network culture

Novels and Imperialism

While working on the Network Culture book, I've been thinking about the absorption of identity politics into a globalized idea of art and literature (what Bourriaud labels as "altermodern").
 
On a global scale, this parallels the absorption of dialects into a national language during the early modern state. As this happened, dialects did not just disappear, but rather continued to exist and were even incorporated into literature. 
 
Wlad Gozich and Nicholas Spadaccini have reflected on this with respect to the novel Don Quijote: 
 
“Its famous dialogical structure represents an attempt to inscribe as many discourses as possible within its frame. The only question is who can read them. In a sense, the answer is: the state. Only the state can claim to be the adequate subject for reading a novel like the Quijote. … In practice this means that such a novel serves to provide its readers with an experience of what it is like to look at things from the perspective of the state…” (citation)
 
The ideal reader of Don Quijote takes in the text from the perspectival viewpoint of the omniscient narrator, occupying the position of the state itself to embrace the different dialects within the text (or nation) as one whole. Today’s reader takes in the diversity of global art and literature from the position of our contemporary master reader, Empire. 

So, too, if the novel allowed colonial powers such as the British to create a new shared cultural field that they could share with their subjects in the form of a medium posited as universal, superseding existing structures, the Internet promises a single world order, made possible through technology, undoing the specificity of the local except as it continues to exist for cultural consumption. 

On Facebook Self-Portraits

I am fascinated with the forced exposure that social networking sites create. Via Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's excellent blog The End of Cyberspace, I reached Slate author Brian Braiker's article on how he finds seeing old images of himself uploaded to the net uncomfortable. From there, I found Euan Kerr's piece for Minnesota Public Radio exploring the phenomenon of the Facebook self-portrait. This really piqued my interest since I've been fascinated by this phenomena since I joined the social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait is a product of network culture that reveals how we construct our identities today. It satisfies the version of Andy Warhol's rule as modified by Momus: "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people," except that it's not the future anymore (in fairness the article is 15 years old) and it's not 15 but rather 150 or 300 people, a typical number in a circle of friends on a social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait makes everyone a superstar, famous for no particular reason, but notable for their embrace of fame. So it is that on Facebook, I see friends who I never thought of as self-conscious take photographs of remarkable humor, intelligence, and wry self-deprecation. The Facebook self-portrait insists upon mastery over one's self-image and the instant feedback of digital photography allows us this. Not happy? Well, try again.   

Long ago, when I was in high school, I read a book on the Bloomsbury group. I remember that the caption underneath a group photograph in the book (whose title now escapes me) pointed out that even in this über-hip clique, only one member was relaxed, only one understood that the right pose for the camera was a calculated non-pose. Our idea of the self can be read through such images: from the stiff formality of the painted portrait to the relaxed pose of the photograph to the calculated self-consciousness of the Facebook digital image. Each time, the self becomes a more cunning manipulator of the media. Each time, the self becomes more conscious of being defined outside itself, in a flow of impulses rather than a notion of inner essence.

So it was that in reading the first article, I felt that the author missed his friend Caroline's point when she told him "You can never be too cool for your past." As your images catch up to you in network culture, you have to become the consummate manipulator of your image, imagery from the past being less an indictment of present flaws and more an indicator of your ability to remake yourself.

The Universal Turing Machine is Here

 path vending machine fail

From the introduction to the Network Culture book. 

In a prosaic sense, the Turing machine is already a reality, but it doesn’t take the form of one machine, it takes the form of many. With minor exceptions, the laptop, smart phone, cable TV set top box, game console, wireless router, iPod, iPhone, and Mars rover are the same device, but they become specific in their interfaces, their mechanisms for input and output, for sensing and acting upon the world. Instead of a universal machine, network culture seeks a universal, converged network, capable of distributing audio, video, Internet, voice, text chat, and any other conceivable networking task efficiently.

And with it, universal modes of failure. 

Unpacking My Library

"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That's how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes

…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The library, Benjamin's passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual's life.    

Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.

But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.

"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.

With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.

As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I'll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book's ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here

philip johnson's library 

[not my library but rather Philip Johnson's] 

Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father. 

But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them. 

