What Kind of Society is it When You Can’t Even Buy a Chair?

“What kind of society is it when you can’t even buy a chair?” asks Donald Judd in “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp” at Icon Magazine. While the Icon bills this as “Donald Judd gets grumpy about furniture from beyond the grave” (hence this as the second grumpy post of the day), it’s really not fair to call this grumpy. Judd has a point.

A pathetic idea of expression debilitates virtually every aspect of our lives. Why can’t designers, especially second-rate designers (which is most of them) simply leave well enough alone? Once I have an option of a decent chair for not much money, then I can go for a nutty chair.

There’s this strange idea out there that we have to meddle with everything. Stop! Enough already. Take the Mac OS. What is it with those stupid three buttons at the top left corner? Why are they rounded? Why are they even there? Two of the three are unecessary. The close button is obvious enough, but the minimize button is annoying to use (much more annoying that windows, which makes it relatively clear which window you have minimized and which doesn’t consume 1/2 as much screen real estate with its relatively sensible bottom bar as the Mac’s ludicrous dock does) and the maximize button is, well, just a mystery. Because of their broken functionality, I barely ever use them. Moreover, why are they round? Why are tho top corners of my windows round when the bottom ones are square? Why this infantile attempt at design? Seriously though, it looks comical. If I’ve compared the Mac OS unfavorably to Windows, rest assured, Windows looks lo awful it’s hard to know where to begin (ok, I know where to begin…with those insane bubbles that unceasingly chat with you at the bottom right of the screen.).

Does anyone seriously think that such feeble attempts at empathy actually engage the user somehow? Or is this somehow a dark leftover of post-Fordism?

If you haven’t read Donald Judd’s writing before, do so now. His punchy, telegraphic style is unique, a delight to read.

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Is There Research in the Studio?

Is There Research in the Studio?

Kazys Varnelis

Over the last decade, “research studios” have become common in schools of architecture. Investigating clothing, logistics networks, favelas, malls, airports and cities worldwide, such studios invoke analysis rather than design as their method and aim for publication or exhibition as end products. But as is often the case in architectural education, this pedagogical model has thus far has been little theorized.

Running from 1996 to 2000, Rem Koolhaas’s Harvard Project on the City, is the most well known of these. Over the course of an academic year, teams of architecture students led by Koolhaas explored shopping, Lagos, the Pearl River Delta, and Rome.[1] Although Project is no exception to the prevailing lack of explicit methodological statements in research studios, by looking at its product we can deduce a method, at least to some degree. Research in these kind of studios is architectural in so far as it draws on the processes of information gathering, analysis, and synthesis that an architect undertakes in the early phases of design, utilizing the architect’s skills in structuring visual and verbal communication into a coherent whole.

But just where did the research studio come from?

In search of an answer, we might turn back to founding editor Turpin Bannister’s “The Research Heritage of the Architectural Profession,” in the first issue of the Journal of Architectural Education. Bannister traces a long tradition of research in architecture to the Renaissance, a lineage that he observes flourishing in the academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like scientists, Bannister notes, architects once came together in professional meetingsand publications to share their discoveries and to receive input from others. But to Bannister’s lament, in the latter part of the nineteenth century architects gave up their leadership in structural and technological innovation to engineers in favor of pursuing a purified art of design. With remarkable optimism, Bannister envisions the JAE as a key institution in renewing the role of the architect as researcher, capable of sustaining and encouraging such dialogue among architects.[2] Regrettably, Bannister’s hope for the JAE is hardly born out by the evidence of subsequent years. The agenda set out in Bannister’s first issue of the Journal was immediately replaced by the publication of the proceedings of the annual meeting. When articles began a decade later, they were largely polemics about where architecture should go rather than specific accounts of r­esearch projects.[3] Research and scholarship, as such, remained in the purview of the history of architecture, largely a sub-field of the history of art or architectural technology.[4] The sort of research studio that we are now familiar with would be absent in the academy for a considerable time.

By this point, however, two collaborative practices, that of Charles and Ray Eames and that of Peter and Alison Smithson, began to pioneer early forms of architectural research. The former gained experience in design research through their wartime experimentation with plywood and their work on mass production of plywood splints and plywood. Starting in 1953, the Eameses undertook a series of documentary films such as A Communications Primer or Powers of Ten, sometimes for clients, sometimes for their own purposes. Often constituted as a rapid succession of images, these films produced what film critic Paul Schrader called “information-overload” as a means of delivering one fundamental idea.[5] Ideas were central to the Eameses’ films. Charles explained: “They are not really films at all, just ways to get across an idea.” By contrast, Eames felt that more traditional architectural design had no hope as a medium for ideas since intermediaries such as the bankers, contractors, engineers, and politicians would “cause the concept to degenerate.”[6]

Similarly, in Britain the Smithsons took the world “as found” as a point of exploration, exploring both the city around them and an equally compelling landscape of commodities and advertisements emerging out of postwar rationing. Influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s practice of found objects, the use of photographs of industrial objects in early modern texts by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the photographs of East London working class neighborhoods taken by Nigel Henderson, as well as the pioneering work of the Eameses, the Smithsons set out toward “a new seeing of the ordinary, an openness as to how prosaic ‘things’ could re-energise [their] inventive activity.”[7]

