the physical infrastructure of the occupation. And while these elements have precedents in the form of shadow conferences that accompanied protests over the meetings of the G-8 and World Trade Organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their consolidation within a primary demonstration site is certainly a more recent, and arguably the most significant innovation. That infrastructure, working in tandem with assembly structures that bring together a wide range of economic and political viewpoints, has enabled the political agency of the movement to develop. Those earlier anti-globalization protest movements were themselves built on prior models of nonhierarchical political organization dating to the Spanish Civil War and early anarchist movements. And just as the protest movements of the early twenty-first century published standards for protest conduct, strategy, and body armor online, so, too, are the standards and guidelines published by the New York General Assembly for spatial and political organization disseminated globally without explicit hierarchical control.
Anonymous, the hacktivist collective most strongly associated with Wikileaks, were early endorsers of Occupy Wall Street2 and, subsequently, participants and partners in technology and tactics. The specifics of the cooperation and overlap between the two groups is undocumented, but some of network characteristics that made Wikileaks such a resilient and formidable actor in late 2010 further illustrate the potential of the weak-link networking potentials. On an organizational and infrastructural level, and outside of a core constituency, Wikileaks is more a weak-tie social network than an activist organization. It survives on $5 donations, casual readers, and is at some levels thoroughly distributed on the Internet. And it was precisely this weak net of casual affinity that was the vehicle for the radical propagation of the Wikileaks archive by way of the tens of thousands of mirror sites for wikileaks.org that began popping up after the primary site was taken down by its original service provider. The more aggressive the attempts to shut the network down, the more tenacious and persistent its replication online became, precisely because of the pervasive and broad reach of casual supporters.
In similar ways, Occupy Wall Street has taken on a networked urban manifestation through the replication of the original occupation in New York in cities worldwide. And within New York City itself, the extension of the occupation into additional sites such as Washington Square, Foley Square, and Union Square have been the occasion for the weak links and general affinity that New Yorkers feel toward the demonstration (more than 65% of New Yorkers support it in a recent poll)3 to be converted into increased population mass at satellite demonstrations. The occasional extension of the demonstration to satellite “occupations” has greatly increased participation and network activity, and created opportunities to incorporate conventional protest tactics and constituencies, as in the case of the participation of organized labor in the Foley Square demonstration, and to redeploy the General Assembly protocols of communication and coordination in larger and more prominent public spaces, as in the case of the demonstrations in Washington Square.
Online and on land, the term “occupy” is now understood to connote a particular practice and mode of nonviolent political protest. But it also encompasses a new and exciting heterogeneous mode of collectivity, one that exhibits the relative smoothness with which profile data is aggregated to form networks within social media contexts. The fact that such tactics for aggregating agency within the space of the city are developing is compelling evidence of the power and importance of those public realms. And even more intriguing is the current debate over different scenarios of permanence and legal compliance that the movement must explore as the pressures of population and the oncoming New York winter are beginning to manifest themselves. Those factors are forcing the movement to consider whether to erect more substantial structures that risk altering the political and spatial dynamics of the current site, or to seek out alternative territory, whether privately owned interior public spaces or permanent satellite sites in the parks and other public spaces. These are the types of pressures that are manifesting themselves throughout the movement at large. The lasting political and spatial impact of the occupation movements will not be known for some time, in part because the spatial and political manifestations of the occupation itself are in the midst of processes of transformation. Part of the success of the movement thus far has been in its ability to exploit and negotiate the political and spatial terrain of the urban environment. At the heart of the #occupy project is a search for alternative and more equitable economic and societal models. It is also showing us another City.
1. Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist” Keynote speech for the International Seminar on Networks Theory: Network Multidimensionality in the Digital Age, 19th February 2010, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Los Angeles. ↵
2. “Anonymous joins #OCCUPYWALLSTREET,” Adbusters Blog, http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/anonymous-joins-occupywallstreet.html, accessed September 30, 2011. ↵
3. By a 67-23 percent margin, New York City voters agreed with the views of the Wall Street protesters and say 87-10 percent that it is “okay that they are protesting,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll released October 17, 2011, https://www.politico.com/story/2011/10/poll-ny-gop-ok-with-protests-066971, accessed October 27, 2011. ↵
Michael Chen is a principal of Normal Projects, a multidisciplinary architecture and design firm based in New York and Los Angeles. He is currently on the faculty at Pratt Institute School of Architecture.
www.normalprojects.com | @michael_chen