I am trying to break the Internet

I don’t see how we can remain enthusiastic about network culture. In the decade since the release of the iPhone, the Internet has gone from being a playpen for geeks and outsiders to the primary theater for politics and culture. Even three years ago the thought that a major global leader would use Twitter to announce major policy initiatives would have seemed futuristic and a little naïve. Now we have it and it’s the darkest time most America has collectively experienced in memory. We lurch headlong into a future, but it’s a new bad future.

And, as we seem to be drowning in information, we seem to have lost our ability to communicate and absorb knowledge. Almost nobody reads and writes blogs anymore (please don’t get me started about Medium and the final, thorough destruction of independent content its startup model is premised on). Magazines and journals are well and truly dead. Most books by theorists and academics are soundly ignored too, which is probably a good thing given that theory has become permeated by a neo-fascist identity politics. Outside of the telecocoon of our partners, children, closest friend or two, and immediate work associates, we no longer call each other, we no longer e-mail each other, and we ghost each other as much as we text each other. Earlier forms of Internet culture are also on the rocks: listservs have become replaced by Facebook groups that produce no thought or discussion of any substance whatsoever, and most online forums have died as well. The aforementioned Twitter should be dead, but is kept alive by our desire to see what the lunatic in the White House will say next, and otherwise serves as home to a few misfits and general oddballs. Facebook absorbs everything, reducing all human communication to nothing and algorithmically directs us to only see those posts that give us a fleeting satisfaction. It’s more imagistic spawn, Instagram, is the model of the new Internet, driving us to constantly one up each other with a lifestyle pornography. There are, of course, exceptions—I actually like Reddit and there are some niche online forums that have moments of productivity—but it’s bad out there. I have played my own part in migrating to these awful commercial platforms and regret it. Something must be done. Endless promises and little delivery.

In the case of this site, I’ve resolved to fix matters over and over again, but each time was undone by the content management system, Drupal. Drupal is awful. Way back in 2005, Drupal seemed like a good choice, with its module-based open architecture, and the promise of a content management system that could go far beyond a blog. At the time, I was fascinated with the idea of the networked book and Drupal seemed to offer such functionality built in. Unfortunately, Drupal long ago began to resemble a 1980s American car company, suffering from over-complexity, putting design and user interface last, and unable to got basic features working. A critical flaw is that the development team long ago decided that “the drop is always moving”: each major version of Drupal breaks all the existing plug-ins and themes without which a site is ugly and limited. And therein lies the rub. I should have updated my site eight years ago when Drupal 7 was released, but the horribly botched release of that version would have broken my site thoroughly if it had been possible to update it at all (I am now forgetting if it was Drupal 7 or 8 that did not have upgrade capabilities when first released and the upgrade cycle to Drupal 6 cost me over a month of work). Add to that constant trouble with excessive memory overhead, the obliteration of comments by spambots, together with a general feeling that the whole creaking mess was going to explode like a steam-powered Soviet tractor meant that I knew I’d never be upgrading Drupal. But where to go?

A New Year’s resolution for 2017 had been to redo my site in a new content management system and I upgraded the front end of my site to Kirby. Kirby is fantastic. It took me an afternoon to build the site (I am still running Kirby over at the network architecture lab. In Drupal it would have taken a week. Still, although now I had a decent portfolio together, the blog languished and I made a handful in 2017 and only one post in 2018. In part, this was due to life: I am still cleaning up after the decades of neglect that our house suffered before we bought it, I am spend more time with my family, and I am working on my conceptual art and sound practices. Still, doing anything in Drupal was a nightmare and I stayed away from any substantive blogging.

So it happens that we were away skiing at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont this week and, as so often happens, we had freezing rain all day. So I decided to finally upgrade this blog and move it to WordPress. I had used WordPress before in Jo-Anne Green’s Networked book project and that had pushed the platform beyond what it was capable of at that time, leaving me with a bad opinion of the platform, but during the intervening years, WordPress has matured into a capable platform (even with the recent growing pains caused by the Gutenberg blogging interface).

