21st Century Graffiti

Detroit Tagging


Compuware Headquarters, located at 1 Campus Martius near the base of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, marks the site of the new, urban landscape. Compuware, a leading Information Technology corporation, manufactures management, software applications and offers IT services to a number of global businesses. Where Detroit once signified the success and perils of Modernism, specifically those moments denoted by Fordist assembly line methodology, today Detroit emerges as the signifier of techno-salvation. The lure of Compuware to Detroit, solidified in its 2003 opening, begins the final replacement of industrialization with information technology. The sixteen story, $350 million building is now the focal point of what the city itself calls "Digital Detroit," a title embodied in an annual conference of the same name.[1] Wayne State University contributes to this technology-driven enthusiasm with plans for its own downtown technology site, TechTown, a "new multi-million dollar entrepreneurial village" "located along the Digital Drive in the heart of the city of Detroit."[2] Detroiter Iggy Pop's declaration "Look out, honey, cause I'm using technology," in the 1973 song "Search and Destroy," is no longer a threat, but instead a desired reality as Detroit embraces the turn to the digital. This desire is realized in Digital Detroit, which dubs itself "New Ideas, New Culture, New Community." The label updates the Fordist plan of "Americanization" in the early half of the 20th century with a digitized sense of urban identity. Fordism triumphed homogenous identity for the sake of manufacturing; Digital Detroit triumphs "newness" in order to generate new media.

The empty factories which initially gave birth to Ford and Chrysler supremacy throughout the first half of the 20th century have yielded to the McLuhanist vision of information dominance. "In the new electric Age of Information and programmed production," Marshall McLuhan wrote in the 1960s, "commodities themselves assume more and more the character of information."[3] How has Detroit come to represent the new signifier of urban information? How has its commodification placed urbanity at the center of new media logic? The commodification of our cities (through franchises, capital, gentrification) has not yielded "better" places to live. No matter how many Hard Rock Cafés or Borders we attract to downtown environments, life remains the same. Buildings remain unoccupied. Ruins surround the franchises. This paradox, the Detroit Free Press notes, continues even as the city claims a high profile for attracting IT and other commercial investment. Upon hearing that Detroit placed five companies in the 2005 Inner City 100 rankings of the fastest-growing companies in urban America, Free Press columnist Tom Walsh comments:

Detroit's emergence as one of the cities with the most companies on the Inner City 100 list is something of a surprise, given that an ICIC study last year showed that Detroit was the only U.S. inner city with job losses of more than 2 percent a year from 1995 to 2001.[4]

Failure of economic investment (in terms of job growth or quality of life) has been largely ignored by cities, and Detroit, even with its faith in Compuware, is no exception. Since the construction of the $500 million Ford-sponsored Renaissance Center along the Detroit River in 1977, economic investment has served as the pivotal moment always-on-the-verge-of transforming the city's residents' lives. The Renaissance Center did not revive the river area, and there's no reason to believe Compuware will save downtown. Like the Renaissance Center, the current grand scope of corporate IT structure in downtown Detroit, aligned with the city's other grand gestures towards sports entertainment, have had little impact on the almost 800,000 residents' economic futures. Burnt out buildings, abandoned homes, and empty storefronts are still the norm. The anticipated domino effect of development never materializes. Thus, despite his securing of the 2005 Super Bowl and The Final Four -- the 2009 collegiate basketball event -- for the city to host, Detroit's mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is still named by Time Magazine as the country's worst mayor. Sports attractions meant to lure further investment into the city have not generated substantial change. Why don't such efforts revive urban life anymore? The answer can be found in the city's own claim to digital status: the role of information production, and in particular, new media.


One cannot discount the image of Compuware at Detroit's center. Its stature is notably visible against the backdrop of the numerous empty storefronts in the adjacent section of Merchant's Row along Lower Woodward. The importance of Compuware is not that it has generated a significant financial payoff; it hasn't. Compuware's importance is that the city now stands to be the site where a new logic of invention emerges, one based on information technology. Detroit gave birth to the U.S. conception of assembly line thinking (equal parts in the system, interchangeability). Now Detroit gives birth to the assemblage apparatus of new media. That Silicon Valley has been more of a force in the rise of information technology in terms of hardware and software makes little difference. Detroit demonstrates not the instrumentality of digital culture, but its logic.

