network culture

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?

Long Tail, Little Profit

Over at Read/Write Web, Alex Iskold looks at the Long Tail phenomenon and concludes that while Chris Anderson is correct when he argues that there is money to be made on the Long Tail (by aggregrators and Long Tail oriented retail giants like Amazon), there is no money to be made in the Long Tail itself. 

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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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

Blogged with Flock

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



miltos manetas paints cables

Yes, I am a decade late with this post. Nevertheless, check out the work of Miltos Manetas, in particular his classic paintings of cables. Manetas's still lives of network culture underscore the physicality of our virtual world.

manetas cables

the future of the library

At the New Yorker, Anthony Grafton pursues the future of the library. I was shocked to read Grafton recount that a Cambridge University Press editor told him recently that "Conservatively, ninety-five per cent of all scholarly inquiries start at Google." But Grafton's piece weighs the value of the search engine and the scope of the googleplex against other qualities. Libraries—or at least the major research libraries—will continue to have a role in our lives. If Grafton leaves anything out, it's that the Web may miss more than it preserves…and not so much of the physical world of print as of its own domain. Take for example, this littlegirlonline (not safe for work), which had some interesting material on it until it was given up and has now been re-appropriated by a porn vendor. You can still find some, but not all, of the writing at the Internet Archive. Thank God for Brewster Kahle and, but still, are we really keeping track of the good stuff online?

gaming becoming life

In the new issue of Wired, Rex Sorgatz weighs in on the role of gaming today in When Reality Feels Like Playing a Game, a New Era Has Begun. As with many aspects of network culture, it's taken me a while to get this far (I blame architecture, historically the slowest of the arts in taking up new cultural … then again Karl Chu was telling me that games were the future for architecture many years ago), but there's no question that if there is a new cultural form for Network Culture it's software gaming (and yes, I think there are crucial distinctions between software gaming and older forms of gaming). Alex Galloway's Gaming. Essays in Algorithmic Culture is a great introduction to such questions. But games require a huge amount of work to produce and as a conesquence the gaming industry is one of the few big media entities out there today (in fact, we could argue against the idea of the Long Tail, suggesting that operating systems and productivity software, software games, and aggegrators are the new big media). I'd love to see the software game equivalent of early television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, but I fear that period is long gone, something we can only experience today through emulators of 1980s videogames. Still, when AUDC states that the novel is dead, there is no question in my mind that games are the successor.

urban pac man

silent disco

My student Maria introduced me to the the Silent Disco the other day (well, she showed me the site, unfortunately we didn't find one nearby). Pioneered at clubs which did not have permission for loud music, silent discos pass out headphones to dancers who listen to music sent out via radio. See CNN or this Youtube video:

So what are the strangest manifestations of network culture that you've seen? Please, comment away! Your chance to be famous for a day (yeah, right).

whither alt.culture?

Where is alt.culture today? Author Warren Ellis concludes that our curatorial culture is just plain exhausted… This strikes me as true to a large degree, although I wonder if the best work isn't taking place off-line or in secret? Much as I suggest that AUDC is Internet-based, we don't blog about our working habits in public (why?). Rather, we talk to each other relentlessly on the phone and communicate via e-mail. Hopefully some of you will think that Blue Monday is an original and creative work, but yes, there seems to be some degree of exhaustion out there now.

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