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The End of Architecture


It was when the web site entered its Baroque era that the job description of the information architect seemed to crystallize. The ornamentation decorating the dizzying heights, the complex taxonomies of categories, and various drawers into which content was stuffed, all this required the vigilant organizational skills of the architect. The web site seemed to pattern itself on the design of the altar of a Baroque Cathedral. Information organized for the greater glory of the product. The value of the space radiating out from the home page expressing the theology of the brand. The adjoining chapels and the stories of the saints told in shards of glass extend the value proposition. User-centered design assumed the supplicant wished to have the most useful experience of prostration before the brand.

Room after room was added to the structure, each cleverly tucked into some classification that related it to the whole. Of course, while all of the rooms were smartly decorated, there was almost no foot traffic. The monitors of the brand wander the halls, peeking in to the this room and that one, checking to see whether dust is accumulating. The small portion of the structure that attracted use and generated revenue serves as a keystone to the entire surrounding architecture.

Wikipedia, for the moment, has this to say about architecture:

Architecture (from Greek word ἀ?χιτεκτονική – arkhitektonike) is the art and science of designing and constructing buildings and other physical structures for human shelter or use. A wider definition often includes the design of the total built environment, from the macro level of how a building integrates with its surrounding context (see town planning, urban design, and landscape architecture) to the micro level of architectural or construction details and, sometimes, furniture and hardware. Wider still, architecture is the activity of designing any kind of system.

The reason that the Baroque era of web design signals the end of architecture, is not that the task is complete. Nor is it that another style, Bauhaus, for example, will replace the previous style. Architecture is an art and discipline that organizes things in physical space. The Network is not a physical space. When we speak of it as a space, we project attributes on to a blank screen. Doc Searls talks about the Giant Zero, the idea that the distance between endpoints on the Network is zero. In the manifesto he wrote with David Weinberger, World of Ends, he describes the thoughts sparked by Craig Burton:

When Craig Burton describes the Net’s stupid architecture as a hollow sphere comprised entirely of ends, he’s painting a picture that gets at what’s most remarkable about the Internet’s architecture: Take the value out of the center and you enable an insane flowering of value among the connected end points. Because, of course, when every end is connected, each to each and each to all, the ends aren’t endpoints at all.

Even this description relies on a spacial metaphor. If there’s no distance between the startpoint and an endpoint, why do we talk of starting and ending at all? What are these points that have no distance between them? We gut the history and most resonant qualities of a word, and then persist in using it as a tool for thought. We ask what are the qualities of the space of the Network? What’s the most user-centered approach to building out a site in that space?

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Ludwig Wittengenstein

The end of architecture doesn’t mean the end of thinking about the Network, or standing up new nodes of connection. It’s only that we stand at the edge of our language and words come slowly. Rather than looking for an external model out in the world, perhaps we should look for an internal one. Or something that stands at the threshhold between the two: Language itself might serve as a point of departure.


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