Building a computer by hand, I found a lot of time to think while repeatedly soldering and wiring. I grew appreciation about the history from learning about how the computers evolved over time. Also, by learning about what has only become possible recently, I was inspired to imagine a different relationship with technology, an alternate past, which illuminates an alternate present and suggests alternate futures.
Making electronic circuits feels like you’re creating a tiny city, each component a neighborhood with its own energy, timing, and unique personality. When you spend enough time looking at electronics, the circuit board begins to look like a little urban architecture, its inhabitants a humming traffic of electronic signals. Cities are the two main spaces we habituate, that we connect to them in similar ways to the extent that we model them after one another.
Cities, like the computers, are often enclosed, encrypted and abstracted in a black box. A city inhabitants have a limited control of how the spaces are made and used, privately owned public space is black box in a sense. By making our own computer from scratch with discrete components, perhaps we can imagine creating alternative urban spaces for recuperation? And by questioning how the computers are made, we can shed light on how to make spaces closer to the world we want to live?
I thought a lot about the cities I visited and lived, from suburbs in California, towns in South Korea, recently Seoul and New York, the city I live in now. When you move around so much, all the cities become a bit of blur, one big sprawl. I had very little understanding about how cities are created and how they work, much like the limited knowledge I had about how computers work. I found a book of poems about cities by Donna Stonecipher. Here are a few passages, but the whole book continues like this:
It was like waking suddenly from the dream, seeing your house key on its hook, and luxuriating in the freedom from keys to model cities — in the deep ease of the haphazard and the habitual, the half-assed.” – Donna Stonecipher, Model City
Much like how the city in Stonecipher’s poem builds itself and then vanishes, the computer remembers data in its memory while deleting it constantly. Also in the cities we live in, the buildings are occupied and then deserted overnight, all governed by the clock and data that signals everyone’s movements.
Cities and computers both have a logic we impose upon them, but they also want logic of their own. The city has it’s own memory, a physical imprint of the activity that happens there, the streets and buildings and parks. The structure of the city, reflects how the people who live there go about their lives. Computers extend urbanism to virtual space, giving place to fantastic architecture.
Around the time when I began the Handmade Computer project, I was also participating in various protests and activist organizations in New York City. All around the world, there were insurgence of rhizomatic revolutions and movements that not only took place in the streets, but also in the computational spaces connected through the Internet. Henri Lefebvre’s provocation of “Right to the city” in 1968 still holds a valid relevancy after the Occupy Wall street and Arab Spring. Over time, I found the direct relation between the city and computers and a chance to envision the counter-politics of space making through technology, conceivably “Right to the computational city.”
The city, like the computer, it’s not a neutral object for aesthetic contemplation. Instead, it’s a site of contested politics, and of precarious life. It’s a massively large and abstract machine that’s operating by the logic of the capitalism. The city centers are the manifestation of financial programs that govern the logic of urban space. Disparities between the powerful and the oppressed manifest on the border of the cities. From the international airports to the national barriers, hostilities, surveillance are justified in the name of security. People living in the city experience and embody the internal conflict between growth and dispossession. Thus it’s important to create a counter-politics of space making.
“A new cognitive mapping must be developed… Creation of a politicized spatial consciousness and a radical spatial fix.” – Edward Soja. Postmodern Geographies p.75
Hand making circuits is an act of love, love for the ideas that the computer has come to embody. It is a practice devoted to the history and craft of computation, one that’s taught me a great respect for the material and form. There is an elegance in the abstraction and repetition of computational logic that I can only describe as “beautiful.”
Overlooking the importance of our relationship to computers and choosing consumption over construction is the path of least resistance. Recent events highlight the effect of our ambivalence: drone technology which distances and dehumanizes warfare, government and private agencies infringing on privacy in the name of security, corporate information technology monopolies jeopardizing political and ethical neutrality. When our lives are so profoundly affected by algorithms and programs, what are the acts of resistance or dissent that preserve our morality, our humanity?
“… Karma is samsara. Relationship is metempsychosis. We are in open circuits.”- Nam June Paik.
I wonder what he meant by “We are in open circuits”? Did he mean a circuit of information? I think we try to close these circuits by striving to master the technologies of our time. But maybe we can also become part of the circuit. Imprint ourselves onto the spaces we occupy and disperse our memories across the people we touch. We are open circuits, we are open city.
If we can wire electronics to make our computer, can we wire the urban space to make our own city? What kind of cognitive mapping for computing look like? What can be the counter-politics for making the open city a possibility?
Excerpt from Taeyoon Choi’s forthcoming digital book Handmade Computer, published by Avant.org.