My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London's famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.

 another image of Johnson's library 

 [another image from Johnson's library]

The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can't recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn't return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.

Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It's better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.    

superstudio image 

There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio's greatest dream: life without objects.      

The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?     

On Owls, Starchitects, Papers & Growth Machines

When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

In perhaps his most eloquent moment, Hegel was referring to the way that philosophy came to an understanding of topics precisely at the moment that they were no longer relevant.

An example of this would be the explosion of visual studies in the 1990s just at the moment when two centuries of the visual being a cultural dominant were being eclipsed by the rise of the non-visual, by the code and procotols of network culture. Nobody talks much about visual studies anymore.

But it isn't just philosophy and theory that operate this way. It's a phenomenon we see in culture over and over. Milton Friedman (and Time Magazine) declared We are all Keynesians now just as the long postwar boom expired.

Or look at how stores like Barnes and Noble appeared, carrying huge amounts of books and magazines just as print began its terminal decline. Or the appearance of the SUV right before peak oil (I have friends who bought those things and used them for everyday driving…crazy!).

So what about Starchitects? There has certainly never been an explosion of interest in Starchitects like there has been today. But when the economy recovers (and I think that will be a long, long time from nunless the government comes up with another unhealthy quick fix), I'm not so sure we'll have starchitects anymore.

The reason is simple: newspapers made starchitects. It's common knowledge that recent construction by major cultural institutions was driven by the desire to make it to the front page of the New York Times. This could only be guaranteed if the architect was Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Koolhaas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Foster (some of these names may change a little, a second tier includes Piano, Morphosis, Sejima, Ito, and I'm sure a couple of others that I forgot). I have friends who work with such institutions and they were commonly told that the project had to be on the front page.

This is not surprising. Newspapers are key institutions for the growth machine (see more here). They seek to drive growth, making it seem natural and promoting it, generally regardless of the cost. They are where the growth machine sees itself and celebrates itself.

But now, eviscerated by bad financial models and online publications, newspapers are dying. Certainly blogs have encouraged Starchitecture a bit, but in many cases—such as at Archinect—they did so in part because they are in the business of linking to content from newspapers. In many cases bloggers are more critical of starchitecture than newspaper critics are. Blogs are bottom-up, newspapers are top-down. Thus blogs are snarky, newspapers are proper. Blogs also have comments so when a blogger gets something wrong, a reader can call it out.

As you may read on twitter, the media is dying. As big papers start to shut down or go to online-only formats in the coming years, will starchitects disappear as well? I can't imagine that the heads of major cultural institutions will insist on architects who will ensure their buildings be mentioned on Archinect.

If they do, what will take their place, a Warholian YouTube-style culture of young architects being famous for 15 minutes? Or will architects begin to specialize toward niche audiences, much as blogs do?

infrastructure, the lives of things, and stimulus

Obviously, technological optimism is common in network culture. It's only natural: we experience technological improvements everyday. A decade ago I spent $1,500 on my first digital camera. Yesterday I gave my six-year-old daughter a digital camera for her birthday. It was smaller and handily outperformed that original camera for less than 1/15th of the cost. Last year the iPhone 3G came out. Now I've stopped plotting out the route to an unknown destination before I get on my way. During the last year I finally got rid of my last desktop machine in favor of a laptop which I set to automatically backup my hard drive over the wireless network whenever I am at home. Of course I'm a bit of a geek by inclination and profession, but if you're reading this blog I'm sure you're familiar with this rapid pace of change firsthand. 

So it's normal to extend our technological optimism beyond the home, to the city for example. But there's another aspect of network culture that balances out technological optimism: non-human systems have drives of their own. A relatively new branch of sociology, actor-network theory (ANT) tries to make sense of this. Here's a quote from Ole Hanseth and Eric Montiero's book Understanding Information Infrastructure that sums up the main point:

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business -- driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor -- there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car's manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

We all know how frustrating technology can be when by design or by accident it prevents us from doing what we wanted to. You lose your iTunes library on your drive and you can't copy it back off your iPod or re-download it from the store, a faulty fuel sensor puts your car in limp-home mode, your remote control can't talk to your DVD player and so on. 

