Posted by: Nadim Saleh, Neo-Situationist <Info Msg Rep>
We act in the spaces we inhabit and the spaces we inhabit act on us. We shape our environment and our environment shapes us.
Our habitat exists not just as a physical and temporal thing but as a psychological construct infused with memories and assumptions. Through the mesh, our physical space enters our psychic space. Every habitat exists both as a physical thing in physical space and as a kind of memory palace in our information space. We navigate not just by maps and sights, but also by associations. We navigate not by geography alone, but also by psychogeography. We appreciate our spaces differently when we know what they’re made for. Habitats either lack mystery (for we made everything from the shell to the sky) or have mystery selectively applied to them through willful ignorance. We choose not to research the creators of our ﬂats and the architects of our skies because we want a sense of an era behind us, we want the mystique of a world larger than the routine we inhabit. We want to feel like we can ﬁnd some beautiful detail to appreciate that is just ours; we don’t want to be reminded that every such detail was put there by some designer or nanobot. Not every minute of the damn day, we don’t.
Psychogeography is about cultivating an understanding of how an urban space affects an inhabitant—and for our purposes every habitat is an urban space, thanks to issues of overcrowding, economy of space, and public versus personal understanding of communal spaces.
Your job is not just to get the best feeds into your entoptics, not to parse the best data, not to carefully program an exquisite muse, your job is to fucking think about what you’re being shown, what you’re being told, and the choices you make as a result. Why do you walk through that park on your way to the genetics market every day? Why do you avoid the corridors that run under the hospital buildings in your station? Why do you scale the vertical hallways of your microgravity beehive using these rungs and not those?
Don’t let designers make all of your decisions for you.
In the 20th century, Raoul Vaneigem wrote, “All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops—the geometry,” and if it was true then it is more true now, when we’re all hedged in, quarantined by geometries designed to keep us alive but also to keep us orderly, docile, routine. Our habitats are built to resist damage from without and attacks from within, but they are also designed to deflect attacks, to channel behaviors, to encourage one kind of attitude and discourage another. Spaces can be designed to awe and inspire or to impose and oppress. It can be as obvious as a locked door or entoptic warning, it can be as subtle as the bend to an avenue or the slope of a corridor. The wide boulevard beneath the landscaped sky of a Cole bubble invites wandering and welcomes strangers, while demonstrating the seemingly invulnerable scale of the habitat. The red, narrow corridor that slopes down out of sight past a nest of waste bins rejects the casual traveler, representing itself as a utilitarian place meant for workers and those who belong.
AR navigation only makes explicit what urban planners and architects have been making intuitive for centuries. Some places invite traffic, some places repel it, some places send out implicit signals coded for polite society, some places are clearly labeled. These e-tags can dominate our perceptions if we let them, enveloping us in mists of information, instructions, warnings, and advertisements. Even when you ﬁlter them down, the important security notices will breach your defenses with their alert protocols, telling you explicitly where not to go and what not to do. We become so accustomed to these references, we sometimes don’t see the physical strata that lies underneath. Many of us automatically skin over certain aspects of the environment with which we do not wish to be bothered, literally blinding ourselves to our surroundings. For a different experience, walk the same routes with your mesh link turned off, and see the terrain for what it actually is. With your attention free from distraction and censorship, you will see your habitat with new eyes.
With RFID signals and mesh presences, buildings talk to us directly. They tell us their histories, their major features and points of interest. We see the tags left behind by visitors, the reviews, commentary, and graffiti. We see the impact this place has had on people’s lives, if we choose to look. Each place has a story to tell, if you take the time to learn it.
They also lie. The advertisements that ping every muse don’t just promote a place’s marketability, they can also promote its rank and appeal, characterizing a venue and turning a rundown dive frequented by habtechs and miners (exclusive and unwelcoming) into an authentic neighborhood experience (accessible and welcoming). Has the writer of that ad polled the clientèle to see if all those habtechs and miners want fresh young things in their place? It doesn’t matter—the ad has transformed the clientèle into a part of the establishment, at least for those people whose muses let the ad through.
