On atemporality

I wanted to lay out some thoughts about atemporality in response to Bruce Sterling’s great presentation on the topic over at Transmediale.* We’ve had a dialogue about this back and forth over the net, in places like Twitter and it’s my turn to respond. 

The topic of atemporality is absorbing my time now. I have the goal of getting the first chapter of my book on network culture up by the end of next month (I know, last year I thought it would be the end of March of that year, but so it goes) and it is the core of an article that I’m working on at present for the Cornell Journal of Architecture. 

Anyway, I was impressed by how Bruce framed his argument for network culture. This isn’t a new master narrative at all, there’s no need to expect the anti-periodization take-down to come, or if it does, it’ll be interesting to see the last living postmodernists. Instead, network culture is a given that we need to make sense of. I was also taken by how Bruce gave it an expiry date: it’s going to last about a decade before something else comes along. 

Then there’s Bruce’s tone, always on the verge of laughter. It’s classic Bruce, but it’s also network culture at work, the realm of 4chan, lolcatz, chatroulette and infinite snark. And I can imagine that one day Bruce will say "It’s all a big joke. I mean come on, did you think I was serious about this?" And I’d agree. After all, a colleague once asked me if the Internet wasn’t largely garbage, a cultural junkspace devoid of merit? Of course, I said, what do you take me for a fool? She replied by saying she was just wondering since after all, I studied it. I said, well yes, it’s mainly dreck but what are you going to do with these eighty trillion virtual pages of dreck, wave your hands and pretend they’ll go away? It’s not going to happen. So yes, snark is how we talk about this cultural ooze, because that’s not only what it deserves, it’s what it wants. To adopt a big word from literary criticism: snark is immanent to network culture.   

I was also taken by Bruce’s description of early network culture and late network culture. Again, network culture isn’t a master narrative. It has no telos or end goal. We’re not going to hold up Rem Koolhaas or hypertext or liberalism or the Revolution or the Singularity, Methusalarity or anything else as an end point to history. In that, we part from Hegel definitively. Instead, network culture is transitional. Bruce suggests that it has ten years before something else comes along. He also talks about early network culture, which we’re in now, and late network culture, which we can’t really anticipate yet.   

I think he’s on to something there, but I think we need to make a further division: network culture before and after the crash. The relentless optimism of the pre-crash days is gone, taking starchitecture, Dubai (remember Dubai?), post-criticism, the magazine era, Prada, and hedge fund trading with it. We are in a different phase now, in which portents of collapse are as much part of the discourse as the next big thing. Let’s call it the uneasy middle of network culture.

Things are much less sure and they’re unlikely to get any better anytime soon. It’s going to be a slow ten years, equal to the 70s or maybe somewhere between the 70s and the 30s. Instead of temporary unemployment, we’re looking at a massive restructuring in which old industries depart this mortal coil. Please, if you are out of work, don’t assume the jobs will return when the recession ends. They won’t. They’re gone.

But as Bruce suggested, we have to have some fun with network culture. Over at the Netlab research blogs, we’re starting to put together a dossier of evidence about practices of atemporality in contemporary culture. You’ll be hearing a lot more about atemporality from me over the next month. 

*The talk is below. 

If you prefer, you can now read the transcript online here

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Games Without Frontiers

War has changed in network society. Of course, we are familiar with the asymmetrical networked warfare taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there’s the emerging cyberwar, which recently ratcheted up as Google complained it was the victim of cyber attacks originating in China. The new issue of the Atlantic has more

But there’s also economic warfare. What we see now is hardly a typical recession from which we will recover in the next year. On the contrary, part of a prolonged condition that will define this decade. Obviously, much of it is the product of astonishing foolishness on the part of governments, corporations, and individuals, all of whom seem to have been so hopped up on prozac that they thought that the good times would never end and that they could continue with their profligate policies for all eternity. As symbols of the old new economy are dying (goodbye and good riddance Hummer, sorry Athens—home of the 2004 Summer Olympics—and Dubai), and the crisis is crippling US cities and states (look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, for example), we should ask if there isn’t a touch of new war in all this.

