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On Networked Publics

In my unintended tradition of profiles about American architectural academics, here’s another. This one is Irish but has been living in Los Angeles and is now moving to New York. Ladies and Gentleman – Kazys Varnelis. He’s going to be Director of the new Network Architecture Lab at Columbia, a research unit which “investigates the impact of computation, communications and telematics on architecture and urbanism”. Before that he was at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communications ‘Networked Publics’ program, which explored “the roles of audiences, activists, citizens, and producers in maturing networked media ecologies, including the changing relationship between production and consumption, viral and peer-to-peer distribution, and networked lateral political mobilization.”

He was interviewed recently by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, whose blog is full of weird and wonderful references from literature, science, architecture, art, philosophy, to, well, anything and everything that has form in some way. The first bit of the interview that I’ve sampled is naturally related to questions about Walmart, logistics and architectural roles:

Varnelis: "Building code and computer algorithms are not actually that dissimilar....Of course, the idea of architectural code is also a question of logistics. With the rise of the internet, ever more sophisticated forms of logistics are being put to use by very large, very powerful organizations – Amazon, FedEx, UPS, Wal-Mart, Home Depot....(At NetLab) We’re going to be running a studio on the role of logistics – how do you load a space, or organize a space, and what kind of activities might you prescribe for that space?

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of logistics, Wal-Mart has suddenly and – at least to me – unexpectedly become a kind of one-man cartographic avant-garde. In other words, Wal-Mart’s attempt to track all its goods in real-time has led to literally classified techniques for understanding economic geography, the most sophisticated modeler of data sets outside of, say, the NSA or DARPA – and yet it’s all to sell bath towels and non-stick pans. What do you make of Wal-Mart’s sudden ascension to the heights of geography, and how has Wal-Mart’s use of radio-frequency ID chips (RFIDs) facilitated this mastery of commercial space-time?

Varnelis: One of the things that’s both amazing and kind of frightening about RFIDs is that they remain with you long after you leave the store. There’s no reason why RFIDs couldn’t already be the subject of incredibly sophisticated, long-term forms of tracking – or why, if you enter Wal-Mart already wearing clothes tagged with RFIDs, you couldn’t be greeted with highly specific and individualized forms of product information. Let’s say Geoff walks in, and he’s already bought two t-shirts and a pair of pants: from the RFIDs still embedded in his clothing, the store will know exactly who he is, even what he might be shopping for.

Paco Underhill must be excited.

Some of his thoughts on reality vs fiction and on documentaries vs novels:

Varnelis: Reality is ever more perverse and ever more fascinating. Proportionally, more and more people are reading nonfiction today. The documentary, which, twenty years ago, was this kind of weird, unpopular genre that was maybe only shown on PBS, is now being watched by millions of people. Whether that’s March of the Penguins or the Al Gore movie or a reality TV show, there’s a kind of obsession with reality now, an obsession with finding new ways to represent and document existing conditions. It’s a counterpart to the culture of political surveillance: working with the fact of being watched everyday becomes one of the quickest available routes toward cultural participation.

Fiction just seems to be adrift. Where fiction does thrive, it’s in video games – and those aren’t so much fiction as alternate realities. In either case, the world is bizarre enough. The new content we are seeking is already out there. Right now we’re captivated by the proposition that reality is the strangest thing we can think of. Sixteen years ago, a friend of mine went to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and I have yet to see an architectural project that rivals that. Or Quartzsite, Arizona, for that matter.


On the ‘myth’ that the Internet is good news for democracy:

Varnelis: It’s become clear that the converse is also true, however: that the intense centralization of networking infrastructure makes it all too easy to track and control internet traffic. Over a decade ago, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified The Californian Ideology as a dominant strain in thinking about networking technology. Drawing on counterculture individualism and misunderstanding the basic structure of the internet, they suggested that the supposedly distributed nature of the internet would give nearly-unlimited freedom to the individual. But the Californian Ideology is incredibly naïve. By adopting a laissez-faire attitude, we’ve failed to realize how tight the noose has gotten as government and industry collude to create unprecedented forms of control.

As well as public space in the age of the networked city:

Varnelis: "I would caution against thinking that this is some new and frightening division between the public – which is usually theorized as good – versus the private, which is usually seen as atomized and isolated and bad. This new digital geography is not a reversal of the public sphere; it’s just a mutation. The “public” simply doesn’t exist the way it used to. If you look at “the public” – even when it consists of fragmented demographics – there are still greatly shared experiences by various clusters of individuals.

