Living with Technology

My students showed me this video of a market in Bangkok that coexists with active train tracks yesterday.

 

Take a look if you haven’t seen it yet.

For both my students and myself, this video was evocative of our contemporary condition. While we may not take apart our workplaces in order to accommodate a train, we are in a constant process of negotiation  with technology.

Every day that I go into the city, I set up my workplace in a train for forty minutes each way, armed with iPhone,  noise-blocking earphones and computer. Whereas in Los Angeles it was easy to carry larger quantities of material with me (mainly books), here I have to travel light, so I par down what I need.

But most of all, I think that our MP3 players and our mobile phones are accustoming us to new means of accessing both vast locally-stored libraries the and the immense content of the network. How are we learning to restructure our ways of behaving? How will these accommodate future technologies?

With the MP3 player and the cell phone, it seems like we are learning to live with ambient overlays of information. But ambience has a limit. Can we learn to live with technology as intense as the train that goes through the market?
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Goodbye Supermodernism

I’ve received a couple of requests for my Goodbye, Supermodernism article, published in now-defunct Architecture Magazine back in summer of 2006. Here it is, with a couple of revisions.

public wi-fi at cancun airport, photo by júbilo haku via flickr

It is nearly a decade since Hans Ibelings published Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization, his manifesto for an architecture of “superficiality and neutrality” and fourteen years since the book that inspired him, Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity first came out. In the intervening years, both texts have achieved huge success worldwide.

Supermodernism sold over 17,000 copies and became de rigueur in many schools and offices while the surprisingly popular Non-Places put an anthropologist on the reading lists of many architects for the first time in quite a while. 

Augé’s remarkable observation was that, in the contemporary world, place is giving way to “non-place.” Places, Augé explained, are made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning. Contemporary life, however, is a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Airport lounges and freeways are non-places, but so are less obvious spaces: ATMs, computer workstations, and supermarkets. In these spaces shared experiences between humans rarely develop. Non-places, Augé concluded, remain empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.

For Ibelings, this was simply a fact of globalization, nothing to lament. He brilliantly identified the rise of a “Supermodernist” architecture epitomized by the work of Herzog and de Meuron, OMA, Kazuyo Sejima, and Frank Gehry. Rejecting Postmodernism’s emphasis on symbolism as mere nostalgia for place in a world increasingly lacking it these architects instead deployed sensation through a play of surface and materials to sway the viewer. Supermodernism was, Ibelings insisted, expressionless and neutral, generally taking orthogonal form (the Box), but quite possibly also resembling sculptural objects (the Blob).

In revisiting these two texts recently, I lifted an eyebrow at how the edges of my paperback copies had yellowed (a glance at Amazon showed that Supermodernism was now out of print, a $94 collector’s item) and as I read on, I was even more taken aback by how obsolete they seemed. I have had to do a bit of traveling for work during the last year so I know the airport lounge more intimately than I’d like. But my time there is far from solitary. Cell phone calls and email messages—if not via a wireless connection on my laptop, then via my iPhone—occupy my time. Nor is such connectivity limited to the digerati. During the last decade, the mobile phone became the most successful gadget ever, selling over 1.6 billion units, and the laptop computer—often outfitted with Wi-Fi—now routinely outsells desktop machines in developed countries. To appreciate how much wireless technology is changing our lives, visit your local Starbucks and watch the number of people browsing the web or, for that matter, get in your car: increasingly outfitted with Bluetooth wireless interfaces, many new automobiles are becoming mobile phone accessories.

This new technology facilitates our connections with co-workers, family and friends in a hectic world. Anthropologist Ichiyo Habachi has observed that the mobile phone creates a “telecocoon,” an extension of intimate personal space into our surroundings. Through both phone calls and text messaging, it is possible to feel the presence of others nearly constantly and non-places become domesticated. Moreover, as the Internet has matured, it too has become a virtual hang out, through social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook but also through forums, blogs, photo sharing sites, and even multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft (don’t dismiss these out of hand: the average age of players is 28 and Warcraft has 8 million subscribers worldwide).

Does this mean that we are connecting with the others who share in the space we pass through? No, this networked culture does not portend a return to the place of old. But neither do we live in a space of solitude (although often we might wish to be in one). Instead, our space is a networked one, with wireless communications linking individuals both nearby and distant.

Yet more changes to our notion of space may be around the corner as well. Experiments by hackers and artists with “Locative Media” suggest that uniting GPS sensors and PDAs will allow us to overlay vast amounts of networked information onto the environment. Space will acquire new forms of networked meaning. Using your smart device, you will be able to pull up information—historical information, personal notes, restaurant reviews, and collective histories—about your environment.

Non-place, then, is only a brief transitional entity and Supermodernity only a way-station on the way to a network culture. As the vast collective reading/net surfing room of OMA’s Seattle Public Library or the tubes that reveal the infrastructural underpinnings of Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque begin to suggest, the new architecture for the twenty-first century will be less concerned with sensation and affect, less obsessed with either the box and the blob, and more concerned with a new kind of place-making, enabling us to dwell more creatively in both “real” and network space.

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bas jan ader

Artist Bas Jan Ader has always been important to AUDC. Thus, we noted with delight the Web site dedicated to his work, with an impressive video-driven interface (hard to imagine I would ever say that I like a video-driven Web interface, but that reminds me that I do need to revisit the interface to this site over winter break even as the lack of comment to my earlier post suggested that most of my dear readers do what I do and use RSS to browse blogs, avoiding visiting them entirely…).
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is gentrification the new urban blight?

