2010 in review: End of the Next Big Thing

Once again, it’s time to reflect on the year past.

This time last year, I wrote:

The single biggest story of 2009 was the continued collapse of the economy. For architects—and a sizable proportion of my readers are architects—this was as bad a year as any.

Little has changed since then. I wish I could be the bearer of good news, but my ethical imperative to be realistic trumps my wish to believe in fairy stories. So, unfortunately it’s becoming clear that we’re two years into a new depression from which there won’t be any easy ways out. I imagine that few of my readers will disagree, but what does this mean? The answer is simple…

2010 marked the year in which “the next big thing” came to an end.

Before getting too worked up about this, this isn’t a bad thing, per se… indeed in many ways it is a small, good thing.

The “next big thing” was very much the “next bubble.” Certainly, it’s hard to imagine how we could endure another one of those. In particular, infrastructure was touted by many as the next big thing. Now as necessary as infrastructural repairs are in much of the United States and Europe, it’s a relief that I can finally put OMA-designed windmills in Santa Monica Bay and Zaha Hadid solar array facilities floating in the clouds off Catalina Island to rest. As a bubble, infrastructure was stillborn, killed by the same forces of political stalemate and NIMBYism that I analyzed as constant threats in the introduction to the Infrastructural City. At no point was this more evident this year than when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel connecting his state to New York, claiming fears of cost overruns. Even if a new, more intriguing project—extending the #7 subway line to Secaucus—arose, the signs were clear: infrastructure will continue to be a stumbling block, not a fast fix.   

Speaking of fast fixes, fast capitalism has run out of steam. Investors seem to have nowhere to turn. If there is a bubble anywhere, it’s in gold, but gold is a funny thing. Its rise is understood by virtually everyone as a bubble and it has a kind of Larouchite quality to it that wards away the rest of us well enough to prevent its influence spreading.

Instead, the financial elite is turning to high speed and algorithmic trading. This has worked for the markets to a degree, injecting a massive amount of liquidity (essentially… cash at the ready for investment for purchases in the market as well as a market that will sop up securities when sold… the theory goes that this softens swings in the market) precisely at a time when liquidity is not easily found (who wants to invest in the market now? seriously?) even as it threatens to undermine the markets should these systems be proved flawed. Remember the flash crash of May 6? Clearly a heads’ up of the dangers that lurk within this system. But unlike the dot.com boom and the housing bubble, we can’t play this game no matter how hard we try, at least not without paying to colocate specialized hardware in the high speed data centers that comprise exchanges today. Moreover, even if speculation led the market to increase dramatically this year, it was clear that this had little to do with the rest of the country (and indeed the world), which suffered from massive unemployment and economic instability.

Typically, however, “the next big thing” was a matter of technology and here we too seemed to have run aground. Yes, iPads were released and Kindles sprouted everywhere and the provided some interest and amusement but they hardly transformed our lives. It’s clear to me that we’ve shifted our focus away from techno-utopianism. If anything, it’s the result of a certain failure on the part of locative media (and its close cousin ubicomp). So many well-meaning young people placed their hopes the revolutionary potential of these little devices that it was a big letdown when they turned out to be, well, merely little devices. If foursquare is the best thing locative media can produce, then it really hasn’t turned out to do very much, has it? Crowdsourcing, the semantic web, social software… remember when these were supposed to revolutionize things? It hasn’t happened and it’s not going to. This isn’t to say that we don’t live in a radically different world than we used to live in just a decade ago, but there can be little question that techno-utopia has expired for now, and with it the idea that developing technology or interfaces as means of affording societal change have too.   

Indeed, this year both Bruce Sterling, in his talk at Transmediale, and William Gibson, in Zero History, hammered home how atemporality has gripped our culture. Technology is no longer forward looking. A new fascination with the past—not as nostalgia but merely as building blocks—is taking hold. The biggest movie of the year, Inception, was thoroughly atemporal, confusing time to the point it could no longer be recovered while steadfastly shying away from contemporary technology. To me, atemporality is a major intensification of the postmodern waning of historicity and I wrote about it at length in chapter one to my project on network culture here.

The next decade, which I’ve already described as a depression, is likely to take the form of Gopal Balakrishnan’s stationary state, albeit punctuated by ever periodic aftershocks (Greece, Ireland, probably Portugal and Spain next year). There’s not going to be an easy way out of this for once.

The positive side of all this is that young architects are beginning to lose touch with the mad, mad world of the boom. Starchitecture is starting to recede as are ideas of building amazing work in Dubai. Instead, young architects instead seem to be thinking about innovative ideas like creating networked institutions and new ways of approaching the field (the Public School, Aaaarg, Junk Jet to name only a few). It may not be building, but let’s face it, the number of good buildings during the boom could proabably be counted on one hand. At least we’ve stopped putting blights on the earth for a time (sorry, I know they are building the World Trade Center again).

In terms of building institutions, the Netlab itself undertook this first with Discussions in Networked Publics at Studio-X (now temporarily in hiatus as we await a new director at Studio-X) and then with the New City Reader at the New Museum. Overall, it was a hugely productive year at the Netlab. Not only did we take on the massive New City Reader, we tied for first place in the first urban design competition we entered into, “Build a Better Burb,” and undertook a number of projects for various fellow travellers we respect deeply, such as Junk Jet.

Directing responsibilities aside, I brought out the second chapter of the network culture project, this time on space, at the end of the summer. I should have had publics out the door by now, but an intense speaking schedule this fall was curtailed by my father dying on the 29th of October. Needless to say, that has been consuming and the aftermath is both immediate—there is still much to take care of—and displaced (after all, it’s something one never gets over, is it?). If that personal crisis was disheartening, I am realizing that my original thought about the network culture project—that it had to get out fast—was mistaken. This change is deep and enduring and the work I am undertaking in mapping it does not need to come out overnight. Stay tuned as I put it together. You may have to wait a while, but I think you’ll find the wait is worth it.

Even if I’ve set out my thesis that there not only was no next big thing in 2010, there won’t be a next big thing in the coming years, I want to stress that it’s not the past but the future we need to think of. Above all, it’s been a delight and privilege to spend another year with my kids. What can be better than showing your kids how to run a model train, buliding lego cities with them, or showing them the moons of Jupiter and craters of our own moon through a telescope? Not much, that’s for sure.

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