The Smithsons’ interest in the everyday life of the East End of London together with their fascination with commercial images was influential on a key architectural research project, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas. According to Scott Brown, for a studio method, she drew upon urban planning studios that she had taken at the University of Pennsylvania: “structured research, conducted in teams, with a teaching aim but also aims for research and artistic discovery.”[8] Unlike the work of the Eames and the Smithsons, Learning from Las Vegas was developed with an architecture studio and maintained a more systematic process of investigation into the city. If Learning from Las Vegas was a key moment in architectural research, it spawned relatively few followers, with the notable exception of Rem Koolhaas’s own investigation, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. In this work, Koolhaas drew upon the work of the Scott Brown and Venturi, together with urban research studios run by O. M. Ungers into various aspects of Berlin and used the “Paranoid Critical Method,” which he appropriated from Salvador Dali, to blur the boundaries between research and fiction.[9] But like Learning from Las Vegas, which remained important mainly in urban planning studios, Delirious New York inspired few immediate followers in architecture.[10] Both texts would have to wait a generation for their impact to be felt.

Instead, the discipline turned the lens of architectural research in on itself, taking form as its subject of investigation. More compelling at the time than the work of Scott Brown and Venturi or Koolhaas, architectural historians such as Vincent Scully and Colin Rowe offered influential lessons in design pedagogy, elaborating more specifically architectural methods of researching form.[11] “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture,” Peter Eisenman’s dissertation under Rowe, undertaken in Cambridge and finished in 1963, is the epitome of this sort of work and, had it been published earlier, might have offered a certain kind of model to the discipline.[12] Driven by these early forms of research and by the impact of history and criticism in the studio, architecture began to adopt the trappings of reflexivity. In response, architects began to pose themselves as historians and even as theorists. Some, like Eisenman, went on to get doctorates, but as that demanded a considerable time commitment and generally required that architects study in history of art programs rather than in design studios, most did not. Under postmodernism, which reached its heyday in American architectural education in the mid-1980s, research into historical form and typology began to emerge as a significant aspect of design studios.

Apart from finding a home in the university, research|or at least more speculative production|was made easier in the postwar era by new granting organizations. The Graham Foundation, founded in 1956, and the National Endowment for the Arts, established by Congress in 1965, encouraged research-oriented and speculative projects. For example, the Graham Foundation funded Archigram’s Instant City, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, and Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles. Architecture of Four Ecologies. The Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, which Eisenman directed, served as a key institution during this period, operating from both tuition and grants, supporting a variety of forms of architectural research such as Stanford Anderson’s study of the street, funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.[13]

By the 1980s, as interest in critical theory spread in the field|in large part through the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies’ journal Oppositions|architects began to identify the most advanced sites of architectural thinking with theoretical investigation instead of with urbanism or formal research.[14] As a result, by the late 1980s and early 1990s studios that were largely textual in nature or that produced only representations began to proliferate in schools. If administrators and practitioners sometimes worried that such studios led to inaction or paralysis in the design studio and soon sought alternatives, these studios laid the groundwork for the research studios that would follow Project on the City.

To this incomplete narrative of the research studio’s late emergence, we need to add the dimension of the critical. In a “theory-backlash” in the pages of journals such as Praxis and Log, as well as in a recent rash of symposia at schools around the world, criticality and theory have came under attack by the proponents of “post-critical” thought, or as it has been more recently refigured, “projective architecture.”[15]

To address post-criticism in a broader sense is beyond the scope of this article and even superfluous, nevertheless, it is worth pointing to a certain alliance between post-criticism and the research studio in its origins in taking the world as found, be it in the relentless collecting of imagery by the Eameses or the Smithsons and appropriation of Duchamp. If historically derived from processes of appropriation, many research studios do eschew criticism in favor of information gathering. To some degree, Project on the City suffers from this, as Hal Foster has observed when he asked of the work “great poetry can come of this ambivalence, but that may be all?”[16]

So is the research studio scholarship? Often, footnotes disappear in favor of images and inhabiting the archive is replaced by surfing the web. But does the research studio merely co-opt processes of the history and theory seminar while abandoning methodology? Should we be hasty in dismissing its products as uncritical?

To be sure, any broader notion of scholarship in the university is hard to come by. Disciplines as radically disparate as dance, physics, English, sociology, public policy, law, mathematics, journalism, nanotechnology engineering, and Japanese language do not come together easily, most especially in cases of tenure review. When interdisciplinary interaction happens, it is against the grain of the university. Nevertheless, if we can identify a shared idea of what scholarship is in the university, it would be in terms of systematic research that produces a “contribution to knowledge.”

