network culture

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

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


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, 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. 

Forced Exposure

Yesterday evening, I received the news that I my proposal for Networked (a networked_book) about (networked_art) was accepted. The other finalists who will be writing essays will be Anne Helmond, Patrick Lichty, Anna Munster, and Marisa Olsen. This is really exciting for me. I'm fascinated by the opportunity to let one of my essays loose to be rewritten by the networked art public. This chapter will also feed the work I'm doing for my book on network culture, so it's a good kick in the pants for me too. Thanks so much to Jo-Ann Green and Helen Turlington of, all of the members of the advisory committee, and the NEA for their support of the project.

Below is my (very slightly edited) proposal. I'm thinking that I'd like to put the project on the net early on, to solicit all your input even as its being sketched out, so you're likely to hear a lot more about it soon.  


Forced Exposure:[1] Networks and The Poetics of Reality


The real has come to dominate cultural production, both high and low (those categories are more blurred than ever, if not nonexistent)—from reality television to blogs to MySpace to YouTube to the art gallery. But the new poetics of reality is not the same as the old model of realism. First emerging in the eighteenth century—especially in the form of the novel—realism was part of a new fascination with everyday—as opposed to courtly or idealized—life that also manifested itself in the newspaper. Associated with this was the rise of the authorial voice, the seemingly objective narration of the novelist or journalist. Authors constructed a reality assembled according to codes of “realism” for the public. Today, however, both novel and newspaper are in rapid decline, losing sales dramatically. So, too visual art now turns to reality-based forms of production. The codes of realism are being replaced by new codes of reality, constructed around immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and the remix of existing and self-generated content, using readily-available technology to directly engage the audience. But when I discuss realism as coded, I do not mean to say that “reality” media is not coded. Throughout the essay I will identify the codes deployed in “reality” media, be it reality TV, amateur-generated content, or professional “art.”

It is crucial to expand the boundaries of this investigation to go beyond just art that is produced for a small community to cultural production as a whole, high and low, online and not (if anything is not online today in some form). Thus, I am interested not only in what is on but also what is on television, on YouTube, or in the gallery. Looking only to cultural production found on the Internet ghettoizes that cultural production, isolating and thereby limiting our understanding of the impact of networks and easily accessible, powerful digital technology on culture as a whole. Network culture is not limited to technological developments or to “new media” but rather is a broad sociocultural shift much like postmodernity was in its day. Writing merely about the impact of these technologies by looking only at networked art today would be like looking only at video art to understand the impact of the television. In other words, although maturing digital and networking technologies are inseparable from contemporary culture—as the spectacle of the television was from postmodernity—they must be read within a larger context.

Along with the broadening of the influence of networks and digital means of cultural production past the scene, the turn to realism is very different from the sort of work done by the first generation. Artists such as Vuk Cosic, Jodi, Alexei Sholgun, and Heath Bunting made art that (often deliberately) resembled the graphic and programming demos found on cassette tapes and in computer magazines of the 1980, before computers left the realm of user groups and became broadly useful in society. Instead, the impact of digital technology and networks is much more pervasive and diffuse. Mark Leckey, to take one example, would not normally be seen as a net artist, but his work is thoroughly informed by the cultural turn I am looking at. His goal, as expressed in the video for his Tate prize nomination, describes the poetics of network culture in a nutshell: “to transform my world and make it more so, make it more of what it is.” Over the last few years, amateur-generated content has proliferated on the Internet, particularly in video sharing site YouTube and photo sharing sites like Flickr as well as on blogs. This essay will examine the rise of amateur-generated content as a form of cultural production while reflecting on its use by artists like Oliver Laric, who treats amateur videos as found media loops, or Daniel Eatock, who directly solicits contributions from his audience and posts them to his site. In this genre, as in network culture as a whole, we can see a key difference from postmodernist art: instead of the postmodernist promotion of a populist projection of the audience’s desires, today we have the production of art by the audience, a further blurring of boundaries between artist and public. 

[1] The title is an oblique reference to Forced Exposure magazine and the earlier DIY ethic and informal networks of subcultures, which would be covered as “prehistory” of this piece. I’d be delighted if people recognized it, but since they probably won’t, this should alleviate the mystery:


in praise of trees


cell phone tree at hunter mountain

I went skiing at Hunter Mountain in upstate New York for two days this week. It was a long-needed break for my wife and myself. We had a great ski instructor, Peter Dunh,am, and after just a couple of hours instruction, were skiing the advanced slopes with confidence. And, just to prove that the Infrastructural City is relevant anywhere, the top of the mountain was marked by a cell phone tree.

Warren Techentin's essay on our new relationship with trees changed my view of cell phone trees. I've stopped thinking of them as cop-outs or disguises. After all, they rarely hide. Inadvertently, perhaps, the cell phone tower has turned from a disguise into something else: whereas the antennas of old symbolized the specialized nature of telecommunications in our lives, cell phone trees celebrate the augmented nature of our reality. 

Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary

University of Pennsylvania
School of Design
Department of Architecture
Architecture 712 006: Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary
Spring 2009
Professor: Kazys Varnelis
Lectures/Seminars: Mondays 9-12, Furness 306
The purpose of this seminar is to introduce students to a historical understanding of the changed conditions that characterize our networked age. We will explore how the network is not merely a technology with social ramifications but rather is a cultural dominant that connects changes in society, economy, aesthetics, urbanism, and ideology. As a history of the contemporary, the seminar is organized around a series of topics tracing a genealogy of present-day culture.
Participation: 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. 
Students will also be asked to keep a social bookmark diary of their research at
Presentation: 30%
Students will present original research on architecture and network culture in week 11 of the course. Students will present either individually or in teams, depending on enrollment. Non-architecture students may make arrangements with the instructor.
Book: 50%
The term project will be a research book, exploring a topic related to the subject matter. The book will be an original study on a topic selected with the agreement of the instructor and should constitute a contribution to knowledge. Students should envision this as a potentially publishable work. Material should not be formulated as a traditional research paper, but rather students should tell a story through the designed and composed sequence of images and texts lead by an original narrative. The book will be designed as a printed, bound object and published through a print on demand service. Design is integral to the term project. Plagiarism of any sort will result in immediate failure.
There is one textbook. Kazys Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008).
Other readings will be available separately.


Mizuko Ito, “Introduction,” and Kazys Varnelis, “Conclusion: The Meaning of Network Culture,” Networked Publics, 1-13 and 145-163.
Network Theory
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.
Albert-László Barabási, “Small Worlds” and “Hubs and Connectors,” Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002), 41-63.
Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” and “A Spider’s Web,” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 127-149 and 185-210.
Freedom and Control
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control ,” October 59 (Winter 1992), 73-77.
Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,”
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Capitalist Sovereignty, Or Administering the Global Society of Control,” Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 325-350.
Fordism and Postfordism
David Harvey, “Fordism” and “From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation,” in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), 125-172.
Ash Amin, “Post-Fordism: Models, Fantasies, and Phantoms of Transition,” Ash Amin, ed., Post-Fordism: A Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 1-39.
Antonio Gramsci, “Taylorism and the Mechanisation of the Worker,” in “Americanism and Fordism,” Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, (New York: International Publishers, 1980), 306-307.
Mary McLeod, “’Architecture or Revolution’: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change,” Art Journal 43, no. 2 (Summer 1983), 133-147.
Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146  (July/August 1984): 53-92.
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, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Postmodern Conditon: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), 71-84.
Place, I. Nostalgia for Non-Places?
Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg, "Place: The Networking of Public Space," Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 15-42.
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.
Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubió, “Terrain Vague,” Cynthia Davison, ed. Anyplace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 119-123.
Spring Break
Place, II. Maps and Things

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

Jordan Crandall, “Operational Media,” Ctheory,
Bruno Latour, “On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications,” Soziale Welt 47 (1998): 360-81,translated version,
Culture, I. Networked Publics and Production
Adrienne Russell, Mizuko Ito, Todd Richmond, and Marc Tuters, “Culture: Media Convergence and Networked Participation,” Networked Publics, 43-76.
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.

Geert Lovink, “Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse,” Eurozine (2007),

Culture, II. Dissemination and Influence
Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, October 2004,
Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality,” Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet.
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Coolhunt,” New Yorker (March 17, 1997), 78-88,
Grant McCracken, “Who Killed the Coolhunter?”
Duncan J. Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodd, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Formation,” Journal of Consumer Research (December 2007), 441-458.
Architecture of Network Culture Festival
Student Presentations
Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008, 56-63.
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,
Warren Neidich, “Resistance is Futile,” Artbrain. Journal of Neuroasthetic Theory 4,
Politics, Urbanism, and Globalization
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.
Saskia Sassen, “Electronic space and power,” Journal of Urban Technology 4 (1997): 1-17.
Stephen Graham, “Communication Grids: Cities and Infrastructure,” in Saskia Sassen, Global Networks. Linked Cities (London: Routledge, 2002), 71-92.


Wrong About Architecture

I was wrong.

Previously, I've suggested that the architecture of the last decade (the decade of the Bilbao-effect) did little to embody network culture and I thought it peculiar that the best examples of architecture that fits network culture are from the 1990s.

Over at Strangeharvest, Sam Jacob suggests otherwise and he is right.

I was wrong. The emptiness of the last decade perfectly embodies the period.

The punch-line (but do read the article):

Tomorrows visitors to todays (or yesterdays) iconic buildings will feel the swoosh of volumes, the cranked out impossibility of structure, the lightheadedness of refection and translucencies. They will marvel at buildings that hardly touch the ground, which swoop into the air as though drawn up by the jet stream. They will feel stretched by elongated angles that seem sucked into vanishing points that confound perspective, and will be seduced by curves of such overblown sensuality. And in this litany of affects they will find the most permanent record of the heady liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics. We might rechristen these freakish sites as museums of late capitalist experience, monuments to a never to be repeated faith in the global market.

Well said.

This is going to take a lot of unpleasant work to unpack from a historical perspective, but it's part of this year's book project.

finding the flexible personality

What am I trying to do with the network culture book? Very much what Brian Holmes sets out to do in his essay the Flexible Personality. Toward a Cultural Critique. This is one of the best things I've read in a while. In an era that undoes its historicity, it's more urgent than ever to understand the present historically. In an era that undoes critique, it's more urgent than ever to critique.

Make no mistake, I don't set out to sing the praises of network culture.

There are plenty of people who do that. Sure, there are tactical necessities to arguing against increasing restrictions of copyright or for network neutrality or in praise of amateur cultural production. Don't get me wrong on that, but let's not lose sight of the big picture. This isn't a happy ending for class struggle. Or did you notice that the über-class is getting richer and richer while we live paycheck to paycheck? As Deleuze wrote in one of his moments of greatest lucidity, "The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill." Most definitely. 


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