network culture

the Post-Critical Collapse

This weekend I took some time off and outlined the network culture book that I've been thinking about for a while. I had originally wished to have it not merely outlined but drafted by the end of the summer, but events got the best of me. On the other hand, it seems better to be able to put the economic collapse in perspective in the book.

So to the collapse then, and what it says about architecture. Now architecture is not going to be a focus of the network culture book. My goal is to write a history of the contemporary, not a history of contemporary architecture and it's a peculiar aspect of network culture that the theory and aesthetics of architecture seem to play a much less crucial role than they did under modernism or postmodernism. Modern art and literature began to flourish in the late 1900s and 1910s and modern architecture was developing rapidly at this point, although it would take the 1920s for it to really come into its own. In the case of postmodernism, architecture was clearly at the forefront in visibliity, if not in terms of theory. Under network culture, architecture's role is less visible. Architecture has floundered for an aesthetic or theory during the last decade. Supermodernism, which promised much during the 1990s, ran aground as the culture of disconnection it sought to give form to was replaced by a culture of connection. In its stead, we have nothing in particular.

If architecture had a theory during the last decade, it was post-criticism. Since post-criticism began from the premise that architects should do, not think, its proponents had a tough time articulating their position. Nevertheless, at heart, post-critical theorists argued that the deconstructivist and critical architectures of the late 1980s and early 1990s were misguided in resisting cultural hegemony (an increasingly problematic concept, to be sure) and capitalism. Instead, they embraced Koolhaas's injunction that the architect should surf the waves of capital.

But how to do this? Here post-criticism was vague, not surprising given its aversion to theory. Still if there is any core design strategy to post-criticism, it is to embrace the diagram (later on this would become the more computationally-enabled parametric modelling) and model the inputs and variables in a given condition. If detailed enough, the argument went, such diagrams would allow design to emerge automatically. In some cases, this could be quite literal: corporate "flows" might be modelled in computer animation programs and literally given structure to become buildings.  

Such modelling relies on a simple notion of information very much like that of the efficient market hypothesis which informed thinking about financial markets for the last two decades. The efficient market hypothesis was predicated on the network making accurate information available to everyone equally and that everyone would act rationally with regard to that information. But the actors involved turned out not to be rational. The irrational behavior of players led to the real estate boom that I had warned about for years, the subsequent collapse, and this fall's panic. The failure was not one of not enough information, it was a failure to think critically. As any student of network theory knows, robust networks use error-checking to verify the veracity of the data involved. It was not a failure of individuals, but rather a faliure of the network to police itself. In other words,the economic collapse of 2007-2008 was a network failure.

In allying architecture so closely with the market, post-criticism has repeated the reasoning of high modernist architects in the postwar U. S. But that era came to an end in the late 1960s and, as post-Fordism came into question, so did the discipline. Now that architecture has allied itself with a failed theory of the market, what will become of it? This isn't an idle question. As society and culture reconfigure, an architecture that has little to offer except a direct representation of capital flows is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the fascination that post-critical architects had with producing designs through software parallels the reduction of architecture to complex financial instruments that existed primarily in the network. This has already been called into question in the market. Architecture is, as usual, just a little behind.  

Compounding this, architecture has been in vogue during the last two decades due to the so-called Bilbao-Effect, the idea that through the sheer effect (for reasons originally having to do with the writing of Gilles Delueze, architects write this as “affect”) of its form, architecture can improve economic conditions either for a business or for a city. For advocates of diagrammatic thought, the complexity of the forms generated by diagramming were ideal for producing the Bilbao-Effect. But these structures, be they built by businesses or by cultural institutions, were highly expensive and generally heavily leveraged. As they start to go bust, architecture is likely to be blamed for the failure. Most of today's young hot-shot architects are too young to have experienced the attacks that architecture suffered in the 1970s for failing to live up to modernism's promises of function. These may yet pale compared to the disparagement that architecture could receive for failing to generate the promised miracle profits.

