network culture

revolution of the present in limerick

As part of the fall lecture series at the University of Limerick, Ireland, I will be showing the film "Revolution of the Present," a feature-length documentary by writer/director Marc Lafia, executive producer Jose Fernandez-Richards, and producer Johanna Schiller on Tuesday, October 14th at 5.00pm. This is the European premiere of the film, so if you are in the area, we hope that you can make it. Course director Peter Carroll and I will discuss the film afterwards. I am honored to be part of this production and immensely proud of the work the team did. There is hardly any better introduction to my work or network culture than this film. Should you not be in Ireland at the time, you can check out Revolution of the Present here.    

Kiosk @ Columbia

I will be appearing alongside Leah Meisterlin (formerly of the Netlab) and authors Astra Taylor and Andrew Blum today at noon in Ware Lounge (on the 6th floor of Avery Hall) at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to discuss the impact that digital technology is posing on architecture, cities, and most of all our lives. Topics to be discussed will likely include data centers, debt, oversaturation, creative workspaces and the tyranny of fun, together with ways to make all this better. Hope to see you there if you are in the area!

Post-Planetary Capital Symposium

I'm delighted to be speaking at Ed Keller and Ben Woodard's symposium "Post-Planetary Capital" at the New School's Center for Transformative Media today. My own talk is titled "A Mote in God’s Eye: 
Eternal Recurrence and 
the Post-Capitalist Post-Planetary." So what in the heavens is that about (sorry!)? I'll be using a discussion of asteroid mining, private space colonization, and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's "A Mote in God's Eye" to develop my arguments about the relationship between capital and complexity.  

On the Invasion of the Ukraine

Just because I study the Internet doesn't mean I don't think it's full of idiocy. Take for example the widespread NOAA map showing radiation spreading across the Pacific from Fukushima. Pity that it's not representing radiation but rather the height of waves produced by tsunamis. Alas, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is no different, as a perusal of recent tweets on the matter say.

I won't dignify the inanity by actually quoting these tweets but some of these just blew my mind, like the one that suggested the invasion is created by the press to distract from ongoing negotiations over the Tran-Pacific Partnership Treaty.

The fact of the matter is that this is the biggest political crisis the world has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union and is extremely unlikely to turn out as well as that did. 
 
Quite obviously, the sovereignty of a nation is under attack. The pretext is a familiar Russian script: "ethnic Russians are under duress." Why are they under duress? Because the puppet regime that Putin installed in the Ukraine and that bankrupted the state fell? If they are under duress, where are the crowds on the streets welcoming them? Where is the footage of the duress they are facing, so easily made in our networked day?
 
For centuries Russia has been a belligerent neighbor, seeking to expand its territory at a given opportunity. Its leadership understands this plays well at home and, with the success of Sochi behind him, Putin has decided to go for the gold and demonstrate how no one can touch him. 
 
Thus far, US President Obama's statements suggest that he thinks of this largely as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing" and is not considering military options. More sensibly, Lithuania and Latvia have invoked Article 4 of NATO. Militarily unchallenged, Putin's invasion of the Ukraine will not cease with Crimea and, if still unchallenged, will bolster his desire to rebuild "Greater Russia." 
 
Not only is there a threat against a host of countries such as the Baltic States, of which I am a card-carrying member, there is another threat than anyone should consider. Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union also remember that there were joint calls for the Ukraine to rid itself of its nuclear weapons. The Ukraine did so in return for a treaty that guaranteed its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the last few days that has been undone. So now, put yourself in the shoes of countries that can have—or will have—nuclear weapons and really shouldn't have them, countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan? Or Israel? If faced with pleas to eliminate their nuclear weapons in exchange for territorial security, just how will they react in the future? 
 
Obama is already going down in history as an exceptionally weak President, his only saving grace being that he isn't an outright catastrophe like his predecessor and foreign policy has been a particularly weak point (not that domestic economic policy or his handling of national healthcare were strong points). How he handles the biggest challenge his administration has yet faced may well define how his presidency is remembered. 