But what sort of space does the research studio inhabit in the university? To be clear, a studio is a room in which an architect, an artist, a photographer, or dancer works. In other words, it is a place for the arts. Nor is studio an innocent term in the discipline as a whole. Most architects work in offices. Only recent graduates and the self-styled avant-garde (generally those who teach in universities) work in studios. A research studio, then, aspires to systematic research, but of the sort that the avant-garde might undertake, not applied, or, if applied, promising radical results. Based on this, works of architectural research aspire not just to represent the world, but to help us look at the world in a fundamentally new way?

Perhaps the best analogy we might have for the research studio is a return to the Eameses and the emergence of the architectural research out of film, in particular the documentary. To take some of the examples we invoked, Powers of Ten, to a degree approached by precious few works in any discipline, helps us re-imagine the world anew from atom to the furthest reaches of the universe. The “as-found” work of the Smithsons on the East End of London is a contribution to knowledge in that they used visual means to present something that was otherwise ignored and forgotten. No texts could be as compelling as the simple photographs and analyses they showed. Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York allowed us to see their respective cities, and indeed, the world in fundamentally new ways.

This, then, is the question that research studios need to address, indeed it is a broader litmus test for architecture|be it post-critical, critical, or otherwise|how does it help us to re-envision the world anew? By this I do not just mean add to the existing condition, either through replication of data, through nonlinear geometries, or exotic materials and structures, but rather through a contribution to knowledge. By its nature, this suggests that we should not go with the flow but rather redirect it utterly, remaking the terrain through which flows travel. If such a goal is somewhat immodest, I would nevertheless argue that the promise of such radical architecture is precisely what drives great architecture and great architectural research. To do any less would be irresponsible.

[1] Pearl River Delta ran during academic year 1996-1997 and Shopping from 1997-1998. In 1998-1999, teams were split between Rome and West Africa and in 1999-2000, the dual track investigation continued, the latter being narrowed to Lagos. Koolhaas has continued to teach various research studios, such as a project on Communism. Project, however, had a delimited run, four years to culminate in four books. Jeffrey Inaba lays out the history of the project and some of the thinking behind it|albeit without explaining the methodology involved|in “Maybe. The Harvard Project on the City asks ‘Has the City Outgrown Architecture?’” in AMOMA / Rem Koolhaas, Content (Köln: Taschen, 2004), Content, 256-257. It is worth observing that the Project publications were extensively reworked after the studios concluded.
[2] Turpin C. Bannister, “The Research Heritage of the Architectural Profession,” Journal of Architectural Education 1 (1947): 5-12.
[3] Literature on this period in pedagogy is still largely lacking, however see Klaus Herdeg, The Decorated Diagram (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1983).
[4] The Society of Architectural Historians was founded in 1947 but only split its annual meeting from the College Art Association in 1973. See Osmund Overby, “From 1947: The Society of Architectural Historians,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 49 (1990): 9-14.
[5] Paul Schrader, “Poetry of Ideas: The Films of Charles Eames,” Film Quarterly 23 (1970): 10. See also Beatriz Colomina’s crucial work on the Eameses, largely collected in Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
[6] Charles Eames quoted in “Films as Essays” in Eames Demetrios, An Eames Primer (New York: Universe, 2001), 143-144.
[7] Alison and Peter Smithson, “The ‘As Found’ and the ‘Found’” in David Robbins, ed, The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 201-202.
[8] Denise Scott Brown in “Relearning from Las Vegas,” interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: Project on the City 2 (Köln: Taschen, 2001), 599.
[9] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (London: Academy Editions, 1978; republished by The Monacelli Press, 1994). Koolhaas acknowledges the influence of Learning from Las Vegas on Delirious New York in “Relearning from Las Vegas,” 593.
[10] See, for example, the work in , John Colter and Mark Skiles, editors, Off-Ramp 6. Greatness Close to Home (Los Angeles: Southern California Institute of Architecture, 1996), especially Margaret Crawford as told to Mark Skiles, “My Daily Trip Down La Brea” and Roger Sherman and Harrison Higgins, “Out of Order,” 42-63 and 64-79.
[11] Stanley Tigerman, "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Journal of Architectural Education 46, (1992): 48. This brief article is still crucial for understanding the recent trajectory of architectural pedagogy.
[12] Peter Eisenman, The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture (Baden: Lars Müller, 2006).
[13] Stanford Anderson, ed. On Streets (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986).
[14] Jean-Louis Cohen, “L’architettura intellettualizzata: 1970-1990,” Casabella 586-587 (January-February 1992), [100]-105,125-126.
[15] See Praxis 5 “Architecture After Capitalism” and Log 5, guest-edited by Sarah Whiting and Bob Somol.
[16] Hal Foster, "Bigness," London Review of Books 23, (November 29, 2001).

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that wasn’t very del.icio.us …

I'm in a grumpy mood today, perhaps because of a chest cold. I'm unlikely to make to graduation tomorrow and, since this would be my first time at Columbia graduation, I'll feel extra miserable about that. Well, if I feel any better I will try.

So two grumpy posts. First, about two months ago all of my del.icio.us bookmarks (apart from three which may have been posted since then) vanished.

One round of support emails resulted in my database being rebuilt, which did nothing, and the ticket being closed.