Architecture is in a grim situation after the collapse. How it will survive is not yet clear to me, although if I had to make a guess it would be to turn to the idea of the "expanded architect" that Columbia architecture Dean Mark Wigley promotes, suggesting that architecture school is a great training ground for the flexible designer of the future, even if she or he can't doesn't work in architecture.

As far as post-criticism goes, it looks like the sun has set on that idea. Post-criticism has always been flawed since it fundamentally misunderstands that architecture is by its nature an irrational endeavor. Architects are hired not to produce the normal, but the abnormal. Architecture is a strange survivor of the pre-capitalist craft era. That it survives is only because it is able to offer something other than "going with the flow."


 

Simultaneous environments—social connection and new media

My latest article, "Simultaneous Environments—Social Connection and New Media" is now available at Vodafone Receiver. In this piece I explore questions of alienation and connection as they develop in place, non-place, and networked place.

Rapid Response: Collapse!

I will be leading a discussion at Studio-X next Tuesday on the topic of the recent economic changes. This is part of the Rapid Response series at Studio-X, an open and undetermined platform for quick response to events that have transpired over the last thirty days.

Collapse! explores the spatial consequences of the "new" economy—the panic of 2008 as well as the last two decades, and the last two years—at a variety of scales: the NYSE trading room to Manhattan, the city to the suburbs, the United States to the world. I will lead a discussion with Daniel Beunza, Assistant Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School and Micah Fink, Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. 

Collapse! is produced in collaboration with the Network Architecture Lab.

Refreshments provided by Barefoot Wines

RSVP: gdb2106@columbia.edu
Free and open to the public

WHO: DANIEL BEUNZA, MICAH FINK, KAZYS VARNELIS
WHEN: Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm
WHERE: Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street
www.arch.columbia.edu/studiox/
 

whence and wither

I got back from teaching in Limerick yesterday and am slowly plotting my next steps. Certain things are in play. I continue to do new work with Robert at AUDC. The Netlab is going to launch a large project or two during the next year. But the foremost question in my mind now is: "what's my next book?"

Fate conspired to make three years of edited books come out this fall. That's not ideal, but we take what we can get, I suppose. Part of the fall will go to the inevitably necessity of promoting these books, but my clever strategy of having projects published in neat succession was undone by one slow publisher, one collaborator who wanted his project out by this Christmas, and one project that came out on on time. So a barrage of books will be followed by a gap as I gear up to the next project.

Originally, I had planned to write my network culture book, but now as the economy is tanking, I'm wondering how such a book will be received and where it would fit into such a rapidly degenerating condition. So another strategy may be to finally put together my work on Philip Johnson, add some more research, and publish that.

Now, as anyone reading this blog knows, I have been predicting the implosion of the markets for years. In any sensible world the market would have had a correction years ago so of course this one is much worse than expected. Well, I told you so. If anything surprises me about the world economy's current plight it's that anybody professes surprise. The signs of the collapse have been around us for a long time and, this will come as unwelcome news to many, but things are worse even than they might appear. My current bedside reading is Kevin Phillips's Bad Money. Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Failure of American Capitalism, a harrowing account of how this collapse happened, written in 2007 (!). See the Bill Moyers interview with Phillips here. If the book is written in 2007 and the interview is from September of this year, they both anticipate and explain the current collapse.

Since the collapse is a key moment in network culture, once I can get a handle on its consequences, it would only make sense to continue that project. This strain of thought argues toward network culture as the next book and that's likely to happen. There'll be a lot of thinking aloud,  wondering, and asking you, my reader for advice along the way no matter where all this winds up.

 

for image disembodiment

In my post on Lebbeus Woods, I suggested that architects might one day find themselves no longer making buildings. This may seem surprising, but we're only at the dawn of network culture. We were under Fordism from the 1920s to the mid-1960s and under post-Fordism from the mid-1960s until about 2000. So no surprise that we have yet to see the full effects of this era. This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology? 

And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It's either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You'll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn't, really, it's just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with. 

Property, it seems, is the last thing to invest in. 

design in the age of intelligent maps

The Netlab has the first product of this summer of work over at Adobe Thinktank. Our article, "Invisible City: Design in the Age of Intelligent Maps" went live this morning.