By design The Infrastructural City is intended for a general audience—it's not unacademic, but I also didn't want to weigh it down too much with theory—and none of my authors were sociologists so I didn't ask anyone to address ANT. But, one of the book's chief lessons—even the main lesson—is that infrastructures themselves are actors. The Los Angeles River is not natural anymore, it's something else entirely. We are traffic, but because we aren't going to change our behavior, adding more lanes to freeways isn't going to work.

Understanding human and non-human systems puts The Infrastructural City in a lineage starting with Anton Wagner's 1935 Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien and extending through Banham's 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 36 years elapsed between the first two books and another 37 years passed before our book came out. For both Wagner and Banham, cities were ecologies. Wagner, sponsored by the Nazi government, saw these quite literally: the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Southern California were shaped by the landscape. If Wagner's sponsorship and eugenic thesis are repulsive, his idea of understanding both the setting and the settlers together was ground-breaking. Building on Wagner, Banham saw the city as composed of discrete landscapes—ecologies—populated by specific clusters of individuals who gave rise to specific kinds of buildings. 

Inexorably, the man-made has become more important. But acts of human volition—building a work of quality architecture, say, or even spearheading an infrastructural initiative—are fading in favor of complex systems, actors that we have shaped but that have evolved "lives" of their own.     

These resulting "actors" have wills that can get in our way at the least opportune time. As a general rule, the more complex the system, the stronger its will. I'll give away a further clue that I hid in our book: where possible I tried to show the traces of other infrastructural ecologies in the photographs I illustrated the essays with. Can you find the frankenpine in the opening spread of the essay on the L. A. River? As these "ecologies" or as David Fletcher calls them in his essay on the River, "freakologies" interact and network together, they become much harder to control.     

Another thesis of the book is that many of these systems are invisible and an actor doesn't have to be visible or formed to have a will of its own. Social structures can also be actors. This is most evident today in the glaring absence of infrastructure from the economic stimulus plan. 

There are a lot of false hopes out there about the plan and I've been doing what I can to get the truth out, especially since the LA Times review of our book that got the story about the plan so sadly, painfully wrong. For the real story, take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe: Only 5 percent of $819b plan would go toward infrastructure.

A graphic displays the stark reality.

I quote the Globe: 

The chairman of the transportation panel's subcommittee on highways and transit, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, became so angry about the reduction in transportation spending that he recently accused Obama's top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, of arguing against such funds because he "hates infrastructure."

The Globe piece observes that the Obama administration hints at future funding for infrastructure, but thus far there it has given fans of infrastructure precious little reason to believe in it.

Instead of agreeing with Peter DeFazio and pinning the blame on one nefarious individual, I'd like to suggest an actor-network-theory reason for the failure.

Political systems have a life of their own. Obama's administration has to fulfill immediate goals like passing the bill and making it seem like the average American is getting relief. Complex infrastructure projects take decades to build, unless you are in China and after last week we know very well what cutting corners will do. For political reasons Obama doesn't have decades to wait, so even though he gives the impression of being a strong-willed, inspirational individual who wants to up-end the political machine, he is going for the quick fix.

In other words, we've created political ecologies that are going to stand in the way of moves to fund infrastructure.

What to do, then? This is the subject for future posts, but I'll suggest two things. We need to face up to address the underlying political structures that prevent infrastructural spending, no matter that it is impossible to condense these into a sound bite and we need to use advanced technologies to invent new kinds of infrastructures, augmenting existing conditions. Ubiquitous computing is already here, Mike Kuniavsky suggests. How can we use it to overcome the rising problems of life in the city? 

introducing network culture

The introduction to my book on Network Culture is up at 

http://varnelis.net/network_culture/introduction.

If there's anywhere I want user comments, it's there.

Clocking in at 5,600 words or so, it's a start for this big project, certainly the most important and ambitious that I've ever undertaken. As I whip the other chapters into shape, I will post them as well although not necessarily in sequential order. Don't expect to see all of the chapters online for some time, but do expect that the work is well underway.

An online preface can be found at http://varnelis.net/network_culture.

Altermodern

Exciting news today, thanks to Bruce Sterling's splendid Beyond the Beyond.

