Digital information is encoded in the built environment all around us. It emerged prior to the advent of electronic computing in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the development of building floor numbers, street addresses and enclosed interior rooms associated with names or numbers all mapped physical space according to discrete and arbitrary sets of data. That data was detached from geography, similarly to how computers address abstract locations when they recall information from physical memory. This essay explores this parallel between computers and built environments, and its consequences for the latter.
Today we increasingly use computers to help us travel through the physical world via many of those same sets of abstract information. As a result, that information is increasingly capable of being manipulated to tell us selective stories about where we can go. A computer can determine what floors an elevator can reach, while a delivery app or a cloud kitchen can conceal where our food comes from. In this emerging era of ubiquitous computing, literacy around addressing protocols for physical and digital spaces can help us recognize and discuss the computer’s specific ageographical affordances for comprehending the built environment. This essay aims to catalyze such literacy, to foster a better understanding of what happens when computers log on to our physical world.