Don’t just read the AR tags that come your way, consider who wrote them and why. Whenever you’re being directed towards some landmark, you’re being directed away from someone’s local touchstone. For you, the New York memorial in the torus’s Grand Park is the defining feature of the landscape, and the AR backs you up. But to the locals, Grand Park is deﬁned by the spot where the local police found the bodies last year, which they have all ﬂagged and tagged in an AR feed shared through a neighborhood social network. Same park, different memorials.
Every place is a collection of overlapping layers, and you won’t always be able to see all those layers. Remember that what you see isn’t necessarily what the person standing next to you is seeing.
Drift and Drive
The mesh steers us through space, luring us down the familiar street with the comfortable smells or scaring us off that strange corridor with the purple lights and the foreign stink. When you visit that familiar foreign station in your rented morph, and you take that same, quickest route from download to your favorite noodle shop, you’re a slave to the geometry of your habitat. You didn’t really arrive at a choice of routes, you just accepted the route that’s easiest, labeled the fastest, that would get you through the station’s urban plan as quickly as possible. That’s a dodge—that’s you dodging the cityscape as much as utilizing it, minimizing the time you spend in the space between your familiar locations.
Sometimes it’s the smart choice, to submit to the ﬂow and geometry of the city and let it carry you, but you need to know how to break free of that, too, and travel and explore. You need to be able to both drift and drive.
When you wander a space, following inputs from open mesh signals or AR markers, pursuing the smell of burnt curry or the sound of a damaged piano, investigating whatever the habitat has to show, you’re drifting. It’s a valuable way to discover a place’s inherent character, to learn not what a place says it’s like in its Solarchive entry and travel blogs, but what a place is actually like.
When you move through a space with purpose, whether that purpose is to blend in with the obedient trafﬁc or to defy constrictions and blow through barricades, you’re driving. It’s how you exert pressure on a place, either by bending it at the joints or forcing it to break. Sometimes you’ll want to sink into the ﬂow of the place, and sometimes you’ll want to cut across the perpendicular.
Exploration and interaction with a space in new ways—by succumbing to its geometry and ﬂow—are psychogeographic performances. Freerunning and urban exploration are major examples, both of which you might ﬁnd yourself doing in your career, albeit with intent and motives that don’t really count as sport. Both exercises are ways to grab a habitat with both hands and master it, by redefining what’s accessible, by seeing what can be seen, not just what’s on display.
Freerunning, of course, is useful if you ﬁnd yourself in pursuit or being pursued, if only because it makes you unpredictable. The person who can grok a space the fastest wins. Urban exploration—that is, in the overcrowded realm of the universe’s young habitats, trespassing—is useful for fact-ﬁnding. Firewall agents from Mercury to Pluto have reported forgotten spaces in habitats otherwise choking from overcrowding. Every station has its place that, if not abandoned, is at least empty. Since everything in a modern habitat is adjacent to something, these empty areas are often useful for gaining access to otherwise restricted areas.
Every habitat is a bubble of denial, a refutation of environmental facts, a statement that we can survive even after the umbilical to Earth has been cut. We dwell in places that humanity wasn’t evolved to handle, and we’ve adapted. In a way, we’re all refugees. We live in exohabitats and engineered morphs meant to combat a universe that doesn’t want us, but what does exo even mean when there is no home world to go back to?
Habitats are designed to make the experience of life without an Earth seem less daunting, less frightening, less alien. Already, the next generation of transhumanity is growing up to ﬁnd existence in space to be the new normal. Instead, whatever approach the habitat designers have taken to combat the surreality of permanent existence amid the stars is simply the way things are at home. Even me, saying this to you, may come across as ridiculous. Maybe you ﬁnd life in Nova York’s needle-like buildings normal, and my nostalgia for Earthly life sees antiquated.
In my experience, habitat designers follow one of three different philosophies when combating the alien experience of exohabitation:
First, the routine makes the alien less alien. Habitats built with this philosophy in mind rely on urban planning notions and Earth-like cityscapes for their designs. They tend to be large habitats with parks and “open air” areas, even if the sun is actually a spindle of hyper-bright lamps and the sky is a series of enormous portholes looking out onto the hub of the torus. At least there’s a sky instead of a ceiling. At least the habitat feels as familiar as a city and gravity feel. Traces of the familiar evoke a comfortable nostalgia which inhabitants wrap themselves in.
