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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george orwell in the sentient city

Yesterday’s New York Times reports on something I’ve been saying all along: that the sentient city is also a surveillance city and the digital trail we leave as we move through it allows corporations and governments to spy on us like never before. Yes, there’s a chance it’s all for our benefit. But for how long? See You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?

Google’s Gatekeepers

Today’s New York Times Magazine relates some of the complexities in Google’s control of the Internet search market. In order to deal with less tolerant legislation regarding the freedom of speech, Google sees itself forced in the positon of gatekeeper, deciding what to allow and to censor. See Google’s Gatekeepers.

Update: Hmm… I wonder what’s been banned from my Google searches. For some reason, even though I am located in Montclair, New Jersey and my IP clearly says that, Google thinks I am in Germany and I frequently see the page when I go there.

wmna on trevor paglen

Over at We Make Money Not Art, Regine has a great recap of Trevor Paglen’s research on the black world of CIA-run torture taxis, secret government installations, and classified government projects. Regine writes "His artistic work deliberately blurs the lines between social science, contemporary art, and other more obscure disciplines in order to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to interpret the world around us." See here.

I brought Trevor to the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design as part of the New Spaces, New Cartographers series I organized when I was Forum president in 2004 and was greatly impressed by the research he did. In an era in which our lives become as transparent as the government becomes opaque, Trevor shows us how we can turn the tables a little.

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get used to it

In remarks before Congress, Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of the National Security Agency testified that Americans need to get used to government and businesses "safeguarding" their privacy. There was a reason that big business and big government were done away with under post-Fordist restructuring. Such structures were generally inefficient and even corrupt. As post-Fordism shades into network culture, it seems like—driven by the temptations of data mining—they’re back and bringing a whole raft of disturbing developments with them.

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architecture gone wild

The New York Times carries an article on some projects (including some by former students of mine) that take transparency to a new degree. Actually, this is something that I should have addressed in my entry on transparency and government monitoring. It is not just that we don’t care, it’s increasingly that we would rather show. To some degree this is a question of trust and/or naiveté, but it is also part of a culture of exhibitionism (as this article shows…and something that is very different from the culture of voyeurism twenty years ago). It’s not that they don’t care: they want you to see…

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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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