Frédéric Gilles’s amazing Drupal to WordPress plugin imported all of the data from Drupal—even comments!—better than I had ever dreamed was possible, better than I would have expected from an upgrade within Drupal. I’ve long loved Indexhibit and use it on AUDC’s site so I was glad to base the new site on Leanda Ryan’s Inxhibit theme (much as  I love Indexhibit, it simply isn’t designed for blogging). A day of work later and, although there are some bugs here and there, I am confident enough to replace Varnelis.net with WordPress.

One of the major impediments to blogging that I faced with Drupal is that inputting text on the Web is a nightmare (I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve lost by accidentally hitting the wrong key on Drupal) and uploading text inevitably seemed to introduce formatting issues, no matter how hard I tried. In the case of WordPress, I knew that there were many more tools available at my disposal so I decided to try iAWriter and found it worked flawlessly. I started writing this post on my Mac, seamlessly picked it to my iPad Pro and posted this entry. This is simple, the way Content Management Systems were supposed to be, without losing the independence that blogs make possible.

I’ve also put Feedly front and center for daily reading on my iPad. There are plenty of great blogs out there are acting as a resistance to the managed content of Facebook, Twitter, and Medium and I am setting out to rediscover them. With these changes to my blog, maybe, just maybe, I may once again join them as well.

 

rss frustration or, spoken into the void

Apparently, an undocumented "feature" of upgrading to Drupal 6 is that the path for RSS feeds changed, so those of you who were reading the site through RSS (which is likely most of you) have been are quite behind and have missed a couple of dozen classic posts.

The easiest way to do this is going to be through classic blog view, e.g. http://www.varnelis.net/blog.

Many apologies on the part of my content management system.

Thanks to Nicholas Nova for pointing this out. 

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What I Talk About

It’s late (other people are all over it, I’m sure), but here’s what I talk about, courtesy of Wordle. So maybe I was wrong when I thought that the people at International Listings just didn’t get that this was an architecture blog… Oh wait a second, they’re real estate agents! No wonder. Explains everything (except where is the word bust below?). Do you think that they are doe-eyed? 

wordle image

 

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blog resolutions 2009

Now that I’ve looked back at 2008 and my predictions for the economy and architecture in 2009, what’s on deck for this blog in 2009? While the rest of my family and friends napped this afternoon, I came up with my blog resolutions for 2009. I know it’s down time for my readership but your input is most welcome. 

The Network Culture Book

This is my big analytic project for the year. I’m already well underway with writing and should have an early draft of the introduction up soon.

I want the project to be a networked book, at least to some extent, posting it online here with comments from my readers feeding back into it in an open peer review process accompanying an official peer review process at MIT Press.  

The big question for me is how to do this using Drupal. There’s no problem, unless I want to show you revisions, which could be helpful as a way of dealing with comments. For example, if you post a comment and I incorporate it, a copy of the document up prior to the correction would allow readers to see the evolution? Right now its possible, but only if I give you the right to edit the copy. Although I could see that becoming possible, this book is meant to be my work—and in that it has real academic requirements—so I’m not so sure I can do that yet. Perhaps there can be some forks of the book? I’m not sure yet.

Networked Publics, Infrastructural City, and Obama 

I’d love to hear that Obama is reading both the Infrastructural City and Networked Publics. But since he’s kind of busy these days, I’ll save him some trouble. Starting off the new year, I’ll have a series considering the implications of both books for his policies on infrastructure and information technology.  

More Blog Posts

It sounds like a hopeless resolution, but I’m committed to more blog posts on this site. It shouldn’t be too hard since last year was so dominated by book production. This year will have a healthy amount of research. But it’s still tough to post on the blog when I teach studio in the fall. I hope to figure something out.

Interviews

In 2009, I’m going to start interviewing other people for this site. I have some interesting subjects already lined up. More on this later. 

Blog Pamphlet

I’m plotting curating both existing and new blog posts (especially the interviews) with comments from my readers together in a pamphlet about architecture, infrastructure, and urbanism. If you’re in print publishing and interested, let me know. If not, I’m going to do this myself as a Netlab publication.  

