Into the Cloud (with zombies)

Today's New York Times carries a front-page piece by James Glanz on the massive energy waste and pollution produced by data centers. The lovely cloud that we've all been seeing icons for lately, turns out is not made of data, but rather of smog. 

The basics here aren't very new. Already six years ago, we heard the apocryphal story of a Second Life avatar consuming as much energy as the average Brazilian. That data centers consume huge amounts of energy and contribute to pollution is well known.

On the other hand, Glanz does make a few critical observations. First, much of this energy use and pollution comes from our need to have data instantly accessible. Underscoring this, the article ends with the following quote:   

“That’s what’s driving that massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Second, much of this data is rarely, if ever used, residing on unused, "zombie" servers. Back to our Second Life avatars, like many of my readers, I created a few avatars a half decade ago and haven't been back since. Do these avatars continue consuming energy, making Second Life an Internet version of the Zombie Apocalypse? 

So the ideology of automobliity—that freedom consists of the ability to go anywhere at anytime—is now reborn, in zombie form, on the Net. Of course it also exists in terms of global travel. I've previously mentioned the incongruity between individuals proudly declaring that they live in the city so they don't drive yet bragging about how much they fly.  

For the 5% or so that comprise world's jet-setting, cloud-dwelling élite, gratification is as much the rule as it ever was for the much-condemned postwar suburbanites, only now it has to be instantaneous and has to demonstrate their ever-more total power. To mix my pop culture references, perhaps that is the lesson we can take away from Mad Men. As Don Draper moves from the suburb to the city, his life loses its trappings of familial responsibility, damaged and conflicted though they may have been, in favor of a designed lifestyle, unbridled sexuality, and his position at a creative workplace. Ever upwards with gratification, ever downwards with responsibility, ever upwards with existential risk. 

Survival depends on us ditching this model once and for all. 

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Apple’s Missed Opportunity

Apple refreshed the iPhone 5 and a new line-up of iPods today, but in doing so, it missed an opportunity. Handily dominating the world market for smartphones and tablets, Apple now faces the challenge of expanding its market significantly while introducing merely more mature versions of existing products.

In 2008, Apple introduced the iPhone 2, which made locative media a reality through its App Store and integrated Assisted GPS (aGPS). To be fair, earlier phones had the ability to install apps and aGPS*, but the iPhone's ease of use, large user base, and often-fanatical developer following made it a huge hit. But the now what? The iPhone 5 is merely a refinement of the iPhone 4. Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised "Amazing new products," but thus far we've seen little we wouldn't reasonably expect. The predicted smaller iPad is no different, just a smaller form factor at a lower price.

What then, would be the proverbial "next big thing?" I think the answer is clear: DIY ubicomp. I've been watching with interest a number of Kickstarter projects that aim to bring remote-sensing capabilities to the masses. Twine is the most sophisticated of these. This simple sensor will hook up to a Wi-Fi network and, when outfitted with appropriate sensors, can Tweet that your basement is flooding, e-mail you that your TV has been on for three consecutive hours, or send a text message you when a major earthquake happens. Operating for months on AAA batteries, Twine is a huge step forward in taking the kind of capabilities recently available only to hobbyists who bought Arduinos and went through complicated processes of assembly and programming.

So when Apple announced the new iPod Nano, it was quite a let down. The previous Nano was a small, square device that could fit on a wristwatch. Even though it only appeared to run the iOS, there is no reason why Apple couldn't have come up with a rudimentary programming interface that could let developers program Apps for it. With Wifi and one more port, perhaps the "Lightening" port Apple introduced today, a new Nano could have had access to a new market of inexpensive sensors that could make it aware of the world. Even at $99, which is more than the price of a Twine, marketing and momentum would likely have made the device a huge hit. If Apple had then committed itself to downward price migration, a ubicomp world could have been ours quickly.