Architecture, Network Culture + Minecraft

It's my great honor to be speaking at Taliesin West today, 27 February at 7pm in Scottsdale, Arizona. My lecture will be about network culture, my work with the Netlab, and my kids' constructions in Minecraft). 

Against Passwords

Yet again there is a massive data breach. Yet again passwords are stolen. This time from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Yet again we will be told our passwords will have to have more funny characters in them, yet again we will be forced to change them.

I'm obviously in an against mood today, but this time I'll be blunt.

The idiots at these corporations who order such measures do little more than play at security theater. Isn't the idea of a password supposed to be that it's secret? That it's in your head?

But when I have to write passwords like

P@$$w0rd_$eCurity%ThetR

Just what unearthly being is supposed to remember that? Nobody I've ever met can. We keep our passwords in pieces of paper, folded up neatly next to the computer, just stick post it notes to the walls of our office, or just keep them in one massive file on our drives. This violates the whole idea of passwords and turns them into, yes, security theater. 

One day biometric fingerprint sensors like the one found on the iPhone 5S will take over with all the loss of privacy they will bring (how will you use one to log into a Bitcoin account for example?), but until then we'll have to deal with password security theater. Just be sure that it's nothing but that. The hacks will continue and the measures will get more and more stupid. Thank you, tech.

 

@ the Amber Festival, Istanbul

Greetings from Istanbul, where I will be speaking today on "Control and Identity in the Algorithmic Landscape" at 3pm in the Amber Art and Technology Festival in a panel ominously called "Urban Media: Quo Vadis?" with Martjin De Waal moderated by Martin Brynskov. See here for a little more. 

Syllabus for Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

A4515: Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary  Fall 2013

Professor                                Kazys Varnelis
Description

The purpose of this seminar is to come to an advanced historical understanding of the changed conditions that characterize our networked age. As a history of the contemporary, the seminar is organized around a series of topics tracing a genealogy of present-day culture, focusing on the network not merely as a technology with social ramifications but rather as a cultural dominant that connects changes in society, economy, aesthetics, urbanism, and ideology. It's a primary thesis of this course that the network is not an innocent technology but rather a social construction that serves to naturalize and exacerbate uneven growth and the distribution of power.

Topics to be addressed include network theory, changing concepts of time and space, the rise of networked publics, contemporary poetics, new forms of subjectivity, and methods of control. Throughout, we will make connections between architecture, urbanism and this insurgent condition.

The theme for fall 2013 is Uneven Growth and responds to a MoMA exhibition that will open in October 2014. Students will be welcome to participate in the workshop at MoMA leading to the exhibition and are encouraged to pursue the topic of Uneven Growth in networks in their research projects.

RequirementsParticipation: 20%

Each class will consist of a presentation by the instructor on selected themes, followed by an in-depth discussion in seminar. Students are expected to prepare all readings in order to facilitate a discussion in which all students participate. Active participation by all students in each session is required. 

Tumblr: 20%

Each student is expected to maintain a tumblelog on tumblr.com and to post at least twice a week. Beyond mere reblogging of information pertinent to the course, the tumblelog will form a record and commentary upon their research during the semester.

Research Project: 60%

For a research project, students have an option of either undertaking a curatorial project or an essay. Either is due on Monday, December 16.

The curatorial project will explore the topic of uneven growth in networks. The Netlab’s specific focus in this exhibit is research on the future of uneven growth in Hong Kong but students are encouraged to explore uneven growth as a constituent of networks.

Both design and scholarship are integral to the term project, which should take the form of an exhibit catalog as might be found in a museum. A carefully curated and designed book will be accompanied a 2,000 word essay (roughly 10 pages double spaced, 12 points) on the curated material. If students choose to write an essay, they should turn in an essay of roughly 4,000 words (roughly 20 pages double spaced, 12 points).

Plagiarism of any sort will result in immediate failure.

Reading

All readings will be available on-line.

01

09.06

Introduction

02

09.13

An Overview of Networks

Manuel Castells, “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In Castells, ed. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004), 3-45.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations, 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 177-182.

