internet

Against Passwords

Yet again there is a massive data breach. Yet again passwords are stolen. This time from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Yet again we will be told our passwords will have to have more funny characters in them, yet again we will be forced to change them.

I'm obviously in an against mood today, but this time I'll be blunt.

The idiots at these corporations who order such measures do little more than play at security theater. Isn't the idea of a password supposed to be that it's secret? That it's in your head?

But when I have to write passwords like

P@$$w0rd_$eCurity%ThetR

Just what unearthly being is supposed to remember that? Nobody I've ever met can. We keep our passwords in pieces of paper, folded up neatly next to the computer, just stick post it notes to the walls of our office, or just keep them in one massive file on our drives. This violates the whole idea of passwords and turns them into, yes, security theater. 

One day biometric fingerprint sensors like the one found on the iPhone 5S will take over with all the loss of privacy they will bring (how will you use one to log into a Bitcoin account for example?), but until then we'll have to deal with password security theater. Just be sure that it's nothing but that. The hacks will continue and the measures will get more and more stupid. Thank you, tech.

 

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. 

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. 

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?  

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.

  

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.   

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace Episode 1

 

Until last night, I was eagerly awaiting Adam Curtis's All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

The first episode is already available on YouTube. See below or go to the site.

I'm sad to say that I was disappointed by this first episode and am not sure I will want to spend the time to watch any further. 

In "The Century of the Self," Curtis perfected a style consisting of appropriated music and film clips—as another filmmaker told me yesterday, this is made possible by blanket licensing rights possessed by the BBC—over which the unseen Curtis narrates in an ominous voice, simultaneously calm and urgent, sounding the alarm with regard to vast conspiracies of right wing forces attacking to exploit us for their own intersets. 

In the Century of the Self, the enemy was Freud and Freudianism and with it, the strange dialectic of pleasure and control so endemic to twentieth century life. I was riveted by Century of the Self and watched a number of Curtis's other documentaries. Generally speaking I didn't find these as compelling and I must admit that the style began to wear on me after a while.

But I had high hopes for this series. It had been some time since he had made a new one and I thought that by now he would have reworked his style and produced something of striking originality. I had hoped for a fresh take on network culture. After all, I will be the first with my hand in the air to accuse network culture of promoting elitism and individualism. Its influence on our society, particularly on the academy and the creative fields, has been pervasive and pernicious.

 

All Watched Over, alas, almost descends into self-parody. The first episode seems to loosely take Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's fifteen year old Californian Ideology article as a reference point (although he fails to mention that they coined the term in a critical essay and misses the point about the critical influence of the counterculture in forging Silicon Valley's libertarian mindset) but he veers off into a protracted discussion of Ayn Rand.

Granted, Rand's work is commonly read in Silicon Valley (and of course among architects), but methodologically this is where the show goes awry. The gist of the first episode is that this rather misguided and insane woman's ideology of pure individualism and selfishness led us down the road to ruin. Curtis drags out Alan Greenspan as one of her followers. Fair enough, I suppose, although a more critical approach would be to look at the Chicago School, but I suppose that has already been done to death and Curtis wanted something more original. Still, by this point I was wondering just where Curtis was going. Although he would eventually reintroduce computers as these HAL-like entities controlling Wall Street, this wasn't terribly convincing (I think the real masters of the universe on Wall Street know very well what they are doing and rarely place blind faith in machines to save us all).

Worst of all, Curtis veered off into left field with a misinformed section on President Bill Clinton. Curtis weaves a tale of a president who had come to change society for the better but wound up so convinced by Greenspan's success with the economy and, by implication, so taken with the ideology of individualism, that he wound up leaving behind his ideas of making the country better and indulging in the earthly pleasures of Monica Lewinsky. After footage of Hilary giving a tour of the White House and even of Socks the cat, I was ready to call it a day. Somehow I made it through to the end, but I doubt I will want to cringe my way through another episode.

The changes in network culture are not the product of a conspiracy theory (if you like conspiracy theories then please spend your time on Geoff Waite's Nietzsche's Corps(e) for a much more self-reflective and compelling work). For a time better spent, try out David Harvey's A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, Fred Turner's From Counter-Culture to Cyberculture, Barbrook and Cameron's Californian Ideology essay and compliment these with a good analysis of economic history like Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence

I hate giving bad reviews. My mother taught me that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say it. Moreover, it pains me that I have found Curtis's work so compelling in the past and, as I stated at the outset, my whole network culture project is a sustained critique of the field. But in episode one of this series, Curtis reduces history to a caricature. 

If only Ayn Rand hadn't been so mentally unfit, if only her darting eyes hadn't been so convincing, then perhaps all these bad things wouldn't have happened and the man who had come to change society for the better would have done so. 

History isn't so simple. 

Against Print

I don't see how can I avoid sounding like an ogre or troll in this post but there's no sense in writing for print anymore. 

I'm faced with a huge amount of work on my plate and something has to what give. Since I'm already spending too little time on the blog and my book, I have to find something to cut. The victim is the print-only journal. I wish it well.

Network culture begins with a condition of information overload. Having grown up in a house with a massive library, I can appreciate the desire to have books and journals at hand and I sought to emulate my father in collecting for a while, but gave it up almost a decade ago. Objects consume scarce resources and space. Books and journals are still the worst offenders in my house. Even as cull them without mercy, they pile up around me, largely unread, passed by in a day when there's too much to do. 

Let's face it, a personal library is the academic's version of an SUV. It's handy for when you need it, but it's big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.  