The second round of emails included the following gem:


Thank you for writing to del.icio.us Customer Care.

The feature that you are describing is not available at this time in

It is through user comments and feedback, however, that we are able to
continue to make improvements. There is always something on the drawing
board and many new features have come directly from users like you.
Thank you again for contacting del.icio.us Customer Care.



del.icio.us Customer Care Customer Care

For assistance with all Yahoo! services, please visit:


New and Improved Yahoo! Mail – better than ever!

Original Message Follows:

User name: kazys
Email: [email protected]
Support type:

Problem description:
I tried to get support about this earlier, but the ticket was closed
without any resolution.

Yes, delicious is free, great, thanks, I really liked using it for a
while. During this time I built at least a few dozen bookmarks. All but
three disappeared earlier this year. They are simply gone.

Can you bring them back?

Otherwise, I am quitting delicious and well, I guess I need to tell the
story on my blog, right?

To be fair, the next tech support person was aware that Emily's response was inappropriate and escalated my problem to the production team but apparently user backups only started in March (!) so my bookmarks are permanently lost in the ether.

According to him, there's a chance that the bookmarks were wiped out by Flock . Could be. I launched it once sometime this spring around that time and am not entirely sure whether I logged into del.icio.us with it or not.

Either way, it's rather shocking to me that del.icio.us, founded in late 2003, didn't keep user backups until March. I would like to start sharing my bookmarks again, but feel nervous about doing so. What's the point if they may disappear again and if there is no hope of retrieval?


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Blue Monday in stock!

Back from final reviews at the University of Limerick and the book launch of Blue Monday that director Merritt Bucholz kindly put together for me. Work at the school is progressing well and it was a delight to have such a great reception for the European launch.

But to my complete incredulity, Blue Monday is now in stock at Amazon, but act fast. Pre-orders have taken their toll and there's only one left.


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the ongoing failure of everyday life

In thinking about expanding the work on network culture, one topic for expansion is that technologies have advanced to the point in which failure is a constant presence in everyday life.

As readers of this blog know, I had a series of server transitions which did not go smoothly by any means this year. Nor am I the only one. Problems in migration between versions of MYSQL are endemic on the web. From this site to Archinect to Natalie Jeremijenko's fabulous How Stuff is Made, the web is littered with junk like "’" instead of apostrophes these days.

Idiotic design decisions make ours an age of "enraging technology" (thanks to Adam for that link). As technologies begin to talk to each other, the connections between them mean that when one system fails, another fails. Little by little you find yourself doing nothing but debugging a cascade of problems. Why can't I post images on audc.org when I can on varnelis.net? They run off the very same code. I have no idea. Why do my printers sometimes fail to respond? Who knows? Why has my car been back to the mechanic four times to debug a check engine light (I checked, it's still there). My mechanic doesn't know. My espresso machine is in a similar cascade, with a heating element failing then a switch failing, then the AC cord. Or was it the AC cord to begin with? As I was mailing copies of Blue Monday to friends in Canada, I noted with frustration that the Postal Service's click and ship labeling program generates blank addresses fields for the city and country if you fill in a company name. There is simply no way to add a company name for Canada. Who tested this garbage?

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1996, I insisted that we have an apartment with a dishwasher. We were grown-ups, with two real jobs for the first time, and neither of our families had owned dishwashers. Why? Well maybe because they didn't want more technology in their lives, but I'm too busy to deal with dishes, moreover I find nothing therapeutic about it.

So it was with great delight that I turned on the dishwasher and, it failed immediately.The repairman kept coming in while I was at work to replace a part but when I started the unit that evening, it would break again. I was very annoyed. After all, this was a main reason for renting that apartment! Finally I decided to stay home to watch him do the repair.

"Ah, he said," in his heavy Russian accent, while holding part of the machine in his hand.

"You see, first motor burn out control unit. Then control unit burn out new motor. It burn out second new motor too. Now I replace motor and control unit. Same problem here as at last job, ten years ago. Too much automation!"

"What was your last job?", I asked.

"Service engineer, Soviet nuclear power plant, Ukraine"

He actually didn't work at Chernobyl, but at another similar plant. The day the explosion happened, he took for for Israel and, eventually, for L. A.

What all this suggests is that our emerging relationship with objects—which will only get more intense in the world of ubicom that is rapidly on its way—needs a theory of everyday failure. The concept of the everyday that Lefebvre formulated in 1944 needs to be rethought for the age of semi-intelligent (and sometimes even malicious) objects. Alienation isn't the right term since we generally don't think of the object as being designed, but rather we think of objects in terms of the agency they themselves possess.

I have to go help my wife get a desk for her office since the keyboard drawer she needs to use won't fit on it and to bring in the car for repairs or I'd post more, but this seems like a necessary, if miserable, part of network culture to address.

Please comment. That is, if you can get the comment system to work (it usually does, really).

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introducing network culture, 5

After a weekend break, it's time to conclude the Network Culture essay.