Many thanks to my collaborator at the Netlab, Leah Meisterlin and to David Womack at Adobe, a great editor.

As usual, your comments make all our work worthwhile!

hertzian writings

I've uploaded Architecture for Hertzian Space.

Originally in the May issue of A+U, this brief article gives a taste of some of the more recent research we've been involved with at the Netlab. Look for a second installment on mapping and design under network culture coming this week or next.

architecture for hertzian space

A+U, issue 2008:5 

In the Rise of the Network Society, sociologist Manuel Castells recounts the unexpected collapse of the USSR. In 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev promised to outdo the industrial production of the United States within two decades. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had achieved that goal, producing more steel, more cement, more oil, more fertilizer and more pig iron than its Cold War rival. At the same time, however, the USSR utterly missed the revolution in information technologies. Castells observes that the PC revolution simply never came in a country tied to a paradigm of information centralized under government control. Within a decade, the Soviet Union collapsed.

During the worldwide building boom of the last decade, architecture rejected theory in favor of practice in a feverish pursuit of new construction. Post-criticism became the order of the day for many as architects eschewed thinking in favor of doing. To be sure architects had little choice but to pursue what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build. Today, however with the boom on the wane, we ask what does this pursuit of the material have to do with the increasing dominance of immaterial forces in everyday life? Is architecture—much like the Soviet Union in the early 1980s—pursuing the wrong path utterly?

Over the last decade everyday life has radically transformed. The Internet has gone from being a tool for researchers and hobbyists to the dominant form of communication while the mobile phone has become ubiquitous. If Castells suggested that the global economy was undergoing a massive shift to a network society, then today that very network society is maturing. Year after year, new media grow while sales of music CDs are dropping, television networks face dwindling audiences, newspapers watch their subscription numbers slide, and Hollywood fails to compel our attention with its predictable product.

And what of architecture? To be sure, the discipline has tried to respond to this condition, but it has done so largely by subscribing to the paradigm of the Bilbao-effect: that high-tech in architecture means new, unprecedented form. When considered in a broader perspective, however, this response seems almost perverse. Much has been made of the virtues of design in mobile digital technology, and good design is indeed crucial, but it is far from our delirious obsession with form.

Take Apple Computer, one of the most successful companies of the decade. Since Steve Jobs appointed Jonathan Ive as Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple, the company’s devices have often been lauded for their design. Looked at objectively, however, head-turning designs with unprecedented form such as the original iMac, the Blue & White G3 tower or the Apple Studio Display monitor were produced only between 1997 and 2001. Coinciding with the twin cultural ruptures of the dot.com crash and 9/11, Apple turned toward a studied minimalism, to designs that harkened back more to the Ulm School minimalism of Dieter Rams instead of conjuring a vision of the future. Dispensing with the notion that design is primarily a question of unprecedented form, these devices simply get out of the way so that individuals could use them.

 

The iPhone, vastly successful in the United States, is a case in point. From the point of view of form, there is nothing particularly compelling about the device. Its face consists of a black rectangle with rounded corners (less a bow to the commonplace rounding in design and more a necessity for slipping in and out of a pocket), a button, and a thin slit for a speaker. But it is precisely that deceptive reticence that makes the iPhone compelling, for the moment that you push the button, it lights up to reveal a brilliant, high-resolution screen. Most surprising, however, is how readily the device responds to the light touch of your fingers. Here, then, is the iPhone’s brilliance: it isn’t a phone as much as a magic object, a promise of a day to come in which more and more material objects will cease being dumb and instead become intelligent.

For its part, Microsoft has pursued a different vision that may yet prove equally compelling. This spring, they intend to ship glass-topped table that can respond to your commands through a touch-screen interface much as the iPhone does. Although the Microsoft Surface table will initially cost between $5,000 and $12,000 and be aimed at hotels and casinos, the positive reaction of the public is leading the company—which in many ways has found itself playing catch-up to Apple in other fields—to fast-track development for consumer units.
 
