Architecture: Ruptures in the Standing Reserve

I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.

As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.

Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.

Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.

When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.

Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.

While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.

Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.


The Last Revolution of the Inter-Network

We think there will always be a “next” revolution on the Network. The social network revolution, the coming internet of the things, or as it's sometimes called “the internet of everything.” Each revolution on the Network improves productivity and efficiency such that many jobs are made obsolete. Optimization means removing expensive humans from any industrial production process. It's been that way all the back to the pin factory and specializing labor into simple replaceable components.

The last revolution will occur when the optimization appears to be complete. When all worker humans are finally replaced by Network and robotic functions. The drive to that point is kept alive through the illusion that once we reach it, we will all benefit. All of us will join the 1%. It has never worked that way.

At the conclusion of the last revolution, the 1% will pull the ladder up behind them. They'll be satisfied that human labor is no longer required to sustain their world. Optimization will be complete.


Notes from the Underground: Not Disruptive, Not Revolutionary


It’s not disruptive and it isn’t revolutionary. That’s what’s happened to technology and the Network. The early days of the Internet were filled with promise. The possibilities were endless. People said similar things about television. A short time later TV was described as a vast wasteland. What seemed to make the World Wide Web different was the idea that anyone could publish to the system. Individuals were equal nodes on the Network and that difference would create a force of radical democratization.

Instead the Internet turned into another platform play. Some said the Network was a platform without a vender, and that’s sort of true. But once the World Wide Web became a mass medium, it necessarily became a platform with a small set of vendors. In 2012, Bruce Sterling said the Internet was over and we’d entered “the age of the Stacks.” Platforms are technology stacks, or as the vendors themselves like to position them “ecosystems.”


Real-time social networks radically simplified the publishing process. Type into a “textarea” and click a mouse button to publish. Streams of short messages are arranged in reverse chronological order via non-reciprocal social graphs (subscriptions). To enable instant publication to any other node on the graph, a central hub was required. Structurally this is similar to the way real-time stock quotes work. Transactions are submitted to the central exchange and then broadcast to subscribers.

Owning the hub means owning the platform. When an individual writes into a platform, it means that someone else (a public corporation) owns both the pen and the paper. No individual message has value, but the data generated by the firehose of messages has a high value to advertisers. Despite the millions or billions of users of social media, the possibility of generating revenue is reserved for the few thousand who own and/or work for the platform. It’s not even a pyramid scheme. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that services provided by platforms are “free.”

The central hub has visibility into all the messages flowing through the network. Individual subscribers only have visibility into their subscriptions set. It works the same way with search engines. Unless you know the address in advance, you can’t find anything on the World Wide Web. It’s not like entering a library and walking up and down the aisles looking at titles. You can only see what the search engine shows you. The search platform indexes the World Wide Web, the user can only access what’s in the index, the Web is never accessed directly. This is why Sterling talks about Stacks rather than the Internet.

These days to call something disruptive or revolutionary it must disrupt the hub / platform / cloud structure. Creating a new stack or displacing an old stack isn’t disruptive, it’s business as usual. Usenet, established in 1980, has a much more radical structure than any of the dominant Stacks. Even the old BBS systems are more interesting than the central hub model.

The Network has to go underground. It may even have to go offline, slow down and get much smaller. Most importantly it’ll have to learn how to earn a living outside of the Stacks.

Slippin’ Into Darkness

Milton Glaser has designed a graphic representation of our biosphere. The first thing I noticed about it was that the darkness seemed to be spreading from the top down. The second thing was how little green is left. In 1700, seven percent of the world's land was used for farming. That number is now more than fifty percent. Ecological awareness is beginning to interupt the conversation about Capital, optimization and the possibility of infinite growth that we've been having with ourselves for the last couple hundred years.


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