communications

Place, Revised

One month ago, I announced that I'd re-introduce the Networked Publics book to my readers, chapter by chapter. In the meantime I've been hard at work on that book, the Johnson Tapes, and the Infrastructural City. Networked Publics achieved another milestone yesterday as MIT finished my corrections to the copy edits that they made to the text. So far, my experience with the press has been stellar. I'm a big fan. 

Today I'd like to turn to the text that Anne Friedberg and I co-wrote on Place. To introduce it, I'd like to recall a conversation I had with Mark Shepard last night. Mark is a brilliant professor with a joint appointment in architecture and media studies at the University of Buffalo. His Tactical Sound Garden is an amazing project that employs locative media while it avoids the kind of heavy-handed instrumentalism that so many locative media projects embrace (aside: I really hope it gets realized for a broad audience with the opening up of the iPhone SDK). Curiously, Mark and I were in architecture school together at Cornell, sitting two desks away from each other. But circumstances are just that, the milieu certainly did little encourage us in this direction, unless perhaps it provoked a counter-reaction.

In any event, Mark clarified my own framework to me when he suggested that the model of network culture that Anne and I lay out in the Place chapter of Networked Publics is spatially distinct from the one that Jameson lays out in Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism. In that model, which was so crucial for us for so long, Jameson takes the Bonaventure hotel as his rhetorical object. Jameson sees the hotel's notorious interior as an analog to postmodern hyperspace, its bilaterally symmetrical interior simple in plan but impossible to navigate in reality. For Jameson, this condition represents the postmodern entanglement of the subject in a system that has no exterior, a system that the subject can no longer take an outside vantage point in order to map. But this is still a Euclidean space. Being inside it is the reason the subject can't map it. In contrast, Mark noted that the condition of spatiality that Anne and I describe is entirely different. In this model (even if this is an AUDC project and goes unmentioned in the Place chapter), my rhetorical object is One Wilshire (which has indeed been as important to me as the Bonaventure was for Jameson), a structure that seemingly exists in one space but in fact defines many superimposed simultaneous environments. 

So, Mark pointed out, at the very core of Jameson's theory, we find a condition that is very different from ours. To be sure, we'll continue mapping, something I suggest in this essay, but placefinding is going to be a very different thing indeed under network culture. 

All that said, there have been some revisions to the text in the last iteration and I'm quite happy with the chapter and the voice that Anne and I developed during our year at Networked Publics. See here for Place.  

 

 

 

 

networked publics on the net

The last few years have been a whirlwind of projects. This week, I deliver to MIT Press  the final copy edits of the Networked Publics book, which they will print this fall. 

I want to turn to this project for a while so let's start with the inside scoop about the book. It came about as the product of a theme year at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC. Initially, when I was brought on as a senior fellow, it was to coordinate a group of a dozen or so fellows, build and manage a group blog and write a book based on my Network City work.

With a new director at the Center, however, the rules of the game changed and we were asked to deliver some kind of joint product. After much deliberation, the group came to the conclusion that only a book project could rivet our attention enough. We divided up into four groups, each one devoted to one issue: Place, Culture, Politics, and Infrastructure. In turn, each group worked collaboratively, using social software such as Writely (now Google Docs) to produce the texts. As the leaders of the group, Mimi Ito and I framed the texts with an introduction and conclusion respectively. 

Initially our ambitions were pretty humble. How could you take such a diverse group and create a coherent whole out of it? Since all of us were treading in the heady realm of interdisciplinarity, we all felt like fish out of water that year. I barely talked about architecture in 2005-2006 at all. Could we pull it off? If we did, could the book be anything more than an introduction to the material?

As the texts got finished, ambitions on all of our parts began to rise. After all, the book does have our names on it. My conclusion, it became clear to me, would form the basis of an upcoming book on network culture. In editing the work, I realized how timely and important this project was. Two years after the initial drafting, an eternity today, the book still defines the key issues in network culture and does so incisively. The peer reviews from MIT suggested the same. Of course the reviewers, as good reviewers should, provided comments that necessitated a good deal of rethinking and rewriting this summer. I worked with the chapter editors over the summer and turned in the text last fall. As I complete the final copy edits this week, I am uploading the chapters one at a time to the Networked Publics site. I will be adding some reflections on each text and featuring them on this site. Be aware that some of the texts are not yet updated. 

Over the last few months, I have reworked the Networked Publics site to focus on the content and bring new readers to the book and the blog quickly. It's looking rather nice although I have a bug or two in IE 7 that I still need to squash and I need to bring up the videos from our lecture series as well.

