#12: A Prescription from The Matrix

+ What's your online version of street chess?

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Keywords: Hemicycle

| hem-i-sahy-kuh |
n. In a legislature, a horseshoe-shaped debating chamber.

When Britain rebuilt the House of Commons Chamber after the Blitz in 1943, Parliament considered whether to rebuild it with the hemicycle design that other legislatures like the U.S Congress or the French National assembly had adopted.

But Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted on keeping the old chamber as a rectangle, crediting the “adversarial” floor plan for the oppositional, two-party dynamics that make parliamentary democracy thrive. Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Maybe that’s why Prime Minister’s Questions are way more fun than the State of the Union?

Quick Announcement: Terra Incognita

Are you a researcher interested in studying how digital public spaces have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic? Then please consider applying to our fieldwork project, Terra Incognita, by Friday, May 22. Details here!

What’s Clicking



Connections + Intersections

This week’s Double Click: Shadowland, a series from The Atlantic on the rise of conspiracy thinking in America.

Urbanist Film Society: The Matrix (1999)

On Sunday, The Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski had to give a dose of reality to Ivanka Trump and Elon Musk: Stop appropriating her movie’s “red pill” moment.

Since the 1999 blockbuster, the blue-or-red pill choice that Morpheus presents to Neo has become a shorthand for entering a hidden world on the internet. It’s been co-opted by fringe groups as a symbol of internet-driven ideologies including men’s right, alt-right, and GamerGate trolls. Even the New York TimesRabbit Hole podcast borrows from the film’s allusion to the portal of Alice in Wonderland.

But in addition to raising head-spinning existential questions, The Matrix can help inform our thinking about virtual spaces with another metaphor: the grid.

In Log Magazine in 2004, Paula Young Lee compares the simulation of “The City” in The Matrix to Modernist planning theory. Architect Le Corbusier described a city center as the “heart” of the urban organism and the grid serves as the veins in this economic circulatory system. In the movie, the “real world” where Neo lived is actually a simulated reality used to distract humans while machines feed off the energy of their bodies after a rebellion that creates a bleak future. Eventually, Neo and his crew hack into this simulated space and go downtown to destroy the “heart” of this computer.

Both designs make invisible systems more legible: For Corbusier, grids represent commercial activity in a city, and for the Matrix, The City represents the digital battle between machines and humans. In her piece, Lee quotes architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, “The truth is that architecture has always functioned as a matrix, an enveloping environment that embodies a world view.”

If we’re stretching the red-pill metaphor, where a wonder drug takes people to a seemingly hallucinatory unknown other reality, that’s not quite what’s happening in cyberspace. Instead, the pills get peddled on dead-end streets that most people don’t visit. With a better map of the web, we should be able to see where it’s happening, like Wachowski did when she called out Trump and Musk for misinterpreting her movie.

To design better digital environments, we need to see the architecture of the internet. Not just the ones and zeros turned into icons imitating the real world, but the networks that connect people and places. In some ways we can see this manifest in physical spaces in cities. Many objections to what’s happened on the commercialized web—distracting designs, creeping surveillance, disrupting industries, and even inciting mobs of angry people—have shown up on city streets form, from ride hailing vehicles to more bizarro incidents.

Take the example of Sidewalks Labs’ now-abandoned Quayside project in Toronto, which would have built a smart city from scratch: Much of the resistance to that project was rooted in fears about what the internet has done to the notion of public sphere. We have trouble imagining what a truly public smart city would look like because most spaces we use on the internet measure success through some metric of engagement. They’re not neutral places, they’re selling some sort of product. On our live-streaming talk series, The Shift, the New York Public Library’s digital officer Tony Ageh said we might define public spaces as much by what the place does not do than what it does do. Ageh said

We don’t gather information that we don’t need and we don’t keep it for longer than we need it. We provide resources to people intentionally to improve equality. We are non-judgmental. We have no vested interest in the outcome that anybody achieves from their own activities.

We should be able to create [a space] in the virtual era that does the same; where people are not measured by anything, they’re free to follow their own pursuits, their own terms, without any outcome predetermined or expected of them. From the public library, that’s what we do: We make anything freely available to people on their own terms without any price other than “be quiet and bring it back when you’re finished.”

Downloading: The Chess Table

Introducing a new feature of the newsletter: help us imagine the future of digital public space! Each week, we’ll take a closer look at a unique fixture of physical space and try to encourage some thinking about what it brings to the public realm that could be replicated digitally. We’re starting with a mainstay of intellectual sporting… the public park chess table!

Chess tables have existed in New York City'’s public parks since at least the 1940s, giving rise to the phenomenon of street chess. While these activations of parks can be found worldwide, some of the Big Apple’s are legendary: Permanent tables made Washington Square Park into a destination in the late 1960s, where you could play world champions like Bobby Fischer. In the 2000s, much of the chess scene migrated north to the denser environment of Union Square, where players set up their own boards on crates to attract passersby into playing games for money as a side hustle

But what is the online equivalent to street chess? What’s been your digital game board? It doesn’t have to be an exact metaphor, like a literal online chess game, but where have you been encountering and playing with new people online?

Use the hashtag #civicsignals anywhere on social media or send us an email at civic.signals@gmail.com and we’ll post some of your ideas in this space next week!

I can only show you the door,
Andrew Small

Illustrations by Josh Kramer

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Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Please share this newsletter with your friends!

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