Second, embrace the alien. Smaller habitats and microgravity habitats are more likely to follow this philosophy. Nova York is a good example, in fact: it’s beautiful, it’s functional, and it’s utterly unearthly. Inhabitants there either adopt an appreciation for the adventure of the new existence … or they distract themselves with it. That frontier adventure spirit is vital for gatecrashers and extrasolar colonials, too, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s built in. I’ve seen people gain that spirit and I’ve seen people lose it. You have to cultivate it, wear it, and take care of it. Without that sense of adventure, alien habitats—by whatever deﬁnition of “alien” works for you—can wear you down.
Third, function is everything. No small number of habitats are built to serve a functional purpose beyond habitation, be they Martian mining facilities or orbital churches. These places are built to serve, and the people who live there see themselves as being at work all the time. Every space has its designated function and is best used for that function. Dormitories are just places to sleep. The mess is for eating, not playing games. Often, the people who dwell in such places are either trapped (sometimes by denial) or waiting for something to happen—a new planet to be discovered, Earth to be saved, their tour of duty to be up, a sign from God. Something. It’s what keeps them from the kind of habitats that pursue the ﬁrst two philosophies, I think.
Changing Needs and Purposes
Almost all habitats, especially the larger ones, start with a particular idea and design. They are planned out thoroughly, every meter of space measured out and its utility analyzed. Each level, each module, each corridor has a purpose, designed to ﬁt or shape the needs of the inhabitants.
If you are old enough, you most likely remember the cities of Earth—the urban sprawls with their gleaming skyrakers and blighted slums. Compare those memories to the colony around you. Note the differences. Our needs have changed, and the purpose of our manufactured environments have changed with them.
Our residences have become smaller. Where once we had suburban homes and condos, we now have cramped closets. Space is limited and overcrowded, so personal dwellings are small and spartan affairs. As our personal and private spaces have shrunk, the need for more common space has grown. When you have no room to socialize at home with your friends and peers, it is necessary to do so in public and commercial areas instead. Social and night-life areas of habitats are typically crowded and busy, as there are few alternatives.
Massive structures are a thing of the past. Most stations have no need for massive buildings—after all, they essentially are one. Except for the vast open realms of some spheres, cylinders, and toruses, there is no place to put a towering skyscraper, mall, or stadium. Even where there is space, there is rarely need. Gone are the megacorps and vast corporations with their need of centralized operational hives and ofﬁce towers. Most hypercorps are smaller, mobile, and asset light. They do not have vast armies of employees for which to provide workstations, they have deep networks of freelancers on call at any time, able to work from wherever they are. Gone also are the need for massive department stores, malls, and shopping centers, replaced by the ubiquitous nanofabber, the capability to acquire whatever you need online, and small boutique shops that provide customized shopping experiences for discerning customers. Gone too are the coliseums for tribalized sports franchises, erased by the ability to remotely experience sports events as if you were present.
Many structures no longer have speciﬁc functions. They are now modular or reconﬁgurable. A habitat section needed for living quarters one week may be transformed into a small conference center the next and a bazaar the week after that. Smart materials, quick nanofab or robofac construction, and servitor bots mean that it is quick to redesign a portion of a habitat for whatever purpose is currently needed. In habitats with open space, modular structures can be erected and dismantled overnight, or simply moved to more convenient locations. Even the furnishings are rapidly replaceable and recyclable. Speaking of design, the economic incentives to build structurally and aesthetically identical buildings are no longer in effect. The ability to model structures thoroughly with software and the capability to nanomanufacture or order custom autofactory-made components means that every building can be built according to personalized tastes and speciﬁc needs. Even buildings that start with the same rough basic blueprint are likely to come out looking much different once they have been modiﬁed for the user. This means that many structures also have a very organic look and feel, with few straight lines and sharp corners and no wasted space.
Unless you reside on Mars or Titan, the ribbons of highways are also forgotten. With no need or space for ground vehicles, “trafﬁc” is a thing of the past. Places that do have roads are graced with the pragmatic utilitarianism of grid layouts, rather than the winding lanes of old that arise organically over time, as usage dictates. It is difﬁcult, in fact, to get lost, even if one means to do so. The roads are also narrower, more friendly to pedestrians. Parking lots are all but extinct.
