Lights out in London

As the summer wears on, it seems like we’ve put all the craziness of earlier this year behind us. Critics are no longer proposing OMA-designed windmills for Marina del Rey. Good thing. It’s time to look carefully at the lessons of the Infrastructural City and think about its conclusions since, well, they aren’t pretty.

Make no mistake, there is no happy ending in the Infrastructural City, no easy recipe for fixing our infrastructural ills. This has puzzled a generation of critics, who’ve seen the book as Marxist, or overly cynical* or confusing. The problem for them is that they grew up in the last decade, in an era where there was always a technological innovation around the corner. But that innovation is about to run aground in a vicious tangle of Actor-Network-Theory.

To be clear, this isn’t a golden opportunity for designers. It’s a crisis that we haven’t seen since the 1980s and its not just in the Los Angeles. The same forces of NIMBYist political stalemate and neoliberalist deregulation that are undoing the Southwest can be found worldwide. How about daily sub-Saharan-Africa-style power shortages in the UK within an decade or two? The Economist has more here.

Meanwhile, the New York Times marks the sixth anniversary of the 2003 New York City blackout with a photo essay. Maybe we’ll have a chance to see more of this in our new bad future.

*Which doesn’t make sense to me. I hold Peter Sloterdijk’s opinion of cynicism, which is knowing that what you are doing is wrong but doing it anyway. Thus, most architecture and most architecture criticism is cynical. Most green projects are cynical. Whole Foods is cynical. How is raising the alarm cynical?

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The End of the Music Industry

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow not only writes for the paper, he produces stunning infographics. This time, he gives us visual proof of the decline of the music industry in the infographic below. Read the article here. The statistics he cites are fascinating, particularly the suggestion that the Long Tail is actually quite short:

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.

Again, a chapter of Networked Publics, this time the chapter on culture is worth taking a look at. Here, we surveyed the changes in consumption and production of cultural artifacts in the last decade. The trends in the book that we identified are all still in play, albeit even more so. 

The other day a student was fined $750,000 for downloading music. In theory, this financial death sentence should deter other downloaders, but its too late, as meaningless a gesture as the East German government’s assassination of Chris Gueffroy, shot to death crossing the Berlin Wall in January 1989. Blow finishes his piece by mentioning Apple’s efforts to bring back the album and concludes "It’s too little too late."

I know that my thesis that network culture is distinct from postmodernism is controversial, but the change in the music industry is an example of how different things are: where under postmodernism, capital colonized culture, and in turn culture colonized capital, today we watch a massive collapse of the culture industry. Instead of culture and its products (which were still physical), capital sought to trade in the next horizon, information and its delivery. In doing so, however, capital ran across the difficulties of capitalizing on that condition and is now faced with a crisis.    

My sense is that there’s also more to this than rampant piracy and a shift to legal music downloading. I’d be curious to find out if our consumption of music has shifted to other fields.

One possibility is that our attention has shifted elsewhere. If teenagers spend their time in online forums, on YouTube or surfing for pr0n, that’s less time devoted to music.   

Another, more prosaic possibility is that it is far easier to preview music than ever before. Since my tastes are far more esoteric than FM radio, I used to blindly buy albums based on recommendations from stores or previous work by the artists, but now I can decide if I like the music before I buy it. Much of the time I don’t. 

Moreover, there’s always the dark possibility that given the global continuum that the Internet has brought us, the production of the new has been inhibited. On a personal note, I find very little from the last decade worth listening to. Maybe that’s a broader problem? The fact that there are no major new movements to compare with New Wave, Hip-Hop, or Electronica in this decade (surely not Emo?) points in this direction as well. 

Likely, its a combination of these changes. But its clear to me that Network Culture is not the same thing as postmodernism.  

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Networked Publics and the iPhone

I’ve been delighted by the reception that the Infrastructural City has received. The entire press run sold out in 3 1/2 months. A less expensive paperback edition is on the boat from Europe and we hope that it’ll be in bookstores by the start of fall semester.*

Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that the Infrastructural City has overshadowed Networked Publics. And, since the latter is in the bookstores now, maybe its a good time to take a look? Networked Publics, which we produced as a research project at the Annenberg Center for Communication is composed of four chapters—place, culture, politics, and infrastructure—as well as an introduction by Mizuko Ito and my conclusion which lays the foundation for further work  on network culture. The book content is complimented by a Web site that we developed during the Networked Publics research year. You can visit it at

Just as the issues we brought up in the Infrastructural City have proved topical this year, so have the issues in Networked Publics. This week, I’m struck by the importance of the chapter on Infrastructure written by François Bar, Walter Baer, Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, and Fernando Ordonez. The authors raised the question of network neutrality as a major infrastructural challenge and indeed, even with all the diversion about OMA-designed windmills and Zaha Hadid-designed sewers, I have to agree. The question at stake in network neutrality is whether we legislate networks to be open so that they allow any applications to be run over them. Or will we let Internet Service Providers make that decision for us? When we were drafting Networked Publics, this discussion took place around the provision of broadband cable, dsl, and fiber. Today, however, the debate has reached wireless or rather, the iPhone.

Congress is currently discussing whether carrier lock in of phones (read: the iPhone) is desirable on a national level (is there anyone out there who likes AT&T?) while the Copyright Office is examining whether it should be legal to jailbreak devices like iPhones to circumvent the monopoly that Apple holds on the distribution of iPhone applications. In the meantime, after Google submitted an application to allow for the use of its new Google Voice technology on the iPhone, Apple not only rejected the application but retroactively banned third-party applications that gave Google Voice users an interface to the iPhone. Now its worth mentioning that all Google Voice does is let you forward calls to your iPhone or dial out via the Google Voice interface. You still talk over AT&T’s wireless network, although if you are dialing long distance you avoid their astronomical fees and you can also bypass AT&T’s maniacal SMS charges, although without the background notification that normal SMS messages deliver.   

Concerned that Apple’s actions were capricious and damaging to free trade, the FCC just sent letters to Apple and AT&T. You can read about these here. The stakes are high. If Apple wins any of these battles, and I certainly hope they do not, it will be a disappointing blow to network neutrality and to future innovation, particularly on the iPhone. 

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