Goodbye, Foreign Bureau

With the uprisings in the Middle East and the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake, media and how we view them continue to be revolutionized.

There's been a lot of talk about Twitter in both cases, but social media sites are only part of the story. Twitter is good for fast breaking news, but Twitter has its problems, some of which are described in this piece by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. It's hard to sift for information among the noise. Take the earthquake and tsunami, for example. When they hit, it was only because I visited CNN's Web page that I found out about them. My Twitter feed was occupied by other matters and news on the topic had scrolled by. Moreover, Twitter easily drags us into multiple, overlapping conversations. For example, yesterday the whole death of criticism discussion began again derailed my day for some time until I could finish a blog post on the topic and then discuss it with other individuals on Twitter. When crises like this are happening, its easier to turn off Twitter and look to media that demand less participation, like video streams.

But American news channels like CNN or MSNBC quickly lost their appeal for me as sources for what is going on in Japan. I don't need to see celebrity reporters like Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien in Japan describing how harrowing their trips from the airport were or how small their hotel rooms are. When one American reporter reported that Japan was strange, like the film "Lost in Translation," it was time to turn off the channel.

Instead, I've been watching NHK World's English feed on my television via a stream to my Mac Mini home theater PC. NHK repeats footage and, as the national broadcasting network of Japan, strikes me as the voice of the government, but if there's going to be breaking news, it seems likely that I'll see it here.   

Similarly, when the revolutions in the Middle East began, like many people, I turned to Al Jazeera. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's comments hit home:

Al Jazeera has been the leader in that [it is] literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective… In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.

(see here for more) 

Al Jazeera has hardly been a bystander in all this, repeatedly suggesting to viewers that they demand their local cable companies ask for feeds. At times this seemed a little crass, but given the kind of self-promotion that US news outlets revel in, understandable. 

Western media outlets once thought that as the world globalized, they would expand endlessly. But the opposite is proving true. With access to more news outlets, we are finding the older ones too ideologically corrupt and superficial (Judith Miller anyone?) and instead of monitoring hastily put together foreign bureaus, wind up turning to local sources. 

Of course the same goes for architecture. Why would anybody want to read an American critic flown to China on an all-expenses paid junket to praise a building by Zaha Hadid in China (or worse yet, look at some renderings and pronounce it cool) when a Chinese critic might critically discuss the building in its context?  

If the result is a better-informed world, saying goodbye to the foreign bureau will hardly be a loss to anybody but the reporters.  

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For the Record

Nothing irks me more than the idiots* who say that nobody saw the crash coming. I blogged about it years before it happened. It was plain as day. The real estate market was a bubble. Nothing fundamental had changed.

So for the record, the bump in the stock market today suggests just how fragile the markets are. I’ve brought this up many times in the networked publics panels, but it’s worth mentioning again: high velocity trading is a major threat to the markets and the markets are far from stable.

In literally the blink of an eye the NYSE had dropped over 995 points. It bounced back, but was still down over 350 at the end of the day. 

This isn’t the kind of glitch we should ignore. It’s a warning underscoring how unsound our financial markets are. Anyone interested in the survival of the current economy system should hope that the Obama administration doesn’t ignore it.  

*Of course some of the people saying that nobody saw the crash coming aren’t idiots; they’re liars.

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On Owls, Starchitects, Papers & Growth Machines

When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

In perhaps his most eloquent moment, Hegel was referring to the way that philosophy came to an understanding of topics precisely at the moment that they were no longer relevant.

An example of this would be the explosion of visual studies in the 1990s just at the moment when two centuries of the visual being a cultural dominant were being eclipsed by the rise of the non-visual, by the code and procotols of network culture. Nobody talks much about visual studies anymore.

But it isn’t just philosophy and theory that operate this way. It’s a phenomenon we see in culture over and over. Milton Friedman (and Time Magazine) declared We are all Keynesians now just as the long postwar boom expired.

Or look at how stores like Barnes and Noble appeared, carrying huge amounts of books and magazines just as print began its terminal decline. Or the appearance of the SUV right before peak oil (I have friends who bought those things and used them for everyday driving…crazy!).

So what about Starchitects? There has certainly never been an explosion of interest in Starchitects like there has been today. But when the economy recovers (and I think that will be a long, long time from nunless the government comes up with another unhealthy quick fix), I’m not so sure we’ll have starchitects anymore.

The reason is simple: newspapers made starchitects. It’s common knowledge that recent construction by major cultural institutions was driven by the desire to make it to the front page of the New York Times. This could only be guaranteed if the architect was Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Koolhaas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Foster (some of these names may change a little, a second tier includes Piano, Morphosis, Sejima, Ito, and I’m sure a couple of others that I forgot). I have friends who work with such institutions and they were commonly told that the project had to be on the front page.

This is not surprising. Newspapers are key institutions for the growth machine (see more here). They seek to drive growth, making it seem natural and promoting it, generally regardless of the cost. They are where the growth machine sees itself and celebrates itself.

But now, eviscerated by bad financial models and online publications, newspapers are dying. Certainly blogs have encouraged Starchitecture a bit, but in many cases—such as at Archinect—they did so in part because they are in the business of linking to content from newspapers. In many cases bloggers are more critical of starchitecture than newspaper critics are. Blogs are bottom-up, newspapers are top-down. Thus blogs are snarky, newspapers are proper. Blogs also have comments so when a blogger gets something wrong, a reader can call it out.

As you may read on twitter, the media is dying. As big papers start to shut down or go to online-only formats in the coming years, will starchitects disappear as well? I can’t imagine that the heads of major cultural institutions will insist on architects who will ensure their buildings be mentioned on Archinect.

If they do, what will take their place, a Warholian YouTube-style culture of young architects being famous for 15 minutes? Or will architects begin to specialize toward niche audiences, much as blogs do?

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