the enigma of the urban ruins (3.2)

Sunnyside Gardens, Queens - (source: flickr user k_dellaquila)
Sunnyside Gardens, Queens - (source: flickr user k_dellaquila)
Just an average-sized home for the ages in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens – (source: flickr user k_dellaquila)

With¬†“remarkable constancy over a period of some five thousand years” the approximate¬†dimensions of¬†a typical house in the city have remained two stories high, 25 feet wide, and 25 feet long. From¬†Mohenjo-Daro (of 3000 BC), to the Greek Priene (of 200 BC), the East End London (of 1700 AD), and Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, says Mumford, all were characterized by homes with this approximate dimension.

While the area of the urban home remains largely the same, the size of the city fluctuates dramatically over the course of history. Mumford argues that the key condition informing the size of cities is its communication system. Crucial in the evolution of the city is the¬†ability to address and assemble citizens together. In Plato’s ideal city the distance a voice could carry upon the air would determine the area of the city. More practically, assembly drums and church bells would call together citizens through the ages.

Perhaps the size of cities and the size of homes are related in this parameterization around voice and distance. 25 feet is roughly the distance that a shout is heard at a normal speech level. In the everyday management of household affairs, this ability to issue clear commands from any point of the house would probably have remained important across the millennia (assuming the db level of our voices and sensitivity of our ears have stayed the same). You would always be able to hear someone call your name from any point within the historically typical house.

Certainly the communication system within the home will resemble the communication system within the city. There’s the image carried in film of the frontier town: the bell assembling the family together for supper just like church bells assembling the faithful together for worship. There’s the image of in-home intercom systems in suburban residences from the 60s and 70s that seem to share the same origin story as the public address systems within schools. The intercom system creates a virtual assembly of those within the building – gathering the family or the school body, not by means of the physical assembling of bodies, but by assembling attention upon a single voice from a network of tinny speakers.

Air Raid Siren by designwallah, on Flickr
Toronto Air Raid Siren by designwallah, on Flickr

When my family moved to Canada in the mid-90s, air raid sirens were scattered across the Greater Toronto Area. These systems, installed in the 1950s were meant to be used to warn the public of an attack. On top of schools, the sirens seemed to blend into the urban environment. They draw attention, however, when singled-out atop of towers, such as the one in the above image. These in particular stood as ruins, reminders of the Cold War and its enigmatic tale of urban communication.

In-home intercom systems seem to have befallen a similar fate as these air raid sirens. Within how many suburban homes do these inoperable systems sit like ruins embedded in the frame of the house? Perhaps wireless technology and personal audio devices shifted the emphasis of communication technologies from assembly or perhaps modern household appliances meant children were less frequently needed in the administration of household tasks.

Median Sqft of New Single Family Homes in the United States (source: United States Census Bureau)
Median Sqft of New Single Family Homes in the United States (source: United States Census Bureau)

A two level home at 25×25 sqft. equals a total area of about 1300 sqft. Mumford’s The City in History was published in the 1960s. Readily available US Census Bureau data shows the median dimensions of single family homes starting in 1973. We see in this data that new homes are growing in size. The only major disruptions in a linear course across the decades correlate with the savings and loans crisis in the 80s and the Great Recession of 2008.

Rural homes (outside Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs) are surprisingly much smaller in size than urban and suburban homes. Why is that? Could it have something to do with the importance of communication within the rural home and a greater reliance on older and analogue systems of inter-home communications including the human voice?

I’m not sure what happened in the 80s and 90s – did these new homes commonly include intercom systems or were families just yelling a lot louder at each other to bypass rusting intercom systems and the rising volume of entertainment systems? With the size increase of homes, so did the noise increase within the home. Entertainment systems became cheaper and more personal: televisions distributed throughout the house, a Nintendo gaming system under one of those TVs, and a Walkmen within the ears.

That has changed in the 21st Century with the advent of cellular phones and mobile computing. The historically above average typical home can become a quiet place once more, now that contact can take place across household media. According to a 2011 survey by a UK grocer, 1 in 5 parents message their at-home children over a networked device. The physical dimensions of the home may grow while the children remain within virtual arms length.

The use of information communication technologies today means that plenty of household communication is mediated through telecommunication systems that reside outside of the home. This infrastructure, heavy in its physical materiality and extensive in its technocratic administration, feels light in its screen-based delivery. I recall the first time I sent a text message to my wife inside our town house (just slightly larger than the millennial average home). The text was received with comical, yet critical derision. What excess! But look, I replied, this saved me the need to shout and be misunderstood.

Texting a recipient inside the home is a curious method of communication when you trace the route of the signals. The message leaves the home and is relayed by the local cellular network infrastructure for delivery back inside. The effect is perhaps not lost on family communication. A text or cellphone call maintains and extends a quality of communication familiar within the home to any distance with cellular network coverage. As within the home, we’re now expected to be always within reach. Sociologist Richard Ling calls this reciprocal expectation – a family member becomes a problem to me when their phone is turned-off or when they are outside the cellular service area.

The quality of communication in the historically typical home can now be extended to the ends of the earth under reciprocal expectation.¬†The walls of the home itself are now an enigmatic ruin – a formality, a kind of junkspace to continuously move, remove, push-away to increase the void within. Americans spent $275 billion on home improvements in 2011, according to a¬†Harvard report¬†which also said that¬†“spending on improvement and repair projects in 2011¬†surpassed purchases of clothing, furniture and home furnishings, and electronics and appliances‚ÄĒand equaled about half¬†of spending at grocery stores.”

While the walls of the home are renovated, a line between public and private is innovated. This constant contact with family is now overlapping more explicitly with the contact and addressability of publics to municipal, state, and federal authorities through the use of involuntarily activated government alert systems. These government alerts which are rolling out across the country communicate with the public about emergency situations in a manner similar to our communication with family and friends – over a text message-like notification. The evolving order of in-home communication over information communication technologies is overlapping with a public address system.

One buzz of the phone: an app notification (someone outside calling in). Two buzzes: a text message from a close friend or family member (someone calling from within). Three buzzes: a message from the police or government (someone above calling down).

This addressability is not limited to notification, but also location verification. A parent’s right to check-in on the whereabouts of their children (even grown-up children) parallels a developing claim by Western liberal states to tracking the whereabouts of any of their citizens. An ambient awareness of all our children. Their infinite addressability – unto the limits of the earth and existence.

Of course, addressability is meaningless without a corresponding command. “Dinner is ready” reads the most common text message sent by a parent to their child upstairs. Come to the table, son. Dinner is ready. Come to the table.

NSA Utah Data Center Illustration (via the NSA parody site, Domestic Surveillance Directorate. Note: Data Center isn't a parody.)
Where mothers are calling their children down for dinner. NSA Utah Data Center Illustration (via the NSA parody site: Domestic Surveillance Directorate. Note: Data Center isn’t a parody.)

What do governments care to assemble? Only our attention to the abnormal (a missing child), the catastrophe (an act of god), the nightmare (an act of terror); and that we should ignore the table we are within – a vast table, walls ever expanding, out in the wilderness, a rural ruin to an enigma. A cloud of uŐ∂nŐ∂kŐ∂nŐ∂oŐ∂wŐ∂iŐ∂nŐ∂gŐ∂ unknowables.