We no longer live in the world of assembly. We live in the age of the assemblage. Assembling a city piece by piece through interchangeable financial investments does not account for the assemblage mentality of the 21st century. As ubiquitous as assemblage has become for popular culture in music, on TV, on the Web, and in the plastic arts, it still has not earned credit for its role in structuring logic. The logic of the assembly line eventually extended outward from the Ford factory in Highland Park and influenced a range of cultural habits throughout the 20th century, from department store setups (everything under one roof) to educational policy (assembly line movement from class to class and generalized testing). How has assemblage begun to reimagine that structuring?

The places we live in have become more than fixed places. "A rough enumeration of some of the basic tenets of this general narrative of the city includes the following," Helen Liggett writes in her book Urban Encounters. "The city exists as a place."[5] But narrative, as Jean FranÁois Lyotard framed the postmodern condition, no longer holds up in the age of databases and techno-mastery. Narratives are too stable. They codify experience in referential ways; they work to legitimize experience. "The best performativity [of narrative] cannot consist in obtaining additional information in this way," Lyotard notes. "It comes rather from arranging the data in a new way, which is what constitutes a 'move' properly speaking. This new arrangement is usually achieved by connecting together series of data that were previously held to be independent."[6] Assemblage works from that basic principle of parataxical arrangement and opposes the ordered assembly of narrative. "Capital will save Detroit" marks one failed narrative circulated among the city's investors, politicians, and real estate companies. Returning to this narrative will do us little good. Instead, we must connect its claim to other data not yet considered relevant or legitimate in urban discourse.

Detroit exists as a place without stability and without legitimization. This lack of stability does not depend on global markets or price fluctuations or even issues of labor. We already recognize narratives of Detroit which pose the city in such terms: urban flight, failure to adapt to new global trade, lost revenue in tax assessment and collection, large-scale unemployment. Detroit's lack of stability comes from elsewhere; it comes from space. From 8 Mile to Jefferson Avenue, lived in and inhabited spaces are encircled by empty spaces. The empty spaces which comprise large parts of the city pose the possibility of assemblage (combining spaces) as opposed to assembling (filling in space with investment). But until now, we've spent too much time lamenting over economic revival in terms of space. Whether framed in the repetitive gesture of urban renewal or the more eclectic appeal of what Richard Florida hails as the creative class, an economic vision of the city demands that we see its return in purely financial terms. Florida's manifesto, The Rise of the Creative Class, sets the conditions for how the urban environment will be revitalized by the economic output of young urban professionals (most of whom are artistic and energetic). The presence of such professionals, Florida claims, will lead to urban recovery as these individuals' interests spur and give rise to new development. It's a popular trope adopted by many states and local governments, among them Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, who appropriates Florida's concept as the basis of her "Cool Cities" program of urban renewal. Detroit has been marked as space within the "Cool Cities" plan. The presence of cool people, the plan proclaims, will make the city referentially cool, and thus, in line with Florida's argument, elevate financial growth.

In Cities: Reimagining the Urban, Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, however, propose an alternative agenda for city planning, one which requests that we view cities in non-economic terms. "Can we see cities as something other than localized economic systems or the forcing houses of (knowledge) capitalism?"[7] It's a question I take seriously for how it moves us outside of narrative. It is no longer possible to theorize all of our problems in terms of capital without also acknowledging that new media plays an equally dominant (or possibly more dominant) role in shaping culture. But what is this "something other" Amin and Thrift hint at? And what is this role I imagine new media having in city revival?