I'm looking at my BBQ and imagining a future $50 device that I could plug into my temperature probe to text me to let me know when the temperature gets out of range. I think about my back yard, where deer are all too present and wonder if such a device might not wait in ambush to alert me with a message to my phone to let me know that there was motion in my back yard. I imagine that the tiny screen on the device might communicate some basic, useful information to me, like the temperature outside and the air quality, as sampled by another sensor connected device.  I wonder what my crafty children, or for that matter, someone like Mark Shepard or David Benjamin would do with such a thing. 

It may be that Twine itself is the next Apple II, to the Arduino's Apple I, and certainly that could be a better thing if Twine is a more flexible and open platform than the notoriously closed one at Apple. But still (and perhaps only because I own Apple stock…a disclaimer that I need to make), I regret that Apple has not rethought the Nano. For ubiquitous computing is already here, but it's just not yet for the masses. And that, I am convinced, is the proverbial next big thing.       

*Memory fails me, but I believe my Kyocera 7135, which ran the Palmo operating system and was first released in 2002 had aGPS.

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Empires a Film on Networks

Last year, I had the honor of being interviewed by filmmaker Marc Lafia for a project examining the impact of networks on contemporary thought. This is an important project, which tackles the same issues that I'm tackling in my work on network culture.

Simply enough, as I say in the clip below, the network is becoming a cultural dominant. We are increasingly networks not just as technology of connectivity, but as a means of explaining and interpreting the world. Certainly, as we saw at Tahrir Square, networks can be liberatory, but they also provide an illusion of power and freedom that can be dangerously misleading. Producing a film on this topic is crucially important.

Check out this trailer. 

Marc, Joanna (the producer), and their team are reaching out by Kickstarter with one day left. The project is fully funded already, but that funding was only the minimum needed to keep the project going. They not only interviewed me, they also interviewed Manuel Delanda, James Delbourgo, Anthony Pagden Michael Hardt, Saskia Sassen, Nishant Shah, Cathy Davidson, Geert Lovink, Wendy Hui Kyong Chung, Alex Galloway, Florian Cramer, and Natalie Jeremijenko.

Check out Empires above and, if you feel compelled, visit the Kickstarter site. If you read this blog, chances are you're going to want to see it.  

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Security Theater

Over at the New York Times, Matt Ritchel asks why we still have to take out our laptops at security screenings even though many of them are scarcely bigger than tablets. The TSA refuses to explain, citing security concerns. After rejecting a series of possible lines of reasoning, Ritchel finds an anonymous security expert who is willing to tell him that it is nothing more than "security theater," an effort to make us feel that something is being done to protect us. 

The feebleness of this effort aside—after all, who really feels the TSA is effective at anything besides the catching the most primitive efforts, building long lines at the airport, and existing as a form of republican social welfare—it points to something that I allude to in the Situated Technologies Pamphlet I just completed with Helen Nissenbaum.

Network culture clearly has a drive toward openness and transparency. The freedom of sharing and ease of building upon information encourages that. At the same time, there are plenty of individuals and institutions with power who see that freedom as something for the Muppets of the world while they themselves hide behind the curtains. To them, our own haplessly naïve transparency is something to exploit from their citadels, be they in the government or in finance. In turn, we have to hope that those in power won't abuse it too badly, that taking out laptops at the security line as a ritual is the worst of it.     

We're still early in all this and just as the Democrats adopted civil rights as a mission in the 1950s, one day these issues may be taken up by political parties. Until then, it's not just up to power to stay vigilant, it's up to us to stay vigilant of power.

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Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects

I am delighted to announce that the last of the Situated Technologies Pamphlets Series has been released today. Titled "Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects," this pamphlet consists of a conversation between NYU media, culture, communication and computer science professor Helen Nissenbaum and myself on the topic of privacy under network culture.

It was a great honor to be a part of this series and to get a chance to get to know a brilliant scholar of network culture. I'm deeply grateful to series editors Trebor Scholz, Mark Shepard, Omar Khan as well as Rosalie Genevro and Gregory Wessner at the Architectural League and Jena Sher, who did a brilliant design. Most especially, I'm grateful to Helen, who expanded my thinking about the issue, and about network culture in general, greatly. You may download the book here, or purchase an on demand copy here

The topic of privacy under network culture is a huge one, and just during the time since we finished editing the book we read about the brief life of the iPhone app Girls Around Me and about the NSA's construction of a massive surveillance facility in Bluffdale, Utah that will be able to store and parse virtually any transmissions taking place over the Internet.