Now I don’t mean to turn to conspiracy theory, but I want to use this as an opportunity to suggest that our current economic crisis has its roots not just in rank stupidity and blind greed but also in other, murkier, conditions. Two seemingly opposed but complimentary plots come to mind. The first is China’s. Back in 1999, two high-ranking officials of the Chinese military wrote a book called "Unrestricted Warfare." You can find excerpts at Cryptome. In this book, which is commonly understood to have been written to be read by the military, the first Gulf War was given as an example of how war had changed to become less directly violent, but also more pervasive (remember Peter Gabriel’s song?). China’s response against an adversary with technological superiority would be to pursue unrestricted warfare. In particular, economic war becomes part of the scenario. Here’s a quote:

…in this era of economic integration, if some economically powerful company wants to attack another country’s economy while simultaneously attacking its defenses, it cannot rely completely on the use of ready-made means such as economic blockades and trade sanctions, or military threats and arms embargoes. Instead, it must adjust its own financial strategy, use currency revaluation or devaluation as primary, and combine means such as getting the upper hand in public opinion and changing the rules sufficiently to make financial turbulence and economic crisis appear in the targeted country or area, weakening its overall power, including its military strength. In the Southeast Asian financial crisis we see a case in which the crisis led to a lowering of the temperature of the arms race in that region. Thus we can see the possibility that this will happen, although in this case it was not caused by some big country intentionally changing the value of its own currency. Even a quasi-world power like China already has the power to jolt the world economy just by changing its own economic policies. If China were a selfish country, and had gone back on its word in 1998 and let the Renminbi lose value, no doubt this would have added to the misfortunes of the economies of Asia. It would also have induced a cataclysm in the world’s capital markets, with the result that even the world’s number one debtor nation, a country which relies on the inflow of foreign capital to support its economic prosperity, the United States, would definitely have suffered heavy economic losses. Such an outcome would certainly be better than a military strike.

Is it conspiracy theory to suggest this is something the Chinese are thinking about? The Pentagon doesn’t think so: they recently held a war game to investigate the consequences of economic warfare against the United States. More recently, US arms sales to Taiwan prompted Chinese military leaders to call for economic countermeasures.

Now, the effects of such a war in a globally-linked economy aren’t clear and China could well wind up hurt in the blowback. It might be interesting for the Chinese military leaders to talk to the ghost of France’s President Charles de Gaulle, who tried a similar move back in the 1960s by converting dollar reserves to gold only to find himself ousted during the events of May 1968. (N.B. I never knew that the origins of the Peter Gabriel song are in a European television game show that was also inspired by de Gaulle).   

In the US we also have an economic civil war of sorts that has been waged by members of the Republican party. "Starving the beast" is a policy that conservatives developed in the 1980s in which they hoped to realize their desires for a smaller federal government by forcing cuts. This could only be accomplished, they argued, by cutting taxes significantly so as to "starve the beast" and provoke governmental downsizing. See this article in the Independent Review, for more. Unfortunately for the conservatives, the beast didn’t starve, it was stoked, it simply borrowed more money and our current economic crisis is very much the result. Massive cuts loom, but so do continued expenses that likely will only be fundable by increased taxes.

Playing with economies for ulterior motives is a dangerous measure, but one that I think we’ve hardly seen the last of in network society. All we can hope for is that we start talking about such madness in public and that, just as Herman Kahn’s provocation that we think the unthinkable and contemplate life after nuclear war ultimately brought us to the process of détente, this too will lead us to stop playing silly games.  



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2/9/10 Discussions in Networked Publics

The Network Architecture Lab announces a series of evening panels entitled “Discussions on Networked Publics “at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Studio-X Soho Facility to investigate the changing conditions of the media, architecture, and urbanism today.
The mass audience and mass media analyzed by the Frankfurt School are long gone. As digital media and network technologies are increasingly integral with everyday life, the public is transforming. Today we inhabit multiple, overlapping and global networks such as user forums, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, and wikis. In lieu of watching TV, listening to the radio, or playing records, we text each other, upload images to social networking sites, remix videos, write on blogs and make snarky online comments. The media industry, which just a decade ago seemed well established, is in flux, facing its greatest challenge ever. If we can be certain of anything, it’s that as Karl Marx wrote, "all that is solid melts into air."

In 2008, we published Networked Publics (MIT Press), a book produced in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication examining how the social and cultural shifts centering around new technologies have transformed our relationships to (and definitions of) place, culture, politics, and infrastructure.

“Discussions on Networked Publics” seeks to explore the ramifications of these changes, giving particular attention to architecture and cities. In a set of five panels—culture, place, politics, infrastructure, and network society—we will explore the consequences of networked publics in detail. Our goal will be to come to an understanding of the changes in culture and society and how architects, designers, historians, and critics might work through this milieu.

The first panel is on culture. Our panelists will address the question of how media, architecture, and architectural media are changing in the context of networked publics.

Panel 1. Culture
9 February, 6.30
featuring: Michael Kubo, Michael Meredith, Will Prince, Enrique Ramirez, David Reinfurt, and Mimi Zeiger

Panel 2. Place
25 March, 6.30

Panel 3. Politics
13 April, 6.30
featuring special guest Stephen Graham

Panel 4. Infrastructure
4 May, 6.30

Free and open to the public
RSVP: [email protected]
Events begin at 6:30 unless otherwise noted.
Studio-X New York
180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street
[Studio-X is a downtown studio for experimental design and research run by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.]




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