Friday, April 16, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget

Jaron Lanier is a musician, computer researcher, and one of the inventors of virtual reality. He also writes a column for Discover magazine.   Google his name and you will find dozens of links to him and his work. Lanier is more than qualified to ruminate on the relationship between the arts and the world wide web as he does in You Are Not a Gadget. (Alfred P. Knoph. New York. 2010.) He is highly critical of the state and direction of “web 2.0” -- his phrase for the current iteration of the Internet and protocols for using it. His book concentrates on composers, artists, and writers. It is interesting, however, to speculate on the connections to architecture.

What effect have computers and the Internet had on architecture? The impact of computer aided drafting (CAD) is obvious, but does it go beyond the mechanics of drafting? Has the age of computers changed architecture itself?  If it has, is it for better or worse? Before exploring those questions, a brief summary of Lanier’s thesis:

It has to be pointed out, as Lanier does frequently, that the author is not anti-computers. He is not a Luddite of modern times. Quite the opposite. He is emphatically pro computers and is a practicing technologist. In fact, he believes computers could be much better  than they are. His big concern is that protocols developed in the infancy of computers (sometime in the olden 1980s) have become frozen.  As a result, computers are somewhat stupid.  Even worse: instead of computers adapting to humans, the opposite is happening. We have dumbed down to accommodate the shortcomings of our machines. We are in danger of becoming mere gadgets (the nickname for the links and conveniences that appear in the sidebar of this and other blogs) in web 2.0.

Lanier's writing is difficult to follow. (He bears the burden of knowing too much about too many subjects.) However, an easy-to-understand example of his thesis is how Facebook homogenizes our thinking about personality and identity. “I know quite a few people,” he writes, “ mostly young adults but not all, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, this statement can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced.”    To be more explicit, he writes, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person could be, and of who each person might become." 

He goes on to make an interesting connection between Facebook culture and the economic debacle on Wall Street. “A hedge fund manager might make money by using the computational power of the cloud to calculate fantastical financial instruments that make bets on derivatives in such a way as to invent out of thin air the phony virtual collateral for stupendous risks. This is a subtle form of counterfeiting, and is precisely the same maneuver a socially competitive teenager makes in accumulating fantastical numbers of ‘friends’ on a service like Facebook.”  In other words, we have become enchanted by our own fantasies, whether of artificial friendships or mathematical formulas we don't understand. 

Lanier addresses other Internet effects. In the area of music he is highly critical of the limitations of MIDI files, the code that allows music to be transcribed digitally. It was invented as a simple way to describe music in a way computers can understand. Unfortunately the digital format mutes the subtleties of a real auditory experience. Instead of searching for newer, better ways to transcribe music for computers (now that we have better, faster technology) MIDI has become frozen as the standard.  The effect is music has dumbed down to accommodate it. He goes further, contending that little new music actually gets composed these days. Instead, what passes for music is a “mash-up” of sound bites stolen from existing music and reconstituted as a substitution for creativity. In the visual arts the same thing is happening. You Tube is a collection of bits and pieces from old TV and trivial homemade video moments. Stolen sound tracks from other sources are wrapped around the video snippets and mask as creativity.  There's nothing wrong with this as casual amusement.  The negative effect is the resultant dismissal of professional creativity on a high level.  Serious artists and musicians are gradually put out of business by open source software and pirated files.  The Internet has just sort of worked out that way.
Levittown, PA.

Does any of this apply to architecture? It is difficult to devalue architecture on the Internet in the same way as music, art, or friendship.  We can’t file share free architecture over the web (yet), so it isn't decimated by the current web culture of free stuff.  To be clear:  we certainly can and do share electronic files of drawings; but we cannot file share the actual built environment.
Architects have come cheap enough for decades anyway. Architecture long ago was devalued by other non-computer-related influences. Mass-produced housing post World War II did more to lower our expectations for good architecture than the Internet has done so far.

The aforementioned CAD is an undeniable force in the business of architecture.  No architectural drawings are produced today without computers, but this has had no negative effect on design. In fact, one could easily argue the opposite. Computer workhorses have allowed more complex shapes in the hands of architects like Frank Gehry and Daniel Liebskind.

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum
What about the future? Will architecture be cheapened in the same way Wikipedia has diminished our expectations for knowledge and research? My guess is: not in the foreseeable future. There is much talk about virtual spaces and the holographic projection of architecture. These may become useful presentation tools to explain architecture to clients.  They could be great learning tools for historic buildings. But we are a long way from such projections providing actual shelter. Nor can holograms simulate the smells and textures of the real thing. Architecture is not solely a visual art. It requires movement and participation. It is more interactive than any other art.  It is a thing to be in over time; temporary simulations just don't suffice.

Human and robot circa 1932.
Of course there is the possibility that humans will evolve into digital-only creatures (a hypothesis espoused by Ray Kurzwil in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence) in which case digital-only architecture may be good enough. The experience of architecture may, indeed, get pretty dumb in that event. But that is not where we are right now.

Architecture is not yet a gadget.  However, Jaron  Lanier is a canary in the coal mine for contemporary culture and it would be beneficial to pay attention to his ideas as we move deeper into web 2.0. 

Jacket design: Jason Booher
Facebook: Maxo.
Levittown: Public domain.
Guggenheim:  R. Munger
Robot:  German Federal Archives.