Against Situationism

A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow. Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.   

I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent. 

In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate. 

psychogeography today

Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.

Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.     

As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:

‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’

Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space

Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).

Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.

If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.     

Trajects pendant un an d'une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement

In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations. 

Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.

It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep. 

Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.

The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions. 


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place doesn’t pay

You’d think that if anyone could make place pay, Drupal could, but technologies are social artifacts. People will post anything at all on social networking sites, but not where they are. Or at least not yet. That said, place-based social networker Dodgeball is dead. I’m not surprised at all. When I logged on years ago the busiest user hadn’t been on in days. 

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the next big plateau

Now that I’ve had the second revision of iPhone software for a month and an iPhone 3G for two weeks, I’ve had time to live in the promised land of locative media. Applications on my iPhone allow me to annotate the area I’m in and read notes by other users, to locate my friends, to see what Flickr images were taken in the area, what restaurants, gas stations, or whatever are nearby, or look up the area I’m in on Wikipedia.

So finally this sort of technology is here in easy-to-use form on a mass-market handheld product. In anticipation of this being the "next big thing," it seems, there has been a rush toward locative media, mobile Internet platforms, and ubiquitous computing. First the boom, then Web 2.0, now the mobile, locative net.

But having this stuff in my hand is deeply anticlimatic. Retrieving information tied to a location is turning out not to have much of an impact on my perception of it. Maybe in a few years, when the amount of geotagged data out there is huge (I dream of being geotagged) and aggregatable (right now information is divided up between different information providers—Yelp, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc.—and searches need to be made repeatedly) things will be different, but I doubt it. Walter Benjamin’s old dream of being able to see a place’s history superimposed upon it seems to have come too late.

I apologize for the disagreement or depression the next statement will induce in developers (and architects), but my sense is that now, of all times in recent history, developing new technologies is a backwards move. Our ability do retrieve infromation is all but ubiquitous now. The real developments are going to be in the way that society changes—in terms of finance, sexuality, politics, urbanism and so on—and these kind of transformations are going to be bottom-up. The horoscope for savvy developers, then, is to carefully tune what you’re already doing, but find ways to tread water. We’ve had a tremendous technological run. The next few years are going to be a plateau. If I’m correct that we have yet to see the economy tank, then it might be a decade of this.

With that in mind, it’s time to begin scratching out the outline for the Network Culture book in what remains of the summer. I hope that much of that can be done on the blog, but time will tell.


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locative media is here

I’ve been playing with version 2.0 of the iPhone firmware for a few hours already and am impressed.

For too long, locative media has been deferred into the near future, but now, overnight everything changed: a widely-used handheld platform can deliver a large (and growing) array of information swiftly and efficiently (yelp,, and even the yellow pages can do this now). Some of this information (such as the nearpics application that draws on photographs at panoramio) is even user-uploaded.

Now secondary questions arise: is this kind of information going to be limited to walled gardens within individual applications or will developers find ways of exchanging this information between databases (as openid promises for identity). Is this kind of interaction between informatic and physical space a minor tweak of an existing relationship to or is it something else entirely? What sort of radical applications can this platform spawn?

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how to misuse technology / fall of a giant

I noted two interesting stories about technology gone awry in the last week.

The first is about the misuse of GPS technology in Europe. Looking for shortcuts, truck drivers use GPS devices with maps that don’t adequately show just how small streets in older towns really are. The results are dangerous conditions and traffic jams as giant trucks wander into historic villages. See here.

The second explores the consequences of mobile phone use in automobiles and how a study now prove it makes traffic worse, which of course creates a feedback loop. See here.

Derek Lindner points out that Levitt & Sons is bankrupt. See here and the IHT.

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transparency, literal or embedded?

Thanks to the intelligent comments we’ve received from Enrique and Javier (and Mark) with regard to Mark Jarzombek’s guest post. As something of a response to that post, I’d like to submit the following article: Where r u? Cell phones keep tabs. Over 50% of the mobile phones today have geolocation features built in. Enable them and you can track your kids or Big Brother can track you. Another article notes how automobiles can also be fitted with GPS devices that allow for concerned parents (and others) to track where their teenagers (or whoever…) drive.