AUDC

Robert and I intend to continue our work at AUDC. To do this, we need to think hard about what to do at the AUDC site. Your input is welcome.  

Social Software

I’m going to trying harder with social software sites. Join me at twitterlast.fm, delicious, and flickr. Missing anything? 

Podcasts

I’ve toyed with having my classes as podcasts before but have never done it. Should I? What are your thoughts on this? 

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All’s Well That Ends

"All’s well that ends." That was Robert Sumrell‘s tag line all year long. For me, its been a good year, although not without its share of frustration. But I’m adept at triumph over adversity, so I got most everything I set out to do completed, even if at times the effort required was superhuman.

The Infrastructural City, Networked Publics, and the Philip Johnson Tapes are out, although at times I wondered the first of those would ever see the light of day. My plan to have the books published a semester apart was undone by forces beyond my control. Promoting the books is going to be a lot more difficult now and that annoys me to no end. Next time I’m going to have to be a lot more strict in terms of the contracts I sign with publishers in terms of delivery and who I work with as my designer. On a positive note, Michael Bierut and Yve Ludwig were phenomenal as the designers of the Philip Johnson Tapes as was my student from days gone by Israel Kandarian, who came up with the cover concept for the Networked Publics book. Susan Surface gets a special mention for saving the summer for me as the graphic designer for the Netlab.    

The highlight of my year was that Robert moved to the city, giving us an opportunity to teach the fall Netlab studio "This Will Kill That" together and to bring new life to AUDC. Early signs of what we’ll be up to can be found in Perspecta 41. I was thrilled that our studio did fantastic work. With another year drawing to a close, I’m glad that once again, I’m at Columbia.

I was also delighted to teach a course in the fall semester at MIT. My students were excellent and I learned so much from them. Going to Cambridge every Tuesday was a real treat: great friends at a great school. 

When it comes to this site, January 1st brought a new look, still in Drupal but based on Daniel Eatock and Jeffrey Vaska‘s Indexhibit software. I was, perhaps, wrong that 2008 was the year that blogs stopped looking like blogs although it was a year in which Wired’s Paul Boutin suggested that Facebook and Twitter had stolen blogs’ thunder. 

Those of you on Facebook know that it certainly captured my attention—as it did for so many people (AG, you’re the only exception left among my friends, I think!) and although Twitter didn’t really engage me, I’m going to try to make more of an effort to understand that scene in 2009. Twitter is still very much for the geeks, but these days the geeks are often ahead of the game. After all, if the best thing about Facebook is the status updates, maybe that’s enough right there? 

My planned series on new radical architecture took a back seat thanks to the three books, and the planned book on Network Culture got delayed too but I soldiered on. 

I read a number of great books in 2008, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison to Google, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Sanford Kwinter’s Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, Felicity Scott’s Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism, Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism as well as Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.  I had hoped to post reviews of some of these, but I was never able to pull it off. It’s a real shame. Read them. I did manage a review of Far From Equilibrium for Cite. Print that pays by the word still captivates. I was also fascinated by Warren Neidich’s work on neuroaesthetics and hope to engage with that topic more in the future.

While at the DLD conference in January, I saw the amazing Anish Kapoor show at the Haus der Kunst. In the right venue, he’s one of our best artists. 

As my long-standing prediction that the real estate market would implode became reality and—preposterously late—even the New York Times finally admitted it, I turned my critique against all pundits that think the suburbs are the source of all evil. I pointed out that cities are going to be hit hard but that this may be for the better…they have long ago become urban playgrounds for the well-off, instead of places of diversity like they once were. 

2008 was also the year that objects became suspect. Designer Philippe Starck retired, concluding "I was a producer of materiality and I am ashamed of this fact." "Everything I designed was unnecessary. … design is a dreadful form of expression." As we drown in cheap doo-dads made in China, it’s hard to disagree. 