But centralization that would emerge from within networked publics is also a danger. Manuel de Landa has correctly pointed out that networks do not remain stable, but rather go through different states as they evolve. Decentralized and distributed models give rise to centralized models and vice versa as they grow. The emergence of networked publics just as mass media seemed dominant is a case in point. In his work on blog readership, Clay Shirky observes that diversity plus freedom of choice results in a power-law distribution. Thus, a small number of A-list bloggers attracts the majority of the readers. If tag-oriented search engines like Technorati or del.icio.us attempt to steer readers into the Long Tail of readership, they also reinforce the A-list by making evident the number of inbound links to any particular site. Moreover, even if, such sites, together with Google, MyTube, Netflix, and iTunes and other search engines successfully redirect networked publics to the Long Tail, another disconcerting outcome is even harder to overcome, an A-list of big aggregators such as, both for blogs and for all sites.

The Long Tail may prove to be a problem for another reason, what Robert Putnam calls “cyberbalkanization.” Given the vast number of possible clusters one can associate with, it becomes possible, ultimately, to find a comfortable niche with people just like oneself, among other individuals whose views merely reinforce one’s own. If the Internet is hardly responsible for this condition, it can exacerbate it while giving us the illusion that we are connecting with others. Through portals like news.google.com or my.yahoo.com and, even more so, through RSS readers, Nicholas Negroponte’s vision of a personalized newspaper freshly constructed for us every morning, tailored to our interests, is a reality. Even big media, under pressures of Post-Fordist flexible consumption, has itself fragmented into a myriad of channels. But this desire for relevance is dangerous. It is entirely possible to essentially fabricate the outside world, reducing it to a projection of oneself. Rather than fostering deliberation, blogs can simply reinforce opinions between like-minded individuals. Conservatives talk to conservatives while liberals talk to liberals. Lacking a common platform for deliberation, they reinforce existing differences. Moreover, new divisions occur. Humans are able to maintain only a finite number of many connections and as we connect with others at a distance who are more like us, we are likely to disconnect with others in our community who less like us. Filters too can lead to grotesque misrepresentations of the world, as in the case of happynews.com (“Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive.”).

Another salient aspect of network culture is the massive growth of non-market production. Led by free, open source software such as the Linux operating system (run by 25% of servers) and the Apache web server (run by 68% of all web sites), non-market production increasingly challenges the idea that production must inevitably be based on capital. Produced by thousands of programmers who band together to create software that is freely distributed and easily modifiable, non-market products are increasingly viable as competitors to highly capitalized products by large corporations. Similarly, as our chapter on the topic points out, cultural products are increasingly being made by amateurs pursuing such production for networked audiences. Sometimes producers intend such works to short-circuit traditional culture markets, speeding their entry into the marketplace or getting past barriers of entry. At other times, such as in the vast Wikipedia project, however, producers take on projects to attain social status or simply for the love of it. Often these producers believe in the importance of the free circulation of knowledge outside of the market, giving away the rights to free reproduction through licensing such as Creative Commons and making their work freely accessible on the Internet. Non-market production offers a model of non-alienated production very different from capitalism, but it too, faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, whether the burgeoning fan culture is in any way critical or, if it only reinscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Moreover, the dominance of big aggregators such as Youtube, iTunes, Amazon, or Google suggests that if old big media outlets are on the wane, new giants are on the ascendancy. For now most of these are catholic in what content they include, but it is entirely possible this may change. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.

By no means are network culture and the network economy limited to the developed world. If in this book, we have largely looked at the most developed parts of the world, that is the consequence of our own individual biases, upbringings, and fields of study. Network culture envelops the entire world. On the other hand, if imperialist capitalism used the developing world for its resources and hand labor and late capitalism exported manufacturing, networked capital exports intellectual labor and services.

But outsourcing is only a start. The mobile phone has revolutionized communication in the developing world, often leapfrogging existing structures. Due to the absence of any state apparatus that might regulate its phone system, Somalia, for example, has the most competitive communication market Africa. Nor is innovation in the developing world likely to cease. The developed world has only lukewarmly adopted mobile phones as platforms for connecting to the Internet but for the majority of the world’s inhabitants living in the developed world, such devices are likely to be the first means by which they will encounter the Internet. History suggests that as different societies pass through similar levels of economic development at different times, unique cultural conditions emerge (e.g. the first country to industrialize, Britain, developed the Arts and Crafts while some fifty years later Germans responded with the Deutscher Werkbund). The non-English speaking developing world’s reshaping of the Internet through the mobile phone will almost certainly be utterly unlike what we have experienced here.