Thanks to Archinect for this Psychology Today article on the importance of diversity in cities. Today, the conventional wisdom points to the unpredictability and creativity that one finds in cities as essential for network culture. Outsourcing may work, but not for work demanding innovation.

Alas, as I’ve been suggesting for quite some time now, we have a new kind of urban blight emerging in places like New York, San Francisco and Boston. In “The Embers of Gentrification” at New York Magazine  Adam Sternberg suggests that the fires of gentrification may be self-perpetuating, but they may also be self-extinguishing.

image of red hook

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books and things

Amazon released its oddly-named (Farenheit 451?) Kindle book reader today. On initial view, the device is ungainly when compared to the iPhone or the Sony PRS-505. But with some 90,000 books on offer for the relatively low price of $9.99, the Kindle is a shot across the bow for book publishers. I confess to a certain hatred of books (my publishers wouldn’t want to hear this, I’m sure). About 30% of the books that I bring home are elegant objects that I am glad to own. But some 70% are pointless to own in physical form. Why do I need a work of fiction as a book if an e-reading device can serve me as well? Why do I need to own a copy of a textbook when I could get it on an e-reader? This idea attracts me greatly.

Alas, web browsing seems rudimentary while magazines, newspapers, and even blogs demand a subscription fee. This is a big step back from the world of free content that my iPhone offers.

My prediction is that although Kindle will have some degree of success, it will take someone like Apple licensing the content (why does Amazon need to produce hardware anyway? seems like a questionable move) before this technology will really take off.

But see Newsweek for more.

 

Book Cover

 

 

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get used to it

In remarks before Congress, Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of the National Security Agency testified that Americans need to get used to government and businesses "safeguarding" their privacy. There was a reason that big business and big government were done away with under post-Fordist restructuring. Such structures were generally inefficient and even corrupt. As post-Fordism shades into network culture, it seems like—driven by the temptations of data mining—they’re back and bringing a whole raft of disturbing developments with them.
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architecture gone wild

The New York Times carries an article on some projects (including some by former students of mine) that take transparency to a new degree. Actually, this is something that I should have addressed in my entry on transparency and government monitoring. It is not just that we don’t care, it’s increasingly that we would rather show. To some degree this is a question of trust and/or naiveté, but it is also part of a culture of exhibitionism (as this article shows…and something that is very different from the culture of voyeurism twenty years ago). It’s not that they don’t care: they want you to see…
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transparency, literal or embedded?

Thanks to the intelligent comments we’ve received from Enrique and Javier (and Mark) with regard to Mark Jarzombek’s guest post. As something of a response to that post, I’d like to submit the following article: Where r u? Cell phones keep tabs. Over 50% of the mobile phones today have geolocation features built in. Enable them and you can track your kids or Big Brother can track you. Another article notes how automobiles can also be fitted with GPS devices that allow for concerned parents (and others) to track where their teenagers (or whoever…) drive.

What does this have to do with Mark’s post? Well, transparency is a driving force of architecture culture today, maybe even more so than it was in the days when Hannes Meyer proposed his 1927 competition entry for the League of Nations (below).

 

league of nations
In Meyer’s view, the transparency of the building would prevent diplomats from making back room deals. In the 1950s, transparency would be adopted by American corporations looking to associate themselves with a new, technocratic postwar order and like Meyer hoping to align themselves with a Protestant image of rational action and morality. During the 1970s transparency fell out of favor, in part due to energy crisis and the rising cost of HVAC and in part because after Watergate (which itself took place in a glass hotel) nobody believed in the transparency of glass anyway.
In the 1990s, however, driven in part by fashion, and in part by new technology that allowed glass facades to be more energy efficient while ever-thinner, transparency returned with a vengeance. And as in Meyer’s day, this transparency was associated with ideology.
As New York’s 5th Avenue Apple Store demonstrates, transparency is strongly linked to the Californian Ideology, the myth that our new culture makes information available to everyone and that the Internet is a libertarian playground of self-expression. Raised on Ayn Rand and a love of technology, many architects have adopted this ideology wholesale, arguing that architecture itself should be transparent, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. The latter position argues that architecture should go with the flow and (somehow following Deleuze) celebrate capital and the glorious new, networked age.
apple store 5th avenue

 

But the Apple Store makes visible nothing—the real business is conducted underground, out of site to the passerby.

So, too, the articles that I started off with demonstrate that our culture is far from one of visibility. We live in a world dominated by invisible forces: by the shadowy military-industrial complex that Mark Lombardi sought to expose, by the secret room from which the NSA monitors network traffic at the AT&T complex in San Francisco, by a government outside the Constitution’s system of checks and balances that can put you on a no-fly list or detain you in Guantanamo without ever telling you why.

NSA secret room

So my first response to Mark’s post then, is to ask if the questions about contemporary architecture culture that he raises are disciplinary in nature or if they are also not symptomatic of a widespread ideology that has overtaken our culture. Never before have we been so willing to give ourselves up to others, be they credit bureaus, our employers (urine, please, and some hair too), or the government. But if the cells at Camp X-Ray are transparent, remember that the prisoners within them are deprived of their sight and hearing. Our situation may be less dire, but isn’t all that dissimilar. Strangely, projects about tracking and surveillance that architects did in the days of "theory" suddenly seem so relevant… Above all, not however being critical today (indeed, not being critically utopian…which also includes critically dystopian of course!) seems like the worst position we can take.

 

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