There’s a fascinating book called The Clustered World by Michael J. Weiss that talks about this. The company that does this analysis, Claritas, has a website where they break down American consumers into, I think, 48 distinct clusters – and they’re really dead-on. These groups are dispersed across huge geographical distances, but they’re connected telematically – those are real links – whereas you might go just five miles away and feel totally alienated. So it’s hard for me to buy into the argument that we need to endlessly lament the end of the public sphere – when different kinds of human relations are clearly coming into being."


His comments on the changing nature of public space reminded me of similar comments, within a more lower-tech frame of reference, by (another American academic, sorry) Margaret Crawford, an academic who was once part of the school of thought “which bemoans the loss of public space and makes dark predictions about how that loss is contributing to the erosion of democratic values”. She contributed a chapter to Michael Sorkin’s ‘Variations of a Theme Park’, positing the idea that the entire world had become a gigantic shopping mall. She has changed her position in the last few years though - "I don't think public space is dead, just changing. We can't even say what public space is. In fact, there are different public spaces that address different publics." As part of the Everyday Urbanism movement she has spent time closely examining the garage sale phenomenons of Los Angeles. Crawford calls the process by which groups use unauthorized means to transform the urban landscape "reterritorialization."

“Selling used merchandise at garage sales is a flourishing business in many parts of the city. Although city ordinances generally impose limits on the number of sales an individual can hold per year, these limits are frequently ignored, and yard sales sometimes become permanent, in effect a store on private property. Garage and yard sales tend to intersect with other venues at which used goods are sold, such as flea markets and antique stores. There's an entire informal economy that's very rich and that brings about a lot of cross-class activity. It's a whole neighborhood web held together by used things."

garage sale

Garage sales change the meaning of the single family home by activating the front yard, which is usually the ‘buffer space’ to keep people out. Though ‘these activities seem trivial’, Crawford sees them as a way in which people ‘demand to use space, which can be seen as a new form of urban citizenship. For many of these people (in particular illegal immigrants who have fought to be accepted as entrepreneurs rather than criminals) this type of action is more significant than electoral politics”. Nor are these yard sales a leveraging point only for the poor:

“During the early 1990s, when real estate prices plummeted, leaving many homeowners with mortgages they could no longer afford, yard sales sprouted along the manicured streets of Beverly Hills. Owners of million-dollar homes could be seen offering leather jackets and other luxury goods at bargain prices.”

garage sale weekend


While assembling this post I unearthed a host of conferences with broadly similar themes related to 'Networked Publics'.

- 'The Architecture and Situated Technologies Conference' (held by the Center for Virtual Architecture and The Institute for Distributed Creativity) is set to take place in a couple of weeks. The conference is not interested only in scenarios where “everyday objects and spaces are networked with computational intelligence” but in how ‘situated technology’ can incorporate “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”.

One of the questions the conference 'poses' - "How might this evolving relation between people and "things" alter the way we occupy, navigate, and inhabit the built environment?" - refers to a recently released UN report 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” (the majority being automated sensors, radio frequency tags, GPS modules etc).

- Breaking the Game is a series of offline interdisciplinary workshops and an online symposium to connect “a growing community of artists and designers who mine the resources, code, and aesthetics of video games"....opening up the "art of game modification" to the "contingencies of everyday life." One theme of the workshop is 'Overclocking the City' and proposes that "we look more critically at gaming technologies and culture as storehouses of tools, code, interactive strategies, possibilities for social networking, new spatial/perceptual metaphors, and graphical worlds that can be used, manipulated, and re-energized for purposes that lie outside corporate goals of the game industry. We propose using these popular technologies to help cure ourselves of old habits of thought, not necessarily for designing better working buildings, but for designing new kinds of perceptual experiences that might influence, disrupt, expand and integrate with the social and material practices of our public urban spaces."

My favourite example question is: "how might anthropological fieldwork and ethnography change if its practitioners had to create a 3D virtual world rather than an essay or a book; if anthropology's disciplinary object was an updatable, media-rich, networked, and navigable space, rather than a text?" Interessante, no?!

- CONFLUX is the annual festival of ‘contemporary psyschogeography’, also happening in NYC (where I guess you just spend your time going to conferences if you live there). Projects range from "interpretations of the classical approach developed by the Situationists to new methods being developed today in cities throughout the world." The city becomes "a playground, a laboratory and a space for the development of new networks and communities. Preemptive Media have designed AIR [Area's Immediate Reading] - a public, social experiment in which people are invited to use portable air monitoring devices to explore their neighborhoods and urban environments for pollution and fossil fuel burning hotspots.


And lastly, if you like the world neatly packaged and categorised for easy digestion, here is Kazys Varnelis's user-friendly matrix for understanding our contemporary condition of ‘transcontemporaneity’.

Kazys Diagram


"If you are a utopian modernist, the prognosis isn’t great. Architecture is the last thing horizontality needs" (Kazys Varnelis on his support for 'altomodernista's fotolog).
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