Compare this to how today’s top architects think of computation in design, using advanced software to make ever-more-complex forms. The only debate seems to be whether these forms should be produced by scripts or whether they should be tweaked by hand to achieve a desired effect. This pursuit becomes an architectural equivalent of Moore’s law as each avant-garde designer tries to outdo the competition with a project previously impossible to build or model. Ultimately such a condition is unsustainable, producing research that has little day-to-day application and misses the point of a radically changed urban condition as much as the Soviet Union missed the PC revolution. For beyond corporeal space, we increasingly also live in Hertzian space, a cloud of electromagnetic radiation that bathes us in information.

Hertzian space is as real as the physical world. Physicists tell us that electromagnetic forces are far more powerful than gravity (a tiny magnet holds up a paperclip against the entire gravity of the Earth). Investors find telecommunications and the Internet to be immensely lucrative. What might an architecture that actively engaged Hertzian space look like?

Two examples tentatively suggest ways in which urbanism might take into account our radically changed environment. The first of these forces us to confront the invisible forces in our environment. The second proposes to warp the very fabric of the city.

seen - fruits of our labor image

In Osman and Omar Khan’s project “SEEN-Fruits of Our Labor,” the designers crafted an 8’ tall, 4’ wide black acrylic screen, reminiscent of the 2001 monolith or perhaps a massive iPhone (the iPhone was actually released a year after the first installation) and installed it in front of the San Jose Museum of Art. The designers set out to foreground questions of labor in the United States by asking members of three groups crucial to the Silicon Valley economy—technology workers, undocumented service workers and outsourced call center workers—the question “What is the fruit of your labor?” The Khans displayed the responses on the screen via a grid of infrared LEDs. This light source is invisible to the naked eye, but can be seen via CCD apparatuses present in digital cameras and phone cameras.

As the mysterious object incited viewers into photographing it, viewers saw a message that otherwise existed only in Hertzian space, invisible to the eye, on their camera screens. Repeated photographs yielded new messages and, as viewers stood in front of the monument with their cameras, the experience spread virally.

SEEN-Fruits of Our Labor provokes a series of questions. To be sure there is the very real social content of the project, content that might appear heavy-handed if simply displayed on a visible-light LED screen. By hiding the messages in plain view, however, the designers subtly expose our own complicit relationship to conditions that we prefer to keep invisible. The project does not so much make visible the invisible as force us to engage in it. We can’t help but ask what mysterious forces—Hertzian or economic—permeate the city? 

Robert Sumrell and I produced the second piece, “Windows on the World” at AUDC, an architectural and urban research think-tank in 2005. We were captivated by an earlier work done in November 1980 entitled “Hole in Space” by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. A “Public Communication Sculpture,” Hole in Space turned two walls, one at Los Angeles’s Century City Shopping Center and another at New York’s Lincoln Center, into two-way portals. Video cameras transmitted images from each site to the other where they were beamed, full size onto walls. Microphones and speakers facilitated audio transmissions.

Hole in Space lasted three nights. During the first night, encounters were casual and accidental. Many of the first visitors did not believe it was live or thought that the ghostly black and white spectres on the wall were actors on a nearby set. Disbelief soon gave way to the creation of a new social space, to the invention of games and the telling of jokes. As word spread, separated friends and family made arrangements to meet through the portals on the second evening. On the third night, after Hole in Space was featured on television news, so many people attempted to participate in this shared human experience that traffic ground to a halt and the experiment was forced to end by the authorities. Incredibly, Galloway and Rabinowitz's project is all but forgotten today.

AUDC suggested that more than ever we need to radically reconsider the already existing. We accept the scale, setting, and privatization of telematic communication too easily and have ignored the fact that these conditions limit the ways by which we communicate. Based on readily available video conferencing technology, we set out to provide a fundamentally different experience. Windows on the World proposes to site multiple portals in multiple cities to create a true world planetary network, based not on capital and planning but on chance encounters. Remixing Hole in Space and Guy Debord’s map of the “Naked City,” we propose a telematic dérive, with each portal becoming what the Situationists called a plaque tournante, a center, a place of exchange, a site where ambiance dominates and the power of planners to control our lives can be disrupted. 