Of course the book will be far easier to read in print form and it will have certain features that don't appear on the Web, such as sidebars by noted thinkers reflecting on issues addressed in the book. If you read the Web site, make sure you buy the book too. Our ability to work with publishers to allow content from books to appear on the Web as well as in print is linked to good sales. If sales takes too much of a hit, presses will invoke more protective models about their property.

So, with that preface, start out today by taking a look at Mimi Ito's introduction to see how she frames the book. More than an introduction to this book, it lays out her models of thinking about the relationship of individuals and media today. For those of you who are architects, this introduction is especially important as it begs the question where is architecture in the ecology of new media? 

Mimi Ito, "Introduction," Networked Publics.

   

 

shortwave and polaroids

Last year I made a post about John Peel and my encounter with shortwave radio in the days before the Web. Shortwave is still around (although I need a radio) and has not yet entirely made it to the status of dead media.

See the International Herald Tribune for this article on the status of shortwave today. Will the Web ever follow down this route? 

Meanwhile in the New York Times, news of Polaroid's abandonment of the instant photograph.

 

 

 

seven for 2007

It's time to take one last look back at 2007. For AUDC, the Netlab, and myself it was a great year, as AUDC's Blue Monday hit the bookstores and as the Netlab brought two books—the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles and Networked Publics—to press. The latter contains my conclusion on the Rise of Network Culture, a text that I ambitiously crafted as being one of the first attempts to periodize this moment. The reaction to it has been incredibly favorable and I look forward to seeing what people have to say when it hits print this fall. In other news, the Netlab began working at Columbia's Studio-X space in Soho as I spent more time blogging on this site than I have in a while.

But what about the wider world? What were the trends that struck me as significant this year in architecture and network culture? This list may strike someone who isn't familiar with varnelis.net as Borgesian, but remember that the Netlab's mission is to study the impact of digital technologies together with electronic and social networks on architecture and the city. These developments have a critical impact on the field: how (or whether) we choose to understand them is key.

Many of these are end-game scenarios, but this shouldn't be surprising if the rise of network culture obsoletes earlier sociocultural forms.

1. The Decline of the City, the Rise of the City

So let's start with a condition of closure. Nearly every time I go into the city, I lament its passing. In its stead rises a fabulous machine for consumption, a playground for the global élite. Banish any thought that this city is still the place to meet others unlike yourself—Louis Wirth's great insight that urbanism was first and foremost a way of life. The result is that the global city is, more and more, a metropolitan version of American girl town. But if a lament is necessary, its also the symptom of an aging cultural critic. So let's not go there. Closure brings new opportunities.

After all, Jean Gottmann re-mapped the city as megalopolis for us back in 1961. Today the suburb, not the inner city, is increasingly the first stopping point for immigrants, a new mixing-ground, the place where a new urbanism is emerging. What new cultural forms will this new city, writ large, produce? France seems ahead of us in this with le Parkour and French Democracy, What else might be out there?

2. The End of Privacy

Speaking of end-game scenarios, how about the utter and complete decline of privacy in our lives? We live in a world worthy of Orwell, in which every action in our lives is increasingly transparent while the government operates in a state of exception, shrouded in mystery, operating a war without end. Nor is this only a question of the individual's relationship to the state. With the rise of social networking sites and blogs, the boundaries between public and the private are blurred. Make no mistake, this transition is as great as that from the bourgeois public sphere to the age of mass media and will have similar architectural implications. If transparency was one of the foundational principles of modernism and if it remains so in our own architecture, what of it when, like modernization, it is no longer a goal but a default condition?

3. The Return of Big Computing

How is all that information that we are leaving behind being processed? What does it mean that social networking sites pull our attention away from PCs and onto massive, centralized sites? How about the rise of networked applications such as Google docs together with online mail storage? Key software publishers such as such as Adobe suggest that in the near future they will be switching, at least in part, to an on-demand model of software in which users rent applications from on-line sources. One of the hottest trends in web browser development in 2007 was the rise of Site-Specific Browsers.

The result is the emergence of vast server farms and the erosion of the decentralized model of networked computation. Late Fordist computing was big and centralized around mainframes while digital culture focussed on the discreet PC. In its first phase, network culture promised a peer-to-peer model even if it never delivered that, but now this is giving way to big computing.

If so, what are the implications for urbanism? Remember that the growth of the global city has in many ways been the product of its role as a command-and-control center in flows of information and capital. This has been made possible by the decentralized model of large telecom hotels located near key financial centers. But if more centralized than the distributed model that the Californian ideology promised—and thereby ideal platforms for surveillance—telecom hotels still consisted of a multiplicity of individual servers. These too are likely to be replaced by cloud computing, in which virtual servers will be rented from the big players like Amazon or Google. The result is the impending end of the telecom hotel and the rise of utility computing in its stead. Utility computing isn't a bad name for what this new model will be like. Demanding vast amounts of space and power of these server farms will likely be located far from city cores in places like the Dalles, Oregon.

