shannon mattern, a city is not a computer

Community archives validate the personal histories and intellectual contributions of diverse publics. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies and customs and immigration offices are networked with geographically distributed National Security Agency repositories and other federal black boxes. These archives are not of the same species, nor do they “process” “data” in the same fashion.

Modern libraries and librarians have sought to empower patrons to access information across platforms and formats, and to critically assess bias, privacy, and other issues under the rubric of “information literacy.” They build a critical framework around their resources, often in partnership with schools and universities. Further, libraries perform vital symbolic functions, embodying the city’s commitment to its intellectual heritage (which may include heritage commandeered through imperial activities).

We need to ask: What place-based “information” doesn’t fit on a shelf or in a database? What are the non-textual, un-recordable forms of cultural memory? These questions are especially relevant for marginalized populations, indigenous cultures, and developing nations. Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor urges us to acknowledge ephemeral, performative forms of knowledge, such as dance, ritual, cooking, sports, and speech. These forms cannot be reduced to “information,” nor can they be “processed,” stored, or transmitted via fiber-optic cable. Yet they are vital urban intelligences that live within bodies, minds, and communities.