I've been immersed in writing lately, so this next exhibit slipped under my radar, but Nicolas Bourriaud's latest exhibit, the 2009 Tate Triennial, is called Altermodern. Bourriaud's manifesto can be seen here. Bourriaud's one of the sharpest thinkers around today and this exhibit just cements my decision to explore network culture in my next book. Bourriaud's show marks a break with postmodernism based on a new stage of globalization. As he writes in his Altermodern manifesto: "Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture."  

I suppose this is the kick in the pants I need to get my introduction out the door and onto this site in the next few days. Even if I fully intend to rework it repeatedly even after the draft hits the networked book, the stakes of framing the argument clearly are high so writing it has taken a month longer than I wanted. 

 

Reconsidering the Architecture of Network Culture

During Monday's Network Culture class, we are dealing with freedom and control. Much of this class is going to revolve around Deleuze's essay on control societies and I've been pondering something. Maybe I've been dead wrong about the lack of significant new architecture in this decade.

Maybe the interminable pursuit of smooth form, which has occupied so much of architecture's interest during this decade, as well as the interest in autonomous form, produced seemingly without human intervention IS significant.

Maybe my mistake is in thinking of it as "good." Good to me, seems somehow progressive, offering spaces that might resist the space of flows, offering new ways of thinking outside of it or even redirecting it. 

Maybe the problem is that I've just misunderstood the point. My thesis: be it an architecture of icon or performance, in its shift to the post-critical, the field has become the handmaiden of Empire? Thus, my problem is one of misrecognition: that I should not expect architecture to advance anything new, but rather only embody the space of Empire. The smoothness of contemporary architectural form, alternatively the product of cynical reason or naïvité, is significant, in that it draws the coils of the serpent ever tighter around us.  

Frankly, I hope to promote even more vehement disagreement than my post asking where the good architecture is. And granted, there are architects who seem to have no interest in smooth form. Let's excuse them for a minute, but let's take the globe-trotting proponents of smoothness, the architectural ¥€$ men of our age. So the question that I'm going to pose to my students is: what about this work? How can it be explained except as an affirmation of Empire, as the aesthetic infrastructure of the society of control? Is that the significance of contemporary architecture?

 

When Users are Losers, or Datapocalypse, part 2 and How to Avoid It

A month ago, I suggested that with investment capital scarce, social media sites will be forced to close their doors and, as a consequence, users will lose huge amounts of social and cultural capital.

This week demonstrates another, highly efficient path to datapocalypse: data loss. In the most spectacular failure to date, ma.gnolia.com has all but declared the loss of its social bookmarks permanent.

I had a similar problem back in 2007 when Flock, the social web browser wiped out my bookmarks and yahoo, which had recently acquired delicious, informed me that delicious didn't make backups.

That was only one user losing his data, so it wasn't a big deal—although it demonstrated the dangers of relying on social software—but backups seem to be a tremendous problem for these services. They effectively double the cost of storage, so corporations seek to cut corners. On the other hand, since we backup religiously at home (you do, don't you?), we expect that the online services we'd use do as well.

If ma.gnolia can't recover its users's data, I don't see how they can come back from such a loss and even if they do, it seems like their run is over.

But I also predict that in the near future we'll see a high profile failure or closure that will dwarf the loss that the users of ma.gnolia experienced. I still wonder, for example, how Facebook can survive given the trouble it seems to be having paying its bills. "It's all about eyeballs" is something that the doe-eyed MBAs used to say a decade ago, but isn't going to hold any credence in the more mature network culture of our day.

Maybe, though, this will give a boost to develop a counter-cloud, like the one that I proposed earlier this year, in which social media functions would be spread across a multitude of Web sites running common platforms (think Drupal for example). Take a look at this article by Brian Suda, for example, that explains how to carry social networking relationships between sites. It's a great start, but it needs to be made easy to do for the non-technically savvy user and it would have to be possible to scatter data across sites, with redundancy built into the system to make it work. It may sound impossible, but so in principle, so does bittorrent, but it still works. Like the move from Napster to Bittorrent, this would be a move from centralized to decentralized systems, dispersing control and responsibility into a DIY counter-cloud. Something for Drupal version 10 maybe? 

I suspect that some version of my modest proposal is going to be enacted in the next decade. Trusting one site for anything is a big problem, as the users of ma.gnolia found out. 

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