Charlie Gere, “The Beginnings of Digital Culture,” Digital Culture (London: Reaktion, 2008), 21-50.

Optional: Kazys Varnelis, “Conclusion: The Meaning of Network Culture,” Networked Publics, 145-163.

03

09.20

Network Theory

Albert-László Barabási, “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Small Worlds,” and “Hubs and Connectors,” Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002), 25-63.

Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 127-149.

Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, October 2004,  http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality,” Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet. http://www.shirky.com/writings/powerlaw_weblog.html

Optional:

Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78 (May 1973), 1360-1380.

Duncan J. Watts, “The Connected Age,” Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 19-42.

04

09.27

Control

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-californianideology-main.html.

Saskia Sassen, “Electronic space and power,” Journal of Urban Technology 4 (1997): 1-17.

Alexander R. Galloway, “Physical Media,” Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 29-53.

Optional:

Saskia Sassen, “On Concentration and Centrality in the Global City,” Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor, eds., World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63-78.

Stephen Graham, “Communication Grids: Cities and Infrastructure,” in Saskia Sassen, Global Networks. Linked Cities (London: Routledge, 2002), 71-92.

Kevin Phillips, “Preface,” “Introduction. The Panic of August,” “Finance: The New Real Economy?” Bad Money. (New York: Penguin, 2009), xi-lxxiv and 1-68.

05

10.04

Postmodernism and Periodization

David Harvey, “Fordism” and “From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation,” in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), 125-172.

Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146  (July/August 1984): 53-92.

Jeffrey Nealon, “Once More, With Intensity, Foucault’s History of Power Revisited,” Foucault Beyond Foucault, 24-53.

Optional:

Hal Foster, “Postmodernism: A Preface,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), ix-xvi.

Jean François Lyotard, “introduction” “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), xxiii-xxv, 71-82.

 

06

10.11

Time

Jean Baudrillard, “The End of the Millennium or the Countdown,” Economy & Society 26 (1997): 447-55.

Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,” http://www.transmediale.de/en/keynote-bruce-sterling-us-atemporality

transcribed: http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-crea...

optional: Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis, “Personal Lubricants. Shell Oil and Scenario Planning,” New Geographies 02(2010), 127-132

 

07

10.18

Space

Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Capitalist Sovereignty, Or Administering the Global Society of Control,” Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 325-350.

Marc Augé, “Prologue” and “From Places to Non-Places,” in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 1-6. 75-115.

Hans Ibelings, “Supermodernism,” Supermodernism (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 1998), 55-102.

George Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” Donald N. Levine, ed. Simmel: On individuality and social forms, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 324-339.

Optional:

Kazys Varnelis and Marc Tuters, “Beyond Locative Media: Giving Shape to the Internet of Things,” Leonardo 39, No. 4 (2006): 357–363.

 

08

10.25

Uneven Growth Workshop, MoMA

 

 

09

11.01

Subjectivity

Kenneth J. Gergen,“Social Saturation and the Populated Self,” The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 48-80.

Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality. For a New Cultural Critique,” Transversal,  http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en

Jeffrey Nealon, “Once More, With Intensity, Foucault’s History of Power Revisited,” Foucault Beyond Foucault, 24-53.

Warren Neidich, “From Noopower to Neuropower: How Mind Becomes Matter,” Cognitive Architecture:From Bio-politics to Noo-politics; Architecture & Mind in the Age of Communication and Information(Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010), 538-581.

 

10

11.08

Publics

Yochai Benkler, “Chapter 1. Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge” and “Chapter 4. The Economics of Social Production,” The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-28 and 91-127.

Bill Wausik, “My Crowd. Or Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2006), 56-66.

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 1-77.

Optional

Selections from Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).

 

11

11.14

Poetics

Geert Lovink, “Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse,” Eurozine (2007), http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-01-02-lovink-en.html

Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), 7-48.

Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), excerpts.

Jordan Crandall, “Showing,” http://jordancrandall.com/showing/index.html

 

12

11.21

Complexity

Joseph A .Tainter, “Introduction to Collapse,” The Collapse of Complex Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1-21.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977), 13-32.