Amin and Thrift ask us to consider the encounter. "The sense of a kaleidoscopic urban world," Amin and Thrift write, "crammed full with hybrid networks going about their business, enables us to see, at the same time, the importance of encounter."[8] Networks embrace the logic of encounter. Amin and Thrift note:

So, places, for example, are best thought of not so much as enduring sites but as moments of encounter, not so much as "presents"; fixed in space and time, but as variable events; twists and fluxes of interrelation. Even when the intent is to hold places stiff and motionless, caught in a cat's cradle of networks that are out to quell unpredictability, success is rare, and then only for awhile.[9]

In the network, one moves from place to place, rather than settling in one place. "The insidious thing about electronic networks," Steven Shaviro writes, "is that they are always there, whether you pay attention to them or not."[10] Detroit as network operates from within those moments we pay attention to it, as well as those we don't. The city as network requires a reimagining of how we move and engage information within (i.e. to and from) places instead of focusing solely on our experience in places (the Compuware/TechTown model). The difference is substantial. By imagining the urban environment as one of encounter rather than fixed place, we can begin to conceptualize a city like Detroit as a network (and, in turn, we see other 21st century cities as networks as well). In that conceptualization, we see the ways new media may reshape our understanding of information technology and the urban. In essence, we see a project worthy of digital media.

The problem is that even while the city calls itself Digital Detroit, it does not see itself yet as the embodiment of digital media; i.e. the network. It still sees itself as fixed place. The 20th century marked the great migrations to cities for purposes of work. Detroit, along with Chicago and Cleveland, served as a major destination point for those in search of a fixed place within the American promise of post-War economic recovery. The 21st century fails to continue this distinction, partly because those fixed places no longer exist. The automotive factories which spurred the great migrations have since closed or minimized operations. The factory signifies the place we pay attention to; the time has come to locate the places we don't pay attention to, the places we have yet to encounter, in order to shape Detroit as a network. In the age of information, we don't head towards a place, but rather encounter place, real or imaginary. We enter into place. When Detroit-based DJ Jay Dee poses as a mix the broad declaration "Welcome To Detroit" on his album of the same name, he highlights this encounter as one into the network of information culture. In other words, to be welcomed into Detroit is to be welcomed into the encounter as mix.

In the collection Stalking Detroit, Jason Young poses this mix encounter as an update of the Situationist practice of psychogeography. Young's project, Line Frustration, is a mapping of Detroit whose purpose is to move outside of fixed, economic solutions by mixing physical space with imagination, or the places we wouldn't normally pay attention to. "Line Frustration describes the brokering of Detroit's empty territory by the media and attempts to locate architecture's potential fit within that economy."[11] Young describes his work of mapping out lines across the city as being about writing. "In many ways," he states, "this line of demarcation is rhetorical. It separates this from more of this. The line's intention is to introduce difference where there is none."[12] A mix of real place (where the lines meet) and imaginary place (where I project them) produces encounter. When I project Detroit as a network of encounters, I am focusing on this sense of difference in terms of new media. I am calling for new types of mapping of place, particularly mappings which move within the logic of digital culture by allowing us to encounter new kinds of urban spaces as writing. "The full blown city coincides with the development of writing," McLuhan writes.[13] "New speed and power are never compatible with existing spatial and social arrangements."[14] To reimagine the city as digital media is to reimagine its space as writing, a move which displaces us from current social arrangements whose focus rests mostly with capital investment. Thus, this becomes both an ideological move (a recognition of an apparatus shift in information technology and space which moves us from assembly line to assemblage thinking) as well as a practical move (residents engage with this shift in thinking in order to begin writing the city through encounters). Central to this writing is imagination in terms of materiality, how we imagine the places we live within in regards to technology.

In the Fordist-economy, that imagination occurs as graffiti. Long distained as symbolic of urban blight, graffiti has been viewed as the sign of economic decline; its appearance often found on the remnants of the industrial age: trains, factory walls, abandoned buildings, highway bypasses, and street signs. When one encounters this graffiti, one sees the collapse of urbanity. Graffiti long positioned itself as the re-imagination of failed social space. The industrial city, like Detroit, eventually became covered in the urban phenomenon of graffiti tags. The weblog dETROITfUNK (www.detroitfunk.com/dfg) wonderfully showcases Detroit's urban tags through a series of posted galleries. As the site demonstrates, "Rodeo," Turtl," "Money," and "Rib" sign Detroit's urban landscape as industrial writing. These graffiti tags reference the urban city in familiar ways. They capture our attention through their references to decay and collapse. How to move that familiarity into digital writing or mapping so that we engage encounter as not fixed signings, but as what we haven't yet considered or paid attention to; i.e., assemblages?

