#108: Grids, Ladders & Malls

First, an announcement: Today I published Kneeling Bus: A Series of Tubes, a compilation of 50 selected pieces from this newsletter. You can get it here. It’s an eBook (PDF format) with the essays organized into themed chapters and a foreword explaining a bit about why I put it together. It was a blast to assemble it and I’m thrilled with how it turned out. It costs $10, which I think is a steal—that’s just one month of Stratechery!—but you’re also welcome to pay more if you think it’s worth it (consider this my version of a Patreon). Most of you haven’t read most of these essays— if you’re a longtime subscriber, it’s possible you have, but even then you might find that this is a cool format in which to revisit them. And if you like it, of course, feel free to let some other people know, or even just retweet this!

Having recently reread every newsletter I’ve ever sent, I’m particularly attuned right now to the unifying themes that tie them all together. One of the strongest threads, if not the very strongest, is the structural relationship between physical and digital space: How is the internet like a city, and at what point do spatial ways of understanding networked environments break down? Even since I started exploring this topic nearly a decade ago (goodbye, 2010s), this particular question has gotten more interesting, because the two universes, once relatively separate, have become increasingly and more intricately involved with each other. If the ‘90s internet was a weird, largely unproductive place where you escaped from reality, today’s internet is where much of reality happens, and meatspace is where you escape from it. It barely even makes sense anymore to refer to “the internet” as an alternate domain. We’re all basically online all the time, passively if not actively.

Cities, and the logic of urban space, remain incredibly useful as metaphors for digital experience, though. The web is increasingly mediated by a few major platforms—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter—and feeds are increasingly the infrastructure for reaching anything else on the internet. Venkatesh Rao recently compared this arrangement to our discontiguous navigation of urban sprawl, in which we access shopping malls, hotels, and other enclaves not via pedestrian-scale street entrances but parking lots and garages that we drive to before getting out of the car and entering a circumscribed enclave—which often simulates a more traditional urban setting—on foot. Rem Koolhaas calls this Junkspace (great essay, read it here) and in its digital equivalent, the platform feeds carry us like freeways, with big, loud signs coaxing us to exit via links to other parts of the web, which are no longer connected to one another in any meaningful way.

Architecture theorist Albert Pope describes this hierarchical urban pattern as a “ladder,” distinguishing it from the more democratic grid-based layout that preceded it in most cities. The street grid, as originally conceived, was meant to extend infinitely outward from city centers, unifying the inhabited world in a single field of legible urbanized space. Grids offer multiple paths between any two points, and enable a relatively free flow of people through the built environment. What happened instead during the last century was the breakup of the grid, both at the suburban fringes of cities and in their interiors, leaving residual patches of “traditional” city separated by much larger swathes of amorphous sprawl. Pope writes, “As the spatial continuity of the gridiron city is compromised, urban centers lose their connection to open, generative urban processes and become historic theme parks for sightseers, festival marketeers, urban theorists, and other tourists.” The grid, as an organizing principle for space, thus gives way to the ladder, in which freeways branch off into smaller and smaller roads that terminate in parking lots and residential cul-de-sacs. If the bygone open internet was a grid of its own, with a multitude of navigable pedestrian-friendly routes between any two points, then the platform internet is a ladder, with centralized, proprietary thoroughfares connecting disparate pockets that simulate what’s being eroded by that infrastructure.