network culture

On the Academy

I ran into the following article by Michael Hanlon recently, "The Golden Quarter. Why has Human Progress Ground to a Halt?" Hanlon's thesis is that even if we all have supercomputers in our pockets, the big advances—landing men on the moon, computers and the birth of the Internet, the Pill, feminism, the gay rights movement and so on—all happened in the 25 years from 1945 to 1971. 

This is true enough, I suppose, although we could argue that personal computing, smart phones, self-driving cars (which I believe will be common by 2020), cellular phone access for the entire world, and the (largely illicit) digitization of much of the world's knowledge into freely available libraries are in fact radically new. If Sputnik and Viking were important, the Mars Science Rover is a massive advance as is landing Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and (we hope) flying New Horizons past Pluto. So, too citing the birth of the women's rights movement may be disingenous, its seed having came much earlier, in the suffragete movement. The advances in gay rights during the last five years have been massive. The networked publics that have emerged in the last couple of decades are an unprecedented shift in how we relate to each other and our own decade is likely to be remembered as the one in which knowledge-based artificial intelligence has spread into everyday usage in the developed world, not a minor point in human history. 

But what's interesting to me about this article is that it is so applicable to the humanities. When I went to graduate school, it was an incredibly exciting, even revolutionary time, when French theory was making massive headway and every visit to the academic bookstore promised something new and cutting edge, if sometimes impenetrable, to read. But the humanities have come to a crashing halt. When theory is talked about anymore, it is in terms of concepts like "biopolitics," "postcolonialism," and "the control society," formulated long ago. Maybe I'm grumpy or these fields are no longer new to me, but I suspect something is up. 

Here I think that Hanlon's point really does apply, and that academics in particular has become risk averse. The biggest innovation in academics during the last decade hasn't been in theory, it's been the development of a digital humanities that has largely traded scholarly advancement for funding. With universities increasingly corporatized, academics are expected to fundraise, not to take risks or create innovative theories. Stories of brilliant scholars who don't get tenure due to taking risks and programs being shut down for being too edgy are common.

Moreover, theory itself has become quite conservative. To talk about "accelerationism," for example, or even suggest that we are no longer under a postmodern condition, is widely met with derision by tenured theorists who might otherwise expect to have sympathy with such experimental thought. But no. Take architecture, where a rather pat formula has emerged that everyone seems to follow: find a largely obscure architect or event from the 1950s or the 1960s, head to the archive, make a few conclusions invoking French theory (generally Foucault), and you're done.  

What to do then? Being Samogitian, my natural demeanor is gloomy rather than optimistic. But I'd like to suggest, optimistically, that leaving the academy may be an opportunity, or at least another possibility.

Marx, Freud, and Benjamin, to take only three key intellectuals operated primarily outside the university, as did Clement Greenberg, Le Corbusier, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. This isn't to say that it would be necessarily easy outside the university—for one, the conditions of journalism today have become quite difficult as well, so that route is a problem—but it points to a line of flight that it seems to me most worthwhile to explore these days.      

  

10 Chairs in Baltimore, 4/11/15

I am delighted to be one of ten scholars, writers, and artists speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art this Saturday about ten chairs from the collection in their newly re-opened American Wing. The event starts at 2pm. If you are in town, please join us. I'd love to say hello. 

I will be talking about the Elastic Chair, produced by Boston manufacturer Samuel Gragg. In 1808, long before Charles Eames or even Michael Thonet, Gragg patented a technique for bending wood with steam. Inspired by the Klismos, an ancient Greek chair, together with the ancient Greek methods of bending wood, Gragg's elastic chair employed the highest technology of its day. As we look at it today, we confront a time that is curiously like our own, faced with a past that forms a massive repository of precedent that we can’t get away from and an obsession with the possibilities of technology as a means of advancing both industry and society.     

After Empirical Urbanism Symposium Talk, University of Toronto, 2/28/15,

I will be speaking at the University of Toronto's After Empirical Urbanism conference this coming Saturday, February 28th. It's a great treat to be seeing so many of my friends and colleagues and to be in fabulous Toronto again, even in February (not that it's more than a degree or two warmer here in Montclair!). Below is an abstract for my talk, wrapping up many of the thoughts I've been having over the last few years about atemporality and alternative modes of practice against its grain. 

Architectural History for Atemporal Times
Kazys Varnelis

The Last Great Time War is over. * Jean Baudrillard was right; by the time we finished the countdown to the millennium we reached the end of the end of history. Now we face a new condition, in which the phenomenological experiences of simultaneity and acceleration dominate like never before. Fulfilling Baudrillard’s paradoxical prophecy, we live in a time so saturated by information that we can’t orient ourselves within it.

Bruce Sterling describes our attitude toward history as “atemporality.” This stems, he observes, from the philosophy of history itself. We historians have become so averse to the totality, so terrified of master narratives and so obsessed with microhistories (the more micro the better), that we have played into the hands of a culture that is concerned only with the now and the proximate future. Our horizon is measured, not by epochs but by the length of Kickstarter campaigns. Take architectural education. Little by little, history has been whittled away to a bare vestige. Nowhere in NAAB’s accreditation documents is there any mention of critical thought as a skill that architecture history teaches or history as offering anything beyond a survey. But we can’t really lament that historians and NAAB are in step with the times. Such an approach fits the broader culture of atemporality that Sterling observes.

As Sterling suggests, it isn’t merely history that is undone, but chronology and temporal sequence as well, collapsing under the pressures of a computationally enhanced global capital that seeks to execute trades in milliseconds or microseconds but rather in nanoseconds. If the 90s had the Generic City, today we have Generic Time, without any idea of what time we live in. 