Coupled with new technologies for bringing the net to the home or office—for example, Verizon FiOS—that are being deployed first in suburbs instead of in cities, the computational drive toward urban centralization may be fading.

One consequence could be that we'll see a lot of the "creative industries" going suburban to take advantage of faster online speeds, lower rents, and a less exhausted urban condition over the next half decade.

4. Systems not Sites

2008 is the Web's fifteenth anniversary. But the old Web is dead. We just don't build Web sites from HTML anymore. If you have a site, it's run by a content management system. Now some backwards sites still rely on Flash, but they're easy to identify: they haven't been updated in two years. Instead, most sites that people I know operate or own are either built on Open Source database-driven systems based on modularity and interoperability or hosted on server farms.

Could there be any connection here at all to architecture? Well, if our virtual spaces operate on such principles, why are our real spaces still based on handicraft, low-quality labor, and thoroughly proprietary (the more so, the more "advanced" they purport to be)?

Sure, scripting is all the rage now (having taken over from parametrics), but for the most part this has aimed at producing "cool" design without taking any responsibility for it. Nothing new about that since Eisenman's House series in the early 1970s. Is there any chance that architecture can figure out network culture before its shown the door?

5. Goodbye, Bilbao

On a related note, one of the most pernicious influences in architecture over the last decade has been the Bilbao-effect, the idea that architecture could effect urban change simply by looking cool.

Sure, it worked for Bilbao—maybe everybody was just so shocked by Gehry's only decent building in thirty years—but 2007 was the year in which it became clear that this idea was thoroughly played out. Just who is going to go to Toledo to see SANAA's Glass Pavilion, let alone Roanoke to see Randall Stout's Art Museum of Western Virginia?

There's no question that the Bilbao-Effect has been bad for architecture, validating long-obsolete practices and putting the focus on visibility precisely at a moment when invisibility should have been the focus. Take scripting again, its painfully retardataire, obsessing with form rather than program.

Remember the 1960s, when Philip Johnson museums sprouted everywhere from Utica to Lincoln, Nebraska? Or the 1980s, when every city thought it needed a stadium and convention center to attract businesses until Richard Florida encouraged them to think what that they really needed was an art museum and a gay district?

So too, this fad will pass. Watch the Bilbao-Effect take on water as the real estate bust continues into the next year and begins to negatively affect tax rolls. Architects better make sure they're not so thoroughly identified with cool form that the discipline suffers heavy damage. After all, the alliance of big architecture, big business, and big government has gone awry once twice—in 1929 and 1968—and it nearly meant the end of the discipline the second time.

[Interesting historical note: 1968 - 1929 = 38. 2007 - 1968 = 38. Meaningless no doubt, unless perhaps you believe in Kondratieff waves but interesting to think about how when we refer to 1968 as our formative cultural moment, we are referring to something as distant in time from us as Black Friday was from 68.]

6. The Bust

Which bring us to... the bust in residential real estate. Like the Economist, I have been predicting this for a while and it's finally here. And like anything that's been around too long, the boom bred all sorts of badness as it lasted too long. As a consequence, it may well be harder to pull out of this one than it was to pull out of the great recession of the early 1990s.

It's going to be tricky for the profession not to take on heavy damage in the next year, even with China and Dubai (themselves not very stable propositions) offering work to many. I hope everyone has their paper architecture skills honed. For a short time, at least, paper architecture could be a good thing. The boom has been going for so long that its exhausted the profession thoroughly.

Take Rem, for example, I suppose it's nice that he's building the CCTV tower and all, but during the 1990s he was one of the great thinkers in the field. He hasn't had anything interesting to say since Junkspace and that was pre-9/11 and while Porto was certainly a great building to visit, what happened to immensely intelligent urban plans like Melun-Senart or Yokohama? I was talking to one colleague. In his view, this was no surprise. Rem is going to be able to collect social security a year from now and he's said everything he would ever say. Could be. But there are plenty of thinkers who do great works in their sixties, unless of course they're off chasing their retirement dollars in China and Dubai. And Rem is only one example. Architecture needs practice from time to time to thrive, remember when Praxis (a journal I greatly admire) was founded as a counter to the world of paper architecture and bad theory? But architecture needs down time too and its state of continuous partial attention is, well, increasingly irritating and pointless. The same can be said of culture as a whole. Let's have a good recession and get some good music and art out of it for a change, ok?