Charles Perrow, “Normal Accident at Three Mile Island.” Society 18, no. 5 (1981): 17–26.

 

13

11.29

Thanksgiving Break / No Class

 

Networked Publics, or Pareto's Revenge

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Penn Humanities Forum in a symposium on cores ande peripheries. I enjoyed myself tremendously. It was a welcome opportunity to have an opportunity to expand my work on networked publics and network culture, especially with such a great synergy between speakers, responders, and audience. I gave two talks, first a position statement and second, a talk on how power configures itself in networked publics.

I've uploaded the second talk to Vimeo and am including the text here. I don't have video for the first talk, but I will upload the text soon.

    

Networked Publics or Pareto's Revenge from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

 

In this talk I want to explore how core and periphery might appear in networks and how they are networks reconfigure their structural conditions. 

During the last two decades, networks have become our dominant cultural logic. The Internet and mobile telecommunications devices have revolutionized our lives by connecting us in new ways, but more than that, in a book length study of network culture that I am slowly picking away at, I want to suggest that there has also been a mutation that produces this condition and that this condition is no longer simply postmodernity. 

Now I’m not suggesting technological determinism. On the contrary, it is the widespread technological determinism in society today that serves as evidence of network culture as a distinct period. Contrast the widely held techno-utopianism today with the technological pessimism of postmodernism. As late as the early 1990s, historian of science Leo Marx would declare “‘Technological pessimism’ may be a novel term, but most of us seem to understand what it means. It surely refers to that sense of disappointment, anxiety, even menace, that the idea of ‘technology’ arouses in many people these days.”

Even with the addled sense of overload that too much e-mail, too many SMS messages, too much Twitter, and too much of everything gives us, these voices are fewer and farther between than they were in the 1980s. We see Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr as Cassandras, not as leaders of some kind of neo-luddite movement. In contrast, oppositional movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring not only rely on the familiar technology of smart phones, Web sites, and Twitter but also use distributed networks as models for organization. RAND researchers John Arquila and David Ronfeldt refer to new insurgency movements as “Netwars.” They write that “Strong netwar actors will have not only organizational, but also doctrinal, technological, and social layers that emphasize network designs. Netwar actors may make heavy use of cyberspace, but that is not their defining characteristic—they subsist and operate in areas beyond it.”

So, too, commonplace menaces like Peak Oil and Global Warming are commonly shrugged off as being solvable with technological fixes. 

The network, meanwhile, seems everywhere, spreading far beyond technology, “everting,” turning inside out, as William Gibson suggests in Spook Country. Whether we take neoliberal affirmations of globalization, post-Marxist network collectives, educational institutions, or analytical models of organization in sociology, the network has replaced both the formless mass and the hierarchical tree as our model of collectivity. It has been two decades since Manuel Castells dubbed our social order “the network society.”

The network is the cultural dominant of our time, much as the machine was for the modern era. Like the machine, the network is a technology, and in this, our time shares a return to the modern obsession with technological change. 

In this talk, I want to focus on “networked publics,” a term that I wound up working with as a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication in the 2005-2006 academic year after a semester here at Penn. I want to pose the question of what sort of logics of hierarchy emerge within networks and how do these give form to the public, that meeting ground in which we come together to observe and discuss culture, politics, and other matters of common concern? 

Let’s start with culture since it is key to the public. In Ancients and Moderns Joan DeJean shows  that those debates on cultural matters in the seventeenth century were the theater in which a modern idea of the public first emerged.

 The cultural, of course, is the political; the stakes were high for Boileau and Perrault, no question And what of the decline of the public sphere or rather its metamorphosis into mass media and the development of the mass? Habermas descries the mass media as commodified, “a public sphere in appearance only,” its mission being to encourage consumption.

 But we should remember another meaning to the mass, which is that of a certain Utopic strain of modernity, that strain that can’t help but call forth an absolutist argument, be it Lissitzky, Corbusier, or Eisenstein. There is no alternate viewpoint to be entertained, no debate to be had, only Agitprop for the avant-garde that advocated a universalizing instrumental rationality. 

