on Sense
This book is about the historical construction of vision and cognition in the
second half of the twentieth century. It posits that our forms of attention, ob-
servation, and truth are situated, contingent, and contested and that the ways
we are trained, and train ourselves, to observe, document, record, and analyze
the world are deeply historical in character. The narrative traces the impact of
cybernetics and the communication sciences after World War ii on the social
and human sciences, design, arts, and urban planning. It documents a radical
shift in attitudes to recording and displaying information that produced new
forms of observation, rationality, and economy based on the management and
analysis of data; what I label a “communicative objectivity.” Furthermore, the
book argues that historical changes in how we manage and train perception
and define reason and intelligence are also transformations in governmen-
tality. My intent is to denaturalize and historically situate assumptions about
the value of data, our regular obsession with “visualization,” and our almost
overwhelming belief that we are in the midst of a digital- media-driven “crisis”
of attention that can only be responded to through recourse to intensifying
media consumption.
To begin to interrogate this past and its attendant stakes, I would like to
offer an example in the present. I want to open with the largest private real
estate development on earth.1 One hour’s drive southwest from Seoul, the new
city of Songdo is being built from scratch on land reclaimed from the ocean
(fig. p.1).2 It is a masterpiece of engineering, literally emerging from a pre-
viously nonexistent territory. Beneath this newly grafted land lies a massive
infrastructure of conduits containing fiber optic cables. Three feet wide, these
tunnels are far larger than in most western European and American cities.
They are largely empty spaces waiting, in theory, to provide some of the high-
est bandwidth on earth. To the eye of a New Yorker this is a strange landscape
of inhuman proportions. Nowhere in the United States are there construction
sites even approximating this size.
Part of the newly established Incheon Free Economic Zone (ifez), Songdo
is one of three developments— the other two go by the labels “logistics” and
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