7. The iPhone

It's hard to deny the impact of the iPhone. Even with all of its faults—the most awful network in the country, a locked-down interface, and an interface that has its quirks, such as no cut and paste—its a remarkable achievement. For now it unites the iPod and the cell phone, but what's more interesting is that the iPhone is roughly as powerful as a 2002 vintage iMac.

Nor is it unimportant that even as Apple and AT&T proved themselves to be part of the old economy, locking down the platform not just once but repeatedly, a guerilla army of developers successfully broke Apple's code. Among the programs already available for the iPhone are a Last.FM scrobbler, Navzon's simulated-GPS locator that works by triangulating your distance from cell phone towers, and a program that uploads photographs you take immediately to Flickr.

Hundreds of thousands (and just possibly over a million) users have jailbroken their phones, downloading programs onto them and something like one in six went a step further to unlock them to use non-AT&T SIMs. For comparison's sake, Apple only sold 4 million iPhones. This means that hacking firmware is no longer only for the elite anymore. If you haven't done so yet, it's easy… just click this naughty link. Whether Apple gave in or whether this was their canny intention all along, they are releasing a developer kit and opening the iPhone for third-party applications in February.

If Apple opens up the iPhone enough and if Navizon allows hooks into their system from other applications, then the era of mass locative media will be upon us very rapidly in 2008. And if that doesn't happen, then the upcoming Google Phone likely will do that too.

But in this interesting post, Chris Messina suggests that there's something disappointing about this situation. Messina, an advocate of web-based applications, suggests that the iPhone could have been the first real web-driven platform. Now I think there is something interesting here since web apps are in many ways easier to code for (at least for me). There are rumors that the next iPhone update will allow Safari bookmarks to be saved as icons on the iPhone, something that relegated web apps to second-class citizens thus far. If, I differ with Messina in thinking that a forced march into web apps was a bad idea and if I've suggested that there are problems with the web apps model (see #3 above), there is potential here that could be exploited. Of course, I've also said things about web apps in item #3, so exercise some degree of caution as you throw away the CDs for your software.

Alright, enough of 2007. More than half of its last day has passed. Time to pay my final bills of the year, grade my final essays of the year and hope that the former will be smaller, the latter much better in 2008. Stay tuned tomorrow for a surprise or two on the blog.

No doubt there's much more to say about this past year. As always, I'd love to hear about it. Comment away.

So the Internet is Real After all?

My friend Mimi sends news of an outage at the 365 Main data center in San Francisco after a drunken employee went on a rampage. Craigslist, Typepad (which includes Mimi's blog!), Livejournal, Yelp!, and Technorati were all affected. More at Valleywag.

david reinfurt

David Reinfurt of O R G and Dexster Sinister came in to talk to my seminar on the Architecture Machine Group today to discuss his work with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and his research on designer Muriel Cooper, the first designer for MIT press and the Founder of the Visible Language Workshop at the MIT Media Lab. Cooper is responsible for the MIT Logo as well as for the first edition of Learning for Las Vegas among many other projects. All of the preceding links go to David's work and are well worth following up.

how spam works

Why are you getting so much spam these days? eWeek has an interesting piece on how a spam operation works [via Slashdot ]. Precisely why is a mystery to me. Is there really that much money in spam? Who is so stupid to think that their penis will grow if they respond to these ads or that their penny stock advice is sound? Apparently plenty of people are, as this 2003 piece from Wired shows. Still, it seems to me that there is something almost religious about spam. Spam, above all, is a desire to submit to Ether, both by spammers, who speak into the void and spam-responders, who must certainly number among the true children of God in their desire to believe.

mechanical turks at amazon

Surprise! Amazon.com employs people to do various data processing jobs that computers just aren't very good at yet. In classic amazon spirit, you too can be a Mechanical Turk and make money while you are at it. See Core77's blog post and visit Amazon's own page on the topic.

Email is for Old People

Last year during the Netpublics program, Mimi Ito remarked that we would be the last generation to use email. What comes next? The Chronicle of Higher Education looks into why Email is for Old People.

Baran's Revenge: Underground Cold War Nerve Center Retired

Built to withstand nuclear attack during the Cold War, NORAD's underground nerve center in Cheyenne Mountain is being retired. See this article from CNN, from which the following quote is taken:

"In today's Netted, distributed world we can do very good work on a broad range of media right here," Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said from his Peterson headquarters. "Right there at that desk, including one push-button to the president."

It only took forty-two years for Paul Baran's insights about the greater survivability of distributed communications in crisis situations to be realized.

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