A new travel way has appeared, one not meant for you and I. Our robotic servants have grown so useful and so numerous that we have devised means and paths for them to travel outside of our own routes. Hidden in the walls and under our corridors are kilometers of thoroughfares just large enough for servitor bots to pass through, hooked on magnetic rail cars or similar devices. Along with their storage racks, closets, and maintenance areas, our things have their own spaces, their own homes and streets, hidden from ours. Because so few of us pass through these areas, they are less surveilled—something those who desire discretion should keep in mind.
Where new paths open, others close. Look around you, you’ll see walls. Almost every residence belonging to transhumanity is now walled in. Protected. Limited. Isolated. And the walls do not stop there. Barriers are also used to divide our populations internally. The residences of the clanking masses are very carefully walled off from the rest of us. Note how the thoroughfares from the roboghettos loop around back on themselves, subtly encouraging those shells that try to leave to stay where they belong. The opulent dwellings of the elite are similarly segmented away. These are intentionally hard-to-reach. Checkpoints are common. If you do not know the way, if you are not of their kind, the oligarchs and their kind do not want you trodding their pathways.
Despite these designs, transhumanity has a way of making its own uses for things. Overcrowding may mean that utility tunnels soon become hastily constructed residences. External areas, littered with heat vents and antenna, may be occupied by synthmorphs with no need for amenities except simple shelters from solar radiation. Dome habitats on Mars develop rings of unplanned souks, inhabited by rusters and clanking masses. Abandoned areas are seized by squatters for whatever purposes they need. Common areas draw vendors, who draw the curious and more vendors, and soon a thriving gray market bazaar is born. Clusters are reconﬁgured over neighborly disputes, to add new modules, or by residents who are simply bored and want a change. As desires shift, so too do our habitats.
Surveillance serves not just as a legal and historical record but as a record of rep: proof that you’ve done what you say you’ve done. You bark, and anyone on the mesh can search to see if you also bite. It’s the foundation of the reputation economy.
It’s not just video, of course, but surveillance of all types. Ubiquitous, ever-present surveillance has become the new public record in countless habitats. You’ve seen the phrase, “Links or didn’t happen,” right? Without footage as validation, events almost cease to count. Without evidence, without the perusal and approval of the public eye, events almost do not matter. It doesn’t matter how cute your kid is unless he’s cute on the mesh or in the ﬂesh. If a body falls in the habitat but there’s no audio record, did it make a sound?
Anecdotes have lost all value. The video clip is king, and his throne is shared on the mesh. Reigns are short and full of strife, but the dynasty has been intact since the beginning of the 21st century, when people gladly started trading privacy for doses of recognition from the surveillance society. To kiss the king’s ring. The authority of the king over the surveilled society is total, but his rule is not absolute. Surveillance is here, it is just not evenly distributed. And in the reputation economy, lower-surveillance places are extremist places.
Typically, low surveillance means a poorer district, a place where nobody cares what happens or where what happens doesn’t matter so much. It sounds insulting because it is. “Low surveillance” in these places means isolation. It means a lack of social validation. It means no currency to trade for recognition or rep. You can brag about what you did in a low-surveillance area, but without trust to back it up, it doesn’t go on your video résumé.
Or low-surveillance areas are extreme in the other direction: highly expensive. “Low-surveillance,” in these cases, means privacy. And privacy is a vestigial remnant of the scarcity economy—rare enough that it’s worth paying for. Opting out of an economy has always been very expensive, costing either a lot of currency (like spending cash to get away to a tropical island, back when that was possible) or a lot of capital (like giving up personal possessions and social ties to live off the grid, back when that was possible). Opting out of the reputation economy by leaving lenses behind is just as expensive. Either you bail on the whole system and go to live in some low-surveillance habitat where safety sensors only monitor essential systems like environmental conditions, or you step away temporarily by renting or making a space free of surveillance so you can do whatever it is that you don’t want others knowing about.