The Network Culture book, which is moving slowly but surely, ends with a discussion of issues of privacy and control. Rather than being a sideline or something that designers don't need to think about, privacy is crucial to us as I hoped to highlight by choosing the image by photographer Michael Wolf for the cover to underscore how longstanding questions of transparency have been to architecture.  

If you're intrigued, then come to the Architectural League's Beneath and Beyond Big Data event on April 28th from 2 to 5pm at the Cooper Union's Rose Auditorium. Helen and I will be there in conversation with Trebor as will a host of other designers and thinkers associated with Situated Technologies. –

Please take a look and let me know what you think. 

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Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

The most recent issue of MAS Context has an essay by Ben Brichta on the Network Architecture Lab's recent event on copyright at Columbia with Amy Adler, Lebbeus Woods, Sean Dockray, and Geeta Dayal. Thanks to Ben, who did a great job for the Netlab with his essay. You can find it here

I'm honored to finally be in MAS Context, which is a great publication that I'm sure you're either familiar with or about to check out. Other friends in the issue are Klaus and Quillian Rieno. I was thrilled to be introduced to Martin Anderson's Suburbia Gone Wild piece, which looks at how suburbia has grown throughout the developing world and can be found in expanded form at his Web site as well as Pedro Hernández's piece on the abandoned architecture of the Alicante coast. I've only had a short time to look over the issue at breakfast, but it promises to be really worthwhile.  

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What is the Future of Network Culture?

 

One of the central tenets of the Network Culture book is that we live in an atemporal condition, a paradoxical time in which we no longer understand the world in historical terms. The sort of historical narratives that were crucial to modernism and postmodernism did not accompany us into the new millenium. My position on atemporality requires a long argument so you're better off reading the chapter in the network culture book if you want to find out more. Purposefully, however, atemporality (and the concept of network culture as a whole) is a broad generalization, ridden with exceptions and fault lines. Rather than flaws in my argument, I understand these as flaws in the system to be exploited in order to undo the worst parts of network culture. In the case of atemporality, the most pernicious parts are our inability to map ourselves historically in order to take stock of our condition and the lack of alternative temporalities together with the possibility of rupture. 
 
Still, its becoming clear that there is a kind of early network culture that came before the economic crisis of 2008 and a late (or high? middle? its too early to tell yet, we'll call it late for now, in hopes of something better coming down the pike in a decade) network culture that follows. So, too, we could well also speak of a first phase, a proto-network culture that began in the mid-1990s and ended prior to the dot.com crash of 2000, the millenium, and 9/11. 
 
Is periodizing network culture not a contradiction? Of course it is, in the terms I outlined above but only to a point. These periods are scarcely felt. They are not periods with which, generally speaking, we mark our time, but each marks an intensification of network culture, accompanied by a higher level of atemporality. 
 
Proto-network culture is both postmodern and not. It is marked by the overwhelming sense of the end of history, of the millennium as postmodernism itself was. Yet it is also marked by the sense that postmodernism has come to an end. Symposium after symposium on the end of history and the end of theory consumed academe at this point. But the unimaginable future was nigh, no longer the product of the nuclear bomb (that future had not come to pass) but rather of the information bomb, the explosive promise of the dot.com boom. Soon, it seemed, a new economy would take hold. Everything would change. Everything did change, but it wasn't just a matter of the spread of e-commerce, broadband, and endless connectivity. The dot.com crash itself established the boom and bust nature of network culture, with its heady optimism about a revolutionary, but even more highly capitalized future and its ability to throw away that future seemingly overnight in a panic. If unable to consider the past, this phase of network culture, then, was still obsessed with a future, an endlessly deferred proximate future of technological promise. 
 