Postmodernity not only did not return a public sphere, it broke up the mass. After all, postmodernity and postmodernism were defined by the thorough triumph of the culture industry, with postmodernism in Jameson’s words, “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” But with this too, came the fragmenting of mass media in response to the shift from manufacturing to the service industry in postmodernity and the culture industry’s need to expand its market by directly targeting consumer groups.  

But if the rise of the culture industry is a constituent of postmodernity, during the last decade we have witnessed a stunning reversal. Culture has had tricks up its sleeve to foil the market, networked tricks. Just as its triumph seemed complete, the culture industry faced an unprecedented crisis of value. During the last decade, the free availability of information on the Internet has undone entire media ecologies. Just when it seemed to be defeated by commodification, culture decided to fight back and shrug it off. In part, consumers—particularly young consumers—have proven that they have little allegiance to the culture industry’s ideas of ownership, and are glad to pirate what they can. But even when the means are legal, consumers seek to optimize their spending on culture, throwing the media into crisis. That new media corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Mog are eager to help in the “creative destruction” only makes this more so. 

More than this though, relationships of producers to consumers have changed fundamentally, even from postmodernism. If Habermas described the privatization of the salon from public to private, now matters are reversed. No longer is the individual’s opinion restricted to the living room, rather they can give vent to their reactions across the Internet

Network culture, then is the age of networked publics. Networked publics are groups of individuals who congregate around issues and media that they share an interest in, regardless of their location. Networked publics do not merely receive information, they communicate bottom-to-top-and side-to-side, sharing opinions, reworking, and redistributing information. In this, networked publics have not only utilized but also greatly shaped the technological platforms that constitute media culture today. Think not of comments on newspaper articles, forums about television shows, YouTube, academic listservs and on and on. 

Networked publics do not, however, coalesce. There is no place in which we come together, no new public sphere. I’d like to point out that Habermas talks a great deal about architecture in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and in that respect, I’d like to draw an analogy with physical space. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop tries to account for how we have seemingly given up any notion of the public sphere for and wound up with a paradoxical country that is remarkably divided. Bishop argues that politics has become subject to a consumption mentality and we choose the places we want to live based on the presence of individuals who think like we do. Bishop: “For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.”

 We can see this sort of segmentation in, for example, the clusters that geodemographic marketing firm Claritas produces. Utilizing data like this, politicians tune their messages to generate the most votes. Now networked publics do link individuals across political boundaries, but the basic problem remains, you dig yourself deeper. 

So networked publics seem to be a set of peripheries that can’t coalesce. But there’s more to it than that and the rest of my talk will address networks themselves. We’ve seen the diagram of distributed networks, but if the nodes in a network are allowed to make their own link, something curious happens. Some nodes will connected more to others. Some of those highly-connected nodes will get even more connections. The result is the emergence of “hubs” that will have vastly more connections than other nodes. Take for example the Web site for this conference and compare it to Google.

Media theorist Clay Shirky has suggested observed that in the case of blogs, what is called a “scale-free” network developed naturally, leading to the disproportionate favoring of certain sites. Shirky: “This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

 As network theory shows, Shirky argues, this is absolutely natural: “Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable.” Shirky suggests that although this might one day be a problem, for now we can content ourselves with knowing that this is a natural property of the network. Fair enough, I suppose but if we see the network as a model for society, then we know that this is going to lead straight into neoliberalism and into the creation of a new set of cores and peripheries, network style. 

More than that, former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that if we look at media consumption as a scale-free network, then the low section of the graph, or the Long Tail, is particularly rich. Anderson observes that aggregators such as Amazon or iTunes make as much money or more from the Long Tail in their libraries as they do from the hits oat the top. Artists in the Long Tail, Anderson suggests, can make decent livings from a dedicated community of fans, a networked public that revolving around them.

 Curiously, what happens is an evisceration of the middle. We all share knowledge of the big hits, but the middle is now obscured. We have networked publics—our love of Kung Fu movies or noise music or shoegaze—but will we ever meet except at the most basic big hit level?