Whereas the industrial city was marked by graffiti tags, the information city is marked by the less familiar, XML driven tag. The XML tag is the meta-level mark-up used to categorize information in both referential and non-referential ways. Popularized on websites like the image sharing site Flickr, the social bookmarking system Del.icio.us, and the link hub Metafilter, tags allow writers to designate their own names and attributes to information (as opposed to relying on previous categorical systems in circulation). These kinds of sites often draw attention to encounters (names, categories, places) we wouldn't normally recognize. Systems like Flickr or Del.icio.us are presented as "social" systems because of the levels of social interaction encouraged through user participation and the new kinds of arrangements of information they encourage. By tagging (i.e. categorizing) spaces in flexible manners (the categories are open to change and combinations), these set-ups alter our understanding of social space. In Del.icio.us, these encounters occur through like-minded tags of bookmarked space, which become interlinked (assembled) among users who have chosen the same categories unbeknownst to each other. Flickr, in particular, has generated the notion of the memory map, a tagged satellite map where users fill in their own categories of place through annotated notes.[15] In the memory map, the fixed markers of place (street names, industrial zones, storefronts) become joined with user-oriented definitions, often framed in terms of personal relationships and experiences ("where we first kissed," "I learned to read English here," "when the circus stopped here that year, I knew I had made the wrong career choice"). The memory map is a new kind of urban space, an assemblage of the familiar and unfamiliar through tagging. The memory map begins the process of encountering places we pay attention to and those we don't. It digitally updates Young's project of empty territory and line mapping. The memory map as tagged experience points towards an emerging idea of digital urbanity.

Whereas HTML works with pre-established tags like <b>(bold) or <i>(italicize), XML's meta-tag is left open as < >. The openness allows a variety of organizational schemes to occur as users complete the tags based on reference, desire, association, lack of reference, or some other means. This process is known as folksonomy (folk + taxonomy). Folksonomy involves a new media organization of space through the meeting of differently arranged, open schemes. Just as the urban city contributed to a sense of public-ness or folk-ness through communal gathering, the café, public squares, stadiums, and other places, folksonomy generates a digital sense of connectedness. It does so, however, not through fixed place but through the open encounter of place in terms of digital, social interaction.

Through this openness and interaction, the meta-tag generates assemblages, information connections where such connections were not initially acknowledged as existing. Tagging, David Weinberger writes, allows "us to type in any word we want, rather than forcing us to navigate some hierarchical, controlled vocabulary."[16] Through tagging, the digital allows us to engage in discursive encounter. We discover the encounter among tags, among users who tag, and among user and tag. Various combination schemes emerge out of these encounters, sometimes as maps, sometimes as bookmarking, sometimes in other formations. These schemes prompt questions predetermined naming does not allow: What do I want to name this place? How do I want to identify that naming with another related or unrelated place? How do I allow my naming to connect with other names created throughout the Web? How might I name myself within this place? Tagging leaves these options up to the writer. When writing becomes tagging, associative combinations become rhetorical principles. These associations form digital networks, and thus, digital urban spaces.

Detroit Tagging

How, then, might we "tag" the information technology city like Detroit? Not with spray paint, but with naming structures. In a city awash with empty buildings and abandoned sites, the potential for open tagging <> seems endless. What to name these abandoned spaces? What to rename those filled in spaces whose financial schemes have failed? How might this assemblage-oriented naming reimagine the ways we have relied upon referentiality for urban renewal? Referentiality, of course, is the basis of print culture. But Detroit is no longer a product of that culture, and that is why Richard Florida's graphs and diagrams of equation between specific types of individuals and urban economic potential cannot pan out. "Our theory," Florida argues, "is that a connection exists between a metropolitan area's level of tolerance for a range of people, its ethnic and social diversity, and its success in attracting talented people, including high-technology workers."[17] Digitality places that referentiality under question. TechTown or Compuware, these are plans whose basis as well is in referentiality. This kind of technology driven vision attempts to equate itself (as reference) with financial payoff. Tagging is a different logic altogether.