All too often, discussions of contemporary society are depicted in the rosiest of terms. Sometimes this relentless optimism is a product of fatigue with outmoded models of criticism, sometimes this is just industry propaganda. But to be sure, network culture is not without its flaws. Many of these are nothing new, mere extrapolations of earlier conditions. As with modernism and postmodernism before it, network culture is the superstructural effect of a new wave of capital expansion around the globe and with it comes the usual rise in military conflict. Today’s new wars are network wars, with networked soldiers and unmanned search-and-destroy flying drones fighting networked guerillas in what Castells once dubbed the “black holes of marginality,” spaces left outside the dominant network but increasingly organized by networks of their own. Closer to home, as Deleuze points out, the subtler, modulated forms of control in network culture mask themselves, above all in the idea that resistance is outmoded, that “Californian ideology” that depicts the network as the next site for a global Jefferson democracy, a libertarian space of freedom and equality. Under network culture, the idea that the corporation has a soul, which Deleuze declared “the most terrifying news in the world,” and that the primary route by which individuals can achieve self-realization is through work, are commonplaces, if perhaps treated with a little more skepticism since the collapse of the dot-com boom. Moreover, as we explore the Long Tail, we are tracked and traced relentlessly, and as we are monitored, Deleuze concludes, we wind up internalizing that process, so as to better monitor ourselves.

If we have largely looked toward the Utopian, positive moment in network culture in our essays, we note new threats emerging as well. Sensing that their day is done and that the means of production are in our hands, many large media outlets are fighting to extend their power through legislation, especially through radical modifications of the copyright law to prolong its length and expand its scope. Moreover, if the Long Tail promises the end of big media outlets, it also threatens to install a new regime of big aggregators instead. For now, Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” but given the corporation’s recent compromise with China, allowing the government to censor its search engine results, precisely what is evil and what is not may be murkier than we might hope. Another danger comes from telecoms, some of which dearly miss the monopoly status once enjoyed by AT&T and hope to find salvation by controlling the means of distribution, profiting from privileging certain network streams over others. Meanwhile RFIDs and the ever-growing trail of information that we leave behind digitally suggest that in the near-future our every action will be trackable not just by the government, but by anyone able to pay for that information as well. All the while, whether network culture plants the seeds of greater democratic participation and deliberation or whether it will only be used to mobilize already like-minded individuals remains an open question. The question we face at the dawn of network culture is whether we, the inhabitants of our networked publics, can reach across our micro-clustered worlds to coalesce into a force capable of understanding the condition we in and produce positive change, preserving what is good about network culture and changing what is bad, or whether we are doomed only to dissipate into the network.

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introducing network culture, 4

It is in this context that networked publics form. Of all the changes that network culture brings us, this is likely to be the most significant, a distinction that makes our moment altogether unlike any other in three centuries. Since the Enlightenment era, the public came to be understood as a realm of politics, media and culture, a site of display and debate open to every citizen while, in turn, the private was broadly understood as a realm of freedom, inwardness, and individuality. The public sphere was the space in which bourgeois culture and politics played out, a theater for the bourgeois citizen to play his role in shaping and legitimating society. In its origin as a body that the king would appear to, the public is by nature a responsive, reflexive, and thereby a responsible and empowered body. Founded on the sovereign’s need for approval during the contentious later years of the aristocracy (an approval that eventually was withdrawn), the public sphere served as a check on the State, a key force in civil society. In that respect, the public sphere served in the same capacity as media: at the same time that the newspaper, the gallery, the novel, the modern theater, music, and so on emerged, the public produced voices of criticism. And even if the equation of public space and public sphere would be a tricky one, by understanding media as a space (or conversely space as a medium), it was nevertheless possible to draw a rough link between the two.

As many theorists have observed, the twentieth century was witness to a long, sustained decline in the public sphere. In Habermas’s analysis, this came about due to the contamination of the public sphere by private matters, most crucially its colonization by capital and the consequent of the media from a space of discourse to a commodified realm. During the twentieth century, media concentrated in huge conglomerates that were more interested in the marketing of consensus than in a theater of deliberation with little use for genuinely divergent positions. Instead mass media sought consensus in the middle ground, the political apparatus that Arthur Schlesinger called “The Vital Center.” The model of the public became one-way, the culture industry and the political machine expecting approval or, at most, dissent within a carefully circumscribed set of choices. The public is an audience, by nature reactive, consumers of culture and politics, at home not in the one-way, space in front of the TV where response remains private or, at best, filtered through the Nielsen rating system, but rather in a public venue such as the theater, gallery, public square, café, salon, or periodical, a space in which the private individuals comprising the audience can make their voices heard in a dialogue. Public space was not left unmolested. On the contrary, it was privatized, thoroughly colonized by capital, less a place of display for the citizen and more a theater of consumption under high security and total surveillance. Under postmodernism the condition seemed total, the public privatized, reduced to opinion surveys and demographics. If there was hope for the public sphere, it came in the form of identity politics, the increasing voices of counterpublics composed of subaltern peoples (in the developed world this would have been nonwhites, gays, feminists, youth, and so on), existing in tension with the dominant public. But if counterpublics could define and press their cases in their own spheres, for the broader public they were marginalized and marginalizing entities, defined by their position of exclusion. Towards the end of postmodernism in the early 1990s, even identity politics became colonized, understood by marketers as another lifestyle choice among many. But if this was the last capitulation of the old publics as an uncommodified realm for discourse, it was also the birth of the networked publics.