Instead, I proposed that we have all the technology we need for quite some time. iPhone version 2.0 took locative media out of the proximate future and into the everyday. Now what do we do with it? The key is going to be to figure out how to make this stuff really sing—without letting it become an excuse for the coils of the late capitalist serpent to tighten further around us. In particular, I warned about the dangers of surveillance society and echoed Nicholas Carr’s concerns about the centralization of everything. For architects, I wrote an article about the Architecture of Hertzian Space in A+U. For cartographers and users of maps, I wrote Design in the Age of Intelligent Maps for Adobe Think Tank. I also began sketching out a history of the present with my essay Simultaneous Environments. Social Connection and New Media at Vodafone Receiver.  

As a Ph.D. carrying historian, I wrote a manifesto about how historians need to go beyond the microscopic and inconsequential, to think big, make mistakes and risk everything while Enrique Ramirez and I looked back to twenty years ago and how the postmodern music of its day reshaped our perception of the city. Sonic Youth was—and is—so more important, than the cheap condos of the day.  

Finally, in what was unquestionably the most controversial post this blog has ever seen, I asked if there was much significant new architecture built in this decade. If I came to that question thinking I knew the answer, I was secretly hoping to be dissuaded. Sadly, I wasn’t. 

Has 2008 shown us that the owl of minerva has flown on the sort of architecture that defined the last two decades? Has the legacy of the Deconstructivist architecture show finally been put to rest as architecture has been unloaded of meaning and value? Do we have the energy and the courage to realize this and figure out what’s next?

On a personal note, I said goodbye to my cat Daisy forever. My constant, funny companion was by my side or on my lap for the majority of my blog posts and all of my books as well. My friend long before I started this blog, life without her is much poorer.     

Here’s to 2008: all’s well that ends. As we lay it to rest, I hope that the next year is a real improvement.

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predictions for the year ahead

My predictions—and those of a whole bunch of members of "architects, bloggers, academics, Archinect editors, and other members of [the Archinect] community" for the year ahead at Archinect.

I’ll add to my prediction by adding that if we get it right, light urbanism will be all the rage. Something along the lines of this or this or this. There are lots and lots of dangers to such scenarios, but a burst of new, heavy but green infrastructure (e.g. light rail, green power plants, podcars, whatever) is pie in the sky in an age that will give new meaning to NIMBYism as homeowners seek to protect what value they have left.  

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classic varnelis.net

I’m aware that it’s a dead period for my American readership due to the holiday, but I thought I’d add something in the spirit of a more frequently updated site. I am posting more regularly. Seeing these three books off to print this year was a massive undertaking that took its tool on the blog. I am now under way with my next book project and I will be using the blog to relay some of my thoughts and early drafts of the book.

With that in mind, I have redone the classic blog view for varnelis.net to make it easier to read and to bring it in line with the general appearance of the site. Although most of you seem to be reading my posts via RSS and I prefer the Indexexhibit style for the default view, the classic view can be useful if you haven’t been to the site in a few days and want to catch up.

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site updates

This seems like the summer of endlessly extended projects. It’s already July and I am still finishing work on books that I thought would be done last semester. But with a larger staff at the Netlab and with those projects wrapping up, this should be a good summer for new work and, I hope, for the blog.

Over the weekend, I’ve been bumping up both this site and the Netlab site. With Drupal as the underlying content management system, it’s pretty trivial to change the look of the site, so I brought varnelis.net in line with the underlying theme at AUDC. It probably looks a tiny bit less polished right now, but it has more potential for growth in the long run. At the Netlab, I set up a photoblog, which seemed long overdue given the number of photographers around.

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surfacing

something underground

 

Apologies for the slow rate of posting. After bringing Networked Publics to press (I’ve learned my lesson: I will never again agree to do my own index!) and getting the Philip Johnson Tapes out the door, its back to the Infrastructural City, which should be done next week, if we’re lucky. We’ve been thoroughly unlucky (I thought that project would be done by Christmas of last year!) and my summer projects are all on hold until then, but the end is near. As my friend Robert says, "all’s well that ends."

In other news, I will be teaching a History of Theory course at MIT next fall in addition to my regular teaching and am very much looking forward to seeing those of you at MIT and in Boston.

I do have some posts on the back burner and these should see the light of day soon enough.

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