2009 in Review

It's time for this blog to look backwards and forwards, first to the last year, then to the past decade, and finally to the decade ahead. 

The single biggest story of 2009 was the continued collapse of the economy. For architects—and a sizable proportion of my readers are architects—this was as bad a year as any.

In the United States more jobs were lost in the profession than in any other. Nearly 18% of architects received pink slips over the year, according to MSBNC. Overseas, in places like my other "home" countries of Lithuania and Ireland—economies and architects fared worse. I predicted this situation long ago and found it alarming to watch so many architects drink the Kool-Aid of unfettered growth so readily.

The new economy was not forever and, at the end of it all, many were much worse off than what it began. I'll have more to say about this tomorrow, when I look back at the decade, but the situation is not going to change much in 2010 or anytime soon. If it does, then be very worried. The correction is painful, but measures being taken now to lessen it are likely to cause more pain in the future. First the Bush, then the Obama administrations pumped huge amounts of money into the economy in an effort to stimulate it; for example, the real estate industry didn't crash only because of the tax credit to first-time homeowners.

Temporarily, this has prevented an outright collapse, but the massive amounts of debt incurred to prop up the finance and real estate sectors will have to be repaid. At best, this will force the US to curtail its foreign military adventures (already, the Right is turning away from nation-building, toward isolationism) and will put a brake on further expansionist bubbles by imposing a permanent tax burden. As far as the worst, well, think of the long collapse of the British, Dutch, or Spanish Empires, with the country in permanent economic stagnation.   

A corollary to the economy was the new discussion of infrastructure. The Infrastructural City came out at the tail end of 2009 and received a great deal of attention. The hardcover pressing went out of print rapidly and the paperback is one of ACTAR's biggest sellers for 2009. I'm not at all surprised: attention to collapsing infrastructure in this country has been necessary since the 1980s. Much of the attention revolved around Obama's call for a WPA 2.0 last December, but by the time the stimulus bill was drafted, infrastructure had left the agenda. It was sad to watch Obama surround himself with the usual suspects and defend the very industry (Wall Street) that caused all the trouble in the first place. It is clear now that Obama's rise to power was not the story of a come-from-behind victory by an underdog with grass-roots support, but rather the carefully staged simulation of that story. Architects and critics pinned their hopes on infrastructure, but were slow to understand that this too was a simulation, even though I warned them. Requiring large investment in physical objects instead of in financial instruments and a lengthy time before results are seen, infrastructure is hard to sell to a political machine beholden to speculation and rapid gratification for immediate election gains. 

Any battle for infrastructure funds will be a slow march through the A. I. A., the universities, policy think-tanks, and the parties. Still, its better than the residential and real estate markets, with the phenomenal amount of overbuilding that took place there. The big question will be how can architects claim to design infrastructure, generally something that engineers take on.

On a related note—and since I am a space fanboy—the Obama administration also handily bungled its chance at NASA. If it initially seemed like the administration would take bold action resulting in the rapid retirement of the poorly-conceived Ares launch vehicle and the adoption of Direct-X plus or a commercial manned launch system, thus far we've heard nothing. Instead, the program lumbers on, even as 2010 promises the end of shuttle flights. It seems that like much over-leveraged real estate, the space station is due to be underpopulate and to rapidly fall into decay, never used for its original intended purpose. The end of regular manned space flight in this country is only a year away. With the moon and Mars essentially out of the question and the space station likely cannibalized for a Russian station by the end of the next decade, any future US launch vehicle seems to be purposeless. A silver lining is that maybe a decade from now, once manned spaceflight is shut down we can concentrate on the robotic science missions that have delivered so much to us in the last few years. Still, don't be surprised if a decade from now this seems like an over-optimistic prediction.  

I wound up on a tour of universities this fall, presenting Netlab research on infrastructure at many of them. It's been gratifying to know that the project is of continued interest. 

Networked Publics may have received less attention, but it was no less important. The debates that we outlined in that book—originally drafted in 2006!—have continued to be of critical importance. It was with great sadness that learned—just last week—of the death of Anne Friedberg, my co-author of the place article, but the work that we did has continued to be of relevance as we continue to move deeper into a world of networked place. In culture, the collapse of media that began with the decline of the music industry, a key part of the chapter on culture is now extended to the massive implosion of the news and media industry. The list of magazines and newspapers that shut their doors in 2009 is lengthy and will only grow in 2010. The problems that we saw facing politics, i.e. our inability to find a way to make online deliberation as effective as online mobilization were extended. The liberals and conservatives in this country are more polarized than ever while the Obama campaign's use of social media has not been matched by any significant efforts toward using social media to decide policy.  With the heady growth of data consumption by iPhone users, the question of network neutrality now affects not only wired lines but also mobile data.

This coming spring, we will be discussing the topics from Networked Publics in public at Studio-X Soho. Watch this space for more about those conversations. 

Some other news worth reflecting on is the failure of augmented reality on the iPhone to have the same broad success as locative media applications. Although it has an initial gee-whiz factor, holding the iPhone up to augment the world is pretty goofy. Unless everyone really does start wearing iGlasses, it's unlikely to take hold. On the other hand, the biggest story of the year in tech was the rumored Apple tablet. Where the year started with the suggestion that universities and philanthropic organizations would need to keep media alive, media is now counting on Apple to save them. Time will tell. 

Last year, I predicted that networked urbanism would be the rage in 2009. Indeed it was, but as it developed, I began to sound a note of alarm. Two things bothered me. First, much of the talk about networked urbanism seemed to be too earnest about its appeal to a tech-savvy class of digirati. A century ago, Woodrow Wilson, then still President of Princeton, warned against the danger of the automobile: "nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles." Wilson worried that a rift would emerge between the car-owning rich and the poor, less mobile masses. Henry Ford listened and built the Model T. Networked urbanism is blind to this reality at its own peril. Moreover, we still have no way to capitalize the changes in media. This is a non-trivial matter. The networked future is hardly replacing the jobs being lost.   

The year started off with a site redesign at varnelis.net, and my addition of tumblelogs to the site. The result has been more updates—over two posts a week to the main varnelis.net blog plus more to the tumblelog. Even if these aren't as regular as I'd like them, it's a step forward as climbing readership has shown. And of course there is Twitter, where I've made hundreds of posts so far this year. 

The majority of my year was consumed by research and writing for the Netlab. The network culture book is well underway and I posted an early version of the introduction together with material on art at Networked, a networked book on networked art. This summer, we made progress toward network city project at the Netlab. We'll have more results from that work throughout the spring of 2010. Watch this space. AUDC published articles in New Geographies 2 and Design Ecologies while I published articles in my role as Netlab director in venues from the Architects' Newspaper to Volume (here and here)  to the Architectural Review to the ICA catalog Dispersion. It was a full year and I hardly expect the next year to be any less full. 




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