Today, we inhabit multiple overlapping networks, some composed of those very near and dear to us, others at varying degrees of physical remove. The former of these networks are private and personal, extensions of intimate space, incapable of forming into networked publics. Instead, interest communities, forums, newsgroups, blogs, and so on are the site for individuals who are generally not on intimate terms to encounter others in public. As we have described throughout the book, these networked publics are not mere audiences of consumers. On the contrary, today political commentary, propaganda, cultural criticism are as much generated from below as from above. From the deposal of Trent Lott to Rathergate, networked publics have drawn attention to issues that traditional media outlets missed or were reluctant to tackle.

The ideal model for networked publics, is as, Yochai Benkler suggests, that of a “distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes in the networked information environment.” This vision of the network, commonly held as a political ideal for networked publics and sometimes misunderstood as the actual structure on which the Internet is based is taken from RAND researcher Paul Baran’s famous model of the distributed network. Where centralized networks are dominated by one node to which all others are connected and decentralized networks are dominated by a few key nodes in a hub and spoke network, under the distributed model, each node is equal to all others. Baran’s diagram has been taken by taken up as a foundation myth for the Internet, but not only was Baran’s network never the basis for the Internet’s topology, it bears little resemblance to the way networked publics are organized. Benkler understands this, pointing out that the distributed model is merely ideal and if we seek a networked public sphere with “everyone a pamphleteer,” we will be disappointed. Networked publics are by no means purely democratic spaces in which every voice can be heard. That would be cacophony. But, Benkler continues, if we compare our current condition to the mass media of the 1990s and earlier as a baseline instead, we can observe real changes. Barriers for entry into the public sphere have been greatly reduced. It is possible for an individual or group of individuals to put out a message that could be heard globally with relatively little expense.

There are very real threats to the networked public sphere and Benkler, like many other theorists, warns of them. In terms of infrastructure, the structure of the Internet is decentralized, not distributed which is why China can censor information it deems inappropriate for public consumption or, for that matter, why the United States’s National Security Agency can monitor private Internet traffic. So far, networked publics have found ways of routing around such damage, providing ways of getting around China’s censorship and exposing the NSA’s infamous room at the AT&T switching station in San Francisco.

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introducing network culture, 3

Part 3 of the serialization of the Network Culture essay, which began on Monday.

The closest thing we have to a synthetic understanding of this era is the political theory laid out in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. In their analysis, the old world order based on the imperialist division of the world into spheres of influence has been superceded by Empire, a diffuse power emanating not from any one place, but rather from the network itself. This power, however, stems not only from the economic force of capital, but also must be constructed by juridical means. To ensure the mobility and flexibility of capital across borders, Empire uses transnational governing bodies such as the United Nations to call for a universal global order. In doing so, however, Empire reinscribes existing hierarchies and, as the wars in the Gulf show, has to resort to violence. Hardt and Negri identify networked publics, which they call “the multitude” as a counter-force. For them, the multitude is a swarm intelligence, able to work within Empire to demand the rights of global workers. As we have described throughout this book, this networking of individuals worldwide gives them new links and new tools with which to challenge the system, but as the chapter on politics suggests, whether or not networked publics can come together to make decisions democratically is still unclear.

Moreover, if Empire is a political theory, I would like to argue for a cultural theory of network culture. Although postmodernism anticipated many of the key innovations of network culture, our time is distinctly different. In the case of art and architecture, Jameson suggests, a widespread reaction to the elitism of the modern movement and the new closeness between capital and culture led to the rise of aesthetic populism. Network culture exacerbates this condition as well, dismissing the populist projection of the audience’s desires onto art for the production of art by the audience and the blurring of boundaries between media and public. If appropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absent-mindedly uses remix as its dominant form. A generation after photographer Sherri Levine re-appropriated earlier photographs by Walker Evans, dragging images from the Internet into PowerPoint is an everyday occurrence and it is hard to remember how radical Levine’s work was in its redefinition of the Enlightenment notions of the author and originality. The nostalgia culture so endemic to postmodernism has been undone, our experience of a world still in the throes of modernization is long gone. Unable to periodize, network culture disregards both modern and pre-modern equally and with it too, the interest in allegory as well.

Instead of nostalgia and allegory network culture delivers remix and reality, shuffling together the diverse elements of present-day culture, blithely conflating high and low—if such terms can even be drawn anymore in the Long Tail of networked micro-publics—while poaching its “as found” aesthetics from the world. Network television is dominated by reality shows, film by documentaries such as Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 911, and on the Internet popular sites such as eBaum’s World or Youtube are filled with videos that claim to be true, such as scenes of people doing incredibly stupid or dangerous things, and video blogs. When fiction is deployed on Internet video sites, it is either comic parody or impersonation for viral marketing methods (e. g. Lonelygirl15 or littleloca). If there is a dominant form of fiction today, it is video games, which by 2004 generated more than Hollywood’s box-office receipts in revenues, but video games provide a new sort of fiction, a virtual reality in which the player can shape his or her own story through a process that is less original and more a matter of a remixing a set of existing plotlines and elements. In massively multiplayer online role playing games such as World of Warcraft—which earns some $1 billion a year in subscription fees, a vast sum compared to the $600 million that Hollywood’s most successful product, Titanic ever earned—the ability to play with vast numbers of other individuals in immense landscapes thoroughly blurs the boundaries of reality and fiction.