But ultimately my point, to get back to what I was speaking about this morning is this. There is a power rippling through networked publics and that power is neoliberalism. For the network naturalizes its propensity toward creating ever-greater GINI coefficients. I want to finish by pointing to one particular origin of network theory that also gives rise to my talk’s title. The scale-free network in which 80% of the hits are taken by 20% of the nodes was first formulated by sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, active in Italy in the first part of the last century. He came to this insight when he sought to explain the development of power in societies. Pareto himself believed that such scale-free networks were just. A ruling class, he argued, would always emerge. In writings that appealed to Mussolini and the fascists, he suggested that since this was the natural order of things, the state should simply get out of the way, allowing the natural social law to maintain itself. 

If recent apologists for Pareto have suggested that had he not died within a year of the Fascist assumption of power, he would have turned against it, it seems to me that our network culture might have been more acceptable to him. For networks may not seem to have cores and peripheries, but make no mistake, they give rise to power structures no less intractable. 

Tract Homes and Starchitecure

 

It still strikes me that we haven't made the right links between the housing bubble and starchitecture. If much of the world is economically devastated, high-end architects and developers in global cities find their offices thriving. If starchitecture has pulled back a little, its perhaps in name only as the boom seems to continue, having missed only a beat or two.  

If the self-congratulating promoters of the creative city may pat themselves on the back these days about the failure of vast swaths of tract homes, they still fail to understand that the products of Toll Brothers and the products of Richard Meier Associates are the results of the same economic mutation.

I think we can all agree that there is an obvious relationship between the ill-fated real estate bubble of the 2000s and the new products for real-estate consumers developed and popularized at the time such as interest-only mortgages, balloon payments, subprime mortgages, and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) as well as complimentary instruments for financial investment such as mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that backed those securities. The creative innovation that brought us these financial instruments is the highest form of production in the global city, at least from an economic perspective. If the creative class that produced and marketed these instruments worldwide lived in the towers made by starchitects, the relationship also goes deeper than that.  

Tract homes and designer apartment buildings were two sides of the same radical speculation, both precarious constructions of finance, carefully targeted to the appropriate demographic. The endless proliferation of tract home sameness found an echo in the ceaseless production of unprecedented formal innovations. If the latter aimed to always be new and photogenic, such works were not so much the products of polemical statements about architecture as they were of assembly lines capable of endless stylistic variations. Typically utilizing the most advanced computer-aided design and construction technologies available, such work cements a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a consumer fashion cycle.         

The difference between the repetition of the same and the repetition of the different is not so much an abstract notion of quality as a question of finance and motivation. The tract house was marketed as both a place for a family to dwell and as a lucrative but safe investment, an interchangeable commodity that could be exchanged at will for an ever-greater price. Its ubiquity was assured by the therapeutic figure of the realtor and the process of staging the interior to substitute traces of the unique with the universal. In turn, the high-end residential apartment was billed as a theatrical pied-à-terre, a temporary residence aimed less at existing city populaces than at individuals from abroad seeking to cement their identities as members of a global elite. They sought to join this society while diversifying their real estate investments internationally to hedge against any localized collapse in property values.

Developers of starchitect-designed properties targeted that demographic of the global elite already interested in investing in the art market or owning works of reputed cultural significance. In this, it is instructive to compare the branding of starchitect-designed apartment buildings with how Donald Trump-branded apartment buildings targeted at a market-segment interested in associating itself with more conventional ideas of celebrity and with conventional amenities such as interior waterfalls, high end French restaurants and billiards rooms. Whatever name a luxury building was branded with, be it Herzog and de Meuron or Donald Trump, the deeper pockets possessed by purchasers ensured that after the global downturn in real estate, the market would remain liquid and prices wouldn’t collapse the way they did for suburban tract homes.  

It's really the Pareto priniciple at work. After the collapse, the overproduction of real estate worldwide only served to cement the value of the core of global cities as what David Harvey has called a spatial fix for capital, thus demonstrating its value even further. In other words, it all worked out very nicely for everyone holding the cards, didn't it?  

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