Nigel Thrift, "Movement-space: the changing domain of thinking resulting from the development of new kinds of spatial awareness," Economy and Society 33:4 (November 2004): 582-604. [pdf]

In other recent articles Thirft has "looked at how, as a result of the intervention of software and new forms of address, these background time-spaces are changing their character, producing novel kinds of behaviours that would not have been possible before and new types of object which presage more active environments." This paper argues that "the activity of calculation has become so ubiquitous that it has entered a new phase, which I call 'qualculation'," (584) and this new form of calculation is starting to change the way we perceive and think about space.

The World of Paratexts

"All human activity depends upon an imputed background whose content is rarely questioned: it is there because it is there. It is the surface on which life floats." This used to be largely natural, but in the last century industrialization has created a new artificial background shaping human activity. "Now a second wave of second nature is appearing, extending its fugitive presence though object frames as diverse as cables, formulae, wireless signals, screens, software, artificial fibres and so on." This is a mundane, inescapable "fugitive materiality" that requires a lot of invisible support– e.g., the creation of metrics, standards, addresses, and modularity. But if "all these characteristics can be imposed, then the logic of the system, as it becomes both necessary and general, will gradually become the logic of the world." (586)

From Quantification to Qualculation: The Growth of Calculation

"The growth of quantitative calculation in the world… is a long and complicated story" going back to the ancient Greeks. "But what seems certain is that the sheer amount of calculation going on in the world has undergone a major shift of late… [and] is becoming a ubiquitous element of human life" (586) thanks to the growth of computing power, growth of ubiquitous computing, and the of substitution of "analytic solutions… by brute computing force." (587)

Just as earlier systems for creating and organizing knowledge about the world– ranging from the discovery of mathematical notation in ancient Greece (a process akin to the impact of writing described by Havelock Ellis and other), to new visions of space in the Scientific Revolution, to information management tools in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the rise of logistics in the 20th century, all "produced a new sense of the world and new forms of representation of it, so we can see something similar happening now." (587) In all these historical cases, and today, "number does not just describe, it constructs…. number tends to cast the world reciprocally in its image as entities are increasingly made in for ms that are countable. Number performs number." (589-590)

New apprehensions of space and time

"[T]he sheer amount of calculation that is now becoming possible at all points of so many spaces is producing a new calculative sense, which I will call 'qualculation'." In this new calculative order, "calculations become part of a background whose presence is assumed." (592) To those of us living today, qualculation is as much a part of the "background" of reality as animal tracks and weather were to our ancestors.

A new sensorium

So what effect will the rise of qualculation have on the sensorium? Two possibilities are the rise of new phobias (something we saw with the transformation of the Euro-American city in the 19th century), and "the rise of new forms of intuition" (like thin-slicing). (596) Most interesting, however, is a "reworking of space and time… written into the human body and language." (596) Thrift points to three changes:

Hands. "The sensory system of the hand is complex and capable of exquisite fine-tuning. It is not just an 'external' organ: it is so vital to human evolution that it seems quite likely that parts of the brain have developed in order to cope with its complexities rather than vice versa." (597)

[I]n a qualculative world… the sense of touch will be redefined in three ways as haptic engineering moves beyond today's primitive keyboard, keypad, mouse and data glove. First, from being conceived as a heavily localized sensation, touch will increasingly be thought of as a sense that can stretch over large spaces…. Second, entities that are able to be touched will correspondingly expand; all manner of entities will be produced with an expanded sensory range. Third, paramount among these newly touchable entities will be data of various kinds which, through haptic engineering, will take on new kinds of presence in the world as something closer to what we conventionally regard as 'physical' objects. In other words, the hand will extend, be able to touch more entities and will encounter entities which are more 'touchable'. The set of experiences gathered under 'touch' will therefore become a more important sense, taking in and naming experiences which heretofore have not been considered as tactile and generating haptic experiences which have hitherto been unknown. (598)

Space. "It will become normal to know where one is at any point…. As importantly, the ability to tag addresses to moving objects which started with barcodes and credit cards and is now expanding and becoming more infor mation-rich with the rapidly expanding use of radio frequency identifier chips will mean that over a grid of fixed co-ordinates will be laid a series of moving addresses specific to particular entities." (598)

Language. "[V]ocabularies of spatial configuration will multiply. The critical importance of spatial distribution in flow architectures will produce an extended spatial vocabulary which will provide new opportunities for thinking the world, opportunities which will themselves be constitutive of that world. We can already see something of this going on in the practical aesthetics of fields like architecture, performance and film." (600)

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