To be clear, the tactics of remix and the rapt fascination with reality aren’t just found in GarageBand and Youtube mash-ups, they form an emerging logic in the museum and the academy as well. Art itself, long the bastion of expression, is now dominated by straightforward photography (Andreas Gursky) and some of the most interesting work can be found in research endeavors that could easily take place in Silicon Valley rather than in the gallery (Locative Media), by (sometimes carefully faked) studies of the real (the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Andrea Fraser, Christoph Buchel, etc.). Other works, such as Ólafur Elíasson’s ambient forms or Andrea Zittel’s environments, clothing, restaurants, and the High Desert Test Sites show suggest another strategy of new realism in which art becomes a background to life. Similarly, architecture has abandoned utopian projections, nostalgic laments, and critical practice alike for a fascination with the world. Arguably the world’s foremost practitioner, Rem Koolhaas, produces book after book matter-of-factly announcing his fascination with Shopping, the Pearl River Delta, or Lagos, Nigeria.

What of the subject in networked culture? Under modernism, for the most part, the subject is autonomous, or at least subscribes to a fantasy of autonomy, even if experiencing pressures and deformations from the simultaneity generated by that era’s technologies of communication and increasing encounters with the Other. In postmodernism, these pressures couple with a final unmooring of the self from any ground as well as the undoing of any coherent temporal sequence to force the subject to schizophrenically fragment. With network culture, these shards of the subject take flight, disappearing into the network itself. This is a development of the condition that Castells describes in The Rise of the Network Society when he concludes that contemporary society is driven by a fundamental division between the self and the net. To support his argument, Castells turns to Alain Touraine: “in a post-industrial society, in which cultural services have replaced material goods at the core of its production, it is the defense of the subject, in its personality and in its culture, against the logic of apparatuses and markets, that replaces the idea of class struggle.” But as Deleuze presciently described in his “Postscript on Societies of Control,” today the self is not so much constituted by any notion of identity but rather is reduced to “dividuals.” Instead of whole individuals, we are constituted in multiple micro-publics, inhabitants of simultaneously overlapping telecocoons, sharing telepresence with intimates in whom we are in near-constant touch, members of the 64 clustered demographics units described by the Claritas corporation’s PRIZM system.

In network theory, a node’s relationship to other networks is more important than its own uniqueness. Similarly, today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks composed of both humans and things. This is easily demonstrated through some everyday examples. First, take the way the youth of today affirm their identities. Instead of tagging buildings with expressive names, teens create pages on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. On these pages they list their interests as a set of hyperlinked keywords directing the reader to others with similar interests. Frequently, page creators use algorithms to express (and thereby create) their identities, for example through a web page that, in return for responses to a set of questions, suggests what chick-flick character the respondent is. At the most reductive, these algorithms take the form of simple questionnaires to be filled out and posted wholesale on one’s page. Beyond making such links, posting comments about others and soliciting such comments can become an obsessive activity. Affirming one’s own identity today means affirming the identity of others in a relentless potlatch. Blogs operate similarly. If they appear to be the public expression of an individual voice, private diaries exposed, in practice most blogs consist of material poached from other blogs coupled with pointers to others in one’s network, e. g. trackbacks (notifications that a blogger has posted comments about a blog post on another blogger’s blog) or blogrolls (the long lists of blogs that frequently border blog pages). With social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us or the social music platform last.fm, even the commentary that accompanies blog posts can disappear and one’s public face turns into a pure collection of links. Engaging in telepresence by sending SMS messages to one’s friends or calling family on a cell phone has the same effect: the networked subject is constituted by networks both far and near, large and small. Art—so long a bastion of identity and expression—changes in response to this condition. Rather than producing work that somehow channels their innermost being, artists, musicians, videographers and DJs act like switching machines, remixing sources and putting them out to the Internet for yet more remixing. Much like the contemporary media outlet, both the self and the artist of today is an aggregator of information flows, a collection of links to others.

Under network culture, then, the waning of the subject that began under postmodernism proves ever greater. But whereas under postmodernism, being was left in a free-floating fabric of emotional intensities, today it is found in the net. The Cartesian, “I think therefore I am,” dissolves in favor of an affirmation of existence through the network itself, a phantom “individuality” that escapes into the network much as meaning escapes into the Derridean network of différance, words defined by other words, significance endlessly deferred in a ceaseless play of language. The division between the self and the net that Castells observed a decade ago is undone.

Nor are the networks that make up the contemporary self merely networks of people. On the contrary, they are also networks between people and things. In Latour’s analysis, things are key actors in the network, not merely objects that do our bidding. As things get smarter and smarter, they are ever more likely to up larger parts of our “selves.” An iPod is nothing less than a portable generator of affect with which we paint our environment with our selves, creating a soundtrack to life. Thus, a Blackberry or telephone constantly receiving text messages encourages its owner to submit to a constantly distracted state, a condition much lamented by many.

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