My argument is that the connections Florida stresses are not found in a causal or referential relationship among individuals, capital, the city or other forces, but rather in the new media logic of assemblage; that is, combination in general. In the assemblage, reference is not a requirement. The social connectivity planners like Florida believe will emerge out of urban renewal may be better actualized through the digital assemblage of tagging. My call is for a plan of information tagging, where residents, working in digital spaces, reimagine the city through their own conceptualization and actualization of tags. In place of tagging the bypass or the stop sign with graffiti, they tag the city itself as an encountered name or moment within a digital, interconnected space. On the Web, these encounters become moments of discursive interaction and combination as others add to the tags with their own tagging attributes. "The history of urbanism," Steven Johnson notes, "is also the story of more muted signs, built by the collective behavior of smaller groups and rarely detected by outsiders."[18] Tagging brings this behavior to the foreground so that social connectivity is generated among those within the recognized urban space and those often deemed "outsiders" (those who bring new naming conventions to the discussion and to the urban space itself). If there, in fact, exists a Digital Detroit as this city claims for itself, than it must be found within the practice of tagging.

Detroit, like the urban experience in general, has become non-referential. Its empty spaces, or "ruins" as the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website declares [19], don't refer to anything anymore. Tagging allows us to transform that non-referentiality into social experience. The lesson of Detroit is a lesson for all urban sites. Digital space becomes social space through assembled meanings, and that assemblage actualizes the popular logic of social software.[20] Tagging, then, marks a place where new media logic informs our understanding of space and the urban, fashioning a sense of the "social" not yet accounted for in urban studies. Imagine, then, the city as a network of tags. Residents, who tag themselves simultaneously as writers or non-writers, mark the city through memory maps, weblogs, del.icio.us tags, and other related tools in order to reconstruct the city's sense of urbanity as a digital experience. The tagging generates a number of assembled taxonomies, some recognizable, many not. Through the assemblages, we find new Detroits to engage. We find new Detroits emerging out of our own discursive constructions. This reworking is social in ways capital investment has failed to generate. By making these cities cyber -- that is, by putting them on the Web -- the tags used to develop these spaces will inevitably be linked to other similarly named tags for other cities, for other, not yet imagined, encounters.


[1] See: www.digitaldetroit.org/index.html.

[2] See: www.techtownwsu.org/aboutus.php.

[3] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: Signet, 1964, p. 48.

[4] Walsh, Tom "Detroit Firms Honored." Detroit Free Press. www.freep.com/money/business/walsh21e_20050421.htm

[5] Liggett, Helen. Urban Encounters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p. 7.

[6] Lyotard, Jean FranÁois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pgs. 51-52.

[7] Amin, Ash and Nigel Thrift. Cities: Reimaging the Urban. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002, p.63.

[8] Amin and Thrift p. 30.

[9] ibid

[10] Shaviro, Steven. Connected: Or What It Means to Live in the Networked Society. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p. 5.

[11] Young, Jason. "Lines of Frustration." Stalking Detroit. Daskalakis, Georgia, Charles Waldheim, and Jason Young (Eds) Barcelona: Actar, 2001, p.136.

[12] Young p. 137.

[13] McLuhan p. 99.

[14] ibid

[15] See flickr.com/photos/tags/memorymap/ for examples. Users download Google satellite maps, then use Flickr's tags to generate their own maps of space.

[16] Weinberger, David. "Taxonomies and Tags: From Trees to Piles of Leaves." www.hyperorg.com/blogger/misc/taxonomies_and_tags.html.

[17] Florida, Richard. Cities and the Creative Class. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 130.

[18] Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner, 2001, p. 41.

[19] See detroityes.com/home.htm.

[20] The technologies I draw attention to here, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Metafilter, are often labeled within the broader rubric of "social software." See also a new blog on tagging, You're It, at tagsonomy.com/.

Jeff Rice is Assistant Professor of English at Wayne State University where he teaches courses on rhetoric, writing, new media, and Detroit. He is working on a book-length project on Detroit and digital culture.