But how to react to this condition? Accelerationism would be one option. If there is any one end looming, it is either the end of capitalism, the end of the sustainability of human life as we know it, the technological singularity, or perhaps, as ISIS hopes, the Apocalypse. If accelerationism is one option, it is a difficult one for many of us, especially historians, who generally have problems with those sorts of ideas.

If we historians want to respond to this historical condition, we need to develop new ways of remaining relevant. Turning back to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “history against the grain,” I will conclude by discussing the New City Reader, a project that I did with Joseph Grima at the New Museum's Last Newspaper show and with the Network Architecture Lab at MoMA's Uneven Growth show as a way in which history can be deployed as a critical project in the city, utterly out of step with atemporality as that may be.



*
The Last Great Time War is a name for the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks, occurring between the 1996 “Doctor Who” film and the revival of the series in 2005 and seen in the fiftieth anniversary special. The war results in the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey being frozen outside of space and time.

revolution of the present in limerick

As part of the fall lecture series at the University of Limerick, Ireland, I will be showing the film "Revolution of the Present," a feature-length documentary by writer/director Marc Lafia, executive producer Jose Fernandez-Richards, and producer Johanna Schiller on Tuesday, October 14th at 5.00pm. This is the European premiere of the film, so if you are in the area, we hope that you can make it. Course director Peter Carroll and I will discuss the film afterwards. I am honored to be part of this production and immensely proud of the work the team did. There is hardly any better introduction to my work or network culture than this film. Should you not be in Ireland at the time, you can check out Revolution of the Present here.    

Kiosk @ Columbia

I will be appearing alongside Leah Meisterlin (formerly of the Netlab) and authors Astra Taylor and Andrew Blum today at noon in Ware Lounge (on the 6th floor of Avery Hall) at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation to discuss the impact that digital technology is posing on architecture, cities, and most of all our lives. Topics to be discussed will likely include data centers, debt, oversaturation, creative workspaces and the tyranny of fun, together with ways to make all this better. Hope to see you there if you are in the area!

Post-Planetary Capital Symposium

I'm delighted to be speaking at Ed Keller and Ben Woodard's symposium "Post-Planetary Capital" at the New School's Center for Transformative Media today. My own talk is titled "A Mote in God’s Eye: 
Eternal Recurrence and 
the Post-Capitalist Post-Planetary." So what in the heavens is that about (sorry!)? I'll be using a discussion of asteroid mining, private space colonization, and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's "A Mote in God's Eye" to develop my arguments about the relationship between capital and complexity.  

On the Invasion of the Ukraine

Just because I study the Internet doesn't mean I don't think it's full of idiocy. Take for example the widespread NOAA map showing radiation spreading across the Pacific from Fukushima. Pity that it's not representing radiation but rather the height of waves produced by tsunamis. Alas, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is no different, as a perusal of recent tweets on the matter say.

I won't dignify the inanity by actually quoting these tweets but some of these just blew my mind, like the one that suggested the invasion is created by the press to distract from ongoing negotiations over the Tran-Pacific Partnership Treaty.

The fact of the matter is that this is the biggest political crisis the world has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union and is extremely unlikely to turn out as well as that did. 
 
Quite obviously, the sovereignty of a nation is under attack. The pretext is a familiar Russian script: "ethnic Russians are under duress." Why are they under duress? Because the puppet regime that Putin installed in the Ukraine and that bankrupted the state fell? If they are under duress, where are the crowds on the streets welcoming them? Where is the footage of the duress they are facing, so easily made in our networked day?
 
For centuries Russia has been a belligerent neighbor, seeking to expand its territory at a given opportunity. Its leadership understands this plays well at home and, with the success of Sochi behind him, Putin has decided to go for the gold and demonstrate how no one can touch him. 
 
Thus far, US President Obama's statements suggest that he thinks of this largely as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing" and is not considering military options. More sensibly, Lithuania and Latvia have invoked Article 4 of NATO. Militarily unchallenged, Putin's invasion of the Ukraine will not cease with Crimea and, if still unchallenged, will bolster his desire to rebuild "Greater Russia." 
 
Not only is there a threat against a host of countries such as the Baltic States, of which I am a card-carrying member, there is another threat than anyone should consider. Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union also remember that there were joint calls for the Ukraine to rid itself of its nuclear weapons. The Ukraine did so in return for a treaty that guaranteed its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the last few days that has been undone. So now, put yourself in the shoes of countries that can have—or will have—nuclear weapons and really shouldn't have them, countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan? Or Israel? If faced with pleas to eliminate their nuclear weapons in exchange for territorial security, just how will they react in the future? 
 
Obama is already going down in history as an exceptionally weak President, his only saving grace being that he isn't an outright catastrophe like his predecessor and foreign policy has been a particularly weak point (not that domestic economic policy or his handling of national healthcare were strong points). How he handles the biggest challenge his administration has yet faced may well define how his presidency is remembered. 

Architecture, Network Culture + Minecraft

It's my great honor to be speaking at Taliesin West today, 27 February at 7pm in Scottsdale, Arizona. My lecture will be about network culture, my work with the Netlab, and my kids' constructions in Minecraft). 

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.

 

@ the Amber Festival, Istanbul

Greetings from Istanbul, where I will be speaking today on "Control and Identity in the Algorithmic Landscape" at 3pm in the Amber Art and Technology Festival in a panel ominously called "Urban Media: Quo Vadis?" with Martjin De Waal moderated by Martin Brynskov. See here for a little more. 

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