The journals that I read regularly—the New Left Review, Mute Magazine, Eurozine, and Domus (to name a select few)—are already on the Net. There are few print-only publications and I read none of them regularly. Fetish objects like the New City Reader, Junk Jet, Volume, or Loud Paper generally wind up on the Internet in reduced or pirated form. You have to pay—or otherwise seek out—the original format if that's what you want, but the content is there for the taking.

Google books makes it possible to search through new and old books alike while pirate book sites mean that it's easy to carry thousands of books in a laptop. Pirating may be illegal now, but it's thriving—take the book scanning movement, for example—and is just the faintest ripple in the surface of the ocean before the tides pull back and then the tsumani hits.

If not in this decade, then surely within two decades virtually all publishers—book, journal, and newspaper will provide universities with everything they publish in digital form. Within that time, as I pointed out at the CCA on Thursday, most archives will also be online.  

A book or journal that in print form only is inadequate for our age. It cannot be properly searched. Hand-made indices have some degree of utility, but no matter how intelligent the maker of the index was, remain reductive, the product of one mind that can't adequately foresee everything the text will be used for. Full-text search is revolutionary for scholarship.  

Then there's portability. Like so many of my colleagues, I travel frequently, both overseas and across the Hudson to Columbia. I clung to slides until 2006 when travelling to Ireland to teach made that impossible. Books are the same. It's entirely different to have my library at my fingertips as I type.

But is this historian's desire so new? While teaching in Brazil, Braudel would visit Europe periodically and employ microfilm to record material in archives for later references. I'm confident that if Benjamin were alive today, he'd be surfing book pirate Web sites instead of frequenting old bookstores, collecting PDFs in his laptop, just in case the sites wind up shut down.

Moreover, there's another ethical question, beyond the viability of publishers which I suspect will survive in this new world (printing presses, may be another matter). A friend once told me that while she was teaching in South America, she translated my texts for her students. At the time, she explained, my work was just about the only informed commentary on contemporary architecture available online and her university lacked the funds to acquire books and journals or pay for access to material behind paywalls. Her message hit home: print publications and paywalls maintain a global imbalance of intellectual resources.     

There's nothing more tiresome than the aged (or young) scholar lamenting the lack of intellectual rigor online. Surely such learned individuals have heard of the Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim who published his De laude scriptorum manualium, defending the tradition of script against the printing press in 1492? Our fields were hardly more rigorous in the postmodern 1980s or the post-structuralist 1990s let alone the heroic era of the 1920s. Plenty of material not worth the ink and paper it cost to print was published back then. 

Instead of lamenting print, let's work together to break down paywalls, physical or electronic. Those of us in the academy are not in the business of knowledge, we're in a community of knowledge, a community that transcends old limits. Let's embrace that.  

 

 

 

Announcing the New City Reader

I am delighted to announce the New City Reader, a newspaper on architecture, public space and the city, published as part of the Last Newspaper, an exhibit running at the New Museum from 6 October 2010‒9 January 2011. Editorial work for the New City Reader will take place in the Museum gallery, starting at 11 tomorrow, October 5.

at linco

Produced as a collaboration between myself/the Netlab and Joseph Grima, the New City Reader will consist of one edition, published over the course of the project with a new section produced weekly by alternating guest editorial teams within the museum’s gallery space. These sections will be available free at the New Museum and—in emulation of a practice common in the nineteenth-century American city and still popular in parts of the world today—will be posted in public throughout the city for collective reading.

The New City Reader kicks off today with the City section, a massively detailed graphic produced by the Netlab recounting the 1977 New York City blackout and its effects on the failing city to reveal the interdependence of infrastructure, information, and social stability. If the challenges of that era map to the difficulties facing both the country and the city today, the New City Reader will inquire into these parallels.

Each issue of the New City Reader will be guest edited by a contributing network of architects, theorists, and research groups who will bring their particular expertise to bear on the sections.

You can also follow our tumbelog at newcityreader.tumblr.com

Staff: 

EXECUTIVE EDITORS

- Joseph Grima

- Kazys Varnelis

MANAGING EDITOR

- Alan Rapp

ASSOCIATE MANAGING EDITOR

- John Cantwell

ASSOCIATE EDITORS

- Brigette Borders

- Daniel Payne

EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

- Pantea Tehrani

ART DIRECTOR

- Neil Donnelly

DESIGNER

- Chris Rypkema

EDITORIAL CARTOONIST

- Klaus

BLACKOUT! CARTOONISTS

- Momo Araki

- Alexis Burson

- Leigha Dennis

- Kyle Hovenkotter

WEB DEVELOPER

- Jochen Hartmann

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS

- David Benjamin & Livia Corona

- C-Lab/Jeffrey Inaba

- Program for Media & Modernity

- common room

- DJ N-RON & DJ/rupture

- Jeannie Kim & Hunter Tura

- Leagues and Legions

- Michael Meredith, MOS

- Network Architecture Lab

- Frank Pasquale & Kevin Slavin

- School of Visual Arts D-Crit

- Robert Sumrell & Andrea Ching

- Geminidas & Nomeda Urbonas, Nugu with Saskia Sassen

- Eyal Weizman, Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London

 

 

Media for Historians of Architecture

I am delighted to announce that I will be succeeding Beatriz Colomina as the review editor of the media section of the Journal of Society of Architectural Historians.

It will be my charge to edit articles on Web sites, films, software, digital books, databases, and other media at a moment in which my field is undergoing a revolutionary transition. I am in debt to Beatriz for paving the way by creating a stellar review section, to David Brownlee, JSAH editor for inviting me to take part in his journal, and to Dean Wigley for his support in this new endeavor. 

If you are a historian of architecture and you read my blog, please do contact me using the form on the left. This is a most exciting appointment. 

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