What’s weird about this, at least to the generation that was born on Earth, is that so few people worry about surveillance. Without a militant police state to back it up, the risk of some shame isn’t enough to get people upset about the monitoring systems that protect them from cold space or cold-blooded killers. They’re trading some of their privacy for security, swapping pictures of themselves picking their nose for the promise that terrorists and spies from other habitats will get photographed in turn.
Again, the barrier between the monitored and the monitors, the known and the knowing, reveals the kind of trust that’s necessary to keep a habitat in operation. Some hypercorp security agent or habitat cop might be laughing at you spilling your coffee on yourself or your bungled attempt to hit on that hot sylph at the bar, but at least they’re not doing it to your face. Your mockery becomes part of the invisible systems that make the torus turn and the oxygen ﬂow. You get to breathe air in exchange for living in a ﬂat with a window facing a camera. It’s just another tax.
That is … in a big enough habitat.
In smaller habitats, surveillance erodes anonymity in a hurry. Instead of being just another face on a mesh video-clip playlist, you’re a known ﬁgure in the mesh’s darling favorite clip that week. You’re likely to get spotted on the street or singled out by facial recognition software and fed into an AR routine. Neighbors can go from watching you wipe out as you come out of that gravity transition zone to learning where your cubby is and sending you a mocking message, muse be damned.
What’s stopping them? Boredom. That hilarious clip is just a distraction and so are you. It’s just more data in a tide of information. So you got your heart broken on camera? So did a hundred other people. It’s not news anymore.
This won’t protect you from a little ridicule—the rumor-mongering and ﬁnger-pointing that come with surveillance and search engines is never going away—but it also sort of resembles summer camp, if you’ve ever heard of that. There’s a gauntlet to go through, some growing up to be done, but the hurt becomes a sting and the sting becomes something you hardly feel anymore. In the surveillance society, your day-to-day is just not that interesting to most strangers. You’re just not worth much more than 90 seconds and a laugh. What you do is available to everyone but known only to those who care enough to search for you, to sift for you, to ﬁnd and rescue your past self from all the collected data.
That, as a Firewall agent, is your greatest boon. Use the background noise of overwhelming data as your cover whenever you can. Blending in can be as effective as dodging surveillance. Sometimes it’s your only option.
Living in Risk
Every habitat is in jeopardy. Every habitat is a city under lockdown. Every habitat is ﬁghting a daily battle against the chill of Europan seawater, the pull of Venusian gravity, or the void of space. This is why so many habitats feel a little like a city in wartime—peaceful maybe on the surface, quiet in the streets, but ready to bristle and always on the lookout.
Many habitats are like walled cities, meant to be familiar to locals and carefully constructed to create a divide between public-friendly spaces and off-limits zones. AR telemetry guides visitors—to the habitat, to the neighborhood, to the smallest sector—to visitor-friendly locations, mediating the experience and cultivating an impression of the place. This is a way of organizing trafﬁc, but it’s also a way of organizing behavior and detecting dangers. Some station sensors monitor people’s movements and detect deviations from normal patterns. Some habitats tag all rental morphs and track them for the duration of an ego’s visit. The habitat itself regards the outsider as a foreign body, because any potential enemy is a risk to the whole city, potentially carrying peril in the form of bombs, contagions, ideas.
The surveillance, the barricades, the AR data recommending this place and forbidding that one, all evoke a kind of “fortress urbanism,” turning the habitat into a maze that’s navigable when familiar but sturdy and suspicious at the same time. The city is not merely encased in a ring of steel, it is the ring of steel. It is walled in on all sides, controlled and constricted, and wary of the tiny foe that could bring it down. A living castle.
Habitation in such an environment is, so often, a pact with the powers-that-be to trade freedom for security. Everyone’s freedom is restricted so that no one has the freedom to puncture the city wall and end it all. A hostile environment is, after all, the ﬁnest collaborator and enemy could ask for.
The perils of life suspended in poison, or spinning in circles in a hungry vacuum, are constant—there is no weather to it. Every day the risk is real and the same. That is what makes it bearable. Eventually, you just get tired of the fear. You remember how scared you were that some rogue asteroid or bomb-wielding maniac would blow out whatever habitat you live in? Like grief, it gets a little easier every day, until you acclimate. It just becomes part of the uncontrollable pressure of existence. You wake up thankful for a pressurized sky and a cortical stack and you go to work.