Early network culture was marked by this constantly receding event horizon. The moment it was reached another, generally mobile technology promised a revolution in everyday life. Urban wireless networks, mobile broadband, smart phones, geolocative smart phones, tablets, and ubiquitous computing; each of these, their prophets suggested, would crank us into a world of unprecedented, shiny newness. Smart cities would be just around the corner, as bright and promising to us as Corbusier's Contemporary City must have seemed in the mid-1920s. But there was already a notion that everything had changed, that a new economy had taken hold, as demonstrated by the impossible rise of the housing market and the endless profusion of easy credit. We lived, it seemed to many, in a newly globalzied, urban wonder-world dominated  by creative city-states, liberal science fiction wonderlands in which architecture and technology would be wedded together to create places that would be nothing less than a great deal of fun.
 
Its only with the collapse of the housing bubble, the onset of the prolonged recession and the proliferation of that last promised technology, the tablet, that network culture has entered more fully into a condition of not only a suspended past but also a suspneded future. The housing bubble itself was a crisis of the future. As history had ended, so now the future ended. Ezra Pound's old cry "Make it new!" could now only be uttered by tired characters in a thought bubble in a New Yorker cartoon. And just as the days after 9/11 gave us a war without end, we are now given a recession without end. The new stationary economy seems punctuated by mini-booms that will buoy markets and epochal crises (like the impending collapse of the Eurozone, the second leg of the Great Recession, and of course everyone's great terror, the collapse of the massive Chinese property bubble). But the Great Recession is itself no longer even something that finance fears. The canny will make billions as before. Everyone else will be poorer, their futures more exhausted, less full of promise than ever.  
 
My interest in all this, as before, is to ask what sort of fissures the edifice of network culture might have. How do we find ways not to get out of the cycle but to get out of the system itself?  

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The Rise and Fall of New Media

My essay "the Rise and Fall of New Media" can be found in the twentieth anniversary issue of Frieze and online their site here. It's paired with an essay by Lauren Cornell of Rhizome and the New Museum. Together, both deal with the issue that far from being a niche interest, as Cornell writes, "every kind of artistic practice has been touched by the Internet as both a tool and as something that affects us in a broader sense…" 

Posting has been light this summer as I've moved into a new house (modernism, even!) but things have been moving behind the scenes. With the new semester coming up, expect more on the way.

  

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Against New Media

I'm immersed in construction these days. It's a twist for me. Since the early 1990s, I've been interested in the theoretical aspects of architecture: the role of networks in cities, the impact of changes in capital on the profession, and other topics that my readers will find familiar. It's been fascinating, but also stressful (the stakes are high since the financial implications are real!) to get my hands dirty like this. As I do so, I can't escape how new media and networked mobile devices are omnipresent throughout the process: contractors text me and send me photos of the work they have done via e-mail from their smart phones, plumbing supply representatives tell me to look on the net for products, I watch instructions on how to power wash a deck on youtube, my wife (an environmental engineer) looks up the toxicity of products, and so on. 

As I was running back and forth to the lumber yard today, I was driving my twenty year old Saab 900 and since the radio is broken, for distraction, I plugged my iphone into the a cable hooked to the auxiliary jack and turned on the Sirius radio app to listen to MSNBC. The stories they described may not stand the test of time—a congressman who flashed his public on Twitter, a mother on trial for murdering her daughter who was caught partying afterwards in photographs on social media sites, a couple photographed kissing during a riot and later identified via the Web, the arrest of a nineteen year old in a massive passwork hack, the death of a minor celebrity in a car wreck after he had tweeted an image of himself drinking—but each one involved "new media."

Or rather each one didn't. For their was nothing new about networked mobile devices and the Web. To continue thinking of them as new media has itself become an anachronism. Rather, they are simply the media of our own modernity, network culture. Just as the first modernity destroyed the traces of the world that existed before industrialization, network culture destroys the old (postmodern) unconnected world. But we've gone past a point of no return: new media are the media of our time, with all of their goods and all of their bads. It's still an ongoing process, but new media have nevertheless long since stopped occuping a discrete niche or a ghetto. They form our world. It's on those terms we need to investigate them.   

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