What does this have to do with Mark’s post? Well, transparency is a driving force of architecture culture today, maybe even more so than it was in the days when Hannes Meyer proposed his 1927 competition entry for the League of Nations (below).


league of nations
In Meyer’s view, the transparency of the building would prevent diplomats from making back room deals. In the 1950s, transparency would be adopted by American corporations looking to associate themselves with a new, technocratic postwar order and like Meyer hoping to align themselves with a Protestant image of rational action and morality. During the 1970s transparency fell out of favor, in part due to energy crisis and the rising cost of HVAC and in part because after Watergate (which itself took place in a glass hotel) nobody believed in the transparency of glass anyway.
In the 1990s, however, driven in part by fashion, and in part by new technology that allowed glass facades to be more energy efficient while ever-thinner, transparency returned with a vengeance. And as in Meyer’s day, this transparency was associated with ideology.
As New York’s 5th Avenue Apple Store demonstrates, transparency is strongly linked to the Californian Ideology, the myth that our new culture makes information available to everyone and that the Internet is a libertarian playground of self-expression. Raised on Ayn Rand and a love of technology, many architects have adopted this ideology wholesale, arguing that architecture itself should be transparent, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. The latter position argues that architecture should go with the flow and (somehow following Deleuze) celebrate capital and the glorious new, networked age.
apple store 5th avenue


But the Apple Store makes visible nothing—the real business is conducted underground, out of site to the passerby.

So, too, the articles that I started off with demonstrate that our culture is far from one of visibility. We live in a world dominated by invisible forces: by the shadowy military-industrial complex that Mark Lombardi sought to expose, by the secret room from which the NSA monitors network traffic at the AT&T complex in San Francisco, by a government outside the Constitution’s system of checks and balances that can put you on a no-fly list or detain you in Guantanamo without ever telling you why.

NSA secret room

So my first response to Mark’s post then, is to ask if the questions about contemporary architecture culture that he raises are disciplinary in nature or if they are also not symptomatic of a widespread ideology that has overtaken our culture. Never before have we been so willing to give ourselves up to others, be they credit bureaus, our employers (urine, please, and some hair too), or the government. But if the cells at Camp X-Ray are transparent, remember that the prisoners within them are deprived of their sight and hearing. Our situation may be less dire, but isn’t all that dissimilar. Strangely, projects about tracking and surveillance that architects did in the days of "theory" suddenly seem so relevant… Above all, not however being critical today (indeed, not being critically utopian…which also includes critically dystopian of course!) seems like the worst position we can take.


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architecture and situated technologies podcasts

Video and audio of many of the lectures from the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium put together by Omar Khan, Mark Shepard, and Trebor Scholz at the Architectural League this fall is now online at the symposium site.

My own talk, "Almost Nothing: Two Ways to Program Things" can be found here.

I am happy with the way the podcast turned out and am thinking about putting together more podcasts on this site this year, including perhaps an entire course or two this spring.

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Architecture and Situated Technologies Symposium

From Thursday to Saturday, 19-21 October, 2006, I will be taking part in the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium @ The Urban Center and Eyebeam, NYC.

Here is the description from the organizers of this promising event:

Since the late 1980s, computer scientists and engineers have been researching ways of embedding computational intelligence into the built environment. Researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) began to look beyond the model of personal computing, which placed the computer in the foreground of our attention, to one of “ubiquitous” computing that takes into account the contingencies of human environments and allows computers themselves to vanish into the background. Recently, the UN released a report produced by the International Telecommunications Union predicting an “Internet of Things”, where the “users” of the Internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of information. As GPS modules, RFID tags, sensors, and actuators are becoming available in ever smaller packages, everyday objects and spaces are being networked with computational intelligence. Current research has focused on how situational parameters inform the design of these technologies. Incorporating an awareness of cultural context, accrued social meanings, and the temporality of spatial experience, situated technologies privilege the local, context- specific and spatially contingent dimension of their use.

This symposium, organized around the notion of an "encounter," will attempt to articulate new research vectors, sites of practice, and working methods for the confluence of architecture and situated technologies. What opportunities and dilemmas does a world of networked objects and spaces pose for architecture, media art, and computing? What post-optimal design strategies and tactics might we propose for an age of responsive environments, smart materials, embodied interaction, and participatory networks? How might this evolving relation between people and "things" alter the way we occupy, navigate, and inhabit the built environment? What is the status of the material object in a world privileging networked relations between "things"? What distinguishes the emerging urban sociality enabled by wireless communication technologies? How do certain social uses of these technologies, including (non-) affective giving, destabilize rationalized "use-case scenarios" designed around the generic consumer? How do distinctions between space and place change within these networked media ecologies?

Through a combination of workshops, presentations, and panel discussions, the symposium will attempt to stage a set of encounters between invited participants, an audience encouraged to participate, and the City of New York.

Organised by: Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz, and Mark Shepard

Participants include Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Richard Coyne, Karmen Franinovic, Michael Fox, Anne Galloway, Charlie Gere, Usman Haque, Peter Hasdell, Natalie Jeremijenko, Sheila Kennedy, Eric Paulos, Mette Ramsgard Thomsen and Kazys Varnelis.

Co-Produced by: The Center for Virtual Architecture, The Institute for Distributed Creativity, and the Architectural League of New York

Reservations/advance ticket purchase are required.

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