Windows on the World operates outside of commerce and planning. There is no advertisement. The project is at its strongest when it is by chance. Some portals are temporary, even hidden. Others are improbable or difficult to access. In a back alley in Prague is a portal to a zoo in Sao Paolo. From a dangerous street in the Bronx, a door opens onto the Champs-Elysees. Another portal, in Zurich, looks out onto a busy railroad yard in Rotterdam.

Expenses are relatively small: each portal needs only a video projector, amplifier, speakers, microphone, webcam, computer, and a wireless link. Portals will be operated by groups following the model of, and in conjunction with the free wireless community networks that have sprung up worldwide. Connections can be easily made with free software and public servers.

Like the Situationist dérive, to prevent portals growing stale through overuse we propose a degree of surprise, mounting the links in portable cases to be left in the open. Protected by wire mesh and locked to a site, these cases would be secure, but also portable, installable and demountable at a moment's notice.

Soon, we imagine, people would become addicted to Windows on the World. Youths leave the security of their houses to rove around their city, hunting for new portals, all the while discovering not just the world, but their city. The elderly find it a new form of recreation, arranging meetings with old friends, or making new ones. People fall in love. A terminally ill person asks to go to a portal to say goodbye to his friends. Some travelers seek out relationships, others try to conduct business only to find their portal closed one day. The network would be freely extensible. Eventually portals would be everywhere. The result would be a new city, a psychogeographic remapping of the Earth according to our desires.
 

the internet and neurobiology

The blogosphere was buzzing yesterday with Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" even if, perversely, given his argument about the spread of online reading, the article had not yet appeared on the net yet or on newsstands and could only be read by subscribers to the print version of the Atlantic. 

In this article Carr sounds the alarm about how the vast amount of information on the Net and the ease of searching it via Google are changing our ways of thinking, spurring us to replace solitary, deep thought with surface-level grazing for content. Carr's entirely justifiable fear is that we are less able to process and analyze information these days and more prone for a quick fix, going off to search for the next source of stimulus.

This article comes at a time in which I've been reading a bit about Neuroaesthetics, in particular as developed by Warren Neidich in his essay "The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness" and in the conference proceedings that you can find at Artbrain #4 (also Warren's site). 

There's likely to be much more about this on the site in the future, but for now, I'd like to observe that what leads me down this path is the suggestion that historical conditions can correspond to neurobiological changes. In other words, that it isn't just that we're reading differently as we learn to navigate the net, it's that as we select for one form of cognitive processing over another we are reprogramming our brains at a fundamental neurobiological level.

In doing so, we support that activity with the tools and environments. These, in turn, pass on the changes in our brains to future generations and affect the conditions they emerge in.

In this light, network culture wouldn't be merely a cultural condition, it would be a neurobiological state, a plateau in a long, Darwinian evolution of humanity's cognition. Given the radicality of the changes in the last decade—comparable to what happened in 1900-1915 (the period in which modernity formed) or the 1950s and 1960s (the moment in which the postmodern generation came of age)—it seems more urgent than ever to study network culture as a period, rather than as a collection of unrelated phenomena. 

brick wall

 

surveillance society

One of my perennial concerns is the growth of surveillance under network culture. I wanted to share two articles with you today, the first from Naomi Klein, who writes about the use of American surveillance technologies in the repression of dissidents in China's All-Seeing Eye, the second a call to action by Bruce Schneier entitled Our Data, Ourselves. Maybe it's that a generation that never experienced 1984 as a date in the future can't conceive of the dangers of surevillance society. Maybe it's that because the current administration has largely confined activities against citizens who aren't "typical Americans." Maybe it's that the Iron Curtain has been gone for so long. Maybe it's that the Myspace generation is already used to constant exposure of their intimate activities.

Whatever the reason, to imagine that surveillance culture is innocent is naïve. For modernists like Hannes Meyer, transparency was something to build into public buildings so that politicians couldn't operate behind closed doors anymore, not a means by which to repress the people. Times have changed, apparently. Nobody sees inside the Oval Office, but we have waned, our bodies transparent to  technology.

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